Saturday, February 21, 2015

Boogers, Work, and McKinely Park

Kirsten is a homeschooling mom of a second grade boy and administrator of the Natomas Charter PACT homeschool Academy. She homeschools her second grade son and works 25+ hours a week. You can contact her at

3:30am comes early, but it is the only time during the day that my son, my husband, my staff, and my dog do not need me. I throw off the blankets and slip into my shoes. No need to get dressed. Don’t judge, but I sleep in my workout gear... it forces me to work out!
5:30am “MOOOOOM!” A quick look at the clock. I walk upstairs with wet hair and no makeup. Too early, but too bad for me. After Robert grudgingly takes a bath and gobbles down breakfast, I finally get my first cup of coffee and pull out my son’s Independent Work folder. He knows to open it and start on it when breakfast is over.
6am I answer emails as he works on a drawing of a dog. I have discovered that using “Draw then Write” books is one way to get him to work on fine motor skills. Every two assignments he completes means a 10 minute break so there are no arguments this morning. Independent work this morning is working on math fluency, a pronoun worksheet, and working on a poem about love that extends our work with Edward Tulaine by Kate DeCamillo. We are reading it as part of the PACT’s participation in the Global Read Aloud.Meanwhile, I answer morning emails and update the PACT Facebook page. Soon, his independent work is completed. After a spelling pretest and math lesson on order of operations (I don’t remember learning that in the second grade...) we move on to writing workshop. Today’s lesson? Showing not telling. I found the lesson online and tomorrow we will use this strategy to revise his fractured fairy tale involving the “Three Little Pigs” and Minecraft.
Science is one of my favorite things to teach. I notice Robert is struggling to label a diagram of the nose and I turn to one of my favorite websites, Kids Health to search for a video and visuals.The diagram is a take home from his science enrichment workshop at PACT. The workshops are not meant to be an entire curriculum, but often they spark a lesson that takes on a life of it’s own. He notices a “Booger Quiz” banner on the side and I make a mental note that tomorrow we will be learning about boogers.
The clouds part, I hear angels singing, and the sun shines down on us, we are DONE with school work at home! How can we be done with school work already? Do we do enough? Check out this weekly schedule to see what we will accomplish this week and see what we have done in the weeks before.
8:30am A snack of peanut butter and apples for both of us as we settle into our laptops. I am back on email, Robert is playing Minecraft. We have been whitelisted on several kid safe Minecraft Homeschool Servers, but I like to be next to him when he plays. If somebody has stolen his items or accused him of griefing, it provides a great on the spot digital citizenship learning opportunity. He has also learned about 1st and 3rd person from Minecraft, so I try to spy on him to figure out other ways to turn his passion it a learning experience. (I wrote about Minecraft and Point of View here)
10am Homeschool Park Play Date at McKinely Park! The bright sun cuts through the cold November air. I have been lucky enough to find several great homeschool groups on Facebook. I try to meet up with other homeschooling families at parks as often as possible. Playing at 10am in the morning is one of the benefits of homeschooling my son loves!11am Off to Grandma’s for lunch and fun while I head into work. On Mondays, I work on campus from 12:00-4:00 as a school administrator for the Natomas Charter School PACT program. On today’s docket? Tours for new homeschooling families, researching new curriculum, and calendar planning.  I eat lunch at my desk. Time to eat is one thing I have had to compromise as a working and homeschooling mom.
Robert joins me at PACT around 1pm for his art class, Masks and Mobiles and then Tae Kwon Do. One of the reasons that I homeschool through PACT is that I do not want to drive all over town for classes. PACT has a campus where they hold a variety of enrichment workshops. He has several workshops with the same kids, so PACT also provides him with a sense of community. He takes drama, science, and literature workshops. We also started a Lego club last year that focuses on social skills and cooperative groups. (You can check out a schedule and course listing here).7pm All electronics off for family reading. Yep. I am a nerd. No cell phones, no tv, nothing. We go to the library three times a week and load up on books. One of the unexpected benefits of homeschooling has been that the amount and types of books Robert reads has greatly increased.8pm Robert’s bedtime. After a short cuddle, the dog climbs on Robert’s bed and it is lights out for them. This is time alone with the husband. We do what hundreds of couples do each night when the kids are in bed and the lights go down low... we watch tv! I will fall asleep by 8:30 for sure. Hey, 3am comes early!What does the day look like when you homeschool and work? 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Families Learning Together- The Experience Worth Creating

Tracy Chatters is the PACT Academy Coordinator and homeschooling Mom! This week, PACT staff hacked the traditional Science Fair by adding in Engineering Challenges. In addition to Science Fair boards and presentations, families were invited to participate in two engineering challenges and an Egg Drop with a Twist. The event resulted in a fun family evening where taking risks took center stage.

This week we had family science and engineering night at PACT. More than one hundred people gathered to experiment, struggle, try and try again and to persevere. Our challenges could not be contained to one room and we spilled into the hallway. After all, when your project includes spaghetti, a marshmallow, painter's tape and directions to build the tallest tower you possibly can, there is a lot of challenge for everyone!
As I stood in the room surrounded by thoughtful joy and curious questions, I realized I was standing in the sweet spot of the perfect educational experience. I was in the middle of "that" moment right before the ah-ha where everyone is scratching their heads and wondering, feeling the frustration of building but motivated by the challenge. Our youngest engineers at one or two years old, to our grandparents full of wisdom were all looking at the timer and wondering if one more adjustment might make their structure sturdier or topple it over. Teams contemplated taking the risk, unsure of the reward, teams glanced furtively at the timer then their towers and then the timer again.
Sometimes the experience alone is the learning opportunity. We didn't have to articulate a goal, have a contest or rewards or even enforce the rules. Everyone participating was motivated by the opportunity and wanted to do more and do it to a little better. I watched moms and dads who turned their kids loose to build with others, leaving mom and dad to build alone. This was a night were everyone was hands on!

The observer and data collector in me was fascinated by the moms sitting back and letting dad do the building, only to laugh and step in to fix the mistakes at the last minute. I was equally interested in watching the dads who don't normally have the opportunity to build with their kids. They seized the moment, pulled up a carpet square or a skinny desk and set to work playing, building and experimenting. 

There was not a grumpy face in the room, even when towers collapsed and spaghetti broke. Everyone stuck it out, from our kids with frustrating learning challenges to our oldest "too cool" middle schoolers who normally watch from the side but this time couldn't stand to miss out on the fun and joined in.
It is difficult to say what everyone learned as a group, because each experience was different within each family. I watched a dad learn that mom was far more competitive than he imagined and another mom learn that dad was delighted to lay belly down on the classroom floor because that is what his kindergarten son wanted. I saw siblings stop bickering and team up to ensure they could beat their parents. All through the room, magic was happening in big groups and small, as each person contemplated and built and examined and built some more. 

At the end of a school event, we always debrief to make notes for next year. This year, my mental note was to not change a thing. I don't know if everyone there could articulate what each learned, but I know one thing for sure. Each one would come back for more the next time. Sometimes, just providing space and time for the experience is all that's needed for a beautiful night! 

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Toolbox for Crafting a Custom Writing Program, Without Reinventing the Wheel

This is part 2 of a series surrounding how I am improving my own writing instruction this year. My goal is to create a 2nd grader who likes writing. If you missed steps 1-2 click here!
After Robert started doing his self directed writing each day, I knew it was time to move forward with direct instruction. 
What do I use? The tools that I use are free, easy to obtain, available to the PACT community and reproducible. These are three of my current favorites. (for right now!)

  • Evan Moore Daily 6 Trait Writing (your advisor can print this off for you!) I cut this up and take the good parts. Used on it's own I found it was just an exercise and did not improve his writing.
  • The Sacramento County Library
  • Pinterest and Google (of course!)
How do I decide what to teach? I read his self directed writing. I noticed one of his strengths is that he has a strong voice. I can always tell how he feels about the subject of his writing, but we have never talked about it or how to recognize the voice of other authors. 
Below is my first week of focused writing instruction using his self directed writing as a jumping off point.

Student self directed writing from previous days
Variety of books from library (a nice list of appropriate texts is listed on the Bats lesson plan)
“Noisy Poems for a Busy Day” Robert Heidbreder (Sac Public Library)

I start each day with his free journal write and then move into what you see below. I try to keep it to 15 minutes and use interesting topics and books. The point is to ENJOY the process, right?

Day 1: 15 minutes
I simply started by reviewing the definition of “voice” from the Bats lesson plan and adding our own examples. Then, we read the first “Bat” example. I did way too much expressive reading and he focused on my vocal interpretation instead of the actual words. I had to go back, re read it and take out my expressive reading. This time, he picked up on the author’s words instead of my tone and was able to identify what the author said that showed us how he feels about bats.

Day 2: 15 minutes
We continued the lesson from readworks by reading two different passages about snakes and searching for words that clued us into the author’s voice. Finally, we went back through his own self directed writing journal and re read his selection on Nerf guns. He said that his own use of “great, awesome, and fun” showed that he has a positive attitude about playing Nerf guns and is a fun person. 

We also read a few poems from “Noisy Poems for a Busy Day” and pointed out the voice of the author.

I noticed that many of these poems included onomatopoeia and decided to throw in a mini lesson.

Day 3: 30 minutes 
I defined the term onomatopoeia for Robert and gave him some examples. Bzzzzzz, ruff, squeak, ect. Then, we re read the poems we read the day before and pointed out examples. Then, we chose an animal, the dog, (of course) to write about. We brainstormed all of the sound word we could think about that a dog might use. This was a fun session and lasted longer than usual. Mostly because we were crawling around the living room floor with the dog, growling and whimpering.

Day 4: We read some more poems. Then, I told him we were going to write a poem about dogs using the sound words we brainstormed yesterday. When he started to write, it looked like a narrative. He started on the left and wrote all the way to the right. DUH! We have never discussed poetry before. I brought the poetry book back up and asked him what he noticed about poems. "They don't take up whole lines" "They are shorter". We started our poem over again using the poems in the book as a model.

Snore snore. she is sleeping
try to wake
her up.


He loved the poem, I didn’t have to do a lot of prep for these lessons, and at the end of the week I was confident that he had gained two new ways of thinking and talking about writing.

Note: While reading the poems and other picture books this week with Robert, I noticed that many include talking dogs or items that take on humanlike characteristics. This led to my next lesson on personification. I can blog about it, but I am more interested in what you want to hear! If you have any questions or comments, please post! Blogging is a little bit like talking to yourself. It feels a little silly and conversations with others always feel better!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

If You “Know” You Should Be Doing More Writing

I love to write. I blog, I make lists, I teach writing to high schoolers. My 2nd grader does not like writing. It is easy to see why. Every writing activity used to come with “Write neater, Write more, You spelled that wrong!” I came to the realization over winter break that I had to take some of the suckiness out of it. This series of blogs will record the steps I am taking to  increase the amount and quality of writing instruction we do as part of our day.
Step 1: Stop Criticizing
I stopped commenting on his handwriting during all activities except, handwriting. We started Handwriting Without Tears this year. This is the only time of day that I stress neatness and teach letter formation. I stopped any other handwriting criticizing cold turkey. I had to bite my tongue, chew gum, and resist with all of my heart. I also stopped commenting on spelling except during spelling. During all times that he is composing from brain to paper, I do not worry about spelling. I do not even comment on it. If he happens to self correct himself, I say “great job noticing that!”.

Step 2: Make it interesting, engaging, and daily.
I bought a cheap primary handwriting sketchbook from OfficeMax. Half the page is blank for pictures and the other half has lines on it appropriate for his grade level. I started out by offering a subject and writing down words he might need. After day 4 we dropped this, as he did not need suggestions and since I wasn't commenting on spelling there was no anxiety about it. He chooses if he wants to draw a picture or not.
If we run into problems with the “what to write” I have seen lots of good ideas for idea generation on Pinterest and created a Pinterest Board to store them. So far, so good.
Each day, he writes the date and has to fill half a page. If he can not fill half a page, then he writes his name over and over. He has only chosen this option once. He writes about whatever he wants to write about. So far he has written about barf, his dog, being sick, Nerf guns, Disneyland,his friends, playing Monopoly with his Grandpa, and a dream he had.
I use this time to do my own writing.
I may write down my schedule for the day, work on my blog, respond to emails or make a grocery list, but I write.
Finally, he reads it out loud to me. Reading it aloud allows him to notice his own mistakes. If he wants to fix it, we fix it. If not , we let it go. We celebrate what he wrote. If it is supposed to be funny, I laugh. If he writes about how much work he has to do each day and how mean his mom is, I look at him with a serious face and nod. I don’t criticize or suggest. I make positive comments, “I like how descriptive it is” or “That sounds just like what happened!”
The results?
So far we have increased his self directed writing by 100%. It has become part of our daily routine. The benefit has been the ability for me to see his strengths and weaknesses. Before this, it was difficult to know exactly what to work on with him. From his daily journals, I have been able to find direction. This has lead me to integrate the 6 Traits and mentor texts. Doing this has been easier than I thought and I am already seeing the changes. Next time I will share the easy way to start working with your kiddo's writing.

If you have found ways to increase your student's self directed writing, please post below I would love to hear!