Thursday, June 16, 2011

Evaluation and Portfolios

Yesterday I delivered the boys' portfolios to our school district office. It was a little like the first time I dropped one of my babies off with a sitter...separation anxiety was setting in. I watched as the secretary walked back the hallway to deliver my creations to the superintendent's office. During the day, I would occasionally think about them and wonder if they would be returned to me intact. It's going to be a L-O-N-G month or two until they are returned.

Let me tell you a little about our portfolios. I spent far more time worrying about what to put in these portfolios than I spent actually putting them together. There were many reasons I worried, but the number one reason was because of a warning I received from nearly every veteran homeschooling mom:

Don't put TOO much in there.

This was most often followed by the advice to include only three samples per required subject, one from the beginning, one from the middle and one from the end of the year. I was warned that if I included too much, I would set a dangerous precedent.

My problem was that I couldn't decide which three samples would be the best possible demonstration of what we did for each subject. I finally ended up with three samples in everything except writing, history and science. In those, I had a little bit more. My completed portfolio looked like this:

I had a cover page, which I found on AskPauline. The next page was the evaluator's report, followed by our calendar showing that we schooled for 180 days. The next pages consisted of our book log. This particular part of the portfolio had me a bit worried. I read many different interpretations of exactly what the book log should be. My log ended up being a list split up by subject of all the books the boys read this year. I did not date the entries. Next year, I think I will. I'm not 100% sure I need to, but I would feel better if I did. The next part of the portfolio was the actual samples of work. I made up pages with the names of each subject to use as dividers. Then I included work for each subject. All samples included a name and date. For some of the trickier subjects, art, music and PE, I wrote up a short summary explaining how we handled our learning and then included pictures. For art, I laid out the boys' art work three different times this year and took a picture. I included each of those photos. For PE I included a picture of their Upward basketball team. Finally, I included a section I called supplemental. I listed all of our field trips this year. I also included a copy of their Mavis Beacon reports and their participation awards for the LEGO building contest. In JT's, I needed to include his standardized test results, as required for fifth grade. All together, JT's consisted of 93 pages and EM's had 77. I felt like that might be too much, but I was happy with what I had, so I decided to go with it.

Last Friday, we met with our evaluator to go over the portfolios and discuss our year. It was a positive experience for all of us. She told me I didn't have the dreaded too much in my portfolio, so I was happy. She looked through each binder and asked each boy to tell her something they really wanted her to see in there. Then she asked questions about their favorite books and subjects. She asked me where I saw the most growth in each boy this year. That wasn't a question I had expected, so I really had to think for a few minutes. I finally decided that JT had grown in two ways. First of all, his knowledge of Greek and Latin roots has really grown this year. I regularly see him applying his knowledge to discover the meaning of an unknown word. He has also started spending more time looking for ways to learn new things on his own. The answer for EM was easier. He has greatly improved his reading ability this year. For years I worried about him because he never seemed to love reading the way my other two children had. I was concerned that his vision problems and his auditory processing disorder were hampering a potential joy. But now I see him reading chapter books with great intensity. He also has taken off in his math skills this year. I'm hoping that continues through the rest of his school years.

Now that the stressful part of the school year has ended, I'm ready for my vacation. I am very nearly finished with my grand cleaning project. At this point, I only have one large bin full of math papers to sort through. I also have two piles of things to sell online and one stack of books I must return to the school district. Then I will close up my classroom for at least a month and focus on the rest of my house. It needs attention! I will probably take a week or two off from blogging, but after that, plan to keep a fairly regular schedule throughout the summer beginning with July. I will be working out some ideas for the fall and hope to get all of your input.

Finally, I want to thank you for following our journey here. When I first started my blog, I did it as a way to record for myself what we were doing. Every now and then, when we are having an especially bad day, I can come here and read about some of the successes I have forgotten. So in that way alone, writing has been a success for me. But it's also been a joy to meet so many other moms who are on the same journey, struggling with the same kinds of doubts and insecurities, and rejoicing in the same victories. Thank you for all of the encouragement you regularly offer to me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Advice I Ignored

When I first started considering this homeschooling idea, I did a great deal of research. I spent time reading books, following bloggers and talking with experienced homeschooling moms. Much of the advice revolved around the idea of taking it slow. Don't over plan. Don't get stressed out. It will all fall into place as you go. And don't buy too much stuff.

As you can see from this picture, I didn't really listen. I just couldn't see the harm in buying more than I would need. I had plenty of space to store the materials, after all, we built an addition on the house for the sole purpose of homeschooling. (Well, I also wanted a dining room, but the homeschooling need allowed for both.) I figured if I couldn't use the stuff right away, I would eventually be able to use it all. Plus, most of it was picked up at used book sales and through homeschooler resell lists, so the cost was not always a big deal. The problem here is not that I have too much stuff or that it cost me too much. The problem is that I can't plan efficiently when there are too many choices.

I have been cleaning out my classroom now that our official schooling days have ended. I have a fairly organized room; there are bins that I use to separate material by subject. Part of my clean-up has involved going bin by bin, subject by subject and writing up a brief summary for each boy so I'll know what we covered and where I want to start in the fall. As I went through each bin, I would find materials that we either didn't use or barely used. This brought on enormous waves of guilt, both for the wasted purchases and for the opportunities I felt we had missed. At first I tried to figure out whether I could use some of it next year. I found a Phonics workbook I had barely used with EM. It's labeled as a second grade book, so quite a bit of it is material he already knows. I moved it back and forth from the 'to use' pile to the 'pass on' pile several times. As I kept digging, I found that I had not only that unused Phonics book but FIVE of them that would have been appropriate to use this past year. As I flipped through each one, I found many perfectly wonderful pages I should have used. But I didn't. And now I have made the decision that I won't. Because no one can use all of the excellent material that is out there. No matter how many days and how many children you teach, there is too much available.

I have almost finished the classroom part of my cleaning. I'm rearranging a few things and cleaning as I go. The office is another story. It has been slowly filling with things I have picked up at sales this year. When I begin that project, I will not keep more than one version of any subject material. I will not be buying much for next year. There are about five things I know I need to fill in a few gaps in our math and writing plan. Singapore math workbooks, Key Curriculum Press workbooks and possibly Handwriting Without Tears. (I'm still on the fence on that one.) I will not buy things just because I might need them. I know that with internet access available, a fantastic local public library and loads of our own books, there isn't much out there we could need.

So this is my public commitment to cutting back from now on...

...unless I find a really GREAT bargain. :-D

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Summing Up

The joys of summer are upon us - reading on the deck, campfires at night, chasing fireflies, swimming...planning another homeschooling year. That last one might not exactly fit in with a joy of summer, but someone has to do it. For now, I'll just chat a bit about what we have accomplished.

This has been, by far, my favorite year homeschooling. When we first made the decision to leave the safety of PA Cyber I was a bit nervous about how things would go. Now I couldn't be happier with the results. I admit, there have been times when I wondered if the boys were learning as much as they would or could have with a 'real' school. But when I sit down and really look at where we have been, I am sure they have made great progress.

JT spent a great deal of time reading. When I printed out his book list for his portfolio, it was four full pages! The best thing is that more than half of those books are non-fiction. EM made drastic improvement in his reading as well. His list wasn't as copious, but he is choosing to read longer books now than he was at the beginning of the year. He also had a sizable number of non-fiction selections.

In spelling, we continue to see improvement. JT continues to be a natural at spelling. Because of that, I am constantly working to challenge his skills. EM made good progress too. He completed the entire second grade spelling book from Calvert and moved into lists taken from another more challenging workbook.

I loosened the chains a bit this year on the volume of writing for JT and you can certainly feel the relief in our classroom. I did give him one lengthy assignment in the last month of our schooling. JT read Watership Down in May. When he finished, I asked him to think about how rabbits were portrayed in a fictional way and then put together a report on their real life tendencies. It took him a bit of work to find resources. He really wanted to just throw it together based on what he knew already. However, in the end, he did a good job. I would have liked to see more details...but we can work on that later. EM wrote a few longer paragraphs, but mostly worked on journal entries. As he is only seven, I haven't pushed too hard on that front. I believe we will move onto multi-paragraph writing next year. Here is a poem he put together as one of his final writing projects.


Pudding is yummy
Splat down your tummy
It is very goopy
Feeling very soupy
Pudding smells good
Just like it should

Our plan for math had a few changes throughout this year. I think we finally found our groove at the end, so we'll stick with it for now. EM worked through some of the Calvert 3rd grade math text and then finished out the year with Singapore Math. He seems to love that style of learning. I will start him in 3A for the fall. JT did a bit of this and that to start the year, mostly Calvert 5th grade. He wrapped up using Key Curriculum Press Geometry 1 and 2. I plan to use KCP Fractions and Decimals to start him out for 6th grade. He also does well on the Khan Academy site, so we will be using that too.

We completed Story of the World, Ancient Times in April and will move on to Volume 2 in the fall. We started American history about half-way through the school year. We covered pre-Columbus history of the Americas, early settlements, Native American history, colonial times and just started to touch on the French and Indian War. We will begin were we left off with the Revolutionary War. Mostly, we cover our American history through reading, documentaries and some online learning. Next year, we will do a full year of PA history, one day per week.

Science was much more hands-on. This has been a goal of mine since we brought the boys home. Even though it meant I needed to plan ahead quite a bit; I'd like to take it even further in the future. I want to move away from text books for science as much as possible in the elementary years. I'm going to compile a list of science topics I want to cover and start digging through my collection of books to get us started. I would really like to have the boys chose more topics that they are interested in studying on their own. Maybe even having them 'teach' each other about what they have learned.

I will now be teaching some of the 'minor' subjects in small units, instead of trying to spread them out over the year. Health, music, civics and possibly geography will all be handled that way. I feel like we get so much more out of a subject when we can really focus on it for a set amount of time. This year they did not get the time and energy they deserve. Art makes a least a weekly appearance out of habit, but I'd like to do more planning, instead of just picking a project every week as the day approaches. I may even look into outside art classes for the boys. We have a local YMCA art center that has a number of classes available.

I have spent the last week working to get the portfolios in order. I think I finally have the finished product ready to go. Every now and then, I'll think of something else to tweak. Our meeting with the evaluator is on the 10th, so I'll soon have to stop messing with them. I waver between thinking the binders are too big and thinking they are too small. I want to put everything in there to show how incredible this year has been! I also want to keep it simple, so I don't set the bar too high for the following years.

But now I have another project to office. This picture gives you a little taste of what a HUGE mess it is. There is a large box of things I need to pass on to others. There are heaps of things that need to be filed or thrown. There are piles of books and materials to be organized for next year. There are art supplies that need put into the cupboard that can't be opened because there are other piles in front of it.

Homeschooling has changed my life in so many ways. The one change I never could have predicted was that I would become such a pack rat! People who have known me for years would have a hard time believing a room of my house could look like this. But it's true; the proof is right there in that picture. But you know what? I think I like the new me. I needed to be a little less structured. Maybe homeschooling will end up doing more for me than it will even do for my children. We talk a lot about the sacrifices and the commitment of the parents and we talk about the good things for the kids. No one ever talks about the enormous benefits parents can get from taking on this task. But I think I'm winning in this situation as well...and I love it!