Thursday, November 8, 2012

Homeschooling: A Day in the Life, plus Some Tweaking of Materials and Routines

Yesterday we had the kind of day I used to marvel at years ago, when my older children were young and we were new to homeschooling. I marveled because

a) these were the kinds of days the homeschooling books said that we would have, but that I didn't believe would happen to us in real life,


b) they really were the kinds of days that never happened when the children went to school.

Maybe these days still happen all the time but go unnoticed because we've become so used to this version of reality that it no longer seems remarkable, or maybe they truly don't happen as often as I somehow remember. Anyway, what did transpire yesterday was that I bought a cheap little typing app for my Macbook, so that when a child in this house asks to "learn typing," as she frequently does, learning typing won't mean going online to a learn-to-type site, spending five minutes there, and then somehow -- one never knows exactly how -- ending up at

I got two typing apps, actually:  a free touch-typing-course app and an app designed for preschoolers, called "Big Typer." It was this latter which turned out to be miraculous. What Big Typer does, essentially, is let children type whatever they want, however they want, and then click a "speak" button to have a computerized voice read back to them whatever they have typed. It is great fun. As the children discovered, you can type in the most arrant gibberish and hear it intoned in THE kind OF voice we've all come to EXpect from, say, the doctor's office's automated telephone appointment-confirmation service.

For about ten minutes, both the eight- and ten-year-olds took turns banging out nonsense, listening to it read aloud, and falling on the kitchen floor in convulsions of mirth, but when I finally said that I'd had enough and that they could continue using my computer only if they typed actual words, the ten-year-old got bored and wandered off to do his schoolwork. The eight-year-old, however, sat on at the table with the computer, typing first one sentence and then another and having them read back to her, until at length she had produced a little story of about five sentences -- it was about a colorful butterfly whose eggs hatched in her nest, and how she loved all her children even though they were sometimes naughty.

On the typing app there's no way to save what you've typed, so when she had finished this little story she went and fetched her copybook from her school box and wrote the story down. Then, returning to the typing app, she made up another story, this time about a frog. This too she wanted to write down to preserve, so she dug out another, empty notebook and copied in it first the butterfly story and then the frog one, and illustrated them.

The good thing about the Big Typer app, I have to say, for this particular child at any rate, is that when you misspell a word, the voice reads back to you not what you meant to write, but what you actually wrote. I helped her a bit with harder words, but mostly she wrote and corrected on her own. Eventually she did go and do the formal schoolwork which I had scheduled for the day, but writing consumed her morning in a way that I could not have planned for. It's this kind of serendipity in learning that makes me remember why it's worth it to be at home where -- when I'm not too seized with anxiety that somehow the younger children won't learn anything, despite all evidence to the contrary -- we can remain open to the unexpected.

Meanwhile, as our fall term wears to a close -- Advent's up soon, with its own readings and activities -- I have made some changes in the shape of our day. In general I've been very happy with our master schedule and our choice of books, both read-aloud and scheduled for independent reading, which takes us through a range of topics in history, science/nature, math, and literature in the course of the week;  at the same time, as the term has progressed, I've felt that our school day was taking too long -- four to five hours, often -- for the ages of the children, and that while I meant to move them more intensively into independent work, that really wasn't happening to the extent that I had hoped.

So I've made two significant changes. First, I switched the order of our day, so that we begin with independent work -- math, language arts, and reading in a variety of subjects -- and save our "Morning" Basket selection of read-alouds and combined subjects for late morning or after lunch. Already, in the brief time since we made this simple change, I'm seeing the ten-year-old's math lesson not last nearly as long, which was what used to drag the day out so unmercifully. He'd leave it for late, after everything else was done, and then . . . think . . . about  stuff . . . for ten minutes . . . between problems. Now he's doing it first thing every day, and while he still tends to wool-gather, it's not nearly such a problem when he's fresh. Beginning with independent work also means that the start of school doesn't depend on everyone's being ready to work at the same time, which is frankly a blessing in our relaxed household. I'm just not good at waking everyone up (unless we're going to Mass at 8 a.m., which is also a blessing in that it gets us moving in a united fashion when nothing else does), and not good at putting on breakfast at a set time. This way, as people emerge and have their breakfast, they can pick up the work they know they need to do as they're ready for it -- frequently they do it over breakfast. Then, once we are all up, moving, and finished with other things, we're that much more ready to gather on the couch for some time together, and I'm not rushing us through our readings and discussions to get to the stuff everybody has to get done on their own.

Second, I bought workbooks. Why, every year, I tell myself I'm not going to use workbooks, when clearly I'm wrong, I do not know. Well, I do know, sort of. Using workbooks isn't very Charlotte-Mason-y, and I love Charlotte Mason. But I also love my children, who like to work in workbooks -- not for everything, mind you. Literature has pride of place in our homeschool, and I don't see that changing, ever. But for basic skills, particularly in language arts -- we were already using math and cursive-handwriting workbooks -- while I can carry out a literature- and copywork-based program which more or less covers everything everyone needs to know in terms of grammar and spelling, I begin to wonder why I'm doing all this work, when it might be laid out for us in a way that covers all these things more thoroughly and systematically, and in a more self-teaching fashion, than anything I have the time and energy to come up with on a consistent basis.

So I went back to my wish list at Catholic Heritage Curricula and bought what I'd left there in August, having decided against it all in favor of homemade free options. I bought two levels of the Language of God grammar and composition worktexts, which I've used before, and two levels of My Catholic Speller, which I have never used. In fact, in nine years of homeschooling, I've never used a spelling program, and I'm still on the fence regarding the value of formal spelling instruction. At the same time, however, I'm reallyreallyreally tired of spelling things out for people who want to write, and I feel that some review of basic rules and word families would be very empowering to those writers.

Now, CHC does involve a certain twee factor which in the past has been a stumbling block, particularly for my boys. What ten-year-old boy wants a picture of two cherubic five-to-seven-year-olds under a bright-yellow umbrella on the front of his spelling book (actually, I've been surprised that the ten-year-old in question hasn't kicked up more of a fuss over that particular cover)? Even the eight-year-old, who doesn't mind twee, says For Little Folks in a funny voice whenever she picks up her book;  I do have remarkably sarcastic children, at remarkably young ages, which I suppose is sad, though it's also kind of funny. There is also -- and I realize that for many people this is the primary reason for buying CHC's materials -- the fact that all of this is inescapably Catholic grammar, Catholic spelling, Catholic handwriting (and oh, the combox conversations we've had on this subject already!). We learn about abstract nouns, for example, by learning that St. Maria Goretti was a truthful girl;  ie, she was full of truth, which is an abstract noun, &c. We punctuate lots of sentences about St. Martin de Porres and Sister Mary Isidore and Father John and the Tabernacle and examining our conscience. We choose endings to sentences based not on their correctness -- all the options are correct -- but on their pleasingness to God:  My little brother is a) a monster, or b) made in the image and likeness of God. 

Okay, okay, yes. I have to admit that after a while this wears on me. Catholic people can think about things other than being Catholic sometimes, even in a grammar lesson. It doesn't, however, seem to wear on the kids nearly so much as it does me. I was a little surprised, actually, to find that they not only don't roll their eyes over the memory verses that come with each week's spelling lesson, but actively like memorizing them. And -- well, sentences in a grammar book have to be about something. So there we are. Meanwhile, I like the quality of the materials -- these workbooks don't fall apart over a year of hard use -- I like that the lessons are short and basically self-teaching, so that I can step away and let the children learn that they can figure things out on their own, and maybe I also like that if we're working through them, then we don't also feel we have to read, say, Mary Fabyan Windeatt, to learn about saints. We in this house are not Mary Fabyan Windeatt fans. Anyway, what I really like is that we can cover core skills which really need covering in a way that doesn't take all day:  the kids just get their books and do their basic lessons reasonably quickly and efficiently, and then we enjoy literature and conversation together. And then they're free to write stories or think or build lego or go to Gym and Swim, and all of this seems right as a rhythm for the day.

Other changes and general notes of late:

*The ten-year-old has finished both The Roman Ransom and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch for his history reading. He is now reading The Bronze Bow and John Treegate's Musket for Old- and New-World history, respectively. For literature, in addition to Danny, the Champion of the World, he has also read Through the Looking Glass, The Hobbit, and several Lloyd Alexander titles. I can't actually, at this moment, remember what he's supposed to be reading now. It's a little hard to keep up.

*We're on the fourth title of the Life of Fred elementary series:  Dogs. These continue to be an excellent addition to our math program. We use them as read-alouds and mental-math exercises, though we also employ the whiteboard when we absolutely have to write something down.

*I've moved everyone's Bible reading to the Formerly-Morning-Now-More-Noonish Basket, because that just seems to work. We're currently reading 1 Samuel together.

*The eight-year-old is still reading all her "independent"-reading selections aloud to me. Her reading is fairly fluent at this stage, though she still stumbles over certain families of words (anything to do with "when two vowels go out walking" still gives her trouble, for example). This was one reason why I decided to tackle spelling more formally:  I think her reading, as well as her spelling, will benefit. But what she's reading aloud is fairly sophisticated:  Detectives in Togas, for example. Overall, I'm still waiting for the switch to flip from "I have to read" to "I want to read."

*We've added another Macbook app (free or very cheap, I forget which) for German vocabulary-building:  Speak and Learn German. This has been fun so far.

And now everyone's up, and I should go make oatmeal and start our school day. Later . . .

PS:  Eight-year-old remarked this morning that now that she has a Language of God and a spelling workbook, she "really likes school." Okay. Can't argue with that.


Erin said...

Oh I SO LOVE days like that:) gives me heart to continue through the hard days.
re workbooks, I hear you, in fact I'm currently going through a pile and thinking, mmm they could have a place. Whereas 15 yrs ago I was adamantly against them, now a decade and a half down the track I can see some slight benefits, well I tossed them at the children with the comment, "these might be fun"

Sally Thomas said...

Yeah, workbooks are the kind of thing which I *want* not to like, because somehow I think it's nobler not to like them, but the difference they make in our school day is unbelievable: quiet kids working independently on manageable "bites" of core-skills learning.

They aren't our whole day for sure -- in fact, my ideal ratio for a school day is about one part sit-down schoolwork to four and a half parts literature to four and a half parts free play and exploration. But . . . well, for example, in the past we've used the Emma Serl Language Lessons books (Primary and Intermediate), which nobody has much liked, but which cover, in many ways, the same territory as the Language of God books, only in a less linear and less-structural-grammar-oriented way, and you either have to use a separate notebook OR do the whole thing orally in a very teacher-intensive way, BUT in a short lesson. Why I have come to prefer LOG to this approach:

*I actually like structural English grammar and think it's at least as worth learning as Latin from an early age, as something both useful and, like concepts in science and math, interesting in its own right.

*the LOG books are gentle and kind of lyrical in the same way that the Serl books are, and the lessons are similarly short. LOG lacks the Charlotte-Mason element of picture study, but then I never liked the selections in Serl, and we never did them.

*The LOG books *do* include copywork and dictation -- not quite as often as the Serl, but with the copywork that comes up in the handwriting book, plus other copywork we've done on our own, it's certainly enough.

*As with the picture-study selections, we haven't missed "memory" lessons in our grammar worktext, because we do those anyway, out of other books of my own choice.

I am also really liking the spelling program, which is very basic but takes us through families of words on a phonics model, which I think will be very helpful. My observation, when my oldest was in school, was that acing a memory-based spelling test weekly did not translate into actual use of correct spelling, which is why we didn't do formal spelling for years and years.

I am thinking, though, that when my current primary kids ask me how to spell a word, I can now say, "Remember that you had that word/a word like that in your spelling list. How did you spell that word?" Their recall for memorized poems is pretty excellent, so surely some individual words will come back as well . . .

Anyway, the bottom line is that they *like* the straightforwardness and structure of some workbook work, as well as the fact that I can give them instantaneous, specific, concrete feedback. It's nice to have all this as a core for developing the skills/tools part of their learning . . . In general I try not to be too focused on the quantitative, but frankly, when it comes to being able to use the English language, quantifiable skills (and being able to quantify a child's mastery of them) are helpful and empowering. I think, anyway.