Math Book Confidence

Boy Studying1

This is a math book review, but also a talk about motivation.

My lone homeschooler (this year) is prone to worrying.  Concerning math, her chief worries are that there will be too much work, that it will be too difficult, or that it will all be futile.

Now I don’t believe in rushing math.  Other than the odd prodigy you read about in the news, I’ve seen very little benefit to rushing students into upper level math at an early age.  Experience teaches that engineers should complete one year of high school calculus in high school.  For everyone else, getting through algebra 2 or trig by the end of high school seems to be sufficient.  They do, after all, offer college math classes in college.

What this means is that for most kids, doing algebra 1 in 9th grade makes sense.  Their brains are far more capable of abstract thinking at that age than at earlier grades.  I’ve known, on that count, a number of engineers who found it far better to take geometry in 10th grade or later, even if it meant taking both algebra and geometry in the same year (concurrently or doing geometry over the summer), because geometry requires mature abstract thinking.

Therefore, our goal for our kids is for them to have a sound understanding of arithmetic, elementary geometry concepts, and simple pre-algebra by the end of 8th grade.  I would rather them finish middle school fluent in 8th grade math than floundering in algebra.

I wrote here in 2012 about how we handled elementary math (verdict: Math-U-See for us), and here in 2015 about why we switched to Saxon (because the primary teacher changed).  Here’s a quick comparison of what I like about each:

Instructional DVD’s, Dive into Saxon vs. MUS:  Equivalent.  Not identical, but both walk you through the lesson and give example problems.  The Dive videos are more like an actual math class, both longer and with more conversation than the MUS videos.  The Dive videos contain explicitly Christian content (Bible verses, assorted theistic comments).   FYI – Math-u-See materials don’t contain explicitly Christian or theistic content except in select courses such as the Stewardship course.

Word Problem Solving: Math-U-See wins hands down. My three kids who spent their elementary years in MUS have a much better ability to read a word problem and know how to solve it, because MUS teaches math concepts from a real-life-problem point of view.  Saxon uses many similar teaching aids, but the approach to word problems is to teach children to analyze the script in the word problem as if it were an abstract code.

Math Facts: Saxon.  MUS does tell you to memorize your facts.  It assumes you are working whatever drills are necessary on your own.  Saxon builds in daily fact drills so that you cannot escape math fact practice.  In addition to the four arithmetic operations, Saxon drills geometric principles, ratio equivalents, and simple algebraic equivalents.

Review: Saxon.  The sheer quantity of daily practice problems is notorious.  Every review problem is labeled with the chapter where you can look up that type of problem, so it is very useful for children who need to go back and remember how to solve a given type of problem.  Math-U-See, in contrast, works from the idea that you will master a topic before moving on.  Problems build in complexity over time.  Saxon does not assume you mastered one lesson before moving on to the next.

Mental Math: Saxon.  In addition to the “mental math” practice at the start of each lesson, the sheer variety of problems practiced on any given day demands mental flexibility.  In contrast, I’d say that Math-U-See provides better overall mastery of math concepts, and MUS pre-introduces concepts it isn’t officially teaching yet.  For example, students know fraction equivalents in MUS years before they actually crack the Fractions book.


Saxon Math 8/7 3ED Homeschool KIT | Main photo (Cover)

My Overall Preferred Strategy

I like Math-U-See for the elementary years, because of the way it teaches comprehension.  People like me, however, need something to help with math fact memorization, and honestly I don’t know exactly what that is.  Memory work is not my strong suit in teaching.  But if you’re using MUS, you’ll want to plan some kind of supplemental drill.  However, because Saxon spirals through topics, it is easier to move into a Saxon book at any time, no matter what you’ve been using before.

You can also skip a level in Saxon, which gives you the flexibility of, say, taking three years to complete two math books with some alternate learning in between. For example my current 8th grader did Saxon 6/5 in 6th and early 7th grade, paused to do some Life of Fred and some real-life math applications, then picked back up with Saxon 8/7 later in 7th grade with no difficulty; she’ll complete 8/7 by the end of 8th grade.

(Why no, I feel no need whatsoever for the kids to do their Saxon books at the earlier of the two grades in a given book title.  See below to find out why.)

For this particular student, I’ll probably go back to Math-U-See for Algebra 1 in 9th grade.  The uncluttered format and arrow-like focus of Math-U-See will probably work better for her in upper level math.   More philosophy of education: It’s more important in math that you master what you do study than that you dabble in greater depths than you can truly handle.

There are other subjects where floating in the depths has its benefits.  I don’t believe that is the case with math.

Math Book Confidence

Coming back to the title of this post: My current 8th grader is easily intimidated by a math book.

One of the reasons I like 8/7 as an 8th grade pre-algebra book is that I’ve seen it work.  The spiral, scattershot nature of Saxon means that you are very likely to fill in any little gaps that might have sneaked into the elementary years.  The memory work is focused on preparing for high school.  The perpetual review pounds the concepts into your brain.  So, in the hands of a student who actually does the homework, it’s a very effective tool.

Seeing the book work gives us confidence that it will keep working.  The current 8th grader knows that her older sister did this book in 8th grade and went on to ace Algebra 1 at the corner high school.  That makes a big difference in helping the younger sibling, who finds math books daunting, to keep her chin up and grind away.  It helps me to be motivated to make the child stick with it when she gets daunted (or I do).

–> Neither of the girls are especially math-loving students; they have decent intelligence, but they aren’t staying up late at night playing math games or anything.  Another book might be better for a different kind of child.

So I would say that above all in picking a math book, to choose one that has been successful for students similar to yours.  It’s just easier to work through a book if you have good reason to believe your work will bear fruit.

Inside My Apologetics 101 – Faith, Evidence, and Objective vs. Subjective Truth

Today I was subbing for my daughter’s apologetics class, and thought I’d share the letter I sent home to parents, since it covers topics that come up online a bunch.  You blog readers don’t get to see the whiteboard photo referenced below because it has students’ names on it from a chart we made at the top of the hour, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to blur them out of the image.  For your viewing pleasure, I’ve posted completely different photos at the bottom.  Close your eyes and imagine a whiteboard of illegible black scrawl instead, and you’ll know everything you need to know.

Dear Parents,

Attached is the photo of the whiteboard from apologetics at the end of class. Parents, the kids were starting to get the general concepts we went over, but were still having a hard time articulating the key ideas and applying them. It might be helpful for you to have them go through the picture with you and tell you, as best they can, what it is everything refers to. For your convenience I’ve written all the text in slightly illegible lettering so that students have to rely on their memory to fill in the indecipherable bits — you’re welcome.

None of this is in the book, since I was subbing for our regular teacher (Mrs. K) and just working off notes from a different apologetics class I taught a few years ago. But it’s all important stuff and well worth mastering if you enjoy life as a sane person.

Key ideas to draw out of your child:

1) Objective vs. Subjective truth. In apologetics, we need to be able to listen and identify when the person we’re talking with doesn’t understand the difference between unchangeable truths and those facts that are genuinely a matter of opinion, experience, etc. We need to be able to *explain* the difference between subjective and objective facts to friends who don’t realize there is a difference, or don’t realize when they are treating an objective matter as a subjective one. We need to know whether a given statement is a matter of subjective opinion or objective truth.

2) Types of evidence. There are different types of evidence for different types of things. Scientific laws, or laws of nature, are discovered and proven using the assorted tools of science to verify repeatable tests and observations. The facts about historic events and persons are established using the types of evidence that apply to persons and facts. You can’t, for example, do a series of scientific tests to know that Christopher Columbus existed — but you can collect historical evidence for that fact. We need to be able to know, therefore, what *kind* of evidence is suited to proving which kinds of facts. Because God is a Person, and because God acts in history, the types of evidence we are looking for are the sorts of evidence we use for determining historical events and the existence of persons.

In apologetics we need to be able to identify when someone we are listening to has the notion that God is a force of nature that should be subject to scientific evidence, and clarify and explain that God is a person and therefore a different type of evidence is valid. We want to be able to walk our friend through the rational, evidence-based types of proof that one would use in determining whether or not a person exists or an event took place. A useful tool is to walk the person through the types of evidence for or against their own existence.

Not on the board, but an important idea which we discussed in class: Faith is the action of taking the evidence we’ve gathered and using it to come to a conclusion. I can gather all kinds of evidence about the existence of gravity or the existence of Christopher Columbus, but ultimately if I believe in either of those, it is an act of faith. My faith isn’t separate from and certainly not opposing evidence and reason; rather it is the follow-on to gathering evidence and using my reason. Think of it as the third step: Evidence + Reason (logic) + Faith = Belief.

I might be a person who comes to faith easily, requiring very little evidence and logical analysis before I take the leap of faith. For example: I believe in asteroids even though I’ve never had any personal experience with one, and know almost nothing about them. I have an even stronger faith in the existence and power of tornadoes, which I’ve also never seen, because I’ve got even more evidence and experience and knowledge about them — even though all my knowledge is second- or third- hand. Ultimately, though, if I wanted to disbelieve in their existence, I could. Faith is the leap I make to assert that I do in fact believe in these things.

I might, in contrast, be a very skeptical person. Imagine if I decided I would only accept a belief in tornadoes after extensive study and firsthand experience. All the same, even if I were very skeptical, if I’m a rational person there will be some level of evidence that is eventually sufficient to allow me to make the leap of faith and affirm that yes, tornadoes do exist. I can be very skeptical — that is, be a person who requires large amounts of evidence and long periods of logical analysis (reasoning) prior to coming to faith, but still make a decision to affirm or deny a fact. Faith is the act of affirming or denying facts.

[I didn’t use tornadoes or asteroids as examples in class, so that’s new fodder for you in chatting with your child.]

We acknowledged as well, in class, that there are people who simply refuse to accept any level evidence. In class we imagined someone who might, for example, dismiss my (Mrs. Fitz’s) existence, even if they met me in person, on account of how perhaps it was a hallucination, or an actor was paid to pretend to be me, or some other thing. Likewise you could imagine someone explaining away the existence of tornadoes by offering some alternate theory of why they thought they saw a dark whirlwind and heard loud noise right before their possessions were blown away. In apologetics it’s important that we distinguish between someone who is simply looking for more evidence to work through rationally prior to coming to a conclusion, versus those who would never be satisfied with any level of evidence, because they have made a decision in advance about the truth of this or that assertion.

(We didn’t practice this, but a good method for finding out where someone stands on this is just to ask them. Listening is the #1 skill in apologetics.)

Finally, a point that came up in class a couple times is that in apologetics we must be very precise. Please assure your students that in class it’s good to be brave in discussing ideas even if you aren’t sure of the right terms or facts; we will simply pause and clarify definitions as necessary. We learned the word omniscient, and affirmed that none of us humans are omniscient, so it’s okay if you have to acknowledge you don’t know something, and it’s okay if your friends help you clear up any misunderstandings you have.

Have a great weekend!


File:Líneas de Nazca, Nazca, Perú, 2015-07-29, DD 46.JPG
 Eerily apropos photo by: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s a tornado, because: I’m a believer.  No tornado-deniers at my house.
File:F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007.jpg

Photo by: Justin1569 at English Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pinterest Parenting: Behind the Scenes of Raising a DIY Pro

I want to show you my daughter’s handiwork and explain how it got this way, because it’s a story about what parenting really is.  When you are comparing your crazy life to some glossy home magazine spread, but it’s a real home inhabited by real people, I want you to understand that it didn’t come from nowhere.

So this is my backyard:

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Isn’t it gorgeous!  That’s the little grilling area off the kitchen.  My daughter (age 14) completely overhauled this space a few weeks ago, with the help of her sisters.  It was her response to the three of them being kicked outside until they’d cleaned the place up, on account of their not being able to be quiet inside for even one hour while I took a nap.

No really, that’s the story.

Here’s a before picture. Just kidding, but yes, the place was pretty much trashed.

To the left, behind the grape vines growing up around the mailbox, is the famous green castle.  When it was first built the castle looked like this:

That’s the top two stories, and in the photo above you’re looking at a portion of the bottom floor.  It’s a bit worn down now, and we’ve replaced boards and added shade over the years.  We built it because we only had this teeny-tiny strip of private, fenced backyard area when our kids were little, so we had to build up-not-out for the play structure.

Part of parenting is using the talents you have (my husband did the carpentry) and the resources you have to give your kids some space to grow. This is what we had to give.

Even after this month’s clean-up, there’s still some trashy-looking stuff behind those red doors, but at least it’s down to all purposeful trash.  An example is an upside-down plastic flower pot that serves as a table during “City,” the kids’ economics game that is the successor to the even trashier (literally) “Medieval Game.”  They make up all kinds of sociological experiments when I kick them outside.

More history . . . See this cute wooden bridge leading to the seating area?

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We went to Las Vegas to visit my parents some years ago, and in the early morning while it was still cool out, we’d walk around the neighborhood.  The front yard landscaping in suburban Las Vegas is incredible – just gorgeous.  The kids took photos of yard ideas, because they wanted a pretty yard.  One thing they all liked was a wooden bridge over a rock riverbed formation.  Superhusband built them this bridge for the play yard, and it connects to a second patio where we have a laundry sink.  That area is not very pretty, though it’s now 90% less trashy than it was a month ago.

Lesson in parenting: We’ve had all these moments where the kids recognize and appreciate beauty, and we build on that . . . and our yard is still mostly trashed.  They’re still kids.  Their aspirations exceed their self-discipline.  We’re still tired parents who don’t make them clean up enough.   But slowly the beauty-to-trash ratio improves, year by year.

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Here’s some lemon balm my daughter totally stole out of my part of the yard, and put into a terra cotta pot she also stole.  I’m good with that, she didn’t mess anything up.

I love to garden, but I basically stink at it.  My kids have variable amounts of love of gardening, but it’s not like we’re this amazing family out singing hymns while we hoe all afternoon in the pumpkin patch or something.  We buy plants or seeds, stick them in the ground, and most of what we plant dies of drought or flood or some horrible fungus you don’t want me to describe.  But a few things survive, and we learn more about what will grow in our actual yard (the garden books are wrong and the internet is wronger), and slowly it fills with things that aren’t entirely dead or pestilent.

Every living plant you see in these photos was a gamble.  Life is a gamble.  You just keep trying things.


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Aren’t these hanging cacti adorable?  They are a little freaky if you look closely, because they are leftovers from a life science lab on grafting plants.  She has to have franken-cacti because non-school plants are expensive.  She took kimchi jars (I know! We buy it! We don’t make our own!) and sawed off the tops, then made the hanging knotwork out of string that came from who-knows-where.

If you want a kid who does DIY’s, you have to let that kid just raid the supplies and try stuff.  This is how my home gets trashed. Yes, my home is mostly-trashed in the pursuit of either beauty or laziness, one or the other.

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We fought bitterly over where she was allowed to hang her hanging candles.  All supplies totally stolen from other parts of the house or yard.  Hobby Lobby made zero money on this one.

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Look at this pretty sitting area!  I got those curtains cheap when the girls were little, and they get used when you want to hang pretty curtains someplace — like if you’re having a princess-themed birthday party or something.  They are hanging over the clothes rods and clothes lines that were our attempt to make a place to store all our whitewater gear, but it didn’t work out and was a fetid mess.  Blech.

I still don’t know what to do with the whitewater gear.  It’s piled in my laundry room waiting for a new home.

All furnishings and accessories in this photo were raided from another part of the house or yard.  In some cases there was a weak attempt at either covering up the gaping hole or putting an almost-as-good item in place (like: a bathmat set down by the front door where that rug used to be).

Also, I got yelled at because that rustic wooden box had yucky insects in it.  It was super disgusting, I agree with her there — but she totally wanted me to drop everything and decontaminate just so she could have her coffee table.  Darling, part of growing up is learning to battle insects all on your own, thanks.


Final thing: The monogrammed pillow.  That was made by the 14-year-old express for this project.

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Let me explain to you about this.

My kids have had virtually unfettered access to sewing supplies, including a varying number of rescued sewing machines, over the years.  Prior to the massive clean-out, this porch was heaped with a crazy-mountain of every kind of craft thing.  I don’t even have any sewing things, at all, any more, because my children have stolen them so diligently that now it’s easier to just make them do the sewing, done.  (I was never any good at it anyway).

If you want kids who craft — who really get good at developing their own style (I never, ever, monogram anything, no child picked up that habit from me), and thinking up a project and giving it a try, and eventually get to where they’re producing good adult-quality work — you have to let them make a mess.

Maybe you’re good at having them clean up after, maybe you’re not.  (I’m not.)  But you have to give them space, and let them experiment, and not be horrible about insisting every project be perfect all the time.  As I write this, my nine-year-old is baking cupcakes.  I just stay out of the room, and she can come ask me questions, and I’ll help her with putting things in and out of the oven when the time comes.  If they don’t turn out — whatever.  It was only cupcakes.

I let my kids play with paint, and now when I needed a patio table re-painted, I could trust a child to paint it as well as anybody.  I let my kids play with food, and now my son cooks dinner as his primary household chore.  My kids aren’t perfect.  Everything they do doesn’t turn out golden every time.  When my daughter took these photos, she carefully framed them to not show the less-pretty parts of our life.

That’s real life: Part beauty, part mess.  Sometimes you really need to pay attention to the mess, and sometimes you need to sit back and enjoy the beautiful.

Photos by E. Fitz, used with permission, copyright 2016 all rights reserved.

Cat Photos & Other Reputable Pursuits

A kitten found us, which means we can finally use the internet properly.

I persist, of course, in my incorrigible habit of crowding perfectly good bandwidth with religion, public policy, and other punditry.  My hope is that by wielding the cat as a feline shield, the internet police will be stymied in their efforts to purify the web of non-cat bloggers.

Like the Internet Except in 3-D

1. My screen porch.  YouTube viewing has plummeted now that we have our hyperactive dancing cat.

2. Midlands Homeschool Convention.  Of interest to southeasterners.  Huge regional event, piles of top notch speakers, and also me.  Catholic writers guild will have a table, and there’ll be a rocking “Look at the Book” display of Catholic textbooks & materials from all the major players, hosted by Catholic homeschoolers in SC.  Also free stuff and some drawings for prizes. The teepee in the corner, dear parents, is for your children.  You sit on the chairs.  July 24-26.

3. Catholic Writers Conference. Following week up in Chicago, smart people will be turning out at the writers’ wonderland that is the combination Catholic Writers Conference & Catholic Marketing Network’s trade show.  This is the place where all the publishers and vendors of Catholic trinkets (games, art, music, etc) turn out so the Catholic book & gift shops can stock up for the season.  Most interesting bit is seeing what famous internet Catholics look like when rendered in 3-D.

(I will be rendered in 2D for that one.  Visit the Liguori booth if you go, and you can see my book.  The me-traveling-to-Chicago part is not quite back on the program.)

Since last I wrote, Patheos has been fixing things, which means you have to go here to get the July archives.

June still copies and pastes nicely:



Plague Journal, Catechesis & Socialization Edition

Plague Journal as a theme is getting mighty old.  Good news: After asking a few friends to pray, I’ve upgraded from “death warmed over” to “death minced with bacon and turned into a proper hash, thank you very much.”  So I’m back to writing stuff again, that’s good.

Meanwhile, since you’re reading this it means you either have time to pray more, or else you have something dreadful to offer up. I’m asking specifically for prayers that: (a) I’ll get an accurate dx on this most recent round o’ plague, and (b) that I’ll get done everything I need to do.  The stuff I don’t need to do? Whatever.  Just the important things, thanks, that’s all I’m asking for.

Meanwhile, some things I wrote before this bout set in quite so aggressively:

At CatholicMom.Com, I answer the old “socialization” question.  I know. I thought I didn’t care about that argument anymore,either.  Then I saw a real live human being worry about it. So it became a topic again.

And if that doesn’t raise your blood pressure enough, at, I wade into the raging debate over whether we ought to have religious education classes for children at all. Lisa Mladnich tells me I’m insightful and clear-thinking, so that settles it.  Read the other opinions, than go see my article to find out what you’re really supposed to think.

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 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.

At CMOM – Why Your Town Needs a Catholic Homeschooling Cooperative

In which I share one of those stories about things that you know happen, but are kinda hard to believe.  This is not the reason my parish started our little homeschooling group.  We got started because I’m a slacker-mom who needs people to keep me honest, and other people I know are smart, sociable, diligent, and gullible.  But the little excommunication incident the other week affirmed for me that we were providing a desperately needed service.

The article has a pile of links for those who think maybe they’d like to get something started, but aren’t really sure what to do or how to do it.


Quick Kolbe note: Online Classes for High School

For those who missed it, Kolbe Academy is offering a slate of online classes for high school this fall.  Looks promising.

Other items of note:

I have no direct experience with any of these, but I’d wager they’re all good.  Credible sources.  Worth a look if you need some other adult to keep your student moving forward.  Or if you need to make the switch to homeschooling, but really you can’t homeschool, it’s just that there isn’t something else.


Have another good tip? This is your explicit invitation to share worthwhile homeschooling links in the combox. For your own program or anyone else’s.  Have at it.

Bleg – Starting High School Homeschooling Mid-Year

From a reader in the comboxes:

Hi Jennifer,
We have decided to start homeschooling mid year for our son who is in 10th grade. He previously attended a private high school.
I am a newby and i am looking for structure without stress.
Any ideas?

Any suggestions?  Post in the combox or at your place and leave Anne a link so she can find you, please! 

Rebecca Frech I am talking to you.  Bearing, you’ve got a mind from these things, speak up. 

Everyone, Who else should we tag? Darwins?  Brandon? Anna? Christian? Anyone?  Bueller?


My thought would be to take his course load from school, and do a subject-by-subject picking of a decent text book?  Something like this:

Math:  Pick an appealing program, ideally something that uses DVD or computer instruction so you aren’t doing it yourself.  Figure out where to start mid-year by doing sampling of the end-of-chapter questions until it gets to new stuff.  (You may need to back-up and review select topics from early chapters that the school was going to introduce later in the year.)  If money is tight, math books is where I’d risk the biggest investment, if you come across something that is good but expensive.

Science:  Do part 2 of his current-year subject (biology probably?), using a text book that meets his general aptitude.  As you read reviews, you’ll hear about some that are more rigorous, some that are “too easy”, etc.  Try to aim for a ‘just right’ for his science abilities, challenging enough to be interesting, but not overwhelming.   If he’s already in chemistry, either continue with it if he’s strong in the subject and knew what was going on, but if he was flailing, abort that mission and proceed with a different subject for the second semester — either morphing in “physical sciences” or going with something like astronomy (just do the first semester of a year-long program.).  I would not try to remediate Chemistry mid-year.  This is the second subject I’d invest in, in terms of quality of materials.

History: Pick up where he left off, time-wise, and just keep on moving.  This is low-stress.  Pick a book or books he likes, and have him write a paper a week (the infamous 5 paragraphs) on what he studied that week.  If there’s no final exam (for example if you just do library method, where grab books on topic and read ’em), have him do a term paper or oral presentation for his final.  If he was doing the government/economics two-semester combo, do the other subject this semester.

English:  If he was doing a particular study (“British Literature” “English Literature”, etc), you can keep going with that, or morph into a generic “English 2”.  You’re looking for a combination of literature study (reading good stuff and thinking intelligently about it), plus vocabulary practice from a vocab book in preparation for the SAT, and a grammar book and/or composition book to work the writing/editing skills.  You may be able to just continue at home with whatever vocab book he was using at school.  I’d look around at the various curriculum providers (Kolbe, MODG, etc etc.) and see what appeals to you and fits the budget.

Cheap alternative:  Go to your library and check out Grammar Girl or an equivalent; one good beginner’s writing book written for aspiring writers (watch for foul language, there are some excellent writing books that have a touch of potty mouth); and a pile o’ classics that are of interest, and work through those for 2nd semester.  There are also some curriculum out there such as the Literacy through The Lord of the Rings and so forth, that build a one-year or one-semester literature curriculum around a single work or genre. (I have not reviewed the curriculum, FYI.)  If you find one that strikes his fancy, this could be a good way to finish out English 2 and cultivate an appreciation of literature that doesn’t involve too much penance.

Foreign Language: Your #1 concern is meeting the college-entrance foreign-language requirements.  So take into account what he’s already studied, how much time he has left, and figure out whether you need to continue with current language, or if you can start a new one, or if this is a subject you don’t need to worry about this semester.  Pick a program that appeals to you and roughly matches up to his current level.  It’s okay to do, say, “Latin 1” or “Italian 3” spread out over odd-semesters, as long as he completes the necessary units of study.  So don’t panic over this one.

You could also wait a few months and do your 2nd-semester foreign language in ‘summer school’.  Language-learning can be brain-intensive, and some students benefit from focusing 100% on the language for a time, and essentially completing a semester or year’s worth of classes in a shorter more concentrated period.  Picking the exact right book/program is not important in 10th grade second semester.  Language-learning is cumulative in a networked, whole-brain way.  Whatever he uses will benefit him, and you can refine your choice next year.  If you aren’t sure what to do, beg a free loaner book off someone to start with, and invest after you are confident of your choice.

Religion:  If you’re looking for suggestions, give us some more details on what he’s done already?  Kids are all over the map in terms of background knowledge, interests and abilities, and you want to strike a good balance in difficulty-level and topics, in order to keep it interesting and appropriate.

Other electives:  What can you knock out this spring that you’ve got to do in order to graduate / get into college, without making anyone cry?  My thought would be to pursue a hobby that he loves and would consider rewarding, ie if he loves to draw than take an art class, or if he plays sports, join a team and give him credit for PE. But I wouldn’t pursue the extras this semester when you are transitioning if it’s going to stress you out or make him miserable.  A man should be made miserable in moderate doses.

If there’s a pre-packaged curriculum that just seems like the perfect thing, go with it.  If not, compile your course of study a piece at a time.  My advice would be, when you read about the curriculum, does it make sense to you?  Can you get your head around it?  You’ve got so much suddenly on your plate, this is probably not the time to slog through an academic approach that is going to stretch your brain to snapping point.  Look for stuff that makes you go, “Oh yes, that! Perfect!”


Okay, that’s my guess.   Other people, correct me, hmmn?   Any personal experiences to share?  Cautionary tales?  Bits of encouragement?

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.