A note on our curriculum choices

As a teacher by training, I like curricula. I like pacing charts and a spiraling curriculum. I like scaffolding big ideas. I like anchor charts. However, I already know that when I’ve tried to use curricular resources, we do a big lesson and then skip the next 10% because L’s already figured out and applied the pattern. Have I mentioned that she excels at patterns? It doesn’t help that she’s got massive gaps between what she can write and what she can express, or that she focuses on subjects of interest to the exclusion of everything else. These traits make it hard to find an “all in one” curriculum. Instead, we would be best described as eclectic (a word my husband hates), relaxed, thematic, and passion-based homeschoolers. Here’s what we’re using now (age 5).

Language Arts 

I could care less if she can spell words right now. She’s 5. Spelling will come. It may be an area of strength for her (as it was for me) or an area of frustration. Just as she learned to read when she was ready and using her own method, so too will spelling come. I could care less if her handwriting is legible right now. A huge part of that is that she’s 5. I want her to focus on the idea that she has important things to say and recording them allows them to be shared with others who aren’t with you right now. So we jot things down all the time and I scribe for her when she requests it. Our house is littered with notes.

Th closest we come to spelling practice is pointing out word parts like prefixes, suffixes, and word roots as we decode complex texts. We also read Grammar Island  on the couch as if it’s a read-aloud. We have a moveable alphabet and stamps. We don’t use them often. We play Wordsearch and Pathwords Jr.

L reads. Beautifully. Narrowly. And far above grade level. She hates most fiction. She doesn’t like reading for strangers. And she absorbs everything she reads, so working on non-fiction graphic organizers is a waste of time right now. We just read. A lot. Vociferously, in fact. And I often curl up and read my own books while she reads hers. (The link at the beginning of this paragraph is her reading a page from Almost Gone: The World’s Rarest Animals – Lexile AD1020L, DRA 34).

We also do a ton of stuff that strengthens her hands. Sewing. Play doh. Drawing. Snap circuits. Lego. Her handwriting will come along as her hands grow. So I call all of that hand-strengthening stuff “language arts” too!

Science 

We don’t go more than a few hours ever without doing science. She reads science books. Plays science apps. Watches documentaries and other science shows. Is known by name at both our zoo and natural history museum. Her pretend play with animal figures is based in actual appropriate behaviors for the species represented.

Oh, and we make stuff. Snap circuits. Building with “garbage”. Tinkercrate. Chemistry kit. Marble run. I think we’re good on science.

Math

I have really struggled with math for L. One issue we consistently have is that she gets bored (habituates) quickly. This manifests itself in a number of ways.

First, she is not interested in repetition, especially if the repetition is intended to do things like teach math facts. Exploring addition? A-ok. Practicing number pairs which compose 10? Only in context, my friend.

And how does she manifest said habituation? Well, through stubborn shutting down, of course! I will not be moved, her behavior says. One thing we work on is helping her learn to tolerate (and it is literally that – tolerate) that which she doesn’t find engaging. However, I feel pretty strongly that my 5 year olds world shouldn’t be primarily or even a lot about learning to tolerate disengagement!

Where that lands us, then, is in a land where what we find that appeals to her get used manically for some period of time and then discarded, never to be touched again.

Good times. Expensive times.

Some of you may recall how L was obsessed with dinosaurs for almost 2 years. She now won’t look at them. Literally. She keeps her eyes down at that part of the museum. Because she’s done with them.

In the past, she worked through all of Todo Math which contains PreK-2nd grade concepts aligned with several domains of the Common Core (which, to be clear, I’m not opposed to as a set of standards). She has outgrown that app. She tried the Redbird mathematics curriculum and didn’t respond well to the format. That was very quickly a struggle. She responds really well to the Dreambox Learning app (aligned pretty broadly to Common Core), but she powers through it in pretty big chunks. A few months ago, she walked through a review of kindergarten, all of first grade, and most of second grade in about 6 weeks. She then got stuck on a particular concept the app had her working through (perhaps it was at the edge of what she could do?) and started fighting about it.

We use a variety of approaches right now, mostly low-cost ones! As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have some mad love for manipulatives right now. We also continue to use Beast Academy on a very casual basis. I also surf pinterest and grab ideas that look interesting. Anytime we come across a math app that looks interesting and seems reasonably priced, we grab it. Right now, we’re playing with Slice Fractions, Quick Math, Jr., and Attributes.

We also play lots of logic games. We love Rush Hour, Blokus, Kanoodle, Pattern Play, Set, and chess.

Social Studies

L was interested in enslavement earlier this year, so we spent an intense 6 weeks learning a bit about US history and specifically those who didn’t escape on the Underground Railroad (she told me that since so few people ever escaped, it was better to really focus on those who didn’t escape). Luckily we live very close to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, so we were able to visit several times and obtain lots of information.

Very quickly, that interest passed.

This will shock you, but we listen to NPR. I’ll give you a second to recover from your shock. In any case, we were listening in the car and I attempted to talk with L about one of the stories. She cut me off and said, “Mom. I only care about the people I already love and nature. Not anyone else.” Ok. We’ll come back to social studies another time.

So overall…

Follow her passions. Watch closely. Be prepared with lots of high-quality, open-ended, inquiry tools. Drink a lot of coffee. These are the things that make our homeschool work.

At least, it works sometimes.

Silly mommy! Structures are for YOU!

So, L is drawn to non-fiction, specifically science content. Almost exclusively, in fact. Unless the fictional content includes heavy information, she’s not particularly interested. She isn’t drawn to most children’s shows (Dinosaur Train being a notable exception), preferring instead shows like Walking with Dinosaurs, Cosmos, How it’s Made, and various Nature/Nova type documentaries.

In terms of reading, she does enjoy the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems and gobbles up her High Five magazine when it comes each month, disappearing into a corner for hours and coming out with the issue completely internalized. For the most part, though, she devours non-fiction text aimed at much older children. She rejects books with inappropriate information – great examples:

  • State that the sun is made of ‘gas’? The word will either be crossed out and replaced with ‘plasma’ or rejected as accurate altogether.
  • Dare list Pluto as a planet? A disappointed look will cross her face and she will explain solemnly that “In 2006, Pluto lost its status as a planet.”Again, either the book will be edited or rejected.
  • If a Tyrannosaurus Rex is depicted with three fingers, she will either declare it “a different type of theropod” or simply reject the book.

One of the other exceptions to her focus on non-fiction is the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel. She has all of the books, including audio recordings, and will sit by her cd player and listen to them repeatedly.

So what did mommy do? Decide to ruin that for her, of course!

See, I am still stuck in worrying about “what will happen when she goes to school!”

She doesn’t like fiction? But I know that most teachers use fiction as a bridge into non-fiction content – and in fact, read-alouds are almost exclusively fiction. There are expectations about what a kiddo in a given grade level ought to know about fiction, including being able to imagine an alternative ending, empathize with characters, and connect events in the book to events in one’s own life.

I came across a really great Frog and Toad response journal on teachers pay teachers. It’s seriously excellent! Incorporates vocabulary, building prior knowledge, capturing information while reading, and reflecting on the text. It’s high-interest and well-formatted. I even paid the $4.00 for it, which I rarely do!

I printed it off, excitement building in me. “Oh boy!” I thought. “This is just the thing! She loves Frog and Toad and has already read the books, so it will be familiar content. That will let her focus on building proficiency with the response format. This is going to be great!”

Silly mommy.

After fighting our way through four of the five chapters, it’s finally been drilled through my thick skull. She. Doesn’t. Like. Fiction.

She fully comprehends the book already. She knows all of the factual information that she’s supposed to record as she reads. When asked “If Frog hadn’t fallen asleep, …” she replied, “But Frog DID fall asleep!” I attempted to re-direct her: “Yeah, but what if he hadn’t?” Silently, she turned to the appropriate page in the text and pointed to the sentence where it told that Frog had fallen asleep.

Ok, kiddo. You can read. You can comprehend. If you’re given information you’re drawn to, learning is a joy. It’s really only when mommy decides what we SHOULD be doing that things fall apart.

Breathe deeply, mommy. Everything will be ok.

The short and direct road

… to reading!

My apologies to the Beatles. I always assumed that L would learn how to read at school, assisted by small group activities, whole-group introductions to letters and word families, and repeated readings of decodable texts. Perhaps some of these early developments should have been indicators to me…

From her baby book:

  • In April (21 months), you were eating a string cheese and the dog came up and took it right out of your hand. You yelled, “No, no, woof-woof! Cheese my!” In retrospect, that’s a pretty complex sentence for a 21 month old
  • At 23 months, you could read all the numbers 0-12 and identify about half of the letters! In retrospect, that’s pretty solid pattern recognition for a little one
  • At 26 months, you liked to hold your duckie up to your ear and pretend your duckie was requesting things that you actually wanted (“What’s that, duckie? You want to watch a show?” “What’s that, duckie? You want pancakes?”) Again, in retrospect it should have been clear that she was abstracting thoughts long before she had any business doing so

I’ve also found some great facebook statuses from back in the day… again, should have known at the time!

(Age 27 months)

Me: What’s your ballet teacher’s name?

L: Miss Donna. Like iguana

Ummm… rhyming? Really??


(Age 31 months)

Me to hubby: We could make c-o-o-k-i-e-s

L: I want to make cookies!

(Loooooong pause)

Me: How did you know about cookies?!? Did I say cookies??

L: shakes head no and smiles

Me: Did I spell cookies?

L: smiles and shakes her head yes

Crap! Crap! Crap!!


(Age 32 months)

A hand-written sign at her daycare is found saying “Please do not touch.” L is found, marker in hand, carefully scribbling out the word ‘not.’ When questioned, she exclaims “I change it! Now it say “please do touch!”

Ok. Seriously, we didn’t know she might be gifted. Clearly she’s far better at patterning than we are!


At the zoo, 33 months

L and I were making a list on my phone of animals that have 4, 2, and 0 legs. She wanted to add “fox” herself. She she typed “fs.” Holy crap. That’s emergent spelling!


At 3 and a half years

L: Why are the keys not in order? (meaning why are the keys not placed in alphabetical order)

I answer about levers and typewriters and frequent combinations getting stuck.

L: So not they don’t get stuck. What do they call that keyboard?

I point at the first six letters of the keyboard and keep working

L: They call it a Qwerty (pronounced properly)???? Qwerty is not a word!!!

Ok, enough side commentary about Just. How. Dumb. We. Were.


At about this same time, I was talking with her about the upcoming Christmas holiday. I explained to her that there was a holiday coming up and that people might want to give her presents. I asked her what I should tell people if they asked me what she wanted. She sighed and replied, “I just want to know how to read.” I tried to encourage her to think of things made in China or of plastic… =)

In any case, I should have realized at that point that her heart was set on reading. Now, to be fair, we have always read a lot with L. She has always been amenable to sitting on someone’s lap and pulling them book after book after book to read – literally for hours. She has “read” with intonation and pointing at pictures since she was very, very young. She has even been very interested in letters, completing many “emergent reader”-type apps on the iPad quite quickly. And yet, I didn’t realize that my little darling had set her heart on a goal.

I want to be clear that we continued those same behaviors – we read A LOT. I followed along with my pointer finger underneath the words I was reading at the time. When I knew she knew a word by sight, I paused, pointed at the word, and let her say it (with tickles and “hoorays”). We did NOT do any reading lessons. No blending lessons. No strategies beyond learning to read by sitting on a reader’s lap.

So it was a surprise when, two months later, she brought home a Bob book to read to us. For those of you who haven’t experienced the delight of Bob books, consider yourselves lucky. They are a great tool for learning to read, but they’re pretty dull! You have to remember that this is a kid who was already requesting that we read pretty information-packed non-fiction texts aimed at K-2, so Bob was a change of pace. Regardless, we were shocked when she could actually read it to us! The audio of her first attempt at reading it to us is precious, I think. For those of you following along at home, here’s the transcript of what she’s reading.

transcript of the Dot book

transcript of the Dot book

Fast forward to this month. She’s now 4 and 2 months. Here she is reading two pages from Did Dinosaurs Have Feathers? Again, the transcripts of the pages appear below:

First page on the audio recording

First page on the audio recording

Second page on the audio recording

Second page on the audio recording

Keep in mind that these two audio clips are separated by 8 months. In 8 months she went from reading a kindergarten decodable text to this.

Now, granted, this particular book is of high interest to her. However, it is leveled as a 4.8 grade level, meaning that it can be read by an “average” fourth grader who has completed 8/10 of the grade (so, late spring of fourth grade). She’s four. Not fourth grade. Do I think she’s completely fluent with this book? I do not. Do I think she’s demonstrating some solid third-grade skills? Absolutely.

Another recent addition to the list. She was reading a book out loud that had a “quotation, she inquired.” L read it aloud as “quotation, she asked.” I was prepared to do a quick recheck on the word to try it again. L told me, “I didn’t know how to say that word but I think it means the same thing as asked so I just said asked.” Um, yeah. That’s a pretty good strategy, actually.

So, the point of this post (and there is one, I promise!) is to demonstrate a little bit of what I mean when I say that this kid simply “gets” new material. It feels to me like I rarely “teach” her anything. Instead, I find appropriate materials that are challenging and interesting and facilitate her way through exploring with them. The concepts and skills seem innate. I know they can’t be (can they?!?!) but it really does feel that way.

One of my concerns about sending her to school is exemplified by this post, I think. How on earth do we find a place that can keep her engaged? How do we find a place where she won’t be required to sit through the multiple iterations that most children require to grasp a concept?

She’s not better than them. She’s different than them. And just like I don’t think it’s fair to put a kiddo in a learning environment where the material is moving too quickly for them, I also don’t think it’s fair to put a kiddo in a learning environment where the material is moving too slow. I can’t find a place that seems to balance the needs of the group with the needs of my kiddo. So for now at least, we homeschool.

And hey, thanks for sticking with this rambling post! As a reward, here’s one of L’s favorite knock-knock jokes:

L: knock, knock!

Anyone: Who’s there

L: Interrupting dinosaur

Anyone: Interr—

L: ROAAAAAR!!!! (delight and glee abound)

“So, what grade is she in?”

The levels of irony present in this post are really something!

I remember reading the Ramona books as a little girl and really connecting with:

Ramona had reached the age of demanding accuracy from everyone, even herself. All summer, whenever a grown-up asked what grade she was in, she felt as if she were fibbing when she answered, “third,” because she bad not actually started the third grade. Still, she could not say she was in the second grade since she had finished that grade last June. Grown-ups did not understand that summers were free from grades.

I remember feeling this way! What WAS the proper way to answer? Should one answer, “I just finished second”? Or “I will be entering third”? One of the schools I taught at used the phrase “rising” to describe the group moving from second to third – so, “I am a rising third grader.” These seem lovely, but I continue to learn about how regimented my thinking was as I try to address these same questions for my little one.

L is not “in” a grade. That’s the short answer, but it also sounds pretty grumpy (at least to my ears). People are just trying to categorize her in some way and they don’t know that this question represents more!

Let’s see. There are a variety of answers to this question, none of which actually answer them.

  1. She’s four, so she’s not in any grade. Technically she would be in pre-K/preschool. However, we’re not sending her to school, so… she’s not.
  2. She’s reading Magic Tree House books with fluency and comprehension. Grade level equivalent? 2.2. Now, her fluency and comprehension isn’t perfect, but I do think it’s at least between the 90-94% fluency level Fontas and Pinnell would use to put her at the instructional level. So, in reading, she’s doing second grade work?
  3. She has the fine motor skills of a four-year-old. So, even though she can spell and express complex ideas orally, her “writing” is at a pre-K level.
  4. Mathematically, she flies through the kindergarten level (Common Core aligned) levels of various apps (DreamBox, IXL, TodoMath) and is working at a mid-first-grade level.
  5. Scientifically, she’s working on understanding the concept of dark matter. Seriously. She understands dinosaurs and the Mesozoic Era as a whole at a level far deeper than I do. While she needs help making analogies between abstract concepts and more concrete examples, she understands and questions at quite a high level.

What grade is she in? She’s in pre-K through college-level physics. And she seems pretty darn happy about it. And that makes me happy, too.

Happy little reader

Happy little reader! Reference books are so, so fun. #ForReal