Monday, October 17, 2011

Our homeschool curriculum this year: a review

Last year I homeschooled my daughter with a mixture of books and curriculum.  Because she was struggling with first grade work and refused to read, I decided to backtrack a bit, taking the emphasis off workbooks and focusing instead on reading a variety of interesting books out loud to her.  I hoped it would eventually encourage her to try reading again. For read-alouds I used Five in A Row as my main resource, reading  most of the books in Volume I and following their suggestions for math, science, copywork and other subjects.  We also made a variety of lapbooks using free materials found in Homeschool Share, EnchantedLearning, Danielle's Place, DLTK-Kids and many other sources. Finally, we played a variety of games to memorize sight words and learn phonics.

I think this casual approach worked because by last spring, she started trying to read again. Granted, she was not reading at the level of a second grader, but she was reading!    I decided that this year we would switch to a homeschool curriculum that offered lesson plans, but could not decide between Seton's program or Kolbe's program.  Here's what I finally decided upon, along with a brief review of my opinion of the materials and lesson plans.  Hopefully this will help others who are trying to decide what program(s) to use with their second grader.

Today I'll cover our core subjects, which we do at least four days a week.  

Morning Prayer
We start every day with prayer.  Last year I created a variety of prayer rings to help her learn prayers like the Morning Offering, Act of Contrition, and several different litanies.  This year, I decided to use LTP's Children's Daily Prayer as our main resource.  Each day, it offers suggestions for an opening prayer, a psalm, the day's Gospel reading, silent reflection and closing prayer.  The prayers use simple words so my daughter can read many of the sections.  We take turns reading the various sections. 

What a difference a year makes! Last year she fussed and whined when we did phonics, so I discontinued using a workbook. Instead, we played a variety of file folder games to reinforce letter sounds. This year I went back to using a workbook, and am  I'm amazed that phonics is now her favorite subject! We're following the Kolbe second grade lesson plan and working our way through the Pearson Phonics Book B. The lesson plan calls for one to two pages each day in the workbook, but she wants to do more, so some days she does as many as five pages!

We are also Using Kolbe's second grade lesson plan for spelling.  Each week she gets 12 new words to review and study from Monday to Thursday. A final written test is given on Fridays.  It was a bit too challenging for her; the first two weeks she did poorly on the final exam, spelling only one or two words out of 12 correctly.  So now we study each list for two weeks. I give her six words each week. If a word is  easy and she masters it quickly, I replace it with another word in Kolbe's list for that week. At the end of two weeks we take a final written exam with all 12 words. This has worked much better and she doesn't become overwhelmed by six new words like she did when she saw 12 new words.

We are using Seton's second grade lesson plan and the These Are Our Neighbors reader. We both love it! Its charming illustrations and gentle moral message reminds me of the reader I used when I was learning to read. In fact, I think it was an older version of this book that motivated me to read!
I was a reluctant reader until my grandmother, who was a Catholic grade school teacher, showed me the Faith and Freedom reader she used in her classroom. I loved the stories in it!  She lent it to me and told me that if I could read it all by the next time she saw me, she would give me the book to keep.  Three months later, I was reading the entire book by myself.  I still cherish the first book I ever read!
The book centers around two grade school siblings--Joan and Mark--and their family.  She loves reading about their daily life and their adventures.  She feels sad when they have to move because their dad lost his job, and she laughs at the nice surprise they do for a homebound neighbor. 
The reading specialist at the school told me that These Are Our Neighbors was too difficult for my daughter and she should be using beginning readers that emphasized phonics and sight words. But my daughter didn't like those type of books because the stories were basically nonsensical rhymes ("Cat likes to sit on his red mat next to Rat"). She asked me if we could go back to reading These Are Our Neighbors. I read the whole six page story to her first. She then reads three of the pages back to me. It takes us two days to read each story but she doesn't get frustrated or overwhelmed and continues to stay motivated.  She wants to finish the story so she can find out what happens in the next story. Eventually I will increase the number of pages she reads to me each day until she can read a full story.
We used Right Start Math last year.  She loved all the manipulatives, but the lessons were so long that she grew bored and frustrated. I read many positive reviews about Math U See, so we switched to it this year.  
This curriculum is built around DVD lessons and specially designed blocks.  I started with the Primary level, which is really too easy for my daughter, but I find it's always better to start with a lower level for her. It tends to build her confidence:  "this is easy!  I can do this!"  She then wants to move onto harder things. We will be moving onto the Alpha level later this week, after we finish reviewing the DVD lessons. 

Read Alouds
I try to read at least 30 minutes each day to her.  I use a mixture of different books depending on her interests, classics I would like her to hear, and other subjects we are studying.  
We started the year by reading King of the Golden City   I used the study edition of the book, which has helpful discussion questions at the end of every chapter.  Although the book can be a bit deep at times, my daughter understood the basic idea and would ask questions about Dilecta and her choices throughout our day.  I think this is a book that could be  revisited every year; as the child grows older its meaning and symbolism will grow, too.  I will be encouraging my sixth grader to read it, too!
We are currently working on Catholic Tales for Boys and Girls.   The stories are interesting, but some of the verbiage is a bit dated. However, I love the morals that are built into each story.  It's another book that I'll be encouraging my sixth grader to read!
We began learning about U.S. geography last week, so I also started reading Children of the U.S.A.  


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The challenges of teaching catechism in a secular world

For the past eight years I've been blessed to be a catechist at a church that offers the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program. If you aren't familiar with the program, it is quite different from the "workbook/textbook" religion method that is commonly used by parishes today.

In a nutshell, CGS is a religious formation program that builds upon the special relationship that children naturally have with God. It starts with a specially prepared environment (called an "atrium") using materials handcrafted especially for children. This includes puzzles and pin maps of the Holy Land, a model of the city of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, miniature Mass sacramentals, dioramas of some of the parables and stories told in the Bible, and a variety of other beautiful material. CGS engages their senses and touches their heart to help them grow closer to God. It is a deep, meaningful approach to catechesis that affects not only the children, but also the catechists. I know it has been a transforming experience for my kids and I!

I've been trying to get the program into my home parish for years without success.  This year, I decided to teach regular CCD at our parish, hoping that I could incorporate some of the CGS materials and methods into my sessions.  Perhaps this will open a window so the Holy Spirit can come in and the "powers that be" can see that religious education doesn't need to be from a workbook.

My goal is to make the sessions less like a classroom, and more like a time where the kids can think deeply and explore their relationship with God. 

I knew it would be a rough road.  Sadly, many of the kids live in secular homes where God has been put on a dusty back shelf behind sports, dance, music and many other activities. I knew that Mass was not a regular part of their lives, although many probably attend on major holidays like Christmas and Easter.

I'm not expecting overnight miracles. I will take it very slowly, giving them some basic presentations on tangible topics that appeal to most kids--like Biblical geography--before we started working on the more esoteric and harder to understand subjects that fill their workbooks.  (The workbook this year is designed around the topic of the Four Marks of the Catholic Church.  A worthy topic, but perhaps not for third graders who may not yet know/understand/love the fundamentals of their faith!)  My emphasis is on building a love and understanding for their Catholic faith. 

I sympathize with the kids.  They are in school all day and then rush over to catechism class, where they are also expected to sit still and listen to a catechist lecture for 1.5 hours.  

I've decided to divide up the class time like this:  After announcements, we sit in a circle and I give a 15-25 minute CGS presentation. I might teach them a new song or prayer, too, during this time. Then they have 15-25 minutes of free time to do work related to the presentation topic. (I'll talk more about this in a future blog posting.) We then have prayer corner (with the kids organizing the prayer time and selecting the readings).  If there's time, they go outside and play on the playground. We head back to the room and say a final prayer before their parents pick them up.

It's difficult creating an atrium environment, since my class is held in the parish school's third grade classroom.  We don't have shelves for the hands-on materials and don't have a dedicated prayer corner.  Ideally, I would have the kids take their chairs and sit in a circle around me (rather than sitting in desks), but their are many desks in the room and not alot of space to move just  the chairs. So I've been trying to figure out ways to work around those challenges. I obtained permission to use the chapel for our prayer corner time, since the classroom, with its bright fluorescent lights and desks, just wasn't conducive to quiet, meditative prayer.  It also gives the kids a chance to move their bodies a bit, if only just while walking from the classroom to the chapel!

However, I've found the biggest challenge isn't the classroom environment. It isn't the children, who can be antsy but have been very attentive during presentations thus far.  It isn't the religious education office, which tries to be helpful but is required to take up a lot of class time with fire drills, diocese required child protection classes and other sessions that seem to take away from the prayerful atmosphere I'm trying to create. 

No, unfortunately, the biggest challenge is the parents.

Last week, we had a fire drill, which messed up my planned schedule and meant that we were five minutes late in returning to the classroom from the chapel. Several parents complained. "My son has football practice right after this!"  "My daughter has dance class in 10 minutes, and we have to drive across town!"   I understand; I usually have commitments after class too.  Or at the very least, I need to get home and start supper since it is already 6 p.m.

I also have several kids who need to leave early from every class because of sports and other commitments.  When you only have 1.5 hours for a class, this can be challenging.  Some of the kids stay only one hour; other kids leave 15-20 minutes before the class ends. Unfortunately, it is disruptive and distractive to have kids getting up and leaving the chapel during prayer corner, which is when all the kids should be involved in their prayers and intentions.

I wonder if parents realize this?  Most of them give their children only one time per week to learn more about their faith.  What kind of message are they sending, when they take their kids out early to attend sports practices and other activities? 

So I keep praying, asking God to touch the children's hearts so they don't want to leave early.  Maybe they can reach their parents by saying "I don't want to go until class is over!"  I know that isn't unusual in an CGS atrium environment (many of our kids don't want to leave even after 2 hours!)  But this isn't an atrium environment so I will need the special assistance of the Holy Spirit...

If you teach a catechism class, what challenges do you face?  If you have overcome some difficulties, what did you do?  I would love some advice, especially on creating a prayerful environment in a classroom situation.