The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.
Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.

These days, I feel like I see people embarking with homeschooling in a few different ways. First of all, some people want to learn without formal materials at all and to see where the unschooling life leads them. A second sort wants everything planned out for them and end up with a box program or enrolling in an online school. A third group treats curricula like a checklist, beginning with a list of subjects and filling in the blanks with various programs.

However, we’re increasingly choosing the fourth way, which is to make the curriculum ourselves.

I don’t see a ton of people doing it this way, but I wanted to tout the benefits of stepping away from the prefabricated options while still “doing school.” It’s my understanding that in the early days of homeschooling, before there were legions of companies eager for homeschool dollars and it was difficult to find a packaged curriculum of any sort, this was much more common.

I’ve written a couple of posts about what this looks like in practice at the rowhouse. (See Anatomy of a Project: Houses and Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs as well as Science Without a Net) I tend to begin by compiling a stack of books and other resources and making a loose list of writing assignments, art projects, field trips, experiments, and other things that might take up our time. Other people plan it out with specific readings and timetables. Either way, I think it’s a way of doing school that can work for more people than are doing it at the moment.

For one thing, when you’re the one who did the research and came up with the plan, you’re inevitably more invested in what you’re doing. You know more than when the plan is laid out for you by someone else and are more prepared to respond to rabbit trails and a child’s questions. You also know why each resource was chosen and what its merits are. You believe in the things you’ve chosen and want to use them, unlike when you have a preset list of books and readings, some of which you may actively dislike.

It also allows you to respond to your child’s needs directly. There’s no rereading things the student has already done. All the resources are right for the child’s level. The assignments are made to engage or challenge or remediate your child’s specific needs. You can make a subject that’s dull to your child more interesting by tweaking the focus such as by making history about the history of science or art or making it focused on reading fiction or on not reading at all. You can take a subject that your child is passionate about and make other subjects get covered that way. If a child is passionate about bugs, you read fiction books about bugs, write stories and reports about bugs, draw bugs, eat bugs (the UN says we should try it?), and watch documentaries about bugs. If a child is passionate about Pokemon, you read and write fanfiction and make fan art, you come up with a project like researching which real animals are like which Pokemon or studying biology vocabulary like anatomy terms by looking at Pokemon or studying geography by learning geography terms by looking at Pokemon maps.

Finally, it lets you stay flexible and responsive. Even if planning everything out helps you, when it’s your plan, you know where things can be added or dropped if need be. Not only that, but you’re more likely to stick to it when you can and more likely not to beat yourself up about it when you can’t. After all, you were the one who made it, not some outside entity.

Being willing to take on planning for yourself is intimidating for some people. There’s definitely a learning curve involved. I find the most important thing is figuring out how much can realistically get done. We’re doing a philosophy unit now using several resources and I’m already feeling unsure about whether my original expectations and goals for the unit can be met. Figuring out if you have too many or too few books, the right number of projects or assignments, and the right number of resources for your time can be tricky. It can be tricky both ways. For everyone who ends up with too high expectations and a pile of untouched books, I’m sure there’s someone who thought the project or unit would take much longer or hoped to follow some rabbit trails that never quite emerged or didn’t turn out to have enough appropriate resources to follow.

When you’re planning for yourself, you have to be willing to roll with the punches and make changes. I think the most important thing is to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to ditch a book that isn’t working to look for a better resource. You even have to be willing to ditch an entire topic or plan sometimes. You have to trust that all the reasons you chose to plan for yourself were worth it. You have to trust the process.

On the other side, you also have to be willing to hold yourself accountable. For many people, the appeal of a boxed curriculum is in the preset schedule that tells you, if you haven’t done this, you’re behind and you’d better catch up. Different people have different needs in terms of what makes them accountable. I admit that I find this easier than most people. But if you don’t it doesn’t have to be onerous to make yourself a plan or a checklist. For many people, making a strong routine is good enough. If you need a schedule, make a schedule. It doesn’t even have to list specific resources. It can have a checklist that says, simply, watch a documentary this week. Did you do it? If not, you can’t check it off. Of course, maybe you’ve decided it’s not the right week for one, which is fine, but remember that there was a reason you originally planned it that way. You have to be willing to change your plans, but you also have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids and the unit you’re doing together or if you’re doing it because it’s just easier for you to let go. And if you are letting it go, are you happy with that? It can be a tricky balance. I find I often need to let go of things, but I also often need to push on and make us continue so we can feel satisfied with the work we did.

Just like homeschooling isn’t for everyone, DIYing your curricula isn’t for everyone either. However, I think more people should give it a try these days. Be willing to go without a preset program and see where it takes you.

Opportunities

BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn't look quite like BalletBoy, it's because he's wearing a wig!
BalletBoy backstage with ABT at the Kennedy Center. Photo by a fellow cast member. If you think this doesn’t look quite like BalletBoy, it’s because he’s wearing a wig!

There’s always opportunities in life. Our most recent one was a biggie. BalletBoy auditioned and was accepted as an alternate in two dances for American Ballet Theater’s Sleeping Beauty. If you’re a ballet dork, you probably understand how big that is. If you’re not, I’ll just tell you, it was definitely an honor.

So, of course, he really wanted to do it. And, of course, I was super proud of him. He worked incredibly hard. I had the pleasure of seeing him dance on the big stage in front of the packed audience and I could see why it took so many rehearsals. One of the dances was incredibly intricate. He was so happy.

The price for this opportunity was a week of missed school for the performances, several months of extra ballet in the form of rehearsals, a lot of late nights, a missed performance at the Kennedy Center (I know, the irony that we had tickets to see something else!) and, worst of all, having to dig out of the snow early and miss the prime sledding days.

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I struggle with opportunities. And I get sick of all the people who imply or even outright say that you can have it all. You just can’t. You have to make choices. Maybe this is a little bit of a piggyback on my lunch post from a month ago, but I’ve learned that there’s only so much you can do, whether it’s cooking or big, exciting opportunities or even little opportunities.

There are just so many opportunities. Every sunny, warm day is an opportunity to go outside for a hike or a trip to a nice nature spot. Every snowy day is an opportunity to go sledding and build a snowman. There are chances for different field trips and new classes posted on our homeschool board every day. The minute this ballet ended, we got a chance to attend another audition. And then there are the project and curriculum and book opportunities. Sometimes I see things that would be magical and fun and I want to bring them into our homeschool. But there are so many of them. That’s another sort of opportunity.

I am trying to learn to pass up the opportunities and say no to them as often as I can stand it. It really takes strength, but we have to have a balance between the routine and the opportunities, no matter what kind they are. The routine is important too. It makes the opportunities seem all the more magical and special when they arise. So here’s to the roads not taken.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Boing Boing Boing

I rarely recommend products here (and I’m not getting anything out of it this time), but I want to tout the awesomeness of our mini trampoline.

All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.
All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.

It’s a Jumpsport. We bought it a few years ago when we decided we needed more of an indoor energy outlet and I wish I had bought it years before. However, my experience with mini trampolines had been pretty negative. They creak noisily and don’t have a ton of fun bounce.

Someone recommended that I look at a Bellicon mini trampoline because the design is completely different. Most mini trampolines use metal springs. The springs are what creak and you can even get caught on them. The design for this other type of trampoline involved large bungee cords instead, so no creak and a higher bounce. To help with the bounce, the trampoline is also up on taller legs. At time, the cheapest Bellicons I could find were more than $600, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I was sold that a bungee trampoline was the way to go, so in looking around, I found the Jumpsport, which was a cheaper option. I decided to risk buying it. It was still a lot more than a traditional mini-trampoline, even if it was a deal next to the Bellicon. Now there are others that use the same bungee design, so there are even more options now, but we’ve been really happy with the Jumpsport.

We adore this trampoline. I can’t even begin to say how much use it has gotten over the years. In fact, it got so much use that when I looked at the cords not long ago, I realized that several of them had worn out so I ordered a new set from the company and restrung the whole thing. Now it has brand new bounce, which is pretty exciting.

Every time someone is freaking out, or upset, or fidgeting, or has energy to burn, they just go to the trampoline and jump. Sometimes, the kids jump on the trampoline off and on for hours. Sometimes, they sit on it to do math or other work, even though they can’t bounce. It’s just such a beloved spot. It is the best tool for cheering up and focusing that I know of. Basically, if you don’t have a mini trampoline in your house, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most important school tools I know of.

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

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Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

90 Second Newbery

90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.

We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.

This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:

I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.

The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.

Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.

Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.

Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.

Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.

I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.

Goodbye 2015

Mushroom does sparklers on our Solstice bonfire night.
Mushroom does sparklers on our Solstice bonfire night.

I’ve been silent lately because we had a tough December. My father passed away, somewhat unexpectedly, and much of the last part of December were devoted to that. A lot of little things went wrong as well. Kids struggling with anxiety and sadness, broken car, mysteriously broken oven, final epic migraine to cap off 2015. The kids helped Christmas be bright. It’s hard to stay too down when there are two eleven year-olds opening video games, wacky t-shirts, and books. However, I admit that I’ve felt a little bit like this dark, gloomy, rainy weather has reflected my year end mood.

It really wasn’t a bad year overall. The kids had a great DI season last year. I feel so good about our last few school projects, especially our 90 Second Newbery film. BalletBoy’s devotion to ballet grew and he scored a small part (but a dancing part) in an upcoming Kennedy Center Performance (he may get to share the stage with Misty Copeland). Mushroom got to perform his first role in drag as Edna in Hairspray. Mushroom took up diving, which he’s really loving. We all traveled, played games, and have just generally have a pretty blessed life. It just ended on a down note is all.

I don’t like resolutions, but I do try to make commitments. One of my commitments last year was something I wrote about recently – my commitment to serve a hot lunch most days. This year, my school and parenting commitment is to helping us appreciate the silence and tune out the noise. It’s really hard to do, but I’d like to introduce more silence and quiet into our days. I’d like us to return to starting the day with a moment of silence. I see that it’s extra hard for all of us, what with so many distractions around us. However, I think it’s important to learn to just be and think.

 

Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs and Evolution

At the end of the summer, I asked the kids what they wanted to study in the fall and “dinosaurs” and “extinct stuff” were two of the proposals. Now we’re toward the end of this project and I thought I’d do another Anatomy of a Project entry. I think a lot of people are intimidated by going DIY with a large portion of schooling or cobbling a subject together using different resources, but it can be really rewarding and positive.

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Planning

I usually embark on these sorts of things by gathering stacks of resources, some of which I buy, some of which I check out from the library, some of which I just make note of in case we want to use them later on. I don’t always have a specific plan for this stuff. Usually I’m just getting stuff to get us excited as much as anything.

The biggest thing I did was talk to the kids about trying their first MOOC. MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses offered for free by colleges. I heard great things about Dino 101 from the University of Alberta, which is offered through Coursera. I enrolled myself (after a lot of debate about how to deal with users under 13) and planned to have us all do the course together.

I looked at various curricula. Build Your Library has a unit study on evolution that I flirted with getting but decided against, in part because we had already read the fiction book they use, The Education of Calpurnia Tate. I found a couple of other unit study type things, but they were mostly for younger kids so I decided not to get anything, at least for the moment. The one curriculum book I purchased was Life Through Time, which is a GEMS guide. We’ve used some other GEMS books in the past with success. I got this one and it looked pretty exciting.

Then I dove into the books. I bought and checked out a huge number of books. I didn’t really do a lot of searching. Instead, I found the nonfiction section about evolution and fossils and took out everything in the right reading level. We’re lucky enough to have such a good library that I can do that.

Beginning

We started our school year with a lot of field trips and excursions. We went to sketch and explore the fossil collection at Q?rius, the older kid discovery room at the Smithsonian National History Museum. We looked at a number of different things, but one of the coolest things we got to handle was large agatized dinosaur bone. It was polished and beautiful to see the inside of the bone. I also let the kids spend a couple dollars to buy polished fossils from the shop, which was quite a treat. We added these to other fossils we’ve collected over the years, like shark teeth and ammonites, and put them in a case together with labels.

Not purposefully, but we started with a lot of films. We had a chance to see two IMAX films – one about dinosaurs and another about mammoths. We also immediately turned to NOVA as one of our favorite shows and watched an episode about Spinosaurus, an unusual dinosaur that preyed on fish. Because we had just seen the film about mammoths, we also read the related book Mammoths and Mastodons by Cheryl Bardoe, which was an excellent read.

We began to read more books. We began with Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle. This book was at the right level for the kids to read independently. We used it as a good book for practicing written narrations and summaries. I had them read a few chapters (they’re quite short) and write a summary. We also dove into dinosaur books. I let the boys pick what they wanted to read. BalletBoy chose to read a Scientists in the Field book called Digging for Bird Dinosaurs. Mushroom read Sue: The Story of a Colossal Fossil. Each of those books were longer and more in depth. Again, we used the books as a jumping off point for practicing writing skills.

The Dino 101 MOOC turned out to be just as good as people promised. There are interactive questions in the middle of the lessons. While parts of the course have been heavy on vocabulary, for the most part it has been both in depth but accessible to the boys. Many of the topics have allowed the kids to delve into other issues such as basic animal anatomy, Latin word roots (did I mention the vocabulary?), geology, and evolution. It has been a really far reaching course and we’ve all really enjoyed it. The quizzes are pretty easy for me. I cut and paste them into a document and let the kids take them too, though they’re more challenging for the kids. Each quiz is just five multiple choice questions. The kids have mostly done pretty well on them, but I’ve helped them study.

BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.
BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.

We also took a field trip to Dinosaur Park. We’re really lucky to have a small regional park nearby where outcroppings are from the late Cretaceous period and have included dinosaur bones. Of course, we didn’t manage to find anything interesting, but it was neat to see so many impressions of bark and other plants from the time of the dinosaurs and to learn how to look.

As topics arose in Dino 101, we used it as a chance to explore other topics. When evolution was explored, we took another look at it, reading the excellent graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hossler and practicing written narrations by writing about how evolution works. We watched episodes of Nature and discussed concepts like adaptation and natural selection. When geologic time came up, we explored it by looking at other time periods and trying to tie together our fossil collection and other topics we had explored, like mammoths earlier in the fall. We especially liked the series A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before the Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner. The book When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth was our favorite. This series was more in depth than I expected. We made geologic timelines to try to tie everything together.

Mushroom spotted in a catalog that a new Cardline game was about to come out – Cardline: Dinosaurs. If you’ve never seen the game, there are lots of different versions. In this one, each card features a prehistoric creature and facts about it. Players only have access to what the creature is with a drawing. You try to place the creatures in order of a chosen attribute such as how much they weighed. It can be much more challenging than you expect. We immediately bought the game and played it. We also used the cards to practice organizing dinosaur types, distinguishing which ones were dinosaurs and which weren’t, looking at different geologic eras. This was just a great addition to our studies.

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Mushroom’s geologic timeline

We also enhanced our study with drawing a little bit. We found a library book about how to draw different dinosaurs. We added some dinosaur poems to our poetry teas. We had some by Jack Prelutsky and another book by William Wise. They were light children’s poems, but I like the way we can find these connections across the different things we study.

Since we were also using Faltering Ownership from Brave Writer, the next writing project was supposed to be a mini-report about a natural disaster. I wanted to combine this with our current project so I asked the kids to choose a dinosaur to write about instead. It was a big undertaking to learn to write down sources, use notecards for organization, and then write their first real report, but both Mushroom and BalletBoy did a great job. Partway through, Mushroom asked if he could change his to becoming the text of a picture book about Argentinosaurus, which he did.

After the reports, both the boys said they were feeling basically done with dinosaurs and evolution. We still have to finish up the MOOC and we have an upcoming workshop to look at fossils to understand climate during the time of the dinosaurs, but other than wrapping up loose ends, we agreed that the project had wound to a natural end.

Regrets

One of the hardest things about wrapping up a project is all the roads not taken. We read The Sandwalk Adventures but we didn’t get around to Hossler’s equally good Evolution, another graphic novel explaining the concepts of evolution. I had hoped we would go back to Dinosaur Park more often, but weekend commitments made it hard. I had hoped we would do more fossil sketching, but we only did a little bit because the kids weren’t that into it. There are a pile of books on the shelf that we never got to, such as books about pterosaurs and books about the links between dinosaurs and birds. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at Feathered Dinosaurs by Christopher Sloan and thinking, huh, maybe we can squeeze in one ore? I’m especially sad we weren’t able to adapt the activities in the GEMS Guide Life Through Time, but many of the activities didn’t end up making sense in a homeschool context and others were edged out by other things we decided to do.

While I could easily think of a whole other semester of stuff we could do about dinosaurs, evolution, extinction and other related topics, the kids are ready to move on to the next thing and pushing it too far would likely just make them dislike the good work we already did. We’re going to start a unit on philosophy and I’ve asked them for ideas about what they’d like to do next, so I guess we’ll see where we end up after the holidays.

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The books headed back to the library

 

Instant Challenge!

Do you do DI? I’m always trying to spread the Destination Imagination word to people. I think it’s a great activity for homeschoolers especially because it focuses on team building and social skills, but of the real world sort and not the annoying class project sort.

Basically, in DI, your team chooses a challenge (they’re different every year) and prepares a “solution” to present at the tournament. The challenges range from improv games to building robots to creating weight bearing structures to making plays to helping people. This year, my kids’ team chose a challenge where they have to create a mystery story. But, being DI, of course there’s more. It has to be set some time in history, it has to be presented on a wacky shaped stage with the audience sitting facing each other, it has to include some sort of clue that uses engineering of some kind, and the kids won’t know the ending until they start the skit so they had to prepare multiple endings. That’s the sort of thing you do in DI.

There’s one other piece of competition in DI and that’s the Instant Challenge. An Instant Challenge happens super fast. Kids are given just a few minutes to work out a “solution” to this one and it can be anything. Some are performances, like make a skit about a road trip where you meet three monsters or make a skit where one person can’t talk and everyone has to figure out why. Others are tasks and the tasks can be anything. There’s a lot of bridge building and tower building with things like paper cups and chenille sticks, but I’ve seen task challenges were you have to move things around or create secret codes or float boats or send projectiles across a room. Other challenges ask kids to make something, like a painting or a building or anything really, and then use in somehow in a skit.

Instant challenges are great for teamwork and practicing quick thinking. Even if you don’t do DI, you can do Instant Challenges. They could be great for starting off other group meetings like scout troops or robotics clubs. They could be a good get to know you or fun challenge in a class or co-op. They could make an interesting party game. Yeah, I know, I’m a DI crazy person, but I do sort of think it’s true. Instant Challenges are wacky and fun.

Here’s some of my favorite sources for IC’s (aka Instant Challenges). Some of these collections include old challenges really used at tournaments and others are just ones created for teams to practice. None of these documents have names so I had to give them random ones.

The Mouse Set (my favorite set)

The Ruler Set (more from the Mouse author… this is a great challenge writer)

The Gazebo Set (last one from the same author)

The Iowa Set (old tournament ones)

The Tennessee Set (includes some non-IC team building too)

The Ohio Set (from an old official practice set)

The Random Set (another from an old practice set)