Saturday, July 29, 2017

Update on Our Experiment

Back in February, I tried an experiment in which I abandoned our formal homeschool curriculum and merely required that my children do something (of their own choice) in subjects like math, reading, writing, history, science, etc., on a regular basis. The experiment lasted a little longer than a month, because we all enjoyed it and everyone was clearly learning.

The only thing my children (and I!) really missed from our previous pattern of school was all the reading aloud contained in our Sonlight programs: Core F with Science G for P13 and E11 (Eastern Hemisphere; Geology, Physics [and Origins - we ditched that portion of the course, but it's a story for another day]), and Core and Science A for B7 (World Cultures; Biology, Botany, and Physics). One day, I mentioned that I missed it, and everyone else unanimously agreed, so we started it up again. That covered literature, history/geography, and science, and I let them keep doing their own thing for reading, writing, and math. P is also learning Koine Greek, which she plans to continue next year.

Reading: P13 continued to read as though drinking from a firehose, E11 read various library books of interest at his preferred slow pace, and B7 pursued books about astronomy/planetary science and chemistry. B7's interest in chemistry came about as a result of our experiment: E11 had wanted to learn more about chemistry in order to understand mineralogy better, so I ordered the high school chemistry course from The Great Courses. He was interested in the subject matter, but the math was well beyond him. I worked hard to try to help him understand it, and I think if he'd had a more positive attitude toward his ability to learn mathematical concepts he could have done it, but he was unwilling to put in the effort. However, during the time he was still working on the course, he encountered the Periodic Table. For enrichment and enjoyment, I found the Periodic Table Song on YouTube: This immediately became so popular that we watched it multiple times a day and, as often happens with songs you hear all the time, we all soon had it mostly memorized. B7 started asking questions about the characteristics of various elements, and, not knowing many of the answers myself, we turned to the public library. After exhausting the children's section, we raided the adult section, and as a result B7 can now announce the half-lives of most of the radioactive elements, and when asked the answer to something like 8 x 7, will respond, "Barium." He would like a particle accelerator for Christmas. (We think a CRC handbook might be more appropriate and affordable).

Writing: Here's where P13 really shines - she writes all the time. But not only that, she decided to launch a neighborhood children's Bible club. She develops and writes up lesson plans each week, in addition to games, crafts, and a snack. During the school year she's had as many as 10 children attend her club, though it's been much quieter during the summer. So I have allowed her Bible club preparation to count as writing - if her message isn't clear, she gets instant feedback from her peers as they pay less attention to her lessons. She also corresponds regularly with friends back in New York and with relatives, as well as writing in creative and prayer journals.

E11 has a negative attitude toward any writing assignment that wasn't his idea. For this reason, I abandoned all the written work attached to Sonlight - not only the language arts assignments, but also the worksheets for science and the Eastern Hemisphere Notebook. He had to write something, so I allowed him to continue working on his pirate adventure novel and letters to relatives during the school year, but as far as I know he did almost no writing over the summer.

B7 doesn't quite share E11's attitude, but writing is not something he prefers. He finished his handwriting workbook and started learning cursive before the end of the school year, but because I wasn't giving specific assignments (do this entire page), he would copy a single letter and inform me, "I've done my writing for the day." He does label rocket parts on drawings he makes, and his handwriting is neat and careful - he'd just rather spend a couple hours reading about radioactive elements.

Math: P13 is a compliant child, but math is not her true love. She pursued her math requirement by alternating between logic puzzles and Khan Academy's Algebra 1 course. If I didn't instruct her otherwise and check repeatedly, she wouldn't spend more than 15 minutes a day. I wasn't particularly happy with the instructional method, either: Sal Khan shows you how to perform an operation, but you don't get much insight into why it's important or interesting. We'll be doing something different next school year (keep reading for my plans).

E11 was happy in theory for his chemistry course to count as math, but as it required a certain amount of algebraic insight, it made him feel stupid. This is never a good feeling for anyone, particularly for someone whose 4-years-younger brother has better mathematical intuition than he does. I am convinced of the value of a growth mindset ("If I work hard, I can grow smarter") in math as with all subjects, but convincing someone else that this is a fruitful mindset can be tricky if that someone else begins screeching as soon as he hears me start to say anything of the sort. And, honestly, if he works hard but his heart isn't in it, he will not be likely to surpass B7, who loves mathematics more than almost anything. E11 can improve and has improved, but B7's achievements are a real hindrance to him. We tried letting E11 work on Khan Academy, but had a hard time finding the right level, where it would give him problems that didn't "underestimate his powers" but that he knew how to do. Eventually I turned to Life of Fred: Fractions, and that seems to work. E11 loves the quirkiness of the storyline and there are usually only a few end-of-chapter problems to work (because busywork is Not Popular). Every 4-5 chapters there is a "Bridge" containing problems on concepts from all previous chapters, and this has been E11's biggest frustration: you have to get at least 9 of the 10 Bridge problems correct on the first try, or else you try again with another Bridge (more work!). This means he feels under pressure, and being under pressure tends to set his brain to the OFF position. Over the summer, I required the children to do math one day a week, but E11's attitude toward the Bridges in particular was terrible. I decided that if there was a type of problem that made him screech, he simply had to do 3 problems of that type every day until it no longer made him screech. He followed a typical pattern of screeching over the course of an hour while doing his 3 problems the first day, screeching for 20 minutes the second day, and doing them in 5 minutes the 3rd day, complaining, "These are EASY! The problems in the book aren't like THIS!" And when he encountered the problems in the book, someone had secretly replaced them with easy ones. Funny how that works. It may be that the magic bullet for teaching E11 math will simply be a good pair of earplugs for me.

B7, as I mentioned in the original Experiment post, showed an interest in exponents. Having tasted the problems in P13's old Pre-Algebra book, he was hooked. We have continued working through the book. He dislikes writing, so I mostly act as his scribe and only occasionally require him to write solutions himself. (Part of it is that, at the level of Pre-Algebra, his handwriting isn't neat enough for him to line up problems properly. He far prefers doing long division in his head, and is quite able to do so accurately). We have also used the Alcumus program available on the Art of Problem Solving website.

H5, freed from the requirements of any formal schoolwork, has developed a great interest in learning on his own. He's worked with Khan Academy and Miquon Math, requested occasional reading lessons, and developed a passion for paper crafts. He asks for lots of spelling help and sends his grandparents letters (mostly listing the names of family members, finishing with the word LOVE). If there is a pile of paper scraps or a roll of tape in the middle of the floor, it is generally H5's fault. He is SUPER excited to start kindergarten next year, and occasionally I wake up to his voice saying, "Mommy, can I have a reading lesson and a writing lesson and play with Cuisenaire Rods and Khan Academy and drawing and painting today?" Um, let me wash my face and put on my glasses first...

I'm glad we conducted the experiment. By requiring certain subjects but not specifying how they were to be met, I learned more about each child's learning style. We found ways of teaching several of the subjects that worked better for each child than what we'd been using before. I've used the insight I gained in designing next year's academic program, maintaining a certain amount of flexibility and with what I hope will be less academic overload than we had before.

Plans for next school year: Sonlight was the one thing I knew we'd use. We'll be doing World History Part One (Sonlight History/Bible/Literature G) with P13 and E11, Intro to World History Part One (Sonlight History/Bible/Literature B) and Animals, Astronomy, and Physics (Sonlight Science B) with B7 (and H5 listening in), and Fiction, Fairy Tales, and Fun (Sonlight P3/4) with H5 and E3. That covers Bible, history, geography, literature, readers for P13 and E11, and science for B7.

Science for P13 and E11 will be Novare Earth Science ( I chose this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's one of very few science programs that combine a Christian worldview with up-to-date science. (I am not capable of using most Christian programs that address age of the earth or evolution - I yell at the book and the kids wonder when I'll get around to teaching them again. This was why I abandoned the "Origins" part of Sonlight Science G). Secondly, Novare focuses on integration: not teaching science as an isolated subject, but across subject areas including math, history of science, theory of knowledge, and English language usage. In particular, because E11 is fascinated by Earth science, I hope he will be more willing to complete writing assignments as part of learning science.

In addition to their science-related writing assignments, I will ask the children to complete journal entries on a regular basis, and write letters to friends and relatives. P13 and E11 have private blogs (only grandparents, aunts and uncles have the passwords) which I will ask them to update regularly. B7 will be working through the cursive handwriting book he started last year (and I'll be clearer on how much is an acceptable amount to complete), and H5 will be working through the Handwriting Without Tears kindergarten book. In addition, I've ordered (but not yet received) the Teaching Writing: Structure & Style teacher course from the Institute for Excellence in Writing, along with the Student Writing Intensive for P13. Since she's already interested in writing, I want her to have more tools to further hone what she writes.

For math, I plan on using 4 different programs with my 4 different school children. E11 will continue with Life of Fred, and B7 will keep working through Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra and Alcumus. H5 will continue to use Miquon Math, various games, and supplement with Khan Academy. P13 is ready to learn Algebra, and because I was unhappy with Khan Academy's approach I didn't want it to be her primary program. I re-read "What's Math Got To Do With It?" by Jo Boaler, and was again attracted by her descriptions of interested high schoolers working together to solve interesting, challenging problems. I wondered where I could find a source of such interesting problems - the Art of Problem Solving books have them, but because P13 is not passionate about math, the level of challenge was not something she enjoyed. I wanted something like AoPS, but not quite as time consuming. Fortunately, Boaler's book had an appendix containing recommended math programs. I found the first edition of Core-Plus Mathematics Course 1, which integrates algebra, geometry, probability/statistics, and discrete math but isn't aimed just at gifted students, for just $6 used (and the 2 teacher's guides for $6 each, as well). I love the look of it; it has the sorts of problems Boaler described. The chief drawback is that it was designed for teaching groups of students in a school setting, so class discussion forms a large component of the instruction. I tried to find others in the homeschool community who would join us, but because we live 45 minutes to an hour away from Honolulu, the people who expressed interest decided against it. So it'll just be me and P13 trying to re-create class discussions... but I still feel it'll be far better for her than staring at Khan Academy for as little time as she can get away with. And, of course, I'm still doing my recreational math club every other week, and there's plenty of animated discussion there!

Physical Education has always been a weakness in our homeschool program, mainly because I don't care for round moving objects. I plan to allow the 3 oldest to continue in archery, and to take all of them to the playground regularly, but I don't know that they'll ever learn the formal rules of baseball or football. Of course, ignorance in those areas hasn't hindered my enjoyment of life! Physical skills are E11's forte, though, and I'm thinking of finding races of some sort for him. He's the sort of kid who would love to run a 5K or participate in a kids' triathlon, so although I don't have specific plans right now, I intend to find some events and sign him up for them. Ari goes running regularly and sometimes invites E11 to join him, and we go hiking as a family or kayaking or swimming on weekends, so we're not couch potatoes.

H5 believes that a major part of school ought to be art. I've purchased supplies (construction paper, colored pencils, glue, scissors, tape) and mainly plan to sit back and let the kids all have at it. P13 often checks out art instructional books from the library, and she invites her brothers into her room to work on projects together, so I feel that's enough for now. I'm sure it would be good to do some kind of art history, but I'm not in a hurry to add more things to our schedule.

Over the summer, as I mentioned in my previous post, E11 started taking violin lessons from me. He's picking it up quickly, and H5 is not doing too badly on his violin lessons either (though E11 has far surpassed him). B7 is learning piano in fits and starts, and P13 sometimes sits down and plays something or other on the piano. My motivational strategy for practicing instruments consists of a close partnership with McDonalds: I identify a piece or set of pieces that a child needs to learn, and when the child plays that music well, we all go and get soft-serve ice cream cones at McDonalds. The child who has met the musical goal gets 2 cones. Compared to paying for music lessons, teaching my own kids and paying for ice cream every few weeks comes out a lot less expensive!

Finally, just a few days ago, I read this article: I'm going to give it a try - straight after breakfast, we'll do some Bible reading and memory verses, read some poems and missionary stories, and sing a song. I hope this will not only get us in a helpful mindset for doing school, but give a sense of cohesiveness as we're doing so many different things throughout the day.

And, although we aren't still doing the experiment I started in February, its benefits were such that if we ever start feeling overwhelmed and frustrated again, we can always ditch what we're doing and try the same thing again.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Birthday Updates

We're done with birthdays for the year, so it's time for me to repent of my blog silence over the past several months. I'll describe the cakes I made everyone and also what they're up to in general.

B7 is first in the lineup, having his birthday at the end of January. He requested an archery cake, featuring an archer shooting at a target. His birthday marked the important milestone of being old enough to join his siblings in archery class, and he was enthusiastic about it. As it turns out, he has the coordination and strength of a stereotypical geek, but he worked at his archery and improved noticeably, such that his arrow was frequently going as far as the target and even hitting it on occasion by the end of the semester (instead of consistently making it only 5-10 feet from the bow).

B7's current obsession is chemistry. When his brother E11 started studying chemistry with a view to understanding minerals better, we came upon the Periodic Table Song ( All the children enjoyed the song so much that we ended up viewing the video multiple times a day, until several of them had it mostly memorized. At this point, B7 began asking questions, and looking for library books. After exhausting the children's section, he moved on to books about the elements from the adult section, finding the heaviest (manmade, radioactive) elements particularly fascinating. At this point, he has the table well enough memorized that he uses the names of elements as proxies for the numbers from 1 to 118. (A trip through the multiplication flashcards begins: "B7, what is 8 x 5?" "Zirconium." "And 4 x 7?" "Nickel.")
H5's birthday comes 8 days after B7's, and he requested a komodo dragon cake. We had seen one at the Honolulu Zoo with my parents over Christmas, but I'm afraid my rendition didn't really do it justice. However, the birthday boy was quite pleased.

H5 continues in his relentless enthusiasm for life. He will be officially doing kindergarten in the coming school year, and several times has approached me this summer demanding lessons in reading, writing, and math NOW. He uses up paper at an alarming rate, sometimes dispatching missives to grandparents, but as often writing things like to-do lists: "Tidy your bed. Play outside." He can't read beyond simple CVC words, so I am frequently summoned for spelling assistance. He enjoys playing chess, both with himself and against opponents. Ari comments that, although he is still easy to beat, he is really trying to think through strategy in a way that B7 doesn't always do.
E11 wanted a pirate ship for his birthday in mid-March. He had a friend over, and they shot each other with Nerf guns (E11 received two as presents), ate cake, and then Ari took them night fishing. 

Unlike B7, E11 excels in archery (and just about anything with a physical component to it). He actually placed first in the Parks & Rec island-wide archery competition among under-12 boys. This summer, he asked to take violin lessons, and has made rapid progress - again, there's a physical component, but he also has a good sense of rhythm and a good enough ear to correct badly out of tune notes without being told. He climbs everything everywhere, so if I ever hear myself asking, "Where's E11?" I am generally looking up. He isn't a total bookworm like his sister, but I do often find him reading - the Harry Potter series and, most recently, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

E3 watched all his brothers' birthdays and wondered repeatedly when it might be time for him to experience a similar event. As soon as he requested a lion cake, he began badgering me, every time he saw me enter the kitchen, to bake it, already. Every time he saw me sit down at the computer, I needed to look at pictures of lion cakes for inspiration. He had to wait all the way to the end of April. But the day finally arrived, and he was glad. (So was I). We took him to the Waikiki Aquarium, using birthday money from grandparents to buy an annual family membership. He was thrilled with the experience and talked about it for weeks afterward.

E3 is a delightful preschooler, interested in helping in the kitchen and hearing stories read aloud repeatedly. He likes playing outside and finding creepy-crawlies under rocks. He is gaining enough sophistication to be included in the older children's games of pretend. He is also completely out of diapers except at night, so we are looking forward to soon seeing the last of that very long stage. About a month ago I pulled out the Sonlight Preschool (age 3-4) curriculum for what we expect will be the very last time, and have read almost a quarter of it to him already. Of course, children's books bear multiple re-readings, so if we finish before Christmas, we have only to start it over again (and again, and again). What's been most fun with this is how much my older children have enjoyed seeing their early childhood favorites re-emerge. I love reading to them, but they also clearly love being read to. It makes me happy!
We have a teenager! P13 is a natural organizer, and planned an art-themed birthday party. She did all the inviting herself, and we ended up with 5 additional girls (as well as her brothers) playing blindfolded Pictionary, making sculptures with air-drying clay, and polishing off an entire artist's palette cake. The night after her actual birthday, Ari and I asked a friend to watch the boys while we took P13 by herself to Outback Steakhouse. It was truly delightful to sit and chat with her for a couple of hours without interruptions from the little guys.

P13 shows her organizational skills in other, more impressive ways, as well. In mid-February, she came up to me and said, "I'd like to start a children's Bible club at the local park. I'll develop the lessons based on The Jesus Storybook Bible, and come up with crafts, games, and snacks. I just need a canopy tent we can set up in the park. Here's one I found on Craigslist, and I have the money for it. Can you contact the people and drive me to Kaneohe to pick it up?" The Bible club has been a tremendous learning experience for her. Although it's been quiet during the summer, with only 1 or 2 people attending each week, during the school year she's had up to 9 or 10 kids. Some of them have been troublemakers, revving motor scooter engines next to her canopy tent to drown out her teaching, and stealing her equipment. But there have been some interesting results to this harassment, as well. On one occasion, as the ringleader of the bullies started riding his getaway bicycle with some of her things, his bike hit an obstacle and he tumbled over. One of the kids in the Bible club yelled after him, "That'll teach you to mess with God Girl!" Another time, she and E11 devised a scheme to make the troublemakers regret their thieving ways: she "accidentally" dropped a box of Altoids when they were coming toward her. But instead of containing powdery white breath mints, the box contained squares of white chalk she and E11 had prepared just for this purpose. When the bully grabbed the "Altoids" and shared them with his friends, they had an unpleasant surprise! It seemed to me an excellent example of being "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16, The troublemakers inspired us to allow P13 to achieve another milestone: her own phone. Now, if trouble shows up, she can credibly threaten to call the police, and they either disappear or decide they aren't going to be trouble after all. P13 having her own phone also makes it easier to let her (and E11, when he's with her) wander around the neighborhood more freely, and to leave her to supervise her brothers if I need to make a quick grocery run in the middle of the day.