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