Friday, November 28, 2014

November 2014 Favourite Read-Aloud Roundup

I am late for this month's Read-Aloud Thursday Link-up at Hope is the Word, but I still have to participate. This month has been so incredibly rich in wonderful picture books that I simply must share!

First, we discovered Bonny Becker's Bear and Mouse books. The Sniffles for Bear has to be one of the funniest picture books I've ever read. If you think "man colds" are funny, you will enjoy this book. At the same time, there is a real sweetness in the loving friendship between Bear and Mouse.

SA(6) enjoyed reading the entire series on his own, so if you're looking for books at about a level 2 or 3 reading level, these books are a great choice.

Friendship was also the theme of another favourite this month. William Steig's Amos & Boris has gone straight to my list of the top 5 best ever picture books. Amos is a mouse, and Boris is a whale. They become fast friends when Boris rescues Amos after he is shipwrecked in the middle of the sea. I can't tell you why their friendship touched my heart so deeply. You will have to read it yourself and feel the magic of this tender, sweet story.
There. Another picture book that's not just for kids.

In nonfiction, we enjoyed Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs
Martin. Our nature focus this term is weather and climate, and I got this book from the library to fit in with that. Wilson Bentley had a passion for snow and for capturing it on film. His story is beautifully told, and the illustration and design of the book are deserving of the Caldecott Medal they received. We spent some time exploring Bentley's photographs online after reading this book. SA(6) wanted to know why snowflakes always have six sides, and as usual, I did not explain it as well as I could wish. How do you explain the chemistry of snowflakes to a 6-year-old?

Last but not least, we read several of Jim Arnosky's books: Thunder
Birds, Slither and Crawl, and Wild Tracks. I would highly recommend all three of these as living books. Arnosky clearly loves the subjects of his books, and passes on his keen interest and the sort of detail one can only get from first-hand observation. My boys loved the large, fold-out pages of illustrations. Arnosky is a wonderful artist. I look forward to discovering more of his books.

I am linking up with Read-Aloud Thursday. Click through for more book recommendations!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Plans for Year 1, Term 2

I know I've been quiet this week. I have been busy planning for our second term at the same time as starting it. And since that's what I've been thinking about, that's what I'll write about.

Ambleside Online - This is our main curriculum. There were a few books last term that were quite challenging for us, and I spent quite a bit of time thinking about whether I should persevere with them, or find substitutions.

Burgess Bird Book was difficult for SA to narrate last term, and he frequently lost interest before our reading was finished. I think the problem was that all the ideas are conveyed in conversations between Peter Rabbit and different birds, and there is very little actual action. I too find this book hard to like because of the cutesy names and the way human attributes are ascribed to animals. I considered substituting the much more straightforward Bird Stories from Burroughs, but thought I'd give Burgess one more chance first. I had two reasons: Burgess gives quite a bit of taxonomic information...a child should end up with quite a bit of knowledge about which birds are related to each other, etc. Second, while the conversational style may be challenging for narration, perhaps it is a good challenge. As long as he is not completely frustrated by it, SA might grow in his narration abilities.
So this week we tried again. I chose to read about the cowbird, because we have had several of them at our feeder these last few weeks. The cowbird was also mentioned in Flute's Journey, a book SA enjoyed greatly last term. We looked up the birds mentioned in the chapter on, and I printed off a colouring page for each of my boys. To my surprise, the narration went quite well. I did not have my timer on, and I think it ended up being a bit long. (He did complain towards the end...) I will therefore continue with this book for now, taking care to split up the readings if they are too long to complete within 15 minutes including narration. I will still consider substitution if he never gets any joy out of these readings, because in my mind, that would defeat the purpose. I want him to know and love...

Parables from Nature by Margaret Gatty was another challenging read last term, even using the modern English paraphrase from Ambleside Online. I am choosing to continue with it, perhaps making a little more effort myself in preparing for the readings.

Trial and Triumph is the one book I've decided not to continue with right now. I love church history myself, and I do want SA to be familiar with it, but I think it will go much better with this book if I wait a year. In the meantime, I plan to find some of Simonetta Carr's picture books to see if they might be more suitable for this year. I have also heard of the History Lives series and wondered if the writing style might be more accessible than Trial and Triumph. Has anyone seen them or used them?

We love all our other Ambleside Online books. Shakespeare has taken some getting used to, as I'm a complete Shakespeare newbie myself. After comparing Nesbit and Lamb, we've decided to go with Lamb. Nesbit was a bit too stripped down for us...narration did not go well. Lamb is very challenging for this age, but not unworkable. I draw little pictures as we go along to keep characters and places straight, and we usually take a week to go through a play. Narration often ends up being a collaborative affair between SA and me, but I'm confident he will grow into more independent narration. Our library has a few (too few) of Coville's Shakespeare retellings, and we will definitely be using them whenever we can.

Math - As our focus shifted to learning the new skill of narration last term, I found that far too often in math I was resorting to just setting a worksheet in front of SA, setting the timer, and getting on with it. This, despite all the wonderful things I've learned about math. It is time for me to repent. I am going back to the Miquon First Grade Diary. This wonderful book details all the math activities done in an actual first grade classroom in a Miquon school. I used it quite extensively last year. This time I will start in January of that book and use some of the ideas to allow SA to explore math concepts and figure some of them out for himself, something he dearly loves doing. I will also go back to using Family Math or Games for Math once a week, just for fun. SA is quite a bit "ahead" in his Miquon workbooks (Blue book, beginning of grade 2), so I'm going to relax quite a bit on the worksheet side, using them when they flow naturally from our regular lessons.

Phonics, Spelling, and Copywork - Since SA's reading took off, I have not paid much attention to phonics or spelling, choosing rather to simply have him read increasingly more challenging books. I do not regret this. However, I do think the time has come to encourage him to look more closely at the words. Normally this would be done in copywork, and later in dictation, but as SA is "behind" in learning to write (he is still working through basic letter formation), I would rather not tie his spelling to the (to him) hard work of writing words. So I have decided that we will play with word families using scrabble magnets on a cookie sheet this term. He has been enjoying that this week. We continue to do five minutes of copywork per day using Penny Gardner's Italics: Beautiful Handwriting for Children.

The "Extras" - Aside from poetry, which we enjoy every day, and music and art appreciation, which we do steadily week after week, these are the things I am most likely to slack off on in the course of a busy week. This term, I am hoping to post a weekly update about the things I am most likely to drop, just to keep myself accountable. (Keep in mind that I have a baby due sometime in the midst of this term, so we'll see how far we get...)
Handicrafts - My greatest weakness. We're doing finger knitting this term, possibly progressing to loom knitting. We started this week, and the boys and I enjoyed it a lot. We looked up the instructions on YouTube, which turned out to be very helpful.
Drawing - Another thing I am not so great at. I plan to continue using Drawing with Children, and at least sitting down with paper and markers once a week with the boys.
Nature Study and Nature Journalling - We actually do enjoy nature a lot, but with the cold weather coming on, and me not quite as energetic these days, I anticipate this might be a challenge. Our focus this term is weather and climate, and we've started a chart with clouds, wind direction, temperature, etc., for our nature journals this week.
Poetry - We continue to focus on A.A. Milne, and this term I plan to memorize a few poems again. We're starting with "Wind on the Hill" because SA has been wondering about where wind comes from and why it comes from different directions.
Music Appreciation - I want to listen to the Messiah during the next month and a half with the boys. Then we will continue listening to Handel for the rest of the term. We simply take a weekly break from our normal poetry teatime and watch some music on YouTube instead.
Art Appreciation - We will be doing our picture studies on some of Edgar Degas' paintings. We put him on our timeline this week, and found him on the map.

I haven't mentioned Bible or our Bible/hymn/catechism memorization because at our house, that's part of our everyday life and not really tied to our school days. I do have plans, though. We have begun reading and narrating from the New Testament, and will continue to steadily progress through the gospels. We do three questions per week in our children's catechism, and will continue with that, too. I have chosen a Christmas carol, a psalm, and a hymn for the next three months, and am planning to review all the passages of Scripture learned so far.We do well with memorization, but are not so consistent with reviewing what we have memorized.

Those are my plans. I have a baby due on January 26, so I have no doubt the plans will be modified. For now, though, it's full steam ahead!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review: Creative Nature Study

Nature study took a bit of a back seat in our last term. We went on a few nature walks, spent time outside, and identified a few new birds at our feeder, but that was as far as it went. Nothing new was recorded into our nature journals, and we collected no autumn leaves. I know it's time to be more intentional about it again, and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to review Creative Nature Study, a book published by The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

The subtitle promises "Ideas to Jump-Start or Invigorate Nature Study in Your Homeschool," and that is what it delivers. It has chapters on how to begin with nature study, ideas for nature walks, projects, nature notebooks, and scavenger hunts. Each chapter is compiled of short articles by several Christian homeschooling moms. In many ways, reading this book was like sitting down with a group of experienced homeschoolers and sharing practical ideas, solutions to challenges, and inspiration from their successes. At the end of the book there is an appendix listing all the resources mentioned, and another appendix with notebooking pages for nature scavenger hunts.

I have to be honest, when I opened the book, I expected more of a Charlotte Mason style nature study focus (this is what I'm most familiar with, after all!). But I appreciated the broadness of perspective offered by moms with a wide variety of educational styles. In the end, there were plenty of ideas for me, the CM homeschooler, as well as for homeschoolers with a more eclectic approach. I especially appreciated Danielle Dobrosky-Tolar's words in the introduction:
“We wanted our kids to have something  different, something better, something more. We wanted them to look outside the window and lose their train of thought by watching a hummingbird darting at the feeder. We put down our textbooks and prayed they would be beside themselves with awe while watching a bunch of slippery tadpoles turn into leaping frogs right before their eyes. We dared to turn off the TV, go “unplugged,” and heartily hoped they would see the miracle, the poetry, in a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.” (p. 5)
I think this is what we all want, regardless of homeschooling style. We want our children to care.

And so I happily gleaned several ideas that will work for me, and cheerfully passed by the ones that don't fit in with my homeschooling style. Cindy West had a wonderful list of items to include in a "nature bag," a bag kept ready to go whenever you go on a nature walk. Candace Crabtree had some great suggestions for a "bird watching center" that I fully plan on implementing as we are forced to spend more time indoors this winter with our new baby on the way. Andrea Hahn had a very helpful article on keeping a special nature journal called a "perpetual calendar" that will allow us to compare weather, wildlife, and other "firsts" from year to year.

Even though I understand that this book's idea sharing format is not meant to be exhaustive, I was a little disappointed that some of my favourite resources were not mentioned. There were several articles about birds and birdwatching, yet no one referred to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's wonderful bird identification website or even their Great Backyard Bird Count. Indeed, as far as I could see, there were no allusions to any citizen science projects. Also, the Handbook of Nature Study website and its Outdoor Hour Challenge were not mentioned, though it is a go-to resource for many homeschoolers (Comstock's classic Handbook of Nature Study itself was included, though.). I would also have liked to see the resources in the appendix arranged topically rather than alphabetically for easier browsing.

Over all, though, I really enjoyed Creative Nature Study. It is an encouraging, inspiring book of ideas, and you will be sure to find something to implement in your own nature studies, no matter what your homeschooling style. I fully intend to read this again in half a year. A different season will be sure to make different ideas jump out at me and inspire me all over again. Thanks to the Schoolhouse Review Crew for the opportunity to review this book.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Packing Shoeboxes

This week, the boys and I packed shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. We did one for each person in our family: five in all.

The boys had so much fun at the Dollar Store looking for little gifts to fit in their shoeboxes. JJ(4) has been making pictures for a couple of weeks already "for the little boy far far away."

Now we just have to write our notes and pray for the children who will receive these boxes. Then we will take them to church to join all the other boxes going out.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beginning With Ambleside Online

I have several homeschooling sisters and friends with children slightly younger than mine. Because I've heard similar responses from several of them when I tell them I'm using Ambleside Online, I've decided to dedicate a post to these sisters and friends.

The responses I can remember go something like this:
"I can't see my child being ready for the books they recommend at age six."
"I've checked out their website. It just seems like SO MUCH to do!"
"I have several younger children. I can't see myself having time to do all that reading aloud."

I am writing from the perspective of a fairly new homeschooler. We have been through one term of Ambleside Online's Year One. That's not very much experience, I know. I also write from the perspective of a mother with young children. My boys are six, four, and two, with another child on the way in January. Still, the experience we have had so far has been very satisfying, and I am convinced that it will continue to be so. It feels like home.

So here's how I would respond to the objections I mentioned.

"I can't see my child being ready for the books they recommend at age six."

To be perfectly honest, I would have had a similar objection a year ago. I didn't think my five-year-old would be ready for narration (telling back) of the challenging books recommended by the time he was six years old. But as it turned out, he was ready, and we began.

Still, even if he had not been ready, that would have been okay. We had a rich "kindergarten" routine that included lots of time outdoors, poetry teatime,  reading lessons, and math. We could have continued with that indefinitely until he was ready for the books of Year One. Depending on their children's readiness, many mothers do wait until their children are age seven or even close to age eight to begin Year One. I think it's important to realize that doing this will not put your children "behind." If children are doing work they are ready for when they are ready for it, and growing steadily from there, they are exactly where they should be.

It's also important to realize that the riches of nature, literature, history, poetry, and everything else are not tied to your child's reading level when you use Ambleside Online. If your child learns to read early, wonderful! But if he is behind in reading, even at an older age, you do not have to wait until he is caught up to begin to feed his hungry mind with a feast of ideas. Reading aloud and narration work just fine, even for the late reader.

"I've checked out their website. It just seems like SO MUCH to do!"

It is a lot to do. There is Bible reading and narration; hymn, Bible, and poetry memory work; picture study, music appreciation and poetry; readings and narration in history, geography, and literature; mathematics; reading or spelling lessons; nature walks and journals; copywork (for handwriting and spelling); foreign language; drawing and handicrafts. I would have been overwhelmed at the thought of it all even just a year and a half ago. And even now, I'm still growing into it. I have no doubt that I will continue to make adjustments as our family grows and I have more school-aged children.

Still, there are several things I can say to this, based on my experience.
1. Each of these many things are little things.
Many of the items I listed take no more than five minutes a day (all the memory work, copywork, foreign language) and none of them take more than fifteen minutes (math, narrations). Many of them become effortless when you work them into your habitual routine. Others can be done as infrequently as once a week (picture study, nature walks, drawing and handicrafts). I know, it is still a lot, but...

2. Each of these little things matter
There is no useless busywork here. Even the handicrafts are of the useful skill variety, done with real materials to make a real product of beauty or usefulness. All of the little things recommended, when done regularly over time, cause real growth in your children. I can almost see it happening. SA's vocabulary has grown immensely over the last year. He is asking "Why?" more often. He is recognizing references to composers and to poetry that he has come to know and love. To me, "SO MUCH!" is all worth it.

3. It is okay for you to grow into it over time. In fact, I recommend it.
I incorporated several of these things into our routine when SA was still only five, and they simply became part of our everyday life. First, I incorporated Bible reading and Bible and hymn memory work into our after-breakfast routine. This term, we just added five minutes of foreign language to that (still not terribly consistent with that, but as I just said, we're growing...). A little later, we began to have our poetry teatimes just to enjoy poetry and snacks together. This soon became a favourite part of the boys' day, and they would never hear of skipping it. Then this term, we adjusted what was already a routine to include picture study and music appreciation once a week.

Year One, Term One was still a big adjustment as SA began to learn narration (telling back from books that I read aloud to him). This really became our focus this term, and it became easier and easier over the term to fit in the three narrations a day required to get through the scheduled books. (One Bible narration was incorporated into our after breakfast routine, then two narrations from history, geography, or literature during his "lesson time.")

Still, I found myself neglecting some of the "riches" as we focused so heavily on learning this new skill this term. Foreign language did not really take off, focused nature walks became a bit less frequent, we did less math games and activities, and I didn't even begin to think about handicrafts (though I'm realizing now that my boys learned quite a bit from baking with me and with their Opa, who is a baker.).

Something like this will probably happen to you, too, to some degree. It has to be okay that we will not do things perfectly or even well at times. There will always be room to grow. My answer right now is not to deliberately neglect any of these areas (though I think that may be a legitimate option during some seasons of new babies, or moving, or other crazy busyness), but to commit to grow into it over time. Gradually, I hope each of these things will become a joyful habit for us, because I know we will be the richer for every one of them.

"I have several younger children. I can't see myself having time to do all that reading aloud."

This too is a very real challenge. All I can say to this is that if it matters to you, you will make it work. And it does matter to me. But I will also be honest and say that I can't count the number of times my two-year-old was tearing around and yelling and making things difficult for SA(6) during his lesson time.  Sometimes we ended up cancelling the lessons until nap time. Other times I bundled the younger two outdoors while I hovered near the windows watching them and trying to do lessons with SA at the same time. It was not easy. Charlotte Mason said something about mothers doing wonders when wonders are required of them. I won't claim wonders, but we made it through. That was enough for now.

I should also mention that the Year One readings and narrations may not take as long as you think they might. Each reading/narration session shouldn't take much longer than 15 minutes (including both the reading and the narration). Longer passages can be divided up and read over several days. We found that two reading/narration sessions per school day (not counting Bible) allowed us to follow the schedule at Ambleside Online. Some "weeks" took more than a week, and some took less. We just progressed steadily through until we were done. We may have taken thirteen weeks rather than twelve, but we rarely did more than fifteen minutes per session.

I think the key here is to take things one day at a time, one term at a time. Don't borrow trouble. Try to deliberately build some good habits in your preschoolers, too. I know, this is easier said than done, sometimes. But this season with little ones underfoot will be shorter than we think.

We love Ambleside Online. Going through even one term has been a satisfying experience, even with our shortcomings. And yes, satisfying is the very best word I can think of to describe it. I felt that SA's mind was fed with ideas every day. I saw growth and development in many areas. It was all very slow and steady, and yet the progress was not imperceptible. And so, my sisters and friends, try it. I think you will find it worth your time and effort.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music on My Mind

Music and singing have been occupying a lot of mental space in my head lately. Maybe more space than is necessary, I don't know. I would be very interested in hearing your experiences with this.

My six- and four-year-old boys do not sing on key. Up till now, I have been hoping that singing will still come naturally at some point. Neither of them are tone-deaf. By this I mean that I know they can hear the difference between notes, and I assume that the problem is that they cannot produce what they hear. Thankfully neither of them are self-conscious about their singing yet. My six-year-old has begun playing the piano, and is doing very well with it.

How can I tell they're not tone-deaf? With JJ(4), it's still just a feeling on my part. But I gave SA(6) a little test to make sure. I played a note on the piano, and then a second note. I asked him to tell me if the second note was higher or lower than the first. I did this several times with notes closer and farther apart, high and low. Then I did the same thing with my voice. He got it right almost every time. Then I asked him to sing and hold a note, and I sang several notes around his note until I finally settled on his note. I asked him to wave when I got to his note (which happened to be a perfect middle C, by the way). He did just fine, though I could tell he felt self-conscious about holding the note so long.

In researching on-line, I discovered that children who are not tone-deaf but can't sing on key are often the result of a lack of early musical exposure. This is not the case with my boys. We have always listened to music in our home, and we also have always sung together daily as a family. They gladly choose and sing their favourite hymns after our meals, and they enjoy putting their favourite CD's into the CD player to listen to on their own.

My question now is: Is this just a matter of children developing at their own speed? Will singing still come naturally at some point? Six seems old to me to still not be singing on key, but my experience is limited. Or is there something I should be doing with these boys to help them a little?

I am concerned that doing something about this will make them self-conscious about their singing. I am happy that they willingly sing along anytime we sing, and I don't want that to change.

I would love to hear from you in the comments if you have any experience that I could learn from!