How to Grow Independent Learners, Part 2

A few months ago, I had the privilege of attending the Teach Them Diligently homeschool convention in Nashville, TN. It was my first time to go, and although I wasn’t able to go to many of the seminars, it was still a valuable learning experience.

The main thing that was impressed upon my mind was that it is our job as parents to not just focus on teaching our children facts, figures, and how to be successful in this world. But to be independent thinkers who know what they believe and why they believe it.

Adults who can stand on their own two feet to support themselves while helping others along the way.

Time to re-evaluate
While I felt like we were on the right track in some ways- emphasizing the Bible, character, and nature- it just didn’t seem like things flowed. There was a constant struggle to accomplish anything measurable without falling into “school” mode.

I was ready for a change and praying that the homeschool conference would give me a boost and clear direction.

That “Aha!” moment
What I learned were practical ways to start giving the kids responsibility for their own education.

It was that “Aha!” moment when the theory and the application finally makes sense and the light bulb turns on.

If we are educating for independent thinking, we must give our kids the chance to take on some tasks independently.

However, like the bird parents in my last post (click), we don’t just leave them on the ground to fend for themselves, we gradually give them more independence as they are able to handle it.

This can be applied to household tasks or schoolwork.

Translated into the homeschooling environment, that means having age-appropriate tasks demonstrated first. Then give them the chance to assist with, perform with supervision, and finally, independently.

A portfolio
My first plan of attack was to build a portfolio for each child.

My daughter is eight years old. She can read well and knows how to do quite a few tasks to bless the home.

To help encourage her independent learning, I printed off several pages to go in her portfolio:

  • A morning checklist
  • A weekly checklist (with daily things to check off)
  • A calendar
  • An attendance record
  • A basic outline of our daily schedule

Having to record her progress gives her the responsibility to track her education, including keeping an account of the number of days in school.

The checklists are to be completed daily and turned in at the end of each day for my review.

This way, although she is in charge of her education, I can help her stay accountable and make sure she is doing appropriate activities to meet her goals.

When we first started doing this, it seemed great, but after about a week my daughter fell into her usual, “Do I have to do this? I don’t like school” mode, even though the “school” we do is super informal with little to no seat work.

I asked what it was that made her not like to learn and what she would like to learn about that sounded more fun. We were already doing theme study, so I wasn’t sure what else to do to help her stay interested.

No more school
One thing she asked is that I stop calling it “school” and start calling our learning “fashion design school” as right now she wants to learn all she can about being a fashion designer. Simple enough! So far it is working much better.

I also created one more checklist with each subject to be covered and several suggestions to choose from for each subject (see pic).

She loves it! It’s finally helped her catch the vision of what our goals are for learning and what counts as “school” including learning how to classify normal daily activities into different subject areas.

It’s a fun challenge for her to make sure that she finds something math, history, service, or work-related, for example, to check off that area of study daily.

It’s also fun for her to try to relate it all to fashion designing (or whatever subject she is studying this week).

Now that I’m putting my daughter in the (supervised) driver’s seat, it has taken the pressure off of me to come up with the plan. Although I’m still very much available to offer as many suggestions and resources as she needs to get going on a project.

Daily independent learning routine
We still have a regular routine even though working independently at various times throughout the day.

A regular school day might look like this:
• Wake up, complete morning checklist
• Eat breakfast
•Clean up breakfast and bless the home (a.k.a. tidy house) for the day
•Begin daily checklist (independent learning time)
• Come together for singing and story time (after I have the toddler cleaned up and ready for the day)
• Free play, walk, or other outdoor activity
• Continue checklist with the goal to finish before afternoon free play time

We continue in this manner, keeping each subject area to around 20 minutes each to avoid boredom or dawdling. Plus it reminds us to break up school time with outside, active, or “home blessing” (a.k.a. chores) time.

Independent learning sounds great for a reader, but how to implement it with a younger child?

As for my son, he is five years old. He does not read nor is he particularly interested in learning how to read. To encourage independent learning in him, I also gave him his own portfolio. He has a morning checklist (with pictures) and calendars.

Most of the morning checklist must be completed before breakfast. We keep it in a clear page protector so we can mark it with a dry erase marker and reuse it daily. I simply double-check that he has completed his morning checklist tasks before breakfast and encourage him if he’s getting sidetracked.

Update: A few months into it, my son is completing his tasks without needing to check them off so we are no longer using a formal checklist.

He also has regular tasks to bless the home (chores). Plus he has the option to give extra blessings for service or paid work (as does my daughter).

He has a lot of time for free productive play, and I also try to assign him outdoor duties as much as possible because it seems to help him feel more useful and regulate his emotions.

To pre-empt mischievousness and bickering, I have a list of activities he can do while his sister is in “fashion design school” such as Tinkertoys, board games, coloring pages, crafts, Legos, puzzles, skeleton model (his favorite), dollar store phonics, math, or sticker books, etc. to keep him busy.

Baby School 101
My toddler son (age 2) still needs constant supervision of course, so he tags along with whatever the rest of us are doing. My daughter has started him in “baby school,” as she calls it, and daily goes through the Sabbath School lesson with him.

She is responsible to teach him the lesson, including his memory verse, and to come up with ways to keep his interest. She uses felts, prints coloring pages for him, puts on audio stories or songs, and has even used Legos to teach the lessons.

They both really enjoy the time. It also gives me a chance to have some one-on-one time with my older son.

It’s a work in progress, but I finally see how this teaching method can be implemented in the real world, with multiple-aged kids, little to no seat work, and still have a well-ordered day!

I’m very hopeful for our homeschooling future and pray this also inspires you to encourage independent learning in your own home.

What are some ways you are growing independent learners?

Keeping Records Through the High School Years

In high school you not only need to keep records in compliance with your state’s homeschooling law, you also need to keep records that will provide the information needed for college admissions after graduation. In my state, once my children reached the age that they were no longer under the state’s compulsory attendance law, I didn’t have to bother about records that complied with state law, and was able to solely focus on records needed for college admission. Be sure to know what your state requires.

Record keeping for high school involves four main areas: recording grades in each subject, keeping track of extracurricular activities and awards, creating a transcript that reflects a GPA, and issuing a diploma.

Recording Grades – Many homeschoolers don’t worry themselves with keeping track of letter grades, especially during the elementary years. However, in high school it’s very important to assign letter grades to every subject in order to calculate a grade point average, or GPA, to include on the transcript. Colleges will be looking for a GPA, and the GPA is also important when applying for certain scholarships. Even qualifying for a good-student discount on your auto insurance will require showing some kind of grades in an official manner.

In some subjects calculating the grade is very straightforward. In math, for example, you would simply divide the number of correct answers by the total number of problems to come up with a straight percentage score. English, on the other hand, is more subjective. While you would have some simple “number missed out of total points possible” grading, you also have assignments, such as essays or compositions, that you need to assess differently.

I also weighted my grades, which gave more value to tests than to daily assignments and quizzes. I gave daily assignments a value of 35 percent, and tests a value of 65 percent. You may want to weight them differently. Here is an example of how to weight your student’s grades.

Weighted Grades

You will also have elective subjects such as life skills, art, music, or work study that will be graded subjectively. When assigning subjective grades refrain from “over estimating.” Be realistic and honest when assigning these grades.

Extracurricular Activities and Awards – Colleges like to see well-rounded students, and often ask about these things on their applications. Keep track of sports they played, or contests they won in areas such as photography, art, and essay writing. Include 4-H and Pathfinder club memberships and offices held. Also, keep track of volunteer work for hospitals, nursing homes, animal shelters, soup kitchens, libraries, and museums. Keeping track of these items as you go along will be much easier than trying to remember it all their senior year when you’re applying to colleges and finalizing their transcript.

The Transcript – A simple transcript usually consists of just one page, no more than two, and is a record of the courses your student has taken during high school and the grades and credits earned. I began to compile the transcript when my teens were in ninth grade, and added to it each year.

You should include their basic information: school name and student’s name, address, phone number, birth date, and parents’ names. For each school year include the grade level, courses taken, credits awarded, and final grades. Include the GPA for each school year and a cumulative GPA. Include a projected date of graduation, which should be changed to “date of graduation” once the student has graduated. Don’t forget the parent’s signature. I also had the transcript notarized before sending it to prospective schools to give it an “official” flair.

Transcript Sample

This is a sample of a simple transcript. It includes the basic information that colleges want to know about your student’s academic accomplishments. You could embellish it a bit more by adding your grading scale so that the schools know what percentage equals each letter grade. You can also include a list of interests, activities and achievements, and standardized test scores. I have not included a Social Security number. Opinions are mixed on this. Some think it is necessary when using the transcript when applying for scholarships. I prefer not to use it unless it is requested. However, the Social Security number is requested on college application forms.

Note that there are a couple of dual enrollment classes included on this sample transcript. Once you’ve settled on which college or university your student will be attending, make arrangements for an official transcript to be sent from the school where the dual enrollment classes were taken.

Figuring GPA: The point values used to figure GPA will vary slightly from school to school. Here is one example of how points are assigned to letter grades:

GPA

Assign a grade point value to each letter grade and multiply that by the number of credits earned for that class. For example a one credit class with the letter grade of an A would be assigned four grade points; a one-half credit class would be assigned two grade points. If two credits were earned, it would be assigned eight grade points. Add up the total of all the grade points and divide it by the number of credits earned. The result will be your student’s GPA. If you don’t want to do all the math, there are also GPA calculators online. You only have to enter the letter grade and number of credits and it will calculate the GPA for you.

Colleges may not take your transcript as seriously if the GPA doesn’t correspond with ACT or SAT scores. A large discrepancy could make it look as if grades on the transcript were inflated or biased. If that happens, you may want to review the way your grades were assigned.

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The Diploma – Most people go through their entire life and are never asked to show their high school diploma. However, there are rare situations where your child might have to produce a physical hard copy of their diploma. It’s not difficult or expensive to print an official diploma of your own or to order one from a graduation supply company. Make sure it is signed and dated properly. At the very least it will be a keepsake of your student’s accomplishments.

The transcript and diploma are lifelong records. They should be kept in a safe place, and your children need to know where to find these items if anything should happen to you. At some point they will need to take over the responsibility of possession of their academic records, and they should be made aware of the importance of keeping them.

(GED: I want to touch briefly on taking the GED test. I, personally, am firmly against taking the GED. My children completed the prescribed course of study and earned their high school diplomas. Any school that required a GED would not be on our list of options. Period. You may feel differently, and that’s fine. However, even the Federal Government recognizes a parent-issued high school diploma. The Higher Education Act of 1998 clarifies that a homeschool diploma does not need to be officially recognized by the state or accredited to be valid, or for the student to qualify for federal financial aid. I know there are some Adventist colleges that require the GED. I believe they are extremely behind the times and need to rethink their positions. In addition, if you are a member of HSLDA, and a college, employer, or military recruitment officer tells your child that he or she needs a GED, the HSLDA website states that they want to be contacted.)

Record keeping for high school can seem overwhelming at first glance, but it’s really not. The internet is full of sample transcripts and forms that are free for the taking. There are transcript services that will compile and issue a transcript for a fee. Correspondence schools keep records and issue their own transcripts if that is the method you choose to use for homeschooling. If you are using computer-based record-keeping software, you will probably be able to generate your own transcript through that.

Start from the beginning keeping accurate records, and everything will fall into place when the time comes to issue a transcript and diploma.

Scheduling: Perfect for Whom?

IMG_1907If you follow Pinterest you’ve seen the headlines: “The perfect homeschool schedule,” “Homeschool scheduling made easy,” “A Charlotte Mason Homeschool Day,” or even “The Unschooler’s Guide to Scheduling.”

It’s almost difficult to wade through the planning guides without becoming a little anxious. Honestly.

Recently, we had a scheduling crisis. Now, I’ve been a homeschooling mom for almost nine years. You’d think I have this down…ha!! Nope. The eighth grader was having serious issues with our schedule, even though it was essentially the same form we used the year before with success. But, through the fall semester the melodramatic episodes increased until, finally, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the schedule wasn’t even filled out. I didn’t even try. We limped through the last few weeks of school, took a breather over Christmas, and then I settled in to find the new “perfect” schedule for our family.

I scoured the Pinterest boards. I searched my files. I even paid for a planner…or two. In the process I found every conceivable schedule. Except the one I needed.

I found a schedule that a close friend shared with me eight years ago. It was beautiful! She had one child, and the schedule was perfect. Her spreadsheet was color-coded, and every possible subject was listed and every line filled. She even had lunch and snacks included. It was truly lovely. But, with four children and a husband who works seven 12-hour shifts on, seven off, well…our schedule needs more flexibility. I moved on…

Next up was a Charlotte Mason-style plan. I LOVE all the variety — the “feast” for a child’s mind, including art/artist study, composer/music study, hymn study, practical handicrafts, literature study with narration and dictation…all wonderful, wonderful things! But alas, though I try to incorporate many of Miss Mason’s ideas and philosophy into our plan, our family’s life revolves around music and our church activities more than some of these subjects. At most, we get art/artist study in once a month, though I would love for it to be more. This plan was fantastic! But, it needed serious tweaking to fit our family’s needs…

I reviewed plans for large families who study many subjects together as a family. Fantastic ideas here! But, to change up our curriculum mid-way through the year was an impossibility; plus, I really do like our current curriculum. Strike three…

And, then it hit me. The problem wasn’t our curriculum, my husband’s schedule, or our involvement with music/church activities. It was my son’s new need for control over his life. He’d reached a stage where I needed to BACK OFF. He needed me to allow him to move forward and plan his own time.

Aaaahhh…

When my oldest was little, I learned quickly that as soon as you’re comfortable with one stage of development, they are already moving on to the next one. Once again: MOM needed to catch up. With three other children to look after, plan for, and teach, my oldest had moved on without my notice. <sigh> He’ll be out of the house soon. Driving next year. Off to college or a career in just a few years. And, I’ll wish I could be playing catch-up all over again.

So here’s the take-away: There is no perfect schedule. There’s only your life, and you need to organize things the way they will work for your family. If you’ve heard that no two families homeschool alike, well, it’s true. Keeping abreast of your family’s education needs will mean constant assessment, implementation (changing/tweaking things to make it better), and evaluation (did what you changed work, and what can you do to make it better).

You don’t need to compare your schedule with that “other family” you’ve seen who’s got it all together. Seriously. Be happy for them that what they are doing is working for them. Someday their oldest will reach a stage that will catch them off guard…trust me. And, that’s ok. It happens to all of us.

It’s all about assessing, implementing changes, and re-evaluating the whole process. Over and over and over again. Because, our children move forward, and they don’t all move in the same direction, or at the same speed. That’s the beauty of homeschooling. Embrace it, and skip the Pinterest boards if they’re not helping. Look at your kids. See what they need from you first. Then plan accordingly. You’ve got this!

My oldest child’s schedule now has two pages. I fill in his assignments weekly on the first sheet, after checking our schedule and making adjustments to my overall goals for our flexible family plan, and then he fills in his hourly planner for the week, making a check-mark on the first page as he schedules it, then making the check-mark into an “x” when the assignment is complete — documentation done! On re-evaluation a few weeks in…so far, so good. He’s much happier, and there is no more drama! His assignments are completed (mostly) on time. He collaborates with his younger brother on joint assignments. (Whoa! Leadership skills!) I made some minor adjustments to my expectations, too, as I realized that I was requiring too much in certain areas, and he truly couldn’t physically get everything completed. I’ve allowed some subjects to overlap: his writing assignment for science now counts toward language arts, as does his part in the sermon for Pathfinder Sabbath. (He wrote it, after all!) Assessment, implementation, evaluation, repeat.

Scheduling…it’s only a tool, after all.

Early Childhood Documentation — Portfolios!

When our children are toddlers and preschoolers, a lot of our homeschooling focus is really on play. When they enter into more formal academics it’s easier to track their knowledge and development. So how can we observe and record our younger children’s interests and developmental milestones? One way is to keep Developmental Domain Portfolios! Portfolios are an excellent way to document your child’s learning through a developmental lens. Not only does it create a map for milestones attained, but it also shows a pattern of interest that you can build upon.

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A developmental portfolio will contain sections from each of the developmental domains, including cognitive, social/emotional, physical, language, and creative expression. Within these five domains you can collect artifacts or samples of your child’s work or experiences. This will help you see where your child’s interests and strengths are. This type of record is also important to your child. They may have a special drawing they want to save or share with other family or friends. Or, they may want to look at their own portfolio and “remember” what they have learned.

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There are many ways to document learning and include artifacts within a developmental portfolio. This may include a picture your child has made, an observation journal, and a photograph with a learning story. It may also include a video link of your child engaged in a developmentally appropriate activity to document language or growth, a running record, screenings or assessments, and individual smart goals.  For information on the five developmental domains, check out Washington State Early Learning and Developmental Guidelines. Your state should have the same information for early learning, also.

So, how do I create a developmental domain portfolio? Here are nine steps to help you get started! (This was written for and adapted from my Early Childhood Development classroom, but can be adapted to your individual family needs.)

  1. Supplies to gather:
  • three-ring binder one for each child (with a clear sleeve in the front and the spine)
  • five-tab dividers of different colors
  • Box of page protectors
  • Copy of current Washington State Early Learning and Developmental Benchmarks
  • Be familiar with the concept of a “Learning Story”
  1. Create a checklist:
  • Include the names of all the children
  • The five domains of learning you will focus on (ex: cognition, physical, language and literacy, creative expression, and social emotional)
  • An area for comments
  • A space for a date of domain being observed 
  1. Create portfolio:
  • Insert a photo of each child in the front pouch of the binder
  • Insert the child’s name (first and last) in the spine of the binder
  • Put the five dividers in the binder
  • Label each divider with the domains of development being assessed
  • Place page protectors in front and behind each divider
  • Write an “about me” page for each child with start date, birth date, specific interests and curiosities, comfort items, etc. 
  1. Create a reference page for each developmental domain being assessed:
  • Use the Benchmarks to create a one page document to reference each domain (there should be five)
  • Place each overview behind the divider it is describing 
  1. Create an observation sheet to place in your environment:
  • Ask three or four reflective questions (for instance: what I see, what I hear, what I wonder)
  • Make sure you include a space for the observer’s name, date, and space in the environment 
  1. Collecting data:
  • Each day as the observations and samples of children’s work comes in, place them in the pouch of the individual child’s portfolio
  • The end of the week go through the data collected, and decide where each item can be organized in domains of learning (write the date on the checklist with a comment to reference the evidence)
  • Use the observation, photo, or child’s work to create a learning story of the child (reflect, evaluate, and extend on their learning)
  1. Continue the process:
  • Continue daily to observe, collect, and document each child’s curiosities and interests
  • Use the checklist to be sure you’re observing every child in each domain
  • Once the domains are complete, then you start again to measure the growth in each domain
  1. Invite family to have a voice in the child’s portfolio:
  • Ask them to write a “hopes and dreams” page for the child to put in the front of their portfolio
  • Ask them to write up a learning story at home or at school once or twice a year
  • Ask them to add their lens to a learning story already written about the child
  • Ask them to write up observations in the classroom with any of the children to add to their portfolio
  1. Invite other adults to observe, collect, and build on the children’s portfolios:
  • Ask the adults that have established relationships with the children to write up observations, collect children’s work samples, and write up learning stories
  • Ask them to build on an original learning story to have multiple lenses of the child

Your child’s portfolio is what you want to make of it based off of what learning goals are important to your family! For a downloadable copy of this checklist and the five developmental domains, CLICK HERE.

How to Keep Homeschool Records

Keeping homeschool records usually involves more than one method. The first thing you need to know is what your state requires. The law in my state requires the following: a plan book, diary, or other written record of subjects taught and activities engaged in; a portfolio of samples of the child’s academic work; other written, or credible evidence equivalent to the above; and a log of hours spent in instruction.

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The Plan Book: When using a lesson plan book, the lessons are planned in advance. Lay out the plans and the assignments for the week, and check off each item as it is covered. You can use a lesson plan book purchased at a teacher supply store, or download lesson plan pages from a website such as DonnaYoung.org. It can even be as simple as writing them down in a spiral notebook, or making your own plans in a word processing program on your computer. I usually started out the school year with two weeks of lesson plans prepared ahead. Then each Sunday from the time school started, I would plan one more week. That way I was always two weeks ahead, which gave me time to find library books, videos, and experiment and art supplies. Yet, I wasn’t planning so far ahead that I would have to make a lot of major plan changes if we needed to slow down or take a day off for some reason.

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The Diary: With the diary (or journal) method, instead of writing down what you do before you do it, you or the student write daily in the diary what was done and what was learned. The diary can also be used in conjunction with the plan book. I used the diary method to keep track of field trips, vacation educational hours, educational videos, community service projects, and life-skill learning activities.

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The Portfolio: A portfolio is for saving samples of school work. I didn’t save every piece of my children’s school work. That would have been overwhelming. Instead I saved one paper from each subject from the first week of school, and from the last week of each quarter. I also saved examples of reports, research papers, poems, stories, art work, and other special assignments. For three dimensional projects or artwork too large for the portfolio, I took photographs and placed those in the portfolio.

Other Written Records: This can include reading lists, standardized test scores, lists of classes and curriculum used, a general daily schedule, lists of accomplishments and recognition, copies of paperwork filed with your state, etc.

Attendance Records: Some states require a certain number of days of school per year. My state requires a certain number of hours of instruction. Either way, you should keep track of those days or hours to show that you’ve met your state’s requirements. Making note of hours or days in your daily lesson plans or on a calendar, and using a spreadsheet on your computer to record and tally them, is a simple way of keeping an accurate record.

I kept all of the above in a thick three-ring binder divided into sections labeled Lesson Plans, Journal, Portfolio, and Hourly Log. Each section was divided by a tabbed divider, and the Portfolio section had pocket dividers for holding the samples of work. At the end of each year all the records for that year were in one notebook.

I saved all of the notebooks until the child was out of high school, then I sorted through all of the elementary notebooks and saved a few things that were special as mementos and threw the rest away. I kept the high school notebooks for a while longer in case they were needed to back up my transcripts for college admissions. I’ll talk about the specifics of high school record keeping in a future post.

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Over the course of 25 years of homeschooling, I began with writing lesson plans out by hand, moved on to using a word processing program, and eventually settled into using homeschool record-keeping software. With the software I was able to type up lesson plans and print them. There was a diary feature for recording the activities I kept in journal form. It also tracked attendance and grades, and I was able to print reports on these with a click of a button. It saved me so much time and effort, and it was worth every penny. There are a variety of computer-based programs available online, and most will let you download a trial version to try out before you buy.

The key to staying on top of your record keeping is to find a system that fits your style. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of record keeping until you find your niche, and before you know it, keeping good homeschool records will become second nature to you.