Thursday, July 12, 2018

Math Essentials: Math Refresher for Adults (Homeschool Review Crew)

Math Refresher for Adults is a product that fell into my students' laps.  When Math Essentials offered this product for review, my first thought was "LUKE!" He graduated high school two years ago, had good enough grades and placement scores that he was able to skip several pre-requisites and jump into middle and upper-level math courses for this coming fall.  That said, it's obviously been quite some time since he had any formal math.  Because the advertises itself as "The Perfect Solution" for adults who need to brush up on their math skills, I thought this would be perfect for him to work with so that he had a re-solidified foundation.

Once we got the book in our hands and I was able to flip through it, I realized that while it wouldn't hurt him to work with the book, it was probably a little bit basic for his needs.  It focuses on skills such as:

  • General Math
  • Geometry
  • Problem Solving
  • Pre-Algebra
  • Algebra

While all of these are foundational for his courses, this book got re-assigned to Celia. She started Algebra I, but when she took the readiness test for her usual program, she felt she was shaky on some of the basics.  She knew them, but not as well as she would like. She also is transitioning from private school to homeschool, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to assess her skills. Since that was the more pressing need, she found herself the proud short-term owner of the book.

Not Just For Adults 

Since Celia was just beginning Algebra, we started with General Math.  This book puts you in the "way back" machine, starting with fairly basic computation - two- and three-column adding, with regrouping.  (If you're an adult working on this, you'll probably be calling it "carrying.")

Each lesson starts with four "review" problems.  At the very start, it doesn't seem like "review" - just more of the same.  As you get further into the book though, they pull from prior lessons.  I like how this keeps presenting opportunities to practice skills.  Let's face it, if you're doing a refresher course, it's because you know "one-and-done" re-exposure isn't going to be sufficient.

Celia felt she was ok with basic math; fractions, decimals, and percents were where she felt weak.  Each page has only about fifteen problems (four review, ten on-topic, and one word problem), so while thirty problems a day sounds like a lot, it only took her about thirty minutes each day to work through them.  She began by doing a page each of Fractions and Decimals, followed by Percents and Integers, alternating groupings each day.  She decided that this would give her the opportunity to review several topics quickly, but also allow her to keep looping back, so it was constant repetition rather than a "topic blitz."

While this is a softcover workbook, it functions better as a textbook.  While you could work some of the problems in the white space, you'd need exceptionally small and neat handwriting for some of them.  Author Richard W. Fisher suggests copying problems onto a separate piece of paper -- which actually helps with understanding, because you're working from start to finish -- and then completing the problem.  Rather than a bunch of scrap paper that could easily get lost, we opted for a copybook.  I laughed when I saw the front of Celia's book, indentifying which Celia the book belonged to -- the "classroom experience" is still active in her mind. Last I checked, we only had one Celia in our school!

As I said, this was an excellent way for me to assess her skills.  This problem showed a couple of weaknesses.

Math isn't just about getting the "right answer." You have to get the process right because otherwise, the correct answer is luck, not skill.  Here, her first try didn't align her numbers correctly.  I followed her thought process, but there were two issues -- either she missed squaring off the problem with a decimal place (and therefore a step in her work), or she wasn't lined up correctly. Her second try fixed the place issue -- but then her computation was off because she "brought down" her decimal point, as if she was adding, rather than "counting over," which definitely affected her answer.  She realized what she did wrong, and got both the correct process and answer on the third go.  While it seems like not a big deal when you're "just" multiplying in a single-step problem, this can become an issue as you move into multi-step problems.  Forget algebra, let's just consider finding a discount and then adding sales tax to determine if you can afford a purchase: when you calculate that 7% add-on, you definitely want to make sure you're figuring based on the correct price!

Heading into Algebra, the extra practice with Integers was helpful.  Again, we found that "setting up" was a weak spot.  Celia wanted to jump right to calculation and answers.  Many times, I had to say "COPY first, THEN work."  Or, show how you get from one calculation to the next.  While I can appreciate when I'm adding multiple numbers I tend to just go across the line in my head, when you're learning to add and subtract integers, it is crucial to do one step at a time until the skills have solidified.

We also learned that she tends to rush, leading to "stupid mistakes."  When you get to upper levels of math, you have to take your time and do problems one step at a time. When I asked her how to solve this problem, her answer was to rush across the line, "Order of Operations, negative seven plus three is negative five, plus eight is three...Oh. Wait a minute."  I pointed out that by trying to do it all at once, one mistake meant the entire thing was wrong. By doing it in steps, she had a chance to see where her mistake was and then an opportunity to fix it. Unfortunately, this is a habit that she didn't learn in school, so it's one we need to set up.

Again, it's not that she doesn't know her times tables -- when I said to her, "um...what is six times three?" she answered, "Eighteen!"  Apparently, she just had a total brain fart here.  Or she was rushing.  (Very likely.) Learning this was as important as actually knowing her times table.  As a parent/teacher, it tells me she needs reminders to slow down. 

Celia will likely continue working through the book to the end.  While she is continuing forward with Algebra 1, it won't hurt her skills to keep practicing basics and making sure she is rock-solid in them. 

Quirks of the Book and Program

One thing I did not like was how the program alternated how it indicated multiplication during algebraic sections.  Here, the answer key in the back was a definite help.  We determined that the x in this problem meant "times," not "the variable x."  That makes a big difference in solving. (Even if you do have to go back and slow down on the times table part.

There were several problems written like this, so when she came to one, I made her stop and ask me which way to do it, but just looking up the answer then primes the student to work backward from the answer, rather than seeking the path to get to the answer.

I also wish the answer key had more detail than "just" the final answers.  For example, there are problems labeled as "muti-step," yet the Answer Key only gives the final answer.  The page's Helpful Hints lists "Decide which operations to use and in what order" but there is no way to check if the student has chosen the right plan of attack.  Yes, this book is supposed to be a refresher course, but I think it's really just providing practice, not actual "how to" refreshing.

It would really be helpful for both the teacher and the independent student to be able to see&nbspnot only that it IS wrong, but WHY the answer is wrong. This might make a single book exceptionally voluminous, but perhaps the program could be converted to a two-volume set that includes a student workbook + answer key.

While I agree with Math Essentials that it is helpful for parents who want to help their children but need a refresher, there were sections where I just looked at the problem and said, " about YOU show me, and then I'll check it."  Yes, I was hoping that seeing how Celia did something might jog my memory.  (Yes, I could sit and watch the videos, but, like many parents trying to juggle multiple kids, I was looking for the most expeditious route possible.)

Also included with the program book is access to Math Essentials web-based video instruction.  An access code is included in the book for advanced Algebra tutorials.  However, there is no direct correlation for this book -- you'll have to sort through topics from the prior volumes.  The book cover advertises itself as "Excellent for English Language Learners" and for returning students, but I think these are is particular populations that may need extra hand-holding. It's not impossible to find the videos, but locating them definitely less "user-friendly" for this book than for other books.  At first, we didn't even realize that the videos correlated, because we were looking for lessons for this book. It is sensible to use the previously produced videos, but it would have been nice to have a landing page for this volume that leads specifically to the correct videos, or even just a statement saying "Math Refresher students: choose the links that refer to the corresponding Refresher book section."  Yes, we were able to figure it out, but no mention of the book at all makes Math Refresher feel like an afterthought.

Not Just for Crash Review!

Now that we've completed our official review period, I am going to also assign Jude to work in the book, too. He's just finishing elementary math and moving into Pre-Algebra, but looking ahead at his regular math program,  I can see some areas where he would benefit from a few extra "basic math" problems each day. His usual program does build upon what the student has already learned in the Elementary program, but it will be a while before he returns to multiplying fractions. Knowing his strengths and weaknesses, I think it would be better for him to do a few problems of that here and there to keep practicing rather than hoping he can pull it from the depths of his brain a few months from now.  Math Refresher will give him opportunities for extra practice without feeling like he's doing a "baby" workbook or a second curriculum.  While I don't think ten or fifteen review problems a day is excessive for high schooler Celia, I probably will opt to have Jude do half a page each day -- odds on Day 1, evens on Day 2, which will both lessen the burden and extend the exposure. As for poor Luke, who had the book literally ripped from his hands...he's been taking short-session business law, economic theory, and English composition summer courses, so math review has been pushed to the side for now.  He plans to start his math courses in the fall without a review, but keep this book handy if he finds there are things he's just not entirely clear on.

75 Crew Families have been brushing up on their math skills. Click the banner below to read their reviews.

Click here to read our review of Math Essentials: No-Nonsense Algebra.

Math Refresher for Adults {Math Essentials}

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bible Study Guide for All Ages (Homeschool Review Crew)

We're no strangers to Bible Study Guide for All Ages.  A few years ago, Celia got to test the program out and really enjoyed working with it.  This time, it was the boys' turn.  New third grader Damien got the Intermediate (3rd & 4th grade) while rising sixth grader Jude had a chance to try the Advanced (5th & 6th grade) program.  Each boy's workbook allowed them to complete the first quarter of each level: Lessons 1 to 26. In our kit was also a pack of large-format Bible Book Summary Cards and a Teacher Key for each program.

Bible Study Guide for All Ages also has programs for students as young as PK3, the elementary levels, and then teens and adults as well.  The program is laid out so that traditional homeschoolers can work on this a little bit each day over the course of a week, but it is short enough that the program used in a co-op, cottage school, or Sunday school setting that only meets for a short time each week. (Note: the workbooks are designed to be consumable products, so if you use them in a group learning setting, each child will need to purchase his own workbook.)

While the Primary level runs independently of the rest of the curriculum, the Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels run in the same sequence, only at different levels.  (Ok, I know that seems like a sentence filled with redundancies, but bear with me.)

The first few lessons center on Joseph of the Old Testament. Lesson 1 in both levels teaches the story of Jacob and the tribes of Israel, focusing on Joseph's Coat of Many Colors (Genesis 35:23-26; 37:1-11), Lesson 2 segues into Joseph's Dreams (Gn 37:12-36), and Lessons 3 through 14 take learners through Joseph's experiences in Egypt and then Jacob's death.  We then jump to study the Book of Daniel, and the Babylonian capture, and more dreams - this time, Nebuchadnezzar's dreams and the promise of a King.  In Lesson 21, we fast-forward to the Gospels of Matthew (Mt 1:1-17) and Luke (Lk 2:23-38) and begin learning about the family of the King of Kings, Jesus.

Notice I didn't say "Jude learned," or "Damien learned."  Despite different workbook activities, each week, the lessons focus on the same stories. If you're Mama reading the passages aloud, it makes reading times simple: everyone can sit and listen together.  By focusing on the same stories in a two-year cycle, it is presented soon enough that there is some familiarity ("I remember that story!") but enough elapsed time that the older student is ready to delve a little deeper.  It also means that in group activities, a family actually becomes a group.

Each of these activities would be difficult to do with just a parent and child.  In the first one, two people don't make a very large web of lies.  In the second, it becomes an "aha!" moment when we realize "telling the truth" isn't just disobedient to adults, but hurtful to their peers as well.

What learning style is your homeschool? It doesn't matter! We're what most would call "eclectic" homeschoolers; I think the term I'd use is "Crew-led." However, there are bits of many learning styles within the program that make it accessible to many.  For example:

Classical Method? Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Not only do you revisit the same stories, but each lesson has a review of the what is learned.

Charlotte Mason? Active and applied activities in lessons are focused, and I'm not sure there's a more "living" book than the Word of God!

Unit Study? You're taking a topic and finessing it until there isn't much left to learn.

Group Setting? If you did this is a group learning setting where you only had 60-90 minutes to work together, I would focus on reading the Bible story, the Memory Workout, map or timeline activities, and the Get Active and Apply It! sections.  The latter two are probably the most suited to a group setting, and the reflection and prayer at the end of the Apply It! makes a naturally good ending.

The Teacher Key is a suggestion at most levels for homeschools but highly recommended for group teachers. I agree with this; how much you will need it will depend on how independently your student is working. Primary Level is the only one where a teacher's key is required, due to the more visual vs. language-based program.

Private Homeschool with multiple children?  There are a few options.  There are a total of 416 lessons for each level, so you have a significant amount of ground to cover in the two years, especially if you're keeping to a "traditional" 180-day school schedule.

The first option is to divide the activities across two days. This would allow for 5 lessons every two weeks.
  • Day 1:  Read the Bible passages as a family, and have each student complete the Guess What... and Map activities.  Do one level of Get Active and Apply It! activities as a group.
  • Day 2: Complete Remember It and Memory Workout sections together, allow students to complete the "paraphrase the story" cartoon activity on page 2, and then regroup for the alternate level of Get Active and Apply It! activities.

The other option would be to do a lesson a day, and just alternate whose "turn" it was for the two group-like activities.  You also may want to double up some days, to keep within that two-school-year range. However, the levels do have some flexibility, so you could start a younger student a little early, or run a little later ending the level, without overwhelming or boring a student.

If you have only one child working on the program, working one-on-one with them to complete activities is an option.  Again, I'd recommend the Teacher Key if you have an independent student, especially at the Advanced level.  I didn't feel I was missing anything by not having the Intermediate Key; most of the answers were quickly figured out by knowing the story. I was glad to have it with Jude because I don't remember the "chapter-and-verse" locations of things through the Bible, so it saved me having to look up if his answers were correct or not.

What Christian denomination are you part of? Again, it doesn't matter.  Because this provides the passages for a story, not the story itself, you are free to use whatever Bible translation you prefer.  So many Bible programs are focused on the King James Version of the Bible, and it is frustrating as a Roman Catholic.  (To us, the KJV is also missing books, but that's another story!) I like that we are able to use our family Bible to read from.

The Bible Summary Cards are full-sheet, full-color, heavy cardstock cards with pictures on one side and written summaries of the topic on the back.  They address most books from Genesis to Revelation -- you will not use them all in a quarter, but rather over the course of the entire program. The pack as a whole works with all levels, so with proper care, they will last through several students. I may consider laminating them since they will have so many hands on them.

I still like this program. (I also can't believe that it's been five years since we used it last!) I think I will be checking out the Teen level as well because it's a program that would simplify Bible study to fit our wide range of ages.  Jude and Damien are enjoying the "easy" work, but I like that it's not just "busywork" but encouraging them to think about the lessons of the Bible.

The Crew received materials for students in PK3 through 6th grade.  Click the banner below to read their reviews of the Beginner, Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced levels, as well as the Bible Study Guide for All Ages Timeline program.

Bible Study Guide For All Ages {Reviews}

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Master and His Apprentices (Homeschool Crew Review)

Public school students in our state have relatively strict curriculum requirements, including one year of a "visual or performing arts" curriculum.  On the one hand, homeschoolers do not have to follow the same "mandated curricula" rules - thank heavens for that flexibility! However, I feel that, to have a transcript that is competitive with their peers and not feel like we have to reinvent wheels, it makes sense to use the state's list as a "things we ought to cover" guide. We hoped that one option for fulfilling this "requirement" could be  The Master and His Apprentices: Art History from a Christian Perspective,  a one-year high school art history curriculum published by The Master and His Apprentices.

Initial Thoughts

The Master and His Apprentices is a Christian-viewpoint program.  It is arranged in a manner that helps coordinate Biblical and historical timelines.  This is not unlike a few other of our courses, and I like this perspective.  My school experience was learning things in "parallel universes." Cognitively, I knew that there is overlap in multiple civilizations, but I never tied it all together. When Jude started working on a particular history program, I discovered the idea of teaching "within a timeline" and discovered how much easier it is to understand how civilizations segue from one to the other.  I liked the idea of starting at the beginning (Creation) and then studying art's progression through time.

For our review, we received a Digital Edition of the curriculum, which included the Textbook ($34.99 retail) and Teacher Guide ($19.99).  This is a downloadable PDF file that can be viewed on (ideally) a computer screen or a large-format tablet. The file is also formatted for printing; the appropriate margin has been left for a 3 hole punch binder or comb binding.  While it took a considerable amount of time and ink, Matthew preferred a printed copy of the text, which would allow him to mark it for studying.

  The guide includes a single-student license; there is $2 "recopy" fee for use with each subsequent student. (Reviewers received unlimited household recopy rights.)  I can understand the company's view - this program is an investment in their intellectual material - but I don't like the idea of having to go back to the company every time I want to re-use a digital program.  As a parent, I'd rather pay a few dollars more at the beginning for an unlimited single-household license, rather than feel "nickel-and-dimed" over time.

There is also a pre-printed materials option. This includes a 380-page hardcover Textbook ($149.99) and softcover, perforated-page, 120-page Teacher Guide ($24.99).  The teacher's guide is intended to be a consumable material, but digital student reprint rights are available as well ($2 per student).  Again, this feels clunky. I can understand the workbook being consumable. However, if I'm purchasing something pre-printed, it's because it's more cost-effective (either financially or time-wise) than printing it myself.  If the paper guide were less expensive, I'd be more inclined to just purchase multiples of those and be done.

I can understand a per-student charge for non-family group settings (one suggested use of this is with co-op programs), but perhaps that should be a different "call us for pricing" category since the photocopy rights only apply to the workbook; each student still needs to purchase a textbook. I'm also not sure about the textbook and re-printing capability for later students.

Working with the program

I think this should be retitled Western Art History from a Christian Perspective, or even "Western History Through Art".  I had expected this to cover art from around the world, not just the Middle East and Latinized areas.  There is a single 8-page chapter devoted to "the rest of the world," with an explanation that "In a collegiate setting, the study of Western art and non-Western art are quite often divided into separate classes." (p. 314)  That makes sense to me because there is no way that the entirety of art history, when presented in this timeline-based manner, could be done adequately within a single semester.  However, neither the company's website nor samples indicate that there is little attention given to non-Western art.  A mere eight pages are included and meant to point out other cultures; it feels like an "oh yeah, there's this other stuff" afterthought.  I think it would be better to omit it entirely and advertise this program as a history of western art.

The book also mentions "Through Modern Times" in the title.  However, it ends with the Baroque era and covers from Rococo (the 1700s) to current times in 8 pages.  Impressionism - with the greats such as Renoir, Monet, Rodin, and Sargeant - gets a full page, while post-impressionist Van Gogh earns a small example picture and half a sentence.  Again,  if it had advertised itself as "Through the Baroque Era," I would be fine with that.  But if it says "Through Modern Times," then I expect to find at least a mention of artists such as John Singer Copley and Charles Wilson Peale, and discussion of the establishment of the Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Arts, the oldest art institution in the United States and one of the first to allow women to receive an arts education equal to their male peers.

This curriculum is meant to be worked over the course of a 36-week school year.  If time is an issue, some lessons may be combined or omitted (the Teacher Manual gives directions for this.)  Matthew worked each week's assignment or two over the course of a few days - reading the chapter one day, and completing the (as many as 30+) questions over a second or third day.

The program also includes four written research papers and four exams.  I appreciated the clear "What to do each week" layout.  I'm not certain what semester the dates included were from -- my guess is this was used with a co-op in a particular year, and these are the corresponding dates.  Practically speaking, it was not a big deal to cross out the printed dates and re-mark the ones that aligned with our work.  There is a note in the corner that this is a sample and there is an editable document available, but that just was an extra step that really seemed more than needed.  (Plus, it involved printing another page.) However, it made the guide seem less "professional" and more "I'll just sell copies of my notes."

The teacher's guide heavily weights "discussion" - I think this works better in a group setting than a single student.  The manual discusses how to use the program in both a one-hour class setting or a longer meeting period. However, for the single-student, it's awkward.  The only person Matthew had to discuss things with was me, and he would look at me and say "I answered the questions, I don't have anything to really add." I think having a group of people with different perspectives would make a difference in how engaging the material could be.

"No Nudity" 

One of my primary concerns with the program is it explicitly advertises "No nudity!"  I felt that Ancient Greece, often filled with nude statuary, could focus on draping, and how artists and sculptors skillfully used light and shadow to create movement in folds of robes.  But how does one effectively teach Renaissance art without using any nudes?  There are nudes on the ceiling of the church where the Pope is elected!  How does any Art History course worth its salt gets around Michelangelo's David?

By picturing only his left foot.

This was just ridiculous. This is a high-school level program.  I'm not an advocate of gratuitous nudity, but nudity in art serves a purpose.  In the Renaissance, it showed not only the skill of the artist in creating work but also reflected the emerging understandings in math and science of both the body itself and how to arrange it on canvas or in stone proportionally and realistically.  (Later in the Baroque era, it reflects the changing attitude of the times.)  David is probably one of the premier specimens of this Renaissance knowledge, as well as an incredible example of general line, movement, and the dynamic Renaissance contrapposto. At the very least, showing David's face and upper body would demonstrate these principles.  Without any of these tenets discussed, my thinking that this is more a "history with art" rather than "art history" course were solidified.

The curriculum also mentions Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings and presents a close-up of God and Adam's hand.

Ok, I could allow this one as a "Christian view," but it is the only illustration of this magnificent work.  Why bother? The program has lost an opportunity to discuss Michelangelo's skills as both a sculptor and painter.

There is a single page discussing Flemish master Peter Paul Reubens.  One of the paintings chosen, The Raising of the Cross is an excellent example of his skill with line, color, light, and movement.  However, never is the term Rubenesque - a name for his iconic, allegorical paintings of voluptuous figures - even mentioned.  How does one study Reubens and never say what he is famous for?

I knew that this program advertised "no nudity," but I had hoped it would be handled differently - perhaps with a lighter touch and more deft cropping.  Yes, I can tell Matthew, "Go Google the David statue," or "Find out what does Rubenesque refer to," but if I'm purchasing a complete curriculum, I shouldn't feel like I need to add to it to provide a complete education.

Other content

The Textbook

I have mixed feelings on this as well.  For example, Chapter 9's Early Christian and Byzantine section features an introduction and four work foci from this period.  However, most some of the topics only encompass two pages! The Hagia Sophia, first a Christian basilica, then a Muslim mosque, and now a state-owned museum, has about a page and a half of text, and a few photographs. Other sections are equally skimpy.  Leonardo da Vinci, arguably the greatest man of the Renaissance era, greater than even Michelangelo, has a mere three pages (including photographs) dedicated to him.

For much of the early medieval period, the Church was the patron of the arts, and it shows in the Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals.  Reading this book,  you get the sense that a cathedral is just a big church in a big town. (p. 174) However, any big town could have a big church; what makes a cathedral special is it is the center of an (arch)diocese and the seat of the Bishop.  The introduction to "Gothic" comes closer, mentioning that Bishops were, often, political appointees.  But it never identifies the cathedrals as the centers of their domains.  But while it discusses the basic architecture, it never really goes into detail, even about the stained glass and statuary that depicted stories of the Old Testament, Gospels, and saints.  The church building was a way for the illiterate to "read" the Bible - one would expect this to be mentioned in a book with a Christian teaching base.

Kölner Dom/Cologne Cathedral

Additionally, one page is dedicated to the Cologne Cathedral.

 Nowhere does the text mention that the Cologne Cathedral, included part of the unit on Gothic style, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The text is copyrighted 2017, and UNESCO added the Cathedral to its roster in 1996. This is a crucial thing to understand about the Cathedral. The book mentions how it was completed in the 1800s with "modern" iron roof girders, but not that all repairs now - including current restorations -  must be made using the original materials.  Few of the current restorations are because of WWII damage; it is wear and tear from age and pollution that cause the need for repairs. Residents of Köln say, "We know the world goes on, because the Döm is being refurbished. If it no longer has scaffolding, life is over." 

The text mentions "ornated" flying buttresses, but none of the photographs show them.  It talks about how the cathedral is very "dark." I can attest from a personal visit that while the vestibules are dim, the central nave glows from the sunlight streaming in during Sunday services.

Student Activities

Even adding in the four assigned papers (five pages each), I don't feel the program will give a particularly good breadth of knowledge.  These explicitly assign the student to choose one artist, piece, or style to research.

To make this course more generally in-depth, I think I would assign more frequent (monthly vs. quarterly) but shorter papers (2 pages each) so a student would have a better opportunity to study a more extensive range of topics. Here, I think quantity is preferable to "quality" because it would broaden his knowledge of art and its place in history.

Closing Thoughts

I really wanted to like this program, because I feel, even transcripts aside, a well-rounded education should include the arts.  I have another option for Matthew waiting in the wings, but it is a program I will have to build myself in order to reach content and time requirements to count it as a full credit.  I admit that it would have been ideal to have something I could just hand him and say, "Do this, please," especially this year as I have a new student transitioning into our homeschool.  Perhaps in a group setting, this might be an appropriate course -- each student in the group could take work/period and bring a short presentation to contribute to a discussion.  A single-focus five-page paper does allow a student to get in deep with a single idea, but it means risking learning something out of context with the rest of an era of history.   Ultimately, I think that this program is more history than art, omits quintessential works under the guise of modesty, and is inadequate for a single student art history course.

The Master and His Apprentices: Art History from a Christian Perspective {The Master and His Apprentices Reviews}

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Celia’s Pay It Forward Project

Every year, the 8th graders at Celia's former school do a service project, called "Pay It Forward." Each child is given an envelope with $40 and charged with making a difference in the world. It sounds daunting when you're barely 13, but I am utterly amazed at the creativity and motivation these kids have.  There were 18 students in her class. Collectively, they raised close to $9,000 plus several hundred dollars' worth of donated items that aided a range of close-to-their-heart recipients.  Beneficiaries ranged from cancer research to a family that needed a specialized wheelchair for their son to a local family.  Celia's BFF created a project to benefit Hearts of Hope, in memory of her baby sister, Payton, and Celia was honored to be asked to create a heart to share with other families in need of a reminder that they aren't alone.

Three years ago, Celia cut her hair to donate and had been growing it out since, in anticipation of her Pay It Forward project.  She chose for her project to benefit Wigs for Kids, a non-profit organization that makes prosthetic hairpieces for children with alopecia and cancer.  Wigs for Kids relies on donations to make the wigs; patients and their familes are never charged.  Celia's goal was to donate half the cost of a wig, along with her hair.  Through donations and several parties and vendor shows where she sold Lilla Rose hair accessories with me, she turned her $40 into her goal of $900.  She decided that on graduation day, she would cut her hair to finish her project.

Each spring, the school holds an assembly where the 8th graders present their projects. It's a way for the entire school to take part, and for the younger children to get excited about when their turn comes.  (The 7th graders always pay especially close attention, knowing they are next.)  Celia needed to write an essay about her project to present that day.  As I videotaped the presentation, I struggled to hold my hand steady. I am so proud of this girl -- not just for raising money, not just for donating her hair, but for taking the hurt and struggles she has dealt with and turning it into something that will make a positive difference in another child's life. 

Early on Graduation morning, we started out for the hair salon. 

A few snipped ponytails later, she had plenty of hair to share with someone else.

 I wanted to shout from the rooftops how proud I was of her, but she wouldn't let me show anybody pictures until after graduation -- she wanted to surprise her friends with her new 'do.

Since not all the families are able to attend the assembly, they repeat the presentation at the Graduation Reception.  This allows all the kids' parents and families present to learn how the projects affect them.  My mom has been there when Celia has been berated by strangers for her feeding tube, and to say she was proud, too, would be an understatement  (My mother is beyond placid, but I've never seen her so mad that my dad had to physically hold her back from going after the idiots.) I had steeled myself, knowing what was coming, but lost my composure when I heard my mother next to me sniffling.  Thanks, Mom.

She's already growing her hair out again, hopefully to donate around when she graduates from high school.  I have a feeling I'll be blogging again about how proud I am of her.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Silverdale Press: Persuasive Writing and Classical Rhetoric (Homeschool Review Crew)

Most students begin learning writing schools in elementary or middle school.  Often, they learn a basic skeleton of how to write an essay, and just keep practicing it, repeating the same frame with new topics and supporting ideas.  But while I think this is adequate for fledgling writers, students can become stuck in the process.  Some people are naturally good writers, but for some -- like Matthew -- good writing isn't an inherently strong skill.  As he enters his senior year, I feel like a clock is ticking on getting him to become a good writer.  We were happy -- ok, Mama was happy -- to be chosen to review Persuasive Writing & Classical Rhetoric: Practicing the Habits of Great Writers from Silverdale Press LLC.

Persuasive Writing & Classical Rhetoric: Practicing the Habits of Great Writers is a year-long (36 week) writing course for high school students. This digital curriculum presents iconic speeches and essays for study, where students learn not only to dissect the persuasion but have models of exemplary writing to model their own after.  This is helpful for the student who understands the basics of writing and grammar but struggles with varying sentence structure.  (Matthew is one of those types -- I've lost track of how many times I've said to him, "Ok, I understand what you're trying to say, but this is boring me.  You need to reword that, so you're not writing every sentence subject-verb-object.") I think it really helps students to see a way to get the same point across but in a more engaging manner.

What is Rhetoric, Anyway? 

"Rhetoric" is one of those words that has lost its identity over time.  In recent times, the word is tossed around to demean or dismiss an opposing and often political, viewpoint.  Like the word "ignorant" coming to be a word mis-defined in its substitution for rude, the common use of the word "rhetoric" has come to be synonymous with stereotype and euphemism, implying the speaker is entrenched in "the wrong side." However, a staple of classical education since the time of Aristotle, true rhetoric is probably one of the most eloquent of written and oratorical skills.   For all their human faults, I doubt one would accuse the writings of St. Augustine, Benjamin Franklin, or Winston Churchill, as the rantings of "idiots."

True rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech, supported by skillful discernment, study, and presentation, that logically lays out an argument.   Yes, the writer hopes that he has convinced you to see his side and agree, but rhetorical writing lays out a clear case to support his point regardless of the final outcome.  For example, included in this study is one of my favorite speeches, JFK's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech given at Rice University in 1962.  He begins his argument that Americans have never shied away from the difficult, asserting William Bradford stated the same back in 1630 when the Puritans first founded the Plymouth Bay Colony. Kennedy continues,   discussing the benefits of space exploration, and builds a case for the benefits to winning the Space Race.  He acknowledges that it is going to be financially costly, and seems an impossibility. However, he skillfully rallies the crowd to his side, bringing his speech to a conclusion:

Many years ago,  the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.

Well, while it might take a fair bit of experimentation, I don't think rhetoric isn't quite as difficult as launching a "flying thermos bottle," as 3-time astronaut Walter M. Schierra, Jr. called it. 

The program's Table of Contents reads like a "Who's Who" of great writers:

Every writer has a preferred writing style, but he also brings his own voice to his writings.  I like that this program includes so many sample writers! The essays chosen for study have been written by a wide variety of authors.  Some are iconic: what American student is unfamiliar with Patrick Henry's emphatic speech that ends, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"? But while other samples are from famed orators, they may be lesser known speeches: Abraham Lincoln is represented not by those proclaimed as President, but the 1854 speech he presented at Peoria.  This speech pointed out the flaws in slavery and ultimately began the path that led him to the presidency.  Seeing the variety of styles gives a student the opportunity to meld different ideas, makes his writings more authentic and persuasive.  He becomes able to develop his own voice, instead of relying on a single-model mold.

Scope and Sequence

This 36-week program introduces a new topic each week.  It is divided into sections:

  • Introduction - about Rhetoric and good writing habits
  • Invention - Researching and creating rhetorical essays
  • Arrangement - Structuring the essay
  • Style - Examining the four qualities that rhetoric must contain to be considered "good" 
  • Conclusion - The student's personal development as a writer
By the end of the program, the student should have the skills to write classically-influenced persuasive essays suitable for publication.

Implementing the Program

The curriculum consists of three  PDF "books." The first document is the Rhetoric Lesson book. This 235-page document is the textbook. Each week, the goal of the lesson is outlined, along with project assignments.

Because it is a digital program, you have the option of working paperlessly or printing only parts you need.  Our printer was the victim of a power surge just as we began this review,  so we started working with a combination of reading the PDF documents and a Google Docs file for answers.  (Google Docs is fantastic for this because it allows Matthew and I to simultaneously log into the work, to keeping both printing and email inbox clutter to a minimum.)

The program is laid out so the student can work nearly independently.  It's set on a 4-day-per-lesson cycle; we have opted to keep to one lesson/week, which gives him extra time ("Day 5") to work on his essays. The lesson plan generally follows the same weekly pattern:

Day 1:  Read the lesson text.  Define any vocabulary and answer comprehension questions about lesson contents.
Day 2:  Read the writing sample, and answer questions.
Day 3: Complete workbook exercises that help understand and use the lesson concept.
Day 4:  Write a 500-word, prompted-topic essay.

This is most definitely a writing-intensive course -- "500 words" is approximately two double-spaced pages.   The writing is the most time-intensive part of the course as well.  So far, Days 1-3 have taken Matthew about 30 minutes a day.  He has worked on each writing piece total of about three hours, including research and editing.  (This is probably at the lower end of time I would expect for this length of assignment.  Luke regularly writes 500-word essays for his college classes, and they usually take him at least double that.)  Spreading it over two days -- about two hours to research and draft, and an hour or so the next day to revise -- helps make the assignment both fit into his day better and not become so overwhelming.  I think seeing something the next day "with fresh eyes" really helps writing skills develop because the "cold" reading helps the writer see places where he needs to be more explicit or fix a spelling/grammar error that he may have glossed over before.

The reader, for Day 2, is a 111-page document, containing the sample writings. Samples range from Patrick Henry's not-quite-two-page essay Liberty or Death to Ronald Reagan's 1964 monologue entitled A Time for Choosing.    The consumable workbook is 202 pages long, but is probably the one that could most easily be used on a screen instead of printed, if you're using Google Docs like we are for entering answers.  (My kids tell me there is a way to turn a PDF into a file you can add the answers to, but I couldn't figure it out.  It was easier to just use a separate document.)

There is also a Teacher Answer Key.  YAY!!  As much as I often will skim the kids' textbooks, it's just that -- a skim. I appreciate having answers in front of me so I don't have to figure them out, or if I'm not as far in my reading as a kid is.

First, there is a clear rubric to help guide grading essays.  I like rubrics because they clearly outline expectations.  Some things do maintain subjectivity, but when you say "I'm docking this for grammar," the student sees it is an essential component and not the grader nitpicking for mistakes to sabotage his grade.

Obviously, not every answer will be in the key - there are some opinion-based answers, but it gives me a good idea of if Matthew has actually read the text, or if he's skimming, too.

Speedbumps We Hit

While we're on the subject of what do good writers do -- they read, they think, and they write. One of the exercises in the program is to compile a specific reading list of books. Matthew is still considering the last "Recommended by someone" title but has created a pretty solid reading list for himself.

I require each child to read for half an hour a day, so he now has a list of books to work through, instead of staring at the bookcase and saying "I don't know what to choose."  Because this is a writing-only program, he still needs a literature component for a full English credit, so we are taking a few of those and doing literature studies on them.  One of them, The Hound of the Baskervilles, will actually be credited towards a "Read a Sherlock Holmes book" requirement in his Forensics course.  This course has so much work that I have no qualms about counting the reading towards another class.

However, I really think the core course is worth more than a single credit.  At 36 weeks, yes, it can fit into one "school year." However, the program is really intense at this speed. Unless the student works faster in the early part of the week and condenses lessons, doing lessons x.1, x.2, and x.3 in only a day or two, it means he's writing a research essay in two days or less.  It certainly has Matthew spitting out a large quantity of writing, but I'm not sure that it's quality writing.

As I said, grammar is an essential element of writing. I have found using online grammar scorers to grade both helps me determine the level of skill mastered and avoids me seeing what I'm "supposed" to see rather than what is actually there.  However, is also an independent, algorithm-based program.  There are some things I might ignore (if a passive voice sentence makes sense, I don't have an issue with it), but generally, it helps me decide if the essay is worth reading for content or if I hand it right back to Matthew and say, "Try again." 

I think in the interest of time and being able to get all of his work done, Matthew is taking less time than he should.  Noted homeschool writing instructor Sharon Watson recommends allocating a minimum one hours' worth of work for every 100 words expected. At two or three hours total effort, Matthew is definitely not using that full expectation, and his writing shows it.  It has become more about "just get something to turn in" and less about crafting a well-written essay. 

While I believe college-prep courses should prepare students for college expectations, I think this may overshoot the expectations that should be put on a high school student.  For comparison's sake, Luke's full-semester college writing assignments have hovered at 200- to 250-word single-topic essays each week. (He is a Business Administration major, so his courses have included Marketing, Management Principles, and Business Law.)  His particularly writing-intensive, six-week session Psychology class involved one 250-word original essay each week (there were also two 150-word each responses to others' essays expected), with one 500-word essay and one five-to-seven page research paper (Luke's clocked in at exactly seven full pages containing 1,750 words.) Silverdale Press recommends Persuasive Writing and Classical Rhetoric for students as young as first-year high schoolers but quickly pulls ahead of even an accelerated pace college-level class. I'm sure there are young students out there who are able to keep up,  but I think the average or even above-average underclassman will feel overwhelmed at this pace. The content is appropriate for a 9th grader, but I think this program is better undertaken by a student who is at least at a Junior (grade 11) level.
 One reason I love homeschooling is we don't have to do 11-hour days, and trying to get the entire essay done - and still not done well - at one time puts Matthew precariously close to doing nothing in a day but schoolwork.  If I had a student who was able to keep to this curriculum's pace and completed it in a single academic year, I would definitely award an honors designation on a transcript. However, I really think it would be best completed over two years.  Due to the volume of writing, I think it could even be appropriate transcripted as "Classical Rhetorical Writing I and II"  and two earned credits.  

After I started reading through the particulars of the program, I found I really liked its scope, its essay choices, and its general organization of topics. I had intended to tuck this away to be Celia's 12th-grade writing program.  However, after seeing how much effort needs to be put in to do it well, I think starting in 11th grade would be a better plan. Alternating weeks will give her three school days to work on the texts and allow the 5-hour minimum for writing/editing to be spread across several days.  

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think this is a well-crafted writing curriculum. Rhetoric has gotten a derogatory connotation in recent times because formally presented essays, editorials, and speeches are often manipulative, rather than persuasive.  Many have lost the art of persuading others to see their side using facts and logic, and instead become appeals to one's base that entrench the opposition in their views.

However, while one may consider rhetoric and politics near-synonymous, rhetorical writing isn't a skill that can only be employed in politics!  Consider the need for an inventor to persuade venture capitalists to invest in his product.  A tradesman would employ rhetoric when pitching his company in a bid. While one might be mounting an informal solicitation, when an individual wants to raise money for a charity, just saying "I'm running for this cause, please donate!" requires a deftly handled appeal to get more than just your immediate friends to open their wallets. When paced appropriately,  Silverdale Press' Persuasive Writing and Classical Rhetoric is a good choice for upper-class high school students to learn and practice writing skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Some Crew families have been studying Rhetoric, while others have been studying Silverdale Press' White House Holidays Unit Studies.  To read their reviews, click the banner below.

Persuasive Writing & Classical Rhetoric: Practicing the Habits of Great Writers & White House Holidays Unit Studies {Silverdale Press LLC Reviews}

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