Homeschooling Multiple Grades: MODG hacks and other things I've learned the hard way

It's still homeschool week on the blog. For earlier posts see here and here, and come back Monday for one last installment.

Today, I'm answering another mailbag question, and sharing how I handle six kids preschool through middle school all at once, plus a toddler and a fetus.

The Question:

Dear Kendra,

I’m drawn to MODG, but I’m a little scared to commit to it. I’d love more details on the day to day life of how you use MODG. Which online classes do you use? Is it difficult to teach all the different history lessons to your different aged kids? What substitutions do you make to the curriculum? How do you get everything done each day?

Thanks for your time. I love reading your blog, and I incorporate a lot of your ideas into our family life!


The Answer:

Thanks Leah,

I really do love the Mother of Divine Grace curriculum, it goes with my gut, and I am convinced that their classical methods are time tested and prepare kids well to become lifelong learners, which is my goal. (For more on the founder, Laura Berquist's, methods, check out her book: Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum: A Guide to Catholic Home Education.)

I have been using the Mother of Divine Grace curriculum for seven years, and have followed it very closely for kindergarten through seventh grade -- making only one major substitution. I love all the poetry and stories and art, and the memorization, and discussions, and retellings. I find it to be a very charming and thorough way to homeschool.

But. Having many kids each doing their own MODG school day is challenging to impossible, depending on how you look at it. When I had one kid in school, we sat down each morning and did everything on the syllabus together. Now that I have five kids in five different grades, plus a preschooler and a baby and another one on the way . . . well, I've had to come up with a few survival strategies.

1. Older Kids are Responsible for Their Own School Work

This one is the most important. Because, really, when people ask, how can you homeschool all those different grades? The answer is, um, you can't. But once kids can read, they can direct their own school days. And they must, so that I can work with younger kids who need direct instruction for each subject. I expect my kids grades three and up to be able to gather their own supplies each morning, and take themselves through their syllabus, checking things off as they are completed, and making a note next to things that they need to do with me. Then I expect them to seek me out and ask me to do that work with them, as many times as it takes for me to be able to do it with them.

Recently, I've been making a point of having my older kids follow a system while working independently. We've had a lot more success doing it this way, than we did when I let them just do things on their own and just check in with me at the end of the day.

The key aspects of The System are these:
  • Gather all materials you will need for the entire school day first thing before you sit down for school
  • Sit at a table in a common area of the house with enough privacy that you won't be distracted, but enough supervision that you won't be distracted. My oldest is in seventh grade and works almost completely independently. I don't do any regular daily direct instruction with him, so he doesn't sit at the dining room table with the rest of us, but it didn't work for him to sit alone in his room. So now, he sits at the kitchen table, by himself, but I can see him from where I sit in the dining room.
  • Once you sit down to start your school day, no getting up without permission. I have wanderers. They end up wasting a TON of time between assignments, then they don't have open blocks of time later in the day to play or do projects of their own choosing. If I keep them on task and not wandering in the morning, they finish in a reasonable amount of time and have plenty of free time to do as they please. Whether or not they have free time in the afternoon really changes their perception of school.
  • Do the things on your checklist in order.
  • Estimate the time you will need to complete an assignment, then set a timer and try to complete the work in that amount of time. If the timer goes off and you're not finished, realize that you are not focusing and working as efficiently as you could be. Resolve to do better, and finish the assignment.
  • Check things off as they are finished.
  • Check in with mom verbally between assignment.
  • When you think you are done for the day, double check each thing on your checklist.
  • Get your checklist signed off by mom or dad.

The System has made my older kids more efficient and more accountable. In a big family with lots of different grades, it's easy for kids to purposefully or inadvertently skip assignments. If I get busy (as I often do) and don't check in with them, more and more things get skipped, and it reinforces the behavior pattern. Then weeks or months later, it all comes to light and it's a huge crisis and a big hassle. But if we follow The System and stay on top of things, that doesn't happen. The kids learn to do their work in a reasonable amount of time and to get it all done. If they've skipped something, we figure it out right away and it gets done, so there's no incentive to let things slip through the cracks, and they get lots of time for free play and outside interests.

2. I Combine Grades When Possible

I've only been doing this for the last couple of years, but it's really worked well for us. History hasn't been an issue, because in the MODG program, kids don't start history until third grade, and by that time my kids are all able to do their reading independently. The subjects that take up most of my direct instruction time are math and spelling. So, whenever I can make it happen, I combine grades for those subjects.

I mentioned at the top that there is one major substitution the we make, and it's in our spelling program. MODG recommends a book called The Writing Road to Reading. It's a giant book of theory about why phonics is the way to go, with some spelling lists at the back. There's a booklet written by someone else, that goes along with it, as kind of a user's guide, but I found the whole thing to be very cumbersome and non-intuitive to use. After years of struggling with it, and not doing as much spelling as we should, I made the switch to All About Spelling, which is also a phonics-based program, but very user-friendly, and set up in individual lessons. I am very glad we made the switch.

We do spelling ALL together.

The All About Spelling program uses a multi-sensory approach. There are magnets, and flash cards, and the kids use white boards. It's a big change from the rest of our school day, and it's fun to be all together for a change. Well, all except the seventh grader. But my kindergartener, and second, fourth, and fifth graders all do the same lesson together. Usually the preschooler sits in too, and enthusiastically shouts out the names of phonograms that may or may not be the one on the card I'm holding up. For us it has worked really well. I just cycle through books 1, 2, 3, and 4. We can usually do two to three per year. The older kids get to review when we do the early books, and the younger kids just follow along as best they can in the more advanced books, but they all practice the phonograms, and I give them age appropriate phrases and sentences to write out, so it all works out.

MODG uses Abeka consumable math workbooks for first through third grades, then in fourth grade, they switch us to Saxon Math , a non-consumable, textbook-based math program. I think the progression works, but most of my kids have needed the lessons to be taught to them by me. Trying to do a fourth grade math lesson then a fifth grade math lesson just wasn't working for me, so I bumped the fourth grader up to the fifth grade textbook as well. There is a lot of cyclical repetition in the Saxon math program, so I think it's possible to move kids around within a year up or down from their current grade, and still get much of the same material. If you've got kids within one grade of each other, this might be a good solution.

Other things we do as a whole school together are morning exercises (running, stretches, sit ups and push ups . . . I do realize it seems silly, but it really helps my kids get the wiggles out before we settle down for school, plus I think exercise is good), morning prayers, and a morning Bible story out of the kindergarten/first grade Children's Bible . Over lunch I read aloud to the kids from a chapter book. Since we have a wide range of ages and interests, I just try to pick books we can all enjoy. Sometimes they are more sophisticated: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, War of the Worlds, Moby Dick, sometimes they're more traditional kidlit: Charlotte's Web, Pollyanna, Stuart Little, Freddy Goes to Florida, The Secret Garden. We're reading Kidnapped right now. But, I really do find that all the kids can find something to enjoy about each book.

3. Older Kids Help Younger Kids

There just aren't enough hours in the day to get everything on the syllabus done for my kindergartener and second grader who need help with pretty much everything on there, and also help where needed with the fourth and fifth graders, and check in on the seventh grader. So, if I need to be working with one of the older kids, I have a different older kid take over for me and do one or two subjects with the younger kids. That way we can all still be working.

My seventh grader is teaching Latin to the fourth and fifth graders. And he and my fifth grader do the majority of the daily work with my kindergartener.

4. Some Things Aren't Going to Happen

This was a tough one for me to accept at first. But it's true. There are many lovely things on the kindergarten and first and second grade syllabi that I always, always, always did with my first two kids, that just aren't getting done regularly with numbers three through five. Art cards, singing hymns, growing bean plants . . . those things are great, but they aren't a priority, and when things get busy they are the first to go.

But really, we go to museums as a family and enjoy art there. We sing hymns at Mass. We have a garden, and the kids help grow things there. I think there are things on the MODG syllabus for younger kids that are lovely for filling up the day when you only have one or two kids to instruct. But I don't think they are crucial to get to each day if your days are very, very full with many different grades.

For older grades there are subjects I've learned to handle better over the years. One focus of the classical approach that MODG uses is having the student listen to a story, then retell it in his own words as the teacher writes it down, then the student copies out the retelling. My oldest could listen to the assigned four Bible stories one day, then the next day retell them nearly word for word. He would end up with eight pages or more of work to copy out. And I would have him do it. Since then, I've figured out what I like to call the "Good Parts Version" (a la The Princess Bride). I read all the assigned stories for the week aloud, then have the student choose ONE of the stories, and the retelling must fit on ONE page. Less writing, fewer tears, and it makes my kids focus more on the content, and what was important in the story.

Another subject that took up a lot of time for us was Saxon math. I like the "spiral approach" and my kids do well with the no-frills textbook. The problem for us was that the suggested timetable in the syllabus calls for 45 minutes for a math lesson, but doing all the problems in each lesson was often taking my kids closer to two hours. We didn't have time for other things, my kids were frustrated, I was frustrated . . . so I cut the math lessons in half. My kids do odd number problems for odd number lessons, and even number problems for even number lessons. THAT they can accomplish in 45 minutes.

5. I Outsource When Possible

The MODG online classes are a good way to make sure that the important stuff doesn't also fall through the cracks. Like I said, for us, art and music appreciation are the first things to go when things get busy. So this year, I signed the second, fourth, and fifth graders up to do those classes once a week online with a teacher and a group of adobe-meeting classmates. They are able to do those subjects with a teacher who is not me, so *I* can use that time to work with my kindergartener or seventh grader. Many things being accomplished at once always feels nice. My fourth and fifth graders are also taking a private online math lab, with one-on-one (well, one-on-two) instruction by a math teacher. Math was a subject my fifth grader was struggling with, so I wanted to get her extra instruction and another perspective and teaching technique. They sit down at the computer and can see the teacher's computer and can type answers, or talk about things over the headset.

My seventh grader is taking six online classes: math, Latin, art appreciation, music appreciation, religion, and history book club. I basically just signed him up for everything I could, in the hopes of creating more accountability for him. It really didn't work for that, since he is still the one who needs to keep up with his assignments, and that's where we were having trouble. Also the teachers are so nice that they really don't give the students a hard time about when assignments are turned in. But he kind of needs that. So we instituted The System. And we have had success with that. But I've still been glad he is doing the online classes. It's nice for him to get some direct instruction that I don't always have the time or expertise to give him, and he also gets a little bit of social interaction with the other kids in his classes.

So there is my very, very long and complicated answer to your short and simple question. I hope it helps some. If I misunderstood or didn't quite address your question, please let me know. and let me know if there's anything else I can do to help.



You might also enjoy . . .

A Homeschooling How We Roll

A Day in the Life of Me, Kendra Tierney, in Which a Lot of Things Happen and Often I Don't Yell

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Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.