Making Learning Active, Engaging, Relevant & Memorable!

After spending time talking about all the homeschool curriculum choices, I really wanted to talk about what excites me most about teaching and homeschooling… the possibilities!! It really doesn’t matter what curriculum you use… anything can be used as your spine… but (for me) education is going beyond the books. It’s all about the passion, the excitement, the hard work and intensity that comes with learning. When you have those moments with your kids/students, you’ll know it!!

I just finished a book by an award-winning language arts teacher called, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me. What an inspiration to read!  Even though we don’t function as a “traditional” classroom/school, this book had so much to offer to me as a parent, facilitator, instructor & mentor.  If you need a bit of inspiration before the school year begins (or even in the midst of your school year!) I highly recommend her book.  It really got me thinking beyond lesson plans & units to how and why we’re homeschooling. So much of what she wrote resonated with me and I wanted to write more about that. The author of the book is Kim Bearden. I’ll just refer to her as Kim because after reading her book, I feel like I know her! ;)

Change it Up; Be Fresh and Innovative:  One of the reasons we love homeschooling is because it allows us to create a joyful learning environment. Kim talked about changing the lessons up and creating a sense of wonder for the students.  I whole-heartedly agree… in fact, that’s one reason we homeschool.  As I think about our units, I spend a lot of time searching for fresh ways to approach the material… So what do I mean by that? Let me give you some ideas:

Math facts getting “dull” but still need work?  Time for Math Monster or other Active Math Games

Science need a pick me up? Make it hands on, interactive… create a demonstration or science experiment.  Below, the kids showed the heart leaving the heart with oxygen (red tile), traveling to the limbs and dropping off the oxygen (flipping the tile to blue) and returning to the lungs for more oxygen before returning to the heart to be pumped out again… It’s been three years since we did the circulatory system and heart activities, but the kids still talk about Harold (pictured below)!!!

Circulatory System Activity

And what better way to believe in the strength of levers (in a Simple Machines Unit) than by lifting Mom!! (See more Lever Activities here and be sure to download our free Simple Machines Packet (about 25 pages))

And once the weather is cold, there are always indoor games to play, lapbooks to make and experiments to be done!

Magical Learning: One wonderful idea that I took away from Kim’s book was suspending belief — making learning magical. I don’t want to share her ideas (go read her book, it’s wonderful!), but I realize as I look back on the past year or so, that there are so many ways I can stretch our imaginations and take us far away from our homeschool room…

I see SO much potential

  • I could set up different scenes for our German lessons… a day at the beach, a restaurant, a store-front
  • historical dilemma – Now this particular activity I’m about to share is not appropriate for my six year old… but when I taught history at a private high school, I taught a popular elective on the Holocaust.  It was very challenging (emotionally), but the students and I really explored some issues deeply.  One particular lesson stands out. I had prepared cards ahead of time with different roles… We spent time role playing. Then jumped out of The conversation we had that day was
    • “You are a mother of two young children.”
    • “You are shopkeeper. You live about the store. Your store is frequented by government officials and SS officers.”
    • “You are a father whose teenage son just joined the Hitler Youth.”
    • “You are a 15 year old Jewish teenager. Your parents disappeared. Approach the friends (former friends?) of your parents and see if they will hide you from deportation.”
  • mock trial – Again, when I was teaching high school, my colleague and I designed a number of lessons… holding mock trials of historical figures (like George Washington) complete with witnesses, a judge and jury.  I haven’t ever done anything like this with my kids, but they are now old enough that we could do a simplified version.  (Do you hear the wheels and spinning with excitement turning in my head?!!)

Goal Setting: I think it’s important to point out that when you look at a blog like mine with various idea or read a book like Kim’s with all her extraordinary ideas laid out for you that I point out that we highlight the successful, memorable activities and experiences and don’t dwell as much on the days where we let the kids read all day or just trudge through the basics because someone is sick or we had a handful of errands to run all day.

We don’t do extraordinary science experiments, activities, crafts and scenes every day, but I always have a goal in the back of my mind… To be honest, one reason why I (continue) to blog is because I have set goals and have activities I hope that we’ll get to… Knowing that I can/will share that on the blog is sometimes enough to get me off of my duff and actually DO IT.  There are times in the semester where pulling together the materials we’ll need sounds nothing short of exhausting. Then I push through and do it anyway.  Anyway, I just share that so you know that you (readers) help to motivate me… I bet there’ll be times when you need outside help to motivate you as well.

For example, when the kids were in preschool I tried to set up a theme time table once a week for five weeks… or did a science experiment 2-3 times a week for 3 weeks… or set up tot-trays with activities with one quick activity per day.

Now as the kids get older I plan out units and have a half-dozen hands-on activities we *could* do along with the unit. My goal is to try to do something interactive at least every other day (rather than *just* the basics), but it doesn’t always happen.

Anyway, all that was to say, don’t get stressed out by Pinterest or homeschool and educational blogs with a gazillion ideas. Just pick a few fun goals and try to fit those in when and where they work!

Remember: Some of the good lessons become phenomenal with time.  Spend time, not only creating memories, but sharing and embracing those same memories.  When we were learning about the digestive system, we did an activity to show how small nutrients pass through the intestines into the blood stream… We still talk about squeezing and twisting a pair of panty-hose to make oatmeal “pass through” our digestive system… it looked gross and was a sticky mess.  We all laugh about the activity… and have cemented that lesson by talking about it so much after the fact!

Here’s another example… About a year ago, I took the kids to Antietam, where thousands of soldiers died during the Civil War.  The kids and I STILL talk about the powerful moments we spent at the graveyard there.  This is what I wrote at the time…

I have lots more pictures of what we saw that day, but honestly the most wrenching part was the cemetery. The kids and I were the only ones there.  Because of that, it was silent and somber.  I became very choked up (and honestly writing about this I have tears in my eyes) when I realized what DD was doing. She (and then ED also) went from grave to grave whispering quietly, “I’m sorry you died…” over and over and over. Oh my goodness, that was just heart-wrenching.  We all were very overwhelmed… and DD leaned on me and cried quietly at one point.  It was stirring and horrible… and touching all wrapped into one.

We ARE making a difference, even on our bad days! I actually stepped away from this post (and had major surgery). Now I’m coming back two weeks later and lost my train of thought… but one of the ideas I had jotted down in my writing notebook was about not being discouraged.  It’s important not second guess every decision, bad day, or bad lesson. When things go wrong, learn from it and then let it go.  We have to remain patient with the kids AND with ourselves.  In the larger scheme of things we are

  • planting seeds
  • walking beside them
  • instilling a sense of wonder
  • supporting them
  • modeling a strong work ethic
  • making them feel appreciated
  • caring
  • teaching manners and grace
  • believing in them
  • showing them how to be polite and respectable
  • disciplining
  • smiling
  • instilling positive messages
  • making them feel significant
And above all, I loved the message Kim shared throughout the book… to remember that positive energy is contagious! It’s up to us to set the tone and encourage positive thinking rather than complaints.  That’s true as a parent as well as an educator, right?!!
So with that, I’ll bring this post to a close.  A huge thanks to Kim Bearden, author of the inspiring book, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.

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What are Some of the Benefits and Challenges of Homeschooling?

The past week or two, I’ve been doing a series of posts about homeschooling… trying to address the incredibly challenging question, “How do I start homeschooling?”  Now that I’ve (more or less) finished talking about the nitty gritty issues of curriculum, I wanted to spend a few days talking about some of the more nebulous aspects of homeschooling.  Today I want to talk about some of the benefits and challenges of homeschooling… and then in the next couple of posts after that I’d like to talk about some of the thoughts I’ve had this summer about making our homeschool “better.”  I’ve been kicking around ideas about how eliminate some of the testy issues we face… little things like poking a sibling, distracting others from their work, having a bit of an “attitude” … You know, those small behavior issues that take enormous amounts of patience and redirection.

Anyway, back to today’s topic already!!!

What are Some of the Benefits of Homeschooling?

 As homeschoolers we can find the learning methods,  curriculum and learning style that suit our children best.

We can nurture and follow our child’s unique learning needs.

We can customize our children’s course of study.

Our kids can learn at their own pace.

Our kids can get more individual attention.

Learning can be hands-on, fun, challenging, exciting and more!

There’s no “busy work” (or you can throw it out, if we realize it is!)

There are more opportunities for self-directed study on chosen topics.

We are able to take advantage of learning opportunities as they happen. We can slow down and delve into a topic in more depth; take advantage of local learning opportunities; join a co-op; learn from a mentor.

We can create meaningful direct learning experiences rather than second-hand experience from books.


We can nurture our child’s unique talents.

We can create our own schedules.

We can plan our schooling around our family’s schedule.

We can school when the kids are at their best.

We have well rested kids.

We are able to take advantage of the weather.

We can go on field trips outside the home.

We’re able to go on vacation when it suits the family.

Homeschoolers often have more free-time. Homeschooling is often very efficient and families can get through their homeschool day more quickly than in a traditional school.

Homeschoolers are more insulated from negative influences such as bullying, cliques, peer pressure and violence.

We can help our children mature at their own pace.

We can address “big” issues when they are ready.

Homeschoolers often out-perform their schooled peers on standardized tests.

Close family relationships.

Stability during challenging times (birth of a child, death in the family, medical issues, etc.).

We share in  the every-day joys (and challenges!) of life.

We are in good company. Estimates are that there are well over 2 million homeschoolers now and the numbers appear to be increasing.

What are some of the Challenges of Homeschooling?

Balancing the needs of all the members of the family. Each family is different, but let’s face it, some days can be downright tough when someone is ill, or a toddler is into everything and needs constant attention and/or supervision, or when the kids have activities outside the home and you need to be in the car a lot.

Keeping up with the housework  when there are people always at home!

Socialization — But not for the reasons, you might think.   We have to be very careful to keep our schedule free enough that we’re actually at home doing school work. In our area there are lots and lots of homeschool opportunities.  Our kids have a lot of friends, play date and social opportunities.  Other homeschoolers have found it challenging to find homeschoolers who are compatible with them, the ages of the kids, their philosophy of life, religion and so forth.

Being with the kids 24/7 — This can obviously create challenges and needs for both the kids and the parent/s.

Money — This can be an issue if one parent has decided to stop working or now only works part time.

Pressure — Most all of my homeschooling friends feel a sense of pressure to make sure they are doing the best they can for their children.  Relax! You are doing an amazing job already. Don’t be hard on yourself and remember this is a journey. It doesn’t matter if they know their addition facts this moment… it’s the long-term goals we need to stay focused on!

Commitment — Homeschooling requires a commitment of time, finances etc. Homeschooling can require life style adjustments as one parent might choose to stay home full time or work only part time.

Group projects — People learn from one another when they work toward a common goal. This can be a challenge for homeschoolers in science, technology, writing and so forth. It will be challenging for parents to create learning opportunities where students interact together and have interesting discussions with their peers. It is valuable to have feedback from kids with different viewpoints and it may take some work to create this type of learning opportunity.

This is a family commitment. It can be trying if you (and your spouse) are not full committed. It can be hard if extended members of your family don’t understand what homeschooling is all about.

Homeschooling is still outside the norm. The numbers are growing, but people will pepper you with questions… Everything from “what about socialization?” to “How will they learn ___ a foreign language? trigonometry? calculus? etc.”

In a 2011-2012 survey, parents were asked why they homeschooled. They were given different options to choose from and could choose more than one reason.  

Reasons parents gave for homeschooling:

A concern about environment of other schools (worded as, “You are concerned about the school environment, such as safety, drugs or negative peer pressure?”) 91%

A desire to provide moral instruction 77%

A dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools 74%

A desire to provide religious instruction 64%

A desire to provide a nontraditional approach to child’s education 44%

Other reasons (some of these included family time, finances, travel and distance) 37%

Child has other special needs 17%

Child has a physical or mental health problem 15%

When asked what the most important reason for homeschooling was:

25% chose a concern about environment of other schools

21% chose other reasons

19% chose a dissatisfaction with academic instruction in other schools

16% chose a desire to provide religious instruction

Have I left any biggies out?  Feel free to leave a comment over at our Homeschool Den Facebook Page!

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How Many Homeschoolers Are There in the USA?

Last August, a new study was released showing a continued increase in the number and percentage of students who are homeschooled in America.  The last time the U.S. government released data about the number of homeschooled students was back in 2007. Since I am doing a series about homeschooling in general (How to Start Homeschooling, Choosing homeschool curriculums, etc.), I thought this was the perfect opportunity to share some of the results of this study again. This information was based on a survey called the National Household Education Surveys Program.

How many homeschoolers are there?

In 2007, 2.9% of students were homeschooled. In 2011-2012, 3.4% of students were homeschooled.

In 2007, the number of homeschooled students was about 1.5 million. In 2011-2012 that number had increased to 1.77 million. [Dr. Brian Ray (2011) estimated (using methods different from those used by both government studies) that there were 2.04 million K-12 homeschool students in the United States in spring 2010. See this NHERI report for more information.]

Just so you know, this is about the same number of students as are enrolled in charter schools across the U.S.  According to the National Center for educational statistics there were 1.78 million students enrolled in charter schools in the 2010-2011 school year.

Where do homeschoolers live?

The rates of homeschooling were highest in rural areas where 4.5% of students were homeschooled.  The homeschooling rate was 3.2% in the city, 3.1% in the suburbs and 2.7% in towns.

What grades are the students who homeschool in?

One things that surprised me about the newly released statistics was that the homeschooling rate was actually higher in the upper grades. Just from conversations I’ve had with others, I had assumed that many people choose to homeschool in the younger grades and then put their children into traditional school (public or private schools) in middle school or high school.  I had it totally wrong!

The percentage of K-2 students who homeschooled was 3.1%.

The percentage of 3rd-5th grade students who homeschooled was 3.4%.

The percentage of 6th-8th grade students who homeschooled was 3.5%.

The percentage of 9th-12th grade students who homeschooled was 3.7%.

Overall, the vast majority of students in the U.S. attend public schools… based on some of the statistics I found,  a pie graph of U.S. students might look something like this:


You can take a closer look at the study and these statistics by going to NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics) pamphlet: Parent and Family Involvement in Education… 2012, Tables 7 and 8 (pages 27 and 28).


You might also be interested in the post: Let’s Talk about Homeschool Successes which compares homeschoolers to their public schooled counterparts and talks about test-taking, graduation rates, etc

And you might be interested in our family’s answer to the question, “How Long Will You Keep Homeschooling?”

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Finding a Language Arts Curriculum (Writing, Grammar, etc.)

Welcome back to the our series on how to start homeschooling. During the past week, I have provided information about some of the homeschool curriculums available out there in the different subject areas. Today I wanted to share some of the writing and grammar programs available to homeschoolers. This is not an exhaustive list. You may want to order the (free)  Rainbow Resource Catalog, which is packed with homeschool reviews.  But these are some of the programs that I’ve heard good things about through the years:

Writing Curriculums

NaNoWriMo – Write a novel in a month. A free writing curriculum for elementary, middle school and high school. “ The activities inside will help you create characters, build settings, and hatch plots, plus keep you motivated throughout the month.”

Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW)

One Year Adventure Novel

Cover Story – My friend’s 6th grader used this last year and loved it.

Brave Writer

Writing Strands

Word smith

Essentials in Writing

Writing with Ease

Writing with Skill

Writing Power

Write Shop

Create your own writing workshop: A series I did about how and why we started using a writing workshop format. Click here to see some of the Writing Workshop Lessons we did.

How Do I Help the Kids Start Writing? 5 Lesson Ideas:

    1. What makes a good book or story?
    2. Make your story come alive with details and description.
    3. Creating Interesting Characters
    4. Story Openings: Set the mood or feeling of your story
    5. Gathering story ideas from your own life: Exploring Memories

This worked so well for us last year, that we’re going to continue with this same format this year.  My son, who was always reluctant to write much of anything, now says that writing is his favorite part of the day and my daughter has filled notebook after notebook. Even my youngest who was in kindergarten last year loved writing… and progressed from writing two simple sentences to writing a full page or two each day.  I’m sure I’ll share more about the rhythm of our writing workshop and some of the mini-lessons we tackle this year.

Grammar/Language Arts Curriculums

Write Source Skillsbooks

Editor in Chief

Grammar Island (and other materials by Michael Clay Thompson)

Growing with Grammar

First Language Lessons (Book 1, 2)

Shurley English

Easy Grammar

Simply Grammar

Grammar Workshop (W. Rothstein)

Free Grammar Sheets - I’ve made a lot of grammar worksheets for the kids for practice with their/there/they’re or its/it’s; apostrophes; comma rules; quotation marks and much more.  They are all free here on the blog.

Five in a Row (Literature and projects)



Literature: The only language arts curriculums I mentioned that focus on literature are Five in a Row and Sonlight. I have a friend who has her kids use Novel-Ties.  But other than that haven’t done much research into available programs.  Our family reads a lot. Our shelves are bulging with Caldecott and Newbery Award winning books. I look through suggested reading lists.  I ask friends what their kids like. But we haven’t ever dabbled with specific literature programs. I let the kids choose what they want to read and offer suggestions. We read books aloud together. We listen to audiobooks. This seems to be working well for us as their vocabulary and reading comprehension are years “above” grade level (whatever that means).

If you have a writing program or grammar materials that work well for you be sure to add your comments over at our Homeschool Den Facebook Page!

Meanwhile, you may be interested in some of these related posts in the series:

You Might Be Interested in These Related Posts:

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Thank You to My Wonderful Readers!

This week I’m going to hit a major milestone since joining the team… two million hits on my blog…. one million in just the past nine months. I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of such a wonderful team and love having the blog to share our family’s homeschool journey.  Ours is certainly not the best/ideal/only way to homeschool, but I enjoy sharing how we meander through each year!  My kids and I love homeschooling and we all enjoy having the blog as well. Believe me, I wouldn’t be blogging if this weren’t a family endeavor. :)  The kids have always been okay with all the pictures I take of our activities… Not once have they complained or asked why I’ve always got the camera at hand when we’re ready for another science experiment or are just about to play a math game.    It also takes their support for all the time I spend/spent writing. It’s a family effort to get “everything else” done. (I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about — the dishes, laundry, sorting, picking things up, weeding, yard work and on and on!)  They get a kick out of sharing our activities with the wider world.  Sometimes I’ll share something I’ve whipped out for the kids… let’s say a grammar sheet about using apostrophes and quotation marks… and to my astonishment it’ll get thousands of hits (83,000)! Or I’ll go out with the kids to take pictures of the ice storm and that post will continue to get hits well into the summer (93,000 and counting!).

I started blogging more than a decade ago – first on a family blog and then branching off and creating the Homeschool Den in 2009. One of the best things has been getting to know some other homeschoolers through the blog… I’ve “met” homeschoolers and educators from China, Africa, Australia, Europe, South America and all through out the U.S.  Each year we’ve exchanged country boxes with other families from around the world just from connections I’ve made through the blogging world.  (In fact, we have a box that arrived a couple weeks ago from a family in Great Britain that I’ve been saving for the kids.)  When you’ve emailed or written on Facebook, I always feel happy that you took the time to write! I try (though don’t always succeed!) to write back… but always appreciate hearing from you.

The blog has also been a joy for other reasons.  I’ve chronicled my crazy ear/health problems — which wound up with six surgeries and my having to go deaf in one ear.  It’s not a very common medical condition/issue, but I’ve found that writing about it is cathartic and have gotten several emails from other people enduring similar challenges.  As it turns out, there are still some on-going nerve/noise issues (I’ll be going back for my post-op appointment at Johns Hopkins on Monday morning). Last October I went in for a reasonably “simple” procedure… and wound up ten months later looking like a Borg-wanna be. Here’s a picture I took a couple of days ago of the plastic button that is sitting over the titanium implant.  I think they’ll take the gauze out on Monday and will remove the stitches.  The plastic part will come off in a couple of months after the bone has grown back around the implant. I’ve always been a happy hearing-aid user… so now I’ll just look all the more sophisticated with this new device. And hey, it’ll be blue-tooth compatible. Nothing like being able to tune into technology straight into my head!

Anyway, I guess I felt compelled to write all this today because I haven’t been on the computer practically at all this past week. I’ve been flat on my back coping with the ear ache pain, loud noises in my ear, nerve spasms, etc.  Now that I’m feeling a bit better, I’m feeling grateful for that… and for everything else in my life.  I guess when the dark clouds settle in for a little while, you’re all the more appreciative of life when the sun peaks back out. You know what I mean?!!

So once again, I just want to say thank you for all of you who have tuned in to read about our adventures here at the Homeschool Den.   Thank you!

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