English Literature & Composition

Note: This post describes one of four writing classes I’ll be teaching in the 2020-21 school year through Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative. You can read more here about all four classes, spanning grades 4 to 12.

Who: Students entering grades 8–12 in fall 2020

Prerequisites: Prior IEW experience or writing class with Mrs. Hartenburg, or by permission

When: 2:15–3:30 p.m., Fridays, September 4, 2020 to May 28, 2021, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Forty Holy Martyrs Church, Sugar Land, Texas

In this college-preparatory literature and composition course, highschool students (and advanced eighth-graders) will explore elements of literature and develop beginning skills in literary analysis as they read and write upper-level essays and critiques.

Focus works, including novels, short stories, poems, and drama, have been selected for literary quality, interest, and for their place in the historical development of literature. Students will gain an understanding of the development of literature and will practice the skills of close literary analysis through essays, approach papers, and other evaluative writing. 

Supplies Fee: $149 for BHSC-purchased supplies including the following:

  • Introduction to Literature student book by Janice Campbell
  • Seven books of literature for study: Around the World in Eighty Days, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Jane Eyre, Pygmalion, Animal Farm, The Tempest, and Gulliver’s Travels.
  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition notebook
  • Various teaching/classroom resources

Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students must also have a public library card and access to the library as they will be required to secure and read library books and encyclopedia articles as instructed.

Finally, students will need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

See Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative enrollment information for tuition and fee information.

Upper School Essay Writing

Note: This post describes one of four writing classes I’ll be teaching in the 2020-21 school year through Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative. You can read more here about all four classes, spanning grades 4 to 12.

Who: Students entering grades 7–12 in fall 2020.

When: 1:00–2:10 p.m., Fridays, August 14, 2020 to May 14, 2021, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Forty Holy Martyrs Church, Sugar Land, Texas

Incorporating both report-style and descriptive writing, students will learn the structure and style of various essay formats and will produce original essays including integrated quotations, MLA in-text citations, and a properly formatted “Works Cited” page. An intensive overview of style elements will assist students in developing vivid vocabulary and sophisticated sentence variety. Throughout the course, students will gain an awareness of sentence structure and grammar that goes hand-in-hand with their growing ability to amplify and manipulate the parts of a sentence.

In addition to basic report-style essays, students will learn a five-step process for developing a thoughtful thesis statement that interacts with the great conversation of ideas. By attending to sources and engaging in group discussion, students will be able to find their own voice as they search for the truth through their reading and writing.

In addition to weekly class sessions, students should plan to spend another one to three hours each week completing assignments at home.

Supplies Fee: $35 for teacher-purchased supplies including the following:

  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition book
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus—classroom copies to share
  • Classroom colored pencil sets

Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students must also have a public library card and access to the library as they will be required to secure and read library books and encyclopedia articles as instructed.

Finally, students will need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

This class will be offered if a minimum of six students is enrolled by June 26, 2020. Full refunds will be made if the class is cancelled due to low enrollment.

See Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative enrollment information for tuition and fee information.

Basic Reports & Essays

Note: This post describes one of four writing classes I’ll be teaching in the 2020-21 school year through Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative. You can read more here about all four classes, spanning grades 4 to 12.

Who: Students entering grades 5–7 in fall 2020;

Prerequisites: Prior IEW experience or writing class with Mrs. Hartenburg, or by permission

When: 1:00–2:10 p.m., Tuesdays, August 11, 2020 to May 11, 2021, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Forty Holy Martyrs Church, Sugar Land, Texas

Upper-elementary and middle-school students will gain experience writing from various types of sources, incorporating research, and organizing paragraphs and longer compositions. While the class will incorporate more creative writing projects as well, the focus will be on mastering report and essay forms and following MLA formatting guides while also adding stylistic flare. Students will work toward developing organizational skills and scholarly habits that will aid them in their upper level studies and beyond. As a class, students will work on memorizing and reciting several poems over the course of the year, and they will have the opportunity to participate in ongoing reading and typing challenges to develop skills and habits essential to competent communicators.

In addition to weekly class sessions, students should plan to spend another one to three hours each week completing assignments at home.

Supplies Fee: $35 for teacher-purchased supplies including the following:

  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition book
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus—classroom copies to share
  • Classroom colored pencil sets

Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students must also have a public library card and access to the library as they will be required to secure and read library books and encyclopedia articles as instructed.

Finally, students will need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

This class will be offered if a minimum of six students is enrolled by June 26, 2020. Full refunds will be made if the class is cancelled due to low enrollment.

See Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative enrollment information for tuition and fee information.

All Things Fun & Fascinating, 4th-6th grade class

Note: This post describes one of four writing classes I’ll be teaching in the 2020-21 school year through Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative. You can read more here about all four classes, spanning grades 4 to 12.

Who: Students entering grades 4–6 in fall 2020

When: 2:15–3:30 p.m., Tuesdays, August 11, 2020 to May 11, 2021, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Forty Holy Martyrs Church, Sugar Land, Texas

Upper-elementary students will participate in activities aimed to inspire a love of words, sentences, and word-play. With the support of guided group discussion, brainstorming, and critique, students will learn to write with appropriate structure while enlivening their prose with stylistic flare.

Over the course of the year, students will gain a growing awareness of sentence structure and grammar that goes hand-in-hand with their growing ability to amplify and manipulate the parts of a sentence. We will focus on developing vivid vocabulary and sentence variety in a range of compositions including both fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. As a class, students will work on memorizing and reciting several poems over the course of the year, and they will have the opportunity to participate in ongoing reading and typing challenges to develop skills and habits essential to competent communicators.

In addition to weekly class sessions, students should plan to spend another one to three hours each week completing assignments at home.

Supplies Fee: $65 for teacher-purchased supplies including the following:

  • All Things Fun & Fascinating student book
  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition book
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus—classroom copies to share
  • Classroom colored pencil sets

Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students will also need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

This class will be offered if a minimum of six students is enrolled by June 26, 2020. Full refunds will be made if the class is cancelled due to low enrollment.

See Bluebonnet Home Scholars Collaborative enrollment information for tuition and fee information.

Survival Guide for COVID-Forced Homeschooling

Choosing the craziness of homeschooling is one thing, but having it forced upon you is quite another. Thankfully there are somewhere around two million voluntary homeschoolers in the U.S., and they’re ready to WELCOME ALL THE HUDDLED MASSES to their ranks—virtually, of course.

If you are one of the many who have found yourself suddenly homeschooling against your will, I’d like to help. Maybe you will find homeschooling to be a new personal hell, or maybe it will grow on you. In either case, here are some very practical tips for getting through it for the duration of the pandemic.

As much as you might be tempted to give in to your kids’ requests for more and more screen time—after all it does seem comforting and helpfully distracting during this crazy and stressful time, and there is your sanity to consider!—still the evidence shows that too much screen time increases anxiety rather than alleviating it. So limiting tech time and sticking with a loose routine are key to maintaining a positive and productive home environment.

This is great time to remind kids that screen time is not a right but rather a privilege that can be earned or lost. By creating a daily checklist for each child, you can allow them to direct their own time and earn screen time, or some other reward, by doing so. For this to work, you’ll need to be sure to set screen time controls to limit children’s access to your devices and home computers. Lock all browsers and other apps on any devices that students will use for audiobooks and math review so that students can avoid temptation to get distracted with other activities during listening/math time.

Here’s a sample checklist for grade-school students through highschool which you can copy, paste, and modify to fit your family. The embedded, italicized comments are notes for the parent which you’d delete from your personalized student checklist before printing it for your kids. After the list, there are a few notes and further suggestions, especially audiobook suggestions! (Note: There are links to other websites and resources in this post, but I do not benefit financially from any of the links or content of this post.)

Sample Daily Checklist

Dear Student, you may earn up to one hour of screen time by completing everything on the following checklist of activities by 4:00 p.m.:

  • Complete any required assignments from your regular school (if applicable).
  • Practice your musical instrument (if applicable).
  • Listen to a pre-approved audiobook for at least 20 minutes (Use a longer minimum if your child can stay focused!), and tell your parent or caregiver what happened in the story or passage. (For the importance of telling back, see an earlier post here.)
  • Play outside for at least an hour; wear sunscreen and/or a hat! Take a drawing pad or notebook and draw something interesting or beautiful that you find outdoors. (Consider incorporating additional aspects of nature study as well.)
  • Read out loud with a family member—you can read to a sibling, listen to a sibling read to you, read with a parent, and/or FaceTime/Skype/Zoom with a grandparent or friend. (This is a great way to both build family connections and also work on oral reading fluency through practice. Make sure students read from a book that is at or near their level of reading ability so they don’t get too frustrated.)
  • Spend 5 to 10 minutes copying lines from a poem or classic literature in your best handwriting—be sure to copy the punctuation, spelling, and capitalization correctly, too!
  • Help with chores around the house.
  • Do something creative such as building with LEGOs, baking, or crafting.
  • Spend at least 45 minutes doing something active such as going for a walk or bike ride, stretching, doing crunches and such, doing an exercise video/Just Dance/etc.—or just put on music and make your own moves!
  • Listen to an approved audiobook for another 20 minutes (or longer minimum!) or more, and tell your parent or caregiver what happened in the story or passage.
  • Do at least 15 minutes of math fact drill and show your results to your parent or caregiver. (This is for elementary students or other students who need to review basic math facts. Try this app: Math Fact Master: Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division; you can set the app activities to each child’s ability. For older students, or for more math topics, consider the ALEKS online math program, or Art of Problem Solving, especially for Algebra and above.)

Bonus Challenges: (Set a special prize that can be earned only by completing some or all of these extra accomplishments.)

  • Memorize a poem and recite it to a family member or friend. Then memorize another, and then another! Try to remember the first ones while learning the new.
  • Learn to diagram sentences. (Best for middle school and up, maybe advanced upper elementary students as well.)
  • Learn touch typing and/or increase your touch typing speed. Set a words-per-minute (adjusted for accuracy) goal.
  • Memorize the 70 basic English phonograms and their corresponding sounds. (For more information on the phonograms and best ways to teach phonics, see here and here.)

If you do nothing else, quality audiobooks and outdoor time are incredibly valuable and would provide a wonderful education.

I recommend that every parent, homeschooling or otherwise, check out this free talk by Andrew Pudewa, “Nurturing Competent Communicators“—he explains just how essential read-alouds and audiobooks are to students’ linguistic development and communication skills.

Pudewa’s program, the Institute for Excellence in Writing, is also responding to the COVID-19 crisis by giving away free curriculum. I especially recommend their Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization course. They are giving away the downloadable teacher’s manual, student pages, and the MP3 audio for the entire first level of the course!

Audiobook Lists!

I recommend giving your students a list of pre-approved audiobooks to choose from for the assigned audiobook time. Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids as long as schools are closed, and many audiobooks can also be found for free through public libraries using Hoopla and/or Overdrive/Libby. Below are my personal recommendations by age bracket based on what is available digitally for free through one or more of those three sources. (Scribd has even more audiobooks, and they have a 30-day free trial; check out The Hobbit, The Lord of Rings, and other books by J. R. R. Tolkien there!)

There are so many great and good books that are not on these lists, but it’s a start! Also, many students would benefit from reading books both below and above their age bracket; these are fluid categories.

Preschool and up:

  • Winnie the Pooh and other A. A. Milne books
  • Beatrix Potter stories
  • Edward Lear poems
  • Dr. Seuss books
  • Stone Soup
  • Aesop fables
  • Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales
  • The Boy Who Drew Cats
  • Arnold Lobel books
  • Thornton Burgess stories and books
  • Other folk tales and fairy tales

Elementary and up:

  • The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich
  • Charlotte’s Web (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Trumpet of the Swan (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Stuart Little (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Penderwicks series (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Pippi Longstocking (via Overdrive/Libby)
  • Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
  • The Princess and the Goblin and other children’s books and fairy tales (e.g. The Wise Woman) by George MacDonald
  • Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Heidi
  • Jules Verne books
  • Anne of Green Gables books
  • Lewis Carroll books
  • The Children’s Homer
  • Robin Hood
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
  • The Swiss Family Robinson
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Little Princess
  • The Wind in the Willow
  • Misty of Chincoteague
  • James Herriot’s Treasury for Children and other animal stories
  • Black Beauty
  • King Arthur and his Knights by Howard Pyle
  • The Little Duke
  • Edward Lear poems
  • Fairy Tales and Folks Tales (They’re for all ages!)
  • Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

Middle School and up:

  • The Reluctant Dragon
  • Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  • Jack London stories
  • The Witchcraft of Salem Village (nonfiction)
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader (nonfiction)
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Edith Nesbit books
  • Sherlock Holmes stories
  • Stephen Crane stories
  • Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (nonfiction)
  • Men of Iron by Howard Pyle
  • My Antonia
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Watership Down
  • The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (nonfiction)
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • The View from Saturday

Highschool (and advanced middleschool readers):

  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis and other books by C. S. Lewis
  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott
  • Shakespeare’s plays (select unabridged, full-cast) and sonnets
  • Beowulf
  • Charles Dickens stories
  • Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries
  • Classic American Short Stories
  • Edgar Allen Poe stories and poems
  • Jane Austen novels
  • Ivanhoe
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Washington Irving stories
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • James Fenimore Cooper novels
  • Plays by Aeschylus
  • The War of the Worlds
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  • Wuthering Heights
  • G. K. Chesterton’s ficton and non-fiction

E-Books Students can Read Aloud

  • Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel (early readers and up)
  • Books by Cynthia Rylant (early readers and up)
  • Biscuit books (early readers and up)
  • Fancy Nancy books (early readers and up)
  • Magic Treehouse series & Fact Trackers series—read in order on Overdrive/Libby! (first chapter books)
  • The Boxcar Children series, book 1 through 19 (first chapter books)
  • Erdrich’s Birchbark House series—Listen to book 1 first! (more advanced chapter books)
  • Charlotte’s Web on Overdrive/Libby (more advanced chapter books)
  • Any e-book version of books from the elementary and middleschool list (for confident oral readers in upper elementary through high school)
  • Any e-book version of books from the highschool list (for advanced high school readers)

For more ideas for homeschooling in a crisis situation, you might checkout Ambleside Online’s Emergency Learning Plan. Their curriculum is always free.

Education isn’t limited to schools; some folks learn better without them.

image credit: richardhanleyjr.com

Comparing Phonics Programs

Writing involves a complex and hierarchical skill set. Think of all the ground-work that must be done before a person can write an essay. The student begins as an infant acquiring spoken words. She eventually begins to string words into babbled sentences and then into reels of spontaneous spoken narrative—about her thoughts, what just happened, what she’s seen or observed. In elementary school each student has to muscle up to the daunting projects of phonemic awareness, phonics, penmanship, and spelling. Then come years of fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing development. Phew! It’s a lot.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the primary building blocks to reading and writing success: phonics. It’s never too late to fill in any gaps with a student—or even as an adult teacher/parent!

In a previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are all based on the best research currently available. This post takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the different programs.

Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground. And it’s true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) requires a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR can be difficult to implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher’s end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I’ve found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade. I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using “letter tiles” for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are very young or who have difficulty writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher’s guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  

All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:

  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. It’s comprehensive. And all for about $100 as an initial investment, plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to reason number three. . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony,” “pokey”, or “fickle” phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either of those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track—for more money!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)

So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 

N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I’m just a fan girl who’s been happily using the program for about eight years now with both my own children and also other students.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Outdoor Life & Nature Study

In Janary at the Saint Emmelia Homeschool Conference, I had the privilege of co-leading a session with a wonderful colleague on incorporating nature study and outdoor play in the home school. Elizabeth Lewis did a fabulous job discussing the hands-on details of gardening with children. An audio recording is available online (see our talk titled, “Land Ahoy! Making Gardening and Natural Play Part of Your Homeschool” from the 2019 South Conference). While I don’t have Mrs. Lewis’s material to share, here are the notes from my part of the presentation dealing with outdoor life and nature study:

Research & Trends—Nature Time Is Critical to Spiritual, Psychological & Physical Well-being

  • Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005) drew attention to the alarming, growing divide between nature and children.
  • Screen time is replacing outdoor time and is leading to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, low academic performance, and other problems. (See www.waituntil8th.org/why-wait/.)
  • A growing profusion of studies continue to investigate the psychological benefits of the natural world:
    • People who lived in city neighborhoods with at least 20 to 30% vegetation cover showed reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]
    • The number of visible birds of any kind in an urban neighborhood correlate with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[2]
    • The Japanese forestry ministry coined a phrase—shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—for the increasingly popular pastime of intentional relaxation in forest environments which has been shown to heighten feelings of well-being, lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, and even improved immune system functionality.[3]
  • Even short visits to urban green spaces have positive results and benefits.[4]
  • There is a “forest school” movement in western European with roots reaching back to the 1800s; currently there are over 1,500 waldkindergartens (forest kindergartens) in Germany which have resurrected educational reformer Friedrich Froebel’s ideal of children learning through hands-on outdoor experiences.[5]
  • Building on the Scandinavian heritage of friluftsliv, literally, “fresh air life,” hundreds of nature schools similarly thrive in Denmark and Sweden.[6]
  • More than one-hundred Japanese waldkindergartens (a number that was expected to double by 2014) address the worries of many parents “that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature.”[7]
  • In the U.S., a small but growing number of forest kindergarten leaders have joined together to found the American Forest Kindergarten Association which shares information about the many benefits supported by “the growing body of compelling scientific evidence” which indicates that “introducing children to the natural world at an early age has a profoundly positive impact on their mental, physical, and social well-being.” A handful of similar organizations—such as Natural Start Alliance, Nature Explore, and Forest Schools USA—are also devoted to helping establish nature preschools throughout the country.

Foundation for Nature Learning in the Christian Home

  • Many saints have shown us how holiness reunites us with nature: St. Francis, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, St. Blaise, Bishop of Sebaste, and many more!
  • The garden of Eden remains an important image of a full life with God. Like Adam and Eve, we are entrusted with stewardship over creation. And, like Adam and Eve, our vocation begins with wonder and enjoyment.
  • The natural world directs us to the Creator and heavenC. S. Lewis describes nature as a “first sketch” of “that greater glory”[8] promised to those to thirst and who overcome. “We are summoned,” says Lewis, “to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”[9] God summons us to experience a foretaste of his glory in the riches of his creation.
  • Familiarity with nature awakens and sustains the aesthetic sense, a right sense of beauty, and also a love of creation that motivates stewardship.
  • “Forest Schooling” approaches involve a deep respect for children that is essentially compatible with a Christian understanding of persons as image-bearers and participants in divinity. Nature learning flourishes with child-led exploration where teachers are guides and fellow learners before God, the Creator.
  • Many contemporary homeschoolers are revisiting the writings and wisdom of Christian educator, Charlotte Mason, who advocated for nature immersion play, or “out-of-door life for the children,” in 1886, long before it was trendy.[10]

Nature Study & Outdoor Life in Practice

Charlotte Mason’s recommendations from more than a century ago remain sound. She suggests ways to weave in informal, age-appropriate lessons during outdoor time in subjects as varied as language arts, geography, botany, biology, physical education, and world languages.

1.     Meals & days in the open—Mason recommends dining outside whenever the weather permits and also taking the children out for “long hours” (4 to 6 hours) on “every tolerably fine day” or as much as possible. Children should be allowed to wonder and explore for most of that time, but some “vigorous play” and a short “lesson or two” can also be worked in. This applies mostly to children under 9, but is wonderful for all ages.

2.     “Sightseeing” & “Picture-Painting”—Habits of attention and observation can be honed through narration games/activities and “taking mental photographs.” E.g., “Tell me all you can about [an object or “some patch of landscape”].” Supply names for flora, fauna, items, or concepts so that vocabulary and concepts expand.

3.     Flowers, Trees & Living Creatures—Explore, identify, and learn to recognize and name the flowers and trees, birds and insects, lizards and mammals of your neighborhood and region. Use field guides, keep nature notebooks, and track cycles of growth and change in a “Nature’s Firsts” calendar. Don’t underrate the “kindly fellowship” of family pets. Encourage careful observation and beginning habits of deduction.

4.     “Living Books”—Read books, fiction and non-fiction, that portray facts about flora and fauna in a beautiful and compelling way that sparks the affections and imagination.

5.     “Out-of-Door Geography”—Parents can weave in informal lessons in geography by drawing attention to and naming geographical features of the land and waterways; directing children’s attention to observe the position and movement of the sun, moon, and stars; asking/answering questions about clouds, wind, and weather; introducing children to concepts of distance, time, and direction, as well as to compass and map skills.

6.     “The French Lesson”—Mason encourages oral instruction in a modern language starting informally at a young age. The lesson should be short (~10 minutes; 2 to 6 new words per day + review) and worked naturally into the outdoor time as the words taught tie into the sights, sounds, and activities at hand.

7.     “Noisy Games”—Part of the outdoor time can be devoted to vigorous games that involve the whole body and contribute to well-rounded physical health, e.g. jumping rope, climbing, and various games children select for themselves and pass along to each other.

8.     Scouting, Stalking, and Imaginative Play—In the outdoors, children can track small animals and birds by sound, scat, paw prints, etc. They can re-enact adventures from their readings and role-play characters who captivate them such as Robin Hood or Sacagawea.

9.     “Walks in Bad Weather”—Mason encourages parents to not only take their children outside in temperate seasons but also to celebrate the unique offerings of each season. She suggests “an hour and a half in the morning and as long in the afternoon.” 

10.  “The Child and Mother-Nature”—While Mason encourages parents to integrate short lessons, she is firm about respecting the child’s personhood. She insists on child-led exploration with a caregiver near to answer the occasional question or provide the occasional name or fact. “The mother must refrain from too much talk” so that Mother-Nature can teach directly. Mason encourages the infrequent “look and gesture of delight” as the parent models delight in God’s creation.

Practical Considerations & Resources

Finding nature:

  • Your back yard and the street where you live
  • Neighborhood parks and green spaces
  • Local arboretums, Audubon societies, parks, and nature preserves

Scheduling nature time:

  • Regional climate
  • Homeschool routine and yearly rhythm

Staying safe:

  • Weather-appropriate clothing
  • Bug spray/repellent
  • Sunhats & sunscreen

Nature study supplies:

  • Nature notebooks
  • Pencils, colored pencils/dry-brush watercolor tools
  • Nature’s Firsts calendar
  • Field Guides
  • Living books

Challenges:

  • Start wherever you are, and do what you can.
  • “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”
  • Play to your strengths, and consider outsourcing for non-strength areas.

“It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” — Charlotte Mason

Resources

Books & Links for the Parent:

“Nature Study.” Ambleside Online. www.amblesideonline.org/NatureSch.shtml

Kenny, Erin. Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Cedarsong Nature School, 2013.

Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989 (1935).

Sobel, David., Ed. Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Living Books to Read Aloud:

Ambleside Online: (geography/natural history/science by year) amblesideonline.org/curriculum.shtml#years

Memorial Press: www.memoriapress.com/curriculum/science/ (esp. Insects and Trees)

Simply Charlotte Mason: simplycharlottemason.com/planning/curriculum-guide/individual-graded-subjects/nature-study/

Nature-Immersion Learning Support Organizations & Research (Benefits & Best Practices):

American Forest Kindergarten Association: forestkindergartenassociation.org.

Arbor Day/Dimensions Foundation: dimensionsfoundation.org/research/research-findings/

Natural Start Alliance: naturalstart.org

Nature Explore: natureexplore.org

North American Association for Environmental Education: naaee.org

Christianity & Nature:

Aidan Hart Sacred Icons, Icon commissioned by Panorthodox Concern For Animals, aidanharticons.com/this-is-a-new-icon-commissioned-by-www-panorthodoxconcernforanimals-org-two-of-its-themes-is-that-we-ought-to-treat-animals-with-love-and-respect-as-creations-of-god-and-that-christ-has-come-to-red/

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodox Environmentalism—www.theoria.tv/orthodox-environmentalism/

Orthodoxy and Animals—facebook.com/orthodoxyandanimals/

Theology and Ecology: English Saints and the Animal World— orthodoxengland.org.uk/ecology.htm

Safety Standards:

“Child Care Weather Watch,” Iowa Department Public Health, Healthy Child Care Iowa. Champaign Urbana Public Health District. 2009. c-uphd.org/documents/wellness/weatherwatch.pdf  See also usa.childcareaware.org/advocacy-public-policy/crisis-and-disaster-resources/heat-index/

Texas Master Naturalists:

Texas Master Naturalist certificate program, Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation: tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/master_naturalist/

Texas Master Naturalist organization, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: txmn.org/


[1] Daniel T. C. Cox, et al. “Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature.” BioScience, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-155. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw173.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Livni, Ephrat. “The Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ Is Scientifically Proven to Improve Your Health.” Quartz, 12 Oct. 2016, qz.com/804022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quetteville, Harry de. “Waldkindergärten: the Forest Nurseries Where Children Learn in Nature’s Classroom.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 Oct. 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk/education/3357232/Waldkindergarten-the-forest-nurseries-where-children-learn-in-Natures-classroom.html.

[6] Guy, Geoffrey. Forest School Essays. Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/4813212/Forest_School_Essays.

[7] Quoted in Neate, Rupert. “Campfire Kids: Going Back to Nature with Forest Kindergartens.” Spiegel Online, 22 Nov. 2013, www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/forest-kindergartens-could-be-the-next-big-export-from-germany-a-935165.html.

[8] Lewis, C. S. “‘The Weight of Glory.’” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, 25–40.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Image attribution: Bureau of Land Management #conservationlands15 Social Media Takeover, May 15, Top 15 Trails to Blaze on BLM’s National Conservation Lands https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/17514129400 used under Creative Commons license

What Is Demanded of Us: Charlotte Mason Admonishes Us to Get on Our Game

Many private and home educators have been rediscovering and implementing the ideas of British educator, Charlotte Mason, and with good reason. She understood children and respected their value as full persons made in the image of God. Throughout her long career teaching children, training other teachers, running schools, and organizing parent-run schools, she refined a truly lovely and life-giving approach to educating that is still just as valid and valuable now as it was when she lived in the mid 1800s to the 1920s. Thankfully, she wrote down her wisdom in her six-volume set of books now in the public domain, and we can continue to glean from it today. In fact, many organizations have sprung up to help people follow Charlotte Mason’s educational plan as closely and faithfully as possible. These organizations provide many fantastic resources for parents and teachers.

Yet, when trying to discern the best curricular choice or course of action, the most helpful question a contemporary Charlotte Mason teacher and parent can ask is not, “What would Charlotte Mason do?” or even, “What has Charlotte Mason recommended that teachers and parents do?” but rather “What would Charlotte Mason do if she lived now and were in my situation?”

Because Charlotte Mason, in her day, would have gone home from teaching mid-afternoon to a child-free, spouse-free house and a nice, quiet cup of tea.

She also recommended that a mother outsource nurse-maid/nursery duties so that the children have mother only at her best. (See Volume I: Home Education, I.iv, pp. 17-18.)

So, if you are married, with children, and homeschooling, you are already not doing what Charlotte Mason did during her time, or even what she recommended doing.

But what would she do if she were married, homeschooling, and living now in the twenty-first century? Now that is a different question. And an interesting one.

Charlotte Mason is one of my heroes for many reasons including not only her brilliant insight into how children best learn, but also her dedication to following and investigating the best thought and research available to her at the time. For example, she studied the latest, breaking findings related to the physiology of the brain and frequently referred to it in her own writings as a basis for many of her practical recommendations for parents and teachers. She read widely in various fields related to child development, psychology, educational theory, and natural law. She was eager to circumspectly incorporate “whatever new light modern research puts in our way.”

In the Preface to the Fourth Edition of Volume I, she writes,

My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother’s duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, “the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child’s character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual.” But just in proportion as a mother has this peculiar insight as regards her own children she will, I think, feel her need of a knowledge of the general principles of education, founded upon the nature and the needs of all children. And this knowledge of the science of education, not the best of mothers will get from above, seeing that we do not often receive as a gift that which we have the means of getting by our own efforts. [emphasis mine]

We have, she tells us, a maternal duty to study the science of education.

Under “Some Preliminary Considerations,” she further clarifies what it looks like for mothers to “owe a ‘thinking love’ to their Children”: (I note here how she herself quotes other contemporary educational thinkers, such as Pestalozzi, revealing her own commitment to ongoing study of developing educational thought.)

“The mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi, “and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; … and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ….”

We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will […] take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, and may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child’s nature upon which such theory rests. [emphasis mine]

These strongly-worded admonitions suggest to me that, if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would urge us not to look back to her late-1800s/early-1900s curricular recommendations as a static educational plan to imitate without question. On the contrary! She would urge us rather to rouse ourselves to get on our game and continue to research.

If we want to imitate Charlotte Mason, we ought to look at, evaluate, and incorporate the best of current educational research and related fields.

Take reading instruction and phonics, for instance. Since Mason’s time, we have learned much more about how English is best taught and learned.

Just within the homeschool world, there are now several powerful phonics/spelling programs available that have recently been developed on the basis of the ground-breaking research Orton and Gillingham conducted on English phonograms and spelling rules shortly after Mason’s time.

Additionally, because of both national legislation like No Child Left Behind and also because of the school system’s need to accommodate a wide diversity of students (including those who do not speak English as a first language at home), much research has been done on how to best teach reading and writing (e.g. phonics vs. whole word reading instruction and such).

Would Charlotte Mason encourage us to ignore all that and keep doing what worked best for her in turn-of-the-century England? Her admonitions and her own example make that highly unlikely.

Best research (like the meta-study here; get it free at a university library) suggests that a systematic phonics program is by far the best foundation for reading and writing. The whole-word approach that rolled through U.S. schools on and off during the last several decades has been debunked. And, while informal, laissez-faire approaches can accomplish good, systematic phonics remains the most sound and reliable method for ensuring success for students of all abilities.

Curriculum author, Wanda Sanseri, further argues that a program that overtly teaches the 70 basic English phonograms along with the 28 foundational spelling rules is the best kind of systematic phonics instruction. Her presentation to the Oregon senate is revelatory and compelling. She bridges the gap between Orton-Gillingham and contemporary practice.

Since Sanseri delivered her presentation, several programs have debuted in the homeschool market that draw on the Orton-Gillingham research base. I personally prefer Sanseri’s Spell to Write and Read, but there are several other curricular options that follow the same research and are also great. Two such programs are All About Reading/All About Spelling and Logic of English. Before any of these, there was also The Writing Road to Reading. All of these programs are great with different trade-offs. Different programs will certainly work better for different families depending on the needs and temperaments of those involved.

Discussing these options and the underlying research lands us firmly in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. So, rather than closing off curricular options because they do not seem to neatly match the instructional progression prescribed by Mason more than a century ago, let us think critically and research widely in imitation of Mason herself, our beloved paragon of “a thinking love.”

[This post first appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Writing Workshop for 7th–10th grades

ENROLLMENT UPDATE: This class has met the minimum enrollment and is a go! Please contact us regarding late applications if interested in joining the class.

Coming this fall: School-year classes for homeschoolers grades 4 through 10!

This post describes the 7th–10th grade Writing Workshop class. (Information regarding the 4th–6th grade class is available here.)

Who: Students entering grades 7–10 in fall ’19 

When: 2:15–3:15 p.m., Tuesdays, August 27, 2019 to May 13, 2020, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Sugar Land, Texas

This workshop class is designed to help students who have mastered the basics take their writing to the next level. The class will combine the advantages of private tutoring with the benefits of a group of peers. Families can work with the teacher to personalize each student’s learning experience. For example, students can bring in writing projects they’re working on for other classes, and/or the teacher can assign writing assignments to maximize the student’s progress as a developing author. Teacher and peer critique will help each student develop an editor’s eye along with habits of revision—both essential elements of the craft of writing. In-class writing activities will help students find their voice, master grammar, hone structure and organization, and refine their writing style. Students will be expected to carefully and thoroughly follow through on revision assignment instructions and to make diligent progress on assigned grammar work as arranged with parent and teacher.

To receive the full benefit of the writing class, students will need sufficient time and a handful of supplies. In addition to weekly class sessions, students should plan to spend another one to three hours each week completing assignments at home. Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students will also need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

The teacher will supply the following course materials:

  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition book
  • Graphing notebook
  • Grammar curriculum
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus—classroom copies to share
  • Classroom colored pencil sets

Supplies fee: $55/student—or $100 w/late fee if registering after August 16

Tuition is on a sliding scale and will be collected quarterly. Pay what you can within the following range: $500 to $800/student/year ($125-$200/quarter)

This class will be offered if a minimum of six students is enrolled by August 15. Full refunds will be made if the class is cancelled due to low enrollment.

Writing with the Masters 4th-6th Homeschool class

ENROLLMENT UPDATE: This class has met the minimum enrollment and is a go! Please contact us regarding late applications if interested in joining the class.

Coming this fall: School-year classes for homeschoolers grades 4 through 10!

This post describes the class, Writing with the Masters, for grades 4 through 6. (Information about the 7th-10th grade class is available here.)

Who: Students entering grades 4–6 in fall ’19

When: 1:00–2:00 p.m., Tuesdays, August 27, 2019 to May 13, 2020, with holidays (See Academic Calendar.)

Where: Sugar Land, Texas

Along with Louis, the young trumpeter swan in E. B. White’s book, Trumpet of the Swan, students will journey to find their voice as they study and enjoy the writing of master author, E. B. White, co-author of the classic writer’s handbook, The Elements of Style. With White and other master authors as models, students will gain a higher level of stylistic mastery through imitation. Students will also develop narrating and outlining skills as they summarize and tell back passages from the novel and other sources. Throughout the school year, students will learn how to incorporate style and literary devices into their writing while also increasing their awareness of sentence structure and grammar. When imitation, narration, and syntax are combined with the IEW structure and style syllabus in this high-flying course, students will find their own writing voice resonant with new-found stylistic prowess.

To receive the full benefit of the writing class, students will need sufficient time and a handful of supplies. In addition to weekly class sessions, students should plan to spend another half an hour to 1.5 hours each week completing assignments at home. Families will need to secure the following supplies before the start of class: (Linked brands are suggestions.)

Students will also need to be able to type, print, and email assignments using a sharable word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

The teacher will supply the following course materials:

  • The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White
  • 3-ring notebook binder with tab dividers, course handouts, and reinforced lined notebook paper
  • Composition book
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus—classroom copies to share
  • Classroom colored pencil sets

Supplies fee: $45/student—or $100 w/late fee if registering after August 16

Tuition is on a sliding scale and will be collected quarterly. Pay what you can within the following range: $500 to $800/student/year ($125-$200/quarter)

This class will be offered if a minimum of six students is enrolled by August 15. Full refunds will be made if the class is cancelled due to low enrollment.