Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dreambox, an adaptive math curriculum

As you are no doubt aware, math is a great love of mine. Another great love is adaptive curricula. I love the idea of using computer programs to help teach our children. Computer programs allow our children to receive many, many more positive reinforcements while learning than they can do with real live people.

I try to approximate this instant positive reinforcement by marking each math problem as it is done. My kids do a problem, then we check it. That way they get the immediate positive feedback on a job well done or they get immediate correction before they have the opportunity to make the same mistake over and over again. Now that my kids are older, this is easier for me to do, however, when they were just starting out with math/arithmetic, it was much, much harder for me to do as they were at such different levels.

I had the same problem when they were learning to read but managed to solve it by using an adaptive computer based curriculum called, Reading Horizons at Home. Using a computer based program allowed me to do two things. I could gainfully occupy one twin while I was doing intensive, one-on-one work with the other. The combination of mom taught phonics and the computer program worked a charm.

How I wish that Dreambox had been available when Ben and Shira were doing K-3rd grade math. Lydia has been raving about Dreambox for quite a while, so a few weeks ago I signed up for a free trial to see for myself what the big excitement was.

Oh, my goodness, this is a great program. It addresses one of the bugbears I have with so many math curricula for the wee ones. It addresses number sense. The children who use this program are not only learning how to count, but they are developing a really good sense of how the various numbers relate to each other. This makes math so much easier later on.

I was pleased to see that Dreambox teaches the children how to add mentally the same way I taught my children. My kids were adding double and triple digit numbers mentally long before they learned how to do it on paper. Place value can be a difficult concept to teach children and unless they understand place value, adding multiple digit numbers on paper can be tricky. It's much easier to teach children the mental tricks.

I like how everything in the program has a learning component (even the games) and how all learning has a fun component. Ben and Shira spent a good few hours working through Dreambox and pronounced it to be a good program. Ben, in particular would have benefited from this program as fine motor skills came to him later than to Shira. He spent far too many hours being frustrated by his difficulty in getting what was in his mind onto paper. In retrospect, this difficulty was a blessing because it forced me to do a lot of mental arithmetic with the kids and to devise systems that made it easier for him. However, it would have been so much easier for all of us if we'd had a computer based program of this calibre available to us.

I would also have appreciated being able to give intensive practice on Dreambox to one child while working with the other. You have no idea how many issues we had for a while as a result of my twins asynchronous math and reading development. I had to keep them well out of earshot of each other during instruction as the twin who struggled with a concept in comparison to the other would give up learning and think s/he was stupid. I am so glad those days are over.

I know this program is geared to the K-3 crowd, but I think it is also perfectly suited to gifted preschoolers. These youngsters are often hamstrung by their inability to put pen to paper effectively. Dreambox allows these gifted youngsters to feed their inquiring minds without being held back by their physical development.

I want to thank Dreambox for being a sponsor of this year's Book Arts Bash for without sponsors, our homeschooled novelists would not have a forum to showcase their work.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Math over the last 8 months.

Math is one of those subjects where I am never totally happy with just one curriculum. This is probably why we work out of up to half a dozen at any one time.

Until early this school year, our core curriculum was Professor B Math. I'm a fan of mastery curricula like this one. Prof B tells stories to teach his math and I found when Shira was younger, she needed the extra verbal cues. This program stresses understanding the concepts and mastering them. I still use it to teach some subjects. I moved away from it as my core program when we hit a roadblock with long division. For some reason, Shira could not grasp it using his explanations.

She had become so worked up over the issue that when we moved to Singapore Math I did not start at long division. Instead I started in Book 3B which was well below what Ben and Shira had been doing, but because it uses different methods and includes those great word problems, I thought it would be good to work through it.

This was one of the best decisions I ever made. Shira's confidence sky-rocketed because she was finding all the work easy. I appreciated all the word problems and the Singapore methodology for solving them. I think it's really neat that children this age are given the tools to solve word problems without using algebraic equations (which is how I would have solved most of them).

One fine day, about 2 months into Singapore Math (we were now in one of the 4's, can't remember which one), Ben and Shira put some math problems up on the board for each other. Ben gave Shira a long division problem. I was floored when Shira calmly completed the problem correctly.

I find this often happens. I hit a brick wall, move away from the issue and a while later the children show me that they've internalized the issue.

I then decided to start teaching the children fractions and used a combination of Professor B Math and Jump Math.

I discovered Jump Math after reading a piece on the Ashoka Foundation. This foundation, that keeps a rather low profile, funds social entrepreneurs.

One recipient of their grants is a Canadian, Dr. John Mighton, who is convinced that every child can master true mathematics.

Thanks to his Ashoka grant, Mighton is able to provide his math curriculum for free. (you have to register, at no cost to you, in order to see and download the teachers' guides). I fell in love with his methodology while using his introductory unit to fractions.. His approach is much like Kumon's in that it builds up in very tiny increments. He's broken each concept into tiny components and teaches them so that they slowly build on each other. Before you know it, the children have mastered quite large concepts with no pain whatsoever. I initially worried that it might be too boring for my math driven kids, but happily it wasn't. They breeze through the easy stuff and love his meaty challenges. I've found that every concept I've taught using Jump Math has been painless for the kids.

You can't go wrong with this curriculum, especially since it's free.

We supplemented with Life of Fred: Fractions. I've been reading about this program for years so I thought I'd give it a bash. Life of Fred: Fractions should definitely not be used as your children's first exposure to fractions. The instruction is too light and will leave a newbie confused. Use it to cement the concepts you've already taught. The story is engaging and fun and the children love doing it, once they already know how to work with fractions.

I also bought Funny & Fabulous Fraction Stories by Dan Greenberg. My kids say that you should not waste your money and repeat my mistake. They found it trite and annoying.

Currently, my children's favorite part of math is geometry. This is thanks to Prufrock Press's book, Hands-On Geometry: Constructions With a Straightedge and Compass. The kids beg to do this every morning before we do any other schoolwork.

I've been really happy seeing how the children have taken their math lessons from this book and are using them in art. Both children have been making fabulous geometric pictures (of course, now that I want to show you one, I can't find any).

I've promised the children that once we've finished with this book that we will move on to Drawing Stars and Building Polyhedra.

Ben is itching to start constructing three dimensional shapes.

My plan is to use this book together with Jump Math's geometry is level 6. Ben is itching to work with transformations, rotations and reflections. He's been reading ahead and has started making isoparametric drawings and mat plans. I can't say that this is going to be a treat for me to teach as I really struggle with rotating 3D items, but Ben (and I think Shira) are going to love it. Both children have far better spacial abilities than I do. This is all new work to me. I never did stuff like this in school.

I nearly forgot to talk about the Fibonacci unit we did. We used, Fascinating Fibonaccis: Mystery and Magic in Numbers and it's workbook, Fibonacci Fun: Fascinating Activities With Intriguing Numbers. We did this when we were in a particularly stressful period and I did not want to tax the children's minds. It served its purpose. The kids enjoyed it, learned a little and weren't mentally taxed.

I know that I could use just one of Singapore, Prof B or Jump Math as a core, but I enjoy how they each approach math very differently. I find that it's good for my kids to learn how to do things many different ways.

My plan for next year is to continue combing these three programs and add in enrichment from Prufrock Press titles. (We've not had a dud from them. Shira particularly likes their books on analogies and Poetry a la Carte.)

However, these plans may go awry as another mathy mom has been talking to me about Math-U-See. Both of us had written it off as we don't like manipulatives, but she's been testing it and is loving how it teaches algebra. This means that Math-U-See is on my horizon.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Learning Latin is Fun!

"Learning Latin is fun!" are words I hear multiple times a week from my 8 year old twins. This is in such marked contrast from what I heard from my peers in high school. They all hated it. I never got the chance to hate it as my father insisted that since I was offered a choice between typing and Latin that I had to do typing. He felt that typing would stand me in greater stead as an adult than Latin would. Knowing how to touch type is a huge boon to me, however, I have always felt shortchanged that I spent 2 years learning to type when I could have been learning Latin. I started teaching my children to type last August and my daughter is already typing 50 w.p.m. with 98% accuracy. If an 8 year old can do that in half a year, why was I, as a teen, subjected to typing lessons for 2 full years?

As luck would have it, I have been given a second chance because I homeschool my children. Prior to starting homeschooling I read copiously about different educational philosophies. I realized that a rigorous, hierarchical, neo-classical education fit our philosophy and needs. Learning Latin became a must. I faced a barrage of naysayers though as many people I know feel that Latin is a dead language and that I will just be wasting my time teaching my children Latin. I'll let Classical Academic Press respond to that objection.
Well Latin isn’t dead after all, it lives on in the mouths of all of us who speak English, as half of our English words are derived from Latin. For those who speak French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian or Portuguese (the “Romance” languages), 90% of the vocabulary comes from Latin. These Romance languages are actually forms of Latin that have evolved over the centuries in various regions with some interaction from other local tongues. As you might guess, studying Latin is fantastic preparation for the Romance languages! Studying Latin is one of the easiest ways to become fluent not just in one but in several Romance languages. There are other good reasons to study Latin, cited below:

1. Studying Latin prepares a student to master English and the Romance languages. Students of Latin, for example, typically score the highest on tests on English vocabulary!

2. Latin prepares a student for several important professions that are steeped in Latin or English words derived from Latin. Examples: law, medicine, science, music, theology, philosophy, literature.

3. Latin enables a student to have improved access to English literature prior to 1950 which is replete with references and citations in Latin. As well, the history of art and architecture is replete with Latin. Monuments and art all over the world are frequently graced with Latin.

4. Latin enables a student to more fully understand and appreciate the Roman empire which has had profound and continuing effect on western civilization.

5. Latin enables a student to enjoy some of the most influential literature the world has known in the original language. Learning Latin well enough to read original Latin works is attainable and imparts great satisfaction and enjoyment.

6.The study of Latin is an ongoing study in linguistic puzzle-solving that generally helps students to become close and careful readers and writers. Many believe it also hones the mental faculties generally. One well-known cancer researcher asked what best prepared him for a life of medical research. His response: “Studying Latin and Greek as a child.”

I think you can see why studying Latin is a way of doing advance study in several subjects simultaneously. This is why we regard it as a master subject—it is a subject that like a tool enables one to master other things, other subjects. It is no wonder that it has been a required subject in schools for centuries.

I found that choosing a Latin program was especially tough. I looked at "Latin is not so Tough" and found it too lack lustre. In the beginning book I looked at no grammar was taught, only vocabulary.

Minimus was cute, the kids loved the story, but I struggled with the pronunciations as a neophyte. I also found that it was too lightweight.

I discovered Latin for Children at a HEAV conference.

I was hooked, even before starting to use it with my kids. I really like how it works from parts to whole, how it is very systematic. Learning the pronunciation is a cinch with Latin for Children. The program comes with a CD that contains chants for all the vocabulary learned. Each week my children learn 10 new vocabulary words and have them well memorized within one lesson thanks to the chants. Declinations and conjugations are all set to chants which makes it so much easier for the children to keep them in their memories.

In addition to the lessons being in the primers, you can purchase a DVD with the author teaching the lessons. We watch the DVD lesson on day one and then I teach the lesson again on day two. This works well for us.

I have lost all my fear over teaching Latin thanks to this program. A Latin neophyte, like me, can easily teach using this program. I learn alongside my children without them realizing that my Latin knowledge is on a par with theirs.

My children's vocabulary has increased dramatically despite the fact that we have only completed 21 lessons in Primer A. After we've learned each lesson's vocabulary, we work on derivatives. Whenever my children ask me for a word's meaning, I have them first think if it might be a derivative of a Latin word they know, and then I send them off to the dictionary. It's heartening to see how their faces light up when they realize they can work out an unfamiliar words' meanings on their own.

Latin practice is also fun at Headventure Land. Headventure Land is Classical Academic Press' practice website. Here the children can play games that quiz vocabulary, read short books in Latin and watch movies in Latin. The movies are my children's favorite.

We supplement our Latin studies with Latin Clash Cards and a weekly Latin Club.

The Latin Club, run by my good friend, Lydia, is one of the highlights of my children's week. Here they spend an hour laughing, learning and competing. It's fun to watch how a little competition inspires the children to greater diligence in memorizing their declinations and conjugations.

Latin for Children covers three years of Latin with Primers A, B and C. Once your children have completed these three primers they move into Latin Alive!. Classical Academic Press has currently only published the first in the series but I hear that the second is due out at any time. By the time my children read this level all the books in the series will have been published.

Once the children have finished Latin Alive! they will be ready for Wheelock's Latin, a college text.

An added advantage of Latin for Children is that it dovetails perfectly with Shurley English, the English program I am using in our homeschool.

As a homeschooler who is firmly committed to ensuring that my children are good writers, i'd like to thank Classical Academic Press for sponsoring the Book Arts Bash.

Shurley English - A Success Story for Our Family.

This is the time of year where I review all our curricula. I thought that, this year, I'd write up my reviews and post them on my blog.

We started off our homeschool journey using "First Language Lessons" by Jessie Wise. My kids and I are still trying to work out why people rave about it on TWTM boards as it bored us to tears. My children would beg me not to subject them to any more First Language Lessons torture. I finally gave it up as a bad job.

I then started thinking that teaching grammar formally was not necessary as I never learned formal grammar and I speak and write far better than average. However, as we progressed in our study of Latin using Latin for Children, I realized that I was shortchanging our children by not formally teaching them grammar.

I looked at many grammar programs but discovered that my lack of formal grammar knowledge was a huge problem for me as almost all of them presupposed a basic knowledge on the part of the teacher. Since Latin for Children was written to dovetail with Shurley English, I decided to have a look at the program.

I'm the first to admit that my first look at the teacher's manual nearly had me in tears. It looked so complicated and difficult to master that I nearly put the book back onto the shelf. It was only the high recommendation that the program received from Classical Academic Press, the publishers of "Latin for Children", and my dear friend Andrea, that gave me pause to re-look at the program.

A closer look made me realize that this program does not presuppose that the teacher has any grammar or writing knowledge. So, despite my misgivings, I bought the program.

It took me about 2 weeks to get into my stride with this program, but after that it was plain sailing. Now, we all love using Shurley English.

I love how it is a complete grammar and writing program. When you use Shurley English you do not need to buy separate grammar and writing curricula.

One of the strengths of this program is that all the parts of speech are taught using jingles. You start each lesson by singing all the jingles you've learned to date. My kids just love singing the jingles and will often ask to sing them more than once.

"This little noun, floating around,
names a person, place, or thing.
With a nick-nack-paddy-whack,
these are English rules.
Isn't language fun and cool?"

An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun.
An adjective asks, "What kind? Which one? How many?"
To find an adjective: Go, Ask, Get.
Where do I go? To a noun or pronoun.
What do I ask? What kind? Which one? How many?
What do I get? An ADJECTIVE! (clap) (clap)
That's What!

I find my kids singing these jingles under their breathe when they are unsure of how to to work out the parts of speech in a particular sentence.

I have a very math driven son who really struggled with First Language Lessons. Ben needs to be able to reduce everything to a pattern or system. Shurley English does just that. You are given a "question and answer flow" to use for every sentence that you mark up. It makes working out the various parts of speech so much easier for the children (and mom).

Ben, in particular, loves that he can now see the pattern and he happily marks up his sentences. In fact, my kids love doing this so much that they do not like that they only get three sentences a day from Shurley to mark up. I have to make up more for them every day.

Another huge benefit is that the program is structured to give immediate feedback to the children as they work through a lesson. The children identify the parts of speech in a sentence and then I immediately go through it with them. This allows for immediate correction of mistakes and hopefully they learn not to make this mistake the next time.

I've transferred this concept to our math lessons. We mark each math problem as they do it. They love the immediate feedback and I've found that their skills progress at a rate of knots compared to when they did the same number of problems but only had them checked once they'd done them all. By giving feedback immediately after each problem, the children never repeat the same mistake over and over again. When they repeat the same mistake over and over, they learn the mistake and then you have to spend much more time rewiring their brains as they learn the correction.

Both my kids love how Shurley teaches writing. They like that they are taught a basic skeleton for each form of writing they do. The Shurley method appeals to both my math driven son and my verbal, arty daughter. They both appreciate being able to see a system and then to make it their own by adding their own creative touches. I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly my children's writing improved once we started using Shurley English.

Every week I have my children write two or three paragraphs answering questions based on the previous week's history lessons. I was ecstatic to see how much my children's writing of these paragraphs improved once they did Shurley's lessons on how to write paragraphs. I'm always happy to see skill transference.

I'm in love with their editing and revising charts for writing. Nothing is left to chance. The children are taught, step-by-step, how to revise and edit their writing.

I initially thought that the exercise Shurley gives the children in sentence construction was pretty lame. That only lasted until I saw how much my children enjoyed it. Yesterday I had children jumping up and down with excitement because I wrote one of these up on the board. It's difficult to explain what you do, but I'll give it a bash.

You write the parts of speech labels for a sentence on the board. For example, A Adj SN A Vt Adv V P PPA OP. The children then write up a sentence that follows that format. For this sentence it could be, "The beautiful girl threw the ball to her dog."

That's not the fun part though. Once this sentence is written the children have to change words using one antonym, one word change and one or more synonyms. So, the sentence could turn into, "The rotund boy tossed a fish to his feline." My kids do one serious sentence and one silly sentence each time. I find that it is a great way to bring humor into our school day.

Little do the children realize that they are learning how to revise their writing when they practice this little exercise.

I've heard homeschoolers say that they don't use Shurley because it is too scripted. I like the scripts because it leaves nothing to chance. I know exactly what to teach and how to teach it to my children. That said, I will often read the lesson and then use my own words to teach it. If you are a script hater, please do not let this put you off this program. The benefits to you and your child far outweigh this minor irritation. See research on the benefits of using Shurley English.

I have no doubt that children who are taught English using Shurley English will turn into strong readers and writers. Schools in Athens, GA are finding that Shurley English is causing a dramatic improvement in language arts scores. Here's an article on this here.

Mrs. Shurley is a great supporter of homeschooling and a promoter of writing in the young. Thank you Mrs. Shurley for sponsoring the Book Arts Bash, a writing competition that celebrates our homeschool writers.