transcripts

Q&A: Tips for Grading Your Homeschooler’s Essays

Q&A: Tips for Grading Your Homeschooler’s Essays

Now that my daughter is in middle school, I want to start giving her real grades on her essays and papers—but I am really not sure how to decide whether an essay should get an A, B, or C. Do you have any tips?

You can make yourself crazy trying to grade essays because there are so many possible components to consider. So make it easy on yourself, and determine the purpose of your essay upfront: Is your essay an analysis of a story? Then your grading should focus on how successfully your student analyzes the story. Is your paper a traditional research paper? Then your grade should focus on how well-researched and organized the paper actually is. This does mean that you’ll be mentally shifting gears with each essay assignment, but that’s really the key to thoughtful essay grading. Beyond that, here are some practical tips for grading essays that will help keep your grading consistent and helpful for your student:

Know what makes a good essay. It seems dorky to write a rubric for a single student, but you really should. Write down what differentiates an A paper (all sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a B paper (most sentences are well constructed and vary in length and structure) from a C paper (most sentences are well constructed but have similar structure and length). If you’re new to rubric-writing (and most homeschoolers are), this example from readwritethink.org is a good starting point that you can tweak as you go.

Let your student know your method. Say “For this book report, I’m going to be looking mostly at how well you explain the strengths and weaknesses of the book. You can use the plot to help support your argument, but you don’t need to summarize the plot for me.” If you make a rubric for grading essays, you should definitely share it with your student. 

Don’t play copyeditor. Your job isn’t to correct every misspelling and grammatical gaffe in your student’s paper—this isn’t a manuscript, and you aren’t an editor. Pick two or three grammatical concepts to focus on per paper (using quotes correctly, for example, or including citations appropriately), and limit your red-penning to these specific concepts. Look for patterns rather than specific instances—it’s more helpful to say, “I notice that you’re having trouble trying to squeeze too much information into one sentence, and you’re ending up with a lot of run-ons and hard-to-read sentences” than to mark up every awkward sentence. If your student seems to be backsliding on a grammatical or structural issue that should already be old hat, return his paper and ask him to do the grammatical revisions before returning the paper to you. (“It looks like you didn’t break this essay up into paragraphs—why don’t you fix that before I grade it?”)

Look for things the writer is doing well. I think you should always try to point out two things your writer is doing successfully in a paper, even if they feel like small or unexceptional things to you. It’s not that you want to cast faint praise or give a participation ribbon to your kid, but young writers need to know what they are getting right as well as where they can improve.

This Q&A was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of HSL.


At Home with the Editors: My End of the Year Record-Keeping

How to set up and keep academic records in your homeschool — practical step-by-step advice (plus FREE form downloads)

When I first began to homeschool, I did a small “graduation” for my son’s Kindergarten year because so many other people were doing something similar, but after I did it, that somehow felt wrong. I think a graduation should come at the very end of one’s education. But I still wanted to mark the end of our year so that the boys could see that they were progressing and accomplishing good things. That’s when I decided to do an end-of-the-year review where I’d simply showcase everything we had done that year.

I consider July the end of our school year, but I don’t worry about finishing the curriculum we’re using. While we do finish some items, there are many resources I just put a bookmark in and start where we left off in September. Also, on the official paperwork, I say our school year is from September 1 – August 31.  By law, my boys are supposed to have 180 days of school each year during that time. I know I go over that amount, especially when you consider how full of learning our daily lives are.

Most of the work I do to mark the end of the year is quiet work I have to do by myself at my computer. This year, I’ve been hard pressed to work up the motivation to do this, but I am slowly getting it done!

First, I create a progress report for each of my boys. This is required by law in our state of Georgia. Briefly, this is how I do it:

On a piece of paper I list and make each area of study a heading. Under each heading, I create bullet points and list all the applicable curriculum my boys have completed (if we haven’t finished something, I note the pages we’ve completed); apps they’ve used; field trips; library books read on that subject; projects; outside classes, if any; and summer camps that support that area of study.

I also make comments on their progress such as: “The nine-year-old’s reading skills have greatly improved this year.” “The six-year-old is showing a growing interest in math.”

By law, I have to teach reading, language arts, math, science and social studies, so I always list those, but since I don’t have to show this progress report to anybody, I consider it a keepsake, and I list the other things I’m teaching too: art, Spanish, and physical education. I also make a separate heading for my boys’ major projects that year. For example, this year my son has been learning how to play the piano and also studying the composers and listening to a lot of classical music. So I made a heading where I can go in-depth on this topic.

The progress report is usually about two pages long and once I’m finished, I print it out and put it into a 3-ring binder, which I call their portfolios. I make these binders at the beginning of a year, and I put any documentation I have about their school year into it, such as brochures to museums we’ve visited or the programs to the classical concerts we’ve attended. I also keep our daily work charts in the binder as well. 

After the progress report is complete, it’s time to start on the fun ritual I do every year, and that is make a slideshow of all our photos from that year. I’m a photographer, so I take lots of photographs of our field trips and the boys’ projects and everything else. (Though, I have to admit, I got lazy this year and mostly used my phone camera!) 

Making a slideshow with hundreds of photos and several video clips is quite a chore. That’s why I have not yet completed this year’s slideshow. Last year, my husband helped me by adding music to it. Once we’re done, however, we put it on a DVD and we can send it to the boys’ grandparents. They love it! 

We actually love sitting down to watch it too. The boys are delighted to see photos of projects that by now they’ve forgotten about! (Sometimes this review inspires them to go back and work more on something!) If we took a vacation or had relatives visit us during the year, I include those photos too. Although it’s a lot of work, it’s worth the effort to have our photos in an accessible place and not lost somewhere on an external drive!

When it comes time to watch the slideshow (which is usually in late July or – ahem – maybe mid-August this year), I gather our curriculum, portfolios and major projects the boys have been working on that year, and I lay them out on a table. I take a photo of the boys standing in front of their work, and (in lieu of a report card), I give them a certificate of completion for that year and sometimes a small gift (something educational that will help them with a project). Then we watch the slideshow.

And that’s it. That’s our end-of-the-year ritual.

After this, we take some time off in August because it’s time to celebrate both my boys’ birthdays. They are three years apart, but their birthdays are exactly one week apart. (I didn’t plan it that way!) Then in early September, we start our new school year, continuing what we didn’t finish and/or sometimes getting out some shiny new curriculum. I do nothing special to mark the first day of school. I think our end-of-year ritual + birthday celebrations are quite enough!

Writing down my end-year-old work makes it seem like a lot, but I assure you, except for making that @#$%! slideshow, it’s not too time-consuming. ;)

If you’re interested in seeing examples of some of the print-outs I mentioned in this post, they are available as free downloads on my personal blog.

 

What do you do to mark the end of your homeschool year, or do you mark the beginning of the year? Or both?


Homeschool Myth-Busting: High School Edition

Common myths about homeschooling high school -- busted!

Once upon a time, homeschoolers were more likely to turn to traditional schools when high school rolled around—fewer than 17 percent of the 210,000 homeschooled kids reported by the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 were high school students. There are lots of reasons parents may choose not to homeschool their teens through high school, but don't let false fear be one of them. 

Myth:  High school is too difficult for the average parent to teach.
Fact: You don’t have to teach everything.

In many ways, homeschooling high school can be much simpler than the early years because your teen is capable of independent study. Just be honest with yourself: What are you capable and willing to teach, and what do you need to outsource? Maybe you love the thought of digging deeper into history, but the prospect of teaching trig makes you want to break out in a cold sweat.  Outsource subjects you don’t want to tackle—co-op classes, tutors, community college, online classes are all great options. As your student advances, your job will shift from teacher to educational coordinator—listening to him and guiding his class choices and extracurricular activities to prepare him for the college or whatever post-high school path he's interested in. It also means keeping track of classes for his transcript, staying on top of testing deadlines for standardized and achievement tests, and helping him start to hone in on the best people to ask for letters of recommendation. 

 

Myth:  Homeschoolers can’t take Advanced Placement (AP) tests.
Fact: Homeschoolers can take AP tests—whether they take official AP classes or not.

AP is a brand-name—like Kleenex or Band-Aid—which means the College Board gets to decide whether or not you can call your child’s course an AP class. (The College Board has a fairly straightforward process for getting your class syllabus approved on their website, and few homeschoolers run into problems getting their class approved.) You can build your own AP class using the materials and test examples on the College Board website and call the class “Honors” or “Advanced” on your transcript—and your child can take the AP test in that subject as long as you sign him up on time and pay the test fee. (Homeschoolers have to find a school administering the test willing to allow outside students, which may take some time. You’ll want to start calling well before the deadline.) If you’re nervous about teaching without an official syllabus, you can sign up for an online AP class or order an AP-approved curriculum. And remember: just because you take an AP class doesn’t mean you have to take the test.

 

Myth:  It’s hard for homeschoolers to get into college.
Fact: Homeschooled kids may actually be more likely to go to college than their traditionally schooled peers.

This myth may have been true 20 years ago, but not anymore. Researchers at the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) found that 74 percent of homeschooled kids between age 18 and 24 had taken college classes, compared to just 46 percent of non-homeschoolers. In fact, many universities now include a section on their admission pages specifically addressing the admissions requirements for homeschooled students. In 1999, Stanford University accepted 27 percent of its homeschooled applicants—twice the rate for public and private school students admitted at the same time. Brown University representative Joyce Reed says homeschoolers are often a perfect fit at Brown because they know how to be self-directed learners, they are willing to take take risks, they are ready to tackle challenges, and they know how to persist when things get hard. 

 

Myth:  You need an accredited diploma to apply to college.
Fact: You need outside verification of ability to get into college.

Just a decade or so ago, many colleges didn’t know what to do with homeschoolers, and an accredited diploma helped normalize them. That’s not true anymore. (In fact, you may be interested to know that not all public high schools are accredited—only 77 percent of the high schools in Virginia, for example, have accreditation.) What you do want your child’s transcript to reflect is non-parent-provided proof of academic prowess. This can come in the form of graded co-op classes, dual enrollment courses at your local college, SAT or ACT scores, awards, etc. Most colleges are not going to consider whether your child’s high school transcript was accredited or not when deciding on admissions and financial aid.

 

Myth:  A portfolio is superior to a transcript.
Fact: The Common App makes transcripts a more versatile choice.

Portfolios used to be the recommended way for homeschoolers to show off their outside-the-box education, but since more and more schools rely on the transcript-style Common Application, portfolios have become a hindrance. (Obviously, portfolios are still important for students studying art or creative writing, where work samples are routinely requested as part of the application process.) In some ways, this format is even easier to manage than a portfolio—you can record high school-level classes your student took before 9th grade and college courses he took during high school in convenient little boxes. And don’t worry that your student won’t be able to show what makes him special: The application essay remains one of the best places to stand out as an individual. Some schools even include fun questions to elicit personal responses: The University of North Carolina, for instance, asks students what they hope to find over the rainbow.

 

Myth:  Homeschooled kids don’t test well.
Fact: On average, homeschoolers outperform their traditionally schooled peers on standardized tests.

All that emphasis on test prep in schools doesn’t seem to provide kids with a clear advantage come test time. Homeschooled students score 15 to 30 percentile points above the national average on standardized achievement tests regardless of their parents’ level of education or the amount of money parents spend on homeschooling. That includes college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. Research compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics shows that homeschoolers scored an average 1083—67 points above the national average of 1016—on the SAT in 1999 and an average 22.6 (compared to the national average of 21.0) on the ACT in 1997. This doesn’t mean these tests aren’t important—good scores can open academic doors—but it does mean you may not have to worry about them as much you’d thought.

 

Myth:  Homeschooled kids are not prepared for college.
Fact: Homeschooled kids adapt to college life better than their traditionally schooled peers.

This one always makes me laugh. Homeschooled kids probably have more hands-on life experience than their traditionally schooled counterparts. Homeschooled kids are usually more active in their communities, and because homeschooling is a family affair, they are more likely to have everyday life skills—the ones you need to make lunch for yourself or comparison shop for a tablet. Homeschooled teens also tend to be active participants in their own education, figuring out ways to manage their time and workload with their social lives long before they start college. Most importantly, they are able to interact and work with people of different ages, backgrounds, and cultures in a positive way, which is really the most important life skill of all. Perhaps that’s why homeschoolers are more likely to graduate from college (66.7 percent of homeschoolers graduate within four years of entering college, compared to 57.5 percent of public and private school students) and to graduate with a higher G.P.A. than their peers. Homeschoolers graduate with an average 3.46 G.P.A., compared to the average 3.16 senior G.P.A. for public and private school students, found St. Thomas University researcher Michael Cogan, who compared grades and graduation rates at doctoral universities between 2004 and 2009.  

This article was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home | school | life, and we’re reprinting it online in 2016.


At Home with the Editors: Inside Amy’s 8th Grade

Resources and routines for a relaxed classic homeschool 8th 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 8th 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 8th grader. (You can see what 7th grade looked like for us here.)

If I had to sum up 8th grade in one word, it would be “transitional.” We did a lot of learning and had a lot of fun, but we also spent a lot of time figuring out how to make the transition from middle school to high school. My daughter is opting to homeschool through high school, which thrills and panics me, but I wanted to make sure that whatever she wanted to do, she was prepared. So we spent this year working on skills that don’t always come up in homeschool environments but that are important for higher-level learning. I’ve mentioned note-taking, which is essential for lecture-based classes that she’s bound to run into at some point. We’ve also slowly shifted responsibility for deadlines to her shoulders. Homeschooling tends to be open-ended for us, which means projects get done when they feel done—which can be a couple of hours or a couple of years or never. This year, though, I made a point of giving my daughter due dates for some things and letting her keep up with them. We’ve talked a lot about due dates for things like research papers, where you’re really excited and just want to keep going and going but have to figure out a logical stopping point in order to get it done on time. My daughter also found that having a deadline made her second-guess herself—she’d wrap up a perfectly good project well in advance of the deadline and start to worry that she hadn’t put enough time or effort into doing it—shouldn’t it take her until the deadline to complete the project?

We’ve also started experimenting with grade feedback. I am not a fan of grading—honestly, a lot of things we do in our homeschool defy traditional grading, and I really like that fact. But at some point, we’re going to have to pull together a transcript, and while I think the pass/fail solution would be ideal, it doesn’t always work well for GPAs if you want to go to a more competitive school. So we’re playing with grades. I don’t give her grades in subjects like math, where it’s easy to see from how many problems you got right how you’re doing with a particular concept. I try to give input in the more nebulous areas, like history essay questions, where I can say, “This answer is good, but I would probably give it a B—it would be an A if you’d gone on to explain why the Treaty of Indian Springs was so controversial instead of just telling me that it was a controversial treaty.” Interestingly, I was all stressed out about the idea of grades, but my daughter doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

As far as what we studied, here’s what we used:

 

History

Eighth grade was our year to study state history. We used the free online textbook Georgia: Its Heritage and Promise, which did an impressive job of making a pretty fascinating subject almost completely boring, but it was a good spine. We read a lot of supplementary books together and—once I was mobile again—took a lot of field trips. A few years ago, we did a study of women in Georgia history, so it was fun to revisit some of those figures again from a slightly different perspective.

My daughter kept a notebook, which she filled with facts, thoughts, sketches, taped-in photos, and other notes from our studies. Every few weeks, we’d come up with a big-picture question for each other: How was Georgia different from the other twelve original colonies? What was Reconstruction like for people living in Georgia? We’d answer each other’s questions and chat about what else we might have included or any particularly good points someone made. (I like writing essays, which not everyone does, obviously, but we had a lot of fun working on these together.)

 

Latin

Our last year of Latin (sigh) was a continuation of what we’ve always done: We used Ecce Romani (though we jumped to books 3 and 4 this year) and did vocabulary cards, translation, and exercises for each chapter. Latin is the place where my daughter learns most of her English grammar, and that was true this year, too. If my daughter wanted to continue, she’d definitely be well-prepared for more advanced Latin next year.

 

Math

We tackled Life of Fred Prealgebra with Biology this year, but it was slow-going. I feel like I’m not very good at teaching math—I know my one way to solve the problem, but I’m not good at explaining how to do it or helping someone find another way that works better for her. We made it through, but it was definitely harder than it needed to be for both of us—I’m really glad Jason is here to take over math for high school.

 

Literature

We read a lot of books that tied into our Georgia history study (Some of our favorites included Juliet Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, Cold Sassy Tree, and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.). We also thought this would be a good year to explore an author’s complete body of work, so—like many people—we focused on Jane Austen, working our way up from Love and Friendship through Persuasion. (We didn’t read the unfinished Sandition.) For me, this was really fun—I love Austen and all those lovely Austen film adaptations—and my daughter really enjoyed it, too. She worked on a big paper over the course of the year about mean girls in Jane Austen, which turned out to be very interesting. I loved seeing it develop over the course of the year—as she read more and thought more, her ideas got deeper and more nuanced. It was very cool to watch.

 

Science

We used The Story of Science this year, and we loved it. I found The Story of Science through Rebecca’s review (thanks, Rebecca!), and it was the perfect combination of readaloud and hands-on for us. I wish we’d discovered it sooner because I would have loved to use this series throughout middle school. I didn’t get the student workbook—my daughter usually just keeps a notebook for classes—but I did get the teacher’s guide so that I could have the lab instructions. 

 

Creative writing

My daughter was the copy chief for her creative writing class’s magazine—though all the stories came in so close to deadline that she didn’t get to do as much actual copyediting as she was hoping. She took the class at our local homeschool group.

 

My daughter also got really adventurous with her cooking this year, inspired, perhaps, by our obsessive viewing of The Great British Bake-Off. She continued her knitting and sewing, having a brief fling with cross-stitching followed by a return to plushie making. She practiced her piano and guitar (almost) every day, did nature walks and kept a nature journal (not daily) with me and her brother. She wrote and illustrated comic books, got really interested in Maria Mitchell (the astronomer), and made all her own beauty products. (Her bathroom smells really good.) Sometimes these interests superseded “regular academics,” and that’s always perfectly fine in our house. Sometimes, she just wanted to read all day or had a shiny new video game that had to be played immediately and obsessively, and so that’s what she did. She really loves reading aloud and doing all the different voices, so I’ll often find her in her little brother’s room, reading to him. To me, all of this is part of homeschooling—as much as math or history or science.

Our schedule was hard to find a rhythm for this year, but eventually we fell into a routine that worked. Some of that difficulty might be because of my injury through the fall, which made everything kind of janky, but I think a lot of it was because we were trying lots of new things and it took a while to find the ones that worked and to get the hang of some of our new patterns. In some ways, our routine was the same as always: My daughter gets up when she gets up (later and later every year!), we do our structured work together after she has breakfast, then she does her independent work and whatever else she wants during the day and evening. (It’s weird to go in her room to say good night and see her sprawled on the bed at 11 p.m. writing essays or doing math problems, but that seems to be her prime creative thinking time.) But it was hard for us to find a balance that felt like the right mix of hey-we’re-learning-stuff and hey-this-is-fun, and I’m really glad we decided to tackle that challenge this year instead of waiting until 9th grade. I feel like this year has helped us know better what we’re doing as we move into high school.

As far as testing goes, we went ahead and did the PSAT this year—I signed her up to take it at our neighborhood high school, and while dropping her off at that cafeteria all by herself was both heart-wrenching and terrifying, she did just fine—on the test and in the strange environment. (I’ve done testing at home every year since Suzanne suggested it, and while I tend to think testing is annoying and not at all representative of what someone knows, I think Suzanne was right that just doing it every year takes the anxiety right out of it for prone-to-test-panic kids like my daughter and gives them practice sitting for so long without being able to take a break.)

Writing all this up is kind of reassuring because this year felt particularly hard, like trying to find my way through an unfamiliar terrain in the dark without a map. But looking back, I think we did a good job—we shifted some of the big pieces in our homeschool, but we were able to do in ways that let us keep the things we love about homeschooling. I guess transitions always feel messy and uncertain while they are happening. And, of course, when I asked my daughter how she thought this year had gone, she grinned her adorable grin and said “Great!” So that’s all right.


The Easiest Way to Get Organized for Homeschooling High School

Super easy, fool-proof method to keep up with homeschooling high school - love how simple this system is!

Homeschooling high school doesn’t have to mean acquiring organizational super skills. This easy organization method won’t stress you out and will make your life a whole lot easier when you start working on transcripts and other official paperwork for high school graduation. (This is our most-requested reprint from the magazine.) The envelope solution is elegant, effective, and so simple you can’t screw it up. Start it in ninth grade — eighth if you’re feeling particularly ambitious — and when it’s time to start the college application process, you’ll be all set. Here's how it works.

Label a large envelope for each class with the full name of the course and grade number (such as 9-Honors English 1 or 11-AP U.S. History). Add a separate envelope for extracurricular activities — if your child is serious about an activity, like soccer or theater, you may want to create a separate envelope for that particular activity as well as one for general extracurricular activities.

Label another envelope with your teen’s grade level and Honors — you’ll use this envelope to stash certificates of achievement, pictures of science fair experiments, and other awards and recognitions. Add one last envelope for community service — again, be sure to label it with your student’s grade level.

Make a basic information sheet for each class your child is taking. Include:

  • the textbook(s) used, with ISBN number
  • a copy of the textbook’s table of contents (Do this now. The last thing you want to do is end up rooting through boxes in the garage in a couple of years to figure out if your son’s freshman biology class included a section on genetics.)
  • the course description and syllabus
  • the name of the teacher (yes, even if it’s you!)
  • the number of credit hours the course entails

 

Tuck this information sheet securely in the envelope. Add items to envelope as the year progresses. Things you’ll want to include:

  • graded papers and tests
  • samples of presentations, lab reports, or other work done in the class
  • a running reading list (Add titles of books and essays to the list as you read them so you don’t have to try to remember everything at the end of the year. Even better, have your student keep an annotated reading list — with notes about each book.)
  • notes about associated activities — visits to museums, lectures, theaters, etc. — that relate to the class

 

At the end of the class, write the final grade and total credit hours on the front of the envelope. Inside the envelope, add:

  • official grades — community college report cards, printouts from an online class, or your evaluations
  • Ask any outside teacher to write a recommendation letter or evaluation for your student. Do it now while your student’s work is still fresh in their minds, and add the recommendation to your envelope. If you decide to ask this teacher for a recommendation when you’re working on college applications, you can give him his original recommendation to refresh his memory.
  • If your student ends up taking an AP or CLEP exam in a subject, add the exam results to your envelope. Similarly, if your student publishes or wins an award for work she started in the class, add those credits to your envelope.

 

Use a binder clip to group your envelopes — depending on how your brain works, you may want them grouped by grade level, by subject matter, or by some other criteria. However you group them, they’ll make writing that final transcript a lot easier since all your information will be organized in one place.


Reprinted from the winter 2015 issue’s Problem: Solved feature, which also tackled writing your own curriculum, keeping up with library books, getting over bad days, how to tell the difference between a homeschool slump and when you’re ready to stop homeschooling, and lots more