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Practical Homeschooling® :

Hybrid Homeschool Classes

By Linda Burklin
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #67, 2005.

Beyond the traditional co-op: how to teach a class that is a combination of classroom and distance learning.
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Linda Burklin

A couple of years ago, I faced a dilemma. I had been teaching junior high and high school English and Literature in our local home school co-op for several years, but it was no longer a workable option for us. The stress of trying to keep seven different children on track with all their co-op class homework in addition to doing all my own class preparation had taken a toll on the whole family, and my husband and I agreed that we could not continue with more of the same.

With my love of literature and my degree in English, however, I was not ready to stop teaching English. It's embarrassing for me to admit this, but the truth is that when I am teaching other children in addition to my own, I am more consistent and put more effort into producing a quality course for everyone. And it's also true that I love literature and the English language so much that I am eager to communicate with students who share my enthusiasm.

After pondering my problem for a few weeks, I came up with the idea for my hybrid classes, which have run successfully for two years now.

When you hear the word "hybrid," you think of a combination of two different species. My classes combine traditional classroom instruction with e-mail.

Vigorous Vocabulary

I well remember how vocabulary was taught my freshman year of college. Each week we got a list of 15 words to learn and each week we were quizzed on the vocabulary words. I loved this system because I already knew all the words and could ace the quizzes without putting forth a single ounce of effort. However, I saw my less well-read friends struggling to learn the words and then forgetting them pretty much the instant the quiz was over.

When my own children reached high school age, I knew I had to come up with a better way to teach vocabulary. Over the past few years, my teaching of vocabulary has evolved and become increasingly more effective.

If this is an area that interests you, I'd be happy to share my ideas with you.

First of all, I should clarify for you what my goal is. My goal is not to get my students to memorize long word lists. My goal is to get my students to incorporate their vocabulary words into their working vocabulary, in both speech and writing. Therefore, my co-op students get only three vocabulary words a week. My own children more commonly get five words per week. Whenever possible, I try to pick nice juicy words like contumacious, legerdemain, or mephitic, to name a few. Often, but not always, the words are drawn from our reading for that semester.

For each word, I make up a separate sheet which is e-mailed to all my students. The word itself forms a "title," followed by the unabridged dictionary definition, which I cut and paste from Merriam Webster's website (www.merriamwebster.com; subscription is about $30 per year). I admit that I sometimes alter the definition--for instance, deleting a meaning that is obsolete or very obscure. Underneath this I have a box with the header "Sample Sentences." Here I write a sample sentence, using the word correctly, and emphasizing it with bold italics.

Lately I have been trying to link each week's sentences together in order to make them more interesting for my students. For example, during the week when our words were invincible, ludicrous, and perfunctory, I used the following sample sentences:

  • Goliath believed himself to be invincible as he prepared to meet David, that annoying teenager, in battle.

  • It seemed ludicrous that David, armed only with a sling and a few stones, chose to challenge the seemingly invincible giant, Goliath.

  • Goliath, believing himself to be invincible, performed a few perfunctory swings of his enormous sword before getting closer to David and his ludicrous little sling.

Below my sample sentence, the rest of the box (and the page) is taken up by blank lines. Each student is expected to write one sentence per day for each word, making sure to use the word correctly. By the end of the week, my students will have used their new words at least five times each in an actual sentence. Since my own children are right here in the house with me, they are expected to recite their vocabulary sentences out loud so I can monitor for correct usage and pronunciation.

In addition, I make up vocabulary study sheets with all the words for the semester on them, and give vocabulary quizzes of various types (matching, fill-in-the-blank, etc.). Because I expect my students to remember and use their vocabulary words, all vocabulary testing is cumulative.

By far the most popular feature of my vocabulary program, though, is the vocabulary story. The favorite version of this activity involves sitting in a circle, each of us armed with a list of all the vocabulary words we have studied so far. The rules are simple. We go around the circle, each of us contributing one sentence to the story. Each sentence must contain at least one vocabulary word, but may not contain more than two. As each word is used, we cross it off our lists. Anything goes, as long as all the words are used correctly. The result has been some truly hilarious stories. I often type them into my PDA as each sentence is contributed, so that everyone can have a printed copy to take home. This is a great way to practice vocabulary, because I am there to monitor and explain any incorrect usage, but there is no real pressure or grade involved. The story goes on until all the words have been used and the story has come to a (very contrived) end.

Variations of the vocabulary story involve splitting the kids up into teams (girls versus boys), with each team composing a story to share with the others at the end of the timed writing period. I also sometimes require each student to write his or her own story using as many vocabulary words as possible. Again, the story may be as outrageous as they like, as long as the words are used correctly. Where the typical student may get 12-15 words into a one-paragraph story, my son Flynn sees this type of assignment as an irresistible challenge and always manages to get all the vocabulary words into his paragraph--even if there are 40 of them. (Sample Flynn sentence with vocabulary words in italics: "What this all boils down to, gentlemen, is that we not only need to castigate the fatuous myrmidons and malefactors among us, but we must also stop this pernicious avarice that is sweeping our despotic organization like a virulent plague.")

The payoff for me comes when I hear my kids using their vocabulary words in everyday conversation, and when my students submit written assignments which also use recently learned vocabulary words in a natural and appropriate way.

My students file all their vocabulary sheets into an alphabetized notebook. By the time they graduate from high school they will have a minimum of 288 words in their working vocabulary that weren't there before. That might not seem like a lot, but to my way of thinking it is preferable to learning hundreds of words but not being able to remember them or use them when you really need them.

As I tell my students repeatedly, thesauruses are helpful tools, but the best thesaurus of all is the one in your own head--and the more words you put into it the more useful it will be!

Here's how it works: During the summer, I pick the textbook and other books we will use and plan out the school year. I cram a whole year's worth of work into 24 weeks - twelve weeks in the fall, and twelve weeks in the spring - so I have to plan carefully to make sure we cover everything without burdening the students too much on any particular week. Although I use a textbook, I write all my own quizzes and assignments.

As the school year approaches, I contact the other moms (my class size is limited to six students) and we decide what day of the week will be best for classes. The first year, we did four six-week units and we met twice during each unit. Last year, as I was teaching American Literature, American History, Grammar, and Composition, we met every other week.

Once the class days are decided, I make up a master schedule that details the reading assignments each week for the entire school year. Each student gets a copy of the master schedule, so they always know what the reading is ahead of time.

Each weekend, I e-mail the assignments for the following week to the mothers of my students. These assignments include the following:

  • Vocabulary words (see next page's sidebar) - three words each week
  • Memory poems to practice (just a few each year)
  • Dictation passages to offer practice in spelling and punctuation
  • A reminder of the reading assignments
  • A quiz that covers the reading, along with the answer key
  • Several writing assignments

The beauty of this system is that it's up to each mother to decide how much of this she wants her student to do (although I do require that my students do all the reading). Most students do the vocabulary words, reading, and quizzes, while passing on the memory poems, dictation, and some or all of the written assignments. My own children, of course, are required to do everything!

Moms get to decide if and when to give the quiz each week, and have the key to grade it themselves. I give them a choice on written assignments - they can grade them at home or have me grade them. By an amazing coincidence, so far everyone has opted to have me do the grading!

My students complete their assignments on their computers, and then e-mail them to me as attachments. I grade them on my computer, highlighting passages I want to comment on and then inserting my comments in a different color or font. I then e-mail the assignments back to my students. This has worked very well and eliminates a lot of printing. My students may also e-mail me with any questions and get a prompt response.

Moms also are responsible for doing dictation with their students (if they have decided to do that), grading everything except the written assignments, and reminding their students to work on their memory poems and vocabulary words.

What's left for class time? Plenty! Our classes are not the typical one-hour periods you may be thinking of. They range in length from three hours to all day! At first I was intimidated by having to fill up so much time, but I soon found that I do very well with this "seminar" type approach - and my students seem to enjoy it too. Typically, our classes run for most of the afternoon (when my toddler is napping). We often start with reciting the memory poems and going over the vocabulary, followed by a brief grammar lesson and grammar quiz. Then it's on to the "meat" of the lesson - working on a specific writing skill, and discussing the reading. I ask my students to use "Book Darts" to mark passages that they have a question about or wish to comment on. I do the same thing as I read the passages, to make sure that I don't forget key points I want to go over with my students. Note: if you are not familiar with Book Darts, you can find them at www.bookdarts.com.

At roughly the half-way point, we take a 30 minute break and have a snack. Although I always have something ready to serve, my students also take turns bringing a special treat to share with everyone during the break. During cool weather we may sit outside around a wood fire, drinking hot cocoa and telling stories; while during the hot weather (far more common here) we stay inside and enjoy a cold drink in air-conditioned comfort.

Mid-term and final exams are usually given during class also, as are vocabulary tests. I often run out of time before I run out of material to cover!

Field trips are also a part of our hybrid class. This past year, since we were studying American history in addition to the literature, we went to two local historical museums. On both occasions we packed lunches and made an outing of it. A favorite field trip for my all-girl class the first year was to a nearby historical town. After spending the morning at a picnic table learning about narrative writing and eating lunch in a quaint sandwich shop, we headed for the local antiques barn. Each girl had $5 to spend on one item. When all the choices had been made, we went on a walk past the town's historic houses, and each girl picked her favorite, which I photographed. I also took a picture of each girl's special item from the antique store. Then it was time to start the writing assignment. Each girl had to write a story featuring the item she had bought and the house she had picked. Everyone enjoyed sharing their stories with the others and getting immediate feedback. Over the next couple of weeks they all refined and revised their stories before turning in their final draft. Of course, I gave them the photos of their houses and special items to illustrate their stories with.

Instead of antiques, my boys' class had to write stories based on something they found in nature. We conducted our narrative writing class on a picnic table at the lake, and the boys went on a hike afterwards looking for something interesting to write about. The resulting stories were both funny and fascinating.

After two years of conducting these hybrid classes, I would have to say that I have definitely found my niche. These classes work very well for me and they seem to work well for my students too. Large blocks of time together create a natural bond that seems to make my students more willing to do the hard work that I demand of them. The only downside is that I often get way behind on my grading - but my students have been very patient and uncomplaining. And of course, I feel so very noble when I get all caught up and all those assignments have been e-mailed back!

Of course, this type of approach is very labor-intensive for me, especially the first time through. Now that I have completed virtually all the quizzes, assignments, and lesson plans for all four years of high school literature, my task will be much easier as I have this material ready to use again. All the effort is well worth it for me as I see how much my two high school graduates have learned over the years.

Obviously, this is not a typical "co-op" class type setup. Apart from keeping up with the e-mail assignments, the other moms have no responsibilities other than providing snacks and transportation. This is okay with me, though, because my children and I benefit tremendously from the accountability that the classes force upon me. Maybe this kind of hybrid arrangement would work for you, too.

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