Winter crafting

Bring the season into the classroom.

Add some wintertime fun to your daily school routing. Simple craft projects aren't just busy work. Young children learn important gluing and cutting skills that sharpen fine motor skills. Crafts also develop creative thinking and can help develop a further understanding of the seasons.


One of the simplest crafts that elicits wows from young kids is the snow globe. Use small jars, like baby food jars, for the globe. Help the kids glue small beads and toys to the inside of the jar lid with waterproof glue. Instead of water, fill the jar with baby oil. The clear oil allows the snow to swirl more slowly. Glitter, crushed eggshells or plastic party confetti all works well to create swirling snow in the globe.

Snow flake crystal ornaments are another fun winter project that can also include an element of science. The children form their snowflakes from white pipe cleaner. The teacher fills a glass jar with hot water.

Dissolve three teaspoons of borax and a drop of blue food coloring in the water. Hang the pipe cleaner snowflake in the jar so it's completely submerged. After a day or two, the snowflake is completely covered in small, permanent crystals. Hang the snowflake in a window to catch the light or use it as a tree ornament.

You can also bring the winter season indoors. Provide a collection of small outdoor items: evergreen sprigs, pine cones, nuts and seeds. Combine these with standard children's craft supplies and let the kids' imaginations go wild as they create their own seasonal decorations.

No work for the weary...

Even in their sleep, they know when I'm trying to get something done.

This morning I woke up hours before dawn, just so I could have some peace and quiet to get my work done. All I wanted was a little extra time to finish up some major projects so I could have some semblance of a normal, relaxing weekend with my family. You know? Like lots of other people?

So, I'm typing away, cranking out work like a boss, when I hear little feet hitting the hardwood floor above me. CRAP. I actually...for just a moment...wished it was a ghost, monster, burglar, Republican...anything but one of my sons. As I glanced at the clock on the wall, which mockingly read 4:30, I heard little, not so paranormal, steps coming down the stairs. The next thing I know, I have a 5-year-old hanging from my arm whining that he's tired. He's tired? At 4:30 in the morning? Who'd have guessed?

Super bummer. And, by “bummer” I mean "thing that irritates me so severely that I still have an eye twitch eight hours later."

What bothers me the most about these little inconveniences isn't so much that my kids try to make me feel guilty as if I'm slighting them somehow by writing in the middle of the night. The problem is how they have some sort of sickening intuition that I'm doing something selfish, albeit in the best interest of my family. They can sense when I've planned a proactive strategy that will benefit me later, and are especially gifted at thwarting efforts to get ahead somehow.

Do your kids have any uncanny ability to end your plans before they begin?

Master planning

Organizing your homeschooling for the long term.

The best thing I ever did when I started homeschooling six years ago was to set up a master plan. This plan guided me through those early years in a way that no curriculum could have, especially since early education doesn't usually require a rigorous curriculum and its attendant schedules.

My master plan makes it home in a well-worn binder. It evolves constantly as my children grow and my educational philosophy develops. Although not written in stone, it does provide comfort that I am teaching the kids appropriately and doing my best.


My binder contains several sections. There is the calendar, which is updated each year to reflect our school year and vacations. This is followed by a loose daily and monthly schedule, which helps keep us on task so we complete things when we need to, while also providing a general guide to our day-to-day schooling.

Behind this sits our supply list. I update this constantly with items and curriculum I will need in coming months so I can keep an eye out for good deals. It also holds an inventory of the items I have already collected so I don't purchase doubles.

The next sections are set up for each child. My overall curriculum for each student outlines a loose plan for the next few years, including possible texts, subjects and projects. This section changes the most since it's a long range plan, but it does keep our goals sharply in focus.

Following this is our yearly progress reports. I write these up each month, providing an outline of everything each child studied and mastered. These aren't required by our state, but I like have these reports to look over when lesson planning for the future, plus they will come in handy if we must ever return to traditional schooling or if something were to happen to me. I find them much more useful in the early grades than a standard report card.

I don't use my master binder daily. Sometimes a month goes by without me opening it once. But when I need it, it's a relief to know it's there.


The Christmas conundrum

Holidays in the classroom.

For many educators, this is a tricky time of year. Many children are celebrating a holiday, whether it's the thoroughly secular Christmas season, the religious variety, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa or one of the many other festivities that fall in midwinter.

Some teachers or classrooms try to sidestep the whole conundrum by focusing on a winter them or a general festivity theme, while others completely ignore the holidays and try to continue with business as usual. This is one of those cases where the problem lies with the parents.


Once upon a time, about twenty years ago, the standard holiday observance in early elementary was simple. We made arts and crafts, learned a few songs and played some games that celebrated each of the major winter holiday cultures.

It was often set up as an “around the world” unit with students focusing on a different culture or continent every few days. The kids learned a lot and even better, it widened their cultural understanding at a young age, laying the groundwork for thinking, caring adults.

Then, things changed. A few vocal parents became upset that their child learned that not everyone practiced their religion or that the holiday period wasn't just owned by their particular denomination. Parents on the other side became upset because they felt their beliefs weren't covered fully or that religion was being brought into the classroom.

This is a case when educators must stand up for themselves. The children deserve festivals in the classroom, and a well-educated child needs to learn about the myriad of cultures and beliefs that make up our country. If parents have a problem with it, there are home education and private school options that cater to their narrow world view.

Snow day!

Outdoor play for snowy days.

It doesn't take much snow for our first snow to result in excitement with the little ones. I've learned from long experience that the first snowy day results in a complete lack of concentration, and who can blame the kids? As homeschooler, I usually declare that first substantial snow an official snow day and let the kids build snowmen, tunnels and forts, then welcome them indoors with cider and cocoa.


During my early education days I also suspended business as usually for my little pupils. If the snow was too wet for extended outdoor play, I pulled out our snow fight tub. It was filled with large “snow balls” made from yarn pom-poms. We'd build forts with our cardboard blocks and have a fun, safe battle.

If we could get outside, I'd fill spray bottles with food coloring and water. The only think more fun than making a snowman was coloring him in with the food color spray. The kids loved to watch the designs form when they sprayed the snow.

I always supplied warm treats on those cold days. We also would spend some time on out of the ordinary arts and crafts, including the old standby of making paper snowflakes or cottonball snowmen. Baby food jar snow globes are also popular. Making the day special helped the kids focus their excitement and helped me manage a classroom of highly strung littles.

To me, the first snow of the year is a holiday to celebrate with the littles. Put together a tub of special activities so you have it ready to pull out when the cold stuff begins falling!



Arthur Christmas is pretty adorable

With the exception of a couple of sexist jokes, it’s a warm laugh-fest for the whole family.

Arthur Christmas came out on DVD this past Tuesday, and my family and I were pretty excited about it since we hadn’t seen it in theaters. Though the movie pretty much bombed at the box office, it was given high flying marks with the critics and for good reason. The movie is absolutely adorable, even if it does have a few sexist jokes—aimed both at men and women.

The film is about the current Santa—descended from a long line of human Santas—and his two sons, Arthur and Steve. Steve is an efficient, no-nonsense militaristic man who keeps Christmas on schedule while Arthur is loveable but clumsy, and assigned to the mailroom due to his tendency to create messes. Steve is destined to be the next Santa, and Arthur is fine with this—but when a mistake happens on Christmas Eve, it is Arthur who comes through, not his brother, and shows his true colors as a man who loves Christmas as well as children.

There are so many charming things about this movie—its English point of view and humor, its bumbling but bright animation, its heart-warming themes—that I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a film that the whole family is bound to enjoy; in my own, we had several favorite scenes each! There are such carefully crafted details—a Christmas tree shaped beard, an elf with an eyebrow piercing, many multi-cultural elves working for the Santas—that you know a lot of heart and soul went into this movie. The all-star cast, including James McAvoy, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nye, and House-star Hugh Laurie, also add to its flavor. Of course, my favorite character was the spunky elf girl who helps Arthur get a present to a forgotten child.

And with the exception of one violent scene—a blast from a battle aircraft to a sled in which no one is hurt—the movie isn’t violent or scary, either. Beware a few jokes aimed at men and women—such as Santa’s remark about “what women do while their husbands are at work” and the goofy helplessness of old Santa while his wife signs treaties and flies his aircraft. If you can roll your eyes through it—or explain it to the kiddos—the rest of the movie really is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. My seven-year-old loved it so much she wanted to watch it again immediately—and we liked it so much that we did, too.

Nap time

Respecting developmental differences.

It's a common sight in a preschool classroom, and even in some kindergarten and first grade rooms. Rubber mats rolled out on the floor and children lying down. Some are asleep while others are relaxing, but a few are fidgeting. It's nap time in the class and everyone must rest.

I remember the week I spent in a daycare program when I was four. To be exact, I only remember the nap times. I was a precocious child when it came to naps and had quite taking them by the time I was two, according to my mother.

That 45 minute break in the day, where we laid on the floor in a darkened room, was hard for me. So hard I remember it clearly some 32 years later. My son also stopped napping young, but fortunately he was never exposed to the forced nap of preschool.

Not all preschools handle nap time the same way. More are moving toward a quiet time where children are encouraged to lay down for a few minutes and listen to a song or story, something that at least stimulates the mind.

Those that don't fall asleep are allowed to look through books or color quietly at their mats. A few preschools are exceptionally observant, and separate the non-nappers from the nappers as they notice the pattern over the first few weeks of each year.

While I do advocate for a quiet time in school during the early years, the forced naps of my childhood really need to be done away with. Not all children nap, nor should they. Forcing these children to lie down and do nothing can feel like torture to a young kid.

It can also be torture to a family if a non-napper does fall asleep. I know my non-nappers would be unable to fall asleep until late at night and it would throw off their entire sleep schedule if they did happen to catch some midday ZZZ's.

Creativity exercises

Stretching the imagination muscle.


Although most kids are born creative, they begin to lose the ability as they get older if they aren't given opportunity to use it. Just like a muscle, creativity needs a regular workout to remain strong and healthy.

In many schools, creativity is inadvertently stamped out in our children as they are forced to fit into a mold with their peers and follow all instructions to a tee. Consider implementing “creativity” training with young children (and older kids, too!) to keep those muscles pumping and the ideas flowing for the rest of their lives.

I like to take a midday break for a silly creative activity. Although I give an inspiration idea, no creative project is ever wrong, even if the child completely ignores the provided inspiration. For example, I may tell the kids to draw an ice cream Sunday consisting of all their favorite things, minus the ice cream. Or perhaps we take turns telling stories about a real event, but replacing any people in the story with an animal and any animals in the story with a person.

Silly songs also work well. Take a well-known song, such as Row, Row Your Boat, and change the word boat to something else, such as shoe. The kids will laugh and soon will be changing even more words and eventually writing their own songs.

I like manipulative creative activities. Sometimes I give the kids dice with the instruction that they need to roll it then draw a comic strip that somehow integrates the number they rolled. Color or letter die also work well as story or art builder inspiration. These activities don't have to take long, perhaps 15 minutes, but they keep those creative thinking synapses firing for many hours afterward.



Further thoughts on reading

Practice, practice, practice!

Practice makes perfect, and there is no where that this is more true than in reading. One of the most frustrating periods of learning, for both the kids and the teacher, is when the child understands and can implement the major reading rules but hasn't yet mastered them sufficiently for fluency. The length of this period varies between children, which is why the early school years results in classes with reading abilities all over the map.


With my kids, I focus on reading for 60 to 90 minutes a day, although further practice sneaks in throughout our regular learning. We spend about 10 minutes reviewing rules or going over new ones, then my son launches into word work. In a classroom setting, you could have word work stations for the kids to rotate through, but in our small homeschool we use plastic tubs on a shelf.

On Pinterest and teacher blogs, you can find a million free word work activities, but we have settled on a few favorites. I try to rotate in something new every few weeks to keep it fresh. For reading and word activities, we have a scrabble like game. I made letter tiles with craft foam. My son uses the tiles to spell words. Each letter is only worth one point, unless he tries to spell words from a special word list, such as days of the week, months, number words or color words. Those letters are worth two points. For every 100 points he gets to pick something from a treasure chest.

We also have the writing work tub. It holds a stationary set so he can write letters (we even have a tin can mail box to “mail” the letters. I actually mail those written to real people, from family members to Astronauts and authors). We have a supply of handmade mini-blank books for writing our own books and we also have fancy pens with colorful ink for basic writing practice.

Word work takes up to 30 or 45 minutes some days. We also spend at least 30 minutes actually reading. He must read to me or his brother for at least 20 minutes, and read to himself for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on his stamina that day and the difficulty of the book.


How to teach reading

Six steps for the beginning reader.

I was fielding questions from a young mom the other day on homeschooling. She and her husband had their heart set on homeschooling, but figured they would send their child to school for a couple of years first so he could learn to read. When I asked why, she admitted that she didn't think she could teach reading and figured the classroom was a better place to master that skill. Judging from the questions and comments I get, a lot of people are intimidated by reading instruction. I taught both my boys to read. One child was easy, while the other was difficult, so I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the methods that work.

There are plenty of quality reading programs out there that can walk you through it. My easy reader didn't need them because he taught himself to read when he was three. The programs didn't quite fit the needs of my difficult reader, so I had to come up with my own plan. Since he is highly methodical and logical like me, I approached it in a logical way.

Step 1: Master the consonant and short vowel sounds. Practice CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) like cat, hat, bad, dog. Continue with this practice until the child can read these words fluently and blend the sounds well and naturally.

Step 2: Introduce the long vowel in conjunction with the silent “E.” Also introduce the plural -s and -es. Many reading programs do these toward the end, but I found it more useful to introduce following CVC fluency.

Step 3: Introduce the initial blends, such as br-, st-, ch-, etc. There are 10 common initial two-letter blends. We focused on a couple of week, joining them with Vowel -Consonant endings, such as sl-ug, sn-ap, etc.

Step 4: Introduce the 12 common ending blends, including -nk and -st, such as in ju-nk and lo-st. We covered a couple a week, while still reviewing out initial blends.

Step 5: Introduce the 21 digraphs, such as “oi,” “ou,” “sh,” and “oa.” We also introduce the four R-controlled sounds at this time – or, ar, air, er. Lots and lots of practice, using these sounds in the beginning, middle and end of words.

Step 6: Once fluency in the common blends and digraphs is reached with simple words, we begin to work on compound words (“cupcake”). We also learn how to break down long words into their parts so we can sound them out (ex.: remember = re*mem*ber. Distaster= dis*tast*er).

After fluency is reached in these six steps, we mainly focus on lots and lots of reading out loud together. I choose engaging books about one level ahead of the new reader. We work out hard words together, taking turns reading paragraphs so he can hear and see how the words flow with fluency. Once reading and comprehension is pretty solid, we begin integrating quiet reading. He keeps a notebook nearby to jot down any words that give him trouble so we can work them out later.