Tag Archives: homeschool

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 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.

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

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 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.

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

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.

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.


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.

In It for the Long Haul

We’re cleaning off the shelves as part of our break, filing work away and updating portfolios. I told Mushroom and BalletBoy that if they wanted to consider high school, that this was it; they needed to speak up now.

It’s never really been entirely up to them. I wouldn’t have allowed them to go to middle school barring a very good reason. And I’ve been pretty sure we were going to go all the way through for awhile. However, they’re about to be teenagers. I think they should have more of a say at this point.

It’s not that high school would be impossible down the road if our circumstances changed. I know that in some states, once you start down one path for high school, it’s almost impossible to switch, but in the District, there are flexible options for high school credits. However, once the deadlines for applications to charter and selective public school programs have passed in the winter, a lot of doors will close. If we were going to even consider that, I explained, I needed time to get things in order, let them tour schools and research options, and create applications. This is eighth grade, I said. Tell me now.

BalletBoy, no surprise, answered immediately. No way. He wants to homeschool. It’s an easy answer when you know it’s enabling your passion. His ballet moves to six classes this year. I can’t imagine managing that plus school, much less more classes and high school.

Mushroom dithered. Would missing out on high school close off any job options or college options down the line, he wanted to know. That’s my long term thinker. I reassured him. No, absolutely not. I couldn’t promise that he absolutely would never run into a hassle because he was homeschooled, but it is pretty unlikely overall.

The thing is, I am almost positive at this point that I can give them a better, richer experience for high school than school can. I used to teach high school and I’ve never found it as intimidating as some people seem to. I know many people get nervous about high school, but right now, I’m in the midst of planning our eighth grade year and looking ahead to future possibilities and I’m not nervous, I’m excited. Neither of my kids are ever going to be the sort of kids who pull in high test scores and piles of AP exams and honor roll awards. They would just be mediocre in school. Mediocre and worn out by the long days and heavy amount of busy work. But at home, we can do targeted work and make time for passion projects and intense extracurriculars where they really do get to show their best selves.

Mushroom has a real interest in design and I tried to explain how excited I am to push him to do certain programs and internships in high school, how he can really pick and choose the sort of university he wants to attend. How doing high school at home won’t hold him back from that. In fact, the opposite, it might enable it.

“I don’t really want to go to school,” he admitted. “Then don’t!” I said. So we’re decided for sure.

Whew. And with that off my plate, now to focus on being in the moment and getting the most out of the end of middle school. After vacation, that is.

It’s Okay to Be Out of Sync

Playing pool at the grandparents’ on the second day of school for kids here.

One of the things I have to remind myself of every single year is that it’s okay that we’re out of sync with everyone else.

You’d think that this would be obvious. When you homeschool, you step off the beaten path to make your own trail. We all know we’re not in sync with the goals, curriculum, or style of brick and mortar schools. And we’re often in while they’re having teacher workdays or other random days off, and out and about while they’re in class.

However, a lot of homeschoolers loosely follow the school calendar for a whole host of good reasons. That’s why, in the last week, my social media feeds and my friends have all been talking about starting back to school.

The thing is, we did school most of the summer and we’re taking our break now. It’ll be another month until we start properly. And it hits me on some level every year that we’re really far off from everyone else, including our fellow homeschoolers. There’s a sort of discomfort and defensiveness, which is silly, but it’s there.

So every year, I have to remind myself that it’s fine. And that we can do things our own way. If you’re also way off from everyone else’s school year, remind yourself that having your own schedule is one of the benefits of this homeschool gig. I don’t know about you, but I need to tell myself that I wasn’t a meanie for making the kids do math in July and that I’m not lazy for letting them relax through most of September. There’s nothing special about math that it needs to be done only from September through May and nothing special about vacations that says they need to happen in the summer months.

Ellen McHenry Materials: A Sort of Review

If you’re not familiar with Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop, it’s a really different curriculum provider mostly for homeschoolers. Most of the topics are science related, though not all. We’ve now used three of her programs and I actually own a couple more. I thought, since I mentioned that Mushroom used her program Protozoa last spring, that I’d give the materials a bit of a review. We previously did all of The Brain and part of Mapping the World with Art. I also own but ended up not using Botany and Excavating English.

Part of Mushroom’s Protozoa mural. A typical Ellen McHenry style assignment.

What they are: You can buy a physical copy or a copy on CD, but I’ve only ever bought the PDF versions. Each program comes with a central text that is written to the student. They’re illustrated with cute fingerprint characters, well done hand drawings, and some copyright free images. The graphic design is pretty decent and while scrolling through the PDF for the right page isn’t super easy, it’s not too bad. Each chapter has “activities” that follow it. Sometimes these are actually activities, but more often they’re fill in the blank worksheets and videos to watch (there are Youtube playlists). However, these were developed by the author to be used in a co-op and all include many actual activities at the end of the program listed as optional. These are mostly art and craft related activities as well as games and demonstrations. The materials are generally pretty simple. There is a wealth of printables included in each program, such as maps, cards, worksheets, and cut and paste crafts.

In a nutshell: I have very mixed feelings about these programs. Secular users should think hard about the science programs in particular.

Pro: They’re very creative and interesting. She covers interesting topics. She doesn’t talk down to kids at all. The text is at a high level, but is flexible and can be used with many different ages. I think most of the programs are best for middle school, but most of them could be used for about 4th grade up through high school, at least as a high school supplement or elective. The games and activities are interesting. We did The Brain with a group and some of them, like games to illustrate through metaphors how signals pass through the brain, were easy to implement and enjoyable.

Con: The text is at a high level, but sometimes it’s just too detailed. For example, in the Protozoa text, the big picture began to get lost in the details. And by details, I really mean details. Several dozen protists were described in incredible detail, but the big picture of what these tiny creatures do and the role they play in the overall ecosystem just wasn’t the emphasis. And the worksheets sometimes emphasize some aspect of memory that really isn’t all that connected to the topic. In the case of the Protozoa, it was Greek prefixes and roots. That’s interesting, but some of it went a little far for a science program. Also of concern for the biology programs is that she avoids discussing evolution altogether to try and please all audiences. That means that not only was the emphasis not on how protists fit into the ecosystem, but there was absolutely no discussion of adaptations in a book about animals.  The website makes it clear that this will likely be an even bigger with the new Rocks and Minerals text. It’s a geology text that never mentions the age of the earth and argues against plate tectonics.

Also, while they are riddled with activities, the cut and paste nature of the activities is too crafty for a science program for my taste. It’s fine for the humanities programs and while the map drawing methods didn’t work for us in Mapping the World with Art, I could see how it could be perfect for some families. However, she has two programs about cells that don’t require kids to pull out a microscope. In the case of the Protozoa curriculum, having a simple suggestion to do a hay infusion of some local pond water would be so unbelievably easy. The Brain does include the suggestion to order and dissect a sheep’s brain (which we did), but in general that’s the only suggestion of actual science included. The Elements, about chemistry, focuses a great deal on memorization and card games and very little on doing any actual chemistry. A science program that is all vocabulary cards and coloring projects just isn’t a full science program to me, even aside from the issue of whether or not it’s “neutral” on science like the age of the earth. Those things can be good for some kids, yes. And they can be tools for memorization, which is good. But I think they make kids miss the point. Getting messy and doing at least a couple of actual experiments is an essential component of science.

The Takeaway: They’re not bad programs. I have recommended them to people and some families adore them and it’s easy to see why. But I think the fact that they lack a big picture focus, don’t include actual experiments in the science, and aren’t secular are all things people should think about before diving in or while using. I think they work best when used with other resources. Unless I decide to use Excavating English, I doubt we’ll be using her programs again here. The issues I had with Protozoa and seeing the “neutral” stance on the age of the earth presented in her new book tipped me over the edge against them.

Simplify Homeschool

I wanted to announce that I have joined up with Simplify, a new homeschool and college counseling business started by two wonderful fellow homeschoolers. Jill and Suji started Simplify to provide a central place to find services related to homeschool and homeschool college counseling. You can click on the image above to get to the main site and learn about all our services or find our bios here.

I’m excited to join up with this growing new business. Simplify is still looking to add consultants with at least seven years of homeschooling experience and an online presence in different geographical areas.

I have been sitting down with new homeschoolers and homeschoolers hoping to revamp what they’re doing for years informally. I’m hopeful about helping more people, especially new homeschoolers who feel thrown into the deep end and old homeschoolers who have hit roadblocks. I’m also glad to see more support services for homeschoolers who are in it until college.

As educational options become more and more diversified, I think more families are going to turn to people to help them figure out how to forge their own paths. I’m excited to be a part of doing that.

Science Fair! (without the fair)

One of the final things we did in the spring before the kids headed off in their summer directions, was science fair style projects. And they were excellent. We didn’t have a science fair to take them to (though there are a few homeschool science fairs around here during the school year, so I’ll save them and maybe we’ll attend one). But that was no big deal. We could still do a project as if it was for one.

We’ve never done a science project like this. We’ve done loads of experiments over the years and of course I’ve taught the scientific method. However, doing a kid-chosen project like this was definitely a super valuable experience that emphasized the scientific method in a new way. I’m glad we waited until middle school because I’m not totally sure if they’d have gotten as much out of it at a younger age. However, this was so good that I think we’ll do it again next year.

Mushroom was doing a study of cells for school. Then I had him read through Ellen McHenry’s Protozoa and he did some of the worksheets and activities. When it came time to do a project, I suggested he do something with the topic he’d been studying already and he came up with a project comparing two different infusions of stream water. He hypothesized based on his research that they would cultivate different types of protists.

That hypothesis turned out to be wrong. However, they did have different effects (hay is better than rice, at least with Rock Creek stream water). He took photos using a microscope camera. He then made an amazing board and wrote a really solid science report about his method. Overall, he worked really hard and breezed through.

BalletBoy had a longer trek to figuring something out. He’d been studying meteorology for school and I suggested he find a project that would go with that. He initially wanted to try a project having to do with charting the temperature. But that fizzled. Then he decided to try this project where you test the humidity by making your own hygrometer. If you don’t know the website Science Buddies, it’s a great search tool for finding science fair project ideas. Unfortunately, after two attempts at making the hygrometer, he couldn’t get it to do a thing.

Frustrated, he asked if he could poke around and do something else entirely. He found a project making bath bombs and decided to try that. He altered the project from the website, doing some research and coming up with his own recipe. Then, while it turned out to be a pretty grueling day of messing up and not measuring properly, he made and then tested the bombs. His hypothesis was also disproven. The recipe he invented wasn’t the fizziest. But that was fine. He had some data to show for his project. And while he didn’t quite have the graphic design flair that Mushroom did and I ended up having to direct his report and project board more, he felt really good about what he’d done in the end.

This is one of those “school” experiences that I think it’s worth trying to provide for homeschoolers but that it’s easy to forget about in the rush to finish a curriculum. It can also be a messy endeavor for families (we had large tupperwares of stream water growing small beasties on the mantle for weeks) and I know that some families recoil just thinking about managing it. But it was very worth it here, even if there wasn’t a fair and blue ribbons at the end of the process. It was great for learning organization, writing, and presentation skills, not to mention really emphasizing the scientific method.