Homeschooling and Anxiety

hugging kids

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

photo 2 (12)

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.

photo 1 (12)

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.

Anatomy of a Project: Houses

In the fall, I committed to trying out doing projects more with the kids and we tried a few things had one real success. With all out outside commitments, we have had to dial back and simplify and drop all the “extras” projects (we’re still doing some math and writing projects), but I wanted to back up and blog about our resources and the way this tiny germ spread down rabbit trails.

We started with a board of project ideas and “houses and architecture” was one of them. After some discussion, we picked it as one of the things we wanted to try out so I started gathering resources to try with the kids.

The first thing I pulled out, which I had been hoping to try, was the book A Blueprint for Geometry about designing your own house and learning about geometry at the same time. I was excited by that, though the kids were less so. However, as I started trying to organize it, I also got less excited. The book, frankly, was terrible. We loved the ideas about math and playground design in Designing Playgrounds from the same series, but this one, by a different author, was just not enough information or structure. With the kids not at all keen to do it, we dumped it. I asked if they wanted to build model houses or design a house and they weren’t interested. It turned into a dead end.

Next up, I brought home a pile of library books and the first one we studied was Housebuilding for Children. This delightful book from the 70’s (and I mean, so from the 70’s) is like a free range parent’s dream with several plans for tiny play houses for kids to build themselves. We got the materials to make the balloon frame house and dove in. It was really hard. I think the type of wood we got splintered too easily. Some of the materials in the book weren’t available. But in the end, the kids, mostly on their own, build the frame of the house! For real. Then cold weather hit and we didn’t finish it. It’s so small that I’m not sure if they will finish it or not (we may try to donate it to a friend). But it was really a rewarding part of the project. It took a lot of perseverance to do all that hammering and building.

housebuilding

I took out a bunch of books about buildings and architecture. I started with David Macauley’s Unbuilding, in which he imagines the Empire State Building being taken apart. This turned out to be really disturbing as a concept so we didn’t finish the book. Not only that, but the kids both agreed that they weren’t as interested in big famous buildings like the Pyramids and the Empire State Building. Instead, they wanted to focus on houses. We talked about the House and Home exhibit at the National Building Museum, which we have visited several times, and began to think together about some elements of that, such as different styles of homes and different needs people have for their homes.

I returned the buildings books and got a second pile of books about houses. See Through History: Houses and Homes was the first resource along with some other books about the history of different houses and simple picture books with images of houses around the world. I read some aloud and the kids read others on their own and wrote narrations about the different kinds of houses through time. Next, I found what is probably one of the greatest books I’ve found for a topic, Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh. This was an incredibly detailed picture book published by the National Historic Trust. I mentioned it in our book round up a few months ago. It covered American architecture styles from colonial to the present and everything in between with great drawings and a really well-done frame of a story about a boy whose family is restoring an old Victorian. The kids were really riveted by the book.

That led us in a few directions. I looked for other books about homes and architecture. We got I Know That Building, which turned out to be a really cute book with some cool activities, but aimed toward slightly younger kids. I also bought the Dover Coloring Book called The American House on a whim. That was much more useful. The kids and I all enjoyed coloring several pages in it and talking about the colors and designs of the homes. Finally, one more book in our library pile, The House I Live In: At Home in America, had a cool set of narratives of kids talking about their homes all over the country. The kids read the book and wrote their own pieces about our house.

That led us to think about our neighborhood and home. We investigated our own century-old house and did some activities to think about the details. We drew the house and did some art activities. Then we played around with old online maps of the city. We found our block going back as far as we could until we couldn’t find our block anymore on the oldest set of maps. It didn’t exist! Then we went to the special local research library and found the “birth certificate” for our house and had it printed up, as well as the name of the original owner. Back home, the kids learned to use the online newspaper archives to look up our address and the original owner. We didn’t find too much, but we did learn that the original owner had been German and later became a middle school principal. It was really exciting for the kids to make their own discoveries as they searched and zoomed in on the old newspaper pages from nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, I took out a pile of books about various architects. Most of them ended up unread, but BalletBoy read one about Frank Gehry and loved it (and asked to go to Spain… hm…). We also watched a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright and I promised the kids a trip to Falling Water that still needs to be delivered. I took out a number of books with activities about Frank Lloyd Wright as well as other architects, such as a book about Greene and Greene. However, none of the activities really resonated with the kids, so we didn’t do much of them.

When winter arrived, the project sort of naturally petered out. However, it was really neat to have this focus on a “big” topic for a solid couple of months. The project brought in some math, a lot of research skills, some hands on skills, a lot of teamwork, some reading, some writing, a surprising amount of history, and some art. The kids had to bear with me as I took us on some detours and assigned things like writing and reading to go with this project and I had to follow them and shut down some of my visions for what the project could be and follow the things they were interested in.

Overall, it was a good experience. While we’re taking a hiatus from doing another big, all-encompassing project like this, I’m excited to try another one in the future.

Early Winter Books

Well, it took me a little while to get back to the book roundup. Sorry, folks. We were not reading a ton in the last couple of months, in large part because we’ve been so busy. It’s hard to read before bed when you’re not getting home until past bedtime! But there have been a few books fit in, though you’ll note there are more of my reviews than the kids’ this roundup. They did a lot of rereading old Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. Ah well. Probably about right for hectic times.

Read Aloud
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Straight off enjoying another Chrestomanci books, we dove into this one. It’s typical Diana Wynne Jones, with a twisty plot and lots of complexity. If you don’t know the Chrestomanci books, they take place is a series of connected worlds. In one world, Chrestomanci is the enchanter with nine lives whose job is to make sure everyone uses magic fairly and follows the rules. This book tells the story of how Christopher Chant became Chrestomanci, though not before he gets neglected by his parents and then caught up in a magic organized crime syndicate run by his uncle. Chrestomanci, that is, Christopher in this book, is such a great character. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always managing to come off like a jerk. In this book, you can see how he became the mysterious and witty character he is in the other novels. Mushroom and BalletBoy have been enjoying this one so much that I have a feeling we may read Conrad’s Fate, one of the later books where Christopher is also a child, very soon.

Another Read Aloud
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin

This is the second book in the Winston Breen series. We loved the first one over the summer and the kids enjoyed this one just as much. In this story, puzzle lover Winston gets put in a team to win a bunch of money for his school from a snack food company with a quirky owner. Teams must run from puzzle to puzzle, solving them all to win the prize, but one team is cheating, trying to knock the other teams out of the race. As with the previous book, there are usually two puzzles per chapter – one that’s integral to the story and one that’s just a diversion. They’re number, maze, word, and other sorts of puzzles and generally very innovative and fun. Also pleasing is that the story isn’t just a structure for the puzzles. It’s also pretty well-written in its own right. Kids who enjoy “everyday kid” type books should definitely give this series a try.

School Read
Murderous Maths: Secret Life of Codes by Kjartan Poskitt

I really do love the Murderous Maths books, even though they always take us forever to get through. They take us forever because they’re packed with serious, brain-bending information and because we always have to stop over and over in the middle of reading them to figure out the math and try out the various things they suggest. This book was no different. I have the Murderous Maths box set, but realized recently that there are a bunch more of these out there not in the set! Several of them, including this one, are easier than some of the ones in the set (which go up to calculus, for goodness sakes). This one was particularly packed full of good activities and lots of complex ideas about how to make codes. Overall, a fun read.

Audiobook
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It took a lot of strong arming to get the boys to listen to this one in the car. I’m not sure what was so forbidding about it, but for some reason it did not catch their fancy. And the tropes of high fantasy, which abound in this story, are less familiar to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who have cut their teeth mostly on the low fantasy worlds like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones sort of books. However, they slowly sank into it. The narration on the audiobook is really wonderful. And the story is just as great as I recall from my own youth. Taran is a lowly assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest to find his charge, who happens to be an oracular pig (she can tell the future). On his way he meets a heroic prince, a king who wishes he were a bard, a snappy girl who is training to be a sorceress, and a strange but loyal creature who latches on to him. It’s the start of a great series that is based loosely on Welsh mythology and had me obsessed with all things Welsh as a kid.

BalletBoy’s Read
Heads or Tails by Jack Gantos

After we saw Gantos speak earlier this year at the National Book Festival, it became clear that the boys were determined to read more of his works. I happened to have this one on the shelf and BalletBoy decided to read it. It proved to be a pretty quick read for him and he says he liked it very much, in part because it’s very funny. He keeps reading me little snippets that honestly, make no sense, but which send him into peals of giggles. Like many of the author’s other works, he, himself is the main character, though one hopes that many of the wacky events have been exaggerated for literary purposes.

Farrar’s YA Read
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I really enjoyed this YA book about twin artists. It’s told in two perspectives at two different times. Noah tells the story of the events leading up to the time when their mother dies just before and after they turn fourteen. Twin sister Jude steps in with a very different voice two years later. Noah is struggling with figuring out he’s gay, trying to establish a relationship with his father, trying to understand his mother, and falling in love for the first time. While he struggles, Jude seems happy and popular, but two years later, Jude is at an art high school completely distraught over her mother’s death, barely speaking to her twin, and superstitious to the point of mental illness while Noah is the one that seems happy and well-adjusted, though completely different from his younger self. The contrast between the two parts makes the story feel like a mystery, compelling you to understand what happened between the two characters. Great writing certainly doesn’t hurt either. Nelson’s style, especially how she described those teenage feelings of anger and depression, really resonated with me. One of the best YA books I’ve read this year.

Farrar’s Other YA Read
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl and her super wealthy family and their summers spent on their very own island retreat. Main character Cady loves her cousins and their friend Gat, with whom she has a budding romance, while her mother and aunts bicker all summer. Cady has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember some of the previous summers, which makes for both a mystery and a lot of really short, vaguely poetic sentences apparently. There’s a big twist ending, though having read that there was a “big twist ending” I admit that I saw the twist coming, at least somewhat. This book has made a bunch of best of lists for YA this year but I’m mystified as to why. The upper class characters are mostly spoiled jerks and I didn’t find reading about them particularly innovative or new. The mystery is sort of interesting, but the writing nearly killed me. It wasn’t beautiful, it was just sparse, disjointed, and sometimes confusing. This definitely wasn’t on my best of lists.

Farrar’s Graphic Novel Read
Neurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella

I was intrigued by this graphic novel about the inner workings of the brain, which I saw on a best science books of the year list. The book’s design is lovely – hardcover with shiny silver designs. Plus, the art is really approachable. My reaction to the book itself was a bit mixed. On the one hand, the narrative was sort of weak and I had hoped that the information would be a bit more in depth. As it is, I actually knew most of this information about how the brain and nerves work. On the other hand, for what it is, the narrative isn’t terrible. Writing a vehicle for information story is always tricky, after all. I liked the ending a lot, actually. And with a different eye, such as toward using this as a great introduction for teens or really anyone without any lay knowledge, it’s really good. So I thought I’d include it here in case anyone has any middle or high schoolers ready to learn a bit about neuroscience. Overall, I like that there are a growing body of science comics out there. I was unimpressed by the Max Axiom series, but this book can join the work of graphic novelist Jay Hossler as a useful way to think about its subject matter in comic.

The No Grammar Year

This year, thus far, is a no formal grammar year for us here at the rowhouse and I don’t anticipate adding any grammar in later either.

Up to this point, we’ve done a few different things for grammar:

  • Fun, light grammar in kindergarten and first grade, including things like Mad Libs, Schoolhouse Rock, and the Ruth Heller and Brian Cleary books.
  • Grammarland in second grade. I recommend waiting on this book until at least third or even fourth grade, but it was so sweet and my kids got a lot out of it.
  • Random, light grammar worksheets in second and third grade, mostly from Scholastic Dollar Deals books like the No More Boring Practice series.
  • MCT Grammar and Sentence Island in fourth grade, though this turned out to be a good program that was all wrong for us. And, in fact, made me rethink teaching grammar at all.

I do have some grammar resources hanging out on the shelf, including The Giggly Guide to Grammar and Killgallon’s grammar, which we’re using mostly just for good model sentences, but I decided to just stop with the grammar for now. Probably for a couple of years.

Overall, I don’t feel like we completely wasted our time learning grammar. I don’t think grammar is a waste of time at all. There is something really fascinating and wonderful about being able to really understand the structure of language and the rules. I’m glad that there are people who do study and learn grammar on a deep level. And anyone who loves it, should do so. For my kids now, they have a very basic vocabulary to talk about sentences and words, which I think is useful.

On the other hand, I’ve come to see how some of the struggles to get the kids to understand what is a verb or when should I use a comma could have been saved and taught much quicker, much more painlessly down the line a little bit. If we had only waited a couple of years instead of trying to understand some of these things at younger ages, then it would have taken half the time at most. If we had just stuck with Schoolhouse Rock and Mad Libs for a little longer that would have been fine. In fact, it probably would have been perfect.

Also, I have always known and believed that being able to parse a sentence or correctly fill out a grammar worksheet doesn’t translate to good writing or even to grammatically correct writing much of the time. Yet I still – for some reason that in retrospect makes me wonder if my head was screwed on all wrong – felt obliged to give it a try with my kids. They didn’t hate it or anything. Doing a few which verb tense or circle the error worksheets was never a battle. Nor was MCT Grammar Island when we gave it our best shot. But they never seemed to learn anything that could be remotely applied to their own writing.

In the end, I believe it’s their own writing that really matters. We never spent a ton of time on grammar, but what time we spent would probably have been better spent playing around with words and writing more. Or, if we wanted to focus on something more practical, it would have been time better spent on spelling or typing.

So now I am trying to throw our time and resources toward the things that we can actually apply and only tackle grammar in terms of mechanics through dictation and occasionally editing their own writing. And then, in a year or two, or maybe more, we’ll pick grammar up again as a formal subject and see where we stand with it for a little while.

Homeschoolers tend to have a bit of a mania for grammar. There seem to be more grammar programs than any other sort in homeschooling. If you want a homeschool geography or science or literature program, there are a handful of options, but if you want grammar, there’s a warehouse of them it seems. But it doesn’t mean that we all need to jump on the bandwagon, especially in elementary school.

In other words, we’ve decided to let grammar lie.

Or is it lay?

Either way, we’ll figure it… in a few years once spelling and writing voices are stronger.

December Kicked My Ass

Dear readers, I’m sorry for my lack of posting. Now that the month – and the year – are winding to a close, let me just come out and admit it. December nearly did me in.

Really, it started just before Thanksgiving, when Mushroom had his first big stage musical. Five shows. Brutal call times. No sleep. Then there was Thanksgiving. Then BalletBoy’s first Nutcracker geared up and took over. Sixteen shows for that. More brutal call times. And all while trying to maintain school and the myriad of other activities we’ve got going on. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was so hard, but I know we had trouble fitting in all of our usual holiday activities (a few things fell by the wayside) and we have barely gotten any December school done at all.

I think I may need to wave the flag of defeat.

There are a lot of questions that float around because of the brutality of the last month or so on our lives. What is the right amount of activities? How do we cut back and simplify? When should we press on and when should we let things go? How can we raise children who know how to both take care of themselves and relax yet also have the stamina to work hard when it’s time? Do homeschoolers struggle more to find that balance? Do homeschoolers struggle more to raise kids with more stamina for hard work and will that hurt them as they head out into the world full of kids who are accustomed to being “on” in school and activities from sunup to bedtime?

I don’t know the answers to this stuff, folks. But I can tell you that I don’t really buy that we can do it all. There have to be choices. Maybe there are magical, gifted children who can relax and handle a big rigorous workload and do half a dozen activities, but I think those kids are pretty rare. Like, blooming of the titan arum, total solar eclipse, winning the lottery rare. So since I’m stuck with excellently average kids, I think I need to find a way to get us a little more balanced.

So I’m working on it.

usbgtrains
We did manage to hit the Botanic Gardens at least.

 

Do More Math Projects

I think when we think of projects, history, science, nature studies, electives, and so forth are the first things that come to mind. However, I’ve been making a concerted effort to do more math projects lately and I really want to advocate for engaging with math in that way. It’s fun and adds another dimension to math. It helps show how math is relevant to other subjects and everyday life. It shows how math can be artistic and useful.

So far, we’ve been enjoying a few different resources for math projects and I thought I’d highlight them here.

Time Travel Math
This is a great book from Prufrock Press, intended to be used for gifted fourth and fifth graders. There is a loose story about a pair of twins, Harriet and Thomas, who find a secret way to travel in time, but only if they’re wondering about math. The story is cheesy, but it’s not at all poorly written, which helps it work. They travel in time three times, first to learn about ratio with a young Leonardo da Vinci, next to learn about geometry and tessellations with a young M.C. Escher, and finally to learn about area in ancient Egypt with Imhotep. Each section has questions for students to think about as the text tells the story and reveals the math. Those are followed by either short math labs or activities about the topic and then finally by a much longer project. For ratio, students make a giant object. For tessellations, students make a quilt out of tessellations. For area, students make a mobile to balance shapes. I highly recommend this book. We’ve finished the first two sections and are looking forward to the third. I think the recommended ages on the book is probably a little too narrow. The projects and math could be right for kids any time from third grade to before formal algebra, at which point the concepts would be too simple.

Math Projects Series
This series is out of print, but most of the titles can be found inexpensively. There are titles about making math games, making kites, designing playgrounds, and designing houses. We have tried out two of them – one about designing playgrounds and one about designing houses. I especially liked the way that the playground book led the kids forward with different activities, considering how playgrounds are used and playing around with simple shapes for design. This is the piece of doing a math project that I think I didn’t initially understand. Doing questions beforehand and practicing the concepts isn’t busywork or wasted time. It’s time kids need to understand the math and get the most out of the project. Unfortunately, when we went to use the houses book, we were very disappointed by the vagueness of the instructions and ended up ditching it. Still, I would like to see the math behind the kites and bridges books because I like the goal of the series.

Treasure Boxes coverGEMS Guides
These are math and science guides for elementary and middle school with hands on projects for kids. There are ten math guides in all with different age ranges and topics, including combinations, probability, algebra, and polyhedra. We used Math on the Menu, which is about combinations and have a couple more on tap and are looking forward to them. Again, the key thing provided is support for how to think about the math as you do the project. The projects for the ones I have are much more process oriented with less of a final product at the end. For example, in the combinations one we did, there was a story and a number of problems revolving around it, but no product at the end to show off. These books require more tweaking for the homeschool classroom since part of the GEMS philosophy is having kids all share their methods and approaches in finding different answers. Two of the GEMS Guides, about cooperative logic problems, are probably not really adaptable.

Amazing Math Projects You Can Build Yourself
This book is filled with many different ideas for math projects, such as making your own abacus or playing around with polyherdra models. Unlike the other books mentioned, there’s less building up of specific skills by slowly structuring the project to have more meaning. Instead, there are just many different ideas for every sort of math all thrown together. This is more like a book of ideas than a guide. It’s written to the student with text about the projects that explains the math or the connections with history, art, or other subjects. Some of the “projects” are extremely fast and simple while others are more involved. If you’re looking for something to get the juices flowing for doing more hands on math and mini-projects, then this is probably a very good starter book.

October Books

Time for our monthly book roundup. What we’re reading and liking and occasionally not liking at all.

School Read
Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh

It’s been a few months since I felt a big, strong wow about a nonfiction book we read for school, but I give this book a huge wow. It’s out of print and a little older, but if, for some reason, you decide, as we did, to embark on a study of houses or architecture anything along those lines, then you absolutely must have this book. It tells the imaginary story of a boy whose parents have just purchased a ramshackle Second Empire Victorian in the midwest with the intention to restore it to its former glory. Curious about how houses have changed over time, the narrator reflects on the houses owned by his aunt (a Brooklyn brownstone) and uncle (a San Francisco late Victorian) and cousins (a colonial farmhouse). That leads to a conversation with his grandfather, who grew up in a Sears home and eventually purchased a post-war suburban ranch home. Then with his mother, whose ancestors were from the south and lived in Greek revival plantation style homes. Basically, the whole thing just spirals from there into every sort of house style you can imagine and every relative and ancestor the narrator has seems to live in a different sort of home. All this is explored while his new home is being renovated. The illustrations were incredibly detailed but also accessible to kids. The story is a bit cram everything in, but somehow the book makes it work. I had a slight quibble with the book’s adoration of Victorians and mild disdain for Greek revivals, but I suppose everyone has to have a favorite style. Really a great long form picture book and very worth seeking out.

Audiobook
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

So, so funny! I had skimmed over it when it first came out and I know what Gaiman’s sense of humor is like, so I knew we would enjoy this one, but the audio version, read by Gaiman himself, was just divine. The story set up is that a boy and his sister are home with their father while their mother is away. There’s no milk in the house, so their father runs to the corner store to get some for their cereal. Returning much later than expected, he begins to tell a whopper of a tale about what took him so long, a story that involves alien invaders, a time traveling dinosaur, and an exploding volcano god, among other things. At end twist and turn, the father makes sure that the kids know that even know he may have been fighting for his life or dangling by a rope, fortunately, the milk was safe in his pocket, though it occasionally emerges to save the day or fulfill a prophesy. The book is incredibly short. We listened to the whole audio version on one field trip to go apple picking (though, to be fair, those apples were really far away) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kids more disappointed to finish an audiobook (except for maybe Fake Mustache, which is tied for funniest audiobook ever).

Mushroom’s Read
From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

We adored Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which we listened to on audiobook earlier this year, and we had the great pleasure of seeing Gantos speak at the National Book Festival. However, I have to admit that Mushroom hasn’t just loved this sequel, which he says is slower and not as funny as the first book. Having not read it all myself but having tasted the beginning, I’m finding this hard to believe, but I said I’d be sure to include his take. The first book was a quirky murder mystery. This sequel picks up where the previous book left off on the trail of the murderer. The author’s alter-ego, the narrator of the story, heads out on a road trip with his elderly neighbor to get to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral and possibly catch the murderer. Even if Mushroom didn’t love it, I may pick up our library copy and finish it myself.

BalletBoy’s Read
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

BalletBoy really likes to pick out random library books which he judges by the cover. He liked the stylish western cover on this one, so he decided it was the book for him. I have read some of Lawrence’s better known Roman Mysteries, but I haven’t read this one. However, BalletBoy gives it a big thumbs up. He says it was funny and that he liked the mystery element. It’s part of a series that takes place in the old west, following a boy who becomes a detective. In this first book in the series, he is on the run for his life after his parents were killed and must escape from the titular deadly desperadoes, who are after his mother’s only valuable property.

Light Reading
Return to Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

While everyone waited for the new Wimpy Kid, both boys read this book on the side. Mushroom read the first book last month and BalletBoy joined him in reading it this month. It’s in that same snarky Wimpy Kid style with lots of pictures about a typical middle school boy and typical middle school embarrassments and misadventures. The main character, Tad, keeps a blog where he tells his thoughts and jokes. A quick, funny, light read aimed at boys. Yet another I didn’t read myself (this blog post seems full of those this go around) but I heard a lot of the jokes read aloud when someone thought they were really funny. Not high literature, but a good way to pass an evening read for this age.

Farrar’s YA Read
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in Yancey’s YA trilogy about an alien invasion on earth. Aliens in ships high above the earth slowly destroy humanity in waves, first knocking out technology, then flooding the coasts and sending a plague. With each successive wave, more people die. When the first book picks up, the aliens seem to have begun the fifth wave, possibly taking human bodies, but what exactly is going on is left somewhat unclear. While it’s an alien tale, the story has a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie feel. This second book didn’t compel me as much as the first book at the start. While the first book stayed for a long time with protagonist Cassie before moving on to just a couple of others, this book jumped around more from the beginning and I admit I didn’t love Ringer’s voice at first and she really dominates this book. However, by the second long chunk of her voice, she began to really grow on me and the ending had me interested again as a potential twist is brought out. What if the aliens aren’t alien at all? Yancey is a great writer who knows how to tell an edge of your seat tale. This is a dark series, even for the dystopian filled YA of these days, but it’s worth reading.