Infobitt's Future, and Mine

I've just posted the following announcement to the big Infobitt mailing list.

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Friends,

I have some unfortunate news. While I don’t wish to give up on Infobitt, we have run out of money. I’ve let the programmers go, and I’m looking for a job myself. But I'll still be contributing, and I hope you will too.

Before I say anything else, let me say thank you to the investors, my advisers (especially Terrence Yang), and especially the contributors. Thanks also to Vivy Chao, who has written the daily updates very well; Tim Chambers, who provided the awesome audio editions; and Ben Rogers, our technical adviser. And, of course, the readers!

Infobitt deserves to be rescued. It’s got an active, committed community, it’s an awesome idea, it works quite well at a small scale, and I'm confident it can be made to work at a large scale. So we’re very much open to new opportunities for Infobitt. Maybe you can help? I’ll explain how below.

Contents of this mail:

• If you keep at it, so will I
• What’s the core problem?
• Why I'm still excited about Infobitt
• What does Infobitt need?
• Potential partners
• How it can happen
• If not Infobitt: gigs I’d like to consider
• Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
• Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

If you continue to support Infobitt by writing bitts, adding facts, and so on, then I will too. I do hope that in the next few weeks or months, we’ll re-emerge, re-invigorated, with a new configuration of people who can really make things happen fast.

What’s the core problem?

1. Why don’t we do a proper launch? Because the software works OK only at a small scale. It desperately needs certain features if we are to benefit from the massive traffic we’d get after a proper launch. If we launched now, we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb the new arrivals. (That’s what happened after my Reddit AMA.)

2. So why don’t we just code up the features we need? Because our outsourced software is buggy, complicated, and lacks automated tests, all of which means it’s hard to maintain, and would become more so as we add more (badly needed—see below) features.

3. So why don’t we just raise the money? Because we’re out of money, which makes fundraising very hard. Besides, we need an active, productive team to raise money, and at this point it’s just me, a sole founder.

4. So why don’t I get some co-founders? Yes, just my thinking...read on.

Why I'm still excited about Infobitt:

• Unlike every other news startup I know of, we are actively, daily creating a purely volunteer, Wikipedia-like front page news site. Infobitt works as no other crowdsourced news startup does. It's been working, in its current version, for about a year now—really working, even if our traffic numbers are still small. That can change (see below).

• People are still working on it, and not just a few, but over 25 every week, and that's on an obscure project that still hasn't been properly launched and is rarely discussed in the media. Regularly, I see old hands getting excited again and new people getting into it. We are onto something.

• I absolutely love your loyalty and I don't forget the people who have helped my projects. You are the lifeblood of Infobitt.

• I've seen evidence of deeper support for Infobitt from outside our active community. There are people waiting in the wings, waiting for the software to get better, waiting to be able to share their work, waiting for it to get easier (e.g., a browser plugin to add facts by selecting text on a page and pressing a button to add to Infobitt), etc.

• When I work more on it, you do. If I were enabled to work full time just on growing the community—if I had the time to write 10 bitts per day, comment and add facts, do more tweeting and blogging, and especially if we were launched and I could do interviews about it, then the community would grow like gangbusters.

What does Infobitt need? So...why aren't we there yet?

• We need a better API. (Our automatically-created Python/Django API lacks many features, although it works.)
• Then we need apps (which use the API). (But a high school kid has actually made one based on our existing API, but it’s not released yet.)
• We need to add some insanely obvious features:

• Fact editing!
• View counts!
• Choose a bitt's rank from within the bitt!
• Social sharing!
• FB/Twitter login.
• Email notices.
• Automatic newsletters.
• Tags/categories.
• Browser plugin to start/expand bitts quickly.
• We've also got serious bugs to fix.
• Any one of these would inject new life into the project. All of them would make this a popular and growing website, I think.

• Then, we need to be properly launched.
• We've got to make the software faster and more resilient for when high traffic arrives.
• I’ve got to start doing interviews. But first we need to be positioned to benefit.

To be brutally honest, I never should have tried to start a startup as a sole founder. I need others on board as partners, who are passionately committed to our mission and to making it a success. I'm doing too many jobs at once, when my forte, what I need to be focused on, is community and project development.

Potential partners. I assume that many of Infobitt’s best potential partners will be reading this, or will know people who are reading this—and you can forward this mail to them. Here is what we need:

• Awesome engineers: Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL. Solid sysadmin type skills, including experience on AWS, would be most welcome. Somebody who can improve our API so people can make full-featured apps around our (open content) data. Maybe more exciting would be somebody who is inspired (and, of course, positioned) to write Infobitt from scratch, in a more reliable form.

• Designers. (But we need engineers on board first, to be able to use design work.)

• Maybe eventually one or two community people to help me.

How it can happen. Here are some categories of people or organizations who might be interested in joining me and helping to turn Infobitt around:

• Remarkable individuals, especially those are free to work for equity or who might want to buy into the company. Especially awesome engineers who are on top of Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL, sysadmin, AWS.

• Existing startups, or idle startup teams, that want to pivot to Infobitt, who are interested in working with me. Again, free to work for equity or who want to buy into the company.

• Big nonprofits or fast-moving universities (ha ha). Theoretically, we could become nonprofit, open source, and open content. This would probably make it easier for Infobitt to succeed, assuming the project funding were adequate, but Infobitt's investors obviously would like to make money.

• An investor that wants to buy Infobitt, build a team, and will hire me (with significant equity) and assign me to work on it.

Such people (or entities) would have to buy a major stake in the company and, presumably, hire me as an employee. I’m cool with that.

As far as I'm concerned, everything is on the table. I’ll be interested in anything that has a reasonable chance of making Infobitt a success.

Other gigs I’d like to consider

If nobody bites on Infobitt, here are some opportunities that would intrigue me:

• Full-time worker on somebody else’s startup. Community leader, project manager, or you tell me. I’d prefer to work from home most of the time.

• Adviser. For the right sort of project, I can help a lot. I’m an endless fount of ideas and very useful critical feedback.

• Writer/analyst/advocate. About education, homeschooling, very early reading, the Internet, rescuing the Enlightenment, philosophy, etc. (from a libertarian, rationalist perspective, if relevant). I’m also a practiced public speaker. I’m interested in working for a nonprofit advocacy group.

I'd be excited to execute either of a couple ideas I've had:

Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
I started writing an intro to philosophy for elementary students, a chapter book, back in 2012. Here’s the first chapter. I’d love to finish it quickly, and use the text to make the world’s first complete set of videos about philosophy for kids approximately 5-10 years old. Here’s the first video. It would take about three months for me to finish if I work on it full time.

Thing is, to support this project, I need at least $17,500. I’d love to do this and make the next generation a bit more hip to the liberal arts and the Enlightenment. I started designing a Kickstarter about this, but I haven't finished it.

Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool
Are you a philanthropist? Want a high-impact way to support online education for kids everywhere? Pay me me to make 2-3 videos per day like these. Most of those 24 videos got over 10,000 views after a few years, and my top ten have over 50,000 views apiece (with one at 750K). They’re easy for me to make, I’m good at it, and I love to do it. Also, my 4-year-old will beta-test for free! I envision a library of thousands of videos like these...think of it as an awesome free online preschool. By the way, if you want to pay me per video, to make sure I don’t waste your money, let’s do it!

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry


Some unpopular opinions

Here are some unpopular opinions, for your outrage or delight.

1. One of the biggest but least recognized reasons that American school system sucks—and it most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we homeschool.

2. A large contingent of geekdom is actually anti-intellectual, too, as paradoxical as that might sound. Not all; certainly not my friends.

3. The most important purpose of education is not vocational education, but to train and liberate the mind, to create fully competent and responsible free citizens of a free republic. This, contrary to the much-celebrated Sir Ken Robinson, is not "boring stuff." We've got to adopt the right educational goals, lest we continue to suffer great opportunity costs of various inefficient educational methods. It's a goddamned shame that national treasures like Marva Collins have not been listened to and learned from.

4. Knowledge—which is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn't matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. If we could only jettison our distaste for memory work, we might learn the tremendous advantages of spaced repetition.

5. Television is mostly a friggin' waste of time. You're better off without access to broadcast and cable TV. You can watch the good stuff on your own time via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

6. Latin and Greek are still good languages for kids to study.

7. Yes, babies can read. Robert Titzer (of Your Baby Can Read fame) was badly misunderstood and unjustly attacked. At least, babies can start to learn to read. By the time they're preschoolers, they can read well. This doesn't require pressure in any way. It's fun. Maybe you just didn't know this. Try to keep an open mind.

8. Joyful, disorganized early education can generally do great things for little kids. It's a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids exit first grade without knowing how to read.

9. All that just goes to show you that experts can be really friggin' dogmatic, or so I find, as much as I do respect them. They're highly susceptible to groupthink, and we must not confuse devotion to science and scholarship with uncritical acceptance of whatever trends happen to be in the ascendancy among the current generation. Follies are frequently collective, even among smart, well-educated people. Sad, but all too true.

10. Another example of dogmatic experts: yes, we do have free will, properly understood. Oh-so-clever science students stupidly assume that science alone can establish the contrary. They pretend not to be doing philosophy, when that is exactly what they are doing (albeit badly). They are annoying in their stubborn failure to understand the issues. Compatibilist free will is the only sort of freedom we need.

11. Our university system is broken, but it's a huge mistake to conclude that college is a waste of time. I propose that we pop the education bubble by creating a new, more independent and modular system of higher education, with degrees by examination among other things.

12. It makes no sense to use reason to call into question the use of reason. "He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses," said one of my heroes, Thomas Reid. It is per se rational to begin our reasonings from the principles of what philosophers like Reid and G. E. Moore called "common sense."

13. An objective morality does exist. Relativism is dangerous and wrong. It is not the case that, if God is dead, everything is permitted. As Aristotle knew, life itself is the basic good that underlies our moral judgments; so our basic duty is to live well.

14. While in some ways Western civilization has never been more powerful and enlightened, it has also become morally and intellectually arrogant, sclerotic, and stunted. This can't end well.

15. More specifically, I am appalled and saddened by how cynical and morally bankrupt so many people can be today when acting as part of governments, bureaucracies, parties, corporations, schools, social cliques, the dating scene, gangs, law enforcement, publishing, etc., etc.—and when our supposed intellectual leaders mostly avoid moral judgment of the contemptible behavior that takes place in these social contexts. Corruption and cynicism are not OK; it doesn't matter if "everybody's doing it." Someday I'll write an essay, or a book, about this.

16. We've lost our moral and intellectual bearings. Religion is no longer a unifying force, of course. Even the formerly unifying ideals of western civilization—knowledge, freedom, dignity, excellence, self-control, etc.—have come under attack by much of our intelligentsia. Ideology is no substitute; no, nothing substantial is in its place. As a society, we're sleepwalking. It's alarming. Again, it can't end well.

17. Goddamned Hollywood is a morally depraved hot mess. They have got to get their house in order. They generally don't deserve our attention beyond any worthwhile entertainment they happen to produce.

18. I'm sorry if this offends, and I'm not saying this about my many liberal friends, who are generally very original and brilliant, but I'm going to say it anyway: conventional, dull, social-climbing, ambitious people are now mostly liberal or progressive Democrats. Being a lefty is no evidence that you are a smart nonconformist, not that it ever was. There are still plenty of dull, conventional conservatives too, of course. But at some point we've got to start talking about big-government left-wingers in this country as "conservatives," just as unreconstructed communists in the old Soviet Union were called "conservatives." Then I'll ask for the good old word "liberal" back.

19. I am particularly appalled by the illiberal hostility that certain left-leaning students, and some older people as well, are showing toward the fundamental American ideals of free speech and intellectual tolerance. In the Facebook alumni group for my alma mater, the uber-liberal Reed College, a lot of older liberals share my consternation at these trends; no, they aren't conservative or even libertarian.

20. Jonathan Chait is correct that there is a new political correctness. We have become too sensitive and rely far too much on dismissive arguments regarding how people have allegedly broken new social norms that not everyone shares. We ought instead to engage on issues of substance. That we don't is really screwing up our civic culture.

21. Speaking of political incorrectness, I have some guilty pleasures on YouTube that aren't quite politically correct for me to admit to liking. I admire their outspokenness, their intellectual courage in an increasingly censorious age, and their thoughtfulness. Let me introduce you to them:

Pat Condell. In-your-face atheist, old-fashioned liberal, vociferous defender of free speech. I might not always agree with him—actually, I often do—but in any case, I admire his spirit.

Karen Straughan. I'm really going to catch it for endorsing her, so let me just say first that I'm not convinced that her general take on feminism is right—it's a lot to process and I need to think her views through more (a book would help). Still, I love that she's a bisexual single mother and yet has the courage to comes down, hard, against the bigger stupidities of radical feminism. She comes across as remarkably articulate, intelligent, and frequently shows she's done a lot of research; it's hard to believe she doesn't even have a college degree. She's going to be famous in 10 years if not sooner.

I also like the brand of feminism of my fellow philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; I have ever since reading her Who Stole Feminism? back in the 1990s.

"Rockin' Mr. E." He's sort of a long-haired Greek-Welsh cross between Pat Condell and Karen Straughan. Again, I don't always agree, often because his arguments would require research and thought to evaluate properly—but I often do find myself inclined to agree, anyway. I appreciate his nonconformist, independent spirit, anyway. And his chops on the electric guitar.

Let the sneering begin!

I'm sure I've managed to piss off everybody to some extent. I swear this isn't my intention. I'm not a troll because I actually believe what I say and think it actually important to say. I do own up to being a gadfly and possibly a pretentious, annoying git. But a troll, no.


How to pop the education bubble

1. Soul-making and the education bubble

One of my biggest pet peeves is the reduction of education to an economic transaction—to the gaining of marketable skills in exchange for fees.

That's all wrong.

Professional and vocational education is all fine and well, but education at the K-12 and college level is essentially soul-making. To be educated, we must be liberated from our prejudices, from our bad habits of lazy thinking, from our tendency to rely upon emotional reaction and dogma in place of critical analysis. To be well and liberally educated, we must learn to value the truth and how to seek it, and we must be given background knowledge and academic tools to do so.

I think there's a crying need for this today. All too much of what I encounter online that passes for argument seems to be more the spewing of reactions and dogma than the rational support of conclusions based on evidence, reasoning, and credible research.

We need to be better educated.

But let's face it: there's an education bubble. As many have pointed out (e.g., this guy and this one, both of whom were well-educated), education has become too expensive for "mere" soul-making.

Tuition at my alma mater, Reed College—one of the few colleges left that are still wholeheartedly committed to the liberal arts—rose from around $14,000 to $18,000 when I was there. (If I remember right.) The cost has simply continued to rise. The coming school year will cost $50,000. Of course, it's not the most expensive: Harvard is up to $60,000. That's absolutely insane. That does not reflect the real value of what one pays for when one attends college. It's clearly and simply a bubble.

But to say it's a bubble is to say it can be popped. How? Won't there always be an enormous demand for the connections and status conferred by an elite degree?

Well, no. Not if the price continues to rise. The market will find a way. Eventually, many of the best and brightest, even students from rich families who can afford to pay the tuition bill, will balk at the opportunity cost and seek, or create, cheaper and better alternatives.

2. What people want (and don't want) out of a college education

I made the contentious claim that Harvard's $60,000 tuition "does not reflect the real value" of a Harvard education. OK, OK, I don't really know if that's true. In fact, I don't even know what the words "the real value of an education" would mean. But let me explain what I was thinking.

Here's what's valuable about a college education:

• The credential itself.

• Knowledge and academic skill—and the liberal effects thereof.

• Marketable skills.

• The enjoyable "college experience," consisting both of the joy of learning and the forging of meaningful (not just mercenary) relationships.

• Connections formed via friends and acquaintances and within an alumni community. These can be very valuable at elite colleges.

• Recommendations professors are willing to make to graduate school or employers.

• The credential itself.

• Other things (e.g., it's easier to get into grad school at the university where you went to college; connections with researchers or practitioners in the field).

I don't know what all that's worth, but it's a heck of a lot. The thing is, we already know it's overpriced—because college tuition has gone up much faster than inflation, while the value of education has not increased. If anything, since more people have college degrees, and a lot of them are unemployed, the economic value of the degree has decreased.

The fact is, the things listed above, as valuable as they might be, can be had for a hell of a lot less than $60,000.

We also want a college education to treat us like adults with brains of our own. So there's another reason the education bubble needs popping: the system of higher education is increasingly politicized. For libertarians like me, it's ripe for revolution. A lot of people are disgusted with the fact that college, at least in the humanities and social sciences, has become as much a place of political indoctrination as of legitimate education. I remember some professors being extremely biased, back in the day; one could learn from them, but it was annoying. Things are several times worse now.

In addition, as a guy, I certainly would be thinking twice if I were getting ready for college, with so many stories of spurious harassment charges and so many students apparently incapable of handling controversial issues without freaking out (see the links listed in this Quora question). I think college should be a time of bold intellectual exploration, with students willing to fearlessly question and discuss anything together. I doubt I'd want to pay $50,000 per year in order to walk on eggshells around hyper-sensitive classmates, only to be indoctrinated by half of my professors.

Oh yeah, there's a bubble, and it's ready to be popped.

3. How to pop the bubble

The big question is, how on earth can we get the huge benefits conferred by college education, without actually going to college?

If we could answer that question, we'd have instructions for lancing the boil.

So here's my solution. (The following is an updated version of this old manifesto of mine from 1995.) This is what I might tell my boys when they're ready to start university-level study. It wouldn't be free, but it'd a lot cheaper than a college degree.

First, how to get the credential:

(a) Plan on getting your degree itself by examination. Degree-by-examination programs already exist. So that problem is solved.

But you probably need more than such a degree, particularly if you want to go to graduate school or get certain high-powered jobs. So:

(b) In addition, plan to pay a distinguished expert to test you in your major. I think that, when there is a demand, comprehensive and prestigious exam services will come into being. Basically, you register for an exam, you pay $100 or $1,000 (it really depends on how comprehensive it is and how good the examiners are) to sit the exam, and at the end, the institution awards you a degree. Until such programs come into being, you arrange to have a private written, oral, and/or practical exam with a distinguished expert. Then you'll be able to say, "Famous and distinguished scholar Dr. Knowitall gave me a final eight-hour written and oral exam about my subject area of  Wonkology. Dr. Knowitall judged my level of mastery to be 'Very Superior,' which is defined as 'superior to 90% of students awarded a bachelor's degree.'" I think you'll be able to find plenty of graduate programs that wouldn't accept that sort of recommendation in lieu of an actual bachelor's degree. And if one such examination doesn't seem persuasive to graduate schools or employers, arrange for two or three from different scholars.

But what about actually getting the knowledge and academic and marketable skills? How does one do that?

(c) With plenty of help, execute a program of independent study. When you've decided to start getting an actual college education, head on over to a city with lots of colleges and highly-educated people. Boston and the Bay Area are obvious choices, but there are many others. Audit classes—many professors don't care if you sit in on their lectures. For purposes of getting feedback on your work, hire tutors. Find the most distinguished professors you can who are willing to help (for a fee; and be prepared to pay a fair bit, as they are worth it). Get a guest library card from a large academic library. If I were advising my sons on how to do this, I would tell them to hire a freelance academic adviser to help them plan and manage their studies in the way described here. Such a person might also help motivate the student, and make sure he or she doesn't get off track.

The more people do this, the more a group of independent students might be able to get together and pay professors in the area for independent courses, a la carte. And of course if there are enough people doing that, then support mechanisms—apps, companies serving basically as registrars—would inevitably come into being. What I would not recommend is simply cracking open books and viewing The Great Courses, as excellent as they might be. Of course that could be part of your program, but I recommend against becoming an autodidact. A real education absolutely requires (a) discussion, preferably with peers as well as professors, and (b) feedback on your written and oral work, which you use to improve. It's best if both (a) and (b) are done face-to-face, but today, no doubt some of this work will be done via the Internet.

But what about the "college experience" and the social connections you get from college? Where could they come from?

(d) Seek out like-minded students to study and live with. A central part of a new ecosystem of independent study would be, one hopes, study groups and shared housing, like independent dormitories. The idea is that a group of students all starting to study the same subject might rent a house together, near some big prestigious university. This might forge relationships very similar to those found in the college setting. Such houses might invite professors to teach classes. (Speaking as a former college instructor, I have to say that that sounds like a blast.) Other academic social activities—invited lecturers, etc.—can be organized via the Internet and would no doubt be supported by a highly entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting such independent study. (Digital Badges and Uncollege are two forays in this direction.)

Perhaps, as such an ecosystem begins to cause problems for universities, some universities themselves might support the independent students in various ways. This is what happened when distance education started getting popular in the 1990s.

What about official letters of recommendation?

(e) Relationships between tutors and independent scholars would naturally be closer than between professors and students. The tutors would probably know and be better able to write letters and make other recommendations than they do for regular college students. Obviously, we won't know the details until we've done more experimentation, but there's no reason to suppose someone who has undergone a course of study described above could not find a berth in graduate school or industry, directly with the help of distinguished experts who know the students' work very well.

If enough students followed the path of independent study, there would be various competing national testing services capable of vouching for your level of expertise in a subject and for your overall educational attainment. One advantage of such a system is that it would be potentially more meritocratic: rather than saying you have an English degree from Harvard, you would say that you scored a 96 (out of 100) on the Yalvard B.A. English exam and an 83 on the Yalvard B.A. General Liberal Arts exam. To be able to reach such scores, you would not necessarily need to attend an elite school. But such scores might well get you into graduate programs, and they would naturally open other doors as well.

The system envisioned would replicate the college experience, but without the college and without the exorbitant college fees. I'm sure you could get away with paying instructors $10,000 per year or less; maybe much less. The biggest risk that I can see is that the economies of scale don't exist yet, making a bit of the plan less feasible, or harder to execute anyway, for the early adopters. But not a lot of it.

It's a little like homeschooling for college (a notion Dale Stephens was talking about a while back). Public schools in the U.S. are so unsatisfactory to so many people that a significant number of parents (like me) are opting out of the system and doing it themselves. The affordances of the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of the early 21st century could combine to enable a bunch of people to drop out of high-priced colleges and come together in a less-expensive but still high-quality, less-politicized, face-to-face system.

And it sounds like fun to me. It almost makes me wish I were a college student myself, because if I were, this is almost certainly what I would want to do.

A final bonus: the early adopters can make a business out of it after they've learned how to do it and worked the bugs out.


Report about the boys, April 2015

First, H., age 8. The trouble now is that H. is now mostly "unschooled," not by choice but by necessity. While Mama is now taking on a lot more homeschooling responsibilities, especially now that E. is no longer a baby and Infobitt requires so much of my time, she leaves a lot to H.'s choice, which means that I still occasionally (a few times a day) monitor his work. Things we still do 100% together, as ever, include Latin, piano lessons, science reading at dinnertime, and other reading at bedtime.

Latin. We're now on p. 39 of Benjamin D'Ooge's Elements of Latin, which we are studying thoroughly, supplemented by repeated readings (and vocabulary memorization) from Maud Reed's Julia, an excellent short Latin reader that begins very simply and gradually becomes more difficult. We spend about 1/3 of our Latin study time reviewing everything using SuperMemo. Note that we had already finished Getting Started with Latin and gotten to Level 3 of Rosetta Stone Latin. As a result, although we're proceeding through D'Ooge, our main text, at a snail's pace, after some review we have everything in the book up to the point we are studying down cold. Also as a result, when we sit down to do the exercise portions of the text, we generally have little trouble with them. In my experience, this is the proper way to study a foreign language: make sure you understand everything and have thoroughly practiced everything before you proceed to the next chapter.

D'Ooge is awesome. It is an unapologetic old textbook in the grammar-translation method, but that isn't what makes it awesome. It's just very well done. It's gradual, it has just the right amount of review, it's very clearly and precisely written, and it prepares the student to read Caesar's Gallic Wars, and how cool is that? At our present pace (considering we're supplementing with Julia) we'll probably take 2-3 years to get through, but then H. will be 10 or 11, and to be done with a high school level textbook at that age is fine with us!

Math. H. has been doing Splash Math exclusively for many months now and is 95% done. Should be done in another week or less. No more long struggles with Saxon, we're delighted to be completely done with 5/4. After this we'll do another fifth grade math curriculum, probably Singapore, then move onto sixth grade. Also he has watched the entire Mathtacular 3.

Literature. Here are the more literature-y books he's read recently (last year? Last six months? I'm not keeping track at this point):

  • Collodi, Carlo. Adventures of Pinocchio.*
  • Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach.
  • Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain.
  • Gipson, Fred. Old Yeller.*
  • Heinlein, Robert. Starman Jones.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Kingfisher Epics version.
  • Latham, Jean Lee. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.
  • L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Lofting, Hugh. The Story of Doctor Dolittle.*
  • London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. Junior Classics version.
  • Norton, Mary. The Borrowers.
  • O’Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.*
  • Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet.
  • Pene du Bois, William. The Twenty-One Balloons.
  • Raskin, Ellen. The Westing Game.
  • Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
  • Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.*

Several of these I'd read to him earlier, between the ages of 3 and 5 (these are marked with *). In addition I think he went through the entire Henry Huggins series once again, then read the first 3-4 Ramona books, and did more of his beloved Hardy Boys; I think he's up to #15 or so there. Other stuff too no doubt.

As to writing about what he reads, I'm afraid we've all fallen down on the job there. He rarely writes anything about what he reads, and I just don't have time to make him. I did start him doing "brain dumps" about a few books he's read lately (Johnny Tremain and a history book), which means: writing for 5-15 minutes without stopping (pauses of longer than five seconds are disallowed) in which you say basically the first thing that comes to mind about the book. Worked pretty well but we'll see.

Also, I read to him at night...not nearly as much as we used to. The reason is that I stopped making sure he does review (SuperMemo) during the day, and as a result, half the time he ends up spending our reading time in the evening doing review. It's kind of sad. I think we'll improve. Anyway, we did finish Huckleberry Finn, after H. finished reading it to himself. I did start reading the original KJV Bible, but that's of course going super-slow; we're still in the book of Genesis. We're making SuperMemo questions about it. Anyway, we mostly read other stuff at night (see below).

Writing. I've again given up doing anything systematic. I simply tell him to write something, and he typically does. My biggest regret here is that he rarely finishes anything, although he does write a lot, and he continues to write with prodigiously good spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc. Almost everything he writes these days has something to do with computers. He knows stuff about computers I don't know. My big plan at the moment is to get him to do "brain dumps" for 5-10 minutes after each half hour of reading that he does, somewhat according to the Charlotte Mason method. He's done that last Thursday and Friday and it seemed like a good experiment, but we'll see if we can keep it up. I've impressed upon H. very clearly that he must start writing a lot more about what he reads now, and that his goal is to get comfortable and proficient enough at doing so that it will not be too hard to write regular essays, rather than disorganized "brain dumps," about what he reads.

Grammar. Every Monday at dinner I read and explain to him 2-4 pages from Help Your Kids with Language Arts. Occasionally, he'll do a lesson from the Marie Rackham "Splashes from the River" Cozy Punctuation course, and I've been trying to get him to do exercises from another punctuation book, although that's very slow going. He gets plenty of grammar, of a better quality, from Latin study. But of course that's not enough, because English grammar and punctuation etc. is different from Latin.

Piano. H. continues to practice a few hours, all together, per week. I give him 15-30 minute lessons on average around three times a week, on a good week. He continues to progress, although slowly. His heart isn't really in it.

History. By last fall we had finished The Landmark History of the American People, Vol. 1, and had read the corresponding parts of our usual history books, and then I decided we'd read key historical documents at the same time, 15 minutes per day. Well, that went on for a while but then I felt like I didn't even have time for that. In any event we did carefully study, twice and with a commentary, the Declaration of Independence. Then we did all but a couple pages of the Constitution. He started (but as usual didn't finish) some very impressive explication documents about the Declaration and the Constitution. We made SuperMemo questions about this, so H is pretty awesome for an 8 year old at his basic civics stuff. He read some other supplementary chapter books about American history, one about the Revolutionary War, one about Thomas Jefferson, one about Tom Paine; other stuff too I think. But sadly I'm now long out of the habit of reading history to him. I do intend to go through the Amendments with him. I did finish reading to him a Q&A USA book section about Indians (native Americans); I think he read another book about Indians himself. More recently he's started and got halfway through Beesly's Stories from the History of Rome, a very easy old text for elementary grades. I was happy that he volunteered to read this himself, when I told him, "You have to start reading history on your own." He's read bits from different books in the "Horrible History" series, but doesn't do that so much anymore. I told him he needs to read a bunch more history stories on his own, like 50 pages a day preferably, and I think I might be able to get him to do something like that.

SuperMemo/review. H. does some amount of review every day, aiming at 150 questions reviewed per day. His recall percentage has dropped to something like 80%, of course because there are so many questions and he doesn't do all the questions the software wants him to do. He can do his 150 in 30-60 minutes, and rarely reviews for longer than that, no matter how many he's gotten through. Again, since we're more or less unschooling, discipline has fallen down here and he ends up doing only 50 per day a few days per week. If you were to ask me whether SuperMemo has magical effects on memory, I'd say probably not. It is a good way to review, but the effects seem similar to what he'd get from re-reading old notes occasionally. On the other hand, he is phenomenally good at remembering passwords, even ones I'd never bother to try to remember, and other numbers. But this might have nothing to do with SuperMemo.

Science. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, ideally, at dinner, I'm reading chemistry books to H. We've got 3/4 through the two very meaty Usborne Science Encyclopedia sections about chemistry, and have written and reviewed questions about all that as well. Then I got tired of writing questions so much so I decided to start reading What's Chemistry All About? to him. We're close to finished with that now. The great thing about dinnertime reading is that E., at age 4, is actually able to understand 75% of what I'm reading to H., so the time isn't wasted. He read a whole coffee table-type book about the elements (a two- or more page spread about each element, with emphasis on what they are used for), and also has continued to read or re-read the Horrible Science series. In that series he reads across all scientific subjects, so I am pleasantly surprised to find that he knows basic stuff about DNA etc. Also, we have continued to do occasional simple experiments, for the benefit of both boys. H. has done some stuff all by himself; he took my kitchen scale (for calorie counting, you know) and made a big long table of items and how much they weighed. Then he gave the same treatment with a ruler and yardstick. I made sure he included metric columns as well.

Dinnertime reading: Poetry, Religion, Logic, occasional Art History. On or around Wednesdays every week at dinnertime, I read H. (and E.) poetry. We're still doing mostly children's poetry but some of the stuff is getting pretty advanced. Occasionally I aim the poetry reading at E. as well as H. and we do easier stuff. I don't know what book we're using...does it matter? We've gone through many thick poetry books by now, one dinnertime per week at a time. Typically I read the poem, but if H's attention seems to be flagging the least bit (and it often does), I make him read the poem. Then we read it again. Sometimes we read for meaning first, then quickly a second time; sometimes it's the other way around. Occasionally we read a poem three times, and occasionally only once (if it's really obvious). We usually get through 2-3 poems per day, depending on how long they are.

As to religion, we've been going through two pages at a time a book called What do you believe? It suffers from the usual problem of these sorts of encyclopedic-type books, viz., it doesn't make up much of a narrative, and understanding religion is all about understanding narratives. Still, it's a good general introduction, and we'll gradually get into the details of each major world religion, as we've already been doing with regard to Christianity. Anyway we do religious studies every Saturday (no particular significance of that).

Every Sunday it's logic (OK, maybe this one does have significance); he does two pages of that long Bonnie Risby/Prufrock Press series of logic books, or only one page if they're very hard. He's about to finish Logic Liftoff and to start Orbiting with Logic, the very last book in the entire series. After this I greatly look forward to moving to some basic but actual logic texts and none of this analogies stuff. Still, as I said before, I don't regret going through this stuff. It's a good brain builder and I think has been a good preparation for the more difficult logic stuff. And there has been some legit logic in the series, especially the last few books; I had to explain the difference between inclusive and exclusive or, and he immediately started working on an unfinished essay explaining why "or" must be understood in the exclusive sense (a common beginner mistake—made by college freshmen).

As to art history, well, we've been reading the rather crappy Art Book for Children, Book Two. I don't know why we haven't given it up. Maybe the spectacle of pretentious crap that goes under then name "art." That's part of our world too. But after this I think I'll start reading from the "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" series (e.g., Degasso E. and H. can both be exposed, or newly exposed, to some actual art at once. It's always nice to have stuff that can be enjoyed and learned by both an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old.

Geography. The only geography we do these days is occasional readings from a U.S. atlas at night. We used to do more, when I read/studied 15 minutes of geography to/with him daily, but no time for that now. I think I'll be having him do a lot more geography reading himself.

Law. Oh, I almost forgot about law. We've been reading Everyday Law for Young Citizens by son-mother/lawyer-teacher team of Eric B. Lipson and Greta Barclay Lipson. It's a general introduction to the law, aimed at 5th to 9th grade. H. read ahead through the entire book months ago but now I'm reading and discussing in some detail everything, and making SuperMemo questions. We're almost done...p. 86 of 109. At one point the book referred to Brown v. Board of Education, and for whatever reason H. decided he wanted to read the case. So we printed it out and I attempted to try to read and explain it to him, but it was pretty hard. He was later reading it to himself, although I have my doubts as to how much of it he actually understood. So anyway, since he likes the subject of law, I also bought him Law 101 and started reading a bit in that, but we won't get to that until we're done with Everyday Law.

Computer stuff. I rarely try to teach H. computer stuff anymore. He's off enthusiastically on his own, learning everything he can about computers. Yesterday he got all excited and we went to the bookstore to buy a book about building your own computer. He has thoroughly mastered the capabilities of Scratch, has learned many of the basics of Python, and is now interested in Small Basic and Visual Basic. He also makes batch files and started learning command line stuff. He installed two different versions of Linux (some basic Ubuntu and then Uberstudent, which he continues to use). For writing he's supposed to be researching for and writing a research report about processors. Anyway, this is obviously his hobby—his obsession, really—and if he keeps it up (and we don't take the computer away from him, as we sometimes threaten to do), he'll be ahead of me in his general technical knowledge in a couple years.

OK, that's it for H.

As to E., age 4:

Latin. We're now officially and reasonably far into Rosetta Stone Latin 1. Lately only a couple of times a week, but maybe that's enough; generally, after his nap or just before dinner. I'm a little surprised that we decided to do this, but now that I see better the effect it had getting H. ready for the Latin he's doing now, I think it's time well spent. The main reason that's the case is that it's just easy and yet it does teach Latin. It doesn't teach the grammar or the most of the traditional vocab (e.g., the words needed to read Caesar), but it does expose the student in an entertaining way to the basics. Anyway, E. insists on making all the sections "green" i.e. nothing wrong, so we go back over everything he gets wrong. OK with me I guess.

Math. Like big bro, E. is doing Splash Math, but at Grade 1 level. He's about 25% through. We also do Tower Math and some other apps. He's also been practicing writing his numbers. I tried to get him to work through first grade Singapore Math but that just isn't much fun. So E. is very much into electronic learning when it comes to math and Latin both. Also he has been watching Mathtacular.

Literature. So...this is a little crazy. I don't know when we started this, but after the whole family watched the entire Harry Potter series, E. declared that he wanted to read Harry Potter. So I started reading it to him. Pretty soon it was all Harry Potter, all the time. Every breakfast and lunch, for at least the last six months and I think more like the last nine months, I read E. Harry Potter. So now we're on Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). This has me torn. On the one hand, wow! What a huge amount of vocabulary and grammatical structure he's getting exposed to! On the other hand, ugh, more Harry Potter? And no exposure to much science, history, etc., for that long? But when a kid is this enthusiastic about something that's good for him, you follow the kid's lead. I just look forward to being done with this series. BTW I read it all once before to myself when the books came out. My appreciation on second reading is increased. She really is a master storyteller!

I think due to all the Harry Potter reading, every. friggin. day., E. is no longer into being read to at night. When he does let me read to him, we read from a wide assortment of unfinished books such as Ribsy and The Jungle Book. I know we've finished a few books in the last few years; I just don't know what they were off hand. He does let his Mama read stories and poetry to him in her language. (H. too. He's gotten quite good at reading/translating there too.)

Penmanship/spelling/typing. Well, he's improving. He knows his uppercase letters reasonably well and he's learning lowercase letters. He's graduated from individual letters to whole words. As to spelling/typing, he messes around on MS Word fairly regularly, plays with various spelling apps, and we had an interesting Skype exchange recently, which I think speaks for itself:

[4:43:14 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:07 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:43:14 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:07 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:44 PM] Papa: [E] is foofy!!
[4:44:54 PM] Papa: Ha ha ha ha!
[4:45:14 PM] Papa: [E] is the Foofmeister!
[4:51:21 PM] E.: papa !! is foofy !! ha ha ha ha papa is the foofmeister
[4:52:28 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:52:52 PM] Papa: Wait, there can be only one Foofmeister, and that is [E]!
[4:55:38 PM] E.: papa you are the foofmeister
[4:58:32 PM] E.: papa you can be the foofmeister and you are
[5:07:20 PM] E.: papa is foofier than foofy
[5:10:04 PM] E.: papa is foofy ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
[5:11:03 PM] Papa: [E] is foofy because he farts at the table!
[5:15:31 PM] E.: papa is foofy because he farts at the table
[5:16:11 PM] E.: (chuckle)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
[5:17:49 PM] E.: [e] is not foofy
[5:20:04 PM | Removed 5:20:33 PM] E.: This message has been removed.
[5:25:13 PM] E.: papa this message has been removed

Grammar. E. has sat in whenever H. watches the Marie Rackham videos. He also occasionally does grammar apps. As a result he's started learning the basics such as what nouns and verbs are.

Piano. He demands lessons which I give sometimes. I could probably teach him a lot more and would if I had time. This makes me sad.

History. We only read a few history books before getting into Harry Potter, e.g., the Usborne Young Readers Rome and Julius Caesar and a few other things. I tried to start The Story of the World with him a few times. No dice.

Supermemo. Haven't done this in the last year. Will start when we start The Story of the World.

Science. E. has absorbed a surprisingly lot of stuff from H.'s Chemistry lessons and has declared that he wants to be a scientist, although not enough to want to give up Harry Potter. We've read various other books.

Reading. E. has been reading more to himself than H. did at the same age. He has read Catwings 1 & 2, and I think another chapter book, but otherwise he's stuck to relatively easy picture books. I think it helps that I give him occasional financial incentives which can be turned in for small toys at the store...but he often reads to himself anyway.

Chess. In the last few weeks, both guys have decided chess is fun and want to play all the time. They are starting to annoy Mama with how much they're playing Chessmaster, which is an awesome program that I highly recommend. E. is much, much more interested and talented than H. was at this age. He just gets stuff right away and can already play a legit game, although it's quite easy to beat him. This won't last long, if he keeps it up. As to actual study, he's been going through the Chessmaster series. As to H., he's rediscovered chess and that he likes it, and is better than ever.

E. stopped requesting my old presentations (originally written for H.) several months ago. I think H. stopped asking for them at around the same age.

P.E. Both guys get out and play quite a bit, and inside on the gym. They've finally learned why soccer is fun and have started playing that. Lots of gymnastic type stuff from E., but H. as well, and bike riding and scooter riding from both of them. We've had some play dates/visits in which the usual running around occurred.


How to introduce your young child to Greek mythology

My Greek mythology-obsessed 3-year-old remarked as he splashed in his bath: "It's as fierce as Poseidon's waves!"

Here he is reading from Mary Pope Osborne's version of The Odyssey a few months ago:

Some Facebook friends were asking how we got him so interested in and able to follow Greek myths. Well, first of all, we just give him more of what he asks for, and he kept asking for Greek myths. That is certainly not going to be the case with every kid. H. (now age 8) at age 3 wasn't as interested, for example.

Anyway, if you did want to introduce a child to Greek mythology (which I've done with both of my boys, in approximately the same order but not at the same ages), I can recommend the following. I've divided the books into stages, and within a given stage, it might not matter what order you go in. Note that not even stage 1 consists of "baby books." We didn't start these until E. was 2, I think, and he didn't really get into it until he was 3.

STAGE 1
Usborne, Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths
Never read this one, except maybe particular stories in single volumes, but given Usborne's track record I'm sure it's awesome.

Others in the single-volume "Usborne Early Reading" series such as this one but there are several others (Hercules, Jason; these might or might not be included in the above collection).

My five presentations. If you start with these and they like them, great. E. didn't like them when I tried them out on him before reading any myths. Later, after we read quite a few myth books, he absolutely adored them. So for E. these would have gone in Stage 2.

STAGE 2
The combination of the next two worked very well as a good general intro for H.:
Usborne, Greek Myths (not a baby book, but not as hard as it might look)

E., who didn't like this one right away, made it through this one later than H. did; still pretty good:
The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus

The various (at least a half a dozen) Graphic Myths & Legends series comix like this one about Hercules.
Whole series by Graphics Universe is highly recommended

This "Step Into Reading" version of the Trojan Horse story.

This is a rather nice one, pretty well-illustrated and well-written:
McElderry Book of Greek Myths

We also read this one but I barely remember it; it was OK; there are doubtless much better options we didn't read:
Greek Myths and Legends

STAGE 3
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Osborne, Tales from the Odyssey (in two volumes; E. loved this to death, we not only read it but listened to it in the car; H. loved it too, we listened to it two times in the car when he was smaller)

We only listened to this one in the car, but the narrator was awesome and the versions were second to none. Arguably superior to both D'Aulaire and Osborne.
Evslin, Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths
Here's the book version, which we might pick up.

There are many, many others. These are just the ones we used.

We own several "reference" type introductions to Greek myth, and we find them boring, so I don't list them. It's much better to learn about Greek myths by actually reading the stories, rather than lists of facts about gods, etc.

After that...

STEP 4
Percy Jackson books, Black Ships before Troy, Edith Hamilton's Mythology

STEP 5
The originals in translation; Homer, Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid

STEP 6
The originals :-)


How to end Western civilization

[A video version of this post is at the bottom of the page.]

I was reading Climbing Parnassus, a book-length defense of learning Greek and Latin, and it goes into historical depth about the role of education as a preserver of the best of culture. This resonated strongly with me, because I think it explained my own revulsion at most educational practices today: perhaps what bothers me the most about the way children are educated by our schools is the fact that they are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization.

But the problem is not just a matter of ignorance of books and art. The problem is that knowledge of Western culture has a moral function—it is enculturating. Despite spending thousands of hours in school, students learn little of what can be called the ethical culture of Western civilization, apart from a few lessons drilled home especially hard, such as empathy, ethnic tolerance (not intellectual tolerance), and egalitarianism. Heard only in faint echoes in most classrooms, or in many cases long gone from them, are the texts, the art, and the discussion that would inculcate the rest of the great virtues: self-discipline and hard work, critical thinking and suspicion of superstition, love both as a romantic ideal and as the agape that drives our regard for all humans and maybe all life, good sense or wisdom, and so on. This has been the case since I was a student, and probably since before that, and I think it's gotten worse. As a result, our popular culture has become crass, rude, and in a word (which would not sound so quaint if we all studied classics more) barbaric.

In largely the same way, despite a few perfunctory efforts here and there, most of our students emerge from high school largely ignorant of the Constitution and our civic culture. First, they lack the education to appreciate The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist, or even to read and understand the founding documents themselves, but beyond that they are simply ignorant of the concepts and the defenses of them that, together, undergird our free republican form of government. They have virtually no clue about such things as freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless search, division of powers, and many other things that one must understand well in order to criticize politicians who, today, are actively trying to limit these aspects of our government. And as a result, the government of what was once supposed to be "a city on a hill" standing for freedom, tolerance, and civic virtue has become a nanny state, constantly rescuing us from ourselves, and one of the largest and most powerful governments in history. As the three branches of government each slowly, gradually remove more and more of our liberty, most of our people lack the tools to articulate or even appreciate objections, and those who have such tools are misunderstood and smeared.

Two historical movements, among others, have brought us to this situation. The first is progressivism in education, beginning with Dewey and his colleagues in about the 1920s. This was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement and transformed education from being a force for the teaching of the entire body of Western culture and values to a bland, smothering force for vague "life skills" and "socialization" and "creative self-expression." It is progressivism that has left our students incapable of understanding and appreciating our civic culture and values, leaving us open to gradual but inexorable domination of what might aptly be described as a new empire.

The second—and please don't misunderstand here—is the decline of religion as a serious cultural force for most people. I hasten to add that I'm agnostic, not a Christian, and I know very well that religion still does influence politics, mostly on the right. That's not what I'm talking about. Apart from a small percentage of evangelical Christians, few Americans (and of course many fewer Europeans) take religion seriously, as providing a broad moral basis that structures how we live our lives. Critics of the religious right often seem to forget that Christianity as a moral culture, beyond its religious and political tenets, instructed people to work hard, to hope for a better life, to treat others kindly and donate to charity, to practice the graces of humility and self-respect, to rein in our passions and practice moderation, to take responsibility for ourselves and our dependents, and much more. It wasn't all good, but much of it was. It taught the very idea of obligation, which has grown much weaker for many of us. It was an organizing, all-encompassing, core part of the Western civic culture. But really no more. Many don't go to church; many of those who do go to church don't believe; even those who do believe don't take religious moral strictures very seriously; even if they do, they probably don't understand them well; and finally, those who understand them aren't supported by most others, who are both ignorant and deculturated, and all too willing to "tolerate" all manner of sins. So, as I say, as a serious cultural force, inspiring us to live well, religion is a pale shadow of its former self. Even as a nonbeliever, this strikes me as a truly profound loss.

So we lack both the education and the cultural strength to resist enslavement both to our passions and to our government.

This is why it is so important that we reinvigorate our commitment to the liberal arts and that we show educational progressivism the door. I don't know or particularly hope that we will get religion per se back; I think relearning the classic virtues and the civic culture of the early United States could heal many ills. But if that is not enough, then perhaps we do need some sort of ethical cultural movement, something not associated exclusively with the left, as what goes under the name "ethical culture" is.

We can hope and we can make efforts. But I fear that we'll simply continue to leave our children largely incapable of assimilating Western culture, while we allow our governments both in North America and Europe to grow and become more authoritarian and centralized, running up massive debts. I fear the results of that situation. Our children and grandchildren will be very lucky if it ends well.


Reasons We Do Not Have for Homeschooling, and a Reason We Do

Here are several reasons we do not have for homeschooling:

•  We are religious "nuts" who want to shield our children from the theory of evolution, etc.? Nope. I'm a nonbelieving rationalist.

•  We are social climbers? Nope. I don't especially care if my boys go to the best colleges. I am not preparing them for Harvard (or even Reed, where I went). I want them to succeed, of course, but by their own lights, not according to society's common notions of success,  or even mine.

•  We are just generally competitive and want to be ahead of other kids? Nope. Already, there are plenty of kids who are ahead of H. But I'm not going to push him. He'll find his level and I'm sure I'll be proud of him regardless. I just want him to learn all he can, while still having a happy, reasonably relaxed childhood.

•  We want to shelter our boys from the bad influences at public schools? Nope. H. actually attends "specials" twice a week (art, music, P.E., and computers).

•  We can't afford private school? Nope. We probably could, if we sacrificed. But no, there isn't any private school in the area that would help our boys achieve the goals we have for them.

Here is the main reason, far and away the single most important reason, we do have for homeschooling:

•  We want our children to get a solid liberal arts education, which means:

In literature, I want them to know, appreciate, and understand the classics, and to be morally improved for having wrestled with them. I want them to be able to write persuasively, creatively, and thoughtfully, with flawless grammar and spelling, so that they could enter any writing-oriented profession. They should also be able to speak well. In math, I want them not only to study math through calculus and statistics, but to understand it; they will also study logic and, probably, mathematical logic. I want them thoroughly familiar with history, both U.S. and the rest of the world; I want them to know about the world itself, so geography and foreign languages are a must; so in general, I want their understanding of human society to be filled with facts and nuance. I want them to be able not only to do scientific calculations with facility, but actually to understand scientific concepts—well enough to succeed as science majors, or at engineering, if they so desire. I want them to be able to become excellent scholars, and to be able to understand their own language and the roots and nature of western civilization, so we'll probably study Latin and Greek for several years at least. They'll learn philosophy with me, reading and digesting a half-dozen of the main classics, such as the Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations, Locke's second treatise, and a few others. I want them familiar with music and other fine arts.

Of course, they'll have plenty of opportunity to pursue interests of their own choosing. H. is really into programming and I'll continue to support that.

Public schools can't provide this sort of education, because:

I've looked for private and charter schools in the area that I thought might be able to support these goals; I couldn't find any, except maybe St. Charles Prep for high school, and that's Catholic...


The opportunity costs of progressive education

 

 

I have created a video version of this post!

There is a surfeit of great ideas in education. They are "great ideas" for various reasons: children will learn a lot; they'll be really happy or enthusiastic; they'll have vivid memories of what they are taught; or they'll learn very efficiently. It is easy, as an educator or homeschooling parent, to get excited about ideas for education. Heck, every good (level-appropriate) book and every good experiment is a "great idea." Yet there is such harsh disagreement over educational methods that debates could be called a "war over educational reform." Why?

There's a conundrum here, but I'm not explaining it well enough, so I'll elaborate.

Goals and opportunity costs: what the war over educational reform is about

Theorists have posited many different goals for education. The explicit purpose of progressive education is to "socialize" students by teaching them practical knowledge, and to do so as equally as possible. The purpose of liberal arts traditionalists like myself, by contrast, is something like developing the liberating potential of as much knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual skill (reading, writing, calculation, etc.) as possible. Of course, as you can see in any number of laundry-list "goals for education," educators love to endorse all goals. If asked, they will say, "Of course we want your children to learn as much as they possibly can. What, do you think we're stupid or crazy or something? We're doing our best at teaching them, using all the latest techniques. We're professionals, of course!"

This sounds very reasonable. It is difficult to contradict.

Here's the thing: as a critic of public schools and a supporter of liberal arts education, I don't need to contradict it. I believe the professional teachers completely. I think they want our children to learn as much as they can. Of course they do. And of course they're doing their best (many of them, anyway), with the latest techniques, and they're professionals (mostly). All true.

The problem is not with their willingness to endorse the goals of a liberal arts education, their intentions, or their professionalism. The problem is with overriding goals: contemporary U.S. teachers want their students above all "engaged," to be motivated and paying attention and excited—and, in the interests of equal educational opportunity, to be following roughly the same curriculum as other kids in the same grades following the same standards. This too sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. It's so reasonable-sounding that it sounds radical, or at least unreasonable, to object very strongly to it.

Therein lies the problem. On the surface, everybody agrees. If we're not thinking too hard, we can endorse a huge variety of educational tasks, methods, and goals. But beneath the surface is a little thing called opportunity cost. This, of course, means basically "what you're missing out on by doing this rather than taking another opportunity."

Every time Mrs. Brown's third grade class puts on an exciting, interdisciplinary, highly educational drama project—great idea!—that occupies two hours of class time for two weeks in a row, she's choosing not to let her students read twenty easy picture books, or a half-dozen easy chapter books, etc.—another awesome idea. But that's only one example. There are many, many more.

The opportunity cost problem is about much more than individual tasks. It's really about the entire system. As I said, a core feature of education systems that make Deweyan "socialization" an overriding goal is that all the kids have to follow roughly the same curriculum in the same grades. But this means that, for example, even if Jack read Tom Sawyer last summer, he will still have to re-read it if the class is reading it, or maybe he'll just twiddle his thumbs. Or if Sarah is two years ahead of her peers in math, because she loves math or because her parents are afterschooling her, maybe she'll be supported by her teachers and principal, but it's also very possible she'll be made to do work that is two years behind her current skill level, suffering in boredom.

I've mentioned some examples of opportunity costs in education. Let me elaborate.

Example 1: the benefits of Latin as the opportunity cost of doing anything but Latin

Consider this. I know talk of Latin sounds ridiculous in the 21st century to some people, but please hear me out. A very strong case can be made that getting several years' worth of Latin under one's belt produces a much better scholar. Latin improves English vocabulary and grammar, teaches mental discipline and acuity, gives students an intimate familiarity with Western civilization, and in particular, the origins of its core concepts, its intellectual and rhetorical traditions, and the works that originated many disciplines and written forms. I might go on, but suffice it to say that setting time aside to learn Latin in some depth will make much better scholars out of many students. If the goal is to foster academic skill, learning the classical languages is among the very best of ideas.

But there is today virtually no chance that public schools would, in any great numbers and anytime soon, introduce Latin except as a high school elective, mostly for honors students. I suggest two reasons. First, Latin is a "dead language" and has no obvious "practical applications." So it runs counter to the Deweyan emphasis on practical knowledge, on "know-how." Second, it is too difficult for many ill-prepared students, who already struggle with more difficult, technical subjects like math, hard science, and grammar. So it also runs counter to the goal of equalization.

We could teach our children, or at least some of them, Latin when they're ready for it; it might be difficult, but it's also extremely efficient to do so; but it won't happen because progressive educational goals make the suggestion completely untenable.

Example 2: "language arts," or the low-literature costs of basal readers

One educational practice I love to hate is the use of basal reader systems. You know—that series of "language arts" textbooks you suffered through from first grade through fifth or sixth grade. These are written with the very best of intentions, I'm sure, and they look impressive. Crack some open and you might find a first grade explanation of what a noun is, a third grade reading selection that seems perfectly reasonable and interesting for that grade, a set of challenging fifth grade vocabulary words, and various explanations of the conventions of poetry and drama. All seem like meaty, necessary, excellent topics for study. What's not to like?

Yet, when a child emerges from careful study of such systems, do they end up knowing about all those things? Not very often.

Suppose instead that you were to take the same ten hours per week spent on language arts and instead do just two things: read books chosen by the students themselves (perhaps from a list), and write daily on topics of student choice (with some specific assignments mixed in). This is essentially what I've done with H., age seven, since he was five. As a result, he is now reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a children's book usually assigned to high school students, and writing things like this composition (randomly selected) that I was rather surprised to find in his writing folder, which I reproduce here verbatim:

Grammar

An adjective is a describing word. Here are some examples: thin, tall, short, long, wavy, soft. These words can be used to describe a great many things. Now, there is something special about adjectives: they come in 3 forms, which are called positive, comparative, and superlative. Here are some examples:

Positive

Comparative

Superlative

quick

quicker

quickest

small

smaller

smallest

speedy

speedier

speediest

great

greater

greatest

circular

more circular

most circular

big

bigger

biggest

frightening

more frightening

most frightening

 In advertisements, superlative adjectives are used to exaggerate the quality of things that are on sale: books, toys, video games, or even rides (rides aren’t for sale) or circuses (they aren’t for sale either, rides and circuses just cost money to ride or look at)! Here are some examples of the words they use: biggest, greatest, fastest, cheapest.

 Nouns are words that mean a person, place, or thing. Here are some examples: library, Jane, John, garbage dump, house. Nouns are very important, too. Without them, you couldn’t even say your name (because all names are nouns)!

Verbs describe action, possession, or existence. Here are some examples: throw, catch, mine, yours, his, hers. [sic!]

Conjunctions are used to connect strings of words and make sentences make sense. What sentence is really a sentence if it doesn’t have a conjunction like, for example, and?

I was surprised to find this composition in my second grade son's writing folder, I say, because I didn't assign it and in fact I don't think he ever even showed it to me. As you can see, he was correctly using (and explaining) some pretty advanced words, in excellent grammatical sentences, with flawless spelling. (Although his examples of verbs did contain a couple howlers.)

My point is that after we assigned an hour of reading many classics and other high-quality books, while assigning 30-60 minutes per day for daily writing (mostly on topics of his own choice), our son's abilities in reading and writing have blossomed, and he has quite naturally picked up everything taught in the basal readers, and more.

We could slog through basal readers and grammar workbooks and do long, regular, boring spelling and vocabulary tests. But it would be a comparative waste of time. Instead, he spends a substantial amount of time reading excellent books, and writing a lot; the result is a far better and more efficient method of learning "language arts" than school language arts programs provide. His intuitive grasp of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and spelling results from extensive reading and daily practice writing hundreds of words. He does study grammar from time to time, albeit not from workbooks that (in the early grades) teach students what proper English is. Our son already knows that from copious reading. Instead, he studies the fundamentals systematically, as older students do.

Example 3: the high costs of grade tracking in math (and other subjects)

One more example.

The equalization goal of education entails that we teach the same level of math to most students, that we don't let them work at their own pace, and that we don't tailor our textbook choices to them. If our overriding goal were to teach our students as much math as possible and as well as possible, then we would toss grade levels and track students by ability. As soon as a student passes a test on some material with a 90% grade, the student proceeds to the next level. Meta-analysis reportedly shows that ability grouping works wonders.

This makes sense. Kids finish stuff at different speeds. Grade level tracking, especially in subjects like math, ensures that smarter kids will spend much time in class bored, while slower students will constantly be playing catch-up, naturally getting discouraged, and not getting the help they need. Consider this: homeschooling parents tailor textbook choices to their children, of course, who are not forced to complete exactly one grade level in exactly one year. Just look at the average math scores of homeschoolers, who are naturally tracked by ability in each subject: 84th percentile, on average.

One guess as to why ability grouping is so rarely tried.

As this NEA page helpfully explains, ability grouping discourages more poorly-performing students, never mind that those students benefit from extra time and help where it is really needed. Are they really much more discouraged than in classrooms where they are constantly trailing their age peers, rather than doing as well as others in the room?

Grade level tracking might support the overriding progressivist educational goal of equalization, but the opportunity cost is students that are learning less, and less well, than they do when forced to learn all at the same time.

My point here is that the "war" over educational reform is not about whether various practices are good ideas, and whether various goals are worthwhile. In education, ideas and goals are abundant and easy to endorse. The war, instead, is ultimately about the enormous burden in terms of opportunity cost that contemporary educational practices place on the student. If you think education should be about knowledge, wisdom, and academic skills, the situation is appalling.

The bottom line for me is that the total opportunity cost associated with the overriding progressivist goals for public schooling (and this would also apply to a lot of charter schools and private schools) means that most of our students are simply not learning nearly as much as they could be.

We could see to it—if we were committed first and foremost to teaching and not just entertaining students, if we wanted to help each student achieve his or her best potential and not just equalize them, and if we chose the most efficient methods for making learning happen—that all of our students would learn far more than they are now.

Some day, I think we'll look back at the period from the 1920s or so until the early 2000s as a sort of "dark ages" of education. I just hope real change comes sooner rather than later.


Report on the boys (March 2014)

It's been a long time since I updated blog readers about H. & E. Once again I start this with a resolution to keep this short. Ha ha.

First, H., is now 7 years old (8th birthday rapidly approaching). Many things to report. He's officially in the 2nd grade and after slightly lighter work in the summer and a bona fide two week break, he went back to full time study...usually, more or less. H. is often fun to work with, although sometimes he has trouble staying on task, and has a tendency to interrupt me every single sentence when I'm reading to him. Obviously he has a very active brain. I haven't always been able to support his homeschooling as much as I'd like, since I've been working on my startup, Infobitt.

Gym1

Since my last report, I put an indoor gym together (from a kit by the unfortunately named "Limikids"; why not "Unlimikids"?) for the boys.

It's extremely sturdy and we got a nice thick mat (direct from a local factory, just a few miles away from our house) underneath it. The boys never had so much gym time before we got this. It was money extremely well spent. They really enjoy it and have clearly improving their strength and agility. It has my complete recommendation.

Gym2

Anyway, on to mental development.

Subject notes

Math. I was idly browsing reviews of homeschooling stuff, as I am wont to do, and was re-reading positive reviews of Saxon math. Now, the system we had going before--Spectrum Math, MEP, and Splash Math on the iPad--was not badly broken. H. was learning math pretty well. But...well, I did have a couple of misgivings. One is that H. was not exposed to some of the details and depth that Saxon provides. Another is that he simply needed more practice. H. frequently forgets how to do some math problems, and I did not look forward to having to having to constantly go over how to do old stuff. It just seemed inefficient.

Saxon's approach, by contrast, exposes kids regularly to old problem types, but subtly builds on those abilities by throwing them harder and harder examples of those types. The traditional "learn a topic in-depth in a chapter, then move onto the next topic" method is called the "mastery" method, but Saxon's approach (a "spiral" method) strikes me as much more likely to create mastery.

Saxon was appealing to me also because it is very systematic. This is very good for H., who has an extremely logical brain, and who actually doesn't mind (and sometimes enjoys) careful, slow explanations. So Saxon is pretty good for him.

So, H. started on Saxon Math 5/4 (fourth grade math) at the beginning of the school year (last September?) and initially made good progress. Also, he started reading Life of Fred again and read a few of those books, but hasn't looked at it in quite a while. Splash Math and MEP are now on hold indefinitely.

Why? It's the downside of Saxon--which I knew fully going into this--namely, the sheer effort the system requires. It began with a very simplistic-seeming review of old topics. At first, I thought we'd be able to do what some other people apparently do, namely, skip half of the problems, do only the odd problems, whatever. But it quickly became clear to me that H. really needed the review, considering the number of problems he was getting wrong. He simply needed more practice. The old system we used explained the basic concepts extremely well, and did enable him to do the problems all right, but it definitely didn't give him enough practice, and particularly not enough systematic review of old topics. Now I have the sense that when H. is faced with any problem he's been exposed to adequately in Saxon, he's got it down. But the price of this mastery is about 50% more effort, and all in one big program.

I thought we could skip ahead in Saxon 5/4, but then I saw the number of mistakes he made on stuff that I thought he had mastered. He sped up after several months.

At one point for 2-3 months we went back to the old Spectrum/MEP/Splash Math system, I think because we couldn't handle the extra work Saxon was throwing at us. But then we returned to Saxon because it had become clear to me (and even H.) that the old system simply wasn't teaching him everything he would be learning with the Saxon system. As a result, we lost time and right now, H. is only about halfway through Saxon. He'll be done with 5/4 by summer at the rate we're going now. H. and I are both pretty committed to doing a lesson, "investigation," or test per day, and so we can do it.

Even though it's taking him a while to get up to speed in this new, more rigorous system, I don't regret switching and in fact I still think it was a great change. All the reasons I had for switching seem to have been borne out by H.'s performance. H. himself likes it, most of the time.

It's not lost on me that Saxon follows a system of review not very different from SuperMemo's (spaced repetition), about which, more later on.

Literature. At bedtime we finished The Lord of the Rings, Macbeth (if you can believe that—see below), A Christmas Carol, and we started The Time Machine (might not finish) and Huckleberry Finn. We worked on various other things at bedtime, which I'll discuss in other sections. LOTR was great fun; we both enjoyed it. A Christmas Carol was challenging both in terms of language and sentence structure, and wasn't that much fun for us, but I don't regret it; it's a good story and excellent vocabulary work. Huck Finn is just awesome. We both love it, and it's probably H.'s favorite book we've read together in a long time. It has copious use of the n-word (I'd say it, I just don't want this blog to be blocked!), but that's easily finessed simply by explaining how taboo it is today—something H. was extremely impressed by. He has absolutely no trouble understanding Jim or Huck, and most of the hard-to-understand words are words that neither of us know, because they're dialect or regional or specialized. The story itself is a children's adventure story. When things get really difficult we consult the free Sparknotes "No Fear Literature" gloss of the book.

As to Macbeth, yes we actually read the original. Let me explain. (All this happened before bedtime in 30 minute increments, but 7 days a week.)

At first we were reading selections from Nesbit and Lamb, and then probably just to give examples of the original, I got a couple of free Shakespeare apps. We had been glancing through the originals of different books we've read easy versions of--the Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Shakespeare. One of the apps was Shakespeare in Bits, which turned out to be an awesomely conceived and developed app--hats off (but then it should be good, as each play is $15). Anyway, it has the text, with clickable glosses and commentaries next to the text, and a simple (but complete) cartoon with audio version available. So we tried out the Romeo and Juliet sample, and H. really wanted me to get a version of the Tempest, because we he had just read the Nesbit or Lamb version and he liked it. We also had watched some simple Tempest videos on YouTube, like the BBC cartoon.

But Shakespeare in Bits didn't have the Tempest so H. decided he'd like Macbeth instead, and I agreed, on the assumption that we could return it if we couldn't get into it. (I didn't expect we could.) Well, the witches and spooky war and murder stuff was very exciting to H., so he started asking for Macbeth every day, and we were at it for 2-3 months straight, in small chunks, reading 1-3 sections of the app per day. I never ask him to do it, he asks me.

So here's how we do it. First, I read the section aloud to H. slowly and carefully, paraphrasing everything I think he might not understand. We look at (and I explain as necessary) all notes and glosses from the app, too. Occasionally we look at the online reference info about characters, summaries, etc. As a result H. is getting his first introduction to the language of literary interpretation ("theme," "motif," and the rest of such bullshit—which is what I think of most of it). After we read the section, then we watch the corresponding video. After a few weeks H. discovered the "My Notes" section, and he started writing notes, imitating the app's comments and mine. Now for about half of the sections he insisted on writing 2-5 sentences summarizing what went on.

I can't recall another time when H. was so committed to and naturally interested in doing something so hard and advanced, unless it's programming. But he gives glosses of the sections, and I give instant feedback, which is extremely useful because it allows me to refine his understanding and correct misunderstandings. His notes are actually pretty good--sometimes a little half-baked, but more often actually insightful. I'm very proud of my little Shakespeare scholar!

Anyway, for a while we were doing that I found another awesome site, "No Fear Shakespeare" from Sparknotes, and so after we read a scene (several sections' worth) we went back and read the easier version. I find I have to correct my own glosses of the text sometimes. Another thing we did is go back over several scenes' worth of the video, just to remind ourselves of it. So we got Macbeth several times, taking notes, discussing, etc. H. wouldn't be able to study it by himself but the two of us together can handle it.

What else? As to reading to himself, well, over the summer we let him read whatever he wanted and he chose to re-read the whole Beverly Cleary Henry Huggins series, among various other things. When the school year started, he went through Harry Potter 3 pretty slowly, then My Side of the Mountain (which he enjoyed quite a bit), Anne Frank's diary for "serious literature" reading, which he did a couple of times per week until he gave up, about a third of the way through. This was his idea and I wasn't going to insist on his finishing. Let's see, he also read a few more Hardy Boys books. He recently finished Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I read to him when he was five, but he had almost completely forgotten the story and I knew he'd like it (because he loved it when I read it to him) so I recommended he read it. He also re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which he had read about 18 months before, but had mostly forgotten. He enjoyed and evidently got more out of it the second time. He also read The Black Stallion, about which he wrote answers to questions, and he declared it's one of his favorite books ever. He also read The Cay to go along with our study of the Caribbean, and started but didn't finish a book report about it. He probably read a few other things, I just can't remember. He hasn't read as much as I'd like, mainly because I have been too busy to be on his case about it, and he prefers to read nonfiction, especially the "Horrible Science" series he enjoys so much.

Writing and Grammar. We continue to experiment with different writing assignments and I still expect some writing (or much more rarely, grammar, or spelling & vocabulary) daily. For a while we were doing something we called "flash writing," in which H. is supposed to write 100-150 words in 20 minutes or less. He sometimes wrote over 200 words in that time, about a few sections of The Story of the World. At first it was hard for him to understand what was going on, but eventually I impressed on him that he's simply doing for other books what naturally came to him  for Shakespeare. He was having trouble figuring out what to write about a book he read about Henry Ford. But he more or less got the hang of it.

For a long, long time he was working on a summary of this excellent edition of Gilgamesh. He finally finished that last year. For a while he was working on a fantasy adventure with knights and monsters, "The Lord of Power" and the word count got up to 2000 or something. It was pretty half-baked but it was a good excuse to practice, well, various stuff.

He continues to write random stories and essays, all sorts of random crap (I use that word affectionately). A lot of the energy that he used to put into writing was channeled into programming on Scratch and Python, and on various creative projects connected to his imaginary (he insists it isn't imaginary) business, "ComputerGenius."

As far as grammar goes, he took a very long break from watching the Cozy Grammar videos and exercises, but then came back and did some more, then took another long break, and did some more. So now we're up to lesson 22 or so of 27. We stopped using Spectrum Writing, Grade 4 last summer and never got back to it. He's been working on that for a long time, but took a long break, and is now back at it.

Science. We finally finished physics. We worked on it for over 1.5 years, steadily going through all sorts of different books, using What's Physics All About as a spine. We probably used too many books, more than necessary, but in the end I think H. learned a lot, especially when combined with SuperMemo (more later on that). By the end we were definitely doing science at the upper elementary level.

We've finally, as of January, moved on to chemistry. For this I decided not to use a "spine" text (a term homeschoolers use to refer to books used to organize the rest of the study). Since most of what we do is read anyway—with occasional experiments and science writing—and since I at least got annoyed at how we were chopping up other books into relatively incoherent bits in an effort to match them to our "spine," I decided we'd read chemistry books mostly serially. We did get some shorter "True Books" and "Max Axiom" comics (these are great), and we'll read those concurrently. Anyway, we're started with the first two sections of the Usborne Science Encyclopedia. The first is about materials and so covers the atom, states of matter, the periodic table, and different elements, with a lot about metals. The second is about "mixtures and compounds" and covers chemical compounds, bonding, types and properties of chemicals like acids, bases, salts, etc. After that I think we'll tackle What's Chemistry All About, which covers a lot of the same material, but that's OK: the whole idea is to get concepts from several sources. Finally I think we'll hit the DK Eyewitness Chemistry book, which is slightly more advanced and probably has a lot of history of science, like the other DK Eyewitness science books we've read or dipped into. Another thing we've started,

For the last year or so we've been reading science (mostly physics, but lately chemistry) about three days a week at dinnertime. In addition, before bedtime we found an excellent middle school-level text, the CPO Focus on Physical Science, which has some math problems that are over H.'s head, but everything is no problem. Frankly I have no idea where we came across this, but it appears to be free, so we downloaded and tried it out, and it's perhaps better written than some textbooks. We're just reading it, and doing the problems (most of them) in our heads together, and not adding questions about it to SuperMemo, so it's OK. We've just read the first couple of chapters. Maybe after he's done sixth grade math I'll have him go back over the text by himself and do the problems. I'm a strong believer in reading worthwhile books twice.

At some point in the not too distant future we're going to buy H. a practical, educational chemistry set, if we can find one. Sadly, the rather insane obsession with making everything as absolutely risk-free as possible has meant that old-fashioned chemistry sets of the sort I had growing up are not readily available anymore, or not without considerable hunting.

The other major way H. learns science is through his very regular reading of the "Horrible Science" series. He's probably read a half dozen or more of those, and has dipped into most of them to some degree. While it looks pretty lightweight, he seems to enjoy them, and he often comes out with tidbits he's learned through reading the series, so I guess they're doing him some good.

Geography. We finished studying the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, and are now into the United States. As usual we began with a National Geographic "Countries of the World" book, only this time it was about our own country, and started reading a book about sights around Ohio. He's drawn a map of the country or two, and will do more, I'm sure. We're just about done memorizing the states & capitals (not hard because he already knew most of them) using SuperMemo, and next we're going to read about a half-dozen books about the more important states (e.g., California and New York), or states we have personal connections to (e.g., Alaska). As usual we continue to watch videos, look at atlas apps, get out our giant atlas and globe, etc. After that of course we'll tackle Canada for a while and then we'll be done with the western hemisphere, although maybe we'll take the opportunity to study the Arctic and Antarctic. Then I guess we'll move on to Europe.

We did switch geography-reading time to the evening so we could concentrate on history.

History. We were taking it pretty easy on history for several months. I think we actually stopped altogether for a while, while I was working hard on Infobitt and while we were reading some history stuff at night. Anyway, we still haven't finished The Story of the World, Vol. 3, although we're getting close now. We're still reading the same three supplementary books, A Little History of the World, Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. Now we're reading about the Enlightenment and the period leading up to the American and French Revolution.

We also have finally started reading American history systematically for the first time (we did read about presidents up to 1928 last year, so I guess we had an introduction before this). For this we do have a spine, or rather, one main text: The Landmark History of the American People. This is a really well-written general history. I spent a long time picking it out and I'm very happy with it. H. seems to like it, too. Although it has short chapters that in formatting resembles a textbook's, it is not "textbooky." There are no sidebars, no boring writing, vocabulary items are explained in footnotes, and best of all, each chapter forms a narrative—not a personal narrative, but a connected recounting of closely related events.

Since we're mixing American history with world history now we're going through SOTW more slowly...or, we would be, if we were continuing to read history at bedtime instead of after lunch. We used to read geography after lunch and history at bedtime (each ~15 minutes at a time); now we've switched, and we've been read history virtually every day, so we're making steady if not huge progress with both American and world history.

Latin. I started looking at Latin texts last year at some point and decided that Rosetta Stone was just not doing enough for him. I think he did get exposure to the sound, structure, and some vocabulary from Rosetta Stone, but on the whole, because the vocabulary was focused on typical language program stuff and not ancient Latin text vocabulary, it was probably a mistake. Maybe not, though. It wasn't a major time investment and, even if he remembers very little specific from Rosetta Stone as he studies Latin from textbooks, he did get started on a new textbook very quickly and easily.

The new Latin text is very easy, however, so I'm not sure the Rosetta Stone made it much easier. The new text is Getting Started with Latin, which is so ridiculously gentle that, if he could write, my 3-year-old could use it. We've been much better about doing this every morning, for 30 minutes before breakfast, that we've got up to Lesson 54 in about two months. The typical lesson consists of translating 10 easy sentences, so it's not as impressive as it sounds. The whole book is equivalent to maybe the first three chapters of D'Ooge (i.e., a traditional grammar-translation Latin book, free online, called Latin for Beginners).

Anyway, the combination of Rosetta Stone and this brief introductory text (which I think we'll have finished by this summer) should make it possible to start working through D'Ooge with me. H.'s interest level in Latin, which is moderate, not intense and not hostile, together with hand-holding from me should make it possible for us to get through D'Ooge in, well, as long as it takes. It's supposed to be one year's worth of Latin but maybe we'll take two.

Why D'Ooge? I actually made a spreadsheet with pros and cons. There are a number of texts that are a little too slow and easy, like Prima Latina. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with them, but I think we can learn more faster, especially if I'm working with H. on Latin 30 minutes a day, which is what I've been managing. On the other hand, there are some wonderfully reviewed texts like Wheelock, but it's actually used in high schools and colleges, and it would take too much hand-holding from me to get him through that. Then there are texts that are written for something in between. There are two main methods for learning Latin: the grammar-translation method, which focuses on learning grammar systematically, so you actually understand it; and the reading method, which gives you just enough grammar to read a reasonably interesting text. Guess which I like the most. We'll try D'Ooge's relatively gentle grammar-translation method, but if that turns out to be too hard, we'll probably try the Cambridge reading method.

I read for an evening or two about the benefits of Latin, not that I had never heard of them before. The main thing, to my mind, is not learning about language, or about grammar, or the roots of English words, etc. Those are good reasons to learn Latin, but we could learn those things (albeit not as well) by studying French or German.  Rather, the main reason to learn Latin is to learn the concepts, style of thinking, and classics that shaped Western thought. To learn Latin and Greek is to understand ourselves better, or so I'm told, and through what little exposure I've had to the languages, I find the claim very plausible.

BTW H. is now reading and translating in his mother's language now, thanks to 10-15 minutes every night at bedtime (which sort of cuts down on my time with him, but that's OK).

Piano. Although we started just before H.'s fourth birthday, he has never been terribly interested in piano, and I haven't had the discipline or desire to push him. Nevertheless, he finally finished "Music for Little Mozarts" and we have moved on to Alfred's Basic Piano Prep Course, C level. He's now finally playing both hands together regularly, starting to read music with a little less help from me, etc. Guess I'm just too cheap to get a real piano teacher. More likely it's because I don't want to waste my money if he loses interest, and I don't want to inflict H., who can be somewhat difficult to manage, on a piano teacher.

Philosophy. Every Saturday we pretty faithfully read at least two pages out of DK's introductory Big Questions (see my review at that page)...for I don't know how long, maybe 9 months? There's no rush to get through and topics are barely connected from one spread to the next, so it's OK to go through very slowly. I find the book tedious and annoying, but it is one of the few children's philosophy books out there at this level—accessible to H.—and whenever I threaten to stop reading it, H. objects and insists we go on. On the bright side, it does introduce many, many interesting topics that children might not otherwise be introduced to, not just about philosophy but also psychology, occult-type questions, UFOs, whatever. This is at least the third book of its sort we've read. The other two were Really, Really Big Questions (my favorite of these three) and The Little Book of Big Questions (the first one we tackled), which had less content. I wrote a chapter of a philosophy book for children myself, and H. really liked that. Wish I had time to finish it!

Logic. H. has been doing 1-2 pages of logic workbooks for quite a while now, once per week, since he was 5 or so, with extended breaks now and then. Most recently he fairly quickly went through Logic Countdown and is now into Logic Liftoff. It's another one of those things: it's pretty lame, but there isn't really anything else out there like it, so you takes what you gets. Once he's done with the next book in the series, Orbiting with Logic, we're going to start a real logic text, probably one written for junior high or high school students.

Programming. H.'s hobby has been programming. I've given him some Python lessons with Hello World! the Python primer, but we only got up to Ch. 7 and he just sort of figures stuff out. In the last year he's spent more time on Small Basic and continuing on with Scratch. He hasn't exactly written anything useful to adults, but he enjoys himself and he's definitely practiced everything I've taught him. Wish I had time to teach him more steadily but of course there are only so many hours in the day.

Chess. We're working through puzzles in Chessmaster, which is absolutely fantastic for learning chess. It has so much educational material—it's wonderful. We don't do it that often but he's gotten quite a bit better. He can actually beat easy players without help now, and now understands about checkmating. But this is my hobby more than his so he doesn't play much unless I offer to play him. Still, I have a feeling he's going to get good when he's a little older.

Art. He's been taking a class, and greatly enjoying it. As a result he's gotten quite a bit better.

Methodological notes

SuperMemo. Last year, one of the reasons we slowed down in both history and science was that I wanted to make SuperMemo questions about the main points studied, but if we read much new material, it would mean we had way too many questions to review. So we ended up doing side-reading about which we didn't make any questions, which is fine, but still, it felt like we were treading water.

But we had a breakthrough in how we use SuperMemo, right around the first of this year. Last year we were doing around 60 questions per day, which ended up taking around 45 minutes per day. The breakthrough allowed us to do 100 to 200 questions per day in anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes (it depends on H.'s mood and the number of new questions).

When I describe it, it's going to sound ridiculous, I'm afraid. Basically, I get on one computer, and H. gets on another computer. We share each others' screens via join.me. We then start a Skype call so we can talk. I have a timer on my screen, which he can see. He keeps track of how many questions he went through in the previous minute. I start the timer and tell him when the minute's up, and he writes down the number he did. The "minimum" is three per minute, and the most he can do on average would be his average for today: about 7. So today he reviewed 171 questions in 23 minutes. It's ridiculous, but it works!

I've made a few other changes to how we use SuperMemo. The most important is that I now rarely have answers that are more than one word, and I never have answers that are one sentence long. This makes the questions much easier to do. Probably he doesn't memorize as much about each fact; but he does get reminded of the main, important part, and we can cover more material.

We—or rather, I—have occasionally considered dropping SuperMemo. It would, after all, give us 30-60 minutes per day more to read or do whatever, and that's not insignificant. But H. resists, very strongly. Yesterday I deleted some questions that I thought were very badly written, and he actually cried when I did so. He doesn't always love doing review, but he rarely dislikes it; and he consistently believes, and I think he's right, that he won't remember what he's learned nearly as well unless it goes into SuperMemo.

A few notes now on how SuperMemo interfaces with particular subjects. I rarely put math questions into SuperMemo; if there are some particularly stubborn math facts he keeps getting wrong, I put those in. On the other hand, I put every item of Latin learned in, from the new book (I didn't bother, with Rosetta Stone), and I plan to add all new vocabulary and grammar bits into SuperMemo when we start the next book.

Time management. As usual, we've continued to drift back and forth between time management methods. Sometimes I let him practically manage himself, with a little guidance from me. But then he ends up wasting a lot of time. Sometimes I have a "flexible schedule," and that works a little better, but then often we end up not doing anything well. And occasionally, we adopt a stricter schedule. Then we get a lot done, but it requires more attention from me. I have to be 100% on, or I end up doing less work on Infobitt.

The way we found to do a stricter schedule is to schedule plenty of breaks, but be absolutely strict about both starting and stopping an activity, regardless of how much we've done. It's discouraging when we barely get started with something and the time is up, but overall we get a lot more done. And the great thing is that when study time is over, H. has a large block of absolutely free time.

School. He goes to school two days a week for an hour each day, doing "specials," meaning art, P.E., music, and computers. We have him there for a little extra socialization but he does learn a few things in these classes. He's also been doing an art class lately and greatly enjoying that. Last year he was doing Cub Scouts, but this year we dropped it because basically his heart was not in it and I didn't want to push him. So now we're hunting about for new outlets. He has little interest in sports but he loves climbing constantly on the indoor gym with his brother.

Classical methodology. In homeschooling jargon, the method we most closely resemble is definitely the classical method, as described for example by the Bauers in The Well-Trained Mind. This involves having a schedule, doing quite a bit of work, focusing on memorization in the earliest grades (but this changes quite a bit later on), and making Latin and, later, Greek part of the curriculum, along with other works of classic literature. It's a traditional sort of education in the sense that the main subjects are covered, Latin is one of them, and things are scheduled.

That said, I give H. a lot of freedom in what precisely he wants to read when it comes to the literature, history, and science he reads to himself. When it comes to writing assignments, half of the time, he's deciding entirely by himself; much of the rest of the time, I propose and he decides. If he doesn't want to practice piano or do anything extra, I don't make him. So in those respects our approach is a little like "unschooling." But I try to get H. to do math every day, whether he wants to or not, and Latin, etc., so it's definitely not unschooling in general.

I'm trying to get H. to write more about what he's read. For example, recently I produced a question about superstition in Huck Finn, and he wrote a decent brief composition about that, arguing that we should be tolerant of people who are superstitious, even if they are silly the way Huck and Jim are. So in this regard I'm trying to get H. to start writing more thoughtful pieces about his reading, and this practice resembles one of the core features of the Charlotte Mason method. And we do read a lot of high-quality books. But we also do use a number of reference-type books and textbooks, so we're not 100% Charlotte Mason, not to mention the fact that I don't give H. the entire afternoon off (just half of it).

====================

OK, now about E., who is 3.

E. is different from H. They both are early readers, but I think E. has more aptitude in math and handwriting than H. did at the same age, and H. was a little more interested in books than E. has been. H. is a little more serious, and E. is a little more sociable and a little less of an "intellectual" (for now!).

Reading. I've been reading books like Mr. Popper's Penguins to him at bedtime (although, unlike H., he isn't always interested in reading chapter books at bedtime). Pretty much anything I read to him at bedtime, he can and does occasionally read to me. Not infrequently he will interrupt me and insist on reading to me. That book has a grade level equivalent of 4.9, so that's around where his decoding level is. I guess his reading-on-his-own comprehension level is a couple of grades behind that. I do give him second grade level science books to read on his own, and he'll read them, although I often bribe him with this or that. If he's reading to me, he needs no bribe, but he needs some sort of special reason to read on his own.

Writing. As with H., E. is just not motivated to learn how to write, and I am not motivated to make him. He does ask to write stuff much more often than H. did, and as a result he's learning quite a bit better than H. did at the same age. He's also learning to type in the same way H. did: I write out what he dictates, and then he writes words and short sentences with help from me (or H. or his Mama; Mama helps a lot here, and actually insists on doing at least as much as I do, because she thinks I did a terrible job teaching H. handwriting, which I freely admit). Anyway at this rate I think E. will be handwriting sentences when he's 4 rather than 5, which is when H. started, I believe.

Math. H. didn't have the iPad when he was E.'s age, and E. has definitely benefited from all the math apps. He can count up to 20 and is right now interested in learning to count to 100 so we're doing that. He has started learning to add and subtract and is basically learning Kindergarten math stuff right now. Thanks to all the Kindergarten math apps we've done, he seems to be almost ready for first grade math.

Subjects/vocabulary. I don't have any particular scheme with E. at this point. I do try to give him a wide variety of early elementary nonfiction picture books for science, history, and geography, and he does seem to be getting quite a bit that way. He also loves my presentations, the ones I made for H., so he's seen most of those multiple times (except for the Music and Art ones, which we look at less often). His vocabulary and grasp of basic facts seems quite good for a 3-year-old, although he doesn't sound quite like the little professor, the way H. did. He's getting there, though. I'm just a proud papa so this is pretty meaningless, but he strikes me as being quite clever; he's often producing clever and witty answers to questions, and he's also excellent at explaining the meanings of words, just as H. was able to. This, in both cases, I attribute to the fact that I explain all words they don't know, whenever we read. E. is a bit better than H. was at asking, "What does that mean?" H. used to jus t look up from the book and stare at me, waiting for an explanation; E., by contrast, proactively asks more. But he doesn't really have to so much because, as I said, I explain pretty much everything.

P.E. He's pretty strong and agile for a little guy, hanging upside down all the time from the gym, climbing up and down, spinning on the trapeze, etc.

Music. He's been going to a music and dance class with his Mama, and I occasionally give him piano lessons, when he asks; he asks, because he imitates big bro all the time.


Please read: my challenge to kindergarten and first grade teachers

Dear Teachers
(and those who support teachers, please listen in),

I will buy your class $100 worth of books, and donate whatever anyone else pledges below (more on that in a bit), if you successfully execute the following. (I can do this for only one teacher. But if more people pledge money for other teachers to use the program, then...)

(a) Set up your classroom so that you can spend about 25 minutes per day showing ReadingBear.org presentations and then a class quiz. The quiz (done by the class as a whole) should usually be over the day's words, but occasionally it should be a "big" quiz, over the previous five days' words.

(b) Do this every day for 16 weeks (I'll forgive a few days off), or if you want to show Reading Bear for less time, until your class has finished going through the material and most students can get 13/15 on the last quiz on the page, over all the words. (Note, the last is required only if you stop short of 16 weeks.) Make sure you are logged in as you show this to your class. A schedule would go something like this:

Week 1: "short a" (3 days); begin "short e" (2 days)
Week 2: finish "short e" (1 day); "short i" (2 days); "short o" (1 day)
Week 3: "short o" (1 day); and "short u" (2 days); two reviews and big quizzes
Week 4: another review and big quiz; "c and k"; "ck" (both 2 days)
Week 5: blends 1 and blends 2 (1 day each); adding s (2 days); review and big quiz
Week 6: now you switch to 1 presentation per day; "digraphs and x" to "two syllables"
Week 7: review and big quiz; then "long e" through "or"
Week 8: "er, ur, ir"; review and big quiz; then "oy, oi" through "aw, au, al"
Week 9: "ai" and "ay, air"; review and big quiz; "y, ie, ind, ild" and "o, oa, oe"
Week 10: "old, olt, ow" to "2 & 3 syllables"; review and big quiz; "a_e and "e_e"
Week 11: "i_e" to "ing"; review and big quiz
Week 12: "y and more" to "ge, dge, etc."
Week 13: review and big quiz; "the, se, etc." to "ph, gh"
Week 14: "ea and ear"; review and big quiz; "ie, ui, u" to "si, su, ci, ti, tu"
Week 15:  "ive, or, ence" and "3 & 4 syllables"; then review and big quiz

Note: it doesn't matter if you spend more time on the early stages, and you only get halfway through the presentations in 16 weeks, as long as you look at at an entire presentation, or an entire review, every day. And also note: I don't care if your students can't pass many of the quizzes by the end of that time, as long as you stick with the program for 16 full weeks. I think they will be able to, but we'll see, now won't we?

(c) You may show the screen to your whole class at once or, if you have the computers, you can have the students look at the presentations individually (which is actually better, but not required).

(d) Send the kids home with the ReadingBear.org URL and the instructions to review the lesson at home each day, preferably (but not necessarily) until they get at least a 13/15 on the quiz.

(e) You have to agree to answer some questions from me, honestly and accurately, about how you used the program and how well your students are reading at the end of it.

So here's the deal: I really believe in phonics. In particular, I believe in the Rudolf Flesch method, which I used with both of my boys, who learned to read using this method when they were 1 year old. (My 2-year-old is now decoding at a third grade level, according to this--I'm not kidding.) And in even more particular, I believe in the Reading Bear program. I think we need some evidence that 21st century tools, like Reading Bear, can be used to quickly and easily teach kids how to read. (By "read" I mean to decode text, of course--the hardest part of starting to read--although Reading Bear teaches an awful lot of vocabulary.) I think kids can learn phonics quickly and easily using the right tools. I think that there is no reason why our poor first graders should be made to suffer through those awful, boring basal readers for three or four years. Ugh! They should be reading easy, grade-appropriate, transitional chapter books like My Father's Dragon and The Magic Tree House. So, teachers, won't you take a half hour out of your school day next year and help me (a) teach your kids to read, and (b) prove that your typical school kids can be taught to read in four months using Reading Bear? I really think they can be.

I doubt $100 in books is enough to motivate anybody who is not already motivated. But it is a way to get your attention, to commit publicly to a program, etc. And besides...others might kick in more. Maybe we'll make the prize "stone soup"...

Note for non-teachers: do want to support this effort? Pledge, in the comments below, money for teachers. $100 would be nice. More would be awesome. It's all unorganized by any organization at this time. I will personally provide an escrow service (you'll have to trust me!). I'm just doing this because I have something to prove personally...I don't own the website (the Community Foundation does) and I don't even operate it, I've moved on to Infobitt.com full time. I just want to prove that Reading Bear works. The real winners will be the kids, who learn to read quickly and painlessly (Reading Bear is fun!).

Available money will be split up as follows: $100 per teacher who successfully completes the program, based on the teachers who sign up first below and the available money. If there is more than $100 per teacher available, then all available money will be divided equally among all teachers who finish. To prove their bona fides I must be given the teacher's Reading Bear login ID. My interpretation of this policy will be final!