Monday, July 15, 2013

Why We Use Saxon Math

On last week's Weekly Report, Tiffany left this nice little request in the comments section:
You mentioned you use Saxon. I have a love hate relationship with Saxon. I would love for you to elaborate on your experiences with the program. Many times I feel that it is behind others. There are so many people who love it. I don't use it a year ahead I just wish I could relax and let go with math choice. 
My original decision to use the Saxon Program was made when I read through The Well-Trained Mind the very first time, back in 2003.  I read the recommendation for Saxon, and remembered that I had actually used a Saxon textbook in my (public school) eighth grade algebra class.

I had been placed on the accelerated math track, due to my sixth grade standardized text scores, so I had started Pre-Algebra in the seventh grade.  I struggled so much with Pre-Algebra, earning B's & C's most quarters, and an A in the last quarter of the year.  I was rather surprised when I was placed in Algebra the next year.

Eighth grade dawned, and with it, ALGEBRA.  I was granted stewardship over my new math textbook for the year--a Saxon textbook.  It was incredibly boring-looking compared to all the other math textbooks I'd ever had before:  no colorful pictures on the cover, no cartoon-y illustrations in the lessons; just the title's letters plopped about on the cover, and black and white text and line drawings inside.  Ugh, Algebra was going to be horrible.

I was wrong, and had my best year of math ever.  The text explained the concepts, and gave me references to the lessons where previous concepts had been taught so I could quickly flip back and refresh my memory on what formulas they were talking about and what certain terms meant.  Sometimes the lessons would review previously-taught concepts, which I loved--it gave me a moment to relax and work on getting better at something I already kind of knew how to do, instead of constantly being bombarded with new concepts.  The lack of pictures of school carnivals and sporting events also helped me to focus on the math.

At some point during that school year, I went on a two week-long trip and had to do my schooling on my own.  For the first time in my life, I had to teach myself my lessons from the books I had on-hand instead of relying on a teacher to give me a lecture.  I actually wanted to work ahead in math when I realized that I could teach myself from the Saxon textbook.  (Of course, the trend didn't continue when I got back to school, because that particular math teacher had a strict "Don't work ahead" policy--the one time she caught someone working ahead (the boy who was sitting next to me), she tore the paper out of his notebook and ripped it up in front of the entire class, threatening to give everyone in the class extra homework if anyone else was ever caught working ahead...that experience is counted among one of the many reasons I homeschool.)  While being careful to not work ahead, I did start relying on my teacher less and the textbook more, to the point of almost completing ignoring her in-class instruction for the rest of the year.  I rocked Algebra.

I was allowed to continue on my accelerated math track, and was placed in Geometry in the ninth grade.  Geometry isn't a difficult subject, but I was back to struggling with math again.  I never used a Saxon textbook again during my school days, and I struggled through every one of my math classes from then on.  I continued to test well, but I hated the subject.  So, when I read the Saxon recommendation in The Well-Trained Mind, I did a mental fist-pump.  It worked wonderfully for me, and I knew it would work wonderfully for my future children.

Fast forward to now, and I understand why people have a love/hate relationships with Saxon.  It does feel like it moves at a glacial pace, the Morning Meetings (primary levels) take forever to complete, and the drills aren't fun. kids know their math.  As I've mentioned in blog posts in years past, I'm not homeschooling my kids to get ahead of all the other kids; I'm homeschooling to give them a thorough understanding of each subject.  Saxon isn't flashy and superbly entertaining, but it is thorough and I just like the progress we're making.

In regards to Saxon feeling like it's behind other math curriculum--I've noticed an exponential improvement in my kids' math scores as we go along.  After the first grade, both Bluebird and Penguin tested at grade-level.  Bluebird tested at one grade above grade level at the end of the second grade, and she tested at two grades above grade level this past year.  (They both test at grade level in the specific area of knowing their math facts, which doesn't surprise me because we just plain struggle with that area of math, regardless of how much time we put into memorizing those blasted facts.)  I don't use Saxon a year ahead, unless one counts going from Saxon 3 in the third grade to Saxon 54 in the fourth grade as being a year ahead.  We've been in that "year ahead" territory from time-to-time, but my kids' levels of understanding (and life getting in the way) have slowed us down to being on grade-level.  If we stay on grade level, we'll finish Calculus in their junior years of high school, and have the option to do calculus-based physics in their senior years.  It's all good.

As I sit here and read over what I've written, I'm struck with the idea that the Saxon Primary-level curriculum is a bear to get through.  It is very time-intensive, and very teacher-intensive.  My kids have been able to do their worksheets on their own just fine, but the Morning Meetings and the actual lessons take a good 30-60 minutes each.  By the end of last year, when I had a student in Saxon 1 and a student in Saxon 3, we were taking at least 2 hours (and usually bordering on 2.5 hours) to get through math each day because I had to work with each child for an hour each.   But the Primary levels are like that in just about every subject--young kids need a lot of hand-holding in the Primary years.

It's too early to tell with the intermediate level curriculum (the lessons are always shorter at the beginning of the book), but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that math is going to become less time-intensive on my part as we get along into the older grades--the text expects the student to become more and more independent as they get older.  (At least, that's what it feels like to me.)

I've flipped through other math curriculums, but I've never felt a kinship with them.  I looked around when Bluebird was having a hard time enjoying math two years ago, but I didn't see anything that satisfied my teacher's heart in regards to math, so I made the decision that we would stick with Saxon and that Bluebird was just going to have to suck it up--math is math, and, as her teacher, I was comfortable with using Saxon.  She fought me these last two years and complained all the time--and one day I realized it had nothing to do with the actual content, but rather the time it was taking.  And, lo and behold, she had the same complaints in other time-consuming subjects.  Hmm.

Bluebird is transitioning very well to the intermediate level of Saxon, BUT...Bluebird has gone through a bit of a change in the past few months in regards to school, be it maturity-wise or something along those lines.  Penguin, who used to be my easy student, has begun exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors I started seeing in Bluebird starting 'round the second grade.  (If that's the case, and it is a "phase" thing, please pray for kids are each two years apart, which means I have six more years of dealing with this "stubborn 2nd-3rd grade" phase.)

I skipped Bluebird out of Saxon 2 because of her complaints that it was too easy, but it was a mistake in that it greatly hampered her in memorizing her drill facts, and the Saxon 3 lessons are longer than the Saxon 2 lessons.  I thought I was liberating her from busy work, but instead squashed her under the weight of work expected of someone much older than her maturity level.  We slowed down and, despite the skip, finished Saxon 3 at the end of the third grade with a much higher level of anger and hatred for the subject than we probably would have had if we had just stayed the course.  Penguin's complaining that Saxon 2 is too easy, but I'll keep her in it and skip the tears and frustration of skipping ahead to longer lessons and still finish Saxon 3 at the end of the third grade.  Math will just be an easy subject that takes little time to do, which is totally fine.  I've learned that the correct response to "I already know this!" is, "Yay!  Easy math day!  Finish up and you'll have extra free time!" I don't let my kids skip piano practice because they've already played their scales before--music, foreign languages, and math are all languages that need to be practiced over and over before a person becomes fluent.  Practice is repetitive, and can be downright boring--too bad, we've all got to do it anyway.

I just have faith in the program, originally stemming from my own use of it when I was in school, and now strengthened as we continue to use it.  As with any subject, it only works if you show up and do the work, and Saxon work can be boring and repetitive, which can make you feel like you're going insane.  One of the reasons I like end-of-year testing is that it shows me, visually, that we are making progress.  That's also why I keep tabs of our homeschooling on my blog--I need to be able to go back and look at where we were a year ago and then look at where we are now and "see" the progress.  The test results and my blog posts assure me that Saxon is delivering a thorough education in arithmetic, which squelches my anxiety when I feel like we're not moving forward.  We are moving forward, in small increments that are adding up each year.  It's working for us, and I feel good about it--so we keep using the program.  :)


  1. Thanks Brooke for this post. I think I am going to stick with it. For my oldest next year he is going into third grade. We still have not finished Saxon 2 we are working until we finish and then will pick up Saxon 3.

    It was great to hear your experiences with this program.

  2. Hmmm, interesting. We were teaching Saxon math my first few years in the classroom and I really did not like it. I saw a lot of kids who were interested in math and number relationships get totally turned off to math by the boredom and the "glacial" pacing. I was very involved in the controversial switch to standards based mathematics in public schools and with that piloted several new programs that had the training of facts AND the fun and interesting exploration of mathematics that kept kids loving it. It was MUCH harder to teach the new way, as it required that the teacher be flexibe and fluid in his/her deep understanding of mathematics, but the scores were better in the long run and the kids still loved math. I can see why people loved/still love Saxon on it's merit's but it was definitely not for me as a teacher and I'm not sure it's the right fit for many students. If you can't tell, I have a few Saxon opinions of my each their own though! :)

  3. I'm so grateful that we live in a time when we get to have so many choices available to us all in regards to just about anything!

    Tiffany, I wish you the best of luck with your boys and math this next year!

    Congratulations, Amy, on your programs! Thanks for taking time to share another point of view. We can only make truly informed decisions with both sides of the story. :)

  4. Cara, I had to come back and re-read your conviction about Saxon Math. I am planning for next school year and last year I decided to switch for our 2013-2014 school year. I'm praying about coming back. I hear 5/4 and up is very different so I'm looking into it. Wishing you guys an awesome school year in Australia!


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