Educating Locally. Learning Communally. Living Freely.

Teaching Discernment


Friday, September 12, 2014

  We often chuckle over the message board in front of the school down the street.  Every week one side proclaims the "Life Skill of the Week" apparently in an attempt to inform parents which particular character trait they will be instilling in the school's students that week.  My favorite week is "Sense of Humor Week".  How do you even teach a skill like that?
  For our own family, I have always thought that character development (life skills, call it what you like) were an integral part of the way we raise and discipline our kids.  We don't have a class during school for responsibility, we give our children responsibilities they can handle and continue to raise the bar as they mature.  Honesty is not a skill; it is expected and dishonesty is punished. 
  Still, there are a few character traits that our kids need to develop that deserve some thought on our part, and a bit of effort instilling them in our children.  Discernment is one of those.
  Simply put discernment is the ability to assess information and make a value judgement:  Is something right or wrong?  Good or bad?  Profitable or unprofitable?  Or does it matter either way?
  But discernment goes beyond that; a discerning person knows why something is right or wrong, good or bad.  He also needs to understand the implications of belief systems that oppose his own.  It is all fine and well to argue for creation against evolution, but we do we realize that evolution sets up a system of thought with far reaching consequences?  The idea that man is a highly specialized animal rather than an image-bearer of an Almighty God filters into many areas of life from how and why we educate to how criminals are punished.
  We live in a world full of choices and at a time when we are pushed from every side to make choices (or to tolerate the choices of others) which go against everything we have been taught.  From the old hobby horse of evolution to gay marriage to legalized marijuana to global warming, our children will be faced with a vast array of issues in which they must show discernment both in their own choices and how they deal with the choices of others.  We need to make sure that we are equipping our children to think about these issues and make good decisions.
  We have a lot of options when it comes to the curriculum we choose for our students.  Gone are the early days of homeschooling when parents had to use secular books or develop their own material.  Now we have so many options for Christian based education that it is sometimes hard to choose between them.  And living in a conservative state as we do, with churches everywhere, it is relatively easy to raise our children in a Christian bubble where they are shielded from all views that oppose our own.  But to do so is to do our children a great disservice.
  We should instead teach them to check the things they hear - bearing in mind, of course, which subjects are age appropriate - against what they have been taught and against the Scriptures and make their own judgements.  We commend the Bereans in Acts who went to the Scriptures to "find out if these things be so" but do we remember who they were fact checking?  Seriously, does anyone fact check the Apostle Paul?  And yet, rather than accepting his word immediately as truth, the Bereans searched the Scripture to be sure his teaching was true.  May we be diligent to do the same - and to teach this important skill to our children!

Relaxed Schooling


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

  Back in April, I was beginning to think about the new school year when I read another mom's blog post about year-round schooling.  She had, after years of teaching from September to May, decided to try teaching year round.  Doing school without set vacation days would give her time to take off when she needed it, and allow more time to pursue topics of interest as they came up.  And, it occurred to me that there wouldn't be so much pressure to accomplish so much in one day if the school year wasn't confined to 180 days packed into nine months.

  Filled with rosy visions of quiet, productive days around the school table, I set off to plan our own school year.

  I have always been intrigued by the idea of year round schooling for many of the same reasons mentioned in that blog post.  But I had always resisted the change - after all, there is something very nice about having eight or ten weeks of complete freedom from school books.
  But this year I decided to make some changes.  I knew I wanted to take some time off when our third child is born later this fall, but I also wanted to have a definite ending point for our school year - I still want at least a few weeks to ignore the school books each summer.  I decided that we would take off all of June and slowly ease into the school year starting at the beginning of July and working a few days a week as I had time, but without totally giving up our summer freedom.
  I planned out our first semester - 85 days where every subject was covered - figuring that we would spread those days out between July 1st and mid-December. I decided to call our experiment "Relaxed Schooling"; it wasn't quite traditional, but not quite year-round either, we were just relaxing our schedule a bit.  And I was going to be relaxed about this year, not stressing about doing five full days of school each week or pushing so hard to finish everything I had written down for the day. 
  Our experiment hasn't gone quite like I planned.  We took off three weeks right at the beginning to help a sick family member.  And it was really nice - I had the time I needed, and when we did have a little time at the school table we just worked along to accomplish the next thing on the lesson plan sheet.  I was relaxed!
  Fast forward two months, and for various reasons we have not covered as many days as I thought we might have by this point.  I think our first semester - which we usually finish in December might spill over into January.  Those rosy visions of relaxed days around the school table are fading as I try to jam more school days in around doctors appointments and our other commitments.
  Still, I don't think our experiment has been an entire failure.  Overall I do feel more relaxed about how much we accomplish each day.  I am much more willing to recognize when I am trying to squeeze too much work into too little time - always a recipe for frustration and tears.  Some days we do everything on my list.  Some days we spread the list over two or more days.  Rather than dragging my kids kicking and screaming through assignments when I feel like we are running out of time, we set them aside for another day.
  So far I think our school year has lived up to its name.  The whole point of "relaxed schooling" isn't to fit school into a well-planned and rigorously scheduled box.  The point is to relax and take school one day at a time.

What about you?  Do you follow a traditional schedule?  School year round?  Unschool?  What do you do when you need a few days or weeks off school?

Math Books - A Follow-up


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The blog post in the July Digest has created a great deal of both concern and confusion. In an attempt to clear up both, I am writing a follow-up blog post.

The primary area of concern seems to be how to tell which books are honors level books.  This goes back to the question of how text book manufacturers determine what is covered in any text book.  The content in any text book is driven by a couple of different factors.  One factor is what the colleges want covered in order for their incoming freshman to be prepared to succeed.  They see a need for more challenging curriculum and ask manufacturers to push for material to be covered sooner so the student can get farther in each discipline during their high school years.  Not only have some concepts that used to be covered in PreCalculus moved into Algebra 1, but it is now fairly commonplace for Algebra 1 to be taken in 8th grade rather than 9th grade.  This allows the high school student to take a Calculus level math class while still in high school making him better prepared for college.

Another factor that influences and is influenced by the content (also referred to as the scope and sequence) is what the college entrance exams cover.  Testing to determine college readiness is problematic in some cases however over the more than half century that the SAT and the ACT tests have been given, there are trends that can be identified.  The tests cover the material that the colleges want evaluated in their potential students.  This means when the text book manufacturers follow the requests of the colleges and add new material, this new material will show up on the college entrance exams.

The biggest driving factor though is the state legislatures.  They are tasked with running the education in their states.  Every state legislature does this by handing the responsibility to the State Department of Education.  They make the rules and regulations that govern the PUBLIC school students.  When they agree with the colleges that the curriculum needs to be more rigorous, the text book manufactures will follow the standards set by the states.  (The two most influential states in this regard are California and Texas.  They buy a LOT of text books!)

All third option home school associations are under the authority of the South Carolina Department of Education (SC DOE). The SC DOE chooses the standards that govern what material must be covered to call a class college prep or honors.   This applies specifically to the public school students (and is of course one of the many reasons families choose to home school).

PHEA has never dictated what curriculum people must use. We firmly believe that the parents have the right and responsibility to research and pick the best curriculum for their students. Also, we do not check all the different curriculums against the SC standards to see if they meet the college prep (CP) level. Generally, we take the information parents give us on what they covered and what level it is when it comes to CP.  So a parent may use any book, including the older Saxon Math books, and call it CP.   

The issue comes from the fact that many families want honors credit to help increase their students’ GPAs for scholarships. The PHEA staff has talked it over many times, and the only fair standard we see is to use the SC State Department of Education standards on what constitutes a CP class to then define an honors class (This is fair as homeschoolers are competing for SC DOE scholarship money, so their standards are the one we should use.). 

Many parents have called or emailed to ask us if we would tell them what math books count as honors.  The problem with listing books as honors is that the designation is deceptive.  If a book is honors , must the student cover the whole book? Every lesson? Every problem of every lesson?  If they do not do all the problems and lessons in the book, when does it stop being honors and become college prep? In the public school system, there are usually four to five text books that are approved for each class.  High School A may use Forester Algebra 1 as their honors book and Pearson Algebra 1 as their college prep book. High School B may choose the exact opposite. They are both correct, and their honors course can be designated as honors no matter which book they use. It is what they cover from the book that makes the class honors.

To determine honors level, essentially, the parents have to look through the state standard on the class they are planning to cover (say Algebra 1). There are very specifically defined concepts that must be covered for it to be considered a college prep class. The wording for what constitutes an honors class (from the State Department website) reads:  The requirements for honors courses are greater than for college prep courses. Textbooks and/or other course materials must be differentiated and more rigorous than those used in college prep courses. An honors course must have a published syllabus that verifies rigor that is sufficiently beyond the college prep or tech prep requirements. After comparing the text book to the college prep level requirements, you then determine if there is more in the book that will be enough to bump it up to honors level. It is not easy, but this is the process that must be done to determine what must be covered in order for the book/class to be considered honors level.

Because both the standards and the textbooks are updated periodically a book that might have qualified as honors before may no longer meet the honors level requirements. It may not even contain all the concepts that are now part of the updated standards.  When we first started our co-op, we did the research and the older Saxon math was at the honors level, based on the SC standards 20 years ago. Now the older books no longer contain all the content the current college prep standards contain. The book didn't change, but the standard did.

Last month’s blog dealt specifically with the older Saxon Math books.  I think it bears repeating that for the home school family who values a certain type of training (such the classical approach explained by Doug Wilson), they can and should pick texts that teach to the method they wish to use.  Just be aware that the students may not be as prepared for college level courses or for the college entrance exams. They may however have a more solid grounding in critical thinking skills and in rhetoric and debate.    As home school families we need to think through our goals for our children and then pursue their education with plans that will help them attain the goals. 

Martha Freitag

What Makes a Great Read-Aloud?


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

    My children and their grandfather recently started reading Winnie-the-Pooh together.  Listening to the three of them as they laugh together over the story got me thinking about what makes Winnie-the-Pooh such a great book to read aloud.  Here are some of the things I have come up with:
  1. Great writing.  Pooh may be a Bear of Very Little Brain, but these stories are not simplistic.  Take for example the chapter which opens with Pooh counting his honey pots.  Pooh is interrupted, and the story diverges into other adventures, but close to the end Pooh suddenly, and with almost no explanation, decides that he has sixteen honey pots.  Many stories (including nearly every adaptation or addtion to the Winnie-the-Pooh series by other authors) feel the need to remind children of previous details or explain a plot point so that the child doesn't miss the subtle meaning.  A.A. Milne takes it for granted that his readers will remember what happened at the beginning of the chapter and appreciate the subtle joke later on.  I also love the way certain words are capitalized for emphasis - not something that is always apparent when read out loud, but interesting for the reader.
  2. The book isn't written just with children in mind.  For me this is the thing that distinguishes great children's literature.  Great books offer something to every reader, no matter how old he or she is.  Winnie-the-Pooh is full of subtle jokes and references to things young children would not understand.  This is the third or fourth time I have read or heard this book, and I still notice things I haven't before.  Similarly my eight year-old, who thought she was too old for Pooh, is enjoying the book because she gets a lot more of the jokes than she did the last time we read it. 
  3. Easy to read.  I enjoy reading aloud, and hearing stories read aloud.  But some stories are more suited to be read to oneself than to read aloud.  It has to do with the way the sentences are formed and the cadence of the story.  We read a book a few years ago which was intended to be read aloud.  But the structure of the sentences was odd; often an adjective or preposition was not where I expected it to be.  Grammatically there was nothing wrong with the sentences, but they weren't written they way we generally speak.  Because of this, my reading came out rather stilted.  By contrast even when Pooh mispronounces a word, the structure of the sentences makes them easy to read out loud.
  4. The Characters.  We all enjoy books with an interesting plot, or a plot-twist that we didn't see coming, but I think, ultimately, it is the characters that make a story great.  I love the variety of personalities in Pooh, and they way they are displayed in the story.  Pooh is a Bear of Very Little Brain, and he is quite Humble about it, but at the same time, we are not constantly bombarded with this information and, without at all meaning to, Pooh can occasionally be Quite Clever.  The small details of the characters keep them from becoming flat or uninteresting.
    In all, I think there is a great richness about the book that makes it perfect for reading out loud.  And Winnie-the-Pooh is not the only great book for reading aloud.  We have found and enjoyed many others.  Some of our favorites include: The Chronicles of Naria by CS Lewis, The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Carry on Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, and Twenty and Ten by Claire Hutchet Bishop. 

 Reading aloud has been a rich part of our family life.  If you have never read aloud with your family - or gave it up when your kids outgrew picture books, I encourage you to pick up one of these books and give it a try!  

    And please, if you have any favorite read-alouds, let us know!

Great Resources: Bob Books


Monday, July 28, 2014

  Both my kids are in elementary school, so the days of learning to read are not far behind us - actually in the case of the younger one they are still upon us.  For him reading is an agonizing process of sounding out each letter and then putting the sounds together into recognizable words.  We have finally gotten to the point where he recognizes certain words or letter combinations, and I think he is about to cross over from reading the sounds to reading the actual words - all he needs is more practice.
  And so, Bob Books have been an important part of his reading program these past few months.
  Bob Books are designed to be a stand-alone reading program which introduces young readers to each letter sound.  In the first set of books, the students learn the typical sound a letter makes (so the letter C has the hard K sound [cat] as opposed to the soft S sound [cell]) as well as all five short vowel sounds.  Each set has 10 to 12 little books with short sentences and simple pictures to help beginners read by context - the picture shows what is happening in the text.  Each book adds new letters and sounds.  The boxed sets build on each other introducing students to increasingly more complex sounds and words until students are able to read both short and long vowel words.  Each story is about 12 pages long, though the books get longer as the student progresses.  Both my kids and I like that the books are fairly humorous - it helps keep reading lessons from being tedious.

  The Bob Books ( has a lot of information about how to use the program along with supplemental materials.

  That said, I have never used the program on its own.  For both my kids I have used Bob books as supplemental reading material.  For both of my children I have chosen reading programs that are more tied to phonics lessons and workbooks.  I tend to be a "by the book" kind of person and I wasn't confident that I could teach my kids to read using the more organic approach offered by Bob Books.  

So why do I love Bob books?

  Because it is hard to find readers that only use short vowel words.  As big as the "Easy Reader" market is, there are very few books that focus on words for the very youngest readers - those with short vowels, and only a few sight words.  Bob Books are fairly inexpensive and fit the need for short vowel words.  The first set of 12 books uses only short vowels.  The books have been a great supplement to our regular reading program and have the added bonus of allowing kids the sense of accomplishment that comes with reading a whole book by themselves.

  I highly recommend Bob Books to anyone with beginning readers.

Please note: These great resources are not paid endorsements.  We just like to pass along the books and materials that we find helpful in the classroom.

Got a great resource of your own?  Let us know in the comments section.  We are always on the look out for interesting products!


Why is Saxon Math no longer considered honors level anymore?


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First, an apology for posting this so late in the month.  I had not intended to take off the month of July, but we had a family member in the hospital for the first two weeks of the month, and life is only just getting back to normal.  Blog posts should get back to normal as well over the next few weeks.

And now: The administrator addresses a common question about math books.

Why is Saxon Math no longer considered honors level anymore?

This has been an on-going question/struggle for many families registered with PHEA.

The short answer is because we use the South Carolina state standards to define what is required for a college prep level class. As those standards change what counts as honors does too. The old Saxon math books do not currently even meet the college prep level standard as they do not cover a number of concepts now considered to be part of Algebra 1.

One of our moms sent a link to an article explaining why the writer believed the older Saxon books to be better ( I finally had a chance to read the article. The writer makes some good points. I do understand the Saxon approach and also that the new books were not written by Saxon and follow more loosely the Saxon method. For the home school family who values a certain type of training (such the classical approach explained by Doug Wilson), they will pick texts that teach to the method they wish to use. I understand the desire to follow a certain educational approach and am glad when parents have researched enough to know what they want to accomplish with their children’s education. In many cases I think picking the older books is a wiser approach as far as completing the education of the child.  I don't think the public schools work well so I don't think blindly following their methods is a good choice for homeschoolers.

The main drawback to using the older Saxon books is that the SAT and ACT choose their test questions based on the common agreement of what the scope and sequence is in Algebra 1 (or Algebra 2, or Geometry.) So as the scope and sequence changes (as it has in the past few years), what is covered on those tests changes with it. The scope and sequence is now different from what is covered in the older books. I believe this is one of the main reasons we have been watching the SAT math scores drop each year. So it is fine if a family wants to use the older book due to the methodology. They should realize, however, that in making that choice they are missing some concepts that will be on those college tests. Most of the families asking about Saxon math being honors are looking at the student’s GPA with a careful eye as they compete for scholarship money.  To earn the scholarships, the student must have high test scores. This creates a conflict for the families – give up the methodology they want, or perhaps end up with a lower GPA and test scores.

One possible answer would be to use several different books for each subject (Algebra 1, Algebra 2, etc.) to make sure they cover everything. They could still use Saxon as the main text book but use at least one other that follows the state standards as far as scope and sequence goes. By doing this, the family would not only have the primary methodology they want, they would also easily qualify the classes as honors since they did more depth and the class was more rigorous by covering two or more books. This is certainly not what the student will want to do; and many moms will not want to do this either, but it is the only way I see that they can meet both goals.

Welcome to Summer!


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

  The Summer Solstice has officially passed, and many of us have finished, or are finishing up the school year.  It is nice to put the books away for a while - or at least to pretend that they aren't still lurking in the corner of the dining room waiting for me to finish issuing grades and get started planning for next year...
  While we are taking a shorter summer break that usual this year, we have spent the last few weeks enjoying not having to visit the school table first thing after breakfast.  We have spent more time playing in the backyard and visiting the library.  We've been to the pool and eaten popsicles.  We have even done an art project or two.  We are enjoying the comparatively leisurely days of summer.

What about you?  Are you taking a summer break?  How are you enjoying it? 

  On behalf of all of us at the PHEA office, I'd like to say, "Well done Moms and Dads!"  Being responsible for your child's education is a big undertaking.  We hope you enjoy your summer break.
  And to all our graduates this spring: Congratulations!