Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 16, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 3 -- The Middle Grades

I wrote most of this earlier today, but my husband is now working from home and needing to shut off the library with the main computer in it, and my daughters are using my laptop for schoolwork. Ah, quarantine.

Welcome to the first Monday morning of the rest of your quarantine, with your olive branches gathered around your table when they'd ordinarily be at school. You're willing to let your younger children run around and do their own thing, but what about your middle-grade kids? They've come home with assignments, and the school likely is talking big about online classes.

And you might have to do this for the rest of the school year, without field trips, without play groups, without outside help. Just you and the kids.

First things first: I believe in you. I believe that God has given you, as a parent/foster parent/caregiver, graces to care for and teach these particular children that he's given you. And if you find yourself in charge of other children during this time, these too are children that he's given you during this time.

This episode is not a distraction from life, something getting in the way of what you ought to be doing. It is life, and so this, right now, this moment, is what you're called to be doing. Even if it's teaching your children when you never in a million years wanted to homeschool.

Fine, MrsDarwin, you say. But what exactly am I supposed to be doing with these young minds for two months? They have skills they need to be learning. They have assignments. I don't understand the math. How do I guide them?

I want to give you this encouragement: if the video classes and the online work your child's school has sent home becomes a source of great stress and frustration, fights between you and your child, a monster that eats your day, feel free to walk away. What are they going to do, fire you? Hold your child back a year? Refuse graduation? You always, as the parent, are the final authority, but right now you are the immediate teaching authority, and you know your child. And you're all stuck together in a house for weeks and weeks. Stress over schoolwork is not the way to build strong family relationships, and it's a bad environment for any kind of learning.

Let me repeat that: children do not learn well, do not retain information well, in a stressful environment.

Right now, what is key is building rapport with your child -- trust and love and respect -- so that as you teach, they can hear you and learn. And these middle grades -- 3rd through 8th, say -- are times of great change for children. Growing pains, anxiety, new hormones on the older end, etc.

The great saint of educating difficult children, John Bosco, begged his teachers to employ gentleness over harsh correction, patience over punishment, understanding over legalism. I struggle with this myself, but I have found, time and again, how right he is, and how training myself to temper firmness with mercy and gentleness have borne repeated fruit.

You can find Don Bosco's writings here -- I particularly recommend How A Saint Corrected Children and The Preventative System in the Education of the Young -- both only five pages long, but loaded with sound and encouraging advice.

Fine, MrsDarwin, you say again. But what I am supposed to do with these children! Give me specifics!

First off: if you're worried about covering grade-level content, consult the Core Knowledge Foundation (unrelated to the Department of Education Common Core standards). I've used their resources in the form of grade-specific books: What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know, What Your First Grader Needs to Know, and so on through What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The books are arranged by subject, and are full of literature (stories and summaries of great books), poetry, proverbs and common sayings, history, world religions, music topics, science topics, and math standards. It's not a textbook, but a child could read a section from each topic each day, narrate it back to you, and get a pretty good education that way.

The Core Knowledge sequence at the website goes through eighth grade.


My 9yo daughter is in 4th grade, technically. "Technically", because for the past year we have been doing intensive work because she has dyslexia. We're following a special reading program called Barton. My daughter has jumped a lot in her reading comprehension since we started working on her dyslexia, and although it requires a lot of patience on both our parts some days, her previous inability to learn to read has vanished. If your child is displaying a lot of resistance to reading and not retaining any instruction, forgetting even the most basic facts right after being taught them, it may not be their fault. Here's a simple, less-than-15-minute screening to see whether your child is able to hear and process the basic units of sound in words. (Doing this counts as an entire day's worth of education, in my book.)

And we've dropped math.

Yes, I said it. For the 4th grade year, we're not using a math textbook, and our math education is gentle and brief. Math is a struggle for a child whose brain is wired differently, and while we're working on that rewiring, some things need to take a back seat. That's okay! These middle years are times when concepts are repeated, relearned, and forgotten overnight. You know this with your own kids. Fortunately for us, there's fifth grade, and sixth grade, and seventh grade, to solidify this knowledge.

So, for math, we're memorizing the times tables by singing the songs from Multiplication Motivation. This is what my mom used with my younger siblings, and truth be told, when I get stuck on the 7 facts, I still sing through the song in my head.  (Bonus: my 6yo is learning his times tables by hearing these songs too.)

All of our formal reading, grammar, writing, spelling is wrapped up in our dyslexia program. This past year, we made great strides in handwriting, especially cursive, through level 3 of Handwriting Without Tears. I think the font is hideous, but it resonated with my daughter in a way that the beautiful handwriting of the Italics program (which I used with my other children) did not.

One thing we're doing right now, with all age levels, is journaling. If my daughter wants help in figuring out what she should say, I help her work out a topic or even a sentence. And then I help her spell any words she needs. If it's a word that she should be able to spell, phonetically, I have her finger spell it. Starting with the thumb of the left hand, we work through the sounds.

"Fast. F-A-S-T. Just like it sounds."

"Dear. D-EEEE-R. What makes the E say it's name? In this word, it's EA.

"Beautiful. That's tricky, so I'll just tell you how to spell it."

Finger spelling, a trick we learned from our dyslexia program, has been so useful that my 11yo and 14yo improved in their spelling last year by picking it up.

Because my daughter's reading has improved so much, she's reading much more for fun. I don't assign her textbooks to read because I don't want her guessing at words. For many students, guessing is part of learning, but for the dyslexic it's a shortcut that we want to train the child out of. However, during our morning readalouds, I make sure to ask her to tell me what's going on in our story, what an unusual word might mean, why this character made that choice. Even though she's not reading with her eyes, she is reading with her ears, and processing story and language.


My sixth-grade son has recently had a reading click, and now will pick up a book himself for fun and to learn. He loves reading us strange facts from a Guinness World Record book, or playing trivia with his sisters from a book about the presidents. Right now his reading assignments are a biography of Alexander the Great and, for literature, The Swiss Family Robinson, and, as always, I ask him for narration. This isn't an in-depth book report, but just a brief summary so I know that he's doing the reading each day. Next up for history is a book about Ancient Greek civilization.

For fun he's reading a book about four friends who fight in the Vietnam War, one of these American historical fiction series that are popular right now for tweens. And he loves graphic novels.

We do a lesson of Saxon Math each day. We talk through the teaching section and the practice problems at the beginning of the lesson. He can get through the problem sets quickly, but if I leave him to do it himself I find a lot of fudged answers and questionable solving strategies. So I often find myself sitting with him, making sure that he remembers that when we add or subtract fractions, the denominators have to be the same, or that the way to find area is height times width, or that when you divide fractions you multiply by the reciprocal.

This is about the level of math I'm still capable of supervising and teaching, and my main job is to be patient but firm. "Show your work!" is my constant refrain. He'll feel like he knows what he's doing and try to solve everything in his head, but working out one problem on paper, step by step, and then talking me through it is better than pages of unsupervised drill.

He's journaling daily with his younger sister. The grammar isn't always great, but that will come with practice. I'm still having to emphasize that sentences start with capitals and end with punctuation, and I help him with spelling. Words are meant to be used in context, not in isolation, so we don't write out lists of spelling words. He learns spelling rules through his sister's dyslexia program, and I encourage him to think through the rules when he's finger spelling.

Copywork is also a good thing at this age -- a sentence from a book he's reading or a quote he likes, written neatly, for quality, not for speed.

He loves building block towers with his younger brothers and watching fun engineering videos on YouTube. If he gets too zany I send him out to run laps in the back yard, or set him doing jumping jacks, or make him do a workout video. Right now Scouts is canceled for the foreseeable future, so he needs to look through his handbook and see what badges he can be working toward at home. Something he's been working on in his spare time is teaching himself coin tricks and card tricks from a magic book, and there are plenty of YouTube videos on the topic as well. I encourage him to read about what he's interested in, and I try to limit computer game time because it makes him and his siblings cranky when I shut it off.

Both the 9yo and the 11yo practice their piano each day -- not always willingly, but sometimes they'll hit upon a song they like, and play it incessantly. Recently he had me help him pick out the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean, so we hear that a lot. As long as kids aren't actively annoying their siblings, I'll let them play the piano as long as they have the stomach for it.

Since we read and discuss the Bible daily, I don't do a separate religion program with them, except the chapters that are being emailed from their Sunday school class right now. That's just busy work -- I don't feel like the content is extremely deep or fascinating. Sometimes when we read them it leads to good discussions, but otherwise it's just checking the box.


Next up, the high school kids (in which I'm including the eighth-grader.)


Antoinette said...

Thank you for writing about homeschooling and personalizing with resources and examples of your own teaching.

Rebecca said...

I'm a long time lurker on your blog; I can't recall commenting previously, but I wanted to thank you for these posts! We have four kids, the oldest of whom is almost 8 (2nd grade) on down to a 1.5 yr old, and things have been chaotic recently, to say the least. I really appreciate the links to St. John Bosco's writings; there is lots to consider there. And now I really wish I could get to confession! But it won't be offered in our diocese for a while now, I think.

Thank you again for sharing your very thoughtful, reasonable approach to educating kids at home!

MrsDarwin said...

Thanks, Rebecca! I've been chewing over this advice of John Bosco's for years, and it's transformative -- difficult, but transformative. And I've found that punishment is often a short-term measure, while patience is a long-term strategy.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

i'm really curious about "finger spelling".

I confess I got scared away by the Barton hype. And Ben is making definite progress, slow but steady, so I really don't feel like investing in a program. But I'm always on the lookout for tips and tricks.

Mairead said...

Well, I don't have kids to homeschool, but I must say, just that little thought of this episode not being a distraction from real life but what I'm called to do right now, that really helped me too!