February 22, 2012

Vocab Fun and Games

I mentioned last month that I've added a vocabulary builder into our Language Arts curriculum. It's been a huge hit with Casia. I'm using a workbook called Vocabulary from Classical Roots by Norma Fifer and Nancy Flowers. It breaks the lessons up into groups of related Greek and Latin roots. For instance, the first couple of lessons deal with the roots that involve numbers. It includes some words with the Greek root 'monos' meaning 'one': monologue, monopoly, and monarch. It also includes words with the Latin root 'unus' which also means 'one': unilateral and unanimous. It continues to add words with the roots 'duo', 'bi', 'tri', 'tres', 'quartus', 'decem' and 'centum'. It seems very well organized and the lessons seem to be sticking. Casia has been finding her newly learned roots in other words she encounters as well.

In addition to the workbook, Casia is also making use of some online resources. She has often used dictionary.com  and thesaurus.com while on the computer to look up words as she works on writing assignments. But recently, Casia has become interested in learning the 'Word of the Day'. A few weeks ago, she also discovered the site's 'Word Dynamo'. She uses it to make lists of her new vocabulary words. With these lists, the site provides her with some games to play to help her learn their meanings. It's free, fun and educational; can't beat that!

February 16, 2012


When Casia was four-years old, she came home from school with a backpack full of handouts. They had information on scouts, soccer and violin lessons, among other things, if you were looking for extracurricular activities for your child. Casia, being only a Kindergartner, wasn't really ready for any of these, or so I thought. So I crumpled the papers up and threw them in the recycling bin. That's when Casia looked up from her snack and told me that she wanted to take violin lessons. I explained that instrument lessons are for older kids. And she responded by telling me that the flyer I recycled said the violin lessons were for kids in K-3. She continued to insist that she really, really wanted lessons and has always wanted to play the violin. At this point a little memory bubble pops up above my head and I see Casia, age three, working tirelessly on constructing a violin out of the cardboard from a cereal box and some knitting yarn. Once completed, she attempted to play it and got inconsolably upset when she realized it didn't sound like a real violin.

Maybe she really had been wanting this for awhile (a year being quite a large portion of a four year-old's life). Or maybe it was a passing fancy brought on by reading the flyer (one down side to an early reader; another is it limits your ability to keep a secret by spelling the surprise to your spouse). Either way, I didn't think she'd be prepared for the amount of work learning to play an instrument entails. Not to mention, and not intending to insult my darling daughter, but she seemed to severely lack intonation even while singing simple children's songs. I thought that this was likely to cost me a lot of money and frustration and in the end it would be too much for her and she would give up, leaving a bad taste in her mouth for future musical pursuits. I dismissed the idea of allowing her to play and told her that she can play when she is older.

Casia is not easily defeated, however. It is both a positive quality that I admire in her and a negative quality that drives me nuts! She would not let the issue of the violin drop. After about a week, she started to wear me down. I rethought some of my previous objections, namely that I would invest hundreds of dollars and she would lose interest. It was clearly not as passing a whim as I'd first thought. My second objection was that due to her young age, she would not be doing this independently. I would be required to attend classes as well as remind her and oversee the practices. Sure, it may sound fun to her now, but after a few weeks, still unable to play a song, will she want to be pulled away from a craft project to pick up the violin?

In the end, I caved and I don't regret it at all. It turned out to be a great decision because for the last five and a half years, it has given her a chance to work at something that doesn't come easily to her. It has required perseverance, dedication and a lot of practice; attributes we struggle to instill in her academically because so much comes easily to Casia.

Even in music, she has some natural talents. She learned to read music in one day. She memorizes songs very quickly. Her ability to understand rhythms, even very complicated rhythms is very impressive (and probably due to her strong math skills). She also has a knack for knowing what all the other ensemble members are supposed to be playing and she never loses her place.

But Casia has two areas in particular that do not come easily to her. The first is her intonation. She has always struggled with playing in tune. Early on, it was clear that she didn't even notice when she was out of tune. It has taken many years, but her ear is finally developing and she is now able to recognize when she doesn't quite hit the note right on; she can even usually adjust it to the correct pitch. This has been her biggest struggle. Secondly, she isn't adroit in physical activities. I would qualify Casia's gross and fine motor skills as adequate. She doesn't take instruction well on physical tasks. From teaching her to tie her shoes to Jacob teaching her to throw a ball, Casia often resists instructions on how to hold and move her body. This has been another difficulty she has had to overcome to play well. There are so many physical components to playing the violin. She has to hold the violin properly, have her hand in the correct position and her fingers need to hit the finger board in precise movements. In addition, she has to maintain a proper bow hold and learn various ways of moving the bow to achieve specific effects. These two aspects have been the hardest for Casia to learn. She is making slow but good progress and I attribute this to Casia's continued hard work and the inspirational teaching of her new instructor.

When we started our homeschooling group a little over a year ago, one of the course offerings that attracted me to the organization was that it had both private violin instruction and ensembles. Casia's teacher for the past year has been perfect for her. Her expectations are high enough that she continues to challenge Casia but she is also very patient as well. She never tells Casia she is too young to learn a new skill and she will try different methods if Casia is having difficulty catching on to the new technique. She encourages Casia and continually stretches and molds her. In addition, Casia has matured, both because she is older and because she has reached a certain level of play and she is desirous of learning to play beautifully, not just play from the book. Sometimes I look back on decisions I've made and wonder, "What was I thinking?" This is not one of those decisions. Every time I hear her practice and watch her hard at work on a new song; whenever I'm in her lessons and I see her determination when her instructor shows her a new skill; and each time I attend a concert and see her grow in confidence and musical ability, I am grateful that I decided to listen to my daughter's insistence that she was ready for this challenge.