15 October 2014

Simply Classical

Those who are friends with me on facebook probably know that I am a big fan of classical education. This has come about because some friends of mine started a classical education Lutheran high school online and asked me to be their German teacher.  Having no clue what I was signing up for I agreed to it.  Though it has been a little stressful because not only was I not familiar with classical education, but I had also never taught or been through 4 levels of high school German.  So I have been wading the waters of both.  The school I teach for is Wittenberg Academy and it is well worth a look at.  We have 7-12 grade online students that are full-time Wittenberg Academy students, homeschool students that take just one or two classes with us at a time and we have students that go to a brick and mortar school, but decided they want to take one of the courses we offer that they do not have access to at their own school.

One of the new things with Wittenberg Academy is our homeschool curriculum we just rolled out this year.  It is fully accessible online when you register for it and it is free.  The curriculum starts in Kindergarten and goes through 6th grade (at which point you would be able to have your child take the online courses we offer).

So that is first background, now to dive into the actual point of this post, which is my son, Samuel.  You see Samuel is a very smart kid, he examines things to bits, has shown that he has a great memory and great attention to detail.  We were at a friend's house one evening and after he finished playing with a toy he was not satisfied until he had put the toy back in the exact same position (including all the parts of the toy) that he got the toy in.  We joke that he is a little OCD, he just notices detail and wants things to be "right."  The other thing about my son is he's slow with speech. By that I mean that he will turn 3 in January and cannot even hold the simplest of conversations.  When last summer started I think his only word was Hoo hoo (Choo Choo for train, he's obsessed with trains, Thomas the Tank Engine anyone?) and he was almost 2.5.

Just before summer hit we started him in speech therapy.  His therapist encouraged me to try to make him talk for things, but I honestly did not push it because whenever I tried to make him talk (like make him say a word before giving him milk or a toy, things like that), he would just get so frustrated and it never ended well.  So we just sat back and kept reading tons of books and had him point out about everything in the books (he was a master pointer, you could ask him where just about anything on a page in the book was and he'd find it, as long as he had heard the word once or twice before, sometimes he had to look for a moment especially on larger pages, but he pretty much always found whatever you asked him to point to).

Then I went to the CCLE Conference.  CCLE stands for "the Consortium on Classical and Lutheran Education."  It happens to be the organization that Wittenberg Academy just got accredited through and it is their conference that we try to meet up as a staff every summer, this is our second year as a school going to it and my first year (last year I was super pregnant with Ruth and would have had to take Samuel along on a 6+ hour drive by myself and we decided it wasn't worth it).  At the conference I learned a ton about classical education, got connected to people who can answer my questions throughout the year (the Bensons over at Wittenberg Academy are a fantastic resource too, but it is nice to be in contact with multiple people who know what classical education is about) and was exposed to a wealth of resources.  One of those resources/people is Cheryl Swope.

Cheryl Swope is a Lutheran who homeschooled her own children classically after deciding that the public schools did not have much to offer them.  You see her kids were and are severely disabled and her having worked in Special Education and looking at her children's specific needs decided there had to be something better out there for them, so they dove into Classical Education.  If you want to learn more about her children and how she educated them I really encourage you to look up her book, Simply Classical published through Memoria Press.  If you live near me, I own a copy and am not reading it (already did that) you are welcome to borrow my copy.  This book is great because not online does she outline how classical education can be very accessible to severely disabled children, but it also does a great job outlining what classical education even is.  It is a great starting place if you want to learn more about classical education.

One of the resources Cheryl Swope had to share is a curriculum she was in the process of finishing up (the first level or two of the three were already out by the time of the conference and now all 3 levels are available for purchase) is a special needs curriculum geared towards ages developmental ages 2-4.    I had seen this curriculum on the Memoria press website before, but after talking to her and hearing her in person I wanted it for Samuel.  At the time of the conference I was wanting to get something to use with Samuel that would just structure a little time (not much, just a little) to focus on oral language skills.  He was great with understanding what was said to him and by the time he started speech therapy he could carry out multi-step directions.  So it was clear he was hearing and understanding language, he just wasn't producing it, so I wanted something word based to use with him to focus a little time together on oral language skills.

The Level A of Cheryl's Special Needs curriculum from Memoria Press has been a perfect fit!  I ordered the lesson plan book only and received it shortly thereafter (quicker than Memoria Press had estimated the time, so that is always nice).  Then I had to order a few other books before we could start.  You have the option of ordering just the lesson plan book or ordering the lesson plan book along with all the books you read throughout.  I looked up the list of books and found that most of them are available at our local library, so I opted to save a little and just order the lesson plan book.  So far it's been good.  The books that are not available (like 5 out of the 30) I am getting through Amazon or ThriftBooks and we put all the books on Samuel's amazon wishlist, after we use the book I move it to Ruth's wishlist because we'll probably do the same curriculum with her too.

Enough on logistics of getting the curriculum.  :-)  What is the curriculum actually made up of?  First of all, you have to understand how I have always viewed curriculum.  To me curriculum is the means to goal, but not an end all.  Even a fantastic curriculum may have to be altered to fit the needs of the student, the teaching style of the teacher or simply the resources at hand.  I have never in my life seen a curriculum that can always be implemented in the same exact way for all combinations of factors and work perfectly.  Adjustments are just something that will be made naturally as you go through the work.  With that said, I also believe that a good education meets the student where they are, encourages them to perfect their abilities at their current level and then pushes them to achieve more than they could at the start.  If it only meets them at their level and never pushes boredom occurs and if it always pushes and does not affirm them in their current abilities burn out can happen.  So both need to occur in my opinion.  Working with my son one on one is great because I can ensure that happens better than when I was in a classroom with 20-30 kids.

So the curriculum is a 4 day a week curriculum with a combination of activities that happen every day regardless of the week and books with activities centered around the book that changes from week to week and day to day.  Every week is focused on 1 book and at least 1 book gets covered over the span of 2 weeks, but there is no more than 1 book per week.

The daily activities include the following; a prayer (that changes every few weeks so they can really learn each one), weather chart, days of the week calendar, counting, the alphabet and a memory verse (its the same one the whole curriculum).  My son adores doing the weather chart and the days of the week calendar.  We heard his first phrases ever with the weather chart (It's cloudy. and It's sunny.).  Lately he has even been saying weather after I prompt him to go to his chart to tell me the weather.  This morning the whole walk to his bedroom (we keep the chart by his bedroom window) he was saying weather over and over again while he walked over to it.  The days of the week calendar has been great too because he is already starting to grasp that each day the clothes pin moves from one day to the next.  We always say what day it was yesterday and then I ask him what day it is today and he usually moves the clothes pin to the next day.  Sometimes, like this morning he decides to go backwards on the chart instead of forwards, but that's all part of the learning process!  After we establish what day it is today we say all the days of the week in order Sunday through Monday.  The lesson plans do not lay out exactly how to do this, but we have found this routine works for us.  When he is better about always moving it to the next day we'll probably talk about what day tomorrow is going to be, but right now I think that might be a tad confusing for him.  We'll get there!

The prayers I have occasionally subbed in more Lutheran ones (Cheryl Swope is Lutheran, but Memoria Press is not and the prayers she chose are great, but I also want my children to learn our Lutheran prayers, like the morning and evening prayers).  Usually I use whatever prayer is suggested in the lesson book, there are some goodies in there like the Lord's prayer and some of the more traditional children's prayers that kids used to always learn.  I have to hit him at the right time to do the prayers otherwise he fights me.  The joys of a toddler right?  So far he does not say the alphabet with me, but when the alphabet is connected with specific letters on the book cover he has shown that he can remember what the letters are and transfer that to different contexts.  We were at the library in the children's area and he had to point out certain letters to me, he does not know them all, but you have to start somewhere!  As for the numbers counting, he isn't real good at doing the counting himself, but I know he will one day as he is constantly hearing the count happen.  Right now we have been having fun counting people's fingers and toes to get to 10.  As for the memory verse he won't repeat it in chunks yet, so I just have him repeat word for word and then I tell him what the whole verse was.  Every so often I test the waters and see if he'll do 2 words at a time, but so far no such luck, so we'll keep at it word for word and keep checking if he'll do multiple words.

The books that were chosen for the weeks are wonderful.  Some of the books we already own because well, they are just typical books that people buy for people who have little kids, like Goodnight Moon, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear.  We probably already owned about 5-8 of the books, so between that and getting them at the library we are mostly set!  Also when I say it is time to read "fill in the title of the current week's book here" he eagerly grabs it if I don't have it in hand already and plops down in my lap to read it.  The lesson plans are great and pulling different aspects out of the pages of the book.  Some of the things they pull out are counting, colors, animal names and sounds, emotions and other simple concepts or word groups.  There are prompts in the lessons to get your child to respond to things in a particular way to encourage certain vocabulary.

Then there are other activities that focus on fine and gross motor skills.  One week he got to cut up a banana (with supervision of course) and make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Another week we ran around the house like we were different animals, galloping, waddling and such.  It just really depends on what the story is what kind of activity is suggested.  The last week he got to practice using scissors (and he loves using scissors, not great at it yet, but getting the hang of it) and coloring in the lines.  This week it's drumming on an oatmeal container.  There is a wonderful variety of activities and he has been pretty motivated to do them so far!

Now that I outlined what the curriculum involves, how time consuming is it?  It is hardly time consuming at all generally!  In fact most days we finish everything listed for the day in about a half hour.  Sometimes the activities take longer or depending on schedules we don't have time to do everything listed so we either break it up through out the day (in the morning we might just accomplish the weather chart and days of the week calendar, then after lunch read the book and then do something of the other activities after supper in the evening for example) or we just leave something out.  If we leave something out it is generally the gross motor activity because though it reinforces the other things assigned for the day it is the easiest thing to leave off without losing something from the curriculum.  Also as a 4 day curriculum if you are super busy one day, just make it up a different day!  I've been really struggling a lot personally with sleep and some other health things so we have just skipped weeks occasionally and then picked up the next week where we left off.  I think the most important thing to remember is that you are doing something and that you do not have to race through to the end.  With something like this the first to the end does not win a prize, its more about teaching my son and having him enjoy the learning process.  If I am so exhausted or sick feeling that I cannot make it a good thing for him (there have been some days when I try to start work and then just don't do the work with him because of my patience level) then it may be better to not do it.  The curriculum lasts only 34 weeks which means in order to finish it within a year I have 18 weeks breathing room!  With a baby on the way that is a great thing for me to remember.  Also because of when we originally start it we were going to be reading the Christmas book before the end of November, now we'll read it in the middle of Advent which I personally like a little better.

Since the beginning of the curriculum what changes have I observed in my son's abilities?  Well, he is saying a lot more words, he's started being more spontaneous in his speech (when we started he only spoke when prompted too, now he will say words or 2 word phrases because he decided to as opposed to being told to) andI just get to see his little face light up each time we read a book.  We have continued speech therapy, though we have gone down to every other week instead of every week, even his therapist has noticed a great increase in his vocabulary since we started working with him on this curriculum.  We have also started doing flashcards (given to us by his therapist and ones that I have created myself) which I have laminated and put on the ring to take with in the diaper bag and that seems to be helpful too.  We just started doing that 2 weeks ago, but it's been good so far!

All in all I am really happy that we purchased the lesson plans, they have been a blessing to all of us. To Ben and myself as we watch our son grow in his abilities and to my son as he is able to be excited about the lessons and learn to say and do more.  I know this got lengthy, but I hope the information is helpful.  I love education and am excited to learn more as we educate our children, no matter what form of education that may take in the future.