Way back in February, Lindsay wanted to know:
I'm new to your blog, so you may have explained this in the past and I've missed it: but could you tell me more about "choice time"? How long does it last? What are the parameters? What ages does it work well with? What is your role as the teacher during this time? How do you get the kids to keep working once they have finished a choice? And do your choices always center around themes? Thanks so much!
And then I promptly went out of town. Honestly, this post about choice time has been kicking around in my drafts folder since last fall, when Melanie and Andrea also asked about it. I apologize heartily for taking so long. Hopefully I'll now be able to answer everyone's questions, although I may have to take more than one post for it. This post is mostly to answer the question:
What the heck is "choice time" anyway?
The short answer: it's our version of a Montessori work period. A real Montessori work period is three hours long. During those three hours, teachers give presentations of new material to children who are ready for them and sometimes (as in the Great Lessons), they might invite children to attend a group presentation. Mostly (as I understand it) the children choose their work independently from the shelves. Elementary-aged children are not as dependent on teacher-prepared trays and other activities as primary-aged (3-6 year old) children, but for the most part -- the work does come from the combination of a prepared environment and a prepared teacher.
"Choice Time" in our house is Montessori-inspired. This means that I've tweaked the basic concept of a three hour Montessori work period to fit my children, myself, my house, and the way that we live and learn. As it stands now, Choice Time is a work period of an hour or two in the morning after our read aloud time and our morning chores. It ends around lunch time. The name "choice time" was something that just sort of fell out of my mouth one day. I needed to distinguish this period of choice from anything that would be required by me... like math. But I also needed to make it clear that this was not a time to play. It was (is) a real work period, but the kids are free to choose whatever it is they want to work on, within certain limits:
Here's where a bit of history will come in handy.
Montessori has been sort of a spiral path for us. I would read a little, try a little, read a little more, try a little more, take two steps back, read some more, try some more, switch to classical, go back to Montessori... well, you get the picture. Now that Gareth is almost twelve his learning "quirks" have become a little easier to deal with. But until the age of 10, homeschooling was intensively trial and error. When Montessori finally began to click with me, we were living in a rented farm house with most of our belongings in boxes. Gareth was eight, Katydid just about to turn six. Farmerboy was barely two. The farmhouse certainly had room for shelving -- and actually the finished porch in the front of the house would have made a great learning room once it was denuded of the 70's orange shag carpet -- but since we were getting ready to move again, all I really had available was a window ledge. I put out a few activities -- crayons, beeswax, watercolors, blocks, a plastic set of "metal" insets. The big kids also had a few workbooks to choose from, but we had library books and...
You know, that time in our lives was really tough. All the extra pregnancy hormones from the twins have apparently fogged my memory, because what other activities did I expect them to choose? But I was living in a rosy dreamworld where merely uttering the word "Montessori" would be a magical incantation against tantrums, encouraging my headstrong and "quirky" eight year old to suddenly enjoy writing, doing long math problems, and spelling overnight.
Of course it didn't work that way. Instead, they chose to paint with watercolors.
Day after day. For about thirty minutes at a time. Then -- since it was June and hot in the house -- they wanted nothing more than to escape outside, where they built houses in the woods, collected bugs, examined wildflowers, and played in the water and the mud.
Now that I look back, the kids were the ones being reasonable; I was not. I was gripped in a long-term panic attack, which stemmed from the fact that we had been unschooling that year since October -- reading stack after stack of dinosaur books, drawing dinosaurs, eating and breathing dinosaurs... but not actually reading independently yet (at eight and a half), writing (of any kind), or doing any sort of math (although a few worksheets I'd made up myself using "dinosaur math" had been popular and taught the beginnings of multiplication.)
What I liked most (and still do) about Montessori is the concept of freedom within limits. What I disliked about unschooling in a more radical fashion was the sensation that we were all sort of floating free. I suspected at the time that some of the more traditional unschooling advice ("they'll do it when they're ready," for example; "they'll learn math through living,") wasn't really working for Gareth, who could (and wishes he still could) ignore math in any form as long as he lived, thank you very much. Probably the biggest problem we had, with unschooling on the one hand and more traditional methods of education on the other, was Gareth's extreme reaction to frustration. Because he was (and still is, to some extent) unable to deal with any sort of frustration at all, he would totally avoid anything he found the least bit difficult -- reading, for instance. But if I were to hand down a series of assignments -- even if they were supposed to interest him -- his knee-jerk reaction was always "no". If those assignments contained anything that took him more than 30 seconds to comprehend... we were quickly headed for a meltdown.
So Choice Time and Montessori came about in our house as a sort of middle way between those two extremes. Looking back, if things had been more stable when we first began experimenting with Montessori in the farmhouse, a more patient, gently guided approach would probably have been the thing, perhaps eliminating the need to distinguish a time for choice and a time for not-choice. But since life around here is like the weather -- wait a minute and it will change -- what has worked for us is to require certain basics, using the kids' input on choosing resources, working times and environment, and to allow most everything else to be chosen, with a little guidance from me.
Next up: the nitty-gritty on how choice time is set up.
It doesn't seem like it's been three and a half weeks since Chipmunk was born, but today Andy and three kids who were mostly well brought Grandma C. back to the airport so she could go home. I'm left here because a) I am still recovering in slow motion from that C-section; b) the two other big kids are still too sick to go; and c)I've managed to contract this rotten cold, too. So I'm sitting here at our new desktop (!) while I drink my tea with honey, trying to set up a few things.
While I've been down for the count, I've passed control of the camera to Katydid, who has taken at least 200 pictures in the past few weeks. I'll be making a photo album for her and linking to it in the sidebar. Most of the pictures are of the flowers she planted in the garden. Because they came in a "wildflower mix" we don't have all of them identified, but hopefully we'll be working on that soon.
Here is a sampling of Katydid's pictures:
A Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar she found while she was weeding...
The maples are turning...
One of Katydid's favorite photos... Looks like a morning glory, but it isn't a vine.
Asters, growing in our field...
Another favorite photo...
An entry in her nature journal... (I don't require nature journals; this is something she does on her own.)
I think she's got quite an eye for a nice shot!
So. This is what I have for fall. It is likely that some of these ideas will fail abysmally and that some of them will work out beyond my wildest dreams. Somewhere in there is that mythical happy medium that would be nice to achieve every once in a while. I would have liked to have been even more prepared by now, but July and August have been crazy busy with all the activities that can't be done in upstate New York after about... October. It was more important for us to work in soccer and swimming and all those nature programs at the arboretum anyway. Now the kids are ready to gear down a bit, which is good, because a new baby will make us gear waaaay down...
Here's the plan, broken up into its main components. And the first and most important component of our fall will be...
That's right; we'll have each Grandma here for two weeks, starting Monday. (And believe me, we know how lucky we are.) Grandma #1 (my mom) is really, really good at all the fabric arts -- knitting, sewing, crocheting, cross-stitching, etc. (I am hoping that she will look at my sewing machine before I go to the hospital and tell me if I broke it or not.) Katydid has plans for her already. Grandma #2 likes to make simple crafts and recipes with the kids and play board games. The kids don't see their grandmas very often since we live so far away, and they really look forward to being able to spend all this time with them whenever we add a new child to the family.
People are most important. Then comes the environment, as I won't be stressing anyone out for the first 6 weeks or so with assignments. (After the Grandmas leave, my first priorities will be to keep our chore routines going, have food on the table at our normal mealtimes and try to get our diet back more in tune with Feingold again, make sure quiet and naptimes are observed for the older five kids, and read to them... and keep the baby fed and happy, too. Maybe even take a shower occasionally... ok, so that may be a little overly optimistic.)
The environment I have set up at this moment is not a carefully structured Montessori learning room -- I wish it was, but I just haven't had time or energy -- but these are some of the areas and resources I am hoping will interest the kids:
My kids love art. They fill up several thick sketchbooks with drawings every year, and we go through a lot of Sculpey. After we get on our feet again, I'm hoping to use the journals you see here to bring art to various areas of the curriculum, but for now a fully stocked and available art cabinet will hopefully invite a number of projects. I've restocked our Sculpey drawer, purchased some nice bamboo knitting needles for knitting projects, many sheets of felt for sewing and for turning into flannel board shapes for Pip and Pop, and I have been informed (after I made my order, unfortunately) that someone is in need of crayons and another would like some oil pastels. So I'll be putting in an order for those in the next 2 days. I'll also probably be purchasing another set of Do-A-Dot paint markers, because the twins have mixed the colors by loving them too much:
I've also stocked up on Usborne art books for big and little kids. Hopefully these will provide grist for the mill. I've also got an art book to reread, one I dug out of my bookcase recently: Doing Art Together. This is a very Montessori-ish approach to art, especially for preschoolers, but also for elementary aged children. I bought it several years ago and used many of its ideas for my older kids, but had eventually forgotten about it. The Waldorf art discussion on the 4Real boards prompted me to dig it back out, although it is definitely not a Waldorf book. This is one of those books I'll probably leaf through while nursing.
I did not mean to use the top of the china cabinet in quite this way, but it turned out to be a good place to put some of the activities my almost- two year olds can do and like, but which I am afraid to put down lower yet. All of the Montessori activities that I have out right now are ones I've presented to the kids, and that I feel comfortable with them doing under the supervision of people who are not me. Two other popular trays around here are these:
Golf tees, clay and hammer... (the wooden box has been recycled from a Melissa and Doug farm stamp set)...
A scissors/cutting tray for my four year old...
And new Duplos and Legos, to replenish our supply that has dwindled inexplicably over the years...
Booklists for the Big Kids
In the picture of the china cabinet are a couple of book bins. These hold books for Gareth and Katydid to choose from that I think they will like or that I would like them to read. Gareth's stack leans heavily to classic science fiction and adventure, and Katydid's contains many classic "girl" books as well as all the Beverly Cleary books that we own. (She's a big Beverly Cleary fan.) They don't have to read them in any particular order, and they don't have to read all of them. If they're reading other books it's okay. Our only rule is that every day they have to read something that isn't a media tie-in or otherwise obviously "twaddley". Usually this rule doesn't even have to be stated, but sometimes, if Gareth is into a heavy Bionicle or Star Wars phase, it does. Here's a picture of their stacks:
(Gareth's stack has more in it because I had more of the books from my list on hand, or we were able to find them on a trip to Border's we made a while back. I think I also put the Beverly Cleary books in later.) This idea is already in action, and I have to say -- I hit the jackpot. The kids love having their very own bin of books to choose from. I've also introduced the idea of drawing scenes from the books after they've finished reading as a form of narration that might interest them (of course we talk about the books they're reading and I plan on reading many of these myself -- or I have read many of them myself), and that's gone over well, too. Gareth's already finished War of the Worlds and made some interesting drawings of Martian spaceships.
Of course practical life gets a workout in the first few weeks a new baby is in the house. I'm hoping that grandmas will involve the kids in cooking and baking, and I'll definitely be working on pouring with my 4 year old. In our past experience, the kids have really stepped up with each new addition, and I think that will happen again. My goal is the kitchen this time: I'd like to introduce my 10 and 8 year olds to independent cooking.
History and Culture
A lot of new books in this area, mainly to do with explorers. I'm hoping to put up a list of books on my sidebar before I go to the hospital. In addition, we have retrieved the globe from Gareth's room and I'll be putting out Lori's Continent Kits with picture books to encourage some independent research into geography.
I'm still putting together some ocean activities, primarily for Farmerboy, who continues to be interested in oceans. These activities will involve some three part cards (shells and fish), actual shells, and art. Then I plan on lugging the botany cabinet upstairs (or having Andy lug it upstairs anyway) to make it available while the leaves are still on the trees. (All of you who've been suffering with 100 degree + temperatures for the past few weeks... one of my maples is starting to turn already. Fall is on its way.) And of course we own about a zillion children's books on science topics, garden and nature are daily around here, and the field guides are constantly in use. (I am hoping, however, that the kids will get interested in some of our collections of science experiments and try them on their own.)
Not much here, unfortunately. I have some spelling cards, and I am in the process of making a spelling dictionary using a Rolodex that Gareth and Katydid will hopefully put to use in the stories that they write. Gareth labeled a drawing the other day with a very long and complicated word he'd spelled correctly and had apparently memorized by seeing it with a picture he was interested in. This lit a little light bulb in my brain, and I am hoping that I can get him started on making a spelling notebook, in which he writes down words he wants to know how to spell and draws pictures to accompany them. I'm hoping this will help, because something has to.
Well, things break down a little here. I was thinking about using the Miquon Red Book with Katydid after I'd been home from the hospital for a while, but I'm not sure that will work. And Gareth really doesn't like math, but has been using Key to Fractions for a while now. I have some string art activities, 3 part geometry cards and solids, and How Math Works, so we may just let our math be "living" for a while.
And that's about as far as I've thought so far. We'll start our read alouds again as soon as we can, of course, and after we get on our feet a bit, I hope to institute our morning "choice time" (a Montessori work period) again. Until then... well, it will be an adventure!
(First of all, I want to thank everyone who left such kind comments about Katydid's First Communion! )
I just finished writing out our curriculum for the school district. This year the IHIP was a little harder to write because we're not going to be very formal around here for a while. Amy and Valerie have both written posts on "homeschooling in crisis mode" -- which, for a lot of us with growing families, can seem like most of the time. Back in April, I wrote about the same thing ... sort of... except at the other end of the year, when I was feeling a little more burned out.
It seems like there are two camps as to what to do when a crisis hits:
2. Resort to unschooling (if you are the lesson-plan, formal academic, school-at-home sort)
I can't say much about workbooks, except that sometimes -- and for certain children -- they only seem to make life harder, but their promise of "no teacher prep" glimmers on the horizon for me like an oasis in the desert. In our family, I have begun to think of option #1 kind of like a Greek siren sitting on the rocks, attempting to sing us to our doom. Which is not to say the workbook option might not get you through a tough spot. But to take the "just sign up with x-curriculum provider" advice without first taking a good hard and thoughtful look at your kids' personalities and your family culture is probably not the best thing. In this case, it's probably better to have somebody tie you (me) to the mast like Odysseus.
On the other hand, sometimes I get the impression that when people say they "unschooled" during a particularly trying time -- say the first few newborn months -- what they really mean is that they took a break from their regular schooling and their kids learned anyway because that's what kids do. But then they go back to their more structured schooling afterward. There is a wonderful thread on the 4Real boards right now discussing the definition of unschooling. The general consensus seems to be (and someone can correct me if I'm wrong) that unschooling is not simply an unplanned break when you leave kids alone and have no plans... although unschooling can certainly grow out of such a time (and has for many people). Instead, unschooling is a mindful approach to education. It's a philosophy more than a method, and it comes in many flavors... which makes it adaptable to many situations.
We started out homeschooling as unschoolers. We pulled Gareth out of preschool and the next day I went to the library and found The Unschooling Handbook and was amazed that I might actually be able to teach my child at home. At the time, however, I didn't really understand that there might be different flavors of unschooling and settled on "radical" as my definition of it. Unfortunately, "radical" unschooling wasn't what a child with some fairly quirky special needs really needed. So now I don't consider what we do at home in a "non-crisis" period "unschooling" since it is so very, very eclectic and we do have some requirements (Maria Montessori's "freedom within limits"), but we definitely fall toward the relaxed, unschool-y end of the spectrum.
On August 22, I'm scheduled for a C-section. Fortunately, having a baby is an event a person can plan for, even if things like health and colic and sleep patterns are yet to be revealed. Some crisis events can't be planned for -- for instance, when everyone in the family spends months sick with virus after virus, or a parent develops a chronic illness, or a tornado sweeps through your neighborhood. I think a mom can still plan for those situations to some extent -- like having an emergency preparedness plan, do I have a routine I can fall back on when everyone is sick?, or in case of frequent travel, what sorts of resources will we use? But it's far easier to plan for an event that can be seen coming closer on the horizon, even if that event is full of a lot of unknown variables.
And, yes, I think a person can even plan to unschool for a period... to do so mindfully, without calling it a "break". After reading the 4Real thread and coming at this as I do now, from a Montessori-influenced point of view, I think that what's really important in these situations is a rich and learning-conducive environment.
Speaking from experience... if you're moving, you're probably laughing at me. But you can make your car pretty rich and learning-conducive, especially if you're headed cross-country. Audio books and music CDs, picture books, novels, and nonfiction, paper, colored pencils, a camera to record the scenery and the experience, the opportunity for at least a few discussions around the screaming of toddlers, new food, some stops along the way, and TV documentaries in the hotel at night won't make the stress go away, but they will give the kids something to learn, which in general tends to make kids happy (or happ-ier anyway). And once you get to your destination and the boxes start arriving, that is a lesson in organization and teamwork (believe me.)
As far as having a baby goes... this time I'm trying to make sure we have some resources on hand for the kids to use without me having to constantly supervise. I want them to be independent learners for the next 6 or 8 weeks. I haven't gotten everything set up the way I wanted it -- such is life -- but I do think that I'm a little more prepared this time than I have been in the past. (I guess after 6 kids it's probably time for me to learn something, isn't it?)
Coming up: the nuts and bolts of our approach to this fall...
I was waffling again about our homeschooling philosophy and trying to create a system which did not depend on me. (But this is a little like trying to set up your kitchen so that anyone can use it. It may function, but it will not really work for anyone who uses. Kids, like kitchens, need the individual differences every adult brings to them. We shouldn't ignore or devalue our own uniqueness anymore than we should ignore or devalue our children's.) What this meant, in effect, was that we went with a (mostly) workbook approach, because I thought -- foolishly -- that it would be easier on everyone.
Last fall was a tough time for us. I was hugely pregnant with the babies, expecting to be put on some sort of bedrest at any time. Gareth's TS was waxing, but we didn't have a diagnosis yet and had very little idea of what was going on beyond the fact that there were a few more tics present and that he was suddenly suffering from attacks of rage again. Our move(s), overall, had introduced us to levels of stress we never thought possible. An emergency room visit for Katydid (a kidney infection almost misdiagnosed as appendicitis) the day after our furniture was delivered to our rental place; a ride in an ambulance for Farmerboy after he had a febrile seizure while eating a chocolate chip cookie; a couple of late-night trips to the hospital for me with too many contractions; a house contract that fell through... it was not really what you would call an "auspicious beginning." I am the kind of person who has to work to be cheerful, and by last August, I had begun to lose the battle against depression -- an ongoing battle, to be sure, but one I had been winning (on the balance) since Gareth was born.
So I can only blame the cocktail of depression, exhaustion, and super-charged-twin-fueled pregnancy hormones for some of the decisions I made regarding our homeschooling last fall. Which is to say, I look back now and say, What were you thinking???
For instance, last fall I was terrified that I would be put on bedrest or --worse -- that I would go into premature labor and be put on hospital bedrest, and then someone else would have to take care of my kids until the babies were born. I wrote out lists of books (largely never used) for my husband and mother-inlaw to read to the kids. I acquired workbooks for math, spelling, grammar -- mostly those recommended in The Well-Trained Mind. I wrote out what pages of the workbooks were to be covered each day. I made up a log template for each kid that relied heavily on the use of checkmarks (I'd always kept journals before, or used Homeschool Tracker).
Now, all of this doesn't sound too awful when I write it down like this. After all, lots of people make checklists, use workbooks for spelling, math, and grammar, and keep lists of read-alouds. But this approach didn't work for us. And this is why.
The babies were due November 3. In mid-September, I was put on modified bed rest, which basically meant I was confined to a recliner all day. My husband took a week off, then his mother flew up from Memphis to help out, so he could go back to work. (With a special needs 8 year old and an active 2 year old, the house would not run unless I could get up out of that chair and lumber around.) Instead of gathering my children to me for the reading of many, many books in the family room, I focused on the workbooks. And I let my mother-inlaw and my husband deal with that.
Gareth (age 8 at the time), who had not been too crazy about the workbook idea in the first place, staged a flat out rebellion. When Gareth did his Rod and Staff grammar with me, we often breezed through most of it orally, skipped sections he obviously already knew, and required minimal writing. Grandma -- bless her heart -- was trying to do a good job, though, and she followed every instruction in that grammar book to the letter. Writing three sentences would take an hour as he fumed, complained, whined, and finally wrote something. Katydid (then age 6), who liked math and was pretty good at it, regressed into simple addition and subtraction flashcards, and became convinced she couldn't work harder problems. Spelling Workout worked for nobody, although Katydid enjoyed it for a while. The kids bickered. They slept till 10 AM. I slept till 10 AM. Grandma was completely worn out. I can't even remember the books we read. Did we read any? We must have read a few. I can't imagine life in our house without read-alouds. The TV was on all evening, as Grandma liked to watch TV, but at least we did keep our habit of watching NOVA on Tuesday nights.
For my part, I sat on the couch and did cross-stitch -- one bright spot, as Katydid became very interested in what I was doing, and I was able to teach her a little about the only sewing skill I have. Or I lay in bed counting contractions and reading homeschooling books -- trying to decide how to solve our problems. (Problems which, unfortunately, tended to recur with less severity every time I paniced about what the kids didn't know how to do.)
What I now realize is that I caused a lot of our "problems" by trying to impress upon my kids a learning system which was not ours. This fall I can say with confidence that we are classical Charlotte Mason Montessori unschoolers, laugh about how ridiculous that sounds, but know that what it means is that I will never transfer my responsibility to educate my children to workbooks again, nor will I try to force others to do so. Real books are the core of our learning, and they will always remain so. Interest-driven, hands-on, relaxed learning, in which the kids have as much input into the how and what as possible, is what works best for us, even if it does result in unconventional timelines for the acquisition of skills.
I'm a lot more confident in our learning this fall. And we're all a lot happier.
I'm reading Elizabeth Foss' book Real Learning right now. I have apparently been living under a rock for the past few years, because I have just discovered it and the wonderful 4 Real Learning Forums in recent months. When I first began reading this book, I was overwhelmed with the same wave of... envy? longing?... that hit me when I read Susan Scaheffer McCauley's book For the Family's Sake or Edith Schaeffer's book What Is a Family? In all three books, there is a mood of familial happiness and peace... and my house is so often frantic, loud, and untidy. (I've come to realize this feeling for what it is by now. It's not that I want someone else's life, just that I wish I knew better how to make the one I've been given less frazzled, more joyful, and more beautiful. All three of these books are a good place to start.)
In any case, Elizabeth's concept of "rabbit trails" rang a chord with me. In fact, I have been thinking it over a lot. It would seem, on the surface, that my kids' education thus far has been made up primarily of "rabbit trails." And if an education is primarily made up of rabbit trails, are they rabbit trails anymore? Or are they more like spider webs, one filament connecting to another to make a pattern that is only completely visible at the end? Or perhaps that analogy doesn't work either. Perhaps we're really building a mosaic, one tile at a time.
Of course, spiders building webs and artists making mosaics both have a plan for their finished products. For the past few days I have been trying to put together a description of our homeschooling philosophy for Gareth's evaluation in two weeks. Are we like spiders and artists? I have asked myself. Do we really have a plan?
Well, we've had a goal in mind from the beginning, and that goal has never wavered: we want our kids to love learning. And our kids do. They revel in books. They get down in the dirt and shout with delight when they turn over a rock to find ants moving larvae around. They ask questions and have opinions and collect flowers and rocks and draw robots and close their eyes on the swings so they can understand Helen Keller a little better and tell each other stories before they go to bed at night and want to know why one part of the country has clay soil and another loam.
And I suppose all of that is the plan, however we get there.