My vote for Most Important Book of 2012

I just spent 3 days in the largest Catholic bookstore in the world.  I bought one book.  This is it:

Then I was stuck in an airport for five hours.  Perfect timing.

What it is:  Tiến Dương is a real guy about your age (born 1963) who is now a priest in the diocese of Charlotte, NC.  Deanna Klingel persuaded him to let her tell his story, and she worked with him over I-don’t-know-how-long to get it right.  Fr. Tien is a bit embarrassed to be singled out this way, because his story is no different from that of thousands upon thousands of his countryman.  But as Deanna pointed out, if you write, “X,000 people endured blah blah blah . . .” it’s boring.  Tell one story well, and you see by extension the story of 10,000 others.

The book is told like historical fiction, except that it’s non-fiction verified by the subject — unlike posthumous saints’ biographies, there’s no conjecture here.  It’s what happened.  The reading level is middle-grades and up, though some of the topics may be too mature for your middle-schooler.  (Among others, there is a passing reference to a rape/suicide.)  The drama is riveting, but the violence is told with just enough distance that you won’t have nightmares, but you will understand what happened — Deanna has a real talent for telling a bigger story by honing in on powerful but less-disturbing details.  Like, say, nearly drowning, twice; or crawling out of a refugee camp, and up the hill to the medical clinic.

–>  I’m going to talk about the writing style once, right now: There are about seven to ten paragraphs interspersed through the book that I think are not the strongest style the author could have chosen.  If I were the editor, I would have used a different expository method for those few.  Otherwise, the writing gets my 100% stamp of approval — clear, solid prose, page-turning action sequences, deft handling of a zillion difficult or personal topics.

Why “Most Important Book?”

This is a story that needs to be known.  It is the story of people in your town and in your parish, living with you, today.  And of course I’m an easy sell, because the books touches on some of my favorite topics, including but not limited to:

  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Diplomacy
  • Poverty
  • Immigration
  • Freedom of Religion
  • Freedom, Period
  • Refugee Camps
  • Cultural Clashes
  • Corruption
  • Goodness and Virtue
  • Faith
  • Priestly Vocations
  • Religious Vocations
  • Marriage and Family Life as a Vocation
  • Lying
  • Rape
  • Suicide
  • Generosity
  • Orphans
  • Welfare
  • Stinky Mud
  • Used Cars
  • Huggy vs. Not-Huggy

You get the idea.  There’s more.  Without a single moment of preaching.  Just an action-packed, readable story, well told.

Buy Bread Upon the Water by Deanna K. Klingel, published by St. Rafka press.

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?

Polarization and Politics

A friend recently resigned from her teaching position at a public high school.  The students were having intercourse in the classroom while she was teaching.  I assume this is a rare and extreme case; at the local blue-ribbon, top-rated public high school, the students show restraint, saving sex until they can get to the restroom.

I live in a cave, but I am not naive.  People of reproductive age will in fact reproduce.  What alarms is that the public school administrators are both persuaded they are unable to enforce a no-copulation zone, and also that they do not feel any obligation to attempt it.

These are public schools, so there are facts that don’t apply to, say, your local bar or brothel:

  • We taxpayers are required by law to send our money to these schools, under pain of fines, imprisonment, and forfeiture of assets.
  • Parents are required by law to send their children to these schools.  If they do not do so, their children can be taken from them.

Most parents do not have an alternative public school available.  Most parents cannot afford private school tuition.  Homeschooling is daunting for most and impossible for many; appeasing the authorities is an on-going problem.

But what stands out most about this problem: No one really seems to care.

Why isn’t this in the news?  Why isn’t this a hot topic at school board and superintendent elections?  How can a school be top-ranked, or a county promote itself as “A Great Place For Families”, when this is the atmosphere in which students are expected to learn?

Apparently there is a vast gulf between those who feel these sorts of things are a serious problem, and those who feel they are no big deal*.

I keeping hearing all these complaints that American politics is so “polarized”.  This is why.

 

*I don’t think this is a left-right divide.  Not at all.

7 Quick Takes: Reading List

Sign of the Apocalypse: I’m organized enough to come up with 7 things to say on a Friday.

1.

A reader sends in a link to Diary of a Gold-Digger.  I liked the Morocco stories especially.  Look forward to reading more.

2.

I keep forgetting to pass on that Dan Castell’s second installment in the Marx Brothers series is out.  Excerpted from The Marx Brothers Meet the Doctors of Death:

“I do have this.” Groucho pulls up his shirt and exposes a fine swath of swarthy tummy.
“Und what is that supposed to be?”
“It’s a rub that itches when I scratches.”
“Ach,” says Dr. Mangler, “a rub that itches when you scratches is simple schtuff. You haff the acute dermatitis.”
“Acute dermatitis!” Groucho cries. “And me…so young…so much undone…so many dames still to fun. Acute dermatitis—and I thought it was just an itch.”
“Ja,” says Dr. Mangler, “that is what I haff said. Acute dermatitis—you haff an itch.” He pulls out a prescription pad, scribbles a scrawl, and hands it to Groucho. “Here, that should help.”
“My prescription!?”
“Nein, mein bill. Fifty dollars, please.”
“I thought you said this would help.”
“Of course fifty dollars helps. You don’t think scalpels grow on trees, do you?”

My boy loves this guy.  Also available at Barnes & Noble.

3.

Speaking of the boy, do you know why I have an inordinate fondness for the Young Chesterton series?  Because the other night I go check on the progress of homework.  Recall the child is supposed to be writing a review of Emperor of North America for his composition assignment, so he isn’t being a total slacker when I catch him with both novels open.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m looking something up.  I thought the ‘Oliver’ character might be the Oliver from Oliver Twist.  I had to check and see.”

That’s why.  Basically if it makes you think about Dickens, in a good way, I’m okay with that.

4.

Grammar Girl is my new favorite grammar book.

5.

I put new blogs into my feed reader all the time, and sometimes I forget where they came from.  I clicked on Servant of Truth, which had something or another about a history curriculum the author was putting together, or, oh, gosh, where did I hear about this blog from?  Who is this person?  I click through for a clue.

Oh yeah.  Kolbe.  Idiot.

Have I mentioned I would have been sunk this fall without their ready-made course plans?  You begin to see why.

6.

Okay I am not that organized.  No apocalypse.

7.

And anyway, my five counts as seven if you give Castell and McNichol each credit for two.

Bleg – Which Collegiate Dictionary?

Anybody have a collegiate dictionary you particularly like?  I’m thinking of getting the boy his own for Christmas.  I cringe every time he gets near mine.  (Though the packing-tape reinforced spine should hold up, I keep telling myself.)  Also he keeps complaining he wants to know the meaning of words less than 50 years old.

What use a Classics Degree?

Darwin answers the question:

This isn’t because a degree in the humanities is “useless”. I believe that learning Greek, Latin, history and philosophy was very useful to me. But it was useful to me in the sense that a liberal art is meant to be useful — in allowing one to think like a “free man”. It is not useful in the sense of providing instant and easy employment. I think that it would be helpful if colleges and departments were a little more honest about this. It would also be very, very helpful if people took it into account before blithely borrowing large amounts of money. (And if people were less blithe about borrowing so much money in order to fund college degrees, perhaps the absurd rate of tuition increase would slow down. You may be assured that one of the things allowing universities to make off like bandits is that people have the illusion that having a degree, any degree, is an automatic ticket to a “good job”.)

He also confirms that Rush Limbaugh is not a classicist.  Apparently people were confused on that point.

***

Meanwhile, Archbishop Chaput demonstrates how to use such an education.  From his “On Being Human in an Age of Unbelief”:

That leads to my fourth and final point. The pro-life movement needs to be understood and respected for what it is: part of a much larger, consistent, and morally worthy vision of the dignity of the human person. You don’t need to be Christian or even religious to be “pro-life.” Common sense alone is enough to make a reasonable person uneasy about what actually happens in an abortion. The natural reaction, the sane and healthy response, is repugnance.

The whole thing is excellent, and eminently readable.  Print it out and read it on paper, because it merits sitting down and giving it your full attention.  Great essay to discuss with your high school or college student.

 

Mater et Magistra – Renewal Time

Mater et Magistra magazine reminds you to renew (if now is your time to do so).  Click here, it’s easy.  And though the print edition is lovely, it will still be a great little publication even if it goes all-digital.  Support your small catholic homeschooling press today.

Other People’s School Photos.

Catching up on my goofing off this morning.  Thought these photos of an MK mini-school in Haiti were pretty interesting.  For people who like to look at pictures of school stuff, anyway.   Sort of in between homeschooling and regular school — I guess maybe falls closest to the more formal homeschool co-ops and homeschool academies here in the US?  Or a very small charter school or private school?

Anyway, I like it.

the child who is determined to hate Kolbe

Yesterday after I dropped the kids off for Grandma time, a little voice told me to visit the other crack dealer Educational Wonderland.  Sure enough, they had cool little wipe-off books of math facts games and drills for the little guys (yes, I gave my daughter math books for her birthday — she was thrilled), and these:

So today I was thumbing through the new history books, and a certain rising 4th grader comes along and picks one up. “Oh.  Those are the terrible KOLBE books.”  Disgust.  Horror.  How could your mother do this to you?!

“No, darling.  Those are the books I got for you to do instead of the Kolbe book.”

“Oooh!”  Picks up book again.  Actually looks at it.  “Hey, this looks fun!”

Yes dear.  After enough years of living with you, I begin to have a clue, thank you.

–>  I found this year that I really like having all four kids on the same subject.  Not necessarily the same books, just the same general topic.  So for the coming year, I signed up both big kids for Kolbe’s Ancient Rome study, which the boy has already started reading for fun, and the girl is determined to hate, on account of it being called Famous Men of Rome.

Emphasis on Men.  She is not interested in Men.  Plus it is Kolbe, and we all know that Kolbe is Evil.  Even though we have never ever tried it, and plus it looks eerily like what we already study.  But it is to be hated.

Anyhow the plan is for the boy to whiz through the set plan, which he will complain is too easy and plus he already read the book this summer and why does he have to do the dumb workbook, blah blah blah, and look, here’s an Osprey book, let’s read that instead, yes dear on your free time you may.  (And he will.)

The craft-loving 4th grader I’m going to let do the Pockets books first.  Q1 she gets to be the teacher and take the littles through Ancient Civilizations.  That’s only 7 pockets, so 7 weeks, and the last two weeks of the quarter she’ll do some timeline work and then write me a report, which will bring up the grade-level to more her age.  Q2, littles will work through some other ancient Rome / Greece items with me, and my Kolbe-hating darling will do the Ancient Rome Pockets book, which will fill the quarter.

Q3 & Q4 she will finally have to buckle down and be serious, and do Q1 &2 of Famous Men per the Kolbe course plans.  Which should be easier having had the intro in the fall.  If she wants she can read the rest of the book in her free time.  Yes, I will totally let a 4th grader master only half of the history of the Roman Empire.  She’ll see it again one day.  Plus she’ll have the motivation of trying to get a higher score on the test than her brother did.  Which will definitely motivate her.

Went ahead and wrote up next year’s plans for the littles, who are still on the library-book method (not Kolbe — I do too much subbing out at that age, we’d only go crazy).  For science, sticking to my ‘everyone studies the same thing’ approach, I went through the 4th grade science course plans from Kolbe, and assigned the littles to study each week whatever topic the 4th grader will be covering.  So that will be a double bonus, in that they can sit in on her science experiments, and she’ll have a bunch of easy library books sitting around that cover the same thing she is learning in her horrible no-good very bad science book.  (That I think she will like.)

–> If I weren’t worried about the good of various eternal souls, and plus having told the whole internet that lying is wrong, I’d just tell her it wasn’t the Kolbe book, and then she’d love it for sure.

[Mr. Boy will be happy to do science all on his own.  I didn’t try to rope him into the coordinating thing for that.]

So we’ll see how that goes.  I’m hopeful.

****

I’m off tomorrow for ten days of Momcation, visiting the nieces who have the good sense to go to school.  Assuming my abandoned children don’t hack into the blog to show the world their atrocious grade-level spelling, expect blog silence here.  If you are desperate for goofing off in my absence, you can check my side bar links and tell me which ones have gone bad — I found one already, and no I haven’t fixed it yet.

Otherwise, enjoy the quiet.  That’s what I’ll be doing.  And have a blessed Memorial Day.