Thursday, October 30, 2008

What is our child's educational level?

UPDATE: added a link to the site that estimates reading level with a little more detail about it.

The question came up again recently about what is our daughter's educational level. Since we are homeschooling and can tailor her education to fit her individual needs, the actual grade level is just a convenient label to us. Her peers are six. She is six. She attends a first grade sunday school class and thinks of herself as a first grader. But what educational level is she at? We don't feel the need to get her tested to determine her level so how do we know what to teach her?

Well, I guess we started with reading. She can read. So now it is a matter of what she likes to read. What stories grab her attention? What stories does she read to herself and what stories does she prefer to be read to her? Lately, I've been getting a lot of "step 2: intro to reading books" from our local library. They are simple chapter books with easy stories and vocabulary. The Pillowfight Fairy finds them easy and fun. Her little sister likes them too. The older reads them to the younger, then they spend the next week reenacting the stories in their free time. According to the information on these books the reading level is grades 1-3. That gives some clue, but as I said, the Fairy finds them easy. On the more advanced level she enjoys reading some of the Beatrix Potter stories. I found a site that gives the reading level for book titles that you enter. It is called Scholastic Teacher Book Wizard and you can find it here. When I looked up some of these stories on the site's "Bookalike" search engine it ranked the reading level and I found that the stories have a "interest level" of kindergarten through 2nd grade, but has a reading level of 3.5 grade level. "House at Pooh Corner" is listed as interest level of 3rd-5th grade and reading level of 5.1. Books that she prefers to have read to her are some like "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web," and "The Wind in the Willows." I don't think it is because they are too hard to read. I think it is because they are longer chapter books with longer plot lines. She can't finish them in one sitting, so she prefers to be read to so that her imagination can just take it all in. If she were reading it herself, she would still be dealing with the mechanics of reading and couldn't enjoy it as much. So we just try to get her good books, whether for her to read or for us to read to her. Our theory (taken from Charlotte Mason) is that if the child reads good literature and interesting books, the reading abilities follow along nicely.

We also started her out doing some spelling work to try to reinforce the phonics we had taught her. She loved it and is now in the second book of our chosen curriculum (Spelling Workout) which is labeled as for 2nd grade. I found that I couldn't advance her too fast in this curriculum, because it is aimed at a child who also has similar writing and thinking skills to the older age level. So I have extended the life of the curriculum by following the series of spelling lessons with vocabulary work taken from the dictionary in the back of the workbook.

Thanks to some of the spelling and vocabulary work we have done, she has made good progress with her writing skills. She doesn't like writing sentences, but she can do it well enough now that she will sometimes compose several sentences for fun during her free time, on whatever topic is of interest to her at the time. She still prefers to use simple words when writing, but she will take a chance on spelling a more complicated word if it is the one she wants to use. As far as her ability to write, I would rank her as about 2nd or 3rd grade. However, the content is more along the lines of a 1st grader's simpler view of the world. During the course of our current school year I have increased the amount of writing that I expect from her. She used to do one sentence per writing assignment at the beginning of the school year. Now she is doing three sentences per writing assignment. I have added an additional sentence every six weeks. It has worked out so well that I plan to continue it until she is writing six sentences per assignment by the end of our school year.

We are using Horizons math with her at the 1st grade level. We are satisfied with the steady and challenging work she is getting with it. She is picking it up at a reasonable pace. She also seems to prefer word problems, which I detested when I was her age. But it fits the way that she thinks.

As for her other subjects: history, science, religion, art and music. This is more fluid. None of it is actually graded. The history is designed to be used for any kid between 1st-4th grades. The Science is handled in a similar way. The teacher adjusts the lesson for what the child is capable of. The art is simple enough for any age level (child through adult). For religion, we are reading from a children's Bible that is at a 3rd grade reading level. The piano work is based on completion of lessons in order rather than "grades." So these areas of study either mirror her progress in reading and writing or they train for specific skills that are not quite so age related.

Just writing this post is reinforcing to me that the basics of reading, writing, and math really are the basics. I feel it is important to develop these abilities so that she will always be challenged a little more. If we can keep her at the level of steady improvement at a challenging level, I think she will be capable of the same level of work in the other subjects that are dependent on reading and writing and eventually also math. So, I guess my determining factor in our child's educational level is in reading, writing, and math. She is reading and writing much better than the typical six year old. She is doing math at a first grade level. She still thinks like a six year old however and has the emotional and activities needs of a six year old. I sort of see the information she is picking up in history, science, religion, art and music as frosting on the cake. She is learning new facts that she doesn't have a lot of context for yet. We are trying to provide some of that context for her. But I can see good things coming from following our current path. For instance, how many six year olds are confident about how to spell: Egypt, Pharaoh, Abraham, and Osiris. She is learning about lots of different kinds of animals. She is hearing the actual bible stories instead of paraphrases. She is getting training in art and music at a level that suits her abilities.

We still have a little over half a school year's work yet to go, so it will be a while before I can start planning for next year. But, I can see how each year lays a new layer to the foundation she is building on. I don't have any concerns about her not being ready to advance to new levels in reading or writing. She is right on track with her math. This year's work has shown our plans to be successful as far as material covered and educational level to follow. Looking ahead, I can still see the basic subjects (reading, writing, and math) to be the arbiters of how challenging the other subjects (history, science, religion, and fine arts) will be. And in the end those other subjects will become foundational later on when she starts hitting the logic stage, and she has to start wrestling with the facts that she has already been exposed to.

The more I look toward the future, the more I get excited about the shape it is taking. I almost feel sorry for my daughter that she doesn't have the perspective yet that allows her to look ahead at what the future holds for her. She has had such a good beginning. Yeah, she grumbles and gripes with the best of them. But she incorporates what she has learned into her play as if it is now a natural part of her. She doesn't realize how much she has changed in just the last few months. To me, as her parent, it is exciting and hopeful. I almost look forward to the day when we will be wrestling over arguments and grappling with great ideas.

In the meantime, I'm starting to teach the Adrenaline Junkie phonics. I get to learn how to juggle the educational needs of two kids in a more formal fashion. I get to figure out what my second daughter is ready for and whether we will start kindergarten next school year or in the following. (Her birthday is just a few days after the official cut off, so that will be it's own challenge.) After that, maybe I'll write another post about educational level. After all, I don't have a lot of experience dealing with more than one person. I'm sure I'll have figured it out a bit more after that.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why do we homeschool?

As I look back over the last two and a half years of homeschooling, I have realized that our original reasons for homeschooling have transformed a bit. So I was wondering if I ever posted about why we homeschool. After looking back in my archive, the answer is: not really. I have mentioned reasons in passing, but mostly I wrote about how we decided to homeschool, not why. So in an effort to spread some enlightenment, I'll try to address the whys of our homeschooling journey.

Both my husband and I went to public schools growing up. We did not have any horribly traumatic experiences that changed our lives forever and caused us to swear that we would never inflict that on our children. We both had good educations growing up. But, neither of us saw our good, public school education as problem free. We each have our weaknesses and strengths. As a result, we saw that our good, public school education allowed us to coast on our strengths, while avoiding the need to address our weaknesses. As for socialization, you could say that neither of us saw public school socialization, in general, as a positive thing. In every group of people (in school or otherwise), you have leaders, followers, and a few odd balls that neither follow the leaders, nor inspire followers. The public school system is designed to work well for leaders and followers. Both Tim and I were odd balls. As a result, we saw how it did not always work well for people like us.

After High School, both of us went off to college. Tim went to a state college and I had a varied journey through a public junior college, a private university, a state college, and a small private college. We had good educations and got decent jobs. As newly married adults, we found that we were both of the mind to examine the choices we made before we automatically followed the crowd. As a result we found that we often did not follow the crowd. One decision we made early on that went against societal norms was to do without a television. Our household has been TV free since 2000 and we haven't regretted the decision.

As we started making plans for having a family, we would talk about what we wanted for our children and the topic of education would eventually come up. We both were of a mind that we wanted not just a good education for our children, but an excellent one. We expected that we would be the ones to decide what that education would look like when the time came. We talked over the pros and cons of public, private and even homeschooling, but never came to any conclusions. After all, we didn't actually have any children at that time so it was all theoretical.

Once we had our first born, the Pillowfight Fairy, theory started to be met with reality. We were a happy little family with nary an educational care until about the time she turned two. You see, this little girl was a bit on the early side for just about every childhood milestone. But, since she was our first child, we didn't have much perspective on what was normal, except what the people around us would tell us. They were astounded when she was crawling and pulling to a stand at six months. She was walking by nine months. They were shocked to hear her pronounce words perfectly at ten months. She had memorized some of her favorite books by eighteen months and could recite them to herself happily. By the time she was twenty months, she had words like "metronome" in her speaking vocabulary. But what really started to make us realize how unusual her skills were was when she memorized the 50 states by shape, location, and name (sometimes mispronounced) two weeks after her second birthday thanks to a map puzzle she was given. That sort of tipped us off that this kid was not learning things in quite the same way as the other kids her age. That is when we started evaluating what should we do for her education.

The first question was whether or not to send her to preschool. Many of our peers were planning to send their kids to preschool when they turned three, partially to prepare them for school, partially to give them some fun activity with other kids, and partially to allow the parents to do other things. When I looked into what was taught in preschool, I realized that my two year old already knew most of it. So, academically that choice didn't make sense. Socially, we are not isolated. Between our church connections and my MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group, she was getting lots of time with other kids and fun activities. As for myself, I was still going to be a stay at home mom. By this point, we had our second daughter (the Adrenaline Junkie) and I was going to be home taking care of her and didn't see any reason to ship off one kid so that I had more time alone with the other one. So Tim and I kept thinking about educational options. by the time she turned three, we had decided that we can do her preschool years at home. That way we can teach her what she is ready for and not be concerned about being out of sync with the preschool. Besides, I just didn't like the idea in my gut to send her to someone else to teach when I was perfectly capable of doing it myself. I don't think kids should be separated from their families as much as is common in today's society.

Not long after we solved the preschool issue, wouldn't you know it but our little angel decided to spontaneously start sounding out words on her own at three and a half years old. That's when the next question came up. Do you delay teaching her to read because that happens later in school or do you go ahead and teach her and deal with the fallout from that decision later. Tim and I both agreed that you teach what a kid is ready to learn, regardless of whether it is convenient. So, we did a little research on reading lessons, did sounding out practice with her, made a few mistakes and came back to phonics in the end. In the process, we were discovering more about how our daughter thinks, how she reacts to lessons, what kinds of strengths and weaknesses she had. We were also watching how she interacted with other kids her age. We knew that the decision about kindergarten was just around the corner. Would we put her in public school for kindergarten? Would a private school be better? What about homeschooling? We knew that at the rate she was going, she was going to be academically advanced for her age. But socially and emotionally, she was not. We knew that if we placed her based on her age alone, she would be hopelessly bored. We knew that if we placed her based on academics, she would be horribly handicapped trying to deal with kids more socially and emotionally mature than her. We were realizing that, based on our own experience in the public school systems, that public school would be a bad fit. The more we researched and read, the more we realized that a private school would not be much better. The issue we were dealing with was how to teach a kid who was her own category. There was not going to be a classroom of kids exactly like her to put her with. We wanted her to have an excellent education, but we were not willing to make the compromises necessary to force her to fit into a classroom setting. The classroom setting became the focus. You see, any time you bring a group of people of varying skills into a classroom to learn, you have some who learn quickly, some who learn at an average speed and some who for one reason or another learn slowly. You also have to deal with the dynamics of one teacher having to juggle the needs of all of the students. No matter how good the student-teacher ratio, the attention given has to vary based on need. We knew our daughter to be a fast learner. We found that she also has a lazy streak and resists new things if she thinks she doesn't want to put much effort into it. After all why work to learn something when you could just learn the things you like that don't take much effort at all? We could see her in a classroom setting excelling in her favorite topics, but getting bored and not doing what she was capable of, since it wasn't expected. Yet at the same time, she would be labeled as uncooperative or even behind in some areas because she would refuse to do the work to learn the material. There aren't many teachers willing to break through our child's stubborn/lazy streak to get her to do what she is perfectly capable of. I have even noticed in the community classes and chuch classes she has been in, that she has a knack for manipulating the teacher to make exceptions for her. The more we watched her as we taught her at home, the more we realized that the classroom environment was the biggest issue we had. We also realized that we as her parents could get better results from her than other teachers. I think this was partially because we knew her so well and partially because we have a vested interest in her success.

So, If we didn't put her in public or private school because of the classroom dynamic, that left homeschooling. Homeschooling solved a lot of issues for us. We didn't have to worry about what the other kids were learning and whether our child was on track with that. We just had to teach our child what she was ready for. We didn't have to worry about whether she was emotionally or socially in sync with her peers (she will always be a little out of sync), she would be in an emotionally and socially accepting environment of her family. We had already been teaching her from infancy, and knew that we could. I never had any doubts as to my ability to teach the subjects. My own education was well rounded to the extreme. My college majors were (in chronological order): Physics, History, Library and Information Science, and Bible and Theology. I have taught adults how to do basic research at the college level. I have the ability to teach my own children. The only thing that was still an open question for me was whether I could do it as well as raising my kids (the third child being on the way at the time), taking care of the house, being a wife, all without exhausting myself or destroying our family. I am ambitious, but I do recognize that I have limitations.

What finally helped me realize that I could in fact do homeschooling, was a visit from Tim's uncle and aunt. They homeschool and I was able to watch them in action and pick their brains a bit to understand what homeschooling looks like at the daily level. Like most people with a institutional school background, I was still thinking within the box. If I tried to homeschool before that point, I probably would have exhausted myself by trying to reproduce the school setting at home. After that visit, I had a new vision for what school can be.

Ironically, we have chosen a completely different path than Tim's uncle and aunt. We did our research, figured out what was important to us, and figured out what we thought would work with our child. As a result, we have chosen to follow the classical model of education with plenty of emphasis on history and literature. Up through our daughter's kindergarten year we just worked with reading, writing and arithmetic. This year is her first grade year and we have added spelling, grammar, memorization work, history, science, religion, art and music. So far we have covered 13 weeks of school and seem to be on track with our goals.

During this time I have noticed that my ideas about homeschooling have continued to evolve and develop. We have found homeschooling to be very freeing. We are able to cover the material much faster than is done in the classroom setting. Once she has mastered one lesson we can move on to another or otherwise adjust the schedule as needed. We can take holidays and breaks when we need them rather than at the convenience of the school schedule. If we suddenly need to travel, we can either take a break from school or take it with us. We can work around illness in a more flexible way.

We have also found that we are more in tune with our responsibilities as parents and teachers to give our child an education that is tailored to her abilities. We now see having someone else teaching our child as "outsourcing" the job that is our responsibility. The biblical exhortation for parents to teach their children as they go about their everyday activities resonates with us like it never did before. We always expected to teach our children in that way, but now with homeschooling, we find that the verse mirrors what we do much closer than it would otherwise. We also feel more empowered to be active participants in our child's education. We don't have to find an expert on children's literature to read to our child. We don't have to wait for a specialist to tell us how our child is doing, we can see for ourselves by being there when it happens.

We have found that we are separating the concepts of learning from school insofar as lessons don't have to look like the schooling that we had. Yes, our daughter has plenty of sit down lessons. But, she also likes to play verbal games of word problems at the dinner table (her initiative, not ours). She likes to read to her sister (reading practice or social time? Maybe both). She decided one day, during a lesson on addresses, to write a letter to her aunt and uncle who live across town. So we had a lesson on proper epistolary composition which I've been wanting to do with her, but it was her idea completely.

We have found homeschooling to increase our joy. We get to hear first hand some of the quirky things our daughter comes up with in that brain of hers. We get to see the younger kids wanting to do "school" too. We get to enjoy our kids for who they are as we help them reach toward their potential. Each one of our kids is different. The younger ones might even fit in slightly better in the classroom setting than our first child. But, at this point we can see the benefit of homeschooling so well that it seems silly of us to even consider it. Our second daughter is much more active and loves to act out the stories read to her. She is also more precise in her writing and drawing than her older sister was at this age. Our son is slower to talk, but has managed to learn his phonics sounds before he turns two. He seems to be a self-motivated thinker and problem solver. We are expecting a fourth child in May and are curious to find out what this one will be like.

We do have daily struggles over how much work our daughter puts into her lessons and whether we have made reasonable goals. But, through these struggles we know each other better and find ways to work together to meet our goals. Our daughter is even learning some negotiation skills. It is said that relationships become strong when you struggle and work together. It is our hope that at the end of our homeschooling journey that not only will all of our children have an excellent education, but that the relationships will be strong because of the journey we have followed together. We hope that this homeschool journey will not just prepare our kids for their future lives but will teach them about life itself and how to live it well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mommy Fashions

I've been thinking lately how silly some of my fashion choices have been lately. To give you some background, please understand that I have never been a fashion maven. But, I do have a conscious fashion identity that I have shaped and molded in various ways since Junior High School. I like certain styles and rejoice when they come back into the latest trends. I hate other styles and think that those clothes should be buried somewhere obscure in the deep of the night. I tend to like classic styles (those styles that last longer and don't really follow the ebb and flow of the current fads). I also like a few fun eccentric things, that most people would probably avoid simply because "everyone isn't doing it." I tend to do my own thing and toyed with going into fashion design in during my High School Years. It is probably good I didn't. I'm too much of an independent thinker. I've never noticed anybody treating me like a trend-setter. In addition, I have a huge practical streak. Practical and Fashion almost never work well in the world of trendy culture. It drives me nuts every time I find something that works for me because it is practical, then within a year I can't find it anywhere because the latest thing pushed it out of the market. But the latest thing is cutesy and very impractical.

So, what kind of fashion choices have I made that amuse me? It is the Mommy Fashion thing. Things that I do simply because I'm a mommy. Things that I probably would never have thought of otherwise. Auntie Jean pointed one out to me about a year ago that I hadn't really noticed, but was kind of funny. No matter what I wore, I would always add a little touch of white, usually tossed over a shoulder like a loose scarf. This bit of white scarf was of course a burp cloth made from a thin cloth diaper. I've done this for most of the first year and a half of each of our kids' lives. To someone who knows me, it's become my normal fashion. To a complete stranger, they probably wonder about my sanity.

Another one I noticed this past summer was a fun little colorful accessory. If you plan ahead, you can even coordinate with your day's outfit (which I never did). This accessory was a pacifier on a strap that was usually clipped to my belt-loop or pocket. This position ensured that the child to whom it belonged would not be dragging it through the dirt. But, for my benefit, it provided a fun little swinging motion every time I walked somewhere.

The latest addition to my wardrobe that amuses me is a pair of shoes. I love shoes. I am one of those people (if I didn't have a practical streak) who would have a pair of shoes to match every color of outfit I own. I have always liked three inch spike heels (which make me 6 feet tall). This is not at all practical with young kids in your life (possible but not practical). I also happen to be rather active. I don't do sports. I don't do a gym. I don't run or bike or swim. I walk. I currently have a daily walk of about 1.2 miles (pushing a double umbrella stroller). I have found that with a combination of young children and the daily walk, I am incredibly hard on shoes. I usually would choose athletic shoes as the most practical choice for my daily footgear. No matter what brand I would choose, It would fall apart quickly and I would be shopping for shoes again. Cheaper brands fell apart faster. But the expensive ones didn't last long enough to justify the expense. My last pair of athletic shoes looked terrible (cracking, tearing, soles pulling away from the shoe) in just one month. What's a mom to do?

Heh, Heh...

Men's workboots. Stanley brand. Steel Toes! (how many times does a mom have her kids step on her toes!) Fashion-wise they resemble black and grey hiking boots. They were $30 at Payless ShoeSource and half price on day I bought them. It took me about a week to break them in. So far they seem to be doing a great job. We'll see how long they last.

So, it makes me wonder what is next? Knee pads? Face mask? Funny hats? Then I started to wonder if other people do strange things like this or is it just me. So if any of you reading this have stories to share, please do. I would love to know that I'm not the only one.