How I Do It – Planning Our Homeschool Year

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I’m getting ready for the new school year. I’ve learned that organization and planning now pays off in the middle, especially with 5 students.

We pull from this and that, an eclectic classical method based on The Well-Trained Mind. I homeschool for the express purpose of customizing the kids’ education, so I have to plan out each child’s year. I do not order “Eighth Grade” from a company, open a box, and go with that.

We take Mondays off and do almost-year-round school. 3 days a week are “Workbook Days” and 1 day a week is a “History/Science Day”. I’ve just discovered over the years that this is what works for us.

Here’s what I do:
1) Figure out what subjects I want covered for each child. This is hardest with the oldest child. Once he’s done it, I tweak it for the younger kids based on what worked and what didn’t and any special concerns, but it’s usually pretty standard after the first kid.
2) Figure out what curriculum I want for each subject and what a year’s worth of work looks like. I use The Well-Trained Mind, Rainbow Resources website, and Amazon.com heavily, each for different purposes.
3) Figure out how many pages/lessons, etc. are in the year’s work. Some subjects we can get in 2 books per year (like Vocabulary From Classical Roots), some we’re pushing it to complete just one (Rod & Staff Grammar tends to be this way), some are very loosely defined (like most art books, or current events with daily newspaper reading), while others are already laid out in daily assignments (like Writing Strands).
4) Write out a description for each child of what a Workbook Day or a History/Science Day should include. Some subjects are on both, such as Piano or Bible Quizzing. Science is on both, but Workbook Day science is just a reading assignment. This is one sheet of paper for a Workbook Day and one sheet for a History/Science Day. It lists each subject to be done and gives a brief description of what the daily portion of work is.
5) Create a spreadsheet for daily use with rows for dates and columns for subjects to be checked off when done each day.

Daily, then, as the year progresses, they can do a lot of the work themselves. I have to do individual me-taught lessons for a few subjects, and I have to make customized assignments each day for some subjects (again, like current events assignments or art).

Plus the lovely grading. Oh, how I love grading (or not).

But that’s just what I do. If you are a homeschooler, how do you plan your year? What little tricks have you found to organize your days?


The Curriculum I Use: A Review of Rod and Staff English

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I use Rod and Staff’s English program to teach grammar and some writing.

This curriculum uses a very traditional approach to grammar and writing. In this approach lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s first look at what I consider to be its strengths.

Nouns, verbs, subjects, predicates, objective, subjective, tense, punctuation, diagramming, and many other details are all taught. Each grade level goes into a bit more depth, sometimes leading the student to think they already know the lesson when in actuality there is a little new information at each level. By the time they get to seventh grade, they are learning about coordinating conjunctions and adverb phrases, but since they’ve been studying conjunctions and adverbs for years, they are not overwhelmed.

Diagramming is taught from a very young age. This helps the learner to see the sentence and its functional parts in a different way and, though it’s challenging, teaches at a level that cannot be equaled.

Now let’s move on to its weaknesses. In my opinion, these books are extremely outdated and limited in their presentation.

This series is blatantly conservative Christian. It may be surprising that I list this as a weakness because I myself am also blatantly conservative Christian. However, the lengths to which they go to address EVERYTHING from a Christian lens gets old quite quickly. I do not have a problem with them using scripture references occasionally and talking about Christian values in some examples, but in my opinion they are out of balance and use it way too much, at times almost exclusively. They also teach KJV English along with modern English. Included in pronoun lessons, for example, are instructions on how to use “thee” and “thou.” This is not a real problem, but it can be distracting for kids who don’t use a lot of the KJV. 

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Also, being Mennonite, which is not too far from being Amish, most of the few examples that are not scriptural or religious are rural in nature. Farming and country life is often the subject of the exercises, and since my kids have only set foot on a farm a few times, and then only for a few hours, they have a hard time relating to sentences about fields and cows and  harvesting.

Also, some of the lessons have more to do with etiquette and nothing to do with grammar or writing. In my opinion, lessons on how to answer the telephone or how to introduce people to each other do not belong in an English book.

This curriculum teaches not only grammar but writing. Since it is coming from such a rural Mennonite setting these writing exercises mainly address paragraph structure, book reports, and letter writing. Essay writing or writing for any academic setting is not developed at all. Any college-bound student is going to need additional training in how to write for an academic setting.

So why do I use it? I continue to use this curriculum because I haven’t found anything that teaches grammar in such a robust way. I use a separate writing program and skip most of the writing exercises in Rod and Staff. We also skip the outdated and irrelevant etiquette lessons. I wish that I could find a more modern program with a higher-level writing program. Until I do, I will make do with this one, picking and choosing, adding and subtracting, making it work for us. I will accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.


The Curriculum I Use: A Review of The Well Trained Mind

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downloadI often have people ask me what curriculum I use.  I think they are expecting an easy response like “I get these DVDs from Somewhere Corporation and they teach my kids everything they need to know.  The program is all laid out nice and easy like, and it can teach any child.  I don’t even think about it; I just pull it out of the box, and voila (which is French for “there it is”, by the way), the child is smart.”  Well, it’s not quite that easy.

One of the main reasons I homeschool is because I want a different experience, not cookie-cuttered, and not patterned after a brick-and-mortar school somewhere.  If I can make school personalized to exactly what I want my kids to learn, why would I turn that over to anybody else who doesn’t have any idea what I’m wanting?  So, though it would make things easier in the short-term, I don’t use a packaged, pre-boxed, curriculum.  I put it together myself.

During the Preschool and Kindergarten years, I used the Montessori Method.  We all enjoyed it very much, and the kids learned a lot.  It is very child-directed and enjoyable, as I think learning at that stage should be.  However, I think that there are certain things that students need to learn whether they like it or not, so as they enter elementary school we transition to a more structured method and we chose the Classical Method.  After making that choice, we found a book that fits us perfectly and lays out a structure with plenty of room for customization.

This post is a review of that book.

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The Well Trained Mind: a Guide to Classical Education at Home was written by Dr. Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.  Jessie happens to be Susan’s mother and homeschooled her 3 children for most of their education.  She is trained as a teacher but chose to homeschool her kids because she didn’t like how their education was turning out.  Jessie taught Susan, as I said before, and you can read her narrative bio if you click her name above.  She has done too much learning for me to list it all here, but let me say she has several degrees from prestigious universities, and she has written many books ranging from The Well Trained Mind to a couple of enjoyable novels to The Art of Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America.  She is currently writing a several-volume history of the world for adults.  She is on the faculty of The College of William and Mary teaching American Literature.

But enough about them.  Let’s talk about their book.  First of all, there is a website devoted to it where you can get more information.  This book is very popular among homeschoolers, not that I pay a lot of attention to that.

The Well Trained Mind is a combination of several things, giving their personal story and how they came to homeschooling, a basic description of the classical method, and then step-by-step instructions about how to do that at home.  They finish by addressing some loose ends that need to be tied up.

I really like this book.  I have used it for the last 11 years to school kids with several different learning styles and attention spans, and with some adaptations, it has worked for us.  It takes each level of the trivium, which is a classical idea of breaking up 12 years into 3 sets of 4, and drills it down by subject, giving everything needed, including suggested schedules, possible different ways to do the subject, and a list of places to buy book and supplies mentioned.  It is comprehensive enough to tell how to school a child for all 13 years while all fitting within 864 pages.  I get it out every summer and re-read sections of it again, and I’m not bored yet.

For example, it talks about the first 4 years in general (the grammar stage), and then it devotes a chapter each to the major subjects that need to be taught during those years.   Each chapter finishes with a “How to Do It” section as well as possible schedules and a list of resources and where to get them.  Then, after covering those 4 years completely, it moves on to the next 4 years (the logic stage), repeating the same process.  The last 4-year stage is the Rhetoric stage, and it is given the same treatment.  For example, the math section for the grammar stage (that sounds a bit confusing, but remember that “the grammar stage” is simply the designation for 1st-4th grade) begins with a discussion of the philosophy of how a classical education approaches math (learning the times tables, not using calculators in elementary school, etc).  Then it gives several possible math curriculums like Saxon, A Beka, Math-U-See, and Developmental Math.  They recommend any of these programs, but in this section they give suggestions about the positives and negatives of each one, telling things that can be cut (too much busy work) or weak spots that may need to be supplemented.

The last part of the book is a potpourri of several things like how to supplement a traditional school education with extra home training, grading, athletics, standardized testing, and using outside resources.

Things I Like:  This book was written for those who want to do a rigorous, structured, but personalized education.  It gives plenty of room for personalization without leaving the parents/teachers to figure out everything for themselves.  Some of the resources recommended (grammar, writing, history) are written by the authors, which always makes me nervous.  However, having used them while also looking around for anything better, I generally think this is a good thing.  They knew what they wanted and couldn’t find it, so they wrote it exactly as they wanted, which I have generally found to be pretty good.  My kids are doing VERY well using this curriculum, and that is the best recommendation for it.  I like the way they put formal logic as a subject of the 2nd stage (which happens to be called the logic stage).  I also like the way they don’t assume all homeschoolers are conservative christians.  Though many, including myself, are, I like the way she states whether a resource is coming from a secular or religious point of view, and if so, what the religious point of view is.

Things I Dislike:  There are weaknesses in some of the resources they recommend, some of which they mentioned and some of which they didn’t.  I will take those one by one in later posts.  Generally, these 2 authors are not scientists or mathematicians.  Their recommendations for science could be better, in my opinion.  They want the student to have exposure to science, but the science recommendations are not as rigorous as I would like.  This is probably partly a reflection of the classical method, and partly a reflection of the authors’ strengths.  Luckily, with my nursing background, I know enough about science to work that part out myself.  I will write that all out at some time also.  On a different note, I pitched out the Latin and replaced it with Spanish.  Again, that is an argument with the classical method, not just this book.

As they acknowledge in the book, this is a skeleton, a suggestion, that should be personalized.  I have not done everything they say, and I have added some, which is the strength of this book.  I would say that if someone uses this book exactly as it is lined out, they will end up with an excellent education with the possible exception of science.

 

 

 

 


Keep Catching Apes And Silly Elephants: Don’t Forget Those Silly Elephants

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My husband is a professor at a seminary, teaching master’s degree students.  He holds a PhD in Religion from Temple University.  We were married the entire time he was getting his PhD, and we have spoken a lot about education since both of us are heavily involved in that field, though at very different levels.

I had an epiphany the other day that I’d like to share.  I realized that it’s not my fault.  I didn’t know any better.

In high school and college, given a research paper in nursing, history, music, or almost anything else, I could write a paper that would get an A.  However, there were a few professors whom I just couldn’t please.  These tended to be in literature  classes.  Looking back on it, and being married to a professor just like these frustrating people, I can totally see what I was doing wrong.  And little did I know that I was probably frustrating them as much as they were frustrating me.

You see, I thought a research paper was to exhibit what I had learned by doing research.  Silly me.  Well, they were to some extent, but now I know that to get that A, I needed to start making connections, drawing conclusions, and refuting ideas that I disagreed with.  And there should have been things I disagreed with.  I was supposed to not just answer questions, but to question answers.

This brings me to the title of my post: Keep Catching Apes And Silly Elephants.  No, that is not advice for your next African safari.  It is a mnemonic device to help remember this list of learning objectives: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.  This is called Bloom’s Taxonomy, and I was taught this catchy little sentence in about the 3rd grade, when I was supposed to understand it, but in reality had no clue what it meant.  I am still by no means an expert, but I think I know enough to explain the basics.  (Since the time when I was in the third grade, they have changed the names of some of the categories, and I apologize for the outdated information, but even though the elephants and apes don’t fit the sentence any more, they will forever be in my mind as elephants and apes.)

Most of my schooling was focused on the left side of this sentence.  I was taught facts.  I was taught processes.  I was even taught catchy little sentences to help me remember a list of learning objectives.  But I wasn’t really taught to think.  Oh they tried.  Through the same program that taught me about apes and elephants, a few of us had a “Gifted And Talented” class for an hour once a week in which we did exercises in logic, creative thinking, critical thinking, with a little art and writing thrown in.  (I guess the majority of kids, who didn’t qualify for this program, were just up a creek.)  But since it was only an hour a week, taken instead of one of our other classes (so the other teacher’s weren’t very thrilled about this idea of us skipping their classes), focused on the right side of the sentence with the other 31.5 hours on the left.  No wonder my writing was shallow.

These teachers in the G/T program were trying their best to pull the rest of the educational system along with them so that all could be more enlightened, but they were just scooping water from the ocean with a leaky cup; the ideas were not given the resources or attention to really take effect.  To be fair, I’m still not sure how a teacher is supposed to get 25 or 30 students per class, with 5 classes a day, writing with not only correct grammar, sentence structure, and paragraph construction, but also get them to reach the next level and think critically instead of just spouting facts.

So when I got to college and had trouble even getting B’s in literature classes no matter whether I spent 3 hours or 3 weeks on a paper (so of course I eventually figured out I should lean toward the 3 hours), it was very frustrating.  But it wasn’t my fault.  I hadn’t been taught to write in a way that exhibited THINKING.  I had been taught to memorize, do research, write with proper grammar, and many other skills, but I must have missed the classes in how to THINK, draw my OWN conclusions and (gasp) ARGUE for them, and then write about THAT.  Now that would have gotten me an A.

So as I teach my children, I am teaching them facts.  They should be able to find England on a map.  They should know the steps of the scientific method.  They should know how to construct a proper sentence.  There are some things that we just need to know to be good citizens of the world.  However, I am just as concerned that they learn how to ask questions, how to come up with their own ideas, and how to argue for their validity.  They should know not only how to answer questions, but also be able to question answers.

So it wasn’t my fault.  Nobody taught me differently.  If somebody had just called me aside for 10 minutes and told me to take the next step, go to the next level, that 4.0 would have been mine.


The Best-Kept Secret of Homeschooling

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There is a big secret that homeschoolers everywhere know, but we don’t want to tell you. If we told you, you would realize that it’s not as hard as it looks.

But I’ll tell you, because I’m just that nice.

Ready?

Homeschooling is efficient. Really efficient.

There’s no waiting for the bus. No riding the bus. No walking from one class to another. No waiting while the rest of the class finishes their homework. No waiting for the bell to ring. No taking a class that you don’t really need just to fill a slot in your schedule. No study hall. Lunch break only takes as long as it takes to, get this, eat lunch.

Shoot, most days that we’re not going somewhere else, my kids never get dressed. Pajamas are a homeschooler’s go-to fashion statement. In the fall when everyone is running back-to-school sales on clothes, they should run a back-to-school sale on pajamas for homeschoolers.

If a student learns best sitting at a desk, they sit at a desk. If a student learns best curled up on the couch with a book, that’s fine, too. Lap desks are wonderful. On a nice day, school might be outside. If a kid needs a break, they don’t have to wait until the bell rings for recess. They just take a break. If they’re in the middle of something, they don’t need to stop because a schedule says so. They finish what they’re doing and then move on to the next thing. We have one kid who learns best late at night and struggles with brain-engagement in the mornings, so he stays up late and does a lot of his work while the house is quiet and the others are asleep. He works the night shift.

We take every Monday off and work through most of the summer. The kids don’t have 3 consecutive months to forget everything they worked so hard all year to learn. When they start a new school year, we just pick up where they left off with hardly any review necessary. The teacher (Me!) doesn’t have to spend the first month getting used to all of the new students and figuring out their weaknesses and strengths and where the ones who just moved in are in their learning. We don’t have many (okay, any) move-ins.

If the student understands a concept, they move on. If they don’t, they continue with that concept until they have mastered it. There is, literally, no child left behind. This might mean that they spend twice the time on math that they do on grammar, or it might mean just the opposite. It’s based totally on what the student needs. There’s no waiting for everyone else to catch up. There’s no moving beyond what they really understand because everyone else is ready.

There’s also no time spent teaching just so they can pass a test. I rarely give tests because I already know how well they are doing from grading their work and interacting with them every day one-on-one. I do grade their work, but until they get into middle school I do not “give grades”. I grade the paper and then whatever they miss, they re-do until it’s right. If I see they’re having trouble with a concept, we slow down until I can tell they have mastery, and then we move on.

From what I understand, the university system in England is much more along this line than what we have here in America. Even here, it used to be more like this than it is now. My husband’s great-grandfather became a lawyer but never went to law school. He studied with a lawyer and passed the bar exam. President James Garfield said of one of his professors, “I am not willing that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher. Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.”

So now you know my little secret of why it’s not as hard as it looks.

But don’t tell anyone. Okay?