25 September, 2010

Free Museum Day Today

The 6th annual Smithsonian Museum Day is today. Click here to print out a free ticket for you and a guest to a participating museum nation-wide.

24 September, 2010

The Basal Method

Learning Together:
Part Four. The Basal Method

My kids got a box of Legos in the mail last week. These Legos came in a plain, brown box. Not the shiny box with the picture of what you can build on the front. That's because my husband bought these Legos on Ebay. The little plastic blocks had been used. There were no instructions. They were mismatched. My kids thought they were...wonderful.
As soon as we opened the box, the kids went right to work. A helicopter. An airplane. A moon rover. Even though there was no instruction manual or picture of what to build, the kids knew exactly what to make with those blocks. They created things. Children are good like that. They have way fewer inhibitions than we adults do. And their imaginations? Running wild. At least, that's what children's minds are supposed to be doing.

In education, we tend to get so preoccupied with what children are supposed to learn. Sometimes we forget what they are supposed to be ... Kids. That's what. Kids are creative. Kids are curious. Kids are imaginative.  The great thing about kids is that we don't actually have to force them to learn new things. Quite naturally, they want to. Us adults? We just have to open the box.

After we pore over all of the developmental theories, the educational philosophies, and the many methodologies of education, we notice that most of the literature has three primary things in common:
  1. We must consider the "whole child" in education. Not only his mind, but his body, his spirit, his personal interests and abilities.
  2. We must consider the environment in education. The child's surroundings must stimulate and foster the curiosities and imagination of childhood.
  3. We must consider the developmental stage in education. The child's age and maturity must complement the means of teaching and learning. 
The "whole" child, the environment of the child, as well as the maturity of the child must be addressed if we truly want a great education for our kids. Basically, we are seeking to determine  the following:
  • What to learn?
  • When to learn?
  • Where to learn?
  • How to learn?
  • Why to learn?
The Basal Method helps us answer those questions. It serves as a framework, a guideline, an outline. With lots of wiggle room. Literally. Kids need that and frankly, so do we. Otherwise, we get the b-word.(bored, of course)The Basal Method is a seven-level primary educational approach that places the development of a habit of life-long learning as its over-arching goal. It is influenced by the unschooling movement, classical education, international education, and progressive education.

Language, Literature, History, and Geography are covered in one cohesive lesson. Math and Science are covered in another. Each lesson should last no more than 1 hour. Extracurricular activities such as art classes, music lessons, dance classes, chess clubs, athletic participation, and such should complement the lessons.

Each subject has a theme or basic concept on which to concentrate for each level. How you choose to cover that theme or concept is entirely up to you. Or the child. The teacher or parent is responsible to provide books and materials to complement the themes or concepts. This vagueness is intentional. The generality of the subject matter allows for depth. In other words, kids can "get into" the subject matter, rather than skimming along on the surface of dozens of topics. 

Immersion in limited topics during a course of study helps information and concepts to "stick". The "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" brand of education that has been handed out is not what is best for our children. A recent article In Education Week that addressed the need to clarify national science education standards states the following:

There is widespread recognition that too often standards are long lists of detailed and disconnected facts, reinforcing the criticism that the U.S. science curriculum tends to be ‘a mile wide and an inch deep...[Priorities must] embrace science learning as an “ongoing developmental progression” that enables students to continually build on and revise their knowledge and abilities...

Indeed a more cohesive program of study would be beneficial for all. The Basal Method seeks to achieve this. Levels 1-7 progress from age 7 to age 13;therefore, it covers the elementary and middle school years. The frequency of the lessons is up to the user. The Basal Method highlights the core concepts and  the basic knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire upon entrance into high school. 

Unlike traditional schooling, concise lessons leave ample time during the day for kids to pursue individual interests. That leaves the rest of the day open for play, for reading, for music lessons, for art-making, for nature-exploring...for Lego constructing. 

The Basal Method is geared toward homeschoolers. Mostly because homeschooling families have more autonomy over their learning than those with students in the school setting have. However, the Basal Method could be implemented in a cooperative, private or charter school as well. Click here to read a complete overview of the levels of the Basal Method. 

Example of LEVEL ONE:
Level One (Age 7)
Language- Phonics, Spelling, Narration* in primary and secondary language.
Literature- Character Tales I (Click here for a list of suggested books)
History- Personal History (Construction of Family Tree, conducting interviews with family members, visiting places where family members "grew up", etc.)
Geography- Where I Live
Math- Place Value, Greater Than, Less Than, Equal To, Counting (1's, 2's, 3's, 5's, 10's)
Science- Plant Classification, Grow and Care for a Plant. Collect and Sort Plant Matter.
*Narration is reading and speaking aloud. It develops listening and speaking skills. 

Click here for a printable version of the Basal Method.

Click here for a full synopsis of the Basal Method.

Learning Together. 
Part Three. An Introduction to Educational Approaches: How, Now?

13, July 2010. Panel moves toward next generation science standards. Education Weekly. Found on 24 September athttp://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/07/13/37science.h29.html

20 September, 2010

Make Like a Tree, and Get Outta' Here

Next month, the National Wildlife Federation is sponsoring a national fundraising event called Hike and Seek that will be carried out in three cities: Washington D.C., Chicago, and Seattle. As part of the NWF's "Be Out There" initiative, the event is purposed to encourage families to enjoy nature together. NWF describes as "a cross between a nature hike and a scavenger hunt bringing families and friends together in the great outdoors for fresh air and fun". Families will enjoy a hike through a greenspace as well as lessons about nature at various points throughout the park. If you are near the three participating cities, your family can register here. If not, you can download the National Wildlife Foundation's Fall 2010 Outdoor Family Fun Guide here. The guide includes many super ideas to help you and your kids to get out there this autumn. Either way, just make like a tree and get outta here! 

I am not that creative. You have heard that quote before...it came from the 80's film Back to the Future.

17 September, 2010

How, Now?

Learning Together:
Part Three: An Introduction to Educational Approaches

There are many approaches to education. How to choose an educational approach that "fits" your child is a popular topic of discussion among parents these days. There are passionate proponents of each approach. Talk to two different parents and you get two different answers of which particular mode of education does (or does not) "work" for them.

It may very well be true that what "works" for one child may not necessarily "work" for another child. Whether you subscribe to the learning styles argument or not. Whether you are dealing with learning disabilities or not. Whether you are familiar with educational approaches or not. We can agree that each child is a unique individual. And each one has his or her own peculiarities. Quirks. Peccadillos. Giftedness(es).

Indeed that individuality must be considered when choosing the right educational approach for your child. The following is a brief introduction to the popular approaches to education in western countries today.

Steiner Approach (Waldorf Education):  Developed by Austrian philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century. Goal: To educate the "whole child"- the heart, the hands, the head for a lifetime. Material is presented to students at developmentally appropriate stages. Listening skills and the arts are emphasized and reading instruction is not begun until age 7.

Montessori Approach: Developed by Italian physician and anthropologist Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. Goal: To educate the "whole child"- physically, emotionally, socially, aesthetically, spiritually, and cognitively for a lifetime. Children have "absorbent minds" in which learning is natural. In a supportive environment, children are capable of teaching themselves. Manipulating materials and social interaction are emphasized. 

Reggio Emilia Approach: Developed in the schools of the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, in the mid-20th century. Goal: To educate children as members of a community and thus, parents are actively involved in the child's education. The environment is often referred to as the "third teacher" among the teachers and parents. Surroundings are aesthetically pleasing, adorned with student projects and designed to provide a sense of community. Collaborative projects and investigation are emphasized.

Charlotte Mason Approach: Developed by British educator Charlotte Mason in the early 20th century. Goal: To educate children in a trident approach: "Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life". Children are taught using "living books" (books written in narrative form) rather than staid textbooks. Narration and short lessons seek to develop listening skills and stoke student  interest. Spending time in nature and developing good habits are emphasized.

Classical Education Approach: Inspired by classical Greek education. The modern classical education movement is influenced by British writer and playwright Dorothy Sayer's essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" in the early 20th century and Susan Wise Bauer's The Well Trained Mind in 1999. Goal: To educate children as they move through the stages of the "Trivium": "Grammar, Dialectic (Logic), and Rhetoric". Children are taught through introduction to the "great works" of literature and the arts. Children study Latin or Greek. Memorization, critical thinking, and effective communication are emphasized.

Textbook Approach:  Textbooks have been used in education since the invention of the printing press.  Goal: Mastery of a pre-determined set of Knowledge and information is compiled in a book which is read in successive lessons. The curriculum "set" of modern textbooks for children often include manipulatives, ideas for extension activities, and workbooks to serve as opportunities for students to practice new skills and further understanding of subject matter. Acquisition of facts and skills is emphasized.

International Baccalaureate Approach (I.B.): Developed by the International Schools Curriculum Project in Switzerland in the late 20th century. Goal: "Develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world". Beginning at the age of 3, children are educated through three distinct "programmes"- the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program, and the Diploma program. Life skills, foreign language, and cultural awareness are emphasized. Students who achieve the I.B. Diploma are afforded an opportunity to study at universities throughout the world.

Learning Together. 
Next Week. Part Four: Putting the Pieces Together: The Basal Method 

To read further about these approaches, click on the following links:

15 September, 2010


A certain word is coming up very frequently around here this week. It is "co-op". First, I bumped into my child's ballet instructor as the kids and I were walking the dog down our street a couple days ago. She was loading mounds of salad greens into the trunk of her car.

I must have looked at her kind of quizzically (there is definitely not a farmer's market on our block) because she explained to me that a woman in the apartment building next door runs a produce co-op. The members of the co-op pay monthly dues in exchange for organically-grown, fresh, seasonal produce. Good idea. Especially because getting fresh produce is easier said than done in my urban surroundings.

Next, I signed my kids up to participate in weekly enrichment classes offered to homeschool families. My older girls are participating in hand sewing and chess classes while my little one is learning to speak Spanish and create art. Each week, we meet in an old church building downtown.

It is a homeschooling co-op. The parents pay monthly dues and volunteer an hour of their time each week. In return, the children get to participate in classes taught by great instructors in the community. Another great idea. Especially because homeschooling means that your kids are at home every single day and sometimes both of you need a little break.

This got me thinking about the concept of a "co-op". Where did this idea come from anyway? First, I looked up the word in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster told me that "co-op" means "cooperative" and that "cooperative" means "prison, slammer, the big house". Wait. It's What?

So then, I went to the definitive source for all of the world's knowledge. Wikipedia, of course. Wikipedia defined "co-op" as a business organization owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit. 

And then just to be sure, I checked the Oxford Companion to British History. It said that a "cooperative" creates an alternative society based on mutual assistance rather than competitive individualism. That sounds more like it.

In essence, a "co-op" is an organization that looks out for the best interests of its members. Because it is operated by its members. That's why. So, just where did the idea for co-ops begin anyway?

It turns out that before the world became modernized, industrialized, and materialized people had been cooperating. After all of that modernization, though, we kind of forgot how to do it. 

In the 18th century, a Brit named Robert Owens purchased an oatmeal mill. He tried to operate a business in which the employees were treated humanely and fairly and enjoyed a share of the company's profits. He failed. 

Then, in 19th century England, a group of weavers got together (they cooperated) and set up a shop in which customers received dividends according to how much they purchased (kind of like a rewards program?). Thus, the co-op movement was born.

The idea has caught on from there and the Oxford Companion to British History goes on to say that after that, the movement spread rapidly, and it sought to supply unadulterated foodstuffs at accessible prices and make a distinctive virtue of refusing credit.

I am really starting to like this co-op idea. A group
of people. Cooperating. Getting exactly what they need. For a price that they can actually afford to pay. Sounds good to me!

10 September, 2010

All In Good Time

Learning Together:
Part Two: An Introduction to Cognitive Development

Your child's cognitive development is an essential ingredient when you're talking education. When you choose to teach your child something is just as important as what you teach him. You wouldn't ask an infant to solve a quadratic equation! (In this competitive world, though, I have a feeling that some over-achieving sort has, in fact, attempted this)

For many years, early reading has been widely considered as a sure-fire predictor for later educational achievement. Every parent of a pre-schooler has been asked that cringe-worthy question: "Is your child reading yet?" This question invariably emanates from the parent whose child is reading and has been since she was in diapers.

Before you go out and buy those flashcards, listen to this. Early reading may not actually contribute to future academic success. A child's language development, however; does. New Zealand researcher Dr. Sabastian Suggate states the following:
 ...Research emphasizes to me the importance of early language and learning, while de-emphasizing the importance of early reading...In fact, language development is, in many cases, a better predictor of later reading, than early reading is.(Science Alert, 2010)

A study conducted by the Cambridge Primary Review recommends that children delay formal schooling until the age of 6. Rather, young children should spend their days in play because an early introduction to literacy and numeracy may "turn off" some children to learning. (Sunday Times, 2009)

So, let's take a quick look at the common stages of childhood development. For many decades, biologist Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development has been the go-to theory for what kids are learning when.

Biologist Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
Stage 1: (Age 0-2)
Sensorimotor Stage: Infants determine that self is separate from object.

Stage 2: (Age 2-7)
Pre-operational Stage. Very young children use
words and symbols to represent objects.

Stage 3: (Age 7-11)
Concrete Operational Stage. Children use words and symbols to represent concrete concepts.

Stage 4: (Age 11-Adulthood)
Formal Operational Stage. Adolescents and adults use words and symbols to represent abstract concepts.

Piaget's stages seem to echo the latest reading instruction research. Generally speaking, between the ages of 2 and 7, children are using words to represent objects. This is language acquisition. After the age of 7, children are using words to represent ideas. That sounds a lot like reading to me. 

Take heart, parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers. Read to your child. Allow lots of time for play. Speak to them. But don't worry. Reading will come. All in good time. So, next time, that mom asks you if your 2 year old is reading yet, just tell her to keep her panties on.

Next week in Learning Together:
Part Three: An Introduction to Educational Approaches

2009, October 16. Children start school too young...wait till they're 6, experts say. Sunday Times. London, England.
2010, Late readers close learning gap.  Science Times.

08 September, 2010

International Literacy Day

Ladies, celebrate your ability to read today. You are one of the lucky ones. Today is International Literacy Day. The theme this year is The Power of Women's Literacy. Worldwide, over 700 million adults still lack basic literacy skills. Of those adults, almost two-thirds are women (United Nations, 2010).  Spend some time today reading to the little lady in your life. Or make a difference in your community by becoming an adult literacy volunteer.

03 September, 2010

Which Way?

Learning Together
Part One: An Introduction to Educational Philosophy
It is an age old discussion. How do we best educate our kids? Scholars, teachers, parents, and community leaders have been asking themselves this question since...Well, since we first started educating our kids. 

If you are homeschooling, you know how confusing choosing a curriculum can be. Just look at a curriculum catalog. Many of those are so big, they look like the New York City phone book. If your child attends school, you know how confusing it is to choose the right program of study for your child. One year, I remember touring all of the preschool programs in our town. By the end of that process, I needed a nap-time!

In order to help ease all of this confusion, it is best to begin at the beginning. Every school and every curriculum emanates from a particular educational philosophy. Once you discover the educational philosophy of a particular school or curriculum, you can better discover what program of study to choose for your child. Here is a brief overview of the predominating educational philosophies in many western countries today:

Most recently, there is Critical Theory and Constructivism. In this educational philosophy, the learner is a member of a greater community. Learning is student-centered and rooted in the experiences of the learner. Affecting social change is at the core of the learning.

Then, there is Progressivism. In this educational philosophy, the learner is active. Learning is student-directed and rooted in the scientific method. Problem-solving is at the core of the learning.

There is also Essentialism. In this educational philosophy, the learner acquires knowledge of the "basics". Learning is teacher-directed and rooted in academic rigor and discipline. Becoming a productive member of society is at the core of the learning.

Finally, there is Perennialism, or Classical Education. In this educational philosophy, the learner is a rational thinker. Learning is based upon eternal ideas and rooted in the great works of western civilization. Developing into a lifelong learner is at the core of the learning.

You can further subdivide these four educational philosophies into two primary categories:

Student-Directed Learning vs. Teacher-Directed Learning

Critical Theory/Constructivism and Progressivism are  largely student-directed. In these modern educational philosophies, the learner influences much  of the course of study. The teacher serves as a facilitator, rather than a director.

Essentialism and Perennialism are teacher-directed. In these more traditional philosophies, the teacher influences much of the course of study. The learner serves as receptor, rather than director. 

Critical Theory/Constructivism, Progressivism, Essentialism, and Perennialism have key philosphical differences. therefore; is important for us, as parents, to learn about these variant educational philosophies when choosing our child's program of study.

Next week in Learning Together:

Cohen, L. (1999) Philosophical perspectives in education. Oregon State University. Found on 6 September 2010 at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/ed416/PP3.html
Thanasoulas, D. Constructivist learning. Found on 6 September 2010 at http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Tagalog/Teachers_Page/Language_Learning_Articles/constructivist_learning.htm
Bagley, W. The case for essentialism in education. Found on 6 September 2010 at http://www.spu.edu/online/essentialism_in_ed.htm
Bansal, S. & Maheshwari, V.K. Perennialism in education. Found on 6 September 2010 at http://www.scribd.com/doc/30519036/Perennialism-in-Education

01 September, 2010

No Need to Knead

I like to bake things. Let me put it another way, I like to try to bake things. Usually, what I turn out with is a gooey mess. Or an oven fire. 

There was the "pudding cake" that I made for my husband's 30th birthday. It oozed up and out of the pan, out of the oven, and onto the kitchen floor. There was the "clown cake" that I made for my oldest daughter's 2nd birthday. There were so many crumbs in the frosting that it looked like the clown had a beard. There was the pizza dough I whipped up a couple of years ago. Doesn't everyone like a wet, sticky, sponge topped with tomato sauce and cheese?

So, I have been doing my bread shopping at local bakeries the past couple of years. There is the Jewish bakery down the street with the oh-so yummy rye-bread and the babbka to die for. The French bakery with the foot long baguettes, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. The Indian place with the rectangles of mouth-watering naan. The Italian market with its warm oval loaves, topped with sesame. The Cuban cafe with the crispy Cuban bread that won't sog in your soup. 

You get the idea. I have gotten used to some pretty tasty baked goods. I know what good bread should taste like. How could I possibly bake something at home that I would actually want to eat? 

Guess what? I can. It is called "No Knead" bread. And it is delicious. And it is easy to make. And it is hard to screw up. The New York Times published the recipe for "No Knead" bread, including a tutorial video, four years ago. The recipe can also be found in Jim Lahey's My Bread. Here goes:
All you need to make 1 1/2 lb. loaf is 3 cups of all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast, and 1 5/8 cup of water. You will also need a large mixing bowl, a 6-8 quart pot, 2 (not linty) cotton towels, and plastic wrap or wax paper .
Mix the ingredients together and cover tightly. I don't like to use plastic, so I used wax paper and a heavy towel, but you can use whatever you like. The dough just needs a moist environment for the next 18 hours or so. Yes, I said 18 hours. This bread recipe is easy, but it isn't quick.
After the dough has "sat" for 18 hours, it should be bubbly on the top. Get that guy out and fold it into itself a few times; then make it into a ball. Before you do this, flour your hands and 2 (clean) cotton towels. Next, place the dough ball on one of the towels, and cover it up with the other one. (You can use wax paper instead of the towels if you want to) Wait some more. For 2 hours this time.
After 2 hours, heat the oven to 450*F and place a 6-8 quart pot in there while it heats up. I like to use my Pyrex. Take a look at your dough ball. It should be bigger; in fact, it should have almost doubled in size. When the oven has reached 450*, take out the hot pot and plop that dough ball in there. Cover with a lid and bake for 30 minutes. Take the lid off and bake for 15-20 minutes more. When the top is crispy brown, take it out of the oven.

That's it! It turns out like those $5 per loaf artisan breads at the market, and you can make it for pennies!