Saturday, January 23, 2016

Homeschool: Why I Don't Use a Boxed Curriculum

I have only been homeschooling for two years, but prior to staying home with my two youngest sons, I was a classroom teacher and reading specialist for over 20 years.  Never during my career did I teach exclusively from a book or scripted program. Now, I'm not saying that teaching from a book or "boxed" curriculum is bad; it just isn't a good fit for how my son learns or how I teach.

If you are new to homeschool, or if you are using a boxed curriculum and are interested in making a change, then this blog post is for you!

My number one reason for not using a boxed curriculum is this:

A  prescribed curriculum is too confining and inflexible for both my son as a learner and for me as a teacher.

 In teaching, I use a student-centered approach to learning. What this means is that many of the thematic unit studies I create are based on my son's interests. If I am using a boxed curriculum, then he must complete and study whatever comes next in the sequence. This works for math, but not for other subject areas. An example is our latest unit, a snow exploration. In December, my son was lamenting the fact that we had not had any snow. {As a side note, we now have 30" of drifting snow... he got his wish at the end of our unit!!}

I created a mini-unit that included reading picture books, a biography, poetry, and informational reading about snow and how snowflakes are created. This was an integrated unit that included reading,writing,science, art, and more!  You can read more details by clicking the link below:

This was a spontaneous unit.  We were able to do this because the sequence of my plans,goals, and objectives are fluid.  With a boxed curriculum, the sequence is dictated for you.  Of course, you can veer off the prescribed sequence, but then you may feel that you are "behind". Or, you may feel a need to follow all the plans in the curriculum so that you get your money's worth.

In homeschool, it has taken me a lot of time to realize that I am not behind if I take a little detour because my son is leading the way in his learning.  That to me is the goal of learning... to take responsibility and ownership of one's learning.  If my son is excited and motivated to learn about something, then how can I squash that desire and enthusiasm? And besides, he is young... what we don't get to this year, he can study next year.

Sounds a lot like what I have read about unschooling, doesn't it? We are not unschoolers, but rather a concoction of unit studies, thematic teaching, and unschooling. Eclectic teaching and learning is what I think it is called.

As a former teacher, I am familiar with the learning expectations for a third grader. I also keep an eye on the CCSS.  This gives me a platform, a springboard from which to work when I am planning.  I know my child. I know his interests, abilities, and his learning style.  You know your child/children. Trust yourself to develop and create your own curriculum. And then hold on loosely so when your child wants to explore an interest that is not part of your "plan", you can release them as you adventure together.

Do I purchase textbooks or curriculum at all?  Yes, I do! The history and science texts that I purchased are used as resources. They are not read cover to cover. For instance, this week we learned about Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. I developed this little QR code activity (at my son's request) for him to complete.

Afterwards, he read a few pages out of his history textbook to glean new information and to compare it to the other texts and sources of information.

If you are interested in learning more about thematic teaching, you can read a post I wrote by clicking the picture below:

This is what works for my son and for me as a teacher.  We both need room to explore, wonder, create, and dive in deep to study certain topics and subjects.  Within all of this creativity, I do have a structure for our day (a routine that we follow on most days), we do follow a math curriculum, and yes, I do teach and assign things at times that my son doesn't want to learn or do (namely anything that has to do with writing!).

And at the end of the day, if he still has excitement and wonder and inspiration for learning, then it has been a very good day, despite how much "book work" he accomplished.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

We Made Snow! A Simple Recipe!

Last week, I shared a little about the snow mini-unit that I put together for my third grader.  You can read that post here.  One of the highlights of our week was making snow.  Yes, we made snow in our kitchen! I searched around and found that there are several "recipes" for making snow. The boys and I experimented with this concoction and had a blast (especially since this may be the only snow they get to play with this winter!)

We used just four ingredients:
-(1) lb. box of baking soda
-a few big squirts of shaving cream
-peppermint oil

Dump the box of baking soda into a large bowl.  Add about a cup of shaving cream. We didn't measure; we just estimated! The boys kept adding shaving cream and mixing until a snow-like consistency was made.

Mix together with your hands. This is the fun, sensory part! Immediately, you will notice the snow-like substance that is formed. We were all amazed and there were smiles all around!

My youngest son did not like the smell of the shaving cream, so I added in a few drops of peppermint oil.  This made a festive and pleasant smell to our snow!

I asked the boys what they wanted to make with their snow...
An indoor snowball fight almost ensued! 

The boys worked together to make this small-scale snowman! They used mini chocolate chips for the eyes  They shaved a tiny piece of carrot for the nose, and later used toothpicks for the arms.  It was interesting to hear them brainstorm ideas for creating the snowman!

This was such an easy and fun activity that you can do at home or in the classroom!  For the younger students, it makes a great sensory activity with the cool, creamy feel of the shaving cream, the snow-like mixture, and the peppermint smell.  Just add some small scoops for playing!

We're still anxiously awaiting our first snowfall here in PA, but we're on week two of our snow unit and loving it!  I'll be back later this week to share our snowy adventures!


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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Dr. Martin Luther King: Livin' the Dream

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education
Martin Luther King Jr.

Today I'm sharing a post I wrote back in 2013 about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and linking up with my friend Carla from Comprehension Connection.  I know you will find many great teaching ideas here and over at Carla's blog. Be sure to visit her page after you are finished here; just click the picture below. 

Even though I was only a year old when Dr. King was brutally assassinated, I grew up learning about this great man, was inspired by his deep faith in God and respect for education, and have been honored as a teacher to pass along his passion for peace to my students over the course of my twenty-four years as a teacher.

My newest packet, A Passion For Peace  Livin' the Dream is as much a tribute to this incredible, fearless icon in American history as it is an instructional tool to teach our little learners about the impact King's battle has on our lives today.

What started out as a mini-unit, became a (41) page packet to be used with advanced first graders, on-level second graders, and can be used in intervention groups for struggling third and fourth (and above?) readers. I created a six page nonfiction biography/article about King's life; my goal was to include the most important facts, while keeping it kid-friendly, interesting, and embedding important informational reading features.

As you can see in the preview pic above, I included several before reading activities like a K-W-L graphic organizer and a  Was-Had-Did organizer along with two sets of the (15) Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary words from the article I wrote.

In addition, I wrote the nonfiction text using a chronological text structure and formatted it with several text features such as illustrations, photographs, captions, subheadings and more.

Like most of my products, my intention was to create a packet to be used in small groups, whether it be in Guided Reading groups or in an intervention group for the upper grades. However, it is flexible enough to use whole class and some of the vocabulary, comprehension, and after reading activities could be used in a literacy center. With all of the lesson components, the lesson could easily take (5) days to complete.

After students read, discuss, and think about Dr. King's life, I then wanted them to apply what they learned to their lives, which is where the "Livin the Dream" part comes in.

The above picture shows the completed writing on the stationery provided and the topper.  The actual prompt is worded:

Think about how you can make the world a better place.  What is your dream?
Write about your dream for our world on the next page.  Then color the picture above and use as a topper for your writing.

And on side note, I just love this Cupcake Velvety font from A Cupcake for the Teacher that she graciously offered for free on her blog!

There are two other prompts: my dream for my community and my dream for my classroom.  There are many ways to use the prompts, from having students choose one to randomly assigning one.

That's a little peek into my newest packet!  If you have any questions, you can comment here or send me an email.  Also, you can check out a guest blog post I wrote for Live to Teach with picture book and website recommendations for your MLK Day celebrations!

Happy Birthday, Dr.King... may we continue your legacy and make you proud!

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend
Martin Luther King Jr.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Snowy Week: Integrated Thematic Unit for Big Kids!

{This post contains affiliate links}

My homeschool teaching style is very similar to the way I taught at the beginning of my career (w a y back in the 1980's). Teaching thematically came naturally to me, and it's a good thing, as our district-wide focus was on interdisciplinary teaching and reading across the content areas.  Sadly, with the advent of No Child Left Behind and later CCSS, the district developed a tight scope and sequence which made it pretty hard to deviate from if you wanted a decent observation/evaluation.  Can you relate to that?

One of the beauties of teaching thematically is that you can capitalize on current events, seasonal studies, and student interests. Another advantage is that teaching thematically is time efficient in
that you can integrate subject areas and get "more bang for your buck" or "kill two birds with one stone".  {Can you tell that we  are studying idioms?} Plus, and perhaps most important of all, is that thematic learning tends to be more authentic learning especially in application of skills and strategies.

In my homeschool classroom I use a thematic approach to our studies as well as allow for student interests.  Although I have mapped out on paper my plans for the year, there is much wiggle room, and I have learned to be flexible and to relinquish some control over to my 3rd grader. For instance, at the start of the year, I planned to do a Civil War thematic unit since we had just visited the Gettysburg Battlefields.  However, my son thought it would be more interesting to begin with the chocolate unit I had developed. So, we placed the Civil War on the back burner and began the chocolate unit (no arguments from me!).

After the holidays, I had planned to start the Civil War unit.  But then I started hearing my sons complain that it is January and we still have not had any snow here in PA.  Not one little flake!  So that got me thinking... maybe I could whip together a little "snowy" mini-unit for a week or two.  It would be fun and definitely motivating!  Instantly, my son was on board, and our first day back to school on Monday was a great day, mostly because he was so interested in finding out what we would be doing.

We started off with a read-aloud of this fun and imaginative picture book.  I chose this book because #1, I knew my son could connect with the characters' wishing for snow, and #2 because I wanted him to review plot details and sequence of events.  I found this thorough and FREE resource set from Anita Bremer's store on Teachers Pay Teachers.  

From there, we will learn a little about how snow is formed during science.  I stumbled across this FREE and beautifully made PowerPoint on how snowflakes are formed from Susan Morrow's store.

How Snowflakes Are Formed  PowerPoint

This activity integrates reading and science and has my son applying his skills of reading, identifying important information and taking notes.  I quickly developed this note-taking graphic organizer for him to use during reading.

In writing, I am using, the "If I Lived in a Snow Globe" prompt from the above FREE The Snow Globe Family packet.  I added this graphic organizer for brainstorming and planning:

In art, we will do my spin on this snow globe craftivity that was featured on Primary Punch's blog and use as a topper for the writing.

When I create a thematic unit, I like to include as many different genre and reading purposes as possible.  So far, we have read a story and an informative article. Later we will read directions and a biography.  What's missing?  Poetry!  I selected this book of poems to use because I absolutely love Jack Prelutsky and kids love him too!

It is at my son's independent level, but since I am introducing figurative language and poetic elements, I wanted to use an easy level text.  This way he can enjoy these humorous poems as he concentrates on learning new concepts (simile, metaphor, etc.).  I'm currently working on poetry graphic organizers and figurative language mini-posters to be used with this book of poems. The mini-posters are placed inside his Reader's Notebook which is used as an interactive notebook and a reader response journal.

Looks like our "very snowy week" will be extended for another week, as I still have more art (we will make our own snow and snow paint!), math, more science, and a biography to read.  I'll be back later this month to share!

If you would like a copy of the resources I featured in this post, click here to download them from Google Drive.

Do you teach a winter/snowy thematic unit? Share your ideas and activities in comments!

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Homeschool Resources Picked by Homeschoolers

{This post contains affiliate links}

What a year it has been! As I reflect on our homeschool year, I am very proud of all my 3rd grader has accomplished since July {we homeschool year-round}. My son has really improved in writing, and I think his daily journal writing has helped him to gain confidence and to take risks. His favorite subjects continue to be math and science. Since I encourage student-led learning, I will continue to integrate science with math and reading. As well, I will be including more science labs this semester in preparation for his homeschool science fair in March.  

Educents has such a diverse inventory of educational resources for all teachers, whether you teach in a public or private school or whether you homeschool.  My favorite product is the Magic School Bus Science Club that my son has had his eye on since the summer. I am planning to purchase this for him for his birthday!

Magic School Bus Science Club Kit

Check out other favorites of homeschoolers below.  What will you be teaching in the new year?  I'm sure you can find something on Educents to augment learning and the fun factor!

  top picks homeschoolers 

No matter what may be on your lesson plan for 2016, consider the resources below. Members within the Educents community put a list together of their favorite homeschool resources. If you'd like to learn more about the resource, just click the link! If you want to get more involved in the Educents community to learn more about homeschooling and the curriculum offered on Educents, join the Educents Facebook group!


Emily of Smith Squad recommends the Life of Fred books.

“As a child, I always hated math, even though I was good at it because it was soon boring. When I heard about Fred, I knew he had to be a part of our homeschool. My kids absolutely LOVE when it’s math time, and they are learning a ton about how to apply math to every day practical situations.”

Life of Fred Buyer's Guide


Lisa Marie of The Canadian Homeschooler uses the Writecraft and Mathcraft Units.

"The writing portion of this resource was the first time EVER that my oldest son ever willing wrote anything! He was excited to write instead of hating it."


Allison of Just Add Coffee loves the Magic School Bus Science Experiments.

Magic School Bus on Educents“I absolutely love Magic School bus and all it has to offer. Each month you get a different science kit to take a Magic School Bus adventure. If you search really hard, online you can even find curriculum to go with each science kit and the episode from the television series.”


Lisa of Chickens and Bunnies Homeschool loves the Life of Fred Elementary Books.

“My favorite resource at Educents at the moment is Life of Fred. There are so many to choose from I picked the Elementary Series. My kids love these books; we have them up to high school now. My most recent order was Life of Fred Chemistry. My kids will do these without arguing and love Fred and Kingie!”


Celena of The Traveling Sisterhood recommends the Times Tales Multiplication videos.

"I love Times Tales because it's made this year's math lessons so much easier! My kiddos quickly mastered their multiplication tables in one sitting with the movie. It's been such a blessing--instead of drills everyday, we can take more time to learn the actual concepts behind the facts!" Times Tales Review  


Kelly of Raising Samuels loves the Magic School Bus Science Club.

“The Magic School Bus Science Club is something your child gets in the mail each month, for a year! It includes numerous experiments per month, along with most of the materials required. (except household items such as scissors and tape). It is an incredible hands-on learning experience that helps children love science and have fun! My sons who are 4 and 6 absolutely love it!”

Amy of Busy Boys Brigade recommends the Life of Fred Beginning Readers.

Fred Readers tips“Life of Fred Early Readers series has been a game changer in our homeschool! Both my 6 & 4-year-old b
oys beg me to do their reading lessons now that we have added Life of Fred. I have noticed an increase in their fluency and comprehension.


Jenn of Chaotic Bliss Homeschooling also loves Times Tales.

"All three of my girls, ages 8 down to 4 loved watching this DVD and learning the stories. In 1 hour, both of my older girls had memorized their upper times tables! And the real kicker is I was only trying to teach one!"


Amy of Teaching in Blue Jeans uses Learn to Mod Minecraft with her son.

Kids Learn to Code - Educents Graphic"Learn to Mod Minecraft is an amazing program that teaches my son, a Minecraft lover, important computer programming skills through a game he loves to play. The lessons are easy to use, fun and engaging. I love that he is a learning a skill that I am not able to teach him."


Tabitha of Life Learning Homeschool uses the King Tut Mini Unit.

“My son loves history (he gets it from me), and I love to throw in “extras” to feed the need for more than what our curriculum calls for. Mini-units are great for that, and this was one of our favorites because we both love Ancient Egypt!”


Amy from Not Your Average Homeschool Mom loves Minecraft Mod Design.

“I love that you can be totally creative, and these are all hands-on. Helps to build critical thinking skills too.”

YouthDigital Educents1

Kayla of The Arrowood Zoo loves using Magformers for lessons at home.

"I love that you can be totally creative and these are all hands-on. Helps to build critical thinking skills too." Magformers_fine-motor-practice-copy-copy

Shelly of Free Homeschooling 101 recommends the Violin Starter Set.

"The violin starter set includes everything a budding violinist needs to begin their studies. The instrument is well made and economical. The lessons that are included are a huge money saver!"

Rebecca of Hip Homeschooling likes Magformers.

“We LOVE Magformers in our homeschool! They are a high-quality toy that provide hours of creative play. They are a great way to bring the fun back into your homeschool; your kids won’t even realize they are learning all about structures and geometric shapes and architecture (bonus!).”

Teri of Mommy Wife Life recommends the Spectacular Space Unit Study.

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 2.09.22 PM“A great resource for young astronomers is the Spectacular Space Unit Study. From writing, reading, math, and crafts, this complete unit, with its simple terms, will spark the interest of even your preschoolers!” 

Jamie of Simple Homeschool loves Life of Fred too!

“I love the way the math is naturally integrated into Fred’s life, showing the importance of it in day-to-day life. The chapters are laugh-out-loud funny, and I often get asked to read “just one more.” I’ve never been a huge fan of math workbooks and worksheets, so the combination of math and story is a major win in my books!”

Gabriella, Homeschooling Consultant, recommends the Number Formation Poems.

“We have these cards laminated because we know they’ll be used for years to come. My son, who learns best through rhyme and tactile input, is learning to write digits using these easy-to-remember number formation poems! I have reduced the size of the cards, added a ring binder, and now have a portable number set. We also use the cards for matching games and learning about quantity. Such a great price for all of the value provided by this set.” Hands_on-learning-with-worksheets  

What homeschool resource did you use this year that you would recommend? Leave your recommendation in the comments!!

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