No Textbook, No Problem

I can’t remember, way back when I decided to homeschool Jake for 4th grade, how I came up with my social studies curriculum.  But it’s a simple one, and we don’t use a textbook.
The theme of the year is States and Presidents.  Lorelei will learn all 50 states and their capitals.  She’ll also learn their postal abbreviations and will be able to fill them in on a map of the United States.  Copying the list of states will provide handwriting practice while also aiding learning.  Of course it won’t be all rote memorization–we will discuss facts about each state as we go.  And then she’ll get to pick one and do a report on it.
We will also memorize all the Presidents, in order.  Again, as we do that, we’ll be learning a few important things about each one.  And we will discuss the events in American History that were happening during each administration.  We won’t be using a textbook because we have numerous books about the states and the presidents that Lorelei can read selections from.  And again, she will pick her favorite President and write a report about him.
Every time I studied American History in school–which I think happened in 4th, 7th, and 11th grades (at least), we’d start off strong, with the discovery of America, maybe, or perhaps the 13 colonies.  But we always ran out of time before we reached the present day.  I think we might have made it to World War II one time!  I used to page ahead in the book to pictures of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and the Vietnam War and the moon landing and wonder if we’d ever read those parts, but alas.
So our method probably lacks a little depth but at least we will cover it all!

A Dying Art

That would be penmanship, but it’s going to be a daily subject in our homeschool this year. [Update: This dream died halfway through the first year, I am ashamed to say.]
In my eight years of Catholic grade school, we had handwriting practice EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Yes, every single day for eight years.  At first, this was a sorry trial for me.  I struggled to print neatly in first grade.  My teacher had a set of rubber stamps she used to mark our papers.  The Excellent stamp was unattainable.  There were only two people in the class who EVER earned an Excellent.  I only hoped for a Very Good stamp.  But day after day my papers came back marked Try Harder, when I promise you I was already trying as hard as I could!
We moved on to cursive in the middle of second grade, and from third grade on, all work had to be completed in cursive.  Because my mind moved faster than my hand, my writing was messy and full of scribbled out words.  My handwriting can still be very messy today, if I’m in a hurry.  But when I try, I can write legible and attractive cursive.  I worked hard to achieve this result.  And I use it every day, because in this law office, all envelopes are addressed, by hand, in cursive, by me.
Even so, my writing is far from the elegant script we find in old letters.  That kind of cursive is already a lost art.  But in just a couple of generations, no one may be able to write in cursive at all!  My three big kids, a product of 13 years of Catholic education, did learn cursive.  But after a couple of years, they never had to use it again.  They were allowed to keep right on printing and then eventually started using computers for everything.  They never write in cursive and sometimes I think they might have forgotten how.  The only time I see any cursive coming from their pens is when they have to sign their names to something.
William was still being homeschooled at the time he would have started learning cursive, and I was more concerned about making sure he could print legibly at that point.  While they do at the moment still teach cursive in our public schools, he basically missed it, and since he’s getting to the age where it’s all typing all the time, he may never learn more than how to sign his name, unless he wants to.  And he probably won’t, because most kids seem to think cursive is an old-fashioned waste of time.
When I was little, cursive was a Big Deal.  It was like a code.  All the grownups wrote in it, and none of the kids could read it.  The Lunch Ladies at St. Joseph School used to write out the menu for the week in cursive and tape in on the wall in the hallway.  I remember my delight when at some point during first grade I taught myself to decipher it.  I also remember how eager I was to learn how to write, so eager that I got my grandmother to show me how so I had a head start before second grade.  I was already writing my name in cursive on everything,
Lorelei learned to write her name in cursive early too, and I don’t expect any resistance from her when it comes to this subject.  [HOW WRONG I WAS] And I’m glad, because I think it’s a shame that most kids never learn to write cursive well, and that many school districts are doing away with it all together.  I’m sad not only because good handwriting is beautiful to see, but also because learning to write in cursive stimulates different parts of the brain.  It helps kids learn.  And some kids who have great difficulty with printing don’t have that same difficulty with cursive.
So handwriting practice is going to be a daily part of our homeschooling curriculum.  We are going to do a page from our book every day.  I chose a book that combines religious instruction with handwriting instruction, but we won’t rely on this alone.  For example, when Lorelei is learning the Beatitudes this year, her handwriting work for the day will be to write them in her best handwriting.  The same will go for the Ten Commandments, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Stations of the Cross, and other religious concepts.  But we won’t only be linking handwriting to religion.  In Social Studies, it will be state capitals, or the names of the Presidents.  And writing neatly will be important in every subject. [This did work for Jake and Teddy, at least.]
What do you think?  Is it too late to save cursive?  Does it matter?  How often do you use cursive?

Math IS Fun

See, I think I misspoke (miswrote?) when I titled my last homeschooling post Math Doesn’t Have to Be Fun.  It was catchy, which is a good quality for a title, but I probably should have said something like Math Books Don’t Need to Be Fun.
Because I happen to believe that Math IS fun, and the people who are desperately trying to make the textbooks colorful and exciting are missing the point:  it’s all about the numbers, folks.
Have you ever seen someone getting really excited about Math?  My high school Algebra II/Advanced Math teacher, a sweet, wonderful, energetic Sister of Mercy named Sister Albertine, was like that.  I remember her explaining things to us on the blackboard, calling numbers “cute little creatures.”  I vividly recall the way she taught us about hyperbolas always approaching but never quite reaching the axis, which she demonstrated by taking tinier and tinier steps toward the classroom door.

Sister Albertine in recent years – photo credit: Tennova website

I mentioned in the last post that I love fractions.  I thought it was so cool that to divide them you turn them upside down and multiply them.  I love algebra too, and still enjoy solving a good complicated equation.   Most kids like number puzzles and patterns if they haven’t already been convinced that Math is hard and boring.
What’s needed to demonstrate that Math is fun, though, is not an illustrated textbook–it’s a good teacher with a love of the subject.  For fourth grade math, I hope I qualify! [edit: apparently not. 🙁]

Math Doesn't Have to Be Fun

Have you looked at your kid’s math book lately?  Besides being outrageously large and heavy, you’ll find that’s it’s colorful and has photographs on almost every page!  Also little boxes with things like “fun math facts” in them.  It makes my head swim to look in these books.  Sometimes it’s hard to find the math.
Contrast this with a really old math book, if you can find one.  I have some vintage ones that I’ve picked up here and there.  They are tiny–small enough to fit in a coat pocket.  But that doesn’t stop them from being full of really hard math.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I open a math book all I need to see are rows of math problems.  (Well, a little explanation is nice, too.)  When I was a kid, our math books were somewhat larger and more colorful than the vintage kind, but smaller and less distracting than those of today.  I would have been happy to use the series we used most of the way through grade school for homeschooling, as I have reused other books from my own school days, but you don’t get to keep your math book.
When I began homeschooling, I kept reading about something called the Saxon math program that homeschoolers all seemed to love.  So that’s what I got and used for Teddy and Jake, and I will be using the same thing for Lorelei.  Besides being full of math problems and devoid of color photography, the Saxon series also just does a good job at teaching math.  Subtitled “an incremental development,” the series starts each new lesson by reviewing what you’ve learned in the lesson just before.  Concepts build on concepts, and nothing is forgotten from lack of use.  Each set of exercises is preceded by a clear explanation with examples, so you can work through it and teach it to your kid (and perhaps remember how to do it yourself if you’ve happened to forget!).
math 1
math 2
math 3
math 4
You can buy the Saxon series direct from the manufacturer, or you can do what I did and get it on eBay way cheaper.  Now, you won’t get a workbook or a teacher’s manual or manipulatives if you do it that way, but I do homeschooling on the cheap.  It’s a drag not to have an answer key, although not such a big deal for me since I’m pretty sure I can still handle fourth grade math.
So is the approach effective?  Does it work?  I homeschooled my big boys for fourth grade, then sent them back to St. Joseph School.  Well, Jake was close to failing math in third grade.  He had no problem with the Saxon method.  I sat with him and wrote the problems for him because he has dysgraphia and he’d make a mess and get all frustrated before it was even time to start solving the problem.  When he took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills later in the year, he was ahead of his grade level.  Math never became his favorite subject, but he never struggled too much with grade school math again.  Teddy is basically a math genius.  He was already a year ahead when we started, and I think we got part of the way into a second book.  He went on to complete Algebra I AND Geometry before he even started high school.
Math isn’t Lorelei’s favorite subject, but she doesn’t have any particular problem with it.  I’m looking forward to using this book to help her become even more confident in her math skills.  And we get to do fractions!  I love fractions. [edit: Lorelei does NOT love fractions.  Or math of any kind.  I still love the Saxon series, but have had to resort to other means to get her past the mental block she has set up for herself.]

"The School I Would Run"

The title is in quotes because I utter that phrase frequently, mostly when complaining about something that has happened in one of my kids’ schools or when reading about the latest stupid educational fad.  (I also sometimes say “If I ran the world” but that is another post for another day!)
This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it in any particular order.
AT MY SCHOOL WE . . .

  • Would have Mass EVERY MORNING.  My parochial-schooled kids only went twice a week.  For most of my childhood it was every day, then later switched to three days.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate and it doesn’t have to take more than thirty minutes.  I did not realize what a blessing and a privilege it was at the time, but I do now.
  • Would have gym EVERY DAY.  Physical exercise is important.  Kids are getting fatter.  Some kids don’t play sports and they need the exercise.  Taking breaks to move around aids in learning as well.  We had gym every day when I was a kid and I bet you did too, but my kids go twice a week, and sometimes it’s two days in a row!
  • Would have thirty minutes of recess EVERY DAY.  I don’t honestly know how much kids get these days but I’m sure it’s not that much.  They don’t have the freedom we did to rush through lunch to try to get as much playtime is possible, and half the time recess isn’t after lunch anyway. And my middle school child doesn’t get recess AT ALL.  Not only do kids need exercise, they also need nature.
  • Would not have a technology/computer class AT ALL.  I’m not saying that computers might not be available, maybe for enrichment activities of some kind, but the idea that we need to “prepare our kids for the future” by teaching them computer is laughable.  Were we in any way prepared for the digital age?  Are we doing okay anyway?  My kids get plenty of screen time at home and they don’t need anyone at school to teach them how computers work.  Besides, what we teach kids about today’s technology in kindergarten will be obsolete within a few years anyway.  Let’s use that time for things that really matter.
  • Would have regular art and music classes.  Because these things are fun and enhance academic learning besides.  HOWEVER, and I know the teachers of these subjects won’t like this, for the most part these subjects should be taught in the regular classroom, with the teacher rolling her materials in on a cart.  Why?  Because the “specials” schedule, with kids traveling to different rooms on different days, is confusing and disruptive and wastes huge amounts of instructional time because of the transition required, both for the movement of bodies and the settling down of them afterward.
  • Would treat Spanish as a serious academic subject or omit it all together.  My big kids had Spanish for nine years in grade school.  Now ask me if they are fluent.  Kids in Europe attain fluency in English so we know it’s possible.  Our schools teach kids colors and body parts and songs in Spanish year after year after year so they can show it off when they are applying for accreditation.  If the kids aren’t coming out fluent, it’s a waste of instructional time.
  • Would emphasize grammar and diagram sentences.  There is no better way to understand the structure of the English language.  And you can’t learn a foreign language later if you don’t understand the grammar of your own.
  • Would teach cursive and practice it daily.  Some studies have shown that learning cursive improves academic performance.  But it’s also close to becoming a lost art and it’s a civilized skill that an adult should possess, if only for writing thank you notes.
  • Would use a math book that is full of math problems, not distracting color photographs.  For homeschooling, we used the Saxon program.  Seriously, y’all, have you looked at your kids’ math books?  Why do we think we need to entertain kids constantly?  When it’s time for math, let’s do math,
  • Would teach spelling the old-fashioned way.  Because it works.  We used a speller from the 1940s at home.  You have a weekly list of words, you write sentences, you do activities with them, you take a pretest, you copy over the ones you miss, you do a post-test.  Over the years I have seen some incredibly stupid methods of teaching spelling.  I will write a whole post (rant) about that some time.
  • Would encourage creative writing.  My sister’s third-grade teacher gave them a writing prompt every morning in the form of a magazine photo she hung on the board.  They could write anything they wanted to.  Betsy brought home wonderful stories every day.
  • Would offer plenty of time for reading, with an engaging reading series like the Keys to Reading series that my classmates and I enjoyed at St. Joseph.
  • Would have no summer homework.  Enough said.
  • Would have, in fact, no homework at all.  Unless you goofed off and didn’t finish what you should have during the day, or with the possible exception of long-term projects.
  • Would require uniforms.
  • Would EXPECT good behavior, not reward it.
  • Would start later in the year, maybe later in the day, and would have a shorter day for kindergartners and first graders.  And don’t tell me we need more instructional time, not less. For one thing, I’m not buying it, and for another, I’ve freed up time by getting ride of Spanish and computers and unnecessary transit time.
  • Would have the option of writing a paper on a scientific subject rather than completing a science fair project.  A corollary:  projects with obvious parental involvement would get a WORSE grade than ones kids obviously did on their own.
  • Would offer every kid an opportunity to shine, whether they are athletes, mathletes, budding scientists, artists, musicians, or writers.  Rather than awarding everyone for everything, my school would instill the concept that everyone is especially good at something and celebrate that.  Yes, that means that some kids would go home ribbonless from Field Day. It’s painful (as I know from experience) but that’s life.

I will stop there for now since I DON’T have my own school and have to spend some time actually earning a living this morning.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Would you like my school?  How would YOUR school be different from mine, or different from the ones you’ve experienced?
7th grade
UPDATE:  For the past few years I have had my own school in that I am homeschooling Lorelei and just want to state for the record that it is sadly missing a lot of the above elements!