Educating Locally. Learning Communally. Living Freely.

Getting a Different Perspective


Friday, October 10, 2014

The school year is well under way, and things have slowed down some in the PHEA office.  Martha and Nanette are busily compiling and checking transcripts for the Senior class ranking.  Posts on the blog may be a bit more irregular than usual as I will be taking some time off to welcome the newest member of our family.  I will be posting as I have time and energy.  And now, for our (somewhat) regularly scheduled blog...

  I was filling out paperwork for our doctor’s office the other day when I was confronted by this question: How would you rate your child’s academic performance?  I was to circle one of the following: Excellent, Average, Failing.   If my children attended public or private school, I would have simply fished out the latest report cards and circled the appropriate answer.  As a homeschool mom, the question made me pause.  I am I truly an unbiased judge when it comes to my children’s academic performance?
  Make no mistake, I know I am competent to give my children a good education.  I know that for the day to day work I am well able to assess their strengths and weaknesses and to guide their growth in each academic area.  Nor do I believe that every teacher in a traditional classroom is completely unbiased – they are after all as human as we are.  But I do also believe that as parents teaching our children we fall prey to a particular bias to view our children and their academic progress as above average.
  I do think this bias is somewhat accidental on our part, after all, what parent isn’t proud of their children and when we have a direct hand in their education, we naturally magnify that pride as it reflects on us too.  But I do think it is something we should be aware of.  And I think that sometimes we need to seek an outside view in order to make sure our own view of our children and their abilities is well balanced.
  I am not advocating annual standardized testing or getting the opinion of an education professional.  What I am advocating is occasionally checking in with the people who interact with our children to see if they have input on how our children are doing.  I appreciate, for example, when my children’s Sunday School teachers pull me aside and let me know how my kids are doing in class.  I like to know what kinds of questions they are asking.  I like to know whether they can keep up with the writing, whether they are able to follow the thread of the discussion.  These things give me clues as to how they apply the academic skills we are learning at home when I am not the one guiding the class.
  I think the older our children get, the more important getting an outside prospective is.  Obviously as parents we know our children best, but because we have to focus so much on the day to day of running a household and educating our children, we may not pick up on the fact that our student has a particular interest in one subject area or a special aptitude for something.  As our students consider college and careers, we ought to seek outside opinions.
  Co-op teachers, youth leaders and others who interact with our students on a regular basis may have valuable input about the kinds of careers our students should be considering.  They may have ideas about how our students can apply their particular interests and talents.  They may also have information about colleges or other educational opportunities that we are not aware of.  As we consider our children and their futures it is well worth getting a different perspective.

High School Credits - How Do They Work?


Thursday, September 25, 2014

  High school is the most challenging time to homeschool.  In the younger grades it is fairly easy to homeschool by simply following the laws for the state (Wondering what these are?  Look on your PHEA acceptance letter).  In high school parents have the additional challenge of meeting the requirements for graduation.
  South Carolina does not require students to pass an exit exam in order to graduation.  A student simply needs twenty-four credits.  A credit is equal to 150 hours of study in a subject.  So 150 hours spent studying Biology is one credit.  Students can also earn half credits in a subject (75 hours of study).  Counting every minute spent studying is not necessary - generally if a student finishes the book he earns one credit.
  Credits are given in five main subject areas: Math, English, Science, Social Studies and Foreign Languages.  Additionally student may earn credits for other areas of study as electives (Home Ec, Music, Art, etc..).  South Carolina has guidelines for how many credits a student should have in each subject, particularly if the student plans to attend college.  You can see a chart with the guidelines on our website.
  In our recent discussion of Saxon Math, we pointed out that the older Saxon textbooks are not rigorous enough to count as an honors credit.  South Carolina recognizes three levels of difficulty in high school level courses.  College Prep (CP) classes are the base level courses.  Honors are a step above that and must be shown to require a higher level of difficulty that College Prep (You can figure out if a course is honors by comparing your book to the state guidelines.  If the course follows the guidelines it is CP; if it requires more work then it is Honors).
  The last level is Dual Credit (DC) or Advanced Placement (AP).  These courses are college level courses taken during high school.  Dual Credit courses are taken at a college or university.  Advanced Placement courses are taught on a college level by an AP certified instructor, and a standardized exam is given at the end of the course.
  Because they are more difficult, Honors, Dual Credit and AP courses are weighted differently when we calculate the Grade Point Average (GPA).  The GPA is used to tell colleges at a glance how well your student did during high school.  The GPA is used by many college admissions offices as a basis for admission as well as being a deciding factor in many scholarships.  I won't go into a detailed discussion of GPA's here, but if you'd like more information, you can find it here.
  Homeschooling high school, and particularly making sure you understand and fulfill the graduation requirements can be challenging.  Working with families of high schoolers is a large part of what we do in the PHEA office.  If you have any questions please let us know.  And be sure to check out the high school section of our website - it has a lot of great information!

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!