Monday, May 30, 2011

Can you recycle brown play-do?

I bought new play-do today, since our entire stash seemed to be either brown or hard as a rock. No matter how many times I tell them to not mix the colors and to make sure the lids are on tight when they're done, no one listens to me. I give just one color to each child, but this is the one time they are glad to share, and immediately start making multi-color creations - and them smushing them together so that they are impossible to separate again. Why does every combination turn out brown so quickly? Why do they even bother selling brown play-do to begin with?

And when it's clean-up time, they're always in too much of a hurry to make sure those lids are on tight, not to mention that half of the play-do is already on the floor. I inevitably end up picking it up myself, putting the lids on, and then vacuuming up whatever is left.

So why did I buy more? Why do I keep giving it to them?

Peace and quiet.

For a good long time.

Yes, it's worth it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Now or Later? (Warning: graphic descriptions :-)

I was just thinking about writing a post talking about how much less frequently my kids have gotten sick now that I've taken them out of preschool and school, but then -- my youngest got sick. Oh well, we did have a good run of healthiness, longer than most. Ryan is almost well again too, though not yet completely up to par. He caught some sort of stomach bug, resulting in messiness coming out both ends for a little while, plus a mild fever. I'm pretty sure he got it when we went to a water park on Monday, since he came down with it on Thursday. Or it could have been from the grocery cart he rode in on Wednesday.

Or it could have just been spite, since we had planned a long overdue kid-free dinner night out on Friday, courtesy of the grandparents/babysitters. At least we still were able to send the girls over to spend the night at Grandma's house, which made things much quieter, and we got take-out for dinner.

But back to what I had planned to write about:  it really is true that kids get sick more often when you have them in preschool. I used to think that wasn't a bad thing, since it does build up their immunity faster. They're either going to get sick now or later, and if they get sick more as preschoolers, they won't get as sick when they're older, and end up missing school and other things more critical than preschool.

But now missing school is a moot point. Now I've decided I'd rather they get sick later, when their aim is better and they are capable of making it to the bathroom before spewing on the floor. When they're older, they can tell you what's wrong and what hurts, and not just cry endlessly, giving you that betrayed look that says, "Why do I feel this way?" and "Why can't you make it all better?"

Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers with a stomach bug are no fun at all. Not to say that school-age children with a stomach bug are wonderful, but -- I'm tired of cleaning up floors, booster seats, clothes, toys, beds, etc.

Better later than now.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


I have been having the hardest time choosing an English curriculum, mostly because there are so many good choices. Plus, there are quite a few components of English, and while you can get an all-encompassing English course, you can also pick and choose your components from several sources. Phonics and learning to read is the most important part for the first couple of years, but then there's spelling, grammar, handwriting, writing/composition, literature, literary analysis as you get into later years, and so on.

My favorites, at the moment, are all from Amish or Mennonite publishers:  Rod & Staff (R&S), Christian Light Education (CLE, or sometimes, CLP - Christian Light Publications, but not to be confused with Christian Liberty Press), and the Pathway Readers/Climbing to Good English combo (CtGE). Pathway Readers are published by Pathway Publishers and CtGE is published by SchoolAid, but they are made to go together. (Note that the links to R&S and Pathway/CtGE aren't the publishers' official sites, but just resellers, of which there are several.)

These 3 choices are all quite similar in scope and coverage, though they approach things a little differently. I have been going back and forth, back and forth, trying to decide which I like best, and which will work best with other things I've chosen (like Sonlight, which includes a large amount of reading and literature - or really any history course I choose, since I know I want a literature-based history).

I got a few workbooks from Evan-Moor for 1st grade a while back, before I really went into depth in my curriculum search: Building Spelling Skills, Grammar & Punctuation, and Daily 6-Trait Writing. These look like good workbooks, with just short 10-15 minute lessons a day, for 25 to 30 weeks. The grammar is really more of a supplement, though, for specific topics, and is not really considered a full English grammar course. These workbooks do go up to 6th grade, but I don't think I'll use them after this coming year. But since I already had grammar, writing, and spelling workbooks, and since I have been using Explode the Code (ETC) Online for phonics, I was originally just looking for a reading comprehension component.

So I bought both the CLE Grade 1 Reader (I Wonder) and LightUnits and the Pathway Grade 1 Readers and workbooks to check them out (they are fairly cheap). I do like them both, but the CLE reading seems to be more integrated with phonics, and I didn't want to introduce 2 different methods of phonics at the same time. My daughter has now completed book 2 of ETC, but has gotten tired of it, and I think will do better with a workbook format rather than online (I'll post more about that another day). So I was still stuck between choosing CLE and Pathway for reading. I didn't like the Bible-only focus of R&S reading, but I did like their English, and it would be nice to have a combined, correlated program. So hard to choose!

So I continued studying the choices, and here's what I've found:

R&S uses reusable textbooks mostly, which is nice when I have 3 kids that will be using them. They are pretty cheap - especially the additional worksheets and test booklets which would be all I'd need to buy for child #2 and #3. R&S has a reputation of having the most complete and advanced grammar curriculum, though some people say it requires too much drill and repetition. I tend to like "rigorous" programs, since I tend to want my kids to learn everything there is to learn. However, I'm learning patience as I gradually accept that my 5-year-old may not be ready for everything I want her to learn yet! I'm too ready to teach her everything as quick as I can! R&S has a phonics program for 1st and 2nd grade, a reading program for 1st-4th based solely on Bible readings (more literature in 5th-8th), handwriting for 1st-4th, spelling for 2nd-8th, and English/grammar for 2nd-10th grade which includes quite a bit of writing too. In fact, 9th-10th grade English is pretty much all writing, with a little grammar thrown in. Grades 2 and 3 are pretty basic grammar courses, but from 4th grade on, R&S is said to be advanced for the grade level, with the course work going through things that some people don't learn until college. I like the grammar books, but many people say that it does take a good amount of "teacher" time, and many people do at least half of the questions orally instead of having the student write down the answers, to prevent burnout (and student rebellion!). I am concerned that this would take quite a bit of my day, to do 3 grade levels of this at a time.

CLE is similarly complete and advanced, though its Language Arts (LA) and Reading courses just go from 1st-8th grade. 1st grade is a continuation of the Learning to Read (phonics) program, with lots of phonics in the LA material. The Learning to Read material is meant for 1st grade, but it could probably be used starting in kindergarten (same as with R&S learning to read material). CLE uses workbooks instead of textbooks, with 10 LightUnits for each grade level per course (though 1st grade just has 5 - learning to read takes the first half of the year, and then splits into 5 LightUnits of reading and 5 LightUnits of LA). The reading courses have hardcover readers, and then the LightUnits to go along with the texts, offering comprehension questions and some phonics. The LA course includes grammar, spelling, and handwriting in its LightUnits, though many people say they still need to supplement the spelling and handwriting. Composition isn't included as much in CLE as it is in R&S - a separate writing textbook for the teacher is recommended starting in 3rd or 4th grade. I think my kids would like to have workbooks instead of textbooks, but it does make it a bit more expensive for multiple kids. CLE is meant to be more independent, making it easier for teachers with multiple grades to teach. But I really want more integrated writing, and the cost is a big negative compared to the other 2 choices.

Pathway is a reading comprehension program for 1st-8th grade, with multiple readers and workbooks to go along with them. I like their readers - wholesome, interesting stories that I think will intrigue my children, living as we do out in the country with cows and horses and chickens all around. Pathway also has a learning to read program (Learning Through Sounds), with multiple workbooks and a pre-primer for before the main 1st grade readers. CtGE is written to go along with Pathway, providing grammar and (lots of) writing instruction in a workbook format. This grammar is also said to be advanced from 3rd grade and up, extending up to 12th grade level concepts, even though the workbooks only go through 8th grade. It is also very cheap, even when buying multiple workbooks for multiple students! I have been liking CtGE more and more, though I was still concerned that it wasn't as rigorous as R&S. Someone on a forum made a comment, though, which has swayed me toward CtGE: CtGE is just like R&S, but already "tweaked." Many people love R&S, but most of them tweak it to be doable for their kids, such as doing the questions orally instead of written, or just doing half of them, etc. CtGE is more independent and workbook format, like CLE, but covers more writing, like R&S.

So here's my current plan. I am starting to use book 2 of the Pathway Learning Through Sounds program with my daughter now, combining that with CtGE grade 1 as we move into the Pathway readers (I'll write another day about integrating CtGE with Pathway). I still want to make use of what I've already bought, though I don't want to overload my daughter. So I will use the Evan-Moor grammar workbook when the topic corresponds to what we're doing in CtGE. I will also use the Evan-Moor spelling and writing workbooks, unless they start to be too much. They seem useful, and short. We still have a few months left of our ETC Online subscription, so we'll use that when she's interested, with me doing it with her. I also have a subscription to ClickNRead online phonics (got that for my other daughter), which we may use sometime. If we complete the Pathway/CtGE grade 1 stuff early, since we're continuing through the summer, I will then do the CLE grade 1 reading material with her which I already bought. Then we'll continue with CtGE through 8th grade, adding in R&S spelling, and maybe, just maybe, R&S phonics for grade 2. I really like R&S spelling, since it is phonics based, and continues with Latin and Greek roots in later grades. Sonlight suggests Sequential Spelling, which I seriously considered, but I like the rules-based R&S method better. We may continue with the Pathway readers through 3rd grade (the same story characters are in the readers through 3rd grade), but will switch over to Sonlight reading mostly. For 9th grade+, we will focus on writing more than grammar. If Sonlight doesn't have enough, we will consider R&S 9th-10th grade English, the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) material, and other things, depending on her interests.

For my younger children, I will start them with Pathway's Learning Through Sounds program sometime around 5 years old. Before that, we'll be using the Study Time and R&S preschool workbooks (4 workbooks for 3-4 year olds, 9+ workbooks for 4-5 year olds). We will then use the Pathway readers and workbooks and CtGE, with R&S spelling in 2nd-8th. I will have the CLE I Wonder reader available, but we won't add the LightUnits. I may or may not print out more of the Evan-Moor workbook pages, if they're relevant (I got eBooks, so they're easily reproducible). If they complete the Learning Through Sounds phonics before 1st grade, I may add R&S phonics for 1st and 2nd grades, since I just like the looks of them. They probably won't need it, really, but if it's fun for them too, why not? I don't want to wait until 1st grade to start phonics and reading, but most of the Amish/Mennonite material seems to do that, since they don't have kindergarten. Learning Through Sounds is more gentle, so we'll do that first, then add R&S phonics for review if we want. Then, I will continue in later grades the same as with my oldest daughter.

My thoughts and ideas will probably change as we actually use all this stuff, and I'll write about any new impressions then, but for now, that's the plan!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Changing the Schedule

I think I'm going to change our schedule.

We don't have school for a full day anyway, since we're only doing kindergarten right now, and I'm only really teaching 1 child. I give the two little ones a few worksheets here and there, and do some flashcards and alphabet rhymes, but that usually happens in between other things. So we have plenty of time to spread things out. I've been trying to do everything in the morning, since our school room is upstairs, right next to the toddler's room, and when he takes his nap in the afternoon, I don't want any of us to be up there making noise.

But today, as we were trying to do math, which was our first subject today, my 5-year-old was not being very attentive at all, her mind was wandering, and it was taking forever to get through the lesson. I started to scold her, but realized how noisy the 2 little ones were being, banging toy cars on the desks, laughing and talking, getting into everything. I had to keep telling them to quiet down, and that kept distracting me. So I couldn't blame my oldest for having a short attention span. I started thinking how much more effective and efficient our math lessons would be if they happened during nap time. The middle child (who has never napped) could entertain herself quietly enough while the youngest slept. None of my children are problems at all when they're by themselves. Then my oldest and I could work on her math downstairs in the play room or bedroom, in peace and quiet.

So I think we're going to start doing just history, science, art/music, and Bible in the mornings, which are read-aloud and/or hands-on subjects that the little ones can participate in much of the time. Then we'll take a mid-morning break, for snack time and/or play time outside, before the temperature gets too hot (it's been summer for a while down here in the Houston area). Maybe I'll even exercise then, and incorporate gym class time. I'm thinking I'll even take one day a week to insert our grocery store run in the morning, instead of trying to do it on Saturday. (Walmart is great on weekday mornings, but not so great on weekends.)

After lunch, I'll put the littlest one in his room for nap time, get out some worksheets or coloring books for the middle child, and then do math with my oldest. There's a desk in the play room already, so I'll just bring down our math stuff for the lesson. We'll also do handwriting, phonics and English-type stuff then, which is mostly worksheets and could be largely independent if she's focused and not distracted by the little ones. If I tell her she can play again as soon as she finishes her work, she might even be more motivated to not dawdle.

I will miss having the afternoons totally free from school, where I tell the girls it is quiet time or send them outside, and get some time just for me to do some work. But then again, I'm constantly having to get up and re-tell them to be quiet, so maybe doing some school work will actually make things even quieter for nap time, and maybe it will make our school hours shorter, and more efficient.

So, that will be our schedule. For a while. Until the littlest one stops taking naps.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pros and Cons of Having Kids Close Together in Age

My children are all within 3 years and 3 1/2 months of age: the first two (both girls) are 2 years and 3 1/2 months apart, and the last two are 1 year and 2 days apart. I admit I was shocked when I found out I was pregnant with child #3. I wasn't upset about having another child - I just really didn't want to be miserable and pregnant again! But that's another story.

Now, I call my youngest two children my "almost twins." Right now, at ages 3 1/2 and 2 1/2, they are almost the same height and weight. My middle child, even at just 1 year old, loved her baby brother from the start, and is very nurturing and mothering. Most of the time. My son, the youngest, would follow his biggest sister around anywhere. All three of them love playing together, and one of the most immediate benefits to home schooling was the increase in closeness between all 3 of them. The few times I've let my girls go spend the night at grandma's house, my son wanders around the house looking for his sisters. Not to say that he doesn't quickly recover and enjoy playing with all the toys by himself.

Which brings me to one of the cons - sharing toys. They are all so close together in age that they all like playing with the same type of toys. If they were further apart, I would imagine that the oldest one wouldn't still be so interested in the "baby" toys that her younger siblings receive as presents. As it is, whenever we get something new for any of them, they all want to play with it exclusively. When I enforce the rules, saying that the birthday boy or girl gets to play with it first, then the others sit there pouting and glaring. When I let the older one have it for a short while during the littlest's naptime, she tends to hide it when I'm not looking and it takes forever to get it back from her. I still sometimes find old infant and toddler toys in my girls' room from time to time. They like role-playing and alternating being the mommy.

I once thought that, to solve the fighting over toys business, I would just buy 3 of the same thing. 3 Hot Wheels cars, for example. No good. It works for a few minutes, but then they all decide that they want to have a matched set, and need all three of the toys in their own little hands. Sigh.

But usually, after a toy looses its "newness," they share pretty well. My middle child is so compassionate and obedient, she tends to give either sibling whatever they ask for, even if it is her own new present! She's outgrowing that some, but still tends to give things away a lot. So does my son, actually, when he's in a good mood. Not when he's not. My oldest - well, she's gradually learning that giving her siblings a toy makes them happy, and that, in turn, makes her happy. She's actually becoming quite good at getting her little brother to stop crying by giving him a toy (he's in the terrible twos stage right now - lots of little temper tantrums!).

For the most part, I love having my kids so close together in age. It makes things simpler in many ways - sharing things, being close to the same stages, and hopefully being able to teach them together for many subjects in the future. The first year of my middle child's life was hard, because I felt miserable during my next pregnancy, and the first year of my third child's life was hard, since I had a toddler and an infant at the same time. (Grocery carts are not designed well to carry/contain a 3-yr-old, a 1-yr-old, and a newborn!) But we're beyond that stage now, and even though grocery store trips are still logistically difficult, everything else is getting much easier.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Math Again

When I last wrote about math (on March 19th), I said that choosing this curriculum was the easiest for me, and I didn't even have to look around very much - Saxon just seemed like the best fit right away.

Well, I started looking around some more, just for fun, and now I'm rethinking my choice. Sigh. But it's probably for the best, since more knowledge about choices can only lead to the better choice, right?

Now, we're doing fine with Saxon 1 right now (on lesson 34), and I think the manipulatives are really good for my daughter. She enjoys all the different activities Saxon has us do, and seems to be learning some. A lot of it is still too simple for her, though, so I'm skipping through parts more often. The teacher's guide says to have her count from 1 to 100 every day, for example, and I think that's a bit overkill. She's been able to count to 100 since preschool, and she and I both get bored listening to the repetition every day. But she still asks to do math, if we're having a shortened day. She'd gladly skip handwriting, but she wants to do math every day.

But I started reading some reviews that talked about Saxon not teaching enough of the understanding behind math, and about it being geared more toward passing tests, and not understanding. I read that it will get your student quite far for high school, and is good for applied math, but it's not quite rigorous enough for someone who plans to enter a scientific field in college that needs theoretical math. Then I read a research paper, actually, not related to homeschooling, that studied mastery learning vs spiral learning in math, and found that mastery learning produced students who were far more knowledgeable about math, and comprehended the underlying truths much better. I know that I do better with a mastery approach, not leaving any details "to be learned later," and having to see the big picture before I can understand all the details.

Saxon is definitely not mastery. Its incremental approach is spiral learning to the extreme. I know people say that whether to use spiral or mastery depends on your student - some like one better than the other, or learn best one way. I'm all for utilizing your student's learning preferences to help teach things best, but I don't agree that all students will be universally happy with all subjects if you just find the right approach. Sometimes they just have to learn things they don't like, and sometimes they just have to work harder in order to learn something the right way. Spiral may be good in some subjects, and reviews and drills are good even in a mastery math program, but I'm leaning toward thinking mastery is best for math.

So I think I'm going to switch. I still plan to use Saxon K (for preschool) and 1 (for kindergarten), and I like all the manipulatives that we're using. In fact, my 2- and 3-year-olds love to play with the manipulatives we're not using during my 5-year-old's math class. I'm not sure yet if I'll use Saxon 2 or not, though I did already buy it.... The other math curriculums I like don't start until 1st grade, so I have no problem using Saxon for kindergarten still (since I already have the teacher's manual).

I liked Christian Light Education's math at first, with their workbook approach, but it is spiral too. I also read good things about Rod & Staff's math, which is mastery. But from the samples, it seems to be too classroom-focused, and requires more charts and/or displays which I don't really want to pay for or make. I had been looking at CLE and R&S for English curricula, which I'll talk about later, but I've decided to pass on their math choices.

What I think I will use for 1-6th grades is Math Mammoth, the Light Blue Series ( This curriculum is mastery based, rigorous, colorful (if you print it out in color), workbook format (electronic, actually, though you can buy it printed out too), and cheap. All good things for us, I believe. I plan to buy the whole set (it's cheaper that way), and can print out whatever pages I need for all 3 kids. I believe it's even going to be on sale later this month. It can apparently be quite independent starting even in 2nd grade (or 1st, for good readers?), though others say that the parent still needs to teach it. It probably depends on the child.

As for later grades, the author highly recommends getting a regular textbook, and has lots of recommendations on her website for what to use. In fact, the way I first came across her website was by looking for recommendations for upper level math textbooks. After deciding to look at things other than Saxon, I came to the conclusion that textbooks used in public schools and even in colleges were the way to go for algebra and higher. Saxon calculus doesn't cover much of what's needed for math-heavy college majors, and I found several recommendations to just go ahead and get a college-level calculus text and go through it slower. Several places offer "video teachers" for these levels, on DVDs, though not all are universally acclaimed. I may end up just teaching them myself, as needed, since the DVDs can get rather expensive. I realize that most homeschool parents don't have the extensive math background that I do, however, so that's probably not an option for most. But anyway, since I liked the Math Mammoth author's advice so much for the later grades, I decided I would probably like to use her 1-6th grade material as well.

For more motivation to teach math, I found this article today:  How the U.S. lags in math, science eduation, and how it can catch up

Here's a few links that might be useful for upper levels:

video aids:
Chalk Dust - very good reviews, a little pricey
Math Without Borders - companion videos for Foerster textbooks
Ask Dr. Callahan - DVDs don't have wonderful reviews, but might be ok; uses some of the texts listed below
Teaching Textbooks have a really nice format, very independent, but they are not as rigorous as I'd like and are probably at least a grade level behind - may be good for a student not going into a science or technical field, or for earlier years before switching to a regular textbook

recommended textbooks:
Also, see this part of the Math Mammoth author's website for tons of useful information. My suggestions are really just a subset of hers.

Foerster's Algebra and Trigonometry: Functions and Applications (Prentice Hall Classics)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Handwriting Desk Strip

Teaching my five-year-old to write legibly is a bit of a struggle. She is getting better, but she's not enjoying the process too much. It is difficult for her, and so she doesn't like doing it. She doesn't like doing things unless she's good at doing them, which is a bit of a catch-22 in terms of learning something new.

We are using A Reason for Handwriting, Book A, right now. It is meant for 1st grade, but we are going slowly. We started with the practice sheets, which reviews single letter formation and is basically at a "2nd half of kindergarten" level, which was perfect for us to start this past January. We just finished the practice sheets last week, as we were only doing 2 lessons a week. This week, we started the real lessons, and I think she's liking them a bit better. She is doing better, so that might be the reason too. (It might also help that I've realized I have to teach her how to form the letters, and not just hand her a worksheet to practice and think that she already knows or can figure out how to form the letter the best way.) The real lessons have half a page of writing a day, with 2 or 3 words to practice. These words are all from a weekly Bible verse. The entire verse is traced on day 4, and on day 5, the student writes the entire verse on a decorative sheet of paper, which they can then color and give to someone after they're done. I'm hoping that will be a good incentive for her to do well, since she likes the idea of giving her grandparents or someone from church a fancy, decorated sheet.

Anyway, I have been thinking that it might be a good idea to stick a alphabet sampler on her desk, so she has a reference to look at when she's writing things for her other classes. We have letter posters hanging around the school room, but they are a bit high and far away for her to gaze at when she's writing on her desk. I saw some self-adhesive alphabet desk strips for sale on the Christian Light Publications website, in their elementary electives - penmanship section. They seemed like what I was looking for, and you could buy them individually, instead of in the packs of 36 which is the only option I see on Amazon. But I don't want to pay nearly $5 in shipping costs to buy a $1.75 alphabet strip, and I'm not ready to buy anything else from CLP at the moment (I wish I had ordered them when I ordered their 1st grade reader a while back!). I searched around and found a few other sources for similar desk strips, but they all either came in multi-packs or would require too much in shipping to make it worthwhile.

So I made my own.

I made and printed out some blank pages with handwriting guide lines, and then wrote my own alphabet on them, trying to make them in the same style as the Reason for Handwriting books. I couldn't find any fonts on my computer that were similar enough. My attempt isn't perfect, but it's good enough for our purposes. My cursive samples in particular may not be exactly the same as the Reason for Handwriting ones - it's hard to write in cursive differently than you learned how! I then cut out the strips and taped them together on her desk. I just put the manuscript version on her desk for now, and then when we start cursive in 2nd grade, I'll put out the cursive version. I turned my desk strips into a pdf file, which I am making available for free here, in case anyone else wants to print out their own alphabet strips. I suggest using a paper cutter to get the lines straight, and I also suggest using just a small piece of clear tape to get the placement of the strips on your desk correct before taping over it all with wide, clear package tape.

Here's a picture of the final result on Rebekah's desk. It may not be perfectly straight, and my tape got twisted a little bit, and then I ran out of package tape and had to revert to plain, narrow Scotch tape. But you get the general idea. You can rearrange the strips to be long and narrow, or short and wide, depending on the size of your desk. You can cut and paste the letters into whatever size strips works best for you.

Here's the link to the pdf file: