Review: Brave Writer (Help for High School)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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. 

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?

How to Write a Research Paper in Six (Really Five) Weeks

For a syllabus for the course and notes about the process, see the Research Paper Class page.

We’re done.  It’s been a grueling six (okay, really five) weeks since a writing-savvy friend and I launched eight homeschooled high schoolers on their research papers — the first for all but one.  Aged fourteen though seventeen, they muddled their way through topic selection, research and note taking, outline creation, two drafts, and one final copy about a subject of their choosing.  They worked hard, and they learned writing skills, MLA style, and perseverance.

Both aged a wee bit older, my comrade in torture patient instruction and I worked kids through crises, wielded pencils with moderate restraint (red ink was just too harsh), and bit our lips through it all.   Continue reading

NaNoWriMo, Part II

(Part I explains how my reluctant writer turned novelist.  Part III and III.V cover the sometimes painful editing and publishing process.)

November 30th came and went without much fanfare.  My younger son met his 10,000 word goal for National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writer’s Program on the 29th, so we’d hoorayed and back-patted a day earlier.  It was the 30th when he actually finished his story, which turned out to be 11,007 words.  We cheered that accomplishment, too, but meeting his word and being declared a winner on the site was the joy of the 29th.

What to do next? Continue reading

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.

 

 

 

 

In the Rough: Plans for Fall 2010 (Age 13)

It’s that time again.  No sooner do we finish one homeschool year (the formal stuff, that is) than it’s time to peruse web sites, consider curriculum, and start again.  I’m a continual planner, honestly, so June planning never means starting from scratch.  However, June marks the time to make some more concrete decisions and (gulp) financial commitments.  So here’s the rough plans for Fall 2010 for my older son (13 years old, 8th grade).

Math:  If the practice ACT he took was any indicator, he needs some additional Algebra II to go with precalculus and trigonometry.  However, my understanding of precalculus is that it’s whatever hasn’t been done previously that’s needed before Calculus, so this doesn’t really change his or my plans.  He’ll use the Art of Problem Solving’s Intermediate Algebra and Precalculus books, with me at the helm and a great tutor to make the math really sing.

Science:  I’ll lead my older and his buddy from biology in a high school level chemistry course this fall.  Wish me luck on this one:  chemistry is not my domain in the way biology is.  I’m delighted to have a family friend and university chemistry professor willing to back me up in this endeavor, although we’ve yet to define what that support means.  I do know I’ll need the help.  For texts, we’ll be using one of Chang’s titles:  either Chemistry or General Chemistry:  The Essential Concepts, which is a bit shorter and simpler.  We’re not attempting AP chem, here.  For labs, I’ll be using Robert Thompson’s Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments:  All Lab, No Lecture.  While we’ll need a bit more glassware and a few additional chemicals to pull those experiments off, we’re already embarrassingly well equipped for a home.  No calls to homeland security please.  For more chemistry resources, peek back to this post.

History:  We leaving war behind, thank goodness, and delving into music history with Discovering Music:  300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture.  That move was my older’s choice and will be a welcome change.

Language Arts:  We’ll continue with Michael Clay Thompson, moving to the fourth level (Magic Lens I, Academic Writing I, and Word Within the Word I).  He’s not done any of the poetics books yet, much to my shame, since they’re beautiful parts of the program, so we’ll be using a few of the earlier poetics books in his series.  I love this series, and my boys enjoy it greatly.  For my review of the first three books, here are posts one, two, and three on the topic.

For reading, he’s trying a course by Online G3:  Literary Lessons of Lord of the Rings.  My older’s not a huge fiction fan, but I do have his buy-in for this online course with Jamie Linehan Smith aimed at gifted kids.  I’ve heard fantastic reviews from families whose children who have participated in G3 courses and am excited to have my older participate.

Latin:  After three years of kinda-sorta-but-not-so-much-lately studying Latin, I’m turning this subject over to a qualified Latin teacher.  My older will take Latin 100 through Lone Pine Classical School, an online course that, again, has received great reviews from trusted families.  Finally my older will be in the hands of someone who actually knows the language.  Wild, huh?

Others:  Piano study continues, with an hour of practice a day expected and weekly lessons.  Karate (Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art) also continues, with classes at least twice a week.  We’re all progressing toward our black belts, so the intensity of this work steadily increases.

I’d yet to write this plan out, and I’m finding that it appears quite rigorous.  Appropriate but rigorous.  As he ages, I’m looking for more time of instruction from other voices, somewhat because he needs to learn from those with expertise beyond what I have in some areas and somewhat so he can learn to follow the schedule of someone other than me (Read: someone who won’t cut him some slack because he didn’t sleep well for a few nights or because the moon is full.  He hasn’t used the latter as an excuse.  Yet.) My next post will be shorter, as my younger’s course of study is more flexible and, as of this writing, less predetermined.  Stay tuned, and do share what you’re planning for fall.

 

Review: Michael C. Thompson Language Arts (Vocabulary and Composition)

This is the third in a series of reviews on the first three levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts series published by Royal Fireworks Press.  The first review is an overview of the elementary program, and the second focuses on the grammar and poetics books.  In this portion, I’ll discuss the vocabulary and composition volumes.

Building Language, the first of the MCT vocabulary books, gently introduces the learner to the Latin roots of English using the extended metaphor of an arch, with Latin stems standing in for blocks of the arch.  Ancient Roman history suffuses the three levels, starting with the architecture reference in Building Language and, in the next two books,  stretching to selections from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries  on the Galllic Wars and the works of Shakespeare.   The first level formally introduces just 10 stems, with another handful informally added along the way.  Each stem takes on a voice suiting it’s meaning, and the stems converse in their roles as the book progresses.  Words containing the stems, some familiar and some more advanced, increase vocabulary while advancing the main idea:  parts of words mean something, making many words decodable if you know the parts.

The next two levels, Caesar’s English I and II, each twenty chapters long, increase the intensity, introducing either five new words or five new stems in each chapter.  The vocabulary far outpaces typical late elementary (and often middle school) fare.  Discussion of the stems and words includes numerous references to classic works of literature, many that require some discussion for fuller understanding.  Again, these books are meant to be taught and discussed, not independently absorbed.  In our home, my older son and I spend a session reading the chapter, discussing the words and stems, completing the analogies, and reading any additional information in the lesson.  He’s responsible for studying the week’s new material and all previous material before the end of the week, when I quiz him orally.  Quizzes and answers to all analogies in the text are found at the back of the teacher’s edition of the book (which is the only version we buy), and all quizzes are cumulative.  I encourage him to judiciously use new vocabulary words in his writing, and he’s quick to point out their presence in his reading.  Thompson chose words for this series with care, focusing on the vocabulary of the classics.  And his research is spot on.  My older son mentions when he finds these words in his readings,and that’s quite satisfying to both of us.

Grammar finds its way into the vocabulary books as well, and noun, adjective, verb, and adverb forms of new vocabulary words are illustrated in each chapter of  Caesar’s English I and II.  In each of the twenty chapters, a sentence for four-level analysis zeroes in on one of the words, continuing grammar practice and stretching vocabulary further.  These books bear no resemblance to my childhood vocabulary workbooks and rival the other root-based  programs we’ve used in previous years.  These books put vocabulary into the context of literature and composition, stressing proper usage as well as highlighting unusual ways literary masters have used these words.  Thompson gives vocabulary a seat of honor at the language table, a seat it justly deserves.

In the teacher’s edition of Sentence Island is an assignment to discuss these quotes:  “The adverb is not your friend” (Stephen King) and   “If you see and adjective, kill it.” (Mark Twain).  What a departure from my early writing education, where  we were encouraged  to add adjectives and adverbs to adorn our writing.  Several well-known homeschooling writing curricula rely on these parts of speech to improve writing, but books by authors for aspiring authors state contrary advice:  use precise nouns and strong verbs, which trumps stack of adjectives and adverbs.  Thompson’s emphasis on word choice begins from the start of his writing volumes, supported by a rigorous vocabulary program.  Use a precise verb or noun, and create a stronger sentence.  Once in  (Catholic) high school English courses, I learned proper  grammar and a strong thesis form the underpinnings to competent writing rather than superfluous modifiers, but Thompson’s approach encourages precise language and much more from book one, decreasing the skills to “unlearn” later.

Aside from a few forays in the first two books, Sentence Island and Paragraph Town, formal writing is the focus.  These are not the books to learn to write short stories, nor do they encourage journaling.  By the second book, the emphasis stays with formal writing techniques, which Thompson points out, are the types of writing needed for high school, college, and the work world.  And I agree with this bent, but if I had children inclined to story composition, I might want to add to the MCT materials to foster the skills of character development, plot development, dialogue,  and the like.  I don’t have burgeoning fiction-writing fans, however, so these materials help me meet my goals of raising  proficient writers.  (His poetry series gives writers a chance to try various poetic techniques, and his contributions to the Self-Evident Truths series bring these techniques to famous speeches.)

Essay Voyage, the third book, employs a structure of scaffolding skills.  In ten chapters, structure, unity, formality, wordiness, and more receive treatment, gradually building a foundation for all academic writing.  Historical essays are analyzed with attention to the focus of the particular chapter.  No five-paragraph essay rules here.  Instead, the guidelines support the shortest essay to much longer works.  After an undergraduate English major focused on technical writing, I’ve learned much from this book and believe my writing has improved because of it.  While aimed toward the late elementary-aged child, this book could inform many a mature writer in high school, college, and beyond.  I’m eager to explore the next level, Advanced Academic Writing I, with my older son come Fall.  I’m sure we’ll both benefit from that volume and the rest of the series.  Thank you, Michael Clay Thompson and Royal Fireworks Press for exemplary language arts materials that delight and inform.  What more could one want in this domain?

Note:  I’ve received no financial or material compensation for these reviews from the publisher, Royal Fireworks Press, or any other company.  All opinions expressed are my own.