Monday, February 28, 2011

The New York Times Book Project

I love the idea of starting at the beginning of a list of something and working your way through it, a la Julie/Julia.  Thanks to The New York Times Parents Guide to the Best Books for Children I finally have my own obsessive, list-based project.

The Guide came to me as a gift from Dr. Yap when Bean was but a wee thing, because, being the good partner that she is, Dr. Yap knew how much I loved books and knew they would be a big part of my parenting life.  Before I was even pregnant - before we even tried to get pregnant - I started collecting my childhood favorites, beginning with Blueberries for Sal, The Story of Ping, and the entire Beatrix Potter collection.  When Bean came into the world, she already had entire bookcase full of books.

For some reason, though, I resisted the Guide and it was shuffled from bookshelf to desk and back again many times.  I would occasionally crack it open- guiltily - see a few favorites, look at the publication date (2000 for the 3rd Edition Revised & Updated), try to start at the beginning with the Wordless Books, then put it down again. Without thinking through how timeless children's literature is (two of the books I listed above were published before my mother was born; most of Beatrix Potter's books came out before my grandmothers were born) I declared the book out of date and therefore possibly inferior.

The Wordless Books section also thwarted me.  We only had two of these tomes, The Snowman and Goodnight, Gorilla (which is listed in the Guide's Picture Book section, but which I definitely consider wordless), both were gifts and I did my best to ignore them and would have given them away if I had been capable of parting with books.  I am a reader and a writer and I wanted words, darnit, and did not want to narrate the story of my own accord in my sleep-deprived state.  Bean never seemed to notice and never had more than a passing interest.  Boo noticed them, loved them, and insisted that I "read" them, completely ignoring my pleas that these were books he could actually read himself.

Of course, one could just circumnavigate this section. But I couldn't.  It would have taunted me. And how could I have gone through all the other sections and bypass that one.  Better to give the whole thing a pass. Back on the shelf went the book.

Then came homeschooling and weekly trips to the library.  It was great fun exploring all the "Youth Library" had to offer and making discoveries, but after a while I felt like I needed a little structure.  So I took out the Guide and invented a project. An obsessive-compulsive project involving a list and books.  Really, the only thing better would be if it also involved chocolate.  (Note to self: look for a list of world's best chocolate and start saving airline miles.  I'm sure I can make a homeschooling project out of this.)

Here are my rules:

  • We will work our way through all of the sections in order: Wordless Books, Picture Books, Story Books, Early Reading Books, Middle Reading Books, and Young Adult Books. I readily concede that Bean (7) is not ready for the likes of Tiger Eyes, Forever (Judy Blume books about the death of a parent and first sexual experiences, respectively), or most of the other books in the Young Adult section, but it will be a long time before we get there - the first five sections have a combined 933 selections (and many of these are series with extra volumes demanding to be read).  If I get there before she's ready, I will read the ones I haven't already to myself.  
  • I will get as many books as I can from our library.  When I come across used books that are on the list, I may purchase them, especially if they are unavailable at the library.  
  • No Amazon. Except for the 10-volume A History of Us, which I would rather have here than keep borrowing from our homeschool program.
  • I will save holiday books for the appropriate time.
  • With a very few exceptions, we will at least look at every book we can find.  Here are the exceptions:
          *Books whose main theme is divorce, unless Bean or Boo asks (and I don't think the two-year-old will) or a friend of theirs is going through this.  I just think this will worry them unnecessarily.  Death, I feel, is a fact of life.  Divorce is not, necessarily.  As we move along the list to the Middle Reading Books, there may be characters whose parents are divorced, but this won't necessarily be the overriding theme.  Those books will stay in.
          * Books to which I know Bean will fundamentally object.  This includes most ghost stories (though I have read the book descriptions to Bean and one or two sounded interesting to her, ghosts or no ghosts), and books whose point is to make fun of someone or something in a possibly mean-spirited way.  That includes The Stupids series by Henry Allard (I looked at a used copy at the kids' consignment shop just to be sure), and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (we had a gift copy when Bean was younger and it's one of the few books I have ever given away without a second thought).  No judgement here if others like these books (they've been vetted by the Times after all); they are just not our thing and will not help with the cause of building lifelong readers and learners.

Originally, I thought we wouldn't read books that were about any specific religion, unless they seemed liked a good introduction to another culture.  I quickly realized this meant that I was saying yes most books about Judaism and all the books about Islam and Buddhism, and no to all the books about Christianity.  I decided that I had to say yes to all the books about religion.  After all, there weren't many and this really is a secular list.  These are good books that happen to relate a story rooted in one religion or another.

We actually started this project in January, so we're mostly finished with the Wordless Books and very close to finished with the Picture Books.  I will give a review of our favorite and not-so favorite Wordless Books soon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Ode to the Library

As I lug 50 pound bag of books across the street or around the corner
the kids running ahead or lagging behind
I don't mind the weight because I know four small hands will soon put it all in the book drop
taking peaks in the slot hoping to see hands on the other side whisking away the volumes

The empty bag will droop from my shoulder as I lag behind the kids
already at the top of the stars
They run ahead and make their rounds (puppet theater, discovery table, reading table)
Making sure all their favorite spots are still intact
And looking to see what's new, different

I wander off, filling the bag as I go
From zero to fifty pounds
Thrilling at small discoveries and looking around for an adult to whom I can gush about the genius of the children's librarians
I hold my tongue, deciding not to divulge the secrets I have sussed out since we became more than occasional visitors

The abecedarians and counting books perch on their own shelf
Neat ABC and 123 spine labels setting them apart from the rest of the story books to come.
Next come the Mother Goose books
which I bypass
though I know someone will be glad to find them
The two year old is making a quick stop at the drawing table
before following me along to the section of holiday books
(What a nice idea, why don't all libraries do this?)

I lose the toddler as I pass down the magical aisle of 398.2
A whole row of fairy tales and folk stories
Standing apart from the rest of the Dewey Decimals
A gateway between the JEasy storybooks and the serious world of nonfiction
(I wonder if anybody ever thought of putting 811 Poetry in it's own aisle
a sentry in verse between the whole rest of the Youth Library
and the edgy corner of the Young Adult Section)

One of the librarians smiles and asks if I need any help
Not this time, but the next time I am looking for patience-themed literature
or my daughter needs to find books on runic alphabet systems
I will seek out her
or one of the other Oracles in the children's section

Before I make my way to the special shelves with themes that the librarians have divined are important this season
I pass by the seven year old, sitting on a cushioned bench for one
at the end of a row
Engrossed in a book she didn't know existed until she walked by it
a few minutes ago

As I cruise around the chapter book section
My toes curl with joy, sure that my children's librarians are the only ones smart enough
to give shorter chapter books there own wall
so kids who are beyond the controlled words of a Dr. Seuss Reader but not yet ready for the wider world of Harry Potter, the Phantom Tollbooth, and the Rats of Nimh
Can still read big kid books and stretch their reading muscles

Making sure to give the JEasy+ shelves a little attention
(I always worry that others haven't discovered this section of picture books with more words 
about slavery, World War II, child labor, Anti-Semitism...) 
I quickly peruse the CDs, looking for Beethoven for Kids and the Red Balloon.

The bag is now too full for anything but the board books the two year keeps running up to stuff inside
I realize I haven't looked at the community table in a while and take a look at the stacked flyers
(After all being a purveyor of information to the community is the heart of a public library)
I find both kids sitting on the floor in front of the shelf that inexplicably
(but probably because of space)
contains both manga and extra-large board books
- one is reading Kilala Princess and the other is looking at Wheels on the Bus.

This time, I don't have an extra set of big hands
so I bypass the blue canvas bags, each filled with books all about music, or nature, or our bodies
-relics from a time when there was staff enough to take books into local preschools
Now there for families

I try to sneak over to the checkout table without picking up an extra set of helping hands
And feel a wave of anxiety
not because of the new self-checkout system
but because I might have missed that gem that will be checked out for the next two months.

As I wrote this, I was taking a mental tour of the Santa Cruz Public Library Central Branch, but my family visits most of the other branches of the City-County Public Library System and their Children's Sections contain similar secrets and hidden corners. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

But Don't You Have a Toddler at Home?

Why yes. Yes I do have a toddler at home.  Boo is 2 and a substantial amount of change, putting him squarely in the toddler category.   While trying to homeschool a going-on-eight-year-old with a toddler at home does have its challenges, it's not crazy.  Well, not completely crazy.

When we first started to homeschool Bean, Boo was about 18 months old and he was very excited to have his big sister home.  He wanted to sit on my lap or in her chair while we were doing schoolwork.  Or he wanted to do something too.  For a while, I found something comparable for him to do - crayons and paper for example- so he wasn't left out of all the fun.  There was an all-too-brief period when we counted on his nap time to do more concentrated work; and then his nap became less reliable.

Gradually, it's all smoothed out and Boo is used to school time and busies himself easily, sometimes after I read one of "his" library books to him.  The last couple of weeks however, busying himself means he sits on the sofa with either Netflix on the iPad (yes, he can manage this almost entirely on his own) or a movie on the portable DVD player (the only part of this he can't manage is opening the door to the movie closet.)

I am not opposed to either Boo or Bean watching TV or using the computer in general, they are a part of the world in which they live.  However, I do monitor content and call a timeout on the TV/computer when their self-regulation leads them to marathon media sessions a few days in a row.  Bean only occasionally gets into a media rut that requires intervention, but she has never been one to just watch TV without doing at least one other thing at the same time.  Boo, on the other hand, has no problems sitting in one place staring at the screen for two hours straight.  He has a "better" attention span than Bean. At 29 months.

It looks like I will be doing preschool at home sooner rather than later, because in this house, necessity is the mother of homeschooling.  We plan to enroll Boo in a Waldorf-ish home preschool near our house in the fall, just two mornings a week, but that's months away and my toddler needs some directed playtime NOW.  Peese.

After reading a lovely article about turning every daily experience into a preschool opportunity, and almost falling asleep looking at a site after site that suggested theme weeks, and then having a moment or two of feeling complete and utter inadequacy while looking at several Montessori "Bambino Academies" I realized I HAVE DONE THIS BEFORE.

That's right. This is not the first time I've had a two and a half year old in the house and it's not the first time I thought about preparing a rich learning environment - I just wasn't thinking of it as school the first time around.  Even though Bean was trundled off to a Montessori program at 18 months, I still did a lot at home with her.  I still find dried beans in odd places and come across teeny tiny scoops and tongs in the kitchen drawers.

I have been trying to tame the playroom and art closet (again) and have started mentally setting aside materials that would be perfect to bring out one at a time in the mornings for Boo.  Over the years, as they have segued from toddler learning materials to big kid toys, many of these things have become jumbled.  I spent a rainy weekend morning going through the box of lacing "stuff" and sorting out lacing beads and the lacing frame from the lacing cards.  Then I tackled the dozen or so sets of flash cards that had become one humongous game of Go Fish.  I set aside the sign language cards, the money and time sets, and the phonics set then further segregated the remaining cards into small, manageable groups: shapes, numbers 1-20, letters, solar system, ocean/marine life, ecosystems, bugs.

I rescued some plastic trays from Bean's art table and will start setting out work for Boo this week.  I also pulled out a few preschool teacher's books that I found at a church rummage sale, moving them from the Someday stack in the playroom closet to the Right Now reference box on my desk.  One is Investigating Science With Young Children by Rosemary Althouse and the other is Start to Finish: Developmentally Sequenced Activities for Preschool Children by Nory Marsh (this one shows up on a lot of lists online, but without any pictures or information and appears to be out-of-print). 

The first one is more for inspiration, but I think I will use Start to Finish more directly.  The activities are intended to strengthen the skills that will eventually be needed for holding a pencil and using scissors.  The first activities are "Stringing Medium-Sized Beads," "Pegboard Patterns," "Playing Paper Basketball," and "Putting a Lid On It" (screwing lids on jars.)  I would probably have done most of the activities on my own, but it's nice to have a guide.

And of course, before, after, and during the school day there is lots of reading.  Boo is always around when Bean or I are reading her history, science and literature lessons out loud and I always include what Bean calls "Boo Books" during our reading time.

We'll see how this goes and I'll report back.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Every day, I worry about something - big or small - related to homeschooling.  The one thing I worry about more than anything else is writing, in all its aspects. From an educational perspective, I think writing can be broken into three categories: penmanship, grammar and mechanics, and what I call the business of writing - knowing and working with different forms, such as poetry and stories, as well as being able to construct a sentence, and a paragraph and string these together coherently and orderly.

Bean is "advanced" in many areas academically.  (This is a whole other blog post, but as I tell her, she is in Anneke grade).  She is way ahead of where her age-level peers are expected to be in math, history and science.  She is somewhat ahead in reading.  When it comes to writing though, she is, at most, writing as other 7 and 3/4 year olds do.

Her penmanship has gotten better over time, but she persists in starting many letters at the bottom instead of at the top and still reverses some letters.  I have wondered many times about whether occupational therapy was necessary, but keep hoping it will work itself out in time.  At the beginning of our "school year," in August, I was thought some "remediation" might help, so I started having writing in a journal, just concentrating on one letter a day, capital and lowercase, and one number.  I wrote an example at the top of the page, with arrows showing which direction each part of the letter should be written.  She might produce one or two perfect specimens, then fill the rest of the page quickly and sloppily.  Or she might insist on writing every letter her way, not the "right" way.  Even when she was trying, only a few letters out of a hundred might match my example.  My thinking behind this exercise was that doing it the correct way a bunch of times would create muscle memory.  I realized though, that she was either incapable or unwilling to focus on writing the letters correctly.

So I stopped the journal pages and had her start doing the Handwriting Without Tears cursive workbook.  I thought she might take to the more fluid writing style.  She has always disliked the drawings in the HWT books and didn't like them any better in the cursive book.  We have kept up with that sporadically and in recent weeks, she has all but stopped working on cursive.  I do not have strong feelings about her learning cursive, but I do think she needs to be able to read cursive and write her own signature.

I know that if she were in a regular school classroom, she would be doing more writing every day, and that it would get easier over time.  She knows I think it's important and she often comes up with writing projects that are completing of her own making: writing "reports" about things she is reading, writing short letters, copying down song lyrics.  Usually, these are all only a few sentences long, but when she is writing for herself, she has much better penmanship than when I require her to write something specific.

The problem is, we need to provide work samples to our public school consultant teacher as part of the state reporting requirements. Often, these projects are written in scattered journals or on scraps of paper.  I have to hunt them all down to show our consultant.  Sometimes, when she's written things privately and not shared them with us, I feel it would be a violation to show them to the consultant.  She really hates the idea of having to show work to Joanne.  It has nothing to do with Joanne, she just doesn't like having to talk about her work or prove her knowledge about anything - unless it's her idea.

The only part of Language Arts that Bean finds interesting is vocabulary and discovering word origins and meanings.  She loves using  We used to work on grammar and mechanics, but after playing musical workbooks for several months, I stopped pushing it. The curriculum we are using has the language arts lessons embedded within both the literature and social studies activities, but she usually finds reasons for not wanting to do the exercises.  Even though her writing is fairly small, she gets anxious about only having a few lines to complete.  Most of the activities are presented with the expectation that the student will answer in complete sentences.  There are none of the endless "fill-in-the-blank" exercises that I remember and that are common in workbooks.  She doesn't like those either, but at least they would give her more practice and allow her to build up to writing longer sentences.  I have offered to let her write her answers in a journal, but she doesn't want to do that because she knows I will then show it to Joanne.

I go back and forth on the whole writing thing between insisting on a certain amount or type of writing everyday and relaxing my expectations to see how she develops on her own.  Right now, I'm following the latter approach.  I know that she is always more willing if she is interested and if it doesn't seem like pointless busy work.    Sometimes I am okay with this, and sometimes I just want her to do what I think she would have to do in "regular school." I have heard of kids who are unschooled who don't write at all until they are 13, then they enroll in a community college course and they start writing like the Dickens.  I've always thought these were homeschooling urban legends

Lately, I am getting a lot of inspiration and validation from Creative Homeschooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families, in which Lisa Rivero notes that many gifted children have asynchronous development: they can be ahead in some areas while at developmental level in others.  I have not investigated this further, but she also says that many gifted kids lag in handwriting.

My current plan is to keep working through the MBtP curriculum, one unit at a time, and keep offering the activities to her, but not forcing them.  I have been gathering the materials to do a homemade Poetry unit whenever we finish MBtP- or whenever we decide to be done with it.  This will include both reading and writing poetry.  I am also thinking about using If You're Trying to Teach Kids to Write, You've Gotta Have This Book to start using for daily writing projects.

Sketching in the backyard

Monday, February 7, 2011

Free Range Math

Math is one of Bean's favorite subjects and has been the hardest to settle into a good learning routine.  So far, we have tried Envision, Right Start, various workbooks, including those from Critical Thinking, BrainQuest, and Math Made Easy.  She quickly rejected Envision, Critical Thinking, and BrainQuest, complaining that the illustrations were distracting, or the work was too easy or encouraged the student to use a method she could work around.  Sometimes she complained that the directions or set up made no sense - and she was often right.  By September, we finally settled into Math Made Easy workbooks, but she wanted to pick and choose what she did and I worried about how I would keep track of what she knew and what needed work.

When we bought MBtP, I looked into RightStart Math, the program they recommend and sell. (There's a great description of the program on this blog).  I accidentally bought the 3rd grade level (Level D), but ended up deciding this was okay, since we were beginning the program in the middle and RightStart has a very specific methodology and way of using manipulatives.  Also, it seems rather arbitrary what each different math curricula considers skills for 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders.  I liked that I finally had a script for teaching math and had some guidelines, since I'd just been winging it before.  I also liked that the curricula used a lot of "real world" examples, such as using the calendar to practice 2 and 3-digit addition, using analog clocks for adding time and practicing fractions, etc.  The program emphasized understanding the concepts, rather than understanding a specific methodology.  Also, memorization and timed facts practice was de-emphasized. All good things.

Bean liked that the teacher guide and student worksheets were straight-forward black and white with no embellishment.  She also liked using a white board to work things out and enjoyed learning calculator tricks.  That was it.  She found the sheer scope of each lesson overwhelming and did not appreciate the repetition that formed the Warm Up for each lesson.  After the first week or so, I could tell her energy was flagging and this was starting to seep into the rest of the day.  She finally told me, tearfully, one evening at bedtime that she thought the math program was too hard and she just wanted to work on grids and coordinates.

Okay, it's time for an aside.  And a confession.  Along the way, we have picked up several Math Mosaics workbooks from MindWare that Bean liked to do for fun, but I had never used them as curriculum.  She solves the problems and each answer represents a point on the grid which leads to drawing a treasure map, writing a hidden word, or drawing a picture - depending on the book.  Several months ago, she discovered the Graphbook app on the iPad, which shows "3D" models of different functions on a coordinated plane.  Bean thought they were cool and when I told her they were representations of equations, her response was "Okay, I want to learn THAT." I made noise about it being a while before we got to that, but said in the meantime we could do the Multiplication Mosaics for math.

And then I ordered a shiny new curriculum that would make my life easier and forgot about her request.

The confession: I do not believe in math facts or, at least in forcing kids to learn them.  At least not my kid.  If Bean were the kind of student who rose to the challenge of memorizing facts and one-upping herself in time trials, I would give it a good go.  She is not that kind of kid and I am not the kind of parent who can endure the torture of force-feeding times tables.  I have seen the future and I know that it is calculators.  I know that having the times tables down and having some addition and subtraction tricks up your sleeves can make things easier as the math gets harder, but I think that kind of mastery can come with repetition and just doing equations.  I had a math professor in an advanced level math class admit - after making blackboard errors more than once - that he was terrible at arithmetic and that it was the excitement of what all those numbers could do together that kept him in math.  So...

Last week, we officially went off the grid in math.  Or rather, on the grid.  I went out and bought every single Math Mosaics workbook we didn't already have - Decimals, Fractions, and Algebra.  I also got a few logic problem workbooks also by MindWare.  Toss in a middle school level geometry workbook Bean asked for during a bookstore trip and there's our new math curriculum.  So far, so good.  The problems are challenging enough to hold her interest, the grids are fun to fill in, she likes the excitement of seeing what pattern her answers will make on the grids, she is learning some pretty advanced concepts and she is getting lots of arithmetic practice (though I am letting her use a calculator as a back up.)

When we did the first exercise in the Algebra book, I explained Order of Operations, parentheses and how to solve a quadratic equation as we went along.  I didn't really expect her to get all the concepts down and just saw it as a good way to practice arithmetic and coordinate systems and figured it would be good introduction to algebra.  I was surprised the next day when we had a quadratic equation and I asked her if she remembered how to solve those and she said "Yes. FOIL." And then correctly told me what that meant and showed how to go about solving it.

Now I'm throwing caution and the math textbooks to the wind and going with it, somehow trusting that it will all work out, even without the rigorous daily practice and neatly typed home educator manual.  I have several books of math projects that I want to fold in eventually, but for now, we're all about the x axis and the y axis.