Homeschooling Miscellania

As we’ve been working through the first year of homeschooling, I’ve started to keep mental notes about things I like and dislike about the curricula we’ve been using. I thought I’d post a few of those things here, in case anyone else is considering the materials we’re using or is incredibly bored and wants to read about homeschooling stuff.

We started Sienna last year on How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. We only made it through about the fifteenth or so lesson before we moved, and the book was lost in the move, our lives were upended and in chaos, and homeschooling was shelved until the fall. I wasn’t planning on switching from that book until we lost it and a friend recommended to me the Little Angel Readers as a more thorough introduction to phonics and grammar. I took that advice, since How to Teach Your Child to Read focused solely on phonics and learning to read, with zero instruction on wider linguistic concepts.

Here they are, in all their colorful glory

I like the Little Angel Readers better, mostly. I love that concepts such as rhyming and left/right discrimination are introduced very early. I also love that grammatical concepts are introduced when children are able to read the corresponding words. That approach makes a lot more sense to me; what’s the point in teaching kids to read if they don’t understand the words they’re reading? For example, right now Sienna has mastered all the consonants but only two vowels, a and i. She’s reading short stories, though, and she can differentiate between an “s” at the end of a word that makes it plural, an “s” at the end of a word that makes it a present-tense action, and an ” ‘s” at the end of a word that indicates possession. Those are important distinctions, and I love that the books teach them when the children happen upon the words instead of ignoring concepts like that until the child is able to read all words.

The lessons are lengthy, though. Each lesson takes us between 45 minutes and an hour, compared to the 15-20 minute lessons in How to Teach Your Child to Read. It’s doable, but Sienna is usually pretty wiped out at the end of the lesson. The other minor issue I’ve had with the books is that the author often includes words or letters in worksheets, stories (and even a test today!) that the student isn’t introduced to until the following lesson. It’s not a big fix, since I can look ahead and just skip that part, but it smacks of sloppy editing.

There is one thing I really, intensely dislike about the Little Angel Readers, though, and that’s the overt Catholicism of them. Yeah, it’s nice for our children to learn that nun starts with “N” and priest starts with “P”, but nearly every single letter is introduced with a religious drawing. The problem is that the drawings are sometimes impossible to decipher, often ridiculously complicated and obscure, and always horrible. Why draw the entire altar, priest, host, etc, when you’re trying to get across “tabernacle?” Wouldn’t “tree” be a lot simpler to draw and for children to grasp? Second, if you’re going to use a picture of a saint to represent a certain letter, make sure it’s a well-known saint with clear identifying marks, not an obscure bearded person in a triangle that even a google search can’t figure out. Third, Jesus was not blond-haired and blue-eyed, and every time I see Aryan Jesus representations it makes me want to punch someone.

The whole “born of the house of David” thing should be our first clue that Jesus probably didn’t look like the son of Odin, as painted by Botticelli

Trying to center every single lesson and story around a particular Catholic something or other really complicates things that shouldn’t be complicated. It also requires bizarre leaps, like teaching “Jesus” as a sight word before “help”. Plus, it just smacks of indoctrination and annoys the crap out of me.

I dislike indoctrination. It’s one thing to teach religion and keep it present in our homes; it’s another to design curricula that have nothing to do with religion around religion. I think not teaching kids evolution as a scientific concept, whether or not you believe in it, is intellectually dishonest. This book isn’t intellectually dishonest, it’s just a very good curriculum made cumbersome and awkward by the attempt to frame it around Catholicism and Catholic experiences. It also bothers me that if, say, a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist were looking for a phonics curriculum with the criteria that the Little Angel Readers meet, they couldn’t use them without taking a course in Catholic theology and answering daily questions about another religion. I think that people who design curricula should design them with the goal of helping all children learn to read/write/whatever, not just good little Catholics.

All that aside, though, I do think it’s a solid phonics and grammar base and Sienna is learning very well from it. My own annoyances don’t seem to impact her (except for the times when we both sit hunched over a picture and our lesson turns into an extended game of Pictionary) and there have been opportunities to discuss things like guardian angels and obedience after reading certain stories, which I appreciate.

Math has been another story. We started with some basic workbooks and flashcards, but I quickly realized that I despise and loathe flashcards. I went with a friend’s suggestion and started RightStart Math, which I really like but which scares me.

All this crap comes with the Level A starter kit, which also freaked me out. Most of it is currently still in the box and hidden away under the bed so I don’t have to think about where I’m going to put it when we start using it all. Yikes.

I like it because it teaches math in an entirely different way. No counting; instead, the kids use an abacus and are encouraged to identify groups of objects or numbers as opposed to counting them up individually. This results in kids who can quickly add 9 and 4 in their minds by changing it to 10 and 3, as opposed to kids like me, who would count on their fingers (and still do). When the Ogre and I were discussing the curriculum, he said that this is how he is able to do math quickly in his head, that it’s something he’s instinctively done throughout his life. He’s much, much more proficient at math than I am, and he has the kind of mind that can understand and enjoy reading calculus and physics books. I really want our kids to be like that, instead of both terrified of math and completely bewildered by anything above simple division, like me. (Last year I discovered I had forgotten how to do long division and couldn’t figure it out again even after googling it, for example.)

Basically this curriculum is designed to mimic the way Japanese and Asian children are taught math. I like it. It seems solid. It’s fun to teach because it  requires lots of interaction and not much individual worksheet time. But it also frightens me because, as I said, I lack a grasp of math and I can’t understand where the curriculum is going. I’m afraid that as it gets up into the higher levels I won’t even be able to understand it. Or maybe I’ll learn with Sienna and discover that I can understand math in my old age. We’ll see.

The only other thing that really worries me about this curriculum is how incredibly other it is. It is a vastly different way of teaching math that is pretty much irreconcilable with the way math is traditionally taught here in the States. I worry that if we ever decide to put Sienna in school, she will be hopelessly lost in math because she’s been trained to think in such a different way. I don’t know, though. Maybe the program gives such a solid foundation that she’ll be able to pick right up and do the traditional work using the methods she’s learning right now. I hope that’s the case. 

Anyway, these two form the basis of her curriculum right now. We were doing science last semester with her co-op but I dropped it as a formal subject this semester. We spend lots of time looking up bugs and concepts like volcanoes online, though, so I figure she’s getting enough science for kindergarten. History I haven’t even touched yet; we’re reading D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, which is just beyond fabulous, and I like the idea of starting history with the Greek myths. Maybe next year we’ll move on to actual Greek history. For this year, though, I’m satisfied with the reading and math foundation that she’ll have at the end of the summer. (We’re not taking a summer break to make up for lost time during our move and to prepare for the time we’ll lose when the baby is born. That’s one nice thing about homeschooling.)

Speaking of homeschooling, go read this post. It made me laugh, and while I don’t agree with all of her arguments, I do agree that in this day and age, homeschooling is an emergency measure. It didn’t used to be; children used to be taught at home by tutors and sometimes had their educations supplemented by their parents (like Thomas More’s daughters). But that is no longer the cultural norm, and as such, I agree that homeschooling is not the ideal for modern parents who do not have the resources to educate children at home that our predecessors did. As the author of the post says,

But really, let’s be honest: homeschooling, even in the best of circumstances is far from ideal. It’s essentially an emergency situation. It is not a normal state of affairs, and it is not, however much like you might like to believe so right now, the best preparation for surviving in the job market. It may not be the worst, but it’s not the best, and in more cases than people seem willing to acknowledge, it is downright harmful.

I agree with half of that last sentence. I’m not sure about preparation for the job market; it seems to me that if you teach your children to work hard, work first, and play later, if you engage them in conversations and make sure they spend time doing activities with kids their own age, and if you educate them well, they should be more prepared for the job market than the average traditionally-schooled child. I think having a strong work ethic goes a long way, and the so-called “weirdness” of homeschooled kids tends to be dramatically exaggerated. From what I’ve seen, homeschooled kids can indeed be weird when they are younger, because they aren’t generally familiar with the ins and outs of playground social rules, but they tend to grow up to be articulate adults who are much more able to enter into a conversation with people of all ages on a variety of topics, whereas traditionally schooled children sometimes tend to not be comfortable speaking with people outside their immediate age range. But homeschooling can be downright harmful, and it often is, especially when too much of the burden is placed on an already exhausted mother of many other children. This sentence resonated with me more than anything else in the post:

And part of the reason for all of this is that learning at home simply cannot replicate the resources and opportunities of real schooling, although in trying to do so, many parents, in particular mothers, burn themselves out in sometimes decades-long struggles.

This seems to me to be the primary danger of being philosophically committed to homeschooling as the ideal. Ideals are great, as long as they can be be carried out in reality. But for some mothers who really want to homeschool or whose spouses really want them to homeschool, sometimes the reality of many children and a stressful life means that homeschooling is given a backseat, even if only out of necessity. Then the kids are getting shortchanged and their educations are neglected, the parents are wracked with guilt and trying to figure out how to stretch themselves even thinner, and essentially the entire family suffers as the parents try to live up to an ideal that has become impossible in reality. That is the primary reason I refuse to say, “we’re homeschooling all of our kids all the way through school.” I like homeschooling right now. Sienna is learning, I’m learning, we enjoy our time together, and I think it’s strengthening us as a family. If any of those things ceases to be true, though, I owe it to my daughter, my husband, and myself to honestly re-assess the wisdom of homeschooling and to be frank about both mine and Sienna’s limits.

All in all, I think every educational system has merits, obviously, otherwise no one would participate in or defend them. The danger comes when parents hold up one model as The Absolute Ideal and follow that ideal to the ends of the earth, even if it means their kids fall off the edge in the process.

Unless, of course, your Absolute Ideal is to raise an army of Jedis. It’s acceptable to lose a few in pursuit of the Awesome.


  • Claire

    We've been working through Right Start level B this year for my first grader. I think you'll learn right alongside Sienna. I used to be one of those, "hold on a sec, I need my calculator" people with no ability to do math in my head. Now my son and I race to see who can solve problems faster – and we're talking adding double digit numbers together, even those with answers over 100. I LOVE how Right Start teaches math. I don't know if my kids will end up back in traditional school at some point, but I'm not too concerned if they do. If anything, I think they'll be smoking through their math problems in their head and the worst part will be having to do the dreaded "show your work" stuff. (And he can, by the way – once you get into adding numbers over 100 together, RS does teach the whole carry the 1 thing and they do it on paper. But a lot of it remains mental.) Anyway, I've been very happy with RS and definitely plan to continue with it.Just thought I'd add my two cents. I'm not a math-y person either, but I think it will still work well.

  • Lady Harriet

    I'm not a parent, so I guess I'm coming at this from the other side of things. I went to public schools up until I went to Ave, with the exception of my 8th grade French class where my mom sort of homeschooled me. (I didn't do any work for most of the school year and ended up learning almost all of it in the last couple weeks of summer before I had to take my final exam.)As far as socialization goes, I think I have the problem usually attributed to homeschoolers–I'm just fine with adults significantly older than me, but awkward with people my own age. My brother, who also went to public school, has the same problem. College was really the only time I found it easier to make friends, maybe because I had a lot more in common with people there than anyone in my crazy hometown. Post-college, except for when I visit friends of mine from Ave, I don't spend any time with people my own age aside from work. (Wow, do I sound pathetic!) I've known some awkward homeschoolers, but I think some of us would be awkward no matter where we went to school!Career-wise, it's hard for me to tell, since the economy means that most people I know who graduated in the last few years are under/unemployed or in grad school. For what it's worth, probably the friend of mine who's been the most successful post-college was homeschooled up until she went to Ave. I've spent the year since I graduated flailing around in just about every aspect of my life. This is all anecdotal, though, and may very well have to do much more with our individual personalities than anything else.Also, if you hate the "Catholic everything!" type of textbook, stay FAR AWAY from any of the history books written by Anne Carroll. I don't have any personal experience with them thanks to my heathen public schooling, but all my history major friends who had them in Catholic schools or homeschooling have told me horror stories about them. (Amazon says there's only one book, but I remember hearing there were others too?)

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  • lydiapurpuraria

    Anne Carroll's stuff is pretty terrible. My husband is teaching a home school history class for some highschoolers we know who happened to have her stuff on hand. His historian-lawyer brain is fried from having to correct all her bad scholarship (if you can call it that). The one he's using is Lord of the Americas. There's also Christ the King, Lord of History. It's very cute how she glosses over the holocaust but spends an infinite amount of time over McCarthyism.

  • Tessa

    This might be a really daft question – but if you're in a Catholic university town with lots of young children, why isn't there a good school for them to go to? Given that there must be lots of highly qualified parents around who are passionate about learning…

  • Dwija {House Unseen}

    Wow, I totally disagree with this, Kristen. We sent our kids to public school for 5 years and now we're homeschooling. We don't hide from civilization and we truly actually enjoy what we're doing. They've learned more but were more relaxed and everyone has been happier. So yes, for us it truly is something that is superior than what public education was offering. There was no emergency. We just wanted to give it a try and it was awesome.

  • Dwija {House Unseen}

    Super Jesus curriculum makes me tear up with boredom. I don't want my kids to be bored with Jesus because of school just like I don't want them to be bored with Him because of bad Christian rock. And I don't want them to be bored with school because of sub-par educational materials that are being touted as Good just because they have pictures of saints in them. That's what I've had in mind as I shop for next year- that and the fact that I will have a 6th grader, a 5th grader, a kindergartner, a toddler and a newborn. So yeah, not a lot of hands-on stuff for us this time around I'm afraid. Worksheets will be my friend in 2012-2013, I can promise you that!

  • Jennifer

    I haven't stopped by in awhile, so when I just did, I was really happy to see a Homeschooling post. I'll start Levi this fall, and I've been thinking of researching it all. I just had another kid, so we're a little distracted right now. It's my third, and she was a surprise blessing like your 3rd, if I remember correctly? Anyway, thank you for the information. Love reading your posts!

  • Tally Marx

    "It is one thing to teach religion and keep it in our home; it is another to design curricula that have nothing to do with religion, around religion."Respectfully, I disagree. I think that if it is done correctly, there is no problem with it and it is far from indoctrination. I think that religion should permeate our education as much as it should our lives, and in much the same way. It would be intellectually dishonest to exclude something that doesn't square with the Faith, and it would be stifling–imaginatively and intellectually–to exclude everything that isn't about a saint. However, *everything* should be presented to children in such a way that it encourages and requires them to critically analyze what they are exposed to in light of the Faith. Even non-Catholic subjects, then, are Catholic, by virtue of the way they are analyzed. I was taught this way (homeschool graduate here!) for ten years, and it gave me a foundation in my Faith–and in media literacy generally–that I would have been hard-pressed to gain otherwise.

  • Kathy

    First off, I laughed out loud at the first and last pictures. Yes, my children are prepared for the zombie apocalypse, and they're pretty good with plastic lightsabers, too.I think I disagreed with almost everything in the article you recommended. Particularly disturbing was the quote you pulled:"And part of the reason for all of this is that learning at home simply cannot replicate the resources and opportunities of real schooling, although in trying to do so, many parents, in particular mothers, burn themselves out in sometimes decades-long struggles."And what I'm doing is… fake schooling? Gee, thanks. The author's prejudices (and they are many, nasty, and totally unsupported) show in this quote and some of the comment replies. (Fine, she doesn't want to homeschool, but does she have to bash it to make herself feel better?) True, I do not have all the cool chemistry and physics demonstrations that my high school did, nor will my kids get the experiences I got from public schools: people necking in the halls, drugs and alcohol on campus, oversexed classmates who felt obliged to share their evil fantasies or sex lives with me, cliques, openly anti-Catholic teachers, or totally amoral sex ed of the, "Well, since you're going to do it, have a free condom" type. And how do public schools (age-segregated with one near-stranger authority figure for eight hours a day) reflect the "real world" more than a family does? The schools around us are trying to get kids to volunteer in the community, visit the elderly, and mentor younger kids at school; they're trying to mimic what a family does naturally.People burn out on homeschooling trying to prove to bigots like that blogger that they are "real" schools, too, not because homeschooling is impossible. Hour-by-hour schedules for the whole year, Pledge of Allegiance, overscheduled on outside activities, music lessons, gym classes, etc. Do those if you want, but, as the parent, you have to determine how much is important to you and what is not. So many of those extras were packed into school days to bolster public schools' claim that they were better than any alternative.The purpose of schooling, as a Catholic parent, is to prepare my child for Heaven and for whatever work God has for him/her in this life. If I were dating, I'd want to know I was dating someone who shared those priorities and agreed on some possible ways to make that happen.Charming Disarray seems blissfully unaware that not all women think like she does (she sounds, at least in that post, like a standard feminist: "Gender-based responsibilities are evil and demeaning, even if voluntarily chosen!"), and many of us would consider an honest dater with marriage in mind a good guy, whether or not we wanted to homeschool.