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.




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.

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.

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.

Review: Jacobs Elementary Algebra

I wrote recently about options for math after Singapore 6B that we’ve tried or at least considered. While some of those resources found their way into my older son’s schedule while he was finishing Singapore, he felt strongly about immediately moving on to  “real” algebra. He was nine and sick of arithmetic. He was also fascinated with the algebra I used to solve some of the more perplexing parts of Challenging Word Problems 6, Singapore’s last book in their honestly named supplement series. When I couldn’t make those bar diagrams work, I’d resort to methods more familiar to me. He wanted in on those methods.

After a moderate amount of research and consideration, I went with an old-standby, Elementary Algebra by Harold R. Jacobs (ISBN 0-7167-1047-1). Written in 1979, this black-and-white text is written with humor and interest without the distracting color splashes and sidebars that grace more modern textbooks. Perhaps those brighter, busier features and are a draw for some learners, but for my son (with ADHD), the less chaos on the page, the better. The cartoon at the start of most lessons held up well over those decades and grabbed my distractable child onto the page while giving us both a chuckle. A bit of a laugh is a fine way to start a math lesson.

There’s plenty of substance after that laugh. In seventeen chapters with four to nine lessons each, Jacobs takes a learner directly into the use of variables while teaching order of operations, graphing, exponents, radicals, and other pre-algebra topics not covered in Singapore’s first six books. For a mathematically geared child, this seamlessly integrates those missed topics into algebra, obviating the need for a separate pre-algebra course. For my older son who is highly mathematically intuitive, this was fine.

In Elementary Algebra, Jacobs does far more than teach the procedural goings-on of algebra. He explains why it works. This is not a text of algorithms to memorize and practice, practice, practice. Rather this is a book that encourages deeper understanding of the math it contains and that connects math to the greater world.  This creates a rather lengthy book, and my son did take a year and a half to move through it. At then end, however, he had a fine grasp of algebra and could easily relate and apply it to other studies.

The structure of the book makes for easy teaching, and the supplemental teacher’s guide (A Teacher’s Guide to Elementary Algebra  ISBN 0-7167-1075-7) provides additional ideas for teaching if that’s desired. This is, however, not a scripted program. For the parent whose algebra is more than a bit rusty, this text could be a challenge. Or, perhaps, it could be an opportunity to polish those rusty skills and dress them up with deeper understanding. Even if one doesn’t require the additional teaching tips in the guide, this book contains the answers to three of the four sets of problems in each chapter. (One set has its answers in the back of the textbook.) For this, it was worth its price several times over.

Each lesson takes a mathematical idea and develops it in two or three pages of text, diagrams, and examples. I’m a believer in interactive math lessons, since I think there’s much to be learned from discussion about mathematics. My son and I would sit together, with me reading the chapter aloud and discussing examples along the way, generally with scrap paper or a white board by our sides. Each lesson concludes with four problem sets: one review, two sections to practice the ideas from the current lesson, and a fourth presenting a challenging problem or two often with a historical bent or mathematical twist.  We generally omitted the review and did the second set (first set of practice problems) together. He’d then do the third set (second set of practice problems) and fourth set (challenge problems) on his own. The following day, we’d review his mistakes and move on to the next lesson.

Each chapter ends with two sets of review problems, of which I’d assign one. One review could be used for a test, but we used tests from the accompanying Test Masters for Elementary Algebra (ISBN 0-7167-1077-3), which offers four tests for each chapter, additional exercises on a host of topics, four multiple-choice midterms and two multiple-choice final exams. We’d have been fine without this supplement, but this was in my more obsessive “afraid we’ll miss something” homeschooling days. It’s definitely an optional supplement.

Algebra was more than a math class for my son. It was a jump in organization, textbook use, and test taking. Up until algebra, he’d done most of his mathematical work in his head. Dysgraphia and impatience with process had led to me scribing most of his work until this point, and while I’d modeled showing work, algebra was the first time I insisted he show his work every time. It was a painful first many months. The math came easily. Writing down steps did not. A second challenge presented when working through problem sets. Writing answers on paper while referring to a page in a book proved difficult. Often the writing issues, visual tracking work, and organized step-writing proved more challenging than the math. Test taking was also new to him. I don’t test my boys much — generally I can tell what they know and what they don’t. Test taking increased his accuracy and gave him a reason to show his work, since even a wrong answer with a clear and largely correct trail could earn partial credit.

Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra prepared my older well for the math that followed: Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Precalculus flowed fairly easily from the lessons learned in that first algebra text. I enjoyed teaching from it, and he enjoyed learning from it. My understanding of some concepts deepened along the way. While it’s hardly the only algebra choice for the homeschooling family, Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra is a strong text based on sound pedagogy that prepares mathematical thinkers well for higher math.

Review: ALEKS

ALEKS (short for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) entered our lives last winter.  My older son and I had the Precalculus blues.  I was frustrated with him, he was frustrated with me, and we were both frustrated with his textbook.  My older son is a mathematically talented kid with (at that time) little drive to spend more than a few minutes solving a problem.  He thrived on Harold Jacobs’ books for Algebra and Geometry, which were interrupted by over a year of Algebra II via Thinkwell.  (No offense, Dr, Burger, but you’re too entertaining to teach my son, at least at age 11 and 12, Algebra II/College Algebra.  He remembered the jokes but not the math.)  Sprinkle in Very Challenging Life Circumstances that year, and it can be safely said that much of Algebra II didn’t happen. Enter Precalculus, a course, like Prealgebra, doesn’t really exist as a subject, unless it includes Trigonometry (our plans did) and a recap on that missed Algebra II that fell apart for too many reasons.

We moved through Foerster’s Precalculus at a decent clip, finishing trigonometry and starting on the myriad of other topics that make up the nebulous Precalculus.  Somewhere after trig he lost his way, probably in part because I lost mine.  So, on the advice of a friend, we tried ALEKS.

ALEKS offers dozens of math classes with a smattering of accounting and chemistry courses.  We’ve tried only Precalculus and Chemistry.  (He was already taking Chemistry from me, so we thought we’d see what it added. We lasted two months, with little use.)  ALEKS begins with mid-elementary level mathematics and works up with there, stopping with Precalculus and Statistics.  For $20 a month, a user as full access to a single course, although one is free to change what that course is at any time.  The learner begins with an assessment test, which can be quite long, to determine what is already mastered.  After that, a “pie” is formed, with wedges representing topics to master.  The learner is free to choose from different wedges for new learning material (this is not a strictly linear program) but only if the learner has the skills to learn it previously mastered.  (One can’t attempt sinusoids before knowing basic trig functions, for example.)  There is always plenty from which to choose.

Pie chart for Precalculus

Upon picking a topic to learn (and there are a whopping 447 in Precalculus), the learner is presented with a problem.  The first section on Limits and Continuity is shown below for reference:

The first problem for continuity and limits.

Since my learner has no previous knowledge of limits, he’d select the light green button on the bottom right labeled explain.  The next screen explains the problem and the concept in words and diagrams.  (There is no auditory or video component.) The next option is to try another problem.  The explain button is always available, with similar general information and problem-specific information, and once the learner successfully answers three consecutive problems, a new topic is available. The steps from one problem type to the next are generally small, but at this level of math, mastering each step can take a fair amount of time.

Assessments pop up periodically, containing any material previously mastered and plenty of material not yet covered.  Correct answers on these assessments, of either old or new material, adds to the darkened portion of the pie pieces and increases the percentage mastered.  Answering incorrectly sets one back. The teacher or parent administrating the account can request an assessment any time, which can bump a learner further along the pie (or further back). Teachers/parents can produce quizzes on the recent topics learned or any topics, but these quizzes do not affect the pie and mastery percentages.  The only written option is the worksheet button on the student’s page, which allows a learner to create a printable sheet of problems.  Again, the results of these don’t affect the mastery levels in the program.

ALEKS costs $20 per month per user per course (and given the way appropriate problems are generated, two users on a course is impossible), with discounts for multiple courses or prepayment of a greater time period than one month.  In my never-ending optimism that Precalculus will not last forever, I pay monthly. I’m sure the ALEKS folks appreciate this enduring yet unfounded feeling and the extra money it generates for them.

So what do we like?  I like that I’ve been taken out of the Precalculus equation.  For some reason, the topics seem unfamiliar to me, while actual Calculus still holds a spot in my brain.  Go figure.  More than that, it puts the pace of learning into my son’s hands while assuring that he doesn’t leave material until he’s mastered it.  (Yeah, with homeschooling that should be a given.  For whatever reason, we were struggling with pacing and mastery in this domain.)  There seems to be no end to the problems the program generates, and moving ahead is impossible until you’ve mastered the topics before.  That said, at all times there are many topics from which to choose.  This allows a variety of study from day-to-day not easily achieved with most text books.

The list of what we don’t like is a bit longer.  The user interface is clunky.  A parent can set the frequency which one will receive reports on attendance and mastery, but, at least for us and another family we know (who have used a level elementary math), the amount of time ALEKS records the child being in session doesn’t jibe with the child’s time in front of the computer.  Specifically, the report vastly under-reports the time the user was on the program.  This led to many painful confrontations about time use until I came to understand (thanks to a parent friend) the inconsistency they’d also experienced.  Even the number of topics mastered on the report doesn’t jibe with my son’s experience.  I’ve yet to figure this out, but I do know I’m not alone in this frustration.

Second, written examples and instructions just don’t cut it all the time.  While for some learners, it may be sufficient, it’s just not for my son. While he is highly mathematically talented, he’s not mathematically interested and disengages rather easily with this format.  I’ve encouraged him to seek Khan Academy lectures and even dear old mom for support when needed.  Despite this pitfall, he’d still rather do ALEKS than return to the textbook and mom.

Third, the response system (the way a student answers questions) encourages precision but not process.  There is no partial credit on ALEKS.  Sure, this may seem like a good deal, but ALEKS doesn’t encourage a learner to show his/her work.  I’ve worked long and hard to convince my older son that showing his work allows him to go back and check his own work and find mistakes.  I started giving partial credit in Algebra precisely to encourage him to think on paper.  I’m hoping I’ve not undone that by using ALEKS.  The precision vs showing work is a trade-off, and had he been earlier in his mathematical education, I’d likely have switched programs (or majorly supplemented) to assure showing work was a learned skill.

My final recommendation would be to use ALEKS on its own as a bridge, as we are now, to deal with a rough spot in mathematical learning.  I’ve heard from many a family who used it to break through a learning barrier gain some ground in a particular area or when friction between parent and child on the math front becomes unbearable.  It also would serve as a fine supplement to a “live” curriculum.  I think math needs to be discussed, and this just doesn’t happen with ALEKS.  The price, at least for short-term use, is moderate.  For the gifted learner with a few gaps at a level, ALEKS avoids the repetition of mastered material that drives gifted learners nuts while assuring they really do know what they think they know.

Our next stop?  We’re likely to meander around a variety of mathematical topics for this school year, but Calculus in a live classroom is our choice for next year.  Hopefully, ALEKS will have helped him fill some holes, increase his accuracy, and prepare him for the next step.


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…

Review: Story of the World (Part I)

History is a favorite subject of study around here.  My own history education was paltry and downright dull:  a recitation of facts and dates.  No story.  No connections.  No resonance with my young life.  So when I first brought my older home, I was stymied by history.  I knew next to nothing and really wasn’t interested.  So I passed the decision on to my then seven-year-old son:  What do you want to study about history?  His answer was definitive:  the American Civil War.  So we studied it.  Nine episodes of the Ken Burns series, countless books about the time period, and a few hands-on projects later, we were both full of Civil War knowledge and passion.  We were also totally hooked on history.

A few years later, after further American History study, loosely centered around Joy Hakim’s History of US but full of rabbit trails including a long jaunt into the Renaissance, my younger, then 5, wanted in on the action.  While the previous studies boosted my history knowledge and interest, I still felt lost.  I wanted a framework for further study, largely so I could help them place events in a greater context.  I wanted to study history chronologically, ideally from the earth’s beginnings to through the present, written from a secular, inclusive point of view yet interesting to children.

I took to the web and quickly faced the reality that history (and science) materials created for homeschoolers almost all are conservative Christian based.  Often, this view is expressed as having a “worldview”, which initially I thought must be what I wanted.  Surely, I thought, worldview must refer to a look at history in a way that respected the beliefs around the world, seeing all as equal.  I quickly discovered my error:  worldview, as used by most homeschooling curriculum providers, referred to a Christian-centric, highly conservative, young earth perspective.  That wasn’t what I wanted for our studies.

Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of The World series repeatedly came up during my search.  I was dubious.  While many reviews gushed about the storytelling of the texts and activities outlined in the activity books, many others voiced concerns:  Bible stories are presented as facts, too many exclamation points are used, the chapters move from civilization to civilization, which can be confusing.   Certainly this wasn’t the curriculum for our family, but I wasn’t finding better options that could give us a full sweep of history accessible to a child of five and nine, given supplementation for my older child.

So I checked out the first book from our library network.  I read the introduction about history and archeology.  It contained way too many short sentences and certainly more exclamation points than I’d consider a mark of good writing.  Read more, my younger insisted.  On to nomads, then Egypt.  He was hooked.  I returned the library copy and placed my order for the first volume and activity guide.

Soon after we started on our own copy, we came to Chapter 6, The Jewish People, which tells stories of Abraham and Joseph with the same voice as that noting the history of ancient Egypt.   Later in the book, Moses and then Jesus are addressed in the same manner.  We are not a Christian or Jewish family.  We don’t  hold the Bible to be historical fact (although certainly historical people and happenings are retold in the Bible).  Since Bauer did not point out story versus historical event in this case, the distinction was up to me.  In the second edition of the first volume, other myths are clearly pointed out, but biblical stories are still presented as fact.  Yes, this bothered me.  And, yes, we continued to read.  I simply presented those chapters as stories from religious traditions rather than as fact. We discussed the author’s inclusion of the stories and our understanding of the Bible’s writings.

In short, we talked about the makings of history.  History is always told through the lens of the teller.  Aside from the barest recitation of facts, it is colored by the experiences, race, ethnicity, politics, religion, socio-economic status, and time of the teller.  If it’s written for any audience (and almost all it), it’s written to appeal to those people and sell to those people.  It is not without bias, especially not without the bias of the time in which it is written.  It’s in understanding this that we approach our history study at home.  Understanding the biases and purposes of the author helps inform us as readers.   Appreciating that history is rife with bias allows us to use a variety of sources, understanding our view of the world may not jibe with that of the teller, and that knowing that differences in the telling of the same events enhances our understanding of these events.  It even enhances our understanding of the world today:  thinking about why writers would write with a Christian worldview or liberal political worldview teaches us about current thinking in our time.

In Part II of this review, I’ll move to how we used the books and their activity guides and where we’re heading next.