Saturday, August 19, 2017

Third Week of School

Another week of school is over, and we’re settling into a routine. Of course, after just another week, P13 and E11 will be flying to the mainland to spend a month with their grandparents, and the rest of us will join them in early September, so our routines will take a hit – but at least we’ll have a general idea of the pattern we need to return to.
We added in science and current events this week, and everyone enjoyed them. One thing that always helps is that I am excited about both, and I like to think my enthusiasm rubs off on my children.

P13 and E11 are studying Earth Science this year using a textbook from Novare. This is the best science program I’ve used, and we’ve tried many. I described some of my reasons for choosing Novare in my “update on our experiment” post. Having used it for a full week now, I can add a few more loves. Firstly, to use E11’s words, it “doesn’t underestimate [his] powers”. The science is in no way dumbed down; the chief difference between this book and my college geology textbooks is that it explains fewer, more basic topics with greater clarity – but with the same level of respect for the reader’s intelligence. The spiritual content isn’t overbearing, but is introduced conversationally, in much the same style as the asides I would always insert when we were using secular programs, and with a genuine sense of wonder at the glory and beauty of God’s creation. The end-of-section questions don’t require mere regurgitation of the facts, instead calling for reasoning based on a deep understanding of the concepts. (For example, after the section on lunar phases, the children needed to determine what phases an observer on the moon would see on Earth during each lunar phase). On Friday, we covered the section on eclipses, a timely lesson given that we plan to wake up early on Monday morning and take a home-built viewer somewhere with an eastern horizon to try to see the sun rising partially eclipsed.
As I had hoped, the fascinating content is inspiring both P13 and E11 to write excellent responses to the end-of-section questions. Frequently, when a single sentence would suffice, E11 (my reluctant writer) is writing entire paragraphs in explanation. His spelling and mechanics are atrocious, and I have struggled with how to correct him without discouraging him. After watching some more teacher training from the Institute for Excellence in Writing, I am resolving to choose one writing concept to focus on at a time (capitalizing each sentence, spelling new vocabulary correctly, creating a “frequently misspelled words” list and proofreading based on that) and not badger him about things we haven’t yet focused on. He doesn’t always handle correction well, but I know if I expect more of him, he will be able to produce it. The only end-of-section question that really upset E11 this week was the one asking him to calculate Earth’s orbital speed, given the orbital radius. The tantrum he threw! “There shouldn’t be any MATH in SCIENCE!” I laughed and laughed. I’m laughing again now. Oh, child, the sooner you lose that misconception, the happier you’ll be! Fear not, gentle reader, he calculated the orbital speed (after an hour of moaning).

Because I already had it lying around, I’m using Sonlight Science B for B7’s science. Because it covers animals, magnetism, and light, areas he hasn’t yet become obsessed with, a presentation aimed at children his age isn’t hopelessly too easy for him. It also doesn’t take me more than 15 minutes a day (except on days we do experiments), which means it gets done! H5 occasionally listens in, so I consider it to fulfill his science requirement, as well. I’d like to add in some more advanced chemistry content for B7, which didn’t happen this week but hopefully will in future weeks.
This is the first year we are including a discussion of current events as a formal part of our studies. I considered a variety of news sources, and finally settled on CNN 10. It is a 10-minute show, available online, covering selected world and US events 5 days a week. Because it is aimed at students, it does a good job of providing necessary historical and geographical background without assuming the level of awareness of an informed adult. For my own edification and in order to add more background and commentary, I have been listening to World Radio, which gives a Christian perspective on world and US events, with frequent in-depth analysis from various commentators. After the children have watched the daily CNN 10 show, either P13 or E11 describes one of the news items to the whole family at dinnertime, which often launches an animated discussion with further analysis. For example, E11 discussed the cholera epidemic in Yemen resulting from the current civil war, which launched a discussion of water-borne disease.

Next week I plan on adding in writing. I’ll have P13 go through Student Intensive B from the Institute for Excellence in Writing, and give her assignments based on what she’s reading in other subjects. All 4 of my school-aged children will be writing letters and journal entries weekly, and I’ll have H5 and B7 work on handwriting daily while E11 and P13 do weekly blog entries. I’m also going to resume H5’s reading lessons. Right now, he is able to sound out CVC words and has read the first dozen or so of Sonlight’s kindergarten readers. I’ve been using the appropriately titled The Reading Lesson, which claims to get a child to a 2nd grade reading level by the end of the book. I’ve used it with all the older children, and we’ve never finished it: the child always takes off and begins reading fluently before we reach the end, so I have high hopes for H5 as well.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Second Week of School

Another week of school is over. In addition to circle time and math, we added exercise, required musical instrument practice, and Greek lessons for P13.

One of the results of our experiment last February was that P13 tried several languages and settled on learning Koine (Biblical Greek). I've wanted to learn Koine myself, so we're working together. We've been using Elementary Greek by Christine Gatchell. It's laid out to be used by people (like me) with no prior Greek knowledge. Each lesson consists of a memory verse (or portion of a verse), five vocabulary words, and a grammatical concept. We had completed about 10 lessons by the end of last year, and did occasional review over the summer, but it slipped off our list of priorities for the last month or so. However, neither P13 nor I had completely forgotten all the vocabulary or grammar forms, and after a few days' worth of diligent review at the beginning of each day, we're back up to speed. The pace is fairly slow, designed for children as young as third grade, so now that we've reviewed the material, we may start doing 2 lessons per week.

Over the summer, I did not require my children to practice their musical instruments on a daily basis. Instead, I presented them with goals: a certain piece (or pieces) to be thoroughly learned, and rewarded with a trip to McDonalds for ice cream. When we go, everyone gets an ice cream cone, and the child being rewarded gets two. The result was that E11 made significant progress in violin over the summer, H5 occasionally took out his violin but not regularly, B7 avoided the piano entirely, and P13, uncomplaining child that she is, never mentioned to me that I had forgotten to set her a goal, so just played piano and recorder for the fun of it. H5 earned one ice cream treat, and E11 earned 2 or 3. Now that we've started school again, I'm asking H5 and B7 to spend 10 minutes a day practicing, and E11 and P13 to spend 15 - and all 4 of them have goals to work toward. E11 spends more than his required 15 minutes, playing through all his repertoire and learning a new piece. P13 practices willingly but not enthusiastically, precisely until the timer beeps, and I can hear improvement. H5 requires my constant attention and encouragement during practice time, but is also improving. B7 has his own ideas of how to practice. His goal for the next reward is to learn the next 2 pieces in the book. I asked him to learn the first one hands separately, paying particular attention to the pattern in the left hand. If I don't swoop in and stop him every day, he will play the first two bars of the piece hands together, find the third bar difficult, go on to the second piece, play the first two bars hands together, find the third bar difficult, and go back to the first one. He complains that playing hands separately is "too easy". When I actually coerce him into doing it, he makes many mistakes, proving my point. He is impatient, wanting to hear the piece the way it will sound when he has finished learning it, and thus is unwilling to put in the time to learn it. I think that having to slow down and do something that doesn't come easily to him is good for his soul, which is why I will continue to require him to practice!

For exercise, I realized that I needed to set a good example. It's one of those things that easily moves down the priority list until we go hiking as a family and I realize, puffing to keep up, that I'm not as fit as I could be. I have the T-Tapp 15-minute workout DVD, so a few weeks ago I did "boot camp" (doing the workout every day for a week), and now I'm doing it 3 days a week. I wanted to add some aerobic exercise, and struggled to think of when to fit it in. Finally I realized that in the morning, while the oatmeal is cooking, I can go for a walk while I pray instead of sitting in my room trying to get E3 and H5 to stop barging in and asking for things. Usually Ari is still eating his breakfast at that time, and if he's gone, P13 and E11 are able to take care of the little guys' needs. It wasn't my example that inspired E11, though. 2 1/2 weeks ago at church camp, one of the speakers compared the Christian life to a marathon, and asked if anyone in the congregation thought they'd like to run one. The enthusiasm of E11's response was impressive, and convinced us to try to find a race for him to compete in (maybe shorter than 26.2 miles, to begin with). Every day this week, he has run almost 4 miles. He requested an alarm clock so he can wake up at 6am, run before the heat of the day, and make it back for breakfast by 8:15 or 8:30. Nobody else's choice for exercise is quite as impressive. P13 has a ballet lesson DVD and some aerobic exercises of her own devising, and the little guys like to walk to the playground and run around there. Archery will be starting up in September, so P13, E11, and B7 will participate in that.

Math continues in much the same way as it did last week. The Life of Fred math book E11 is using has a section called "The Bridge" after every 4-5 chapters, consisting of a 10-item quiz of which 9 must be answered correctly before going on to the next chapter. E11 hates these, because the problems lack the fun narrative of the chapters, and because too many careless errors can mean he'll have to do the next one as well. There are 5 different quizzes in each "Bridge" section, and he has thus far completed the first 3 with up to 80% accuracy (and thus, more than 80% tears). I'm hoping he rocks the next one on Monday. H5 has been working to understand place value, and enjoys playing the "Trading Up" game. This game requires base ten blocks (unit cubes, ten-sticks, and a hundred-flat), a 6-sided die, and a whiteboard and marker. H5 rolls the die, takes that number of unit cubes, and, if appropriate, trades up 10 unit cubes for a ten-stick. The game ends when he trades 10 ten-sticks for the hundred-flat. Each turn, we write the number of tens and ones on the whiteboard, and H5 reads the number. He finds it endlessly entertaining (that makes one of us), and is starting to grasp the concept pretty well.

The last couple of days, I tried starting Circle Time as soon as I finished my own breakfast (as opposed to waiting for every slowpoke to join the Clean Plate Club). This has more than one benefit. Firstly, we get started sooner, and people have less time to disperse (and to create a need to be rounded up). Secondly, since E3 is the slowest poke, starting before he's done eating automatically gives him something to do quietly while I read. E3 has seemed somewhat emotionally needy this week, so I may try finishing Circle Time by reading a story just for him.

Next week, I plan to add in science and current events. Check back here to see how it goes!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

First Week of School

This past week was our first week of school. We started with only two subjects: math and circle time. As circle time is a new feature for us, I'll describe it first. After we have cleared the breakfast table, I gather everyone to read the Bible, some devotional books and missionary stories, work on a memory passage, read some poems, and sing a song. On Monday, I received serious push-back from E11. I believe he had expected we would do circle time outside or sitting on the futon, and when I refused to move it from the kitchen table because I wanted people to be able to draw during the readings, he threw a fit. However, he then proceeded to draw a tree during the reading, continuing to add details throughout the week, and he seems to be enjoying it now. Allowing the children to draw while they listen is a successful strategy, allowing even E3 to stay at the table and pay some attention much of the time. (He still needs frequent reminders to return to the kitchen). During our poetry reading, I have P13, E11, and B7 read some of the poems. They all need to work on reading slowly, loudly, and clearly, but already I see some improvement. Having all the children together to discuss the devotional book is helpful because, although it is technically part of B7's curriculum, H5 often chimes in with a question or comment, and P13 and E11 are able to summarize and explain in ways that are easier for B7 and H5 to grasp. A real advantage to doing circle time is that, when it has ended, everyone knows that school has started and I am less tempted to do "just one more" housekeeping task (which can turn into "just 5 more") before getting started.

Immediately after circle time on Monday, I gave P13 her first lesson from Core Plus Mathematics. We investigated the physics of bungee jumping by connecting rubber bands and attaching varying numbers of nickels (5-gram weights) to the end before dropping them from the top of a yardstick. It took a bit of trial and error to find a way to effectively attach the nickels to the end of the rubber band chain and to measure the maximum stretch, but P13 devised a cone out of paper towels which she tied on to the chain with another rubber band, and I moved my hand incrementally down the yardstick until I didn't feel the point of the cone touch it when dropped. Our plotted data showed an approximately linear relationship, with the length of the rubber band - nickel cone assembly growing by about 7/8" with each additional nickel. E11 found himself drawn into the investigation despite himself, and making mathematical observations. Later in the week, he was similarly drawn into our investigation of a game of chance in which a fundraiser pays out $4 if a die shows a 4, but receives $1 if the die shows any other number. Unfortunately, this investigation was much harder to conduct with only one student, because the randomness of the results after only a few trials far overcame the general expected linear trend if you were only to look at the fundraiser's profits after every 50 trials. Had we had another 5 students or so, everyone could have played the game 50 times, and we would probably have gotten better results without spending a prohibitively long time rolling dice. However, P13's mathematical insight allowed her to predict what should have happened if we had been able to conduct hundreds of trials: on average, every 6 rolls will lose the fundraiser $4 and gain it $5, for a net gain of $1 every 6 rolls. P13 seems to be enjoying this program and it certainly forces her to think and express herself clearly. And if it can draw in my reluctant 11-year-old, that says something for it!

Speaking of E11, I gave him a lesson from Life of Fred: Fractions on Monday after P13 was done with the bungee jump simulation. He is over halfway through the book and theoretically knows how to add, subtract, and multiply fractions and mixed numbers. We read the chapter (part of a continuing story) and he worked on the problems in the "Your Turn to Play" section. Unfortunately, he seemed to have forgotten absolutely everything over the week or two since he last did math. He was trying to find common denominators before multiplying, and to add the denominators when doing addition, among other painful errors. Worse, when I tried to ask questions to understand his reasoning, he stormed off, refusing to answer. When he was ready to try again, and I tried to explain the concept using a simpler problem, he shrieked that I was wasting his time. When I tried using 2 different methods to explain the concept using the problem that was actually causing him difficulty, he again moaned that I was not making sense (without taking time off from moaning to hear any of my words, or to tell me what part of my explanation confused him). Some days, he is REALLY hard to teach. Because he had such trouble with the first problem set, I decided to give him a similar problem set every day until he mastered it, instead of proceeding to the next chapter. He was furious, because the chapters contain quirky and amusing stories, and plain problem sets don't. On Tuesday, he got the egregious result that 1/3 - 1/12 = 3/0. (He remembered to find like denominators - and then subtracted them!) With much difficulty, I got him to listen to explanations (involving pizza, or squirrels) of what was going on in each problem. On Wednesday, he got all 5 problems (covering the same concepts as Tuesday) right on the first try, with a much better attitude. It's the same pattern as over the summer! On Thursday, we went on to the next chapter (more of the story! Yay!) and he retained what he had learned over the previous days - and the same thing happened on Friday. I really need to remember (over the screaming) that just because he seems to have completely forgotten a concept doesn't mean he'll have as hard a time re-learning and retaining it as he did the first time.

B7 has been steadily working through the Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra book. This week, we were working on finding the least common multiple. B7 has epic mental math ability, but he writes like a 7-year-old, so if I ask him to write down his complete solutions, his brain gets to the correct result many minutes before his brain has time to tell his hand to write down the steps, which is frustrating for him. So I have a deal with him: he has to write down all the steps for the first problem we work, and then he only has to tell me verbally and I will write them for him on subsequent problems. At the rate we are going through the book, it will probably take 2 or 3 years to complete, but that's okay - we can wait until he's 10 before starting algebra! On days when I am too busy or overwhelmed to spend 30 minutes working on math with him, I can ask him to work on Alcumus, a math game on the Art of Problem Solving website (, which allows him to review concepts he has learned in the past and forces him to write down his own answers.

H5 is a lot of fun to teach, because he is so enthusiastic about everything. I'm not using a single, formal curriculum with him, though I'm using Miquon as a general outline for where to go next. I have ideas of concepts he'll need pretty soon, and present them using games and manipulatives. We have been using the Right Start place value cards to practice counting to 100, and playing Coin War using cards with pictures of coins I made when P13 was in kindergarten. He also enjoys using Khan Academy's "Early Math" exercises.

I'm glad I decided to start school slowly, as it allows me to work out kinks in each subject and see ahead of time what might cause problems. In previous years, when we've started full steam with all subjects on the first day of school, I've felt more overwhelmed at the end of the first week, with fewer ideas of what specific things need to change. My plan for next week is to add in music practice and lessons, P13's Koine (New Testament Greek) lessons, and some kind of physical activity for everyone. The following week we'll add science and current events (for P13 and E11), the next week writing, and when we get back from our September trip to the mainland, be ready to go full steam with all our subjects. I plan to continue making weekly updates, so check back to see how we're doing.