Monday, March 26, 2007

The women's circle

Before there were blogs and lists, there were women's magazines.

Before there was e-mail, there were round-robin pen-pal groups, often started in women's magazines.

Before there were online auctions, there were pages--in women's magazines--where you could beg, plead and whine for that 1972 pattern that had gotten misplaced. And without fail, generous housewives would reach into their stashes of patterns and send you one. I once begged, pleaded and whined (nicely) for any old Betsy McCall paper dolls (from McCalls magazine) that people might have gathering dust--and I received several. I also got grocery coupons, postcards from Georgia, and a recipe we still make called "Doreen Perry's cookies."

Do I wish we could go back to the way we did things fifteen years ago? No, not really. The stamps were costing a fortune and the round-robin letter was always getting sidetracked...or at best, it was so slow that by the time it came back around to you with news about the upcoming summer vacation, it was already Christmas.

But I still remember the very, very nice ladies that I connected with through the pen-pal pages. I remember the first time one of them "defected" and said she was going to do her pen-palling online. I remember writing to young moms who were much like me, and to a few older ladies who just sounded interesting. One of them turned out to be the mother of the best man at our wedding.

The connecting these days is more immediate. We're not used to having to wait days or weeks to find out what happened! We can find a great-grandfather's brother's name or the last line of a poem within a few minutes.

But women haven't changed. We still look for ways to connect with each other, encourage each other, pray for each other. And send advice, and cookie recipes.

Doreen Perry's Cookies

2/3 cup shortening (or butter or margarine)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt (my note: coarse salt works well)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup walnuts or sunflower seeds, 1/2 cup raisins (all optional)
1 cup cornflakes, slightly crushed and added at the last (or bran flakes or Rice Krispies--we like Rice Krispies)
1 cup chocolate chips (not in the original recipe but we add them instead of the nuts and raisins)

Combine shortening/margarine and sugar, add egg and vanilla and then dry ingredients, adding oats and extras last. Push from a spoon onto ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 8-10 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove while still warm.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What did you do at school today?

We had a picture study lesson that was kind of a transition lesson: we've been studying Constable and we're going to be starting Monet, so I read about both of them from Hillyer and Huey's Young People's Story of Fine Art: The Last Two Hundred Years. (Basically the same as Hillyer's art book.) The book talks about the problem of making something in a painting bright enough to look realistic, like trees; painters before Constable used to make their trees brown, but Constable managed to make them green by using little dabs of different colours; and that's why he was an influence on Monet and the impressionists, both in the "dab" technique and because of his interest in light and the brightness of things. We looked at a Monet calendar I have and also some prints-on-canvas I got from Hampstead House; I held them up close and then from across the room so the girls could see the difference. The prints aren't great, but you could still get the effects; "The bridge at Argenteuil" was wonderful with all its reflections in the water.

It was a good lesson because it felt like we were all discovering something together, and because it linked something we knew about (Constable) with something new.

Besides that...we finished "Les Biscuits," a story in our French book about a greedy girl who grabs a handful of dog biscuits instead of chocolate cookies from the kitchen shelf; a chapter of Sajo and the Beaver People (we're almost done, the beaver is about to be rescued); and some geography, about faults in the earth. Ponytails worked on multiplying 3 digits times 2 digits, and played a game of Math Munchers on the computer. Crayons did a Miquon math page. And there was an ongoing game of paper dolls. (Math Munchers can be seen here, but I think there's a pop-up; our system blocked it.) Oh, also Ponytails is reading The Secret Garden to herself, and Crayons is busy with a bunch of old Ladybug magazines.

The Apprentice and I did some of her geography in the evening as well: we finished reading a Canadian Geographic article about David Keith, a Canadian environmental researcher who is also involved in public policy. Real people doing real things.

How was your day?

Cooking without recipes

Real actual Treehouse dinners this week:

Tuesday: The Apprentice was getting ready to go make pizza at her church youth leader's house ("Girls' night out"), so she didn't need much dinner. I thawed a couple of chicken breasts and baked them with salsa spread on top (that's the whole recipe), cut them in smaller pieces, and we had them rolled in tortillas with cheese and other taco toppings. We had a salad made out of romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and sliced mushrooms. Although our supermarket was a disaster area last Saturday (don't even ask how long we stood in the checkout line), they did have raspberries, but we somehow forgot to eat them, so those were dessert.

Wednesday: I put about half a bag of frozen hash browns in an eight-cup casserole and it was pretty much full (so maybe 6 or 7 cups?). I mixed in a can of mushroom soup, enough milk to moisten it and a bit of margarine, plus a bit of grated cheese left over from last night, and then the remains of the baked chicken, chopped up on top. I put the lid on and baked that for about an hour, and it was pretty good. Since there was really only a bit of chicken left, I cooked bacon along with it, and I put a butternut squash in the oven as well. And we had the leftover salad. Probably too fatty/starchy (BACON with that? how Grandma), but it was good comfort-type food.

Thursday: oh, that's today. This is Ponytails' help-in-the-kitchen day and I think we're going to make lasagna rollups, the same way that the DHM's guest Unblogger posted about. Just because we have two part-boxes of lasagna noodles and a container of ricotta cheese that want to be used up--and the rest we can improvise.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Science and the rest (Part Five)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four)

Those are the science topics, and that's a good place to point out that although this curriculum may be based mainly on books, that doesn't mean that it's not hands-on or interesting. So far I've mentioned social studies/nature field trips, math games, and drawing activities embedded in language lessons; now we can also add science activities, mostly from the Science For Fun Experiments book but drawn from the others as well, including making a pop-bottle insect feeder, a juice-can waterscope, cardboard-tube noisemakers, a magnetic racing game, a drinking-straw hydrometer, a cardboard spinning top, a papier-mache bowl, and "plastic milk." If you have very active children, you can "add action" to many other kinds of lessons as well (as the speaker at a support group meeting recently reminded us), incorporating balls, Nerf guns, and even swords into math and spelling drills.


Because a yo-yo book (Splitting the Atom) was part of the shopping bag, I thought it would work nicely to buy a $3 yo-yo and learn some yo-yo tricks, if that was something that interested the student. Splitting the Atom is a bit on the advanced side, but an interested parent might be able to help an elementary student get started. I thought about what you could learn from a yo-yo (it's very much like a pendulum) and did a search for "science with yo-yos" and "yo-yo physics." Ta-da: Teaching Science with a Yo-Yo (by some smart people at Ball State University) contains four or five yo-yo physics lessons you can print out. I knew I'd found something good when I saw this comment in Lesson One: "You are already beginning to think like a scientist."


Another book in the bag was Chalk Around the Block, which provides instructions for a variety of hopscotch games as well as marble-shooting, and other games which you could play with a chalked-in outline such as Nine Mens' Morris. (Maybe on an unfinished basement floor if it's too cold to play outside?)

A book called Nursery Rhymes and Songs looked a little too young at first for a third grader, but I found several songs in it that aren't too babyish--actually enough to slot in a new one almost every couple of weeks.

The how-to-draw-animal books have been mentioned already; two are very simple ones and one is more advanced. There are the word search puzzle books. And then there's that Veggie Tales colouring book (smile).


All right, I'm finally getting to this. One Saturday The Apprentice and I took the bus downtown and stopped at the thrift shop again. For a total of $2.75, I brought home another bag of books to add to the two-trip curriculum; my notes on each book are in brackets. (Can you see already why I picked these out?)

The Christmas Secret, by Joan Lexau (a 48-page novel about a Puerto Rican boy in New York) (Perfect age, perfect length, and perfect extra reading for December since we didn't have any holiday books yet.)

Bedtime Bible Stories, published by Kappa Books (All right, it's not Catherine Vos! But if you want to do something beyond the New Testament studies, this includes Old Testament stories, and it's in nice big print although some of the vocabulary might be daunting for a third grader to read independently. This would also be very helpful for the last four weeks of language studies, when I had wanted to do something based on Bible stories.)

The Rat-Catcher's Son
, by Carolyn London (This is a popular Sonlight Curriculum title published by SIM; and strangely enough, this is the second book of Nigerian folktales I found within a month. However, these are told from an emphatically Christian perspective; so they could be added to or mixed with the stories from The Dancing Palm Tree.)

Gage Mathematics Assessment Activities 3B
(Bad title, useful book written as a series of "challenges" for students. Activities include choosing board games (from a catalogue) with a certain amount of money and so that everyone in your family can play a game; folding a box from a pattern; finding your way on a neighbourhood map; and finding diagonal patterns on a hundred chart. Some activities are too classroom-oriented or are just time-wasters, but I figured about 18 to 20 of the 30 or so activities would be workable and worthwhile, and that gives you one every other week. Not bad for a quarter!)

Thomas Alva Edison, Miracle Maker and The Story of Thomas Alva Edison, Inventor: The Wizard of Menlo Park. (Two elementary-level biographies, so take your pick. Biography! Thinking like a scientist! Nurturing curiosity!)

A free booklet of activities to help parents encourage reading (Pretty basic stuff: visit the library, find creative times to read together, give books for gifts, have the child predict the ending of a story...)

The Story of Creation and Adam & Eve Story, Coloring, Game & Activity Book (Unused! Maybe something to go with the Old Testament stories if you're using them, or just something to play with. This includes paper animals, people and scenery to colour, cut out and prop up.)

You Can Yo-Yo (Less intimidating for third graders than Splitting the Atom.)

Beyond the Paw-paw Trees, by Palmer Brown (A lot of the readers and read-alouds seem a bit boy-oriented; this book is more of a girl story. Side note here: I didn't realize that this book, even in paperback, seems to be a bit of a rarity. I haven't decided how to deal with that yet! Might be that my frugal curriculum could end up paying me instead of the other way around!)

Getting to Know Nature's Children: Deer/Rabbits (What it sounds like: elementary-level text, not the most compelling I've ever read but it's simply written and nicely photographed.)

Breakthroughs in Science
, by Isaac Asimov (This is the only book out of the bag that I probably wouldn't use with a third grader--the vocabulary is pretty advanced unless you have a real junior Edison--but I'm including it in the list just to show what a variety of books you can come across when you're hunting.)


Have I gone on too long about an imaginary curriculum that nobody's really going to use? Remember the original reason for this? I've been able to blather on in this much detail about a bunch of books that cost $4.50 plus $4 plus $2.75 (if you count the third trip): $11.25 Canadian. [Oops! I forgot the four books I "fudged" with, and I know they were more like a dollar or two apiece (some booksales don't have such good bargains), so let's add $5 for those.] Plus whatever you pay for the two teacher resources: as much as $20 used, so let's say we're up to $35 [with the four extras]. If you count school supplies in your budget, let's add another $20 at the dollar store for notebooks, glue etc.: $55. And a yo-yo--be generous again and say $5 with tax, so $60. The China study (completely optional) would add another $20 or so, and A Child's Geography would be $10; so maybe $70. Extra supplies such as magnets or better art supplies would be on top of that; you could end up spending a whole hundred dollars for school, maybe. (Not including field trips and computer printouts, obviously.)

But the cost of the basic books is still under $12 [plus the four extras--still under $20]. If I can find them, you can find them; maybe not in one or two trips, but over time. Usually you have to be a bit more patient than I was; you might keep finding easy readers when you're teaching a sixth-grader. (We dropped in on the end of a rummage sale this weekend and found one set of Beethoven records, a pair of earrings, a baggie of belt buckles, and a Mini-steck mosaic toy, but not one worthwhile book at all.) But if you have friends, you can look for each other, and share and trade books too. My best advice is, look for good authors that don't age too fast (the books, not the authors).

As a final note of irony, the only "adult" book I picked up on the original thrift shop trip was Ronald J. Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. We are rich. Let's model careful use of resources in the ways we do, or don't, spend homeschool dollars; and we can learn as much from that as our children do from our school lessons.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Science (Part Four)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five)

While we're on the subject of social studies, there are some books that cross over between social studies, literature, and sometimes even science: folk tales, myths, and biographies. They sometimes get pushed to the side if they don't fit neatly under one heading, but that doesn't make them unimportant. So far this curriculum isn't too strong on any of those, except for the Nigerian folk tales and a biography of Johnny Appleseed; but it would be something to keep in mind if you were looking for ways to strengthen this year's work.


There were several science resources in the thrift shop/rummage sale shopping bags; some of them were quite interesting and I posted about them previously. The biggest issue in using some of those vintage books wasn't just that they were too old, but that they were "too old"--meaning they'd be better for the 10+ age range. I thought about whether or not it would be fair to "fudge" once again and add a couple of books I'd found on previous trips.

I decided--hey, this is my curriculum and I will fudge if I want to. This poor brave homeschooler is already putting lots of creativity into English, math and social studies; let's make science as easy as possible.

Using the general theme of Research Ideas for Young Scientists (but keeping that book more for parent inspiration), I think the title of the year's curriculum should be How to Think Like a Scientist. In fact, that's the name of a terrific book by Stephen P. Kramer that you can probably find at the library, and if you don't mind "super-fudging," it would be a good book to use at the beginning of the school year. The thrift shop/rummage sale books are The Story of Sound, by James Geralton (heavy on text rather than experiments), Everyday Weather and How It Works, by Herman Schneider, Research Ideas for Young Scientists, by George Barr, Insects Indoors and Out (short chapters about various insects) by Hortense Roberta Roberts, and a butterfly colouring book. (There's also the informal nature study that's part of the social studies work, and there were some nature-related word search puzzles in the puzzle books.) The two books I added look too nice to be yard-sale finds, but I did get them last summer at a used-book sale (upstairs at a supermarket--sometimes books come in strange places). One of them is Science for Fun Experiments, by Gary Gibson--a fat softcover full of experiments on various topics, very kid-friendly. The other one is The Kids' Canadian Bug Book, a bit of a visual addition to Insects Indoors and Out.

The concession I made in using Science for Fun Experiments (hereafter to be known as S4Fun) was that I wouldn't include topics that required more than everyday materials; that ruled out the magnet and electricity units unless you happened to have those things on hand. However, there were still lots of things left to do in the book. (One thing I really like about S4Fun is that every experiment has a small "Further Ideas" box to encourage curiosity.)

So here are the year's topics, just as a demonstration of what could be done. Some weeks I've used more than one book.

How to Think Like a Scientist (library book), 1 week

Shape & Strength, 1 week

Materials (what things are made of), 1 week

Story of Sound plus experiments from S4Fun, 4 weeks

Floating and Sinking, 3 weeks

Weather book, 4 weeks

Kid's Bug Book, 4 weeks

Yo-Yo Science, 4 weeks (free printout from the Internet)

Bug Book and Insects book, 4 weeks

Weather book, 4 weeks

Magnets unit, 5 weeks (If you can’t get magnets, you could do the Pushing and Pulling unit instead.)

(This only comes out to 35 weeks, if I counted right, but that's okay.)

The last of these posts will cover the extras (and where that yo-yo science thing came from), and I'll explain how my additional thrift shop trip rounded things out.

In defense of snowmen, or why we're probably not moving yet

Recently the Squirrels have been looking carefully at a townhouse condo. These units are quite a few years old but the one we were looking at is still quite attractive although it needs some updates and repairs. It seemed like a good home for some home-loving Squirrels (even though there's no place for the ping-pong table).

Until last night when Mr. Fixit got the bright idea to call the property management people and settle some burning questions we had about what it's actually like to live there.

Well, the lady said, although it's not designated for seniors, it's always been marketed to seniors. And the residents are very fussy about keeping the rules, written and unwritten.

How fussy?

Well, they call her if someone plants the wrong colour of geraniums.


And there's one family there with children. During the last snowfall they built a snowman. Somebody called her about it.

To say how nice that was?

No, to complain that it was on the common area.



We don't keep Rottweilers, we don't have a band practicing in our garage, and we aren't planning on growing pot in the basement. But we still feel like we might be the cause of alarm for some of these poor people who don't have anything better to do than peek out the windows and worry about potential snowmen.

So it looks like we stay put for now...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Math and More (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five)

Since I was talking about Ruth Beechick’s booklet An Easy Start in Arithmetic, I should have mentioned as well that its last page is “Ways to Use the Hundred Chart,” and there is a small hundred chart on the back cover (in addition to the poster-size one that’s included with the booklets). Hundred charts are a great way to enrich a math program without doing worksheets; in fact, we did a whole year of kindergarten math for Ponytails without any written work at all. There’s something about those ten rows of ten that not only helps with counting, adding and subtracting, but reinforces place value ideas as well, especially when kids learn the trick of adding or subtracting tens (go up or down a row) . When they’ve learned that, then adding fourteen becomes “add ten” (go down a row) and then “four more” (four spaces to the right), without any fuss about “carrying the one.” And the nice thing about hundred charts is that they can be useful in any size: tiny (like the one on the booklet), bigger (a handwritten chart or a page-sized printout from the Web—Donna Young’s site has printable hundred charts), or really big. We have a poster-size hundred chart from the teacher’s store and also one that we made on poster board with detachable (Velcro) number disks.

Bible Lessons

For many people, Bible is as much a part of a basic curriculum as reading and math. I could assume that most people have a Bible around and that they could make up a simple program of reading Bible stories to their children, as parents have done for hundreds of years. However, since I was trying to stick to the books in the shopping bag, I was limited to a paperback copy of “The Great News: The New Testament, New International Version.” This actually works out fine, although for a third-grader it might have been nice to have slightly larger print. The bonus about this edition of the New Testament is that it comes with a 71-lesson “Reading Plan to Get You Started” in the front, which works out to just about two lessons per week (maybe reading on one day and reviewing or notebooking on the next). This goes beyond the simplest stories; it starts with “Who is Jesus?” and goes on to “What is Christianity All About,” “What is Real Faith,” “How Does God Want His People to Treat Others,” and “What Stories Did Jesus Tell?” I like this approach because it’s a bit of a change from just reading straight through one of the Gospels, and it lends itself to keeping a notebook as well. I might even use this myself next year with Ponytails.

History, Geography and/or Social Studies

The lack of history resources in the bag might make this the weakest part of the curriculum, although that would be pretty easy to fix using online or library books. However—sticking to the bag and the teaching resources—I decided to try something different. Teaching Children includes both a “regular” Social Studies outline and an “alternate” one for grades three through six, written by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. In the alternate outline, third graders spend a lot of the year exploring what’s around them; not in a dumbed-down “Mr. Neighbourhood Policeman” approach, but in an inter-disciplinary program that combines local and comparative geography, local history, natural history, and what you might call cultural anthropology and sociology. In other words, they find out where they live, who lives there, and what’s around them. John Holt once suggested something like this too; someone asked him how he would tutor a boy who lived in an unusual natural environment, and he pointed out that it would be foolish not to take full advantage of every bit of local exploring, beach-digging and museum-lurking that they could squeeze in—that this would benefit the boy in ways that his book lessons never could.

It’s also suggested that the third graders “adopt” a missionary family or project and learn more about the country involved, correspond with the family and so on.

Of course this doesn’t come all ready-packaged for you, and in some ways it may sound like the vaguest part of the curriculum—go out together, do field trips, find out the names of the roads and the trees and the early settlers, and keep a scrapbook. Some of us might think we could cover our entire local area in one or two trips; others of us would immediately worry about how little we ourselves know about local birds, pond life, railroads and so on! As I said, you might not like this idea at all and then you’d have to fill in with other history and geography books. However, I do think it is suitable for children of about third-grade level who aren’t too interested yet in names-and-dates history (plus it would make a great ongoing activity for Friday afternoons). Can I tell you a funny story about this kind of exploring approach to social studies? A long time ago (I think The Apprentice was in the second grade), I read the book Who Killed Canadian History? by Jack Granatstein. Since the book dealt mostly with the weaknesses in secondary- and post-secondary-level education, I e-mailed the author to ask if he had any recommendations for teaching the elementary grades. Mr. Granatstein graciously wrote back and said he didn’t know a lot about teaching second graders but that his recommendation would be “Forts. Visit forts.” So there you have it.

As for the missionary/other countries side of the curriculum: I thought of three possibilities for this. One came out of the Child of China book that is included for literature; I found a unit study of Ancient China, by Judy Wilcox, written for homeschoolers, that’s meant to take twelve weeks and which sounds like a great addition to the last part of the year’s curriculum. Of course you have to buy that first (grin). Or you could buy the e-text A Child’s Geography, Volume Two: Exploring the Holy Land, which covers several Middle Eastern countries.

Or you could just go with whatever resources you know best: missionaries or organizations you know yourself or that your church supports.

How does that sound?

In the next post I'll talk about science and finish off with some extras.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Language and math (Part 2)

(Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five)

Language Arts, continued

So just to summarize what the language arts/reader part of the curriculum looks like: the readers are The Three Dollar Mule, The Sword in the Tree, King of the Wind, and Johnny Appleseed, about two chapters a week over 30 weeks. The last few weeks don't have readers scheduled. The language work usually goes in three-week segments (so you could still be working on a reader but doing something else for language): The Three Dollar Mule, Nigerian folktales (The Dancing Palm Tree), The Sword in the Tree, two Bible lessons (around Christmas), King of the Wind, letter writing, poetry, two weeks of insect lessons, Johnny Appleseed, choice of The Old Nurse's Stocking Basket or The Peterkin Papers, some newspaper lessons, and a Bible unit. If that sounds like an old Learning Language Arts Through Literature book, it's no coincidence: LLATL was developed from Ruth Beechick's theories and based on the skills for each grade listed in her booklets and in Teaching Children. Now you know.

One more point about the difference between the readers and the readalouds: if I were teaching this, I would concentrate narration efforts on the readalouds since they're generally more challenging. The readers could be used in any way that suits you: the student could read them aloud to you, or just to him/herself, and for some children that might be enough; or you could invent some way of following up on them (other than the language lessons). Just don't turn them into a page of questions: "Where did Don find the mule? Why did he buy the mule? What did his father say?" :-&


The only math books in the original shopping bags (I did find something else later on) were two slightly-used Golden Step-Ahead workbooks, one for Addition and Subtraction Grades 2-3, and one Skillbuilders book for Grade 4. I didn't start with the workbooks, though; I took a piece of paper, wrote the numbers 1-36 down one side (the number of weeks in a typical school year), and looked at the Mathematics sequence in Teaching Children. (My Beechick Arithmetic booklet (which has some excellent math activities in it, whereas Teaching Children has only the list of skills) had temporarily disappeared.) The list of typical skills is pretty reasonable: number awareness, emphasis on addition and subtraction, some multiplication and a bit of division, some fractions; plus a few extra topics like geometry and graphing. So beside the numbers, I started writing in topics. Beside the first few weeks, I wrote "skip counting" and "read/write numerals and number words." A few weeks down, I started adding in "addition/subtraction review" and "place value activities." By week 15 I was up to "Time review" and "more subtraction work"; by week 30 I was writing "Rounding off (review), money problems, multiplication." If I wrote the same topic for several weeks, I would skip a couple of weeks and pencil in some review; then again a couple of weeks after that; and probably once more somewhere along the line. Again, I was just thinking "typical" in plugging in these topics; some third graders might be able to jump in further along the line, not need any time review and so on; that's fine.

So then to the workbooks. With the first few pages of the Addition/Subtraction book filled in, I figured on using it starting in Week 5; whatever pages corresponded to my topics, I wrote into the schedule. Pages 6, 8, 10, 11 were a simple review; they went into Week 5. Addition with regrouping was already planned for week 10; pages 21-23 of the workbook were about addition with regrouping. (Workbooks, even cheap ones, usually make this easy for you by putting the topics somewhere on each page, or at least in a table of contents.) The first workbook covered about the first two-thirds of the year; during the last third, I used the second workbook, but only the pages that I thought were most appropriate for a third grader (The Easy Ones).

And for the rest of the activities? Because I was deliberately limiting this to the chosen resources, I tried not to include games or activities that I had learned elsewhere, unless they were commonly known anyway. Some things you just have to teach or practice (no worksheets required): you practice skip counting, you practice writing numbers, you practice math facts. To make things more fun, you can think up games: there's one good one called "The Greatest Number" in Ruth Beechick's Arithmetic, listed under Second Grade (it helps to read the whole booklet!). Briefly, you take turns turning number cards over (most third graders could handle three cards, maybe four), make the biggest number you can with them (if you turn over 4, 5, 6, 7, you can make 7654); whoever makes the biggest number gets a point, ten points wins the game. (It works best if you have a whole pile of cards--Dutch Blitz cards work well.) Painless place value/reading numbers practice.

Ruth Beechick also suggests making up word problems out of "paper that comes into your life": receipts, advertisements, bills.

Some people might feel this is enough math already: a few worksheets a week plus oral and hands-on activities (if you're still feeling hesitant about that, read through Ruth Beechick's booklet: it's very reassuring). For the extra topics, I had planned on fudging just a bit by using Janice Van Cleave's Math for Every Kid, which I really did get for a quarter a few months ago; I wasn't entirely happy about that, though, because I've been using it with my fourth grader this year and she finds it pretty challenging. But on my "extra trip" at the end, I did find something more grade-appropriate to supplement with (okay, I'm still teasing you--but I don't want to wander into that yet).

Again, a kind of disclaimer on my part here: if you can find a textbook or some other math program you like (we use Miquon in the primary grades), then go with it: there is no special reason you should try to teach math with only a couple of used workbooks, and it's definitely more work making sure you've covered everything and finding ways to do that and keep it interesting (although the teacher tools do help a lot). But if you find yourself stuck with less-than-perfect materials, take this as reassurance that you can still cover what needs to be done.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Language arts and a thrift-shop curriculum

(Slightly edited in 2018)

How did I come up with a year's curriculum, anyway? What does it look like? Would anybody use it? The last question is the easiest: nobody could, unless you had every book on the list, and that's not the point. The process here is much more important than the product.

What I came up with isn't necessarily a Charlotte Mason curriculum; that needs to be clear. I wasn't writing it for someone who's well versed in CM or who's ready to explore some of the online e-texts that can also make up a great almost-free curriculum. (It would have been too easy just to say that you should go look at AmblesideOnline.) I think it's more like an amalgam of Sonlight Curriculum and Ruth Beechick. It's supposed to be something that could keep you going, even if you were homeschooling for the first time. I try to point out in the workshop that with a few more books around (hopefully a library) or a bit more time, you could easily enrich what I have here; in fact, I did make one more thrift shop trip and I'm going to talk about that at the end.

This is how I put it together:

The first thrifting trip was made mostly for fun and with our own needs in mind; by the time I went to the rummage sale, I was looking more for the workshop. I didn't bother picking up the easiest of easy-reader books, but I did notice that there were several short chapter books, especially among the Scholastic titles: The Secret Hideout, Enemies of the Secret Hideout, The Three Dollar Mule, Casey the Utterly Impossible Horse, The Sword in the Tree, and Johnny Appleseed. There were also a few picture books, some of which might still be of interest to the third grader I was starting to envision. Some of these books I chose as "readers," and some I just kept for free reading or bedtime stories.

There were only a few books I felt really measured up to the best standard for school read-alouds, and on a couple of those I bent a little in favour of interest (I remember how much our fourth-grade class loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). I zeroed in on Charlie, The Old Nurse's Stocking Basket, The Peterkin Papers, The Dancing Palm Tree and Child of China, but there was still something missing. So I fudged on one literature book and added The Secret Garden, and also a book of poems; poems are usually easy to find, but these trips didn't yield any.

And at this point we have to talk about language arts and also the two teaching resources I'm drawing from--since the language arts work is drawn from them. I'm not assuming that my hypothetical homeschooling parent (even if it's me ;-)) can figure out everything that needs to be taught off the top of her head. Having at least one scope-and-sequence around is helpful when you're setting goals for the year, and books with activities to meet those goals are also helpful. I chose Ruth Beechick's set of three "3 R's" booklets: one each for Language, Reading and Math, and Diane Lopez's book Teaching Children. [Note: Mott Media re-released the three booklets as one, called The Three R's.] I did not choose Teaching Children because I thought it was the best Charlotte Mason book ever written; it's very classroomish in some ways, and it's not at all helpful as far as recommending easily-accessible resources (other than classic literature). However, Teaching Children does have a good Social Studies section, which might make it worthwhile as a resource for this particular year (more on that later); and if you got it for that reason, you could use it for its math and English breakdowns as well as for some hints on nature walks and other subject areas.

Ruth Beechick's booklets (and her book You CAN Teach Your Child Successfully for older children) have always been one of the best bargains out there; and this isn't meant to be a commercial! There are a few how-to-homeschool books that I've hung onto all these years and never regret buying; those are among them. In a few pages, you can get a pretty good picture of what a third grader might be doing in math; and in a few pages more, you get sample language lessons (the kind you can make up yourself, drawing from any suitable books), Bible copywork, spelling suggestions, and more. If you buy the package of booklets new,  I think you still get a poster-sized hundred chart with them. But the other reason I chose the Beechick and Lopez resources is that you can very easily get them used, usually from other homeschoolers, if cost is an issue. New, I think they'd total about $30. (If you had to pay full pop on those, consider that it's still less than the cost of a homeschool conference where you'd get to hear both of these ladies plus Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, the other contributor to Teaching Children.)

OK--so our bargain-hunting homeschooler has gotten hold of these books and wants to apply them to her stash of reading books. It's easier to show than explain, so here are three sample language lessons based on Ruth Beechick's A Strong Start in Language, Clyde Robert Bulla's The Three Dollar Mule, and (just for fun) the how-to-draw-animals books from the rummage sale. Each of these lessons is meant to be done over at least three days.

Sample Lessons

Week 1 (Read chapters 1 & 2)

From page 12: "Ben Gold was eating grass near the pasture gate. He was a slim horse, with long, slim legs. His color was bay--a light brown that looked gold in the sun."

Copy out these sentences in your best writing. Why is "Ben Gold" capitalized? Why isn't "horse" capitalized? What are some synonyms for "slim?" Why do you think Clyde Robert Bulla chose "slim" and not one of the other words? Try out Ed Emberley's horse lesson and the horse in the How to Draw Animals book. Compare these with Carol Wilde's illustrations of Ben Gold. Which one do you like best? --Write the whole passage from dictation.

Week 2 (Read chapters 3 & 4)

From page 29: "'We've always been proud of the animals on our ranch,' said Father. 'All the cattle come from the best stock. Even our chickens and ducks and geese are from the best stock we can buy. Do you think our ranch is any place for a three-dollar mule?'"

What is the plural of goose? Find three other animal plurals in the passage. (What is the difference between "cows" and "cattle?") Make a list of some other animal plurals and mark the ones that don't end with "s." Copy this passage and/or write it from dictation.

Why did Father say this to Don? What would you say if you were Don?

Bonus: Now that you can draw a horse, can you draw a mule too? (Look at the illustrations in the book.)

Week 3 (Read chapters 5 & 6)

From page 39: "'Mules do sometimes,' said Don. 'It's like a rooster crowing in the morning.' 'I don't mind a rooster, but that mule is something else,' said Father, 'and you'd better do something about him!'"

Copy this passage. (Watch out for the quotation marks!)

Find the two words that start with "some." Make a list of more words that start the same way. Study them for spelling and then ask someone to test you on them.

Why is Father capitalized? Is the word "father" always capitalized? What are some other words that work the same way?

Bonus question: why do roosters crow in the morning?


Along with the third-grade goals and activities described in Teaching Children and A Strong Start in Language, our homeschooler could make use of Bible passages, the rummage-sale dictionary (looking up words that start with certain combinations of letters (like "some" in the lesson above), and practicing alphabetizing skills); the word-search puzzle books (they can also be used for spelling lists); and everyday "paper" like newspapers and phone books. This may seem odd to people who consider grammar and creative writing texts to be standard even in primary grades; but consider the value of copywork, personalized spelling, narration (having the child tell episodes back orally, in writing, or using creative alternatives), and reading/writing across the curriculum. The goal of "language arts" is to increase the child's facility in language, and that can be broken down into areas such as reading, writing, oral and listening skills. All these areas can be well covered by Ruth Beechick's "powerful natural method" of increasing language awareness, and CM-style narration.

So here's a hundred dollar (or maybe a three-dollar) question, and I'm asking it seriously: is this much harder than pulling language lessons from a pre-fab language textbook, even for a fairly new homeschooler? Is this very different from buying a booklet of comprehension questions to go with a novel? Besides the cost advantage, making up your own work is very flexible; if your child already knows all about plurals, you can choose another passage and work on something else. You can stress comprehension where I've focused more on mechanics here; you can draw in Bible passages too, if that's your style. Again I need to stress that you'll need to invest in some teacher tools if you want to teach this way; but once you've learned how to handle your tools, you can use them to build anything you want.

(Part 2, Part 3)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A song or a sermon

Did you ever have a fight with something you were writing? I've been having a terrible time with this post; it wants to get away from me and I keep trying to whip it around to what I thought I wanted it to say. I'm not sure who's winning.

These are side thoughts on the workshop I'm writing; it's the things that I don't have time to say and some strange places that "a shopping bag of stuff" is taking me.

Although the workshop is mostly about using "pre-cycled" materials as part (or all) of your homeschool curriculum, the first part is about planning and goal setting--which is much the same whether you order school materials straight from a textbook publisher or create your own from yard-saled stuff. Although homeschoolers love to talk curriculum, it's only one side of teaching; what you have isn't always as important as what you do with it or why you're doing it.

To prove my point on that, I put together a genuine, not rigged, collection of stuff from a real-life rummage sale and a trip to the thrift shop--all found within one month. (40 or so books; these particular trips didn't yield many other kinds of things.) I've now proved to myself that it's perfectly possible--with a bit of luck--to come up with a quite acceptable year's curriculum for a very minimal amount of money. I'm convinced that if I found myself away from the computer, away from our wonderful library system, and even away from my own patiently-collected thousand or so books, I could easily start teaching all over again and we'd be fine.

Which brings me to the real point (and this is the place where things start to escape in all different directions, so there really does need to be a point): the problem of teaching children in North America is not usually (for most of us, unless we're living in some isolated, poverty-stricken community) needing to scrounge enough school materials to work with. It's making sense of and appreciating what we already have; narrowing down, cutting out clutter in goal setting, in materials and in educational activities; realizing that "success" doesn't depend entirely on the financial investment you are able to make; and continuing to marvel that there is so much out there already. Our culture is wealthy beyond belief; we're as overloaded with resources and information as Nick Butterworth's camel who couldn't fit through the gate. That's the problem.

If you don't believe me, think about this very hard: I was able to go out in a couple of short trips and create a decent year's curriculum out of stuff that people had discarded. Yes, I seem to have an peculiar talent for that, just as some people can go out and decorate a bathroom beautifully with castoffs, but the point is that the materials are there, and there is so much surplus that we're able to discard them, overlook them; these are the dregs. We have so much, we can't even see what we have. I feel a bit like the Mexicans who hammer Christmas ornaments out of tin cans.

Am I trying to propose wonderful solutions? Recommend that everyone buy all their homeschool books at rummage sales? No...although I think we do worship a bit too often at the altar of new and shiny. Rather...I would like to see more homeschool resources that help us make better use of what we already have. I would like us to be more confident and more resourceful about finding good materials, rather than worrying that something isn't on anybody else's booklist. I would like us as a society (not just homeschoolers) to be less wasteful, and I don't mean about bottles and cans. We ignore what's right there--feeling we need special reading books and packaged science units or the kids just can't learn. Didn't we learn anything from Schoolhouse Rock? Maybe it's time for our own version of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

A bit of vintage fun

I thought the DHM (and others) might enjoy this post about vintage fluff novels posted on The Thrift Shop Romantic.

(And now you know exactly what Charlotte Mason had in mind when she said, "But there is perhaps danger lest the habits of the nursery and schoolroom should lapse in the case of older boys and girls. It is easy to get into the way of lounging in an arm-chair with a novel in the intervals between engagements which are, in fact, amusements.")