What does one ponder while sewing 96 Christmas napkins? The curriculum you’d use if you started your own school, of course!
Having only taught/para-ed eight years, I have certainly not sampled the full buffet of curricular delights, but I’ve loved some series and nearly run others through the shredder. I know a school’s curriculum is not equivalent to the series of books it buys, but a decent resource sure as heck makes the curriculum easier to implement.
Teachers generally teach the way they learn best. When I try to learn something difficult–reading a new sewing pattern, playing guitar, speaking Czech–I need structured step-by-step instructions and lots of practice. Not surprisingly, the texts I’ve chosen for the “hard” subjects–language arts and math–contain explicit instruction followed by gobs of reinforcement. For history and science I favor a more experiential approach.
Here is my list of the Big Six: math, grammar, spelling, reading, history, and science.
Saxon! The high school math teacher in PoDunk didn’t like it because he felt the students he got couldn’t think logically, but frankly, that can’t be fixed with a new math series. As a fifth grade teacher, Saxon was my saving grace. Math scares me a bit. If I may be so bold, I believe many elementary teachers are elementary teachers because the degree requires only one general math course. If we were all really good at math, we’d be engineers. This is scary because it means we’re producing similarly deficient mathematicians. Enter: Saxon Math! It’s heavy on basic facts, mental math, and it breaks down complicated concepts–like everything you can do to fractions–into bite-sized chunks that are constantly reinforced in the assignments. Hurrah!
This was the opposite of the next math series I used which was produced by the Association of Christian Schools International and made me want to smash my head against a wall. It gamely tossed rounding to the hundreds place in a thousands number, front-end estimation, and expanded form to the billions into the same lesson. A number soup of misery. And the lay-out of every assignment varied, so instead of focusing on the math, students spent most of their time deciphering the stupid directions. The only thing Christian about it was that the story problems had Johnny raising money for Bible camp.
Speaking of story problems, I’m taking a class right now on the Singapore Math method of solving word problems by model drawing. I began the class with mild skepticism, but last week a frustrated fifth grader hauled her thrice re-done math test to the resource room for help. A few questions she had wrong were story problems.
Tom lives three blocks from the library. Rhonda lives two blocks farther from the library than Billy. Billy lives twice as far from the library as Tom. How far is Rhonda from the library?
What better way to make a kid hate the library? But after I revealed to her the ancient Singaporean secrets of model drawing–cha-CHING! She nailed it.
So the perfect combo in my school would be Saxon math garnished with a sprig of model drawing.
Whatever you call this subject, it has been woefully neglected. Most “language arts” series have shoved grammar into a couple workbook pages and one paragraph of an already bloated week plan. The grammar is incidental, rarely sequential and, in the series I’ve used, the authors treat it as review. “Oh, we won’t bore the kids with dependent clauses or irregular verb tenses–they’ve heard it all before. Just have them do five samples, and call it good.” But, see, they’ve heard it, but they’ve never had enough sustained practice to understand it.
Something as complicated as the English language requires its own book–not an arbitrary smattering of syntax.
For this I choose Easy Grammar.
I love it! Again, it’s been disparaged by a few middle school teachers, but I’m starting to think they just like to complain. The first chapters begin with identifying prepositions and prepositional phrases–vital if one ever hopes to isolate the elusive subject and predicate. It provides tons of practice and, like Saxon, does not squeeze too much into one lesson. Its author, Wanda C. Phillips, includes great games and projects that clarify grammar–not muddle it further. I so appreciate her focus on the rules that govern English, not the exceptions. Other series highlight the exceptions so often that students throw their hands in the air and say, “It don’t matter. I’s never gonna understand this anyways.” I used Easy Grammar in a class where a quarter of my students spoke English as a second language and it kept me from removing fistfuls of my own hair.
I think we should throw in the towel on this one. English spelling is ridiculous. I propose overhauling the whole system in favor of phonetic spelling. It would eliminate spelling woes. Reading scores would skyrocket. Scrabble would be a lot more fun. Instead of trying to figure out if the “ough” is saying o, oo, uff, off, ow, or aw, students could focus entirely on comprehension.
But until that happens, I choose the Spalding method for teaching spelling.
This teacher’s guide, or whatever it is, has the most appalling layout of any teaching resource I’ve seen. I break a cold sweat just remembering the day I discovered I had to coax a spelling curriculum out of this behemoth. If someone compiled a user-friendly version of this thing, I would give it two thumbs up. As it is, I only accept this book because it integrates these:
These cards teach the 87 phonograms of the English language. (Eighty-seven?! Why?) If you must learn to read and spell standard English, it helps to know these. It’s actually essential. But rarely are phonograms explicitly taught beyond second grade (and then, only some of them).
My mother, who taught second grade at a reservation school, swears by these cards. Her prescription for students who entered her room as non-readers was:
1) memorizing the most common phonograms and
2) lots of student reading with the teacher reinforcing those phonograms
So many of her students became readers that the principal took note. Unfortunately, it isn’t a very glamorous or exciting method, and requires a great deal of perseverance for both teacher and student. Edutainment, it is not. Hence, rarely embraced by teachers my mom has dubbed “spray and pray”–they spray out the information and pray some of their students get it!
Back to spelling.
That dreadful Spalding book has a cool system for highlighting phonogram pronunciation which improves spelling and decoding. But it only contains lists of spelling words–no worksheets or packets to go along with them. When I first used it, I struggled to find meaningful ways for the kiddos to practice their words. But now that Daily 5 word work’s become all the rage, I have a thousand fun ideas for spelling practice.
Daily 5 brings me to:
I haven’t found a reading series I like yet. The Sisters explain the problems of one-size-fits-all reading programs and offer an alternative. With modeling and mini-lessons, they also take the ambiguity out of “reading strategies” the kids are supposed to use. What fourth grader can explain synthesizing or inferencing? They can hardly pronounce these strategies, let alone consciously use them to improve their comprehension. I really like the way Daily 5 and CAFE are tailored to individual student needs.
In the primary grades, however, students need a more structured, phonics-heavy curriculum so they have the tools to figure out the words. Though advertised as primary-friendly, I think CAFE and Daily 5 work best for students who have already mastered decoding.
Sound Partners is a great resource for individual phonics instruction, but doesn’t translate well for an entire class. I’m sure there’s something out there.
Now called “social studies” because it must encompass culture; time, continuity, and change; people, places, and environments; individual development and identity; individuals, groups, and institutions; power, authority, and governance; production, distribution, and consumption; science, technology, and society; civic ideas and practices; and global connections–this subject has the potential for greatness but barely registers mediocre.
No wonder social studies books are so lame. With all that filling there isn’t room for anything thought-provoking. One series I used shoved everything from Teddy Roosevelt to the Berlin Airlift into one chapter. Probably to make more room for civic ideas and consumption. Just about gave me consumption.
When I was in school, teachers were gung-ho at the beginning of the book. I learned more about the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans than their own mothers knew. But things slowed down around the Industrial Revolution and we were lucky to hit the Great Depression by May. We never studied the really interesting stuff–in fact, none of it was interesting. Momentous events warranted a few paragraphs–maybe a sidebar about Nathaniel Hawthorne or the Battle of Antietam–followed by inane comprehension questions about events for which I had no context. Unless the teacher collected supplemental resources, (some did–but mostly about the Aztecs) we had only the scantiest briefing of the past.
My history text would be A History of US.
These are great books! Unfortunately, the series only covers American history, but Joy Hakim has done an outstanding job of making history fascinating for students. The reader actually feels a connection–nay, even empathy, for historical figures and has enough background to realize why said figures are important in the first place. And from what I’ve seen (I haven’t read the whole series) Hakim does it without being obnoxiously politically correct.
I heard an annoying interview on NPR with Cokie Roberts, sometime author of Founding Mothers, a children’s book about ladies’ contributions to U.S independence.
The interviewer asked her what made her want to tell these stories for kids.
She responded, “Well, I feel strongly that when you recognize people in history that history is more relevant to you.”
I absolutely agree. When you know the people–events make sense. But then she kept going:
“And our little girls have a hard time recognizing people in the great story of America. …The National Archives are the closest thing we have to a cathedral of the country. There are these fabulous murals up on the walls…and they’re all white men in white wigs with tights, and I don’t think they’re recognizable to a lot of Americans.”
Wait, what? Because I’m female, I can’t identify with a great American simply because he looks different from me? That seems so–dare I say it?–close-minded.
Can’t I identify with a great American’s ideas? Vision? Character? To insinuate that a girl can only “recognize” a historical figure if that person is also a woman is insulting. You needn’t artificially prop up a particular gender or race because you think students can only interpret history from a person who looks like them. Teach them to recognize history makers by their actions and beliefs, not their gender or skin color.
Hmph. Carrying on…
The school in Prague used FOSS.
FOSS believes students should perform many investigations and from said investigations draw profound and lasting scientific conclusions. In my experience, the students were all for the experimenting (My fourth graders made a working telegraph using an electromagnet. It was beyond cool!) but balked at the drawing of conclusions. A few more years might have honed my facilitating skills, but at the time, I pined for more substance. But, man, I was in love with all the stuff; the kits burst with all manner of scientific goodness.
PoDunk used this Harcourt series:
While I appreciated the thorough text, I was constantly scrounging for materials for demonstrations and investigations, always borrowing the high school science teacher’s mineral collection, skeleton, incubator, beakers, etc.
In my school, I would marry FOSS’s stuff and Harcourt’s text.
There you go!
So who wants to start a school with me?? I’m thinking some tropical isle in the Caribbean. And the only students allowed will be hard-working, eager cherubs who don’t have parents.