Thursday, September 5, 2013

Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar Island and Practice Island Curriculum Review

Grammar Island is not your everyday grammar program.  It is quite unusual and can be hard to get a handle on what exactly it is.  However, I would encourage you to “figure it out” because it is quite worth the effort. 

Grammar Island has a number of “cons” depending on your perspective.  These “cons” could just as easily switch to one’s “pro” column if it suits your style of learning/teaching.  Grammar Island is not a text book.  It does not contain numerous exercises to drill and practice a new concept.  It does not come with “lesson plans” nor recommended daily assignments.  If these are requirements for you, then you had best run the other way towards a more traditional program.

So what is it?  It is a storybook format which discusses grammar under four main subject areas. (Note:  “discusses” is a deliberate word choice.  Grammar Island does NOT drill.)  It explains to the reader the Eight Parts of Speech (noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and interjection). It does this in an easy to read manner.  Next the book discusses the Parts of a Sentence covering: subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object and subject complement.  The third section of the book discusses Phrases, but limits itself to only prepositional phrases.  The final section discusses Clauses covering compound sentences, independent and dependent clauses.  That’s it.

You are probably saying, “Excuse me, but I thought you said this program was worth the effort?”  Or you might be saying something in a bit more colorful language which conveys dismay and bewilderment.  Hang in there! 

Even after purchasing the program and using it, I was wondering when exactly would my third grade son actually “learn” something.  We read it.  We talked about it.  He couldn’t spot a preposition, let alone even recall the word “preposition” if his life depended on it.  Uh, when is this supposed to work?  “Patience, Grasshopper.”

So here is the crux of Thompson’s program: Four Level Analysis. The Practice Island books were designed especially for this.  Write a sentence across the top of a page in landscape format.  On the first line below the sentence, label the parts of speech for each word in the sentence.  Second line yields the second level of analysis which is the parts of a sentence (subject, action or linking verb, direct object etc.).  Third line is reserved for labeling prepositional phrases.  Fourth line is where you would label clauses and the type of sentence (simple declarative sentence, compound interrogative sentence, etc.).  This is when the child actually begins internalizing what they have read.  Real learning!  Time to get giddy! It is Thompson's own version of sentence diagramming that doesn't involve drawing all of those lines with a ruler which then slant off in every direction. A real “plus” in my opinion.  But then again, I put sentence diagraming in the same fun-filled category as root canal.

So if you plan on just purchasing the Grammar Island text and teacher’s manual for $30 and $35, respectively and skipping the Practice Island workbooks, you are about to make a gigantic mistake. 

The Practice Island workbooks are essential to the efficacy of this program. They are also very inexpensive.  Both the child’s copy and teacher’s copy are $10 each.  There are 100 carefully constructed sentences to which the child to applies the Four Level Analysis.  The teacher’s manual thankfully contains the answers.  If you are not a grammar guru, then this is not only greatly appreciated, but essential.  There are also explanations as to why certain words are a specific part of speech.  For example, it might explain why “blue” is not an adjective in a given sentence because it is being modified by adjectives and is being used as a noun, referring to the name of a color.  Numerous subjects not covered in Grammar Island will be reviewed in the Practice Island teacher’s guide, such as:  the difference between coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions; the proper punctuation for joining two independent clauses with and without a conjunction; and the key to using subject pronouns and object pronouns.

Each child is different, so when they “catch on” will vary. When my child was working on Sentences 1-25, I was wondering if this program was a wise decision or not.  It felt like I was walking him through each step, word by word.  Around the mid-point of Practice Island, I could see the progress he was making.  By the time we got to Sentence 75, I knew we would be purchasing the Grammar Town and Practice Town program for next year.  I was now a believer and could see just how effective it was.

For those of you who cannot afford to purchase all four books, fear not.  Obviously having a complete set of both student and teacher texts is preferred, however you can purchase the teacher’s manual of Grammar Island and skip the student’s copy.  It is easy enough to cover any “answers” that you don’t want the child to see before they have contemplated things with either your hand or a piece of paper.  If the $10 for the student’s Practice Island workbook won’t fit into your budget, you can always write the sentences onto paper or a white board for your child to then conduct his analysis.  However, it is WAY easier if the child has his own workbook.  As you make notes about the nuances of certain completed sentences, you may find yourself flipping back to discuss the similarities or differences among certain sentences.  It clearly would be helpful for the child to be able to review his work for this type of scenario.

Overall, I would highly recommend this program.  It is certainly unusual in format, but for our family that was a huge perk.  It did not elicit the kind of dread a more traditional program would have done. My son just walked by the computer and saw me typing this.  His comment about the Grammar Island/Practice Island program was, "It is 100% great."  I don't believe their could be a higher compliment coming from a 9 year old boy who normally is allergic to all things involving a pencil.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review of Curriculum Reviews

Once again it is that time of year when homeschooling parents begin to contemplate curricula choices for next year. What shall I use? Will it be a good fit for my child? After using said curricula, will my child be a genius who will now naturally be able to know the meaning of life and the nature of the universe as it unfolds around him?  No pressure.  Clearly only reasonable expectations for the affects of using a curriculum, right?  NOT!

Obviously a parent cannot know everything there is to know about the different curricula choices unless they are happily delusional.  So we all naturally begin to turn to reviews.  They can be tremendously helpful, but only if they are written in a helpful manner.

Most homeschooling parents accept the premise that one size does not fit all.  Children are not interchangeable.  Cookie cutter education will not necessarily be the best thing for their child.  Hence the seductive beauty of homeschooling.  We can hand-tailor our instruction to the unique needs of each child.  We have the blessing of one-on-one instruction (at times when the other children are not demanding attention and creating "Calgon Take Me Away" Moments).  As parents we have the ability, privilege and obligation of searching for what will suit our individual child's needs best.

So to all those out there writing reviews, please remember to give detailed PROS and CONS.  To say that a particular program is "good," "great" or even "the best" is distinctly not helpful.  What about it is "good"?  What SPECIFICALLY makes it a "the best."  Why is the program "terrible"?

Explicit information detailing why something was successful or a veritable disaster for your family can be tremendously helpful to the next family. I have gleaned more useful information from negative reviews of curriculum than from the positive ones.  Negative review people tend to rant about what specifically they did not like.  This is the kind of information that may reveal whether or not the product is the perfect fit for your child.

My most successful purchases have resulted from seeking out negative reviews of a product so that I can actually get a feel for whether or not it will "work" for our family.  Beginning the process of sorting through the myriad of curricula options tends to make one feel trepidation or perhaps even hysteria.  So, I beg those writing reviews, please be detailed in your praises and complaints.  Give us the information that we will need to make informed decisions for our families.  But if all else fails and we purchase a program that is an "unmitigated disaster," then one of the ultimate gifts of homeschooling kicks in.  We have the freedom to throw it away and try something new.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Curriculum Review: Times Tales

Rote memorization is not fun for anyone.  Many children despise it.  Some hate it and others are just no good at it.  So what have generations of despairing teachers and parents done?  Turn to mnemonic devices.  Little trick images or phrases to help students remember the unmemorable.

I cannot read music and have no musical talent whatsoever.  I can actually have several preschool parents attest to having witnessed my inexplicable inability to clap to the beat of the easiest of preschooler tunes.  (Pathetic and sad yes, but hopefully I have gifts in other areas.  I would not however, suggest, you ask me to sing either.)  I can however tell you the notes on a scale (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and FACE) thanks to Mrs. Miller, my second grade teacher.  She employed the ever popular mnemonic device.

The beauty, simplicity and ease of a mnemonic device is clear.  So why on Earth has it taken so long for someone to come up with the ingenious idea of appling mnemonics to the multiplication tables?  Thank goodness Jennie Von Eggers did!  We are ever so grateful that we have discovered Times Tales.

I remember (and not too fondly) having spent countless hours each evening drilling my daughter on her multiplication tables when she was in 3rd grade.  She would master one table, take the quiz at school and then move on to the next one.  Each grueling step moved us closer to our goal, mastery through the nines.  When we finally got there, we discovered that she was losing the early tables which she had learned due to lack of practice.  Grr!  More drilling!

So alas, I was not looking forward to beginning the same drudgery with my son now that it is time for him to learn his multiplication tables.  I knew that this was going to be excruciating for him, since rote memorization is just about the worst task I could ask of him given the way he learns and processes information.  Oh joy, were we in for a treat then! 

We were working on the 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s.  We had been drilling these almost daily for months, to no avail.  He could get the correct answers by calculating them.  He did not have them memorized.  So we kept on drilling.  I saw another mom post on Facebook about Times Tales and how amazing they were for her son.  Huh?  Times Tales???  What in the heck is that?

Oh, only an answer to prayers.

Times Tales has created characters that represent each number and then incorporated them into an extremely brief (2 sentence on average) “story” that illustrates the answer to the multiplication problem.  Since it was less than $20 on Amazon, I figured I might as well give it a shot.  

In less than 15 minutes and reviewing the characters and stories three to four times, my son knew the 3s and 4s times tables, COLD.  And the angels began to sing ... Quite literally, I had tears in my eyes.  We had found what worked for him.

Pros:  Times Tales has simple stories that are “catchy” for kids.  They are easy to recall.  Once the child can recall the story, the instruction manual has flash cards that contain the number characters in a multiplication equation.  After the child has mastered this, there are traditional numerical flash cards.  The program includes character number practice tests as well as numerical ones.  There are also crosswords and cube templates that you can cut out for a dice game.  
Once the child has mastered multiplication, there are two types of division flashcards.  The character-based division flashcards ask, “What is missing?”  Once the child has this part learned, then there are traditional numerical division flashcards too.

Cons:  Why, oh why, did they not create stories for all of the times tables???  Apparently the Times Tales creators felt that most kids can easily learn the 2s and 5s on their own.  While they may certainly be easier tables than others, we sure could have benefited from having stories covering the 2s and 5s.  

Since Times Tales did not have any stories for the 5s and we had a need for them, I used a computer image of a unicycle and turned it into a “5” to create a few stories for my son.

Bottom line:  This is one purchase that was worth every single penny I paid.  It worked beautifully.  My son felt such pride in being able to quickly and painlessly learn his multiplication tables.  I could not possibly give a higher endorsement of this product.  We love it!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Frightening (Non-Political) Reality about This Year’s Election

Time is ticking.  As the days until the election trickle down, I had a very disturbing realization.  This may well be my last chance to influence my eleven year old child regarding how to evaluate and consider a candidate before an election.  How can that be?  Is she moving to the other-side of the world away from us?  No, but she will have moved to the other-side of the universe by the next election.  She will be... a TEENAGER! (Insert "GASP" here.)  The window of being the most influential person in her life will be closed and barricaded.

This is a frightening reality!  

As parents, we have relished being our child's main source of information.  All learning began with us. Once we began homeschooling, it returned to us and for the time-being, will remain with us.  As parents, it is our job to instill values, morals and responsibility in our children.  We also instill knowledge and hopefully someday, some wisdom too.  When there is a question to which we don't know the answer, we as a family, find it.  [I can't imagine life before the internet!  How did one ever answer all the questions without it?  "Why can't great white sharks live in captivity?"  etc.  But I digress...]

Right now, having a tween daughter, our family is on the verge of enduring all things teenager.  But by the time of the next election, we will have moved into full scale TEENAGE GIRL REALITY.  Having been one myself, this makes me shudder!  All you women and brothers who have sisters know why too!  My poor husband who only has a brother does not know just what this will mean.  He doesn't know just how crazy and dramatic things will become...  Sometimes ignorance is sweet bliss! 

The giggly gaggle of girls isn’t so bad.  It is the inability to actually listen to what anyone other than a girlfriend says... well that’s another story entirely.

So, I had better not waste any more precious moments.  They are going to be few and far between over the next few years.  Very shortly, Mother/Daughter bonding will virtually always involve eye-rolling, exasperation on her part and some charitable condescension for her to actually spend time with her mother.  

I had better get cracking on teaching her a few more life lessons while she can still listen, and not just merely here the audible sounds of my talking like Charlie Brown’s mother.  I think I will start with another lesson on how to evaluate the different available media sources for their accuracy, agendas and/or bias. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Curriculum Review: Math-U-See

We used the math curricula Math-U-See Beta for our second grade son this past year.  The program consists of a instructor's package which contains a teacher's manual with answer key and a DVD of video taped lessons.  The student's kit contains lesson worksheets and a separate test booklet.  You can also purchase colorful manipulative interlocking blocks to accompany the program. There is also an optional Skip Count CD and lyrics booklet.

For our family, it was a very successful program, yet one we will not continue to use. So hopefully the pros and cons of the program  for us might prove helpful to some of you.  Before beginning the Math-U-See program, our son was very discouraged regarding his mathematical ability.  He consistently reversed numbers when writing his answers.  In his private school, a number "3" written backwards was "wrong." Part of the luxury of homeschooling was the freedom to say to him that if the calculation was correct, then the answer was correct, regardless if the number was written incorrectly.  The ability to separate math calculations from "handwriting reversals" freed him from the negativity of having everything "wrong."  Once that happened, his confidence blossomed and he began liking math again.

To use Math-U-See, the parent is supposed to watch the DVD video to see how to teach the concept to their child.  The teacher's manual will also contain written instructions on how to teach a concept to the student.  Children can watch the video instructions as well, if the parent so chooses.  Upon using Beta, we quickly discovered that all our son had to do was watch the video once or twice and then he was ready to do the worksheet for the new topic.  Within a week, I discovered that I had no need to ever open the teacher's manual.  The answer key was also not necessary for correcting second grade math worksheets.  The answer key would be useful later in the program as a time-saver for correcting column addition.

Each lesson contains six days of worksheets for the topic covered.  The first 3 days focus on gradually strengthening the lesson and the final 3 days contains the new topic as well as a review of previously covered lessons.  They are not overly long, normally containing between ten to fifteen problems. If this is not enough practice for the child, then there is a free worksheet generator available on the website.  If the child is quickly grasping the concept, then obviously as a homeschooler, you can stop at any point and administer the test or simply move on to the next lesson.

The manipulative blocks for Math-U-See are a strong plus for the program.   Their interlocking nature allows the child to stack them and play with them in a Lego-like fashion.  Each color represents a different number which allows for children to learn in a multi-sensory approach.  For young children, I would highly recommend purchasing the manipulative blocks if considering Math-U-See.
They also offer an expensive ($40) wooden block box to store the manipulative.  While certainly not necessary, I sprang for the box in an attempt to stay more organized.  If money is not an issue, it is a nice feature for each block to have its own "home."

Telling Time: Telling time is one concept in particular, that might prove difficult for many children.  Unfortunately, telling time is not part of the worksheet generator.   So if your child needs more reinforcement on this topic, then you will need to find your own supplemental resources.

The manipulative set includes a template for making a Math-U-See clock.  If you purchase two sets of block manipulatives, then you will have enough of the light blue "5" blocks to make a clock.   This can be useful for getting the child to understand the nature of telling time.  The good news is that if you purchase two sets of the blocks (for the telling time ability) and spring for the expensive wooden block box, you can cram both sets into the block box.  It is a tight fit, but you can make them fit.  We were convinced by a salesperson at a convention to purchase two sets of the blocks for the clock "bonus." However, I would have saved myself the cash if I got "a mulligan" and would have only purchased one set.  By the time you reach telling time (pun intended... I know, I know... INSERT "groan" here!), your child will certainly be able to grasp that adding a "1" block to a "4" block equals five or a "2" block and a "3" block also equals five.

Moving on to the test booklet.  It also contains a supplemental activity for each lesson, such as a dot-to-dot or matching activity.  We did not use these much at all, so I cannot fairly comment on their effectiveness.  But our lack of using them, may indicate a little something to you.  The tests appeared to fairly evaluate whether or not the child had grasped the lesson topic.  They also covered review materials, so you can evaluate whether or not your child is retaining previously covered topics.

We also purchased the Skip Count CD.  In the Mulligan World of "Do Overs," this is another item I would have passed on.  While some children might find this helpful, mine was irritated by the songs.  Despite being a verbal processor, he found listening to the songs to equate with punishment.  If you plan on listening to them in your vehicle, I hope your child is an only child.  The songs go from irritating to excruciating the older you are.  My daughter couldn't get far enough away from the CD player when her brother was listening (okay, okay--forced to listen to) the CD.

All and all, I would consider Math-U-See Beta to be a good, albeit, basic math program.  It converted our child from a "Math-Hater" to a child confident that he could "do" math.  We learned that he could grasp concepts and retain them quite quickly.

Our main con was that it was too basic.  There aren't challenges or bonus areas of extra rigor for kids who are getting the concept easily.  Thus,  our son became very bored by the program.  After Day 1 of a new topic, he was ready to move on to something else.  He finished the program quite quickly.

We have elected not to continue with Math-U-See because we want something more challenging.  The harder the math is, the easier it is for our son to maintain his focus. We will be using Singapore Math for him for next year.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dear God, Please Don't Let My Children be "Normal"

The impetus for this blog entry might seem bizarre to many of you.  But anyone who is familiar with my convoluted, bizarre train of thought will see that it makes perfect "sense" in my weird, conscious mind.  I was emailed prom pictures of my niece.  They took my breath away.  She was so beautiful and so grown-up.  (Sniff!)  I remember the moment sixteen years ago when I first laid my eyes on her as such a tiny newborn.  (Sniff! Where does the time go?  BIG SIGH!)  What a remarkable job she is doing of finding her way through the quagmire of becoming an adult.  Some of the other girls in the pictures, while looking pretty, were dressed inappropriately-- like little girls playing dress-up.  Sixteen year old girls look ridiculous when they are dressed as if they are costumed for Dancing with the Stars.  The pressures to fit-in and "be cool" can be oppressive.  I was so glad that my niece looked stunning while still being appropriate for her age.

Shortly thereafter, I was reading a blog entry Why are Homeschooled Kids so Annoying?  The final line of this blog really struck me.  The final remark as to why homeschooled kids are so annoying was, "Because no one tells them that the way God made them isn't cool enough."  I found that quite profound, especially when considering the peer pressures that are exerted on our children as they attempt to grow into maturity.

Do we want our children to be just like everyone else?  Or do we want them to be unique individuals?

I want my children to be as individual as their own fingerprints.  When the kids were toddlers, they wanted ice cream for every meal and Christmas everyday.  (To be honest, my son would still love to have chocolate ice cream every day, all day long.)  We used the video Elmo Saves Christmas to try and explain to the kids why something that is "special" is no longer "special" once it is daily or commonplace.

I have been telling my children for years that being "weird" is a good thing. How boring to be just like everyone else!  What a waste of God's beautiful creation to hide your unique self and become just like everyone else.  Really, do we want to be insulting the Big Guy and snubbing His hard work?

I have a little assignment for you.  Look up the word "Normal" in the thesaurus and think of the connotations of the words that you will find.  Is this your aspiration for your child?

average, commonplace, normal, typical, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, standard, unexceptional, unremarkable, usual, conventional, expected, predictable, common, customary, cut-and-dry, garden variety, everyday, familiar, plain, popular, habitual, trivial, 

Part Two of your little assignment is to look up "Quirky" in the thesaurus. Would you prefer that people use these words to describe your child?  Maybe not, but I sure would.  But most of all, I know that I would greatly prefer for my children to describe themselves with the words listed below as opposed to words of "normalcy."  I guess I have always had a bit of a rebellious streak...

eccentric, weird, individual, march to the beat of your own drum, nonconformist, unconventional, perplexing, outlandish, outstanding, outrageous, unorthodox, prominent, unique, singular, unprecedented, unparalleled

I hope that I will raise children with enough chutzpah to avoid the "group think" mentality.  In a world that increasingly demands creativity and the ability to think in order to innovate and be successful, why do we persist, as a society, to make conformists?

Why do we blindly follow others and doubt ourselves and our own convictions?  This kind of "socialization"  I can do without.  I do not want to raise lemmings.

I believe that tonight, and every night thereafter, I will be praying the following:
Dear God, Please don't let my children settle for being "Normal." Grant them the courage to be the unique individuals You created them to be.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Unexpected Revelation of Philosophy

Since I am not prone to introspection, whenever philosophical ideas or revelations come to me, they are always somewhat of a surprise.  Ideas tend to sneak up on me before they beat me over the head with whatever should have been plainly obvious.  I have the mental revelation equivalency of, "Duh!"  Then I feel like Homer Simpson, "D'OH!"

I had one of those "D'OH" revelations during Easter Brunch with the extended family this weekend.  Not when one would normally expect to learn anything new about their personal philosophy... However, when you tend to avoid soul-searching like the plague, what choice is left to fate but to surprise you?

So, while I was sitting around chatting with my nieces about Spring Break, the subject of returning to school naturally arose.  Were they dreading it?  Were they excited?  My sister-in-law mentioned that there would be only six weeks of school left, so the girls were ready to persevere since THE END was in sight. Her next comment was that there were really only three weeks of "real school" left, because then they would have "testing."  (The fact that there was no need to mention that no real schooling/learning occurs after testing is a sad topic for another blog.)

This was when my daughter chimed in, "So when are we done with school?" My spontaneous answer was, "Never!"  I said it without thought and meant it to be humorous. 

Or did I?

Freud could have fun with this... There are no accidents...  Here comes the "D'OH."

I have no intention of stopping.  We don't just "do school" for a grade level until we get to the end of 180 days (the legally required number of days of homeschooling in Georgia), do we?  How many times in school did I, or my children, for that matter ever reach the end of a textbook?  Think about it... How often did you ever complete every chapter in a history or math textbook? So should second grade officially "end" when we reach the end of the math textbook?

What about all the curricula I just bought for "next year" at the homeschool convention?  When do I start using it?  I am already in trouble if I was supposed to wait until August.  I have already implemented a number of new things that I bought.  If it is appropriate for my children and it would be useful to them, then why in the world would I wait to start it?

Man-oh-man were we meant for homeschooling!  When my daughter completed the full year of math for her grade level in February, I didn't say, "Oh good, we're done with math for the year.  Great job.  We'll start up math again in the fall."  That would have been nuts!  I noticed that she was flying through math and bought another "semester" before she needed it.  She is two units (not chapters, UNITS) into the third "semester" of math for the year.  She will likely complete this third "semester" before the month of May is out.

(Please note that I am not saying that my child is a math savant.  It just comes easily to her and for the first time, she does not have to wait for the rest of the class before she moves on to the next chapter.  She typically studies a lesson one day and then takes the test the next day.  The unit tests are cumulative so we can verify that she is retaining the math concepts.  This is one of the main reasons we thought she would thrive by leaving a traditional school. And thus far, we were right.)

Just yesterday, her little brother completed his second grade math curriculum.  I thought he would finish it this week, but he went even faster than I imagined.  He completed two chapters on Monday and took two chapter tests on Tuesday.  He wanted to do this.  He said it was easy.  Why would I hold him back?

So are we supposed to practice math facts from now on until 3rd grade starts in the fall?  Obviously not!  My response to my son was, "Yeah!  Great job! Now we can start the new books."  He was excited about starting the new books too.

(You have got to love that learning is fun.  It is not a "geek" thing anymore.  There is no peer pressure to be like everyone else when you are homeschooling.  There is no worry that it isn't cool to be smart.  You learn because you learn "New Stuff" and learning new stuff is fun. Granted, I wouldn't lump grammar or spelling into the "fun category" necessarily. But math, reading, writing, science and history are fun!)

Now I see why kids who have been homeschooled for several years look at you strangely when you ask, "What grade are you in?" If you go at your own pace, sometimes you will be way ahead "for your grade,"  right on "grade level" or even behind.  I get it now.  The homeschool answer of, "What grade am I in??? Which subject are you asking about?" makes a lot more sense.  In just a few short months, the importance of a "grade" is already blurring for us.

I know that we will keep "schooling" during the summer to some extent. I want the kids to have a "summer," but at the same time we will not stop learning.  Right now the plan (which is still in flux) is to "do school" two days a week and the rest are free "summer" days to play with friends and have sleepovers.  We will keep charging ahead in math and do fun things like history and science. Grammar can wait!

We will attempt to keep feeding their (hopefully) insatiable thirst for knowledge.