Sunday, March 16, 2008

How We Plan For The Next School Year ?

We usually take a month or two off from school for summer vacation each year -- we play, we take daytips, we travel a little, we camp a few times, we head to the lake, we go swimming -- the traditional "summer" activities. Then soccer season begins in August and ends in October -- Fall arrives. So as Fall begins and soccer comes to an end, I begin to look forward to a restful winter. The leaves change and CALM is the overall mood. Next, the holiday rush comes with Thanksgiving and Christmas, and goes. Now it is winter -- and my thoughts turn to the gardens as the garden catalogs come in the mail. So we all sit together some evenings and plot out our flower and vegetable gardens for the springtime - dreaming of GREEN during the dreary winter afternoons. Finally, February comes, it seems to bring the BLAHs .... blahs at home, blahs with school, and in our area this also means lots of rainy days .... but it is restful. It is during February that we begin to think about our next school year - the children talk about things they find interesting, studies they want to pursue, and the older children seem to think a lot about where they are heading academically with regard to their futures (careers, etc). So, when late February and early March come, we start working and playing outside on nice days (aka Spring Fever) .... and on not-so-nice days I sit at my desk working on mapping our next school year.

It is my understanding that most homeschool families wait until summertime to plan next's years courses. And I tried this in our early years, but it made me feel rushed and my plans were never very solid. For me, the call of OUTSIDE and SUNSHINE and WARM WEATHER, the call of the cool water at the lake, and the beautiful wooded hiking trails of the mountains is so intense that if I wait that long to plan, I will never get the planning done because I will be up to my neck in dirt and all things green. HA !! So, I start planning much earlier .... in February and March. The other bonus to starting early is that all of my technical plans are made before the Homeschool Expos begin .... so I know roughly what I need for whom, and what I would like to study through the next year. When I attend these Expos, I know what we will use and when we will use it. Occassionally I make a last minute change when I find something else that I think will work better at the homeschool Expos, but generally I stick pretty close to my plans. In all honestly, one of the smaller reasons that I do this is because when I am surrounded by so many great books and great resources, I have to fight those little voices inside myself, each of which is screaming BUY IT and BUY THEM ALL. HA !! (I am a book junkie.) I have found that having a written plan of resources we will need and will use keeps my impulse buying to a minimum ... although I always buy a few things that were not on my list. (hee hee hee !) This also keeps my dear husband happy. DadToCherubs never ever complains about what we buy and what we use -- but he does complain when we spend money on things that go un-used or get forgotten on the shelves. (And I will admit that it frustrates me too when this happens.)
So -- how do WE handle our homeschool planning --- really ?? First, we consider which "grades" everyone will be in next fall, and what their "needs" will be. Next fall we will have 6 official students -- in grades K, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9. Yikes !! Along with 5 elementary and middle school age students, we will have our first "official" highschool student. I will admit that at first this thought alone was a bit intimidating -- however I believe we can handle it with Prayer and guidance from Above.

I have planned at least a few of the K, 3rd, 4th, 6th, & 7th grade years multiple times through the past few years, so it is merely a matter of finding what will fit nicely for each student, and adding some of their individual interests in as well. That is easier than it sounds, I promise. (I will describe in more detail exactly WHAT we will use for everyone next year in a later post - once I finish working it all out.)

I will admit that I was a bit worried about this highschool year coming up ---- I have heard many many parents fret and worry excessively over the highschool years. I have seen special books on the topic, special workshops and programs for parents of new highschoolers -- so why is there all of this concern ?? I started to worry myself about it all -- caught up in the flow of Highschool Planning. Honestly though, when I got to the point of really looking at it all in black and white, I was unable to figure out what all of the frenzy and worry was about. So I asked a dear friend (Thanks MamaLion) to be sure I was not missing a part of the big picture for high school, the WORRY point, perhaps some detail that I was yet blissfully unaware of . Well, it seems that there really isn't one, even though so many people stress over the highschool years. We have a list of required credits and basic parameters from the state (actually I got it from HSLDAs website under our state name I believe), and for safe measure I also got a list of requirements and credits for graduation from our state education website. And I looked at basic requirements of a few of the major colleges and universities nationwide. Next we (DadToCherubs, Cherub 1, and myself) sat down to figure out what exactly we needed to do ... what we would do and in which year we would do it, and the general direction we needed to follow. So far it was pretty straight forward .... so again we are not sure what all of the panic we have heard of and witnessed is about .... but we will admit that it is a little MORE concerning that the other homeschool years ... but not too much so ...
Now, after we have figured out what grades we need to "teach", I make a list of subjects that each child requires, beginning with core academics. This list is VERY vague in the beginning and is roughly a checklist --- english, math, phonics, science, bible, etc. I write "subjects" these in light gray. Then, I go back over that completed "subject" list with a blue pen -- to plug in the actual courses / books we will use or topic to be studied. I write them overtop the original vague subject name in gray --- for example, I write MATH in gray on each child's list. Then I write SAXON 2 or TEACHING TEXTBOOKS 7 overtop for the appropriate child. Very simple, very easy, and relatively low-stress. Many of the "subjects" will be figured out when both steps on this simple list is finished. However, when these lists (both entries) are finished, I will have gray subject names that have no resource (or topic) written overtop --- like SCIENCE --- or COMPOSITION. And so now I can clearly see (per child) which subjects I will need to find resources for. For us, there is no point in stressing about every single subject for every single child because that is simply overwhelming -- some things are just simple, and somehow the literal writing out of these things and the plugging in of resources keeps us focused on what Iwe really need to "think" about or search for, rather than "sweating" every detail of every year for each child. DadToCherubs is often involved in this part of the process -- making suggestions, helping map it out so to speak. And he is a big fan of KEEP IT SIMPLE ..... saying that you can see where you are going educationally if you get the basics handled in the simplest manner possible. (I am so blessed to have a husband who particiaptes and brings his strengths "to the table". I am always thankful for this !!)
Through this process, DadToCherubs and I spend a lot of time pre-reading snippets of books -- Ambleside recommendations, House Of Education recomnedations, Mater Amablis recommendations, other titles and resources recommended by friends, found in catalogs, and found on websites. And also I spend a fair amount of time with homeschool catalogs and doing online searches. At this point, my night-table is COVERED with books I am reading (and lots of post-it notes on and in them too !), and my desk is a pile of catalogs, scribbled notes, and post-its too. And DadToCherubs' has a pretty hefty pile of books that he is looking through as well -- I could never do this without him.
What I had always envisioned was this (above) when I thought of lesson planning .... a few papers, a pen, and calm security. However, several years of the pencil / paper method proved that I am not THIS person, no matter how hard I try. HA !! We needed a new approach. We tried word documents, pre-printed planners, excel documents, and a few computer-driven software type planners -- nothing worked. But we kept trying .... (and we finally found one that works for us, but I will write more on that later).

So --- there is essentially a TO DO list -- the Gray list of subjects overwritten with Blue resources for the "main" subjects.

Next, I make a larger version of this exact list (on paper - one list per child) with which I will spell out in more detail those singular resources. It is also on this larger list that I will begin to fill in lists of titles for Literature, supplemental books and resources (when reading about Colonial History, include D'Aulaire's Ben Franklin, Pocahontas, etc) that will work with main plans .... and I also begin to pencil in "ideas" ---- disect a flower during chapter 3 --- chart weather for the month of January --- fly a kite during Ben Franklin lessons -- sketch appraoching storm clouds and other cloud formations, visit the Ranger Station to learn about the scheduled burns, visit IMAX theater when the planetarium show is playing in March, etc. (and somewhere around this point in the process the "goals" for each subject and each child begin to "appear" - sometimes I will write them out, but usually I just make sure the end-result goals match the objectives I had planned originally for the year.)

It all begins to come together in a "rough" but simple format -- far from complete, but definately "workable". And it is slowly becoming more detailed and more exact. As I work on these lists, each list begins to settle into Terms .... Term 1, Term 2, and Term 3 .... so at this point our next year is basicly planned. All that is left is to plan the day-to-day, what to use, and what to use with or after it , which days to do science, which days to do history ....

The last step in my late-winter / early spring Lesson Planning Projects for March (or very-early April) is to make detailed shopping lists that are relatively place specific (with pricelists and item numbers if they are needed - also ISBN numbers help for bookstores !) --- for example, our Rainbow Resource catalog will have a TO ORDER list -- there will also be a handwritten list of websites with item numbers and products to be ordered --- and there will be a Barnes & Noble list, an list, and a homeschool Expo list of course. With the Homeschool Expo list will also be a WISH list .... things I would love to find, but do not know "exactly" what they are yet --- for example, I am buying a Microscope this year, and would I love to find a pre-made slide set (for plants maybe ? or cells ? Or maybe a veriety ?) and a basic instructional HOW TO book to go with it (learning to use the microscope for children, or some such similar subject), but I do not know exactly what I want yet so I will browse at the Expo for something to meet this need.

In May I will ponder the plans I have made ... thinking them over, reviewing them with DadtoCherubs, and usually we end up making a few subtle changes (usually adding and consolidating supplemental resources, or projects I want to add, and such) . The focus in May is usually finishing up the current school year (paying special attention to anything that we need to re-cover next year such as more mathfact practice and such) ... and we dedicate a lot of time to planting our garden, tending to our yard, and enjoying Spring.

This year, in June, I will go to a Homeschool Expo in Georgia. And in early-July there is a Homeschool Fair in Knoxville and finally there is a HUGE Homeschool Expo in mid-July in Chattanooga. The weekend of the Expo in Chattanooga is known in our house to be SCHOOL SHOPPING WEEKEND - Dad is in charge, and Mom is out shopping (one of my most-detested yet unavoidable activities is shopping, so I like to go and do it all at one time.). I attend the Expo, and then the next day I head to WalMart, Staples, Art Supply stores, and the teacher supply stores to get school supplies like notebooks, pencils, paper, and crayons, along with sketch books and art supplies, plus other "school" stuff we will need. And finally, on the Monday immediately following the Expo, I will place the orders from my remaining TO ORDER lists - via email or phone or online -- ordering the things I could not purchase in person. (I wait to "order" just in case I find what I am looking for at the Expo - no shipping and sometimes the sales at the Expo are better.) At this point, all of our school supplies and materials for the next school year are IN our house, or will be in just a few days. In late-July I will look through all of the books and resources we are planning to use (even the ones we owned previously already on the shelves). I will put the supplies together, and will make all of the final necessary notes (such as read half a chapter at a time instead of a whole chapter, or make flashcards for this chapter, and such other necessary reminders.) And I will check to be sure that our school room and our home library are in good order -- ready to be used.

So -- at this point, with some last help from FedEx and UPS, we will have all that we will need. And the weather outside will be scorching hot in the afternoons, so we will begin spending a bit of time each day inside away from the heat. It is during these "inside" times that the day-to-day and month-to-month plans will be worked on - usually during the last two weeks in July. Our lesson plans (daily, monthly, by term, etc) will be completely finished by the end of July. DadToCherubs is always kind enough to read over what we have planned, just for a "second opinion". And finally - it is finished.

Our 2008 school year will begin on Monday August 11th ......

As I said above, I have spent more than a few years making word and excel documents for lesson plans, and trying all number of pen&paper lesson plan approaches -- nothing worked. So last year we took the plunge ($99 for the year) and subscribed to a brand new organizer that was database driven -- Simply Charlotte Mason's Organizer. DadToCherubs and I played with the 30day free trial -- making up plans, printing, checking off, skipping days -- just to see how it worked first. Then, after we officially "subscribed", I spent 4-5 days total in early August entering in all of the materials we were going to use for the year for each child. I planned out which subjects we would do on which days, and tried to keep the days fairly even with respect to the workload. In the end, it was all set up and was ready to use -- and all we had only to wait for the year to begin (in late August last year) to see how it worked. I will admit that I was biting my nails -- I so wanted this program to work, to limit planning time needed, to keep records. I wanted the WORLD ... but did not know how the experiment would ultimately work until we tried it IN our homeschool day to day. And to top that off, it was pricey at $99 for the year. DadToCherubs was fairly confident it would work ... but I suspected he was being overly optomistic. It was a new innovative approach to lesson planning ... and it seemed that it was more in-line with the type of schooling we actually do .... so we took a risk ....

Other than adding the SCM Organizer just last year, my approach to lesson planning has not changed in the last 5+ years. I have always made progressive lists, and plotted it out on paper in the planning stages. However, with the word and excel planning systems, and with traditional lesson-planner books, I would normally spend every Sunday evening planning throughout the whole school year, trying to accomplish it all ... reworking plans because we had gotten behind or had forgotten some element of the plans. I would stare at the bookshelves and see resources that I had SO wanted to include (but they had been forgotten or missed). The children occassionally had to wait because even Mom was not sure what was to be done next .... it was not a good situation. I needed a planner that would hold all of the info in order, day to day, for a year ... and one that would flex with us if we got behind for sickness or wanted to explore a rabbit-trail that came from our lessons. So it was with these "dreams" that I subscribed ....

Well, it is now mid-March of the school year that I planned out last August ... we have used this SCM Organizer all year. Every day I open the organizer and print the DAILY LESSON sheets for each of our children (you do not have to print, but we are "list" people so we choose to print them), and we print one entitled FAMILY on which are the things we all do together (bible, scripture memory, math drills, artist study, etc). And every afternoon I check the WORKED ON or FINISHED boxes for each of the subjects / resources that day for each child (and for the Family category too). And on the first school day of every month, I print a REPORT of the previous month -- it shows the days we did school, and what each child did in detail. DadToCherubs and I sit with each child and go over these REPORTS every month -- it gives us all great satisfaction to see "in print" what we have accomplished and the progress we have made -- it also shows clearly when more progress is needed in certain subjects. Then we file these reports away in a notebook -- TA DA ! -- our official records for the year are all in one place, in a nice neat format. (I also note in the margins of these reports any significant breaks in the "attentence" -- such as our 10-day trip through NewEngland, or the 2 weeks off we needed when we all had the flu, and such. This is so that I can remember the cause of these "breaks" should anyone ask ... although I doubt anyone will. I also add in anything "out-of-classroom) that we do such a field trips, hikes, camping trips, speaking with experts, etc -- these details often get forgotten with time -- it is nice to have a firm record of them at our fingertips. All of these reports and info will be nice for transcripts and college application requirements - to have handy a list of what we did, what we used, and when we did it all --- so anything pertaining to "reporting" is not a concern anymore either. Yeah !!)

This school year was a bit unusual because we had 4 terms -- we usually have 3 terms as Charlotte Mason recommended. This year, Term 1 was spent finishing much of last years work, because after our housefire in March we did not have the resources, nor did we have the mental or physical strength to focus on school. So we worked from August to just-before-Thanksgiving finishing last year's work. After Thanksgiving, we began Term 2 -- this is when we began our "new" school year. Through it all we have had a few odd sick (or busy) days, and 2 sick weeks (flu - arg !!). We took a few little trips that were not "planned" like our ski trip, and of course had our 10-day trip to NewEngland that we had actually planned for. We have had a few stumbles academically, and needed to slow down and take more time here and there .... but that is one glorious part of homeschooling, that we CAN slow down or make changes to suit the child. And of course there were those rabbit trails we HAD to explore !! At this point we are just finishing Term 3 and are ready to begin Term 4. (We should finish completely in July -- only because our days in June and July are much lighter to allow for SOME summer vacation fun too.)

So --- how did it go ?? How did the plans work out ?? How was everyone's progress ?? This has been BY FAR the BEST school year we have ever had, even with having 4 Terms instead of 3 !! HOORAY !! We have gotten so much more done than in any previous year, and everyone learned by leaps and bounds this year. The children seemed more confident this year -- it was always clear that there WAS a plan and a PURPOSE. I have not felt pressure to "keep up" because my plans flexed with our lives - this was wonderful ! Some days we got more accomplished than others, and some days we got less accomplished. But I did not have to rework plans, and did not feel that pressure to keep things "on track" so that our lesson plans did not get all messed up (thus having to rewrite them - ARG !!). I did not spend much time at all working on lesson plans -- I spent an afternoon during Christmas Break tweaking things a bit, and also made a few other minor adjustments just a few weeks ago to shift work around to make "lighter" Fridays so we could do CoOp classes and take a few more daytrips. The Sunday evenings of planning are long gone, as are the "what's next" concerns.

Will I plan this year as I planned last year - technically speaking -- with progressive lists ?? Certainly. I have finished planning and making lists for our 3 younger children already -- the shopping / to-order lists for them are ready. At this point I am still searching for a few materials that we will use to fit the "subject" areas for the 3 older children - then I will detail those plans and make my shopping lists for them too. (eventually all of the shopping lists are combined for ease of use)

Am I worried about having 6 students this year, all working on their own levels ?? A little bit - I always worry about having enough time for everyone (esp the non-readers and the new readers), but I think that is a Mom thing more than a homeschool thing. HA !

Am I worried about keeping everyone on track ?? Not at all.

Am I concerned about having an ALL WORK AND NO PLAY school year ?? No - but we did have a year like that a few years ago and it was awful !! I believe we will have a nice balance of academics and creative learning (projects, trips, rabbit trails, etc). Too many intense academics (work, work, work) is frustrating for our children, but not enough means minimal progress and preparation for later education. So we strive for balance.

Am I worried about getting all we need to accomplish done ?? Not at all. It is quite simple once the "core subjects" are in place. It becomes obvious quite fast when there is an "overload" in any area, or if an area is not being covered well enough. Overloaded studies does not mean educated minds - in our house it usually means S-T-R-E-S-S and usually results in getting even less accomlished. DadToCherubs said once that the old addage applies here -- KISS -- Keep It Simple Stupid. (HA !)

Will I stress about our oldest child beginning highschool ?? Not at all. The credits are all mapped out -- and it really is not an overwhelming amount of coursework as long as the materials selected match the goals and the purpose. Again, I have to say that I believe that too much is NOT a good thing.

Will I spend the $99 (per year) and subscribe to this Simply Charlotte Mason Organizer again this year ?? ABSOLUTELY. This was the BEST homeschool-money I have ever spent -- it met our needs and more. It kept us organized daily weekly and monthly. It produced detailed records that go above and beyond - and they are better records than I have ever kept before. It enabled most of our students to work independently in many (if not most) subjects - this allowed more time for Mom or Dad to spend with each student when there was a need rather than constantly being pulled form one child to another giving instructions and hand-holding or spoon-feeding materials and project steps. This independent learning is also a critical skill for life --- to be Lifelong Independent Learners -- and also is critical for the college years. (We do check every single piece of work done by every single child on every single school day -- we read or hear each narration or each reading, we check each grammar or math lesson, and such. And the children make all necessary corrections before they are "finished" for the day -- this keeps us moving forward, and also keeps the childrens minds and educations progressing correctly. DadToCherubs is a great help with checking over lessons and hearing narrations.) It kept track of what we did, when we did it, and what we used to do it. It kept Mom stress-free about plans. It gave us more school and free time time -- because Mom was not working on plans for tomorrow / next week -- because Mom and Dad were available to deal with arising issues or difficulties having a firm plan in place of what should be done -- because each child was ultimately responsible for completing assignments and lessons, so if he/she fooled around, it took him or her longer to finish thus not delaying anyone else. It kept each child "on track" knowing what to do next, day to day, and week to week. It helped the parents to hold each child accountible consistantly, thus encouraging each child to BE accountible consistantly. It made it possible for Mom to know exactly what everyone was doing each and every day - so it reduced stress "across the board". And, it caused us to use all of the resources and extras that we had planned - it was great to know we did not "waste" anything we purchased or planned last summer. Plus, we had more time -- to learn, to play, to explore rabbit trails, and to be a "family." (After listing all that we felt this one tool helped us accomplish, I guess that $99 is not that much at all. HA !!)

**After receiving many questions and hearing of many conversations concerning lesson planning, I decided to post HOW and WHEN we plan our homeschool years for those who struggle with these areas -- I think struggling with planning a school year is VERY common for many many homeschoolers. I was one of those who struggled, for sure !! And I promise that I am not am employee or sales-person for Simply Charlotte Mason (there are no kick-backs either - HA !) -- I am just a VERY satisfied customer and a very now-happy-and-organized homeschool Mom who wants the "world" to know the great differences this Organizer has made in our lives.

The link to the Simply Charlotte Mason website is here: Click on the ORGANIZER to learn more about this product, and be sure to watch all of the demos which will show all of the incredible features that are possible.

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