Monthly Archives: April 2012

Science Returns Soon…

As I split the science year with another mom, I admit I got really lax and didn’t post about what we’ve been up to, but I’m getting back on track very soon.  I have two posts queued up to finish, filled with books, videos and experiments.

Seymour Simon Volcanoes BookSeymour Simon Mountains Book

In the meantime, I wanted to recommend a series I discovered in the last few months which was extremely useful for our earth science year.  It’s the detailed picture books by Seymour Simon.  Most of these are slightly older, from the late 1980′s.  However, they are still in print, in paperback no less, making them easy to find and affordable.  The books cover many topics, including biology and astronomy, but we made use of the ones about topics in earth science such as EarthquakesOceans, Glaciers and Icebergs, and Mountains.

Each book contains mostly photos with occasional diagrams.  The layout is very simple, but the text is solid and explains the topic well.  Because these books are older, you’ll find that there are examples that feel out of date (a section on tsunamis that doesn’t mention the 2004 tsunami, for example).  However, this is the first series I’ve found that feels like it’s a step up from the well-loved Let’s Read and Find Out series without being overwhelming or frantically blurby.  The kids have found these compelling, many of the photos are beautiful, and it’s always nice to have a go-to book to start a topic off.  Now that we’ve gone through and outgrown many of the Let’s Read and Find Out books, I’m glad I found a replacement.

Getting Back to American History

We are resuming our study of American history finally.  We’ll be diving into a lot of good fiction that will cover the Civil War, Western expansion and general American nostalgia.  First up, I’ve been convinced we have to read Farmer Boy.  Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I’m not much of a Little House lover, but we’re going to give it a shot.

However, we began by reading the first few chapters in Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans by Kadir Nelson.

The book covers the arrival of the first Africans in America through the Civil Rights movement and I’m sure we’ll return to it and read the subsequent chapters as well as we reach the topics.  It’s a well-designed book, with illustrations worthy of the National Portrait Gallery, which is no surprise since the author’s background is as an illustrator.  The text, while still a history book, is in the voice of an African-American storyteller, including some dialect and many personal references.  The strong voice appealed to me as an innovative technique in a children’s history book and I was thrilled that it was narrative instead of blurby, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work with my kids.  After reading the preface, we talked a little bit about voice and the style of the book before reading on.  Quickly, I realized it was perfectly suited for young audiences.  Mushroom and BalletBoy immediately gravitated to the storyteller’s personal details, especially the grandfather called “Pap” in the first chapter on slavery.  These aspects of the narrative grounded the story in reality for them.

I strongly recommend this book for any family with elementary school children who are studying American history or simply for anyone who wants a resource to explore African-American history.  It’s not a terribly in depth resource, but it gives such a good overview in such a compelling way.

BalletBoy Writes…

Now that we’re finally back to schooling, I had the kids pick photos from our Africa trip they wanted to write about.  BalletBoy chose to write about this picture of us about to zip line across the Zambezi Gorge.

Here’s what he originally wrote:

one day in Zimbobwe we went on a zipline. it was not scary. It was really fun. you have to get in a jacket because the jacket cunexs to the harnes. it was amazing.

We still need to work on that capitalization, huh?  Otherwise, though, I’m so proud of his writing.  It’s readable, the spelling is decent, and it only takes him a few completely drama-free minutes.  The only thing he asked was how to make “really” say “reeeeaallly” and I suggested underlining.

However, he didn’t want to add a thing.  Not only that, but he was resistant to changing anything any of his photo freewrites.  As I didn’t give him a formula, he invented his own.  Every single photo freewriting he did began with some variation on the same phrase, “One day in Africa…” and ended with, “It was amazing.”  When I gently tried suggesting some alternate beginnings for some of the paragraphs he wrote, he said, “But, Farrar, I’m not writing that. I’m a ‘One day’ writer.  You know, one day I did this or that.”  Oh my.

So, trying to follow the Bravewriter system, I worked on revising it with him and we focused on adding details about the senses.  What did he see, feel, smell, taste and hear?  BalletBoy has never loved doing oral narrations.  Me clicking away on the computer as he talks is always an inhibiting distraction that he’s never quite learned to put up with.  However, he was much more okay with me writing on his paper with notes that he could arrange.  Here’s the revised version once we had corrected the capitalization and spelling together and changed just a couple of details:

One day in Zimbabwe, we went on a zip line across Victoria Falls. It was not scary. It was really fun. You have to get in a jacket because the jacket connects to the harness. I heard the waterfall and the river. It felt kind of like falling, but I knew I wasn’t. The zip line you hold is smooth and hard. I held it for the whole time. I heard a click that scared Farrar. It budged me to the side. I felt a breeze. I saw a little bit of the waterfall, the rocks, the shore of the river, and the other side of the zip line, which is in Zambia. At the end, the worker came down the zip line to get us. I’m glad I did it.

It still starts, “One day…” but it’s obviously better this way.  I think it’s rather good for a seven year-old.  He grinned when we read it at the end, so I know he felt proud too.

Legend of Korra Fever

Yep.  We loved it.  I love all the little touches making it look and feel like 1920′s Shanghai.  And I love that Nickelodeon has made a show with a strong teenage girl as the hero but which is clearly meant to appeal to boys and girls alike.  Please, children’s television producers, give us more like this.

Mushroom says, “It was a little sillier than Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Kitara was in it!  She started to tell about Zuko’s mother.  At the ending of the last season of Last Airbender, in jail, Zuko said to his sister, where is my mother!  But she did not end up telling it. [exasperated Mushroom sigh]  In the story, Korra mastered three elements: water, earth, and fire.  She’s trying to master air.  Korra went to an elements tournament where if you passed a line, the other team got to go closer.  Each team would have water, earth and fire.  The new bad guys are the triads.”

BalletBoy says, “I wish they’d make Korra Legos.  That would be awesome!”  Lego, I hope you’re listening.  Have you seen the prices on the used pieces from that one Airbender set? Insane, I tell you.

No, We Didn’t Really NEED the iPad, but…

It’s been really useful.

I know everyone and the kitchen sink have touted the benefits of having an iPad in homeschooling, but I wasn’t totally sold.  In fact, I was a bit of a naysayer.  I saw videos about how school teachers were using them as fancy delivery systems for multiple choice quizzes they could instantly grade and simply groaned.  No thanks, I thought.  Sure it would be fun to have, but I didn’t think the educational potential would exceed the laptop.

Then the Husband generously gifted the family with one for Christmas and I got all excited about exploring the possibilities for its use.  Now, a few months into having it, like any new device, it feels like I’d never want to part with it.  Yes, most of its uses could be done on a computer or on paper, but the iPad makes it easier for us in ways that have surprised me.  Here are some of the ways in which we’re using it for schooling.

The Stylus
The first extra that I got for the iPad, which has turned out to be infinitely useful, was a stylus.  A stylus allows you to use a pen to write on your iPad, which is nice if you want to use any art apps or handwriting apps or just happen to be more comfortable with a pen in your hand.  I’ve tried several and tossed all but two brands.  The Kuel H10 is little, cheap and very sensitive.  It writes extremely well.  The only downside is that you’ll probably have to order it online and it’s so short that you may crave a longer implement.  The Targus, which you can find at pretty much any big store selling extras for your devices, isn’t too much and feels really nice in the hand.  If you have an iPad2 or 3 with the magnetic smart cover, it’ll stick to the magnet fairly well.  The tip isn’t quite as good as the Kuel, but it’s decent.

Notability
When we first got the iPad, I installed Notability, an app that allows you to load your pdf files and then write on top of them, either by typing or simply by drawing (thus the need for that stylus).  I envisioned that we would clearly load all the pdf curricula on there and stop being such paper wasters.  While we’ve done some of that, allowing Mushroom to do some MEP Math and BalletBoy to do some Math Mammoth, it hasn’t been as much as I envisioned.  However, it has been very useful for me as just a portable notepad and binder of stuff.  I love writing little notes, to do lists, and so forth.  I never stick with an organization system and always have a mess of little pads and notebooks.  Now, suddenly, all my little curriculum planning notes are in one place!  I can delete them when I’m done.  I can organize them and move them around.  I can annotate them by copying and pasting text or images from websites.  It’s really useful.  Over on the side, you can see a shot of how I did my messy Africa unit planning on Notability.  Plus, I’ve found it so much more useful for reading books I want to highlight and write in.  I read The Writer’s Jungle on Notability and doodled, highlighted and margin noted my way through it.  I have our Shakespeare play script on there and numerous other documents.

Math Board
This is a pretty simple app that essentially just creates math drills, but I really like it because it allows you, as the teacher, to control the parameters so well.  You can choose how many problems, what type of operations, what range of numbers, and multiple choice or free answer.  It goes up to simple algebra.  You can even have kids find the missing number instead of the answer.  There’s a little chalkboard area for working out longer problems on the side and a feature that works the problem for you if you get stuck.

Pages
Okay, now I’m just ramping up the price on apps, but I’ve just begun letting the kids make their own visual reports with this and I’m loving it.  This is a full word processing program for the iPad.  It’s more intuitive than on a traditional computer and the interface makes it even easier, so the kids can use it more easily.  You can see BalletBoy working on his visual report on our Africa trip.  I cut and pasted in the text he wrote in his notebook and he chose, inserted and manipulated the photos he wanted to use to tell the story.  I’m also using it to make our co-op’s yearbook this year.  I felt crazy putting down that a whole ten dollars for an app, but I’m really enjoying all the possibilities this app has.

Toontastic
From pricey to free.  This app lets kids draw, narrate, and “animate” (I put that in quotes because it’s a bit like making a stick puppet show) their own stories.  It’s not necessarily academically educational, but this little app sums up for me the ways in which the iPad can be used for entertainment that is also interactive and creative instead of passive.  Mushroom and BalletBoy have now spent an absurd amount of time making little stories that make almost no sense, but which send them into peals of giggles.  Presumably they’ll eventually start to make sense when their storytelling ability gets more sophisticated?  Oh, wait, no, I’ve taught middle school boys and read their comics…  if anything, my kids are advanced.

Educational Apps and Games Unending
I think nearly everyone out there knows about Stack the States, Stack the Countries and Rocket Math, right?  We’ve also found numerous useful tools like Google Earth, abacus apps, and a faux Cuisenaire rods app.  There are so many neat interactive apps as well.  One that’s been popular in our house lately is the Nova Elements app which lets you “build” things like a banana from the atom up.  And you know Khan Academy has a wonderful app with a nice interface?  Oh, I could go on and on.

Cuddle Encouraging
There’s something so simple about being able to, in the middle of a book, grab the iPad from next to me, roll the cover off, and find a picture or video of exactly the thing we were just talking about.  And because it’s so small, it’s quicker and doesn’t steal my lap or put us in a tangle of cords.  In other words, the feeling of being cuddled on the sofa or the bed for school isn’t interrupted.  That’s the best part for me.

The Right Start to the Day

I know I have a better day if I start by moving around, especially with the kids.  It’s just so hard sometimes.  Plus we have so many days when we need to be somewhere before ten o’clock.  If we’re going to get in any school, going out for a hike seems impossible.

That’s the Husband out with us.  He may have a weird schedule, but sometimes it has its benefits.

Happy Easter!

My kids have always known the deal with Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so forth.  It’s me.  And I want the credit.

But they still like to pretend.

E. Bunny wrote back that he got into a midair collision with the Tooth Fairy, who is also visiting tonight after Mushroom lost that final eyetooth.  After a small scuffle, he dropped all the eggs he was going to put in their baskets in the backyard.  Would they mind going to retrieve them after tackling the things he managed to put in their baskets?

Just because we don’t believe in the various magic visitors doesn’t mean we have any less fun with them.

Happy Easter!

Hallelujah, I Found a Language Arts Program I Actually Like!

If you know me, you know I’m incredibly, annoyingly opinionated.  I usually know what I think.  And having written and taught writing at the secondary level for years, I had some opinions about writing – how to teach it, what was really important, what my philosophy was and so forth.

Then something dreadful happened.  I had to teach my own young children to write.

And slowly, over the course of the last three years, I’ve become more and more at sea.  I honestly was at the point where I didn’t know what in the world I thought.  I knew that there were some resources that we had tried or looked at that I didn’t like and a few that I did.  I saw, after fighting it for ages, that copywork, narration and dictation were useful for the kids, but I couldn’t fit them into any larger philosophical framework that satisfied me.  There were a lot of things I had believed that I wasn’t even sure were true anymore.

What I really wanted was a book or a curriculum that would make me feel about teaching writing the way something like Bird by Bird or If You Want to Write makes me feel about writing itself.  Yet every time I tried to read anything, it either didn’t resonate with my experiences as a writer or as a writing teacher or it made me want to throw things.

And then, a little more than a week ago, I heard Julie Bogart speak.  Can I just say, I think I have a little homeschool crush on her now.  Julie Bogart is the author of The Writer’s Jungle, which is the foundation of the Bravewriter program.  I had looked at Bravewriter before and couldn’t figure it out (more on that if you scroll down a little ways) and it’s not cheap enough to just try, so it remained something I had heard was good, not something I knew anything much about.

Practically everything Julie Bogart said in her talk and her book is either stuff I used to believe, say and do or new ideas that really resonated with me.  The Writer’s Jungle is exactly that book I was looking for that would make me feel about teaching writing the way good books about writing make me feel about writing itself.  It made me feel more confident in my kids, myself, and in my end goals, which are much more in keeping with Bravewriter’s goals, than any other method or curriculum with which I’ve flirted.  The end goal of the Bravewriter program is to create kids who like writing, aren’t intimidated by it and have lifelong writing skills, which are not necessarily the same as academic writing skills.

I’m still such a jumble of thoughts, that I’m just going to list some of the notes I’ve jotted down as I read her book and listened to her talk.

  • Create routines, not schedules (Advice I’ve always followed and given in regards to practically every other aspect of homeschooling!  Why was this so hard to envision for writing and language arts?)
  • Be your child’s ally and supporter for writing.  Believe your child will be able to write.  Make writing feel safe.
  • It can all be fixed later in the teen years.  (Having taught some abysmal teen writers who were able to turn around and write solid, if not award-winning, essays, I always used to believe this and somehow lost sight of it in the last three years.)
  • Creating a language-rich environment by reading good books and appreciating words is more important that doing grammar lessons for making good writers.
  • Writing daily isn’t important.
  • Getting kids to write about what they’re passionate about is important, but giving them vague open-ended assignments isn’t the way to do it (as in, “write about your favorite…” kinds of assignments, which make kids feel at sea about what to do).
  • Don’t confuse revision with editing for mechanics.
  • Don’t be afraid to help kids.  It’s scaffolding, not cheating!

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I had heard about Bravewriter, looked at the website, and not been able to figure out what in the world you were even buying if you purchased it.  And I’ll just say from the get go that despite how much I am liking this, I don’t know that I can justify the expense at all.  It’s very expensive for a program that relies on you as the parent to do so much of the planning and implementing.  They support the program and Julie Bogart says she emails with parents constantly.  However, other curriculum authors do the same for much, much less.  It does go on sale at HSBC periodically, helping ease the price a good bit.  So to help you out, here’s what I now understand are the purchasable elements that I figured out:

  • The Writer’s Jungle is just a book (though bound in a big binder if you buy the hard copy) about the philosophy of the program, though it contains lots of examples, assignments and even schedules.
  • The Wand is a thin supplement of mostly copywork and narration exercises for K-2nd grade.  If you subscribe, they send you one for each month.  There are three levels in The Wand.
  • The Arrow is a thin supplement for grades 3-8 that shows how to make loose lessons around a single read aloud book.  There is dictation, a literary element to discuss and a writing assignment.  If you subscribe, they also send you one for each month.  However, if you, like me, have already read half the books for the year, you can pick and choose back issues to buy and use instead.
  • Bravewriter also offers a book about high school writing and an ever-changing slate of online courses for kids grades 3 and up.

This is absolutely not an open and go program like, well, practically any of the other writing programs out there.  If you want a strong grammar program, consider Michael Clay Thomas.  If you want open and go copywork and grammar, consider First Language Lessons and Writing With Ease.  If you want a workbook style program consider Evan-Moor’s Six Trait Daily Writing or Winning With Writing.  I could keep going suggesting other things I’ve looked at and been unsatisfied by that fall into these categories.

But if you want an approach that you tailor for your child, then this could be it.  They literally call it the “Bravewriter lifestyle,” which initially kind of turned me off, but having read about it more now, I see what they’re trying to get at.  It’s about making those routines instead of schedules.  The most famous of these is the “Tuesday Tea and Poetry” that has gained popularity among a lot of homeschoolers, but there are others, such as designating days to do different types of writing and reading assignments.

I’m obviously still in the honeymoon phase with this.  I needed something that helped me integrate these old-fashioned basics of copywork, narration and dictation along with the ideas I had formed in my writing and teaching life over the years.  I’ll let you know how implementing it all goes.  However, I feel more assured than I have about anything else we’ve tried with writing.  I think step one in my detox will have to be stopping reading all internet discussions of the “right” way to teach writing.