Work Trays : A Montessori Tool That Works Well In The Homeschool Classroom

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Math tray: Placing the correct number of counters on each number card solidifies the connection between an amount and the numeral representing that amount.

Math tray: Placing the correct number of counters on each number card solidifies the connection between an amount and the numeral representing that amount.

When I started homeschooling six years ago it was easy. The eldest child and I sat at the table while his sister took her morning nap and we did his lessons. He was (and is) a very focused individual who learns well when things are verbally explained so we didn’t do much hands-on stuff or play based learning. His sister is similar in temperament so when she was big enough to do school I just did the same things with her that I had done with him.

Fast forward a few years. Now there are four children in the classroom. Two still mostly learn by reading and getting explanations as needed and two need much more activity to solidify their lessons. One of those two is a first grader who still needs a fair amount of my attention, and one a three year old who needs to be learning and included yet independent while I work with his brother.

Enter the work tray.

Just a cheap metal tray but the possibilities are endless.

With the Preschooler:

Every couple of weeks I change out his trays.  He has two and usually I designate one for a math concept and one for a language/pre-reading concept. We do his book work first while the first grader does handwriting. Then the preschooler brings a tray to the work table and I introduce it. I explain the concept:

“This is a counting tray.”

And demonstrate how to use it. He then uses it himself until he is done with it. I occasionally check that he is doing the work properly and not throwing the pieces or mixing himself up (a math tray shouldn’t have numbers confused for example). When he is finished he disassembles the work and returns everything to its cubby.

This is a story telling tray. I tell a story (Three Billy Goats Gruff in this case) then give them the tray to rehearse the story and tell it back to me.

This is a story telling tray. I tell a story (Three Billy Goats Gruff in this case) then give them the tray to rehearse the story and tell it back to me.


He generally sticks with a tray for 10-15 minutes, which is plenty of time for a three year old.

The First Grader:

He also uses the story telling trays. Either we just add more detail to his stories or I tie the story into his science or history.

We use trays and three-part cards to review things like continents and their names, and classifications of animals.

We also use trays for reviewing the addition and subtraction families he is learning and matching his Latin vocabulary to the English meanings.

In some ways the work trays are the equivalent of the notebooking that the bigger children do; a way to review and solidify information that can be primarily an independent activity. They give me the chance to see if concepts have really been understood and give the little boys a more hands-on way to interact with their schooling.


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Friday Wrap-up: What Did We Do All Week?

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More Notebooking of the Human Body by Mouse Bones of the Skull this week

More Notebooking of the Human Body by Mouse
Bones of the Skull this week


Playing "Snack Stand" with Daisy

Playing “Snack Stand” with Daisy


Setting up my desk!

Setting up my desk!


Taking naps

Taking naps

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“Review Week”

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wpid-20150625_151517.jpgA few years ago I started planning a week “off” into the lesson plans for the year. At the time, we were schooling year round and it made sense to take a week every six weeks, for extra errand running, play dates, doctor’s appointments and whatevers.


What I didn’t realize was how much those weeks “off” would contribute to my mental health and ability to keep homeschooling! In fact this year I’ve given us more of them, and designated every fourth week as a “review” week.


The “review” weeks (so called because among other things we use them for the messy projects that help solidify the concepts we’ve learned) are a block of time that I use to help me relax and regroup. Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve done this week:


Monday: The children did their regular chores, then had free play outside while I cleaned and re-organized the schoolroom. Yes, we just started school, but the five year old also uses the space during our quiet-time and I could see some places where moving things around would give us a better workflow. I also worked on repairing and setting up a desk for myself in the master bedroom.




Tuesday: We did school in the morning. This was mostly the odds and ends of lessons that had been missed the previous week due to a dentist appointment and several children with head colds. I started sorting through clothes as part of the fall clothing changeover.


Wednesday: Co-op in the morning. Finished setting up my desk in the afternoon. Menu planning and grocery list. Cooked a dinner that didn’t involve a slow cooker.


Thursday (Today): Just about finished the clothing swap. Enormous box of stuff destined for the thrift store. I have one more box to go through. Grocery shopping. Tidying of various kinds. Hopefully a new mattress for our bed gets delivered today. After naps I will finish the schoolroom cleaning and reorganizing and hopefully figure out why my printer refuses to print in black ink!!!


Friday (Tomorrow): First Friday Mass with the homeschool group, then lunch. Maybe a visit to Costco afterwards. General Tidy everywhere to be ready for the weekend.


Weekend: update lesson plans, print stuff for the next three weeks, spend some time with friends, church.

Then on Monday start the next three week session of school, with a refreshed outlook and tidier spaces!

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Of Hectic Schedules, Activities, and Life in a Circus

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Seems like a long time since I sat down to type here. Actually…it has been a long time…a couple of months at least and that last post was rather short.

Life has been busy, no doubt (and more on that below) but also I managed to give away my work space and only this week replaced it with something else.

You see, I wanted both big children to have a desk in their bedrooms. Partly so that they could retreat there to work when the realities of first grade and preschool mean the little boys and I are too distracting and partly because in a mid-sized house with a good sized family everyone needs a bit of creative space to use. I found Mouse a nice desk last year at a yard sale and after some creative rearranging of the boys’ room (hint: I took away their chest of drawers!) I was able to give Buggle my desk from the basement.

I thought this made perfect sense. I rarely used that desk as I find the basement dark (it’s really not but it seems that way to me since there aren’t any windows) and I figured I could just work on the couch or something.

Silly me! What I hadn’t thought through was were the stuff that accompanies my projects was going to go when I didn’t have a desk to dump it on! The living room tables were the spot apparently and what a clutter they became!

If you know me, you know that while I am not naturally a tidy person, I also have a real problem functioning when there is visual clutter. It’s too distracting and I stop finding time for creative thoughts let alone writing blog posts!


Time to re-arrange the master bedroom and find a desk for mom. We found a decent one, and the kind I was looking for. A secretary or slant top desk, with drawers and little cubbyholes. A bit the worse for wear, but I’ll paint it to go with our room eventually and the application of a lubricant and a few screws got the desktop mechanism working again.

And here I sit. Typing a post at three pm on a Wednesday afternoon, waiting for Jack to fall asleep (I have a suspicion his nap is going the way of the dodo) and contemplating the crazy busyness of this fall.

All four of the children are taking dance this fall. Buggle and Mouse are in the same classes (Tap and Ballet), Bull and Jack are each in different classes (Intro to Dance for Jack and a combination Ballet, Tap, Jazz class for Bull). We are at the dance studio three evenings a week.

Buggle and Mouse are in a very good children’s choir where they are learning to read music and sing (think English choral tradition). Several of their friends do that too, so we can carpool and it’s the same evening as Bull’s dance class so it doesn’t cost us any more evenings.

Wednesday mornings we have a homeschool co-op with several other families (25 or so children). I teach two science classes, and there is also Music and Gym.

Most Fridays we get together with the same group for a more social time (and Mass on the First Friday of each month).

Add in church and Sunday School and the weeks just fly by!

I’m happy though. The children are growing and changing and the big two in particular are beginning to really start to take responsibility for their schoolwork, chores etc. and work to get it done without my having to tell them over and over. I can see some places we need to work on, but when I compare with this time last year I can see how they have matured.

Going forward I should be more faithful in writing in my new space. My aim is to post at least a couple of times a week, if life doesn’t interfere too badly!

What’s new in your world?

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Stay Away!

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Respect is a big deal these days and so often it just means that I choose to stay away from those who disagree with me.

Avoiding my neighbor isn’t really loving him, though, and loving our neighbor is what each one of us is called to do.

I posted some thoughts on the HEAV blog today on what that looks like….

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Time Management

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Looking at the calendar the other day and realized that we only have about six weeks at home before we start school again along with fall activities. I say “at home” because we have a wedding to travel to at the end of the this month and then a combination family reunion and vacation at the end of August so we’ll be gone a bit.

With that realization in mind I’ve started working on figuring out our fall schedule. It’s a full one with three grade school students, one preschooler (who may end up being a very early reader like Buggle and needing more time than I think) and an infant. Not to mention dance lessons for four children and choir for two, one day of co-op learning and my possibly (probably) teaching a class on literary theory and essay writing for middle school students!

It’s going to have to be a very tightly run ship around here and one of the keys is going to be good time management for myself and the big three. Buggle and Mouse are definitely of an age to begin managing their own time and learning the consequences of using their time well or badly. I’ve worked on this before (and written about it) but it’s one of my foci during this last part of the summer. Here’s what I want:

  1. The big children to automatically do chores and schoolwork before asking to go out to play, or going out to play.
  2. The big children to learn to get themselves up and do the things on their morning list before school starts without my having to tell them to
  3. 90% of the time for jobs and schoolwork to pass inspection the first time they ask me to inspect. Having to redo jobs or do earned jobs takes time and time is going to be a premium this fall.
  4. For there to be a general attitude of “pitching in” to keep things running smoothly, whether by doing your own assigned things or by helping out a sibling who is “running behind”

Tall order.

But all important skills and habits for life.

Here’s what I’m doing so far:

Two main job lists: one for before we start our project for the day and one for after naps and before play.



Once school starts the “Before Going Out/Morning” list will also get “Do Spelling and Penmanship” added to it as those two subjects require almost no input from me.

For the most part the children have the concept of looking at the list and doing those things down. Bull probably does the best as getting up and starting his day by emptying the dishwasher and I am working on doing my part of loading and running it in the evenings so there are clean dishes for him in the morning!

What we/they are struggling with is the “doing the job correctly, the first time” and “doing the job in a reasonable amount of time”. Neither list “should” take more than 30-40 minutes but the afternoon list in particular tends to drag on and on……

Consistent use of earned jobs is helping as well as my adjusting my schedule to be more available to  follow through and make sure jobs are done at the right times and inspected promptly. I know I’m going to have to step up my game as well as teaching them to step up theirs.

I’m trying to keep things pretty close to what our school schedule will be as well substituting projects like cleaning the basement for schoolwork to fill the hours we would normally be at our desks.


I think there is progress although as is typical with children it frequently feels like the “two steps forward, one step back” variety!

Any thoughts? I’d love to hear how other people have taught time management and garner some ideas!

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Job Failing

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One of the things that happens frequently around here is jobs done halfway and left in hopes that no one will notice! Sometimes (most of the time) this is an attitude problem as much as anything and simply calling the child back to redo the job doesn’t usually help them fix the attitude.

We’ve been giving extra jobs for poorly done work or a bad attitude about work for a long time on the theory that more practice working should help with attitude and performance but things weren’t improving that much.

S asked me to write a list of extra jobs as it seemed that one of the problems was inconsistency with appropriate extra work (isn’t parental consistency always part of the problem?) or with us not being able to think of a job and so nothing being assigned.


I thought for a bit and wrote this:



All jobs that should take 5-10 minutes and that are nice to have done but not essential.

Job Fails work like this:

You do a regular job or one you were asked to do, call for an inspection and fail the inspection- you earn a job which must be successfully completed before you can redo the original job. If the Earned Job fails you earn another job which must be completed before you can redo the original Earned Job which must be completed before redoing the original Non Earned Job.

Failing to complete the job within a reasonable time frame is also a job failure and earns a job.

Of course this means that on occasion a child has managed to give themselves an afternoon’s worth of work but that is not something that happens often as working while the others are playing tends to be self-correcting. There is usually some weeping and gnashing of teeth when this happens but that is a great chance to address attitude problems.

Slowly the children are learning that working well is its own reward and that their attitude choices make a big difference in how well a job gets done. I’m much more able to be consistent with a list to work from and clear expectations for success and failure.

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The Past Few Weeks…

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Have been a whirlwind of activity!


Home Educators Association of Virginia Convention in Virginia- one full day of driving to get there (the children did very well and made traveling really enjoyable for the most part. A day and a half of visiting with family and friends (oh, the joy! of friends that you can just blend with even when you haven’t seen them for years!), two and a half days of convention (children’s program for the big three, two Question and Answer Panels for me, plus plenty of time at the Special Needs Resource Table answering questions and juggling the baby and the three year old ( he did nap in the stroller most of the afternoon on the two full days), Vigil Mass on Saturday evening, a picnic supper with friends and then the long drive home again the next day! Good and well worth it, but very full!



Unpack the car, put things away and a dance recital- That was this week. Unpacking in a steady rain on Monday, putting things away Monday and Tuesday, cleaning the upstairs (a good start anyway) on Wednesday, making sure all the dance recital stuff was ready on Thursday, and three hours of dress rehearsal yesterday for the recital today.




Sick children- Mostly the three year old but the baby is a bit snotty too. Jack has a full fledged something: runny nose, good fever (104.3 this morning), and the worst sign (given his personality) no sense of humor. Kept the littles home from the recital today and will keep them home from church tomorrow. Praying we don’t end up with croup again….


Working on- Lesson plans for next year’s schooling, year end testing for the big two, clearing out the basement to make a playroom/romping room, working with the other mom’s to organize a Catholic homeschool co-op for next year.

Coming up- Another trip to Virginia for my baby sister’s wedding, baptism for all five children (have you ever tried to arrange for ten godparents at once?), a trip to Tennessee and Kentucky for S’s family gathering.

Clearly never boring around here!


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The Little Things

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So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing a lot of sitting on the couch and feeding the baby! Perfectly normal post-partum activities but not very conducive to keeping up with the housekeeping!

The first week I had my mother’s helper every morning and the lovely woman who does some of the heavy cleaning came, but this week both of them were absent. I was sure going in that things were going to be very, very messy by the end of the week.

You know what though? They weren’t.

To be sure there are some things that need to be tackled, but most of those are things like Mouse’s room which is never tidy, and which I have to help her with every couple of weeks. And even that isn’t as bad as it could be.

Here’s why:




All the stuff in that pile was scattered across the living room floor at the end of the day. Five minutes of my sweeping up and ten minutes of someone clearing up the pile and the living room is basically tidy again.

I’ve been doing this twice a day upstairs and down and it has kept the build up of mess down to almost nothing. Mouse has even managed to stay focused enough to clear the pile in her room since a pile in front of her closet is much more doable seeming than instructions to “clean your room”.

Here’s the second thing that makes a huge difference:



This child clears the dishwasher every time we do jobs. That means at least twice a day. Which means I need to have it loaded and run so he can clear it. And if I load the dishwasher, I might as well wipe the counters. And if I’m wiping I can put things away at the same time. And (surprise, surprise) if I do that then the kitchen actually stays mostly tidy.

Probably all of this is obvious to most of you- but I need constant reminders that doing the little things makes the big things possible.


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Bless Another Homeschooler

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Convention is coming and I’m making my lists and anticipating happy hours spent looking at curriculum, buying curriculum, making lesson plans and finally teaching!

I‘m also anticipating the joy of being able to talk to other homeschoolers and encourage and be encouraged.

Honestly, that is probably the biggest benefit of the HEAV Convention to me! The way in which perfect strangers united by a shared purpose step into each other’s lives for a weekend and bless, encourage and refresh each other.

In little moments in the Exhibit Hall when two moms are looking at the same curriculum and fall into conversation…..

At the HEAV tables in the lobby where seasoned homeschoolers point dozens of inquirers toward the right resources (and the bathrooms!)….

At the Special Needs Resource Table (where I volunteer) talking with parents about how to teach their struggling learners and encouraging them to “take courage”…..

At Registration…..

In the workshops……

At the Used Curriculum Sale…..

Everywhere there are homeschoolers helping each other!

Some of this help is just the effect of like minded people inhabiting the same space, but much of it comes from the small army of volunteers necessary to make the Convention all that it is.

Today we are just two weeks away from Convention and the need for volunteers is high.

Can you give an hour or two to help?

Volunteers are needed in particular in the following areas according to Jennifer Jessen, the Volunteer Coordinator:


Registration needs adults to serve in On-Site Registration on Friday (all time slots). These are the folks who help unregistered attendees determine which level of convention registration is right for them, and then process the payment. Shifts are three-hours long. Without good volunteers here the registration lines will be long and slow.


Speaker Assistants are needed in the Dissection Lab and Art Workshop, as well as at Crystal Paine’s book table and Voddie Baucham’s book table. These volunteer needs are not listed on the Volunteer Sign-Up Application, so interested volunteers will need to contact me directly at Speaker Assistants are also needed in the teen Apologia program. Volunteers could be older teens. The perk here is that a full-time teen volunteer can participate in the program for free, but he must volunteer for both days.


The HEAV Tables still need experienced homeschool parents to work at the tables. They will answer general homeschool questions, and direct folks to appropriate resources. All three days need volunteers rather urgently. (This is one of my favorite spots to volunteer, I always have wonderful conversations and frequently run into people I haven’t seen in years! …K)


If you would encourage folks to volunteer at the convention, HEAV would be grateful! Of course, one should volunteer because it is the right thing to do (even Jesus came to serve and not to be served Matthew 20:28), but HEAV expresses appreciation for volunteers by offering a Golden Ticket for early shopping in the UCS. Volunteers may enter the UCS on Friday morning up to one hour before Pre-Registered attendees. (After 3 p.m. Friday everyone may come and go at will.)


One other note: Volunteer sign-ups will be temporarily suspended beginning Sunday, June 7, so that we may print and stuff volunteer packets, and move to the convention center and set up. Volunteer sign-ups will resume on-site on Thursday, June 11, but we will be unable to accept sign-ups from June 7 through June 10.


Won’t you come and help? I look forward to seeing many, many people wearing Volunteer Buttons and carrying a Golden Ticket!


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