Friday, March 20, 2009

Who doesn't love an epic adventure?

We checked out book #3 of Mary Pope Osborne's Tales From the Odyssey from the library the other day:

Sirens and Sea Monsters.

You may know author Mary Pope Osborne from her incredibly popular Magic Treehouse series of early chapter books. In her Tales From the Odyssey series, she spins the tales of Odysseus' journey in a way that's entertaining and accessible to young kids. Little Brother, in particular, really enjoys these stories. Usually not one to sit through a reading that doesn't involve large illustrations on each page, he remains captivated for multiple chapters when listening to the Odyssey. What little boy wouldn't be entertained by tales of six-headed dragons, and deadly whirpools? This is the third book we've read from the series, and they've each been well-received by both kids (and parents), making for a great family read-aloud in the evenings.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PASS Test wrap-up

We received the test results from the standardized test we had Big Sister take last month - less than three weeks after returning them for scoring. Her results surprised me, mostly because she did far better on the reading section than I expected her to. Based on last year's scores (from a different test, so comparing apples to oranges to some extent) she's advanced two grade levels in reading so far this year. I guess I'd attribute that to our focused work in this area this year, but overwhelmingly I'd point to her developmental readiness. She's easily done 90% of that advancing in the past 3 months. It's been amazing to watch. I still get frustrated that her reading materials of choice are Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, and Babymouse, but it seems to be translating over to an ability to read other forms of writing. I'm trying to bite my tongue for now, and rest assured in the fact that she's being exposed to other literature when I read aloud to her at night. Following my own advice here: choose your battles wisely, and limit the number of battles being fought at any one time. ;P

We will definitely use the PASS again next year. I think it's a good, lower-anxiety testing experience than other standardized testing options. The absence of time constraints allowed me to back off and let my (very slow reading) child test without any interference or adjustments from me. The test results consist of a RIT score, showing what grade level has been achieved in Reading, Math, and Language, as well as a percentile ranking against homeschooled students, and traditionally schooled students. Feedback is provided in several testing areas, suggesting skills that should be focused on for improvement, or activities that will help reinforce skills already achieved.

The PASS (Personalized Achievement Summary System) can be ordered through Hewitt Homeschooling Resources, and meets the testing requirement under HBI laws in Washington State.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scavenger hunt in a book

One of the things we've been doing since focusing on building reading fluency for Big Sister (age 9 1/2), is repeated readings. Repeated readings as a method to build reading fluency has been documented in studies to boost a reader's self-esteem, as well as their overall reading fluency, especially with learning to read in phrases vs. individual words. You can see a review of The Fluent Reader, the book which has taught me so much about the process of becoming a fluent reader, and methods for building fluency at this link.

Repeated readings, if not done with care, can become tedious and dull. I used to think they were boring and pointless before I read this book. The K12 program we used for language arts back in kindergarten utilized repeated readings, and I rarely followed their schedule because I didn't see the value in reading the same story each day for 5 days.

Yesterday, to shake things up a bit and to incorporate grammar into our day, I created a scavenger hunt in the book Sister is working on this week. I went through the book and created questions for things she must find within certain page ranges. For example...

Page 3
Find a past tense verb that changed the "y" to "i" before adding "-ed". Write the present and past tense of the verb.

Page 6-7

Find a contraction.

Page 8-9
Name three nouns that were found under the table.

Page 10-11

List two proper nouns found on these pages, then write the prounoun(s) that could take their place.

This did a couple of things. It kept her working with the story and reading it. It also allowed her to look at spelling and grammar outside of the typical worksheet environment where she's usually exposed to them.

The truth of the matter is that I thought I was a genius for coming up with this idea. She thought it was pretty lame, as activities go. Much more fun (and an added bonus, since she's not a big writer) was when Big Sister announced that she was going to write a scavenger hunt for me, but around the house, not in a book. My activity might have been a little boring, but at least it sparked an idea in her that got her writing for fun. We'll have to pull this activity out another time, for sure!

Friday, March 6, 2009

I think we'll keep him

It must be something in the water around here, cuz both my kids have been losing teeth recently! Well, Little Brother has only lost the one, but Big Sister has now lost three in the past couple weeks. Two molars, and a canine (or whatever you call the sharp pointy ones when you're a human). The third one came out while she was eating ramen at lunchtime yesterday. She washed it off carefully, and tucked it into the pocket of her My Little Pony tooth fairy pillow for safekeeping until bedtime.

Unfortunately, the Momma of the house has been a bit under the weather the past couple of days. Last night I read to Brother, got him tucked in, and then decided to retreat to my own bed shortly past 8pm. I recall Sister coming in at some point. I know I read to her for a while, and then she left to be tucked in by Daddy. Then sometime later I remember waking up again to Sister curled up next to me. I think she was jabbing me with her finger. When I acknowledged her presence with a kind of muffled groan, she said "I forgot I lost a tooth today!", to which I replied "I forgot, too." In the fleeting seconds before I fell back to sleep, I had the brief cognizant thought that I should really do something about that later. And then I was out again.

Hours pass by, and Hubby is finally going to bed. He's trying to pry a limp 9 1/2 year old out of our bed. I decide to get up and walk her to her room to tuck her in. When I get there, I suddenly remember about the tooth fairy. Once Sister is settled, I slip my finger into the pocket of the pillow... and feel a round quarter! Magic!

It turns out that my Hubby totally rocks, and I do not give him nearly enough credit for just how totally awesome he is as a Daddy. He knew I wasn't feeling well, and correctly ascertained that I wasn't likely to remember my Tooth Fairy Duties, so he took care of it. Not only that, but I was surprised to find that he honored my inexplicable need to keep the kids' baby teeth. He didn't want to mess with my "system" so he placed her tooth in a ziplock baggie and hid it in one of my dresser drawers. I know that when he works such long hours it sometimes feels like he's out of touch with what's happening around here, but then he does these little things that let me know he's really trying hard.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Little Brother goes to school?

One of my blog readers, whom I met through the comments section not long ago (and who has two terrific blogs that I've since started following: Best Family Adventures and A Year of Living Charitably) was a little confused by my last blog entry The "Importance" of School. Totally understandable. You think you're reading a blog about a homeschooling family, and then the blogger makes a comment like "Little Brother comes home from school...", and new readers are probably thinking "huh?".

Last fall, after a lot of thought, discussion with the hubby, and talking with my homeschooling friends (who politely acted as a sounding board while rolling their eyes), we made the decision to enroll Little Brother in morning kindergarten.

I should probably back up and explain some of the very first issues that led us to homeschooling almost six years ago. Six years ago, Big Sister was just turning 4, and had just become a preschool dropout. At the time all we knew was that the preschool she'd been going to for 3 mornings/week for the past year (which got me through a high-risk pregnancy and bedrest) was not the right fit for our daughter. We didn't know what our next step was going to be, but we pulled her out and began exploring our options for preschool and beyond. As a single income family, non-religious private schools were not a solution that could be reconciled financially. Our local school district only offered full-day kindergarten, and our neighborhood school was known to be fairly rigorous. I came from a time when kindergarten (if you went at all) was for listening to stories being read by your teacher, playing house, building with blocks, and playing duck-duck-goose on a grassy field next to the playground. Then you drank your dixie cup of juice, and went home to go play some more, and maybe nap. Full-day kindergarten was not in my vision for our kid. (And then there's a rant in here about how putting kids in school all day and starting the more rigorous instruction early on has not translated into increased test scores, or better prepared high school graduates... but I digress.)

I'm not sure I'd even heard of homeschooling before this, and I'm sure I hadn't considered it as an educational choice. It's very possible I stumbled upon it on an attachment parenting message board, but I do know that some of my first answers about homeschooling came from the homeschooling message board on iVillage. Eventually hubby and I decided that we would try it out for a year to see how it would go. Then we tried it another year... and here we are.

Spring forward to the end of Summer 2008. Little Brother is 5 years old. He's quirky, prefers to play alone, doesn't have any real friends. I should qualify that: he has kids who think of him as their friend, but their play usually involves pushing Little Brother's buttons until he gets angry and frustrated enough that he storms away. It's not that they single him out, because these kids do it to each other, too, and seem to like it. It's like some odd, archaic form of "friendship". Little Brother doesn't handle it well, and I was at a loss for how to help him out socially. He also has some issues that I was starting to feel like I wanted an outside person to see besides me, so I might know if we needed to seek outside help: sensory issues, self-injury, and the lack of friendships with other kids. So the local kindergarten started looking more and more like an educational and social experiment that we'd like to pursue.

I am not at all disappointed that we chose to try kindergarten. It is, for the most part, the kindergarten experience a kid should have if they're going to go to school. It's short, leaving plenty of the day for unstructured, child-led pursuits. It's active - the kids don't sit in one place for more than 5-10 minutes before they're up and moving to the next activity. It's fun - they have ample opportunity to choose how they want to play, they sing songs, and hear stories. I could do without the nightly homework, and the fundraisers, but those concerns are minor. I've had my initial feelings validated - Little Brother is a quirky kid, who often prefers the company of adults. He finds most of his same-age peers annoying because they display behaviors that are pointless, irritating, and make little sense. He does now have a core group of three friends who he adores, and they're all nice to each other, and don't try to push his buttons. He's getting to experience what friendship is supposed to be like.

Because the length of the school day increases greatly beginning in first grade (he would leave on the bus before 9am, and not return home until almost 4pm), leaving little time for the pursuits of childhood, we will likely be withdrawing him at the end of this school year. I can't see the purpose in having him at school for that long of a stretch when we could accomplish the same, academically, in a fraction of the time at home. We will continue to nurture the friendships he has developed, and look for other opportunities for him to continue to grow socially.

And that is the story of how Little Brother went to school.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The "importance" of school

Every other week Little Brother comes home with a newsletter from his school. Each edition contains a message from the principal, usually talking about how proud she is of their school community, the work the families and teachers are doing, etc. It's a nice, rah-rah, pat on the back kind of message. Mostly "fluff". A few episodes ago there was a message that talked about the importance of not bringing our kids late, or picking them up early. It hit a little close to home because I had just brought him in one minute late on Inauguration Day, and was going to be picking him up early the next day to attend a play with our homeschool group. Bad Parent. As a parent more firmly planted in the world of homeschooling, I usually blow these messages off with a smirk. Not today.

Today's message is titled "Tardies and Absences Form Life-long Attitudes toward School, Work, and Relationships". That seems awfully self-important to me. For example, the principal says that she tells the students that when they come to school, their "job" is learning - "...I also tell them that in order to be learning, they must be at school..." This is something we in the homeschool community discuss all the time - this compartmentalization of learning as an activity that requires a specific time and place. Shouldn't the purpose of an education be to give students the skills they will need so that they can learn anytime, anywhere? Apparently not, because she's telling us right there that you can't learn unless you're in school - duh!

Then she tells us that most children especially enjoy school because they love seeing their teachers and friends. She says that we must "...model for our kids that school is important to us and to them, not just for our friends, but especially for the purpose of learning." First I'll point out that this is another example of why the argument against homeschooling on the basis of socialization concerns is moot. The principal is telling us right here that while socializing is a big draw (to entice the otherwise unwilling pupils, if you will - sorry, my sarcasm here), we must remember the real purpose - learning. Remember? Learning, and only learning, should take place in school.

Lastly, she tells us that learning to be on time and have good attendance are important life skills. I do agree with that assessment, but I don't believe people develop a poor work ethic because they missed a week of school in fifth grade to go to Disneyland with their family. Families get so little time together as it is, that I say go for it - take time to build lasting memories with your kids. However, the principal says they must learn these skills now " that as adults they are able to follow through when they have a job, and when they have made a commitment to people." Seriously? In grade school?

In our own homeschooling, I've witnessed plenty of opportunities to teach my kids the life skills of being on time, and honoring commitments. In real life, you do these things because either others are depending on you, or others will think you're really flaky for not following through, or because being late or not showing up means you'll be missing out on something important, or something you want to be doing. Those are real-life natural consequences, and I have found them to be the best teachers - not some contrived status of self-importance bestowed upon my local elementary school. I also get that unless the schools keep perpetuating these ideas, people might eventually get wise and recognize schools as being nothing more than the tools they are....

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Had to share this...

I'm reading a book titled The Fluent Reader: Oral Reading Strategies for Building Word Recognition, Fluency, and Comprehension, by Timothy V. Rasinski. In spite of the rather dry-sounding title, I'm finding it quite interesting.

Anyway, what I wanted to share was a method for determining reading level of a passage through the use of a word processing program, such as Word (I can't take credit for this - Rasinski told me about it). If you click on 1. Tools, then 2. Spelling and Grammar, then 3. Options - check the box next to "Readability". After running the spell check it will give you a grade level equivalent for the text in the document (as well as other information about the passage, such as word count, average word length, and words per sentence). Cool, huh? We have Office 97, but I'm sure the process is similar for newer versions. This would be useful tool when using passages from online books. I'll have to explore the potential uses for this further....