Sense-ational Writing for Beginners

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We learn with our whole body. The more senses we use to absorb and manipulate information, the more likely we are to remember it. My kindergartener is at the very outset of his reading/writing journey. Those typical handwriting papers full of solid and dotted lines are still novel, but I know they won’t be for long. So, I encourage myself to break loose, teach handwriting with more than just a pencil, get messy, and make it sensory.

My second son, age four, tried desperately hard at the beginning of the year to do everything big brother was doing. We began by learning our vowels and vowel sounds with pictures, poems, songs, and written letters. A few weeks in, I added sign language to our alphabet lessons, and BAM, my second son caught on instantly. As soon as he could use his hands, it clicked in his mind. He’s kinesthetic.

Is yours auditory? Linguistic? Naturalistic, responding strongly to the great outdoors? Visual? Tactile? Spacial? The truth is that, to varying degrees, we are all of them. Use them all! The following are some of my favorite ideas for learning letter formation.

I take no credit for any of these ideas. As Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun,” and these ideas have come from friends, family, and years of wallowing online.

1. Finger paint with pudding, shaving cream, salt, or sand. Spray shaving cream or plop pudding directly onto the table. Use a cookie sheet to contain salt or sand. Let them taste a little pudding while they write. Will a tiny taste of salt make the lesson more memorable? The unique texture certainly will.

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2. Try paint in a bag. Do you prefer the mess contained? Squirt paint (or even ketchup and mustard) into a large ziplock bag, and squeeze out all the air bubbles. Tape the bag to a window and let them use their fingers to write. One thing I love about this method is that you can use a permanent marker to draw the solid and dotted handwriting lines on the outside of the bag.

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3. Use washable markers or dry erase markers directly on the window. This is fabulous for those of us who don’t own a whiteboard. You could even use your own breath. Breathe on the window, make it foggy, and write in the condensation. I feel a science lesson coming on. And, you can teach them how to properly wash a window when you’re done — good home ec credit!

4. Convert a breakfast bed tray into a dry erase lap board. Any opportunity to use a variety of colors will help a visual learner.

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5. Go outside with sidewalk chalk. Feel the sun on your shoulders and enjoy the change in scenery. If you prefer artwork-free sidewalks, give your child a paintbrush and a cup of water. It’s fun to write with the water and it evaporates in a few minutes. I’m teaching a little perfectionist, and one of my favorite elements about some of these is that it takes away the eraser. You can’t erase sidewalk chalk. It forces him to accept the line he just drew and move on, continuing his practice.

6. Use a stick in the dirt. What a simple treasure that is to the naturalist child.

7. Wax sticks, sometimes called Bendaroos or Wikki Sticks, are colorful wax-coated strings that bend and stick to paper.

8. Get out the play dough or modeling clay. Kids can form “snakes” and bend them into letters, or they can flatten “pancakes” and cut the letters out as negative space. SO much fun if you have alphabet cookie cutters!

9. Food! Nibble letters into shape with strings of licorice or pretzel sticks. You can even make fresh pretzels and form them into letters before baking.

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10. Use liquid school glue on 3×5 cards and make your own 3D flashcards. This was our favorite last year. I wrote a letter with pencil, he traced it in crayon, and then he traced over that with the bottle of school glue. Those glue skills used a lot of big muscles. The glue dried into bumpy letters, and we used them for multiple games.

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11. The Leap Frog writing pad was a nice gift from a grandparent. As you use the electronic pen to write in the book, it responds with words and sounds and tells you where to start, when to stop, if you did a good job, etc. It’s good for the auditory learner and is a nice form of independent work when the teacher is busy.

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12. Another high-tech option is the Boogie Board LCD writing tablet. I don’t promote going out and buying the latest-and-greatest, but I do recommend looking around the house and viewing toys or tools with new potential. That was the case in our house with this item. Scribble away and then press the white button on the top for a fresh, clean screen. Remember those Dollar Store Magic Slate Paper Savers? Same concept. This used to just be a quiet-time toy, but now it makes handwriting class exciting.

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The God who gave us colors and textures and tastes and sounds gave us a brain that thrives on variety. Explore!

The Project Approach in Early Childhood Education

I have always been very interested in different ways to educate children. In fact this is one of the reasons I began homeschooling in the first place. I feel that learning should be multifaceted. Children learn in so many different ways, and being able to provide opportunities that connect with all of their learning styles and multiple intelligences, plus being focused on what they are interested in, is the best form of education. One of my children I found to be a very hands-on learner. They really seemed to flourish if they had the ability to touch, taste, smell, and do. In my early childhood education courses, we learned about The Project Approach method to learning. I found that by applying this approach, my child became excited about learning.

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The major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. In real life, we don’t spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it. We need to be able to ask questions of a person we’re learning from. We need to be able to link what the person is telling us with what we already know. And, we need to be able to bring what we already know and experiences we’ve had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds and say something about them.

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The Project Approach should provide developmentally appropriate curriculum that will improve the child’s understanding of the world around them. It should have a balance of activities, involve field work, work time and implementation. Children should have time to review and recall what has happened during a project to see if there are any unanswered questions left. The final piece of The Project Approach should be an opportunity to display and share what has happened during the project.

So what is The Project Approach and how is it implemented. Below I have included my presentation on the historical background and the individual phases of this method of teaching. I have also included a completed lesson plan about bees as an example of how to plan using The Project Approach.

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The Project Approach PowerPoint Presentation

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Learning About Bees Using The Project Approach

Homeschooling the Gifted/Talented Child, Pt. 2: Breaking Out of the Box

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Many of the suggestions I offer in my previous articles regarding children with challenges can be applied also to homeschooling gifted/talented (G/T) kids. When starting, it’s important to assess the child’s learning style. Also, if the child tends to be on the hyper side or have emotional outbursts, it is a good idea to check the diet and assess for food sensitivities.

Just because a child learns easy doesn’t mean straight book work is the best option for them. Personally, I feel that unit studies make learning more natural. Homeschooling is more than “school at home.” So, when homeschooling your G/T child, look beyond the books. Think of projects based on their topics of interest. Unit studies can be useful in this regard. For the older child, research projects that require more than just a typed paper could be a fun learning activity.

Book reports and research papers can be replaced with posters, art projects, a sewing project, a wood-working project, a diorama, a model, etc. Educational videos and documentaries can replace chapters in textbooks. Then the child can take one part of what they learned and create a hands-on project from it. A field trip to a local museum or even a business can stimulate more learning. In today’s internet world, the student can access museums of all types from around the world. This can add depth to the learning experience.

It’s so easy to be caught up in our busy worlds today that we just want to find a way to “get the job done.” This is not always the best choice for the G/T child. They need more to stimulate their mind. They need to be challenged and allowed to explore/make mistakes/get messy.

Remember, we choose homeschooling so our child can become all they are meant to be. That means getting out of the mindset of what everyone else expects. For the young child who is very advanced (I have a granddaughter like this), I do still suggest waiting for more formal education until they are older, around eight to 10 years old. I also suggest to go broad rather than deep.

For example, if a child is advanced in the math and sciences, I would focus on things like music or art and other electives. It would be easy to allow them to go as deep as they want in their favorite subjects, but this will often create a skewed education rather than offering a balanced training. There are many outside classes offered today, but don’t forget to allow plenty of time to simply be a kid. Play time is just as important for the G/T child as the children with challenges on the other side of the spectrum, and the G/T child could greatly benefit from play time. One never knows if they will create the next art masterpiece or the next classical music composition.

Allowing the child as much freedom as possible in their educational pursuits is a great way to raise children who are fulfilling their God-given potential.

Planning a Charlotte Mason Curriculum

One thing that drew me to the Charlotte Mason method of teaching was it’s simplicity and beauty! I can easily get overwhelmed with all the curriculum choices and pressure to do it all. I crave a restful but enriching teaching experience, and my children thrive in this type of environment. This school year I took a simplified approach to my lesson planning and have enjoyed it so much more. Plus, it has taken less time and energy to plan.

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So, how am I applying Charlotte Mason’s method of education to our curriculum this year? One thing I did was to plan out a basic overview of the curriculum topics I wanted to cover. I combined as many of the subjects as I could, and spaced them out over 36 weeks. These I divided into three terms. What is great about homeschooling is that you can tailor it to your individual family needs. Our family is a part of a Parent Partnered Program two days a week. My students take history, science, and writing through that program. This year, though, my eighth-grader has opted to do science at home, using Ambleside Online plan for Year 8. Then, using this basic overview, I record what we have completed each week. This allows me to be more flexible in our schedule and take breaks when needed.

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I really wanted to make sure we got in those enriching subjects that seem to get pushed to the wayside in favor of core work. So, halfway through last year we started implementing Morning Time. I stumbled on this beautiful concept through Pam Barnhill’s Podcast, “Your Morning Basket.” This is the first thing we do each day and lasts only about 30 minutes or so. During this time we cover Bible, memory verses, poetry, hymn, nature, artist, and composer studies. That sounds like a lot, but really it’s not. I read a short devotional, then we recite our memory verse and have prayer. I then loop the hymn, composer, artist, and nature studies for the month. Each month I choose to cover one hymn, composer, artist, and topic of nature study. The first two weeks of the month, we learn about the hymn and composer chosen. The last two weeks of the month, we learn about the artist and topic of nature. I do this so that we don’t become overwhelmed and try to cram too much into a week. This worked beautifully last year, and I am excited to include it this year also.

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Charlotte Mason’s method of short enriching lessons have blessed our family and given us the ability to learn at a more effective pace. This also has given our children time to dive into what they are passionate about.

Below are links to the curriculum we are using for our Morning Time, and a blank version of my planning spreadsheet:

Charlotte Mason Homeschool Planning Spreadsheet

“Your Morning Basket” Podcast by Pam Barnhill

Hymn Study – Ambleside Online – Hymns

Composer Study – Ambleside Online – Composers

Artist Study – “Discovering Great Artists” by MaryAnn F. Kohl

Nature Study – “Exploring Nature With Children” by Lynn Seddon

What We Teach Our Kids

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By far the most common response I get from people, mostly women, when I say that I homeschool is, “Oh wow. I could never do that. I’m just not organized enough.”

And, I picture my disorganized home, my busy life, and my kids who many days wear pajamas until, at the earliest, when their friends get home and they toss on mismatched outfits to go play. Wait. Stop. Scratch that. Emme wouldn’t be caught dead in mismatched clothing. She’s also the one who cleans my house. At 11 years old. And makes dinner.

My 11-year-old. SHE homeschools my kids! I’ve just had an epiphany!

But, I digress.

The point is that I really want to sit down with some of these women and tell them that homeschooling is not just a classroom in the basement with your children sitting in desks waiting attentively, awaiting learning to be imparted.

No, some days homeschooling is doing nothing.

Which brings me to my next topic. What exactly DO unschoolers do?

Remember the photos you’ve seen on Facebook — some of you, anyway — where there’s an idealized picture of something and the caption “What my neighbors think I do”? Another picture has the caption, “What my mother thinks I do,” and a third picture says, “What I actually do.” Or whatever!

With unschoolers, the “What I actually do” varies as much as there are unschoolers!

Debate even amongst unschoolers has raged with the eternal question, “Are you really unschooling if you use workbooks [or any formalized learning media]?”

One extreme of homeschoolers answer with a resounding “NO!” One must not fetter one’s mind with structured learning, or even worse, regurgitated ideas and dogma!

Others insist that learning done organically in the interest of the child, regardless of the method, is the goal. Using workbooks, curriculum, or whatever is at hand is legit.

I think the most important consideration, if one is exploring the possibility of unschooling, is the child’s personality and temperament. With my boys, I was hard-core unschooling. With my girls, I use workbooks, printouts, and software.

Here’s what I’ve come to believe. I don’t think I’ve said this before, but if I have it bears repeating.

Children are always learning. They learn most when you’re not teaching. Or not on purpose anyway. They watch how you talk about others at church or in the store. They watch how you drive and the monologue you have with the other drivers (tough lesson learned as my 17-year-old is now mouthy and critical…oy).

From observing your behavior patterns and priorities, they learn that one’s house must be clean at all times even if it involved stress and crushed feelings. Or, they learn that hugs, dancing, and fun help tidy the clutter if not completely overcome it!

They learn that starting the morning in prayer and study helps moderate one’s mood throughout the day, versus chaos and tears They put in place similar systems, especially as they experience life and realize they need it too — perhaps not as young adults once out of the home, but certainly as newlyweds or, even more so, new parents!

Here’s what was critical to me in the manner and method of teaching, especially with my second son who struggled with reading; he didn’t read until he was 13+ years old.

By my attempts to teach something that he wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared to do, I risked teaching him that learning was “hard.” That he didn’t like it. That he couldn’t do it. Regardless of my patience and gentle correction (anyone who knows my personality is smirking), he would learn that he was “doing it wrong” — OR at the very least that he “wasn’t doing it right.”

I have a girlfriend who is legally blind in one eye. There’s nothing wrong physically with her eye, no physiological reason why she can’t see out of it. While I don’t know the medical details, she had something that should have been corrected when she was young, but because it wasn’t, her brain just clicked off. It no longer even tries. And so, she’s blind in that eye.

My concern when working with Lowell was that while teaching him to read — and struggling — what I would successfully teach him is that he’s incapable. That he can’t. That he “struggles.” That learning isn’t fun.

With my oldest, I knew that he could do most anything. I could set him to any task and he could do it quite successfully. That kid could learn faster than I could come up with stuff to teach him! What we inevitably ran into was the fact that our dynamic, still to this day somewhat, was that whatever I wanted him to do, he resisted. The power struggles I found myself in! I really had to pick my battles.

Now, I just want to be clear. A parent must be the authority and willing to take on their kid when they refuse to submit to it. I understood this and tend toward being very much a disciplinarian (to a fault, some days). However, the whole realm of learning was not a mountain I was willing to die on!

I would go toe to toe with him when it came to respect. When it came to cleaning and chores. When it came to a lot of things. But, in my world, learning should be fun! And so, it was the one area that I pretty much gave to him to learn how and when he would.

The best analogy to demonstrate my point is Walters-style camping.

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When we’re home, I expect a level of participation and cooperation from my kids. They’re pretty autonomous when it comes to eating. They take on the bulk of cleaning especially in the kitchen. I keep a pretty close eye on things, but as I told Ethan a long time ago: I have worked my way into management! I started at an entry-level position when he and his subsequent siblings were born, but now all I do is supervise the work and do budgeting!

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When we’re camping? All bets are off! They can pretty much do what they want. I do the cooking, I do the cleaning, and they are pretty much free to run wild! I’ve taught them what they need to watch out for (running water especially), and they’re not stupid. But in their worlds, camping is FUN! It represents the freedom to do things they normally can’t!

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For example, when we’re living our normal lives, they know that seatbelts and helmets are the law of the land, literally and figuratively. I’m a maniac about it. When we’re out camping and on dirt roads, they know they get to throw off the fetters of seat belts and hang their heads out the windows. In fact, we go camping in the local Adventist summer camp out in one of the back areas. There are very few others who venture out so far. I’ll even allow them to ride on the back bumper holding onto the back of the van.

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At home, they wouldn’t think of playing with fire or anything along those lines. When we’re out camping, I let them start the main fire and even “play” — in a safe arena — with it. On one camping trip, we found cut stumps, dragged them back to the main area, and I let the kids build fires on them to try and “burn them out” down through the middle. THAT was fun! The younger ones were quickly bored because I had to help, but especially Ethan, my oldest, got a huge charge out of it.

And so, in our home I was very strict about certain things. Certain things there was no budging me. There are mountains I am happily willing to die on. But, learning wasn’t something that would go anywhere near the realm of forced or miserable.

So for us, unschooling looks very different. My expectations are very different. My boys and girls are very different…in personality and interests. I love being able to homeschool and give them each exactly what they need, when they need it, using whatever tools and media fit that need.

That is what unschooling is for us!