Stan Schmidt's philosophy of education is centered on the interrelatedness of all knowledge. His math books are famous for their comedic storylines that bring together information from many disciplines, using disparate facts to present unified instruction in everything from fractions to geometry to calculus.
His new Life of Fred Language Arts Series seeks to do the same for English grammar and composition. The four books follow the adventures of Fred (the five-year-old math genius hero of the Life of Fred math books) as he moves to Australia from the United States to teach English to the native population.
As Schmidt says in the preface to the first volume, he doesn't teach English, he teaches kids. This sums up his approach, and also prepares readers for what's to come (i.e., more than just English instruction). He also claims you'll learn more English in this course than you would as a college English major.
How Do These Work?
There are four books altogether, each with 19 daily lessons of about four pages each plus a "Your Turn to Play" exercise section for the student to complete. Schmidt advises students to complete all four books each year of their high school career (that's all 76 daily lessons four times in four years) to fully internalize the information.
Each book is a story carrying a single narrative throughout the series. Schmidt's trademark zany humor is in evidence here, though not as strong as in the math books. He employs black and white illustrations, graphs, charts, different fonts, and other techniques (gimmicks?) to help students not only read but visualize the important bits (and some bits that aren't important).
Students are to work alone, reading the lesson and completing the usually brief exercises. Answers to all questions are included in the book, but kids shouldn't read the answers till they've at least attempted to answer the questions on their own. Most questions draw directly on material from the books, though some refer to implied rather than explicit content.
Topics include the seven parts of speech, rhetorical modes, punctuation and capitalization, diction, Communism, tense and case, and much more. Did we just say topics include Communism? Yes, yes we did. Schmidt's attitude toward the integration of knowledge leads him to make sometimes off-the-wall comparisons and illustrations, but they're usually effective.
By employing a story format, instruction is organic and unobtrusive. Kids encounter the essentials of grammar as part of a larger framework that provides context and ready examples. Presumably, this also makes an often dry and boring subject fresh and interesting, if not actually exciting.
Our Honest Opinion
The Life of Fred Language Arts Series follows the same general format as Schmidt's math books. The course is student-directed, and relies more on the interesting format than activities or review for instruction. Kids will enjoy reading about Fred and his strangely normal-yet-abnormal antics that Schmidt manages to make interesting and funny.
Schmidt claims that students will learn more from these books than they will as college English majors. That's a somewhat dubious claim: it obviously depends on the college, but it's hard to believe students will learn less in four years of advanced study than they will here. There's certainly some content that other high school texts ignore, but that doesn't substantiate his claim.
Besides, the content that is here isn't systematically presented. Schmidt brings stuff up as it makes sense to the story, and there are not only gaps, but students also learn about litotes (a rhetorical device) before they learn about transitive verbs and case (for instance). Some more organization would be very helpful, as would more in-depth coverage.
More than in his math books, Schmidt seems to have forgotten who his target audience is. Much of the content is middle or high school level, but the story and writing style are much better suited to younger readers. Many older students will lose interest in a story that talks down to them.
These are fun books and most of the important stuff is covered, but we feel it isn't sufficient for high school. Students need more than just random nuggets thrown at them haphazardly, even though that approach is probably more interesting. A good plan might be to have kids complete this course in 8th grade, before moving on to Analytical Grammar.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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