School Curriculum Part (2+3=) 5: Patterns and Principles of Numbers

Math. Every kid’s favorite subject.

Or not.

Well I guess there are a few cases out there of children who have a math-loving disorder (that is, they actually love math), but my kids do not happen to be afflicted with any such thing.

Unfortunately. ;p

But hey for the record, I won’t say they hate it either—at least not most of it. Honestly I think some of that is because of the tactile, hands-on way math is introduced in the program we use, and the many games it relies on to teach the facts.

 RightStart Math definitely has its draw-backs. It’s time-consuming, teacher-intensive, and sometimes introduces concepts at a faster pace than kids are ready for. But I haven’t sacked it for another curriculum yet and there’s a good reason for that. 20180416_131548

This program really helps kids understand math. It encourages them to think outside the box and to see the patterns in numbers. It does not rely on rote memory or a list of steps. Instead, different ways of finding answers are explored so that a child is stretched to see the patterns and principles—not just memorize a list of rules.

We spent a year and a half in Level B (which is the equivalent of a 1st grade program), and I plan to spread Level C out over a year and a half as well (2 levels in 3 years). Now while I mentioned that Level B would rate as a 1st grade program, you should know that this is not a traditional math program, and it’s actually quite ambitious. At this level children are taught to add double-digit numbers in their head and four-digit numbers (or more) on paper. They make a cotter tens fractal, learn to use an abacus, construct shapes on a geoboard, and practice symmetry mirroring, as well as the traditional stuff like learning to count change and tell time.

I have not seen a program do a better job at teaching math concepts in a way that’s very relatable and easy to understand. Initially, everything is modeled with hands-on manipulatives, which the program relies on heavily. The core manipulative is the abacus. Students are taught numbers based on patterns of 5 and 10. Until a child is comfortable adding or subtracting without the abacus, it can be used as a sort of calculator to imprint a visual number picture in the child’s mind. I think I rushed Bri through this stage a little bit, which I regret. I think she needed more time with the abacus before we tried not using it, but I was trying to “keep up” with the program.

My mistake.

If you move at your own child’s pace you will get much more out of this program. I’ve had another mom, who was presenting this curriculum at a homeschool conference, tell me the same thing: she wished she hadn’t tried to stick to the program schedule but had moved at her own children’s pace. I decided it was worth spending a little extra time with the curriculum instead of trying to rush Bri through at the (sometimes) mad pace the program pushes. The curriculum itself is so good it’s worth taking extra time to get through (and sometimes skipping over a few things they may not be ready for to revisit them later) instead of switching to an “easier” program.

Bri finished Level B and started Level C shortly before Christmas. So here’s a sample lesson plan, and how we do it each day:

(This is Lesson 94 in the teacher’s manual from Level B, which has 106 lessons)

We start with a warm-up: today she counts by 10’s backwards from 100, counts by 2’s backwards from 20, finds “how much more” (how much more is needed with 65 to make 70? with 39 to make 41?, etc.), and mentally adds some numbers (24 + 24, 37 + 37, etc., but in this case I give them to her as 24 + 20, etc. because we are still trying to sort value places of numbers and sometimes when mentally adding them she confuses the ones and tens places).

Now we move into the actual lesson part. This is where new concepts and problems are introduced and/or new techniques practiced. Many times various manipulatives will be used in the presentation of the lesson (items needed are listed at the beginning of the lesson). Today we only use the abacus and a part-whole circle set to help us understand subtraction by finding the missing addend. 20180416_131818 

The first problem is given: “Little Bo Peep started out with 9 sheep in the morning on the day she lost her sheep. Five of her missing sheep arrived home at 2:00. How many more sheep must still come home?”

We write the 9 in the large circle and the 5 in one of the smaller circles: we know the “whole” amount of sheep Little Bo Peep started with was 9, and we know the “part” that she found was 5. We write the equation as a missing addend equation together: 5 + ? = 9. Now we have to discover what the other “part” is.

We can do this by starting with 5 on our abacus and adding on from 5 to reach 9. So she enters 5: 20180416_131829

Now she enters the remaining beads needed to make 9, leaving a gap between them: 20180416_131838

So now we can visually see that the parts 5 and 4 make 9. She writes this equation down both ways as we stress which is the whole and which are the parts: 5 + 4 = 9/9 – 5 = 4.

After several similar problems are given, a worksheet follows for practice (note that the worksheets are purchased separately from the teacher’s manual). With the book of worksheets, I tore the individual pages out and slid them into slipcovers and kept them in a three-ring binder so they could be written on with dry erase markers and erased. This way I was able to have her revisit and practice old worksheets and practice sheets as we went (and I won’t have to buy a new workbook for Marcus). If you feel you need some proof/documentation that the work was done, just snap a shot of each worksheet as it’s completed and save these photos in a file on your phone or computer.

The warm-up, lesson, and worksheet usually take us 20-30 minutes. If it looks like it’s going to take longer than that I split the lesson up and we do part of it the next day: keeping lesson time short and sweet—especially for young ones—is a good idea. We split our math time up into 2 to 3 short study periods each day. The warm-up/lesson/worksheet is our morning study; during afternoon quiet time I send Bri up to her room with an old worksheet or a simple facts practice sheet for her to complete on her own; then in the evening we will sometimes play a math game.

This math program relies heavily on games…and Bri loves them! We play addition war (we each lay 2 cards down and the person whose cards equate to the higher number takes all 4).

We play addition coin war (when adding two coins became too easy, we added 3 and 4 coins at a time, etc.). 

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When she was learning addition to 10 we played Go to the Dump. It’s played similar to Go Fish, except you are trying to match numbers that add up to 10 (if you have a 7 you ask for a 3, etc.). She would laugh hysterically whenever she was told to “Go to the Dump.” I guess that was funny, lol.

One of the games we’ve played the most is Corners: when you lay a card down on your turn, the two numbers that touch each other must add up to 5, 10, 15, or 20; you then add this to your total score. Throughout the game as the score is kept Bri has to mentally add the numbers in her head. We usually play to 100 points. 

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I laid these out hastily just for the picture.  When I was looking at it later, I realized I’d put a black 4 and 3 together.  Don’t even know what happened.  Oops.  😉

 

As for Marcus, instead of buying Level A for kindergarten I’m using Level B—and just introducing him to the first few lessons which deal with learning numbers and addition facts to ten (the first part of Level B is simply a review of what was taught in Level A). He’s five. So we keep it short and simple—probably 10-15 minutes/day.

So there’s a glimpse into our math curriculum. What program are you using? What have you found that works for your family?

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Gospel Alphabet

Feeling frustrated? Lonely? Disappointed? Anxious? Angry? Discouraged?

There are some days we just need to be reminded of who we are in Christ and what He has done for us in the gospel. I say there are “some days.” Actually we need this everyday–even on our best days! One of the best little books I ever read was A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent. Vincent encourages the reader to recognize and savor the truths of the gospel as we see what they mean for us in a very real and practical sense in our day-to-day lives.

Once during a time of discouragement, my sister-in-law encouraged me to reflect on these truths again by making an alphabetical list of the many gifts God has bestowed on me through His gospel. The bolded words (at least most of them) are the ones I scratched onto a piece of paper and stuck in my Bible a long time ago:

A: I am Accepted in the Beloved, I’ve been Adopted, and I’ve been made Alive to God. When I sin, Christ is my Advocate before the Father.

B: I am Beloved in God. I have been Born again and am Blessed in Christ. He gives me Boldness to enter before God (Hebrews 10:19), and to do what is good (2 Timothy 1:7).

C: I am Chosen. I am also Chastened as a child for my good and God’s glory. I am being Conformed to the image of Christ!

D: I have been made Dead to sin!

E: The gift of Eternal life awaits me.

F: My God is always Faithful to me. He is my Father. I have been Forgiven.

G: Through the gospel, I have received Grace upon grace! I daily experience the Goodness of God. He gives me Guidance as I seek wisdom in His Word. Ultimately, the gospel offers not just the many Gifts, but the GiverGod Himself.

H: Christ is my spiritual Healing. God is my very present Help in trouble, and He has given me the gift of the Holy Spirit. He comforts me with eternal Hope.

I: I am promised an Inheritance with the saints! The Holy Spirit is my Intercessor, praying for me with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

J: JESUS is the center of my gospel hope! Regardless of the evil and injustice of this world, I know that God will render Justice for all His saints.

K: My Father is a King! God shows me His Kindness every day in a multitude of ways.

L: I know true Love in God. He is my Light. His Word is a Lamp to my feet.

M: God’s wrath has been turned away in Christ, and His Mercy freely poured out on me!

N: I am raised to New life—the old things are passed away and new things have come!

O: I have Obtained an inheritance with the saints. My Old man has died in Christ and I am a new creation.

P: I have been Purchased and Pardoned. God is my Provider and Protector.

Q: I am Qualified in Christ to enter the presence of God through His imputed righteousness (Matthew 22:11-14, Jude 24).

R: I am Redeemed and Rescued from sin. I am being Rooted in Christ, and one day I will Reign with Him.

S: I have been Saved from sin, Sealed with the Holy Spirit, and I am daily being Sanctified.

T: The Truth has been revealed to me and the Truth has set me free! I have been Transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13).

U: When I am afraid, God promises me an Understanding-passing peace as I trust in Him and take Him all my troubles. In Christ we get to experience true Unity with other believers.

V: I have Victory in Jesus!

W: I am the Workmanship of Christ, and He is made Wisdom to me.

X: My life has been eXchanged for Χριστός!

Y: God has put within me a Yearning for His righteousness.

Z: There are ZERO charges laid against me—my account is clear in Christ!

Believer, what could you add to this list? 🙂

School Curriculum Part 4: Of Leaves and Lichens

Science!  Brianna tells me this is her favorite subject.  🙂

We’re working our way through the Young Explorer Series by Apologia. Very much based on a Charlotte Mason style of education, this curriculum does not include any tests or formal reviews. Instead, copywork, narration, and journaling are relied on to help the student learn the material—and remember it. 20180325_154558

All the books in this series are written for 1st through 6th+ graders: you can use one science book to teach any/all of your children in this grade range (makes it super nice and saves teaching time if you have more than one child—plus the siblings get to be studying the same cool stuff together).

This series takes an immersion approach to science: instead of briefly sketching the surface while covering a broad range of subjects each year (spiral approach), one subject is made the center focus for the whole year. 20180325_154642

Last year we studied astronomy. This year we are delving into botany. Exploring Creation with Botany is divided into 13 lessons. Each lesson introduces a new topic related to the main subject, followed by science experiments, project and activity ideas, and journaling suggestions (note: this is not all meant to be covered in a mere 13 lessons; rather each lesson is split up over multiple days—generally a couple of weeks). After each short section is studied, narration prompts are given in the textbook. The chapters are as follows:

Lesson 1: Botany

Lesson 2: Seeds

Lesson 3: Flowers

Lesson 4: Pollination

Lesson 5: Fruits

Lesson 6: Leaves

Lesson 7: Roots

Lesson 8: Stems

Lesson 9: Trees

Lesson 10: Gymnosperms

Lesson 11: Seedless Vascular Plants

Lesson 12: Nonvascular Plants

Lesson 13: Nature Journaling 20180325_154125

Every textbook has a corresponding, spiral-bound Notebooking Journal (purchased separately). You have two choices here: the regular Notebooking Journal, or the “junior” version for beginning writers (if your kiddos are still pretty young/in the earlier grades). I bought the junior versions both last year and this year and they include Scripture copywork, coloring pages, more project ideas (and sometimes templates for the projects in the main textbook), nature journaling pages, space for making notes on experiments, reproducible material for making matchbooks and minibooks, references, labeling pages, and a suggested reading list for each chapter. 20180325_154116

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The Journal is a very convenient and attractive way to not only provide extra activities but to showcase the student’s work. However, not wanting to have to buy a separate notebook for each student (they’re around $20/each), I ended up buying My Nature Journal by Cheryl Swope, and having Brianna record her work there while keeping the Apologia journal for reference, but free of markings. 20180325_154405

For Marcus I bought a small, hardcover, blank book set for him to draw pictures in. 20180325_155504

A couple of the little projects we did this year included making a light hut (in which we grew basil), and learning about taxonomy by going through the shoes in my closet and classifying them into the categories of kingdom, phylum, class, and order respectively. As far as the text was concerned, since they are still pretty young I sometimes skimmed/summarized the lesson, using it as a basic outline rather than reading the entire chunk of text word for word (although in other sections we did read it line by line like any other book). 20180325_154722

Nature walks are obviously an integral part of this study course, so we headed out with Backyard Explorer: Leaf & Tree Guide by Rona Beame. After we were well into the school year I came across another handy little reference at a bookstore, from the Fandex Family Field Guides, Trees: North American Trees Identified by Leaf, Bark & Seed. Dozens and dozens of trees are presented with photos and descriptions of their leaves, bark, seeds, flowers, and fruit.

If you are into nature journaling, you may enjoy a closed Facebook group called Charlotte Mason Nature Journaling. Here you can see and share ideas and photos with other fellow nature enthusiasts.  20180325_154304

As we worked our way through the course we borrowed books from the library to go along with whatever we were studying. We watched documentaries—from the library and from our own creation science collection. I also found short videos related to our subject on YouTube.

For instance, when we were learning about the life cycle of ferns, we watched this animated presentation. There are a lot of high-quality videos on YouTube that correlate well with science studies. Often after we read our text the kids will beg for a video so they can actually see the principle in action or pictures/footage of the subject. YouTube is practically limitless here. I’ve even seen my kids sit through very dry scientific lectures on YouTube—and stay more or less engaged. 20180325_154233

As another little fun “extra,” we put together a 4D plant cell anatomy model.

I’m saving a surprise for the kids for the end of the school year: I plan to take them to visit Wichita’s Botanica gardens (30 gardens covering over 17 acres) for a fun conclusion to this year’s botany study. One area—Downing Children’s Garden—is dedicated specifically to children.

Looking forward to it! 🙂

School Curriculum Part 3: Reading and Language Arts

Here’s what we’re using for phonics/reading, grammar, and spelling.  🙂

Phonics/Reading 20180314_155054

We use Phonics Pathways for our core reading program. This is an all-in-one, kindergarten through second grade program-in-a-book. While Marcus is just starting in it Bri is hurrying to finish it up. It also includes simple games (which both of my kids thought were a lot of fun). It’s not divided up into specific lessons; instead you move at the child’s own pace, whether that means completing half a page or two pages/day. There’s a lot of helpful instruction for the parent as well.

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For reading, I have used the Amish Pathway readers with Brianna (Marcus isn’t ready for them yet). Bri started out in the 2nd grade readers this year and zoomed through all of those, then completed the 3rd grade readers as well, so that she has now graduated to other chapter books. She reads a chapter in her Bible each day and has started on the Boxcar Children series.

A site we’ve used for reading and phonics fun is Starfall. I never paid for the full version, but we’ve just used what was available on the free version for a little extra math and reading fun. 🙂

Grammar 20180314_155050

 First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind takes a Classical/Charlotte Mason approach to language study. I think one of the best words to describe the approach used here is “gentle.” Copywork, dictation, poetry memorization, story readings and discussions—as well as the technical side of learning parts of speech, diagramming, etc.—all play an integral part in this language program. Each lesson is scripted for the teacher which makes it very easy to use (books 1 and 2 contain 100 lessons each). Lesson time will vary from child to child, but we probably spend about 10-15 minutes a day with it on average (minus copywork time). Although Marcus isn’t technically at the grammar level of study in these books, he memorizes the poems with Bri. 20180314_155349

It’s easy to teach, easy to use, and we plan to work our way through the whole series of four books.

Spelling

We’ve started with a program called Spelling You See. I love, love, love everything about this program…okay, except for the price tag. It is a little pricey (as in $40+ to $50+ per grade level), but I use these consumable/non-reproducible books in a way that will make them last through every child who will use them, so I feel like the cost is at least somewhat justified (I’ll explain in a minute). 20180314_155457

Copywork and dictation are the foundation of this course. However, its real strength and unique quality lies in its highly visual approach to learning. No tests are ever given or required (though you can do this for your child yourself if you feel it’s a must).

Bri started out in Level B this school year (technically about a first grade level) and it includes two student workbooks, a handwriting chart, and the instructor’s handbook. The books contain 18 lessons each for a total of 36 weeks’ worth of lessons. In the first book, she practiced copying a new poem each week (so in Lesson 1 she copied part of “Jack and Jill” every day for a week). Then she practiced tracing letters and/or writing some words from dictation (week 1 included 3, three-letter words, but towards the end of the first book she was writing up to 15 words/day from dictation, and words with up to 5 letters each). 

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The second student workbook is where she began to really get into the core of the program: color “chunking.” As with the first book, she copies a poem each week. But first, she reads the poem, then gets out her crayons and “chunks” it (we use dry erase crayons on a sheet protector into which we slip her page for the day, so it’s erasable and reusable).  20180314_155728 

Yellow is used for “vowel chunks.” Purple for “bossy R chunks.” Blue for “consonant chunks.” Pink for “endings” (like ed, es, ful, ing, ly, etc.) And so on (initially, only a couple of colors are used as children get practice with the concept). By color coding each of these “chunks” in her poem each day, she is creating a visual memory of the words. The reason this becomes so important (especially later on) is because many English words are not phonetically spelled, and cannot simply be “sounded out.”

So after she “chunks” her poem, she copies part of it (in a separate notebook; I don’t let her write in the student workbook). She then chunks the poem (this time handwritten) a second time before finishing up her lesson. She is then to read what she has written. 

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So read, chunk, copy, chunk, read. That’s the order. Then at the end of each week instead of copying her poem, she writes it in its entirety from dictation/memory.

I can see the program helping her already. When I’m dictating a word in her poem I’ll ask, “What vowel chunk (or what bossy r chunk) did you color in this word?” The light will go on and she’ll be like, “Oh, I colored ‘ou’ in ‘spout’”; or “Oh yeah, I colored the bossy r chunk ‘ar’ in ‘cupboard.’” 20180314_095612

She’s usually able to complete a lesson in 15 minutes or so, depending on how much she piddles. 😉 And most of her lesson can be completed independently, so there’s very little teacher time involved and practically zero prep time with this course (after the 1st book of Level B, that is).

It’s a win-win for Mom! 😉

Around the World in…Four Semesters: School Curriculum Part 2

My son is obsessed with all things maps. If you didn’t think someone could actually love geography, well…

He collects maps the way some kids collect coins or stamps. Family, friends, and acquaintances have supplied him with maps galore, and I’ve bought him a National Geographic book of our National Parks—just because the thing is filled with maps. When a friend sent me a homemade apron made from atlas print material, Marcus went bananas over it.

“Hey! It’s got a map, Mom!”

We’re not doing a formal geography curriculum this year. It’s more like a little bit of this and a little bit of that. To me, geography is a subject that would be incredibly boring in a vacuum, divorced from its bigger (and much more interesting) brother, History. So I tacked some of it on to our history lesson: after listening to our lesson, we simply find the place the events took place in on a globe and/or map, and we might look up pictures of the country on the internet.

Then we fill the cracks in with bits and pieces here and there.

My favorite discovery in this department for this year has been the Draw ____ series. Each book focuses on a different country or continent, teaching you to draw and label it in its entirety, step-by-step. 20180127_130916

I intend to slowly collect the series over time. This year I bought Draw the World and Draw Europe. Bri was able to follow the simple directions on her own to complete both maps. She’s already drawn Europe a couple of times, and I plan on having her periodically get the books back out and draw through each one multiple times as she gets older to help her memorize the layout in her mind.

While I originally only planned to assign a few steps a day, she ended up enjoying it so much she finished a map in one day of her own accord the first time I gave her the book!

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This was her drawing of Europe.  🙂

 

Puzzles are another great way to help kids learn geography painlessly. While we have various geography puzzles, my favorite set would be the Geo Puzzles. What makes these different is the fact that each piece is cut out in the shape of a country, state, or continent.  

IMG_2584 - Copy

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Finally, there’s media/internet. In my history post I mentioned we watch “Are We There Yet?” videos from the National Geographic Kids channel on YouTube.  (Another article I linked to in the history post also lists various other history and geography YouTube channels for kids.)

A couple of websites we use for learning and games include National Geographic Kids, and Ducksters. I also found a closed Facebook group called Learn Around the World which I joined. Members post a potpourri of neat ideas, games, projects, books, etc. related to geography. It’s a fun group to follow, so if you’re looking for ideas in this department join up and check the group out. 🙂

When I was a kid one of my favorite computer games was DK’s World Explorer. Having fond memories of this, I looked it up to see if I could find an updated version for my kids. Sure enough. With few changes, it’s exactly how I remember it. There’s a LOT of geographic information packed into this colorful game. To this day I still remember facts I first learned from it. Good memories!  Screenshot_20180312-151337

How about you, Mamas? What are you using this year for geography?

Dreams

We all have our own plans, dreams and desires.  Especially when we are young.  But we learn very quickly that life never goes exactly according to plan, and we are forced to grapple with realities that do not match our imagined idealisms.  This poem pictures the struggle of accepting disappointment, and learning to gain an eternal perspective as we learn to seek first Christ’s kingdom, rather than our own.

Weaving dreams and making plans,

The ethereal unfolds

In the mind where these stand—

Jewels of desire to behold.

Rich I deem myself to be,

I write my story page by page,

Charmed by lucid fantasy,

And passion of youthful age.

There are no words, and yet,

I know it all, I am so sure;

Dreams of light I’ll not forget,

As though encased in jasper.

On and on the music plays,

The siren song of passion;

Into my future I, smiling, gaze

In such a careless fashion.

Everything is bright and fair,

There is no dreary way,

A frown, a fret, a care—

These things will not play,

Not in my song of songs,

Nor in my visions sweet.

No dissonance or raucous gongs

Will bring desire to defeat.

But then one day—it happens;

From my pleasant dreams I wake.

I sit, awestruck, as passions

A restless roar within me make.

For there they are, my perfect dreams—

Stardust scattered o’er the ground.

The shattered bits flicker and gleam

But to an empty nothingness are bound.

Stepping round the ice cold shards

I survey the dismal scene.

It all came down, this house of cards—

A useless, empty fling.

Then looking up from this cruel turn

To the steel-gray heavens above,

I feel my heart within me burn

And wish for the wings of a dove;

That I might fly above all this—

Beyond the darkness into light

And find a true and steadfast solace,

A rescue from my night.

Pegasus and Scorpius

In their proud courses run;

The glory of great Sirius

Only pales by moon and sun.

Wind and water, waves and sea,

Salty breezes, frozen steppes,

Mighty mountains, ancient trees

And tiny robins in their nests—

All the glorious grandeur here

Of nature flashes through my vision,

As before my eyes appear

Scenes of serenity Elypsian.

Had I the wisdom of the ancients,

The knowledge of Archimedes,

The eloquence of Antony,

Precision of Thucydides…

I could not, with greatest effort

Express the magnitude and beauty

Of the great creation concert

In perfect harmony of key.

Then I ponder, “Who am I?

In all this vast expanse?

Just cells and atoms, nuclei?

Result of random chance?

A speck of nothing on a ball

Flung out in time and space?

Forgotten when I take a fall?

Obscure member of our race?”

No. No I know better.

I have met Him whose name is Truth;

His gift to me is no dead letter—

His Word a comfort from my youth.

This King who made the earth and heaven,

Who rules o’er land and sea,

He stoops so low to reckon

With man His creation…with me.

Not a sparrow falls before Him

But He sees and knows it all.

From His kindness does life stem;

Nothing for His interest is too small.

I am loved and known by Him,

And His promise is to me,

A cup with mercy filled to brim

For all eternity.

Center of the universe I’m not—

That place belongs to Christ.

For mankind’s freedom He has fought,

His sacrifice sufficed.

His kingdom interests are supreme,

They take priority o’er all

Man’s infinitesimal dreams

And plans so trivially small.

He’s working out His purposes

Planned from eternity;

He works all for our good, He says.

In Him we find identity.

Sometimes when all our hopes are dashed

And disappointment all we know,

When plans are swiftly crashed,

And for dreams we get a “No”…

A broken heart may be God’s gift

To raise our eyes to better sights;

The imaginations of our hearts to lift

To much fairer heights.

To break us free from minuscule visions,

To see His bigger scheme;

A greater good to envision,

As we embrace redemptive theme.

As I find comfort in this certainty,

The gray of sky is lifted.

The rays of sun break through to me

And warm my heart uplifted.

Then gather I the stardust bits

Of dreams and plans all broken;

To give an offering that fits,

A sacrifice of love—a token…

To the Lord who lived and died for me,

The God of my eternity.

The World of Astroturf: Media Manipulation and Disinformation

Greeted with a round of applause, five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and reporter Sharyl Attkisson steps into the spotlight on the stage at the University of Nevada.  Screenshot_20180105-132658

Today she’s come to give a TEDx talk on a controversial but timely subject: astroturf and media manipulation.

This author of the New York Times bestselling book The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, comes with a strong warning and admonition to the audience to carefully consider and question everything they see and hear, and even the sources they consider trustworthy.

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She begins with a simple example: suppose you were to read a glowing report about a new drug. Wanting to do a little investigation before you jump on the bandwagon, you do a Google search which turns up a non-profit organization endorsing the product. You check WebMD, Twitter and Facebook, and do some reading on Wikipedia. Everything looks good. You may have come across an article or study linking this new drug to cancer, however you choose to dismiss it because all the “trustworthy” sources scoff at the concerns.

She then asks,

But what if all isn’t as it seems? What if the reality that you found is false—a carefully-constructed narrative by unseen special interests designed to manipulate your opinion?

Here she begins to explain what’s going on.

What is astroturf? It’s a perversion of grassroots, as in fake grassroots. Astroturf is when political, corporate, or other special interests disguise themselves and publish blogs, start Facebook and Twitter accounts, publish ads and letters to the editor, or simply post comments online to try to fool you into thinking an independent or grassroots movement is speaking.

The whole point of astroturf is to try to give the impression there’s widespread support for or against an agenda when there’s not. Astroturf seeks to manipulate you into changing your opinion by making you feel you’re an out-lier, when you’re not…

…Astroturfers seek to controversialize those who disagree with them. They attack news organizations that publish stories they don’t like, whistleblowers who tell the truth, politicians who dare to ask the tough questions, and journalists who have the audacity to report on all of it.

Sometimes astroturfers simply shove—intentionally—so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix, that you’re left to throw up your hands and disregard all of it, including the truth.

She goes on to expose Wikipedia—which she describes as “astroturf’s dream come true”—for the sham information site it is: controlling information, reversing edits, deleting truthful data.

…[T]here was a huge scandal when Wikipedia officials got caught offering a PR service to skew and edit information on behalf of paid publicity-seeking clients, in utter opposition to Wikipedia’s supposed policies. All of this may be why, when a medical study looked at medical conditions described in Wikipedia pages and compared it to actual peer-reviewed published research, Wikipedia contradicted medical research 90% of the time.

(This article explains how Wikipedia has skewed the Intelligent Design discussion on their pages.  The Discovery Institute itself named them “Censor of the Year.”

Attkisson explains that when you come across that non-profit organization (which Google has conveniently placed at the top of the page) promoting that new drug, it may be an organization that’s actually funded by the very pharmaceutical company selling the drug. When you read the Facebook page that gives a glowing description of the drug, it may have been started by a member of a PR group for the very purpose of advertising and promotion while dishonestly pretending to be an “independent” source. And when you consult Wikipedia, you may be reading a rosy review written and paid for by the pharmaceutical company promoting the drug. Your attempts to correct blatant misinformation on these monitored pages may be thwarted, and your edit reversed/deleted within minutes.

Now this doesn’t just apply to drugs, of course. Many political and corporate interests use these exact same techniques (and many others) to skew public opinion, smear their opposition, and dishonestly promote their own agenda. Even government operatives engage in this (see How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations). Attkisson explains that special interests now consider astroturfing even more important than lobbying Congress.

That’s a big deal—especially if you consider that billions of dollars are spent on lobbying every year (for a look at who’s lobbying Congress and how much they’re spending, check OpenSecrets.org).

Awhile back I ran into a perfect case study of astroturf when I came across a recently-created Facebook page promoting Big Ag propaganda. On the surface it looked so sweet and innocent: a non-profit seeking to educate people on food. But readers were blowing their cover in the comments section as they pointed out that this newly-created “organization” was a PR front paid for by a major Big Ag corporation (and incidentally, one reputed for dishonesty, unethical practices, and bullying of whistleblowers).

In the comments section I began to post the links to scientific studies and news articles that contradicted the information they were publishing. I was never rude, and sometimes simply posted the article with little to no commentary.

I soon found myself banned from commenting on the page: they weren’t looking to educate, to discuss, to debate in an unbiased manner; they were controlling the narrative and silencing dissent.

I also noticed that at least one other person commenting with the truth (pointing out that the organization was a paid PR group for Big Ag) disappeared as well. I’ve had to wonder if they also were banned.

That’s a classic hallmark of astroturf.

Major news networks are often complicit in all of this, only reporting stories special interest groups want to hear. Whistleblowers and journalists who tell the truth are often punished rather than commended.

I remember another time crafting a careful response in the comments section to a news piece NPR ran.

They never published the comment. Every time I checked on it it said it was awaiting the moderator’s approval.

Which it never received.

This is the kind of thing that happens to people all the time. If what you have to say might threaten a narrative or agenda you are shut down, shut out, banned…or mercilessly trolled by paid astroturfers pretending to be consumers with “independent” opinions. Many of the major and well-trusted information sources out there are bought, paid for, and controlled by special interests, and are therefore carefully censored.

So how do we recognize astroturfing? Attkisson gives us a few tips:

First, hallmarks of astroturf include use of inflammatory language such as “crank,” “quack,” “nutty,” “lies,” “paranoid,” “pseudo,” and “conspiracy.” Astroturfers often claim to debunk myths that aren’t myths at all. Use of the charged language tests well: people hear something’s a myth—maybe they find it on Snopes—and they instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it. But what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth, and you and Snopes fell for that?

Beware when interests attack an issue by contoversializing or attacking the people, personalities, and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts—that could be astroturf.

And most of all, astroturfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrong-doing, rather than the wrong-doers. In other words, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.

That’s some good information there. I’ve come across many examples of all of these things, but I’ll briefly give you just a couple.

“Quackbusters” are often paid astroturfers. Oftentimes their own credentials are hyped or outright fake. Conflicts of interest are not revealed.

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Take Dr. Stephen Barrett for instance, who started Quackwatch, a site dedicated to attacking natural health therapies, treatments, and doctors while promoting all things allopathy, every article being a “strenuous exercise in confirmation bias,” as it’s been aptly put.

But “Doctor” Barrett turns out to be a “quack” himself. He lied in court about his credentials, as he never actually passed examinations to become Board Certified—he failed the medical board exam to become a psychiatrist, and while he claimed to be a “legal expert,” he had no formal training.

Nevertheless, he’s made a pretty penny by “quack-busting” rather than practicing medicine (he let his M.D. license lapse years ago). This, despite the fact that out of over 40 lawsuits he filed against those involved with non-allopathic treatments and products, he never won a single one.

It was reported that,

In a Canadian lawsuit…Barrett admitted to the following:

“The sole purpose of the activities of Barrett & Baratz are to discredit and cause damage and harm to health care practitioners, businesses that make alternative health therapies or products available, and advocates of non-allopathic therapies and health freedom.”

The U.S. Court system ruled that Barrett and Wallace Sampson, M.D. (another “quackwatcher”) were heavily “biased,” and that based on their conflicts of interest, the money they stood to gain if they won the case, and their lack of actual knowledge of the homeopathic products they were attacking, their testimony “should be accorded little, if any, credibility,” after a California court ruled in favor of a homeopathic company they were trying to sue.

So there’s our Dr. Barrett.

You’ll find a whole slew of “professionals” with similar careers, making their money by trying to tear down and discredit special interests’ competition.

And how about Snopes?

While trying to pawn themselves off as unbiased investigators of facts, the husband and wife team who run this website have no journalistic credentials to their credit, and it’s obvious by reading through their articles that they are anything but unbiased. Their work is often very “colored” towards certain unspoken agendas.

While doing some research into a certain political subject one day, I came across one of their articles “debunking” a certain “myth.” (Despite my skepticism of this site and others, I often read from sites and people I disagree with, simply because I truly want to hear all sides of the story before I make up my own mind about things; I don’t confine myself to an echo-chamber of confirmation bias by exclusively reading sites I like/agree with.)

But looking further into the subject, I soon realized that their whole article was a poorly-conceived line to protect certain interests. I later discovered plenty of evidence to “debunk” their “debunking.” In fact, if their conclusion was simply an honest error, they certainly can’t be trusted to tell us what the facts are—they didn’t look far for them. Because it wasn’t hard to find the truth. But they failed to report the facts surrounding the case; it wasn’t so much what they said as what they didn’t say. Had they actually reported the case facts—available by doing a little more thorough research—it would have turned their conclusion on its head.

Beware the mythbusters and quackwatchers—professional propagandists. Just dig around a little to see who’s buttering their bread…

Adding to the confusion is the fact that there certainly are myths and quacks running around out there—and sometimes the “mythbusters” and “quackwatchers” do nail them (even a broken clock is right twice a day).

Finding the truth in this matrix of alternate reality created by the media is no easy task!

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Why is any of this relevant or of interest to me as a simple wife and mom?

Because I have to make a variety of decisions for my family on a regular basis, and as a consumer I rely on research to help me make those choices. The problem is trying to differentiate between fact and fiction: information and disinformation is readily available everywhere we turn. This affects all of us.

The term “fake news” was nauseatingly misused, abused, and overused in 2017…but that doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist. In fact it can still be found in the unlikeliest of places.

I think Attkisson is encouraging us to be open-minded skeptics–of both mainstream and alternative news and views, to never feel ashamed for questioning “authority,” and to be aware of our times and of the manipulative tactics of those who pull the strings behind the media curtains, but not paranoid or paralyzed so that we’re unable to make sound decisions.

And yeah, it’s probably okay to check Wikipedia for a definition of “skeptic.” 😉