When a New School Year Stares you in the Face and Scares Your Pants Off!

When a New School Year Stares you in the Face and Scares Your Pants Off!

Please, please, please tell me I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by stacks of books and papers trying to fit the jigsaw together to create some sort of picture. Trying to support my children in all the amazing goals they have for their learning this year, all without losing my mindJ

I’ve got four school-age children this year; ages 12, 10, 8, 6. And two sweetly mischievous littles (4 & 2). The task in front of me, to support and encourage and guide their learning, has left me breathless for the last few weeks. I have thought and prayed and sketched – a rough plan, trying to make tangible (and less daunting) the details of educating six children. But the truth is, it is a daunting task – being in relationship with these six amazingly bright and curious people who look to me for guidance and support. There is no way to minimize the enormity of that task, but I have found a way to breathe and quell, even if only one moment at a time, the anxiety that is trying to take hold of me.

What did I do?

I stopped.

I stepped back and remembered…

It’s not my job to make their education perfect.

It is my privilege and responsibility to connect with them through their learning. To learn with them, guide them from my own knowledge and respect their inner knowing.

It is not my job to hand it all to them on a platter and force them to eat. It is my privilege and responsibility to offer them the books and experiences that will meet their needs, and to encourage them when life and learning offer up challenges.

Most importantly, I had to remember that this family, large in size and chaos, is a gift from God. And it is exactly as it is supposed to be. I am not alone in this endeavor. It is not mine alone to shape or manipulate. This family – we learn together, support each other. And when I’m not so busy worrying about how it all depends on me, I remember that my greatest encourager, the One up above, always has my back!

How To Create a Well-Rounded Book List for Any Topic

How To Create a Well-Rounded Book List for Any Topic

If you’re reading this, you probably love books! Deciding which ones are worth your time and which ones should stay on the shelf can be daunting. The choices seem endless but our time is definitely not. I’m going to offer you some strategies for creating a book list that’s quality, balanced and feasible. Whether you are a homeschooler or a parent invested in bringing the beauty of books to your children, there are some great ideas here to inspire you and make the job of choosing books a little easier.

  1.  Choose from a variety of genres and perspectives.  No matter what the topic, there are ways to bring various types of books to your children.  Fictional stories can be supported with non-fiction texts and vice-versa.  Finding a poem to complement your reading list is typically pretty easy.  Biography, historical fiction, and folk tales, myths, etc.  With a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.  Choosing a variety of genres broadens our view of the topic and encourages us to discuss how ideas are connected.

For example, my family has been learning about the solar system lately.  It all began with a telescope for Christmas and A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky.  From there, I searched our library catalog and amazon to see what other books I could find.  Of course, there were many, many non-fiction books and I selected several.  But I was looking for more than that.  I wanted stories too. Nothing makes the facts come alive more than a story. So, I chose Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11, A Child’s Introduction to Greek Mythology, Look to the Stars, and Katie and the Starry Night.  With these four books, we got a glimpse of history, Greek mythology and how the night sky inspired a famous piece of art.  Each of these books deepened our understanding of the solar system by engaging our hearts and imaginations beyond the facts.  (By the way, the whole list, with links, is toward the end of this post.)

2. Be clear about your goals.  When you have an idea of what information you want to share with your children, it becomes much easier to decide which books to include on your list.  For example, my main goal for learning about the solar system was for my children to get a basic introduction to the planets, our moon, and the night sky, and to spark an interest in the history of space exploration.

So when I was choosing books, I kept these things in mind.  Because I wanted an introduction to the moon, I chose only two books about it, The Moon Book and If You Decide to Go to The Moon. The first offers just what we needed; facts, diagrams, and folklore.  The second still offers facts but did so in more of a story format.  Both were engaging enough to read several times.  Definitely the sign of a good book!

3. Keep it simple.  I have found that if I choose too many books on any give topic, we become overwhelmed.  I try to keep my list to about 10 books so that we can read and re-read without feeling rushed.

Our whole solar system book list is listed below.  As you can see, there are only 10 and a poem books on my list. But these selections are rich, engaging texts. Some are perfect for bedtime reading, some offer more in-depth information that we tackled in our morning read aloud time. Some spurred the kids on to create a map of the solar system or paint the phases of the moon. Others inspired them to look closely at the night sky and keep a moon journal. For this study, I didn’t plan out any specific activities for my children to complete. Giving them space to meet the ideas and connect with them on a personal level is more important to me than making sure they learn certain facts. As a result, the projects they created for themselves were meaningful and engaging. This isn’t to say that I didn’t give them a few ideas or offer up some activities, like painting the phases of the moon, but I did give them plenty of room to choose (or not choose) to participate.

Our Solar System Book List

(With links)

The Everything Kids Astronomy Book

A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky

G is for Galaxy

Every Planet Has a Place

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

The Planets of Our Solar System

If You Decide to Go to The Moon

A Child’s Introduction to Greek Mythology

The Moon Book

Katie and the Starry Night

The Moon was but a chin of gold, Poem by Emily Dickinson

Give yourself lots of time to enjoy the books on your list. It would be easy to try to speed through all 10 books in 10 days, but taking our time shows our children that books are not just to be consumed but savored.

What topic is your family learning about? Do you have a great book list to share?  Let’s chat in the comments.

How do you light the fire of learning?

How do you light the fire of learning?

education is

I never thought I’d homeschool my kids. I had played “school” before I had even stepped my five-year-old foot into my kindergarten classroom. I loved the new pencils and fresh, clean notebooks, the smell of the library and being read to. As a matter of fact, I still get a little giddy when I buy “school supplies” every fall.

My love of school led me to become a teacher. And I think I can say I was a fairly good teacher. I did my best to tune into the needs of each of my students and find creative, engaging ways to meet those needs. Teaching was a natural extension of who I am. It was me, my true self.

Then we had our first child and he kept growing and people kept saying, “You must be so excited. He’ll start school next year.” Suddenly, I was looking at the classroom from a whole new perspective. Not just my own as a teacher, but as a parent and as a child. I knew, from experience, that even the very best teachers cannot meet the needs of every student. Some students will be bored, some may get lost in the shuffle of assignments and books. I knew I wanted something different for my children.

And so we decided to give homeschooling a try. It has not always been an easy road. Every so often I contemplate putting them all of the bus in the morning. It has taught me that it isn’t school that I love. It’s learning. More than being a teacher, I am a learner, and a facilitator of learning.

Over the course of the last 12 years, we have tried on many, many homeschooling styles, and I have read countless books about educational philosophy. In the beginning, I was trying to figure out how to homeschool the right way. Eventually it dawned on me that there are many right ways. And what works for our family today may not tomorrow, and that’s ok. What is important is that I look at the children in front of me. That I put aside labels of what kind of homeschoolers we are. That I really be true to who we are.

And who are we? We’re relaxed, child-directed, mama-nudged, eclectic, book-loving, curiosity-driven, passionate learners. Sure, I still worry if I am preparing my children well enough for their futures, but guess what?! I can’t read the future. I don’t know what paths they will choose. But I do know that the choices I make today that allow them space to grow and learn are laying the foundation for whatever lies ahead. Modeling my own passion for learning and the joy of learning for learning’s sake, my children see what education is truly about. There is no way I could ever teach them all there is to know, but isn’t that the beauty of it all? Knowing that there is always something else to learn. Finding new ways to connect with the world and those around us. That, my friends, is the whole point. Because whatever educational path we choose for our children or ourselves, it means nothing unless it sets us on fire.

I love hearing from other parents about the ways in which they light the fire of learning.  What does it look like in your home?

5 Simple Steps for Using Picture Books to Teach Writing

5 Simple Steps for Using Picture Books to Teach Writing

using picture books

Teaching writing can be one of the most intimidating tasks a homeschool parent has to face. There are so many layers to it that it’s often hard to even know where to begin. We often feel like we need to be a professional writer to really teach our children writing. But I promise you, you already have the tools to guide your child as he learns to write.

You don’t need to be a writer. You need to be a reader.

And by the very nature of being a homeschooling parent, you probably are! You need to be an observant reader. One who can look closely at the words of an author and begin to see the words on the page as more than just information to be learned or a story to be shared. A reader who can adjust her eyes to the ways in which the author weaves the details of the text.

My favorite place to start teaching writing is with reading…picture books! So many of us already read aloud to our children on a regular basis so why not use what we are already reading to teach writing?! Picture books are typically pretty short, so the author has to be very intentional with the words he has chosen. The text of a picture book is full of wonderful examples of the qualities we would like to encourage in our children’s writing.

Inspired by some of my favorite writing resources (listed below) and spending time writing with my children and in the classroom, I have seen a simple rhythm emerge that connects reading and writing and allows the authenticity of both endeavors to shine through.

5 steps

  1. Read the book.  Take your time with the words.  Take it slow.  Allow their rhythm and cadence to pull you in.  For this example, I’ll refer to Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.
  2. Rest.  Put the book aside.  You’ve already started teaching writing by reading beautiful words to your children.  Let it rest.  Let the seeds of the language sprout.
  3. Discuss.  After reading the book and letting it rest, re-visit it the next day.  Re-read it and then pick just one sentence or section to focus on.  This one part of the book should represent one concept you want to focus on; strong beginnings, alliteration, varying sentence structure, describing the setting.  The list is really endless and what you choose will depend on the writer in front of you and the book you have read.  (This step may even come before step one.  You may have a particular skill you want to focus on and choose a book accordingly.)Back to our example….Owl Moon offers so many characteristics of quality writing.  The whole text is so poetic and the words so precise that you can’t help but feel like you are out owling on that winter night.For simplicity of discussion, we will focus how to use the book to encourage our children to use strong descriptions in their writing.  I could choose a sentence like:

“Our feet crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us.”

Discuss this one sentence. The author could have said, ‘We walked through the snow and made footprints.’ But instead, she chooses words that paint a vivid picture of exactly what is happening. Keep it simple and direct. Your message may get lost if you over-do it. Let the words of the author have space to speak and guide by example.

4. Practice.  Give your child time to try this out.  Applying what has just been learned is the best way to bring these new ideas into his own writing.  If he is keeping a writer’s notebook, he could pick out a sentence or two that he could re-write, adding more description.

Or you could make it into a collaborative task. You come up with the most boring, non-descriptive sentence you can think of. Something like, ‘We made cookies.’ Together, think of other ways you could say this so that you are painting a vivid picture for your reader.

We baked crispy cookies and gobbled them all up.

or

We licked crumbs off our lips so that there was nothing left of the cookies we made.

or

We rolled the dough flat and pressed little shapes into it with cookie cutters.

As you can see, each of these sentences tells more than simply saying ‘We made cookies.’ And the ways in which we can say the same thing are infinite. It is important that our children see that there are many ways to say the same thing and that they are no right or wrong answers.

However you choose to approach this step, allow lots and lots of time. Don’t rush it. If your child seems to be having trouble applying what he has learned, go back to steps 2 or 3. Sometimes, finding a second or third example is necessary to really allow the child to make it his own. Sometimes, though, taking a break is best, revisiting the idea in a day or two.

5.  Share.  Talk about how this worked for your child (and for you).  This step is crucial!  Allowing for an honest dialogue about how smoothly or not-so-smoothly we bring the skill or idea into our own writing, encourages our children to reflect as well.  It also sets the tone that writing is an authentic task and that we are learning together.  Reflecting together, allows each person’s voice to be heard and reaffirms that the child’s ideas and perspective are valid and valuable.

Even though I approach this process in a very informal, laid-back way, I have found it to be very effective! And fun! The best part is that writing becomes a joint activity, something we enjoy together. And when our children witness us reading and writing alongside them, they will see these as worthwhile, life-long learning.

If you need more ideas about how to use picture books to inspire your children’s writing, check out these resources.

writer's notebookteaching writingteaching nonfiction writing

Our First 3 Days of the Big Book Pile-Up

Our First 3 Days of the Big Book Pile-Up

The first three days of  The Big Book Pile-Up   have been so enjoyable.  It’s amazing what a little pre-planning can do for our read aloud time!  Just setting the intention to read aloud more often and with more variety has helped me make it a priority on our day and it feels so good to snuggle in on the couch with my kiddos several times a day!  Even if the rest of our day is super busy, the connection we make in the morning and evening carries us through.

Here are a few of the books we’ve been reading so far….

moon for  walk

Day 1.   I Took the Moon for a Walk  (read a picture book)

We started The Big Book Pile-Up with a favorite of my youngest kids, I Took the Moon for a Walk.  They love the illustrations and the poetic text.  It makes a perfect night-time book and ties in perfectly with our study of the solar system.  I love it when that happens:)

moon book

Day 2.  The Moon Book (read non-fiction)

Day two found us reading The Moon Book.  I have always been a fan of Gail Gibbons.  She has a true gift for bringing non-fiction to life for young learners.  We find ourselves returning again and again to her books.  There is so much information in this picture book that we have decided to re-read a section at a time.

mr popper penguins

Day 3.   Mr. Popper’s Penguins (read a Newberry Award winner)

From the first chapter, we fell in love with this book.  It’s a really fun read-aloud!  It’s funny and moves along at just the right pace.  And the chapters are short, which makes it a perfect book if you can only squeeze in a little bit of reading time.

What is your family reading right now?

Fanning the Flame: Encouraging Creativity in Our Children’s Writing

Fanning the Flame: Encouraging Creativity in Our Children’s Writing

writing notebook

One of my very favorite things to do is share the joy of writing with children. They are so full of ideas and stories. Adults often find themselves envious of the child’s imagination and creativity. Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, many adults feel as though they have lost the ability to imagine and create. How sad this is!

Unfortunately, the step-by-step approach we often take with writing with children seems to smother that creativity and turn writing into a chore rather than honor the art form that it is. I’ve seen children, brimming with creative spark, move from writing for the pure joy of sharing their thoughts to writing what they think others, mainly the adults in their lives, want to hear. The children are looking for the right answer according to the adult.

The child’s writing is no longer an expression of himself, but a reflection of the expectations of the adult.

What if the way we teach writing is all wrong? What if we shouldn’t ‘teach’ it at all? What if our job, as the adults, is simply to mentor our children on their journey as writers?

In What a Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher says that writers need mentors. Wherever a writer is along his writing path, he needs a mentor who is more experienced than he is. This is good news for all the parents who feel like they can’t help their children as they develop their writing skills. Just by the fact that we have been alive longer than our children, most of us have more experience with writing and can act as a mentor.

But what does a mentor do? Ralph Fletcher lists six traits of a good mentor.

  1. A Mentor has high standards.
  2. A mentor builds on strengths.
  3. A Mentor values originality and diversity.
  4. A mentor encourages students to take risks.
  5. A mentor is passionate.
  6. A mentor looks at the big picture.

The attributes of the mentor are what most parents would say they want for their children, high standards, originality, passion. What better way to encourage these traits in our children than to model them.

We can see that nowhere on this list does it say, ‘the mentor assigns writing topics’ or ‘the mentor grades the writing’ or ‘the mentor picks apart the writing until the original piece can’t be seen and the child is turned off to writing.’

I know that the last comment seems harsh but I have seen it happen again and again. When anyone, a child or an adult, shares his or her writing, that person is opening up a part of themselves. As a mentor, we must treat the vulnerability of this exposure with respect. If we do otherwise, we will not be given the honor of being invited into the writer’s creative space again.

So it is our privilege and responsibility to act as guide, helping our children to build upon the strengths and passion they naturally bring to writing, holding the space for them to authentically express themselves, and honoring that the words and ideas within them are worth sharing.

The Big Book Pile-Up Printables

The Big Book Pile-Up Printables

There’s nothing like fresh, fun paper with lots of blank space to inspire us to fill it up!  I’ve made a few printables that I hope you will find useful no matter how you decide to participate in The Big Book Pile-Up.  Whether you decide to read a book a day for 30 days or to take a more leisurely pace. Whether you want to tackle the list in its printed order or pick and choose which type of book to read on a particular day, there is a printable for you!  You should be able to click on the page and print it.  If it doesn’t work, send me a note and I’ll get send you an email with the pages attached.  Happy Reading!

Watch your books pile up as you keep track of the books you read together.  This one is two pages so that there's plenty of room in case you read more than one book on a given day!
Watch your books pile up as you keep track of the books you read together. This one is two pages so that there’s plenty of room in case you read more than one book on a given day!
big book pile up printable 1a
This is page 2 and goes with the page above to create a record of all 30 days of reading.
big book pile up printable 2
This is the reading list in its original form. Take it to the library. Jot down notes about books you want to read that fit each category. Use it however works best for you!
big book pile up printable 3
This is the reading list in bulleted form so you can use it as a checklist if you want to pick and choose which type of book you read each day. The checklist will help you keep track of what you’ve read and what you still have to look forward to.