Tag Archives: middle school

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.

In Praise of BalletBoy

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I just want to sing BalletBoy’s praises for a little bit. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how Mushroom’s anxiety is tricky for all of us. He’s smart and insightful and intellectually curious, but he gets in his own way so often that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees and there are things I wish I could have him really working on that he can’t and amazing projects he’d like to do that he stops himself from finishing because of his perfectionism.

On the other hand, BalletBoy has really been blooming academically and it’s really exciting to be on the cusp of seeing him head into seventh grade next year and knowing that I get to plan for this kid who is suddenly, miraculously ready for a challenge.

We’ve really taken a pretty relaxed path for BalletBoy’s schooling overall. He’s on grade level for math. We don’t have a long list of required books. He does just a few serious pieces of writing every school year.

However, in the last several months, I’ve been so impressed by how he can suddenly sit down and work independently on schoolwork happily and competently. He doesn’t need me sitting there at his side any more. His reading has taken off. A couple of years ago, I dismayed about getting both my boys to read higher level nonfiction, but we worked on it and last week, I was able to hand BalletBoy a copy of Collapse by Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame) and have him read a lengthy section on his own. He used sticky notes to write notes all over the margins that included good summary notes, insightful questions, and connections to other readings he had done on the topic. He will read nearly anything I put before him (if it’s for school – he’s a picky reader in his own time). When I give him an open-ended assignment, like to write about an historical character, he takes the initiative to do some research on his own then cheerfully writes something pretty decent, typed, of course. He has deep questions about philosophy and history and science.

When I taught middle school, there was often a miraculous jump that kids experienced from sixth to seventh grade. They left for the summer looking and acting like little kids and suddenly came back ready to be so grown-up and insightful. BalletBoy is still so little in so many ways. He and Mushroom and their friends still enjoy imaginary games and cartoons and middle grade novels instead of more grown up YA books. However, in other ways, I see that he has suddenly grown up a little academically and is ready for more.

Sometimes Mushroom sucks all the air out of the room, which means that, when given the same assignment, BalletBoy finishes it fast and reasonably well while Mushroom demands that he keep working until it’s downright amazing. I’m trying to start calling BalletBoy on his “good enough” work a little more and push him a little more, give him a little of the oxygen in the room, so to speak. We’re slowly dividing up everything the boys do so that within the next few months, they probably won’t be studying any of the same things with any of the same materials. I think it’s going to benefit BalletBoy greatly.

For one thing, I’m looking forward to really making him dive in with more reading, at a higher level. I’m looking forward to seeing him define his own path for study and seeing where it goes. I’m especially excited to have a student who’s just ready for more. He still can get frustrated or stuck or try to get away with doing only a little. However, he’s ready for more.

He’s also ready for more ballet. He moves to four days a week next year and will probably add an extra fifth class as well. BalletBoy’s determination and dedication, both to ballet and to other projects he starts up, take me by surprise routinely. He’ll find a contest he wants to enter and suddenly he’ll set aside any his free time and screens to work on it for days until he reaches some sense of satisfaction. Ballet is a project that never reaches completion. He’s honest with himself about his failings (he’d never say he was the best in his level) and his successes. While I don’t think of him as a serious kid, people at ballet often tell me they think of him as such a “serious young man” which is amusing but also, when I think about it, so true.

Basically, right now, it’s a delight to see BalletBoy growing up, turning into the person he’s going to be.

The Loss of Confidence

Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.
Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.

I didn’t mean to take a several months long blog break. Sorry, y’all.

Did anyone else read about this study? Articles about it ran everywhere over the last few months, though that Wall Street Journal one is one of the more in depth takes. The gist is that parents of middle schoolers are the most depressed, unsure, and stressed. To those of you out there with middle schoolers, it probably comes as no surprise. I used to teach middle school and it makes perfect sense to me, but it still surprised me a little how hard this year has hit me.

Several of the news summaries of the study pointed out that even the most confident parents tend to second guess themselves in the middle school years. Isn’t it a little disconcerting when you fit a profile to such a tee? I don’t always think I’m doing thing right or perfect, but I am usually beyond confident that I’m doing okay and that it’ll all work out. That feeling went out the window over the last few months.

The main source of our struggles have been Mushroom’s anxiety. I’ve written about it before and there’s not some grand new insight I can share. However, it has forced us to change school dramatically and forced me to feel downtrodden and despondent on several occasions as I see him cry and struggle, both emotionally and, as a result, academically as well. When things are going well, he can solve any math problem, spell well enough to not look illiterate, read longer articles and discuss them with intelligence. That mostly went out the window over the last few months.

We’ve switched over to focusing on workbooks for Mushroom, which was painful to me in some ways to hand a child a pile of Evan-Moor and Critical Thinking workbooks and call it proper school, but I think it’s helping to have work that’s beyond straightforward and simple instead of complex projects and open ended discovery based math. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to teach the child you have and not the child you want.

And some things are going really well. BalletBoy is writing up a storm of bizarre crossover fanfiction. They’ve both been flying through a pile of reading about the Mayans and having fun learning about what made the Mayan civilization fall. Mushroom built a cool robot at his makerspace. BalletBoy advanced his level in ballet. They both read and enjoyed The Giver for school and had a bunch of cool conversations about it. Both of them immediately saw the parallels to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which made me feel like they got something out of our fall philosophy study.

And now it’s summer. We keep doing school in summer and Mushroom has maybe maybe turned a corner for now. So while I’m sure that I’ll keep second guessing myself more than ever, things keep moving on with highlights and lowlights. I just have to remember to focus on the positives. I love middle schoolers, really. The fact that it’s a tough time is part of the magic of the age.