Consider this case study:
Mrs. Wilson was having coffee with some other homeschool moms of high schoolers. Her daughter Ellie was in 10th grade, and she is not a fan of writing.
Mrs. Wilson said, "What on earth do I do about research paper writing? Ellie's not being defiant, she just has no idea how to get started. We can find the rules for MLA papers, or APA, on the internet, but it's not the formatting rules that we need help with.....it's how to get started! What should she write about? How many pages should it be? How many sources should she have? What kind of sources? Writing little reports in the younger grades wasn't hard, but I am clueless now that it's high school and she needs to start tackling true research papers."
Fortunately for Mrs. Wilson, my sister Allison Thorp was there with a mug in hand. She has many years of experience helping her own kids and scores of other teens in our local community tackle the research paper monster.
Here's what she recommended:
- Starting early makes the later papers in high school less stressful, so for the future with your younger kids try a short paper in 7th or 8th grade, maybe 5 pages long. By 10th grade, Ellie should try to write an 8-10 page paper, and don't worry! It's not too late for her to gain the skills to write it with confidence.
- She can write about any subject that interests her, and it's a great idea to pick a topic that will fill-out another academic subject she is taking this year that seems a little skimpy. For example, if she's taking European history and chooses to write her paper about something from Elizabethan England, she's doing work that counts in two subjects at once. Kids are always encouraged when their writing is counting for credit in another subject as well! The most important thing is to carefully narrow down the subject to make it specific enough that the paper stays on topic and does not ramble. Students often worry that they will not have enough to say on a narrowly defined topic; more often they get themselves into trouble rambling away from their thesis because the topic is too broad.
- It's so important for you as her teacher to understand (and convey clearly to her) that the distinctive feature of a research paper is the thesis statement. It's not enough to write a report about the dangers of jousting under Queen Elizabeth I's reign; you must develop a specific statement that articulates an arguable position on the topic. For example, "Jousting was dangerous in Elizabethan England, but the honor and material rewards associated with a successful career on horseback were well worth the risk," or "Knights who competed in jousting tournaments in Elizabethan England were far more popular than those who specialized in hand-to-hand combat on foot."
This starting point for Mrs. Wilson gave her the confidence she needed to help Ellie get going on her paper. Even better, Allison gave her a copy of her Research Paper Writing Guide which broke the entire process down into steps that could be carried out in wise sequence over a number of weeks.
Here's an excerpt from the guide that will help your student choose a subject for his or her research paper. (Click here to purchase the entire Research Paper Writing Guide for just $9.99)
Poetry can be daunting to some homeschoolers, but it doesn't need to be. In fact, we think that, like learning in general, it should be mostly fun!
A favorite book of poems I recommend for an easy, fun introduction to the poetry of T.S. Eliot is Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Each poem is the story of a cat who is quite a character. Whether you love cats or hate 'em, reading Eliot's poems will make a you a poetry-lover for sure!
I wrote a study guide to accompany this collection of poems. The questions in it help middle school or high school students make sense of what they're reading without busywork that would kill the fun of "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer" or the "Rum Tum Tugger." Here's a glimpse -
And if you are still feeling unsure about meter and rhyme, if couplets give you pause, perhaps this vlog will encourage you!
For even more wonderful poetry with a study guide to enrich your reading, check out Vicki's guide to British Poetry .
Or take a stab at writing YOUR OWN POEMS. Our poetry-writing guides encourage poets at 3 different levels of expertise.
Elementary students in your homeschool need to tell stories as much as they need to hear them. Are you helping your child tell stories well? Storytelling skills equip young children for a strong language arts foundation that will prepare them for writing in the upper grades.
Some little ones are very imaginative, and they love to tell creative stories to anyone who will listen. Others are not natural story-tellers, so it's important to help them learn to articulate their stories competently and confidently. Strong, effective writing in middle school and high school will be easier for a child who was equipped to tell his story while he was young.
Literal thinkers, those who like nature and science and transportation more than fantasy, can be gently coached to tell stories well in the early elementary years.
Here's an idea for helping your little one tell her story in her own voice.
- Ask your child to tell what just happened on your outing. (Car-rides home are a great time to do this.) Your question might produce an answer as simple as, "We went to the grocery store and I rode in the cart and we bought bananas and milk." That answer included a setting and plot elements.
- Follow up with a question. "Did the bananas look good at the store today?" Your child now has to think about ways to describe the bananas. "No, they were all really green."
- Another question. "Who cares? Why did it matter?" Now she's exploring her emotional reaction to something she's described. "We were going to eat peanut-butter-banana sandwiches for lunch today, but we can't eat the bananas yet when they're green." (These are concrete, literal responses, but your child is observing the effect the circumstance had on her personally.)
- Encourage her to articulate the outcome of the situation. "So what did we do?" "We bought them anyway. You said we have to eat grilled cheese today and save the bananas until they are ripe."
- Your child doesn't even realize she is telling a story. But her brain is practicing the tasks that produce a story when they are performed together. So now add a twist to her story. The phrase, "What if...?" is a powerful tool. "What if the produce manager had come out with a cart full of riper bananas before we left the store?" She may say, "That would have been good; we would have gotten yellow bananas instead."
- "What if he said we had to pay more for the yellow bananas because they were organic?" Now you have presented a very real possible challenge in the story. Your child has to consider motive (How badly do we want peanut-butter-banana TODAY?). She has to make an inference by playing the story forward in her mind. She has to reach a conclusion; knowing the characters as she does (Mommy, herself), does she think they might have paid the extra money for the ripe bananas?
A guided conversation like this one helps an elementary child with no interest in fanciful creative stories (the one who will later moan, "I hate creative writing! I don't know what to say!") lay a foundation for writing using the steps in her thinking that will produce good stories on paper some day. It will become normal to think in terms of settings and descriptions, characters and motives, plot twists and multiple potential outcomes. And it may save you both a lot of language arts frustration down the road!
The 7 Sisters Ebookstore has homeschool resources for elementary students as well as high schoolers. Have you visited recently to see what's there?
If your homeschool students are looking for some fun to weave into the writing process, a progressive story can be a great way to provide it.
A progressive story requires two people, but if you have more (younger siblings, or a co-op, or even just a friend or two who have come to visit) it's even more fun.
- Sit around the table so everyone can write easily. Give each child a pencil or pen.
- On a piece of notebook paper, write a story starter. It can be totally boring; mom does not have to put much creative effort into this lesson plan!
"Once there was a girl who lived in a small house."
- Pass the paper to the child on your right. He or she now writes the next sentence in the story.
- Continue passing the paper around the table, and have each child add a new sentence to the story. When you decide they've had enough (we had them go on for AGES sometimes when the kids got giggling and on a roll!), write a closing sentence.
- Then serve a snack or make everyone a mug of hot chocolate and read the story dramatically and with great feeling....all to the roars of approval from your author-audience!
This simple activity serves several purposes.
1. It is fun. For many students, writing feels like a chore. This activity does NOT feel like a chore!
2. It encourages creativity in students who are very reluctant to try creative writing. There is only pressure to write ONE sentence each time the paper comes to each child. They will soon see that even a simple sentence can bring a twist to the story, or introduce a crisis for the characters to face.
3. It requires the writers to think logically about the structure of a story. They will automatically be trying to build on what has come before on the paper.
4. It requires flexibility. The kids who have a preconceived notion of where the story "should" end up will have to adjust their idea as others add sentences in between their own.
5. It can be tailored to lots of other learning taking place in your homeschool, both writing skills and other subjects like science or social studies.
Another cool writing style to try is a Family Narrative.
Click here to find out how Vicki Tillman can help your student capture a family story.
Here's my vlog about Progressive Stories, with a few variations on the process suggested:
Essay writing is an important skill to master in middle school and high school. Not only is essay writing a part of the SAT and college application process, it requires a type of thinking that is important for real-life outside of the academic classroom arena. Your homeschool needs to include lots of essay practice.
Beginning in middle school allows your student time to gradually build on a solid foundation of understanding. The thinking process that goes into crafting a well-supported essay is honed over time.
Marilyn Groop has lots of experience teaching kids to write strong essays.
Her essay writing guides are available for Middle School and High School (with three high school levels from which to choose). Designed for a 10-week course of study, with suggested grading rubrics included, these guides will get your student off to a strong start with essays.
This vlog explains the life-equipping critical thinking skills that can be learned through essay writing:
If your student is preparing to write college application essays, click here to read Vicki Tillman's post 12 Tips for a Standout College Essay.
Poetry should not be intimidating, yet it often is.
Introducing poetry into your homeschool is easy -- students can both enjoy the work of published poets and learn to write poetry themselves.
If your homeschool has been short on poetry, here are some easy ways to fix that:
Start with poetry for children. Much of it has meaning on more than one level, and while a little child may enjoy it, an older person will enjoy it in a deeper way without feeling overwhelmed by the rhyme scheme and meter. Try poetry like Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, the works of Shel Silverstein, and TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.
A good study guide enriches your appreciation and understanding of poems.
Build on your first exposure to poetry with a smattering of poems from a variety of poets. Not everyone likes the same type of poetry; trying a sampling from several poets is like visiting a buffet -- you get a taste of lots of different things.
Vicki Tillman's study guide for British Poetry offers a taste of Tennyson, a bit of Browning, a serving of Scott and more!
Click to view excerpts in our EBookstore.
Writing poetry isn't hard when you have someone to help you get started.
The 7 Sisters EBookstore offers Poetry Writing Guides at Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced levels. Comfortably priced at $6.99 each, these guides offer five weeks of lessons to inspire and equip the poet in your homeschool.
If you're still not convinced, check out my vlog, "Don't Be Afraid of Poetry" --
You need to write a tall tale in your homeschool. Why?
Tall Tales are fun ways to tell stories!
I told one below that oughta tickle your funny bone and make you proud to be a homeschooler.
Vicki Tillman has created a 7 Sisters Writing Guide for middle and high school students to coach them through writing their first Tall Tale. Click here to view excerpts from this resource in our EBookstore.
The Tall Tales guide takes you through character construction, storyline development, and conversation-writing using dialect. I used the guide to help me create the tall tale of Homeschool Hilly. Enjoy!
Homeschool Hilly was a legend in these parts.
Hilly stood five-feet-five-inches tall and had hair that never seemed to stay the way she'd brushed it. Her hazel eyes could see through the mess around her and identify the task to be tackled, and she never backed down from a challenge. Some say her eyes could see behind her without Hilly even turning her head, especially if the kids were fighting in the back seat of the minivan.
The day started like any other. Homeschool Hilly saw her hubby off to work and headed to the kitchen for a morning cup o' joe. When she pressed the "Brew" button on the coffeemaker, nothing happened. No lights came on, no water bubbled, no coffee aroma filled the air. Hilly knew there was trouble afoot.
She called the young'uns to her side.
"Young'uns," she said, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear, "we got us a problem. It's gonna take every last one of us to tackle this problem, but I know we can do it because we are homeschoolers, and what do homeschoolers do when there's a problem?"
Little Susie spoke up first. "Homeschoolers solve it, Mama!"
Homeschool Hilly smiled at her darlin'.
"That's right, Little Susie. Now here's your first assignment for the day. I want every one of you young'uns to go through the house and try to turn on the appliances. Little Susie, you see if the dishwasher still works. Frankie Jr., you try the washing machine; you're tall enough to reach the dial. Stinky Joe, you check the microwave; just press the 'Popcorn' button like usual and see if it turns on. Let's get to work!"
Off scurried the young'uns to try the appliances in the house, and sure enough.....not a one was in working order.
"Mama! Mama!" cried Stinky Joe, "what will do if the 'Popcorn' button won't ever work again?"
Homeschool Hilly scooped him up in a bear hug.
"Don't you cry, Stinky Joe. We can lick this problem!"
Hilly did some quick investigation and found the source of the trouble; during the night, mice had chewed through all the electrical cords to the appliances in the house, leaving the family in quite a pickle. There was no time to waste!
Out in the driveway, the family's trusty minivan, Egbert, was waiting for them.
Homeschool Hilly drove Egbert to the library, stopping first at the convenience store for a cup o' joe. In the library parking lot, Hilly sipped her coffee and prayed with the young'uns.
"Dear Father, we know that You have our homestead safe in Your hands. Thank You for taking such good care of us!"
In the door they went, and she set the young'uns to work with a stack of books explaining how electricity works. As they studied the diagrams and explanations, she got on the library internet computer and contacted her local homeschool support group. (If you don't have a local homeschool support group, by the way, you can download our FREE resources on how to start one by clicking here.)
She fired off a cry for help: "Young'uns and I in desperate need of electrician and exterminator. Appliance cords all chewed through, and mice in charge of the homestead. We are hiding out at the library, and need reinforcements! Text messages to my cell at 555-555-5555 are mighty appreciated! (As we are hiding at the library, I reckon my phone best stay on silent.) "
As Hilly waited for the text messages to arrive, she had the young'uns pull out their notebooks and draw diagrams of a closed circuit and an open circuit. They drew a portrait of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite and Thomas Edison with a light bulb in his hand. They found other books that described the jaw structure and tooth shape of mice that made them such efficient chewers. Stinky Joe expressed a desire to become an electrical engineer someday, and Little Susie went to the bathroom three times.
"Hilly, my friend is an electrician. He's on his way to your homestead. Hang tight! Praying for you and the young'uns!"
"No worries, Hilly. My cousin is an exterminator and he specializes in critters like the ones that done-in your appliance cords. He'll be at your place in an hour."
With their heads full of knowledge, Little Susie, Frankie Jr. and Stinky Joe climbed back into Egbert for the journey home.
"Mama," said Frankie Jr., "I'm glad the electrician and the exterminator are going to save our homestead, but right now I'm hungry!"
"That's okay, Frankie Jr.," said Hilly. "Remember that we are homeschoolers. And what do homeschoolers do when there's a problem?"
"They solve it!" hollered all three young'uns in chorus.
Homeschool Hilly opened the box of granola bars she kept in Egbert for just such an emergency as this, and the young'uns munched in peace on the drive home.
That night when hubby arrived home from work, he found the homestead safe and sound, and all the young'uns gathered 'round the supper table.
"What did y'all do with yourselves today?" he asked. Homeschool Hilly smiled as she tucked that wayward piece of hair behind her ear.
Stinky Joe answered first,
"We solved problems with Mama, 'cause that's what homeschoolers do!"
Are you ready to write a Tall Tale?
Even when a homeschool student has wisely followed the early steps in the writing process (click here for more on those steps in our writing series), the time still comes when he or she has to edit and revise what has been written. As writing teachers, we need to remember what a sensitive moment this can be for many students.
What if we use an analogy from our own lives as mothers?
* Remove food from refrigerator and cupboards, and prepare meal.
* Remove plates and silverware from cupboards and drawers and serve meal.
* Eat meal with family.
* Collect dishes (now covered with food) and wash them. Return them to cupboards and drawers.
* A few hours later, begin again at step one, and resist the urge to ask yourself, "Didn't I DO all this already???"
It's helpful to think in these terms when it comes time to require edits on our students' writing.
For a lot of students, that's how they feel when we ask them to edit the work they spent hours creating. In their minds:
* They read the material needed to research their topic.
* They got pen and paper (or computer and printer) out and served up ideas.
* They turned in the assignment and you got to eat it...I mean READ it.
* Now you have handed them back the dish they lovingly served you only moments ago (it seems), but now it just looks dirty -- red pen marks all over it, where once the margins were white and clean.
They have to resist the urge to say, "But didn't I already DO this assignment???"
We set our kids up for frustration when we aren't careful in explaining writing as a process of many steps. (We also set ourselves up for frustration when we aren't careful to learn that PARENTING works the same way!)
Writing is unlike most academic subjects. The first thing to understand is that many students HAVE NEVER GRASPED THAT IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE. (Sadly, there are teachers who haven't, either....)
In Math, there is a right answer. If the student arrives at that answer, he is right. If he can arrive at the right answer on many similar problems consistently, he has demonstrated mastery of the concept and can check "dividing with fractions" off his list of things to learn.
In History, if a test is fact-based (rather than essay questions that ask a student to ponder the significance of the events studied), the student's answers are either right or wrong. The same is true for Science. Even foreign language classes have separate components, and a child who struggles with translation may still ace a vocabulary quiz by simply learning the RIGHT answers.
Writing is a funny thing as far as academic subjects go. We pull out all of the "right or wrong" elements and teach them separately much of the time, especially in the early elementary years: penmanship (physically putting the letters legibly on paper), vocabulary (what words mean), spelling (I'd be insulting you if I included a definition of this one, wouldn't I?), grammar (what roles different words may play in constructing a sentence), and syntax (the rules about how words can best be combined in their varying roles to create strong sentences).
By high school, however, we want our homeschoolers to take all those separate areas of language knowledge, put them together without error, AND add in high-level critical-thinking in regards to their subject matter.
If our students think of writing assignments just like math homework (do the problems until the answers are right), they are doomed to frustration. We give them an empowering gift when we are careful to remember and repeatedly communicate to them that writing is an intensely complex series of steps. We are wise in guiding them through the final steps in the process (editing, revising, and proofreading) when we are careful to remember and be sensitive to the fact that revising the work is a painful thing for many writers. It must be done, but we must be kind even as we require it.
If you hadn't understood when you started having kids that they would need to eat over and over again, different foods at different times for different reasons, wouldn't the dinner-time routine be even MORE frustrating than it sometimes is?
Sometimes we fail to equip our students for hard, long-range assignments because we have failed to understand WHY they feel daunted by the task. A little understanding can pave the way for a whole lot of learning if we're willing.
No writing requires more revising and editing than a research paper.
Avoid feeling overwhelmed with the task: download Allison Thorp's Research Paper Writing Guide for step-by-step instruction, a suggested timeline for accountability, and loads of tips for creating a strongly-written, clearly-cited MLA-style paper.
If you haven't yet seen our new vlog to help you and your student understand how to avoid plagiarism, have a look:
Since writing is a process, your homeschool student (or any other high school writer) should have completed four steps BEFORE attempting a first draft of the assignment. If you haven't yet read about Step 1 "Ideas," Step 2 "The Plan," Step 3 "Support," and Step 4 "Articulation," click the links to get yourself ready for Step 5!
Many students do not understand that writing is a complex PROCESS, and they become easily frustrated because they try to grab paper and pencil and "get the answer right" on their first attempt at a writing assignment.
Once a student has arrived at Step 5, it's time for The First Pass at This Thing.
Here's my vlog that explains this step:
Many teachers are fans of outlining before a student goes any further. Can I tell you a secret? I can take or leave outlining for shorter assignments. I think it's an important skill to LEARN but not always a tool that must be used. (When it comes to longer papers, and certainly to research writing, outlining is vitally important....I'm referring to essays and the like in these posts.)
Outlining in traditional format appeals to certain types of learners. The visual types who like organization and remember to shut their sock drawer every morning usually love outlining. They like the alternating Roman numerals and Arabic numerals. They like to keep their indents even. The outline itself feels like a work of creation to them.
But there are other types of learners; the types who don't really retain something until they've jumped off a cliff into an experience with it (and who have trouble remembering to wear socks at all) usually hate outlining. They need their plan for writing just like anyone else, but they have that plan already in the thinking process they've completed and the notes they've jotted on scrap paper. Stopping now to make an outline with even indents and alternating numerals will KILL the brain-flow for them.
So if your student understands the format for traditional outlining and finds it helpful, have 'em make an outline, even for a short paper. If your student says, "Oh, please! Don't make me make an outline for this! I'm on a roll!" let them try it without an outline.
Step 5 - The First Pass at This Thing means remembering what you've done thus far (what are the ideas? what voice have I chosen? what key pieces of support did I choose?) and starting with that beautiful, solid thesis statement from Step 4 "Articulation," they begin to write.
Remind them AGAIN that they are NOT writing their final paper, they are taking the next STEP in the process. Remind them AGAIN that they will not have a completed, fabulous piece of writing when they are done. Remind them by encouraging them to write on scrap paper if they are writing by hand instead of typing. Remind them by having them type the word "DRAFT" into their file name if they are working on the computer. And let them write.
Let it ramble. They should keep referring back to their support notes and their thesis statement each time they begin a new paragraph, but other than that, let them go. It's so important NOT to censor at this point in the process. Remind YOURSELF, mom, that they will NOT have a completed, fabulous piece of writing when they are done with this step. They will simply have completed Step 5 "The First Pass at This Thing." There will be plenty of time to edit and revise, to rearrange entire chunks of writing later.
If the first 4 steps were done, and if you give them freedom to ramble at this point, you will likely encounter very little, "But I don't know what to write!" moaning in your school room. You are on your way!
How do you feel about outlining? Why?
Essay writing is important.
Whether a high school student is preparing to take the SAT, or whether that student isn't even thinking about college at all, essay writing using a solid understanding of the writing process hones critical thinking skills that help in REAL LIFE.
So far this blog series has examined the Writing Process beginning with Step 1 "Ideas, " Step 2 "The Plan," and Step 3 "Support." An important component of Language Arts learning in your homeschool is recognizing this truth.
Writing is a sequential process, and mixing the steps up or leaving some out makes the finished product less impressive.
Articulation is the step where a writer nails down a strong thesis statement. Many times have I heard teenagers groan and weep when I say the words, "thesis statement" to them! Why is this often such a stressful thing, especially for reluctant writers?
Usually, it's because their thought process hasn't been leading them toward their thesis statement, so they're trying to create something out of thin air. If they've put the time into Ideas, The Plan and Support, then those three steps have already caused their thoughts to complete the bulk of their thesis statement creation.
Step 1 means they have a topic and they've chatted about it.
Step 2 means they have chosen a voice with which to write about the topic.
Step 3 means they have found some universally accepted statements to use to hold their piece together, and have jotted them on scrap paper.
Articulation is simply this:
SO WHAT ARE YOU ACTUALLY SAYING HERE?
Here's my new vlog to help explain Step 4 "Articulation" using the perennial garden example I used in Step 3:
For a different example, let's go back to the descriptive piece from Step 1 about a favorite place to be alone (my backyard hammock after dinner), and let's choose the "action" voice for our plan.
My support might include the following:
- people GO to their alone-spots;
- people have things they like to DO by themselves for particular reasons;
- people often lose track of TIME when they are happily alone;
- the mosquitoes can sometimes really INTERFERE with my alone time in my hammock;
- eventually, everyone has to RETURN to the real world after a time away.
With that information already gathered into the front of my brain, notes jotted on a piece of scrap paper in front of me, it's easy to see potential thesis statements emerge. If a thesis statement simply sums up "What are you actually saying here?" then any of these might work nicely:
1. When evening falls, a book is the only company I need as I stride to our backyard hammock for an hour of time to myself.
2. I cannot be held responsible for any injuries my siblings might sustain if they block my path to the backyard hammock when dinner is over and I need a break from the world.
3. No jury in the land would convict me if I murdered the mosquitoes trying to steal the joy from my hammock time; my hammock is mine alone and I will not share it, or my blood, with these pests.
Look at each example carefully, and you'll see two things:
- the thesis statement is not all that far removed from the chatting, voice and support work I'd already done;
- the thesis statement easily lends itself to a SPECIFIC focus (#1 - my book and I; #2 - leaving my family behind so I can have a break; #3 - protecting my alone-time from anything that would ruin it).
A thesis statement pulled out of thin air is a hard thing to conjure.
A thesis statement pulled from the thoughts produced by an idea, a plan, and some support is not difficult at all!
A good writing curriculum includes essays, research writing, poetry and creative writing.
7 Sisters offers the Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced Guides to High School Writing that include all of these components.
Click here for more information on your solution for high school writing.
Do you use scrap paper to help your students (and yourself) remember that the first words penned are not the final product in writing?