First Grade with Bella: A Window into Our Homeschool

First Grade with Bella: A Window into Our Homeschool

At the window
Ben and Anthony at the window, watching the guys doing yard work across the street.

Forgive me, my memory is a sieve right now. I know I mentioned in the comments of a previous post that I was planning to write a longish post about First Grade and what I planned to do and how it’s actually panning out several months into the school year. I no longer remember which post it was nor who was inquiring about the topic. But at least I didn’t forget that I was going to write the post! Several people have asked me at various times about homeschooling first grade, curriculum choices, how it’s going, etc.

I thought a good starting point would be the education plan I wrote up at the end of the summer and submitted to our local district. It’s meant to be a framework and was written as much for my own benefit as for the district. It’s more of an idealized goal, a target to aim for, rather than a realistic daily agenda. I knew quite well as I wrote it that I was setting my sights very high and that there was no way we would accomplish everything I was outlining here. I also knew we’d probably do a lot of things that I hadn’t even considered as I made my plans. My general plan of homeschooling is rather like my ideal vacation: I have a list of destinations I’d like to visit, sights I’d like to see; but I also know that I love detours, the unexpected find, the spontaneous change of plans (so long is it’s my idea and not sprung upon me.)

So I’ll post the plan and amend it (in bold) with my notes about how we’ve been meeting those goals and how we’ve fallen short. I think this is a good point to pause a bit and re-evaluate and maybe think about what tweaks I’d like to make.

First, a note: my two primary goals for Bella’s first grade year were making progress with math and reading.  Everything else was a distant second. Some may object that perhaps faith formation should be up there as a primary goal. And I agree—sort of. But I think of faith primarily as an encounter with a person and not a school lesson. Therefore the proper framework for developing that relationship is domestic church and not the school room. True, the two spaces overlap, are literally mapped one on top of the other; but I do separate them in my mind. My catechesis plans—the “school work” part of religious formation—are modest: I’d like to work on memorization of some prayers, learning the catechism, basically preparing her for making her first penance and first communion. We read Bible stories and lives of the saints. Most of faith formation, though, is not what we do but how we live. Thus I try to weave daily prayer into the fabric of our lives: I begin the day listening to the liturgy of the hours podcast in the kitchen as I make breakfast; I pause to pray the Angelus when my phone rings at noon and six; we pray grace before meals; we gather at the end of the day as a family for bedtime prayers. We go to Mass on Sundays and holy days. We try to go to Adoration with other homeschoolers, to the inaugural Mass for homeschoolers with Cardinal Sean, and to build relationships with various priests and religious. Mainly what we do is establish habits of living the faith as a regular part of our family.

Education Plan for Academic Year 2012-2013

We plan to utilize many resources in our area including, but not limited to, local libraries, museums, historical societies, and the internet. We reserve the right to modify Isabella’s educational plan as her needs dictate.

Sophie and Ben play with the math manipulatives after Bella’s lesson. Making silly shapes.



Textbook: Saxon Math
We will complete Saxon K and then move into Saxon 1

[Since we didn’t do any formal math work last year, I didn’t think Bella was quite ready to jump over the K book to Saxon 1, but I also thought the K book might be a little simple for her. As I suspected when I wrote up my plan, Bella is moving rapidly through the K curriculum. In mid-November we are already doing lessons that the textbook has scheduled for February. Some lessons we are skipping altogether, such as identifying shapes and colors and other lessons that are mainly review. For some topics I’m consolidating a couple of lessons into one day’s work. The Saxon book schedules 12 lessons in a month and since we usually have been doing math four or five days a week, we’re well ahead. I know we’ll miss a week or two with the new baby; but I’m hoping to finish the K book early this spring and then move on into the first grade book.

As I expected, the hands-on math is really working for us. The variety of manipulatives makes math lessons seem like fun and games rather than work. (To me as well as to Bella.) Though there is actually a drawback there because Anthony and Ben usually want to play with whatever Bella is playing with. Finding things for them to do during math lessons can be a challenge.

Since Bella still doesn’t read or write, this Saxon curriculum is perfectly suited for her abilities. I am so very glad I didn’t just try to do math on my own. Also, I’m rather surprised how much I like having scripted lessons to work from. Not that I stick strictly to the script; but when I’m sleep fogged, I don’t want to have to think too hard. Improvising with something to start from is easier than making it up whole cloth.]

Look! A triangle!


Primary textbook: Elementary Science Education: Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, Vol. I, grades K-2 : Bernard J Nebel PhD

This will be supplemented with various books from the reading lists appended to each chapter.

Additional special topics as she expresses interest. For example, she’s asked to learn more about insects and fungi.

Also, firsthand observations of flora and fauna in our immediate neighborhood and on field trips. Observations will be kept in a nature notebook.

I have planned supplemental field trips to the zoo, science museum, arboretum, butterfly exhibit, etc.

[We’re working our way through this book really slowly. As in I think we’ve done two lessons this fall. I’m mainly using it to launch unit studies rather than working my way through it with any kind of diligence I do like the book; but am a bit frustrated that the lessons aren’t more scripted. Having to think of what to say and to adapt them to Bella’s needs does get me frustrated and leads to my putting off preparing new lessons. Bella loved the unit on energy and we spent almost a month reading supplemental books on the topic. We did a lesson on air as matter, which was less interesting to both of us. Now we’ve been sidetracked away from this book to a topic that Bella picked on her own: an intensive study of rocks and minerals and fossils along with reading about archaeology in conjunction with our history lessons. I’m waiting until we finish our rocks books and archaeology books before moving on to another science topic. We had a special field trip to an archaeological dig. Bella has been pretending to be an archaeologist, digging under the couch cushions to find all sorts of treasures and digging in the backyard and finding bits of flower pots and other ceramics. She’s also been curating collections of rocks and shells. We’ve identified a couple of new birds in the yard and gone on a few nature walks. Science is happening but not as much as I’d like. Definitely not my strong suit.]

Bella says that this rubber band represents the Nile River. Later she stretched it into a broad rectangle to represent the Nile in flood.This was supposed to be a math lesson; but I guess it became geography.


History—History of the Ancient World

Primary textbook: The Story of the World Volume I by Susan Wise Bauer
Will supplement with additional books from the library and online resources as needed.
Will supplement with field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

[We’re making our way through Story of the World pretty slowly. I was aiming for a chapter a week—they’re short and I was hoping to supplement with library books—but we’ve missed a few weeks and haven’t caught up. We have gone on a lovely long detour through Ancient Egypt. Bella has loved David Macauley’s Pyramid and several library books on Egypt (with a detour through Macauley’s Castle and Cathedral while we were at it.) This Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we plan to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to visit the Egyptian galleries.]

Bella says this triangle is the Nile Delta.



Lessons with globe and atlas will tie in with history lessons and literature studies.
Supplemental work with maps and cultural studies as interest arises.
Additionally Isabella has been keeping a geography notebook with a section for each continent that includes a map, pictures of indigenous animals, and will include pictures of people we’ve read about. Currently we are engaged in a unit study on Antarctica. I anticipate that we will move on to study of Australia and then Africa as Isabella’s interests dictate.

[We’ve looked at the map in conjunction with the Little House books, we’ve looked at the globe for various purposes including finding Egypt and Mesopotamia for history. We spent some time on Google maps looking at aerial views of present day Egypt and at the Great Pyramid at Giza. We checked out some books on Australia, though Bella didn’t get into that as much as Antarctica, the one about the family that spends the summer driving around all of Australia taught us all a lot about Australian geography. Bella has spent a little time working on her geography notebook. It’s the kind of thing she does when the whim strikes her.]

Anthony reading
Anthony reading, pickup truck in hand



Read aloud books may include:
Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Melissa Wiley
Pooh stories by A.A. Milne
Doll stories by Rumer Godden
Milly-Molly-Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace
Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Others will be added as interest arises.

[We’ve worked our way through the Little House series to On the Banks of Plum Creek. This is our most consistent read aloud. We read it almost every day. We pick up Betsy Tacy and put it down. I think we’re on Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. We’re still doing Five Little Peppers on occasion and Milly-Molly-Mandy. We read from something almost every day. I’m not trying to have Bella do any narration; but her comprehension is extremely high and her memory for what we read is excellent. She often recalls details I forget. I often overhear Bella and Sophie incorporating details from the books we read into their games.]

Bella’s handwriting practice. She copied the labels off the cans we’d been using to buy and sell for our math lesson. One thing I’ve noticed is how much more likely she is to find self-directed work to do after we’ve done a little work that I’ve directed.



Daily copy work, first working on forming the letters of the alphabet, then, as she develops proficiency, moving on to short passages from our literature selections.

[Bella bristles when I try to assign copywork; but when it’s her own idea she can spend hours copying letters on her own. Since my primary focus is on her learning to read first and write only once she’s gotten some mastery, I tend to just leave it to her to work on as she wishes. Often after our reading lesson she will decide to pull out paper and copy something or other. She sometimes has me write words for her to copy. She loves copying words off the covers of books. She’s also copied words off of cans and boxes and packages. Her handwriting has improved remarkably since the beginning of the year and I’m quite pleased with her efforts.]

Bella with moth
Bella with a moth. Sophie found this moth that looked just like the yellow maple leaf it was perched on. Of course by the time I got the camera the moth had crawled off the leaf. It didn’t want to hold still for the camera. This was the best shot we could get.



The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise
Reading practice with various books at grade level.
Spelling practice using lists culled from the same books.

[I am so indebted to my dear friend Kate Wicker for suggesting this book to me. Both of my girls love it and four-year-old Sophie is learning to read right along with Bella. I love hearing both of them chanting together: “B stands for /b/ as in /b/, /b/ bat; C stands for /k/ as in /k/, /k/ cat…” We’ve worked our way through the alphabet and will probably finish learning the sounds of the letters by the end of next week. Then we’ll begin to read small words. But really they are already sounding out and reading and spelling short words all the time. We look at letter in the books we read and on signs and on packages at the grocery store. They have both become hyper-aware of the print all around them. They are very good at remembering the sounds of the letters they’ve learned. And a bonus is that Sophie, who has always had a little lisp with L and R is learning how to hear and say them correctly. At first teaching them vowels vs. consonants seemed extraneous; but it really does help. So does discussing the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants, discussing where your tongue is placed when you make a sound and when a sound is nasal. We laugh at the nasal sounds and the way V vibrates our lips and they remember the sounds.Sophie sometimes remembers the sound of a letter when she can’t recall its name. It took us a bit of time to get up to speed and really get into the habit of doing a reading lesson every day; but now the girls look forward to it eagerly. And I really have hope that Bella and Sophie will both be reading on their own by the end of the academic year.]

Bella and Sophie reading
Bella and Sophie reading together.


Faith Formation (Catechesis)

Bible stories
Biographies of saints
Catechism memorization using the book Jesus and I
Additional work based on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, lesson plans found in Home Catechesis 3-6 by Moira Farrell

[We haven’t been reading many Bible stories but that tends to go in spurts. I’m sure one will come around sooner or later. We’re enjoying books on Blessed Pier Giorgio, St Pio of Pietraclina, and St Damien of Molokai. We lost the catechism book for month but recently found it again. I have only done one CGS presentation, that of the good shepherd. The kids all loved it. My parents sent us the Mass kit and I have yet to actually do a presentation. I keep forgetting. Part of it is having to wait until Anthony’s nap. Recently I’ve been falling asleep when I go to put him down. Then Bella wants to do her read alouds and Sophie and Ben want me to read them books too. This is also the time I allotted for science and catechesis and it doesn’t really seem like that plan works. However, there really isn’t any other time. So I’m not stressing about it too much. Bella is pretty solid in her faith and Sophie and Ben aren’t bad. We’ll get to it eventually.]

Math: graphing shoes


Music Appreciation

We will choose one composer each six-week term and will read a biography and listen to a selection of compositions.
Composers may include: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms, Handel, Schubert.

[I tried to do Bach. We read a biography and listened to some of the pieces mentioned. Bella enjoyed it; but it wasn’t a book she wanted to read more than once. I’m thinking maybe we’re not quite ready for this. Or I haven’t found the right approach yet. But we listen to a wide variety of music all the time, including classical. I think that much of music appreciation come with just hearing good music. And so maybe we’ll save composers for learning when we learn about their historical periods. That would seem to make sense anyway.]

Photo Aug 30, 10 54 09 AM
The gang at the Museum of Fine Arts


Art Appreciation

We will chose one artist to study each six-week term and will read a biography and will study one picture per week.
Artists may include: Georgia O’Keeffe
Mary Cassat
Jan Vermeer
Marc Chagall
Andrei Rublev
Edouard Manet
Lilly Martin Spencer
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun
Rembrandt van Rijn

We will supplement with trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and other local museums.

[We’ve been to the MFA once and we bought a membership so we hope to go again several times in the next year. Bella loves the museum and loves art in general. She’s very visual and can spend hours looking at pictures in books. She’s very good at recognizing artists by their styles. One day after a library trip she was going through the bag and found a book I’d added to the pile. “I love this new book by Jan Brett,” she announced. Of course, she was correct that it was a Jan Brett book. She’s seldom wrong when identifying style. We’ve started assembling a postcard collection of some of her favorite artists. So far we have Vermeer, O’Keeffe, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cassatt, and a few others. Bella loves looking through them (as do Sophie and Ben and even Anthony for that matter) and has even sorted them for me after her brothers tossed the cards all over the place. I think I’m going to pick up some books on Rembrandt soon. I think she’ll like him a lot.]

Bella at the zoo
Bella admires the gorillas at the zoo. The baby was wresting with the mother just on the other side of the glass.


Fine Art—Drawing/Painting/Sculpting

Art supplies are available for her to use at will. She frequently finds her own projects such as making paper doll families and doll houses.
Occasional guided art projects to experiment with various media such as collage, modeling clay.
Nature notebook (see Science above)

[It’s a good thing Bella is so good at finding her own projects. I tend to not be very good at finding things for her to do. She and Sophie will still spend hours on paper dolls and doll houses and such. She loves drawing pictures for Ben and for her drawing is a means of artistic expression as recently when Sophie pointed out a beautiful sunset and Bella rushed to get her sketchbook so she could “save” it. We have a bunch of clay but haven’t opened it yet. I’d love to have some time when I could work one on one with Bella. Having to find things for three younger ones to do does make being crafty hard. That’s one reason we haven’t done much with clay. Ben and Anthony would probably make a huge mess of it. I should add that she’s hoping to learn some sewing too.]

Bella reads to Anthony
Bella “reads” Anthony his favorite book, The Wheels on the Bus



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