Monday, July 10, 2017

Home School in the Woods: Composers Activity Pak (A Homeschool Crew Review)

Home School in the Woods is a familiar curriculum provider for us. We've used them for multiple students in the past, including Celia.  My young musician was happy to work on this review of their HISTORY Through the Ages Hands-On History Activity-Paks: Composers, one of five Activity Paks that the company offers.  These programs are multisensory curricula that provide hands-on learning.

The Composers Activity-Pak studies 42 composers across seven musical eras.  By the time she's finished, Celia will have an extensive background in music history.  Studies begin with the Middle Ages and end with 20th Century/modern composition.  It's a "Who's Who" of musical history, starting with Guido of Arezzo, the father of Benedictine chant and continuing to the great American composer Leonard Bernstein.  There is also a section on music vocabulary, teaching students about various types of compositions.

This vocabulary section is the only place where the "answers" are supplied.  Rather than being a complete program with biographies of the composers, it is more of an "explore and fill in the blank yourself" program, where the student needs to research each of the composers.  There is also a section on orchestral instruments, which is also a cut-and-paste situation.

There are also 28 pieces of music to listen to for the "Music Appreciation" section. The pieces average two to three minutes in length.  Some composers, like Wagner and Mendelssohn, have one iconic passage each to listen to (Wagners "Bridal March" and Mendelssohn's "Wedding Recessional") while others have two; there are even three for Vivaldi and four for Bach.  Celia and I agreed that she would do one written report per composer; for the composers that had multiples, she could choose one piece to listen to.  (The exception was Bach, because included was his Concerto in C minor for violin and oboe; as she is a violinist, I wanted her to definitely study a piece that was specifically written for that instrument.)

This is a program that requires significant amounts of patience, paper, and printer ink.  Unlike most lap book style programs that are "open the file and click print," Home School in the Woods programs need to be printed one page at a time.  You'll need to regularly change paper weights and colors for each page.  We received the download version, and while it is saved on my computer's hard drive, launching the program used the Firefox browser.  Some pages we were able to open from the files and print directly, while others we had to re-download as PDF files so that the fonts maintained their integrity.  With limited hard drive space, this was annoying -- and we didn't figure it out until pages printed, so it meant either having funky printing OR using more paper and ink.

All told, I think it took me about two hours to print everything out.   Having used these in the past, I knew what I was going into and how much work it would be to get started.  However, if you're a lapbooking family and are used to "print and go," you're going to be in for a big surprise.  This is one that I think could be printed on just white copy paper, but it is more impressive if you use the different papers.  We had some leftover from our last review, so that helped keep the cost down a little.

The Timeline project was something that really made things click for Celia. She plays both piano and violin and has had juried exams for both.  She was confused when choosing her repertoire pieces for her upcoming piano jury.  She needed to pick pieces that contrasted mood and tempo but struggled to understand where different composers fit into the general timeline of music.   The Activity Pak has helped her understand that while composers like Dvorak and Debussy have very different styles of composition, they are still both Impressionists, based on the time they lived and worked. Now seeing composers laid out on a timeline based on when they wrote, rather than all jumbled together in her lesson book based on the difficulty of the piece, she can more easily choose where she needs to fill in repertoire gaps.

The entire project is meant to be assembled into a lap book, but that doesn't happen until you're done.  Celia was frustrated because it meant she had a lot of papers to keep track of. We did put them in a zip-top bag, but she would have preferred to have assembled as she went along. If nothing else, it would have given her a folder to keep her composer papers tidy.  Of course, it is possible to do it as you go if you're not following the directions precisely, but that doesn't work when the directions say to make it at the end.  (I finally shrugged and told her she had to decide which way she wanted to do things -- the "right" way or the "way that worked for her."  She's waiting for the completed program to build the lap book.) Secretly, I agree that "along the way" would have made more sense, but literal kids...

I'm going to sound like Goldilocks searching for a good music station here, but bear with me.

When we have used Home School in the Woods programs in the past, I've felt there is more cutting and pasting than learning.  It becomes less about absorbing the contents of the definitions and more "match them up and glue them down." In assembling the timeline and composition study pages, Celia spent much of her time cutting and pasting. She even had reprint some pages because they required some complicated cutting.  As she put it, a few got severe haircuts and "Mozart got a nose job!" as she was trimming to fit.  It would have been simpler if there had been more space around the composers and where they needed to go; she could have left more white space with a less detailed cut.  It was "too much busywork."  I could justify some of it as she veered off into art-land as she created her "music stand" and worked on what she told me was her "never-ending quest to actually do a good ombre."

On the other hand, I'm thinking an 8th grader shouldn't be spending six hours coloring and cutting out pieces to glue together.

Despite this, Composers is probably the program I have liked best because while the definitions were pre-printed when studying the pieces (and the composers themselves in another section), it was up to the student to find information about them. Celia is entering 8th grade, so she was able to surf the internet and research on her own, so these parts were an independent project for her.  (This program is meant for students in grades 3 through 8, so I probably would have felt differently if it was Jude working on it and I needed to do more guiding.)

She's spent a lot of time working on one composer and the accompanying musical pieces, and then hunting through my iTunes playlists looking for the full-length pieces to listen to, or for more selections by a given composer.  Sometimes I've had to say, "It's time to move on."

 Hint - we found these two albums to have the widest variety of composers from the timeline, along with a few others that are not included in the Activity Pak.   They do include longer pieces from the excerpts included in the program.

Did we find a "just right" with this program? I guess so, in the sense that Celia isn't ready to abandon this mid-way.   We've used Home School in the Woods in the past, with mixed results.  Celia enjoyed the 20th Century In America Hands-On Lap Pak,while the little boys were less enthusiastic about the Ancient Greece World History study.  I wouldn't have called this round a "tiebreaker" so much as me thinking "They're different kids, so different perspectives."  Having used the Time Traveler and the World History studies, I'm wondering if it's that they have different perspective.  The two histories seem to be facts fast-and-furious, while the two Celia has worked on (both Activity-Paks) have much more leeway for student-led study.  Composers is working for her, providing a framework for independent learning.

I would be more inclined to use this for not just upper middle school but also for high school as an art history course because of all the research and writing involved with the music passages and the composers; to use with a younger student I'd be hunting down books about the composers rather than letting a third or fourth grader loose on the internet.  I think if I had an older student and a younger student working together, it would be doable, but not for a younger child solo.  I'm going to say that because of all the "busywork", it is not my favorite program, but I can see us continuing with it as a summer project.

Crew Members have been working with a broad range of Homeschool in the Woods programs.  Click the banner below to read their reviews about:

Time Traveler American History
New World Explorers
Colonial Life
The American Revolution
The Early 19th Century
The Civil War
Industrial Revolution through Great Depression
World War II

The Old Testament
The New Testament

U.S. Elections
20th Century in America
Wonders of the World
Benjamin Franklin

Timeline Trio

Hands-on History {Home School in the Woods Reviews}

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