I’m Glad We Stuck With Dictation

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We haven’t had many triumphant writing moments here lately. You know the sort of moments I’m talking about, where your kids write something so beautiful and lovely that your heart goes pitter patter. Sometimes it’s not even that well-written, it’s just that they wrote it, they wrote that poem, that paper, that one sentence, that letter to grandma, that thing you thought they couldn’t write.

Well, it’s all been a little perfunctory here lately with writing. The kids write. They don’t complain. BalletBoy is writing a fanfic mashup of Korra and Star Wars. Mushroom is working through Wordsmith because he needed to do some workbook based writing for a little while. They do an okay job of it, though sometimes I feel like we’re running in place. That’s okay.

However, I’ve been so appreciating lately that we stuck it out with dictation over the years. We’re in such a perfectly good place with dictation right now. I see how it has actually helped my kids get better at paying attention to mechanics. I see them getting faster and more fluent with getting the dictation down. I see them using dictation as a model. I feel like they’re learning from it.

I started out as a dictation non-believer. I wasn’t convinced that copywork and dictation would very good tools for teaching writing, but when nothing else was working, we started using them. Then I found Brave Writer and started to get convinced. There’s something beautiful about working on holding the passage in your head, about using good models of writing for learning, about streamlining together literature and writing by using dictation as a bridge, by taking the time to really focus on a shorter passage out of a book.

I choose our dictation passages and we do what’s sometimes called studied dictation. The kids read the passage ahead of time. I go over the vocabulary in the passage, the mechanics, the grammar. We talk about what’s going on in the passage as well as metaphors or other literary devices. Once the kids are done with the dictation, they now check their own work and make corrections, which is also a good exercise in editing. Finally, I check over it one final time. Sometimes we use a sentence or two as a model and the kids write their own sentences using the same structure. This is an exercise that is found in the Killgallon Sentence Composing series. It’s a useful one to be able to transfer to our dictation habits.

In the last year, we’ve moved to using Notability on the iPad for dictations. I record the dictation by reading it aloud. I put any questions or tricky words for spelling cues on the screen as well as any special mechanics reminders and whether or not they need to use it as a sentence model. I introduce the passage with them then let them use the recording and notes for actually doing the dictation when they’re ready. They can use headphones and put the recording on a slowed play or pause exactly when they’re ready. It has made it a lot easier for all of us. And while I like the idea of reading the passage in chunks only once, I have seen their memories improve more when they have control over the recording.

Like anything else, dictation probably isn’t perfect for all kids, but I’m glad I became a believer.

In Praise of BalletBoy

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I just want to sing BalletBoy’s praises for a little bit. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how Mushroom’s anxiety is tricky for all of us. He’s smart and insightful and intellectually curious, but he gets in his own way so often that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees and there are things I wish I could have him really working on that he can’t and amazing projects he’d like to do that he stops himself from finishing because of his perfectionism.

On the other hand, BalletBoy has really been blooming academically and it’s really exciting to be on the cusp of seeing him head into seventh grade next year and knowing that I get to plan for this kid who is suddenly, miraculously ready for a challenge.

We’ve really taken a pretty relaxed path for BalletBoy’s schooling overall. He’s on grade level for math. We don’t have a long list of required books. He does just a few serious pieces of writing every school year.

However, in the last several months, I’ve been so impressed by how he can suddenly sit down and work independently on schoolwork happily and competently. He doesn’t need me sitting there at his side any more. His reading has taken off. A couple of years ago, I dismayed about getting both my boys to read higher level nonfiction, but we worked on it and last week, I was able to hand BalletBoy a copy of Collapse by Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame) and have him read a lengthy section on his own. He used sticky notes to write notes all over the margins that included good summary notes, insightful questions, and connections to other readings he had done on the topic. He will read nearly anything I put before him (if it’s for school – he’s a picky reader in his own time). When I give him an open-ended assignment, like to write about an historical character, he takes the initiative to do some research on his own then cheerfully writes something pretty decent, typed, of course. He has deep questions about philosophy and history and science.

When I taught middle school, there was often a miraculous jump that kids experienced from sixth to seventh grade. They left for the summer looking and acting like little kids and suddenly came back ready to be so grown-up and insightful. BalletBoy is still so little in so many ways. He and Mushroom and their friends still enjoy imaginary games and cartoons and middle grade novels instead of more grown up YA books. However, in other ways, I see that he has suddenly grown up a little academically and is ready for more.

Sometimes Mushroom sucks all the air out of the room, which means that, when given the same assignment, BalletBoy finishes it fast and reasonably well while Mushroom demands that he keep working until it’s downright amazing. I’m trying to start calling BalletBoy on his “good enough” work a little more and push him a little more, give him a little of the oxygen in the room, so to speak. We’re slowly dividing up everything the boys do so that within the next few months, they probably won’t be studying any of the same things with any of the same materials. I think it’s going to benefit BalletBoy greatly.

For one thing, I’m looking forward to really making him dive in with more reading, at a higher level. I’m looking forward to seeing him define his own path for study and seeing where it goes. I’m especially excited to have a student who’s just ready for more. He still can get frustrated or stuck or try to get away with doing only a little. However, he’s ready for more.

He’s also ready for more ballet. He moves to four days a week next year and will probably add an extra fifth class as well. BalletBoy’s determination and dedication, both to ballet and to other projects he starts up, take me by surprise routinely. He’ll find a contest he wants to enter and suddenly he’ll set aside any his free time and screens to work on it for days until he reaches some sense of satisfaction. Ballet is a project that never reaches completion. He’s honest with himself about his failings (he’d never say he was the best in his level) and his successes. While I don’t think of him as a serious kid, people at ballet often tell me they think of him as such a “serious young man” which is amusing but also, when I think about it, so true.

Basically, right now, it’s a delight to see BalletBoy growing up, turning into the person he’s going to be.

Educational Neglect is Not Okay

When I first got into homeschooling, it was with the assumption that homeschooling regulation was generally bad and that homeschoolers, with the exception of a few bad apples, were good people.

Unfortunately, having been around the block a few times, I’m not quite so idealistic anymore. For one thing, I think all homeschool parents should spend a little time reading the stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous if you haven’t already. They range from just disappointing to terrifying, but none of them are good. And there’s typically a slow but steady stream of stories in the media about families who either use homeschooling as a cover to mask abuse or who purposefully practice educational neglect. Just last week, the story of a Texas family who allegedly refused to teach their children because they believed the rapture was coming hit the news again when the Texas Supreme Court remanded the decision to lower courts to decide on different issues than those brought up there, effectively saying it was okay for them to have done that.

It continually frustrates me that homeschoolers tend to close ranks and defend fellow homeschoolers who claim the government is meddling in their affairs, even when evidence comes to light that they indicate are guilty of real neglect. Just look at the case of the Naugler family last year. They raised an inordinate amount of money online from fellow homeschoolers and homesteading families after the state removed the children from the home. However, even images and statements by the mother herself made it clear the children were living in squalor and not receiving any educational efforts.

I want to be clear that I’m not against unschooling or delayed schooling or slower timetables. I’m not talking about when you have a rough few months and less gets done or when you have to take a month or two off for an illness or the birth of a baby. Not having a formal time to “do school” doesn’t indicate educational neglect. Not having textbooks or tests isn’t the same thing as educational neglect. And it’s hard to know from offhanded statements from kids or even parents that they’re not “doing much school” whether that’s true or not. Kids can see the world differently, parents can be humble or just not want to talk about how they’re not fully living up to their own vision and standards. There’s no reason to step in and judge based on that. And no reason for anyone, homeschooler or neighbor or well-meaning family member, to put a child on the spot and quiz them because they’re homeschooled. You’re not doing anyone any favors and asking a bewildered 9 year-old to recite his times tables apropos of nothing is just rude. And sometimes the government does step in and make life a nightmare for a good family based on nothing but a nosy neighbor’s misconception.

However, when a family actively prevents a child from accessing education, that’s not unschooling or any legitimate philosophy of education or childrearing, that’s neglect. It happens. I’m talking about families that refuse to allow their children to go to the library or refuse to teach older children to read or do basic arithmetic, even when the children ask or beg for lessons or materials. These are families where kids ask to attend school, not for social reasons, but because they see that their peers know vastly more about the world than they do. While most homeschoolers are good people who love their kids and do their best, there is a strain of people in homeschooling who are keeping their children home for reasons of control, who are purposefully not equipping them with basic skills. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a religious reason for it. There’s no religion that commands that children be denied basic skills to succeed in their world.

I don’t know exactly what would prevent educational neglect for homeschooled kids. Many of the regulations on the books now are either silly hoops that abusers can easily fake like attendance records or measures that leave too much open to interpretation by the state. In my own jurisdiction, the law asks us to keep “a portfolio of materials” but doesn’t really define what that means. Overly vague statues don’t serve anyone because they give the state power to be capricious in enforcement. Too often, in states with reviews or where plans must be approved, the reviewers know next to nothing about what homeschooling looks like and the guidelines are vague.

On the other hand, I refuse to believe that means that nothing can be done to protect innocent kids from educational neglect. For one thing, families that refuse to jump through those silly hoops like having a child take a test that doesn’t even require sending in results or drawing up some attendance records, seem to be doing their kids a disservice in one way by not following a law that’s easy to follow, so perhaps there’s a correlation that they’re not serving their kids in other ways. A group made up mostly of former homeschooled students, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, has some recommendations, most of which are reasonable and worth consideration.

As homeschoolers, we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and say, oh well, a few bad apples are going to neglect their children’s education. Often, homeschoolers place their own rights to direct their children’s education above the rights of children to receive an education in the first place. In other words, if there’s a conflict between the state interfering in a homeschool versus trying to protect children, then homeschool families tend to say that the parents’ rights not to have the state interfere should always win. However, I cannot accept that. My right to do less paperwork or be hassled a little less can’t trump a child’s right to a basic education. I just don’t buy that.

Educational neglect is real neglect. Every time these cases surface, it depresses me to see how homeschoolers excuse, dismiss, and defend parents who simply aren’t doing their job to see that their kids get an education. Basically, this is my plea to you not to defend families who seem to be practicing educational neglect. If you see these stories in the media, don’t give them money, don’t talk about how they were probably doing fine, don’t assume every homeschooler you meet is as good as you. Don’t get stuck in suspicion either, but resist the urge to close ranks when there may be a real problem.

 

The Loss of Confidence

Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.
Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.

I didn’t mean to take a several months long blog break. Sorry, y’all.

Did anyone else read about this study? Articles about it ran everywhere over the last few months, though that Wall Street Journal one is one of the more in depth takes. The gist is that parents of middle schoolers are the most depressed, unsure, and stressed. To those of you out there with middle schoolers, it probably comes as no surprise. I used to teach middle school and it makes perfect sense to me, but it still surprised me a little how hard this year has hit me.

Several of the news summaries of the study pointed out that even the most confident parents tend to second guess themselves in the middle school years. Isn’t it a little disconcerting when you fit a profile to such a tee? I don’t always think I’m doing thing right or perfect, but I am usually beyond confident that I’m doing okay and that it’ll all work out. That feeling went out the window over the last few months.

The main source of our struggles have been Mushroom’s anxiety. I’ve written about it before and there’s not some grand new insight I can share. However, it has forced us to change school dramatically and forced me to feel downtrodden and despondent on several occasions as I see him cry and struggle, both emotionally and, as a result, academically as well. When things are going well, he can solve any math problem, spell well enough to not look illiterate, read longer articles and discuss them with intelligence. That mostly went out the window over the last few months.

We’ve switched over to focusing on workbooks for Mushroom, which was painful to me in some ways to hand a child a pile of Evan-Moor and Critical Thinking workbooks and call it proper school, but I think it’s helping to have work that’s beyond straightforward and simple instead of complex projects and open ended discovery based math. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to teach the child you have and not the child you want.

And some things are going really well. BalletBoy is writing up a storm of bizarre crossover fanfiction. They’ve both been flying through a pile of reading about the Mayans and having fun learning about what made the Mayan civilization fall. Mushroom built a cool robot at his makerspace. BalletBoy advanced his level in ballet. They both read and enjoyed The Giver for school and had a bunch of cool conversations about it. Both of them immediately saw the parallels to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which made me feel like they got something out of our fall philosophy study.

And now it’s summer. We keep doing school in summer and Mushroom has maybe maybe turned a corner for now. So while I’m sure that I’ll keep second guessing myself more than ever, things keep moving on with highlights and lowlights. I just have to remember to focus on the positives. I love middle schoolers, really. The fact that it’s a tough time is part of the magic of the age.

Our Favorite “Issue” Books

Not too long ago, I posted about how my kids just aren’t that into fantasy books. And I bemoaned it all. Alas! Alack! What I didn’t emphasize so much is how Mushroom in particular actually does like another sort of book that I wasn’t a huge fan of as a kid – books where kids have some sort of issue to overcome or face. We’re talking books with illness, death, depression, learning differences, and other such challenges for kids. These, for whatever reason, are right up Mushroom’s alley.

But that’s okay. “Issue” books, if done right, aren’t a bad thing at all. I talked about how fantasy helps kids face the darkness, and so do some of the books about death or illness in the real world. And they can give kids a different perspective on life, that of someone who is different abled or who had a unique experience. So I give you a list of some of our favorites, though keep in mind that this is just a taste of what’s out there. Some of these Mushroom has read and loved and others he has yet to discover, but they’re books I really like. There are some great young adult books in this category, but I stuck to books in the middle grades age for this list.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is a book about a girl with cerebral palsy who is unable to control her movements or even communicate. Underneath, she’s brilliant, but until a computer arrives to help her speak, no one knows and everyone underestimates her, treating her like she can’t ever become smarter than a young child. This is a classic story of overcoming disability and others’ preconceptions. Draper is an amazing writer and Melody’s reality really comes to life in this book.
The Issues: Cerebral palsy and giftedness.
Appropriate for: Any age. This is one of those books that’s aimed solidly at middle schoolers. Like many on this list, it’s fine for younger readers, but best appreciated by about 9 or 10 years old and up.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This book was such a smash hit that I’m sure most people are aware of it. It’s quickly becoming one of those modern classics that makes the “must” list for kid reading. Auggie has a deformity that is immediately obvious and causes most people to feel extremely uncomfortable or to shun him. For the first time in his life, he attends school and tries to fit in and make new friends. The story is told in changing voices that are extremely well done. Palacio has issued a second book of extra chapters or stories that can be added to the understanding of the characters.
The Issues: Physical deformities and bullying.
Appropriate for: Nearly any age, though it might be worth waiting a little on this one. Probably best appreciated by age 8 and up.

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
Georgie is an average kid with average problems. He and his best friend might be growing apart. A girl at school occasionally torments him. His parents are expecting a new baby and he’s not too happy about it. However, Georgie is also a little person and he worries that many of his problems stem from his size. This is a great little book because the problems Georgie faces are so relateable. However, Graff occasionally pauses the narrative with “assignments” for the reader, to illustrate how different life is for Georgie, how furniture, musical instruments, and the world in general just aren’t made for him.
The Issues: Being a Little Person (dwarfism).
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level on this book is a nice lower end middle grades level as well.

Counting By 7’s by Holly Sloan
Early in the story, Willow’s parents die in a very unexpected accident, leaving her completely alone. Willow is a genius, profoundly gifted in a variety of ways, but stuck in a school where her talents are largely unrecognized. She seizes on to one of the only people she likes, a Vietnamese American girl who saw the same disaffected school therapist once a week. Willow manages to move in with the Nguyen family and slowly transforms their lives as well as the therapist who is supposed to be helping her.
The Issues: Parental death, learning disabilities, giftedness, and depression.
Appropriate for: The writing in this book is sparse and not too hard, but the perspective can feel very heavy and dark. Probably best enjoyed by age 9 or 10 and up.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
There’s so much packed into this little book, it’s pretty amazing. The narrator, Caitlin, has autism and is struggling to deal with her brother’s recent death in a school shooting. Through therapy sessions at school, new friendships with younger students, and finishing a project her brother started, she learns to get closure and move on. There are allusions to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird throughout the story, adding an extra layer of depth to an already packed tale.
The Issues: Autism, school shootings, and sibling death.
Appropriate for: This is one of those great books that straddles the gulf between middle grades novels and slightly more graphic or grown up young adult fare. The school shooting isn’t graphically described so younger kids who are more comfortable with dark fare should be okay with it and it’s not a difficult read, but especially with all the literary allusions, I’d save it for about age 9 or 10 and up, just because most kids will get more out of it at a slightly older age.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
This is a graphic memoir about the author’s youth growing up deaf. Bell became mostly deaf at a young age and was helped to hear in a mainstream classroom by a special device that her teachers wore that would broadcast their voices right into her ears. At first, she felt like an outcast, but as time went on, she came to see it as a superpower, especially when she realized that she could hear the teachers gossip or use the bathroom when they forgot to turn it off. The art in this book – the characters are all rabbits – is very sweet. I’ve mentioned it on my blog before because it’s one of Mushroom’s all time favorites. The messages are all positive and it’s one of those stories that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
The Issues: Deafness.
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level is relatively low. Great as a “serious” graphic novel read for a reluctant reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos
So many books feature kids who are contemplative or quiet or generally “good” kids. That’s not this book. Joey is a kid who can’t sit still, who constantly makes the wrong choices, who simply can’t seem to help himself from bouncing off the walls. I have to admit that while my kids liked a lot of Gantos’s other work (and if you ever have a chance to see him speak, he’s a great speaker!), this series wasn’t for them. However, I love Joey and have seen some former students who really identified with these books. I’m glad they’re out there and they’re definitely worth a read for a lot of kids. These are funny, fun books.
The Issues: ADHD and divorce.
Appropriate for: Any age. Gantos does a great job of explaining how Joey is “wired” differently. However, I suspect that many younger kids wouldn’t fully understand that Joey’s “bad” behavior isn’t entirely his fault, so I wouldn’t automatically hand it to a precocious young reader. Written at about a 4th grade level.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm
This is a graphic novel with bright and cheerful artwork, but a darker subject gets introduced partway through the story. Sunny has gone to stay with her grandfather in his retirement community. At first, it’s like a vacation, but soon it becomes clear that she’s there because her family needs to deal with drug and alcohol abuse by her brother back at home. The story doesn’t really flinch from showing the negative behavior that her brother’s drug use led to. However, it also has the humor that’s characteristic of all of Holm’s books. Overall, a great book.
The Issues: Drug and alcohol abuse.
Appropriate for: We liked this book, but I think the marketing on it really missed the mark. We even saw Holm discuss the book before we happened to read it and had no concept that it was an issue book that dealt with some dark moments. The cover and back flap make it sound light and fun. When you add in that in the graphic novel world the Holm siblings are mostly known for the younger kid friendly Babymouse and Squish series and that the reading level on this graphic novel isn’t much higher, the drug abuse seemed to come out of left field. I would say at least age 8 or 9 and up unless it’s a topic that a younger child already has some familiarity with because of family history. And because the reader may be expecting a different sort of story, introducing it by saying that it covers some difficult issues is probably a good idea for any readers who don’t like to be blindsided.

Crash by Jerry Spinelli
I could have put a lot of Spinelli’s books on this list, but this one, about a bully in the process of reforming, is one of his best. The main character is a stereotypical jock who likes to pick on a stereotypical underdog. However, when his uncle suffers a stroke, he begins to understand how his priorities have been all wrong. From the outside, the book sounds pat, since the former bully and his former victim become friends. However, Spinelli’s writing and good characters manage to help the book transcend the afterschool special cliches.
The Issues: Bullying and family illness/disability.
Appropriate for: Any age. The social and friendship issues covered make this book best for about age 9 or 10 and up. It’s written at about a fourth or fifth grade level.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
This is one of my favorites and definitely by favorite by Mass. The main character, Mia, has a secret that she’s kept for many years. She can see sounds and numbers have colors. Mia has a love-hate relationship with her abilities. She loves them but she also worries it makes her different from everyone else and it makes math incredibly difficult. However, early in the story, she realizes that it’s part of a condition called synnesthesia. The rest of the story is about Mia coming to terms with her condition as part of her identity and helping the people around her understand her better. Unlike a lot of the books on this list, Mia doesn’t have a huge amount of hardship to endure (her condition acts like a learning disability in some cases and she deals with tricky middle school growing up stuff). However, it’s a great one for getting into the head of someone who sees the world differently.
The Issues: Synesthesia, a condition that’s like having your senses wired incorrectly.
Appropriate for: This is one of those books that’s on the bubble between middle grades and young adult. There’s nothing inappropriate per se, but there is some mild romance and a tiny bit of early teenage rebellion. Fine for nearly any age, but probably best appreciated by 9 or 10 and up. The writing is right at that level as well.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This is our current read aloud and I’m remembering what a good job Creech does interweaving all the different threads of the story together. I’m about to give major spoilers in this blurb, so apologies. The main character, Sal, is on a cross-country trip with her grandparents to visit her mother. Along the way, they encounter adventures and she spins a tale, ostensibly of her friend Phoebe, though Phoebe’s story has some parallels to her own, as well as some big differences. The book does a good job of portraying Phoebe and Sal’s different reactions of anger as well as drawing out the mystery of what happened to Sal’s mother. The realization that she died isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s nice the way Sal’s refusal to accept her mother’s death keeps the reader questioning whether their own instincts can possibly be correct.
The Issues: Parental depression and death (spoiler!)
Appropriate for: Another book that’s really tailor made for the middle school age. Nothing inappropriate, though the early romantic tension between some of the kids gives it a slightly older feel. Fine for any age, but best appreciated by age 9 or 10 and up. The writing is perfect for 5th or 6th grade level.

I, Funny by James Patterson
I feel funny including one of Patterson’s churned out ghostwritten novels on a recommended list, but honestly, this series has been so beloved by both my boys that I feel like I couldn’t not toss it in here. Obviously this is on the light end as “issues” goes and the writing isn’t as stellar as some on this list. However, there’s a sweetness to this concept and a sensitivity in how Patterson and co-author Grabenstein deal with it. Jamie Grimm wants to be a stand up comedian, but he can’t stand up because he’s permanently in a wheelchair. However, a nationwide contest may be his ticket to fame and humor. This one is perfect for kids who want a mix of light and dark in their reading.
Issues: Physical disabilities, parental death, and adoptive families.
Appropriate for: Any age, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a read aloud. It’s a longer book in terms of page count, but the writing is a very easy read. There are illustrations throughout.

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Anxiety is Kicking My Butt

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Sometimes, I feel like I have a lot to say and share with the world. Mostly, I think we do a decent job schooling. I believe in homeschooling. I like to share my ideas, the books I like, the stuff that’s working. But some months, wow, I just feel like a failure. Most of those months are probably Februaries. I should go back and keep some data on that.

Mushroom’s anxiety is what’s killing us lately. It’s amazing what an energy suck anxiety can be. I am smacked with anxiety every once in awhile. I have some things that make me anxious and unsure. Dentistry is especially perilous for me. The dentist once suggested that I get a prescription for valium before coming back. Oy. But generally, I’m not an anxious person. I am pretty confident and happy.

There was a time, as a kid, when I remember going through a really fearful phase. I was probably about seven years old. I remember I thought there were probably monsters under my bed. Such a cliche, I know. But I went around jumping from furniture to furniture and just generally jumping at every little thing. Finally, my mother took me aside and told me a truly terrifying tale. If I continued like this, she said, eventually I would be scared to go outside. My grandfather developed agoraphobia after some serious health problems and he never left his house and yard as a result. Did I want to end up like that? Well, that sure put the fear of fear in me. I remember so clearly thinking that would be a fate worse than death or monsters. And that I’d better just conquer all my fears. And then, for the most part, I just did. I would go out of my way to prove to myself that I didn’t need to be scared, even sticking my feet under the bed in defiance of the monsters.

How I wish I could somehow magically impart whatever it was that made me be more scared of being scared to Mushroom. It’s times like these that make you question your parenting.

Don’t get me wrong. We have strategies and help and all the things you need with an anxious kid, but sometimes I wish I had one of those kids who are like dandelions, who can thrive anywhere, under most any circumstances.

The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.
Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.

These days, I feel like I see people embarking with homeschooling in a few different ways. First of all, some people want to learn without formal materials at all and to see where the unschooling life leads them. A second sort wants everything planned out for them and end up with a box program or enrolling in an online school. A third group treats curricula like a checklist, beginning with a list of subjects and filling in the blanks with various programs.

However, we’re increasingly choosing the fourth way, which is to make the curriculum ourselves.

I don’t see a ton of people doing it this way, but I wanted to tout the benefits of stepping away from the prefabricated options while still “doing school.” It’s my understanding that in the early days of homeschooling, before there were legions of companies eager for homeschool dollars and it was difficult to find a packaged curriculum of any sort, this was much more common.

I’ve written a couple of posts about what this looks like in practice at the rowhouse. (See Anatomy of a Project: Houses and Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs as well as Science Without a Net) I tend to begin by compiling a stack of books and other resources and making a loose list of writing assignments, art projects, field trips, experiments, and other things that might take up our time. Other people plan it out with specific readings and timetables. Either way, I think it’s a way of doing school that can work for more people than are doing it at the moment.

For one thing, when you’re the one who did the research and came up with the plan, you’re inevitably more invested in what you’re doing. You know more than when the plan is laid out for you by someone else and are more prepared to respond to rabbit trails and a child’s questions. You also know why each resource was chosen and what its merits are. You believe in the things you’ve chosen and want to use them, unlike when you have a preset list of books and readings, some of which you may actively dislike.

It also allows you to respond to your child’s needs directly. There’s no rereading things the student has already done. All the resources are right for the child’s level. The assignments are made to engage or challenge or remediate your child’s specific needs. You can make a subject that’s dull to your child more interesting by tweaking the focus such as by making history about the history of science or art or making it focused on reading fiction or on not reading at all. You can take a subject that your child is passionate about and make other subjects get covered that way. If a child is passionate about bugs, you read fiction books about bugs, write stories and reports about bugs, draw bugs, eat bugs (the UN says we should try it?), and watch documentaries about bugs. If a child is passionate about Pokemon, you read and write fanfiction and make fan art, you come up with a project like researching which real animals are like which Pokemon or studying biology vocabulary like anatomy terms by looking at Pokemon or studying geography by learning geography terms by looking at Pokemon maps.

Finally, it lets you stay flexible and responsive. Even if planning everything out helps you, when it’s your plan, you know where things can be added or dropped if need be. Not only that, but you’re more likely to stick to it when you can and more likely not to beat yourself up about it when you can’t. After all, you were the one who made it, not some outside entity.

Being willing to take on planning for yourself is intimidating for some people. There’s definitely a learning curve involved. I find the most important thing is figuring out how much can realistically get done. We’re doing a philosophy unit now using several resources and I’m already feeling unsure about whether my original expectations and goals for the unit can be met. Figuring out if you have too many or too few books, the right number of projects or assignments, and the right number of resources for your time can be tricky. It can be tricky both ways. For everyone who ends up with too high expectations and a pile of untouched books, I’m sure there’s someone who thought the project or unit would take much longer or hoped to follow some rabbit trails that never quite emerged or didn’t turn out to have enough appropriate resources to follow.

When you’re planning for yourself, you have to be willing to roll with the punches and make changes. I think the most important thing is to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to ditch a book that isn’t working to look for a better resource. You even have to be willing to ditch an entire topic or plan sometimes. You have to trust that all the reasons you chose to plan for yourself were worth it. You have to trust the process.

On the other side, you also have to be willing to hold yourself accountable. For many people, the appeal of a boxed curriculum is in the preset schedule that tells you, if you haven’t done this, you’re behind and you’d better catch up. Different people have different needs in terms of what makes them accountable. I admit that I find this easier than most people. But if you don’t it doesn’t have to be onerous to make yourself a plan or a checklist. For many people, making a strong routine is good enough. If you need a schedule, make a schedule. It doesn’t even have to list specific resources. It can have a checklist that says, simply, watch a documentary this week. Did you do it? If not, you can’t check it off. Of course, maybe you’ve decided it’s not the right week for one, which is fine, but remember that there was a reason you originally planned it that way. You have to be willing to change your plans, but you also have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids and the unit you’re doing together or if you’re doing it because it’s just easier for you to let go. And if you are letting it go, are you happy with that? It can be a tricky balance. I find I often need to let go of things, but I also often need to push on and make us continue so we can feel satisfied with the work we did.

Just like homeschooling isn’t for everyone, DIYing your curricula isn’t for everyone either. However, I think more people should give it a try these days. Be willing to go without a preset program and see where it takes you.

Opportunities

BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn't look quite like BalletBoy, it's because he's wearing a wig!
BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn’t look quite like BalletBoy, it’s because he’s wearing a wig!

There’s always opportunities in life. Our most recent one was a biggie. BalletBoy auditioned and was accepted as an alternate in two dances for American Ballet Theater’s Sleeping Beauty. If you’re a ballet dork, you probably understand how big that is. If you’re not, I’ll just tell you, it was definitely an honor.

So, of course, he really wanted to do it. And, of course, I was super proud of him. He worked incredibly hard. I had the pleasure of seeing him dance on the big stage in front of the packed audience and I could see why it took so many rehearsals. One of the dances was incredibly intricate. He was so happy.

The price for this opportunity was a week of missed school for the performances, several months of extra ballet in the form of rehearsals, a lot of late nights, a missed performance at the Kennedy Center (I know, the irony that we had tickets to see something else!) and, worst of all, having to dig out of the snow early and miss the prime sledding days.

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I struggle with opportunities. And I get sick of all the people who imply or even outright say that you can have it all. You just can’t. You have to make choices. Maybe this is a little bit of a piggyback on my lunch post from a month ago, but I’ve learned that there’s only so much you can do, whether it’s cooking or big, exciting opportunities or even little opportunities.

There are just so many opportunities. Every sunny, warm day is an opportunity to go outside for a hike or a trip to a nice nature spot. Every snowy day is an opportunity to go sledding and build a snowman. There are chances for different field trips and new classes posted on our homeschool board every day. The minute this ballet ended, we got a chance to attend another audition. And then there are the project and curriculum and book opportunities. Sometimes I see things that would be magical and fun and I want to bring them into our homeschool. But there are so many of them. That’s another sort of opportunity.

I am trying to learn to pass up the opportunities and say no to them as often as I can stand it. It really takes strength, but we have to have a balance between the routine and the opportunities, no matter what kind they are. The routine is important too. It makes the opportunities seem all the more magical and special when they arise. So here’s to the roads not taken.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.