Archive for the ‘Unit Studies’ Category

Using Comic Cards for Narration

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My boys were not enthusiastic writers. We would read piles of books together, which they thoroughly enjoyed as long as the books were interesting.  And they were happy to talk about the reading, as long as I didn’t call it “narration” (because that sounded too contrived or schoolish), but when it came to “Let’s write a paragraph about what happened during the War of 1812,” there was absolutely zero interest in this.

Being a fairly laid-back sort of homeschooling mom, I didn’t want to force them to write, but I was a bit anxious. It seemed like they ought to occasionally write something. I also felt that keeping some sort of history timeline would be helpful, because we would sometimes jump from Ancient Greece to Early American History to Medieval Europe, and they needed some way to put it all in perspective. I finally had the idea to try something that my oldest son was already doing – drawing comics.

He could spend 45 minutes with one sheet of blank paper, drawing epic space battles with laser blasts and little text bubbles for the characters to hurl insults at one another. So, I suggested that he illustrate scenes from our reading on a small 3 X 5 card, and then we would collect the cards to lay down on a timeline. He thought this was a fine idea, and my younger son was happy to do whatever his big brother was doing.


It worked pretty well. After reading, the boys would choose something to illustrate and I would write a short description of the event because they believed that even this would be too much writing. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they started writing their own descriptions on the front or back of the card. We also included the date of the event on the back of the card.

Each boy had his own index card box to store the cards, and once a month or so, we would lay all the cards down on a timeline on the floor. I had purchased a roll of adding machine paper and used about 20 feet to mark out time periods. When we taped the paper to the floor, the boys used the dates on the back of their cards to lay them out in the proper order. It was tricky because some areas would have LOTS of cards (Early American time period), while some areas would have none. This did make an impression though, because we all realized, “Hey –  I have no idea what happened during these 600 years!” It was humbling.


Eventually, as the boys got older, they did learn to write well (perhaps a subject for another post), but drawing timeline comics on the index cards provided easy nonthreatening preparation for note-taking in those early years. For one thing, the small size of the card seemed more manageable. They weren’t faced with a full sheet of blank notebook paper to fill. Plus, using dialogue bubbles meant that they could write without worrying about complete sentences or exact punctuation. They also enjoyed seeing what the other brother created for each event. It was always a secret until they finished and traded cards.

I’ll mention another idea for cards here – if your kids like to collect and play with cards such as “Pokemon” or “Magic the Gathering,” they might enjoy making similar cards for history, science or literary characters. My only advice would be to give them plenty of artistic license. It wouldn’t be any fun if they couldn’t use their imaginations to embellish the truth a bit!

Do you have any other ideas for using index cards in your homeschool?

What the World’s Best Basketball Coach Can Teach You About How to Homeschool

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John WoodenThe late John Wooden was a highly esteemed coach who built up the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse team with 10 National Championships. The Sporting News named him “The Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009, and he wrote several books about his principles of coaching, success and leadership. There is a lot we could learn from him, but the wisdom I’d like to borrow from him today is about the way he taught athletes during practice.

He used what is known as the whole-part-whole framework: first introduce the big concept, then break it down into smaller parts, then put the parts back together after they are mastered. Wooden carefully planned all of his practices, using 3X5 cards to keep his drills and teaching points in order. He was adamant about the fundamentals of ball handling, and took the time to teach his players exactly how to do each move, routinely demonstrating first the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again. His feedback to the players was short, concise, and packed with useful information related to the task at hand.

He also kept his practices moving along, keeping the players focused and alert, with the first half devoted to new material and the second half devoted to repetition of previously learned skills. He believed that his players must be able to perform the fundamentals so well that they don’t need to think about them. Then, during games, their attention could be focused on the dynamics of the court.

John Wooden’s methods worked spectacularly well in basketball, and I think they could work equally well in any teaching environment. But the thing to remember is that he didn’t teach his skill drills in isolation. He taught them within the context of something the players cared about – basketball.

A lot of the skills that students are expected to learn in school, such as reading, writing and multiplication, are indeed fundamental and require lots of practice. However, teaching them in isolation, with one workbook for every subject is hardly ideal. Teachers are then forced to find some external motivation such as bribes, praise, or punishment  to keep the kids’ attention.

The better way is to teach basic skills within the context of something your kids already care about or have an interest in learning. This is really pretty easy when kids are little. Have you ever used the “Five in a Row” curriculum series developed by Jane Claire Lambert? They are an excellent example of using something a child cares about, in this case a wonderful storybook, as a starting point to teach various skills or concepts. My family LOVED using these books, and I was sad when we outgrew them.

Another thing we used were certain Scholastic math skills books because my kids thought they were fun. They loved outlandish word problems, riddles, and games. Educational software games were a hit too.

It gets harder to do this as kids get older because you probably won’t find prepared lesson plans full of advanced skill-builders in the topics that your kids most want to learn about. In this case, you might have to come up with your own 3X5 cards with ideas for practicing the fundamentals – this is the virtue of “Unit Studies.” You might be able to find pre-packaged unit studies that suit your student, but be wary. I’ve seen a lot of dull stuff out there, clearly written by people who don’t have a passion for the topic.

Better yet is to work with your student to craft your own unit study. Take whatever they are passionate about, say fashion, and brainstorm ways your child could practice some of the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along the way, there will undoubtedly be a smattering of history, geography, sociology, critical thinking about media and pop culture, and who knows what else.

John Wooden was able to keep the same stack of 3X5 cards and use them over and over again because he always had students who were interested in the same thing: becoming better basketball players. You will not be able to do that because your kids will all be motivated by something different. But you can use the same framework of whole-part-whole.

Can you think of ways to teach skills within the context of something your child is already interested in learning?

Reluctant Report Writing

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I was never the sort of homeschooler who assigned reports, and it wasn’t the sort of thing my kids spontaneously decided to do on their own. But sometimes, they would be invited to do some research about something and present it to others at a science fair, world culture fair or other homeschool group activity. This was usually a lot of fun, and the kids were happy to put in the work if it meant that somebody else might see it.

The tricky thing is trying to show kids what is meant by a report or a science fair project. What does one look like? The intent of a report is to convey information about a topic, based on research from a variety of sources (properly cited of course), and presented in an engaging manner, but the format really depends on the intended audience.

In our own school days, we were taught the old fashioned report format, with the title page, introduction, multiple paragraphs, conclusion, and maybe a few illustrations or diagrams. There is nothing terribly wrong with this format, and it does prepare young writers for bigger, more complex writing assignments in the world of academia or business. But it’s very hard for beginning writers to do this well, and it certainly isn’t fun.

There are so many skills involved with writing these reports: picking a suitable topic; picking suitable research sources; how to research; how to take notes; how to cite sources; how to organize the information; deciding what is important; how to write in complete sentences; how to write a paragraph; how to format the paper; deciding what to say; spelling and grammar. It’s hard to do all of this, even as an adult.

I suggest postponing the old-fashioned report format until your kids are more comfortable with writing in general, and instead concentrate on other ways to assemble and present information. Writing regularly is still important, but there are ways to build fluency without making your kids hate it (more on that in a future post).

Here’s just a few ideas for alternative report formats:

  • Write and illustrate a book for small children (perhaps younger siblings?) about the subject.
  • Create a short video documentary, using basic video editing software to add captions and effects.
  • Create a “National Public Radio” style report using a recording device, or presented live.
  • Create a mixed-media poster with copies of photos from the web or magazines, drawings, diagrams, text boxes, etc.
  • Try “lapbooking” or “notebooking,” or any other form of inventive book making. Check out this Pinterest board to see what I’m talking about.
  • Use graphic organizers to present information. Here’s a great site I found with fish-bone diagrams, Venn diagrams, timelines, and other fun ways to arrange the details of any topic.
  • Create a fake Facebook page on this site. This would be especially useful for history or biography based reports. Your kids can also see examples of what other students have created.
  • Write a satirical song, news report, or poem (some kids are highly motivated by sarcasm).

With any of these formats, it’s important to show kids an example first. If they don’t know what a lapbook or a poster looks like, they may be hesitant to try it. No worries though, because you can find all kinds of examples, including images from homeschooling families, with a simple Internet search. Also, any of these projects will take time, and probably some of your help to figure out how to get started, and how to use the computer/printer/etc.  Be careful not to take over though, and remember that the process is just as valuable as the final product.

It is not a small thing to learn how to organize thoughts and ideas; and presenting ideas in a visual format is really the way of the future. The computer has made it so easy to create graphic reports and presentations that now there are endless creative possibilities for sharing knowledge. Don’t be afraid to try something different!

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

Homeschool Plans for 12th Grade

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The only child I’m homeschooling at the moment is my second son Aengus. He is in 12th grade this year and getting together his college applications so we have a lot to do.

Here’s what we have planned so far:

He’s taking Spanish II and Physics for dual credit this semester at our local community college (not sure yet what he will be taking next semester)

AP Calculus at home – probably using Thinkwell’s online course but we’re still reviewing

English/Language Arts at home  – Aengus will select a list of “living books” to read, plus “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose; and he’ll go through assignments from Julie Bogart’s “Help for High School” Brave Writer program.

Computer Science at home – this takes up the most time because Aengus has been feverishly programming a new homeschooling recordkeeping/planning application for Mac (for more info see: He has been programming with Windows languages for years but only started learning Mac about a year ago.

We still need to work out something for social studies/history so he’ll have enough appropriate credits for college applications. Aengus isn’t really interested in another general American or World History course. He’s more interested in specific subjects that may or may not relate to one another, so we’ll have to be creative. Here’s what we are thinking:

  • Fall Semester: Understanding events in the Middle East (this would take several lifetimes to learn, so we can only cover a tiny bit):  “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain, “Islam – A Short History” by Karen Armstrong, “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” by Sandy Tolan; and maybe “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” by Daniel Yergan.
  • Spring Semester: History mixed with science: “The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye view of World History” by Robert McNeill and William McNeill and “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

On the side, Aengus and his brother are learning how to do online video tutorials. They want to make a series of how to build/reproduce ancient architecture in the Minecraft game. This will involve a certain amount of research into the landscape and architecture of ancient Greece, Babylon, Egypt and other places. With any luck, they’ll become rich and famous YouTube stars!

Aengus also takes regular drumming lessons and is looking for a band to play with (in all his free time!).

If anyone has suggestions for our history/social studies books – I’d love to hear them!

Resource for Great History Books

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I found the following link while searching for good historical fiction:

It is called A Guide to the Best Historical Novels and Tales by Jonathan Nield, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.  Wow!  It makes me want to clear my schedule and just read for the next three years.  Mr. Nield has even included a special section at the end covering recommended literature for youth.  The only problem is he stopped the list at the 19th Century and I was trying to find books about the early 20th Century.

Never mind that – it’s still a great resource!

The Joy of Biographies

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“There is properly no history; only biography.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I never used to read biographies, unless required by school.  I remember an assignment in High School where I was supposed to write a report about any person of my choice.  Scanning the biography shelves of of my school library, it seemed like I didn’t know any of the names except for founding fathers or movie stars, so I decided to pick a book at random.  It was about Aristotle Onassis.  Whew!  What a life – and what an eye opener for a small prairie-town girl to read about a worldly, multi-millionaire business mogul.  It made an impression on me far beyond any history textbook or lecture I heard in the classroom.

For some reason, I didn’t read biographies again until many years later when I picked up my education again after college.  Since then, I’ve learned so much!  Never mind the occasional factual errors or image distortions, there is so much context surrounding a single person’s life, that we can learn a lot about their place and time.  I’ve learned about Tin Pan Alley, the Gilded Age, New England mill towns, the Chicago World Fair, houseboating on the Nile, ranch life in New Mexico, British boarding schools, the Boxer Rebellion in China along with hundreds of other things.

I’ve also learned about the politics, people, technology, customs and concerns of the times these people lived, especially when one life overlaps with another biography I’ve read.  It’s a terrific way to learn history.  But I have found that one biographer’s interpretation of events does not necessarily match another author’s version.  For very controversial figures, such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt, it’s quite interesting to read and compare conservative vs. liberal leaning biographies, or old vs. new biographies (newer biographies of political leaders have access to newly unclassified documents).  I also like to scan the sources they used.

This year, my sons and I were trying to decide what to do for history since we’ve already done a cursory overview of most time periods.  I left it up to them what they want to dig into next and they decided to skip around, reading biographies of different people in different times.  My oldest son is in love with Shakespeare and theatre in general so he’s captivated with stories about playwrights.  My second son is interested in science, business and technology so he’s reading about inventors and entrepreneurs such as Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, the Google founders and Warren Buffett.

I think most people avoid biographies because they’ve only been exposed to those boring commissioned-for-school-libraries type books.  Instead, look for well-written labors of love.  If the children’s section of your local library is light on biographies, try finding what you want online first then requesting it from your librarian.  Teens can often find good books in the adult section, but be aware that means they’ll usually learn all about the love lives of their subject too.  Just wait till your 16 year old finds out Ben Franklin’s thoughts on choosing a young vs. an older mistress!  It’s probably no worse than what they see in the movies.

Pulling Together a Last-Minute Curriculum

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Just before Fall Break, my twelve-year old daughter decided to call an end to her public middle school experiment.  She had really enjoyed the switch from home-school to 6th grade at the local elementary school but middle school was disappointing.  It was just too big and time-consuming, and the adolescent culture was overwhelming (lots of swearing, fighting, etc…).  So we were happy to withdraw her from school, but that meant I had to come up with a home-school plan quick.

Fortunately, I’ve already been through 7th grade with my two older sons so I had a pretty good idea what would work with her.  My daughter and I first had a brainstorming session to see what she wanted to learn/do.  Her requests were:  more art, more history, no reading comprehension questions, “how things work,” and creative book reports with posters, dioramas, etc… 

I let her decide which period of history to start with and she chose to continue on from Ancient Rome which her class had been studying in 6th grade.  Since I always use living books for history it was pretty easy to come up with a list from various Charlotte Mason web sites (plus I had already read them to my boys).  The backbone of our study will be Augustus Caesar’s World by Genevieve Foster.

For “how things work,” it was an easy choice to use David Macauley’s wonderful book The New Way Things Work.  I still have the activity/construction set that went with it seven years ago so that will keep her busy for the rest of the semester.

For math, I showed her examples of the top three curriculum products I thought would work best for her learning style and she choice Teaching Textbooks “Math 7.”  It was the most expensive option, but I LOVE Teaching Textbooks.  My boys have used it for Algebra II and Geometry (very rigorous!) and they are about to start in on the Pre-Calculus.

Although my daughter did not suggest this, she happily agreed to study Africa for geography this semester.  I already had a book called Trail Guide to World Geography by Cindy Wiggers which gives lots of great ideas for mapping, fact-finding, projects and activities to go with any region of the world for different age groups.

Finding which books to use is actually the easy (and fun) part for me.  The hard part is laying it out ahead of time in my “Homeschool Tracker program.”  It is very time-consuming at first to create lesson plans for everything but it pays off later because all I have to do is punch a few buttons to see what we need to do in any given week.  I can also mark off when things have been done (I only do grades for math) and at the end of the year I can print out a nice report for each kid that shows what they did.

So even though I try to let the kids choose what to do for home-school, it’s important for me to then organize and plan it out.  Otherwise it is too easy to lose direction or not have the right books/supplies on hand to make it happen.  The older boys are already responsible for doing their own lessons and work, but they like me to follow up on them and give them a shove now and then.  That being said, I’ve tried hard not to become a taskmaster or a slave to the schedule.  It’s a fine balance between order and chaos.

So, all in all I was able to pull together my daughter’s curriculum for the semester in about 2 weeks, but I already had most of the books I needed and knew enough about “Homeschool Tracker” to input lesson plans quickly.  But really there was no need to hurry, because my Plan B was to simply sit out on the porch every day reading Little Women aloud and playing educational games until we came up with Plan A.

20th Century American History

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“A nation that forgets its past can function no better than an individual with amnesia.” ~David McCullough

“People tend to forget that the word “history” contains the word ‘story’.” ~Ken Burns

Are you a history lover or hater? If you are one of those people who thinks learning history is a waste of time – then I would guess your only exposure to the subject was in a school classroom, with a dull textbook and a harried teacher trying to teach you what names and dates would be on the next test.

Give it another chance!

One of the best things about home schooling is the opportunity to teach yourself all the fascinating things you never knew you didn’t know! In fact, if you find history deathly boring I would suggest you not try to teach your kids anything about it. Just read aloud great historical fiction and biographies to them and don’t call it history until you’re excited about it.

You will find good suggestions for books to read in home schooling manuals or libraries. It’s sometimes tricky to tell if a home schooling curriculum provider is suggesting hiqh quality books or just promoting a certain message/idealogy, but I do think the Sonlight Curriculum company chooses great books (there are other good companies too, but I can’t think of them at the moment).  And of course the internet is a gold mine of various booklists.  Here’s a nifty web site I found:

If you and your older child/teen are ready to learn about America in the last century, check out the new unit study I added to my site:  20th Century American History for Teens.  This study isn’t just about past events and people, it’s about critical thinking.  History is very different depending on who is telling it, and kids (grown-ups too) need to know the difference between primary sources and secondary sources.  They can also see how the intrepretation of past events changes with new information, and how the past affects them today.


McMillin Family Homeschool – Math

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Math is one of those subjects that all but the most devout unschoolers tend to require of their children. Like music or dance, it is usually best learned in sequential steps from basic to advanced. But if the child does not want to learn math, what is the relaxed yet anxious parent to do? I have read stories of unschooled youngsters forgoing textbook math until they decide to take SAT tests, then learning everything they need to know in a matter of months instead of years. I have heard of kids digging into math out of necessity to complete some project such as building a chicken coop or starting a home business. For me, I decided that math was too important to leave to chance (what if my child failed the SATs someday and blamed me for not getting into college?)

I thoroughly researched all the available math programs and let my son choose the one he thought would be best. When the manipulative-based book arrived in the mail, all went well for the first day or so, until my son decided that math was confusing and boring. I tried encouraging words and gentle humor, hot cocoa and soothing music, but after 2 weeks he was in a rage over every page. He simply could not learn anything – REFUSED to learn anything in that frame of mind. I talked to him about the importance of math but he was not impressed. I tried another math program. It made no difference to him because he had already decided that he was no good at math. Finally, in desperation, I found books full of math games and hands-on activities. Success! He enjoyed all games – the more physical and imaginative the better. I also did a lot of research on learning styles that year and found ways to teach him math without him even knowing it.

We didn’t crack open a textbook for four more years. By then, he was much more mature and aware that he was behind his peers in math, so he wanted to get caught up with them. Now, at age 17, he still doesn’t like math, but he makes himself do it (not me!) for his own reasons. And yes, he did catch up. He knows he wants to go to college and wants to do well in the SAT tests.  My fears that he would blame me were unjustified because he “owns” his own education.  He knows it is his responsibility, not mine.  I think it was important for me to back off in the younger years because it became his choice, not his duty nor his punishment, to learn math.  Fortunately, the years of just playing with numbers also helped him overcome his fear of textbooks and developed his intuitive understanding of how math works.

My worries over Son #1 were made easier because of Son #2, who seemed to teach himself multiplication at the age of 3. This boy grew up to be a walking calculator and advanced so rapidly through math books that I let him just skip whole sections. He started Algebra at age 10 and soon reached the point where I couldn’t remember how to do any of it – thank goodness he doesn’t mind teaching himself. All I have to do is check his answers.

His ease with math convinced me that it was not my fault Son #1 despaired over math, it was simply a matter of different learning styles and strengths. My job was to be aware of those strengths and help find them the resources they need.  Son #2 creates wish lists on Amazon of what books he would like to read because we can’t find any of them in bookstores or libraries.  He is obsessed with computer programming, game physics and game design.  He recently asked for a college level book on 3D math.  It’s just his thing.

My daughter was a different story altogether from her two older brothers.  She understood math concepts just fine as long as they were presented in word problems or with manipulatives.  But she absolutely struggled with representing those concepts in equations.  She could never remember the difference between “plus” signs and “equal” signs and all the other signs – no matter how many worksheets she did.  It just made her furious.  It was like her oldest brother all over again, but this time I couldn’t leave her alone because we lived in a new state that required testing. 

I found a great book called “Math for Humans” by Mark Wahl that explains how to teach math through the 8 intelligences.  My daughter has strong spatial and interpersonal intelligences, so I made an effort to integrate art and storytelling with her math lessons.  I made paper dolls to represent the plus, minus, multiplication, divide and equal signs (they each wore a hat resembling the appropriate sign).  Every math problem became a story problem with the paper dolls and the cuisinaire rods – she finally relaxed.

As she got older, we could replace the manipulatives with more drawing.  The margins of her Math-U-See book were covered in drawings, diagrams and doodles and it made all the difference for her.  We also used math type story books from the library.  She always remembered characters, faces and names.  The trick was to turn inanimate, abstract math symbols into something she cared about.

I’ll write up my unit study on anthropomorphizing math in a future topic.