Math Curriculum Review: Life of Fred Elementary Series

If you’re a seasoned homeschooling parent, you probably know that deep sense of satisfaction when you have completed a long curriculum with your child. I had this feeling last year when my eleven-year-old finished the 10th book in the Life of Fred series, which is the end of what the author, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, terms his “Elementary Series.” Also according to his assessment, these ten books cover kindergarten through fourth grade math.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Life of Fred elementary books, they are hardbound books with 19 chapters each, and they tell the story of a funny-looking five-year-old math genius named Fred, who is also a professor at Kittens University. Math lessons are found everywhere in Fred’s life as well as many other lessons on random subjects. It’s a practical and sometimes silly approach to learning math, and it shows kids why math is useful. Many kids love Fred, including my boys, but I’ve met kids who couldn’t get into these stories either. So be sure to try out the free samples before you buy them.

I have read a lot of reviews for the Life of Fred books, and most parents seem to feel that Life of Fred makes a good supplement to their math curriculum. Apparently, some kids love reading these quirky stories so much, they read them by themselves all in just a few months or less. You could certainly do this, but I used them as our main math curriculum, and they worked great for that too.

Part of the reason some people feel that Life of Fred is a supplement and not a main curriculum is that at the end of each chapter, there are only four or five problems for your student to figure out, and usually one or two questions are very easy. (In a few of the books, he also offers a “row of practice.”) Parents and teachers feel that kids need to practice math more, so they need more problems to work on. I only partly agree with that. From kindergarten through the third grade, a few problems were all that my active, young boy could sit still for, so it was perfect for us. Later, I added a little more. Let me explain:

I think that what sets Life of Fred apart is that it shows kids that math can be fun. While homeschooling my eldest son, I found that he responded best to learning about math through these stories and also playing games. In Life of Fred, Fred is often playing math games in his head to pass the time. I think that’s a subtle hint to readers that math games should be part of their daily life too. Math should be fun. So while I didn’t use Life of Fred as a supplement, I did supplement it with plenty of math games. (We love playing Sum Swamp, Math Dice, and math card games.)

It wasn’t until last year that I decided to supplement my son’s math lessons with a Spectrum workbook. By this age, my son was capable of sitting and concentrating for longer amounts of time. In my state, homeschoolers have to take standardized tests every three years, so I wanted to familiarize him with the test format. He also needed more practice with multiplication and division. So we took a break from Life of Fred to work on this. I used Times Tales for teaching the multiplication tables, and that was a big success. Life of Fred instructs the student to stop at certain points and practice the times tables with flash cards before moving on to the next chapter, so it’s clear that Dr. Schmidt does not expect a student to rely solely on his books for all their math practice.

If you are concerned about keeping your child in exact alignment with what the public school kids are learning each year, then you may not want to use Life of Fred as your spine for math. Most of what my son learned in Life of Fred did match up, but Dr. Schmidt has a different approach to teaching math. While my son did learn early algebra and even a little bit of calculus, the books never covered the decimal point. However, that’s coming up. Life of Fred continues with the Intermediate Series and then the Pre-High School Series (including three books on pre-algebra, one on fractions, and another on decimals and percents). (It’s at this level that Dr. Schmidt has also written supplementary practice books, if they are needed.) After this is the High School Series (Beginning Algebra, Advanced Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry). After the high school series, Dr. Schmidt has several books at the college level too.

This is all to say that Life of Fred can take your student a long way in their math studies. But you need to go slow. I read each chapter with my son, and we don’t try to do more than two or three books per year. We play math games, practice multiplication in various ways, and luckily, my son still doesn’t hate math. Now that we have finished the elementary series, I can see more clearly how this curriculum has benefitted my son and Dr. Schmidt’s strategy for teaching math. And the best part is that there is no prep work for me – we just open the book and begin the next chapter!

Note to fellow secular homeschoolers: The author of this series is religious, and that is apparent in the Life of Fred story. However, religious references are few and very benign. There was nothing that offended me.

Homeschooling 4th Grade: Our First Science Curriculum

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Up until this year, I guess you could say that we have “unschooled”science. My son loved nature and, consequently, science. We got outside to explore often, and we did experiments at home for fun. We raised butterflies. We grew carnivorous plants. We read books. He got into robotics, which he still likes. We watch countless science documentaries. Furthermore, over the past several years, there were many opportunities to learn about science through community resources. My son was in the knee-high naturalist class and homeschool science classes at the nature center for years. We still take advantage of programs at the botanical garden. I am convinced that given all these opportunities, young homeschooled children do not need any formal instruction in science.

For a list of our major science projects/studies, click here.

This year we thought it would be a good idea to round out his knowledge with a more systematic curriculum. I am finding out that, indeed, my son learned a lot of science. But there is vocabulary and finer details that we’re learning anew in the curriculum.

We are using Biology for the Logic Stage by Elemental Science. (IMPORTANT: Please read my update at the bottom of this page.) I wish I had other science curriculums to compare it to because I can’t tell you whether I like it very much or not. I do like how it’s organized, and it’s easy to use. I love the books that came with it (or either you have to order them on your own to go with it, depending on which package you buy). These are the Usborne Science Encyclopedia and Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia. What I don’t love about it is that sometimes she calls what I would term “activities” as “experiments.” Experiments are supposed to test a hypotheses. Making a diorama of a habitat is not an experiment! However, this is being nit-picky, and on the whole, I think we’re learning a good bit from this curriculum.

This curriculum is supposed to be for middle school, so some of what it requires is a little hard for my 4th grader. That is, writing up lengthy reports, etc. Since my son’s writing skills still need work, I’m not requiring him to do any of that. But we do read the assigned pages, watch videos (via the QR Codes in the Usbourne book –I love that), memorize terms, fill out the vocabulary list and label the sketch.

As far as the “experiment,” i.e. activity, I let my son do it, if he wants to. This is because he’s already done 90% of them on his own or during classes in these last several years of unschooled science inquiry! (I think I shall refer to those years as “the science years.” Now we are into “the piano years,” though we still love science. 🙂 )

Though my son still loves science, he doesn’t love this curriculum. He likes watching science documentaries and doing science when it’s not required. I don’t blame him. But I do think it’s important that we “cross our Ts and dot our Is,” so to speak, especially now that he’s ten, and he’s not actively pursuing science topics like he used to. However, he did ask me to order the chemistry curriculum for when we finish this biology book. He’s always liked chemistry, so you never know where that might take us.

[UPDATE (8/2/2017): I recently noticed that secularhomeschooler.com rates Elemental Science as neutral science. This disappoints me. “Neutral science” refers to curriculums that teach science yet conveniently leave out anything that might offend a religious person who believes in a young earth. This is not real science at all, and, unfortunately, I didn’t realize this before buying the curriculum. However, it uses textbooks that are secular and includes evolution. The textbooks are great, and there is some merit in each lesson, so I’m taking this rating with a grain of salt. We may or may not continue to use this curriculum.]

Homeschooling 4th Grade: Math & the Multiplication Tables

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I love math.

Wait. Did I just say “I love math?” Why, yes, I think I did. It’s the first time I have ever made that statement. 

One of my English professors said that English majors are usually proud to say how bad they are are math. That’s kind of true. But now I know that the only reason I was ever bad at math is because I was ushered through a boring math curriculum each year, and I didn’t really get it, but I managed to pass, and that’s all school cared about…that I could pass. They didn’t care if I didn’t like math or if I didn’t understand it that well.

I’m hoping I can do a better job teaching math to my boys even though math isn’t my forte. Luckily, there are many good curriculums that can help English majors teach math to their kids. *wink*

My 10-year-old has never wanted to do math with any other curriculum* except Life of Fredand even though I’ve heard people say that Life of Fred can’t stand alone as a math curriculum, we’ve made it work. If you haven’t heard of it before, Life of Fred is a series of books that tell a wacky story of a five-year-old math genius named Fred. Fred encounters math problems in his everyday life, so readers of Life of Fred  are going to learn about math as well as a little bit of history, grammar, odd facts and not-so-bad advice for living a good life.**

I think it does a pretty good job of teaching everything my son needs to know about math and then some. However, it doesn’t include a lot of practice problems, which is probably what causes people to criticize it. But up until now, I liked the fact that it only had a few questions at the end of each chapter, and some chapters include an additional “row of practice.” This is because I didn’t think my son needed to waste time doing worksheets. That would have caused him to hate math.

Let me be clear: I don’t think very young children need to spend their time filling out worksheets unless they like doing them. Young children need to move and play, and they don’t have to spend that much time practicing sums such as 2+1=3. But now that my son is ten, he’s more than capable of sitting still and focusing for longer amounts of time. And the math he’s doing is more complicated, and I think he needs to practice. He’s not going to remember the steps for multiplying or dividing large numbers unless he practices. I don’t feel bad making him sit and do worksheets anymore, although I can’t say he loves math. But I don’t think he hates it either.

Because of this, I’ve added a Spectrum 4th grade workbook to my son’s lessons. He has just started it — this is something I added mid-year. I really like this workbook, and it’s going to help me assess what my son knows and what he needs more help on. The other great thing about the workbook is that I don’t need to be here when he works on it, and that’s really helpful. (I know many children do Life of Fred on their own, and my son could probably do it by himself too, but I actually like reading them with him because that way I know exactly what he’s learning and where he’s at, and I can help him, if he needs it.)

So far this year the 10-year-old and I finished Life of Fred: Honey, and now we’re in the middle of Life of Fred: Ice Cream. After this, we’ll do Life of Fred: Jelly Beans, and that will complete the entire elementary series! According to the author of Life of Fred, the elementary series is 1st-4th grade, so we’re right on target. Next year, we’ll work through the intermediate series. (Life of Fred continues right on up through college level.)

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The Multiplication Tables

To memorize them or not? I spent a very short time deciding whether or not I should make my kids memorize the multiplication tables. I decided that, yes, they should. Their math curriculums would be that much more difficult, if they didn’t learn their multiplication tables. Life would be more difficult too!

Also what helped me decide is that my husband listens to this tech podcast (sorry I don’t know which one), and he told me that one of the speakers was talking about how he unschooled his son, and he didn’t make him memorize the times tables. He said that now his son is an adult and works in computer science, which requires a lot of math. He said his son wishes his dad made him memorize the times tables because now he struggles with simple multiplication. It’s a lot easier to memorize things when you are young!  And, you just don’t know what your kids might do when they grow up. Why put them at a disadvantage?

For the past year, I’ve been working with both my boys (my younger one wanted to join in!) on the multiplication tables. We used flash cards and some simple games, and we got through the 5s times tables.

Then, thanks to a recommendation by my real-life acquaintance, Drue , who sometimes reads this blog, I’m trying out Times Tales with the boys. Times Tales cost about $20 and come with two videos and a couple of worksheets and activities. The stories in Times Tales are mnemonic devices that are supposed to help your children learn the 6-9 times tables. If they can remember the characters (such as Mrs. Week, who is the number 7, and the treehouse, which is number 9), and they can remember the story associated with the number characters, they should remember the answer to the multiplication problems.

Did they help my boys? Yes and no. Yes, it has helped my older son, the 10-year-old, tremendously. He’s remembering his multiplication tables much better! However, it has not helped my 7-year-old. He has a hard time remembering the stories or “getting it.” He may be too young, so I’ll wait a couple of years and have him watch the videos again. It also could be that they help my 10-year-old because he’s very much a visual and auditory learner, and my younger son is more hands-on, but I have a feeling it’ll help the 7-year-old when he’s older.

At any rate, it’s the 10-year-old who is supposed be learning his times tables right now (Life of Fred recommends making flash cards and practicing them before moving on through the books), so I’m thrilled that Times Tales has helped him so much. We are going to keep working through the activities, and I have no doubt he’ll master all of them soon.

 

*I’m using Singapore math with my younger son. Stay tuned to get a full review of it.

**For those of you who are secular homeschoolers, you should be forewarned that Life of Fred is written by a Christian author, so there are Christian references in the books. However, there is nothing that is offensive to me, and there is no preaching.

How Will I Teach Writing and Grammar? And My Preparations for a Language Arts Review

You might think that a mom with a degree in English would have the easiest time teaching writing and grammar to her children, but that is not the case. When I was little, this was my strength. I wrote poetry and stories in my free time, and I never minded my English classes. They were my favorite classes, and I received good grades in them. I read every word of every book I was assigned, and I was the only one in my entire school who actually did the summer reading and wrote reports on those books too. (A shout out and thank you to my Aunt Carolyn for typing up those reports for me! I think she even included my errors so that my teachers would know I wrote them.)

To tell the truth, since I was good at writing, I can’t remember how I learned grammar. Even though I can write well, I can only tell you the most basic grammar rules now. I cannot diagram sentences. I’m still not sure what a direct object is. I do remember learning how to “brainstorm” and make outlines in school, and I found this helpful. I still use these tools today.

I am pretty sure I learned the most about writing by reading. I didn’t read obsessively, but I read plenty. I absorbed the words and learned how our language should sound.

But I still wasn’t perfect. In one of my favorite college classes, Dr. Weinstein would never give me more than a high B on my papers. This was so frustrating to me when I saw another woman (who clearly didn’t enjoy the class as much as I did) get a 98 on all her papers. What was I doing wrong? I went to speak to him about my grade, and he told me that I was a good writer, and he wished more students wrote as well as I did. But he wouldn’t change my grade. He didn’t say much else except that I overused the word “really.” (I still do. I have to edit out my “reallys.” Really, you should rarely, if ever, use the word “really” in your writing.)

While I was in college, I met a woman who was about ten years older than I was at the time. She was a student and a single mom and lived in an apartment across the street from the university. I complained to her about my grade on the paper, and she said that she was a good writer, and she would look at my paper for me. She invited me to come over to her apartment after my classes. So I did. I gave her my paper, and she sat down at her kitchen table and read it.

“Ah-ha,” she said.

She proceeded to go through my paper and eliminate extraneous words that didn’t need to be there. “And here,” she said, “Is there a better way you could say this in less words?” I thought a moment and answered. “Yes!” she said. “If you can say it simple, keep it simple!”

She helped me with 2-3 papers, and after that, I got it. I got it! My grades improved, and I have been a better writer ever since.

Now I’m shouting in my head: Why is it that no teacher ever explained any of that to me? I went through 12 years of public school and 2-3 years of college as an English major before I met someone who wasn’t a teacher but who was a better writer than I was and who didn’t mind taking the time to help me. It had very little to do with grammar. It had to do with word choice and structure. I had learned a lot through reading, and I must have learned grammar in school, but no one had ever gone through my writing with a fine-toothed comb. I was still trying to write with big words as many young writers try to do, and I used words like “really.”

As a homeschooling mom, I am now faced with the task of teaching my boys writing and grammar. If they were like me and loved to write, it would be easy for me. I would allow them to write and slowly but surely correct mistakes. I wouldn’t correct too much in the beginning because you need to let young children be creative and learn to love the act of writing without stymieing them. As they move into high school, you can be more nit-picky. As they were capable, I would assign books for them to read (mostly I would let them read what they wanted to), and we would talk about the word structure and grammar as we go along. If they wanted to be published writers, I would have a wealth of information to pass on to them.

Unfortunately, so far, my boys do not like writing or making up stories. (Well, they have a little in the past, but that was fleeting.) Right now, they will not put pen to paper unless forced to. For the most part, I’m kind of relieved. I am too excited to learn about all the subjects I thought I wasn’t good at as a child like science and history and classical music. Besides this, wanting to be a writer all my life but failing miserably has caused me so much pain that I don’t particularly want to raise another writer.

But I do want to raise competent writers, and I’m sure I will raise competent writers. This is because I’m not in a hurry. Like learning how to read, I believe learning how to write can come when a child is ready for it. If I continue to read to them and do short, simple lessons with them, I am sure we will slowly master the technique of writing. If I push it (like they do in school), I am sure I will raise boys who hate writing and think they are not good at it. Similar to what happened with me with math, etc.

Despite all this, I am still faced with that task of teaching them grammar because like it or not, you have to know grammar to pass standardized tests or college entrance tests. (Let me note that as an English major, I never had to answer any grammar questions in college.) And someone I was corresponding with made a good point to say that it is useful to understand the terms we use to speak about language, especially if one would like to study a foreign language.

As I mentioned above, if my boys enjoyed letting me take dictation or otherwise wrote on their own, I could slowly introduce grammar concepts to them, but they don’t like to write, so I came back to square one and wondered how I could do this without squashing their potential to love writing. I wondered if there were a curriculum out there that I would like to use. Unlike math or science where I have no background and most curricula are helpful, I knew I would be picky about this. So I decided to write a comprehensive review of language arts curricula for home/school/life magazine. I intend to do the best job I can so that you can benefit from this too.

These are the gracious companies who have sent me curriculum for my review:

Peace Hill Press, First Language Lessons
Winston Grammar Program
Michael Clay Thompson Language Arts
Lost Classics: Primary Language Lessons
Brave Writer
Institute for Excellence in Writing

These are companies who said they would send me curriculum, but I’m still waiting for it:

Learning Language Arts Through Literature

I am also going to include Grammar-land, which is a free download, into the review.

I’m writing this list here so that you can tell me if I have missed any curriculum that you think must be included in my review. Please note that I prefer secular curricula because home/school/life magazine is a secular resource, but if it’s not secular, and you feel secular homeschoolers would still appreciate it, go ahead and recommend it.

I can already see good things in most of these curricula, and I’m excited to continue to dig into them. I am open to changing my mind about how I would like to approach this subject with my children, but it’s going to take a long time to sort through them and collect my thoughts about them. I am also getting my boys’ opinion about each of them. I will let you know when my review is published in home/school/life.