Oct 22, 2011

On visual schedules, planning (and remembering)

Part of my visual homeschool organisation system
This post covers some of the different ways I have designed, tried, changed, discarded, borrowed and adapted planning tools to help schedule our time in our home education endeavours. 

(For general physical organisation of your homeschool room rather than time management, have a look at this post.)

In previous lives, among other things, I have run my own design business, developed and taught adult design curriculum, been a marketing communication manager with staff, run groups etc and all my life I have strived for the perfect system. What have I learnt along the way? 
  • Are you a visual person? Spatial thinker? Linear? Love lists? Despise systems and embrace chaos? Vague as a duck? Know thyself and plan accordingly. 
  • Don't be afraid to discard systems even if everyone else seems to love them - then maybe re-visit if the time is right.
  • If your system isn't working, are aspects of it salvageable? Adapt and thrive.
  • Make sure you enjoy your system - pleasure is a great motivator when tiredness and apathy set in.
  • Bored with it? System not fitting the kids? Get creative and move on.

First step, work out your priorities
At the end of each holiday or school break, Mike and I sit down and discuss "where to next?". With so many areas of curriculum to cover, I don't attempt to cram them all into the average week - I have tried it, it doesn't fit!

There are two ways of working out your priorities: 

  1. what are your kids in the mood for exploring (icing on the cake), or 
  2. what skills and areas are we running behind on (filling in). 

This might be just a sense or feeling you have, or maybe information gleaned from assessment. 

For example, I noticed that spelling was sliding; we hadn't really done much on poetry so far; in order for July to do more independent work she needed more practice with her handwriting to increase speed and accuracy; and the girls universally cried "we want more science!". Added to that the daily 30 minutes of maths (needed for emotional stability around here ; )) and there is our "try to do every working day" list. Oh, and at least one read aloud (fiction at night, factual in the day mostly).

Read alouds calm me down and anchor what can otherwise be a hectic week. I do ask narrative style questions and aim to inspire Socratic discussion. Often, keeping the floods of relevant chat to a minimum is the hard part, but I shouldn't complain...

Second step, fill in with fun and lovely bits
For us this is material like "Mapping the World with Art" (geography, history, art through mapping), Michael Clay Thompson "Grammar Island", French, Philosophy (currently reading "The Fallacy Detective" as an intro to deductive reasoning, logic, etc), and our own Science fun based on "what do we want to do now?". This may be nature study, bushwalks, chemistry experiments, robot kits and so on. This is the child-led end of the plan.

Lots of art happens after lunch without my involvement, but we do dip into things like "Drawing on the Right Hand of the Brain" workbook.

Third step, give yourself permission to pause the plan
Be flexible. Farmers market day? Maybe spelling worksheet in the cafe and a talking book in the car is the extent of home education that day. Chance to go to the museum or art gallery? Go! Enjoy. 

Our system: meet my exterior brain
Yes, it really is. This timber box lives on top of the old 1930s dresser in the centre of our "education space". It is chock full of books, printouts, notes, activity books, posters etc in chronological order. As an eclectic classical homeschooler, I needed a place to store all those lovely resources and frankly there is no way I would ever remember them if they ended up in the more current, active curriculum boxes. Here they stay as I lovingly flick through them on those days when pondering "where to from here?"

When it is time, out they'll come and onto the read-aloud book stand and into the "ready to go" curriculum box.

The girls know there is treasure in this box and love to peek and rifle through - building anticipation is so important, isn't it.

I am a visual spatial person
I'm sure that is no surprise to you! (Indeed, you probably are too.) This is why our homeschool is full of nice piles of strewn goodies to tempt our 2 visual spatial learners...

such as public library-like displays of current areas we are exploring in the reading room to tempt reading and small collections of special material for me so I remember to teach with it! 

For example, here is Michael Clay Thompson's excellent first level poetry book "The Music of the Hemispheres" which we are dipping in and out of while also playing with an anthology (with explanatory rhyme and poetry greats sections) called "A Child's Introduction to Poetry" by Michael Driscoll.

Following MCT's lovely suggestion of reading a poem a day, I have TS Elliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" as just one source (by the way - have you seen this free poetry iPad iPhone app from the Poetry Foundation? Wonderful!). Next to that is our current "in the daytime" read-aloud - Horrible Science's "Blood, Bones and Body Bits/Chemical Chaos". 

Evening read-alouds are generally classic fiction.

Keeping track of what's next
I have not invented the perfect system - not for the long-term anyway. For us, priorities are constantly changing - along with interests and new materials. The organisation system must also change.

I don't like to rely upon day-in-day out workbooks and the same day-by-day routines. It just wouldn't work here. My greatest challenge is how to deliver the best resources in the most timely fashion, before interest turns to boredom, and the girls frankly just grow out of it!

I have passed on plenty of material that we never got to use in time. I'm ok with that.

I try to gather good material that is not too repetitive but that is reinforcing enough for retention. Spark the passion, feed the fire, then move on to the next rich subject.

Here are some of the visual prompts I have used over the last three years to keep track of our inspiring plans, and the more mundane plans too:

Lists and mind maps
When stuck and feeling a bit anxious, I return to this method as it gives me the feeling of being in control (hmmm, this is an illusion). I have a homeschool notebook as a catch-all for all my worries, ideas, crazy plans. Trouble with this is that once that book is shut, I forget about it! 

Out of sight truly is out of mind for a visual person, which is why now I transfer the important actions onto the following more visual tags, on display in the education space. The advantage is that the girls also get to see what is available and negotiable.

Timetables and schedules
It is very tempting to run homeschool as an office or a bricks-and-mortar school with grades (horror) and a tight schedule - "must have timetable...must have timetable...must have timetable....must have timetable..."

Tried this, both paper and electronic, and found it did_not_work for us. Too linear and rigid.

Limited "must do" list
The workbox system wasn't good for us either, as I explained here. However, I had made some nifty little laminated tags which I then put to good use as a sort of physical "must do" list, on the understanding that sprinkled through the day - interspersed with larger projects - these "must dos" were to be completed by the girls.

Once done, the child got to take down the tag and place it into a little box ready to be on display for the next day. This was also great for chores when the girls were young. Here they are hanging in a magnetic order bar:

Menu corkboard
This was fun. I wrote or pinned up projects and together with the girls we chose which ones to work on. The re-usable tags were saved for another week, and the one off projects were scrunched up when complete and recycled. Satisfying.

Eventually I just got sick of the visual busy-ness and moved on.

Latest and greatest - "in and out corkboard"
This system works well for us now. It is a mix of "must remember to use these favourite materials regularly" and my usual visual "strewing" (putting together goodies for the kids to find and inspire them, oh, and also me).

I made up a laminated card for each of the pieces of curriculum we are currently actively using (selection of those are shown above). When we have completed it, I just move it from the left to the right side of the board. This lets me see in a glance what needs to be covered in the rest of the week, or indeed fortnight if there is lot of project work going on.

Other visual cues
The magnetic stainless steel strips on the homeschool room wall hold special hovering "fun projects" like these Halloween craft bits, or "Alice in Wonderland" puzzles for our approaching reading of Michael Clay Thompson's Language Illustrated Classic.

These are both from the Dover Publications Teachers' Samples.

Visual spatial approach to spelling
Cumulative spelling lists gather on one of the 2 whiteboards so that next week's list is as current as possible. Once the girls are working on the list words, we use Look, Say, Cover, Write, and Check - a good technique for visual learners. More about this method here

I encourage them to be as creative while writing out their words: different colours for different syllables, draw a picture with the letters etc. The other technique is writing the word out in the air while saying each letter as you write it. Try doing this backwards if the word is really tricky to remember... 

One last thing
Oh, and I always try to remember the value of whimsy in the learning space : )

Hope you have enjoyed the tour. Any questions? Please comment below and I will attempt to answer them!

What methods do you use for keeping track of where you are and what you are going to do in your homeschool?

Oct 17, 2011

Homeschool is where the heart is

You show me yours...
I love the chance to peek into other family's homeschool spaces - don't you?
Early on our home education planning, I searched high and low for ideas of how to organise our curriculum, art materials, independent work, task lists.

Now at last I'll show you mine...
An ever evolving system, here is our homeschool organisation in its current form - what works for us right now. In the 2 and a half years we have been doing this, we have gone from camped on the end of the dining room table to - drumroll - a real live dedicated learning space.

From table space to own space
Those years on the table worked for us because with younger children needing more attention I could cook or clean the kitchen or put a load of washing on while answering questions or sorting out squabbles. They also needed their own play space down the end of the house. 

But little girls grow up - less education supervision and less messy play inside the house.

In this post I'll show the physical tools that help the Mansted family Project's Hungry Heads Homeschool run smoothly (mostly)...and the next post will cover the day-to-day workings (to save us from the "what in the world are we going to work on today?" dramas).

Here goes...

Workboxes have become curriculum subject boxes
We tried the workbox system, with tags to be collected to show work completed. It didn't really work for us.

I realised that as a family we tend to work by subject areas: "let's do science now" or "time for some philosophy". With 2 kids working different levels I found it easier to have both working that same subject area at the same time - sharing tools, materials, manipulatives even when using different texts or source books rather than the traditional workbox system where the child independently works through their tasks for the day.

Physically, each curriculum area (in no particular order: Science, Maths, Literacy, Music, History, Geography, Art, French, Handwriting and spelling, and Philosophy) has its own box - and I just pull it out and put it on the table before starting the subject. Inside the box are textbooks, any fun stuff like games, magazines, puzzles, torn out magazine articles or web printouts, even library books on the topic (though I have a particular place for library books - see the Reading Room). 

As well, I have both girls' notebooks in a 2 ring binder sitting with the curriculum box. As these writing books are filled up, they are filed high above the library book shelves in the reading room. There they will wait until homeschool registration time as proof of completed work.

Having the subject boxes means it is all there ready to go - either parent can teach it, and kids know where to look to find material for that subject at other non-teaching times. 

Half of the curriculum boxes sit on open shelves in the main area, the larger ones tucked away in a lovely 1930s dresser or in open wooden boxes with castors under my desk. I think education areas should be as beautiful as you can manage!

Too much to fit in the box? Easy - just break it up into 2 boxes as we have done with the hands on maths manipulatives and maths subject box.

Science also has 2 boxes - the second is a big timber box on wheels in the hallway - replete with the next round of experiments, kits and projects ready to dive into. I am always looking for new treasures to replace those kits we've used - the new ones just wait in the bookshelves until we are at the right curriculum point or age to use them and into the box they go. Science is not a "school time only" activity, and this treasure box encourages the "Mum, I really want to do this kit today" request.

Maths takes two
Maths is the only subject where both parents are involved, one child each, as we tend to move quickly through concepts and don't generally need much repetition.

Currently, we start with 5 minutes of independent math worksheet/revision while Mike and I gather thoughts and bits for the following 30 minutes of intensive teaching. For example, July and Mike might work through a Maths Tracks unit on place value (concepts, using manipulatives, workbook examples, games, extension of concept, problem solving) while November and I do a chapter from Life of Fred Fractions.

Books, books, and more books
Within the main education space are the reference books - the usual specialist and general dictionaries and thesaurus, History Encyclopedia, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, plus assorted frog, mammal, sea life, and reptile guides, as well as the slightly unusual (yet essential for us visual spatial people) references - Short History of the World, The Way Things Work and The Way We Work (both by David Macaulay) and the wonderfully timelined Art: The Whole Story.

We love to read, we love our local library, and a bonus of being a home educating family is justifying more, more, more books we need to read!

We needed a reading room

This continual book accumulation was actually becoming stressful...until the tiny spare bedroom/office was transformed into the "reading room". This is the place for curling up with a newly borrowed book from the library (all factual library books shelved together, and fiction sprawled across the top in hopefully intriguing piles), or digging out an old favourite. We run a record book for each girl to note read books to help with homeschool registration records.

There is also the "return to library" box on wheels complete with book bags ready for the quick stash and dash to the library (shown to the right in the photo below). Oh - and I keep track of return dates on our synced iCal (computer based Apple Mac calendar) so I remember to renew books online or return them.

Using the Address Book application I also note books or topic areas I want to borrow or research from the library - this is also a synced app that shows up on our iPhones, iPad, and computer. I kept losing my lists and paper notes so this automatically updated electronic system works well!

Classic books
Our own classic book collection also waits shelved in the Reading Room in chronological order for its chance to feature in nightly "read alouds".

As lovers of chronology, we have set-up our timeline here too. 

Tags with drawings or photos of favourite books we have read are added here, as well as any historical events studied. The main timeline is on string around 3 sides of the room, with pegs marking off 100 years at a time between 5000 BCE and 2100 CE (nothing if not optimistic!). Shown below is a double scaled human evolution timeline from "Our Amazing Ancestors Science Kit" which helps with context.

More books and games and kits too
Just outside the reading room, the hallway bookshelves hold specialty art and design books (previous life) readily accessible by the girls, as well as more adult "life on the farm" style information tomes. As a visual person, I need these reminders of the books we already have...

Beneath these books are the activity boxes - science kits, Lego kits and free range, Capsela, you get the idea.

In between - the games. Lots and lots of games.

Main homeschool space
We recently graduated from the dining room table down the hall to the room previously known as "the end room" which in our ten years residence has never worked. Too big for the usual size furniture to fit, lacking wall space and without storage, this room has always been plain odd.

While discussing the options for building a real shed for Mike, thoughts strangely turned to moving the whole house around and reclaiming the dining table as - gasp - a place to eat and hang out without mounds of educational material piling up! So, typically impulsive, the shed was yet again put in the too-hard basket and for two days the house was up-ended.

Desks were removed from the girls' bedrooms as we reasoned that it made sense for the girls to have their own desks side by side in the newly appointed homeschool room where unfinished work could be left rather than piled up for eating meals. Science experiments could continue to fester, crafty penguin families be left to multiply...

And I got my own desk. Phew. We used all of our existing furniture, some dates back to single life (that is old!) and my only purchase was a new tape dispenser! 

Donating toys to second hand shops and friends, and severely editing toys to keep meant they now fit stored out of sight in the dining room. FlyLady would be proud.

Mike moved all the audio and computer spaghetti around again (high-tech hero), and moved the magnetic stainless steel strips above November's desk. We use these to hang and display work, awards, crazy drawings, spelling lists, you name it.

Shown here in close up...

Creating spaces
Across the room from our desks, curriculum boxes, and computers is the right-brain part of the operation - art, craft, sewing, beading, piano, guitars and all the other homeschool materials that can't fit anywhere else in the house.

I like to have all the materials accessible, so after lunch when formal education stuff is done for the day the girls can help themselves to draw, sew, craft, create.

I try (hehe) to keep the art desk clear and ready to go for those spontaneous moments...except for the germinating vege seedlings, obviously.

There is a small table next to the art table for puzzles and games, and the piano, naturally.

Thanks for dropping in! 

How has your homeschool changed over time? What is your favourite piece of homeschool equipment? Oooh, there is definitely a post in that : )
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