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.

 

Writing Projects: Poetry Collection

I wrote a little while ago about how after we finally finished up all the projects in Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing I decided to keep coming up with more for us. While sometimes it’s nice to have a writing project that dovetails with another subject, a co-op topic, a contest, or a real world need like writing a letter, it’s also nice to have writing projects that are focused on writing and language as their own interesting things. The projects in Partnership Writing were great like that. We played around with secret codes, wrote little reports using the five question words, made up our own island chains and wrote about them, made catalogs to sell weird products, and more.

I posted already about the thumbprint biographies we made. They were fun and short. Before that, we did a poetry collection project for our writing project and it was also fun, so I thought I’d post about that as well.

Step One: Poetry Teas and a pile of books

As one might expect, we started this project with a poetry tea and actually held a couple more than usual during the course of the month. We don’t do poetry tea every week, but this forced us almost to do so, which was nice. In case you don’t know what poetry tea is, it’s when you pull out your pretty china, clean off the mess from the table, make or buy something tasty and sweet, and sit around for an hour reading poetry with the kids. In our house, we take turns reading poems and sometimes discuss the poetry as well.

In preparation for this project, I checked out a slightly larger pile of poetry books, thinking especially about exploring different forms. These included:

The Creature Carnival by Marilyn Singer
This book, in addition to just being fun, has poems with great varied and interesting rhyme schemes. Many of Singer’s others books are similar in how they use different forms. Her Mirror, Mirror is a book of reverso poems that we would have checked out as well if we hadn’t already read it a million times.

Dogku by Andrew Clements
This picture book tells the story of a stray dog taken in by a family with a series of haiku.

The Oxford Book of Story Poems
A nice collection with appealing poems of a variety of lengths and from a variety of time periods.

A Kick in the Head by Paul Janeczko
I don’t love this collection that much, but it’s perfect for this project because it has examples of more than two dozen different poetry forms.

African Acrostics by Avis Harley
Exactly what it sounds like. Acrostic poems about African animals, but very well done.

Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto
A collection of odes to childhood all set in a Latino neighborhood.

There are plenty of other options out there, of course. I never try to overthink book selections too much. I generally rely on the library and try new things often. While I learn about new books from blogs and recommendations, I find even more by just running my fingers over the stacks.

Step Two: Write lots of poems

photo 3 (5)Armed with various poetry books filled with a wide variety of example poems, we began to write our own poems. We tried a couple of different poetry forms for our writing time a week. We didn’t do everything we could have done and if you poke around online you can find dozens more potential poetry writing exercises, these are just the ones we chose.

photo 4 (2)I’ll add that for whatever reason, despite the fact that I have read tons of totally free form modern poetry to my kids, they are very stuck in the poems should rhyme mindset and this didn’t really break them of it. BalletBoy even wanted his haikus to rhyme, despite me only reading unrhymed haikus as examples (because when have you ever read a rhyming haiku anyway?) and entreating him that it was really not intended to rhyme, he still wrote two that had internal rhymes. In the end, I think that’s okay. I once attended a how to teach poetry to kids conference where the speaker bemoaned the kids who wrote cutesy rhymed poems as having gotten bad instruction and several times slammed the famed children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. But kids like mine love Jack Prelutsky. If that’s the kind of poetry that really speaks to them, then of course that’s what they’re going to want to write. And they should.

  1. Haikus
    A haiku is 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. We read several traditional haiku, as well as the book Dogku. I emphasized how a haiku is really a quick thought, a simple reflection. Haikus are often about how something looks or feels. They’re often about nature or everyday life. We practiced chin wags to measure syllables, just a reminder. Then we each, me included, wrote about half a dozen or so and shared them as we finished. They’re so quick and easy to try, even if not every effort is a stunning success.
  2. Couplets
    A couplet is two lines with the same number of syllables and an end rhyme. We looked for pairs of rhymed lines in Marilyn Singer’s poetry books. We made up couplets aloud for awhile then turned to writing them. I had not intended for this to be the case, but both boys immediately wanted to write longer poems comprised of couplets so I let them do so.
  3. Found Poems
    A found poem can be made a couple of ways. One way is to photocopy a page from a book and mark out words in black marker, creating a poem out of the words that you leave unmarked out. We used the second way, which is to make a poem from words found and torn out of magazines. We all did this assignment. I had a lot of fun making a poem about hide and seek after I saw that phrase repeated in an old ad campaign in a magazine. BalletBoy found words about food and Mushroom clipped words about animals and put them together to make a poem. This was a relatively long activity, but once the poem was finished, there was no revision needed, and it certainly looked cool made of all those cut out words.
  4. Odes
    An ode is written to praise someone or something. To get kids writing odes, I think it’s fun to encourage them to write an ode to something they really love but is unexpected, like their favorite shoes or a chocolate bar or a computer game (imagine how many “Ode to Minecraft”s we could get). Mushroom immediately started in on an ode to the inventors of the computer. The only real rule I gave them was to write lines of praise, but Mushroom set his into couplets.
  5. Acrostic
    Acrostics are those poems where the first letter of each line spells another word, typically the theme of the poem. We started this one by reading acrostic poems. It’s typical for kids to write acrostics about themselves, but I let them choose anything they wanted. Both the boys wrote a few, all of them with short 4 and 5-letter words.
  6. Free Verse
    I introduced this by trying to get the boys to choose a color to write about. Other suggestions I’ve seen for starting a poem from scratch include writing about the seasons, or about a specific memory, or about a meal. They tried, however, in the end, this exercise was mostly a flop for us. They were so attached to rhymes and forms that this one didn’t fly.
  7. Limerick
    People associate limericks with bad rhymes, but since my kids were so excited by really specific forms, I thought they would enjoy this one since it was still short enough and light enough for them to try out, unlike something like a sonnet. In fact, they enjoyed writing them very much, even though the results were very silly.
  8. Other ideas…
    We also read some story poems and talked about epic poetry and tried our hands at writing a story poem. BalletBoy loved it and included his in his collection. However, partway into the exercise it felt like it was probably too big a thing for me to have asked and it was just a fluke that it took off so well with one kid. So maybe only a good one to try with real poetry lovers. That’s all we did, but there are plenty of other poetry exercises and forms out there. For younger kids, a diamante is a really good form to play with (we have previously written those a few times). Cinquains are similar to diamantes and also have a very set form where kids can fill in words, so they can also be a good choice. Concrete poems, the ones that form a shape, can also be excellent and there are lots of good books of concrete poetry to share with kids. And, of course, there are many other forms of poetry and starting points. For us, the whole idea was just to try different things and play around with poetry forms.

Step Three: Choose and Revise

photo 2 (14)After doing two or three days of poetry writing exercises a week for about three weeks, we were left with a nice pile of rough draft poems. I told the kids to choose three or four poems they wanted to revise and polish for their collections. Some of the poems, we decided were fine with very little change. BalletBoy chose a haiku that was lovely just the way it was. Mushroom chose his limerick and we agreed that changing it beyond fixing the spelling and capitalization would ruin the rhyme scheme and the form.

For other choices, we agreed that revision was important. BalletBoy’s acrostic about birds was good, but we agreed to look through the thesaurus for stronger word choices. Mushroom’s set of couplets about a carnival were cool, but we agreed they needed a couple more in order to feel like a full poem and make it clear that it was about the whole carnival. He added a couplet about another ride and one about the carnival food: “Have a hot dog and funnel cake / Or try a burger and cheap steak.” We spent a couple of days working on revising all of the poems, then fixing spelling as the kids and I typed them up.

Step Four: Publish and Share

photo 1 (14)

Once they were typed up, I let them put each poem on a separate page and choose its font and formatting and add images. BalletBoy made his whole collection this way, except for his found poem, which was already made up of clipped magazine words and phrases. Mushroom left room to draw illustrations on one of his pages. They each made a cover and we stapled the poems together. Of course, you could make a little book or put them in a nice folder. We’ve done things like that for many other writing projects, but this time, after all the work on the writing, we kept it pretty simple.

Finally, the boys both proudly read their poems to the Husband, who thought they were pretty cool. Overall, this project came out much better than I could have wished. I don’t think either of my boys are “natural” poets, whatever that means. However, this was a fun way to play with words and think about language and strong words and phrases, as well as creative rhymes.

Writing Projects: Thumbprint Biographies

Most readers of this blog will know that I’m a Brave Writer fanatic. While we do use some other resources, it’s been the heart of our writing approach for a little while now. We especially loved doing the projects in Partnership Writing from Brave Writer. This has been one of our favorite Brave Writer products and I highly recommend it as a way in for families who want to try some of the elements of Brave Writer. It’s a short curriculum that explains the Brave Writer philosophy and the partnership stage of writing then gives a year worth of monthlong writing projects to do. Doing one writing project a month is part of the Brave Writer philosophy so this outlines ten projects.

Writing stages are also a big part of the Brave Writer concept. Instead of expecting kids to be at a certain place at a certain age, the idea is that kids progress through these stages at their own pace, though typically kids Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age – 10 years old – are at the partnership stage. During the partnership stage, kids are able to write some but still need a lot of handholding to get things done. For us, this often looks like kids writing a rough draft by themselves but then I type it up and take oral narration for revisions. Or sometimes we begin with lots of structure from me to get them going and they do their own revisions and changes.

All this is great and I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects previously, such as secret codes or personal timelines. But, alas and alack! We ran out of projects! But no big deal. I just made my own. Sometimes something comes up organically in schooling such as a contest or a way to tie writing in with another subject, but we really enjoyed having preplanned projects for writing that were their own thing so I wanted to continue that with more writing projects, which meant picking out interesting things to do. They have mostly gone really well so I thought I’d share what we did. I have two more of these posts coming up. So if anyone else is wanting more fun writing projects, these worked well for us. First up was an art and writing project that was on the short side.

photo 1 (13)

The Thumbprint Biography

This idea is exactly what it sounds like. You create a biography or a short personal narrative that you then write into the shape of the lines on your thumbprint, creating a piece of art and writing that is as unique as you. The finished products can be embellished with more art or just left bare.

I found this project by poking around online so if you do an image search, you can find more project examples to use for inspiration. I thought this was so fun that I got in on it and did one as well, which helped me understand how it would work. It’s sometimes tricky to force ourselves to write alongside our kids (and I readily admit I need to be better about doing this). However, it’s so rewarding for us and for them to see us writing and working alongside them.

We started by writing a rough draft about ourselves. I asked the kids what makes you you? What makes you unique? What are your favorite things and the things that are most important to you? That was one day’s writing assignment. On a separate day, we spent our writing time revising and editing the writings. Since it was such a personal writing, we did less revision than we often do. I asked the kids to add a few things or whether they wanted to move things around. BalletBoy is getting better at editing so we edited his together. For Mushroom, I picked two things for him to focus on with editing and had him find and correct them then I fixed the rest. Then I typed up a final draft for them.

For the thumbprint, we played around with a few things, but what worked the best was using our iPads to take a photo and then write on top of it. Any tablet with a good art program or pdf editor should work. However, if you’re tabletless and want to try this, you could do the thumbprint in a light ink and use a photocopier to enlarge it and then mark on top of it in marker where the lines are. Or you could try manipulating a photo of the thumbprint on the computer and printing it out then marking on top of it. I think marking heavy lines on top of the print is probably essential so that you can see through the top paper to write your biography.

Writing up the biographies and decorating them took a third and final day’s writing time. We were pretty pleased with the products and the kids were proud of them.

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Here are all the steps spelled out:

  1. Write your biography of what makes you unique. It doesn’t need to be long. Maybe just a page. Polish it by revising and editing it. If it will be easier to copy from a typed copy, then type it up and print it off.
  2. Make thumbprints with an ink pad onto paper. If you don’t have an ink pad, a washable marker colored onto a thumb and quickly pressed can work as well.
  3. Choose the thumbprint that looks the best and take a good digital photo of it.
  4. Crop the photo as needed then paste it into a drawing or pdf markup program so that it takes up a full page. We used Notability.
  5. Use a stylus or your finger to trace the contours of your thumbprint on top of the photo. Use a thick black line. Don’t worry about getting every single line – that would be impossible. You just want to get the gist of it.
  6. Remove the photo from the page so you’re only left with the traced lines.
  7. Print the thumbprint out.
  8. Place the printed thumbprint lines underneath a clean sheet of paper. You may want to use tape or a clip to hold the papers together in place.
  9. Copy the biography onto the clean paper, following the lines you can see underneath. You can choose to use different pen colors or write in different styles or just to use your own handwriting. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the lines exactly, but don’t worry. It will still look like a thumbprint in the end.
  10. Voila! You may have to add extra text or abbreviate your text slightly. You can add decoration. Mushroom’s thumbprint, shown with the thumbprint lines he created and followed, has a rainbow of colors behind it.

Homeschooling and Anxiety

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Since I got several questions about Mushroom’s “positive thought cards” that I mentioned in our day in the life post, I thought I’d post a little about those cards, some other things we’ve done for anxiety that has worked, and generally how things are going with a kid who has some anxiety issues.

Before I get any further, I feel like I have to say this. There are a lot of good books, good blog posts, and good tips out there for helping kids deal with anxiety. If you have a child who suffers from anxiety, it’s good to try those things, but if they’re not working, please, please seek professional help. There’s no substitute for a good therapist. Anxiety can really hold kids back and the sooner you resolve those issues, the better.

Okay, with that out of the way… I’ve posted before about how Mushroom suffers from some anxiety issues. They have really waxed and waned throughout his life. The peak was really more than a year ago when he was experiencing anxiety about a huge range of things, including dogs, going outdoors, public bathrooms, and schoolwork. After working through an anxiety workbook and trying several things, we decided it was time to see a therapist, which we did off and on for several months. That helped solidify the strategies we were using and gave us some new ones as well. I think we were mostly on the right path with him, but without the outside voice saying to us all, keep it up, you’re doing it right, it’s easy to question your strategies and jump around more. Mushroom worked through the worst of his fears and things have been mostly pretty calm.

Here are the things that are the go to tools in our box for helping him stay on the calm and capable path:

Positive Thought Cards
This suggestion came from the therapist. These are homemade index cards with specific thoughts to counterbalance Mushroom’s negative “bad brain” thoughts. He has written some and I’ve written others. They’ve changed over time as some fears have almost completely faded and others have arisen. When he first started them, he had to read them all several times every day to memorize them. Now, I pull them out when he’s feeling generally anxious. Part of the goal is for him to be able to pull those thoughts up himself when he is anxious. However, the concrete cards are so useful. When I hear him saying something negative, such as, “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t have enough time!” then I have him go find a card that will speak to that fear from the pile, such as, “Farrar makes sure I have plenty of time to do my work.” or, “Nothing bad will happen if I don’t finish my school work.” There are a lot of general positive thoughts in there like, “Most people are good,” as well as specific things for him. This has been one of the most enduring things we have used from therapy.

Deep Breaths
This one is a no brainer. Taking deep breaths helps when you’re getting anxious. I began teaching both the boys this when they were pretty little. We’re not masters of this technique by any stretch. But it does work to head off budding anxiety sometimes. More importantly, when he gets really upset, it helps him calm down. It’s important to practice taking a deep breath when everyone is calm. We try to do this before bed most nights, just doing a few deep breaths before tucking in.

Worry Time
This suggestion came from the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much, which is a book with exercises written to the child. It’s a good first stop if you have an anxious kid. The text is simple but doesn’t talk down to the child at all. I highly recommend it. The idea behind worry time is that some kids want to discuss their worries endlessly. Instead, they get one short worry time every day in which to really let out every negative thought. But at all other times, parents have to refuse to engage with them or let them talk about the worries. This was a tough thing to implement with Mushroom at the start of trying to help him with his anxiety. However, once he had other strategies in place, it became a good routine. He rarely has as much need to talk through the worries, but when he does, he knows that he can. This is another thing we have pegged to bedtime and tuck in. When he needs to, he’ll simply say, “I sort of have a worry thing…” and we open up worry time again.

Name It
This was a trick that came out of therapy for us and while it initially seemed a little cheesy to me, it has been one of the things that has helped most. Mushroom named his anxiety “the bad brain” and we talk about it in those terms, as an almost separate thing from him. When he’s struggling with a negative thought, I’ll call him on it by saying, “That’s a bad brain thought. That’s not what you think.” When he makes a poor decision based on anxiety, we’ll talk about how he’s letting bad brain control him. Externalizing it has helped him a lot.

Not Shying Away from the Worries
One of the nice things about homeschooling a kid with anxiety is that you can take time to do things at their pace and be by their side supporting them at every step. I think most of us would agree that especially in the early grades, the focus on testing and academics is one of the things that’s leading to a whole generation of anxious kids. We can back off when things are tough and give kids time to grow and mature so they can be ready to tackle difficult things, be they academic, social, or otherwise. On the other hand, homeschooling also makes it perhaps too easy to let kids avoid their worries every single time. We’re always there with them. We know how they feel. It’s easy to let them get out of having to really face up to the worries and that doesn’t do them any favors in the long run. The way to overcome a fear is not to avoid it, it’s slow and consistent exposure with plenty of positive support. It’s a tricky balance sometimes. Sometimes it’s good to give kids a break and regroup or tackle something in a new way, especially with scaled down expectations. But overall, I’ve learned that it’s important to not shelter kids from their worries. I know that with Mushroom, he has mostly conquered his fear of dogs. However, if he somehow goes several weeks without seeing a dog, the fear starts to build up again. We have to be sure to stop and say hello to a dog routinely to make sure that the worry doesn’t begin to build again.

Three Good Things and a Joke
This is the strategy that I use most often with BalletBoy when he’s stuck in a sad or anxious day, though I use it with Mushroom as well sometimes. He doesn’t have anxiety like his brother, but every kid can have a bad day and need a little help. The jist of this is just that we name three good things from the day (or maybe the week, or three things he’s looking forward to, or three things he’s proud of recently – it can be anything along those lines). Then I tell a joke or show him a silly video on my phone. When someone is feeling anxious or upset, the tendency is to want to talk about the anxieties. However, talking about the worries isn’t really good for moving on from the worries. This is really about changing the focus to something positive instead and then distracting the kid with something else to think about other than themselves. And after telling a few jokes and laughing, you can shift the conversation or the activity to something else.

Keeping at It
The final and maybe the most important thing is keeping up the strategies. At least for Mushroom, anxiety is cyclical. It comes and goes with high and low points. If we don’t keep some level of practice with the positive thought cards, the deep breathing, the relaxation exercises, and so forth, then it’s much harder when the anxiety inevitably comes back. It’s hard when a kid is having a great day to say, okay, and now before bed let’s check in about worries. It feels unnecessary and I know I have a tendency to want to drop all of the things we usually do when times are good. However, having it as a consistent practice is important.

Overall, I have to say, Mushroom is doing really well with his anxiety issues. However, as we head into a notoriously difficult age, I know that there will be a lot of new challenges. Hopefully we’ve laid enough groundwork to meet them.

Probably Probability

We had never covered probability, so I felt like it was time to dive in with a little bit of a focus. Now that we’ve done a good bit of it, I feel like we would have been fun and totally possible to have done it a few years ago as well and then returned to it with a stronger focus before moving into pre-algebra. It’s one of those topics that’s not really covered in books for younger kids, yet kids are constantly encountering probability in their lives, in part because of games. I think it makes a huge amount of sense to cover it earlier.

game sticks
Throwing game sticks in an activity from the GEMS Guide.

Picture Books
There are a couple of good picture books for younger students about probability. The first is the MathStart book Probably Pistachio by Stuart J. Murphy. This is really not one of my favorites in the series, but it does introduce the concepts, especially about using probability to predict what comes next. It’s Probably Penny by Loreen Leedy is similar in concept, and readers who like Leedy’s classic picture book about measuring will recognize the same characters. However, my favorite was A Very Improbable Story by Edward Einhorn from Charlesbridge. This one is more clever and introduces a lot more basic vocabulary to start talking about probability, not only for what happens next but also for games.

Chapter Book
Of course there’s a Murderous Maths book for kids who are just a little older. Are You Feeling Lucky? is yet another excellent resource. We have been loving the Murderous Maths series. This one, like the one about shapes, asks readers to try a number of things out and I think it’s best when you do the activities with the book, such as flipping a coin or rolling a die. The book also covers some combinations math, which is nice for us as a follow up to some of the Beast Academy combinations math. If you haven’t yet discovered the Murderous Maths books, know that they often cover some surprisingly complex and difficult math, far beyond what kids would typically do before high school. However they cover it in such a friendly and humorous way that it feels approachable and enjoyable.

Activities
The GEMS guide In All Probability is an excellent one. It’s intended for students grades 3-5. I think the activities could be done more quickly for older kids who need an introduction to the subject as well and perhaps beefed up a little. There are five sets of activities that include flipping coins, making spinners, rolling dice, and making game sticks based on a Native American game. I really like the thought behind the GEMS Guides in general, however, as always, you have to adapt them to homeschool use since they’re really set up for a large class. In this book, some of the activities assume that you’ll gather lots of data from the games. Also, I wish the books were organized with the math more clear and more in depth. There is a teacher section in the back that explains the math behind the activities in more depth, but, for example, the number of chances in the Native American game sticks activity is tied to Pascal’s Triangle, yet it never mentions that. Still, I like the way the investigations are set up for real discovery math and Mushroom and BalletBoy both enjoyed building the spinners, making game sticks, and playing all the various games.

I wanted some pages to practice probability problems, so I had Mushroom do some of the pages from MEP Math that deal with probability. You can find them in the 5b book at the end of this section and the beginning of this one. An alternate source of probability problems and text could have been the NCERT 7th grade math book chapter on data, which covers a variety of concepts, including probability. You can find that here, if you’re interested.

Of course, since probability is in our lives so much, it’s good to look at other places it appears. We started with something greatly revered in our house: game shows. In case you didn’t know, the Husband won us the down payment on the rowhouse many years ago on a game show. Thus the game show’s exalted place in our hearts. It’s fun to look at the odds on nearly any game show. However, the classic game show problem is the Let’s Make a Deal problem, which has been written about a ton, most famously by Marilyn Vos Savant and Martin Gardner (if you’d like to be a math nerd and don’t know who Martin Gardner is, you need to remedy that, by the way). It’s great to actually watch the show and learn about the problem. I saw a great demonstration of it by Ed Zaccaro of the Challenge Math books at a conference once, using envelopes instead of doors. With three envelopes, it’s not clear which one to choose. However, with a hundred envelopes, it’s almost immediately clear. We tried that and talked a little about how probability is one of those things that can be tricky to think about sometimes. This was followed up on nicely by the Murderous Maths book when it talked about how pennies don’t have memories.

If you look up probability lessons on Pinterest, you’ll find lots of options. However, the classic probability lesson that I wanted to be sure to do was with M&M’s. There are many variations, but essentially you have students calculate the probability of drawing an M&M out of the bag. The more bags you calculate, the closer you can start to get to what is, presumably, the actual ratio in which M&M’s are actually produced. You’re finding the experimental probability, so this is a good activity to introduce this term. The theoretical probability can also be found just by looking up in what ratios the M&M/Mars company actually makes the M&M colors. It’s slightly different for each type of M&M, but you can find it easily online.

Finally, we simply tried to be more alert to probability in our lives, such as in weather forecasts, board games, video games, and random events. It’s nice when kids can see math in the real world, especially when it’s things that aren’t money. Overall, this was a good unit for us.

Questions for Snow Days and Sick Days

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It’s been a weird week. BalletBoy has some sort of mysterious wasting disease. I say that only partially in jest. He has been sick for three weeks and keeps showing signs that he’s getting better only to fall back into lethargy. After lots and lots of tests the doctor has found nothing and is potentially referring us to an ENT doc or an infectious diseases doc since really we have no idea what’s going on. I never thought it would be so difficult to have a sleepy child! He does seem to possibly be getting better for real this time, though it’s hard to say for sure. It’s hard to have one kid sick and one well, especially for a long time. This raises lots of important questions about sick days…

  • How much screen time is too much when you’re sick?
  • How do you let a sick kid veg out with a screen while the healthy one does spelling without sowing resentment and revolution?
  • How do you convince a sick kid to take care of himself by just drinking some water for goodness sake?
  • When a kid is clearly sick but not too sick to go play foosball in the basement, how much work do you make him do?

Usually sick days are a free for all of screens and laziness, but there’s no way that can fly for three whole weeks. In the end, we made BalletBoy do a little schoolwork and let Mushroom watch movies with him. No obvious answers except to play it by ear and adapt to the circumstances. Oh, except for that water thing. The answer is that you stand there and chant, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” until he finally decides to hydrate because we don’t mess around with that when we’re sick.

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Meanwhile, it was also a snow day here finally. I know some people have been buried in snow for weeks or months now, but we keep getting just a tiny coat here and there. We finally had a proper thick blanket of the white, more like five inches, which is still not a ton, but enough for snow play and delays. I have to say that I have a love hate relationship with snow days as a homeschooler. Here’s the conundrum that arises every time there’s a snow day:

  • Do we drop everything to go play in the snow or use it as an opportunity to get more work done?
  • Is it possible to have it all – snow play, academic work, time curled up together drinking hot chocolate?

This is part of the problem I call the tyranny of weather. Do you take advantage of the good weather (be it snow or that cool day in summer or that beautiful warm day in late fall) to drop everything and use it to its outdoor fullest or do you push on through and get your work done? It’s compounded on snow days because they mean our other activities get canceled. And these days, with our overbooked lives, that’s an important and valuable thing to get. This go around, we tried to have it all. After initially thinking there was no way he was up for sledding, BalletBoy decided he wanted to go. I cut him off at less than an hour and he was, indeed, extremely tired afterward, but he recovered later and didn’t just collapse (a good sign that possibly means he’s actually healing?). We also did a light school day though.

You know, I wouldn’t want to trade places with any of my friends in New England right now with their crazy piles of snow. On the other hand, sometimes i remember snowmageddon back when the kids were in first grade and get a little misty when I recall just how much school we got done while forcibly shut in the house. I’m sure you’re all going stir crazy, but I’ll bet you’ll also manage to finish your history curricula on time.

A Day in the Life

I haven’t done a day in the life post in a little while, so I thought I’d toss one out. I had a “how do you fit it all in” question recently and played around with trying to make a post about our routines, but the reality is that with so many activities and the inevitable bumps in the road that life throws at you, we have had trouble keeping any sort of semblance of schedule. Every day is a little different. The only thing that keeps me going is having overarching goals in my head and a sketch of where I want us to be.

8:30 Wake up
Everyone has been getting up a little earlier that usual because schedules have been odd. I found Mushroom and BalletBoy already up, watching videos from The Kid Should See This. They told me about breakfast from around the world.

9:00 Probability
Once I had cleared my head, I started school and we dove into making spinners for a game. We’re loosely following the GEMS guide In All Probability to introduce probability for the first time. I got the spinners started, but the kids put them together and played a few dozen of the simple games to tally the results and then figure out the ratios. They were upbeat and happy throughout. It was a good activity. After we finished, we went to the sofa to start Do You Feel Lucky?, a Murderous Maths book. This probability project is our mathy project for February and this was only the second thing we’ve really done with it, so it was in my head to do a little more. That’s what I mean about keeping things moving based on those overarching goals in my head. We’ve only done the basics for school for the last couple of days, so today seemed like a good day to do a little more.

11:00 Spelling, Practice, Math
I put work on the board and the kids started in on their various daily tasks. BalletBoy ran his Much Ado About Nothing lines while Mushroom started on a couple of word problems from Process Skills in Problem Solving, which is a Singapore-like series of workbooks for word problem strategies. A few months ago I would have said Mushroom, despite his enjoyment of math, wasn’t very good with word problems, but in the last couple of months a light bulb seems to have gone off and he’s doing very well with them. Both the boys did piano and I got in spelling for BalletBoy. At some point, Mushroom had an anxiety attack over some spelling. He has been out late for rehearsals for a community production and needs more sleep. I sent him upstairs to find a positive thought card and he came back with: “I can be patient with myself. Learning takes time and practice.” Ah, serenity now.

I did spelling with each kid while more lines were run and piano was practiced. BalletBoy did half a dozen sentences from All About Spelling 6, covering words that end in -ible or -able. I recently bought How to Teach Spelling so I could go back and review some of the All About Spelling concepts Mushroom seems to have regressed over. He did about a dozen sentences and I stuck shiny stars on his paper so he could notice that he was doing well. He has been down in the dumps about spelling.

12:30 Lunch and a movie
I headed into the kitchen and made a salad and some chicken sausages to be put into tube crescent rolls. Yep, that’s the sort of non-organic, lowbrow way we roll. Pigs in a blanket for lunch. I also shredded up a Costco rotisserie chicken and cooked up some onions and sauce then mixed it up to become enchiladas for supper. Then we sat down on the living room floor for lunch and put on an episode of Your Inner Fish on Netflix. We discussed mass extinctions a bunch and whether there is one right now. BalletBoy picked at his food. I had to make everyone eat their salad, but then I gave them jelly beans.

2:00 A little more
I made everyone finish up with their math work. Both boys had some pages from MEP Math to do. Mushroom was doing the probability pages. This unit is in part of him since it’s one of the final elementary math topics he needs to cover before moving to pre-algebra. I have been having BalletBoy go through the MEP 5th grade books and I think it has been good for him. I have really been struggling to find the right program for him in the last year. Everything we try seems too easy or too hard. I really feel for him because that was exactly the issue I had as a math student for much of my math career. The remedial class was too easy, the honors class was too hard. We wrapped up school with one more chore and the kids helped put away the dishes and clean the kitchen with me. When I have their help it takes half the time.

3:30 Out and about
We went up the road for our Destination Imagination team meeting. Another mom is the coach and I’ve just been in charge of prepping the kids for their Instant Challenge. While they met, I ran to the thrift store in search of 1920’s costume pieces for our upcoming Much Ado About Nothing production. When I came back, I ran an instant challenge. The kids played for a little while and we stayed a few minutes too long. BalletBoy, who has been really struggling lately with being “right” and is recovering from being sick and still extra sleepy and worn out, pitched an absolute screaming fit at his friends, who all seemed to maturely back away with the knowledge that sometimes being overwhelmed and sick is just something you have to be. Thank goodness for forgiving friends. He calmed down in the car.

7:00 Dinner
When I got home, I discovered that the Husband had eaten his portion of the enchilada mix already, not realizing that it was intended for greater things than a cold bowl in the fridge. I assembled dinner for the rest of us. The kids wound down with some screen time and an old episode of The Simpsons.

8:00 Reading and bedtime
The kids did their hour of reading… almost. BalletBoy was so sleepy that he needed to cut it short. He’s reading the final book in the Lemonade Wars series. Mushroom is reading Better Nate than Ever, about a kid who runs away to star on Broadway. We headed up to bed where I read aloud a bit of a fantasy novel and BalletBoy crashed. By crashed, I mean, completely crashed. He’s usually my night owl. Poor sick kiddo. Mushroom stayed up working on a project though. The Husband’s work gives out lavish gifts at the post-holidays party and ours was a GoPro. The kids have been trying to figure out the right excellent use for it. Mushroom played around with filming different things and using the editing software, trying to decide what he needed to make. At 10:00 I said, time for bed. Yes, this was a little early, but he has been getting home really late from rehearsals. He didn’t take it too well. You’re not helping your case to stay up later if your go to reaction is to whine. After a couple of minutes of back and forth, he relented and went to bed.

10:30 Ahhh….
It’s so nice when the kids are in bed a little early. The Husband and I watched The Americans. Seriously, I am obsessed with this show right now. And next I will curl up with A Suitable Boy, which I’m rereading, and go to bed myself. A day of good things, like getting a chunk of our probability project done, eating at least one decent meal, enjoying a documentary at lunch. And less good things like Mushroom’s anxiety attack and bedtime whine and BalletBoy’s sick-fueled friend tantrum.