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Friday, January 20, 2012

My Homeschool Makeover

Before the Christmas break, our family was close to burnout, including the kids. School was drudgery for all of us. The break couldn't come fast enough.

Over the break, I did some real examining. I like to do that from time-to-time - step WAY back and get a bird's eye view of things - and decide if what we're doing is working and still aligns with our purpose. I usually seek Godly counsel during those times, even if they are from afar (internet mentors). I talk with my husband, with God, and with fellow teachers.

Out of this time of examining, I created a new plan for our homeschooling day. We've now been operating under the new plan for a month, and are seeing TREMENDOUS fruit from it. My 7th grader actually told her father, "I like school this way. It's more fun." To me, that's success!

  • To ditch most of the boring textbooks in favor of a more exciting learning approach with books and the internet and maps and microscopes - whatever we can get our hands on.
  • To do more schooling together than apart - as much as possible.
Let me start by saying, all of us homeschoolers who were schooled in the traditional government schools struggle with the break from just translating our school experience into a home environment. I work against that in my own life. My goal is NOT to do traditional school at home! My goal is EDUCATION, not school at all! I want to foster a love of learning in my children, and teach them how to TEACH THEMSELVES. Most American children have the sentiment that school is boring. Why is that? Does it have to be that way? I don't think so. I do believe children must be taught to do things whether they like them or not - liking an activity is not a prerequisite for doing that activity. However, learning CAN and SHOULD be interesting and fun. The government doesn't necessarily know what's best for MY children. There way is not always best! I am the mother of my children, and therefore, it is my responsibility to go before God and determine how they best learn and what they should learn. It is possible to meet the state's standards without adopting the state's methods. 
All of that being said, I examined some of the textbooks we were using. Some are fantastic - keepers!

Bible/Christianity: The Bible is the best textbook for learning the Bible, no doubt. Each day, we begin by reading our Bibles and discussing the passage. We also memorize one Scripture per week. Even the preschoolers are at the table during this time, so they recite them with us. We learn one hymn per month, memorizing the verses, as well as learning about the history and why they were written. And, of course, we pray each morning.
We also began, this month, going through a new book called A Child's Geography: Explore the Holy Land. I cannot tell you how much fun we are having with this! We learn about the places mentioned in the Bible, and where they are today, and how the geography plays into what took place then and now. It's fascinating the children! I'm learning so much, too!

History: My favorite history curriculum is Story of the World, hands-down. It is made up of four volumes that you teach to all your grade levels at the same time. Once you finish the fourth volume, you return and repeat all of them again, your children being older and gaining a greater understanding the second time. History is taught chronologically (something I've always believed in). I LOVE this curriculum! I often supplement the history stories with videos from YouTube or images from Google.
We don't do history every day. We read our chapter story on Mon or Tues, then usually do supplemental reading (from the library) or pick a project from the activity book on Wed, and take the chapter test on Thurs.

Math: I've always been a Saxon Math fan. I myself went to a college-preparatory, all-girls, Catholic high school who used Saxon Math. After homeschooling Hannah her whole life, I now have almost all the primary levels in my school storage. We are familiar with it and understand how it works, so we keep it.
I began this semester having the children grade each problem right as they finish it, instead of waiting until the end of their lesson practice. That way, if there is something they don't understand, they can learn it before going on and completing the entire page wrong. I stay at the table with all of them as they complete their math lessons. As soon as one of them gets an answer incorrect, they call me over. I walk them through the problem so they understand their error, then they continue with the next problem. This method alone has improved our math grades significantly, which has built their confidence. We do math three days a week. This doesn't always work, but for this semester, we're on track to finish each book by the end of the school year doing three days a week.
(On a side note, I like to play classical music while we're doing our studies. It provides just the right background noise for studying.)

Some textbooks, while they may not be bad, are just unnecessary. Much of my examination of this centered around language arts. Language Arts is multi-faceted. You can purchase a textbook for every part of it - handwriting, spelling, phonics and grammar, English and writing. We had most of these for each child. It was becoming too cumbersome to get through them all. Everyone needed a turn with mom, and I'm only one person. We couldn't fit it all in our day. So here's what I opted for instead:

Language Arts: Journals
It was told to me that good readers become good readers because they read a lot. Hence, it would make sense that good writers become good writers if they write a lot. We bought a writing notebook for every child. We call them their journals. My 1st graders journal is a primary journal, so it has handwriting lines inside so he can still work on forming his letters correctly. His also has blank space at the top of each page for drawing.
Each day, the children open their journals and I give them a writing prompt. I found lists of writing prompts online and saved them in my bookmarks. The writing prompts might be something like, "If I were the teacher for a day, I would..." or "If I had $100,000 to give away, and I couldn't spend it on myself, what would I do with it and why?" They are really great questions! So I give them a prompt, and then the learning begins. Here's how it looks:
7th grade: My 7th grader is encouraged to try to fill the entire page with her answer. Some prompts are easier than others to fill a page, so I'm not a Nazi about it. But depending on the type of prompt it is (writing a factual story or describing something or writing an imaginative story), I encourage her to brainstorm in a separate place first - gather her thoughts. Once she has some direction, she can begin writing.
She LOVES journal time! It's her favorite part of the day! This is the child who HATED writing before, now she's filling more than a page at times. Sometimes she asks me for help when she gets stuck - writer's block. She's working on writing good introduction paragraphs, using the middle to develop her intro, with several paragraphs that support her initial position, and then effectively summing it up at the end. Sometimes she struggles to write long enough paragraphs - paragraphs must be more than two sentences. She's such a "get-to-the-point" type of person. But she's learning a lot through this process.
When she's finished, we edit it together. I teach her editing markings. We look at how to better word things. I might help her to see how something she wrote was unclear to her reader. This is part of learning writing mechanics - the most important aspect of language arts in the 7th grade.
3rd grade: My 3rd grade son struggles with this assignment more than any of my children. He's at an age where writing is a new concept, so this assignment is HUGE for him, but still foreign. For this grade level, he's required to write a PARAGRAPH answer. A paragraph, I tell him, is a minimum of 4-5 sentences. We work on a topic sentence, a few supporting sentences, and a conclusion sentence. Even for him, brainstorming is required. A fellow teacher suggested having him diagram his brainstorming: writing the topic in the middle, with three branches coming off of it - then writing his three supporting ideas on those branches. It works very well! He requires the most help putting his thoughts into words - a proper sentence (not a sentence fragment). But when he's done, I have ALL the children look at his work. My 1st grader might say, "He capitalized the word 'birthday' in the middle of a sentence." We correct that. My 7th grader might say, "That sentence is not complete - it doesn't have a subject and a predicate." We're ALL learning together!
1st grade: My 1st grader is expected to first DRAW a picture of his answer to the question. He draws his picture in the space at the top of his journal page. After he's finished with his picture, we together think up ONE sentence to describe his picture, which answers the question. Sometimes, I write the sentence for him first, and he copies it onto his journal page. I instruct him to pay special attention to copying it EXACTLY as mom wrote it. If there is a comma, I want him to write a comma. If mom capitalized a word, he should also capitalize. I look to make sure he included the period at the end. We're working more towards dictation writing, where I feed him words and he tries to write them himself. For easier words under 3-4 letters, I encourage him to think of how they might be spelled. For larger words, I spell them out loud for him. I always correct handwriting errors. If he didn't form a letter properly, I stop him, have him erase it, and show him how it is supposed to be formed. All of this is learning the mechanics of language arts, but in a fun way.
Preschoolers: The preschoolers like to feel like they're participating, so I allow my three and four year olds to practice writing letters or numbers in their journal as well. They have age-appropriate lined notebooks.
The best part is, when we are all done, we all read our journals aloud to each other. The children are fascinated to see what their siblings wrote. We get to practice public speaking - reading clearly so our listeners can understand. Journaling allows us to work on all aspects of language arts - we learn spelling mechanics, how to properly write sentences, paragraphs, and full-page papers, how to write in a way that makes it interesting for our readers, and much more! This has become a favorite daily activity!
Language Arts: English
The second facet of our language arts program is English. All of my children have their own grade-level English books. I REALLY like Rod & Staff English curriculum - I love that it's Bible-based, yet it covers EVERYTHING, probably too much, that a child needs to learn about English, grammar, and writing. It is best for children 2nd grade and higher. My 1st grader uses First Language Lessons. This past semester, I began to grow frustrated with how many times I taught a concept to one child, and then just a few days and sometimes hours later, taught the same concept to a second child. All of their textbooks cover virtually the same material, but on different levels. Over the Christmas break, I listed all the topics left to cover for all of them for the remainder of the school year, and found commonalities. From there, I wrote the master topic list into my lesson plan - one topic per week (or two, depending). I now cover one topic for ALL of the children at the same time. Then, we open their textbooks and individually complete the material on that topic at their grade level. I have found this saves tremendous amounts of time. It saves my mind, as I have one focus for all the children for the week, and can get more creative in how I carry that out (for instance, focusing specifically on our topic in our journal time). Yes, the children are working through their textbooks out of order, but that really doesn't matter. The important thing is that all the bases are covered. We're really enjoying this approach.
Incidentally, my 1st grader is still working through his spelling/phonics book (we like Modern Curriculum Press's Plaid Phonics and Spelling Workout). Until the age they are reading fluently, I believe these curriculum are necessary to build a good foundation for reading.
Language Arts: Reading
All of my children have an age-appropriate reading list from which they work. I developed the reading list because I really wanted my children to complete their education having read a large amount of classic literature. I look up the reading grade level of each story on Book Adventure and then assign it to the appropriate year. My children are required to read at least 30 minutes per day. I have them write book reports, or give an oral report, on every-other book they read. My 7th grader is an avid reader. She loves reading, always has, so I don't have to stay on her about reading. My 2nd grader doesn't care to read so much, but he must, so he does, and he's very good at it. It's on his daily checklist. My 1st grader is just learning to read, so right now, he's reading things like Bob's Books or other beginning reader books.
In addition, we visit the library every-other week, sometimes weekly. When we go, we learn how to look up books of their interest. They are each allowed to get one book or DVD of their choice, and they also must get one book or DVD that will teach them something. Sometimes they choose books about California. My 7th grader is trying to learn the guitar, so she got a book that taught how to play guitar.
We also enjoy audio books as a family. That is often what we listen to in the car on longer rides. We have the entire Chronicles of Narnia series on CD, as well as classics like Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women.  We find most of our audio books from Focus on the Family's Radio Theater. They are very well made and fabulously entertaining!

Science: Currently, my sister-in-law, who is home for a year from teaching science in the Sudan, is teaching all of my children their science curriculum. She meets with them one day a week. My 7th grader has additional science assignments to complete throughout the week.
However, for next year (when I will be adding a Kindergartner), when she leaves to go back to Africa, we will adopt the same concept as we use in language arts. For science, I will look at the standards required for science for each of my children, and find common threads. For instance, my Kindergartner will have Earth as a standard. My 2nd grader will have Earth Materials. My 4th grader will have Shaping Earth, as well as Rocks & Minerals. Since all these concepts are similar, why not teach them together? Then give grade-level appropriate assignments based on that concept. I will most likely not use a science curriculum next year. I will use the library, the internet (for research as well as videos), experiment kits, and a science encyclopedia to teach. We'll explore as much as we can, in a fun way.
I must tell you right here about one of my favorite fun-learning resources. BrainPop has TONS of cartoon videos to teach concepts in EVERY subject, even math and fine arts! I absolutely love it, and the kids do as well, because the characters are funny. When we were beginning to study the forms of writing (narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive), there was a video to introduce that. They all watch it at once. I highly recommend this resource! I've considered adding this to their daily links - just have them explore this site and watch whatever videos they find interesting.

Geography: Geography was one of my favorite subjects in school. I loved learning about the world! We are just beginning to incorporate geography on a grander scheme this semester, and the kids are LOVING it! Here's how we're doing it:
First, when we study history out of Story of the World, we look up those places on a wall map or a globe. I have wall maps of the world as well as the United States hanging on our playroom wall. The globe is portable so I can bring it to the kitchen table when we are working there. In addition, if we are studying history on a certain continent, we use that continent as our launchpad for geography. For instance, this month, we've studied the stories of Marco Polo and the birth of Russia. Since we're focused in on Asia, we are working on memorizing the countries in Asia. We start with 10 places a week. I print off numerous blank outline maps, then daily, put numbers in the 10 countries, and have them fill in the 10. We keep adding to what we know each week. We'll move on to another continent after Asia. (By the way, my 1st grader does not participate in this activity.)
One of the most fun activities we do each day is visit a website that shows The Last 24 Hours in Pictures. They are professional photographs from around the world in the last 24 hours. New pictures are put up each day. There are about 13-17 pictures daily. They are fascinating! We look at the pictures, read the captions below, and then the children have to go to the world map and find the location of the picture. Even my 1st grader can participate in this. My preschoolers ooh and aaw over the pictures. We also get a feel for what is happening in the world around us - current events. This is one of my favorite daily activities!

Fine Arts: This year, my children chose to take a twice-monthly art class from a local woman who teaches out of her home. They've really enjoyed it. Next year, I'm considering taking a quarter of the year to study some famous musicians and their works, another quarter to study some famous artists and their works, and then perhaps a semester working on a foreign language. I would love to study Latin, as so many languages are Latin-based, so knowing the roots of words can help them figure out the meaning of words in many languages. Or perhaps we'll study Greek or Hebrew as a tool of learning the Bible. I'm thinking we'll save Spanish for when the children are a bit older.


·         Collective Bible reading
·         Sing hymn
·         Scripture memory
·         Prayer
·         Morning Chores

A.M. (put on classical music)
·         Theology (A Child's Geography: Explore the Holy Land)
·         Math
·         Language Arts
-          Journals (put their thoughts into words or give them a writing prompt or write a summary of something they learned, and teach writing mechanics from their work, using books as a model)
-          Phonics
-          Reading (or write their own books, McGuffey reader)
-      English
·         *Art* (only on certain days)

·         History (have littles draw what we’re reading about, everyone can fill-in maps, timelines, have older children write summaries)
·         Geography (memorize 10 geography places each week)
·         Read aloud time (Mom reads aloud)
1.       Classic Literature
2.       Delve deeper/Explore (geography, nature, history, theology, etc.)
Last 24 Hours in Pictures·        
      Typing practice (both boys)- Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
·         *Science* (only on certain days)

·         Choose from:

-          Music practice
-          Woodworking
-          Build something in the garage
-          Work on history timelines
-          Serve Dad in some way
-          Go exploring outdoors
-          Baking
-          Sketch in nature journals
-          Go for a walk
-          Cooking/dinner preparation
-          Family project
-          Journal
-          Art  (coloring, drawing, painting)
-          Play board games

Just to note: No two days ever look alike. No day ever looks as perfect as this schedule. But we work towards these goals. And I want to mention one other thing: This is a FULL-TIME job. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I recently released myself of some ministry responsibilities that required a lot of my time. I have never felt better about homeschooling as I do now. I am completely devoted in time and energy to my children's education from 8am to approximately 3pm. Sure, I get to throw in some laundry during their breaks (we take approximately 20 minute breaks after completing two subjects). But I'm mostly focused on them during the day. The rest of my duties can wait.

The last thing I want to share with you is about a family tradition of ours. Our kids absolutely LOVE this tradition, and they learn FABULOUS character lessons while we do it. ALMOST every single night, we watch Little House on the Prairie. We own up to season 7. We started over again before Christmas, and now we're on season 2. Here's the important part: We frequently pause the movie to discuss what is happening. We talk about it from a moral standpoint. We allow the children to point out God's obvious hand in a situation, or the bad choices a character is making, or the consequences of good or bad choices. At the end of each show, we talk about the lesson to be learned. My children all beg each night to watch LHOTP. This is one show that actually results in BETTER behavior in my children, rather than negatively influencing them to behave poorly.

Well, I hope you have found all I've shared helpful and thought-provoking. Homeschooling should be enjoyable, not drudgery. If nobody is liking it, including you, then its time to re-examine some things. Praying your homeschool journey is full of joy and success!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Chris I just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog. I feel like my heart is in the same place. I have such a passion for homeschooling my children and fostering a love for God, character, and life! I love being a mother and wife. This blog has shown me also more about yourself and the wonderful woman youve become.. Its been about 13 years since I was in youth group at Calvary.
    God bless,