Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

School-ish musings at the end of the year.

It's that time of the year again -- the time when all of our school supplies have dried up, vanished, or been sharpened to nubs. We're scrounging for crayons, pencils with erasers, pencils without erasers, paper, tape, children's scissors, etc. Of course, you say, there's always the store -- go buy some! Yes, but we need so many things that I'm hesitant to start buying for fear I may not stop.

We've had mixed success this year. I do think the girls have more knowledge than they did at the beginning of the school year, yes. I see more math skills, or at least a bit more problem-solving acumen. I like the Miquon Math that we've been doing, but some of the more conceptual parts are going over the girls' heads. Right now, after some recent math fails with the oldest, we're doing a page of drill each day, and next year I'm going to start Singapore Math.

Reading has improved, and most importantly, both older girls (8 and 6) have found a love of quiet reading and will sit curled up with a book -- usually one of the A-Z mysteries that our library stocks in droves. That's fine -- I'm not one of those, "Well, as long as they're reading something..." people, but these are unobjectionable, and the pride on my six-year-old's face when she says, "Look, Mom, I'm already on page 40!" warms the cockles of my heart.

But... we just never got any scheduling off the ground. After a strong start, we all came down with the flu in September, and it took us a good month to fully recover. Then I unexpectedly fell pregnant (an English turn of phrase) in October, which kind of scratched our November. Then it was Christmas, and who gets much schoolwork done in December?

All year we had lots of extra-curricular stuff. I'd made several large time commitments before getting pregnant, so all year I taught Eleanor's First Communion class with the two youngest in tow. I'd also promised a friend to write and direct a condensed version of Peter Pan to go along with my girls' dance recital, so we had dance classes and play practice all spring. Directing is not a low-commitment or low-energy activity, so by the performance two weeks ago I was about ready to collapse. (Not to mention that a minor injury to my lead actress had me thinking for ten minutes on performance day that I would have to go on and play Peter Pan at seven months pregnant.)

We went over to a good friend's house every week for a French class, which the girls thoroughly enjoyed even if I can't get them them to pronounce "Est-que je suis une petite fille?" correctly. However, due to the marvelous snacks each week, the girls can ask for pain avec chocolat like natives. Nutella, you're the best spread ever!

The big girls have been in piano all this year, and have been enjoying it for the most part. Having the outside accountability makes it easier for me to make sure they practice. The six-year-old is very diligent and will just sit down and do her practice -- she seems to enjoy the precision of her exercises, and practicing a piece until it's right. The eight-year-old, though she has some talent, has been demonstrating some very real problems with focus and attitude -- she's not a perfectionist, like her sister, but though she's bright, she gets easily irritated when she can't do something easily, and would rather pout and sulk in a babyish fashion than just do the work. Fortunately the teacher won't put up with the attitude during the lesson, but we haven't made much headway in improving this disposition, either in this instance or generally. I'm glad that these character issues are coming to light now so that we can work on them, but Darwin and I have been taken aback and a bit unsure at how to deal with this persistent problem -- scolding, encouragement, cutting allowance, and other solutions haven't made much impression.

We've done a quantity of writing -- not enough, though, and handwriting is something that could be improved. The six-year-old is pretty proficient, but the eight-year-old is sometimes all over the place. However, I think I may do cursive with them this summer, since we're heading into 3rd and 2nd grade. 3rd grader needs to learn it; 2nd grader has the art and handwriting skills to master it. Plus, whatever new thing one does, the other has to do as well. I'm torn between continuing on with the Italics cursive, which I think is elegant and clear, and teaching them traditional Zaner-Blosser cursive. I'd just do Italics, but I hear from people who never learned traditional cursive that they wish it was a skill they'd learned. Maybe we'll do both -- both girls enjoy calligraphy-style alphabets and copying fancy letters, and if it's presented as a low-stress summer activity then it'll just be a fun art project.

(For the record -- I learned Zaner-Blosser cursive in school, and I've never liked my cursive handwriting, yet I can't shake some of the forms. So I dunno, maybe it's best to just leave Z-B out of the picture. I think D'Nealian cursive is just ugly. For a look at these and other handwriting styles, see this link.)

My four-year-old has been remarkably resistant to sitting down and learning her letters from a book or in formal instruction, yet I've noticed this spring that she likes to practice her "writing". She'll copy letters from our alphabet chart, and has been practicing with some of the letters in her name. I haven't seen this translate that much into trying to decipher sounds -- she knows a few basic phonemes, but loses any interest if I crack our copy of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. She likes looking at workbooks, but doesn't want me to show her how to pronounce the letter on the page or do the activity. She enjoys playing with Cuisinaire Rods and can count just fine, but doesn't care to be instructed in numerals. (She does know the number 2, after pushing the button in the elevator all year to go to dance class.) And really, that's fine. I don't have the time to put a lot of work into coercing a four-year-old with a newly discovered disposition to throw tantrums that she has to do schoolwork. I tried that with my oldest, but I had more energy and less commitments then.

The baby, at 20 months, is an unstoppable force of destruction. (I shouldn't call him "the baby" any more, because despite being a very small guy, he's definitely all toddler boy. He's a madman.) He prefers to be on the table while the girls are trying to write, or else he's pulling chairs up to the counter and trying to snitch bananas. Or he's throwing toys over the bannister or pulling books off the shelf. We did buy him his very own light saber, which is apparently the very best toy a little boy could have. Now he sleeps curled up with it. The guy is the craziest, sweetest little boy ever, but I wish he'd settle down for a minute. Or at least that he could be placated by something other than throwing the Cuisinaire rods on the floor during schooltime. I'm a bit concerned as to how we'll keep it all together when he's two and I have a newborn.

For the summer: baby is due at the beginning of July, so I'm not really planning to go out that much. We're considering some summer classes for the big girls, but we're not sure how that jives with our Dave Ramsey-ish desire to pay off the van by Christmas. Here in Texas, there's a period in the middle of the day when it's just too hot to go outside, so I want to use that time for a bit of scholastic endeavor. The oldest will do some daily journal writing -- just a page a day on whatever subject -- and we'll have plenty of reading time, of course. And probably plenty of movie watching, realistically.


Anonymous said...

Best wishes on the baby arriving in July. I'm rooting for another boy. Jack could sure use a co-conspirator

Are you familiar with the literature about "un-schooling"?

mrsdarwin said...

Too late, Cliff -- at first we'd hoped for a brother, but now we're delighted at the thought of the new sister on the way. :)

I don't want to go the full unschooling route, but I have been surprised that in practice I've leaned more toward less rather than more structure. We really thought we'd want to go the full classical education way, but it doesn't seem to be our style, at least dealing with the younger grades.

Jamie said...

Re: music practice for the pouty sulky child-- I have just had some success with my 13yo, for whom cello practice has been a battle. I wrote up a schedule for him, telling him exactly what to do with his 20 minutes. I think part of our trouble was that he didn't know exactly what cello practice should look like. The increased structure has eliminated his tendency to goof off and fall back on his pizzicato version of Smoke on the Water. He actually said, "I think I'd like to practice more than 20 minutes. Maybe 25. But do you mind if I revise the schedule?" I said, "Get thee hence, pod person and son-stealer." (Actually, I said, "Of course, honey. That'd be great.")

I've been giving him my cell phone to use as a timer. It seems much easier for him to focus on seven minutes of scales (followed by three minutes of vibrato drill followed by seven minutes of Bach etc.) than on 20 minutes of more amorphous practice.

No idea if it might be helpful for another kid, but I am so pleased not to be fighting the cello practice battle at the moment that I thought I'd pass it along.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

What I kept reminding myself of on "bad" homeschooling days was a study I'd read which said that the average student in an average classroom got only about 3.5 minutes of personal time with the teacher. I figured that on even our worst days we did better than that.

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Jamie. She has a list of what she needs to practice, but having a set amount of time for each exercise or piece might help.

The actual problem, though, is a larger one of not accepting constructive criticism and not being willing to focus and work. She will sulk and put on attitude and roll her eyes at her teacher when the teacher gently suggests that she needs to polish a piece for another week -- indeed, will behave this way even if I am sitting right there in the room. (And of course it's very embarrassing to me as a parent, though that's not my primary objective in wanting to quash this behavior.)

But then, if I'm not sitting right on top of her when she practices, she'll keep on with the same lazy technique and bad form which keeps her from advancing, and when corrected she reverts to this babyish behavior (just the thing to drive me nuts!) and pouty, "I can't do this!" and pounding on the keys. If I don't sit on her, she loses all focus and wanders off or slumps dreadfully. It's not an inability to do the work -- I've seen her play well when she feels like it -- it's a lack of focus combined with the inclination to fuss and quit when something isn't easy right away. This isn't the only place this tendency has manifested itself, but it's the most obvious, and it bothers me a great deal because I don't know what the solution is.

mrsdarwin said...

To clarify: I have no doubt that some of this is just a stage. I simply want to keep it "a stage" instead of having some of this babyishness become an ingrained personality trait.

Jenny said...

Does she break down her practice into small enough pieces or try does she try to correct too much at once. Many students make a mistake and then start from the top or start at the beginning of the line instead of working on the problem area itself. When they hit the problem spot, the mistake returns and they get very frustrated.

The key to relearning a passage correctly is to retrain your muscles slowly. Start at the measure, the beat, or even the note and then slowly move backward until you can play the phrase. Play two notes back and forth until it feels okay and then add the next note in front. Practice it intensely for a minute or do it ten times in a row and then move on to another section. After a few minutes of playing something else, go back and see what you have retained by playing the two notes back and forth again and again adding notes backward.

I don't know what your musical background is, so you may already know all this and do it. But I have found that some students don't know how to break down their practice to improve. They need concrete instruction on what exactly to do beyond "do that again." They get overwhelmed and give up. You want to set up the practice to assure success by giving them small enough bits to work that "failure" is nearly impossible. I also agree with setting up a time schedule during the practice session. It helps the student not get bogged down in one area.

Sorry for the book but my undergrad is in music education and I rarely get to talk about it anymore.

Amber said...

Regarding the bad attitude - we run into that too upon occasion. I've found the best tack to take is to talk and pray with the child, and try to help her to look outside of herself. When she's falling into a funk we talk about if this is really how God wants her to be - what he has formed her for. We talk about gratitude for her opportunities and talents. We talk about the importance of always doing the right thing and not falling prey to the emotions and the impulses of the moment. We talk about strengthening the will so we can always do what is right, even in the temptation to do a bad job, throw a fit, or whatever.

I've found that this tactic has done wonders for her - she's grown so much in her maturity and her ability to regulate herself. It has also dovetailed nicely with her First Communion prep. It reaches the heart in a way that external punishments never seems to manage to touch. It is a gradual process, but over the course of the school year it has made a huge difference for us.

BTW, the folks at Simply Charlotte Mason are going to do another series on willpower, the lack thereof, and what to do about it soon - here's the first post:

Enbrethiliel said...


I feel fairly sure that my school taught me the A Beka cursive style (which nobody who graduated after the 1980s ever retained), which they renamed after our school. (Is that allowed?) As implied, my script is nothing like that, but I did develop a system of my own that everyone who borrowed my notes in uni thought was very neat.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to be watching movies anyway, your 4-year-old would probably like the Leap Frog videos. Letter Factory is the first one. It works to learn the letter sounds (though I do wish they'd used small letters instead of capitals).

Josh Dever said...

"she gets easily irritated when she can't do something easily, and would rather pout and sulk in a babyish fashion than just do the work"
"not accepting constructive criticism"
Yeah. We've been working on those with Sophia for a decade now. Let me know if *you* have any progress.

Re: Handwriting: Maeve now has a beautiful cursive handwriting thanks to Peterson Directed Handwriting, the best cursive curriculum with the world's worst, most user-unfriendly website and teacher's guide. If you're interested I can show it to you. I'm thinking there could be some $$$ in someone re-writing their manual so a homeschooler can actually figure out how to use it.

The baby will always be the baby. Ladies used to come for assistance at SVDP and talk about their baby who wasn't doing well, he was in county lockup for the third time.

Darwin, I can't manage to post comments to my own blog (the TMIS one), so I thank you here for the coffee offer, but the larger Morrison's store has American instant--huzzah!--which is readily drinkable. Esp. since we have no coffee maker, but an amazing electric kettle that boils cold water in 30 seconds flat.

mrsdarwin said...

Sharon, we've been considering putting Eleanor in fencing since you've reported such good attitudinal adjustments from the sternness of the French coach. Of course we missed all the spring classes because of dance recital, but there's a week-long summer session in August that might work.

I'd love to look at Peterson. When do you get back? I'm hoping to do cursive intensive in the summer, and then just incorporate it into the daily routine.

I got to get me one of them electric kettles....

Anonymous said...

Mrs Darwin, I faced the perfectionist attitude with my 3rd child, then met up with it all over again with my first grandchild, whom we homeschooled for two years. It is also now showing up in grandchild number four - the only other girl.

This is the child who takes her first two or three steps quite early, then stops trying until 16 or 18 months, at which point she walks perfectly; who babbles happily like any other baby, but stops at a dozen words - then talks in full sentences when she starts again.

This is the child who practices and does her homework in secret in order to dazzle us.

This is the child who dreams of perfection and cannot easily accept less.

I didn't do a great job with helping my number three, though we got there in the end, partly because I eventually recognised that she was a mirror of me :-)

I've developed some strategies that have helped with the granddaughters.

One thing is that we've emphasised from the beginning that making mistakes and getting things wrong is the way everyone learns. We point this out in movies, stories, incidents that happen during the day. Not 'I got that wrong' but 'well that didn't work. I won't try that again'.

One is that we point to people who are top of their field and investigate how long it took them to get there and how much practice they have to do to stay there.

When Beth started learning the violin, we showed her You-Tube clips of Vanessa Mae and then looked up her history to find out what it took for her to be so good.

We tell stories that show that native talent is not enough without hard work, but that hard work can sometimes make up for lack of talent.

The message is - measure yourself against the best, but remember that you need to put in the work they do in order to make the measuring fair.

I also went through two violin practice sessions with the grandchild (while my husband took her brother - two is easier than four :-) ) one bar - sometimes one note - at a time. It took nearly two hours to do the thirty minutes of practice I was demanding.

Good luck. It's not an easy personality to deal with, but with your help she'll be able to reach the stars. My perfectionist daughter is an amazing woman.

pragmaticmom said...

I love Singapore Math and my kids do it for supplementation to their regular math school work. I blog on Math Workbooks at

I also like Daily Word Problems and Life of Fred.

Pragmatic Mom
Type A Parenting for the Modern World
I blog on education, parenting and children's lit