Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Strategies: Choosing a Topic

A sure-fire way to produce a look of panic on a student's face is to tell them to get out their writing journal and write about whatever they want.  Sure, there are a random few that are willing to take on this task, but more often than not, the kids will just freeze in place.  But it's not just kids that have this problem.  Whether you're planning a lesson or writing for yourself, you'll often find that choosing a topic is the the hardest part.  

Of course, there are times when you want to give your child a topic to write on.  You might want an autobiography on a famous scientist or a response to a literature assignment.  On the other hand, there are times when you want independent writing to take place.  It's good exercise for the brain.  But how do you get them to start?  Suddenly, a blank piece of paper becomes terrifying.

Some of the tips that I've found useful in guiding my students (or myself) in choosing topics are as follows:

  • Keep a notebook or journal with a page or two dedicated to writing topics.  If an idea pops into your head, write it down.  You may find that you  never use that topic (because hopefully, after awhile, you'll have several to choose from).  However, before you know it, you'll have a list waiting for you when  you're ready to sit down and start writing.
  • Five minutes of free writing.  My students found this method challenging at first, but after a few times, they really looked forward to doing it.  The tough part of this is that your pencil cannot stop moving for the entire time. (I generally chose five minutes, but you may want to shorten this time period for younger children).  The fun part is that you can write about anything you want.  You should write about whatever is in your head at the time.  Allow a lot of freedom in this area.  I've seen students make lists of their friends or what they would like for lunch.  They might copy words off of a poster on the wall.  I did not place restrictions on this as long as the pencil kept moving. Keep this page in your writing journal for future reference.
  • Draw a tree.  The trunk of your tree is your base.  Start with the first topic that comes into your head.  Begin to draw branches on your tree by adding words related to that topic.  You may find out that one of your branches becomes your actual topic.
  • Create a waterfall.  I found this especially helpful when I wanted my students to write historical fiction.  The top of your waterfall is your "big" topic.  For example's sake, let's say you are studying the Revolutionary War in history.  The Revolutionary War will be the top of your waterfall.  Many, many topics can rain down from your waterfall:  George Washington, liberty, Delaware, the Boston Tea Party, Green Mountain Boys, etc.  

These methods should keep you and your child armed with a list of ready-made topics whenever the time comes for independent writing.  The more often you employ these tricks, the easier choosing a topic will become.  I wish you the best of luck in your writing journeys.

Teaching Writing That's Fun to Read

"I'm going to tell you about..."  Seeing this phrase at the beginning of a paragraph/essay/research paper is, to me,  the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.  I'm also not a real big fan of the "first, next, then, last" system much past third grade.  Writing, even expository writing, doesn't have to be boring.  

Of course, the first thing a writer needs to keep in mind is the audience that the work is intended for.  For example, if your high school senior is writing an essay for a college application, he probably doesn't want to open with a joke...  But with that in mind, teaching your child the following tips when teaching writing will not only make the writing more interesting, but the quality of his writing will be improved.

  • Hook your audience.  The reason movies or television shows open with an exciting or suspenseful scene is to get your attention and keep it.  A good hook will draw your readers in so that they want to keep reading.  A hook can consist of a number of things:  a quotation, a question, an exclamation, reveal something startling, or provide a description.  The goal is to get your reader into your second paragraph.

  • Use transitions.  There are several words and phrases that your writer can use to get from paragraph to paragraph.  However, I implore you to teach your child how to use these transitions correctly.  I once made the mistake of simply giving a 6th grade class a handout containing transition words.  I got pages and pages full of paragraphs that started with "In addition..."  The transition word or phrase used should be relevant.  I suggest keeping a handout or printout of transitional words and phrases as a permanent component of your child's writing folder. A quick Google search with the terms "writing transition" will give you plenty of options to choose from so that you can print out a list that is suitable for your child's age level.

  • Proofread.  There's nothing more distracting than trying to read something full of grammatical errors.  I've had students write the most wonderful, creative stories, but the quality of the story is lost in the run-on sentences, the misspelled words, and the random capital letters.  You'll probably find that your child is not overly receptive to your asking for these errors to be addressed, but it is an important part of the writing process. A technique I like to use is to give the child a familiar piece of work (a fairy tale, poem, etc.) and fill it full of errors.  It is uncomfortable to read and the student often sees the value in writing with correct grammar.  It doesn't make them any happier about having to correct the errors, but at least they know why they are doing it.   

  • Smiley-Face Tricks  This is a set of writing tricks complied by a teacher from Texas (Mary Ellen Ledbetter).  Using these tips in your writing adds life and depth to your writing.  Some of these tips include using hyphenated modifiers (adjectives), using figurative language, and using parallel groups of words.  (I just did that, did you catch it?)  Again, you can do a Google search for "Smiley Face Tricks" to find many, many copies of Ms. Ledbetter's tips.  Or you can just click here:  (PDF file)

My final tip is going to go here, in my concluding paragraph.  Can you guess what my final tip is?  End your writing.  Even if your story has a cliffhanger, it should have an ending.  Wrap things up.  (There are tips for full-circle endings in the Smiley Face Tricks).  Summarize and let your reader know that you are done imparting information or telling your story.  In summary, teaching your child to utilize some of these tricks when writing will make their writing more interesting, more informative, and more likely to hold a reader's interest.  

Using Multiple Assessments

TEST!  This word strikes fear into the hearts of many a child.  For that matter, a lot of adults experience a mild form of post-traumatic stress when they hear that four-letter word.  Testing, or assessment of what your child has learned does not have to be a stomach-churning, fear-inducing event.  The use of multiple assessment methods is becoming increasingly popular in both public schools and home schools.  

The use of multiple assessments has come to the forefront because of the acknowledgement of the diverse learning styles of our children.  Some people (myself included) love taking standardized tests and essay tests.  However, between having children of my own, and my own experiences as a teacher, I have learned that I was probably in a pretty small percentage of the population.  Because of this, it's important to remember that the goal of the assessment is to find out what your child has learned.  It's okay to use some variety in going about obtaining that information.  

Some of the assessment tools that I have found to be helpful are as follows:

  • Use a rubric -  Discuss the rubric with your child before the assignment or project is completed.  This way your child will know exactly what is expected of him.
  • Portfolios - Keep a record of your student's work over time to gauge progress.
  • Performance evaluation - Have your child do a laboratory experiment, write and perform a skit, or create a model to show what they have learned.
  • Traditional assessment - This isn't always a bad choice.  And it's a good life-skill to be able to answer questions in essay form or multiple-choice.
  • Graphic Organizers - Instead of writing out long paragraphs, have your child show you what she has learned by filling out a graphic organizer, concept map, or Venn diagram.

There are so many ways to evaluate whether or not your child or student is retaining information from the lessons that you present to them.  You can find several assessment methods on this website:    Remember, to mix it up.  Testing doesn't have to be boring.  Your goal as the parent or educator is to find out what your child or student has learned so that you can go back and re-teach something that may have been missed.  Testing should be an extension of learning, not a source of stress.  

Incorporating NETS Into Your Homeschool

No matter how much my grandma wants to resist it, technology is becoming an essential part of our daily lives.  We can't watch television without a digital converter, a satellite, or some other device.  Analog cell phones are a thing of the past.  Many university students cannot complete their studies without a laptop.  Even many public middle and high schools are requiring a flash drive as part of their school supply list.  When I took my son to the doctor last week, I didn't even speak to a receptionist.  I checked him in for his appointment at one of many touch screen stations that are set up near the entrance.  Technology is taking over our lives and it's in a hurry to do it.
While homeschooling families are only obligated to follow their state guidelines for homeschooling, because of the surge in technology, it can't hurt to be aware of the national guidelines for technology.  NETS, or National Educational Technology Standards is a list of standards compiled by members of the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education).  They have broken down the standards into several groups, one of which is NETS for Students.  You will find some highlights* of those standards below.
The National Educational Technology Standards for Students
  • Demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, develop innovative products using technology.
  • Use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance...
  • Apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
  • Use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools.
  • Understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.
  • Demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations. 
Even if you are like my grandma and want to keep things as simple as possible, remember that things are changing.  Our children are growing up in a digital environment and we need to be responsible for making sure they're equipped to survive and be successful in it.  Incorporate technology into your lesson planning.  Teach your child to use PowerPoint, online games, web quests, virtual science labs, digital cameras, GPS devices...the list is endless. 
*The full outlines for NETS can be found in a PDF file by going to ISTE dot org and clicking on the NETS link on the right side of the page.

Strategies for Educating Children with ADD/ADHD

Children with ADD/ADHD (hereafter referred to as ADHD) are creative, energetic, imaginative, and resourceful people.  They have a wonderful spirit and you wouldn't trade your child's personality for the world.  But sometimes, there's school work to be done.  Sometimes, you really need your child to sit still.  Sometimes you really just want a few minutes of peace.  Or is that just true at my house?
Learning doesn't have to be a chore for the ADHD student.  It seems to me to be such a waste to bore these wonderful minds when it just takes a little bit of creativity on our part to keep them going.  In my thirteen years of being a parent to an ADHD child, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't.  I've taught public school classrooms with students all over the ADHD spectrum.  Some have been medicated.  Some have not.  Regardless of the severity of their condition or the presence of medication or other therapies, I have found some strategies that really helped my ADHD kids to become better learners. 
If you're reading this article, you are probably already aware of the characteristics and symptoms of a child with Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder.  You may notice impulsivity, inattention, hyperactivity, disorganization, hyper-focus, or forgetfulness.  You may have noticed these symptoms even before your child was of school age.  Then, when he or she starts school, either homeschool or public/private schooling, you begin to have your concerns verified when you notice failure to complete assignments in a timely manner, disorganized work habits, or producing messy or careless work.  However, school does not have to be a struggle for the ADHD child or the parent/teacher.

Some of the strategies I have found to be successful are:
  • Allow for breaks in the lesson or homework.  Let the child get up and move around.
  • Ask yourself, is it really necessary for my child to be sitting to do his work?  Will he get the same result if I allow him to stand to do his work?
  • Provide as many hands-on activities as possible.
  • Teach to your child's strengths and talents.
  • Keep things in perspective.  Remember that your child is not doing any of these things to misbehave.
  • Minimize distractions.  I found that something at simple as asking my son write with a regular pencil as opposed to a mechanical pencil made a huge difference.  He liked to distract himself by playing with the lead.
  • Develop a regular routine.
  • Give your student something to hold in her hands while you give instructions.  Give her a piece of modeling clay or let her color while you read aloud.  She will actually absorb more of what you say when she has something to do.
  • Use a written plan or contract with your child.  This gives your child a concrete goal. 
  • Place something for them to touch in their work area.  A piece of Velcro works well.  It provides the student something to focus on and keeps the impulse to wander around at bay. 
  • Keep the work area free of mess.  A messy area will tend to overwhelm the child.  He'll get the feeling that he doesn't really know where to start.
  • Use binders for subjects to help your child keep her work organized.  Organization is one of the toughest things that ADHD people come up against.
  • Most importantly, be flexible.  One of these tips may work one day and not the next.  You'll need to mix things up to keep your ADHD child from becoming bored.
Homeschooling parents can find activities that are specially geared for the ADHD student at have many, many lessons that stretch across the curriculum and are tagged for ADHD learners.   

Interdisciplinary Lesson Planning

Interdisciplinary teaching may sound like a elaborate concept, but it is really a great way to save time and combine resources.  The word interdisciplinary refers to the use of two or more subjects (disciplines).  So, basically, interdisciplinary teaching is about showing relationships between subject with one given topic.  Showing relationships between subjects helps children connect their "homework" to real life.  Kids get excited when they can connect a topic from one subject to the next.  It keeps them interested in learning more.  So, how does one get started planning something like this?  I often find that starting with a book helps.
One of my favorite interdisciplinary units focuses on the children's  historical fiction novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham:  1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  In short, this is a story about an African American family that lives in Flint, Michigan in the year 1963.  They story takes them through the winter in Flint and then on to Birmingham, Alabama in the summer.  I use the book to come up with activities for many subjects.  Of course, reading is covered by reading the novel.  Language arts is covered through vocabulary words and discussion of slang. I bring social studies in with civil rights and history lessons about what it was like in Birmingham in 1963 and by mapping the family took to get to Birmingham.  Math is connected to real life by calculating the distance from Flint to Birmingham, comparing how much gas would have cost them in 1963 as compared to today, and figuring out how long it would take the Watsons to make their trip traveling at 1963's highways speeds.  Science can be covered by comparing the climate of Flint to the climate of Birmingham.  These are just a sampling of the many activities you can get from just one book.
It is so much fun to make interdisciplinary connections between core subjects and the arts. For example, teaching an interdisciplinary unit connecting chemistry with art may help to reach a student who doesn't have a lot of interest in science, but is a lover of art.  Creating connections between math and music will not only make math fun, but may foster a love for music in your logical-mathematical child.  In turn, it could open up an interest in math for your aspiring musician. has an amazing variety of online resources that you, as a homeschooling parent, or as a teacher can use to create an interdisciplinary unit.  The site has a search function allows you to search using keywords or to search by subject area or age level.  You can then assign individual Pathways to your child to create you own interdisciplinary unit. 

Homeschooling in an NCLB Society

What does NCLB (No Child Left Behind) have to do with homeschooling?  After all, homeschooling is exempt from NCLB.  The regulations set forth by NCLB are all directly tied to federal funding and homeschools are not federally funded, so why should you care?
The pressure of the testing that is directly related to  NCLB not only stresses out the kids, but it makes otherwise wonderful teachers virtually ineffective.  They are pressed to "finish the book."  They don't have time to stop at the teachable moments.  And teaching to individual learning styles?  Unless that learning style involves filling in a bubble with a #2 pencil, you may as well throw that out the window.  It's not necessarily what teachers choose to do, it's just what they are left with.
Is it any wonder so many families are choosing to homeschool?  Homeschoolers do what NCLB was designed, in principle, to do:  Not leave any children behind.  Homeschoolers teach a topic or a skill and you work on it until it is mastered.  In 2003, it was estimated that 1.1 million children were homeschooled. That number is undoubtedly growing. 
Evaluating progress is not, in itself, a bad thing.  It's the manner in which it is occurring that is disturbing to me.  NCLB wants parents to "know that their children are learning."  But the testing doesn't test what they have learned.  Take a look around this site to see what I mean:  However, some states, such as Alaska require homeschooling students to take standards-based assessment tests.  If these children are taking the same test that the public school children are taking, what is the difference?  The difference lies in the fact that the homeschooled children have not been "taught the test."  And parents, then, have an opportunity to see the results year to year and adjust to their individual child instead of having to make broad generalizations about children who won't even be learning with you the next school year.
Something many people are unaware of is the fact that there are not any federally recognized national standards.  There are many organizations (such as the National Council of Teacher of English) who have written "voluntary" standards, but NCLB does not actually define what schools are supposed to be teaching.  They just want schools to be held accountable for whatever it is that they are teaching.  Nearly every state has a different assessment test.  This is why:  Each state lays out their own set of standards (often based on the recommended or voluntary standards of teaching organizations).  And then, in many states, each district writes their own scope and sequence to meet those state standards. 

So, what is the correlation then, between homeschooling and NCLB?  Because in most states, some type of reporting to the state is required. Homeschools are already regulated under state law. While section 9506 of the NCLB Act protects the rights of homeschools, religious schools, and private schools, state officials often have to be reminded that this is the case.  It is important that homeschooling parents, especially those just starting out are aware of their rights.  How, then, do homeschoolers know that they are getting the "right" content to their children?  Some don't follow any of that and prefer to let their child lead their own learning.  Some, however, would like a little more structure, especially in states where there is no "homeschooling law" present.  The best comprehensive guide I have found that covers all age groups (preschool-grade 12) can be found at  But my best piece of advice would be to choose a curriculum that works for you and your homeschooler.