Start honing critical thinking skills early with a philosophy curriculum designed for elementary-age kids.
With elections finally behind us, many will shift their attention toward the next Supreme Court nomination. It is the perfect time to expand our families’ understanding of this important institution. I’ve got two great resources to help get you started—Our Supreme Court, A History with 14 Activities by Richard Panchyk, written for grade levels 5 and up and Jeffry D. Stock’s Supreme Court Decision: Scenarios, Simulations and Activities for Understanding and Evaluating 14 Landmark Court Cases, written for grades 7 to 12.
Our Supreme Court is part of the fabulous “For Kids” series published by the Chicago Review Press. Divided into eight chapters, author Richard Panchyk introduces readers to such topics as the founding of the courts, free speech and freedom of religion, civil rights, criminal justice, and regulation of business and property rights. Presenting Supreme Court cases chronologically, Panchyk demonstrates the ways that U.S. court opinions have evolved over time.
An especially interesting feature of this book is its interviews with 35 individuals, each involved in landmark court decisions. These include talks with former Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury James Baker as well as David Boies, lead counsel for Vice President Al Gore in Bush v. Gore (2000). Fourteen unique activity ideas, including making a Supreme Court scrapbook, being a courtroom artist, role playing, and creating a neighborhood zoning map are also included in this book.
The text in Our Supreme Court is substantive and full of detail. This is a resource most suited for students intrinsically motivated to learn more about this subject matter. Panchyk’s book is not another dry text book. Well placed text boxes, interesting photography, engaging writing, and opportunities for student engagement make this an appealing, informative guide.
Written for children 10 to 17, Our Supreme Court could be easily adapted to teach multi-aged learners and would work equally well at home or in a larger group setting. Pancyk’s book retails for $16.95 and is available online and in bookstores.
In the opening pages of Jeffrey Stock’s Supreme Court Decisions: Scenarios, Simulations and Activities for Understanding and Evaluating 14 Landmark Cases, the author writes that his intention is “to teach students about important Supreme Court cases and to help them to think critically about the major historical decisions that have shaped the development of the United States.” Supreme Court Decisions is lets students interact with specific landmark cases in order to understand the imprint they have left on the evolution of our legal system.
Stock does not expect his book to be used as a stand-alone text. For a deeper understanding of the complex legal issues referenced in Supreme Court Decisions, he recommends exploring additional resources. Our Supreme Court would complement Stock’s work nicely.
As in Our Supreme Court, cases in Stock’s book are presented in chronological order. Each of the 14 cases is presented in a single chapter. At the start of each section helpful notes under the headings “Quick Reference” and “Background” are provided for instructors. “Quick Reference” succinctly identifies the issue, the players, the ruling, and the significance of the specific case. The “Background” section provides the instructor with historical context and additional information about the case. Both sections are brief and do not require extensive time for preparation.
The student section is divided into two parts. Section one provides a fictional vignette or scenario depicting the circumstances surrounding a specific case. Thoughtful discussion questions follow each vignette. Students are asked to identify what major issues need to be settled, discuss the facts as they’ve been presented, and to anticipate the court’s response.
In Section two of the student section the actual case is presented followed by a write-up of the court’s actual ruling and the aftermath of the decision. Lastly, readers are asked to consider how the particular ruling is still relevant today.
Ideas for 15 follow-up activities, which can be used with any of the 14 cases presented, are also provided. These include writing a letter to the editor in response to a specific verdict, creating a flow chart that shows how a case wound up in the Supreme Court, making a political cartoon, and creating a television news report that describes a Supreme Court ruling.
Stock’s writing is lean. Adroitly condensing multifaceted concepts and details, he delivers information with a straightforward style that most students will appreciate. Supreme Court Decisions is an extremely flexible resource that suits a variety of learning styles. Depending on your child’s level of interest, you may choose to study all 14 cases and attempt all of the activities. On the other hand, you may simply wish to familiarize your child with a more basic understanding of how the Supreme Court functions. It may be enough to review a small sampling of the cases Stock presents here.
Supreme Court Decision is 98 pages. It retails for $19.95 and is available online at Prufrock Press and in bookstores.
Homeschooling provides families the chance to explore whatever issues seem most significant at a particular point in time. An extra special bonus is discovering great resources, like the ones I’ve described here, which address these interests and also help our children to better understand the complicated world in which they live.
Another school year is about to begin. I can’t wait! For the first time, all three of my children will be homeschooling together. Like many of you, I’m contemplating how to best address my kids’ individual learning styles and interests without breaking the bank buying curriculum. I also know that the lessons and projects we enjoy most tend to be those that we work on together as a family. Both of these factors point to unit studies as an option worth considering.
Unit studies are a series of activities organized around one theme. Homeschoolers can design their own unit studies or save time by choosing from the enormous range of options that can be purchased.
For those buying unit studies, the Layers of Learning program may be just what you are looking for. Authors Michelle Copher and Karen Loutzenhiser have created a series of unit studies focusing on history, geography, science, and the arts. Their program is designed for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Year One begins in Mesopotamia and ends with a look at the Roman Empire. Year Two continues from the Medieval Period (400 AD) to the Renaissance. Throughout Year Three, students focus on the Age of Exploration and the Colonial period. Year Four, still in development, will focus specifically on the past 200 years. According to the website, it will be completed this year.
Here’s how it works. Regardless of age, students begin with Year 1 Unit 1. Each unit takes approximately two weeks to complete and contains a wide range of activities and suggested book titles. Students simple pursue the topics, projects, and readings that are of greatest interest. It takes four years to cycle through these materials once. Upon completing the cycle, students return to Year 1 Unit 1 moving on to some of the more challenging materials included in the unit. In other words, students who begin Layers of Learning as first graders would go on to cycle through the full program 2 more times.
For this review, I looked at the year two-unit one Layers of Learning guide, which focuses on Byzantines, Turkey, Climate and Seasons, and Byzantine Art. Jam packed with maps, art, and other eye catching visuals, the unit’s pages are not overly text heavy. Throughout the program, additional information is provided in a series of sidebars with headings like “Fabulous Facts” and “Additional Layer.” The “Teacher Tips” provided in the margins are relevant and helpful. “Writing Workshop" boxes contain writing prompts that will appeal to a wide range of age.
A booklist with recommended readings connected to the unit’s theme is also included. These book suggestions are grouped for readers in grades 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
Layers of Learning has something for everyone. Each unit includes hands-on activities, creative writing projects, science experiments, and art projects that can be adapted to suit a variety of ages and learning styles.
In the unit that I reviewed, in order to better organize and assimilate information, students are encouraged to reference a Byzantine timeline. Thoughtful points for discussion are provided and include questions such as “Do you think there should be a state church or state religion? What are the pros and cons of religion mingled with government?” There is an opportunity to play a traditional Byzantine board game, make Byzantine clothing, and to work on Venn diagrams while exploring the similarities and differences between the Romans and Byzantines.
The geography section of this unit features hands-on map work, a look at Turkish sports, and the opportunity to prepare a Turkish feast, as well as sections on the Turkish flag.
Opportunities to make a sundial, keep a weather log, and examine the greenhouse effect are just a sampling of the concepts explored in the science section of this unit. Many of the projects are hands-on and will especially appeal to younger learners.
A study of Byzantine era art is the perfect launch for a study of mosaics, gold leafing, and embroidery. The authors provide innovative project ideas to cultivate appreciation and understanding of these traditional arts.
Layers of Learning is a fun and flexible program that can simplify the process of teaching multiple ages. It would work equally well with one child. Families may find working through each of the four-year cycles works best for their situation. However, single units, which can be purchased separately, could also be used as a standalone unit or to supplement another curriculum.
Visit Layers of Learning’s website to purchase PDF downloads of all available units. These downloads can be ordered separately for $4.99 or in bundles for $78.80. Hardcopy versions are also available from selected retailers listed on the website.
With the new school year comes inevitable change. Whether you are introducing your new kindergartener to the wonderful world of homeschooling, watching your homeschool grow smaller as older children leave the nest, or find yourself somewhere in between, best wishes for the year ahead. I hope you find curriculum that sparks wonder and curiosity, makes your workload lighter, and most of all brings joy.
Editor's Note: Rebecca's review focuses on the medieval year, which includes secular science, but we've discovered that some of the Layers of Learning curricula include problematic "neutral science." Because of this, we do not recommend using Layers of Learning for your science curriculum. —Amy
Julie Bogart’s popular Brave Writer resources are favorites among homeschooling families. One enthusiastic mom told me, “Brave Writer is more than a curriculum; it’s also a guide to maximizing all of the joys and rewards that come with the homeschooling lifestyle.”
I finally had the opportunity to check out Brave Writer for myself, and I’m absolutely hooked! We’ll be using this program in our homeschool this fall, and I can’t wait to get started.
Brave Writer products include both home-based and online learning resources ranging from kindergarten through to high school. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing Jot It Down!, a year-long language arts and writing program for children ages 5 to 8.
Bogart encourages parents to cultivate learning environments in which young writers feel comfortable taking creative risks. By establishing a cozy, supportive space to practice reading and writing, she explains, creativity blossoms and an organic love of language evolves.
Jot It Down! opens with fun ideas to help readers create just the right learning atmosphere—light candles while reading poetry, bake brownies, sing, play, and dance. Bogart’s writing is warm and inviting; it is a celebration of the magic moments made possible through homeschooling.
Before the age of five, writes Bogart, children acquire and develop language skills simply by engaging with others. Family and friends listen appreciatively to toddlers offering them gentle feedback and modeling correct grammar patterns. Throughout this stage of learning, instincts guide us as we help our children master verbal communication.
Writing skills, the author points out, can be developed using the very same painless methods. We enjoy watching young children experiment freely with vocalization and sentence structure. Rarely do we feel a need to edit their words. We recognize this is a valid part of the learning process. Bogart believes that young writers should be encouraged in the same ways. Resist the temptation to pull out a red pen, she urges. Let kids experiment and play with the written word.
Jot It Down! is divided into three areas of learning: Language Arts, Oral Language, and Writing Projects. Although Bogart offers scheduling suggestions, parents are encouraged to work through the program in a manner that best suits their child.
Handwriting, reading skills, and basic punctuation are introduced in the language arts section. To teach these mechanics, Bogart relies heavily on copy work and dictation. Here it is important to note that parent’s must provide all copy work materials as none are included in this resource. For those unfamiliar with copy work and dictation methods, additional research will be required—a guide to these approaches is not provided in Jot It Down! For information about copy work and dictation, the author suggests referring to Brave Writer publications The Wand or A Quiver of Arrows, which are sold separately and as part of a Jot It Down! bundle.
Oral language development is an important feature of the Jot It Down! curriculum. Narrating ideas aloud facilitates vocabulary development and helps children develop their “internal writing voice.” Bogart playfully exchanges the term “narration” with “Big Juicy Conversation.” She refers to parents’ transcription as “catching your child in the act of thinking.” Jot It Down! provides ideas to encourage impromptu storytelling as well as worthwhile extension activities that maximize the value of narration activities.
Ten writing projects are featured in this final section. These projects can be easily simplified or expanded depending on the needs of the child. One writing project per month is recommended, with each project taking four weeks to complete. These hands-on projects are creative and include appealing project themes such as fairy tales, animals, and art appreciation. Activities include topic selection, research, content development, transcribing, revision, assembling, and sharing projects with friends and family.
Jot It Down! is a 79-page digital download that is visually appealing and printer friendly. It is available to purchase online and retails for $39.95.
Jot It Down! is the sort of resource that appeals to all kinds of families. It can be easily modified to suit a variety of learning styles and can be used with multi-aged siblings. Bogart’s writing is full of reassurance and warmth that parents will appreciate. Kids will love the program’s emphasis on joyful learning and creative self-expression.
The Heroines Club is both an innovative history curriculum and a how-to guide for creating and nurturing a mother-daughter circle.
Spring has sprung. My young sons wake up earlier now, anxious to get outside for great big adventures. This time of year dandelion hunting, playtime in the mud, bike riding, and tree climbing fill our days. I am in awe of all of the learning opportunities nature conjures up for us.
The chance to accommodate and encourage our children’s love of nature is one of the many perks of homeschooling. Nature books are a much loved keystone on many homeschoolers bookshelves, and so I’m pleased to have stumbled upon Lynn Seddon’s treasure Exploring Nature with Children.
Exploring Nature with Children is a curriculum chock-full of ideas to take thoughtful learners through a full year of nature studies. Well organized and comprehensive, Seddon’s program takes the work out of lesson planning, ensuring that families have time to get outdoors and play in the dirt.
Seddon opens with tips for making nature studies a homeschooling focal point. Making and maintaining nature journals and keeping a nature display table indoors are two rewarding activities kids (and grownup) of all ages can enjoy. Seddon provides helpful ideas to make these ideas come to life.
Exploring Nature with Children provides 48 weeks of themed and guided nature study. Seddon’s program will help to develop your family’s appreciation of nature a well as to provide a scientific context for your child’s observations.
Although Exploring Nature with Children is designed to work well as a stand-alone resource, Seddon encourages using it in conjunction with one of my all-time favorites, Anna Botsford Comstack’s Handbook of Nature Study. This would be a particularly worthwhile choice for those using the curriculum with older children.
Each section of Exploring Nature with Children is designed to take students through one week of nature study. Seddon opens each section with a theme. Our family worked through a March unit on birds. The section opens with an informative paragraph about the behavior of nesting birds in early springtime.
Next up is a guided nature walk. Here Seddon suggests details to be on the lookout for during a walk in the wild. My sons and I loved the challenge of watching for birds at work building nests. We also kept an eye open for nesting materials. To find nests off the beaten path, Seddon suggests looking at tree tops with binoculars, carefully examining the woodland floor, and observing holes in the trunks of trees. Seddon encourages readers to spend time afterwards sketching and jotting down observations in their nature journal.
For those wishing to learn more, Seddon suggests readings in The Handbook of Nature Study as well as correlating page numbers to provide more in-depth information about the week’s theme. A themed book list also accompanies each weekly lesson. Whether you choose to use these books or not is optional. Recommended non-fiction, fiction, and biography titles are provided for a range of ages. Even in my rural library, most of the recommended titles were easy to locate. My family enjoyed starting out the day reading books from this list.
A poem and a piece of art relating to the theme of the week are included in each unit as well. Families can incorporate these features into a learning plan however they like. Keep in mind that the suggested artwork itself is not included in Seddon’s book. Rather, she provides the name of the artist and of the painting. A simple internet search will provide prints of all of these works.
Innovative extension activities to help delve deeper into the week’s theme follow next. As my family worked through March activities we enjoyed gifting the birds with small piles of nest-making materials such as twigs and grass. We left these near our bird feeders. Using a field guide we located local birds and researched their nesting patterns. Seddon also suggests creating a map of the nests in your area to put inside of nature journals. The extension activities throughout the book are wonderfully varied, original, hands-on, and substantive.
Living waaaaay up north means we need to tweak the book’s calendar schedule for our uses. In April, for instance, we worked through the March sections of the book. It may take readers a little time to sync up with the author’s schedule; however, once this adjustment is made there should not be any difficulty.
Exploring Nature with Children will work best for those living in regions with somewhat dramatic seasonal changes. Also, the author assumes readers have access to landscapes that provide opportunities to observe, touch, and interact with nature.
Exploring Nature With Children is only available as a PDF. The PDF download costs $15 and can be purchased from the author’s website.
Nature is the perfect classroom. Kids of all ages can find inspiration, information, joy, and satisfaction from time spent learning outdoors. Happy spring!
Math has never been my thing. In school I went to ridiculous lengths to avoid the subject and since then my attitude hasn’t much improved. Six years ago, when I began homeschooling my oldest son, I vowed he would never feel that same dread for any subject that he studied—especially math!
From the start I was stunned by my little boy’s enthusiasm and desire to go deeper into the world of numbers, tables, formulas, and graphs. Finding a math curriculum to satisfy his curiosity was difficult. Frankly, the first few years were a disaster, and, despite my best intentions, my son began to share my dread of math. Thankfully, I discovered Beast Academy—a curriculum that could both excite and satiate my math-loving son.
The moment we opened up the new math books we knew that we’d stumbled onto something special. Full of colorful comic book-style pages, the Beast Academy Guides tell the story of four lovable “beasts”—Lizzie, Alex, Grogg, and Winnie. Loaded with appealing kid-humor, the Guides follow the four young beasts as they attend math classes and attempt to solve challenging equations, puzzles, and games.
Replacing the textbooks found in most traditional math curriculums, the soft-cover Guides are divided into three long chapters, with each chapter further divided into shorter sections. The Guides rely on lots of visual representation to explore concepts and to inspire analytical thinking.
Corresponding black-and-white Practice books accompany the Guides. Though not nearly as colorful as the Guides, the beasts make plenty of appearances here as well, and the text is pleasing and easy to follow. These Practice books contain more than one hundred problems to solve. Each page presents questions ranging from easier to double-starred and triple-starred problems requiring multiple steps.
My son enjoyed the fact that each practice page contained far fewer problems than he was accustomed to in his old math workbooks. Rather than repetitive drills, Beast Academy provides fewer but more complex problems requiring the application of the newly acquired skills. “Mathy” kids are likely to view these exercises as games and will find them far more rewarding than repetitive drills.
Beast Academy’s curriculum does not come with a teacher’s guide, but I was (very) relieved to find that both the Guide and the Practice books provide some support for parents. At the front of each Practice book appears a recommended sequence briefly explaining how to use the Guides and the Practice books intermittently. The Practice books include an answer key at the back of the book and I won’t lie—I refer to it constantly! Hints are also provided at the back of Practice books to help get kids started on the trickier starred and double-starred challenge problems.
Beast Academy’s materials are eye-catching and fun, but this is also an accelerated, ambitious math program. Among the things my son has appreciated most about this curriculum is that he is learning to approach math in new ways. “I have more tools now, mom,” he told me the other day. “I have more ways to think about numbers and more ways to solve problems.”
Subject matter is covered earlier here than in other math programs. While working through a different curriculum, my son was using a program several years ahead of his actual grade level and was quite bored. When it came time to take the free assessment test provided on Beast Academy’s website, he came out at grade level. Although he did wind up reviewing skills he’d already acquired, we were both pleased to see all of the new ways that he learned to approach these familiar concepts.
Beast Academy is a comprehensive program and does not require any supplementation. The company accurately states that “Beast Academy is loosely based on the Common Core standards. However, it covers the key grade-level standards but in greater depth and with more opportunities for problem-solving and logical thinking than other curricula.”
Beast Academy is for enthusiastic math students. It is for children who are sailing through traditional math courses and yearn to go deeper. It will reengage students who have grown frustrated and bored with repetitive drills.
Aside from being familiar with the concepts being studied, very little preparation is required from parents. Just be aware that the problems on the bottom of the workbook pages are far more complex than those at the beginning. I find that sitting beside my son helps him to stay focused and to maintain patience as the problems grow more difficult.
If I had one suggestion for Beast Academy’s publishers, it would be to develop a teacher’s guide. I am fortunate in that my oldest son prefers working independently on math and, for the most part, is able to do so. If my son needed more help from me, a teacher’s guide would be very handy and almost essential as the teaching methods used by Beast Academy are so different than those most of us grew up with.
A fairly new curriculum, Beast Academy is not yet completed. Eventually the program will cover grades 2 to 5 with four guides and four practice books per level. For now grades three and four are available and a portion of the fifth grade set is completed as well. The rest of the fifth grade books should be available by the winter of 2016/17 and the full curriculum will be available by fall of 2018. A complete year-long curriculum containing four guide books and four practice books sells for $108. Each book can be purchased separately as well.
I highly recommend the Beast Academy program for children with a fondness for math and the antics of funny furry beasts. I can tell you from personal experience that even the most math-phobic parents among us will find much to enjoy in this unique resource.
Whether or not you are familiar with the wonderful, wacky world of young Fred Gauss, made famous in the unique Life of Fred series, I’m beyond excited to share with you details of Schmidt’s newest work, Life of Fred Eden Series for Beginning Readers. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading other Life of Fred books, please be sure to check out my review of Stanley Schmidt’s curriculum in the summer issue of home/school/life magazine.
The Eden series is an eighteen-book collection of reading primers, which takes you through one continuous story. This review looks at the first six books in the series (with a guarantee I’ll be purchasing the rest of the books this afternoon!).
When your littlest learners get their hands on these primers, you’ll likely be delighted by their enthusiasm as well as their immediate desire to connect with these offbeat stories. At last, just like their older brothers and sisters, beginning readers can finally enjoy Fred’s offbeat world first hand.
The 32-page books do not teach phonics or specific concepts. Instead, this fun-filled romp takes readers on an absurd trip with Fred and his doll Kingie to Fall River Lake, where the two intend to enjoy some R-and-R. If you are familiar with Mo Willems’ Gerald and Piggie books, you’ll be struck by the similarity of tone and style of the two series. Simple text scattered on uncluttered pages is mixed with illustrations that provide meaningful context clues to help readers puzzle out new words. Both sight and phonemic words are repeated throughout the texts. The stories are engaging and full of quirky fun.
I tested this series out with my 4-year-old. When his 6- and 9-year-old brothers (both die-hard Fred fans) joined us on the couch to read along, my youngest guy beamed with pride to find the “big boys” sitting in on his learning time with Fred. The text is easy enough to keep early readers challenged, but will generally not be frustrating. The stories are colorful and will entertain older children (and their parents) as well. This versatile series is appropriate both for early readers and older struggling readers. Another nice feature of the Eden series is that in between the laughs, Schmidt succeeds in unobtrusively including lessons about time, counting, nature, and basic shapes, among other things. An emerging trend of intelligent, effective readers is a genre I’m eager to see expanded.
These volumes manage the same high quality and affordability as the rest of the Life of Fred series and retail at about $6 per book.
Kids who love crime shows will love the chance to dig into real forensic science and you can't beat the price on this free science program, but be aware that lab work requires a lot of specialized equipment and there are some careless errors you'll want to keep an eye out for.