Thursday, July 31, 2014

REVIEW: Beyond the Book Report

As my girls get older, I keep an eye out for interesting writing programs that might help us on our journey. I was intrigued by the opportunity to review Beyond the Book Report, a new program from Analytical Grammar for middle school to early high school aged students..

This program includes three "seasons," with a corresponding teacher packet and DVD for each one. I received all three seasons to review. Seasons 1 and 2 are perfect for 6-8th grade students, and Season 3 is most appropriate for 9th grade.

Season 1 includes the Basic Book Report, the Pamphlet Book Report, and the News Article Book Report. Season 2 includes the Poetry Book Report (writing four types of poetry, learned in the lessons, about your book) and the Drama Book report. Season 3 is the longest one, and has the least "fun" writing assignments: The Essay, the Oral Book Report, and the Research Paper. Throughout each project, students learn how to follow rubrics to complete the assignments. The skills and literary terms learned in each project are incorporated into the next.

You can start anywhere you need to in the program. There is a lot of information on the product page regarding what is taught in each lesson. If your student doesn't need to complete Season 1, for example, you could easily begin with Season 2. Beyond the Book Report is written to go along with the Analytical Grammar program, but works just fine as a stand-alone writing program.

In the teacher packet, each assignment is broken down step-by-step, and you know exactly what to do on each teaching day.

There are sample schedules provided so you can see how they suggest using the program with various ages. For high schoolers, they suggest going through it in a year, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. It would really depend on the length and difficulty of the books they chose, I suppose. We would be more likely to complete the program in two years.

The only thing missing from the printable items on the DVDs is a PDF copy of the story, "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, used in the Essay project in Season Three. Both teacher and student need to read it, so you need a minimum of two copies, and if you have more students, you'll need more. I do have a scanner that will allow me to make a copy, but it would be easier to have it ready to print. Otherwise, everything you would need to print of for your students is there.

I helped my two girls each choose a book and get started. I had them do a quick written narration after each chapter they read, so they'd have that to look over when they got ready to do their summaries. We took the rubric and broke the number of pages down into how much they'd have to read each day to get done in time, and they each kept a reading log, as instructed. As the teacher, I now see why we're instructed to set deadlines and stick to them, because we didn't get as far with the project as I'd hoped we would. They finished all the reading and kept their logs, but we're still working on the other pieces of the project.

We all learned a lot in this process that will make it easier to work through the rest of the projects. In retrospect, I probably should have had them choose shorter books. As Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, we don't read through books at a fast pace. Normally, we would only read a few pages, perhaps a chapter, in each sitting, and then write or give written narrations after each reading. To keep pace during the review period, they read longer sections and sometimes had to write more than one narration in a sitting. That wasn't their favorite thing to do. Because we do tend to read books more slowly, we would be more likely to take this program at a slower pace, even though my girls are older (going into 8th and 9th grades).

Overall, I like this program a lot. The videos might not have the most professional feel, but the instruction is good, and as a teacher, I learned everything I needed to know to teach my students. We've not done much formal writing, because we have worked on mostly written narrations, so it was good to have explicit instructions. The course does have a bit of a school-ish feel to it, with the reading logs and such, but the rubrics do show the students exactly what's expected of them for each part of every assignment.

Beyond the Book Report is available from Analytical Grammar for $69.95 for the bundle of all three seasons, or you can order each season individually for $24. 95.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

REVIEW: HomeSchoolPiano

I love to play the piano, and I want my children to love to play the piano, too. Unfortunately, time and budget constraints have made going somewhere for piano lessons difficult. With one child who dances 4 days per week (without performance rehearsals added in) and two other children with their own activities, we had to cut something, and unfortunately piano lessons were on the chopping block. I thought I could teach them myself, but that hasn't gone quite as well as I'd hoped. I had been trying to come up with a way for my children to learn piano at home, and was very interested in the opportunity to review HomeSchoolPiano.

The HomeSchoolPiano program is intended for all ages, so you can start with the youngest child you feel is ready and even learn to play yourself, if you like! There are three Books in the program, along with a CorePiano section (lessons for the absolute, brand-new beginner), each with a PDF book (between 30-50 pages) that goes along with the lessons. Each of the three Books has six units, and each unit contains the same sections:
  • Technique
  • Rhythm
  • Ear Training
  • Song
  • Improvisation, and the 
  • Bonus Section.
In the bonus section, students review everything they've learned in the previous parts of the unit, and put all the parts together with some more fun improvisation. Any printed music or lesson material students need is found in the printable books. I found it easiest to print those off and spiral bind them, and put tabs at the beginning of each book. The book then stays at the piano and each child can use it when they sit down to watch their lesson or practice.

I love this program. Love it! It includes the basics of reading music, learning rhythms and proper technique, and some other elements that are not as common - ear training and improvisation. Also, students learn to play a song in each lesson, which makes practicing more fun. All you need to use the program is a piano or keyboard, and a laptop or tablet with an internet connection. You could probably even use a smart phone, if you had to, but I would think it might be difficult to see the lessons on a very small screen.

When I took piano lessons as a child, I had an excellent teacher. She did lots of sight reading and rhythm training with her students, along with teaching us to read music and the mechanics of playing piano. Before watching the HomeSchoolPiano lessons, I had no idea improvisation was a skill that could be taught. I thought some people just "got it" and I wasn't one of them. With our previous piano teacher, who was excellent (just too far away), they probably would have learned those things, just later on. I love that HomeSchoolPiano starts off teaching them improvisation so they will be comfortable with it from the very beginning.

It might seem a little odd to take a piano lesson over the computer, without a live person sitting next to you, but the instructor, Willie Mayette, makes it easy to follow what he's teaching. You can see everything his hands are doing, and there is a keyboard above the piano he's playing that shows the keys light up as he strikes them.

If you don't understand something the first time through, you can just pause and work it out or rewind and listen again. Willie has an engaging personality in the videos, and he speaks directly to the student as if they're sitting right there with him. My kids enjoyed that.

The lessons (sections within each unit; 6 units per book) are between 4-15 minutes each. You can go through them at whatever pace suits your child best. My girls moved quickly through the first parts of the early units, but needed to slow down and take more time and practice the improvisation lessons, because that was a completely new experience for them.

My girls have each had a couple of years of piano lessons, and I wasn't sure at first where they should start. We were able to determine quickly that going through Book 1 was necessary, because even though there was a fair amount of review for them, the improvisation was all new, and one of mine had a hard time with it. It's not terribly difficult; she is just a very straightforward child who doesn't see the point of learning to improvise quite yet. (I have asked her to trust me that it's a skill she will learn to appreciate.) Also, the way Willie teaches the students to "grab the keys" is different than the way they were taught previously, so it's good to start over and review some concepts while learning what's new.

HomeSchoolPiano's excellent program is available directly from their website for a one-time payment of $299, or three monthly payments of $99.97 for lifetime access, with tracking and quizzes for up to 5 students. They offer a Free Starter Lesson, if you'd like to see how the program works before purchasing. HomeSchoolPiano has worked out to be a great solution for our family. I hope you'll check them out if you're in the market for piano lessons!

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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Build Your Bundle Homeschool Edition Sale is HERE!

Build Your Bundle - Homeschool Edition Sale - Up to 92% Off!

For one week only, there is a fabulous Build Your Bundle Sale going on. Have you heard about it? There really is something for everyone! Each bundle includes products for your homeschool for a great price.  Click on each link below to see what's available:

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Learning to Create a Charlotte Mason Schedule

When I attended the Charlotte Mason Institute conference a couple of weeks ago, I attended a session on scheduling. Throughout our homeschool experience, we have always felt "behind." The best-laid lesson plans would go out the window within a few weeks of the school year when we got to a point that catching up was just not realistic, and I could *not* figure out what we were doing wrong. I was pretty sure if we just worked harder it would all be FINE. However, as I'm entering my 10th year of homeschooling, it's time to face facts: what we have been doing wasn't working. Lest we continue down the road to insanity, it's time to make some changes.

Nicole Williams, who blogs at Sabbath Mood Homeschool, gave what was, for me, a life-changing presentation on how to set a schedule for our homeschool that fits within Charlotte Mason's principles of short lessons and living books. Now, I'm pretty good with living books. The problem is there are so many excellent books, it can be hard to keep the list to a reasonable number. Also, the expectations of what "school" should look like in our society today are vastly different than what Charlotte Mason advocated, and it's all too easy to slide into doing "just one more thing" or feeling like children should be making more progress in math simply because they are not keeping up with the schedule someone else has dictated for their age or grade level.

Here is what I learned: It is more important to keep lessons short, within the timeframe set by Miss Mason, than it is to finish every book.

What does this mean for my family?

Firstly, it means letting go of the expectations I have in my mind for what we should be able to accomplish. That's a hard one for me, but as I look back over the years of our homeschooling, it's probably what's caused the most stress for me. In fact, I can say that it impeded progress in many areas because there were too MANY things to do and I didn't know how to cut back - or even that I could, and needed to, for the sake of my learners.

Secondly, it means taking a careful look at the schedules used in a CM school, and seeing how those can be adapted to our homeschool. In Nicole's conference session, she talked about a couple of things that were significant to me. She noted that CM schools were in session for 6 days per week, because at that time, parents worked 6 days per week. In our society, Monday-Friday is the norm, and she encouraged us to keep to that - although she mentioned that a 4-day schedule would NOT be enough. She cautioned us against trying to fit the Saturday time slots into a Monday-Friday schedule, too, because that would make the days too long. You can see examples of PNEU schedules on Ambleside Online here.

Thirdly, it means that we will be more intentional about our Masterly Inactivity time in the afternoons. Nicole pointed out to us that there are no slots on the time tables for picture study, composer study, or nature study, just to name a few, but we know those things were just as important as the rest of the subjects.

I'll be sharing more about our scheduling process as I go.