Saturday, September 30, 2017

Writing in Our Homeschool

This post is the 4th in my back-to-school series for 2017-18.

My Early Failures in Teaching Writing

Writing was one of the subjects that I pushed too hard on, back in the early years of homeschooling. My daughter had loved her writing workbooks during her preschool years. Nonetheless, after being required to do writing practice at least 3 times per week throughout homeschool kindergarten and first grade, she had grown to dislike writing. When I finally realized that I needed to stop pushing in our homeschool, and instead focus on creating a love of learning in my kids, I was dismayed to see that my daughter did not write, at all, for months on end.

I was committed to the ideas of Leadership Education (TJEd), and that meant I would no longer require her to practice writing. Leadership Education aims to produce children who love to learn and know how to work hard, so that they naturally move into their teen years ready and willing to put in many hours of daily study time. In order for this to happen, the children have to be given the freedom to fall in love with learning, and they have to know that they are in charge of their own educations. I knew that I wanted to give my daughter these ideals, and yet it took a big leap of faith for me to be able to watch her not even pick up a pencil for months. I watched and waited, somewhat anxiously.

Changing Our Environment

In the meantime, while I was giving my daughter her much-needed-detox from all academic requirements, I got to work on changing our home schooling environment using the TJEd 7 Keys of Great Education. Two of these keys, in particular, became my focus: "Inspire, Not Require" and "You, Not Them." As described in Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, by Oliver and Rachel DeMille,

While I was trying to reform my homeschooling methods, these two keys became foundational for me in being able to re-create our home learning environment into a place where my children could fall in love with learning and pursue their own interests. Instead of trying to force or coerce my daughter to write, I focused my efforts on creating an environment where she would be inspired to want to write.

Over the last four years since I started implementing TJEd principles into our homeschool, I've seen that this educational philosophy really works!  Both of my children are enthusiastic about learning and truly love our schooling. And for me, being able to focus on my own studies has been transformational. It goes a long way towards filling my cup to the brim.

Inspiring My Children to Want to Write

I purposely inspire my kids to write in the following ways.
  • I make sure that my children see me writing in my own notebooks on a regular basis. Young children naturally desire to emulate their parents, so this makes a huge difference in the amount of writing that they choose to do themselves.
  • Instead of expecting my children to write just to develop that skill, I give them real, meaningful opportunities to write:
    • When we do Nature Study, my children have the option to write (and draw) in their Nature Notebooks.
    • My children have penpals in Nevada, Florida, and Canada. My children love receiving letters in the mail, so having penpals has been one of the biggest motivators for them in practicing their writing regularly.
    • Since their writing skills lag behind their composition skills, whenever they ask I will write or type poems, stories, or songs for my children. This allows my children to have a voice, to develop their own literary style, even when they are not practicing writing on paper. 
    • I seek out writing contests that my daughter, especially, enjoys participating in. I take the time to type the stories for her while she dictates them. I can then walk her through the editing process, allowing her to see how to fine-tune her writing.

Methods and Resources for Writing

Through using the following methods, I am able to create an environment where my children naturally develop the skills to write.
  • Reading aloud often -  Read-alouds are a crucial part of our writing curriculum. Because they've heard so many classics read out loud, my kids are able to naturally develop the skill of grammatically-correct writing. For instance, my daughter dictated to me a ~4500 word story for a contest, complete with preface, chapters, and epilogue. We've never talked about how a story should be formatted (nor how paragraphs or sentences should be formatted), but nonetheless she decided upon all of that on her own, and pointed out where she wanted parentheses inserted into the story.
  • Reading aloud while they trace letters - During our read-aloud time, my kids are encouraged to work on tracing their penpal letters (or other compositions). This helps keep their hands busy while I'm reading aloud, and gives them an opportunity to practice writing on a regular basis if they choose to do so.
  • Refraining from correcting their writing - My tendency to over-correct my daughter during the early years of homeschooling created in her a fear of failure and a tendency to back away from figuring things out on her own. It doesn't come naturally for me to not point out my children's mistakes, but I have purposely learned to bite my tongue. This gives my children a safe space to learn without feeling that their self-worth is somehow tied into whether or not they make writing mistakes.  
Within the context of inspiring my children to write, the following resources have been helpful in allowing my children to enjoy the process of developing the fine motor skills that are necessary for writing. My children are not required to use any of these; nonetheless, these are the writing resources they have chosen to use most often.
  • Maze and tracing workbooks - Both of my kids have enjoyed using maze and tracing workbooks from around 2-6 years old. We used Kumon workbooks, and both of my kids loved using these books. (Note: I only like the Kumon workbooks for preschool work; I don't like them at all once they get into grade-school type work as they are too repetitive and suck the fun right out of school.) 
  • Dot-to-dot books - Now that my kids are a little older, they seem to enjoy dot-to-dot pages more than mazes. There are many dot-to-dot printables on the internet, but so far the best resource I have found is The Greatest Dot-to-Dot Book in the World. Both of my kids love this book.
  • Tracing pages - For penpal letters and other correspondence that my children want to send, it works well for me to type while my children dictate. I then print the letters with a light-colored font to allow for easy tracing of the letters by my children. They have enjoyed using both a printing font as well as a cursive font. I use the following fonts for this activity: 
      • Print Clearly - This is a nice, basic printing font.
      • Learning Curve - This is a cursive font that works fairly well. Because of the way the letters are designed in this font, there is a small amount of correction needed after printing (such as inserting the leading swoop at the beginning of a word), but nonetheless this is the best font I have found for cursive. 
  • Madlibs - These fun, fill-in-the-blank worksheets have given us lots of entertainment. My daughter enjoys filling out the Madlibs and then entertaining us all by reading the silly story she has created.
  • Hangman - Both of my kids enjoy playing Hangman, where one of us comes up with a word or phrase, and the other person has to guess the right letters to solve the puzzle before the man gets hanged.
  • Writing game - My daughter likes to play a game where we pretend we cannot hear, so that we write to each other to have a conversation. To make this work, my daughter references a chart of words to help in spelling the words she wants to write.

Overcoming Her Dislike of Writing

So how is this all working out for my daughter, who disliked writing by age 6? She is now 10-years-old, and doesn't seem to have any strong feelings one way or the other about writing. Considering how much she used to dislike writing, I see this as a win! 

My daughter definitely loves creating stories and entering story contests. She is starting to set goals for herself to practice writing more because she has identified that as an area she would like to improve upon. So, instead of tracing all of her letters to penpals and relatives, she is choosing to handwrite some of them. She also writes little notes to herself or to me, as needed in her day-to-day life.

After seeing me write in my commonplace place book over the last several years, my daughter decided to start her own commonplace book. She uses this book as a place to copy down her favorite poems. She is also creating a handwritten book out of the ~4500-word story that she dictated to me earlier this year. Because I stopped myself from correcting her handwriting, she has had the freedom to develop her own beautiful handwriting style, which she based upon the font in one of  her favorite books.

I am so thankful that I learned there was a better way for my children to learn how to write, so that my 10-year-old daughter has been able to grow past her dislike of writing. Meanwhile, my 7-year-old son hasn't had any of the negative emotional baggage that his sister had, so he has been free to learn writing in a natural, unpressured way. Learning from my mistakes and finding a better path has been well worth it. 

What has been your experience with teaching writing to your children? What do you remember about your own writing education?

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

USA Unit Study - $6 Through 9/30/17 Only

In case any of you are interested, my All Around the USA Unit Study is currently available for only $6. On October 1st, the price will increase to $8.

All Around the USA is a read-aloud-based unit study that is designed to make learning about the United States fun and engaging for children and parents/educators alike. Rather than focusing on memorization of states and capitals, this unit study seeks to give a small sense of the culture in each region of the USA.

This unit study incorporates the following for each region:
  • geography
  • history
  • Native American studies
  • science
  • stories and folk tales
  • chapter books, including book suggestions for the parents/educators themselves
  • media to accompany the read-alouds
  • pictures of landscapes and famous sites
  • food and recipe suggestions
For more information about this unit study (including sample pages), or if you are interested in buying the unit study, click here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Minestrone Soup (grain-free : nutrient-dense)

Homemade soup is one of my favorite things about the cooler months of the year. Since the heat of summer is finally abating, I'm ready to embrace soup back into our dinner repertoire.  This minestrone soup recipe combines two types of beans with lots of veggies in a flavorful broth. This soup gets a flavor punch thanks to the addition of sun-dried tomatoes, a Parmesan cheese rind, and fresh herbs.

Minestrone Soup

Serves 6-8

  • 3/4 cup of dried kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup of dried white navy beans
  • filtered water
  • dash of baking soda
  • 2 Tb butter, preferably the nutrient-dense yellow type
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
  • 2 cups filtered water (or substitute with more chicken broth if using storebought broth)
  • 4 tsp Celtic sea salt (use less salt if your tomatoes and/or chicken broth are salted)
  • Parmesan cheese rind
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 4 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 stalks of chard, stems chopped and kept separate from the greens
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • one 18-ounce jar of diced tomatoes
  • 3 Tb sundried tomatoes (in olive oil), minced
  • 1 Tb fresh oregano, minced (or substitute 1 tsp dried)
  • 1&1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced (or substitute 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 2 Tb fresh basil, minced (or substitute 2 tsp dried)
  • 3 Tb tomato paste
  • 1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, chopped
  • finely shredded Parmesan cheese, to garnish

  1. Cover the beans with plenty of filtered water. The beans will soak up quite a bit of water, so be sure to add plenty. Add a dash of baking soda and allow the beans to soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or overnight.  This important step reduces the phytic acid antinutrient in the beans.
  2. Drain and rinse the beans. Drain in a colander. 
  3. Chop the onions. Melt the butter in a 4-quart pot. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Saute for 5 minutes. 
  4. Add the beans to the pot. Cover with 3 cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of filtered water. 
  5. Bring the pot to a boil. Skim off and discard the foam. Add 2 tsp salt, the Parmesan cheese rind, and bay leaves.  Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover the pot and cook until the beans are soft, about 1.5-2 hours. Stir occasionally.
  6. Meanwhile, chop the carrots and celery. Remove the leaves from the chard and mince the stalks. Reserve the chard leaves for Step 8. Mince the garlic. For the sundried tomatoes, I find it works best to put them in a bowl and then mince with a pair of kitchen shears. Mince the oregano, rosemary, and basil.
  7. Once the beans are cooked, add the carrots, celery, chard stalks, garlic, sundried tomatoes, oregano, rosemary, basil, and tomato paste to the pot. Stir in 2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Cover the pot and simmer for 25 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, mince the chard leaves and chop the zucchini.
  9. Add the zucchini and chard leaves to the pot. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
  10. Taste the broth and adjust the salt and pepper as desired. Remove the bay leaves.
  11. The Parmesan rind can be removed, or it can be chopped up and consumed with the soup by anyone who loves strong flavors.
  12. Finely shred Parmesan cheese to use as a garnish. A microplane zester works well for this.
  13. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and enjoy!
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Thursday, September 7, 2017

When and How Should My Children Learn to Read? Learning From My Mistakes

This post is the 3rd in my back-to-school series for 2017-18.

One Early Reader

I originally wrote a blog post about teaching reading over 4 years ago, based on my experiences in teaching my daughter Alina to read. She was a precocious reader; I started requiring her to do reading lessons when she was preschool age, and by the time she was 6-years-old she was reading at a 7th-grade-level and reading Charles Dickens in her spare time.  I thought Alina's reading success was greatly aided by our reading lessons, and assumed that my son Ian would be reading early, too.

But yet. Ian's personality is totally different from his sister's. Whereas Alina was eager to please and malleable from a young age, Ian was... not. He never did anything that he did not want to do, period. I could never talk him into doing anything that he didn't want to do, and he would stick to his decision for eternity. Thank goodness he is naturally geared to make right choices and likes following rules!

I've often said that if my son had been the firstborn I would have given up homeschooling early on, because the techniques I originally used (such as rigid schedules and forced academics) would never have worked with him. Now I know that those techniques were flawed from the start, and I no longer force my children to do academics (and instead focus on fostering a love of learning combined with them taking ownership for their own educations). But where does that leave 7-year-old Ian on his own journey to reading proficiency? 

Is Early Reading Actually Better?

In the intervening years since Alina learned to read, I've become much better-educated about the reading abilities of children. I've learned that:

  • There is actually a very wide developmental age for learning to read. Some kids naturally learn to read at very young ages, but it is totally natural that some kids do not read until later, even until as late as 12 to 14 years old. 
  • When a child naturally has a developmental reading age that is older, it does not matter how much the child is urged and pushed to read while they are younger. The child will not really learn to read until they reach their natural developmental age for reading. 
  • The "late" readers generally end up being labeled as "slow" or "behind", when in fact they are not at all; they are just on their own developmental path and there is nothing wrong with them. And of course, that process of being told they are behind, of being pushed to do something they are actually not yet capable of doing, has a tremendously bad effect on their self-confidence and their belief in their own ability to learn. I have observed several children who were "late-readers" who went to public school: these children were made to feel like there was something seriously wrong with them. Once they reached their natural developmental reading age they were able to read easily; all efforts before that just led to frustration, anxiety, and low self-confidence. 
  • Each child is an individual who has his/her own developmental timetables and needs. It is totally normal and fine for a child to be a "late" reader. Often, a child who reads late will be more advanced in other areas. For instance, I've observed that many "late" readers are more naturally attuned to mathematical concepts than to early reading. Neither "late" readers nor "early" readers are better or worse; they are just different. 
  • There is no "right" way to teach reading. Some kids learn to read in the phonics approach (sounding out letters, then sounding out words) but others learn to read with the "whole word" method (where they basically just memorize what a word looks like rather than breaking it down into individual phonics sounds). Neither approach is better than the other. 
  • Without any reading lessons at all, many kids will learn to read on their own when they reach their developmental age for reading if they are in a reading-rich environment (such as an environment where the parents are reading aloud to the child often). There is a good article about this here.

Were Alina's Reading Lessons Actually a Success?

Back when Alina was learning to read, I assumed my role was to be her teacher, who made sure she did her reading lessons and kept progressing. I pushed her to read just as I pushed her to do math and writing. She did learn to read early, but now I know that her early reading probably did not have much to do with my methods for teaching reading. She was just naturally a precocious reader.

In the end, my methods of pushing Alina to do academics actually backfired. She grew to think that schoolwork was akin to punishment, and to dislike math and writing specifically. She developed what John Gatto calls " provisional self-esteem": she came to believe that her own self-worth was related to how well she did academically and this lead her to become afraid of making any mistakes. People learn much through mistakes, so a fear of making mistakes actually hinders growth over time. Alina's fear of making mistakes meant that she did not trust her own learning processes and intuition, and that she was afraid to try to figure things out on her own. Our relationship was suffering, too, because of our interactions surrounding school work.

It has taken a long time for Alina to recover from these negative lessons, and in some ways she is still recovering from them. Even though it has been over 4 years since I found Leadership Education and stopped pushing her academically, I still see the shadow of those wrong lessons hanging over her at times.

Providing the Right Environment for Learning to Read

Now, while Ian is learning to read, I know that my own role is different than I had assumed years ago when Alina was learning to read. By knowing that children can learn to read easily when they reach their own developmental age for reading, and by knowing that academic pushing can easily create a hate of learning in children, my own role in the process becomes clear: I need to make sure the environment is right for Ian to learn to read and then just let the process unfold.

I am creating an environment that will help Ian learn to read by:

  • Reading aloud often, and making sure to read plenty of books that he finds very engaging. This will instill in him the belief that books are worthwhile and that reading is enjoyable. 
  • Reading my own books. The more a child sees their parents reading, the more they will want to read, too. 
  • Trusting the process. Showing Ian that I have confidence that he can learn anything, and not allowing the process to become stressful, is an important aspect of providing the right environment for learning to read. I've been careful to never give him the idea that he is "behind" in reading, and to let his own process for reading develop naturally. 
  • Instilling in him a love for learning. Ian's love of learning is being nurtured through being supported in following his own interests and passions, as well as through exposure to great books, ideas, art, and music. This helps Ian be open and free with his learning, so he can naturally love it. 
  • Creating a home atmosphere where reading is a main form of entertainment. In our home, limiting screen time makes it possible for reading to be one of the top forms of entertainment every day of the week. In quiet moments, we naturally seek out books to enjoy singly or together. 
  • Buying him books that support his interests. Ian loves adult-level encyclopedias about cars (which we can find easily at our local used-bookstore). Even though Ian is not actually reading these books, he regularly spends time poring over the pictures in these books. In this way, he is building a habit of enjoying books. 
  • Assisting him when he wants help with reading. I am letting Ian lead out with determining when and how he wants to do reading lessons. This underscores the fact that he is in charge of his own education, and allows his reading lessons to become empowering rather than coerced.

Ian's Self-Directed Reading Lesson Schedule

When children are infused with the confidence that they can learn, and that their own interests/passions are important, they will take ownership of their own education. Every six months or so, I have a homeschool mentoring conversation with each of my children, wherein we fill out a homeschool compass for the months ahead. During one of these conversations, Ian said that he wanted to start having reading lessons, because he wants to be able to enjoy books like the rest of us do. Rather than me "making him" do reading lessons, I have given Ian the freedom to be in charge of the process.

Ian likes to plan ahead, so he set a goal for himself to do two reading lessons per week, on Wednesday and Friday. With his naturally-structured nature, he makes sure he does his two reading lessons each week, and he often does them a day early! He is still in the early stages of reading, but he is making progress over time and seems to be enjoying the process.

Want Some More Perspectives in Teaching Reading?

Check out these links for some more ideas to ponder regarding teaching kids to read:

What has been your experience with teaching reading? 

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