Tag Archives: curriculum reviews

Ellen McHenry Materials: A Sort of Review

If you’re not familiar with Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop, it’s a really different curriculum provider mostly for homeschoolers. Most of the topics are science related, though not all. We’ve now used three of her programs and I actually own a couple more. I thought, since I mentioned that Mushroom used her program Protozoa last spring, that I’d give the materials a bit of a review. We previously did all of The Brain and part of Mapping the World with Art. I also own but ended up not using Botany and Excavating English.

Part of Mushroom’s Protozoa mural. A typical Ellen McHenry style assignment.

What they are: You can buy a physical copy or a copy on CD, but I’ve only ever bought the PDF versions. Each program comes with a central text that is written to the student. They’re illustrated with cute fingerprint characters, well done hand drawings, and some copyright free images. The graphic design is pretty decent and while scrolling through the PDF for the right page isn’t super easy, it’s not too bad. Each chapter has “activities” that follow it. Sometimes these are actually activities, but more often they’re fill in the blank worksheets and videos to watch (there are Youtube playlists). However, these were developed by the author to be used in a co-op and all include many actual activities at the end of the program listed as optional. These are mostly art and craft related activities as well as games and demonstrations. The materials are generally pretty simple. There is a wealth of printables included in each program, such as maps, cards, worksheets, and cut and paste crafts.

In a nutshell: I have very mixed feelings about these programs. Secular users should think hard about the science programs in particular.

Pro: They’re very creative and interesting. She covers interesting topics. She doesn’t talk down to kids at all. The text is at a high level, but is flexible and can be used with many different ages. I think most of the programs are best for middle school, but most of them could be used for about 4th grade up through high school, at least as a high school supplement or elective. The games and activities are interesting. We did The Brain with a group and some of them, like games to illustrate through metaphors how signals pass through the brain, were easy to implement and enjoyable.

Con: The text is at a high level, but sometimes it’s just too detailed. For example, in the Protozoa text, the big picture began to get lost in the details. And by details, I really mean details. Several dozen protists were described in incredible detail, but the big picture of what these tiny creatures do and the role they play in the overall ecosystem just wasn’t the emphasis. And the worksheets sometimes emphasize some aspect of memory that really isn’t all that connected to the topic. In the case of the Protozoa, it was Greek prefixes and roots. That’s interesting, but some of it went a little far for a science program. Also of concern for the biology programs is that she avoids discussing evolution altogether to try and please all audiences. That means that not only was the emphasis not on how protists fit into the ecosystem, but there was absolutely no discussion of adaptations in a book about animals.  The website makes it clear that this will likely be an even bigger with the new Rocks and Minerals text. It’s a geology text that never mentions the age of the earth and argues against plate tectonics.

Also, while they are riddled with activities, the cut and paste nature of the activities is too crafty for a science program for my taste. It’s fine for the humanities programs and while the map drawing methods didn’t work for us in Mapping the World with Art, I could see how it could be perfect for some families. However, she has two programs about cells that don’t require kids to pull out a microscope. In the case of the Protozoa curriculum, having a simple suggestion to do a hay infusion of some local pond water would be so unbelievably easy. The Brain does include the suggestion to order and dissect a sheep’s brain (which we did), but in general that’s the only suggestion of actual science included. The Elements, about chemistry, focuses a great deal on memorization and card games and very little on doing any actual chemistry. A science program that is all vocabulary cards and coloring projects just isn’t a full science program to me, even aside from the issue of whether or not it’s “neutral” on science like the age of the earth. Those things can be good for some kids, yes. And they can be tools for memorization, which is good. But I think they make kids miss the point. Getting messy and doing at least a couple of actual experiments is an essential component of science.

The Takeaway: They’re not bad programs. I have recommended them to people and some families adore them and it’s easy to see why. But I think the fact that they lack a big picture focus, don’t include actual experiments in the science, and aren’t secular are all things people should think about before diving in or while using. I think they work best when used with other resources. Unless I decide to use Excavating English, I doubt we’ll be using her programs again here. The issues I had with Protozoa and seeing the “neutral” stance on the age of the earth presented in her new book tipped me over the edge against them.

Writing Updates

If you’re a loyal reader, then you’ll know I’ve been struggling a little with figuring out what I want for writing as well as what the kids need.  I taught middle and high school level students writing, but figuring out how I want my kids to take those first steps is proving to be more difficult for me.  I already posted about my skepticism about the classical approach to writing and the emphasis on copywork.  Yet the current school model, pushing kids to write tons of drivel without any critical eye toward improving grammar, vocabulary or sentence structure doesn’t work for me either.

Here’s what we’ve been doing in the last month or so.  I bought both the Just Write program as well as an older (and therefore cheaper) version of the Write Source program.  I also bookmarked the Small World’s Wordsmithery, which is a free program from a fellow homeschool blogger.  After trying a few things, we’ve been using Just Write for a few weeks now.  If you saw my curriculum declaration about how my kids like workbooks, that helps explain why.  We’ve also been doing more Mad Libs as well as watching Schoolhouse Rock’s grammar songs and reading Brian Cleary’s cute picture books about the parts of speech.

Just Write is a program from EPS, who also make the popular Explode the Code series.  There are two workbooks for first grade called Write About Me and Write About My World.  Then there are three workbooks intended for grades 2-4 entitled Just Write 1-3.  There are also teacher books, but I skipped those.  We started with the Just Write 1 book.  Although it’s intended for second grade, it has so far been okay for my first graders.

The workbook is on the thick side, with nearly 150 pages.  The topics move pretty quickly from brainstorming into writing “stories” which can be true or fictional.  Later topics topics touch on punctuation, adding details, and editing a story.  Most pages are spent on developing skills, especially organizational skills.  For example, after the topic of sequence is introduced, kids are invited to put out of sequence stories in order.  Then, they must underline common sequence words, such as “first” and “later” in a story.  They add on to a story themselves, using sequence words.  They complete sentences using sequence words and order pictures with sequence words.  In the culminating activity, they must write a set of simple directions using sequence words.

Above you can see one of Mushroom’s writings from section on sequence.  Other than asking how to spell “teacups,” he didn’t get a lot of help with this, though he needed me to sit at the table to help with sheer persistence.  I recall he needed to be reminded to add periods at the end of his sentences.  I think it’s pretty decent for a first grader, especially one with his reading skills, which are not especially high.  He did this assignment with confidence and without complaint or too much anxiety, which can be a problem for him.  You can probably see that the text helped structure it for him by giving him a space to plan his “story” with a web.

Clearly, at least for my kids, that’s the strength of this particular program.  It builds kids up to where they feel like they can face a page of blank lines and write on them.  Some of the writing prompts are cute.  Others seem dreadful to me, but most of them are just open ended, such as this one, asking kids to demonstrate a particular skill or write about something very general, such as a feeling, a person, or a problem.

On the other hand, the writing that Mushroom did there is interminably dull.  I don’t want to be mean.  I’m proud of what he did.  I don’t really expect more from a first grader.  It’s possible that the purpose of him writing with a workbook is to simply remove the anxiety associated with a blank page in his journal.  And once he’s confident enough to write, then we can start thinking about things like beautiful, interesting words.  That’s what I hope anyway.

What I worry is that it’s too fill in the blank.  It’s certainly a very schooly program.  It’s always a balance between pushing kids toward thinking for themselves and providing the structure so they can.  Fill in the blank is the easy way out, but I’m trying to figure out when it’s necessary.  I’m sure I’ll swing back at some point and rebel against this writing in a box attitude, which doesn’t entirely suit me and which I don’t want to suit my kids too well either.

* Did you notice that Just Write uses a font very much like Comic Sans?  As it’s not quite comic sans, I have been managing to live with it.  But only barely.

Spring Curriculum Round Up

Stuff We Liked

Miquon Math
We haven’t used this program a ton, but both the kids and I like it.  It’s an older math program which uses the “old new math.”  It’s very conceptual and skips around topics.  It’s intended to be somewhat child led and focuses on discovery.  For whatever reason, they never seem to get frustrated when they use it.  They think of it as “fun math.”  The Cuisenaire Rods are an integral part of the program and they like to use them with it.

Math Mammoth
We’ve also really enjoyed the downloadable program Math Mammoth.  We have the blue series, which breaks up the math into single topic workbooks.  We’ve finished the core of the first grade curriculum with this program and done many of the other topics as well.  The program asks kids to do a lot of problems, but we skip some if the kids are getting them all correct.  It asks the kids to slowly use different methods to build up to a thorough understanding.  The program has actually really grown on me as we’ve gotten farther with it.  Initially, I felt like it didn’t have enough conceptually and that it was too simple.  Now, I’ve begun to see how it asks the kids to think through things in different ways until they really get it.

Lollipop Logic
This isn’t more than a simple little workbook, and one that the kids finished relatively quickly.  However, it gave them a nice introduction to logic problems, analogies, and the like.  We liked it so much that I also got the author’s other workbook, Logic Safari, though we haven’t started that yet.

Progressive Phonics
Mushroom used this free online program very briefly at the start of the year in order to get a boost.  It teaches the early phonics rules and then provides readers where the child and parent read together.  We liked the method and ended up transferring it to other books as well, which helped him for awhile.  I wish it went further into more complex phonics, but it ends pretty quickly so its usefulness is limited.

The Library Curriculum
Really, the thing we like the best is the library curriculum.  We go almost every week.  Mushroom gets a few early readers.  BalletBoy considers whether he’s willing to read any of the chapter books I spread in front of him.  I comb the nonfiction shelves for my mental checklist of things: co-op topics, history, science, living math books, and any unexpected gems.  From the library we get many of the supplementary things I use constantly: the Janice VanCleave experiment books, the Mitsamisa Anno math books, the Let’s Read and Find Out science picture books, the various history project books, the piles of poetry books, the fairy tales and everything else.

Stuff We Did Not Like

Explode the Code Online
Even with the Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op discount, it’s not worth it in my opinion.  I’ve posted a little about this before, but it is so strongly focused on speed over accuracy that it just didn’t work for us.  Plus, the pictures or even the vocabulary was too obscure for the kids.  Somehow, that’s cute in the workbook, but less cute when you’re being timed and playing on the computer.  Then there’s the typing component.  Most six year olds don’t know how to type and I’ve even read things that talk about how typing may be bad for kids this age.  My final straw was when Mushroom, who can’t read nearly as well as BalletBoy, managed to surpass his brother simply by playing it like a video game.  That was it.  We got less than a month’s use out of it.

This was so bad, that it didn’t even make it to get used by the kids.  It was offered free a few months ago and I downloaded it.  It’s a computer program for teaching phonics.  The program made my computer look like it had traveled back in time a full decade.  There were not enough menu functions so there was limited control.  It wasn’t interactive, which meant it was basically just a poorly made video.  I don’t get why anyone would ever pay the price tag they attached to this.  Maybe if it was 1997 this would look somehow innovative?

The Jury’s Out

Mathematics Enhancement ProgrammeVolume 2: The Middle Ages

MEP Math
I love it.  It’s free, it’s challenging, and it’s a bit outside the box.  On the other hand, it made the kids cry.  That pretty much sums it up.

Story of the World
Well, I had a whole post about this one.  We like many things about it and we love history, but finally giving in and getting the Activity Guide was a total waste.  Many of the things we like best are the things I supplement with: crafts, picture books, and field trips.  And I’m really questioning whether the academic goal of emphasizing the “great men” over any social history is something that I can find useful as a history spine going forward.

Explode the Code
This time I’m talking about the workbooks.  I think they’re a solid way to practice phonics and I like many of the aspects of them.  However, they were difficult for Mushroom to use just learning and too easy for BalletBoy who can already read all the words in them.  At first I thought they were giving BalletBoy a solid foundation of phonics to back up his reading skills.  Now, seeing that his spelling isn’t improving at all, I’m less enamored with them.  However, Mushroom has gotten into more of a flow with them.  We’ll see how it comes out.

Handwriting Without Tears
Last year, we really enjoyed doing this program for kindergarten and liked the way that it introduced handwriting gently (though I can’t say it was completely without tears for my sometimes oversensitive boys).  This year, the kids finished the workbook super quickly and I realized that they needed more practice that isn’t really there to get from writing well with the example in front of you to writing well when you’re just writing.  However, I still kind of love their font.  I refuse to listen to the naysayers on that front.  It’s a lovely font, really.

I queued this post up last week (eek, now you know my terrible blogging secret, which is that I blog ahead of time and schedule my posts!) but then had to go out of town unexpectedly.  So, a slow week here, but I have more curriculum thoughts, a science post, and I’m sure some book reviews for next week.