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.


Reading the Classics…Sometimes

January 2010 009I’m not as well-read as I wish I was.  I’m a once-English major who’s avoided a host of mandatory classics that my Engineering-major friends read for pleasure. I’ve not read through all of Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and countless others, and, frankly, I only want to want to. Sure, I’ve read a good amount of standard fare, enjoying much of it and merely surviving some. Faulkner eluded me, or more likely bored me to the point of poor comprehension. I started Anna Karenina several times, starting at age twelve, and never made it past the first chapter.

I read, voraciously when time allows. The problem is that time rarely allows. Sure, you make time for what matters, but parenting and homeschooling two boys while also wearing the hats of writing instructor, Physician Assistant, church volunteer, foster caregiver for cats, physics instructor, and single homeowner doesn’t leave much time for long afternoons curled up with a book. And by the time I make it to bed, I’m spent. If I make it through a chapter of one of the many books and magazines that live on the empty side of the bed, it’s a miracle. I’m midway through The Radioactive Boy Scout (Ken Silverstein), Japan: True Stories of Life on the Road (ed. Donald George and Amy Carlson), Rosy is My Relative (Gerald Durrell), How to Write a Sentence (Stanley Fish), the latest copies of Scientific American Mind and Brain, Child, and a knitting pattern book. At a chapter or article a night, I’m accumulating more reading material faster than I have a chance of reading it. And I’m not reading the classics.

And neither are my kids. Oh, they’ve read plenty of them as the years have passed, almost always assigned by me or by an online literature instructor. Both boys are willing readers, my younger with a heap of Horrible Histories on the floor near his bed and more in the car, by his seat at the kitchen table, and on the end tables near our couches and chairs. Oh, a book about zombies is in the mix, too. He’s enjoyed the classics he’s read or that I’ve read to him, but he doesn’t seek them out. Well, he plowed through a copy of Beowulf a few years back, and his copy of Lord of the Rings is battered and well-travelled, but he’s not picking up the Hemingway or Dickens on his own.

My older reads, too, although less prolifically and almost always nonfiction. His nose is either in Popular Science or one of his growing number of computer repair books, although some Bill Bryson or other lighter fare will appear at points. He did manage a list of fantasy and science fiction books this last summer, all required by a Coursera class. Some he liked; some he didn’t. None inspired him to explore the genre more. And he’s frank about it — the classics just don’t appeal to him. And for my older, not appealing is a fast track to not retaining. I sympathize.

Like with most subjects, our literature studies have been eclectic. I’ve avoided studies based around comprehension questions and other bottom-of-the-Bloom’s-Taxonomy pyramid activities. As one who struggles with remembering names and the favorite drink of the antagonist in chapter 7, I’ve always hated those questions. And without exception, every literature class I took, from junior high through college, relied heavily on comprehension questions. I stunk at them, losing the joy of the story while trying to guess what the quiz questions would be. It spoiled a fair amount of literature for me, blunting my thirst for more since most of what I associated with classic literature was the tedium tinged with panic as I read for quizzes rather then for story and joy. Thus as a homeschooling parent, I’ve avoided this method of teaching literature.

My younger eagerly laps up literature in his Online G3 classes, where discussion fills class time and meaty, high-on-the-pyramid questions dominate the homework assignments. He talks about reading more on his own, but despite my strewing them in his path, he gravitates to the familiar Horrible Histories or whatever the comfort reading of the season is. He’s a habit-driven child who finds it hard to break routine, even in his reading. I’m comforted that he’s generally interested in literature but not certain how to encourage him to try more on his own.

I’ve had some success wooing a child to read a book himself by reading the first several chapters aloud. Since my younger was born, I’d read to my children, either books in entirety or parts designed to pull them in and launch them on their own. This has slowed down as their bedtimes have moved later and our days have been busier. Classics filled most of our read-aloud selections, but plenty of popular fiction and nonfiction worked their way in. Just this last fall, I read Peter Pan to my younger (somehow I’d even missed that one), following up with the Michael Clay Thompson’s  Literature series, Alice, Peter, and Mole. (Review to follow when we make it through more.) This is one of four in a series available through Royal Fireworks Press with a focus on discussion rather than regurgitation.  Now, he actually doesn’t mind comprehension questions, but I don’t see the point in spending time on them. I’d rather discuss the book and literary techniques, noting connections between it and other books read. Most of all, I want to keep the focus on the discovery about our past, our selves, and the universe available through reading.

I hope that’s happening. I hope the balance we hit by my negligence interrupting my diligence gives them what they need to continue to be lovers of the written word, the sort to never leave the house without access to reading material. I hope they find some classics that speak to them, informing their writing and pushing their standard for what they read just a bit higher. But most of all, I hope they learn to read to learn and continue to feel a deep need to read long works requiring sustained attention. I’ll continue my job — gentle exposure focused on the bigger messages of a book rather than the little details. And maybe I’ll try some of what turned me off so long ago just one more time. After I finish what’s sitting on the empty side of the bed. 

Nearing The Half: Curriculum Keepers and Changes

We’re closing in on the end of the semester. My older has finals for two of his courses in two weeks, with the rest of the term ending in three. While we caught a breath at Thanksgiving break, it was not the idyllic week of rest I envisioned. How could it be, with classes going through Tuesday night, past when company arrived? The following five days were a flurry of cooking and eating followed by a few too-short days of respite from a semester that started at the end of July.

Yes, I’m tired. Tired, with a to-do list that grows by the minute, urgency growing on numerous items. I’m longing for more evenings where no one needs to go anywhere and just a few weekends where, “What do you have for homework?” doesn’t escape my lips. Fortunately, a break is coming, and the second semester is set. Here’s what we’ll be doing for Winter 2012

A.D. (15)

Classes at a local university are going well — astonishingly well, given my doubt three months back. My son doesn’t seem as surprised, but he is pleased. Despite a few hiccups and a resulting rapid revision of study habits, he’s pulling good grades in both his Sign Language class (our answer to a foreign language, and the first of four semesters) and Calculus I. He’ll move on to the next in both come January, with more of the series the following semester. I do like predictability and pattern.

He’ll add a third college-level class, PC Troubleshooting and Repair, come January. After building his own computer with a neighbor and fiddling with it endlessly on his own, he’s itching to know more about the innards of those machines. Now, I get antsy at the suggestion of even opening the case of any computer, sure that my mere presence will frighten the workings of the thing into an eternal black screen of death. I’m limited outside the box as well, having a few quick fixes at my fingertips but quickly phoning a more capable friend (or more recently my son) when something goes awry on the screen. While this isn’t a class with credits likely to transfer to a university some day, it could lead to the ability to perform some helpful work around this house and the homes of others. I’m enthused, as is he.

Personal Finance (Dave Ramsey), taken with a handful of friends, continues until early spring. Initially, he was certain this course had nothing to offer him, a sure sign to me that he very much did need some financial education. A few months in, he’s enjoying himself and appreciating the information. (Since I’ve not been watching the lectures, I can’t give a full review of the curriculum. Ramsey is entertaining to watch although overly optimistic about saving rates and investment returns. Watch this series with a post-2007 reality check from a well-grounded adult.)

Piano continues, albeit with a new instructor. I’ve shared our piano woes here before (Piano Lessons), and we’ve learned a good deal about the importance of chemistry between music teacher and student as well as the necessity of teens to set their own musical course. I’m optimistic, as is he. (A full post on music education will follow).

Physics, taught by me to my son and his friend, continues as well. We’ve finished our tour of mechanics and have moved on to sound. Next semester takes us to light, magnetism, electronics, fluids, heat, and quantum physics. I have quite a bit to learn. Our original goal was the SAT Physics Subject Test, but I’ve not looked at where we are on that road in some time. Add that to my very long list.

Ironic as it may be, I’m farming out writing instruction to a tutor. It seems teaching writing to one’s own teen isn’t always effective or desirable. Now, as a source of some of my income, I rely on that fact, but it took me until now to act on it at home. So my older is looking forward to ten assignments spread over 20 weeks, all lead by someone who is Not Mom. I’m smiling, too.

A.B. (11 years old)

My younger son will enter his fifth semester with Online G3, lead by the brave and nearly saintly Jamie Smith. With an assortment of gifted kids in the 8 (or younger) to 13 (or older) age group, he’ll take three classes. Magic Lens/Word Within the Word 2B continues his trip through Michael Clay Thompson’s books by the same name. Aside from adding weekly vocabulary quizzes and reviewing the new stems and words with him, he’s independent in this class. American Literature will round out his Language Arts study, carrying him through Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Red Badge of Courage, and Call of the Wild. The accompanying text is from Lightening Literature, a series with which we’re familiar. Finally, he’ll take Government. He’s been prepping for months, if one considers his immersion into the election and regular (guided) watching of The West Wing. Jamie, beware.

Math will continue as before, with the goal of finishing Discovering Mathematics 1A and 1B (or 7A and 7B, as the new editions are labelled). Well, unless we’re distracted by other math. An interest of trigonometry will return us to Challenge Math after our current chapter in Discovering Mathematics. I’m in favor of side roads on this journey.

Physical Science (CPO Middle School series) continues, and we’re adding a third young person to our studies come January. Overall, the book is serving us well, and we’re progressing through at a reasonable rate with rather impressive retention. I’ll review this more thoroughly a bit later.

New to the schedule will be Latin with The Pericles Group. This is Latin via video game  (practomime), and he’s enthused. I’m interested to see how much he actually learns. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up and requires a good amount motivation and initiative to be worthwhile, says the creator and Latin teacher. My younger son doesn’t lack either, so I’m betting he’ll be fine. When we know more, I’ll report it here.

His Coursera World History class is winding down, and he’s done a fine job keeping up with 750-word essays, challenging readings, and over two hours of lectures a week. We’ve just started a Coursera class on argumentation, and while I’m not sure we’ll take all the quizzes or make it through all the assignments (which walk right through the two weeks when  I don’t want to discuss homework), so far the lectures are interesting and even amusing. The wisdom of placing a naturally argumentative child and his mother into an argumentation class is not open for debate.

Piano and fencing round out his schedule. He’s happy with his piano teacher of the last four years, and he steadily progresses.  He’s also quite satisfied with his with his fencing coach and venue, feeling accepted and challenged. He’s started to enter local tournaments, fencing foil at the  under 12 level. He loves it, and he’s gradually gaining skill.

Those are the plans. We’ll see what really happens. My older son thrives on the greater challenge and demands from his college-level coursework. My younger continues to do well whether I’m in charge or someone else is, although his schedule is heavy on outside courses this semester. Everyone, myself included, is learning. And perhaps just as important, everyone is feeling successful and happy. Sounds like a fine start to second semester.

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. 

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.

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.

Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Younger

It’s that time of year. May. The time of year when I can’t stand one more minute of homeschooling and just want to be done. It’s the point when we’re almost done with most of the books and classes we started the semester with and have even moved on to new material in some, vamping a bit for the last few months of the school year. (This always seems to happen with math.) It’s also the time to set the fall schedule for the classes and events that happen outside of our walls, and given that’s going on, I might as well make some selections for home, too. Here’s what I have so far.

A.B. (11, 6th grade)

Math: After a fair amount of angst, we settled on continuing with Singapore Math for secondary mathematics study.  We’re a few chapters into Discovering Mathematics 1A, which contains a fair amount of review for him on subjects covered in The Algebra Survival Guide but with far more depth and extensions. Our pace is a lesson a day, with a day at the end of each chapter to play with the more challenging problems in the workbook and a day for the end of chapter test.  Taking tests is new for him, and he’s still pretty anxious about that process, but since that’s the only hiccup thus far, I’m giving DM a thumbs up.  We’re still plugging away at Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6 as well, and I keep a stack of alternative math options on the shelf for his more anxious days when “regular” math just isn’t doable.

Language Arts:  A.B. will continue with Michael Clay Thompson’s Word Within the Word and Magic Lens series via Online G3, this year studying the second level. This program of study (both the books and online class) work wonderfully for him. For literature, he’ll pick one the Hewitt Lightning Literature classes Online G3 offers, most likely Mid to Late 19th Century American Literature.  That course’s reading selections seem accessible given his age (and I’m fairly sure some of the selections in British Lit, like Jane Eyre, would not be enjoyable reads for him). He’s determined to participate in NaNoWriMo 2012 and plans to continue to write on his blog. I’ll likely try to broaden his writing beyond these forums, but he’s a strong enough writer that I’m willing to largely follow his lead and work my agenda into his.  I’m considering signing him up for WriteGuide for the second half of the school year with the aim of strengthening his fiction writing.  Finally, since he enjoys Steck Vaughn Spelling, he’ll proceed to level six in that series.

History: In fall, he’ll take the last of the American History classes from Online G3 this fall. This course covers the Civil War and the rest of the last half of the 19th century using Joy Hakim’s History of US books.  He has his eyes on her Government class for the following spring. The first semester, he’ll also take Coursera’s A History of the World Since 1300, a free online class from Princeton University.  History is his favorite subject and one of his career aspirations (historian and college professor vs lawyer), so plenty of new ideas in this area are key to his happiness.

Science: This year is physical science with a focus on physics. Middle School Chemistry provided a sound base in that portion of the physical sciences, so I’d like not to belabor that end of the subject. He’ll be studying with a friend, although what text or supports we’ll use are to be determined. Any suggestions for a text are welcome!

The Rest: He’ll continue piano lessons and daily practice, and at this point, he’d like to attend Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer of 2013 for further piano study. We’ll see where that drive goes come the new year. For physical education, he’ll continue to fence, a sport that replaces karate for him as of the last five months. Lessons are twice a week, and eventually, he should be ready for a few tournaments. He’s interested in becoming a fencing director (think ref), which is a path open to him as well. He loves rules and the enforcement of them, so this seems a reasonable pursuit. We’re still discussing foreign language options. He’s interested in German. I know none and have no desire to learn it. He might play with it via Rosetta Stone this summer and see if that mode of learning works for him. It was not a good match with my older son, but these boys are wired completely differently, so I’m willing to give it a try.

As always, we’re working on communication and social skills. I’m not using any formal materials for this but rather continually discussing the nuances of the conversation, friendships, and general relations between people. We have a few resources on the shelves for this purpose, but they just seem to sit. We do post-mortems on situations, with a mix of trouble-shooting and celebration of successes and will continue this process.

As always, ideas are welcome. What are your plans for fall?

Planning Time: What’s Happening for My Older

I have a high schooler.  Academically, I’ve had one in many subjects for several years.  It seems this year, it’s official.  This year, so say those in the know, I should keep track of credits and classes.  I should create a transcript and map out the next four years.  Coming from a state requiring no paperwork from their homeschoolers, this is a bit of a stretch for me.  We’ll see how that goes.

First, however, I need a plan for Fall 2011.  His friend down the street starts school next week, so I’m sure it’s time to get these plans out of my head and onto screen or paper.  Input is welcome, as always.

Study Skills:  This year, study skills, note taking, and organization top the list of goals for him.  His dysgraphia makes note taking a serious challenge, and we’ll more actively explore ways to take effective notes this year, looking for the best answer for him.  He’ll try a few tried and true methods, including Cornell and concept mapping, but nothing’s stuck.  This year, we’ll bring out his Livescribe Pen again and try note taking on the computer as well.  Studying for tests offers challenges, too, so that’s on the list, although I’ve yet to figure out what tests he’ll study for, since the materials we’re using don’t have many.  Time organization, our constant challenge, also needs addressing.  We’re likely starting with the white boardand moving today a notebook.  Too sketchy?  It is for me, too.

The Livescribe pen: Take notes as the pen records the lecture. Later, touch any part of your notes, and listen to what was said when you wrote the notes.

Math:  He’s still finishing ALEKS Precalculus, so that will fill the first several months.  After that, we’ll wander down some math sidetracks, perhaps using some Teaching Co. videos as launch pads.  I’d like to cover a bit of stats and probability this year as well.  I’m open to him taking Calculus (in a classroom), although I don’t think his study skills are ready for that yet.  (see above)

Piano:  Yes, with an hour a day of practice, Piano is a course of study for him.  He’ll change teachers again (his recent and marvelous teacher is moving), and that’s feeling a bit rough to him.  He’s entering fine hands, however, and I’m confident the transfer will be smooth.  He has some specific goals for Achievement Testing and Federation for Fall, and I hope he can make those goals happen this year.  (Insert gush over son’s ability and hard work here.)

Grammar and Vocabulary:  We’re still Michael Clay Thompson fans, so he’ll continue this fall and next spring with Online G3 for Magic Lens II and Word Within the Word II.  I’ll be testing him regularly on the vocabulary as a way to keep him on task and to develop study skills.

Science, History, Composition, and Literature:  These are together this year.  My older adores meteorology, so he’ll using two Teaching Company titles, Meteorology and How The Earth Works.  These serve a dual purpose, first as science material and second as note taking practice opportunities.  We’ll also use a few meteorology and earth science texts for some book study experience (again, some note taking and effective reading of potentially boring material purposes).  Additional reading of literature associated to meteorological events (and a handful of natural disasters) will include Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Good Earth, and  The Snows of Kilimanjaro, among others.  Using Academic Writing I, he’ll start writing about literature, a new experience for him.  And the history?  He wants to study the weather’s influence on history.  Fortunately, others have also found that fascinating, and we’re accumulating a pile of nonfiction reading of that ilk.   I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer gathering resources, and while I have a rough idea how I’d like this rather massive unit study to work, I still have work to do.  I’ll post our syllabus (or at least resources and some rough plans) on a page at the top of this blog as they take shape.

Spanish:  No formal study, just a year with Rosetta Stone’s Spanish I for all of us.  The goal is to give my older enough confidence to formally study Spanish in the classroom (high school or college) next year.  My younger and I are along for the ride.

Physical Education:  Hopefully, we’ll all be testing for our Black Belt in Tang Soo Do in early 2012.  At this writing, that’s likely just a mark in time, with study continuing, at least for them.  My body could use a less, um, painful sport.

All the Rest:  My older also plans to join the theater club at our local public high school, which has a reputation of quality productions and openness to homeschoolers.  He’ll take two classes with six to eight other teenaged homeschoolers this fall:  NIH Science Supplements (Bioethics, Infectious Disease, Sleep, and more) taught by yours truly and a Film as Literature course taught by Not His Mom.

Too much?  I hope not. We’re going easy on the math this year, and I hope by our unit study approach to the other major subjects that the year feels more integrated.  We’re still almost four weeks from our school start, with two vacations between now and then.  I guess I’ll be traveling with curricula and a notebook.

Planning Time: What’s Happening for the Younger (age 10)

After an email request for an update to my “What We Say We’re Doing” page, I decided it was indeed time to figure out what the heck we’re doing come fall.  I have plenty kicking around in my head, but that’s only the start of the real work.  Planning for my 10-year-old is the easier of the two jobs this year, so I’ll start with him.

Math:  Last year, more independent mathematical work was one of my goals.  My younger still has a fair amount of panic about getting problems wrong, so generally he checks in with me after each problem.  This drives me nuts, honestly, and while he’s sometimes willing to forgo that pattern when he’s feeling super-confident, he has a long way to go.  We slowed math down last year when his panic at the word “math” began to mount.  He’s mathematically talented, and I really struggle with his aversion to something he does so well.  We added some of Theoni Pappas‘ work for fun, and Penrose the Cat is a hit.  Anything with a cat is a hit, but I have yet to find the all-cat math curriculum. We’ll continue with Pappas and similar material as we finish up Singapore 6B and Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6, a project that shouldn’t take long.  Upon his request, we’ll work through Pre-Algebra I and II from Life of Fred. (He saw a friend’s copy and thought it looked okay.)I didn’t bother with pre-algebra with my older, heading straight to Jacob’s Algebra after Singapore 6, but this child needs confidence despite his obvious talent, and I hope time and some diversions into other aspects of math provides that.

Science:  We’re all on to Earth Science this year, using CPO Middle School Earth Science for my younger.  It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, which means that questioning comes before vocabulary and scientific thinking trumps rote comprehension questions.  I’m a fan of the inquiry method and excited to try this well-reviewed curriculum.  It’s not designed for homeschoolers, and I’ll try to keep track of changes we make and materials we need so others might benefit later.  We have a bit of Middle School Chemistry to finish still, but hopefully we’ll finish that up this summer.

History:  After a highly successful semester with Online G3‘s History of US 2B (1899 to the present), my younger’s eager to take the rest of her offerings.  First semester, he’ll take the corresponding 1A course, covering the first three books of the History of US series by Joy Hakim.  He’s likely to pick up another in the series come spring.  History is in Headmistress’ Guinevere’s hands. Whew.

Language Arts:  My younger devoured two levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar and Vocabulary books, so this year he hits the big leagues with Word Within the Word I and Magic Lens I.  As did his brother, he’ll do these with Online G3, but while I left his brother does his own devices and kept my nose (mostly) out of the class, I’ll keep tighter reign on my younger son.  We’ll read the books together, and I plan on more outside work on the vocabulary for him.  I probably should have done the latter with his older brother last year, but it just didn’t happen.  We’re only half-way through Paragraph Town’s 20 lessons, meaning the book has been read but that other activities are left to be done.  At the end of last school year, typing skills sharp from Online G3 classes, he started a blog (Bertram’s Blog).  He’s abandoned it so far this summer, but it’s built his confidence as a writer.  Hopefully, we’ll move into Essay Voyage as the year progresses.  For the fall, he’ll take Lightening Literature 7, again with Online G3.  Can you tell we adore Headmistress Guinevere and her classes?

The Rest:  As a family, we’re trying Rosetta Stone Spanish I in hopes of providing all of us with some exposure to the language before someone takes Spanish in a classroom (likely my older son, who needs two years of it before college).  Karate continues to be our main source of PE, and we may be up for our black belts in March.  Piano study for my younger also continues.  Spelling with Steck-Vaughn materials was a wild success.  Who knew we just needed a traditional old workbook approach for that subject?  He’ll move onto the 5th level this year, and he’s delighted.  Handwriting issues have hit and hit hard. A year and a half of cursive via Handwriting Without Tears has produced many tears and no usable cursive.  His older brother fared no better, so, like his older brother did, we’ll move him back to print and finish out Handwriting Without Tears Can-Do Print.  His printing is far better than his older brother’s who has some serious dysgraphia issues, but it is still a work in progress.  Thankfully, both boys type quite well.

Of course, these plans are all subject to change, but this is one year for one child that I feel I’m looking at plans that could really work. As always, suggestions and “been there, done that” stories are welcome.





Review: Online G3

I’ve balked at reviewing Online G3 publicly.  Not because I have any reservations about it, but simply because it’s a finite resource, and I’m hesitant to see it flooded with users with whom I’d have to compete for spots.  It’s quickly become a family favorite, and I’m feeling a bit selfish.  But share I will.

Online G3 hosts online classes in Language Arts, History, and Critical Thinking for gifted children.  Headmistress Guinevere (aka Jamie Smith) teaches all the courses herself, and, as the parent of a gifted child, she understands the need the younger gifted set need for in-depth, appropriate material to think about and discuss.  She also understands this same set of kids is rarely ready to produce the long papers and projects that older students would be able to do, and her assignments are relatively short but allow for a child who is a prolific “producer” to show his or her stuff.

The online portion of the classes, 50 minutes in length, take place on Elluminate, an online meeting and class host.  Elluminate is easy to use for parents and children alike (okay, easier for my kids than for me, but that’s true with quite a bit of technology in our house), and is Mac and PC friendly.  During the class, Mistress Guinevere has the controls, meaning to speak to the class, kids have to electronically raise their hands and receive permission to use the mic.  Anytime, they can pose questions or give answers on an instant message frame on one side of the screen.  She’s also ready and willing to turn that screen off if conversation there gets distracting or irrelevant.  There are times she “turns on the tools”, allowing students to write an answer or highlight a response on the electronic chalkboard region that takes up most of the screen.  Participation is easy for all students, whether they’re typing skills are emerging or proficient.

Homework is listed on the website after each class, and generally consists of videos on BrainPOP and Discovery Education (which are free subscriptions with each $199 18-week class), quizzes and practice on Quia, book chapters to read at home, and short written or multi-media assignments to turn in on the class forum.  For most of the written (typed) work, the children must also constructively comment on 2 or 3 of their classmates’ work in the forum.  Once assignments are done, they are automatically marked as done on the child’s class page (reading and timeline work is marked by the student), and a complete sign appears when the work is done.  Additionally, there are a dozen or so moderated forums on topics ranging from reading to story writing, to LEGOs, all available for students 24/7.  For the interested child, there is plenty of interaction available, at least for an online class.  The kids are also free to explore other parts of BrainPop and Discovery Learning outside of the assigned videos.

But it’s not the resources that make the classes a favorite, especially for my younger son, now 9.  It’s Headmistress Guenevere herself and the amazing students in her classes. She’s welcoming, informative, interesting, and appropriately challenging, especially for the precocious 7 to 12-year-old children that seem to make up the bulk of her classes.  There are older students enrolled, and a few of her courses specifically are for kids 12 and up, but the content and assignments are the same as those for the under 12 group.  (She had parental requests for classes for the older gang, and my 13-year-old prefers to be with those kids.  He says they are less likely to be distracted and go off topic.  This amuses me greatly, since he’s so often distracted and off topic himself.)  Aside from those courses (and older kids may be in the sessions listed for 12 and under, if necessary), there are no age requirements, and children younger and older participate.

Make no mistake.  This is truly a set of courses designed for the gifted learner.  The pace of the classes is brisk, with many of the courses taking a year of material and fitting it into a semester.  This compression of material is welcome to many gifted learners, who can generally digest information at an amazing rate. Additionally, conversation level is also much higher than what you’d find in an average elementary classroom, and the assignments focus on higher-order thinking skills, like analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.   In my 9-year-old son’s US History course, a recent assignment asked the students to identify the main reason they thought the US entered World War I (they’d discussed many reasons), if they thought the US should have entered or not, and what the outcome might have been had the US not entered.  The children’s answers were thoughtful and generally well-reasoned, as well as beyond what you’d expect for children largely in the mid-elementary years.   It’s a hit for my budding historian eager to discuss the topic with other historically minded kids.

Over the last two semesters, we’ve experienced five different Online G3 classes.  Three have been combinations of grammar and vocabulary, all relying on Michael Clay Thompson’s books on the same (the writing and poetics portions aren’t included in these online versions).  US History 2B (1900 – 2000)  relies on Joy Hakim’s History of US series, volumes 8,9, and 10.  Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings (reviewed here), requires the LOTR books and a student manual with the same name, published by HomeScholar Books.  Books aren’t included in the course price, but are generally reasonable and are high-quality materials with great resale potential (or, in our house, reusability).

Online G3 isn’t for everyone.  It’s clearly tailored to the young gifted learner who craves a quickly paced class with a virtual classroom with other exceptionally bright, articulate, and opinionated learners.  It’s been a hit with my children, especially my younger, who stalks the site, hoping to find the next week’s homework before the current week’s assignments are due.  If only he had the same drive for math, or perhaps Online G 3 could offer those classes next.  Oh, Headmistress Guinevere…