IXL Blues

A few months ago, I was looking for a way to punish my children when they are slack in their schoolwork. I wanted something that would be measurable, tedious and difficult, without taking up any of my time.

Key Parenting Principle: When punishing your children, you should always take care that you don’t punish yourself along the way.

In my search for a corrective tool, I happened upon IXL, an online program providing a seemingly endless variety of math problems at elementary through middle school levels. At the time, the subscription cost was prohibitive, and so I mentally set it aside. It just wasn’t worth $12 a month to me to punish my children — after all, I can punish them for free, most of the time.

Some homeschoolers just cry out for punishment.

A few weeks ago, I became discouraged with my children’s math progress. One problem with homeschooling is that you don’t always know what you don’t know, or haven’t been taught. I noticed that several of my kids seem not to have a solid understanding of some foundational math skills, and it made me sad to see them struggle to learn, when I know it is because we haven’t prepared them properly.

And then it came to me from the mists of my memory: IXL is the answer! Suddenly, I realized that IXL would be the perfect solution to the problem — not as a punishment tool, but instead as a way to fill in the gaps and solidify their understanding of foundational math principles.

Doesn't the logo make you think cheerful thoughts?

As I often do with new, shiny ideas, I jumped on this with both feet. “Let’s sign up Rachel and Daniel,” I enthused to Kathy.

“Are you sure about this?” she hesitated. “They are pretty busy already with school … ”

“They can always make time for this — it will be fun for them! They’ll thank me when they take the SAT and get great math scores.”

Ancient Edgren Proverb: Waiting for your kids to thank you is a good way to build patience. I signed Rachel and Daniel up, and assigned them five sections each day, demanding they reach 100% ‘mastery’ on each skill.

Later, when I saw how much fun it was for Rachel and Daniel, I decided to sign David and Sarah up, too. Sadly, IXL ends after middle-school, and Joshua (the show-off) is taking Calculus. “Maybe they’ll come up with an IXL for Washington State History,” I told Kathy, hopefully. “We could give him a subscription for Easter, wouldn’t that be fun?”

<sarcasm>Assigning five sections of IXL per day was a wildly popular decision.</sarcasm>

Perhaps the coolest thing about IXL is the way they enforce ‘mastery’. In order to get to a 100% Smartscore™, you need to prove to the program that you really understand the skill. As you proceed, the questions get harder and harder, and if you miss one, you are given two or three more questions of the same kind, to make sure you weren’t just guessing. If you don’t make any mistakes, you can finish a section in about 30 problems — but for every one you miss, you can expect three more. In extreme cases, you might find yourself working as many as 143 (I speak hypothetically, of course) problems on the same skill.

Sarah and I dancing together, celebrating the beginning of the IXL age.

Another really excellent attribute of IXL is the way it enforces careful precision and accuracy. As with many homeschooled kids, my children are used to their teacher giving them all kinds of grace and mercy. If they can show that they understand the problem, they can often get away with small arithmetic errors without being penalized.

Not so with IXL — the computer doesn’t care if you cry — if you didn’t enter in the exact, correct answer (with the decimal in the right place, the proper sign, and in some cases, the correct units) then you get no credit for that question. Learning that sometimes there is no ‘give’ in the world is important, I think.

I wanted them to quickly get up to speed, so I told them all to go down at least one grade-level from their current grade. “Do five sections a day,” I instructed them. “You must reach 100% mastery before you can go on to the next section.”

Since there are between 200 and 250 skills for each year level, I figured we could knock off a year’s worth of math in about ten weeks, leaving the summer for their current grade level. I was so excited that this automated tool would solve all our Math troubles.

A graph showing an individual student's progress over the course of a week.

A third feature of IXL really sells it to parents or teachers — the program readily produces reports that show each child’s progress. With minimal effort, I can see how long each child is taking to reach mastery on each skill, and how many skills they’ve finished each day. You can tell which children are skating through the skills with minimal effort, and which are struggling. In less than 30 seconds, I can monitor a whole day’s worth of progress.

It wasn’t more than a day or two into the new IXL program, before the push-back began. “I hate IXL,” one of my children complained. “IXL is ruining my life!”

As it turned out, five sections was a bit of an aggressive goal. While some sections might be finished in just a few minutes, others were taking more than an hour. Sarah, my nine-year-old, was spending an average of two and a half hours a day on IXL alone.

Daniel working on his French.

Tonight, we had a meeting of the mimes, in which I gave each person a chance to speak up about IXL.

Not our actual "Meeting of the Mimes".

I tried to explain my vision for the program, and how it was going to be a huge blessing in their lives, but much of my pep-talk fell on deaf (and in some cases, hostile) ears. Eventually, we came to a compromise: each school day, each of my kids will spend a minimum of 40 minutes working problems on IXL’s website, and will complete a minimum of one skill (no matter how long it takes). Also, I will pay a bonus of $100 cash (or $200 toward Worldview Academy or a short term missions trip) when they finish all 200+ skills of a grade level.

This seemed to cheer most of them up a bit. Maybe in a month or so I will publish a progress report, so you can see who is working the hardest toward Math Mastery.


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No Moh Skin Cancer

As a student at The College of William and Mary, I took Geology 101. The course met at the dreary hour of 8 a.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I was a freshman, and I didn’t know any better during course selection — somehow I thought eight a.m. was a reasonable time for a college class. My friend Eric and I joined about a hundred others in the class, but on cold, rainy Mondays, the number of students would sometimes drop below 50.

The nice thing about Geology was that I could really identify with a rock at that time of the morning. But I must admit, apart from a ‘C’ as a semester grade, I only brought one thing away from the class: Mohs’ scale of hardness.

Moe, from the Three Stooges, not particularly known for scientific advancement, whether geologic or otherwise.

As it turns out, some rocks are harder than others, and a guy named Friedrich Mohs (not to be confused with Moe, of Three Stooges fame) invented a scale to reflect this fact. For example, Talc (a chalklike mineral) is considered to be a 1 on the scale, while Diamond is a 10. The human fingernail is a lowly 2.5, while glass is somewhere between 6 and 7.

Geologist Friedrich Mohs, 1773-1839

I share this important geological ‘nugget’ of information (sorry, just some geologist humor, there) because I was recently diagnosed with skin cancer. After the biopsy results came back, they called me up to schedule me for Mohs surgery. You can, perhaps, imagine my alarm — I had just healed from the biopsy — I didn’t want any mo’ surgery! After the nurse spelled it for me, I began to wish I had worked for a better grade in Geology.

Fortunately, the interweb (or possibly the webernet) is a veritable wealth of information on squamous-cell carcinoma, and the iterative surgical procedure they call Mohs (after Frederick Mohs, no apparent relation to the 18th century geologist) is apparently the favored way of dealing with this particular type of skin cancer, with a 97% success rate.

Frederick Mohs, 1910-2002, surgeon and developer of Mohs micrographic surgery.

Squamous-cell skin cancer is fairly common, with about 700,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States. It has a mortality rate of about a third of a percent, or a little more than three in a thousand.

(Parenthetically, one needs to be careful about research on the interweb. Until today, I was under the impression (based on another website) that the mortality rate was a little over 3%. While still a fairly small chance of death, this is ten times more likely than the other number I read, and it caused me no small amount of consternation, to think that I might actually die from this cancer.)

Anyway, today’s surgery was successful, and the doctor seems to think they got all the cancer, and that there is little chance of recurrence, given the size and depth of the malignancy. But I ended up with a pretty dramatic bandage and wound, which I plan to milk for all the sympathy I can.

You should see the other guy!

It is interesting to reflect on how the prospect of physical death has had a sobering effect on how I view my life. I kept wondering, “What if I’m one of those who die of this cancer? Am I ready to be done with this life? Have I been faithful to God, with the time that has been given me?”

As I mentioned recently in One Month to Live, I am inspired by the story of Hezekiah. Now that it seems to me that I will not be dying immediately from skin cancer, what am I going to do with whatever time I have remaining?

I’m definitely not going to invite the Babylonians over to look at all my treasures.


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Lost Days of 2011 — Vacationing in Fort Clark, Texas

Continuing my ‘Lost Days of 2011′ series, here is another memory that went unchronicled last year. I don’t know what I was thinking, to leave this vacation out!

Perhaps one of the hardest things for my mother-in-law to do last year, was to host us all at Fort Clark without her husband. Mamie has this idea that Bill was ‘the fun one’ and it was a big step for her to let us all come back to Texas in the Summer of 2011, with Grandad having died in February.

Still, how could it be Summer without a week or two in Texas? So many of our best and happiest memories are rooted in that place — we were thrilled that Mamie agreed to let us all come.

David and Sarah, beating the Texas heat with a shared water bottle

With the seven of us, Dan and his three, Aunt Stephanie, Jenn and Logan, and David R. thrown in for good measure, it was a large, silly crowd. Mamie was a very good sport to put up with us all, and to be ‘the fun one’ in her own right.

"Houston, we have a negative on escape velocity."

As usual, we spent many days at the football-field length pool, playing games and making ice-cream pilgrimages to Pico’s in the evenings. But we also went bowling, launched water balloons, and geocached as well. It was a fun-filled visit, with lots of cousin-time and opportunity to rest and relax.

Aunt Stephanie is very intentional about connecting with each of our kids -- she is a Great Aunt!

It was strange to be there without Grandad. I tried to go for lots of golf-cart rides, and I even read a couple of Louis L’Amour books (just to get into the spirit of the thing) but we very much missed his larger-than-life, boisterous Grandad-in-vacation-mode persona.

We tried to 'round up the usual suspects', but all we found were these people.

We missed having Phil and Emily there, but it was good to have some time with Jenn and Logan. One of the best things about Fort Clark is that you seem to have plenty of time there — the slow pace demanded by the heat is a welcome change from our busy lives.

Logan was well-loved by all his cousins, and Jenn's kindness and sense of humor were greatly appreciated.

Thanks to Aunt Kate and Uncle Jerry, who let us stay at their house, we had plenty of room to sleep and play games. They have been so kind to us, over the years, and I often worry that we are not sufficiently thankful. This year, I had the idea that we could each write a thank-you note to them each day — it turned into quite a pile of mail. I hope we didn’t irritate them more than we communicated our thanks.

Kathy never quite gets enough time with her family.

As a parent, I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing my children interact with their cousins. There is something particularly special and precious about a close relationship with a cousin — that bond of blood seems to establish a level of trust that isn’t found in any other relationship.

Only their mothers can tell them apart.

Truly, an unforgettable Summer vacation. Thank you, Mamie, for letting us visit you at Fort Clark. Thank you for being brave and doing it without Bill.


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A Quiet Sunday Afternoon

With Kathy and Rachel still away in Michigan, our Sunday afternoon had a bit less structure than usual. Kathy often comes home from church with a bee in her bonnet, as it were, to ‘get some stuff done before the week starts’.

I, on the other hand, view Sundays as a day of rest, especially after teaching Sunday School, which always takes a bit out of me. I’m usually thinking in terms of:

  • A nice lunch, maybe grilled sandwiches
  • Some good computer-game playing
  • A read-aloud (these days we’re working our way through some of Tolkien’s work, courtesy of Joshua)
  • Pancakes or other breakfast food for dinner
  • A family movie

Cats know how to get the most out of a Sunday afternoon

Sarah asked me about the ‘meetings’ we’ve been doing with each child, lately, on Sunday afternoons. “We can’t MISS a week, can we?” She sounded rather plaintive — Sarah really enjoys the focused attention of her parents.

“Nope — can’t do it without Mom,” I assured her, breezily.

After a couple of us got back from helping some friends move from one apartment to another, Joshual and Daniel worked on their school, while David and Sarah amused themselves with the dress-up chest. Joshua did read us a chapter from The Fellowship of the Ring, but mostly we just snacked on leftovers and played computer games. The younger set watched Cars 2, and I logged in some serious hours on my new Civilization V game. It was a good Sunday.

Charles and Margaret paid us a brief visit.

At some point, preferably BEFORE Kathy gets home, someone is going to have to do some dishes and laundry. But the sink faucet is broken again, which makes things a little tricky with respect to washing dishes. Or at least, that’s my excuse.


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French Dinner with Daniel

As part of his French class, Daniel must occasionally engage in the production of special cultural projects, to enhance his understanding of French culture. Past projects have included:

  • Making a map of our neighborhood, with all the landmarks labeled in French
  • Watching a French movie — Les Choristes
  • Taking a picture (and labeling it in French) of our living room
  • Writing a report on how Christmas is celebrated in France

This month, Daniel was given the opportunity to do some French cooking. My suggestion of French Fries wasn’t received favorably, for some reason. Daniel looked over the list, and settled on crepes.

At first, I was inclined to sneer a bit. “It’s just a pancake with a French name,” I said to myself. But when he started to add the Strawberry Jam, Nutella and Cool Whip, I changed my tune.

Some school projects are a lot more fun than others.

“Say, Daniel,” I hinted, in my best wheedling voice. “Do you need me to try that, just to make sure it is OK?” No, for some reason he didn’t need my help — I had to make my own with the dregs of his batter.

It was a delectable dessert, and I took back my sneering. Of course, not many things aren’t made delicious by way of a liberal coat of Nutella. Well done, Daniel!

As the day wore on, David asked me, with his characteristic tact, “So, Dad, what are we doing about supper?”

I haven’t scored a lot of points as a short-order cook this week. “Fend for yourselves,” has been my rallying cry, as I headed off to work in the city. We’ve gone through all the Chimichangas and most of the burritos. Happily, I was able to report that one of Kathy’s dear friends was bringing dinner. The cheering was a bit deafening, and rather insulting.

We were all still hungry enough to devour Michelle's delicious beef stew, in spite of the crepes.

The stew that was provided was mostly steak, with a few token carrots and potatoes thrown in for color — just the sort of stew that a houseful of boys appreciates. Kathy’s friends sure are good to us — thanks, Michelle!

I decided not to display the Cookies & Cream Ice Cream Cake because, well, we haven’t finished it yet. Besides, we’re not accepting any visitors until we do a little cleaning in the kitchen.


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