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.


A Few Ideas for Copywork

I’ve written before about how much I love using graphboards for copywork. We’re using them again this year and still loving them. Someone gave us some cast-off blank boards which I give to the 3yos to keep them occupied while the big kids do their copywork.

But this year I’ve discovered whole new uses for those graphboards:

  • For a child who needs a little more hand control practice, write the letter or word with a dry-erase marker, and have him erase it with his finger. This was a huge confidence builder for Deux, who was feeling pretty rusty about handwriting at the beginning of the year. (Actually, it was his idea.)
  • Get a wet erase marker and write the word or phrase to be copied, then the child can trace right over the top. Again, very handy for new learners or those whose skills have gotten rusty but who don’t want to go back to square one.
  • Wet erase markers also have a much finer point, which makes them a good next step when the dry erase letters are too big.

Another awesome thing I’ve discovered is air writing. This was right there in Volume 1 of the Charlotte Mason series, but I missed it on the first go-round:

“As for his letters, the child usually teaches himself. He has his box of ivory letters and picks out p for pudding, b for blackbird, h for horse, big and little, and knows them both. But the learning of the alphabet should be made a means of cultivating the child’s observation: he should be made to see what he looks at. Make big B in the air, and let him name it; then let him make round O, and crooked S, and T for Tommy, and you name the letters as the little finger forms them with unsteady strokes in the air.”

This time, though, I’m teaching Dash and Dot to write their letters in the air as we learn them. They love it. It’s simple. It’s completely age-appropriate. And it solves the problem I had with the older two of them wanting to write letters before I thought they should be having handwriting lessons, with the consequence that they learned to write things upside down and backwards. Dash and Dot will occasionally try writing a letter on paper or their white boards, and thanks to the air-writing, their basic form and sequence of strokes are generally pretty close to correct.

Finally, I never got around to purchasing a handwriting program this year, so instead I’ve been using a free website with italic lessons. Now, I will confess, this is one of the hardest to navigate websites I have encountered, and there are no internal links. However, the approach to teaching italic is so easy. We started at the beginning of the year by drawing Martians. From there we moved to zigzags, and then to the letters u, i, and t, which require no more than a little swoop in the zigzag. Even Deux was willing to give this a try, though he was hardly willing to write anything more than his own name six weeks ago. Now the Duchess is writing a third of the alphabet in cursive and begging for more, and even Deux can do a few letters and correlating words in cursive. I teach the letters in groups, and then we practice words that use only the letters used so far.

If you use it, the most specific instructional materials are under the link that says “Quick Results, Easy Work.” Entry-level activities (including a link to the Martians) are under “Tracing.” Basic zigzags are under “Into Writing.” Then we progressed through the letter forms under “Model,” only in the order I deemed easiest: l family, then a family, then some of the o family, then b family. That’s as far as we’ve gotten. Or just read through the website and maybe you’ll find your own approach.

Week 3

Year 1: CHOW, “The Tomb Builders”; James Herriot’s Treasury, “Only One Woof”; PTTS, Chapter 3; Aesop’s “Boy and Filberts”; “Hercules and the Wagoner”, Blue Fairy Book, “Why the Sea is Salt.” Free Read: Red Fairy Book. Math: Operations using 6, pattern blocks, graph paper (inch and centimeter). Watercolors with salt. Bible: Joshua.

Twins: Letter C, pattern blocks, flannelgraph

This week was better. A lot better. Mostly I think this was because I got up and took a walk every single morning (except Wednesday, when DOB went swimming), and did stretches every night. I’ve been in much less pain and had way more energy. And felt calmer and more able to handle things. It always amazes me how much of a difference walking makes for me. I didn’t have any contract work this week, but I also didn’t have any babysitter, and we still kept up with the housework!

The big kids seem to be adjusting to the idea that school is what we do, although Deux still has many times when he immediately says, “Nooooo!” and then happily proceeds with whatever it was. I’ve learned to just carry on.

Deux made good progress in copywork this week, finally becoming confident enough to copy rather than trace. I think the selections I made are too short for the Duchess, so I decided to have her write them smaller and then work on practicing cursive when she is done while Deux is still working. She is very eager to move to writing all in cursive–I would not be surprised if she is ready by the middle of the year. This week she got to write her first words, using the letters i, t, l, and u. (Not many, admittedly.) Next week we’ll add the c family: c, a, g, d. I never did get the Penny Gardner books, but I’m finding this website, although well-nigh impossible to navigate, to have excellent guides on teaching and it seems to be working very well.

I’m a little concerned with the Duchess’s narration–especially on the Aesop, which she reads to herself, she seems to latch on to a few obvious things and miss the point of the story. I think I will have her read it aloud next week and see if that helps. I suspect she tends to just gallop through things.

This week instead of the nature walk we wound up going across the inlet on the foot ferry and then visiting the waterfront park and the Navy museum. The kids had a blast and it was exciting to do something so complex without a hitch. At the gift shop, they spent some of the money they have been earning, which was another learning experience. (I’ve come to realize that to teach them the value of money they have to have chances to *spend* as well as *earn* it.) The Duchess bought a beautiful little compass.

Dash has been very eager to learn to write. He figured out how to write “P” on his own. Dot prefers drawing girls. I wonder sometimes if she feels competition with him. She has been pretty difficult through school time a couple of days, but she is a quiet and complicated character and I find it impossible to tell what is coming out from what is going in. After a major meltdown this morning that got her banished from the room for half an hour, I went in and talked about how much she had worked at learning to draw girls and how much better she drew them than she had a few months ago. She seemed to respond to that and came out and did watercolors with us very happily.

I haven’t been doing Spanish as well as I wanted to. It had kind of slipped out of our lunchtime activities. I brought it in again today, and we had a fun time with it. I used the phrase: “Este es mi ______/Este es tu _______.” They enjoyed working out what I meant each time. I need to stick to this more often. I wish I had a good guide for doing Spanish this way–I feel a little dangerous using Google Translate to find the phrase I want to teach, but it’s better than nothing and should do as long as we are using very basic phrases.

Copywork with Graphboards

The handwriting workbooks were getting dull. Make-your-own copywork sheets were eating up an awful lot of printer ink. And in both cases, the ducklings weren’t taking as much care with them as they should have.

Then I remembered something my sister had picked up at a second-hand curriculum sale–two personal-sized whiteboards. The only trouble was, they had this grid all over them. But on second thought–maybe that could actually help!

So I tried them. I explained with these boards, they only had to make one copy of the assigned thing–but it had to be a good one. They could copy and erase as much as they needed until they were satisfied. I was careful to copy along the gridlines so that I could easily point out where the letters were uneven heights or widths. I selected words or phrases according to their abilities, letters I noticed them having trouble with, or even personal requests.

Last week on our shopping trip we picked up a pack of multi-colored markers to make it even more fun. To keep D1 from slowing down too much and to help her look at words as a whole for better spelling, I told her she could only switch to a new color when she came to a new word.

So here’s what our copywork looks like now:


D1's copywork

D2's copywork

This was inspired by a morning project–which they did all on their own, while I was listening to an online class–of coloring a number of real and imaginary planets, stars, moons, and rockets and taping them all over their room. D2 still needs to work on that “perfect copy” idea, but he’s doing pretty well for five. The extra little blank space at the bottom usually gets filled with decorations. (In fact, the only reason it’s not filled is that I erased D1’s name off of it.)

It turns out these boards were actually designed for use with Algebra 1 students. But they work also great for Grade 1 students. (Oh, and we’ve done some math on them, too.)

The Day Has Come

I ordered some workbooks.

I find it hard to believe, myself.

But it’s true.

It came down to this: D1 and D2 write constantly. They make lists, they copy book titles, they write notes to their friends, they play restaurant and write out menus.

And the instruction I have given them in letter formation has been very sporadic. Most of it they have worked out for themselves, often incorrectly. (I watched D2 today, for instance, write a capital "H" by writing the equivalent of a lower-case h and then adding an extra half-line.)

Before they get too much farther, in short, I think they need some more directed experience so that letter formation is effortless when they’re ready to move on to spelling, written narrations, etc.

I considered doing more homemade or free printouts, but getting things printed was just not happening often enough (plus, the printer just broke).  And I want to do italic–I think it’s much prettier and quicker, and it’s the closest to my own writing style–and there are few free resources for that.

So, it seemed a case for something simple that they can work through one page at a time and learn the proper formation for each letter. Once they know that, we’ll move to copywork. They like workbooks to play with. I’m sure they wouldn’t if they spent all day with them, but we’re talking ten minutes to write two lines here.

I ordered the Getty-Dubay Italic series, Book A for D2 and Book B for D1. (Book A is really all I want–the one letter per page in stroke order–but I thought it best not to have them working on exactly the same pages since D1 can write better than D2.) I honestly feel kind of bad about expecting D2 to do handwriting at 4, but he always insists on doing what D1 does, and the truth is, he can do it.

I’m working with the twins to have a time when they play in their room each morning. I plan this to be my time to work at the table with the big kids. Handwriting is going to be my top priority for this time–they are doing plenty of reading in their free time, and our read-alouds and discussions at other times of day cover every other topic imaginable. (Copyright law? Separation of powers? Place value?) We might do spelling if things are going well.

Today we did a brief spelling lesson on words ending with "ll" and I focused them on "taking a picture" of the word and then writing the whole world down on their page. D1 was able to do this fairly well. With that and challenging them to notice the unusual spellings (e.g., using "a" for the /o/ sound in "all") it kept their attention engaged.

And then I went and played with blocks with the twins while they drew all over their papers and turned them into letters for their friends in Ohio. So it was a good day’s work.

Teaching Reading

D1 is edging closer to really reading, and I’ve been re-examining how to teach (or just promote) reading yet again. She is memorizing whole books; she knows the most common sound of each letter (we used those first, before letter names) and she has heard me break words apart into sounds and put them back together many times, sometimes as a game, sometimes when writing words at her request. She will spell words with me just helping her break apart the sounds and explain any unusual constructions.

Now she is starting to be able to hear all the sounds in a short word herself, and even blend together sounds. She will "read" books and stop and correct herself at times when she sees that the words she is saying are not the ones she is seeing.

The more aggressive phonics advocates would probably say this is bad. She clearly knows many words by sight, and she might get in bad habits of guessing at words. However, this is exactly how I learned how to read and how DOB learned how to read, and we read and spell better than most. Since she understands the basic concept that letters represent sounds, she looks to understand how the sounds are represented in the words she knows. I think this will lead her to the same place as a more orderly phonics progression, and it’s far more natural for her.

I do think it’s about time we had some more formal lessons on reading, though, and I’ve promised her we will start on her fifth birthday. I’m dissatisfied with everything out there, though (of course!). The sight-word people are right that real reading involves *knowing* words, not sounding them out or guessing; the phonics people are right that memorizing every word in the English language is simply impossible; and the whole-language people are right that reading controlled-vocabulary or phonetically-correct text is unbearably painful. I’m impressed with the way Diane McGuinness organizes the sounds and spellings of the English language, but the curriculum based on it, while quicker and simpler than phonics, is just as tedious and twaddly while it’s in process. Also it seems to be written for children who are struggling readers, which doesn’t seem necessarily appropriate for a child who takes naturally to decoding.

The trouble with English is the irregularity is up front. If you simply start with the most common words, many of them use advanced spelling patterns (the) or practically unique spellings (once). On the other hand, if you start with the most common sounds that will be used in words of every length, you find it impossible to write an actual sentence, and even with a few concessions like "the" and "of" the books are full of sentences that sound like nothing else in the language. (Dad did nab a dab of jam. Right.)

Charlotte Mason advocated an approach using short poems and simple prose (but real ones, that you might actually want to read), working with the words until the poem can be read off perfectly and with expression at once, and then doing word-building exercises with the words thus learned. The lessons sound fun and engaging, but the actual understanding of the English code seemed haphazard. English may not be as regular as some languages, but there is some logic to it and trying to learn it without that logic makes it unnecessarily difficult.

Naturally not being satisfied with anything out there, I want to do my own. With careful selection, I can find real poems, Bible passages, folk tales, that predominantly use the spellings and structures studied thus far. A few words will need to be memorized at sight, but very few. A few other words, to be studied later, can simply be read by me. We can work with these words until they’re known at sight–so that reading proceeds easily–and with care I can also make sure we spend the most time on the most common words, so that she will be able to easily read most of the words in real books. But because we start with a firm understanding of the basic code, she should still realize that individual letters represent individual sounds and she doesn’t need to guess at whole words. (Even the most irregular words usually only have one or two sounds spelled irregularly.)

That’s my theory anyway. We’ll see how it works.

Reading progress

I found this interesting Stages of Reading checklist on a blog today. It’s an interesting look at all the little steps there are from first encounters with a book to really reading.

It does seem to be written with a schoolish slant, which means some parts seem out of order for children learning reading at home. For instance, the ducklings were "retell[ing] a story by looking at pictures after repeated listening experiences" before they were two, but they still don’t know what their last name looks like. (Hmmm . . . maybe we should work on that.) And was there ever a time when they didn’t "enjoy having books read to them?"

Looking it over, though, I would say that D1 is in "Stage 4." She can write the entire alphabet out and knows all the basic sounds and a few of the secondary ones. (I never really even worked on teaching it to her in order, but she’s seen it enough in puzzles and charts to work it out, plus she loves the Alphabet Song I was so reluctant to teach her.) She’s comfortable picking out the initial consonant sound in a word, but tends to get lost after that.  She generally starts writing left to right, although if she runs into an edge she turns and writes in the opposite order below, like the Ancient Greeks, so she’s in good company. She doesn’t have any of the standard "sight words" yet, but she does recognize "cat" and all of the family’s names.

D2 is in "Stage 2." He repeats phrases from books constantly. (One evening I commented to DOB that we could easily reproduce our children’s conversations by reading their favorite books onto an iPod and hitting "shuffle.") He can identify several letters and is starting to ask me to help him write them.

One little note: I see way far down on the list the milestone "sees self as a reader." This week D2 found a board book in the babies’ toy basket and was horrified. I told him it was OK for the babies to have that book, but he objected: "They can’t read!" He took it off for himself, so I guess as far as he’s concerned, that doesn’t apply to him.

I’ll try to look back every few months and see how they’re progressing on this. It’s fun to watch.