Poetry: a few thoughts

I love poetry.  I want my children to love poetry, but when I get too enthusiastic about it, I end up making them hate it.  So I have to creep up on them from the side, sort of like offering new vegetables.

I read a lot of poetry to them– everything from Shel Silverstein to Langston Hughes to Jack Prelutsky to Emily Dickinson.  I have some beautiful anthologies of poetry, and if I leave them out, I find the children thumbing through them looking for their favorites.  Once a month, I ask them to memorize a poem.  Sometimes it’s a Bible verse, or a haiku.  The boys have both memorized “classics” from Calvin and Hobbes.  Our home school group gets together on a regular basis and offers time for the kids to do a formal recitation, and this has been a great nudge to my kids to memorize.

My dad loves to write little verses to them, and I cherish this tradition.  The kids have memorized his verses and written him back.  Last week I wrote six words on the white board and asked everyone to write a poem using those words.  They loved it.  Here are our words: waffle, blue, yes, dive, slumber, wonder.  I try to choose very specific words, and they love to use them in different ways.

We watched one of my favorite movies on my birthday– Roman Holiday.  In it, the runaway princess quotes a poem, and she and the undercover journalist argue over who wrote it.  The children were thrilled so see adults– FAMOUS ONES– quoting poetry.  Then we read in The Long Winter how Mary, Laura, Carrie and Ma pass the frozen days by reciting.  This was just like telling them that Babe Ruth ate brussels sprouts.

Charlotte Mason says, “It is good to store a lot of poetry in a child’s memory, and it doesn’t have to take any work to learn it. A few years ago I visited a lady who was raising her niece using her own educational approach… Here’s what she would do. She would read a poem all the way through to the girl. The next day, while the girl was sewing a doll’s dress or something, she would read it  again. She might read it the next day while brushing the girl’s hair. She would get in maybe six days of this, depending on the length of the poem, reading the poem at various times, once during each day. And after a few days, the girl could say the poem that she had not learned.'” Home Education, volume 1, Part V

Here are a few of my favorite anthologies.  What are yours?

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When We Were Very Young

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School Update

We’re 6 or 7 weeks in, so it’s time to look at what’s working (or not) around here.


Copywork and Dictation.  This is the first year I have been a stickler for perfection on this.  We do copywork usually twice a week.  M and O are copying passages from our read-alouds, or other good reading.  J is copying passages from Exodus, which he’s currently reading.  I circle mistakes, and they fix them.  On their dictation (Fridays) I choose a shortened passage from their copywork and dictate it back.  They have to write it perfectly, with clues to the punctuation.  If there are any spelling mistakes, I re-write the word correctly, and they copy it five times.  We usually have one or two words to re-write, but they’re been tricky ones: said (for M), or their versus they’re (for J).  Although the copywork passages elicit kicking and screaming (“It’s too hard!”  “It’s too long!”  “I’ll never be able to do it all!”) consistency on my part has paid off, and it’s getting easier.

Singapore Math.  I really like Singapore.  It works for us.

Read-Alouds.  This usually has to be done over a meal– or while they’re painting or working with clay– otherwise I lose them.  We’re coming to the end of Foster’s The Life of Christopher Columbus and Sons, and J has already asked which one is next.  We have a good variety of other read-alouds: Paddington and The Long Winter and picture books.

Bible Verse Memorization: Last year we got away from our little box of verses and Spanish phrases.  This year, I’ve pulled it back out, and I’m happy to see how much they still remember.

Rosetta Stone Spanish and Henle Latin: Both working.  O and M work independently and are starting to generate spontaneous phrases in Spanish.  Hooray!  J’s Latin is a review so far, but moving quickly, and he’s handling it so well.  Plus, how can you not love “Huffabo et puffabo et tuum dominum inflabo?”

Not Working Very Well:

Picture Study/Composer Study: I just can’t seem to find a time for it.  I end up hanging pictures on our art line, or having us discuss them over afternoon tea… and I play the music, but perhaps not often enough for them to recognize it.  But we persevere.

Nature Study: A perpetual struggle: we hike, I point things out, we ask questions… but we infrequently make the time to find the answers once we get home.  And when I bring materials to draw on-site, it often turns into let’s-see-how-quickly-I-can-do-this-so-I-can-build-a-fort-with-sticks.

Exercise: I’m running, but then I’m not so motivated to get them out their for exercise later.  But swim team is just around the corner…

Handworks: I think the weather needs to be a little colder, so we’re hunkered down a little more.  Right now, I’d rather us be outside.

Jury Still Out:

Read to Mommy Time:  J faithfully does his reading (about 45 minutes a day of novels, Scripture and science) and loves it.  M and O read so well, but they leave it till last.  O’s reading has improved with shorter chapters (currently James and the Giant Peach).

Cooking: they love it when I remember to invite them into the kitchen with me.  Do I remember?  Not so much.

Piano lessons with Mommy: It helps that they meet once a month with our teacher.  But three half-hour lessons a week adds up, and SweetP can’t really stay away from the piano that long…


Homeschooling FAQ: From Copywork to Composition

So I mentioned that we have the awesome task of getting our kids from “How do I write the alphabet?” to “How do I write a 300 word essay in 2 hours?”  Do you find that overwhelming?  I do.

And then I remind myself that I have eight to ten years in which to do that.

We talked about emerging writing as a mechanical skill.  And read-read-read-read-read.  Then what?

Charlotte Mason recommends two techniques: copywork and narration.

Copywork is the reproduction other people’s writing.  It can be a favorite quote from a book you’ve been reading, or a chapter of scripture.  Stacy has some great ideas in her post on copywork.  The focus here is exposing them to good literature– what it looks like on the page.  By copying punctuation and well-written sentences, they absorb them.  But we have to make sure they are copying them correctly.  Copywork has been the single most effective tool in improving O’s writing, but it only became so once I required him to get it right: capital letter at the beginning, small letters in the middle unless it’s a name, and punctuation at the end.  Now he checks those rules automatically when he writes each sentence.

Next, narration.  There’s a wonderful passage in The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer on narration. They talk about how narration (telling back a story, piece of art, or non-fiction book) is the opposite of testing.  A traditional school test– true/false, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blank– tests what a child DIDN’T learn.  Narration asks a child to tell what they DID learn.  For instance, asking a child, “In what year did Columbus sail the Atlantic?” is asking her to reproduce a fact that you have determined is important.  Asking a child, “Tell me what you know about Columbus,” gives you the opportunity for him to say, “Columbus was born in Italy but went to Portugal and then Spain to look for someone to fund his voyage.  He calculated wrong, but Isabella and Ferdinand sponsored his trip anyway.  He took three ships, and his greed cause the captain of the Pinta to desert him.  He landed first on San Salvador but thought he was in India.”

Narration requires attention, comprehension, and filtering.  Children often incorporate new vocabulary in their narrations.  And if a child can do a verbal narration of a topic, then a written narration is the next step.  From there, he can write an essay.

For example: my six year-old can tell me what she heard from a Bible passage (usually in one or two sentences) or can retell a picture book in its entirety.  That’s all I ask of her: attention on the first reading, and an effort.  I never correct her oral narrations.

My seven year-old can narrate a chapter of a book he read aloud to me, although he usually tells me first that he can’t.  I will often copy his narrations down and ask him to copy them over for copywork.  For him, I will occasionally prompt him for more: “And then what happened?”  Again, no correction.

My ten year-old can write a 200-word narration of a novel or an essay on a topic.  I often have him read a book and then ask him to write a few paragraphs on how a protagonist changed during a book, or what the protagonist learned.  He makes a thesis which answers my question,  supports it with 3-5 examples from the text, then sums it up.  Ta-da: a one paragraph essay.  Currently, he’s working on answering, “What was life like for children during the Middle Ages?” by combining the essays he wrote this year on each of the novels he read that were set in the Middle Ages.  His narrations become a springboard for longer essays.  For these narrations, I don’t correct the content but do correct the grammar. Often he does a draft by hand, and I circle the errors.  He corrects those when he types them into the computer, and then we print the final copy.

Karen Andreola has a good few chapters on Narration in her book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, and Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschool Series is full of tips on Narration.

Homeschooling FAQ: Early Writing

I love so much of Charlotte Mason’s teaching, including what she said about writing.  She emphasized short lessons.  She advocated expecting high quality work.  Think three perfect (as age appropriate) Ms instead of one hundred sloppy Ms.

My friend Heidi was over last week, and we brainstormed about how we teach writing to young ones with the goal of eventually being about to write a flawless 5 paragraph essay.  It’s overwhelming, is it not?  No wonder we’re always looking for “the perfect book to teach writing.”  I can’t tell you how many books I bought (ack!) in my early days, as J was learning to write.  Ones that promised fluency and a seamless transition into composition.  I was a butterfly, landing on one method for a month until it didn’t work, then moving onto another for 6 weeks.

Finally I discovered Charlotte Mason.  And Maria Montessori.  And Explode the Code.  Between the three of them, I have more successfully navigated the waters of early-writing with my second two.  (The jury is still out on whether my children will be able to write flawless 5 paragraph essays for their college applications.)

Here are my thoughts.

Part of the challenge of writing is that it is both a cognitive and a motor skill.  Linking the two together is hard.  Add into that that we’re trying to do this as our wiggly 5 or 6 year-olds are just learning what “school” is going to look like.  If I give them 100 S’s to copy, they will quickly learn that they don’t like school.  If I can make at least two parts of the three-part challenge easier, the transition into “school” will be easier.  For example:

In the beginning, start simple.  Here are five sample “beginning writing” lessons which you could do with a single letter per week.  Do one each day for no more than 5 minutes.  Be very positive, but do “writing” each day.  Over time, the eye-hand-cerebrum muscles  will develop, and you’ll be able to add in some copywork on paper.  But start without it.  And keep in mind that “scribbling” is a developmentally appropriate motor skill that builds the muscles we’re working on!

Day 1: fill a cookie sheet with a thin layer of cornmeal and have them “write” a single letter in the cornmeal– and shake it till it’s gone if they’re not happy for it– for 5 minutes.

Day 2: copy 3 perfect letters on a chalkboard or whiteboard.  (The chalkboard is especially good because it prevents making your letters from the bottom.)

Day 3: trace a letter onto sandpaper, cut it out, and glue it on regular paper.  Have the child trace this with their finger and say the sound.

Day 4: Make a letter mosaic.  Trace your letter onto regular paper– as large as you can– and have your child fill the outline with something starting with that letter.  (Macaroni in the letter M.  Feathers in the letter F.Buttons for B.)

Day 5: Ahead of time, cut a bunch of photos from magazines and separate them by starting sound.  Make a collage of the letter.  (A: airplanes and ants and apples.  B: boats and bears and bottles and babies.)

Start this process with the letters of your child’s name so that she can write her name as soon as possible.

Once your child can write his or her letters, you can add in copywork.  Begin with a word a day, but expect good quality work.

Separate from the manual skill of writing (above), your child is simultaneously developing his reading skills and comprehension, so I’ll give you a few ideas I have about these in the next post.

Getting Started Homeschooling: FAQ

I think this topic will become an occasional series.  I’ve had a bunch of requests to share how one gets started homeschooling, and I’m happy to share, but…

What I share is one family’s experience (ours).  You are the expert on your family.  You and your spouse will be the only ones who can judge if what works for us will work for you.

My friend Virginia and I were talking recently about parenting, and she said she wished she hadn’t read ANY parenting books before she started, because then she just felt like she was always doing it wrong.  Every time I’ve had to change a strategy I’d picked up from somewhere else, I bore a load of guilt that I must be doing it wrong.  So please don’t take ANYTHING I say here as an absolute.  If there’s something here that’s helpful, appropriate it, change it, and thank God that it’s working for you.  Until the day it doesn’t, and then change it.

Okay.  Disclaimer over.

Today I’m going to talk about the underpinnings of my methods.  I’m a big fan of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and methods, and I find her methods can be used with all sorts of different curricula and content.

Pardon me for a moment while I put on my Charlotte Mason hat.   Education is a life, an atmosphere, and a discipline.  What does that mean?

All of our life is education.  You have already been homeschooling your child to some degree, whether she is three months old or eighteen years old.  Every time you read a library book together, or sing a song, or worship together at church, or plant a flower bulb, or take a hike, or cook a meal together, you are educating.  Some of that learning is passive and some of it is active, but we learn from ALL parts of our life.  Charlotte Mason also wrote that “education is a science of relations.”  That means that our learning is the connecting of the dots between diverse pieces of knowledge.  And living a rich life, with lots of different bits and pieces of information, will give us more connections to make.

The atmosphere in our homes is one of the most important parts of education.  I had friends growing up who didn’t want to spend a single minute in their home because it was chaos– they couldn’t read, or think, or concentrate because of noise, the sheer volume of stuff, and constant media input.  Or to if we hit a little closer to (my) home: it’s hard to learn in a house with too many rules.  If a child can never make noise, how can they learn to make music?  If she can’t get her clothes dirty, how will she learn what dirt feels like?  Or paint?  Our homes in no way need to resemble schools, but we need to be mindful in creating an atmosphere that promotes exploration, study, and conversation.

Finally, education is a discipline.  This is the area about which I wish I’d thought more consciously when we were starting out.  I don’t mean discipline in a punitive way.  I mean it as teaching a child how to choose the right and make herself do it.  This is not my forte, but I have to say that when I spend time building good habits in my children, the payoff is so much greater than the cost.  And I wish I’d started earlier.  Doing math every day build math muscles.  Writing every day builds writing muscles.  To grow a five year-old from an illiterate consumer of picture books into a young adult who can write a 500-word essay on how Sylvia Plath used metaphor and simile in a poem is going to take a lot of baby steps.  (This was my AP English exam a million years ago– I hope I’m not breaking trust by giving away the question now.)

In your house, discipline may begin with having your child brush his teeth and make his bed every morning.  But those are actually big steps, because trust me– teaching a ten year-old to do it is a lot harder.

All right, enough philosophy.  Next post: doing math every day.

Masterly Inactivity

Charlotte Mason talks about “masterly inactivity.”  That is the idea that we would give our children times and spaces that aren’t programmed so that they are forced to come up with their own learning and activities– and yet, we are present in the background, and still in control of their safety.

It is saying, “No, I can’t ________ right now, I’m going to make dinner.  But you can pull a bunch of things out of the recycling and see what you can make.”  Or another favorite of mine, the puzzle bin.

It is setting up a fossil making station (thank you, Exploring Creation with General Science, from Apologia) and then letting them go hog wild on it for two hours.

It is putting the children into all their snow clothes and throwing them into the back yard with their friends.  And watching the fun while I knit by the window.

It requires my being okay with a mess.  Not being in control of the glue.    I’m working on it.

Education: An Atmosphere

We had our monthly Charlotte Mason discussion group last week.  I came away a little dissatisfied… not with my friends, but with our preoccupation with methods.

It is February, after all– the month when I find myself wondering if we’ll make it through the year.  (We will.)  The month I wonder if this is the best thing for my children.  (It is.)  The month I want to chuck everything we’re doing and find something better.  (I won’t.) 

My friends who have their children in parochial, private and public schools are asking the same questions right now.  Have we accomplished enough for the year?  Why does it all feel so stale?  Would things be greener on the other side of the fence?  Will spring ever come?

Miss Mason wrote, "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."  So I’m trying to go back to the fundamentals, to get us through until the grass has greened, and spring is upon us.  Until then, we’re going to spend as much time outside as we can– to let the atmosphere and environment God made spur us on to want to know more.  We’re going to stick with our habits and daily routines, so that we can spend our mental energy contemplating ideas, instead of whether or not now is the right time to brush our teeth.  And we’re going to let great books and art and music fill us with ideas that inspire us.

"Education is a life. That life needs ideas to keep it alive. Ideas come from a spiritual place, and God has created us so that we get ideas in the same way we pass them on to others: by expressing them in talk, or printed words, or the text of Scripture, or music. A child’s inner life needs ideas in the same way that his physical body needs food. He probably won’t use nine-tenths of the ideas we expose him to, just like his body only assimilates a small part of the meals he eats. He’s very eclectic–he might choose this or that. We don’t need to be concerned about what he chooses, we just need to make sure that he has a variety of things offered to him, and in abundance. If we pressure him, he will be annoyed. He resists force feedings, and he hates predigested food. What works best is a mental diet presented in an indirect literary form. That’s the way Jesus taught when He used parables. What makes parables so wonderful is that they are unforgettable, every detail is remembered, yet the way they’re applied might pass and leave no trace in an unworthy person, no influence at all in the person. Jesus took that risk, and we must. too. We just might offer children a meal of Plutarch’s Life of Lysander, thinking that the object lesson will show what a good leader or citizen should avoid–but the child may love Lysander and think his ‘charming’ ways are admirable! But we have to take that chance, just like Jesus did when he told the parable of the Unjust Steward [Luke 16]. One note: it seems like we need ideas to be presented with lots of padding, such as the way we get them from novels, or poems, or history texts written with literary style. Neither a child’s body, nor his mind, can survive on pills, no matter how much research goes into formulating them. From a big, thick book full of living ideas, he may only latch onto a half dozen that speak to his heart and nourish his spirit. And there’s no predicting which ideas will ignite a spark in him; they tend to come from unexpected places and in forms we never would have guessed. No person can force a portion of Scott or Dickens or Milton to inspire him and feed his soul. It’s as the Bible says, ‘Stay busy and plant a variety of crops, for you never know which will grow.’ [Eccl. 11:6, NLT]

Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 110-111, Modern English Adaptation courtesy of www.amblesideonline.com.

Living Books

I’m fresh back from another great meeting of the Charlotte Mason discussion group I attend. It was wonderful.  My homeschooling friends are—like me—young in this process, so I don’t often get to hear the triumphs, the long-term success stories.  But the discussion the other night was led by a woman whose oldest daughter (who considers herself a Woman of Letters—how great is that!) is at college.  This lovely mom led a discussion on Living Books. 


We discussed Living Books—what defines a living book, what are examples from our own experiences—and how to use them in daily life.  This was great timing for me, because we had just spent the day “skipping” school to read The Wizard of Oz.  My sons loved this book.  I didn’t expect this, since the main character is female.  ((I think it was J.K. Rowling who said that girls will read & identify with boy or girl protaganists, but boys identify only with boys.) But Dorothy has some whopping good adventures!  (In fact, my younger son actually narrated the chapters to his father every night at dinner.)   Instead of history (which they generally love) and math and spelling, we spent all day reading chapter after chapter—at the breakfast table, on the couch, while playing with play-dough, while sitting outside, over lunch… Every time I stopped at the end of a chapter, they begged me to read on.  I kept thinking, “If this goes on, we won’t get anything done!”


But Roberta, who led our discussion, testified that there are many days in their home when they did the same thing—and it has led to her own children’s love of books and ideas… exactly what Charlotte Mason promised.  We just flew through Alice in Wonderland, and we started The Sword in the Stone last night.

A Charlotte Mason-esque Day

We had a wonderful day today.  It was the first day this fall that we actually made school happen in the morning.  (Last week was full of friends staying with us, doctors' visits and errands.)  My prayer this morning before school began was for patience, and a day without any yelling.


J began with table time– which was done much more efficiently and without the dramatics of last week– while O and M worked pouring rice and water.  (They loved it.)  We read the second chapter of Beowulf the Warrior (a great retelling) and had a few dance breaks.  We had our second biology lesson today, studying invertebrates.  When we'd finished reading about them, we went across the street to the greenway and hunted for invertebrates (e.g. snails) in the mud.  We hit the snail jackpot and watched them moving around.  The boys played in the mud and had a blast.  During biology, my neighbor (whose son is studying biology with us) did a “cooking” class with both of our two year-old daughters.  Then we all had lunch together.  It was lovely.


After lunch, the boys played, we read and painted with watercolors, and then (after an unsuccessful nap attempt by my 2 y/o) went for a long bike ride.  We got very messy and wet and rode our bikes through the park.  My three y/o helped me make the pizzas for our dinner.


I'm grateful for a reestablishment of our morning routine– how we need it!  And I continue to pray for patience (although today was encouraging.)


Benign Neglect

One happy byproduct of our vacation has been that the boys are playing together much more without my help.  What are the means by which this has occurred?  I ignore them.  Now, I have been laboring for 6 years under the belief that ignoring my children is a bad thing.  Consequently, I have entertained them with endless creative crafts and work around our home and projects in the gardens and outings together and reading… but in so doing, I have not allowed them to learn how to play.


J (6) received a lot of little tiny legos– choking size, really– so he has been relegated to his room to play with them alone.  And he has learned to build all sorts of creative lego creatures (the latest is a modified version of the monster from The Incredibles.)

O (3) has begun building all sorts of vehicles with his duplo legos and creates whole stories with them.  M (almost 2) and I have been cooking, cleaning, and while she naps, I have been reading my Bible or getting ready for our trip.  The boys have been playing together– no TV or computer, just playing– indoors and out, and even have begun giggling together after bedtime (they share a room.)


In medicine, we call this Benign Neglect.  I'm not really ignoring them– I have my ears peeled for fighting or problems– but it is my lack of entertaining them that has caused them to entertain themselves.  And I am very grateful.