March 26, 2011

Independent study: homeschooling our teenager...

I’ve written before about the important educational role played by stuffed animals and games in our homeschooling.  I do what I can to make learning fun for our eight-year-old twin boys and our six-year-old daughter.  We cheerlead our way to good spelling, rely on trusted elephants to remind us of our multiplication facts, rewrite the story of Angry Birds to improve our handwriting, and so on.  Many more of my not-so-secret ploys to bring some life to education will have their day here on my blog in the weeks to come.  But today, a word on the one I teach who has moved far past such things.

The early days of his education: five-year-old
Scott enjoying a good book before bed

To say that I "teach" our fourteen-year-old son Scott is not entirely accurate.  It would be more fitting to say that I used to, but now I "oversee his education".  I had the privilege of teaching Scott how to read at a very young age, something he has loved to do ever since.  But today I could never keep up with the rapid pace at which he plows through books.  I taught him to do arithmetic, helped him solve word problems, and vanquished fractions with him when he was a young boy, but now I sit back and watch with admiration as he does geometry proofs independently.  I taught him his first words, but now take a macro-not-micro-managerial position as he studies his third year of Latin.  In every subject I have slowly let go of my grip on the nitty-gritty details of what Scott is learning, allowing him to take ownership of managing his time and effort to accomplish the rigorous work in front of him day-to-day.  My role is to check his work, help him only when he needs it, and keep us on track to accomplish our goals for the school year as well as the years remaining in his education.
It wasn’t a quick transition from educational games and hand-holding to serious independent study.  Over the years, step by step, subject by subject, I have done my best to gauge Scott’s need for independence and respond to it appropriately.  I haven’t always read the signs correctly: at times I let go too quickly and had to pull the reins back in to steer him better, while at other times I had to quickly release them upon realizing I had been holding too tight and limiting his progress.  But through honest discussion with Scott and careful evaluation and re-evaluation, we have a system that encourages learning and independence without a stuffed animal or cutesy activity in sight.  And with each new school year, we revamp and forge ahead, increasing Scott’s self-management along the way.
Scott’s success no longer depends on my expertise in the subjects he studies or my ability to articulate the details of them in fun and engaging ways.  Now a young man and not a child, his success depends almost entirely on him.  He needs guidance, not long periods of tedious explanation and practice.  He needs clarification of unfamiliar terms at times, not detailed instruction in every bit of new material.  And what he needs most of all is the opportunity to prove that he can do his work without me holding his hand.
Our daily routine is built around all of this.  While I’m working one-on-one or two or three with his younger siblings throughout the morning, Scott works independently.  After lunch he and I spend a short time going over his assignments from the previous day and looking at what is next.  He takes any tests or quizzes on our agenda at this time too.  Then he has the remainder of the day as well as the next morning to complete his new assignments.  He determines the time it will take to do so and maps out his schedule for the day accordingly.  He recognizes that freedom comes with responsibility and puts his schoolwork first, while rewarding himself periodically with video games, TV, a good non-school book, or time outdoors.  All in all he spends at least as much time on schoolwork as would likely be required of him in a traditional school setting, but with greater independence and more rapid progress.  In some subjects he is as much as two years past his grade level.  I don’t say that boastfully on his behalf; though his achievement is partly due to natural ability, it is greatly due to his freedom to pursue his education in the literal sense of the word.
I don’t know if this much control and self-management would work as effectively for every young teenager.  As with so many things in our efforts to raise our children, Scott is our guinea pig as the oldest in our home.  I’ll let you know when the other three transition to this stage if it works as well with them.  For this reason, I can’t tell you that the details of what we do will work for your teenager, homeschooled or not.  I can only say for certain that it seems to work with Scott.  We see it in his grades and in his understanding, as well as his level of maturity.
That doesn’t mean we grant that same level of freedom in every aspect of his life; at fourteen, he still needs us to guide and direct in many areas.  It’s our privilege and responsibility to do so.  We see our children as gifts from the Lord.  We take seriously His instruction to parents to teach our kids His Word and His ways as we see them through to adulthood, and to continue to be a source of counsel and comfort to them even then.
We are also expected to ensure that they develop the practical skills they need to function in this world.  That extends far beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Efficient and productive time-management as well as the ability to learn without being spoon-fed are essential skills our children will need when they reach adulthood, among many other important things.  It would be unfair and a disservice to them if they were to be forced to face all of that in an overnight transition.  We are not of the belief that we should hold tightly to them until they’re eighteen and then drop them without warning, which logically can only result in calamity.  Maturity comes about best when nourished, guided, permitted and encouraged step-by-step along the way.
Next week, back to the little ones and a little something about how even the youngest among us can enjoy and contribute to a good literary discussion of historical significance…

March 19, 2011

Three stenographers and three very angry birds...

Good penmanship is a wonderful skill.  Handwriting workbooks move children year to year from learning how to write all the letters of the alphabet to writing words and then sentences.  They’re expected to trace and copy riveting prose such as: “Tim and Tom went to the pond to feed the ducks.”  If you have a child who loves to practice penmanship, he or she will write happily about any subject, even drivel like that.  But since that may be only 0.089% of all children, we try to use a more engaging approach here in our homeschool.
One of my favorite methods is dictation.  Though that word may conjure up an image in your mind of a secretary with a steno pad in a 1950’s movie, it is an activity that I’ve found works with our younger children who long ago learned how to write their letters but need practice in perfecting their handwriting.  Dictation also incorporates practice with capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
Our current handwriting project is an homage to the addictive game “Angry Birds”.  Our teenage son has it on his iPod and my husband and I each have it on our smart phones.  Our whole family loves to play it, especially our three youngest children.
Taking this love for the bird-launching-fortress-destroying-pig-killing game and combining it with the affection our twin eight-year-old sons and six-year-old daughter have for their stuffed animals, I selected one stuffed bird belonging to each of them along with one stuffed pig to star in our own version of “Angry Birds: the Novel.”  At the rate of one sentence per day, it will take time.  But the pace doesn’t matter since the point of the exercise is handwriting practice along with the other language skills mentioned above.  (Don’t tell the kids!)
First I write a sentence in my best printing (I was one of the 0.089% - don’t judge me.)  Keeping it from view, I then read it aloud to Zach, Daniel, and Audra once through so they can know where it’s headed and get all their giggles out before having to write it.  Then I re-read it slowly, one word at a time.  They copy down each word to the best of their ability.  Rather than having them call out in a disjointed chorus of, “I’m ready” or “OK, got it” and so on after each word, they are simply to look up at me quietly when they’re ready to go on to the next word.  By the end we have the next installment in our story, though somewhat peppered with their mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
The next step is to lay my sample out in front of the three of them and have the kids compare theirs to mine, spot their own errors and fix them.  I check their work when they’re done and point out anything they missed, including spacing of their words, formation of their letters, and all the other nitty-gritty details.
Dictation is certainly not an exercise in creativity, since I’m the author of our tale and they are merely scribes.  But they have other opportunities for creative writing.  I keep the story simple and choose the words and punctuation carefully to provide practice in their weak areas.  I even throw in a challenging spelling word now and then.  The kids are interested in the story since its focus is one of their favorite games featuring some of their favorite fuzzy friends.  This keeps them engaged for the ten minutes a day that we work on this.
Covers the kids have drawn for our fine-feathered tale of rescue and revenge
Everything we have to practice or learn comes more easily to us when it’s relevant and fun.  Whenever possible I make that the foundation of the teaching methods I use with our younger children.  That is more challenging to do when teaching our teenage son whose work is more rigorous and far less fun.  A word or two on how we handle that next time...

March 12, 2011

A multiplication menagerie...

Our eight-year-old twin boys are as different as can be.  This is evident in nearly every part of their lives, including their schoolwork.  Even in learning math, a subject at which they both excel, their skills and approach to learning it are vastly different.  We've seen daily reminders of that as we’ve been working on multiplication this year in our homeschooling.
Zach has a keen understanding of the concepts involved in multiplication, and given enough time can multiply anything by anything pretty accurately, including problems with three-digit numbers.   Give him one of those bad boys to work on and he’ll slowly but surely lay down uniform-sized and evenly-spaced numerals all in their proper positions, finding the correct answer in his tempered and thorough way more often than not.  But he does not have the times table memorized.  He can figure each of these simpler problems out, but doesn’t have those facts all committed to memory yet.  This adds to the amount of time it takes him to complete the afore-mentioned bad boy problems.
And then there’s our Daniel.  Daniel is one of those kids whose hand can’t keep up with his brain.  He memorizes easily and is able to calculate complicated math problems in his head with unusual speed and accuracy for his age.  When it’s time to tackle the multiple-digit problems and he’s forced to write them down, he usually gets them right unless his somewhat sloppy and hasty handwriting style throw him off.  He has memorized the pattern to follow in solving these problems, but really doesn’t understand nor care why it works.
Rather than let their differences throw a monkey wrench into teaching them simultaneously, I’ve found ways over the years to make the most of their complementary skills.  With such different strengths, they can be a real help to each other.
But since it is my job to teach them, and not theirs to teach each other, I’ve also had to be a little creative in order to strengthen each of their weaknesses without having to work one-on-one all the time.  There are only so many hours in a school day.
This is where stuffed animals came in recently, my go-to tool for making learning more fun and therefore more successful.  I had them bring twelve animals into the living room.  We lined those little fluffy friends up against the wall and placed in front of each a piece of paper with a large number on it, the answers to whatever-digit-we-were-working-on times one through twelve.  We stood and faced our helpful zoo and worked on our times table facts out loud.  I said the math fact, and they repeated it as we looked at each animal and their number from left to right.  With all the exuberance I could muster, I would lead the kids through, “One times seven is seven…two times seven is fourteen…three times seven…” and so on.  But it wasn’t my face on which they were focused.  They were looking at our line-up of stuffed animals and associating a particular animal with the answer to each problem.  After we practiced for a while we’d turn away from the animals and I’d throw a problem at the kids.  If they hesitated I’d cue them with something like, “Mitsy knows this one.”  As they remembered that Mitsy the elephant was in the eighth position, they’d picture her with her number and confidently say, “Fifty-six.”  Even our six-year-old Audra is in on the action, learning the ones through the sevens.  We'll move on to memorizing the eights soon, but with spring arriving we may try this fun method outside with chalk on the sidewalk.
Our stuffed animal multiplication has helped Zach in his memorizing, speeding him up as he does those bigger problems on his math worksheets.  And it has forced Daniel to slow down and notice the patterns in our almost-living times table, which strengthens the basic concepts of multiplication for him.  This has helped him think more logically about the process when tackling those bigger problems, rather than relying on memorization.
Worksheets are still the mainstay of our math schoolwork, providing the opportunity to practice and test what the kids are learning.  But I find that once in a while it’s good to get out of our chairs and spend some time with some old friends.  You might be surprised how helpful bulldogs, bears, and bunnies are with multiplication.

March 5, 2011

Spelling doesn't have to be E-X-A-S-P-E-R-A-T-I-N-G...

Defying logic, chapel and apple are not spelled alike at the end.  Enough and although look like they should rhyme, yet they don’t.  Understandably, spelling is a school subject that brings tears to many little eyes.  It doesn’t have to.  Like every other subject it can easily be made more fun and more achievable with a little time and effort on the teacher’s part.
Lately I have been using a tear-free approach for teaching spelling to my three youngest students in our home school that has been lots of fun as well as very effective.  I keep them grouped together for it mainly to fit the activity neatly into our busy school day, but the fringe benefit is that they learn from each other.  From their point of view, working together makes it feel more like a game and less like work.  This group effort does mean throwing some words in our six-year-old Audra’s path that are more suited to her twin eight-year-old brothers Zach and Daniel, but she likes the challenge.
My new method also incorporates each of their three very different learning styles.  Audra learns best visually.  When asked to recall something she has been taught, she often takes on a distant facial expression that tells me she’s “looking” in her mind’s eye at a picture of what she is trying to remember.  Zach soaks in anything he hears and likes to repeat it back to be sure he understands.  Daniel is a mover and a shaker and learns best through hands-on activities and games.
What do we do that doesn’t cause crying, is both efficient and effective, and encompasses three learning styles?  We’re cheerleaders.
First, I print the spelling words from our workbooks on slips of paper in big bold letters.  Then we have an informal, oral pretest on our new words.  I’m a firm believer in not teaching people things they already know.  I then mark each slip of paper with a color-coded dot for each child:  if their color is on it, it’s a word they "didn’t know yet."  (This positive language encourages them.  I always remind them that they’re not expected to know these new words.  They’re all the more excited when they do know some of them.)  After the pretest I tape the slips of paper up in various parts of the house.  This doesn’t do much for our d├ęcor, but the kids are worth it.
Throughout the week we work on the words by visiting the various locations of the house that have these slips of paper on them.  This helps my mover-and-shaker Daniel, getting him up and out of a chair for a little while.  I point to a word, and then in cheerleader style I shout out the letters in small portions.  I divide our word up by syllables or in parts that emphasize important letter combinations.  After I shout each small portion of the word letter by letter, they shout those few letters back to me in unified reply.  This helps my little listener/repeater Zach.  All the while, my little visual Audra stares at the slip of paper taped to the wall which helps her to be able to picture it later.  After we’ve shouted all the portions of the word back and forth to each other, I shout the word in its entirety and they echo it back.  We usually repeat this a couple more times, then I cover it up to see who knows it.  We move on to another word, then back to the first, and so on until we’ve done three or four words in a session.  My mover and shaker Daniel also bounces up and down with each letter, driving the spelling home for him.
After our few words, we move on to a different school subject altogether and come back to spelling another time or another day.  We’ll review those same words and bring in new ones that are sprinkled around our house.  Meanwhile, in day-to-day life our children are surrounded by their spelling words.  This doesn’t frighten them; to them it’s a reminder of their success.  To me, it’s painless reinforcement.  Some day when they have outgrown the need for these little games our home will return to its original look, and less like a giant book exploded in it.
This isn’t the only way to have a little fun with spelling.  My kids like what we’ve been doing because it’s a license to be loud.  See what suits your child best.  Be creative about it.  Whether you homeschool like we do or you just want to reinforce the spelling list your kids bring home from school, try to find a way that’s exciting and doesn’t make them cry and make you want to pull your hair out.  And don’t be afraid to try shouting like a cheerleader.  It may disturb the neighbors, but it’s lots of fun for the whole family.
Your kids won’t even realize how much they’re learning.  Before you know it, they’ll be spelling words like appetizer, albeit rather loudly.