How to Help Your Kids Love Learning Again

Are your kids tired of “school?” Does learning seem like a chore to them? It’s probably not their fault. We’ve been trained to rely on textbooks as authorities of what our children must know, and persevere through them faithfully.

Oh, the tyranny of the textbook! Each subject is presented as separate and distinct, stripped of its vitality and laden with seemingly irrelevant facts. Why do we do this to ourselves? Or, to them? How can we teach the love of learning when it isn’t exciting to us?

Textbooks are useful as a resource. But if you want to teach without quenching curiosity, I think it’s best to keep it as one of several resources.  How about bringing subject matter into a real-life application? Instead of merely stuffing your memory with isolated facts,  you can refocus and create a living lesson!

It is true that advancement in understanding needs a foundation of basic information. Children enjoy memorizing lists and basic fact families from a very early age. This can be done through songs, games and challenges. The grammar stage is when they are hungry to know and identify items in categories. But if these facts do not become connected to a deeper meaning, by the time they hit 9 or 10 years old, their interest will evaporate. There is no reason to wait until they are on the verge of losing interest, either. Knowledge should be applied to bring understanding. They need to move from “the what” to “the how” and “the why.”

Several curricula make use of the library, experiments, and field trips. Even an occasional interview with an expert (or a video clip of one) may be included to add interest. These are a great help! But we still lose something when we strive to separate subjects from each other. Real life isn’t like that. It doesn’t seem natural. Meaning and significance are lost.

How can the four core subjects of math, reading, history/geography, and science come together in one lesson? What about Bible, spelling, handwriting, and literature? If you are following a distinct sequence for each subject, it wouldn’t be easy. But not all subjects need to be taught in a particular order. So, question the table of contents!

This week in history, we have been studying the Pilgrims meeting with Squanto. Here are a few associated topics that could be melded together fairly easily: in science –  germs and infectious disease, hygiene and food preparation, weather, horticulture, and physics (buildings and ships).

Science crosses into math when discussing navigation tools and means from the age of discovery, compared to today. Geography also plays a part both in routes taken and cultural differences. Bible lessons flow from the desire of the pilgrims to worship freely, their treatment of the natives they encountered, and their determination and work ethic in persevering.

Besides matters of faith, the Mayflower Compact touches on sociology, economics, and law. Vocabulary can be taken from this document and sections can be copied. Discussions of the moral rightness or wrongness of settling there against the king’s wishes can be discussed and even debated, with evidence brought for each position.

Math, Science and Reading can also be implemented as your children use original recipes and prepare Johnny Cakes (corn bread) or meat pies from early colonial days. If you double or triple the recipe you not only practice liquid and dry measurement but also add and multiply fractions. The nutritional value of the food available to the Pilgrims is another interesting topic.

Unit Studies make an effort to bring all the disciplines together and many of them do a good job. But again, a curriculum that someone else wrote can be limiting.

I encourage you to be spontaneous from time to time and talk with your children as you help them develop life skills. Let the questions that rise from real work inspire some research and reflection.

One other benefit of this type of learning is that your children see wonder in the world around them. Knowledge does not seem so difficult to attain. Ideas in isolation are soon forgotten. When the creative mind and the senses become engaged, they gain understanding of subject matter and transition into wisdom as knowledge is applied to their lives. There are plenty of mysteries to be discovered. Be free of the tyranny of the textbook. Let learning be a joyful adventure for you and your children!

A Novel Idea: Constructing the Plot

The PLOT or storyline is a series of events in the order they happen for the reader. “Hook” your reader’s interest by giving them just enough information at first. They will read on because they need to know what will happen next. Tease them from time to time with another complication that must be dealt with or an unanswered question that is a necessary part of the puzzle. Pieces of the puzzle will include both events as they occur and flashbacks to the past.

As a new writer mapping out a plan for your story, it may help think back on memories that stand out in your own life. Use an event you have experienced yourself for the basis of your tale. This will give your story authenticity. Of course, you may change the time, setting, character names and ages, position, etc., to make it a work of fiction. Even as a fictional character, you may write as the narrator, exclusively from your point of view. If you choose to write in the third person and develop motives of other characters, you will need to *step back* from the limits of your own perspective and become empathetic. How would you feel if you were in their shoes, with their background experience? Why do they act as they do? What drives them?

Begin your story in the middle of a problem or impending problem. Craft the structure based on genre. The reader will identify most closely with the hero as they face an obstacle and seek to overcome it. The action rises and falls throughout the tale but the intensity should build to the climax of the story. At that point, the main character achieves their goal and all unresolved matters are satisfied. In the end, all the pieces should make sense, as the pieces of a puzzle coming together create a whole picture!

There are two ways I used to construct a story. One is outlining and the other is Plot Mapping. If a story is linear and the end is understood when the writer begins, an outline works well. You have your character facing a problem, the building difficulties, the moment of salvation and resolution. However, if you have an idea for a story and it’s characters but don’t know how it will end yet, you need to build a plot map. Have you ever watched a detective story where either the criminal or the cop has a bulletin board with photos and newspaper clippings on it, with threads connecting various parts to each other? This is a great way to get the big picture of all the back stories and how they fit together. As I’ve said in a past chapter, at first, keep it to three or four main characters as far as detail goes. But the plot at first can look a bit confusing to the reader, like pieces of tangled thread. As the story progresses, the threads need to connect and make sense. It the end all threads tie together in one conclusion. If you physically do this, with a storyboard, you can keep track of the threads you have yet to connect. This is one way you can think through the process of the unwinding tale as you write it.

One note of caution. Writers that begin a tale not knowing where it will take them often have to rewrite whole sections. JRR Tolkien did this when writing The Lord of the Rings. It is time-consuming! This may be daunting to a beginner, but it is a great exercise. Still, for someone just starting out with story writing, it will be easier to take the perspective of one of the main characters and narrate from your point of view. It will be easier to keep track of the plot and remain consistent, “keeping in character.”

A great way to practice plot development is to base it on a well-known story, such as a parable, fable, or other classic tales. Keep the characters and setting but change the starting point or the story the direction takes. You could also write from a different character’s viewpoint. This kind of parody has been successfully done in recent years in “Wicked,” a Broadway play. It is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz), telling her own story.  Also, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as Told by the Wolf” is a best-selling children’s story! Because these stories are loved and familiar, the new perspective lends itself well to humor.

After rewriting some well-known stories, you will have a better feel for how the plot unfolds. The longer the story is, the more complicated it can be. If you are writing a short story, you’ll want to limit the problems your hero has to one or two. Difficulties from without (a bad circumstance or impending danger) can be overcome at the same time as your hero faces inner flaws (such as insecurity or a bad temper) and rises above them! Struggle with them. Rejoice with them. The more you let the reader see their hero overcome character flaws that they wrestle with, the more your story will resonate. These are some of the “universal truths” I mentioned previously.

In Summary:

– Outline your story.
– Introduce the problem within the first page.
-Resolve the problem bit by bit, with some drawbacks along the way, to increase tension and keep the reader turning pages.
– Make the moment of salvation from their problem definitive and satisfying.
– End the story shortly after the pinnacle of victory by resolving all unanswered questions.

As you prepare to write it helps to read stories that delight you, and take note of how they develop their plot. What is the problem at the beginning? How did the writer “hook” your attention? How did they bring all the problems to a climax and save the main character? How are the loose ends tied up?

Be assured that while there are guidelines for writing an effective story, these are not hard and fast rules. Creative writing is called that for a reason. Just keep your audience in mind and be sure to bring them out of confusion to understanding by the end of the story. They will be coming back for more!

A Novel Idea – Crafting Characters

In your own life, you play the main character. Probably the hero.

One mistake young writers often make, is introducing too many characters without developing their background or reasons why they do what they do. We can only closely follow a few people’s lives closely, without losing track of who we are talking about. So, it’s best to keep main characters at three or four. Have others come and go from the scenes as supporting cast – without extensive detail about them. In fact, some of the people in the background don’t even need names.

Of our few main characters, the most likely candidates are:

1. The Protagonist.
This is our hero or heroine. The protagonist is facing a problem as the story opens, and we root for them as they struggle to overcome it! We will need to know the personality, the background, the motives, strengths, and weaknesses of this main character.

2. The Antagonist. The antagonist can either be another person (in which case, he/she is the villain), an organization, an inner fear or hatred that must be overcome, or some other obstacle standing in the way of the protagonist. Depending on the sort of problem you choose for your story, the Antagonist may have motives or not. But, if not an inanimate object, the antagonist needs to be understood.

3. The Side-Kick
This character can be helping the protagonist or the villain. He/she will bring either wisdom and assistance to the hero, or make the main character’s efforts more difficult. This role is often a catalyst, not directly but indirectly causing things to occur. In the role of assistant, the side-kick can be a lovable but bumbling idiot or a quiet genius. The side-kick should not steal the spotlight from the main characters but is just as important in their role.

4. The Love Interest
This character could be the problem to overcome such as when both the hero and villain love the same person. This could also be the side-kick to one of them. Whether you use this character depends on the genre of your story.

Your plot will determine how you develop characters. Once you decide on the type of story you want to tell, your characters need to be the kind of people that will make this story happen. Their personalities can be crafted to bring about the behaviors you want in the plot.

So, choose your plot first, before designing your characters.

Once your plot is outlined, create character sketches for each of the main characters.

In your own life, you play the main character. Probably the hero. Those who step in and out of your world are either assisting in your quest or hindering you. Some come and go without much influence. But a few people in your life have a huge impact. The first stories we write often have a bit of autobiography in them. But it is important when you write a fictional story, not to retell real-life incidents too closely or use real names. That can get you into trouble! We will discuss plot more in the next chapter and address how to safely navigate this aspect.

The character sketch for your hero, villain, sidekick or love interest will include:

Full name
Age as the story begins
Era of time they lived
Family members?
Personality traits
Odd habits or mannerisms
Country of origin
Accent or manner of speaking
Who do they love/hate?
What drives them to do what they do (background for motivation).

Nobody can know everything about another person, but if you are writing about the main character in the first person… using the personal pronouns of “I” or “me” when referring to the hero/heroine, you will have full knowledge of their thoughts and motivations. So, the reader will too. You will not be able to know the inner thoughts of those around you. You want your reader to believe your character is a real person and real people don’t read minds. Of course, unless your hero happens to have this superpower… then, it’s fine.

You will want to make something about your main character, very relatable to your audience. They should find things in common with themselves, or someone they know. However, there can be aspects that are quite different or extreme. An odd habit can bring comedy to your story. A personality trait can go to an extreme, making your character more dangerous or vulnerable, raising tension or anticipation as the story unfolds. Whatever you decide, be consistent throughout the story, unless the obstacle to be overcome changes this aspect of who they are.

Next time, we’ll discuss PLOT! The driving force behind the story.


A Novel Idea – Genre

What Is Genre?
It’s a category.  In stories, they would be broken down into the type of story. Here are some examples:

1. Mystery – Something is out of place. A crime has been committed. A person is missing. A character or object suspiciously appears. Someone is not who they appear to be! Whatever the source of the mystery, it is a problem requiring detective work. The main character/hero/protagonist will be the detective and look for clues, interview suspects, and search until the answer is discovered.

To keep the sense of mystery, don’t tell the reader what is happening behind the scenes. Let them discover clues along with the main character. To keep your readers wondering and turning pages, use misdirection. Bring in something or someone who seems important but isn’t. Or someone who seems guiltier than they are! Your reader will sometimes guess correctly, sometimes be surprised, but they will be intrigued by the process. These false leads, or misdirection, are called “red herrings.” That term comes from when hunters would train dogs to follow a trail. They dragged herrings (fish) across the fox trail to teach hunting dogs not to be distracted by other interesting scents, but to keep pursuing the fox! Your reader doesn’t know which trail is the right one, so they are kept guessing!

Plot twists are a great tool for mystery writing. You were sure the story was going in a certain direction and suddenly, a new piece of information comes to light. What you suspected is proven to be impossible. Maybe your reader isn’t back to square one, but their curiosity is refueled! In the end, a good explanation of “who done it” finally comes out, and the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

You can go back to your draft and insert little clues that may help the detective, once you have figured out the end. Rewrites are as important as the first writing, and maybe more so! As you write your first draft, you are just thinking it through. Changes and modifications will bring your story together when you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you.

Don’t make your clues too obvious, or give too much information early on. To keep a mystery a page-turner, let every chapter bring a new question that must be answered. You will want to “map out” your plot in advance of writing the story. There are way too many details in a good mystery to try to keep them all in your head while you write. Because it’s important that all loose ends are neatly tied up by the conclusion, you’ll need to be able to see what threads you’ve left for the reader. Before your final copy goes to the presses, be sure there are no questions left unanswered.

2. The Narrative may relate a personal story or be told as a biography of a real or fictional character. This can be as simple as what happened on a walk home from the park, afternoon tea with Grandma, or an adventure. It can take place in a police station or courtroom, a living room or a hospital emergency room; anywhere. This genre has many subcategories.

a. One is a “Coming-of-Age” story, where the protagonist goes from childhood to maturity through life experiences and lessons. It often involves overcoming a weakness from within that is reflected in a change in their character. Overcoming may take the form of learning to be compassionate to others, bravery in the face of fear, or finding that through hard work they can achieve what seemed impossible. There may be external victories but the key achievements in a coming-of-age book are the ones that happen in the heart of the main character.

b. Fables often have animals playing the part of humans. These are usually quite short and have a point that is obvious.  Aesop is famous for these! Rudyard Kipling also used this method in his Just-So-Stories.

c. Parables use an illustration from life, even of inanimate objects, to teach a meaningful lesson. Jesus used these story-illustrations frequently, in the Bible. One example is the Prodigal Son. The young son didn’t want to submit to his father but wished to make his own way in the world. He left home with his inheritance and lived a wild life, wasting all his money. He ended up homeless and starving before coming to his senses. When the prodigal returned to his father to beg forgiveness he was welcomed home with open arms! This parable shows how we often make foolish choices, but that God, our Father is always waiting for our return, willing to forgive us.

d. Allegories are stories that can be interpreted to find a hidden meaning. Examples of allegory are: “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan which is an allegory of the Christian’s journey to salvation, and “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis.

e. Satire is a type of allegory, but according to the dictionary, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity, vices, or show corruption in government. An example of satire in literature is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

f.  Parody is another subgroup of the narrative genre that could be allegorical or a fable. Parody takes something that was already written and changes the story around for comedic effect. An example of this would be Shakespeare’s supposed version of The Three Little Pigs, as told by comedian, John Branyan.

3. Historical Fiction. While it could be argued that this is also a kind of narrative, it requires much more research to do. You will need to understand the times you write about. Your characters will need to act in accordance with the culture and speak as they would have in that time and place. Clothing, speech, and custom need to be consistent unless you have time travelers involved. Until you have familiarized yourself with the time, place of your story, and customs of that era, you probably shouldn’t write a piece of historical fiction.

4. Science Fiction and Fantasy can also be a mystery, coming of age story, romance, or action-adventure tale. Because Science Fiction or Fantasy go beyond reality, into different times and worlds, it is all the more important to create an emotional bond and common ideals with the characters. If the personalities of the main characters are too foreign, the story will not be relatable. If the players in your tale have personalities or issues that your reader can identify with, your audience will be able to suspend their disbelief at the peculiar circumstances and surroundings. Just remember to be consistent. As they say in theater, “keep in character.” The difficulty in these genres is creating a believable alternate world. It may involve studying science and technology or other ancient cultures and languages for inspiration. JRR Tolkien, who created entire worlds and new languages, was an expert in ancient language. In order to prepare for such writing, begin by reading books of the same genre to get a feel for what is needed. It is important not to copy someone else’s world too closely, so take notes of new ideas you come up with while reading. You can practice by writing shorter scenes and illustrating them. As you “see” your world unfold you can add more detail in the rewrite and add chapters.

In each of these, stories that create an impact and resonate with the audience contain universal truths. Hidden in the best stories, these gems are not expressed blatantly. The reader comes to realize these things, as if on their own. Allowing the reader to find the truth for themselves without preaching to them, has a greater impact. Universal truths will be evident in the plot and conclusion of the story. Look for themes that many can identify with. Examples are: Pain of rejection, hope, loss, desire to win and tenacity, overcoming, love returned and love unrequited, curiosity and fear – getting yourself in too deep and wondering how you’ll get yourself out again. Write from what you know and have experienced. It’s okay to weep over your writing or get angry at the characters as they play out. Laugh along with them, too! As Hemingway said, “Write one true thing.”

A Novel Idea – Introduction to Creative Writing

As we begin, we meet in the middle.

Have you thought about writing a book or short story? Stories represent a snippet of life taken from the most interesting or meaningful moments. But if you have ever tried to sit down to write “the Great American Novel,” or a short story and found yourself staring at an empty page, not knowing how to begin, try beginning in the middle. Something devastating or exciting has just occurred or is happening as we meet our hero. In the modern story, the reader needs to be drawn in by the first page, or you have lost them. So, compel them to continue!

Each character we meet has a past. As we meet them, we don’t know what that is yet or what motivates them to behave as they do. Learning about the heart and mind of your characters is part of what drives the story.  Besides their individual histories, the situation they find themselves in when the tale begins is the hook, line, and sinker to reel in your audience.  A crisis or difficulty presents itself that they must overcome. The crisis may be internal or external. The enemy might be a force from without, or “inner demons.” As the plot unwinds we discover these personalities as they interact to either cause trouble or overcome it.

The best stories are described well by sidekick, Sam Gamgee, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers.  “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”

What elements do we need to create such a story? Below is a brief overview of the essential ingredients in a great tale. Each will be covered at length, in future posts.

1.  Genre
The genre ( the type of story) you choose to write will greatly influence your setting, your plot and your character development. Will you choose historical or science fiction, action, drama, or mystery?  And as a subset of those, will it be a romance, a coming-of-age story, or an epic, heroic tale? There are more choices than these, of course – but it should get you thinking about how you want to relate your story. Once you decide the genre, you will need to determine the “voice.”  Will you speak as a narrator who sees all and knows all, or as one of the people in the story – telling your own tale? Will you speak objectively in the third person about something that happened to others or tells the tale as it is happening (present tense) or as a series of past events? Try each of these and see which may fit better for your purposes.

2.  Setting
This includes not only the location and a description of our opening scene, but the year/month/time of day, atmosphere (not merely weather but mood), and the economic, political and social situation the character finds themselves in when the story begins.

3.  Plot
The sequence of events in our tale is what makes the plot – which is not necessarily chronological. As the story unfolds it may revert to a back-story about a particular character somewhere along the narrative to give us greater understanding or context. The plot includes the situation the character finds themselves in, their problem, and the steps they take to resolve it. The plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. The plot of the story may be over a period of hours, days or years. Of course, the more pages you write, the more detail you can have to your plot and the more time you can easily cover. But a greater number of words do not necessarily make a better tale. As Mary Poppins used to say, “Enough is as good as a feast.” We do not want to become tiresome in the telling! The pace of the story and need for detail will depend in part on the genre.

THE PLOT involves:
a. The Problem
b. The Plan to overcome the problem
c. The Predicament: Things get worse before they get better.
d. The Pinnacle: The problem is overcome!
e. The Peaceful Resolution – a satisfactory tying up of loose ends (unless of course, you are writing a sequel).

Each of these aspects will be examined in detail in a future post.

4. Character Development
We must care enough about our main character to be rooting for them throughout the story and cheer for them as they overcome their struggle! Creating a realistic character involves a working knowledge of them – as if they were real people to you. They can be based on living people that you know or have heard about, or you may make them up entirely from your imagination, or even create a new character as a mixture of aspects of a few people. Characters can even be elements that are not physical. Inner “voices,” memories of people that are no longer around or internal fears can become as much of a character as one represented with a name. “Tell-Tale Heart,” a short story by Edgar Alan Poe, is a good example of this. Because the story is a horror tale, the ending is not a happy one and the voice that haunts the main character defeats him in the end.

Each aspect of the character needs to be explored. This is done by creating character sketches, which will be explained in a future post.

5. Dialogue
Conversations may be within the heart of the main character or between two or more individuals. You may also choose to speak directly to the reader of your story. Whatever you decide to do, you must be consistent throughout. The setting, the culture, the age, and the genre will all affect how characters speak to one another. More details and options on how to do this effectively will follow.

6. Theme
This is optional. Not all stories have a message but all stories come from a certain world-view. The theme is a deeper truth that is relayed through the telling of the story. Stories can have a world-changing effect, convincing the reader or even a nation, to change their beliefs or behaviors. The abolitionist movement during the Civil War was spurred on by a little book called, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Have you ever read a book that profoundly influenced what you thought about a subject or changed your life? The great books will move our hearts and the best ones change us forever, for the better. What books have most influenced you? What kind of influence would you like to have on the world, through your writing?

There is no better time to begin!

My Top Picks of Free or Cheap Web-Sources for Elementary-Middle Schoolers.

We try to buy the best resources for the least money we can. But even the best curriculum may not give clear enough instruction for the student (or parent) to be able to master the material. I’m a visual learner, myself. Often I need an illustration of the problem worked out in front of me with a clear explanation of the instructor is doing what they are doing! It is also helpful to let someone else take on the time-consuming drill. Here’s a short-list of my favorite go-to online resources that are free or very inexpensive!

1  The videos are also available on Youtube, but the website has exercises and additional worksheets for a small fee. All videos on the site are free. The worksheets are well worth the small investment, though!

2. Kahn Academy has free instruction, and not only in math! They also have an introductory course in computer programming in JavaScript as well as other subjects. We use this as a supplement often, but it can also be the curriculum! 

3. For Spelling and Vocabulary (grades K-8th)  
This has lists, definitions,  games, review and tests and costs nothing!

4.  Free literature, biographies, and books about nature and history available at  Search the bar on the left by author, title, or genre to find the selection of free materials. You may also choose to purchase “Gateway to the Classics” which opens more options, but some of those may also be viewed for free. Here is an example of one we are using this year, on American History:

Here is another sample of a book available on “Gateway to the Classics” which may be accessed as a sample.

5.  Printable worksheets for free!!! Pick your grade and your subject. Instruction is also available.

Worksheets specifically for music –

Printables for handwriting: 

Handwriting Bible verses:

For reading comprehension and more!  

6.  Grammar for 5th grade and above – review and practice.  This is pretty comprehensive! 

Another resource for Grammar, organized by topic! Click on a highlighted number for the lesson with answers.

7.  Writing style and structure, available here! 

8. Geography:  This link is to learn States and Capitals of the USA, but in the heading, you can pick any country or topic related to geography.
Also,  will give you clear maps of any part of the world.

9. Latin Charts:  

Vocabulary from Henley 1    (Just click on the lessons, you don’t need to “join.”  Save the bookmark!
Also, Vocabulary from Henley 2:

10.  Bible – audio.  Choose the version you have, and listen while you read along. This will help your children absorb more of what they read because they won’t be stumbling over words. You can also open the text in another window if you want to read online. 

11. Science:
I have recently found this interactive series of lessons in science. It is perfect for teaching several grade levels at once. The kids love it!!!

12. History:
This resource includes more than history, but their library of collected videos (free) is a great addition to any textbook! 

Next time, I will post my Top Ten Picks for Educational Youtube Channels!

What are your favorite educational sites? Post in the comments below!


Step by Step Techniques to Teach Poetry Writing

Poetry expresses what you think and feel using choice words to evoke emotion or create a picture. It can express a thought clearly or be deeply symbolic. When beginning poetry instruction, it’s best to become practice clear expression of thoughts until the various forms become easy to use. There are ways you can make the process less difficult, especially when teaching it to children!  Children 10 years and older should be able to follow this process. Each step should be done in order, on different days.


Day 1. Begin by listening to a sad poem, then a joyful one, then a reflective one. Ask, what kinds of words used to bring out those different feelings? What kinds of pictures do?
An example of a sad poem:
a reflective one:
and a joyful one:

Poems that resonate in your heart will show feeling through the setting,  the actions and posture of the characters in it – not merely tell how you feel.

Day 2. Listen to lyric poetry with different rhyme schemes and rhythms.  Sometimes the rhythm of a poem will also express feelings. For instance, the Limerick is made for silliness!

I once had a teacher named Snood
who acted disgustingly rude!
With his nose in the air,
he would burp, snort, then stare
as if we had the bad attitude!   –  Jane Clark  5/15/17

Do: Look up a few more limericks then try to write one of your own!

Day 3. Poetry with the same number of counts for each line will be much more serious. Variety in length in the lines will express emotion or movement.  A well-written poem will have rhythms (meters) on each line that work well together.  Read them aloud with feeling. Take note of certain words that are emphasized and syllables that are stressed.

For an exercise take this poorly metered verse and try to reword it to sound better to your ears, while maintaining the meaning. Clap out the meter while saying it.

Under circumstances
isn’t where I belong.            * Try eliminating the contraction.
I have to take some chances
that I might get it wrong.  

You don’t want to emphasize the ‘nt of a contraction when saying the poem aloud!

Day 4. Give another example of a rhyme that “doesn’t work” because of stressed syllables. See if your child can spot the problem before explaining it.

Look at yesterday’s poem with one word added to the first line.

Under the circumstances
is not where I belong.
I have to take some chances
that I might get it wrong.

Why doesn’t this flow as well?  The meter would have forced the second syllable of “under” to be stressed.

unDER the circumstances…

The normal pronunciation of that word stresses the first syllable, though. This is the kind of forced fit just won’t work.  If you create a rhyme and you have a wrongly stressed syllable, you can rearrange the words, eliminate a word, or change the word (to a synonym) to fix this problem.

Practice coming up with couplets today.
Two lines in a row that rhyme with each other. In the following piece of verse from a poem I wrote in middle school, I used two couplets followed by a rhyming line that matched the first couplet.

“Of all the teachers in school,
the nicest one is Mr. Wool!
The kids don’t know why
He wears a bow tie
but on anyone else, it wouldn’t look cool.”

Day 5.  Find a  lyrical poem that is already familiar, and change the words. Use the same rhyme scheme as that poem such as –  1st and 3rd line rhyming and 2nd and 4th rhyming – also called ABAB. Other good choices for beginners are ABCB, with only the second and fourth line rhyming.

Find your best words using a thesaurus. See if there are compatible rhymes for it by going through the alphabet and adding the first sound of each letter to the ending sound of your chosen word. If it doesn’t have good rhyming choices, pick a different word or rearrange the words in your line of verse so a good rhymable word appears at the end.  The trick is to find rhymes without making your sentence appear forced. Sometimes, to maintain your meaning, you must force a sentence, as Robert Frost does in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“Whose woods these are, I think I know…”
So if you must, don’t worry about it! Even famous poets have done it.

Day 6.  Create your own poem using the techniques you covered on day 5.
Is there a saying you use often? Is there a quote you really like? Is there something you really want to express? Use one of these as a launching point and try to say it several different ways. Choose one that has an ending word, easy to rhyme. If you are teaching a middle schooler how to write poetry and they are having a tough time, give them a few ideas to re-word and work from. When it comes to creative writing, it does help to “prime the pump.”  The more they do it, the easier it becomes!



Learning Logs

Note taking is a crucial skill that is rarely taught.  While shorthand or abbreviations, keywords, and pictures are useful when listening to a talk and making notes, you can become bogged down if you try to write everything that is said!

Photo by Jonas Lowgren

If you are listening or reading to learn, a learning log will be helpful! My daughter brought this idea home after listening to a lecture on note taking at Northern Virginia Community College. She found the method invaluable to her success!

This simple method is superior to the pre-printed “learning log” worksheets available online because the purpose is for your child to “think,” not to have some other source ask their questions for them.


The Learning Log

1.  Fold your notebook paper in half.  At the top of the page write the name of speaker or book topic and the date.

2.  In the first column (left side of the fold) at the top, write “Source”. On the right side of the fold at the top, place the word: Response.

3.  You may also want to have a narrow column for referencing the page /paragraph or minutes into the talk.  This can be left of the margin.

4. Don’t bother to take notes on things you already know and have no issue with.

5. As the speaker or text addresses something you want to remember (and don’t already know enough about),  put their quote or keywords about it on the first line. Be sure to number each source reference. If you have more information to locate the original idea (such as a page number or name of a famous person being quoted), write that down too.

6. On the right side of that quote or information – under “Response”, write your question, comment, disagreement, or points you want to look up in reference to point one.  Label responses with the corresponding number.  Quote #1. will be lined up with Response #1.  Continue doing this for each point you want to examine further.

For each session of study or lecture, be sure to come up with at least four details in your learning log. The purpose of this is to interact with the text or the speaker on paper, thus keeping your mind in active learning mode.

If you really feel you need to have the full context of the speech, record it while taking your Learning Log notes, to reference later or to listen to while doing a mindless task.  Extensive notes are rarely gone over again. However, if you do write down questions or disagreements with the text or speaker, these will be interesting enough to you, and sufficiently brief, to encourage you to review them, filling in the missing pieces to your learning.

Note taking does not have to be daunting. The Learning Log just may be the tool you’ve been looking for!


Avoiding Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism

Copyright infringement – Publishing a plagiarized work. This is a crime.  Ideas are not copyrightable. Titles are not either. However, if you are using someone else’s idea, you should cite them as a source of the idea.

Fair Use – Borrowing a small part of someone’s work to use in teaching, criticism, parody, or as an example. You must cite the original author. The use of the material must not in any way deprive the original author/artist of profit in the marketplace.

Plagiarism –  Taking someone else’s words or work and copying them without giving credit to the original author/artist, while claiming such work or ideas to be your own. Although ideas cannot be “copyrighted” the idea needs to be properly cited  – lest you be considered to have stolen it.

Public Domain – Works that have been around for over 100 years and are no longer under copyright protection. You may quote them or use them as you please, in entirety, but give credit to the original author, or you will still be plagiarizing.

Parody – An imitation of style for use in humor or political satire, that does not directly quote the author/artist. Parody has been protected by the courts as “fair use.”

Sometimes you will see a movie or read a book that is “based on a true story.”  You will note there is a reference to the actual story the work is derived from. Sometimes this is found in the Introduction, sometimes in the Epilogue or on the jacket of the book.

When using someone else’s life (and name) to tell a story, if you change or embellish anything, you must state what is history and what is fiction in some manner. To represent something as true about a person’s life when it is not is slander or libel. It could result in a court battle, economic loss and a ruined reputation for the author. If you also harm the reputation of the person you are writing about, it is an additional crime of defamation of character, as well as breaking the 9th commandment which states: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20 – The Bible.)

Any idea that is not considered general knowledge, such as a quote, or copy of an artistic work (whether musical or other performance or creation), must have credit given in a paper or a speech. By citing our source we avoid shaming ourselves and breaking the 8th commandment which states, “You must not steal.” (Exodus 20 – The Bible.)

Citing Works/Bibliography

Good resources for knowing how to cite works properly may be found at:

Or, you can use an application to make one for you:

Proofreading and Grading the Essay

Evaluating the First Draft

When inexperienced students are starting out, go through the process with them, assisting in each step of writing their essay. Once they understand the process, only give assistance as needed, but let them know that certain points will be taken away if they don’t follow guidelines.

If there is a word count required, check to see if it is within the range expected.  One online resource for this is:  If their count is insufficient, give general suggestions to help them expound on their points. Suggestions for improvement may be written in the margin of the first draft or between the lines. Papers should be typed using double-spacing for this reason.

It is important that grammar and spelling issues not be scrutinized until the second draft. The first focus must be on the flow of ideas.

Give 10 points each for the following (suggested)

1. Did they follow the assignment?
2. Is the thesis/topic clearly stated?
3. Are the points presented in the introductory paragraph addressed in the body of the paper?
4. Is there evidence (2 or 3 items) for each main point?
5. Is the evidence (or set of facts) from a reliable source?
6. Does their writing make sense and do the ideas connect?
7. Does the conclusion “fit” the evidence/facts given?
8. Does the conclusion restate the thesis/topic sentence, in some way?
9. Are quotes cited?
10. Is there a bibliography of references used, on a separate page?

Second Draft

Unless the first draft is nearly perfect, they will do an intermediary draft which you will be editing for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as wordiness and word choice. This revision does not need to be graded. The second paper is a working copy – in preparation for the final, published copy.  It is helpful to have your children read the second draft aloud to you so both of you can “hear” errors in their pronunciation, punctuation, verb tense, or subject/verb agreement. Have them print two copies so that while they are reading it, you can circle any mistakes that need to be corrected in their next draft. You may also correct punctuation at this time.  Ask them to explain any complicated terms to you – making sure they understand the research. Finally, give them back their second draft (with your comments and editing marks) for them to create their final copy.

The Final Copy – Third Draft , Written and Presented

After the final copy is printed, have them practice reading it again to make sure they are reading expressively and articulately. Encourage them to pause for effect and use eye contact (keeping their place on the paper with their hand so they can easily return to their spot). There is nothing that works as well as practice for public speaking. Often they will be called on to present their paper in front of a group, so even if this isn’t required in class, practicing reading aloud each time will build this skill in your own children. Have them present before a family member or friend of the family to become more secure speaking in front of others. Be sure to give plenty of encouragement for things they do well, and keep criticism about their presentation style at a minimum, initially. A good rule is to pad each “helpful suggestion” with two encouraging comments.

It may be helpful to have them watch other famous speakers. They may notice what works well and self-correct.  If they are doing a persuasive paper, let them watch a speech by Martin Luther King Jr, or Ronald Reagan. If a narrative,  let them watch someone who tells stories. There are many types of narratives, so pick one that fits well. If the speech is  an objective report – look for a news-story being presented and note anything that stands out in the differences of approach.

Some ideas for rewarding a job well done are:
Publishing their completed work on a family webpage or blog – and posting it for others to see, submitting some works to magazines or local newspapers or gathering their papers to create a “book” of their own. This could also include poetry and works of art they have done during the year. If you have several children, you could make a family anthology, in print, for each to keep. These can be copied and bound for you at a local office supply store, or you could use page protectors in a notebook and slide them in, having copies for each contributor. By the time they have completed their work (if all edits have been attended to) their grade should be no less than an A  (see rubric mentioned below).  Working in stages like this creates understanding of the process, and pride in their own achievement. When they see their work “published,” or shared with others who appreciate it, this brings meaning to their efforts, as well.


If your child has only one week to work on an essay, have them do brainstorming the first day for an idea, research on the second day, the rough draft on the third day, the second draft on day four, and the final draft on day five of that week. Parents should check over the final draft on the computer before it is printed, and point out any last minute changes before the final version is printed.  Make sure the guidelines given for formatting are followed and your son or daughter’s name is on the paper. It can be printed out and placed in their notebook one day in advance, so there is no last minute rush to do so.

Suggested Grading Rubric for Final Copy

70% of the grade is for their written work:
* 10 points for the Introductory Paragraph with their thesis, definitions and introduction to their three supporting arguments.
* 10 points for the first paragraph in the body – with supportive evidence/arguments for their first point. Supportive evidence may include informative details, statistics, anecdotes, authoritative quotes, and reasoning.
* 10 points for the next paragraph in the body of the essay, with transition and supporting material.
* 10 points for the last paragraph of the body of the essay, with transition and supporting material.
* 10 points for the conclusion. This must tie all the facts together neatly and reflect the thesis/topic sentence in the last sentence.
* 10 points for Title Page (or header that includes name/date/class)
* 10 points for the Bibliography page
And the final 30% for their presentation of the paper, orally. Grade based on skills you have already taught, and expect more as more instruction is given. Let them know ahead of time what you will be looking for.

Some presenting skills include eye contact, not fidgeting, speaking clearly (pronunciation and enunciation), volume appropriateness for audience and size of room, use of gestures,  correct posture, appearance, voice modulation in volume and pace,  appropriate movement (not still like a statue, but engaging and natural) and use of visuals.   Don’t teach all of these at once. For younger children, start with one and add another expectation as they are able to perform the first.

Encouragement usually works better than criticism, so when they have trouble with a new concept in presenting, you could say, “That was pretty good! Now let’s try that once more with …  ”  and fill in the skill that needs practice. If they still can’t quite get it, that’s fine. It is best not to have them fixate on a problem. In the next day or so, watch a professional speaker and let them comment on what they observe about them. You can ask questions to draw their attention to specific things. You could also try play acting and taking turns, delivering a speech and your child can critique your presentation as well.  First, give them some instruction concerning positive criticism vs. derogatory remarks. Only allow helpful or positive commentary for yourself and for them. If, when they critique your speech, you take this graciously, you will be showing them how to respond.

Ephesians 4:29 in the New International Version of the Bible says,
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

And that is what we are really hoping to do for our children; build them up!