Last week officially marked the end of our homeschool year – woo-hoo! And boy, are we ready for a break! Historically, we’ve limped towards the last day of term and then collapsed over the finish line, gratefully embracing the pleasures and simplicity of the summer break. Consequently, our work has just sort of fizzled out with nothing distinct to mark its finality.
This year, as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions, we’ve spent much more of the spring/summer terms at home rather than rushing around to a plethora of afterschool clubs, matches or summer fieldtrips/activity weeks (such as the Dorset geography trip, the intensive film making course, or the week-long sailing/kayaking week we had planned…oh, one day!). Instead, we’ve had an opportunity to finish off our studies in a more relaxed way and even make time for a two-week yearly review period with no-pressure “tests” in three subjects to demarcate the very end of our term.
The underlying purpose of these mini exams was to encourage them to review all of their work thoroughly, see how they’d manage their own revision in the time and finally to give them an opportunity to prove how far they’d come. The aim was thus to build up the children’s self-esteem after a year of hard work, rather than an assessment of any kind.
In addition to the work aspects of wrapping up the term, we factored in two fun activities to make the end of term feel that little bit special: 1) creating a summer bucket list and 2) a celebration day to close off the week. Here’s how it all panned out:
1. Revise and End-of-Year Tests
As this was our first time doing end-of-year tests at home, we kept it to just three subjects: cell biology/genetics, Spanish and history. In biology, we’d just completed a year-long study (after Bean10 initially requested learning about genetics); in history, we’d come to the end of the Story of the World Book 3, the end of the Georgian era; and we’ve significantly increased our Spanish study in this last year. So, these felt like the right three subjects to choose. Our maths and English work incorporate regular reviews throughout the year, so I opted to leave these subjects out of the testing process.
For the last year (actually just over), they’ve been keeping a science journal of all their notes and experiments we’ve completed. They’ve covered the following topics:
- Organisation of bacteria, plant & animal cells, and specialised cells
- Food molecules & how to test for each type, such as the Biuret test for proteins
- Enzymes and the impact of pH and temperature
- Diffusion and osmosis
- Structure of DNA
- DNA replication
- Protein Synthesis
- Cell division: mitosis and meiosis
- Chromosomes, genes and alleles, and how traits are inherited
- Sexual and asexual reproduction – ahem, there were a lot of questions here…
- Mendel’s discoveries
- How to work out genotypes
- Recessive/dominant alleles and codominance
- Sex determination
- Genetic disorders, such as Cystic Fibrosis
- Inheritance of blood groups
- Genetic and environmental variation
- Natural selection, evolution and speciation
- Genetic modification of bacteria, plants and animals
So, quite a lot really! By studying topics they’re interested in, we’ve inadvertently covered nearly half of the GCSE biology curriculum. Revision for this subject was straightforward as they read back through their notes, checked in with me when they didn’t understand something, and wrote a few thoughts with some key words to remember, like DNA polymerase.
And setting the test was pretty easy too. All the way through, we’ve been using this GCSE exam practice workbook to check their understanding of each topic. At the back of this book are two practice GCSE papers, so I just circled the ones on topics we’d covered and there was my test! We had a Skype meeting with their study partner, and verbally they took it in turns to answer the highlighted questions, although some needed to be written down, such as the genetic diagrams and graphs, so they all had a go at these individually.
They did extremely well – there was very little they couldn’t answer correctly. The only one Bean9 struggled with was graphing the data from an enzyme experiment. The aspect he needs to practise is working out what intervals to use along each axis when setting up the graph. But that’s easy to resolve, and factor into next year’s plan.
It has been extremely useful using this book throughout the course. It’s taught the children how to answer questions succinctly, think carefully about the language they’re using and about what the examiner might be looking for, using the number of marks as a guide as to how many points they need to make. The answers are fairly formulaic to be honest. For example, once you know how to answer a question on natural selection, you can just apply this same answer to any other natural selection question, just changing the organism and its adaptation. For example:
X variety (for example the darker variant of the peppered moth) is better adapted to the environment because of x reason (for example, it’s camouflaged against the blackened polluted buildings), so it is less likely to be eaten (or in some adaptations, more likely to get food). This means it is more likely to survive to breed and pass on its gene(s) for this characteristic on to the next generation. Over time, the x variety of the organism becomes more common in the population.
This answer would get you full marks. The same is true for a lot of the questions and once you realise this, it takes the fear out of the tests themselves. It certainly made it easier for the Beans to tackle the practice exam papers.
For Spanish, I decided to do separate tests in reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Reading & Listening
Although we haven’t been following the GCSE curriculum as such, instead using a range of different resources to teach the grammar and vocabulary, I was able to select four different listening tests and five reading passages from this GCSE Spanish workbook to use for their exam. They found these quite straightforward, although they were the easiest ones in the book.
Nevertheless, it has built up their confidence and shown them that they don’t need to understand every single word in the passage to get the gist of what’s going on and answer the questions. They also realised that for the listening test, they needed to make sure to carefully read the question before listening to the two recordings of the passage, to ensure they knew exactly what they were looking out for and to not get flustered if they couldn’t understand everything.
For writing, they use Practice Makes Perfect Basic Spanish, which is an excellent way of developing skills in writing translations from English to Spanish and also in reading Spanish texts. For the test, I composed my own passage for them to translate from English into Spanish. This was a very random passage with odd sentences, but I tried to use a range of vocabulary from the chapters they’d completed so far, along with a variety of different tenses – hence the oddness of the content! As Bean10 pointed out, “The paragraphs weren’t really paragraphs mummy as they contained a whole mish mash of unrelated sentences, but it was useful to have it broken into sections, so we could see where we were!”
This wasn’t an easy part of the test, and clearly, they both made a few errors, but I was extremely pleased with how well they’d done and just how far they’ve come in a year. At the start of this school year, Bean9 would struggle to write a simple sentence in Spanish. In this translation, he wrote three quarters of an A4 page, including six different tenses: present, imperfect, past perfect, preterit, future and conditional. And he even made his adjectives agree with his nouns – most of the time! The second part of the written test was just some basic conjugation of some regular and irregular verbs.
Finally, the speaking test – their favourite section. Using the topics they’d covered so far in the PMP book, I came up with ten questions in Spanish for them to answer in a one-on-one conversation with me – sat outside in the sunshine (quite the best place for tests!). Questions such as: What do you like to do in your spare time? What is your favourite animal? What would you like to be when you’re older?
Short and sweet, and much enjoyed by the Beans. One useful learning point for them here was to make something up using vocabulary they do know, rather than being 100% honest and having to guess at the Spanish translation. So, if you don’t happen to know the Spanish for a manta ray, don’t just say manta ray with a Spanish accent, pick another animal you do know the Spanish for! Although ironically, the Spanish for manta ray is in fact la manta raya (!) but you get my drift!
For history, we follow the Story of the World curriculum, studying world history in a chronological fashion, dipping out of it when we hit an important part of our British history, and into a homemade and more in-depth study. As I mentioned above, we’ve just finished book three, which on the timeline takes us up to the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. They’ve covered topics as diverse as the American Revolution, the start of the Industrial Revolution, Peter the Great, the Black Hole of Calcutta, Chi’en-lung’s Chinese empire and his attempt to stop the opium trade, the storming of the Bastille, the rise of Napoleon and his defeat in the Battles of Trafalgar & Waterloo, the abolitionists, the two versions of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, and discovering gold in California. It’s fair to say that my own knowledge of history has vastly improved since starting this curriculum!
For revision, they simply listened again to the audio passages for each chapter, which give an overview of the topic, making notes where they needed to. I also asked them to memorise England’s kings and queens from James I to William IV (we’ve covered each of these throughout our studies).
In terms of the test, there were three parts. Firstly, there was a written element of 12 diverse questions selected from the chapters covered. Secondly, they had to write down the Stuart and Georgian kings and queens.
And thirdly, I’d picked out a few of the comprehension questions from the book for each chapter. Sitting outside on the grass, they took it in turns to answer these. As with the other topics, I was extremely impressed with just how much they’ve learned, correctly answering questions as diverse as: What did the colonists do at the Boston tea party? to What did James Watt perfect in 1769? To What new piece of land did Jefferson purchase from Napoleon?
I pitched the whole experience as an exciting opportunity to prove just how much they’d learned, but I was intrigued to see how they’d respond. Now out the other side, here’s what they said:
“I loved it, especially the Spanish speaking test. In fact, I’d quite like to do another one right now!”
“I enjoyed revising biology and remembering all we’d done together in our group of three.”
“I was terrified before the written history exam as the questions looked scary, but once I got started, I realised I knew the answers!”
“I particularly liked doing the verbal history questions in the garden as I answered the questions really quickly and remembered everything we’d listened to!”
Also, they’ve had smiles on their faces all week, proudly telling anyone they’ve met what they’ve been up to!
I think it’s fair to say that it was a hit from their perspective, as it was from mine. They thoroughly reviewed their year’s work in the three subjects; managed their own revision time; confidently sat each different style of exam; didn’t panic or get flustered; learned about exam technique; and although it wasn’t graded, they both performed really well in all of the tests. Furthermore, it helped me identify a few areas in each subject that needed more support, which I can easily factor into next year’s plans. And finally, it just felt like a good way to conclude the year. So, all in all, this is definitely something I’ll be repeating in the future and I’d recommend for your own homeschool.
2. Create a Summer Bucket List
We’d finished all our tests by Thursday, so on Friday, we sat in the sunshine and brainstormed a summer bucket list, filled with fun activities they were keen to do over our summer break. To be honest, my kids are never bored – inventing all sorts of wild and wonderful games – and they don’t need a plan to keep them entertained during their off time. But sometimes they forget about certain activities they love to do and having a list of ideas hung up on the wall acts as a prompt for the many exciting possibilities. Also, after a long time playing an imaginary game, they tend to start bickering which, if left, can lead to full scale war! So, revisiting the list during these times provides a way of diverting them from the impending conflict…
3. A Celebration Day
Thursday marked the end of Bean10’s primary school education (seriously how did that happen so quickly…), so we certainly needed some way of celebrating this important event. We opted to have a celebration day on the Saturday so that MrJ could join in. Each person could choose one activity that they wanted to do together as a family, obviously within the current Covid-19 restrictions!
Unsurprisingly, Bean9 chose a session at the cricket nets (booked in for tomorrow) – the thought of facing a hard ball bowled by him (he’s seriously fast!) is somewhat terrifying but I’m going with it!
Bean10 wanted us all to watch a movie snuggled up together on the sofa, with tasty snacks aplenty! Central & South America is the current stop on our Simple Homeschool Read the World Summer Book Club, so we chose to watch one of the recommended films from this part of the world: Romancing the Stone. This is a fun 80’s romance/adventure film set in Colombia, with a young Michael Douglas and Danny Devito. The recommended age was 12+ which I think was probably right. Bean9 was a little too young, but Bean10 loved it.
Although it’s not very original, I love walking and so opted for a hike through one of my favourite local spots, with a delicious picnic lunch in the sunshine. For me, this is bliss.
MrJ’s choice was to have a family celebratory dinner. Again, thanks to the fantastic recommendations from the Read the World Summer Book Club, we had an eclectic, yummy feast of Spiced Corn on the Cob from Mexico; Carne Asada from Paraguay, with Black Beans & Rice from Costa Rica on the side; followed by Caribbean Fry Cakes from St. Lucia; accompanied by a Pineapple Horchata from Nicaragua for the kids and an Argentinian Malbec for the adults! We even had some South American music playing in the background!
This was the perfect way for us to wrap up a productive, if not exactly how we’d planned it, school year. Bring on the summer fun!