How do I give up writing weekly homeschool lesson plans?

Dear Carrie

My question is, how do I give up writing weekly homeschool lesson plans?

Before I found Heart of Dakota, I wrote up weekly homeschool lesson plans for each of my children. I kept one copy for myself and gave another copy to them.  This way, they would know what to do even when I’m not at home (I work part-time). This kept us all accountable to making sure we were getting everything done. It also served as my “record” for what we did each day/week/year. I have to keep some kind of records…just in case, you know?

But, now I have these fabulous open and go guides! Honestly, I think I’m making things too hard on myself because I’m trying to still type up a weekly lesson plan for the kids. But, I’ve done this for pretty much the entire time I’ve homeschooled (this will be our 8th year). I don’t know how else to do this! Is there an easier way?


“Please Help Me Let Go of Typing My Own Weekly Lesson Plan”

Dear “Please Help Me Let Go of Typing My Own Weekly Lesson Plan,”

This is a terrific question! It is so timely as so many of us have kiddos moving into middle school/high school years! One thing that I know has really helped me shift my thinking in this area is to think of the plans in the guides from Creation to Christ on up as being the child’s daily plans and instructions, rather than MY Teacher’s Manual. Middle school and high school is a time when it helps a child so much to have a daily planner of what to do each day, where he/she can move through and read instructions and check off work as he/she goes.

Using the guide as a student planner is excellent preparation for high school and college!

This is outstanding preparation for high school and college style learning and is what the guide becomes. It is actually the child’s planner and your Teacher’s Guide rolled into one. But, it is meant to mainly be the child’s for you to borrow, to refer to as you teach your items, and to check and track work. The child is responsible for it, should be able to have complete access to it, and will likely spill or mar it, just like a planner. Without complete access to it, the child won’t be able to successfully do what we’re asking. The instructions keep getting longer and more detailed and the assignments continue to grow in difficulty.

The guides are sturdy and meant to be shared as teacher’s guide and student planner!

A blessing is that we have found our guides to hold up very well! We have all pages still in their bindings of all of our guides we’ve used, and even the ones that we’re on our third use with look pretty good. You can wipe the guides clean on front and back, which helps so much!  While my guides do have a few stray stains inside, the boys do a pretty good job keeping them intact and functioning well in one piece! The guides travel around the house (and other places) with my boys daily. They would be lost without them and so would I.

The guide (along with the portfolio your student creates) doubles as your documentation of work completed each year!

A final thing you can do to keep track of your student’s year is to simply date the Table of Contents. Jot the date of each unit’s completion next to the unit as a record of completing each week. The Introduction of the guide shows the skills that are taught each year, so keeping the guide next the portfolio your student creates is ample ‘proof’ of the work completed each year. The portfolio binder you keep of students’ work offer further documentation of all the wonderful work your kiddos have done each year too! This is also excellent prep for college, as portfolio assessment is common. I hope this helps you let go of all the time it takes to create a weekly planner!



P.S. To read more about how Heart of Dakota’s plans function, click here!

Encouraging Students to Make Oral Narrations Their Own

 From Our House to Yours

How can we encourage our students to make oral narrations their own?

Narration is a key component of Charlotte Mason’s method of instruction. In simplest terms, narration is the telling back in your own words what you just read or heard. It provides an excellent evaluation method for homeschooling, as the student must do much thinking and assimilating to narrate. No two narrations should be the same. Rather, the student is to ‘make the narration his own.’

Heart of Dakota includes various forms of narration in each guide’s plans as a type of assessment. Each year new kinds of narrations are added, while others continue to be practiced and honed. So, narration is easily a part of a student’s homeschooling just by following the plans in Heart of Dakota’s guides. However, encouraging personal style is a little more difficult to ‘plan.’  So, let’s answer this question for this blog post! How can we encourage our students to make oral narrations their own?

Well, first we can find clues about how to encourage our students to make narrations their own in Charlotte Mason’s own words.

Narrating is not the work of a parrot, but of absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind. (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 125)

We are determined that the children shall love books, therefore we do not interpose ourselves between the book and the child. (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 2, p. 231)

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 231)

Second, we can also find clues about how to encourage our students to make narrations their own in Carrie Austin’s own words.

Children who have gotten into the habit of reading good literature absorb what they will from it themselves, in their own way, whether it’s a lot or a little. Reading living books and narrating from them helps children to begin to form their own literary style. Because they have been in the company of great minds, their style will not be an exact copy of any one in particular, but will instead be shaped as an individual style from the wealth of materials they possess to create a natural style of their own.

Narration done properly develops the power of self-expression and invites a child’s personality to become part of the learning process. A child should choose vocabulary he finds appealing, make it his own, and then give it forth again with that own unique touch that comes from his own mind. This is why no two narrations should be exactly alike, and it is also why teachers should not expect their children to give the same narration they would have given. (Carrie Austin, taken from the Appendix of Heart of Dakota’s guides)

Third, putting it all together, we can encourage our students to make narrations their own in these ways.
  • To encourage our students, we can be open to them adding their own personal touches to the narration.
  • To help our students love to narrate, we can help them learn to love reading first. We can do this by not interposing ourselves between the book and the child.
  • We can view narrating to be a work of art done by the child, flowing freely from them and unheeded by interruptions from us.
  • As students grow and mature, we can expose them to many different literary styles. From this, we can expect their own narrating style to emerge slowly over time.
  • We can expect our student’s personality to become a part of the narration.
  • As students connect with what they have read, we can expect them to choose vocabulary or phrasing from the author that appealed most to them.
  • Finally, we can encourage our students to narrate in their own style by not imposing our own narration style upon them. We have our own style of narrating, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be their style.
So, what are some examples of students making oral narrations their own?

My son, Emmett, likes to give most of his oral narrations cuddled up on the couch with me. He does not want any time to compose himself before narrating. Rather, he likes to charge into it, beginning narrating immediately following the reading. He tends to remember exact phrasing or vocabulary easily. He really seems to love ‘words’ or certain ‘phrases’ and commits them to memory naturally. So, he automatically includes his favorite ‘turn of the phrase’ type quotes from the author within his narrations. His best narrations are those that I’ve remembered to tell him he will be narrating prior to the reading. He seems to just pay attention better, and he plans his narration as I read or as he reads.

What type of narration fits Emmett’s style the best, and what type doesn’t?

His favorite type of narration assigned in the plans is the ‘props’ narration. Gathering a few props, he retells the story with incredible detail. During his favorite narration ‘props’ assignment, he narrates for looooooong periods of time. I’ve learned to let him. He loves this narration so much that he will look ahead in the guide. He counts the days until he can narrate in this style again. However, it is the narration he does not enjoy as much, the summary narration, that he needs the most.

I have taught him to notice the subheadings or to think of the biggest things that happen during the reading when he will have to do a summary narration. He doesn’t like it because he can’t work all of his favorite quotes from the author into 5 sentences, but that’s ok. He can on virtually every other kind of narrating, and I’ve grown to love his style of orally narrating because of it!

Oral Narration with Props for CTC’s Storytime (Notice the toothpick ‘staff’ for the Beanie Balz and his ‘shepherd’ headdress.)
What if movement is something a narrator wants to incorporate into his style?

My son, Riley, likes to give his oral narrations standing. He is a pacer, and he likes to gesture with his hands. When he was younger, he would fidget on the couch, bumping into me, sloshing my coffee. Sometimes he would be sitting up on his haunches, like a rocket ready to launch! I don’t know why it took so long to occur to me that sitting on the couch next to me was not the best location for his narrations! I guess we just had always read on the couch, and the narration followed.

Anyway, we began to experiment with movement for Riley during his narrations. All did not go well at first. Sometimes he would pace to the next room, his narration fading so I couldn’t hear him anymore. Other times he had something in his hand while gesturing, like a clicky pencil. The pencil began clicking, tapping, flipping, and the storyline was lost.

We ended up settling upon movement was fine within his oral narrations if he stayed in a small area in front of me. Also, gestures and movements had to fit with what he was saying and not detract from it. Finally, he had to imagine he was giving his narration to a group of listeners rather than just ‘mom.’ Riley has made movement a natural part of his narrations now. He does so well!

What type of narration fits Riley’s style the best, and what type doesn’t?

Riley’s favorite kind of narration is the detailed narration. He narrates as if he’s having a conversation with me. He likes to first catch me up on anything I may have missed in the story since the last time he narrated. Really, it is kind of like he’s narrating twice, but I let it go. He loves it! Then, he tells me he’s ‘officially starting his narration.’ He likes to then look at the book, skim it, and mentally plan for a bit before he begins. He usually quotes the first sentence at the start.

During the narration, he includes a fair share of emotions. He laughs telling parts he things are incredulous. During parts that are upsetting or unbelievable to him, he shakes his head or sighs. For exciting parts, he raises his voice – he might even say, “It was just so amazing! I mean, can you believe they were able to build that structure with no machines and have it be rock solid?!? Amazing! Anyway…” He truly interacts with the author by connecting to the storyline, and I have grown to love his style of narrating because of it!

Riley’s Oral Narration for World Geography (Notice his favorite place to stand is in front of the fireplace in our living room, as it has lots of space to move.)
How can a logical narrator add personality and style to narrating?

My son, Wyatt, likes to give his oral narrations sitting separate from me. Often times he will even lay down on the couch as he gives his narration, while I am sitting in the chair opposite him. He finds this much more relaxing than standing in front of me as if he were addressing a group. He also likes a little space between us, sitting separately so he can compose his thoughts. Wyatt is a logical narrator, and he loves to tell stories chronologically, from start to finish. As a younger child, he much preferred summary narrations. He liked how concise they were, and he enjoyed giving sequential points in response to the readings. His narrations sounded somewhat encyclopedia-like, and I did not know how to draw out his personality in them. Turns out I didn’t have to. Time and varied oral narrations planned in the guides did it for me.

What type of narration fits Wyatt’s style the best, and what type doesn’t?

Wyatt is a big picture narrator, and he absolutely loves to read! He always has a book in his hand, in or out of school. This exposure to excellent literature in HOD over time has helped him develop his own narrating style. Years of reading excellent living books have given him countless connections. When I think of Charlotte Mason’s ‘broad-backdrop’ of history needing to be learned prior to putting ‘hooks’ into it for specific time periods, I think of Wyatt. He has the broad backdrop running in his mind seamlessly. Whatever he reads gets simulated into that backdrop, and it makes his oral narrations all the better.

When he narrates about Teddy Roosevelt, it is like he personally knows him. Then I remember he read “To Carry a Big Stick” earlier, and it makes sense to me why he talks about Teddy like an old friend when he’s really narrating on what he read briefly about him in America: The Last Best Hope. He narrates drawing upon all of his years of reading living books and crafting the best big picture narration he can, and I have grown to love his style of narrating because of it!

Wyatt’s Oral Narration for USII (Notice he is comfiest on the couch, with me sitting opposite him in a chair.)
Students become well-rounded narrators by giving a variety of narrations, rather than just their favorite type.

You may be wondering why I didn’t share what type of narration doesn’t fit Wyatt’s style.  That’s because there isn’t one anymore.  His style has become so adaptable that he can apply it to any kind of narration quite naturally. He enjoys narrating.  Any kind.  To share his thoughts on what he has read is as natural to him as breathing, and he has learned to love it as much as he loves the books he reads.

So, though it is tempting to just have the child narrate in their favorite way all of the time, it does them no favors. Often it is the case that if a narration assignment is not their favorite, they are not as good at it. To encourage our students to be the best narrators they can be, they need to learn to narrate in many different ways. It is through years of exposure to various authors’ styles in living books that your own students’ styles of narration will emerge! And then, through patience and encouragement, you too will be able to say ‘you have grown to love their style of narrating’ because of it!

In Christ,


P.S. To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s written narrations as a form of assessment, click here!

P.S.S. To understand where summarizing comes into narration, click here!

Taking Time Off From Teaching

Teaching Tip

Why is it important to take time off?

As summer has arrived in South Dakota, I’m reminded of the importance of taking time off from schooling. Like us, you may follow a typical school calendar; or, maybe you school year-round instead. Either way, it is a good idea to take at least a month off during your school year to recharge.

How does having time off help your school year go better?

I find I am much more focused during my “school year,” if I have had some time off to regroup. During our break, my kiddos read endless books for pleasure. They play outside, swim, play strategic board games, bake, bike, and work on projects. My boys love their time off, and so do I. It helps us all focus better on school when it rolls around again.

Taking time off helps you recharge for the school year.

So, I encourage you to make sure to take some time for both you and your children to recharge. We take several months off in the summer. Then, we are very focused during our school year once it begins. With this schedule, we take little to no time off until summer rolls around again. Whatever your schedule, be sure to make time to have a more lengthy break! You may be surprised after your break at how ready you are to start school again.


PS – Check out this recent post from the Heart of Dakota Message Board if you are concerned about not finishing the guide by the end of the school year.

HOD Guides: A Journey to Enjoy Not a Race to Complete

Why Doesn’t Heart of Dakota Use a Weekly Grid for Their Lesson Plan Format?

Is something wrong with my son’s handwriting, or is this normal?

Dear Carrie

Question:  Is something wrong with my son’s handwriting/penmanship, or is this normal?

My 6 ½ year old son is doing A Reason for Handwriting A with LHFHG (1st grade) with Heart of Dakota. He is loving it!  His penmanship is pretty good. We got him a “claw” to help with his pencil grip. It still seems like he is holding the pencil a little tight, though. I am trying to turn his paper a little more each day (to match his arm).  But, I don’t know that I am actually achieving anything. It seems like his body & arm just move further around.

His grip is a little tight, and his hand hurts sometimes.

All that to say, that he doesn’t like handwriting. He will do the work, but he says it hurts his hand. I’ve limited his writing as long has he tries to do his best. Is his hand hurting normal? Does he just need to build up stamina? He doesn’t crook his wrist particularly, but it does seem like he likes to write with his wrist turned up on the side. When I write, my wrist is more flat down on the paper with my fingers out in front.

I’m not sure if there is something actually wrong or not!

I’m not sure where to go from here. I want to do something about it if there is something actually wrong, but I’m not sure that there is. He is going to need writing stamina if he is going to do dictations in a couple of years, right? So, does this mean I should take him to an occupational therapist? Please help! Thanks in advance!


“Please Tell Me If My Son’s Handwriting Is a Problem or Not”

Dear “Please Tell Me If My Son’s Handwriting Is a Problem or Not,”

Answer:  At age 6, it is not uncommon to have a pretty tight grip on the pencil and to have an incorrect grip. Honestly, in my years of teaching (by the time the kiddos reached third grade) at last half of the class had an incorrect grip. In fact, I have an incorrect grip myself, yet my penmanship was and is always fine. If you poll those at your own house to see who holds his/her pencil correctly, you will likely see about the same ratio as what I saw each each year in my classroom!

Here are a few thoughts that may help!

I share this to let you know that you are very blessed to have a child whose penmanship is as good as your little honey’s writing looks. (Thanks for the picture!) From my perspective, I would definitely get rid of the claw, as it can be tiring and confining to kiddos when they write. Next, I would simply work toward having your son try to point the top of his pencil eraser toward his body, rather than away from his body as he writes. He can achieve this by drawing his elbow toward his body, which will tilt the pencil toward him a bit more. This will encourage a more traditional hold. I wouldn’t focus on the grip continually though, but rather praise his writing, giving gentle hints to pull in his elbow just a bit toward his side as he writes.

Your son’s handwriting development is normal!

Good news – your son’s handwriting is progressing just as it should! So when he writes, just make sure not to get him thinking that he has a problem area here. When he is building stamina in writing, this is all just a normal part of the writing process. His handwriting is beautiful! Keep up the good work of teaching your son to write!



P.S. For pictures showing writing progression, click here!

Five Simple Steps to Help Your Student Become a Strong Writer

From Our House to Yours

A Trend in Writing to Ponder

Each day I get to help families with placement in Heart of Dakota. I’ve enjoyed doing this for over a decade and consider it an incredible blessing and a privilege! I see a trend for many students who come to Heart of Dakota from other curricula.  They are often placing lower on the placement chart in writing, spelling, and grammar.  They have done much work orally. But, now that they are getting older, parents are looking ahead to middle school and high school work. They are concerned their students won’t be ready.

Impact on Spelling and Editing Skills

Since much of the work was done orally by students, their spelling has also been impacted. They just have not written enough to form the habit of spelling well. Likewise, they have done little to no editing of their own written work. The parent has not been editing either, as students have been doing their work orally. This leaves the parent with all of the responsibility of editing a larger volume of work, as students should be writing more as they mature.  So, a responsibility that should be shared or shifting more to the student has landed soundly in the parent’s lap!  Not what we busy homeschool moms need, right?!?

How Reading Aloud Everything Can Impact Students’ Writing

When older students are combined with much younger students and therefore everything must be read aloud either by them or the parent, their writing is impacted. Seeing the text on the page as you read in your head fixes proper spelling in your mind.  This in turn helps you have a better chance of spelling words correctly in your own writing.  Older students who have not read independently often do not write well independently for this reason. This is why Charlotte Mason advocated students at the age of 9 be responsible for their reading. Can you think back to yourself as a 5th grade student? I know, for some of us, this is going waaaaaay back.  But, thinking back, how would your teachers reading everything aloud to you have impacted your writing?  Probably significantly, and not in a way you’d like.

The good news – Heart of Dakota’s plans are designed to help students improve their writing!

Students incrementally become stronger writers using Heart of Dakota’s plans!  Simply following the daily plans and using the writing helps in the appendix of each guide helps students gradually improve.  However, what do you do if you are coming to Heart of Dakota later?  Or, what if you did Heart of Dakota from the start, but you altered the plans so work was done orally instead?  Well, take heart!  Students can and will improve given time, as they create new writing habits.  So, here are 5 tips to help your children strengthen their writing skills and be on the road to writing well!

#1: Follow Heart of Dakota’s plans by requiring all writing in assignments to be completed.

Start small if need be!  Students assigned to write 5- 7 sentences for a written narration should start with 5 good short sentences.  Quality trumps quantity to begin with!  Students should use proper spelling in all copywork, written narrations, and formal writing assignments. However, editing writing in all subject areas helps as well.  So, if you see a word spelled wrong in science, for example, try to help them fix it. Though work need not be perfect, spelling is something to try to edit in all subject areas as much as possible.

A word on this poster had to be fixed because it was misspelled. Not fun to fix, but in the end, he was happier to share his work knowing it was spelled right!
#2: Use the editing tips in the back of the guide.

Take time to edit to help your student become a strong writer! Working through the list following the directions in the Appendix will help students form good editing habits.  The responsibility for editing will gradually shift more from you to your students.  As this happens, your kiddos will learn writing carefully from the start equals less editing at the end. Keep in mind, students write one draft for written narrations.   A parent should not require a student to rewrite an entire written narration in a second or third draft.  Rather, students edit their first draft to the best of their ability with a parent offering help and encouragement as needed.

Riley’s Written Narrations in World Geography
#3:  Do dictation every day you homeschool.

Heart of Dakota’s plans assign dictation 3 out of 4 days a week.  Struggling spellers can see more improvement in their spelling by doing dictation daily. Be sure to follow the directions at the start of dictation carefully, as they follow Charlotte Mason’s tried and true methods.  For one of my sons who struggled with spelling, we did dictation daily.  It took his scores on standardized testing from below average to above average.  He didn’t become a stellar speller overnight, mind you!  But, slow and steady consistent dictation and editing helped him improve greatly!

#4:  Students should read when assigned to do so.

Carrie wrote Heart of Dakota’s plans to include living books. She chose these books specifically with reading roles in mind.  Students placed properly in a guide can independently read what has been assigned or quickly grow into the reading.  Carrie didn’t forget parents’ love to read aloud either! Parents always get to enjoy reading something too.  I love the books I get to read aloud with my sons!  But, I also love my sons enjoying reading on their own too! Keep in mind not all living books function best as read alouds.  Likewise, the reading assignments vary in length.  Some readings are long!  Students are meant to read them more quickly independently. As Charlotte Mason advocated children 9 years or older begin doing their own reading, Carrie chose books with this in mind.

#5: Teach students to shrink their writing to fit on notebook paper.

Students who are new to writing often write quite large.  They also often do not know how to write with proper spacing.  Writing on lined notebook paper for subjects such as R & S English, science questions, Common Place book entries, etc. can be a challenge.  You can help by pointing out the left and right margins.  Likewise, you can draw their attention to spacing between words.  Helping them visualize a dotted line within the wide line also helps with writing lower case letters.  Students can skip lines, as this helps them better see how to edit their written work.  They can also experiment with various pencils and grippers, until they find what they like best. Parents can jot editing notes in the margin for easy reference.

Emmett’s Writing on Notebook Paper and My Editing Marks in the Margin

I use these tips with my own sons each day!  I have seen such improvement in writing, spelling, and grammar through the years with Heart of Dakota.  My job as editor decreases and shifts to my sons’ job as they mature.  This is what helps them be able to write well without me!  And that, in my mind, is the final goal for writing!  Hope this helps as you encourage your own kiddos to become the best writers they can be!

In Christ,


P.S. For more on written narrations as a form of assessment, click here!

P.S.S. For more on dictation as a way to teach spelling to struggling students, click here!