B is for Block Scheduling: Finding a Schedule That Works for Challenge B

October is upon us. The school year is not so shiny and new and exciting anymore. We aren’t tired and bored yet (I hope!) but we’re finding a groove and getting comfortable with what works–and identifying what does NOT work.

I am directing Classical Conversations Challenge B this year. It’s incredible, for so many reason.  I am falling in  love with Challenge B and I didn’t think anything could top Challenge A!

Much of what the kids learn in Challenge A carries over. The Latin is the same (but faster), the writing curriculum is the same (but the books they write about are different), the math presentations are done using the same methods. The research is similar–but instead of anatomy and animals, we are focused on astronomers right now and will move on to chemistry later. But there are new things. LOGIC! And current events! And the biggest NEW THING is that our Challenge A homework schedule is just NOT WORKING for Challenge B.

Practicing Latin vocabulary with alphabet pretzels in Challenge B at Classical Conversations!

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How to Help Your Students Make Connections Between Subjects

One of the core elements of the Classical Education model is subject integration, the idea that no piece of knowledge belongs by itself, unconnected to everything else. Everything is connected and knowledge is not a row of boxes, some overflowing because you are good at math and history empty because it doesn’t interest you. No. Knowledge should be a big messy, tangle of strands connecting all different points all over your brain. In classical education, when we study a scientist, we  learn what was happening in the world at the time he was alive (history), we learn about his discoveries (science and usually math), we learn where he lived and worked (geography), we read about him and probably write a paper (English grammar/exposition/language arts).  Just because he came up in SCIENCE class does not mean that you tuck Galileo neatly in the science box and your brain and move on. He connects to all the things you’ve learned in so many other subject areas.

And here’s the thing. When you connect Galileo to ALL your subject areas, he’s now tied down to your brain with five connection strands. If you just stick him in a science box, there’s a good change he will up and walk away while you are doing math!

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How We Use “Addition Facts That Stick”

If you missed it, I wrote an overview of the Math Facts That Stick series over here, including an interview with the author, Kate Snow. I definitely love the program and was so excited to get started using it at  home.

To start at the first lesson in Addition Facts That Stick, you need two sets of 8 to 10 “pieces” of something (I used small legos but you could use buttons or coins, or just about anything you have around the house)  in two different colors and a penny. If you have a hard copy of the book, you will need to tear out the “ten frame” in the back of the book. If you have a digital version, you can print this out. I highly recommend laminating it so that it lasts!

What you need to get started with Addition Facts That Stick

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Math Facts That Stick: An Interview with author Kate Snow

It’s no secret that I am a HUGE fan of The Well Trained Mind Press. We use many of their resources as part of our school day, including Writing With Ease, First Language Lessons, and Story of the World. So when I found out they were releasing a math series, I was downright giddy!  At the moment, addition and subtraction are available but very, very soon multiplication and division will be available as well. Woohoo!!!!!

Addition Facts that Stick by Kate Snow

The series is called Math Facts That Stick and it is written by Kate Snow. It is not a complete math curriculum, it is strictly about fact mastery–so it won’t replace your Saxon or your A Beka or whatever else you choose to use. However, fact mastery is incredibly important and most math curriculum does not set aside time to really focus on it so this is a great complement to any math curriculum. Without it, children are stuck relying on calculators or working painfully slowly through their math exercises. With mastery,  a student achieves confidence and self-reliance. And, it doesn’t hurt that mastery saves a whole lot of time when it’s time to break out the math book! There are four parts to the series: Addition Facts That Stick, Subtraction Facts That Stick, Multiplication Facts That Stick, and Division Facts That Stick.

But it’s not all flashcards and drills. Instead of strict memorization of facts, Kate teaches kids to master facts using strategies and visualizations so that they don’t just recite “2+1=3”, they actually understand what it means from the start. You’ll need a few basic items to get started–a deck of cards, counters for the game boards (we are using small legos), a penny for coin tosses, game tokens of some kind (buttons work!), and blank paper and a pencil.

And if you don’t feel you are well equipped to teach your kids math, I have great news for you! Like most of the other Well Trained Mind Press publications, these books spell out exactly what you should say. It’s like having a “How to Teach Math” cheat sheet in front of you as you work through the strategies and games.

I had the chance to interview the author, Kate Snow, about her awesome books. Here’s what she had to say:

Me: Beginning with Addition Facts that Stick, what ages do you recommend for each book?
Kate: I recommend that parents do one volume per year: Addition Facts That Stick in first grade, Subtraction Facts That Stick in second grade, Multiplication Facts That Stick in third grade, and Division Facts That Stick in fourth grade. However, if your curriculum expects mastery at a different pace, it’s fine to follow your curriculum’s schedule. (For example, Singapore Math expects division fact mastery in third grade, so I’d suggest that Singapore Math families work through both multiplication and division with their third graders.)
Me:  Why are your methods more successful than traditional flashcards?
Kate: Since traditional flashcards rely on rote memorization, it can take hours and hours of tedious drill for children to memorize one set of facts. My approach is to use simple strategies and visual models to help children master the facts much faster. For example, with the addition facts, children only need to learn 6 strategies to master all of the addition facts from 1+1 up to 9+9. They still need practice to become automatic with the facts, but mental strategies and visual models help children become fluent much more quickly (and with less tedium).
Me:. The series is being sold by The Well Trained Mind Press, which is a publisher of Classical Education curriculum. What makes your methods for learning math facts classical?
Kate: In math, classical education focuses on making sure that young children master the essential foundations of arithmetic in the early years of elementary school so that they’re well-prepared for more advanced coursework later. The math facts are a vital part of laying this foundation.
Me:. Which of the math games or strategies is your favorite?
Kate: I heart ten-frames! They’re just a simple grid of 10 boxes, with a line between the two groups of 5, but they’re extremely powerful for helping children master addition and subtraction. Ten-frames allow kids to “see” quantities and manipulative them mentally, and they help kids escape the trap of always counting on their fingers to find answers.
Me:  I have the PDF version of the series, making it easy to print the game boards and practice sheets for use with my child. What is the format for the hard copies of the books? Do parents and teachers have permission to make copies of these pages as needed?
Kate: The printed books have perforated pages for all the games and worksheets, so they’re easy to pull out and use. Families may make as many photocopies as they’d like for use within their own families, and the Well-Trained Mind Press offers schools and co-ops licenses to make photocopies at a very reasonable cost.
Me:. As a fellow lover of math, I have to ask. What’s your favorite number and why?
Kate: 360. I find it fascinating that even with all of our calculators and computers, our GPS coordinates still use a system invented by the Babylonians.
You can purchase Addition Facts that Stick and the rest of the series from the Well Trained Mind Press or from Amazon (Amazon even has a Kindle version!). Check out how it’s going with my four year old in this post!

What You REALLY Need for Classical Conversations Challenge A

You need a lot of books for Challenge A but you don’t need EVERYTHING on the list.


If you look at the CC Catalog and read through the shopping list for Challenge A curriculum needs, you might feel overwhelmed. By my calculations, the total if you bought everything on the list is $1,011. YIKES! I know that the cost of Classical Conversations can be a deterrent for a lot of families and I really hate that because this program is so wonderfully spectacular. So let me break this down for you and help you save some money. I’l also note whether or not you need two copies if you have multiple children in Challenge A at one time.

  • Under “Parent Preparation” there are three books listed. All are worth reading but none of them are absolutely required. Most likely someone in your community owns a copy of each and would be happy to loan them to you!
  • Logic: Of course, in Challenge A, Logic is actually math. CC recommends Saxon math but if you use a different curriculum, that’s OK. No CC representative is going to show up at your door and force Saxon on your kids. Stick with what works!  And even if you do use Saxon, the $200 DVDs are surely not a requirement. The Math Trivium Table is unneeded in the Logic strand and the Trivium Table White Board, while very nice, is not really needed in class–at home I just laminate pastel colored card stock and we use that for math! Most likely, your director will provide white boards for in class use.
  • Grammar: You need the blue and purple Henle Latin books–that is, the Text and Grammar books. I strongly recommend that you not buy the Henle Latin Answer Key. I highly, highly recommend you get THIS ONE instead. It is well thought out, it includes far more answers than the one CC sells and it’s just a great resource. Plus they have fantastic customer service. One of my CC moms ordered the wrong book and they handled it so well for her.  The Latin Workspace A is a nice resource. I originally told my families it wasn’t necessary  but I’ve changed my mind. As the year goes on and we move from just noun charts to adjective and verb charts, it is really helpful to have blank charts ready for you in the book. The Latin Trivium Table is a very nice resource as well but it is NOT needed. If you can spare the $10 for it, get it. But if you are trying to cut every penny you can, you can live without it. You should get each student you have enrolled in Challenge A their own copy of the blue and purple latin books and the workspace. One answer key can be shared. Definitely not needed: Tour Guide: Latin DVD. Honestly, mine are still in the plastic packaging. I never opened them. There are excellent resources online, like Henle Latin Boot Camp on YouTube. And the Cassell’s Latin Dictionary? I’m sure it’s nice to have but I didn’t buy it. The Henle Latin Text Book has a dictionary in the back and that suited our purposes just fine in Challenge A.
  • Research. Honestly, you don’t NEED anything listed under research. We don’t use Lyrical Life Science for any homework assignments or in class. It’s a nice resource for home but it’s not necessary. The Nature Sketch Journal is lovely. It’s set up so that when they draw a picture for their research papers in first semester, they can flip the notebook around so the audience sees the picture while they read the paper. It is set up with blank paper for drawing and lined paper for writing. You can just as easily use a one subject notebook, the kind that is about seven cents at back to school time. But the journal is nice–if you have more than one child enrolled in Challenge A, they would each need their own. The Classical Acts and Facts Science Cards are quite beautiful but absolutely not needed. They are high quality and jam-packed with information but at $23 per pack and 3 packs recommend for the year… they just are not NEEDED if your budget is tight.
The Natural Sketch Journal in use.
  • Reasoning. You absolutely, positively NEED hard copies of It Couldn’t Just Happen AND The Fallacy Detective for each child you have enrolled in Challenge A. Kindle versions are not OK and sharing a copy is also not OK. Your child’s director will be teaching the students highlighting skills using their book. Translation: they will be highlighting and writing ALL OVER their copies of these two books. They need their own new, clean, hard copy. As for the rhetoric trivium table… well, I just found mine last week (at the end of our CC year) and looked at it and said “Hmm. I guess I bought that.” It’s got some nice information on it but in Challenge A we never actually USED it.
  • Exposition. You Need The Lost Tools of Writing. You do NOT need the set if you are not working along with your students. To be honest, even as the director I did not use the teacher book. I watched the videos online (you get access with your purchase) and I used the student book to see what they were seeing as they worked. Just buy your student the student workbook. I also was confused and thought I needed the “set” AND the “student workbook”. WRONG! The set includes a student workbook. That knowledge right there will save you $39! Thankfully I was able to sell the extra student book to another family! As for all the reading books, you need access to them. Maybe you already own them. Maybe they are a dollar for the kindle version. Maybe buying them through CC is easier. It doesn’t matter how you get them, just get them. But don’t rely on the library–if you have multiple CC Communities in your area, chances are the book will be checked out when you need it! Moving on in Exposition, you only need Words Aptly Spoken if you plan to have book discussion with your child. If you trust that your director is covering that in class and you aren’t reading the books, skip that one. If you are directing Challenge A, YOU NEED THIS ONE! Wakeful Words is one that I never, ever used in class or at home. Skip it. And the two trivium tables, as always, are a take it or leave it. They are nice, and they are good quality. But they will not make or break your Challenge A experience.
  • Debate. You need Exploring the World Through Cartography because they have reading assignments in it all year long. However, I highly, HIGHLY recommend using the Draw the World series at home to prepare for blue book exams. It’s a far better resource than the CC book for the actual skill of drawing the world.  There are versions for each continent. If you can afford it, get them all. They are a priceless resource.
  • Other items listed: Blue Book exam booklets are not something you need to purchase. Your director will provide whatever she wants your kids to use for blue books. Personally I gave my kids loose notebook paper and a folder to put it in.  And the student planner is useful but if you find another planner you prefer, it’s totally ok to buy something else. Your student DOES NEED A PLANNER THIS YEAR! One of the major skills learned is filling out a planner and getting it all done.

I hope this list is a helpful resource to you as you make your purchases for the year.  Of course, if your director has a different opinion, always go with what she says. Some directors plan differently and use different items. But this was my experience with directing Challenge A and I hope that it is helpful to others as they shop over the summer to save some money and make the year a little more affordable.

Eight Ways to Prepare for Challenge A Over the Summer

As a Classical Conversations family, is Challenge A on the horizon for your family? Last year, we were facing the transition to Challenge after two years of Foundations and Essentials.  I was also  facing the transition to being the Challenge A director after being the Foundations/Essentials director AND the Essentials tutor. It was a huge change and there are many things I wish I had known a year ago to help me get started.

Over the past year, I completely fell in love with the Challenge program. It offers so much to the students and the parents.  Sometimes I think I am learning more than my students. But I don’t think I was adequately prepared for it at the beginning, so here’s my advice for the next few months as you prepare yourself and your student for an amazing year in Challenge A!

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The Five Common Topics

The Five Common Topics are the key to learning through conversation. It is a fantastic way to move your conversations with your kids past, “What did you learn today?” and getting an answer of “I don’t know” or “Something about coins” to a fully engaged conversation where you get to know your child better and learn together at the same time. It’s something I’ve been working whole heartedly on mastering this past year and I am getting better but still have a long way to go. It is a huge part of classical education but also seems to scare people off. But it’s not so scary at all! It’s about learning to have a conversation with your kids by knowing what types of questions to ask. It also helps you take all your random memory work and knowledge and tie it together–which is the absolute overall point of Classical Education.

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Memory Work: The Foundation of a Classical Education

Confession: Although I’ve considered myself a classical educator for eight years now, I did not come around to the full importance of memory work in elementary school until three years ago. Finally, the light bulb went off and I got it. You can’t skip the memory work and call it Classical.  We did SOME memorization but not enough and honestly, I was overwhelmed with figuring out what to memorize.

Why? Because the very foundation of a classical education involves working with a child’s abilities at each stage. And young children are especially good at memorizing facts. When we wait until high school to ask a student to memorize the countries involved in a war, it’s a lot harder than when ask the same of a seven year old.

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Home-Centered Education

I read a quote awhile back that said something to the extent of the proper way to home school is to think of home as your base, but the education should extend beyond the home, into the community and out into the world as a whole. Of course, I can’t for the life of me remember where I read that quote; I think it was in The Question by Leigh Bortins. But don’t quote me on that. 😉

Anyway, the idea is that home schooling should be home-centered but we should not treat it as a prison that we can never leave. I’ve always worked hard at getting us out of the house to do as many things as possible. Sometimes we just stay home for weeks on end, making our way through math and Latin. And sometimes we have so many field trips and weekend adventures planned that we don’t crack open a textbook at all. You never know what  a week of school will look like around here.

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