The Curriculum I Use: A Review of Rod and Staff English

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I use Rod and Staff’s English program to teach grammar and some writing.

This curriculum uses a very traditional approach to grammar and writing. In this approach lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s first look at what I consider to be its strengths.

Nouns, verbs, subjects, predicates, objective, subjective, tense, punctuation, diagramming, and many other details are all taught. Each grade level goes into a bit more depth, sometimes leading the student to think they already know the lesson when in actuality there is a little new information at each level. By the time they get to seventh grade, they are learning about coordinating conjunctions and adverb phrases, but since they’ve been studying conjunctions and adverbs for years, they are not overwhelmed.

Diagramming is taught from a very young age. This helps the learner to see the sentence and its functional parts in a different way and, though it’s challenging, teaches at a level that cannot be equaled.

Now let’s move on to its weaknesses. In my opinion, these books are extremely outdated and limited in their presentation.

This series is blatantly conservative Christian. It may be surprising that I list this as a weakness because I myself am also blatantly conservative Christian. However, the lengths to which they go to address EVERYTHING from a Christian lens gets old quite quickly. I do not have a problem with them using scripture references occasionally and talking about Christian values in some examples, but in my opinion they are out of balance and use it way too much, at times almost exclusively. They also teach KJV English along with modern English. Included in pronoun lessons, for example, are instructions on how to use “thee” and “thou.” This is not a real problem, but it can be distracting for kids who don’t use a lot of the KJV. 

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Also, being Mennonite, which is not too far from being Amish, most of the few examples that are not scriptural or religious are rural in nature. Farming and country life is often the subject of the exercises, and since my kids have only set foot on a farm a few times, and then only for a few hours, they have a hard time relating to sentences about fields and cows and  harvesting.

Also, some of the lessons have more to do with etiquette and nothing to do with grammar or writing. In my opinion, lessons on how to answer the telephone or how to introduce people to each other do not belong in an English book.

This curriculum teaches not only grammar but writing. Since it is coming from such a rural Mennonite setting these writing exercises mainly address paragraph structure, book reports, and letter writing. Essay writing or writing for any academic setting is not developed at all. Any college-bound student is going to need additional training in how to write for an academic setting.

So why do I use it? I continue to use this curriculum because I haven’t found anything that teaches grammar in such a robust way. I use a separate writing program and skip most of the writing exercises in Rod and Staff. We also skip the outdated and irrelevant etiquette lessons. I wish that I could find a more modern program with a higher-level writing program. Until I do, I will make do with this one, picking and choosing, adding and subtracting, making it work for us. I will accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.


The Curriculum I Use: A Review of The Well Trained Mind

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downloadI often have people ask me what curriculum I use.  I think they are expecting an easy response like “I get these DVDs from Somewhere Corporation and they teach my kids everything they need to know.  The program is all laid out nice and easy like, and it can teach any child.  I don’t even think about it; I just pull it out of the box, and voila (which is French for “there it is”, by the way), the child is smart.”  Well, it’s not quite that easy.

One of the main reasons I homeschool is because I want a different experience, not cookie-cuttered, and not patterned after a brick-and-mortar school somewhere.  If I can make school personalized to exactly what I want my kids to learn, why would I turn that over to anybody else who doesn’t have any idea what I’m wanting?  So, though it would make things easier in the short-term, I don’t use a packaged, pre-boxed, curriculum.  I put it together myself.

During the Preschool and Kindergarten years, I used the Montessori Method.  We all enjoyed it very much, and the kids learned a lot.  It is very child-directed and enjoyable, as I think learning at that stage should be.  However, I think that there are certain things that students need to learn whether they like it or not, so as they enter elementary school we transition to a more structured method and we chose the Classical Method.  After making that choice, we found a book that fits us perfectly and lays out a structure with plenty of room for customization.

This post is a review of that book.

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The Well Trained Mind: a Guide to Classical Education at Home was written by Dr. Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.  Jessie happens to be Susan’s mother and homeschooled her 3 children for most of their education.  She is trained as a teacher but chose to homeschool her kids because she didn’t like how their education was turning out.  Jessie taught Susan, as I said before, and you can read her narrative bio if you click her name above.  She has done too much learning for me to list it all here, but let me say she has several degrees from prestigious universities, and she has written many books ranging from The Well Trained Mind to a couple of enjoyable novels to The Art of Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America.  She is currently writing a several-volume history of the world for adults.  She is on the faculty of The College of William and Mary teaching American Literature.

But enough about them.  Let’s talk about their book.  First of all, there is a website devoted to it where you can get more information.  This book is very popular among homeschoolers, not that I pay a lot of attention to that.

The Well Trained Mind is a combination of several things, giving their personal story and how they came to homeschooling, a basic description of the classical method, and then step-by-step instructions about how to do that at home.  They finish by addressing some loose ends that need to be tied up.

I really like this book.  I have used it for the last 11 years to school kids with several different learning styles and attention spans, and with some adaptations, it has worked for us.  It takes each level of the trivium, which is a classical idea of breaking up 12 years into 3 sets of 4, and drills it down by subject, giving everything needed, including suggested schedules, possible different ways to do the subject, and a list of places to buy book and supplies mentioned.  It is comprehensive enough to tell how to school a child for all 13 years while all fitting within 864 pages.  I get it out every summer and re-read sections of it again, and I’m not bored yet.

For example, it talks about the first 4 years in general (the grammar stage), and then it devotes a chapter each to the major subjects that need to be taught during those years.   Each chapter finishes with a “How to Do It” section as well as possible schedules and a list of resources and where to get them.  Then, after covering those 4 years completely, it moves on to the next 4 years (the logic stage), repeating the same process.  The last 4-year stage is the Rhetoric stage, and it is given the same treatment.  For example, the math section for the grammar stage (that sounds a bit confusing, but remember that “the grammar stage” is simply the designation for 1st-4th grade) begins with a discussion of the philosophy of how a classical education approaches math (learning the times tables, not using calculators in elementary school, etc).  Then it gives several possible math curriculums like Saxon, A Beka, Math-U-See, and Developmental Math.  They recommend any of these programs, but in this section they give suggestions about the positives and negatives of each one, telling things that can be cut (too much busy work) or weak spots that may need to be supplemented.

The last part of the book is a potpourri of several things like how to supplement a traditional school education with extra home training, grading, athletics, standardized testing, and using outside resources.

Things I Like:  This book was written for those who want to do a rigorous, structured, but personalized education.  It gives plenty of room for personalization without leaving the parents/teachers to figure out everything for themselves.  Some of the resources recommended (grammar, writing, history) are written by the authors, which always makes me nervous.  However, having used them while also looking around for anything better, I generally think this is a good thing.  They knew what they wanted and couldn’t find it, so they wrote it exactly as they wanted, which I have generally found to be pretty good.  My kids are doing VERY well using this curriculum, and that is the best recommendation for it.  I like the way they put formal logic as a subject of the 2nd stage (which happens to be called the logic stage).  I also like the way they don’t assume all homeschoolers are conservative christians.  Though many, including myself, are, I like the way she states whether a resource is coming from a secular or religious point of view, and if so, what the religious point of view is.

Things I Dislike:  There are weaknesses in some of the resources they recommend, some of which they mentioned and some of which they didn’t.  I will take those one by one in later posts.  Generally, these 2 authors are not scientists or mathematicians.  Their recommendations for science could be better, in my opinion.  They want the student to have exposure to science, but the science recommendations are not as rigorous as I would like.  This is probably partly a reflection of the classical method, and partly a reflection of the authors’ strengths.  Luckily, with my nursing background, I know enough about science to work that part out myself.  I will write that all out at some time also.  On a different note, I pitched out the Latin and replaced it with Spanish.  Again, that is an argument with the classical method, not just this book.

As they acknowledge in the book, this is a skeleton, a suggestion, that should be personalized.  I have not done everything they say, and I have added some, which is the strength of this book.  I would say that if someone uses this book exactly as it is lined out, they will end up with an excellent education with the possible exception of science.