Planning, Part 1: Logistics

So, now I can finally start planning for NEXT year with a clear conscience. And I shall start with some general logistics. Because it’s the first day of summer and I don’t want to get up and get dressed and clear the breakfast dishes.

The first question I should probably ask myself for each year is: Does it still make sense to keep Duchess and Deux working together? On the continuum between siblings who sit together reading aloud to each other and siblings who are acutely competitive, they are somewhere in the middle. I do think they will continue to benefit from working on the same material for the most part, but I suspect I need to continue nudging them towards working on their own with it. I’m still stymied by how to do things like group discussions while they read individually. I do feel very much like Duchess needs some extra challenge in the verbal department, so I will give her some extra/different assignments this year (dictation, French, typing, more biographies) to keep her challenged, but I think it will be fine to keep the core materials the same.

Second question is: should I do a Kindergarten year with the twins, who are turning five this summer? Ambleside doesn’t encourage anything resembling formal Kindergarten. On the other hand, the twins are showing signs of needing a little extra attention and my attempt to spend some time just playing with them during the big kids’ school time did not pan out. If I am doing something that remotely resembles “school” I think the big kids will be motivated to be doing their own independent work. They–or at least Duchess–seem to see great logic in the idea that they must rise to the challenge of self-teaching so that I can give the twins extra attention for the introductory years of school. If they were drastically unready it would be one thing, but they do know their letters, can sound out short words, write most letters, do simple math, and sit for a twenty minute read-aloud. So setting a time to do these things instead of doing it catch-as-a-catch-can is probably not going to be harmful. Then I will have to face the challenge of trying to teach two children to read at once, which is not something commonly addressed in homeschooling materials.

Third question is whether we need to stretch out school. Up until this point, we have been doing four-day weeks (with a tiny bit on our outing day). It worked fine for Year 1; we got a little behind in Year 2; and I’m thinking it’s not going to be enough for Year 3. Apparently six-day weeks were more common in CM schools. I’m not willing to go there, but since DOB almost always works out at the gym Saturday morning, it might be doable to do school on Saturdays and make our outing day school-free. (Unless we start doing the whole family at the Y on Saturdays again, which I am not very enthusiastic about, because I hate going to the Y.) I’d like to keep things going at a brisk enough pace to squeeze in exam weeks this year, something I’ve never yet managed.

Another thing I need to decide on is whether I want to follow Year 1 as I modified it for the big kids with the twins, or whether I want to go closer to the Ambleside schedule, and if so, how to allow for that this year. I liked some of the ways I moved things around (for instance, having the books scheduled more frequently and then done sooner, more like the later years and handier for borrowing things from the library), but I don’t know about the big change I made, doing Child’s History of the World for history. I’m thinking about sticking to the AOY1 history schedule and doing CHOW over the summer between Y1 and Y2. In that case, the only thing I will need to do this year to prepare is starting the Burgess Bird Book next spring so that we can go through it seasonally and cover all the chapters.

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Planning Again

I’m trying to plan Term 2 now. I had aggrandized notions of planning Term 2 and Term 3 in a leisurely fashion over Christmas break, but instead I’m cramming to get Term 2 done before Monday. This is mostly because I was doing other things, though. I think it takes me about 12 hours to plan and print out a term, which seems pretty reasonable when you consider that’s 12 weeks of education at 2 hours a day, and it’s open-and-go at that point. (So about 1 hour of planning for 10 hours of education–pretty good return on time invested.) I still want to work in some science lessons and find printables to go with each week, and then I need to finish printing, but the laying-out is done.

While I’m planning I’ve also been thinking ahead to next year. My original idea for school was to create my own stuff, using a four-year history cycle and using Ambleside Online as a booklist and resource. This year I’ve done a slightly modified Ambleside Online, mainly changing the history to a more complete Ancients year. However, the more I use Ambleside, the more I like it. There were a few factors nudging me away from doing it totally:

  • With a four-year cycle, the twins would stay at the same point in history as the older kids.
  • DOB favored a four-year cycle, believing that six years would provide insufficient review.
  • I enjoy the process of curriculum creation.

On further consideration, though:

  • If I keep the twins four years behind the older kids, they won’t start Year 1 until 7. Given that they can listen to, understand, quote, and discuss books like Winnie-the-Pooh and Little House on the Prairie at three, I think they’ll be quite ready by six for Year 1. Now, granted, I don’t think the Duchess was damaged by waiting a year, but it’s not something I would have done without a good reason.
  • DOB, having seen how the ducklings interact with the stories, continue to explore their own topics, and generally maintain connections with the larger scheme of things, thinks a six year cycle will work fine. He was envisioning each topic being studied and then abandoned entirely until it was scheduled again. Quite the contrary, they have continued their obsession with the Middle Ages and dabbled in American History while we study ancient Egypt and Greece.
  • By the time the twins are ready to start Year 1, the older kids will be 10 and 9 and starting Year 4. They should be predominantly independent in their work at that point, freeing me up to work with the twins. It shouldn’t matter that they are studying different time periods–indeed, that may promote interesting discussions.
  • When I envisioned doing so much curriculum creation for myself, I didn’t have many–shall we say–intellectual outlets. Now I’m trying to practice law, I want to get back to writing . . . I have a lot to think about and a lot of time on the computer. I don’t feel the need to create everything from scratch just to give myself something to do with my brain. Where there’s a need for tweaking, I enjoy it, but I don’t really want to spend the time making everything from scratch anymore.

And I’ve been very happy with how Ambleside is designed. It gives a high quality education while leaving the kids plenty of time to explore their own interests. I’m sure I’ll need to keep making adjustments as I go. (Like what am I going to do about using Robin Hood next year when the ducklings practically memorized it last year?) But I’m happy with the decision to make that our core and tweak rather than make up my own core.

Real ideas for random homeschoolers

I got an email recently purporting to offer words of wisdom for scatter-brained homeschoolers–and then moving on to talk about buying nicer planners and proper notepads for those lists. Um,you’re talking to someone who can’t find the nice grocery list pad with the magnet back that somehow nevertheless disappeared but it doesn’t really matter because even when she makes the shopping list *and* puts it in her purse to go shopping, she never remembers to look at it.

If you’re random, there’s no sense to try to turn yourself into someone linear. Yes, the human brain is surprisingly plastic and you probably could, but it would be a lot of effort for very little return. Besides, all those linear people with their nice planners filled out in a uniform color of ink (I *always* envy that) wish they could be as creative and spontaneous as you.

Instead, here are some homeschooling tips that can harness the power of randomness. I’ve probably picked them up from someone else, but I’ll pass them on along as I received them. There might even be a few useful for linear homeschoolers. After all, from time to time I’ve compiled a list or two . . .

1. Distinguish between skill areas and content areas.

The reason is, some things you really, truly have to do a little bit along to get good at. But other things you don’t. Skills need regular practice. New ideas need memorable encounters. There’s no sense wasting your limited energy for doing repetitive things on things that don’t need to be done repeatedly.

Skill areas: handwriting, phonics, spelling, writing, math, foreign language, music, art, sports. Whichever of these you’re going to do, you need to find a way to do it often. Just a little every time, but often.

Content areas: history, geography, science, literature, music and art appreciation. Here you can follow impulses and rabbit trails and post stuff on the walls and leave piles of books lying around and still end up with a pretty decent body of knowledge, especially in the early years.

2. Peg it.

This is probably my number one tip, which is why it’s here on the list as number two. No matter how random you are, there are things you do fairly often to stay alive. Eat. Brush teeth. Drive places. So what you do is, you pick something you want to do regularly with the kids, and then you peg it to something you are already doing. Reciting a poem you want them to memorize while they brush their teeth. Playing a classic literary selection on cd after they cuddle in bed. Reading a book at the lunch table. Drilling math facts in the car. Swinging by the library before the grocery store. (Always before, otherwise the ice cream melts.)

3. Make it easy.

Now, once you’ve picked those pegs, and while you’re in one of those inspired moods when you can conquer the world, do what you need to make it really, really easy to stick with it. Print out the poem and paste it to the bathroom mirror. Reserve the cds of Treasure Island from the library and set up the cd player on the dresser. Put the book you want to read next to the kitchen table. Tape a card that says “Addition Facts” on the dashboard. Put the library bag in the car.

The same rule applies for non-pegged activities, too. Keep the library books in a basket next to the couch. Keep the art supplies next to the kitchen table. Pack an outing bag with first aid supplies, sketchbooks, and granola bars. If you want something to happen often, make it easy for it to happen.

4. Just pick one skill area per year.

Sticking to a whole long schedule is not only difficult for a random person, it can be downright depressing even when done successfully. However, how about just one thing? So your kindergartener is just on the threshold of learning to read. Great, there’s your One Subject for the year: Reading. *Of course* you’ll do lots of other things, reading fun books, going on field trips, messing up the kitchen with crazy experiments.  But the only absolute must on your schedule is that 15 minute phonics lesson, which on the whole sounds pretty doable. After reading is mastered, I’d move on to writing mechanics (handwriting, spelling, punctuation, etc.) via copywork for the rest of the early elementary years, then math for middle school, then expressive writing for high school. Or, if you felt ambitious, you could work your way up (a year at a time) to 2 or even someday 3 subjects: read something, write something, do some math. Then have fun with the rest of the world.

5. Outsource the skill areas you’re not good at.

Luckily enough, I actually find it pretty easy to teach basic reading and math without anything fancier than the back of the cereal box. However, my Spanish is pretty rusty and I practice the piano for the five minutes before the service starts. So I give my kids Spanish videos to watch because they think it’s fun and when they do music it’s going to be from an outside teacher. But if you’re naturally musical and bilingual but the thought of teaching phonics and addition makes your skin crawl, then spend your money on a bells-and-whistles math or phonics program or a tutor. Or have that be the subject you do on the computer. Whatever will entice the kids to do it often so you don’t have to muster up extra self-discipline to make it happen regularly.

6. Act on your impulses.

No, not the one to set the kids up with cartoons and junk food if they’ll just stay out of your hair (unless you just had surgery or something). But the one that says, “To Hades with the lesson plan, let’s climb a mountain today!” or “I *know* we’re supposed to be studying Ancient Greece, but they are so going to love this book on pirates.” Or you start rearranging the basement and they discover the long-lost paints. Just do it. Think of it as double duty–you’ll have all those extra lesson plans for days you don’t feel as inspired. If you feel inspired to do something, you’ll get far more results for energy expended than if you feel uninspired but do it because it’s On The List. Besides, your inspiration takes into account things like the weather, the current moods and interests of the kids, and other factors that a prepared plan couldn’t possibly do. And then don’t beat yourself up afterwards over all the things you weren’t doing while you were following your inspiration. You’ll be inspired to do them another time.

7. If you plan (and there’s no harm in it), plan in a way that’s flexible.

I actually went hog-wild with planning this year–well, at least the first three months. I actually like planning, though I find implementation rather dreary. But the cool thing is, I planned without tying it to the calendar. We took two weeks to do Week 4, and when we got to the end we picked right up with Week 5. Last year I did it a different way–every month or so I would work up a bunch of different things to do with the kids and make sure materials were on hand, and then let them pick when and what they wanted to do. I’m sure there are many other possible methods, which I will probably discover next year. The point is, make it easy to move things around. Because you know you will.

8. Find a way you like to record things.

Composition books make me deliriously happy, so that’s what I use. Just a quick jot at the end of the day of what we read and did. I blog it from time to time, too, and it’s fun to go back and look at how far we’ve come. Even if you don’t need elaborate records for your state, it’s good for your mental health to be able to look back and say, “Hey, actually we HAVE been doing stuff.” And then get inspired about what you’d like to do next. So if you like to scrapbook, or blog, or take a gazillion pictures, make that your recording method. And maybe peg your recording time to something, so it doesn’t slide.

Shoestring School Year

Our big homeschool expenditure this year was the home. So there’s not much left over for the school part of it. But I find as I make my list and figure out what we really need, that we have plenty. Here’s what we’re using for minimum cost (4 kids, two in 1-2nd grade, two in preschool):

Basic Curriculum Plan: Ambleside Online. The literature-rich curriculum is a perfect base for us, and they make a point of using easy-to-find resources. I’ll be modifying somewhat according to what we have and want to use. Cost: $0

Handwriting: Penny Gardner’s Italic Handwriting. I really prefer italic, but the Getty-Dubay workbooks add up and are non-reusable. For just barely more than one workbook, this will keep us going indefinitely. We’ll also do copywork using the already-on-the computer Lucida Sans as a sample. To minimize paper consumption, we’ll use wet-erase markers (finer point than the dry-erase we used last year) on our personal graphboards. Cost: $10 for the handwriting book, $10 for the markers; minimal printing costs.

Spelling: I plan to use Natural Speller to do word-building exercises with the letter magnets we already own, as well as relying on carefully-executed copywork. Cost: $0; I bought Natural Speller for $5 at a second-hand sale last year and it should last us all the way through.

Reading: The older ones will read whatever they want that we own or can borrow from the library. Cost: $0

Math: Many people speak highly of MEP, but I blanched at the thought of all that printing, and I also felt it was too time-consuming for this level. Also, too much writing for my mathematically-advanced but not fond of writing boy. I was going to wing it again, but then I came across a free older book that does exactly what I want: The Arithmetic Primer. It follows a similar sequence to MEP (smaller numbers first with all operations, rather than doing one operation at a time), but it operates almost entirely orally. There are four half-sheets each week that summarize the material already learned orally, which should satisfy my children’s love of the occasional worksheet while keeping printing costs down. Cost: Minimal printing costs.

History: We’ll be substituting A Child’s History of the World, which we already own thanks to my booksale-haunting sister, for some of the Ambleside selections. I’ll be buying a ClingThing display strip to make a homemade timeline–the kids will draw their own pictures. Cost: $20 for two ClingThing strips.

Literature: Pretty much all the literature selections for now and the next three years are on the Yesterday’s Classics 225-book download I got when they were having a sale for $99. (Although I could have gotten most of them for free elsewhere, the Yesterday’s Classics selections are much higher quality with few typos and with pictures.) Since I did that this spring, it doesn’t count for school costs, right? Everything else we either already own (thanks, again, to my booksale-haunting sister or my own finds) or can borrow from our great local library. Cost: $0, unless I decide to buy the Bruce Coville Shakespeare books I want, in which case, $35-50, but will be reused.

Geography: My sister also got me Paddle to the Sea at a booksale. (No, sorry, you can’t have her.) My stepmother let me have a beautiful up-to-date world map out of a recent National Geographic she was given. I’ll get it laminated at Staples. Cost: $12. (I thought about putting contact paper on it for free, but I would probably destroy it in the process.)

Science: That Yesterday’s Classics download includes the Burgess Bird Book, and with wonderful supplements available here, we were already all set when my grandmother gave us her birdfeeder, bird guides, and several gallons of birdseed. We’ll also continue using Building a Foundation of Scientific Understanding for my reference as we encounter applicable topics (bought last year, no extra cost). And some marvelous nature notebooks provided by my sister. Cost: $0

Art: I’ll be printing out the Ambleside selections. Since I’ve pretty much eliminated printing elsewhere, I hope it will be awhile before I have to replace the ink cartridges. Cost: replacing the color cartridge, eventually.

Music: We’ll also be listening to the Ambleside selections–usually you can get a Youtube or other free source. Or the library. The first term is Mozart, and I know I have plenty of Mozart CDs somewhere in a box. Folksongs are also readily available online. Cost: $0

Spanish: There’s the marvelous Salsa videos. Our library has Muzzy to borrow. We’ll play games and practice the words and sentences we learn (I’m hoping by the end of the year to have a designated Spanish-only time of day.) And we’ll continue learning songs from Jose-Luis Orzoco’s books. (Which I would really like to own, but for now we’ll keep getting them from the library.)

Preschool: Thanks to having already had preschoolers, and having concentrated on reusable hands-on activities, we have lots of magnets, beads, puzzles, blocks, and, of course, beans. Most bought second hand or as Christmas gifts, except the beans. I’ll print them out each their own alphabet book made with family pictures. Cost: replacing the color cartridge, eventually.

Supplies: I really felt that we needed a whiteboard and a bulletin board. I thought I would need to spend about $20-$30 for each. However, I found a 2′ x 3′ whiteboard on a special at Staples for only $10, and then I found some bulletin board squares for only $5 a pack. I got two packs of four, one set for me and then one each for the kids. I have doubts about their durability, but they’ll be a great place for them each to display their own productions. I think on crayons, pencils, markers, pens, and glue we are mostly set, but I’ll allow a little for restocking later in the year while the sales are on. I’m also a big fan of art supplies as Christmas presents if anyone asks. Cost $20+ miscellaneous supplies.

So, there’s my homeschool plan for four kids for less than $100, many of them things we will continue to use for years. And it’s not a skimpy, bare-bones plan either. Sure, education is worth the money when you have it, but even when you don’t, there’s no need to feel deprived. (Although it helps a lot to have my sister!)