Tag Archives: writing

More Secret Codes

Okay, I promise, my last gushing review of Brave Writer’s new Partnership Writing, but we really did have such fun doing the first project about secret codes.

I checked out several secret code books from the library.  For the most part, they were all the same, just from different eras and with slight variations.  We found Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko to be the most useful.  I liked that there were anecdotes from history about secret codes, several of which we read aloud.  We also found some good extensions for the project in here for once we finished all the suggested avenues in Partnership Writing.

We did two that I thought were worth sharing.  First, I left the kids a message in cipher for them to find in the morning, along with several clues on how to solve it.  It told them where to find special strawberry muffins.  Since this was basically a cryptoquote, I left the book open to a page with this information about the most common letters, short words, double letters and so forth in English.  It took them a long time, but they did decipher it.  I was really proud of their persistence.  And while it was a tough activity and not for every kid at this stage of writing, I thought it involved a lot of good language thinking.  Enough that we might try it again with another baked good and a new hiding place at some point.


Next, after doing a book cipher that was suggested in Partnership Writing, we took it to another level by writing the plain text ourselves.  Mushroom and BalletBoy each came up with a message to hide in a letter.  They wrote the letters and scattered the words for the secret message inside them.  I helped them edit for spelling, then we typed them up.  Then, they carefully cut out a special key for reading the letter.  When you lay the key on top of the letter, it reveals the secret message with carefully cut out holes.


To create the key, I printed two copies of the letter in a nice, large type.  The first one was set aside.  The second one was taped to a sheet of blank paper that would become the key.  We used an x-acto knife to cut out the words of the message from the letter.  When we separated the letter copy from the blank paper, the blank paper became the key and the cut up letter went to the recycle bin.


We never do anything quite the way it’s proscribed, so we didn’t follow the routine in Partnership Writing to the letter.  However, we had a blast.  We’ll take a week or so off and just continue our routine of dictations, poetry teas, narrations, and reading then dive into the next project.

Secret Codes

Some of you probably know that a new Brave Writer product just came out called Partnership Writing.  We got it and dove right in.  It’s on sale until the end of June, at which point the price goes up a bit, so if you’re considering it, then I say go ahead.

It’s intended for kids age 9-10, but I found that my still 8 year-olds are the perfect stage for the projects.  The first half of the book covers some familiar ground to anyone who has already read The Writer’s Jungle.  It explains narrations, poetry teas, movie times and other Brave Writer lifestyle ideas.  The second half lays out ten writing projects.  Some of them involve very light writing, like this first one, but others are more involved.  All of them are creative and fun.

We had just finished a letter writing project, so we were ready for something new and started up on the secret codes project right away and have done several activities with it.  This also allowed us to pull out a fun resource we hadn’t used in a long time: Secret Code cards from Usborne.  These are really fun and have dozens of different types of secret codes for kids to decipher that range from easy to very difficult.

BalletBoy writes a treasure hunt in secret code.

So far, our favorite part of the secret codes project has been making a treasure hunt in a cipher.  Here’s one of those activities that’s made for twins, as BalletBoy and Mushroom made hunts for each other.  Clue treasure hunts have been a learning staple of our household for a long time.  When the boys were small, we used them as a way to practice reading, then as they got older and could write them, we used them as a way of practicing writing.  We moved from reading clues like, “tub” and “hat” to clues like “look inside the coldest place in the house.”  Doing a hunt in a secret code was a new twist though.

Mushroom decodes the treasure hunt.
Mushroom decodes the treasure hunt.

We’re looking forward to tackling the rest of these projects as well.  Earlier in the year, I had said the writing project was the Brave Writer piece that was the most uneven for us.  We got much better about it by using opportunities like letter writing, local essay contests, and stories the kids have started as our projects, but I’m glad to have a set of easy, fun projects for us to do.



photo (93)

I feel like I’m in a constant state of recalibrations as a parent.  The house and the homeschool are this incredibly complex, busy, multifaceted machine and it’s my job to constantly oil it, take readings, and generally do whatever tinkering engineers do on fancy machines.

Take our schedule and routine.  We started the year with little whiteboards for each boy that had a list of all the things we might do in a week, from copywork to a page in a workbook to watch a documentary.  At the start of the week, I would put little boxes next to all the tasks and we would slowly check everything off.  Worked great for a couple of months.  Then it was time for a recalibration.  I relabeled things on the little boards and would start the day by putting the boxes to check off.  Much more manageable.  Worked great.  And then…  it fell by the wayside because it was less great.  The other day, I peeled off the task labels so I could use the boards.  Time to recalibrate.  Lately, if we’re having a really full school day I list much more specific tasks on the easel board.  We need the checklists a little less in part because starting the day with our morning work routine gets us going.

Right now, I am loving the morning work.  I leave out simple things like math drills and grammar practice sheets.  I leave out more complex things like Wakeruppers pages and math puzzles.  I also leave out creative assignments like art challenges.  Will we still be doing morning work in a year?  Honestly, who knows.  It might have to be recalibrated.

The latest recalibration was that I realized we had drifted away from doing enough for language arts and writing.  We have still been at the poetry teas and have been plugging away at dictations, but we haven’t been as consistent with anything as I would like.  This is in part because we were playing with introducing All About Spelling to our routine and letting spelling be a big focus for Mushroom for the last couple of months.  Not a big deal.  We were like an old clock losing time.  I just needed to recalibrate.

One thing I’ve been trying to get back to especially is doing more narrations.  Mushroom wrote this one about butterflies and I think it’s his best writing for a narration yet (spelling and capitalization corrected, but nothing else changed):

First, the mother butterfly flies across the sky.  Eight hundred eggs come out of her or more.  All the eggs fall on different leaves.  As the eggs grow up they shed their skin.  They turn very colorful with yellow and black stripes.  The larva can only eat milkweed at this stage. Milkweed has poison in it that they can eat.  When they eat a lot of it other creatures that eat them get poisoned.

The time has come to make the chrysalis.  The butterfly makes a chrysalis.  At the top, there’s a silkmat.  Below the top there is a cremaster that sticks the chrysalis on to the tree.  The caterpillar changes into a butterfly.

I am always glad to recalibrate.  I feel like we’re always in search of that right balance with enough rigor, enough free time, enough fun projects, enough boring math practice, enough field trips, and so on and so forth.  It will, of course, never be perfect, but that’s okay.  As long as we keep tinkering and recalibrating instead of stagnating, then I assume the machine will just on humming along.

Helping Mushroom Learn to Write

I posted a couple weeks back about Mushroom’s epic, epic school tantrum about handwriting wherein I made him shape up (literally, shape his letters more correctly) and I ended up with a kid in tears most of the day.

Well, I can report that it has greatly helped his copywork handwriting, which now looks like this.  There are still some of those scale issues that led to the tantrum in the first place, but it’s a massive improvement over just a couple of weeks ago.

Does that mean I was right to come down hard and make him go through that?  I still don’t know the answer.  He’s an anxious kid sometimes and it was a trying, terrible time.  He is so vulnerable and I find it hard to strike a balance between helping him move forward and helping him feel affirmed and loved.

Here’s what I do know.  Mushroom has decided in the last few months that he wants to be a writer when he grows up (no more dreams of being a chef and he now disdains the kitchen!).  He began filling up page after page of writing.  He just keeps going and going.  Some of his story ideas are clever and creative.  Some of his sentences are complex and well-thought out.  He naturally understands many things about story structure and even metaphor, which just amazes me from an 8 year-old.  But while some sentences are lovely, others get lost in the middle and don’t even make sense.  Sometimes his spelling is so bad he can’t even read what he’s written.  His handwriting is none so lovely as his copywork, that’s for sure.

Still, I really want to honor these rambling, scattered pages of his.  He is pouring his soul into them and is so happy and proud of himself.  Handwriting, spelling, and everything else can come because I know he has that core of creativity and understanding of story.  Julie Bogart talks a lot about being on the side of your child as a writer in The Writer’s Jungle and I am trying to be on his side by loving these stories yet still helping him become more coherent so other people can love them too.  Right now, he decidedly doesn’t want to do any revisions or have me type them up, so I’m holding off.

In the interest of finding that coherence, I have had him write out and post on the bookshelves (we have no wall space, something you may have noticed if you’ve noticed our schoolhouse pictures) a list of the 100 most commonly used words in English.  The rule is that he must spell these, at least, correctly.  When I catch one misspelled, he must write it out correctly several times, which he has done a few times since we posted them.  It does seem to be helping a little.

I also gave in and bought All About Spelling.  Groan.  Not groan because it’s a bad program, which it’s clearly not.  Groan because it’s expensive and scripted with lots of bits and pieces and therefore not my style in any way, shape, or form.  So far we’ve flown through the introductory steps in Level One and he likes the confidence he’s gaining from it and the fact that there’s now an enormous white board stashed behind the easel that’s just for him.  The real test will be when we get to double letters and the ck rule, which will happen very soon.  I’ve been working on that with him for…  oh, three years or so.  If AAS manages to teach it to him, then I’ll be a convert and they can sell me all the bits and pieces they like.

Our language arts program continues to be based on the Bravewriter “lifestyle.”  We do copywork or dictation, freewriting, narration, and the poetry tea reading once a week each.  We round that out with piles of read alouds, piles of independent reads, grammar mostly through living books, and language games on hand.  A few weeks ago, I was having a bit of a crisis about Mushroom’s writing, but I’m feeling more confident and hopeful now than I was before.

Cross your fingers for no more epic tantrums.

Language Arts

Bravewriter inspired me to make more of a language arts routine, and we’ve been slowly implementing different elements of that.  It’s mostly things we were doing already, but having more of a routine for some elements has really helped me feel like we’re moving forward and “doing something” for writing, in particular.  I’m sure it doesn’t hurt either that both Mushroom and BalletBoy have reached a sort of tipping point with writing fluency and, in BalletBoy’s case, spelling so they can easily write a full page in their composition books.

Language arts is such a gooey, mushy concept with so many different pieces that it’s enough to drive someone crazy.  There’s handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, poetry, literature, reading mechanics, reading comprehension, creative writing, and the list could go on.  There aren’t a lot of programs that cover all the elements together, making it feel like you have to have a dozen different things for it.  I like that Bravewriter has helped me calm that instinct down a great deal.  As of now, we have Spelling Plus, which I have mostly on hold, though we’ll pick it back up again before too long.  Both kids are finishing up formal phonics learning with Explode the Code (though BalletBoy should finish the last book before the autumn).  I might do MCT’s Grammar Island for a short term grammar study in the fall.  But other than that, we’re just following a routine.

Here’s what language arts looks like around here lately:

Monday: copywork or dictation
Tuesday: writing projects
Wednesday: poetry lemonade social
Thursday: written narration, usually for history or science
Friday: freewriting

Everyday: evening read aloud chapter books, independent free reading
As it occurs: Mad Libs, movies, new vocabulary from books, audiobooks in the car, casual discussions about literary elements and plots

As we’ve eased into this schedule, I’m feeling good about it.  We’ve been alternating copywork and dictation mostly and I’ve been taking the passages mostly from our current read alouds.  It’s the thing that is most likely to meet with resistance, though both kids are improving at it.  We’ve been uneven with projects.  Bravewriter suggests one per month and we haven’t quite done that, but both kids are engaged in writing fan fiction (for The Mighty B strangely enough in Mushroom’s case) and have started small blogs about their passions.  Because of our schedule, Wednesday works better for poetry for us, and we’re not really tea drinkers so we have lemonade in wine glasses, which is about as fancy as I can muster.

A picture the Husband snapped of our poetry lemonade social. With brownies. We don’t have nice china, but I do bring out the nice napkins.

One thing I’m trying to work on for myself is bringing conversations about literature and story into a more casual, book club style.  We’ve run through a slew of novels with strong first person voice lately (The Great BrainOur Only May Amelia, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg…) so I’ve been pointing out a lot about voice lately, trying to get the kids to discuss.  And I’ve been trying to let myself pause more and allow Mushroom to share his joy when he recognizes foreshadowing (he’s quite good at realizing that ominous things are about to happen in a novel) and then to name it as such.  I feel like this is the way the kids will really learn how to appreciate literature, by talking about it and learning how to do that in a casual way.

When I wrote a few months ago about Bravewriter, I said I was definitely still in the honeymoon phase with it.  I can’t say if I still am or not, but if so, at least it’s a long honeymoon.  I’m at last feeling like language arts is something that is fun and easy in our homeschool and not something I need to worry about so much.

BalletBoy Writes…

Now that we’re finally back to schooling, I had the kids pick photos from our Africa trip they wanted to write about.  BalletBoy chose to write about this picture of us about to zip line across the Zambezi Gorge.

Here’s what he originally wrote:

one day in Zimbobwe we went on a zipline. it was not scary. It was really fun. you have to get in a jacket because the jacket cunexs to the harnes. it was amazing.

We still need to work on that capitalization, huh?  Otherwise, though, I’m so proud of his writing.  It’s readable, the spelling is decent, and it only takes him a few completely drama-free minutes.  The only thing he asked was how to make “really” say “reeeeaallly” and I suggested underlining.

However, he didn’t want to add a thing.  Not only that, but he was resistant to changing anything any of his photo freewrites.  As I didn’t give him a formula, he invented his own.  Every single photo freewriting he did began with some variation on the same phrase, “One day in Africa…” and ended with, “It was amazing.”  When I gently tried suggesting some alternate beginnings for some of the paragraphs he wrote, he said, “But, Farrar, I’m not writing that. I’m a ‘One day’ writer.  You know, one day I did this or that.”  Oh my.

So, trying to follow the Bravewriter system, I worked on revising it with him and we focused on adding details about the senses.  What did he see, feel, smell, taste and hear?  BalletBoy has never loved doing oral narrations.  Me clicking away on the computer as he talks is always an inhibiting distraction that he’s never quite learned to put up with.  However, he was much more okay with me writing on his paper with notes that he could arrange.  Here’s the revised version once we had corrected the capitalization and spelling together and changed just a couple of details:

One day in Zimbabwe, we went on a zip line across Victoria Falls. It was not scary. It was really fun. You have to get in a jacket because the jacket connects to the harness. I heard the waterfall and the river. It felt kind of like falling, but I knew I wasn’t. The zip line you hold is smooth and hard. I held it for the whole time. I heard a click that scared Farrar. It budged me to the side. I felt a breeze. I saw a little bit of the waterfall, the rocks, the shore of the river, and the other side of the zip line, which is in Zambia. At the end, the worker came down the zip line to get us. I’m glad I did it.

It still starts, “One day…” but it’s obviously better this way.  I think it’s rather good for a seven year-old.  He grinned when we read it at the end, so I know he felt proud too.

Hallelujah, I Found a Language Arts Program I Actually Like!

If you know me, you know I’m incredibly, annoyingly opinionated.  I usually know what I think.  And having written and taught writing at the secondary level for years, I had some opinions about writing – how to teach it, what was really important, what my philosophy was and so forth.

Then something dreadful happened.  I had to teach my own young children to write.

And slowly, over the course of the last three years, I’ve become more and more at sea.  I honestly was at the point where I didn’t know what in the world I thought.  I knew that there were some resources that we had tried or looked at that I didn’t like and a few that I did.  I saw, after fighting it for ages, that copywork, narration and dictation were useful for the kids, but I couldn’t fit them into any larger philosophical framework that satisfied me.  There were a lot of things I had believed that I wasn’t even sure were true anymore.

What I really wanted was a book or a curriculum that would make me feel about teaching writing the way something like Bird by Bird or If You Want to Write makes me feel about writing itself.  Yet every time I tried to read anything, it either didn’t resonate with my experiences as a writer or as a writing teacher or it made me want to throw things.

And then, a little more than a week ago, I heard Julie Bogart speak.  Can I just say, I think I have a little homeschool crush on her now.  Julie Bogart is the author of The Writer’s Jungle, which is the foundation of the Bravewriter program.  I had looked at Bravewriter before and couldn’t figure it out (more on that if you scroll down a little ways) and it’s not cheap enough to just try, so it remained something I had heard was good, not something I knew anything much about.

Practically everything Julie Bogart said in her talk and her book is either stuff I used to believe, say and do or new ideas that really resonated with me.  The Writer’s Jungle is exactly that book I was looking for that would make me feel about teaching writing the way good books about writing make me feel about writing itself.  It made me feel more confident in my kids, myself, and in my end goals, which are much more in keeping with Bravewriter’s goals, than any other method or curriculum with which I’ve flirted.  The end goal of the Bravewriter program is to create kids who like writing, aren’t intimidated by it and have lifelong writing skills, which are not necessarily the same as academic writing skills.

I’m still such a jumble of thoughts, that I’m just going to list some of the notes I’ve jotted down as I read her book and listened to her talk.

  • Create routines, not schedules (Advice I’ve always followed and given in regards to practically every other aspect of homeschooling!  Why was this so hard to envision for writing and language arts?)
  • Be your child’s ally and supporter for writing.  Believe your child will be able to write.  Make writing feel safe.
  • It can all be fixed later in the teen years.  (Having taught some abysmal teen writers who were able to turn around and write solid, if not award-winning, essays, I always used to believe this and somehow lost sight of it in the last three years.)
  • Creating a language-rich environment by reading good books and appreciating words is more important that doing grammar lessons for making good writers.
  • Writing daily isn’t important.
  • Getting kids to write about what they’re passionate about is important, but giving them vague open-ended assignments isn’t the way to do it (as in, “write about your favorite…” kinds of assignments, which make kids feel at sea about what to do).
  • Don’t confuse revision with editing for mechanics.
  • Don’t be afraid to help kids.  It’s scaffolding, not cheating!

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I had heard about Bravewriter, looked at the website, and not been able to figure out what in the world you were even buying if you purchased it.  And I’ll just say from the get go that despite how much I am liking this, I don’t know that I can justify the expense at all.  It’s very expensive for a program that relies on you as the parent to do so much of the planning and implementing.  They support the program and Julie Bogart says she emails with parents constantly.  However, other curriculum authors do the same for much, much less.  It does go on sale at HSBC periodically, helping ease the price a good bit.  So to help you out, here’s what I now understand are the purchasable elements that I figured out:

  • The Writer’s Jungle is just a book (though bound in a big binder if you buy the hard copy) about the philosophy of the program, though it contains lots of examples, assignments and even schedules.
  • The Wand is a thin supplement of mostly copywork and narration exercises for K-2nd grade.  If you subscribe, they send you one for each month.  There are three levels in The Wand.
  • The Arrow is a thin supplement for grades 3-8 that shows how to make loose lessons around a single read aloud book.  There is dictation, a literary element to discuss and a writing assignment.  If you subscribe, they also send you one for each month.  However, if you, like me, have already read half the books for the year, you can pick and choose back issues to buy and use instead.
  • Bravewriter also offers a book about high school writing and an ever-changing slate of online courses for kids grades 3 and up.

This is absolutely not an open and go program like, well, practically any of the other writing programs out there.  If you want a strong grammar program, consider Michael Clay Thomas.  If you want open and go copywork and grammar, consider First Language Lessons and Writing With Ease.  If you want a workbook style program consider Evan-Moor’s Six Trait Daily Writing or Winning With Writing.  I could keep going suggesting other things I’ve looked at and been unsatisfied by that fall into these categories.

But if you want an approach that you tailor for your child, then this could be it.  They literally call it the “Bravewriter lifestyle,” which initially kind of turned me off, but having read about it more now, I see what they’re trying to get at.  It’s about making those routines instead of schedules.  The most famous of these is the “Tuesday Tea and Poetry” that has gained popularity among a lot of homeschoolers, but there are others, such as designating days to do different types of writing and reading assignments.

I’m obviously still in the honeymoon phase with this.  I needed something that helped me integrate these old-fashioned basics of copywork, narration and dictation along with the ideas I had formed in my writing and teaching life over the years.  I’ll let you know how implementing it all goes.  However, I feel more assured than I have about anything else we’ve tried with writing.  I think step one in my detox will have to be stopping reading all internet discussions of the “right” way to teach writing.

Writing, Writing, More Writing

A lot of random thoughts about writing from our winter schooling.

BalletBoy has had yet another of his little leaps in skill.  Sometimes I think it’s completely pointless that I even bother teaching this child.  He plugs along seemingly learning nothing then, suddenly, breaks out and has learned all kinds of things, including things I’ve taught and things I haven’t.  Right now, it’s all about writing for him.  It’s mostly rather dull writing, but his handwriting is suddenly so readable!  His spelling is so decent!  His thoughts are all in complete sentences!  He remembers periods (if not capitals)!

As you can see below, he writes something (in this case, about what he would see if he went back to each geologic era) and then we edit it together.  Amusingly, I ask him to chose a color for my edits and he almost always picks red.  Mostly, I ask him to find specific things (“Do you see any letters that should be capitalized?”) and I show him things he may not know.  In the one below, we talked about how the second sentence would actually have made a better first sentence.

Mushroom isn’t there yet, but he’s improving steadily.  It’s with writing that I’m really seeing how he’s never going to be a child who had sudden leaps.  He’ll probably always be a steady improver.  We’re working on some persistent handwriting issues (his “n” and “h” are frequently interchangeable, for example) and his spelling is rather unreadable sometimes, but he has a lot less resistance to sitting down and writing a sentence or two on his own.

As you can see, we do the same thing with editing his sentences (or, usually, sentence, singular).  In the one below, I just asked him to write one thing he had learned about a book we’d just read together about volcanoes.  Then I had him recopy it below.

A friend suggested the book Your Child’s Writing Life by Pam Allyn for our homeschool book club so I downloaded and read the introduction.  To say it didn’t resonate with me is a bit of an understatement.  I’m a writer.  I’ve written for pleasure all my life.  I love writing.  I believe nearly anyone can learn to write beautifully and can find things through writing, essential things for life, both practical and personal.  However, one of the things I believe about writing is that children should not be pushed to write for no reason because that kills the potential to love writing as I love it.  Pam Allyn’s suggestion that children should be pushed to write before kindergarten (and not orally, but actually to write) and required to write constantly in the early grades in order to get better standardized test scores down the road (she mentions various standardized tests repeatedly in the introduction) is exactly the sort of attitude that I believe can ruin that potential to write.  I don’t want to dismiss standardized testing, as one needs it for practical things in life.  However, if that were the only reason to learn to write, I find it an empty one at best.

Not only that, but I’m not sure all this journaling and short story writing by first graders is really all that academically useful.  As a longtime writing teacher, I got students at a completely different stage of the process, beyond the learning to put words on the page time and into the learning to put great words on the page time.  Now, watching my own children struggle to get thoughts on the page, I find that I still think less is more to some extent.  I also find that while I resisted it for a long time, that copywork, narration and spelling have been the things that have helped Mushroom and BalletBoy the most.  That, and patience.

In the end, that rotten book introduction caused me a lot of grief.  I got angrier and angrier as I read it.  Then, despite BalletBoy’s sudden ability to knock out a few sentences cheerfully, I let a book that says children should be able to write before kindergarten or we’re underestimating them judge me as a parent and a teacher.  I ended up having a full on temper tantrum to the Husband (poor Husband!) about how either the kids were inadequate or I was, because there’s no way at a mere four years old my kids could have written stories.  They barely can now.  And then I sank into that horrible morass that is comparing your child to others.

Don’t worry, I climbed on out.  I have to remember that I know the end goal.  I’ve helped other kids get there before.  There’s just something about writing, isn’t there?  And something about taking a different path from the way that kids now learn in public school that makes it harder.  I think maybe it’s because writing is so subjective in some ways, so it can really push your insecurities, or at least mine.

BalletBoy’s Writings

I’m inspired by Rivka’s adorable post about her daughter’s notes and another from Melissa awhile back where she posted her kids’ narrations.

BalletBoy has, in the last month or so, suddenly taken off with writing.  He’s not scribbling away like a prodigy or anything, but he has the confidence and the stamina to sit down and write a sentence or a few words, not to mention the spelling to have it make sense most of the time.

Here’s one of his little books featuring Mary and the Frog.  The text inside is sort of like a super easy Elephant and Piggie book.  One page will be Mary just saying, “Hi.”

Translation, in case it’s needed: Summer with Mary and the Frog

Here’s a note to a friend, never delivered, written in his quill pen for fun.

Translation, in case it’s needed: Hi, Q.  I made a golden crayon club bowl to put treasures inside. (This really only makes sense to BalletBoy and his friend, I know.  But if the friend’s mom is reading this, she’ll probably chuckle too.)

Here’s a poem that he wrote spontaneously in his notebook.  In case you can’t tell, it’s an acrostic, though he misspelled the acrostic word (painting, not panting), making it a little harder to get.

Translation, which is probably needed this time (I think all the extra poetry thinking made it harder to spell): 
Pictures are
At the gallery, some with
Nuts, some that are
Tiny, some that are
Important, some that are
Nice, some that are

He’s also been improving his narrations slowly.  Here’s his last one.  The only thing I asked was that he tell me about something he learned about in our recent Native American study:

There are a lot Native Americans. Some tribes had tipis. Some tribes played stick dice. Some tribes played stickball or lacrosse. I’m going to talk about the Hopi.

The Hopi lived in houses made out of sand and mud. The sand was so dry that it could stick together and every ten years they would have to put sand back on. There’s a big room for a family to be inside. They used corn a lot. They made cornbread, they made corn desserts, they made a lot of corn stuff. They couldn’t get their water from lakes or rivers like other tribes, but when it snowed every winter, the water would go into the ground and then they’d get their water from underground. They’d even bathe underground because that was their only water. But that was not the only water system. Inside rocks, they dug holes that would make just one family have water.

They grew a different kind of corn with more roots stretching underground because there was so much sand. That made the corn grow.

For stories of the Hopis to tell the children, they’d tell them legends. One of the legends was called Sunflower’s Promise. It’s about a woman who’s very rich and then there’s a boy who’s really poor and they meet up and want to marry so she can share her land. Then the mice tried to eat her crops.

When we finish narrations, I ask the kids to edit them.  We delete excess words and sometimes we add or fix things together.  This narration didn’t get much editing though.  He’s getting much better at organizing things and I think this isn’t bad for a seven year-old.  It’s not a great paper or anything, but it’ll do.

Writing, the Bane of my Existence

That title might be a slight exaggeration.  Except, what did I do with my week off while Mushroom and BalletBoy were in summer camp?  Well, other than have a lovely lunch date with the Husband and catch up on all those episodes of True Blood I missed while I was traveling?  I wrote a writing workbook for the kids to use this year.

This is me, hitting my head against a wall.  I don’t even know if it’s out of frustration with writing and grammar curricula options or with my own pickiness with writing curricula.  Either way, I feel like a dope.  Surely, what I wanted isn’t that strange and I’ve wasted my time.  Yet, after looking, and looking, and looking, I just didn’t find it.  You’re probably feeling compelled to suggest something for me to consider now.  Let me assure you that I’ve already seen it so you needn’t bother.

There’s two pieces to this.  First, is our personal requirements.  I know what works for me as a teacher and the kids as learners.  They need structure and step by step approaches.  I need something that isn’t scripted and doesn’t require daily prep that I know I won’t do.  There’s nothing I like less than a long, two page description of how to do an activity that takes less than ten minutes.

The second piece is my own beliefs about writing.  Most curricula focus on one of two approaches.  First, there’s the classical approach, which has copywork as the basis for understanding how to imitate good sentences as a foundation for learning to write well.  Second is what I might call the organizational approach, which focuses on generating ideas, outlining, and types of writing.  I believe in the oral part of the classical approach, the narration piece, which we’re planning to get more serious about for second grade.  I was very inspired by Melissa’s two narration posts a little while back to renew our narration push.  However, I don’t believe in copywork.  Nor do I believe all kids this age need to write well is a little organizational help.  It’s a lot to ask kids to compose on paper when they’re still working on spelling, phonics and handwriting fluency.  I think kids need grammar instruction as a part of writing, but I’m not gung ho to spend a huge amount of time on grammar worksheets or lessons.  What I want is something fun and interesting but that uses words and sentences as the foundation for good writing.

There are some fun, interesting resources out there.  I’m especially fond of Peggy Kaye’s Games for Writing.  The kids got this little book from our 826 down the street and it’s fun.  I also am excited to try out Tin Man Press’s Just Write, which is filled with irreverent worksheets for writing.  But none of these include grammar or are especially structured.  The blog based curriculum Wordsmithery focuses on simple ways to teach thinking about using good words across a wide age range.  It’s a great little program, but it’s not open and go enough for me.  I need more of a form for us to really follow something through and not be spotty about it.  There’s a few good grammar and writing curricula that are worktext based like I want.  Scott Foresman even has a free writing and grammar workbook online, but it’s dull.  I almost went ahead and bought Growing with Grammar and Winning with Writing half a dozen times.  The problem is that they’re too long for what I want and not especially fun.

So, here I find myself with a nearly finished writing curriculum that’s appropriate for first and second graders.  We’re going to try it.  If it works at all for us, I promise to .pdf it and make it available to the masses, for anyone else feeling dissatisfied.