Lurching through the Term

We only have two weeks to go, and then I plan to take a long Advent break, with just singing time and some no-narration read alouds. Given the existing level of stress, sometimes I think I should just have dropped school altogether already, but it’s an organizing principle in our day and the children do not handle sudden changes well. They have been looking forward to Advent, so we shall press through, finish the term, and take our break then.

I was inspired by Cindy’s posts on Morning Time to reevaluate what we are doing and see what I could do to improve it. One change has been to start with the responsive saying, “The Lord be with you,” “And also with you,” which they know from church, followed by a morning grace from the Book of Common Prayer and special requests. Another has been to make everybody sit down around the table (Yes, this probably seems obvious, but I tend to miss obvious things). If we do a youtube video for one of the songs, I bring the laptop to the table instead of everyone getting up and crowding around my desk. It’s a small change, but it has made things much calmer.

A third change has been to add a read-aloud to our time together. I did a picture biography of Martin Luther for the last week of October, and now I have started one of Michelangelo. This has been a big hit, and has me pondering how I might blend the children’s work next year when the twins officially start Year 1. Reading about how Cindy incorporated a history spine into Morning Time has made me wonder if that might not be an appropriate way to organize it. The twins have eavesdropped on most of the big kids’ history, anyway. So if I read aloud from the spine (This Country of Ours, mostly) each week and supplemented with appropriate biographies, I think it would be enjoyable for everyone. They will still have their other readings to do separately. I’d also like to do Shakespeare together–start with a children’s version for everyone, then read through the play together with the older kids (twins eavesdropping, no doubt). (I’m also thinking about trying to incorporate grammar and Latin, very briefly. We’ll see how things are next year.)

With the twins’ reading I have been taking a more low-key approach. We read some stories together (usually we each choose one). They often want to read beginner books, which, of course, are not great literature, but I think they choose them because they can begin to spot words in them. Then we will choose a word from the reading and write it with magnet letters and maybe do some word building with it. Sometimes they are not that interested, but at times when they are I can tell their ability to blend and analyze words is gradually increasing. Dash “read” most of Green Eggs and Ham this past week; obviously he was reciting most of it but I could tell he was beginning to catch differences between memory and what he saw.

I still don’t really do math with the twins, but one day things were going smoothly enough that I pulled out the gems, counted out nine for each of them, and we played with some different combinations. Dot started pairing hers off. When she came to the odd one out she said, “This one doesn’t have anyone to talk to!” I guess I know how to explain even and odd numbers to her.

Deux is still not eager to read by himself and I’m not sure how to nudge him in that direction, but I want to after the first of the year. I think it is a matter of settling himself to a new subject–transitions are hard for him. He did pick up better interest in his Bible reading when he came to the Ten Plagues.

Kindergarten Math

I don’t post as much about what the twins are doing, and I fear this does reflect where my attention tends to run . . . however, there is the trickle-down effect and I hope they are not growing up in complete ignorance.

Dash has been assigned to set the table for breakfast each morning. This is a great chance to deal with concrete quantities. How many people if Papa isn’t here for breakfast? There are three plates in the dishwasher–how many more do you need from the cupboard? If you dropped two forks on the floor, how many would be left in your hand?

Friday nights are our role-playing game nights. The older two are big enough to sit in with the grownups and are even starting to play their own characters, but the twins are sent to play quietly in the other room and then to bed. Last night Dash was playing with Munchkin cards, a game that reduces role-playing to its simplest and silliest aspects. Your character puts on various equipment with bonuses, fights monsters, goes up levels, and gets more treasure. We have played it as a family many times.

Dash can’t read words independently yet, but the cards are vividly illustrated and plainly labeled with numbers that show the size of the monster, the amount of the bonus, etc., and he is very good at reading numbers. (Even 2-digit numbers, which he likes to punch into the scientific calculator and then read off. I have, by the way, no idea when or how he learned this–I guess the trickle-down effect does work.) So he was working it out on his own with a little help.

He got stumped when it came to adding up all the bonuses his character had from equipment to see if he was strong enough to beat a particular monster. Even with small numbers, adding three numbers at once was more than he could do in his head.

Finally I suggested he take the glass gems he was using to keep track of his level and place the appropriate amount on each card–5 counters on the +5 Gatling Gun, 3 counters on the +3 Twenty Gallon Hat. He figured out what I meant from a brief explanation and when I checked on him next, each card was covered with the appropriate number of counters. Then as he battled each monster, he had to compare his total level plus all bonuses with the size of the monster.

It turned out to be the perfect level of challenge for him, as well as keeping him happy through a long evening. And a lot more fun than “Circle the set with more balloons.”

Math Remix

So, I posted a couple of weeks ago about how math was not working well. We had switched to MEP which I really do like conceptually, but which was bogging us down unbearably. There were too many things to do too quickly, there were some areas we had missed or not spent enough time on to do quickly, more writing than Deux was willing to do, and even doing it on the computer didn’t help much.  Duchess was having many, uhh, dramatic moments. Math had become the most miserable time of day, and since we did it first, it set the tone for the rest of the day. And we were getting nowhere near doing work independently.

Well, I considered several options:

  • Moving backward, to Year 3, which would be *really* easy for them, and expecting them to work alone.
  • Moving forward, to Year 5 (I actually haven’t ruled this out entirely), where the work looks (at short glance) a little more focused on interesting concepts and less on long, tedious calculations to ensure mastery of place value. (Which seems to be dominating Year 4).
  • Scratching MEP altogether and finding something else they could do independently.
  • Muddling through and telling them that this was what math was like, so just deal with it.

None of these seemed quite the thing. I realized that the strength of our math time was the time we spent working through complex and interesting problems together. There were some of these in the materials, but they were usually overshadowed by tedious calculations, or rushing on to the next thing. I also realized that they had not had enough experience with book math to know how to do multi-digit calculations efficiently, and that we needed to master those before going too much farther. . . but that they wouldn’t need a year of repetition to be sure they had grasped those, as math books tend to be written for.

What I finally settled on was sticking with where and what we were doing, but doing it our way. We stopped using the worksheets almost entirely, unless there was one that really caught my eye.  Instead of trying to rush through seven or eight activities, which is how the lesson plans were laid out, I selected one or two that had the potential to be thought-provoking. Or I looked at the area to be covered and used an activity I had seen elsewhere. I’m paying attention to the goals for the year and I will feel free to skip areas I know they have down and spend more time on the others.

To work on the basic calculation skills, I assigned them one long-hand problem to do each day. Just one. But they had to do it all themselves and get it right. I have walked them through these until they got the transition from the mental math they were good at to how it was represented on paper with problems too complex to keep straight in the head.

I also decided we needed to spend some extra time getting math facts automatic, but there was no reason this had to be painful. Right now they are loving DigitWhiz. I love that it’s free and that it uses multiple approaches to reinforce understanding in addition to memorization. Deux especially has trouble with timed things, but so far he is doing OK with Digitwhiz’s approach. (Although I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to pass the “mastery” sections–he thinks deeply about math, not quickly.)

The effect after just a couple of weeks? Math is now the *favorite* subject. We are having the fun we used to have with math when they were preschoolers and it was all about divvying out the snacks. On the day that multi-digit multiplication clicked, they were covering the board with difficult problems long after school was over. Deux is now writing out three by three digit multiplications without complaint, where at the beginning of the year he still struggled to remember which way a 2 went. Sometimes we do fun (or just silly) problems during supper with Papa. Duchess came up with a lovely model of multiples by drawing a street with even numbers on one side and odd on the other, then envisioning which houses each number would stop at.

So our new plan works like this:

1) Do one multi-digit basic calculation long hand. (We started with one of each during the week, but addition proved so easy we dropped it and now they are doing one extra of where they think they need work.) When they all are getting too easy, we’ll add fractions and decimals, negative numbers, or order-of-operations challenges to the mix.

2) Explore an interesting math topic. We have drawn factor trees that really looked like trees. (Duchess is so much happier with math that involves art. Or bunnies.) We have played Stake Your Claim. We have calculated the area of the different rooms of the house and figured out how to deal with odd shapes, even triangles. We have worked out complicated word problems from the MEP lessons together, and taken the time to talk it through for full understanding. I look through the MEP plans and choose the activities that are the right challenge level and cover the relevant material without bogging us down on stuff they know.

3) Play on the computer to practice facts.

All told, it’s about half an hour and we are having fun again and they are *getting* it again instead of freezing up. The moral of the story is . . . sometimes you can take curriculum that isn’t working and turn it into something that is. Sometimes less is more. And sometimes the learning is worth the time spent working together instead of rushing to independence.

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.

Week 13

Year 1: CHOW, “Kings with Corkscrew Curls”; PTTS, ch. 10, first half of George Washington, by the D’Aulaires; Stories of Gaia, Uranus, Chronos from the D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

January Memory: Psalm 29; “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; “Carrickfergus”; Review of “Cabeza, Hombros” and “Diez Deditos”; “Halfway Down” by Milne.

Twins: Jonah by Peter Spier. Various other books. Playing with gems.

We’ve tried doing afternoon school this week. Deux feels cheated out of afternoon playtime. He does not seem to notice the extra morning playtime. However, narrations are less painful by having two fewer interrupters in the room. I wonder if we could do the writing-type school in the morning, plus projects, and only the read-aloud in the afternoon.

I feel kind of cheated out of afternoon work/writing/reading time for me, too. I have an uneasy feeling that no matter what I do there won’t be enough hours in the day.

Jonah was a nice complement to reading about the Assyrians. Large, people-swallowing fish figured prominently in their play this week. The big kids also cut out soldiers to go with it.

We’ve started Peter Pan which is a huge hit. (Too huge, they put up a fearful fuss when I stop reading for the day.)

We went on a hike in the woods in a downpour and got lost.We did find ourselves again.

I identified a Fox Sparrow at the feeder. I’m hoping to get to tell sparrows apart this year. I had initially hoped to learn to identify some bird songs, but my memory for sound sequences is very poor, so that may be asking too much. I’m still struggling to get the tune of “Carrickfergus” in my head and getting very impatient because all the performed versions I can find are soooo slooooow.

We drew in our nature notebooks this week! Inside because of the rain, but they did lovely detailed drawings of some different evergreen branches, cones, and the bug that came in with them.

The Duchess has started a couple more stories. We are working towards getting her her own computer (i.e. when DOB upgrades his six-year-old desktop for one that takes less than ten minutes to boot, she’ll get that one, de-internetized), so that she can write on stories without booting me off.

Week 12–End of Term!!!!

Year 1: CHOW, “A Bad Beginning” (Rome); BBB, Chickadee; JH: Smudge, the Lost Lamb; JSS, Leopard; BFB, The Forty Thieves; Aesop, Boys and Frogs, Crow and Pitcher . Review of area, introduction to perimeter, operations to 12.

Twins: “L”; stories; counting frogs and bears.

We did it! We made it all the way to the end of Term 1, on schedule! DOB is not particularly impressed (he’s happy to hear about what we do, but the mere fact of staying on schedule does not interest him), but it is a major triumph for me to stick to any steady plan for over three months. Our last week was pretty full, but with so many favorite books, it wasn’t too hard to get through it all.

We did not go out to park day this week, owing to being too tired, but we did take long hikes both last Sunday afternoon and this. (“Long” meaning “long for three-year-olds and people in constant danger of ankle sprains”) These have been really fun for everyone and kept us from feeling too cooped up. I’m also trying to work on getting the blackberries out of the shrubs in the yard during dry days, which helps us get outside. I opened up a perfect climbing tree this week.

There weren’t a lot of extras this week–we started on some Christmas projects, but mostly they’ve just been playing, building with Duplo and Lego and free reading and drawing. Duchess and Deux ordered a lot more Magic Treehouse books. We finished up The Phantom Tollbooth.

Probably we should do an exam week, but I feel like we’ve had about enough for now. Maybe next year, or even later this year. Right now, we’re all ready for a break.

So now, on to planning Term 2 (and 3, since I won’t have a 3-week break in April to plan it). The weekly plan and weekly folder has worked wonderfully. It’s so easy to pull and go. They really do love having the occasional coloring page, and the maps have been good, too. They’ve really enjoyed finding and marking key cities and locations on blank maps and are starting to get to know their way around the ancient near east. Paper dolls are always the most popular.

I need to see if it’s time to slow down on math. Duchess is definitely ready to handle two-digit addition, but I’m not sure if Deux is. (And if he’s not, I’m not sure *why* not, since he had, for instance, no trouble at all understanding how to make a 12×12 multiplication chart.) Anyway, the number of lessons left may make slowing down a better idea.

After a rocky start, they’ve really come to love Child’s History of the World. We’ve done all the Blue Fairy Book and James Herriot selections (we’ll do what’s left as free reads); I plan to have the D’Aulaire book of Greek myths as our main literature selection for the rest of the year. They really love the myths. I found a book called Kingdom of the Sun that looks at each planet and connects its traits to its namesake–Deux was very excited about it.

I wish we’d done more nature notebook, science lessons, arts. In general, the projecty parts got shoved aside, as usually by that point I was feeling *done*. I’m thinking about trying afternoon school. Often it seems as if the kids wake up full of ideas they want to play, and it’s going against the grain for all of us to stop and do school. Perhaps it might work better for me to let them play in the morning while I work or do other projects, and then do school in the afternoons. This would let me work with the big kids during quiet time. It would mean me giving up on the idea of quiet time for me altogether, but then, it wasn’t amounting to much lately anyway, since nobody sleeps anymore. It’s worth a try anyway.

I’m wondering when and how to start turning over more reading to them. They could do Paddle by themselves, and probably the Bird Book. But I can’t figure out how to work it with narrations without having two copies, and I can’t quite bring myself to spend that much yet.

During break I want to finish Pinocchio and maybe informally read some supplemental books I’ve gotten from the library. Lots of projects and Christmas activities. Maybe a science lesson or two if I can work one in.

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.