Thursday, August 27, 2020

3 Weeks In...

3 Weeks Into the 2020/21 School Year

Thus far, my carefully laid plans have survived enemy contact far better than in years past. 

Here are a few thoughts on our new curriculum choices, 3 weeks in

1) All About Spelling

We are already about 75-80% through Level 1, because neither kid needed much practice on basic CVC or simple blend words, nor did they struggle with chunking or breaking into syllables. We slowed when we reached the introduction of the "arcane rules:" when "c" says "s," when to use "k" vs. "ck" at the end of a word, and when to double a final consonant.   I cannot remember Ever being taught this stuff when I was in grade school. Maybe I was : I can barely remember what I did last week, so recalling precisely how I learned to spell 35 years ago is probably asking a bit much. It is definitely fair to say that, if I ever knew them, I certainly don't use them now. But I Like rules. I am holding out hope that Grace also likes rules (or at least can learn to rely upon them), right-brained though she may be. Certainly both girls are getting a kick out of "Flossing" when we practice the double consonant f-l-s words!

I can entirely understand why this system is considered tedious and/or boring by many. For a "natural" speller, dragging tiles around, learning arcane rules, and drilling via flash-card is going to be frustrating and unnecessarily time consuming. We are definitely not doing Everything the teacher's manual says. We're not practicing every word. We're eschewing the tiles much of the time. We're writing on white boards (or cookie sheets!) or Boogie Boards instead of paper. And we're writing complete sentences rather than the 2-word phrases, since they're both developmentally ready.
In this, plus many other, ways the AAS system reminds me strongly of "Teach Your Kid to Read in 100 Easy Lessons." It's great, but when you don't need it any more, don't beat your head against it by doing Every Little Step. 

Anyway, I'm still pretty hopeful about this system. I have ordered Level 2 - unfortunately, I'm so spoiled by Amazon Prime that I put this off too long and I think we'll have a gap between the levels. Oh, and the myriad spelling cards Barely fit in my standard sized file box. I can see why they market a larger one. But again, we're not going to need to review all 150 of the things. We can put them aside when the next level starts! 

2) Crosswired Science 

This curriculum is definitely in its infancy, and while the videos are pretty well produced, informative, and fun, the website, printable, and online materials suffer from a slightly clunky navigation system and ill-defined overlaps. That doesn't make sense. Specifically, there is a large, 100+ page notebook you are encouraged to print, and it references several other things. There are calendars - several, in fact - that purport to show you what to do each day or week depending on how you are using the course. And then when you actually get down into it, you find that (a) there are also worksheets for each video that are Not included in the giant notebook, (b) there are a BUNCH of experiments, referenced but not printed in said notebook, (c) Each video has an online true/false quiz that does not appear in the printed material, (d) the printed material has links in it that you obviously can't follow and suggests that you do things like draw dragonfly wings and build fish models but doesn't go into hardly Any detail... (e) there are occasional references to "points" and "bonus" and "extra credit," and places to painstakingly record which videos you watched and when. It's not that they didn't think it through, it's that they didn't quite finish fleshing their explanations of everything out so the Teacher could have a good feel for things before she was in the thick of them.
At this point I am starting to feel like I probably didn't need the notebook. Except where I do. And it's super clear that you will have to have a computer open and ready at nearly every stage because of the many off-site videos and links.

We are definitely not doing everything, and we're not going at anything like the speed they recommend. And I confess to a little frustration and more confusion about the whole thing. In my heart of hearts I wish for something a little more clearly spelled out - more "open-and-go." But we're enjoying what we are doing, learning, and watching. I have no idea if we'll do it again next year, but I'm happy for now.

3) Literature Kits from School House Teachers

For someone who enjoys both reading and writing as much as I do, I really get a complex about teaching it. I'm never comfortable that I am "doing enough," while at the same time I don't want to waste time on boring books or useless (my opinion, easily argued!) sentence diagramming. 

Anyway, we are using the "Literature Kit" for "Call it Courage," an 80 year old fictional story about pre-missionary French Polynesia. 

Again I'm suffering from the print / online / tablet dilemma. The teacher's guide contains a lot of links (some expired - inevitable, I know!) which would be of no value when printed. So I decided to shoot it over to one of the Kindle Fire tablets so as to avoid firing up the laptop. No dice: the PDF reader on both tablet and phone disables web links. So I Must use the laptop to print out coloring pages or see photos of the flying fish. Oh well. I am using the tablet for the teacher's guide while actually teaching, but it's not a perfect solution even when there are no links. I'm starting to think I should print them after all.

I'm also suffering from the "not doing my lesson planning in advance" dilemma. I'd scanned the whole week of lessons they were basing on only the first chapter of the book, and decided I was not interested in significant art projects nor recipes for smoothies. So I went ahead and read the second chapter of the book. Then re-scanned the teacher's guide and noticed that it was encouraging me to talk about Elements of Story (Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, etc.) for the *previous* chapter. "Good Idea," I thought. But it was already 8:30 am. For once the kids cooperated by sleeping late and eating slow, and I was able to quickly put together some cards and worksheets on the subject, using mostly stuff right off the teacher's guide.  Long story short, we had a reasonably cooperative and informative discussion of Story Elements, applied them to no fewer than 3 recently completed or current family reading projects, and even discussed how The Story has dictated through all of human history the sorts of stories (fictional or otherwise) that we enjoy reading, telling, and hearing. So I'm counting it a real success. But I need to be reading Ahead of time next week! 


4) The Tuttle Twins - Libertarian "Civics" 

I bought the Tuttle Twins series of elementary aged books thinking that I would mostly use them for James. They have some associated worksheets from the publisher, which - like many things I'm dealing with lately - have to be picked through because they run the gamut from Pre-K to late Middle School in terms of content. Anyway, I hadn't actually Read the silly things. I suspect if I had I would have decided against them: they are simply too young for James, and possibly for Grace. Lucy suffers from youngest-kid syndrome. She's exactly the right age for them, but because her siblings consider them a bit silly, so must she. That said, I'm going to use them anyway. Over-simplified or not, the concepts are worth reviewing formally. And even though they weren't assigned, both girls read the first book and Grace read the second. James didn't feel like there was much new to discuss about the first book, but I expect they'll get a little more interesting / chewy as they build on the basic foundation.

5) Bible Memory System

So far, so good. It's working. We'll see how it goes when there are 10 verses or 30 in their boxes instead of 3. But for now, it's a win.
My own question is how can I use this system to memorize Passages that we work on for several weeks. Because of the way the review works, it seems like those passages are going to get split and be practiced out of order, rather than all the way through. We may have to make exceptions or modifications if - as I am tempted - I assign something long like 1/2 of the 3rd chapter of Colossians. 

Overall

This year is breaking new ground for me as I have committed myself to actively teaching far more subjects than in the past. For a good deal of last year I sporadically did Life of Fred chapters with the girls, sporadically worked on some Bible memory with everyone, and outside of that functioned more as a resource than a teacher. While we got through it and everyone learned quite a lot, it wasn't ideal. This is about 2x as organized as I've been in the past, and while I am happy about it, there's a cynical / anxious part of me waiting for a shoe to drop. Or perhaps I'm waiting to personally drop the ball.  I was surprised to realize today that we were not done with school for everyone until about 2 pm. I really only have until noon reserved in my head. Now, we did Lit, Bible (read-aloud), and Science together, which is more than most days. But when you add the necessarily 1x1 math that lined up today, plus the 1x2 spelling, it took a long time.
Other things are getting dropped, and I don't mean my daily siesta. I mean housework, and meal planning / cooking.
So I hope and pray I can sustain this level of involvement, and that I can set things up to "fail gracefully" when, for whatever reason, balls start dropping. And that it will get easier such that I can pick up the non-academic balls. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Quick and Dirty Home School Money Saving Hacks

This year we're starting a couple of new programs and curriculum that require quite a few accessories. Accessories that could have set me back approximately $30 more than I actually paid ($50, if I'd sprung for a real white board!)

Spelling

It started with "All About Spelling," a heavily manipulative-based system I am really hoping and praying will help my anxious, poor spellers. 

Being a naturally cheap frugal person, I balked when I checked a the publisher's site, an office supply store, and finally Amazon, only to find that a basic 3x5 card file box cost anywhere from $5 to $15 - Each! I'd just resigned myself to paying nearly $4/ea for a multi-pack on Amazon when, to my relief, they appeared before me on my second Dollar Tree supply run! 

This program also needs a magnetic white board for manipulating letter tiles. Portability is a major factor for us: I did not want to teach spelling in the common room, nor devote one of my giant white boards to the tiles. Again, enter Dollar Tree, but this time, head for the baking aisle and grab a small cookie sheet. Not only is it magnetic, but dry erase markers come off it just fine. Not perfectly - you're not going to end up using it for cookies - but it's enough for our purposes.


I have a suspicion that we will eventually run out of space in both the card box and on the tiny cookie sheet. But I'm not borrowing trouble yet. I don't think there will be real need to keep all the level 1 cards around for daily reference once we get to level 2. And if we need a bigger cookie sheet, they're only a few $ at a regular store. Or, we'll just use two! 

Bible

Another thing we're bringing some organization to this year is verse memory. We've done plenty of it in the past, but we've never tracked our progress or even maintained a master list of what we've learned. I'm not wasting too many tears on this, but I was ready for a little more formality this year. 

I'd heard good things about a card-file based memory and review system, and I tracked down the instructions here at SimplyCharlotteMason.com.

Like the spelling system, we needed 3x5 card files, already obtained at Dollar Tree. We also needed a Lot of tabbed dividers - 41 per kid, to be precise. Here's where I decided to make some modifications. You can get alphabet card dividers from Amazon as low as $5, but they would require extensive modification to work with the memory system.  The site referenced above has a nice printable set of customized dividers, but when I thought about how my hands - and my head - would feel after cutting out over 120 of the things, I balked.
I already knew we were going to be printing out our verses on regular-weight paper, cut a little smaller than 3x5 cards. This means regular cheap index cards will work fine as dividers. So I broke out my $1 pack of colored 3x5 cards and a pack of paper clips. I put the paper clips where the tabs would be, and simply labeled them by hand. It took about 1.5 episodes of my current TV show, and no hand-ache afterwords! 


Oh, I did make one more modification. I don't intend continue to build up the verses to review in the same box forever. I think we'll stay more sane if we just re-set them each school year. And we'll only be doing one verse (or brief set of verses) per week. So I decided to reduce the 31 day-of-the-month dividers to 15. I wrote 1,15 on the first, 2,16 on the second, etc. This still gives us 27 slots in our box in addition to the current week, meaning we won't ever have more than 2 verses per slot. I think we can handle that. And if it gets overwhelming, we will go ahead and cycle them out early. 

I'm also adding a few memory helps to our system. Each week, I will print a set of four cards for each kid. The first contains the entire text of the verse, with reference. The second contains the same verse, but about 50% of the words are blanked out except for their first letters. The third contains Only the first letter of each word and punctuation. The last has just blank lines for the verse to be hand-copied on. 

See a sample verse here 


The cards are arranged on the printout such that you can fold the whole verse and the first-letter-only copy back-to-back for storage in your file. When you are ready to move a memorized verse from the "Daily" practice slot, discard the hand written and partial-deletion copy, and place the first-letter-only version face out in the next slot.

We will also mark the card with date of initial memory, plus the date of formal review every quarter or so. 

Bonus: School Room Storage

BTW, here's how we organize (much of) the rest of our school stuff. 


Both the fabric boxes and the shelf unit are from Ikea (Kallax series, to be exact.) Total cost around $110.
Each kid has their own box. They keep their binders and current textbooks in there, a pencil and supply box, and any other work in progress. It's the equivalent of a grade-school desk or a middle-school locker - which means that plenty of trash ends up in there after a while too, but at least it's out of sight in my dining room!
I have my own box too, and there are a couple of extras. OK, there are also a couple of cubes that are collecting marginally organized detritus, but that happens to every other storage furniture I've ever owned.  And, in fact, this system is actually tried and true: we got it early in the '19-20 school year and it worked for us Far better than our previous organization attempts.

Monday, August 10, 2020

What We (Think We) Are Doing for School, 2020/21

 When I got the increasingly rare wild hare to do a blog post, I was feeling a lot perkier and energetic than I am now. So this may not be as extensive a post as I'd imagined. We'll see... 

 

We started school today. I know, it's August 10, and we've never really been year-round homeschoolers. I mean, we have been in my mind, but between one day camp and another - and often one play date or other scheduled fun any other - there have been so few empty weeks in our summers that formal school never really happened.  Then there was 2020. (I have a feeling we'll be seeing phrases like that a Lot in years to come!) 

Anyway, although we've "schooled" roughly half of the summer thus far, we have taken the last two weeks off for day camps (one at TRFC, and then local ones at dance and taekwondo). I took (nearly) full advantage of that time for planning, purchasing, and printing. (I should add praying to that list, but I won't lie: it was light. Not non-existent, but it needs to be better. Note to self.) 

Today we dove in to our new school year with a soft-start on some of our new curriculum. 

Back for Another Year: 

Scheduling 

Only a few months ago, I implemented a "Whiteboard Scheduling System" that continues to work beautifully.
Tauna (of ProverbialHomemaker.com, not to mention a personal friend!) has been very big on "Loop Scheduling" for quite a while, and my system is definitely a close relative. Even a sibling. But even her paper-based schedules seemed a little too formal and unsustainable for me. Look, my kids can't keep track of a pencil. A schedule on paper is just one more thing that is never where it's supposed to be. Bookkeeping that won't happen. Still, they were at the back of my head, and finally what shook out is this "Command Center" thing that just... works. 

It is a simple as it looks. A list of subjects, along with check-boxes for the number of times they need to be completed during the week. Our memory verse at the top right. That's it. Well, except for the reward system. At the end of the week they get 3 tokens per checkbox. These are saved and redeemed every month or two for a mutually agreed-upon lagniappe.

Curriculum

James

  • Writing Strands (Master Books)
  • Typing (typing.com)
  • Spelling-U-See (Demme Learning)
  • Self-directed creative writing, mostly comic book style
  • Cursive (forgot who, just a basic workbook)

Grace

  • Handwriting Without Tears, first cursive book. (She calls it Handwriting with Lots of Tears. I don't care. It seems to work.)
  • Low-key creative writing, comic style and other lightly guided options
  • Typing (typing.com)

Lucy

  • Handwriting Without Tears

Re-Introduced

We have enjoyed Life of Fred math over most of the kids' school career. However, I've found it difficult to consider it a "full" math curriculum. Its minimalist approach to practice problems has seemed far too light-weight, while the books themselves are short enough that we advance beyond what the kid is really ready for too quickly.
So, we spent a year or two using Masterbooks Math for the older two, while Lucy finally used up that A Beka 1st grade math book we've had around since James was 6.
This approach had plenty of problems of its own, most especially for Grace who took a particular dislike to the Masterbooks curriculum. Also, James has aged out of it.
Finally, I decided that I'm probably using Life of Fred wrong. (Hmm, maybe I should have read the parent notes a little more carefully!)
So, we're trying again, with a little more intentionality.
This is the plan.
The girls will do roughly two chapters of Fred 1x1 with me each week. On the days we don't do a chapter, they will use worksheets generated at TheMathWorksheetSite.com that practice facts and concepts that are in the same general range as the book they're studying. We won't go nuts with these: usually there will be well under a dozen practice problems per day.
And when we get to the end of a Fred book where I don't feel they've really mastered the concepts - we'll go back! For instance, I estimate that when Lucy finishes "Goldfish," we will want to return to "Edgewood" for review. Grace may reach the end of "Honey" or maybe "Ice Cream" before going back a book or two for review.  We'll work through books much faster the second time through.
That may not be exactly how it works out, but that's my current plan.
I also hope to intentionally add math games at least once or twice a week.

James, on the other hand, should be nearly done with the elementary series based on what he studied last year - but he never went through them! So we're starting this year with an accelerated trip through books H through M. He is being "bribed" to go quickly, so that I don't get a bunch of "But MOM, I already did a chapter today. That's all the math I Have to do, right?!" - when he's deep in review of basic multiplication!
I am hoping he can be done by November, but I could be way off. There may be more covered in Fred than I think, and he might not be able to pull off 5+ chapters a week. We'll see. Again, flexibility is the name of the game here.
After he completes the Fred review, the working plan is to try a public school curriculum called Envision Math 2.0, Accelerated 7th Grade. I was gifted these books (and several others for the same level) by a school teacher friend, and James and I finally identified this one as the most likely candidate. Again, I Hope that we'll get there by November. We might not.

Brand New This Year

Science

We've been woefully light in our science studies over the past several years. We tried a secular online curriculum called "Science Mysteries," and always enjoyed the projects. The secular nature didn't bother me - much - because I am pretty secure in my own Creationist understanding and quite willing to interject when needed.
But we were trying to make it happen with a co-op, and when that pooped out, so did we. So I told myself that Jonathan Park episodes combined with a week of Outdoor School and the occasional OMSI visit was somehow adequate. And possibly it was. But it's time now to be a little more formal with James racing towards middle school. (Or even In it by some measures... ack!)
After a couple of hours (low estimate) of poking around, I decided on another online program called Crosswired Science. (Honesty time: I was on the fence between them and a textbook based option when they offered to give it to me for $20/year instead of $100!) But, I'm hopeful. This one is explicitly Christian, and also explicitly multi-age. And it is built on a spiral - topics are revisited after a year or two - and with the underlying philosophy that science is all related (cross-wired), such that learning about a bird's feathers helps illuminate fluid dynamics as well as biology and the more you know about subject A the more you can funnel into subject B. I like that concept.
Of all the new stuff I've chosen to add this year, this is the one I am least confident about. I am very fearful that we (I) will bog down after a month or two. We'll get to a place where it's expecting a lot from the kids in terms of hands-on experiments and other projects. They'll resist. I'll feel like I'd rather go to the dentist than dissect something. (They will too.) We won't have materials on hand for some project or another. It won't feel like we can move forward until we do. And it will slowly fade away...
But maybe it won't. While they offer lesson plans and projects and material that could easily consume more than an hour a day, I think it will be reasonably customizable. They even offer a calendar that supports you using it as a supplement (1 or 2 days a week) instead of an overwhelming, all-consuming anchor on your day.
So like I said... hopeful!

Spelling

Spelling-U-See does not work for Grace. While I have not - and probably will not - had her professionally evaluated (long story), I would not be surprised if she turned out to be on the very high-functioning end of the dyslexia spectrum. Her reading is fine. Her comprehension is great. But her spelling... not good. And her handwriting... not great. She was still reversing letters at the beginning of last year, and right and left are pretty hard for her. So there are reasons to suspect.
Anyway, we quit with Spelling-U-See in the middle of last year after one too many break-downs and just took a break.
This year I decided to try All About Spelling, a heavily phonics-based "Orton-Gillingham" compliant program that seems to work heavily with flashcards and other manipulables.  
I definitely don't understand this program well yet. It's not even in the same ballpark as Spelling-U-See. I think it is going to take a fair amount of 1x1 instructor time, which could be a drag, especially as I'm using it for Lucy as well. (I Really don't know if Lucy might be on that spectrum too. But SUS was a struggle for her at least partially because it was Mostly independent and I didn't get involved as much as I needed to.)
I'm not going to say much more about it at the moment, because I don't even know what I don't know. But I am hopefully optimistic we can make some forward progress not just in spelling but in confidence about spelling (and thus writing) this year.


SO... today was day 1. 
And it went better than expected, in most ways. We started working on memorizing a Bible verse. The existing subjects went off well. We got started with All About Spelling. Science had a hiccup: #2 lost her cool before we managed to get started. Completely. Partially my fault: I took the wrong moment to bring up a not-entirely-minor error in judgement from last night. And she didn't take it well.
But, I adjusted. I set up the video she was supposed to watch - with attached quiz - on the second laptop and sent her to her room. 
It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was as good as I can hope for. Meltdowns were a constant source of derailments last season. One of things I have got to learn as a teacher is not to let the perfect(ish) become the enemy of the good. When I want group work to happen and one member of that group is unavailable for whatever reason... I need that Not to derail us. I won't always have an Easy back-up plan. But I need to put responsibility and as much natural consequence as possible on the "melter" rather than the rest of us. 
Brave words. :) But like I said, day 1 went OK. Here's to days 2-200!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Need a Mask?

Hey, all!
I've been making masks. Lots of masks. Maybe not masses of masks, but very nearly!
I am not donating these masks to hospitals. This is not because I don't believe that they need them, it's just that there are tons of people on that right now, but I still don't see Any of my neighborhood cashiers, baristas, or even fellow grocery shoppers wearing masks. 
So I would like to give YOU a mask. I don't care who you are or why you need it: I just want you to have one if you feel it would help you be safer. Do feel free to tell me what you'll use them for, though, 'cause I am curious!
If you want one, please drop me a line at annetteccollins@gmail.com. Make sure that you put "Mask" in the subject line, because I have a bad feeling that evil auto-crawling bots are going to generate a lot of spam.
Also, be sure to mention if you would prefer female, male, or neutral colors and patterns. 



Obviously these are not N95 certified masks capable of protecting you from the black plague, nuclear fall-out, or the zombie apocalypse. That said, they're far better than nothing, and quite possibly Nearly as good as a standard non-N95 medical mask. When combined with social distancing, sanitizer, and common sense, that is. Here are some tips on use.
0) Keep your clean mask in a clean zip-lock.
1) Sanitize your hands before picking up your clean mask.
2) Know which side is the front. Don't confuse them.
3) Always use the ear loops to put the mask on, and again when taking it off. Try not to handle the fabric.
4) After use, consider the outside of the mask "Dirty," just like the handle of your shopping cart! Fold your used mask with clean-to-clean, dirty-to-dirty surfaces touching (and outside), especially if you need to reuse it at the next stop. Maybe stick it back in a bag, Not your pocket.
5) Sanitize hands again after taking it off.
6) Wash your mask with your laundry, or by hand in hot water. (If there is a nose wire, remove it first. Trust me!) Dry in the dryer.
If it's sunny, line drying outside will be extra helpful - assuming you don't have any seasonal allergies! You Can boil your mask on the stove for 15 minutes. You can even put it in your Instant Pot. (Warning: colors will probably run.) But just machine washing Should be adequate.

Here's what some official-type people have to say about safe mask wearing.

And here's a great article from WIRED magazine on why it really makes sense to do this: It's Time to Face Facts, America: Masks Work





Do you want to make your own masks? It's really very easy, assuming you have a machine, cotton fabric, and 1/8 inch wide elastic. (Aye, there's the rub! This April, that stuff is Hard to find. I am using clear beading elastic about as thick as I can find. Others have found ways to use hair ties. Others are using fabric ties, but that quadruples production time and also makes them harder to put on.)

Here is a video from Deaconess medical center.

In a nutshell, you need two pieces of cotton, 9 by 6 inches. Kids masks (8 and under) can be 6 x 5.
Unlike the video, I am using only two tucks, because tucks are hard and someone said that having just two was OK.
Also unlike the video, I gave up on finding proper elastic. Instead I am using 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide loops of polyester ribbon sewn into each corner. I thread 12 inches of heavy elastic beading cord through and tie a loop as my final step. (Bonus: masks are easier to sew when not fighting internal elastic!)
I am considering adding a nose wire in my "mark 4" mask.
Someday I may even try a shaped mask. But for mass production, these are great and seem to do the job.



Friday, January 17, 2020

The 7 Deadly D's

I love to imagine that if I just find the Right way to explain something that is, in fact, a heart issue, I will magically be able to transform my children's behavior And attitudes. 
OK, I get it. The Holy Spirit is in charge of their hearts.
But sometimes a snappy little bit of alliteration does help clarify expectations - at very worst, I have sometime concrete to point to when behavior deteriorates.
Anyway, here's what we have up on our wall. I drive the kids nuts with it.

(Hat trick to Tauna Meyer from  Proverbial Homemaker for the the Obedience rubric.)


When Instructed or Corrected, avoid these 
7 Deadly Ds of Disobedience
  1. Drama
  2. Disrespect
  3. Defiance
  4. Deal-Making
  5. Disagreeing
  6. Dawdling
  7. Disappearing
Instead, 
Obey Right Away, 
All The Way, 
With a Happy Heart

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 
Colossians 3:20


If you'd like a nicely formatted printable copy, download here.



Educational Contracts

This has been one of those school years when it's been hard to feel like we've gotten out of "survival mode." OK, let's be honest, all 5 school years have been that way so far.
I have a very strong-willed eldest and youngest, and a middle who seems to be spending an increasing amount of time getting down on herself and complaining that she "can't."

I hit a wall yesterday when the eldest told me flat out that he would not recopy his essay. He tried negotiation first, of course, and whining, and black-mail, and deal-making. I insisted, explained, and threatened. Finally, when it was clear I wasn't going to budge, he just flat out refused.

I decided that I needed a time-out before I lost my own cool more than I already had. By the time I came back from my quick walk, I had moved (slightly) from imagining punitive writing assignments to clarifying in my own mind exactly what I wanted him to understand about his role in our little school. Thankfully, he had bowed to the inevitable by the time was ready to deal with him again, so after I got him set with his revision and recopy, I spent a few minutes writing up this educational contract.

An Educational Contract

The teacher’s job is to instruct, correct, and assign work as she deems necessary and appropriate for the student to attain mastery of the subject. A good teacher will understand her students’ unique personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and use creativity, variety, and fun to challenge and inspire her students to do their best. She will not forget that they are students, not masters, and thus will treat them with patience, encouragement, and respect even when they do not perform perfectly. She will not allow them to be lazy, disrespectful, or overly discouraged. Instead she will be their cheering section when they are cooperative and attentive, their helper when they are struggling, and their compassionate but firm disciplinarian when they do not uphold their end of the bargain. 

A student’s job is to listen, think, ask questions when appropriate, and humbly accept correction as part of the path to mastery. A student should respectfully and obediently perform tasks and assignments as given. Argument, most negotiation, rushing, shirking, complaining - not to mention outright refusal of work - are unacceptable for a student. The good student submits to his or her teacher’s rules, instruction, and assignments, even when the reasons are not immediately clear. Like the teacher, good students do not forget that they are students, not masters. They treat themselves with patience when they fail to understand or perform to their own standards, keeping in mind that mastery of any subject takes time, effort, repetition, and even occasional failure. Determination and willingness to try again even when the skills do not come quickly are important marks of a good student. 

When both parties adhere to this contract, learning - both academic and character  - cannot help but occur. 

We, the undersigned, agree to abide by this contract. We understand that penalties can and will be assigned when and if the contract is breached, and agree to accept them with as much humility as we can muster. 


Teacher: __________________________________________   Date: _________

Student: __________________________________________   Date: _________  


This morning I shared the contract with all three kids, discussed it, and then asked them to sign it. We filed it at the front of their 3-ring binders for reference, where we can refer to it later if when things start to go wrong. 

(Want a printable copy? Download here)


Look, I don't expect any miracles in my kids' behavior based on this little piece of paper. As I explained to my son - while he busily looked for loop-holes and nit-picks and basically did his best to use up all my good will - it's not like I'm giving them a Choice about this. They're far too young to opt out of any teaching. In any case, the true behavior change I want comes only from the heart by help of the Holy Spirit.
But there's probably some value in clarifying expectations and giving them a peek into how I understand my own responsibilities.
There's also value for me, as this both reminds me that I Don't get to "phone it in," and also that part of my responsibility is to not tolerate endless arguments and whining.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book Review Rating Philosophy

Note: This post is primarily for my own benefit, and secondarily for anyone who reads my Goodreads reviews and actually cares to learn how I arrive at my ratings. I would prefer to have this posted directly on Goodreads, but there is no obvious place outside of a single book review. Since that doesn't make sense, here it is!

Book Rating Philosophy

It has come to my attention that I rate approximately 9 in 10 books as a nice, safe, inarguable 3 out of 5 stars. I've also come to realize that this is an almost meaningless rating, even to myself. Some of these 3 star books I consider really very good, and would eagerly recommend to a friend. Others I would never bother to recommend, let alone re-read. About the only thing the books in this forest of 3-stars has in common is that the writing mechanics and storytelling were good enough that it didn't feel fair to assign a mere 2 stars, and that they simultaneously lacked that certain something - a je ne sais quoi - that made me feel good about assigning 4 stars.
Reviewing my few 5 star books, I do see some common threads. The most obvious of these is world view. In most cases, the authors of my 5-stars share a deeply Christian philosophy, which when combined with superior writing mechanics, plotting, and characters create a thought provoking, even convicting work of art that calls me back time and time again.  There are exceptions: I've rated a small handful of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan stories at 5 stars, and even a few Heinleins. Neither of this authors could be counted Christian or even conservative, but their characters and worlds so captured my imagination - and I've in most cases re-read the stories so many times - that to give them fewer stars would seem disingenuous.
This is the clue I needed to figure out why I have comparatively few 4-star books. Something checks me when the worldview of the author does not align with my own, and unless every other metric is truly superior, I hold back that last star. Except when I don't, of course.  (Recently my kids using my account for their reviews throws off this metric. They tend to consider whatever book they've just read to be "the best ever," and while I've drawn the line at 5 stars, I've stopped arguing about 4!)

This long, rambling discussion is here simply to introduce my magical solution to this problem: all books I review will contain a sub-rating in several categories. For the moment I will stick to the out-of-5 metric.
The categories as of July 2019 are as follows:

Writing Mechanics, Characters, Plot, World Building, and Truth Value 

Writing Mechanics: 

This most basic measure includes word choice, grammar, adjective use - artistry. Ability to hint, insinuate, and otherwise show what a inferior author simply tells. A 2 indicates the author writes so poorly as to distract from a potentially decent plot. A 3 means the author writes at least as well as I do. No distracting tell-vs-show. a 4 or 5 indicates true superiority. Snappy dialog, humor, artistic place descriptions, etc.

Characters: 

It starts at "do I like them," but goes far deeper. Are they presented as truly, believably human, regardless of how much they resemble me Or the author? Do they grow and change as a result of the story. Do I care what happens to them, or are they merely tools of the author to tell his or her story?
I greatly prefer stories about People as opposed to stories about Events. I don't even Remember stories that have no interesting central character. Stories with an excellent one - i.e. Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" - may end up with 5 stars even when the author's worldview is in opposition with my own. Or as a counter example, Kim Stanley Harrison's "Red Mars" seemed like a book I should enjoy, but nearly all of the characters were distasteful at best, and hateful at worst. The worldbuilding in this book was pretty interesting (although others have pointed out its serious scientific flaws), but the characters were so uninspiring that I had a great deal of trouble caring long enough to finish the book.

Plot: 

This goes beyond whether or not I was able to guess the "whodunnit" in a mystery. Encompassed in this metric is whether the story lagged, or sped too quickly. It also involves believability, innovativeness, and uniqueness.

World Building: 

Primarily a characteristic of sci-fi or fantasy novels, encompassed in this metric is the imaginativeness of the world the author draws - whether it is simply a carbon copy of Tolkien or D&D, or whether it draws more deeply on less widely known mythologies and/or the author's own imagination. It also measures internal consistency and believability.
Tolkien, of course, would receive 5, as his worlds are detailed beyond all belief. Narnia, despite being my favorite series of all time, might receive only a 3 since there is a shallowness to certain aspects of the world that niggled at me even as a child. (Where Are those female Dwarves?!) Harry Potter similarly comes in at a 3, since there are certain aspects of the wizarding world and especially Hogwarts simply too fantastic and irrational to swallow. They are not followed to their logical conclusions, and therefore are far less believable.

Truth Value

Last, but certainly not least, is the what I've decided to call "Truth Value." In this measure I am most strongly influenced by John Eldredge, who taught that all art (inclusive of story, song, movies, and everything else) could be evaluated by its adherence to, or reflection of, capital-T Truth. In evaluating this, a useful rubric is "How does this piece of art reflect (or possibly deny) the capital-S Story of the humanity," which itself may be very succinctly distilled as "Perfection, Fall, Redemption, and Return to Perfection."
Some of the questions I might ask when evaluating the Truth Value of a piece of fiction are "Do the characters embody key virtues such as loyalty, bravery, kindness, self-sacrifice, and integrity?" "Is redemption, either of situations or preferably of characters, a key plot element?" "Are characters aware of their weaknesses and striving, through whatever means, to improve?" "Is there something more than crass romantic / sexual emotion at the root of the relationship between the central characters?" "Does the story seem to be in touch with the basic human condition of fallenness and selfishness, and do any of the central characters choose the hard work of rising above this default condition?" Finally, "Does the plot or characters point either explicitly or allegorically towards the True God?"
It is important to note that works by authors who no-one would ever accuse of being Christian may, in fact, score very highly. In many cases, the true state of man is seen quite clearly by those who have not embraced the Redemption of Christ. The late Terry Pratchett, for instance, made no end of poignant (not to mention hilarious) observations of the human condition. The "Emberverse" series by S.M. Stirling, who I believe calls himself an atheist, includes some very powerful pictures of the endless struggle between Creation and Disintegration. In the character of Father Ignatius, he also draws one of the most deeply Christian men you will find in current fiction.
On the flip side, there may be many works written by ostensibly Christian authors that would score less highly because they ignore, gloss over, or even deny certain fundamental truths that would give their art the ring of Truth.