Planning, Part 3: Subjects

Science: AO Y3 has some nature study readings (Pagoo and Secrets of the Woods) and then some science options, one of which I don’t care for the writing style of and one of which isn’t readily available. So I plan to continue with the next stage after Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, Elementary Science Education. It just got here in the mail last week and I have started flipping through it. It looks really good, but really challenging–at least for the teacher. Plus, I’m going to need some equipment, most significantly a proper microscope and a triple beam scale, which aren’t cheap but should last us several years. I’m a little intimidated. I’m also not sure how to plan, or how to make sure it actually happens. It slid off too easily or got shortchanged last year. But there’s some really cool stuff in here. We will also need to start keeping notebooks, which means–sigh–more writing for Deux. That AND I want to make Nature Notebooks a weekly thing this year. (We did do many more entries this year than the year before. And this can be an independent activity.)

History: Duchess wants to do her own timeline. I think I’m going to get a small notebook and have her use it just for the time period covered during this school year. I’ll probably need to get one for Deux, too, even if he doesn’t put much in it. I am not certain whether I want to read history out loud or have them read it to themselves. And if they do read it to themselves, how do I provide the appropriate introductions and preparation? The trouble is, the history reads are usually relatively easy to read independently, but they do need context.

History Biographies: For the first term I will have Duchess read the biography of Da Vinci by Hahn, which is fairly lengthy. Deux will read the shorter one by Diane Stanley. In the second term, I’m going to have Deux read the biography of Sir Walter Raleigh recommended for Year 3.5 and Duchess read both Bard of Avon and Good Queen Bess. I haven’t decided what to do for the third term yet–I may have them both read The Landing of the Pilgrims or I may have Deux read Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims by Bulla.

Geography: An idea I want to try is having them trace their own map of Asia to fill in. I’m going to do one map for the whole year to which they will add the journeys of Marco Polo, plus the weekly blank map to learn to fill in the modern countries. I got the Komroff Marco Polo, which looks good, but I have to schedule it myself–there are only 26 chapters, so I might intersperse with some activities from Marco Polo for Kids, which I will probably just get from the library.

Math: I’m still planning to do MEP–I think it’s the best fit for where they are now. What I really want to do long-term is now the Art of Problem Solving, but they don’t have anything between 3d grade and pre-algebra. (And I don’t care that much for the younger level stuff, anyway.) That means switching curriculum again in a couple of years. Which, of course, is supposed to be bad. However, I think I have good reason for the choices at each stage, and I’m willing and able to help them bridge any gaps. I’m still dreading the writing issue with Deux.

Languages: I still have to order this, but I’m excited to try using a Spanish curriculum based on the Gouin series. I’m hoping it will help them make the jump from being familiar with the sounds of Spanish to actually *using* it. For Duchess, I’m going to have her try Mango for French–we can get it free through the library.

Art and Music: I’ve changed from the AO 2013-14 selections to ones from various years that will correspond with our current timeframe. Other than that, I think we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not fancy, but it begins an acquaintance.

Twins: I’m making a list of books to work through, not on any particular schedule, though generally rotating through: the “Among the ____ People” books, a book of fairy and folk tales, the “Twin” books.  I’ll try to read a few appropriate history tales when the older kids are doing something similar, and not give up picture books entirely. I’m not going to schedule reading lessons in advance, because I really have no idea how quickly they’ll progress, but we’ll start with doing word building (maybe in some cool little notebooks) and then add in actual CM-style reading lessons when they seem ready. I don’t think I’ll plan math as part of school–I will continue using the recommendations from The Arithmetic Primer, but as part of ordinary life. I also want to work on a calendar of firsts with them. They will continue to participate informally in memory work and in art and composer and nature study. I would like to look through Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding and make notes of specific areas I want to be sure to discuss with them this year–they are asking lots of good questions on their own. Having worked through it once more formally with the older kids, I think I’m doing better at simply integrating it into their own observations rather than making formal lessons out of it.

Gaining Steam

In the interests of finishing all our readings by late June, we have picked up the pace to three readings a day. This is allowing us to do a weeks’ worth of work in three days (we only do memory work and copywork on Wednesdays) and shorten our school year by a few weeks. So far, it doesn’t seem too burdensome. I’m trying to walk the fine line where we are challenged enough but don’t feel like we’re stuffing things in faster than we can absorb them. We are still done by noon every day, though, with plenty of time in the afternoons for enjoying some glorious summer-like weather.

Duchess is thrilled to be studying Joan of Arc for this term. She is something of a “girl power” student. I’m fascinated to finally make some sense of the Hundred-Years’ War, and seeing the Middle Ages fade into the modern era. (On my own, I’m reading The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone.)

We had the chance to get a guided tour of some local tidepools this past week. Unfortunately we were all still a little woozy after a stomach bug and we didn’t last very long, but we did see some amazing creatures–sea anemones by the thousands, snails and snail eggs and nests, crabs and isopods, and sea cauliflower.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to switch over to MEP math next year–I have been wanting to switch to a modern program eventually, and I think Deux is ready to handle a worksheet’s worth of math. I’m still a little uncertain on placement–Year 4 looks pretty challenging and has a lot of writing and in general a more mature feel, but at the same time Year 3 would be mostly review. What I’m trying is doing the last month of Year 3 in this last month of school–if it goes well, I’ll feel confident that Year 4 will be the right fit for next fall. There will be some transition for the parts that have not been emphasized in what we have been doing (e.g. certain types of puzzles, translating mental math into symbols) but their basic understanding of math seems well up to it. (If all goes well with the twins, I will probably do The Arithmetic Primer with them and start MEP in Year 3.)

The oldest two have been doing a lot more reading–Duchess likes to keep twenty books going at once. Deux seems to be doing a lot of Narnia.

We have grandparents coming next weekend, but I don’t plan to have that stop school. It works well for the twins to spend time with them in the morning, and the older two in the afternoon. Similarly, for DOB’s birthday he took the day off work and spent time with each child in turn–we just did school while the twins had their turns, and then the big kids had theirs.

Ten Reasons We Are Loving Using Ambleside Online

After finishing our first term with Ambleside Online and deciding to stick to it as our guide for the foreseeable future, I felt inspired to write down the reasons I am so pleased with it. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. It’s not tied to reading or writing ability level.

Someone pointed out once that the parent of a child who’s a late reader and the parent of a child who’s an early reader have the exact same problem: most K-2nd curriculum is going to be completely inappropriate, because it’s all built around Learning To Read. Ambleside Online isn’t. If your child can read to themselves, great, but it’s really meant to be read aloud for the first few years. Not every 6 year old is ready to learn to read yet, and some have been reading for years. But I have yet to meet a healthy six or seven-year-old who wasn’t ready to have their mind awakened by great ideas in wonderful stories. Year 1 has proven equally appropriate for Duchess (7.5), who fills pages with exquisite handwriting in her free time, and Deux (6), who can read well but still struggles to remember how to form lower case letters, and I know kids who aren’t reading independently yet but love it, too. Reading and writing are dealt with separately, but the high literary quality of the stories means that whenever the child does learn to read (which takes so much less time if done when ready), they’ll have the rich vocabulary and understanding to handle higher level materials, instead of being held at basal reader material for years. There’s no reason why a six-year-old’s active mind should be limited by their inexperienced eyes.

2. It’s free.

Now, we did spend a bit of money buying a few books that we just couldn’t do without, but between electronic files and using our great library, even the cost of buying books has been very low–special effort has been made so that most of the books are fairly easy to find and/or public domain. (Many of the out-of-print ones are still quite common at libraries, so before you gasp at the second-hand price, check your library.) The curriculum plans themselves are free, and that includes a weekly schedule for the core subjects, resources for art, music, folksong, and hymn study, and lots of stuff people design and volunteer to supplement (like printer-ready files of all the art works to be studied each term, or Grooveshark playlists of the composer selections). And the money we are spending is mostly on books I want to own forever anyway.

3. It includes a lot of English History.

I know, this is the one that people love to hate. Why all this ancient and English history? I’m not going to offer an apologetic for it (though I do think it makes sense for anywhere in the Anglo-speaking world). I’m just going to say: my kids think English history is awesome. This is all the fault of Robin Hood.

4. It takes things slowly.

This is a big difference between Ambleside and almost every curriculum out there: you read the books really, really slowly. A chapter a week in the books you move through quickly. Some it’s once a month. This gives time for the stories to sink in, for the children to take the ideas and live with them. Good books, like love, should be taken easy.

5. The books are the master.

Titania rests, attended by her fairy court.

Most curricula the Plan is the master: Children need to study X, Y, and Z, and if we can find a good book on it great, if not, soldier on with something mediocre. Ambleside doesn’t settle for less than well-written, engaging literature in every subject and at every level. That means some topics might be skipped for now, if there’s just not a good book on the topic for that age. But you know what? You can’t study everything all the time. Better to concentrate on the best books. (Which is not to say that everyone will find every book delightful. But so far we’ve been very happy with them.)

6. It’s Christian without being preachy or prudish.

Both my husband and I were homeschooled in a curriculum that specialized in being both. Although we appreciated being homeschooled, we decided that was not the route we wanted to take. (Just this morning DOB was reminiscing about the lengthy chapter trying to establish that the Magi were astronomers not astrologers. Sorry, no.) Ambleside recommends regular, thorough Bible reading, and includes some books from a religious perspective, but it also includes secular science books and plenty of fairy tales, mythology, and other nurturing food for the imagination that is too often discounted by a certain brand of Christian homeschooler. Our folk song for this month is Carrickfergus, which includes the line, “For I’m drunk today, and I’m seldom sober . . . ” Let’s just say that would never have made it into the list when we were kids. (OK, nothing but hymns did. But the great thing with Ambleside is, we’re still learning the hymns, too.)

There are users of Ambleside from other faiths, too–you would probably want to modify slightly (obviously drop or replace the hymn and Bible study), but most of the books have a very broad


7. There’s a variety of voices.

This ties into the previous two points, but deserves its own. Textbooks pretty much all read the same. Many unit-study type curricula have a lot of writing from the author that introduces or holds together the main points. It’s monotonous and mind-deadening to always be reading the same voice. In Ambleside, there are only the books, and they are all different. Kipling doesn’t sound anything like Burgess, nor Holling like D’Aulaire. We learn how different authors play with language; we see things from new perspectives. (Yes, there’s a prejudice towards Western Civilization. What can I say? It’s in English. Obviously if you were teaching in Chinese you’d have a different set of resources. I also think there’s something far more honest about teaching a child about his own heritage first rather than this shallow pretense of multi-culturalism. You can better understand other people’s love for their own ways if you have something deeper in your heart than the current TV shows.)

8. It’s only as complicated as you want it to be.

Duchess models a Grecian paper doll.

Some people seem to LOVE doing complicated projects with their children. To you I say: have fun. Some people prefer to get school done and send the kids off to play (where they may or may not design their own fancy projects). I am firmly in the latter camp. Following the core curriculum of Ambleside is incredibly simple: Read, narrate. Lather, rinse, repeat. You can do as many or few fancy projects after that as you please. In our house, I like to see our readings turn up in their independent play. Interestingly, I find it is often several days or even weeks after the thing we read about that it finally comes out. I think ideas take a longer percolation time than the standard school setup of “read about it, do a project.” (I also concede to print out paper dolls or paper soldiers when I can find some that go along with the history lesson.)

9. It’s gentle for the littles, challenging for the big kids.

My Year 1 students spend only an hour and a half at school on a long day. (And yes, Deux still believes he has no time to play, poor child. Only eight hours a day! I think his trouble is that he has no time when compared to the number of ideas he has. A problem with which I identify.) But the time that is devoted is well spent on the best books with the best language (which the children devour because they’re fairy tales and stories of adventure). Looking ahead, by Year 9 they’re reading Winston Churchill, Thomas Paine, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, etc. This is why people entering in later years usually have to start in an earlier year–but the preparation is all there if you start at the beginning. I think most of the time we expect too much in the way of sitting still and grinding out papers from 6 year olds, and far too little in the way of actual thinking from teenagers.

10. Did I mention the books?

Then let me mention them again. The books I used to hide out in the attic and read when I was supposed to be doing school are now our school books. I know I learned more from them than I did from the workbooks. (My only fear is that having them endorsed will make the children love them a little less. Some risks we must take, however. They still seem to be enjoying them, although I admit they have not yet learned to love narrating them.)

And then, after I came up with ten, I remembered others I had wanted to put in, so here’s some extras:

11. It hits a nice sweet spot between structure and freedom.

There’s enough structure to keep moving, but not enough to get you overwhelmed if you’re not a very linear person. There are people who plan it out day by day, and people who just pick up the list for the week and do it when the spirit moves. The weekly organization helps keep you from getting too far ahead or behind in any one area. You don’t have to wade through pages of assignments to pick out which ones really matter, nor are you left to puzzle everything out on your own.

12. Despite what you may have heard, Ambleside and Charlotte Mason are perfectly appropriate for modern boys.

Deux tries out some facial expressions on a hike.

There’s a bit of a girls-in-long-skirts image to it which is quite arbitrary and I think an accident of illustration choices of some early Charlotte Mason proponents. Deux likes Lego Hero Factory, Nintendo DS (in moderation), and Monsters, Inc. And he likes to hear about famous battles and laugh at A. A. Milne’s poetry and go play in the woods. Usually pretending to be Robin Hood. There is nothing particularly girly about history or nature study or poetry or handcrafts, all of which have been practiced by manly men for centuries.

Why Don’t Students Like School?

Someday I’m going to compile my list of must-read books for homeschoolers. Here’s another one that’s going to be on it: Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham.

Willingham is a cognitive scientist, but also a highly readable writer (a rare combination indeed). He looked through the actual research on what scientists have learned about the brain, then considered which insights would be the most helpful in the classroom. Then he explains them, and has fun doing so. And then he has an outstanding bibliography in the back of each chapter if you want to know more.

Some of the insights may seem obvious, but require more attention than first appears. (For instance: you remember what you think about. Duh. But how many enrichment activities, attention grabbers, and other education devices actually distract from whatever it is the teacher wants the students to remember?) Others may seem quite surprising. (For instance, learning styles really don’t make any difference; but variety does, and so does paying attention to the method most suited to the content.)

The book as a whole is highly readable and practical. Charlotte Mason homeschoolers will cheer to notice many of their long-held principles validated by modern science: story is the best vehicle for learning; short, repeated practice is the most effective; telling back is a terrific way to learn. But it’s highly practical for any teacher in any setting.

Reading Fantasy

This post is adapted from a forum discussion on what fantasy literature people allowed their children to read. (It is not a post fantasizing about reading more, although that would be good, too.)


Imagination is a precious gift of God, part of the image of God in us, our pale imitation of him as Creator, and it should be cherished and nourished with the right food. Part of my job and joy as a mother is finding the best possible food for this faculty in my children.

I have known families who rejected fantasy as false and evil, and have seen that attitude result in significant problems. For children who are not naturally imaginative, it creates a pedestrian view of the world as all facts or lies, without any vision of the beauty of seeing deeper truths. Most of the Bible is a closed book because it can only be read for the bare facts on the surface instead of learning to probe to find out what truths God was trying to tell us through communicating those facts. (And yet both Jesus and Paul probed the Bible for symbolism and allegory to use in teaching.)

For children who are naturally imaginative, a strict rule against fantasy teaches them that they must suppress who God made them to be in order to be “good”–or else that since imagination is evil, they might as well imagine evil since they are in trouble anyways. For these children, fantasy–good fantasy–is an essential gateway to understanding and appreciating the spiritual realm, as well as an important part of personal growth.

Another function of fantasy is to open our eyes to the wonder and beauty of the world God made. By participating in imagining the world in different ways, we are reminded of the wonder of the particular way God did make it–he could have made it otherwise, but he made it *this* way, for our good and to reveal himself.

I also find that in modern fantasy “magic” is often analogous to science or deeper knowledge in the real world–and reading those books has given me much food for thought on our relationship as humans to increasing knowledge.

As far as specific authors go, my children are too young for most of my favorites–C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald (who should be mentioned much more often!) At least, I am saving them because I want them to enjoy them most fully in a few years. But we do read many fairy tales. The “darkness” so often critiqued in fairy tales and fantasy is part of the benefit–children know evil and violence exist; by giving them a moral context in which evil is plainly apparent and justly punished (which so seldom happens in this world), it gives them a safe way to deal with these ideas and a vision of courage and faithfulness to combat them. One of our all-time favorites, beautifully illustrated, is *St. George and the Dragon* by Margaret Hodges.

We know as Christians that someday all wrongs will be righted and all evil brought to light, but to feel this, to believe it in such a way to act on it in faith when we cannot see it yet–that is part of the place of fantasy.

That said, I don’t care for the Disney-fied version of fairy tales, so we have not watched those. I was also not overly impressed with Harry Potter, although I would not mind my kids reading it when they are old enough. (There are many current fantasy writers on the YA shelf that I find more enjoyable: Lloyd Alexander, Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett.) I also have no problem with the fantastical elements in other classics, such as Shakespeare, the legends of King Arthur, etc.

One more thing I believe is essential for my children to learn is that there are no safe books. All books are dangerous; we must always read with our minds awake, thinking about and weighing what we are reading. Yes, even the Bible, which we read through the interpretations given to us over the years and our own prejudices–we have to keep asking ourselves, “Is this really what it says? Does it fit together? Or am I misunderstanding something?” That doesn’t mean that all books are worth reading, of course–but that the key question for me is not the absence of any particular thing as it is the presence of what is worthy.

Now I Want Something Else

And now I have something else on my really-want-to-buy list, as soon as we can set aside some money for homeschooling.

I’m actually very happy with homeschooling on the ubercheap at this stage. Books we already have, liberally supplemented by library cards. Paper is cheap. I’m very comfortable with using those to teach all aspects of the English language, and as much of history, geography, etc. as is accessible to them at this stage. Math is all around us, and we’ve got that covered quite well for now. I knuckled under on handwriting because I think it’s a case where one book will give us the basic skills we need to continue without a book.

Science was not an area I intended to spend money on, but less because I felt completely confident in winging it and more because I seriously doubted there was anything out there worth my money. Most of what I had seen were either textbooks force-feeding an oversimplified summary of facts and laws or books of "experiments" (really demonstrations) that had no rhyme or reason to them. Nothing that involved genuine science.

Most CM groups recommend simply nature study at this age, and the direct observation was definitely a huge part of what I wanted, but I always felt like there ought to be some way to connect those observations into the bigger picture and develop a richer understanding of scientific approach. However, I wasn’t sure I knew enough to do it, although I try, as in all our discussions, to encourage them to think and observe and make connections.

Anyway, I think I’ve found the book that will help me make those connections in a richer way. It’s called Building a Foundation for Scientific Understanding and it’s available from Press for Learning. From what I have seen and read about it, it integrates four themes, roughly chemistry, biology, physics, and earth/space science, but it does so in a way that allows children to see how they all fit together. For instance, a lesson on energy and work (physics) will then be brought up in a discussion in how the plant and animal kingdom are distinguished based on energy source.

The sample activity on the site looked appropriate for the target age group (K-2) but the discussion ideas were far richer and more insightful than anything I’ve seen geared to this grade level. And yet, I know my kids–they would get it. They can understand so much more than early elementary curriculum gives them credit for, if only it’s presented in the right way.

There are recommendations for expansion with further books, and best of all, what to look for in daily life to reinforce and make use of the lesson. There are only 41 lessons, but each of them has a lot of room for expansion according to other goals, children’s interests, etc. I can see this being used alongside a nature notebook to put things in their place.

My criteria for curriculum is starting to form like this:

At the early elementary stage, curriculum should be geared to helping me help them.
Curriculum needs to reflect the internal logic and order of the subject it is teaching.
Curriculum should be respectful of the minds and time of children. It doesn’t need to be fun or fancy: It needs to be real.

The Short List

I picked up Book by Book by Michael Dirda at the library, because when one doesn’t feel like reading a whole book itself the next best thing is to read a book about books. It’s a collection of various book lists, book reviews, essays on life and reading, and quotations.

Early on in the book he creates a list of "patterning works"–books that the rest of literature is based on, responds to, even reacts to. Not meant to be a comprehensive list of great works, but rather the most basic accumulation of the literature a person would need to understand what all the rest of the books are talking about.

Here is his list:

The Bible (KJV wording has been most influential)
Bulfinch’s Mythology (or other good collection of Greek, Roman, and Norse Myths)
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Dante, Inferno
The Arabian Nights
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)
Shakespeare’s major plays, especially Hamlet, Henry IV, Part One, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen
Any substantial collection of the world’s major folktales
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

It struck me that this would make an excellent basic literary reading plan for K-12, and not just because I already own almost everything on it or was going to buy it for myself anyway at the first opportunity. (Bullfinch is hard to find second-hand.) My own less learned career as a reader leads me to concur that these are works that keep cropping up, one way or another. I’ve read or at least dabbled in nearly all of them, and they are all intrinsically worth the time they take, as well.

Furthermore, this is a manageable list. There’s something for every age and it could be easily covered over twelve years, leaving lots of free time for reading according to individual taste and family obsessions. It’s also a list of works that I can envision giving to my children to read, at the appropriate time (and, for some, only with guidance or editing).

In considering the tension between adult mandates and child initiative, I often ponder exactly what my role is. The most essential goal, for me, is to cultivate passion–in the area of literature, the goal is that my children will love reading. After that, the point of focused study in youth is to provide the tools–the essential ideas, experiences, and connections–that will never cease to serve them in new discoveries.

In that context, these are nearly all books I would be willing to require reading because of their own value. (And the ones I’m more doubtful about are the ones I’m least likely to need to require.) There are many other worthwhile books, but one cannot possibly fit every worthwhile book into the first years of life (or perhaps into all the years of life). The point of this list is to read the books that will allow you to understand the rest of the books you will ever read.

But perhaps there are a few more out there. Any other thoughts?