Teachable Moments

(This article was written while the weather was still mild in Iowa!)

One school day a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to run an errand with all three of my kids in tow. We had been out to a morning activity, and I didn’t want to travel all the way home before accomplishing some things “out in the world!” To maintain morale and energy, we grabbed some fast food and settled down picnic-style to eat it in a park. The boys all seemed relaxed and content, and I thought I would try to capture what seemed to be a teachable moment as we sat there on our blanket. What could we work on with no books, no paper, no pencils? In truth, there would be a great many things (skip counting, math facts, dates in history, names of states, etc.), but the subject that plagues me personally (and I do mean plagues me) for attention is German. I have said many times to many people that I can, I must, I will teach German to my children, but I haven’t done it yet. So on that sunny, errand-running day, sitting on a picnic blanket, I tried to teach my children to say, “Ich bin x Jahre alt,” substituting the proper age for each one of them. On road trips, we had already listened to a teaching CD of basic German in song format, so they have some familiarity with German numbers. I just thought I could add in the surrounding verbage so they could tell their Dad their ages in German.

We tried, we rehearsed, I pleaded. Our 4-year-old linguist (a self-taught reader) refused to even participate. Our middle child, who is happiest when he can be verbally funny, gave some effort, but grew easily bored. Thankfully, we have a dutiful oldest child (you know, that firstborn syndrome), who worked very hard at saying over and over again, “Ich bin zehn Jahre alt,” at least after I told him how happy it would make his Dad! At the end of the picnic, my success rate as a teacher was thus 1/3, and most of that could be attributed to someone other than myself (as I said, the firstborn-ness and the Daddy motivator kicking in!). The relaxed children on the blanket turned out to be not-so-teachable after all.

Looking back at that day and using my best Mom Hindsight, I would guess that my children had other plans, other thoughts, other wishes which interfered with their ability or desire to learn a little German while on a picnic. We had been to the park’s playground area; they wanted to go back, if we could spare the time. They had driven around town with me, and now I was trying to confine them again — albeit in a different kind of space than a motor vehicle — when they just wanted to be kids and play. And the value of learning German — the face value of it to American kids — is not very high. Whatever kind of use could it ever have? I think it’s hard enough for kids — my kids, your kids — to understand what they’re going to do with language arts and math skills until or unless someone or something shows them that those skills are relevant. At our house, we have played “M & M Math” since we started homeschooling, and even now, any time one of my kids struggles with a math problem or concept, I try to explain it with M & Ms. Candy they understand! So for German I need a hook, too, in order to create the teachable moments rather than just waiting for or forcing them to happen: an inducement to approach the subject, a tool to transmit the subject knowledge, a reward for assimilating the knowledge — all of these things in one package!

Hmm, sounds like M & Ms!

Wer moechte M & Ms? Ich habe viele fuer euch. Kommt doch und setzt euch zu mir am Tisch, und wir zaehlen sie zuerst: eins, zwei, drei…


“M & M Math”: At our house, we use dice and candy-coated chocolate pieces (yes, usually the name-brand M & Ms) to practice math facts and even other math concepts (graphing, for example). Only after we started this practice did I discover that the author/illustrator team McGrath and Glass have written books explaining math concepts using M & M’s brand chocolate candies, and they have permission of the brand owner Mars Inc. to use the name, characters, and images in their books. So “M & M Math” is also a real, “official” thing! You may wish to look up these books for ideas in using candy to teach math. Of course, you may also use raisins, bite-sized crackers, other small candies, etc. as motivational tools for teaching math… or maybe a foreign language!

Translation for the final German sentences: Who wants M & Ms? I have a lot for you. Come and sit down with me at the table, and we will count them first: one, two, three…


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Weighed Down, Bearing Up

After many years of allowing my physical fitness to slide to the bottom of my priority list, I have begun to exercise. I started by making myself walk the treadmill until I broke a sweat, and then pushed it a few minutes longer. I moved on to hand weights, working on toning my upper body. Next came the addition of a video program to teach me exercises for my core, and I also started to keep a food journal and measure the food I was eating. Now I am finally to that interesting stage where it is time to increase the intensity, frequency, variety in what I’m doing to keep taking the extra pounds off and to increase muscle mass. This weekend I “took the plunge” and bought 5-pound hand weights (I had only been using 3 pounds!), and I have started using ankle weights when I grind out the minutes on the treadmill. It’s exciting to be doing measurably more than what I was doing 4 months ago, and I see that if I want to continue to become more and more fit, I will be repeating this intensification process again and again as time goes on. It was also a revelation to me to notice that, as I used more weight for the first time, I also sensed that I was doing a better job with the muscle-building exercises. It was as if the added weight helped me perform them correctly, as if being weighed down helped my muscles push back in the way they should.

Over the years of homeschooling my children, one of my goals has been to see them accomplish measurably more each year, to see them grow into new skills and competencies. But I wonder if I am as conscious or deliberate in adding weight to their academic and extracurricular plans as I should be, as deliberate as I have recently become in my own exercise plan. Before this weekend, I had already been vaguely wondering, sometimes considering, but not yet deliberately planning how to challenge my children in our next school year; I’m internally constrained by the fact that I don’t ever want to frustrate them beyond what they are ready for. But then I lifted my own literal 5-pound weights and realized that being weighed down can actually make me better than I would be otherwise, and maybe this is what my children need, too. Maybe my children need a heavier academic weight in order to learn to bear up in their own lives.

What does this mean in concrete terms? I don’t know… yet. But I have some ideas, and I also know that weighing down my children will look different for each of them. I can intensify their schoolwork through imposing time limits on their assignments, or supplementing their basic curriculum with extra activities. I can change the frequency of our science lessons, for example, from twice a week to three times a week. I can add in variety to our homeschool lessons through another subject area, such as foreign language (a long time coming in our household, actually, but that’s another story!). And whatever changes I implement I know I can always revise, revamp, rethink in order to add the right amount of weight to each child’s load. After all, we want to build muscle, so to speak, not break backs!

A great master teacher and burden bearer once uttered these words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 29-30, NIV). Jesus did not promise us an absence of burdens, or no weight to carry at all, but he promised that — because he is a “gentle and humble” teacher — we will be able to bear up under the weight we are given. As homeschooling parents, may we also be gentle and humble as we choose the challenges we give our children in the coming school year.


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Let the Games Begin!

Although summer is a great time to take a break from school activities, you and your kids may not want to miss out on the learning that can take place through watching, reading about, and discussing the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. Teacher Created Resources (see link below) has a couple of activity books with olympic-themed activities touching on math, language arts, history and geography. They are also providing a link to a free sample of some of these activities for grades 1-3 and grades 4-6. These look like fun summer bridge/summer enrichment activities… or maybe one more way to help your kids avoid the inevitable, “Mom, I have nothing to do!”






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Overheard: Overwhelmed

If you’re a home educating parent, it’s “that time of year,” namely conference time. I just attended the first of two on our schedule for this summer, and among the snippets of conversations I heard while waiting for an instructional seminar to start were the words, “It’s overwhelming!” And if I hadn’t heard any other part of that conversation, those words still would have made perfect sense in their context – surrounded by mostly strangers, all seated in forward-facing rows in the ballroom of a convention center, waiting for an acknowledged homeschooling expert to speak, previewing his outline in advance, babies (yes, babies!) fussing, crying or cooing all around. It’s normal, I think, to be overwhelmed by one or more aspects of this project of integrating family and school life, and most anyone at a homeschool conference is there because the “overwhelmingness” has driven them there to get advice for one or more homeschooling decisions that must be made. What would be more surprising would be to hear someone at a homeschooling conference say, with no trace of sarcasm, that “it’s all a piece of cake!”

I myself attended public schools growing up, although I had at least heard of homeschooling. One of my mother’s cousins homeschooled, and I remember as a child thinking it was a strange thing. Now, as a home-educating parent myself, it’s a comfort to look back and see that homeschooling was emerging all around, and that God could plant an awareness of it in a small-town Minnesota girl who would grow up to practice it herself. Despite that awareness, I have struggled in our own homeschool to believe that what we McKays are doing is really okay, and that even in the long run, it will have been the right thing to do for my children. My maternal grandparents met as first-graders in a one-room schoolhouse (called, interestingly, the McKay School), and did not get to finish through the twelfth grade. The time and place of their growing-up years did not allow it. And so they valued education, and all of their children had the privilege of going to college. It’s hard as a child of only the second generation of “guaranteed education” to swing the pendulum back to the one-room schoolhouse (when that one room is my dining room!). It’s hard to not be overwhelmed, at least from time to time, by the responsibility and the privilege of teaching my children at home.

The lady I overheard being overwhelmed at the conference last weekend was referring to curriculum choices. I remember being overwhelmed during my first conference by the responsibility of learning and following homeschool law in my state. Whatever you are overwhelmed by in your own homeschooling process this year, there is an answer out there somewhere for you. It may be at a homeschooling conference, it may be in a support group, it may be in your Bible. Wherever it is, you’ll find it, and you can stop being overwhelmed… at least for now!


I have earlier blog posts which talk about curriculum choices (Rule of Thumb) and homeschool law (Freedom Under Authority), if these are overwhelming areas for you currently!

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Freedom Under Authority

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.  Romans 13:1-3 (New Living Translation,  www.BibleGateway.com).

All homeschooling parents must submit to the governing homeschooling laws of their states. For all homeschool governance comes from God, and those in positions of homeschooling authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the homeschooling authorities? Do what the homeschooling laws say, and the authorities will honor you. –my paraphrase of the above Scripture

So do we believe this is true?

Historically, Paul wrote the above Biblical passage to Christian believers living in the Roman Empire, not an easy government to submit to for most people of that era. And admittedly, there have been times and places in the modern homeschooling movement in the United States when parents and government disagreed on the interpretation of parental rights, which in turn led to conflict between homeschoolers and said government. It is not my intention to ignore or explore what has gone before. (For one treatise on that subject, see Milton Gaither’s Homeschooling: …). But at this point, as a home-educating parent in the United States, I personally can acknowledge the benefit of the authority under which I find myself. God guides how I educate my children through the homeschooling laws of the state in which I live, and this I find to be a good thing.

In our state, we submit documents every school year to our resident school district, notifying it which of our children will be homeschooled, what curriculum will be used, and approximately how much time will be spent on each subject in a given week. For grades 1 through 5, only three subject areas are mandatory: math, reading, and language arts. In our state, we must also submit to some sort of oversight process, but there are three choices: a supervising teacher who has 8 contacts with us per year; an end-of-year portfolio for each child submitted to a certified teacher for evaluation; and standardized testing. These basic requirements seemed daunting to me the first year I had to fulfil them. I had to choose an oversight process which worked for our children’s learning styles, my teaching style, and our family’s budget. I also had to start from scratch with curriculum choices, which is a serious task  when you take your children’s education to heart. Along the way, I had assistance, direct and indirect, from our state and local homeschool organizations, from “those who’ve gone before” down the homeschooling path. I found myself under the authority of the state homeschooling laws, as well as – to some extent– the authority of the homeschooling support group which I joined. It was, honestly, the easiest way to begin homeschooling– having someone there to tell me what to do!

Now that we have been operating The McKay School for four years, the legal paperwork seems easier, and meeting with our supervising teacher is a positive, affirming experience. We use the state-prescribed number of school days as a benchmark for our own school year, although we typically only take 6 to 8 weeks completely off in the summer (but maybe 3 to 4 weeks at Christmas!). In other words, we’ve grown into homeschooling under the umbrella of authority of our local rules and regs while still shaping it to suit our own family. And this seems to me to be the spirit of the Biblical passage above – God intends good toward us as we trust Him and as we trust that “all authority” comes from Him.



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Rule of Thumb

When our middle child, Mr. C, was in preschool, his teachers used a “thumb” system to poll the children about their daily snack. My husband caught onto this and started asking the same question at home: “What did you think– was the corn a thumbs up, thumbs middle, thumbs down?” Our not-so-verbal child could quickly and easily give us his opinion – thumbs up, the corn’s great! – which we in turn could use in evaluating future household menu choices. In a sense, it was our rule of thumb, for a time, to consult Mr. C’s thumb about dinner!

How many things do we do each day by some unarticulated rule of thumb? According to the website The Phrase Finder, a rule of thumb is “a means of estimation made according to a rough and ready practical rule, not based on science or exact measurement” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/rule-of-thumb.html . I know that in choosing curriculum for our homeschool I have often subconsciously used rules of thumb, such as reasonable cost or short assignments (for short attention spans!), to arrive at a final decision . Of course, I also want materials which help me teach my children the “basics,” such as math facts and operations, phonics, spelling, handwriting, reading and reading comprehension, etc. And, yes, my rules of thumb do include one called the rule of thumbs – are my children thumbs up, thumbs middle, thumbs down on a particular book or workbook? But the rule of thumbs can never be my primary Rule of Thumb. I may shorten one boy’s handwriting assignment to copying a given letter only five times a day, but I cannot remove the assignment altogether just because he struggles to hold the pencil correctly. The child’s ultimate good and the glory of God are perhaps the Greatest Rule as I homeschool, even if I am always estimating – or “rule of thumbing” – my way toward the best means to that end.

Here are some rules of thumb to consider when educating children at home, whether full-time or even part-time (supplemental to other schooling):

1. Reasonable cost: This depends on your own budget, but I like to find a basic curriculum in the price range of Free to $25 (this will probably not include some extras, such as rulers or pattern blocks for math, or original works/living books for a reading or literature class). Of course I don’t always find or choose a curriculum in this price range, but as I said, I like to!

2. Appropriate length of assignments: Choose materials that reflect the amount of time and effort you plan for yourself and your children to spend on a given subject. For example, if you love to teach history, you could choose Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World, and do most or all of the enrichment activities in the Activity Book. At the same time, consider the age and talents of your children when evaluating assignment length; if too many items for your child are packed into one page of a phonics workbook, for example, it could discourage rather than encourage the learning process.

3. Reusability (for multiple children): If most or all of a curriculum can be used again for another child, this can be both convenient and cost-effective. I like Teaching Textbooks math because I can save the software for the next child to use, and I don’t have to make another purchase or another time-consuming decision!

4. Accessibility for the children: By this, I simply mean that I look for curriculum which my kids can understand and work at independently to an age-appropriate degree. I love the phonics practice in Explode the Code, for example, because of the repeated exercise types, which nonetheless manage to be humorous and engaging each time.

5. Variety: Although I love workbooks (I spent many happy hours as a child making worksheets for my poor little sister to do when we “played school”), I recognize that there are other ways to practice materials. We have used the TAG  reader system from LeapFrog to supplement our middle child’s main reading curriculum. It is fun and requires no writing!

6. Values expressed in the materials: I have enjoyed using the Christian Liberty Phonics Readers with my kids as they’ve learned to read. The stories are family- and God-oriented.

7.  Scope and Sequence: Of course, we don’t want to neglect to provide adequate “brain fodder” for our kids. I pay attention to the amount of material covered by a curriculum, and in what order.

I’m sure there are more rules of thumb. Which ones do you use?

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Word Families

Recently my youngest son, Mr. N, wanted to build words with the letter combination “-ag.” As I searched my mind for words that he could make to create an “-ag” word family, I had a hard time finding any with positive connotations. Starting alphabetically with “bag” (maybe we should just bag it!), I continued in my mind with “c–,” “d–,” “f–,” –no, none of those would work for their own reasons. I could suggest “gag” to him, “hag,” “lag,” “nag.” Wait! I thought. How is it that, in the English language, this combination of “a” plus “g” results in so many unhappy words? Gag reflex, old hag, lag time, don’t nag! Surely, there had to be a more child-friendly, upbeat word family, one that would be more musical sounding, too!

We moved on to more gentle rhyming sounds: “ran, “ “fan,” “tan;” “cat,” “sat,” “mat.” In a sense, word families are nothing more than sets of words that rhyme, and isn’t that the tried-and-true pre-reading advice? “Play rhyming games with your children so they are ready to learn to read.” In the case of my youngest son, playing with word families comes naturally.

I hadn’t given word families much thought, however, until it came time last fall to teach our middle son to read. Mr. C has the most difficulty with words of our three boys, which first prompted me to think about using word families, that is, familiar rimes with multiple onsets [1], for learning to read. He was going to need repetition and practice in a way our oldest son hadn’t when he learned to read. I looked into file folder games, worksheets, and electronic learning toys for help. My husband started the practice of letting Mr. C earn time playing video games if he could write down ten words by memory or by sounding them out. When Mr. C comes asking for help to think of those words, he and I find a word he already knows, and I dictate as many words as possible in the same word family: “back,” “black,” “stack,” “hack,” “rack,” and so on. When I think about it, it is not surprising that the spelling curriculum I gravitated to for our oldest son, Mr. P, also uses word families to develop spelling skills. Take a brick and add another… “end,” “bend,” “lend,” “blend,” “tend,” “extend”– we want words to be easier, more related to one another, more relevant in our daily use, don’t we?

We do. We want words to be a rich resource for our lives through the blessings of reading and writing, and the accompanying entrance to thoughts beyond and higher than our own. My husband, a software developer, works with computer languages which have their own kind of words, and longs to write a novel. I, a sometimes linguist, was completing a dissertation on second language learners’ attempts to place words correctly in German sentences when I married him. We are now educating our 3 boys at home, each of whom has a different level of relationship to words, and each headed toward his own ultimate level of like or satisfaction or meta-thought about them. Yes, we are also a word family– a family who likes words and needs words, even though some members of the family still consider the written word a battle to be fought or a task to be done.

But words are a worthy task, a worthy battle, and word families are a wonderful way to work and play with words. Even the “-ag” family has its redeeming members, I realized, as we finally made “wag.” What a friendly word! Yet we continue our efforts so that, eventually, we will move beyond the rhyming and on to the reading and connecting of words and thoughts, lest the tail wag the dog and not the other way around.


Here are a few specific resources used around our house for practice in word families:

  • Hot Dots Phonics Flash Cards: Word Families, by Educational Insights
  • Kumon workbooks, such as My Book of Rhyming Words & Phrases
  • LeapFrog TAG Reader and books
  • The Mailbox: The Idea Magazine for Teachers, kindergarten and first grade levels
  • Sequential Spelling series, Don McCabe/AVKO Educational Research Foundation


[1] The term rime refers to the part of a word family word which stays the same, such as “-ag.” Onset refers to the first letter(s) of a word which change in rhyming (i.e. word family) words, thereby making a new word.

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Hello world!

Testing, testing, 1 — 2 — 3…

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