Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Giving the Iowa Test of Basic Skills

For three days this week, I am giving Bee (5th grade) and Bug (1st grade) the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  We do not actually have to do this to satisfy state requirements, but we had to show proof of progress in Virginia, and so I was used to having the end of year test.  However, in Virginia I always had someone give an individual test to Bee, and Bug was too young to test.  In Georgia, they only need to be tested once every three years, beginning in the 3rd grade. 

We are relaxed, eclectic homeschoolers, and so it feels strange to me to willingly test my children.  However, I have several reasons for doing so:
  • To see how my children are doing in comparison to children who attend traditional schools.  I need to know if there are any major holes that I might need to address.
  • To give the children practice and confidence taking tests.  We don't really do tests in our homeschool, so I feel like it's probably not a bad idea to take one once per year.  I know that one day they will probably be in some sort of class situation that requires them to take tests, so I want them to feel familiar with it.  
  • To see how they take "bubble tests."  I have been particularly interested to see how Bee (who has ADHD) does with the bubble test.  I was worried that he might have trouble filling in bubbles in the right row.  I feel like it is important to know if he has trouble with this type of test.  He does not seem to, so that is good.  I was also concerned about the test being timed, but that has not been a problem for him. 
  • To force myself to go over things I might have let slide a little bit, mainly English grammar.  Having the test coming up forces me to get to things that never seem quite so important. 
  • To have proof of progress, should our homeschool ever be "investigated."  The majority of our learning comes through natural life experiences, and it is a challenge for me to maintain documenting it, day after day, week after week, month after month.  It just seems to me the simplest way to demonstrate that I'm doing my job.  
  • Similar to above, when family members or others ask me how I know that my children are learning, I can just casually say that they take a standardized test each year.  For some reason, this satisfies them and ends the discussion.   
  • They have to be tested every three years.  I feel like they will do better if they get some practice tests on the other years.  
  • We never know what life has in store for us.  In case of some sort of illness or tragedy where I could not continue homeschooling, I like to know that my children could place into their correct grade level should they have to go to school.  

So far, I think the Iowa is an okay but flawed test.  I'm not overwhelmingly impressed with it.  The drawings in the first grade level have been confusing for Bug, who can't always tell what they pictures represent.  Some of the items in them are old-fashioned enough as to be barely recognizable to a homeschooled child in 2015 who is not used to doing worksheets.  They are more what I remember from worksheets and tests when I was in school. I found the "listening" portion to test a lot more than listening. 

It has made me realize how glad I am that my children basically spend 100% of their school time learning rather than taking tests.  It's kind of a vacation for me, because giving the test is easy.  All I have to do is set the time and answer any questions they have about the test (I am very careful not to help them with any content).  We did a bare minimum of test prep for Bee and basically none for Bug. 

For Bee, I had him take some the practice tests for language and math in the Spectrum Test Prep book.  He did very well on those.  I also had him do some paragraph editing and some pages from his 6th Grade Math Minutes book in the couple of weeks leading up to the test.  I didn't mind having him do these things because I felt they were beneficial anyway.  We didn't work specifically on any test taking strategies. 

I don't see myself giving this test at home next year, and next year is a year that Bee will have to be tested.  I wouldn't mind giving it again, although I might consider trying the TerraNova test, but we will have a year-old baby in the house, and I'm not sure how it would work.  I could always give it on the weekends when my husband can take care of the baby.  I'm also curious about the PASS test, which was designed for homeschoolers, 3rd grade and up. 

Our coop gives the Iowa to 3rd and up, so I could use them for Bee, which would give him an experience of testing in a group setting, and do something else for Bug, who won't be able to test there for another year. 

Other options for testing might be having the tester we used in Virginia come to my house to test both boys, since she has family to visit in our state.  However, I'm not sure that option would be cost effective unless I could get other people to sign up as well to cover the travel fee.  I could look harder for a local individual tester (the only one I have found here gives the Stanford, which is expensive). 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tentative Planning for 2015-2016

I guess I'm a little early, but we are really wrapping up our year.  With a baby coming in May (scheduled c-section), we will be ending the school year the week before she arrives.  I'll have to think up a name for her to use on the blog, but I think I need to get to know her first.  For now, she'll just be "Baby."

Anyway, I feel the need to plan for next year now before I'm back in the newborn stage!  

Here are my tentative plans for 2015-2016:

Bee (6th grade!!!!):

English:
  • Continue All About Spelling, Level 5 and hopefully complete Level 6.  This will put us on track to graduate from AAS in the 7th grade.  However, I've decided not to stress about it.  If Bee has to finish up AAS in the 8th grade, does it really matter?  [He would be farther in the program, but we started it late in the 3rd grade, and long trips and an interstate move have slowed us down a bit.]
  • Tutoring:  Continue working with his tutor at WriteGuide. This takes so much pressure off of me! 
  • Booklist:  Consider having him pick a book from a list of classic age-appropriate books to read or listen to each month, in addition to books he selects on his own.  
  • Paragraph editing:  Edit 2-3 paragraphs per week from a 6th grade book called Daily Paragraph Editing. 
  • Handwriting:  He has progressed so much in this area; I am really pleased about it.  I will be getting him another book, and he can continue his work on cursive.  My only concern with print at this point is that he reverses his "z's."  He may need some extra "z" practice. 
  • Word Ladders:  We may do some puzzle from our Word Ladders book.  I need to get these printed in advance.  
  • Try doing some work from a book called Grammar Minutes? 
Math:
  • Life of Fred:  He will be doing Decimals and Percents, which I technically planned to do this past school year, but it did not work out. We will also plan on doing Pre-Algebra with Physics.  That should be enough, and he can do the other pre-algebras next year.  A part of me wants to push him ahead, but honestly, unless he badly wants to (which he does not), I don't see any reason for him to start algebra before the 8th grade.  I did algebra in the 8th grade; my mathematician husband did algebra in 8th grade--why do I get this urge to push Bee ahead sometimes? 
  • Additional Arithmetic Practice:   He may need to do some extra long division and multiplication work.  I need to get organized with that either this spring or summer, so that I have a little binder all set up for him to work in. 
  • Seventh Grade Math Minutes:  We have worked in this series of books a little each year.  I think each year Bee has completed around 25% of the book.  I think they are excellent test prep.  They also show me any obvious areas of weakness and expose him to problems maybe written in a different way than he is used to (like dots and parentheses for multiplication).   Mostly, they reassure me that he is progressing and that he can do problems similar to what kids in schools are doing.  He generally finds them pretty easy, which is good for his confidence, and because each worksheet is so short with a lot of variety, he does not mind doing them.  Last year, we mixed them in throughout the year, but this year we are just using them for the month of April.  
  • Stock Market Game:  Bee has asked to sign up for a class where he will be on a team that participates in this event.  He is very excited about it, and I think and hope it will be a good experience for him and a chance to learn about finance. 
Science:
  • FLL Team:  Assuming he is invited to join, this will be one aspect of his science education.  
  • Life of Fred Physics:  This will be another building block.  
  • Crash Course Chemistry?  Bee really liked the Crash Course World History, so I think this might be a good supplement.  
  • Science Graphic Novels:  I have been meaning to buy a bunch of these to have around the house anyway.  
  • Science Kit:  Have Bee pick out a science kit, based on what sounds interesting to him, so that he's doing something hands on. 
  • Finishing up his Minecraft Mod course, if he doesn't finish it this summer.   
Social Studies:
  • Crash Course US History on Youtube. 
  • Continue our comparative history study of biased history.   This will work well in combination with the Crash Course. 
  • Novels:  Maybe have him pick out a historical novel each month, or perhaps just one or two a semester.  
  • Graphic Novels:  Provide him with graphic novels on US history.  
  • Find a geography game where he can memorize states and capitals? 
PE:
  • Biking, scootering, skateboarding, hiking, playing at the park.  
  • I want something structured too, like swim team or tennis lessons or even homeschool PE at the Y.  

The Arts:
  • Woodworking:  He is signed up for a class and is very excited about it.  
  • Piano lessons: Continue.   
  • Art Class: Plan to do a homeschool art class at the local museum.  

Spanish:
  • Continue lessons with Homeschool Spanish Academy 3-4 times per week.  Worth every penny. 
  • Add more Spanish to our home.  Speak more Spanish to the boys, read more Spanish, play more Spanish games. 
Bug (2nd Grade--my soon-to-be middle baby is so big!):

English:
  • All About Spelling, Level 3
  • Writing Class:  Bug is going to be trying out a class at our coop.  I am hoping this will be a good experience for him and take some pressure off of me.  He is not impressed with me for signing him up for this. 
  • Let Bug continue reading whatever he likes.  Right now that is mostly comic books.  
  • Look for some complex picture books that he would enjoy me reading to him. 
  • Paragraph editing:  Edit 2-3 paragraphs per week from a 2nd grade book called Daily Paragraph Editing. 
  • Handwriting:  I think we are going to try Handwriting without Tears (for grade 1).  Handwriting has not been a strength for either of my boys.  I feel like I have not done enough to make it fun, but it is kind of inherently boring.  It's just not been a huge priority. 
  • Word Ladders: Print lots of these in advance.  Bug enjoys them. 
  • Try doing some work from a book called Grammar Minutes? 
Math:
  • Life of Fred:  I would tentatively like to get through the first 4-5 books.  
  • Multiplication practice.  This may be in the form of Timez Attack, or we may do worksheets.  Probably try Timez Attack, and if he doesn't want to do it, look into other computer programs or just print worksheets.  Bug knows a lot of his facts already, and I just want to keep solidifying them.  
  • Fun workbook pages and logic problems.  Bug likes his book called Math for the Gifted Child.  I buy it at B&N or Amazon, and it has a lot of fun problems.  We just skip around in it.  
  • Math Minutes, Grade 3.  Just like for Bee, doing some of these pages helps me to see that he is learning the same sorts of things that children in schools are learning. 

Science:
  • Bug is signed up for two weekly science courses that last the entire year, one on earth science and one on biology.  He is not happy with me over this and said something about how I was making him go to medical school.  However, my experience with him has been that he really enjoys classes once he gets into them. 
  •  Magic School Bus science kits.  Honestly, the classes he is taking should be "enough" science, but I think we will do some of the kits too because Bug is so curious about the world, enjoys science activities so much, and they are a fun thing that we can do together.  He is still at the age when he just wants to spend as much time with mom as possible.  I really like these kits because he can do them almost independently (so I just have to sit there and interact with him), and nearly all supplies are provided (except for a few really common household or food items).  This seems like a good thing to do with the baby in hand. 

Social Studies:
  • Continue reading to him from the "If you Lived" series.  
  • Look into some geography activities good for his age related to US History. 
  • See if I can find some fun US History crafts that are easy to prepare and that I can get ready before the school year starts. 


PE:
  • Biking, scootering, skateboarding, hiking, playing at the park.  
  • I want something structured too, like swim team or tennis lessons or even homeschool PE at the Y.  

The Arts:
  • Art Class: Plan to do a homeschool art class at the local museum.   
  • Increase our music listening and music history.  

Spanish: 
  • Add more Spanish to our home.  Speak more Spanish to the boys, read more Spanish, play more Spanish games.  
  • I would like for Bug to take lessons on Skype through Homeschool Spanish Academy, but he is really shy about the idea. 

Shopping List:
  • Handwriting without Tears for Bug.  
  • D'Nelian workbook for Bee.  
  • Science Graphic Novels.  
  • Life of Fred Pre-Algebra Physics, Biology, and Economics (I already have Decimals & Percents)
  • Grammar Minutes, Grades 2 and 6
  • Paragraph Editing, Grades 2 and 6
  • More Spanish books to read to the children. 

To-Do List:  
  • Create binders for each boy with worksheets and other handout/types of things.  Or perhaps create one binder for me and give them their worksheets on clipboards. 
  • Copy Word ladders for each boy.  
  • Print long multiplication and long division worksheets for Bee.  
  • Come up with booklists for Bee in the areas of classic literature and US history.  
  • Figure out an organized physical activity for the boys to join.  
  • Make a binder for my records that I'm supposed to keep "on file" in my home, including test results and annual progress reports.  I think I will organize these by school year. I will also have a separate section for copies of vaccine records for each child, just because I think it's something that should be required. 
  • Really do some soul searching and preparation for Spanish this spring and summer, so that I can add more Spanish to our daily life as well as include some formal lessons.  I really want to do better with this.  Maybe I need to make Spanish our top priority for a while. 
Our baby will be only a little over 2 months old when school starts!   I am going to have to figure out how to homeschool with a tiny one in the home! 



Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Is All About Spelling Overkill?

As I've written before, I am in love with the program All About Spelling.  (I am just a customer of theirs and am not affiliated with them in any way.)  I've often heard that people use it with their child who has trouble with spelling but that it is "overkill" for their children who are more natural spellers. 

Everyone has a right to their own opinion, of course, but I have one child who really needs the systemic and rules-based approach of All About Spelling and another who has an excellent visual memory for words and would probably be okay with any spelling program (and could get by in life without a formal study of spelling).  I use the program for both of them, and absolutely do not consider it "overkill" for my natural speller.

I had no problems spelling as a child.  I picked up a lot of words from reading and didn't have trouble with my spelling tests.  There are a few words I struggle to remember as an adult (who doesn't with our crazy English language?), but I would consider myself a better speller than most adults.  I have a bachelor's degree in English and Classics.  Even with all of this, I have learned a lot about how the English language works on a phonetic level from All About Spelling!  That is why I can't imagine that it is "overkill" for any child. 

There are a vast amount of phrases, sentences, and "extra" words that can be spelled in the program.  I think this is what confuses people.  Everything in the program is optional.  I don't waste my children's time on words that they already know.  I will often offer a pretest before beginning a step for words that I think they may already understand how to spell.  These go directly into "mastered" and are not reviewed. 

My 5th grader does 5 of the sentences per step.  My 1st grader has been writing 6 phrases per step.  I customize the program constantly in order to meet their needs.  If they miss a word in their sentences/phrases, I'll make a word card for it so that it can be reviewed again. 

What I like about the program is that it can be gone through very slowly and extensively or very quickly, depending on the needs of my child.  We spend around 15-20 minutes/day on All About Spelling, and normally take three days per step, but sometimes I will go down to 2 days for an easy step, and even 1 day if my child already knows how to spell all (or nearly all) of the words.  My youngest, who is a natural speller, wanted to start the program when he was very young (5?), but he did not have the attention span at the time to spend very long on a step, and it might take us 5-10 sessions to get through a step. 

Certainly, one spelling program is not going to meet every child's needs, but I think that natural spellers can benefit from the program just as much as struggling spellers.  I know I have benefited! 

Finding a non-horrible way to teach grammar

Testing time is rolling around again.  Both Bee and Bug will be taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at the end of the month, and testing time reminds me to cover things that I might need to be spending more time on. 

One of those things is English grammar.  As a first grader, Bug knows a little bit about punctuation at the end of a sentence and some very basic capitalization.  In my opinion, that is plenty for a 7-year-old.  Bee, on the other hand, is in the 5th grade, and is expected to know quite a bit more. 

I got a book to review grammar with him (Spectrum Language Arts, Grade 5), and I decided to day that I despise it.  It has errors, and the writers do not appear to understand what a clause or a complex sentence is.  So, we won't be using that.  I found some daily paragraph editing to try, and we're going to edit a few paragraphs a day until the test. 

I thought back on the way I learned grammar.  At my private school, we used a textbook, diagrammed sentences, and learned a lot of terminology.  We did a lot of exercises.  I found it extremely easy, probably because I was a voracious reader and have a love of the way that language works.  I also think that taking Latin was helpful.  Some of my classmates did fine with this approach, and others never seemed to get it at all.  I was probably the only person in my class who had what could be called a passion for grammar. 

I thought about seeking out a textbook to use with Bee, but, honestly, the thought of getting a grammar textbook and doing daily grammar exercises with Bee does not sound appealing.  He might die of boredom.  I also keep reading that students who study grammar using a traditional approach don't, on the average, end up any better at it than those who do not study it at all.  I'm not sure I completely believe this, but my experience as a peer tutor in our college writing center taught me that a large number of people, even those from good high schools and colleges, have very low level grammar skills.  

So, I am using a Daily Paragraph Editing book by Evan Moore (out of print but available on Amazon).  Bee and I started today, and we're going to do a few paragraphs a day together until test time.  Next year, I may make fit it into our weekly routine and get an age-appropriate book for Bug as well.  It seems a little more organic, somehow, fixing someone else's paragraphs, than just doing exercises.  Bee seems to be catching on fast, and I think he likes marking other people's errors.  (I know I do!) 

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.