I Prefer Books, Actually

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Ours is a home filled with thousands of books, on shelves along every spare foot of wall space, leaving room centers available for human habitation. At times we feel that we have drawn the short straw, but we treasure our books and so we pull the furniture closer towards the middle of the room. I was therefore aghast when I heard of a homeschooling curriculum consisting of 22 CDs from which parents are encouraged to print out classic works of literature, philosophy…learning, on reams and reams of copy paper, to store in notebooks. I thought that I must have misunderstood, so I dismissed the idea.

However, numerous readers have written to ask my opinion of that particular curriculum, so I decided to investigate and give more thought to the CD/notebook concept. I spoke with people using the program. I helped a friend scour used book stores in search of titles on the reading list, hoping to save copy time, costs, plus wear-&-tear on printers. I read many pages at the website, and I discussed the program with homeschooling parents who do not school-by-CD.

Although I can understand, and appreciate, what I believe to be the designer’s goal — to create a curriculum that any parent could use, in hopes that parents who have been wavering about whether or not to homeschool would decide to do so — as a veteran teacher, homeschooling parent, and owner of a clinic where remediation of lacking academic skills is achieved, personally, I have many reservations about the program.

For the sake of time, I will limit this discussion to my three areas of major concern: the parental role; the early math instruction; and the reading and resources list.

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

This program repeatedly stresses that the parent only need be minimally involved in the child’s academic instruction. Quoting from the website: “The only teacher interaction required is in marking errors on the daily writing assignment.” (My reaction was, “What?! A babysitter could handle that!”) We chose to homeschool our child so that we could be with, and interact with, our child. We find much value in teaching our child; discussing content of lessons and readings; in modeling analytical skills and thought processes. We find great rewards in teaching our child the values of our family as we discuss how each piece of learning reinforces, or undermines, the belief system we hold.

We chose to homeschool so that we could discuss fine literature with our son, challenging his imagination to ‘walk in the shoes’ of the characters and then explain why he would have chosen to react in a similar manner, or why he disapproves of certain characters and their decisions. I believe that for a child to reap full benefit from book learning, and from life, experiences need to be mediated. The student needs guidance and direction so as to learn how to draw wise, mature deductions and conclusions from material being studied. Mediated learning is quite different from ‘providing a crutch’ for a child.

We never had to force our son to begin self-instruction — it occurred naturally when he left us, academically, in his dust! There is no way that we could teach him calculus, Latin and other difficult subjects he has studied, or will study in the coming three years. But the years of mediated instruction and guided thought processing have prepared him to move on without us. We like to join him in learning, for it helps us grow, as well. We would not give up those precious years — years spent with heads closely together as we shared the same books and held discussions on content, implications, values. We brought David home from school so that WE could be his teachers. We would resent being told that our role should be minimal, serving bookkeeping functions, mainly.

MATH INSTRUCTION

This homeschooling curriculum advocates the use of the Saxon Math program, with which I fully concur. My concerns stem from the fact that the CD program advises parents to skip the Saxon 1, Saxon 2, and Saxon 3 instructional materials, replacing them with memorization of the math facts; encourages parents to allow three years of mathematical concept-building to be lost.

Following the year of (I would guess) boredom in working on memorizing the facts, the child, with no transition, is to be placed in the Saxon 54 book — which is basically a fourth grade math book. I find it difficult to see the sense behind putting a second grader, especially one who just missed three years of instruction and practice with math concepts, directly into an upper-elementary math book. I have middle school special education students who are not ready to use the Saxon 54 book because they lack the mathematical foundations that are carefully developed in the first three Saxon books.

I explained to one reader that when I assess a child’s mathematical strengths and weaknesses, I evaluate many things, but not their memorization of math facts. I do note that the lack of automaticity with facts serves to slow down the computational processes of the problems on the test, but that is only a part of a broad assessment of a child’s math abilities and experiences.

I called a homeschooling mother who painstakingly did every lesson in the first three Saxon math books with both of her children. I asked her this question, “If I were to tell you to skip the first three books, only have your children memorize math facts, then put them directly into Saxon 54, what would your children have missed?” She was appalled at the suggestion but from memory began rattling off concepts taught during those years — concepts that her children would have missed:

“Thermometer, both F and C; concept of estimation; English and metric measurement; fraction concepts and basic adding and subtracting of fractions; fractional concepts with ‘dozen’ and time; basic geometry; weights and measurement from ounces to child’s own weight; calendars and data; patterns — numerical, geometric, blocks, alphabetical; time telling; basic computation in addition and subtraction; money and counting change; simple algebraic functions; missing numbers; greater-than vs. less-than and use of in simple problems; graphing; ordinal numbers; even/odd numbers; how to break down and solve story problems; relative worth; congruency; rounding numbers; carrying and borrowing; writing number problems; tallying; horizontal/vertical/oblique lines; perimeter; area; estimating volume of containers; ordering containers by volume; mapping; pictographs; recipes; squaring numbers; charts; ordinal positions; measuring to millimeters; making reasonable predictions by collecting and analyzing data; time to hour, day, year; coins; decimals; fractional parts of sets; estimating differences; multiply by 100; multiply by 1000; subtracting across zeros; regrouping; negative numbers and number line; multiplying with expanded forms; parallel lines; prime numbers to 100; graphing with coordinate points.”

Whew! I had to stop her for my hand was growing weary from writing at such a fast pace. Obviously, dispensing with the first three years of Saxon math leaves much math untaught.

At the website a comparison is made between math facts and phonics: “Learning the math facts is to mathematics as phonics is to reading.” Not as this program works. We don’t expect children to spend a year memorizing every phonogram and each of its sound possibilities, before we allow them near any reading books, and then put them into books containing vocabulary and sentence structures for which they have not been prepared. As soon as the child knows a few phonograms, the spelling and reading begin. There is no time to waste, and a strong foundation is needed in both areas.

READING AND RESOURCE CHOICES

The program encourages the use of the McGuffey Readers, and I think that is fine, preferably in book form. The program calls for explicit instruction in phonics and allows the parent flexibility in choosing the specific method for that. I would recommend The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spalding. But, then the program requires, and provides for, the use of an encyclopedia from 1911 and a dictionary from 1913. Although I certainly appreciate the scholarship of the past, I am realistic enough to admit that a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and many advancements and discoveries have occurred in science, medicine, technology, and other areas since those two dates. A 1911 encyclopedia would not even describe the ‘Federal Reserve Bank,’ let alone provide information that would cause the alert and the skeptical to do further research to learn some truths!

When a friend in Texas showed me the reading list from this program, I noticed that it only listed books published by 1965. In one fell swoop it discounted all literature for children and young adults published over the course of the last 38 years. Those of you who have read Born 100 Years Too Late are already aware of my objections to discrediting books based only on arbitrary dates. As we dug through used bookstores in Austin, Shirley looked for the books that were on the list, while I looked for fine children’s literature that failed to make the list. We came home with bags of books — a large percentage of my choosing. It would have been awful if her grandchildren had missed the fine reading and learning opportunities that appear on less date-stringent lists.

On the reading list, however, are most or all of the 26 books written by E.G. Horatio Alger. I blanched. I do have a couple of those books, but will not allow my son to read them. I will let John Taylor Gatto speak to this issue:

“Another dramatic switch in children’s books had to do with a character’s dependence on community to solve problems and to give life meaning…toward the end of the nineteenth-century a totally new note of ‘self’ was sounded. Now protagonists became more competent, more in control, their need for family and communal affirmation disappeared to be replaced by a new imperative …’expressive needs’:…self-actualizing, intriguing against one’s own parents. By the early twentieth century, a solid majority of all children’s books focus on the individual child free from the web of family and community.

This model had been established by the Horatio Alger books in the second half of the nineteenth century; now with some savage modern flourishes (like encouraging active indifference to family) it came to totally dominate the children’s book business. Children were invited to divide their interests from those of their families and to concentrate on private concerns. A few alarmed critical voices saw this as a strategy of ‘divide and conquer,’ a means to separate children from family so they could be more easily molded into new social designs.” (The Underground History of American Education, Pre-Publication edition, pgs. 126—127.)

The Alger books were on the list, while more recent, but good, books had been left off! The Alger books, with stories of children facing problems in life, but solving them very nicely (thank you) without the help of parents and families were on the reading list — even as I hide mine as one might hide adult magazines from children’s prying eyes. If only for this one conflict of interest, I would have felt growing concern regarding this curriculum.

I believe that parents are their children’s best teachers from the moment of birth, and that we should be active, integral parts of their learning. And…when all is said and done, and darkness fills our home, I still prefer that my son hide a book — rather than a sheaf of copy paper — under his covers and read until wee hours, or until the flashlight batteries fail, whichever comes first. I still prefer the look, feel, smell, portability, and attraction of real books.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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