Category Archives: Planning

Are you choosing the wrong learning materials for your child?

Are you using the wrong learning materials for your child

One of the things I’m passionate about as an educator and curriculum developer is that learning products for young children should be visually engaging, colorful, well-designed and simple.  Reaching this balance is a challenge, but it can be done. I’m really picky about the aesthetics of any materials I use with Caroline whether it is a worksheet, a book, a lapbook or a game.

Caroline is very particular about the way things look. If she doesn’t like the look of a picture book, she has zero interest in the content. (She totally gets that from her mother.) Even when she was tiny, she strongly preferred colored activity pages to black and white. She has never been a fan of coloring books, but eats up colorful sticker activity books.

Some kids crave color. Some kids require quality aesthetics. Some kids need simple design.

I have to be honest and say that I pass by many, many educational materials online because they aren’t visually appealing. It really doesn’t matter how good the content is. If it isn’t enjoyable to look at, I know it won’t fly with my creative, right-brained daughter. She is creative to the core and she wants to be around things that are visually pleasing.

She also doesn’t want to use things that are visually over-stimulating. Many products out there seem to have been developed under the “excessively more is more” idea. Too many graphics, wild fonts, and weird layouts aren’t helpful. It’s too much for many children and distracts them from the real learning task at hand. I wonder how often children resist doing work because the page is simply too stimulating and distracting. It isn’t that they can’t do the work. They are just too distracted to focus. Their eyes don’t know where to go because there is so much on the page.

This is why my products are created primarily in color and with a simple design. I work very hard to find the balance that works best for children. (I do offer all of the student pages in both color and black/white because I know many teachers and parents don’t always have the ability to print everything in color.)

I’ve started developing a line of lapbooks that have quality graphics and color photos. I love lapbooks and they are great for my right-brained, hands-on learner. But I’ve had a difficult time finding ones that are colorful and visually appealing with strong design. So I’m going to create them for Caroline and for other children like her who really need them. (I am also creating them with minimal writing involved, but that’s another post!)

We’ve started using the first one (Polar Creatures Lapbook) and Caroline loves it. The design is simple, but appealing. I also included lots of colorful photos. Yes, it does cost a bit more to print them compared to if everything was black and white, but I think the trade-off is worth it. The most important thing to me is helping her engage with the content in meaningful ways without being distracted by everything else. So far, so good!


So if you have a child who struggles with learning activities, please consider that perhaps he or she is looking for something that you haven’t been offering in terms of design, color and aesthetics. Are the materials you’re using visually boring? Or are they  excessively stimulating? Does your child crave some color? I suggest observing for several days and see if you can notice a pattern in terms of what quickly engages your child and what turns into an exercise of frustration (for both of you). You might be surprised what you discover!

Posted in Caroline, Curriculum, Early Elementary, Home Education/Homeschooling, Lapbooks, Learning and Homeschooling, Planning, Right Brained Learners | Leave a comment

How we ended up relaxed homeschoolers and what it looks like

How we ended up relaxed homeschoolers and what it looks like

I realized we were relaxed homeschoolers somewhere along the beginning of Caroline’s second grade year (this year). I had kind of wandered in the wilderness of trying to figure out how to answer the question when people would ask what kind of a homeschooler I was. This was mostly due to trying to figure out how to best teach Caroline rather than any specific philosophy I might have held before I had her.


For quite a bit of kindergarten and first grade I wondered if we were unschoolers. I think because I had to be so unstructured with her compared to what it was like to be a teacher in a traditional school it made me wonder. But I never could quite embrace that idea. I wasn’t willing to give complete control over to Caroline nor did I think it would work best for her.

Charlotte Mason?

I really wanted to be a Charlotte Mason homeschooler because I like so much of what she has to say. But although I find myself strongly sympathetic to the Charlotte Mason view, it was just too much work. Honestly. I don’t have the time or energy to read volumes about her views and how to correctly implement them. I also found the Ambleside curriculum to be too academic for Caroline. Too detailed. Way too many expectations. I always felt defeated whenever I even looked at it. I simply wasn’t willing to spend copious amounts of time educating myself so I could educate Caroline according to the Charlotte Mason way. And I honestly did not see her thriving under that kind of rigorous curriculum.

Relaxed Homeschooling?

I came across a description of relaxed homeschooling and it just clicked. That is exactly what we are. I felt none of that, “Well, yes, but…” when I started reading as I had with other views. I guide Caroline’s learning and do plan some structure, but I offer her as much freedom as possible. I do believe there are some things she needs to learn, but I am very open-ended about when she needs to learn them and how that might happen.

Because I’m a relaxed homeschooler, I’m not a box checker. I don’t keep a running to do list of curriculum and learning activities we must do when we sit down together or even for the year. In fact, I do just the opposite. I have a rough idea of what we could do and I write it down after we do it.

So when I sit down to “do” school with Caroline for the formal part of our day, I have a pile of things we could do and I select as we go. Let me give you an example of how our time together might go.

Relaxed Homeschooling in Action

We usually start with Bible because Caroline really likes our curriculum (Grapevine Studies) and it just gets things off on a good note. We sit on the floor together in front of the whiteboard and do our lesson. We also review our verse work that I write on sentence strips and put in our pocket chart. At this point, I do not require her to memorize it and recite it to me. Like many right-brained children, memorization and performing isn’t her thing. We go over it many times, we scramble it up and unscramble it, etc. She’s hiding God’s word in her heart in her own way.

After we’re done with that we usually do handwriting or math at the table in the learning room. More often than not we do handwriting so we get it done. (Writing is not a favorite things for many right-brained children.) Sometimes she will work fairly steadily through the page and she does the whole thing. Other times I can tell it’s just not clicking with her that day and I’ll tell her to just do part of the page. I watch and read her. I’d rather have her do half a page well than force her to do more than she’s capable of doing that day.

Next is usually math. We’ve been doing lots of mathematics and very little formal arithmetic. (I wrote about that here.) We’ve been known to do anywhere from a half page (with much encouraging and prodding) or three or four pages/activities (before I have to cut her off and move on). The other day I had three activities for her to do from my America pack and she just kept going and going. She was totally engaged. I just let her keep working since she was having fun.

After this I’ll usually have Caroline read to me. We snuggle on the couch and she reads to me. Sometimes she’ll do all the reading and sometimes we take turns reading pages (if she’s less than thrilled about reading that day). Sometimes she wants to hold the book and do it all. Other times she’s so wiggly I hold the book and she reads. I do whatever works and makes it an enjoyable time together.

I also read to Caroline. Usually we’re working through a chapter book or we might read a book on a topic we’re studying. Sometimes I just let her pick a book or two out of the library basket. Whatever we’re in the mood for and seems appropriate at the moment. We’ve been known to read one short picture book and be done and other times we read several chapters.

Next we might write in her journal. She has a journal book with drawing space on top and primary lines on the bottom. She dictates her journal to me, reads it to me, and then illustrates.

After that is something like science. Right now we are reading books and doing a lapbook I created about Polar Creatures. I have her read to me from one of the books and then we do a couple of the lapbook activities.

That is pretty much all we do in one day. It might take us ninety minutes. The rest of the day she is learning through play, using the Kindle Fire, using the computer, watching a DVD, playing with a babysitter, doing crafts, playing outside, playing games, doing Legos, going to the library, etc.

It took me a couple of years, but now I am completely at home with being a relaxed homeschooler. I am amazed at how much she absorbs and learns on her own. I still guide her a bit, but I’m firmly committed to giving her as much open-ended time as possible in her day so she can explore and learn in meaningful and authentic ways.

I highly recommend it!

Posted in Caroline, Early Elementary, First Grade, Home Education/Homeschooling, Kindergarten, Learning and Homeschooling, Parenting, Planning, Play, Relaxed Homeschooling in Early Elementary, Second Grade | 5 Comments

Relaxed Homeschooling in the Early Elementary Years – A How To Series

Relaxed Homeschooling in the Early Elementary Years Series Intro

One of the benefits of observing homeschooling and homeschoolers for many years before I was blessed with a child is that I had the opportunity to read lots and lots of articles and blogs posts written by moms who shared their mistakes. They wrote of the things they wished they could do over, what they would change, their regrets, etc. I took those pieces very much to heart and so I’ve tried to be purposeful in not getting too caught up in the things that don’t matter.

What has challenged me more than anything was trying to understand my own child, her personality and her learning style. Although we share many similarities, we are also different in some profound ways. Caroline is very much a right-brained learner. (For more info about this, see The Right Side of Normal: Understanding and Honoring the Natural Learning Path for Right-Brained Children.)

I have to literally think differently about time, how she learns, what she does well, what she struggles with, etc. And so it has taken me a few years to get to the point where I feel mostly comfortable with our approach and way of homeschooling.

I consider myself a relaxed homeschooler primarily for one reason. I do what works and avoid getting caught up in the quest for the right curriculum or using the right approach or listening to the right homeschooling guru. As one wise homeschooling mom said, “Give me something and I’ll make it work.”

No matter how much an expert might know about curriculum, no one knows my child the way I do. I’ve studied her. A lot. I’ve invested a great deal of emotional and mental energy into trying to understand what makes her tick.

No one knows your child and your situation the way you do. You are your own mini-homeschooling guru when it comes to homeschooling your child in your home. You are the expert or expert-in-training. By the time your child hits early elementary, you probably have a Ph.D. in her! The trick is finding what works for your child and you. It really doesn’t matter what the professional guru thinks you should do. You can do your homeschool any way you wish. The guru will never know!

Although sometimes I feel like we are unschoolers, we really aren’t. It only feels that way to me because of my professional background as a teacher where everything is regulated and structured. When I read about actual unschooling, we really don’t fit that. We do have some structure and it isn’t completely open-ended and child-driven. And so I think relaxed homeschooling is probably the best descriptor of where we are right now.

In this series this week I’m going to share my approach to relaxed homeschooling in the early elementary years. The topics will be:

I hope you will stop by and share your own experiences and wisdom each day in the comments section!


Posted in Curriculum, Early Elementary, First Grade, Home Education/Homeschooling, Kindergarten, Learning and Homeschooling, Parenting, Planning, Preschoolers, Relaxed Homeschooling in Early Elementary, Right Brained Learners, Second Grade | 4 Comments

Should elementary students formally study mathematics?

Should elementary students formally study mathematics?

In a 2010 article from Psychology Today, Peter Gray, Ph.D., makes the case that math should not be taught until middle school. He shares a fascinating study from 1929 that has largely disappeared from the nation’s collective radar. But the findings are stunning. In When Less Is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in School he writes:

As part of the plan, he asked the teachers of the earlier grades to devote some of the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to the new third R–recitation. By “recitation” he meant, “speaking the English language.” He did “not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or the textbook.” The children would be asked to talk about topics that interested them–experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. This, he thought, would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically. He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.


The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.

In sum, Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods–the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.

I found this article especially fascinating as I have an almost seven year old daughter who already dislikes math. By math I mean formal math. She has no problem making elaborate constructions with Tinker Toys or figuring out how to evenly divide the cookies. She will decide to measure things on her own. She will clean your clock in Uno. She effectively uses practical math when it makes sense in her world. But like many right brained children, formal math (especially memorization) is not her cup of tea.

I have mostly backed off from math up until this point. We do bits of things, but not a lot. This year I was going to try doing more math (since I’m feeling guilty), but I’m already seeing this is not going to be the year either. I bought the first book of Life of Fred to use this year after reading so many glowing reviews.  She hated it. (Anyone need to buy a copy?) She said she would much rather do the worksheets we were doing last year. :-)

I continue to feel the unschooler in me begging to be given free reign. Somehow I can’t get past my personal hangup that it is just irresponsible to home educate that way even though I know that isn’t true. I observe many unschoolers doing spectacular things and admire how they educate their children.  I’m just not able to personally make that final leap (yet). But as I work that out for myself, one thing is certain.

I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that much of what children are asked to do in the elementary years is busy work (often developmentally inappropriate) designed to keep them occupied until they are far enough along the conveyer belt to really begin their formal learning.


Posted in Curriculum, Early Elementary, First Grade, Home Education/Homeschooling, Kindergarten, Learning and Homeschooling, Math, Planning, Right Brained Learners | 5 Comments

Our Homeschool Learning Room 2013-2014

Our Homeschool Learning Room

Welcome to our homeschool learning room! Although learning takes place all over our house, this is the primary location where we spend time learning and creating. I’m Sallie and I home educate my daughter, Caroline, who will be in second grade this year.

Learning-RoomOriginally our living room, we re-purposed it into our learning room about a year and a half ago. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made concerning our family. I like having a place for everything so it works well for me to keep the learning “stuff” confined primarily to this room. It also makes a welcoming place for Caroline to do craft projects, pick out a game, or curl up in the glider with a library book any time she likes.


This is my desk and large bookcase where I keep my current materials. We have lots of books and other things in our basement. I only keep the items we currently need in the learning room to reduce the clutter.

We also don’t have a computer in the learning room. This was a deliberate choice we made so we would not be distracted by it while doing our learning time together. We do use the computer a lot for learning, but when I’m working one-on-one with Caroline, I want to focus on her and I want her to focus on what I have planned for us to do. This eliminates the temptation to take a peek at my email. :-)


When I plan for the week, I put all of the materials I need for each day in a different container labeled with the day of the week.


This large wall contains many of our active learning tools. Caroline is a right brained, spirited child and so I plan as much as I can to keep us actively involved.


This is our Sentence Strip Pocket Chart. I use this for math, reading, spelling, poetry, etc.


On top is our Monthly Calendar Pocket Chart. I plan on using different date and month cards this year, but haven’t purchased them yet. We will also use this with the different fact cards for calendar pocket charts I’ve been creating to both use and sell.

On the bottom is the new whiteboard that Caroline is already enjoying. Score one for mom!


This is our craft cabinet that I keep well-stocked with a big variety of items.


Another storage place. The top drawer is for Caroline’s current learning materials. The middle drawer is for sentence strips storage. The bottom drawer has my Fellowes Comb Binding Machine that I use for making my own little workbooks or study books on different topics.


Fun new stuff I need to put away!  I got it out for the picture, but had to hide it before Caroline saw it!  If she saw these items now it would be hard to make her wait for the first day of school.


Our big basket full of library books and a cozy glider for reading. We are HUGE library lovers and are probably there two or three times a week most weeks. We’re either picking up books we’ve ordered that have come in, attending a program, or stopping by just because.  We love the library!


My piano. Hopefully Caroline will start taking lessons next year. She has shown an interest so I’m hoping this is something she can do.


And our bird bath with a goldfinch. We love looking out the windows at the birds!

And there you have a little tour of our learning room! The Learning Room Annex is the family room that is connected by pocket doors. We spend a lot of time snuggling on the couch, reading books in front of the fire.  We’re really looking forward to the cooler weather to come and starting school in a few weeks!

Thanks for stopping by!

If you are like me and love looking at learning spaces, check out this week’s Not Back-to-School Blog Hop!


Posted in Home Education/Homeschooling, Learning and Homeschooling, Learning Spaces, Planning | 8 Comments

Simple Classroom Activities for the First Day of School

Simple Classroom Activities for the First Day of School

The first few days of school set the tone for the entire year. Getting started with fun, informative and relationship-building activities is essential. Overpreparing for the first few days is also important since activities can move along more quickly than anticipated. Here is a list of simple to prepare activities that work well on the first day or days of school.

All About Teacher
Make a book about yourself. It can be done in a premade book or sheets in a three-ring binder slipped into page protectors. Read it to the students and leave it out so they can look at it. Include pictures of your family and pets which students find especially interesting.

Teacher in a Bag
Another way to introduce yourself to the class is to do the teacher in a bag. Assemble a group of items that tell about your life and put them in an opaque bag. Pull the items out one at a time and share a sentence or two about each one.

Q&A Time
Give the students the opportunity to ask questions. This is especially good to do at the end of the morning after you have covered a lot of ground, but haven’t covered everything. If a student has a burning question on his mind, he has the opportunity to have it answered. It is also wise to let the students know they can come to you privately with their question if they don’t want to ask it in front of the class.

Something Quiet
The first day is full of emotions and information. It is also the first day of getting back into the school groove. Give the students some down time to read, color, draw, etc. without any pressure. The introverts in your class will love you for it.

Decorate a Desk Nametag
Have names already written out on tags. Give students the opportunity to personalize it with crayons, markers, colored pencils or stickers. Use precut strips of clear shelf paper to attach them to the desks when the students are done.

Read Aloud
Choose an appropriate book to read aloud. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Voist is a great book for this at almost any grade level. Even though many students may already be familiar with the book, it makes a good discussion starter regarding the fact that everyone has a bad day at times. Tell the students that if they are having a bad day at some point during the year, they should tell you. And, likewise, tell the students that if you are ever having a bad day, you will tell them. It opens the doors of communication in the future and it also makes the teacher a real person.

Procedures, Procedures, Procedures
Procedures will make or break a classroom. The first hour of the first day of school is the time to let the students know that this is a classroom with procedures. They will find it comforting to know that the classroom functions in a predictable way.

Abbreviated Morning Meeting or Circle Time
Most classrooms have a morning time that consists of going through the same information each day such as the date, weather, counting, thematic information, etc. This can start the very first day of school, if only in an abbreviated fashion.

Room Rules
Let the students know what is expected and the consequences for not meeting those expectations. Show them where the room rules are clearly posted. Keep the rule list short and positive. Ask for questions to find out if any of the students need something clarified.

Pass the Paper Roll
Pass a roll of toilet paper around the classroom and instruct the students to take off however many pieces they would like for the next activity. When everyone has some, instruct them to pass their piece to the person on the left. And then pass it to the next person to the left. And then to the person on the right. And then two people to the left. When they are done passing, each student counts how many squares of toilet paper they have. They must tell that many facts about themselves. Since some students might be familiar with this activity and only take one piece, the passing element eliminates students trying to outwit the teacher and adds a bit of fun as they realize they’ve been had!

There are so many great ways to get the school year off on a positive note. Carefully preparing your classroom, thinking through your classroom management procedures, and carefully planning your first day of school will all make a big difference in feeling confident the first day. Use some or all of these easy activities to prepare for a great first day of school!

Posted in Back to School, Classroom, Early Elementary, Planning, Teacher Resources, Teaching, Upper Elementary | 1 Comment

Classroom Management Strategies for New Teachers and the New School Year

Classroom Management Strategies for New Teachers and the New School Year

Many new teachers go into teaching because they love the subject matter, working with children and making a difference in the lives of others. But classroom management is also a significant part of being a successful teacher. Carefully planning classroom management strategies such as procedures and expectations makes the start of a new year easier for new teachers and students and helps ensure a smooth-running learning environment. A classroom functioning well means the teacher can focus on teaching and the students can focus on learning.

Effective Teachers Teach Classroom Procedures

Effective classroom management includes clear instructions of classroom procedures starting on the first day of school. Classroom procedures include times and transitions such as:

  • Morning arrival
  • Turning in homework
  • Morning meeting time
  • Morning seatwork
  • Turning in papers
  • What to do when finished early
  • Unfinished work
  • Passing out materials
  • Lining up
  • Afternoon dismissal
  • Indoor recess

Each procedure must be clearly explained and practiced. Although it might seem excessive to practice each procedure over and over again during the first few weeks of school, the practice will pay great dividends the rest of the year when the procedures become second nature to the students. It also makes it clear to the students from the start that you are a teacher with high expectations.

Determining Classroom Management Strategies

Classroom procedures will be dependent on the grade level, curriculum, classroom layout and the number of students in the classroom. Curriculum that requires a full group instruction time will necessitate a classroom arrangement that makes it possible. The younger the students, the simpler the procedures will need to be and the more the students will need to practice as they adjust to school.

A new teacher should think through the different aspects of the day and determine the best layout for the furniture. Sometimes the arrangement of the furniture may be adjusted as a teacher starts to think through the practical procedures and flow of the day. It is fine to adjust, but thinking through any potential pitfalls before school starts is best as it means avoiding teaching students a new procedure when they have already learned a different one.

Wise New Teachers Learn from Successful Veterans

One of the best ways to develop classroom management strategies is to seek the advice and insight of a veteran teacher, preferably at the same grade level. This teacher will already be familiar with the curriculum and any special accommodations necessary. She will be able to offer suggestions regarding how to effectively implement the school’s overall discipline and management policies at that particular grade level.

Spending just an hour with a really good veteran teacher can save a new teacher hours of planning and many mistakes. Offer to take the veteran teacher out for lunch or coffee in exchange for gleaning information. Most teachers are more than happy to help a new teacher succeed.

Thinking through classroom management strategies is essential for new teachers as they prepare the classroom for the start of school. By planning ahead and carefully teaching students the classroom procedures, a teacher has a much greater chance of being successful, especially if planning carefully for the first day of school and utilizing these simple activities for the first day of school.


Posted in Back to School, Classroom, Early Elementary, Fall/Autumn, Planning, Summer, Teacher Resources, Teaching, Upper Elementary | 3 Comments