Homeschooling Summary Oct ’14: confusion on curriculum

Looks like I don’t have time to do detailed blogs yet so it’ll have to be one big summary for now. I aim to get some details out later as I personally find it fascinating how they’re learning.


Apple Tree Print

Apple Tree Print

Language: We’ve kind of stopped on the zhuyin intro for now as we end up watching TV during swim practice. Though what he is watching is Chiao Hu which is introducing zhuyin anyway. Instead we started on Sage Books level 1 book 1.  It’s kind of cool and amazing watching his interest reading the book.

I don’t know if it’s the Chiao Hu or hitting a growth spurt (I suspect the former) but his Chinese is way more fluent now. He speaks Chinese 90% of the time to his sister.

Math: He was shown the Intro to Golden Beads, Crisis of Nine, Hundred Board, Numeral layout, Addition Snake Game, Addition Stamp Game.  We’re really squarely at the end of counting and the beginning of working with 4 digit numbers.

He continues his obsession with counting everyday, whenever he can; speed limit signs, freeway signs , and most recently reading 4 digit numbers sequentially. He is now very comfortable saying two digit numbers, yet continues to be confused by 6 and 9. His obsession lies in counting up as far as he can. And like Thumper, has trouble figuring out what comes after 9, 19, 29, etc. but is making progress. We’re slowly working on the concept of 4 digit numbers. As you can see, he is being shown things that are out of his level (stamp game) but he really wanted me to show him the exchanges in addition because his sister was shown.

Practical Life: cutting, washing windows, can button himself now, likes to floss himself, getting better about folding laundry.

Art: an Apple print activity, learned about colors through oil painting (first time using it).

Sensorial: Geometric solids. 5 minute happiness with new material and then they don’t want to use it anymore. BUT, the other day, he starts cutting himself some geometric shapes and quizzing me on what they’re called. So he’s learning names of shapes himself anyway.

Culture: saw chickens, Needs of Humans presentations.  Totally cute.  The other day he wanted to draw the Bart station and himself.  Then he got quite upset with me because he wanted to draw the “……” I was drawing when presenting the Needs of Humans, to signal the little man walking, but I hadn’t understood what he wanted.  He started learning the days of the month and days of the week in Chinese. Continue reading


The digitization and current state of Chinese classrooms

I went to a talk today hosted by the SFCCC (Culture Center of Taipei Economic office) today about the state of teaching Chinese today, the usage of digital devices in the classroom, and how parents can help their children learn Chinese.

The speaker is a teacher teaching high school Chinese.  It seems that her viewpoint is from one of watching children who are learning Chinese in Saturday Chinese school or high school level.  Basically children who are not necessarily in immersion programs, bilingual programs, or somehow going to school daily to learn Chinese.

Though this is not where I am coming from, I still found the talk to be interesting and had some take away points.

She started by talking about the rise of Chinese language education in the US, in terms of government focus and investment, which arose after September 11.  There was a realization that learning a foreign language is a good thing.  This lead to the establishment of StarTalk program, which trained teachers and also conducted language summer camps.  Then they went down a level and established the AP Chinese test to entice students to learn Chinese.  Supposedly after that they realized learning a language from 9th grade on was still not enough; since Chinese is a hard language to learn.  Thus the establishment of immersion schools and children learning Chinese from an early age.

She talked a bit about common core and AP Chinese tests.  This was a revelation #1 for me.  The emphasize on these tests is the ability to communicate (hence listening and speaking skills very important), and the breadth of knowledge in Chinese (thus not so important to learn all about culture, which we heritage learners like to emphasize) such as global issues, science and technology, etc.  She noted that Chinese schools have been so concerned with the culture part but really they’re not too important or relevant to the children here.  It’s not that we shouldn’t learn them, but there are other things the children should know how to talk about other than the lady on the moon or the origin of the Autumn Festival.  And she also talked about how students who are learning Chinese as a second language (e.g., no native speaker parents) sometimes do better than the students who have native speaking families because of what they’re taught in the classroom.  That parents who send their children to Chinese school have too low of a threshold, often for them attending Saturday Chinese school is enough.  She gave an example of a father writing homework for his son.  But we really, as parents, should ask for more than that from our Chinese school.

Her take away point here was that the Chinese classroom needs to emphasize speaking skills.   She described the AP test and gave an example of a sample question, where the tester is given a scenario and needs to listen to some multiple choices on what a proper response would be.  She noted that in textbooks there are often yes and no answers but native speakers don’t speak that way.  In the slide she showed, a “corn” person says to a “popped corn” person, “Are you hot?”  And given the illustration of the “popped corn” doesn’t look too happy with the question and his answer wouldn’t just be yes or no, but rather maybe something sarcastic like “You think?”

The speaker spent a better part of the talk also talking about how classrooms are taught now a days.  In the traditional Chinese classroom, you’ve got a lecturer.   In the last 20 years, we have moved on to a more group method of teaching.  And she says that in the last few years, we’re starting to move to a “self-learning” method of learning.  Where coursework is individualized with the help of technology.  This was not-quite revelation #2.  I say not quite because really, this is the Montessori way of teaching: auto-education.  This also allows the students to practice their speaking skills because they’re now not waiting for 1/28, 1/30th of a teacher’s time to speak to the teacher.  They can practice with each other instead.

She showed us pictures of her high school classroom.  There is a picture of students all sitting in front of laptops.  But they’re not necessarily all doing the same thing.  For example, maybe she has given the assignment of practicing writing.  You could have some students using the laptop to type, some using it to practice hand writing digitally, and others not wanting to use the laptop at all.  The student chooses how they want to utilize the tools, and the teacher is the guide.  She joked that she spends most of her time taking pictures while the students work.   There were lots and lots of photos of students engaged in fun learning activities (games), that really helped them do group work to practice their listening and speaking skills.

Another thing she mentioned was how technology is changing what we need to learn.  Revelation #3 was the non-importance of learning to write, proper stroke order, etc.  Of course these are all good things to learn if you have time.  But remembering where she’s coming from (AP students learning Chinese), does it really matter in the long run when the computer can finish your typing for you.  For all we know in 5 years, we can just dictate and the computer will type for us.

Though I work in technology and I know this to be true, this was really hard for me to accept when I imagine what the classroom curriculum should look like.  I obviously am still most comfortable with the way I was taught Chinese, which involved lots of repetitive writing, memorization, etc.  This relates to revelation #4, which is that what we teach should be relevant to the students.  Again, all familiar ideas to the Montessori teacher.  It is important to teach things relevant to students because they can learn better.  She gave an example of textbooks always having sample conversations about “What sport do you like to do?”  And she questions why we need to do that.  A good teacher will know the goal isn’t to learn all 20 vocab words related to sports at the end of the class.  But rather, the goal is for the student to be answer the question (again the emphasis on language used as a communication tool).  So every student could have a different answer and learn different vocab, but it’s all good.

Combine the idea of auto education, individualized learning, emphasize on speaking and listening, she talked about how the teacher is the guide who doesn’t necessarily have all the answers but rather enables students to know how to find answers (very Montessori idea), with the help of technology.  Students can be given assignments and know how to google or use an electronic dictionary for words they do not know.  They can use it to practice listening, etc.  She talked about how she doesn’t need to worry when she leaves the classroom to go on trips because the students all know what they need to do, and all of those learning are done without her to begin with.

I’m going on and on but I’m not sure I’ve got the gist of everything she said.  The slides are on the web anyway.  Her ideas were not all new too me, except the part about really emphasize speaking and not worrying about stroke order, writing etc.

Her students are different from my kids so I’m not sure how much I should let it apply to our curriculum.  I did really enjoy looking at learning chinese through the lens of Saturday Chinese school, after school programs, or just starting in high school.  It is not normally the crowd of parents I talk to, who have much higher standards of Chinese for their kids and do require that they speak at home or send their kids to immersion school.

Oh, one thing she said was that AP Chinese level is comparable to 2nd to 3rd grade Chinese level in Taiwan, other than concept.  Because obviously this is high school/college level, and the test will have vocabs and concepts that are older and a real 3rd grader wouldn’t understand it.

Field trip Friday: Ardenwood

Cotton Plant

Cotton Plant at Ardenwood

The East Bay Regional Park system has a free entry day every third Friday of the month. We decided to take the opportunity to visit Ardenwood this Friday as it’s one of the few parks in the system that requires a fee.

Ardenwood is an actual working farm located in Fremont. It’s very close to the Dumbarten Bridge. They plant things for sale to the public and has farm related programs geared toward toddlers during the week. Several times during the year, they have special events, such as 4th of July celebration, Harvest Festival, railroad/train day, and Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. We’ve only been to Harvest Festival, 4th of July, and the railroad exhibition.

We loved all of them but these were special events during the weekend, costing lots of moola, even if you had a membership passes to the regional park system. Because of this, I’ve never gotten the membership pass and so have never been to the farm during a weekday. Didn’t seem worth it especially given the hour drive from our house. We’ve got the Little Farm closer to us which also allows you to pet and feed the animals.

Because this was just a play date, we started late and first made a stop at 85 Degrees Bakery to get some bubble tea. It’s 5 minutes away from the farm. We got to the farm itself around 11:45am and met up with our friends while waiting for the train. There is a “train” on the farm, which is like a huge long truck bed dragged by a train on a track. It doesn’t even go all the way around the farm but is still fun for little ones.

After we got off the train, which drops us off close to a working field, we meandered to the Patternson House, which is where the original landowners lived 100 years ago. There are tours available but I think too advanced for the toddler kids.

We finished our lunch on the huge grassy field in front of Patterson house, then meandered over to see the animals and milk a fake cow. Thumper filled a pail with water from a water pump. We then meandered back out again to play in the pumpkins patch, which has a huge hay bale pyramid to climb on, two hay bale mazes, those cutout figures to take pics in, and of course lots of pumpkins to pick if you so desire.

We spent a lot of time here and then rushed off to go to swim practice. All in all an easy going day if you have no expectations. There really isn’t a lot to see on a weekday. Sometimes they have farm activities like feeding the sheep, working on the farm itself, talking about bees etc. But these are also events we’ve seen during our special day visit. In fact we’d just gone to the Harvest Festival last Saturday and it was super great fun. You can make ice cream, corn husk dolls, pick corn, buy bees and learn about bees, look at the birds in the aviary, sometimes there’s a blacksmith, make your own apple cidar, etc.

So I would give it a 3 star out of 5. This is a great place for young toddlers. It’s great to come back again and again I think during the year to see how a farm changes. But we’ve got the Blake garden and the Tilden Little Farm closer to home to do the same thing.

Is there such a thing as joyfully learning Chinese?

I went to a talk given by a bilingual Montessori school last Saturday. It was supposed to be about how to joyfully teach Chinese. I spoke with my friend afterward and she said that she didn’t think it helped. I mostly agreed with her. We were really looking for specifics; teach characters this way, introduce zhuyin that way! But they didn’t really go into that kind of detail. It was more of an explanation of how they teach Chinese at the school, which we felt were like “d’oh, of course!”

However, parents from a FB group I’m in are coincidentally discussing how they teach characters over the weekend and I realized that it IS different from how most people teach Chinese. So I’m going to write it down here for my reference before I forget.

I have to say, not having had kids who are grown means that I don’t know if one way is better than the other.

First they talked about how they don’t teach: No writing characters 5000 times like we learned it when we were in elementary school. They use a variety of tools for the children to practice. For example:

Creating a booklet of calligraphy zhuyin
A cabinet of chinese characters for the children to lookup when they want to write, sorted by zhuyin
Matching of English and chinese words. I did not like this activity but I can see why you may want to use it for non native speakers.
iPad game app that lets you practice chinese stroke order
Another iPad app to practice zhuyin
Initial sound boxes

They also talked about the way we learn, that we need to recall (test) with various time lengths in between. Hence they have the variety of activities.

The presenter of course talked about why you want to learn zhuyin and traditional characters. The zhuyin reasons are the same as mine. Except they added the fact that it allows you to introduce both zhuyin and the alphabet between 3-6.

They also talked about introducing 80 component characters by the time you finish kindergarten, which is different from how the local Chinese charter school teaches. The idea is that with these 80 characters you can use them to combine into more complex characters. Along with learning zhuyin it will allow you to begin writing once you start elementary.

Oh and lastly their ambitious plan is to introduce 750 characters by 3rd grade. That’s almost at grade level in Taiwan. To which I say not likely unless the child has been in preschool and knows 150 to 200 by the time they start elementary. It’s just too hard on top of learning English. But that’s just me speculating.

I’ve been mulling over the talk the last few days. What I got most out of the talk is the recall and testing. It jives with what I just realized last week. The Montessori materials provide a variety of ways to practice a concept, sometimes in a spiral learning pattern that spans years. There is no time or restriction which says we will cover this over one month and be done though most schools do have a curriculum/theme they follow. This means the child is free to revisit a concept again and again, which aids retention of what they’re learning.

Really GETTING this now means I’m not stressing so much thinking how is Thumper supposed to cover all the different math topics if she’s only doing 3-5 units of work a week? I know now to provide a variety of presentations and activities for her to work on over weeks and months and this is a better way for her to retain info rather than working on one skill/concept at a time only. Supposedly the “How We Learn” book that just came out covered this too.

I have my own ideas of how I will teach but they are similar in concept if not in implementation. Another post, another day.

Playing hookie

Everyone woke up on the wrong side of bed yesterday. I drank too much caffeine and woke up 2 hours earlier. Astroyboy woke up an hour earlier and Thumper was just sleepy. Add to that a friend who visited to chat in the morning and our whole routine was thrown off. I’m not blaming the visit itself as we were fine the other times when she visited.

When kids and Mama wake up too early, everyone is cranky. my requests went in one ear and out the other, and I in turn had a much shorter fuse. I couldn’t seem to help myself, even knowing that my behavior was not going to get the kids to finish their breakfast instead of playing; in fact it would do the exact opposite.  I could not take that needed step back and talk calmly to the children. There were lots of threats and lecturing.

The good news is that I did decide we were not doing “schooling” today. Instead we checked out the local homeschoolers library and I borrowed a thick stack of books related to the First Great Lesson I’m finally going to give. Thumper also borrowed a big book on making Halloween costumes and the kids had a lot of fun looking through the books in the car throughout the day. Since I haven’t transferred my Chinese songs to my iPhone for the kids to listen to in the car, I think I’m going to start stocking some books instead.IMG_1030.JPG

So this local library, it’s super neat. Run out of a basement and backyard cottage, there must be thousands of books in there on various subjects. The best part is there are no due dates! The children played with the toys strewn around the library while I browsed. I really love it. I had put off going there because they’re only open during our swim practice and on the mornings we have school. But maybe it’s time to change up the schedule a bit.

After the library visit, we went to Gioia pizza close to Gilman and the children enjoyed watching the pizza makers toss pizza dough in the air. Then we rushed to Blake Garden and the children ran around with friends. Off we then went to swim practice, then home for me to go to Daiso for my MNO.

The day ended in a happy note for everyone I think. We went out during snack time the other two days. It was lovely to get out and enjoy the sun. I didn’t realize how I’ve been getting tired of the monotony of our routines. We’re stuck in school in the morning, I take nap, then I’m stuck again in indoor swim practice. We have an occasional play in the park for Astroyboy if I get out early enough. But I’m busy on my phone usually getting some downtime and catching up on email. So I haven’t gone out myself to enjoy the outdoors. And I haven’t had those easy conversations with the children while we just hang out. AND I feel I’ve been turning into a terrible teacher nagging Thumper to work work work. It really isn’t how I want the days to go.

I’m making some curriculum changes by getting my ass in gear to prep for the First Great Lesson. And I think maybe talking to Thumper next week to get her input on what she wants to do. We’ve been working on the subjects as standalone subjects but I want to integrate them through projects so it doesn’t feel so mundane. She also likes making things with her hands and I’m hoping that following her interest will make schooling for fun for everyone.

Nothing like playing hookie to get your perspectives in order.


First Month of School

Number RodsNomalization is not a nice word.  I think for most people, when they first hear the word used they cringe and have a bodily “yucky” feeling. But all it really means is children behaving as they would be if their needs are met. Or as Montessori puts it, becoming a contributing member of society.

For me, a normalized children is one that is mostly concentrated on their work, doesn’t get distracted, and really doesn’t need constant reminder from the teacher.

We’re not quite there yet.

Today marks the end of 6 weeks of homeschooling.  We spent about 2 weeks doing prep and easing into it, then 2 weeks of assessment and more routine, and then 2 weeks of actual work.  We’ve had good days and bad days. After 2 days of okay to bad days this week, a thought occurred to me, “Could it be taking the children 2 days to normalize?” Both last week and this week, Thumper puts off work until the last day and them and on Thursday she is willing to settle down and work. Astroyboy too today was not moving from activity to activity asking that I play with him, but rather willing to work on a piece of work longer term when I’m not there. I am going to rethink my schedule a bit.

Summary of progress so far

Outside of “school” time, the children have made a lot of progress doing Practical Life activities.  It’s one of the reasons I wanted to homeschool, to teach the kids practical skills they need to live.  Though sometimes I wonder, if I was able to do it while going through traditional school, why can’t the kids?  Except I’m not my mom and don’t have that kind of energy level.

Anyways, they have settled into a routine of making their lunch twice a week.  I’ve also asked that they wash their own lunch dishes daily as well during school days.  They help make our Wednesday night fajitas and Friday pizzas when they feel like it.  They clean the car, fold the laundry once a week.  I have moved ever more food prep items onto reachable shelf space.  In general the kids are tidier and put away the dishes, set the table more often without nagging.  All of these things make me super happy.


In Chinese, she is learning 3 characters a week. I’m loving the way we are learning characters. The only changes I’m planning to make is to add more characters, and introduce creative writing.

In zhuyin, we spent a couple weeks practicing the combo sounds.  But even I got confused practicing them .  I realized the way I know my zhuyin is actually just through looking at the combos.  Otherwise the sounds are super similar sometimes and as I’d written, change sounds depending on the combo.  So by the end, we started doing zhuyin practice reading.  I’m planning to introduce writing in zhuyin next.  I think that is the way to help internalize some of the rules.

In math she’s been working a lot on memorizing her addition facts up to 20.  I asked her today and she says more answers are coming to her now without looking it up. This may not be a kosher thing to ask your child but so easy to gauge when you’re just teaching 2 kids. Next week I will be starting on memorization of multiplication and maybe doing a timed addition sheet just to gauge where she is in the memorization front. Again not Mobtessori but I have to gauge her somehow.

For teacher reading she’s super enjoying her book about a word drinking vampire. She always asks me to read more than her allotment on 3 chapters.  I will continue reading to her as I know the book has lots of concepts and words that are above her level.

For reading herself she’s moved on to Sage Books series 2, book 2.  It’s actually too easy for her but I’m easing her into it otherwise she’ll refuse to read. We still find 1-2 words we don’t know and use it in our chinese practice work.



Because you just follow a 3-6 year olds interests, I’ve been letting Astroboy do whatever he likes.  If somedays he wants to play train upstairs I let him.  But he doesn’t want to do that often because he likes to stick to me.

In our month of homeschooling one thing is clear, he LOVES counting. He’s been introduced to sandpaper letters, number rods, addition strip board, teens board, and spindle box, colored bead stairs. Basically most of the counting presentations. It’s been easy for him to pick up the numbers because he had learned it through daily conversations or other daily occurrences.  (I just realized through playing Uno yesterday!)  Today, Thursday, he counted to 35 using the spindle boxes by himself! I was surprised. As I remember counting that high maybe once with him, showing him the pattern in counting. I remember doing this with Thumper and she didn’t get it because she wasn’t in her sensitive period then.

For zhuyin he’s been exposed to ㄅㄆㄇㄈㄍㄏㄚㄧㄨㄢㄐ.  Quite a lot when you write it out.  It makes me feel much better seeing this because I was starting to thing we weren’t making progress.  He’s also watching about an 30 minutes to an hour or so of Ciao Hu daily.  Though it’s not the phonics way, nothing beats mundane repetition that a teacher can’t do.  I know in the classroom the child can repeat work.  But it’s hard to do repetitive speaking, which needs to come from the teacher.

For Chinese, we just started doing Sage books today.  He learned 山 高 的.  But he doesn’t remember them about 5 minutes later.  So we need to do more second period work by doing a variety of activities.

He’s also been doing some clock work because he loves counting.  Also somecutting, puzzle, and play dough. Everything else is 5 minutes of interest.

Of course we do other practical life stuff outside of class as well.

For him next month I really want to do more practical life, sensorial, and gardening. I’m trying not to push the chinese since he seems to really like math right now.

What I did and learned

It’s clear that I’ve only been concentrating on math and language so far.  I feel kind of bad and sometimes very anxious because I did have a whole curriculum planned but I’m behind because I need to make the materials, AND 3 hours isn’t enough to squeeze it all in when your child likes to spend half of it doing practical life.  However, I’m getting into a groove for making materials and I will be madly catching up next month.

For next month, I will be adding much more Chinese character work based on the Sage series.  If I get my ass in gear, I want to also start doing science activities.  Since the weather has been really hot and perfect to grow seeds.  I’ve sped up my plans for our hoop house garden.  Once that’s done, then the children can work on it.  Of course, all the related science activities that come with gardening.

As I’ve said, I get anxious over the amount the children are learning.  Writing it all down helps.  And also just the passage of time.  With the amount of TV they’ve been watching nightly and also just all day with me, I’m definitely starting to notice how much Chinese the children are now using compared with before.  Basically Astroboy’s English conversations with Baba gets worse and worse.

Maybe I’ll rant about my anxiety in another post.  I’m having a hard time right now deciding on how many hours of instruction is enough, if i should start doing more English, and when we may want to go back to regular school.

They say you learn by doing and I had an aha moment the last week.  I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out what math presentations to do with Thumper.  There are so many!  And they all seem to do the same thing except in different degrees of abstraction.  Then it hit me as I watch the children flit from activity to activity.  You’re supposed to just present them all (the relevant ones), and the child will tell you which ones they like and need to work on!  This is why I just gave Astroboy all the counting presentations.  He will tell me through the activity he chooses what he is attracted to and subconsciously wants to work on.

No d’oh I say to myself after my realization.  I was taught that in class!  But again, nothing like having to solve a dilemma to really get it.