Kolbe Reviews: MCP Word Study

What on earth is “Word Study”?  That’s what I wanted to know.  Ignorance is no barrier to a woman with an excuse to buy books, so I took the plunge and ordered the MCP Plaid Word Study books as prescribed by Kolbe.  It seemed like the kind of thing my kids might could use.

The pictures you see are different than the one currently showing in the Kolbe Store, and I don’t know what the story is on that.  The ones above are what we have (ordered from Kolbe last spring), and if you click through, the pic takes you to the Amazon page.  There are other editions, so if you enroll with Kolbe but purchase the book not from Kolbe, verify to make sure you’re getting hold of the book to match your course plans.  My review is for the books you see here.  Love that 1970’s decor, matches my kitchen.

So what is this “Word Study” thing?  It’s the answer to people who look you straight in the face and tell you English is not a phonetic language.  Well, yes it is, it’s just that we feel free to use the phonics rules of virtually every language in the known world over the past 1500 years, and don’t get around to updating our spelling when pronunciations change.  Understandable, since English speakers never have all pronounced words the same way everywhere.

Sample Rule from Level F (6th Grade): The roots “cap”, “cept”, and “ceipt” mean “take” or “seize”.  Capture = to take someone by force. [p.88]

Sample Rule from Level D (4th Grade): When “ed” is added to a base word ending in d or t, it stands for the “ed” sound.  Other times “ed” will stand for the sound of d or t: They planted a tree.  He cheered for the team.  She jumped over the rope. [p.52]

–> Word study re-inserts method and understanding into the vast and varied rules of English spelling, so that you don’t live your whole life stuck in kindergarten, forever believing everything must be a “sight word”. [Or a sig-ha-tuh word.]  The MCP books group words with similar rules, so that students see the logic in how they work.  You’ll notice that Kolbe spends about ten minutes on Science, and whereas the 4th grade Language Arts category has a full seven different elements to it.  (And I’m reviewing each item one by one.)  If you the follow program, sooner or later you’ll end up learning to read and write.

How the book works.  The books are two-color,  consumable workbooks.    Each page presents a rule of phonics, spelling, or vocabulary at the top of the page.  Then there are a variety of activities to help students practice the rule.  Every now and then there is a reading comprehension or composition exercise mixed in as well.

Can students self-teach?  For the most part, yes.  My kids work 98% unsupervised, and every now and again when I check their work I see that some disastrous phonics accident has occurred.  But usually they can read the instructions and do the work completely on their own.  Both kids are supposed to save this part of their homework for later in the day, and usually they sneak into it early, because it is fairly light work and they’d rather do this than tackle a harder subject.

Warning: The Picture Words Are A Mystery To Me.  In the fourth grade book there are sometimes exercises where you look at a picture, guess the word it stands for, and use that information to complete the assignment.  The girl and I stink at this.  We just skip these.  Maybe you don’t want us on your team for Pictionary.

What to buy?

  • The student book is a consumable.  You would not want to try to do the exercises on a separate piece of paper.  This is the one book in Kolbe’s line-up that I’d not dream of trying to hand down to the next kid.
  • I’ve never even considered that there was a teacher’s manual, let alone wanted to use it.  I’d skip that unless you the teaching parent have a serious phonics disorder and your consultation with the Kolbe people or some other expert indicates the teacher’s manual would help you.  Remember these are exercises your child can probably mostly do with no adult help.
  • The course plans just divide up the book into pages.  If you aren’t enrolled in Kolbe, don’t purchase them.  They do include quarterly exams, but for the à la carte price, you could take ten minutes a quarter to quiz your child orally and call it good.

Do you really need to do this?

I made it all the way through grad school without ever studying phonics with this intensity.  I was a natural reader, and had no difficulty with spelling.  Other than a few technical terms, nothing in these books is news to me, it’s all stuff you just figure out from being a word person.  But, I’m very glad my kids are doing these books.

Although they are reading well, spelling and advanced phonics is not something that just flows out of my unschooling heart on a consistent basis.  I like that they are getting the intensive trickle.  For my 4th grader, the focus on phonics strengthens her weakest area — she tends to hop over difficult words rather than slowing down and concentrating on them.  For my 6th grader, I like that he is being pushed to master skills that come naturally to him, and I hope it will show up on his SAT scores.  (Yes, I’m mercenary that way.  Were you planning to send us college money? I didn’t think so.)

–> My intuition is that if you have a student with strong language skills, you could skip this and do fine.  In many ways it might be more like daily vitamins than necessary medicine.

If you have a student struggling with spelling, reading, and vocabulary, these might be the skeleton of a program to help your child with specific strategies for mastering language skills.  For my 4th grader, I would sooner drop assignments from another subject, so that she has time to work through her word study book.  If she’s a strong reader, she can always catch up on her history facts another day.

[If you are working through a serious learning disability,  ask a specialist and ask if this is in fact the type of help your child needs.  The last thing you want to do is to drop $20 on 160 pages of pure agony. You’ve probably done that enough times already.]

And that’s all I know to report.  What other questions do you have?

Kolbe Reviews: Voyages in English (Grammar)

Voyages in English is a vintage Catholic-school grammar book series. My mother-in-law used it growing up, and I love this because whenever my kids complain it’s so hard, Grandma is there to remind them she did just fine with it.  And went on to have a story published in Redbook Magazine, no less.

Originally published in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, it is available as a reprint from Lepanto Press.  There is an modern version of Voyages in English still being published by Loyola Press, and I am told that Lepanto’s vintage reprint will soon be re-named Lepanto English to avoid confusion.

What I love about the old Voyages:

  • I like using vintage and historic textbooks, because they double as primary sources for history.
  • The grammar is rigorous.  Studied well, students will learn to write clearly and edit effectively.

What other people hate about the old Voyages:

  • It’s so old-fashioned.
  • Not everybody wants to grow up to be an editor.

Realistically, some of the material in the sixth grade book was new to me, and is understandably overwhelming to parents who aren’t word-geeks. (Fourth grade is no problem.)  The teacher’s manual has explanations and answers, but could make your eyes swim if you don’t already know roughly what the book is talking about.  Also, I giggle every time I see the word “copulative”.

The Kolbe Course Plans

The course plans assign the exercises, and every now and again tell you to diagram some sentences, or write a letter, or something like that.  There are quarterly exams and answer keys in the course plans.  If you aren’t enrolled with Kolbe I’d skip the plans and just type up your own list of dates and assignment numbers at the beginning of the school year.

I would encourage you, if you do follow the Kolbe plans, to blackline assignments that cover topics your child has clearly mastered, and generally avoid anything that smacks of busy work.  The plans, like the text, cover every possible grammar need, allowing you to be the Benevolent Dictator, mercifully skipping over long exercises training students out of bad habits they had no idea existed until seeing them in the book.

What if you can’t stand VOE?

You’re not alone.  A popular alternative used by Kolbe and Mother of Divine Grace families is Easy Grammar.

I picked up an older edition at a used book sale, and I like having it on hand as a resource for extra practice pages.  The edition I have (1994) has reproducible worksheets and then the filled-in worksheet on the facing page.  It seems to cover all the topics normal people cover in English grammar.

Another option that comes highly recommended  is the free online K.I.S.S. Grammar Books by Dr. Ed Vavra.  Worth a look.

Do you even need a formal grammar program?

Sooner or later, sure.  But if standard English is the language spoken in your home, I’m not persuaded students need to do a rigorous study of grammar every single year.   And note that if you are studying a foreign language of any kind, then the kids are getting quite a lot of grammar education that way.

Having largely unschooled grammar until 4th grade, I had no difficulty transitioning both kids to Voyages this year.  I looked through the Kolbe Placement Exams early last summer, and used a selection of worksheets from the Super Teacher Worksheets to give the kids an introduction to the concepts they’d be seeing in the fall.

So although I happen to like the Kolbe selection on this one, and I find that using it this year was well-timed for us, I wouldn’t make your child’s love of Voyages in English the make-or-break on your choice of programs.  I would be very comfortable with giving any student a year off of hardcore grammar study here or there, if that seemed like a better way to manage time and energy and avoid frustration.

Kolbe Reviews – Latin

Children do not teach themselves Latin.

Children.  Do Not.  Teach. Themselves. Latin.

Okay, now that we have that cleared up:

Kolbe Academy prescribes The New Missal Latin – Book One for upper-elementary Latin — typically grades 5-8.

If you purchase the book set from Kolbe, it comes with the book, a test booklet and separate answer key, a teacher’s manual with answers to the book exercises, and a pronunciation CD.  Easy to overlook is the Supplemental Exercises, which are called for in the course plans, and which you need to purchase separately.  It will not surprise you to learn that I have no idea what is in the Supplemental Exercises.

The book is a vintage-rescue.  Originally written in 1941, it was republished by St. Mary’s publishing in 1996, and St. Mary’s has written the teacher’s manual and test books as well; together they are designed for the Latin enthusiast hoping to learn enough Latin to follow the Mass with ease.  The teacher’s manual provides explanations and encouragement for how to teach yourself the language.

The text drops you straight into depths of Latin grammar with a minimum of warm-up.  It was originally written for students who were hearing and praying the language weekly if not daily; therefore the text centers on helping students make sense of, and use intelligently, a language with which they are already familiar.  I like the book, but I’d recommend it to others only if:

1. You actually want to learn Ecclesiastical Latin.  We do, so this is great for us.

If you prefer to study classical Latin complete with Siege of Troy and all the best monster stories, consider using the Oxford Latin Course, which the boy and I have used and we both liked.  It is fun.  I like fun.  Here’s a link to professor Robert Cape’s Internet Workbook for that text.   It is not designed to be a self-study course, but you can make it one by supplementing with a few references along the lines of Latin for Dummies and so forth.  [Notice this is supposed to be a college textbook. Except that when I saw it in my public library, I assumed it was a middle-school textbook.  Goofy cartoons.  Thin book.  Anyway, it’s entry-level classical Latin.  If you move slowly, it will work for young students once they can read (English) fluently at a middle-school level.  Read the historical notes yourself before having your children read them, so you can provide any necessary parental guidance.]

2. You can provide some amount of “Latin Immersion” to go with the program.  That could be your conversation, the memorization of select prayers in Latin, or the singing of Latin prayers or hymns.  We do a little bit of Latin-fun, but not as much as we really need to.  It shows.

3. You have time to learn with and teach your child. This is the part that is kicking my rear this year. Even with the teacher’s manual and course plans, you may need to do a little researching around to get all your questions answered.  I’m a firm believer in picking up bargain-table texts so that if I have a question I can go see how someone else explains it.

4. Your child has studied a foreign language before, or has an incredibly sound grasp of the analysis of English grammar.

Kolbe suggests Latina Christiana as a possible supplement in 4th grade, and that would make a good warm-up program.  (I’ve looked at bits of Latina Christiana and I did not fall in love; I prefer the monster stories and goofy cartoons at Oxford Latin.) But there are any number of  early-years Latin choices, including just doing some memorization work.  Studying a different language would work as well.

The important thing is to be able to accept foreign languages as something other than merely English Re-Coded, and be able to understand how words sometimes work as objects, sometimes as subjects, sometimes show possession, etc.  If you’ve mastered Seton-quality English grammar in the early years, that would be sufficient.

The Kolbe Course Plans.   The course plans provide instruction and explanations for each chapter.  I find them very helpful to have on hand.  Recommended.

If you are enrolled with Kolbe, make sure you request the course plans for the year of Latin you are actually studying, which may not be the default for your student’s grade level.

Where to begin? Although the boy and I had done Latin in the past, we opted to start in with New Missal at page 1, and I am happy with that decision. The grammar is intense from the very beginning, much of the vocabulary was new to us, and frankly I needed to be able to coast for a while.

If you are switching into this program after several years with something else, I’d take a look at the book and judge for yourself.  If you are enrolling with Kolbe, call and explain your situation, and ask for some guidance.  Remember that you can request a limited number of extra course plans.  So you could decide to speed through year 1 as a review, and pick up with year 2 (or later) when you reach the point where the material begins to be more difficult for you.

Should you study Latin?

Note that if you like Kolbe overall but are hestitant about the Latin, you can choose to skip it altogether.  For high school, Kolbe does not have a wide variety of foreign language offerings, but you are entirely free to study whatever language you like, using materials from another program or taking a course in your community.

You can also delay starting Latin until 6th grade or later.   If the pace of the course is too intense for your addled mom-brain, you could choose to cover the material more slowly.  There is nothing dumbed-down about this course, and it would be valuable even into high school.

We Catholics have a longterm interest in the language.  Even if you study Latin only lightly during elementary and middle school, this is a handy course to have around for continued use as an adult wishing to dabble and slowly learn more and more over the years.

UPDATES 3/26/2012:

  1. The boy begged me — not a whining beg, but a non-nonsense plea of manly desperation — to please go back to OLC.  So I’m going to let him, even though it means more work for me.  We both like it.  Cartoons, you know?  I made a little sidebar section with various internet helps for that book.  He loves the hangman games at the Internet Workbook.
  2. You’d be remiss not to check out Dr. Peter’s Ecclesiastical Latin Page before making a decision on what Latin program you wanted to use.

Kolbe Academy Reviews – History

If you’ve just found this and want to see the whole series of Kolbe Reviews so far, scroll down the very bottom of the page where it says “view posts by topic” and select “Kolbe Academy” from the drop-down menu.  Or try clicking here.

As with science, last year I learned that the mother’s brain works much, much better if all children are studying approximately the same history topic.  Kolbe’s high school curriculum covers world history from a western-classical perspective over the course of four years: Greek in 9th, then Roman, then middle, then modern.  The readings for high school literature coordinate, which I absolutely love.

Now remember I have special accounting powers, which means I must a) plan ahead far into the future, b) seek to maximize efficiency and utility, and c) involve a spreadsheet in that process.  With distractions like that, you can see where my house gets to be such a mess.

And here was my challenge: My children did not think ahead.  They were not born four grades apart.  Result: I expect to spend six years of my life with two students in high school.

–> I could handle it if I had three younger ones on their young-person topic, and just one child doing his own high school subject thing.  But there was no way I was going to apply my brain to both the Illiad and the Cantebury tales in the same year.  Just not.  Not.

Good News:  The people at Kolbe have this problem too.  I sniffed around the forums, and learned that in their day school, which is small, the entire school just cycles through the four time-periods together.  I confirmed that a 9th grader could confidently do lit & history of some later grade.  My trick would be to go ahead and get the kids on the G-R-M-M cycle right now, so that no matter where in the cycle the newly-minted 9th graders landed, they’d have the background info they’d need to get going.

And I had one secret weapon that made it all massively, massively easier: #1 is a certified History geek.  So we could pretty much do whatever we wanted with him, and it would be fine.  In this case meaning that I ordered the complete set of elementary Greek history and literature offerings for him to read the summer before we launched into Ancient Rome in the fall, and he polished it off in about two weeks.  Like I said.  Secret weapon.

I requested the 5th grade Famous Men of Rome course plans for both big kids.

After browsing through the book, I determined my rising 4th grader was going to find it a bit overwhelming.  She likes history, but not in a pour-through-pages-of-military-history kind of way.  More in a dress-up-like-a-Roman way.

I decided she’d do better if we spent the fall warming her up to this whole Rome thing, and conveniently my local crack dealer had the History Pockets series in stock.  She worked through those the first two quarters, and now is underway with the Famous Men, and that was definitely a successful plan.  Having been introduced to the general ancient roman lifestyle, form of government, founding legends, and so forth has made it much easier to for her to follow the text this spring. Amazon has a preview of the Famous Men text so you can see what I mean.

What you need to know about the Famous Men of Rome and Greece books:

  • The text is great.  Nice narrative style, Christian worldview without being in-your-face about it, and overall the amount of reading is not too much, if it’s spread over the course of a year.  If you have a struggling reader, plan to read aloud together.  The illustrations are goofy.
  • The workbook (“Student Guide”)  is very useful for helping the kids learn the material and prepare for exams.  Recommended.  You could treat it as a consumable, but it’s pretty easy to just have the kids do the work on a separate piece of paper.  You can look at the Amazon preview here.
  • The teacher’s guide = the workbook with the answers filled in.  Smart money says you’re going to want this if you get the student guide, unless you just know a lot about Rome and/or have the time to study along.

About the Course Plans:

  • The Kolbe course plans do not mention the student guide, you just assign the pages to go with the lesson.  The way the course plans divide up the work across the year, sometimes only part of a workbook page will apply to a given day’s or week’s work.
  • In some places the course plans give additional guidance or assignments, and in other places they just indicate what pages to read which day.
  • The course plans do include quarterly exams and answer key.

–> With my fourth grader starting the book mid-year, I found it very simple to just assign one chapter per week, and have her do the two-page spread of workbook pages that go with the chapter.  If you aren’t enrolled with Kolbe, I would skip their plans and just do that.


What about the Land of Our Lady Series?  I know nothing.  It didn’t work with my masterplan.  If someone finds a good review, please feel free to put a link in the combox.

What about the study of non-western cultures?  See “history geek” above.  That child was not spawned from gravel.  I assure you, my children could no sooner miss out on world history than miss out on ice cream.  But if you lock your child in a closet outside of school hours, yes you’ll need to shove a few library books under the door to make sure they find out about the existence of China and all that stuff.


Any other questions?

Next week I’ll review the Latin I think (is that what we said, Tracey?), and after that, name your subject if you have one you want me to do next.

Kolbe Academy Reviews – Science – What about the Littles?

I forgot to include in my science report about how it all fits in for the littles.  Here you go.

Last year, I experimented with having all four kids study the same subjects for history and science.  They weren’t necessarily reading the same books or doing the same assignments, but they were on approximately the same topics.  I loved it.  Totally sold.  The sanity factor is just there.  100% there.

–> I’ll discuss the elaborate strategy I worked out for Kolbe’s history courses in my next installment.  But what about science?

I decided to let the boy — 6th grade, and very comfortable reading for information on his own — do his own thing with the purple book, and not worry about coordinating him.   The independence (translation: labor saving) we gained by going with a textbook and student-readable course plans was worth the loss in academic camaraderie.  He tends to be studying his own thing anyhow.

For the girls, I used the 4th grade text as my outline for the year.  I went through the course plans and picked out the main topic week by week, and used it to write up a general outline of subjects to study with the littles.  I  have enough odds and ends of science-y books that mostly I can work out of the home library to find some read alouds on the topic of  the week.

When we do hands-on work, all three girls end up participating, regardless of who the assignment was intended for.  (And usually there is a boy lurking in the background as well.)


Separate note: What happens on all those Mondays that the kids don’t do the goofy “investigation” called for in the textbook? The boy likes to use that as his excuse to play with the microscope.  Which means the girls want to look, too.  The kids are big fans of using educational activities as a delaying tactic to avoid their other assignments.  I think I spend 25% of my parenting time telling the kids to quit helping each other and do their own work.

Kolbe Academy Reviews – 4th and 6th Grade Science

First thing to note: I 100% agree with Erin Arlinghaus’s seminal blog post on everything elementary science.  The way she teaches is the way we’ve done science in the past, though maybe not with quite such organizational flair.  Keep that in mind as you read my comments.

The Texts

Kolbe uses Harcourt Science 4th Grade for 3rd and 4th grades, and Harcourt Science 6th Grade  for both 5th and 6th grades.  [Both from Harcourt Publishing, 2005.] The units are divvied up so that you do half the units in each grade — if you have used part of one of the books on your own already, you’d want to figure out which course plans cover the sections you haven’t already studied (call and ask), or if you are enrolled with Kolbe,  just request a copy of both grades, and use what you need.


The textbooks are fine.  Colorful, informative, full of things you’d want to know.  I try not to read them too closely, and I’m sure that helps.  Each chapter opens with an “investigation” (like an experiment or a project), and these are almost always goofy.  If you’ve seen and felt and played with real tides in action, swishing around blue colored water pales.  We skip these 98% of the time.  Sure makes Mondays easier.

The chapters themselves just teach you science-y stuff, and in all the books are a nice compendium of technical facts and concepts.  Basic model science book, no complaints.  Does what we need it to do.  I have not felt the need for an answer key to the review questions, because it is very easy to quickly find the answer in the text if I don’t know it.

–> The textbooks are pricey – $87 (4th) and $95 (6th) retail.  It helps that you use the books for two years.  Also, these are very durable, school-edition hardbound textbooks, so there’s a good chance they’ll survive ten or more kids before they retire.  But if you are comfortable with handing your child a pile of library books and saying, “Write me a report when you’re done,” that is definitely the cheaper route.

[We’ve also had years that I handed my independently-reading child an ancient freebie textbook someone gave us.  I loved that.  Can I say Abeka was writing some nice stuff in the late ’70’s?  Yes.  Yes they were.  And back up to the ’60’s and you get some seriously good science books for children.  I honestly think something has been lost in the art of science writing lately.]

The (optional) workbooks are goofy and sort of annoying; neither of my big kids liked them.  But my currently-a-second-grader is begging to “do Kolbe,” and she loves workbooks, so we’ll save them for her.  The Kolbe course plans don’t call for the workbook; all the reading and assignments are from the text.

The Kolbe Course Plans

The Kolbe course plans provide a fair amount of guidance and instruction.  For each day, the ‘parent guidelines’ give a summary of the key points to discuss with the student — basically, how to teach the chapter day by day.   My kids just read the info themselves (or not), and do the assigned reading and questions from the book.  So far the only time I’ve needed to step in and explain something was when the 4th grader was studying the effects of the tilt of the earth’s axis.  We carried a globe into her bedroom and walked it around the big light on her ceiling fan until she got the hang of what was going on.

I bet the kids would score better on their exams if I sat down with them every day, but for now we’re satisfied with what they are learning independently.  My on-grade-level-for-reading 4th grader has no difficulty following the plans and studying on her own, though both kids do come up with interesting pronunciations for the new words they learn.

–> If you aren’t enrolled and would have to purchase the plans a la carte, you could just divide the book up by the day or week, type it up in excel, and thus tell your kid what page numbers which day.  Or do that a day-at-a-time with a bookmark.  The plans do provide some useful info, but you could live without it if you are comfortable just working through the book on your own.

(I would do that myself, though I like the ease of having all the typing done for me, which was a big reason we enrolled in the first place.  I also like that by following the plans, it stops arguments: The kids can’t accuse me of being the meanest, most slave-driving mother on the planet, when we have printed proof that I’m no meaner than the sadists at that horrid Catholic school in California.)

The course plans do include four end-of-quarter exams.  Answer key for the exam is in the course plans, not in the separate answer key book.  [That is, it might be also in the book, but if you own the course plans themselves, that suffices.  This is true for all the Kolbe course plans — if the plan includes an exam, it also includes the answer key for that exam.]

The Verdict

This science program is a good choice if either:

a) You aren’t comfortable teaching science on your own, and want a formal curriculum that walks you through a  traditional text step by step.


b) You need to just shove a formal plan in front of your kids and say, “Do science!”

You might get a very good science education, and worst case scenario, you won’t get a bad one.

I’d recommend purchasing just the textbook; for most people, skipping the workbook would be fine.  I’d skip the answer keys as well, unless you’re sure you’ll need an answer key — for example if your students are going to be checking their own answers, or you need to grade at maximum speed.  I’d be inclined to start the course with only the text (and course plans if desired), and only go back and purchase the optional extras if you felt something was really missing.


Any questions?  Any votes for what subject to cover next week?

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?

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.