Out of the Frying Pan

Well, this week turned out to be an even better one to test my new independent work basket than expected, because in addition to the start of Term 2 we had our first (and last) house showing on 72 hours’ notice. So I had spent all weekend cleaning like a crazy woman and was still at it all morning on Monday. The kids found the basket, did most of their stuff (with considerable questions, especially for math, but I could answer them while scrubbing the sink). Then a very kind lady from church took them out for a few hours while I cleaned the floors and the showing happened, then we did our group time in the afternoon.

The rest of the week was punctuated with meetings, but the new system held. Deux still doesn’t do it all alone, but he is pretty enthusiastic about doing the math and grudgingly cooperative with the copywork. He really prefers to read out loud or listen; for the Heroes I finally dug out the little MP3 player and that worked very well for him; he gave a stellar narration.

Some mornings the full planned group time right after the independent work is too much. I need to learn when to quit and start again after lunch. The twins have been doing mazes and super easy word searches, as well as just free drawing.

We are putting a bid in on a house today, so we’ll see how that goes. (It has space for an actual schoolroom/office! AND a playroom! AND a hideout for DOB!) Regardless, it looks like the next couple of months are going to be very hectic.

It only takes me about 10 minutes or so to tidy up the clipboards and ready the basket for the next day. The assignment sheet pages get really battered by the end of the week, but I suppose that is not important. I’m a little aghast at the quantities of paper and printer ink consumed.

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New Year, New Plans

We finished Term 1. We took our advent break. It still felt awfully busy; I had quite a bit of work I needed to do, then there was Christmas. And things are just going to continue to be really, really tough until we can move to an accessible home. Right now I have to be consistently available to help DOB with everything for him to get out of the house in the morning and again in the evening. After he’s finally off in the morning it’s late and I’m worn out. Getting the kids started on school while I do that doesn’t work, either with the way the house is laid out or with the way my brain works.

Somehow we need to streamline school so that it doesn’t run us well into the afternoon–when I need to work–but I don’t want to compromise on education either. It could be a long, long time before things get easier and kids are growing up in the meanwhile. And I really value the many different elements of the CM education and don’t want to settle for something thinner. And of course I think things like writing need to happen every day while they want to see more science experiments and handicrafts.

So I’ve been giving it some thought and come up with a plan. We’ve actually done very well at doing school every single day. It’s the time we start that makes it drag out. Duchess takes to independent work like a mountain goat to cliffs, but Deux needs a smooth path. Really, really smooth. So I’ve revamped their assignment  sheet to show exactly what work they need to do each day of the  week. I’ve preprinted copywork pages for Deux again (I’m using the Alice in Wonderland sheets from briem.net). I’m  going to try going back to the MEP worksheets, but marking out sections that seem too tedious. We’re doing geometry, fractions and decimals now and I think it will work better than when it was mostly very long basic operation problems. I prepared dictation passages each week for Duchess (she can choose her own copywork.)

The only flexibility is in which book they choose to read each day, and there I have the preselected books in a basket with the passage for each week marked with sticky notes, green for Deux and purple for Duchess. The independent read books will be the biographies of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare, The Heroes (which I’ve broken into shorter weekly readings), Pagoo, Marco Polo, and American Tall Tales. When they read the passage, they pull off the sticky note and stick it to their assignment page. That will make it easy to keep track of where the reading starts and stops.

Then I’ve carefully laid out everything else as part of our morning group time: the usual memory work, plus two readings each day: the history readings, Children of the New Forest, Pilgrim’s Progress, a biography of Galileo, and the CM geography book.

So, the theory is this: Each evening I lay out a clipboard with that day’s work for each of them, plus a basket of the available books and a few several pencils. In the living room, out of the way of the morning rush. In the morning, instead of getting engrossed in play, motivated by the prospect of being done early and whatever other bribery I need to introduce, they get started on their independent work pile. I get DOB gone, start the laundry and the dishwasher and the crockpot, and if I have time do a little something with the twins. Then, at ten o’clock or whenever I’m ready for group time, they’re already mostly done with their independent work. They can report on what they read already. We do the memory work, the readings, go over math and finish up any independent work. Then we do a group activity, assigned by days: science experiment, art appreciation, music appreciation, knitting or sewing, and drawing. Spanish seems to work well at lunch time and we do poetry and read aloud with afternoon snack (which I am now following with a general chore time to get the house tidy and settled down before DOB comes home).

What I hope this will do: eliminate me being pulled in twenty different directions at once. Keep school done before lunchtime and lunchtime done before two. Smooth out the days and make me feel less frazzled. Persuade Deux that he can do something on his own.

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.

One Month In

We started, and as expected, thanks to the early start we got the first month of school done by the end of September, in spite of expected interruptions (from DOB’s health mostly) and unexpected interruptions (my grandfather died). It’s been a rocky month, and the start of school has not gone very smoothly. However, I feel like we’re finally starting to get our feet under us. Anyway, here’s the short version.

The Good:

The books. Although there are definite favorites, there are not any duds. (Well, Parables of Nature and Pilgrim’s Progress are still challenges, but they’re familiar challenges and their understanding is pretty good. I’m doing Pilgrim’s Progress during lunch which seems to work well.) As expected, Princess  and the Goblin, The Heroes, Tall Tales are all much loved. Marco Polo is very cool and we are making scrapbooks to go with it. The history selections are not usually picked first in the week, but we generally have interesting discussions once we get there. (Henry VIII and his wives this week.) Leonardo da Vinci is more tolerated, but to my delight Deux is really excited about Pagoo. The history timelines are going pretty well, too–I am trying to have Deux do his copywork in there once a week and then I add any other entries.

Dictation is going well for Duchess, and Deux has been so inspired by watching her do typing that he is trying to do it, too. She’s also doing good independent work with French, though I really need to get her more resources. The new Spanish curriculum is working out OK, though I need to work it in daily. Geography is fine–though the map of Asia still feels enormous, but then it is only the beginning of the year. I started using a jigsaw puzzle site to supplement our art study, and that is a big hit. We have just been listening to the music, with the briefest introduction, but it’s in there.

The Bad:

Science hasn’t really happened, except a few experiments they designed themselves and a couple of not-too-impressive nature notebook sessions. I guess it’s not so bad, but it’s a lot less than I had hoped. It definitely is the thing that slides out of the week when it gets too full.

The schedule has been . . . awful. I was hoping to work out times so that I wouldn’t feel constantly interrupted and pulled in four different directions at once, but it hasn’t really happened. Everybody seems to need something different. We’re working on it. I’m trying having Duchess dictate onto the computer and then listening to it later (which seems to be helping, and we can still have the discussion when we all listen to her narration). The twins’ lessons have been getting shoved aside (however, I’m toying with the idea of splitting up their reading lesson, with perhaps DOB teaching Dot in the evening, and I can usually squeeze a brief story time in). Deux also seems to be slowly getting back into school mode, taking on longer chunks of readings, doing his handwriting more independently, etc. He’s waiting on glasses for farsightedness, too, so I’m hopeful those will help.

The Ugly:

Math has not been going well. At all. Instead of things beginning to click with MEP, we just got bogged down. Too many problems, too much to get through, too many arguments and it was just a miserable slog. I thought about going back to Y3, but that just seemed too easy conceptually. So for now, I’m using the lesson plans as a loose outline, taking our own sweet time, doing a few problems slowly and thinking about them, taking time for more creative exploration and discussion. They each have to do one multi-digit problem each day, all written out and done independently and checked in their head and then on the calculator, just to see they can do it. The rest of the time is fun math. I’m also having them do lots of games to get the multiplication facts down. Math is fun again. I hope they don’t find themselves horribly uneducated for it.

The Summary:

We’re getting there. It’s starting to come together. I think. Life’s going to be pretty complicated for the next who knows how long, so I hope we can settle in a little better.

Planning: Enough Already

I think we’re just going to start school on Monday.

I started looking at the fall and the chances are that school is going to get disrupted many times with DOB’s medical issues. Better to start a bit early and have some breathing room. If we start this next week, we have five extra weeks to get through the end of the term before Christmas break. Which means if all goes well we’ll have plenty of time for a nice Thanksgiving and Christmas break and the long weekends and even if it doesn’t all go well we should be *done* before Christmas instead of scootching it in afterward and playing catchup all winter and spring.

I *think* I’ve done everything on the must-do list. I got the Spanish book in (it looks good!). The notebooks are ready and the papers and maps printed out. No doubt things will turn up missing once we plunge in, but we’re just going to make  a start at it.

The house isn’t perfectly organized, but it’s functionally clean and I’ve at least made a start on the basement. If I have the energy tomorrow, I might organize the shelves and desk area. Or I might get started on the legal work I have coming due next week. So many things to juggle sometimes, and only so much energy.

The kids are excited. Whether it is from the studies itself, or because it means we will be resuming daily computer time, I’m not sure. Either way, it will work. (And they did just fine all summer without the regular computer time, so I am satisfied that it is not taking over our lives.)

Here goes.