Tag Archives: homeschooling

Focus, Farrar

I was having a conversation the other day about how hard it is lately for me to focus.  It’s like my brain is pulled in a million directions at once.  Sometimes I think doing anything for more than fifteen minutes is a chore.

Part of it, inevitably, is the shallows of the internets.  I’ve been cutting back for Lent and thinking of detethering myself from parts of it.  But it’s still a great tool.  And a source of happiness and enjoyment much of the time.  Like everyone else, I know I’m looking for the right balance.

But another part of it is the nature of this stage of homeschooling, at least the way we’re doing it here.  I spend a huge chunk of my day sitting at a table with my kids running around doing, doing, doing.  I have to be there.  If I’m not there, a huge amount of the school work that needs to be done can’t be done.  While the boys have slowly gotten more independent with much of their work, we still read aloud, watch videos and discuss them together, do poetry teas, and have me doing direct instruction for spelling.  I still sit next to them to help walk them through math lessons and check their work as they go.  And even though they’re often doing things like piano practice and math drills on their own, I’m always working with one kid.

I don’t regret that a bit.  I think really being with the kids, one on one, is one of the benefits of homeschooling.  I don’t think workbooks and fill in the blanks are the best way to learn.  I think interaction is key for most kids.  That’s a huge part of why we do what we do.  Especially for things like writing and math, I think you get out of it what you put into it.

The thing is, the vast majority of the time, I don’t need to put my complete focus on the kids.  If I try to read a book or even a long, involved article, there’s no way I’ll get very far without my concentration being broken.  I can’t organize things or write more than a few sentences.  I can’t get up and sweep the floor or do the dishes.  I can’t start sewing or painting something.  I suppose if I knew how to knit, that might be useful.  Mostly, I can browse social media, play 2048, do sudoku or crossword puzzles, and just…  wait.  I wait to be needed, wait to be asked a question, wait for my moment to walk someone through a tricky math problem or work on revising a piece of writing.  And huge swaths of my time are spent this way.  I don’t wait long, but it adds up.

It’s not just in schooling either.  I wait at soccer and ballet because it’s not long enough to go anywhere.  I wait at art class.  I wait at the park while they play in the creek in the middle of a nature walk.

When we’re home, not doing school, the kids are pretty much self-sufficient.  But they still come interrupt me.  It’s still hard to know that I’ll have that whole hour without someone coming to ask for something.

Part of it is just the stage, but I’m finding it frustrating.  I’ve always been a person who needs to waste time in order to give my brain room to be creative or focused.  I’ve always been someone who needed to veg with TV or play Tetris on Gameboy before diving in to write that paper or finish that thesis or prepare all my lessons.  But this feels different.  I’m out of practice with determination and focus.  I don’t have a job to go off to or a project that has to be done by a certain time.

Having plenty of time that is all in tiny little chunks isn’t really helping me value when I have longer chunks.  It’s killing my focus.

I’m not sure what the conclusion of this rambling post is.  Mostly I suppose, just a recognition of how oddly difficult and disjointing my life is at this moment, even though I don’t have the excuse of a baby or a crisis or being overly “busy” that having kids, even big kids, still takes a lot out of us and I need to learn to shut the door to them more, and fight to find the space I need.  And the focus!

“If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say; ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.” – Brenda Ueland

Just reminding myself with one of my favorite quotes.

Monster Science: Simple Machines

I’m still working on my monster sized science project.  To keep myself on track, here’s another section, this one from the physics unit.  It’s been eons since we studied any of these physics topics, so input is extra appreciated!

Again, this is just a tiny piece of a larger unit so some concepts are explored elsewhere.  Stars next to books and resources mean they’re extra awesome.  One of the pieces of feedback about the first section was a need for illustrations about a few of the activities.  I’ve put in a few with my meager art skills, so feel free to tell me that it’s fine without them or that I should really hire an illustrator or that they’re okay, though, honestly, I’m not holding my breath for that last one.



March Books

Another round up of reading for you to enjoy.  We’ve recently moved to doing more independent reading at bedtime.  It’s a challenge to find the right balance in reading for my boys.  They like to read and don’t hate it.  On the other hand, if given a choice, they’d usually rather do something else.  And if given complete choices about what to read, they’d usually rather read a graphic novel they’ve already read.  That’s so important to do, but I also want to expand their reading time.  Doing it with snuggles on the bed and asking them to rotate between new and old, challenging and less challenging books, seems to be working right now.

School ReALWAYS REMEMBER ME: How One Family Survived World War IIading
 Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived the Holocaust by Marisabina Russo
We read a number of books about World War II and the Holocaust this month, but I really liked this very gentle introduction to the Holocaust that was one of the first we read about the topic.  This true story begins with a little girl asking her grandmother to talk about her photo album at a family dinner.  The grandmother keeps going where she usually breaks off and tells the story of how she and her three daughters all separately survived the Ho
locaust and managed to meet up again in the United States after the war.   The family’s good times in Germany before the war are the main focus and while the book doesn’t shy away from a difficult topic, it introduces it in a very child appropriate way, explaining the tragedy without focusing on the details.   The grandmother focuses on her good luck to have survived with so much of her family and to have the delights of a granddaughter to enjoy.  We did go on to read some slightly more difficult Holocaust stories, but I really liked this short picture book’s hopeful tone as a first stop.

Read Aloud
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I chose this to be our second World War II read aloud after last month’s The Winged Watchman.  This one takes places in Denmark and tells just a tiny piece of the inspiring story of how the Danes smuggled more than seven thousands Jews out of the country just before they were scheduled to be rounded up for relocation by the Nazis.  The book focuses on one fictional family’s role.  Annemarie and her family must hide her best friend Ellen and get her to her uncle’s fishing boat to be taken away with her family to Sweden.  It’s a short book and like everything by Lowry, excellently written.

Absolutely Normal Chaos  RB/SBAnother Read Aloud
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
As you’ll see from their required reading choices, both the boys have been keen to do “average kid” stories lately.  For the car, they want light fantasy (we’re still wrapping up Percy Jackson on audiobook), but for bedtime they want real kids.  I pulled this one off my shelf, remembering how great an “average kid” storyteller Creech is, but I admit I had forgotten how much the book focuses on main character Mary Lou’s first romance and kiss.  I remembered more about the book’s other main plot, involving Mary Lou’s cousin and the death of a neighbor, as well as the everyday trials of living in a very large family.  The boys both adored the book, especially Mary Lou’s slightly snarky voice and her ramblings about reading The Odyssey.  And they didn’t mind the romance a bit, interestingly.

The Thing About GeorgieMushroom’s Required Reading
The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
This contemporary middle grades novel is about a boy facing a lot of everyday kid problems: his parents are about to have a baby, a new kid seems to be luring away his best friend, and a girl at school seems to really dislike him.  However, there’s a twist.  Main character Georgie is a dwarf and will never grow much taller than his current short height.  The book challenges the reader to see into Georgie’s world by asking them to do things that are very simple and realize that Georgie will never be able to do those things.  Mushroom found it to be a quick read and while it didn’t get raves, he said he enjoyed it very much.

The Landry NewsBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Landry News by Andrew Clements
Yet another contemporary, “regular” kid book was needed for this month, so I pulled out this title from Andrew Clements.  We’ve read many of Clements’ books over the years and the boys always enjoy his characters and learning about the topics the characters learn about.  I think they also really enjoy reading about the dynamics of everyday classrooms.  In this book, the main character Cara learns about newspapers as she publishes her own, one that criticizes the teacher of her class.  BalletBoy finished it with new ideas for our co-op newspaper.  Good thing we’re editing it next.

The Beginning of EverythingFarrar’s Good YA Read
The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
I really enjoyed this contemporary YA novel about a former sports star named Ezra who suffers an injury that leads to a life changing senior year with new friends and a new romance. The opening part, about a gruesome accident the main characters witness as children, is a little much, and a series of coincidences informs the neatly tied up ending, but overall the writing style was great, and I have to admit that even the gruesome accident made me sit up and pay attention.  I also really appreciated the end message of the story.  While Ezra wants to pin changes on the world around him, he has to realize that he’s really the master of his destiny.

Shatter Me (Shatter Me Series #1)Farrar’s Bad YA Read
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why am I such a glutton for punishment?  I think it’s because I like a light series sometimes that I keep going back for more with these crummy dystopians and mediocre YA fantasy series out of the hope that I’ll find one that is actually fun (to be fair, sometimes I do find one, but not often enough).  I had a few mediocre YA reads this month, but this was the worst by far.  The book opens with an intriguing and promising beginning about a girl imprisoned in solitary for a mysterious but terrible crime.  A new person tossed in the cell adds tension, so I kept going.  Turns out no one can touch Juliette or she may kill them with a mysterious power she doesn’t understand.  Soon Juliette is out, there’s two guys interested in her (it’s like a formula with these things), there’s an oppressive military dictatorship with sinister goals (did I mention the formula?) trying to use her, and everything is just overemotional why can’t we be together nonsense with her true love (did I mention she’s named Juliette?).  I just skimmed the second half, but very little about it made much sense in terms of decent world building.  I guess there’s a resistance and she’s going to become a superhero.  Or something.  Not recommended for anyone with a brain.

Long Division

Mushroom actually made this long division problem for himself because he was enjoying doing these so much.
Mushroom actually made this long division problem for himself because he was enjoying doing these so much.

I wrote about math lately at the Rowhouse, but since long division is the heart of fourth grade math woes, I wanted to post what we’ve done because I’m feeling in a good place about it.

I felt a real frustration that there didn’t seem to be any books specifically about long division for kids.  I looked and looked, but everything I found was little more than practice, not a full book about division.  That really surprised me since I know this is a topic that a lot of kids need a second stab at.  We did like reading the section on division in the Murderous Maths book Awesome Arithmetricks, but I wished there was a book of conceptual problems that would build up understanding of division of larger numbers.  Or even a single living math story book that would present some of the concepts.

Up until recently, the only division the boys had done were division drills, division with zeros, and partial sums.  In the partial sums method, you break the dividend into two or more parts that are easy to divide.  For example, in 287 ÷ 7, you would make it (280 ÷ 7) + (7 ÷ 7).  This is a nice lead in to traditional long division and in some ways is harder since there’s not a step by step algorithm.  This way is introduced in the final books of Miquon really clearly.  I felt like the kids were reasonably proficient with the drills and the partial sums, but that left the dreaded columns of long division.

To introduce the long division algorithm, we turned to the our old friends the Cuisenaire rods.  While we won’t get rid of them any time too soon, I realized this is one of the last major topics we can cover with them.  I feel a bit teary just thinking about it actually.  We have loved these rods so much and used them for so many things.  It’s not that they have been out on the table every day for the last five years, but they have played a role in every major math topic we’ve covered since kindergarten.

Over at Education Unboxed, one of the best free resources for elementary math there is, there are several great videos about doing long division with Cuisenaire rods.  I had to borrow a few extra tens from a friend to help make as many exchanges as we needed in order to illustrate these ideas.  Basically, you think of multiplication as the area of a rectangle, so the divisor and the quotient are the two measurements of the side of the rectangle.

After using this method for a few days, we have gotten into a pretty good place with long division.  The kids feel like they can tackle any problem without the rods.  When they get tripped up, such as Mushroom did with a problem that didn’t have any tens in the quotient, we can go back to the rods and model the problem and clearly see the mistake.

Here’s hoping that this good streak with math holds.

Math Lately

Mushroom plays a symmetry game in Beast Academy.

We have bounced around with math so much more than I anticipated this year.  I thought I’d post about all the various things we’ve ended up using and where we landed.  Math continues to be one of my favorite subjects to teach.  I was never a “math person” as a kid.  It was always boring because it was too easy in elementary school and then boring because it was too hard later on.  But since then I’ve learned to appreciate math, especially when I unexpectedly ended up teaching it when I was still a school teacher.  I really want my kids to be challenged by it and to know it’s more about solving puzzles and asking questions than about doing sums, though you can’t solve the problems and answer the questions without first learning how to do all those sums and procedures.

BalletBoy’s Math

Math Mammoth Light Blue Series Grade 4-A Worktext (Revised) | Main photo (Cover)The boys have done separate maths since first grade, when BalletBoy happily plugged on and Mushroom became completely disenchanted with the whole idea of math.  For BalletBoy, Math Mammoth has been his spine for what seems like eons and he began the year by wrapping up the last bits of 4a.  Math Mammoth is not exactly exciting math.  The pages can be crowded and the pace can go slow, but for a child who just wanted to plug away at math and get it done, it was a perfect program.  However at the end of 4a, when I went to print packets from 4b, he had a sudden desire to do something completely different.  Meanwhile, the Singapore Challenging Word Problems, which had been his supplement for almost two years, also became…  not too hard exactly, but too confusing.  I often found the wording on the problems confounding such that I didn’t even know what they wanted.  What had always been slightly annoying became too much to interpret when coupled with harder math.

Key to Fractions complete set workbooks only | Main photo (Cover)So it was time to change things up.  We tried to switch back to MEP, which we have used for brief periods since first grade, but it wasn’t right for him either.  I knew the Key to Math books would be a breeze for him, so I had him do the first and second books of several series, including Fractions, Measurement, and Decimals.  If you don’t know this program, it has short, gentle workbooks about specific topics.  The look of the texts is nicely pared down and I like how they have an incremental approach that isn’t as overwhelming as Math Mammoth’s.  However, the biggest topic in fourth grade math, long division, was still missing from his education.  We had to find something else.Math in Focus Grade 4 Student Book A | Main photo (Cover)

After a lot of consideration, we landed on Math in Focus.  He had already covered most of the topics in the second half of their fourth grade syllabus, so he’s working on completing most of 4a right now, including .  He says he likes it so much that he’d like to do the fifth grade program next.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Math in Focus is “the other” Singapore math.  When I looked at it ages ago, I liked it a lot less than Singapore Primary Math, but I think I didn’t give it a fair enough shake.  It has the look of a more American style program, but the math is much more similar to Primary Math.  I really appreciate, coming from using Math Mammoth, how pared down the amount of problems is to the ones that really matter.  We also found Fan Math’s Process Skills in Problem Solving, which we like so much better than the Singapore Challenging Word Problems.  The problems are much more clear and there is much better modeling of solutions and information on how the solutions are arrived at in the back.

Mushroom’s Math

Beast Academy 4A Math Guide | Main photo (Cover)Mushroom is my real math lover.  At the start of the year, I had him working on Beast Academy and the Key to Math books on Fractions and Decimals.  He’s now in Beast Academy 4a and I’ve been dragging things out in the hope that 4b will be out (it was supposed be by late February or early March, but I’m still waiting!!!).  I cannot sing Beast Academy’s praises enough.  The program didn’t work for BalletBoy when he tried it when it was newer, but it has been a boon for Mushroom.  The story in the comic book style text is always funny and very well done.  We especially like the recurring elements such as the little beasts rivalry with the bots, the way Grogg finds bizarre solutions to problems, and the multiple personalities (and alliteration) of Professor Grok.  The tricky, thought-provoking problems in the text are also great for encouraging kids to really delve in and think.  They’ve been good for teaching Mushroom patience with his math.

Spectrum Math Gr. 4 | Main photo (Cover)After he finished some of the Key to books, I felt that with Beast’s slow release pace, he needed to do some really basic fourth grade math review, so I bought him a Spectrum math practice book.  It’s not a real curriculum, but he just needed to practice traditional algorithms.  It’s been a mixed bag.  I think it’s good for him to do this and it has been mostly very easy, but there have been a few things, including the long division algorithm, that he really needed to learn and other things, such as stacked multi-digit multiplication, unit conversion, and names of shapes (memorization of lists is just not his strong suit so “hexagon” is like new information every single time), that he really needed to review.  Some days it’s good for when he needs to escape the frustration of an especially tricky Beast problem, but other days, he has been known to scream, “This is not math!  This is just adding numbers and stuff!”  Well, at least I know he gets that math is more than this.  If I could go back, I might buy the fifth grade book instead of the fourth, since it presumably would have a slightly trickier range of numbers for him to practice.

Extra Stuff

Awesome ArithmetricksAs is the case every year, we use a lot of extras for math.  This year, probably the two most used extras have been the Murderous Maths books and Hands on Equations.  Murderous Maths is a great resource that presents math that’s both easy and difficult (or, as the books would probably say…  diabolical!) with a sense of humor.  The explanations are often really clear and clever and they touch on ways to see numbers and math that most elementary math texts don’t bother with.

Hands-On Equations Learning System | Main photo (Cover)We did the first level of Hands on Equations last year, but I put it away for awhile and pulled it out again to finish the second and third levels.  It’s not a difficult program by any means, but I didn’t want to run through it all in a couple of weeks, so we’ve been doing a lesson once a week or less to draw it out.  The system they present is really very ingenious and some of the tricks they employ have really grown on me over time.  At first I felt like it might be too simplistic, but I now see how they are slowly introducing the basics of algebra one skill at a time.  There’s not much too the program other than a laminated scale and some dice and game pieces, but I think it’s probably worth the cost of the homeschool kit to see how they’ve laid out these lessons.  Between Hands on Equations and Dragonbox, I feel like the kids are going to go into algebra in a couple of years with a really firm grasp of basic concepts to give them a head start.

Documentary Watchers

We’ve been really enjoying documentaries lately.  Obviously documentaries can be a nice way to break up teaching of a subject, but they can also just be interesting films in their own right and don’t have to align with what you’re teaching.  They can be a nice diversion or a way to learn about something completely different.  A few that have graced our TV in recent weeks…

Cheng Cheng, Xiaofei Xu, Luo Lei, in front of class, Wuhan Evergreen No. 1 Primary SchoolPlease Vote for Me
This documentary is in Chinese, so I was a little unsure about putting it on our queue.  However, both the boys have an odd fascination with student government, which apparently is strong enough to extend to Chinese primary schools and BalletBoy in particular really took to this documentary, wanting to see it a second time.  It follows a third grade class in China as they choose their class monitor through an election for the very first time.  Three kids vie to for the title: the previous monitor who is a bit of a bully, a middle class boy who knows how to manipulate emotions, and a girl who is unsure of herself.  It’s a very sweet look at the first fumblings of democracy in another country.

This movie is about industrial design and the way in which the objects around us have all been designed, even though we often think of them as just being that way.  It interviews several designers and talks about their creative process.  For Mushroom, who is always talking about things having “good design,” I am hoping it was a nice spark, but the content was drier than I had hoped.  We enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the hit I hoped for.

The Story of 1The Story of 1
This Terry Jones documentary about the history of the number one is exactly what you would expect from the elder British comedian and filmmaker.  Cute animations of the number one through history intersperse the show as it shows the birth of counting back in caves, past cuneiform marks and Roman numerals, through the introduction of the zero, and into binary code.  Jones narrates the program with interesting anecdotes about math and the ways in which numbers influence our lives.  This one was definitely a hit.  The Husband paused his day to watch it with us.

Paper Clips
We chose this documentary to go along with our study of World War II, but it’s such a moving story with so many layers that it’s worth watching even if it doesn’t coordinate with content subjects.  A small, homogeneous southern town begins a project on the Holocaust, collecting paper clips to represent the six million Jewish victims.  As the project continues, the prejudices of the people in the town are confronted as well as the prejudice of people in the rest of the country toward a small, mostly white southern town.  It’s a moving story that somehow is about the Holocaust and yet is hopeful because it shows a group of people trying to fight intolerance.

Autonomy Now

Lately both my boys have been asking very clearly and vocally for more autonomy.  They say things like, “This is my project and I decide!”

Brace yourselves, I think we’ve entered the tweens.

I know some kids came out of the womb stubborn and independent, but not my kids.  This is a whole new thing.  It’s exciting and scary both.  It’s not that they haven’t had any opinions about their own work and lives before now, just that they have always been small opinions.  They wanted to learn something, but they wanted me to plan it.  They wanted to do something, but they had no road maps or plans beyond these vague desires.  When they got frustrated, they wanted me to finish it.  Now, they want to grab the keys to the car.

I’m glad.  I was sort of waiting for this.  They surprised me by having so few forthright passions and by being so malleable when they were younger.  I’ve adjusted and appreciated their Renaissance qualities and taken advantage the best I could by trying to pack in as much basic content as I could while they were so open to learning about anything and trying anything.  If I said, time to learn about the Romans, want to try a new sport, how about you do it this way, they nearly always said, “Great!”  Now, they want the reins.

Grocery shopping.  I had to meet them at the end with the credit card because I didn't have enough cash.
Grocery shopping. I had to meet them at the end with the credit card because I didn’t have enough cash.

I see it in their friendships where they’re busy telling the parents to butt out and let them settle things themselves.  I see it in projects they set for themselves around the house.  This weekend, they spent an entire day planning a “restaurant” for the Husband and me.  They planned the menu, did the shopping, set the table, and cooked all the food.  And while I spent most of the day fielding questions about the location of various kitchen items and the clarity of recipe instructions, every bit of help was resented, especially by BalletBoy, who couldn’t stand that there might be anything he didn’t know and needed to ask.  I was not allowed in the kitchen.  A year ago, they would have wanted me in the kitchen the whole time.

photo 2 (6)I see it in school too.  They’re both working on the Brave Writer Partnership Writing imaginary islands project.  A big part of the project is making maps.  Since we don’t do photocopying as the project suggests, I had them make a digital drawing on the iPad of the outline of their island and then printed off multiple copies for them to make multiple maps.  They each have planned really cool maps inspired by the neat map book Where on Earth? with all kinds of backstory and details.  The book is a bit of a departure from the project directions, but that’s just how Brave Writer projects go, right?  They meander away from their original instructions.  The kids have been making some really neat maps and imagining things I wouldn’t have thought to tell them to do, such as shipping routes.

photo 1 (6)However, we have also clashed over things like, “Coffee won’t grow if it’s as cold as you said the temperature is,” and, “Nowhere has an average age of 5 years old.  That would mean no one lives long enough to have children,” and, “You’ll need a story to explain why this part of the country is so rich and this one right next to it so poor, or you should consider changing it.”  Let me tell you, they don’t really love that input.

On the one hand, yes, it’s their project.  But I keep running into the need to let them learn and make sure it makes sense.  If more projects are going to be the future of school (and I think it is for us), then those things need to come into play.  Just doodling colors on a map doesn’t tell a story.  You have to think about it first or it’s not school, at least not for us.

But I also know I have to let go more and let them figure this stuff out on their own.  I need to help them work on those skills of asking if something is going to work or not, asking if they followed all the rules, asking if they fit all the pieces together, asking what they could improve for themselves, asking if it makes sense.  And if they want more autonomy and control, then that’s a skill set they need.  Perhaps most key is figuring out when to ask for help on your own and how to take it.  Of course, I have to figure out how to give help without giving too much.

Winning and Losing

thinking kidsIt’s been a bit of a roller coaster here at the rowhouse.  There were two big trials of skills for the boys in the last week.

First, they had their Destination Imagination tournament.  This is their fifth year doing Destination Imagination.  They’ve moved up from the young Rising Stars program to the competitive division.  Last year, they won their regional tournament and did incredibly well at states, placing fifth out of nearly thirty teams.  I have often promoted the goals of Destination Imagination here.  I think it’s an amazing program and perfect for homeschoolers.  We are really full on DI-geeks at this point.  My boys have DI pins ready to trade and designed awesome DI T-shirts this year.  DI teaches creativity and cooperation and perseverance.    But, alas.  They nailed their instant challenge, but didn’t do well on their central challenge and won’t be going on to states.  The competition was tougher this year with more teams and they picked a different, perhaps more difficult, challenge.  After the tournament, both the boys were in tears and trying very hard to be strong, but they were deeply disappointed.  The team worked hard and did well, just not well enough.

Second, the boys took the National Mythology Exam for the first time.  We’ve never prepared for a test like this one.  It felt like helping two fourth graders prep for a very mini version of an AP exam.  Memorizing names and details has never been either boy’s strong suit.  They’re more big picture kids who can pull out great connections between stories and put things in order, but without remembering the specifics.  This test wasn’t really made for them, so I knew we’d need to work at it.  We read the first half of the D’Aulaires’ Greek Mythology more than once, played quiz games, made flash cards, made posters, made Toontastic animations, practiced narrations, and drilled for this.  I knew we had prepared, but I wasn’t sure they would pass.  Mushroom has a lot of test anxiety and neither boy has a lot of experience with the sort of multiple choice questions on the test.  However, when they sat down to take the exam and bubble in their scantron sheets, they had so much focus and determination.  We won’t know the official results for a couple of months, but from my informally checking their tests, I’m almost positive they both won medals.  I think Mushroom, who really struggled at times with studying, managed to win gold.  Fingers crossed, but it was definitely a win.

It’s so difficult to see your child lose when they worked hard at something.  I think it was as hard on me as it was on them.  I hope this experience doesn’t turn them off of DI, which I know they love.  And I hope it’s a learning experience.  They got a lot out of the process.  And while it’s painful, I hope they learn from losing.  I hope it makes them hungry to work harder and try again.

As for acing the mythology exam, I hope it’s gratifying to them that their hard work paid off.  I hope they learn that when you study and focus, you can meet a difficult challenge.

February Books

Well,  I think we can all agree that, as always, the end of the horrible, horrible month of February is a cause for joy.  But we did read some good books.  Our book round up for the month.

The Winged WatchmanRead Aloud
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
I picked this as a first fiction read aloud for World War II.  It is about the final days of the war in Holland.  Two brothers, Joris and Dirk Jan, each do their parts to work against the German occupiers.  Gentle Joris is so young he cannot remember a time when war was not a way of life and Dirk Jan is just old enough to yearn for the adventure of working for the underground resistance.  The brothers help their neighbors, help save their dog, hide people from the Nazis, and deliver secret messages.  All around them, Holland is ravaged by the war, but living in a farm community has sheltered the boys from the worst of the starvation that others experienced.  It’s a lesser known book compared to some World War II titles, but we found it to be a nice balance between gentle and true for a period that was full of horrors.  We’ll dive in with some slightly darker fare next.

The Whipping BoyBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
BalletBoy felt that last month’s book was on the long side so he scoured the Newbery list for the shortest title and promised to balance it with something longer on the next go around.  It’s a medieval story with a fairy tale feel that contains a good dose of action and adventure as a prince and a lowly born boy end up thrown together.  BalletBoy said the book was, “Okay, I guess.”  I really like it, but not a ringing endorsement.  Oh well.  Last month he was really won over by the required reading book, so I figure you can’t win them all.

"Wonderstruck"  from author/illustrator Brian Selznick highlights themes of loss, grief and reunion. He did in the Caldecott Medal-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Mushroom’s Required Reading
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik
This was another specific book request for required reading.  Clearly, as usual, we’ve drifted away from the required reading list.  At this point, I told the kids that any Newbery winner or honor title is fair game.  This book tells two different stories, taking place decades apart, simultaneously.  One is told in words and the other in pictures.  The stories interweave and come together in the end.  Just like in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznik uses this unusual form to tell a compelling story.  Mushroom was really happy with the book and while the book’s density has to do with the many pages of illustration and not the high word count, he seemed especially pleased to have read something that was so thick.

The titan's curse.jpgAudiobook
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
We’ve done these as audiobooks because the kids weren’t keen to read them on their own, but were keen to hear them.  The narration is good.  It fits the story.  And I’ve been telling myself that they’re nice light fare to vaguely review for the National Mythology Exam, which the boys are both taking this week for the first time.  I really enjoyed this series myself when it first came out.  Since Riordan’s various other series have shown him, in my opinion, to be a bit of a one note writer, my love for the books has diminished, but I have been reminded what made them popular in the first place, namely that they’re fun and Percy’s slightly stunned, slightly snarky voice really works well for the plots.

Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen YangGraphic Novel
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Both Mushroom and I read Boxers, and I additionally read Saints.  I’ve been a huge fan of Yang’s work for awhile now.  This two book set is about the Boxer Rebellion in China.  My college major was focused on Chinese history, so I really appreciated the historical side of the story, especially the complex motivations of the characters.  Both stories have an element of fantasy in them, but the fantasy also helps to illuminate the way real people felt and thought at the time.  The way the books tie together at the end is cleverly done.  I think the books stand with Maus as entries into the great tradition of historical fiction in graphic novels.  BalletBoy did read Boxers, but it’s not one that I would have suggested to him yet.  He was interested and I didn’t feel the content justified me taking it from him, but be aware that there is a good deal of violence in the story.

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret, #2)BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late by Pseudonymous Bosch
I’ve been trying to wean the boys off reading and rereading the same few books, so BalletBoy immediately picked this book back up with some relief.  It’s a tricky balance to strike between pushing them to read something new and letting them read whatever they like.  However, his pleasure at picking this up again after a hiatus and his quick progress tells me I was right to put a temporary kibosh on Wimpy Kid rereads at bedtime reading.

human body books for kisSchool Reading
Human Body Detectives by Heather Manley
I had gotten a really good deal on the ebook versions of this series and I assigned them as independent school reading this go around.  They are just the right length for that, as the kids can read them in about twenty minutes or less.  I’ve written before about my desire for living science books to mesh both quality writing and detailed science together in a way that makes the science feel integral to the story.  This series isn’t perfect.  I wish the science was a little more in depth and that the writing was a little more engaging.  The science is very focused on “healthy living,” which is good, but also as much about lifestyle as science, though certainly it was a lifestyle message I could get behind.  The art is okay but certain words in the text get extra illustration around them, which I found distracting and odd.  However, it does mesh the story with the science reasonably well and there is solid information in the books, so I’m not complaining too hard.  Because the books are sold to the school market as an educational series, I’ve seen them mentioned a lot in the homeschool world.  If you can get a really good deal on them, I do think they’re worth it, especially for early elementary.  Each book also contains some simple activities about the topic in the story.

January Books

We missed doing a December Books post, but I have enjoyed doing this round up of the books we read in a month.  Of course, we read many more than just this, but it’s nice to hit some highlights.

School Read
The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Reveal and Helped Remedy a Natural Disaster by Martin W Sandler
We read aloud most of this book about one of the worst natural disasters America has ever faced.  It has a format that I’ve seen and appreciated in other books, where a page of illustration faces a page of text about one aspect of the overall topic.  The photos, many of which would be easily recognizable to students of American history, are still poignant and compelling.  The text tells the story of the people, the environment, the government interventions, and the art that arose during the Dust Bowl.  I especially liked how the book explained the role of photojournalism, both in this crisis, and in general.  A really good resource.

Read Aloud
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan
We read this great book back in December, actually, but it was one of the only things we read other than Christmas books, so I skipped doing a December books post, but wanted to highlight it now since it was such a great little novel.  This is the story of Rachel, whose parents are poor British missionaries in east Africa in 1919.  When the Flu Pandemic comes, Rachel is left orphaned and is swept up in a plot by her wealthier British neighbors that takes her away from her beloved Africa and all the way to England.  Whelan does such a good job of telling surprisingly compelling historical stories.  Her works show children characters they can relate to, but who are also realistic and true to their time periods.  Her books entertain and teach about history, which is often a tricky line for historical fiction.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryAnother Read Aloud
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
We have several more heavy read alouds coming up, so I thought this light and breezy piece of fun would be a good interim book.  Kyle Keeley and several of his friends and school rivals find themselves invited to spend the night in the new library before it even opens.  But the library’s kooky benefactor, Mr. Lemoncello, has more in store for them than they expect and Kyle has to use his love of games and puzzles to win the prize.  Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with puzzles to solve.  It’s definitely a fun, appealing book.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
I chose this book about an African-American family in 1933 Mississippi to go along with our study of the Great Depression.  The Logan family has a precarious position as black landowners.  Cassie, the narrator, tells of the difficult process of learning about the truth of segregation, something her parents have managed to shield her from somewhat, but which cannot be hidden as a series of attacks occurs in their small community.  In the culmination of the book, one of the children’s friends is accused of assault and is nearly lynched.  It’s a classic and incredibly well-written, but I had forgotten just how dark the story becomes as it goes on, and how much violence is portrayed in the book.  However, I’m not sure that you could tell this story without that violence.  At the end, BalletBoy exclaimed, “How can that be the end!  Nothing got better!”  But allowing things to get better would have been an historical lie.  We discussed the “small victories” that the family has in the book.  Cassie manages to humiliate the white girl who mocked her.  They get the money to pay their mortgage.  The father manages to prevent the lynching of their friend.  It was a difficult read, but very worthwhile and it spawned a number of good conversations, so I’m glad we listened.  The narration on the book is excellent.

Star Wars: Jedi AcademyMushroom’s Pleasure Read
Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown
This book is basically Star Wars meets Wimpy Kid.  Roan is a young boy whose dreams come true when he’s invited to attend the Jedi Training Academy.  Of course, once he arrives, things are not everything they’re cracked up to be.  The book is filled with little jokes about the Star Wars universe crossed with a modern school.  Roan’s report cards and notes in class and so forth intersperse the text and pictures.  It’s a funny, light little book.

hoot book cover imageBalletBoy’s Required Reading
Hoot by Carl Hiassen
After reading half of Savvy then deciding he didn’t really like it (this is a pattern with BalletBoy, who has read the first half of more children’s classics than I can count), BalletBoy switched to this lighthearted environmental novel.  It’s the story of Roy, a perpetual new kid, who ends up making new friends and helping lead a crusade against a pancake house that is about to build a new restaurant that will destroy the habitat of some endangered owls.  It was on the long side for BalletBoy for required reading, but about halfway in, he decided he really liked it after all, and finished it quickly.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated AdventuresMy Middle Grades Read
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
This book just won the Newbery award last week.  It had been on my mental “to read” list for awhile, so I was excited to dive in when a friend loaned it to me.  It’s the story of a girl who loves comics and a squirrel who becomes a very unlikely poetry writing superhero.  There’s a lot to love here.  The concept is funny and sweet.  Flora imagines comic-esque captions over everyone’s head and constantly refers to “Bad Things Can Happen to You!” a segment from her favorite comic.  Ulysses the squirrel has a great backstory (he’s sucked up a vacuum) and a great love of donuts (who doesn’t love donuts!).  It has all the hallmarks of being great.  But…  I just didn’t love it.  The quirkiness began to feel forced to me.  The rhythm of DiCamillo’s writing, which I usually adore, just didn’t feel right to me.  So in the end, it’s not my favorite of her work and I admit that I’m a little baffled as to why it won the Newbery.