You don't have to rush or totally shift gears to successfully homeschool first grade. Figure out how you want your homeschool to feel, and build your days from there.
“I love the idea of unschooling, but I’m never going to be an unschooler,” says Jennifer Harris. Jenn homeschools her 9-year-old son Ian in a style that she calls Charlotte Mason-ish—“but lately, it’s feeling like all workbooks and dictation and sitting-at-the-desk time, which is too far in the other direction,” Jenn says. Jenn’s been struggling to find a balance between the structure and academics she needs and the fun, laid- back vibe she wants her homeschool to have.
We asked Jenn to track her time over a couple of weeks so that we could get a clearer idea of what a typical day in her homeschool looked like. Jenn was surprised to discover that she and Ian usually spent about two hours a day on school time—“it feels like so much more,” Jenn says. On most days, they’d start school after breakfast, then sit down together at the table to work. Sometimes Ian would read independently, sometimes Jenn would read aloud, but they’d stay at the table, working their way through one subject at a time, until it was time to start lunch. Jenn’s husband, Frank, comes home for lunch every day, so she and Ian hurry to get the table cleaned up and lunch prepared so that they can all enjoy the meal together.
“It’s gotten to the point where school feels like work to both of us,” says Jenn. “I care about staying on top of things academically, but I hate the way our learning process is starting to feel like a job. Is there a way to bring back fun without sacrificing academics?”
Since it was pretty clear that Jenn wasn’t overdoing it time-wise—two to three hours is a reasonable amount of hands-on school time for a third-grader—we decided to focus on the way she was using her time. By spending all their school time at the table and keeping an eye on the clock ticking toward a lunchtime deadline, Jenn and Ian weren’t able to relax into their routine. Here’s how we changed things up:
Moving classes to the afternoon. When I asked Jenn why they were doing all their school work before lunch, she paused and said, “You know what? I don’t even know.” It turns out that afternoons are quiet at the Harris house. Except for a regular Friday park day, Jenn and Ian are hanging out at home in the afternoons. We suggested moving their second hour of school time to the afternoon to make the morning more relaxed. Instead of jumping into their next lesson after handwriting, Ian starts his independent reading and Jenn gets household stuff out of the way until it’s time to prep lunch.
Starting the day with a meeting at the table. Jenn felt like table time was essential to starting their homeschool day. “I need the structure of sitting down in a consistent spot every day and saying okay, now we’re homeschooling,” Jenn says. We suggested that Jenn keep doing this— but instead of spending an entire morning at the table, she and Ian could get the same down-to-business boost from a morning meeting there right after breakfast. While they’re at the table, Ian does his daily copy work and handwriting practice.
Relocate for different subjects. The kitchen table is the best place for Ian to practice handwriting, but his other subjects might benefit from a change of scene. We suggested that Jenn and Ian switch locations each time they move to a new subject: math on the patio, history on the couch, spelling at the desk in Ian’s room, etc. This kind of musical chairs isn’t just a way to transition between subjects—researchers have discovered that students who work on material in different places retain it better than those who sit in the same spot to study every day.
Integrate more reading aloud. Ian’s a strong reader, and Jenn’s been encouraging him to do more independent reading, but since readalouds are one of the things Jenn and Ian like best about homeschooling, we suggested that they bring back the readaloud. (Kids benefit from being read to long after they’re able to finish chapter books on their own, and reading together means you get to learn together—which is one of the best ways to feel like your homeschool is a fun, relaxed place.) We suggested that Jenn and Ian go back to doing book-based subjects, including history and science, as readalouds and letting Ian keep his reading skills sharp with independent reading.
“I didn’t realize such simple changes could make such a big difference, but they really have,” Jenn says when we follow up with her. She and Ian have been implementing their new routine over the past month, and Jenn says everything is working better than she had hoped.
“I think I bought into the idea that when we hit third grade, school should become more school-like,” Jenn says. “And the result was that Ian was learning about the same amount but we were having a lot less fun. I think I needed someone to say ‘Hey, you can teach your kid what he needs to know and still have fun doing it.’”
This column is excerpted from the summer 2016 issue of HSL. Do you need a homeschool makeover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a description of what’s tripping up your homeschool life, and we may feature your makeover in an upcoming issue.
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 3rd 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 3rd grader. (You can see what 1st grade and 2nd grade looked like for us in the archives.)
You would think that having homeschooled 3rd grade before (we pulled our daughter out of school in 2nd grade), homeschooling 3rd grade would be a breeze. You would be wrong. The part where you worry that you’re going to ruin your child’s life because you won’t teach him what he needs to know is mitigated a little by the fact that you didn’t actually ruin anyone’s life last go-round, but all the stuff you figured out by the end of 3rd grade with one child may or may not apply at all to your new 3rd grader. In our case, 3rd grade with my son looked completely different from 3rd grade with my daughter, so we were still figuring everything out as we went.
I’ve read a lot about the “3rd grade transition”—the place where homeschool materials stop being “fun” and start feeling like work. We didn’t really have that problem—maybe because we haven’t really used a lot of traditional materials, so there wasn’t that moment where we opened a book and everything was black-and-white and tons of fine print and we felt like “what happened?” We did shift gears to a little more academic work, though—3rd grade is when I like to start Latin and more thoughtful writing and reading—which had some challenging moments. All in all, though, I’ve enjoyed 3rd grade with my son, and I think he’s enjoyed it, too, which is really one of my big goals for each year.
We started Build Your Library’s 5th grade last year, so we just continued with that this year. (I explain my reasoning here, but it’s really just that I wanted to do U.S. History so that I could sync up readalouds with my daughter’s Georgia history last year and U.S. History this year.) The slower pace worked well for us—I like taking my time with a subject—and we added a bunch of nonfiction books to our reading list. (That’s my one complaint about Build Your Library, which I think is a nice program overall—I’d love to see more nonfiction on the reading list, especially because there’s so much great nonfiction out there.) Before this year, we’ve just done the reading for history—my son had a main lesson book, and sometimes he’d draw pictures as we read, but it was just because he felt like doing it and not something I asked him to do. This year, we’ve tried to be a little more deliberate. I’ve mentioned a few times how I rely on Patricia’s dictation method (if you have a reluctant writer, it will change your life), and we’ve been using that pretty heavily. I’ll say “so what do you think is the important thing about what we just read?,” and he’ll answer, and we’ll talk about, and then together we’ll summarize the main idea in a couple of sentences. I might prompt a little—“So what did a state have to do to get readmitted to the United States after the Civil War?”—but mostly I tried to let him focus on what felt important to him. It helps to know that we’re going to be revisiting these parts of history at least twice more in his educational life—so why not let him be interested in the parts that interest him? I do most of the actual physical writing, but he tells me what to write. It’s working well for us.
We’re still doing Beast Academy, and it’s fine. We loved Miquon Math so much that I’m sure any math we did after it would seem less great by comparison, but Beast Academy works reasonably well for us. I like that it focuses on mathematical thinking and understanding bigger concepts and not just on learning how to deal with one particular kind of problem. My son likes that there are usually some genuinely challenging problems in the mix and, of course, that it comes in comic book format. My daughter would have hated this program, but it’s proven to be a good match for my math- and logic-loving son.
We started Latin this year, and I’m using the same method I used with my daughter: We use Ecce Romani and just work as far as get into it each year. In the fall, we’ll start over again at the beginning and do the same thing. My son hates writing, so I have him dictate his translations and I write them down—it’s slow going but not unpleasant. We do the exercises the same way, but he does write his own vocabulary cards. Studying Latin is my favorite way to learn English grammar.
We read all the time—mostly readalouds, since my son still isn’t a huge fan of independent reading. (He does read on his own more every year, and I love catching him reading in his room or in the backyard. I’m not sure that pushing him to read more would kill his potential love of learning, but I know that not pushing it seems to be—slowly—working out.) I don’t want to be the book police, but I will admit it was easier to manage this with my daughter, who always read so widely that I never worried whether she was reading junk or literature. It’s harder to be as relaxed with my son—since he’s such a reluctant reader, it’s tempting to force him toward the good stuff. But I remind myself that my goal isn’t for him to make it through a checklist of books but to develop an appreciation for the power and possibility of reading. Only he can decide what books will do that for him.
He did start his own official book log this year—again, he usually dictates, and I do the actual writing. Some of his favorite books-for-fun this year have included George and Martha, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, Frindle, and Peter Pan. And we’ve continued our weekly-ish poetry memorization, which I love and my children tolerate.
We still do our nature journals pretty much every day. This is one subject where I don’t take dictation unless my son specifically asks me to—he’s usually happy drawing what he sees and writing the identifying labels or temperature or whatever. My son has gotten to the point where he likes to feel like there’s some “purpose” to his journaling, so we have projects: Right now, we’re checking the barometer every day and noting different cloud formations. I’m noticing that my son is the first person to pick up on when he’s ready for something more academic or more structured—this fall, he said he wanted his observations to “actually do something,” so we came up with a few projects we could do with our nature journals. (I borrowed some ideas from Handbook of Nature Study, some from Whatever the Weather, and a lot from the Nature Connection workbook.)
We also worked our way through Janice VanCleave's 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre, & Incredible Experiments, picking up books to go with experiments as they piqued our interest. Next year, we’ll probably do something a little more organized, but for now, I’m happy to be able to emphasize the scientific method and just follow our interests. I made up a very simple, minimalist lab report form and used my beloved padding compound to make it into a little lab report notepad for him.
Philosophy has been my son’s “favorite class” for a couple of years now. He loved Philosophy for Kids at our homeschool group, and this year we moved on to more structured logic lessons. (Logic is his big philosophical passion right now.) My best friend is a philosopher and one of my son’s favorite people, so we’re kind of spoiled when it comes to philosophy—she does one-on-one lessons with him.
Our schedule has always been a work in progress, but we usually have a pretty consistent rhythm to our days. I don’t plan to start at any particular time—my kids wake up when they wake up (usually around 9 a.m. for my son), have breakfast and what we like to call “morning acclimation.” Then, when he’s ready—which might be at 9:30 or 11:30—he brings me his little stack of things he wants to work on. Usually, it’s history, math, and Latin, and I add whatever readalouds we’re doing together. He tends to be interested in science in bursts and starts: He’ll want to do it every single day for a week or two and then not be interested at all for a couple of weeks. Sometimes he wants to do just math or just philosophy. I try not to dictate what we do and to let him take the lead. (There are definitely days—usually a couple a month—where he just says “Can we do nothing today?” and I say “Sure.” I really don’t worry about that at all—there are definitely times where I want to take a day off, too!) We work together, usually on the couch or on the back porch but sometimes at the table. Some days we’re fast and get a lot done, some days we take a lot of time and end by putting in a bookmark for the next day. Usually two to two and half hours of hands-on, active time like this is a full school day for us.
After lunch, we have our “crafternoon” projects. (I’m usually doing work with his 9th grade sister during this time, too.) My son enjoys soap carving, making art, crochet work, building marble runs, playing chess, and sorting his Pokemon cards, so he might do any of those things. Occasionally he reads, which fills my soul with delight. Often, he plays outside. I’m sure I’m forgetting things, but that makes sense, since this year he’s also been a lot more independent and interested in doing things on his own. My son does not always enjoy working on things like reading and handwriting, but this year, he’s started to appreciate the way that being able to do these things gives him more space to learn independently. There’s nothing dramatic to report with 3rd grade—no huge challenges or confetti-worthy accomplishments—just measured, steady progress. It’s been a good year.
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, Shelli's talking about how she homeschooled her 3rd grader this year.
This has been a busy year for my nine-year-old son, and for me, I’m a little in awe with the changes I’ve been seeing in him. He’s becoming more mature and disciplined, yet he’s just as creative as ever.
Last year, I wrote more about his building projects because he was a “little engineer.” This year he surprised us by becoming interested in playing the piano, and through the year, he’s slowly shifted all his attention to learning about classical music. I don’t think his building tendencies have stopped, but they’re definitely on the back burner for now. His piano playing has become a big part of all our lives, so I’m giving it a heading all to itself! (See below.)
I should also note that this year has shown me how the flexibility in homeschooling is a huge asset. As my son’s interest in piano and classical music took center stage, I was able to let go of some curriculum ideas I had for the year. For example, we have put off foreign language, some Art Fridays, and just general “busyness” that I might have filled our time with, if my son didn’t become so engrossed in his new project. It’s been great to be able to do this, and I feel it’s given me the opportunity to give him what (to me) is more of a priority: time to play and be a kid.
Here is what we’ve accomplished during my son’s third grade:
My son wanted to work on spelling, so we completed Level 1 of All About Spelling, which I thought was a great program. He didn’t particularly like this program, but I think it gave him confidence that he can spell. He is not a child that is going to write anything voluntarily; it’s just not his thing. So we’re moving slowly in this area.
To improve handwriting skills, I have used both Handwriting Without Tears and a calligraphy set.
We are getting ready to do a standardized test, which homeschoolers in my state (Georgia) are required to do in the third grade, so I’m using a test prep book to review, and we’re also using some posters I have to learn the parts of speech.
We’ve done a lot of reading this year. My son loves reading Calvin and Hobbes, and he’s enjoying reading the Battle Bugs series to himself. A few books I’ve read to him this year include My Father’s Dragon, Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Story of Dr. Doolittle, and On the Shores of Silver Lake among others.
Math was a priority for me this year, and I feel we have made great progress in it this year. We completed four more Life of Fred books, which brings us to a total of seven books in that series. Right now, we’re reviewing math in our test prep book.
I have also begun to require that my son memorize the times tables, and we started with the three times tables. I put a little chart of “the threes” up on the wall, and I covered the answers. We go over it every time we do lessons. To make it fun, I began timing my son on how fast he could recite the 3 times tables, and I got him to try to beat his last time. My six-year-old has joined in on the fun too!
You can read about some of the other math games we’ve played this year here.
My son loves science, and he’s ahead in this subject, so I haven’t made it a big focus this year. However, he attended a homeschool chemical engineering class during the fall, and everyday we watch nature and science documentaries. This summer we’re going to begin using a middle school level science curriculum, which my son can’t wait to try. I’ll write about that at a later date.
I don’t do a lot of formal work in this area because we learn so much through our daily routine. Occasionally we watch history documentaries, and my son keeps up with current events with the New-O-Matic app. I also did a short study this year on the Cherokee Indians because there are so many local attractions in our home state of Georgia with historical references to the Cherokees.
Last year I made a Big History Timeline for our wall that we update whenever we learn something new about history, and we’ve made good use of it.
During the fall, my son took a pottery class, and we’ve done some art lessons at home. I usually do art on Fridays, but I let it slide for a while. Now I’m getting back into that routine again. We also visit our local art museum regularly to see new exhibits.
As I mentioned above, this has been my son’s big focus this year. He will have been taking piano lessons for one full year at the end of May! When he started, my husband and I casually said we’d be happy if he lasted one year since music is part of a well-rounded education. We had no idea how far our son would take it! Here’s a more specific list of what we’ve done this year:
- Because our son progressed so quickly in his lessons, we went from a digital piano, to an upright piano, and now to a grand piano! Crazy, I know! But we feel it’s very important he has the right tools to work with to accomplish his goals. We have all enjoyed learning about how a piano works and the different brands of pianos, etc.
- When we met a piano teacher whose knowledge and focus better matched our son’s goals, and he expressed an interest in working with our son, we took the opportunity to switch teachers. (Though I’ll ever be grateful for his first teacher who helped instill a love of piano playing through her warmth and enthusiasm.)
- My son has begun studying the great composers. We use Meet the Great Composers, Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers, and the Internet. My son watches many classical performances on YouTube.
- At two nearby universities, we are able to attend faculty and student recitals for free, and some of the bigger student performances are inexpensive to attend, so my son has attended 10 performances this year!
What are some of your favorite curriculum, resources and accomplishments that you have made this year?