Book: Ravens in Winter

One of my goals is to read more nature and science books, and I particularly love birds, so when I found Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich at a library book sale, I couldn’t pass it up. I knew that more research had already been done on ravens because I had seen an interesting documentary about them. (This book was published in 1989.) But since I still don’t know that much about ravens, I knew I could enjoy the book anyway. (The latest news is that scientists have figured out that ravens can plan ahead for the future.)

This is the first science book I’ve ever read. That is, it’s about one scientist’s ongoing study of a subject and what he learned through his observations and experiments. (He had help from graduate students too.) What I loved about the book is that it perfectly illustrates the scientific method. Heinrich had observed ravens on some land his family owned in Maine. They seemed to be sharing their food and calling other ravens to join them. From this observation, he formed a question, or hypothesis, in his head. Did ravens recruit other ravens when they found food? Most animals do not share their food with others, so what advantage did this give them? Heinrich took a sabbatical from his job as a biologist at the University of Vermont to try to find out the answer.

The study ended up taking four years, and he did most of his work whenever he had some time off during the extremely cold, Maine winters. While I read about his adventures in the subzero temperatures, sleeping in a non-insulated and non-heated cabin, carrying heavy carcasses to places in order to attract the birds, climbing to dangerous heights in the trees to get a better view, I quickly decided that I would never have been a good wildlife biologist.

But I’m glad there are other people crazy enough to go to extremes to observe ravens because he found out some amazing facts about them, and his descriptions of their behavior were fascinating. While reading the book, I felt like a detective, sitting with him out in the woods, spying on these creatures, trying to figure out what all their odd behavior meant. Take this, for example:

NOVEMBER 27. I’m awakened to a rosy red dawn under a crystal clear sky with temperatures at 10 degrees F.

At 6:38 A.M. a raven flies over, then a second one. The pair has come–the Hills Ponders. They quork a few times during their apparent morning inspection for intruders and return down the valley to the pond. For the next three hours I see only the ever-present blue jays. They have not made a sound all morning on their frequent trips to the pile of new bait.

At 9:45 I suddenly see several ravens. I cannot count them because in the next half hour they circle over only briefly, disappear behind the trees, return, circle some more, and disappear again in to the forest. One flies to a tree where another has landed, and the first leaves; the second flies on to another perched bird, and that one leaves also. Two circle the bait together. I hear one set of deep quorks and one set of knocking sounds. There are no juvenile yells and no trills.

The chapters in the book alternate between a diary of his observations and experiments and also the research he did on previous scientist’s observations about ravens around the world. He also writes about observations from people who are not scientists, and though their observations can be helpful, he explains that it’s important for a scientist to remain subjective and not assume that certain behavior equals human behavior.

I was joking, a little, when I called him crazy. I can clearly see how appealing it would be to spend so much time out in the wild — sometimes alone and sometimes collaborating with others. You can get the sense of how he feels about about his work in the following passage:

FEBRUARY 5. The days are getting longer, but it is still deep winter. Last night, the northern lights were flickering across the sky. Tonight the sky is lightly veiled in clouds, and the quarter moon has a halo around it. It does not shed much light as I snowshoe up with my gear. I have to make three more trips, each time carrying about seventy-five pounds of frozen meat in a burlap bag slung over my shoulder. All of this is unpaid volunteer work, of course. It is fun. What I do will never have any major significance in the scheme of things. So it had better be fun.

Finally, near midnight, I’m done with my exertions and gratefully crawl into a cool but comfortable bed. Alone–unfortunately. A coyote barks from Gammon Ridge. It sounds like the dog next door. But out here it seems wild and exotic, elemental and beautiful. I am paid many times over for my efforts. But the same things I experience would not be rewards at all if it were not for the efforts I’ve invested.

Heinrich had to conduct many experiments, but he did find out that juvenile ravens will recruit other ravens to a food source, if it is located in the territory of an adult pair. This way, the adults cannot chase them off as easily. But that’s a very simplified explanation, and there is much more to glean from his data. These birds are very clever and deserve our respect. I encourage you to read the book, if you have any interest in science or birds.

Note: A high school student interested in science may enjoy this book, but younger kids would probably think it was boring.

Heinrich has written many books, and I see he has other books about ravens too. Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend the most?

Homeschooling 3rd Grade Language Arts

Some of this comes from my larger post about our 3rd grade schedule and curriculum, but it goes more in depth on how we did language arts this year. I’m going to try to do at least one post each year on math and language arts because I know focusing on one subject can be helpful to some people, and it helps me think about how I want to move ahead in these areas.

***

My eldest son began to read well when he was eight-years-old. I can’t tell you how happy I am that we are homeschooling. If he were in school, he would have been pressured to read much earlier, and to be honest, I was trying to teach him to read since he was five. He knew the alphabet and all the sounds before he turned two-years-old, so I thought learning to read would be easy for him. I was wrong.

I probably pushed him to read too early, but I didn’t put nearly as much pressure on him as traditional school would have. As I made my way through trying (and failing) to teach him to read and then discovering that voila! he just knew how to read one day, I learned that this is typical of many boys. Of course, it’s not typical of all boys, and it can happen to girls too, but in general, boys can be slower to learn to read. It has to do with how their brains develop.

So I was glad that even though I made a few mistakes, I didn’t make reading torture for him or make him hate reading. By homeschooling, I was able to make our reading lessons short and less stressful, and I spent more time reading to him. I believe if a child is read to often and in a loving way, then he’ll eventually see the beauty of books.

Even though my son is reading on his own now, my goal this year was to read a lot of literature to him. And I did. And I’m happy about this. Briefly, here is some of what we’ve read:

  • At the beginning of the year, we finished The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh, which was a big book and took up most of last year!
  • My Father’s Dragon
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • The Story of Dr. Doolittle
  • On the Shores of Silver Lake (part of the Little House books)
  • The Long Winter (part of the Little House books)
  • several books about the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • Only the Names Remain (regarding the Cherokee Indians and Trail of Tears)
  • Alice in Wonderland (We read most of this but didn’t finish it, and that’s my fault. I hated it and just couldn’t swallow anymore.)

Right now I’m reading Little Town on the Prairie and Old Yeller to him.

(Note: My younger son listens along to some of these too, although they’re more at my nine-year-old’s level, so he can get bored. He still loves storybooks, so I read a lot of those to him.)

I know homeschoolers whose reading lists are so much longer than ours, but that’s okay. Neither I nor my boys are the kind of people who want to spend long periods of time reading. We’re too restless. (Maybe I’m a boy in an alternate universe? Come to think of it, I hate shopping too! Okay, I digress…) I still love reading, but I read very slowly, and I think that’s okay.

My goal was to bring back our morning read-a-louds this year, and I did that! Yay!  **Patting myself on the back**

My son doesn’t seek out books to read silently to himself on a regular basis (frankly, there’s not much time in our busy day for it), but he does love to read and re-read the three big volumes of Calvin and Hobbes that we own. They sit on the kitchen table with our newspapers, and he reads them throughout the day. Aside from this, he’s been reading the Battle Bugs series, which he seems to enjoy too, but when he reads those, it’s usually because I set time aside during lesson time and not because he felt like reading on his own.

As for other language arts nitty-gritty:

We finished All About Spelling Level 1! Can’t say my son loved it, but I thought it was a great program, and it showed us both that he can spell, if he thinks about it.

For handwriting, we switched from Handwriting Without Tears to a calligraphy set. My son still loathes writing with a utensil, but it became a little more bearable with a calligraphy pen. I let him pick a sentence of his choice to write in calligraphy. Later in the year, he did less calligraphy, and we went back to writing with a good ‘ol pencil.

This summer, I stumbled on a wonderful app that combines both spelling and handwriting. It’s the 3rd grade 24×7 Digital Teach Me app. With this app, he is learning to spell 3rd grade level words, and he writes with his finger. And he doesn’t seem to mind this! In fact, he likes it! ***Jumping for joy!!*** He seems excited that he’s learning to spell words like “beautiful” and “almost.” The app is quite sophisticated and requires him to write the letters correctly in order to get it marked as a right answer. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have found this app! (My younger son uses the 1st grade version.)

Finally, I went over some grammar and parts of speech with my son this year with a test prep book and some posters I have because I knew these would be part of the test he had to take. I can’t imagine a worse way to foster a love of writing (unless a child likes it) than teaching kids the parts of speech at this age, and for the life of me, I don’t know why he needs to know this right now. (I am more in line with Patricia Zaballos’ method of teaching writing.) I really hated having to teach it, and I hated having to test him. (But grateful we are homeschooling considering the ridiculous testing they do in schools these days!) Anyway, we got through it, and I’m going to be doing some research on materials to teach this stuff in a more palatable way.

So, please tell me, what are your favorite resources for teaching language arts and parts of speech and all that fun stuff? (That is, fun for us English majors.)

Schools on Trial

schools-on-trial-goyalNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 23, 2016.

If you’re a parent with a child in public school, you may want to read Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal. Nikhil Goyal is an accomplished twenty-year-old journalist (he’s one of Forbes’ 30 under 30) who wants to change our public school system for the better. Seeking real solutions, he traveled the country visiting several alternative and democratic schools to see what he could learn from them.

You may not agree with Goyal on every point he makes. In the first few chapters, he’s very critical of the current public education system, though there are many who agree with him, at least partially. You only need look at all the parents and teachers protesting against the Common Core, excessive testing, and even homework for the younger grades. Homeschooling, as well, is becoming more mainstream, but this is still a small percentage of the U.S. student population.

The best part of Goyal’s book is his in-depth look at democratic schools. A democratic school is a private school where the students have significant control over their education, and some schools even give them voting rights when administrative or disciplinary issues come up in the school. Goyal believes that public schools should give kids more control over their education as well.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, “Goyal, you’re preaching to the choir.” I’m a homeschooling parent because I believe kids should have a more individualized education, and I think they should have a say in what they’re learning. It should be common knowledge that we learn more when we’re interested in what we’re learning.

Still, I’m not as democratic as some of these schools. I make my boys work on reading, math and some other subjects. But unlike public school, I work with my boys to find curriculum and resources that they like, and I don’t rush them. If they need more time with the material, I give it to them. Most of our day is spent pursuing interests we love, and that does make a huge difference.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in his famous Ted Talk, I think schools are killing kids’ creativity, but I also know it’s very hard to cater to individual students when you have 20~30 students to teach at once. I have always wondered how schools could give kids more autonomy and make learning more relevant to their lives and interests. The schools Goyal writes about in his book offer hope.

He writes, “After visiting many democratic and free schools around the country, I have concluded that I had never met more articulate, unorthodox, curious, and happy children before. The students at these schools have a purpose. They are lifelong learners. They love reading books and playing and learning. They can go on for hours about their interests and passions. They can communicate better than most adults can.”

I would like to see more research done on the graduates of these schools, especially those that are working to foster a diverse student body and admit lower income families. I think any kind of school is hard-pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home. While the research and anecdotal evidence is showing that kids who attend these schools benefit, most of them do not come from a disadvantaged background, as Goyal notes in the book. (By the way, there are two democratic schools in Atlanta.)

Goyal knows how hard it is to make changes in our education system. He knows that the majority does not agree with the proposals he is making in the book, yet as he also writes, many parents and teachers are fed up with the system as we know it, and this is promising. If enough parents and teachers stand up, perhaps eventually there will be more positive changes in public schools. But first we must become more educated and aware of the alternatives. Goyal’s book is a good place to start.

Magic Tree House Books

Magic Tree House BookNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 5, 2014.

For over a year, my husband has been reading the Magic Tree House Books by Mary Pope Osborne to my seven-year-old every night before bed. There are over fifty titles in the series, and currently they are reading #39, Dark Day in the Deep Sea. My son is thrilled because the two protagonists, Jack and Annie, are going to meet an octopus! Though I haven’t read the series with him, I’m privy to many retellings of the stories.

Jack and Annie are a brother and sister, and in the first book, they find a magic tree house and travel back into prehistoric times. In every book, they are sent on an adventure throughout time to different places and even to mythical places.  Through these books, my son has been introduced to Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci, the Civil War and the American Revolution, William Shakespeare, gorillas in the Congo rain forest and so much more.

The books are a great introduction to history and mythology, and there are even companion non-fiction books that will teach children more about the people and places Jack and Annie meet in their adventures, though we aren’t using those.

Starting with book #29, the books are referred to as “The Merlin Missions.” They are longer and the reading level is higher, so children can continue to be challenged as they grow with the series.

I have heard some criticism from other parents about the quality of writing in the books, which can make them unappealing for adults to read. But my husband has enjoyed reading the series with my son. He says the writing is simple and appropriate for kids, and he considers them to be fantasies and adventure stories for children. He thinks the author does a good job of getting kids excited about history, and he appreciates the author’s attempts at depicting the daily life of everyday people in the time periods the characters visit. From a history professor, that’s not a bad review.

Though we discovered the books while browsing at the bookstore, we only own two of them. My husband has been able to find all the books at nearby libraries by checking online first to find where the next book in the series is located.  No library seems to own all the books, but he has found them all by searching for them at the Winder, Auburn, Statham and Bogart libraries. Since they are short books, he checks out three or four of them at a time. That way they always have something to read each night.

Since I haven’t read the books myself, I thought I would interview my son about them. This is what he said:

Me: Why do you like Magic Tree House books?

My son: I like it because they do all these adventures, and there’s magic, and they meet all sorts of giant animals like a cloud dragon and an octopus and a sea serpent.

Me: What is your favorite book in the series so far?

My Son: Dragon of the Red Dawn, #37

Me: Is there a subject you wish she would write about?

My Son: She already has lots of cool books, but maybe one about going to a volcano and seeing a fire-breathing dragon.

Me: Are you glad Daddy is reading the series to you?

My Son: Yes.

Me: When you finish the Magic Tree House books, what series will you read with Daddy next?

My Son: I want to read Robin Hood with daddy. It’s not a series though.

Me: Anything you want to add?

My Son: They’re really good.

So there you have it from the seven-year-old himself.

Have you or your child read these books? What did you think?

Book Review: RAISING BOYS by Steve Biddulph

From my archives: Boys visiting a farm

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on February 29, 2012. You can read the online version by clicking here.

Last week I finished reading Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph.  Not long ago I wrote about one of his other books, The Secret of Happy Children.  Like that one, Raising Boys is short and easy to read.  I found it full of useful advice.

Some of it was similar to Michael Gurian’s book, The Wonder of Boys, which I reviewed last year, but there’s enough difference that I highly recommend both.  Busy parents may find Raising Boys more concise and practical for their needs, however.

Biddulph begins the book by noting that thirty years ago, a huge effort was raised to help girls gain confidence. While this was good (I think I benefitted from that), there was neglect when it came to boys. He writes, “…today, it’s the girls who are more sure of themselves, motivated, and capable. More girls than boys finish school, more girls go on to college, and they get better grades than boys.”

While this isn’t true for all boys, I have noticed other articles about boys and education reporting similar findings.  But work has been underway to change how we treat boys.

Much is known now about the differences between the developments of boys and girls brains.  Boys’ brains develop more slowly, and the left and right hemispheres of their brains are less well connected.  Since we know this, we can take steps to help boys and girls as they develop.

Biddulph advises, “…when you chatter, interact and tell stories to babies, toddlers and school-age boys, you’re actually building their neural linkages so they will become men who are good with words and feelings.”

In the book Biddulph writes about the three distinct stages of development for boys.  From birth to approximately six-years-old, boys are in the “learning to love” years.  This is a time that mama is the star of the show, although dads are very important too.  From six to fourteen, however, is “when fathers count the most.”  After fourteen, boys begin to seek a wider world.  They need mentors and caring adults in addition to their parents.

I learned in the book that boys like structure and need to know who’s in charge.  “Wherever you see a gang of boys looking unruly, you know the adult leadership is failing,” Biddulph writes.  Later he adds, “If the teacher, scoutmaster, or parent is kind and fair (as well as strict), boys will drop their macho act and get on with learning.”

He also explains that “if girls are anxious in a group setting, they tend to cower and be quiet” (that’s true for me!), but boys may run around and make noise.

I found it interesting that he noted that schools such as Montessori schools which engage boys in interesting hands-on work have less of a problem with unruly behavior.  He also explains that girls can certainly behave like boys too, and many of the differences between girls and boys are slight.

Biddulph is a big proponent in having boys start school one year later than girls.  I have read this many times and even talked to a kindergarten teacher about it, which is why I wouldn’t enroll my five-year-old in Kindergarten until next year, if I weren’t homeschooling.

Boys’ fine-motor skills and cognitive skills develop slower, so most of them would benefit from starting school later.  Just watching my little boys, it’s evident to me that they need to move a lot.  I don’t make my five-year-old sit at a desk for lessons for more than 20~30 minutes, and even when we are learning, I allow plenty of wiggling.

The book has a chapter each for fathers and mothers and explains the important roles each of them have in their boy’s development.  There is also advice for single mothers, a chapter dedicated to finding and creating the right school environment for boys and much more.

My favorite quote from the book is: “Family life is a work in progress. You only get in trouble if you have to be right and you have to show them who’s boss.  If you are human, it goes much better.”  Raising Boys is an essential read for parents with young boys.

What parenting books would you recommend about raising boys and girls?

Worthy Reads about Raising and Educating Boys

Since I have two boys, I cannot help but be interested in information to help me understand the unique needs of boys.  Below is a list of books and online resources that I have found, and I plan to add to this list as I find more.  I hope you’ll contribute to this by leaving me your recommendations in the comments section!  I know there is a lot more out there, but I haven’t had much time to research it.

Books

The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian – I owned this book before I even got married!  I liked the first chapter, especially, because it describes the difference in brain development of boys and girls.  It’s fascinating.  At the time, I guess I needed some insight on understanding the opposite sex, but after I had two boys, I sat down and finished the whole book.  I highly recommend this to any parent who has a boy.

Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph – Recently I read Biddulph’s Secret of Happy Children, and now this book is sitting on my night stand ready to be opened.  I’ll be sure to review it once I’m finished.

Online Resources

Bloggin’ Bout Boys – Jennifer Fink’s blog has a treasure trove of information.  She should know since she has four boys.  And she has homeschooled them too!

Why Boys Fail – I haven’t read through Richard Whitmire’s blog yet, but it looks like a good source of information and I want to go back to it.

Building Strong Boys – Not Just Cute – This looks to be a promising series about boys, risk factors and the positive things they need.

Interesting Articles

Schools “relearning” how to teach boys – recent article on king5.com

Why Boys Are Failing in an Educational System Stacked Against Them – by Lori Day of the Huffington Post – Very good article. I especially like this quote: “Particularly relevant to this discussion is the theory of “natural learning,” which takes for granted that a learner is a whole person — a living system — and that every aspect of a person, boy or girl, contributes to his or her learning.”

Our boys are falling behind in education – 2010 op-ed in Denver Post

New Studies highlights needs of boys in K-12, Higher Education – article in Science Daily

The Truth About Girls and Boys – a 2006 article that offers a different point of view

Teaching boys to be men – Interesting article about a boy’s school in Kenyan newspaper.  The quote I found most provocative in the article: “Why boys? Though she knows she might sound unpopular, Purity believes that the girl child has been empowered at the expense of the boy.”

Teacher and dad Michael Reist urges retooled approach to raising boys in new book

Anything Boys Can Do…Biology may play only a minor role in the math gender gap: Scientific American

A Huge Gender Gap Persists In College Degrees, Do We Need A White House Council On Boys And Men? by Mark Perry

Boys falling behind girls in education, experts look for solutions by Bruce Lindsay for KSL.com-Utah

All-boys’ classes grow confidence, leadership by Tamara Shephard on InsideToronto.com

Who says raising boys is easier?  by LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor

Learning to live with ‘boy energy’ by Stephen Bede Scharper

Book boys can’t resist – the notebook.org

Thousands of boys’ at least four years behind in reading – telegraph.co.uk – I see articles similar to this one almost everyday.  Something is wrong with how kids are being taught to read!

How to Help Your Kinesthetic Learner Do Better in School – NannyPro.com

Educating Boys – ABC Sydney – Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Though this sounds like a good school, I don’t agree with the statement that boys are different because we nurture them differently. They are just different!  And we nurture each child according to his/her needs.

Why You Should Care About International Men’s Day – Blogging ‘Bout Boys

‘Girls’ better behaviour results in higher grades than boys’ – Education – Scotsman.com – This is an irritating article. Boys are no less well-behaved than girls. They (and some girls) have different needs, including the need for a better learning environment where they can move and do more hands-on activities! This article is from Scotland, but the expert quoted happens to be from a local university.

How to Help Boys – Blogging ‘Bout Boys

As I noted above, this is my attempt to start collecting resources on this topic.  I’ll be adding more as I find them, and I hope you’ll contribute by leaving your recommendations in the comments below.  Thank you!

Do you think there’s a difference between boys and girls and how they learn?  

Book: Reflections on The Secret of Happy Children

Recently I read the book The Secret of Happy Children by Steve Biddulph, which is an oldie but goodie in the world of parenting books. The title appealed to me because like every mother, I want my kids to be happy.  I also like the fact that it’s not a long book, and Biddulph writes with ease and humor.

He also gained my trust by writing at the beginning of the book, “I still believe experts are a hazard to your family!  If you listen to your own heart it will always tell you what the best way is to raise your children.”

I liked that because up until this last year, I have been loath to read many parenting books.  I know I’m not an expert, but whenever I start reading about parenting, I get anxious because there’s always something in those words of wisdom that I’m not doing.  I let my kids watch more T.V. than the experts say they should, I lose my patience, and I don’t always remain calm.

Yes, I know it’s normal, but when you start to read parenting advice, the logical part of you that says, “Nobody is perfect, and kids don’t need perfect” gets blurred because you want to be a good parent.

But it’s better to be informed.  How can we get better if we never educate ourselves?  So I read the book, and I’m glad I did.  I know I won’t be perfect, but it gave me some things to think about.

In his first chapter, Biddulph talks about the negative programming parents give their children when they are unaware of it.  Most of us adults come equipped with the programming our parents gave us.  Did they tell you that you would never amount to anything?  Compare you to someone else?  Tell you that you were lazy or selfish?

“Children,” Biddulph writes, “with their brilliant, perceptive ways, will usually live up to our expectations!”

He writes that while any of us would recognize the extreme negative statements, most of the programming is subtler.  “Observe children playing in a vacant lot, climbing trees,” he writes, “‘You’ll fall!’ ‘Watch out!’ ‘You’ll slip!’ cries the voice of their anxious mother….”

“Don’t be a pest” is one example he also gives, and I have to admit, I have used that myself.  If used continually, this kind of talk will create “seeds that will grow and shape the child’s self-image, eventually becoming part of his personality.”

I think it’s hard to be conscious of everything we say to our children.  When I’m tired and burned out by being a mother, who knows what kind of messages I’m sending just with my attitude?  But since I read his book, I’ve been making strides at keeping myself more well rested and with a grateful attitude.  I know I’m a more uplifting mom when I can do that.

The rest of the book offers alternatives to this kind of parenting, including chapters on “active listening” and the “assertive parent” (vs. the aggressive or passive parent).  It covers what to do with tantrums, whining, and reminds us to foster a healthy relationship with our partners and also to take care of our own needs.

What stuck with me the most was his chapter on “What Children Really Want.”  Though it should be common sense, every parent can use the reminder that when kids act up, it means that they have unmet needs.  And usually what they want the most is our love and attention.  Not half-the-attention-on-them and half-the-attention-on-our-smart-phones, but our full attention.

I read somewhere else recently that toddlers need at least one hour of sit-our-butts-on-the-floor and play with them per day.  This may not seem like a long time, but if you are a parent, you know one hour is a very long time to sit and give our full attention to playful activities that are thrilling to children yet mind-numbing to adults.

Biddulph says parents should give their children (of all ages) at least half an hour a day of full attention.  Let the rest of the world go, and listen, play, be with your child.  That’s not much time in the big scheme of things.

I am a stay-at-home mom with the luxury of time with my children, but even I can use that advice.  Adults have stress and work that takes our minds away from our kids even when we’re with them.  So I appreciate the parenting advice Biddulph gives, and I highly recommend this book to any parent looking for more insights on how to raise happy kids.

Note: This column originally appeared in the October 7, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

REVIEW: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons

NEW! Join me on Patreon where I can give you daily support in your homeschool.  Learn about project-based homeschooling techniques that complements any kind of curriculum or style of home education. I’ll be writing more posts from my current perspective after having homeschooled for over ten years, and I will be monitoring my messages on a daily basis. You can share your kids’ projects, successes, and we can work through the tough spots together. Get more behind-the-scenes information about my homeschool and how we have dealt with the naysayers and hard times. Click here to learn more. Thank you!

Now back to the original post….

***

Earlier this year I decided to try Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons for my then four-year-old.  (We started three months before his 5th birthday.)  If you look up the reviews on this book, which is also called the Distar method, they are mostly favorable, but I could see that it doesn’t work for everybody.  That’s not surprising because nothing works for everybody.

Fortunately, my son loved the lessons when we began the book, and I liked the book because it was easy for me to use.

There is an eighteen-page parent guide at the beginning of the book, which is important to read, and in each lesson, there’s a script that parents are supposed to follow exactly.  At first this looked daunting, but after reading the guide and doing a few lessons with my son, I saw that it was beneficial.  During the early lessons, I kept to the script fairly well, though I changed some of the words because I knew my son would understand me better with my changes.

As we continued on with the book, I didn’t have to read the script so closely because it’s very repetitive, and by then my son knew what he needed to do.  However, I glanced at each lesson beforehand to see if there were any changes.

What I like the most about 100 Lessons is that each lesson builds on the one before it, and it introduces new letter sounds gradually.  It helped that my son already knew all the sounds of the letters before we started this book, but the way it’s taught, you could potentially teach a child who doesn’t know any phonics. 

I have a feeling that if my son had not known the sounds of the letters, he would not have liked it.  Since the beginning lessons were very easy for him, it built his confidence and showed him that reading lessons were not scary.  As he sounded out words with these sounds, he was delighted that he could read!

A couple of points about how this book teaches reading:

  • The book teaches the child to sound out words by blending the sounds together instead of pausing between sounds.  For example, we usually teach kids to sound out the word “mat” by saying “mmm (pause) aaa (pause) t.”  The Distar method says not to pause.  Say “mmmaaat.”  This simple technique helped my son hear the word, and he was able to decipher it quicker.
  • The book also uses an altered orthography or symbols to help the child read.  That is, if the sound is a long A, such as in the word “lake”, there is a line over the A, and if it’s a short A sound, such as in the word “cat,” there’s no line.  Silent letters, such as the E in “lake” are printed smaller.

The altered orthography worried me at first because I wondered how my son would transition to regular books with regular print, but quickly this worry faded.  My son was so excited that he could read!  He said, “I can read in this book, but I can’t read in those.”

Three things I liked about the book:

  • The silly pictures: My son would read the stories in the book, and I would keep the accompanying picture covered until he finished. He always looked forward to seeing the picture, so this gave him an incentive to finish the lesson.  (Yet I can see where the pictures and stories might not interest older children.)
  • The book gradually introduces many irregular words or “sight words,” and since there’s so much repetition in the book, my son has most of them memorized now.  This is why I didn’t worry about the altered orthography.
  • The book also requires the student to write two or three sounds at the end of each lesson.  Fortunately, my son was already writing well and enjoyed this part too.  It’s a good reinforcement of the sounds and practice of writing.

Making my child excited about reading is the first step in getting him to read.  I’m grateful that 100 Lessons got us on the road to reading.  Yet, as we got further into it, things changed.

Once we got to around Lesson 50, the lessons got harder.  It wasn’t that my son wasn’t reading well.  He could do the lessons, and he was learning, but while we did the lessons, he would squirm in his seat, start talking about other topics, and act silly.  It was very hard for him to focus on the lesson.

I should interject here and say that the book claims these lessons will take only twenty minutes a day.  The first few lessons took only twenty minutes, but as they get harder and there’s more reading involved, they take much longer.  And when my child could not focus and kept squirming, I think we spent closer to 45 minutes completing a lesson.

Suddenly it became a lesson in patience for mama!  Fortunately, this was about the time we were going on vacation to Chicago, so we took a break.  After returning home, I looked up 100 Lessons on the Internet and began to read what other people’s experiences were.

I found one person who said a tutor recommended this book for her child, but emphasized that the lessons should remain light and fun.  Another man described his little girl as squirmy and unable to focus too.  He gave her incentives to finish each lesson, which worked.

Reading this renewed my patience with my son, and I regained my equanimity.  Here are some tactics I employed:

  • I made sure we had plenty of time to do the lessons.  I didn’t rush my son through them.
  • I gave my son “wiggle moments” when he got too fidgety, and he loved that.  I’d count to three and then we’d both wiggle for a few minutes.
  • I was also more likely to take a day off from a lesson if we were busy with errands whereas in the beginning, I kept a tight daily schedule.

With this new strategy, we inched our way up to Lesson 70 where we reached another plateau.  At that point, the book became monotonous.  Since my son was reading quite well anyway, I decided to take another break from the book.  Now I feel we probably won’t go back to it. I’ve searched my shelves for all the early readers in my house, and my son seems excited to be able to read real books with more lively illustrations.

Above is a photo of part of Lesson 69.  My son completed through Lesson 70.

At the end of 100 Lessons, it states that a child who successfully completes this program will be reading at a second grade level.  Considering that my son is only five-years-old, I feel confident that I don’t have to push him to finish it right now.  He is happy that he’s starting to read, and he’s reading early readers.  I couldn’t be more pleased.

If you have a young child who is struggling with reading, I highly suggest giving 100 Lessons a try.  I’m not sure it would interest older students because the stories and pictures are silly, but it never hurts to try.  Also, I found the book used online for $11, so it doesn’t hurt the pocket book either.

Have you tried Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons?  What was your experience with it? UPDATE: I will be posting an update of our experience with 100 Easy Lessons this January 2014. My son is now seven, and we are finishing the book!

UPDATE JANUARY 2014: We have finished 100 Easy Lessons. Read about our experience with it two years later here: 1st Grade Homeschool Reading

Book Review: Tell Me a Story by Chase Collins

Or How to Use Storytelling as a Teaching Tool



Note: To find more resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.

When we were visiting family in Chicago this summer, I had the chance to read Tell Me a Story: Creating Bedtime Tales Your Children Will Dream On by Chase Collins.  Ever since I read it, my head has been spinning with fairy tales!

The book appealed to me because I know the power of stories and storytelling.  I have always been a lover of stories, books, and the oral tradition.  I had the privilege of knowing the award-winning storyteller, J.J. Reneaux, before a battle with cancer ended her life at the age of 45.  She further inspired me to listen to and tell stories.

Stories do more than entertain.  When I had children, I knew I wanted to use stories to enrich their lives with the wisdom that they could impart.  Children listen to stories much more readily than they do to lectures.

This is why I was thrilled to find Chase Collins’ book because she makes this very point.  Children’s lives are rich with fantasy.  It is something essential to childhood, and their imagination is how they begin to navigate their way through this complex life.

Books are wonderful and necessary, but when parents make up their own stories to tell children, it is a way to validate your child’s make-believe world.  Collins writes, “Your children will be touched to have you affirm the imaginative world they live in, and you will show them that, along with the facts, you also see some magic in the universe.”

By telling your own stories, you will be able to pinpoint specific topics that are important for your child that day.  There may be a specific issue you need to address, but even if there is not, you will be imparting your own values and beliefs through your stories.  You’ll do this almost subconsciously, but Collins also says that telling stories may give you new insights to yourself as well.

If you think you are not creative enough to tell stories, then you need to read this book.  It is a source of inspiration for anyone wanting to be more creative because Collins defines creativity and convinces you that you do have what it takes.  Everyone does.  I found the book to be beautifully written, and through her examples, I felt my creative juices begin to stir.

She also shares what she calls the nitty-gritty basic story structure:

  • There was a likeable hero
  • who had reason to set out on a journey
  • when a threat occurred
  • from which there was a hero-inspired way out
  • which resulted in a safe return and a happy ending.

Yes, it’s the basic structure of many beloved fairy tales, books and movies.

I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too.  Why tell young children stories that may be scary (i.e., the threat)?  And why tell children stories with only happy endings when that isn’t realistic?  Chase Collins convinced me that telling children stories with this structure is important, and though I urge you to read the book for her detailed explanations, I will try to put it into a nutshell:

Children are smart. They already know that the world is challenging.  They tackle new and scary moments everyday even though we may not realize it because we’re looking at their lives through the lens of an adult.  Trying to shield them from scary stuff doesn’t help them because they want guidance from us as to how to confront life.  (I should mention, however, that when you tell your own story, you don’t have to make the threat gruesome and horrifying. It could simply be a problem that needs to be solved.)

Children do not have the experience to see the shades of gray in life that adults do, so giving them what may be a realistic ending to an adult is what may frighten and puzzle the child.  Collins writes that unhappy endings do “…nothing to build a courageous spirit or a willingness to let go of infantile things.”

By telling children stories in which a likeable hero confronts a threat and overcomes it, we are telling them that life is full of struggles, but we know that they have the ability to face them and overcome them.  By giving them happy endings, we are telling them that life is worth living.

After explaining this concept to my husband, he said, “That’s something adults need to hear too.”  Indeed, how many of us have become disillusioned with life, tired, and broken?  We know that life is hard.  Maybe telling some fairy tales can remind us why it’s worth living.

Please sign up for my RSS Feed (or subscribe by e-mail in the right mergin) so that you won’t miss upcoming posts about storytelling or the inspiration that you might need to tell them!  Be sure to check out this list of The Benefits of Storytelling, especially if you aren’t yet convinced that you should tell stories to your children!

This column was first printed in The Barrow Journal on Sept. 7, 2011.

The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith

This post was written on April 13, 2009.

The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith is the first book I’ve read about homeschooling, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is thinking about homeschooling.  I don’t think it would suit seasoned homeschoolers, but for us beginners, it gives a broad overview of everything we need to think about as we make the decision whether or not to homeschool.

Hopefully I’m not breaking any copyright laws if I give you the Table of Contents.  I think it best summarizes the topics in this book:

Does Homeschooling Really Work or What Do We Tell the Grandparents?

Legal Issues, or Can We Really Do This?

Structure or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School?

Assisted Homeschooling, or Do We Really Need Any Help?

Money and Other Practical Matters

The Primary Years: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic

The Middle Years: Exploring the World

The Teen Years: Finding a Direction

Evaluation and Record Keeping, or How Do We Know They’re Learning?

Finding Learning Resources

The Homeschooling Community

Coping with the Rough Spots

Special Circumstances

Beyond Homeschooling

There are also four appendices in the back of the book that lists Homeschooling Resources, Homeschooling Organizations, Selected Learning Resources and Colleges That Have Accepted Homeschoolers.

I can’t possibly summarize the whole book, but I can tell you what I most appreciated in the book:

  • She emphasizes that every homeschooling family has to find their own way of homeschooling.  You may hear plenty of advice from other homeschoolers, or you may come across companies who swear their curriculum is the only way to go, but there is no right way to do it.  Try out everything until you find what works for you.
  • In the first chapter, she lists and summarizes much of the academic research that has been done on homeschooling.  There is not much evidence that homeschooling is a bad choice.  At one point she explains that this is largely due to the fact that if homeschooling doesn’t work for a family, then they put their children back in school and no harm is done!  I found this to be very reassuring.
  • In the third chapter she briefly goes over the various theories of learning.  (Examples:  Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development, Charlotte Mason, and Holt and Unschooling.)  I found this interesting because I have no background on any of this.  She also goes over the advantages and drawbacks of different homeschooling styles, such as School at Home, Eclectic Homeschooling, and Unschooling.
  • Throughout the book there are letters and advice from many different homeschoolers.  Each of them seemed to tackle the various topics and issues differently, and it gave me great insight to how current homeschooling families work.
  • I loved the part in which she explains that new homeschoolers might be intimidated to visit a seasoned homeschooler’s house and find that it’s clean and in perfect order.  She says that the seasoned homeschooler probably scrambled to get her house clean just before the visitors arrived!  That is, for every homeschooler, it’s difficult to get everything done!  When I read this, I thought to myself:  “Gee, that’s how I deal with my housecleaning already!”
  • She makes suggestions for what to do if your children decide they’d rather go to school, and she also covers “parental panic attacks.”  That is, all homeschoolers have doubts and moments when they’re afraid they are doing it all wrong.  She offers sound advice and consolation for when this happens.
  • Most beneficial of all are the resources she lists.  Whatever you can think of, she put a list in there: websites, magazines, newsletters, books, organizations.  It’s a great place to start if you are looking for more information on homeschooling.

Furthermore, I found this book to be easy to read (I’m not a big fan of non-fiction), and I read it rather quickly.  I thought there was a good, honest balance between the benefits and the challenges of homeshooling.  Because of this book, Mary Griffith’s other book, The Unschooling Handbook, is now on my wishlist!

You can also read the newspaper column I wrote for the Barrow Journal on The Homeschooling Handbook. Click here to access it.

Please tell me what books/articles you have read about homeschooling.  What would you recommend?