Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pros and Cons of a Sick Homeschooling Household

We were all sick last week. Ava came down with it first. She was sniffly and slightly feverish. She was achy with a sore throat. She was irritable - for her. This resulted in the children being snippy with each other. They usually get along well and the lack of harmony really grated on my nerves. If the children were in school I would have needed to keep her home. Or send her in and feel guilty and worried about her all day.

Instead we just kept to our usual routine. I leaned a little more on Michael for answers and a little less on Ava. We took more breaks. But overall, school continued. The kids like our school work and they get bored when just left on their own for too long. Ava in particular likes to be with her loved ones and so she didn't complain at all.

Michael was also irritable all week. He didn't seem to get the sore throat or fever, but he did get the runny nose and cough. Again, we just kept to a slightly less cheerful and intense version of the usual routine. The children being irritable was driving me crazy though. I felt like I was intervening in some sort of squabble at least once every 30 minutes and it was killing me. My mood was off and I was atypically grumpy and short tempered. In retrospect, I should have known I was next.

Then it was my turn. If the children felt even a fraction as miserable as I did, I am in awe of how well they had actually been doing all week. I was taking two different types of over the counter pain killers and it still felt like my throat and Eustachian tubes were on fire with every breath. This was keeping me from sleeping. I was running the same low grade fever the children had been running. The details aren't important. Let's just say that if I weren't homeschooling I would have been spending my days in bed.

Instead, I got up and got breakfast into the littles and got through our first two lessons of the day - circle time and math. At that point, instead of transitioning to reading or Scholastic News I let the children have free time and informed them that I was going to read. They could come find me when they were ready to do their reading lesson. Admittedly, that was a bit pitiful, but it worked. The children played independently for almost two hours while I dozed on the sofa. Then Ava came to ask to do her reading lesson. The rest gave me enough energy to get through Ava's reading lesson and lunch. Then it was more free play for the children until Michael came to ask for his reading lesson. At that point in the afternoon I typically read to the children for an hour or we do art, but there was no way my throat was going to participate in an hour of reading aloud so we watched a movie instead.

It wasn't elegant, but it got done. We repeated that same schedule the next day. Even though the entire household was sick, we still managed circle time, word wall activities, math, and reading every day. It wasn't as high energy, efficient, or on schedule, but it still all happened. It was a workable solution. I'm looking forward to being back to full energy and patience this week (I'm still shaking off the cold), but it was nice to see that we can work this homeschooling thing through a household illness.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Interactive Word Wall - Refining and Differentiated Instruction

We have now been using our word wall in our Pre-Kindergarten / Kindergarten level homeschool for about six weeks. I wrote about planning and creating the word wall and my intentions for using it interactively several weeks ago. I have learned a few things and refined my technique since then.

Choosing and Introducing Word Wall Words

There are many ways to use a word wall. Some choose to use their word wall to highlight content area vocabulary or with themes. My children are very young so I am using the word wall to facilitate the reading and spelling of early sight words. I am pulling most of the words from the Dolch lists. I am introducing six new words each week. Here's the key though. I'm not just going through those lists in order. I make sure the six words I choose each week can be combined to make a sentence. This is absolutely key! I print the words on plain white paper and cut them out so that you can see the word shape. Then I tape them each to a differently colored background and laminate the cards. Finally I stick a magnet on the back of each word.

  1. Monday - I introduce the words on Monday during circle time. We clap and snap each word taking the time to discuss the word shape (small, tall, and fall letters - does the word look like a rectangle or squares - etc.) and how to decode the individual phonemes. Then we build a sentence from the words. We build one or two sentences that make sense and we build silly sentences that do not make sense. The children love it.
  2. Tuesday-Thursday - I display one word at a time and ask my preschooler to read the word. If she has difficulty, I help her decode the word. We then snap and clap the word and its spelling. Then I have my kindergartner spell the word (he can read all the words easily, so this is how I differentiate instruction).

    After reviewing all six words, we continue to build sentences with the words. I use a dry erase marker and show making the first letter of the sentence a capital and adding punctuation as appropriate. The clapping and snapping the word, discussion of word shape, and decoding the words using phonics are all important, but it is using the words to build sentences that really cements them in the minds of the children. Ava gets practice reading the words in a sentence context. Michael gets to read with inflection and discuss capitalization and punctuation. We get to work collaboratively and take turns composing and reading the sentences. And we all get to laugh together at some of the nonsense sentences we create. In five minutes or less the children have practiced reading the six words at least a dozen times each and they don't even realize it.

  3. Friday - On Friday we repeat the same routine. When we are finished, the children each take three of the words and put them in the appropriate spots on the word wall. Now these words are integrated in with the words from previous weeks and we are ready to introduce six new words during circle time on the next Monday.

Using and Practicing Word Wall Words - Daily

Each day, immediately after circle time, we do a word wall game. This can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes. The children LOVE this time of day. They remind me if I forget. I made a printable list of 15 Word Wall Games, and you can find many more with a simple internet search. I rotate through the games so we're never doing the same one twice a week. The children particularly like Tall Towers, Word Wall Tic Tac Toe, and Word Wall Word Search. Whenever appropriate, I differentiate instruction by asking Michael to spell the word while Ava only needs to read the word. I also keep track informally of which words (from the wall) that they know well and which ones they still need practice on and try to rotate in the ones they need more practice with more often.

Does it work?

Let's think of having a word wall in a classroom as a three stage process.

  1. Part 1: Teacher creates a word wall space, chooses words, and gets those words onto the wall alphabetically.
  2. Part 2: Teacher chooses new words each week and devotes class time to introducing the words and reviewing them daily.
  3. Part 3: Teacher devotes additional daily classroom time to having children work with the word wall words interactively in a game format.

  4. Part one is something a teacher does when starting a word wall project. In theory, the wall could be set up and a full year's worth of words could be prepared. Then each week the teacher could throw up 4-6 new words and be done. I devoted the time to setting up the word wall and making a couple of months worth of words. If all I did was slap six new words on the wall, or have the children slap six new words on the wall, no one would learn them. Part 1 alone? - Not enough.

    The children and I typically enjoy the word wall work we do during circle time. We like the clap and snap and the building of the sentences. A lot of learning takes place during this interaction. One week, I simply forgot to do this two days in a row and noticed that my daughter struggled more with the words that week. Part 1 and Part 2? Adequate for familiarity and some automaticity, but not for true mastery.

    Then there was the week I was going through a bit of a homeschooling teacher slump and decided to skip the word wall games. I was a little bored with them and preferred to just skip straight to math. I noticed a huge change. Ava definitely lost ground with the old words. As soon as I brought back in the word wall games and devoted those 5-15 extra minutes a day I saw huge change. And the children LOVE this time. Call it a "break" and stick it in between two more intense activities, but this time is worth it. My four year old daughter can look at our word wall and read every word on it. She's proud and she thinks it is fun. All 3 Parts? This works!

    Word Wall=Sight Words - But what about phonics?

    I strongly support phonics instruction. Research shows that phonics instruction is a critical component of reading instruction. Our All About Reading program is doing an amazing job of comprehensively teaching phonics to my children (and fluency and sight words - the program is extraordinarily comprehensive). However, knowing some of the most common words encountered in reading the English language by sight is a huge boost to a beginning reader. It helps them read more quickly and easily. Also, many of the words on the Dolch lists are "rule breakers" that do not follow phonics rules and including them on a word wall gives a teacher the opportunity to talk about that. I do talk about the phonics of these words during instruction time and about how and why the reading of the words break phonics rules when that is the case.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Super Reading and The Magic Tree House Books

I'll admit it. I was struggling in the afternoons. Our mornings are fairly structured. Time goes quickly. We get a lot done. Circle time, word wall games, math, Scholastic News, and our reading program fill the morning. Then, about 4 hours after we started, we are all ready for a significant break.

I let the kids watch some tv while I prepare lunch. Then I let them eat lunch in front of the tv while I have some quiet time. I know it isn't perfect, but I'm human and an introvert and my sanity is important too. So we all have a mid-day break and I do use the television to make that happen. The problem was that I was having trouble finding the motivation to pull us all back together afterwards. I found excuses to delay... and delay... and delay. Then I had an ephiphany. I realized that we needed something truly fun to pull us all back together - something that made me glad to leave my little bit of solitude and something that made the children excited about turning off the television.

So now I read to the children in the afternoons. It's not a lesson. Michael isn't reading or taking turns reading. They simply get to listen to me read. I'm not feeling rushed like I often feel during the reading time that is part of our bedtime routine. If we're all enjoying it we can just keep reading. We often read for 60-90 minutes in the afternoon and we all love it. Michael calls it "Super Reading Time".

One of the purchases I indulged in with my first Scholastic Reading Club order was a Magic Tree House book set. We now are the proud owners of books 1-45. (If you want the full set, the best price per book by far is from the Scholastic Reading clubs. Any library should have these books too.) The main characters are an older brother and a younger sister who are only a year apart - just like my two. The older boy is conservative and loves books and knowledge. The younger girl is imaginative and adventurous and loves animals. I think part of the reason the children love the books so much is because they identify with Jack and Annie. Michael has even started using some of the phrases that Jack frequently uses in the books. I'm not super fond of the phrase, "Is she nuts?" but hearing him imitate Jack is pretty cute.

The stories are about two children who discover a magic tree house in the woods near their house. The tree house is filled with books. When they point to a picture in the book and wish to travel there the tree house takes them to the location (and time) of the picture in the book. So far, there are story arcs that bridge several books. In each of the first four books they discover a clue about the owner of the tree house and they meet her at the end of the fourth book. At the beginning of the fifth book they discover that the tree house's owner has a spell cast on her and they have to collect four things to break the spell. They collect those four things over the course of their adventures in the next four books and then rescue her at the end of the eighth book. We've just started it, but the story arc for books 9-12 appears to be Jack and Annie answering four riddles in order to pass the test to become "Master Librarians". The children enjoy the individual stories, but they also very much enjoy the story arcs as well and definitely keep track of the progress Jack and Annie are making towards the larger goal.

Each book is 10 chapters. In each story they travel to a new location in time or space and there is a lot of science and social studies content embedded in the books. That is a great bonus while homeschooling. We read half a book (5 chapters) each day so it takes us two days to read each book. Many of the books also have a nonfiction companion book. So, for example, the fictional story "Mummies in the Morning" has a nonfiction companion book "Mummies and Pyramids". The nonfiction books are fairly dense with a great deal of interesting information. They are written from the perspective of Jack and Annie with the story being that when they got back from Ancient Egypt they wanted to know more about it. So they went to the library, learned more about it, and wrote this book to share the information with other children. I tried the Fact Trackers on a whim. I was almost positive the reading level would just be too high for my 4 and 5 year old, but they seem to like them. So each day we read 5 chapters of the next Magic Tree house book, and then a couple chapters of a Fact Tracker book about one of the fictional books we've already read. So far we've done "Knights and Castles" and most of "Mummies and Pyramids."

Another great thing about reading this book as a series is the Magic Tree House companion website. There you can print out a passport. Each time you finish a book you can earn a passport stamp by answering three questions about the story. My children LOVE this. You can also earn passports for the Fact Tracker nonfiction companion books. The site also has a game where you can complete missions by answering questions about four different books (earning a clue for each answer) and then solving a puzzle at the end. You earn a medallion for each successfully completed mission. This part of the website fascinates my children and I would love to let them do it. Unfortunately, the missions seem to choose randomly between ALL the books. If they would limit it to just books the children have already read (ones they've earned passport stamps for) then you would be able to play the mission game and begin to earn medallions no matter how many of the books you've read. As it is, we can't really play that game at all.

"Super reading" and the Magic Tree House books have completely transformed our afternoons. Now we all look forward to the time after lunch and we come back together for some snuggly reading time on the sofa together. It has become a really special time of our homeschooling day.
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