Sunday, May 6, 2012

Preparing for Essentials

There are three main portions to the Essentials program: 
  1. English Grammar and Structure through the Essentials of the English Language Guide
  2. Writing Structure and Style through Institute for Excellence in Writing
  3. Math practice through games and competition
Rather than go into a long-winded explanation of what Essentials is, I leave you with the Essentials At-a-Glance Reference Sheet directly from Classical Conversations.  To purchase the Essentials of the English Language (EEL) Guide, and the IEW History-Based Writing Lessons Workbook, visit the Classical Conversations bookstore.  And before looking at my thoughts, be sure to download the Understanding Your EEL Guide document on Classical Conversations' CC Connected Guest Library (which contains several free resources from CC!).

What happened during our first year of Essentials (aka, my failure)
As a mom who was given a mandate (from her husband) to let go of Essentials mid-year (mainly because the writing portion of Essentials was taking too much undivided time and everyone’s frustration was escalating), I just want to say: 
  • The better organized you are with Essentials, the better success you will have.
  • Find a structured plan that works for you and stick to it.  (Don't wait until the last day to write an entire paper from scratch!) 
  • For Essentials charts, abbreviations are OKAY.  Don't stress your child out when he's not sure how to spell words like "interrogative."
  • For IEW, SCALE BACK!  (Like our tutor kept telling us to do.)  My 3rd grader was sitting next to a 12th grader.  Even though I tried to keep him from making comparisons, he still kept comparing himself to others.  And for those children who do NOT want you to scale back, you don’t have to TELL them you’re scaling back.   
  • Be patient.  It’s okay to spoon-feed words to your child when you are first showing him/her how to write. We are modeling quality writing for them, and they will be taking ownership of these advanced writing techniques over time as we model quality writing for them.  
  • Your child does not have to write everything out himself, nor does he need to have typing skills (though it would be nice!).  If you have a reluctant writer, allow him to use the creative part of his brain dictating what he wants to say in his paper. You, as the parent, can write down what he says or type it.  Then he can take over as you modify it for dress-ups together.  For some people, thinking about what you want to say and writing it down on paper at the same time can cause the brain to overload.  
  • Whatever is needed, equip your child to feel successful.  You do not want him to absolutely dread writing for the rest of his life.  Learn together.  Laugh together.  Enjoy the time as you learn how to write better together.
The Confession
To be honest, I did not look ahead like I should have.  If I had found a way to scale back the biography writing assignment and make it a fun learning experience for my child, we would have had a much better chance of success.  But I also did not stick to our original Essentials plans after the Christmas break, which resulted in a chaotic approach to teaching IEW, which DOES NOT SEEM TO WORK VERY WELL.

Next year, I will follow the plan.  It worked so well first semester.  But I allowed us to fall so far behind during the spring semester that we were completely stressed out when my husband intervened and called for a principal-teacher conference at Half-a-Hundred Acre Wood Homeschool.  He overruled my decision.  I cried.  But he was right.  And I thank him for his wisdom because we have now regrouped and are looking forward to Essentials again in the fall.

I offer here a little of what I’ve learned in preparing for Essentials.  But I am not an Essentials Tutor.  I am just a Mom who failed at the first go-round and am using that experience to hopefully help others.

A way to Organize the Essentials Notebook 
(as recommended by our Essentials tutor):

Materials Needed: 
Essentials of the English Language (EEL) Guide
2.5" Binder
31-Tab Index Dividers

After using tabs 1-24 for weekly lessons 1-24, label the continuing tabs with a sticker over the number to mark the following sections like this…

Tab – Label
#25 – Abbreviations
#26 – Scope & Sequence
#27 – Master Charts
#28 – Weekly Sentences
#29 – Task Sheets
#30 – 8 Parts of Speech
#31 – Adv. (advanced) Verb Charts

Put each tab in front of the appropriate sections.  You may choose to use the extra tabs (#25 - #31) a little differently than the above suggestion.  Whatever works best for your family!

A Way to Organize the IEW Student Resource Notebook 
(Free download with purchase of IEW Ancient History StudentWriting Manual for Cycle 1a necessity in my opinion!)

Materials Needed:
Print-out of IEW Student Resource Notebook (You will need to download this with a code provided inside your IEW Student Workbook.)
1.5" Binder
10 Index Dividers

Label tabs as follows:
  1. Stylistic Techniques 
  2. Models of Structure
  3. Strong Verbs
  4. -ly Words
  5. Quality Adjectives
  6. Five Senses & Emotions
  7. Decorations
  8. Transitional Words & Phrases
  9. Grammar Rules
  10. Charts & Checklists
NOTE:  I did not organize our Student Resource Notebook and should have.  It would have helped us out very much. 

ANOTHER NOTE:  My son really enjoyed using a digital thesaurus - something about using technology to look up synonyms.  I know i-pads probably have this functionality, but we are still in the land of way-way-back-there when it comes to technology.

Make a Student Practice Workbook (Optional):

Materials Needed:
From EEL Guide:  Copies of the sheets listed below
From Student Resource:  Copies of the sheets listed below
1-inch Binder
35 Clear Page Protectors
10 Index Dividers (Optional – to easily and quickly find everything.)

You may want to make a student practice workbook (for practice with dry erase markers instead of using up tons of paper) by inserting copies of the following pages into page protectors:

From EEL Guide:
Page 394:  Glossary of Abbreviations Reference
Page 395:  Scope & Sequence
Pages 398 – 431:  Master Charts (NOTE:  I had to make a bigger version of "112 Model Sentences" Chart and "Verb Anatomy" Chart. Click the linked text to download.)
Pages 433 – 434:  Weekly Practice Sentences
Pages 435 – 436:  Analytical Task Sheet
Page 437:  Quid et Quo Basic Chart
Page 439:  Quid et Quo Detailed Chart
Page 443:  Parts of Speech Reference
Page 457:  Punctuation & Capitalization Reference

From Student Resource Notebook:
Pages from Grammar Rules Section.  Because the Student Resource Notebook may look different than Cycle 3, I cannot list the page numbers as of yet.  But just print out an extra set of all the Grammar Rules sheets.  Student may practice one Grammar Rule per week (which will allow you to do this twice over the course of the year - with only one extra rule per semester).
You may also include the Decorations section because there are activities in this section for practice as well.  

Dear Essentials Tutors,
Our Essentials Tutor did an extraordinary thing for us last year:  She held a free 2-Day "Popcorn & Pudewa" Seminar to watch the IEW Syllabus DVDs together.  This was a tremendous encouragement, especially for a mother of a non-writer!  I plan to go again this year - and every year - because there is so much to glean from it!  

Some skills that would be helpful to know or practice before entering Essentials
Memorize all three cycles of English grammar memory work from Foundations.
Identify parts of speech in a sentence.
Understand what an adjective and adverb are and what they modify.
Distinguish between phrases and clauses.
Distinguish between independent and subordinate clauses.
Determine what a phrase or subordinate clause modifies.
Identify dress-ups:  quality adjectives, -ly words, and strong verbs.
Identify decorations:  similes, metaphors, personification, and alliteration
Rewrite dull sentences using dress-ups and decorations

Some places to find practice sheets:
Identifying decorations and dress-ups in reading (an activity for our Sign of the Beaver Book Club that can be applied to any reading assignment).

And it would be helpful to learn to type using a program like Dance Mat Typing.

Also visit Institute for Excellence in Writing and create a free account to download audio and pdf freebies.  And be sure to "Like" Institute for Excellence in Writing on Facebook so that you can receive announcements of their free webinars.

Why I am glad we did Essentials, anyway (even though we did not finish the year)
Half a year of Essentials was better than no year of Essentials.  Let me say it again:  I really am glad we attempted it last year.  Our oldest son walked away knowing how to write better, and that has carried over into all other aspects of writing.  He notices when he uses a banned word or when he uses words repetitively, even when he is just writing a letter to his cousin.  His writing improved drastically just from 14 weeks in Essentials.

He has even missed Essentials “a little bit” and is looking forward to going back next year – when we get to write about “cool” things like King Tut.

Here I offer a sample of Stephen’s writing (and illustration).  Let me remind you, he is NOT a writer.  As you can see, he is a master at completing his IEW checklist in as little writing as possible.  Even though this process normally takes a lot of coaching, this particular assignment was mostly his work from our “Borrow a Conflict” writing assignment.

For more on how to plan for Essentials, visit Essentials: A First Year Survival Guide.


  1. Thank you for that review, I think we'll be referring to it this summer as we prepare for our first year of Essentials. Also, I'm very impressed with your son's use of perspective in his drawing!

  2. Great article! Thank you for taking the time to put all the details in there for future Essentials parents.

  3. You may be a lot of things my friend but a "failure" is certainly not one of them. You are an incredible mom and teacher. Our CC Director was blown away by your last post and I'm sure she will be by this one also.

  4. Thanks once again Brandy for the great perspective you gave us on Essentials. This year was our first year and well, as much as I would like to say it went great. It could of went better. My son loved the EEL part, diagramming and all of that. However, the writing he did not. He would rather just write his own stuff and I believe even as hard as it was, IEW did inspire him to write a chapter book. And he actually even shared it with his foundations class for presentations. So it was still a great learning experience for him and myself. This next year will be whole lot better I am sure of that.
    Thanks again for all you do to share with us.
    Blessings to and yours,

  5. Brandy, my favorite part of this article was the explanation of how your husband intervened. My husband often does this, and it has been difficult to accept at times. But seeing his display of love and concern for our family has been a great blessing to me. How great it is to have the protection of a godly husband even in homeschooling.

    Thanks for posting all of your hard work. I know it takes hours, and it is much appreciated.

  6. Hi Brandy,

    Do you recommend including a copy if the editing exercises (presented at the end if each lesson in guide) in the practice or resource book? Or should I not do either? Thanks!

    1. You can include that as well, but I found it would be easier to do those on sheets of paper rather than page protectors because it is in such a small font and because the student is supposed to fold that piece of paper over as they correct the exercise. We also found that when we did those exercises, the meaning can be interpreted different ways (and so will be punctuated differently depending on how it's interpreted as the student attempts to correct it), so just keep that in mind when you and your student is checking his/her work.

    2. Oh the same question applies to the Practice Sentences at the end of each week from the guide. Thanks, Elaine:)

    3. The practice sentences are covered by including Pages 433 – 434: Weekly Practice Sentences and
      Pages 435 – 436: Analytical Task Sheet. You will dictate the sentences from these sheets and have your student either use a blank sheet of paper to do the analytical tasks or use the task sheet to guide him/her through the tasks. Then you can check their work using the sheets in the EEL guide at the end of each week. Thanks for the question!

    4. Ohhhh, I will get this sooner or later. I'm almost done with all 3 books and just need to add a table of contents on front of each. I really appreciate the info:) God bless you, Elaine

  7. Dear brandy
    Your blog has been a blessing as I plan for first year of cc in fall
    I was wondering if you'd consider writing a post for a newbie like myself, with your recommendations on how to organize and set up for cycle 1,  for a first time mom doing foundations and essentials? 
    I'd like to prep and organize prior to September
    Thanks and blessings

  8. Hi Darci! Thanks for the feedback. I'm hoping to write some planning/organization posts before the fall, but right now I am blogged - I mean bogged - down with writing resource posts for each subject for Cycle 1. To be honest, I'm also going through a bit of my own curriculum wars as I try to figure out what I'm wanting to use in the fall myself. So... until I did figure out what in the world I'm doing, you might find some of my past posts useful, even though they were written for either Cycle 2 or 3. :)

    All of my planning posts are linked to my Classical Conversations Planning post: At the bottom are links to some other posts I've written - be sure to take a look at Classical Conversations at Home (& Revisited), where I discuss how we split up our day, and Organized Chaos, which shows how we use workboxes. This also contains our tri-fold board set-up from the past two years, along with our file folder system that I use every year to organize our printouts for each week. Essentially, I will use the same format as in these posts, only hone in on the specifics of what we will be using this fall. Let me know if you have any questions!

  9. Hi Darci! Are you still needing help figuring out how to set up your school day? I have not had a chance yet to write that post as planned, but if you have specific questions to get me started, I will start working on it for you!


  10. I appreciate you sharing your experience and giving some suggestions how to prepare ourselves for the first year in Essentials! I am so glad I found your blog in time! We will start in two weeks! Praise the Lord!

  11. You are a blessing to us all. Thank you. You have revived my energy for essentials. On my way to office depot to get organized :)

  12. Wow! Thank you so much for this site- just entering CC with a 2nd and 4th grader is a bit intimidating, but I find myself calmed and feeling more prepared every time I come to search for answers here.

  13. Took your suggestion with anki, but I have not been able to locate the cycle 1 memory work- any ideas? We have not received our guide yet and I would really like to know what we're up against for the year before it starts :)

  14. Anki is a program where you have to input the memory work each week. As far as I know, there are not any places on-line to get the memory work already typed up (mainly due to copyright). However, if you sign up for a CC Connected on-line subscription, you can download all of the Cycle 1 memory work by downloading a file uploaded by user Foundations called Cy1 MemMaster NB.pdf and copy and paste the information from this into Anki. (CC Connected also has all the songs and other resources that I've found to be really helpful for the foundations memory work. If you sign up, email me directly at brandyferrell at yahoo dot come, and I will tell you which files you might want to find and download first! For those in a community, it's $6/month.)

    Also, you can sometimes find youtube videos of things like the Prepositions song. Hopefully you will have that guide soon! :)

  15. This is our first year in Essentials and now you are scaring me with all the things I have to get organized! I had planned to make the EEL binder with just six (maybe 12?) weeks at a time. No sense (in my mind) in lugging around all 24 weeks' worth of lessons if the binder can jsut hold a few weeks, plus the "reference pages" (your tabs 25-31 listed in this post). Is this short sighted? Will I regret this?

  16. LOL! No reason to be scared! This mainly is just putting dividers into the notebook to find things easily. You can just take the first six weeks with you along with the reference pages listed. :)

  17. Brandy, let me just say you have an amazing blog here... great resource. I am joining a brand new CC group starting up with my 9 yo son. I am also jumping into being an essentials tutor!

  18. This is probably a silly question, but what do you use in your writing software to put the box on the page for the picture? I have open office, not windows. We're loving Essentials and I agree about helping them along through it and not expecting them to do it themselves. I'm amazed at the things my daughter comes up with when she's just dictating her writing to me while I type. We're loving the program. Thank you for sharing this. I love this blog!

  19. Thanks! We use Microsoft Office. I insert a text box and insert the picture inside the textbox. I don't know how Open Office works - if I happen to figure that out, I'll repost a reply to this comment for you!

  20. THANK YOU SO MUCH BRANDY!! We, too, were Essentials dropouts in our first year and thanks to your organizing and scheduling tips I think we are all set for success. Hugs!