Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How our day went

I sort of count today as our "first" day of school this year. J1 was the only one who did any seat-work, and he just a minimal amount, but all in all it was a good day. We had beautiful weather here in N. Georgia, so the kids spent a great deal of time outdoors - we are enjoying having a backyard again so very much!!

I spent most of the morning finishing up J1's binder. We broke for a mid-morning snack around 10:30am (apple slices and peanut butter, and some cheese slices). I read "The Story About Ping", and the kids just loved it. I am definitely planning on including more read-a-loud times during our days, because honestly they all just eat it up. It totally ruined my voice since I'm still getting over this cold, but it was worth it! :-) While we were enjoying our snack, I noticed something interesting happening with our spider friend outside our dining room window. I think he was snacking, too!

Woo-hoo! Even got some nature study in today! :-) The boys all went and played outside for quite awhile and I finished up J1's binder. They came into watch "Between The Lions" (love that show! It's really getting A2 and S3 ready for their phonics instruction this year, I believe), then we had lunch (mac&cheese and pineapple - quick and easy as I was so busy this morning). After lunch, J1 and I sat down and went over his binder, talked a bit about what he'd be doing this year, the books he would use, where he would find everything at the new house, that sort of thing. Then J1 got down to work and did some math and handwriting today. I don't know - do you think he is irritated about doing math, or me taking his picture?

After that, I cleaned up the kitchen, popped a turkey breast in the oven for dinner (we just had boxed stuffing and canned corn and canned cranberry sauce with it - I'm definitely on the lookout for quick and easy meals during school as there is simply just not enough time in the day! :-)

All in all, a good, productive day. Tomorrow I hope to get A2's binder done, go over everything with him and get him started. Then Thursday it will be S3's turn, and yes, on Friday, I'll do the same thing for N4 - definitely don't want to have him feeling left out, lol!

Organizing our school Part II - The Child's Binder

This morning I finished up J1's binder. It was very exciting to be done with all that organizing, especially knowing from last year how much this will help us as the year progresses!

So, once I've created the Master Binder, I move on to the Child's Binder. Here are the supplies I needed for this project: a 2" 3 ring binder, 10 pocket tabs, my scissors, my printer, and some sheet protectors.

For J1, I took the 10 pocket tabs, labeled them with the subjects I want to maintain in the binder (this year that is: Religion, Math, Latin, Grammar, Spelling, Handwriting, Geography/Map Skills, Science, Art, and Reading), and put them inside a 2" 3 ring binder, like so:

Next, I used my word processing program to create a nice cover page for our school this year, printed it out, and slipped it in the front cover of the binder:

Then, I went out to one of my favorite websites, www.donnayoung.org, and downloaded some of her homeschool forms. Because, in addition to his weekly work, I also want J1 to be able to find most of the information he'll need in this binder. For instance, in the back of the binder I put a yearly calendar in a sheet protector:

I can write in any field trips, or any other school-related events here, and J1 can begin to keep track of his time this way.

Next I used my word processor to print out several prayers that I feel would be useful for J1 to learn this year. I stuck these in sheet protectors behind the calendar:

Next I turned to the front of the binder, where I put the schedules. For J1, I use a "general weekly schedule", where I simply list the day of the week and the subject, and then I write a general idea of what I expect him to do in that subject on that day.

As you can see, I have Wednesday planned as a very "light" day. We will use Wednesdays for Art, Piano lessons, Nature Study, and catch-up time.

In the very front of the binder, I put a detailed weekly schedule in a sheet protector. This is our weekly plan. I discovered last year that planning by the week (with a general overview in mind for the year, of coruse) works best for us. I don't have the work of planning every day, but I don't get so far ahead that if we get off-track my whole plan is rouined! So, here in the detailed schedule I list all that I hope to get done during that week, for each subject.

J1 is in this very interesting place where he needs both the freedom to choose what he wants to do in the order in which he wants to do it, but without a little extra guidance he tends to get overwhelmed - thus the "general weekly schedule" and the "detailed weekly schedule". These two together allow J1 to work fairly independently, which makes us both very happpy!

So, now that everything is set up, it's time to add the sheets for this week from the Master Binder. The work to be completed goes in the front pocket for that subject, like this:

When J1 completes the work, he will put it in the pocket on the backside of the tab, and when I find it there I will know it needs to be corrected and discussed.

Also, behind the tab for each subject, I might put in the 3-hole punch area any reference materials related to that subject, like this:

After working through all the subject tabs, adding this week's work and any appropriate reference materials, I close it all up, put a slip of paper into the spine with J1's name and the school year, to make his binder easy to identify.

Here is the finished product!

Horray! A job well done! :-) Now, all I have to do each week is take out the completed, corrected papers from the back of the tabs and move them back to the Master Binder - an instant, painless record of our year's work! Then, I just move the sheets from the Master Binder for the upcoming week's assignments into the binder in the appropriate front pockets, update J1's detailed schedule for the new week, and put the binder on the shelf. J1 knows on Monday morning to pull out his binder, take a look at his detailed schedule and maybe his general schedule, turn to the tab of the subject he wants to start with, and get to work!

Once the initial work is done by me, it simply makes the rest of the year go so smoothly for us. I hope you have enjoyed these posts on our binders, and gained some good ideas for your own school, too!

Later tonight I'll tell you how our first day went! :-)

Monday, September 25, 2006

And By The Way...

All this talk here about "starting" the school year, and all these consumable books that we're using... It's what I've started writing here about, but, well, it's just not all that we're about! I truly find the whole concept of a "school year" to be very arbitrary and, frankly, not very useful. We are learning all the time here at the AAA house. Our dinner table discussions alone count as a great portion of our "learning", in my opinion. We talk about all sorts of things - history, politics, science, philosophy, theology, books, movies, games, languages...it's just so much, we love it!

Learning is just a part of our life, and while I do use "seat-work", or consumable books, and schedules, and binders, and all that sort of thing, because it makes me feel comfortable I'm covering what's neccessary, it truly is a rather small part of our learning here in the AAA home.

Just wanted to point that out! :-)

More tomorrow on our binders! Goodnight...

Organizing our school, Part I - The Master Binder

Ok, so we didn't start school today. I felt so very lousy yesterday I just didn't have the energy to do all my organizing. So, today was my organization day, at least for my oldest. I plan to start J1 in a few subjects tomorrow, while I work on organizing the younger kids, who will start on Wednesday. Or at least, that's my current plan! Always subject to change it is at my home! :-)

So last year I came upon the most wonderful way of organizing our school materials, it worked so well for us that I'd like to share it with you. I wish I could tell you that this was my original idea, but I am more than happy to give the glory where it is due! It is called the "Avilian Home Learning Organization System". Unfortunately, the link that I have appears to be dead! So, here you will find my version of this wonderful idea - and if anyone can find a current link for the original idea, please let me know!

The basic idea is to take all your consumable materials, pull the books apart so that they are loose papers, then 3-hole punch them into a "Master Binder". Your child then gets his own binder with pocket dividers for each subject. You put a week's worth of assignments from your Master Binder into the front of that subject's pocket divider in your child's binder, and when the child completes the work, he moves it to the back pocket of the divider. It's rather complicated to explain, so I will break it up and give you some pictures of how I'm doing it. We'll start with The Master Binder.

Here is a picture of the supplies at my table as I began the process this afternoon:

I have my lesson plans from Sonlight and CHC, an empty 2.5" binder that will become my master binder, my 3 hole punch, my scissors, some index dividers (and the pocket dividers that I will use for J1's binder later) and my consumable books for J1 this year.

The first step is to label your index dividers and put them into the Master Binder. For J1 this year I ended up with 10 tabs. Religion, Latin, Grammar, Spelling, Handwriting, Geography/Map Skills, Science, Art, Reading, History.

I don't have consumable materials for History or Religion this year, but I left space for them in my Master Binder because I use the binder as a record of our work. J1 will have narration sheets, book reports, and other materials he will create for me in these subjects, and I like to have a place to put them.

You will also notice that math is conspicuously missing from my Master Binder. I find that math simply takes up too much space to put with the other subjects in my Master Binder, so Math has its own, seperate Master Math Binder.

So, now I've created my index tabs. The next step is to begin tearing apart your books. I know - it is SO painful! I almost couldn't make myself do it last year! But, I just grit my teeth and push forward. Depending on the type of book, there are several ways to go about this. If I had a lot of time and/or money, I might take my books to Kinkos, or OfficeMax, and have them just cut off the binders for me. I have heard of people who do that with great success. For myself, though, I just use my scissors, for the most part! The comb bindings from CHC are fairly easy to pull apart. I just take out the comb, then cut the jagged edges with scissors like so:

Then, I 3-hole punch the entire thing, usually in batches of about 10 pages for my current punch, and then put them all in the appropriate section in my binder. Other types of book require different treatment. Here are some other examples:

Really, I don't worry about being perfect. I just do the best I can, clean up the edges with my scissors as needed, 3-hole punch the pages, and get them into the binder. The very obsessive-compulsive side of myself just cringes when I do this, but I feel so good to get it done, and it works so well for us, I've learned to put aside those feelings of perfectionism - at least for this! :-)

So, when I'm all done, I have a very full binder with all of J1's consumable papers for the whole year. It takes a full afternoon of work to get this done, but it makes the entire rest of the year for both myself and J1 SO much easier I find it well worth the effort. Here is a picture of my finished Master Binder:

All I need to do now is put a insert into the front of the binder, and a label on the spine, and I'll be done for the year. It's about 3 hours of work (ok, 5 with all the interruptions! :-) for the entire school year - a bargain for me! :-)

Tomorrow I'll show you how I put together the child's binder for weekly assignments. J1 and and I just loved this last year!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tomorrow's the day...maybe, sort of...

So, tomorrow's the day we're finally starting our school year. Maybe. Sort of. The last 6-9 months have been quite tumultuous for the AAA family (that's how I'll refer to our family, in keeping with the on-line safety practice of not being too self-identifying - "AAA" for Aquinas Academy Adventures, not any sort of self-serving "grade", lol!). Dh lost a job last spring, we couldn't buy a house we were building, which meant we couldn't move when we thought we would, for awhile it looked like we couldn't buy a house at all, but then we could, and then we moved. Moving is a pain, have I mentioned that? We've been here over 8 weeks, and I still have boxes upon boxes to unpack. Sigh...Anyway, having moved the beginning of August, I just did not have the energy, or organization, to start school the day after Labor Day the way that I prefer. Then, last week, my parents came for a wonderful visit, so I didn't want to start our formal schoolwork until after they had left. Though, while they were here, we did get to have a fabulous field trip to the Georgia Aquarium which I will detail in a future post. So, anyway, tomorrow was to be the day to formally start our school year.

And two days ago I was struck with a horrible, nasty, no-good, very bad COLD. I feel more awful than I have in almost two years! As dh said, "Teacher is sick and there is no substitute, so school opening is delayed for a day or two..."

I will see how much I can accomplish today. I can write on this blog because I can sit quietly in my chair, coughing, sniffling, having a love-hate relationship with my blanket - if I don't move too much or breathe too much I'm ok. I think I might be able to organize some of our binders, too, but we'll see how the afternoon goes. I will detail my school planning system in an upcoming post - I finally found a method that really works for us last year, and I'd love to tell you about it. If I can get our binders together, I might at least start my oldest in a couple subjects, maybe start the middle two off on their handwriting and reading (the two subjects that will their focus this year). We'll see how it goes.

In thinking about all our delays, I've decided that it might be a Good Thing. As much as I consider homelearning to be just a natural part of our life, I also have always fallen into the Big First Day trap. You know, you start off bright and cheery, take pictures, fix a special breakfast, with all the hopes and dreams of your upcoming school year fixated in your brain. And within a few weeks, or perhaps a few days, you are down in the dumps, wondering how on earth you will Accomplish It All. The kids don't cooperate, the house is a mess, and you're already behind in your carefully thought out schedule. So, this year, we won't have a big First Day Production. We will ease into our formal school work, add a bit here and there, figure out what is Important and what is Not without trying to Do It All, all at once.

In my next post, I will give more details about the resources we use, and after that I will show you how I put it all together for the week. I plan by the week right now, sometimes I'll do two weeks at once. If I plan any further ahead than that, we just fall behind and I get discouraged. Weekly or bi-weekly planning works well for us.

What works for your family?

Resources we use here at Aquinas Academy

Like I mentioned before, though I have a lot of unschool-ish tendencies, I just really feel more comfortable having some sort of curricula spine to base our studies upon. I look at our curricula as sort of the push-pins in our learning bulletin board. The curriula is not the entire picture, but they help us hang up the pieces, know what I mean?

I pick a gentle curricula for the early years - we really like Catholic Heritage Curricula. This year I am using their 4th grade lesson plans for J1, and A2 and S3 are using their 1st grade lesson plans. I don't follow the lesson plans by the letter; in fact, as you'll see, I take bits and pieces of several things and create my own weekly plans. But I do think of CHC as my "base", the one that is the core of what we do.

In addition to CHC, I also use a great many materials from Sonlight Curriculum. I feel that CHC is too light in History in the early years, and my oldest son loves the literature-based history studies found at Sonlight. I don't use their entire curriculum, they are a Protestant company and I love and need the Catholic basis found in CHC. But the reading lists at Sonlight are a boon for me, especially with my oldest, a voracious reader. I will probably use some of my earlier Sonlight books for A2 and S3, too, especially the reader and read-a-loud books found in levels 1 and 2. In addition, I picked up some of the books recommended for SL's science level 5 (their study of human anatomy) to add some detail to CHC's "My Temple of the Holy Spirit," our study of human anatomy. J1 is a child that craves detail and information, so some supplementation is definitely needed, and SL's books provide a lot of that detail he needs.

Finally, I use a few materials from Seton . I really prefer CHC over Seton in most things (at least so far, in the early years), but I do use Seton's American History Spine for J1's history study last year and this year ("How American Began" and "How American Grew"), because with using a protestant curricula for our history program, I feel we need to see the Catholic perspective on history, and these books fit the bill for us just perfectly at this level. In addition, this year I felt J1 needed a lot more practice on his cursive handwriting, so rather than go with CHC's calligraphy handwriting book for 4th grade, I decided to get Seton's "Handwriting 4 For Young Catholics". I am very impressed with this book, it is just what J1 needs to improve his rather poor cursive handwriting.

I also use other materials from CHC besides their lesson plans. For J1's "4th grade" year, we are using My Catholic Speller Level C, Language of God Level C, some of their reading materials, such as "God's Little Angeles" and "Rare Catholic Stories", 1001 Facts for your Catholic Geography Bee, and their Learning to Appreciate Art supplement. We are basing our science this year on their "My Temple of the Holy Spirit" appendix in the 4th grade lesson plans, studying human anatomy, health and nutrition, and basic first aid. For my boys using the first grade plans, we are using CHC's handwriting books, and possibly their "Easy as 1, 2, 3" for science, though I'm still deciding on that, I might use SL's science level 1. Science isn't a focus with them this year, so I might just not worry about it at all, and use our backyard instead! :-) Also, once A2 and S3 are reading, I will start them in CHC's My First Catholic Speller. Hopefully that will happen sometime around Christmas. For all of them, I'm using CHC's Art Pacs. I tried it with J1 last year, and he hated it - he is just not an artsy kind of kid. I am going to keep at it, though, as I believe he needs a bit more artwork to not only learn about drawing and such, but also to improve his fine motor skills. But I won't make it a miserable experience, either. I think S3 will absolutely love the art he'll be doing, and the verdict is out on A2. Another place where we'll just "wing-it".

Finally, for math, we use two different programs. I really like Singapore Math, it has worked well for us in grades K-3. In grade 3, like I mentioned before, J1 and I ran into great difficulties with long division. After much work, breaks, and frustrations, we finally switched over to Saxon 5/4 last year, with great success. I think J1 just needed a different approach, one more methodical than Singapore. The thing that I like about Singapore is that it really teaches you to think about math, and doesn't waste time with a lot of needless repetition. However, it's strength is also its weakness, and we have definitely benefited from the switch. I haven't forced him to do every single last step in every single last problem in Saxon - that would be overkill, IMO. As long as he was understanding the concepts and getting over 85% of so of the problems correct, I let him just do "odds" one day and "even's" the next. He got about halfway through that book last year, I think we will finish it by around Christmas this year, and move into Saxon 6/5. J1 continues to struggle with careless mistakes, but I will willingly admit that is completely hereditary, something his mom struggled with for years, too, so I have a lot of sympathy and understanding over these tendencies. :-) A2 got about 1/3rd of the way through Singapore's 1st grade math last year, so I expect he will start Singapore grade 2 sometime before the end of the year. S3 did quite well with MCP's grade 1 math - though I didn't really like the program much, so he will start in Singapore's grade 1 book this year.

In future posts, I will write out a detailed plan for each child for the upcoming year, listing every book we will use, our goals and expectations. This is more for me and my record-keeping than for you, dear reader, so feel free to skip over those posts unless you're really fascinated! :-)

But do look for the upcoming post on homeschool planning. I learned a lot last year, and am eager to share it with ya'll (my southern heart comes through!)

Introducing ourselves...

Welcome to my homeschool blog! I'm glad you stopped by, I am looking forward to telling you all about our home-learning. In writing this blog, I have several goals. I need to document my children's learning for my state regluations, and I think that a regular "diary" of sorts will be an affective and relatively painless way to do that. Also, I decided last year that I need some sort of accountability, something that helps me stay on track with my goals for the kids, and an on-line blog that at least a few people are aware of seems a good way to do that, without subjecting myself to some outside authority which, for the time being at least, makes my skin crawl! :-) Lastly, I know that I have personally gleaned so many ideas and insight from other wonderful homeschool bloggers that I can only hope that anyone who reads this will see something here that sparks their interest. Maybe it will be an ah-ha moment, maybe you'll think, "Oh, that's wonderful, that will really help me solve this particular challenge I've been struggling with." Or maybe it will be an uh-oh moment, something like "Oh my goodness, that just would never work in my family! Cross that off the list of things I'd like to try..." Either way, I will be very glad to help! :-)

So...introductions...In keeping with on-line safety advice, I will not use our real-life names. I am The Mom, a/k/a MamaJen. I am a fairly typical stay-at-home, homeschooling Catholic mom of 4 boys. I want to raise saints, I want to be a saint myself - and I struggle with it all every day! I have definite opinions which I may or may not share here. I do want you to know that I am totally, utterly human - so you will definitely find I make mistakes! I am also totally, utterly, devoted to my God and my family. This devotion, combined with my humanity, colors everything I do, every opinion and idea that I have.

I am married to DH (which means, of course, Dear Husband - most of the time! :-), who is equally human, equally devoted to God and family. Dh is extremely supportive of homeschooling the kids, for which I am greatful. We are very sympatico on just about everything school and parenting related. Well, if it was up to me, we'd throw the TV out the door and never look back, but DH has a long love affair with visual media, so we compromise. I allow the TV in the living room, but I do turn it off on occasion! ;-)

Our oldest child I will refer to as J1 (his name is "J" and he is child #1). J1 is 9.5 years old. Technically he is in 4th grade, though I put no such restrictions on his work. He is way ahead in reading, a little ahead in math, and a little behind in handwriting, for example. Like all my kids, he is himself, not a grade level. He is a very bright child who is pretty compliant about his schoolwork and almost always learns quickly. This can sometimes be a problem because when he does come across something he doesn't just instantly understand, he throws huge fits and digs in his heals. We struggled mightily with long division, for example - it took almost a year of instruction, fits, backing off, more instruction, finally completely changing our math program - before he finally "got" it. Most of the time, however, he is an absolute joy to teach, with an innate love of learning, a steel-trap memory and amazing insights. I am blessed to have him as my first child, my guinea pig child - he makes it all fairly easy for me, so far!

My next son is A2, who just turned 7. Technically, A2 is in second grade this year, but because of his very late birthday and his own personality, I consider him to be in first grade this year. A2 is my super-unique child, different in so many ways from all my other children. He just has a very different way of looking at the world. He is Stubborn, he has always done everything in his own time, in his own way. He crawled at 5.5 months, determined to chase after older brother. He didn't talk hardly at all until he was almost 4. He says fun, interesting things such as, "He's a lady baby!" when referring to a friend's newborn baby girl. Or "My heart is bumping" after he runs around a lot, or "I'm melting!" when he gets sweaty. He is very, very self-confident, he walks with a swagger similiar to James Dean. Like me, he is quiet and introverted in our family of very verbal extroverts. He is very observant, all the time, and often surprises me with his knowledge and insight. He can't yet read, though he very successfully plows through google searches for all things cheesey monster-movie related. He actually knows a lot of Japanese kanji related to Godzilla, his favorite monster of all time. He has a massive sight-reading vocabularly, but has no fluency to pick up a book and read it. I worry about this rather excessively, and my goal and focus this year is to get A2 really reading.

S3 is almost 6. He is constantly on the go, always moving, jumping, running - definitely my most typical "boy" child. He has a deep, booming voice in a tiny little body - he looks the definition of "string bean", very tall yet very thin. He is deeply imaginative, and as much as his body is constantly in motion, so are his thoughts. We often say, "He lives in S-land, he just visits us now and then." He is my little sponge, he is just desperate to learn things. I feel somewhat badly, because he has been all but begging to do more schoolwork for well over a year now, but in the tumultuousness of my life, I have put him off. Even though he is technically only in kindegarten this year (which shows the insanity of the modern school sytem, because there is just 15 months between him and A2, who is techincally second grade), I will be combining S3 and A2 in first grade work for most things. I will allow them to be individuals, and take the years' age difference in consideration, but it just makes it easier on me to generally combine them together. S3 is very close to reading, I suspect. If I can help him sit still and focus for about 15 minutes every day on some phonics instruction, I suspect he'll be reading fairly well by Christmas.

N4 is my youngest, he is almost 4 years old. Technically, he is two years away from kindegarten. But if you think I am going to stop him from doing school work with his older brothers, you are absolutely crazy! N4 is a force of nature - he's definitely always been my challenging child. N4 is just *more* everything. More temperamental, more demanding, yet more loving than all my other children put together. I suspect that, like my oldest, he is quite, quite bright (oh, all the kids are very smart, of course, but J1 and N4 have that "extra" something in the IQ department, I believe - makes it more challenging for them in many ways, actually). It wouldn't surprise me at all if N4 is reading by the end of the year. I will just go at his own pace, as I completely don't believe in pushing young kids to learn, even if they seem ready (learned that lesson well with J1!). He will have his own binder, with fun "workbook" pages that he can do, or not do, as he desires, just so that he feels a part of it all. He will also continue to be my shadow, helping me cook and clean and organize and play, he will listen to all our stories and some of our instruction time, and he will almost certainly pick up on way more than I expect!

My general homeschooling philosophy is pretty simple. Every child is a unique individual. There is no one-size-fits-all education, even within a family. I tend toward an eclectic, even an unschool-ish approach. I think that, if you don't interfere with it, most kids have an innate desire and drive to learn. Some kids need more guidance than others, some like the workbook approach, some need to be left mostly alone to gain more maturity. Some kids need to DO to learn, some kids need to LISTEN, and some need to WATCH. In addition, moms and dads also have needs that need to be addressed in a home-learning environment. I think that most of my kids would do quite well with a strictly "unschooling" approach - but I wouldn't. I need a gentle, basic, core curriculum that lets me rest secure in knowing I'm at least covering the grade-level basics. But, I don't let the curriculum use me, I strive to use the curriculum. In other words, even though we didn't get to the last 15 pages of our grammar book last year, I don't stress about it. I know my children, I know what they know, I know what they need. God gave these children to me, and He gives me the Grace I need to raise them right - I just need to open myself up to that Grace. Sometimes that's easier said than done, of course, but I do believe that my husband and I know what our children need.

And you know what your children need. If you're a fellow homeschooling mom reading this blog, please don't think that what I do in my family will work, as written, for yours. I hope that you will learn something new that perhaps you've never thought of, but mostly I hope that seeing how another family does things will give you freedom. Freedom to forge your own path, so that you can listen to that still, quiet voice of God, of your conscience, of your mothering instincts. It will tell you what to do if you Listen.