Category Archives: Reading

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Checking in on the Homeschool: Tenth Grade


You know things are either going well or extremely badly when a month goes by and no blogging happens. While we have been busy, it has been a good sort of busy for the most part. Here’s a snapshot of tenth grade in the homeschool:

  • Shakespeare. We are pursuing a year of studying the Bard at home. So far, we have read Twelfth Night. Next up: As You Like It.
  • U.S. History. We are following a plan I blogged about before. Olivia has chosen to make weekly videos exploring one of the topics we touched on during the week. Here’s an example.
  • Precalculus. Olivia is soldiering along in an in-person class with a local instructor. Math will never be her favorite, but she is reaching out for help as needed. So far, so good.
  • German. Olivia is taking an online course in German 1 with the Well Trained Mind Academy (WTMA). She already had German last year, but she’s keeping up her practice with the hope of enrolling in a community college German 2 class in the spring.
  • Chemistry. Another online course through WTMA.
  • AP Computer Science. It’s a good thing Olivia has friends who code, because I will never be able to help her with this class. This one is through Pennsylvania Homeschoolers.
  • Co-op classes. Olivia is taking Photography, Shakespeare Uncovered, and The Power of Myth at our local co-op.

Of all the things we’re doing, I feel the best about the way we’ve approached Shakespeare so far this year. With the help of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free, we have read the play Twelfth Night in a way that doesn’t allow for drudgery to set in. Buy the guide if you’d like detailed plans, but here are some ways you can get Shakespeare “on its feet” and alive in your house today:

  1. Read the scenes aloud, many times. Try reading one line per person, switching back and forth. Read in a strange voice or portraying a certain emotion while you read. Read chorally, all together. However you do it, let the language come alive by reading the scenes over and over. There isn’t much need to dig into difficult language, but you can if you’d like. I do, but that’s because I can’t stand missing a joke. Olivia does it less.
  2. Act out the scene, complete with stage directions. Don’t settle for standing up and gesturing a bit as you read with feeling. Decide what the props are, and place them in the right spot. Figure out how the characters will enter. Print out a copy of the scene and make notes about how characters will move in each part of the scene. Get suggestions from your onlookers (younger kids make great directors, you know). Try the scene a couple of different ways to see which way you like best. Exaggerate the comedy and the emotion to see how it impacts the scene.
  3. Try out some modern-day skits. Read over a scene and try to find some modern-day equivalents to act out as skits. We played with the relationships of the characters by having Maria and Malvolio go to the food market; Orsino and Viola taking refuge from a rainstorm in a small cave; and Toby coming in late to church after a night of drinking, only to find Malvolio is the preacher. (Ideas from Shakespeare Set Free). Kids will demonstrate a deeper understanding of the conflicts happening in the Shakespeare scenes with some role play in advance of or after a reading.
  4. Cut a scene down. I was surprised how hard it was to take a scene and cut it down to a more manageable size. Deep understanding of the lines and their importance is necessary as you decide which lines are superfluous or confusing in the modern day. Print out a scene and grab your red pens!
  5. Profile a character. Olivia had fun making a poster for Viola, complete with her picture and details about her likes/dislikes, personality, and ambitions. When profiling a character, make a list of imagined favorite bands, songs, movies, books, and ice cream flavors. It’s fun to go beyond the book to give these characters a more modern feel based on what we know about them from the story.
  6. Do the fight scenes. Find a book on stage combat as a resource and teach your kids some fighting skills. Take a fight scene from the play and plan it out, blow by blow. Use your younger sibling directors to give you some guidance to know what looks good and what looks fake. When our local Shakespeare actors rehearse before a show, they do a “fight call” where actors must run the fight scenes in slow motion before they run them at full speed. Try this out. It’s fun to run a fight in slow motion. Make sure to get your camera ready to record it!
  7. Compare scenes from filmed versions. We had a blast planning the scene where Malvolio finds a letter supposedly from his mistress Olivia. We acted it out, planning where Sir Toby and his crew would hide, how Malvolio would react when he saw the letter, and so on, through the whole scene. Then we pulled up two different versions of the scene from movies and made notes about how each production interpreted the scene. We noted what worked well and what fell flat. We felt like theater critics. Fun!

I hope these ideas will spark an interest in your house to get a Shakespeare play “on its feet.” Shakespeare isn’t intended to be dry and boring. When you find interest flagging, it’s time to get up and plan a scene!

Shakespeare in Action: Twelfth Night


This is our first official week of homeschooling. Olivia is in tenth grade, bless her heart, and she’s already hard at work. Since we returned from Norway last week, Olivia has taken advantage of the time change to rise early and GET STUFF DONE. She only wishes this trend could last. Alas, I fear that our late-rising habits will return all too soon.

I wanted to give some detail about the Shakespeare work we’re doing this year because I’ve heard from many parents who want to do Shakespeare with their teens but aren’t sure how to approach it. Indeed, the Bard can be overwhelming. On the one hand, Shakespeare plots are familiar, so there’s no benefit of surprising plot twists to engage young readers’ interest. On the other hand, the language is sometimes difficult, so trying to follow the action requires some mental effort.

We’re beginning our Shakespeare trek with Twelfth Night and are using ideas set forth in the Shakespeare Set Free series by Folger Shakespeare Library. Today was DAY 1. Instead of opening the book and reading Act 1, Scene 1 (the part that explains about the shipwreck to which I allude in the picture above), we jumped ahead to Act 2, Scene 2, where Viola and Malvolio have an exchange about a ring.  Here’s what we did:

  • We read the scene aloud several times, switching roles, guessing at unfamiliar words (the only one in this passage was “fadge”), and trying to figure out what was going on. [Note: My daughter knows this play, so it was quick to figure out what was going on. You see, Viola is disguised as a man, so Malvolio addresses her as “sir.” I’d love to try a play that she knows nothing about next to see what she can figure out just from the words in the text!]
  • We got the play “on its feet,” standing and designating an area of the kitchen as the stage. We took turns being Malvolio and Viola, entering and exiting the stage and using our best physical acting to get across the emotion of the scene. At one point, Malvolio throws a ring on the ground, and so I improvised this handy ring to use: 😉img_1278We ran the scene in several ways. In “The Chase,” Malvolio chases Viola all around the room as he reads his lines. In “Hot Potato,” Malvolio and Viola toss the ring back and forth like a hot potato as they say their lines. In “Take It,” Malvolio keeps trying to give the ring to Viola, sometimes depositing it in strange places on her person, but she keeps giving it back.

As you can see, a lot of repetition of this scene occurred. The main idea: Shakespeare is best appreciated by being heard and lived. We got to hear and express that language over and over, and our understanding of the passage evolved with each twist we enacted.

We finished with a more scholarly moment by emphasizing the iambic rhythms in Viola’s soliloquy and discussing the lines: “How easy is it for the proper false / In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!” We thought about Viola’s conflicted roles as a man and a women and how men are just as susceptible to fall prey to a deceiver as women are.

Today, we lived some Shakespeare and Olivia got to dream about playing Viola one day. Good Day 1!

Planning Future Stories: Summer Edition!

Phew! It’s been a while since my last post, I know. The end of the school year seems to hit like a ton of bricks every year. Recitals, concerts, final exams, and the end of… things. It consumes me and exhausts me. I’m on track again, though, having attended a wonderfully restorative retreat with my fellow Brave Writer staffers, and I am now in possession of that elusive free time that comes with the end of schooly things.

For me, free time is planning time. I love to plan. I’ve shared some of my initial thoughts about my two big planning projects, a Shakespeare and U.S. history class for next year. I imagined a free form movement through the year, hitting upon a topic and exploring it in the way that felt best at that moment. My lovely student has informed me, however, that she really prefers having a plan to follow. Ah, she is my daughter in that way. I struggle to be unschoolish in my approach, but I do like having the route established ahead of time. So, it seems, does Olivia. Okay, time to plan!

I have finished working though my ideas for the first quarter of Shakespeare and the entire school year for U.S. History. I would like to say I created the timeline for our studies on my own, but in fact, I borrowed a ton from resources that exist. I not only don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, I also can’t reinvent the wheel. My inner inventor has gone quiet. Ha.

So, what’s happening?

I. Shakespeare. Twelfth Night. We’re going to start with this comedy because Olivia and I both like it, and there is a wonderful group of lessons created by the Folger Shakespeare people around it.

shakespeare set free

Yes, I’m speaking once again of the Shakespeare Set Free series. I so wish I had a group of Shakespeare nuts to do this book properly, but Olivia and I are going to give it a go on our own. The series helps teachers guide students into Shakespeare primarily through performance rather than text-based study. We look closely at text, of course, but the main idea is that Shakespeare is best done aloud. There are lessons on movement, blocking, role playing, sword fighting, and sight gags. There are also lessons on character analysis, close reading, and explicating a scene.

There is  a log to be kept with reflections on the play. I love the prompts because they help the reader connect with the play. One example: Find and comment on four lines from the scenes you’ve read so far: a line that has beauty in it, a line with a good joke, a line that sounds modern, a line that appeals to you for any reason.  We’ll work on Shakespeare three times a week, finishing the play in nine weeks, then we’ll evaluate how it went.

II. U.S. History. I struggled a bit here at first, since I have a lot of websites, videos, and books, but no clear idea how to pull them into a plan. Then I happened upon Karen’s blog post of an American History plan (find it here).  She did the thing I was loathe to do, which was to create a plan with textbook readings, supplementary book readings, videos, and examination of primary source documents. While the textbook is a hefty beast (something I was trying to avoid), I decided to go with it anyway. We’ll see if Olivia balks. If so, we can always ditch the textbook and pursue other sources for reading.

I added five things into Karen’s plan:

  1. Crash Course Videos. This was easy to do, since the videos follow a distinct timeline. Olivia finds them funny, and I know she’ll enjoy watching and perhaps making some of her own.
  2. Field Trips. Once I saw when we would hit Jamestown, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, I went ahead and put a few trips on the calendar. I’ll aim for Williamsburg in October, Boston over Thanksgiving, Ft. McHenry in January and Gettysburg in March.
  3. Help for High School.  I’ve talked about this one before, but we’re going to give it another go this year, trying to put a bit of a historical twist on the writing prompts. This Brave Writer product helps kids get in touch with their inner thought process, discovering what they think about controversial topics and formulating their ideas in the traditional essay format. HelpforHighSchool_largeFor example, while kids are asked to choose a controversial topic such as gun rights, abortion, body piercing, etc., I have substituted in history topics that Olivia will be able to pick a side on after some study, such as war, Columbus, immigration, and colonization.
  4. Alternative Assessments. One thing I find really kills history and science study is an over-reliance on answering comprehension questions as a way to demonstrate understanding. I wanted Olivia to have some options here. She already has a blog idea in mind that she will use to recount some of the information she’s learning. I borrowed these two ideas (1 & 2) for a supplemental list of ways to demonstrate learning. I’ll leave it up to her to pick what she wants to do each week, though I suspect the video-making ideas will have a big appeal. Olivia is a video maker by nature.
  5. Musicals. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Musicals drive interest-led learning around here. In addition to our beloved Hamilton, we’ll include viewings of 1776; Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson; and Little Women, the Musical.

This planner is signing off now! Happy summer to you.

Telling Shakespeare’s Story: How to Avoid the Boring

As I may have mentioned before, my daughter (and I, let’s be honest) is a Shakespeare groupie. She has requested to do a deep dive into Shakespeare next year. Overachiever that she is (love her, *kiss kiss*), she wanted to read all the plays. I think I’ve talked her down off that particular ledge. We’ll read as many plays as we can comfortably manage, though.

Here’s the big question: How does a homeschooler do Shakespeare in a way that avoids the dreaded Boring Shakespeare Experience? That was my Shakespeare experience, anyway. I recall reading Macbeth twice (I switched classes mid-year, so I got to do Macbeth twice). I recall reading it. I recall analyzing the theme of blood in the play. I recall watching this twice (I think I still have scars from that viewing experience.  Lady Macbeth is quite the sex pot in this production). But I recall no warm fuzzy memories of my Shakespeare study.

Shakespeare can be boring. He tends to drag. Hamlet is a yawny experience, even when seen live (I can testify to that). So why does my daughter love it?

Well, she acted it first. Her primary experience with Shakespeare comes from being part of a troupe. Here’s a shot of the outdoor venue where the high school kids get their Shakespeare on:


It’s delightful. Olivia is looking forward to doing a tragedy or comedy this summer. She loves the acting. She loves the mentors. She loves the kids. Acting Shakespeare is a great gateway to the plays.

The Folger Shakespeare Library agrees. We plan to use their resources that help kids learn Shakespeare by acting. We’ll either use these lessons at home or through our local co-op Shakespeare class happening this year. Who knew there was an engaging way to do Shakespeare? Honestly, I never remember acting out a single scene in high school. I might have enjoyed the experience more if I had been given a scene, told to cut it down to X number of lines, and then been charged to act it out in front of the class. That’s the Folger approach.

Shakespeare Set Free #3

Okay, so we’ll act out some Shakespeare, both in a troupe and through a co-op class. We’ll also act out some of the funny Shakespeare (if we have time) in that class. Olivia and I love The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged. This comic mash up brings all of Shakespeare’s plays into one hilarious production. See it if you can. We just saw this company’s latest production at the Folger, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play. Hilarious. I think Shakespeare spoofs add a modern dimension to the plays that makes a reading of the actual plays all the richer.

And let’s not forget musicals, of course. I’ve talked about Olivia’s passion for musicals before. Something Rotten is touring this year. We’re going to see it. Here’s the synopsis from our local theater:

Something Rotten! is Broadway’s big, fat hit! (New York Post). Set in 1595, this hilarious smash tells the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two brothers who are desperate to write a hit play. When a local soothsayer foretells that the future of theatre involves singing, dancing and acting at the same time, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s very first MUSICAL! With its heart on its ruffled sleeve and sequins in its soul, Something Rotten! is The Producers +The Book of Mormon x The Drowsy Chaperone. Squared! (New York Magazine).

What’s not to love about that? We watched a few of the songs online and we know we’re going to love every Elizabethan moment of that show.  As I said, watching the spoofing Shakespeare makes the actual reading of the plays all the merrier.

Acting, reading, and watching. That’s our Shakespeare plan. Oh, and we plan to round things off with a Brave Writer class or two, of course. Hamlet is being offered this spring. I believe Macbeth is on tap for next spring. We just caught Chesapeake Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth, so I think we’ll enjoy another visit with the Thane of Cawdor next year.

Do you have any plans to interact with the Bard? How do you plan to spice things up to avoid the Boring Shakespeare Experience? I did a Periscope on this topic, too. Here it is!

Following a Rabbit Trail: Allowing Kids to Direct Their Learning

Rabbit trails. I’ve heard this term a lot lately as I follow some homeschoolers on Periscope and Facebook. Here’s the idea: As homeschoolers, we have a responsibility not to impose the traditional “rules of school” onto our kids. Why homeschool if not to embrace the freedom allowed by our educational choice? Are we really going to set up a traditional classroom at home, complete with prescribed curriculum and schedule of subjects to be covered throughout the day?

If you’re me, the answer has too often been “Yes” to that last question. As a former educator, it was so hard to let go of the school mentality. I felt bound to “cover” a curriculum completely, although I never once got all the way through a textbook when I was a teacher in middle and high school. Ha! I adore the idea of interest-led learning, where a kid finds a topic she is interested in knowing more about, and then takes time to pursue it. We have done this a bit over the years: my kids have delved into the Celts, ancient China, and animé. But too often, I must admit, we depended on prescribed curriculum to get through a homeschool year, mostly because I was busy doing other things and didn’t have time to help my kids access the resources needed to follow a rabbit trail.

I am inspired to give my daughter the opportunity to build her history class for next year, though. Her story begins with a love of the soundtrack for this musical:


The girl has gone absolutely bananas for all things related to Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury secretary under George Washington. No one could have predicted this obsession! I had a sudden idea: What if we created a year of history related to Alexander Hamilton? A sort of “Six Degrees of Separation from Alexander Hamilton” if you will?

My daughter was on board. Great! Now what? Internet searching is a tiring procedure, but I started there. Resources for teaching history to a high schooler, U.S. history from the colonial era to the Civil War, to be exact. My daughter is going to create a website tying whatever we discover to Alexander Hamilton in some way. Here are some of the resources we’ll be using:

  1. Crash Course. Author John Green and his brother have created a series of informative, engaging videos on a range of topics. My daughter finds them hilarious, so we’ll definitely include the U.S. History ones.
  2. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  A search for topics related to the AP U.S. History exam led me here. I love the collection of videos, essays, and primary source documents because they are organized by time periods and by themes. There’s even an Alexander Hamilton-themed page! Score!
  3. Musicals. We’re looking into every historical musical we can find as well as information about what musical theater looked like during this era. We’ll see Hamilton this summer, and we’ll try to find 1776, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Amazing Grace and any other musical of note either in person or on video. I love the idea one educator had of comparing songs from the musical Hamilton with primary source documents (Washington’s farewell letter and the song “One Last Time,” for example).
  4. Field Trips. Historical sites from colonial times and the Civil War era abound in our neck of the woods, so we’ll definitely make a few pilgrimages. Gettysburg, Yorktown, Williamsburg, the Freedom Trail, Historic Philadelphia, and the Minute Man National Historic Park are all possibilities. As well as any site where Alexander Hamilton may have set foot, of course. 😉
  5. Books. We are trying out this book for a spine since it’s not a meaty textbook, but covers the basic scope of the time period.  We’ll pull from the great suggestions of the homeschool community for light reads, including Genevieve Foster’s books and the Horrible Histories series. Because, books = fun.
  6. Othello. We’re also delving into a year of Shakespeare per my daughter’s request, so I’d like to pair a study of Othello with the topic of slavery. While many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the problem of difference, this play does it excellently. I’m learning a lot from the Folgers Shakespeare library, and I relish using the wonderful ideas in this text to learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare.

[Edit: I had to add in this fabulous article tying the language in Hamilton to that of Shakespeare.]

That will get us started, anyway. I leave room for new stuff to crop up as we explore the topic. If we’re feeling ambitious, we might also explore History Day and see if we want to get in on that action. How are you planning for rabbit trails next year?


Wizard Language Arts

Where to begin? I have so many ideas rolling around in my brain. It’s a bit messy up there in that caffeine-fueled space where I do all my thinking, let me tell you. I want to tell you about stories and the myriad of ways they fit into my life.

So the best way to start is just to start. Here’s a story I’d like to tell. Let me set a scene for you:

A small church classroom. A group of homeschoolers, ages 9-11 is gathered in front of you on the small area rug near the chalkboard. They are sprawled on the floor, bodies in various stages of sitting/lying/crawling-into-the-bookcase. Shoes are cast off, and everyone is at ease.

So, what to do? What to teach? As I got to know this particular group of homeschoolers, I learned they had one thing in common: they were all huge fans of fantasy novels. Magic. Wizards. Trolls. Dragons. Knights. This was the world where they lived in all their spare moments.

This was the genesis of my class Wizard Language Arts. I’m teaching it for the second time this year to ages 10-14, and I want to share it with you. If you have kids (at home or in a co-op) who love fantasy, why not structure your language arts time around this fabulous genre?

1. Pick a book. Or two.


This was our October book choice. I liked it because the world created was not just magic and fantasy, but had a basis in science and history. It’s a departure from your typical wizard-medieval-castle-knights-dragon fantasy story. Plus my daughter loved it, so I always take recommendations from her seriously.

2. Pillage and borrow from the Internet.

My big secret to success is the fact that there are so many great lesson ideas out there already, I hardly ever have to come up with one of my own. I assigned this book to be read at home over the month of October, and we turned our attention to writing during our in-class time. In September the kids had worked on creating their own magical world, complete with 3-D displays of their world which they presented in class. In October, I spent my time getting kids excited about writing their own novel. Yes! We decided to get involved in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I used the wonderful materials provided by the folks at NaNoWriMo to give my kids practice:

  • Developing Interesting Characters
  • Developing a Conflict
  • Planning a Plot
  • Getting Ready to Write Your Novel

Of course all the kids chose to write a fantasy novel of some sort.  So, during October, the kids read The Apothecary and prepared to write their novels during the month of November.

3. Every book talk is better with snacks.

At the beginning of November, we devoted our co-op class to book discussion on The Apothecary. My approach to book talk is pretty simple: questions, snacks, and souvenirs. I prepared a book-themed snack (in The Apothecary, birds feature prominently, so I made these). I found some discussion questions to get the chatter going, though I am always willing to let the kids talk about whatever they’re exited about/disgusted by in the book. They often have strong opinions. So much so, in fact, that for my first Wizard class, I had to pull this out on occasion:

talking hat

This was the “talking hat.” If you weren’t holding the talking hat, you had to try your best to hold your ideas in for a few seconds until it was your turn to hold on to the hat. Honestly, I only resorted to this tactic because the kids were all so excited to share their ideas that class discussion became a game of who could shout the loudest.  Ha.

Finally, I think it’s fun to do a science experiment, craft, or other hands-on activity that goes with our book theme. I’m probably one of the least crafty people I know, so I turned to my friend Mr. Inter Net to find a simple craft. The kids loved it. We made apothecary jars with these supplies:

Apothecary jars

The labels came from Etsy; everything else came from Michael’s. Glue a favorite label to a label tag, fill the jar with something delicious and chemical-looking, and tie the label on to the jar with cool string. Voilà! It was candy to go, basically, but the kids loved making them, so I was happy to sugar them up and send them on their merry way. 😉

4. Rinse and repeat.

This is the model we follow month to month. For December, we read this one:

the alchemyst

and during book talk, we used branches to make our own fancy tree houses/Yggdrasils (Norse mythology, anyone?).  I got the hubby to drill holes into wood so we could glue branches into a base. Add glue guns, small sticks, pipe cleaners, and string, and you’re good to go.


For in-class writing activities, I pull heavily from the Brave Writer methodology. We do freewrites, we play with words, we practice using all our senses to enhance descriptions, and we include improv games to enhance our storytelling abilities.

Wizard Language Arts is one way I share stories I love with kids. How do you expose your kids to the wonderful tales that make up who you are today?