Changing Things Up

Every year around this time I get the urge to change up our homeschool a bit ~ keeping what’s working and tweaking what’s not. I spent a whole day recently reworking our homeschool routine in the hopes of streamlining it and making it more engaging (and perhaps a bit more Charlotte Mason – like). We have been doing a few separate BookShark levels for years in our home, and really, it has worked well. But lately, I have been feeling the call to do more things together, both because it’s more fun, and to save some time.

To make things clearer, Grace is my tenth grader, Christopher my eighth grader, James my sixth grader, and Rose my third grader – and when I say “daily” I mean Monday through Thursday. Friday is our art and catch-up day.

*My tweaked homeschool plan for all four kids*

~ Grammar ~

~ Spelling & Vocabulary ~

~ Writing ~

Everyone: Work daily on a Writing Strands assignment, with a one week break between assignments. If a given assignment isn’t to their liking, they have the option of writing a history or science summary instead, and I always let them tweak the assignments if the given one doesn’t interest them. We are currently using levels 3, 4, and 5 of Writing Strands in our home.

James & Christopher: Work on Typing Instructor daily (for 10-15 minutes)
Rose & James: Do 1/2 to 1 page of Zaner-Bloser handwriting daily

~ Math ~

Everyone: Complete one Teaching Textbooks lesson daily. We are currently using Algebra II, Pre-Algebra, Level 6, and Level 3 of this program.

Rose: practice facts with Flashmaster  daily (2 rounds); watch Mathtacular for about 30 minutes weekly.

~ Poetry ~

Everyone: Work on memorizing a poem of their choice daily; listen to 2-3 poems read aloud daily. We are going to do this all together, focusing on one poet at a time, beginning with E.E. Cummings.

~ History ~

This is where things get interesting. Grace and Christopher each have a few weeks left of their BookShark levels (100 and 7), and we have decided not to continue with Sonlight or BookShark for them (I’ll tell you why some other time).

Since they are both reading about the early 1900’s now, I decided to pull everyone (mostly) into a study of modern history, while continuing with some of their independent BookShark readings on the side. So…

Everyone: Listen daily to a double-page spread of The History of the Modern World. Discuss, then choose an event or two to add to their timeline book.

Then, to supplement this reading:

Rose and I will keep to our current routine of BookShark reading, but she listens in on the combined history/lit most days as well.

~ Literature ~

This will be very loosely matched up with our modern history timeline. We are combining for a read-aloud, then having everyone read their own book on the side.

Our current titles are:

I will try to share my planned list of read-alouds and independent history and literature reading soon.

~ Science ~ 

Everyone: weekly nature study (in nicer weather months; first I plan to do a Shakespeare study starting after Christmas ~ more details on that after the holidays)

Grace: She was finding her chemistry text a bit dull, so we are going to switch it up with Life of Fred Chemistry, living books, plus the labs from her current chemistry textbook (Discovering Design with Chemistry)

Christopher: Continue with BookShark Science 6 readings, but skip the worksheets; we will discuss the reading instead. He’ll supplement this with Janice Van Cleave’s Chemistry for Every Kid, since the BKSK experiments haven’t been that great

James & Rose: Read living science books with me once weekly and do an experiment from Home Science Adventures once weekly

~ Art ~

  • Everyone: weekly picture study (six weeks on the same artist, currently Norman Rockwell)
  • Grace: 1 art project weekly from Artistic Pursuits Senior High Book One
  • Christopher & James: 1 art project weekly from Drawing Lab
  • Rose: 1 art project weekly from Artistic Pursuits K-3 Book Two
~ Music ~

I plan to bring along music when we head out, since we spend so much time in the car. Music is one subject I have not found easy to fit in. I plan to start with The Nutcracker, with a nod to the season, and I plan to just mention what we are listening to and leave it at that!
We have been following this plan for a couple of weeks now, and it is working well. Of course, now that it is nearly December, some of our best laid plans are left undone pretty much daily! My next post will be all about our Advent plans this year…and hopefully I will be able to get it together far sooner than I did this one!
Till next time!

Charlotte Mason with Sonlight: Literature

I am really liking Sonlight for literature and reading lists. But I also really love the Charlotte Mason approach to literature: read good books and have the kids narrate. Combining Sonlight and Charlotte Mason in the literature department is not at all difficult. Although Sonlight does include oral comprehension questions in the Instructor’s Guide to go along with each day’s reading, they encourage you to skip the questions and just discuss on your own.

What I do is:

I read the Sonlight literature book, as scheduled in the Sonlight instructor’s guide for each Core. We are currently doing Cores B and D, so we have two separate literature read-alouds each day.  For Cores after Core B the books are often historical fiction, tying into the time period being studied. I really enjoy this aspect of Sonlight- that they’ve already pulled together all these books that are set in the same time period.

After completing the scheduled reading (or sometimes half-way through, if the reading is difficult), I choose one part, usually the most action-packed scene, and ask one of the kids to tell it back to me. I don’t have them narrate the whole chapter and I don’t like to pick the book to death by analyzing and over-discussing it. So I’ll just say something like: “Tell me why Kit is afraid of Prudence going to visit Hannah at her cottage.” (Witch of Blackbird Pond) or “Tell me back the story of Gooney Bird and the Flying Carpet.” (Gooney Bird Greene)

 I expect a more detailed answer from Grace (11) than I do from Christopher (9) or James (7).  If necessary, I prompt them to give more information. If they are unsure, I give a hint to try to nudge them in the general direction. And if they flat out don’t know, I think of another question. I don’t ask for a narration every day-each child probably only narrates something from our read-aloud once a week.

This is all we do for the books- read, narrate, discuss a little, and move onto the next subject. We don’t do anything written with the books (except for copywork and dictation occasionally), and I don’t require book reports. I try to keep the reading a light and fun part of the day, something everyone looks forward to.

I have found that kids who have trouble focusing and staying quiet during read-alouds do much better if they can do something with their hands while I read. They can knit, draw, or use blocks or Legos. Much less fidgeting this way! My rule is, if you can narrate successfully while building a block castle, we’re good. If not, you need to sit on the couch next to me while I read. So far so good-and this greatly reduces the number of interruptions during our reading time.

All in all, I think Sonlight’s literature read-alouds work quite well with a Charlotte Mason approach. Some read-alouds in the earlier years might be considered a bit ‘twaddly’, but in general they are really good quality literature. Sonlight also schedules readers each week, which I simply have the kids read to themselves each day. I ignore the included comprehension questions here too, in favor of having each child  narrate to me a part or whole of the chapter. They usually look forward to telling me what happened in their book each day. I have also found  that if I am busy doing something, my reluctant narrators will narrate better than if I am just sitting there looking at them. So often, after one of the boys has finished their chapter I will say,” Come tell me what happened in your book while I unload the dishwasher.” I think they feel less self-conscious this way…. and sometimes they go on for quite awhile telling me all about the chapter!

Sonlight & Our Routine

I have come up with a routine for our lessons each day. I would call it a schedule, but there are not particular times associated with anything, nor do we necessarily do things in the same order each day. I would love to have everything happen according to my pretty plan…don’t plans always look so nice on paper? But naturally, each day is prone to it’s own chaos and with four children odds are one of them (at least) will be difficult….so the order of things is often screwed up. However,  this routine is so simple that even when issues crop up, we can still usually get our work done. Currently, we are using Sonlight Cores C and P 3/4. My older two switched to Oak Meadow this year, but we are heading back to all Sonlight and back to our old routine this coming August.

Our Routine

I start each day with the read-aloud, because it’s easier to get everyone together for that before they go off in separate directions. Two separate Cores means two separate read-alouds, plus the P 3/4 books. I usually do our more advanced Core first while my younger Core kids play or start independent work. Then I swap, doing the next Core’s read-aloud while the older kids start on math and their independent readings. I do our P 3/4 read-alouds a bit later in the morning, after snack time while everyone else works independently.

While I am working with one child, the other kids are working on their independent lists. Or, more likely, fighting with each other, running around in circles, daydreaming in the bathroom, or sneaking off to play with Legos (!)…but they are supposed to be working on their independent lists. And for the most part, they do, but it does take some training!

The independent list includes:

Any Sonlight readings we have decided will be independent
Review Latin chants and do a page or two of Latin work
Work on handwriting (my boys only)
Life of Fred-read more about how we do math here

So our lesson routine (Monday-Thursday) goes like this….we usually start around 8:30….

Read Aloud from Sonlight Cores
Math for all, plus independent work during “wait for Mom” times.
Snack break at 10-I usually discuss some of the older kids’ reading during this time.
Language Arts-we are currently using Sonlight Language Arts, everyone at their own level
For the rest of the morning (until about 12:30) we just work on whatever is next in our instructor’s guide. ~I try to alternate between the Cores and grab some time to read the preschool books to my little as well~
We do stop early for outside classes on Wednesday, but the other days I try to keep us working until 12:30. I will often discuss some of the readings with the kids during lunch.

Our Friday Schedule:

Do an art project while listening to some classical music.
Work on nature journals and/or nature study.
Do picture study. More on how we do that here
With any time left, catch up on any Sonlight readings/activities not finished during week

Friday is a short day because we have homeschool group.

So that’s the plan, and it really is helpful to have a plan, even though it frequently needs to get tossed out the window or rearranged. It’s always helpful to have a goal in mind! Really though, the best thing I ever did to organize our homeschool was to set specific hours to do it in. I try not to make appointments during this time, but even if I do need to, we rarely do lessons in the afternoons. I would personally rather do a bit of light schooling in the summer than feel rushed to finish everything each day. Plus there are a lot of other things we want and need to do!

Experiment Results

Well, it’s been a month since our relaxed homeschool experiment began. I wanted to experiment with a more laid-back, interest-led style of learning…basically the 3R’s, a read-aloud or two, and everything else would be just what the kids wanted to do.

I was just about to type that the experiment was a failure, since I think we need to go back to more structure. But I guess, really, it could also be considered a success. I have learned a ton from it. I have learned that…

 -The kids just don’t seem as engaged and interested as they did when we were doing more stuff together.

 -The kids spent the first few days doing lots of fun and educational things, but that quickly tapered off, and by mid-afternoon nearly every day now someone is complaining of boredom.

-The kids don’t have as  much to say at dinner when Dad asks them what they did today. The response is almost invariably “nothing“.

-While the kids loved the idea of making up lists for themselves, after the first week or two, interest waned.

I also learned that….

-I really do better with a more structured day. I miss having a routine. It feels easier to have a routine and more structure with these four kids.The key, I think, is flexibility within the structure. Interest-led learning is a great concept, and I truly believe it would work well for many families. For me, though, I feel like it’s going to lead to burn-out. I like the structure, I really do  miss it. The days are harder without it.

-I missed reading and talking about stuff with the kids. Not that we didn’t do that during our “relaxed month”, but it wasn’t quite the same, and we didn’t do it as often because the kids were frequently off and doing their own thing.

-I miss Sonlight! Didn’t think I’d say that, but it’s true.  I really miss having the plans laid out for me, knowing what I’m going to do each day, and having a book list all set to go. I miss all the good books we were reading. The clincher for me was when the new Sonlight catalog arrived in the  mail earlier in the week. Made me want to go straight back and finish the Cores we started.


We’re going to do that. I talked it over with the kids. Christopher and James were both happy. They say they LOVE Sonlight (can’t remember them saying that while we were doing it before, but maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder). Grace was less thrilled, saying she likes what we are doing now. Yet she is the one who frequently feels most bored! When I showed her what we would be doing for science, she perked up. I think this will work.

So I could say this was  a failed experiment, but I don’t think it was. We haven’t done any Sonlight since Christmas. We spent January and February doing a Charlotte Mason approach loosely based on Ambleside, and we spent March on the relaxed interest-led learning. So we’re way behind where we “should” be for Sonlight, but that’s okay.

To be honest, all the switching around we did this year makes me feel like a new homeschool mom again-totally confused and overwhelmed.  Now I see though, that I really do love a lot of things about Sonlight (well except that I have to secularize it….). But I feel like I can go back to Sonlight now and do it in a different way, with a different attitude. Not so much focus on getting the boxes checked, more focus on keeping things light and fun, and treating our studies like an adventure.  I hope I can carry that attitude through. I want to.

I will still be incorporating a lot of Charlotte Mason into our lives: using narration, and continuing with nature study, and just reading a lot of great books. I think a Charlotte Mason approach could work well with the Sonlight books.   I need to think more about how exactly we will do this, but for now that’s the plan.

Next week, we’re going back to Sonlight.

How We Do Charlotte Mason: History

We are studying U.S. History this year, after two years of studying world history. We are really taking our time with this, moving slowly along in chronological order. Right now we are reading about colonial times. This is how we do it:

On Mondays and Wednesdays I read one section from George Washington’s World. This is a narrative history, used in Ambleside’s curriculum. As we read, we discuss and narrate in a very informal manner. Afterwards, we look up the location we read about on the map, and if there is anything to add to the timeline, we do so. For our timeline, we write an event on the front of an index card, such as “Revolutionary War Starts”. On the back of the card, we write the date. Then I do a google image search to find some clipart or a small photo to print out and paste on the front of the index card. The finished cards are clipped onto our timeline.  I only add major events to the timeline, and, to be honest, we haven’t been adding to it much lately. 

Next, we read page or two of Colonial Days. We discuss and, if we have time that day, we do a short related project. So far we have made a model weather vane, ordered herb seeds to start indoors, and planned to try our hand at tapping maple trees later this month. Most of the projects will be done as a family, on afternoons and weekends.

Besides the read-alouds and projects, the kids always have a biography going. I let them choose a biography subject from the people we have encountered in our readings.They read 2-4 chapters of their chosen biography each week. I ask for at least one oral narration from the biographies each week.

And that’s how we do history! I used to require a short history paper each week but, since starting Bravewriter, I have not done so. In the future, I may require some of their Bravewriter writing projects to have a history theme.

How We Do Charlotte Mason: Poetry

We have a very simple poetry method around here. Every day at our snack break, around 10 o’clock, I read a poem aloud. I read the same poem each day for one week. The first day we discuss it a little, on the other days I just read it. Currently, we are working through Poetry For Young People: Robert Frost. We have several of the other books in this series. They are all beautifully illustrated, and they all focus on just one poet: very Charlotte Mason friendly. I love this particular volume, because the poems are broken up by season. We have been reading through the winter poems for the past couple weeks.

In addition to the daily poem, the kids choose one poem at a time to work on memorizing.  They usually choose from Favorite Poems Old and New, or one of the Jack Prelutsky books. The boys choose Prelutsky poems pretty much every time. My inclination is to encourage (or make) them pick a more “serious” poet. But they like poetry, and that’s what’s important to me right now.  So I let them pick what they like. They read the poem to themselves three times, three days a week.

When they feel like they have their poem memorized, I have them write it out from memory.  I copy out a line or two at a time for James to copy, since he needs more help with spelling. The kids work on writing out their poems a little each week during copywork time. I encourage them to illustrate their poems, but so far, only Grace enjoys doing so. Finished poems are filed in the kids’ language arts binder. Then they choose a new poem to learn.

That’s how we do poetry for now. I just signed up for the Bravewriter emails though, and I really like her poetry teatime idea, so I  may try to fit that into our routine as well.

How We do Charlotte Mason: Math

Sometimes I think math is the bane of my homeschool mom existence.


It just seems to take sooo long. With three kids, math takes up much of our morning. I am doing math or supervising math for an hour and a half  most days.

When I write that, it doesn’t seem too bad. But some mornings, it seems like math lasts forever. It’s important to me though. I was never comfortable with math in school and I got the grades to prove it. I never really understood it the right way. With my kids, I’ve been relearning math, and while I don’t think I will ever have  a “math mind”, I am getting more comfortable with math.

We have used RightStart all along. It’s one of the more teacher intensive programs out there, until you reach Level D, which Grace is using right now. Then the child does much more independent work, which frees me up to work with another child. Christopher is currently in Level C, and James is in Level B. The first time around that we did Charlotte Mason I took her short lesson philosophy to heart and kept the math lesson to around 10 minutes for age five, gradually progressing to 20-25 minutes for older kids. This way, math took up much less of our day.

This didn’t work perfectly though.  We got very behind in the levels since we were rarely able to finish a lesson in a day. The Righstart lessons are designed to be finished in a day, except for the lessons that are specified as two or three day lessons. On the RightStart website, it does state that some levels may take more than a year to finish, and I’m okay with that. But in order to keep my oldest on track to start algebra in a couple of years, I started doing one lesson per day, even though it takes much longer.

One of my Charlotte Mason books does say that short lessons don’t necessarily apply to math, and in her schools “number” often lasted an hour per day. So I’m trying to be okay with the longer math sessions, even though they sometimes wear me out. I do stop after 25-30 minutes with the younger two,  allowing time for at least one of them to play a math game with me. One of the things I love about RightStart is all the games that are included in the lesson book and the accompanying math games book. That’s the fun part for my kids!

So right now, how we do math is this…

After I read our literature chapter for the day, I start Grace on her warmup worksheet, which typically includes division problems and an equation puzzle. Then I start one of the boys on their lesson, since they usually both need help/explanations. The other boy starts on his independent work list and I fold him in as I have time. As much as possible, I try to have all three doing math at once, to condense the amount of time I’m teaching it.

On a good day we are finished with math by 10. On a dawdling day, which I’m sorry to say is most days, we are still at it at 10:30. I know that Charlotte Mason would say if the child “is growing stupid over the math lesson, put it away and have them do something different, then come back to it”, but this doesn’t feel terribly practical to me with four kids. I just want to do the math and move on! So I do the juggling and exhorting thing. If I had a dollar for every time I said “Stop doing xxx and finish that sheet!!”, I’d be able to hire a math tutor.