Monthly Archives: August 2011

Peculiar Book

My last YA read was the unique book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  It uses actual old photographs, collected by various people, as illustrations.  Many of these images show slightly fantastic things.  In the book, the photos belong to Jacob’s grandfather, who tells him wild stories about having grown up as a war refugee in an orphanage of children with magical powers.  As Jacob grew up, he stopped believing in his grandfather’s stories.  When the book opens, Jacob’s grandfather is aging and possibly senile.  He calls Jacob to help him because something, he says, has found him.  I’m hesitant to give much more away because the book takes awhile to reveal its mysteries.  It wasn’t until about halfway through, after Jacob and his father take a trip to try and understand what’s going on with his grandfather’s past, that things became clear (though most readers will begin to guess what’s going on, at least partly, before that).  At the start, it feels like a horror novel as Jacob seems to encounter a monster straight out of a B movie.  But as the novel progresses and reveals more, the tone becomes much more straightforward contemporary fantasy and much less eerie.

I had read a lot of raving reviews about the book so I suspected I would enjoy it.  I’m not sure if it completely lived up to the hype, but I did like it a lot.  It was well-written with a few very nice descriptions and some interesting characters.  The story was well structured, especially at the beginning, when Jacob’s mood and the mystery of what’s happening hang over all the action.  The use of old photographs was clever and Jacob was a realistic character thrown into a very bizarre world, which is the sort of story I tend to like.  There’s a very tame romance in the book, but some curse words and the general horror of the monster element makes the book firmly YA.  The book is odd, but I think readers who like an offbeat fantasy would almost certainly enjoy it.

Trying Something New

In order to help Mushroom with his anxiety about schoolwork, we’re implementing a new system.  We’ve only been at it for a couple of weeks, but I’m hoping it will stick, partly to help Mushroom calm down a little and understand what he needs to get done and partly to keep me on the ball with things I often forget to keep up, like narrations and spelling tests.

I spent more time than I had originally intended in setting all this up (laminating was involved), but I’m hoping it will pay off in helping me keep it going.

First, I covered the blackboard side of our easel with cork tiles, something that was cheap and extremely easy.  We use the whiteboard side all the time, but we haven’t touched the blackboard side in ages.  I labeled one side for Mushroom and the other for BalletBoy.  Then I made a list of all our daily tasks and extrapolated it by the entire week so I could make little slips with each task on them.  Some things, like “history narration” only needed a single copy per child.  Others, such as “One page of Explode the Code” needed a dozen since it’s entirely possible that I would ask them to do two or three pages a day for the whole week.

At the start of the week, I’ll put all the little slips up on the board.  As the kids finish things, they can remove them and stick them back in their little pouches.  It’s my hope that it will help them learn to manage their time a little bit.  I’m going to guide them toward not putting off the things they least want to do until the last day of the week, but I want to leave some of it up to them.  Here’s the start of our second week below.

For the first week of “second grade,” I did put a few math pages up as well as free reading, but everything else was games, puzzles and computer games.  Mushroom was so excited to finish and so thrilled that there was a system that he did his work in the afternoons so he could be finished before his brother.  You can see the last day of our first week of school below.

I’m not sure what the consequences for not getting your work done are, which breaks one of my own parenting rules, but I’d still like to give it a little time and figure it out.  After all, if we get to Sunday and things aren’t finished, I’m not fond of “missing church” as a consequence (though they love Sunday school and choir so much it would be a punishment).  So we’ll see.

In Between Books

There are more and more little niches the publishing industry has come along to fill in recent years.  One place there are more books coming out is that narrow gap between early readers like Frog and Toad and chapter books like The Magic Treehouse.  Some kids jump from one to the next pretty effortlessly, but other kids need an in between step to build up their reading stamina.

Here are some suggestions, both new and old, for super short early chapter books, those books that sit in between the readers and the longer series books.  For kids who think Henry and Mudge is too babyish but the A to Z Mysteries looks dauntingly long.  I don’t know that Mushroom thinks Henry and Mudge is too babyish, but he is definitely entering this in between stage.

Ricky Ricotta’s Giant Robot series by Dav Pilkey

I’ve mentioned this series before because it’s the one that vaunted BalletBoy into independent reading and it’s currently doing the same thing for Mushroom, a year later.  It’s not high literature, but parents cringing about Pilkey’s better know Captain Underpants series can breathe easy.  This one is boyish and silly, but basically just a fun adventure story (which is to say, there isn’t a fart joke on every page).  Ricky is a young mouse whose best friend is a giant robot from outer space.  Together they fight bad guys from outer space.  The amount of text per page is incredibly short and the illustrations are bold and appealing.  The “flip-o-rama” is also just kind of fun.

The Twin Giants, The Nine Lives of Aristotle, or others by Dick King-Smith

Dick King-Smith wrote more than a hundred books for children.  Most of them, like his famous book Babe fall into the chapter book or early middle grades category.  However, he had a few that were shorter, such as The Nine Lives of Aristotle about a cat who keeps suffering accidents.  Almost all his books center on animals.  One nice aspect of reading King-Smith’s works is that he was simply a better writer than most authors writing for younger readers.

Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo

Mercy is a butter loving pet pig who occasionally solves crimes and always gets in trouble.  The illustrations in these books are delightful and in color, which is a nice bonus.  There’s not much I can say about this series except that’s it’s excellent.  They also make a nice read aloud for younger kids who want slightly longer books.  However, they’re best as a “first chapter book.”

The Lighthouse Family series by Cynthia Rylant

This series is about a cat and dog in a lighthouse.  With a cast of other animals, these are great for animal lovers.  Cynthia Rylant brings her wonderful writing to readers ready for chapters.  She is one of the writers who always respects her readers with quality writing and stories.  This series is no exception.  The gray toned artwork matches the sweet feel of the stories perfectly.

Lulu the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst

This is a recent book about a girl who wants a pet dinosaur.  No one will give her one so she runs away.  Unfortunately, she ends up the pet.  The format of the book is tall and thin and the illustrations, by the wonderful Lane Smith, are printed in green and black.  It was funny and unique.  Somehow I couldn’t convince either of my kids to read it, but I’m seriously going to give it another try.  I don’t know what’s wrong with them sometimes.  Picky readers!

Nate the Great series by Marjorie Sharmat

This is the classic first chapter book for boys.  The text and sentences are practically easy reader level, but the format makes kids feel just a little grown up.  Nate is a detective who, along with his dog Sludge, solves cases for his friends and eats pancakes when he needs to think.  This is one of those book series, like Henry and Mudge or Frog and Toad, where the author manages to make the characters come to life with just a few words.  Nate’s irritability and love for his friends jumps off the page.

Oliver Moon and the dragon disasterOliver Moon series by Sue Mongredian

This series from the UK is about a young boy who happens to be a wizard.  These are recent books, clearly meant for Harry Potter fans who are far from ready to actually read Harry Potter.  They’re light and mildly funny.  Oliver is well meaning but typically gets into trouble or makes a mess that has to be cleaned up.  References to broomsticks, ghosts, cauldrons and other witchy things abound.  The pictures are bright and colorful.

Boo’s Dinosaur and others by Betsy Byars

Byars is better known for her middle grades and YA fiction, but she has several for younger readers, including a few very early chapter books.  We checked this one out and it was just the right length for an in between book.  It’s the story of a girl and her pet dinosaur.  A totally different, sweeter take on what is obviously a well-trod premise in children’s books than Lulu, which I mentioned above.

First Week Moments

I saved up all the various things I bought for the kids so they could all come out at the same time in one box-curricula-esque extravaganza.  Of course, the first thing BalletBoy and Mushroom did was accidentally dump out their entire rock set, so we spent the first morning reorganizing it.

Most of our week was spent out and about with our co-op.  We did a trip with them every single day.  Here we are on the first day, in our traditional first day in the tree pose.  We have new members, which is exciting but also an adjustment for everyone.

Playing around on the boardwalk during our hike.

Appreciating the lotuses at the aquatic gardens.

The best part of the county fair was riding the school bus to get there!

Or possibly swimming in soybeans.

Here’s Great Falls, scampering over the rocks along the towpath.

And now…  whew, I’m tired.  But it was so good to be out and about all week, mostly outside, where the weather was hot, but not oppressive, and the rain held off for us.

My Children Call Me Farrar

Have I mentioned that at some point in the last few months, my kids each decided to start calling me Farrar?*  Not all the time, but most of the time and especially in public, around other people.  I think they appreciate the clarity involved.  Every time I sort of forget about it, and how strange it is, people raise eyebrows again and remind me of it.  I talked to each of them about it, but they seem to like it and I don’t actually mind, nor can I think of a compelling reason why they can’t call me by my name.  I would be sad if they never said “Mama,” but as they still do sometimes, I think I’m good.  As a few people have pointed out, it’s very hippie ’70′s sort of parenting.  These days, even the hippies are all “moms,” so perhaps, if it’s not just a phase, then it really is something from another era.  But it also may just be a phase.  Perhaps, at nearing seven years old, they feel too old for “Mama” and I’ll morph into a “Mom.”  Or perhaps I’ll become “Farrar” for them forever and they’ll be off at college explaining to their friends that they just call their mother by her name.

*And, as this brings it up, I thought I’d mention that the last “r” in my name is usually silent.  It’s not technically supposed to be the same name as Farrah Fawcett (and thank goodness too) but it’s close enough.

US History Options

I’ve had my issues with Story of the World, but the fact that there’s nothing quite like it for American history is a problem that seems to plague a lot of homeschoolers, who, like me, want to devote a full year or even two to the history of the United States.  It’s much easier to find other resources like picture books, biographies, posters, games, flashcards and things like that for US History than it is for almost any topic in world history.  Still, one needs some basic resources to start with.  As I just went through trying to choose what we would use, I thought I’d provide what I found for others.  We didn’t elect to use all of these by any means, but they’re all things I read at least samples of in my planning for the year and most of them more closely than that.

A History of US by Joy Hakim

Covers: From prehistory to the very recent past

Length: 11 volumes, each one about 150 pages, mostly text

Illustrations: Small illustrations on most pages of documentary evidence such as artifacts, cartoons, paintings and photos from the time period that enhances the text

Age Range: The intended audience is probably about grades 3-8, but this could be useful through high school and even for adults unfamiliar with American history.

Activities: The books include some review questions.  There is a separate accompanying volume with tests and further activities.

Biases: Some people feel Hakim has a liberal bias, but the books are mostly neutral.  They incorporate political, social and cultural history together.

Other thoughts: This series was a little too advanced for my boys and too detailed to do in one year besides.  People are divided about Hakim’s narrative voice, which is strong throughout.  She has a very conversational tone and asks questions as a part of the narrative.  I like it, but I know others do not.  I have seen a critique from the Textbook League posted a few times.  I can’t speak to errors throughout the volumes, but I will say that I found it extremely disingenuous that their review implied it was about the series as a whole when in reality it only critiques a short introduction for a single volume, an introduction that attempts to summarize and purposefully overgeneralize the entirety of Western history to that point, which is very different from the detail in the texts as a whole.

The American StoryThe American Story by Jennifer Armstrong

Covers: European exploration to the present

Length: one volume of approximately 350 pages

Illustrations: Ink and watercolor illustrations line the edges of most pages

Age Range: Appropriate for grades K to 6

Activities: none

Biases: The book is clearly about individual people’s stories, but an effort to balance between “great men” like Benjamin Franklin and the inclusion of minorities, women and lesser known figures is good.  There are some false stories repeated, such as about Paul Revere’s ride, so the book leans toward mythologizing moments in history, but from what I could tell most of the book is accurate.

Other thoughts:  This book wouldn’t make a good standalone curriculum, but it covers a wide range of topics and perspectives, so despite any tendency toward glossing over difficult history, I think it makes a good supplement.  Some of the figures and topics covered, such as Thaddeus Lowe or the rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer are things you won’t find in most books.

Betsy Maestro’s American Story series

Covers: Prehistory to 1815, with new volumes being added every few years

Length: 7 volumes, each of which is a lengthy picture book that can be read in one to two sittings

Illustrations: Rich and detailed painted color illustrations are on every page

Age Range: Appropriate for preK, but detailed enough that children in upper elementary and even middle school would get something out of it

Activities: None

Biases: The books focus on political history and change more than social history.  There is not a liberal or conservative bias.

Other thoughts: These are meaty enough to be the basis for an early elementary curriculum.  We won’t be able to benefit, but I hope the authors will continue adding more volumes.

The Complete Book of US History

Covers: Prehistory to the present

Length: One volume of approximately 350 pages

Illustrations: Slightly rough ink and watercolor illustrations on most pages

Age Range: The cover says grades 3-5, but I think it could be used for slightly older or younger children without much problem

Activities: Each chapter includes some activities at the end, often independent research topics.

Biases: The book is pretty middle of the road and includes social and political history.

Other thoughts: Well, that cover sure is a turn off, but this is a pretty basic introduction.  There’s not a very strong narrative voice and there’s not much to the activities, but it covers everything pretty fairly with decent maps and illustrations.  It’s one of the better options out there.

The Drama of American History

Covers: Prehistory to the recent past

Length: 23 volumes of approximately 100 pages each

Illustrations: Documentary images are included throughout

Age Range: Appropriate for grade 4 and up.  Like Hakim’s A History of US, this could be useful all the way up to adult readers unfamiliar with the topics.

Activities: none

Biases: These books present political and social history with all its ins and outs.  From what little I was able to evaluate them, their primary bias seems to be to present topics from different viewpoints and cover them in depth.

Other thoughts: These are out of print and some volumes are criminally expensive considering it’s just a basic children’s history reference series.  They’re a little too much for my kids now so while I’m interested in them, I didn’t go to too much trouble finding them at this stage.  I wasn’t able to look at the majority of the series, so it’s difficult for me to assess it overall.  There are lots of fans of these out there though and, while there’s a lot of volumes, many of which overlap different time periods, I appreciate that topics like immigration, urbanism, and Jim Crow get their own book as opposed to fitting into other volumes without ever getting the attention they deserve.  This is a resource we’ll consider strongly when the kids are older, assuming they haven’t gone into the thousands of dollars by that point, which at this rate seems possible.

American History Stories by Mara Pratt

Covers: Viking exploration through Reconstruction

Length: 4 volumes of approximately 200 pages each

Illustrations: A few black and white illustrations are included

Age Range: Appropriate for K-6 and of possible use through grade 8

Activities: None

Biases: This is an older book, so racial biases are relatively evident throughout.  The series focuses on the “great men” of American history.  A Christian audience is assumed.  The overall attitude on the books is conservative.

Other thoughts:  This series was written about a century ago.  The storytelling style is probably as close to Story of the World as anything you can find.  I haven’t read the whole thing, but I had a serious cringe moment reading the very first page of the first volume, which is a summary of the entirety of First Peoples’ history.  It lumps all Native Americans together in the worst way and talks about them in a way I know I couldn’t read to my children in good conscience.  I read on to find that I liked the style of the books and they’re certainly not filled with hateful or racist ideas, but they focus almost exclusively on the individuals and the “great men” of history.  The opening sections about the Civil War, for example manage to somehow talk about Lincoln’s childhood in detail, but mention slavery only in the briefest way.  In fact, the way that slavery is ignored as a primary cause of the Civil War speaks volumes about the bias in this series.  Still, I think the right person might have the patience to tweak these and use parts of this along with more modern resources.  That person just isn’t me.

USKids History series from Brown Paper School Books

Covers: Prehistory through the Civil War

Length: 5 volumes which are each about 100 pages

Illustrations: Black and white pencil drawings are on most pages

Age Range: These could probably be useful in various ways to students K-8

Activities: Lots of hands on activities, such as handicrafts, cooking projects and other historical recreation activities are included.

Biases: The books are clearly focused on social history and what life was like for kids of the eras each volume covers.  The overall attitude of the books is basically liberal, with a focus on different classes and minorities.

Other thoughts: These books probably aren’t quite enough for a standalone.  Each one is about half project and handicraft ideas and half history, often told from the point of view of real or imagined children of the time period.  They’re very different from most of the other books out there for this age so they’d work well with a more traditional resource.  They were a happy discovery for me so I’m sure we’ll make use of them.

A Young Peoples’ History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Covers: European exploration to the present

Length: One volume of nearly 500 pages

Illustrations: A few black and white drawings and photographs from the time periods are included

Age Range: The intended audience is grades 7-12, but parts could easily be adapted for use for upper elementary school

Activities: None

Biases: Zinn’s liberal bias is well known.  He comes at history from a socialist perspective and his agenda is to expose the history of the working class, minorities and women.

Other thoughts: I really love this book and I appreciate the trend it’s a part of – bringing popular adult nonfiction books out in “young readers” editions.  It’s a little too mature for my kids this time, but we’ll absolutely be using it on our next go around.  Zinn covers very important history in this book and gives a strong perspective that I think everyone should be challenged with.  However, it would not make a good standalone resource.  You’ve got to have something to balance Zinn’s take on events.

Elemental History’s Adventures in America

Covers: European exploration to Western expansion, skipping many topics in between

Length: One volume of about 150 pages for the parent/teacher that includes passages to read to the student as well as “living book” suggestions and activities

Illustrations: none

Age Range: Appropriate for grades preK to 3

Activities: In addition to review questions and various craft activites, there’s an accompanying student book with copywork exercises and other worksheets.

Biases: I haven’t read enough to say for sure, but the primary bias seems to be an attempt to give children a gentle introduction avoiding anything too controversial or unpleasant.  The primary audience is kindergartners about to embark on a four year classical history cycle, so this is just meant as an introduction.

Other thoughts: This curriculum glosses over so many topics that I knew it wasn’t for us without reading much so I can’t give it a full assessment.  The civil war is skipped entirely.  However, from what I saw the quality looked good and the parent company, Elemental Science, is certainly gaining a solid reputation.  This is probably exactly what a lot of people are looking for, just not us.

Tell it!

I don’t usually do this, but I agree with Rivka so much that I am actually linking a thread to the Well-Trained Mind Forums.  It asks the questions, “Is ‘quality literature’ necessarily old? Is old literature necessarily ‘quality’?

I love children’s books.  We read a lot of older books here.  We’re currently still working our way through Moomins and Edward Eager, both of which the kids adore.  However, I think you all know that I love new books as well.  New books are constantly coming out that are just as good as older books.  I cannot say how many times I have popped into a thread on that forum to recommend a book and found I was the only one making suggestions for books written in my own lifetime.

Two books we read not too long ago, highlight for me how children’s literature has changed.  In Half-Magic by Edward Eager, written more than 50 years ago, the children reference children’s books of before their era with disdain.  They’d all rather not read the dreadful Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  I can’t say I much blame them.  But in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, written just a few years ago, Jane references Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager with joy.  As children’s books have matured over the last century, there have been more and more of them.  Within that, more and more books worthy of the title of “classic” have emerged and are still coming out so that Jane can think of an older book as good, yet also be a character in a wonderful contemporary book herself.

Too many thoughts to finish on this topic.  Maybe I’ll think of more later when I don’t need to go make dinner and the kids aren’t literally wrestling on the bed.

Across the Atlantic

I know I already posted about our American history expedition checklist, but first, historically speaking, we needed to sail from the old world to the new.

There are obviously a lot of resources dealing with Christopher Columbus, but most of them still repeat myths about either the time period (everyone thought the world was flat!) or his treatment of the Native Americans he encountered (you can’t gloss over it, folks, he advocated cruel treatment and enslavement, end of story).  I didn’t exactly scour the shelves for the perfect book, but we found some value in the Jean Fritz biography Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus?, which emphasized his determination, a quality I won’t argue with.  We also enjoyed the pictures in the D’Aulaires’ biography, though I admit I made up the story mostly myself.  They were just too nice to the man.

By far, the book we’ve enjoyed the most as a bridge has been the book 1492: The Year of the New World by Piero Ventura.  This book is out of print, but can be readily found inexpensively through used book sources.  Ventura doesn’t give my perfect account of Columbus either (he dodges most of the genocide issues by focusing just on the voyages and politics and not on the encounters with the indigenous peoples), but the book is much more than a story of Columbus.  The first half of the book takes the reader on a journey through the old world, stopping off in Lubeck, Bruges, Genoa, Spain, the European front of the Ottoman Empire and more.  Each stop gives the reader an imagined character to anchor the description: a young man about to get married, an elderly soldier, a young lady in waiting.  Then, Ventura tells about Columbus’s voyage and begins his geographical journey all over again, exploring more characters among the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Plains Indians, and more.  It’s a wonderful snapshot of two worlds on the brink of collision.  The end of the book contains a short survey of life in east Asia at the time as well as some information about the early conquistadors who followed Columbus.  That mostly feels tacked on, but the book is an excellent resource, one apparently unknown enough that I couldn’t even find a decent cover image to poach, so I had to take my own.

The other thing the kids are enjoying (at this very moment in fact) is a relic from my childhood, the TV show The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which is available on Netflix instant.  If you were a loyal viewer of Nickelodeon back in the day, you may remember this French/Japanese cartoon, which told the story of Esteban, Zia and Tau, three children of different backgrounds united to find the cities of gold along with the conquistador Mendoza.  The show is obviously fictional with a number of magical elements, but the landscape of Spain, the ocean voyages, Peru and the Incan people are all reasonably realistic and informative for children.  Plus, each episode is followed by a short 2 minute live action documentary dealing with subjects related to the episode, such as ocean travel and Machu Picchu.  I must say that for a show produced in the early 1980′s, it holds up well.  The dubbed dialogue is a little stiff and the animation is clearly older, but the stories are compelling enough that the kids have been riveted.  I feel like I can admit that I watched every episode religiously at my grandmother’s one summer without any shame for having been so into it.  The show is based loosely on the novel The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell.  A sequel is apparently in production now, thirty years later, so I suppose that’s a testament to the enduring power of the show.

Writing, the Bane of my Existence

That title might be a slight exaggeration.  Except, what did I do with my week off while Mushroom and BalletBoy were in summer camp?  Well, other than have a lovely lunch date with the Husband and catch up on all those episodes of True Blood I missed while I was traveling?  I wrote a writing workbook for the kids to use this year.

This is me, hitting my head against a wall.  I don’t even know if it’s out of frustration with writing and grammar curricula options or with my own pickiness with writing curricula.  Either way, I feel like a dope.  Surely, what I wanted isn’t that strange and I’ve wasted my time.  Yet, after looking, and looking, and looking, I just didn’t find it.  You’re probably feeling compelled to suggest something for me to consider now.  Let me assure you that I’ve already seen it so you needn’t bother.

There’s two pieces to this.  First, is our personal requirements.  I know what works for me as a teacher and the kids as learners.  They need structure and step by step approaches.  I need something that isn’t scripted and doesn’t require daily prep that I know I won’t do.  There’s nothing I like less than a long, two page description of how to do an activity that takes less than ten minutes.

The second piece is my own beliefs about writing.  Most curricula focus on one of two approaches.  First, there’s the classical approach, which has copywork as the basis for understanding how to imitate good sentences as a foundation for learning to write well.  Second is what I might call the organizational approach, which focuses on generating ideas, outlining, and types of writing.  I believe in the oral part of the classical approach, the narration piece, which we’re planning to get more serious about for second grade.  I was very inspired by Melissa’s two narration posts a little while back to renew our narration push.  However, I don’t believe in copywork.  Nor do I believe all kids this age need to write well is a little organizational help.  It’s a lot to ask kids to compose on paper when they’re still working on spelling, phonics and handwriting fluency.  I think kids need grammar instruction as a part of writing, but I’m not gung ho to spend a huge amount of time on grammar worksheets or lessons.  What I want is something fun and interesting but that uses words and sentences as the foundation for good writing.

There are some fun, interesting resources out there.  I’m especially fond of Peggy Kaye’s Games for Writing.  The kids got this little book from our 826 down the street and it’s fun.  I also am excited to try out Tin Man Press’s Just Write, which is filled with irreverent worksheets for writing.  But none of these include grammar or are especially structured.  The blog based curriculum Wordsmithery focuses on simple ways to teach thinking about using good words across a wide age range.  It’s a great little program, but it’s not open and go enough for me.  I need more of a form for us to really follow something through and not be spotty about it.  There’s a few good grammar and writing curricula that are worktext based like I want.  Scott Foresman even has a free writing and grammar workbook online, but it’s dull.  I almost went ahead and bought Growing with Grammar and Winning with Writing half a dozen times.  The problem is that they’re too long for what I want and not especially fun.

So, here I find myself with a nearly finished writing curriculum that’s appropriate for first and second graders.  We’re going to try it.  If it works at all for us, I promise to .pdf it and make it available to the masses, for anyone else feeling dissatisfied.

The Nitty Gritty Portfolio Post

Question: How do you know how much work to keep?

Question: How do you assess your child if you don’t give grades?

Answer: PORTFOLIOS!

There are lots of different ways to do a portfolio, but I’m going to write about our process.  I previously taught at a school that did portfolio assessment instead of grades so I was greatly influenced by that experience.  We’re required to keep a portfolio by law (keep in mind that if you are too, this is not legal advice as regulations and requirements differ), but we would keep one anyway.  Here’s why:

  • It’s nice to have a set of representative samples and saved items from the year.  My kids (and I) already look back on previous portfolios with nostalgia.
  • It frees you from feeling like there’s some reason to keep piles of artwork and finished workbooks.
  • It allows you to stop and reflect periodically, which can be important for pacing your year, focusing on skills that need improvement, and celebrating growth and change.  After you do the portfolio, you’ll realize that you did something, which will usually let you take a deep breath of relief.
  • It allows the kids to set goals and reflect on their own work and progress.

What You Need

First of all, you need a binder to keep things in for each child.  You use the same binder to go through this process several times over the course of the school year.  I’m especially fond of the Staples Better Binders, which are pricey, but come in pretty colors and are extra durable.  Ours is currently a 1″ binder, which is just enough.  If you choose to keep stuff the way we have, you also need a box of sheet protectors like these.  I know it seems like a terrible waste, but if you’re planning to keep the portfolio long term (as I am) then that helps.  Plus, it helps keep the whole thing easy to browse and uniformly neat.

Next, you need a calendar where you can jot things down.  That, or a really good memory.  I schedule a portfolio day on our calendar every two months.  The purpose of this day is to update the portfolio.  I also use the calendar to jot down every field trip and class we participate in.  You can see it’s a pretty simple affair, just hanging on the kitchen blackboard.  (And made by my awesome friend from old picture books!)

Finally, you need a place to stash artwork and stray worksheets or writings until it’s time to go over it.  For me, the beauty of my system is that we don’t have to consider it until portfolio time.  In the meantime, it gets shoved into a little cubby for each child.  Below is a picture of our cubbies, just two paper trays, all cleaned out.  Usually, they’re stuffed full.

Writing an Assessment

The assessment piece is my biggest task for the portfolio.  There are three sheets of paper that go into the portfolio that I write.  They are:

  1. an assessment of the student for that two month period
  2. a list of all the field trips and classes from that period, as well as some of the books
  3. a very brief summary of our materials and progress for each subject matter

The list is the easiest part.  I simply draw from our calendar to remember all the outings and field trips.  The summary of materials and progress for each subject is also usually very easy.  I update anything that needs to be changed, such as which volume of Explode the Code the kids are on or which topic we’re up to in history.  Each subject only has 2-4 sentences so I keep it short and sweet.

The assessment is a hardest piece.  I include three different categories:

  • Things to be proud of:
  • Things to work on:
  • Other important things to say:

It may be slightly hard for me to assess how hard this might be for other homeschool parents.  As a teacher, I had to write hundreds of narrative assessments for students over the years.  I can knock these out pretty quickly and I find writing them pretty intuitive.  Basically, I just think about my kids and answer those three questions.  I consider academics, especially the three R’s, social and emotional issues, and behavior.  After I’ve written them, I always consult the Husband and see if I’ve left out anything essential.

The three pages of the assessment get tucked into a sheet protector and go in the portfolio.  These mark the beginning of the assessment period.  They’ll be followed by the goals and sample work.  Then the next set will go in after, keeping the whole thing chronological.

The example below is one of the longer assessments I’ve done.  Sometimes, they’re barely half that.

Goals

Next, it’s time to set some goals.  This is a pretty simple process.  I ask the kids to come up with 2-4 goals for the two month period.  They should be realistically achievable goals and as specific as possible.  If a goal isn’t measurable, then it’s hard to know if you achieved it.  I remind the kids they can set goals for reading, writing and math or for other areas of life like sports, games and friends.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy often set a video game goal, such as to finish a certain level.  Other goals they’ve chosen include to kick the soccer ball during a game, read a certain number of books, and try a certain number of new foods.

I type up the goals (when they’re older, they’ll have to do this themselves) and put that sheet in with the assessment sheets I wrote.

Choosing Examples

Next, we pull out that huge mess of artwork and stray papers.  I stack up the current workbooks with them.  The kids must go through it all and cull until they have chosen a small pile of samples, usually between 5-8.  I put a checklist on the board telling them what categories of work they must include, such as a page of math, a page with writing, a page of logic, etc.  Ideally, they will choose a piece of work that is especially memorable for them or of which they’re especially proud.  You can see the work and the portfolio ready to be sorted (along with BalletBoy’s favorite doll) below.

As they choose samples, I choose samples too.  I also choose “best work” examples, because that’s the type of portfolio we’re compiling.  But you can see below that sometimes, such as BalletBoy’s “black hole” picture, that the choices may mostly be personal.

Anything that is too large to fit in a sheet protector either gets trimmed (if it’s just ever so much bigger) or photographed and printed off.  Each sample goes into a sheet protector and into the binder.  You can see that some bits are sticking up a little above the sheet protectors.

Then (and here’s the relief part), all the other work, including any finished workbooks, go into the recycle bin.  Whew.

Reading the Portfolio

The last step of portfolio process is reading the portfolio.  Each child gets to sit by himself with me to do the first reading. I read them the entire assessment, including the lists (though I usually skip the subjects section).  We talk about anything that comes up in the assessment, such as how they’re going to work on things that have been hard or if they’re really proud of their accomplishments.

Next, he shows off all the pieces of work in the portfolio and tells me about each one.

When we’re satisfied, then I take the front assessment sheet out, the one that says things to be proud of and things to work on, and we each sign it.  Can you see that BalletBoy and I both signed the bottom of the page there?

Finally, each child is expected to show the portfolio to someone else.  Usually this is the Husband, but occasionally it’s visiting grandparents.  They have to show off the work from that section and tell about it.

The Finished Portfolio

At the end of the school year, the portfolio binder has had this same process happen 5 or 6 times and is usually ready to burst.  I also stick other important things inside the pockets, including our co-op’s little yearbook and the kids’ science journals.  The portfolio gets a final read all the way through then goes up on the shelf in the basement.  You can see things shoved into the binder pockets below.

A lot goes into our portfolios, but the reality is that I don’t have to do anything to keep them updated on a daily or even weekly basis.  As long as I jot down one word notes on the calendar for field trips (and, really, even if I forget) and shove all the random doodles I come across into the kids’ cubbies, then one day every two months allows us to get the whole thing taken care of.  To me, that day is worth our time because it does give us room for a little breath of reflection.  Not to mention that it allows me to be lazy about assessment all the other days!