Sunday, August 31

The Incentives

Someone asked me recently about how I keep the boys focused and inspired especially with a cute, distracting baby brother around. I have used an incentive program with my boys every year (for various reasons) that helps us move through the day's projects and activities. It may not be a popular idea since it seems to borrow from the government schools, but it makes engaged learning more fun and on the days when even a great incentive can't make it more fun it, at least, ensures that we don't just give it all up for the, day.

1. The Reward Puzzle

During J's first grade year I wrote a note to him on a sheet of paper like, "Let's walk to the park." "Let's make cookies today." or "Enjoy playing with a friend." Sometimes it was just a note to say that I thought he was good at something or just a note of love. I cut it into six pieces and colored them all a different color that corresponded with our folders of activities for the day. (i.e. his blue folder was for drawing something about our lesson so the front of that folder had a pocket on it with a blue puzzle piece in it). When he finished the activities in his six folders he earned the puzzle piece. When all six were earned he could read the puzzle. If there was ever a power struggle in which he refused to do a particular folder then he simply didn't receive the piece. And if he didn't receive the piece, he couldn't do/have/know what was on the puzzle.

At this point it wasn't about behavior as much as it was about helping him stay focused. He enjoyed "doing school" for the most part but attitude did play into whether or not he received his puzzle pieces.

2. The Punch Card

I spend my summers trying to find ways to fine tune what didn't work by utilizing methods that did. The problem with the puzzle reward was that there were only so many free or low cost things I could think of to write. So, I had about 20 of them that I rotated over and over. By the end of the year he didn't always care about the reward as much as he cared about being able to earn all his puzzle pieces. So, the punch card took over.

I moved from colored folders to five colored wall pockets (Spelling, Writing, Unit study, etc). Same idea as the folders but in a different package. I made up a punch card with a row for each pocket and a column for each day of the unit we were in. When he finished the pocket he punched his card. If he got all of his punches for the whole unit study (usually 2-3 weeks) we ventured to Barnes and Noble where I would buy him any book he chose as long as it was connected to what we had just studied. I gave him a wide berth because it needed to be a reward but I did give him a price limit.

3. The Marble Jar

The problems with the punch card were: J couldn't easily use the hand held hole puncher, shopping for a book took a long time because he didn't know how to search for things and there wasn't any opportunity for instant gratification. He was also bucking the system more and so attitude needed to count for something. Enter the Marble Jar.

This is one I remember my ps teacher using in my sixth grade class. If the class filled up the jar to a certain line, then we got a pizza party or something. So, if he completed Bible, Book time (social studies or science lesson), Math and six stations "cheerfully and cooperatively" he got one or two marbles for each one. He could earn up to about 12 marbles a day. It's pretty gratifying to hear marbles clinking in the jar every 20 minutes or so. When he filled the jar to the line he got some rewards similar to the ones I had used in his reward puzzle two years earlier -- now adjusted for his new age and interests. I just wrote them on slips of paper and put them around the outside of the jar with a rubber band. Nothing was a secret. He needed to know what he was working toward and the choice was his when it came time to earn them.

4. The Marble Jar Revisited

The marble jar worked so well that we did it again next year. By now B was well involved with school. The previous year he didn't require the marble jar to move along because his "schooling" was about 45 minutes with mom a few days a week. That meant that whenever J earned his reward, B got the same thing. Now B was in Kindergarten and he wanted a marble jar too. So we did the same thing only this time I went with a treaure box full of, fascinating toys and pencils and packs of candy. When they made it to their lines they got to pick something out of the box. And to alleviate the competition between them the rule was if either of them made it to their lines they both got to pick something.

5. The Race Track

The marble jar was fine but after two years J said he was done with it and he wanted to try something new. It had some downfalls. We would forget to do marbles many days which meant the kids felt like I "owed" them something and I didn't like that. It was also hard to keep S out of the marble jars and marbles would get lost. This year we worked together to come up with a new incentive program. That was the first great idea.

The best part was that it is pretty much the brainchild of my kids. J wanted something like a treaure map, but it would have been a huge undertaking to draw a new map for every unit. I didn't want all that work. DH suggested a racetrack which worked well because I was thinking of a way to do the stoplight idea that is used in a lot of classrooms. Then we took the competition out of it by giving the boys each a racetrack and instituting Racer X as a competitor.

Here's how it works: J drew an oval race track with two lanes and divided it into 18 sections (because our unit will be 18 days long). Then he divided each section into nine smaller sections because we do that many different things each day. Racer X is in one lane and he is the perfect driver. He will go the whole distance each day so the task is to keep up with him. J and B can each move one space for each activity he completes cheerfully and cooperatively. How do we gage this? The boys both have cardstock stoplights. If they blow-up in an unreasonable display of frustration and stubborness I can pull their green light out. This doesn't affect their race track at all, it just serves as a warning to chill. If a similar circumstance arises I can pull their yellow card out. This means their race is stopped for the day. They can only move forward on their race track the number of spaces they accomplished to that point.

What keeps them from just checking-out for the rest of the day then if they've only accomplished two out of nine activites? Grace. They can continue on with the rest of their work, make better choices and pull from a small deck of "Student Driver Cards" in which they get to advance 1 or 2 spaces for "maneuvering out of that turn" or "avoiding a wreck." This makes up some, but probably not all of their missed spaces.

However, if they have a completely green light day then they get to hinder their Racer X by drawing from his deck of cards to see if he has to go back 1, 2 or even 3 spaces. This makes Racer X the competitor and not each other, gives them control of not only their own race but his, and keeps Racer X close enough to still inspire them to move along and not give up.

So who wins? Well, there are pit stops along the way every five or six days in which we revisit the treasure box. This time THEY filled the treasure box with some hot wheels cars they want to earn. At the end of the unit if they have beaten Racer X then we get to do a fun family outing/event AND they get to buy books or food for people who may not have any. If Racer X wins the race then we just get the books or food for other people.

So, those are all my ideas I've tried. You can probably use them for things other than school work, but I thought I'd just put it out there in case you were looking for something similar. I know we had a treasure map in there somewhere too. I think it was in conjuction with the punch card. It was about that time when being "cheerful and cooperative" was just as much of a struggle as getting through each activity. (One of my children really struggles -- he's incredibly smart but can often be dark and dreary.) As they grow and self-motivation takes over these programs will go away. Then again, there is still S...

Saturday, August 30

That Blessed First Day

Things I actually heard and savored.

J - "Mom, can we get started?"
B - "I love school."
J - "How can you stand it being so good to me!?"
B - "Is there anything else we get to do?"

I'm not new at this so I know I'm not likely to hear these phrases again. Maybe I should emblazon them on t-shirts for my kids to wear... that way I can see them often and be reminded.

Tuesday, August 26

The Night Before

  • Set up the station box with the assignments for tomorrow (more on the station box later)
  • Prepare and display the incentive process (a race track this year...more on this in a post-to-come too).
  • Stuff backpacks with some new and some hand-me-down clothes, toothbrushes, a reading book, a favorite puzzle book, and various creating supplies (the backpack fairy comes to our house tonight).
  • Clean up the main learning space so we can focus.
  • Bring the read aloud book upstairs so we can read it snuggled up together in the morning.
  • Figure out what in the world I can do to keep S entertained this year.
  • Choose some theme verses for the unit.
  • Make a to-do list and plan meals for the rest of the week.
  • Plan the family "first day of school celebration outing" to do tomorrow night.
  • Pray. Seriously, on my knees.

God, thank you for this freedom to teach my sons in a safe place with loving motives and with their individuality in mind. Being their mentor is the greatest honor of my life. Being their mother is the greatest challenge. Teach me to be gracious in both of these roles. Teach us to respect one another and live and learn with the best interests of the other in mind. Give us clarity and focus. Help me listen before I instruct. Help them engage and create with risk. And most of all, because you have blessed us with the days and the freedom to live as if life is not all about ourselves, help us move outside these walls and intersect with, inspire and intentionally invite others close. Let us not do school, but in all things be educated.

Monday, August 25

Changing Our Process

In mid to late August we all go through this denial process, "Summer can't be over yet." "I didn't accomplish all the things I had hoped." Most of what I had hoped to accomplish was a great deal of school planning AND preparation. The planning you can do on a hammock somewhere with a calendar, a stack of blank lesson plans and the table of contents from your curriculum. I did accomplish that as far out as Thanksgiving.

The preparation is the thing that takes time: finding pages to use, picking projects, gathering supplies, designing the process for the whole shape of the day, etc.

But then I read Holt's book and when I combine his ideas with echoes of some Charlotte Mason philosophy I read two summers ago I decided to let go. This makes preparation somewhat of a struggle. Which projects will they want to do? What if I spend 20 hours designing some cool incentive process that they hate? What if I'm convinced we should do more art but they hate glue and paint? When we study Nate Saint, what if they don't want to spend a week on the Amazon and would rather learn about short wave radios?

I have some things sketched out. I know what B needs to hit in math and language arts and I have some of his reading books (old Ginn readers that I read). I also have his math curriculum and a critical thinking series to do with him. I have curriculm for J to follow in Math, Latin, Typing, Penmanship, and Writing -- three of them are media based. We'll do more reading aloud, less Bible ("Mom's lecture"), but more study of specific verses/passages. This is an even year so we're skipping formal spelling and vocab, but we're going to try notebooking.

But as far as the actual social studies and science lessons, projects, points and details -- I'm leaving that up to them to take us where they want to go. I have suggestions at the ready but I'm forcing myself to keep them suggestions and not turn them into assignments for this whole first four weeks. Giving them more freedom to learn what they want to learn will hopefully provide them with knowledge and applications that will put them on the path toward transformation.

It feels unsettling and chaotic but I'm excited to see what we all end up learning.

Friday, August 22

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

  • B's love language is spoken in a deck of cards and a willing partner.
  • J is too old for playgrounds and Batman swim trunks. (Sniff!)
  • How to finally lay S down to sleep and peacefully leave the room.
  • That reading three books really is my limit in 10 weeks.
  • If you let the lawn die you don't have to mow it.
  • How skewed I've been about the Resurrection.
  • How to start a homeschool co-op.
  • Just how far Vancouver really DOES seem from Portland.
  • That context is everything.

Thursday, August 21


We had friends over last night to begin a community homegroup and it was so nice to hear some new stories and embark on something new together.

As we were eating dessert and chatting my sons were entertaining themselves in their room. After S was put to bed there was more adult chatting and some praying.

And after the adults went on their way home J & B showed us what they had been working on. They were recording B "reading" a book into a tape player. After every sentence there was a click where it was obvious that J was telling B what the sentence said so he could say it into the microphone himself.

B's voice on that tape is what captured me. He sounded strong and sure. He never stumbled. He sounded older. And it was a bit of a glimpse of B in the future.

I have never seen B so excited about reading than he was last night after we listened to that tape with him. He couldn't wait to get up and do it some more with J this morning. This is the breakthrough I've been waiting all summer to happen. B has finally figured out -- reading is fun.

Wednesday, August 13

Up Late

My head is throbbing. My eyes are blurry. And I feel like I've had about four cups of coffee (when I've had none.)

BUT we have a catalog for our first semester of Friday School -- complete with room assignments, pre-requisites, fees and teacher contact numbers. My fellow board member, Bob, is up late at his place working out some bugs in the database. He's a master at it and he's so great for staying up late with me.

Tomorrow we go to print. This week we added this great stuff to the list below:
Kids Fitness (1-3)
Board Games (1-3)
P.E. (4-6)
Christian Youth Theater (1-3)
Christian Youth Theater (4-6)
and I've moved my Flight class from 4-6 grade to 1-3 grade

Yep, we have CYT and for half the cost of a normal CYT class.
We are so dang excited to have such an awesome first semester. And we just KNOW a preschool teacher will show up before registration day!

Wednesday, August 6

The Rare Political Observation

I'm not saying anything more here other than the fact that I just really appreciate this.

On Responsibility for Education

McCain: If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools. John McCain believes parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children. He finds it beyond hypocritical that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child’s school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe. They can make another choice. John McCain believes that is a fundamental and essential right we should honor for all parents.

Friday, August 1

How the Co-op is Going

I mentioned a while back that I and a couple families are starting a homeschool co-op in the fall. A co-op is an organized way of pulling together and teaching each other's kids in a group setting. This co-op could get really large and it caters to all ages through high school. To date, we have 28 families and 69 kids registered! I am putting together our catalog for the fall over the next two weeks. Here's what we have so far:

The Wonders of the World (1-3)
Sign Language (1-3)
Introduction to Spanish (1-3)
Biblical Truth Science Experiments (1-6)
Wonders of the World (4-6)
American Revolution History Pockets(4-6)
Flight (4-6)
Letter Writing (4-8)
Ready, Set, Draw (4-8)
Cardmaking (4-12)
Jumping Jacks & Jills (4-12)
The Laws of Cooking (7-12)
Pride & Predjudice (7-12)
Speech (7-12)
Spiritual Transformation (9-12)
Worldviews in Conflict (9-12)

There are a few more in the works and tomorrow is our deadline for class applications. We still need a nursery lead teacher and a Preschool lead teacher and two more classes for 1-3 graders. Other subjects (like sports and music) can be added as well to really round us out.

Tell your homeschooling friends to check us out at First Class Central Portland.