Sunday, December 27, 2009

What I Wish I Had Known

Lately, I have encountered some smart homeschoolers-to-be--that is, parents of toddlers or preschoolers that are starting their research now. I have noticed that when these parents post questions about homeschooling preschool, most of the answers include, "Slow down! Don't worry about it. Let them play. Give them crayons and paints. Sing with them. Read to them." Now, in my mind, the type of parent that is asking about homeschooling preschool is probably already doing all of these things. If this is you, then this post is for you.

Unfortunately, I was not so smart. I thought that all I needed to do was order a few books the summer before we started, and I would be set. So I have joined the ranks of all those homeschoolers that are less than pleased with their first year curricula choices. I have discovered a few things along the way that I wish I had known about when Grasshopper was younger.

  1. Five in a Row: We are doing Five in a Row with Grasshopper now, which is a literature program designed for 4-8 year olds. I cannot say enough good about it. (For more details, see my blog post entitled A View of Our First Year.) I wish I had known about Before Five in a Row for 2-4 year olds when Grasshopper was 2yo. She has always loved books, and this would have been a perfect fit for her personality. I am going to try it with Cricket in a year or two.
  2. Cursive First: This handwriting program is exactly what it sounds like. It bypasses printing altogether and goes straight to cursive, eliminating the need for the transition from printing to cursive. By the time Grasshopper was ready for kindergarten, she had already been printing for a year. I felt that she needed to reap the benefits of her efforts for a while rather than making the transition to cursive early, so I am not using it with her. In spite of my interest in the program, I do have one concern with regard to gifted kids. An average child would be learning his letters, phonics and handwriting all at the same time. If I had tried this with Grasshopper, she would have already known her letters, and this program would have required her to learn a new set of letters. So while I am unsure of how this would work with a gifted child, I am still intrigued with the program and will consider this program for Cricket when the time comes.

Food for Thought
  1. Memorization: I loved the theory in The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer to "fill your child's mind with beautiful language." But when I came to memorization as one of the ways to do it (even for preschool), I was pretty cynical about it, because rote memorization has always been so hard for me. However, it was laid out so simply that I couldn't help but try it. Just read the passage to the child once per day until the child has memorized it. I tried it with Grasshopper, and I was amazed at the results. It took her only two weeks to memorize an 8-line poem. And she would recite it all the time, even when playing or conversing. We have since done the Pledge of Allegiance, various poems and scriptures, and lines from songs and books. I let her help me pick what she wants to memorize, and this increases her interest and resolve.
  2. Work together: I started out trying to get Grasshopper to do chores on her own (simple things like putting laundry in a basket). I quickly discovered that while she was an obedient child and would do as she was told, she really hated it. In the meantime, I recently discovered myself that any work we do is easier if good feelings are associated with it. (See My Holiday Epiphany.) So now Grasshopper and I (and Cricket, too, where possible) do everything together. I invite her to help me put dishes away, do laundry, cook, grocery shopping, etc. Now she is excited to do "our" chores. And as an added bonus, I have found that she now spends more time playing by herself instead of begging me to play with her. I believe that this investment now will make it easier for her to work later on in life.
  3. Practice Child-Led Education: I am not a big fan of a completely child-led curriculum, as I think that children need to have some structure to make sure they are meeting certain minimum standards. But to the extent that the child has chosen what they are learning, they will be more invested and learn it better. As a teacher, it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and preschool is a great time to do it. Practice finding books and activities that go along with your child's interest. As we have done this, I have discovered Grasshopper's interest in musical composers, history and geography, all things I have never had an interest in. She tells me who or what she wants to study, and I find the resources, and we are both learning so much.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Great Children's Literature for Christmas

Before our recent move, we did not live in a library district. I did not know what I was missing! Our family has been really loving the wonderful children's literature available through our local library. And we have especially enjoyed the Christmas stories. I don't want to forget some of those stories, so I decided to start a list here. If anyone has any suggestions for books to add, please leave them in a comment!

A Christmas Like Helen's: This book beautifully illustrates what Christmas would have been like if you lived on a farm in Vermont in the 1800's. DH and I both were sobbing as I read this to our family!

Voices of Christmas: The author insightfully imagines what the various characters of Christmas would have said at the time that the birth of the Savior was unfolding. What was the angel Gabriel thinking as he prepared to appear to Mary? What was Mary thinking upon Gabriel's departure? What were the thoughts of the wise men as they approached the child, the Messiah?

Grandma's Lost Gift: A Christmas Story: A story about a Polish girl whose family flees the country during WWII. She takes only one thing of value to her--a gift from her grandfather--but loses it during their hasty escape.

A New Coat for Anna: Following the war, Christmas is approaching, and Anna needs a new coat. Her mother cannot afford one, so she visits a farmer for wool, a spinner, a weaver and a tailor, and she has her coat by the following Christmas.

The Road to Santiago: A family in Cuba is traveling from Havana to Santiago on the other side of the island for Christmas Eve dinner with their extended family. Following the rebels' demolition of the train tracks, the family is forced to find an alternate route to be with their family and manages to arrive in time for midnight mass. This book utilizes a lot of Spanish words, giving it a more authentic feel.

One Small Lost Sheep: A shepherd boy in Bethlehem spends the night looking for his lost, lame sheep, missing the choir of angels that come to announce the birth of the Savior. I won't give away the ending but will just say that it made me cry!

A Carol for Christmas: The story of the composition of the beloved carol, "Silent Night," told from the perspective of a church mouse.

The Donkey's Christmas Song: Each stable animal greets the new baby with its own song. This is a great book for toddlers.

The Gift of the Christmas Cookie: As a boy learns about why we make Christmas cookies, he discovers the true meaning of the Christmas season.

Prairie Christmas: An 11yo Nebraskan girl accompanies her mother on Christmas Eve to assist with the birth of a baby. The story has beautiful parallels to the Nativity story.

Great Joy: A little girl discovers that the man on the street corner does not go home at night, and she invites him to her pageant.

Tree of Cranes: A Japanese mother teaches her son about Christmas in America.

The Third Gift: A wonderful Nativity story told from the perspective of a family that sold the gift of myrrh to the wise men.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Holiday Epiphany (Traditions and Hard Work)

I am a strictly practical person (practically to a fault, he he!). I don't like to decorate, because it always feels like so much work for what you get out of it. I don't use serving platters, because the pans the food was cooked in seem just as good to me. And I don't send Christmas cards, because I am either going to see you at Christmas, or I will never see you again, and in either case, I just can't summon the energy necessary to send the card. But I was given an insight into the meaning of traditions as I was making homemade pierogi for Thanksgiving.

I come from a Polish-American family. My great grandparents arrived in this great nation around the turn of the 20th century. I grew up calling my grandparents Dzia Dzia (grandpa) and Busia (grandma) and hearing them speak Polish. I loved them dearly, and I have done family history research on their families in Poland. One of the few traditions that have stuck is the making of homemade pierogi. It takes most of the day to make, and is physically taxing, but the result is scrumptious. My husband, as my practical other half, is quite puzzled by the tradition, as he just cannot see how they are any better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

As I was making the pierogi, I was well aware of the time commitment, which this year was lengthened by the presenced of Cricket, our 21-month old. (My husband tried to keep him occupied, but Cricket just could not stand the thought of leaving mom alone for the length of time needed.) But I realized that although it was going to take up most of my day, and my back was going to hurt by the end of it, I did not feel like I was working. I just thought of how grateful my mother was when I was old enough to help make them. I thought about how she learned from her father how to make the pierogi, because her mother was sickly her whole life and could not do it. I remembered how all of us--aunts, uncles, cousins--always were together for the holidays when I was a child. There was so much of nostalgia tied up in this activity that all those good feelings cancelled out any dread of the work to be done.

I knew that traditions could bind families together through the generations, which is why I have tried to keep them alive. But in that moment, I learned something else, too. The difficulty of hard work is removed when good feelings are associated with it. When I harp on Grasshopper to separate the laundry, it is hard work and takes forever. But when I jump in, and we do it together, it is pleasant for her. I recently made this change, and now she looks forward to doing laundry together. She has even started to beg me to let her help with other things. So by giving her an extra ten minutes of my time, I am ending up with a child who loves to help. And I am not really sacrificing ten minutes, because I probably spent that much time getting her to do her job in the first place. It is my desire that when she is grown, doing laundry will not be the chore for her that it is for me, because I hope that doing it will remind her of sweet and pleasant times working together.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Attachment and Homeschooling II

I just finished reading Gordon Neufeld's Hold on to Your Kids, and it has really inspired me to deal differently with my children, especially with reference to homeschooling. Neufeld postulates that most of what is wrong with our youth today is due to them getting more attached to their peers than their parents, and that the fix to these problems is to find ways to strengthen the adult-child bond. Now, I want to preface this by saying that Neufeld does not endorse homeschooling as the answer to these problems, recognizing that for so many, this is just not a feasible course of action. However, for those of us who can homeschool, we need to make the most of it.

I went into the world of homeschooling thinking that I was providing my children with a superb education. In my mind, that included reading, writing, math, science. For a while, I was rather taken in by the curricula that endeavor to turn children into independent learners. I found myself trying to get Grasshopper to do some of her work and chores on her own. But after reading this book, I understand that I have a great opportunity to cultivate warm attachments between my children and all of the adults in their lives.

The basic premise embraced by Neufeld is that children will naturally want to be good and do what we tell them if they are sufficiently attached to us emotionally. If they are sufficiently attached and do not at least try to be good, then they are yet too immature to be able to do what is being asked of them. I realized that the times that Grasshopper was not doing what was asked were due either to immaturity or a lack of attachment with me. Considering she sometimes did what I asked of her and her frequent begging for time with me, I had to assume that the problem was more with her attachment needs.

So I have started to view my role very differently. Instead of having her do a worksheet while I do laundry, we do laundry together and then do the worksheet together. I don't usually help with her work, but I find things to do at her side so we can talk about the work while she is doing it. Instead of leaving her home with Dad when I go grocery shopping, she comes with me, and we go to lunch together afterward.

However, I was drawing the line at playing on the computer with her, and she was really fighting me on it. She wanted that to be something we could do together, and I maintained that this was a half hour that I should be getting something done. Yesterday, we had the same discussion, and I told her that I needed to make some phone calls while she was playing. She responded, "Then make your phone calls in here!" Well if that is all that she needed, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. I made my phone calls, and she respected my time on the phone. When I was done, she was able to say, "Look, Mom, isn't this cool!"

Now, on the front end of this endeavor, I was left with less "me time." But I am finding that as I go out of my way to spend time with her, she is more likely to go off and do her own thing. So while I have less control over when I get my "me time," I am still getting it. At any rate, a little less "me time" now is a great investment into my child's future. And I see that her education is more than just academic.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Before I had children, Christmastime was always so hectic--so many gifts to buy, special traditional foods that take days to prepare, parties every weekend of the month, and the house to clean for guests. In our family, it is important to celebrate the birth Jesus Christ at Christmas, but I found it so hard to find time to do that. After I had children, it became imperative. I loved the traditional Christmas morning devotional that many families have when they read about the birth of the Savior. However, this just seemed a little anti-climactic after all the hustle and bustle of the month. So I decided to combine this devotional with the setting up of the nativity scene and make it last the whole month. Here is what we do (songs are from either the LDS Children's Songbook (CS) or the Hymns):


  • Read: Luke 2:1-5
  • Nativity: Stable, Mary, Joseph, donkey: Place Mary, Joseph and the donkey in their “home” (a location far from the stable). This helps the child understand that they were traveling and Jesus was not there, yet.
  • Song suggestion: When Joseph Went to Bethlehem (CS, 38)


  • Read: Luke 2:6-15
  • Nativity: Add other animals to the stable. Move Mary, Joseph and the donkey to the stable and add the baby Jesus. Place the angel and shepherds away from the stable, but not as far as Mary and Joseph were placed in the first lesson.
    Song suggestions: Little Jesus (CS, 39), Once within a Lowly Stable (CS, 41), Away in the Manger (CS, 42), Mary’s Lullaby (CS, 44), Joy to the World (Hymns, 201), Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful, (Hymns, 202), Silent Night, (Hymns, 204), Once in Royal David’s City (Hymns, 205), O Little Town of Bethlehem (Hymns, 208), Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Hymns, 209), While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (Hymns, 211), The First Noel, (Hymns, 213)
  • Video suggestion: The Nativity (Luke II), Joy to the World


  • Read: Luke 2:16-20
  • Nativity: Put the angel away and move the shepherds to the stable. Talk about how important it was for the shepherd to be watching their flocks but that they left them to see the baby Jesus.
  • Song suggestion: The Shepherd’s Carol (CS, 40), Picture a Christmas (CS, 50), Angels We Have Heard on High (Hymns, 203), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (Hymns, 207),


  • Read: Matthew 2:1-11. Point out that the wise men visited the family after they had returned to their house (v. 11).
  • Nativity: Move Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the donkey from the stable and to the original location they were placed the first week. (This is their home.) Place the wise men with them.
  • Song suggestions: With Wondering Awe (Hymns, 210) In our family, we use the discussion of the gifts that the wise men bring as a basis for exchanging our family gifts. We do it as our regular Family Home Evening, but it would also make a great Christmas morning activity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Truth about Santa Claus

When I had my first child, I couldn't help but wonder, even when she was still a baby, when was the best time to tell her the truth about Santa Claus. My own discovery that Santa is pretend is one of those unpleasantries of my childhood. You see, my mother had fallen asleep before putting the presents out. So when we woke up excited to see what Santa had left for us, there was nothing. I thought that surely I had awakened early, so I went back upstairs to my room. But then I heard my mother walking around. (It couldn't have been Santa, because he wouldn't be upstairs.) I opened my door to see my mother with an armful of presents going around the corner toward the living room where the Christmas tree was.

I was so disappointed and felt really betrayed. Of course, I reasoned that it should not have bothered me so. After all, I now understood why Santa's writing looked like my mother's. But the experience nevertheless left me with an empty sort of feeling.

So I have wondered if I would have felt differently if I had found out in another way. I'm sure if my mother had sat me down to break the news, it would have been better than finding out through her mistake. But after much thought, I have not been able to imagine a scenario where finding out that Santa Claus is not real is a good experience after having believed in him.

So before my oldest could understand about Santa Claus, I decided that I would always tell her the truth. We would pretend right along with everyone else that he was real. She would get presents from Santa and be allowed to visit the mall Santas, but I would tell her that it was pretend. The real benefit behind this decision is that when I tell her about God, she knows that He is not pretend. Perhaps she may someday disagree with me, but she will know that I believe in God and was not putting on a show for her sake.

Grasshopper is now 4yo, and I have not had a problem with this decision, yet. When she has expressed interest in seeing the mall Santa, we go and stand in line and wait our turn. But when she gets close and realizes that he is nothing more than a stranger to her, she wants to leave, and we do. (I want her to trust those instincts.) People ask her about Santa coming and what she wants, and I tell her that they are pretending and that she can pretend along with them. Since she loves to pretend, it all works out quite nicely. Surely, there will come a time when she is telling her "believing" friends that Santa is not real, and maybe those parents will not be too pleased with me. But for now, I am quite comfortable with my decision to be truthful with my kids.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Attachment and Homeschooling

I am reading a book right now that, although is not about homeschooling, has prompted me to make some changes in the way that I teach my children. The book is called Hold on to Your Kids : Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, M.D. The authors theorize that the reason for the numerous problems that parents have with children is that children are becoming more attached to their peers than to their parents, teachers and caregivers. They say that it is the attachment to the parents that commands children's attention and obedience and not in the discipline and imposed consequences. Furthermore, they maintain that since our industrialized society no longer supports children's attachment to adults, parents have to go out of their way to consciously "hold on to their kids." I am pretty cynical about the latest and greatest psychological and sociological theories, but this book just makes so much sense to me.

Grasshopper is a very interactive person, and it can be tiring. Most of her schooling is done together, which is entirely appropriate for a four-year-old. However, since her need to interact is so pronounced, it can be very tiring for me. So I have developed her curriculum with the idea of getting her used to working on her own more and more. Previously, she was doing three worksheets per day--math, spelling and phonics (but not all in one sitting). During those times I would try to hover around doing my work but not actually sit with her. She recently started to tell me she felt like it was too much work. And after starting this book, I have begun to realize that while education is important, my first priority must always be to maintain my children's attachment to me.

Now this doesn't mean that I don't let them have friends or take classes or encourage independent work. What is does mean is that I need to pay as much attention to their emotional needs as their educational needs. In the case of Grasshopper, she needs her gym and library classes, as well her play dates, which we have always done. But of greatest priority is that we as her parents are the people that she goes to when she needs something. She has a great need to interact, and I need to practice not pushing her away, but rather, welcoming her approaches to me, no matter how laborious it may seem at times.

So for now, this means that I put less emphasis on the writing assignments and do more oral and interactive lessons. As we take our holiday break from Thanksgiving to New Year's, I am going to try having her do a little copywork to practice handwriting so that I can eliminate the rest of her writing assignments and do them orally instead. This will be challenging with Cricket running around. But he is a bit more independent than she is, so I am hoping that I can grab those moments when he is playing happily by himself and use them to provide Grasshopper with what she needs.

Can LDS members use Tapestry of Grace?

This summer, I read The Well-Trained Mind by Jesse Wise and Susan Wise Bauer and was very impressed with many of the ideas for teaching literature and history. I especially like the idea of integrating the two subjects. (I have taken classes that integrate different subjects and found them much more interesting and felt like I learned more and made more connections in my mind.) However, I am not much of a reader, and even with this great book, I felt overwhelmed with the idea of teaching through the classics.

Another concern was that I really wanted to find materials that use the Bible as a historical document. Our religion is important in our family, and I want my children to make connections between the doctrine that they learn and the history that they study.

Then I ran across a curriculum called Tapestry of Grace, which is a classical program that integrates history (including the history of science and fine arts), literature, vocabulary, writing, government and church history. It utilizes "living books" rather than textbooks (although sometimes texts are referenced), which you can either buy or get from the library. The Socratic method of teaching is emphasized, providing parents with discussion guides and lesson plans. It is designed to teach to multiple children at different levels at the same time. Consequently, when you buy one year of curriculum, you actually get all four levels. And since there is a four-year rotation, you will use the same curriculum with the same child three times-just at a higher level each time.

What more could I want? This curriculum will get my whole family reading the classics. And if you have never heard of the Socratic method, let me just say that this is a very powerful way to teach. It is the standard teaching method in law schools and involves a teacher leading the student to come to conclusions on his own. If I read a classic book, I may not even know what conclusions were intended or even what the book was really about. For example, one of the few classics I have read is Animal Farm. Because of a great teacher, I know that the book is an analogy of the formation of the Soviet Union. But I would not get that by just reading the book. Tapestry of Grace walks the parent-teacher through these important aspects of the classics and provides questions they may ask their students to lead them to draw their own conclusions.

But, alas, nothing is ideal. Tapestry of Grace, as its name would imply, is a strongly Protestant curriculum. As a Mormon, I have nothing against Protestants. I read their literature, listen to their music, and follow their radio programming. But one thing that I find distasteful is that it very common for Protestants to preach falsehoods about what other churches believe and to purposely engender bad feelings in people against other churches, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is always a major target. (For example, when I joined the Church, a Protestant relative told my mother that we did blood sacrifices, which totally freaked her out. Of course, we do no such thing, as we believe that Jesus Christ was the last and ultimate sacrifice.)

When I asked on an LDS homeschool list, every answer that I received was urging me to avoid it, although no one could say they had ever seen it or researched it in any way. But Tapestry of Grace was an otherwise perfect curriculum. I couldn't just abandon the possibility that this would work for us just because those who created it had some mistaken ideas about my religion. Furthermore, I don't want my children growing up thinking that there is nothing of use in others' beliefs, or that we are too different to work together for common goals. Those who developed Tapestry of Grace clearly had some great ideas about how to teach children while strengthening the family. So I set out to do some research and determine whether Tapestry of Grace could be tailored to my family's needs.

I asked on the Tapestry of Grace website forum, and someone kindly sent me a link to a chapter from a year 3 history book (1800's) for one of the upper levels. As expected, it was full of negative opinions about the LDS Church and its leaders, and omitted some very relevant details that would have given a more balanced look at this period of history. I wondered if this was just a result of misunderstandings of this topic in particular or whether all of the topics would be presented in such a one-sided manner. So I got every book from the library that they recommend for the first week, and I was very impressed with the collection as a whole. My husband and I talked about the subject at length and agreed that based on the quality of what we saw, and the fact that misunderstandings of the Church abound, this was likely an aberration and not representative of the entire curriculum. We also felt that this would be a good opportunity to talk to our children about how history depends on the view of the author and that every author is biased in some way. On the other hand, the part of the history that was based on the Bible, I thought was beautifully done. I loved the thought-provoking questions about the story of Moses intended for the upper levels.

So as of this writing, we are planning to purchase Tapestry of Grace at the beginning of next year so that we will be prepared to start in August with the Ancients. I want to see if I can use the books that we get under this curriculum for vocabulary and copywork (Charlotte Mason style). And when the kids are a little older, we may use it for spelling, as well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How Many Ways Can I Teach Thee? Let Me Count the Number!

When I started off on our homeschool journey, I knew that there was more than one way to do it. I was acquainted with an unschooler at one time, and though we didn't talk about her teaching philosophy much, her kids appeared to be at least as well educated an anyone else's. But I really was not prepared for how many different philosophies of general homeschooling existed, nor did I realize that within each subject, there could be a multitude of approaches. Once I had my curriculum in place, I started to take the time to read what other people had to say about it.

I knew that unschooling just would not be my cup of tea. When someone can make it work, it is the greatest, because the child will always love what he is learning. But with my personality, I need to have a plan, and I need to know that I am not overlooking anything that my kids need to know.

One of the first books that I read was The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, which sets forth the philosophy of a classical education. I have to admit that I didn't get through the whole thing, as I skipped the parts about older children and focussed on the parts about young children through early elementary. But I was nevertheless enthralled with many of the ideas put forth in this book.

I know that when it comes to reading and history, my own public education was sorely lacking. In high school American Literature class, I received my lowest grade of all time because I didn't do the reading. I didn't see any point to it. And I never took a complete US History or World History class, and my ACT score in social studies was a full 4 points lower than my next lowest score. So when I read in The Well-Trained Mind about studying history from beginning to end and integrating literature right into it, I was just so excited, because it made so much sense.

I also really love the approach to teaching young children, even babies. Just fill their minds with language. Talk to them, sing to them, read to them, play audio books for them. It is a very gentle approach, but the emphasis on early reading is nevertheless quite clear. (I am not as sold on a classical education in math and science, but like the idea of including these in history studies.)

Once I read the book, I knew that this is what we would do. But I was not very confident in my abilities to teach in this style, considering my background. I was sure that I could teach history, but literature was like a looming monster. Then I ran across a curriculum called Tapestry of Grace, which gives you correlated reading lists, integrating world history and literature and even providing activities for the youngest children. There are four years of curricula covering four historical periods. If you start from the beginning, you cycle through them three times, and Tapestry of Grace has assignments for all levels of children. And it provides lesson plans for teaching with the Socratic method (where the teacher guides students to come to their own conclusions). This is the method that was used in my law school classes, and it is very effective!

The name, Tapestry of Grace, is kind of a dead giveaway that it is a Protestant curriculum. But I am not Protestant, but Mormon. Protestants are not known for speaking highly of the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), so why would I consider using a Protestant curriculum? Tune in next time for the answer!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A View of Our First Year

The curriculum that I outline below was our original plan. Click here to see how we tweaked it.

In developing our first homeschool curriculum, my first concern was, "How do I know what I should be teaching and what my child should be learning?" My first thought was to use my state's standards. So I looked up the IL State Standards, and they were 80+ pages per subject and written in a very confusing way. (Click here to see the social studies standards as an example.) Several grades were listed together, requiring you to pick through a lot of information when you only needed about a quarter of it. After further discussion with DH (a public school teacher), we decided that the public school standards were very low to begin with and that we really didn't need to be following them if we had an above average student.

I encountered many recommendations for What My (___) Grader Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch Jr. I bought the Preschool, Kindergarten and First Grade books. (The Preschool book is not by the same author.) However, I didn't find these books quite so helpful. I think they would be a great resource for someone who didn't want to use a curriculum. They are written as if they were your child's textbook. So for the younger years, you could read from the book as part of your home schooling. They list a few additional resources. But they seemed to me to be a list of everything that a child of that age could learn rather than what they should learn. There was just so much information that you could only get an overview, and there would be nothing learned in depth. I figure that if I spend a little more money on an actual curriculum, it will come with teaching suggestions, as well reading and enrichment activities.

A book that I have used that I think gives you a lot more bang for your buck is Home Learning Year By Year by Rebecca Rupp. In this one inexpensive book, you get lists of concepts that your child should be learning from preschool through twelfth grade, divided by grade level and subject matter. For most concepts, the book also lists books that go along with that concept, most of which you can borrow from your library. My only complaint is that the book recommendations are not always age appropriate. A lot of the books have been been too difficult and some would be beyond the use as even a read-aloud. Nevertheless, it is truly a worthwhile investment.

This year, I based most of my curriculum choices on Cathy Duffy's 101 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. The first time around, you can't just use the website. You absolutely need the book. I was able to find it at the library.

Here is a list of what we chose to use this year, and how it is coming along.

UNIT STUDIES-LITERATURE BASED: Five in a Row is the absolute best curriculum we are doing this year. Each week, you read the same book each of five days (hence, the name), but each day, you concentrate on a different subject (social studies, language arts, art, math, science). It was recommended to me on a e-mail list, and I was intrigued by the information on the website. However, I had no idea what wonderful lesson plans were contained in this curriculum.

Every Monday, we start out by looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, shooting for about 5 words. Then each day, we read the list before reading the book, and Grasshopper points them out as we read the book. At first, I had to choose and identify most of the words for her. But she quickly became adept at doing it all herself. And she continues to identify vocabulary words from previous lists in any book we are reading.

After Monday's reading of the book, we then mark the location where the story occurs on our wall map of the world. The Five in a Row lesson book comes with story disks with pictures that correspond to the books. This is Grasshopper's favorite part. And if the story happens in more than one place, then we will move the story disk around as we read througout the week.

When I first bought the book, I expected to see one lesson plan for each day of the week. But it contains so much more than that--so many lessons that you couldn't possibly do them all in one week. So it is easy to pick the kind of lesson or activity that suits your child perfectly.

Grasshopper is the kind of child that craves interaction. So it fits her learning style perfectly to be able to cuddle up on the couch with mom everyday while Cricket is napping. Sometimes, we just talk about the book, and other times we have an activity. What I love about it is that it helps me to feed her intellectual and academic needs as a gifted child while still allowing her to be a little 4yo girl.

Some of the highlights that Grasshopper has done so far include writing and illustrating a book with all of the "elements of a good book," showing happiness with bright colors and sadness with dark colors, pretending we were in a coal mine by taping a flashlight on a hard hat and going in the dark basement, counting by 10's using Smarties and eating them when we were done, learning how to draw with charcoal pencils, and eating at a low table and sitting on the floor like they do in Japan. I could go on and on, and we haven't even finished the first 20 books, yet.

A last word of caution. Many of the Five in a Row books deal with sensitive topics, including slavery, war and death. I believe that they are age-appropriate, but you should preview these books, especially if you have a particularly sensitive child.

HANDWRITING: I really agonized over whether to purchase a separate handwriting curriculum for Grasshopper. The general thinking is that handwriting is a separate skill, and you don't want a student to struggle with both handwriting and another subject at the same time. However, Grasshopper has been writing for about a year and a half now, and has an aptitude for it. But at 4yo, I didn't want to bog her down with drills. So I opted to have her practice handwriting as part of her Math, Spelling and Phonics. Fortunately, the curricula that I chose for these subjects gives the student lots of opportunity to both trace and copy numbers or letters. This has been working well for her, but I think that when we take the month of December off, I will introduce her to copywork so that she doesn't lose the skills she has gained so far this school year.

MATH: Horizons K is a spiraling math program, meaning that it continually reminds students of material already learned. If I had known that and what it meant, I probably wouldn't have chosen it. I have read so many bad reviews of another spiraling program, which reportedly has so much repetition and drill, and I didn't think that Grasshopper would need a lot of repetition.

However, we chose Horizons K because we read that it is advanced for a Kindergarten math curriculum. I felt that Grasshopper was at about a beginning first grade level in math, but I didn't think she could keep up with the pace and felt she needed work on her writing skills. I felt that an advanced K program would be closer to her level and stamina while helping her writing skills catch up. I also didn't feel that she needed all the bells and whistles that other programs come with--manipulatives, DVD's, software, etc., as she doesn't show much of an interest in these things, although we may later add some computer games to supplement.

Of the worksheets that she does, this is the one she asks to do first. So far, there hasn't been a lot of new material, but this allows her to concentrate on writing and gain confidence in math. But I should note that the teacher's edition is not needed at all. It provides the answers but does not contain any teaching suggestions or recommend supplemental activities.

SPELLING: Spelling Workout A is what I chose, because it is phonics-based and considered a demanding program. (We use for spelling tests. This is a great setup, because she doesn't have to worry about handwriting, and I am not tempted to "help" her on the tests.) I skipped the first several lessons of Spelling Workout A, as they were basic phonics and beginning handwriting. Even so, she has gotten 100% on all of her spelling tests, and she has even started to take them early. But Level B starts using cursive writing about halfway through, and I don't think that she is ready for that, yet. So instead of moving her up, I have decided to just keep going so that she will get some practical handwriting practice. Furthermore, I have noticed that even though she is getting 100% on her tests, it takes her a good amount of time to do it. I have realized that just because she gets the words right does not mean she has mastered them. She needs to practice so that it comes more naturally and isn't quite so taxing.

PHONICS: MCP Plaid Phonics Level A approximately follows the same scope and sequence as Spelling Workout A. In hindsight, I am not sure that she needs both the phonics and the spelling. However, if I did away with the phonics, I would need to find some way to supplement the handwriting. So for now, we are continuing with the phonics curriculum.

CRITICAL THINKING: We are using a curriculum called Critical Thinking: Reading, Thinking and Reasoning Skills Level A, which Grasshopper and I both really love. We got it because it was said to be a good book for teaching reading. It is based on Bloom's Taxonomy, which I studied in college. The theory is that we think on six different levels (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation). Level A only works on the first four. The first unit contains sections on classification, real vs. make believe, fact vs. opinion, definitions and examples, and outlining and summarizing. Even though Grasshopper only does one page per week, that page becomes the basis for discussion for the entire week. For example, Grasshopper has initiated games where we identify whether something is real or imaginary and fact or opinion.

READING: Grasshopper reads one book out loud each day. Well, it averages out to every day. Some days, she reads more, and some days, we don't do any. We get most of our books from the library.

SCIENCE: Science for Home Schools by BJU Press
We used the 1st grade curriculum this year. It is a little pricey for 1st grade, but it is well worth the money. For $99, we received a very well-rounded program that included the teacher's manual, student reading text, audio tape (I understand that they are currently changing to CDs), student workbook, student tests and answer.

The teacher's manual is wonderful. It lays everything out for you, so there is almost no preparation. Every lesson starts with an activity where the scientific method is used--observation and recording observations. The activities require little preparation and use common materials that you would have on hand at home. They are very short, and while they require guidance from the teacher, the activities can almost all be fully completed by the child.

Each lesson also has a reading component. Every page of the text has beautiful, vibrant pictures that complement the reading. Reading is appropriate for 1st grade. Each chapter also has a Bible verse that is related to the topic (although some are very tenuous connections). The teacher's manual suggests questions and answers that the child should understand from the reading.

There is also a suggested writing assignment for each lesson. Usually, the writing is just making lists. I did the writing for my 4yo, but I think that these assignments are well within the abilities of most 1st graders.

One feature that I really love is the optional family activities. They are designed not to be used during normal instruction time but are for the whole family to use together. This is a great way for the whole family (dad, in particular) to be a part of the home school experience.

Another interesting feature that I did not use is a table of religious principles correlated to the lessons. I felt that the connections were simply too tenuous to teach them with the science lessons and would be better utilized during a family devotional. They are also quite Protestant, so if you are not Protestant, they are not as helpful. I have very few complaints about the program.

The one big thing that I would change is the flow of the topics. The order seemed very random. For example, there is an entire chapter (including 4 lessons) on wild animals, and another chapter on tame animals. But they are not taught one after the other. Instead, they are separated by other unrelated topics.

Lastly, this program fit our family well, because my Grasshopper does not like to do lengthy hands-on activities and does not like to get dirty. If your child needs these things, then you will need to supplement the program.

SOCIAL STUDIES-LITERATURE BASED: My original plan was to use Social Studies Through Children's Literature by Anthony D. Fredericks (also More Social Studies Through Children's Literature and Much More Social Studies Through Children's Literature). These books are for K-6 and have tons of great activities for all different learning styles. All books are very light on US History. The second two books have a greater variety for different learning styles, but they are a little heavy on the environmental science for my taste. They are nevertheless great resources. Teaching U.S. History Through Children's Literature by Wanda Miller. I bought this to make up for the lack of US History in the former series. It is set up similarly to those books, but it is primarily geared toward upper elementary. Additionally, I have Literature Connections to World History K-6 and Literature Connections to American History K-6 by Lynda Adamson. These are only book lists, but they are sorted by both subject and grade level.

While we are still using those resources, I have found that Grasshopper does so much social studies on her own that I don't need to add very much to it. We purchased a very large wall map this summer and put it up in our dining room. Grasshopper sits at the table at every meal asking about the map and playing the "Think of a Country" guessing game. She has a list of countries that she wants to study, so I take a country on her list and get books from the library. If possible, I bring home at least one non-fiction book, one fiction book, and one biography, but I am often able to find many more than that. (But with Yemen, I had to tie that one in with Saudi Arabia.) She is also undergoing a study of composers, for which we use the Famous Children series of books and the Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers series. For every person or place that we study, we mark it on the map. All of this is in addition to her regular curriculum, so if we miss a week of official social studies, I don't sweat it.

FINE ARTS: Grasshopper has always loved music. At 4 months old, she would already do motions to music and would turn on her music box attached to her crib to help her fall asleep. And she continues to thoroughly enjoy music and even has been studying the different instruments and composers. She just asks for the materials, and I find what I think she needs, and we go through it together. Anyway, I decided to give Grasshopper a chance to learn piano. At 4yo, I wasn't sure whether she was ready for formal lessons, so I decided to start teaching her myself. So far, it seems quite reasonable . . . until I tell you that I don't play the piano! Well, I used to play flute and can read music. And the beginning piano books have lots of teaching tips. We keep lessons down to 10 minutes once per week and practice 10 minutes twice per week. I think it is going well. Grasshopper usually supersedes her required practice time, and she is progressing faster than I thought she would. I just hope that I am not scarring her for life. :-)

Next time, I plan to write about how my ideas have changed after the first term of our first year and how we are planning to change our homeschool next year.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My Gifted Grasshopper (Really, I Had Nothing to Do with It!)

When Grasshopper was 5 weeks old, she could already roll over and would take steps when you held her on her feet. I thought this meant she would be an active child. But this was really just my first clue to something very different than that. At 4 months, she would do motions to songs, and at 20 months, some of her first words were hearing her count pictures of sheep on the cover of a book. About the same time, she could identify all of her letters, upper and lower case. With her foam bathtub letters, she would turn them upside down and flip them over to make other letters (like W and M, or 5 and 2).

At 4yo, she is reading. I have had people ask me how I "got her to do that." Really, I had nothing to do with it. She just came out that way. Sure, I held her on her feet until my back hurt, but that was only because she screamed if I didn't. Of course, I read to her, but that is not exactly going above and beyond.

I have always felt it important to keep an open mind about schooling options--that homeschooling was not going to be the best answer for every child. I even thought that I would include my children in making that decision. But now I do not see any other way for Grasshopper. She is a 4yo that is the same size as her 19mo brother, smaller than her 3yo friends and who can read better than her 5yo friends. She loves geography and knows where many countries are that even most adults would be hard pressed to remember. Where will she be next year when they would accept her into kindergarten? Would there even be anything for her to learn there? Yet, even if I could convince the school to put her with her academic peers, could those children ever accept her as their peer when she is half their size (literally). It seems to me that public schooling for her would likely mean being bored with her age peers or being bullied by her academic peers.

Only I wish it were as easy as accelerating her a grade or two. I have seen her read as high as 3rd grade level, but it takes everything she's got to do so, and she tires quickly. And while she is advanced in her writing skills, writing at about a 1st grade level, she also does not have sufficient stamina to do the volume of work that 1st grade would require. So I am looking for curricula that (1) challenges her sufficiently, (2) do not hold her back for her writing ability, and (3) still give her some writing practice. And lastly, she absolutely craves one-on-one interaction, so the bulk of her assignments need to provide her with that interaction.

I am finding it quite complicated to figure out how to meet her needs. I can't just say that she is in first grade and find a first grade curriculum. I have to analyze not just what is being taught but the amount of writing that is required and whether it can be easily adapted to her needs. That is sometimes difficult to do without actually seeing the book.

Next I will share what we are doing now and how that is working for us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Envisioning My Homeschool (Or My Secret Freak-Out)

I was confident that my decision to homeschool was right. I believed that I could do it and that no matter what my aptitude, my children would do better at home than in public school. But deep down, what I was secretly freaking out about was all of the hands-on stuff that I knew little kids really thrived on. You see, I was always quite academic, even as a child. I detested sports and even recess. I didn't think very highly of crafty activities or even science labs. My motto was, "Just tell me what you want me to know, and I will learn it." Consequently, not only do I not enjoy those activities, but I just don't "get" them. It is hard for me to understand what people get out of them.

Well, as I was searching for curricula for Grasshopper, I was paying closer attention to her and what she likes. I started to notice that she did not spend time coloring like other 4yo children do. During this time, she had this idea to make "country cookies" (cookies shaped like countries in the world), so in an effort to encourage her interest, we did it. She did nothing except choose the countries and eat the cookies. She didn't want to get dirty; didn't want to measure the ingredients; cut the cookies out; frost them, etc. I realized that this was a clue to how she learns best, and long, drawn-out, hands-on activities were not what she wanted.

She has always loved books, and now she was beginning to enjoy longer and more complex books. She frequently asked the meaning of unfamiliar words and tried to use them in her everyday life. Conversely, as we increased our reading time, she was actually choosing to spend less time watching TV than she used to. She would sometimes watch only part of a video and then want to do something else. Furthermore, she always craved one-on-one interaction. These were clues that she was a verbal child.

I could now stop secretly freaking out. Grasshopper didn't even want those activities that I dreaded. Now I just had to find materials that would feed her craving for conversation.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Finding My First Curriculum (Or Scary Nightmare!)

So back in April 2009, with my vision of a miniature public school in my head, I set out to find the right curriculum materials for Grasshopper. I really wanted to find an "all-in-one" curriculum--mostly because I was overwhelmed at the prospect of finding a different curriculum for each subject. I joined an e-mail list and asked for help.

All of the responses told me I had to figure out Grasshopper's learning style first. I responded that I didn't think that this was important. They responded that it was, and that they had little assistance to offer without that information. I was so confused, because Grasshopper, I thought, was like any child. She likes books, hands-on activities, games, music, computers, etc. But she is perfectly willing to sit and do a worksheet, too. Well, as it turns out, she is not like other children in that she is able to learn in a variety of ways. However, I later discovered that she had more of preference than I then understood.

At first, I fell in love with K12, an all-in-one curriculum often used by states as their "virtual school" option. I loved that it is mastery-based, so if my gifted Grasshopper could pass a test, she did not have to do the work. But then I learned how much it was going to cost--$1500 per year. Ouch! We just couldn't do that. (And there was no virtual school option in our state.) Now I just didn't know where to turn. I thought about attending a conference, but I was still nursing a baby and recovering from a move. I just wasn't up to a multi-day event.

Fortunately, I found a book at the library by Cathy Duffy called 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. This book was exactly what I needed. It walked me through all of the considerations when purchasing a curriculum. Wow, I couldn't believe all there was to think about! Learning preference was no surprise, but how about teaching preferences? Secular vs. religious? Oh, and how much preparation are you willing to put into it? This books gives you all of this information on each curriculum, along with details about each one that may be unique (for example, if a curriculum is more advanced than others of its kind). I highly recommend this book and Cathy Duffy's website for anyone searching for a new curriculum, but especially for the newcomer to homeschooling. Just be sure not to give in to the temptation to consult only the website. The book is absolutely necessary to understanding the information on the site. (Another place to get some thorough reviews is Rainbow Resource Center, Inc. You can order a catalog for free.)

Keep in mind that Cathy Duffy's reviews are very neutral by design. She is not going to tell you about the people that hated it and why. You can't rely solely on those types of reviews, because they are inherently biased and emotional, but they are still an important part of the research. I use Homeschool Reviews and Look for reviews that give details as to why they liked or disliked it and weigh their reasons against your own circumstances.

Next time, I will write about some of the things I needed to consider as I was planning my first year.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why I Homeschool (Or So I Thought!)

I have been interested in homeschooling for as long as I can remember. As a child, I loved learning but hated school. I was both shy and sensitive, an easy target for bullies. It wasn't an awful childhood, but I was sad and alone a lot.

After I started working as a legal secretary, I met a young woman who was a secretary in another law office, and she was only 16yo! At that age, I was working for KFC at night and on weekends, for long hours for minimum wage, and it did nothing to prepare me for anything. That was the clincher for me as far as deciding to homeschool. No one in public high school could have such a job, and I wanted my children to have those sorts of opportunities, too.

However, for some time, I thought of my homeschool as being nothing more than a miniature public school. We would have similar curricula, routines, requirements, etc. I knew that there were other philosophies out there, but I felt that a traditional primary/secondary education could best prepare a child for a traditional college. I wanted my children to be able to go to college and read texts and outline lectures to prepare for exams. I thought that teaching to a particular learning style would handicap a child in the college atmosphere. Likewise, I believed that my children should learn what other children were learning in order to succeed in their post-secondary endeavors.

Well, I have discovered that there are so many more considerations. In future posts, I hope to detail my journey of discovery and what has become my vision for my family.
Latter-day Homeschooling