October 1, 2014

Kids' Curriculum and Why I Like It (or not)

I recently received an email asking me to review some of the curriculum we use around these here parts.  I've been meaning to post about many things, but the email was a good kick in the heiny to actually do it, so I will.

Miriam, grade 6

Math and Critical Thinking: We have been using Mathematical Reasoning books from the Critical Thinking Co for years now and I love them just as much today as when we started using them.  Miriam is in Level F (grade five) because I keep my kids a year behind in math on purpose.  I do that, for those of you wondering, because abstract thinking skills don't completely develop until a child reaches high school.  If you hit pre-algebra before the abstract thinking skills are in place necessary to understand it, you can experience a great deal of frustration.  Since it is hard to predict how developed each child's abstract thinking skills will be by grade seven, I play it safe and take things slower.  I have not yet encountered a reason to regret this choice.  None of my children have experienced any math angst up to this point (except the first few years when we were using Abeka math) and several claim that math is their favorite subject.

I supplement the Mathematical Reasoning books with some other "fun" math products from the same company.  My favorites are the Building Thinking Skills books.  Miriam finished Level One two years ago and was thrilled when I presented her with Level Two this year.  Note that when each books is listed as a "full curriculum" it means in critical thinking NOT math.  Don't be confused by that.

A list of topics on the front cover includes things like logical thinking, similarities and differences, sequences, classifications, analogies, spatial awareness (Miriam excels at these problems and I stink--it usually takes me triple the amount of time to correct her work, which is always right, than it takes her to do it), vocabulary development, map reading, etc.  

When Miriam was doing Building Thinking Skills Level One, I assigned her six pages daily from her Mathematical Reasoning book and then six pages out of her Building Thinking Skills book.  She would inevitably do 12 + pages out of her Building Thinking Skills book because she thought it was so much fun.

Another favorite from the Critical Thinking Co is Math Detective A1. I must point out that Miriam does not like this book.  She thinks it is way harder than her regular math book.  However, I see a great deal of value in making her stretch herself.  Basically, this book has a bunch of extended story problems that have to be answered with complete sentences.  It is challenging because Miriam can figure out the answers but she has to really stretch herself to come up with the "why" of the answer.  I think that is a healthy exercise for her brain.  However, to avoid contention, I only assign one "problem"--usually a two-page spread with about six questions--a week.  That keeps her muttering to a minimum.

I wouldn't get the Math Detective beginner book unless you have a really advanced reader/writer.  Otherwise, you're just creating a lot of work for yourself.

Language Arts: Ah.  This is a hard one.  I've flitted about more with this subject than math.

First, we are currently using Phonetic Zoo: Lesson Cards for spelling.  I did not buy the whole $99 program.  I only purchased the cards for $15.00.  It is a fine program.  Not spectacular, but not bad.  It might be stellar if you buy the whole kit and caboodle, but I've never found a spelling program I loved and I wasn't willing to invest in another failed effort.

There are three "levels" on the cards.  On Monday I give Miriam a spelling pre-test and have her write each of the fifteen words on one card.  I don't pay much attention to the levels with her.  Then she writes each word she misses three times a day for the rest of the week.  It works.

We use Handwriting Without Tears for handwriting.

For grammar we use Rod and Staff and I LOVE their program. Currently Miriam is working out of Building With Diligence: English 4.  It is aimed for fourth graders and it is way too easy for her and she is flying through it at breakneck speed, but it is a good review while I try to get my hands on the writing program I want her to be using right now but can't afford.

Back to Rod and Staff for a moment.  I think they do everything right with grammar.  They include sentence diagramming from the very beginning.  They build concepts in a logical and appropriate way--without jumping around too much.  They have manageable assignments that I hardly ever tweak to cut back on the amount of work.  I wholeheartedly endorse their grammar series as long as you realize that they excel at teaching grammar and not writing.

The writing program I want to be using right now is The Write Foundation: Sentence to Paragraph.  I haven't used this program but I have read several reviews that are very convincing.  Especially this one.    I really think this might be a winner.  I have tried other writing programs, including the Institute of Excellence in Writing and I just wasn't that impressed.  I'm hard to impress.  I'm a professional English teacher.  :)  That said, I have a hard time teaching writing because I feel like my children should just magically know how to write--much like I did.  Instead, I have kids whose favorite subjects are math and science and for whom writing doesn't come easily.  I don't have time to create my own curriculum right now and so I will eventually (too bad I can't sell plasma when I'm pregnant) buy this one and see how it works out for Miriam.

This year I bought Digging Into Diagramming .  I wanted a way to make sure my children were diagramming a few sentences every day--especially Miriam.  I think diagramming is the best way to teach grammar, other than learning a foreign language.  There isn't much on the market by way of straight diagramming.  This book is great in concept and how it builds from simple to complex sentences.  I can't give it rave reviews, however, because it doesn't have as many practice sentences as I would like.  When I say the book doesn't have enough sentences, I mean it.  Each lesson only has one or two example sentences with four practice sentences.  There are 41 lessons, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the kids will only have diagrammed roughly 164 sentences over the course of the year using this book.  It just isn't enough practice.  It does, however, supplement Rod and Staff nicely since those books already have diagramming included.  I still think Digging Into Diagramming is worth the purchase--just be aware of what you are getting.

Cowen, grade 4: Cowen is not an independent reader yet, so that makes everything I do with him a little trickier.  He's getting there, but at his own speed.  Also, I bumped his younger sister up a grade because her birthday was right around the cut-off.  And she's a girl.  And he's a boy.  SUCH A BOY.  Meaning that his development is crazy different than his sisters', or even his younger brother who is a little less of a stereotypical boy.  Cowen and Emeline (grade 3) do the same grammar.  It works.

Math: He's currently using Building Thinking Skills Level One and Mathematical Reasoning Level D.   The skills in his Building Thinking Skills book do not come as easily to Cowen as they came to Miriam, so I am focusing a lot of our math attention on that book currently.  I also started Cowen on learning his multiplication tables on xtramath.com and created a fake student so he could practice addition under a different name.  I did the same thing with Miriam.  We are hitting computation really hard with the oldest two this year.  Once we've finished the Building Thinking Skills book, I'll shuffle Cowen back into his regular math book.  By then he'll know enough of his multiplication tables that the multiplying and dividing work in the math book will be easy and math will remain angst-free.

Small sidenote: I just starting giving weekly first and second place awards to the kids who make the most improvement on their xtramath work.  The improvement in their effort has been downright astonishing.  Amazing what a $1.00 box of candy can do for a child's motivation.

Language Arts: Cowen is working out of the Rod and Staff Beginning Wisely Level 3 grammar book.  I already told you how much I love Rod and Staff.  I take two years to go through the first book--making sure they don't get overloaded.  We do one lesson a day, four days a week.  I don't worry about teaching writing at this stage.  I wait until grade five and with Cowen, I might wait until grade six.

Basically, I'm not really converted to teaching spelling to young children.  Miriam was a terrible speller for years and I kept wondering why she didn't pick it up from reading like I had.  Then, one day, she could spell.  It was awesome.  My son, though, has a harder time with all things verbal so I bought the Phonetic Zoo just to help him practice a little.  I don't insist on memorization of the words. I tried that briefly and it led to much, much heartache.  Instead, I show the kids (Cowen and Emeline) the spelling rule outlined on the card, pick six words, and have them write those six words three times daily for one week.  Then we move on.  My purpose?  To help my kids start to recognize when something looks right and when something looks wrong.  If they haven't miraculously learned to spell by the sixth grade, I'll get more serious about it.

They also diagram one sentence a day from Digging Into Diagramming.  Miriam diagrams four sentences a day, but I don't want the younger kids to get in over their heads too quickly.  They have barely started learning about nouns so I don't want them trying to diagram adjectives yet, for example.

Emeline, grade 3 

Math: Emeline has a September birthday so she's technically in grade two, but I bumped her up to grade three one year to suit other purposes, and now she's still there.  It doesn't really matter except she's flying through her math book (the younger grades have much shorter books).  She doing Mathematical Reasoning Level C which is one year higher than I meant for her to be in (it's the second grade level).  After she completes it I will have her switch to the Building Thinking Skills Level One book just to slow her down a little before putting her into the third grade level.  She'll still be farther ahead than any of my other children were at her age.  We might have to take some time off math books to work on Mind Benders or something if I feel she's getting grumpy about math.

Language Arts: See Cowen.

Eli, kindergarten

I don't really do much with my kindergarten kids.  I want him in the Mathematical Reasoning Level A book right now, but money is tight with the baby coming and I haven't been able to get it for him yet.  He works on xtramath.com and loves that.

As for language arts, he does the I See Sam program that I've reviewed before to learn to read.  Love that program!  Then he writes funny sentences that I make up like "Dad sat on the fat cat."

This was probably longer than you wanted and less helpful than I hoped.  If you have any specific questions, shoot them at me and I'll do my best to answer.

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