Chastity in a Box? (with a Glimpse at YOU from Ascension Press)

Continuing with Book Week.  Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?

My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:

YOU from Ascension Press.  I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely.  A first glance at YOU is similarly positive.  It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.

As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:

  • The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
  • The parent booklet gets right to first things first.  It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
  • The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
  • YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work.  (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)

It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series.  Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.

Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?

If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’s Leading and Loving program.  There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event.  This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere.  It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents.  It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.

–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns.  At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.

2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program.  There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there.  You need the parents totally involved and on board.  Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents.  Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.

3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith.  Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.

Hint: Check out the Jesus is Lord program, which works for college students too.  Just sayin’.

4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.

I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching.  Good things can happen.  But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville.  More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.

Making disciples is work.  YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now.  But making disciples is long, slow, constant work.  There are no short cuts.

Related:  Registration for the Theology of the Body Congress (9/23-25/2016) is still open.

YOU by Ascension Press - Catholic Teen Chastity
Image courtesy of Ascension Press.

2013 Homeschooling / Kolbe Review Update

I’ve gotten a few requests for updates, so it’s about time. One mega-post to cover four kids, all subjects.  Here’s what we’ve got going for 2013-2014, and how we like it so far.  Quick version: Two bigs are in 8th and 6th, enrolled with Kolbe but doing varying amounts of the program.  Littles (4th & 2nd) are freelancing with a variety  of stuff, increasingly workbook-y, because that’s my life.

Long Version

Grammar: Mr. Boy is doing 8th grade per Kolbe, Voyages in English (now called “Lepanto English” I believe.)  Grammar nerd that I am, I still like it.

6th Grader is sitting through a year of Classical Conversation’s “Essentials” course, which is an exacting (some would say: exasperating) tour of grammar and heavy-handed editing.  It suits her fine, in an anything-that-doesn’t-kill-you way, but we’ll be back to Voyages next year.  NB: Classical Conversations has a strongly, strongly protestant world view.  Just sayin’.  FYI, I’m happy we are doing the class, it serves our purposes.

4th and 2nd Grader are doing the Language of God workbooks from Catholic Heritage Curriculum.  They don’t like them, because they don’t like anything in the genre, but I do.  Heavy on the Catholic-ness, makes Voyages/Lepanto look like secular city.  I’m good with that.

Vocabulary / Spelling: 8th & 6th grader continue with Kolbe’s recommended vocabulary book.  I remain very happy with it, and they seem to do pretty well and not mind it.  Littles are using CHC’s Speller, same comment as per above.  The CHC 4th grade program is a much lighter program than the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary.

For phonics / word study, all three girls are going with the Kolbe-default, MCP plaid.  I continue to like it very much.  We skip some of the exercises that aren’t my favorite though, usually the “write a letter to your friend . . . ” ones. We’re in it for the phonics.

Geography: Kolbe changed their geography book, and I haven’t seen the new one.  I like the old one so much I bought the levels I didn’t have on clearance from the friendly Kolbe bookstore lady.  But we’re in an off-year for geography, too much going on elsewhere.  We’ll be back at it next year.

History: I’m sticking with my program of keeping all kids on the same general history topic.  They are anchored to Mr. Boy, who is in 8th grade and finishing out with American this year, and then he’ll be back to Greek next year.  Doing the four year cycle of Greek-Roman-Middle-Modern works pretty well for us.  We aren’t the kind of people who would fail to study Africa and Asia just because no one made us.  So, what it looks like textbook-wise:

8th Grader is doing Christ in the Americas, per the Kolbe plans.  He complains it’s all pro-Catholic agitiprop, but I like that.  (It is a survey of American History, but with a strongly Catholic orientation.)  He did Christ the King Lord of History last year, same complaints / parental approval.  Tip: Kolbe publishes two sets of course plans for these — one for middle school, one for high school.  If you aren’t sure what to choose, you can request both (if you’re enrolled), then take a look and see which is a better fit.

6th Grader is doing CHC’s From Sea to Shining Sea. Alert: There are other US History books with the same general title.  Make sure you pick the correct one.  We like it very much — colorful, informative, readable, happily Catholic. She likes this better than last year’s Founders of Freedom, which was a little too vintage black-n-white for her tastes.  Since she has a lot of work in other subjects, I’m just having her read the text (we did not purchase the workbook, teacher’s manual, etc.) and do one project a quarter for tangible work for the portfolio.

I was stymied on where to find suitable US History texts for the littles until I got to look through Seton’s table at the IHM Conference this summer.  My 4th grader is reading through both books 4 & 5 this year (Seton divides US history over two years), and the 2nd grader is reading book 1.  They are doing personal-choice reading to go with, heavy on American Girls novels and the like.

Religion.  I love Faith and Life.  Very happy with what Kolbe does there.  All four kids are on the program.  And I don’t care what anyone says, the Baltimore Catechism is one handy book.  I approve.  We fill out those two with lives of saints in literature or normal life.

Bible History. Kolbe makes this a  separate junior high class from either religion or history, it does a survey of the Bible spanning two years.  I’m happy with it, as far as it goes. There are workbooks for both this and Anne Carroll’s American history books mentioned above, and they are good for drilling memorization of key facts.  The boy is also reading through the Bible with the SuperHusband: I wouldn’t do *only* a survey book at this age, anyone reading on grade level should at least be doing the Mass readings, if not going through the Bible directly.

For the girls, 6th grader has split the The Catholic Bible Story Workbook from Fireside over two years, and she really enjoys it.  There’s no reason you’d need to stretch it that much, it could be easily completed in one year.  She gets to stretch it because I’m doing that coordinated-topics thing.  Littles are getting a read-aloud from a children’s Bible.

Latin. The outcome of my Latin Drama is reported here and here, and elsewhere as well, I’m sure.  Short version: We don’t attend Latin Mass.  So although I admire Kolbe’s go-to textbook, it wasn’t working for us.  What does work:

  • Visual Latin (8th grader)
  • Latin’s Not so Tough (6th grader’s in book 3 this year)
  • Song School Latin (all girls like it – the Monkey!)
  • Mr. Dunphy.  Everyone likes that one.

Mr. Boy is also rounding out his work with an assortment of reading from Familia Romana and the odd exercise from the Oxford Latin Course, which I still think is cool.

Head’s up on foreign languages: Next year we resume French.  We won’t be dropping Latin altogether, but I’m not going to push the boy through three consecutive years of More Rigorous Latin for high school credit purposes.  He’ll do a modest amount of Latin for an elective, and French for his official college-admission-worthy language study.  I have no idea what books I’ll use.  Something inexpensive, I think.  Normal people should not get ideas from me.

Math.  Still happy with Math-U-See.  We’re like that.

Science. Mr. Boy is doing Physical Science per Kolbe, and it seems to be going pretty well.  Not a lot to report.  It’s a science book.  You read it, you do the work.  We haven’t had our giant Festival of Laboratory Activities yet.  It’s coming.  Probably over Christmas break.  NB: Some of the labs are definitely of the type you might want a scientist around to help you with.

Meanwhile, the girls are doing Classically Catholic Memory, because that’s what happened to us, happy accident.  My friend is teaching a 30-minute science activities class once a week at our new co-op, and it follows that program.  So for the girls’ science, I dug through my textbook collection (a combination of Kolbe’s go-to and ancient freebie copies of Abeka books, mostly), and picked out reading assignments that correspond with their work each week.

–> CCM is also providing quite a bit of supplemental work in everything — Literature, history, math, religion, Latin, geography etc etc.

Composition.  The boy is excused from the Kolbe composition book (Sadlier-Oxford – no complaints) because he has to endure my homegrown editing class once a week.  We’ll go back to stock plans on that next year.  6th grader is excused since she’s doing IEW with Classical Conversations.  We’ll go back to default for her as well.  Littles are just writing stuff.  They’re still little.

About IEW, what you need to know:

1. The instruction videos are so painfully mind-numbingly boring that strong language is probably appropriate.  All the CC moms have to watch them.  I write other things (rough drafts for CatholicMom.com columns, usually) during all the minutes that the video guy is belaboring his points.  There *is* useful stuff, but it’s a ratio of 5 minutes of useful for 30 minutes of pre-purgatory.  I jot down the useful bits and then go back to thinking about something other than elephant essays.  Yes.  Elephants.  I never, ever, want to see another elephant essay again in my life.  NB: If you were not a professional writer, you might find the hand-holding helpful.

1A.  Why yes, I realize the internet it littered with poorly-edited work of mine.  Knowing what to do is different from doing it.  I seem to recall a line in The Merchant of Venice to that end, pronounced just before splashdown.

2. The course calls for certain writing techniques that would make many an editor cry.  Mandatory use of “ly” words, changing out “said” for assorted exclamations and whispers and murmurs and so forth .  . . let us say: stylistically heavy-handed.  If you treat IEW as the last course you ever take before you submit your manuscript, people will laugh at you.  BUT it is fantabulous for teaching you to control your words and ideas.  If you don’t learn to develop the word control that IEW teaches, editors won’t just laugh at you, they’ll stick your stuff in the garbage while they do it.

3. So it’s basically like barre exercises, or push-ups, or C-warm-ups.  You train certain skills into mastery, so that you can call on them easily when you need them.  I like IEW for that.  That’s why were doing it.  Also, if you never ever plan to become a professional writer, you can learn IEW and you work will be organized, coherent, and suitably edited for everyday use.

4. The people who make the student book we’re using don’t know much about the Catholic faith.  Sometimes we laugh at them.  And then I have to go to confession for uncharitable thoughts.  So I won’t name that book here.

5. But hey, one of our parish co-op moms is an IEW instructor, and she’s going to maybe I hope offer the class next year, Catholic version. So then we can have our writing drills without the weird historical errors.  I like that.  I think for most kids, IEW is a class you could take once, or take once every few years.  Or you could do something else that’s just as good.

Literature.  So.  Literature.  Lots of stuff going on there.  8th and 6th grader are doing one book a quarter off the Kolbe course plans for their respective grades.  To fill that out:

-Both are reading selections from assorted historical works, as found in Classical Conversations’ handy Prescripts book, American History edition.

-Mr. Boy is reading a selection from CC’s Documents book as well.  It’s a high school book, for sure.  Most kids would not be reading this at his age, he is not normal.  He also has a mom-assigned book each quarter.  Q1 was The Fallacy Detective, Q2 is Frank Sheed’s A Map of Life.  He just reads those, no extra writing work.

-6th grader is reading mom-chosen selections from Book Six of the National Catholic Reader for her extra history-related literature reading.

They both read this and that for their own enjoyment as well.  Not necessarily high art, but I can work with it. Underhanded Mom Trick: If you read a book your kids would like if only they didn’t fear it was educational, don’t let them read it.  Lend it to their friends.  Then when it comes back, they’ll be curious.

2nd & 4th graders have mandatory self-selected reading from either National Catholic Reader or McGuffy, per their grade levels, one day a week.  They do other student’s-choice reading the other days, and CCM includes some poetry in its memory work.

Art: I’m not unschooling art this year!  My friend is teaching an art class at the co-op, using Catholic Schoolhouse’s art book (year 2).  We like it.  Very amateur-friendly.  Underhanded Mom Trick: I picked up some beautiful beautiful beautiful art-appreciation books from Seton this summer.  Then I lent them to the art teacher.  Because it’s much more interesting if it’s a book that Mrs. A uses, and not one that nutso mom-person says is so good.

Handwriting: I am not a successful handwriting teacher. If you have ever seen my handwriting, you understand why.  Pay no attention to me.  But my naturally-talented, crafty and feminine handwriting girl learned cursive using Cheerful Cursive and she liked it fine.

Whew.  That’s enough for now. Did I miss any subjects? See the whole series here.

***
Something Funny: WordPress has started putting ads in the free blogs (like this one).  Which appear to this blogger as ads for WordPress’s paid services.  Sometimes I wonder what you see.  If you see something objectionable, do tell me.  I don’t pick the ads.  I am good at complaining on your behalf (and mine) as needed.

Busy not blogging. And blogging.

What I’ve been up to so far this Advent:

1. Acquired a cold just strong enough to plant me in front of the PC and get some writing done for a change.  I’d complain, except it’s really not that bad. For me.  My family wishes I’d start making dinner again.  I think.

2. Posted my book review of the Didache series of textbooks up at AmazingCatechists.com.  These are awesome books, and the new parish editions bring serious theology to high school and adult faith formation.  Long-needed.  Don’t cry to me you don’t have priests, but refuse to teach theology.  How exactly is a boy supposed to fall in love with a something he’s never met?

3. Guessed at my login information for the Happy Catholic Bookshelf enough times that I finally broke in.  And put up my review of Walking Dickens LondonVerdict: I still don’t like Dickens all that much, but the guide book is awesome.  Of course I had to put a reference to Rerum Novarum in the review.  Only logical.

4. I cleaned out my inbox.  If I still owe you an e-mail about something, you’d better tell me.  Because I’m under the mistaken impression I’m all caught up.

5. Planted the potatoes that were sprouting in the cardboard box in the living room.  Ditto for some garlic in the bottom of the fridge.

6.  I’ve written about 5,000 words on the homeschooling manuscript. Also pre-wrote my January CatholicMom.com homeschooling column, because once you get school on the brain, and a cup of coffee, these things just pop out.

7.  I got all vice-presidential over at the Catholic Writers Guild.  Being VP is almost exactly like being the blog manager, except that instead of plaguing the officers all month long with bad ideas and unhelpful suggestions, you also get to do it during the monthly officer’s conference call.  I think someone nominated me because the existing officers were already practiced at telling me, “No!  Quiet! Sit!  No Biscuit!” so it makes their job easier.  So mostly as VP I amuse people with my ridiculous ideas, and about 1 time in 10, I think one up that someone makes me go do.  And then I regret it, and don’t think up any more ideas for at least 10 minutes.

Also, I goofed off on the internet more than I had planned.   It happens.  I was sick.

Kolbe Reviews: Thoughts on Math

Kolbe calls for Saxon Math as its default math program for upper elementary school.  That’s the one in the course plans, and it’s one I’ve looked at but never used.   The  Kolbe plans primarily serve to divide out the work day-by-day; there is not math instruction in the plans.  (In contrast to say the religion course plans, which include teaching suggestions in the daily notes of the course plans.)  There are quarterly exams in the course plans, so you can do an exam at the end of each quarter that will line up with what was covered in the plans.  The exam answer keys show not just the answer, but the “show your work” way that the problem was solved.

Saxon’s reputation: A lot of people love it.  It’s the A+, teacher’s pet of math curricula.  If you successfully complete Saxon, you’ve got a well-trained math student.  People who don’t like Saxon tend to not like the homework:  For each lesson, the homework includes a relatively small number of practice problems for the new concept (so complain those who want more practice), and many problems that review previously-taught concepts (so complain those who can’t bear repetition).  The latter problem is easy to fix — just don’t do all the homework problems.  If you have a student who tends to need more practice to “get” a concept, preview the curriculum and see if it looks like it will provide enough help for your child.

Kolbe’s second-choice recommendation is Singapore Math.  Give it serious consideration, because it’s the top choice of some well-regarded homeschool moms.  Look here for Rebbecca Frech’s comments on Miquon & Singapore Math, and here for her general approach to teaching mathematics.

Another homeschooling friend and math-professor-on-homeschool-leave recommends the Life of Fred, which her kids love.  I ordered a book, and my 5th grader is excited about using these to review and master the topics she’s been learning.  She likes the story-format better than a regular math book, perhaps in part because she has spent many years with a regular math book.  I’m not persuaded every family would use Fred as their sole math book, though.  But it’s a good resource to know about.

I am pretty happy with Math-U-See, which is what we’ve used all along, but don’t think it’s a good fit for everyone.  I like it because I like the way it explains the math concepts — that whole thing of understanding how math works, rather than just memorizing processes.  I am also 100% comfortable with the MUS guidelines on teaching math, which direct you to slow down and speed up per the student’s readiness.  Which in our family consistently translates into long periods where we make “no progress”, then quick speed through a bunch of chapters at once when the brain catches up with the new topic.  A lot of people would not be comfortable with this.  (Even if you despise MUS, check out their various free E-sources, land of the free printable worksheet generator.)

Note also, that MUS’s scope and sequence is not the same as in most public schools.  It would not be the best choice for someone planning to put the kids in and out of school during the elementary years.  On the other hand, if you have a struggling math student and want to spend a summer on review, the videos and a workbook used strategically might be a way to help a student master a topic that had never quite clicked.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the controversial Teaching Textbooks.  People hate these for all sorts of reasons, some of them (reportedly) valid.  But people love them because they let you sit your kid in front of the machine, do the work, done.   They seem to be most popular with non-math kids who just need to get the basics down by moving at their own pace, and with families that are extremely overloaded and need a method that is not parent-intensive.

Based on all that, here are my criteria for a good math curriculum:

  • You the teaching parent like the general approach.  If you don’t believe in the method, you’ll never last 10 minutes when your kid digs in the heels and tries to talk you out of it.
  • It fits your family’s needs and abilities.  People vary in how well they read, how easily they learn math, how much hands-on time the parents have, and so forth.  Shed the fantasy life and be the math person that you are.

The big problem with math instruction: Not enough of us love math.  And those who do love it are divided into those who have fun with it, and those who take perverse pleasure in accomplishing nasty chores.  It is very hard to teach a subject that you don’t personally enjoy.

What to do?  My advice if you are math-phobic is to relax, sit down with your kids, and learn with them.  Your brain is more mature than it was a decade or two ago, and it is not too late for you to finally understand the topics that confused you way back when.  (FYI – Math-U-See is popular with moms who are going this route.  I can’t speak for other series, but I’d say for any math book: Take a look and see if the explanations make sense to you.  If they do, you’ll be able to turn around and explain them to your kids.)

My advice if you are competent at math but just don’t love it* — and this is me, and so I constantly nag myself with this advice — is to keep searching until you find a way to love it.  Be it via games, or making a sport of comparison shopping for groceries, or rewarding yourself with chocolate for every twenty minutes spent faking it for your kids’ sakes, try something, anything, to get you past the I-hate-math hump.  Don’t give up on yourself — keep trying different things until something clicks.

Okay readers: What’s your favorite math curriculum?  Supplements?  Games?  Websites?  Recommend away.

*People think accountants are math whizzes.  Some are.  But accounting actually only requires about an 8th grade math education, and a teeny tiny bit of algebra, sometimes maybe. In any case, I am not the kind of accountant who just loves adding columns of numbers.  I am the kind of accountant who loves creating spreadsheets that add numbers for me.  Also I like to figure out what went wrong with your computer and make it work for you again.  I like figuring out why the government just sent you a nasty letter, and then digging through your confused box of documents and showing you how to properly fill out your form the second time around.  That kind of accounting.  I am not the person you want keeping your books.  I am the person you want to call when you suspect your bookkeeper is up to no good.  That’s what I like.  Accountant detective work.

The Kolbe Reviews: Religion

Freedom’s just another word for “knowing what to do.” And then doing it.

I’ve been using the Faith and Life textbook series for homeschool religion since the boy was in first grade.  I loved it then, and still love it now.

 

What you get: Each book in the series has approximately 30 chapters, designed to be read one a week throughout the school year.  (Some years there are more chapters, some years less).  The reading is on grade-level, but the first grade book is designed to be a read-aloud, and the second grade book will be a read-aloud for some students.  Each chapter might be ten minutes worth of reading?  One day’s assignment. At the end of the chapter there are usually some vocabulary words, a scripture or prayer, and some catechism questions and answers.

All except the 2nd grade book feature gorgeous traditional artwork for the illustrations.  The second grade book uses contemporary-school-book genre stuff, but you’ll get over that insult when you get back to 3rd grade and the serious art resumes for the remainder of the series.

Each book has a theme — first grade covers Salvation 101, 2nd grade prepares students for the sacraments of reconciliation and communion, fourth grade is a survey of the Bible, sixth grade is heavy on the moral life.  Along the way you spiral through the essentials of the faith at an age-appropriate level, so it’s possible to jump right in at grade-level even if you haven’t used the texts before, or even ever studied the faith before.

The accompanying Activity Book is a consumable workbook with a combination of study questions and fun activities like coloring pages and crossword puzzles.  Together the two make a complete package for home use — the student does the reading, completes the study questions, and does any of the extra workbook pages as desired.  I let my kids write in the book, but if you did only the study questions on a separate paper, and no fun-and-games, you could pass the book down.

I have looked through the expansive (and expensive) teacher’s manuals, and they do contain a lot of helpful information for the catechist.  But for home use, I think these are not needed.  My advice for a parent who is not very knowledgeable of the faith would be to do the student reading along with the child, and then to learn more about the faith in general by picking out other good Catholic books on topics of interest.

UPDATED: Tara in the combox observes, and I would take her advice over mine:

I find them really really useful because I am not a catechist and I cannot make this stuff up. They have the answers for the activity book pages and have a test / quiz for each chapter and each section (again, answers supplied too). Unless you’re very confident and very experienced, I think they’re well worth the money.

FYI the teachers manuals are huge.  So priced comparably (even favorably) to other works offering similar amounts of info.

I’ve never used Faith and Life in the classroom.  My parish has always used some-other-brand.  I have talked to several catechists from other parishes who didn’t care for F&L, because of the strongly academic focus (a selling point for me — I love it), and because the style of the lessons didn’t call for crafts and activities and so forth.  We did do one test section of F&L for 8th grade last year, and the feedback I received at mid-year from the catechist teaching that class was very good.  Feedback from a 2nd-grade catechist at another parish was that course material was good, but the lessons worked best if the teacher had free reign to present the topics the way she thought the students would learn them best.   I think a lot depends on whether the parish in fact wants students to learn the faith with the rigor expected in other academic subjects, and whether the teacher has the experience and confidence to teach the material effectively.

What you don’t get in F&L:  There’s very little in the way of multicultural imagery, church geography, or even much for lives of saints.  This is a theology course, and you need to plan to fill out your students’ religious education with all the other stuff that makes up our faith and heritage.  If you are going to Mass, observing the feast days, living out in the wider world, praying as a family, and reading lives of saints as part of your literature curriculum, you’re in good shape.  Otherwise, plan to pick up some supplemental materials that will fill in your gaps.

About the Three Editions:  There’s original, revised, and 3rd edition to match the new mass translation.  Don’t worry about it.  If someone gives you an older edition, it’ll work fine. Every now and then one of the assignments won’t line up, but it’s not a big deal.  On the other hand, the books are fairly affordable new.  My personal approach is if I’m going to buy, I buy new, but I’m not upgrading my older stock.

Kolbe also uses the St. Jospeh Baltimore Catechism series.  These are retro-style catechisms, complete with an English translation of the mass that sounds almost like our new mass translation, because, get this: it’s translated straight from the Latin.  Because the books are that old.  The language is frank, the drawings are 1950’s-chic, and yes, I love this one too.  Great discovery.  If you want to justify mowing the lawn on Sundays, don’t let your kids read this book.  No toe left un-stomped.

The course plans.  For me as a catechist who happens to be a parent, the course plans primarily save me the work of writing up my own.  But I think they’d be one of the sets of plans worth purchasing if you aren’t registered with Kolbe, because each day’s and week’s assignments include a summary of the lesson topic, and points to clarify as you teach your student.  Lots of material in the plans.

The planned assignments do call for a lot of memorization and recitation.  Recall that as the teaching parent, you’re free to decide just how much of that memory work your student needs to do.

FYI: The Kolbe plans run on a four-day schedule, and are built around a tutoring-type environment, so they can’t be peeled off the page and inserted into a parish religious education program as-written.   That said, if I were Queen of Religious Ed (I’m not) and had the budget to match my imperial fantasy life, I’d want something like this to give to new and struggling catechists, because the plans to do a good job distilling the faith into the essentials.

***

Questions?  Comments?

Homeschool Bleg: Our Lady of the Rosary School?

Anyone have any experience with Our Lady of the Rosary School?  A friend asked for my opinion, and I know nothing.  Please share!  Thanks.

[FYI: I’m not considering them for myself.  Quite happy with our current method.  Just in case someone felt the need to talk me off the ledge . . . my friend has a very different personality and set of needs, and it looks like it might be a fit for her, if they are indeed a reputable group and all that.]

What to Consider in Choosing a Homeschooling Curriculum

I’ve gotten a reader request to write up my thoughts on choosing a curriculum, so I’m jumping ahead to the end of the series, and then I’ll come back and revisit Math and Religion.

Can you afford it?  With a very few exceptions, I don’t ever recommend pursuing education you can’t afford.  End of story.  Kolbe and the like are not cheap (though Kolbe is less expensive than some of the other alternatives), and as with many good or convenient things, when you are short on cash, you have to find another way.  Sometimes the other way is in fact a better way, so don’t panic.

–> Don’t spend your whole book budget at the beginning of the year. Save some money for mid-year changes, because you aren’t omniscient, so there’s a decent chance you’ll pick one or two flops.  It’s okay.  Set aside the cash so you have it when you need it.

Does is fit with your real life?  That’s how we ended up with Kolbe, FYI.  I’m perfectly capable of writing and teaching from my own curriculum, and enjoyed doing it. But I’m not at all above outsourcing cleaning help, buying prepared foods, paying some other mom to drive the carpool to dance class . . . whatever it takes to make real life work. [I once started to ask my daughter to pray my rosary for me, then remembered, “No, that’s not something you’re supposed to delegate.”]  When I was at a point where something (else) had to give, on the long list of things I do, writing up weekly course plans was one I learned I could outsource.  So we did.  It’s been good.

–> My point here is to encourage parents to look closely at the time and energy and involvement different curricula require.  Don’t pick Math Made Easy By 60 Minutes of Absolute Silence if you just gave birth to quadruplets. It’s okay to pick the cheesy, low-intensity, lowest-common-denominator program, if that’s the one you’ll actually do.  Doing all (or most) of the work from a cushy program is better than doing little or none of the work from that majestic High Standards Because We Are Achievers program.

Do you like it?  You.  The parent.  When you read about the curriculum, or thumb through the book, does it make you smile?  If it makes you groan, or you think, “I guess I have to do this because these smart people say you have to, but how on earth . . .” that’s your warning.  Back away.  If you hate it, it’s not going to work.

Do you believe it matters?  If the student finds it fun, the student will do it.  Unfortunately, there’s a 95% chance you are going to try to teach your child something the child doesn’t think is fun.  Which means your willpower is the only thing that will make the learning happen.  Don’t spend a lot of money and space and guilt on a product you don’t actually think matters.

–> I am increasingly convinced that the reason Living Books or Nature Study or Memorization Of Everything or Latin First English Second or Name That Approach, Written About With Fervor And You’re Ruining Your Child If You Neglect This One Thing . . . I’m convinced they work, and work well, because of the teacher’s enthusiasm.  There are bad teaching methods, don’t mistake me.  And I have methods I love and firmly believe in, and that I think make for sound teaching and real education.  But ultimately some part of my success as a teacher isn’t about having found The One True Way, it’s about having found a way that I can run with, that matches who I am and how I teach and the way my brain works and helps me connect to my students.*

As you learn about curricula, look for choices that just seem so right.  They just seem to fit.  They make you smile and go, “Yes!”.  That’s your ideal.

Do you scruple?  Kolbe is very intent on subsidiarity, and I love that.  As the parent-teacher, I blackline some assignments, I add to others, some things I trade out wholesale.  I have a friend who nearly died of heart failure using Seton, not because Seton is a money-maker for cardiologists, but because she wasn’t comfortable with paring down the curriculum as she needed to do (and as her advisers at Seton said she should).  She does everything 100%.   Seton proposes a tremendous curriculum, and she didn’t know how to say No to the parts that were too much.  She needed a lighter program that she could plow through from start to finish, and rest knowing she had Done The Whole Thing.

***

Those are my main thoughts.  I know we have a number of other homeschoolers reading here. What else would you add?

 

 

*This, I believe, is why Math books are like a religion unto themselves.

 

 

 

The Kolbe Reviews: Geography

For Geography, Kolbe uses the Map Skills series from Continental Press.  It’s rare that a teacher with a passion for a topic is wholeheartedly enthused about a particular textbook, but I am in love.  Love.  LOVE.

This is the best thing going.  It’s an 8×11 glossy full-color paperback.  The fourth grade book has about 42 lessons, the sixth grade book has sixty. So throughout the course of the year, students do one or two lessons per week, depending on how you divide it out.  Each page is its own self-contained lesson.  The student reads the explanation and then answers the questions using the map on the page.

What I love:

Self-contained and self-teaching.  Once or twice there has been an assignment that required using a separate map (ie, “a map of your state”), and we’ve pulled out the globe as well.  My sixth grader considers this to be the fun page — like doing one of those puzzle games on the children’s menu at the family restaurant.  My fourth grader can read the lesson and do the work by herself 90% of the time.

Real maps from around the world.  There’s never an assignment using a fictional map to illustrate a point.  The Kolbe course plans periodically call for map-memorization (state capitals, etc.), but just doing the work in the book is an education in world geography all on its own.

Spiral curriculum.  You can start the series on grade-level, even if your student has never done geography before.  The fourth and sixth grade books cover all the same essential concepts — the difference is that the sixth grade lessons delve into each topic with a little more detail and little more difficulty. I believe Kolbe stops using the books after 6th grade, though there is a final book for grades 7 or 8.  If your older student has never studied geography and needs to be brought up to speed, just pick up the last book and it’s all there.

To study geography, or not?

Kolbe advises parents to skip geography if the overall course load is too overwhelming.  I partially disagree:

  • I think it’s fine to do geography some years but not all, or to spread one book over two years.
  • But geography matters, and is a skill of its own separate from the subjects it supports.  History and earth science make no sense if you don’t also know geography.  And trip planning?  Let’s just say it’s no fun traveling with people who can’t or won’t read maps.
  • In my experience, struggling students are sometimes helped by easing off the overwhelming subject, and exercising the brain elsewhere.  The geography in this series requires math, reading comprehension, writing, and visual processing skills.

So in our family, my inclination is to reduce the number of assignments from the National Catholic Reader (but still do some of the better selections) and hold onto geography, at least most years.

The Kolbe Course Plans

The course plans call for students to do two assignments per week.  There are no quarterly exams.  Other than a few “memorize this” or “practice that” assignments, the plans simply divide the book so students know how many pages to do each week.  So if you are not enrolling with Kolbe, I’d skip these plans and write your own chart of how many pages to do.  Or just open the book and circle pages.

Write in the book, or not?

This is not a reproducible, so photocopying assignments violates the copyright.  There are some assignments that require students to label the map in the book. We chose to have the kids write their answers on separate paper (works 85% of the time), if there was a map to label, we’d just do that assignment orally, and the student could point to the answer on the page.  The glossy pages are fairly durable, so the book should hand down as well as any other text.  Given the option of buying the book themselves or writing on a separate sheet of paper, both kids decided to save their cash for better purposes.

What else do you want to know?  I’ve got the fourth and sixth grade books on hand, and the course plans, so ask away.

 

 

Book Review: Eric Sammons’ Holiness for Everyone

Eric Sammons sent me a pdf review copy of his new book, Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaria Escriva, not because we’ve ever met or even know each other on the internet, but, I gather, because I really liked his first book, Who is Jesus Christ?  (Which I wholeheartedly recommend.) He’s smart that way.  I like this one too.

What is isn’t:  We have to start here, because it’s easy to guess wrong.

  1. Eric Sammons is not a member of Opus Dei, and this is not a how-to book on being a member of that organization, nor an account of that group’s history.  Opus Dei barely gets mention, other than to recommend two reliable books on the topic.
  2. This is not a colorful anecdote-laden biography of St. Josemaria.  The chapter that tells his life focuses is on his spiritual development — the details that help you understand the saint’s approach to holiness for ordinary people.

What it is:

St. Josemaria Escriva is a 20th century saint whose spirituality is very much in line with St. Therese of Lisieux, whose Story of a Soul was a bestseller during his formative years, and  Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, who was his contemporary and likewise informed by the spirituality of St. Therese.  Basic Catholic practical holiness — what you see in the lives of every saint across all of history.

St. Josemaria’s particular charism was the insistence that saintliness is not for the vowed religious only — an error of his time, and still a struggle among Catholics today.  We tend today to either fall into the get-thee-to-a-nunnery trap, or just dismiss saintliness as something that hardly matters anyhow.  St. Josemaria’s contention, and Eric Sammons’ as well, is that it is possible for you and I to actually be holy.  And that there are specific steps we can take to cooperate with God’s grace in working towards that goal.

As with Who is Jesus Christ, Sammons’ text is packed with information and insight, but still approachable for the average reader.   It covers similar territory as Christian Self-Mastery, but far more readable than that classic.  I personally found every chapter to be helpful for me — life-changing, even.

Who would enjoy it?  I’d recommend this for older teens and adults who want to be challenged with practical ways to grow in the Christian life.  This is not mere inspiration: expect to be pushed to make specific resolutions about your prayer life and penitential practices.  There are discussion questions at the end of every chapter, making this a great book club choice.

This would make an excellent post-confirmation course for 11th and 12th graders — either taught in a high school religion class, or as a parent-teen book study.  (Also think: Post-RCIA discipleship group.) Because the text ties to free, online additional reading (Escriva, assorted Encyclicals), it would be easy to make a rounded-out senior-high religion curriculum using this book.

This is an ideal introduction to the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva.  I picked up a (print) copy of The Way while I was reading this book, and coming to it already well-versed with how Catholic spiritual training works, I find The Way to be awesome.  I’m thrilled to have been pointed in that direction.  But I’d caution you: Do not read The Way without first reading Sammons’ book or some other similar work.  Taken out of context, St. Josemaria’s collected comments are a recipe for scruples, misunderstanding, and stomping off in a fit of exasperation or despair.  Combined with a healthy, balanced view of Christian spirituality, enlightened by a work like Sammons’, The Way becomes the perfect ’round-the-house spiritual cattle-prod  — think Imitation of Christ, Football Coach Version.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended for Catholics for ready to grow in their spiritual life, and looking for an approachable, step-by-step walk through how to go about it.

Kolbe Academy – Midyear Reviews

I was thinking of writing a series Kolbe reviews this spring, but kept getting distracted.  Then Mrs. Darwin e-mailed me with a couple questions, and I took that as my sign.  Back at week five I wrote this summary, and I don’t think much has changed.  What I will do this round, though, is to write about the program in general this week, and then do a subject-by-subject set of more detailed reviews in subsequent weeks.  Enjoy.  And keep me on task, eh?

1. Why we decided to go with a formal program.

Two reasons.  #1 is that I wanted to outsource the writing of course plans, because I could.  So, the availability of ready-made, day-by-day course plans became a deciding factor in which program to choose.

#2 is that the boy was starting 6th grade, and needed to get his rear kicked.  I’m all about relaxed education in the early years.  But when you hit 9th grade, son, you need to be ready to work.  And that means middle school is for suffering.

Note that I’m only using Kolbe for the 4th and 6th grader.  Littles continue to use mom-directed relaxed learning.  So all my comments relate to using the program for people who can read competently on their own.

2.  How we picked Kolbe Academy.

I knew I needed the course plans.  My other deciding factors were:

  • Very strong preference for a Catholic program.
  • We were planning to use a formal curriculum provider with transcript services through high school; I wanted to try out my likely pick ahead of time.

I gave a serious look at  Mother of Divine Grace and St. Thomas Aquinas Academy.  For all three, I reviewed the high school syllabus, since that was one of our end goals.  Though the programs are similar,  Kolbe repeatedly came in as the one that was the closest match to what Jon & I had envisioned for high school for our children.

I also looked through the overall philosophy, the earlier-grades curricula, and the services offered.  I spoke to a couple of longtime internet friends who had used the program for ages and graduated students, and also dug around the Kolbe forums and asked a few question about some substitutions I wanted to make.  In all it seemed like the best fit for us for a variety of reasons.

3.  What Kolbe offers and how it all works.

Kolbe writes a day-by-day curriculum for all subjects all grades.  (I think high school might be weekly plans instead of daily?)  You can choose to use the program in a variety of ways:

  •  Just take a look at what they do, acquire your books somewhere, and use those books.
  • Purchase course plans for the subjects you want to take.  I think they run about $30 per-subject-per-grade-per-year (double check, prices change).  This is the best choice if you just want to get a set of plans for one or two subjects.  Note that in some classes the plans are very detailed and instructional; in others, they just break up the book into so many pages a day.  As I do my subject-by-subject notes, I’ll tell you which are which.
  • Enroll with them, which means you get the whole bundle of plans for your grade for one lump sum price, plus some other optional support services.  You can request plans for up or down one grade no questions asked.  For example, both my 4th and 6th grader are doing the 5th grade history class, because I wanted them on the same subject.  (My kids are otherwise working on grade-level.)  If you “enroll”, you get to choose whether you submit grades, etc etc.  You can choose not to use the reporting and transcript services if you don’t want or need them.

–> If there are several curriculum providers that you think would work just as well, add up your costs for your family.  Each has its own pricing scheme, and your needs will determine which is the best deal.  Also add up the book costs, because that, too, can vary considerably.

4.  The Experience.

When you fill out the form and enroll, a little while later a giant box comes to your door. It contains all your course plans, plus an assortment of forms (for if you wish to submit grades), and a booklet with instructions, philosophical notes, how to write a book report, etc etc.  Big fat HSLDA discount code on the front.  The course plans are loose leaf printouts with holes punched for three-ring binders.  They include some information about the course, the day-by-day plans, and then a quarterly exams and answer keys for most subjects.   Each nine-week quarter is seven weeks of lessons, then one week set aside for review, and one week for exams.  For most subjects the plans are for a 4-day week, with Friday set aside for review, special projects, catch-up, field trips, etc.

 Don’t order plans from the bookstore if you are planning to “enroll”.  Even if you need something weird like 10th grade geometry plans for your 2nd grade math prodigy, call or e-mail and see about getting the substitution with your enrollment.  [Okay, they are going to question that one.] Basically the approach seems to be that if you’re an enrolled parent with bona fide course plan needs, they take care of you; the various limitations and restrictions are to prevent abuses, not to make your life painful and expensive.  But, be organized and don’t have them send you this giant box of all things 4th grade, only to call back a week later and expect all things 5th grade for free because you didn’t know your kid was so smart.  Call or e-mail and sort it out efficiently ahead of time.

–> You can request a placement exam when you enroll.  You don’t have to take it, let alone send it to anybody.  It’s just a set of exams that helps you ballpark your child.  Or in my case, quick make sure the kids are introduced to topics they’ll need to know in the coming year.

You acquire your books however you like.  They sell them at their bookstore, and some of the in-house publications can of course only be had through their store.  But most of the books could also be acquired second hand via cathswap or had from the many other vendors out there.  To my knowledge, Kolbe does not include out-of-print books in their curricula.  [A complaint I have heard of other programs, but have not verified. Do your own research.]  They do use some older-edition books still (or again) being printed; they stock what you need in their shop at reasonable new-book prices.

5. Hand-holding.

A few weeks into our school year, a nice lady called me.  She said she was my Kolbe something-or-other, complimented me on my practice of screening phone calls with the machine to avoid interruptions, and asked how things were going.  I said, “Going great.”  She said, “Wonderful,” and quickly hung up before I could rope her into a longer conversation.  We’ve avoided each other ever since.  I’m not even sure who she is.

–> If you wanted or needed assistance, they offer it.  In addition to your friendly-but-evasive caseworker (I bet she is NOT really avoiding me, okay, seriously, she sounded like a potentially helpful person), you can register at the forums and post questions and get help there.   A friend of mine has used the Enhanced Evaluation Service for one of her high school students and says that for that student, it was a good investment.  (EES is an additional service at an additional charge above regular bare-bones enrollment.) They also offer some online discussion groups for high school courses, I do not know all the details on that.

[FYI: MODG has a good reputation for online / conference call courses if you are looking for someone else to teach your child a distance education class.]

Additionally, even through high school, you can take whatever class you want.  So if you want to take Algebra with a local tutor and all your other courses through Kolbe and six other programs, you can still report through Kolbe and earn a diploma through them as long as you meet the graduation requirements.

If you need standardized testing, Kolbe does offer that, for anybody.  I just got a letter in the mail.  $45-50 per test for enrolled families, $55-60 for everyone else and their pet monkey.

6. Big Brother.  Just not there.  Just not.  If you want Kolbe to keep track of your grades, you need to send in a quarterly report card (when you get around to it, no particular deadline) with one work sample for each subject.   You grade the work, they keep your grades in a file in case someone calls and asks about them.  –> I haven’t mailed in any grades yet, though, so I’ll need to follow up with a report on that a different day.

When you submit your first grades of the year, you also send in your course plan — that is, a list of what you’ve actually decided to teach.  There is no expectation that you will follow the Kolbe-provided course plans to the letter.  Every single plan says, “adapt these to your needs”.  Often there are suggestions on how to lighten the load if your student is overwhelmed.  There are sometimes suggestions on how to grade, but you make the final decision.  You can also just chuck the Kolbe-suggested book and do something else, or skip the subject entirely depending on which subject.  If you call or post on the forums, they will suggest alternatives if you don’t like the default book.

7.  My kids and the course plans.  I put all the plans in binders sorted by subject,  and store them in my office. [Next year I am going to make my binders match the subject-sequence of the kids’ binders, so it is faster to move plans in and out.]  Then I made each big kid a 3-ring binder Plan Book.  I load just the plans for the present quarter, with a tab divider for each subject.  I made up a calendar for our school year so they can see where we are in the plans.  (Ie, today is Q3, Week 1, Day 3.)  Within a couple weeks of the start of the year, both kids could reliably read the plans, figure out their assignments, and get it all  done.

8.  Reality.  Whether they do the work depends on:

  • Their mood.
  • Whether someone checks to make sure they get it done.

My rule is that I’m available from 8am until noon for questions and help, Monday – Friday.  Outside of those hours, they are still chained to the desk until the work is done, but parental assistance is at the discretion and convenience of the parent.  I loaded their subjects into their binders so that if they work from front to back, they get the hardest and most-likely-to-need-assistance work done first thing.

They use a composition book for 98% of  their written work, and a graph-paper spiral notebook for math problems that need extra space.  Having all work in one place makes it easier for me to find assignments and check them off.  They don’t get credit if the assignment isn’t labeled so I can easily see what I’m looking at as I flip through the book. (I need subject, date, page numbers, etc.)

9.  How much mom-time and mom-help?

I’d estimate that 80-90% or more of their work my kids can do independently.  [Both kids are smart, one is way above grade-level for reading, the other is normal normal.]  I think that a diligent parent who wanted to maximize learning would set aside an hour  per school day for a typical (not special needs) student who can read independently, work at grade level, and stay on task with the normal amount of oversight.  [Just normal good work environment, with a parent present but not hovering, TV turned off, etc.]  That’s cumulative time spent through the day checking work, answering questions, and studying together when needed.

You can scale back the amount of parental assistance, but you get relatively more self-teaching and less education, and that is a decision you’d need to make based on the realities of your student, your family, and the other demands on your time.

–>  My philosophy is that their are certain essentials where you can’t cut corners, and then there are some extras that can be done with more or less intensity at any given time.  If I’m pinched, essentials still require my attention, but it isn’t the end of the world if my daughter doesn’t really grasp the difference between dipthongs and digraphs with quite the nuance the textbook writer had hoped.  [Translation: My bigs don’t get the full hour of mom-attention every single day.  Note that in regular school, students don’t get an hour of one-on-one teacher time every day either.]

10.  What other general questions do you have?

Post in the combox, and I can reply there or make a new post if there is a ton to say.  You are also welcome e-mail me (let me know who you are), and if you do, let me know whether the text of your question is bloggable.

I’ll do a subject-by-subject starting next week.  Any votes on what subject first?