Teaching My Baby To Read

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Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Queen’s Pirate

We have just spent the last few days listening to “The Queen’s Pirate” by Jim Weiss several times. It tells the story of both Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake. This CD is very good, but I would pass on purchasing this if you already own Story of the World 2 on audio because it is redundant. “The Queens Pirate” does do a better job in telling the story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada however, and includes the part about the English fire ships forcing the Spanish galleons to cut anchor and flee. I was very bummed that Susan Wise Bauer left that part out of SOTW2!

I bought two copies of this CD and will be giving the second one as part of a Christmas gift to one of our nieces or nephews.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of Traitor’s Gate which Princess Elizabeth passed through when her sister Mary imprisoned her in the Tower of London.

Redshirting Kindergartners

Have you read this recent article in the New York Times, Delay Kindergarten at your Child’s Peril?  I only taught K/1 for two years, but I agree 100%.  I had one little student enter Kindergartnen with a November birthday, and she spent the first couple of months losing her hair bows all over the classroom.  But that doesn’t mean her brain wasn’t rapidly absorbing all of the content I was teaching.  By the end of first grade she was one of the top performers, in a class of very bright children to begin with.

In contrast, I had another sweet, delightful, and wonderful boy enter my Kindergarten classroom who had been redshirted.  By the end of first grade he was almost eight.  I really, really, really, needed to retain him because he hadn’t mastered the curriculum yet, but I could not in good conscious hold him back.  I had to commit the dreaded sin of “social promotion” and pass him up to second grade.  He was already the tallest kid the class, and there was no way I could have an eight year old in a K/1 classroom. 

The sad thing is, this little boy’s parents had tried to act in their son’s best interest by keeping him home an extra year and entering him into Kindergarten when he was a bit older and more mature.  But if they hadn’t done that, he would have entered Kindergarten as a very young five year old whose brain cells were still rapidly forming and a laying down tracks.  The NYT articles suggest that earlier entrance to Kindergarten might have actually made this child smarter and more capable.  At the very least, he would have ended first grade as a seven year old and I could have retained him.  Then he would have received an extra year of school that would have made a big difference.

My own daughter Jenna has a summer birthday.  She’ll be a young Kindergartener someday, but that’s fine by me!

What to do with your 2 year old

I have been blogging a lot recently about things we are doing with Bruce(6), so I thought I’d better offer a quick update on what we are doing with Jenna(2)  at home, to help support her learning as well.  She is not quite two and a half yet, and full of energy.

Of course there are all of the traditional things to do with two year olds; play-dough, paint, crayon scribbling, dress up, pretend play, blocks, reading books, etc.  We do all of things in abundance.  Jenna also spends four hours a week in a play-based two year olds class at our local community college with either my husband or I present.  Play-based means that there is very little direct instruction and children get to choose from a myriad of options of what to play.  On Wednesdays, we do a Kindermusik ABC Music and Me class.

But what are some of the non-traditional things we are doing with Jenna at this age?  What are some novel ways to support learning at home for your two year old?  Jenna is definitely in that fuzzy gray area after she has learned hers letters and sounds, but before she is ready to actively start putting them together in CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words. (For my complete list of things to do to help with this transition, please see my Where to Start Page.)  But at present, these are the specific things I am doing with Jenna right now:

All of these activities are things I did with Bruce when he was Jenna’s age, and he started sounding out CVC words by around two and a half.  By three and a half, he could read through the first couple of sets of Bob Books, and he finished Bob Book set 5 by the time he was a young age five.  I’m not sure if I will have similar results with Jenna because all children are different and develop at different rates.  But all of the extra learning time I give her represents one-on-one time with Mommy and that certainly cannot hurt!

Science Without a Net: Week 2

For all of the official (and free!) “Science Without A Net” lesson plans please see here.

We are now on to week two of “Forces and Energy”, and I continue to be really impressed by FarrarWilliams’s Science Without A Net plans. Be sure to check them out for yourself! Today we had the added bonus of my husband being home to help with our experiments, and this really pushed the scientific discussion to a much higher level than I would have thought to take it by myself. (Of course, as I often remind my husband, just because you have engineering degree from Stanford doesn’t mean you can find your keys.) But I digress… 🙂

Our topic for today was how energy cannot be created, but can be transferred from one form to another. Here are pictures from the experiments we did. I am probably going to splice them together into a larger homemade book about energy in a few days. Our printer is out of ink at the moment, and I’m still waiting for the replacement cartridges to arrive.

Part 2 of our book on Energy

Energy cannot be created, but it can be transferred from one form to another.

We tried out an experiment in the garage using the tennis ball that hangs from

the string and helps mom park the car in the right place.

Dad pulled the ball all the way to Bruce’s nose. The tennis ball had a lot of potential energy.

Once the tennis ball started swinging, the potential energy turned into kinetic energy.  It never hit Bruce’s nose because the tennis ball could not have more kinetic energy than the potential energy we loaded it up with.

Our next experiment with was with a sock full of rice that we taped to the table. Bruce pulled the sock back and loaded it with potential energy.

Then he let go of the sock and the sock hit the can.

The potential energy turned into kinetic energy, and sent the can rolling.

Next we tried the same experiment, but this time we used the magic can that we made last week.

When the regular can hit the magic can, the magic can rolled back, hit can #1 and then hit the sock. It was a chain reaction! Mom asked why the cans didn’t keep rolling on and on forever, and Bruce knew the answer.

Friction was causing some of the energy to go into the floor. Eventually the cans stopped rolling, and the sock stopped being hit.

The last investigation we did was with solar powered calculators. Bruce’s calculator is very new and works really well. The solar cells are not very big. Mom’s calculator is twenty years old and does not work as well. The solar cells on Mom’s calculator are really big. Maybe that’s because solar technology has improved a lot over the years, or maybe Mom’s calculator needs larger solar cells because it can do fancier things.

Story of the World Volume 2 Update

We finished !!!!!!

(For more on Story of the World Volume 2 please see here.)

The Book Of Man

When I first started reading The book of Man, Readings on the path to Manhood by William J. Bennett I was mesmerized. It is a massive book, over 500 pages long that is chock-full of speeches, poems, narrations and letters from some of the most famous men in history; everyone from Plato to Seneca, Booker T Washington to Lord Baden Powell. The passages are organized into sections such as “Men at War”, “Men at Work”, and “Men with Women and Children”.

I dove into reading this book, skipping the introduction and just reading the literary selections themselves. I was hooked. I read and I read and I read some more. I read the piece about Ernest Shackelton to my six year old son at bedtime. I reluctantly passed the book over to my husband one evening so he could read a bit while I folded laundry. He read one of the many selections from Theodore Roosevelt. “You just don’t hear presidents talk like this anymore,” was my husband’s impressed response.

I told my mother in law about this book. “It would be a great present for my sister-in-law’s new husband!” I said. “This is the perfect Christmas gift for just about any man you know.” All the while I was reading the historical selections and being inspired by the wisdom and examples of all of these great men. I did note that there seemed to be a lot of Christian men included and not any Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other religious types sited, but I was willing to let that go because there were so many atheists in the mix. That somehow seemed to balance the text out.

Finally, I got around to reading William Bennett’s introduction to his book. As a former teacher, I was really interested in what he had to say because he was Secretary of Education while I was in grade school. I loved so many of the passages he had chosen for his book, and was ready with an open mind to hear what he wrote. That’s when my opinion about this book started changing.

Simply put, William Bennett’s thesis is that society is in trouble today because men are not “stepping up to the plate”. They need to put down the video games, marry the mother of their children, go to church (or war), and start contributing to society. Bennett’s introduction was full of strong opinions like this which I listened to, thought about, and saw a bit of truth in, even if I did not agree with his thinking 100%. (The husband, fathers, uncles and male friends in my life are doing just fine thank you.)

But then I read this sentence on page xxi: “So what’s wrong?…Gay culture often parades itself in a flamboyant display and challenge to traditional masculinity.” What? Gay culture? Really? I am a member of the United Methodist Church whose motto is “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” I find Bennett’s choice of wording in this sentence about gays, deeply offensive. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he is not homophobic. I do not believe that being gay is a culture you choose, but rather the perfectly acceptable way God made you.  Considering that Bennett so loves quoting Plato, he should know that. 

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

All About Spelling, Organizing Your Materials

I’ve blogged for a while about how much I love All About Spelling, but I’ve never really described a basic aspect of the program that all AAS users have to contend with: where do you store all of the components that go with it? Since I have a 6 year old and a 2 year old in the house, this is a big issue. I’m very paranoid about my daughter eating magnets, and so I want to be sure I’m storing everything safely but still in a way that allows for easy access when it’s time for spelling lesson with my son.

Luckily, I have a very old china cabinet from the 1970s, combined with ugly 1980s wallpaper in the dining room that we haven’t gotten around to replacing. Together, they form the perfect AAS storage solution! Who cares if either the china cabinet or the wallpaper gets scratched? I keep the board behind the cabinet. Normally I push the board all the way behind it so my daughter can’t reach, but in this picture it is peaking out so you can get the idea that it’s back there.

I store the AAS books and card box on top of the china cabinet, next to the Right Start materials we are currently using. This makes for easy access whenever my son does homework on the dining room table.

All of our AAS cards are in the box, which was money well spent!

At the end of each lesson I make sure the entire letter tiles are accounted for and in their proper place on the board. I also prep the next lesson by pulling the cards and pieces and putting them in the teacher’s guide. That way, the next time Bruce says “Let’s do spelling”, I’m already to go before he loses interest.

Gosh that wall paper is hideous!   Decor wise, this isn’t the best solution. My 1970s/1980s dining room is really depressing. But I feel lucky that we have a good space to do schoolwork without worrying about messing up expensive furniture.

Science Without a Net: Week 1

For all of the official (and free!) “Science Without A Net” lesson plans please see here.

Our Science Without A Net topic for this week is Energy. We had a lot of fun learning about the scientific definition of energy and all of its forms.

Here is the homemade book we made to help us remember what we learned about energy this week. For more on the how and why of homemade books, please see here.


This week we learned about Energy. We read Energy Makes Things Happen by Kimberly Bradley.

We made origami frogs out of paper. When the frog is just sitting there, it is full of potential energy.

When the frog is jumping, it is full of kinetic energy.

We put a ball at the top of the stairs. When the ball was at the top of the stairs it was full of potential energy.

When the ball was rolling down the stairs it was full of kinetic energy.

We built a magic can. The further away the can rolled, the more potential energy it had. The rubber band inside the can stores energy when the can rolls.

We made brownies. Stirring the brownies used kinetic energy.

Baking the brownies used heat energy.

Since they are a food, brownies are fuel for our bodies. Fuel gives us energy.

Milk is also a fuel which gives our bodies energy. The milk we drink with our brownies came from cows that ate grass. It takes solar energy from the sun to grow grass.

The last experiment we did was with sound energy. Crashing the cymbals together created sound waves. The sound waves made the salt bounce off of the plastic. Dad jumped too, because it was really loud!

Thematic Reading for Two Year Olds

I was just reading one of my favorite blogs, Postapocalyptichomeschool, for inspiration and came across a great post the author wrote about doing a themed week with her toddler on China.  Doing thematic reading with two year olds is such a great idea; I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself!  Preschool and Kindergarten classrooms do this all the time, and the idea translates well into the home environment.  When you group books together and read them with your child in an organized way, this counts as Guided Reading, as opposed to just another random read- aloud.

Since October 31st is coming up, I gathered as many books as we own that are Halloween related and laid them out on our coffee table for easy access.  Jenna(27m) and I are going to be reading all of these stories in the next week, in addition to making some homemade books about pumpkins and costumes.  In future weeks, I’ll be better organized and put some themed books on hold at the library.

Jenna’s Pumpkin Farm Book

Our family went to Fairbank Animal Farm’s Pumpkin Patch in Edmonds this weekend. We all had a fabulous time, until of course we were not and realized that we should have left ten minutes ago! Life with a two year old never fails to excite…  After we got home from the farm we ate dinner in a pumpkin.

Here’s the homemade book we made for Jenna(27m) about our trip to the farm. For more information on the how or why of homemade books, please see Homemade Books 101.

The Pumpkin Farm

I see a goat.

I see a turkey.

I see a cow.

I see a sheep.

I see a pony.

I see pigs.

I see baby chicks.

I see baby ducklings.

I feel the bunny!

Dinner in a Pumpkin

(This picture doesn’t look too appetizing, but that’s because these babies aren’t cooked yet.  This recipe actually turns out pretty yummy and both of my kids like this meal a lot.)

Here’s a fun fall-themed dinner to eat after taking your little ones to a pumpkin farm. This year, I actually purchased our eating pumpkins at the store so that I could make this meal before we went to the pumpkin patch. When we came home all worn out, all I had to do was stick these in the oven.

Dinner in a Pumpkin


  • 1 package organic ground beef
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 2-3 pieces celery
  • 1 bell pepper
  • half an onion
  • a package of mushrooms
  • 2 cups cooked rice
  • 1 can of cream of mushroom soup
  • 2 T of soy sauce


Preheat the oven to 350. Cook the meat and veggies on the stove until the ground beef is all the way cooked as measured by a meat thermometer. Then mix in the soup, rice, and soy sauce. Stuff the pumpkins and bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes with the pumpkin lid on.

Note: I like to use small sugar pie pumpkins for this. Big pumpkins will also work, but it takes a lot longer than one and a half hours to cook.  You could also try making this vegetarian by upping the rice and deleting the meat.

Harnessing a Racehorse

We just got back from preschool story time at our local library, and it got my mind spinning in many directions.  Jenna(27m) can sit through the half-hour story time curriculum for 3-5 year olds and participate like a champ. She pays attention, answers questions, makes meaningful connections when appropriate, and behaves like a come-to-life doll in just about every respect.  I’m sure that when other library parents look at me they probably think, “That lady must be a good parent.  Her daughter is a little angel!”

Taking Bruce to story time when he was little was a different experience altogether.  He would do okay for the first ten minutes, and then get really bored by the level of material being presented.  Sitting still, listening to the responses from his three-year-old peers, and not being able to share his obscure literary references were just too much for him.  After a few attempts to make story time work, I finally gave up because I was positive the other parents were looking at me and thinking, “That lady must be an awful mother!  Her child is sure acting like a brat.”

Parenting Bruce(6) is like trying to harness a racehorse every single day.  The years pass and some challenges fade away, only to be replaced by new ones.  The good news is that my son is now attending our school district’s gifted program and for the most part thriving.  There are still lots of time when people look at how spirited he is and think I am a bad parent.  But now people know he is “officially” gifted, and that helps a little bit with the judgment.

Speaking of judgment, I’ve only apologized to my mother-in-law about 100 times for thinking she was a bad parent every time I heard about the wild exploits of my husband’s youth.  My husband and Bruce were both the types of two year olds you would have to pick up by the back of their overalls and physically remove from intense toddler situations, with both fists still flying in the air.

Jenna on the other hand, manifests her intelligence in entirely different ways than Bruce.  Like me, she is very well behaved and eager to please.  My parents claim I only ever threw two or three tantrums in my entire childhood.  Growing up in the San Diego School District’s Seminar program, I was surrounded by a lot of gifted students with this same temperament: intensely articulate and curious children who were also well-behaved.  But it seems that there was always at least one kid in every class who was the harnessed-racehorse type, like my husband and son.

At the library story time today there was a three year old girl who was this exact type.  She was a thoroughbred filly, trying to attend story time with neurotypical children (and Jenna.)  🙂  This little girl kept interjecting, interrupting, offering suggestions, getting up to dance, and when she was allowed to speak, spewing forth long involved sentences that nobody could understand.  Even our wonderfully patient and experienced librarian was at her wits end.  To me it was like deja vu.

When story time was over I went up to the mother and offered my unsolicited opinion that her daughter should be tested for our district’s gifted program when she was in Kindergarten.  The mom looked at me like she was about to cry.  She said her daughter was in speech therapy and was being recommended for a developmental preschool.  My teacher-ears perked up and I inwardly thought Asperger’s Syndrome?    But then I asked her if she meant speech therapy for articulation of language delay.  It turns out that the little girl just needed articulation help.  It was no wonder, because this child was using high level vocabulary and sentence structure that nobody expects a three year old to have mastered. 

So I told this mother, “Many people here might be seeing naughtiness but I’m seeing a child who is highly verbal, inquisitive, energetic, intense, and clearly bored with the material being presented because it is probably too easy for her.  Those are all signs of giftedness.”  That’s when the mom shared that her husband was gifted, and had been in gifted programs throughout his childhood.  She didn’t know what to do about preschool, but was at her wits end.  I suggested she look into Montessori, and that she check out Dr. James Webb’s book Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, Ocd, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders.  (There is also a SENG article about this subject.)  Then we said goodbye and she thanked me profusely.

Was this little girl gifted or not?  I don’t really know.  I’m just a non-qualified random stranger making an unsolicited assessment based on a thirty minute observation.  But I am also a teacher, parent, and gifted person myself.  Sometimes you just see a kid and know.  The trouble is, I’m seeing “harnessed racehorse” but everyone else in the room is just seeing “brat”.

P.S. The metaphor between the gifted brain and a harnessed racehorse is something I first heard about at the 2011 SENG conference.  Unfortunately, I cannot remember at which presentation, otherwise I would give proper credit where credit is due.

“Science Without a Net” Fan

Now that I’m all hyped up after watching Tough Love: An Education, I decided to purchase some of the Delta Science in a Nutshell Kits that I had heard really good things about.  They are produced by the same company that makes FOSS science kits for classrooms, which I am very familiar with.  But hold on!!  I have decided to save my money, because I just came across a homeschool blog where the mother (who is a former teacher) has created a wonderful, secular science curriculum for her children.  She calls it Science Without a Net.  I think it is going to fit in perfectly with what I was looking to do with Bruce(6) on an Afterschooling basis.

I’m going to use the next few days to get organized and prepared, and then we will hopefully start week 1 of “Forces and Energy” this weekend.  I placed hold requests on all thirteen weeks of the books through our local library.  There were a few selections that our library does not have, but I was able to find used copies online for a lot less than I was prepared to spend on the Delta Kits.  In addition to the books and experiments, I know that Bruce is going to be really excited about all of the video clips Science Without a Net incorporates.

I have to tell you that I am pretty excited about this.  I’ve spent a lot of time sharing roadmaps of how to teach young children to read, and my ideas about teaching math, but science is really my weak point.  Now it’s like the blogging universe is giving back to me with a roadmap of what to do with science.  Woo hoo!

Tough Love: An Education

All day today I have been thinking about a video I watched yesterday called Tough Love: An Education about what school is like in Hong Kong.  If you ever have an extra twenty five minutes to spare, take a look.  (Incidentally it is the first time in my life I have clicked on the Aljazeera website.)  “Tough Love” shows a detailed look at how the Chinese educational system in Hong Kong is intense, exacting, and producing a generation of students that is already crushing American students competitively on just about every test you can name.  As a parent and teacher, I am taking notice and afraid.

Typically, the American retort to situations like this is that the Asian educational system relies too much on rote learning and memorization, and not enough of critical thinking, problem solving, and imagination.  The argument follows that even though our students are failing on standardized tests, the American educational systems is going to crank out the creators and innovators of the future.  I think it is time for all of us American hopefuls to reconsider this notion.  In fact, the Hong Kong educational system is adapting and modifying to incorporate critical thinking and creativity as we speak.  When you combine this with hard-core study skills and dedication found in China, all of us Americans should be shanking in our boots.

As a parent, I have always tried to be careful not to push my children too hard academically.  Anyone who takes a cursory look at my blog might not believe that, but really… I strive to advance my children’s learning through fun and engaging activities.  I am not the parent that wakes her son up at 5:30 AM to start studying, but I am the mom who insists her six year old completes two pages of math each day before playing the computer during the summer.

But after watching “Tough Love” I am reconsidering my own Afterschooling intensity level.  There is not much I can do about the rest of America’s youth that is rotting their brains away watching the Disney Channel right now or playing Xbox, but I can make sure that my own children are prepared to compete with the Chinese workforce of the future.  I am still committed to fun, child-centered learning, but I think I need to up the ante with the STEM subjects.  For those of you who aren’t fluent in teacher-speak, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.  Prepare yourself for a lot of blog posts about science in the near future!

What School is this House Zoned For?

“What school is my house zoned for?”  In my opinion, that should be the most important question you ask before you buy or rent a house.  It always amazes me how many parents I meet in Mommy and Me groups who are clueless about what school their house is zoned for.  I always politely nod and mumble, “Oh, you still have a while to figure that out yet,” but inwardly I’m shocked and horrified.  The nice thing about having a blog is that I can really let loose and say what real-life social conventions censure.  So please allow me this little rant.


My husband and I share the same values on this issue 100%.  We would rather rent a shack next to the best school, in the best school district possible, than own a mansion in a crummy district.  How could you prioritize a walk-in-closet over the quality of your child’s education?

To be fair, some people (including some of my own close friends) care about their children’s education tremendously, but were simply ignorant of how American school zoning works, or the severity of difference between high performing schools and low performing schools, when the bought their houses.  Other people bought starter homes right before the housing economy sank, and are now stuck living in places they had intended to move out of long before their children started Kindergarten.

That gets me back to my original point.  It is essential for your children that you choose where to live based on your local schools.  It doesn’t matter if this is a starter home.  It doesn’t matter if you intend to homeschool.  It doesn’t matter if you intend to pay for private school.  Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, so your local public school has to be an acceptable alternative.

So how do you know if the house you are buying is zoned for a good public school? First off, you need to familiarize yourself with the school district’s website.  Usually there is a school locator map that will allow you to type in the address and find out the neighborhood school.  That’s the easy part.

The hard part is determining the quality of the school without your child actually attending there yet.  Unfortunately, two of the best ways to do this are statistics that are fraught with controversy and social gravitas.  You have got to look at the standardized test scores, and the Free and Reduced Lunch percentage.  (I feel like such a traitor to my profession and all of my wonderful former students for even writing that, but it’s the truth.)  Standardized test scores below 70% indicate a school that still has some work to do.  Free and Reduced Lunch percentages above 25% mean that many families at that school are facing additional challenges.

I’ve worked with wonderful, loving families whose children received free lunch and breakfast.  Qualifying for assistance has nothing to do with the quality of the family at all!  I sincerely believe that.  But I have taught in two very different socio economic leveled schools, and hands down the children who were not dealing with poverty issues were able to learn more.

If I had my choice today between going back to teach in a school with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch students, vs. a school with a small percentage, I would leap at the chance to work in the needier school.  But I would not enroll my own children there.  That’s the honest truth. 

What should you do if you are already zoned for a low performing school?  If you are already zoned for a low performing school and cannot move, then you need to work the system.  Most school districts have policies on the books that allow for a little bit of school choice wiggle room.  In the Ravenswood School District in which I previously worked, this was called the Tinsley Transfer program.  Kids who got chosen went to school in Palo Alto instead of East Palo Alto.  Scour your school district’s website and look for any language that will allow to you to request a different school. 

Another trick is to wait and register your Kindergartener at the last minute, so that the class is already full and the school district has to move you to another (hopefully better) school.  This is not something that school administrators would want you to know, by the way.  It creates enormous staffing and logistical challenges for principals and district personnel.  It is not a nice thing to do to the hard working, and well intentioned people who run schools.  But your kid is your kid, right?  Do what you have to do to protect your child’s education.

One of the most inspiring stories I have read about a mother who eked out the best public education she could for her children, even in the face of crushing poverty was the book The Color of Water by James McBride.  The mother in this book used every loophole she could find to make sure her kids were bused away from their failing neighborhood schools, and into better ones.

What can I do to help make failing schools better?  You knew I had to include this part, didn’t you?  🙂  I love and support public schools of all kinds 100%, especially the struggling ones.  This is what we can all do to help improve our public schools

  1. Vote YES on all school levies and bonds.  
  2. Join your PTA and volunteer when able.  
  3. Support your local public schools foundation.  
  4. Write to your legislators and ask them to support our schools.

As a teacher, parent, and citizen in greatly saddens me that there is such a huge dichotomy between high and low performing public schools.  All of our children deserve better, and we need to use our votes and voices to make it happen.