Things We Aren’t Doing

We haven’t been field tripping much. But hey, here’s us getting on the Metro. We must have been somewhere!

I’m really firmly of the belief that you just cannot do it all. I know some people look at our lives and think, gosh, Farrar sure is killing it at this homeschool thing. I think we’re doing okay. And we’re definitely killing it at some things. On the other hand, every time I hear about things a friend is doing that we’re not, I similarly think, gee, friend sure is killing it at homeschooling. I wish I was too!

We’re drawn to admiring the things we’re not accomplishing ourselves, I think. But in order to have room to do the things we do accomplish, we have to drop things that are good practices. There’s just not enough hours for all the wonderful things in the world. You have to make choices. But choices are good! They let us focus. And we can always change our focus if we need to. But it’s good not to live in regret too much. It’s okay that we’re not doing everything. We’re doing other things.

With that in mind, instead of the things we are doing, here are some things we’re not doing.

We’re not taking weekly field trips.
When the kids were little, we were out somewhere awesome and educational practically every other day. Nowadays? Well, we did have a wonderful, full day at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History a few weeks ago. Mushroom went to a bunch of astronomy lectures and stargazing opportunities in the fall. But overall, we are just not on the go with field trips and opportunities constantly. We’re too busy with classes and things like trying to get through algebra.

We’re not reading aloud.
I always said I’d keep reading aloud all through middle school. However, with kids who don’t get home to even eat dinner until nearly 9 pm many nights a week, it’s just not happening.

We’re not practicing standardized testing.
We were so on this in the fall. And we’ll get back on it again. But right now, it’s fallen by the wayside. Sometimes things slip away that we need to do. Eventually, I drag them back and reimplement them. This is probably going to be one of those things throughout high school. I can tell already.

We can’t speak Spanish.
We can’t speak any foreign languages. Well, I know some Chinese and a smattering of leftover high school French. But we’re not doing any language instruction. After struggling through it for the last year and a half with BalletBoy, I finally gave up. I already have a plan for implementing Spanish with an online tutor come fall so that the boys can get their needed high school credits in it. I sometimes feel guilty that I didn’t push a foreign language earlier, but it is what it is. Nothing to do but move forward.

We’re not hanging out at the park day.
I’m a huge proponent of getting in open social time. But we haven’t been hanging out at the teen-centric park day. We’ve just been too busy with structured things.

We’re not doing history.
The other day, I realized that this term, no one is studying history. Mushroom is studying geography and foreign affairs in a local class. BalletBoy put more science leaning topics like anatomy on his plate for this term. History is my subject! I was a history major. I taught history in my school career! But… it’s not happening now at the Rowhouse.

We don’t have a great morning routine.
I miss the days when we had a strong morning routine. I left “morning work” out for the kids. It was warm ups like logic problems, silly creative coloring pages, and worksheet math drills disguised as games. When I came downstairs to start the day, we’d go over the morning work and then start on the sofa with reading aloud. We did this nearly every single day for years. These days, everyone gets up at different times. The kids check emails and youtube feeds. They munch waffles and ignore me. They start with different subjects. It’s just not a strong start. But I haven’t had the energy to make a change. I’ve put that energy elsewhere.

Podcasting and Stuff

I usually use this blog to talk about our homeschool and books, but since one of the things I’m up to lately with homeschooling is working for Simplify to help other people homeschool, I thought I’d talk about how fulfilling that has been so far. We’re a new business, but it’s been fun to work with such wonderful fellow homeschool moms, all of us with our own experiences and expertises.

I think the most fun part has been learning to podcast. We’ve done lighter topics, like field trips, and more nuts and bolts ones, like tips for the Common App. I get to put on my headphones and hook up my mic. It keeps harkening me back to my college radio days, running the old fashioned sound board and cueing up records. It’s also just surprisingly fun. I think we’re not bad at it either.

One of the tough things about homeschooling and educating for me is recognizing that all this experience I’ve had in education really amounts to something valuable and worthwhile. Before I started homeschooling, I had a degree and career in education, but it’s easy to forget, especially in the homeschool world, where people want you to do all kinds of things for free, that once you’ve been at this for a long time, that you have expertise that is valuable. And while I still love helping people out, especially in my network of friends, it’s not something that I have to give away for free.

Anyway, check out our awesome podcasts here. I think our episode about middle school was especially good, and I’m currently working on a book that I hope to put out soon about middle school homeschooling and how important it is. Can you believe there are almost no books specifically about homeschooling the middle school years? Yet (and I say this constantly), if you’re going to homeschool one time of life, I really think you should make it middle school.

And if you need homeschool help – someone to help you transition to more formal schooling, to apply to private school, to help you write a transcript, to figure out how to deschool, to apply to college, or anything really, then visit us at Simplify.

Portfolios Then and Now

Third grade vs. Eighth grade. Obviously, the thick third grade portfolio wins, right?

One of the things I find myself thinking about a good bit in the last couple of years is how homeschooling changes over time. It ebbs and flows. It has high and low points, as well as more and less intensive times.

A few weeks ago, we did our first updates for the 8th grade portfolios. If you read this blog often, you’ll know that we use portfolio assessment and update each year’s portfolio periodically with the most recent work samples and lists of things like books and field trips.

After we finished the updates I had a moment of panic. You see, it was really, really thin. I’m used to portfolios being these things that just burst open with work. You can see the comparison of Mushroom’s third grade portfolio with his portfolio this year. The third grade one was breaking open with projects and drawings that barely fit. The eighth grade one… not so much.

Third grade work and eighth grade work in Mushroom’s portfolios.

The thing is, it represents so much time and effort. There’s less of the fun little projects, coloring pages, random artworks, and participation certifications. But each plastic sleeve holds a multi-page, revised essay or an algebra exam or a page of samples of Mushroom’s digital artwork projects in Photoshop.

As I looked through this year’s samples, it’s less quantity, but more quality that reflects solid work for their age.

I think it’s important to always remind myself to stay focused on the work that matters, which is mostly process oriented and invisible for things like portfolios. The products change as they get older and that’s appropriate and good. There’s no need to look for those piles of fun worksheet puzzles and quick art projects. It’s good to move on.

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 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