Tag Archives: homeschool

Science Fair! (without the fair)

One of the final things we did in the spring before the kids headed off in their summer directions, was science fair style projects. And they were excellent. We didn’t have a science fair to take them to (though there are a few homeschool science fairs around here during the school year, so I’ll save them and maybe we’ll attend one). But that was no big deal. We could still do a project as if it was for one.

We’ve never done a science project like this. We’ve done loads of experiments over the years and of course I’ve taught the scientific method. However, doing a kid-chosen project like this was definitely a super valuable experience that emphasized the scientific method in a new way. I’m glad we waited until middle school because I’m not totally sure if they’d have gotten as much out of it at a younger age. However, this was so good that I think we’ll do it again next year.

Mushroom was doing a study of cells for school. Then I had him read through Ellen McHenry’s Protozoa and he did some of the worksheets and activities. When it came time to do a project, I suggested he do something with the topic he’d been studying already and he came up with a project comparing two different infusions of stream water. He hypothesized based on his research that they would cultivate different types of protists.

That hypothesis turned out to be wrong. However, they did have different effects (hay is better than rice, at least with Rock Creek stream water). He took photos using a microscope camera. He then made an amazing board and wrote a really solid science report about his method. Overall, he worked really hard and breezed through.

BalletBoy had a longer trek to figuring something out. He’d been studying meteorology for school and I suggested he find a project that would go with that. He initially wanted to try a project having to do with charting the temperature. But that fizzled. Then he decided to try this project where you test the humidity by making your own hygrometer. If you don’t know the website Science Buddies, it’s a great search tool for finding science fair project ideas. Unfortunately, after two attempts at making the hygrometer, he couldn’t get it to do a thing.

Frustrated, he asked if he could poke around and do something else entirely. He found a project making bath bombs and decided to try that. He altered the project from the website, doing some research and coming up with his own recipe. Then, while it turned out to be a pretty grueling day of messing up and not measuring properly, he made and then tested the bombs. His hypothesis was also disproven. The recipe he invented wasn’t the fizziest. But that was fine. He had some data to show for his project. And while he didn’t quite have the graphic design flair that Mushroom did and I ended up having to direct his report and project board more, he felt really good about what he’d done in the end.

This is one of those “school” experiences that I think it’s worth trying to provide for homeschoolers but that it’s easy to forget about in the rush to finish a curriculum. It can also be a messy endeavor for families (we had large tupperwares of stream water growing small beasties on the mantle for weeks) and I know that some families recoil just thinking about managing it. But it was very worth it here, even if there wasn’t a fair and blue ribbons at the end of the process. It was great for learning organization, writing, and presentation skills, not to mention really emphasizing the scientific method.

 

Homeschoolers Need Better Advocacy

Coming out of my post-election, post-DI season, winter coma to hammer home something that has driven me crazy for years now.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to rub it in that we scored Kusama Infinity Mirrors tickets.

The greater homeschooling community needs a better media and political advocacy organization.

What’s reminding me of this today, you may ask? The Washington Post Magazine ran this piece about how some of HSDLA’s former Generation Joshua type rising political activists have turned to advocating for more homeschool regulation. If you follow these issues, there’s not much new in this piece and the individual personalities profiled simply don’t have particularly compelling or unusual stories. Plus, while none of the people profiled seem to be involved with the group, I found the omission of CRHE, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, to be somewhat baffling. This is an organization doing exactly what people profiled do which has a good bit of visibility in homeschooling circles. Why weren’t they mentioned?

In the piece, the Post claims in the headline that, “These activists want greater home-school monitoring. Parent groups say no way.” However, the only “parent group” they talk about is HSLDA, which is not a group of homeschooling parents at all. It’s a group of conservative lawyers.

The implication in that piece, and countless other media pieces about homeschooling, is that HSLDA speaks for homeschool parents. Honestly, I’m sick of it. I’m beyond sick of it.

HSLDA and its leader Michael Farris do not speak for me. Nor do they speak for the majority of homeschooling families I know. They are fear-mongers when it comes to homeschool rights, sending out a constant barrage of email alerts designed to make families think the government is out to get them, thus increasing their revenue and membership. They use their clout to kill legislation that has little to do with homeschooling, such as nearly singlehandedly keeping the US from signing a disability rights treaty or lobbying against LGBT rights. And local homeschoolers do not always like the positions they take in updating or changing state homeschooling laws but because of their high profile, they have the ability to move in with their agenda, getting people nationwide to lobby state legislators the way they want.

As I’ve written about before on this blog, educational neglect and abuse are real problems in some parts of the homeschool world and all homeschoolers would do well to get wise to that fact of life, especially when it comes to things like using social media to share the pleas, petitions, lobbying cries, and fundraising efforts for homeschool families who are in trouble with the law. Too often, the biased reports about homeschool families sent out by groups like HSLDA don’t show the whole picture.

But that’s exactly why homeschoolers increasingly need a new advocacy group to speak for the growing majority of us who are not schooling because of evangelical protestantism. We’re schooling for primarily secular reasons, we’re more diverse religiously and ethnically, and we have positions across the political spectrum. We need a group that can field media requests and political requests for “the homeschool position” so that HSLDA doesn’t simply try to speak for everyone. Some states have groups like this already, but not all. And the statewide groups are also often just as exclusive in their mission as HSLDA.

I don’t know what the “right” amount of regulation of homeschoolers is. I know that even a lot of “good” homeschoolers think that homeschooling should be completely unregulated and tracked. And I admit that most of the regulation that already exists in some states seems to be mostly hoops to jump through that I think anyone who is determined to hide neglect or abuse can probably do with relative ease. I think the CRHE has some good ideas, but I can’t say I agree with every single point.

While the CRHE and the views of homeschool alumni in general are starting to be seen as important, don’t speak for homeschool parents. I really believe that this message that we believe in sane regulation is strongest from within. I think it would be amazing to have a group that believed in advocating for homeschooling as a positive schooling method and believed that children’s rights were important.

I don’t know how this comes to be. Many of the secular focused groups that have sprung up in the last few years have been focused primarily on curriculum and community, not advocacy or politics. And several of these groups have had strong starts only to fall apart over time. It’s hard to sustain a community that’s more diverse and divergent in its viewpoints. However, every time I read another piece that implies HSLDA speaks for me, I am reminded of how needed this is.

Halfway There

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A sudden realization struck me not long ago. We are halfway there. The kids are firmly into seventh grade. We’ve passed the halfway mark on homeschool. Actually, if you include kindergarten, we passed it a ways back on the road, breezing past, minding our own business, not appreciating the scenery.

Will we do high school? It’s a question I get often lately and I admit that every time I see someone who is sticking with it so far, it’s first on my lips as well. It would have broken my heart to send the kids to elementary school, but I would have done it if it had been necessary. Middle school is not negotiable. No way can they go and now that we’re past sixth grade, if I were to die horribly tomorrow, I really hope the Husband would just keep them home and unschool them. Because I think it would be time better spent overall.

But high school? Right now, we’re in. BalletBoy is definitely in. Mushroom is maybe, probably in.

Everyone says that homeschooling is a marathon, not a sprint. I have given that advice myself many times. Don’t let yourself tire out, don’t overdo it, keep in mind that you’ve got time and it’s a long journey. All that good advice. I think we’ve mostly done it. There have been times I tried to sprint toward nothingness – toward reading too soon, toward better spelling, toward history books that were too hard. But mostly I think we’ve taken the right roads. We have just kept moving, kept doing something, not overthinking it too much.

And Mushroom and BalletBoy are mostly thriving. There are micro-things that I would love to change. When will BalletBoy remember to capitalize anything, even down to his own name? Will Mushroom ever be able to spell? Will BalletBoy forget how to do long division without be giving him the evil eye every single time he hasn’t practiced it for a week?

But the macro-things are mostly pretty good. BalletBoy writes lovely stories and is starting to write half decent essays. Mushroom dives into math with love and explains to me things in Mathematics: A Human Endeavor with a natural ease that is foreign to me as a math novice. Mushroom isn’t about to win any essay contests, but he’s getting more confident with writing. BalletBoy will be ready for Algebra I before the end of the year. BalletBoy has such a passion for dance. Mushroom is coaching a group of little kids for Destination Imagination. Mushroom likes to read now. Both of them are detail oriented and organized enough to carry out complex projects and make beautiful things. Both of them are kind and thoughtful and have interesting things to say. Sometimes they disagree with me.

It’s nice to take a moment to just say, hey, there’s still a long road ahead, but we’ve covered a lot of ground behind us. And we’ve done it mostly by being willing to just keep going and do something as we went.

September Vacations: The Best Homeschool Perk

Whoa! That's Chichen Itza! A great vacation this year.
Whoa! That’s Chichen Itza! A great vacation this year.

If you’re not taking your vacation in September, you’re missing out. I know not everyone can afford a vacation and that sometimes other commitments that have nothing to do with school can get in the way too, but if you can, I strongly suggest you take that vacation, whether near or far the week or even two weeks after Labor Day.

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We appreciate the raging waters near Niagara Falls two years ago. In September, of course.

I can promise you, less crowds, cheaper prices, and probably good weather. Yeah, I know, you start to risk Hurricane season in some quarters, but that’s what trip insurance is all about.

We haven’t had a huge vacation in a few years. Other than a drive to the in-laws and then on to scenic Niagara Falls, we haven’t managed to leave the country since our epic Africa vacation several years ago. But this September, we did the Yucatan. BalletBoy practiced his budding Spanish skills and we did a wonderful long unit ahead of time about Mayan history that made the boys sound so smart and informed while walking around the ancient ball courts and climbing the pyramids. Oh, and we chilled on the beach in Tulum a whole lot.

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Mushroom and BalletBoy do Epcot four years ago. In September, of course.

But if you’re not as adventurous, we got a great Great Wolf Lodge deal that week a couple of years ago. And our one grandparent fueled Disney trip was a second week of September affair and it was amazing. No lines, you guys. Well, almost no lines. Even if you’re just going to hit the local beach, the weather will probably still be great and the prices might be halved.

So next year, if you can, ditch the first week of soccer/dance/4-H/robotics club and head off for a few days to take your homeschool perk – travel without the masses.

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.

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.

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.