Friday, July 11, 2014

In Search of a Science Curriculum

We have enjoyed Sonlight for Alexa’s preschool and early pre-kindergarten, but we have decided that this will be our last year using Sonlight. There are several reasons for that decision, and I won’t get into them right now. I only mention it because if we were sticking with Sonlight, I would not now be in the process of researching and choosing curriculum for Alexa’s kindergarten year. (Yes, I know that won’t begin until fall 2015, over a year from now. However, next year will be fully occupied with our move. I need to be prepared with research before we arrive in the United States for home leave, during which time I hope to attend a homeschool convention and visit several libraries and bookstores, armed with the research that I’m beginning now so that I have an idea of what I want to see in person before I buy.)

Within the last week, after way too much research, a good bit of discussion, and some serious stress on my part, we chose a science curriculum. In this post, I’m going to review what we were looking for, describe the most appealing* options we considered, and finally, tell you what we chose. If you’re not interested in homeschooling or in science curriculum, you may not wish to read further.

In a perfect world, I would find the perfect science curriculum. (Spoiler: This is not a perfect world!) The curriculum would meet all of the following criteria:

  • Inexpensive
  • Involves a combination of textbooks, more interesting science-related books, and hands-on activities (demonstrations or experiments, nature walks, lap- or notebooking, and possibly workbooks). 
  • Complete and ready to go—all lesson plans, supplies, and books would arrive at my door neatly packaged in one big box.
  • Evolution and Old Earth assumptions would be taught explicitly, but ideally while recognizing that God set it all in motion or at the very least while refraining from disparaging religion. Bonus points for objectively presenting evidence for and against Old Earth and Young Earth viewpoints, as well as evolution, theistic evolution, and literal 7-day creationism. At the very least, the curriculum must not set up the false choice of “you can be a Christian or you can be a scientist, but you can’t be both.”
  • My preference: Rather than jumping around as most elementary “general science” courses do, the course would pick one area of science and cover it well. I would prefer a cycle of one year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • Jeff’s preference, which I did not know until pretty late in my research: Rather than sticking with one topic for a full year, the curriculum would cover a variety of topics.

Do you notice all the contradictions? Inexpensive, yet including lots of moving parts and little to no planning on my part. Secular, yet religious or at least not hostile to religion. Covering one area in depth, yet covering all areas of science. That isn’t too much to ask, is it? (Spoiler alert: Turns out, it kind of is.)


Science in the … Series by Jay Wiles

  • First book: $39 from Berean Builders, with the option to buy a supply kit ($85) and a lapbook template ($18) from other vendors
  • Designed for grades K-6, with multiple ages able to use each book simultaneously
  • Presents science within a historical framework, with the first book an overview organized around the days of Creation, and following books focused on specific time frames. (Subsequent books cover the ancient world, the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century, and the 19th century).

I love the idea of this series. Each lesson is centered around a demonstration or experiment. The historical focus shows students that science is a process and demonstrates how scientific knowledge is built gradually over time, so even though it jumps from topic to topic, the organization should make sense.

However, there is one major problem with this curriculum: The author is an avowed Young Earth Creationist. He seems to be well respected by homeschoolers on both sides of this great divide, but even so, he does have a bias, and we believe it’s in the wrong direction. Reasons to Believe concludes in their review that this curriculum is not hostile to Old Earth theories, but neither is it compatible with them. If we believed in a young Earth, I would take a very close look at this curriculum—I took a pretty close look at it anyway!—but as it is, we had to move on.

Elemental Science (Classic Series) by Paige Hudson 

  • Preschool series (including kindergarten): two options, each $15 ebook or $27 print, with optional experiment kits ($38 or $42) from Elemental Science. Supporting books must be purchased separately from other sources, but there are not many and they are not expensive.
  • Traditional curriculum is available for preschool through grade 8, as well as online high school courses.
  • Each unit involves a demonstration or activity, text, narration, sketching, notebooking, and nature walks.
  • Preschool courses include a mix of topics; classic series follows with a year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • The author is a Christian, but she uses materials that approach science from a secular view.

 I fell in love with this curriculum when I looked at the sample lessons available on the website. I’m not sure how rigorous it would be, but I am sure that Alexa and I would enjoy doing it, and at her age, it’s at least as important to inspire a love of science as it is to cram her head full of scientific facts and theories. This curriculum checks all of my boxes, and I was all set to use it … until Jeff surprised me with the revelation that he didn’t want each year to focus on a different subject. So I abandoned my obsession with Elemental Science and took a closer look at another option, one that I’d looked at superficially but not in depth because I was too caught up in this one to give it a chance.

  • Series of 3 books ($25-$35 each, or $10 each for Kindle), each of which provides lesson plans for 3 years (K-2, 3-5, and 6-8). Lab or other supplemental materials must be acquired elsewhere.
  • The curriculum weaves together four “threads”—Nature of Matter (Chemistry), Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science—with the goal of helping students understand how science as a whole is interrelated.
  • Involves demonstrations and experiments, lapbooking for younger students, and notebooking for older students. Also includes a list of optional books for supplemental reading.
  • Completely secular.

When I first looked at this curriculum, I rejected it out of hand. There are very few things to make me run away from a curriculum as quickly as seeing on almost every review some variation of the statement, “This is no open-and-go curriculum. It requires a LOT of preparation from the teacher!” Consider that “complete and ready to go” box of mine not only not checked but turning red, flashing, and wailing an alarm!

However, I also saw that this curriculum has several users with extensive scientific training themselves, and they love these books. Their reviews say that it inspires students to think scientifically, not merely to memorize facts (though it requires that as well); that it presents high level concepts in ways that their young children understand and remember; and that they and their children love doing science with this curriculum. Frankly, I realized from my first look that this curriculum probably is the most comprehensive one available; I just didn’t care because I went into a mild panic at the very thought of using it.

Jeff, on the other hand, had no such reservations. He likes to say that all of science comes back to physics, and this curriculum may well agree. He recognized that this option would be more difficult for me, and he said we could use something else. I knew, though, that we wouldn’t agree on anything else—nothing else will provide the depth I want, the variety Jeff wants, the interconnectedness we both prefer, and Old Earth perspective we require. This one is the best choice for us. So I joined the Yahoo support group moderated by Dr. Nebel himself, asked a question or two on my homeschool forum, and ordered the first book.

I know it’s crazy early to be buying curriculum for fall 2015, but hey … that wailing siren in my head won’t be quiet until I’ve made at least a preliminary implementation plan, which I can’t do until I have the book. I need some mental peace and quiet, so I need that book, crazy early or not. In the meantime, if you notice me mumbling about threads and lesson order and supplemental reading and where I can buy magnet sets or microscopes, please just roll your eyes and look away. I’ll be ok, I promise.

*The less appealing options we considered included the following:

  •  NOEO Science—similar to Elemental Science, but it didn’t have a year for Earth and Space Science, and it didn’t have anything for kindergarten. If I hadn’t seen Elemental Science first, I would have considered NOEO more strongly.
  • Nancy Larson Science—a crazy expensive, all-inclusive program for grades K-4. Reviewers either love it or hate it. I suspect I would hate it, as I only got halfway through my perusal of the sample lesson before I had to stop. The extreme scriptedness of the lessons was annoying, but I could handle it. What I could not handle was the insultingly condescending tone of the script.
  • Real Science 4 Kids—a unit study approach, which would have gotten very expensive by requiring the purchase of 2-3 units per year. Reviews also lamented that it did not require much critical thinking, only fact memorization.
  • Christian Schools International—one of the few explicitly Christian options that teaches from an Old Earth viewpoint. Reasons to Believe has very positive things to say about its integration of faith and science, but it lacks depth and rigor and requires supplementation.
  • Houghton Mifflin Science Homeschool—reasonably priced secular option. Nothing stellar or horrible about it, other than that most of the best things about it are online, and I don’t want to have a problem doing a science lesson because the internet went out, or be required to complete the curriculum in one year or lose access to vital online content, or have problems using it because reviews said that it’s ridiculously difficult to set up the online access.
  • R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey—reasonably priced, secular program that objectively checks most of my boxes … I just wasn’t drawn to it and could not force myself to feel strongly one way or the other about it. I found part of the sample lesson annoyingly cutesy, but otherwise have no idea why it didn’t make my top picks list. I’m sure it’s great for some families, just not for ours.
  • Behold and See Science by Catholic Heritage Curricula—inexpensive, Christian worktext program that is not hostile to Old Earth or theistic evolution. However, it reportedly is light on content.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Letters to My Daughter: Four

Dear sweet Alexa,

Today is a special day. Four years ago today, you entered this world. You arrived four weeks early, so small, and already cautious. You were born face forward, watching where you were going, and once you could see the world awaiting you, you paused for a while to scope it out. From the day we brought you home, you wanted to be held securely at all times. If you fell asleep in our arms and we tried to put you down, you woke up crying. Eventually your father and I clued in to the fact that the best place for you to sleep was nestled securely between us, where you felt safe and loved.

Security—safety—seems to be more important to you than it is to many other children. You’re cautious. You watch other children and get to know them through their interactions with others long before you decide to reveal your own personality to them. You don’t like to get too far from Mama and Daddy; especially in unfamiliar situations, you prefer to stay close to us. Sometimes I worry that your need to feel secure is so strong that it prevents you from enjoying life, from taking those risks that make life fun and exciting.

But over the last year, you’ve grown. You’ve developed a fondness for exploring: first in the safety of our basement, and then in a local park, where you surprised me with your willingness to wander far from me. You’ve made a couple of friends and seem to realize that people other than Mama and Daddy can be trustworthy, too.

Every day, you look more like a little girl and less like the baby we welcomed four years ago. Every day, you speak more clearly, with longer and more complex sentences, so that we rarely have to interpret your words for others anymore. Every day, you seem to understand more and more about the world around you.

And your personality is growing in leaps and bounds. You’ve shown a generous spirit—you were so upset when I carelessly mentioned that some children didn’t have toys; you cried and immediately started picking out toys to give to this toyless child whom you’d never met because “a child should have a hundred toys,” as you tearfully proclaimed. Your desire to help is powerful, as is your delight when you’re able to do so.  Your curiosity about the world is matched only by the strength of your developing will … a will that I pray that you and I together will learn to control and to guide into constructive purposes.

I will not pretend that it always is easy to parent you, Alexa. That strong will of yours can make it challenging. But I would have it no other way. The same determination and resolve—dare I say stubbornness?—that gets you sent into time out so frequently now will help you to stand firm later, when you’re standing up for what’s right.

I see glimpses of your future in your current struggles and in your current triumphs. It’s a good future. You are growing into your name, Alexa Ruth, Defender Friend. You are strong willed enough, and growing brave enough, to stand up for what is right. You are sensitive and generous, and when you decide to let people in, to let people see you and know you, you will be a good friend.

You’re still growing, still developing. You’re still a little girl—and I love the little girl that you are—but you are growing into a big girl, and I love the glimpses of that big girl, too. I am so grateful to God for having given me these last four years with you. I am so excited to see what happens in you, how you grow and develop, who you become, in these coming years.

Happy birthday, my sweet Lexa. Your daddy and I love you.