August 11th marked the Maxwell family’s nineteenth first day of school. We celebrated that night, because it was our very best first day of school ever! Generally the first day of school is one that I look forward to with great excitement. However, the reality of living through it most often has generated discouragement and frustration. It is not unheard of in the Maxwell home for Mom to be crying by dinnertime on those momentous first days of school. I have been known to say to Steve, “It was a zoo here today, dear. I have no idea how we will ever get any real schoolwork done.”
Since I have experienced nineteen first days of school, and since I really, really like happy first days of school, and since I truly, truly, truly want to learn from all of our failures, perhaps I can share some of my first day of school experiences with you. It could be that your first days of school have been much like mine, and that you, too, would love to have one you could celebrate.
When Nathan started school, he attended a private, Christian school for three years. On the first day of school, I always took a photo of him before he left home in the morning. There he stood with his lunch box in one hand and his pack on his back, sporting his tidy blue-and-white uniform. Each year’s photo shows him a bit bigger but just as cute. Therefore, when we began homeschooling, we decided to continue first-day-of-school photos. Without lunch boxes, the children hold their favorite school books in their hands for the picture-taking session.
Another tradition we have for our first day of school is special school supply surprises. While school supplies are on sale at the stores, I will shop for any school supplies the children need. I purchase notebooks, notebook paper, notebook tabs, pencils, pens, colored pencils, pencil pouches, small whiteboards, whiteboard markers, scissors, rulers, glue sticks, crayons, tape—although not each of these every year. Since our materials often last us more than one year, it can be challenging coming up with needed supplies, so sometimes I resort to buying not-so-needed-but-fun supplies. Each child finds a stack of school surprises by his spot on the dining room table on the first day of school.
Because pencils being left out in the house are a problem here, I purchase the children pencils with different outside colors. I discovered that there are pencils with not only yellow on the outside but also green, black, and wood color. There are different colored bands around the yellow pencils in various packs. I give each child a couple of sets of pencils, different from his siblings, and then when a pencil is left out, I know to whom it belongs. Plus, if the child loses all of his pencils before the school year is over, he can buy his own replacements.
Finally, the first day of school will often bring with it a special breakfast. Because of having children living at home who drive, I have the advantage of being able to suggest to Sarah that we could enjoy donuts for the first-day-of-school breakfast if she has time to go to the grocery store that morning. She is very accommodating, and donuts are a great treat in our family.
While these first-day-of-school traditions have been in place for quite a while, this is the first year that I realized the biggest failure of my first day of school. We typically do these traditions on the first day of school and also attempt a normal day of academic schoolwork. This year, the week before our first real day of school we had another first day of school. You might call it a pre-first day of school. I scheduled no academic work for that day, only our first-day-of-school traditions. It was a little like registration day used to be when I went to school.
Because each of these practical and memory-making activities we do on the first day of school takes up time, we would be frustrated trying to get normal school completed. We spent several hours doing our pre-first day of school. No wonder I have been frustrated with what I was trying to fit into our previous first days of school.
After the special breakfast and school surprises on our pre-first day of school, I had a one-on-one meeting with each child. We went through his schedule and looked at all his books. For my fourth and fifth graders, I read out loud with them their first spelling lesson because they do that on their own. Often they will struggle with things that are very simple, because they try to fill in blanks without reading the material. This was an opportunity to teach them how to do their spelling lessons effectively.
Each child from fourth grade on up has a school notebook. This year we finally got them organized. We have used notebooks for organizing schoolwork for several years, but I am generally frustrated with them. We hadn’t taken the time to plan how many tabs each child needed and what the tabs should be labeled. Then the history tests and quizzes were mixed in with the daily history work and difficult to find come “study-for-nine-week-exam” time. The writing was somewhere in the spelling section because we didn’t have enough tabs. You get the picture, I am sure.
This year I made a list of what each child would need as far as number of tabs and what they should be labeled. I bought enough tabs for their notebooks and for my notebook. I included the children’s tabs in their school supply surprises. During our one-on-one meeting we labeled the tabs and alphabetized them, too. That was another problem. With three children (four this year) with schoolwork in notebooks, I was always struggling through the tabs to locate the right one. Every child had the tabs set up in a different order. I don’t care much for checking schoolwork to begin with, so anything I can do to make it easier is a benefit to me. Even having readable tabs that are in order helps.
After lunch, Sarah, one of our family photographers, did the first-day-of-school photos. Getting five children to choose their photo props, get the camera setting correct, pose each one individually for photos, and then put them together as a group is not a five-minute project. Again, this was time that was pulled from what normally was a full academic school day. None of us likes to finish school at dinnertime.
While what we did on our pre-first day of school are small, little tasks, each one adds up to extra time away from schoolwork. Having these activities planned for a day when we weren’t going to do any normal schoolwork was wonderful. I know it was a major factor in our super-duper, best-ever first day of school. May I encourage you to look at your previous first days of school, and if they aren’t what you would like them to be, try to determine why they weren’t. Then make the necessary changes. You will be glad you did, and perhaps it won’t take you nineteen years of trying.