2015-2016 in Review: What Worked

Most of us (except for Katydid, who just finished her last class) have been on summer break for a couple of weeks now.  It wasn’t that we actually came to the end of work; instead, I just declared it was time for a break.  This hasn’t been the worst year, academics-wise, that we could have had, but it was far from the best.  Pregnancy, a baby’s birth in the middle of the year, a surprise special needs diagnosis and its accompanying extra trips to the doctor, a kitchen remodel, and a spring that has been full of stomach viruses and flu has not made consistency easy.  (Is consistency ever easy, though? I don’t think so.)

(For what it’s worth, here are the sort of nebulous plans we began the year with.)

But even in the hardest years it’s not like people just sit around learning nothing. Here’s what worked for us in a hard year.

  1. Pulling books off a handwritten reading list.

What worked for us in a hard year of homeschooling

I learned I was pregnant last year the weekend after Memorial Day, and I spent the summer in a fog of all-day morning sickness. Then we had a trip to Ohio for my grandpa’s 100th birthday (a trip I am so glad I made, because Grandpa died on Holy Saturday this year) and another trip to Virginia to drop my oldest off for his first year of college. When we came home, there was a lot of reshuffling of chores, etc. and getting used to his absence. I needed some structure for the boys’ studies, but I made a chart for my teenager and that was about all I could handle. I usually spend way too much time trying out different computerized methods of organizing our learning only to have them all fail, so this year I said heck with it and just scrawled out a bunch of titles (mostly taken from Ambleside Online or books that I knew I already owned) in my homeschool journal. When the boys finished a book, I pulled out the list to see what other books we had to choose from. Usually I have all these books on a shelf in the kitchen, but this year we had to pack up the shelf midway through. So the list was absolutely necessary. This is how I’m doing things again this year. I know it would be neater (and more shareable) if I typed it in, but I’m not going to put that stress on myself if handwritten is good enough — unless I have the time and breathing space to do it.

2. Switching away from Saxon and Beast Academy

I switched all my younger boys to Singapore Math this year, and I think it was a good decision.  It was too late to switch George, as a 7th grader, to Singapore, but we stopped using Saxon for him this spring when I got aggravated (again) with how Saxon handles teaching fractions (i.e., in the slowest, most broken up way imaginable).  For him, I got out Key to Fractions and the textbook Basic College Mathematics by Margaret Lial. (The new textbook is really expensive, by the way, but you don’t need it.  I bought a used copy for about $6.  Answers to odd problems are in the back and there are a lot of them, so you don’t need a teacher’s guide.)  I used Saxon for both my oldest kids and George for upper elementary and middle school mostly because Saxon is easy to hand to a kid when Mom has to do other things — like taking care of a bunch of babies and toddlers.  Especially when coupled with the teaching DVDs, it makes for very independent students.  But I don’t think that always translates into students who really understand (or like) math very much.  And it was taking Dennis (4th grade) For. Ever. to do a lesson, even when I only had him doing odds or evens from the Mixed Practice.  He understood the math, too, mostly, so I don’t know why it was taking him so long, but now that we’ve switched to Singapore I feel like we’re making more progress.  Because Singapore is basically a year ahead of Saxon in almost everything, we had to go back to 3A/3B to pick up some concepts for both the twins, but Huck will be finishing up 4A and heading on to 4B over the summer, and Dennis is ready to start 4A.  It doesn’t seem to take them an entire semester to finish a book, so I think they should be at least part of the way through 5B by the end of their 5th grade year.

3. Homeschool Band and Choir

tromboneFrom Instagram.  Not sure what filter I used, but it should have been brighter! This is Dennis the day he got his trombone last September.

One of my goals this year was to give the boys more experience with music.  I had heard many good things about the local homeschool band program and the boys did not seem to be keen on piano or violin, so I made an executive, not very unschoolish decision to sign them up for band.  The deal was that they would play an instrument of their choice for a whole year and if they found they didn’t like it after the year was up, they could quit.  George, Huck, and Chipmunk chose to play trumpet, and Dennis chose the trombone (which he had actually been thinking about for a while).  They managed their practices themselves — I rarely had to remind them — and all of them finished their books and graduated to the next level for the coming year.  (Even Chipmunk, who was a year younger than everybody else in the band and needed special permission to join.)  The boys learned a lot about hard work and perseverance, and I think they found that they all liked having music as a skill.  I liked the program because all the kids could do something at the same time and the same place.  I just wish it started later in the morning!

4. Fitting in Nature Study Around the Edges

wooly bears in the fall

Another Instagram photo, this one of a wooly bear the boys found last fall and watched inside for a while.  We looked up wooly bears in the Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars and discovered that they eat a lot of weedy plants that typically grow in yards, like plantain (the weed, not the fruit).

I suppose that this is always the way we do nature study, but this year I felt that doing nature study regularly was more of a goal.  Unfortunately, we still have not managed nature journals consistently, but we have gotten out the field guides and been a little less haphazard about our nature study in general.  For the first half of the year, we managed to fit in a nature walk between the boys’ band class and Katydid’s choir class.  The slot was roughly an hour and fifteen minutes long, which allowed us to drive to some place nearby and walk around for about forty-five minutes.  We checked out the local greenway, riverside nature trails, a little suburban oasis of a nature area, and a flooded field viewing area for migratory waterfowl.  All of these were within a fifteen minute drive of the suburban church which hosted our homeschool band lessons, in an intensively built-up suburb.  We stopped when I was too pregnant to walk far (and it was too cold and wet anyway), but after I was up and about again, we resumed our nature study with a special study of trees using The Tree Book For Kids and Their Grownups (HT: Jen at Wildflowers and Marbles) and spring nature walks in our own yard.  To get a little exercise, I would put Rose in the front pouch after lunch and go outside.  The younger boys would immediately nab me to show me the new developments in the yard, and George would fill me in on his progress in learning outdoor wilderness skills and plant identification.  We took these short ambles around the yard (we have five acres, but it’s definitely yard, not woods) 2-4 times a week throughout the spring.  If we accomplished anything, at least I think even the three year old might be able to recognize poison ivy now.

5.  Wilson Hill Academy Online Precalculus

This online math class was a BIG hit, and I wish Katydid’s teacher could Skype tutor all my kids. (Ann Stublen is her name, and she teaches Algebra II, Precalculus and AP Calculus.  HIGHLY recommended!)  Katydid will be taking Calculus with her again next year, and while I’m not sure if she’s exactly excited about it, I do think that she isn’t afraid of it.  Plus, the class this year came up with a bunch of playlists (yes, precalculus playlists) and even their own T-shirts.  They had one day each semester where they were supposed to interact in the chatbox as a character or other famous person to see if the other members of the class could guess who they were.  And she came out of Precalculus with a B+.  All the math classes (grades 5/6 and up) seem to use decent texts (not Saxon) so as of now the plan is to have all my kids do their higher math with Wilson Hill.  (The Well-Trained Mind boards seem to have a high opinion of their math classes, too.)

6.  Dancing Bears Reading

I learned about Dancing Bears from my friend Lindsay who was using them with her son.  Dancing Bears is written for late, struggling, or dyslexic readers and designed to be done in about fifteen minutes a day.  About halfway through the year, I decided that Chipmunk needed a little something more to push him over the edge into reading.  With George — who clearly had major difficulties — we used EasyRead, which worked wonders but was also very expensive.  Chipmunk’s difficulties are not on George’s scale.  After studying the online samples, I thought that it looked pretty good and we might be able to do fifteen minutes a day, so I ordered the book.  It turned out that we were not always able to do fifteen minutes a day, but — what we were able to do combined with a slightly different glasses prescription and continuing vision therapy at home has been enough to bump his reading up just enough that we can see, yes, he’s improving and he’ll probably get it at some point.  We’re going slower than the instructions suggest, but only because we’re accommodating Chipmunk’s rather wiggly attention span.

7.  All About Reading Readers

In conjunction with Dancing Bears, Chipmunk has been reading to Andy at night.  Years ago, I bought this book:

I bought it for George when he was about 7.  This book is no longer in print, as such, because it has become this book:

Same book, different title.  Chipmunk recently finished it and requested others like it, so I bought two of the other All About Reading Readers for him.  These are nice books, especially as readers go.  They’re hardback and feel like real books of stories.  I did not order the whole All About Reading program when we first started teaching him to read, because he was learning at the same time that George and the twins were learning.  Doing the All About Reading program with four non-readers at the same time was a little cost prohibitive.  Plus it seemed Mom-intensive, too. But the readers are really nice, and I just ordered the Pre-Reading program for Leo, whom it seemed to suit.

And a few more favorite books and resources from this year:





  1. Can you say what you disliked about Beast Academy? I’m about to switch my eight year old (“right brained”) student from Mammoth into Beast.

    We had a “baby year” this school year too. Fortunately she was due in March so I tried to get the bulk of the school year done before her arrival. Not sure how well I did during those morning sickness months, ugh.

    As for reading lists, I keep a reading list on pinterest and it’s worked out very well!

    • We found Beast Academy just a little too Common Core. It does allow mathy kids to do really complicated problems without knowing all the algorithms (we were using 3A, B, and C), which a mathy kid will like, and for a kid who is not as mathy but responds to creativity, the guidebook is also good. But the problem my ds was having was that it always seemed to show the more drawn out, complicated ways of solving problems without ever giving you the shortcut. So, for instance, when doing multiplication and demonstrating the distributive property, the book shows that 45x 6 is really (40 x 6) + (5×6), and that’s great, because none of the books I ever had as a kid explained why multidigit multiplication worked the way it did. But Beast Academy doesn’t take the next step, which to me would be to show the kids how to do 45 x 6 the standard way with regrouping on paper. That was a little frustrating, because when I showed my ds how to do it the traditional way, he immediately wanted to know why we were doing it the long way all the time.

      The other thing we were running into was that it was just taking a long time to get through it. To some extent, that wasn’t a bad thing, because he was grappling with some really difficult problems that were supposed to take a long time. But it just seemed like, for him, using a curriculum that would allow him to go a little faster through the concepts would be better. Honestly, I don’t think that taking more than a year to go through each grade level is necessarily a bad thing because the curriculum as a whole is accelerated, but it just didn’t seem to be working for my ds.

      Singapore seems like a good fit so far and he likes it better, but I may still pull out Beast Academy from time to time to supplement.

    • Oh, and congratulations on your new little one!!

      • Thank you 🙂 And thanks for the feedback. She’s been my hardest “student’ yet — one day she gets it, the next day it’s as if she’s never seen it. And she seems to just absorb or “gulp” concepts down but I’m very linear and incremental — we’re not the best teacher/student pair, lol. Mammoth is more traditional and she did fine but I’m hoping the creative presentation will help her. All that I know is that might right brained husband thinks the books look really fun (fun?? math??) and so I’m hoping my right brained daughter will agree!

        I would love to read something from you about how you keep going, lol. I have seven kids now, with my oldest being 13, so I guess I’m a “behind” you. Each year gets harder in that everyone is moving up a level and there are more children added to the mix….how do you keep from getting too frustrated/overwhelmed?

  2. As always love listening to your learning thoughts, successes and duds.
    Yes sometimes we make things too complicated, waste all that time planning for it not too work. Nodding from experience here.
    Erin recently posted…Books Read Aloud – January Thru May, 2016My Profile

  3. We got frustrated with Saxon this year, also. My girls were in 8/7 and 6/5. 8/7 was making us crazy…that spiral approach just didn’t work anymore. We couldn’t get a full grasp of anything. We’re switching to Rod and Staff next year (with the full Memoria Press box set) and College of the Redwoods Pre-Algebra for my oldest.

    We’ve also done homeschool band for the past couple of years. It was a good experience for them, but it met two afternoons a week, right at dinner time. Which was not ideal, as you can imagine! I’m glad to have that time back.

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