The #1 thing I would recommend to other home educators is that you become so well versed in any subject that you are not intimidated by it, nor enslaved by textbooks. This is not a goal I have completed or achieved overnight; I am still working at it. My motivation is that I want to know phonics, or math, or the elements of teaching writing so well that I can teach my child in an enjoyable, and sensitive fashion. I want to catch that gleam of understanding in my 4-year-old's eyes as he suddenly understands that a ten bar can be counted as a whole, to teach directly that letter combination that my reading child is stumbling over, and to know exactly how to help my middle grade child get past his "writer's block."
Have you ever noticed that when planning dinner, you tend to serve most often those recipes that you have memorized? They just don't seem to require as much effort as those you have to look up. Besides, you also tend to be a far more creative cook when you "own" a recipe. I taught my daughter how to make a white sauce along with many ways to vary it, then took her down the grocery aisle where she noticed all the packaged foods that were nothing more than freeze-dried variations of white-sauce foods. She caught the vision.
Now head to the nearest homeschool store and notice all the prepackaged learning materials. What is the basic skill or set of skills the program is based on? I'm not saying you should never use a well laid-out program, only that you should use it, not let it use you. Signs of program "slavery" include feeling guilty if your child doesn't cover every sheet, reteaching concepts year after year because the information was never taught well the first time, and wasting time teaching your child subjects he isn't developmentally ready to study.
I marvel at the way phonics programs often present themselves as a scientifically designed, perfectly sequential study so your child will have no opportunity to stumble over words or memorize wrong spellings. But the minute your child leaves the program, he is confronted with the real world of print - from trying to sound out the additives on his cereal box, to writing a letter to Grandma carefully sounding the few letters he knows into "Dr Grnmah."
If you have a mental chart of phonetic sounds and an idea of their hierarchy of difficulty, you can capture the moment of your child's interest to further his understanding. Peter (6) recently asked me what the word light was in his library book. I pointed to the igh and told him these three sounds say I. We sounded through the word together. He went on to read the next page, having no problem with the word fight. When my daughter tells me about a book she has been reading, I can ask her questions using literary words so that she uses them in her description. What was the main conflict? Who was the protagonist? Admittedly, I can sound stilted and teachery if I overdo it, but my daughter appreciates the review of terms coupled with my honest questions.
Children ask questions about their schoolwork at the most inconvenient times. In the world of guerrilla homeschooling, this means answering algebra problems from the changing table; stating the order of the planets while cooking, or counseling a frustrated child through a writing assignment; and still retaining a cool enough demeanor to deal with the squabble over toys that suddenly arose in your midst.
You can not "drop tutor" a subject you don't know well yourself. By "drop tutor," I mean dropping into a lesson without having to run for the teacher's manual or other resources.
Pick one subject a year in which to become an "expert." First read the easiest books you can find on the subject to get a handle on the content. For unit subjects such as in history or science, I find the easiest little kids' picture book I can on the subject to reteach myself what I've forgotten from my own schooling. I think I've learned more reading little kids' books than I ever did from textbooks! Get a guide that cuts out the lessons, and leaves a skeleton of the basic vocabulary and skills within the subject. Design-A-Study Guides are great for this, as are expanded skill-by-grade-level check lists that describe the information to be mastered.
Understand the Incremental Steps
I work with my child on a day-by-day basis to develop an understanding and a practice of the subject. This is as much for my reinforcement as my child's! Not only does this complete my understanding of the subject matter, it helps me to develop a method for teaching that subject.
Every subject has some sort of "Organizing Framework." Like a "closet organizer for the brain," an organizing framework organizes information for easy retrieval, but also organizes you or your child as a thinker. I believe it is most helpful if a child can construct the framework himself. He will see the framework as his own. Typical frameworks include charts of phonetic rules, timelines, classification charts of plants and animals, an addition table, etc.
In general, I pick the shortest route to teaching the organizing framework of the subject, then fill in the details with the liveliest whole books I can find. For subjects like teaching phonics and writing, I found myself developing all sorts of teaching strategies to hold their interest and expand understanding. With my younger children, I can now assign much of their school work and tutor to any problem that arises without so much direct teaching time. This gives them more control over their day allowing them to finish work without waiting for me to get to a subject, and frees me to spend my time only where it is really needed. This is another advantage of becoming a professional mommy; teaching takes less work with subsequent children!
Develop a Teaching Philosophy
Now that you have mastered the content of the subject, read up on some of the teaching philosophies that effect the way a course is taught. Biology from an evolutionary perspective teaches the student in a sequence starting with the cell and moving to more complicated life forms. A book from a creation perspective starts with what the student sees - whole plants and animals - then uncovers the underlying design.
Most textbook introductions will lay their philosophy out for you. I've learned a lot about educational philosophy from reading anything by Ruth Beechick, but I think her Language Wars (which is about curriculum in general) to be highly valuable. I've also enjoyed Mary Pride's subject introductions in her Big Books of Home Learning, and still find them right on.
Once you know a subject well, you will be able to step back and view a curriculum as a whole, evaluating how the subject is developed from year to year, the basic philosophy behind the way content is presented, and the teaching strategies employed.
Math starts with counting, then addition, and progresses through calculus. Some math programs focus on content, while others focus on rote skills. I have found both areas need attention.
Geography is often taught beginning with what is close to home and progressing outward. I prefer to teach geography by starting with the continents, then adding to the child's knowledge by reading stories of people who live in the various countries of each continent.
History might be taught chronologically, beginning in Ancient Babylon, or according to what would be most familiar to a child, such as beginning with his relatives and going through U.S. history. The KONOS curriculum teaches history by getting to know the stories of historical people. My young children can understand stories of people's lives, and they can add those people to the organizing framework of our timeline. Little by little they build on the knowledge of people that they know throughout history. As they get older, they begin to see history in "periods."
Science is usually taught according to what is familiar to the child, or as simplified pieces of the later high-school curriculum (i.e. the major plant kingdom). I like to teach science in a fashion similar to our history. We begin by building a simple chart of a topic, then getting to know one part of the chart well. For instance, we made an overall classification chart of plants, but then got to know one plant from our backyard that fit in each category. This allowed my younger children to both grasp the idea that there is a way to organize information as a whole, and to personally know and enjoy the plants that are familiar to them.
Develop a Teaching Strategy
There is a time to teach different topics in various stages of a child's development, and we must understand and respect this as teachers. One reason why some rigid phonics programs are so exciting to us moms is that we finally "get it" ourselves, having been reintroduced to an old topic at a new thinking level. It is, however, inappropriate to require that level of phonetic analysis of a 5-year-old beginning reader.
I like the way the Classical Approach describes the various thinking levels (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric), and have found this to be a reliable grid. My only addition has been to remember that learning must also associate with a child's heart and understanding. Just because a child can memorize rote facts doesn't mean a child should be taught rote facts with no understanding of their content.
In a nutshell, my method is to seek the light of understanding in my child's face. If the bulb doesn't go on, I cut back the lesson to a simpler and more concrete level. If after many lessons, my child doesn't seem to grasp the subject, I consider dropping it for several months - or even years. I have at times dropped spelling, phonics, grammar, Latin, and writing assignments. On the other hand, I've been able to keep many of my children several grades ahead in math and reading, and all have maintained a keen interest in schooling.
If you are just beginning to homeschool and the thoughts in this article seem overwhelming to you, I'd like to comfort you with the confession that I often call my oldest child my "homeschool guinea pig." I switched math programs on him an embarrassing number of times as I worked out my own teaching ideas. Yet at sixteen he got a 4 out of 5 on the Calculus AP exam, so perhaps I created a very flexible thinker!
In truth, I think all of my children have only benefited from seeing me struggle over their subject matter. They know that we are working at this homeschooling together, and that's the best part.
Katherine von Duyke is the mother of nine children, has homeschooled for eleven years, is married to Timothy von Duyke, a P.C.A. pastor, and has a degree in nutrition, which she says serves to make her feel guilty when indulging in chocolates! Kathy spends the wee hours of the night free-lance writing and editing her newsletter, KONOS Helps.
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