Textbooks in Moderation

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First, I’m a fan of Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU) by Dr. Nobel. It’s entirely hands-on, written to the parent. It meets and/or exceeds California state standards for science education, as well as the science standards drafted by the National Research Council, (the staff arm of the National Academy of Sciences), the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science–the Next Generation Science Standards. In my opinion, no other science program I have reviewed has such depth of inquiry in the early grades. Finally, BFSU is integrated science, which is essential for building practical skills in science–working scientists don’t tend to silo themselves in their disciplines.

However, BFSU is not open-and-go for educators. Some of the factors that contribute to its quality as a science program — the lack of a textbook, the depth of inquiry, the hands-on nature of the program — also create difficulties for day-to-day implementation. It’s written in dense text that can be difficult to parse with a busy classroom or screaming toddler in the background. Also, the highly verbal nature of the program can make it difficult for some students to cement understanding or skills. Further, it lacks some of the rich background content that classical education (and some traditional science textbooks) bring to science education. BFSU attempts to make up some of those lacks with a recommended reading list and some written assignments, but they produce little or no historical illumination.

To address these concerns, I have created a custom unit-based science program for my elder daughter that blends BFSU, Prentice Hall’s Science Explorer textbooks, and the book list from Beautiful Feet’s History of Science program.

The first week consists of reading, section questions, and narration from Prentice Hall’s Science Explorer textbooks, as well as a lab from the accompanying lab manuals–all centered around the BFSU chapter concept. This week helps cement the science concept and hands-on skills.

The second week consists of reading and narration from a middle grades biography of a historical figure central to the idea (when possible, and when not, a key historical figure or concept in the history of science), as well as filling in a science historical timeline. This week brings in the richness of classical education.

The third week consists of the discussion questions and lab with accompanying student-written lab report from the BFSU chapter. This week uses the understanding and background from the prior two weeks to dig deep into the BFSU chapter concept.

This science blend is an ambitious project. To make the project more manageable, I created a spreadsheet that listed all the BFSU chapters and sections in the order I want to use them and then listed the concepts addressed in those pages. Next, I listed relevant pages from the Science Explorer textbooks and the page numbers of the relevant labs in the lab manuals. Then, I listed the relevant page numbers in the Beautiful Feet History of Science pamphlet. Finally, I listed the books I want to use from the Beautiful Feet Booklist, the BFSU recommended reading, and others I’ve researched for supplementing the list. This overarching view helps me stay organized.

I’m using the spreadsheet as a guide. To make using the BFSU chapter easier, I also write lesson plans that pull out the key questions from the BFSU chapter, list lab materials, and dictate the lab report contents. The lesson plans are time-consuming because the BFSU text is so densely written, without any notation of key questions or manual lab items. I realize that Dr. Nobel wishes to make it as flexible as possible for educators, but that same flexibility and density are intimidating to the casual user. These lesson plans help me outsource some of the daily instruction time, which is critical to me. I did ask Dr. Nobel for permission to sell the lesson plans I write, but he refused, saying that he had already made an agreement with someone else. As of now, the lesson plans are apparently not published, so I continue with that work.

Finally, I’m creating a daily guide as I go, listing books and page numbers. The guide is a Word document, like the lesson plans. This work helps me keep track of what we’ve done, as well as where we need to go. Flipping back and forth between the three Prentice Hall textbooks and their accompanying lab manuals, the trade books and biographies, and the BFSU lesson plans can be confusing. As a result, the daily schedule is the document I refer to most often. It’s laid out in calendar format, in three-week chunks — again, based around the BFSU chapter concept.

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One of the joys of homeschooling is the ability to be flexible. Blending three different styles of sources of information (while using one as a spine) is more flexible than the do-the-next-textbook-page science that is unfortunately so common. We can compress a week if the reading is short or she finds the book so attractive she can’t put it down, skip a lab if we’ve done it before, or watch a video for a supplemental background. But I can do any or all of those things knowing that the overarching goals of knowledge, skills, and competencies are being met.

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Courtney– Courtney is a relatively recent, accidental homeschooler of the secular, classical persuasion. Courtney has been teaching online (mostly community college algebra) since 2000, while working towards a ridiculous number of college credits for teaching certifications in general science, social studies, and visual impairments. Along the way, she’s done substitute teaching, face-to-face college adjuncting, technical writing, web design, public relations, data analysis, teaching in a public school, homeschool portfolio evaluations, providing vision education services for Birth To Three, and a whole host of “other duties as assigned.” In her spare time she enjoys reading, photography, cooking, sewing clothes, and other various domestic arts. She lives in the middle of the Appalachian mountains on the east coast of the USA with her husband, her two children, and her mother. Her family’s menagerie currently consists of a dog, assorted lizards, assorted cichlid fish, and assorted cats.

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