Back to the homeschooling grindstone already? Ay yi yi! Doesn’t it feel too soon?
I’m not feeling quite as fly-by-the-seat as I often do after a break, though, because I’ve got a new system for keeping track of school assignments, and it’s rocking my world. I love finding ways to simplify homeschooling, and this method really takes the cake.
I’ll tell you all about it, and then you have every right to say, “Of course, Sarah. Why haven’t you done this all along?” like I said to myself when my friend first showed me how it’s done. :)
(Wanna listen to this post instead of reading it?)
Here’s what happened.
Early in December, I was at Mass, trying to keep my mind focused- it kept drifting off to schoolwork. In my head, I was finagling how we could possibly combine subjects or weed something out and do less in order to make the school day work.
The days were difficult. Even though I had pared back and simplified as much as possible, we were still struggling to hit those most important subjects. Twin toddlers change everything! Add a 2-year-old to the mix and things can get downright disastrous by 10 am, let me tell you. Our school day was feeling it.
After Mass, I moseyed out to the foyer and gave my friend Sheila a big hug. “How’s it going?” she asked with a smile. Sheila homeschooled her three kids into adulthood and they are just some of the most fantastic kids you’ll ever meet. She’s not so far removed that she forgets just how hard it was, but she’s got this end-of-the-homeschooling-road wisdom and insight that I just crave to learn from. I absolutely adore her.
She asked that simple question, and I started to fall apart. I can’t do this! There’s too much to get to! Maybe what I’m trying to do here IS actually impossible?
Sheila listened (like she always does), and then she said, “Well, how much of their schoolwork are they doing on their own?” I stopped to think. She followed up, “And how are you giving them assignments?”
Right. That. I write them on a white board each morning when I finally get around to it-which is usually in between grabbing a twin off the dining room table and the other one out of the kitchen garbage and washing Posy’s jelly face and changing a diaper and scolding someone for forgetting to shut the door to the basement where a toddler nearly plummeted to his demise.
It’s not a good system.
Sheila came over the next day. She told me I would need a simple 10 cent spiral notebook for each kid, and she would show me what to do.
And she did.
Here’s the groundbreaking system. Are your ready for this?:
Each evening, I write the kids’ assignments down for the next day in their own assignment book.
What? You thought I was going to say something grand and amazing, and you’re a little let down?
I know. I was skeptical at first, too, but I have been floored at the change this simple method has made in our homeschool. For the first time in a long while, we are getting to pretty much everything I assign for each day early in the afternoon. For the first time, I’m not having to rack my brain to remember what we’re supposed to do when.
Toddler photo bomb
Each morning after breakfast, the big kids do their one morning chore, dress and brush their teeth, and then they set to work on their school notebooks. Instead of feeling pulled between teaching a lesson, caring for toddlers, and setting on soup for dinner, I go about my business with the little ones and the kids go about theirs.
When they have a question or need help with an assignment, they bring their materials to me wherever I am, and I help them on the spot. If someone else is getting help at the moment, they work on something else in their notebook until I’m free.
I know what you’re thinking (I was thinking the same thing). Something like this, right?:
“I don’t have time to write down assignments each night.”
The truth is, it takes 10 minutes. Ten. Minutes. I spent a little time making a master spreadsheet of assignments and how frequently I want each thing tackled, and I use that as a quick reference. It literally takes me ten minutes (max) to look at the spreadsheet and write down the assignments for all three of my school-agers.
If I really can’t carve out ten minutes to do this, I skip sweeping the floor, folding the laundry, or checking Facebook, and I do this instead. It’s worth it.
“Why should I write it out when I could just print out a checklist?”
Because something about the act of writing it out by hand triggers the brain to engage. When I’m writing my 13-year-old’s assignments out, I can tell that I’m giving her too much work when it’s taking me a while to write or the paper is filling up. It’s so easy to just pop in one more assignment on a spreadsheet on your computer. It’s harder to make the space when you’re writing it out by hand.
Also, writing it out means I’m constantly in touch with where each child is in each of his or her subjects. Instead of just giving an assignment that says “do the next math assignment,” it says “do lesson 14.”
See that box before the math assignment? That’s what this child checks off when she’s done. The box after the assignment means that I need to check it off for her to really be “done” for the day. If she made a lot of errors, the next day’s assignment will likely be “Watch lesson 14 one more time and make corrections to yesterday’s assignment.”
Writing each assignment out by hand means that I’m staying connected with where she is in every subject. I can tell if a Latin assignment is taking her longer than usual, or if she’s flying through it in her sleep. In fact, I can more easily keep my finger on the pulse of where each of my kids are in their different subjects.
Some tips that help to make this work:
- Resist the urge to make this more complicated than it needs to be. I use colored pens, but it’s just for fun- not for color coding. You want to remove as many barriers as possible to making this tool do the thing it’s supposed to do. Simple is always better.
- Keep them handy. These spiral notebooks go in a basket on our kitchen counter. The kids take them out, use them, and put them back. They don’t disappear into the school bins or backpacks or any such nonsense. They need to be handy, visible, and always in the same place.
- Use the last 10 pages or so for a booklist. Have you been meaning to print out a booklist form for your kids to record their personal reading on this year? Me too. Why I can’t ever manage to keep enough of those around (or keep track of them when I do) is beyond me, but it’s always the case.
I put a post it flag marking the last ten pages or so of the spiral notebook, and the kids have been instructed to write the book title, author, and # pages of each book they read on their own. At the end of the year, I’ll make transcribing this onto the computer a keyboarding assignment for one of my young typists.
Give it a try!
(Want to see these spiral notebooks in action? I did Here’s a video where I show what they look like in our homeschool.)
So if you’re feeling a bit over-your-head as you hit the books once again, grab a spiral notebook and see if this super-simple system might see you through the dark winter months.
It has been transformative for us- really helping me to teach from rest and restoring my peace in our schooling. The kids love it, too, and have thanked me multiple times for organizing their school day this way.
P.S. Using spiral notebooks was a game-changer for us in simplifying our homeschool. Here are my best tips on how to simplify the homeschool curriculum and how to simplify the homeschool schedule.
In many public and private elementary schools and some middle schools already employ versions of reading workshop. Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.
In September students in ’s public middle schools will also begin choosing most of their own books. And in the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read. Chicago officials will consider whether to expand the program once they review its results.
None of those places, however, are going as far as Ms. McNeill.
In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.
But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.
“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”
Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.
“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said , a professor of education at who was assistant education secretary under President . “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”
Indeed, some school districts are moving in the opposite direction. is developing a core curriculum that will designate specific books for sixth grade and is considering assigned texts for each grade through the 12th.
Joan Dabrowski, director of literacy for Boston’s public schools, said teachers would still be urged to give students some choices. Many schools in fact take that combination approach, dictating some titles while letting students select others.
Even some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and , “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”
In Search of a Better Way
As a teenager growing up just a few miles from Jonesboro, Ms. McNeill loved the novels of and Danielle Steel. But in school she was forced to read the classics. She remembers vividly disliking Still, she went on to teach it to her own students.
In 1999 she moved to Jonesboro Middle School, where more than 80 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches. Teachers there stuck to a curriculum prescribed by the county. Working with students designated as gifted, Ms. McNeill began teaching familiar novels like and “Mockingbird.” But she said, “I just never felt that they were as excited about reading as I wanted them to be.”
Ms. McNeill, an amateur poet whose favorite authors include and , wondered if forcing some students through a book had dampened their interest in reading altogether. She tried “literature circles,” in which a smaller group chose a book to read together, and had some success. Then, in early 2008, she attended a professional seminar in Atlanta led by Nancie Atwell, the author of and “The Reading Zone,” popular guidebooks for teachers that promote giving students widespread choice. “In the Middle” has sold nearly half a million copies since it was first published in 1987.
An Eye-Opening Experience
Over the last two decades, Ms. Atwell, along with Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at ’s Teachers College, has emerged as a guru of the reading workshop approach. Ms. Atwell brings 45 teachers a year to her base of operations, the Center for Teaching and Learning, a small private school she founded in Edgecomb, Me., an hour north of . Last September Ms. McNeill spent a week there with four other English teachers, each of whom had paid $800, observing Ms. Atwell’s work.
That first cool fall morning, 17 seventh- and eighth-grade students assembled for their reading and writing class in a large room overlooking a grove of birch and maple trees. Shelves of books ringed the room. The students flopped in forest green beanbag chairs set in a circle on the carpeted floor. At the front Ms. Atwell sat in a rocking chair, a small stack of volumes beside her.
Ms. McNeill watched closely, taking notes. After a session in which the students edited poems they had been writing, Ms. Atwell ceded the rocking chair to students, who gave short talks recommending books to their classmates.
One eighth grader presented “Getting the Girl” by Markus Zusak, the author of a best-selling young-adult novel about the Holocaust that had been one of the boy’s favorites. He highlighted the book’s unusual line breaks and one-word sentences, concluding, “It’s a fun, good read.”
When Ms. Atwell resumed her seat in the rocking chair, she pitched several titles she had read over the weekend. She held up the novel by David Wroblewski that had been anointed by .
“It is just incredible,” she said, leaning forward. “It is about signing, dog-breeding, muteness, , the beauty of the American Midwest.” Before she could even lay it back on the floor, Maura Anderson, an eighth grader, asked if she could take it to start reading that afternoon.
In a 30-minute reading period that followed, each student hunkered low in a beanbag chair. Ms. Atwell moved quietly among them, coming in close for whispered conferences and noting page numbers to make sure each student had read at least 20 pages the night before.
One girl had “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, while a boy a few seats away read ‘s novel Another boy was absorbed in “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” by .
Throughout the week the teachers observed Ms. Atwell open each class with a mini-lesson about a poem as well as one in which she talked about research on how the brain learns to read fluidly.
Despite the student freedom, Ms. Atwell constantly fed suggestions to the children. She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk: no or novels based on video games. But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles like the series by Stephenie Meyer.
At the end of the first day the teachers discussed the demands of standardized testing and how some had faced resistance from administrators. Ms. McNeill said her students had so little freedom that they even had to be escorted to the bathrooms.
Suddenly she was overcome with emotion as she contrasted that environment with the student-led atmosphere in Ms. Atwell’s class. “It makes me sad that my students can’t have this every day,” she said, wiping away tears. “These children are so fortunate.”
Ms. Atwell reminded the teachers that she had once taught in a public school and faced strict requirements. “There is nothing that we are doing here that can’t be done in any public school,” she said. “The question is, how do you tweak these hidebound traditions of the institutions?”
Choice as a Motivator
Literacy specialists say that giving children a say in what they read can help motivate them. “If your goal is simply to get them to read more, choice is the way to go,” said Elizabeth Birr Moje, a literacy professor at the . Ms. Moje added that choices should be limited and that teachers should guide students toward high-quality literature.
Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the , found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.
“The main thing is feeling in charge,” he said. Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.
But literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”
Ms. McNeill returned to Jonesboro determined to apply what she had observed. She knew she was luckier than some of the other teachers in the Edgecomb program, who were saddled with large classes and short periods. She had no more than 20 students in any class, for 100 minutes every day.
Trying to emulate the relaxed atmosphere of Ms. Atwell’s classroom, Ms. McNeill pushed the desks out of their rows and against the white cinderblock walls. She placed a circle of carpet swatches on the tile floor and put a small wooden rocking chair at the front.
Her principal, Freda Givens, was supportive, persuaded by Ms. McNeill’s enthusiasm. But Ms. McNeill warned her: “I am not sure how it’s going to pan out on the standardized tests.”
Ms. McNeill started to build her classroom library. All told, she spent about $1,000 of her own money buying books, many of which were titles she had seen in Ms. Atwell’s classroom, including “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”; by ; and several novels by the young-adult favorites Walter Dean Myers and Sarah Dessen.
Modeling herself after Ms. Atwell, she began conducting sales pitches for books in her warm drawl and invited her students to do so, too. Every day Ms. McNeill allotted 30 minutes for the students to read on their own. Chatty, but firm if she detected that someone was not reading, she scooted from student to student on a lime-green stool, noting page numbers on a clipboard chart. She asked questions about the books and suggested new ones.
Many students began the year choosing books she regarded as too simple, and she prodded them to a higher level. After Khristian Howard, an earnest seventh grader, read “Chaka! Through the Fire,” a memoir by the R&B star Chaka Khan, Ms. McNeill suggested that she try ’s autobiography,
Khristian, who found the book tough at first, ended up writing an enthusiastic six-page entry in her journal. Ms. McNeill went on to suggest by and by Betty Smith, a book, Khristian wrote, that she “really didn’t want to come to an end.“
To help teach concepts like allegory or foreshadowing, Ms. McNeill began virtually every session by dissecting a poem that the class then discussed. One morning this spring Jabari Denson, an eighth grader, read aloud “Mother to Son” by . The class spent 15 minutes teasing out the metaphorical meaning of a line about “places with no carpet on the floor.”
She required that the students record their impressions of each book, citing specific passages and analyzing themes. Jennae often wrote four or five pages in her tightly packed print. A year earlier she had been bored by reading and had little to say about books.
But now new worlds were opening. In January she read a novel by Ned Vizzini about a depressed teenager who ends up in a psychiatric ward. “After reading this book, I have decided that I want to be a psychologist,” Jennae wrote in the spiral-bound notebook where she kept her journal. The book, she continued, had changed how she viewed mental illness.
“I think people that are labeled ‘crazy’ aren’t crazy at all; they just see the world differently than others,” she wrote. “They don’t really know how to express it correctly so nobody else knows how to accept it so they lock them away in a psych ward.”
Ms. McNeill did hit some snags. In January two of her students failed a state writing assessment. Over dinner one night with her husband, Dan McNeill, she confessed her fear that Ms. Givens, the principal, might not let her continue with her radical approach. But Ms. Givens did not interfere.
Ms. McNeill knew that students who were now being asked to write much more frequently about their reading might be tempted to copy the work of others. In March one of her most reluctant seventh graders plagiarized a journal entry about “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” a novel by John Marsden about children coping with an invasion of . The boy did not even bother to remove the words “The Horn Book, starred review,” from the printout he pasted into his notebook.
She admonished the boy and asked him to redo his entry. She was discouraged to see that he wrote only one paragraph that amounted to not much more than a plot summary, concluding, “I highly recommend this book to young teens who like this kind of stuff.”
To Ms. McNeill’s chagrin, several students, most of them boys, stubbornly refused to read more challenging fare. One afternoon this spring she pulled her stool next to Masai, an eighth grader who wore a sparkling stud in one ear, as he stared at a laptop screen on which he was supposed to be composing a book review. Beside him sat the second volume in the “Maximum Ride” series, which chronicles the adventures of genetically mutated children who are part human, part . He was struggling to find anything to write.
“I keep trying to get you to read things other than James Patterson,” Ms. Atwell said, tapping the book’s cover. “But if you are going to write a book review of substance, you are going to have to find substance in the book.”
In staff meetings with fellow English teachers, Ms. McNeill showed them her students’ journals and explained her new teaching methods. A few were curious, but none were ready to give up their textbooks or class novels.
Some colleagues suggested that Ms. McNeill was only able to teach this way because of who was in her class. “Ms. McNeill has the freedom to do that because she teaches ,” said Linda White, an eighth-grade teacher.
But in May Ms. McNeill felt vindicated when she received the results of her students’ performance on standardized state reading tests.
Of her 18 eighth graders, 15 exceeded requirements, scoring in the highest bracket. When the same students had been in her seventh-grade class, only 4 had reached that level. Of her current seventh graders, 8 scored at the top.
In the final week of school Helen Arnold, Jennae’s mother, sent Ms. McNeill an e-mail message thanking her. “She never really just read herself for enjoyment until she took your class,” Ms. Arnold wrote.
Ms. McNeill knew she had not succeeded in persuading all of her students to read deeply or widely. But she was optimistic that she would capture a few more in the coming school year.
A week after her students left for the summer, Ms. McNeill boxed up the class sets of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” along with “Diary of ” and by Lois Lowry, keeping just three copies of each for her collection. She carted the rest to the English department storeroom.Continue reading the main story