Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: Peter and the Wolf from Maestro Classics

Maestro Classics ReviewAs I was doing some dishes last evening, I overheard SA(7) humming a tune. I looked at my husband. "Is that...?" He nodded. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Yes, this is the child that couldn't carry a tune in a bucket not so long ago. The humming, slightly off-tune but perfectly recognizable, was thanks to some daily sol-fa work. The actual tune was thanks to a Maestro Classics recording we've been listening to lately. We received an MP3 and digital download of Peter and the Wolf to listen to and review.

Maestro Classics Review

Maestro Classics' recording of Peter and the Wolf is part of their Stories in Music series, a collection of twelve recordings that includes classics such as The Nutcracker and Carnival of the Animals, and also some beloved children's stories set to original music like The Tortoise and the Hare and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. All of them are performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Simon and include extras such as the stories of the composers, more information about the music or the story, and extra music.

Our Peter and the Wolf recording came with the story of Prokofiev; a music-only track without the narration; a talk from the conductor about how the musical themes, not just the instruments, represent the characters in the story; a Russian dance performed by Trio Voronezh; and themes from Peter and the Wolf performed by the same trio, giving it a Russian flavour (This was my favourite extra!). We also received a download of an activity booklet (CDs come with a physical copy). There is a free curriculum guide online to accompany the recording. We didn't use it, but I know some of you might be interested.

At our house, Thursday is music appreciation day. Normally, that means that at about 10:30 AM, we take our snacks upstairs to watch Classical music on YouTube. Each term, we focus on a particular composer and watch a several of his works performed by a variety of performers and symphony orchestras. When we received Peter and the Wolf, we took a break from Brahms and listened to Prokofiev instead. Several Thursdays in a row we listened to Peter and the Wolf again along with one of the extra tracks. We also did a couple of the activities from the booklet. Their favourite was matching the instruments to the animals.

We had actually watched Peter and the Wolf about a year and a half ago during one of our regular music appreciation sessions on YouTube. It had been a wonderful performance, so I was surprised that the boys didn't remember it when we began to listen to this CD. I suppose that should be a lesson to me... we do need to listen to things over and over again for them to become familiar and beloved. I don't think they will ever forget Peter and the Wolf now. Because of this, I have decided to choose one piece from each composer we study to listen to repeatedly until it is very familiar. I think I will also buy some CDs like this one that the boys can listen to on their own whenever the mood strikes them. I sense a Christmas gift idea! :)

For more reviews of Maestro Classics Peter and the Wolf, as well as The Nutcracker, click on the link below.

Maestro Classics Review

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: IEW Timeline of Classics and Other Resources

Institute for Excellence in Writing is well-known for its writing programs, but it has other resources as well. I had the chance to use and review three of them: Timeline of Classics, Teaching with Games Set, and A Word Write Now.

Timeline of Classics

Of the three resources, the one I'm the most excited about is Timeline of Classics by Gail Ledbetter. This is a well-chosen book list of classic literature, biographies, the very best of historical fiction, and even plays and films, all arranged chronologically. It is divided by time period: Ancients, The Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and The Modern World. The pages are very simply laid out with just the right amount of information: a description of the time period and/or the setting, title, author, and the level each resource is appropriate for (Elementary, Middle, or High School). Each page also has an intriguing quote from one of the recommended books.

Since we are studying the Middle Ages right now, I turned to that section of the book. I could see at a glance which resources were appropriate for elementary school. I opened my library's website and started searching for and reserving the titles that sounded interesting: The Sword in the Tree; The Making of a KnightCastle Diary... I noticed a recommendation for a historical atlas, and thought, "Yes! I need to buy one of those." (I had just been trying to google historical maps online with very limited success.)

Any homeschooler that uses a literature based approach for history will appreciate this resource. It hits just the right balance of selectivity and comprehensiveness, and could easily be used as the basis of all your history studies on its own. I anticipate referencing it regularly for years to come.

Teaching with Games

The resource my boys were most excited about was the Teaching with Games Set. This parent/teacher resource includes two DVDs containing workshops led by Lori Verstegen on teaching with games, a spiral-bound book with rules and templates for all the games, and a CD-ROM with a PDF of the book and some bonus materials (extra games!). There are twenty games, most adaptable to any age group, many adaptable to more than one subject area. The games range from "No-Prep" games that require nothing more than a piece of paper (at the most), to matching games, Jeopardy-type question games, math games, and "Make as You Teach" games.

I was amused with the fascination this set held for my boys. It is a parent resource, but SA(7) spent hours poring over the instructions for the games, and JJ(5) immediately chose "The Space Game" (a home-made board game) as his favourite. They both watched the game demonstrations on the DVDs with me. We played several of the games, and as usual in this house, the math games got played the most.

"Fun Times" was a big hit, providing plenty of multiplication practice. I chose to make our own game board for this with multiplication facts between 1x1 and 6x6. (The original had multiplication facts from 2x5 to 7x10, and required modifying a pair of dice.) SA and I (or JJ, who soon figured out how to find the answers on the board based on the factors on the top and side...) took turns rolling the dice and multiplying the two numbers on the dice. We put our tokens on the answers, and the first person with four in a row was the winner. The game had some twists to add to its excitement...rolling doubles and landing on shaded squares on the board had special consequences.

Teaching with Games is a worthwhile resource that could be helpful to Sunday-school teachers and classroom teachers as well as homeschoolers. To be perfectly honest, I can be a bit lazy about coming up with games or activities to go with our studies. The boys were very pleased that I got to review this, and I'm sure they will keep me using it for some time to come.

A Word Write Now

The last resource I used was A Word Write Now. This student thesaurus by Loranna Schwacofer is creatively organized by character traits, descriptive words, and words for movement and the senses. The idea is that children do not always know exactly what word they are looking for. This thesaurus directs the student to a category of words and provides a range of ideas as to how they could express themselves using different parts of speech. Each page also includes examples from classic literature.

My boys are not old enough to use a thesaurus, so I used it myself. I often consult an online thesaurus as I blog, so I thought perhaps this one would do as well. It was not really a good fit for my purposes. My use of a thesaurus usually goes like this:
- I notice I'm overusing a word
- I type the word into a search engine
- I pick a better word from the synonyms that come up. 
I'm very task-oriented in my thesaurus use, in other words. This thesaurus is more oriented to creativity. It is all about exploring and enjoying words. I expect it will be very useful at some stage as my children learn to write, but we're not there yet.

If you are looking for a student thesaurus, I suggest you check out the samples online at Institute for Excellence in Writing and see if this is something that might work for you.

Other bloggers on the Schoolhouse Review Crew have reviewed these resources and also Phonetic Zoo Spelling from Institute for Excellence in Writing. Click on the link below to see what they have to say!

IEW Review

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Friday, October 23, 2015

Copywork in Grade Two

"I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson--a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work--humpy m's, angular o's." Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p 253, emphasis mine. 


The above is the result of a typical copywork lesson right now for SA(7). Three little words, done in five minutes of effort. He prints fairly neatly, but not with ease. Aside from his daily copywork lesson and some numbers in his math book, he writes little to nothing. I worry about this sometimes, particularly when I notice the achievements of others around his age, or even his younger brother JJ(5).

When I was eighteen and in driver's ed, the classroom instructor said something that stuck with me. Some people learn to drive quickly and with ease, while others take more time and effort to master it. What matters is proficiency in the end, not how long it takes to get there. 

My aim is for SA to learn to write beautifully and with ease. This is not a race. It is not a competition with other seven-year-olds. If it takes him years to get to that point, it will be okay. 

Meanwhile, he takes five minutes out of each school day to do his very best printing. He has his bad days, where his pencil "accidentally" makes stray marks and mis-shapen letters. We erase and go on the next day. He does not hate copywork. He is not frustrated. It is enough for now.

There have been two or three times in the last month that he has voluntarily copied something or written something down, and I take that as a hopeful sign. It may be that he will experience a sudden jump in ability someday, as he did with reading last year. It will not be the first time slow, steady, daily effort has laid the foundation for such a leap.

I am very happy with Charlotte Mason's method of oral narration (telling back what has been read aloud) for the younger grades. Because of this, his learning is not tied to his reading and writing skills. He is growing in his composition and communication abilities, and someday his manual writing skills will catch up.

If you are curious, we use Penny Gardner's Italics: Beautiful Handwriting for Children

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'm So Sorry, Boys...

...but Christmas isn't for two whole months yet!

Yes, you may play outside as long as you like!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Apple Picking at MacPhee's Orchard

This week we did something the boys look forward to every year: apple picking at MacPhee's Orchard. Five of their twenty varieties were ripe, and we chose to pick Spartans and Nova Spies. Sadly, my favourite JonaGolds were not quite ripe yet. I'm not sure yet if we'll manage to come back for them when they're ready... the orchard is about 40 minutes away from our place.

The orchard is a peaceful, quiet place with thousands of small trees. Children can easily pick apples all by themselves. We met several families from our local homeschool co-op there and got to work. SA(7) carefully read the information sheet telling us about all the varieties of apples...their taste, texture, and other defining characteristics. MM(3) pulled the wagon around. As usual, JJ(5) was my most faithful worker.

As we were paying for our apples (only .70/lb!), the boys caught sight of the maple syrup they were also selling. The boys wanted some, but I held them off ...maple syrup is expensive! Finally I decided they could buy some --if they went and bought it themselves (learning experience = added value, to me). 

I gave SA(7) the money, and told JJ(5) to go with him and ask for a small bottle. They started off to the tiny store, but before they got there, JJ came back. "I'm shy, Mama," he said.
"I know," I said. "You just go along with SA. He's not shy."
They got to the little store, but didn't go in. All three of them (by this time MM had decided he wanted to be in on it, too) hung around the door and peeked in. This time SA came back.
"I've never done bought something without you before, and I feel nervous about it," said he.
"Well," I said firmly, "If you boys don't buy it, we're not going to have it."
So they went back again. At the door, they peeked in and looked back at me. "Go on," I encouraged.
They went in. Five seconds later, JJ came tearing out with the maple syrup, and SA came out more slowly with the change.
"Did he give you the correct change?" I asked. 
"Yes," he said.
JJ was dancing with excitement. "He gave me the maple syrup, and he gave SA the money!"
"Did you do it the way I told you?" I asked them.
"Not exactly," said SA, "I didn't ask for a small bottle, I asked for a 500 millilitre bottle, because that's how much the small bottles hold."

So we went home and had apple pancakes and maple syrup for lunch.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wednesday With Words: Poetry of Sound and Feeling

I was reading Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells" to the boys at teatime today and it made me think of the different reasons we love different poems. We enjoy poetry very simply here --no analysis or picking apart, just reading and enjoyment. I'm sure we'll engage in some analysis later on, perhaps in high school, but for now we're laying a foundation of pure pleasure in the words, the sounds, the meanings, the feelings. "The Bells" is one of those poems where the sound of the words sweeps you along and evokes emotion, from the cheerful tinkling of the silver sledge bells at the beginning of the poem to the desperate, frenzied tolling of the iron bells at the end. This kind of poem almost reads itself... it pulls expression from you as you read it.

And that brings me to one of my favourite poems of this kind: "Tarantella" by Hilaire Belloc. It's not quite as heavy as Poe's "Bells," despite the "feet of the dead" and "Doom" at the end.


Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar,
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the dark of the vine verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of the clapper to the spin
Out and in--
And the Ting, Tong, Tang of the Guitar!
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?

Never more,
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
No sound
In the walls of the Halls where falls
The tread
Of the feet of the dead to the ground.
No sound:
Only the boom
Of the far Waterfall like Doom.

Did you read it aloud? Could you feel the din and whirl of the dance, and then the abrupt slowdown as you understood the depth of the silence and desolation of the Inn now?

Having children and reading poetry aloud to them has increased my enjoyment so much. I would never have glanced at this one twice back in the days when I only read poetry silently to myself. Some poems are meant to be read aloud, and you only understand their appeal when you do.

Do you have any examples of poems that are best read aloud? I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Field Trip to Orwell Corner

 Today, we went to Orwell Corner, a local historic village.

A little over 100 years ago in this one-room schoolhouse, science in the early years took the form of nature study. My boys didn't see anything strange or different about that at all. This was a humming-bird nest.

MM(3) dipping candles.
We had a lovely long wagon ride.

There were also animals to see, a blacksmith shop to visit, and a general store with many interesting artifacts.

My favourite part of the experience was seeing SA(7) at the blacksmith shop. He was very interested in everything about it, and it was a joy to see the utter unself-consciousness with which he peppered the blacksmith with questions and exclaimed in wonder at the temperature of the glowing metal. He learned a lot today, and told his papa all about it when he got home tonight. I love natural, spontaneous narration!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wednesday with Words: Hannah Coulter

It is difficult to read whole books, these days. I have been snatching moments while nursing. There is a book on the windowsill in my bathroom. My library basket is full of books I want to read, but will probably not get to right now. I feel like this last month or so since baby AJ has learned to crawl has been the most overwhelmingly busy time I've had since I became a mother. Meanwhile, I have joined a book club. I really could not resist, you see. We are reading Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry.

I have made it through the first five chapters so far. Thankfully this is one book that is best read slowly anyway.
"This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed. So close to the end now, what do I look forward to? 'Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.' Some morning, I pray, I'll have the good happiness of 'the man who woke up dead,' who Burley Coulter used to tell about.
This is my story, my giving of thanks." (Hannah Coulter, p. 5)
I think Hannah Coulter has the heart of wisdom of Psalm 90:
"So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Another quote that provoked meditation in me as a mother and the educator of my children was Hannah speaking of her grandmam:
"She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be. She taught me many things I was going to need to know, without either of us knowing I would need to know them. She made the connections that made my life, as you will see." (Hannah Coulter, p. 11)
I know that God knows the future of my children. That He is using me in just such a role is exciting, frightening, and humbling, all at the same time. But I trust He knows what He's doing, even if I don't.

What have you been reading?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: Middlebury Interactive Languages

Over the last couple of months, I have had the opportunity to use and review Elementary French 1, Grades K-2 from Middlebury Interactive Languages.

 Middlebury Interactive Languages Review
This has been more of a challenge than you might think for me, because I know that you, my loyal readers, will be looking for an evaluation as to how this program lines up with Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy and methods. You will get it, but you should know that up till now I have not been a very good Charlotte Mason homeschooler when it comes to teaching foreign language. This is not because I do not agree with her methods. It is purely a matter of intimidation. I don't feel qualified to teach French. I know a fair amount of French from high school, but my accent is far from pure, and I wouldn't dare to actually speak French to a real French-speaking person. I have used and dropped one program with my children already, and have been half-heartedly searching for the perfect program. I say half-heartedly, because I know that once I find it, I will probably have to shell out quite a bit of money for it! Meanwhile, we have been choosing one theme and one French song per term, and watching YouTube videos once a week relating to that theme and song. Then came the opportunity to try Middlebury Interactive Languages.

The courses offered by Middlebury Interactive Languages are all online. They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese courses in elementary, middle school, and high school levels. These courses are an immersion approach to language learning using video and interactive multimedia. Elementary French 1 is a six-month subscription to twelve units containing six lessons each.  Units one through five and seven through eleven teach vocabulary based on themes such as greetings, numbers, family, colours and animals. Units six and twelve are review. At this level two to three lessons a week are recommended.

How does Middlebury Interactive Languages match up to Charlotte Mason's approach to language learning?

To begin with, I should stress that I am only reviewing level K-2, and so will only compare that with what Charlotte said about language learning for children under age nine. I have no idea whether higher levels of this program will match up in a similar way with Charlotte Mason's ideas for older children.

Charlotte Mason believed that “French should be acquired as English is, not as a grammar, but as a living speech... "We must acquire a new language as a child acquires his mother tongue.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 300 and 302) While the lessons she describes are not at all like the lessons in Middlebury Interactive Languages, I think the immersion approach they take is an excellent application of this principle.

The immersion approach used in Elementary French 1 looks like this: each unit is built on a folk tale from a French-speaking country. In a video, children hear the entire story in French with animated pictures. Children take in the story directly from the French, understanding what they can from the pictures as they hear the story.

In addition, all instructions are recorded in French, though there is the option to hear them in English as well if you don't know what to do. Activities focus on matching the correct French word to the correct object rather than translating into English words, and children hear the words over and over as they do the activities. Each lesson also includes a pronunciation component, where children hear a word and then record it. (There is a version of this course that includes a teacher for an additional fee. I believe the recording is used more fully in that version for feedback. But even without a teacher, this is a great way to get otherwise reluctant children to actually say the words.)

Another part I love about this course is the emphasis on the fact that real people in real countries around the world speak French. The folk tales used highlight the different cultures of French-speaking people, and activities in lesson five of each unit give more information on the various cultures represented. "Living speech," indeed.
 Middlebury Interactive Languages Review

Hearing and Speaking before Reading and Writing
Charlotte Mason emphasized the importance of hearing (preferably in a native accent) and speaking a language first, before reading and writing and studying its grammar and spelling. “A child should never see French words in print until he has learned to say them with as much ease and readiness as if they were English,” said Charlotte, who considered a child's early attempts to read French words by English phonetics a chief cause of poor pronunciation.

In Elementary French 1, children do see the French words at the same time as they hear them. The words are included at the bottom of the screen on the videos, and are also part of the interactive lessons. This would not have been a disadvantage to my pre-reading children who crowded around whenever SA(7) was doing his French lessons. However, I noticed that it did affect the way SA(7) acquired the vocabulary. On the one hand, seeing the words made it easier for him to get the right answers in the activities. On the other hand, I found him doing things like pronouncing the number “sept” exactly the way it looks in English (like the beginning of “September” rather than like “set”.). I think Charlotte Mason was right on this. In this respect, this course would have been better for my three- and five-year-old boys crowded around than for the seven-year-old who was actually doing the lessons. SA(7) is naturally more visual than auditory in his learning, and seeing the words distracted him from the (for him) more difficult work of hearing and pronouncing that is so important as he begins to learn this new language.

Consistent Daily Lessons and Review
In the very early years (the earlier the better), Charlotte Mason recommends a relaxed, yet intentional and consistent daily French lesson incorporated naturally into the child's activities (for example, while playing outdoors). She recommends teaching a child a few, building up to about six new words every day. These lessons should not be random, but each one should build on previous lessons. Words learned should be incorporated into sentences and kept in daily use. “The child’s vocabulary should increase steadily, say, at the rate of half a dozen words a day. Think of fifteen hundred words in a year!” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 301)

Okay, I'm completely overwhelmed now, even though I have seen the incredible power of doing a little every day in other areas of my homeschool. I do have a slight tendency to throw in the towel and not do anything if I can't do it "right" (in this case, in the way Charlotte recommends). This is why I've been doing very little up to this point.

Elementary French 1 goes at a slower pace. With six lessons per unit, and perhaps ten new vocabulary words per unit (though all presented in the context of a story with many more words), the rate comes to an average of about five new words per week if you do three lessons per week. In our family, we began at the recommended pace, but now we have accelerated to daily lessons, mainly because SA(7) loves them so much.

Maybe some day I will reach for Charlotte Mason's ideal, but for now this pace is fast enough for us, and it's certainly much faster than I was going before.

One thing I would have liked to see is more regular review of previous words learned. Units six and twelve are review units, but I would have preferred simply adding a little bit of review to the end of each lesson instead.

I would also have liked to see the French songs always introduced in lesson five introduced earlier in the unit and repeated more often. Of course, knowing this now, I can always go directly to lesson five and play the song daily after each lesson we do.

Do I recommend Middlebury Interactive Languages Elementary French 1, K-2 for Charlotte Mason homeschoolers?

Yes, I think it is a very worthy option, especially for children who are not yet reading and will not be distracted by the printed word. You will have to navigate the lessons for them, as it is not set up to be navigated independently, even by a grade 2 child. I do not consider this a big drawback, as it keeps me actively participating in the lessons.

Some homeschoolers may find the cost of $119 per student to be an issue. While I believe the cost is reasonable based on the quality of the program, homeschooling families often live on a single income and spending this much on a subject that is not one of the "Three R's" can seem extravagant.

This is one program that we will continue to use until it is complete. If I find then that SA(7) is retaining what he has learned well, we may even consider buying the next semester despite our tight budget. I'll keep you posted!

For more reviews of Middlebury Interactive Languages, click on the link below.

 Middlebury Interactive Languages Review

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