July 2012

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I tried to make up my own spelling curriculum and I didn’t do a very good job of it.

I wanted to get a sense of where Sam is at with spelling, and how interested she is in it. It turns out that she is interested, but I almost killed her interest with my sloppiness in being aware of where she is at.

I decided to have her transcribe sentences that I made up on the spot, with very simple words. Then she would give me the paper and I’d circle the incorrect words and help her figure out how to spell them correctly and she’d re-write them. The first sentence was “The cat sat on the mat.” She spelled everything correctly and was thrilled. The next sentence was, “I can read and write.” Not only did she get “read” and “write” wrong (which I expected), but she spelled “can” with a “k.” I didn’t think this would be a big deal – I thought she would be thrilled to learn the proper spelling. But she was devastated to have done it wrong. Maybe one mistake would have been okay, but three was crushing to her. I also don’t think she minds if she spells something out loud incorrectly, but when she writes it down and it is wrong, it is very upsetting to her. (She does the same thing with her math work – she freaks out if she makes a mistake in writing, but is happy to correct herself orally.)

I’m not not happy with her attitude towards making mistakes – this is the same issue I’ve struggled with for years now. Sam is not good with “failure” and rarely wants to try something unless she can do it well. But what I’ve learned is that I can’t address this problem directly and I can’t talk her out of it. And instead of continuing with the spelling lessons this way, hoping that she will eventually come to see that the mistakes are opportunities for learning, which is what I would have done in the past, I am going to do the opposite: I’m going to go out of my way to keep these “failures” from happening, and I don’t have any bright ideas about how to introduce just the right level of difficulty or how to avoid the problem of writing things down incorrectly. It’s time to buy something.

I just purchased Spelling Workout from Amazon. When I get it, I’ll take a look and see if it might work for us. So, I suppose I didn’t do such a bad job designing my own spelling program – it revealed what level she is at, how interested she is, and how I might best capitalize on that interest. See, I’m okay with failure!

Yesterday, Sam and I went on a field trip to the nursery and the cemetery.

She’s been begging me to plant a sunflower in our front yard. She has the spot all picked out, and she really wants to plant a seed and see it grow from nothing. When I try to tell her that a sunflower won’t grow in our shady front yard or that we can’t plant it at this time of year, she simply doesn’t believe me. So I figured I’d let an expert give her the bad news, and maybe she’d pick some other kind of plant to grow. It didn’t work out very well. She wasn’t convinced to try any other kind of plant, and then the bugs swarmed us and she simply could not stand it and went back to the car. (It really was unbearable.) I bought a tomato plant and I’ll try to grow it myself and see if she becomes interested.

Sam has also been begging me to stop at this local graveyard for months. I think it all started with the Thriller video and her dad’s endless talk about zombies, but she is curious about The Dead. She’s curious about death, too, but mostly about The Dead. So we went there and she got bored in less than five minutes. The bugs were a problem there, too, but I think she was disappointed that no dead bodies dug their way out of the ground.

Life and death. She’s interested in these things right now. If I believed in child-led learning I’d use these things as units and try to teach her some math or history revolving around them. But I don’t.

And going on this field trip during school hours was a mistake. It wasn’t just the bugs, either. It was just a distraction. School wasn’t going well and I thought it would be good to get outside and I rationalized, “Oh – these things are educational.” Well, even if she had learned something, it would not have been educational. It would have been knowledge picked up in the course of life, which we all do all the time, but which is not what school is about for us. Call it a failed experiment, but I should have known better.

Between the holiday last week and the “field trips” and a lack of sleep due to baby illness in the house, school has become disorganized. God, I can see how easy it would be to just let the whole structure go. It’s really hard to come sit in this room for three hours a day, no matter how much fun we usually have doing it.

And another thing I’m learning is that Sam sometimes enjoys her work more, and does a better job, when I give her more structure. She has not been choosing her work this week. She will flop on the couch and talk to herself for a half hour while I work at my desk and watch her out of the corner of my eye, hoping that she will finally take the initiative. But she gets excited if I say, “We haven’t tried spelling yet. Let’s try spelling!” Or, “You don’t seem to be able to choose a piece of work so I will choose for you. Let’s get the animal encyclopedia.” Once I do that, she becomes engaged. And on the other hand, I left her alone to work on a difficult math exercise today, instead of sitting next to her as I did last week. She stepped up to the plate and did a great job – much better than she did last week.

So, I guess I’m learning that it is really, really hard to know how much structure and guidance Sam needs. I’m trying to keep an open mind and keep observing.

This will be the first in my series of posts detailing my homeschool curriculum. But I’ve promised many series on this blog and not followed through, so be warned.

Sammy’s writing – her penmanship – is probably her weakest skill, and I have no great ideas about how to teach it. I decided to try Handwriting Without Tears based on numerous recommendations and from what I could tell from their web site. I don’t know if it will be a good fit for Sammy or not. My choice on this subject is basically a shot in the dark, although it’s not like I haven’t thought about the issues involved. The most controversial is what comes first: printing or cursive.

HWT begins with printing, while Montessori supposedly begins with cursive. In reality, the cultural influences in this country promoting printing as a child’s first writing are so strong that it is almost impossible for Montessori schools to practice what they preach. I witnessed this firsthand, as Sam copied both my writing (I reverted to print when traditional school demanded it) and her (non-Montessori) friends’. At school, Sam had a cursive Moveable Alphabet and Sandpaper Letters, but all of her work came home printed. When I spoke to her teacher about it just to get clarification, she said that they try to encourage and teach cursive, but the children just don’t want to do it. I think the idea that cursive is easier and faster is true, but it is not easier in the very beginning, and if they are exposed to both, children will take the easier option. Also, print is what children see in books, and therefore, what they are most familiar with. I don’t have any strong feelings one way or another on the issue of which comes first, although I think it is absurd to wait until third grade to even introduce cursive, or to abandon it altogether, as many public schools are doing.

There were some questions on my homeschool room post about why I have a set of print Sandpaper Letters, as opposed to cursive. I can’t even remember why I purchased the print ones – I bought them at the end of Sammy’s first year at Montessori for our summer experiement, and I think my reasoning was that she already seemed to be started on printing and I wanted to leverage what she knew. Now, I plan to use the Sandpaper Letters as an exercise in the three types of lowercase print letters – in HWT terminology: small, tall, and descending. Will I use them for Leo and Zoe, or will I try to reinforce cursive first? I don’t know.

HWT starts cursive in third grade which I think is much too late. Sam is already intrigued by cursive writing, and I have a great app for my iPad which she likes to play with. As soon as she shows some mastery of printing, I will begin to work with her on cursive and I plan to require all of her written essays to be in cursive eventually. I don’t know how I will actually teach cursive. If HWT is working for us, maybe we’ll skip ahead and use their program.

The HWT lessons are probably the most closely guided thing that we do in school, and Sammy hated her first lesson. But as I wrote last week, she loved it when we tried again. The very first piece of work she chose Monday morning was a printing lesson.

I do like what I see in HWT so far. I purchased the first grade “My Printing Book” workbook, the teacher’s guide, and some extra paper. The teacher’s guide was very confusing at first. I like that it explains the reasons for every small choice they have made in the curriculum, from what kind of paper to use to exactly how to form the letters. But it’s not easy to open it up and know how to give the first lesson. The guide has a wealth of “multisensory activities” which might be useful, but which clutter up the basic lessons. I’d rather have a “quick start” guide and then a separate reference to go to if I feel that Sam needs additional help or exercises. I wasn’t fond of the idea of starting with a subset of capital letters and calling them “frog jump capitals” because you lift the pencil off the paper and “jump” back to where you started. It seemed silly and I didn’t like starting with capitals, or of writing a capital “M” by starting in the upper-left corner. However, Sam really responded to this lesson and she actually says, “ribbit” when she lifts the pencil off the paper. She has a very concrete method to follow, and she is working on forming her letters with precision, which is exactly what she needs to be doing.

Anyway, I don’t mean to write a review here – I’ve only given Sam three lessons so far. If HWT doesn’t work, I do have a Montessori curriculum guide for penmanship that I’ll take a look at. But for now, Sam is working on her penmanship in a way that I think is helping her.

This first week of homeschooling was full of ups and downs.

Monday was superb. Tuesday is our day off. Wednesday was Independence Day and we let our au pair leave early to go see the fireworks at the Mall (I mean, how could she miss that?). But even so, I had 3 good hours in the morning for school. But Sam was resenting every minute of it and I couldn’t figure out why, so I decided to take her on a field trip to the grocery store. I’m not kidding – this was a pre-planned field trip with a purpose: to observe how all the food is organized and categorized. We are accumulating observations of organization and categorization and I was saving this trip for exactly this situation: a day when Sammy just wouldn’t work. I just didn’t expect it to happen on the second day of class. Anyway, the field trip went well. Then on Thursday I told our au pair to sleep in since I knew she’d be out late the previous night, so I was in charge of all the kids until 10am. But by the time Ale took over, both Sam and I were crashing and needed a nap. We woke up around 1pm and did about 2 hours of school, but neither one of us was at our best. We were just wiped from all the fun of the previous night.

But Friday, we started first thing in the morning, both in fine spirits, and we had another great day. Sam even did a Handwriting Without Tears lesson and loved it – a complete reversal of Monday’s reaction. But in order to get her to begin the lesson, I basically had to order her to do it. I told her that she had to do one math, one reading, and one penmanship lesson in each class period. She didn’t like that, but she pulled out the printing book and got started and ended up doing very well and enjoying it. She did good work for 3 hours, and only complained a few times about how 3 hours “takes soooo long.”

Lessons learned:

  • messing with the schedule is a bad idea
  • big swings in productivity and enjoyment will probably be common
  • if something isn’t going well, let it lie for a while
  • sometimes I will have to flat-out tell her what to do; the kicker will be figuring out when to do that
  • glad I started during the summer so there is no pressure to have school every day, or worry if we have a bad day.

Overall, it was a good week. Next week will be a full week of regular schedule. so that will help (or, I suppose, it could hurt). I hope to be able to do a cool field trip, if the weather cooperates. But the week after that, Sam is going to camp and there will be no school at all. I don’t like all the disruptions, but it’s just the way our life is right now and we’ll have to deal with it.

But, yes, it was a very good week.

Routines and traditions can develop naturally over time, but the best routines and traditions are the ones that are initiated for some purpose, and modified over time as circumstance warrants.

For this reason, I have started a few daily routines in school with Sam, right from the start, but I know I’ll have to be constantly observing Sam so that we can update them as needed.

We start each school day with a handshake, and I say, “Let the school day begin.”  I look at the clock and note the time out loud. Then Sam marks the day with an X on our yearly calendar and tells me what day it is. The handshake reinforces awareness of right and left. Along with my statement, the handshake also marks the beginning of the school day with something more concrete and clear-cut than just coming downstairs. Looking at the calendar and saying the date is practice in awareness of time (we are doing other, more specific work on time) and also just practice in the formal way we state the date in the U.S.

Since we have a Montessori-like environment, Sam always takes her work materials to her table or the floor and puts them away when she is finished. Any work-product she creates gets put into 3-ring-binders. She writes her name and the date on each piece of work. In just 3 days of school, Sam has learned how to check the calendar, write the date properly, use a 3-hole-punch, open and close her 3-ring-binders, and put all papers in the back of the folders so that they are in order by date. I thought she might balk at this structure, but she loves it. And I am surprised that she has learned it all so quickly. Her fine motor skills and her sense of order are not her strong suits, so it is all great practice for her. Today, she even remembered the date after looking it up a few times!

Because her Montessori school did it this way, Sam asked me to make a bathroom pass and a snack necklace. We do have a snack sometime during our  3-hour school day, and Sam loves to wear the necklace. She uses the bathroom pass, too. I like this tradition because it helps tie together her Montessori and homeschool experiences.

At the end of the school day, we shake hands and I say, “Let the school day end,” and mark the time. Again, it’s just a way to make school a separate and distinct event. As opposed to the unschooling notion that learning happens all the time and should not be marked off as a separate and distinct activity, I believe that formal learning should be experienced as a special part of the day. Of course, we do all kinds of learning outside the classroom as well, especially at this age. Today at lunch, Sam and I talked about midgets, gravity, and how a double-el says, “yu” in Spanish. But that’s the point: those things are random snatches of knowledge, and do not constitute an education.

So, we have our routines, and I’m sure they will change and grow as Sam does. I hope I can keep up!


Since I am following a modified Montessori approach for our first year of homeschooling, I took a lot of care in how I set up the room where we do school. I wanted Sam to be able to choose her work and follow her interests to a great degree. I took this video of our classroom last week, before we started, because I’m just so darn proud of what I’ve created. I can’t imagine who will want to watch seven minutes of this, but I’m putting it out there anyway.

Today was our first day of school!

I have been looking forward to this day for over six years – yes, since before Sam was born. I spent the early part of those years reading books and listening to lectures about homeschooling and educational theory. Somewhere in the middle of those years, I began to think about how I would implement those theories. I went to homeschooling conferences and scoured the internet for curricula. Two summers ago, I tried to do some Montessori work at home with Sam, and my utter failure taught me many important lessons about what I would need to do when we began in earnest. About a year ago, I started compiling my notes into subjects for first grade, knowing approximately what level Sam would be at based upon her progress at Montessori. And in the past six weeks, I made my final decisions on curricula, purchased all the materials I would need, set up the homeschool room, and armed myself with a few weeks’ worth of lessons.

I have loved every minute of all of this preparation, but I’ve always worried about whether I would love the actual teaching. I know it’s way to early to judge, but I still can’t help but feel great because our first day was a joy for both of us. Sam first spent an hour on addition, she played a few songs on the bells, did a half a lesson of Handwriting Without Tears (there were almost some tears during that one), read an entire Early Reader book out loud to me and wrote down the title and author in her notebook, worked with the metal insets, reviewed the phonograph families for about two minutes, did some multiplication, and then listened as I read the first two chapters of The Secret Garden.

I spent more of my time working directly with her than I will in the future because everything is new, but she was able to do quite a bit on her own. In fact, I actually wrote most of this post during school. I also did some laundry, filled the dog’s water bowl, let in the maids and wrote them a check, reconciled my credit card transactions, and made notes about issues that came up during school. I anticipate that I will have at least an hour a day during school to prepare future lessons and do other work while Sam is busy working independently. I put so much effort into designing a curriculum that is closely and deliberately guided, but which can be worked on with very little help from me, and it is working! Of course, it helps enormously that Sam went to Montessori for three years already. The whole routine of choosing a piece of work, working on it independently, and putting it away, is second-nature to her. She was also quite accepting of the guidance that I did have to give her. I know that won’t last forever, but the fact that she didn’t balk on the first day is amazing to me. If you knew Sam, you would know what an achievement it is for both of us.

Of course, there were all sorts of little problems: I forgot to provide colored pencils for the metal insets, we ran out of toilet paper and when I ran upstairs to get some Sam followed me and got distracted, we had to break for a snack (I was hoping to avoid snack), the Handwriting Without Tears lesson did not go well, and Sam did ask to go upstairs to play a lot during the first hour or so. But we’ll work out the bugs. The important things went very well. I had Sam in a small room, working productively for three whole hours on our very first day.

After school, I took her out to lunch to celebrate our first day. At McDonald’s, she invited herself to sit at a table with two other little girls, aged six and nine. I sat nearby and eavesdropped on their conversation, which covered losing baby teeth, all the cuts and scrapes on their legs, snowboarding, the recent storm and power outage, and many other little girl topics. I couldn’t help but think about the so-called problem of socialization for homeschoolers. Bah!

This day was as good as I ever imagined it could be.