Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Why Do You Homeschool?"

As I watch Grasshopper's friends head to kindergarten, it gives me pause to contemplate anew the answers to this question. For it is not the same as it was a year or two ago, or more.

Eliminating Wasted Time and Taking Advantage of Opportunities

My original interest in homeschooling centered around the wasted time and the opportunities that could be taken advantage of if that waste were eliminated. I thought primarily of the high school years, during which a young person could have a chance to be employed in jobs that were only available during the school hours. As much as I personally got out of my job working at Kentucky Fried Chicken for three years, it never looked good on a resume and was never valued in the world. But when I met a homeschooled 16yo working in a law office, I thought that was a much more beneficial experience.

An Opportunity to Work at a More Advanced Level

After I had Grasshopper, it became quickly clear that she was gifted. While she is not the kid that will be attending college at 10yo, she is certainly ahead of her age-peers. As we have discussed schooling options with her, she has asked about why she can't go to public school with the other children. We have responded that in kindergarten, they will be teaching such things as letters, counting and colors--things she has known now for three years. She didn't complain, and I suppose she simply accepted the explanation. But recently, I was contacted by a friend of mine whose daughter is the same age as Grasshopper and attending public kindergarten. She wanted to know what she could use to teach her daughter to read, because she was bored. Grasshopper questioned me about it and was impressed that what we had told her about kindergarten was true. Later, as we were talking about future plans and goals, she asked, "You aren't going to send me to school, are you!"

So this is why we homeschooled kindergarten last year. At 4yo, there is no way that any kindergarten would have accepted her. But I was not yet committed to always homeschooling, because after she was old enough to go to school, there always would be a chance that a school would be able to accommodate her giftedness. However, over this past year of learning about my daughter and her gifts, I have also learned that the chances of finding a school that would accommodate her is very slim, at least in the early years when she is learning how to write.

Accommodating Asynchrony

You see, most people believe that an advanced child is equally advanced in all areas. But while a child may be advanced in all areas, it is very rare to find one that is equally advanced in all of those areas. And it is actually quite common to find that a gifted child is deficient in some areas. Handwriting seems to be the most common area of concern. And this is easy to see, as handwriting requires a certain degree of physical development. It doesn't matter how well one understands how writing is to be done--it still requires a certain amount of experience and practice to do it correctly. So a gifted kindergartner may be reading Harry Potter and doing multiplication and division on his own. Yet he may be barely able to write his name or compose a simple card.

For this reason, simply accellerating a child in school may not be a sufficient accommodation. And that is certainly the case with Grasshopper. While I think that she is a little ahead of her age-peers in her handwriting, it is not by much. I have also noted that her attention span is not much more advanced that her friends'. She still learns a lot through pretend, an activity that you may not see as much in the curricula of higher grade levels.

So let's say I am actually able to convince a school to accellerate her to first grade for this school year. She does her math worksheets every day but eventually starts to complain. But she is a good kid and keeps on doing that work, though it takes her longer and longer each day. Then one day she asks to learn multiplication. Is there really any chance that the teacher will agree? I don't believe so. But this is exactly what happened last year. I gave her the multiplication book, and she spent the remainder of the school year doing multiplication instead of her kindergarten math. She was happy as a clam.

Meanwhile, I knew that she wasn't ready to just move on to third grade math. So I searched for a curriculum that would be more interesting for her, both in terms of offering higher level content, as well as manner of teaching. We started at a 1st grade level this year, and so far we both love it. I have to compact it a bit since some of the concepts taught (like counting), she knows solidly. But it includes an introduction to a lot of other math concepts that we are really enjoying, such as the commutative property, probability, and charts and graphs.

We have done essentially the same thing with our other subjects. A school teacher would be unable to do this, no matter how well-informed on the subject of giftedness. It is much easier for me to use my time and energy to find, implement and tweak the right curriculum to fit my daughter's needs than to spend my resources getting others to do so.

Developing a Love of Learning and a Solid Work Ethic

I admit that there is a part of me that thinks that a child has to learn to work within a system and to do what others do and what authorities demand. I did it, and you probably did, too. And most of the time, I was okay with it. In kindergarten, I circled the dog that was bigger, even though I thought it was a joke that we were even asked to do it. In third grade, I wrote those spelling words ten times each, even though I already knew how to spell them.

But when I really think about it, I can remember some problems. In first grade, my teacher asked my mother to have my hearing checked, because I wasn't doing my work. My hearing was fine. But because I was in a split class with second graders, I was doing the second grade work instead of my own. Perhaps I was so involved in it that I really did not hear my own assignments. Or maybe I chose not to do them. I don't remember. But it was a clear sign that I was bored and insufficiently challenged.

My resulting problems were minor at the time. But the result was that all of my work throughout all of my primary and secondary education was easy. I learned that education was easy and not worth working at. In high school, I didn't go to awards ceremonies or even my graduation, because I believed that I should not celebrate that which I did not work for. I do not want my children to feel this way about education. I want them to love to learn and be willing to work at it. I believe they will be much better off in the world if they do. And I don't believe that my particular children will learn it in a public school setting.


There are many that criticize homeschooling for its lack of socialization. I would contend, however, that any person is socialized simply by being around people, be they peers, teachers, siblings or parents. So the question is whether that socialization is the right kind. I suggest that the right kind of socialization is the kind that prepares a person to eventually be a responsible, healthy adult.

In order to determine the right kind of socialization for my own children, I first have my own socialization experiences to draw on. Throughout elementary school, I had just one friend. I was not interested in most of what the other kids were doing or playing, so I usually sat out. I craved in-depth conversation, and I couldn't bear the superficial conversations that other kids ordinarily had. If other kids had invited me to play, I might have participated more. But that sort of thing doesn't happen a lot in a school setting.

As an introvert, I would have been content to be alone most of the time. But I was easy prey for bullies. I harbored no bad feelings towards other children. I didn't understand why others would do and say things for the sole purpose of making a child cry. Yet it happened to me all the time. And because I thought that this meant that there was something wrong with me, I never told a soul. During my lifetime, although I have never questioned my intelligence, I have never really been able to rid my mind of those teasing, taunting voices. Whenever I plan to get together with a new friend, and plans get cancelled, I secretly wonder in the back recesses of my mind if they discovered what those kids from elementary school saw in me. I do talk myself out of it, and remind myself that I no longer live in that world. But the voices are always there, however faint.

I see all of those same characteristics in Grasshopper (hence her Internet name--a Kung Fu reference). I know that she would go to school, endure the teasing, cry in secret, and never tell a soul. And I am certain that she would grow up with those same voices telling her that there was something wrong with her. She is the most capable child that I know, academically, emotionally, socially. And I cannot bear the thought of a childhood of bullying erasing her knowledge and understanding of her gifts.

At no time in our adult lives are we grouped together based solely on age and geography. Yet so many people believe that this is what children need in order to become healthy adults. Right now, Grasshopper can play with children of any age and also engage adults in worthwhile conversations. But in school, playing with children in different classes is highly frowned upon. And heaven forbid if you openly enjoy the company of an adult! No, that is not the kind of socialization that I want for my children.

By the way, when I went to junior high and high school, that one friend of mine from elementary school started drinking, smoking and doing drugs. If friends had been more important to me, I could have followed suit and had many friends. But I declined and was left without friends for a while.

As a homeschooling parent, it will certainly mean more work for me to make sure my kids have friends. But it will be worth it if we can avoid the highly negative socialization that goes on in schools.

Family Bonding

A new friend of mine who was homeschooled as a teenager was recently recounting why her parents began homeschooling. They were concerned that each family member was doing his own thing, and their family was not operating as a unit. They wanted to foster love and unity in their family. As I listened to her story, I felt in my heart that this was also my reason to homeschool. My mother has a sister who will not talk to the rest of the family, and consequently, I haven't seen my cousins in over 10 years. My mother's brother moved to Florida and has not stayed in contact. I haven't seen my father's sister since my grandmother died about a decade ago. My sister will no longer speak to my mother. I believe that this scenario has become epidemic in our society, and I don't want it to happen to my family. My kids love each other and play so well together. In spite of the strong toddler urge to say, "Mine," and, "No," they share with each other and do not hoard their possessions.

Someone might contend that my kids are sheltered. But Grasshopper has three community classes per week, and is considered a model child. We formed a play group that meets once per week, and she has many, many friends. She easily and voluntarily invites new children into the group. She is appropriately wary of strangers, but she is quite comfortable and appropriate with those she knows. I have never had anyone who knows her suggest she needs any work in the area of socialization. For this reason and all the others stated above, I believe that we are on the right path for now.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Spell to Write and Read

Last year, I purchased Spelling Workout for Grasshopper on the advice of The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM), which cited it as the top-pick for spelling programs. As much as I love TWTM, I am afraid that following this particular suggestion left us looking for another program. I wanted to find a more strongly phonics-based program that we wouldn't have to alter to accommodate Grasshopper's age (5yo) and writing ability (about 5-6yo). (We ended up doing Spelling Workout orally. This would have been fine if she were learning something, but she was just memorizing the spelling words rather than learning how to spell.)

Because Grasshopper has a very interactive learning style, I was looking for something that we would be able to do together rather than an independent worksheet-type program. I had heard about learning spelling through dictation (Charlotte Mason style), and I started asking whether such a program existed. Well, as it turns out, we found Spell to Write and Read, which is not at all like what I originally was asking about. What drew me to this program was its strong emphasis on the rules of reading and spelling. (Grasshopper is very rule-oriented. If I don't teach her a rule, she will make one up. This goes for any situation.)

Spell to Write and Read (SWR) is just as its title says--children learn to write and to read by spelling first. I know it sounds backwards. But by teaching children 70 phonograms and 28 spelling rules, they can learn to spell, even if they are not reading yet. And doing so gives a new reader a solid phonics foundation. Now Grasshopper has already been reading for some time, so we are using it strictly as a spelling program. (Click here for a detailed description of SWR.)

We starting using SWR two weeks ago, and so far we are really enjoying it. Grasshopper is actually asking to do more spelling. As I have researched the program and prepared to teach it, I have come to believe that this method of teaching reading, writing and spelling concurrently is the best method. (However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have little experience with other programs beyond a little research.) While there are many programs that teach the same 70 phonograms and 28 spelling rules, SWR appears to teach them more thoroughly, using a multi-sensory approach that suits any and all learning styles. The child learns the phonograms and spelling rules by seeing them (visual), saying them (auditory), and writing them (kinesthetic).

Another great feature of SWR is that in one Core Kit costing about $100, you get everything you need for all years of spelling that they will take. SWR is often compared to All About Spelling, which costs $250 for the same amount of teaching material.

Despite my excitement for SWR, I must warn that SWR is not for the faint of heart. Following is a list of difficulties that I have found with the program.
  1. SWR is very teacher-intensive. It requires planning ahead, dictating spelling words and playing games with your child. I can see that once we get into the program for a few weeks, it will be a little more open-and-go. But the upfront time investment is enormous. (I spent a couple of weeks just reading the book and another couple of weeks starting my own log before I started the program with Grasshopper.) For this reason, I would caution you against starting SWR when you are in the midst of a huge transition such as moving or having a new baby.
  2. The SWR book is poorly written, making it very difficult to decipher what you are actually supposed to do. The fact that the chapters are labled "Step 1, Step 2, . . ." is very misleading. It is very verbose and written in almost a "stream of consciousness" format, as though someone wrote out everything they did but never went back to make sure it was in order and made sense. For example, Step 3 is "Read Aloud to All Ages," Step 14 is "Expose to Classical Literature," and Step 23 is "Assign Reading in Books." By themselves, each chapter is a good read. But these are things that most of us are already doing, and you have to read through these pages to get to the parts that you actually need in order to be able to implement the program. This is just one example of many, and it is unfortunate because it does not have to be this way.
  3. My personal belief is that programs ought to be able to be modified for the individual learning and familial circumstances. Ideally, SWR should be implemented as written, as doing so will guarantee the greatest success. But we cannot always have "ideal." However, the author and trainers on the Yahoo group are so adamant that SWR be implemented as written that they are unwilling to help exasperated mothers to adjust the program to their families and individual children. I believe that this approach only drives people away from using a great program. So, for example, if you have a 4yo that is dying to read but is not ready for writing, requests for help will result in advice to not allow him to learn to read yet. If your family is struggling because SWR is taking too long, the advice will be to hang in there and perhaps divide each session into two sessions per day. You will get little assistance paring down the amount of work.
  4. Similar to number 3, above, I have found it difficult to get assistance to modify SWR for a 5yo that is reading well above grade level. [I recently asked the list about how to answer Grasshopper when she was asking how to spell a word. (Should I answer with letters, or with phonograms, even though she is not learning the multi-letter phonograms, yet?) The author, Wanda Sanseri, gave me a great answer about moving ahead with the phonograms, even though we hadn't started the spelling lists, yet. Then a trainer offered me a schedule for older children. When I asked how I might modify it for Grasshopper, she told me I should only teach her the 26 letters of the alphabet. When I pointed out Ms. Sanseri's advice, the trainer was unable to offer any advice on how to proceed. I could have asked again on the list, but by that time I just didn't want to bother with it.]

In spite of all this, I still think this is a wonderful program. But I hope after reading this, you can purchase it with your eyes open.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cursive First Review

I have been reading a lot about teaching cursive first, before manuscript. In theory, it makes a lot of sense. It is the fastest way to write, and when anyone needs to take notes from a lecturer, writing fast is advantageous. It also makes sense that we learn best what we learn first. Additionally, I have old letters written by my grandparents that date back over 80 years--love letters to each other from before they were married--that I want my children to be able to read. And I think it would be hard to read cursive if you haven't learned how to write it.

I started Cursive First with Grasshopper, now 5 1/2 yo, a couple of months ago. Grasshopper has been writing manuscript for 2 years, so for her, this is not her first writing instruction. I chose Cursive First, because it is integrated with our spelling program, Spell to Write and Read, and because I had hoped to use it for Cricket in a couple of years.

The various pieces arrived in a ziploc bag. I received a thin manual, practice pages, and flashcards printed 4 to a page, which needed to be cut apart. I am not at all impressed with Cursive First.

  • It comes in loose pages. I suppose that this keeps the price down, but I then had to buy page protectors and a binder, so I was not able to organize the materials until I could go on a shopping trip. I would have liked to have a consumable workbook and just have it all bound. Of course, I can use my original as consumable workpages, but then there is still the issue of storing them.
  • The assignments are half pages, but not exactly half. So when you cut the pages on the line, you do not have equal size sheets of paper. The worksheets look like they were made up on a computer and printer from 10 years ago and never updated. This is not a big deal, but it contributes to the overall impression of the program.
  • There is very little actual instruction. The booklet that comes with it contains information about proper posture and pencil grip, as well as suggestions for lesson plans and scheduling. But there is little guidance about how to teach the child to write, except for some pre-writing activity suggestions (like salt boxes).
  • For each letter taught, there are no arrows to show which way to write the letter. There are only a couple of letters to trace and then a lot of blank space for the child to practice on his own.
  • There are a lot of assignments devoted to practicing writing the phonograms but very few opportunities to write complete words, and there are no complete sentences at all. The manual suggests having the beginning writer practice 2-3 lines per day. But Cursive First gives mostly just individual letters with 1-2 actual words on each assignment page--tedious and boring! Maybe it is fine for a child that can't read, yet. But there is no way that I can get Grasshopper to write 2-3 lines of meaningless letters. But she will happily write complete sentences, especially if they are interesting and meaningful to her.

After Grasshopper finished learning the alphabet, I purchased the StartWrite software and started giving her copywork. (The Modern Cursive font is the same one that is used for Cursive First. I like it because every letter starts on the bottom line, preventing confusion about where to start each letter.) Fortunately, writing comes pretty easily to dd. But I think that Cursive First would be lacking for the average child and entirely insufficient for the child that struggles with writing. If you don't anticipate writing difficulties, I would recommend just using StartWrite and making your own worksheets. Otherwise, I would look into something with more help for both the teacher and the child.

Concerning teaching cursive before manuscript, I was skeptical at first, and to some degree, I suppose I still am. The transition has been difficult for her, and for that reason, I am inclined to support the teaching of cursive first with younger children. Nevertheless, I still have concerns about teaching cursive first to a young child. (Grasshopper was 3yo when she started to write manuscript.) Cursive First is not designed for children younger than 5yo, and I am not sure what programs, if any are designed to teach cursive first to a younger child.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What We Are Doing for 2010-2011

I have been meaning to share our curriculum for this upcoming school year. But I wanted share some initial observations and impressions of our new programs. Since that takes more time, I was putting it off. So I decided that I would give a list and then make separate review entries of each of our programs as I have time. So here goes:

In addition, we will continue memorization and add in narrations. I would also like to experiment with something called story circles, as outlined in Nebel's Elementary Education. It is intended for a classroom, but I think we can adapt it to a family situation. Basically, each child takes a turn adding to a story. As the children become adept at actually creating the story, you begin writing and illustrating the story with the students. Eventually, you can talk about grammar and literary devices. From my perspective, this is the seed of the Socratic discussions that should be taking place as the children get older.

I intend to write at length about each program as we get into it. Let me know if there is anything specific that you want to know more about.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Add-A-Century Timeline Review Update

Since my original review of Add-A-Century Timeline, I have been contacted by the company. I want to share some of that interchange, as I feel that it bears substantially on the product and on the integrity of the company.

I was contacted by a company representative who wanted to respond to some of my negative comments about Add-A-Century Timeline. I was reached through my personal e-mail rather than posting a comment. I felt that it showed great integrity to handle this matter privately rather than publicly on my blog.

The first comment was in reference to my statement that "not only did I not have enough pages to get us through one whole history rotation, I did not even have enough to get me through the first year." Here is the company's response:

"The idea behind Add-A-Century Timeline, the reason it was created, is to give you the tools to build your history timeline the way you want it, without the limitations of preprinted pages or predetermined spaces. I would have no idea how many (or few) pages someone will want to use per century when building their timeline. You could use one page or ten! Someone may want to cram more centuries onto fewer pages for the ancient times, while someone else desires the consistency of keeping all centuries with equal spaces. It’s up to the individual. If the Starter Pack is not enough, Add-On-Packs are available."

I understand the concept, but I still maintain that since the only specific example used on the website is to use two pages per century, it is reasonable to assume that one pack would be enough for a first year study starting with ancient civilizations. But it was mostly my fault for not doing sufficient research, which is why I wrote this review. Most people are not prepared to conduct the same kind of research for a timeline that they do for a curriculum. I hope to be your heads-up.

Next, the representative was confused about my comment that the dates to put on the pages were calculated wrong. Here is my clarification to the company on that subject:

"The marketing materials indicate that you can cover one century on one double-page. While it indicates that you can use them however you want, this is the only way that is actually specified. By applying the date stickers according to the instructions, the years 1 A.D through 5 A.D. and the years 5 B.C. through 1 B.C. end up in a 5-year column, even though the span is 4 years. Honestly, it is a very, very minor complaint. But it is nevertheless technically incorrect. I do understand the desire to keep the year 1800, for example, with the rest of the 1800's."

The representative acknowledged this point. I think it should be in the instructions, because when I got to that point, I thought I had done something wrong. She also acknowledge the vagueness of some of the instructions and indicated that they would consider my comments upon the next reprinting. In closing, the representative had this to say:

"I will keep your comments for when we reprint our materials. Add-A-Century was never meant to be a 'here's how you do it' item as much as a 'here, do it your way' tool. But as we get more customers, I see that the 'here's how to do it' option, along with specific instructions, is a good idea."

I felt like this was a very positive exchange, and I am very much willing to spend a little extra money to support people of integrity that are working to make homeschooling a better experience.

Now, this would be a nice place to stop. But I subsequently received another e-mail sharing an idea that they are working on and inviting me to assist in testing the product. I will not share any details about the idea in the interest of protecting their intellectual property, but it is a great idea and will save people like me a lot of money. I am really excited to help with this product, and after they are ready to market it, I will post my review.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Add-A-Century Timeline Review

After reading this review, please see my UPDATE.

Since we are starting our first history rotation with Grasshopper, I was interested in doing a timeline with her. (Although there is some controversy over whether it is appropriate to do timeline work with a 5yo, I felt that it would be good for her interests and abilities.) I liked the suggestion in The Well-Trained Mind to make each century take up equal space so that children can see how much more we know of more recent centuries than of ancient time periods.

The thought of doing my own was rather daunting. I needed something that would last at least through the four-year rotation and would also store well. Because of Grasshopper's age, I wanted something that I could use pictures with. I am also a person of precision. If I was going to spend the money on a timeline, I wanted the visual representation of the time spans to be precise.

I found out about Add-A-Century Timeline, and it seemed to encompass all that I needed--equal space for each century, pictures, and the ability to place on a wall and/or store in a binder. I purchased the starter pack with the binder, which includes the following for $62.95:

40 pages 80# Card Stock with mylar edges
Category Labels for every pair of pages
Date Stickers from 4999 BC to 2025 AD
126 Colored Stickers
10 Flip-ups
Binder Tabs
2 Image Sheets
12" x 12" Binder

It wasn't long before I found I was rather disappointed in what I received. As I started to assemble the materials, I discovered that not only did I not have enough pages to get us through one whole history rotation, I did not even have enough to get me through the first year. Now, this was most certainly my own fault for not doing the math. Because I thought it would last four years, I should have checked. But I don't think that it is unreasonable to assume that it would get you through one year, so I wouldn't expect a person to check in that case. However, what Add-A-Century has done is to divide all the centuries by four and put that amount in a starter pack. But most (perhaps all) classical history rotations cover more time during the first year studying the ancients since there is so much less known about that time period. Consequently, I needed 50 more pages just for the first year, amounting to $50 more than I had already spent.

As I continued to assemble the materials, I found that the assembly instructions were very vague, leaving me to figure out how to do it largely on my own. As I did so, I found that they have actually calculated the dates wrong. Every page is divided into five-year spans. But one column is shorter to account for a four-year span. The reason for this is that there is no year 0. So years 1-5 (either AD or BC) are a four-year span. However, the date stickers put the four-year span at the end of the century instead of the beginning of the century. The only way I would have been able to correct it would be to make my own date stickers. This is a minimal annoyance, as only the first centuries AD and BC are incorrect, and most people will never notice. But I spent over $100, and I would think this type of mistake would not be happening for that amount of money.

I also quickly realized that the 2 image sheets did not cover the ancients time period at all. I knew that 2 image sheets would not be enough, and I figured I would have to supplement. But how hard would it be to include a picture of the pyramids, the parthenon, and the colloseum?

Finally, it took me many, many hours to assemble this timeline. I knew that if I tried to put it together as we went, it might not get done. So it became part of my summer prep work. I am very glad that I purchased the binder, because I think you would have a hard time finding that size of a binder for less money. And it is quite beautiful.

I am now ready, and I am still excited about using my Add-A-Century timeline. And I will probably bite the bullet and continue with it over the whole four-year rotation. In fact, since we will be doing more history in future rotations, we will probably continue to add to this one if it holds up. But I would not recommend it, as it is too much money for something that is imprecise, needs to be completely assembled, and requires supplementation.

Literature-Based Geography

This year, I purchased some books that contained lesson plans for doing literature-based social studies. While the lesson plans were wonderful, I found that I really did not have time to put these lessons together in a formal way. But because Grasshopper had such a fascination with our big wall map, as well as a love of books, it was so easy to let her choose a country and then find children's books about that country. We usually started with a history book for background. But we most enjoyed the biographies, historical fiction and folklore associated with the countries. We then made up trivia games as we sat at the table looking at the map. I thought I would share my book list here for those that might want to do something similar. I continue to add to it as I find additional books.

Literature-Based Geography Book List (Google Docs)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Paradigm Shifts

I am so very blessed to be able to homeschool. I guess that is the uttermost in my mind after finishing our first year. When I began this journey, I really had no way of knowing just how wonderful a journey it could be. Public school is the only thing I ever knew, so that is basically what I envisioned for my homeschool. I had no idea how many different ways there were to approach teaching.

It wasn't long before I realized that grade levels were pretty meaningless with a gifted child. For example, she can read at a 3rd grade level, but she does not have the stamina or the maturity of a 3rd grader, nor can she write at a 3rd grade level. Consequently, materials designed for 3rd graders are generally not going to be appropriate for her.

I also learned that you don't have follow the same scope and sequence as in public school. I am excited to have become acquainted with the classical method of education. I really love the idea of a chronological study of history that simultaneously integrates literature from the same time period.

Another concept that I am still trying to digest is in the area of math. I have learned that you do not have to follow the traditional scope and sequence for primary math (addition-subtraction-multiplication-division). Grasshopper was getting bored with what I thought would be a challenging, advanced kindergarten curriculum, and she was asking to learn multiplication. That public school-educated voice in my head said, "No! You have to learn addition and carrying, subtraction and borrowing first." But about that same time I was following a discussion thread on a homeschool forum about letting kids take the lead. So I bought a multiplication workbook at my local teacher resource store to supplement our current math curriculum. Well, she loved it! And it wasn't long before I could not persuade her to do anything in the prior workbook.

Because of our society's public school background, everyone thinks that either Grasshopper is some sort of genius or that I am some kind of pushy mom. But she is not, and I am not. It just makes a lot of sense to teach beginning multiplication with addition, since multiplication is just a form of addition.

One of my more recent epiphanies is the idea that you can teach cursive before manuscript handwriting. I have known about the Cursive First program for some time but had a lot of reservations about using it with an accelerated child. But I recently purchased it (because it was aligned with the spelling program I chose), and I am convinced that teaching cursive first is preferable. It is such hard work to learn one way. And just as the child is feeling proud of what he has mastered, he is asked to learn it all over again.

The Cursive First program maintains that what a child learns first is what he learns best and that children who learn cursive first will have better handwriting. Until a hundred years ago, cursive was always taught first. I recently had a chance to read some letters written by my family members in the 1930's. The handwriting was beautiful, and I am convinced that this was largely because they learned cursive first. I regret that I didn't know about this when Grasshopper was learning to write. But I am happy that we are making the transition now when she is excited about it rather than waiting until she is a little older.

I have really gone through some tremendous paradigm shifts this year, but now I am so excited about next year. I have really thoroughly researched all of our curricula and feel so confident that next year will be so much better.

Next time, I will write about our program choices.

You Are the Expert!

For those who hear the voices around and within them casting doubt on their ability to homeschool their children, I want to offer some encouragement.

I recently gained an insight through an experience involving Cricket, who was recently evaluated with a speech delay of almost 50%, placing him at about the 15 month mark in expressive speech (receptive speech was normal). We decided to take advantage of the state-funded early intervention program, and a speech therapist (ST) began to visit us in our home. Within a few meetings, it was clear that the ST was not a good fit with Cricket. She had a particular plan in mind, and Cricket was not interested in her plan and completely ignored her.

I called the service coordinator seeking advice. She asked me if I had discussed my concerns with the ST. I told her that I was concerned about the appropriateness of questioning her, since she was the expert. The coordinator stopped me short and told me firmly, "No! You are the expert when it comes to your child!"

This really hit home for me. When I was working in rehabilitation services with disabled individuals, I said this very same thing to parents many times. But somehow, I didn't internalize it as a parent myself. She was right. I am the expert. I know my child.

So for those out there who are hearing voices of doubt, whether they be your own voice or that of others, YOU ARE THE EXPERT. You spend every day with your child, and you know his strengths and weaknesses. You rejoice with him when he succeeds and cry with him when he fails.

And to my religious friends out there, please also remember that it is to you that God has entrusted your child. Only you are entitled to receive personal guidance from your Father in Heaven concerning that child. Listen to His voice so intently that it will drown out your own doubts and the voices of all the naysayers. He will not fail you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How We Tweaked the First Year

Now that we are looking forward to finishing up our first year of homeschooling, I thought it might be appropriate to share how our original curriculum plan changed. Our original plan included Five in a Row, Horizons K Math, Spelling Workout, MCP Plaid Phonics, Critical Thinking: Reading, Thinking and Reasoning Skills, reading aloud from library books, BJU Science, literature-based Social Studies, and piano lessons.

Five in a Row: We have absolutely adored this program. Occasionally, we do only three or four readings rather than five--sometimes because of our schedule, and sometimes because I am just not happy with the book-of-the-week or it lessons. But Grasshopper often will say, "This book is going to be six or seven in a row!" (or even ten if she is especially excited about it).

I have made a couple of changes in how we approach it, though. I found after we completed the first volume that Grasshopper wanted to remember which vocabulary words went with which book, and she wanted to look through artwork that she did. So I started to keep a binder. I photocopy each book's cover and type the vocabulary words on the back. Then we place her artwork behind it in the binder. Additionally, I have added copywork using sentences from her FIAR books.

Horizons K Math: We chose Horizons K, because it was said to be an advanced but gentle approach to math. We have found that to be absolutely true. However, with the spiral approach, we find that we are practicing counting in the same lesson as subtraction and counting money. So I am finding that we are having to eliminate some of the sections.

Grasshopper has consistently said that she did not like math, but she recently started to do extra math at night. Around the same time, she began asking to do subtraction and multiplication. I ordinarily would have dismissed her request, but I had recently been lurking in an e-mail forum where they were discussing the merits of letting kids jump ahead when they ask for it. So I bought her a multiplication book, and she got really excited about it. So she is continuing to do Horizons some days and working out of the multiplication book on other days. I don't know how long she will stick with the multiplication or how far she will be able to take it, but she seems happy with it for now.

Additionally, I have decided not to continue with Horizons for next year. Grasshopper still is not crazy about math (though is good at it). What she really likes is one-on-one time with adults and reading. So I have chosen to do CSMP next year, which incorporates a lot of games and stories into the curriculum. I hoping that this will help her to better love math.

MCP Plaid Phonics: By Thanksgiving, I decided to ditch the phonics program. It took her so long to do it, and her reading level was soaring beyond what she was doing in phonics. I decided that what she needed was just a phonics-based spelling program.

Spelling Workout: Grasshopper was having trouble with all of the writing, so we began doing this program orally. It is working acceptably well for the moment, as she is doing well on the spelling tests and sometimes even wants to work ahead. But I am not very happy with the curriculum, as I feel that it focuses more on writing practice than on spelling practice. I still have the next Spelling Workout level here, so we will probably continue until we finish that book, but then I will have to research spelling programs at that point.

Critical Thinking: Reading, Thinking and Reasoning Skills: We only do this once per week, but Grasshopper really loves these worksheets. They address some fairly advanced skills in a way suitable for a very young child. I would love to continue with this series, but I don't know if we will have time in our schedule for it next year.

Handwriting: I had hoped that I would not have to give Grasshopper separate handwriting worksheets, thinking it would be burdensome. I hate to say that I should have listened to everyone who warned that it is easier to focus only on handwriting. Doing three worksheets a day was just drudgery for Grasshopper. I eliminated phonics and spelling worksheets and added in copywork, taken from her Five in a Row book for the week, and she is quite happy with it. She gets it done quickly, and her writing stamina is noticeably increasing.

Reading: Grasshopper continues to read to me daily from library books. She has occasionally started to read things on her own. She asks questions about vocabulary and content she does not understand. At this point, this is working well for us, and I do not think that a formal reading program will be necessary.

BJU Science: I was quite happy with this science curriculum--until I bought Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding by Dr. Bernard Nebel. I bought it for next year, but after reading through it, I decided to dump BJU and jump into BFSU.

Literature-based social studies: We are still doing this, but in a very different way than I had anticipated. I thought that I would use lesson plans from books that are literature-based, but I found that this just did not provide broad enough coverage of topics and was just too time consuming. Our social studies have evolved into Grasshopper choosing a topic (usually a country but sometimes a historical figure), and then I get books for her on that topic. I do online searches for both fiction and non-fiction. I have gotten pretty good at spotting the books that will appeal to both her academic level and interests. She has become very good at world geography, a great background for starting a classical world history program next year (Tapestry of Grace):

Fine Arts: I started to teach Grasshopper how to play the piano. It was a bit of a leap of faith since I don't play. But she is doing quite well. I keep lessons down to 10-15 minutes, and we do not always get around to a lesson every week. But she will sporadically sit at the piano and practice for a few minutes here and there. She is enjoying it, and she has a natural talent for it. But I am trying my best to avoid pushing her. I will continue to teach her until I think she can endure a 30-minute lesson, at which point we will seek out a real teacher.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review of Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding

On various forums, I have seen a lot of questions about Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, K-2 by Dr. Bernard Nebel ("BFSU"). Since we recently started using this book, I thought I would share my own review.

I purchased BFSU a couple of months ago with the intention of using it in the fall. After seeing the book, though, I ditched the $100 1st-grade science that I thought I loved, because BFSU was so much better. Dr. Nebel knows science and knows children, and that is a rare combination. And for a quarter of the price, I received three times the volume of lesson plans.

What is BFSU?
BFSU is neither a traditional nor a classical science curriculum. Rather, it is an entirely new approach to teaching science. There are two main ideas that drive this curriculum: (1) People learn more when it is relevant to their own lives, and (2) People retain more of what they learn if they are making mental connections. BFSU attempts to create and take advantage of "teaching moments," that is, those times when children are seeking to learn, asking questions and wanting to know. Although it is not marketed as using the Socratic method, I find the Socratic method used heavily to create these "teaching moments."

BFSU covers the following general areas of science, called "threads": Nature of Matter, Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science. There is not a specific schedule or order in which you have to teach the lessons. The lessons, however, are intended to be taught approximately in a spiral such that you are teaching one or two lessons from one thread and then moving on to the next. Each lesson plan tells you what lessons from all threads that are considered prerequisite. The earlier lessons are designed for the younger K level students, and the later lessons for the older students. In this way, the child learns to integrate the different areas of science. (For example, before teaching the distinction between plants and animals from the Life Science thread, the child should first have covered concepts of energy and making things go from the Physical Science thread, since how we get our energy is an important distinction between plants and animals.) As you spiral through the different threads, you continue to revisit what you have previously covered but just go into it in greater depth each time.

BFSU is written for the classroom, but it is very easily adaptable to the home school setting (and even acknowledges this in the Introduction). It is not just "for" K-2 students, but there are easily enough lessons for three years of material, unless you have a child that is extraordinarily driven in the science category. To quote another forum post, "This is not a cutesy Kindergarten science program." BFSU tackles some very advanced concepts while managing to keep the activities and material on a young child's mental level. (For example, DH is a high school physics teacher, and he has remarked that most of his new students have never even heard of the difference between mass and weight, a concept that is dealt with in the Physical Science thread.)

Is it secular or religious?
BFSU is a secular text. But as a Christian, I have not found anything controversial. It does not address topics like the creation of the world or evolution.

What kind of preparation does BFSU take?
Each lesson is very thorough and lengthy, most covering 6-8 pages, single-spaced, with no pictures or diagrams. It is absolutely necessary to read the whole lesson carefully. Dr. Nebel is meticulous about giving you everything you might want to know, including what misconceptions children commonly have, and what answers you might expect to get out of them.

A materials list is given for each lesson. Almost every material needed is something that you would likely have in your home, but occasionally you might find something that you need to pick up. As I browse through the lessons, I see that I will have to be prepared to acquire balloons for one lesson and an empty glass jar for another. My recommendation is to go through the materials lists for all of the lessons and make a shopping list of things you don't normally have and then store those things in an easily accessible location.

Each lesson also comes with a list of reading books that you can use with the lesson. So if you are using these book lists to supplement your lessons, you will need to check those out from the library prior to the lesson, as well.

The most difficult part of preparing for a lesson is that most of us will need to change how we teach and think about science. You have to figure out how you are going to make the lesson relevant to your own child. There are many ideas and lots of guidance, but BFSU recognizes that different children will be reached in different ways. It might be as simple as planning to talk about solids, liquids and gases in the bathroom as your child brushes his teeth or takes a bath. Or you might be inspired to elaborate on a given activity or go on a field trip. I do not personally like a scripted program, yet I lack the creativity to come up with my own activities and discussions. BFSU gives me just enough script with a whole lot of ways to tailor it to my own child, family and circumstances.

But just let me warn that BFSU does take some preparation. I am spending at least 30-60 minutes reading the lesson and setting up the activities, with most of that time spent just wrapping my brain around the lesson plan. If I did not have a science background, I would want to write down the questions I was supposed to ask and the answers I wanted to elicit from the child.

What about students older than K?
Dr. Nebel has been saying on his Yahoo group that books for grades 3-5 and for 6-8 are due out by this summer. In my opinion, you could easily use this book for grade 3 unless you have a particularly savvy student. Even with an older student that is really into science, I think much could still be gleaned from these lessons. I would just go through it faster. If I had a third grader, I would get the K-2 book and start working on it now so that I would not have to worry about when the 3-5 book came out.

If you have any questions, please post them, and I will add to this review.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Family Tree: A File Folder Game

Before I had children, I was heavily involved in researching my family tree. Our ancestors were European immigrants, and I thought with Grasshopper's interest in geography and history, this would interest her. But she just wasn't that interested. Then I saw a family tree activity in a recent magazine and decided that I could turn it into this file folder game. And it has been a big hit, even with Cricket.

To make your own:

1 file folder
4 pages cardstock paper
Glue stick
Con-Tact paper
Snack size Ziploc bag
  1. Print out two copies of pages 24-25 of the October 2009 Friend Magazine on cardstock paper.

  2. Paste one copy in the inside of a file folder (heavy ones will last longer).

  3. Cut the ovals out of the second copy.

  4. Paste pictures onto the ovals that correspond with the people on the family tree (includes the child, his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents).

  5. Print the names (and birth dates and places, if desired) on a piece of paper. Cut them out and glue them under each oval on the file folder. You may want to also paste the names onto the back of the pictures, as well, so that they can match the names. (But leave room for the velcro.)

  6. Laminate the inside of the file folder with Con-Tact paper. Laminate the ovals with the pictures on them. (Make sure to leave enough space around the pictures so that the laminate will hold.)

  7. Put velcro on each oval on the file folder and on the back of each picture oval. Make sure the soft side of the velcro is always used on the file folder and the rough side for the pictures.

  8. Store the pieces in a ziploc bag with the rough side of the velcro on the back in the same orientation as it is placed on the file folder so that you can attach the bag to the inside of the file folder when not in use.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power of Pretend

I recently was visiting a forum where a homeschooling mother asked what to do with a dd that loved to pretend, but mom did not--hated it, in fact. I read the thread with earnest, as I am in the same boat with Grasshopper, who loves to pretend. And me? I must have missed the announcement when they were handing out imaginations. I was really disturbed, though, when I saw many responses such as, "Play with my kids? No way. Not going to happen." And I was surprised that no one seemed to be able to provide any real, practical advice for this poor mom that was trying to do her best for her kids.

From the beginning, I begrudgingly tried to appease Grasshopper's demands for pretend play. Before she could even talk, she would insist that we pretend the washcloth was talking to her. (I made the mistake one time of trying to get her to cooperate when I was wiping her face.) By the time she was 3yo, she was walking around telling people that she was Pocahontas, or Mary (mother of Jesus), or whatever person she was interested in that day, and I played along as best I could. When I was pregnant with Cricket and uttlerly exhausted, I would suggest that we pretend that she was putting me to bed, and that actually worked.

But what really made a difference for me is when we moved to a location in a library district and started formal homeschooling. Books became her primary motivation for pretend play. And when I saw that she wanted to pretend anything and everything, I quickly learned that pretending to be, for example, the Egyptian Queen Tiye was so much better than pretending to be Disney princesses. And it turns out that Grasshopper is even more excited about pretending to be a real person or act out a real story than a fictional one. We still do plenty of fiction, but we pick those that have real life lessons in them. Allow me to share some examples.
  • We recently read a book about the childhood of Queen Isabel of Spain. Grasshopper pretended to be Queen Isabel of Castile, and I pretended to be King Ferdinand of Aragon asking her to marry him and therefore combine their kingdoms into one big country called Spain. We pretended to give money to Christopher Columbus for his trip to the New World.
  • Grasshopper wanted to learn about Poland, so I got a book from the library entitled Escaping to America, a true story about a family that fled Poland during WWI. While we were running errands, we pretended that we were this family. Every time we had to get in and out of the car, we pretended we were getting on a train or a ship for yet another leg of the journey. Down the aisles of the grocery store, we pretended we were hiding from soldiers. As we approached home, we pretended we were arriving in America and talked about how we would work hard for the blessing of being here. I got all my work done, and Grasshopper was immensely satisfied with her hours of pretend. And best of all for me--she is learning.
  • This week, we read a book called Brave Irene about a little girl that braved a terrible snow storm to deliver a dress her sick mother had made for the duchess's ball. It was a fictional story, but it had wonderful life lessons about perseverance, honesty, honor, responsibility, charity, bravery, etc. I didn't particularly like pretending. But practicing good character is something I want my kids to be doing. These lessons are better learned during pretend play before they are faced with the real thing.

Can you make yourself like pretending? Probably not. But it is so much more tolerable when you envision what your children will get out of it in the long run and guide your child into pretending things of real value.

Latter-day Homeschooling