Monday, October 14, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 13-16

Two weeks ago, my assigned segment of Half-Blood Prince included Chapter 13 ("The Secret Riddle"), Chapter 14 ("Felix Felicis"), Chapter 15 ("The Unbreakable Vow") and Chapter 16 ("A Very Frosty Christmas").

In a lot of ways, Rowling mainly uses this book to set up the final one, and this is definitely clear in the way she finally provides all the details about Tom Riddle's past. The conceit of the Pensieve prevents this from being too much of an info-dump of exposition, and just as I did on my first reading of the book, I soaked up all the details and immediately began fitting them into the narrative of Voldemort's actions. 

The other major character Rowling continues to focus on is Snape. His discussion with Draco in the hallway, to which Harry listens from under the invisibility cloak, does a great job of casting suspicion on both characters and continuing to make the reader uneasy about Dumbledore's implicit trust of Snape.

On the lighter side, in these chapters dating drama is beginning to unfold. Ron and Hermione are constantly arguing and bantering (Ron's lines are especially funny - he's such a great character.) Hermione and Ron also start spending time with Cormac Maclaggen and Lavender Brown, respectively, clearly trying to make each other jealous and acting somewhat out-of-character in the process. Harry also finds himself feeling jealous of Ginny's relationship with Dean, in what is a very believable realization of the change in the way he sees her. The Weasleys also have strong opinions about Bill's relationship with Fleur Delacour - I did not at all remember that they all disliked her so much!

Finally, these chapters end on a great note for Harry, as he stands up to the new minister of magic and refuses to be exploited. With current news stories floating around about kids being used to promote agendas they may not fully understand, it was nice to see this savvy kid refusing to be made into a talking head for anyone's opinions but his own. Moments like that remind me why I do like Harry.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Homeschool Progress Report: September 2019

First Grade

Our first official year of homeschooling started in the first week of September. I have one official student this year: M., who will turn 6 in November. She is technically in kindergarten, but she did a lot of kindergarten-level work as a preschooler, so we are calling this year first grade, and some of her work is at a higher level even than that. Here's what we covered in each of our subjects during September.


For Math, we are using the Singapore curriculum. We started this year with Primary Mathematics 2B. (She completed 1A and 1B as well as 2A over the past two years. We took about a year to finish 2A.) So far, M's focus has been on reviewing place value and learning strategies for solving addition and subtraction problems mentally. Additionally, she drills math facts using XtraMath once a day, and occasionally my husband has her work on Khan Academy. We also read one chapter from Life of Fred each week on "Fred Fridays." In September, we finished Life of Fred: Cats and started Life of Fred: Dogs.


We've begun our first cycle through world history with a quick review of prehistory (which was our focus last year) followed by a three-week exploration of Ancient Egypt. We are using A Child's History of the World and A Little History of the World as our spines and supplementing with lots of other books including The Golden Book of Lost Worlds, Mummies Made in Egypt, The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, The Great Pyramid, and Pepi and the Secret Names. M. has done narrations about Menes (also known as Narmer, the first king of Egypt), mummies, and pyramids, and she also decoded a message in hieroglyphics and wrote her own message in hieroglyphics for her father to decode.


I decided to start the year by studying the human body. Our main text is the Deluxe Golden Book, The Human Body: What it is and How it Works, and we're also using materials from KidsHealth's "How the Body Works" curriculum, which includes free articles, videos, and printable worksheets. In September, we covered skin and the skeletal system. M. drew a diagram of the skin and labeled diagrams of both the skin and the skeleton. (Our main science curriculum is Building Foundations for Scientific Understanding, but as it provides only a framework and not specific lesson plans, I'm pretty loose about dipping in and out of it.)


Our health topic for this month was germs and hygiene. I provided M. with some worksheets explaining how germs can make us sick and demonstrating proper hand washing. One of our handouts came from KidsHealth's K-2 unit on Hygiene (found on this page) and we had a couple of others from Purell's Clean Gene lesson plans: this finger puppet activity and this "Germ Search" worksheet. We also practiced washing hands well and connected our study of germs with our study of the skin. 


M. read or listened to just about 70 books in September. She reads a lot of her own free-choice books at all levels throughout the day, but we also "assign" her certain books that are at or just above her reading level so that she will continue to be challenged. Her assignments in September were:
  • The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh
  • Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary
  • The Story of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting 
  • The Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish
  • Sokar and the Crocodile by Alice Woodbury Howard 
On her own, in addition to tons of picture books, she also read four books from the Stella Batts series by Courtney Sheinmel, which she has been reading in paperback and via Hoopla, depending on how I can find them. 

We also started learning about figurative language using a book called It Figures! by Marvin Terban and Giulio Maestro. We've only talked about similes so far, and I've been asking her to find them in the books she reads.

Memory Work

For over a month, M. has been working on learning and choreographing a recitation of "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee." I expect her to be ready to move on to a new poem by the end of October. My husband has also been working with her on memorizing the seven continents,  the countries of Europe, the oceans, and some U.S. rivers. We typically drill these when we're in the car. 


M. practices recorder and piano (15 minutes each) every morning before breakfast. In the afternoon, she practices identifying musical notes using We have also been listening to episodes of Classics for Kids on most weekday mornings, and we do some liturgical singing with the help of the music curriculum at Traditional Catholic Living. We're doing Year 1 this year, so the hymn for September was Concordi Laetitia. We also frequently sing the hymns from the morning and evening prayers on


Since the summer, we have been working our way through The Story of Paintings: A History of Art for Children, and have almost finished the book. We have also done a lot of drawing in both history and science, and M. likes to free draw a lot on her own.

Physical Education

In September, our main focus for P.E. was learning to ride a two-wheeler, which M. mastered after just a few sessions of practice. Additionally, she does these children's exercise videos from The Ten Thousand Method on YouTube a couple of times a week, in addition to running laps on the deck (by choice), attempting to learn to jump rope, and practicing hanging and climbing on the brand-new playground equipment installed at the tot lot near our house.


I recorded myself reading the questions and answers from the first 10 lessons of the St. Joseph Catechism months ago, and M. listens to them most days. She has mostly mastered lessons 1-7, so now we're focusing our attention on 8-10. We have also made a point of acknowledging saints' feast days that occurred in September: St. Peter Claver, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, St. Michael, and St. Jerome. We also encourage M. to follow along at Sunday Mass as much as possible. Even at the Latin Mass, I try to whisper to her about what's going on so she can follow along.


Though she technically won't be old enough for kindergarten in Maryland for 2 more years (she misses the cut-off by a month), C, who just turned 4 at the end of the month, is doing Pre-K this year, with the thought that she might start kindergarten-level work next year. She does some schoolwork most days, usually for about 30-40 minutes tops. Here's what she worked on in September.


We started out with some simple math activities in My Favorite Sticker Book: Numbers, which came from The Dollar Tree, and which C. completed in just over two weeks. These activities introduced counting up to 100, doing simple addition with illustrations, and identifying numerals. Our main focus this month was on helping her not to skip 15 when she counts to 20. Now she can mostly count to 30 on her own without missing any numbers. Occasionally, she also plays Birthday Candle Counting at, and she likes to play dominoes with me.  My husband is also beginning to work with her with Cuisenaire rods, making trains and beginning to associate each rod with its appropriate number.


We started going through The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading several months ago and C. has mastered most of the letter sounds and has begun sounding out consonant-vowel-consonant words. She has also learned to read the word "the," which the Guide introduces as a sight word to make it possible to read some actual simple books. In September, she mastered reading a Hooked on Phonics reader called Rag, and also did some practice in another simple book called Al. She also listens to the family read-alouds we have after lunch and dinner (which will be listed in my upcoming Read-at-Home Kids Report for September) and she likes to listen to audiobooks during her morning playtime or during afternoon quiet time. For help with identifying lowercase letters, I also like to have her play Alphabet Bingo on We also occasionally do letter sound activities on the Khan Academy Kids app.

Science & Health 

For science at this age, we typically focus on nature, so C. mostly has read-alouds about animals. In September, she heard The Mother Whale from the Let's Read and Find About Science series and Here Come the Bears by Alice Goudey. She also likes to watch episodes of Wild Kratts and Zoboomafoo, and she has joined us for some of M.'s videos about the human body. She also participated in our health lessons about germs. We haven't had a change in the weather yet, but I also plan to talk with her about the changing leaves and other signs of fall when they eventually become obvious.


C. joins M. in listening to Classics for Kids and in our liturgical singing. Additionally, she will often listen to music while M. is doing school. In September, she mostly listened to Raffi, Ella Jenkins, Sousa marches, Elizabeth Mitchell, and the CDs that came with the books Sing Through the Day and Goodnight Songs. 

Memory Work

C. learned the poem "Blum" by Dorothy Aldis, and this was her best recitation to date.


C. loves to draw and color, and she makes daily use of crayons and oil pastels, coloring books and plain paper, as well as washable markers.  

Saturday, September 28, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 9-12

Last week's reading assignment in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince included Chapter 9 ("The Half-Blood Prince"), Chapter 10 ("The House of Gaunt"), Chapter 11 ("Hermione's Helping Hand"), and Chapter 12 ("Silver and Opals"). Spoilers for the whole series beyond this point.

These chapters made me realize how many different things are going on this book. Harry is trying to keep up with NEWT-level schoolwork, while also taking lessons from Dumbledore on Voldemort's family history, conducting Quidditch tryouts as the new Gryffindor team captain, trying to make things up to Hagrid for not taking Care of Magical Creatures anymore, trying out different spells that turn up in his borrowed Potions textbook, and also working on mastering non-verbal spells for Defense Against the Dark Arts. It's a credit to J.K Rowling that I'm not having trouble following all of these disparate threads, but I have noticed that a lot of new storylines keep coming along, but very few are moving forward so far.

One thing that did happen at the end of these four chapters, though, is that Katie Bell was cursed by the mysterious necklace which Harry believes Malfoy purchased from Borgin & Burkes. As I believe I was the first time I read this book, I feel torn about Harry's concerns. On the one hand, yes, he does seem paranoid, but on the other hand, have these adults not learned that they need to address Harry's concerns to prevent him from going off on his own and reacting rashly? Granted, McGonagall seems to take him a bit more seriously than Arthur Weasley did earlier in the book but it's still frustrating to see his concerns dismissed. And of course, Dumbledore is conveniently absent again. Even though I know what he's doing, since I've read the book before, I still feel Harry's irritation at not seeing him for long stretches of time and his sense of having been abandoned by the person most likely to believe and help him.

I don't remember much about how the situation with the potions textbook pans out, so I'm looking forward to that. So far, there are no obvious hints that the Prince is Snape, which is kind of disappointing, but maybe some will surface as the book goes on.

Friday, September 27, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 5-8

The second section I read in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was Chapters 5 to 8 ("An Excess of Phlegm," "Draco's Detour," "The Slug Club," and "Snape Victorious.") This post may contain spoilers for the entire series.

As is always the case, I love the scenes set at the Burrow. Though everyone is annoyed with Fleur (whom they Weasley siblings are calling "phlegm") and the arrows on the family clock all point to "mortal peril" there is still something so cozy and comforting about being in this warm family home. I was especially surprised by how much I enjoyed Ginny's emerging personality as a very funny and sassy young girl. I'd also forgotten about Tonks's struggle to accept Sirius's death, and I think the change in her personality drives home the change in tone of the series now that Voldemort has risen to power.

Also pleasantly surprising is the way the Weasley twins' joke shop business is actually proving useful in the fight against the Death Eaters. I could have done without the toilet humor of their "U-No-Poo" product, but there is something so satisfying about seeing their sense of fun and tendency not take things seriously actually helping a life-and-death cause.

The other thread of the story that is introduced in this section is Harry's obsession with what Malfoy is up to. This leads Harry to follow Malfoy into Knockturn Alley where something odd is definitely going on, and also to have a verbal confrontation with him at Madame Malkin's and a physical one on the Hogwarts Express. The tension between these characters provides the right amount of suspicion to keep us guessing about Draco's motives and also shows the way the stresses of Voldemort's return weight on Harry.

Finally, as I remember from my first reading of this book, the biggest shock in this section is the announcement that Snape will be assuming the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. The fact that he is finally given the position he wants after all this time, and after he just made an Unbreakable Vow to accomplish some sinister task creates a sense of suspense and uncertainty surrounding his character that really drives the rest of the story.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Picture Book Review: Max & Ruby and Twin Trouble by Rosemary Wells (2019)

When each of my older two girls was awaiting the arrival of a younger sibling, we read tons of picture books about welcoming new babies: Baby Dear by Esther Wilkin and Eloise Wilkin, The Other Dog by Madeleine L'Engle and Christine Davenier, You're a Big Sister by David Bedford and Susie Poole, The New Baby by Fred Rogers, Julius the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes, Snuggle the Baby by Sara Gillingham, etc. When we learned in early September that we are expecting twins this spring, I really wanted to find a picture book about a family welcoming twins to help all three girls, and especially my toddler, get used to the idea of bringing home two new babies. Imagine my surprise and delight when, just two days later, I was offered the opportunity to review this new Max and Ruby book on that very topic. (Thank you, Simon & Schuster!)

In the early part of this story, Ruby, the big sister, has much the same attitude toward her mother's pregnancy as I had toward mine when I thought I was only expecting a singleton. She has been through this whole thing before, and she's sure she's an expert. Max, who has been the youngest until now, listens as Ruby imparts her wisdom in the superior tone that only a big sister can get away with using. When Max and Ruby's mother returns home from the hospital, however, she is carrying not just one baby in her arms, but two. Though it turns out Ruby doesn't know everything about new babies, she and Max still have a hand in the adjustment to being a family of six, and it turns out that both of them have just the right amount of knowledge of babies to be able to comfort their sweet new siblings.

This book is a wonderfully positive portrayal of the experience of welcoming twins into a family where there are older siblings. It doesn't focus much at all on some of the things my kids are interested in, such as ultrasounds and the actual process of giving birth, which was a bit of a drawback for me, but because it is so vague on the details, it's ideal for two-and-three-year-olds. Parents can always fill in the appropriate level of detail for their kids as they share the book. My kids were also puzzled by the fact that Max and Ruby's mother doesn't seem to know she's having twins until she goes to the hospital, and I think that is probably the one flaw I see in the story. In this day and age, if a mother knows she is expecting, she knows how many she is having, if not at ten weeks like we did, then certainly by the midpoint of her pregnancy. I considered that the author may have chosen to write it this way in order for there to be a bit of an element of surprise when the twins come home from the hospital, but the title would already have ruined that surprise, so it seems like it's just an oddity for this specific anthropomorphic rabbit family.

There are really very few picture books available for families who are expecting twins, so this book definitely fills a need, and it could not have arrived at a better time for my kids! My girls have never read any other Max & Ruby books, nor do they watch the TV show, but they immediately recognized these characters as being somehow related to other rabbits they have loved in books like Timothy Goes to School, Noisy Nora, and Morris's Disappearing Bag, and this has made Twin Trouble a highly coveted book in our house. I expect it will stay high on the list of favorites for the next several months as we prepare for our new additions!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Book Review: Dough Boys by Paula Chase (2019)

This companion novel to last year's So Done follows two boys, Rollie and Simp, who both play on the Marauders basketball team and assist Coach Tez with drug runs. Simp is mostly comfortable with his role in Tez's operation, and he is hoping to move up the chain of command and take on more responsibility. Rollie, on the other hand, has been working on his music since getting involved with the Talented and Gifted program, and he's starting to feel that he's spread himself too thin with music, basketball, and his "work" on the side. As basketball season wears on, these two friends find themselves in conflict as their priorities begin to run at cross purposes.

Whereas I wasn't bothered very much by the mature content in So Done (which includes reference to a sexual overture made by a grown man to a young girl), I had a much harder time with it in this book. I felt so disgusted with many of the adults in this story, seeing the ways they took advantage of young boys. Simp's mom, for example, is looking to get another of her sons involved with the drug business so she can increase her personal cash flow. Worse, the coach pretends to keep the boys out of trouble with basketball, but then sends them out to do his drug-related bidding without people like Rollie's kind and concerned grandmother ever being the wiser. Though the dangers of getting involved in selling drugs are made clear by the end of the book, not every character learns his lesson, and the story doesn't provide a lot of hope or instruction for getting out of the drug business without getting hurt.

I think the writing in this book was excellent, but I also can't imagine handing this book to my own kids when they are middle school age. I realize that the way of life portrayed in this book is real for kids in neighborhoods like the one depicted in this story, and maybe kids in that situation want to read books that reflect that experience. But I'm uncomfortable with the fact that there isn't a clear-cut resolution at the end with a definitive condemnation of drugs, and there were also some references to sexual arousal that felt inappropriate outside of YA. My kids are still little, and we are very much still in the mode of preserving innocence rather than promoting understanding of the problems of the adult world, so it's possible my opinion will change with time, but for now, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed, but that I think is more likely to belong on another family's bookshelf rather than my own.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

#YearOfHarryPotter: Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 1-4

At the beginning of the month, I started book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I read the first four chapters: "The Other Minister," "Spinner's End," "Will and Won't," and "Horace Slughorn." There are spoilers in this post for this book as well as book 7.

I remember really liking the way Rowling starts this book the first time I read it. Introducing the Muggle Prime Minister is a great way to show the way Voldemort's return is impacting the "real" world  and to give new information, such as the fact that Fudge has been replaced by Scrimgeour. I also love the fact that Kingsley Shacklebolt has been working for the Prime Minister!

I also love the way Rowling sets up one of the main storylines of the book - Snape's eventual killing of Dumbledore. The first time I read this book, the scene where Snape agrees to do what Draco has been asked to do in the event that Draco cannot just read as suspicious. This time, it's much more poignant, and even sad, because I know what that task is.

Also emotional is seeing Harry and Dumbledore spending so much time together after not communicating very much at all in book five. I don't know if Rowling intended this, but knowing how things end for Dumbledore, and that he himself knows what Snape must do, it feels like Dumbledore is already planning for life after his death: putting the Dursleys in their place, instructing Harry to tell Ron and Hermione about the prophecy, and giving Harry private lessons, as though he needs to impart a lifetime of wisdom as soon as possible.

Finally, the chapter where Harry and Dumbledore go to persuade Professor Slughorn to return to Hogwarts was not as exciting as I remembered. I do love the elaborate scene Slughorn stages in case it is Death Eaters knocking at his door, but somehow the rest of the chapter wasn't as brilliant as I remembered.