Monday, January 19, 2015

Why I Don't Use The Story of the World

When I first started homeschooling, I feel enormous pressure to use The Story of The World by Susan Wise Bauer as our history curriculum.  Vast numbers of homeschoolers used it, both secular and Christian.  It seemed so solid and impressive. 

I bought a copy of Volume I and began reading it to 6-year-old Bee.  He liked some of the stories but disliked it overall.  He has an aversion to what he deems "educational books."  He likes many nonfiction books, and many books that were written in order to "educate" children, but something about The Story of the World got on his nerves.  Honestly, I had trouble retaining a lot of what I read to him myself.  We never finished reading it. 

Still, I couldn't shake the idea that we should be reading it and that we should be doing the activity book.  My children deserved the opportunity of mummifying a chicken while we studied ancient Egypt.  This idea that we should be doing a book that none of us wanted to do for history actually got in the way of us doing more history and enjoying more history. 

Bee did get history that year, mainly because his father let him watch the documentary America: The Story of US.  He was mesmerized by it, and he watched it (all 12 hours) several times.  I don't recommend this for a first grader necessarily; I thought it was a little too violent, probably better for middle school or at least upper elementary.  I'm also not sure it's the best historical documentary ever made and has some misinformation regarding whale oil on the Hubble telescope.  However, I think Bee learned more US History that year from that documentary than I possibly learned in my entire elementary education. 

I continued to regret not continuing The Story of the World, and over the years it has come up frequently in conversations with other homeschoolers.  It seems  that people either love it or hate it.  Many parents seem to use it successfully and swear by it.  Other parents hate it.  One person (a grandparent who assisted in homeschooling his grandchildren) suggested it would be cruel of him to loan me the audio CD's of the series, as he and his grandchildren had disliked the books so much, both the print and the audio versions. 

I put way too much thought into the big decision of whether I should try the books again.  I performed an obscene number of Internet searches to read what other homeschool parents had to say.  I liked the idea of giving my children such a broad view of history, but it seemed too broad to me.  I think that to do The Story of the World successfully, you really need to base your homeschool around history, and that is not something I felt I had the passion to do.  I also think that the history of the entire world is too massive and global for my brain, even on a 4-year cycle. 

Some children become highly interested in smaller histories, like the Civil War or ancient Egypt or Greece.  I would prefer to let my child go in depth on one of those topics if they so chose.  Taking a year to study art and/or music history is another option.  Focusing on the history of war or weapons or just technology might be another option that might appeal to a child or family. 

I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Bauer speak a year ago at the VaHomeschoolers conference.  I enjoyed her keynote session so much that I skipped two other sessions I was signed up for that day in order to hear hers instead.  I found her to be brilliant, insightful, inspiring, and, to my surprise, very real and funny.  If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend that you take advantage of it. 

I now consider myself to be a huge fan of Dr. Bauer, but I have given up the idea of using her books and now feel free to find our own way.  For first grader Bug, our "social studies" this year has consisted of map activities, Little Passports, and we are now snuggling up in the afternoons to read the "If You Lived..." series.  For fifth grader Bee, in addition to field trips he has taken and books he has read on his own, he has really enjoyed John Green's Crash Course videos on Youtube over the past months.  This semester, we are also doing a study of bias in history, by reading selections from two very biased and contrasting books.  I have bought Bee graphic novels and interactive novels on historical topics, and he happily devours them.  

It works for us.  The boys are learning, and we are enjoying it.  I feel good about what they are learning. 

I think Dr. Bauer is amazing, and I think every homeschooler should at least check out one of her history books from the library, to see if it would be a good fit.  If not, it is really okay; there are plenty of other great options out there for learning history. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Prioritize one subject at a time

When I first started homeschooling, Bee and I made great progress in math.  He's good at it, he seemed to like it pretty well, and I liked explaining it.  So, we would always progress in math.  Eventually, it seemed like we might not be making a lot of progress in other areas. 

I spent a lot of time making up schedules and checklists, but what has really helped is to pick the thing we most need to work on and make sure it gets done close to every school day.  We still work in other areas, but this helps to make big strides in a very needed area.  The first thing (after math, of course) that I did this with was All About Spelling.  We started that when Bee was in 3rd grade, and we started with Level 1, so we had quite a bit of catching up to do.  We went through the steps very fast, but we really needed to do it every day for a while. 

Last year, I really wanted to prioritize writing, so I made sure he emailed with his writing tutor as many days as we could.  We've done science this way, as well as Spanish.  We've also gone back to math at times.  Right now, it's All About Spelling since with our big interstate move, it didn't get unpacked for a while. 

The priority may be different for each child, or it may be the same.  I'm emphasizing AAS with Bug as well right now.  With a younger child, however, I typically don't feel a big rush on anything.  

The main thing to remember is that any program or book that is going to be prioritized is that it has to be something that the child likes well enough.  If the child hates it, everyone is going to be miserable. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Learning from Mistakes

When Bee, my oldest, was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, I bought a book called Word Ladders for grades 2-3.  You start with one word and then follow clues, changing one or two letters to make new words. 
 I thought they looked like fun word puzzles that would help Bee remember how to spell words and learn about the relationship between words.  So, I would print a page and have him do it, although I would offer help and encouragement as needed, and he would complain about how much he hated them.  

When we switched to All About Spelling as our spelling curriculum, I decided that was enough, and since he didn't like the Word Ladders, I would drop them.  

Now, Bug is in 1st grade.  I thought he might like the Word Ladders, so I bought him the one for grades 1-2.  However, I took a completely different approach with him.  At the end of our All About Spelling lesson, I said, "Now we're going to do a fun puzzle together!"  He did the puzzle, but I did the writing as dictated.  Bug LOVES them, and Bee asked me to get him the one for his level.  So, I am getting him the one for grades 4-6. 

When I first started homeschooling, I frequently couldn't "see the forest for the trees."  Bug and I might have had a lot of fun and learned through those Word Ladders, if I had simply offered to be his scribe.  But instead I insisted that he do it the way I would have done it in school, sitting with a pencil. 

I remember why I did this.  I was having a lot of trouble getting him to practice writing letters and numbers, so I was trying to squeeze every opportunity for him to practice.  In retrospect, it would have been better to do a little bit of handwriting practice each day, but not let his reluctance to write (which probably had something to do with his ADHD) interfere with other learning activities. 

When his new book comes, we will do them together, unless he asks to do them on his own.  These days, forming letters and numbers isn't such a big deal, and his handwriting is very legible.  He would still prefer to use a keyboard rather than write, but it isn't an obstacle. 

I don't want to beat myself up over my mistakes, since that is futile, but I did want to share what I have learned.  Poor oldest children; they teach us so much. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Our Homeschool Lesson Plan System

We have a very fluid lesson plan system that has evolved over time.  I have to say that I got a lot of ideas from Donna Young's website.  She has many good ideas about planning and setting yourself and your kids up for success. 

I once attended a conference session on homeschool organization run by a very nice lady who kept a very organized homeschool for her three daughters.  Before each school year starts, she plans the year in detail down to the assignment and the day, and they apparently stick to that plans until the school year is finished.  This conference session helped me not at all.  That is just not how we homeschool. 

I have general goals for the year for each boy.  I want them to be in a certain place in All About Spelling by the end of the school year, for instance.  There are certain things I'd like them to get through.  Mostly, I just want them progressing in their basic subjects at their own pace.  It is my belief that I could never predict accurately what that pace might be and do an entire year's worth of planning, down to each daily assignment.  They would be working instead at a pace that I had in mind for them. 

Our plans are constantly in flux.  They change depending on the weather, what activities are available, if a friend needs help, illness, mood, the children's interests, my interests, and the random things that pop up in life.  For instance, I had planned to be outdoors most of Monday, but we had torrential rains.  So, we did much more school work than I had originally planned. 

For me, a weekly plan is a general idea of what we will probably do that week.  I don't plan specific assignments.  I just write the book title down, and the kids do an assignment in it.  Bee generally goes in order with his books.  Bug is younger and so tends to skip around a lot more.  For his math books, I generally let him pick a page, and for handwriting he picks from printouts that I've put in a folder. The boys have to do a chore each morning, but they can pick from several things (take out trash or recycling, empty dishwasher, vacuum a room, tidy the entry hall). 

So, my planning system for the year, based on what has worked and not worked for me in the past, is to make a form with just about everything I might ask them to do in a day, jot down any activities or field trips we have, and circle the things I think we will have time to do.  In the morning, while I have my coffee, I use the planner as a guideline and give each boy a sticky note.  When they have everything crossed off, they can have their screen time privileges.  (Right now, we also have a prize bag in place, and they get a little treat when they finish school.)  I try to make sure that everything on the list is manageable for them--it's important that they not be overwhelmed.  It's important that they be able to get everything crossed off and that we all feel productive. 

Here is my weekly page: 

Obviously, the categories on it wouldn't really make sense to anyone but us.  There is enough room for me to jot down notes.  As I go through and circle what we will be doing that day, I can also print things or gather supplies for any craft or project I have planned.  I normally leave things pretty open though.  I may have planned a "Spanish Time" for us, but exactly what we do with that time will depend on what we all feel like doing at that particular time.  For instance, today Bug had a particular book that he wanted me to read to him (in Spanish) for Spanish time.  

It's pretty easy to make a table like this in any word processing program.  I didn't print off too many sheets at once, because I know I'll constantly be tweaking it, adding things and deleting things, maybe putting a little color in, etc.  

So that's what works for us!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Productivity and Organization Systems for Our Homeschool

I spent much of last weekend (in between folding laundry), trying to figure out what productivity tools I would use for the school year.  I had very much wanted to switch to a completely paperless system on my iTouch, but there are times when paper is still a lot more convenient, mostly because you can see more things at once. 

Here is my organizational plan so far. Some of these things have worked for me in the past, others are very similar to things that have worked for me in the past, and others are new. 

Non-electronic tools:
  • I have a binder with my lesson plans and daily to-do list  for myself.  I will make a separate post explaining that system. 
  • I can also put any papers or worksheets that we'll use that week in the binder.  (Our homeschool isn't worksheet heavy, but we do sometimes print fun pages off the Internet to do.)
  • Right now, I am storing my binder and all of their school books in a reusable grocery bag.  (Obviously, we don't have a lot of school books!)  This proved to be convenient last week when we needed to do some work out of the house. 
  • I need to buy a small composition book or journal to keep in my purse for random notes while I am out.  
Electronic tools on my iTouch:
  • Sunrise Calendar:  I have started using this free app on my iTouch to keep track of our appointments.  It syncs with Google calendar, and my husband can view it too.  The only thing I don't like about it is that I can't make changes to all events in a series.  I set it to remind me of all events 1 hour, 30 minutes, and 15 minutes in advance.  Very useful  for someone who loses track of time easily. 
  • Lesson Tracker:  I love this app and have really been keeping up with it in more detail than I had before.  It's so cool because it can easily convert my daily data entry into an attractive report than I can keep in my files.  I think the kids will feel proud of (and surprised by) all the hours that they spent on school at the end of the year.  I wrote a more extensive review of it several days ago.  
  • RE.minder:  This is a cool app that I can set to go off every minute to remind me to get ready for something.  I use it as an alarm clock, and it's especially good for any event that I think I might forget.  I especially like it for our Skype Spanish lessons because it's easy to get sidetracked and lose track of time at home.  
  • HomeRoutines:  I really like this app for keeping track of my daily and weekly routines, but I've not been too good about using it lately.  Hopefully, after we move, I'll find it easier to focus on the house.  
  • OurGroceries:  This is a great app.  My husband and I can sync it across our devices (it is compatible with Android and iOS), and it helps us to make shopping lists.  I much prefer it to a paper list.  
  • Paperless:  Another to-do list app.  I use it sometimes.  
If you have a recommendation for a productivity tool, be it electronic or not, feel free to post it in the comments!  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

In search of a new calendar/planner

Most families have to do a lot of complicated scheduling, and homeschool seems to add to that complexity in many cases. Scheduling is one of things that I struggle the most with.  I have a tendency to overschedule and double schedule.  One thing I have been working very hard on is choosing our activities carefully so that I don't have too much going on.  Even so, we do have 4 people in our family (and 2 pets) that I have to schedule around, and I'm always on the lookout for a tool that will help me to keep up with our schedule better. 

Here are two tools that I have found helpful in the past:

Cozi:  This is a great website that families can use to plan their schedules.  I have used it to inform my husband about our activities.  He didn't look at it too much, but at least when he expressed shock over me going scrapbooking all day the next day, I could tell him that, not only did I tell him about it verbally, but it had been on Cozi for the past month.  The e-mail reminders it sends were very useful for us.  From my laptop, it was really easy to enter events and set up email reminders.  The thing I like about it the least is the cost:  To use all the features, you have to pay for an annual plan, which is very expensive at $30/year.  Granted, it is similar in cost to buying one paper planner per year, but I'm not convinced that you can't get an app that is as good or better for much less money (and without an annual subscription).  I also prefer the PC/web version to the iOS app.  It does not always seem to work very well offline.  For instance, I wanted to put in a dentist appointment when I was at the dentist's office but I couldn't even access my calendar because the app didn't have me signed in.  I also find it annoying that I am constantly having to enter my password to log in from my laptop. 

PlannerPad:   This is the best paper planner that I have seen.  It has a great weekly view and to-do list system.  The problem is that I need to use the reminders on my iTouch, I need to share my calender with my husband somehow, my older son likes to have a printout of our schedule on the fridge, and all of those things require me to enter data in more than one place, which I really don't have time for.  Also, even the smaller-sized planner pads are bulky (for me) to carry around.  I prefer a small purse that I can over my shoulder at all times when I'm out (so that I don't lose it). I wish the PlannerPad people would make an app.  I can see how a paper planner works best for many people, but when you are having to sync schedules with multiple people, an electronic system has a lot of advantages.

So, I am on the lookout for a new calendar/to-do system. 

A lot of people are happy with the calendar that comes with their smartphone (or my case, iTouch because I use a dumbphone for my phone), but many find that those apps lack features.  I've been scouring the Internet, trying to find a suitable program.  There are a lot of options, both free and modestly priced.  I've used enough apps to know that sometimes the free or inexpensive ones are the best.  [As I wrote yesterday, I found that LessonTracker, which only costs $2 is the best homeschool record keeping system for me!]

I have found MANY app possibilities online.  It's pretty much overwhelming.  I am going to try some apps and see if if I can fine something that works okay for me! 

Homeschool Spanish Academy: A Review

There are tons of methods for learning Spanish and other foreign languages out there.  Most are bad.  A few are good.  If I had to recommend only one tool for learning Spanish it would be private lessons via Skype, and one company I can highly recommend is Homeschool Spanish Academy.

A little background on me:  I have wanted to learn Spanish all of my life.  I never really felt complete or fully educated only speaking one language (I took dead languages in college).  Finally, a few years ago, I realized that I needed to do it or it might never happen.  If I didn't act, I might die monolingual and unfulfilled!  I started with a lot of audio options and eventually started taking private lessons on Skype.  I took the kids to Panama for a month in 2013, where we each had private lessons and stayed with a Panamanian family.  I have continued taking private Spanish lessons online off and on over the months.  I am at a high intermediate level in Spanish and feel comfortable helping my kids with it.  Both of my kids can understand quite a bit of Spanish, know many words, and Bee can form simple sentences. 

Based on my understanding of the process of language acquisition as well as my personal experience learning Spanish, I recommend private lessons with a native speaker because interaction with a native (or near native) speaker in the language is THE KEY to learning. You get so much more for your learning with private lessons than you do for any sort of software package (which in my opinion are a waste of money--I'll write about that in another post).  You also get something even more valuable; your child gets the opportunity to know an individual from another culture. 

My son Bee, age 10, takes lessons from Homeschool Spanish Academy from a teacher in Guatemala.  He only did one lesson a a week last year, but a child who is a little more focused could easily do more than that.  This year he will be doing twice a week, and if he does well with that and we have time, I would love to add another day.  I have found the program to be very customizable and child friendly.  The prices are incredible for what you get, a highly educated, friendly native Spanish speaker to work with your child or children (they offer semi-private options as well as private). The lessons for the younger kids last 30 minutes, which is just the right amount of time. 

I would sign Bug up for lessons too, but he's feeling really shy about it, so I'm not going to push him... yet.  I do have plans to bribe him to get over his nervousness, but perhaps after he turns 7.  For now, I will just work with him on my own.  

I took a couple of months of lessons from Homeschool Spanish Academy myself, had lessons with 5 of the teachers, and was so impressed.  I recommend it for adults too. 

It's easy to sign up for lessons at the time you want, and you can choose your preferred teacher (from those available).  They have a number of different packages and a free trial lesson.  All the teachers do speak English, so the parent or child can communicate with the teacher in English if needed.  It's also great to have an option where you don't have to drive anywhere.  They have late afternoon and evening times for courses too, so it's an option for kids who are in traditional school, as well as kids who are homeschooled. 

We Americans tend to think that learning a language is difficult-to-impossible, because the approaches used in our classrooms typically don't work very well.  I would like everyone out there to know that it is very possible to learn a foreign language.  I learned Spanish in my 30's and am going to continue my studies.  I hope to try to learn Mandarin one day too.  I would encourage anyone of any age who wants to learn any language to take the approach of interaction with a human being who speaks the language, which is the way that our brains are wired to learn language. Going to another country and becoming completely immersed in the new language is the BEST way, but that's not usually practical or affordable, and I think that finding a teacher who can interact with you in the new language is extremely useful too.  The Internet has made finding a teacher so much easier!