Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 


Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.




Review: Models for Writers (Short Essays for Composition)

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.09.33 AMPerhaps the best part of teaching writing to other people’s children is the curriculum I accumulate along the way. Over the past two years, I’ve purchased more writing books than I could have ever justified buying for my two boys alone. I’ve tried a few that have flopped (Brave Writer and One Year Adventure Novel), used some old favorites (Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage), and found some new friends. Still more sits on my shelf, waiting for the right student to come along. The longer I teach gifted students to write, the easier it is to make guesses about what will work and what will flop, but  as children are as different from each other as are snowflakes from one another, I’ve tossed very little aside for good.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition (Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz) has served as assigned reading in college and high school composition classrooms for years. I teach out of the 9th and 10th editions, which are recent enough to be easy to find and old enough to make used copies easy to afford. (I’ve never seen the urgency in having the newest edition of a writing text anyway.) There is little difference between these two editions, so I’ll not be drawing distinctions between them. I use this text after Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage and before more formal argumentation texts, finding it works well after a student understands the essay writing process overall while providing a bridge for writers before they move to formal and cited academic writing, as in MCT’s Academic Writing 1.

Models for Writers is divided into four sections. The first three (The Writing Process, The Elements of the Essay, and The Language of the Essay) focus on just what an essay is and how it is put together. The first section covers the basics of all writing, from prewriting through first draft to revising and editing. It’s an effective review for students who’ve done projects requiring prereading, not a guide for the first-time writer.  The second section does much of what MCT’s Essay Voyage does — it addresses what writers must master to make any essay work: thesis, unity, organization, beginnings and endings, paragraphs, transitions, and effective sentences. The fourth, Types of Essays, the section I use most heavily when I teach one-on-one,  explores the many genre of essay: illustration, definition, comparison and contrast, narration, argument and more are explained fully with examples. The book concludes with a short treatment of the research paper. I’d not call this last section sufficient for teaching the process of writing from sources, but it does serve a fine introduction to the craft. It touches what comes next, just as the first section provides a short look back.

For all but the first section of the book, the format is the same. Rosa and Eschholz provide a few pages of instruction on the topic at hand. These brief but comprehensive portions of each chapter give the reader the language of the topic and the basics of the technique at hand. What follows are three or four essays to serve as examples for the topics at hand. Essays by Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Helen Keller, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, and many others illustrate the chapter’s lesson. After each essay are questions for study and discussion, questions focused on helping the student analyze the given essay in the context of the lessons it’s supposed to illustrate. These questions demand a set of skills I’ve not found elsewhere: careful reading followed by deep thought not just about what the writer wrote but about the devices the writer used in the essay.

These are hard questions for many young students, quite gifted ones included. Even organic writers (not the sort grown without pesticides but the kind who were born with stories to tell and a keyboard attached to their fingers) struggle when it’s time to talk about elements of writing within another’s writing. Initially, I used the book without those questions, assigning the readings as examples. That worked fairly well, as we could talk about some of the patterns a writer would use or note a particular way to handle an introduction. Using the book this way won’t shortchange a writer, as there is plenty to learn without those questions. But despite the struggle they cause for some students, these questions are generally worth the grapple. They move a student to think about what they read and then, hopefully, about their own writing in a critical and analytical way. Whether discussed or assigned as written work, using at least some of these question sets will bring your writer further along in composition and reading skills.

After the questions come classroom activities which, I suppose, would be helpful for one teaching in a classroom. A few are amenable to using one-on-one, but most require a partner or small group. The suggested writing assignments that follow each essay are far more helpful. Note: Some of these assignments aren’t directly addressing the skill at hand while others are more chapter-related.  Because I like my students to have some say in what they write, I usually ask them to look over particular assignments in these sections, selecting options that would elicit writing that best addresses the purpose of the chapter.

As mentioned earlier, I use Models for Writers after I’ve taught the essay via Essay Voyage or with students having some basic command of the essay, understanding the principles of the form and format all essays share. Because of that command, I start with section four, which addresses the types of essays one can write. (Note: The division into types helps teach techniques that might be hard to sort out otherwise. Few essays fit neatly into a single category. A comparison and contrast piece may have highly descriptive passages, for example.) This book could certainly be used start to finish for a writer less familiar with the form.  I generally assign material from the first three sections as needed with my more experienced writers, combining, say, the chapter on introductions and conclusions with the chapter on definition writing. This reinforces the essential techniques and parts of the essay while providing context for using that skill while writing. It’s a flexible text.

I like Models for Writers. It’s approach to technique is straightforward and logical. It’s essays are highly engaging and carefully chosen to illustrate the point at hand. Its assignments for essay types are varied and can easily be expanded upon. The essays are, however, chosen with a college audience in mind. If you have a particularly sensitive child or if your child is quite young, pre-read the essays you assign, ensuring they are appropriate for your child. All essays come with an introduction to orient the reader to the context of the essay (time, publication location, author background). Don’t skip these sections, as they help guide the reader through the piece.

What happens after Models for Writers? Michael Clay Thompson’s Academic Writing 1 could follow or be used along with Models. I’ve also used Writing from Sources (Brenda Spatt) when I want to develop a student’s ability to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively. They Say, I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst) helps students effectively incorporate the writing of others in to argumentative writing. New to me this year is Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters), a book teaching argumentation. Whatever text one chooses, it’s likely time to move into using outside sources for one’s writing, learning the techniques of academic writing. The essay skills learned in Models give writers a strong start for that next task.

Note: I’m unable to accept new private students this semester as my docket is full. Should I have openings for weekly students, I’ll note availability at Write with Sarah, my professional website.  I do have room for project coaching, a service detailed on my website.




Review: One Year Adventure Novel

One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) , a year-long high school level course on how to write a novel, caught my eye when my younger son, then ten, was gleefully working his way through his first NaNoWriMo. He’d started that process on a bit of a whim, and despite having only written one short story before that November, he completed a quite readable story of over 10,000 words. (For the details of our experience, read this.) He’d been bitten by the fiction writing bug, so naturally, I searched for more avenues to learn about that style of writing. I visited the OYAN homepage several times over the next two years, but the price was off-putting. (Full price, it is $200 and, per the website, not to be resold, although doing so seems to only bar purchaser of the used material access to the website forums and the ability to purchase additional workbooks.)  I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a formal study of this personal passion. But last semester, a parent of a writing student of mine wanted her daughter to give it a try. My excuse to purchase had presented itself, and I agreed, excited to try it out with an eager, exceptionally bright fiction writer.

OYAN, a DVD and text-based program,  is designed to be used over a school year of 36 weeks.  The Compass, a textbook of 78  short chapters including excerpts from novels, gives the meat of the lesson. Each chapter is just a few pages, periodically including a few pages of text from an adventure classic with a few questions for the student to answer. The DVD lecture is nearly identical to the textbook, meaning the curriculum supports auditory and visual learners. Some lectures include well-chosen movie excerpts to illustrate a particular point, but many are simply explanations of what is in the text.  Ranging from six to about fifteen minutes, the lectures are easy to fit into even a busy schedule. At the end of the last DVD are student quizzes, designed to give weekly, other adventure novels, and other extras.

Daniel Schwabauer, the author of the text and the lecturer on the DVDs, is thorough and generally interesting, first covering minutiae about every element of first the main character then the supporting characters. Plot receives similar attention, with nine chapters dedicated to outlining each chapter in great detail. It’s only in Chapter 40 that the writing begins, along with discussions of dialogue, narration, a variety of literary devices, and  a smattering of other topics about writing. Revision receives four chapters, a seemingly paltry amount given how much time it generally takes and the importance it has, an importance acknowledged by the author but given short shrift in the schedule. Getting the first draft done seems to be the main goal.

The Map is the accompanying workbook, and it consists of forty chapters (the workbook stops when the writing begins),  starting with discussions of theme, conflict, and protagonist, leading to character sketches, and ending with detailed chapter outlines. The student who completes those forty chapters will have a clear template for writing his or her book. Some of these questions are quite challenging, reaching beyond the text, especially in the first half of the workbook, when the student may have little idea of what will happen in his or her book. This intense focus on sometimes abstract novel characteristics can be frustrating to the writer who just wants to tell a story. Discussions of theme and the necessity of meaning are repeated, with an emphasis that this is to be a novel of depth rather than a fun read. Again, given this is likely often the first substantial writing project in a student’s experience, this can be overwhelming. A fun, cohesive read with a strong plot and well-developed characters would be likely a more appropriate goal.

The Prisoner of Zenda (an adventure novel by Anthony Hope) rounds out the student portion of the curriculum, and reading assignments about that novel with occasional question sets occur throughout the textbook. While this makes for slow reading of a short book, the readings are timed to match planning techniques. The Teacher’s Guide, a thin volume, contains guidelines for parents and teachers as they evaluate their students as well as answers to weekly quizzes. The course is designed to be completed solo aside from parental evaluations, leading the appropriately light amount of information in this book. (We did not use any of the 78 short answer quizzes, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I suppose they would provide another criteria for granting a grade for the class, if that were desired.)

Disclosure point: My student and I made it only as far as Chapter 18. Mostly, we stopped because my student was bored and frustrated. Faced with thirteen weeks of not writing, she was losing enthusiasm for what she wanted to do — write her novel. She, like many gifted learners, is a whole-to-parts thinker. OYAN is the ultimate parts-to-whole curriculum. She was, therefore, rather miserable. She’d quickly created character sheets, and after the first week or two, we’d discussed her character’s goals and fears to the point of irritation. (Yes, I was bored, too.)

It’s not that I don’t see the point of planning. I’ve seen students start stories with enthusiasm only to reach a point where they didn’t know where to go next. These stories without a climax were initially wonderful, with compelling characters and well-planned settings, but they simply fail to reach satisfying endings. After a few such episodes, I insisted on a few planning basics: Know your setting, characters, plot, and climax with resolution before you start writing.  OYAN takes this several steps further, insisting on intricate planning before a word of the actual novel is written. Major points of focus in the first six weeks are theme and meaning, subjects that OYAN states are what make a novel worthwhile rather than just an entertaining read.

This is where my student got stuck. Me, too. Here was a bright, capable writer who’d discovered the essence of the story she wanted to tell. But what would be the greater message? She was stymied, and I was convinced it didn’t really matter whether she had a theme or message. We both simply wanted a story. Had she wanted to go on, I’d have walked with her, but as mentioned previously, this curriculum is best for a parts-to-whole thinker, particularly the meticulous type, and she was neither.

The issue of message also bothered me on another level. I’d done my homework. This is a curriculum claiming to have a biblical worldview. On principle and because of poor fit for us, I generally avoid these titles. Most tend to be, at best, simply dismissive of other belief systems and usually far worse. I knew that OYAN’s Chapter 18 contained language that belittled nonbelievers, but I’d also heard that was the worst of it, easily discussed with a student and let go. Given my student was not my own child, I planned to forgo the discussion, which worked well, as we had plenty of other matters to discuss.  The video, however, shook me up. Reading his words in the text had not prepared me for hearing his vitriol toward (and poor understanding of) secular humanists. After he misrepresents agnostics and atheists, he backtracks, saying and writing that meaning doesn’t have to come from religion. I can see no purpose to this rant of his other than to wave the flag of his beliefs while denigrating those who find meaning in something other than supernatural.

But even without this disturbing chapter, OYAN wasn’t for us: Not for my student, and not for me, and likely not for my novel-writing son. It has a good deal to offer for the student wanting a fiction writing curriculum with structure, a bottom-up approach, with plenty of examples of technique from a range of classics. It provides parents with plenty of points of evaluation, something that matters more to some homeschooling families than others. It also offers online support via forums for students and parents. Still, it’s expensive for what it offers, and given that purchasers of previously used copies (a company no-no, but not illegal) cannot simply buy a new workbook to go along with the durable materials.

So what is my novel-writing student using now? A free (for the pdf version), high school level workbook from NaNoWriMo. Elementary and middle school versions are also available, as are sets of lesson plans designed for classroom use. I’ve yet to check out the plans, but I can say that the workbooks are far more to-the-point than the OYAN curriculum, and that’s what she needs.

Review: Brave Writer (Help for High School)

I’m fascinated with writing curriculum. Since I started teaching writing, I’ve had the chance to sample several. No, I’ve not found the one that works for everyone, but I am developing a sense of what might make a good match for a particular student. This fall, a family wanted to try Brave Writer’s Help for High School, by Julia Bogart,  for their gifted twelve-year-old. I’d long wanted to see a Brave Writer title, given the rave reviews and supposed ease of use, so I eagerly purchased a copy, read it through, and started to work through it with the young man.

Brave Writer’s Help for High School is supposed to “help teens learn how to think, argue, and create their own powerful writing at the same time.” It’s aimed for a teen to read and work through independently, with the parent as “ally” (the author’s word), available for support and conversation while also editing and marking assignments for clarity and thoroughness. Two essay types are addressed, a closed form essay (the traditional formal essay of academic writing) and the open form essay (more informal with the thesis less obviously stated and with a more literary bent). Bogart adds a third category, a hybrid of sorts, which she calls investigative essay writing (or later, an exploratory essay), which seems to be an examination of a problem or question without a specific thesis. An expository essay (closed form and argumentative) follows, with materials on paraphrasing and summary.

Help for High School is broken into two parts, Preparation for Essay Writing and Essay Writing. For each module (chapter), the student reads the material and does some writing. For the first half of the book, most of this writing is personal and highly informal. The purpose seems to be to relax the student and encourage thinking about subjects from different angles. For all the assignments, the student picks the topic, a practice I’ve used in my teaching, since it increases engagement in the material and, for the reluctant students, at least provides a point of enjoyment in what otherwise may seem like an onerous task. Assignments in the first section are designed to help students make associations between topics and their own beliefs, values, and experiences. She stretches students to come up with, for example, colors and shapes that indicate confusion for the student or names of people the student thinks of when thinking of the word greed. While some of this brainstorming and prewriting leads to slightly longer assignments, most is done and set aside, with a focus on the process of generating ideas and thoughts rather than developing those ideas and thoughts into a full piece of writing. There is a sense of “trust the process” through this first half of the book, which can be challenging to sell to a critical young thinker who wants the whole picture from the start.

In the second half, the essay writing portion, the assignments gradually shift. Attention to asking a meaningful question to explore comes first, with an assignment of a  first-person essay that simply looks at a question from many angles with no clear thesis or outcome. As she approaches the expository essay, she raises the question of thesis with tension, and this is where I feel Help for High School is at its strongest. Bogart differentiates between topic and thesis quite well, attention well-deserved, since many a student essay falls flat for lack of a strong thesis that matters. Her attention to support (which she calls points)  and details to support those points (particulars) leads to an outline format that should guide a writer to producing a more organized essay that stays on track. Paraphrasing and summarizing receive a module, but, despite examples of direct quotations in the sample essay, quotations do not. She briefly covers introductions and conclusions as well as essay structure for the five-paragraph essay. MLA citations are mentioned and used in an example but not taught. Formality, addressed fairly thoroughly, is mentioned much earlier in the text and would be more appropriate within the essay writing portion of the text. It goes unused early on, where the writing is personal, and its lessons could easily be forgotten. This portion of Help for High School is a fairly strong yet far too brief introduction to the essay.

Overall, however, I’m disappointed. As a reader and writer of exploratory and expository essays and teacher of the expository essay, I hoped for more time spent on the academic (expository or argumentative) essay and less on lists of associations, personal anecdotal writing, and informal free writing. Her section on the expository essay itself — the sort of essay needed for high school and beyond — is but a small portion of the book.  I do think this text from Brave Writer could be helpful for an emotive child willing to brainstorm, free write, and associate creatively to see how those associations can move from thought to essay.  Much of the first section of the book, however, is intensely personal, and for a sensitive or private kid, the assignments are just too revealing, even if they are only viewed by Mom or a tutor. Given that sort of writing is exactly what won’t be acceptable in academic circles, I question the emphasis. Brave Writer’s Help for High School is, however, gentle. If the goal is to move a comfortable writer who doesn’t mind the level of sharing the text requires, then it succeeds. There are, I’m sure, many emotive writers needing to transition to academic writing for whom this curriculum would be useful.

The program is remarkably homeschooling- and teen-friendly. The language is designed to be accessible to the teen and to feel conversational. Since I’m not a teen, I’m not certain how her audience perceives her assumptions about teen interests and stances on a variety of subjects, but she certainly tries to appeal to that audience. Some of her topic suggestions (and one of the two formal essay examples) are about homeschooling issues specifically, while others are about topics she thinks might matter to teenage homeschoolers.

This is a secular curriculum. Bogart spends a few pages on writing and faith, noting that “the vast majority” of the homeschoolers she knows are Christian. Early in the book, she differentiates between apologetics and strong academic argument clearly and firmly without putting down the importance of faith in the lives of her students. She weaves in a discussion on audience, encouraging writers to consider the appropriateness of apologetics or reliance on the Bible as evidence for a statement. While there are mentions of religious belief in some of the essay and other writing examples, they are not present in the two formal expository samples and aren’t likely to be a problem for anyone, secular or religious.

Help for High School, $80 through the Brave Writer site carries a hefty price tag for a 166 page PDF file, although it is often on sale on the Homeschool Buyers Co-op for far less. It can be used, says the author, in as little as 6 to 8 weeks or stretched out over longer than a semester. Certainly many of the sections could be done more than once with different subjects, although this is true with most writing curricula.

Would I teach from Help for High School again? Yes, with the right student. With a willing writer comfortable with personal disclosure and open-ended assignments that don’t lead to a finished project, this would be an interesting and likely productive book for transitioning from personal, informal writing to the formal essay. Overall, I prefer more formal tomes: Essay VoyageAdvanced Academic Writing, or They Say, I Say (to be reviewed later). These moved quickly to the sort of academic writing young people need for high school coursework and beyond. And should the writer choose to write personal essays in his or her leisure time, say as a blogger about homeschooling, the lessons learned in academic writing transfer well to more literary writing. Despite her statement to the contrary (“…none of us will read expository essays for pleasure…”), this book has something to offer with the right student and with plenty of deeper essay exploration to follow.



Review: Getting Started With Latin

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 12.42.18 PMWe have a language gap around here. I’m not a natural at foreign languages, and my one year of high school French, while not harmful to my GPA, hardly enamored me with the work involved in learning them. My older son’s learning challenges made learning a foreign language close to impossible. We tried home-based and online-based programs for Latin and Spanish, but we had no success. He’s moved on to American Sign Language courses at the university, a kinesthetic language that works well with his strengths and avoids his weakness, such as rote memory and attention to spelling.

So as my younger son approaches middle school age, I’ve panicked a bit. I don’t have the brain space to deeply learn a foreign language with him: general awareness is my only hope. My French was never terribly useful, and nearly 30 years later is nearly nonexistant. My younger had mentioned learning German, but I knew no way at this point of his life to make that successful and could provide no assistance. So I gently mentioned Latin. He’s a fan of Michael Clay Thompson, with his stem-based vocabulary, and he’s a master at grammar and memorization, and he appreciated my concerns about finding an appropriate setting for him to learn German. So Latin it was.

Getting Started with Latin (Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers and Self-Taught Students of Any Age), by William E. Linney has been our starting place. Linney approaches Latin gradually and, over 132 single page lessons, introduces the learner to basic Latin grammar. It’s not a full year of Latin, but it’s a fine grounding.  I’m using this book with my younger son, now eleven, who will start formal Latin study with Karen Karpinnen through Lone Pine Classical School, an online school based in Colorado dedicated to high school level Latin study for homeschoolers. Our purpose is to build comfort with the language, especially the ideas of declension rather than sentence order driving meaning and gender in language.

With only one new idea per lesson, this is a gentle approach to a complicated language. Linney covers the first and second declension, two conjugations of present tense verbs, the concept of gender, and a handful of adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and conjunctions. The vocabulary is relatively small – farmers, sailors, beasts, and women build, sail, swim, and plow in a variety of combinations, but this decreased vocabulary allows the learner to focus on learning the grammar itself rather than on memorizing voluminous vocabulary lists. I’m decent at the former but not so strong in the latter, and with almost no study, I’m keeping up with the poets who carry writing tablets (but never desire to swim to the island) and the farmer’s stories, told often to the girls. That’s miraculous.

It may not be the most scintillating material to translate, but this sound beginner’s text is entirely nonthreatening, an essential feature for this foreign language-phobic mom. It’s also easy to teach. A motivated student could move through the 132 lessons solo, translating from Latin to English the 10 sentences at the end of each lesson, but we’re doing this together, sitting on the couch and reviewing the lessons together. He does keep a notebook of vocabulary, with each noun written in its ten forms and each verb conjugated (first person). While we’ve not been chanting the conjugations and declensions together, he’s figured out that that step helps and does it on his own. (Did I mention he’s my self-motivated and highly driven child?)  If we’re stuck, the answers are in the back of the book, but so far, we’re rarely stuck.

The lessons are never longer than a single page, and the black-and-white pages with plenty of white space keep attention from drifting while making it easy to see the lesson at hand and only that lesson. Some lessons are reminders about English grammar, which we skip, since five levels of Michael Clay Thompson have given him firm grounding in that area. A learner who was less certain about subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, possession, and English verb conjugations might want to spend more time on those sections, although I’d not advise starting Latin without those ideas firmly in place in one’s native tongue. In addition to the 132 lessons are 18 notes about commonly used Latin phrases, such as ad hoc, summa cum laude, and caveat emptor. It’s a nice addition, reminding the user that Latin is in use today, beyond its role in naming genus and species and providing many of roots of English words.

Linney’s website provides files for pronunciation, both classical and ecclesiastical. Occasionally, pronunciation is covered in the book itself, but the website contains far more. We’ve not been using that resource regularly, I’ll admit, but it was initially helpful. We’re also not exactly speaking Latin to each other (what with the poet, sailors, and beasts not much applies to our daily life), but I have had my son compose sentences in Latin, which he also translates. It’s up to me to figure out if he’s correct, and this is only possibly because I’m learning along with him.  Like I said, I’m keeping up, a testament to how clear this book is.  I’m not giving tests, but given the material is cumulative, I can tell from his translation during lessons how he’s doing. If testing is desired, Linney recommends taking sentences from past lessons for translation or having the student translate from the recordings on the website.

We’re working through three lessons four days a week, a pace determined by our start date and desire to be done by mid-May.  We complete more chapters if one is an idea alone with no translations or an English grammar language, with the limit being three chapters requiring translation. Any fewer and I doubt we’d immerse enough to learn much. More and we’d likely retain less. My son then puts new vocabulary into his notebook and, if needed, later reviews that vocabulary.

At  twenty dollars for a nonconsumable text that is easy to use and effective in teaching Latin basics, Getting Started with Latin is one of the best homeschooling bargains around. My only complaint is that it is his only Latin text. Linney has a series of audio lectures based on The First Year of Latin, an 1902 text by Gunnison and Harley covering, at this writing, half the text. That’s a far less user-friendly text, however, and lectures have been slow to come out. But it is a free offering and, if reviews are any indication, well done. I’ll know better how well prepared my young son is for formal Latin study come fall when he starts high school level instruction. But given the breadth of material covered so cleanly and clearly and the rate of retention my son and I have demonstrated, I’m betting it’s done what I needed it to do.

Review: Discovering Mathematics (Singapore Math, Secondary Level)

Note: Since beginning Discovering Mathematics, Singapore Math has released a new edition, Discovering Mathematics Common Core. The order of lessons vary a bit, and new topics have been included. At this writing, only a few levels are available. We tried the new ones, and they are fine, but as they’ve been slow to release, we’re still working through the earlier series. The differences are slight, with changes in order and a few additions being the bulk of what varies from the old to the new. 

Providing a challenging mathematics education was one of the key reasons we started homeschooling. Deeply disappointed by the depth of the math provided by two schools, my older son, then seven, assumed he was the problem.

“I don’t think I’ve very smart, Mom,” he told me.

“Why not?” I inquired.

“Because they don’t give me anything hard to do,” came his sad reply.

Math (and science) were his loves at age 4 and 5 in Montessori and while at home. He was appropriately challenged in the first at school and free to explore the second at home. First grade ended all that, where math became repetition of previously mastered lessons. Second grade, at our local gifted and talented public school, it was nonexistent  which was because, we were informed, he knew all the material for that year already.

So once home, math took a starring role. Singapore Math quickly became our preferred curriculum (reviewed here) for the elementary sequence. Even doing the Challenging Word Problem books, we burned through it quickly. Almost 10, my older insisted on Algebra, so we started the standard sequence, happily making our way through a fine text, Jacobs’ Algebra. (reviewed here).

When my younger finished 6B, I wondered if there was another way. We vamped for much of last year, working through a variety of books while choosing our next course of action. After much consideration, we decided to stay with Singapore, specifically, their Discovering Mathematics series. This four-year series is designed to cover some prealgebra, algebra (I and II), geometry, and a smattering of other topics, like probability and counting. Unlike most American programs, these topics are interwoven throughout the years, with chapters on algebra followed by chapters on geometry with a side trip to data handling. It’s challenging, with plenty of problems, tests with answers, and teacher’s support books if needed.

But I hesitated. Accustomed to the four-year math sequence I’d known as a child and that my older son had followed, I was hesitant to commit to a different path. What if we didn’t like it after a year? What then? (Answer: Start a traditional Algebra program and compact or test out of what has already been covered. Ditto the next year with Geometry.) I presented my younger son, then 10, with the options. Singapore, Jacobs, or Art of Problem Solving? He looked at samples of all online and liked the familiarity of the Singapore. Thus, we reached a decision.

We’ve not been disappointed. We started Discovering Mathematics 1A soon after it arrived and found that while it certainly felt like the Singapore Math we’d enjoyed the previous years, it was a step up in challenge and pace. He’s enjoying it, but we don’t whip through the pages as we did at the elementary level. Concepts aren’t broken down in such small parts, and even the sample problems (Try This!) are fairly challenging. Fortunately, this increase in challenge has resulted in an increase of effort. As a result, he’s feeling rather accomplished while learning large amounts.

At the minimum, the user will need to purchase two textbooks for the year. These paperbacks are affordable and reusable, in keeping with Singapore Math’s reputation for affordability.   Each of the four levels requires two textbooks, each generally over 200 pages long. The year is broken up into 11 to 17 chapters, roughly evenly divided between the two books. (The fourth level is shorter, with a significant proportion of 4B dedicated to review tests, similar to the elementary level 6B.)

The chapters are broken up into shorter sections, some amenable to a single lesson or day of work, others requiring multiple days, given the depth of the lessons. Each section ends with problems in four categories: Basic Practice (the easiest problems), Further Practice (definitely a bit more work), Maths@Work (word problems just as challenging as the aptly named Challenging Word Problems of the elementary series), and Brainworks (sometimes too hard for Mom but worth trying if no one is crying). The so-called Revision Exercise (test) at the end of each chapter is at the level of the Further Practice and Maths@Work level. Aside from the Brainworks problems, all the answers for the problems are in the back of the book. If you desire worked solutions (and so far, I’m good without), there are Teacher’s Guides available, which include other teaching assistance, activities, and a breakdown of lessons and timing.

An additional workbook is available for each level, providing some extra practice as well as more problems at the more challenging level. Unlike the traditional workbook, these don’t provide a place to do the problems, making them more of a reusable problem bank. I assign some of these at the end of each chapter, before the revision (test). The number I assign depends on how well he’s handling the material — some sections just require more practice than others. Generally, these workbook problems are more challenging than the textbook ones. They are broken down into sections called Basic Practice, Further Practice (both a bit more involved than the same-named section in the text, it seems), Challenging Practice (and it generally lives up to its name), and Enrichment (excellent problems that we don’t get to most of the time). As with the text, answers are in the back, but solutions require the Teacher’s Edition of the workbook. I’d strongly suggest the workbook to supplement all learners, with the Teacher’s Edition on the shelf if a parent is a bit math wary and wants guidance on the trickier problems.

The strengths of the elementary level of Singapore Math continue at the secondary level. The pace is swift, which is excellent for the mathematically talented child but could be overwhelming for others. The problems in the text at the secondary level are far more challenging that what is in the workbooks for the elementary level, but on par with the Challenging Word Problems books. (I’ve not used the Intensive Practice books at the elementary level, which are designed to increase the challenge at their respective levels.) The depth we’ve encountered thus far is also impressive. Math is not taught via algorithm but by deep understanding, which, in my opinion, is by far the superior method. It is applied, not simply in one-step word problems, but across the sciences and into the work world. Math lives in these books, with all its complexity and beauty there for the learning.

The downside to the Discovering Mathematics series? If one isn’t math-comfortable, these could be a challenge to teach. That said, for the math-uncomfortable, these are an excellent way to build a new relationship with math. I know that throughout teaching even the elementary level of Singapore Math to my boys, this math-comfortable mom moved from number capable to number savvy. I’ve said before that I believe that math is best taught rather than learned solo. Discussion is part of the process, and many times, I’ve had a child teach me and correct me, thus delighting the child and enlightening me. (For more on thoughts about strong mathematics programs, read my post, Math Matters.)

We’re early in our exploration of this four-level series, and I’ll post again as we move through the program. I’m hoping we continue to enjoy Discovering Mathematics over the next several years, allowing us continuity with a strong mathematics educational program.

As always, I only review what we’ve used, and I never accept compensation of materials or money for my reviews. 

Experience/Review: Coursera

We’ve wading into new territory this semester. We’re hardly alone. With over 75,000 learners from around the globe and spanning many decades, my younger son is exploring connections in world history. My older is finishing a science fiction and fantasy literature course while starting a class in beginning Python programming. We’ve sampled just a touch of what this mode of learning offers. At this writing, Coursera lists 198 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), ranging from neuroscience to economics to physics. The preponderance of courses are in mathematics, computers, and science, with a smattering of business and liberal arts offerings making up the rest. All are free and, as the name suggests, all have massive attendance.

Unlike many previous free offerings from universities, these aren’t self-paced, self- evaluated classes. These run at the pace of a college course, albeit generally shorter. Coursera’s offerings run from three to twelve weeks in length with start times scattered throughout the calendar, so just about any time during the year, a class is beginning. While the format differs somewhat for each course, the basic set-up is the same. About two hours of lectures are released weekly, each broken up into shorter segments. Sometimes, an informal quiz falls at the end of the lecture, allowing the learner to check on his or her knowledge. Assessments vary, with objective quizzes dotting the schedules of some and peer-graded papers dominating in others. Some even have final exams.  All have deadlines.

I love that last part.

There is the potential for an interactive experience in Coursera. There are discussion forums for each class, with separate lists for a variety of topics. In part, these are designed to foster conversation about the material or address questions students have. My older has participated a bit, and while I’ve had my younger son check in on them, he has no interest in participating. Meet-up groups are also listed, with people gathering live in small communities to discuss class material. We’ve not explored this option yet, keeping discussion at home for now. These courses would be fine material for a group of homeschoolers to explore together, possibly meeting to discuss assignments or the lectures. If the courses we’ve experienced are any indication, there would be no need to add more material to what’s offered. These are time-intensive offerings — full courses unto themselves, but a live setting for discussion would make the experience richer.

Make no mistake. These courses are not geared toward the under-18 audience. While that’s not likely to matter for most of the classes, my older son’s Fantasy and Science Fiction literature class had numerous (appropriate) references to sex and sexual symbolism. As a previous English major, I wasn’t surprised by these. As a mom, I took them as a learning opportunity about literary analysis. My son survived, although he stuck to choosing essay topics about other literary elements. I’d have been less sanguine about my younger son, 11 years, had he been in the course, but between the reading list and the nature of literary analysis courses, I knew better than to enroll him.  The history course he’s taken has made brief references to the spread of sexually transmitted infections by sailors leaving the Americas and to rape within the context of historical events, both appropriate to the topic at hand. Again, my approach has been to use these times to inform and discuss.  History is full of difficult topics, and I expected some challenges; these topics have been manageable for our household, but some families may want to stick to more technical courses that have less likelihood of wandering into these territories.

The experiences of firm deadlines and peer review are perhaps the two most likely to challenge the homeschooling student. While my sons have had a moderate amount of exposure to deadlines for other online classes and real-life classes, they’ve little experience with the perils of missing a deadline, which, for the courses we’ve experienced so far, can mean receiving a zero for an assignment. I’m grateful for this reality check, and as most of us homeschooling parents know, having that reality come from outside of us makes it all the more, well, real. So far, both boys are on target with these dates, and we’ve taken to artificially advancing the time and date due to avoid last-minute rushes or the inevitable technology crash occurring at the wrong moment. My older son has translated this well to his university courses, and I can see healthy habits beginning.

Kids in school today generally have a fair amount of experience with peer review, an experience I was largely spared as a child. Coursera’s version, at least in our experience so far, relies on a rubric (a scale of 1 to 3, in our experience) with accompanying comments from the student readers. For one class, if you did not submit your reviews, you received no grade on your writing, thus impacting your final grade. My older son found these doing reviews and grading difficult initially. With no experience writing literary analysis, he had little to on which to base his judgement of others work. Initially, we worked together. But in a few weeks, he took on the task himself, seeking me out if there was a theme in an essay that didn’t make sense to him (often due to lack of his experience and knowledge, not due to a fellow student’s lack of clarity). His grades each week were an average of the responses of four readers, thus blunting the most optimistic and pessimistic reviewers while still allowing him to see what everyone’s ratings and comments.

Reviewing the work of others, he found, strengthened his own writing. He saw that grammatical errors and poorly proofread work were laborious to read. I’d told him that for years, but it all became obvious when reading four other essays a week for ten weeks. He learned economy of words, since he had only 320 words with which to express himself. As a sometimes wordy writer, this was invaluable. Both through the process of reviewing others and being reviewed, he found his writing improve. We were both delighted.

While we’ve only sampled a bit of what Coursera has to offer, I can say I’m impressed by the quality of the lectures, the intentionality of the assignments, and the organization of the courses themselves. Like a live course, some professors will appeal to some learners more than others. Some classes will be more demanding than others. Some assignments are clearer than others. Overall, there is plenty here for homeschoolers working at the high school level and beyond to appreciate. There is plenty to challenge young, bright learners who either aren’t ready for the college classroom (my younger son) or want a more convenient  affordable way to access college-level content.

Here are a few additional considerations for those considering Coursera for the homeschooled student:

  • Read course descriptions carefully. Some classes are clearly for beginners while others, despite benign titles, are designed for those with far more experience.
  • Pay attention to the time requirement mentioned and the syllabus (if available) before signing up. Sure, gifted learners may require less time to master material, but the hours of lecture, readings, and assignments add up.
  • Consider having your child just sit in for the lectures if that’s more appropriate for your learner. No one comes after you if you don’t do the work, and for some students, just the lectures may be what they’re after. The work however, is what differentiates these classes from Teaching Company classes.
  • Be prepared to support the younger learner, especially at the start of a class. For the child newer to online learning at a rapid pace, organizational assistance may be in order. For peer review work, some advising and supervision initially can ensure that the critique heading out is respectful and useful to the reader.

MOOCs are part of the future of higher education. Udacity and edX also offer similar experiences with a focus on math, computers, and the sciences. More opportunities for university-level learning for no or minimal cost can benefit a range of learners, including the homeschooled student ready for higher-level studies. While I’d not want all my children’s content to come through the internet, it’s a fine way to bring high-quality content home.

Composition Choices: Michael Clay Thompson

Previously, I’ve reviewed MCT’s first three levels of language arts materials (General, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition)  and the first composition book for the fourth level (Advanced Academic Writing I). While the grammar, vocabulary, and poetics books at each level work well together, the corresponding composition books tend to be beyond the reach of many young, gifted kids. As I’ve begun to tutor young writers, discussing what level of MCT composition is appropriate has come up more than once. Here are some thoughts on making a selection. 

Michael Clay Thompson breathes life into language arts instruction. With six levels of materials covering grammar, vocabulary, composition, poetics, and literature, he seamlessly integrates those elements of the English language in a manner that assumes his readers are intelligent, active learners. These are not workbooks for self-study — they are texts best explored with a teacher or guide. While the composition books could be used without the rest of the books in the corresponding level, the learner would need a strong grasp of grammar to truly take advantage of what they have to offer and an understanding of MCT’s four-level approach to grammar. (Take home message — if you’re using a composition book, purchase that level of grammar or higher to use with it.)

All his books within a level are integrated, each rooted heavily in the corresponding grammar book and somewhat less on the vocabulary book.  For many young gifted learners this presents a dilemma — what a level child is able to manage in grammar, vocabulary and poetics reaches a level or often more above what works for composition for the child. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for a child to be ready for the fourth level of grammar and vocabulary but still be working on the second level of composition. No need to worry, however, as that difference works quite well.

Sentence Island: This is a fine start for the beginning young writer. While the content is applicable to writers of all levels, it has a young feel, which would likely be off-putting to the upper elementary or older learner (over age 10, perhaps, depending on the child). This book teaches writing beyond the sentence and demands understanding of the grammar taught in the corresponding level. For my younger son, it was too demanding (unless I scribed for him) until he was about nine, at which point, he was finishing the Voyage (third) level of everything else. This worked well for my (then) reluctant writer, and I was glad we waited. (Only the Teacher Manual is necessary when using this at home.)

Paragraph Town: The second writing book of the MCT series takes the writer through the story of two ducks, Fishmeal and Queequack, as Fishmeal seeks knowledge about the paragraph. The story nature of the book makes it better suited for younger users, but the material is so worthwhile, I’d encourage the reluctant but somewhat older writer to read through the story and work through the exercises (which are fine for any age). Even experienced writers can benefit from the thorough treatment of the paragraph in this fine text. There’s quite a bit here. Resist the urge to fly through, and take time to assure the lessons are absorbed and sufficient practice occurs. (Again, only the Teacher Manual is necessary for home use.)

Essay Voyage: This text makes a big leap from Paragraph Town in style and content. Gone is the story form of teaching. Instead, MCT breaks essay writing tasks into ten chapters, covering such topics as structure, formality,  content, conclusion, and even correct citations and use of quotations. Each element of writing is clearly taught, complete with examples. Most chapters offer a list of options including research and reflections on readings. Gradually, essays are included in the options, and by the end, essays with quotations are expected. It’s a steep set of expectations that, if met, would lead to developing quite strong writing skills that certainly would prepare a learner for high school and exceed what many can do before heading to college.

The essay examples range from the lighthearted to the quite difficult, including a selection from the Federalist Papers and the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, just to name two. This represents a challenge when using the book with a younger learner who just may not related to the content of the essays for examination. For the younger child, moving directly from Paragraph Town, with its more gentle approach and easy reading material, to Essay Voyage may not be advisable. If in doubt, wait, working longer with the earlier book or supplementing with other materials. (As with the other books at this level, only the TM is necessary.)
Advanced Academic Writing I: The fourth book (reviewed here) continues where the third left off, using literature as a starting point for writing with quotations and, new to this level, paraphrasing with citations. While sound in content, the tone is harsh. Yes, writers should be held to high standards in form and content, but this volume is a bit punishing for my taste, at least on the grading front. in my opinion, his focus on grading interferes with the material taught. One could certainly soften that approach and ignore the rubric MCT presents, but a large portion of the book is based on meeting this demands.
This is not a tome for the younger gifted writer, and it is a leap beyond the previous level, Essay Voyage. The first assignment requires writing about literature,  a difficult task for any writer (and the gifted child may be at this fourth level at 10 or even earlier). While there is fine writing advice given here, I’ve chosen other paths to teaching this level of composition. (This book is best used with both the student text and TM. MCT offers a second and third level of Advanced Academic Writing, which I’ve yet to explore.)

Michael Clay Thompson offers a fine introduction to essay writing, starting at the level of the sentence. The young writer will likely need a slower progression through the writing portion of the MCT books, and the guide above may help one find the right pace to start. Remember, MCT’s composition books are targeted toward academic essays and papers, not fiction or other genre. While I’m of the thought that teaching this more formal writing should be the first priority when teaching children to write, there is value in adding other creative components to a writing curriculum, especially for children craving that sort of writing outlet. Whatever type of writing a learner prefers, however, the material taught in his first three composition books will form a solid base of writing skills that would serve writers of any genre.

As with all my reviews, I’ve received no compensation in materials or otherwise for this review. 

Review: Advanced Academic Writing, Volume I (Michael Clay Thompson)

I’m committed to raising strong writers. For parts of my boys’ lives, they’ve been committed to not writing. I managed to cultivate enough patience accommodate this reluctance, scribing until they could type well and exposing them to plenty of fine writing along the way. We tried a few writing programs, but they largely felt formulaic and focused heavily on creative writing, which did not please my older son, who eventually broke through the writing wall with an online course.

A year or so later, we started using Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts materials from Royal Fireworks Press. (I’ve reviewed the Elementary resources here:  MCT Overview, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition ) Both my sons moved quickly and happily through the grammar and vocabulary books. Given their writing reluctance, we always lagged behind on the writing portion of the series, generally working a level behind on the writing end of the curriculum. This is a common solution for many using the series with younger children. The output required for the writing books far outpaces what many young children can manage, so many families just adjust accordingly.

Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1 (AAW 1) is the first of the MCT writing Middle/Secondary writing series. It’s a serious tome designed to teach a learner how to write an MLA-style academic essay or research paper. It’s designed to be used with Magic Lens 1 (grammar) and Word Within a Word 1(vocabulary), which are also far more serious and demanding books than their predecessors. Like with the elementary series, I’ve found that while that at this level, the grammar and vocabulary books are accessible to my kids, the writing program is a giant leap above them. Admittedly, I’m using the books early for my younger (WWW 1 and ML 1 for 5th grade), and the asynchrony of gifted children often results in a delay on the product end of the learning equation. But even as we approach the second level of the secondary grammar and vocabulary, I know he’s not nearly ready for Advanced Academic Writing I.

Like Essay Voyage, the third writing text in the elementary trio, AAW 1 focuses on formal diction and prose and third-person writing. Advanced Academic Writing continues where Essay Voyage, the last volume of the elementary series, leaves off. While the other portions of the MCT language arts curriculum have a spiral element built-in, allowing a learner to enter at about any level, the writing portion is far more linear.  While a high school student could begin the rest of the middle/secondary series and be able to work through the series successfully, AAW 1 relies heavily on the material from  Essay Voyage, where the principles of a well-crafted essay are explicitly taught. This isn’t a problem if a student is well-schooled in writing an academic essay, but many students simply aren’t.

Advanced Academic Writing 1 begins with a fifty-odd page writing guide that briefly covers the mechanics of writing an academic essay or short research paper. After covering standard proofreading marks, MLA rules regarding form and style, and quotations, Thompson gives an example of a paper fitting his criteria with a few proofreading marks thrown in as examples. The paper is heavy on long quotes for it’s three page length, but it’s point is to illustrate form, formality, and adherence to the thesis. The samples in the book are all short, as are the assignments. Thompson is looking for perfecting each part of smaller works — learning correct form. I agree with the philosophy of several shorter assignments with the aim of learning the form. It’s a more efficient and less overwhelming way to learn the intricate process of academic writing. (When I co-taught a research paper class, this point was driven home to me. We assigned a paper three to four times the length MCT suggests, and the students were rather overwhelmed. Lesson learned.)

The guide continues with word usage and punctuation guides along with a few examples of papers with errors. These lists are concise and easy to use, limited to a few pages each and accessible for the grammar-savvy user. What follows is less concise: nearly twenty pages of what he calls “core-element grading.” It’s at this where I disagree with MCT. His grading method starts with correct use of the English language, then moves to MLA format, correct essay structure, and, finally, the meaningfulness of the idea itself. In short, if the first item isn’t present (proper English) the paper can receive a grade no higher than a D with mastery (in order) of the following elements to achieve a C, B, or A. In short, a paper with an excellent thesis that is well-supported with excellent command of the English language can receive no more than a C if MLA formatting is incorrect. Form before function, I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a stickler about form and proper use of the English language. But I can’t agree with putting the quality and support of the thesis last. Kids develop their writing ability unevenly, and this one penalizes those who lag on the details but excel in content. Certainly the whole grading system could be dismissed. As homeschoolers, we regularly dismiss what does not fit our needs. However, the focus on errors in the first three categories continues throughout the book, and while the examples are helpful, I’d rather see far more focus on creating effective essays.

Four assignments make up the second half of the book, each with word lists from Word Within the Word 1, hints about word choice, a sentence from 4Practice 1, a sample paper with a few pages of comments (positive and negative) addressing the elements listed above, and, for two of the assignments, a writing lesson (organization and outlining; proper citation). Finally, the assignment is given. Thompson is painstakingly clear regarding expectations for each paper, although he leaves plenty of room for choice on the subject of each essay. His assignments each have a specific purpose, which he makes clear as well. Students are asked to write each of the following:

  • An interpretation of fiction using a single source
  • An essay citing multiple sources
  • An essay on a revolutionary character
  • An essay on an abstract concept
These choices leave plenty of room for a student to follow an interest or for a parent or teacher to shape into an assignment that intersects with other material being taught.
So how much did we use Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1? Not much. The first few sections intimidated my older son, who was a ninth grader by age and still very reluctant to write. He can write quite well but tends to panic easily. The tone of this book was panic-inducing for him, and I quickly set it aside. He has written two fine research papers since then, both using many of the concepts Thompson teaches but with less demanding assignments. My younger is an astonishingly fine writer at ten would be unable to handle many of the assignments now. Interpretation of fiction is a task that flummoxes many an older teen, and his other assignments simply aren’t yet accessible to him. So for now, I rely on Essay Voyage and, for the most part, my own writing knowledge. It’s likely the homeschooler in me, but I’m far more intent on keeping writing from being hated and focusing on continuous improvement than letter-grading my kids’ work. I can see where this book would be a fine addition to an honors-level high school class, but it’s not for the reluctant writer or most younger children ready for the content he provides for grammar and vocabulary at this level.
So for now, Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1, will continue to sit on my shelf. It may be a fine match for my younger son a few years from now. He’s a strong writer, and he’s less likely to be intimidated by the tone and content of this book. My older, however, needs a gentler, kinder path to mastering academic writing. What that is, I don’t quite know, but I’ll share our journey here when I work that out.

Review: Algebra Survival Guide

I recently posted a list of options for math beyond Singapore 6B. My younger, 10, finished that milestone a few months back, and I gave him some choice of what to pursue next. He selected The Algebra Survival Guide and The Algebra Survival Guide Workbook, understanding that they would not be a substitute for a full Algebra class but rather serve as an introduction. He agreed to that condition, so we began about two months ago. He was thrilled. I was satisfied. That’s about as good as it gets around here.

The Algebra Survival Guide, by Josh Rappaport, contains 12 chapters of largely pre-algebra topics. Broken down into bite-sized morsels, Rappaport explores mathematical properties, negative numbers, orders of operation, absolute value, exponents, radicals, and factoring. All those subjects are taught with variables and real numbers, but the real “algebra” part of the book doesn’t begin until halfway through the book, when he addresses factoring polynomials before moving on to canceling, equations, coordinate planes, and finally (though briefly) word problems.

For the most part, the Algebra Survival Guide breaks up those first concepts into page-long mini-lessons. Generally, the pages go beyond the “how to do this” and introduce why a property or process works. I like this. While there are times where memorization is a must, I’d rather math be deeply understood and utterly reproducible by one’s own mind and hand. Understanding how math works allows a person to do this. It’s a bit early to see if this understanding will stick,and he’s moderately mathematically intuitive, so I don’t know how much to attribute to the methods in the book, but I can say with certainty that this book does more than introduce rules to memorize.

Ironically, the book is also rule-heavy. In the process of breaking topics down into rather small parts, the author creates more rules than I recall from teaching my older son the same material in Jacobs’ Algebra.  In the section on negative numbers, these rules became burdensome, so we simply skipped those sections and moved on, after assuring he could do the problems themselves. The rules were actually a barrier to his intuition, so away they went. For a child struggling, these might be helpful and support understanding, but for my son, they got in the way.

What’s missing is the why of algebra. Until the final chapter on word problems, there is not a single example or explanation as to why anyone would bother moving all these numbers and variable around.  We stopped using the book near the end of the factoring section. I’d been growing restless with the teaching of technique in a vacuum, but he was progressing well and learning a good deal of the pre-algebra that Singapore Elementary Mathematics lacked (and saves for the secondary levels). Midway through a lesson on factoring polynomials, he asked the question: “Why would I do this?” With all the book had taught, there had not yet been one equation to solve, one word problem to ponder, or even one substitution of a number for a variable to consider. The “why” was missing.

I went to a bookshelf and pulled out Jacobs’ Algebra and searched for the section on factoring polynomials. We read through an example about a human cannonball’s trajectory. We talked for a while, and I realized that we needed to move back to math with context. He agreed readily, and we returned the Algebra Survival Guide to the shelf. Later that day, we ordered the first set of Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics series, per his request. He’s a creature of habit, and Singapore worked well for him. It’s worth a try.

I’m not sorry we spent the two months on the Algebra Survival Guide. It provided instruction on number of algebra and pre-algebra techniques with clear examples. It is designed not to be a full Algebra course but rather a support. It would serve quite well in this role. The text alone provides scant opportunity to practice the skills taught. Each one page lesson ends with four or five problems to solve, with the answers upside down just and inch or two away. Therefore, we used the Algebra Survival Guide Workbook for supplemental practice. For each page in the text book, the workbook offers ten to thirty problems for further practice. This was more than plenty, given the small bites in which the material was taught, but when we needed it, more problems were available. The workbook problems are rather cramped onto the page, with short lines for answers and no room for working solutions. This shortcoming was becoming more of an issue as he progressed through the book, and it does nothing encourage the student to show one’s work.   However, the book pairing was quite successful for what I desired as well – it served to introduce some topics missing from his knowledge bank in a palatable, gentle way. Mission accomplished.

On the positive side, the Algebra Survival Guide and workbook are easy understand, occasionally humorous, and fairly painless in their presentation of pre-algebra and the mechanics of working equations. They do incorporate the logic behind the mathematical concepts they introduce. They’re also inexpensive, with only the $10 workbook being consumable.

The chief drawback is the lack of context for learning algebra. Word problems make up the last chapter, but the approach is formulaic and is likely to do little to support a working understanding of algebra or help the user appreciate the skill they’ve learned much less an enjoyment for the beauty of mathematics.  Additionally, my 42-year-old eyes (which do not yet require reading glasses) found the font less than easy to read, especially the portions of small, fine print that explain why the various rules work. My son found my challenge amusing while I was just annoyed.

Would I use it again? Probably not. My son made great gains over these past two months, the largest being that he became comfortable with the idea of algebra. As I survey the other choices on our shelves and await the start of the secondary Singapore series, I know there are better choices out there — choices that support serious mathematical study while maintaining a humorous side. Ah, well. We have plenty of time to explore those materials while taking the next steps that Singapore has to offer.