Archive for the ‘Teaching Middle School’ Category

Are your kids struggling with Blank Page Syndrome?

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Are your kids struggling with blank page syndrome?

Steam is starting to come out of your ears listening to the tap, tap, tap of his pencil on that blank piece of paper as he sits there, groaning and sighing.

When is he going to get started with that writing?!

“Mom, I don’t know what to write!  Can’t I do something ELSE now?

Do you have a reluctant writer?

I know what that’s like. I had one, too.

Not just had one. I AM one.

Two things I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Staring at a blank piece of paper is totally intimidating.
  2. Writing is easier to do the more you do it. (Like with so many other things in life, right?)

Here is one idea you can implement TODAY that will help YOUR reluctant writer practice writing relatively painlessly.


Have him begin a reader’s response journal and write in it every day.  But only for FIVE MINUTES. Tell your writer that even if he has more to say, he can only write for five minutes.

How to Do It.

Find a smaller sized spiral notebook or a composition book.  (Smaller = less intimidating.)

Writing about a good story is easiest. Before your student starts his daily reading assignment, have him write the following in his journal:

  • Date:
  • Title of Book:
  • Page Numbers read for this entry (page # started – page # ended)
  • Have him copy the assigned question (examples below)
  • Underneath, have him write his response to the question

What else you need to know.

If your goal is to build writing fluency, I recommend you focus on just having him write without editing his writing.  (If you have a particularly interesting response from your student on one day, you can always choose to make that into a writing project for the week.  In that case, you would expect your student to fully develop his thoughts, write well-developed paragraphs, use correct spelling and punctuation and to self-edit his work.)

You need to periodically check this to make sure it is being done; every day to start and then once a week once the habit has been developed, with periodic spot checks at irregular intervals.  :-)

Make sure the writing is done immediately after the reading.

Not only does daily writing increase writing fluency, this assignment also helps your student develop the ability to choose the main idea and to summarize a passage, both important writing and critical thinking skills.

Start with easier response prompts and then move to more advanced prompts as your student gets used to the process.

Remember that around middle school students mature to the point where they begin to be able to think more analytically, but this is a developmental thing.  If you are not sure your student is ready but you have been doing this awhile now and you want to ratchet it up a bit, occasionally pitch your student a more analytical question and see how it goes.

For your more artistic students, feel free to throw in some prompts that require illustrations.

A month of prompts to get you started.

  1. Do you like what you are reading? Why or why not?
  2. In a few sentences summarize what you read today.
  3. If you were a character in this book, who would you be and why?
  4. Is what you are reading believable? Why or why not?
  5. Draw four objects that represent your reading. Write a sentence for each item and tell how it relates to your reading.
  6. Write down one word from your reading today that you didn’t know. What do you think it could mean? Explain what made you think that.
  7. Is the setting (where and/or when the story takes place) described well enough that you have a ‘picture’ of it in your mind? Why or why not?
  8. Draw the setting in which the story takes place.
  9. Describe your favorite character and explain why.
  10. Describe your least favorite character and explain why.
  11. If you were writing this story, what would happen next?
  12. Tell me about the main character. What kind of person is he or she?
  13. Tell me what problem the main character is facing. What would you do to solve the problem?
  14. What has happened in the story so far?
  15. What is your favorite part of the story so far?
  16. What is your least favorite part of the story so far?
  17. What have you found boring about your reading? What made it boring? If you were writing the story, how would you make it more interesting?
  18. Describe the thoughts and feelings you had while you were reading today.
  19. What are the two most important ideas from this story so far?
  20. Write the title of this book. Do you think the title fits the story? Why or why not?
  21. What is something you have learned from reading this story?
  22. What ideas do you have about what will happen next? Has the author given you any clues in the story? What were they?
  23. What object is important to the story.  Draw it. Why is it important?
  24. Describe what one character from the story looks like.
  25. What is the most important event that has occurred in the story so far?
  26. Who do you think is the most important character in the story and why?
  27. What have you learned about life from reading this story?
  28. Write a paragraph about the main character in the story.
  29. Write a paragraph telling about the setting of the story.
  30. Has anything happened in the story that was unexpected or surprised you? Why?
  31. Write about what one character feels. Write about when you felt that way, too.

Hang in there, Mom!  You are going to hear some groaning about this, but if you cut down on other writing for a week to compensate for this daily assignment, it will go better.

Have you tried reading response journals before?  How did it go?

If you try this method, tell me how it worked for you in the comments!





How to Write Better in Five Minutes

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

How to Write Better in Five Minutes

#1 She was tired when she finished her paper at midnight.

#2 Sleepily, Mary slowly climbed under the cool sheets and let out a huge, satisfied sigh. Although she didn’t finish writing her conclusion until the clock chimed for the twelfth time, it was worth it. She couldn’t wait to hear what her political science professor thought of her innovative solution for immigration reform. 

What Makes Excellent Writing? 

First class writing can be hard to produce, but simple to spot. It immediately draws you into a scene.  What did you experience, if anything, while reading #1 above? What was different about #2? Did you ‘see’ a tired Mary get into bed? Did you ‘feel’ cool sheets…’hear’ the clock chiming?

Show, Don’t Tell

#1 tells you what happened, but #2 shows you what happened, as if you were there watching. #2 gives you ‘clues’ that Mary was tired, and that she finished her paper at midnight, without coming right out and telling you. A competent author will describe a scene, providing plenty of specific, sensory details that allow the reader to look over her shoulder at it. If it is well-written, the reader “sees” and “feels” what the writer wants her to “see” and “feel.”

Let’s take another example:

1. He was angry when he left.

 2. Miles stalked out of the house, muttering to himself.  The kids playing in the yard stopped mid-sentence, startled at the slamming of the car door and sound of squealing tires as he rounded the corner. 

Now it’s Your Turn

This is an ideal exercise for your late middle or high school student.  Or for you!

Rewrite one or more of the following sentences so they cause the reader to ‘experience’ a situation or person. First, read the sentence, then envision a scene based on it. Second, use specific sensory details involving the main character (What does s/he  see, hear, smell, feel, taste?) to tell the reader what you want him to know. You will probably use more than one sentence. Remember: “show,” don’t “tell.” Be creative!

Teaching tip: ANY changes in this direction will immediately improve your student’s writing. Don’t expect perfection on this first attempt – just keep working on it and over time it will come more naturally.

  • The girl was happy that day. 
  • The boy is sick. 
  • The book was scary. 
  • He was not happy to see that the tree in his front yard had been cut down while he was on vacation. 
  • Chris had a lot of school work to do.

Post Yours in the Comments

We would LOVE to see one or more of your student(s) (or your) answers posted in the comments. I will respond to any posted–and feel free to respond to anyone else’s post as well! Student’s love to see their work published!

Dana Wilson at Train up a Child Publishing


P.S. This lesson plan was adapted from our Middle School Daily Lesson Plans.



Using this Simple Graphic Tool Will Make You a Better Teacher

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

No matter what type of homeschooling curriculum or methodology you use, this simple graphic tool will help you be a more effective teacher and your student a better learner.

The Rubric

This is my favorite graphic tool because it is SO helpful, on so many fronts, for both me and my students! Maybe this is something you have never done, but I have been guilty of quickly throwing an assignment at a student, without really thinking it through, let alone sufficiently explaining it. And then I would wonder why it wasn’t at all what I was expecting when it was done!  Especially if you are a newbie at homeschooling, I bet you have struggled with this, too.

A simple rubric often eliminates this problem by:

  • helping you think through the assignment before you give it.
  • giving you a clear, concrete way to explain exactly what you want your student to do.
  • providing a written reminder to your student of what he’s aiming for as he works on the assignment.
  • offering you the perfect tool to evaluate and discuss your student’s work with her.

Rubrics work equally well with written assignments, oral presentations, hands on projects or anything else you might dream up, for history, science, language arts and many other subjects you teach. You can make your rubric as simple or complicated as you want, depending upon the age of your student and your grading criteria.

Sample Rubric


Sample Rubric from K-5 Manual







This rubric is a simple one suitable for a story written by a late elementary student.






Personally, I did not grade my children at that age, but I did use a rubric to insure that we both understood what was expected in an assignment.

How to Make Your Own

  1. View and download this sample of  of a (blank) basic rubric.
  2. Decide which skills or concepts you want to evaluate.
  3. List the most important ones in the first column on the left.
  4. Create a table in Microsoft Word or software similar, or use the blank grid provided on the Train up a Child Publishing Tools CD if you happen own one of our Unit Programs. Type or write in the criteria under the numbers with the highest number being the best score. Notice the wording on the sample criteria to help you develop your own.
  5. You may add rows or columns if you would like a more fine-tuned system.
  6. Share the rubric with your student to explain your expectations for the assignment. Encourage her to check the rubric while she is working on the assignment to make sure it is completely finished before  it is turned in.
  7. Evaluate the assignment using the rubric and calculate the points if you are giving your student a grade for that assignment.
  8. As the teacher, you determine the grading scale depending on the number of elements and whether certain elements are more important than others. With our example, a possible grading scale would be:

9—12 points                Passing

below 9 points          Reteach

Another possible scoring system could be:

10-12                  A

8-9                      B

below 8           Reteach

I actually waited as long as I could to begin formal grading; I didn’t begin until half way through middle school. But whether you decide to grade earlier or not, rubrics will still go a long way to ensure you and your students are on the same page with assignments and evaluation.

Have you used rubrics with your students? When did you start using them and how have they worked for you?

Dana Wilson at Train up a Child Publishing

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King Alfred’s English: a History of the Language We Speak – a Must-read!

Friday, August 31st, 2012

A homeschooling mom’s dream, King Alfred’s English: A History of the Language We Speak and Why We Should Be Glad We Do includes European and Bible history, etymology, literature and geography – all in one captivating book!  Not only does this excellent King Alfred's English - a must read!read neatly incorporate several subjects in one readable volume, it does so with humor and clarity.

I absolutely loved this book!

Did You Know?

This history of the English language answers several of my questions, such as:

  1. Why are Spanish, Italian, French, etc., called Romance languages? (Because they were all derived from Latin. Rome = Romance)
  2. Why are words in English spelled with so many silent letters, like the k in knife, knave and knight and the gh in night, cough, and enough? (Those letters were initially pronounced, but those sounds were eventually dropped as the English language simplified and the English wanted to sound more French and less German.)
  3. Why do some people write Xmas instead of Christ – mas? Isn’t this practically the same thing as denying Christ? (No – Emperor Constantine used the “X”, the traditional Greek initial ‘Chi,’ to stand for the first letter of “Christ” in Greek.)
  4. Why is the same country sometimes called “Britain” and at other times called “England”? (Because the names actually portray two different people groups who lived in the same place but at different times.)
  5. Who introduced the idea of B.C. and A.D. to describe time? (The Venerable Bede, called the Father of English history, is credited with this concept.)

A former homeschooling mom herself, the author organizes her book around four major periods of change in the English language that she calls “language invasions.” These are major shifts in English caused by the changing political or cultural climates during the history of Britain. I mean England. These ‘invasions’ added hundreds of words to our language.

How Does English Stack Up?

How does the English language match others in sheer number of words? The author compared a few other countries’ dictionaries for a clue.

  • French dictionary – 100,000 words
  • Russian dictionary – 130,000 words
  • German dictionary – 185,000 words

Are you ready?

  • English dictionary – a whopping 615,000 words!
The plethora of words available makes for great creative writing, as the author points out – but for taking the SAT? Not so much!

European History Made Clear

As she defines the shifts and changes in English, the author describes the historical and cultural catalysts as well, and brings us along for the ride. The sometimes complicated history of Europe overall and England, particularly, becomes so much clearer under her tutelage. As well, her chapters on the Reformation are enlightening, helping her reader understand more clearly its impact on the European culture of the time and the generations around the world that followed.

Along the way she interjects an abundance of interesting nuggets, such as: after describing how experts gauge the authenticity and reliability of ancient texts (interesting in itself!), the author includes a comparison of the New Testament with other ancient writings, such as Homer’s Iliad and Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. For anyone who regularly shares with those who doubt the veracity of Scripture, this discussion is  not-to-be-missed!  A concluding quote from the author on the subject:

…anyone who does some honest research will be confronted with the fact that we are in possession of a truly astounding quantity of reliable ancient manuscripts all of which attest to the accuracy of our New Testament.  You can argue whether the events took place, but you just can’t argue that these really are the writings of the men who claimed to have witnesses them.  –by Laurie J. White, author of King Alfred’s English

Mrs. White also introduces a topic that was new to me: how William Tyndale, through his English translation of the Bible  both promoted the Reformation cause and influenced our language with his choice of words and phrases that have now seeped into the fabric of our culture. Familiar phrasings such as “eat, drink and be merry,” “fight the good fight,” and “the salt of the earth” are among Tyndale’s memorable contributions to our literary heritage.

In brief: King Alfred’s English is not to be missed!  Children from late elementary on up will enjoy listening to this as a family read-aloud, and it can be assigned as an independent reader from late middle school on up to your high school student studying British history or literature.  And I promise – you will learn and enjoy it as much as they do!

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.  C. S. Lewis


Have you read it yet? What did you learn that surprised you?




 In the interests of full-disclosure, I received a copy of this book from the author for review purposes, although the opinions given in the review are totally my own.




Music Training Impacts Brain Function

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Squeezing in the ‘fun stuff,’ like art and music study, can be a daunting task, but it may be more important to our children than we

Music Training and Study Impacts Brain Functioning

Human Brain via the National Institute of Health


In fact, scientists are increasingly telling us  that it behooves us to consider music training as a vital component of education. Many studies have actually shown that children’s brains are impacted by music – by listening to and learning about music, by vocal training, singing in a choir, or by learning to play a musical instrument.

Although formal studies of the effects of music study and training are still fairly new to the scientific community, it looks like there are some definite benefits to music study and training.  And – it not only impacts a child as he is learning and practicing it, but appears to have lifelong implications.

For example, earlier musical training has shown to offset age-related difficulty one normally has processing sounds. You haven’t experienced that yet?

You will.

If you happen to be looking back on your forties, perhaps you have noticed it is harder to carry on a conversation in a noisy environment  – to distinguish someone’s voice from the surrounding din.  Similarly, you may be able to hear someone talking to you, but not well enough to actually process what is said.

These are normal effects of aging on our hearing that can actually be negated by music training. How we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions, according to neuroscientist Nina Krause, professor at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.*

How Does Music Training Help?

The term Mozart Effect was coined in 1993 when researchers observed that students tested as much as nine points higher on a spatial IQ test after listening to music by Mozart. Although the effects lasted only a short time, this fascinating study launched several others, though without definitive results.

Despite the fact that the jury is still out regarding music and spatial reasoning, other studies have linked music training with:

  • boosting of the immune system
  • helping to repair brain damage in stroke victims
  • increasing the language ability and social interactions of older adults
  • helping seniors (with extensive music training) to be able to respond to sounds faster and more accurately than others in their age group. In fact, in one study there was no difference between the seniors (with music training) and those without music training who were much younger!

Music Helps Treat Dyslexia

Closer to home for some of you, researchers have even found a specific type of music study to help dyslexic readers.  After discovering there was a language component to dyslexia in 2007, the National Institute of Health found in further research that listening to fast music changes helped rewire dyslexic students’ brains, increasing their abilities to read as well as listen.

Read more about these studies by clicking on the links or the cutting and pasting those at the end of the article.

Music Study and Homeschooling

The more I read about music study, the more I am convinced that we need to be serious about including it in our children’s education.  There are a variety of ways to achieve this, without being accomplished musicians ourselves. If you are stumped about the best way to begin music study in your homeschool, perhaps this post would help. Also consider:

  • Checking the bargain racks of any music store – classical music compilations are almost always available at a very reasonable price.
  • Borrowing music from your public library.
  • Learning about composers and listening to their music while studying the time period in which they lived. That is what we do.
  • Including hymn study (and listening) as part of your devotions time and/or family rest times.
  • Providing your child lessons in playing the piano, guitar, violin, flute, etc.
  • If you play an instrument, giving your children lessons yourself.
  • If another homeschool mother you know plays an instrument, perhaps you could teach one of her children math or writing while she gives yours music lessons.
  • Using an older student to teach your children an instrument, rather than paying the price for an adult teacher.
  • Checking out this website with your children on The Musical Brain.

Just think – by providing music study/training for  your children, you are not only giving them a well-rounded education; you may be doing much more.

It is a gift that keeps on giving.


For further reading:

The Mozart Effect

Music and the Mind: A Different Kind of Dementia Therapy

Boosting the immune system

Music listening for maintaining attention of older adults with cognitive impairments.$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed

Music listening enhances cognitive recovery and mood after middle cerebral artery stroke.

Sound Training Rewires Dyslexic Children’s Brains For Reading

Music Training for Dyslexic Children

Music and Dyslexia

Taking up music so you can hear


*Harry Jackson, Jr. “Music training helps aging process.” Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), June 26, 2012, Section D, p. 2