A lot of the replies to my blog-topics post asked for more glimpses of our tidal homeschooling days, especially how I work with my teens and my elementary-aged kids at the same time. So here’s a peek at a fairly typical Tuesday morning. The broad strokes—the basic rhythms—of our days stay consistent, four days a week (with one morning given to group piano and [for Beanie] literature classes). The details (what exactly we read, do, discuss, sing) vary, but the shape is the same—sort of like a muffin pan. Yeah, that’s it. Our days are like muffins, alike in shape, but we vary the recipe quite a bit. Make sense?
So—during high tide, we do lessons from 9 to noon, more or less. Noon to 1 is lunch and (often) a read-aloud. From 1-3 the younger kids get gaming time (iPad, Wii) and then they play outside most of the rest of the day. The older girls spend their afternoons reading, writing, gaming, walking, and whatever else they have on tap. I work (write) in the afternoons, and sometimes pop out to teach weekly classes to other homeschoolers. For example, I wrapped up a six-week poetry workshop yesterday with a lively group of boys who always keep me laughing. Love those kids.
Anyway, here’s our Tuesday morning.
9 a.m. Beanie is outlining her Tempest paper for the weekly literature class I teach to her and a few friends.
Huck is playing with refrigerator magnets.
Rilla has drawn a scene from the story of Elissa of Carthage, and is now writing a description under the drawing, complete with Phoenician letters for the names.
Now Huck is noodling around on the piano.
Read Stone Soup to Huck. Rose stopped unloading the dishwasher to come listen—she says it’s one of her favorite stories from childhood.
While I read, Rilla finished her Elissa of Carthage passage. Beanie moved to another room for better concentration.
Rose finished the dishes and began making pretzel rolls for our teatime. Huck, Rilla, and I did our morning stretches and recitations. That word sounds so formal! What we do is quite casual. About four mornings a week, we gather in the living room for some singing, memory work, and movement games. It goes something like this:
—We move through a series of stretches (this is mostly for me) which include two planks. During the first plank, we skip-count by sixes; during the second, by sevens.
—Practice the Shakespeare speech or poem we are currently memorizing. Huck, Rilla, and I learn these all together, and usually the older girls wind up knowing them too, because they’re hearing us recite them all the time. This year, I’ve been using Ken Ludwig’s Midsummer Night’s Dream passages from How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. I had already had Pucks “merry wanderer” speech in mind for Huck and Rilla to learn this year—I earned a small scholarship for performing that one during college, so I’m extra fond of it—when I read the Ludwig book (last summer) and decided his approach meshes perfectly with mine. So: this year they’ve learned “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows,” the merry wanderer monologue, the “Lord what fools these mortals be” speech, and now we’re working on Puck’s final speech (“If we shadows have offended”).
—Then we sing an assortment of memory songs and folk songs. Today it was: U.S. Presidents song; United States song; Horrible Histories English Monarchs song. Yesterday was the same lineup plus Skye Boat Song—a family favorite. This is an informal (meaning not planned-in-advance) part of our day, and basically I just starting singing things and the kids join in. Our Presidents and States songs come from an old Singin’ Smart cassette (cassette!!) I bought back when Jane was little, circa 1999. I wish I could find the booklet—there were some other useful tunes in there. I remember the melody for the U.S. Capitals song and have been meaning to print up a list so my littles can learn to sing along. I’m a big fan of music for anything requiring rote memory. We lean heavily on Schoolhouse Rock around here. Last year our mornings were dominated by French songs, as you may recall.
—This week I started Huck and Rilla on the Latin vocabulary chants from Latin for Children Primer A. We are not doing the workbook—just the rhythmic vocab chants: amo, amare, amavi, amatum and so on. Again, this was something that worked really well with my older set and is a solid, painless way to implant a bunch of Latin roots. We also enjoy my friend Edith Hope Fine’s Cryptomaniacs workbook (Greek and Latin roots)—Rilla will be using that steadily next year.
Rose’s rolls are in the oven. She’s playing piano. Beanie is doing German on Duolingo. I send the littles outside with a snack.
Rose heads to her room to maybe do some math? She’s taking business math this year. Yesterday we slogged through the compound interest chapter together. I know you’re jealous. Beanie’s studying geometry, which I find much more entertaining.
I call Huck and Rilla back inside for some history. I read them the Elizabethan Era chapter from A Child’s History of the World—Walter Raleigh, Roanoke, Shakespeare. Long side-discussion of tobacco was sparked by a mention in the chapter. Also a lot of discussion about Roanoke because who isn’t fascinated by that story? I mention to Rose (who is back, checking on her rolls) that Gwenda Bond has a YA novel about Roanoke she might enjoy. This reminds us we need to return some books to the library.
Rilla has done a little Math-U-See, and Huck and I had an impromptu chat about the short E sound. He is reading incredibly well these days, devouring Boxcar Children books with ease. I picked up an easy spelling workbook a couple of weeks ago and pull it out occasionally to talk about sounds with him. Rilla is the first of my kids to need some deliberate, steady spelling instruction (she’s using a Spelling You See book this year and really enjoying it because it came with a set of erasable colored pencils, which (art supply) is the key to her heart. With Huck, age 7, I’m now casually pulling out some light spelling games to help him start making those phonics-y connections.
Okay, so that was going on but only for a few minutes, and now Rose’s pretzel rolls are ready. We hurry to the table to enjoy them while they’re warm. Tuesday mornings are our Poetry Teatime—which for us generally means Something Rose Baked and a glass of milk. I usually grab our battered Favorite Poems Old and New and read six or seven poems. Not a week goes by that they don’t beg for their favorite, “My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months”…some days I have it in me, and other weeks I’m not up to the performance. When you do that poem, you gotta DO that poem. 🙂
Huck and Rilla have gone off to play together. This usually means I will find my bed turned into a fort later. Last week, it became some kind of Monkey Kingdom and I had stuffed primates hanging from the miniblind cords all week.
I go grab a sweater from my room. Sure enough, every pillow in the house is piled high. I send Huck and Rilla to get their shoes on. Rose and Beanie are at the piano again, working out a duet—Beanie began taking violin lessons a few months ago and likes to try to work out simple accompaniment to the pieces Rose is working on for piano class.
Everyone piles into the minivan for a quick library run. We have a million things to return. Rilla found a new graphic novel, Jellaby: The Lost Monster, that looks fun. Rose recommended Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies for Beanie—a YA historical novel I read for the 2014 CYBILs and passed along to Rose when I finished.
Home for a late lunch. I forgot to read our chapter of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler! I’ll have to try to squeeze it in after dinner. This is because—in an unprecedented development—I went into Scott’s office (aka our boys’ bedroom) to give him a package that had arrived, and I stretched out on the bed just for a second and fell asleep. I never nap.
I guess I napped. Scott is amused. I’m totally discombobulated. Wonderboy is just arriving home from school and the littles are already deep into Terraria. Jane is pinging me from college. My afternoon has begun.
I chimed in on a discussion on my local homeschooling list about one mom’s concerns that her son had stalled on the learning-to-read process. As usual I found I had a lot to say, so I’m scooping it here (and expanding a bit) in case it’s of interest to others.
I’ll second what E. said: Six is really very young and at this point (and every point, really), the VERY BEST thing you can do is to read aloud a great deal. There are lots of studies to back up what many of us have been discovering and advocating for years about the immense and rather extraordinary benefits of reading aloud.
Some tricks we have used
• We always turn on the captions when our children watch TV. And it’s amazing how much reading they can pick up from scrolling through the DVR. Huck could distinguish between “Little Bear” and “Little Bill” at age three—his first sight words.
• Video games! or apps, etc. My kids have all picked up a lot of reading just from encountering the repeated text instructions and captioning that is a part of many games.
• Comics and graphic novels. Great reinforcement of decoding skills and incentive to read. Plus, you know, FUN. My 3rd child learned to read from Tintin Comics. Her older sisters read them and she pored over the pictures until she began to pick up words. (I read them to her whenever she asked but that stage didn’t last long–she just loved to explore them them on her own!) (I’ve written more about this here.)
• Word games and puns. We are a wordy, wordy family. Dinner-table conversation will often involve why a thing is called what it’s called–what the root word is, where it came from. Someone will hop up to look up a word origin. And scarcely a day passes without some terrible, groan-inducing pun trotting around the house. When I teach kids’ writing and lit classes (I’m teaching three different groups of kids at present), I begin every class by soliciting contributions to our ‘Word Hoard’—asking the kids to look out for interesting words during the week to add to our collection. They really get into the spirit of the game and we have amassed some splendid word piles over the weeks. The boys in my Friday afternoon class have turned it into a competition of sorts, unfurling mile-long words to impress their classmates. I’ve learned a lot of obscure medical terms in the past month, let me tell you.
• Riddles, jokes, joke books!
I am not a fan of 100 Easy Lessons because of so many similar stories of kids getting turned off to reading, or stressed/intimidated/bored–all feelings I don’t want kids to associate with reading.
Books of facts are great for young kids–early reader science stuff, etc. Again, lots of pictures to draw them in & help with decoding.
My primary advice is to not try to “teach” a child to read.
The process can be more organic, less structured. Help them along the way you helped and encouraged them to learn to talk. Read together, allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.* Chat about street signs, store names, food labels (kids will pick those up as sight words very quickly and naturally). Text is all over our world, not just in books, and reading doesn’t have to be a Capital R academic exercise. People naturally want to find things out, and reading becomes a means of doing that–so sooner or later, every child will have an interest that drives literacy. What you can do is support that interest. Feed it! Rustle up some intriguing-looking books on the topic, preferably ones with a lot of art.
(Here I come back to video games: one of my girls got so interested in a certain game that she wanted to look up guides for it online, and HER reading took a huge leap forward as she began to devour information about this game. My role was to help her safely find resources on the internet, print out useful pages, provide supplies for assembling a binder (her idea)…so you can see there are many ways for a parent to be involved in the process, guiding, facilitating, without it looking like formal reading instruction–an activity that is so stressful for many children. Lots of so-called ‘reluctant readers’ will inhale anything you give them that’s about their favorite video game. Let them hunt for cheat sites. Who cares if they don’t figure out a game level on their own? They are learning crucial research skills–how to frame questions and find answers, and how to apply that information to a practical task. Hurrah for game cheats!)
Current example: Huck is obsessed with Rose’s Snap Circuits set. This morning I stood in the living room for the longest time, watching him—his back was to me—deeply absorbed in assembling one of the projects in the guidebook. He has worked his way through the entire project book with minimal help, following the picture instructions but also puzzling out chunks of text. Sometimes he asks for help with a mouthful word like “capacitor”—no self-consciousness, no sense that he is young to be expecting to be able to read a word like that. He can’t figure it out, he asks for help. But poring over this book, casually encountering these giant words that tell him things he wants to know, has catapulted his reading skills forward in a way no teacher, no matter how good, how patient, could reproduce. If I made him sit down to a reading curriculum, I can guarantee he would be restless and fretful within minutes. But he’ll spend the whole afternoon immersed in building projects out of this book, interacting with the pictures and text, following complex directions—and consider it ‘playing.’ As in, “Can I play with your Snap Circuits again today?” he’ll beg his big sister.
*Let me elaborate on what I said above about “allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.” A lot of adults have difficulty tolerating interruptions during a readaloud. There’s a whole big conversation to be had about how much background activity to allow — like, Legos keep little hands busy but can be very noisy. There are ways to work around that (spread out Legos on the floor before reading, since the noisiest part is the digging through the bin–things like that). But what I want to focus on right now are the interruptions that come when a child is looking at the book with you and starts talking over the narrative–pointing at things in the art, or otherwise being chatty about the book instead of listening to the story. This activity may actually be an indication of a big leap forward in skill acquisition–but we adults don’t always see it that way!
Here’s an example — when Rose was five or six, I remember reading her My Father’s Dragon. She was right at the point of emergent literacy, beginning to recognize words like street signs and store names as I mentioned above. We were about halfway through this short novel as a read-aloud when she started pointing out Elmer’s name on every page. And “the dragon” and “the cat” — words repeated often in the story. But mainly it was the word “Elmer” (the main character). It got to where I couldn’t get through a page, because she kept pointing at the name all over the place. And I had a moment of being irritated and wanting to hush her–now now, let’s listen to the story. But it hit me in a flash that what we were doing together — what SHE was experiencing in this moment — had changed. It had started out “listening to a story.” Now it was READING. She had learned a sight word and was putting this new skill to use, with numerous opportunities to “practice” it on every page. No curriculum in the world could top this skill practice, because it was completely voluntary and completely absorbing her. It was HER activity, not one imposed upon her from the outside.
So, in that hour snuggled beside her on her bed, I let go of the whole listen-to-this-story concept. I kept on reading to her, page after page, but that was merely a background activity providing the vehicle for her discovery. “Elmer…Elmer…the dragon…” — little finger pointing, skipping around the page. We finished the book that way, with Rose only half paying attention to the words I was reading. When I got to the end, she said it was the best book ever and asked me to start it over. The second time through, she listened raptly to the narrative. 🙂 Her brain had finished its self-assigned task. By the time I finished the book for the second time (a week or two later), she was reading very well on her own.
So that’s what I mean about stepping back to reassess an activity and your objectives….if a child is focusing on some part of the story that isn’t your voice reading the words, there is probably a very good reason. A wonderful thing about homeschooling is we have the luxury of time and space to allow this process to unfold at the child’s pace–there is no pressure to ‘get through’ a certain amount of material by a set date.
"In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the
vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the
enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly
overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse
that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the
ground of his own gay will and the driver goes merrily. The teacher who
allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to
be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere
instrument of forcible intellectual feeding."
By "method of self-education," Charlotte means, of course, the method she developed and had seen in practice for some thirty years, the method we have been discussing here during the past several weeks.
Guide, philosopher, and friend. I was thinking about this quote and it struck me that my whole experience of motherhood has been shaped, since my oldest child was tiny, by Charlotte Mason’s ideas about how people learn and grow. I read Home Education when Jane was four years old, and my heart soared at the lovely vision of early childhood laid out in that book. We were coming out of her chemo years then and the immuno- compromised isolation that entailed, and although John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Sandra Dodd had sold me on homeschooling long before Jane got sick, it was Charlotte Mason who showed me in concrete images the kind of childhood I wanted to give this beloved child and her baby sister.
The other day I was writing about how well suited the CM method is to the roller-coaster ride of life with many children. The plain truth is that the more monkey wrenches are thrown into our works, the more grateful I am for the simplicity of a Charlotte Mason-style education. I am excited every single morning, honestly!, to spend another CM-inspired day with my children. On Friday afternoons I am actually sorry to put our books away for a couple of days. (The feeling is quickly swallowed by the joy of knowing we’ll have Scott home for two whole days. You know this Daddy-goes-away-to-work business is still new to us.)
I love that my children are eager to pull the books back out first thing Monday morning; I love that they actually beg me to read Homer and Shakespeare. You understand that there is no boasting in this statement; this is not a proclamation of my own merits as mother or teacher, nor of unusual virtue or genius in my children. Charlotte Mason believed her method produced similar results in all children, regardless of social class, family background, or natural ability. "Let me try to indicate some of the advantages of the theory I am
urging," she writes, "It fits all ages, even the seven ages of man!
brilliant children and discovers intelligence in the dull. It secures
attention, interest, concentration, without effort on the part of
teacher or taught."
Alice sent me a note this morning about her favorite quotes from Towards a Philosophy chapter 1. (I have implored her to turn them into a post for Cottage Blessings, and if she so treats us, I’ll let you know.) She included this gem, and I won’t add my commentary on it because I am hoping she will grace us with hers. I will only say that I agree, one hundred percent.
"I have attempted to unfold (in various volumes) a system of educational theory which
seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest
criterion set up by Plato; it is able to ‘run the gauntlet of
objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion,
but to absolute truth.’ Some of it is new, much of it is old. Like the
quality of mercy, it is not strained; certainly it is twice blessed, it
blesses him that gives and him that takes, and a sort of radiancy of
look distinguishes both scholar and teacher engaged in this manner of
I have a question about your relaxed approach. I have been relying
on this for years and every one has looked at me like I have three
heads. I got into quite the discussion after Mass on day when two moms
were playing the competition game of what they were going to home
school their soon to be 3 year olds. I chimed in talking about waiting
until the child is ready and being relaxed…you should have seen the
look of horror on their face!!! How do you handle the "neglectful"
response that people seem to give me all the time.
You know, I really love it when people give me an opening like those looks of horror, Betsy. I enthusiastically grab all opportunities to jump up on my soapbox!
In my experience, if you answer skepticism with an eager flood of information, people will nearly always reframe their initial response. Quite often, the are-you-crazy looks are a gut reaction, but when the skeptic hears that you have actually put some thought and research into the issue, her response changes. She may still disagree, but at least she acknowledges that your point of view is an informed one.
So, for example, if someone said, "Are you nuts? Everyone knows that you’ve got to give kids a strong start from an early age or they’ll be behind their peers and never catch up," I’d say, "Actually, there are many educators and scholars who believe just the opposite. Have you read the works of Charlotte Mason? No? John Holt? John Taylor Gatto? Montessori? No? Oh." (Brief pause to digest this astonishing fact.) "Well, if you’re interested in how children learn, you’d probably find them quite fascinating, especially Mason; I know I do."—And then I’d launch into a brief but fact-packed description of Charlotte Mason’s vision for children under seven, emphasizing the richness of a young life filled with storytelling, nature study, cheerful housework, and song.
I have never, ever presented that picture of early childhood to someone without having the person respond positively. "Oh, that sounds so nice!" is a typical response. I really think people—especially mothers of little ones—recognize the beauty of that vision, even if they remain in disagreement over the issue of early instruction in reading and math.
You know, that touches on an important point. In such conversations (and they occur with surprising frequency), I’m truly not out to convert anyone. I don’t initiate them; but if someone opens the door I will jump through it as if there were chocolate on the other side. My aim in this kind of discourse is simply to show that there is thought behind my opinion. It’s amazing how much that relaxes people and shifts the tone of the conversation from confrontation to exchange of ideas.
What happens is that people begin to ask questions—specific questions like, "But what about math?" or "So when do you start teaching reading?" Which means I can respond with specific answers, and suddenly, instead of being on opposite sides of an abyss, we’re two interested parties discussing learning strategies. It’s a whole different kind of conversation, because it naturally leads to book and idea recommendations. ("Oh, gosh, my kids have learned so much math just from playing store or cooking. You learn a ton about fractions from making cookies!")