Wednesday, February 21, 2007

my life as a homeschooler, part I

Mrs. Darwin posted a question about Charlotte Mason and her education philosophy on DarwinCatholic yesterday, so I sent her some of what info I had on the subject. As she was curious to know about my own homeschooling process, I decided it might be a good time to do some posts on this subject. I have homeschooled each of three children into middle-school age, with one going into a traditional school setting around sixth grade and two more going in eighth, and I have one left at home in the sixth grade. As I have some definite ideas about what constitutes good schooling, and am not shy about imparting them to others, I'm going to take a few posts to share them.

I'm going to start from one of MrsD's comments, as it gives me a very nice springboard for some of my own educational philosophy (and a few household hints:)
I know (in person, I mean) very few homeschoolers with a "philosophy" of homeschooling other than items such as "I won't let those awful public schools corrupt the minds of my children" or "really, we're homeschooling for religious reasons, because what's more important that getting your kids to heaven?" I mean to post on this sometime soon, but the difficulty is in meeting local homeschoolers for whom education is more than just ticking off the list of subjects from a packaged curriculum.
So here goes.

Yeah, I guess I know what you mean about homeschooling philosophies--it's been an interesting evolutionary process. Fifteen years ago when I was still thinking about homeschooling, my mentors were mostly the wild and wooly unschoolers that still predominated in the movement and with few exceptions even the canned curricula strove to avoid the too school-y model. Lately on the few occasions I hang out with local homeschoolers (I'm not trying to be antisocial, but we've really got too much else going on) it seems everybody's on workbook packages and video courses. There's something about the idea of sitting your kid in front of the tube all day--even for educational lectures--that just grates on me. Even if you're schooling primarily for religious reasons, it seems to me there are better alternatives to "school at home" with an electronic tutor, yet!

It looks like you've got quite a few suggestions for readings on educational theory in your combox. As one who managed to acquire several books on ed theory on which she would just as soon not have spent the bucks, I do recommend using the library as much as possible unless you find something you're really sure you want to keep and use. Interlibrary loans are a wonderful thing, too. I also recommend nagging your library staff about things you want to read but can't find--if you're persistent maybe they'll cave and buy it, especially if it's a classic. Also, as you've mentioned having both homeschooling parents and in-laws, I'd suggest asking them what they found helpful as well. Who knows, if they're anything like me they might even have some books in the attic!

One thing to keep in mind is that there are ed theories and then there are ed methods. If you pick up one of Maria Montessori's books, or one of Charlotte Mason's, or John Holt's, or Raymond Moore's, or Rudolf Steiner's, you're probably not going to have a cut-and-dried set of outlines for each age level; you're going to have a theory. Figuring out what to do every day is still up to you unless you contract it out. (Actually, Montessori did have a step-by-step early education plan, but it wasn't all she wrote about.) Implementation in the form of lesson plans is another thing entirely. I noted yesterday that Mason (as I recall her--it's been a while) was more of a theorist whose books consisted of good advice rather than syllabi; I think somebody else in the combox mentioned that Karen Andreola of CBD had published what I presume to be an implementation of Mason's ideas.

But, I'm supposed to be describing my homeschooling process. I'm going to stick with early childhood stuff today, since it's what concerns you right now and since I'm in danger of going on way too long if I try to cover everything.

Like Lord Rochester, I have children but no theories. I probably tend to lean in a relaxed homeschool direction without actually going to the point of unschooling (does anybody actually have kids that self-directed?) I've got definite perennialist tendencies, but I'm not a purist about it. I think the basic ed philosophies (the others are essentialism, progressivism, and existentialism--but that's another post) all have their good points and certain parts of them may apply to certain kids at certain times.

I use workbooks and at the current level (middle school) some texts, but I'd rather work with what Mason called "living books". I think games or labs are a good way to learn some things. A lot depends on who I'm working with, and on what.

At pre- and early school levels, I tended to avoid formal lessons and school-y materials. I did try to keep an area of the house where school materials were handy (and more importantly, the Hot Wheels and dolls were not.) Lessons were brief, simple, and developmentally appropriate. With the younger kids, I was usually doing somewhat more structured things with their older siblings anyway, and keeping a preschooler at a desk or table "doing stuff" would have been frazzling.

Things I've used at this level that I really liked include:
--Teaching Montesorri in the Home by Elizabeth Hainstock. While I haven't ever been a strict Montessorist, I like the developmental approach and many of the learning activities and ideas.
--Counters (you can use marbles, beans or buttons if your child can be trusted to keep them out of orifices, or you can splurge on the cute little animal ones from the school supply. Or you can use the Legos if you have them anyway; these come in handy later as well when you're doing base 10 stuff. Some color variety is a good thing to have for sorting purposes)
--A hundred chart (you can make your own)
--A blank calendar
--A Saxon K math book I got secondhand. While I thought most of it was a bit slow for your average kindergartener, it did have some really good activities for preschoolers. I came into it when my third was a toddler, and the handiest thing about it was that I had, at my fingertips and without having to do much, a set of fun, developmentally appropriate math activities we could do together in about fifteen minutes a day. Activities included forward and backward counting, some skip counting, sequencing, and comparing shapes and sizes.
--Cardboard shapes in different sizes
--Letter or number puzzles or magnets or, if you're really adventuresome, those cool homemade sandpaper Montessori letters. My sister-in-law should inherit mine if I ever figure out where I stashed them.
--The Bob books (I like these for introducing prereaders to the idea of reading. They are simple, phonics-based, and funny. They can be a little pricey in stores but sometimes public libraries have them.)
--Good books in simple language on a variety of subjects for the parent to read to the child. Most of our family have a visual streak and gravitated mainly to books with really artistic or creative illustrations. A variety of topics can be covered in addition to literature and folktales: most of the kids' book publishers (i.e. Scholastic, Usborne, Dorling-Kindersley, and Eyewitness) have science, history, and geography titles at various reading levels. I've found that public libraries are generally pretty good about keeping a supply on hand.

For K-1st I added:
--A set of three small books by Ruth Beechick that I think can still be had relatively inexpensively from some homeschool suppliers: An Easy Start in Arithmetic, A Strong Start in Language, and A Home Start in Reading. These are actually for the parent, but they provide good activity ideas and are a fast read.
--The E. D. Hirsch Core Knowledge Series books for these grades. Not a curriculum by themselves, but they're good for keeping track of things you want to teach at each level and they have some pretty good readings and math activities for "school time." These were quite a fad for a while and the chances of finding some used copies should be good. They're usually in libraries as well.
There is also a paperback edition.
--Miquon Math and a set of Cuisenaire rods. This series introduces a variety of math concepts that the student can work out using the rods. The rods are graduated in length from 1cm-10cm and can be used to represent whole numbers from 1-10 or fractions (white is half of red and one-fourth of purple, etc.) Some pretty tricky math skills can be learned in this way, although I found that as we moved into the later books the kids tended to want to dispense with the rods whenever possible and just do the problems. I've heard of some other math programs that are visual and tactile, such as Math-U-See, but I don't have any experience with them.
--A writing pad or workbook as needed. I like italic myself (it's done wonders for my penmanship!) but everyone has their preference. As pathologically bad fine motor skills run in D's genome, we had variable results, but I think it was easier to go from printing to cursive with italic than with the standard school ball-and-stick-to-D'Nealian-to-Looped Cursive.
--Easy spelling lists. At this level you could practially make your own, but various spellers and programs are out there as well. I like phonics lists, but my oldest turned out to be LD and couldn't make any sense of them so we had to come up with other ideas. Which brings me to...
--Scrabble tiles (or magnets, or any kind of letters.) Good spelling aid for kinesthetics. For distractible kinesthetics (which I think is most of them) it may be necessary to limit the letters to the word they are trying to spell plus three or four extras unless you want to be spelling all day.

One of the advantages to homeschooling (that tends to go out the window when you go straight for the packaged curriculum) is that school can be tailored to the needs of each child. While some kids can learn math out of workbooks, visual and especially kinesthetic learners develop more unerstanding when they can work out problems with manipulatives or draw pictures representing what they are about. A slow reader can still work at his level in other subjects; likewise a kid with difficulties in math can still read at an advanced level. Literature can be selected based on interest. Material that hasn't been mastered can be gone over again until it is.

I noted in your post that you've resisted the temptation to put your five-year-old down to do a lot of "sit-down" work; I think your instincts are sound. At that age in particular, much more is learned by doing than by doing worksheets. Baking, a walk through the park, and a trip to the store all have learning potential. I don't think it's a bad idea to introduce the three-year-old to the idea of reading or to provide her with simple books, but I would caution against pushing the issue if she doesn't seem to be into it. I don't think there's a link between early or late reading and later appreciation of good literature, so there's time enough to develop that taste. The reading issue does happen to be one where I think I can shed some light, however. I'll address it further in a day or two. Probably two; I'm considering doing a little muckraking tomorrow.

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Blogger mrsdarwin said...

This. Is. Good. Stuff.

I really appreciate this. I'm finding that one of the best ways to find good homeschooling resources and get reliable advice is simply to ask the interesting homeschoolers I know what worked for them.

You're right about the craze for packages and courses. I'm seeing a lot of that, and I'm very ambivalent toward it. (Actually, I suppose "very ambivalent" means that I don't really like it.) But unschooling is not an idea that I'm comfortable with, for reasons that I'll go into in a later post. Stay tuned....

7:43 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Thanks, I hope it is helpful. I'm thinking of digressing onto reading matters next, and then back to things I did with/used for "school-aged" kids.

7:26 AM  
Anonymous chris said...

Mrs. D,

I seem to be in about your position, (5 yr old, 2 yr old) but without your HS background. I find myself tempted to go with packaged stuff for two reasons- 1) so I don't have to think about it, and 2) Oh no! I haven't been doing enough of X! I better get something really concrete and substantial going!

Then I get cheap and remind myself that he's 5, he's doing fine, I didn't just wake up with 5 minutes left in a final I haven't studied for.

But, cminor, you mention kids this age learning from baking, walks, etc., not necessarily needing workbooks. I agree, but boy, sometime there's only so much baking, walking and such that I can come up with, and a little pseudo-discipline with workbooks or school-like materials gives us a chunk of something to do too!

Thanks for both of your blogs!

12:58 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Hi, Chris, and welcome!
Well, notice that I had some books listed up there. Preschool is a different case because there's a pretty wide developmental range--some kids actually like to sit and write letters or "stories" on lined paper (and I wouldn't hold them back if they do) but many don't have the neural connections laid down to do that sort of thing. Structured school time doesn't need to be long. We did a lot of manipulative math rather than written. Unless preschool's changed an awful lot in recent years, they shouldn't be doing much desk work there, either.

Past kindergarten, yeah, we started using some workbooks (usually the department store kind or Weekly Reader--I'm a tightwad too)for subjects to which those lent themselves. And I have, where I thought necessary, used a packaged curriculum at a more advanced grade level--but more on that later.

7:54 PM  
Blogger The unconventional mother said...

I have a project for you you don't have enough already. Write a book!!! I think there are plenty of people out there that would like to know about your process and the evolution that it went through. I would love to have a set of rods for my adult math students. For some reason most adults tend to learn better with hands on work and examples.

7:56 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Oooh...a book. That's a scary thought.

I'd get little E some rods for her b-day were they not still in the choke hazard size range, but would she ever get to play with them herself?

We'll have to think of something else for this year. You can last, I hope?

8:14 PM  

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