Saturday, April 24, 2010

Teaching Multiple Levels...How Do I Do It?

This is a question that comes to me often through emails and posts on my favorite homeschooling forum (well the only one I visit and participate in actually) - the FIAR forums.

There are multiple levels of Five in a Row. Before FIAR is for preschoolers 2 to 4 and is just a gentle little program full of fun. FIAR is for 4-8 yr olds and has four volumes. The units revolve around picture books and are designed to be one week long. The last volume is a stepping stone volume for 7-8 yr olds and has two week units. Beyond FIAR is for 8-12 yr olds and has three volumes. These units are for chapter books rather than picture books. Finally, there is Above and Beyond FIAR which currently has one unit- Hitty the First Hundred Years is the book that is studied and this program is for 12 yrs and up.

I wanted to provide this little crash course in Five in a Row because it is often the context in which people ask me how I teach the different levels at our house. This year we've been schooling 6th, 4th, and 2nd grades along with preschool.

First of all, as with anything we do, my approach to this changes with time. When my kids were younger, I often kept up with more than one level of FIAR. Now that my children are all a little older and our youngest is approaching school age, we can more easily work together as a family on our units.

I have been known to row a Beyond title, for example, Betsy Ross with my two oldest kids while the younger ones do a FIAR title. For the longest time, E11 rowed Beyond titles by himself and R9 and I7 rowed FIAR titles together. Those were the days when J4 was really young.

Often with those scenarios, lessons overlap and if one set of learners is doing a science lesson, then everyone will join in. Only the child whose lesson it is has to do the recording. Everyone else gets to observe and join in and discuss.

One thing I don't do is try to create enormous studies of one topic and correlate the different levels of FIAR that way. If we rabbit trail into a topic and it's a popular one- as was the case last fall with The Civil War, then we take a break and all do it together. That unit sprung out of Follow the Drinking Gourd and E11 was beginning George Washington Carver. We left GWC behind and went full monte with The Civil War as a family. In other words, I resist the urge to row consecutively FIAR titles that are related in theme/topic.

FIAR was designed to offer students a wide survey of topics for study. If we cram them all together as one big, fat unit then we miss the blessing of revisiting those topics with our kids as time goes on. I like to see those topics come back around so we can see some prior knowledge in action and build on another layer as our kids get older. Plus, I find that if a study gets too huge we lose the spark as time goes on.

These days I'm mostly doing family studies with all three older kids and Before FIAR with J4. J4 will be kindergarten level in the fall (so hard to believe!) and I would like to finish up Before with him before fully taking on FIAR for kindergarten. We only have a few titles left at this point.

So, by now I'm sure you all want some real deal, applicable ideas. Here are a few things that I practice regularly.
  • Make sure your kids are invested in what they are studying. If you are not a unit study person, then this probably sounds absurd. What comes next is what comes next. However, my kids always perform better when they are invested in what they are learning. I often "bring them to the table" to discuss what direction our schooling is going in. They don't get totally free reign, but they do get to be part of the decision making process. This usually makes for a successful study as a family.
  • Be open to a change of plans when your kids come up with ideas. For example, when we began a study of The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, I had in mind that the kids would do a travel brochure for NY or NYC. In the process of sharing with them the things we might do during the unit, my son asked if they could make a NY game. E11 and R9 both began planning away and shouting out ideas they had for a game. Now I had a choice- do I stick with what I thought would be good or do I let them run with their ideas. I let them run. Both games are excellent in idea and E11 has worked diligently everyday on his. It's going to be a fabulous game and it's almost done. I would never have gotten that same quality of work and passion for the travel brochure.
  • Family studies are a great way to involve everyone on their own level. Don't assume it can't be done just because some kids are way older and have more skills than others. This is especially true if you are following the first two guidelines. See how that all comes together? I'm more flexible with my preschooler, but the older kids can always find their niche in our studies. E11 will get to go the extra mile with his portion while R9 and I7 work on the same assignment at their level. For example, when we were studying birds in our Angelo unit, the kids all did a bird report. I gave I7 a form to fill out where he had to use reference material to find his answers and draw a picture. R9 had to put the information from the form into a written page with a picture. E11 had to do a full on report. He chose the bald eagle and wrote about two pages of well organized facts about the eagle with a hand drawn picture.
  • The older kids can choose something extra they will do during a study. So, if someone wants to write a puppet script for a part of our study or make a meal or plan an activity, they can. I get to work one on one with that child for the activity while the others are doing other work- either passion pursuits or sometimes this happens during free time. In this way, their notebooks may not look exactly the same, but everyone is working on the same topic.
  • I modify the same activity for each student. Last week we studied rivers. We talked about where they originate and where they go at the breakfast table. I asked I7 his thoughts on the topic. We discussed it further with input from everyone. Later on the kids had to find and name some of the major rivers in NY. R9 and E11 listed them outright looking at an atlas when they got stuck. E11 I charged with listing major rivers in the US and around the world. I7 dictated his answers to me and I typed them into StartWrite and he used the list as that day's copywork. Once the written portion started, everyone was working at the same time. I was helping those who needed it and pointing things out as they went along as well as answering questions. We also do our math adventures this way. Check out the living math link so read about how we do math together at once.
  • Use meal times to your advantage. Many of our school days begin right at the kitchen table during breakfast. I go over the plan for the day and the kids give me feedback on that. Sometimes they point out things I've forgotten or they interject with another idea. Sometimes we try it and sometimes we don't. I can read the FIAR story or another read aloud, ask questions, have a discussion, ask opinions, etc.
  • Make sure to include all the kids in a discussion and make sure the oldest one isn't always answering. Now this one is a teacher thing most likely, but I think anyone can figure out you can't have the older kids answering everything for the younger kids. I remind E11 that I know he knows something and to let I7 answer. Or I will call his name and say, "I7, what do you think about _____?" He knows he has the opportunity to tell me his thoughts without interruption or without someone else snagging it first. You can also do this by just asking for ONE answer of something that has several. That gives others a chance too.
  • Include the older kids in with the preschooler's study. Early this year, J4 and I rowed Angus Lost together. It's a Before FIAR book. In it, Angus the dog, finds himself lost and staying the night in a cave. Since we have been focusing on earth science a lot this year, I decided to use this Before FIAR book to do a unit on caves with the whole family. J4 was excited and proud that it was his book the other kids were using as a starting place for their study. Each morning we began with Angus and we'd do some things together with J4, then we'd talk about our cave topic for the day. We made the salt dough caves and learned a bunch more together. It even gave me a chance to do stranger danger type stuff and what to do when you are lost not just with our preschooler but with all the kids- at their level.
  • Use independent work or play time to work with just one or two kids at a time. If I'm working with my older kids on something, I let the younger kids have free time or I give them one assignment they can do on their own. If I'm working with my younger kids, then I have the bigger kids do independent work. This is a great time for them to work on whatever it is that they are doing extra in our study.
  • Be flexible and remain steadfast in reaching your goal. I have a list of school things I want to complete in a day and I try to stay focused on those few things I have set. Many times it will include math, writing/reading, unit study. Your day will have some dips and turns. That will happen. How you handle it is everything. Just keep looking for that next moment when you can pick things back up. And follow through when that moment arrives. This is great advice for those of you with babies and toddlers. You might enjoy a post I wrote back when J4 was two- A Day in the Life of a Homeschooling Family (a hall of fame post).
  • Realize that homeschooling occurs all the time. Learning is part of our lifestyle and we do it together. So, record it! Even if your state requires very little to no reporting, I think it is valuable to record what is happening in your school. It helps me to reflect on where we've been and how my kids are doing. I just turned in our 3rd Quarterly Report for the year for my three school aged kids and it is a nice boost to see in one spot everything we've done. I really like the Lifestyle of Learning journals. I have a home made version and Kendra at the Pumpkin Patch has made something similar you might like.
Ok...this is the longest post ever and I reserve the right to come back and add something! I lost a portion of this last night so it's taken me a while to restore it.

If you have a tidbit to share with us on how to work with various levels, please share them with a comment.


Valerie said...

Wow! Thank you! What a great post. This must have taken you forever.

I'm still considering Math on the Level. It's a little hard to get by the price, although I'm sure it's a great deal when you consider it's all you need for many years. You all really like it, huh?

Heather said...

It did take me forever Valerie especially when I lost it once! ha.

I'm happy to do it. I hope it helps you all work out some ideas.

We do really love MOTL. It is worth the price and it's easy to sell if you find it just doesn't fit your style. Also, they have a 60 day money back deal so it's worth a look.

Lori said...

Great post. Even after many years of homeschooling, it is helpful to to get a peek at how other moms make it work.

Heather said...

Thank you Lori!

Tracey said...

Another great post Heather! You continue to amaze me with all you accomplish. GREAT!

Gail said...

Great post Heather. I'll be coming back to it again and again to glean and chew on it! I really wanted some of the nuts and bolts of how you do it and you didn't let me down!

Beth said...

This is a great post, thank you for explaining so clearly how you make it work! We are on the cusp of beginning FIAR with our oldest DS (5) in the fall, and as his little brother (1) gets older I am sure I will refer back to this again in the years to come. We are planning on "rowing" a few BFIAR books this summer to get into the routine. I would love to hear any tips of what worked for you when homeschooling your older kids while also having toddlers.