It’s called a Decathlon because I came up with it during an Olympic year, and we went with the idea of being an all-around champion by pursuing ten different subjects. The way it works is that you earn a small prize every time you complete an activity sheet for any subject. You can do as many sheets in a subject area as you want (the point is to keep busy, right?). The big Decathlon prize can only be earned by completing at least one sheet in every subject area.*
Our small prizes were things like a pint of ice cream, but you could make it bonus screen time, time doing a kid-chosen game together, parent does one chore for kid, parent sings a silly song for kid — be creative, and feel free to tailor prizes to each child. Obviously, prizes only work well if they are items which are reasonable for the parents to offer, but are also something special that will motivate the child.
In the pandemic-version update, I’ve removed reference to “summer” and also removed all the original prizes, since you may have difficulty acquiring specific items. On each page, just fill in the agreed-upon prize for the subject area and then your big prize for kids who complete the entire Decathlon. (Our summer 2016 Decathlon award was $50. Only one of our four children was determined enough to earn it. The others, though, stayed busy completing activity sheets in order to get the small prizes.)
I specify “books” for the reading requirements because we developed this program as an alternative to our library’s summer reading program. Given that your library may be closed right now (ours is), if you don’t have an extensive home library, consider allowing e-books (your public library probably stocks them), audio books, podcasts, or documentaries. Part of the challenge for science labs, arts, crafts, etc., is for your child to hunt down the needed information and supplies independently. There are many resources available online if you don’t have a stash of pertinent books at home. There is no reason fine arts, crafts, and science activities cannot be completed using materials scavenged from your recycle bin. If you don’t have access to the outdoors, Naturalist activities can be done by looking out the window (ID’ing different types of clouds would be an example) or by using a science website to learn what a given plant, animal, or insect looks like, then using Google Images as a collection of samples for ID-practice.
If you are doing it right, once your child gets the hang of how the system works, it should involve relatively little work for you. The goal is to get kids motivated to try new things and work independently. If you have very young children and also an older sibling, you could create an incentive whereby the older sibling earns a prize sheet for helping a little one do their activities. Obviously you should adjust the suggested activities based on your child’s age and ability. I allowed some substitutions such as Lego Sculpture as an art/craft, with parent pre-approval.
If you are comfortable with spreadsheets (or would like to be) and you would like to customize the program, here is a link to a Google Sheets version of my spreadsheet:
The file is read-only, so just copy-and-paste or upload it into your preferred spreadsheet program in order to modify it.
Copyright information: You’re welcome to share this, as-is or in your modified version, including posting on your own website, as long as you (a) include credit for the original and (b) don’t charge anyone for access to your version. This is meant to be shared freely.
For our photo penance today: Here’s me with posing with some of the pollen-producing plants that are causing us all to go nuts wondering whether we are coming down with the plague or it’s just that time of year.
*I do include an option to allow one two-for-one substitution and still earn the Decathlon prize. This allows for a kid who just absolutely hates a subject to do extra work in other areas to buy out of the one dread subject.
PS: Yes, these PDFs look exactly like the graphic artist is an accountant. Easiest way to cause this to be a brightly-colored, decorated version is to print it out, staple it into a booklet, and give your kids a pack of crayons and let them color it all they like. Remember parents, goal here is to keep your kids busy, not you busy.
My friend asked advice on what curriculum to use with her 8th grader who has been in school until now, but will be homeschooling this coming year. Everyone shared their favorite programs, which is super helpful, because when you haven’t homeschooled for a while, or never, it’s great to get a list of all the things people like. I’ll mention at the bottom a few things I’ve liked for 8th grade over the years.
But to start, here’s my general list of recommendations for 8th graders:
The Two Big Skills
Make sure your child learns how to write a 5 paragraph essay. It doesn’t matter what you personally think of the genre. This skill is your child’s ticket through high school. If you could only teach one thing, teach this.
Make sure your kid has mastered arithmetic and pre-algebra. It’s not a race on doing Algebra 1 in junior high. Don’t sweat that. Get your kid as fluent as possible in the foundations, and then algebra and geometry will go much more smoothly when the time comes.
Science & Social Studies
A good physical science class can be very helpful as preparation for high school science if you haven’t done one lately and it isn’t scheduled for 9th grade. Alternately: Any science class your kid is super excited about.
If you’ve never done an overview of world history and world geography, now’s a good time to do that, unless it’s going to be your 9th grade. Alternately: Any social studies topic your kid is super excited about.
I prefer physical science and world history as 9th grade classes, but many schools have dropped them from 9th grade and go straight to what used to be saved until 10th grade. Find out what your local school system does, what your state graduation requirements are (for example: 9th grade physical science doesn’t usually meet the college admission and high school graduation lab science requirements), and what the most likely course sequence is for your kid’s expected high school program.
The Important Parts
Do at least one thing your child enjoys. If your kid hasn’t lately studied something just for the pure pleasure of it, do that. High school is gonna be long and will probably require a lot of intellectual self-denial, unless the kid really lucks out.
Your faith matters. If you are coming from a den of atheism and returning to a den of atheism, take advantage of the time out to choose curriculum things that reinforce the faith. What that is will depend on your kid. My most recent 7th grader and I spent a semester volunteering at a clothing closet and a homeless-people-shower-and-laundry facility. It’s not always textbooks that are the thing.
But do note that the Bible, church history, Christian authors, and the like can be legitimate ways to study literature and social studies, so you can really do some shoring up intellectually on the faith without overloading yourself. If you have a kid who wants to read Tolkien, let the kid read Tolkien, this is the moment.
Teach your kid to think. If it won’t be happening in high school (see: “den of atheism”), consider doing a book like The Fallacy Detective that teaches you how to think clearly. I prefer to wait until high school, but junior high is better than never.
The Most Important Part
But mostly: Stay sane and don’t hate each other. Build your child’s confidence. Whatever it takes, that’s what you want.
And now for a few things that I’ve liked, having gotten 2.5 children through homeschooled 8th grade. (#3 transitioned to school mid-year.) I’ve taught high school and middle school classes with a homeschool cooperative, so my sample size is a little larger than just my own kids. For the coming year I’ll be teaching 6th and 7th grade humanities at a local private school, so I’m drawing on a little of what I’ve learned in prepping for that as well, though I’m not commenting on texts I’ve never used myself.
These are just things I’ve used and liked. There are other good choices out there.
For 8th grade math Saxon 8/7 has done us well. I like Math-U-See in general, but for getting a kid ready for algebra and geometry, 8/7 has proven itself. I’d stay away from Saxon if your 8th grader has a super hard time with learning new concepts and needs lot of intensive time building the foundations. But for kids who do okay, the dizzying spiral of Saxon works well in 8/7 as an unrelentingly thorough prep of every dang thing you need to know before getting to Algebra 1 and geometry. You can start 8/7 after doing some other program your entire life, and you can transition to yet another program afterwards. It’s a good 8th grade year solid choice for the average kid.
I’ve never regretted time spent on IEW. As writing programs go, it’s intense. Not everyone loves it. But for mastering those 5-paragraph skills, it does the trick. For the longterm, IEW is like calisthenics or martial-arts forms practice. You aren’t going to grow up to write like you learned in junior high, but IEW does teach you how to take total control of your words, sentences, paragraphs, and the organization of your document. That’s a necessary skill. My youngest’s parish school teachers taught the kids that skill using something that wasn’t IEW, but that was also very effective. So there are other ways.
If you’re looking for parent-friendly language arts, I like what Catholic Heritage Curricula has on offer in their Language of God series. I like the Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary workshop books. If you are that kind of person, both the old Voyages in English — now called Lepanto – and the new VIE currently being put out by Loyola Press are solid. But you have to be that kind of person, because they are for-serious.
If you have a child who needs customized spelling help, Spelling Power works great, but it is teacher-intensive. For certain learning disabilities you’ll want Sequential Spelling instead.
For Catholic religion textbooks, you want Faith and Life from Ignatius Press. There are reasons your parish might need a different program, so don’t be down on your DRE about it . . . but you want F&L. No really. It’s the best.
UPDATED to throw in a comment on Literature: I’ve had one 8th grader do the Secret Code of Poetry, a workbook text I loved but she did not. She wanted to read rescue thrillers. Your mileage may vary. The boy read a selection of choices off of Kolbe Academy’s reading list and used their study guides to go with; some of that he enjoyed and others he didn’t. L. spent her fall semester of 8th grade on a drama unit and then The Hobbit studied from a novelist’s point of view, and that was good. (My friend and I wrote the curricula on those, sooo, sorry, nothing to hand you off-the-shelf.) She enjoyed Animal Farm in the spring at school, but in contrast the boy hated that one in middle school because the pigs made him so stinking furious. 8th grade is a good year for heroism. The Hiding Place comes to mind as an example of a book that isn’t so very “literary” but can be a good selection, depending on your child.
I’d suggest you mine the reading lists of all the reputable Christian homeschool curriculum providers, and pick based on what interests your child.
The various history books from The Catholic Textbook Project absolutely rock. I’m not just saying that because Mrs. Darwin is writing one (though hers is gonna be superb. Whoa! Yay!!!). For geography, I still love the Map Skills series from Continental Press. I like the history timeline flash cards from Classically Catholic Memory. I also very much like picking a topic and going to the library and checking out bunches of books and learning about it that way.
I don’t have a favorite science program. The books I’ve used that are recommended by various Catholic homeschool curriculum providers are all fine, sift through them based on your needs. The library method combined with hands-on activities is my preferred science method, but it may or may not work for your 8th grade situation.
That’s all I can think of for now. I’ve done reviews on this blog before, and written a little bit at CatholicMom.com way back when, if you want to search around. There’s all kinds of good stuff out there. Look for things that you like that match the personalities and constraints specific to you. 8th grade should not be miserable. It’s not for that.
Something I like about our parish school is that every week the students bring home a folder of all their graded work, so we parents can see how they are doing. We sign off on the papers and send them back to school, so the teachers know we’re in the loop. Here’s my 6th grader’s latest religion test, on the theological and cardinal virtues:
You’ll notice the teacher marked #8 incorrect. The instructions are to match the cardinal virtue to the statement, and #8 is “The virtue that enables people to give respect and obedience to their parents.” The cardinal virtues are prudence (wisdom), justice, temperance (self-control), and fortitude.
Obeying your parents is exactly the kind of thing thrown out as a classic example of the virtue of justice. I use it myself all the time. If I were taking the test, that’s the virtue I would have picked from the list. So the teacher isn’t exactly wrong here in saying “justice” is the correct answer.
The difficulty is that this is my child’s test. And I assure you, my kid is absolutely right. If I had to put up with me, I’d need fortitude for sure.
At The Washington Post: The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues. Reading this article was a moment of revelation for me. Way back when #2 was about seven or so, I can remember walking down to the corner elementary school to play on the playground after hours, and we looked into one of the classrooms. It looked ideal. It practically called her name. There was a wooden play kitchen, and child-sized tables, and loads of art supplies, and of course the wonderful playground just outside the big windows that filled the classroom with natural light. For my little extrovert, this classroom was her people.
And I thought to myself: Maybe I should not be homeschooling this child. Maybe I should send her to school.
Then I came to my senses: This was was the kindergarten classroom. By the time you are seven, it’s rows of desks and standardized tests for you. Not to mention we’d had dealings with one of the neighbor-kindergartners, and so we were acquainted with the long list of “reading words” that five-year-olds at the corner school were somehow expected to memorize and supposedly “read,” at an age when, developmentally, not all children are even capable of learning to read. All four of my kids went on to become fluent, competent readers who read for both pleasure and information, but none of them would have been able to read that list of words at age five. They were physically unable. Since they were at home, instead of being embarrassed by their supposed stupidity, they received the kinds of pre-reading instruction that educational research shows actually helps.
Some of things that help are language-based — read-alouds and rhyming games and stuff like that. Something else that helps kids learn to read is learning about the world. This is important because you can’t make sense of words on a page if you have no idea what those words are referring to. You won’t understand a scene taking place in a grocery store if you’ve never been to a grocery store. You won’t understand a nature scene if you’ve never been out in nature. Playing teaches some important reading skills. It teaches you about the physical world, because you are physically doing stuff. It teaches you about human interactions, because you are creating scenarios and living them out. Playing teaches you to think, because all play requires imagination and initiative and problem-solving.
I’m still a big believer in homeschooling. I agree with Ella Frech’s philosophy of education. For various reasons, though, my kids at the moment like school. As a homeschooler I always involved my kids in decisions about their education. I’d propose some possibilities for the year ahead, and the kids would give me feedback on what they wanted to learn or which approach they preferred of the choices I put on the table. I was open to suggestions if they had ideas different than what I was planning. When I held firm on a curriculum choice, I had solid reasons that I could explain to everyone, kids and spouse alike, and they could see why that particular choice was the one we needed to pursue.
So each of the kids, at various points and for various reasons, deciding to go to school has been a natural extension of that philosophy: If I was open to you choosing a different science book, why would I not also be open to you choosing a different science teacher?
The WaPo article, though, underscores for me why the youngest any child of mine has gone to school was fifth grade — and at that point, she happened to choose our local parish school where the early-grades teachers seem to have a pretty strong grasp of what early-grades learners need. When you are little, you needs hands-on and interactive experiences. Homeschooling let us do that. Inasmuch as I’m happy with the school decisions we have in place right now, it is because the schools are, in their various ways, providing the bigger-kid versions of that for our children.
Allow me to tell you a story about this woman who foolishly volunteered to help at church, and wild monkeys came and pelted all the splash bombs at each other.
One of my kids is in classes once a week at St. Optimist’s, and a couple weeks into the new school year the director identifies a problem: Students are dropped off at class early (a good thing), and therefore teachers are having a hard time getting their classrooms set up in the half-hour before the program begins. Due to assorted logistical constraints, it is not possible to set up earlier.
The director assess the situation, looks at our available resources, and proposes: Since we have an empty classroom and a number of background-checked, fully-trained classroom assistants who are free during that crucial half-hour, how about all the kids who arrive early report to the spare room, where volunteers can do music with the kids.
“Music with the kids” is a time-honored way of occupying children during downtime, and the parents are all in favor of extra minutes of music education. Somehow I am that music person.
–> Mostly likely because I am foolish enough to think: I have long years of experience with keeping children occupied and educated. I have written my own VBS program from scratch and pulled it off (with the help of a good team), including the part about music-with-kids. I wrote the lyrics to a VBS song and made up hand motions and everything. I can totally do this. Not a problem.
So I say to myself: Some people complain that Mrs. Fitz can be a little dry when she teaches. These children are about to go into ninety minutes of class time, some of them are quite young, and we don’t want to push their sitting-still skills too far. Also, Mrs. Fitz isn’t exactly a trained musician, to put it politely. But she has written a VBS program before. Mrs. Fitz is usually pretty popular when she thinks up games for the kids, indeed she keeps both Wiffle balls (red and blue for sorting by team) and a bag of splash bombs on hand, because you never know when you’ll need them.
This could be why Mrs. Fitz’s classes get a little carried away sometimes. <<– That reality was not something I was thinking about when I wrote up plans for the first go-round. Indeed we could describe the first attempt at planning the “Music Games” half-hour as “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
It was not a good idea.
It may well have been my most spectacular teaching failure ever.
Setting aside all the minor infractions against good classroom management skills that did not help: The game thing just wasn’t a good idea.
About half the children were enthusiastic about games and eager to do interesting activities oriented towards developing an awareness of rhythm, tempo, and communication skills (like paying attention to what your singing partners are doing). The other half of the children were clearly hard-wired to receive the sensory input of “there is a foam ball in my hand” and immediately activate the DODGE BALL IS ON centers of the brain.
No one got hurt, and that’s about the only positive to report on the post-incident review.
I felt compelled to speak to the other volunteers afterwards and say: “It is very important that you know that I know that our class this morning was an absolute disaster.” –> There are few things more painful than having to return in a week to “co-teach” with someone who thinks that Lord of Flies, Foam Dodge Ball Edition is a desirable classroom experience.
None of the other parents immediately quit the program and moved dioceses, so the frank apology maybe kinda worked.
But of course I didn’t get fired either, which meant that I had to come back a week later with a much better plan.
The new plan had three prongs to it:
Plan ahead to prevent those minor infractions (of mine) against good classroom management skills.
Plan ahead to be ready for the wild monkeys and know what you are going to do when they enter the room formerly known as Dodge Ball Free-For-All and are tempted to act up again.
Ditch the games and go with a super-calm approach to music time instead.
We can always re-introduce games another time.
And it worked. Some of those kids who were primed for Total Nerf War made superb music students when I gave them a format that didn’t involve anything remotely resembling PE class. Teachers reported that the kids arrived to class calmer than they’d been all month, and overall behavior the rest of the morning was better as a result.
No, I am not making it up when I say at the outset of my book Classroom Management for Catechists that yes, in fact I’m horrible at this stuff. It was a madhouse. Total insanity.
That’s pretty embarrassing, but the following week I proved my other assertion: You don’t have to be naturally good at classroom management in order to learn how to teach well. It’s a skill. You can learn it, and you can review and improve as-needed over time.
I also maintain that there’s a time and place for every kind of class. Some groups of kids do really well with active, even boisterous, learning activities, and some kids do phenomenally well with the exact opposite. What are you, omniscient? I’m not. If you plan wrong, change your plans until you get them right.
Ordering notes if you are so inclined: For bulk orders, phone or e-mail Liguori and find out what the best deal is. It may be worth while to combine orders with a neighboring parish in order to get a volume discount. There’s also a Spanish edition, Manual del manejo de clase para catequistas. The book is useful for anyone who has to manage groups of children. You can read my summary of what it’s about over at my books page.
A friend shared this fundraiser for yet another young person wishing to pursue a religious vocation, but student loan debt stands in the way. I don’t discourage you from helping. Meanwhile, the problem looms very personally for us.
The other morning, Fr. Gonzo and I were chatting about this and that, the subject of Mr. Boy (now a senior in high school) came up, and Father suggested, “Look into Reputable Faithful Catholic U. I think it might be a good fit for him.”
I was a little taken aback, mostly because I’m too deep inside Catholic circles, so I know some of the dirt on RFCU. But of course, Fr. G. is no less ignorant, he gets around too. The question on further reflection isn’t whether this or that school has problems (it’s a fallen world, they all will), but whether the education and formation are suited to the student at hand. I resolved to give RFCU a good look.
And then I remembered the part about the loans. If the boy goes to an in-state public college, he can get through debt-free. That’s basically a four year walk through Heathens Are Us, but not entirely so. It’s possible to cobble together a decent education if you pick your way carefully.
The boy is smart. He could get accepted at a good Catholic school. He’d have a lot to offer the school, and the school would (if well-chosen) have a lot to offer him, but also there would be debt involved. Un-subsidized tuition plus housing costs will do that to you, even after you knock off the usual discounts for pretty-good-but-not-perfect students who ask for aid.
A little debt if he goes on to be an IT guy (his planned profession) is manageable. If he goes on to be an IT guy, a good solid Catholic education will be well worth the investment. The difficulty is that students who start out with nice secular career plans don’t necessarily end there, witness the fundraiser above. A kid with a religious vocation, if he can be counted on to answer it, would do better to stay out of debt and also live in the wider world a bit — there will be plenty of time for the Catholic enclave later.
So anyhow, all that to say: I don’t know much, just that I hate student loans, and I hate that the standard model for good Catholic education seems to require them.
Photo by Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons. Back when universities were first invented, this vocation question wasn’t really a problem. But of course the students still behaved terribly and people complained. I think higher ed is just something we all want to always complain about.
Something fun if you are in striking distance of South Carolina (you don’t need to be in-diocese to participate): My friend Carol Pelster, who is a tremendous pleasure to work with, is organizing a SC Catholic Quiz Bowl to be held in Columbia, SC in early November. Her daughter Veronica writes:
My mom and I are happy to announce a date for the first annual Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina! The date is Saturday, November 11 at 1 pm at Our Lady of the Hills.
What is a Catholic Quiz Bowl? This idea comes from our experience participating in the RC (Roman Catholic) Challenge in Oregon. This is a jeopardy style game for 5th through 12th graders with questions pertaining to the Catholic Faith, the Bible, the Saints, the Liturgy, etc. My siblings and I all thoroughly enjoyed this friendly competition and benefited immensely from this motivation to study our Faith. As a seminarian in Nebraska my brother started something similar there. Now, we are hoping to spread it to the South East!
What do we need to make this happen? What we need most is volunteers for the day of the game. Volunteers will ask the questions, keep score, time the games, and be door monitors. The more volunteers we have the smoother this will go. If you would like to volunteer please let my mom or me know. . . .
How does the game work? Players will be on teams of 3 to 4 players. Two teams will play against each other with the moderator asking the questions. There will be two types of questions: toss up, which anyone can answer, and bonus questions. For bonus questions the team members will be able to consult with each other to come up with the answer. Each round will be about 20 minutes. Multiple games will be going on at the same time (hence the need for many volunteers). Winners play off against each other until there is champion. More details and sample questions will be discussed at the planning meeting.
How does your child sign up to participate? My mom is working on a registration form [see below]. However, it is not too early to start talking to your friends and getting teams together. Each team will need a name and 3 to 4 players within the same age range (5th-8th grade or 9th-12th grade). This is not just for homeschoolers [parish groups, etc] –anyone in the appropriate age group is welcome. Also, don’t forget to study!
Please let me know if you are interested in helping or have questions.
A Facebook page and other web presence is in the works, and I’ll update this post when that time comes. Meanwhile, you can share this post with anyone you think would be interested. Remember that your team can be put together with whomever you like — it’s a good activity for youth groups, religious ed classes, or Catholic schools, but you can also just create your own mishmash team. If your parish or family or poker club wants to send multiple teams, that’s super.
How to Prep for the Quiz Bowl
For studying, kids should refer to a good catechism, Bible, Mass Missal, Lives of the Saints, and Church History. For some questions to practice with (though ours will be rather less obscure) you can look at this: http://traditionallearning.com/rcchallenge/.
I would guess (I haven’t seen the question bank, and won’t) that any flash cards or Catholic trivia games you happen to own would be good for practicing. Also brush up on your go-to lists (12 Apostles? 10 Commandments? Gifts of the Holy Spirit?), and so forth — the appendices of most religious ed textbooks contain good starting points.
Good luck, and get your entry forms in early so you don’t have to pay the late registration fee.
PSA because the question came up today: If you want a good readable saint book, you won’t go wrong with Pauline Media’s “Encounter the Saints” series. They are written for about 5th – 6th grade, but I thoroughly enjoy them and find them edifying for myself. It takes about an hour for an adult left alone to read one book in silence. There’s usually a glossary at the back for any Catholic vocabulary words that you might not know.
I am unclear on why I only own about a dozen of these. Need to rectify that.
This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw. She had made friends with girls her age at parish events. It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year. We did a little more research and decided this was the time.
Our experience so far has been nothing but positive. Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.
Everyone is kind and friendly.
When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region. She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”
The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students. Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic ofwhether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options). I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”
To which my daughter replied: “Mom. This is St. Urban’s. We don’t have bullies. The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”
The friendliness is welcoming to me, too. The administration respects my time. The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers. When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.
I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs. Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse. Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class. It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.
Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.
The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying. Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day. There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does. I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.
Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me. There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true. When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”
“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said. “And also the Angelus.”
The children ate and then talked quietly. The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass. The children swept up and prepared to leave. Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.
My daughter’s teachers know her.
The school is small. There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits. (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, andhere for TheNew Yorker’s explanation of it. I have found this to be true in practice.) My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest. But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.
When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going. To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.
I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her. All these things you describe? That’s my girl. You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her. She’s not lost here. There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.
The curriculum is well-chosen.
Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum. Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.
If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.
Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.
Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before. But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal. I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture. There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.
Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good. I’ll take it.
The school makes the most of its strengths.
One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school. That approach doesn’t work. Homeschooling isn’t for that. Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point. If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed. The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.
My parish school does that too.
There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age. There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location. Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.
My daughter loves it there.
No school can be everything to everybody. My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments. Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period. She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here. Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.
She’s a normal kid. Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream. There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well. Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.
Addendum: About that award she got.
Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning. Truth? It’s the other way around. I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes. I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.
And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around. You know what happened? They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.
What’s the big event? Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction. One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties. The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.
St. Nicholas 2015 was more festive, but this year, thanks to the wonders of iBreviary, a poor spiritual life, and my top most annoying-to-other-parents parenting habit, we just scraped out an observance of the feast.
What happened is that late last night I finally unearthed my long-interred blogging computer. Things have been good here. I took about two weeks to get over a cold, then a third week to pounce on the opportunity to turn my bed into a work table while the SuperHusband was in Canada for three nights on business, and forsook a return to blogging in order to sort and purge the wall of backlogged paper files that had been looming over me for about a year. Now, finally, the layer of dust on the screen of my tablet has trails of finger-marks where I returned to the internet last night, briefly, and am trying again today.
How to make me have a crush on you like I’ve got a crush on Ronald Knox:Announce that you’re hosting Stations of the Cross during Advent! Yes, friends, I’m living in the wonderland. Mind you I have not actually attended Stations at my parish this Advent, because the timing hasn’t worked out yet, but I can be all happy and joyous that other people are having their spiritual lives put in proper order, anyway.
Me? My 1st Week of Advent gift was showing up to Adoration for a half an hour before fetching the kids from school, and sitting there in the pew when guess who walks in? My own kid. The whole fifth grade, not just my kid, but my kid’s the one I was particularly pleased to see. How to make me have a crush on your parish school?Random acts of Eucharistic Adoration, thanks.
So that was last week. This week, the gift iBreviary gives to good little children with bad parents: Time Zone Problems. If you check my sidebar on this blog (click through if you are reading this from e-mail or a feed-reader), the iBreviary widget will take you to today’s readings. Except that iBreviary is from Italy, so today means What Italian people are experiencing. And thus, late in the evening in North America on December 5th, what you see is the feast of St. Nicholas of Bari.
Ack! A celebration!
So I quick summon children and remind them to put out their shoes, then wrack my brain trying to think up some festive item already on hand that I can stick in those shoes to mark the feast. Fortunately, the SuperHusband has had a bucket of biscotti from Costco stashed in a secret location. Italian-American is our theme for this year.
But sadly, no, it’s not that simple.
Naturally, I completely forgot to put the biscotti in the shoes. Thus it was a cold, dark, wet, barren St. Nicholas waking for us.
So let’s talk about lying.
People hate this. I mean, they can’t stand it. It makes heads spin. But here’s what we do at our house: We let our kids know how the world works.
I know! Thus over time they learn all kinds of adult secrets, like where babies come from, and that there’s a moment in the mandatory confirmation retreat when you open a heart-warming letter from your parents, and also that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are all games of pretend.
Is our home life thus devoid of all magic? By no means.
The real world is far more, dare I say it, amazing than some cheap sleight-of-hand holiday trick.
If you tell your kids Santa is real, whatever. Not my problem (I’m not going to tell your kid that, but you can). So be it. To me, orchestrating such moments of artifice is a pale and pathetic imitation of the beauty of faith in the real world, where real miracles, both natural and supernatural, happen all the time.
I don’t object to figurines of Santa at the Nativity; but today (December 6th) in particular, and every day more generally, we get St. Nicholas adoring Christ, for real, at the Holy Mass.
Is that too abstract for children? By no means. Children know very well that what something looks like is different than what it is. They know that there is real supernatural power in this world. The game of Santa or St. Nicholas is, if you let your children play the game rather than hogging it for yourself, like a game of house or soldiers or any other dress-up: We’re children playing at real things, trying them out.
The game is marvelously fun, even when you nearly forget it, twice.
If your children are in on the game, the wonder of it no longer depends on falliable you. It now can rest on its own power, and wreak its real marvels even when you yourself are a few marvels short of a shooting match.
Thus, today, as I was rushing out the door at 7:10 to quick drive a teenager to school before coming back for the 5th grader, said 5th grader noticed the shoes were still empty.
Oops. Time is tight, but the feast is only once a year. “Run back to your room, quick, so St. Nicholas can come.”
I grabbed a stool, she went and hid in her room for a minute, and I found St. Nick’s stash of biscotti and quick doled it out, one-per-shoe.Magic accomplished.