Sunday, August 28, 2011

Read, Write, Discuss

              I have found it!

              For years, I have felt like a black sheep, a fish swimming against the stream, and not even going in the same direction as others swimming against the stream! 

              I have known that the style of public (and most private) schools is not the best way to educate our children.  I have researched various methods of education which show what is developmentally appropriate for a child, and that was a very valuable study.  I found the concrete-pictorial-abstract method of teaching, particularly brilliant for children who are under the age of twelve.  I know that I want to direct my child’s steps, not simply depend on the state or the writers of a curriculum who I have never met to tell me what should be important in her life.  I want my child to be able to think, reason out what is valuable in life, and be able to apply lessons she learns from the Bible and lessons she can learn from the lives of other people.  Yet, knowing this, I have not been able to find a method where these principals are being used.  As a result, I have been “winging it” with my teaching method.  Some techniques work, others don’t and are either discarded or “tweaked” the next time I need to use them.

              Just this week, I finally got around to reading the book, “A Thomas Jefferson Education,” by Oliver Van deMille.  This book has been recommended on our Homeschool Association website since I have been a part of it, and I always planned on reading it, but I have to say it took the “back burner” for over a year.  Almost as soon as I started reading it this week, however, I knew this was an example of the style of teaching that I had been looking for. 
              Unfortunately, I am just barely into the book, so I am far from an expert on this method!  However, I was so excited about what I was reading that I had to start a blog about it.  The general premise is that teachers should be “mentors.”  We should be guiding our children/students, not grading them or their work.  In fact, when they turn in their work, we should either tell them “great job,” or we should tell them to redo it.  Simply do not allow sub-standard assignments to be turned in.  Academics, like instruments or sports, should be practiced over and over until they are perfected.

              I have gotten ahead of myself…sorry.  I am just so excited about what I am reading that I want to share it all!  What “work” does this book recommend?  Read, write, and discuss.  What should they read?  Van DeMille recommends reading the Bible, the classics, and biographies or historical texts.  After reading, they should write and discuss what they have read.

              That’s it? 

              That’s too simple.  What about all of the other subjects that schools teach?  We “finish” reading, writing, and discussing in about thirty minutes or an hour, at the most.  What are they supposed to do with the rest of the day?  What about Math?  Geography?  Science?  Spelling?

              Read, read, read. 

              That’s the basis of this type of instruction.  But, it is more than that.  You need to ensure that what you are reading is quality work and that it is meaningful to your child’s life.  No, I doubt Babygirl will suddenly inherit a great fortune, like Pip in Great Expectations, but she can read it and discuss the choices he is making throughout the book.  We can discuss how he treats his friends, because I know that she will have to deal with those issues.   Write daily about what was learned that day – again, making instruction meaningful.  Discuss what was read and learned.  That is something our children (and many 20 and 30 year olds) are missing today – the art of conversation.  Not just reporting what has happened, but evaluating situations and events so that meaning can be drawn from them. My grandmother is awesome at that – she will ask question after question after I report the simplest event that it is almost infuriating, but then she fully gets the whole picture.  Me?  Well, I’m getting there, but I’m a long way from it.  I will be learning as my daughter learns, I think, because I was never taught this way, either.

              One daily schedule mentioned, particularly for middle and high school students, I think, was that in the morning, the “mentor” should schedule a meeting with the child to do any type of instruction that is needed, answer questions, and help direct the child for the day.  Then, the next 4 – 5 hours should be spent in “independent education,” where the child is reading and investigating what they are reading.  Geography could come from locating on a map the locations where Finius Fogg travels in 80 Days Around the World.  Math could come from figuring the square footage of the men’s court in Solomon’s Temple, as described in the Bible.  The child is directing himself.  The text even mentioned having at least one essay per day!  Then, the last 30 minutes to an hour of the day is spent with the mentor, discussing what was learned. 

              Some basic truths need to be remembered, though (and I am reminding myself, first and foremost, before I try to jump headlong without looking!).  Children from the age of about seven to twelve are still developmentally in the “concrete” stage.  That includes my daughter – right in the middle.   That means she can’t gain as much from simply reading as a middle or high school student can – she is just not developmentally ready for that jump.  So, while reading will certainly be a strong part of our curriculum, and while I will be adding classics to our “read aloud” time, and I will also be discussing things more than I am now, I still very much need to keep concrete education in our daily lives.  Can’t get rid of the manipulatives yet!

              Another basic truth is this: before 4th grade, children are learning to read.  After 4th grade, children are reading to learn.  This was a saying taught to me about 4 years ago at a teacher’s workshop, and it definitely shows the shift in focus of reading instruction.  Babygirl is in 3rd grade this year, and she is still learning to read (with her special needs, we may be here for another year or two before she can do more independent work).  So, we won’t be reading “Lord of the Flies” for many years.  Children without special needs are able to read more in grades 4 – 5, but they are still below the age of twelve, so they are limited on the amount of evaluation they are capable of.  Oh, I think they should be led to get a deeper meaning from texts, but they may have to revisit some of the readings when they are a little older to get greater depth out of them (which is awesome if there are younger brothers or sisters – let the older ones mentor the younger!)

              As far as math, geography, science, and all those other subjects, well… I’m still reading the book, but it says we are to read about those, too.  Learn those in connection with what we are reading about.  I’ll keep you updated on what I find out.  I hope you will read (or re-read) this wonderful book with me and make comments to this and my future blogs to let me know what worked for you and what didn’t!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Time to Learn and Time to Live

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1

              Last week, I took Babygirl to a pool party for girls her age with a homeschool group.  While the girls swam, mothers sat around the pool and talked.  I suppose I assume my way of doing homeschool is normal (as I guess everyone probably does), but I am frequently proved wrong – my way of homeschooling is not the way most people do it.  It also enforces my gratitude that (1) we are able to homeschool, and (2) we are able to homeschool in a manner which is supported by research and supports our family way of life, instead of simply following a school day at home. 

              At this particular pool party, I talked to several moms, and I really had to bite my tongue not to go into a “rant” about how homeschool should not just be school at home.  I am staying home with my daughter because I believe that my husband and I need to be raising our daughter, not daycare workers, and not school teachers.  I gave up a career that I enjoyed because I put my family first.  As a public school teacher, I knew the “system” doesn’t work.  I learned various methods which SHOULD be taught, but in a setting of 20 – 30 children, it is impossible.  This is my idea of homeschool, not necessarily everyone’s idea, I am finding.  Many moms schedule their school day after what they assume a typical public school day is like.

              Homeschool offers freedoms that public schools can never have.  I can set my own schedule, both a daily schedule and a calendar for the year.  If we want to have school in August and take the entire month of December off, we can.  I am able to teach in the way that is best for my daughter to learn.  Even though she has special needs (or maybe because she has special needs), Babygirl has simply SOARED in her abilities and her confidence in the past year that we have been learning.  Because of this, my recognizing the freedoms that homeschoolers have, I am simply shocked at how much work many homeschooled children must complete daily. 

              The comment that got me started on this topic from the pool party was this:  We (the moms) were talking about when we were starting homeschool for the year.  (In the middle of August, some had started, some had not).  One woman said that day was their first day of school, and she was already behind.  She said when they leave the pool party (which was scheduled from 2 – 4 pm), they still had a lot of work to do.  In fact, she said, if they took a half hour off for dinner, they would still probably be up until 10 or 11 pm, just to “get it all in.” 

              WOW!  Even public schools don’t do that!  (Usually… though I know public schools who give so much homework that the kids are awake until that time to finish the 3 – 4 hours of work they get every night).

Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them [sayings of the wise]. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” ~ Ecclesiastes 12:12

              When I felt safe to open my mouth without lecturing this woman, I asked, “Do you try to do everything, every day?”  She agreed, she hit every subject every day.  Breathing carefully, still trying hard to keep my tongue under control (it’s not my place to tell her in any way how to run her homeschool), I told her that I didn’t even do that in public school.  She was surprised, and asked me what I did when I taught.  I told her my favorite schedule was to have reading and math every day, along with some type of writing assignment, though this could be included in another subject.  Then, I divided the other subjects among the days.  I preferred the afternoons when I could spend one entire afternoon with one subject:  science, social studies, writing and grammar.  Then on the other 2 afternoons, we would work in whatever else needed worked in – at school, it was usually some type of testing practice or several smaller subjects.  Other years, I would schedule one or two of these topics in the afternoons. 

              Do not weary your kids with too much work!  Busy work does not mean better learning.  In fact, it can work against you and turn your child off from learning!  One book which I read, called “Essential Homeschooling,” gives a sample schedule of a homeschool day.  The least amount of time per day for schooling that she listed is for pre-K or Kindergarten age children, which is about 10 – 30 minutes (yes, per day!).  The most time she recommends for homeschooling is 3 – 5 hours per day for high school students, though she says normal days should be around the 3 hour period, with only occasional days extending to 5 hours.  What a difference!

              If you and/or your children are stressed with your schedule, STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN!  Stop what you are doing and evaluate it.  Look at what other families are doing that is successful, and also look at what research is saying.  Also look at your own children and see what things work best for them.  Children learn differently, so what works for one child may not work as well for another.  Finally, Listen to what other moms are saying and what your children are saying.  Other moms will talk about what they are doing well, as well as what they are having problems with, if you will only ask.  Most of my ideas of teaching have come from others.  I am not very creative – I “steal” almost every good idea that I use!  As long as I don’t try to sell it, it’s okay.  Also, my daughter will tell me when she is learning something and enjoying the process of learning.  Maybe not in those words, but she will do the work even outside of “school” times, or she will keep talking about something she learned if she really enjoyed learning it.  If one particular method is successful, then I need to find other ways of working that into my usual schedule.  No, I don’t have to do every subject the same way, but if something works, why would I not use it more than once? 

              I am shocked how many homeschool moms have their kids doing meaningless writing assignments simply because they think that is what they are supposed to do.  If your child is not learning from it, don’t waste your time or your child’s time!  Public and private schools have a lot of wasted time.  I would typically spend 45 min – 1 hour every day simply taking restroom breaks!  That does not include the 1 hour or more every day that we spent simply lining up to go to Music Class, Art Class, or lunch.  Then figure in the fact that the teacher has to teach in a way that everyone in the classroom understands the lesson, whereas at home, you only have one or a few children’s needs to address.  Once they understand the lesson, you can go on.  It really does not take an entire day to teach at home. 

              Learning should be a part of life, it should not control our lives.  That’s one thing I love about homeschooling – we learn everywhere we go, not simply between the hours of 8:30 – 3:00 on school day.  I love the freedom we have in homeschool, and I hope you do as well!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sharpen Your Pencil

One of the most common complaints which I heard from teachers was how to handle sharpened pencils.  Thinking about a saying I recently read, I think the manner in which you allow your children to sharpen their pencils has to do with your value on life and faith.  Let me explain.

  Some teachers allow their children/students to sharpen their pencils whenever they wanted.  I fell into this category when I taught, though I did have one rule.  When I was teaching a lesson, you could not sharpen your pencil.  Other teachers thought I was crazy.  "You just let them sharpen them WHENEVER they want??"  "How can you do that?"  "That's too out of control for me."  "What do you do when they all go over to the pencil sharpener at once?"  (Okay, I did have to address this one.  I ended up with the rule of only one person waiting for the sharpener, which also solved problems of kids congregating around it to talk).  "If you do that, then they won't do anything all day except go sharpen their pencil.  We would never get any work done."  So, while I loved this method, many teachers came up with other ideas.

Some teachers sharpened pencils for the students.  I know of many methods of this kind of control of the pencil sharpener.  Several teachers in recent years would have a huge bucket of sharpened pencils, which the students were allowed to use.  They would then drop an unsharpened pencil into another bucket, which the teacher would sharpen at breaks or after school and would return to the "sharpened" bin.  Other teachers kept the pencil sharpener behind their desks, berating students who either hadn't used their pencils down to an unusable nub or those who broke their pencils just to get permission to sharpen them.  One teacher said at the beginning of every week, students would get 2 pencils.  They had the time they walked in from breakfast until the bell rang to sharpen both pencils.  If they didn't get it done, well, tough.  They just wouldn't have a pencil.  (As a sidenote, I noticed that this method did not last more than a few days). Having complete control of the pencil sharpener was the best option for some teachers.

Finally, other teachers left it completely up to the students how they kept their pencils sharpened, as long as it did not interrupt class.  This method is different from the first because these teachers did not provide a pencil sharpener or provide time to sharpen the pencil.  The students had to either bring a lot of pre-sharpened pencils to school or bring their own pencil sharpeners (which became a very valuable commodity on the class "black market" - meaning they were frequently stolen from desks, leaving that student with no means to sharpen a pencil, or possibly no pencil if that was also stolen).  This type of teacher was the kind which I never understood.  They claimed that they were the least restrictive, and yet they provided nothing to help their students, including no pencils for those whose personal method did not work and left them with no choice but to borrow or to steal from others.

What was it I read that got me thinking of these methods?  This quote:

"Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil - it has no point."

 What is your method of allowing your child to sharpen his "pencil" of faith? 

Are you like the teachers who control exactly when and how they learn about and communicate with God?  Allowing your child limited access to God during Sunday School or church meeting times?  Possibly only learning about or praying to God if your child is upset enough about something or needy enough about something?  Is reading the Bible something that is good to do within a very limited time of day or week?  Is prayer something only a priest or minister can do?

Or are you the type of teacher who says that your child has complete freedom to learn about and talk to God whenever he wants just won't provide the means of doing so.  This type of teacher does not plan on reading the Bible with their child, does not plan on praying for their child, does not even attend church more than special holidays or occasions, if they go then, but somehow thinks they are allowing their child the freedom to choose.  In actuality, you are severely limiting your child to the point they either sit and do nothing about their faith, borrow someone else's faith by visiting many religious institutions but never really committing to any, or they steal someone else's faith by sitting back and insulting their beliefs until the other person either cuts the friendship or (even worse) gives up on their own valuable faith in God.

Or, are you like the first pencil sharpener - you allow your children access whenever they want, except possibly if you are in the middle of another lesson (having your child stop a math lesson because they want to hear the story of David and Goliath again could get distracting).  If your children are arguing too much, are you sitting them all down and going to Matthew 18 to see how we should treat our brothers (and sisters)?  Do you say a quick prayer of praise if something good (especially if it's unexpected) comes your way?  Are you providing your child with ways to sharpen their faith whenever they feel that they need to?  I hope so. 

Myself, I'm trying to be like the teacher who allows my child to sharpen her faith when she needs to.  I'm not always true to it, and there are times when she needs to read a particular verse in the Bible because it fits perfectly with a trial she is facing, but I am too much in a rush and I just "sharpen it for her" - meaning I either say the quote quickly and move on without giving her time to think, or I just direct her to something else without allowing her to sharpen her own faith.  I am trying, because my daughter's faith is much more valuable than any pencil or pencil sharpener could ever be.  I want her to get the full point of life, and that only comes with faith in God.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Word Walls that Work

            As a public school teacher, I loved the idea of a Word Wall.  Add a few words to the wall every week, the students use the wall, and ZOOM!!  Their reading scores shoot way up, right?  Well, not for me.  As a school teacher, I never, not in all of my 12 years of teaching, found a way to make a word wall work (and believe me, I tried multiple ways each year, and listened to more teachers than I could count on methods to use).  This year, though, I think I finally have it – a way to make word walls work.

            My first problem with word walls was figuring out what words to use.  For a while, I tried using “challenge” spelling words.  Then I went to vocabulary words from reading, then science, then social studies.  Then I tried having kids locate difficult words.  None of these seemed quite right.  The theory was that the kids would learn to use the words through a variety of activities.  The problem was if I allowed the students to choose words, they frequently chose words that they already knew well and ignored the words they did not know.  Then, the number of words just kept piling up so that there were so many words, it was useless to me and just looked too busy.  Also, it took so much time on my part – having to first locate the words and then write them and cut them out to put on the wall.  My new method should solve all these problems with the words.

            My second problem with Word Walls was that of organization of the words.  Most Word Walls that I have seen use the alphabet to organize the words.  However, all of my students in 4th grade knew alphabetical order.  I would break it down and have them alphabetize all of the words under certain letters, but that wasn’t really a skill which I wanted to spend a lot of time on, and the wall took up too much space to justify that being the only skill which I used it for.  I couldn’t figure out how to organize the Word Wall in a way to be useful.  So, we ended up (every year) starting out strongly and then just stopping.

            My third and final problem with Word Walls was figuring out what activities to do with the words.  I would do alphabetizing activities, have them choose their own words to define, have them look for the words on our wall in other books, and classroom activities where the students were to find the missing word  none of these really helped the students in their reading abilities, and they all took a great deal of time which could have been spent more productively. 

            My new method is to use the Word Wall to actually teach phonics in our reading program. To help “Babygirl” improve her reading, she needs to learn “chunks” of words.  Examples of word “chunks” would be –ing, -am, -at, -unk, and so on – parts of words that you can change the beginning letters and make different words. 

            So, instead of using the alphabet to organize the words on my wall, I found a list of word “chunks” that I wanted to use.  My list had way too many to use at once, so I divided it up into four groups, about 12 – 13 in each group, to be used each quarter. 

            To get “Babygirl” involved, I let her help with preparing the wall. I did take the time to write out each of the word chunks for the first quarter, and I had her help glue them onto squares of red construction paper.  She then carried the words, one by one, from the kitchen table to the room where we do most of her school work.  I taped them to the wall (next time, I will probably make it look like a bulletin board, but I needed to know how large to make it).

            After preparing the word chunks, I then picked one chunk and had her look through a book to find a word that fit that spelling pattern.  She used a book that we are using for our Reading Text for this week, and she found four.  I typed those up on the computer and printed them on card stock.  To help learn the words, I cut them out close to the letters, so she can also learn the shape of these words.  I have to say, I really love how it looks!              

 Finally, my last problem is solved because the activities we use are what we would normally do with our reading lessons.  The Word Wall is actually a regular part of the lesson, so it is not just wasted space.

            So far, I love our new creation, and “Babygirl” is very proud of it, too.  It looks like this may be the year of success with a Word Wall!


Monday, August 1, 2011

Starting a New Year - Routine, Routine, Routine

              With “Babygirl” getting bored (and therefore starting to grate on my nerves), I decided to end summer break and start school on August 1.  I have no doubt that we will take a week off in October, and then maybe an extra week in December, to even it all out.  So, what is the best way to begin a successful school year?

              Establish routine.  Before cracking a Math book or heating a beaker, it’s important to firmly and clearly establish your routines.  This is essential to a successfully organized classroom, and I fully believe it is also necessary for homeschool.  As my daughter gets older, I have different expectations of her each year.  I want her to know what I expect from the routine assignments, and for her to be able to do them independently.  That way, I can get some of my work done while she is doing the routine work, and then spend my time working with her on new skills. 

              Same as in my classroom, I plan on spending my first two weeks teaching my new routines.  Yes, we will do some review work in this time.  We will read some new books.  We will do some Science experiments and look at some maps related to social studies, but all of these things are not my focus.  I want my daughter to learn how to do things which I will be using all year long.

              First, we learned to make a vocabulary booklet, which will be used weekly.  This booklet is simply 2 pieces of construction paper, folded over to make a book, leaving a title page and room for 7 vocabulary words.  Each day we will successively add the word, writing the definition, copying a sentence with the word from a book, and drawing an illustration that shows she understands the meaning of the word.  She doesn’t know it yet, but she will be starting weekly presentations to Daddy and me, showing some items she has learned.  The first few will be these booklets, but I want her to eventually be able to create this booklet with little or no help from me, and it will be routine enough that we will not always use it for presentations.

              Another new routine which we started today is daily exercise time.  This is in addition to our PE time.  Even though we are having record-breaking heat, we will be taking the dog out for a walk in the mornings.  We won’t go far in this heat, but hopefully the routine will be set by the time the temps drop and maybe we will go farther.  We made it around 2 blocks before the 93 degree heat drove us inside (this was about 8:45 am).  That’s okay… we’re establishing a routine which I want to continue throughout the year.  If we can’t walk because of weather, we will do something inside to move around. 

              We are also introducing some new reading routines.  Before lunch, we had DEAR Time (“Drop Everything And Read”), and after lunch, we had our daily Bible reading time.  After that, I read to her.  School was over after that, but I wanted her to get used to starting school again after lunch and a short recess break.  That is also different from last year, when school was over at lunchtime.

              Last year, we did not do projects (Babygirl was just not up to doing anything independently), but this year I plan on it.  I will be introducing her first project later this week.  It’s a version of what I call a “Me Book.”  What better way to get her to work independently than to get her to talk about herself?  Besides, as a Mom, I love finding out what she enjoys and hates.  It was nice with students – a great way to get to know a new class every year – but it’s more meaningful with my daughter.   She will also be presenting that to Daddy and me on Friday night. 

              We also did some reading and talked some about “time”, which is a big focus in Math this year.  We set up her Word Wall and she helped me glue the words to squares of construction paper and then tape them on the wall.  She is very excited about the word “chunks” that are taped up there, and she knows she can sound them out.  It was hard as we were reading NOT to pick a word to put up on the wall, but I that’s for tomorrow.  I don’t want to let my enthusiasm overwhelm her.  I found out last year that it is easy to get her to just mentally shut down, and I don’t want to do that.  Slow and steady will win this race that I call school.  Have a great year!