Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Homeschool Notes, Spring 2012: Primary Years Edition

We've long since settled into a general daily MO which manages to be both flexible and consistent. If this sounds as though we're living a paradox every day . . . well, that would be literary of us, and it might well be true.

I've managed to be more organized this year -- as in not losing the read-aloud books under the sofa and not wiping from my mind's whiteboard all memory of the hands-on science stuff I bought -- thanks in large part to Jennifer McIntosh's "Morning Basket" system, which I've adopted and adapted for our purposes. Like Jen, I like to start our day with everyone gathered;  everyone is a word which here usually means the two younger children, ages 8 and 9, and I. The teenager at home is on his own schedule, which involves a long morning run before he either settles down to work or goes off to the college with his father for a Tuesday-Thursday World War II history class. But more about him later.

Our morning basket, actually a sturdy red plastic bin, holds more items than we could ever use in a given week, so that we can move in and out of books and activities in an informal rotation, as seems right for a given time, without actually putting something away for good. For example, we spent about six weeks working intensively in several volumes of the excellent Draw Write Now series before hitting at least a temporary saturation point;  now I'm keeping them on hand in our basket to pull out again at need. I also keep a boxed science kit, the Magic Schoolbus Human Body kit, ready to use. We do the bulk of our science and nature study through reading and real-life observation, but every several weeks it's nice to have a hands-on experiment at the ready, with materials.

Most importantly, though, the morning basket holds the read-aloud component of our school day. We begin our day on the couch with books;  we do most of our learning through literature, and after prayers, we move through a series of read-alouds which cover religion, history, geography, and science (and sometimes math), as well as "literature," per se.

By this point in the year, I've simplified our daily reading schedule somewhat, mostly because in browsing our shelves I rediscovered several books that I'd overlooked, or thought too advanced for us, when I was doing my planning for the year, but that struck me, on finding them again, as must-reads-right-now. We do two history tracks, old world and new world;  for most of the year we've done history in alternating weeks, but right now what's working is to cover ancient history and science in the morning, then use lunchtime for our new-world-history read-aloud.

So our morning goes like this: 

Morning Basket Time

1. Morning Prayer, including a sung hymn for the season. I keep prayer books and a copy of the St. Michael Hymnal in the morning basket -- not losing the prayer books under the sofa all the time has made an enormous difference in the level of our discipline, let me tell you. Our hymn this week is "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," sung to the tune "Llanfair."

2. A read-aloud for religion. Currently we're trying to finish Marigold Hunt's Saint Patrick's Summer before my 8-year-old's First Communion in two weeks, so that's become a daily, rather than a weekly, read. I have the children narrate, or retell in their own words, what we've read, and we discuss any questions which might have been raised while we were reading.

3. A chapter in our current ancient-history book, Herodotus and the Road to History. Again, I have the children narrate.

4. A chapter, or partial chapter (some are longer and denser than others) in Archimedes and the Door of Science, which is serving us for both history and science. Again, we narrate and discuss. Eventually we'll segue into written narrations, as a bridge into more formal work in composition, but oral narrations serve us well now as a discipline for listening, understanding, and rendering into words what we've just taken in.

If it seems we've been sitting too long, or the children are on listening overload, as happens some days, we might take a break from one reading or the other and do a hands-on science experiment using our Magic Schoolbus kit.

Morning Basket time lasts roughly an hour. From here we move to what I euphemistically call . . .

Table Work

It's a euphemism because people in my house tend not to work at tables. The 8-year-old's preferred work space of the moment, in fact, is under the drop-leaf table under the study window.  The 9-year-old likes to work on the couch, with his books on a lap desk.

We spend half an hour to forty-five minutes on table work:  math, handwriting, grammar and composition (accomplished both by workbooks -- we like the Catholic Heritage Curricula Language of God series, as well as Draw Write Now  -- and by independent projects like cartoon-drawing and -writing). The 8-year-old is working on her religious award in American Heritage Girls, so she uses this time to work in that workbook as well.

Independent Reading 

My kids have mostly tended to be the kind of readers you don't have to make read. Still, I like to have a time -- ten minutes at the end of the school day -- when everyone's settled down with a book while I make lunch. Sometimes I assign the independent-reading book -- if a given person seems to be in a rut of reading, say, the same Star Wars novelette over and over in his free time -- but more often I let them choose their reading (here's where I really didn't follow my ambitious plans for the year so much). The 8-year-old has been essaying the first Harry Potter book, a page at a time;  the 9-year-old has been reading a book called The Fallacy Detective.

Lunch Basket 

I like to read aloud to the kids while they're eating lunch. This is typically when we read things like Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare or one of the "twins" series by Lucy Fitch Perkins, but right now we're reading our new-world-history book, Madeleine Takes Command. 

This is a flexible, easy schedule, not tied -- as you might have noticed -- to actual times of the day. We tend to begin school around ten or ten-thirty, whether we've gone to daily Mass at 8 a.m. or not, which means that we finish around noon. The children then have the afternoon free for chores and play, both of which I also consider to be not add-ons but integral parts of their education. They're allowed very limited computer play time (mostly educational apps and online games), but spend most of the afternoon, especially this time of year, outside on bikes and scooters, playing in our old garage, or walking to friends' houses in the neighborhood to play.

Later . . . 

After dinner, we have a bedtime read-aloud and pray Compline. And thaaaaat's our school day, beginning to end. 


I've been working on plans for next year, using this basic, useful, adaptable schedule as a template. Here's our proposed reading list by subject;   here's how I visualize our days, though I'm still trying to hammer out in my mind what to read exactly when, if you know what I mean.

My lesson-planning style is sketchy, I guess, as you can see -- I think I actually wrote out these "plans" for last week on Thursday, so this was more of a log than a plan . . . I find, though, that if I made myself a to-do list, then the books get read and the written work gets done, and the learning happens without my having to teach so much as just serving the list. If that makes sense . . .

I'll devote another post to my 14-year-old, who is his own animal entirely, but meanwhile, if you'd like a peek at what he'll be doing next year, here's the first semester laid out by weeks.  For teenagers I do plan in greater detail, because the plan, with the books, is their teacher. I hand it all to them, and they're off to the races. At least . . . well, my 18-year-old is off to the college races, and has thanked me for having made her read The Iliad in the 9th grade, so I'm thinking this stuff does work . . .


lissla lissar said...

Thank you. I'm still in the thinking-about-routine stage of planning, and my kids are very little and so there's no formal work yet, but I'm kicking around in my head how our normal schedule works and how to integrate bits of instruction in, and how I want to do it...

Currently homeschooling consists of lots of Pixar movies, Starfall, and reading the Bible storybook aloud, in a few months the twins will be older and my brain will work again. I hope.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes: simple. Think simple. And with a kindergartener, it's really a matter of five minutes here, five minutes there. Just have the books you want collected in a basket or bin by the chair where you want to sit to read/work with them, so that when you get a quiet moment with your child, whenever that may be, you can grab the opportunity to read aloud, or practice reading, or do a little math-type thing (even if it's just counting to ten or twenty forwards and backwards, or skip-counting by twos, or adding some pennies together and then subtracting them).

You might also think about sort of booby-trapping your house as a learning space. We did a lot of this when our kids were younger. We didn't have a tv (that we have a large computer on which movies can be shown is a luxury I'm kind of regretting right now, as I have to police it . . . ), which really helped them to gravitate to books on the coffee table, or cuisenaire rods in a basket, or art things on a table, or legos. I used to distract my two youngest, when they were preschoolers, with a series of little baskets of tiny special toys, like plastic animals from the dollar store, in a row on the hearth -- anything to spark any kind of imaginative play.

English primary classrooms all have what they call a "home corner" -- a little playhouse area with dress-up clothes and playing-house things. In an equivalent U.S. classroom this would be called a "dramatic play area." If you've got a corner that you can devote to something like this, then you have a whole piece of kindergarten curriculum set up that your children can gravitate toward while you're busy with the babies.

Fine-motor activities are great, too, and easy to set up on the kitchen table or a play table: a pan of sand or cornstarch to write in with fingers, a "game" of picking up beans and putting them in a jar. Draw Your World, the company that publishes the very good Draw Write Now series which I mentioned in this post, sells a pack of cards with fine-motor activities and games. Some require face time with you; others could be set up so that the kids play while you keep half an eye on them.

I've always focused on creating good places for kids to sit and read, with books available and spread out invitingly, or in a rack where they're faced out and easy to see.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that you can maximize the learning in your days by thinking about how your home -- at least in some spaces -- can be a learning environment. If, even when you're not actively teaching a child, the children are learning in their play, then that takes a lot of pressure off you.

Amanda said...

Sally, it sounds like you re giving up MEP as your core math curriculum. Can I ask why ? We have used it since last November starting with 1a and are now in 2b w/ my second grader. I like it but I'm not getting to the teacher direction as much as I'd like. So now I'm wondering if I need to find something more student directed. He'd be ready for Saxon 5/4 by late 3rd grade, I think. But I do love the mep approach.

Sally Thomas said...

I love MEP, but as much as I'd like to throw "normal" scope and sequence to the four winds, I can't quite make myself let go, especially with state-mandated testing at the end of the year. I'd begun both kids in Year 1 of MEP, per recommendations on the yahoo group, and this was very good and challenging, but for my 3rd grader, particularly, I didn't quite want to let go of progress he'd made in regular old math, and I did want to move him into multiplication before the end of this year. So after Christmas we segued into some cheapie skills-based workbooks (SchoolZone Math 3, with a CD, for the 3rd grader, Spectrum Math 2 for the second grader).

I also found myself not using the lesson plans, just having the kids do the practice sheets, which they could do independently or collaboratively, with me available in an advisory capacity. I know that the "meat" of the lesson is in the teacher-guided lesson plans, but we just seem to gravitate towards a self-teaching model (which is where I really want them to be by the time they reach pre-algebra), and I was afraid that in using MEP this way I was shortchanging the kids in terms of lesson content.

So . . . I dunno. Our semester of nothing-but-MEP was invaluable, and I can see that my kids are much better problem-solvers than they were. My second-grader's progress and confidence have been remarkable. I had meant to build in at least one MEP day this semester, but alas, that hasn't happened.

What I would like to do for next year is to print out a semester's worth of the 5th-lesson review pages to use on Fridays. I really do think that MEP's approach is valuable, and I'd like to continue using it as a tool, while we continue to work on math from the skills end as well (not to mention living math books in our Morning Basket). Maybe I'll print out some lesson plans and put them in the Morning Basket, so that we'll actually do them . . .

I really love MEP and would recommend it to anyone -- I wish we'd begun it at the beginning, rather than starting Year One this year, because really, my main concern is keeping my kids at least in the ballpark of grade-level competency. I don't so much care that they're doing what kids in public school are doing, but I do care that they have a solid foundation in the basic "grammar" of math, as well as the conceptual, problem-solving, higher-language facet of math, because without that basic grammar, middle- and high-school math will be much, much harder.

So I think I'm probably a weenie, but I just can't let go of the workbooks (which my children actually like, anyway, so I'm caving on two levels!).

Amanda said...

Thanks Sally, for expanding on that. Its tough. I have some of the same qualms, though the grade level part isn't as big since my son is a young second grader in 2b and we are schooling through the summer. We did start with 1a, but late in first grade which does make me feel behind - my K daughter is already starting 1a, slowly. But my son is so advanced in mental math, so while I see the skills he works on through MEP, and they are valuable, he gets a little bored as he can do three digit addition by this time in his head, but needs to do more memorization of basic facts. I love the algebraic precursors, too. My main problem is skipping the Teacher part, too, and when i look back I see how using it would have helped this or that lesson to go much more smoothly - and it really is the meat! Too bad someone hasn't re-written it as a home school student directed program with similar exercises but written to the student. If I had the time.. and that's the other thing. With two three year olds and a baby time is always an issue. Anyway, thanks for sharing, about your schedule too. I really like the A week/B week organization and have followed your plans this year and somewhat of a notebook system as well. Still tweaking and trying to figure out what schedule works for us. :)

Sally Thomas said...

Yes, I do think it's hard to implement something so teacher/parent-intensive with multiple children, especially when you have very young children needing your attention. That's one reason why I combined my kids in the same year (and my good-at-math 3rd-grader found it plenty challenging), though even then . . . I've always emphasized self-teaching and tried to move my kids in that direction from fairly early on, so as great as MEP is, it felt *very* time-consuming and dependent on me -- if I couldn't do the lesson (as in, if some reason I wasn't available), then math didn't get done adequately.

I did, as I said, also want them not to lose what they already knew about working with multi-digit numbers. I know there are good reasons why MEP stays in single digits for so long, and that this doesn't make it "too easy," but as my 3rd-grader, anyway, had already been doing addition and subtraction of larger numbers and dealing with regrouping, I hated for him to forget how to do it. There is something to just being able to do the procedures . . .

So I'm taking heart from something I saw on the Living Math forums: that curriculum is a tool and an aid. In fact, this conversation is making me think that I'm going to go ahead and print out a few MEP pages to build into next week, even if all we do are some of the lesson-plan activities during our Morning Basket time. That would make a nice change between read-alouds.

Yep, tweaking. All the time. I've been tweaking for nine years, and I imagine I'll go on tweaking till they're all out of the house.

Amanda said...

Yes, curriculum is definitely a tool, though sometimes it offers the accountability I need. Have you thought about skipping ahead in your use of MEP to somewhere in 2b as your children (or just the third grader) are comfortable with multi-digit numbers? The patterns continue and the same types of questions are encountered as the numbers get bigger.. I've thought about this but then I would need to have him work more on memorizing the basic facts so that things don't drag on when we work with higher numbers. I'm starting to use more flashcards and some head of the class, but the computer is kind of a dragon here,, while useful - too easy for everyone to start fighting or get sucked in. My son has the number sense but he gets frustrated due I think to both the writing and the time it takes, which is his distractedness and/or facts not jumping into his head.. but it is getting better. I loved math as a kid so I feel a bit like a failure...Thinking about using MM at least some of the time.

Sally Thomas said...

I am thinking about skipping ahead, at least for next year, to use some of MEP (again, possibly the scripted lessons but not the practice books) in tandem with MCP math, which is basic and rather dry, but does keep us on what feels to me like the right track in terms of practical mastery.

I think I'll sit down again with the lesson plan books this week and think about where we are, so that I can incorporate some MEP into our Morning Basket time next week.

This is actually a very helpful conversation, so I'm glad you brought it up, Amanda! I do find myself letting things fall by the wayside when I don't mean to.

Amanda said...

Glad to be a sounding board- you've given me food for thought too. :) o

Lindsay said...

Sally, I've been mulling over this post this week as I think over what's working here and what needs tweaking.

One thing I'm interested in hearing more about is how you use Draw Write Now. I have book one, and in many ways I think the program would be a good fit for us. But, I think I dismissed it in the past because I got overwhelmed over thinking it. Is it something you work through the levels, letting the supplementary stuff fall where it may? Or is it something you try to plan for so that you are doing Columbus in history while working through level 2? Did you just let them pick from the whole series each day or work through a particular book? Our library system has lots of the books--is it the sort of thing that would work well having the individual books checked out one at a time as they were worked through?

Anyway, if you could elaborate a bit on this, I'd love to get a clearer picture on how this worked in your home!

Sally Thomas said...

I really didn't use the books schematically. What happens if I make too coordinated a plan-- OK, kids, we're going to read about Columbus, and then you're going to draw and write about Columbus -- is failure. That's just the time when somebody develops an all-encompassing obsession with Antarctica (the Arctic and Antarctic book is one of the ones we have, and during those six weeks, it was the one people fought over), and all they want to do is draw pictures of penguins.

So I didn't try to make our writing align with anything else we were doing. I literally just let it be free choice. They had to do it -- though when their interest began to flag in an obvious way, I put the books back in the basket -- but they could choose what they wanted to draw and write. Some favorite lessons got done multiple times, but to my mind that was okay: they pretty much had the passages memorized, and the drawing would get better, too, with each attempt at the same figure.

I know what you mean about overthinking -- I can drive myself right off a cliff, trying to make everything align just so, and then find that for all my mental maneuvering, none of it works in reality.

Sally Thomas said...

And then I end up not using things I've bought, because my brain has shorted out. So my new mantra is: Just use it!

Sally Thomas said...

More on the subject which Lindsay brings up, now that I've got a quiet moment. *There are actually NO children in my house right now*. Take a picture.

Anyway, here's a good example of my "Just Use It" principle, which has emerged from my planning for next year:

1.In addition to three Draw Write Now books, I also own two Draw and Write Through History books, which are very similar to Draw Write Now, except that they're aligned to periods in history (Creation Through . . . I Forget What Now, and Greeks and Romans).

2. Of our two ongoing history tracks, our ancient history this year has been focused on Greece. So I could have been using the Draw and Write for that period this year.

3. Except that these history-specific Draw and Write books use cursive exclusively, and both my kids just began cursive this year, and even now aren't really up to writing long passages in cursive.

4. I could have rendered copywork passages from the cursive books in print writing, but I am too lazy. So we haven't used those books this year, just the Draw Write Now ones, according to the random method described in my previous comment.

5. Next year I hope to be able to use these cursive Draw and Write books. Of course, next year our ancient-history focus will be Rome.

6. Naturally, because we're not doing Greece next year, I can predict that all my rising 4th grader will want to do is draw pictures of Greek hoplites.

7. And I'm going to let him (in addition to letting him draw orcas and write in print about them from the Draw Write Now books, if he so desires. But I'm really going to push the cursive writing, and I'll put the history Draw and Writes in the morning basket, and shelve the Draw Write Now books at the beginning of the new school year).

8. I will justify this to myself by saying that even though this isn't the period we're "doing" right now, it is a period we have covered and will cover again in just a few years. Doing the drawing-and-writing exercises will serve as a useful review and reminder, and hopefully my kids will be prompted to make mental connections between what we have studied and what we are currently studying. It's a way of taking something like a spiral approach, which we see in some math instruction, and applying it to other disciplines.

Sally Thomas said...

And Lindsay, I still have your Am I Just Hopelessly Unschooly? question on the brain. I kept meaning to go back and formulate a more thorough response and never got around to it, but somehow I think this conversation applies.

We're currently a lot less unschooly than we used to be. But in this kind of situation, with these kinds of parameters (1. we have a set writing "lesson" daily 2. we have a set choice of materials 3. we have a specific set of skills and goals, ie mastering cursive handwriting, honing fine-motor skills, acquiring some basic drawing skills so that we don't just draw stick figures with light sabers on EVERY page of our journal, if we are a boy), I'm comfortable allowing a child-led thing to happen and trusting the child to file away the information mentally and apply it to other learning situations as they arise.

Lindsay said...

I LOVE it! Its a spiral approach, not randomness!

Thank you so much for your responses. I do find that loose parameters that provide structure even if I don't have detailed lesson plans help us. Your descriptions really help me visualize options for how to implement this. When I overplan, nothing gets done, and when I don't plan, nothing gets done. It is always so great to see how different temperament combinations are able to make similar curricular choices come together.

Amanda said...

Lindsay, great questions! Sally, great answers! And Sally, I have one more. So you have the kids copy exactly what is in the Draw Write Now books? I have three and I have always worried they would find that too contrived and prefer a poem or something they write, but then that complicates it, doesn't it? We have mainly used them for drawing and not so much the writing. But I like your process. I could see doing that twice a week and then poetry/literature copy work the other two days.. thinking. My problem right now is we started the year so late due to baby born in July, that we are schooling all the way through summer (fine with me, and less distractions, it will be 100 by early July here but...) that means that I am planning for next year while still knowing I have 3 1/2 months for "this year" to go, and if I wait to plan, well, it will be September already!

Also, on the hopelessly unschooly post I loved that question as I have been there and my son is an uber-reader too - currently polishing off St. Patrick's Summer in 3 days! And he really understands it. I think he narrates silently to himself as he goes and of course comes to tell me every so often. So unschooling is tempting. :)

Amanda said...

Oh, but I loved Jen's answer too about having a plan and being willing to allow margin or change but to gently bring the child back to the planned work. Reminded me of a post from Elizabeth Foss where she said we may go off of the plan but there is a plan. That hit me. I think I need a plan to deviate from, which is mostly what we do. http://www.elizabethfoss.com/reallearning/2012/02/could-it-be-a-storybook-year.html

Lindsay said...

I find, too, that we're doing much better with systems that allow for broad use of plans. Not plans like the ones curriculum providers send where each day has scheduled assignments. Rather, the sort of plan that says "we're going to do a math assignment every day" or "we're going to do a chapter from a read aloud every day at lunch." Concepts like the morning basket appeal to me because I can be somewhat loosey goosey and still feel like we are learning discipline in these early years without ever really feeling behind. I know that handwriting practice and copywork is an area where I have not found my groove yet.

Sally Thomas said...

YES. This is the only kind of planning I can do and follow through on. "Turn the page." "Read the next chapter." "Read another book." I can do that.

Re copywork and handwriting: honestly, for the basic how-to, I have to have a workbook. I have to have a "turn the page/do this next," or I just won't do it, or we'll do the same thing over and over.

Once handwriting is somewhat mastered, I lean more heavily on straight copywork, and here's the approach that's worked best for me: I have a little selection of chosen books from which to choose copywork (mostly, but not entirely poetry), and each of my children gets a Mead Primary Journal. Every day, kind of randomly, before we start school, I remember that we have to do copywork, so I pick up one of the books, and for each child I write out a short selection on the lefthand page of the journal. They copy on the right. Sometimes I choose longer passages which take a couple of days, in which case I get a morning off from spazzing that we have to do copywork. It's kind of random, as I say, but it gets the job done.

I vacillate between either doing straight, daily copywork as our only language arts, or using CHC's Language of God series, which I really do like and which does incorporate copywork and dictation every ten pages or so. Of course, LOG lessons are so short that I really could do both daily, though . . . probably not at this point in the school year, when we're just kind of eeeeeeaaaaaaasing toward summer. Everyone kind of burned out on copy journals after our six weeks of Draw Write Now, so we've been workbooking it ever since. But that's served its purpose, too, here in our eclectic universe.

Sally Thomas said...

And Amanda -- yes, I liked Jen's answer, too, though the way I tend to see homeschooling -- or maybe one of the beauties I find in homeschooling -- is that education becomes, as it should be, a series of conversations, not only about what we're studying, but about what form that study should take. You can go too far off the deep end in that direction and have chaos, obviously, but within a set of gentle parameters I think these negotiations can be good things. That is, I think these conversations can be fruitful if it's understood that what's happening is a negotiation about deviation from an established norm, not a new negotiation every day about what the norm should be.

But yes, in general, I would work back around to getting the planned work done. I'd just count that unplanned reading as "reading" for the day, plus maybe whatever subject I'd planned to cover. If my child had polished off St. Patrick's Summer, I'd call that religion class for the day and bump whatever I'd planned -- which would be "read the next page/chapter," anyway, in some book -- to next time.

And re DWN: yes, I just had them copy the passages as written. If they'd wanted to rewrite or revise them, I'd have been happy with that -- with a slightly older child, I could imagine using them as sentence-combining exercises, or some other rewriting exercise.

But for early-elementary kids, I truly think that there's a lot of fruitful comfort in just copying what's there. Mine certainly never complained, even when they were copying the same passage for the third time.

It sounds like a cop-out, but until they show real readiness for independent writing (earlier for some kids, later for others), I think it's enough to let them concentrate on the handwriting itself (which is hard to do if you're also thinking of what to say) and internalize written English as they go. The DWN selections aren't beautiful rhetoric, but they are decent, if simple, sentences (so the child knows intuitively what a complete sentence looks like -- and you can talk about its parts), and they do internalize the correct spelling of any number of useful basic words.