Teaching My Baby To Read

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Monthly Archives: November 2011

It’s the Teacher NOT the Curriculum, that Makes the Difference!

I recently came across a blog called Out in Left Field whose author espouses the polar opposite of all my views on educational theory.  Katharine Beals, PhD, rails against Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math in particular. Here are links to my own views on why I love Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math

Katherine Beals takes shots at Bill Gates whom she describes as being misguided, misinformed, and possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome.  She also rails against Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, also known as “The Math Guy” on NPR. I haven’t read any of Professor Devlin’s books, but I now want to read all of them!  I’m not so sure about Dr. Beals’s book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, but I might try reading it anyway just to fairly consider a point of view so opposite than my own.  (Note: if you have a child on the Autism spectrum, this book would be of a lot more interest to you.  Read the reviews on Amazon, and see why.)

Out in Left Field bugs me for a variety of reasons; she blasts teachers as sometimes being too stupid to teach math, she thinks academics often don’t know what they are talking about, she implies that many mathematicians are cowardly for not speaking up against Reform Math, and she repeatedly professes a belief that rote learning of traditional algorithms is the best way to create mathematical thinkers.  But what really bothers me, is Dr. Beals’s general thesis that Reform Math and Balanced Literacy Instruction are B-A-D- Bad! 

Teaching with a point of view is not bad, not mater which pedagogy you choose.  I could spend the next fifteen minutes telling you why I support the particular education philosophies she hates, but that would be a waste of time.  What I know, is that it’s not the curriculum that helps children learn, it’s the teacher

If you give me a group of well-fed, middle class Kindergarteners from moderately stable homes I will teach them to read.  If you me a Whole Language curriculum.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Phonics Based program.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Balanced Literacy program.  I will teach them to read!  Magic pedagogy is not creating readers, good teachers are.

Educators have to teach whatever curriculum the school district hands them.  Good teachers deliver the curriculum as instructed, and then use common sense.  They see that little Johnny over there is going to be able to read by seeing a new cereal box in front of his breakfast bowl each morning.  Great!  Let’s make Johnny some patterned books.  Little Suzie over there?  She really needs more phonics.  Bring out the phoneme cards.  The reason I like Balanced Literacy Instruction is that it includes both.  Teachers have to be flexible!

Now, if you give me forty third graders coming back and forth from Mexico, sleeping next to refrigerators, scared by roving pit-bulls on the playground, no working smoke-detector in my classroom, a principal who downloads pornography in the middle of the school office, no support services whatsoever, and then fail to give me my first paycheck, I’ll give you my 110% best but I can’t make any promises.  Even if you give me a phonics based program like Open Court, I might not be able to teach all of those children to read unless you, the community, give me some help.   I’m a teacher not a miracle worker.

When I was teaching math at a Constructivist Charter school and I had kids who said, “I’m going to solve this subtraction problem in the traditional way,” and started to borrow and carry, that was just fine with me.  It wasn’t okay with all of the teachers at my school, but I was fine with certain kids using traditional algorithms when they wanted to.  Kids who have trouble verbalizing, kids who can think faster than they can write, kids who don’t do well in group learning situations… these are students that good teachers make common sense accommodations for. 

Good educators teach in ways that accommodate the differentiated learning style of each student.  Some kids are going to need to be taught algorithms as a life-raft they cling to.  Other kids will become the high-schooler in Academic League who can just look at the question and know the answer.  It is unfair to force any one style of learning on all of your students, but it’s not bad to lead into instruction with pedagogy to provide framework and support.  As far as pedagogy goes, I think Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivism have a lot to offer.

P.S.  Ironically, both Dr.Beals and I love Story of the World.  🙂


TimezAttack Review


Last week in a post about XtraMath I mentioned that Bruce(6) has also been playing TimezAttack recently.  The version of TimezAttack that we have was free, and I downloaded it in just a few minutes.  The free version seems just fine for us at present.

Mathematically, TimezAttack is really awesome.  It’s tied to the Common Core Standards, and helps kids increase their mental recall of multiplication facts.  Graphically, TimezAttack is pretty cool too.  It looks like a real video game and is intense without actually being violent. 

But honestly, I have really mixed feelings about TimezAttack because it “revs” Bruce up every time he plays it.  80% of the time he is manically shrieking and jumping up in his chair has he smashes trolls, the other 20% of the time he misses a few problems and almost has a melt-down right there at the desk. 

If you contrast that with XtraMath, it’s night and day.  Bruce is now on day 8 of XtraMath and is bored to tears.  But it only lasts five minutes and doesn’t cause him to freak out.

This isn’t to say that either of these programs aren’t wonderful free options for families because they are.  Like with any screen activity though, you need supervision and discretion.

Tonight, Bruce tried playing some of the games at multiplication.com, as suggested by blog reader Aly in VA.  That might be a very happy medium, so thank you Aly!  I’ll review multiplication.com soon.

Heat Experiment #1

(Playing with steam.)

I don’t know what I was thinking, because we hosted a dinner party for twenty relatives this weekend, but in the midst of all of this also begin our new investigation on Heat, taken from Science Without A Net. Our topics for today were insulation and conduction.

We began this by talking about insulation and the pumpkin I was cooking for dinner. How long would it take to cook? Would it cook faster in a casserole dish? Why don’t people cook things in pumpkins all the time?

Next, we began our official experiment on conduction using three knives, three pats of butter, and a bowl of hot water. Unfortunately, the experiment did not work at all! The butter didn’t melt, even after ten minutes. Was the water not hot enough? Was the knife too long? Did the fact that the knife was stainless steel make a difference? Were the pats of butter too big? We decided to try again, this time with spoons.

This time we did the experiment with a stainless steel spoon, a sterling silver spoon, and a plastic spoon. We used hotter water and smaller pats of butter.

After just a minute, the butter in the silver spoon started melting!

A few minutes later, the butter on the stainless steel spoon was melting too. Metal seems to be a good conductor of heat, but some types of metal conduct heat better than others.

In the midst of all of this Jenna(2) lost interest and started rearranging the dining room table that I had just set for company. When I went outside to cut flowers for the center piece I found a bunch of Indian corn in my boot. Then when I came back into the house I discovered she had ripped the cushions off of all of the bar stools, and was dumping punch into a water glass. While I was cleaning that up, Bruce started drinking the melted butter. It’s like living with mischievous elves…

Muslim Child

Reading Behind the Veils of Yemen last weekend has inspired me to pull down Muslim Child: Understanding Islam Through Stories and Poems by Rukhsana Khan to read with Bruce(6) at bedtime.

I thought that for your average American I knew a decent amount about tIslam but three chapters into Muslim Child I am realizing how ignorant I am.  For example, I knew that prayer was one of the five pillars of Islam but I did not know that the first prayer, or Fajr, had to be done before sunrise.  So at certain points in the year this can mean waking your whole family up at 4:30 AM, washing, praying, and then going back to bed.  That really teaches kids about discipline and commitment!  Another story we read was about a girl who was grown up enough to try fasting for Ramadan for the first time.  It really made Bruce and I both think about growing up, taking on new responsibility, and perseverance.

I am really excited to be reading this book with Bruce right now, and someday with Jenna(2) too, because I want both of them to have understanding about the other people and faiths in the world around them.  I want Bruce and Jenna to think about how other people think, in order to better form their own opinions and beliefs.   I also want them to have kindness and understanding for their neighbors, and an appreciation for morality in every culture.

The Grammar Stage

Diverse Exposure without In-Depth Analysis

When I first read The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, I had a lot of difficulty with the concept of the Grammar Stage, the first four years of Classical Education from the first through fourth grade.  My main opposition was to the wording that the Grammar Stage should include memorization without understanding.  As an educator, I am 98% philosophically opposed to this.  For some reason, certain conservative homeschooling groups like Classical Conversations seem to have really latched on to the idea of memorization without understanding, and that further soured my take on the Grammar Stage for a while.

But  after multiple readings of the WTM, and after discussing it with parents who put some of the ideas into practice (please see our online book discussion here), I think that what Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise are really proposing is that in the Grammar Stage you flood children’s minds with stories and information.  Their theory is that children under the age of nine do not necessarily need to analyze and evaluate information deeply (although they might), but that they should hear as much information as possible.   

My understanding now is that SWB and JW are advocating exposing children to a plethora of information, not sitting them down and having them memorizes lists and dates.  Instead of “memorization without understanding”, why I think they meant was diverse exposure without in-depth analysis.  True understanding of this thesis put into practice becomes clear if you listen or read Story of the World with your children.  There are no lists to memorize, just lots of historical stories and myths to listen to and enjoy.  Here’s a quote from page 22 of the third edition of The Well Trained Mind that really sums up this point:

 “In the first four years of learning, you’ll be filling your child’s mind and imagination with as many pictures, stories, and facts as you can.  Your goal is to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.”

 Right now we are listening to SOTW #3 in the car on the way to Bruce(6)’s school, and to Jenna(2)’s Kindermusik CD on the way home from dropping him off.  The Kindermusik CD has a lot of songs about trains on it, and as I was listening to the music today the perfect metaphor for the Grammar Stage came to mind.  The Grammar Stage is a time when parents can help their children lay down tracks for future learning.  Your goal is to lay down as many tracks to as many places as possible.  Some day in the future your child will be older and more mature, ready for full-blown locomotives of information.  If the tracks are already in place, those steam engines will be able to come quicker, faster, and heavier because they have someplace to stick to.  Kids who have a maze of tracks already in place will have a huge advantage over their peers who do not.

If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language as an adult, or pick up a new musical instrument, or (eek!) tried to fully understand and remember the Mongol Empire section from SOTW #3, then you know how difficult it is to learn something when you do not have the proper train tracks laid down in your brain.  There is nothing for the information to “stick” to.  That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new information at an older age, it just means it is more difficult.

Good public schools will hopefully be doing an excellent job of exposing children to great books, strong mathematics, beginning science concepts, and a smattering of social studies.  If you are lucky like my son is, school will also include music, poetry, and art.  But my job description as parent means that I am ultimately in charge of my children’s’ educations, and I take that role seriously through Afterchooling.  This is why we do cool science experiments on the weekend, listen to world history in the car, learn extra math over the summer, and (heaven help me!) are trying to learn Spanish at home.  At the end of the Grammar Stage both of my kids will have a maze of train tacks going through their heads, and when they hit middle school and high school– watch out!


We had Bruce’s 1st grade parent teacher conference last week, and one of the suggestions his teacher had for him was to sign up for XtraMath.org to help him increase his metal recall of math facts.  I had never heard of XtraMath.org, but immediately looked it up when we got home.  Basically, it is a free online math program that children do for five minutes (and five minutes only!) a day. XtraMath also sends you weekly updates of your child’s progress.  Here is the little blurb from the welcome email they sent us:


Hi! You are receiving this email because you recently created an account for the XtraMath online math program, or someone created an account on your behalf. Welcome!

XtraMath is like a math vitamin. For best results your child should do XtraMath once per day as regularly as possible. It only takes a few minutes so make it a part of your daily routine. Math facts are the building blocks of your child’s math education and your child will be well-rewarded for the time they spend practicing on XtraMath.

You can sign in to your parent account to check on your child’s progress. Your child will need to do XtraMath several times over the course of a few days before any meaningful progress is reported.

XtraMath is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to math achievement for all. We do not charge for XtraMath nor do we have advertising on our site. Instead, we are supported by donations from parents like you. If you appreciate our program please make a tax-deductible donation. Your donation will help cover the cost of operating this website, make XtraMath available to more students where it is most needed, and improve the program for all.

Another way you can help is to let other people know about XtraMath, especially elementary-school teachers and parents with children in grades 2-5. An easy way to let people know about us is to become a fan of XtraMath on Facebook. We would appreciate it!

May you and your child have a very successful and rewarding school year.

David Jeschke


I have now had Bruce do XtraMath for four days now.  He skipped a few days over the weekend when my husband and I were out of town, and I immediately got a “We missed Bruce at XtraMath” email.  Bruce is so far not very impressed by XtraMath, and thinks it is boring.  However, since it only takes him five minutes to do, and actually makes you sign off when the five minute mark is hit, he is okay with our new rule that he has to do XtraMath before he gets computer time.   Doing XtraMath in the morning before school has also worked out for us a couple of times.  The five minute time limit is very reasonable, and easy to fit into an Afterschooling schedule.

To be clear, the new order of operations in our household for Bruce is: 

  1. Come home from school
  2. Eat snack
  3. Do homework
  4. Play
  5. XtraMath for 5 minutes
  6. 30 minutes of other screen time
  7. Dinner, etc.

Of course, I was thinking about this last night and realized that Bruce really does not need any help mastering his addition or subtraction facts at all, no matter what timed tests his third grade math teacher gives him.  I know that he knows them cold.  The problem is that he can’t write them down quickly enough, especially now that he is working so hard to not write down backwards numbers.  So I’m not sure that XtraMath is really going to help improve his performance on written timed tests at all.  But at five minutes a day, it can’t hurt.  Once he moves into the multiplication and division section it will be more useful.

P.S. Another great free online math facts program is TimezAttack, which I will review soon.  I’ve added both links to my Cheap Math page.

Behind the Veils of Yemen

While on vacation this past weekend I read Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby. This was a book I received for free from Baker Publishing Group in exchange for my honest review. The subtitle of this book, “How an American Woman Risked Her Life, Family and Faith to Bring Jesus to Muslim Women,” tells you right away that this book has a decidedly religious bent.

Audra and her family are Southern Baptists from Texas who travel to Yemen with their small children with the specific prerogative of converting people to conservative Christianity. They believe that Islam as a belief is almost entirely in error. The ethics and morality of this viewpoint are clearly up for debate with people across the whole world. If a radically believing Muslim family from Yemen came to West Texas with the specific intent of converting as many people as possible to a conservative form of Islam, many Americans would have a name for that and it would not be “missionary”.

So in order to fairly review the writing and story quality of this book, I need to sidestep the whole question of whether or not the Shelby family should have gone to Yemen in the first place.

As a memoir, I found this book very engaging and well written. I have never been to the Middle East, and reading Audra’s descriptions of the climate and challenges does not make me want to hop on a plane any time soon! But Audra delivered as promised, and I really do feel like I have vicariously experienced a little bit about what it is underneath the hijab.

I cannot imagine living in a world where I literally was not allowed to open the curtains of my own house and look out the window. I cannot imagine a community in which 98% of the women are illiterate, the doctors treat you like morons (or don’t treat you at all for reasons of modesty). I cannot imagine the poverty, the lack of clean drinking water, or always eating the leftover food of my husband and his friends. To an American woman like me, all of these things are shocking.

Clearly there is a need for education and women’s rights in Yemen. No matter what you think about the religious agenda of the Shelby family, you have to give Audra credit for bravely befriending the women she met in Yemen, gaining the trust of their community, and introducing them to a culture in which women are not treated as second class citizens. As a United Methodist, this makes me think of our church’s motto: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”.  Audra Grace Shelby is the embodiment of that motto.