Hands on Math: Manipulatives and More

FullSizeRender (1)

I’m a bit of a math manipulatives nut. The folks over at SecularHomeschool.com asked me to write a post for their new Soup to Nuts discussion group so my post is up today. Here’s the first little bit:

I remember the first time I encountered Cuisenaire rods in a graduate workshop. “Be sure you allow time for kids to play with them,” began the instructor, looking around at a room full of educators turning the tiny blocks into towers and patterns of stripes. As we knocked over towers and tried to pay attention to the instructions on how to use these colorful little things with students, we laughed. Even the adults were drawn to playing with their math.

I’ve since learned that there are a million ways to play with your math and hold it in your hands. It’s not a necessary step for absolutely every student, but for most, it makes math more fun, more tactile, and easier to understand. Math manipulatives can be a lifeline for some math strugglers, a shortcut to understanding for some thinkers, and a means to get to a deeper understanding for others. There are dozens of different products out there for both arithmetic and geometry and even an array of products for algebra. There are also ways to make math hands on by bringing it into the real world in other ways.

You can find the rest of my post as well as any discussion that arises from it here.

Year in Review: What I Learned

Mushroom climbing and taking risks.
Mushroom climbing and taking risks.

In my last post, I talked about what the kids learned and worked on. However, as I wrote, I realized that some of the most important learning was my own, adjusting to having older kids who are nearly in middle school, kids who have a much more tween like attitude.

I think probably the most momentous thing to happen in school this year was Mushroom, in angry tears saying, “I wish you weren’t my teacher!”

He’s changed his mind. He’ll probably change it again at some point. However, it was the first time anything like that ever escaped his lips. In a way it’s sort of funny and sweet. He’s growing up and it’s not as easy to satisfy him. He questions a lot more and is more likely to argue. BalletBoy is working his way toward being a champion arguer. But while I value that all these things are good in one way as the boys gain independence, I can’t deny that they’ve been difficult for all of us to figure out how to navigate.

I got some good advice and have figured out a few things for dealing with this pre-teen stuff. I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a few years and think how naive I was, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Feed them.
Mushroom and BalletBoy are probably going to be on the short side. They’re definitely not puny, but they’re among the shorter kids in their age group. However, they’ve shot up in the last year. Enough that Mushroom said to me the other night, “How did I get so big? Just look at me!” They’re clearly working on some more growth soon. Their eating habits have gone back to being more like toddlers too. Some days they pick at everything. But often they devour a whole burrito in one gulp. We had mostly done away with a lot of the casual snacks in our lives over the last few years. We just didn’t need as many as when they were little, but now the snacks are back. I’m learning that they help. Being a grouch? Hey, would you like a granola bar? How about a banana? Yogurt tube?

Appreciate their contradictions.
And I thought nine was full of contradictions. Ten is a whole other level. They are just too big for my lap now, yet they still climb in when they’re sad, sometimes nearly knocking over the chair. Then other times they nearly smack my hand away if I pat their shoulders or back. They insist they can walk a mile away alone one day, then feel incapable and nervous about asking the librarian for a book the next day. They make these great insights during discussions one day, then struggle to remember something incredibly simple the next. Rather than get whiplash, I’m trying to appreciate the little kid moments when they still really need me or play pretend with each other as well as the grown up kid moments when they teach me something I don’t know or want to talk about the meaning of life. Speaking of which…

Engage in deep questions.
I’m learning that this age is completely about big questions. A few years ago, big questions were things about how things work like why is the sky blue. Now the big questions are things like why do bad things happen to good people, is there really a God, and how do we stop wars. Mushroom asked if we could study religions for school, which turned into one of our bigger projects. The logic chapters in Jousting Armadillos also helped fill this need. I’m figuring out how much we need to be engaging with deeper thinking and real questions. Next year, I’m planning to use Philosophy for Kids with them, which I think will help fill this need. I think to keep them engaged in school, learning has to be full of these big questions, even in skill subjects like writing and math.

Give them a break.
And now we come to that contradiction. I think that while we’re doing schoolwork that’s hopefully more and more challenging and thought-provoking, I’m learning that they’re just as likely to get overwhelmed by too much work, either at home or in extracurriculars. Also, many times this year I’ve had the experience of watching one of them do something difficult like a tricky algebra problem or a long dictation, and then turning around and getting something really basic wrong like forgetting how to divide or misspelling “because.” It feels like we’re back to that uneven development that was so characteristic of when they were little. One day they could read the little reader, the next day they genuinely could not. And now I see it again sometimes. I’m learning to cut them some slack.

Look for meaningful experiences.
When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, a trip to a museum or coloring a picture might be meaningful experiences for learning and life. They were fulfilling things in terms of learning and experiencing the world. Drawing and museum trips may still be useful and part of what we do, but they’re no longer fulfilling in the same way. Just like how the kids are asking deep questions, they’re also really looking for meaningful experiences. I think being in real competitions, such as soccer games or Destination Imagination tournaments, feels like a meaningful experience for them. Performing on stage feels meaningful. Taking risks feels meaningful. Creating their own projects such as the video game machine Mushroom built with his Raspberry Pi or the short story BalletBoy is working on can feel like meaningful work.

They’re clearly seeking out experiences with more depth that feel like they make a difference. I want to begin to tie this in with service learning at least sometimes. And to find ways to let helping around the house, which they do unevenly, be something that feels meaningful. This is definitely something I’m hoping to think more about as they get older. At their age, I began cooking dinner most nights and doing a lot of the household shopping. I know that having what I understood was an important role in the house grounded me in many ways through those years. There’s no way they’re going to have a similar experience, but I also want to look for ways that meaningful experiences and meaningful work can be a part of the picture for them.

 

Year in Review: What the Kids Learned

We’re actually still “doing fifth grade” so perhaps it’s early for a year in review, but early summer always feels like a reflective time for how school is going. As I wrote this, I realized that there were really two elements to my reflection: what they learned and what I learned about growing kids. Obviously, they’re intertwined, but I put the “school” elements here and I’ll save the tween attitudes for my next post.

Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.
Mushroom cutting up and rearranging sentences in his first formal essay.

This year has been different from the others. We’ve been more engaged with projects and questions. I’ve been more responsive to the kids’ schoolwork requests. I’ve written a good bit here about why we made this shift, but I continue to be glad we focused on exploring lots of content in the early grades and are switching to being more project focused for the middle grades. Some of the projects we did this year included learning about houses, reading steampunk literature and making art, studying world religions, exploring probability, learning about ancient Egypt, doing chemistry experiments, and writing poetry. Not every project we did went perfectly, but overall I feel good about continuing to wing content by letting it arise naturally. I suggest things, they suggest things, questions the kids ask lead to some projects, books or documentaries lead to others. Over the summer, we decided to tackle graphic design and I look forward to seeing what emerges next.

Skill subjects have been a decidedly mixed bag. Math has involved perhaps an insane amount of curriculum hopping. Mushroom is doing well right now alternating daily between Jousting Armadillos and Process Skills in Problem Solving. They’re such radically different resources. He loves Jousting Armadillos and its talkative, do just a few problems then try this very tricky puzzle approach and hates the complex problems in Process Skills. However, I like the interplay between then. BalletBoy started the year using Math in Focus but we ditched it after finishing 5a and switched to MEP, where he is starting on MEP5b. I have been frustrated finding the right level for BalletBoy’s math. He found some elements of Math in Focus far too easy and others far too difficult. MEP has been good for us because it has forced me to really sit and teach him using the lesson plans. Still, I’m not sure what we’re going to do long term. He still makes an egregious amount of careless errors in his math. One problem will be wrong because he accidentally added incorrectly, another because he skipped a step, another because he couldn’t read his own messy writing, another because he misunderstood the question, and finally another because he was off in BalletBoyland and forgot what he was even doing. Getting this kid to focus on math is like pulling teeth sometimes.

On the flip side, BalletBoy does have focus for writing. Brave Writer has continued to serve us well. The boys wrote short stories, poems, reflections, and their first short formal essays, though with lots and lots of help. Both the boys keep slowly improving their dictation mechanics, even if getting them to improve it in their own writing is difficult. Spelling has been a huge trial for Mushroom again this year. He improved so much with All About Spelling for the first two years of using the program, but this year in level 5, his improvement ground to a halt. BalletBoy wrapped up level 6 without too many issues, but I gave up on using it with Mushroom and tried How to Teach Spelling, which has a similar approach but a lot more dictation sentences. I thought it would be good for him to practice. He would improve for a little while then go back to not remembering if a word used “ee” or “ea.” And somehow, in those cases, he always seems to make the wrong choice. Finally, I cried “uncle” on this whole spelling thing. I give up, at least for now. He deserved a break and so did I. His spelling is now extremely easy to decipher 95% of the time and I’ve decided that’s okay for now. We’re committing to doing more dictation to try and work on spelling and mechanics in context.

photo 2 (16)

As always, one of our biggest difficulties was balancing homeschooling with extracurriculars. In particular, our year was taken over with performances. BalletBoy did his first Nutcracker and later got to be an extra in a Kennedy Center ballet, plus he performed with his marimba ensemble. Mushroom did a musical and had a small role in a local community production then went right into a main role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both boys were in Much Ado About Nothing. When you tossed in soccer and regular co-op and so forth, it was just a lot to do. Finding the balance didn’t always work. Theater hours are really hard on ten year olds. I’m not sure how we can change that next year. We compensate by relaxing school but then working on weekends and over the summer as needed. Like everyone else, I want a more relaxed life, but I also don’t want my kids to have to pass up opportunities they greatly want. It’s a very tricky line to walk.

Just the other day, Mushroom discovered that there was such a thing as a “fifth grade graduation” and demanded that we have one. I asked if a special meal would suffice and he agreed. We have some summer camps and will return in late July for more school, to be finished up by September in time for the fall break.

Road Trip Comics

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks here at the Rowhouse. Everything is in transition. You know how transitions are. Plus we’ve been sick. Is there anything worse than a spring cold? Plus, we’ve been getting ready for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which is today. I hope the kids are able to show off their hard work. And directly after the festival, the most epic thing of all… we’re headed to Global Finals for Destination Imagination. As you can imagine, we’ve been antsy and excited.

We have gotten a little school done amidst all that, but writing assignments for Mushroom got suspended as he very single-mindedly decided he absolutely had to make a comic to share with his teammates at Global Finals. There will be one issue every day with a total of four issues. They’re all short, but clearly drawn and very adorable, about an imaginary Destination Imagination team that is also going to Globals. They have some small adventures and in the last issue, they happen to meet our entire team and trade pins with them.

comics

Mushroom often dreams up big projects like this, but he rarely brings them to completion. His anxiety really gets in his way on that very often. He will begin something and then question his ability to really accomplish it the way he wants and give it up rather than keep working. This time he was convinced he had to finish. He let me help him with his spelling. He even insisted on photocopying, collating, and stapling them himself. I’m so glad that he stuck with this project completely on his own with very little help or prompting on my part. He advocated for wanting to work on his own project during all our writing time and I was happy to agree.

One of the things we’ve been aiming for this year has been more kid-driven learning. Up to this point, the kids haven’t really wanted to drive their own learning as much. Even when they’ve had their own projects, they’ve wanted school to stay school. Slowly though, they’re advocating for picking more of their own work, which is exciting to me. I do want to get back to some of the things we had originally intended to do in the last week, but this is much more exciting – a writing and art project he dreamed up himself, carried out without help, accepted some help editing in the last stage, and now has published himself to give out to friends.

So we’re off to Globals! Wish us luck and here’s hoping that Mushroom’s comic series is well received.

Homeschoolers Do DI

I have many times on this blog shared how much I feel that Destination Imagination is one of the most perfect homeschool activities. This is our sixth year of participating in Destination Imagination (I have coached about half of those years) and the second time we’ve won our regional tournament and had the chance to go to States. However, it’s the first time we’ve ever advanced to Global Finals! The boys’ team took second place at States, which qualified them to move on to the biggest DI party on the planet. I’m still a little bit in shock about it a couple of weeks later. It’s a huge win for them.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Destination Imagination (and the formerly related organization Odyssey of the Mind, which is very similar) is a creativity competition. Kids choose a central challenge (unless they’re in the special, non-competitive K-2nd Rising Stars challenge) from among technical, structural, improv, service learning, scientific, and fine arts options. The challenges change every year but generally ask kids to make something and incorporate it into a skit. For example, the technical challenge might ask kids to make a vehicle that can travel to a certain box while they do a skit about travel. The service challenge might ask kids to do a service project that incorporates a logo they make themselves and then present at the tournament. Kids spend months working on their challenge solutions. There’s a second component to Destination Imagination. Teams also have to face an instant challenge at the tournament. This is usually something they have to build or a performance they have to present, usually with only a few minutes to prepare.

Getting ready for a Destination Imagination tournament – both the central and instant challenges – involves a lot of teamwork, of the best sort, the kind that doesn’t feel artificial the way “group learning” does in school. This teamwork feels authentic, the way decisions are made in the real world. It fosters independence since team managers and parents have to sign non-interference contracts. It teaches skills and information of all kinds. You never know where a challenge is going to lead exactly. The kids have learned about historic figures, face painting, movie editing, entomology, structural engineering and more. There are always a lot of rules to a challenge, but finding a way to be creative within those boundaries is part of what encourages kids to really stretch themselves. Instead of just a blank canvas, Destination Imagination gives them limitations but asks them to make something anyway, to look for ways to think beyond the limitations.

Really, I can’t sing the praises of this sort of activity enough. As we’ve done this for several years, the kids have gotten into the culture of DI. They collect DI pins, get excited to design their team shirts, know that zany hat wearing is part of being at the DI tournament, come up with silly call backs when the judges ask if they’re ready, and look forward to the generally positive atmosphere at the tournaments. It’s a competition, but the spirit is friendly. Teams tend to be appreciative and inspired by each other. Basically, Destination Imagination is fun even when you lose.

Of course, we’re so proud that the kids won this year. They have dreamed for a few years of getting a chance to attend Global Finals, which is supposed to be both fun and educational. However, we were pretty surprised by the overall cost. Family has helped out and we expect to foot part of the bill, but we did get sticker shock seeing the cost. A lot of teams have the institutional support of their school, but obviously that’s not the case for us. We’re not even part of a large co-op that can raise the money. As such we’ve done what people do these days and set up a GoFundMe to see if we can raise part of the money for the team to attend. Feel free to share.

Shakespeare! (Plus Free Scripts)

Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)
Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)

I haven’t been posting much in the last few weeks because two events have taken over our lives – Destination Imagination (more on that in a post soon) and Shakespeare.

We’re definitely reaching the stage of homeschooling where I can look back through this blog and find exactly the thing I’d like to write again about what we’re up to. And here it is:

Advice for Any Foolhardy Shakespeare Directors Out There

It’s from as we were gearing up to perform Macbeth a couple of years ago. We just wrapped up Much Ado About Nothing, which was by far our most elaborate production. We’ve now done this four different ways and I through all that, I stand by all that advice. To sum it up:

  • The most important thing you need to direct a Shakespeare show with kids is the will to do it. The kids, the scripts, and even the spaces can all fall into place. Most homeschoolers are practically begging to have their kids have an opportunity to do some meaty Shakespeare.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to play theater games and have fun, even right up to the wire. Kids learn things like blocking and projecting their voices that way, plus thinking of rehearsal as a fun time can be important.
  • If you’ve got kids under age 10, have them learn their lines before beginning rehearsals in earnest.  Before about that age, the majority of kids can’t really act and hold a script and read lines all at the same time. Give them some time to learn the lines after handing out roles and then get started, with everyone off book all at once.
  • Don’t underestimate how hard it is for kids to learn blocking. Kids are sponges. Saying a long Shakespeare line – no problem! But remembering not to do it with your back to the audience and standing behind your best friend – that’s hard.
  • Don’t be afraid to be creative with sets and costumes. Or to just be minimal. I’ve had four productions, all with massively different types and amounts of set pieces and costuming. It can work with a ton of cool set things or nothing but a few simple props.
  • The biggest challenge for me has consistently been finding rehearsal and performance spaces. We’ve used someone’s home, a church gym, a local historic building, and a theater space to rehearse. And we’ve performed in two local professional theaters, a church stage, and a big meeting room. This year, I decided to approach the theater where Mushroom has done a couple of shows and see if they’d like to work with me to try and expand their homeschool program. It was nice not to have to scramble for spaces and afforded us some amazing set and costume help. However, there was something nice about keeping costs low and having other parents pitch in to help bring everything to fruition. Both ways can work.

For elementary schoolers, I found Shakespeare with Children by Elizabeth Weinstein to be the best source of scripts. They’re short, with lots of roles for a large group, and with Shakespeare’s original language throughout, except for a narrator. From that, I edited the scripts by taking some of the text away (for The Tempest) or adding some back in (for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, I’ve also cut two plays for us to use ourselves and thought I’d provide those scripts here for anyone to use.

MACBETH SCRIPT

This script was cut extremely short specifically for performance in the twenty minute time limit set by the Folger Library’s Children’s Shakespeare Festival. It could be a good script for a classroom or co-op performance since it’s of a much more limited scope. It includes many roles, but some can be condensed for a smaller cast.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING SCRIPT

This script is about an hour long. This play is often not performed by children because of it has more innuendo than some of the other comedies. Innuendo likely to be understood by children has been removed from this version. Also, Leonato’s condemnation of Hero is greatly softened, as is Hero’s alleged betrayal. We staged our version in the 1920’s with music, but you could stage it in any era. We also had Beatrice sing Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More, Ladies/Hey, Nonny Nonny” at the start of the show. Note: There are a few typos in this script. I went back to fix them and the original version that wasn’t pdf was missing and editing from the pdf was difficult. Oops. So you get the script with the dozen typos though most are very minor. However, there’s an error on page 12 where Don Pedro enters and speaks to Claudio, except he’s not quite on stage yet.

The Book Talk

booktalkIf you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.

I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.

There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.

Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.

Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?

It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.

We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.

A Load of Malarkey

Warning: rant ahead.

It looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Even positive. But I find this Venn diagram and most of the others I see circulated on social media like it to be a harmful thing. It’s not the way I want to frame my life and definitely not a trap I want my kids to fall into.

Some version of this diagram – sometimes with only three circles, often with different graphic design – comes around every month or two on my various feeds, shared by people whose ideas I usually think are pretty positive and open-minded. It seems like a great idea. You’re asking people to look at their lives and think about how to bring different pieces together, to find meaning, to help others, to think about what they do well. It sounds great.

The problem is that this graph is not achievable for a huge number of people. Getting paid to do something is outside your control to a large extent. Your passion may be something that simply isn’t marketable or easily monetized. And your gifts may not include monetizing your passions. In fact, monetizing one’s passions has a cost for that passion for many people, a cost that some people are uncomfortable paying. So where are you stuck then? Supposedly without a purpose.

It surprises me that I’ve seen so many homeschool moms share this graph because we all have a calling to educate our children. No one is willing to pay us for it, yet we persist. According to this, we have no purpose in our lives. In fact, we’re not even allowed to call education our vocation because according to the Venn diagram, that requires money.

I find an incredible amount of purpose in my life teaching my kids. At this moment, while I do have other things in my life, teaching my children is my driving force. It’s the thing I do all day, the thing that brings me meaning and fulfillment.

Of course, those “other things” are important too. I write, I see friends, I read, I make art. Those things are also an important piece of my purpose and fulfillment in life.

I think this graph is a trap that we build for people in our society. We tell each other that the only path to meaningful lives is to find a career that will do everything for us, a career that we love, that gives us purpose and a comfortable life. We tell ourselves that unless we are paid in money for something, that is has no value. Since others are who pays us, we allow others to determine the value of our work on every level. For a few people, life does work out that way. But for most people I know, they may like their jobs and even find some level of purpose in them, but it’s through their creating unpaid art, coaching their kids’ sports team, passionately discussing books with friends, volunteering at a local charity, sustaining their church or other such work that they actually find a huge part of their fulfillment. The job is what lets them live comfortably and may even be enjoyable work, but it isn’t what brings everyone purpose. That’s the “other things.” And this graph devalues them. It says they’re not important to the real picture. The graph says that shouldn’t be the goal. It’s settling for something lesser.

You see, I’ve also seen people struggle with this and feel like they can’t be happy unless their job is what brings them happiness. It’s looking for paid work to bring us all the answers. Sometimes it can, but sometimes the answers are in unpaid work, family, community, or hobbies. We make it harder for people to find that sense of purpose when we tell them that everything must come together and they should get paid for it. Money is important. There’s no getting around that. If you don’t have enough money to provide basic food and shelter, then you’re never going to have the level of happiness that you need. But if you can achieve that level of basic financial security, I think it’s possible to find purpose in your life and a job doesn’t have to be the source of that purpose.

So I say if being a lawyer is what brings you purpose, then great. if playing role playing games is what brings you purpose, that’s great too. If volunteering at a food bank is what brings you purpose that’s great. If baking fabulous cakes for everyone’s birthday is what brings you purpose, don’t feel like you have to open your own bakery or it isn’t really purpose. If teaching your children is what brings you purpose, then that is purpose, even if no one is paying you. If you get purpose from a bunch of different, unrelated things, that’s great too. Your job doesn’t have to do everything for you.

I want my kids to grow up knowing this. Knowing that if they’re out of work for a year or stuck in a job they dislike but can’t leave for awhile when they grow up, it doesn’t mean they can’t look for fulfillment and meaning in other places. It doesn’t have to mean they have no purpose. If they choose to do a job mostly for the money, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to look for meaning through arts or writing or dance or acting. I want them to know that giving away your time can be more fulfilling and purpose filled than a paying job. And that the world needs people who make money and carefully give it away. I want them to see that this is only one model for living a happy live. It’s not the only model and certainly not the only way to find purpose.

Chemistry from ACS

I know that the blog hasn’t had the big science focus that I had a couple of years ago. However, we do still do science regularly with a small group and I facilitate hands on learning and occasionally experiments. Since we did a full cycle of science topics over the course of four years, I decided to ask the kids what they wanted to revisit. First, we did some physics, but next they wanted to take on chemistry, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.

I looked at a lot of different potential resources for teaching chemistry and I thought about using Inquiry in Action from the American Chemical Society, but it seemed too simple with too many things we’d done in the past. I considered doing The Elements from Ellen McHenry, but it was so focused on a single aspect of chemistry and after doing most of The Brain, I knew I liked her products, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this particular program. I thought about doing chemistry the way we always have by doing our own demonstrations and explorations. I bought an excellent book called 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances with that in mind. However, in the end, I decided to go with the American Chemical Society’s free middle school program. Some of the information has to be scaled down a little since I am working with a group of mostly fifth graders and a few younger kids. However, it has been interesting to use an actual, full science curricula for the first time ever.

The cover page of Middle School ChemistryThe program is not long enough to take the whole year. There are six chapters. Doing the bulk of the experiments from each chapter with a small group is taking us about two weeks per chapter. If I had the kids filling out every table and worksheet, this would be different, but often we do most of the hands on stuff together as a demonstration and discussion and I choose one or two activities to have them really do fully on their own with more writing and recording. I haven’t had them do many of the worksheet elements at all. Instead, we’ve talked about the questions on them. However, even if I did, I doubt it would take a full year.

Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections have student and teacher pages. The student pages are extensive instructions with worksheets and tables to fill out. There are often sections with additional science background for the teacher, which I found very useful. Each chapter has a section of student reading, which we have used for each chapter. I like the progression of information, both overall in the program and within each chapter. Sometimes the organization of the information feels a little overwhelming. It would be much more usable as a physical text, but since I have only the pdf, there is a lot of scrolling to do, which isn’t always ideal. There is multimedia available for every chapter, however those pieces are pretty simplistic. Most of them are short animations of models of molecules interacting to imitate what students have just done in their hands on explorations and experiments.

chemistry

The heart of the program is really the hands on element. I liked that the experiments are tied very closely to the information. For the most part they have “worked” the way that we expect. This was not a “household substances” sort of program. Most of the things we’ve needed have been things we have around the house like water and salt, or things that are easy to get like Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, and clear plastic cups. However, many experiments also call for chemistry glass like graduated cylinders and a few call for chemicals you need to special order or seek out particularly, like calcium chloride. Also, special equipment like a ball and ring apparatus, density rods, and density cubes is called for. I spent a decent amount on supplies at Home Science Tools. However, I figure we’ll be glad of having the science glass later on and all of the special equipment I bought turned out to be great fun. The ball and ring apparatus shows how molecules expand when heated. We did that demo several times over because it was fun to see. And the density cubes were great fun to play with. We really enjoyed having them, so they were worth the money. The fact that the program is free helps offset some of the costs of buying classroom type equipment.

Overall, I really like this program. We have shied away from science curricula because nearly everything I’ve seen has felt like busy work with very little hands on components and only poorly written text. This program is really all well-organized, worthwhile experiments. I would still love to have a more engaging, longer text than what the ACS program has, but at least it’s succinct and well-written. I’ve also had to supplement with videos I find myself, but we’ve found a lot of great ones. We’ve especially been enjoying many of the TED Ed videos and we’ve returned to using a lot of the old Eureka! shorts, which have covered the information perfectly. Here’s the TED Ed chemistry playlist. And here’s a playlist for all the Eureka! videos.

I think we might have been better off waiting a year or two to try this program so that some of the things I’ve had to simplify could have been more fully explored. But that’s what happens when you put the kids in charge of what they want to learn. Overall, we’ve been pleased and it gives me hope that while elementary science programs weren’t our cup of tea, we may find more options for serious home science study in the upper grades.

Reading Short Stories

We changed up how we do reading at the rowhouse a little more than a year ago. We used to do “required reading” from a list of books. The kids had to choose one book per month. I think that was an okay system, but we began to find it difficult to keep up. If my kids were voracious readers, it might have been perfect. However, as it is, they’re just not. They enjoy reading, but they’re not stay up all night readers. And while I had chosen good books at their level, I found that my central goal of wanting them to just read more wasn’t being met by pushing them to read specific books.

So we dropped that. Now, instead, we do an hour of required reading before bed nearly every night. The only requirement is that they read something new to them for at least half of the reading time. In other words, a new book for at least half an hour and then rereading a graphic novel is okay if it’s what they want, which it is sometimes. This has filled that goal a lot better. They read a lot of what I would consider “junky” books, but they also routinely choose interesting books by good authors. Most importantly, their fluency and reading enjoyment has improved, so that goal is met. They read more books than they used to, which is great.

However, I found that as they got older I had another goal. I wanted to push them to read more difficult writing and practice closer reading, such as marking up a text, pulling out quotes, discussing and supporting your opinion, as well as beginning to look at literary elements. Reading one novel a month hadn’t met that goal because everyone was reading something different. We can do a little of that with poetry at poetry teas and also with read aloud novels, but I wanted to add another component, which is why I turned to short stories.

Short stories are perfect for close reading. You can introduce kids to classic authors and stories in a much less intimidating way. You can really pick apart a story from start to finish and feel like you had a meaty discussion. Everything in a short story is condensed so that things like the plot arc become clearer and things like character development and message have to be done with the bare minimum.

To keep it simple, I decided to make it one short story a month. I printed a bunch and put them together. We have mostly stuck with it and I feel it has worked really well. When I initially introduced this and asked the kids to underline and mark things in their copies, they weren’t at all sure what to do. But as we have practiced, I’ve seen them get more adept at finding the things I ask for, such as examples of metaphors, places where you can see a character’s motivation, descriptive writing, examples of irony, or other things. They’ve also gotten more eager to sit and discuss the story, which we do at a special poetry tea time, of course.

I chose stories by looking at lists and short story collections. A few of these we haven’t gotten to yet because we’re not finished with the year, but I thought I’d put our list here. Lists of middle school short stories was a good starting point, but many of the classic stories, such as “To Build a Fire” and “A Sound of Thunder” are ones I wanted to save for various reasons.

Good places to find short stories:

  • Best Shorts edited by Avi is a great collection with stories just right for this age.
  • Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen is a good collection with a more contemporary feel.
  • Guys Read series edited by Jon Scieszka has several volumes with different themes and is continuing to add more. The stories are chosen with boys in mind, but they’re really just great stories by a variety of authors and the “boy” angle can really be ignored. Many of the stories are by popular contemporary authors. For example, the fantasy collection has a Percy Jackson story. However, they also include some older and classic authors.
  • This list is an excellent list for middle schoolers, compiled by polling teachers on a popular education site.

The Stories I Chose for Fifth Grade

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
A great one for homeschoolers because it imagines a very dull sort of future homeschooling. And a good one for talking about the ways that we perceive the future and what’s important for learning and childhood. An easy and quick one to read.

“Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
A parable style story about a boy and the goat he can’t bring himself to take to be butchered.

“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
This was one of our best hits, which inspired a great conversation about human nature and laws. A classic short story about a woman who catches a thief and instead of calling the authorities, takes him home for supper.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
A perfect Christmas season read. The classic story of literary irony. This one was a great hit.

“Scout’s Honor” by Avi
A great funny kid story from author Avi’s childhood. He and his city friends try camping without really knowing what they’re doing.

“The Grown Up” by Ian McEwan
This is from McEwan’s collection of short stories about one boy called The Daydreamer. This one is essentially like the movie Big in short story form.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calabaras County” by Mark Twain
The language in this story is a slight stretch for some kids, but the story is great for thinking about dialect and untrustworthy narrators. Plus, it’s funny.

“Nuts” by Natalie Babbitt
A funny take on the devil as a trickster. This is from Babbitt’s collection of stories about the devil.

“Miss Awful” by Arthur Cavanaugh
A story about a nice teacher and a mean one. A good one to talk about authority figures.

“The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken
A modern feeling fairy tale. A nice one to potentially read with other stories about wishes, such as “Wishes” by Natalie Babbitt and “The Stone” by Lloyd Alexander.

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
The classic anti-bullying story. Just an amazing short tale. We actually read this with our co-op, but I had to include it on this list because it’s my favorite of all time. Bradbury has many others that are appropriate for middle school, but this one is perfect for upper elementary too. Note that there’s also an excellent short movie of the story, which can be easily found online.