I just finished reading a wonderful post explaining how Charlotte Mason teachers didn’t compile their own curriculum. It was assigned them by people who did the gathering job for them. The point is that we ought not reinvent the wheel and that we need to spend time we have as home educators both improving our own knowledge in various subject areas and in teaching our children. If curriculum searching and gathering is cumbersome and leads you to less than the best of materials, you are probably wasting valuable time. If you are brand new to home educating, you may be feeling overwhelmed enough without having to search out what to use. It isn’t that you will “mature” to the point of selecting your own materials. Many very mature home educators use pre-selected curriculum and do a wonderful job. That’s not the “second best” way to do this. It is an equally good way and has its merits – one being that you save time and energy and when you find a company or organization you trust because you can just rest in their selections. There is a lot right with just going for one already well-established and well composed program for your home educating materials. Ambleside is certainly one of those options.
I just wanted to let you know before I start telling you more about curriculum selection that I am not against whole pre-organized programs. There are some wonderful options out there. The reason I have not landed on any one program is that I have some practical needs and some personal preferences which lead me away from each one as a whole. These are not whims, they are big enough reasons which cause me to do what I do. I also have found some wonderful sources which are equally excellent and I love including things from each. When several of my favorite sources all list the same book I know it will be a winner. The first two posts I wrote in this series (here) go further into “why” I do this. No one program has met our needs completely, so I have learned to gather and I find I have such joy in the “finds” as I do.
While I don’t start from scratch when gathering materials (I don’t have the kind of time it takes to pre-read every book from cover to cover), I do something between that and selecting one whole program. I gather from programs which I trust and love. I do spend a bit of time each summer in the gathering process (and I enjoy it thoroughly). I find I have plenty of time for many things because I have learned a Charlotte Mason secret in a principle she applied to her students, but she also applied in her own personal routine: it is the principle of short lessons.
Here’s how using the “short lessons” principle works for me. If we think of all the books we want to read, we may feel overwhelmed. But, let’s say, we break our day up into morning, mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon, evening and night. We have six segments in our day. Now, what if you were to insert six books – a variety of choices (some spiritual, some novels, some edifying in a skill such as home educating your children or learning to take better photos) and you only read 10-15 minutes snippets each day – one reading per segment of the day. The material stays with you longer when you take in smaller sections. You are also able to apply the concepts as you go or enjoy your reading in sweet little morsels. You can read six books in a few months this way without even disrupting your overall routine. This is the genius of Charlotte Mason. Her wisdom doesn’t just apply to how we educate our children. We can apply much of it to ourselves (the atmosphere and disciplines of our own lives). Currently I am reading a book on photography, a book on child rearing, a book on Spiritual Growth written by a friend, a book on how to teach reading, a book by C.S. Lewis (I plan to go through his books one by one over the coming few years) and a few blogs most days. The practice of reading in short lessons has been a real blessing.
In this post I want to briefly touch on Language Arts, Science and Math to tell you what I look for as I plan our year in each subject. For the sake of keeping it short and sweet, I will cover other subjects in the next post in this series. If you missed my discussion on History and Literature, you can read the first two posts in this series here and here.
Charlotte Mason had specific methods for teaching reading and then had very simple and effective tools (Copywork, Dictation, Oral Narration and Written Narration) which covered the bulk of her approach to Language Arts. If you notice, all these methods are free. I am using the Charlotte Mason approach to teach my youngest to read, and am incorporating the Spalding method as made popular through “All About Reading” and “All about Spelling” as well as the BOB Books using a website a friend has developed. Every week my older son has a few days of copywork to improve his penmanship skills in cursive and he has a few dictation exercises to help him with spelling. Please check out these sites to learn about copywork, dictation and narration. By hearing wonderful literature and practicing his narration (telling back what he heard), my son developed excellent writing skills such as organizing his thoughts, covering salient points and making writing interesting.
In our home, in 5th grade we add in Rod & Staff materials Language Arts, but we don’t use it in the traditional way as there are too many written point-by-point questions. I only purchase the Teacher’s Manual and the Student text each year now. We do an oral quiz after each lesson or my son comes and narrates the concepts he learned. He practices sentence diagramming on the white board. I feel the approach is giving him an excellent grasp of language and its structure. Since we learn our foreign languages in a more experiential manner (I’ll go into that next week), it is important that he learn the nuts and bolts of language (grammar) somewhere, so we choose our native tongue for that. I have to mention here that I love the book From Reader to Writer when your child is ready for written narration (well after age 10). In a few years (8th or 9th grade) I plan to begin using The Lost Tools of Writing with my oldest as well.
In a traditional Charlotte Mason education the bulk of early Science is the experiences of being outdoors, especially on nature walks, learning about the animals and plants around us. We spend time observing nature and both my boys keep nature notebooks. My oldest is learning to keep more detailed information in his notebook, while my youngest is just gathering samples (fallen leaves, etc) and drawing what he sees. He sometimes narrates too and I take notes for him. I want to start a new thing this year with him called “A book of firsts” where we watch to see when the first peach comes in on our tree, when the first leaf turns brown, when the blue jay first comes in our yard, when the swallowtail first comes, etc. Each year we can compare our firsts for that year with the ones prior and the book will be like an old friend, teaching us to know the seasons and their signs. We keep a bag packed in the hall closet filled with watercolors, brushes, colored pencils, our notebooks, a blanket and a few field guides. Every week we go into our local park or on a different walk somewhere in our county and we paint or draw what we see. My sons also participate in cultivating our home garden (though some seasons we don’t plant in it).
In addition to our time in nature we learn many other Science subjects. We take a three pronged approach to the study of Science. We read about various subjects (science knowledge), we read about great scientists through living biographies, and we experience science. For the knowledge and some experimenting we are in a science co-op with some other families where we use either Apologia or Exploration Education and the moms rotate teaching each week. Each year we pick a subject area (Biology, Earth Science, Physics, Electricity and Magnetism, Astronomy, etc). At our home we use Supercharged Science and TOPS for hands-on experiences and learning. We usually incorporate science reading two days a week and science practice one day a week. Check out Supercharged! Aurora Lipper who has designed this worked for Nasa, has a passion for Science and is a home educator herself.
Charlotte Mason said the least about Math as compared to any other subject she discussed. One principle is important: experience before symbols. There is great research coming out these days showing that we are getting kids involved in the symbols of Math too early and we are burning them out and causing them to lose the natural understanding which comes when they experience math before they learn all the + and – on paper. I teach math in simple ways with the boys when they are little. We count. We talk about numbers. The boys learn to measure while we are cooking and they learn fractions as we go. They receive a basic allowance and they divvy it up in three jars: tithe, save, spend. When they want a particular toy, they save up in their spend jar. They learn about coins and dollars and value this way. We also do what we call “chocolate chip math.” We sit at the counter and I pour out about 1 Tbs. of mini-chocolate chips. We count them, group them (divide), multiply, add and subtract. We talk about greater than and less than. Subtraction is fun when you are eating chocolate!
Around 2nd grade we start a formal math program. I like Math U See at this age level. The principle of “Build, Write, Say” is at the heart of that program. The child works with manipulatives and they follow the experience with writing on worksheets (transferring their practical knowledge to symbols). After this they spend time teaching back what they learned. My older son used to have an easel whiteboard and he would teach me all his concepts for the week on Fridays. It’s Math narration! We transferred to Teaching Textbooks for Multiplication and Division (around grade 4) and then we moved into Khan Academy and Life of Fred for 6th grade and beyond.
I can’t say enough about Khan. It is a free resource. The developer has a passion to reach the world with a quality education for free. They offer way more than math. For math, though, they have tutorial videos, practice problems and you as a parent can create a “coach account” to oversee your child’s work. If you use any other math program, you can still use Khan to supplement what you are doing to give your child extra practice or more understanding of the “why and how” of math in any given area. I now have my oldest keep a math journal. Every Friday he writes the concepts he has learned that week in his journal. It continues the spirit of narration in a way that is helpful to him.
Some will say to stick with one math program all the way through your child’s education so that there won’t be any “holes.” I think this becomes more critical in the higher levels of math. One thing I appreciate about Khan is that they have a grid which shows the “World of Math” and your child can see if there are any areas where they lack skills and they can watch tutorials and practice skills until they have them mastered. Again, each time we have switched math it was for needs in our home. When I switched from Math U See it was because it was becoming exceedingly tedious and causing fits for us to get through at the Multiplication stage. When we went to Teaching Textbooks, my son began waking on his own and going straight to math to do his work right after breakfast and our morning gathering. We found Khan after using Teaching Textbooks for two years and the fact that it is so thorough and is FREE made it something I wanted to pursue further.
I am looking forward to sharing with you next week as I am going to talk about Art, Music, Foreign Language, Poetry and some other fun things we throw in the mix. I hope you are being blessed as you read and please feel free to post comments or questions here or on my Facebook Page.