Monday, August 6, 2007
Back to Homeschool Week: How We Homeschool
Montessori preschool: When my oldest children were three and four years old, I began learning about Montessori education and making and creating Montessori materials became quite a hobby. I used to stress and obsess, trying to be a Montessori purist, but now, with my third child, I find that Montessori teaching comes more easily and naturally to me and incorporates quite seamlessly into the rest of our homeschooling -- now that I am NOT trying to adhere rigidly to Montessori ideals. My dream was that my youngest would occupy herself with Montessori activities while I worked with my older ones on their lessons; sometimes that happens, sometimes not. But I find if I put in one or two ten-minute sessions of working with my littlest one each day, she is much more likely to involve herself with the materials independently (sometimes even at a time that is convenient for me!)
Montessori strove to make her schools more like a home than a school, and much of the work done by the children, especially the youngest ones, is "Practical Life" and "Care of the Environment" -- washing hands, dressing themselves, dusting, mopping, sweeping, polishing, folding, washing dishes, preparing food. So much of this is naturally a part of living at home with young children anyway, but the Montessori way of following a child's interest, breaking down a task into its parts, demonstrating slowly and with few words, and observing the child's progress, are incredibly effective and take only a few minutes to do while caring for your child or when he "helps" with chores.
Practical life is the foundation of Montessori education. Following that, works which focus on a specific tasks can be prepared and set out on a tray for the child to use. These are fun to make and can usually be put together using household or dollar store items. Examples might be transferring objects using a spoon, tongs, or tweezers, pouring, sorting, and sequencing. Many of these exercises are "Sensorial", that is they develop the use of the senses and the act of evaluating, naming, and classifying information received through the senses. (And if you've read Rand or Aristotle, it makes perfect sense why this would form the basis of a young child's education. I actually read Montessori first, then got very excited as I began to dabble in philosophy and found these same ideas.) My older children still fondly remember our Montessori trays, and are delighted now to revisit them and show their little sister how to do them.
Every Montessori activity is intended to foster self-direction, independence, concentration, precision, carrying out tasks in sequence, and small and large motor control. Tasks always move from simple to complex, and from concrete to abstract. Beauty, simplicity, and order are of essence in the "prepared environment" -- which is essentially an environment with work prepared and ready for the child to do when he is ready for it, and child friendly tools and work spaces at hand. In a classroom this means everything is available on low shelves at all times, everything is child sized, and nothing is off limits. At home, this is utterly impractical, but I have found that just having a few, rotating work choices available on shelves, and a few other mom-supervised activities prepared and at hand, as well as including my wee one in chores and giving her "jobs" to do is all that is needed to keep her busy and actively learning and working.
Several Montessori games have become a permanent part of our homeschool. One is the Silence Game. The children try to sit as perfectly quietly and motionlessly as they can until they hear me whisper their names one by one. The period of silence is gradually lengthened over the months and years, from less than a minute to several minutes as the children gain self-control. Another game we enjoy is the Birthday Game. On his birthday, a candle is lighted, which represents the sun. Then the birthday child carries a small globe around the candle once for each year, representing how many times the earth has travelled around the sun in his lifetime. Our older ones still ask for this game on their birthdays! Walking on the Line is yet another game --it's just what it sounds like, walking toe to heel on a line drawn on the ground. Montessori invented it after observing how children do this anyway!
From Practical Life and Sensorial works, we move to Math and Language activities. Maria Montessori was herself an excellent mathematician, and the math materials she designed are excellent. In fact, many of the math programs used by homeschoolers -- such as Schiller and Right Start -- are Montessori based. However, I have made most of our math materials inexpensively -- and gained a better understanding of math myself in the process. We are still using our Montessori math and geography materials on through the elementary years.
In future I'll be posting photos and instructions of how we've made and used Montessori lessons and materials for anyone interested.
Reading Reflex: I used the Montessori language works --sandpaper letters, moveable alphabet, "I Spy" game, and pink-blue-and-green cards -- up to a point. But then we found ourselves stuck. Montessori's reading system probably works well for Italian, her native language, but leaves something to be desired in English. Reading Reflex by Carmen McGuiness filled in the holes for me. My older children are very proficient, happy readers. I've written more about Reading Reflex in this post.
Classical content: A classical education was my husband's idea. I am eternally grateful that he insisted on this. Our children thrive on it and are challenged, and it gives me structure and direction. The three stages of the trivium follow and nurture the natural pattern of human cognitive development. I follow the four-year cycle outlined in The Well-Trained Mind, with history forming the spine our our studies.
Independent work: A friend of mine who is a veteran homeschooler and is mom to six makes a weekly list for each of her children with tasks (schoolwork and chores) which must be accomplished and checked off during the week. I tried this out with my own children and found that, with a little coaching ("Good, you finished that one. Check it off and see what's next...") they quickly learned to work independently with their list as a guide. At this point, they each have about 1/2 to 1 hour's worth of independent work each day -- Bible/Bible story reading, reviewing catechism, math practice, typing practice, coloring and mapwork for history, and some additional reading.
narration:This has been such a useful tool for developing attention to detail, memory, and verbal expression (as if my little yappers needed help with verbal expression!)
copywork: I have actually struggled with copywork, how much to expect (especially when my children were just beginning to write), figuring out how to do it, and being prepared for it. Lindafay's blog has been helpful in this area, and I feel like we're finally getting the hang of it. However, for awhile this year we did some formal spelling study, and this made a big difference in the kids' spelling (and they loved it and begged for more -- my kids just seem to really like formal academic work) so we may go back to that. Getty Dubay handwriting books are also my favorites.
nature study: Can you believe I was stressed out by nature study? I couldn't plan for it, and I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to just let it happen. Wild Days by Karen Skidmore Radcliffe made it doable -- it is one of my favorite homeschooling books. I try to do two "wild days" per month, but if we find something interesting in the backyard -- which we do with ever increasing frequency as our habit of observation has increased-- I've learned to say, "Go get your nature notebooks!" We focus on nature study when it's nice outside, and save hands-on "hard science" for long, dark winter days when everyone has cabin fever anyway.
short lessons: Even though my dc often beg to go on, keeping lessons short keeps everyone interested. And, true to Montessori's principles, the children practice, internalize, and extend what they've learned through our lessons together in their play and free time. We spend 2-3 hours per day on formal studies.
arts, crafts and handwork: I don't do this during our "formal" lessons, but keep things ready to pull out on a rainy (or snowy) day. We've been enjoying Winky Cherry's sewing books, Drawing with Children, watercolor painting, origami, calligraphy, and nature crafts.
year-round schooling: Since our state has a "teaching time" requirement, I opted for keeping up our homeschooling year round, in order to (more or less) accomplish that and still maintain a relaxed pace. It also allows us to take a break when we feel we need it, and prevents end-of-summer boredom.
music: My dh and I have eclectic musical tastes, so there is always a variety of music playing in our home, from classical to liturgical to folk rock to ...some of dh's more extreme tastes. I have taught my children Suzuki violin, but we need to be more dedicated to that. The children have taught themselves recorder from a book pretty much independently after a brief introduction by me. Learning hymns and chants by heart has been a big part of family catechesis -- chanting has the bonus of being an excellent introduction to singing and ear training. And we keep meaning to get back to Mrs. Stewart's Piano Lessons.
languages: Dh and I both have language majors and post-graduate linguistics training, so we are language oriented as a family. The children have worked their way through the Hey Andrew! Level 2 Greek book; Dad is going to take over teaching that next year, now that they have a handle on the alphabet and a little vocabulary. Both children also expressed a desire to learn Spanish, so dh ordered the Pimsleur Spanish course. I was dubious since this is an audio course for adults, but the 30-minute lessons are perfect for kids too -- no reading or writing involved.
using the computer as a tool: I keep the computer stocked with a limited choice of educational games: typing, math, spelling, geography, and chess are the current ones. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- And What We Can Do About It by Jane Healy really opened my eyes about how to make the best choices for educational computer use.