All posts by farrarwilliams

Using Picture Books to Teach Short Answer Questions

Click here for a PDF of some examples to try this with your middle schoolers.

Ah, the “short” answer question. We all know that the answers to these aren’t short, especially not when you first start getting them and they feel like you’re practically writing an essay in response. They appear on tests, on reading comprehension sheets, on all kinds of assignments starting by the end of middle school and continuing all through college.

A lot of kids (and Mushroom is one) seem to get these from the get go. They understand more or less how to structure an answer to one of them. It still takes them practice. Some of the things kids struggle with when give complex questions include:

  • Not answering all the different parts of the question.
  • Not giving any specific examples from the text.
  • Not giving any quotes from the text,  even when prompted to do so.
  • Having trouble finding evidence from the text.
  • Answering the question in overly vague terms, such as, “Yes, they do,” or, “He’s really good at it,” or other such answers that may be correct, but are too unspecific.
  • Not drawing a connection between the different parts of an answer to make it clear that they go together in one, overall answer to the question.

Basically, learning to do these questions takes practice.

But sometimes, there’s a kid who just can’t do them at all. BalletBoy was such a kid.

I should not have been surprised. After all, this was the same student who could read a detailed children’s book, understand all the information, and then, when faced with writing a summary, write a meandering summary of one detail mentioned on the fourth page and all the things he knew about it, most of which weren’t mentioned in the book at all.

So, what do we do when faced with a student who is stuck? Always, take it backward. Back it up and see if you can make it simpler.

I pulled out the picture books and made him dive in with some questions about those instead. We started with The Sneeches. How does McBean exploit the sneeches and what is Seuss trying to say about capitalism? I pulled out One Morning in Maine next. How does McCloskey highlight the theme of growth and change over and over in the story?

Each time we tried another question, he got a little better at it. He wasn’t especially good at first, but with the books he’s reading for school, he’s often struggling with the content. It’s meant to be a little challenging so that’s fine, as long as the struggle isn’t too much. However, struggling with the content of the books and the questions was too much, especially when these types of in depth questions are still a little new. So instead, practicing the questions on content that he is decidedly not struggling with at all, like picture books, has been a good call.

The best part was that after we had done a few picture books, he said, “That really helped.” Guys, that’s about at effusive as the praise gets with thirteen year-olds, especially for school subjects.

Anyway, if you want to try this, pull the picture books off your shelves and just make up questions. I think fairy tales and folk tales would also work well for this. And, to get you started, I wrote up some of the questions we’ve used and threw in a few more since we’ll likely keep doing this off and on to practice different types of reading questions.

You can download the questions I made by clicking HERE or on the image at the top.

Hidden Gems

One of the things I’ve noticed in homeschooling is how much we all get boxed into a set of limited options sometimes. I mean, how many times have you looked on a forum for writing recommendations and heard the same five or six options? There’s a reason they’re popular, of course. And while I think that a few popular options are usually the best places to start when thinking about curriculum, there are so many hidden gems out there that get discussed and used a lot less often.

Below are some of the hidden gems I really like. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list of any kind. Because we’re currently using and loving a couple of much lesser known resources, I wanted to tout the whole idea of lesser known, less popular curriculum resources, because they’re often exactly the thing you’re looking for.

Exploring America from Prufrock Press
We’re currently using the volume of this program that focuses on the 1950’s and I think I actually adore it. I didn’t so much love gathering the resources for it, which involved a lot of out of date web links and a number of web addresses that were of the long string of nonsense category. However, now that we’re engaged in the actual learning part of this program, I’m very happy with it. It asks students to do a lot of reflecting on primary source documents, including speeches, songs, and short stories. It asks a lot of questions about the nature of American identity. The selections are really thoughtful and the questions are excellent. BalletBoy is about a third of the way through this program and I am leaning toward seeing if he’s willing to try some of the later volumes as well.

Twisting Arms: Learning to Write Persuasively
This is a tiny volume that prepares students to write their first thesis paper. While we’ve dabbled in thesis papers before, I decided to let Mushroom give this program a try and it’s beyond perfect. There are a lot of simple activities that lead up to the final paper and focus on all the ways that writing can be used persuasively, including in propaganda, art, and advertising, as well as how to express opinions and work them into a good thesis statement. It’s the perfect little middle school writing program.

Time Travel Math from Prufrock Press
I have written about this program in the past, but we really enjoyed it so I am happy to sing its praises again. This book had little stories about a brother and sister who time travel to meet artists and learn about math with them. Each of the three sections included activities and a final project. Even the story was reasonably good for a book like this. This was the perfect math project diversion for upper elementary or early middle school.

NCERT Math
NCERT is the national textbook of India and because English is one of the official languages of India, most of the textbooks, including the math program, are available in English for free as pdf’s. We used several chapters from the middle school program a couple of years ago and I simply love the style of the books and the way the problem sets are laid out. Plus, you get a bonus of having a little extra culture with your math program. Honestly, I don’t know why more people aren’t using this program, especially in the middle school years. They’re wonderfully done.

GEMS Life Through Time
We’ve used several of the GEMS guides and I especially like most of their math offerings, which I simply don’t see mentioned that often anymore. Sometimes the activities in the GEMS guides need to be adapted for the homeschool environment because they invite students to share answers and collaborate, but most of them are very much able to be adapted. This particular GEMS guide, about evolution and the beginnings of life on earth, is a very creative, dynamic way to introduce the subject. We didn’t end up using it as our spine, but I stole a lot of ideas from it and it would have made an incredibly good spine if I wasn’t such an incessant tweaker of things. This is a science topic that often feels less hands on, but the GEMS guide finds way to make it feel more involved and focus more on thinking about evolution and less on just reading about it.

Don’t Forget to Write
This set of writing lessons from the 826 folks has a lot of fun, creative assignments all meant to be done in a relatively short block of time, but also ripe for spending longer on to revise. We used several of these (and my kids got to do some at our local 826). They could easily be a part of a yearlong writing program. If you do the Brave Writer lifestyle, these could easily become monthly writing projects, especially for months where you need a more condensed project. 826 also has another book called Stem to Story for upper elementary and middle school where you do short science and technology activities followed by writing lessons.

Art Tango
This is a little bit of a cheat since we didn’t get to use this wonderful, free art program. I discovered it a little too late! But I love the way it’s laid out and how simple the lessons are. It seems like art programs are either difficult to implement, focused on art history, or focused on technical precision that a lot of children aren’t really comfortable with. This program does none of those things and instead focuses on explorations with simple materials and methods that push kids, but without looking for an ideal of “good drawing” that turns many kids off art. Plus, did I mention it’s free? Seriously, I don’t know why this isn’t the most popular homeschool art program out there.

Tin Man Press’s Thinkables
I have sung Tin Man Press’s virtues previously but I’d do it again. This creative thinking press makes worksheets that are basically un-worksheets. They encourage kids to think in interesting ways about language, writing, and logic, plus they encourage paying close attention to directions. I’m sad that we’ve mostly outgrown their materials, but we used them constantly in mid-elementary and they were usually the perfect way to open up our school day in the morning.

 

Why We’re Practicing for Standardized Testing Now

I could rant and rail for a little while about standardized testing and how much I can’t stand it and how detrimental one size fits all approaches to assessment make me nuts, and how most multiple choice tests are the equivalent of a broken thermometer in terms of assessing student learning and potential, but I’ll just leave it at this…

I really dislike high stakes testing.

That’s why we’ve mostly avoided it in our homeschool. We did dip into doing a practice assessment test one year a few years back, but I wasn’t sure that we got much out of it. It didn’t tell me much and the kids hated it.

However, last year, I decided to have the kids take the ITBS, aka, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It’s a relatively easy, nationally normed test.

It was a bit of a disaster. Not the scores. The scores were fine. The things they excel at, they scored highly on compared to their peers. The things they aren’t as great at, they scored mediocre, though not abysmally, compared to their peers.

No, the problem was Mushroom and his anxiety. Plus, it really brought home for me how little practice they’ve had on testing like this. They’re really bright at many things, but knowing how to game a multiple choice test and what sort of questions are on there just isn’t one of them.

That’s why, beginning this year, we’ve started prepping for the SAT and ACT, as well as generally prepping for any other standardized tests they might take in high school, such as AP exams.

I know. It’s a little nuts. They’re in eighth grade. However, this isn’t as far off as all that. We’re using simple prep materials and doing very little overall. We’re only spending half an hour a week on the weeks we do it. On the morning I go to yoga and they are busy with co-op for most of the day, they do a little practice and we go over it later.

My feeling is that you don’t want this to sneak up on kids. And while Mushroom and BalletBoy are smart, they’re not such academic superstars that they don’t need this explicit practice in order to excel. I would rather do this than spend a several months trying to pull up an unexpectedly low score that’s keeping them from their goals three years from now. Overall, I think a little bit spread over time goes a lot farther for both peace of mind and performance than a panicked need to cram beforehand.

However, the main reason is that I think it may genuinely take three years of occasional practice with this type of testing to get Mushroom to the point where his anxiety doesn’t sabotage him when he heads into a test that actually means something for his future, no matter what it may be. The best cure for a phobia is slow exposure. I don’t really understand how he acquired this one, having been so little exposed to this sort of testing and my having taken such pains to be gentle about the few exposures he has had. However, it’s a phobia and the process of getting used to it is definitely better if it’s done in a slow and deliberate way.

In the end, I still think standardized tests are a poor measure of a student. The ones that have been slapdash thrown together for Common Core are especially terrible and the barrage of multiple tests every year for students is harmful and not conductive for learning. However, as we go forward, at least a couple of standardized tests will be part of life for Mushroom and BalletBoy, so it’s only common sense to start preparing early so there’s time to be relaxed about it.

 

The Planners

Drumroll please.

For the very first time, I have embarked on using a paper planner.

I’ve always done some planning of some kind, but never the kind that involved a long term planner. The kids have had their own planners for a few years. I write assignments in those and help them keep a calendar. I also use some of the pages for goal setting with them and keeping track of other things, like chores or books they’ve read. However, it’s not especially fancy.

This year, I decided that I would track hours to see how much time we’re actually spending on school. One way to award credits in high school is to track how long you spend on a subject and award credits based on “contact hours.” The thing is, I’ve never tracked our time before and I have no concept if we’re already spending that sort of volume of hours or not. I am also trying to be a little more organized about tracking things like audiobooks and field trips. I list these when I go to update the portfolios, but I can’t tell you how many times over the years that making that list of just a few items has turned into a mental memory Olympics for me as I struggle to recall what book we read before the one we’re listening to now but after that other one.

I already rely heavily on my online calendar app, Cozi (which I highly recommend as the best one I’ve tried for families, by the way), so I wasn’t interested in having a detailed calendar. Instead, I wanted to keep track of those big picture things like books, credit hours, ongoing projects, and so forth.

I made my own hours tracking sheets where each hour is a circle. I’m not totally sure if this is the best way, but I’m enjoying coloring them in during school time.

For the other pages, I tweaked some of the multitudes of free planner pages offered by Scattered Squirrel to be more homeschool appropriate. I made lots of pages for lists, both of things I’m thinking of for the future and of things we’ve done. I also made monthly focus pages for goals for myself and places to jot down field trips and other things that are going on.

To bind it, I bought the Staples ARC notebook. These are ring binder notebooks. You can buy a notebook and customize it or buy the rings and cover separately. Staples sells paper of various kinds for it and you can buy special paper for it from Etsy shops as well, but if you want to print your own, you need a hole punch that’s specially made for the ring binder notebook system. I bought a cheap one for about ten dollars that can only punch a couple of pages at a time, but since I only had a few dozen pages, that was okay. So far, I’ve been happy with how easy this was to put together and how well it’s holding up. I was unsure about the paper staying really well, but it seems to be fine. It’s easy to remove but stays in place nicely and the pages turn easily and lay flat.

So far, I’ve kept it up, but it’s only been a month. I tend to think that organization systems work well at first, tend toward chaos, and then have to be brought back in line at some point. We’ll see how this one goes long term. For now, I’m enjoying having a

Education is Not a Mystery

This is not socializing, apparently.

Did you see this post on Popsugar about homeschooling and socialization? It’s basically crap, but it made the rounds on a few online corners of homeschooling.

Obviously the arguments about socialization in there are absurd. I mean, there’s no way to teach those skills without a traditional classroom? I can think of dozens off the top of my head, most of which homeschool families I know use. My personal favorite, which you probably already know, is Destination Imagination, which is nothing like being in a traditional classroom. Or maybe it’s the small, kid-run learning co-op we’ve been a part of for eight years.

But I digress. Because as silly as the socialization arguments were in that piece, it wasn’t the thing that really bugged me.

The thing that really bugged me was the way in which professional educators try to justify themselves by making learning seem like it’s a secret, arcane mystery that only they can unlock. Socialization isn’t learning to play with, talk to, and interact with other people. Oh no. “Educational socialization is much more challenging than that,” the post claims. So much more challenging that only real teachers in real classrooms can really do it.

Remember in To Kill a Mockingbird when the teacher is angry that Scout learned to read at home because she couldn’t have done it the “right” way? Seen any of the viral images of Common Core math where parents talk about how they’re no longer “allowed” to help with their second grader’s math homework because they’ll explain it “wrong”? Ever heard an educator throw around half-nonsense jargon at an IEP meeting?

Educators seem to do this all the time, trying to make it sound like they guard complex knowledge that only they can get right.

Look, I’m the last person to undervalue educators and all they do. Educators take far too much crap all the time. It’s an actual expertise. I do think I got something out of my masters degree in education, after all. There is a lot of information out there about educational psychology, curriculum design, and educational philosophies, not to mention the nuts and bolts of how schools work on every level, all of which is specialized knowledge teachers have and much of which is useful in structuring a classroom program or working in education.

But none of it is as top secret or special as some educators would like people to believe. Nor is it necessarily complex. It’s especially not magic that only some people can practice. Teaching is more of a practiced art than anything else.

Don’t buy into the idea that education is somehow only possible when provided by the keepers of the school system. I think homeschoolers are often good at seeing through this rhetoric when it comes to socialization, but sometimes get caught when it’s about other topics, like early reading instruction or middle school essay writing or even preparing a high school transcript. I’ve seen people get intimidated by dense language in educational standards, where instead of saying straightforwardly that they want kindergartens to understand that there are four seasons, they weigh it down with verbiage about “use models to represent astronomical bodies” and “understand how natural systems and the designed world work together” and other things that make kindergarten information sound like rocket science.

Not only homeschoolers, but anyone can take charge of their own learning, in school, out of school, graduated or still young. Teaching others is a beautiful thing, but it’s not classified.

Eighth Grade

Box Day set up. We still like it to be exciting. Yes, I got letter cookies.

I updated the “Our Curriculum” post in the menu to include what we did for seventh grade. I can’t really do those these days until I’ve finished the year. Gone are the days when I ordered and planned for the whole year!

These days, I plan for a few months out. Still, I’ll put this post up on the menu as eighth grade, but until the end of the year, it’s a lie. Well, it’s a hope and a dream and a potential path. We’ll see where the wind carries us in the end.

Mushroom

Mushroom has been really good at finishing big projects and being self-directed about them. As such, I’ve kept things a bit open for him. He needs to work on reading, but we’re getting there.

Math:
Jacobs’s Elementary Algebra
We’ll see what extras we work in, like some more Mathematics: A Human Endeavor.

English and Language Arts:
Twisting Arms: Persuasive Writing (We’ve just started this virtually unknown program, but I love it!)
Daily Paragraph Editing
Some Brave Writer things like freewriting and poetry teas
Monthly short stories
Literature List:
Animal Farm by George Orwell
March by John Lewis
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanan
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Projects and Studies

Astronomy
For this project, he’s reading Dava Sobel’s The Planets, as well as several shorter books and documentaries. We have Seeing the Sky for experiments as well as local astronomy clubs. We will also be using Crash Course: Astronomy.

Graphic Design
For this project, we’re using Picture This by Molly Bang and Creative Workshop by David Sherwin for hands on projects and thinking, and a number of more technical books for learning software skills. This will also incorporate some history and art history as well as research projects and a paper.

There will definitely be more… but I don’t know what yet!

BalletBoy

BalletBoy is an incredibly diligent worker, but I wanted to challenge him a little more. That’s been hard for me (it was my goal last year and I don’t feel I entirely met it!). To help us, I got more structured programs and plans for him this year to see if that does the job. I especially want him to focus on answering questions in his writing.

Math:
Algebra: Structure and Method by Dolciani, et al.

English and Language Arts:
Brave Writer elements like freewriting, poetry teas, and dictation
Daily Paragraph Editing (occasionally)
Monthly Short Stories
Literature List, with literature guides from a variety of sources, including the Glencoe Lit Library:
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
March by John Lewis

Spanish:
He’ll continue with Duolingo, but this isn’t totally settled yet. I’m trying to work out a tutor or an online option for him that will work and the pieces haven’t quite come together yet.

Projects and Studies:

The 50’s:
We’re using Prufrock Press’s Exploring America series for this. It’s incredibly rich in primary sources of all kinds.

Chemistry:
He’s using a huge number of resources for this topic, including TOPS Analysis, TOPS Solutions, Chemistry Experiments for Children, and some fun kits like a soap making kit and a cheese making kit. He’s reading The Disappearing Spoon, and using a simple chemistry coloring book as well.

Dance Anatomy:
This project will happen in the spring, so it’s not totally settled, but we’re going to use an anatomy coloring book, a couple of books about the human body, and the book Dance Anatomy by Jacqui Greene Haas, which came recommended and includes exercises and technical information together.

Paper

A few years ago, I started making a packet of paper for the kids that included things for the year. I bind them at Staples and have them ready to start the year on Box Day. They include things like a plan for what they’re studying, lists of required reading books, literature guides for novels, assignments I’ve created for projects, and a copy of each of the short stories that we’ll read. We read one per month and discuss it at a poetry tea. I put a pretty cover on them to make them personalized and exciting.

The eighth grade packets may have exploded slightly.

I put in more paper than ever. I’m hoping to have the kids do an “eighth grade internship” before the end of the year, so I made an assignment page for that. In fact, I made assignment sheets for more things than normal overall. The short stories seem to have been a bit longer, as were some of the lit guides I decided to use.

One child’s packet went a little crazy. It’s more than twice as long as the other’s. I think this may be a reflection of how much I’m trying to get him to do some polished work. If only I throw more paper at him, surely something will emerge from that? Right?

So while Mushroom’s packet has these general outlines of all the various subjects he wanted to tackle, with little notes that he should choose three projects or write a paper that we’d later agree upon, BalletBoy’s packet is filled with specific reading questions and long checklists. Mushroom is a finisher and he dreams big. He does a good job on anything he really sets out to do so giving him room to just do his thing makes sense. BalletBoy goes in fits and starts lately. He has lots of first drafts that never quite get finished or polished. He dashes off three word answers to what should be essay questions. He meanders through research on his own rabbit trails and never quite arrives at a finished product.

There are upsides and downsides to each of these approaches, of course. Mushroom can get anxious about his projects because he has a streak of perfectionism. BalletBoy can get lots of experience as he goes and he really appreciates the journey. I especially see this with ballet, where his studio focuses on technique above flashy end performance. Still, my goal for the year is to get him finishing more things and showing off more products worth showing off. Thus, the larger paper trail.

Here’s hoping that this isn’t a completely failing strategy.