Record Keeping: The Cure for “Homeschool Dementia”

By Lee Binz

Paula and I were digging through her box of her homeschool records, collecting information for a transcript for her daughter. We went over every course in detail, from American Sign Language to Zoology. The completed transcript looked wonderful. Walking out the door to leave, I casually asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” Paula didn’t hesitate to respond and excitedly described her daughter’s upcoming Latin competition. “Latin?” I said. “You never mentioned Latin!” She had completely forgotten four years of high school Latin.

It was obvious that Paula’s daughter enjoyed Latin—that’s why she was enjoying a weekend competition. But this demonstrates why homeschool records are important. Forgetting a two-week unit study on economics is not a big deal. The real cause for concern occurs when you forget broad swaths of learning, such as four years of Latin.

The Heartbreak of “Homeschool Dementia”

Keep records so that you can accurately account for the education of your child when necessary. Keep records so that you don’t short-change your student. Never underestimate the human ability to forget! We are not elephants, and it can happen to anyone! Prevention is the key. Keep records so that you won’t experience the heartbreak of “homeschool dementia.”

It’s not just parents who are missing the boat. We can teach our children how to avoid homeschool dementia as well. Even young children can utilize a checklist and keep track of books they’ve read or assignments they’ve completed. Not every parent is organized, but all parents are capable of teaching their children organizational skills.

Four Kinds of Homeschoolers

When it comes to record keeping, I have noticed that there are four kinds of homeschoolers. There are parents who keep records in a giant plastic tub (which is fondly called a “tubby,” but that is no reflection on their weight). In that tub they keep all their records from all of their children, and it’s a perfectly acceptable method of record keeping.

Slightly more organized are the “cubbies.” These parents keep records in cupboards, cabinets, or drawers. With one drawer for each child and for each year, this fine method has the added benefit of identifying which child created each piece of work.

Other parents are “binder queens,” keeping a notebook for academic records. These parents keep well-organized records for every subject in a neat, three-ring binder or expandable accordion file.

The final type of homeschool parent is affectionately called a “question mark.” When this type of parent considers record keeping, a question mark will appear over her ever-so-slightly-cocked head as she thinks to herself: “Records? Were we supposed to keep records?” She has no clue. She’s not even aware that records were required! This is the one method I do not recommend, because that’s how significant educational events get overlooked.

No two families are the same; each family should decide which method is best for them. Tubbies keep lots of stuff but lack organization, cubbies keep lots of records with minimal organization, and binder queens have information on every class in an organized fashion. I usually recommend that parents simply try to get more organized each year. If during the first year you are a tubby, try to advance to being a cubby the next year. As is true in the animal kingdom, you want to move up the food chain!

Are you looking for ways to stop being a tubby? As with the challenge of losing weight, you have to be committed if you want to avoid being a tubby. First, buy a big, three-ring binder and a couple of sets of big tab dividers. Put a piece of paper behind each divider, along with a label for what you “hope” to put there. Keep the labels very general: Math, English, P.E., Science. Have a label for every subject. If you don’t know behind which label to file something, or if it touches on many subject areas and you can’t decide how to identify the primary subject area, go ahead and make a label for it anyway. For example, Dance—should it be filed behind P.E. or Fine Arts? Don’t spend time deciding; just label a divider Dance and decide later.

Include a label for every subject area required by your state law. Our state requires a declaration of intent, annual testing, and immunization records, so I included a tab for each of those topics as well. Finally, add tabs for a transcript and for your reading list.

Next to your binder, have a place where you can collect papers as they are produced. Teach your children to place their papers in the bin, and later teach them to file papers in the binder. Use a three-hole punch and place it in the binder, where it most surely belongs. You can always change your mind later, so don’t spend too much time worrying about whether a report on Lincoln goes behind History or English. Simply guess for now, and adjust later if you need to.

Regularly go through your binder to review what you have kept. Is there a section that doesn’t have any entries? Spend some time brainstorming about documentation that could qualify as records for that class. Pretty late in the year, we discovered that our P.E. section was completely empty, and so we decided to keep ribbons earned from swim team activities. Keep shopping lists, menus, and recipes for your cooking class. Brainstorm about a variety of ideas, and then see what you can accumulate to fill up those blank sections.

Implement Your Strategy

Some families are great about planning ahead. They have lesson plans, daily schedules, and year-at-a-glance calendars, as well as scope and sequence plans spanning twelve years. Some parents loathe planning and prefer to practice delight-directed learning. In order to compile their records, these parents follow behind their children, shoveling up loads of academic experiences and arranging them into neat and tidy academic records. Frankly, both methods work like a dream. Whether you plan ahead or follow behind, develop your own system for keeping records.

Planning, scheduling, and record keeping are important skills for adults to acquire, but those organization skills don’t mysteriously appear overnight; rather, they must be conscientiously taught. From your children’s earliest years, encourage them to gain organizational skills by learning to use planners, checklists, daily schedules, or journals. Use a method that will work well for your student; teach him basic organizational skills so that records can be kept rather than forgotten. These skills are essential components of a successful, peaceful life.

As early as elementary school, children can participate in record keeping by using checklists and daily schedules to organize their days. With guidance, they can begin to record the tasks they complete. This information can become an integral part of your homeschool records. In our homeschool, I planned all of the assignments, and the children were responsible for checking off each assignment when it had been completed. Those records functioned as the framework for every homeschool course. My students learned to collect their papers in one place, initially in a giant plastic bin, but later in a file on the computer.

What Records to Keep

What should you keep in your binder? Assessments, tests, lab reports, artwork or photos of artwork, written reports, anything printed from the computer, lists of books and workbooks, awards or certificates of any kind. You probably don’t need to keep all the daily work, unless you really can’t think of anything else to keep for a class, but a sample might come in handy. Each of these items has a purpose. There are three reasons to keep records.

1. They are required by state law.

It’s important to keep any records required by your state law, no matter how wacky that law may sound. Track down your homeschool law and see what is required. A state may require attendance records or yearly plans. When state law does not require detailed information, the homeschool parent determines which details should be recorded. So, once you have designated a place to record the information required by state law, then you should decide which records are important for your own purposes.

2. They are needed as academic records.

Homeschoolers in general may want to record a minimal amount of information through elementary and middle school. In high school, however, things change. Lisa contacted me in a panic on Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. The email subject line screamed, “Course Description Emergency!” She confessed her dire situation: “I just found out that I need to write course descriptions for his college application! I didn’t think I would have to do that, and now all of a sudden I find out they are due tomorrow morning!” She begged me to share her story in this article. “Please encourage moms to start early!” Homeschoolers with high school students should keep a record of whatever will be needed in order to create a transcript, including a reading list and course descriptions.

3. Colleges want them.

Planning ahead for college admission can provide you with maximum flexibility in the future. Colleges like homeschool records; sometimes they like a lot of records. Once you decide where to apply, ask that college which high school records they want from you. That list can vary significantly, and you can’t find out what’s on their lists unless you ask. They may ask only for a transcript. However, some colleges will also want to see a simple reading list. Others will want exhaustive course descriptions, along with detailed grading criteria. Some colleges will have strange, unique requirements.

Find out about the requirements early so that you can provide each college with the required information. While your student is still in high school, you may not know what will be required for college admission. I always recommend keeping a sample of work from each class taken during high school. One college asked to see an English paper that I had graded. Another college wanted copies of subject tests in many different areas. Like a Boy Scout, be prepared!

Change Is Good

I’m well aware that some homeschoolers will barely make it through this article without experiencing a major panic attack. If that’s you, don’t get too stressed out about this! With a weight loss plan, any calories burned will help the situation. It’s the same with record keeping; any records you keep will be better than no records at all. Keep everything you can, using whatever method works for you. It’s better than nothing, and you can make it pretty later. Just don’t leave the question mark over your head, and you will succeed!

For parents who have never kept records before, change is hard. How do you change your own behavior and begin keeping good records? The secret is the same for all kinds of change; do one simple thing differently. Take just one thing and make a change, and thereby slowly change your behavior one task at a time.

They say it takes six weeks to form a habit. Take one simple thing and do it differently, i.e., better, more efficiently, more thoroughly. In six weeks, try changing another simple thing. A starting place may be to purchase a tub for storing papers and establish a goal to throw in some papers, tests, quizzes, or daily work each day.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Don’t do the same thing! Keep your sanity. Create an environment that will help you meet your goals. Put a tub for your records in a clearly visible place as a reminder to put something in it. The first step of record keeping is simply keeping something with which you can formulate your records.

Instead of feeling discouraged about records, take one small step and do something different today.

Lee Binz is a veteran homeschooler, author of Setting the Records Straight, and owner of The HomeScholar; her mission is “helping parents homeschool high school.” Visit her website, http://www.thehomescholar.com/. Grab her free mini-course, newsletter, and webinar here: http://www.thehomescholar.com/homeschool-freebies.php. Transcript troubles are solved with the Total Transcript Solution. Lee’s Gold Care Club provides complete high school support. Contact her at Lee@TheHomeScholar.com.

Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Fall 2010. Used with permission. Visit them at Schoolhouse Store, where shipping is always free (U.S. only)!