Tag Archives: middle school

Organization is More Than Notebooks and Shelves

Hey! Did I mention that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school? There are hardly any books specifically about the middle school years and I really think there should be one. Middle schoolers are… well, they’re the best. Prickly, passionate, wild, playful, deep thinkers. They’re great. Anyway, here’s a second little snippet. This one is from the chapter I am working on about organization. I really cracked myself up with this one because I am not someone who is beautifully organized. To prove it, here’s a photo of what our homeschool space, which doubles as the dining room, looks like.

Partway through writing this section, I paused and looked at my notes and figuratively scratched my head. I’m probably the last person who should try writing The Life Changing Homeschool Magic of Tidying Up. I’m not that organized. If you saw our dining room, where we do most of our schoolwork, then you wouldn’t be especially impressed by our shelves or our messy bins of stuff. We’re not homeschool magazine cover-worthy. Not even close. I also don’t keep extensively organized planners or binders. We don’t do things like workboxes or any of the other fancy organization systems that some homeschoolers use. Why, then, did I think organization was worth a full chapter and so many words?

The real focus of your homeschool should be your kids, not your planners. Middle school requires us to be especially flexible. When homeschooling is at its best, we’re being flexible and dynamic. We are engaging our kids and making sure they’re progressing while giving them space to be themselves. We’re honoring that sometimes they roll their eyes and sometimes they get excited about ancient Egyptian tombs or quantum physics. We’re letting them wander around in circles for half an hour and then bringing them back to that math book without judgment.

On the other hand, without at least some modicum of organization, the whole thing can fall apart. Luckily, we don’t have to keep detailed records like in high school, when transcripts and college admittance is on the line. However, I think keeping the chaos of middle school somewhat organized can be a real challenge. There will still be papers, books, schedules, and projects to keep in some sort of order. How will you assign work or give feedback? How will you show up on time or encourage kids to be responsible for their assignments or things?

At the end of middle school, one of my sons needed a middle school transcript for a program he was considering. As we compiled it, I looked at the myriad of things we did and thought about how it needed to be molded into some sort of sense. What was an elective or an extracurricular? How did a study of microscopic stream life and several months building model rockets add up to science? Of course, it all looked fine on paper in the end. You can make it come together however you need to. If I had wanted to, I could have just written “Math 7” followed by “Math 8” and “History 6” followed by “History 7” and “History 8.” However, I wanted to be a little bit honest, so I put down “Science of Flight” and “Graphic Design” and other units he’d done. I was struck by how piecemeal it seemed, but also how diverse and accomplished. He seemed like such a serious young kid when I looked at all the things he had done on paper.

Middle school is wild unexpected like that. When you’re teaching a child to read, at the start of the year, they’re struggling through basic readers and maybe a year later they’re casually reading Frog and Toad or even a Magic Treehouse book. However, in middle school, sometimes it can be harder to pinpoint these particular triumphs. It’s even harder if you have a middle schooler who gets a case of spaciness or grouchiness. In the day to day, you can easily begin to feel like you’re running in place without ever getting anywhere.

Organization can actually help with all of this. It can help you organize your thoughts, make sure you stay reasonably on track amidst a chaotic life, and help you pause and reflect so you can see that progress.

I’ve seen amazing homeschoolers who can’t see how amazing they are because they’re disorganized. I’ve also seen homeschools brought down by a lack of organization. It’s not that the homeschool was actually failing, just that the parent couldn’t feel a sense of success and couldn’t keep up with the chaos of growing kids. Middle school is tough. You need some level of organization to fall back on.

Organization is more than just where you keep the pens and the notebooks. You should have places for those, sure. However, organization is really the underlying way that we communicate with our kids, give them essential feedback, reflect on what we’re doing, and make changes going forward. Organization is how we structure our days and where we put our attention. Organization is how your system runs. It decides what happens and what stays just an idea. That’s super important stuff that deserves some of your attention.

This is not to say that I think you need to suddenly become an office supply advertisement. Some people do love to have systems that include tons of bits and pieces. It can help to have the right piece of paper in front of you every morning, or the right app open on your phone helping remind you to stay the course or at least record the veering course for posterity. However, your systems can also be pretty simple.

Let’s just be honest. Simple systems are best, but even simple systems tend toward chaos. No matter what organization system you implement, it won’t be perfect. This isn’t to entreat you to work toward perfection. Just like how your student is going to work through a messy, chaotic time in their life, you guiding them through it will also likely be a little messy and chaotic.

My main goal is that you recognize that organization can be a linchpin in your homeschool. It can make or break things. That’s why it’s worthy of your attention and thoughtfulness. But also, don’t judge yourself when your systems inevitably don’t work out or don’t keep up. Just reflect on what’s working, let go of what you don’t need, and revise what you do need.

Finding Empathy

One of the amazing things about watching kids grow up is watching them evolve as aware humans. Little kids are, by their nature, mostly self-centered. They have these moments of deep kindness, but also moments of sheer lack of understanding of others’ emotions or views.

One of the most beautiful things about having adolescents is seeing them fully emerge from that younger, naturally narcissistic viewpoint, to becoming kids who can really appreciate others, and empathize with them.

I feel like with teens, they can be moody, prickly, and self-centered at times. It can be easy to fall into this trap of seeing them as uncaring or unfeeling toward others. But the reality is that they’re not. One reason that young adolescents sometimes seem extra concerned with their image is that they can suddenly see that not everyone sees the world or themselves the way they do.

I think, as a parent, you have to catch them being their best selves. You have to catch them when they’re coming out of their shells to do kind things.

BalletBoy spent all year volunteering at his ballet studio, teaching a class of little kids. He did several volunteer stints at a soup kitchen by his own request. When he passes homeless people on the street, he stops and gives them his own money.

Recently, our lives were upended very briefly when we rushed to be at my grandmother’s side as she lay in hospice, dying. Every time he came into the room, Mushroom went to her side and greeted her. Even after she lost consciousness, he spoke to her and told her he was there and that he loved her. He didn’t shy away from holding her hand or touching her.

You guys, teens are the best. Young kids are special and wonderful too, but teens have so much more understanding and nuance. We’re really just at the start of the teenage journey, and I like to gripe about it sometimes. They are moody and sarcastic and all the things teenagers are. They ignore me and roll their eyes too. But they also have these moments of empathy and caring that go beyond the gestures I saw from them when they were little. It’s so beautiful and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.

The boys hugging their great-grandmother last fall.

Middle Schoolers

I mentioned before that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school. Then I joked on social media that another one of the things I’m not doing is blogging, but I really am working on this.

It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more resources targeted to homeschoolers and prospective homeschoolers about how middle school is the right time for homeschooling. I believe in homeschooling these difficult, glorious, crazy years so much! They’re so rewarding. The relationship you’ll have with your kids is so rewarding. The teaching and learning you’ll do is so rewarding. I know it’s not for everyone. Homeschooling never will be. But middle school. Think about it.

Anyway, with that in mind, below is a little except of what I’ve been working on.

Look at those grown up kids!

The kid you start middle school with will not be the kid you finish with.

The kid you start sixth grade with will probably be short. They will probably still have toys and enjoy some imaginative play, even if the toys are now more collectables and the imaginative play is sophisticated. They’ll still love playgrounds and enjoy children’s museums. Your son will still have a little kid voice. Your daughter may not be wearing a bra yet. They’ll probably be comfortable in their bodies and confident on the playground. Most of them will be natural early risers and may even get up before you if you’re not a morning person.

They’ll start out in all different places academically, but it won’t be unusual if your new sixth grader can’t yet write an essay or a short story on their own or still struggles with things like operations with fractions. Even your gifted writers will probably sound young in their writing. They’ll often be more focused on facts and trivia than deeper analysis. A lot of them will still be very black and white in how they see the world, with everything either good or evil and not a lot in between. While they’ll be well past learning to cut a straight line with scissors, a sizable number may still struggle with small motor skills that you keep thinking they “should” have mastered by now, like neatly measuring the flour or not overusing all the glue.

The kid you graduate eighth grade with will be tall. Your daughters will likely be close to their adult heights. They’ll look mature and be able to wear adult clothes. They’ll be ready to start shaving if they choose. Your sons will still be growing, but many of them will be taller than their mothers with shoes as big as their father’s. A few of them may have even shaved for the first time. Their bodies will surprise even them sometimes. Your boys may bump into things because they don’t realize they take up so much space. Even your girls may seem to regress in their physical abilities for awhile. Hopefully, they’re starting to be comfortable in these new bodies by the time they head to high school, but it’s not unusual for many of them not to be completely at ease yet. They’ll like to sleep in and may even need to be prodded out of bed every morning to ensure that they don’t stay up half the night.

They’ll mostly be finished playing with toys and make believe. Their interests will feel more grown up. The kid who loved to play will be channeling it into sports even more than before, the kid who loved imaginary games will be playing roleplaying games, the kid who loved to color will be doing art with more serious materials, the kid who loved to tinker will be building things that are more sophisticated. It’ll be a subtle difference, but their interests will seem serious and not like childhood fancies.

Academically, they’ll still be all over the place, but the leaps in skill you’ll see will be stunning. Barring learning differences, your student who struggled to write a paper will sort of have the hang of it. Your student who kept forgetting how to add fractions will be puzzling out algebra problems. Your students who started out ahead of their peers may be dipping into college lectures and work worthy of high school credits. The students who seemed to revel in trivia and expertise will have mostly moved away from listing fact after fact to ask you big questions. In fact, they’ll all be asking these big questions more often, and be more interested in questions that don’t have easy, black and white answers.

Like I said, the kid you finish middle school with won’t be the kid you started with.

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.

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.

Halfway There

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A sudden realization struck me not long ago. We are halfway there. The kids are firmly into seventh grade. We’ve passed the halfway mark on homeschool. Actually, if you include kindergarten, we passed it a ways back on the road, breezing past, minding our own business, not appreciating the scenery.

Will we do high school? It’s a question I get often lately and I admit that every time I see someone who is sticking with it so far, it’s first on my lips as well. It would have broken my heart to send the kids to elementary school, but I would have done it if it had been necessary. Middle school is not negotiable. No way can they go and now that we’re past sixth grade, if I were to die horribly tomorrow, I really hope the Husband would just keep them home and unschool them. Because I think it would be time better spent overall.

But high school? Right now, we’re in. BalletBoy is definitely in. Mushroom is maybe, probably in.

Everyone says that homeschooling is a marathon, not a sprint. I have given that advice myself many times. Don’t let yourself tire out, don’t overdo it, keep in mind that you’ve got time and it’s a long journey. All that good advice. I think we’ve mostly done it. There have been times I tried to sprint toward nothingness – toward reading too soon, toward better spelling, toward history books that were too hard. But mostly I think we’ve taken the right roads. We have just kept moving, kept doing something, not overthinking it too much.

And Mushroom and BalletBoy are mostly thriving. There are micro-things that I would love to change. When will BalletBoy remember to capitalize anything, even down to his own name? Will Mushroom ever be able to spell? Will BalletBoy forget how to do long division without be giving him the evil eye every single time he hasn’t practiced it for a week?

But the macro-things are mostly pretty good. BalletBoy writes lovely stories and is starting to write half decent essays. Mushroom dives into math with love and explains to me things in Mathematics: A Human Endeavor with a natural ease that is foreign to me as a math novice. Mushroom isn’t about to win any essay contests, but he’s getting more confident with writing. BalletBoy will be ready for Algebra I before the end of the year. BalletBoy has such a passion for dance. Mushroom is coaching a group of little kids for Destination Imagination. Mushroom likes to read now. Both of them are detail oriented and organized enough to carry out complex projects and make beautiful things. Both of them are kind and thoughtful and have interesting things to say. Sometimes they disagree with me.

It’s nice to take a moment to just say, hey, there’s still a long road ahead, but we’ve covered a lot of ground behind us. And we’ve done it mostly by being willing to just keep going and do something as we went.