Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Learning Soroban - Japanese Abacus

A while ago I posted about making a homemade soroban for my kids out of a Melissa & Doug abacus. The bead size of a traditional abacus was just too small to be truly effective for my son, age 3. My daughter did alright with a small abacus, but in general bigger is still better with my kids while they are young. It makes the learning more "obvious."

I thought the adapted Melissa and Doug abacus would be sufficient but the design didn't turn out as well I planned, I unknowingly cut the rods too short. Whenever my overzealous son manipulated the beads, he used too much force and the beads would bounce back instead of effectively staying in place against the answer bar. Darn it. 

We started out by using my iphone to teach the kids to count to 100 on the soroban using the Talking Abacus app. They have it for the ipad as well. It worked out beautifully because the kids were able to learn without me standing over their shoulder and I could easily hear how they were doing nearby.

They already knew how to count to 100 from memory, so the app provided immediate feedback. It announces each number when they set the beads. My daughter self initiated some skip counting practice on it, as well. After they learned to count to 100, we then began the Abacus Adventure app (ipad only) which parents on the BrillKids early learning forum had highly recommended.

It was an immediate hit! The kids loved the idea of saving the princess level by level and were motivated to play it. I can actually hear my son on the couch playing Abacus Adventure as I type this, although we do it together most often. :) Overall, I am really pleased with it and it's finally allowed use to make some progress in this subject. It's a little buggy and does freeze up from time to time when the kids get "scroll happy" going up and down too quickly, but they know not to do that now for the most part. If it happens, we have to reboot the machine and it works fine again. 

There are a couple of hurdles we needed to get over for my kids to be successful with this. One of them is the Mental Math visualization levels. They are starting to learn soroban relatively young and while they are picking it up nicely, they are still working on their visualization skills. They are not yet  able to solve all of the problems in their head, which makes the mental math levels a challenge. Not being able to advance through these levels would which greatly dampen their interest until their visualization skills caught up with them. I feared with that kind of stall, they would lose momentum and motivation with it. So to get around that, we utilize the pause button to solve the problem on a physical abacus (with more time and Mom's help if needed), then resume play and enter the answer. We fit in their visualization practice at other times.

However, as I mentioned our homemade abacus wasn't working out too well, and my daughter's cheapie ebay $5 special was too small for my son to enjoy. It's okay, but it fell apart the very first day, no joke! LOL We had to pick up every  single bead and reassemble it with packing tape. At the time when I bought it, I wasn't sure how this was going to go so I didn't want to put out a lot of cash. I liked how the longer rods gave her more room to work, but the edges of the beads are not smooth and it's just very lightweight. It's closer to junk that quality merchandise but it will get the job done for an absolute novice.

So, I went back to the drawing board and took apart our 100 bead abacus, rigged it up with a ziptie, and used that until my brand spankin' new super duper fantastically beautiful teacher soroban arrived from Japan! ::swoon!::

 If I hadn't ordered the new one, I would have chopped the base in half so it layed flat, removed some of the rods (which can be done by wiggling then in a circular motion, and bought a piece of wood to attach for the answer bar. But, I was ready to invest the money and be done with it, and I am very glad I did. And man this thing is BEAUTIFUL! The craftsmanship is just spectacular, I was just in awe after I really sat down to inspect it. At $163, it was much more than I wanted to spend, but it is very high quality. The kids LOVE IT! And I do too. :) Already it's got some minor dings in it here and there from being knocked in the fireplace, etc, but I would rather it be loved and used by my kids then pristine in the closet. I added some adhesive felt circles to the bottom and back to protect it as much as possible. I love that I can stand it up and show both kids at once, but the kids need to lay it down so they don't knock it over. I don't think this is going to help them develop speed by any means, but it is absolutely better for my kids to manipulate at this stage. My daughter could have gotten by without it, but my son is just taking off and I think even passing her now in enthusiasm and skill at the moment. My only regret is not buying it sooner!

It took about 7-10 days to arrive from Tomoe Soroban in Japan and the customer service is excellent. They responded to my question over email quickly. When the kids are ready for an abacus with more rods, I will not hesitate to order from them again. I believe this was the company recommended by SorobanTom, as well.

The second challenge I had to figure out was the issue of the knowing number bonds of 5 & 10 by heart to advance through the levels of Abacus Adventure. A dear BK friend was kind enough to give me some spare cuisinaire math rods she had a while ago, so I dedicated a few of them for use with the abacus. I am so grateful to her for giving them to me because my kids really enjoy them! And I probably wouldn't have had a reason to get them otherwise. I used my label maker and scotch tape to attach them together, and now we keep our big and little "friend sticks" in a ziploc to use during abacus time for quick reference. They are mostly for Owen because Lily has been exposed to the concept of number bonds through more Singapore Math then him, but soon enough he won't need them at all. I think of them as abacus training wheels. :)


Alternatively to creating number bond sticks, you would just use a 100 bead abacus to figure out the "friends" each time. Since mine was rigged up and in use, this was an easy fix. You could also make some homemade out of popsicle sticks or just use unifix cubes. However, I know my kids and those interlocking cubes can be a distraction because they're just so fun to take apart! :)

We have been dabbling in the Nurture Minds workbook but it's a bit slow and my kids are so techy, they seem to prefer the ipad. I am still kicking around getting some instructional  videos to help reinforce concepts, we'll see. Math Genie offers addition and subtraction now, but will release multiplication and division in the next 3-6 months. They were very nice on the phone and said if you get stuck, just email them for coaching/questions as you go. They recommend one lesson a day. We still use Math Secret off and on (and I do intend for the kids to work through the curriculum one day independently, even if it's review at that point) but for the moment our current approach is working well. 

Anyway, that's been our abacus experience thus far. The kids have made such great progress in a short amount of time and the above tools have really helped ME understand this subject and teach them better. Remember, you don't have to be able to calculate 14 digit numbers in your head to teach this....just stay one step ahead. :) 

Happy Teaching! 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Soft Mozart Piano Learning Software

Soft Mozart is a piano learning software program that the kids and I began using last year. Through the use of a Midi cable, you can connect a digital piano or keyboard to your computer and the Soft Mozart program serves as "interactive sheet music."  The notes are registered on screen as they are played by matching up the  corresponding keyboard stickers. There are a variety of other learning games in the program as well.

I have extensively researched all of the piano learning software programs on the market and came to the conclusion that Soft Mozart is the right midi interactive program for my young preschoolers. First and foremost, Soft Mozart uses a "pause and wait" method of note progression which is ideal for small children just beginning to learn. All other midi interactive programs require that the child keep up with the program as the notes are played on tempo. Instead of forcing the child to keep up, Soft Mozart takes the opposite approach and slows down to the pace of the child. This reduces frustration and gives the child as long as they need to be successful in hitting the right keys with the proper note length. The song does not progress until all of the notes are played correctly.

I experienced that even adults can benefit from this feature. A friend of mine who also happens to be a degreed piano teacher and was giving me a few pointers, watched me practice a piece using traditional sheet music. Apparently, I attempted to use the metronome too soon. As a result, I made the same mistake several times in a row without even realizing my own error. She expressed concern that each time I played the song incorrectly, it created a rut in my brain that will grow more and more difficult to undo later. Repetition is how habits, including bad habits, are created. It is better to practice the song slowly and perfectly in the initial stages, rather than on tempo incorrectly. Soft Mozart forces you to play to 100% mastery first. I find the program to be particularly helpful when kids are learning to play with both hands simultaneously as it does not allow them to advance until the right and left hand are working together. My son has recently begun to play Hot Cross Buns and Jingle Bells with two hands, although it requires much effort as he is still learning.

 Soft Mozart also allows students several options to view the staff. The introductory level displays a widened, non-traditional vertical staff with picture cues to be matched to stickers on the piano keys. This is a child friendly introduction to reading notes on the staff. I appreciate that the grand staff is always displayed in it's entirety from the very beginning of the program, giving the user a better orientation of what is happening on the screen and how it relates to the keys. As a student progresses, the staff can then be flipped horizontally, the picture cues can be removed at any time, letter names can be used, and eventually the notes can be displayed as traditional sheet music.

In our house, like many BrillKids parents we had already begun using BrillKids' Little Musician software before we purchased Soft Mozart. Little Musician is a not specifically a piano learning software and does not have midi connectivity, simply because that is not what it was designed for. So comparing the two is like apples and oranges. Little Musician provides a generalized umbrella-like introduction to music, whereas Soft Mozart is specifically created for learning how to play the piano. I mention this so readers are aware that they are not in direct competition and you do not have to choose one or the other. Hellene Hiner, creator of Soft Mozart, shared that Soft Mozart does not conflict with any approach and it can be used concurrently with other programs. For my children, I created a floor staff and modified piano stickers to visually incorporate both learning programs.

I did turn the Soft Mozart staff horizontally very early on (rather than vertically) so that both methods presented the material the same way. However, I am a parent that believes in "layering the learning" solely for the fact that I know this is how my children learn best. For this reason, I frequently use multiple programs and techniques at the same time in all subject areas, although you certainly do not have to. I mention this so that similarly minded parents can know that Soft Mozart is versatile in that respect.

 At the recommendation of an esteemed friend, I ended up enrolling my daughter in local Yamaha classes last June to try them out. We soon discovered that Soft Mozart was not in conflict with the Yamaha method, either. I found that after enrolling in lessons, we actually used Soft Mozart *more* frequently than before. Getting into a daily practice routine is vital and I strongly encourage parents to participate in the Soft Mozart forum if you have difficulty in this area. Regularly reporting to a teacher and/or support group either online or in person will keep you accountable and motivated. For us, local instruction provided this outlet but we would not have been able to progress as quickly without some kind of outside support, either online or in person. The Soft Mozart community members are a wealth of information and Hellene Hiner regularly guides students via forum posts and Skype conferences. I urge you not to let "life get in the way" of your family's musical progress and to take advantage of some kind of support.  For this, the Soft Mozart online community is available 24/7 offered at no additional cost to help you on your journey.

(Note: I was not aware of the Soft Mozart videos that demonstrate correct finger placement until after Lily already learned Joy to the World so there is some "crossing over" in this video. However, that is no fault of hers, but rather mine because I did not teach her correctly to begin with. ;))

Lastly, the interface of Soft Mozart is intentionally designed to be very simple so it can be operated by young children without mouse control. At first glance, it does not look very modern but that does not impact the efficacy of the program. I suspect that with the upcoming "Ipad Generation" of tots, kids are more technologically savvy than ever and mouse control is probably not as much of an issue as it once was, but even so the software does not rule out any child that hasn't yet developed their mouse skills. Everything can be operated with the keyboard alone. I do suggest in future updates that the labeling of levels within the program can be simplified somehow. As a beginner myself, I would benefit from all of the songs being laid out in a more linear fashion, right down to a sequential order *within* each level of difficulty built-in. Do not be mistaken, there are assignments included in the manual, but it would be nice if all of the information was self-contained in the software. 

Early on I made it a "rule" that I would learn to play every song before teaching it to my children. So I am pregressing slightly faster than a 4 year old ;) but progressing none the less as a first time piano learner. Overall, Soft Mozart has been beneficial to my family's musical development and I encourage you to see if it will be a good fit for your family, as well. Free trial available here: http://www.softmozart.com/teaching/how-to-get-started/try-it-for-yourself.html

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching Place Value the DIY Montessori Way

Recently I came across a video from a fellow YouTube Mom who demonstrated the Montessori way of teaching place value through layered cards. So I got inspired and stayed up a little bit late to make a set of my own. I happened to have a few stacks of blank "Word Strips" from the Dollar Tree laying around. They have traditional lines on one side and they are blank on the other. I chose to use the blank side because I figured it would be less distracting. You can cut your own cards from cardstock or posterboard, but I found it to be much easier to just have to cut the length.

Initially I thought about nice they would be if I printed them in color on the computer, used my paper cutter (which is packed away at the moment), laminated them, etc... and then I realized that a DONE project is better than a PERFECT project! So I whipped it out in just an hour or two and while it's not perfect, it's still effective and that's what matters.

I color coded mine in  Do Re Mi colors since my kids are already familiar with the sequence and I figured it would help them remember the order better. The cards weren't long enough for some of the bigger numbers, so I wrote on them first and then used packing tape to tape them together. They are relatively sturdy.

I included a small chart to set next to it to simplify reading the columns. My kids knew some of these already, but not up to a million. We have a spiral flip chart where all of the numbers are already connected, but this way of layering them is just more child friendly IMO. They can see everything at once and grab whatever they need, versus only being able to see one number at a time on the chart.

I measured out two inch lines to create a guide, which I laid next to each card as I wrote on it. It's important that each column is covered up properly when layering the cards so the numbers needed to be sorta-kinda straight and evenly spaced. :)

Here's a link to the original video from YouTube Super Mom EarlyLearningAtHome who inspired me to make these cards. She is sooooo crafty, I'm sure you'll enjoy browsing her channel as much as I do!