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?

7 Quick Takes: Have Copier, Will Educate


It’s one of those days when 3.5 takes would be much easier.  Just sayin’.


Dear Dog,

This Christmas you are getting your very own six-quart saucepan*. I am tired of finding mine in the garage refrigerator with your venison scraps stored  in it.  The humans expect me to cook for them.  To each species their own pot.


The Complainer  Santa


PS: Bones stay outside.  Out. Side.  “Hiding them in the boy’s bed” does not count as “Outside.”


My second-grader loves this book:

My son would have despised it.  #2 probably would have liked it, and I think #4 might one day.


The other find at the candy education supply house super clearance sale this fall was:

My kindergartener is using the beginning of the book to practice decoding skills.  2nd grader started a little farther in, for  spelling / phonics / reading words.  Lucky find.  I’m liking reproducibles.  When you have more than one child to use the book, it starts to be a reasonable investment.


Don’t forget to pray for Allie Hathaway.


So naturally the toner is low.  Need to order more.  I <heart> Newegg.  I feel so 21st century.  Hey and seven wasn’t so bad after all.

Now need to go figure out what to wear to the office party tonight.  That part I’ll manage, at least well enough for a gaggle of engineers. But here’s a bleg: Any suggestions for good conversation starters?  Mixed company, so religion, politics and money talk are right out.  Also, education (mostly), childrearing (mostly), childbearing (mostly), because those are basically religion, politics, and money, Parenting Edition.  You see my trouble.

Every Advent I forget how to chit-chat.  Okay, actually all year I forget, but it becomes apparent in Advent.  I keep meaning to write myself up an index card of opening lines.  Help?


* I think they call it a “Stock Pot”.  But hello, I have many humans to feed.  That’s my saucepan size now.

Booklet Review: The Mass Explained for Kids

The Mass Explained for Kids is my latest Catholic Company review item, and as usual it is a good one.  I’ll cut to the chase: This is an excellent tool for anyone who wants to make sense of the Mass.

What it is: A short, affordable booklet from Pauline Press that walks through the new translation of the Mass.  Even-numbered pages contain the text of the Mass and all the necessary instructions (sit, stand, kneel, rise, bow, beat chest, shut up priest says . . ., etc.).  On the facing page are notes explaining what is happening, what difficult vocabulary words mean,  and all kinds of other useful information.

Why I like it:

  1. I’m always looking for a good Missal to give to non-Catholic grown-ups who come to Mass, that makes it easy to follow along.  This one wouldn’t stand out as a kid’s book, if you put a sticker over the “for kids” on the cover.  At $1.95 retail, you can afford to send them home with your guests as souvenirs.  It would be pretty easy to put post-it notes at key places when your guest needs to pick up the hymnal.
  2. The explanations are great.  Tons of good info.  But the format makes it easy to read as much as your brain can take, and leave the rest for another day.
  3. There are definitions or explanations for all the new words showing up with the new translation (“consubstantial”, “incarnate”, etc.).  In addition, all the changes are in bold face.

Who is it for?  People who can read pretty well.   Other than the cover art, there are no pictures.  All the explanations are written clearly, and my very average-reading 4th grader says she had no difficulty understanding them.  But you do need to be ready to tackle big words and gather useful information from your reading.    Words like “epiclesis” and “anamnesis” have pronunciations (“ep-ih-CLEE-sis” and “an-am-NEE-sis”).

Useful for catechists?  Absolutely.  The format makes it super easy to find the info you need for class, and the explanations are already translated into plain English.  Much easier than tearing through a pile of Scott Hahn books trying to remember where you found that quote that one time, and/or trying to translate The Catechism into something ordinary mortals can understand.  Plus I learned some things I didn’t know.

Other important info:  It’s 5.5″ x 8.5″, with a flexible heavy-paper cover, very trim, so designed to be stuffed into your purse in doled out during Mass.  But note the cover is not paperboard, so don’t let the baby put it in her mouth. Also there’s some info about the Daughters of St. Paul in the back, who have got to have the coolest charism in the universe.  Nuns that run bookstores and a publishing company.  How awesome is that?


Thanks to the Catholic Company for filling the mailboxes of bloggers with excellent products; this one is coming to Mass with us this Advent, no question about it.   In addition to asking for an honest review (check), our sponsor would like me to also tell you that if you need a Catechism of the Catholic Church or a Catholic Bible, they sell those too.

Kolbe update, week 5

We just started week 5, thought I’d give a little report on how things are going.  Re-cap: This is our first year using Kolbe.  6th and 4th grader are enrolled, and mostly following the plan with a couple substitutions.  2nd grader and kindergartener continue to do the home-grown, relaxed-schooling thing.

Overall Impression: Very happy with the decision.  On a day like today (evil dictator felled by an evil-er cold), wow it is SO MUCH BETTER having the plans ready-to-go.  Oh I know, it is so easy to make your own course plans.  Oh, I know, it only takes a few minutes to type them up each week.  But wow, being able to growl at a child and say, “Where are you in your homework?” is even easier.

–> Without ready-made, day-by-day plans, two big kids would definitely still be on the relaxed-schooling plan, which I really love for the little guys, but is not the ideal choice for our older kids.  Way too many disruptions in the school year so far (exhibit A: evil dictator with evil cold), no way I could have held together a formal curriculum if it relied 100% on my willpower alone.

Some comments on specific subjects:

Latin: Mr. Boy is doing the first year of New Missal Latin.  I like it pretty well.  Like the kolbe-published supplemental resources.  Will say this: In my opinion, the teaching parent needs to either have a smattering of Latin under the belt, or be ready to learn-along.  Having already done the intro to classical Latin in previous years, these first few weeks have been largely review for Boy & myself, and yes that is very nice.  Now is not my time to be learning a new language.  No really.  Sometimes it is not that time.

(Remind me also I have some other comments on this particular Latin program and the pro’s and con’s.  For a post another day.)

Grammar:  No shock here, I’m one of ten people in the known universe who actually likes Voyages in English.  So far, no difficulties.  Definitely if you haven’t diagrammed sentences before, you want the intro to diagramming booklet as a supplement.

Composition: I failed to observe that there is a separate composition book for 6th grade in addition to the vocabulary and grammar books.  Kolbe plans call for one assignment a week from that book.  I’d already maxed out the book budget.  So I typed up 36 composition assignments for the Boy, and stuck those in his plan book.  Conveniently, 6th graders do not use the composition portion of VOE, so I borrowed from there.

Spelling / Vocabulary:  The kids hate this.  Lot of work.  I keep reminding them that a good PSAT / SAT score is worth cold hard cash.    They get that.  We’ve used Spelling Power in the past, and have good results with using that study method for studying the words missed on the pre-test.   The whole amount of Kolbe-assigned words is a lot, though.  And we’ve had a couple weeks with enough disruptions that I couldn’t keep up my end on this one through the whole week.  We just move on to the next week, rather than piling up.

Word Study:  Oh, yeah, and word study.  Gee these children get a LOT of language arts.  They tell me this one is easy (MCP Plaid).  It is also good for them.  Happy there.  Decided this was one workbook the kids could write their answers in, would be a royal pain to have to do the assignments on a separate page.

Geography:  Lovin’ the geography books.  Short, easy assignments, genuinely useful map skills.  Makes me happy.

Religion: Of course I like it (Faith & Life), I was already using it anyway.  This is the other activity book I let the kids write in.  Pretty happy with the addition of the St. J’s Balt. Catechisms as well, serious retro power going on there.  My DRE also likes the program.    She’s experimenting with one section of F&L for 8th grade CCD this year.  (Rest of us are using our same Loyola Press books from previous years.  Which are fine.  But I’d still make my kids do F&L at home.)

Science:  Not a demanding program, which works for me.  We skip the Monday “investigation” every week, so far there hasn’t been one worth the hassle.  Also, I have the workbooks but the course plans don’t call for them, and both kids have decided we are happier not doing them.  I’m good with having them do just the textbook reading and review questions, and they can unschool any other science they desire. I like that balance.  [Recall: Two real microscopes in my living room.  Engineer at the dinner table every night.  Unschooling science is a viable option.]

Literature:  Um, where are the study questions? Apparently they are in some other place than the course plans.  I guess a Kolbe booklet I was supposed to buy?   For the uninitiated: You acquire the book you are studying — White Fang and Misty of Chincoteague to start, for us — and then the course plans give you chapter reading assignments and a weekly short essay to write, book report at the end.  And those plans also mention these “study questions” and “vocabulary” and stuff.  But they aren’t in the plans.    And no, I can’t be bothered to go look back at the Kolbe catalog, nor to post a question on the Kolbe forums.  Because, um, my magic pen of you-don’t-have-to-do-this works great!  I just cross out assignments!  We love it!

–> As a result: I let the girl take her final exam open-book and open-dictionary (Misty only takes 5 weeks), since it would be requiring her to have memorized study questions she’d never seen.  Flipped around the final week course plans to have her do the exam first and write the book report second.

Math: Not using Saxon.  Nothing against it.  We’re just still happy with Math-U-See, didn’t see a reason to switch when that was already working. 

History: Recall everyone’s doing Rome this year, which would ordinarily be the 5th grade course.  Very happy both with using the program as written for Mr. Boy, and subbing in History Pockets for the first two quarters for the girl.  Not much else to say.  The Kolbe-recommended course is very good.  And one of my children really needed to meet Ancient Rome in a perkier manner.

[But yes, I had to pick up a library book on the Aztecs, because HP fails to mention the, er, human sacrifice, those amazing wonderful ancient Aztecs were practicing during the European renaissance.  Yeah, I’m a western culture snob.  Facts are facts.  I vote for the no-live-beating-human-hearts-in-the-hands-of-the-priest every time.  Give me self-flagellating, slightly sore-backed penitents over flayed-alive sacrificial victims any day.]

Funny story though: We’re planning to go see our local Roman legion when they gather not so far from us in November.  Except the girls only want to go if they get to dress up.  So a certain growing 4th grader is going to be let loose with some discount linen between now and then.  Luckily the rest of us already own passable garb that still fits.

Weekend Reading

Courtesy of The Catholic Company Reviewer Program, I’m curling up this weekend with The Theology of the Body for Teens – Middle School Edition.  So far so good.  I’m halfway through the student and parent books, have not yet viewed the DVD’s.  I’ll post my own review in the next week or so, and then will be passing on the bundle-o-curriculum to my DRE.  Might be able to get some opinions from her and our youth minister to share with you as well.

–>  Our parish elementary and middle/high school religious ed programs are on separate nights. Which means many family members of middle schoolers are loitering around the education building on a night when the middle school kids do not have class.  This course looks like one that would make a great stand-alone program to offer during that time.  We’ll see.

Insomnia Hazards

Wednesday afternoon I think I accidentally used regular instead of decaf.  Someone maybe should consider “reading the label” as a useful habit, hmmn.  So about midnight I got out of bed, roamed around a little, and landed on what I was sure would be the perfect cure:

Diagramming Sentences. Don't Let It Keep You Up at Night.


It didn’t work.  I read the WHOLE THING.  And learned how to diagram, I might add.  Nicely done book, highly recommended.

Then I skimmed the New Missal Latin book, also pulled from our box of Kolbe-ware, and then I was able to go to sleep.  Sneaky coffee, causing me to be educated.

But here’s the worst part.  So the next afternoon, I was writing up my little entry for the campground blog, and you’ll never believe what happened me: I felt compelled to put both a subject and a verb into every sentence.

You can see it has worn off now.  But wow, for a while it was close.  Careful what you read.  It could mess with your grammar.


Funny grammar story: Once I refused to sign a petition, because it did not contain complete sentences.  I couldn’t figure out what it was we were demanding.  I inquired, but my fellow activist was strangely silent.  I think he decided he didn’t need a rabble-rouser on his team after all.

Kolbe – episode 2

So we decided to go ahead and register with Kolbe for next year, for the two big kids.  Here’s the beta, for those who are considering a similar plunge:

Glad we registered silly early. Kolbe lets you send in your registration (and tuition, of course) as early as you like, and then you school year still runs for the 12 months you indicate.  So we mailed forms in March, but that is to cover the year running August 2011-July 2012.  Why bother registering so early?

  • Avoid overwhelming the staff during crunch season.  We had a big box of course plans and parent information on our doorstep within a week.   One item was missing, and it was no problem to whip out an e-mail and the registration guy could just pop it in the mail.  You don’t want to be sweating waiting for materials a week before you need to start.
  • Time to look through the course plans, and get an idea of how the recommended books will be used.  So you know whether ________ supplemental text is something your student will really need, maybe want, or can do without.  Handy.
  • Time to bring the kids up to speed on their weak subjects.  Which is why . . .

The Assessment Tests are Gold.  Get them. These are the tests that measure how much of the current year’s work your student has mastered.   And here’s the secret that nervous, overwhelmed parents need to know: You don’t have to administer the test. If you’ve been teaching your student one-on-one, you can probably just look at them and get a good idea of how your student stacks up to plan.

For example, you might look at the end-of-third-grade grammar test, and say to yourself, “Egads! my 9-year-old has never even heard the word ‘Predicate’!  Somebody, quick, find me a grammar book!”  And so you google “free grammar practice worksheets”, and find this great site, and you spend the rest of the spring introducing your child to the wonders of formal grammar study.

No need to traumatize anyone by actually administering the test.  You can traumatize yourself just by looking at it.  (And, also, be reassured that the idea of a ‘predicate’ is pretty easily explained, once your child learns what nouns and verbs are, which is also pretty easy.  Which is why you weren’t sweating grammar up till now anyway.)


So that’s what we’re doing this spring.  Intensive grammar, math, and penmanship; structured unschooling for the rest.



PS: Funny conversation with the boy:

Mom: I think you’ll find the history next year pretty light.

Mr. Boy: Kolbe must not really care about history.

Mom:  No, actually they care quite a lot about history.  It’s that most kids your age don’t read adult history books for fun.

Mr. Boy: Oh.

(FYI rest assured, not all my children are like this.)

Math War (card game)

Math War is a fighting game disguised as a math game.   Played like the card-game “War” (aptly named), each card contains a math fact question, but no answer.   At each turn, the player whose card has highest answer gets to take the pile.  The kids, of course, have to figure out the answer to each card’s math fact, in order to know who wins the battle.

You can purchase a deck, or make your own using index cards, which would allow your children to practice whichever facts you choose.  (With a mixed-ability group, you could mix decks and assign each kid to answer a certain type of fact.)

This game is a great way to keep your kids learning on a day when you are feeling tired of the same old math book routine.  Your homeschooled children think they are studying math facts, but in fact they are mastering important socialization skills they might otherwise miss, such as bullying, cheating, and hurling all the cards across the room and stomping away.  Guaranteed to motivate the teaching parent to quickly return to those delightfully boring workbooks.


Surprising Foreign Language Helps

4th Friday, so it’s an education-related topic. I originally started this article for my homeschooling blog, but never got around to finishing it. I’m putting it here because I think that plenty of non-homeschooling (and non-any-kind-of-schooling) readers may be interested as well. So many reasons to want or need to learn a foreign language.


In teaching the kids French, and in toying around with assorted languages on my own (I’m purely a hobbyist: I love to study languages, but I am only competent in the two), I’ve stumbled on a handful of little language-learning helps that don’t get much press. I wanted to share them, in the hopes that they could be of use to others.

1. The Joys of Bad Latin Last summer when I first began my long slow effort to learn Latin, I picked up a copy of a Latina Christiana CD at a used book fair. It was a bit surreal, hearing Latin spoken in a light southern accent. I imagine a meticulous homeschooling mother living in the suburbs Charleston, sitting in her tidy living room and calling out vocabulary words. Fitting, of course, for ecclesiastical Latin, the epitome of second languages – it’s supposed to be used by foreigners, why try to hide your inner barbarian?

I agree, of course, that a language program ought to include instruction on the correct (native) pronunciation; but there are times when it is helpful to hear that foreign language spoken by someone with *your* accent. The reason is that your ear identifies the sounds better. If you are having trouble hearing where one word ends and another begins, or telling whether that was an “r” or an “l” in the middle of that word, this method helps. Especially so in cases when reading the language is difficult, such as for young children.

With my kids I usually give them the normal (native) pronunciation of the word first. If they look at me funny and repeat back something horribly off-base, I give them the word again with a solid american accent, so they can clearly differentiate each sound. We go back to the native pronunciation once they have a better idea what they are trying to say.

2. Bad English: More Useful than You Knew Now it is painful to hear a language mangled. Even more importantly, learning good pronunciation and intonation is essential if you want people to actually understand you. So the second helpful technique is the exact opposite of the first: Listen to your own language (probably English, if you are reading this) spoken by someone who has a heavy accent in the foreign language you are trying to learn. [Ahem: you want a real fluent speaker of the language, not your dearly beloved doing a bad stage accent.] This trains your ear to be able to distinguish the sounds of the foreign language, and gives you a feel for the pace and intonation of the language. You can start learning the sound of the foreign language as spoken fluently, long before you are able to understand whole conversations. Bonus: What trains your ear trains your mouth, as well.

A series that does this is the Bonjour Les Amis videos for children. Not a perfect program, and the style of presentation would be frustrating to some types of learners — but its great strength is that the narrator speaks his English in a powerfully-Parisian accent. A good choice for accent-training as a supplement to whatever else you are using. Presumably the Hola Amigos series does the same, but I have not yet checked them out (our local public library carries both).

[Keep in mind that if you are trying to a learn a language spoken by residents of your own town, you can probably find real live people who would like to practice their English with you. Not that spending an hour with a DVD is somehow inferior to spending an hour with a real person . . . ]

3. Partial Immersion Around here a popular source homeschool-inferiority-complex are the outstanding academic programs available at some of our public schools. Several of our elementary schools have started early-years foreign-language-immersion programs. The children spend half their school day learning entirely in the second langauge. (The program begins in kindergarten – good timing, since recall that back in the day children used to only go to kindegarten half a day, anyway. So no real loss of academic time, by my reckoning.)

Immersion is a very effective way — I would say, the most effective way — to gain fluency in a foreign language. (You still need to study grammar if you wish to be literate, same as a native speaker). To that end, sometimes you read that families learning a second language ought to have a “French night” or “Spanish night” when only the new language can be spoken.

It’s a lovely idea, except you end up saying, “Paul, I present my friend Stephanie. Would you like a blue pencil? Where is the train to Lyons?” Fine things to say, but what you really wanted was the French for, “No you may not put ketchup in your sister’s water glass, even if she did tell you it is her favorite drink.” (And even if *you* knew the french, your young bartender would swear he heard you say, “yes, go ahead.”)

A more realistic method for those of us who can’t pull off total-immersion is foreign-language wading. Use the language, and use it all the time, but combine it with your own. As in, “Non, you may not put le ketchup in your soeur‘s water glass, even if she did tell you it was her boisson preferée.” Gradually it will contain more foreign vocabulary and syntax, but even at the beginning you can practice using what little you have learned. My kids have learned 98% of what they know from this approach.* (Though Mr. Boy is about to start a regular grammar book, now that he’s able to work from a textbook on his own.)

–> Another advantage to this method over total-immersion is that everyone can participate, even if there are widely-varying skill levels. People who don’t know how to ask for the train to Lyons can still get in a mention about the blue pencil from time to time. (“Please take my crayon bleu out of your mouth.”) Perfectly acceptable to use a word in the foreign language, pause to translate if your listener doesn’t get it, and then keep moving.

So you don’t think I made up this last approach myself: A program that effectively uses partial-immersion is the 10 Minutes a Day series, which are geared towards preparation for tourist travel. If you need to know how to ask directions and buy lunch, this is your course. Lightweight and compact, too. I have some of the older editions, so I can’t tell you how good the CD’s are – back in the day we just used the children’s-encyclopedia-style pronunciation guides in the text, and that got us close enough.


So there you have it, three handy techniques that may be helpful in your foreign language learning efforts. Next week we’re back to economics, continuing with the living wage series. Probable topic will be one of those “They can’t really mean that!” bits of the catechism — you know, the ones that make you think the pope must be a communist or something. (Hint: he isn’t.) TBD, though, as my nieces arrive from out of town on Tuesday, and you never know what will happen from there.

*Combined with method #2, my daughter has also learned how to fake the French language, causing her great-grandparents to be inappropriately impressed with her language skills. But I promise grandma, I am teaching her *real* French, too.