Tag Archives: homeschooling

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.

School Projects

Back more than two months ago, I promised the blog that there would be another post about projects and school.  Then, for some reason, I stalled.  It’s not that I didn’t think about it.  I started this post a half dozen times, but I have really struggled to figure out what I wanted to say about this exactly.

Here is what I know.  I know that we’re going to leave formal curricula behind for content subjects to be more project based.  That means math stays and if we decide we need to pick up grammar or logic or anything again, which we have done off and on, then we will, but goodbye to having history, geography, art, and science plans.  We’ve always been loose and living book based with those, but we’re headed out into the sea without a rough map for at least a couple of years.  Some of that will be more kid driven than learning we’ve done in the past, not so much because I didn’t believe in child-led learning before, but because I had two kids who were previously much less interested in engaging in it.  I think having a bit of that rough map in their heads now has made them feel they can at least pick a general direction in which to head.

I also know that pushing forward with some level of standards for learning is also important to me.  It’s important to me that the kids keep practicing writing, keep practicing revising, and keep improving their organization.  I know that while I want learning to be process oriented, I want it to have rules and boundaries.  Life has rules and boundaries.  I believe that “do whatever” is a dead end of a guideline for most people.  People on the whole do better with challenges and the greatest creativity can come from having more rules, not less.  So where this all leads me is that I want there to be a sense that some projects have to be revised and changed and remade sometimes to fit the rules.  Not that every project must fit in a neat box or even be completed, but that some must.  Stories must make sense, imaginary worlds must seem believable, science experiments must follow the scientific method, technology projects must have an end goal.

One of my biggest inspirations in heading more into projects for school has been Partnership Writing from Brave Writer.  It’s not so much more than suggestions for writing projects, most of which we’ve now completed.  However, in implementing these, we’ve always taken several detours and side trips.  The kids have had their own interpretations and we’ve had to negotiate the end products.  It’s been mostly a positive experience for all of us and I’d like us to be focused around that sort of learning, with the kids slowly taking the reins more and more, over the next couple of years.

photo (1)I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects in the past, such as the secret codes, the timeline, the homophones, and the mythology lapbooks.  I’ll add here some images of the catalog sales project.  This was a perfect example of how the kids took the project and really took charge of it.  It was originally designed to be about an historical period, but Mushroom decided his catalog was going to be for many thousands of years in the future, when the sun was about to become a red giant and humans were fleeing to one of the moons of Saturn with the help of special portal technology.  BalletBoy decided to do his catalog for an undersea world where fish apparently shop in catalogs.  I was happy to accommodate these creative ideas.

photo 2 (10)On the other hand, the imaginary
islands project was actually much more difficult for us.  We used the book
Where on Earth?
as inspiration for drawing maps of the imaginary island chains the kids invented.  However, we repeatedly ran into trouble as the kids drew their maps.  You can’t have average lifespan be 25, or, at least, not without an explanation.  And you can’t have extremely rich areas woven in with extremely poor ones all over your island, at least, again, not without an explanation or a story to tell about why.  It’s your imaginary world, but it has to make sense and tell a story.  Getting to that story without feeling like I was just outright overruling them was incredibly tricky.  This was by far the most difficult of the Partnership Writing projects.  Not only was it a supersized one (the schedule allows for it to take an extra month) but it presented more thinking problems than any of the other projects.

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We encountered a lot of the same problems when we took on another project that wasn’t a Brave Writer one, this time focusing on math.  We drew from the book Designing Playgrounds from the Math Projects Series in order to study playground design, then propose and design our own playgrounds.  In the end, this was a really fun project.  I liked the build up steps suggested in the book, in particular going to an actual playground and keeping track of what types of activities kids engaged in most often as well as using pattern blocks to think about space on a grid before actually doing any freehand drawings or designs.  There was a lot of really great complex measuring involved in this project, as well as a lot of creativity.  It was really perfect.

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Except that we struggled again when things needed to make sense.  The final step of the project involved making models, but it was very difficult to understand that a tiny block was a pretty large piece of play equipment and BalletBoy in particular seemed to feel that building any element to scale was going to completely squelch his creativity.  But if the models didn’t represent semi-accurate scale, then one of the goals of the project, since it was so focused on math, seemed to have gone out the window.  I didn’t feel like letting that go was acceptable in this case.  I got a very good suggestion for guiding the kids through this in the future, which was to think of it like writing and do more first drafts before making the final project.  We did do a good bit of playing around, but more in two dimensions than with modeling, so I think we should have given more time for that.  In the end, we all came to agreement and the final products looked really impressive.  The kids wrote up project proposals as if they were the contractors submitting their bids and they made little drawings and wrote headlines for imaginary newspaper articles about the opening of their new playgrounds.  As you can see above, BalletBoy’s featured a play village, a shallow water play area, and a large climbing feature inside a pretend mine.  Mushroom’s, which is below, was focused on ziplines, a climbing feature, a sandpit in the center, and a huge maze which would have puzzles on the walls and multiple entrances.

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Summer Books

I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads.  Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.

RevolutionRead Aloud
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer.  It’s the second book in her 60’s trilogy.  The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own.  Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history.  It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution.  Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother.  She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote.  Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story.  Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother.  Mostly I loved the book.  All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes.  However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large.  When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them.  As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced.  They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give.  Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.

Dead End in NorveltAudio Book
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed.  It continued our 60’s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period.  The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun.  Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig.  She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery.  What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly?  Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off?  This book of misadventures had us in stitches.  The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.

Savage Shapes (Murderous Maths)School Read
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it.  I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school.  However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math.  The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult.  It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school.  It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids.  There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked.  We did most of these and it really livened up the book.  This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.

The Lemonade WarBalletBoy’s Read
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures.  The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley.  He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground.  The next was about a classroom crime and punishment.  He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell.  Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.

11 Birthdays (Willow Falls, #1)Mushroom’s Read
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try.  It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best.  In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out.  Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up.  I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it.  The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (NERDS, #1)Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it.  I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him.  While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try.  If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear.  They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series.  It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan (Book 2)Devoured Read
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books.  However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities.  They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading.  However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series.  And now…  this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe.  This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book.  The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out.  Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.

Farrar’s Read
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie.  I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection.  However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids.  Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible.  The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining.  The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone.  I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year.  My goal is to read one per month.  One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list.  The book would also make a good read aloud for kids.  I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.

First Grade Flashback

The other day, Mushroom pulled out his first grade portfolio in search of something or other and we both got to flipping through it.

Things said by Mushroom included, “I was so young!” and, “My handwriting was terrible!” and, “Did I really write that?” and then, “I was so young!” over again.  Then, later when BalletBoy was home, they pulled them all out, pre-K to present and pored over them.  The table was a mess of old co-op yearbooks and Math Mammoth pages and art projects.  I’m telling you, nostalgia starts young.

I was especially struck by these two writing samples sitting side by side.  This was before we had discovered Brave Writer (though you’ll see we were basically doing it without realizing!), but sitting in the portfolio was this copywork from Charlotte’s Web, which was the book we were reading at the time, I’m sure.  My kids still occasionally do copywork (we do a lot more dictation now) but they almost never get anything wrong.  Seeing this one riddled with errors is like looking at another kid.  I can hardly remember teaching this stuff.

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And next to it was this “freewrite” type activity that comes from Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye.  I would write a boasting line and the kid would follow with a boasting line of his own.  He could copy my spelling and syntax and make it his own by changing the end, which he did.  I like the final line, which is, “I’m so strong I could crush the universe.”  Other Games for Writing exercises were in other sections of the portfolio, including the one where each person rolls the dice to see how many words to add to the story.

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I know at the time, I was worried.  I was worried that this wasn’t “enough” for writing (later that year I know we tried a couple of different workbook type writing programs, neither of which really worked for us).  I was worried about keeping this stuff up.  Yet somehow we managed and here we are.  I wish I could go back and pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, you did it.  They’re on their way.  It was enough!”

We just compiled the last bits of fourth grade’s portfolios this week.  Into those went a set of writings imagining they were characters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, filled with rich words like “hollered” and “gaping” and all typed up with polished syntax and revised to add detail.  Just like the copywork that I can’t remember being so difficult, it’s miles and miles away from the joint boasting writing exercise from first grade.

 

How Things Have Changed

Back in the day, it seems like all we did was field trips.  I think this is first grade.  I think maybe it's the Baltimore Zoo the year we had a membership there.

Back in the day, it seems like all we did was field trips. I think this is first grade. I think maybe it’s the Baltimore Zoo the year we had a membership there.

This topic has come up for me several times in conversations in person and online recently so I thought I’d post a little bit about how our homeschool has changed for me as the parent.

When we started homeschooling, I don’t think I thought much about how things would change over time.  Of course, I thought about how content would change and evolve – how we’d cycle through different topics and how we would slowly find more depth with different topics.  I thought about how we would work on skills and how that would change.  I thought about academics and stages of learning and so forth.

What I didn’t think much about was how long it would take or what it would be like for me as the teacher.  I think, when I thought about it at all, that I envisioned that homeschooling would slowly get easier and easier as my kids grew older and more independent in this great, simple arc.

Ha!  Not quite.  There have been some surprises.

When the kids were preschool aged and into kindergarten, our whole lives revolved around one basic goal: keep busy.  If we didn’t keep busy, then boredom could set in for all of us, me included.  As such, we went out all the time, every day.  It felt like we knew every playground in the city.  We spent so much time at so many museums.  We would drive anywhere for anything since the drive took up time.  We had constant crafts and projects and books and routines going.  It was hard to be out and about all the time, but it was even harder to be home with two preschoolers.

By the end of kindergarten and into first and second grade, something had shifted.  It was no longer the case that we had to go or succumb to complete chaos.  Now, the kids were just so much more self-sufficient.  They got up on their own, they made their own cereal for breakfast, they could play nearly uninterrupted for hours, and even at the park I felt no guilt leaving them to play on their own.  Our days became lazy, happy times where we often spent all day outside or on a trip or hike with friends.  School was short and easy.  It was rarely more than a couple of hours unless we had a big project to do.  I made more projects by coaching Destination Imagination and directing Shakespeare plays.  Life was just easy.

But then something unexpected happened.  By the end of second grade and certainly all through third grade, school got harder.  There was more to do, more skills to work on, more work to be done.  It took longer.  There were still long, lazy days outside and field trips and fun projects, but they were fewer.  That wasn’t bad, since they were traded for something new, more serious work.  I saw so much growth and the kids entered a stage when they were more interesting and fun to talk to, where they asked more questions and just did more in general.  However, it surprised me.  School just took a lot of my time.  We routinely had three or four hours a day, which was so much more than those kindergarten and first grade single hours.  And the kids needed me so much more than ever before.  This wasn’t the progression to independent kids that I had expected.

Now, as fourth grade begins to draw to a close (we’ll finish at the end of the summer and turn the calendar over in the fall), I’m finding a new stage in our schooling.  I leave for yoga in the morning or to run to a doctor’s appointment and I leave a list of work to do.  When I return, it’s done!  So school still needs me, but the kids can do so much more on their own.  They read, they write, they do math practice and piano practice and so forth all independently.  I can see this is only going to grow over the next couple of years.  Just as I had started to settle into the idea that schooling older kids simply took more time, it changed again.

I think now that how much homeschooling takes in terms of my time and what it will feel like to me – the busy time, the lazy and free time, the teacher intensive time, the supervisory time, the waiting time – will just change over time.  I don’t know what will come next entirely.  I think, obviously, there will be more independent work, but I also see that there will be times where the kids need to take risks or integrate new skills and to do that, they’ll need me closer at hand.  It’s not a straight line.

Projects, Part Two… A Tale of Two Kids

So I wrote about how we’re moving to be more project based, but one of the major hitches in this plan has been two kids with radically different approaches to projects.  This is coming about especially for the projects they create for themselves.  Right now, we have a nice long chunk of time in the evening for them to work on projects that they’ve created.

BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill.  Mushroom hangs back.
BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill. Mushroom hangs back.

First, I’ve got BalletBoy.  Ever since BalletBoy became my little night owl (if he ever abandons the ballet, I may have redub him Night Owlet on the blog), he has been staying up late to do things.  He has written little books on his iPad, borrowing my keyboard and making illustrations for them on the Scribble Press app.  He has read books and drawn pictures and even sewn things on the sewing machines.  However, mostly he has programmed.  He has become a complete Scratch addict.  So much so that we all had to celebrate Scratch Day like a real holiday with a party.

Here’s a Scratch program he’s especially proud of.  The other night, the Husband came to tell me that BalletBoy fell asleep programming, his hands resting lightly on the keyboard and his head leaned back on the sofa.  The Husband had to remove the computer and carry him to bed.

Basically, when I set BalletBoy loose, he’ll come up with something to do and carry out most of his projects to completion.  He wants to share them with us and wants validation and support, but he doesn’t want us to do anything but play his games, read his stories, and generally praise his effort.  He might be the perfect project kid at the moment.  He wants to do projects, he’s open to some feedback, but he’s very set on doing his own vision.  He works diligently.  He turns out interesting things and doesn’t let himself get stuck in a rut.

Mushroom on the other hand…  Mushroom dreams big with great ideas for projects and ambitious plans.  He imagines elaborate Scratch games, writing screenplays, creating board games, drawing long series of comics, and more.  However, when it comes time to actually carry out his ideas past the initial exploration, it’s a flop.  He can spend hours imagining and planning, but when it’s time to do something, he always pulls back.  Even worse, the more he sees BalletBoy finish, the more he beats himself up and the less he does.  It had gotten to the point that he was wandering around every evening, complaining about being bored, refusing to work on anything, even refusing to dream big anymore.

The root of this is really his anxiety.  I’m not generally an anxious person, but I certainly recognize how anxiety keeps you from finishing things.  I don’t think I finished a single math assignment throughout high school.  If I just left the last problem or two unfinished, I knew it wasn’t really done, and therefore not really a reflection on my math abilities.  That was a pretty silly justification, but I know that’s how I felt.  For Mushroom, he is afraid to fail, which makes him afraid to commit to really doing anything.

If he was content to not finish things for awhile, that would be okay, but he’s clearly suffering and unfulfilled by this state of affairs.  He has always wanted time to himself to do things, but then struggled to figure out what to do with that time.  I worry that if I simply leave him to it and let him be that he will build up a bigger and bigger block about finishing things.  I see this when he doesn’t have an experience for awhile that’s in his anxiety provoking category.  If he doesn’t run across a dog for a couple of months or doesn’t get a chance to be outside on his own for a few weeks thanks to weather, those things become more and more difficult for him.  On the other hand, the more he does them, the easier and more routine they are, usually with minimal anxiety and fuss.

Mushroom and I have been in talks about all this.  He is, after all, an incredibly self-reflective kid.  He agrees that he’d like me to help him carry things out and finish things.  A couple of weeks ago, with him alone in the house for the afternoon, I suggested we finish a project together.  His enthusiasm for the completion of it was ecstatic.  Close your eyes and remember how good it feels to finish things, I told him.  Below is the little movie we made that afternoon (he did most of the camerawork and all the editing and had the vision, I helped with some of the art).

We’re trying out making a list of projects he’d like to do.  It’s a short list.  When he finishes one, he has to take it off the list and also take at least one other project off the list, a project that will never be finished.  The idea is that there’s this list of options, but he knows that some of them will never be completed and some of them will.  So far, this is working and he’s been more productive than before when we’ve tried to list things he’d like to do and it seemed too open ended or too intimidating.  Right now, he’s working mostly on inventing his own candy and trying to finish an online Code Academy course on Javascript.

Coming up next…  Projects for “School”

 

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

CountdownAudiobook
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60’s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60’s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60’s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.

Projects, Part One

leap

So I’ve started to write about the role of projects of various sorts in our homeschool a number of times and keep junking the posts because I have so much to say that keeps coming out as a jumbled mess.  However, “projects” and their role in our learning process have been very much on my mind lately so I’m coming back to try again. First, some background. When people say “project based” they may mean so many different things…

  • a Reggio Emilia like approach where teachers support and create projects based on student interest and inspiration
  • an almost business like approach where students (usually in groups) solve real world style problems (the curriculum Engineering is Elementary is a cool example of this approach)
  • a unit studies style approach to learning
  • an almost unschooling approach, taking special care to encourage and support children’s natural interests to create their own projects (this is the approach in the Camp Creek Blog and Lori Pickart’s Project Based Homeschooling, which I talked about awhile ago in this post)

Basically, “projects” in educational thinking can be very adult led or very child led.  They can be very free form or very specific.  They can be very process oriented or very product oriented, though most projects involve some product.  In other words, who knows what anyone means when they say “project based.”

Previously, projects haven’t been huge for our homeschool.  When we started out learning, one of the things that made Mushroom and BalletBoy great to teach was their ability to be interested in nearly anything.  Sure, some things were more fun than others, but when I said, hey, let’s learn about the Mongols or Roman roads or plant life or how forces work or nearly anything else, they were always up for it.  If I said, let’s do it by trying this experiment, or making this piece of art, or reading this book, again, they were fine with that.

I called them my little Renaissance men.  Let other kids have one track minds for their passions.  My boys were amenable to nearly anything.  So we crammed it all in.  A full cycle of history from the dawn of mankind up to the present (almost, we’re to the Cold War technically).  Piles of historical fiction to support it.  A look at pretty much every science topic you can imagine in biology, physical science, earth science, astronomy, and so forth.  Plenty of art history.  Lots of geography.  And I’m happy with all that.  We used the grammar stage, in classical education thinking, just as it was meant to be used.  We went all through time and space and introduced everything we could.

Well, they’re still pretty amenable, but I can see how they’re changing gears.  I’ve written about how they want ownership and new challenges recently.  As such, I’m changing my thinking about projects and I’m now envisioning projects as one potential solution to our needs.  I’m thinking of these as all of the above.  Child led projects, teacher led projects, projects for contests, projects for the joy of learning, projects for content and for fun.

I’m feeling like this may be a good way to come at the logic stage for us.  I come from teaching middle school for many years and have a vision of it as a time of great growth, but also a need for flexibility and new kinds of learning.  One of the things I want my kids to discover the most is the ability to pursue their own interests and a love of learning.  I think they’ve been too young to fully find their way to those things yet, but they won’t be for long.  I want to turn the reins over a little bit for a little while and loosen up our content structure.

I still see us returning to a more classical approach in a few years when the kids are really ready for high school level science and a primary source based history.  And I don’t want to drop the ball on skills in the next few years either.  I’m hoping to get both kids through algebra within the next three years (or so) and to keep honing their growing writing voices.  However, I’m also excited to let them play with 3D design or robotics for school time.  I’m excited to let them choose things to study about for history and do their own research.  I’m excited to see them design a real science project and carry it out themselves.  I’m hoping to do more things that get us thinking like Destination Imagination does and to enter essay contests and take better advantage of things like traveling exhibits and shows that we see.

So we’re slowly moving toward projects as one of the bases of what we do.  We’re always tweaking and realigning our homeschool, but this feels like a big one even for us.

Up next…  What projects?  Anxiety and projects…

Recreational Maths

I’m pretty sure most homeschoolers know Vi Hart’s videos, but just in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t, they’re really fun math videos.  We watch once occasionally just for fun and then get our doodles on or just go, “Hey, wow!” and leave it at that because we know we don’t have it in ourselves to make that many cookie tessellations.

But the other day, we got onto the hexaflexagons and got quite inspired.

hexaflexagon

Elementary math has to involve a good bit of drudgery practice for most kids to get fluent, but we’re always trying to balance that with tricky problems that make you really think, games instead of just drills for the practice, real world practice like cooking and measurement, and math whimsy, like the hexaflexagons.

April Books

If it seems like a slightly supersized edition of our monthly book round up, that’s because the kids have been reading more.  In a fit of annoyance at the upteenth reread of half a graphic novel, I changed our required reading system completely to become a required hour of reading before bed with anything they wanted, as long as it was new and it wasn’t literally all graphic novels.  Good things ensued.  We are still doing short required reading books for things I want us to discuss together.

The True Meaning of SmekdayAudiobook
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
I read this book on my own awhile ago, and had completely forgotten how hilarious it is.  It tells the story of Gratuity “Tip” Tuchi, an average eleven year old faced with an alien invasion after her mother is abducted.  Humans are supposed to report to a new human preserve and Tip decides to drive, but meets up with an alien on the run named J. Lo. and the plot only gets crazier from there as Tip’s road trip becomes an epic cross country drive in a hover car, being shot at by new aliens, and finding out the truth about Roswell.  There are not enough middle grade science fiction novels out there in my opinion (fantasy abounds, obviously) and this one is a fun one for older elementary and middle school.  The narration on the audiobook is excellent, with a really great choice of narrator for Tip’s voice.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesRequired Reading
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
This is such a short little gem of a book.  Most people will know the story of Sadako, a young Japanese girl, who like so many after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, developed cancer and died young.  We read this one together and discussed it as a sort of counterpoint to the nonfiction book Bomb by Steve Sheinkin, which we read aloud.  Both the boys felt the story was sad but touching and wanted to immediately make paper cranes for Sadako after finishing the book.

I Funny: A Middle School Story (I Funny, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
I, Funny by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
While the name on the author line of this book is Patterson, Mushroom found it when he asked had Chris Grabenstein, the author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, written anything else.  Turns out he co-wrote several books with bigger name authors, including this two book series about a kid who wants to become a stand up comedian but can’t stand up because he’s in a wheelchair.  I didn’t read it, but Mushroom had a very favorable report and is halfway through the sequel and convinced BalletBoy to read it as well.  He says the jokes were funny but that the book is actually very sad as you learn about the accident that put the main character ended up in a wheelchair and killed his parents.

CosmicBalletBoy’s Reading
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This is another book I’ve never read that BalletBoy picked off a shelf after seeing a positive review.  The story is a strange one, but I can see why he picked it because it’s exactly the mix of reality and weird that both my boys enjoy in a book.  BalletBoy says that it’s really a book about dads and being a dad.  This is because the main character, who is just a kid, but a kid who happens to look like a middle aged man, poses as the father of his friends in order to enter a contest to go into outer space.  But when they actually win the contest and go, he has to be the one in charge.  BalletBoy liked it enough that he kept talking it up to all the grown ups he met and even reading them passages from it.

A Tangle of KnotsMushroom’s Also Reading
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
This one I read alongside Mushroom so I can review it too!  After reading The Thing About Georgie, also by Graff, Mushroom asked to read another of her books and we choose this one, which takes place in a just one degree away from reality world where everyone has a Talent.  A large cast of characters, including a girl who bakes perfect cakes, an orphanage director who’s too good for her job, a sinister shopkeeper looking for the perfect peanut butter recipe, and a boy with a Talent for getting himself lost, alternate chapters.  Their stories all intertwine and meet at a final cake bake off.  Cake recipes intersperse some of the chapters.  I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  I really enjoyed the magical realistic feel, but there were places where I didn’t think the story fit as well as it wanted.  Mushroom also liked it, but found it hard to keep track of some of the plot lines and didn’t think the ending was satisfying enough.

Lone Wolf (Wolves of the Beyond, #1)BalletBoy’s Also Reading
Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
This series takes place in the same world as The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a series BalletBoy refused to read when he was on his “only animal books” kick.  But he found this one at the book store and decided it was better (based on the cover, I presume).   It’s not necessary to have read that series to appreciate this one.  It follows Faolan, a wolf cub who is born with a twisted foot and therefore an outcast from the pack.  Raised by a bear and then helped by an owl, he has to figure out who he is and find his way back to a pack.  BalletBoy said he liked it but is debating reading the next one.

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous WeaponRead Aloud
Bomb: The Quest to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
This nonfiction book was an excellent stretch read aloud for the boys and a great way to finish our World War II unit and lead us into the Cold War.  The book focuses on the personalities who built the bomb and the spies who fought over the information.  It’s a really complex tale, filled with all kinds old time spy craft and bits of information about how atomic chain reactions work.  It took the boys a little while to get into it, but by the end of the book they were definitely hooked.

battlingboycover.tiffGraphic Novel
Battling Boy by Paul Pope
This graphic novel was a Christmas gift that sat on the shelf for a little while before being rediscovered and read by both the boys last month.  It’s set in a world that looks like a sort of gritty mix of the present, the old west, and the future.  An old hero has died and the main character must rise to become the new hero.  After reading most of the way through, Mushroom suddenly looked up from it and said, “Hey, this is a hero origin story!”  The art is slightly rough and the story ends on a cliffhanger, but it looks like a sequel is already scheduled to come out later this year.

The Lost Art of Keeping SecretsFarrar’s YA Read
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
This book wasn’t technically a YA novel, but it may as well have been since the protagonists were all in their late teens and very early 20’s.  It fits into this emerging genre of books about college aged characters but since it’s a few years old, I suppose it couldn’t qualify for such new marketing.  I picked up this one because it was a recommended book for people who liked I Capture the Castle (this blog’s name inspiration) on Goodreads.  It takes place in postwar England, where the main character, Penelope, lives in a decrepit old manor house with her beautiful but lonely widowed mother and aspiring rock star brother.  When Penelope meets a new friend, Charlotte, she is swept up into Charlotte’s family and more interesting world.  Of course, she also has her first romance.  While the book didn’t reach anywhere near the quality of the book that led to its recommendation, I really enjoyed the setting and the classic coming of age feel to the story.