A mother of a six-year-old girl wrote to Julie at Bravewriter.com to detail her experience with homeschooling. The part that struck me--and that I direct you to here--describes the process of working on a fairytale project with her daughter. She does well at showing the writing process, the goals fixed on nurturing her child's voice and building her confidence rather than insisting on correctness. You can find the description here in the fourth paragraph which begins, "I told her we were going to do...."
 
 
Short writing exercises and stand-alone assignments have their place, but when I am looking to foster increased motivation, I daydream about projects. What projects can I suggest that will hook and keep a kid's attention?

Ones that have worked well for me so far are...

Magazines: I love this one because students are free to follow their creativity. You can find an explanation here.

Portfolders (aka lapbooks) - Portfolders kept our family busy for years. You can read why I like them so much and take a peek into some of ours here.

Notebooks - When we were ready to venture beyond portfolders, we headed to notebooks. I show some of them here.

Pen Pal Project - I tried this idea with a group of eighth graders. You can read more about it here.

Coil or spiral bound book - What's better: to have a bunch of writing pieces spread here and there or to have the best ones bound together in a book?  I think the latter. See a post here.

Blog - When my girls were young writers, the four of us started a blog.  It gave them a reason to write and an audience outside of our home. It's old, but it's here. For an AP History class, my oldest daughter made blogs for Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Adams. So many possibilities!

If you're noticing your students plodding through their work, the vision for learning lost, introduce a project centered on a subject they love.

See if the sparkle returns.
 
 
A friend sent me this link. (Thanks, Cynthia!) Be encouraged as you set your goals for the new year!
 
 
Writing is scary. According to Denise J. Hughes, we can overcome our fear with one word. Find out what it is here.

What do you think? How have you begun, or what is your plan to begin?
 
 
Teaching my girls to read is a highlight of our homeschooling years. I didn't officially know what I was doing, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. Long before thousands of curricula were written, people learned how to read. I assumed we could handle the process without the experts and, happily, I was right. (Of course, I know that children, for various reasons, need intervention and curricula. I don't mean to heap any condemnation on anyone but rather share what worked for us, in case it will work for you, too.)

My strategies were simple.

I made our home a literate environment, with books and print in nearly every room of the house. We spent hours reading together.

I made sure they interacted with the alphabet often, with puzzles, magnetic letters, pictures, books, etc.

As soon as they could hold a pencil, they began writing. When they needed to know how to spell a word, I sometimes dictated the letters, sometimes told them the letters' sounds. I taught them suffixes: for instance, I'd say "ing," and they would know what letters to write.

I wrote words on index cards and posted them on the objects they represented.

I helped them see patterns in words, again with index cards.  I wrote <at> on a 4 x 6 card.  I cut the rest of the cards in half. On one, I wrote a <p>, on another an <f>, on another an <r>, etc., stacking them into a book held together with two brads. They flipped the pages as they read each word.

I wrote sight words, one per index card. I lined them up one after another on the carpet to make a sentence for them to read aloud. Often I made them goofy. Of course, it was then their turn to put the cards into a sentence for me to read and, of course, their sentence was goofier than mine.

The MagnaDoodle was our best tool. I would write a simple note to them with words they could easily read.  They would erase my note, writing a response with words they knew. After erasing their message, I would respond with a simple message, adding in a new word that would push them to use phonics.

When I read aloud, I would periodically stop and point to a word I knew they knew. They would read it, and I would continue.

Super Easy Readers (Bob books) and easy readers (Green Eggs and Ham) as well as sites, such as Starfall.com, gave them more tastes of success and practice.

Reading for a beginner is exhausting. I propped my little readers with support, sharing the reading load with them.

Most of these strategies focus on decoding rather than comprehension. I found that, because we read (and reread...and reread), enjoyed, and talked about so many books together, comprehension was absorbed rather than taught.

That's what I can recall after more than ten years.  As you can see, I did nothing magical or profound. But the results were both. Reading gave them the key that has unlocked an endless world of learning.  Teaching it to them is one of the best gifts I could give them.
 
 
This afternoon I uncovered notes from a presentation I made at a local homeschooling  fair in 2005.  Maybe they will be helpful here. (If you make it to the end, there will be a treat!)

Fanning the Flame: Teaching Writing to Your Elementary-Aged Child
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
~ W. B. Yeats

Extinguisher #1
Replace real writing with a list of things to do (penmanship, spelling, vocabulary, grammar exercises).

Fanning the Flame
Encourage your child to write, write, and write some more.

Extinguisher #2
Limit children to certain types of writing.

Fanning the Flame
Allow your child to show her personality, to develop her writer's voice, to write about subjects which interest her.

Extinguisher #3
Make writing a separate subject.

Fanning the Flame
Integrate writing with other disciplines.

Extinguisher #4
Expect a piece to be immediately perfect.

Fanning the Flame
Encourage your child to utilize the writing process.


Extinguisher #5

Assume that every piece must be a finished piece.

Fanning the Flame

Allow some pieces to remain in the drafting stage.

Extinguisher #6
Insist that a child complete the entire process without assistance.

Fanning the Flame
Encourage, brainstorm, take dictation, type...be helpful.

Extinguisher #7
Bring the school mentality home and grade or red mark the child's work.

Fanning the Flame
Appreciate the child's accomplishments. Take note of errors for future instruction.

Extinguisher #8
Ignore writing because you feel incapable.

Fanning the Flame
Be a learner.

Ah, you made it...or you cheated and skipped here for the treat. Whatever the case, here it is, the story of a boy-turned-author whose early teachers were "extinguishers" and whose later teachers were "fans." Enjoy.
 
 
...I will never be able to teach anything to anyone as well as they will be able to teach it to themselves if given the opportunity. So maybe that's what the definition of teacher should be: someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself" (Mali, What Teachers Make, 88).

Teachers have a real temptation to resist. At least I do. With kids, I like to be on stage, in charge, needed. I want to be the one who asks all of the questions, who already knows the answers, and who initiates the assignments. I like to play school. And I kind of, sort of like to be in control. So the temptation is to insert myself into the hub of the learning circle.

Can you relate?

The problem with the teacher being at the center is that the students aren't, and they are the ones who should be.  We need to purposely get out of the way, staying on the periphery to coach and encourage, and allow students to be their own teachers.

What are some ways to do this at home, to "prepare the ground," particularly when students are in elementary school?

Create a rich learning environment.
Books, instruments, paper, art supplies, maps, dry erase boards, manipulatives, games, craft and sewing supplies, balls, creative toys (i.e. Legos, K'nex, Zome Tools), puzzles...make sure they're available and accessible. Your home may never be featured on the cover of a  magazine, but at least your children will have plenty to keep their minds and hands busy.

View the world as your student's classroom.
Your students don't have to read and write to have a valid learning experience. You can encourage learning by visiting museums, historical re-enactments, concerts, performances, demonstrations, parks, and exhibits. Even a trip to the grocery store or bank can be educational. Be a willing taxi driver, and remember to talk (and listen) to your passengers. The trip is valuable learning time as you enjoy conversation together. Who knows what learning trail will be forged as a result of the trip!

Focus on the process.
Every product may not be all you hoped, but valuable learning occurs throughout the process. Value it; don't short-circuit it, especially if you're glued to an agenda. Realize that mistakes are part of the process, and we all know that mistakes can be our best opportunities for learning.

Visit the library regularly.
Let students explore the library, finding what interests them. If they migrate to the same series every time, nudge them toward something new. Or send them on a scavenger hunt of the library, so they can see the broader collection. Or host a book club, inviting each participant to advertise a favorite book in a particular genre.

Strew.
Out of sight can be out of mind, so pull out a book or something else from the list on the left and place it strategically on the coffee table, on the arm of the couch, on the back of the toilet, somewhere it will be noticed, picked up, and enjoyed.  I used to be a shameless strewer, getting even my husband to read something I purposely littered in the living room. (Okay, maybe it's a bit manipulative, but librarians do it, too, you know.)

Get out of the way.
Remember that your kids aren't you. One of the ways I learned this lesson was in sewing. If I need to sew an article of clothing, I buy a pattern and follow it meticulously. When two of my daughters decide to sew, they envision what they want in their heads and work to unveil the vision.  I can marvel quietly at their skill now, but on their first attempts, admonitions longed to bust out of my mouth: "You can't do that; you need a pattern." I had to muzzle my mouth as I reminded myself that just because I need a pattern doesn't mean they need one. They aren't me!

Make suggestions.
I like to cast my line of suggestions or ideas and see which daughter takes my bait. I must admit, though, it worked tons better when my girls were in elementary school. My ideas don't generate the same level of enthusiasm anymore. (But I can still try. : D)

Allow for stewing.
You can contort yourself in multiple ways to explain a concept, but if the student isn't ready, she'll end up in tears, and you'll be hopelessly tangled. More often than not,  if you leave it and revisit it later, mysterious brain linkages will form, causing the longed-for light bulb to shine. Sometimes all students need is time.

Be a learner.
Whether you're on an errand or an adventure, with a book or a craft project, be open to learning and growing alongside your kids. You may already have your diploma and degree(s), but you've only dipped your toe in the ocean of knowledge. Learning something new will give you empathy when you're tempted to push, and a hobby when you crave control.

What other ways do you "prepare the ground" in your home?
 
 
The goal in teaching language arts is to improve a student's ability to listen, speak, read, and write. Tucked in the fine print are skills which include at least the following:
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Spelling

How do you ensure you cover these skills with your students?

One way is to buy a workbook, one for each skill, one for each kid, and assign pages. If they faithfully do a page or two a day in each book, they will likely advance to the next level by the end of the school year.

Advantages:
  • Mom and students know exactly what is required each day.

Disadvantages:
  • Boring!
  • It's easy to get bogged down with the habit of filling in paperwork, forgetting that there is an ultimate goal of learning!
  • Nothing is really required of the student, other than perseverance.
  • Students don't take pride in their work.
  • After all those pages are completed, what then? The books likely end up in the trash.

Maybe I'm biased, but those lists are painfully lopsided.

What is another approach to achieve the same goal?

How about learning the skills in context?

When my girls were little and many of their little friends were filling in their workbook pages, my girls were writing. Writing in portfolders. Writing in blank books. Writing stories. Writing journal entries. Writing. Writing. Writing.

They were also reading. Reading fiction. Reading non-fiction. Listening to me read fiction and non-fiction. Reading. Reading. Reading.

How did they learn spelling, vocabulary, and grammar? They learned these skills through reading and writing. As they read--and heard me read--quality literature, they absorbed new vocabulary, proper grammar, and correct spelling. As they wrote, they applied what they absorbed, refining their understanding on assignments in which they were personally invested. They learned early that writing is a process, that their first draft is rarely their last.

Advantages:
  • Students get to think.
  • Creativity can leak out in all directions.
  • They have final products they can celebrate and share with others.
  • They are motivated because they have a goal in view.
  • Because they are able to express themselves, they realize they are a vital part of the learning process.
  • The teacher can inspire a love of learning.
  • Students learn how to learn.
  • One assignment can serve a range of ages and abilities.
  • Supplies are simple and inexpensive: paper, pencils, and time, although a computer does make revisions easier.

Disadvantages:
  • Mom may have to think of or find ideas to spark creativity.
  • If students are used to filling in pages, they may initially resist having to think and create.
  • If Mom doesn't feel comfortable giving feedback, she may need a writing mentor to help her students.

Again, I may be biased, but I like that list better!

The moms of my girls' little friends feared a couple of things about ditching their workbooks: one was possible gaps; the other was standardized tests.

Through a methodical system, your students may be exposed to every jot and tittle of every skill, but when you isolate the skills from real life learning, do children actually know how to apply them? 

From what I have read and seen firsthand, the answer is usually no.  In my first classroom experience, my eighth graders came to me engorged from a steady diet of grammar instruction the prior year. I was happy because I could feed them something different. We could work on writing, incorporating grammar instruction as needed. What I quickly discovered was that, despite learning from an excellent teacher, not only did the kids still not understand or remember the grammar they had learned from her, they also didn't know how to write. Even in a traditional classroom setting, these kids had huge gaps.

And testing? At least in our case, my girls have always tested very high in language arts. Through consistent drafting, revising, and editing, they learned the nuts and bolts of the English language and were able to choose the best answer on the test most of the time.

I know writing is on the top or toward the top of most homeschooling moms' I'm-not-sure-I-can-do-that-well list. If that describes you, you're the one who is inspiring me to build this site post by post. I want to give you concrete writing ideas, tips, and resources to ensure you're covering the whole language arts package.

If you need a few workbooks for security, it's okay, but I encourage you to step out and give real reading and writing a whirl. Because it's fun, you may fear you're missing something, but let me assure you: you're nurturing thinkers, students who can confidently listen, speak, read, and write. With those tools, think of what your kids can accomplish!
 
 
I have a friend who seemingly never stops thinking of creative teaching ideas. Seriously, she is like a vending machine. Pop in a need, and out comes a lesson, a class, or a curriculum, all creative, motivating, and unique, covering different learning styles.

Her latest contribution to homeschooling moms and their children is Vacation Workstation...a Brain Playground. The idea is simple but brilliant. All you have to do is make a workstation from file folders and set your students loose to explore nature, play math games, and read books. They keep track of their accomplishments with Bingo grids, a mini journal, and a log, taking away the headache of monitoring multiple children.

This is an excellent way to build a little structure into your kids' summer and keep their skills from rusting. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I receive nothing in return for my review, other than the pleasure of knowing others are benefiting from an excellent teacher.
 
 
Over the weekend, I found 6 + 1 Traits of Writing by Ruth Culham at the thrift shop.  For $2.50, I couldn't let it stay on the shelf.  This paragraph from Culham rang true for me.

When I was in school, the papers that got the highest grades held the reader at a safe arm's length.  They tended to pontificate.  I remember being told never to express  a personal opinion unless asked. And never use 'I,' which was always tough to figure out: Who else did the reader think was writing the piece if not 'I,' after all?  My assigned readings, however, were passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating. But when it came to my own writing, on went the straitjacket, and I wound up pumping out stuff that was stilted, cold, and distant.  It was boring--but it always got high marks.  Unfortunately, this tradition is still alive in many of the classrooms I visit. And more than likely, something that's boring to read was boring to write.  It will be nearly impossible to get students engaged in writing if all the excitement's been drained out of it (103).


Why is it that students are so often shoehorned into five-paragraph, formal, voiceless writing?

It's easy to teach a formula.  It's easy to grade a formula. It's easy to keep control of the process when you have a classroom of kids.

The question: why?

The answer: easy.

The result: boring!

It happened to me as a student. The result was that I thought I had to use big words and sound like something I wasn't. Stilted, cold, and distant didn't describe me as a person, but they certainly described my writing. Sadly, the habit went deep; I still fight to get out of the ditch I thought was mine.

I want to give my students something far better. I want them to be free to experiment, to create, to be themselves. I don't want to jam them into a specific style, draining the excitement out of writing; I want them to discover that they have something to say, and they can say it well with their own voice. They can be the ones writing passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating pieces.

What can we do to make writing more exciting for our students?
  • Let them choose their own topics.
  • Don't lock them into one format (i.e. the five-paragraph essay). Allow them to experiment with different genres.
  • Give them a reason for writing that goes beyond the teacher and a grade, offering assignments and projects that captivate their attention.
  • Integrate writing into everything they do rather than relegating it to worksheets.
  • Remember that writing is a process. Editing is one part of the process; it's not the focus. It's important for published pieces to be correctly spelled, capitalized, and punctuated, but if mechanics are the primary focus during the process, a student can end up with a correct, but lifeless, paper. (That described my writing, too.)
  • Look at writing you enjoy. Do any of the pieces follow the five-paragraph format?  Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?  Does every sentence have a subject and a verb? Likely not. Invite your students to look at writing they enjoy, observing it closely and imitating it.

It is true that you invite risk when you walk away from formulaic writing assignments, but you also welcome creativity, thinking, and passion. Instead of reading a predictable piece that you will soon forget, you will likely read one that comes from the heart, leaving a mark on yours.