March 31, 2011

New Writing Curriculum

I have been coming up with writing assignments for Casia  this school year in an ad hoc fashion. I wanted to combine it with history, so she did a book report on a historical fiction novel. I wanted to make sure she could write an essay with supporting points and assigned her a topic idea I got online. I thought it would be good for her to write about something she learned during her ancient Greece unit and she picked to write an essay on Greek mythology. All of these have been good assignments to strengthen her writing mechanics and enhance her planning skills, but they've lacked a cohesive strategy. It wasn't that I was unhappy with curriculum, it's just that I wasn't completely satisfied with it either. 

I wasn't actively seeking a new source, but I very serendipitously discovered this box set in a discount bin at the local grocery store. It was $6. Tough to beat that price. 

It's not an actually curriculum, but rather a guide with writing tips, geared towards preadolescent girls. It's part of a Littlemissmatched's series and it's called The Writer in Me!. I picked it because Casia is always telling me about how she wants to be a writer when she grows up. She already has a story line (long enough to fill multiple books) running through her head. She just lacks the ability to put those ideas down onto paper. I started encouraging her to write her story awhile back, but she really struggles. I think it's too overwhelming. She's been typing it up, but will only get a couple of lines down at a time. She doesn't seem to make much progress and I thought this might be able to help her. 

If you can get past the fact that it actually sounds like a preadolescent girl talking, using phrases like 'bestest', 'incredibly incredible' and 'awesomely awesome', it has some really helpful strategies for better writing. It breaks down key elements like character, setting, and dialog into some very accessible lessons. For each topic it suggests an activity. The kit even includes little notebooks and journal to make it more fun (what 9 year old girl doesn't like to have a small notebook?).

Each chapter focuses on a different genre: the short story, poetry, playwriting, etc. and they each bring a different aspect of writing into focus. Casia has completed three of the activities for the first chapter on writing short stories. Her first assignment was to use an old picture to help set the stage for a story. She did an adequate job with it, but lacked some of the details to really establish the setting. Casia has a tendency to want to get to the action of a story quickly, so this was a challenge for her, but I think she's leaning the importance of developing the setting to give the reader more perspective.

In the second assignment, Casia had to use dialog to help capture someone's character. Again, she struggled a bit with it. This is where I realized that her tendency is to summarize her thoughts and move on instead of relishing in the details. So for her third assignment, she had to write a short story where a single emotion was the driving force. In the book, the example of Poe's The Tell-tale Heart is used, so Casia and I read that before she began. I stressed that she needed to slow the story down and use a lot of imagery to help convey her ideas. With this lesson, Casia really took it heart and came up with a really good story of two girls riding the bus home from the last day of school. Each girl talked about how she was planning on spending her summer. She used some great imagery and description to contrast their views of a perfect summer. I think she's really starting to get it and I look forward to reading more of her stories.

March 30, 2011


Normally, I don't classify Casia as a perfectionist. In Kindergarten, she was entirely happy with her quickly scribbled pictures and could never understand her teacher's desire for her to "color inside the lines". With craft projects and holiday cards, she'll whip up something quickly without giving a second thought to mis-folded papers, misspelled words, and the dog hairs stuck under the tape. But something happened in the years between 1st and 4th grade where Casia learned that in school, the measure of a good student is getting 100% on all assignments.

I get it. I remember being in school and being furious with myself if I missed a question and ended up with a 96%. But as a parent, and now as Casia's teacher, I have a much different perspective on the issue. 

She doesn't get an official report card, so grades aren't a necessary function for that bureaucratic task. My husband and I are now the sole judges of whether Casia is learning sufficiently in quantity and quality, and since we are also the ones with first-hand perspective to see these results (through her written work and through conversations with her), grades are not required for us to make that determination. So why grade at all? 

On one hand, test scores can be a quick way to establish how well a student has mastered the material. You can see trends over time, comparisons between subjects (is she doing well in math but needs more work in science?) or even to evaluate between students. If you have a whole classroom of kids, it can be quite valuable in determining which kids are getting it and which aren't. But not all tests are created equally. Not all students respond the same way to being graded. And not all grades are a true reflection of learning. And isn't learning, after all, the point of education?

When we started this homeschooling journey, I decided to assess Casia's progress in much the same way that traditional schools do. She takes tests, hands in homework and has writing assignments. Some of these receive grades, in part, as a measure of how well she grasped the assignment, but  primarily because she has grown to expect a numerical value to be placed on her output. She likes it. She demands it. But now I am really starting to question the benefits of this. 

From the start, I warned Casia that my grading is going to be different, and by different, I mean harder, than her last year's teacher. At first she balked at that. But then I reasoned with her that multiple choice tests, particularly for a student who excels at test talking, is not the best measure of her knowledge. It's more a measure of her ability to guess well. If you don't know something, you have a 25% chance of still getting it right. And her teacher last year would always make at least one (but sometimes two) of the choices so utterly ridiculous that if you were actually reading it, you'd never select those choices, increasing you guessing odds. 

It's been an adjustment for Casia, but she has transitioned well to fill in the blank, short answer, and short essay test questions. Until today. Today was the test in Biology on cell respiration. I knew when I wrote the test that it was hard. We had covered a lot of material and I knew she had really studied and would do well on it, but I did warn her that this was going to be more difficult than previous unit tests. 

It's a challenge figuring out just how much to teach and test Casia. Academically, she is is far more capable than her nine years would lead you to believe, but still, she is young. I have to consider depth versus interest; strike a balance between what she can achieve and what she needs to know. I saw her languish in public school where the expectations were far to low for her to ever live up to her potential. She wilted for lack of stimulation. While homeschooling, I've seen her interest grow as her knowledge is broadened which leads to more desire to explore deeper. It's really a wonder to see her flourish when she is actually given a chance to spread her wings. But she is still conditioned that school should be easy, spoon-fed, and for her to always receive those 'perfect' grades.

So today, when she scored only an 87% on her science test, she was in tears. She felt like she had failed and was convinced she did horribly. All this despite my handwritten notes on the top that read "Awesome Job!" and at the end explaining, "This was a really hard test and you did a great job. I am so proud of you!" I knew even as I was correcting the test that this was going to be a hard grade for her to see. I comforted her and tried to explain that I wrote the test knowing that it was hard, but I needed to give her a chance to show what she can do. I could have made it really easy, multiple choice even, but even if she got a perfect score, it really wouldn't have shown me how much she really understood of the concepts. That an 87% that she had to work for is actually better than a 100% that came to her easily. Both Jacob and I tried to instill in her that the learning is way more important than the grade and that this test shows how much she truly knows. We stressed how proud we are of her. 

I'm not sure how much of our words of wisdom sunk in. I'm dreading the next test, both writing it and having her take it. But I don't want to take a step back and intentionally simplify it just to boost her self-esteem; a self-worth that is resting on a superficial number. But I don't want her to feel like a failure either. So I believe the real lesson today is to focus on accomplishments and not an arbitrary number; to stress the hard work that went into a task and not the label placed on the final results; to feel self-assured that our knowledge can not be simply measured but that it's acquisition should always remain our primary educational goal.

(I'm providing a copy of her test. When I filched these diagrams off the internet, I hadn't been planning on posting them on my blog, but here's the credit to their creators: Diagram 1 came from BioAP site and Diagram 2 came from School Notes by Jane Arkinstall.)

March 29, 2011

Cover Your Eyes!

For the past three weeks, Casia has been studying Ancient Rome. This is right on the tail of her Ancient Greek unit, and there is so much overlap, I think it's helping bring history into perspective. Rarely do these events happen in a vacuum and it's great that she gets to see how something she learned previously fits into this puzzle of history. 

We had such success with the videos bringing life to history during our Greek unit that I'm relying heavily on them this time around as well. We watched this very cool documentary by Nova called Secrets of Lost Empires II: Roman Bath. In it, a team of historians, engineers and architects try to recreate an actual Roman Bath. Casia loves architecture, so this really appealed to her. 

Another great film that covered an essential Roman study topic was a BBC production called Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story. It tells the story of a famous gladiator, Verus, who went from slavery to freedom and also includes a few details on the building of the Colosseum. 

We also started watching a video series produced by the History Channel called Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. This is a very thorough (and by thorough, I also mean long) depiction of the entire history of Rome. The first 3.5 hours of disc 1 (of a set of 4) felt like it left little out. I fell asleep at one point (but I was sick that day, so I'm sure that was the reason) and on many instances I caught Casia watching the clock. She also asked how long until all the fighting stuff was done. Sadly, I had to inform her that most of ancient Rome's history involves killing and maiming, even in politics. All that being said, I do think it's an extremely well done series (though very violent), I'm just not sure it's right for Casia. 

So I decided to look elsewhere and found this other series. It's by PBS and Rome's history is encompassed in four short 55 minute episodes. Sold! (That's figurative, we watched it for free on Hulu.) It's entitled Empires: Order from Chaos. There was a bit of overlap between this and the other video, but since it wasn't very long, we just kept plugging along. That is until it got to the point at which it started talking about the reasons Augustus Caesar decided to banish his daughter, Julia, from Rome. They started by reading some translation of Ovid's poetry of love. Fortunately, even with Casia's advanced reading ability, she completely lacks any worldly knowledge to have made much sense of the very graphic lyrics (and I, hating the idea of censoring educational sources, but still a mother sitting next to her 9 year old, began talking loudly over the narration). As if it that wasn't bad enough, all of a sudden, they flashed images of ancient Roman mosaics depicting... well, let's just say my hand was up in front of her face faster than I could spurt out the words, "Cover your eyes!". 

It was PBS! I so wasn't prepared for this. Afterwards, I mentioned to Casia that I thought maybe we shouldn't watch the rest of this series and she suggested going back to the other one. I asked, "So you liked that one?" And she replied, "I liked it better than having your hand over my eyes and having to stick my fingers in my ears singing 'la-la-la-la-la'."

March 28, 2011

Not Ungrateful, Just Forgetful

I mentioned in a previous post, that Casia and I are working on having a more positive outlook, and to that end, we have started writing in our Grateful Journals. Garrett has even started joined in the activity with us. He says what he is grateful for and I type it into his electronic journal. 

The first few entries I really needed to work with Casia on the point of the journaling. Phrasing like: it would have been, except that, and despite are not great ways to start a positive feeling. But she has absolutely been making progress. She no longer sits there several minutes after I'm done trying to think of something to write about. In fact, she usually has her idea right away now, and that's serious progress. 

Around the house, I have definitely noticed a change in the atmosphere. Casia has been a tremendous help with chores, even volunteering for some. She and Garrett have been getting along better, and overall everyone seems more cheerful. Now I'm not sure that I can credit all this to the grateful journals, but I can't exclude the possibility that it's helping either.

The hardest part for me is remembering to set time aside for journaling. I'm trying the strategy now of doing it right after our daily quote. Previously, it seemed to get lost in the daily mix. It's not a lengthy task and could fit anywhere, but somehow I managed to overlook it.  It's not that I'm ungrateful, I'm just forgetful.

March 27, 2011

Daily Quote

I feel a little lukewarm about the importance of cursive. I rarely use it and Jacob hasn't used it since elementary school. I can't think of many pros to teaching it other than I want her to be able to read other people's handwriting. 

Benefits or no, since September, Casia and I usually start our school day with a daily quote. I use online sources to find interesting lines on such topics as leadership, effort, education and following your dreams. This started as a handwriting exercise where I read a few sentences aloud and Casia writes them down, in cursive. The daily quotes are also good listening exercises. Casia tries to correctly spell and punctuate the sentences as well and we then discuss the meaning. So though I'm only so-so on the advantages of cursive, I've been finding many benefits with the daily exercise. Her cursive has now improved to the point at which I'm willing to say, she knows enough, now let's move on. 

Since the fall, Casia has been using a Mavis Beacon computer program to teach her typing. It took her several months to learn the locations of all the letters and punctuations, but she can now touch type, at the speed of about nine words per minute. But it's a start! So I've switched from having her write the daily quote in cursive to having her type it. It's going well so far. We're only doing one or two sentence quotes but I would like to move up to paragraphs as her speed improves.

In addition, I started Garrett on this activity (although he prints instead of writing in cursive or typing), at his request, several weeks ago and he has stuck with it. In fact, he really likes it and works very hard at improving his printing. It's a great way to start the school day because they both genuinely enjoy the activity, especially getting to do it together.

March 16, 2011

Ancient Greece

This year, Casia has been studying history from the beginning, the very beginning. I choose to do this for two main reasons. The first was because her general understanding of history was non-existent. Early American History, the Renaissance, and Medieval times were all lumped together with no concept of how long ago they happened. The other reason was because Casia already had a strong desire to learn about the ancient Greeks. She is very familiar with Greek Mythology having been reading about it on her own for the last three years so the chance to learn about the history and culture of Greece was very appealing to her. 

I didn't start with ancient Greece, however, but started with the Egyptians (after a brief unit on prehistoric humans) and worked up to the Greeks. It's hard sometimes for me to figure out the best way to approach subjects, but this made the most sense to me since the Egyptian civilization predated the Greeks. I had intended after a unit on ancient Egypt, to have Casia study Mesopotamia, and continue in a more roughly chronological order, but after about two months of studying Egypt, I ended the unit and switched to Greece because she was anxious to get to the Greeks.

I have to say, there is such a wealth of videos and books available on this subject. The difficulty wasn't in finding resources, it was in picking the best fit for Casia's interest level and academic abilities. Since we don't have tv at our house (well, no tv service like cable; we do have actual televisions and a dvd player,) we decided in January to get Netflix. Previously, I had been going to the public library to pull our videos. It was cheap, accessible (we were there every week anyway for books) and had a decent variety, but it was just that much more I had to keep tabs on for due dates. We still use the library, but I am loving Netflix. In addition to the one dvd at a time that we get, we can instantly download videos which is perfect for a non-planned video (like on a sick day). I use the videos to supplement both history, language arts and science. 

The best videos we watched were: a three video series by PBS called Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, Nova: Secrets of the Parthenon, and National Geographic: Beyond the Movie: Alexander the Great. Casia read more than a dozen books on the Greeks on such topics as temples, mythology, culture & art, history, and biographies on influential figures like Aristotle, Archimedes, Alexander the Great and Thales. She also learned about Cleisthenes, Pericles, Socrates and Plato. 

We combined some history and language arts in this unit. Casia wrote a 500 word essay on Greek Mythology. Since it's a favorite topic of hers, I thought Casia would have plenty to say about it and she could focus on improving her writing skills. We worked particularly on editing, opening and closing paragraphs and on providing sufficient and appropriate details to back up her main points. She chose to write a comparison between Greek and Egyptian Mythology. 

In addition, Casia read Plutarch's Lives, the section on Alexander the Great. She and I both read Homer's Odyssey (okay, it was a reread for me but it had been a long time). At first it was really hard for her to get into it, but as soon as Odysseus appeared in the story, it started to pick up. By the end, she couldn't put it down and it earned a nine out of ten on the Casia Scale. I was glad to have an assigned reading for her that's actually around her reading level. I find that in history, the books she reads to garner information on a topic are at a lower reading level, but provide the appropriate depth of content she requires. The books at her reading level tend to be too dry to capture her interest and I feel she actually gets less out of them for that reason. So turning to historic literature seems to be a good alternative. We are looking forward to getting the movie Odyssey (waiting for it on hold from the library) and watching it as a special treat. Casia and I had a little competition to see who would finish the book first; the winner gets to pick the movie treat and have a soda. I guess I'll be drinking water. 

March 2, 2011

Math Field Trip... to the Beach!!!

Finally, I found a way to combine math with another subject! While studying ancient Greece, Casia learned about a mathematician named Thales. He figured out the height of a pyramid using its shadow. So Casia, Garrett and I took a field trip to the beach where there are plenty of tall buildings casting shadows onto the sand. 

We got there a bit late in the day and some of the buildings were already casting shadows down to the water. So we ended up picking a shorter building that would be easier to measure. We found a nice little historic look-out tower.

Casia put Garrett to work holding the other end of the tape measure. It was only 30' long,  so we had to keep moving it down the shadow (plus we had to be careful not to block the boardwalk).
Here's Casia measuring to the end of the tower shadow.

Casia measured Garrett's height to use in the proportion.

Then she measured his shadow.

Casia sat down with her notebook to calculate the height of the tower.  She figured it to be 49 3/4 feet.

Having figured out the height, we went into the historic building hoping they would be able to confirm it for us. Unfortunately, they didn't know how tall it is, but I left my email with them and they said they would try to find out. They were very nice and a gentleman there offered to take a picture of all three of us.

Update: I heard back from the museum of the Old Coast Guard Station and was told that the height from the ground floor to the top of the tower is 48 feet. So Casia's measure was pretty close! I consider this a very successful (and fun!) experiment.