School Year Eve

It’s that time again: the school year is about to start, and the new books and other materials are looking shiny and attractive. Picking out materials is always a favorite part of home education for me! By May (earlier than May, if we’re going to be brutally honest), the bloom will be off the rose, but I like to savor this feeling of anticipation I always have on the brink of a new year.

IMG_0535This year I’ll have a 6th and a 9th grader, and the year will see some new directions for us in terms of curriculum. The main innovations will be in science, history and writing.

I’ve chosen Apologia General Science for this year, complete with text and tests, student notebooks, and the audiobook version of the text for my auditory learners. We have really enjoyed Real Science-4-Kids in the past for biology, chemistry (we used RS4K along with Ellen McHenry’s The Elements), physics and astronomy. But for a full-year course suitable for our grade levels, I thought I’d try something different. I approach science with some trepidation, knowing that Apologia takes a more literal view of Genesis than I do. But if my kids were in public school, chances are they would be getting different worldviews from different teachers, and my philosophy is that we have nothing to fear as Christians. Differences are opportunities for discussion and further examination of our own assumptions. Why should I feel any differently about this? I’m looking forward to the structure and general meatiness of the course, and my youngest has wanted to start for over a month due to the appeal of the student notebook. She’ll get her chance soon!

In history, we’re still taking the chronological approach advocated in The Well-Trained Mind. This year we’re up to the Middle Ages and will be trying out Biblioplan. I ordered the textbooks as hard copies and the four companion books (geography, planning resources, activities, discussion guide) as digital copies that we printed out here. It reminds me a little of Tapestry of Grace, but without being quite so overwhelming. Much of our literature and writing for the year will come through our history study.

In writing I’m taking the leap from Rod and Staff to Brave Writer, using Julie Bogart’s Writer’s Jungle. Rod and Staff has served us well in grammar instruction, and I’ll continue using it with Younger Daughter till she’s through 8th grade. But for Older Daughter I feel that Vocabulary from Ancient Roots, copywork and dictation provide sufficient focus on the nuts and bolts of language. Brave Writer appeals to me as a former writing instructor because it doesn’t advocate teaching writing through formulas. It doesn’t hide the difficulty of writing behind a facade of checklists and rules. Instead, it focuses on helping the student to face that terrifying blank sheet of paper by reaching down into herself and sorting out her own perspective and voice. It will be a new adventure for us, but one that includes more writing than Rod and Staff has required. The writing will also be more varied than the book summaries we’ve been doing for years.

State history and critical thinking for YD, Spanish and health for OD, and a few other subjects will round out the year. We’re enrolled in a co-op for music, art and gym, and it has been a good fit for us in the past. But lately I have had the sense that it’s not working as well for us, and though there are other co-ops around, I’m not sure what we would do to replace it. I remember that early in my home schooling endeavor, I read in The Well-Trained Mind that it can be difficult to find group opportunities that really fit. We have chosen this co-op for its social opportunities for the girls, rather than for its school-related content. But to me the ideal is interest-centric socialization, where you join with others who share your interests and the social life falls into place around the shared activities. 4-H has provided a great social framework for our interest in horses. I’d like to find (or help to create) its equivalent in our other areas of interest (art and nature).

For the moment, though, we have a fair amount of new experience sitting on the shelf downstairs, waiting to be used. I hear the books calling — but for just a little while longer, I’m going to enjoy a summer that has flown by all too quickly!


21“Perhaps I can be of some assistance — a-s-s-i-s-t-a-n-c-e,” buzzed an unfamiliar voice, and when Milo looked up he saw an enormous bee, at least twice his size, sitting on top of the wagon.

“I am the Spelling Bee,” announced the Spelling Bee. “Don’t be alarmed — a-l-a-r-m-e-d.”

Tock ducked under the wagon, and Milo, who was not overly fond of normal-sized bees, began to back away slowly.

“I can spell anything — a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g,” he boasted, testing his wings. “Try me, try me!


The other morning, I came out to the kitchen and saw that someone had added an item to my whiteboard grocery list:


The telltale “e” on the end alerted me to the identity of the culprit. That “e” is a flail, an insurance policy tacked on “just in case.” If she wrote the word again, she might spell it differently. It’s occurred to me that this child would have thrived in the Renaissance, when non-standard spelling was the only rule to remember. Unfortunately, we live in the 21st century.

Everyone says that one of the great advantages of home education is that you can tailor your instruction to the learning style of each child individually. Lately it’s really registering with me that I have to do something different in spelling with Child #2. Child #1 has used Spelling Workout with good results. But Child #2 has been using it for 3 years (this is the fourth), and she has learned nothing. And it’s largely my fault, with my desire to stick with the known. Where’s the Spelling Bee, from Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, when I need him?

Child #2 is very smart, but very different than her sister in a number of ways. In math she’s sailing along, and in her conversation she often startles me with sophisticated vocabulary and deep insight. But with the written word — handwriting and spelling — it’s a very different story. Coming to terms with this — and also with the discomfort of having only the most intuitive understanding of how she might learn more effectively — I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few days researching different spelling curricula online. I wanted to use SRA Spelling Through Morphographs, but the cheapest used version I could find was $189 on ebay. Finally I decided on Apples and Pears, a program originating in the UK but available here in the states. Like the SRA program, it breaks words down into their smallest units and focuses more on word construction than memorizing lists and rules. It uses short lessons and LOTS of repetition, spiral fashion.

Last night, having made my decision and printed out the placement tests, I went to bed. But not before passing the whiteboard once again, and seeing yet another item added to the grocery list:

ice creame

I’ve put off a change for a long time. Now it can’t happen soon enough.

All things considered

Younger Daughter’s fall bouquet

All things considered, school is going very well this year. In fact, it looks more like I want it to look than it ever has before. Thanks to my reduced blogging inspiration and screen time, I’m much more focused and present as Madame Professor. The girls are reading more, writing more, and being read to more. I’m more organized (I’m even making a weekly plan in a lesson planner — a big change for me!) and more systematic about checking answers and reviewing concepts.

So two of those three sentences describing our improved year are in fact describing me. The article most in need of tweaking appears to have been Yours Truly. The girls? They’ve always been brilliant and beautiful and imaginative. But until this year, I haven’t felt like I’m really giving my best effort on the home education front. I’ve been distracted. It feels good not to be nagged by the sense that I’m holding myself back from really trying.

Older Daughter is following the reading list for 7th grade inThe Well-Trained Mind. She’s actually in 6th grade, but this is the list that coincides with the period of history we’re studying, so I’m using it and helping where needed. She’s read an abridged Don Quixote, Perrault’s Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag (original, but I downloaded a reading from Librivox so that she had some assistance wading through Swift’s prose), and now she’s reading Pilgrim’s Progress (Gary Schmidt’s retelling). Younger Daughter joined in listening to Swift, and reread the Oliver Hunkin Pilgrim’s Progress we read a few years ago.

Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag farmer, by Richard Redgrave. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was struck by the level of comprehension both girls had with Gulliver. The language is not exactly simple, yet the mind adjusts. They were able to respond to the story. I didn’t read the unabridged Gulliver’s Travels until graduate school, and I read it dutifully and studiously. They simply experienced it with enjoyment. Election season was a wonderful time to read that one — so much commentary on government! And I love the change in Gulliver’s perspective as he transitions from being a giant among Lilliputians to a Lilliputian himself once on Brobdingnag.

Younger Daughter is reading up a storm on her own, captivated by everything from Encyclopedia Brown to Andrew Lang. Our current read-aloud is Anne of Green Gables, and I am enjoying it so much — the girls love Anne and Younger Daughter in particular frequently explodes in exclamations and giggles when we’re reading.

We’re officially doing earth science and astronomy in science this year, but our nature study continues and sometimes intersects with our science encyclopedias and Earth Science for Every Kid experiments. Lately the girls have had a rock fascination, so we pulled out the Handbook of Nature Study and went rock hunting. My kitchen is about to be buried under debris, transformed into a true blue archaeological site.

Older Daughter’s bird book

Our bird watching and photography continue to be deep interests, and the girls are going to be participating in 4H this year — Older Daughter in a horse club, Younger Daughter in a rabbit club, with additional projects in robotics and incubation/embryology as the year goes on. One way I feel I’ve really failed as a home schooler is in finding lots of social opportunities for the girls; our co-op got to where it required too much commitment, and until now I haven’t found a replacement for it. I really value the flexibility and freedom of our lives! I’m hoping 4H will provide that missing dimension of what I term “passion-centric socialization” — time with others that’s centered around our natural interests and pursuits (rather than mere busyness or extra stuff).

For several months starting last spring, I considered seriously the possibility of applying for a full-time teaching position that seemed like my dream job. If I’d gotten it, we would have moved, and the girls would have had to go to brick-and-mortar school. I wrestled over it and prayed about it, and had almost all my application materials assembled before I felt like I got my answer. It was my own feelings, expressed in this post, but given back to me in the words of Jessie Wise in The Well-Trained Mind:

I was often tired and sometimes felt overwhelmed by what I had undertaken — that is, home-educating my children. And if I’d had a perfect school available, I would have enrolled my children in it. But I looked at the academic and social options, and concluded that, in spite of my failures, my children were doing better under my tutoring than they would have done in a group situation.

Personally, I decided to put on hold some of my goals. But I held on to the wise counsel given me when my children were toddlers: “Live your life in chapters. You don’t have to do everything you want to do in life during this chapter of rearing children.”

It’s funny. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about applying for that job. But despite my failures and frustrations and occasional longings to accomplish something beyond what I’m doing now, my desires have changed. I have a different, and perhaps a more complex, calling on my life than I did ten years ago. I have different worries, too — about future security and retirement and braces and college for the girls. But in all previous chapters, we have found what I take to be God’s provision. It’s given me courage going into this year, and I think I’ve given myself more fully to this enterprise because of the clarification of goals.

Homeschool days

Courtesy of Stockxchnge

I thought I should record some of the tweaks I’ve made in materials this year, as well as a brief description of how a typical school day goes. I see these on other blogs from time to time, and even if it’s not of interest to anyone else, it will help me to remember what’s working and what’s not.

Fifth grade:

Math: Saxon 6/5. We’ve made our peace with Saxon by implementing a few simplifications to the potentially tedious routine of fact sheet, lesson practice, and mixed practice every day. For instance, identical timed fact sheets tend to be repeated for several days in a row: 100 addition facts, or 64 multiplication facts, etc. Older Daughter keeps doing the same sheet for as many consecutive days as it takes to get it done with no errors in 5 minutes. This keeps a little motivation in the process, and rewards her for knowing the facts by not making her keep doing them once she’s proficient. With the mixed practice, we’ve been doing just every other problem — evens (on even dates) or odds (on odd dates). This reduces the 25-30 problems, which keep drilling concepts from previous lessons, to 15 or so. It’s more manageable and she still gets plenty of review and practice. There is a short section of “lesson practice” problems each day, and I always make her do those; they drill the day’s new concept.

Spelling: Spelling Workout E. This represents a change; I originally planned to use Spelling Wisdom, which theoretically teaches spelling using dictation. I love the concept but felt it wasn’t really working for us — it wasn’t challenging enough. Honestly, Spelling Workout hasn’t created wonderful spellers yet in our homeschool, but it is easy to use and gives more daily practice than Spelling Wisdom.

Writing: Here too, I’ve added materials. I started with Rod and Staff’s “Following the Plan” writing text, and I’m continuing to use it because it’s strong in grammar. But since there is very little actual writing practice, I’ve started using Writing Strands 3 along with it. I’m not sure yet whether it “works,” or what criteria will emerge to determine its effectiveness. But it’s easy to use, addressed to the student and broken into manageable assignments.

Science: Well, we are loving nature study using Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, Peterson’s First Guides, and lots of firsthand outdoor observation. I’ve said plenty about that in previous posts.

History: We are progressing through Story of the World 2, and Older Daughter supplements with readings from the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and a reading list of my own devising (evil chuckle) that enables her to go more in-depth into the period. This is her second time through this period of history, and she’s able to read independently in a wider selection of books about the various topics we cover. I haven’t given her any decent instruction in outlining a text yet, but she writes summaries of about two history readings a week, as well as two pleasure books, and this furthers her writing skills. She’s pretty good at zeroing in on the main points and “shape” of a text, but right now I’m concentrating on helping her refine her writing by carrying over the paragraphing skills we’re learning in the Rod and Staff text.

Logic: Yes, we’re supposed to be doing logic this year, and I even purchased and received Mind Benders for the purpose. But I cannot for the life of me find the book. I’ve searched high and low, and it is quite lost. (So is Many Moons, a book I actually had to check out of the library to revisit with the girls because our copy is so completely lost.) So logic isn’t happening as yet.

Art, music, gym: These are quite hit-or-miss at the moment, except for horseback riding lessons once a week. Piano lessons are haphazard (I am the teacher). Art is constantly happening, and we do draw together in our nature journals. But the only actual instruction has been from Jan Brett’s online drawing videos. So, guilt, guilt, guilt.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in fifth grade.

Second grade:

Math: Saxon 2. All is going well. My heart is strangely warmed when I see my 7-year-old adding columns of numbers and regrouping. We don’t even have the meeting book, but we do the lesson sheets and fact sheets every day.

Spelling: Spelling Workout B. Charlotte Mason suggests waiting till 3rd grade to start spelling, and I tried to hold off this year. But I felt like this was necessary.

Writing: Younger Daughter dictates narrations for history readings and for two pleasure books a week. She does copywork daily to work on handwriting and “practical spelling.” I’m holding off on cursive until we aren’t reversing any letters and numbers — we’re getting better at this, but we’re not perfect yet. For grammar, we’re continuing with the second-grade half of First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind.

Science: See above.

Reading: We finished The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading awhile back and I was having Younger Daughter just read to me daily, but I missed having a systematic spine of some kind. So I broke down and got her a McGuffey’s Reader. I’m not a worshiper of all things old-fashioned just for the sake of being old-fashioned, but we’re really enjoying these daily readings and pictures.

Art, music, gym: See above, minus the horseback riding (you have to be 8 to start). More guilt.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in second grade.

Typical day for us:

We don’t do a daily “circle time,” though it’s an appealing concept to me. We do start each day with a reading from Egermeier’s Bible Storybook at breakfast, and a short prayer. We’ll finish this storybook this week, and I’ve purchased an Adventure Bible to launch into this reading plan starting next week.

As of this week, we also sing a hymn — this week it’s “Joyful Joyful, We Adore Thee” (first verse only, at this point) and the plan is to learn a hymn a week. I’m looking forward to checking out the library copy of Then Sings My Soul, and I may get our own copy if reading about the stories behind the weekly hymn is something that enriches our devotional time together.

After that, the girls go make their beds and get dressed and brush teeth. They start in on what they can do independently: math fact sheets, a page of spelling, and maybe copywork or a section of Writing Strands.

Three days a week, I go run on the treadmill while they do this, then do a 15-minute Pilates video get stretched back out. I have mixed feelings about this. It doesn’t really fit in with the idealized picture — or at least, one of the idealized pictures — I have of homeschooling, in which I am always in the picture, dispensing wisdom and loving support. But on the other hand is the idealized vision of homeschooling that fosters independent learners. The truth is, there is nothing for me to do as they work through fact sheets and spelling lessons except twiddle my thumbs. I make sure they understand the directions, and if they need help I’m quite accessible as I run from nowhere to nowhere downstairs. Sometimes Younger Daughter does the Pilates with me. But I struggle with feeling selfish for investing this time in myself. I need the time before the girls get up for my spiritual life. That leaves the time after they get up for my bodily life. So, unresolved feelings about all of this.

On days when I don’t exercise, I get cleaned up and ready for the day while they do this morning work. Then I alternate, usually getting Older Daughter going on the new math material for the day, then switching to math with Younger Daughter. (They do the fact sheets on their own, but I work with them on the new lesson material.) Then I switch back to grammar with Older Daughter, then grammar and reading with Younger Daughter. I check their work and make suggestions. If one finishes something and I’m still busy with the other, they can read or take a short break.

We do history together on Mondays, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays, often listening to the audiobook of our text while having lunch, then discussing the comprehension questions in the activity guide. Younger Daughter dictates her narration; Older Daughter does some reading and writes her narration. We do the map work in the activity guide, and work on our Book of Centuries. (This is just a notebook with a 50-year timeline on each page, organized chronologically. We plot what we’ve studied on the timeline using the chart at the back of SOTW, and paste in the review cards from the activity book at the appropriate dates.)

Then we’re done with the meat and potatoes. Afternoons, we do some reading, and reading aloud, and lots of art and imaginative play or errands. This is when anything that didn’t get completed in the morning — narrations or writing assignments — gets finished up too.

On nature study days (Tuesday or Thursday) we take a walk, and it usually takes several hours, and doesn’t feel like school at all. We come home and look at the pics we’ve taken and write in our journals and read about something we saw. Some of what we learn gets written down; much of it doesn’t, but if it’s worth knowing it reappears on another day, and gets reinforced that way.

The girls really do the work. I give some direction here and there, and keep them on track. But they are great workers, and they’ve caught on to the fact that they have some control over how the day goes, and how long everything takes. I would say they learn equally as much from independent reading and extra-curricular experience as they do from our curriculum plan, and I’m pleased with how they’re doing. If I’m awakened in the middle of the night, it’s usually from anxieties over what they may be missing — more time with other kids, more structured art and music, more challenge in this or that area. Or I wake thinking of my personal deficiencies. But the actual academic part of the whole enterprise, as well as a number of other aspects of it, seem to be working pretty well. I keep checking in with the Lord periodically to see if this is still what we’re supposed to be doing, and so far, of the choices available to us in this time and place, it is.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in our fall 2011 home school.

History Books

Much though I like the idea of the classical approach to history — going through the whole chronology in four years, and repeating that three times at increasing depth — I have to admit that we haven’t found our stride yet.

My girls have been doing ancient history this year. The Story of the World has worked well for my first grader. But for my fourth grader, who’s learning the material for the second time, it’s feeling very redundant. Early in the year we tried using the Tapestry of Grace reading list, but partly for philosophical reasons, and partly for practical ones (it felt scattered and lacked a unifying narrative “spine”), we abandoned it and returned to Story of the World I along with the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia.

But we’re finding that for fourth grade, the Kingfisher actually adds very little to what SOTW has to say about the respective periods. The idea is that the fourth grade student is supposed to learn how to read the encyclopedia and outline the material. For us, that has meant she writes down one fact per paragraph (the content isn’t really detailed enough to do more than that), and it feels so disjointed that she ends up continuing to produce summaries. It goes a little better if I come up with some kind of writing prompt, but my prompts usually have more to do with interpreting than merely reporting, which is (theoretically) what a fourth grader is supposed to be mastering.

It also feels a little bit like “bait and switch” to me. We started with Story of the World, inculcating a love of history as a story. To switch to the encyclopedia, where history is a rundown of facts rather than a continual narrative, has deflated some of the joy for her. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this family…) It broke my heart a few weeks ago to hear her say, in response to her grandmother asking her what her favorite subject was, “I don’t think I have one anymore. It used to be history, but now that’s just pages, pages, pages.” (She forgets how much supplemental reading we do — or that this counts as “history” too. She’s focused on the central text work.)

So I’m hunting for another narrative — in the spirit of Story of the World, but written for a slightly older child who’s ready for more detail. (The “Moderns” Story of the World was written for fourth grade; we did it last summer. That’s about the level I’m looking for — except focusing on earlier historical periods.)

Any recommendations out there? I have read a fair part of Gombrich’s Little History of the World and I like the tone, but I’m not sure it’s quite detailed enough. I’ll be revisiting the library copy this week. Over at the Ambleside website, I saw The Story of Mankind listed, and I’m going to peruse the library copy of that as well.

I don’t mind using the encyclopedia, but if at all possible I’d prefer to use a narrative as our connective spine — one a 9-10 year old can read for herself to supply a context for the raw information an encyclopedia can provide.

Not that it’s all about the books, when all is said and done. It’s about having internalized enough of the material to be able to make those comparisons between present-day events and things that happened in history — comparisons that our kids make matter-of-factly and amaze their moms. The fact that the path to knowledge feels like drudgery at times doesn’t mean they’re not learning. But I want to make it as enjoyable as possible, and to choose materials that help them retain that conception of world history as a complex, fascinating, dramatic story.

Second grade curriculum review

As our schoolyear draws to a close, I’m stepping back (once again) to reflect on the curriculum I’ve used this year.

1. For historyStory of the World Vol. II: The Middle Ages (Susan Wise Bauer): Like its predecessor last year, this text was a big hit. I also used the accompanying activity book with maps, coloring pages and enrichment projects, and the audiobook read by Jim Weiss. Both my second grade daughter and my preschool daughter request history every time we get in the car. It’s an effective attempt to engage children in their early years in the great story of human history, establishing a foundation to build on in greater detail in future years.

2. For math: Saxon 2. My daughter learned the concepts easily through the incremental approach used in this program. In that sense it was a success. Its downside is that the amount of drilling became tedious and counterproductive. As I did last year, I streamlined the daily meeting book activities and assigned just one side of the two-sided worksheets each day. But we did do the timed drills each day, setting the timer for one minute and doing as many problems on a 25-question fact sheet as possible. It was an effective motivator in the first half of the year, but in the second half my daughter disengaged.

I’m considering whether to continue with this curriculum next year with some modifications, or to make a change. Not everything is going to be fun, of course, and maybe the thing to do is press on and preserve continuity. I’ve looked at Singapore and don’t think I would do very well with it. A friend showed me her Math-U-See materials, and it does look like a great program for a visual, hands-on learner. But I have concerns about the fact that its sequencing of the material is so unique; I’m not sure how transferable it would be if for some reason we couldn’t continue homeschooling, or how well it would prepare students for the standardized tests mandatory in my state starting in 4th grade.

3. Science: We focused on earth science for the first half of the year using the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Our World. It contains two-page spreads about various earth science topics. We do science twice a week, and we used this book as an introduction to each topic on the first day, following up on the second day with further exploration through the internet links (which were only minimally useful), experiments, and additional library materials.

The second half of the year we focused primarily on astronomy. We used the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Space as our base text, supplementing with the internet links and library books. Last year we studied the solar system, but this encyclopedia helped to flesh out a range of other space phenomena as well as space exploration. We also have Stargazer’s Guide to the Galaxy, Spotter’s Guide to the Night Sky, and Glow-In-the-Dark Constellations but haven’t had enough clear nights to evaluate how helpful they are in stargazing.

I purchased More Mudpies to Magnets as a resource for weekly science experiments, but felt it needed supplementation. Many of the experiments seemed geared for younger children. I picked up a copy of 501 Science Experiments and have found it to be to be a good resource.

We’re concluding the year with a mini-unit on birdwatching using materials from Stratton House. So far this is great fun, opening our eyes to the tremendous variety of sights in our own back yard as we observe and document. (We even take the occasional involuntary excursion into the rodent world…)

On the whole, I felt the Usborne texts were not challenging enough. They contain so little information on featured topics, there’s not much of a platform for further investigation, or hook for deepening interest.

In addition to that, I think I’d like to pursue a more cohesive program for science next year. We’ve followed the method suggested in The Well-Trained Mind, reading books, writing summaries, and conducting experiments from several different sources. But I’m liking the idea of a science “kit” that offers a bit more structure for chemistry. (Perhaps I have a latent fear of blowing up the house…)

4. Spelling and Language: We used Spelling Workout Level C for spelling. My daughter doesn’t like the daily discipline of it, but I think that would be the case with any spelling workbook. It introduces groupings of words with different spellings of similar sounds, or similar prefixes or suffixes or other patterns, and offers opportunity to practice spelling rules through proofreading, some very limited dictionary work, crossword puzzles, various completion exercises, and proofreading.

For language I continued with the second grade section of First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind. The lessons are quite short, scripted, and remarkably effective at teaching parts of speech, picture narration, practicing copywork and dictation, and beginning simple sentence analysis. There’s lots of repetition built in. It’s not an exciting text, but I found it to be very solid and thorough for both first and second grade.

5. Handwriting: We completed the Zaner-Bloser workbook for second grade and continue practicing print and cursive through copywork, writing narrations, and dictation. It’s been a satisfactory resource for us.

6. Physical education has been largely “outsourced” this year: Upward basketball, horseback riding lessons, and swimming lessons. In music, I’ve started teaching my daughter to play the piano and read music, revisiting some of the songs from my own early years. It’s my understanding that the Bastien series is more comprehensive, including some instruction in theory. But ultimately I went with my comfort zone and used the beginner Schaum book, which has her playing with both hands, even including chords, soon enough to keep her interested.

For art, I had purchased a dvd course featuring a “real live artist.” It was minimally helpful in providing some terminology, but the match between the dvd and the workbooks was a bit mystifying, and we ended up keeping it all pretty informal. She takes a lot of joy in art work, and does work quite consciously on her drawing and painting. We have a few well-worn books on drawing horses and other animals, but most of her improvement has come from her own careful observation and lots of practice with a nudge here and there from me.

I really like the Charlotte Mason emphasis on cultivating artistic talent through making useful things, and I’d like to find some resources to help encourage some useful skills in addition to the energetic promptings of the drawing muse.


So there it is: a satisfactory year, but little enthusiasm for the texts I used in math and science. Before I homeschooled, the opportunity to tailor curriculum choices to your child’s learning style seemed like a real strength. But now that I’m doing it, I see how it could become a wild ride if I don’t choose wisely.

Still, it’s amazing that I can get to the end of the year and feel this tired, yet still find so many things to be pleased about. I see some real benefits to the classical model I’ve been following, and the overall philosophy has as much appeal to me as it did when we started two years ago. It gives me a little boost as I turn to the nearest curriculum catalogue and brace myself to wind my way through all the fabulous-looking choices. But first, a quick experiment in bird digestion involving sunflower seeds, needlenose pliers, water, a plastic bag, and aquarium gravel. The life of a homeschooler is never dull.

First Grade Curriculum Review

We’ve finished our first year of homeschooling, and I want to get some thoughts down while it’s fresh about the curriculum used in the different subject areas for first grade.

Math: I started with Singapore but switched to Saxon, mainly because I needed a bit more guidance myself in how to teach the concepts. My daughter had completed public school kindergarten, and in accordance with conventional wisdom I started her about half a year behind with the Singapore Kindergarten 2A and 2B workbooks. The lessons were fairly short, and there was no instruction or drill; just the colorful exercises. They worked pretty well, and they lived up to the Singapore reputation for encouraging mathematical thinking better than other programs. But in first grade math, when we switched to text plus workbook, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was teaching.

I picked up a lightly used teacher’s guide, workbooks, and meeting book for Saxon math 1 after our first quarter, and we picked up part of the way in. I didn’t buy a complete kit of manipulatives, just linking cubes and a practice clock. (I already had pattern blocks.) What I have to say about Saxon is not much different from other reactions I’ve read. What I liked:

  • It gave me the guidance I needed as a teacher;
  • It gave plenty of opportunity for drilling math facts;
  • The incremental approach makes the concepts very clear and managable.

What I didn’t like:

Tedious. We rarely did every single problem, and the meeting book as well became extremely repetitious and took the fun out of patterning, weather graphing, skip counting, etc. I don’t see myself switching the curriculum again; I think it would be counter-productive, especially when this certainly does the job. I want to work more next year on modifying my use of the materials so that I present the above-mentioned practice in a way that inspires more motivation. My daughter has pretty good aptitude in math, but this curriculum is geared for lots of practice, and doesn’t lend itself to much adaptation.

Reading: I used An Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. It’s a systematic phonics approach in 231 lessons. We skipped over most of the basic letter sounds because we already had a solid foundation there. I like this text. The lessons are very brief and well-defined, and focus exclusively on reading without combining it with (and making it dependent on) other skills like writing and spelling. It’s also quite simple, without lots of bells and whistles and games and bright colors. My daughter was sounding out simple words at the beginning of the year, but somewhere along the way she really took off. I haven’t tested her reading level but it’s beyond first grade. So the effectiveness of this approach is not a question for me. It works.

Spelling: Spelling Workout has been adequate for practicing spelling. We finished both first and second grade books fairly quickly, doing a lesson a day, but couldn’t go further at this point with this series because the third grade book uses cursive. So I picked up another Harcourt speller at Barnes and Noble, and we did a few pages a day. It worked well too, incorporating some dictionary skill-building as well as spelling, proofreading, and problem-solving skills. At the beginning of the year it was a real effort for my daughter to sit and work through a lesson, but those fine motor skills definitely developed over the year.

Handwriting: I started with a Zaner-Bloser book using the continuous stroke alphabet, finished it fairly quickly, and have used copywork and other handwriting workbooks picked up here and there just to keep up the discipline of practicing neat writing, and working on the problematic letters that she still tends to reverse.

Grammar: I used First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind for teaching parts of speech, poem memorization, days, months, seasons, and a variety of other skills. She learned without even realizing it. Lessons are short, and there’s repetition built in. We skipped some lessons because they were already familiar territory. This book encompasses both first and second grades, so I’ll be using it next year too.

History: By far the favorite text has been Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World Volume I. My daughter liked it so much that I bought her the audiobook so she could listen to the stories we’d covered on her own. The audio version is read by Jim Weiss, who gives it his characteristic flair. Bauer’s aim in this series is to help children latch onto history as a chronological story rather than a list of dates, and judging from my daughter’s response I’d call it a glowing success. It provides a solid foundation to be built upon with a more detailed and in-depth study when she’s older. We supplemented with the accompanying activity book, and with the many stories and materials suggested in its reading lists.

Science: We divided the year into 4 subject areas. We started with animals, taking one species a week, using the Kingfisher’s My First Animal Encyclopedia as a base text and supplementing with library materials. Judging from how often my daughter took this book to bed with her, I’d pronounce this our most successful unit. After this we tackled the solar system using Kingfisher Young Knowledge’s Solar System. Again, we took a planet a week, then filled out the last few weeks with other space phenomena. She had less interest in this subject, but the book has the same strengths as the animal encyclopedia: it’s methodical, nicely illustrated, and provides some good basic factual material for a young learner. From there we moved to DK’s First Human Body Encyclopedia, studying one system a week. I found this book to be interesting, but more difficult to break into hour-long sessions; most systems are spread over several pages. The information and illustrations are good, though, and when I broke into a cold sweat at my daughter’s choice of the reproductive system one week, I needn’t have worried. It’s accurate, but not explicit, and leaves room for you to explain some of the technical details according to the questions asked and your own discretion. We’ve completed the year with a hands-on gardening unit using Laurie Carlson’s Green Thumbs, which is full of activities and experiments related to growing things. It’s weak on information content, but it’s a great activity guide.

Art: I’ve used several activity books. I started with Mona Brookes’ Drawing With Children. Though I love the approach and thought it contained lots of wisdom, it was killing the spontaneous joy my daughter takes in creating. I made an executive decision to go no further with it at this point.  All in all I’ve offered little direction in art, as she’s constantly churning out artistic projects of her own, but recently I purchased a dvd curriculum in drawing to begin offering more guidance. I haven’t used it enough to evaluate it yet.

Music appreciation: I’ve used Stories of the Great Composers. At the beginning of the year my daughter wasn’t much interested in this, and I shelved it. But more recently we’ve taken it out again with good success. It contains short chapters on a dozen or so composers, providing some factual information, an imaginative story, and an activity of some kind for each – a crossword puzzle, word search, or matching activity to solidify what we’ve read. It comes with a cd that gives examples of each composer’s work. Its strength is that it humanizes the composers, and the compositional process, and it has been effective at making classical music accessible and building a solid foundation.