Archive for November, 2009


Going Loopy

This year, we decided to try a whole new kind of schedule. Until now, I’ve created various kinds of lists every year, and they’ve all been fine. I guess I’m a list freak though, and I have this subconscious idea that if I can create the perfect list, we’ll have the perfect homeschooling year. I know it’s silly, but, well, I can’t help myself.

This year, instead of variations on our usual checklist, I’ve gone loopy. Perhaps that’s no surprise after the previous paragraph. I found this idea on the Well-Trained Mind forum, which is full of brilliant homeschoolers seeking and sharing wisdom. Anyway, the idea with a loop is that you have set hours for homeschooling, and no matter how many subjects were done the day before, you start the next day with the next subject. It is brilliant in its simplicity because it allows homeschoolers to actually get to things like art and music rather than neglecting them because time runs out. Maybe you don’t have that problem, but I sure do.

Now, the examples I saw were beautifully simple circles with five or six subjects that would work beautifully for mostly younger families than mine. Ours isn’t so simple, unfortunately, but it is working quite nicely. Each person has a separate list, including my husband and I. For the first time, we’re splitting homeschooling subjects, and we’re both working from home. It’s quite a juggling act, but balls only hit us in the head on occasion. Here’s our schedule as a Powerpoint file:

Loopy Flowchart Individuals 11-09

Each column represents one person, and each smiley face represents one time through the loop per week. There is a separate list that tells teh children what the expectations are for each subject. For math, it’s one math lesson. For writing, it’s 30 minutes, etc.

Some things, like typing, are only done a few times, so when the smiley faces are all filled in, that one gets skipped. The first column is mine and the last one is my husband’s. Those are the subjects that are mostly parent-led. The middle columns go oldest to youngest for our children.

Friday has its own list that includes piano “recitals,” where I determine if they are ready for new songs or not and is generally a much lighter day.

If I had all children ages 10 and below or so, I think I would have just one simple circle leading from one subject to the next, but as it is, I would be worried about my older children getting too far “behind.” Now, that’s a relative term I realize, but I would like my oldest two children to finish the entire biology book in one year. With my 10-year-old, it’s really fine if he takes longer to finish his science book.

With my oldest daughter, I recently switched from having her finish at 3:30 to having her finish when she has completed 5 hours of work. She uses a timer going down to that long and stops it when she takes breaks. It is helping a lot, as she tends to be easily distracted. With everyone else, they are done at 3:30. My 10-year-old is usually completed with the whol week’s work with a day to spare. My 12-year-old usually finishes pretty much all of the list. My 7-year-old rarely finishes all of everything, but we’re working on that. My 4-year-old is 4.

Again, if my children were younger, I would stop at about 1 o’clock instead of 3:30, but I have found that if some children stop sooner than others, they distract the older ones.

Insights anyone?

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In our family, some subjects are negotiable, but most are not. Here’s the list of subjects that I consider necessary and why. They go hand in hand with the Trivium, which includes Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

Feel free to add your own below and also to use this the next time one of your children asks, “But how will I ever use this in real life?”

Theology – to please God
Math – to be able to function in the world as a good steward
Great Literature – to maintain and renew a common culture
History – To understand the world we live in and make it better
Science – To understand this amazing universe God made
A second language and culture – To be able to communicate with others and understand what pertains to universal human nature and what is merely a cultural norm
Logic – To be capable of voting responsibly and to avoid being hoodwinked by the unscrupulous
Music and Art – To appreciate beauty, which is an attribute of God Himself, and because the best way to do that is to take part in the challenge of creating it
Writing – To be able to communicate elegantly so as to persuade others of the logical conclusions drawn from the study of logic
Grammar – This is part of communicating elegantly and persuasively

This same list can be found on my post called “Confessions of an Ex-Unschooler.”

I’m coming out of the closet. I spent about 6 months as an unschooler some years back. I had just finished reading all sorts of lovely books that made me believe that my children would learn everything they needed to know with little interference from me. It worked for Maria Montessori, right? Well, out of frustration and burnout, I bought the idea. Well, I got rid of all the lists and demands on the children and let them determine the direction of their learning. The problem was, they didn’t. They did have a great time, and it was a low-stress, joyful time in our lives, but they never did what the unschooling experts said they would.

They never started doing science experiments or reading great works of literature or learning Japanese on their own. They did build neat Lego creations, spent a lot of time building nifty sandcastles in the park near our house, and occasionally drew something.

However, if I had it to do over again, well, I wouldn’t. If I found myself in need of a homeschool break, I might figure out a way to take a week or two off or maybe even a month, but I wouldn’t call it school. By the same token, I occasionally let my children play “educational” computer games like Zombinis, but I don’t consider them part of their education.

Now, don’t get me wrong. One of the many reasons we homeschool is because I think children need time to be children, and they don’t get that when they’re in school all day and then have hours of homework to do afterwards. I just want to point out that at least in my experience, that period of our lives didn’t do a lot for my children’s education, though it was nice.

Depending on your situation and why you decide to start homeschooling, some time “decompressing” from school might be in order. I just wouldn’t recommend making a permanent habit of it.

By the same token, though, I think that trying to make our homes into miniature schools is just as useless. In our home, there are no school desks, no bells, and very few trappings of school. Schools do lots of things the way they do because they are necessary to herd hundreds of children through the system. We have sofas instead of desks (they have desks in their rooms actually, but they pretty much never use them), the kids are welcome to study outside on a pretty day, and as of this year, each child has his own timer for subjects that are time oriented (like spending 20 minutes working on Latin vocabulary) instead of goal oriented (like doing 1 math lesson).

As Aristotle so aptly pointed out, virtue is usually the mean between two extremes. Our homes are not schools, and pretending that they are is a good way to become a burned out ex-homeschooler.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, is unschooling, and it has one major flaw–it doesn’t take into account original sin. As lovely as it would be if our children always did just what they should, that isn’t the reality for any of us. One of the underlying ideas for unschoolers is that any knowledge is just as good as any other knowledge–that learning to make computer games is just as important as learning your faith. Well, one of my sons is learning computer programming, and I’m all for it, but I would never in a million years consider it as important as learning that the Eucharist is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

That being the case, I believe that there are some things that all of my children need to learn (and probably all of yours too). I do my best to make it pleasant, and most things really are interesting if you give them a chance. In fact, history is one of my children’s favorite subjects, but I bet they’d never know that if we were unschooling. In our family, some of the things they study are negotiable, but others are not.

Here’s my short list of the nonnegotiables and why:

Theology – to please God
Math – to be able to function in the world as a good steward
Great Literature – to maintain and renew a common culture
History – To understand the world we live in and make it better
Science – To understand this amazing universe God made
A second language and culture – To be able to communicate with others and understand what pertains to universal human nature and what is merely a cultural norm
Logic – To be capable of voting responsibly and to avoid being hoodwinked by the unscrupulous
Music and Art – To appreciate beauty, which is an attribute of God Himself, and because the best way to do that is to take part in the challenge of creating it
Writing – To be able to communicate elegantly so as to persuade others of the logical conclusions drawn from the study of logic
Grammar – This is part of communicating elegantly and persuasively

So the next time your child asks why he has to study this or that, well, you can pull out this list. Feel free to add your own below.

Whether intentional or not, every family develops a family culture. The trick is to do it on purpose rather than just letting it happen.

Many years ago as part of an effort to do just that, we adapted the family laws that Richard and Linda Eyre mentioned in Three Steps to a Strong Family.

I think it is so important to have the laws of your family written and clearly stated so the children know what you expect of them, yet listing every single rule for every circumstance becomes onorous both to list and to remember.

If you haven’t already done so, you might sit down with your husband or wife and come up with a small number of laws that include the expectations you have for your children. For us, the laws are permanent, and every temporary rule (such as bedtime or a curfew) is included in some way, yet they are small enough in number to be easily remembered by everyone in the family. The laws are charity, obedience, order, peace, and honesty.

Charity means living by the golden rule. It includes the two greatest laws: Love God, Love neighbor, and yes neighbor actually does include your little brother. In our society, we have terribly misconstrued what love is. God doesn’t command our feelings, so love can’t be a feeling, right? To love someone is to will his good–to want what is best for him. That’s my definition. What’s yours? Feel free to post it below.

Where obedience is concerned, I expect my children to obey God’s laws, us, and others whom we place in authority over them but with a caveat. They are never expected to obey if someone asks them to do something they know is wrong. A well-formed conscience is very important here.

The next law is order. Order involves two things, really. It involves being orderly or neat, and it involves doing things in the proper order. That means doing chores (more about chores in another post) and also fulfilling obligations before playing most of the time. For example, one of my children takes violin lessons, so I expect her to practice violin before she plays.

After order, the next family law is peace. Exhibiting the virtue of peace means not losing your temper when your brother hits you or says something unkind. It also includes speaking without whining or yelling.

The final family law is honesty. Of course, I expect my children to be honest, but there are times that honesty is hard.

For the most part, the consequence when the children are young is time-out. As they get older and become more rational, I really do find that talking to them about it is better than almost any consequence, but sometimes a short time spent in their room is necessary before they’re able to really listen.

While we’re on the subject of consequences, I’ve found over time that it is more effective to have a smaller punishment that gives the child an opportunity to redeem himself rather than a more severe punishment that does not. For example, I have one child who had a real problem with hitting when he was very young. When he was 2, he was also a biter, much to my chagrin. I used to put him in his room for an hour when he hit or bit, but that left him with little opportunity to practice interacting properly. I found that putting him in time out for twice the normal length (twice his age in minutes) was just as effective. He felt the weight of his actions, but without being made to feel entirely rejected.

I have also found that he behaves much better when he feels good about himself. This can mean helping a child find what he is good at doing, or helping him to recognize positive character traits. I would be the last person to jump on the self-esteem wagon without seeing what a difference that has made for this child.

It’s important, I think, to differentiate between flattery, which builds a self-identity that has nothing to do with reality, and giving compliments when they are truly deserved. In the former instance, the child is likely to suffer greatly when his siblings or friends quite honestly show him, or he discovers on his own, that he is not particularly capable at something, contrary to what dear old mom and dad said. It also strikes a blow where respect for mom and dad’s opinion is concerned.

The opposite is true when a child’s true sense of self is built up in a healthy way by recognition of a job well-done or, better still, by recognition of a virtue or even the beginning of a virtue.

While we’re defining big concepts, let’s go for a definition of humility. Humility is nothing more or less than an accurate view of oneself. I think it was Mother Teresa who said that humility is not thinking little of oneself; it’s thinking of oneself little.

Geography is a much-neglected subject, and making it interesting can be difficult.  The best way, of course, is to travel.  This idea comes from my mother’s childhood.  Each summer, when they went on vacation, my grandfather placed my mother and her sister in charge of planning the route, determining which roads to take, what to see along the way, and how long it would take to get there.  I might suggest adding some more math to this by giving your children an amount of time that you can take to get where you are going.  This will also force them to choose the most interesting places to stop.

 Another fun thing to do with geography is to have a geography bee.  You need a map of the world or of the U.S.(ideally laminated), a wall to hang it on, and some Post-It Flags (or Post-It Notes chopped up), and something to hold the Post-Its. 

Write the name of one capitol on each Post-It flag, and put all the capitol names in a hat or box.  Have each child pick one Post-It, then try to find the place where it belongs.  You can make this easier at first by only using a fairly small geographic area, like Western Europe, or New England.  You can make it more competitive by using a timer to set time limits for finding each capitol.  Later, you can make it more challenging by increasing the geographic area and/or decreasing the time limit.  You can do the same thing with states, countries, rivers, and cities in your state.  A variation on this would be to have a list of places, and let the children find and write the names on a laminated map using dry-erase pens.

 Lastly, I recommend using the program, Mapping the World by Heart.  Here it is:  Mapping the World by Heart.

It was created by a history teacher who realized that his students couldn’t really learn history because they had so little understanding of geography. My husband is going through it with the children.  They started with Europe since we were finishing up European history, and now they are working on the states here in America.  It just warms my homeschooling mother’s heart to hear my 6-year-old point to and rattle off the names of the countries of Europe with ease, including all the former Soviet block countries!   I couldn’t do it nearly as well as she does.

It may seem like a daunting task, but the ability to know where something took place helps tremendously with the setting of history, and an on-going understanding of current events.

This is an area of particular interest to me as I was a French major in college and, previous to that, a foreign exchange student in Italy. That said, the absolute best way you can learn a foreign language is to go to the country where the language is spoken. From my own experience, I studied French for 7 or 8 years, yet after living in Italy for 10 months, my Italian was better than my French has ever been. This is because I had to learn Italian in order to live. If anyone would like information on becoming an exchange student (I highly recommend the experience), please e-mail me and I would be happy to answer any questions I can.

That said, if you are seeking fluency in a modern foreign language, and you do not have the opportunity to live in the country where the language is spoken for a substantial amount of time (a few weeks of tourism won’t do it), the second best option is to find a native speaker and learn from him. Another idea that can help is to learn the language with a partner (or better still, the whole family) with whom you can frequently converse.

Remember that, while learning to read and write in a foreign language is important, the most important thing you can do with a language (except perhaps Latin or ancient Greek) is speak it, and if you can read and write in your native tongue, then you will be able to read and write in another as long as you can speak it and learn how to spell properly.

This is where I become conflicted. My oldest daughter wanted to learn Latin. Now, I never actually studied Latin, but my background has helped me help her. She’s using Ecce Romani books that I got from Half-Price Books about 10 years ago–one of the best purchases ever. Here’s the first one: Ecce Romani

She loves it, she’s learning, and I love it, though I do think I do pull out the Henle’s we have as a supplement for grammatical concepts now and then.

When it comes to modern languages, though, I’ve been stymied perhaps as much by my perfectionism as anything. In theory, my children have been studying Italian for years. They’ve used Rosetta Stone, Berlitz Italian for Kids, and Tell Me More over the years, but they haven’t really learned anything. They outsmarted Rosetta Stone and figured out how to answer the “pictures” without ever really learning anything. Berlitz for Kids is great as far as it goes, but that isn’t very far. We were able to sign up for Tell Me More by Aurolog through our library’s website, and it looked great at first–like Rosetta Stone but with actual grammar. However, it quickly became too complicated for them to use without a lot of help from me.

In juxtaposition to this sorry state of affairs, I tutored a young woman in French for several years using nothing but an old textbook, and she can actually speak French. It’s quite wonderful. Now, she was highly motivated to begin with and has a real gift for languages, but it ain’t rocket science, or is it?

All that said, here are my suggestions for helping your children learn a foreign language:

Option 1: Move to the country where they speak the language. If that isn’t possible…

Option 2: I recommend using a textbook in conjunction with a native speaker and/or learning partner. I do not recommend using one of the systems intended for travelers. Those may teach you to ask where the nearest bathroom is, but they won’t teach you to understand the answer. There are no shortcuts to learning a language, as many of those programs advertise, and there is no way to learn a language well without a good deal of memorizing vocabulary and learning grammar. Consider doing this in conjunction with a computer program. Maybe it will work better for you than it did for us. At the very least, that may make the process more fun, especially for a child who enjoys using the computer.

Regardless of whether you decide to go with an old-fashioned textbook or a new-fashioned computer program, it is a good idea to use index cards for vocabulary, writing the word in one language on one side, and the other language on the other. These can be used anywhere when you have a few minutes. It is better to spend 15 minutes per day on a language than several hours once per week. Lastly, if and when you do travel abroad, be certain that you learn to say please and thank you for everywhere you go. Just that small effort will open many doors for you.

I frequently receive questions regarding curricula for preschoolers. Here is my recipe for homeschooling preschoolers:

Forget textbooks, early learning programs, and turning your child into a young egghead. Instead, remember how young children learn. You did not teach your baby to walk using a curriculum program. You used your natural abilities as a mother to encourage your baby and toddler, going just far enough from him to challenge his abilities to walk to you, while ensuring his ability to succeed, and comforting him after his many falls. There are so few precious years when we can rely solely on the child’s natural abilities as knowledge seeker–we should take advantage of those years.

A preschooler does not need to learn to read.  Studies have shown that a child who learns to read at the age of four and a child who learns to read at the age of ten have the same reading skills by the time they are eleven.    (The Moore Institute, Raymond and Dorothy Moore).

A preschooler does not need to learn to add and subtract.  A preschooler does not need to learn how to use the computer.  Too frequently, I see parents who show off their young child’s abilities in such a way that the child’s presumed precociousness appears to be nothing but an ego trip for the parent rather than a real benefit to the child.  On the other hand, if your youngster is learning to read or do arithmetic on his own, encourage him.  Just be sure not to pressure him.

Preschoolers are not tiny versions of older children. They are experiencing neurological development that cannot occur later in life. Learning to read, do math, and use the computer can wait.  Learning to run and play, share with other children, be kind, enjoy the beauty of God’s earth, experience things richly–these are the tasks of the preschooler.  A preschooler will learn everything he needs to know using what amounts to unschooling methodology (which I do not necessarily believe to be the best approach later, but that will be the subject of another post).  Be available to answer all the whys, learning why the sky really is blue if your child asks you.  Give the child the opportunity to experience nature, to learn nursery rhymes by hearing them from you, to hear good music, to snuggle next to you while you read a beautiful children’s book, to learn to set and clear the table, to learn about animals, colors, sizes, and shapes (Categorization of the world around them seems to come naturally to young children), and last but assuredly not least to learn to talk to God, which is, according to St. Teresa of Avila, what prayer is.

There’s no need to buy someone’s boxed curriculum to do this.  It’s been the normal stuff of life for as long as there have been parents and children.  Do these things not with curricula, but with the normal everyday goings on of life.  Help the child learn how to behave in a manner befitting society.  The kernels of morality begin at this age.

Above all, whether you take my advice on allowing preschoolers to learn naturally or not, just be sure to be there for them. Young children need their parents–they need hugs and kisses on scraped knees and the freedom that comes from security. No amount of “quality time” offered between work and bed time will make up for being there with them, and this is even more the true for infants.

Preschoolers are not just young academicians. What they have to learn is far more important than anything that can be gained from textbooks. We take for granted our knowledge of the world around us, but for preschoolers that knowledge is just beginning. They gain it by experience, and from parents who take the time to listen and answer all the whys in the world.

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