April 2009

So the other week I was driving to religious ed with my 1st grader, and she asks, “Mom, are you sorry had to give up mountain climbing in order to have kids?”

Gotta love the easy ones.  “No.”

Aria is a budding homemaker in the best possible Martha Stewart-y way, so I explained:  A person is kind of like a house.  You have to keep it well-maintained in order for it to be useful.  Sports and hobbies help keep your body and spirit in good working order.  If you let yourself get too run down, you are like a falling apart house, or a house that is dull and depressing — and that kind of house doesn’t serve its people very well.

On the other hand, you could build and build a wonderful, giant, strong, beautiful house.  But if no one ever moves in, what good is it?  It’s an empty building.  Houses are meant to be lived in, to be put to use.  To serve people.

I observed that God made us to serve Him and serve others, and we really can’t be happy unless we are fulfilling that purpose.  Just like a house cannot be a happy home if it is empty and unused.  Mountaineering was a way to build up my ‘house’.  But it isn’t my purpose: my purpose is to love and serve my family in my vocation as a wife & mother.

We talked about other ways that people serve their purpose.  Priests who serve a parish, contemplative religious who serve by their prayer, unmarried people who serve God and the community through their work.  Even people who are unable to do anything else, can serve by offering up their situation for the good of others.

And then we talked about how some people are always decorating, but no one ever moves in.  People think that because an activity — hiking, or reading, or taking a vacation — makes them feel happy, that they will be happy if they do more and more of that.  It’s like always setting the table, but never sitting down to eat.  You wonder why your life looks so beautiful but you are never satisfied, always hungry for more.

It was a good conversation.  She understood it, because she is, herself, such a builder and decorator.  She could see the tragedy of a table set for Easter morning, but no one every sitting down to eat at that table.  Always just more and more decorating, no meal ever served.

And of course, as these conversations will, I was enlightened too.  How often do I fall into the trap of just a little bit more reading, a little more quiet time, another walk on a lovely day, because I want to keep ‘feeling better’.  These activities are so refreshing.  They build me up, make my mind and body and spirit better able to serve.

But I find myself falling into the trap of always wanting to be more and more built-up, more and more decorated.  I forget that the moment of everything-just-so, of feeling so fresh and wonderful and new, is not meant to be the all-the-time feeling.  Anymore than a room should always be sparkling, never sullied by the foot traffic and dirty dishes of those horrid occupants who just make a wreck of a hard day’s homemaking.

So that’s my goal: to avoid an over-decorated soul. If it doesn’t ever feel a little worn, a little cluttered, a little grimy, than it is probably sitting empty and useless.  Clean it up, keep it well-maintained, yes.  But then put it to work.    Diligite diligentius.


So Mr. Boy received the gift of cardboard this afternoon — enough, he tells me over chocolate pudding, to make a ladder to the top of Mt. Everest.  Much happiness, and then some speculation on when the Everest climbing season begins (I never kept track), and his mother allows that she does not want him climbing Everest, but it might be fun to visit Nepal.

Nepal?  What’s that?

Time to pull out the globe.  “It’s north of India,” I tell him.  He starts scanning the area all around India.  “North,” I remind him.  “Which way is north?”

I am certain he can answer this.  And yes, he can.  With complete confidence, he turns around and points to the backyard.

Had our final religious ed class for the year last night.  The parish sprung for pizzas and sodas, and we played a variation on “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  The set-up was this: the kids could ask the two of us teachers any question about the catholic faith that they wanted, so long as they had researched the answer.  Parental assistance was fair game.   I told them I wanted to be absolutely humiliated in my ignorance.

Overall, Miss K. & I fared pretty well.  We couldn’t name all ten plagues (um, it was ten, right*?), and nor correctly perform the Byzantine Rite sign of the cross.   We could drum up a list of the twelve apostles with some effort (Matthew, how could I forget you?  You are my patron!), and with less difficulty list the 10 commandments, but not in order.  But we got through questions about the Seamless Garment philosophy with flying colors, knew when and where the Holy Spirit had shown up in visible form, and yes, we do know what the catholic teaching on birth control is.  Tons of fun.

But, as always with teaching, there was a rather sharp lesson for me.  One of the dads wisely sent in this one: What is the Catholic teaching on salvation?  A brilliant question – here you are at the last night of a school year of instruction, let’s make sure these kids have heard the most important lesson.   (And while we’re at it, find out: Do the teachers even know?  It is a legitimate concern.)

I learned from this question that a) I am long winded and b) I *still* haven’t boiled it down to a bumper-sticker version.   Yes, of course I know what the church teaches.  I know it in too much detail.   I found myself starting with original sin, summarizing the experience of Isreal, passing through the Incarnation, quickly on to Calvary, the creation of a church, the ordinary means of salvation through the sacraments, and then a few notes on baptism of desire and so forth.

I passed the quiz but failed a test of my own.  Because although I know it is important to give kids the details of the faith, there is a time and place for being able to quickly sum up the reality of salvation in a few short words.

Catholic words, though.  Even though catholic theology encompasses the (typical) evangelical protestant teaching on salvation, it contains something more.  And I don’t want my bumper-sticker-version to be misleading.

But evangelical protestants are dead on right: Every time you teach, no matter the subject, it really ought to lead to a brief invitation to conversion and faith.  And if a child comes out of my class knowing only one thing, it should be the answer to the question of “What must I do to be saved?”.

So that is my homework for this summer.  To find my own words for the short version.  I think it is there in the creed.  But I need to get the hang of communicating the creed to my audience in a way they will take it home and make it their own.


*Yes.  I have read the pentateuch. More than once.  But I’ll admit I’m prone to skimming certain sections.  Truth is I get to the plagues and I just kinda think: Okay, disaster after disaster.  I get it.  Never really worried about whether it was gnats or bumblebees or whatever.

‘Tis the season for choosing next year’s curricula.  We’ve been using Math-U-See for about three years now, so I guess I’m ready to post a review.  (Have I already done this? If so, I’m doing it again.)

How we ended up with Math-U-See

First of all, for early grades I’m not convinced any kind of formal curriculum is required.  If you are are comfortable doing elementary-school math, you really can just teach your little one the basics all on your own.  All the same, I decided I wanted to use a formal curriculum for Mr. Boy.  So that’s what we did.  You might have reasons you want to do the same.

Why Math-U-See?  Well, it is the program of choice of my two real-life homeschooling friends with older kids.  Both my friends like the program, and I’ve seen their children really do come out of school understanding math and being competent math-users.  So I was biased towards it.  After looking at reviews of various curricula, watching the demo CD, and seeing my friends’ materials, I decided it was probably a good fit for us.

What You Get

At each level, there is a student workbook, a DVD, and a teacher’s manual.  Above the primer level (think kindergarten-ish) there is a test booklet as well.  The DVD introduces each chapter’s lesson, and the teacher’s manual explains to the parent how to teach the lesson.  This is not a word-for-word now-say-this type lesson.  The DVD and manual teach you, the parent, what the math concept is, and how to explain it to your child.

Once your child understands the lesson, he can do the workbook pages to practice.  There are three fairly short worksheets for each lesson, and then three cumulative review sheets.  If you find your child needs additional help, the manual includes suggestions for activities you can do with your child.   You can also print out practice worksheets from Math-U-See’s website, and for basic math facts drill, MUS has an online-drill program.  Both of those on-line features can be used by anyone.

Why I like Math-U-See

There is a strong emphasis on understanding.  Students learn to do operations by first mastering the underlying concept.  Memorization is the result of understanding and practice, not the goal in itself.  In the small sample of children I know who have used Math-U-See, I’ve seen that the kids really do understand how to apply math to everyday life.  The parents (myself included) report that they have picked up handy math tips they never learned as children.

The program is self-paced. You work on a chapter for as much or as little time as you need, and then you move on.  To this end, the various books aren’t assigned grade levels.  To me this, this is what homeschooling is about.

To a certain extent, my children can work independently. Technically, the parent is supposed to view the DVD, read the manual, and teach the child the lesson.  In reality, my son can watch the DVD and figure out what to do 80% of the time.  Now that he is a strong reader (note: most 3rd graders would not be able to do this) he can even work from the teacher’s manual.  My other MUS-loving friends admit that their children self-teach too.

Reasons you might or might not like the program

The worksheets are boring. I like this.  Plain black and white pages.  But some people really go in for colorful pages with lots of illustrations and all that.  If you need colorful workbooks, you are out of luck.

The worksheets are short. If you want a lot of ready-to-go repetitive drilling, you are out of luck.  For my children (and me) short worksheets are our friend.  I don’t mind printing out extra practice sheets off the webpage in the rare event that we need more drills.  But if you need a lot of drilling ready-to-go, this is not for you.

When push comes to shove, you are the teacher. Up to you to use your own words to explain the lesson, assess whether your child has mastered the lesson, etc.  You decide when to slow down and dig in, and when to skip on to the next chapter.  I think Math-U-See does a great job of equipping the parent to teach effectively.  But there is a certain amount of time and effort required on your part.

The student materials are consumable, and sold as a packet. So you’ll need to buy new workbooks for each student.  Likewise, whether you want the test booklet or not, you get it.  In contrast, there is a strong market for used teacher-packets.  This wasn’t so true several years ago when the new edition of DVD’s and student books came out; but nowadays you can typically find a used DVD & Teacher’s manual for about $20, if you keep your eyes open.

The Scope and Sequence is Linear.  Again, I like this.  But if you are the sort who likes the little-of-everything approach, you are out of luck.  To keep abreast of our public schools, who do the hodge-podge, I do have my kids read a few library books on assorted math topics not covered by their current MUS book.


In all, I think it is a good program.  I’ve been happy with it, have no real complaints, and am pleased at my children’s progress in math.  I think Math-U-See does help them to understand mathematics well.

The program fits our budget, in part because I’ve had luck finding teacher materials second-hand, and in part because where I feel the need to supplement, I can do so for free. We use the on-line drills for extra practice, and I bring home math-themed library books when I want to cover a topic outside the MUS scope and sequence.

There are less expensive programs out there of course.  And as I said to begin, I don’t think you need any formal program at all for the early grades, if you don’t want.  But if you do want such a thing, I think MUS is as good as any.

For reasons I do not understand, wordpress is giving me bizarre formatting today. As soon as I can make this week’s post show up legibly, it’s yours.

Last week Mr. Boy was sick.  Pathetic little child, looking up at me with mournful eyes whenever I asked him to do something.  A child too sick to want to read about late-period Roman Infantryman.  That is one sick boy.

So I let him play video games.  All day.

Now you should understand the video game situation in our home.  Several years ago,  a beloved relative gave us one of those little things that plugs into your TV and you can play 80’s-style Atari-knockoff games.  In a rare fit of lucidity I did not donate it after the mandatory post-Christmas waiting period.   Probably thanks to pleading on the part of the SuperHusband, and extreme smallness on the part of the game.

Mr. Boy got to play shark-shark once about two years ago, and other than that, our little zombie-generating* device has lived a quiet existence in a dark corner of the kids’ closet.   My poor child.  He goes to his grandmother’s house to practice on her playstation so that he is less embarrassed at his gaming skills when he visits friends.

But last week the child was just miserable.  So we dug out our little electronic blast from the past (which he found without difficulty, curiously, though I myself couldn’t remember if we even owned it anymore) and I let the boy play.  As much as he wanted.

[Well, okay, I made him quit when he started to get that hunched-over posture you may have noted in your most rabid gaming-fan friends.   And yes, I told him that was exactly why I was making him turn it off.  You didn’t think I was suddenly getting all tactful, did you?]

Did the trick.  Kept him quiet and rested, he got better, game went back into the closet for another few years.  All’s well that ends well.


So then, I got sick.  Mmmn, lovely.  Was glad I had been merciful on the child, once I got my taste of his sufferings.  So Monday morning, ’bout time to start school, and I tell the kids, “Listen, remember last week when Mr. Boy was so sick I let him play video games all day?  Because he felt so bad he just didn’t want to do anything at all?  That’s how I feel.  You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long it is safe, there’s no fighting, and you clean it up afterwards.”

Hands rubbing with glee.  Eyes lighting up at the prospect of getting into all kinds of usually-restricted activities.   And then my sweet little boy says, “Mom, you want me to set up the video games for you?”


*I don’t know if it has a zombie game on it.  What I mean is, it turns your family members into zombies.