Our Second Year in Essentials- How We Are Scaling Up


My daughter (and I) are beginning our second year in Essentials.  Since this is our second year, we are going to be scaling up our work in a few ways that I will share with you below.

First, my daughter will be doing more handwriting.

As you can see from the picture above, I made my daughter hand write her first assignment this year, a short paragraph about Columbus. Handwriting the first assignment was one way we have already scaled up from last year. I never even attempted to make my daughter hand write any of her writing assignments last year.

Our first year through Essentials was difficult enough without adding that kind of stress. She’d hand write the keywords into her keyword outlines last year, but when it came to the writing assignment, I just had her use the keyword outlines to speak what she wanted to write and I would type everything into the proper format.

But her tutor asked us to do have our kids hand write the first paragraph this year, if possible, so that we will have at least one sample of our child’s handwriting to cherish. My daughter’s handwriting skills have improved so much since last year that I felt comfortable doing what the teacher asked. Having to write it by hand herself, my daughter got practice with arranging, spelling, grammar, and capitalization. She took even more ownership of her work than usual, so I will probably continue having her write at least the first draft of her assignments for the rest of the year.

I am pretty sure her teacher wants the rest of her assignments after this one to be typed, so I will still have to type the final drafts because my daughter can’t use the keyboard yet.  But I think I will have my daughter start keyboarding this year so she can be ready to type her own papers by the beginning of her third year in Essentials. It will be glorious when she can write her own papers from start to finish and all I have to do is proofread and facilitate. Oh to dream.

As a second year student this year, my daughter will be doing even more writing.

The tutor gave us a copy of the suggested writing schedule that comes with our US History Based Writing book. If you read the photo, second year students are assigned two paragraphs the first week.  We are going to attempt to follow the schedule for second year students, so doing more writing will be another way we scale up this year.


I knew that doing two paragraphs this week meant we needed start right away. One year in Essentials taught me that much.  We have Classical Conversations on Thursday, so on Friday, I had my daughter read the first source paragraph on Christopher Columbus and fill in her own keyword outline. Again, that’s something she got used to doing herself last year, so that was easy enough for her to do on her own.  Then I made her use her keyword outline to tell me out loud what she wanted to say about Columbus in her paragraph.


After that, she thought we were done for the day, but then I asked her to write her paragraph onto loose leaf paper, skipping lines, etc. She gave me a little push back since that was more than she ever had to do in one day and she never had to hand write an assignment before, but told her, “You’re a second year Essentials student now.” And since she has heard her tutor talking about the expectations for second year students and since her tutor honors the work they do, she got right to work.

The next day, yesterday, I proofread her paper, circling the words that were misspelled, etc. After I was finished proofreading, I had her make the corrections.  She is not a natural speller and we are only on the third level of All About Spelling, so most of the mistakes were spelling errors. She had a lot of practice using the dictionary Saturday night. I gave her the correct spelling for some of the words, but most of them, I made her find herself.


This morning, Sunday morning, I asked her to add vocabulary words to her rough draft and add one -ly word. We are following the checklist in the USHBW book for the first assignment. Then I had her write her final draft in her neatest handwriting and put it in her folder.

Tomorrow is Monday, so we will begin the second assignment on Europe Meets America in the morning and that will give us three days to complete that assignment, too, before we have to go to Classical Conversations again.


As a second year student, my daughter will also be copying all the charts.

Last year, my daughter and I always reviewed the assigned charts together out loud, but I only made my daughter copy some of the charts. And, when she did copy a chart, I always gave her a blank copy of the chart to fill in. She never had to copy a chart onto a blank sheet of paper.

But she is ready to do more this year with charts, so my plan is to have her copy every chart she is assigned this year onto blank paper or onto a blank copy of the chart, depending on how complicated the chart is.

This week, our Essentials guide says we are supposed to focus on Charts A and B. I already made her copy Chart A on a blank sheet of paper this week because that’s one of the easier charts, so she didn’t need a blank chart to fill in. We are also supposed to review Chart B, but that chart is a lot more complicated, so I don’t think I will make her copy that one onto blank paper. I will probably give her a blank copy of Chart B to fill. But this is her second year, so she will have to copy all 112 model sentences before this week is over.  That is much more work than she ever had to do on any chart last year. Being diligent to copy charts so we can memorize them for use in future years is another way we are scaling up this year.

Are you an Essentials mom with an Essentials student?  How many years have you been in the program?  How are you scaling back/ scaling up?

Mining for Gems of Rhetoric


An elderly friend brought a calendar with a picture of Joan of Arc in it for my oldest daughter to see since this friend knew Norah had written an essay about Joan of Arc for Essentials.


Joana d’Arc by Gravura de 1505

But as we talked to our friend, we also discovered another image in the calendar that might end up being of great significance to us through the coming years. The painting at the very top of this post is from a French/ Latin manuscript called Les douze dames de rhétorique (The Twelve Ladies of Rhetoric).  The manuscript preserves intelligent correspondence about poetry between Georges Chastellain, Jean Robertet and Jean de Montferrant.

Of course, I’d love to be able to read the manuscript, but apparently it is only available in French and Latin, so that must wait until I can read Latin, a task I should be more equal to in several years. But, this image is serving to inspire me to work toward that end all the more. From what you can see in the painting and what we read from the captions that we found around it, a woman is mining for gems of rhetoric to add to books at her feet.

To me, this is a beautiful illustration of what we are trying to do in our home school. We are making efforts to become capable of understanding and treasuring the greatest ideas, even ideas we find expressed and preserved in other languages, and we want to become capable of expressing great ideas ourselves.

Joan of Arc Essay for Classical Conversations


This photo shows my daughter’s Essentials group in costume. The kids dressed as the historical figures they wrote about in their final papers. From left to right we have Leif Ericson, Eric the Red, Eleanor of Aquitaine, two Joan of Arcs (my daughter is the one in armor), Johannes Gutenberg, Richard the Lionheart, Kubla Kahn, Genghis Kahn and Queen Elizabeth.

The kids in my daughter’s Essentials group took turns reading their papers to one another yesterday. They also had medieval games (including jousting with pool noodles) and medieval foods such as meat pies and roasted yams.

I thought I would share my daughter’s essay below so family and friends and anyone else who is curious can read it. My nine year old wrote this by herself. I typed everything as she spoke out the words using her keyword outline for reference. I am very proud of what my daughter has accomplished this year in Essentials. She is gifted, but she could not have done so well without the structure provided by The Institute for Excellence in Writing, the writing program used in Essentials.

 Joan of Arc

England and France were at war, a war that we now call the Hundred Years War. The reason for the war was the fact that Henry V, the king of England, had a grandmother who was a French princess. He thought that he should inherit the French land that his grandmother had owned. So Henry asked the king of France, Charles VI, if he could have the land his grandmother had owned and Charles VI’s daughter Cathryn’s hand in marriage. Charles VI did not want to hand over the land or his daughter because if Henry V married his daughter, Henry V’s descendents would become kings of France. Henry V was angered by this and declared war on France. As the war went on, Charles VI went mad. His queen, Isabella, decided that she wanted the king to sign a treaty that said “Yes” to Henry V’s demands. Since the king was mad, he signed the treaty for Isabella. So Henry got the land his grandmother had owned and Cathryn as his wife. Cathryn and Henry V had a little boy Henry VI. After Charles the VI and Henry V died, the Dauphin, the French prince, decided he wanted to become king of France even though Henry VI was the one who was supposed to become king according to the treaty Queen Isabella had forced the mad Charles VI to sign. Some of France wanted Henry VI to be the king of France. These people were called Burgundians since they were led by the Duke of Burgundy. But the rest of France was loyal to the Dauphin.

It was into this time that Joan of Arc was born. She lived in the town of Domremy, which was a village in French territory, cut off from the rest of France by Burgundian territory on one side and the Holy Roman Empire on the other. Since Domremy was cut off from the rest of France, it had no protection from Burgundian soldiers. Whenever their village was threatened, the villagers had to run to a different town. When they came back, their village was usually burned down to the ground, so they constantly had to rebuild their town and their lives.

When Joan was very young, she started having visions of Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Margaret, and Saint Kathryn. There were statues of Saint Margaret and Saint Kathryn in her village, so she recognized them quickly. The visions started telling her that she must lead the Dauphin and an army to Chinon and eventually to Reims so that the Dauphin could be crowned. Around this time, her father had a dream that she would run off with soldiers and join the army. He told her two older brothers that they could drown her if she ever tried to do such a thing. But later, when he wasn’t so angry, he decided that if Joan married, she wouldn’t be able to run off with soldiers. But she had secretly made a vow never to marry and she stuck to her vow even when a man took her to court for breaking the promised arrangement her father had made without her consent.

Even though her father forbade her from running off with soldiers, Joan defied him and went to a nearby town to ask its governor for a military escort through Burgundian land to get to the Dauphin. The governor refused, but he became convinced that Joan was sent from God when she was able to tell him about a battle that the French were losing three days before anyone should have known about it. He agreed to give her a military escort to Chinon. Joan would be traveling through enemy territory, so she dressed as a man and cut her hair. A local knight gave her a horse and a sword. After traveling for a few weeks, they arrived in a little French town called Fierbois from where she sent a letter to the Dauphin saying she wanted an interview. While the letter was being sent, she went to a little chapel and prayed. A messenger came back after the prince had read her letter and he said that the prince would see her. She traveled on to Chinon to see the Dauphin. As she arrived at the castle, she was mocked by one of the guards. Joan quickly snapped back, “Do not mock God so near your death.” As the story goes, not more than an hour later, the same guard fell into the moat and drown. You can guess how fast this story spread around Chinon and it made people believe in Joan even more.

The Dauphin heard this story and immediately let Joan have an interview with him as she requested in her letter. But before Joan came in, the Dauphin gave his rich royal robes to a man in the crowd and told the man to sit on his throne. The Dauphin dressed himself in regular clothing and hid among the crowd as a test to see if Joan was really sent by God. When Joan came into the room, she ignored the man on the throne and found the Dauphin in the crowd and knelled before him. The Dauphin was impressed with Joan, but he was a cautious man and he wanted to make sure that the spirit working with her was from God, so he sent Joan to a church where nuns and priests questioned her about the Bible. Eventually, the church leaders told the king they found nothing but good in her.

Now that she had been proved holy, the Dauphin raised an army and with Joan leading the charge, they drove the Burgundians and English back so they could make their way to Reims. As long as Joan was in the battles, the French were victorious. Her presence was so stirring among the French forces that it led the English to believe she was a witch. Eventually, Joan and the Dauphin arrived in Reims and the prince was crowned immediately, becoming Charles VII, King of France. As a reward for Joan’s service, her family was raised to the nobility and her village, Domremy, did not have to pay taxes ever again.

The Burgundian and English forces who were occupying Paris were still a threat to Charles VII. Joan wanted to attack the king’s enemies immediately, but Charles thought that he could get the Duke of Burgundy away from his English allies. Charles asked the Duke of Burgundy if he would sign a peace treaty. For fifteen days, neither side would fight and on the sixteenth day, as a sign of his loyalty, the Duke of Burgundy would hand over Paris. But the Duke of Burgundy was not planning to sign the treaty. He was just stalling for more time. He knew that thirty-five hundred soldiers had crossed the English Channel and were marching down to reinforce his position in Paris. Charles VII decided to attack Paris, but then he changed his mind and decided to retreat. Charles spent the next six months hoping the Duke would switch sides. He gave back some of the French towns that he had taken from the Duke of Burgundy, including the town of Compiegne. But the people who lived in Compiegne refused to hand over their city, so the Burgundian troops put the city under siege. Joan thought that Charles VII was wrong, so she went with a small band of volunteer soldiers to the city to help. They attacked the Burgundian encampment surrounding the city. Seemingly taken by surprise, the Burgundian and English ran for cover. Joan and her soldiers chased them, but once they were away from the city, they found themselves in an ambush and were attacked on both sides. Joan and the volunteer soldiers spun around and starting riding back to the city, being chased by their enemies. The governor of Compiegne tried to keep the gates of the city open long enough everyone to get in, but Joan was covering the other soldiers’ retreat, so the gates closed before she got in. Joan was surrounded and captured by the English and Burgundian forces.

The Duke of Burgundy kept her in prison until he accepted a huge ransom from the English king and released her into the hands of France’s brutal enemies. Charles VII never tried to come to Joan’s aid. Joan was tried for witchcraft in an English church court. No one was allowed to speak for her defense, so she was found guilty even though there was almost no evidence against her. She was burned at the stake. Even several of the English people who witnessed her trial and death were convinced that they had done something terribly wrong. The chief prosecutor said he feared the wrath of God over what he had done. An English man in the crowd exclaimed, “We are doomed for we have burned a saint!”

Twenty-five years after her death, Charles VII asked the Catholic church if they would consider the case against Joan. The church found that she was in an unfair trial and they declared her innocent of all the she was accused of. Later, five hundred years later, the Catholic church made Joan of Arc a saint. The Hundred Years War lasted one hundred years, not two hundred or three hundred, because of Joan of Arc. She helped restore the French kingdom and crown to Charles VII and his French descendents once and for all.


Bauer, Susan Wise. The Story of the World: The Middle Ages U.S.A., Peace Hill Press, 2003. Print.

Stanley, Diane. Joan of Arc Hong Kong: Harper Collins, 2002. Print.


Our Last Paper for Essentials This Year


We are almost done with our first year of Classical Conversations.

We spent an hour today working on our last paper for Essentials, due in two weeks.

Why are we working so far ahead?

Have you ever waited till the last minute to write an essay for yourself?

Remember how stressful that was?

Now imagine doing that with a nine year old and her essay…


That is why we are getting to work already.

I realized I called it our paper, even though it’s my daughter’s paper, technically.

But it is a team effort.

I provide the necessary motivation (coercion).

I do the typing (for now).

And I also give some suggestions.

My oldest daughter is quite gifted in writing, so I really don’t have to do as much.

And I have learned over the course of this year that she has very strong opinions about the way she wants to say things,  so I try and reserve my advice for things I really cannot ignore. I pick my battles, so to speak. I try leaving as much to her as possible so that her voice comes through.

This last essay of the year is on the life of Joan of Arc. Each kid chose a person from the Middle Ages. They have to research, write an essay, and then read it to their class dressed in costume as the person they are talking about.

The picture above shows my daughter looking at her key word outline.

If you are doing Essentials, you know all about those KWOs!

Even that key word outline took several hours to produce.

So, in the end, this project: paper, costume, presentation, etc. will be the product of countless hours of work.

But I appreciate Classical Conversations for just this reason.

If it weren’t for the fact that we are going to be with other people that day and all the kids are supposed to participate by reading their essays, etc. I really doubt we would finish anything to this degree.

In fact, I know we wouldn’t.

Why would we bother?

But I have found there is so much to be gained, so much we have already gained just this year, by seeing some of our work through to the degree of completion that we can share it with others.

Peer pressure, accountability, community- whatever you call it,

(I’ve called it all three depending on my frame of mind).

being a part of a Classical Conversations group really has helped us produce wonderful things in our home school this year.

Now back to work.

Pen Pals for Homeschoolers


So how would I go about getting my daughter a pen pal?

I used to ask myself this question.

Then a dear lady on Facebook asked me if I would let my daughter be pen pals with her daughter.

I said “Yes!”

I couldn’t have hand picked a better pen pal!

Now you might not have had a Facebook friend approach you about letting your kids write hers, but that’s okay.

Why don’t you think about the people on your friends’ list?

Is there a family you enjoy following on Facebook,

who has kids close to the same ages as yours,

who lives far away,

who you think you could be good friends with if they only lived closer?

Why not approach that mom about having their child be pen pals with your kid?

That mom may be wondering how to go about getting her kid a pen pal, just like I was.

Our Essentials Experience So Far

This is our very first year in Classical Conversations and I have two kids enrolled in their Foundations program- one nine year old, one four.  And that is all we were planning to do this first year of CC, just attend Foundations, and then come home and add the Foundations memory work to our school day.

But, that’s not how it happened. After two weeks of Foundations, my nine year old’s tutor strongly suggested that my daughter was ready for Essentials.  I took her words seriously, since one of the reasons I joined CC in the first place was to have a community involved in our education and submit myself and my children to other informed, caring opinions about their progress.

So my daughter and I attended an Essentials class to sample it and see if I thought my daughter was ready, too. I agreed with her tutor and enrolled my daughter (and myself) in Essentials, but only once I thought it through and committed to myself (and to my husband) that I would actually do the Essentials work with my daughter in addition to what we were already doing for school.

As many of you probably already know, Classical Conversations is not exactly cheap when compared to other home school co-ops and I didn’t want to pay for Essentials if I wasn’t going to do the work.  I have purchased home school resources that I didn’t end up using for ten or twenty dollars here and there, money wasted since I didn’t end up using the materials, and I have hated those experiences so much.  So I knew I’d be just sick to death if I spent hundreds for Essentials tuition and materials and didn’t end up using it.  Therefore, I was diligent and we added Essentials work to what we were already doing for school.  It’s been worth every dollar I spent on tuition.

Essentials work has a few components- language, grammar, math, and writing.  I could talk about all the benefits Essentials has added to our study of all these subjects, but I want to focus on how it has improved our study of writing.  IEW, The Institute for Excellence in Writing, is the writing program Essentials uses and it has empowered my nine year old daughter to begin writing beautiful paragraphs and essays, work she and I really could not have accomplished without the framework that IEW sets up for us. Here is a story my nine year old wrote using IEW’s keyword outlines and checklists.


Aladin and the Lamp

 Aladin quietly crouched behind one of the bushes that surrounded the enemy camp. He tried to open a little hole in the bush to see through, but too late, he realized the bush was a rose bush covered with thorns. Aladin leaped up ten feet in the air and screamed so loud that he could be heard twenty five miles away! The enemy soldiers saw that Aladin was wearing their enemy’s uniform and they immediately realized he was a spy. They tried to catch Aladin. He almost got hit by the fast arrows that the enemy soldiers fired, but he dodged them.

 Aladin found a small cave to hide in. “What a terrific place to hide,” he thought and he jumped in just as the enemy soldiers reached the cave opening. One of the soldiers asked, “Do you think he’s in there?” But another one announced, “There’s a spider web over the opening. He can’t be in there or else he would have broken it.” Another solider agreed, “You’re right. Let’s get out of here.” And they left. Aladin heard them talking and he was thankful that he didn’t hit the spider web.

He decided to stay in the cave and squeezed into a tunnel that led into a room that led into another tunnel that led into another, much larger room, but it was very dark. Aladin managed to see a small lamp on a table. “What a magnificent lamp,” thought Aladin. “I wish I had some oil. But why is it so dusty?” Aladin rubbed on the lamp to get the dust off and out popped a genie and immediately all the torches on the walls of the cave light up and the cave was apparently filled with treasure. Aladin, who isn’t very surprised since he had heard of that kind of thing happening to other people, commanded, “Get rid of my enemies.” Immediately, he heard a gust of wind and the genie confirmed, “All of your enemies are now soldiers for your sultan instead.” Then Aladin commanded, “Take me to my sultan. No, wait. Better yet, make me the sultan!” The genie declared, “Your wish is my command.”


A few months ago, I would have thought it impossible for my daughter to write this.  And don’t get me wrong, my daughter didn’t do this entirely on her own. I had to sit with her and supervise her keyword outline and help her spell the words and then type her story into the computer as she spoke. Then I had to talk to her about the wording choices she made and then talk to her about her wording choices again and then again as we worked from the rough draft of this story to what you see above.  But the IEW program really works if you work it.

Of course, you could use IEW without being enrolled in Essentials, but I didn’t even know about IEW until we started Classical Conversations. Now that we know about it and know we love it, I could choose to do it at home, apart from CC.  But I like the accountability that the CC group is providing us.  I am motivated to get the most out of Essentials because I pay for the group.  My daughter is motivated to write so that she can share her stories with her Essentials tutor and with her friends when she is given the opportunity to read her work to the class.

If we didn’t do the Essentials work at home on our regular home school days, Essentials would be a waste of time and money.  My daughter and I just can’t learn enough in those few hours in class to make all the material stick, and there is a lot of material when you include all the components of grammar, language, math, and writing.  But we work hard at home, so the Essentials class on CC days provides us a nice compliment to what we are doing. It refreshes and excites us both for the new material we get to cover during the week ahead.

The reason my daughter is becoming a better writer is because of the work we are doing at home every day, not because of her Essentials class on CC days per se.   I think that the community and support I receive is worth the price of tuition, but if, for some reason, I couldn’t afford to pay for CC anymore, I would still do IEW at home with my daughter from now on because it works so well.  And IEW is just the writing component of Essentials.  I didn’t even tell you about the language, grammar, and math components! Needless to say, we are more than satisfied with our Essentials experience thus far.



Our Progress in Writing with Ease

Out of all the exercises in Writing with Ease, narration pages are the most difficult.  Spelling doesn’t just come naturally to my daughter, so she needs help on almost every word.  It’s quite tedious for both of us to labor through every letter of every word in every sentence that she comes up with to answer the question at the top of the narration pages, “What’s one thing you remember about the passage?” I am often tempted to just write the sentence for her on a sticky note and then let her copy it. But that would make it copy work, not narration. So I try and take a deep breath and slow down. That allows my daughter to relax and take her time and glean everything she needs to from these exercises. I take for granted how difficult it is for little ones to put the words in their heads down onto a paper because I’ve been doing it for decades. But it’s tough!

Writing With Ease

“The big problem with writing is while the child is developing the skill he’s got to simultaneously fill that skill with content. It’s a little bit as though the kid were learning how to play the piano and the only way he could learn to play the piano is to compose his own music at the same time.”

-Jessie Wise Bauer

I like Norah’s writing curriculum because it makes sense to me and it is the answer to all the nagging doubts I’ve had when looking into other writing programs for young ones through the years.

It doesn’t require Norah to write paragraphs and more paragraphs before she has anything real to say. In my opinion, it makes no sense to expect a seven year old to come up with at a moment’s notice several facts on African wildlife or time travel or her last trip to the zoo or whatever.

And the program doesn’t ask her to make up stories out of thin air, either. I’ve never thought it made sense to expect a kid to write from “Once upon a time” to “…happily ever after” before she could even spell those the words correctly. Some people write creatively naturally. I write daily, but I am not one of them.

What Norah’s writing curriculum does do is model excellent language to her until she is old and wise enough put it use for herself in whatever way she’ll need or want to.

She is learning basics like sentences start with capital letters and end with periods and critical things of that sort while she is young enough to absorb them with ease.

She hears and then narrates or copies from some of the best passages in childrens’ literature.

So, when the time comes, when she’s ready to say her own things (and write them down), she’ll model, without even thinking, all the good language she’s heard and seen along the way.

Writing With Ease

For Writing:

We’re going to use The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease Workbook 1. I bought the printed and bound workbook so I’ll have a real book to hold and I won’t have to read off the computer screen or print the pages myself and put them in a three binder. (I am reading off the screen for The Story of the World’s Activity Book and I am using a three ring binder with First Language Lessons. I don’t love either.)

But I did purchase the .pdf version for the Student Pages because those need to be handed to Norah separately anyway, I can print them before school starts with all the other pre-school printing I am doing and just keep them in a binder till she needs them. Having the .pdf means that I can print them as many times as Norah needs them if she happens to mess up really badly or spill milk on her page and I can also print the pages again in a few years when Avril is ready for this book!

I did NOT choose to buy Strong Fundamentals or the Writing With Ease Instructor Text because I have no time to read these books and transform myself into the expert Susan Wise Bauer already is on the topic of teaching kids to write. I don’t even have the time to pick out my own literature passages for Norah to copy. Susan Wise Bauer is much smarter than I am and she’s already read a lot more children’s literature than I have so I will just go with her literature choices in the workbook, thank you and Amen.