Saturday, November 23, 2013

Switching Tracks

Sometimes curriculum works and sometimes it doesn't.  I think it has to work for both the parents and the children. Here are the conclusions I've come to over the past thirteen years since I began teaching.  

For the parent, it has to "make sense".  It has to be easy to follow and give the parent the information they need in order to teach the material.  

For  the child, it has to "make sense".  They need to be able to understand the material, process, and remember it.  

Learning is much easier when both parent and child also want to study the curriculum and enjoy it.  If this is missing, learning can turn into a long, grueling period of pulling teeth.  Not always, but it can happen.  Sometimes you just have to plug and chug away knowing that there is a subject that neither of you enjoy and you just make the best of it.  

Yesterday in the car on the way home from art, my middle daughter said to me, "Mommy, I don't like our science."  I asked her why and she explained that it was hard for her to understand.  Her comments made me start thinking.  I switched science curriculums last year and this year.   Last year's curriculum, though one that the kids liked, was one that I struggled to get through.  The teacher's manual was very hard for me to read and glean what I needed to know from the text.  The kids did learn some great information, but in all honesty, my procrastination and dislike for the teacher's manual meant that we did not get through the whole text.  Prior to that, we had used Harcourt Science--which both the kids and I loved, but was shaped by evolutionary theory and natural selection.  I switched away last year but hit some bumps...

So, this year we switched to another Christian curriculum, Christian Kids Explore Biology, and I tried again to find a Christian science curriculum that we would like and that would be easy to use.  

Unfortunately, after two lessons, I quickly realized that there were lots of holes in the curriculum and it was difficult for my kids to follow auditorily.  There is no student book and the text would be way above their reading level if I were to copy it for them (which isn't legal since the text portion of the book isn't reproducible).  I worked through several lessons and assembled additional materials and supplements so that the curriculum would be what I thought it should be.  

Here's a quick example.  Instead of clearly saying, "There are two types of cells:  Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic.  Animal and Plant cells are both eukaryotic, but they have some differences."  The book says on page 8, "Eukaryotic cells have a particular organelle inside called the nucleus...  and on pg. 9, "Some cells do not have a nucleus.  They are called prokaryotic."  No examples are given of what a prokaryotic cell would be.  Then the assignment asks kids to label an animal cell and a plant cell, before first saying that both of these cells are eukaryotic because they have a nucleus.  That was Lesson 2 in Unit 1.  Honestly, I love the stuffing of this curriculum, but there just isn't enough of it and there are statements that are missing so that me (a non-science lover) can teach it easily.  I was constantly running to the internet so that I could thoroughly explain the lessons to my kids.  I had to clarify that there weren't more than two types of cells.  I also wanted my kids to know the word "mitosis" which wasn't mentioned in the lesson at all.  

So, where does that leave me?  The reason I had switched because of my concerns about evolution and natural selection and how that teaching permeates secular science curriculum.  I've looked for a curriculum that I like as well as Harcourt Science.  Now I've tried two and have looked at many others.  
But Harcourt Science works for my kids and it works for me.  As my oldest daughter said to me today.  Mommy, "I know creation is the truth, but I like this book and how it teaches."  

I was sick yesterday so we didn't do any school work.  Instead we worked on science all afternoon today. Sami completed two chapters and Autumn one chapter.  We have a little catching up to do.  It was different today, though, than when we used this curriculum before.  I've learned a lot in the past two years.  Using two curriculums that are more hands on and do not have a student text have made the science entirely auditorily oriented and required hands on craft activities and/or notes.  Autumn used to work her way through the curriculum and I would not do the experiments.  Today, we did the experiment on density.  Sami did the instant labs for each of her lessons.  I integrated phonics and noticing word structure into Sami's lesson which we read aloud.  With Autumn, I made sure to read over her answers and correct her errors.  She wrote down her observations from the experiment and her conclusion.  

I thought we would cover more if I was teaching them together.  I found the opposite to be true.  My kids are visual learners, not auditory.  Sami is more kinesthetic than visual, but all her senses work together.  The bigger problem I encountered is that Sami needs a book written at her level and that is what Harcourt does so well.  It covers the same topics every year but in writing that is grade level appropriate with appropriate details.  The curriculum naturally scaffolds students' background knowledge and understanding of science. There are lots of color pictures and the experiments use materials I have. Although... I just picked up a digital scale three weeks ago at a garage sale for a dollar that we needed today!  God was so gracious to provide something we needed before I even knew we needed it.  

I told my husband today that we've switched back.  He said, "Good."  Let's stick with it.  Harcourt goes through 6th grade and then we'll go from there...

It might be easy to wonder if we wasted our time.  I don't think we did.  The kids did study science last year and some this year.  I needed learn more about how to teach science.  Studying science in elementary school is basically about building children's background knowledge.  They've learned some good lessons along the way and so have I.  Most of all, I trust the Lord and I've learned that sometimes he takes me on rabbit trails so that I can see why I need to get back on the path I was on.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Spelling Thoughts

In homeschooling, there are so many different ways to approach spelling.  Many people choose a line of yearly spelling workbooks that their children work through each year.  Others use Spelling Power as a guide.
Last year, I wrote a post with my spelling plan.  I use Spelling Power as my foundation for my oldest daughter.  For the words that she misspells, I use a plan similar to what my students used when I taught in public school.  Spelling Power includes a long explanation of how to teach spelling in the beginning of the book (in very small font!).  This program has worked wonderfully for my oldest daughter who rarely gets a word wrong from the lists.

My second daughter is a different speller and so she needs a different approach to spelling to help her.  I wrote this post in August as I prepared to tackle spelling in a different way this year with her.  Much of it has been successful, but some of it has not.  I discovered as we settled into a busy fall that because I hadn't assembled the phonics component beforehand that I only did it sporadically.  So, now I am taking a step back and figuring out what I have or need that is preassembled and that I can pick up and teach from.  Because I have three children that I'm teaching at the same time and engaging, I can't assemble as I go.  There simply isn't time.  But, the modifications I've made in my approach to spelling have been very successful!  She is feeling much more successful at spelling and is hopeful!  I realized that my sweet daughter needs direct instruction.  Where my oldest daughter understood spelling rules implicitly, my younger daughter needs to be taught these rules and when they apply.  So, now when she misspells a word, I explain why.  We talk about long vowels and short vowels.  And my daughter thinks about what she's spelling.

When I taught school, it was a common practice to add misspelled words from a student's writing to their spelling lists.  Some teachers I knew were able to integrate this practice and some weren't.  It's difficult in a classroom of thirty children because then you have thirty spelling folders or lists to keep track of!  I assumed this would be easier in homeschooling and yet it is something I haven't integrated into my homeschooling until this year.  When I considered how to improve my daughter's spelling, I did a lot of reading from a lot of sources and then I culled through to collate the ideas I thought would be useful to me.  It would have been nice to have a book at the time that was easy to read and understand...

And of course there is a book out there, right?  Yes, of course.  There are
probably several, actually.  But, recently I found one of them.  It is titled How to Teach Any Child to SPELL by Gayle Graham.  There is a companion book, Tricks of the Trade: A Student's Individualized Spelling Notebook.  Ms. Graham's book is very easy to read and does summarize a lot of what I learned in the course of my reading.  There are a few minor differences like the practice of penciling--underlining syllables instead of using Phonemic Sound Boxes (Elkonin Boxes).  But, the ideas are the same.  It is nice because the spelling rules are all there.  The spelling notebook is for students to use as they categorize the words from their own writing that they misspell.  Using a notebook can be a tedious process.  But, some children sincerely can benefit from it--especially when grouping words together according to rules clicks for them and helps them to spell more correctly consistently.

I began writing this post and then decided I needed to think a little bit more about teaching spelling and what to say in this review.  I realized that it's easy to give a child a workbook on spelling and let them learn on their own--if spelling comes easily to them.  But, any spelling program aimed at teaching the rules of spelling takes time.  The idea behind Ms. Graham's program is to underline the words that are misspelled in a child's writing and then find where they fit in a notebook of spelling rules.  She includes a daily spelling plan.  That spelling plan includes a daily phonics review.  The worksheets from my previous post on Carl's Corner would be a great tool to use.  I like her plan.  Begin with phonics, move on to reviewing child's spelling notebook, then reading and observing spelling, and finally daily writing.  

I have to admit that How to Teach Any Child to Spell is quite general.  It has enough guidelines to give you a framework, but then you have to fill in the content.  So, here's what I'd do with this little book...
1) Read it completely.  Make a shortcut guide for the daily lesson plan.  
2) Assemble phonics worksheets from Carl's Corner.  Begin with the blends ch/sh/th/wh and other sounds that the child doesn't recognize from the consonant list included in the book.  My advice is to assemble a notebook ahead of time so that you can follow from one digraph to the next.  Then teach short vowels and long e.  Use the Clue Sheets from Tricks of the Trade as a guide for what phonics combinations need to be taught.
3) Read Aloud.  Pick a book you both enjoy or a poem each day.  Poems are nice because they are short and have many word patterns.  Point out the rules you've been teaching them about.  I like Ms. Graham's explanation of how to do this.  
4) Place a mini word wall page in the front of your child's planner for them to use as a shortcut spelling list when they are writing.  As they use words from it, ask them about the rules that tell them how to spell those words. How do they know?  Here is a link to the one I use.
5) Use the Tricks of the Trade to catalog the words with spelling errors from their writing.  This is the most time consuming part.  I would use an adhesive tab (or make one) for the front index of where to find the pages for each rule in the book.  That's the problematic and time consuming part of this.  If your child is young (3rd grade or younger), you will need to begin by helping them categorize each individual word.  As the child is more independent, instruct your child to write a few words in themselves.  Independence will come gradually though.  First check the words after they done them one by one, then check them as a group.  Ask your child to reason and explain why they put each word on the page he/she did.  The child's explanation is an important assessment of whether or not he/she understood the spelling rule applied. 
The Tricks of the Trade clue sheets in the front are very helpful because they can be a guide to you about how to teach the phonics sounds (and how many combinations there are!).  

Ms. Graham also identifies a tool that I've realized is very important for my daughter--learning to break words into syllables.  In order to do that, a child must be pronouncing words correctly.  I ask my daughter to repeat a word to me to make sure she's hearing it in her word correctly.  If she's not, I repeat it back to her and emphasize where the pronunciation needed to be corrected.  Explode the Code does a wonderful job of teaching the syllable rules in Books 4 and 4 1/2.  I would recommend using those two books even if you don't use the whole series.  But, don't make the mistake I did at first.  Don't give your child the book and let them work through the rules on their own and just plug and chug.  Talk through each syllabication rule and take it slow.  Review the rules as you go through the book if you can.  Juggling three learners at the same time means that this can be difficult for me at times.  And I know many more moms that have more learners working simultaneously than me!  It's tricky.  But, spelling rules are important for multiple ages.  Children can be grouped for reviews and for reviewing syllabication.  

Is syllabication necessary?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It doesn't help all students.  But, I think part of that is because some children need a lot more practice with it than they get and instruction on how to break apart syllables.  Not all children hear that natural breaks in words that syllables form.  They have to learn to listen for them.  And learning comes through practice, I think.  I've noticed that the worksheet I made for sound boxes really helps my daughter pause and think about the sounds.  Here's a link to the worksheet I made.
With her spelling words, she writes the letters that make one sound in each box.  So, Were takes two boxes: w and ere.  Now that she's thinking more about sounds, she can chunk them together to form syllables.  

I am thankful to have found this book combination by Ms. Graham.  It reinforced some of the conclusions I'd drawn myself about spelling this summer and fall.  But, it also has renewed and challenged me to consider the time Spelling needs from me.  I am going to implement the practice of daily reading and observation that Ms. Graham recommends.  Most programs for children that struggle with spelling are quite expensive.  These books are not.  The two books together cost about $16.  It isn't a complete program without phonics supplements though.  This website  can give you worksheets and expansive word lists that can be used a long with Ms. Graham's approach to spelling.  

As a homeschooling parent, I've realized that the best way to become a good homeschooling teacher is to be a student of your student.  This spelling program fits with that idea.  It will require some preparation.  But, most spelling prorams that teach the rules do.  That was something I was reminded of as I thought about this program and asked myself if I have the time I need to teach spelling well to my daughter.  I have to adjust my expectations of how long spelling will take and give it more room.  She needs me to do this and as her teacher, I need to do just that.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of Tricks of the Trade and How to Teach Any Child to Spell from Common Sense Press for review.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

One of my favorite teaching sites...

Right now, my printer is working really hard.  It's printing off a bunch of phonics worksheets from one of my favorite sites that's of course--free :)  Yay!  The site is:  I realized that I had good goals for my middle daughter's phonics instruction this fall, but it has fallen far short of what I'd hoped becuase I didn't have an assembled packet for each week.  My plans were good ones, but the execution needed help.  

So, this morning I set to work to get things together.  I came across an older boxed set of Hooked on Phonics, levels 2-5 at a book sale last week.  I did use the newer version of Hooked on Phonics with her already, but I need to accompany the sounding out with writing out the sounds.  So, we're doing the reading form the older books (which she hasn't seen before) and then following it up with worksheets from carl's corner.   (There's also a link to little book lane on the site that links to other blend worksheets from the same creator and are free as well!)

Sometimes children need extra reinforcement.  But, it doesn't make sense to me to repeat the exact same workbooks.  I love Explode the Code and it's a wonderful series. It covers all of these blends that I'm working on with her.  But, she needs me to engage with her and I missed realizing that the first time around when she did all of this in Explode the Code.  She needs me more than I thought she did.  

I'm excited and encouraged.  Even as I sit here writing this, she asked me how to spell "roof".  She broke out the word into sounds and I asked what letters make the "oo" sound.  She answered oo and spelled her word herself.  It sounds like a little thing, but it's a big thing when you have a girl who two months ago would only write a sentence and now just wrote two pages retelling the story of The Three Little Pigs with a new twist.    It's been eye opening for her and me as I've begun to continually explain everything to her--explain the spelling and grammar rules in context and in simple language.  Over and over.  It's clicking and she recites the rules back to me.  There are several spelling errors in the story she just wrote, but now she knows that she can spell and will learn how so she's willing to try.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Choosing a Bible

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the different translations of the Bible.  In the process of reviewing many books over the past few years, I considered different translations and the importance of what Bible I choose to read.  I had read the NIV translation for years.  Then, the ESV was published.  The church we attended at the time switched over to the ESV.  

When it was time to choose a Bible for my children, I was puzzled.  I ended up choosing a NIrV Discoverer's Bible for my oldest daughter's first Bible when she was seven.  Then, she grew into the Grow! Bible ESV translation.  A year or two later, that Bible became my younger daughter's Bible and my older daughter acquired the ESV Seek and Find Bible.  Both girls have enjoyed both.  And for their needs and ages, these have been great Bibles.  They're both the ESV translation that we read in church so they can follow along easily.  But, both have notes and added information around the text that my children have enjoyed reading.

I have been reading the Reformation Study Bible ESV for several years.  A lot of people I know read this edition.  I have enjoyed it.  There are cross references and notes below the text.  This is the same edition that most of my friends who use the ESV have.  But, I think that there is a new one I would recommend if you're thinking of getting a new Bible.  It is the Gospel Transformation Bible, a new Bible being published by Crossway.

This Bible includes a commentary like others and cross references, but it is very different too.  The goal of the contributors and editors of this Bible was to show Christ in all of scripture.  The editors put the overarching goal well on the first page, "1) to enable readers to understand that the whole Bible is a unified message of the gospel of God's grace culminating in Christ Jesus, and 2) to help believers apply this good news to their everyday lives in a heart-transforming way."  There's a wonderful introduction in the front of the Bible that goes on in more detail about the focus of the notes in the Bible and the thread--Christ.  A different contributor wrote study notes for each of the books.  The notes are different than ones I've read in other Bibles.  The notes in this Bible connect together.  I like that a lot!  Interestingly, the notes are not all written by men.  Four women did contribute notes for the Bible.  I am glad for this.

If I had a friend whose faith was new and they were new to reading the Bible, this is a Bible I would give to them.  It is a wonderful guide.  The Word is easy to read because the notes and references are below the text not beside it.  There is an easy to read introduction before each book as most Bibles have.  The comments help explain the verses. The notes in this Bible remind me of Warren Wiersbe's Bible commentary--of his easy to understand and relateable style of writing.  I read several of the passages that have caused me concern over the years but I had no issues with the commentary for these passages.  You're probably wondering what passages I mean.  One of them is the passage in the Ephesians 5:22-27 about wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives.  The comment in this edition was very well put and addressed the whole passage.  

On CBD, you can preview the text from Genesis and Mark and get a sample of the notes and how the text looks.  On Amazon, you can preview the introduction, but the preview helped me to know I would never recommend the Kindle edition of this Bible!  The notes are not with the text on the Kindle edition as they are in the hardcover print edition.  

If you're looking for an ESV hardcover Bible with notes for yourself, I would definitely recommend this edition.  And if you are looking for a gift for another, I'd definitely recommend taking a look at this one.  I like it and plan on using it for my personal Bible study.  I know that sounds very simple and straight to the point, but this isn't a fluffy scholarly review of a Bible translation.  This is just me saying that I like this Bible.  It's easy to read, the print is clear, and the notes are helpful.  And that sums it up.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this Bible for review from Crossway.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Pierced ears... Going to church with a friend in someone else's car (non-family member)... going shopping for clothes... talking on the phone...

Ah... Growing up.  My oldest daughter is growing up.  On Sunday, she had her ears pierced.  I was the same age she is when I had mine pierced.  We went shopping last week for the first time for clothes.  I explained to her that many moms and daughters do this a lot.  She looked at me incredulously, "Really?" she asked. And then added, "I don't think I'd want to do that."  She surprises me.

Then, last night came the phone.  A friend of hers had asked her to call at a certain time, so she did.  Her friend asked if she could talk for half an hour.  My daughter replied that she didn't think so.  That would be too long.  But, then she proceeded to talk.  I overheard bits and pieces as the two of them figured out what to talk about.  My daughter asked about her friend's lizard and gerbil.  "What do they like to do?"  "Does the lizard like to climb trees?"  and so on.  I couldn't hear the other side, but I realized that my daughter was figuring out this talking thing for herself.

It's funny.  She now goes around sharing with everyone about her ears.  But, last night, she pretended along with her little brother that she was a bat.  I love her.  I am thankful for her and I am thankful that I get to enjoy her every day.  Happy Birthday dear girl!