Saturday, January 23, 2010

Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting (TOS Review)

Today, January 23rd, is National Handwriting Day.

Do you enjoy writing by hand?

We have been reviewing three products from Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting.

But let's go back for a minute to a turn-of-the-last-century couple named Bridges. Robert Bridges was a poet laureate. Mary Monica Waterhouse Bridges (otherwise known as M.M. Bridges) was an expert calligrapher who wrote A New Handwriting For Teachers. You can read some of her notes and see images from her book on the Ambleside Online website.

Charlotte Mason appreciated what "Mrs. Bridges" was trying to do in both simplifying and beautifying the handwriting that children were being taught:
"A 'New Handwriting.'--Some years ago I heard of a lady who was elaborating, by means of the study of old Italian and other manuscripts, a 'system of beautiful handwriting' which could be taught to children. I waited patiently, though not without some urgency, for the production of this new kind of 'copy-book.' The need for such an effort was very great, for the distinctly commonplace writing taught from existing copy-books, however painstaking and legible, cannot but have a rather vulgarising effect both on the writer and the reader of such manuscript. At last the lady, Mrs Robert Bridges, has succeeded in her tedious and difficult undertaking, and this book for teachers will enable them to teach their pupils a style of writing which is pleasant to acquire because it is beautiful to behold. It is surprising how quickly young children, even those already confirmed in 'ugly' writing, take to this 'new handwriting.'"--From Home Education (Volume 1) by Charlotte Mason, pages 236-238.
Although I know there are many styles and systems of handwriting out there, and that several of them have worked well for CM homeschoolers, this is the first one that has appealed to me enough to want to take it on with one of my children, and the first one I've seen that seems to have both the sense of "beauty" that Charlotte Mason wanted, along with an acceptably contemporary style. That may sound funny considering that the Barchowsky style is less "loopy" than even my school-taught cursive, but a simpler style can have its own gracefulness. And who's to say that every letter in a word has to be hooked up to every other letter? (The Barchowsky method suggests a break after every four or five letters, to increase legibility.) There are a lot of handwriting ideas that I've taken for granted ever since my own school days, but they're not necessarily the only way to do things.

Years ago, The Apprentice tried out an italic system of printing; her handwriting still shows the scuff marks of that battle. Since then the Squirrelings' copywork has been rendered in their version of Mama Squirrel's best "painstaking and legible" fifth-grade-style cursive. For actual handwriting instruction, we've used a very standard workbook series and some online freebies. Still, our results have been something short of "beautiful," especially outside of handwriting lessons.

But it was time to try again.

I have to say that Barchowsky isn't an open-the-book-and-teach program. And what makes it especially difficult to start a whole new handwriting system is that most of us already write some other form of cursive--so when you're first checking out the program, you're having to retrain your own brain as well as figure out what your student is going to do. At first it seems that there are no set lessons--it's designed that way so that it can be useful to students of all ages and be used at your own pace, which makes it flexible but a bit confusing at first. The teacher has to do some homework ahead of time; but there are ways to get started without too much pain--see below.
We received all three Barchowsky products, and at first I wasn't sure what to do with the BIG package of wipe-off practice sheets. (They're coated so you can use them with a wipe-off marker.) My youngest is in the third grade, after all. But one of last year's Review Crew mentioned that she had used them with an eight-year-old, so I decided to give them a try along with the main program. We use the suggested little chants (things like "down, bounce up, down, bounce up") to get the feel of the letters, and we're just working through them, one per lesson. (We're a bit beyond the suggested cornmeal and shaving cream activities, but they'd be helpful with younger ones.)

This manual is the key to the whole program--especially the CD-Rom included in the back of the book (one each for Windows and Mac). The theory of the program is all in the manual; but the worksheets--a great variety of them, some of them customizable--are on the CD-Rom, and we've been combining those with the large Beginners sheets. There are also brief videos of students' hands--both right and left handed--writing, holding pencils, etc., along with comments about what they're doing correctly and what could be improved. The book itself contains lots of ideas and examples for continuing handwriting practice, which will probably make more sense once you've gotten started. You can also order a download of the font itself, which would allow you to make your own worksheets.
So although you'd have to buy both the Beginners and the main package to get this combination, I think it's a good option if you have a mid-elementary-age child AND you need a kickstart to begin teaching with the program. Younger children would probably be fine with just the big sheets--you do get a helpful little teacher's guide with them, and I've been using that more than I have the main book.

We also received the "adult" or "remedial" package, Fix It Write. The Apprentice had been asking me if I could find her something that would help her write her high school notes faster and clearer, and this sounded like a good possibility. Between end-of-semester exams and everything else lately, she hasn't had much time to do more than look through the package; I think I'm going to have to write a separate review for that one. She did comment that she also would have liked to see more reproducible pages instead of instructions to draw lines so-far-apart on paper and then practice patterns on those. I told her that there were probably some sheets she could print out from the CD-Rom that would make it easier--but again, this is going to have to wait until chemistry and physics are done. UPDATE: there's a special Fix It Write site with sample pages and some interesting animation.
The price of all this: BFH Fluent Handwriting Manual with CD-ROM (the main package) is US$65.95. Beginners' Handwriting with Teacher's Guide (the booklet I mentioned) is $29.95. An extra set of large sheets, sold only with the purchase of a complete Beginner's set, is $20.00. (One comment--I don't understand the reasoning behind that. If our sheets were worn out after one child and I wanted to buy another set a couple of years down the road, why couldn't I buy just the sheets?) Barchowsky Exemplar Fonts (Download) are $25.00. Fix It... Write (the adult program) is $19.95.
Final Take: I'm happy we got to try this--this seems to be the year of improving our spelling, improving our handwriting. I wish Crayons would have had the chance to start it a couple of years ago, but since she is still only partway through learning the "regular" cursive letters, I don't think she'll have a problem trying to relearn some of them--and in fact, the hard ones are the ones that Barchowsky simplifies (like lower-case S). I'm not sure how I feel about the price--it sounds high, but it's probably comparable to other complete programs out there.

Dewey's Disclaimer: These products were received free for purposes of review. No other payment was made. The opinions expressed in this review are our own.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

JUMP Math Scores Again

We posted before about John Mighton and his JUMP Math program, back in 2007.

It's not a program we're currently using, although I was very impressed with the downloadable Fractions unit that we tried out at that time. It seemed like a great way to teach kids whose math anxiety makes them shut down before they've even really looked at the problems. They're sure that they won't be able to do whatever it is, but then you show them that, on the first page of a lesson, all they have to do is identify which subtraction problems would need regrouping. Oh--okay. I can do that. Then you build up, step by step. Ponytails also used some JUMP materials last year (when she was at public school) and liked them.

The Globe and Mail ran a good article this past weekend about JUMP. The contrast between a public school teacher's idea of a good problem and the JUMP approach is almost scary:
"[The] curriculum co-ordinator....says research shows that the best way to help kids understand a concept is to come up with a rich, conceptual problem that everyone in the class can help solve.

"Last year, for example, she visited the class of a primary-school teacher who had noticed that all the kids were wearing odd socks. The teacher came up with the concept of a sock factory, and the kids all brought in socks. Each child was given a different number of socks and their task, as a group, was to find a strategy that would combine them."
Teachers get rewarded for coming up with that stuff. It's like that teacher's magazine example Mary Pride used in Schoolproof about suggesting that the teacher find a great big pair of shoes (colourful if possible) and having the children measure feet to see who might fit them, write stories about the shoes, and so on. As Mary pointed out, what the children learned from that experience was probably not worth the trouble of finding the big shoes.

But you know what? I don't even understand that task, as it's described there. Much less what it has to do with primary-school math. Or why all the kids were wearing odd socks--is that a fashion thing, or is that neighbourhood so impoverished that we had better start paying as much attention to underclothed schoolchildren as we do to their math learning?

Contrast that with one of John Mighton's classes:
"Every hand in the class shoots up. The number 121,252 is not divisible by nine, one student tells him, and the remainder will be four.

"'You are brilliant,' he tells them. 'You are all brilliant.'"
Mama Squirrel's take: I would rather be brilliant in John Mighton's class than fool around with strategies of socks.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My mind, my acorn pile: Trying out Math Mammoth

The third (final) year of Miquon Math is always the hardest here--and it doesn't seem to matter exactly how old the Squirreling is. Possibly it's the year with the oddest assortment of topics, coming at an age when more typical third-grade math programs concentrate most on operations (along with some time-telling, money and measurement). As I described earlier in the year, I broke down the year's work by weeks and topics, wrote each week's work on a file card, and added notes of possible supplements. It hasn't been bad--we're on track with the cards, and the Mathemagic book is a real success--but I've still been feeling that, even with computer drill games and Calculadder work, there are still some holes in Crayons' math understanding. Not that anybody needs to panic at this age, but I get the impression from her too that math lessons are somewhat less than delightful. I wonder too if, in one sense, she really does know what she thinks she doesn't know, simply because it's not all straight in her head. I think that's what made All About Spelling a success over the past couple of months: she needed to gain some confidence but also to organize some of the knowledge she had stored up so that she could pull it out and use it. It might be that Timmy-Tiptoes part of being a Squirrel: dropping those nuts down deep through the hole in the tree, but not being sure exactly what went down there, or how you're going to get them out again later.

And besides, I know that, one way or another, we're going to be looking for another curriculum for fourth grade and up, because Miquon will be done. There are so many things out there to try now: Math-U-See, Right Start, Life of Fred, Saxon, JUMP, Mathematics Enhancement Programme--everybody has their favourites.

So when the Review Crew offered us the chance to try out one of Math Mammoth's full-curriculum workbooks, that didn't sound like a bad thing at all. We decided to go with MM's Light Blue series for third grade--starting today with an addition review.

This isn't a review yet, but there will be one when we have shaken up the acorns enough.

Friday, January 08, 2010

What I like about homeschooling (and a thought on instant potatoes)

What I like about homeschooling: that you can CHANGE things if you need to.

It's Friday, we've had a full week, and since I planned out the term's work by days instead of dates, Day 5's work will keep till Monday. This morning we're only going to do math (Ponytails has a DVD lesson to watch, Crayons is doing a placement test) and get ready for this afternoon's co-op. Mama Squirrel has volunteered to do music and a quick craft with the littlest ones, and the Squirrelings will be doing gym and other things with the kids their own ages.

(What's the craft? Take six large, sparkly, star-shaped beads, and seven translucent pony beads. String them on a pipe cleaner and twist the ends together. If you're three years old, leave it at that. If you're old enough, pinch the pipe cleaner in six places, where you put the big beads, to make the points of a snowflake. Use for singing snowflake songs, or hang in the window.)

We're also supposed to be tackling Mount Laundry and putting the rest of the Christmas decorations away (this morning in the Treehouse, not at co-op), but the morning is already going by fast. There was snow to shovel today too.

What's for supper? A pound of stew meat, the end of a bottle of barbecue sauce, and a package of mushrooms. Frozen french fries if we get home early enough, instant mashed potatoes if we don't. (There is only one brand of instant mashed potatoes that I like: Idahoan. It actually tastes like potatoes. I've tried a few others since we temporarily had trouble finding Idahoan, and now I understand why nobody likes instant potatoes. I didn't get paid to say that, it's just one squirrel's opinion.)

Monday, January 04, 2010

We are still here

Deep in school. Deep in cold (you can hear things snapping; the main consolation is it's too cold to snow much). Deep in getting some other real-life small responsibilities ironed out.

Book most recently finished: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (borrowed from Grandpa Squirrel). Not for kids (lots of horrors of war), but otherwise awesome--how could I not like a book revolving around Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia? If you liked 84, Charing Cross Road, you will like this, maybe even more.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

What's for supper?

Homemade beef-vegetable soup; Sesame Seed Bread; cheese, fruit, this and that.

I'm not that troubled

Trying to save money in the kitchen this month?

Here are some yummy menu suggestions from Thrift for troubled times, published by the National Training School for Cookery (Great Britain); London, England: W. Clowes, 1917. Available online at the Human Ecology Collection.