BalletBoy has been writing up a storm lately. First there was a long story about a boy who traveled in time and literature to a mash up of Robin Hood and King Arthur. Then he got excited about sequel where the boy ended up with the Greek gods (though that one didn’t get finished). Next, seeing a 250 word spooky story contest, he knew he had to enter and immediately sat down to write something scary.
Well, it was scary. It was genuinely creepy. The main character finds himself in a creepy house while trick or treating. At first he thinks the doctor and nurse are just costumes and the lab is just decoration, but after seeing the patient seem to die on the table, he starts to think it’s real and makes a run for it. Two years later, in the hospital with a broken leg, the same nurse shows up. It leaves on a creepy, the nurse might be murder him right in the hospital cliffhanger.
I could never have dreamed that up in my wildest nightmares. But kudos to BalletBoy for such a spine-tingling horror story. Everyone in the house read it and agreed. It was actually a little terrifying. We heaped him with accolades.
“So let’s send it in!” he pestered me.
“Can we revise it?” I pestered back. “Great writers all have editors. They all revise.”
“But it’s good. You said it was good!”
“It’s excellent. But it will be even better once you revise it.”
He pouted a little but agreed and we set to work. This has been the biggest block for him. That’s pretty normal and I’m not upset. But I also want him to see revision as a normal part of the writing process and something that you just do. I showed him pages I’ve gotten back from my writing group, covered in notes. This is what professional writers get back too, I explained. He perked up a little.
I typed up the story and fixed the few spelling errors and mechanics issues. There weren’t many and he’s fine with me correcting that stuff. Then we printed out.
He chose a green pen for me and with the exception of two rewording suggestions, I just covered the whole story with questions. What was the main character thinking here? How was he feeling there? Why did this character do that? What did this look like? What did that sound like?
He chose a red pen for himself and went through it answering the questions that he wanted to answer. This is what it looked like:
We took turns typing up his changes. And voila. He had a really solid story with more detail and therefore creepiness than when it started (he did have to cut it for the contest, but that’s another story). And even better, he felt really good about it. No tears. No anger. We’ve tried doing revisions together, we’ve tried cutting things apart, we’ve tried sticky notes, we’ve tried a few things, but overall this method of questions all over worked really well. Hopefully we’ll be able to use it again.
Learned about Malala’s win of the Nobel Peace Prize, watched a couple of mini-documentaries about her, discussed how different education and gender issues are around the world and how lucky we are here.
Talked a bunch about upcoming projects we’d like to do and decided on designing houses and then writing our own choose your own adventure stories.
Watched a documentary about the Antikythera Mechanism.
Walked up to buy Mushroom a new notebook and let the kids buy the Husband a birthday present they wanted for him.
Drew pictures of steampunk machines for our ongoing steampunk project.
Mushroom learned to play Minesweeper for the logic puzzles in Beast Academy 4B.
BalletBoy answered silly dictionary questions from If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How to Write You’ve Gotta Have This Book then wrote several of his own by playing with the dictionary.
Mushroom finished reading the Indian math text on ratios.
Everyone practiced piano really loudly.
BalletBoy took three breaks to work on a new idea for a Scratch project that he recently dreamed up.
Mushroom ran all his lines and songs for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
BalletBoy stretched for ballet and pestered me to find out if his Nutcracker part had been emailed (he’s going to be a Party Child and a Ginger Snap, by the way).
Comforted the cat, who was very ill and hiding in the downstairs bathroom (he’s doing better now though!).
Went to play Dungeons and Dragons in the afternoon with friends.
Some things we didn’t do on Friday:
Spelling. No one did their lesson in All About Spelling.
Math. Mushroom may have done all of his, but BalletBoy barely did two pages of his and it involved a lot of melodramatic complaining. Most of it lighthearted, but still. It’s just subtracting fractions. You don’t need an hour to do ten problems. Except apparently you do.
Writing. BalletBoy got to his writing. Mushroom managed to avoid it.
Chores. They were supposed to empty the dishwasher and take out the recycling.
Reading. No one got to their nonfiction reading.
It’s all about focusing on the good stuff, I think. Otherwise, I might go crazy on a daily basis.
We recently took a trip to Niagara Falls, where we took an extra day to head to Toronto. Partly we just wanted to see Toronto since none of us had ever been, but the main thing we ended up doing was spending most of the day at the Royal Ontario Museum, which we all agreed was pretty excellent. I promise you that even with a water park in our hotel, a giant gushing waterfall to view, and a pile of vacation sweets to enjoy, that museum was one of the highlights of the trip for my ten year olds.
Having kids who think that way is partly just luck, but most of it was that from a young age I was determined to end up with museum lovers. I think I obviously did something right on that front, so here are some thoughts on getting kids to enjoy museums.
Even Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Enjoy a Museum
I never shied away from taking my boys to museums, even when they were three or four. I don’t mean children’s museums or science centers (though we did plenty of those too), but real art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. I just always expected that this is something that they would do and I never thought to myself, that museum is not appropriate for kids. That doesn’t mean I didn’t also accommodate them by carrying them sometimes, taking lots of breaks, coupling museum trips with treats, and so forth. However, the expectation that art was interesting to see was always a given and I never undermined that by being hesitant about presenting it to the kids. I’ve seen a few parents approach museums with the expectation that the museum will be a failure for the kids, because they don’t think kids will really find the museum interesting. Of course my kids were occasionally bored too, but they also never got the signal that it was normal to find art and artifacts boring, because I actually don’t believe that’s true.
Join Every Museum (If You Can)
One of the things that most people can’t replicate that we did right was simply exposing the kids to tons of museums all the time. Living in Washington, the land of free museums, makes this massively easier for us. We did join zoos and science centers and children’s museums, but if we lived somewhere else, I would have joined the art museum and historical society museum if those were available as well. Obviously putting down that much money for museum memberships isn’t possible for everyone, but if you can, being able to go to museums often enough to have a membership pay for itself is really important to raising a museum goer. Kids don’t learn to become museum lovers by going to the museum once a year. It takes lots of visits.
Half an Hour is a Solid Museum Visit, Really
That brings me to another point. When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, it wasn’t unusual for us to be in a museum for less than an hour. When you’ve got your museum membership (or visit a free museum), it’s easy to dip in for a short time. A short visit helps the trip be all positive. It never allows it to get to the point where the kids are melting down and sick of being there. Instead, you leave while everyone’s happy after seeing just one thing that you really focused on. Trying to force a visit to last all day to get the most out of going into town is understandable, but for younger kids, I don’t think it really pays off.
Engage, Discuss, and Model
When adults go to museums, they often wander quietly from room to room, reading the little plaques and interpretive displays and only occasionally chatting with each other. I’ve seen a few parents try that approach with kids, but obviously that isn’t going to fly, especially not for younger kids. I think the only way to get kids engaged is to show them what engaged looks like. So when we’re at museums, we talk quite a lot. I ask them questions, I tell them what I’m thinking, I encourage them to ask questions. Basically I’m modeling what’s going on in my head as I view the art or artifacts. I read the interpretive text aloud to them. I model excitement and interest. When they want to show me something, I let them take me off to another part of the museum. If we meet a docent or volunteer, we ask questions and I model listening and being interested. They’re still kids. Sometimes they lose interest, but usually this approach works and they want to be curious as well.
Take Advantage of Museum Programs
Storytimes and other children’s programs are so invaluable. We’ve been really lucky to have the National Gallery of Art programs at our disposal. They do two amazing programs for different ages. For younger kids, they read a picture book, discuss a painting, and make a small craft. For older kids, they spend an hour discussing a single work or art. However, when Mushroom and BalletBoy were younger, we enjoyed many other programs at the other museums we visit. Hearing other people talk passionately about art and history is really good for kids to see it’s not just their parents.
Couple Museums With Fun Experiences
We do this a lot less now, but when Mushroom and BalletBoy were very young, a trip to a museum was often coupled with stopping to have a cookie in the cafe or getting an ice cream on the way home. Or after the museum, we would stop at a fountain to splash or take a ride on the carousel. Or we would meet friends and let them run around outside after their time in the museum. It wasn’t a reward exactly, but rather it was an acknowledgement that doing something fun and easy after doing something that required a little more focus and restraint helps make a positive association. Now my kids are old enough that they don’t need a special food or to see a friend in order to enjoy a museum trip. However, I’m sure that those earlier treats helped them think of even the “boring” trips as something worthwhile. It helped train a good habit of enjoying museums.
Bring a Sketchbook
Bring a sketchbook and pencils and sit and draw. Don’t be afraid to sit on the floor like the artists in a museum. And don’t be afraid to let a younger child do this as well. Obviously don’t give a preschooler with a penchant to mark on everything a Sharpie in a gallery, but most kindergarteners are old enough to handle the rules. We’ve done this several times and it’s always really rewarding and lets us look more closely at the art.
Read a Book There
We don’t do this often anymore, but in the past we have several times brought and read picture books in the museums, right in front of the art that it applies to. There are tons of biographies of artists you could read aloud. The Katie series by James Mayhew and the Anholt’s Artists series by Laurance Anholt are two light art story picture book series. If it’s a history or natural history museum there are other possibilities as well. There’s something really special about sitting down in front of a painting and reading a book that features it or explains it.
Make a Game of It
Finally, I learned early on that scavenger hunts and other such find it games really help engage kids when they’re younger. Some museum have such scavenger hunts set up already for kids (occasionally with small rewards). Sometimes you can use the brochures at the desk as a sort of scavenger hunt (such as to find all the works in the highlights brochure). Other times, the scavenger hunt can be more abstract. Can you find a painting for happy, sad, angry, bored, tired, and pained? Can you find paintings with a circle, a square, a diamond, a trapezoid, etc.? Can you find five Greek gods in the Greek and Roman galleries? Or ten Christian saints in the medieval galleries? Can you find ten different occupations? Or ten different animals? Games like these help kids keep their eyes open and their attention focused. It’s a trick, but it’s a trick that helps develop close attention. As my kids get older, we need these games less and less, though they’re still fun occasionally, even for me.
Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!
Audio Book The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis
This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.
Another Audio Book Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.
BalletBoy’s Reading The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman
Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.
Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis
Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.
Graphic Novel The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings
The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.
School Reading Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang
This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.
More School Reading The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine
I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.
As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.
Story of the World This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.
Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.
The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.
USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.
David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.
David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.
History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ReadAloud 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.
Audio 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 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.
BalletBoy’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.
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.
Mushroom’s OtherRead 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.