Report about the boys, January 2016
I’ll dive right into H’s schooling. He’s now age 9.
The new tasklist orientation. This past year the biggest problem has been motivating him to study enough. Until November, it was a struggle. Although Mama’s helping quite a bit more, especially with E., H. still requires management and I still have to work full-time. While he can do quite a bit without being closely advised, if he’s not monitored, he’ll just do whatever he wants.
To get help with keeping him on track, we went through the long process of enrolling H. in Ohio Connections Academy. After testing he was admitted in the 8th grade in most subjects and 7th grade in math. So he was at OCA for one week in, I guess it was, November. I thought he’d be able to proceed through the curriculum at his own pace, but he really couldn’t, i.e., they aren’t flexible that way. OCA’s advertising and protestations to the contrary are spurious. The tasks are not really a la carte, either. H. ended up saying that he could learn a lot more doing “Papa’s curriculum,” and I had to agree.
Digression about OCA and public school curriculum
An aside—public school curriculum as represented by OCA’s Pearson texts (Connections Academy is owned by Pearson) looks very “meaty.” Kids are constantly doing things that certainly look educational and they’re hard to fault. The problem is that putting all that crap together amounts to a lot of busywork. A lot of assignments are basically repetitive or drilling what ought to be obvious or to be picked up on the fly. It’s more efficient (it has been for us) to stick mainly to reading high-quality books and do straight writing, math, and language study; much of the extra crap kids are drilled on ancillary to the main curriculum is incredibly annoying.
Language Arts texts, ugh, don’t get me started. H. was going to have to read just two chapter books for the semester. But on those books he was going to have to answer questions, take quizzes, do vocabulary sets, etc., etc., meaning he spent at least as much time with ancillary busywork as actually reading the book. Why not just answer some questions at the end the book, have him look up words he doesn’t know, then read another book in the same time? Worse than that—much worse—are the textbooks. Here we have short stories, nonfiction essays, poems, etc., which altogether looks great (although nonfiction should be studied in history and science). The trouble is that there is two or three times as much material padding all the readings. It’s appalling.
The history text was similarly ugh-inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, it seemed to be fairly well-written and comprehensive. The problem was that there were a zillion sidebars, too many pictures and other bells and whistles, and the text itself was a compilation of facts rather than anything resembling a narrative. This is not how to teach history.
The math and science curriculum was a bit better, but also suffered from the padding problem, albeit less so. H. likes the CK-12 biology set-up we have going much more, though, and Khan+IXL for math is hard to beat, for H. anyway.
There was also way, way, way too much testing/checking/quizzes over everything. That takes time, time that could be spent actually learning. I’m not referring to standardized tests. I’m referring to everyday quizzes and exams. Just way, way too much.
But we did bring from our failed experiment the excellent technique of breaking down the school day’s tasks into small chunks and getting them checked off (by me…hopefully to be passed on to Mama soon) regularly. The checklist discipline clarifies to H. exactly what we’ve decided he’ll work on. He can decide in what order he does things in, but he has to complete a whole “day’s” work before he moves on to the next “day.” Generally speaking a “day” requires anywhere from one to two days, maybe 1.5 days on average. The checklist discipline also helps me to decide how long to allot to H. for a task, and how long to set a timer after which I check in with him. For example, this was a recent checklist:
- Divisibility Rules (review)
- IXL Math 7.A.4. (15)
- Greatest Common Factor
- Pick a new novel to read. (10)
- Start reading it. (at least 20)
- Read Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, next 4-6 pages. (20)
- Make ~2 questions per three pages read about the presidents. (10)
- Do 30-45 minutes of CK-12 biology quizzes (up to but not past “Other Cell Organelles”). (30-45)
- Answer the questions about The Hunger Games. (30)
- Review to 100. (15)
- Review to 50. (15)
- Do next 15 minutes of Think Java. (15)
So far, so good: he’s done more work on an average day in the last six weeks or so than he has at any time in the last few years.
Math. H. is now working concurrently on IXL.com‘s 6th and 7th grade math. So, this is kind of weird. In my high school back in the early 1980s, most kids did pre-algebra in 8th grade, algebra in 9th grade, etc. If you were in honors classes, though, you’d do pre-algebra in the 7th grade, algebra in the 8th grade, and geometry in the 9th. So here’s the thing: IXL’s sixth grade is on the advanced track. Then they have two years, the 7th and 8th grades, doing pre-algebra. Algebra is supposed to be a 9th grade activity. (IXL doesn’t teach Calculus yet.)
As a result, and since the 7th grade stuff looked very doable, we decided to combine IXL’s 6th and 7th grade. If the 7th grade stuff is just a review of their 6th grade stuff, as it often is, I just make him get his IXL score for the 7th grade version up to 30, and if he does so without any mistakes, he can skip the rest. Anyway, that’s working out. The idea is that he’ll do this for the next six or nine months and then tackle IXL 8th grade, which does introduce quite a few new topics.
Khan Academy’s free videos at this level are finally quite good, so I just assign him to watch those before the topic comes up and lo and behold, he usually doesn’t need much help from me. That’s all we do for math now. Maybe when we get to algebra we’ll switch to a textbook. But at this point, we’ve tried Saxon and Singapore and a few others, and this seems to be most simpatico to H. I wish he liked a more substantive curriculum, but motivation is key, and with Khan, he does seem to be learning the concepts pretty well.
Writing. It’s been a long time since I had H. do anything like a systematic writing program, but I decided he needs systematic training in certain kinds of writing, even if he is able to put together decent sentences and paragraphs. So in November we started working on Writing with Skill. We’re going through it very slowly, maybe too slowly, because I still let him do “own choice” writing every other day, and I give him special assignments like poetry or, as recently, a speech (his speech is about why you should have a pet dog). Another “break” we took was to get feedback from Fiverr on a long story he wrote, then rewrite the story incorporating the feedback. That was fun. Anyway, I’d say his writing is progressing nicely.
He’s also occasionally been doing his own choice of IXL Language Arts topics and got hooked, for a little while anyway, on Vocabulary.com. He is still working in Cursive Writing Words (!) and I’m threatening to make him write some essays in cursive as soon as he’s done with that. He can type pretty quickly…up to 50 wpm or so.
Literature. As to literature, for a long time I was having him do an hour a day, except that for most of this year, he rarely did that. He did maybe an hour a day three times a week. So instead, after the Ohio Connections Academy experiment, I decided to make the assignments more reasonable: I’m having him do half-hour of reading actually daily. This works out much better than requiring an hour, and he’s made more consistent progress in his reading, with fewer of the “breaks” of many days that he used to take. Recently he finished The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Flies, and he’s almost done with The Wind in the Willows. I’m not sure I could tell you what else he’s read this year…definitely a fair few. E.g., he did read The Hobbit, and he read the first three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring but decided that it was boring (as a Tolkien fan, I was scandalized by this but I let it go; he’ll get the appeal later). I got him The Hunger Games after he read and enjoyed a few other dystopian novels, Anthem, Animal Farm, and The Giver.
Another thing we did (are still doing, too) was to compile an anthology of poetry. I’m not sure how we got into this. This was mostly his idea, and he’s still quite gung-ho about it. The dream is to co-author and eventually publish a poetry anthology for young people (ages 8 to 15 or so). We were doing this for about 30 minutes per evening, most evenings, last fall; but then we decided we needed to get back into the evening reading (e.g., we still haven’t finished Oliver Twist, which I started reading to him a long time ago). But we still work on it every so often and our intention going forward is to spend a couple of hours working on it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. We work together at the same time on this Google doc. Of course, I work more efficiently than he does, so I guess most of what you see there is my work, but H. does make a lot of contributions to every aspect of the production. We’ve also worked on transferring this document to a better-formatted MS Word version, but the text so far is pretty much the same.
This inspired some interesting poems from H. recently, the first doubtless inspired by “A Swing Song”:
No animal but
The bird is sly
Enough to venture
Into the sky.
Where any foe
Would love to go
Who cannot fly high
Up into the sky.
There once was a frog,
Who loved to sit
On a particular log.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To sit on any other.
There once was a frog,
Who loved to bathe
In a particular bog.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To bathe in any other.
History. This is a subject that we started very well on, with the first 1.5 books of The Story of the World read alongside three other history books. Then we started slowing down and since then it’s been pretty hit and miss. Under the new checkbox scheme, H. is finally making excellent forward progress in The Story of the World vol. 3 (done as of early January; soon to start vol. 4), as well as The Landmark History of the American People and Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, and occasionally something else. He also has to add questions to SuperMemo, which is one big reason why he’s made relatively slow progress; but he does remember some history as a result.
Science. Last summer or so we finally finished our study of chemistry. This included What’s Chemistry All About? as well as the two long sections about chemistry in the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (quite good). He read a big long book about the elements as well as How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients and some other things. Then we switched to biology last fall. This was quite cool, because his fairly in-depth exposure to chemistry prepared him to dive past middle school level biology and go straight to this free CK-12 Biology text. For the first time ever he’s doing most of his science study without me, which is great. I still have been reading What’s Biology All About? at the dinner table, which is very easy, but he still enjoys it. In addition to just reading the CK-12 text, I make him answer half of the comprehension questions, do all of the corresponding quizzes in the (stunningly good) CK-12 app, and add questions to SuperMemo.
Geography, etc. In an earlier version of this post I neglected to say anything about his geography study. Well, this has been a problem. We’re still working on U.S. geography, and I don’t think we’re even halfway through the states. In our evening reading, among several other things, we were working our way through the National Geographic U.S. Atlas for kids, and our progress was steady, but quite slow. Then last fall we dropped all of that for the poetry anthology and, though H. did read a few short “True Books” about U.S. regions, for the most part geography was dropped. More recently I started him reading the atlas by himself, and making SuperMemo questions, and I think he did that for 2-3 states. But he complained that it was boring, so for Christmas I gave H. a geography workbook with map-labeling and fact-drilling work. He seems to like this better. Anyway, I do hope with the checklist method we’ll get through U.S. geography this year.
H. has continued to do drawing and other art projects, mostly with Mama, at home—when given specific instructions, he has retained some of the ability he gained in his art classes, which he no longer takes (they were getting repetitive). He has also been practicing piano, but not very much; he’s basically been treading water for the last year, although he has learned to play with two hands and it getting more confident anyway. But he declares he doesn’t like it and we haven’t insisted very often.
Java/programming. For a long time I’ve been telling my programming-crazy son that he really must go all the way through a programming tutorial. Well, I said to myself, if he isn’t going to do it all on his own, I’ll just “make” him. It turns out that he’s very happy to be “made” to do this; he enjoys having the time (only 15 minutes per day) to do it. He goes through the text quickly—he started a few weeks ago and is around the end of chapter three of Think Java, which is written for high school preparing for the AP exam. He seems to be highly motivated and enjoying himself greatly, and so far isn’t complaining about any problems. On his own he has thoroughly learned Scratch, and has made some inroads into Visual Basic, and bits of other languages. He wants to be a programmer when he grows up.
Latin and Greek. Don’t ask me how, but in the nine months since my last update, we have gone through only pp. 39-63 in Benjamin D’Ooge’s Elements of Latin. We have also made more progress in Maud Reed’s Julia, as well as Mima Maxey’s Cornelia. In the last week or two, though, we put these down and started in on Orberg’s Lingua Latina, mostly because H. says D’Ooge is boring. I exhaustively compared the programs, and I have to admit that LL might be better for us at this stage. Although it seems we have done only a little work on Latin, we have not really been shirking too much. We have actually gone over several things repeatedly, done a hell of a lot of review (we spend half of our 30-45 minutes each morning on Latin in SuperMemo review). The stuff that we’ve learned, we’ve learned to death, and that includes the stuff in Julia and Cornelia. We have mastered a lot more vocabulary than what appears in D’Ooge.
As of just a few days ago, we decided to let H. finish by himself the books we’ve started reading together at night. Instead, we’ve started studying (for 20-30 minutes per night) ancient (Attic) Greek out of the same textbook I used in college, Athenaze. We’re still learning the alphabet…I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m motivated and so is H. He thinks the alphabet is pretty cool and he infers (he realizes this is an invalid inference, however correct the conclusion is) that the language must be pretty cool too.
Supermemo. Here’s one of our great success stories. At some point in November, I told H. he can finish 100 SuperMemo review questions in 30 minutes (why not?). I check after 15 minutes if he has finished 50, then after another 15 minutes I check if he has finished 50 more. A lot of the time I don’t really have to check at all—he almost always does it without getting distracted. He writes down the number he has left to do after each three minutes on a snazzy spreadsheet, which automatically calculates his rate of review (instant feedback is very handy), and so I hardly have to monitor him at all. He actually chooses to do Supermemo first thing in the day sometimes, which he never used to do.
Dinner reading. I still do reading to H. at dinnertime. This includes Help Your Kids with Language Arts on Mondays (now mostly done), What’s Biology All About? Tuesdays and Thursdays, poetry on Wednesdays, art and music on Fridays (shared between both boys), logic workbooks on Saturday (almost done with Orbiting with Logic, thus completing the Prufrock series—again, both boys are doing logic now), and, lately, a slightly modernized version of Pilgrim’s Progress on Sundays. The amazing thing is that E. at age 4 and 5 absorbed quite a bit of the chemistry and biology I’ve been reading to H., and as a result he’s doing very well on science; he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.
Anyway, that’s all I have time to write up, for now…I’ll add some info about E., now age 5 and addicted to “BrainPop,” soonish.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.