Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tools of the Trade

old friend
You never realize how much you use something until it decides to break. On Saturday, the black ink stopped flowing. At first, I thought I had a bad cartridge. Even though the display claimed it was half-full, I made a trip to Target, and $20 later, it still wouldn't print anything with black ink. Fortunately, I only had one more thing to print that night to complete my school planning, so I changed the font color to light red, and moved on.

As the week progressed, my plans kept getting thrown off because of the nearly useless printer. JT couldn't print out his latest draft of his persuasive report. I couldn't print the worksheet he needed to do for Thinkwell math. EM wanted a picture of our cat to give to his favorite art teacher that is moving away. A printer may be a luxury item to some, but in our house, it seems to be a necessity. With portfolio preparation looming, I am on the search for a perfect replacement. But this little frustration made me start thinking about the other indispensable tools I keep in my homeschooling toolbox.

confetti maker
Paper keeping is essential to our homeschooling life. We need to produce a portfolio of each of the boys' work at the end of every school year. My chosen method of presentation is a three ring binder with their work divided by subject. At the end of each week, I use my three hole punch on every paper the boys have produced and add them to the holding binder. Three times during the school year, I pull my favorite samples and move them to the keeping binder. All the remaining papers are stored in a box until the portfolios have been approved. It may seem like a small tool, but it is key to our organization and documentation of our progress.

artsy stuff
Over the years, our art projects have taken a smaller role in our homeschooling days. But when the boys were younger, I was pulling stuff from this cupboard on a daily basis. I still keep an ample supply of many kinds of paper. I also like to have good quality colored pencils, paints, and pastels available for the boys to work with. I try to have them complete one art project each month. They also like to hit up my supply closet when they are creating new board games.

Where in the world?
We have maps in several rooms of our home. The boys both had world maps on their walls until recently. JT took his down when we painted his room, but EM still has his. There is another world map on the wall in the library, and a United States map in the classroom. We also own a large collection of atlases and road maps. When we read history, I like to have the boys go to a map to get an idea of the geography of the areas we are studying. I think it's important to see our place in the global picture.

must haves
I was never a hoarder until I became a homeschooler. In the bottom of my art cupboard, I keep a good supply of glass containers that we can use for our science studies. You never know when you might want to mix up some chemicals in the classroom. I like to keep small containers, especially the ones used for spices. They work well for water and soil samples. My collection was also very helpful when we did our entomology unit a few years ago.

These are just a few of the things that make our homeschooling journey a little easier. Nothing very expensive, but all important to our daily activities. As our years of homeschooling add up, I find that I buy less and less for the classroom. It's not necessarily that we have everything we could use, it's just that I have found we don't need much to get by. Learning doesn't have to be about the fancy educational products out there. It just takes curiosity and a few handy tools you pick up along the way.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


bee hangout
Spring has finally come! At least, mostly. We did have a crazy, not-in-the-forecast, snow storm Sunday afternoon into evening. Monday morning, the inch or two that accumulated quickly melted, and my crocuses popped open to welcome the bees.

On our classroom calendar, we are down to 18 days of school remaining to reach our required 180. I've been encouraging the boys to spend as many hours outside as they can, even taking some of their work out to them, so they could work in the fresh air.

This week we started our last unit study for the year, health. We will be focusing on chapter one, "Your Health and Wellness," of the Glencoe book, Teen Health, Course 1.  This unit will last the five remaining weeks of our study this year. Each week we will cover a separate lesson from the book, supplementing with online activities tied to the textbook on the Glencoe site, as well as BrainPOP videos and quizzes on related subjects. The study focuses on the idea that your total health is influenced by three different aspects; physical, emotional, and social health. 

This week I also had a great conversation with JT's future Spanish teacher. I called her to discuss whether he should start with the school's Intro to Spanish course or move right into Spanish 1. After I gave her some background about JT's schooling, she decided he'd do just fine starting with Spanish 1. It turns out she homeschooled her three children until they reached high school. She is very excited to have a homeschooler coming to her classroom next year. I am so thrilled to know JT's first classroom experience after six years of learning at home will be with a woman who understands homeschooling from the inside! We talked for about half an hour, sharing our experiences. She shared a few good websites to get JT up to speed with the students who took the Intro to Spanish class; and quizlet. She uses both in her classroom regularly. The quizlet site has the complete list of vocabulary words found in the textbook, Descubre, used by her Spanish 1 class.

I also spent a little time this week doing preliminary work on organizing the portfolios. This may be the earliest I have ever started that project. I want to get as much of the work out of the way before our last day of school because May will be a busy month. Our last day of school will be at the beginning of the month. Our meeting with our evaluator is on the 21st. That sounds like plenty of time to get things together until you throw in a trip to Maine. I would rather not have portfolios on my mind while I am relaxing along the shore. This could finally be a good enough reason to keep me from procrastinating.

Friday, March 28, 2014


hand wash only
When I started out as a new homeschooler I had a few expectations. I was pretty sure my life was about to get much busier. I felt an immense amount of responsibility to do everything just right or else risk my children never being able to get into college or get a real job. I was very concerned that I keep every piece of paper we generated in order to produce the perfect portfolio to prove I was doing a good job.

I never really thought I'd practically have a science lab in my house.

This week, while cleaning up after another science experiment, I took a look around my laundry room and realized it didn't look like the average person's laundry room with beakers, flasks, and funnels on top of the dryer. That made me start thinking about the other unexpected outcomes of our homeschooling journey.

at least I got a dining room

I have discovered that I spend LOADS of time researching, organizing, finding opportunities, and planning the boys' studies. I did not expect that we'd spend so little time in the classroom we added on the house when we made the decision to homeschool. For the first few years, we did spend more time in the classroom. As the boys have grown older, they have found their own places in the house to do their independent work. Other than the time I spend planning in the classroom, we only spend about two hours a day in there for schooling.

Everyone seems to think that homeschoolers get trapped alone, at home, and never socialize. I expected to feel a little isolated in our new routine, but I was wrong about that one too. We have met many families at homeschooling events, at the library, at state park programs, and through blogging about homeschooling. In fact, I probably have more friends now than I did before homeschooling. The boys have also made many friends both local and across the country via the internet.

The biggest surprise of all has probably been that I am not counting the days until this gig ends. Yes, some days I want to throw them out of the house... and have, on occasion, locked them out to play in the yard so I can take a break... but most of the time we all get along very well. We enjoy one another's company. We laugh at the same jokes. We have many of the same interests. We love to travel together. Way back in 2008, I was sure I'd want that big yellow bus to come take these boys away in just a few months, but the days passed and we adjusted to our routine. We found out we loved the homeschooling lifestyle. I didn't miss the stress of getting reluctant kids out the door before the sun was barely over the horizon. I didn't miss meetings with teachers that turned into yet another issue we had to try to resolve. I didn't even miss the free time I had that allowed me to keep the house clean.

The unexpected results of homeschooling have brought me more joy than all that free time or the cleanest house or that big yellow bus could ever have.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

High School Plan

potential plan
I remember how I felt the first year we brought the boys home for school. I saw years ahead of me, planning what to teach, no end in sight. Now here I am, planning JT's high school years. In fact, I'm nearly half-way through my homeschooling years, assuming EM homeschools through graduation. Realizing how short the time is has made me want to spend considerable time working out a detailed plan for the next four years for JT, and seven years for EM.

Now that we have decided to use PHAA as JT's diploma program, we have a framework to use for our planning. The graduation requirements are 4 years of English, 3 years of mathematics, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, 2 years of arts and humanities. My rough plan for his 9th grade year looks like this - English will be primarily covered through tutoring by a former teacher/neighbor with the speech component of the English credit being my responsibility. I'm looking into getting enough kids together to participate in Poetry Out Loud. If that doesn't work out, we'll look for other opportunities. Math will be an Algebra I course through Thinkwell online. We may look into additional tutoring to make sure JT is really absorbing the math. Science next year will be a full course of biology. I'm still researching textbooks. I currently have it narrowed down to two or three possibilities. I am very comfortable teaching biology, so I don't think I'll need any outside help on that one. For social studies, I plan to put together a course consisting of two separate components, half the year covering American government and the other half on world geography. I want to continue our timeline study of American history, but that won't fit into the format for PHAA as well. We will just do that in addition to his credit course. Arts and humanities will be easy to cover in a variety of ways. He will end up with more credits than he needs. For the next two years, he'll be taking Spanish classes from a local private Christian school.  He will also continue taking drum lessons. Either of those activities can count for those credits. He may also take a few Coursera classes that might work as credits. Finally, even though there is no requirement by PHAA for physical education, our state's homeschooling regs do require it. JT will either be playing basketball and/or participating on the track team at the same school where he will take Spanish class.

Starting the planning felt a little overwhelming, but once I really looked at it, I realized it was easier than I thought. I still need to make more thorough plans for EM for next year. Things will be a lot different since JT will need to spend more time per subject, but have fewer subjects to cover than EM. I will probably sit down with EM closer to the end of the year to work out what he'd like to do next year.

One of the most important things I have learned in my years homeschooling is that planning always pays off. Sometimes the plans don't work out, but the process of planning helps me to see where we have been, where we are, and where we are going next. The more data I have about our journey, the better path I can make for the future.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Life Skills

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I was looking into having JT take Spanish class through a local private Christian school. On Tuesday, we met with the school administrator. It looks like the plan is a definite possibility. We will be working out the details over the next few months, and if all goes well, JT will be taking Spanish class in the fall.

When I was getting ready for this meeting the day before, I started imagining JT meeting the administrator. I realized he may need a little prep work in order to know how to handle this bit of social maneuvering. JT practiced how to handle an introduction to a new adult by role-playing with his dad. Handshakes and eye contact were high on the list of practiced components. A lot of silliness happened that evening, but the main ideas were planted.

The whole thing made me start thinking of other aspects of life that we might want to start practicing with the boys, things like; shopping alone, banking, doing their own packing for vacations, asking for help from employees of stores or libraries or other public places, and finding their way in unfamiliar situations. I've seen the whole Free Range Kids idea, but that might be a little more than I'm ready to go for at this point. Right now I'd just like to know that if I asked my boys to go into a store and buy something, they wouldn't get lost trying to find their way back to the checkout. So that's something I want to start building into our regular outings - opportunities for the boys, especially JT at age 13, to start doing.

The meeting went very well. JT did exactly like he practiced. Handshakes for the beginning and end of our time with the administrator went well. And I know, in the blink of an eye, we'll be doing the same thing for college visits.

Friday, March 7, 2014


tomorrow's project
We have lived in the same home for nearly eleven years. In that time, I have painted JT's room once... eleven years ago. Many times in the last few years we have talked about painting it, but other projects took priority, or the idea of trying to shuffle everything around in order to paint felt overwhelming, or I'd convince myself we should wait a little longer so we'd only have to do it once before he grew up and moved out.

We finally reached a point where there was just no more waiting. JT is now 13 and really needs to leave the cars, trucks, and airplanes on his walls behind him. I bought the paint supplies about six weeks ago. I told myself we'd get to it on the next free weekend. So far, a free weekend hasn't appeared, so we'll just squeeze it into a normal weekend.

Cars and trucks and planes, oh my!
I don't really expect JT to help with the actual painting of the room. I want it to be a quick project so teaching a new painter would not help with that goal. But I did expect him to help me clear everything from the room to prepare for painting. Earlier today I had him start going through his room and moving things to the living room for temporary storage. We learned a few things. He has too much stuff. He has TONS of LEGOs. He can't part with things if they have even a slight chance of being useful to him in some way.

mostly LEGOs
This picture is a pile of the stuff we pulled from his room. The LEGOs really are a bit out of control. I'm still hoping that as we move things back in, he'll be able to part with a little more than he did when we moved it out. I may be overly optimistic on this point.

Tomorrow, while I paint, the boys will still be doing school work. I made sure I assigned things that they could, for the most part, do independently. EM will need me to do his spelling test and some help on corrections to work he did earlier in the week. But everything else should be accomplished without mom's input. We'll see how that plays out. I'm picturing myself, covered in paint, chasing kids away from computers and back to work. Or maybe I'm being a little pessimistic about the situation.

JT and EM are both currently working to wrap up our geography unit for the year. We have continued using a book I bought several years ago that teaches world geography, one continent at a time. This year we are studying Africa. We quickly learned that when you use an older text for geography, it is important to check if things are still accurate. Quite a few things changed in Africa since 1998. Even though this can be irritating to deal with, it also provides some great learning opportunities. When I had the boys research the official language of each African nation, they found that the list in the workbook did not match what they found online. When we found a discrepancy, they had to do further research. The final project I assigned is a report on an African country of their choice. EM chose Nigeria, JT is working on The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire. I'm hoping that tomorrow they will wrap up their research and begin putting their reports together. I've really been trying to work more writing projects into the schedule this year. Sometimes that makes more work for me, but I know time is getting short to help them perfect their communication skills.

Tomorrow could turn out to be pretty messy, but thanks to our flexible homeschooling schedule, that's just fine.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


book sale find
From the beginning of our homeschooling adventure, grammar instruction has followed a crooked path. We started out using the Calvert workbook that came from our days with PA Cyber. Later we moved on to using materials we borrowed from our local school district. We have been having some success using Steck Vaughn's Language Usage and Practice series for the last two or three years. This year we also read parts of the book Painless Grammar aloud for a bit of fun. I happened upon a nice workbook for diagramming sentences over the summer. I decided it's time to incorporate that into our plan.

I know I did sentence diagramming at some point in school. I asked a friend that went to school with me to verify the fact. She said we did it in 7th or 8th grade English class. I'm guessing either I didn't pay much attention, or it was just easy and I didn't have to think about it too much, so I don't remember doing it. Last week I started JT with this book. He wanted to know why it's important to learn to do this. I told him that even though he won't be called on to diagram a sentence in his day to day life, knowing how all the pieces fit together can help him in his writing. I reminded him how sometimes I tell him to take a look at a sentence he has written and figure out why it just feels awkward. Because he is a voracious reader, I think he just has a natural feeling for the flow of writing. But there are times that 'feeling' isn't enough to come up with the best sentence. I'm hoping this diagramming workbook can give him that little extra something he needs to fill in those gaps.

Of course, it made me laugh when I saw this article about the wrong ways to teach grammar shared on Facebook today. The author starts the piece with this:
"A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work."
Oops. I might have to rethink my new plan. Again.