Thursday, April 19, 2012

Homeschool Notes: 8th-Grade Edition

I'm down to one teenager at home this year, since the big girly departed this quiet homeschool life for the larger and more eventful existence of the college student. For those just joining us, my current teenager-at-home is 14, male, and intent right now on going to West Point. From there he wishes to embark on a career in the sciences. To remark that he is a man with a plan is to master the obvious. The plan might change later on, but he's got it, and that gives us something to work with.

Let me back up a minute. I'd like to say, first of all, that although I've enjoyed my children thoroughly at every stage, I am one of those people who reallyreallyreally love teenagers, because it is at this point that children -- my first two children, anyway -- reach the apotheosis of my dreams and goals for them. That is to say, they become autodidacts who do their own laundry. As the mother of toddlers, I adored toddlers and longed for them to stay that way forever, but as the mother of teenagers:  oh, my. Who has it all? I do, that's who.

(of course, once you have some teenagers, then it's inevitable that even your younger children will start to be shorter versions of the same, in mostly the more trying ways. I've just had to shut my door against the music party upstairs, hosted and attended by the 8- and 9-year-olds, whose favorite band is Coldplay. We sniff at Justin Bieber. Yes, we do. And this is good. But we like our music LOUD, and we don't care how many of the neighbors know it.)

So, you are asking me, what does homeschooling look like for a 14-year-old? What grade is that, anyway? Etc.

This particular 14-year-old is an 8th-grader. And I don't know whether I'm alone in feeling this or not, but these middle-school years -- especially the years we used to call "junior-high," ie 7th and 8th grades -- are hard to figure out academically. It's not elementary school, and it's not high school, though you can grant high-school credit to a limited number of courses undertaken in these years. I've tended to think of these betwixt-and-between years as "high-school prep," which has helped me to decide what to do about them and what they're for. And what they're for is twofold:  first, to cover anything left undone in the primary years, and second, to lay the foundation for successful learning in the years when the future is coming more and more sharply into focus. 

So in planning for this year, the first question I had to ask myself was, What has this child not done? 

And this was difficult to answer, because this child has done a lot, particularly in history, which -- while science is seeming like his vocation -- is his most consistent avocation. We have done the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans and the Medieval period and the Renaissance and the New World, concentrating heavily on military operations, because that's what this boy loves. On the other hand, he hadn't done much history outside the broad narrative of Western civilization, which he'll pick up at the beginning again in 9th grade anyway.

So I said to him, "How would you like to read about China, Japan and Russia this year?"

He said, "Hm. That sounds good."

I found readings for him, and he thought they sounded good, too, and that was history/geography taken care of.

This was how my lesson-planning went:  I'd have an idea and run it past him, then locate materials. Or he'd have an idea and run it past me, and often enough, he'd find the materials he needed himself. I had conceived of science for this year as a sort of pu-pu platter of scientific disciplines:  a little introductory chemistry, a little introductory physics, maybe some astronomy and geology, in mini-seminars of readings. What quickly became obvious, however, was that he hadn't gotten enough life science last year. I don't mean that the course he did was inadequate;  as a pre-biology course for a 7th-grader it was quite thorough. No, what became clear to me was that he wanted more. We set aside the readings I'd planned. Instead, he did internet research, and he went to the library, and he ordered vials of e. coli bacteria and packs of petri dishes, and he taught a class on bacteriology to his brother's Cub Scout pack. For which I sort of wish I'd been a fly on the wall, actually, but anyway, I let him have at it.

Anyway, our year may be summed up by a booklist, with addenda. He's read, in roughly this order, the following so far: 

The Story of Japan
The Dark Tower and Other Stories/C.S. Lewis
Creator and Creation/Mary Daly
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves/Lynne Truss
Great Expectations/Dickens
The Story of China
Life in a Tidal Pool/Silverstein
Life in a Bucket of Soil/Silverstein
The Code of Life/Silverstein
The Prisoner of Zenda/Anthony Hope
Game, Set, Math! /Ian Stewart
The Story of Russia
The Three Musketeers/Dumas
Band of Brothers/Stephen Ambrose
(he's actually read several Ambrose books this year, but I forget the others)
Ghost Soldiers/Hampton Sides
David Copperfield (still in progress, I think)
The Old Man and the Sea /Hemingway
Mere Christianity/C.S. Lewis
Invisible Invaders: Viruses and the Scientists Who Pursue Them/Peter Radetsky (also in progress, I think)

While I assigned some of the above -- notably the Story Of books for history/geography -- most of these are books he read on his own, either finding them on our shelves or buying them at the secondhand bookstore in town.

He's done Saxon Algebra 1 for math, maintaining roughly a 95 test average. We'll see how our standardized-test scores correlate with that grade;  his scores last year were quite high. As always, I take test scores with a grain of salt, but by this time, with college-entrance exams not that far ahead, I think it's useful to put that pressure on the grades I give. They don't mean much to me in terms of who my child is, but they -- and the level of mastery they represent -- do mean something to his future.

For English composition, he's been working his way through a program called "The One-Year Adventure Novel." (reviewed here)

For foreign language he's done an online program called Deutsche Interaktiv, which he says is okay, though he'd prefer being in a class where he had to converse in German. That's in the plans for next year, but I'm going to go ahead and credit him with a high-school unit in German, since he has covered elements of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, as well as some limited conversation.

In addition to reading for religion (I forget now what else he's read at home), he's been taking the parish Confirmation class with his friends, even though he was confirmed at 9, when we all entered the Catholic Church. He just likes being in class, and our pastor teaches it, so it's cool, too (not to mention thorough).

He runs a 5K course four days a week (actually, I think he's running farther lately, but I'm not sure how far) and works out before starting his school day. 

He's a Life Scout in Boy Scouts and has just begun work on his Eagle project:  an oral history of a local World War II veterans' group.

Actually, the Eagle project has led to what's probably been the richest and most intense part of his school year. My husband, who's a theology professor, happened to mention the project to a new member of the history department, with the result that the 8th-grader is now taking that professor's World War II history class at the college. It's a writing-intensive course, with seven papers (including a ten-page research project), two exams, and many quizzes, so the boy has been busy, not to mention having had a crash course in college writing ("The paper's due tomorrow? Okay, here's how you write a thesis sentence . . . ").

So if I were going to break down the year into a transcript, it would look like this:

English (literature, grammar, composition)
History:  World (1 semester)
History:  Special Topic/World War II (1 high-school history credit)
Geography: World
Math:  Algebra 1 (1 high-school credit)
Foreign Language:  German (1 high-school credit)
Science:  General
P.E. (the running and working out)

Actually, I do have the year broken down into a grade sheet/transcript, via this inexpensive and invaluable service.  I've use it for all my kids, but it really comes into its own at the middle- and high-school levels, when careful record-keeping truly matters. I also keep, with this service, an online portfolio of things like community-service hours and Scout projects, which will make college applications that much easier.

And what are we preparing for? Well, in the short term, here's our plan for 9th grade. He'll be taking general biology and, hopefully, German at the college. And in the longer term, maybe the West Point dream will come true, and maybe other dreams will supercede it, but if we proceed on the assumption that that's the plan, we can hardly go wrong, I don't think.

PS:  I forgot all about the second question:  What does this child need to do? 
Short answer:  algebra. And be ready for high-school-level writing.  Which . . . after this semester . . . what with one thing and another . . . 


Sarah said...

This sounds like a great year! My mom shaped one semester's history specifically around the American military with text recommendations from the local ROTC commander. I still have (and love) some of the books from that year.

One book your son might like, given his love of history, current WWII course, and reading on Japan/China/Russia is "The Pacific War" by Saburo Ienaga. It's a pretty evenhanded story of WWII from the point of view of a Japanese author. U.S. readers tend to see a lot of military writing from the American/British/Australian side, but rarely anything from the Japanese side. This one is really excellent and eye-opening. I read it in a college Pacific Wars course and couldn't put it down. At this point I can't remember every topic it addressed (e.g., the Japanese Army's use of the so-called "comfort women" from Korea might be in there), so depending on how closely you monitor your teen's reading it might need a preview. Anyhow, as someone whose bachelors degree is in military history, I sympathize with his interests :). The area around the Fort here is packed with some good military museums, opportunities to watch Airborne parachute drops, and lots of stray West Pointers should you ever be on a weekend trip over this way.

Sorry for the wordy comment. Self-editing skills decline the later the evening stretcheson....

Sally Thomas said...

I hate to admit it, but I don't monitor reading that closely, particularly since I can't keep up with this son's book-buying habits, and he's reading for a college class, anyway. But that sounds excellent.