Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Learning Through Play

As an educator and a parent, I know about the value of play. Research abounds on the amount of learning that goes on through play, not to mention the benefits to health, creativity, and social skills. And believe it or not, early childhood education and development extends up to second grade, so there is still plenty of need for play in the early elementary years.

Knowing all of this, I still find it hard to just let my children play during the school day. When we do play, I try to add more structure-- to ensure it is educational. I feel like this is especially important because First Sprout would not do any school work whatsoever is she were left to her own devices. There's a huge discrepancy between what I know we are supposed to be covering in our home school curriculum and what we can reasonably accomplish.

Today for example, the sprouts were excited to play with a new Mega Blocks set that they had just been given. We already had a lot of the basic sets, but the new one added some roads and emergency vehicles (ambulance, police car, and fire trucks, oh my!) to the mix. They were really enjoying building a city, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to "guide" their play a bit. I thought: "We have been talking about communities and community helpers, so let's expand this play opportunity as a way to discuss the components of a city. And hey-- let's introduce some literacy by creating signs for our buildings! It'll be so educational!"

My idea worked, sort of. We talked a lot about the things we need in a community: places to get food, places to live, places to find help, places to work, places to play. I had grand ideas of building the hospital, the police station, and the fire station to go with our community helpers theme. But the sprouts were far more interested in other places: apartments, houses, playgrounds, restaurants, grocery stores, and car washes. I decided to roll with it because I realized that those are the places they know. That's what community means to them. (I don't know about the car wash though. We maybe go once a year. It apparently made an impact!)

The idea to make signs didn't go quite as I intended either. They basically voted me as the official sign maker, so they were "reading" the signs but not producing any of their own writing. The lone exception is the swing Second Sprout drew for her playground sign. Part of me feels glad that we managed to extend the activity a little bit, but another part feels bad that we didn't extend it enough.

As I was pondering all of these thoughts, I did take a few minutes to snap some pictures of the sprouts at work play.

Our roadway ramps were re-purposed as slides for the playground.

Ariel admires the view from "the best apartments in town." First Sprout informed me that "people could live there for free as long as they were kind to each other."

Building the restaurant proved more exciting than building the super market next door. Going to a restaurant is an adventure, but going to the super market is a chore.

Second Sprout built the car wash with two doors so more than one car could get cleaned at a time.
I truly love watching them play and observing their thought processes while they do it. I know that I learned a lot from our conversations today, and their sense of priorities was eye-opening. I definitely feel like I know a lot more about what community means to them.

But there is still that lingering sense of doubt. Will they learn enough this way? Do they need more structure? How can I support and extend their learning further? How should I handle it when my plans fizzle?

For now, I think I'll hit the pause button on my inner critic and get back to the fun.

Happy Playing!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumnal Equinox

To celebrate the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere, we took a little "field trip" to the nature trail. We used our senses on sight, smell, touch, and sound to notice the subtle changes as the season begins to turn. We noticed the "cool, crisp breeze" and the leaves beginning to change colors. We noticed the sounds of crickets and birds mingling with the road traffic nearby. We enjoyed the scenery and time with each other, and we maybe stopped to take some pictures along the way. Happy Fall, y'all!

The seed pods are trying up, and petals are drifting away.

Holding hands with Third Sprout as we walk along the trail.

Passing though a lovely covered bridge while the sprouts race ahead.

Seeing the changes in the flowers as the summer comes to an end.

With temperatures dipping down into the 30's and 40's overnight, the leaves are starting to turn.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Little House in the Big Woods

When the youngest sprout takes a nap, I have been taking the opportunity to snuggle up with First Sprout to read Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (sometimes Second Sprout also joins us). I have been wanting to start a chapter book read-aloud for some time, and homeschooling gave us both the time and the requirement motivation. Over the summer, I pulled together a few classics and let First Sprout choose one. She was enchanted by the idea of living in a cabin in the woods-- farming and hunting for food-- and she chose Little House immediately.

As we read, we had some really great discussions about the descriptive language and the lessons that the author shares in the book. Some we agreed with, and others not so much, but it prompted some really wonderful deep reading/ listening skills in line with the rigor required by Common Core. I started trying to to record or re-create some of our discussion questions to line up with Common Core more purposefully. I also created some activities that tied in story elements (characters, setting, problem, events) at a first-grade level. I figure that we already cover these things by reading, so we might as well document them for the portfolio!

I also wanted to create some puppets that First Sprout could use to retell parts of the story. Not only does it allow me to check comprehension, but it is lots of fun too. The sprouts were so delighted that I will probably forevermore be expected to make puppets out of book characters.

Little House in the Big Woods puppets (from left-right: Pa, Mary, Laura, Baby Carrie, and Ma).
After a few days of pulling all of my resources together and aligning standards, I am proud to share a Common Core Aligned Book Unit for Little House in the Big Woods on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I am looking forward to creating more of these book units throughout the year, and I am trying to think about which books to use. Then I remember First Sprout will probably decide for me-- it looks like Catwings by Ursula K. LeGuin is up next. Until then...

Happy Learning!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Morning Meeting

I have a little bit of experience with Responsive Classroom in both public and private school settings, and I knew that I wanted to bring the idea of the morning meeting into our home school. I love the idea that our first half hour of the day helps me to connect with the kids and set the tone for the rest of the day. I try not to take it for granted that my family is connected simply because we are family; connection takes lots of communication and thoughtful interaction. We get time to build our family "community" at other points during the day (e.g. family dinner) but it is nice to start the day on a positive note.

The other great part of morning meeting is that it provides a fun and practical way to reinforce learning standards in literacy, math and science. Many parts of our morning meeting will probably look familiar to other school teachers-- I used many components in my own classroom last year. Other parts have been influenced by Common Core. We are still in the process of developing our morning meeting, but I thought I'd share what we have going on so far.

1. Read Aloud
I really struggled with how to turn traditional school greetings into something that makes more sense for our family. Normally, we have already had breakfast and lots of conversation by the time we start our morning meeting. I wanted to find a way to connect and introduce our work for the day that felt more like "family" and less like "school." One morning, First Sprout asked if we could start the day with a read aloud, and it worked. Snuggling up with a story turned out to be the perfect way to start our day!

2. Morning Message
After reading a story, we turn to the dry-erase board for our morning message. This gives us a chance to talk about what is coming up for the day. We also get to practice literacy skills such as sight-word recognition and letter sounds. As the year progresses, we will work on word chunks and phonics patterns in the message too.
Blanks in the morning message provide an opportunity for the sprouts to interact and engage. Sometimes First Sprout likes to flip the script and write the message with strategic blanks to challenge me.

3. Calendar
I decided that I wanted to use a "real" calendar for home school so the children could get a sense of time passing through the year and gain real-world skills (although we also have a lovely felt calendar that the kids play with). Ideally, we are supposed to circle today and then cross off the day(s) that have passed (this can get a little dodgy if First Sprout does it independently). We also try to mark special days that we are looking forward to so we can talk about how many days are left to go.
We are looking forward to the first day of autumn!

4. Days of School
In my classroom last year, the students tracked the Days of School with a little straw chart organized into hundreds, tens and ones for teaching place value. I found that my students had a really hard time generalizing that practice into other parts of math, so I was already looking for alternatives when I decided to homeschool. We write the number on a dry-erase pocket to practice number formation, and we also add a penny to our "Days of School" jar each day. We are up to 16 pennies, as of today. I plan on working with money a lot this year since it is such an important real-world skill, and when we start looking at exchanging coins, we will have a nice jar of pennies to get us started.
Our penny jar looks so empty! I'm sure it is going to fill up quickly.

5. Weather
In Pennsylvania, we have Core standards in both Science and Math that call for students in first grade to be collecting and analyzing data (based on these Common Core standards). I wanted to bring this idea into Morning Meeting through creating a series of weather graphs that would help us to gather different kinds of data every day. The Daily Weather Bar Graphs probably look pretty familiar to other teachers-- this is similar to a lot of pocket charts I've seen for tracking weather each day. First Sprout decides whether the weather is sunny, cloudy, rainy  or snowy and colors in a box above the appropriate heading to create a bar graph for the month. I wanted to push a bit by adding some more sophisticated data collection in the form of Daily Temperature Line Graphs as well. After we add a box to the bar graph, First Sprout checks the temperature on my smart phone-- which is great practice for reading two-digit numbers. Then we line up the day of the month (x-axis) with the temperature (y-axis) and plot our data point. For now, First Sprout likes connecting the dots to see the daily ups and downs, but at the end of the month I will show her how to average the line to make observations about the general trend of the temperature through the month. Math and Science skills galore!
We are seeing a cooling trend this month. Seeing the data is helping us to understand changes in the weather when the season turns to fall.
Our Days of School counter and our weather graphs hanging from the wall.

6. Warm up
I like the idea of ending our Morning Meeting with a little bit of movement. So far, it has been harder to do this than I anticipated. However, one of my goals this week is to add just one yoga pose in at the end of our morning meeting. Hopefully this will help us slow down and continue mindfully with our morning!

Do you have morning meeting, circle time, or something else similar? I'd love read about how other homeschool families start their day, so please share in the comments below.

Happy Learning!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Colors of the Rainbow

Since the sprouts were so excited to help set up our learning space, I wanted to be sure that our learning tools and displays reflected their hard work as well. To do that, we have been working together on a series of color posters to hang in our "classroom."

I started off with simple, cardstock posters that have the color words in English and Spanish. Then we used a collection of magazines to find the colors we needed, cut out the pictures, and pasted them onto the posters. It worked out that we were able to complete two posters a day, as First Sprout and Second Sprout each worked on one poster per day.

The skills that we practiced in this project met the educational needs of both sprouts. Second Sprout, who is preschool age, got some much-needed practice with cutting and pasting. It was also very easy to observe that she knew her colors based on conversations she had about various shades and whether or not they really "counted" as a particular color. First Sprout, who would be a first grader, read the words (in both languages) and now has a great tool to help her with writing color words this year. Truth be told, the fine-motor practice with cutting and pasting probably really helped her too!

After we finished cutting, pasting, and coloring the words, I trimmed the edges off of the cardstock and mounted each poster on the appropriate color background. Then I laminated the posters and hung them up on the wall. The sprouts LOVE showing off their color collages, and they are looking forward to using them for school.

 I have made the color posters available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store for anyone who is interested. Otherwise, here are some photos of the sprouts at work and our final display...

Searching for colors and cutting the pictures.

Pasting our pictures onto the color poster.

More pasting. Glue sticks are so lovely for this sort of thing.

Here are all of our color posters hanging on the wall. It really brightens up the room!

Happy Learning!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Field Trip

Over the holiday weekend, we had family in town visiting all the way from Florida. Since they also home school a first grader, we thought it might be fun to take a little field trip together. The weather wasn't super cooperative for outdoor exploration, so we headed to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie. We were lucky enough to get a tour of their aquatics lab, climb the observation tower, and play in their kid-friendly exploration station.

The kids' exploration room has a great selection of puzzle, puppets, science kits, and
building materials for the kids to enjoy. All three sprouts and their cousin
stayed engaged for a solid half hour!
Tracking the animals prints is always a fun activity.
The kids loved these super cool blocks made from sanded-down trees. There were short discs,
rectangular boards, and lots of jointed branches. It was a really neat way to explore organic patterns and
a fun sensory experience.
I loved this art and poetry installation along the stairwell for the observation tower. 
I think the quote says it all.
I hope that you all had a fun holiday weekend as well. Happy Learning!