Thursday, June 30, 2011

Planning for Next Year: Step 2

              While I have been a teacher for twelve years, last year was my first year to homeschool.  Some things I know how to do well, thanks to lots of experience, but some things were a struggle.  I made my lesson plans, but I also did not want my schooling of my daughter to simply be based on reading and fill-in-the-blank worksheets.  I also knew how to make a class discipline plan, but that did not work at home with only one child. 

“Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance.”  ~ Proverbs 20:18

              I love this verse!  As you are making your plans for next year, ask advice from those around you.  I have been greatly blessed to have a neighbor who started homeschooling a few months before we did, so we have helped each other.  She helped me figure out how to be a Mom and a teacher, not just a teacher.   She also suggested management & discipline ideas which were of great help throughout the year.  In exchange, I shared some of my experience with methods of teaching which helped her.

              How can I use this scripture referring to waging war and compare it to homeschool?  If you have to ask, you must not be a parent!  J  We as parents, and especially when we double as parents and teachers, need a good “battle plan” if we want to succeed, and we have to get advice from others.  Yes, we might be able to accidentally teach something well, but not usually.  Learn from others.  "Newbies" have some wonderful ideas which might actually work.  Experienced teachers will be a wealth of "tried and true" teaching methods which will be very helpful.  Don't just assume that you know it all - you'll make plenty of mistakes on your own!  Let someone else help you around some of the larger problems.
              After you have your Yearly Plan (see "Planning, Step 1"), then divide it into what you are going to teach per month.  Take the month of September, for example, and make a list of each subject and write what you are going to teach that month.  Don't try to reinvent the "wheel."  Use the Yearly plan that you already made.  Go to another page for October, then November, and so on.  That way, you can see exactly what topics you are teaching each month and you can adjust it if you feel that a certain topic will fit better in a different month.  You are still not listing daily work – just making your plans.  The wait another week or so before you start making projects.  Write down ideas as they come, but don’t start anything “official” until you’ve had a week to consider your plans.  If you have more than one child you are teaching, compare the monthly schedules so that you are teaching the same units in the same month.  This will make your job so much simpler!

              Writing monthly schedules helps you look at the entire program so that you can simplify your work, possibly by making a unit that combines subjects.  With a good plan, you will be much better prepared for next year!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Planning for Next Year - Part 1

              Two days ago, I took my habitual Sunday afternoon nap, which was wonderful, but it kept me awake much later than usual.  As I lay in bed, my mind turned to the next homeschool  year, and I couldn’t help but grab my laptop and start making plans.  I typed until 2:30 in the morning, when I filled in the last of my boxes, and I can’t wait until August to begin our next school year!  Is it really necessary to plan for the next year?

“But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.”  ~ Isaiah 32:8

              According to the Bible, yes, you do need to make plans if you want to succeed.  In my previous blog, “Unschooling with a Plan,” I have explained how to make a plan, yet keep your flexibility.  If you have not read that article, I highly recommend that you do so.   If you have never made plans for your school year – if you’ve simply followed the order of a set of textbooks or unschooled on the whim of either your child or yourself – I highly suggest that you change that.  You will be surprised how much more your child learns if you have a plan at the beginning of the year.

              What could I possibly do between 12:30 – 2:30 in the morning?  Plenty!  I looked up my state’s PASS skills (the requirements for all public school teachers to teach in every subject, every grade) on-line. 

              Once I located the skills for Oklahoma, I looked up Math.  Since my daughter is not on grade level in Math, I looked up the age which I felt would be appropriate for her and used that grade’s skills as a topical map.  When I got to a skill which I felt was not developmentally appropriate (see the article, “Not Just a Little Adult” for more information on defining what is age appropriate), I just skipped it.  If I did not want to waste my time on something which I felt she could easily learn another year, and learn it much better, I skipped it.  What if I did it wrong and I skipped something I shouldn’t have skipped?  I’ll do what many school teachers do – I’ll tell the teacher for next year what I skipped so that they can spend more time on it if it’s needed.  Oh, wait… I will be her teacher next year.  J  That makes it much easier. Leaving out so much that I felt should not be taught yet left me with 3 months without something to teach in Math, so I simply went to the next grade level and added the next step for our main math skills.

              At this point, I am not interested in planning day-by-day, just planning for the months one to two topics per month.  In another week or so I will start planning units – probably 1 – 2 units per subject per month.  My daughter is very interested in the same things children her age are interested in, even though she is behind in reading, math, and writing, so I use the skills required by the state as guidelines for most of the subjects I teach.  Believe it or not, there are skills for technology, PE, art, music, and health, besides the usual subjects.   

I’ve been wanting to teach Spanish (which I know a little of) and sign language (which I am fluent in), but last year just did not provide the right opportunities to start.  This year, I am making a plan for them.  There isn’t a good plan for foreign language in my daughter’s grade, since our state only requires that students 3rd grade and below be exposed to the foreign language rather than get full instruction.  I was able to find a list of topics which should be studied (things like friends, family, food, greetings), so I just assigned 2 topics per month for us to explore in both Spanish and sign language.  I had to make up objectives for other subjects, like Bible and organized writing, and I waited until I finished writing the others before I wrote those.  Since our homeschool will cover 10 months (even though August and December are only 2 weeks each), I decided to have the theme of the 10 commandments for Bible, studying one commandment per month.  For writing, I picked up a writing instruction book which lists topics.  I decided to take the first 4 months to learn how to effectively write sentences, then the rest of the year was assigned 2 topics for writing instruction per month.  I’m not against using prepared materials – I just don’t want to use them exclusively.

              Most subjects will have some form of daily practice, and I did not include this in our monthly planning.  Those plans will be done in either the theme plans or in the weekly schedule.

              Summer is the best time to start planning for next year.  I know I will need to write the plans and then “tweek” them as I think about what we want to accomplish a little more.  I still have a little more than a month before we start any school, but I am already starting to get excited about it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's my Objective?

         According to, an objective is “something that one's efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish; purpose; goal; target.”  Some curriculum include objectives prominently at the beginning of every lesson, some don’t make them very easy to find.  Are objectives really necessary if I’m teaching my own child?
         The motivational speaker Zig Zigler says, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”  If you do not have a purpose for a lesson, then it can very easily be called a waste of time.  You need to have a plan in your homeschool.  Otherwise, even a great lesson has no connection to anything and the lesson can be lost.  Every lesson, every day should have a stated objective.  This does not mean the objective has to be different every day, it simply means it must be stated.  You may be working on “Identifying items in each food group” for an entire month (or more), but that objective needs to be said or else your child will just do it and may not recognize what s/he has learned.  Reading a book is nice, but if you know that you are reading the book to identify five events that cause a volcano to erupt give the lesson much more substance.  Both you (as the teacher) and your child know that s/he learned what s/he should have learned.  Every lesson you teach should have a specific objective, otherwise, it will just be a “wasted” lesson.
         Objectives should be measurable, concrete.  Saying “Vocabulary” is very vague.  No matter how awesome of a teacher you are, your child is not going to learn every possible vocabulary word in one lesson, or even a few lessons.  “To read ten Dolch words without sounding them out” is much more specific.  Notice that the verb tells us what the child will do – “read.”  What is it they are supposed to read?  “Dolch words.”  (These are a list of the most frequently-used words in the English language – learning them by sight greatly helps a child’s ability to read fluently.  You can find them by simply typing “Dolch Words” into any search engine).  Does your child have to learn all of the words?  No.  Only ten.  I think ten per week is a good number.  Yes, many children are capable of learning more in this time, but that does not allow them to use the words they are learning and “explore” with them so that the can really know them, not just learn them for a quick test.  This objective also qualifies the quality of the work – “without sounding them out.”  Sometimes, you just want your child to do something, so you don’t always have to have this phrase, but as your child learns a skill better, you should start adding some more qualifications (don’t go overboard, though – just add what is new that day/week or what you will specifically be looking for in the work your child does).
Try not to have too many objectives in one lesson, also.  I had a lesson last year with my daughter when she was expected to create her own word problem for an addition problem.  We took out some stuffed dogs and stuffed cats.  She added them to create a math problem.  Then she drew pictures of them. Finally, it was time for her to make a word problem for them.  Since my daughter struggles with writing abilities, I wrote what she told me to write.  Yes, I could have included writing the problem itself, as a type of “bonus” objective for the lesson, but writing the words on the paper is still a developing skill and it would have quickly become the focus of the lesson and she would not have wanted to reason out the word problem – she would have simply tried to use as few words as possible and would have worried about spelling and letter formation.  Those are great activities, but when a skill is developing, it deserves its own lesson time.  Focus your lessons, including one new skill and possibly 2 – 3 skills which your child can do very well.   If your child does not struggle at all with writing, then there is no reason for you to write for him/her.
           Finally, as I’ve already hinted, objectives should be shared with both the teacher and student.  Having it written is very important, as well as making sure your child understands what s/he is expected to learn in each lesson.  This way your child is focused, you are focused, on what is most important.

         Well-written objectives, used properly, will greatly enhance the quality of your child’s lessons.  If you and your child know what you are specifically wanting to learn with a lesson, both of you can know that your child is successful in your homeschool!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Should we Break for Summer?

              As a public school teacher, I heard teachers and parents both dread the summer months.  Businesses in the United States are open all summer, some exclusively for summer months.  “These students/my child will lose everything they learned!”  I heard that lament multiple times, and there frequently was some truth to it.  So, my question is, should we break for summer?
              First, let’s look at the problem.  If students stop working for the summer, the fear is that the lack of daily review will cause the child to backslide in their abilities.  Textbook writers recognize this.  A very popular math program – Saxon math – has designed the first eleven weeks – yes, almost 3 months – to review skills from the previous year.   Students who had been behind in reading skills the previous year, after a long summer break, return to school and are unable to do the work which they could complete only a few months before.  In fact, some students seem to be right back where they began!  Some teachers and parents try to counteract this problem by sending home additional work.  However, as a teacher, I know that I would spend an average of three hours standing at a copier every May, making copies of papers which I felt would be useful for my students to review.  I would also empty out my file cabinet of papers which we completed throughout the year, which I had copied too many duplicates of, and I would offer them to students who wanted them.  After all this work and effort on my part, however, most students would not complete the packets which I so meticulously prepared.  Many of those who claimed to complete them were very quick to announce that no one at home ever helped them or corrected their paper, so they ended up just writing answers, and it really didn’t matter if they were right or wrong – not exactly the purpose for which they were copied.  Some schools are going to “Year-round school.”  This does not mean that the children go more days – simply that the breaks are spread out through the year instead of having such a long summer.  However, this greatly affects summer-working students and teachers.  While it’s nice to have a 3 week break in December and January, it’s hard to get a job to cover only that amount of time. I have not even addressed businesses that depend on summer – namely amusement parks and swimming pools – whose loss of income during that earlier break affects the local economy.  That puts us back to the original question:  Should we break for summer?
              Some people say that yes, the break over summer is necessary.  After working for 9 – 10 months, children need time to simply relax.  Older children should be able to hold a summer job.  Families should be able to take vacations, without having to remove their child from the classroom.  While there is some loss of skills, most children are generally back up to “speed” fairly quickly and ready to go on with the new learning, this time much more refreshed by the time off. 
              Others say that no, summer breaks were only for agricultural societies, so the children could help out on the family farm, and that is not a part of today’s America.  They say that breaks should be shorter in duration and less frequent so that the children have a better chance to remember what they have learned the previous school year.  Businesses that depend on vacationing children just need to adjust and hire students when they are out and have activities for them when it fits into the published school schedule.  In fact, many who subscribe to this point of view say that schools need to add days.   Businesses don’t get that many days off, so the children should not, either.
              Let me explain my opinion on this subject.  I think that both sides have a point.  Children are children, and they do need a break that adults don’t necessarily need, so they do need a period of time to just relax.  On the other hand, there can be a great deal of loss when children return from a long summer break.   One of the biggest problems with our school system is that elementary ages do not teach age appropriate skills, which means that the skills which are taught the previous year are easy to forget because they weren’t really learned in the first place.  Not learning these basic skills in the elementary ages affects the children in Middle and High school.  In our homeschool, I am finding that learning is becoming a way of life, and we can’t just “turn it off.”  One skill Babygirl learned this year was to count backwards from larger numbers.  Since this is appropriate for her, she finds ways to review these skills herself.  She will watch the microwave and ask for help on higher numbers that she is not strong on, but she does it without being asked because it is what she is ready to learn.  She recently got very upset with a neighbor’s two year old who colored in her dot-to-dot book (we connect the dots backwards to develop this skill).  A child who is simply assigned to do something s/he is not ready for will not care if someone destroys their copied worksheet – they may, in fact, later thank the child.  I plan on teaching more in projects next year, with my daughter doing as much of the research work as she is able.  Those projects will be on hold this summer, though we will still continue taking field trips and trips to the library on a regular basis.
              In my opinion, long breaks are necessary.  As Jean Piaget says, “Children are not just little adults.”  They do need more breaks than adults do not need.  If the work is age appropriate (particularly in elementary ages), then the children will not have as much loss for the beginning of the next year, because they will have truly learned them the previous year.  After a brief review, the teacher should be able to continue with the new skills.  Whether or not summer breaks are kept, children should still be allowed to be children and they should be allowed to explore the world around them.