Monday, August 6, 2012

Historical lesson in partisan politics

Thomas Jefferson, whose chief political rival was Alexander Hamilton, explains how negative campaigning, partisan politics and contested elections have been part of the American political system since the earliest days of the republic in “The Will of the People,” an installment in Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trip Series. Colonial Williamsburg is offering free access to this electronic field trip throughout the month of September. Visit to register.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Home school to high school

So how did Allegra fare during her freshman year at a charter public high school? Here is her end-of-year report card, showing by subject the earned numerical average out of a possible 100:
English                  98

Latin I                    97

French II              95

US History           96

Science                 95

Math                     91

She also received a perfect score on the National Latin Exam. Clearly, Allegra did not fall behind her peers by being schooled at home. As her mother and as a teacher, I offer this as encouragement to those of you worried about the result of homeschooling.

And on the social side? Allegra is not the social misfit some predicted she might be. She connected with like-minded kids almost immediately. She attended her first dance and joined clubs. This summer, she and her friends have been doing what many other 14- and 15-year-old girls enjoy: sleep-overs, mall visits, beach days, birthday parties. Individually, they are involved in activities that interest them. For example, Allegra volunteers at the local library and at a small local museum. One friend acts in plays at the local junior theater, and yet another works at a bookstore. While isolating at times, homeschooling helped Allegra to understand herself and to choose friends who would buoy her, not drag her down. If she had remained at our public middle school, I think the outcome might have been different.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Government in action

An election year, this is prime time to teach your homeschooler lessons in civics. You might start by defining democracy and comparing it with other forms of government throughout the world. Discuss the individual’s role in a democracy. Talk about the two major political parties in the United States and their ideological differences. How have the political parties changed throughout history? Discuss the three branches of U.S. government and their functions. When Allegra and I covered this last year, we used a “branches of government” bulletin board set from Oriental Trading (at right). This set proved to be tremendously helpful for a visual learner. While this particular item is no longer available, Oriental Trading offers a similar U.S. Government Learning Chart set, and Carson-Dellosa Publishing offers a “Branches of the U.S. Government” bulletin board set. Our nation is in the midst of caucuses, so starting now, you’ll find an abundance of free material in the news to bring into your homeschool classroom. This is history in the making. Share it with your student!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Virtual Thanksgiving field trip

Toss those construction-paper buckled hats, white caps and collars and feathered headdresses. Learn how the Pilgrims and Native Wampanoags really lived via the websites of Plimoth Plantation and Pilgrim Hall Museum, both in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Visit for a virtual Thanksgiving field trip Nov. 16. Through the website of this living museum of Pilgrim and Wampanoag history you can learn how to talk, eat and dress like the Pilgrims and Indians. Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website provides historically accurate information about the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration and the evolution of the American Thanksgiving holiday, which for Native Americans has become a Day of Mourning. Learn more at, and say “fare thee well” to all the myths surrounding Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Make a paper-bag Halloween costume

Here's an art project that serves double duty. Make a Halloween costume out of a paper grocery bag. This Jack of Hearts costume is just one option. Your child could be his or her favorite book, box of cereal, TV set, robot—the possibilities are limited only by imagination. Tap into your child’s creative spirit by allowing some choice in this activity. Children who like coloring and working with geometric patterns will enjoy making the playing-card costume. Those who enjoy drawing might choose to re-create the cover of a favorite book (and be a bookworm). Others who prefer mixed media might wish to use the grocery bag and other recyclables (paper tubes, plates, egg cartons) to create a unique costume. Brainstorm ideas with your child. Have fun!

For this project, you’ll need

a large paper grocery bag

a 22-inch by 28-inch sheet of white poster board


colored markers


pencil (optional)

ruler (optional)

1. Turn the bag upside down. In the bottom of the bag, cut a hole large enough for the child’s head to fit through.

2. Cut armholes in the sides of the bag or cut off the sides entirely.

3. Cut two pieces of poster board to fit the front and back of the bag. Or you may choose to decorate just the front of the bag.

4. Draw a facsimile of a playing card on the poster board. (You might wish to look at a real playing card for inspiration and use a pencil and ruler for laying out the design.)

5. Use markers to color. You can use paint instead of markers. Or cut pieces of construction paper in the shapes you want and glue them in place.

6. Glue finished poster board pieces to bag. Allow to dry.

7. Use leftover poster board to make a crown. Cut a 28-inch strip to your desired width. Fit to the child’s head (there should be overlap). Decorate; then glue or tape in place.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Inexpensive curriculum

For those of you looking for an inexpensive basic curriculum for preschool through grade 6, check out American Educational Publishing’s Comprehensive Curriculum of Basic Skills workbooks. These books cover the basics in math, reading and writing by grade level. Each book sells for just under $20. For the price, these books offer a good foundation for your child’s studies. You will likely need supplementary material, however, because when I say "basic," I mean it. For example, I don’t believe one practice sheet of problems is sufficient to reinforce a math concept in most cases. And children should be encouraged to read entire books in addition to the reading selections in the workbook. If I were homeschooling children in the elementary grade levels, I would definitely use this series as a launching pad.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Study skills = life skills

One of the most valuable things you can teach your middle schooler is study skills: listening, note-taking, brainstorming, organizing, outlining and prioritizing. These skills will serve students well not only in academics but also in their professional and personal lives. First, buy your child a planner and encourage him or her to use it. Any day planner, calendar or notebook will do. American Education Publishing offers an engaging planner for students in grades 4 through 8. This student planner fits inside a three-ring binder and provides plenty of space to record class schedules and homework. It also offers study tips and a section containing facts for handy reference, such as US Presidents, branches of government, a map of the US, figures in mythology, Roman numerals, the periodic table of elements, customary and metric measurement and more. During our homeschooling, we also used the workbook Note Taking & Outlining, offered by Frank Schaffer Publications. Aimed at students in grades 6 through 8, the workbook provides activities that reinforce listening and organizational skills. It helps students determine fact from fiction and shows them how to avoid plagiarism. And, as the title suggests, it covers note-taking and outlining. We often used this book in conjunction with Delana Heidrich’s Using the Media: Fact, Fiction, and Opinion, also offered by Frank Schaffer Publications. This workbook helps students identify genre, source, author, intended audience and purpose. It also helps students to assess whether a source is credible--an important skill when researching on the Internet.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

High-flying start

Now in her second week of public charter high school, Allegra is enjoying the experience of learning amongst her peers. The first week was an adjustment, making the transition from the quiet isolation of homeschooling to the raucous atmosphere created by 200 teenagers. But now she loves it, and I don’t think she would opt for homeschooling over attending public high school.

At times during homeschooling, we worried if she were keeping up academically with her peers. We’ve since learned that homeschooling didn’t hold her back. She tested into the top classes offered by the high school she is attending, and she is feeling comfortable in those classes.

One of the most valuable things Allegra learned during homeschooling was study skills: listening, note-taking, outlining, organizing. These skills are serving her well in high school. She has observed that very few students in her classes take notes. I’m guessing these students haven’t learned the importance of study skills--but they're about to. For example, in Latin, half the class failed the first exam, while Allegra aced it. I asked her why she thought this happened. She replied, “I guess they didn’t study.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Try DI

Destination ImagiNation is a creative problem-solving program for students, from kindergarten through grade 12. At the beginning of each school year, student groups of up to seven are offered a variety of challenges, from theatrical to technical, and they spend months working on a solution to these challenges--without adult interference--to present to appraisers at a tournament in the spring. The program teaches students to work cooperatively and creatively to tackle a seemingly insurmountable challenge by breaking it down into manageable pieces. In addition, they learn to solve problems under pressure through “instant challenges.” I coached DI teams for three years and served as an appraiser for two tournaments. DI is everything education should be. In DI, kids rise to the challenge in amazing ways. Usually offered through the public schools, Destination ImagiNation is also open to homeschoolers, 4-H groups and others. Check it out at

Here’s an example of an Instant Challenge:

Destination ImagiNation
Instant Challenge

Challenge: Your TASK is to create a model for a group-invented item of technology. You must also provide an original name for the finished creation.

Time: You will have up to 15 minutes to use your IMAGINATION to create a model for a group-invented item of technology and to think up an original name for the item. You will have up to one minute to present your creation to the appraisers.

Details: Using the materials provided, you are to work together to create a model for a group-invented item of technology and to think up an original name for the item.


6 toothpicks
1 paper bag
1 roll of tape
6 pipe cleaners
6 paper clips
1 black marker
3 rubber bands
1 pair of scissors
2 twelve-inch pieces of string
1 empty box
3 sheets of construction paper

Scoring: You will receive

Up to 60 points for the creativity of the model
Up to 20 points for the creativity of the name
Up to 20 points for how well your team worked together

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Creative craft kit

Children ages 3 and up will enjoy using their creativity to make original works of art with materials found in this budget-wise craft kit. I made this kit for my daughter when she was a preschooler, and, with periodic refills, she used it for many years. Open-ended activities such as this offer the greatest opportunity for children to exercise their creative thinking skills. And this kit is portable—so kids can take their imaginations on the road!

Materials needed:

Inexpensive plastic container with handles
Child-size scissors

All-purpose glue

Paper scraps

Glitter or glitter glue

An assortment of craft items


1) Purchase a small, inexpensive plastic container with handles. These are available at craft and department stores.

2) Fill the container with an assortment of craft items. Suggestions: plastic goggle eyes, pom-poms, chenille stems, sequins, Popsicle sticks, beads, feathers, foam shapes, macaroni, plastic string.

3) Be sure to include the following basics: child-size scissors, all-purpose glue, glitter or glitter glue and paper scraps. The scissors can have a straight or decorative edge. Include a variety of paper types and textures: construction, crepe, corrugated, tissue, foil.

This kit will amuse a wide range of preschool and school-age children and will last for years. It can be restocked with new items as budget allows. The creative craft kit makes a great gift, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

No notification??

In reviewing the Home School Legal Defense Association website, I noticed 10 states require no notification of authorities that parents intend to homeschool their children. One of those is my husband’s home state of Idaho. “The state probably believes it’s the parents’ responsibility,” he shrugged. Other states requiring no notification include Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Connecticut. My home state of Massachusetts, on the other hand, requires not only notification of the local school district but also submission of an educational plan, which the school committee must approve, and, at the end of the academic year, a portfolio of work completed. HSLDA considers Massachusetts a state with “high regulation.” Other states listed in this category are Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.

Seal of approval

We’ve received a letter from the local school district’s director of learning and teaching stating that we have completed all requirements of the 2010-2011 home-school application. “Please extend my congratulations to Allegra on her tremendous achievements,” she wrote. “She has shown remarkable effort and I wish her continued success in her future endeavors.” As instructed, we had delivered to the district office June 15 a box containing folders of Allegra’s work. We weren’t even required to schedule an interview. After we retrieve the box, we’ll be finished with the local school district because Allegra has chosen to attend an out-of-district high school. In Massachusetts, students can request to attend a school outside of their own district under the state’s school-choice program. Schools accepting out-of-district students receive tax dollars allocated to educate those students. Allegra chose to attend an out-of-district school because she wants to study Latin, a subject not offered at the local high school.

Algebra crash course

In our tours of local high schools in late 2010-early 2011, we learned that top math students in grade 8 were studying Algebra I. Oops. We had just finished up pre-algebra and were studying geometry, a branch of mathematics Allegra loves. The state curriculum frameworks place Algebra I under ninth grade, but apparently some students take the subject in eighth. In Massachusetts, all students in grade 8 are expected to have completed pre-algebra. Students of average ability in math are taught pre-algebra with some Algebra I, while students of high ability are taught Algebra I exclusively. The rub: I had planned to teach some algebra, but not an entire Algebra I course. So, in March, we focused on algebra. By May, it became apparent that we needed to spend more than the usual four to six hours a week on the topic. So from mid-May through the first week of June, we studied algebra for two hours daily (10 hours per week). Two textbooks by Theresa Kane McKell were really helpful in our studies: Algebra for Middle/High School and Algebra Made Simple for High School. These books, combined with clear and conversational free videos on Brightstorm (, provided a crash course in linear equations, quadratic equations, factoring and more. While I don’t advocate crash courses for long-term retention of material, they sometimes become necessary to meet a deadline--in this case, a June 4 placement test for high school math.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'Just to be safe'

It has become clear that I can no longer provide at home the accelerated level of education Allegra requires. She could pursue a high school education online, of course, but then she would miss the valuable social interaction of the classroom. So she has chosen to attend a public charter school this fall.

Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development has recognized Allegra as being among the country’s ablest 10 percent of students in grades 6 through 9. Based on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search identifies gifted students in order to ensure appropriate academic counseling within the school environment. Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and other universities believe America is failing some of its best and brightest students. In our quest for egalitarian education under “No Child Left Behind,” many school districts have failed to challenge their gifted students. One of Allegra’s former teachers admitted the new wave in education amounts to “Smart Kids Left Behind.”

When Allegra and I toured various local high schools, counselors, obviously skeptical about homeschooling, said they would place Allegra in lower level courses “just to be safe.” I didn’t want her to end up frustrated in high school as she was in middle school. I felt she needed to take a standardized test prior to her entering public high school so that counselors would place her in the appropriate courses. I found the NUMATS program through “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students,” a Templeton national report on acceleration. Other talent searches exist, but some don’t accept homeschoolers. NUMATS obviously does.

The $82 fee to sign up for NUMATS was well worth it. Allegra took the SAT in March and achieved a combined score of 1850, well above the 1510 to 1520 average achieved by college-bound juniors and seniors. The SAT measures ability in critical reading, writing and mathematics. Based on the participant’s scores, NUMATS provides educational recommendations, which can then be submitted to the student’s school. I sent Allegra’s SAT scores, along with the NUMATS recommendations, to the school she will be attending. To the school’s credit, a guidance counselor called the day she received the information to learn more about Allegra and her educational needs.

Beyond attending parent-teacher conferences, I refrained from “advocating” for Allegra in the early years of her education; however, middle school brought to a head a problem that had likely been building throughout elementary school: her ability outpaced those at her grade level, and she became bored, frustrated and tuned out. In the absence of 1) class leveling according to ability (“tracking”) and 2) a gifted and talented program, she should have been accelerated. Her SAT scores support this. However, public schools tend to avoid accelerating students--for a lot of questionable reasons. Schools are now so focused on getting all students to pass standardized tests that they ignore the needs of children who have already mastered the material. Parents cannot rely on teachers to suggest acceleration. If you think your child should be accelerated, or challenged in other ways, you’ll need to introduce the subject. NUMATS is a great place to start.

Grade 8 reading list

Most of the works we read during this past academic year aren’t listed under the curriculum outline submitted to the school district in the summer of 2010. At the time, I couldn’t foresee the literature that would best enhance our studies. Preferring to work organically, I selected reading material as we moved along, based on Allegra’s interests and what we were studying at any given point. Here’s what we actually read:

Historical documents

Capt. John Smith’s The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (excerpts)

Mayflower Compact, William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation versus Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan (excerpts)

Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (excerpts pertaining to Salem witch trials)

Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (excerpts), The Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers (excerpts), the Preamble to the US Constitution,
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address


Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Philip Freneau, Phillis Wheatley, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman

Short stories

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, “A New England Nun” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain

Slave narratives

Excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Books in entirety

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (for biography/autobiography)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

The Story of the Amistad by Emma Gelders Sterne

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott (for geometry and social commentary)