Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"The Harms of Homeschooling": a debate

My hackles are up this morning.  I just read this piece published in the Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly from the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland (and I groan inside because I am employed by this very university system).  Get yourself in a good place before you read this article, since it will certainly tick you off, no matter what kind of home educator you are.  There's bile for everyone in there.  Ms. West, the author, paints us all as hyperconservative trailer trash (unless we are among the few "over-educated and bored suburban mothers" with nothing better to do than paint our nails and usurp public school power). 

Thankfully, this excellent, thoughtful and well researched rebuttal exists (written by a passionate secular homeschooling mother), and so does this one, written by Milton Gaither (author of Homeschool: an American History). 

Please take fifteen minutes and read this, then consider making your opinions known.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Are you a curriculum junkie?

I don't think I am.  It's hard, though, because I love books so much, so I do tend to over-buy.  But this blog caught my eye today.  I love Julie Bogart (Brave Writer)... if you have a second, give it a read.

The Curriculum Hunt

And if you like that one, backtrack just a bit and read her post on Developing a Philosophy of Education.  This is one I think I need to print out and post in a handy place (the idea of recalling a time when we all felt miserable especially resonates with me, and I need to do that on those days when I think my life would be easier if my kids were back in school!).

As this seems to be the season of doubting what we're doing (I think it's really just year-end burnout in diguise) maybe these encouraging words will shift you back on track.  They were just what I needed heading into our holiday break.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If Rosetta Stone is on anyone's Christmas list...

There's a Rosetta Stone coupon that just came out from Borders.  $30 off level 1, $100 off 1,2,3 and $125 off levels 1-5.  Good through 12/20. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Books about books

Some of my favorite books in the world are books about books.  I have stacks and stacks of them.  I love to read books, but I do admit that my secret pleasure is reading books about books.  Sometimes they're fiction (The Historian comes to mind...  and next on my list is The Book Thief) but usually not.

Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, has published a couple of books on books.  Book Lust was the first, followed by Book Crush for kids and More Book Lust.  If you ever find yourself in a reading rut, grab one of those books at your local library.  You'll have a list a mile long by the time you're half done.  Nancy makes me want to read everything.

I also picked up Honey for a Child's Heart recently.  Written from a Christian perspective, it's especially good for homeschoolers who have sensitive readers at home.  Most of the recommended books are uplifting stories and have subject matters that conservative readers will think are age-appropriate.  What I love most about the book, though, is the focus on sharing reading together as a family, and how very nourishing that is to young spirits.

But, I found a new must-have for every homeschool library (it's on my Christmas list!).  1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up is my new fave.  Any book that ranks Lemony Snickett right up there with A Chair for My Mother or Goodnight Moon is okay by me.

The book is organized by age group/reading level, from board books up to Young Adult.  The selections are listed chronologically, which I haven't seen before, and gives sort of an interesting perspective on the growth and evolution of children's literature.  The books are reviewed by a team, giving not just a synopsis of the book but also a brief history of it (if relevant).  It's $36.95, which is a big chunk of change for any homeschooling budget, but it's a bit less on Amazon and Borders has it on the BOGO 50% table through the holidays.  (A great gift, but at 960 pages I wouldn't recommend hanging it in your stocking.)

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

And on the subject of the National Mythology Exam

The sub-test for this year is Heracles (or Hercules).  I found this wicked cool book at the Walters Art Gallery (they had stacks of books throughout the Greek Myths exhibit that you could peruse as you enjoyed the ancient art).  Strong Stuff: Herakles and His Labors is a picture book that describes the twelve labors given to the title character as a punishment for his transgressions (killing his family).  School Library Journal says its for grades 2-4, Booklist says 4-7, and I say all of the above.  It's a great book, and will certainly appeal to the younger kids that like superheros, monsters and all things destructive.  I like it because it's a terrific explanation of the story of Hercules/Heracles/Herakles that kids will remember.  Includes a map and pronunciation guide.

Odyssey Games

We're getting ready here for the National Mythology Exam in February.  Ever since reading the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, J is obsessed with all things Greek and mythological.  So when I found out about the NME, she immediately wanted in.

We went to a class at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, where they have an amazing exhibition right now called Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece.  While waiting for the kids, I found a couple of awesome games in the gift shop. 

First is the Odyssey Memory Game, which includes the 60 most important names from Homer’s famous epic, with names, pronunciations, and definitions printed on each card.  It's a classic Memory game, with 2 of each card to match.  There are 3 groups of 20 (Classic Characters, Immortals, and Monsters, each group with different back-side pictures), so you can easily break the 60 cards into smaller batches for play.

The Odyssey Definitions Game is basically a set of flash cards.  This is the one we bought to study for the exam.  You could certainly flip them over and play memory with them as well (or any other pairs game) but we're using them as flash cards.  I punched holes in the bottom left corner of each card and put them on a metal ring so they're easy to flip through. 

The Odyssey Storytelling game is more of an interactive, role-playing game.  It includes 30 Storyteller cards, 30 Divine Assistance cards, 60 Invoke the Muse cards: 120 cards in all.  This looked better for a larger group setting.

There is a link on the publisher's page to receive 25% off your order if you are a homeschooler (Doh!  Wish I had known that at the museum!) with a simple email.

I'm back!

Little bit of a break... went on vacation and one thing led to another.  I haven't quit thinking of books to share, though!

My latest quest originated from my daughter.  She's 8.  After a library visit where she checked out (yet another!) Scooby Doo Mystery (blech) she laid it on the line for me.  "Mom.  I want mystery books.  But they have to have pictures.  Not picture books, chapter books.  With pictures.  Mysteries."  And so began the search for chapterbooks-withpictures-thataremysteries.  Could she stump the Homeschool Librarian?

Not a chance!  Here's what I found:

A to Z mysteries.   One book for each letter of the alphabet, plus a few bonus books.  Books in the series have 80-90 pages, with b & w illustrations on almost every page.  This gives just enough of a page break-up for young readers.  Main characters are male and female for broad appeal.

Also from this publisher is the Capital Mysteries series.  There are 11 books in the series, and each takes place in Washington, D.C.  Slightly shorter than the A to Z mysteries, at about 80 pages, Capital Mysteries have slightly fewer pictures (one illustration every 4-6 pages).  The publisher's website has activities and coloring pages that correspond to each of the mysteries for both Capital and A to Z mysteries.  Both series written by Ron Roy.

Cam Jansen Mysteries.  22 books in the series, each with about 64 pages.  Illustrations on every other page.  These books have been around for about 25 years. Written by David A. Adler.

From the author:
"The Cams are not simply chapter books with easy reading levels. Children who are just beginning to read on their own, read slowly. They read every word. But they don't think slowly. We can't ask them to speed up their reading, so to keep their attention it's necessary to keep the story moving. The Cams move quickly. Something is always happening. Characters are introduced through dialogue and plot. Scenes are set in just a few words."

Similar to Cam Jansen, Nate the Great mysteries (by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat) have been loved through generations.   Nate the Great books are an excellent introduction to chapter books.  Each is about 32 pages long, with less text per page than most of the other mystery series.  The main character will appeal to boys (although girls will enjoy them, too) and there is a spin-off series with Nate's female cousin, Olivia Sharp

22 books in the series, and 4 Olivia Sharp books.  The recent re-printing of the books contain fun activities at the end such as jokes, recipes and craft ideas that correspond with the stories.

Remember Encyclopedia Brown?  He's still around!  First published in 1963, Encyclopedia Brown mysteries have been a favorite first chapter book for families everywhere.  There are 23 books in the series (I still remember reading The Case of the Disgusting Sneakers) and each is about 100 pages long.  Pictures every 4-6 pages.  Written by Donald J. Sobol.

This series may appeal to slightly older readers who still want shorter books with some illustrations (Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown is in 5th grade).  Publisher's age recommendation is 9-12.

Another made-over blast from the past is the series Nancy Drew Notebooks.  Shorter and simpler than the classic Nancy Drew books, these have 76-80 pages each, with a few illustrations thrown in every 6-8 pages.  Recommended age group on these is 5-8, but I think they would appeal up to age 10.

Similar in appeal is the Nancy Drew Clue Crew.  82 pages each, with illustrations on every other page.  Text is also slightly larger than the Notebooks series.  There are 27 books in the Clue Crew series and 69 books in the Notebooks series.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How many versions of the Odyssey could there be?

And which is the "right" one for me?

We've gone through about 7 versions so far!  Not all from start to finish, of course... lots of hopping around as library books are due, one wants to read ahead, etc.  Here are a couple of reviews:

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum is a good, solid retelling of both the Illiad (the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (wanderings of Odysseus).  Publisher says it's for ages 9-12, but I think most 9 year-olds would stumble over the King James style English.  But, it's pretty thorough, doesn't leave out any of the adventures, and has a handful of black and white illustrations throughout.  Good for middle grades to read independently.

I find Mary Pope Osborne's (of Magic Tree House fame) version, Tales from the Odyssey, the most... interesting.  Broken into three volumes, the books are highly readable by the younger set - probably those that are used to reading her Magic Tree House series.  However, just because the language is relaxed and there are fewer words per page does not change the content.  The cyclops Polyphemus still bashes the brains out of the skulls of Odysseus' men, etc.  So while you may be able to hand these books over to your second grader, you may not want to.  The Odyssey has some scary stuff in it.  I like it better as a read-aloud, and I find these books on the "light" side for our read-aloud tastes.  I would recommend it for older elementary students that are still having reading difficulty.

So far my favorite version has been right in the middle.  The Adventures of Odysseus by Hugh Lupton, Daniel Morden and Christina Balit is an excellent picture book version that still has a complete text.

This book is just under 100 pages, and is broken into 16 stories including a prologue (Trojan War story) and epilogue.  Each page of text is surrounded by gorgeous watercolor, gouache and gold ink illustrations that really bring the story to life.  I find the narration to be beautifully lyrical (and this story was a poem, right?), neither too antiquated nor simplistic.

"The next morning, when dawn took her golden throne, we said our last farewells to Circe.  She gave us a wind to fill our sail.  When the wind failed us, when the sail sagged, we knew we were approaching the enchanted regions of the Sirens."

I've renewed this book from the library twice already!  Almost time to turn it in for good, so I think this weekend we will read the last few stories and put Odysseus to rest for a bit.  But if we ever get the hankering again, this book is available in full text, for free, on Google Books.

Highly recommended as read aloud for all ages, and independent reader for ages 9 & up.

Life of Fred

I've been hearing about this one for a while, but since you have to buy it from the publisher I've never been able to get my hands on a copy... until now!  There are 8 books in the series, and I only happen to have the first two... but I love these books!

Dr. Stanley Schmidt has found a narrative way to teach math in Life of Fred.  They're engaging, they're funny, and they really, really explain math concepts in a real-life way.  The stories are about a boy named Fred (who also happens to be a math professor) and all his daily adventures.  It's very hard to describe without making it sound ridiculous, so please look at the samples here.

What I love most about these books is that the lessons are really short.  Dr. Schmidt has done a wonderful job of breaking the concepts down into bite-sized pieces, and breaking up the text with illustrations without making the pages too busy.   After every five chapters there is a Bridge, which is a set of 10 review questions.  You must get 9 out of the 10 questions correct before moving on to the next chapter.  The nice thing is, though, that there are 5 sets of bridge questions, so if the students botches the first set, they can go back, correct their work, and begin again on the second set.  So they have 5 tries at getting over the bridge!

There are 8 books in the series, ranging from pre-algebra to calculus.  The first two books in the series are Fractions then Decimals & Percents.  The subsequent books also have a teaching guide (Fred's Home Companion) to go along with them which includes a daily lesson schedule, all the solutions, plus more practice problems.  My understanding is that you probably wouldn't need to have Fred's Home Companion for the advanced books in order to gain understanding of the concepts, but if you choose Life of Fred as your main math program and need to show substantial amounts of scheduled work for high school credit, you might want the extra problems and schedules.

Life of Fred would also make a very, very good review program for test prep and college placement.  I wish I had had it before taking the math placement exam when I returned to college after an 18-year absence!  Here's a word problem to illustrate:

Susan forgot all her higher math skills!  When she decided to go back to school she had to take a math placement test.  Because she did poorly (she hadn't taken math in almost 20 years!) she had to take a college review math class that cost $450 and did not even give her a math credit!  The entire Life of Fred series (with Fred's Home Companion for 6 of the 8 books - 14 books in all) costs $302 (free shipping!).  Which is the better value?
Answer:  $302 < $450 (and much more fun) 

Highly recommended for 6th grade and up.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Math Doesn't Suck

Really.  It doesn't!  Especially with the help of Danica McKellar.

In Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, mathematician and actress Danica McKellar shows 6th to 8th grade girls that math is fun, useful, and at times even glamorous!  She explains fractions, least common multiples, factoring, decimals and percents with style and humor, and with more quizzes than a Teen Beat magazine.  And it isn't fluff... I learned a few new tricks from Math Doesn't Suck, and I do math for fun sometimes.  =)

The good news is that once you've mastered middle school math, you can move on to Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss.  I can't wait!  

Here's a fun video of Danica McKellar talking about Kiss My Math. 

Crow Call

If we didn't already love Lois Lowry...

Crow Call by Lois Lowry

Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars) released her first picture book last week (illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline).  Crow Call is an autobiographical story of Lois (Liz) as a young girl, her father just returned home from WWII.   He's been gone so long she hardly knows him, and in this early morning adventure they set out to reconnect.  This book is absolutely lovely.  It's as quiet as its country morning setting, and envelopes the reader in its warmth, wrapping us up in its bright woolen shirt.  I hugged it when I finished reading it.  =)

Highly recommended - ages 4-up

Friday, September 18, 2009

Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

This one is hot off the press!

Based on the adult nonfiction book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann does his best to make us question everything we think we know about Native American culture before 1492.

Just over 100 pages - Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 contains beautiful art, but is not your typical picture book.  Target age is definitely ten and up, with several paragraphs of rich, full text on most pages.  Mann does not gloss over the details, but instead tackles eleven chapters' worth of information - covering everything from the Asian footbridge to genetic engineering (of corn) to mummies and tapeworms.

For middle grades to adult, this is an excellent book to add to your studies of American History, especially for the textbook-phobic.

Unite or Die!

Love this little book!

If there were ever a fun way to learn about how the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, this is it.  For ages 8 and up, this picture book tells the story (in the form of a school play - *very* funny!) of the squabbles among the states during the post-revolutionary period.  Each state, played by an elementary school actor, has its own distinct personality that beautifully displays the concerns and desires of each particular state.

Although it's a picture book, it can easily be enjoyed by older kids.  I learned a few things!  And while my kids are not likely to check out picture books from the library these days, I find that if I check them out and leave them scattered around, they definitely get read and are certainly enjoyed. 

As a lovely bonus, the book's website has a free download of the Unite or Die Reader's Theater, which is a play format of the book for up to 17 actors.  How fun for a group of kids to act out the scenes in the book!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Book in Time

I stumbled upon a really helpful website this week called A Book in Time.  This site indexes TONS of books by historical period. 

If you're studying, for example, American History, you can search first by century.  Then each century is further divided into 4 to 5 subcategories.  Under each subcategory (ex: 1740-1770) is a list of book titles that fit that setting with a short description and a link to find it.  The list contains books for K-12 (I can't find a search function that limits the list by book audience) but each title is clearly denoted with suggested grade levels. 

Along with the book lists, the site also has links to craft ideas, reading logs, maps, and a host of other extras.  The only downside I can find is that most of the books are older titles.  Great books, but I'm not seeing some of my favorite books that have been published in the last few years.  Still, this site is definitely worth bookmarking and checking out before your next library visit!


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Update: The Magician's Elephant

Well, now that I have read this book, I felt I had to post again.  Amazing!!  I honestly believe that I have to call it my New Favorite Children's Book Ever.  Ever.

Click here for an excerpt. 

I picked it up the other night at work, and couldn't put it down.  Read it all through my dinner, and brought it home that night.  It's completely enrapturing.  Kate DiCamillo is a brilliant writer all around, but there's something so poetic, so lyrical about the writing in The Magician's Elephant that I just haven't seen in a long, long time.  Its simplicity and flow remind me a bit of The Little Prince (which has been translated into 180 languages, so that's saying something).  Because the book is fairly short (208 pages, but typically only 2 paragraphs per page) it would lend itself well to a Junior Great Books style of study with multiple readings.  Read once for action, read a second time for deeper meaning, character study, and critique.

The book's website is hosting a webcast with the author on October 26 (held at Sidwell Friends School in DC, but you can log in via the Web) and I have signed up to participate!

Also from the site, you can download a free Activity Kit and Discussion Guide for the book.  Enjoy!


Thursday, September 10, 2009


Ooooh.  I'm in awe of this website!  Quizlet is a fun, simple, and free way to help kids with memorizing pretty much anything!

There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of online flashcards already created, plus you can create your own.  You can make them as easy or as difficult as you like, and you can add images to the cards as well (quizlet has them stocked - no need to find them on your computer or the Web).  The best part is you can share them with any group or class!  Try it here.  Did I mention it's free??

We'll be using them for our Classical Conversations memory work every week.

The Magician's Elephant

New this week from Kate DiCamillo (Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie) is The Magician's Elephant.  I can't wait to get my hands on this one (especially after just finishing Water for Elephants yesterday!).  This novel is getting great reviews, and I'm sure it will be on the short list for the 2010 Newbery Award.

Recommended for ages 8-13.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Goldsmith's Daughter

If you love historical fiction the way I do, here's a great new YA title to check out by author Tanya Landman (I Am Apache).  The Goldsmith's Daughter releases Tuesday, September 8.
Set in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, this story explores the devastating collision of cultures through the eyes of the teenage Itacate.  I haven't found too many novels written in this setting, so this is definitely one to add to the list for a study of pre-U.S. American history.

Recommended for grades 7 and up.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Defining Twilight

Am I excited to share this one!   Do you have a Twilight fan in your house?  Exploit the obsession... and turn it into a study session.
From the publisher:
This workbook contains 40 groups of vocabulary words selected from
Twilight. Many of these words will show up on your SAT, ACT, GED,
or SSAT. Beginning at Group 1, refer to the Twilight page where each
vocabulary word appears. Read the word in context and come up with
a definition. Then check your definitions against those provided in
this workbook and make corrections. I’ll also show you synonyms,
word parts, and memorization tools. Read these over a few times, and
then complete the drills. Do that for all 40 groups. There’s no easier or
more fun way to learn 600 vocabulary words! By the end of this book,
your vocabulary will be larger, your test scores will be higher, and
you’ll be a Twilight scholar!
I checked the book out at work, and it actually has a nice layout and decent vocabulary exercises for 40 word groups.  These are not the most demanding lists on the market (from List 1, "noble" isn't going to stretch too many vocabularies, but "ubiquitous" might), though the fact that they're lifted from a real book and can be studied in context - and with the book in hand - is a definite plus, especially for a student that doesn't feel under the SAT gun quite yet.

Click here for a link to a free chapter from the publisher.

The guide to New Moon will be available Oct 26, 2009 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

The Claw

Before we get started in Bookville, can I just post this one little gem?  M has handwriting issues.  Actually, they both have handwriting issues; M has grip issues.  Big time.  We've been working on this for 3 years now, and I can't break the thumb-wrap-around habit no matter how many weird pencils, triangular grippers, spongy-thingies I bought.  Then, thanks to my peeps on the WTM boards, I found The Writing Claw.

It looks crazy, I know.  But I am here to tell you that 2 days with the claw and we're in business.  M can hold her pencil without the thumb-wrap on her own now.  We'll still use the claw for a while, just to make sure the habit gets cemented in, but I have a feeling we won't have to rely on it for long.
Coming soon... Defining Twilight

Welcome to the Homeschool Library!

It's all about the books.

I had a blog several years ago. We were living overseas, I had just started homeschooling my two girls, and I was excited to share our adventures with friends and family. Of course, because we were living in Italy, we had lots of cool photos to share, and we could make people jealous when we actually visited the places they were only reading about. =)

However, I found that a personal blog is just not for me. My life isn't that interesting. My kids aren't overachievers, and we're just not that different from any other family on the block (well, maybe a little different...). But BOOKS. Oh, books. Now that's where I have something to share.
Most homeschool moms have a plethora of books. Books are everywhere, piled on every flat surface, threatening to take over the house (and if they're not, you're not homeschooling right).

But can I admit here, freely, that I have gone a step beyond? Here's how it happened: when I finished my bachelor's degree, my kids were 6 & 3 (I was a late bloomer, what can I say?). By then I had figured out that I was really good at being a student, so I wanted to continue on to grad school. I wanted to do something that would allow me to be with my kids as much as possible. I thought about teaching, and got a job as a substitute teacher in my older daughter's school. Then, I started volunteering in the library.  This was it. The place. Nirvana. A K-3 library, and I was hooked. I was in there every spare minute, and before I knew it, I was in library school with the dream of being a school librarian.

Two moves later (we're a military family) we had pulled both kids out of their DOD school, I was knee-deep in grad school, and I fell head-first into homeschooling. I checked out a pile of homeschooling books from the library (and on this trip I found The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, which has pervaded my consciousness ever since) and we never looked back. Okay, we looked back a few times, but mostly we never looked back.

Fast forward a handful of years and here I am. I'm an assistant professor at a local university teaching Library Skills and Research Methods. I teach literature classes and facilitate book clubs for young people. And I work part time at a big-box book seller (who shall, according to company policy, remain nameless) where I have my hands all over the children's, young adult, parenting and education departments 4 nights a week. It doesn't pay well, but I can't give up just being surrounded by it all. Having all those books pass through my hands is a dream.

When I find a good book, a good resource, a diamond in the rough, I want to pass it on. I can't help it.

I hope I introduce you to something new here!