Planning: Enough Already

I think we’re just going to start school on Monday.

I started looking at the fall and the chances are that school is going to get disrupted many times with DOB’s medical issues. Better to start a bit early and have some breathing room. If we start this next week, we have five extra weeks to get through the end of the term before Christmas break. Which means if all goes well we’ll have plenty of time for a nice Thanksgiving and Christmas break and the long weekends and even if it doesn’t all go well we should be *done* before Christmas instead of scootching it in afterward and playing catchup all winter and spring.

I *think* I’ve done everything on the must-do list. I got the Spanish book in (it looks good!). The notebooks are ready and the papers and maps printed out. No doubt things will turn up missing once we plunge in, but we’re just going to make  a start at it.

The house isn’t perfectly organized, but it’s functionally clean and I’ve at least made a start on the basement. If I have the energy tomorrow, I might organize the shelves and desk area. Or I might get started on the legal work I have coming due next week. So many things to juggle sometimes, and only so much energy.

The kids are excited. Whether it is from the studies itself, or because it means we will be resuming daily computer time, I’m not sure. Either way, it will work. (And they did just fine all summer without the regular computer time, so I am satisfied that it is not taking over our lives.)

Here goes.

Planning, Part 3: Subjects

Science: AO Y3 has some nature study readings (Pagoo and Secrets of the Woods) and then some science options, one of which I don’t care for the writing style of and one of which isn’t readily available. So I plan to continue with the next stage after Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, Elementary Science Education. It just got here in the mail last week and I have started flipping through it. It looks really good, but really challenging–at least for the teacher. Plus, I’m going to need some equipment, most significantly a proper microscope and a triple beam scale, which aren’t cheap but should last us several years. I’m a little intimidated. I’m also not sure how to plan, or how to make sure it actually happens. It slid off too easily or got shortchanged last year. But there’s some really cool stuff in here. We will also need to start keeping notebooks, which means–sigh–more writing for Deux. That AND I want to make Nature Notebooks a weekly thing this year. (We did do many more entries this year than the year before. And this can be an independent activity.)

History: Duchess wants to do her own timeline. I think I’m going to get a small notebook and have her use it just for the time period covered during this school year. I’ll probably need to get one for Deux, too, even if he doesn’t put much in it. I am not certain whether I want to read history out loud or have them read it to themselves. And if they do read it to themselves, how do I provide the appropriate introductions and preparation? The trouble is, the history reads are usually relatively easy to read independently, but they do need context.

History Biographies: For the first term I will have Duchess read the biography of Da Vinci by Hahn, which is fairly lengthy. Deux will read the shorter one by Diane Stanley. In the second term, I’m going to have Deux read the biography of Sir Walter Raleigh recommended for Year 3.5 and Duchess read both Bard of Avon and Good Queen Bess. I haven’t decided what to do for the third term yet–I may have them both read The Landing of the Pilgrims or I may have Deux read Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims by Bulla.

Geography: An idea I want to try is having them trace their own map of Asia to fill in. I’m going to do one map for the whole year to which they will add the journeys of Marco Polo, plus the weekly blank map to learn to fill in the modern countries. I got the Komroff Marco Polo, which looks good, but I have to schedule it myself–there are only 26 chapters, so I might intersperse with some activities from Marco Polo for Kids, which I will probably just get from the library.

Math: I’m still planning to do MEP–I think it’s the best fit for where they are now. What I really want to do long-term is now the Art of Problem Solving, but they don’t have anything between 3d grade and pre-algebra. (And I don’t care that much for the younger level stuff, anyway.) That means switching curriculum again in a couple of years. Which, of course, is supposed to be bad. However, I think I have good reason for the choices at each stage, and I’m willing and able to help them bridge any gaps. I’m still dreading the writing issue with Deux.

Languages: I still have to order this, but I’m excited to try using a Spanish curriculum based on the Gouin series. I’m hoping it will help them make the jump from being familiar with the sounds of Spanish to actually *using* it. For Duchess, I’m going to have her try Mango for French–we can get it free through the library.

Art and Music: I’ve changed from the AO 2013-14 selections to ones from various years that will correspond with our current timeframe. Other than that, I think we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not fancy, but it begins an acquaintance.

Twins: I’m making a list of books to work through, not on any particular schedule, though generally rotating through: the “Among the ____ People” books, a book of fairy and folk tales, the “Twin” books.  I’ll try to read a few appropriate history tales when the older kids are doing something similar, and not give up picture books entirely. I’m not going to schedule reading lessons in advance, because I really have no idea how quickly they’ll progress, but we’ll start with doing word building (maybe in some cool little notebooks) and then add in actual CM-style reading lessons when they seem ready. I don’t think I’ll plan math as part of school–I will continue using the recommendations from The Arithmetic Primer, but as part of ordinary life. I also want to work on a calendar of firsts with them. They will continue to participate informally in memory work and in art and composer and nature study. I would like to look through Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding and make notes of specific areas I want to be sure to discuss with them this year–they are asking lots of good questions on their own. Having worked through it once more formally with the older kids, I think I’m doing better at simply integrating it into their own observations rather than making formal lessons out of it.

Planning, Part 2: Reworking

Now that I think about it, I don’t want to follow Y1 as written with the twins, nor do I want to do it as I did with the big kids. No, what I really want to do is coordinate their history with the big kids.

And I think the main reason I want to do that is to coordinate our art and music appreciation with the time period in history we are studying. It just makes so much more sense to illuminate the time period in history with the appropriate art and music than to just have it chosen in a random rotation. I understand why AO does it that way, but I don’t think it’s ideal. And if I’m willing to do just a bit more of the legwork myself (since I can’t always borrow someone else’s labor of gathering the appropriate pictures and music), I can have the ideal.

Also, DOB think it makes a lot of sense, and that’s a strong point in its favor, especially since he is most insightful at history conversations and every once in a while we toss around the idea of doing history as a family in the evenings. (And maybe if we could go six weeks without a new medical crisis, we would do it.) Since the twins inevitably listen to the big kids’ free reads (and vice versa) it just makes sense to be aiming for a similar timeframe. I can’t wait to do, say, Carry on Mr. Bowditch as a family. (Some people caution about the increasing maturity of the reads in upper years, but looking at the lists, I’m seeing very few things I would feel the need to wait on. Maybe my kids are just very insensitive. Or maybe they just are very used to eavesdropping on the big kids. Last week I read them all The Wanderings of Odysseus, complete with man-eating monsters and the slaying of the suitors and they all thought it was the greatest thing ever.)

As for changing the history rotation, it really will involve only a tiny tweak the first year–swapping out Fifty Famous Tales for something with a more early American focus (since that is what the big kids will be doing in Y4)–probably Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans. The existing biographies will be perfect. (I’ll probably still include a few tales of ancient Greece and Rome, especially those inspiring to the early Americans, like Cincinnatus.) Y2 will be a bit more, but I will use the same history books currently scheduled for those years, just different chapters. (Not sure if I will keep Little Duke or do it as a free read when they get back to that time period in Y4. On the other hand, Tree in the Trail and Seabird will actually fit, which may make them more comprehensible.) It will probably take the most reworking when the big kids are in HEO and the twins are still in the lower years, but once they all get to HEO it will be no big deal–the HEO years are a more “salad bar” approach, as they say, and I can easily just pick a lighter load of similar materials for the twins. The only challenge is, if I do this, I really should stick with it–it will rearrange the schedule sufficiently that it would be very hard to put the twins back in the usual sequence.

This next year it won’t change anything for the twins except that I’ll make sure to include some picture books that will go with the time period the big kids are doing. (OK, honestly I can’t think of any that will go with the very early explorers–except Columbus, which we just read–but Pocahontas and the wonderful photobooks from Plymouth Plantation will be ideal in Term 3.) And for the big kids it will mean that, instead of jumping all over, we will listen to Palestrina and Purcell and Handel, and look at Da Vinci and Raphael and Rembrandt. I also am going to include at least one folksong each term that is from the appropriate time period. (I finally discovered that folk songs by time period are listed on the HEO years, so I can take them off there.)

Another thing I am maybe thinking about changing is the way we do memory work. Since they were just preschoolers listening to me sing, I’ve done one set of memory work per month, changing to a completely new set at the beginning of each month, and reviewing one older item each day. It’s very simple for me to keep track of, which is why we have stuck with it. However, they really don’t need that long to learn most of the items (especially poetry and folk songs) while they may need much longer to learn, say, a longer Bible passage or a Spanish song. So it’s possible that a more varied rotation would be more effective. On the other hand, it’s also possible that if I try to do anything more complicated, I will lose my place and mess up what we have going, which is pretty decent. This needs more thought.

School Planning with OneNote

I started out by creating a folder for Subject Overviews, with a page in it for each subject. Here is where I list all the books that will be needed for the term, any general resources I want to keep track of, and if I need to schedule it out myself, create a table to help me do that.

Next I created a folder for each term. Within each term folder is a page for each week. On the main page for each week I list everything I want to have done that week (and this year I’m putting EVERYTHING on it) with lines for how many times it will need to be done. I plan for a four-day week with one day for nature walk and errands. Further down on the page would be the subjects to be read together, along with art, composer, and nature study.

OneNote then allows the creation of subpages, and subsubpages, and subsubsub–not sure how far it goes. Subpages is enough for me. The subpages vary according to the needs of the week, but I will have one with all the copywork selections for that week, usually one with a list of resources I may want to hunt up (library books, science materials, YouTube videos, etc.), and one with maps or links to other things that need printed. This year I also have the study guides to go with The Little Duke and pictures of the animals to go with each week of The Burgess Animal Book.

The final stage of planning will be to print out copies of the weekly assignment sheets, copywork sheets, any maps, coloring pages, or other materials, and putting them in folders for each week. Then at the beginning of each week I just have to pull out the right folder and everything is ready to go.

Ten Reasons We Are Loving Using Ambleside Online

After finishing our first term with Ambleside Online and deciding to stick to it as our guide for the foreseeable future, I felt inspired to write down the reasons I am so pleased with it. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. It’s not tied to reading or writing ability level.

Someone pointed out once that the parent of a child who’s a late reader and the parent of a child who’s an early reader have the exact same problem: most K-2nd curriculum is going to be completely inappropriate, because it’s all built around Learning To Read. Ambleside Online isn’t. If your child can read to themselves, great, but it’s really meant to be read aloud for the first few years. Not every 6 year old is ready to learn to read yet, and some have been reading for years. But I have yet to meet a healthy six or seven-year-old who wasn’t ready to have their mind awakened by great ideas in wonderful stories. Year 1 has proven equally appropriate for Duchess (7.5), who fills pages with exquisite handwriting in her free time, and Deux (6), who can read well but still struggles to remember how to form lower case letters, and I know kids who aren’t reading independently yet but love it, too. Reading and writing are dealt with separately, but the high literary quality of the stories means that whenever the child does learn to read (which takes so much less time if done when ready), they’ll have the rich vocabulary and understanding to handle higher level materials, instead of being held at basal reader material for years. There’s no reason why a six-year-old’s active mind should be limited by their inexperienced eyes.

2. It’s free.

Now, we did spend a bit of money buying a few books that we just couldn’t do without, but between electronic files and using our great library, even the cost of buying books has been very low–special effort has been made so that most of the books are fairly easy to find and/or public domain. (Many of the out-of-print ones are still quite common at libraries, so before you gasp at the second-hand price, check your library.) The curriculum plans themselves are free, and that includes a weekly schedule for the core subjects, resources for art, music, folksong, and hymn study, and lots of stuff people design and volunteer to supplement (like printer-ready files of all the art works to be studied each term, or Grooveshark playlists of the composer selections). And the money we are spending is mostly on books I want to own forever anyway.

3. It includes a lot of English History.

I know, this is the one that people love to hate. Why all this ancient and English history? I’m not going to offer an apologetic for it (though I do think it makes sense for anywhere in the Anglo-speaking world). I’m just going to say: my kids think English history is awesome. This is all the fault of Robin Hood.

4. It takes things slowly.

This is a big difference between Ambleside and almost every curriculum out there: you read the books really, really slowly. A chapter a week in the books you move through quickly. Some it’s once a month. This gives time for the stories to sink in, for the children to take the ideas and live with them. Good books, like love, should be taken easy.

5. The books are the master.

Titania rests, attended by her fairy court.

Most curricula the Plan is the master: Children need to study X, Y, and Z, and if we can find a good book on it great, if not, soldier on with something mediocre. Ambleside doesn’t settle for less than well-written, engaging literature in every subject and at every level. That means some topics might be skipped for now, if there’s just not a good book on the topic for that age. But you know what? You can’t study everything all the time. Better to concentrate on the best books. (Which is not to say that everyone will find every book delightful. But so far we’ve been very happy with them.)

6. It’s Christian without being preachy or prudish.

Both my husband and I were homeschooled in a curriculum that specialized in being both. Although we appreciated being homeschooled, we decided that was not the route we wanted to take. (Just this morning DOB was reminiscing about the lengthy chapter trying to establish that the Magi were astronomers not astrologers. Sorry, no.) Ambleside recommends regular, thorough Bible reading, and includes some books from a religious perspective, but it also includes secular science books and plenty of fairy tales, mythology, and other nurturing food for the imagination that is too often discounted by a certain brand of Christian homeschooler. Our folk song for this month is Carrickfergus, which includes the line, “For I’m drunk today, and I’m seldom sober . . . ” Let’s just say that would never have made it into the list when we were kids. (OK, nothing but hymns did. But the great thing with Ambleside is, we’re still learning the hymns, too.)

There are users of Ambleside from other faiths, too–you would probably want to modify slightly (obviously drop or replace the hymn and Bible study), but most of the books have a very broad


7. There’s a variety of voices.

This ties into the previous two points, but deserves its own. Textbooks pretty much all read the same. Many unit-study type curricula have a lot of writing from the author that introduces or holds together the main points. It’s monotonous and mind-deadening to always be reading the same voice. In Ambleside, there are only the books, and they are all different. Kipling doesn’t sound anything like Burgess, nor Holling like D’Aulaire. We learn how different authors play with language; we see things from new perspectives. (Yes, there’s a prejudice towards Western Civilization. What can I say? It’s in English. Obviously if you were teaching in Chinese you’d have a different set of resources. I also think there’s something far more honest about teaching a child about his own heritage first rather than this shallow pretense of multi-culturalism. You can better understand other people’s love for their own ways if you have something deeper in your heart than the current TV shows.)

8. It’s only as complicated as you want it to be.

Duchess models a Grecian paper doll.

Some people seem to LOVE doing complicated projects with their children. To you I say: have fun. Some people prefer to get school done and send the kids off to play (where they may or may not design their own fancy projects). I am firmly in the latter camp. Following the core curriculum of Ambleside is incredibly simple: Read, narrate. Lather, rinse, repeat. You can do as many or few fancy projects after that as you please. In our house, I like to see our readings turn up in their independent play. Interestingly, I find it is often several days or even weeks after the thing we read about that it finally comes out. I think ideas take a longer percolation time than the standard school setup of “read about it, do a project.” (I also concede to print out paper dolls or paper soldiers when I can find some that go along with the history lesson.)

9. It’s gentle for the littles, challenging for the big kids.

My Year 1 students spend only an hour and a half at school on a long day. (And yes, Deux still believes he has no time to play, poor child. Only eight hours a day! I think his trouble is that he has no time when compared to the number of ideas he has. A problem with which I identify.) But the time that is devoted is well spent on the best books with the best language (which the children devour because they’re fairy tales and stories of adventure). Looking ahead, by Year 9 they’re reading Winston Churchill, Thomas Paine, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, etc. This is why people entering in later years usually have to start in an earlier year–but the preparation is all there if you start at the beginning. I think most of the time we expect too much in the way of sitting still and grinding out papers from 6 year olds, and far too little in the way of actual thinking from teenagers.

10. Did I mention the books?

Then let me mention them again. The books I used to hide out in the attic and read when I was supposed to be doing school are now our school books. I know I learned more from them than I did from the workbooks. (My only fear is that having them endorsed will make the children love them a little less. Some risks we must take, however. They still seem to be enjoying them, although I admit they have not yet learned to love narrating them.)

And then, after I came up with ten, I remembered others I had wanted to put in, so here’s some extras:

11. It hits a nice sweet spot between structure and freedom.

There’s enough structure to keep moving, but not enough to get you overwhelmed if you’re not a very linear person. There are people who plan it out day by day, and people who just pick up the list for the week and do it when the spirit moves. The weekly organization helps keep you from getting too far ahead or behind in any one area. You don’t have to wade through pages of assignments to pick out which ones really matter, nor are you left to puzzle everything out on your own.

12. Despite what you may have heard, Ambleside and Charlotte Mason are perfectly appropriate for modern boys.

Deux tries out some facial expressions on a hike.

There’s a bit of a girls-in-long-skirts image to it which is quite arbitrary and I think an accident of illustration choices of some early Charlotte Mason proponents. Deux likes Lego Hero Factory, Nintendo DS (in moderation), and Monsters, Inc. And he likes to hear about famous battles and laugh at A. A. Milne’s poetry and go play in the woods. Usually pretending to be Robin Hood. There is nothing particularly girly about history or nature study or poetry or handcrafts, all of which have been practiced by manly men for centuries.

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.

A Schedule I Think Will Work

So I haven’t had this implemented for a long time yet, but I’ve given it a try two days and I think it’s going to work. The challenge has been how to keep three-year-old twins (Dot and Dash) busy and happy while providing some concentrated work time for the oldest two (Duchess, 7, and Deux, nearly 6).  We’re using a modified version of Ambleside Year 1 for the oldest two (the main change is starting from the beginning of A Child’s History of the World as our main history read).

The goal is to start at 9, after breakfast and cleanup.

15 minutes: “Singing Time” (also known as “Morning Time” and “Circle Time”, but this is what my kids call it): Bible passage, hymn, folksong, Spanish song, and a poem to memorize–we change these out monthly, and I’m hoping to add review this year.

15 minutes: Big kids do free reading from a basket of books related to our topics for the week. Twins do a “lesson” with me. I try to keep this flexible as I find it works better with three year olds to follow their cues, but we will be making alphabet books this year, as well as counting, playing with manipulatives, cutting with scissors, etc.

10 minutes: Handwriting for everyone. I use personal whiteboards (grids for the big kids, blank for the twins) and dry erase markers. One day a week we will focus on letter formation, one day a week on word building/spelling, and the rest we will do copywork from our readings, which includes both spelling and handwriting, as well as basic mechanics (capitalization and punctuation) for Duchess, who can copy a whole sentence. (This is the one area they are differentiated–Deux is still working on writing his lowercase letters.) The twins just draw, but they feel included.

10 minutes: Kids read aloud. One of them reads to me (from the Treadwell Readers), the other reads to the twins from whatever picture book they agree on.

15 minutes: I read aloud. This is when we do our core reading from the Ambleside list, generally History on Mondays, Aesop on Tuesdays (they read this to themselves), Nature study on Wednesdays (Burgess Bird Book, Parables from Nature, sometimes James Herriot when it doesn’t fit elsewhere); Geography on Thursdays (Paddle to the Sea); Literature on Fridays (Blue Fairy Book, Just So Stories, Herriot when it fits). They narrate back and we refer to maps or charts as needed. The twins can play quietly with manipulatives, draw, or go off to play, as they prefer. (Actually I’m realizing that the twins and big kids will probably want to do the same thing, so today they all strung beads and if I have coloring papers to go with the reading, I’ve made four copies.)

15 minutes: Project time. This generally correlates somewhat to the reading, so on Monday we will usually work on maps or timeline figures or a simple history-related activity. Tuesdays is our library and shopping day, no projects. Wednesday we will go on a nature walk (hopefully with friends) and draw in our nature notebooks. Thursday’s geography reading is very short, so even with map work we will have plenty of time for a math game and doing a math page. Friday will be art or handcrafts. The twins can participate in most of these.

So moving along at a brisk clip, we should be done by 10:30 or 11 if we’re going slow, with plenty of time to play before lunch, unless we’re doing something like a nature walk or art that can keep going as long as they want to participate.

Other things will sneak into other times of the day: We do our Bible reading during breakfast, and I plan to start playing our music selections after that. Art selections are hanging on the wall, and I plan to do a little extra look at it once a week during Singing Time. Our math program (The Arithmetic Primer) emphasizes oral work, so we will do that daily over lunch, as well as practicing a bit of conversational Spanish. (They also watch a Spanish video twice a week and we include Spanish picture books from the library in our free reads.) Poetry and free reads we will do during our read-aloud time before afternoon naps. (Actually only Dash naps anymore, but we try to at least have some quiet.)