Slow Workers

I usually blog when I feel like I have some insight or great resources or about our process, but this is none of those things. It’s more of a vent or a confession or maybe just a reluctant acceptance.

My children are incredibly slow workers. I’m talking snail’s pace here. Ten math problems can take the whole math time. A short dictation passage can take us half an hour. A ten minute freewriting time is inevitably twenty minutes minimum. We are just slow.

I would like to put a nice spin on this and tell you that my children are deliberate and thoughtful. Or I’d like to be able to say that we are slow, but diligent. Or… something. And while sometimes Mushroom and BalletBoy are being thoughtful or diligent, sometimes they’re just slow for no apparent reason.

Or maybe it’s for a million little reasons. Doodling, wanting to jump on the trampoline, doing school next to your kitchen, eating your Cheerios while you do math, listening to your brother do his piano or watching your mother sweep the floor. Plus there’s Mushroom’s anxiety, telling him he can’t get things done. Or BalletBoy’s annoyance when Mushroom gets anxious. There are too many little ways that everyone gets derailed just little by little.

In the end, it’s okay. I keep us on track. I give everyone a break, I alternate between seat work and movement, I feed everyone gum or snacks to keep us alert. We manage to accomplish most of what we need to accomplish. I have no idea what my poor children will do when they meet a timed test, but for now, I guess the biggest problem is just that school takes a bit longer.

And I just have to accept that.

When I went to look for a picture of "school" from the last couple of weeks, this was actually the only one. It's BalletBoy giving Mushroom a huge after he got frustrated with something. I guess if this is the sort of school delay we have, then it can't be all bad.
When I went to look for a picture of “school” from the last couple of weeks, this was actually the only one. It’s BalletBoy giving Mushroom a huge after he got frustrated with something. I guess if this is the sort of school delay we have, then it can’t be all bad.

Cobbling Together Math

I thought I’d write a little bit about Mushroom’s math approach this year since we’ve moved away from using any one program. BalletBoy is using Math in Focus 5 with a little bit of extra word problems from Ed Zaccaro’s Upper Elementary Challenge Math and Fan Math’s Process Skills in Problem Solving thrown in. However, I have to admit that I’m having massively more fun teaching Mushroom.

I think math is the one place where a lot of people are afraid to move away from using a central text. Even some families that otherwise unschool have a single math text that they work their way through. I totally get that. There are many great math programs out there and while most of us do have elementary math pretty well mastered enough to teach any topic cold, remembering exactly what all those topics are in a logical order and making up practice problems is a huge amount of work compared to subjects that are more content based, like history, or more spiral, like writing. Forging your own way with math definitely isn’t for everyone.

However, since we finished Miquon Math nearly two years ago now, Mushroom hasn’t really found a new “math home.” He’s always been my more fussy math student. He needs a challenge, but he isn’t a math whiz exactly either. He likes math to be thought provoking and finds algorithms too easy, but he has also struggled to memorize his math facts and master word problems. He’s a tricky student to be sure. My goal for this year was to have him ready for pre-algebra at the end of the year. With that in mind, I knew he needed to practice more with fractions and decimals, learn about ratios and proportion, cover elementary statistics concepts like mean, median, mode and range, learn about percentages, introduce integers, and continue to work on fluency with math facts, geometry concepts, and converting units of measurement. However, no one program seemed to meet his needs, so I’ve put a bunch of stuff in a blender for him.

I know that a lot of people feel nervous about throwing math together and I admit that I was in that category just a couple of years ago. There are a lot of cries that things will fall through the cracks, which is, admittedly, a bigger problem in math than other subjects. However, this kid, with his need to alternate between easier and harder resources, just seemed to cry out for it and I’ve gotten much more comfortable with it as we’ve done it more and more. I still wouldn’t want to be in the position of making math up from scratch entirely. But I’m a lot less worried about “missing something” than I used to be. Overall, I think math can be done this way, the way many of us throw together science or history or writing pulling from lots of different idea books and resources.

Here’s what’s on Mushroom’s plate in alternating servings:

Beast Academy
We continue to adore this program. If you don’t know it, it’s a program intended to be challenging to encourage “mathy” kids made by the same people as the Art of Problem Solving textbooks. The textbook is a graphic novel featuring an assortment of “little monsters” who attend Beast Academy. It tells ongoing stories of their friendships and classes. The story isn’t much, but the characters are actually very strong, which is pretty amazing for a math textbook. And the math it covers is incredibly deep. In the practice book, there are simple problems that lead into tricky ones and there are lots of clever puzzles. I fervently wish that we could have used it from the start to the finish, but the program is so new that the books simply haven’t kept pace for us. Still, there are things to learn in there for him. Mushroom just wrapped up using parts of 4B and 4C is due out in a few weeks. We may go back and use a few pages of the division section in 4B. It’s a good illustration of how the Beast books are now both remedial and challenging for him and therefore why we continue to use them but why they can’t be his only program. On the one hand, the explanation of long division is something he’s way beyond. On the other hand, there are divisibility tricks he could use more practice with and some good practice problems, such as with division and variables.

NCERT/CBSE class 6 Mathematics book MathematicsNCERT Mathematics
Haven’t heard of this program? It’s the national textbooks of India, which you can find free online. They have many different texts online, including social studies and English, but it’s probably the math program, which goes from first through twelfth grades that would be of potentially the most interest to American homeschoolers. Indian grade levels do correspond roughly to American ones, so that’s simple enough. There are some differences in terminology, but so far the ones we’ve encountered have been pretty minor, such as “Highest Common Factor” instead of “Greatest Common Factor.” The one big thing to note is that the Indian math system places commas in different places, but it’s not too confusing. It only took Mushroom one double take to get it (if you’re interested in Indian math notation – because who wouldn’t be! – this is a great quick explanation). Of course, there are also cultural differences such as Indian names and food mentioned in word problems. Just the other day, Mushroom had a problem that was about how many runs per over Arup had. It wasn’t until he had solved the problem that it suddenly dawned on me that it was talking about cricket. In any case, we’ve mostly found this small cultural encounter more charming than confusing so don’t let it deter you.

We never used the elementary program, called Math-magic, though it looked really cute. I started trying out the sixth grade text with Mushroom this year. I love the presentation. The text is written to the student in a narrative that isn’t too talkative but also isn’t so technical that it’s not engaging. There are “Try this” examples of easier problems explained in sidebars as you read about the concepts. Then there is a short set of exercises to practice the concepts. The problems are very well constructed such to help students understand the concepts. The whole presentation is really based on a less is more approach, with an in depth text and a minimal number of practice problems. Overall I’ve been extremely pleased and we’ll probably pull some more chapters. If anyone is looking to use these as a supplement, the upper level books all end with a short set of brain teaser math problems that could be a good resource.

Key to Math
This set of workbooks is, in a way, the opposite of the sort of math I usually gravitate toward. These do introduce concepts, but they’re really about mastering algorithms more than understanding and thinking deeply. However, sometimes that’s a useful thing to practice division with fractions or decimals. These are an easy resource and have been useful for me to pull from when we need something simple for practice. They’re flimsy, thin individual topic books with a nice, simple design.

Middle School Math with Pizzazz
This is an older series of workbooks which you can easily find online. They’re not a full program, but rather practice pages for specific skills. The answers always give clues to a joke. The jokes are all groaners, but in a sort of good way for kids who appreciate puns. I’ve been pulling some practice for fractions and ratios for Mushroom from these. They’re a really useful free resource.

Review Math
I wanted to do something else focused on practicing and getting algorithms down. I specifically wanted something that was mixed review and not many problems that it wouldn’t be a very quick thing for just a couple of times a week, so this is what I found. There’s so many resources out there for review math so I don’t necessarily think this one is the best, but this one suited us. We’ve been using the sixth and seventh grade review pages mostly.

Upper Elementary Challenge Math
This Ed Zaccaro book is all word problems intended for this age group. Problems are in four levels, from warmup to genius. Each topic has them grouped twice, once by the type of problem and once by the level. It’s a nice flexibility, and like all the Zaccaro books, it’s a challenging, solid set of problems.

Fun Stuff
Both Mushroom and BalletBoy have been doing math projects for school (more about those in a future post). Our biggest math projects have been the playgrounds we designed and the giant object they made, both of which explored ratios and measurement, however we’ve also done tessellation projects and a few others. And as always, we continue to read living math books. We’re slowly working our way through the Murderous Maths series. Savage Shapes was by far the favorite here and we’re planning to tackle Do You Feel Lucky? in the nearish future in conjunction with studying a little bit of probability. I’ve mostly been scheduling these topics for Mushroom and letting BalletBoy tag along.

Revisions

BalletBoy has been writing up a storm lately. First there was a long story about a boy who traveled in time and literature to a mash up of Robin Hood and King Arthur. Then he got excited about sequel where the boy ended up with the Greek gods (though that one didn’t get finished). Next, seeing a 250 word spooky story contest, he knew he had to enter and immediately sat down to write something scary.

Well, it was scary. It was genuinely creepy. The main character finds himself in a creepy house while trick or treating. At first he thinks the doctor and nurse are just costumes and the lab is just decoration, but after seeing the patient seem to die on the table, he starts to think it’s real and makes a run for it. Two years later, in the hospital with a broken leg, the same nurse shows up. It leaves on a creepy, the nurse might be murder him right in the hospital cliffhanger.

I could never have dreamed that up in my wildest nightmares. But kudos to BalletBoy for such a spine-tingling horror story. Everyone in the house read it and agreed. It was actually a little terrifying. We heaped him with accolades.

“So let’s send it in!” he pestered me.

“Can we revise it?” I pestered back. “Great writers all have editors. They all revise.”

“But it’s good. You said it was good!”

“It’s excellent. But it will be even better once you revise it.”

He pouted a little but agreed and we set to work. This has been the biggest block for him. That’s pretty normal and I’m not upset. But I also want him to see revision as a normal part of the writing process and something that you just do. I showed him pages I’ve gotten back from my writing group, covered in notes. This is what professional writers get back too, I explained. He perked up a little.

I typed up the story and fixed the few spelling errors and mechanics issues. There weren’t many and he’s fine with me correcting that stuff. Then we printed out.

He chose a green pen for me and with the exception of two rewording suggestions, I just covered the whole story with questions. What was the main character thinking here? How was he feeling there? Why did this character do that? What did this look like? What did that sound like?

He chose a red pen for himself and went through it answering the questions that he wanted to answer. This is what it looked like:

story revisions

We took turns typing up his changes. And voila. He had a really solid story with more detail and therefore creepiness than when it started (he did have to cut it for the contest, but that’s another story). And even better, he felt really good about it. No tears. No anger. We’ve tried doing revisions together, we’ve tried cutting things apart, we’ve tried sticky notes, we’ve tried a few things, but overall this method of questions all over worked really well. Hopefully we’ll be able to use it again.

Focusing on What We Did (not didn’t do…)

Here are some things we did on Friday:

  • Learned about Malala’s win of the Nobel Peace Prize, watched a couple of mini-documentaries about her, discussed how different education and gender issues are around the world and how lucky we are here.
  • Talked a bunch about upcoming projects we’d like to do and decided on designing houses and then writing our own choose your own adventure stories.
  • Watched a documentary about the Antikythera Mechanism.
  • Walked up to buy Mushroom a new notebook and let the kids buy the Husband a birthday present they wanted for him.
  • Drew pictures of steampunk machines for our ongoing steampunk project.
  • Mushroom learned to play Minesweeper for the logic puzzles in Beast Academy 4B.
  • BalletBoy answered silly dictionary questions from If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How to Write You’ve Gotta Have This Book then wrote several of his own by playing with the dictionary.
  • Mushroom finished reading the Indian math text on ratios.
  • Everyone practiced piano really loudly.
  • BalletBoy took three breaks to work on a new idea for a Scratch project that he recently dreamed up.
  • Mushroom ran all his lines and songs for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
  • BalletBoy stretched for ballet and pestered me to find out if his Nutcracker part had been emailed (he’s going to be a Party Child and a Ginger Snap, by the way).
  • Comforted the cat, who was very ill and hiding in the downstairs bathroom (he’s doing better now though!).
  • Went to play Dungeons and Dragons in the afternoon with friends.

Some things we didn’t do on Friday:

  • Spelling. No one did their lesson in All About Spelling.
  • Math. Mushroom may have done all of his, but BalletBoy barely did two pages of his and it involved a lot of melodramatic complaining. Most of it lighthearted, but still. It’s just subtracting fractions. You don’t need an hour to do ten problems. Except apparently you do.
  • Writing. BalletBoy got to his writing. Mushroom managed to avoid it.
  • Chores. They were supposed to empty the dishwasher and take out the recycling.
  • Reading. No one got to their nonfiction reading.

It’s all about focusing on the good stuff, I think. Otherwise, I might go crazy on a daily basis.

How I Raised Good Museum Goers

We recently took a trip to Niagara Falls, where we took an extra day to head to Toronto. Partly we just wanted to see Toronto since none of us had ever been, but the main thing we ended up doing was spending most of the day at the Royal Ontario Museum, which we all agreed was pretty excellent. I promise you that even with a water park in our hotel, a giant gushing waterfall to view, and a pile of vacation sweets to enjoy, that museum was one of the highlights of the trip for my ten year olds.

Having kids who think that way is partly just luck, but most of it was that from a young age I was determined to end up with museum lovers. I think I obviously did something right on that front, so here are some thoughts on getting kids to enjoy museums.

miles in the louvre
BalletBoy chilling in the Louvre.

Even Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Enjoy a Museum

I never shied away from taking my boys to museums, even when they were three or four. I don’t mean children’s museums or science centers (though we did plenty of those too), but real art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. I just always expected that this is something that they would do and I never thought to myself, that museum is not appropriate for kids. That doesn’t mean I didn’t also accommodate them by carrying them sometimes, taking lots of breaks, coupling museum trips with treats, and so forth. However, the expectation that art was interesting to see was always a given and I never undermined that by being hesitant about presenting it to the kids. I’ve seen a few parents approach museums with the expectation that the museum will be a failure for the kids, because they don’t think kids will really find the museum interesting. Of course my kids were occasionally bored too, but they also never got the signal that it was normal to find art and artifacts boring, because I actually don’t believe that’s true.

Join Every Museum (If You Can)

One of the things that most people can’t replicate that we did right was simply exposing the kids to tons of museums all the time. Living in Washington, the land of free museums, makes this massively easier for us. We did join zoos and science centers and children’s museums, but if we lived somewhere else, I would have joined the art museum and historical society museum if those were available as well. Obviously putting down that much money for museum memberships isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, being able to go to museums often enough to have a membership pay for itself is really important to raising a museum goer. Kids don’t learn to become museum lovers by going to the museum once a year. It takes lots of visits.

Mushroom imitating Thutmose at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Mushroom imitating Thutmose at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Half an Hour is a Solid Museum Visit, Really

That brings me to another point. When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, it wasn’t unusual for us to be in a museum for less than an hour. When you’ve got your museum membership (or visit a free museum), it’s easy to dip in for a short time. A short visit helps the trip be all positive. It never allows it to get to the point where the kids are melting down and sick of being there. Instead, you leave while everyone’s happy after seeing just one thing that you really focused on. Trying to force a visit to last all day to get the most out of going into town is understandable, but for younger kids, I don’t think it really pays off.

Engage, Discuss, and Model

When adults go to museums, they often wander quietly from room to room, reading the little plaques and interpretive displays and only occasionally chatting with each other. I’ve seen a few parents try that approach with kids, but obviously that isn’t going to fly, especially not for younger kids. I think the only way to get kids engaged is to show them what engaged looks like. So when we’re at museums, we talk quite a lot. I ask them questions, I tell them what I’m thinking, I encourage them to ask questions. Basically I’m modeling what’s going on in my head as I view the art or artifacts. I read the interpretive text aloud to them. I model excitement and interest. When they want to show me something, I let them take me off to another part of the museum. If we meet a docent or volunteer, we ask questions and I model listening and being interested. They’re still kids. Sometimes they lose interest, but usually this approach works and they want to be curious as well.

Take Advantage of Museum Programs

Storytimes and other children’s programs are so invaluable. We’ve been really lucky to have the National Gallery of Art programs at our disposal. They do two amazing programs for different ages. For younger kids, they read a picture book, discuss a painting, and make a small craft. For older kids, they spend an hour discussing a single work or art. However, when Mushroom and BalletBoy were younger, we enjoyed many other programs at the other museums we visit. Hearing other people talk passionately about art and history is really good for kids to see it’s not just their parents.

Couple Museums With Fun Experiences

We do this a lot less now, but when Mushroom and BalletBoy were very young, a trip to a museum was often coupled with stopping to have a cookie in the cafe or getting an ice cream on the way home. Or after the museum, we would stop at a fountain to splash or take a ride on the carousel. Or we would meet friends and let them run around outside after their time in the museum. It wasn’t a reward exactly, but rather it was an acknowledgement that doing something fun and easy after doing something that required a little more focus and restraint helps make a positive association. Now my kids are old enough that they don’t need a special food or to see a friend in order to enjoy a museum trip. However, I’m sure that those earlier treats helped them think of even the “boring” trips as something worthwhile. It helped train a good habit of enjoying museums.

Sketching at the National Gallery of Art.
Sketching at the National Gallery of Art.

Bring a Sketchbook

Bring a sketchbook and pencils and sit and draw. Don’t be afraid to sit on the floor like the artists in a museum. And don’t be afraid to let a younger child do this as well. Obviously don’t give a preschooler with a penchant to mark on everything a Sharpie in a gallery, but most kindergarteners are old enough to handle the rules. We’ve done this several times and it’s always really rewarding and lets us look more closely at the art.

Read a Book There

We don’t do this often anymore, but in the past we have several times brought and read picture books in the museums, right in front of the art that it applies to. There are tons of biographies of artists you could read aloud. The Katie series by James Mayhew and the Anholt’s Artists series by Laurance Anholt are two light art story picture book series. If it’s a history or natural history museum there are other possibilities as well. There’s something really special about sitting down in front of a painting and reading a book that features it or explains it.

Make a Game of It

Finally, I learned early on that scavenger hunts and other such find it games really help engage kids when they’re younger. Some museum have such scavenger hunts set up already for kids (occasionally with small rewards). Sometimes you can use the brochures at the desk as a sort of scavenger hunt (such as to find all the works in the highlights brochure). Other times, the scavenger hunt can be more abstract. Can you find a painting for happy, sad, angry, bored, tired, and pained? Can you find paintings with a circle, a square, a diamond, a trapezoid, etc.? Can you find five Greek gods in the Greek and Roman galleries? Or ten Christian saints in the medieval galleries? Can you find ten different occupations? Or ten different animals? Games like these help kids keep their eyes open and their attention focused. It’s a trick, but it’s a trick that helps develop close attention. As my kids get older, we need these games less and less, though they’re still fun occasionally, even for me.

September (and some August) Books

Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!

Audio Book
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.

Another Audio Book
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.

Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile
Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka
Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure
 by Stephen Pastis

Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.

Graphic Novel
The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings

The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.

School Reading
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.

More School Reading
The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine

I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.

Our Best Loved History Resources

As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.

Story of the World
This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.

Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.

The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.

Liberty’s Kids
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.

USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.

David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.

David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.

History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Field Trips
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.

Historical Fiction
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.

The End of History

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Mushroom tries on a Roman helmet at a Rome recreators event.

I would like to make an announcement as we head into our fall break: We have finished all the history.

Yes, you read that right. We here at the rowhouse have now, officially, done all the history from the dawn of man to the fall of the towers. What began on a whim in kindergarten with a copy of Story of the World has now been brought to a conclusion. Forgive me, I know I’m bragging, but I’m just so incredibly proud. This is definitely high on our list of accomplishments in homeschooling.

So I thought I’d offer a collection of reflections on this five year journey of ours. I also have waiting a post about our favorite resources, but I’ll save those for later.

I’m so glad we did this.
I really value the whole idea of interest led history as well as relying on my kids to tell me where their interests lie. However, there’s no way my boys, at age five, ever would have said, let’s study all of history for the next five years. And yet we did it, jumping into this idea of a classical history cycle. I now feel like it was the right call. And, perhaps a little ironically, it’s what makes me feel more confident about departing from formal history for at least the next couple of years if not longer. They have a really basic groundwork laid for people, places, and time periods in their minds. That’s both allowing me to relax about a perceived need to study history and fueling them with enough background knowledge to actually ask meaningful questions and know what they might want to explore in more depth. Plus, doing history when they were little was so easy. It was just fun and projects and stories. As the years went on, it became a lot more reading, a lot more discussion, a lot more expectations. That was appropriate, but I think if we had not spent that time doing all the fun stuff, they would have had any taste for the more in depth stuff.

The silhouettes the boys made of each other when we studied colonial times.
The silhouettes the boys made of each other when we studied colonial times.
Mushroom mans the canon at one of the DC circle forts north of our home.
Mushroom mans the canon at one of the DC circle forts north of our home.
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Pretending to listen to the fireside chat at the Roosevelt Memorial.

I’m so glad we took a year to focus on American history.
The Well-Trained Mind’s classical history cycle gives four years for studying world history, but after we wrapped up medieval and renaissance Europe, we took the opportunity to leap into the Age of Exploration and spent all of second grade studying the history of America, from the First Nations up to the Civil War. In many ways, that was our best year. The sheer volume of resources we had, both in books and movies and local field trips made it easy to teach and fun. It was easy to make that history come alive.

BalletBoy steers a tall ship during a War of 1812 commemoration.
BalletBoy steers a tall ship during a War of 1812 commemoration.
Recreating a Leonardo da Vinci invention. That did not work but was very funny.
Recreating a Leonardo da Vinci invention. That did not work but was very funny.

It was really through sheer determination that we stayed on track.
Recently, Mushroom asked me in low tones, “Why are we so far ahead of everyone else in history?” He was referring to the fact that we know a lot of families staggered from the ancients to early America but very few who seem to have made it into the modern world. Some of it is different styles and focuses and I really don’t mean to imply anything negative about any of the families we know who took a more meandering path. However, I am glad I simply refused to let us get stuck anywhere for too long. The boys never really wanted to spend “forever” on one topic. And while the idea of going in depth is positive, it has its limits for kids as young as six or seven. I never had a firm plan. Sometimes we fell behind (which is why we’re finishing up now in the fall instead of last spring or summer) but I whenever we dragged our feet, I either recommitted so we could get through it or I cut our losses and just moved on. When the year wound down, I would look at the topics we had left and make a clearer, though still loose, plan to finish. Basically, I just stayed on it pretty relentlessly. I have learned over the years that it is usually the teacher who keeps things on track by simply staying on it and being willing to keep recommitting. I found that to be very true for history.

BalletBoy paints the Sistine Chapel.
BalletBoy paints the Sistine Chapel.
Making nesting dolls when we studied Russian history.
Making nesting dolls when we studied Russia.
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Mushroom in Shakespearean garb.


When we first started, I’m sad to say I overthought it a little.
When we embarked on our study of history, I admit that I thought a lot about what resources were the “right” resources. I participated in more than one conversation about the “right” way to teach history. I have a history background and some of this does matter to me still. I have no desire to teach history that is racist or sexist or massively misleading and I can say that there are many history curricula that are all three of those things, especially in the homeschool world. However, hindsight being what it is, I can see that all the debates about minor errors in texts, the merits of historical fiction, the need for social history, various religious biases, and many other issues now seem so minor. In the end, the most important thing was that we just did something.

I kept emphasizing the sweep of history as opposed to the details.
This does get to the question of how to approach history. While I probably overthought it a little, I did have an approach. So many history texts seem to be all about the details. That can make sense for young children, but I kept presenting it as a continuous sweep. From cultivation of grains and vegetables to cities. From cities to empires. From close minded and superstitious in the middle ages to more and more critical and scientifically minded by the Enlightenment. From lots of different peoples in east Asia, to one, unified Chinese empire dominating. I just kept reframing all those stories of how the world has changed to give the details and stories a context and a meaning. I know there’s a line of thought that young children can only hear those details and stories and that the meaning is about interpretation that they have to do themselves. But without the meaning, I couldn’t see any reason for learning history, so meaning I have tried to give it throughout.

A tiny guillotine when we studied the French Revolution.
A tiny guillotine when we studied the French Revolution.

They have retained so little and yet so much. I’m okay with that.
When I say we covered all the history and that Mushroom and BalletBoy have this great map of history in their heads, please don’t assume that if you want them to remember which came first, Sargon or Hammurabi, they’ll know. I’ll be lucky if they even recognize the names. The vast numbers of details, names, and dates have all flitted away from them, I know. And that’s completely okay. That wasn’t the point.

On the other hand, they can recognize hieroglyphs and World War I uniforms and all kinds of things in between. They remember vaguely the stories and myths of history. Whenever I go to review something they ask, oh, was that before this or after that. Was it like that period or sort of like that place. They have points to ground them and compare for new information. It seems like such a small thing. It’s not like they could stand up and recite history or win a quiz bowl. But it really isn’t a small thing. It’s huge that they can do those things and that’s all that I really want for them at this age.

BalletBoy imprisoned in Colonial Williamsburg.
BalletBoy imprisoned in Colonial Williamsburg.
Faux stained glass when we learned about the middle ages.
Faux stained glass when we learned about the middle ages.
Making medieval books.
Making medieval books.

Week in Review

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I don’t usually do a week in review type post, but I thought I’d toss one out for this, the first week of school for many kids. We are back to school for a couple of weeks now after taking off several weeks in July and August for summer camp and family travels. It may be September, but it’s terribly hot, so twice this week we sought out the water. One of the many great benefits of our city is free water. All the public pools are free and there are many good free splash parks and fountains as well. The city extended their days thanks to the heat so we enjoyed two romps in the water this week.

Understanding the Holy Land: Answering Questions about the Israeli-Palestinian ConflictWe’re wrapping up history altogether and are trying to run ourselves up to the present day with just one depressing modern history topic left: the Middle East. Two books have been useful for this: Understanding the Holy Land by Mitch Frank and The Middle East: The History, the Conflict, the Culture, the Faiths by the editors of Time Magazine. Both are a few years old (2005 and 2006), which can make a difference for such an ever changing topic, but both have a nicely balance perspective. The second book has really great summaries of the issues and a nice photojournalism style introduction, which is always a good way to introduce a topic. The kids and I both have mixed feelings about all this depressing history. Mostly, I think it has really worn us down. We’re ready to take a nice history break.

Both boys wrapped up a quick and easy writing project from Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing by writing instructions and finishing their revisions this week. Mushroom wrote instructions for making a Wizard of Oz style tin man from foil and toilet paper tubes. BalletBoy wrote instructions for how to put on sunscreen effectively. We were a bit lackadaisical on our other writing fronts. No copywork got done, no poetry tea. Mushroom practiced writing down his grand ideas for inventions. BalletBoy worked on a story about a boy who finds himself stuck in a storybook world where Robin Hood and Merlin fighting a medieval war against each other.

For evening reading time, we started Alan Mendolson: The Boy From Mars by Daniel Pinkwater as a new read aloud. Mushroom read most of Road Trip by Gary Paulson and BalletBoy read Frank Einstein by Jon Scieszka. Additionally, Mushroom has gotten into a news app he found called News-o-Matic. While I haven’t been super impressed by the quality of some of the writing, it is really cool that he found it himself and he’s so into reading about the news. He reads it every day and discusses it with us. Since they had a piece about clean water and we’d been talking about giving to charity what with the ice bucket challenge so omniprevelent, he picked out a clean water charity to donate ten dollars to. So that was a cool thing that I felt pretty positive about.

For math, Mushroom wrapped up a section in Beast Academy and polished off a Key to Math book on decimals. BalletBoy struggled with long division with two and three digit divisors and really, really struggled with any long division with zeros in the quotients. I got some good tips on helping him and he seems to be getting through it. I printed off practice pages from the Middle School Math with Pizzazz series. This is the link to Book A, a search will show the books up through Book E and an additional Pre-Algebra book. If you have a kid who likes puzzle worksheets for practice, such as puzzles where you answer a joke by solving the problems, they’re an excellent resource. BalletBoy loves that kind of thing.

giant lego

We also finished up a set of lessons on ratio from the book Time Travel Math from Prufrock Press. The final project has the kids make a giant object with a ratio of 1:26. You can see Mushroom and BalletBoy’s giant Lego brick. It’s really big! That’s the real Lego brick they measured to build it sitting in front of it. This book has been really fun so far. A lot of the time books with a storyline to teach like this one are pretty cheesy. While this one isn’t going to win any literary awards, it’s really not bad. And we like the way the math activities build through questions and worksheets to projects and how the story integrates the math. Overall, we’re pretty impressed.

Finally, lots of activities got moving this week. BalletBoy went back to ballet where he got an invitation to join the cast of the Nutcracker for the first time! We’re getting back in the groove with piano and had the first soccer practice of the season. Destination Imagination also started back up and the kids started the process of hashing out which challenge to use. As usual, I cannot sing the praises of Destination Imagination enough. We’re looking forward to a good season.

Still, the highlight of the week was definitely enjoying those last bits of summer with friends, especially in the water.

Solace from Books

I almost never write about current events or politics here.  However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days.  From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems.  I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.

Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this.  Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be.  One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.

Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams.  I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class.  We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.

One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968.  It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know.  While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little.  They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.

The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane.  If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person.  “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know.  “Why would that mean other black people were bad?”  Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand.  Why would that be a problem?  Why wouldn’t she have a black doll?  Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others.  Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?”  These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.

Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids.  They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar.  Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids.  The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.

Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can.  It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads.  This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up.  I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.