Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Comparing Phonics Programs

In my previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are based on the best research currently available. A friend asked me to write more about the pros and cons of the programs I mentioned and to say why I prefer the one over the other two, especially since Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground.

Happy to oblige!

It's true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) does require a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR is difficult to get off the ground and implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher's end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I've found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it's pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade (and for more money). I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using "letter tiles" for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are too young for writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher's guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  
 
All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:
  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for spelling, phonics, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. So comprehensive! And all for about a $100 initial investment plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to  . . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony," “pokey", or "fickle" phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either or those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)
So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 
 
 
 
N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I'm just a fan girl whose been happily using the program for about six years now with both my own children and also other students.
 
 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Is Demanded of Us: Charlotte Mason Admonishes Us to Get on Our Game

When trying to discern the best curricular choice or course of action, the most helpful question a Charlotte Mason homeschooling teacher can ask is not, "What would Charlotte Mason do?" or even, "What has Charlotte Mason recommended that teachers do?" but rather "What would Charlotte Mason do if she lived now and were in my situation?"

Because, of course, Charlotte Mason would have gone home from teaching mid-afternoon to a child-free, spouse-free house and a nice, quiet cup of tea.

She also has recommended that a mother outsource nurse-maid/nursery duties so that her children have her only at her best. (See her Volume I: Home Education, I.iv, pp. 17-18.)

So, if you are married, with children, and homeschooling, you are already not doing what Charlotte Mason did during her time, or even what she recommended doing.

But what would she do if she were married, homeschooling, and living now in the twenty-first century? Now that is a different question! And an interesting one.

Charlotte Mason is one of my heroes for many reasons including not only her brilliant insight into how children best learn, but also her dedication to following and investigating the best thought and research available to her at the time. For example, she studied the latest, breaking findings related to the physiology of the brain and frequently referred to it in her own writings as a basis for many of her practical recommendations for parents and teachers. She read widely in various fields related to child development, psychology,  educational theory, and "natural law." She was eager to circumspectly incorporate "whatever new light modern research puts in our way."

In the Preface to the Fourth Edition of Volume I, she writes,
My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother's duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, "the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child's character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual." But just in proportion as a mother has this peculiar insight as regards her own children she will, I think, feel her need of a knowledge of the general principles of education, founded upon the nature and the needs of all children. And this knowledge of the science of education, not the best of mothers will get from above, seeing that we do not often receive as a gift that which we have the means of getting by our own efforts. [emphasis mine]
We have, she tells us, a maternal duty to study the science of education.

Under "Some Preliminary Considerations," she further clarifies what it looks like for mothers to "owe a  'thinking love' to their Children": (I note here how she herself quotes other contemporary educational thinkers, such as Pestalozzi, revealing her own commitment to ongoing study of developing educational thought.)
"The mother is qualified," says Pestalozzi, "and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; ... and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ...."
We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will [...] take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, and may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child's nature upon which such theory rests. [emphasis mine]
These strongly-worded admonitions suggest to me that, if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would urge us not to look back to her late-1800s/early-1900s curricular recommendations as a static educational plan to imitate without question. On the contrary! She would urge us rather to rouse ourselves to get on our game and do our own research.

If we want to imitate Charlotte Mason, we ought to look at, evaluate, and incorporate the best of current educational research.

Take reading instruction and phonics, for instance. Since Mason's time, we have learned much more about how English is best taught and learned.

Just within the homeschool world, there are now several powerful phonics/spelling programs available that have recently been developed on the basis of the ground-breaking research Orton and Gillingham conducted on English phonograms and spelling rules shortly after Mason's time.

Additionally, because of both national legislation like No Child Left Behind and also because of the school system's need to accommodate a wide diversity of students (including those who do not speak English as a first language at home), much research has been done on how to best teach reading and writing (e.g. phonics vs. whole word reading instruction and such).

Would Charlotte Mason encourage us to ignore all that and keep doing what worked best for her in turn-of-the-century England? Her admonitions and her own example make that highly unlikely.

Best research (like the meta-study here; get it free at a university library) suggests that a systematic phonics program is by far the best foundation for reading and writing. The whole-word approach that rolled through U.S. schools on and off during the last several decades has been debunked. And, while informal, laissez-faire approaches can accomplish good, systematic phonics remains the most sound and reliable method for ensuring success for students of all abilities.

Curriculum author, Wanda Sanseri, further argues that a program that overtly teaches the 70 basic English phonograms along with the 28 foundational spelling rules is the best kind of systematic phonics instruction. Her presentation to the Oregon senate is revelatory and compelling. She bridges the gap between Orton-Gillingham and contemporary practice.

Since Sanseri delivered her presentation, several programs have debuted in the homeschool market that draw on the Orton-Gillingham research base. I personally prefer Sanseri's Spell to Write and Read, but there are several other curricular options that follow the same research and are also great. Two such programs are All About Reading/All About Spelling and Logic of English. Before any of these, there was also The Writing Road to Reading. All of these programs are great with different trade-offs. Different programs will certainly work better for different families depending on the needs and temperaments of those involved.

Discussing these options and the underlying research certainly seems within the spirit of Charlotte Mason education to me!

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to agree.

Have you ever been a part of an online Charlotte Mason discussion where a respectful curriculum discussion was shut down by moderators because the curricular options under discussion were not "Charlotte Mason programs" and did not seem to match the instructional progression prescribed by Mason more than a century ago?

If thinking critically about particular instructional recommendations becomes anathema, perhaps we're missing the true spirit of our beloved paragon of "a thinking love." 



Monday, April 20, 2015

Midway in Love

Years ago, when I was a new, young lover, I stumbled on a curious book of poems at a used book store. I flipped through and read the title poem along with a few others and was charmed. Feeling slightly self-conscious about the questionable literary respectability of such a collection of narrowly niched poems, I bought it anyway: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.

I happened to see it again this evening and opened randomly to a middle page to see what I might see. And this is the poem I saw:

Love at Fifty
by Marcia Woodruff

We come together shy as virgins
with neither beauty nor innocence
to cover our nakedness, only
these bodies which have served us well
to offer each other.

At twenty we would have dressed each other
in fantasy, draping over the damp flesh,
or turned one another into mirrors
so we could make love to ourselves.

But there is no mistaking us now.
Our eyes are sadder and wiser
as I finger the scar on your shoulder
where the pin went in,
and you touch the silver marks on my belly,
loose from childbearing.

"We are real," you say, and so we are,
standing here in our simple flesh
whereon our complicated histories are written,
our bodies turning into gifts
at the touch of our hands.

However literary or sentimental, the poem is wise. While I am not yet fifty, I'm no longer twenty either. My body also is scarred and silvered with stretch marks. The veteran lover of the poem heartens me to age graciously, to love courageously, to give my real and simple self. Her words, finding me midway, turn into gifts.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Know You Have a Good Math Program When . . .

. . . your seven-year-old solves her first four-digit, three-number addition story-problem independently, without you telling her how, . . . and then says, "Can I PLEASE do another one? I want to do one of these every day!"

My daughter was positively thrilled with her own discovery, with her new-felt math prowess. With the first-grade book in Right Start Math, she was solving word-problems that would normally involve "carrying" in the usual algorithm. However, not yet knowing the algorithm or the concept of "carrying," she gleefully solved the problem in her head using an abacus. She thought it was as fun as anything.

I call that age-appropriate math play. The student is using her mind to form concepts and figure out creative solutions to challenging, hands-on problems. I like that there are lots of this type of figure-it-out, thinking activities in Right Start Math and that there are hardly any worksheets.

We've also been enjoying the TOPS Get a Grip kit which operates on a similar philosophy. Using guided discovery, Get a Grip develops math and science understanding through measuring play with a bunch of different sized containers and a big box of . . . lentils!

Sometimes my Kindergartener likes to complete the TOPS activity booklets, and sometimes he prefers to free-play with the lentils. Since kinetic free play is as important as any structured learning, especially at his age, I am just fine with that!

My older scholar likes to free-play but also enjoys the increasing difficulty of the activity booklets which will gradually guide her from easy comparison activities to "sneaky algebra." And the physical, hands-on element is important for her, too. With it's progression to more advanced concepts, the kit can meet the needs of students up to sixth grade.

But my hope here is not so much to recommend particular math and science programs as it is to highlight a kind of learning that tends to be highly effective for most students. And that is play.

With math as with other subjects, students at every grade level tend to learn and retain concepts well through interactive learning. At least this is what I've observed and read.

There is no sound dichotomy between "play" and "real learning."

For example, we might think of a good Socratic discussion of a classic text as age-appropriate play for highschool and college students. Some skeptics might suspect that less learning is happening in such a discussion than in a traditional lecture situation because prescribed content is not being "delivered" in a controlled way. But you and I know that deeper, more substantial learning does take place in a Socratic dialog, even if it might sometimes feel more like play to the participants. (And if you don't know this, perhaps you should give the dialectic a try!) There's a place for lecture, but there is at least an equally important place for the dialectic.

In the same way, real learning often happens in the primary grades through play, especially certain kinds of educational play. That kind of authentic, active learning sometimes sticks better than many "traditional" educational approaches which can devolve into "in one ear, out the other."

Since later is better, I like to start in on a formal math program no sooner than first grade, maybe even second grade. Sometimes we fly first with only the free, custom printables—mostly the time and money worksheets—from MathFactCafe.com. But first we get hands-on with actual coins and clocks around the home.

For other tips on getting started with math play in the early years, I liked Ruth Beechick's Arithmetic booklet. Inexpensive and brief, it covers both foundational theory as well as practical applications for homeschooling the early years.


By Galilea at de.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons


Here's a final angle to consider: Who is the "real" mathematician doing "real" math? Is it the folks who successfully apply the symbolic algorithms like the Pythagorean theorem? Is it the people like Pythagoras who play with shape, measurement, and relation in order to discover the principles and create the symbolic algorithmic formulas that the rest of us use as ready-made tools? How can we best prepare students to think like a mathematician?


Do you play math with your budding mathematicians? What works well in your home?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Katernican Revolution

Since my own history education was so lacking in school, I have loved (re-)learning it along with my daughter. We've enjoyed our journey so far through Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World series.

When we got to the chapter on Copernicus and Galileo in Volume 2, I read ahead and supplemented with some research of my own to try to get a clearer picture of what happened between the church and the scientists at that time.


It struck me how similar it all seems to the contemporary tension between young- and old-earth creationists. See for example, the recent hot pot stirred up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Or examine the speaker list and session descriptions for many a regional Evangelical homeschool convention.

On the one hand, there is the sincere and pious group who believes that faithfulness to the Word means sometimes denouncing data that seems to contradict our current understandings of Scripture. Some act as if even peeping at the naked data would be an infidelity. Some of Galileo's contemporaries, for example, refused to look through Galileo's improved telescope to see the newly-visible moons around Jupiter:
"My dear Kepler," Galileo wrote to a friend, "I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."

On the other hand, we have Christian scholars who fearlessly (if sometimes pompously—see Galileo's comment re: the common herd) embrace new data and wrestle to understand how the faith and the universe can be reconciled to each other with fidelity to both.

The essential tension seems to be hermeneutic: How are we to interpret and understand certain puzzling passages in Holy Writ?

During the Copernican Revolution, exegetical debate focused on the passage wherein Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14). For some authorities in the church, affirming heliocentrism amounted to "distorting the Scriptures in accordance with [one's] own conceptions," and was considered "likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false."

Copernicus, Galileo, and their like-minded contemporaries saw it differently. In a letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo studiously demonstrates an exegesis of Joshua that harmonizes the truth of the faith with the newly-discovered astronomical realities. Galileo also warns of the ill that can come of authoritatively wielding Bible passages to dismiss scientific theories:
It seems to me that [. . .] such men [. . . ] who, being either unable or unwilling to comprehend the experiences and proofs used in support of the new doc­trine by its author and his followers, nevertheless expect to bring the Scriptures to bear on it. They do not consider that the more they cite these, and the more they insist that they are perfectly clear and admit of no other interpretations than those which they put on them, the more they prejudice the dignity of the Bible—or would, if their opinion counted for anything—in the event that later truth shows the contrary and thus creates confusion among those outside the holy Church. And of these she is very solicitous, like a mother desiring to recover her children into her lap. [. . .] [T]he Bible [. . .] was not written to teach us astronomy.

I laid out the key facts in simple terms for seven-year-old Katherine: Some people in the church at the time [including Martin Luther and other Protestants, btw] thought that the Bible said the earth had to be in the center of the universe. They thought believing what Copernicus said would mean saying the Bible was false—for example, in this passage in Joshua where it says the sun stopped moving across the sky and "stood still" for a while.

"What do you think?" I asked her.

"Well, maybe," she mused after a moment's reflection, "the person who wrote Joshua was just saying how it looked to him. It looked like the sun moved and stood still. He didn't know about the earth going around the sun, since Copernicus hadn't discovered it yet."

Perhaps we understand both special and general revelation less well than we might like to think. Perhaps a childlike wonder—a revolutionary humility—could lead us to perceive more purely and insightfully both Word and world.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fourth Year of Formal Homeschooling Underway

This is the time of year when I pinch myself and realize again how blessed I am to spend my days learning alongside my sweet babies.

And it's also the time of year when I remember how much those sweet babies need to use their Pencil Grip Crossovers with their Pens. (Forgot to add these items to the original version of my Kindergarten Take 2 list. The omission has now been corrected.)

I wish all my fellow homeschoolers delightful learning adventures in the new school year.