Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Homeschool Chronicles {Work in Progress}

Homeschool  Chronicles
My gosh, a girl can barely get a word in with so much sewing and community fun going on these days.  But, at last, I'm taking a day to talk homeschool to you.  Let's do this thing.

So, we began last time with "where we started," an introduction to our homeschool style and curriculum plans for this year.  We're 3 months into the school year.  Naturally, there's a lot to say!  I'll aim to touch on one important thought from each month, to keep from writing a novel.


We started off the school year with a math block, which means focusing on math for one month, while still doing our other weekly studies.

Woohoo (for real)!  The three of us (Liam, Aria and I) took right to the 2nd grade Math-U-See program, called Beta.  We began our math time by watching a 5 minute lesson via DVD.  Then, Aria demonstrated her understanding with some manipulatives (aka math blocks) and I set her up with 1 worksheet and 1 review sheet for said math lesson.

Only, a weird tension arose.  Aria loved, loved, loved doing Math.  Loved learning the concepts from the video and was proud to demonstrate understanding to me, but fell to complaining about the necessity of doing worksheets.

Hmm... mommy thinks, child needs to "buckle down" and do the work.  Child continues to complain.

Aria also blew through the lessons.  I started letting her do more than 1 a day, because the concepts seemed so easy for her.  I figured she might be complaining because she needed more of challenge.  More information/lessons = more challenge?  Mama wonders.  By the end of the August block, she'd completed half of the 2nd grade program.

Susan by Aria
Susan, photo by Aria

At this point I decided that we'd finish Math-U-See Beta and then go on to Singapore Math, a reportedly rigorous math program originating with the country of Singapore, whose students enjoy high scores on international tests.  I bought Singapore Math 2b and 3a off Ebay, just so I'd be ready.

This October, during our 2nd math block, Aria did finish Math-U-See Beta.  I had wondered if the lessons would get harder for her as we progressed through the book, but they really didn't.  We both have mixed feelings about moving on to Singapore Math when our next math block comes up in January.  We've so enjoyed the DVD instructor, who really has a gift for teaching.  So, basically, I'm going to have to "buckle down" myself and work harder to teach Aria math under Singapore, instead of sitting back and listening to a DVD.  I hope that in the process I meet her needs better and continue to fan the flames of her math love.

Because we all know that math love is a special, fragile thing ;)

good times

Meanwhile, Liam... he's learning too.  We've practiced high counting, writing numbers and the like.  And, actually, he gets the most practice with numbers when using the microwave.  No joke.  Just as with Aria, we'll save formal addition and subtraction for first grade.  I'm confident that his mind is quite math-friendly.


Speaking of math-friendly, board games are where it's at.  During our beach trip in September, Liam and Aria learned how to play the simplest version of Settlers of Catan.  If you know the game, you're impressed, right?  It's a complicated game for sure, a current favorite of Brandon and I.  And, just last night I was playing Mancala with Liam, which they got for Christmas last year.  Games, stories, art and real life are the stuff of a perfect kindergarten!

at the beach

The hardest part of homeschool for me and the one that takes the most preparation is telling an Elsa and Peter story to the children once a week.  Elsa and Peter are a sister and brother that mirror Aria and Liam.  I make up stories about them that correspond to virtues I hope to bring into focus.  For two weeks we'll be working on respect, for example, and then go on to honesty, perhaps.  Right now we're discussing repentance.  In the course of time I might tell 2-3 stories in which Elsa and Peter interact with their friends and family in ways that model both failure and success with the focus character trait. 

Oh, they do get soooo disappointed when Elsa and Peter make poor choices!  I tell you, this is the #1 way I've been able to bring home the truth to my children.  You know they say that lecturing never works.  That's definitely the case for Liam.  When I'm explaining (as briefly as possible) why what he did was wrong and how it makes others feel, he's obviously thinking of something else because as soon as I pause he asks me some question like "What can I have for snack?" that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

perched in our dogwood
watching the painters

Remembering how helpful Elsa and Peter stories were for Aria when she was a youngster, I've committed to doing them again this year and choosing focus virtues that I feel Liam most needs.  This is a Waldorf thing, or at least that's where I learned it.  Making up a story myself and tailoring it to my children - their world, their challenges, their personalities even - creates a story that's quite alive and powerful.  A story is something a child will hear.  They take it right in and we talk about it later.  I've seen the story seeds grow in Liam already as he makes remarks that show he's applying them to real life.

And that's why homeschooling is awesome!  Haha, I had to say it.


In September we did a science and math block, studying ancient peoples, archeology and dinosaurs.  So, we started with hunters and gatherers, cave people and moved onto the earliest civilizations.

This was so not textbook fashion.

Instead, we were pulling from lots of great picture books, The Usborne Book of World History and even books at Aria's level that she read aloud to Liam and I.  We'd sit down and read a little from this book and a little from that going sequentially and stopping often to discuss or make connections. The kids always wanted more, except for the read-alouds.  Aria didn't like having to put her reading on display.

Overall, it was a good block.  I wanted to go to a dinosaur museum, but we couldn't find one near bye.  (Though we did enjoy a field trip to a planetarium with Aria's homeschool co-op class, which is studying astronomy.)  Still, the block didn't "click" like I'd hoped it would. The kids were not 100% invested in learning about ancient people and dinosaurs now that mom was suddenly interested in reading these books (which I had purchased early summer when homeschool planning and mostly set aside for "when it was time").  They were interested, mind you, but not invested.  There's a difference.

a little mischief?

So, in October (a math block month) it was very good timing for me to pick up Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert (which was actually recommended by a helpful reader!).  I guess you could say that this book helped me realize what "invested" would look like.  It would be when my kids are not just learning about the subject "for school" but because they want to.  And so, they aren't just consuming information, they're asking questions, searching for more info, making plans and basically becoming an expert of their own initiative.

This is what I do as a sewist.  I get a vision of something I want to make, and I go find out when, where, why and how.  Then I try it, try again and hopefully succeed in making something I'm proud of.  I own the project.  And, in fact, this same trajectory is vital to many, many jobs.

Project-based homeschooling is setting aside time to mentor your children in discovering and implementing this trajectory.  The goal is to teach them how to learn (the what being somewhat beside the point).  You hope they learn to: set goals, develop questions, find solutions, pinpoint materials needed, break big projects down into small segments, persevere, keep up momentum, finish and, finally, evaluate their work.  Ideally they don't just learn about something, they produce something creative to share with others.

Are you sold?

Ok, if you've done any research into homeschooling styles, you'll notice that project-based homeschooling sounds a lot like unschooling.  True.  But, after reading Lori's book, I'd say there are differences.  One of the main differences is that Lori doesn't propose that all of a child's education must be project-based.  Instead, she gracefully suggests that a parent make some time for such work.  And, she gives lots of suggestions on how to mentor.

up to our necks

I decided to throw out my plans to study Egypt and architecture in November.  Are the kids particularly interested in Egypt right now?  Nope.  Heck, neither is mama.  How much better to cover history and science by picking up something near and dear to Aria and Liam.  So, that's what we're doing right now!  I'll be back to report on our adventure with project-based homeschooling in the next Homeschool Chronicle.

Until then, wish us luck!  And also, be sure to share any questions or suggestions.  I really enjoy hearing from you.  Because, as you can see, our homeschool is certainly a work-in-progress!


  1. Love your Home school Chronicles! We don't home school but we thought about it extensively. Our kids are in a parochial Christian school which we are pretty involved in, but still, a school. Oh the time wasting!

    A question. The stories you tell your children - do you make them up as you go, or do you write them down first?

    Games are the best! We and our children love games and I am always surprised how quickly they catch on. One that we like that has nothing to do with math but everything to do with the imagination is Dixit. Others that our kids like are Settlers of Catan (like yours), Dominion, Zooloretto, Fits and Qwirkle. Not that you asked for suggestions, but you did mention games... :-) (Maybe I should start talking about games on my blog instead of sewing and quilting!)

    Enjoy your children!

    1. Thanks for the game recommendations, Alisa. We also like Dominion, but I haven't heard of the others. I'll look them up!

      I have not written down any of the Elsa & Peter stories. I guess I don't think they're good enough to save! It's hard for me to relax into telling them, but the kids have such enthusiasm for them! I just think about the story line ahead of time and then tell it when the morning comes.

    2. I think you'd be surprised at how much a) other people would want to us them for their own kids (or class) but can't come up with stories themselves and b) that your kids might want to re read them when their older. I know that as an adult I love to find books from when I was little. I remember them being my favourites and greedily sit and read them again. I would think it would be even more special if they were stories written just for you.

    3. Ditto Erin's comment! My dad used to make up stories for me when I was a child and I'd love to have those in my memento boxes.

  2. I am a high school teacher and I love project - oriented teaching where you can get your students invested in something and give them the skills to do what they love. Last year I had fun with a grade 8 drama class that loved movies - they made 3 movies - I taught them about camera angles, shot lengths, storyboards and iMovie. Wow did they come up with great stuff, and they would actually send me away when I came to try to help or instruct them. But if they're not into it, you get a big fat nothing. Anyway, I encourage you to experiment with creating projects your kids are interested in working on - it is a lot of fun (and super easy as they get excited and do most of the work themselves).

  3. I love reading about your homeschooling! I've actually looked a bit into homeschooling, since where we live the schooldays would be 8 hours a day (plus homework, right from first grade. yikes!), and although homeschooling is possible here no one seems to do it or know anything about it.

    Project-based homeschooling sounds a lot like what they do at actual schools in my homecountry Finland (Sadly we don't live there we're in italy), and they actually have the best learning results worldwide according to the most recent PISA studies.

    1. Yes, Finland is definitely well-regarded. That's cool to know they do something similar. It's wonderful that project-based learning really can exist in a school environment!

  4. haha, my oldest is in 6th grade and I still consider our homeschool a work in progress :) We had to do a little trial and error to find the right math program for us, which happens to be Singapore. We have been using it for 4 or 5 years. all three of my boys are using it now & we love it. Feel free to ask me about the program if you'd like

  5. thank you for your kind words about the book, rachel! :) we have a great forum also if you have questions or want to share ideas with other parents doing project-based homeschooling:

    love your elsa and peter stories. they remind me of a preschool teacher who ended each class session with a little puppet show that demonstrated something that had happened that day in class: a child who didn’t share, for example. the kids *loved* those stories — and they *never* recognized themselves in them. lol

  6. i am really enjoying reading about your homeschooling adventures... thank you! and it is my dream to have kids who will play settlers of catan with us. that is one of our favorite games around here. we also love carcassonne, which is fun for two players (or more).

  7. I don't have kids but I enjoyed reading about your experiences teaching your kids! I really tuned in when you compared your sewing approach to how you want them to learn. An inquisitive mind is definitely a quality that will serve a person well throughout their life!
    How wonderful that your daughter is soaking up math like there's no tomorrow. So many people have math phobias. I dare say society probably plays a hand in that, esp for girls. I myself love math and have fun using an arsenal of neat little formulas when I design quilts.
    Always impressed with your sewing and the thought behind all your projects. Keep up the good work...with the kids too!

  8. As a former kindergarten teacher and now stay at home mom, I'm so interested in reading about your adventures with your children and homeschooling! I've thrown the idea around a bit and it's great to hear your story-- struggles and successes both! Thanks for sharing with us. :)

  9. wow! I am from Singapore, but i didn't know about "Singapore Maths"! but i do know that our education standard has become increasingly high in the recent years, compare to my time back in the errr hmmm.. 80s.. hehe.. = )
    Thank you for sharing! ^^

  10. It is so much easier to teach them when they WANT to learn and in turn easier for them to learn.
    I'm using Math U See Beta with my 7yr old and Primer with my 5yr. My 5yr old loves math and could do a lesson a day and all the worksheets for that lesson but I feel its better for him to learn math by doing more than worksheets. My 7yr old doesn't like math and worksheets are her least favorite thing of all. We are taking math slow with both of them and that seems to be working for us.

    My 7yr old loves science, maps, and drawing. So when I was planning for this year I considered some of the areas she had shown interest in for these subjects. I listed 2-3 topics to focus on this yr for each and let her pick which she wanted to study. These are the 3 subjects that she loves and even when we are not 'doing' school she loves studying them and learning more.

    Science: the humane body (resources we are using)

    Another favorite resource is the Magic School Bus series, books and videos. (She received the complete series for her birthday this month.)

    Drawing: robots (she draws numerous others things on her own too)

    Maps: usa geography (these books are at our library and she loves them)

    Thank you so much for sharing this part of your life with us. I now have to go find that book about project teaching :)

  11. My love of math and science, particularly, led me to become a chemical engineer. A lack of challenge in grade school was extremely frustrating for me. Smaller schools teach to the pace of the majority, which makes it incredibly boring for more gifted students. It's wonderful that you are tailoring the pace to keep your children interested. I know worksheets can be boring, but in math, practice make perfect. My personal example: I took calculus in high school, but decided to repeat it in college. While I was depressed to be repeating the material, I challenged myself to become the top of the class and although I didn't necessarily need to do all the homework to pass, completing it did greatly increase my accuracy, speed, and capabilites that paid off extensively in physics and engineering courses. I've seen many fellow engineering students who master the concepts, but poor math skills prevented them from doing well on exams in their physics and engineering course work.

    Perhaps making worksheets a speed game would help. The stronger the math foundation, the easier science and more advanced math courses like calculus will become. I really struggled with algebra, but after a lot of practice, it actually became a lot of fun and made my differental equation class, which is like algebra with calculus, quite fun as well. Never mastered spelling, though.

    Good luck!

  12. I recently had a discussion with my mom, who has been an elementary school principal for practically as long as I've been in school. What she educated me, and what fascinates me about the Singapore math method, is that it goes with HOW the student is working through the problem, and the thought process, and not such a heavy emphasis on whether the child arrives at the correct number or not

  13. I am currently studying primary teaching so I love reading about your homeschool experiences. With a class of 30 it is so hard to find a way of teaching that everyone responds to but project and inquiry based learning is certainly one of the better methods I feel. I guess the beauty of homeschooling is that you only have a small number of students to worry about so everything can be tailored to their needs.

    Have you heard of Alfie Kohn? I think you'd enjoy his books. He's all about the reasons behind learning (such as making meaning of the world and investigating interests) rather than just learning as a means of being able to do well on tests - the what v how well. He's also written a book on parenting which I've not yet read but I should set aside time for it.

    On the issue of worksheets I'm on Aria's side. If she is demonstrating an understanding of the concepts then worksheets are probably unneccessary and not the best use of her time. Once again homeschooling means that you can get a better idea of where a student is at due to there being fewer students. Worksheets are probably more neccessary in a school environment where you cannot keep tabs everyday on every student and need other a worksheet to guage where a student is at. I hope that makes sense and best of luck with the rest of term.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations, Charlotte. I love reading inspiring books about education! About the worksheets, you raise a good point. I had considered the same before, about if they were worthwhile. One bonus of math worksheets is that they require her to practice thinking carefully. One mistake can make an entire problem wrong. So, she understands the concept, but is she able to be careful, write neatly and think with discipline to get the right answer 4-5 times? I think the worksheets are useful, but they are best used in moderation, like most things. Thanks for the reminder!

  14. Love Project Based Homeschooling :)

  15. Rachel, this is such an incredible resource!! Thank you soooo much for sharing this journey. My kids are 2 and 3 and i've decided to homeschool them. I am nercous that I won't be a good teacher, but I think my kids will learn really well this way, and be invested, like you said yours have been. I'm still really anxious about this decision and will be following your journey intently!! Thank you so much for sharing this and your quilting inspiration too!

    1. You're very welcome, Marian! Thanks for sharing why and how it can be helpful. It's a bit hard to convince myself to post about this in my quilting space, so that's good to hear!

  16. Maybe putting math problems on a whiteboard or magnadoodle would help. Novelty is everything.

  17. My kids use Singapore and I like it. It sounds like MUS is working for you guys so why switch? If you want more challenge then add the Challenging Word Problems from Singapore. The Intensive Practice books also have challenging problems but they are interspersed with the practice. Those sorts of problems require one to understand and apply the lessons learned which is much harder than filling in blanks.

  18. Oh! I love the Elsa and Peter story idea! That is brilliant!

    So great that you were able to see the parallels in your learning as a sewist and your kids’ learning. I remember when this revelation hit me. Knitting was my thing at the time and I remember thinking that as much as I love knitting, if someone told me what project to knit, it would be drudgery. If I chose the project but someone els chose the yarn, I still might hate it. But, when I have complete learning/creative freedom, I love it and benefit from it and learn. And, thank goodness nobody gives me knitting or sewing worksheets after I learn something new!

    We are unschoolers. As I have set aside what I’ve been told my kids “should” learn, trusting that my kids will learn what is important to them, I’ve been blown away at their capacity to learn and RETAIN what they learn...because it is meaningful to them. One of my favorite quotes is from John Holt (my homeschooling hero), “Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn.”

    Good luck! And, have fun not learning about Egypt this month. :)

  19. Fun! We are using Singapore this year and love it. I tried Rightstart Math last year, and it was a struggle. My daughter learned a lot, but she just did not like the teaching method. Singapore is working much better. I also read "Project Based Homeschooling", and really liked a lot of her ideas. It does make a lot of sense to me. Have you looked into Story of the World? I was surprised how much my daughter loves the stories, and it is really easy to supplement.

    1. I have heard good things about Story of the World and have it on my wish list now. Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to trying Singapore =)


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