Saturday, February 23, 2013

Critical Thinking

A public school perspective...
Last fall, I had a chance to go visit my friend's second grade classroom in a nearby public school.  It was very interesting to me.  My friend had asked me to come observe and see if there were any helpful suggestions I could give her.  One thing I noted in my conversation with her afterwards was how rigid the curriculum demands of our county are on what she teaches.  She has to teach to the standardized tests.    But, kids are better off long term if they have skills to problem solve, to think critically about a test question, and can answer questions in complete sentences.  Right now they are being taught to answer a question with yes/no or two to three word answers.  But, my friend loves her kids and wants what is best for their education short-term... and long-term.  So, what are her options?

A homeschool perspective...
I focus on the basics--reading, writing, and arithmetic.  We also study health, music, art, social studies, and science.  I juggle taking care of our home, teaching three kids on three different levels, and our other commitments.  Our school days are full.  But, last spring, I started realizing that my kids need to learn how to approach a problem and ask themselves how they can solve a problem.  I think it is one of the most difficult skills kids have to learn--how to face a problem and to not give up!  So, I began looking for age appropriate logic and critical thinking curriculums.  So, what are my options?

There are a few companies out there who publish logic and critical thinking curriculums.  They range in price and whether they are consumable or reproducible.  I have three kids in different grades so I prefer reproducible books.  They usually cost the same or just a little more than a consumable book, so it saves a lot of money for me in the long run.

This year I've been using Evan-Moor's Thinking Skills, grades 3-4 and Hands-On Thinking Activities for grades 1-3.  I have to be honest, I'm using both because I have them.  I like the Thinking Skills book.  It is reproducible and has great age appropriate logic exercises.  But, it is $21 on Amazon.  I purchased the second book for only a dollar second hand and it has far fewer activities, but it's great for 1st or 2nd graders new to logic and puzzles.  Would I spend $11 on it used?  Probably not.

Although I like these books, I wanted to find another curriculum that would work for me at home and my friend in her classroom.  One of my conditions was to find a less expensive option.

A few months ago, I happened upon Prufrock Press.  They publish several different logic and critical thinking series.  One is titled Lollipop Logic, for grades K-2.  Another is Logic Safari.  And a third series begins with Logic Countdown for grades 3-4.  

In this post, I'm going to review this third series, which includes Logic Countdown, Logic Liftoff, and Orbiting With Logic by Bonnie Risby.  I have the first two books of the series.  There are 54 pages of puzzles in the first book and 56 in the second.  The puzzles focus on relationships, analogies, sequencing, syllogisms, as well as inferencing and deduction skills.  These are reproducible books that lend themselves to use by homeschoolers and classroom teachers.  

For the past few weeks, my oldest daughter has been completing two exercises a week from Logic Countdown.  She enjoys them.  Once in a while she has come up with another answer for the relationship exercises.  Her answers are reasonable though and so I think that her answers are "right" even if they are different than the answers in the back of the book.  For the most part, the answers are clear cut.  I asked my daughter her opinion and she loves the book.  She find the exercises fun.  I want my kids to look at language or mathematical puzzles as "fun".  I believe this feeling will help them want to tackle problems they don't understand rather than shrink from them.  

As a homeschooler, these books are great for use with gifted students who finish their work quickly.  They are also great worksheets to give children when they're done with an assignment and waiting for your help.

As a classroom teacher, I wouldn't copy the pages of these books.  Instead, I'd use 2-4 questions daily after lunch or recess to get my students brains to reengage.  I'd write them on an overhead, smart board, or chalk board.  

The biggest difference between these books and Evan-Moor's critical thinking series is the amount of teacher explanation and thickness of the books.  Evan Moor gives a great deal of explanation for every pair of worksheets.  These books by Ms. Risby does not.  She gives an overview of the book's exercises at the beginning of each book.  But, I don't think the explanation is needed.  

One other difference is the font used in these books.  I've recently been looking at various worksheets on and teacher's notebook.  It is very interesting to me to see how many elementary teachers choose fancy fonts for classroom worksheets.  They also use an excessive amount of graphics (in my opinion).  These fonts look pretty and fun, but they are actually much more difficult for children to read--especially children who have difficulties reading.  The font used in in these books from Prufrock Press look old fashioned, but they are a tried and true font that is easy for children to read.  For children who have difficulty focusing, place a blank paper bookmark beneath each question.  That is the one downside to these worksheets--the formatting doesn't always let children easily distinguish between one question and the next.  
This wouldn't effect a classroom teacher using these worksheet exercises for warm-ups, but it would affect a homeschooler completing the exercises on his or her own.  

Would I recommend Logic Countdown and the other two books in this series?  Yes.  The books are an affordable, solid curriculum supplement. They will allow students to stretch their minds without adding a lot of time onto their school day!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of Logic Countdown and Logic Liftoff for review from Prufrock Press.

Homeschool, Public School, Private School

I had two very interesting experiences over the past few weeks.

Here's the first:

Two weeks ago, Eli started gymnastics nearby.  I sat on a bench outside the class and listened as a family nearby read to one child and quizzed another on math problems.  One parent insisted that the older child complete the math problems all 100% correctly.  It was interesting to overhear.  The coach and the parents discussed that a child in the class needed to focus more so that she can move on.  The child is under 5 years old.

I wasn't trying to eavesdrop.  But, I couldn't help but overhear.  It was very interesting to me.  I have to admit it.  I could see how important education was to these parents.  They were doing well by their kids.  Spending time with them.  Investing.  Caring.  And with good intentions... pushing them to do well.

I went home and realized how thankful I am that I homeschool.  There are some patterns from my childhood that I don't want to repeat--that sneak in--and that I have to push out again.  There are some that I'm still working on pushing out!  I was raised to push myself very hard in school and be super competitive (hence my getting straight As for 8 years and in grad school).   I pushed Autumn in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.  We were caught up in our society's belief that children need to start learning young and need to learn a lot young!  Chris and I read The Well Trained Mind and had a very intense idea of how much work she needed to complete and master.  I was more concerned about where I thought she needed to be than about going at the pace that was best for her.

God worked on me a lot and my family's homeschooling is different now.  I still have a lot of learning to do, though, and I'm continually reflecting on my kids' education.  Am I doing best by them and for them?  Am I duplicating subjects?  Am I asking enough of them, but not too much?

My second experience:

The second experience was this week when I met a homeschool mom who is new to homeschooling.  Her children previously attended a private school nearby.  I know several families in this same position.  After a few minutes of talking with her, I realized that she has a private school perspective of homeschooling.

I have noticed in the past when I have spoken to former private school parents that are aiming to eventually put their kids back in a private school that their educational, physical, and social goals for their kids are different than mine.  Their goal is to make sure that their kids are staying on track with the scope and sequence for either the school they used to attend or that they plan to attend in the future.  They often have their children take standardized tests yearly to make sure that they are on track with national benchmarks.

I am not writing about this to criticize this approach.  I understand why they do this.  They need to make sure that their children will not be behind and have not missed material that was covered by the other students in school while they were homeschooled or already covered material that will be covered when they return to school.

Most parents, like me, start with what a book or someone they know recommends for curriculum.  Many start with Abeka, Bob Jones, or Sonlight.  Some choose curriculums like Calvert or Liberty that will give them a school diploma if they complete all of their courses through that school.  

For public and private school students, the benchmark of how well students are doing is whether they are keeping up with or doing well compared to their peers.  How are their test scores?  Their grades?  For parents who aren't in the classroom daily, this is a way to tell how their child is doing in the classroom.  I understand this, being a former public and private classroom teacher.  These grades and test scores are assessments.  The purpose of all assessments is to tell whether a student has mastered the information and skills that they are trying to learn.

But, assessment looks different in homeschooling.  You can't tell how your child is doing by comparing them to their peers.  What we are able to do as homeschooling parents is personally listen and observe to see if our children are learning.

How we assess our children affects our goals.  
My homeschooling goals have changed over time.

When I started out homeschooling Autumn, I remember the intensity of my concern about Autumn's academic progress.  There are some notable bumps in the road that God used to teach me how to love my children well and teach them better.  

When I started out teaching preschool to Autumn, my husband was concerned that I wouldn't be able to be consistent and stick to a weekly schedule.  I wanted to homeschool, so I wanted to prove to him that Autumn was learning what she needed to.  I found World Book's scope and sequence and a series of preschool assessment forms to use with Autumn.  This documentation showed my husband that Autumn was learning, because he couldn't be in our classroom each week with us.  

I came from a public school perspective that all children should and can learn from the same text.  So, in kindergarten I picked a difficult math curriculum, Singapore.  Autumn did fine with it in kindergarten, but quickly got bogged down in first grade.  That was a bump for me.  I knew Autumn was bright, but she was in tears trying to understand this math book that demanded she make abstract connections with numbers that math educators have long believed are more appropriate for 4th and 5th graders.  Many children are able to make these connections.  It is a good curriculum.  But, it wasn't good for Autumn and God helped me see that.  

We switched to HSP math and worked for her--and for me.  It took smaller stair steps to help her make the same connections that Singapore was after.  At the end of that year, I expressed to a friend of mine my struggle to get everything done with Autumn for school.  When I told her our curriculum list, she encouraged me to consider what topics/material was being duplicated.  She was right.  I was duplicating Autumn for phonics and spelling even though she understood all the material.  So, in second grade, I took out her spelling and let Explode the Code be her spelling and phonics.  We finished up Phonics Pathways and that was the end of her phonics instruction.  We stuck with HSP math and life was simpler.  

I realized that I was pushing my daughter too hard--I was holding her to the regimen of study that I found in the book, The Well Trained Mind.  But, my life with three young children and my personality didn't work well with the ideas in that book.  My husband and I discussed it and we went back to standards based curriculum, rather than classical education.  

Second grade was better.  Different issues each year to think through.  I began to observe my children during our school time.  What is best for them? What curriculum and benchmarks are challenging for them?  What is reasonable to expect?  Where do I need to challenge them and where do I need to show them grace?  

Being a student of my students will be an ongoing process as long as I continue to homeschool.  I want to be the teacher they need.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Too busy?

My mother in law mentioned that she was encouraged by HSLDA's Homeschool Heartbeat this past Wednesday.  Here's a link to it if you're interested in hearing it.  Mike Smith was interviewing Heidi St. John.  Here's a summary of what she said (in my words):

If I’m too busy…

To have personal time with the Lord
To have personal time with my husband
To nurture my children…
(in that order)

Then I’m too busy.

I like how simply she put it.  I'm going to put this on an index card and put it up where I can see it each day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Changes and Lessons Week by Week

Every week I feel like there are lessons I learn.  Lessons that God has to teach me.  Some weeks these lessons seem overwhelming.  Am I ever going to get it?  Is there ever going to be a week when I can pause and catch my breath?

I don't know.

This past week found my husband and I buying a new car at the beginning of the week.  The end of the week found us making serious decisions about seminary.  Tuesday found me realizing that I have my limits.  Saturday morning found me reflecting on The Hunger Games and the Twilight series while my husband went to work.  The very end of the week found us reflecting on how to be good hosts to groups of people in our home.

Buying a new car...
When my husband and I first married, we struggled to navigate the waters of making decisions together.  We learned to trust each other.  We learned to accept the others' questions and concerns.  Sometimes it's hard to hear other people's opinions.  I was so proud of my husband at the car dealer.  As we sat, he told me that he wasn't willing to sign if I didn't have peace.  I didn't.  The price was too hight.  He was willing to walk away.  We got up and began to thank the salesman for his time with the sincere intention to leave.  The salesman asked what we would pay.  We gave him the number.  I had a number that was too low, my husband's was a little higher, but reasonable for us.  The salesman went to his manager and came back to say the deal was made.  The dealer took $1300 more off the price.  My husband left with a car that is comfortable and enjoyable for him to ride on his long commute.  Praise God!  My husband has endured long commutes for 7 years and I want his commute to be easier, not harder.  I left with a smile in my heart.  We did it together.  After multiple motorcycle purchases and four car purchases, we can communicate and work as a team on these decisions.  Yippee!

I got an email from someone and in a moment simply new I had hit my limit.  I almost always say yes when my husband asks me to do something for him or when anyone else asks as well.  But, in that moment, I knew I had to say no.  I called my husband and told him.  I gave the ball to him.  I needed him to stand for me and handle the situation.  He did.  He said no for me--for us.  It wasn't a matter of "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."  I know that.  God will give me strength when there is something He wants me to do--I have no doubt of this.  But, somehow I just knew it was a time to say no.  This was good for my husband and for me.  I think my friends are sometimes concerned that I take on too much.  I know this also concerns my husband.  I am going to remind him in the future that I can and will say no when I need to!

Books and Reading...
My book reviewing hobby and homeschooling avid readers has caused me to reflect deeply about the books I read and why.  Seven years ago, I looked at books very differently.  I was a teacher, but not a parent of a child who could read.  I suspect that food critics weren't born food critics.  They ate food and as they ate, they began to discern what tasted better to them and what didn't.  Then, they likely began to express what the differences were.  That's the way I feel about books.  I've read about 400 books of all different genres--adults, childrens, nonfiction, fiction...  It has made me think about what we feed our minds and what we dwell on.  I read parts of the first Twilight book and Hunger Games.  It was interesting.  Good food for thought.  I didn't read either completely for different reasons, which is a long discussion.  But, I'm glad I read parts of these two books.  

My husband withdrew from his seminary classes for this semester and concluded that this is not the time for seminary for our family.  He wants to be able to be a good husband and father.  He wants to play with his kids and not tell them he doesn't have time.  He wants to do the things he has to do--well.  His job, being a dad and husband, caring for our moms, music at church...  His plate is full.  I am proud of him and thankful for him--more than I can even begin to explain.  

So, that was my week.  I am not superwoman.  I will not be superwoman.  God is good, gracious, and merciful.  I am trusting in His plans and taking one step at a time.  

So, that's me.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Magazines at the Supermarket

When I was a teenager, I remember flipping through People Magazine and enjoying the uplifting human interest articles.  It's a different magazine today.  It's not quite as bad as Star, InTouch, or any of the others that fill the Supermarket stands... or maybe it is.  

I had an interesting trip to ShopRite yesterday.  Lessons for the kids. Lessons for me.

When we got in the checkout line, I knew we had some time, so I glanced around at the magazines.  I picked up people for a second.  I was curious about the JonBenet article.  I have to admit it.  You see.  I lived in Denver twelve years ago and JonBenet Ramsay was all over the news for months on end.  It was very sad.  After glancing at the article, I realized it really said--Nothing.  Nothing new, except that no one would ever be charged in the case and no resolution would ever come to pass.  I set down the magazine and got ready to load the conveyer belt.  

Autumn looked at the magazines and made some interesting comments to me.  First, she commented that the covers of the magazines didn't look so bad.  Although the shirt that a young actress was wearing looked very uncomfortable to her.

I said that the magazines are really just filled with stuff about other people that we don't need to know and that isn't good for our minds.  

She, of course, asked why people look at them then.  

I replied that people are curious.

Why do people write these articles then?

Because they want to sell magazines.

Why would they write them if they aren't good for other people?

Because they don't care.  They mostly aren't Christians, want to sell magazines, and make more money.


That's sad.

Yes, it is.

Then, I glanced down and saw my 4 1/2 year old son peeking stealthily into a magazine about Lady Gaga.  LADY GAGA!  AY AY AY!  

Eli, come here....  and this conversation ensued.

Eli, does that magazine look like Thomas the Tank Engine?

Eli, does that magazine look like Bob the Builder?

Eli, that magazine isn't for you.  It's for adults and you aren't an adult.  Do you understand?

It was an interesting discussion for my kids, but also for me.  Today I need to explain temptation to my kids and resisting it.  I need to resist the temptation to think that there will be anything redeeming or edifying to read in People magazine.  

I realized that Yahoo! is the same way for me.  I check my email there every few days.  Autumn asked me yesterday why I look at some of the articles on it.  I know it's because I hope to find something interesting.  I want to feel like I know what is going on in the world when I stay in my house all day teaching and mothering.  But, that isn't a good way.

So, I resolved this morning to try and turn the radio on the internet for background noise instead of a tv show.  I also resolved to find a decent news website to look at when I want to be informed.  I looked up World Magazine's site, which did have two articles I could read.  I looked up CNN, which isn't splashed with entertainment stuff all over it.  If you have any suggestions for me, please let me know!

I also know that I need to look for the checkout lanes that have less magazines.  

By the way, Sami was present through all of this, but she was in front of the cart admiring the gum display.  That story is one for another day.  We've been talking a lot about money and how we spend it and how we don't.  It's been interesting...