At Home with the Editors: Inside Amy’s 9th Grade
Every year, Shelli and Amy open the door and invite you to step inside their homeschool lives. (Please ignore the mess!) We talk about the resources we're using in our own homeschools and how we structure our days. There are lots of ways to homeschool, and we don't think our way is the best—just the one that happens to be working best for our particular families at this particular time. If nothing else, you will get a behind-the-scenes look in the homes of the editors of home / school / life, but if something here helps you, all the better! Today, Amy's talking about how she homeschooled 9th grade this year.
Because there’s a pretty significant age gap between my kids (six years), I decided to do two separate posts to make things easy for myself. Today, I’m sharing some of the resources I use with my 9th grader. (You can see what 7th grade and 8th grade looked like for us in the archives, and you can see my high school planning post here.)
So first things first: We survived our first year homeschooling high school! In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s been one of our most enjoyable homeschool years to date. I felt like we were trying to strike a difficult balance—I wanted to make things academic enough to prepare her for a competitive college (in case that’s what she decides to do) without giving up the fun parts of homeschooling that make the experience worthwhile. Overall, I think we succeeded reasonably well.
U.S. History and Literature
We did this as a sort of combination class, but I did go through the steps (they’re not difficult) to get my syllabus approved by the College Board so that we could call the history part AP U.S. History on her syllabus. For our spine, we used a pretty traditional textbook, The American Pageant. I am not a fan of textbooks generally speaking, but it helped to have the whole class outlined in one book. We supplemented with tons of books (if people are interested, I can do a 9th grade book list in a future post—Edited: I wrote one!), some of which we read together and some of which we read separately.
The big challenge with history — for us, anyway — was following such a specific timeline. We are year-round, as-we-go homeschoolers, so we’re used to taking our time with things. Having to cover a set amount of material within a set timeframe was a new thing for us and not always easy — we’d sometimes have to keep moving, even though we wanted to spend more time on something. (We kept a list of things we want to return to this summer, but it’s not the same.) We also did several practice tests and essays to prepare for the AP test this spring, something else we wouldn’t usually do. My daughter did well on her practice tests and said she felt good about the exam, but whatever score she ends up with, I think working toward a focused goal on a focused timeline was a good experience for her — but I definitely wouldn’t want every class to feel this narrow!
For literature, we worked our way through the Norton Anthology of American Literature (the condensed, two-volume 8th edition) and read a range of novels, from Hawthorne to Faulkner. (Favorite: The Great Gatsby. Least favorite: The Red Badge of Courage.) Our interest here was in what, specifically, made this literature American, and reading it as we studied U.S. History really helped with that, I think. Literature is always one of our favorite classes, and we did most of the readings together as readalouds. (We love readalouds.) We did read a lot of novels by white men this year, but I’m actually proud of that fact: We’ve done such a good job keeping a diverse reading list that we had to catch up on some classics this year.
We’d typically work on history three-ish days a week, reading a chapter in The American Pageant and working up a list of short-answer questions as we read. There are lots of online resources for this book, so we’d usually check our list of questions against one online to see how they compared. We do annotated reading, so we mark the text as we go, making notes, highlighting important terms, dates, and people, and summarizing key points as we’re reading. Each night, my daughter would use her annotated book to copy notes down into her history notebook — she enjoyed this part because she got to make her notebook pages aesthetically pleasing, and writing things down is almost always helpful for remembering them. We also made notecards for important people, terms, and events so that we could review them — we’d pull them out after dinner or when we were waiting at the doctor’s office or something, and flip through them together. And we’d do a three-question quiz for each other each week and grade it according to the AP test rubric— I feel like grading my answers was as helpful for her as writing her own. We’d read related books — sometimes together, sometimes separately — to broaden and deepen our understanding of different topics and to make sure our class included women and people of color in a meaningful way.
We read together every day, so literature is part of our daily routine. I have never found a literature curriculum that I really like, so I didn’t even try with high school — I knew I would be making it up myself. We read aloud together every day, but with the amount of reading we did, we also had to read on our own to keep up. Again, we do annotated reading, so we mark up our books for discussion as we go. (This does mean that we’re often reading books or parts of books twice—once together out loud and again to annotate. I’m a big believer in rereading, so this is fine with me.) We had a particular theme this year — what makes something American literature? — so that was the thread running through all our conversations. As usual, we wrote several short essays throughout the class and one large (25-page) research paper at the end of the class. We also continued our family poetry tradition by memorizing a poem every week or so — we focused on works by poets from the United States.
As far as the AP test goes, whatever her score ends up being, I think it was a good experience for us. We did have to call around to find a spot for her to take the test, which got a little stressful (though now I have a great place for future AP test-taking!), and we took two full practice tests before the actual test, which felt very school-y. She said she felt pretty confident coming out of the test, and she scored well on the practice tests, so at least I can feel like she was well-prepared. This is probably the first of a few AP classes that we’ll do for high school, so we can apply all the practical things we learned this year to future classes.
If you read the spring issue, you know all about how we put together our Studio Ghibli-themed comparative literature class, in which we watched Studio Ghibli’s adaptations of books, including The Secret World of Arrietty (an adapatation of The Borrowers), Tales from Earthsea (an adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea), Howl's Moving Castle (an adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle), and When Marnie Was There (an adaptation of When Marnie Was There), and compared them to the books. This was probably our favorite class.
I’ve mentioned how sad I was when my daughter decided to trade Latin (which we’d done together since 3rd grade) for Japanese, but it’s awesome that she was so excited about something none of us really knew anything about. At first I thought we might be able to piece it together with an online program and a good textbook, but that did not prove successful, so we ended up hiring a native Japanese speaker for twice-a-week one-on-one lessons. This was not cheap, but it has been totally worth it — my daughter has learned a lot, and I have someone I can ask when a question comes up. (That was the hardest part of introducing something I really don’t know to our homeschool — not having someone to ask my stupid questions!) The books we ended up using were Japanese From Zero and the Genki textbook. My daughter’s not fluent or anything, but it’s helping her make sense of anime and manga in their original forms, which was one of her big goals, so I say it’s a win. We’ll be sticking to this plan for next year.
Schedule-wise, we used a similar pattern to the one we used when we were studying Latin: We make vocabulary flashcards and review them about three times a week. (My daughter loved making these because she got to write Japanese characters.) She’d study a chapter in the book with her tutor, then work on the exercises between sessions and go over her work with her tutor at their second session. About once a month, we’d all watch a Japanese movie with subtitles together — I am not sure this actually helped with her Japanese study, but it was a fun way to connect the rest of the family to her studies.
I did nothing for math this year, and it was wonderful — Jason did it all, and he did it brilliantly. (If you are in Atlanta, he teaches a few classes, and I am not the only person who raves about his high school math teaching ability!) He has his own curriculum that he uses, but it’s basically a spiral approach that reinforces middle school concepts that kids might not have totally grasped while moving kids into high school math. He mixes up algebra, geometry, and trig, so that you’re always working on something new and on something that feels familiar, so he builds his student’s math confidence and skills at the same time. I was worried that it might not work for our daughter, but it’s been terrific. (And not that we are obsessed with test scores, but her math SAT score took a huge jump this spring.)
High school science is really hard to homeschool — there’s just not a lot of good stuff out there. I wanted something that’s more rigorous than “oh, hey, here are these fun experiments,” but also something that still had lots of hands-on experiments (that I could swing in a reasonably equipped home laboratory) and that really explained scientific ideas. This year, we used Holt’s Physical Science, and while it was fine, it wasn’t earthshakingly great, and I ended up doing a ridiculous amount of supplemental book and lab hunting. Physical science covers a wide range of topics (from the laws of motion to geology), so tracking down good books and labs took a ton of research. It was worth the effort, though.
We did roughly a lesson a week, usually reading the text as a kind of orientation and then following up with a more engaging book about the topic at hand. We did an experiment for each topic, keeping a lab notebook for lab reports. (We’ve progressed beyond worksheets, so we just broke down the sections in her notebook so that she could give each section as much space as she wanted.) We usually did our experiments during the weekend, which was a time when I knew we could set up, perform, and clean up a lab without anyone having to get stressed out. (My daughter didn’t love this, so we’ll try something different in the fall.) As with history, she did annotated readings and transferred notes to her science notebook every day.
She also did a science fair project — none of our groups does a science fair, so it was really just her doing a project, but it sounds more fun to call it a science fair project. She had to come up with a question and a hypothesis, figure out a way to test it, and present her results. She really enjoyed this — I definitely want to incorporate more projects like this into her high school experience. (Maybe I can get a proper fair going at Jason’s school this year—it would be more fun to do this as a group, I think.)
What I think of as “actual hands-on class time” took up more time this year, which I guess isn’t really surprising. My daughter found time to take a couple of Craftsy drawing classes (one was great and one was so-so — read the reviews before you sign up!), and she continued with her guitar lessons and worked on several crochet projects. She joined me and her 3rd grade brother for nature journaling occasionally, but it was definitely not a frequent occurrence this year. (That was a little sad for me, but she really did have a lot going on.)
As far as scheduling goes, we stuck (mostly) to our regular routine, which means my daughter started schoolwork whenever she woke up and felt ready—usually around 11 a.m. We’d work together for a few hours (usually about three), and she’d also do a couple of hours of work on her own, usually after the rest of us went to bed, which is when she likes to work. She did go to Jason’s math lab on Tuesdays and Fridays, so she had to wake up early on those days, and we did set the alarm for the one SAT practice test she took this year so that we could more accurately reflect the test conditions. Because our schedule is loose, there’s no compelling reason to implement an early morning start time, and my daughter really likes sleeping in. We’d sit down on Sunday evening and talk through the week ahead — what our schedule looked like, what we wanted to accomplish, any looming deadlines, etc. — and review the previous week together. My daughter kept up with her own schedule and deadlines — last year, there was a big learning curve with that, but this year, all went smoothly. Her transcript came together pretty easily, probably because we did so much big picture planning up front.
I think it helped that we’ve been homeschooling for several years now, so we know what works for us. It’s not as hard to plan out the year or figure out the right resources because we have a clear idea of what we want: We’re very bookish, and my daughter learns best through reading and writing, so we tend to build our year around those things. (That also happens to be how I learn best, so I got lucky there.) We like to go for depth rather than breadth, so we’re likely to build a framework that allows us to focus on a few specific areas instead of trying to recreate a survey class. I feel like we tried a lot of different things over the years to figure out what worked best for us, and now we kind of get to reap the rewards of those efforts, which is kind of nice.
I was nervous about homeschooling high school, but this ended up being such a great year — I think we both really enjoyed it once we figured out how to make it work. (The Japanese thing was hard to get sorted!) One of my big goals was not to lose the fun, relaxed spirit that I think is one of the best parts of homeschooling for us, and I think we managed that, even though the workload for both of us definitely increased. The work we did last year to prep for high school — working on papers, practicing taking notes, setting concrete goals for classes, adding more to our to-do list — definitely helped make the transition easier. I highly recommend building some of those skills before you get to the classes that require you to use them on a regular basis. I would say my two big lessons from this year were 1.) get help if you need it — you probably can’t teach everything, and 2.) don’t get so bogged down by details that you lose sight of what you want the big picture for your homeschool to be. Wrapping my head around homeschooling high school was a little scary, but I’m so glad we took the plunge. It’s so much fun.