Tag Archives: homeschooling

The Realistic Ten Most Important Things to Know About Homeschooling

Someone posted a link to this article about the most important things to know about homeschooling on a local list and I have to admit that it really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s perhaps a telling sign of how far I’ve moved away from some of my idealistic, unschool-influenced roots, but the rah rah homeschooling is perfect mentality is something that grates on me these days. You won’t find many people who are more pro-homeschooling than I am, but I feel like it has to be tempered with a bit of realism. So I thought I’d rewrite their list the way I see things.

Homeschooling is jumping into the great unknown sometimes.
Homeschooling is jumping into the great unknown sometimes.

1. Homeschooling is life changing for you and your kids. You may learn as much as the kids, if not more sometimes. It can change the way you see yourself and your kids if you are willing to let it. Along the way, there will be lots of uncertainty and chaos that you have to learn to live with. Model your learning for the kids and show them your love of reading, problem-solving and creating and it will help them learn those skills too.

2. You don’t need special credentials or even need to be highly educated. The most important thing you need is the drive to do it and the willingness to learn as you go or to admit when you don’t know how to teach something and be willing to find another way for a child to learn. However, not everyone should homeschool. If you don’t feel that drive or if life circumstances make it too difficult, then that’s okay too.

3. Some kids will be easy to teach. They’ll want to learn and you’ll find it easy to satisfy that. Other kids will be resistant to learning. They’ll try your patience. Sometimes it will be the same kid, just on different days. Your primary job is to help your kids learn how to learn and hopefully learn how to love learning. If you keep that goal in mind, it can be a guiding principle, but it doesn’t come naturally to every child.

4. Homeschooling is legal everywhere in the U.S. You don’t need to join a legal defense organization (as in, HSLDA) in order to protect your rights. You do need to follow the laws of your state or jurisdiction, which can vary. Some states require nothing, others require more extensive records. No one should try to use homeschooling to keep their children secret from the government. Ethically, your children have a right to their own homeschool records to prove that they were educated. If you homeschool, you should realize that, sadly, some people do use homeschooling as a way to mask abuse. Don’t be a voice supporting those people. It’s good to stick up for fellow homeschoolers, but put an eye of caution into your view.

5. Most homeschoolers don’t “do school” from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. Because it’s individualized instruction with a very low teacher to student ratio, there’s a lot less time wasted in homeschooling. However, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily get everything done in as little as an hour. Some days, or even years, you will, and some kids will be fast workers. But other kids will work slowly and other years will take more of your time every day. The most important thing to realize is that your time can be flexible. You can have short days but school year round. Or you can have long days but only school four days a week. You can blend life and schooling more seamlessly or sit down at desks and work hard for several hours then have plenty of play time. There’s not one model to make it work.

6. Socialization is something you have to work at a little harder when your kids are homeschooled. They will not have a ready made peer group and social scene. Sometimes you have to put in time driving them place to place or making friends with the other parents, things that you wouldn’t have to do if they were in school. However, the pay off can be huge. Homeschooled kids can have a much richer social life with people of different ages and experiences than their schooled peers do. They can sometimes avoid some of the negative aspects of socializing in school, like bullying or gender conformity.

7. Skills are important to have. There are lots of different paths and timetables to mastery, but it will be your job to make sure your children acquire those basic skills that people need to function in our world, like reading, writing, speaking clearly, using technology, and doing math, whether it’s learning them slowly through life or teaching them directly from a textbook or something in between. Inevitably, some kids will have bumps in the road and it will be your job to help smooth those out. This means that you don’t necessarily have to teach everything, but you do need to find ways to help your kids learn, and that includes the subjects that you struggled with as a student. If you have something you’re really struggling to teach, it doesn’t mean you have to give up homeschooling. There are classes and tutors out there, it’s just your job to find and use those resources.

8. It’s normal to have doubts. Parenting is full of them and homeschooling can amplify them. But the only thing to do is try your best and keep moving forward. You will make mistakes, but focus on the big picture. Find some friends to help you along the way and encourage you as you go. Homeschooling can be lonely. Having another homeschool parent who can see your kids and tell you how great they are can be a lifeline.

9. Homeschooling is difficult financially. Some primary homeschool parents manage to work, but you will likely sacrifice a full income or most of one in order to do it. That means living on less. If you can do it, it can be worth it. There are creative solutions to make it work, including working from home, starting a business, or co-oping with other parents. However, in the end, not everyone will be able to financially make homeschooling happen and that’s okay too.

10. There is a saying in homeschool circles: “Homeschooling is a marathon, not a sprint.” Trust that it’s a long journey and that you have time to do it. Trust that small mistakes along the way don’t define that journey, even a bad year probably isn’t as bad as you think. Remember that kids are resilient and most kids can learn with minimal resources and just a lot of your support and love. However, also remember that homeschooling doesn’t have to be forever. You can make a different decision later if you need to do so.

Math Notebook

Since the boys were in kindergarten, we’ve done math on the white board or math on scratch paper or math with me scribing or math in workbooks or worktexts or with manipulatives. But when Mushroom reached pre-algebra this year I realized that what we had not done was math neatly laid out in a notebook. It was a mess.

However, I was patient. I gave Mushroom a special notebook for math to keep it separate for the first time from the rest of his written work and made him a special cover for it. Then I tried to instill in him to label the top of every page: the lesson number or “Scratch.” Then we got to simplifying expressions and I explained that you have to copy the expression at the start. He looked nigh on devastated. And the notebook was a mess.

But, hey, look at this! Just a month or so after starting to learn about how to keep his math notebook nice and neat, he did this:

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Math is so much about the process. However, there comes a point when the process is hurt by sloppiness. We try really hard to focus on what matters more than how it’s dressed in our schooling. So the quality of the writing matters more than the spelling, that you worked on art for an hour matters more than whether you ended up with a finished product, that you got the right answer matters more than if you forgot to write the units next to it. However, eventually, some of those things matter sometimes. I told Mushroom he had acquired a lifelong skill by being able to keep his math notebook neat and functional.

But I’m also glad I didn’t try to make him acquire this skill earlier. It was pretty painless at this point while it would have been difficult for him earlier. So I’m glad I waited for the right moment to worry a little more about how it looks.

Hands on Math: Manipulatives and More

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I’m a bit of a math manipulatives nut. The folks over at SecularHomeschool.com asked me to write a post for their new Soup to Nuts discussion group so my post is up today. Here’s the first little bit:

I remember the first time I encountered Cuisenaire rods in a graduate workshop. “Be sure you allow time for kids to play with them,” began the instructor, looking around at a room full of educators turning the tiny blocks into towers and patterns of stripes. As we knocked over towers and tried to pay attention to the instructions on how to use these colorful little things with students, we laughed. Even the adults were drawn to playing with their math.

I’ve since learned that there are a million ways to play with your math and hold it in your hands. It’s not a necessary step for absolutely every student, but for most, it makes math more fun, more tactile, and easier to understand. Math manipulatives can be a lifeline for some math strugglers, a shortcut to understanding for some thinkers, and a means to get to a deeper understanding for others. There are dozens of different products out there for both arithmetic and geometry and even an array of products for algebra. There are also ways to make math hands on by bringing it into the real world in other ways.

You can find the rest of my post as well as any discussion that arises from it here.

Year in Review: What I Learned

Mushroom climbing and taking risks.
Mushroom climbing and taking risks.

In my last post, I talked about what the kids learned and worked on. However, as I wrote, I realized that some of the most important learning was my own, adjusting to having older kids who are nearly in middle school, kids who have a much more tween like attitude.

I think probably the most momentous thing to happen in school this year was Mushroom, in angry tears saying, “I wish you weren’t my teacher!”

He’s changed his mind. He’ll probably change it again at some point. However, it was the first time anything like that ever escaped his lips. In a way it’s sort of funny and sweet. He’s growing up and it’s not as easy to satisfy him. He questions a lot more and is more likely to argue. BalletBoy is working his way toward being a champion arguer. But while I value that all these things are good in one way as the boys gain independence, I can’t deny that they’ve been difficult for all of us to figure out how to navigate.

I got some good advice and have figured out a few things for dealing with this pre-teen stuff. I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a few years and think how naive I was, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Feed them.
Mushroom and BalletBoy are probably going to be on the short side. They’re definitely not puny, but they’re among the shorter kids in their age group. However, they’ve shot up in the last year. Enough that Mushroom said to me the other night, “How did I get so big? Just look at me!” They’re clearly working on some more growth soon. Their eating habits have gone back to being more like toddlers too. Some days they pick at everything. But often they devour a whole burrito in one gulp. We had mostly done away with a lot of the casual snacks in our lives over the last few years. We just didn’t need as many as when they were little, but now the snacks are back. I’m learning that they help. Being a grouch? Hey, would you like a granola bar? How about a banana? Yogurt tube?

Appreciate their contradictions.
And I thought nine was full of contradictions. Ten is a whole other level. They are just too big for my lap now, yet they still climb in when they’re sad, sometimes nearly knocking over the chair. Then other times they nearly smack my hand away if I pat their shoulders or back. They insist they can walk a mile away alone one day, then feel incapable and nervous about asking the librarian for a book the next day. They make these great insights during discussions one day, then struggle to remember something incredibly simple the next. Rather than get whiplash, I’m trying to appreciate the little kid moments when they still really need me or play pretend with each other as well as the grown up kid moments when they teach me something I don’t know or want to talk about the meaning of life. Speaking of which…

Engage in deep questions.
I’m learning that this age is completely about big questions. A few years ago, big questions were things about how things work like why is the sky blue. Now the big questions are things like why do bad things happen to good people, is there really a God, and how do we stop wars. Mushroom asked if we could study religions for school, which turned into one of our bigger projects. The logic chapters in Jousting Armadillos also helped fill this need. I’m figuring out how much we need to be engaging with deeper thinking and real questions. Next year, I’m planning to use Philosophy for Kids with them, which I think will help fill this need. I think to keep them engaged in school, learning has to be full of these big questions, even in skill subjects like writing and math.

Give them a break.
And now we come to that contradiction. I think that while we’re doing schoolwork that’s hopefully more and more challenging and thought-provoking, I’m learning that they’re just as likely to get overwhelmed by too much work, either at home or in extracurriculars. Also, many times this year I’ve had the experience of watching one of them do something difficult like a tricky algebra problem or a long dictation, and then turning around and getting something really basic wrong like forgetting how to divide or misspelling “because.” It feels like we’re back to that uneven development that was so characteristic of when they were little. One day they could read the little reader, the next day they genuinely could not. And now I see it again sometimes. I’m learning to cut them some slack.

Look for meaningful experiences.
When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, a trip to a museum or coloring a picture might be meaningful experiences for learning and life. They were fulfilling things in terms of learning and experiencing the world. Drawing and museum trips may still be useful and part of what we do, but they’re no longer fulfilling in the same way. Just like how the kids are asking deep questions, they’re also really looking for meaningful experiences. I think being in real competitions, such as soccer games or Destination Imagination tournaments, feels like a meaningful experience for them. Performing on stage feels meaningful. Taking risks feels meaningful. Creating their own projects such as the video game machine Mushroom built with his Raspberry Pi or the short story BalletBoy is working on can feel like meaningful work.

They’re clearly seeking out experiences with more depth that feel like they make a difference. I want to begin to tie this in with service learning at least sometimes. And to find ways to let helping around the house, which they do unevenly, be something that feels meaningful. This is definitely something I’m hoping to think more about as they get older. At their age, I began cooking dinner most nights and doing a lot of the household shopping. I know that having what I understood was an important role in the house grounded me in many ways through those years. There’s no way they’re going to have a similar experience, but I also want to look for ways that meaningful experiences and meaningful work can be a part of the picture for them.

 

Year in Review: What the Kids Learned

We’re actually still “doing fifth grade” so perhaps it’s early for a year in review, but early summer always feels like a reflective time for how school is going. As I wrote this, I realized that there were really two elements to my reflection: what they learned and what I learned about growing kids. Obviously, they’re intertwined, but I put the “school” elements here and I’ll save the tween attitudes for my next post.

Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.
Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.

This year has been different from the others. We’ve been more engaged with projects and questions. I’ve been more responsive to the kids’ schoolwork requests. I’ve written a good bit here about why we made this shift, but I continue to be glad we focused on exploring lots of content in the early grades and are switching to being more project focused for the middle grades. Some of the projects we did this year included learning about houses, reading steampunk literature and making art, studying world religions, exploring probability, learning about ancient Egypt, doing chemistry experiments, and writing poetry. Not every project we did went perfectly, but overall I feel good about continuing to wing content by letting it arise naturally. I suggest things, they suggest things, questions the kids ask lead to some projects, books or documentaries lead to others. Over the summer, we decided to tackle graphic design and I look forward to seeing what emerges next.

Skill subjects have been a decidedly mixed bag. Math has involved perhaps an insane amount of curriculum hopping. Mushroom is doing well right now alternating daily between Jousting Armadillos and Process Skills in Problem Solving. They’re such radically different resources. He loves Jousting Armadillos and its talkative, do just a few problems then try this very tricky puzzle approach and hates the complex problems in Process Skills. However, I like the interplay between then. BalletBoy started the year using Math in Focus but we ditched it after finishing 5a and switched to MEP, where he is starting on MEP5b. I have been frustrated finding the right level for BalletBoy’s math. He found some elements of Math in Focus far too easy and others far too difficult. MEP has been good for us because it has forced me to really sit and teach him using the lesson plans. Still, I’m not sure what we’re going to do long term. He still makes an egregious amount of careless errors in his math. One problem will be wrong because he accidentally added incorrectly, another because he skipped a step, another because he couldn’t read his own messy writing, another because he misunderstood the question, and finally another because he was off in BalletBoyland and forgot what he was even doing. Getting this kid to focus on math is like pulling teeth sometimes.

On the flip side, BalletBoy does have focus for writing. Brave Writer has continued to serve us well. The boys wrote short stories, poems, reflections, and their first short formal essays, though with lots and lots of help. Both the boys keep slowly improving their dictation mechanics, even if getting them to improve it in their own writing is difficult. Spelling has been a huge trial for Mushroom again this year. He improved so much with All About Spelling for the first two years of using the program, but this year in level 5, his improvement ground to a halt. BalletBoy wrapped up level 6 without too many issues, but I gave up on using it with Mushroom and tried How to Teach Spelling, which has a similar approach but a lot more dictation sentences. I thought it would be good for him to practice. He would improve for a little while then go back to not remembering if a word used “ee” or “ea.” And somehow, in those cases, he always seems to make the wrong choice. Finally, I cried “uncle” on this whole spelling thing. I give up, at least for now. He deserved a break and so did I. His spelling is now extremely easy to decipher 95% of the time and I’ve decided that’s okay for now. We’re committing to doing more dictation to try and work on spelling and mechanics in context.

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As always, one of our biggest difficulties was balancing homeschooling with extracurriculars. In particular, our year was taken over with performances. BalletBoy did his first Nutcracker and later got to be an extra in a Kennedy Center ballet, plus he performed with his marimba ensemble. Mushroom did a musical and had a small role in a local community production then went right into a main role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both boys were in Much Ado About Nothing. When you tossed in soccer and regular co-op and so forth, it was just a lot to do. Finding the balance didn’t always work. Theater hours are really hard on ten year olds. I’m not sure how we can change that next year. We compensate by relaxing school but then working on weekends and over the summer as needed. Like everyone else, I want a more relaxed life, but I also don’t want my kids to have to pass up opportunities they greatly want. It’s a very tricky line to walk.

Just the other day, Mushroom discovered that there was such a thing as a “fifth grade graduation” and demanded that we have one. I asked if a special meal would suffice and he agreed. We have some summer camps and will return in late July for more school, to be finished up by September in time for the fall break.

Road Trip Comics

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks here at the Rowhouse. Everything is in transition. You know how transitions are. Plus we’ve been sick. Is there anything worse than a spring cold? Plus, we’ve been getting ready for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which is today. I hope the kids are able to show off their hard work. And directly after the festival, the most epic thing of all… we’re headed to Global Finals for Destination Imagination. As you can imagine, we’ve been antsy and excited.

We have gotten a little school done amidst all that, but writing assignments for Mushroom got suspended as he very single-mindedly decided he absolutely had to make a comic to share with his teammates at Global Finals. There will be one issue every day with a total of four issues. They’re all short, but clearly drawn and very adorable, about an imaginary Destination Imagination team that is also going to Globals. They have some small adventures and in the last issue, they happen to meet our entire team and trade pins with them.

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Mushroom often dreams up big projects like this, but he rarely brings them to completion. His anxiety really gets in his way on that very often. He will begin something and then question his ability to really accomplish it the way he wants and give it up rather than keep working. This time he was convinced he had to finish. He let me help him with his spelling. He even insisted on photocopying, collating, and stapling them himself. I’m so glad that he stuck with this project completely on his own with very little help or prompting on my part. He advocated for wanting to work on his own project during all our writing time and I was happy to agree.

One of the things we’ve been aiming for this year has been more kid-driven learning. Up to this point, the kids haven’t really wanted to drive their own learning as much. Even when they’ve had their own projects, they’ve wanted school to stay school. Slowly though, they’re advocating for picking more of their own work, which is exciting to me. I do want to get back to some of the things we had originally intended to do in the last week, but this is much more exciting – a writing and art project he dreamed up himself, carried out without help, accepted some help editing in the last stage, and now has published himself to give out to friends.

So we’re off to Globals! Wish us luck and here’s hoping that Mushroom’s comic series is well received.

Homeschoolers Do DI

I have many times on this blog shared how much I feel that Destination Imagination is one of the most perfect homeschool activities. This is our sixth year of participating in Destination Imagination (I have coached about half of those years) and the second time we’ve won our regional tournament and had the chance to go to States. However, it’s the first time we’ve ever advanced to Global Finals! The boys’ team took second place at States, which qualified them to move on to the biggest DI party on the planet. I’m still a little bit in shock about it a couple of weeks later. It’s a huge win for them.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Destination Imagination (and the formerly related organization Odyssey of the Mind, which is very similar) is a creativity competition. Kids choose a central challenge (unless they’re in the special, non-competitive K-2nd Rising Stars challenge) from among technical, structural, improv, service learning, scientific, and fine arts options. The challenges change every year but generally ask kids to make something and incorporate it into a skit. For example, the technical challenge might ask kids to make a vehicle that can travel to a certain box while they do a skit about travel. The service challenge might ask kids to do a service project that incorporates a logo they make themselves and then present at the tournament. Kids spend months working on their challenge solutions. There’s a second component to Destination Imagination. Teams also have to face an instant challenge at the tournament. This is usually something they have to build or a performance they have to present, usually with only a few minutes to prepare.

Getting ready for a Destination Imagination tournament – both the central and instant challenges – involves a lot of teamwork, of the best sort, the kind that doesn’t feel artificial the way “group learning” does in school. This teamwork feels authentic, the way decisions are made in the real world. It fosters independence since team managers and parents have to sign non-interference contracts. It teaches skills and information of all kinds. You never know where a challenge is going to lead exactly. The kids have learned about historic figures, face painting, movie editing, entomology, structural engineering and more. There are always a lot of rules to a challenge, but finding a way to be creative within those boundaries is part of what encourages kids to really stretch themselves. Instead of just a blank canvas, Destination Imagination gives them limitations but asks them to make something anyway, to look for ways to think beyond the limitations.

Really, I can’t sing the praises of this sort of activity enough. As we’ve done this for several years, the kids have gotten into the culture of DI. They collect DI pins, get excited to design their team shirts, know that zany hat wearing is part of being at the DI tournament, come up with silly call backs when the judges ask if they’re ready, and look forward to the generally positive atmosphere at the tournaments. It’s a competition, but the spirit is friendly. Teams tend to be appreciative and inspired by each other. Basically, Destination Imagination is fun even when you lose.

Of course, we’re so proud that the kids won this year. They have dreamed for a few years of getting a chance to attend Global Finals, which is supposed to be both fun and educational. However, we were pretty surprised by the overall cost. Family has helped out and we expect to foot part of the bill, but we did get sticker shock seeing the cost. A lot of teams have the institutional support of their school, but obviously that’s not the case for us. We’re not even part of a large co-op that can raise the money. As such we’ve done what people do these days and set up a GoFundMe to see if we can raise part of the money for the team to attend. Feel free to share.

Shakespeare! (Plus Free Scripts)

Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)
Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)

I haven’t been posting much in the last few weeks because two events have taken over our lives – Destination Imagination (more on that in a post soon) and Shakespeare.

We’re definitely reaching the stage of homeschooling where I can look back through this blog and find exactly the thing I’d like to write again about what we’re up to. And here it is:

Advice for Any Foolhardy Shakespeare Directors Out There

It’s from as we were gearing up to perform Macbeth a couple of years ago. We just wrapped up Much Ado About Nothing, which was by far our most elaborate production. We’ve now done this four different ways and I through all that, I stand by all that advice. To sum it up:

  • The most important thing you need to direct a Shakespeare show with kids is the will to do it. The kids, the scripts, and even the spaces can all fall into place. Most homeschoolers are practically begging to have their kids have an opportunity to do some meaty Shakespeare.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to play theater games and have fun, even right up to the wire. Kids learn things like blocking and projecting their voices that way, plus thinking of rehearsal as a fun time can be important.
  • If you’ve got kids under age 10, have them learn their lines before beginning rehearsals in earnest.  Before about that age, the majority of kids can’t really act and hold a script and read lines all at the same time. Give them some time to learn the lines after handing out roles and then get started, with everyone off book all at once.
  • Don’t underestimate how hard it is for kids to learn blocking. Kids are sponges. Saying a long Shakespeare line – no problem! But remembering not to do it with your back to the audience and standing behind your best friend – that’s hard.
  • Don’t be afraid to be creative with sets and costumes. Or to just be minimal. I’ve had four productions, all with massively different types and amounts of set pieces and costuming. It can work with a ton of cool set things or nothing but a few simple props.
  • The biggest challenge for me has consistently been finding rehearsal and performance spaces. We’ve used someone’s home, a church gym, a local historic building, and a theater space to rehearse. And we’ve performed in two local professional theaters, a church stage, and a big meeting room. This year, I decided to approach the theater where Mushroom has done a couple of shows and see if they’d like to work with me to try and expand their homeschool program. It was nice not to have to scramble for spaces and afforded us some amazing set and costume help. However, there was something nice about keeping costs low and having other parents pitch in to help bring everything to fruition. Both ways can work.

For elementary schoolers, I found Shakespeare with Children by Elizabeth Weinstein to be the best source of scripts. They’re short, with lots of roles for a large group, and with Shakespeare’s original language throughout, except for a narrator. From that, I edited the scripts by taking some of the text away (for The Tempest) or adding some back in (for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, I’ve also cut two plays for us to use ourselves and thought I’d provide those scripts here for anyone to use.

MACBETH SCRIPT

This script was cut extremely short specifically for performance in the twenty minute time limit set by the Folger Library’s Children’s Shakespeare Festival. It could be a good script for a classroom or co-op performance since it’s of a much more limited scope. It includes many roles, but some can be condensed for a smaller cast.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING SCRIPT

This script is about an hour long. This play is often not performed by children because of it has more innuendo than some of the other comedies. Innuendo likely to be understood by children has been removed from this version. Also, Leonato’s condemnation of Hero is greatly softened, as is Hero’s alleged betrayal. We staged our version in the 1920’s with music, but you could stage it in any era. We also had Beatrice sing Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More, Ladies/Hey, Nonny Nonny” at the start of the show. Note: There are a few typos in this script. I went back to fix them and the original version that wasn’t pdf was missing and editing from the pdf was difficult. Oops. So you get the script with the dozen typos though most are very minor. However, there’s an error on page 12 where Don Pedro enters and speaks to Claudio, except he’s not quite on stage yet.

The Book Talk

booktalkIf you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.

I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.

There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.

Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.

Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?

It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.

We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.

Chemistry from ACS

I know that the blog hasn’t had the big science focus that I had a couple of years ago. However, we do still do science regularly with a small group and I facilitate hands on learning and occasionally experiments. Since we did a full cycle of science topics over the course of four years, I decided to ask the kids what they wanted to revisit. First, we did some physics, but next they wanted to take on chemistry, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.

I looked at a lot of different potential resources for teaching chemistry and I thought about using Inquiry in Action from the American Chemical Society, but it seemed too simple with too many things we’d done in the past. I considered doing The Elements from Ellen McHenry, but it was so focused on a single aspect of chemistry and after doing most of The Brain, I knew I liked her products, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this particular program. I thought about doing chemistry the way we always have by doing our own demonstrations and explorations. I bought an excellent book called 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances with that in mind. However, in the end, I decided to go with the American Chemical Society’s free middle school program. Some of the information has to be scaled down a little since I am working with a group of mostly fifth graders and a few younger kids. However, it has been interesting to use an actual, full science curricula for the first time ever.

The cover page of Middle School ChemistryThe program is not long enough to take the whole year. There are six chapters. Doing the bulk of the experiments from each chapter with a small group is taking us about two weeks per chapter. If I had the kids filling out every table and worksheet, this would be different, but often we do most of the hands on stuff together as a demonstration and discussion and I choose one or two activities to have them really do fully on their own with more writing and recording. I haven’t had them do many of the worksheet elements at all. Instead, we’ve talked about the questions on them. However, even if I did, I doubt it would take a full year.

Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections have student and teacher pages. The student pages are extensive instructions with worksheets and tables to fill out. There are often sections with additional science background for the teacher, which I found very useful. Each chapter has a section of student reading, which we have used for each chapter. I like the progression of information, both overall in the program and within each chapter. Sometimes the organization of the information feels a little overwhelming. It would be much more usable as a physical text, but since I have only the pdf, there is a lot of scrolling to do, which isn’t always ideal. There is multimedia available for every chapter, however those pieces are pretty simplistic. Most of them are short animations of models of molecules interacting to imitate what students have just done in their hands on explorations and experiments.

chemistry

The heart of the program is really the hands on element. I liked that the experiments are tied very closely to the information. For the most part they have “worked” the way that we expect. This was not a “household substances” sort of program. Most of the things we’ve needed have been things we have around the house like water and salt, or things that are easy to get like Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, and clear plastic cups. However, many experiments also call for chemistry glass like graduated cylinders and a few call for chemicals you need to special order or seek out particularly, like calcium chloride. Also, special equipment like a ball and ring apparatus, density rods, and density cubes is called for. I spent a decent amount on supplies at Home Science Tools. However, I figure we’ll be glad of having the science glass later on and all of the special equipment I bought turned out to be great fun. The ball and ring apparatus shows how molecules expand when heated. We did that demo several times over because it was fun to see. And the density cubes were great fun to play with. We really enjoyed having them, so they were worth the money. The fact that the program is free helps offset some of the costs of buying classroom type equipment.

Overall, I really like this program. We have shied away from science curricula because nearly everything I’ve seen has felt like busy work with very little hands on components and only poorly written text. This program is really all well-organized, worthwhile experiments. I would still love to have a more engaging, longer text than what the ACS program has, but at least it’s succinct and well-written. I’ve also had to supplement with videos I find myself, but we’ve found a lot of great ones. We’ve especially been enjoying many of the TED Ed videos and we’ve returned to using a lot of the old Eureka! shorts, which have covered the information perfectly. Here’s the TED Ed chemistry playlist. And here’s a playlist for all the Eureka! videos.

I think we might have been better off waiting a year or two to try this program so that some of the things I’ve had to simplify could have been more fully explored. But that’s what happens when you put the kids in charge of what they want to learn. Overall, we’ve been pleased and it gives me hope that while elementary science programs weren’t our cup of tea, we may find more options for serious home science study in the upper grades.