Thursday, February 12, 2015

Answering Questions with Style

Yes, I am a slob.
Last week, I attended the annual PDE conference in Hershey. Every year I come home with a bit of knowledge that I always plan to employ with the boys. Most of the time, I quickly forget what great new thing I learned or I try it out and they are less than inspired with my new methods. This year I have finally found something that seems to excite both me and my students.

I went to a session titled, Short Writing Often, Not Just Long Writing Seldom by Dr. Anita Archer. I was hoping to get some ideas to use with EM since he is a resistant writer. What I came away with was a whole collection of resources to use with both of the boys. I realized I have been spending too much time trying to push them to write lengthy compositions when what they really need to do is step back and learn the basics so they can build a better foundation. Just last week, JT was asking me about the writing component of the SAT. He knows his best chance at a decent score on that test will require him to ace the vocab and writing portions so he can make up for any issues he has in the math section. We started looking at examples on the College Board website and he decided he was going to need to do some work if he wanted a good score on his writing. I was thrilled that he was being realistic and wanted to work to improve. Now I just needed to find the best way to help him with that goal. Enter Anita Archer...

Today we tried an exercise I learned in the session. I wrote a question on the white board related to our American history reading from yesterday.

What action during Coolidge's term as governor brought him national attention?

Then I gave this answer.

He stopped a strike.

While we all agreed this was a correct answer, we knew it wasn't a good answer. The next step involved using a tool from the session. This sentence expansion worksheet originally came from a book by Judith Hochman, Teaching Basic Writing Skills, which sadly, appears to be out of print.

question words
The student will look at the question asked and then use question words like, who, what, where, when, how, and why to expand the details they will use to answer. Once they write out the answers to the question words, they write their expanded sentence. We worked together to come up with answers for our question words on the board. Once we had the information needed to write a better answer, I had each of the boys write their own improved sentence. JT wrote:

While Calvin Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, he came to national attention when he resolved a policemen strike in Boston by calling in the national guard and ordering the commissioner to replace the strikers.

Much more detailed than, he stopped the strike, yes? I plan to use this new exercise every week to reinforce our American history study. After our reading aloud, I will give the boys a question to answer. We will gradually move away from working together on the white board until they can complete the question word outline alone to come up with their own answer. There were many more great writing frames Dr. Archer shared in her presentation that I plan to put into action in the next few months. As of right now, you can still access the handouts from the session here on the PaTTAN site. Please note that there is a drop down on the page to get both of the PDFs.

The greatest part of the whole experience was when JT told me today, "You know, I think I'm starting to like writing. I really enjoyed writing that answer." It turns out he was having a hard time choosing what bits of information to use. Too many things are in his head and instead of picking the appropriate details, he tends to answer with as little as possible to avoid the decisions. Now that he has a good way to identify the important details, he feels more in control and able to give the best answer.

I could get mad at myself for not thinking of this sooner, but I've learned that the right tool seems to come along at the right time in our schooling. Maybe if I had picked this up a few years ago, JT and EM wouldn't have been ready to use it. Maybe I wouldn't have been ready to implement it in a way that would have made sense. I'm just happy that this knowledge has come to me at a time when JT is thinking about his need to improve his writing and that he is interested in putting new tools to work. We will be employing the short writing often method as often as we can!

Thursday, February 5, 2015


As a homeschooling family, we sometimes find our boys have unique opportunities that other kids their age may not experience. Sometimes it's fun things, like vacationing during the school year or playing outside during school hours. Other times these opportunities are a little different, but very valuable to their growth as part of the community.

In recent months our church congregation has lost a few members. Because our schedule is flexible we are often able to attend funerals when other children would need to be in school. This has allowed our boys to experience memorial services for people other than immediate family members. I find this to be good to help them see grief in a less threatening way. The services we attended were for older men and women that had lived rich, full lives. We heard many family members tell stories of the hardships their loved ones had endured, the challenges they had met, and the love they had shared with the people they knew. We were also able to hear of the hope they have to see them again when they come to the end of their own lives. Sharing in these moments will help our children start to feel the bonds of our community. I hope it will also help them deal with grief in the future when it hits closer to home.

Sometimes homeschooling presents opportunities that I would never have thought of as educational before we started this journey. But I'm finding there is much to learn when we open our eyes to life as a teacher.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Still Life of Influenza

Not a great week in our homeschooling household. Monday night my husband, EM, and I all started coughing. By Tuesday morning we knew we were really sick. As the week went on, we heard stories of many members of our church being diagnosed with the flu, so we knew what we were up against. JT stayed healthy up until today, when he started coughing. Earlier in the week he shoveled the driveway, made us dinner, and avoided breathing our air as much as possible. My older daughter stopped by twice to deliver supplies, but never came in the sick house. As you would guess, there has been little schooling happening, but plenty of coughing, sniffling, and sleeping. We had to skip piano lessons, drum lessons, basketball practice, and Bible class. Maybe by Saturday EM will be well enough to play in his basketball game, but if not, we'll continue in hermit mode until all of the germs have been vanquished. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Volunteering Brings Opportunity

A few months ago, while visiting one of our local libraries, JT and I noticed a sign advertising the need for library volunteers. We talked about it on the ride home and after I contacted the librarian to check age requirements, JT filled out an application to volunteer. Monday was his first day on the job.

As a student volunteer he will be putting in about three hours most weeks, hopefully all on one day to avoid driving there too often. We decided not to do more hours than that to start to avoid overloading his schedule with too many away-from-home activities during the school year. He may add a few hours in the summer months if he is needed.

In the days leading up to this experience, we started reviewing the way the library is organized. A discussion on the Dewey Decimal system and the specific layout of our library helped him feel more comfortable with his new environment. He really shouldn't need much help for that since he has been a weekly library visitor from his birth until now. In fact, if you want to count my visits while pregnant, it goes back a little further. Even though we own a houseful of books, we can't stop ourselves from borrowing more every week.

In spite of the preparation, he was still quite nervous his first day. I dropped him off at 1pm and returned to pick him up at 4. As I got out of my car, a librarian and the therapy dog were coming out to go home. She called over to me to tell me what a wonderful job he had done on his first day. Proud mom moment! Inside the library, the woman in charge of the volunteer program told me that JT had helped her with some ideas for activities for teen boys and that she wanted to implement one of them in the future.

JT told me all about his day. He had worked to shelve movies, children's fiction and non-fiction, restock the tax preparation forms, and his favorite job, taping the covers of the new books. He said he liked working in the back room because it was so quiet and the work was a good fit for his perfectionist traits. He thought it was cool that he got to see the newest books being added to the library collection.

Later he told me how at one point in the day he was asked if he was tired of working yet. He told me that being there had not felt like work because he enjoyed it so much. With that revelation we are adding library careers to his list of potential employment to pursue as an adult. This experience has made me realize that getting him out into the world to try new things will help him find where he will fit as an adult. For years I have wondered how he would make the decision about his eventual career. I worried that without a school guidance counselor he might not have the college and career planning available to him that most students experience. After Monday I realized that as a homeschooler he may have more real-world experiences and time to investigate job options than traditional students might have. I hope to provide as many opportunities as possible for that exploration in the years to come.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breaking Things Down

second try
About a year ago I wrote a post about grammar and how I was starting to work with JT on sentence diagramming. Well that only lasted a few weeks before I abandoned the idea. The book I was using wasn't really appropriate for his level. Also, he found it tedious. So I tossed it aside and went back to our usual routine. Now he's using the free version of English Grammar 101 for his instruction and that works just fine for him.

At the start of this year, I realized I needed something new for EM. Language, especially written, has always been his weakest subject. I planned to use a combination of Calvert's 5th grade grammar workbook and the diagramming workbook as a supplement to see how it worked for him. As the weeks went on, it became obvious that Calvert's traditional approach of breaking down sentences by underlining and circling various components wasn't making sentence construction clear to him. However, he was flying through the diagramming book with no problems. I was telling a friend how much difficulty he was having with the Calvert book and she said, "Get rid of it! Why not just use the diagramming?" Sometimes I just can't put two and two together.

too many directions
The diagramming workbook does start each lesson with a long set of directions to identify the parts of a few example sentences. I discovered two things in this process. EM can not handle multiple instructions being given in one set of written directions. Once I realized that, we would circle or underline each of the separate requirements in those instructions. Then he would mark them off, one at a time, as he completed them. This simple change made things so much easier for him. But the real difference came in being able to SEE those sentence parts and their relationships to each other by doing the actual diagramming. He could finally understand how the adjectives were related to the nouns they modified because it became obvious when diagrammed. I knew he was a visual learner, but I had never really thought about how much easier grammar would be if he could see it in that way.

spiral bound books are the best
Since the little diagramming book I had on my shelf only has a few months worth of lessons in it, I went ahead and invested in a weightier volume that should last us well into his high school years. I read good reviews of Drawing Sentences by Eugene R. Moutoux and I'm hoping it lives up to them. Thankfully it has a complete answer key in the back. I didn't do much diagramming in my own school years, so I'm learning right there with him.

One test question at the very end of the book has a sentence that fills an entire page. It is an excerpt from a speech by Thomas Jefferson.

I think I have some work cut out for me in the future.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

About Face!

Christmas robot
Changes are coming. After four years in which the boys learned science using  three or four large unit studies designed by me each school year, I made the choice to leave that pattern behind. Since JT is now working to add up credits for his high school transcript, he is completing a full year course in biology. I decided to use a standard 6th grade textbook for EM.

This was a bad decision.

EM enjoys reading fiction but has little interest in non-fiction, especially if that non-fiction comes in the form of textbooks. I started off the year assigning a short section of reading each week, supplementing with BrainPOP videos and activities. When he would reach the end of a chapter I would go over the review questions with him. As the months went on, I realized he wasn't really retaining what he was reading. I also started to suspect he wasn't actually reading his assignments. I began to sit with him while he was reading each section and we would read some aloud and discuss what he had read. Finally, a few weeks before Christmas, he was doing a unit review and his answers were so off I knew this learning method was going to have to change.

DVDs for the win!
Around the same time, a Great Courses catalog came in the mail. We already own a few courses that we have used for supplemental work, but they have never watched a complete series. When I saw the modern electronics class, I was fairly certain it would be a perfect fit for EM. I showed him the syllabus and he was in favor of giving it a try. After the poor results of our textbook use, I've decided to switch EM to a unit study on electronics for the remainder of this school year. He will use the Great Courses material, build some of his own projects, and do some work with his dad. My husband has been dabbling in electronics repair for years and just received a new book for Christmas, How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic that will fit right into my plan for EM. I had also bought a Robo Link deluxe kit for EM from Home Science Tools for Christmas. He built one of the robots yesterday. And I must say, it's a pretty cool set. The motor assemblies can be altered to different gear ratios depending on how much power you need for a particular model. I think this new plan for science will probably take more work on my part but should be much more rewarding for EM than what we have been doing so far this year.

The other DVD set in the picture is for JT's game design course. As part of this course, he is writing a 2500 minimum word paper on the topic of game design. He completed his first rough draft right before our holiday break. I started my initial proof reading but couldn't stay focused with all of the Christmas chaos. Tomorrow I will be sequestering myself so I can finish and make some comments to help him start on his revision process. Another goal for the class is to design a game from idea to completion by the end of the school year.  He took the card game he has been working on to a New Year's Eve party at our church and played it with two friends. The cards are still in their primitive forms but game play seems to be working pretty well. Now that he's completed some play testing, I'd like to see him looking at creating more professional looking game components. We may need to purchase new software to do that if we can't find something available either in Open Source or perhaps a program we already have. But I'm happy to say it looks like he's well on his way to meeting his goals for this course.

I spent some time this week looking ahead at the calendar and calculating the remaining lessons JT needs to cover in German, algebra, and biology to complete those subjects. It looks like he may need to work into the second week of May. This will run us a week later than our usual end time for our school year. Part of this is my fault for being indecisive about his science text at the start of the year. We also had to slow down a bit on algebra when JT came to a concept that needed more intense focus. But considering this was our first year working with a more structured schedule for his diploma program, I think we did a good job meeting deadlines. We're learning for our next year so we can make adjustments and plan a little better.

Am I the only homeschooler out there that completely changes gear mid-year on a fairly regular basis? If you have found yourself in the same situation, have you been happy with the about faces you have made in your plans? I think most of our reconfiguring proves beneficial. What about you?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Merry Christmas

JT's new poster
Another Christmas has come and gone. This year felt like more of a whirlwind than usual. I just couldn't get myself in gear to shop and plan and organize. I finally started to feel like I was getting my groove and then it was over.

There were many nerdy homeschooler gifts received. The boys spent a few hours today enjoying their presents. Octodad was a favorite. I usually don't pay much attention to the video game playing in our home, but that one is so funny to watch, I have a feeling I'll be spending more time than I plan to watching them play.  Also, JT almost polished off his copy of Randall Munroe's What If? before bedtime. I'm looking forward to reading it next. Being able to borrow their Christmas gifts is just one of the many benefits of having children with similar interests as yourself.

Merry Christmas
Next week I'll share some details on the plans I have for changes in EM's science studies for the remainder of this school year. I'll also be looking at the progress JT is making on his 2500 word composition required for the PHAA diploma program. Changes have also been made to the homeschooling regulations in PA and I want to discuss how they will affect my plans in the future. But for now I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year!