Balancing Imperfection

A little over a year ago, I made a resolution. I looked at what we were eating for lunch and was very dissatisfied. It was always a scramble. The kids were generally picking at whatever I put out and grouchy for the rest of the afternoon. My kids dislike sandwiches for the most part so tossing out the sort of lunch fare I was used to in my childhood wasn’t working. And as they’re getting older, I find they need to eat something decent. The “what’s for lunch?” pestering starts as early as 10:30 around here some days.

A lunch from last week. squash, onions, and tomatoes with Italian sausage and roasted potatoes. I think I ended up having a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.
A lunch from last week. squash, onions, and tomatoes with Italian sausage and roasted potatoes. I think I ended up having a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.

So I made the resolution to make better lunches. I made myself a little list of possible lunches that would be more filling. I resolved to have things on hand to prepare more hearty lunch fare. We struck up a routine of eating a hot lunch every day and watching a documentary or educational TV show while we eat. It has allowed us to watch all kinds of things. I make homemade fried rice with fresh vegetables and leftover meat or spaghetti and premade meatballs or sausage and rice with vegetables or eggs with homemade hash browns and fruit. I still use some convenience items, but mostly we do a pretty good job on lunch now. And the documentary routine has been great for watching more rich content and discussing it. Just the other day, we enjoyed How Plants Talk to Each Other from PBS’s Nature. You guys, plants are talking to each other! We were shocked too.

Here’s the thing. As I’ve gotten better at lunch, dinner has suffered a bit. I think I really only have one good meal in me most days. By the time dinner rolls around, I find I’m not always hungry enough to want to make a big deal, even if the kids really want something. It’s exacerbated by our evening schedules. BalletBoy has (you can probably guess…) ballet three or more evenings a week. Mushroom has rehearsals. It’s not uncommon for kids to leave at five and be back after nine. My dinner failures don’t need to be picked apart, but suffice it to say that we’ve been doing more dinner scrambling.

It strikes me that life is just like this. There’s no way to do it all. Sure, better systems, better organization, better resources, more help from others… they can help us do more and more efficiently. But the biggest thing stopping us from doing it all is time and energy. They’re limited quantities. There are no time turners or Tardises and no magic little energy pills for us or attention pills for the kids. If you take energy and effort to do something, you’re usually taking it away from something else.

I think we forget that much of the time. We think that we can add things, especially to our homeschool, without making choices, as if we have unlimited time and energy available to us and our kids. But every time you add a new set of logic puzzles, something else will fall a little by the wayside. Every time you toss in a few more math problems or a fun science reading book you lose a little of something else. Every time you pick one book to read aloud, you have to turn down other books you might have read aloud. Every time you fix your morning schedule, you risk that your afternoon schedule might fall apart a little bit. And even when we add a little something and it doesn’t take away from school, it’s taking away from the kids’ free time, which also has a value.

That’s okay, of course. I’m just reminded that it’s all a giant system in balance. It’s good that I’m always making adjustments – we should add and fix and change and try to do better and I wouldn’t change our lunch routine and efforts now by any means – but there’s no way to make a perfect system. Sometimes I just have to be happy with the imperfections too.

Please Help Your Kids With Their Projects

Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he's working on.
Mushroom working on our 90-Second Newbery Film. I set up the books so he could do the drawing and take the photos for the animation he’s working on.

A couple of school parent friends shared this Motherlode entry the other day online. In case you don’t want to read it, the gist of it is: parents should stop doing their kids’ projects and teachers should hold the parents accountable for it.

It sounds good on the surface. Part of me agreed with the author. However, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I felt. In the end, it was a good reminder of why we homeschool. All the assumptions in the article are so radically different from my own about education. But they have to be. School forces everyone into making these choices between helping and hurting, that are, in a homeschool context, a completely false dichotomy.

I won’t get too much into the specifics of the example in the article. Suffice it to say the assignment in question was the kind I can’t imagine giving a third grader without any support.

And that’s sort of the point. School forces kids to have to do things to show they’re competent. It’s not about learning. It’s not about the process. It’s definitely not about doing what’s right or enriching for that kid. It’s solely about proof. In that context, of course helping a child get that proof is cheating.

But that’s not what education is about in our homeschool. It’s not about creating proof. Education for us is about the process. It’s about learning by doing. Sometimes that’s messy. It doesn’t look very good in a portfolio, much less at a science fair or a school assembly. But it’s meaningful and worth doing. It’s enriching and positive.

And as we do that work, I’m not only the teacher, I’m the parent, I’m the coach, I’m the cheerleader and sometimes, I’m the partner. This is why I still read aloud. We can read harder books and more challenging works. It’s why I sit with my kids and help them edit their writing, talking through it as I go. It’s why we use “buddy math” to learn how to do problems better, trading the textbook back and forth. It’s why I still let them narrate their revisions to me for their writing or still type up their papers sometimes. It’s why I work alongside them when they’re making big, complex art projects. It’s why I outlined the steps and kept making checklists for our current film project or why I’m taking the same MOOC as my kids this semester. I’m their teacher, but I’m also their learning partner.

This is not to say that I don’t value independence too, just that it’s not the only model for positive learning. It’s okay to swing between insisting that a child read one book independently and another can be read back and forth. It’s okay to insist that one page of the math book be done alone and checked together while another is worked jointly. I have been enjoying shepherding my kids through two projects with radically different rules: the 90-Second Newbery Film, where I can (and have) helped however I saw fit and the Destination Imagination challenge their team has chosen, where I have to sign an interference contract that forbids me from ever laying a finger to help with their work. Both models have great merits.

I do value having a product to show off sometimes. Having tangible work they can be proud of is something that can be important to kids (and to us as their teachers) to help them feel like they’re learning and doing meaningful work. But random assignments for school aren’t usually very meaningful. Kids don’t choose them. And because they’re chosen for the show value, kids rarely get much out of them whether they do them or their parents do them. My kids don’t choose all their work either, but much of it is for process. When we do a project, I give plenty of time and support so they can produce something that feels good and represents real learning.

So I say that independence is not better learning. Kids need partners. Help your kids with their work sometimes so they can feel supported in their learning, so they can learn more, so they can focus on the process.

Mushroom’s Techie Bookshelf

Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.
Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.

It has been interesting trying to foster a budding techie geek when I’m not really one myself. I’m not a computer ignoramus, mind you. I worked in the computer lab in college fixing routine problems and have picked up a lot of basic stuff. On the other hand, I’m not equipped to teach anyone what’s what, especially not for things like robotics or coding.

To some extent, I’ve just had to learn but I can’t say I’ve learned much. Mostly I’ve learned what to suggest that the kids themselves look into. This has been one of those beautiful things about being the parent of older kids. They sometimes know more about something than you! It’s so cool to see Mushroom excited about this stuff, talking a mile a minute about things I barely understand.

Since I’m so little use, luckily there are books and kits and so forth. Mushroom has taken to lugging some of them around sometimes, even hugging them and sticking them under his pillow. His joy when Make comes in the mail is off the charts. While a large part of his hobby is looking at projects, dreaming about the possibilities, and reading about how things are done, sometimes he also does things himself. He has gone through a lot of the most basic projects with his Raspberry Pi and Arduino. He did a project from Make turning his Pi into an old fashioned arcade games player and we downloaded lots of old games to play. He has gotten a really cool Brick Pi from Dexter Industries and begun to build little robots combining his old Mindstorms pieces with the Raspberry Pi. Overall, he’s slowly tinkering and learning, dreaming and imagining.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure by The Lead Project
This one is a bit of cheat. We had the older version of this book from back when Scratch was downloadable instead of all online. However, it was the very first programming book we ever got and it got a fair amount of use from both Mushroom and BalletBoy, who was obsessed with Scratch for awhile. The book uses a comic book format, which is obviously a good hook for kids. The projects are simple and it makes for a great jump start into Scratch. Really, Scratch is simple enough that all kids need to do is dive in and look at other kids’ projects, but sometimes some more traditional instructions are good encouragement.

 Make Magazine
This is really the gold standard in the maker movement. It’s more than just the sort of programming and electronics and computer projects that Mushroom is into right now and even when it has those, they’re often at another level of amazing. My mother saw Mushroom’s magazine and asked him could he make her the crazy backyard fountain project that was in there. Mushroom paid for his own subscription to Make and reads it very carefully, cover to cover every time it arrives.

Magpi Magazine
This is a pretty hefty subscription cost because this magazine, the official one for the Raspberry Pi, is British. You can find individual issues at some bookstores, but the best way to read it is online where you can get at least some issues for free. Mushroom really loves this magazine almost as much as he loves Make. It’s shiny and inviting and I know he wishes he could buy the paper version instead of reading on the iPad. As you might expect, all the projects and articles in here are for the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer you can get for about $30. It’s made to be hacked and built into different projects and comes with software you can easily load on such as the kids programming language Scratch and a version of Minecraft that’s just for the Pi.

Adventures in Raspberry Pi by Carrie Anne Philbin
Mushroom says that this book is the best you can get for the beginner interested in doing projects with the Raspberry Pi. He did several of the beginning projects in the book before deciding that he was ready to try other things with his Pi. Mostly the projects seem to just introduce kids to different ways to use the Pi with languages like Scratch and Python and simple projects like making music on the Pi and turning it into a little jukebox.

Python for Kids by Jason R. Briggs
Okay, now we’ve gotten the books that I know less about. Mushroom kept thumbing through this one over and over though I think most of the Python he has learned has actually been through Code Academy, a free online tutorial for beginning coders in different languages, as well as by simply doing projects he reads about in other sources. Python is an older programming language, but my understanding from Mushroom is that because it’s so basic it’s used as one of the main ways to program the Pi and Arduino.

Arduino Workshop by John Boxall
Make: Basic Arduino Projects by Don Wilcher
Now we come to the Arduino books. Mushroom has both of these and has worked through a few projects from each, though his Arduino kit also came with a book of initial projects that he did most of. Arduino is a type of little controller that you can program to do all kinds of things. Through Arduino, Mushroom has gotten into breadboards and wiring things up. All of his first projects just involved getting various LED lights on a breadboard to come on and off in various ways and patterns. However, he has since played around with an Arduino Esplora, which he has used as a game controller and programmed to use a tiny screen.


I’m So Glad We Preschool Homeschooled

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I have no idea which one is Mushroom and which one is BalletBoy. The trials of parenting twins.

We’re so far beyond the preschool years now that it seems like a silly battle cry to take up, but I have a plea for all you seasoned homeschoolers, one that, while I find it baffling, is apparently pretty controversial.

Please let the parents of little ones use the word “homeschooler” to find their tribe.

When Mushroom and BalletBoy were little, we had a little playground meet up with other parents of kids their age. They had a group of little friends they recognized and remembered who we would see, sometimes by plan and sometimes by accident. The parents were cool, the kids were sweet. We stopped by each others’ houses, we hung out, we commiserated about the trials of raising toddlers.

Then, overnight, kids began to turn three and they disappeared. They just vanished. And suddenly my 3 year olds looked like playground giants at the toddler parks. They were out of place at the library story time. And our old friends didn’t have time for hanging out. They were going back to work, living on preschool schedules, settling into a new phase of life.

Thank goodness we found a group of other parents who were also planning to homeschool. We found them by looking for homeschool groups in the area. Like us, no one was really doing the “school” part of homeschooling. A few parents did programs like Before Five in a Row or had a phonics book but most of us were easing into the homeschool life with art activities, field trips to children’s theater and museums, and lots of nature walks, outdoor play, and pretend play time. But we did a lot of that together, at a weekly play date. The parents talked homeschooling instead of school boundaries. We got ideas from each other. We had the same outlook because we all planned on a similar path.

I was always pretty determined to homeschool, but having that group around me was so comforting. We knew that “socialization” really wouldn’t be a problem and that people would be welcoming toward us. Having that strong group with friendly parents helped make homeschooling seem less scary and more possible.

I know that for some homeschoolers, they don’t want preschool parents embracing the homeschool label for all kinds of reasons: they don’t believe in early academics, they are bothered by the very concept of “pre” school because how can there be school that’s before school, they have experienced preschool homeschoolers who don’t plan to do it for the long haul. For me, none of these objections are enough. School is the norm at age three here and not doing that means stepping outside the mainstream almost as much as not sending your child to kindergarten. And while it was disappointing that some families sent their kids to school come kindergarten time, it wasn’t the end of the world.

It was by searching out the “homeschool” community that we began to find our tribe of people and began to make our long-lasting parent friends. I want that for other families.

In fact, that’s my piece of advice for anyone out there with younger kids who is planning to homeschool. Use this time to find your tribe and establish friendships. Preschool is such a magical time of open ended play. There’s so much more time than there will be in a few years when they have actual budding interests that take their time and school begins to become more academic and take longer. Seize that time to solidify friendships and just hang out. And do it with homeschoolers.

Fall Book Roundup

This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.

Read Aloud
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm

We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.

School Reading
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle

This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.

School Reading
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe

Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.


Mushroom’s Reading
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.

Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.



City Homeschoolers

Mushroom goofing off on the Metro escalators. (For locals, a working Metro escalator? I know, shocking!)
Mushroom goofing off on the Metro escalators. (For locals, a working Metro escalator? I know, shocking!)

I’ll try not to bury the lede on this post. I recently added a section up top in the menu for other DC homeschoolers. There seem to be so many more now than ever before so I gathered some of the resources I’m aware of and listed them there. In particular, we just navigated the process of getting free transit cards for the kids so they can take the bus solo around the city and the city’s explanation for how that works left a little to be desired so I thought a blow by blow meant for kids whose cards wouldn’t be set up for them at their boundary school was perhaps a useful resource.

But beyond that, I thought I’d just take a moment to appreciate how much we love life in the city. I have often shared a story from many years ago when I was on a road trip with the boys. Because we took a side trip to Okefenokee and then took back roads to get to our second family stop in north Georgia, we ended up passing through more small towns than I can count. I was pleased to see how many cute small town downtowns were being revived. “Look!” I kept saying to the kids, “Look what a cute town!” Also, since we were out in the country a lot, I said things like, “Oh, look at the pecan groves! Look at the wildlife! Isn’t it great?” Uh-huh. When we finally pulled into Atlanta and went in search of parking to go to the aquarium, Mushroom said to me, obviously mimicking my words, “Look! Look at all the buildings! Isn’t this cute? Isn’t this great?” His relaxation at finally being somewhere that seemed “normal” was palpable. DC isn’t exactly a city of tall buildings, but the feeling of “urban” was obviously home.

I think there’s an impression of homeschoolers that we’re all homesteading, do it yourself types, making our own soap or canning our own vegetables. Interestingly, I grew up a lot more like that, but I always remember the sense of enriched cultural life when I visited my grandparents’ home in New Orleans and I longed for that when I grew up. Obviously, the small farm types are one model of the homeschool life. However, we urbanites are a growing homeschool group too.

City life makes homeschooling easy in some ways. Museums, buses, millions of classes and opportunities… The number of things at our fingertips at any moment is mind boggling. I love that we have this opportunity to utilize all those resources. And I love the way that my kids feel comfortable with subways and buses and busy street crossings. Sometimes they take for granted a little bit that everyone has access to world class art museums and performances and the option of a million different classes, but mostly they are so confident with the city. It’s beautiful to see. And, of course, if we need a nature outing, there’s always Rock Creek Park.

To Co-Op or Not to Co-Op

Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.
Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.

When I first got into homeschooling and began to join the online community of homeschoolers, I noticed an undercurrent among the people who had been at it for a long time. “Homeschooling is changing,” they said. Sometimes as a complaint, sometimes in awe of the expanding community, sometimes just as an observation. I took their word for it, and I could certainly see that it had changed from the early days, but I didn’t feel it.

Well, I’m still a newbie by many standards, but I can tell you that I feel it now. Homeschooling is changing. Do I sound like a crotchety old timer? I feel a little like one sometimes.

In the last two years, four co-ops have arisen within a few miles from where I live. These aren’t the sort of homegrown co-ops that meet at people’s homes with a couple of families that were around when my kids were younger (like the one we still participate in). They’re incorporated non-profits with rented space and actual budgets or, in the case of a growing Classical Conversations group, part of a large national group. One of them is for kids to do up to four days a week. Another is for three days a week. The largest, which is new this year, is for only one day a week, but is so large that we’ve gotten some pushback from friends about not joining. As one friend put it, “It’s like everyone you’ve ever met all at one co-op.” Well, not quite, but it does seem that way sometimes.

Did I mention that I feel like an old fuddy duddy? I’m glad these options are suddenly out there and growing. None of them were around when my kids were starting out, which is really a testament to how quickly things are changing and I suspect they’re changing nationwide. But I’m also glad that charter schools in my city are growing and improving. I’m glad that online learning is growing and becoming a viable option for more families. I’m glad that the public schools in my city are improving. I’m just happy that more families, at least in my little corner of the world, have more options than ever before, many of which break the mold of sitting in a classroom all day. However, that doesn’t mean I’m jumping on the bandwagon for any of those things. Especially in the case of interesting new private school models and co-ops that rent their own spaces, these options are expensive. To join that co-op would run us several hundred dollars, not to mention a lot of free work hours from me teaching.

For a lot of the new homeschoolers I’ve met recently, finding a community that meets several days a week in a formal setting is the ideal of homeschooling. I don’t disagree that it can work for some people, but it’s definitely not my ideal.

My ideal is following my kids’ interests and needs on an individual basis. My ideal is having a schedule that’s open and flexible enough to allow us to drop everything to go apple picking or fossil hunting or to see friends unexpectedly. My ideal is learning without an institution. We don’t always achieve those ideals, but none of them are served by being in a group several days a week. That, to me, sounds like school by another name. Potentially a better model of school, but still school.

There is something really inspiring about the way in which homeschoolers are creating these learning communities. Some of them are especially great for parents who work full or part time but still want to find a way to homeschool. However, one of the things I want new homeschoolers to know is that you can do this on your own too. You can educate your kids without a co-op if you want to. You can educate your kids without a curriculum too. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a certain joy to reinventing the wheel for your kids and learning how to teach them by simply teaching them. Not only that, but there are a million models for making friendships and community in homeschooling. One way is by creating something that requires administrators and accountants, but another is by creating something small. We have gotten so much joy and love out of a free, informal co-op that is run as much by the kids as the adults. We have also gotten more social skills and teamwork skills from doing Destination Imagination than I think could be gotten in nearly any classroom.

So we’re sticking with our group of just a few kids and our activities that we already have. Maybe we’ll re-evaluate down the road, and see if I’m willing to give up a few more days of home school in favor of community school.


Elections for Young People – Free Download

I guess it’s just free downloads month at the Rowhouse. Last week, I put up my modernized version of Problems Without Figures, a century-old text helping students focus on the procedures and meaning behind the math, and today I have something to share that was written by the Husband.

This fall, my husband, Peter, has started a mini-unit on elections for Mushroom and BalletBoy. He decided quickly that none of the resources out there would be up to snuff for him. He wanted to create his own. Peter is a recovering political junkie. The cover of the ebook is actually memorabilia from his personal collection of political bumper stickers and pins. He’s worked in various ways in politics and political journalism for a long time. So, of course, he felt confident to just write an authoritative guide off the top of his head, just like he can name your congressman off the top of his head (we may not get to have one, but he can name yours!) and probably your governor too.

He was very sweet as he worked on this and very excited to create and share it with others. It’s truly an amazing little text that is both detailed and easy to understand. He wrote it with Mushroom and BalletBoy in mind, but I suspect it would be useful for many kids in elementary and middle school.

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Click on the image above to get it. The book is written to be read right now. Many of the examples and explanations deal specifically with the 2016 presidential race. At the end of most sections, there are questions to ponder in green text. At the end, there are a few web links and other resources. While obviously we have our own political views, the viewpoint is very neutral. Peter has been all over the political spectrum in his life so he knows how different sides think. This book is not about political issues so much as the process of becoming president. Why do people choose to run? Why do we focus on Iowa and New Hampshire? How do polls work? What does it take to win? Where do third parties stand? How did our system end up working this way? I think both liberal and conservative parents will find this guide completely usable.

I don’t talk much about Peter on this blog, but I’ll take this opportunity to extol his virtues. Long before we had kids, I told Peter we would be homeschooling them and he has been a complete supporter from the get go. He never questions that we’re doing a great job for our kids. When I was still teaching and the kids were very little, he was the first one to find us homeschool friends. While I do suffer occasionally from being the “default parent,” Peter is a very hands on father. He changed at least as many diapers as me and has dealt with at least as many tantrums and bedtimes and illnesses. He talks to the kids, plays games with them, takes them out to the park in the evening and on field trips, and reads to them at bedtime. Basically, I think he’s a superdad.


Numberless Problems for Today – Free Download

In my last post, I linked to a really cool vintage resource called Problems Without Figures. As I pointed out, I decided to update it so I could use it with my kids more easily. I didn’t update the whole work because it was very long. I did the first 150 problems, which is a little less than half, but I thought I’d share my update here with you. It’s free to download. For more about the types of problems, the reasons to use a book like this, and how to use the book, have a look at my previous post. Below, I’m going to talk a little more about the changes I made to the book and why. I can’t promise that every problem in here is perfect. I’m pretty sure I thought through everything, but I didn’t have a professional editor. Feel free to send me any corrections and do tweak any problems to make them make more sense for your kids if needed. Note that the nature of these problems is to include superfluous information, have answers that are impossible to get without more information, have multiple potential solutions or paths to a solution, and to have “trick” problems where the answer is much simpler than the problem implies. None of those things are necessarily errors. Again, see my previous post for more about these problems.

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I changed the problems in a couple of ways. A large number I left the same or simply updated a word or two to be less old fashioned (such as “shall”), including some of the old fashioned problems about farms and orchards and the like, simply because it’s nice to have different perspectives occasionally. I updated the language in a few problems. For example,  instead of buying marbles and penny candy, kids are buying Legos and other contemporary items. For others, I changed the situation or the measuring units for a problem to be more up to date but tried to keep the spirit of the question. However, for several problems, I couldn’t come up with a modern equivalent so I completely rewrote the problem to be more contemporary.

Doing this was an interesting process for me. It let me think about how math has changed over time. Much of the original book was out of date because of the situations it portrayed. It assumed the readers were familiar with agriculture and farm animals. However, much of what has changed is the math. There were several measurement units that are simply not used anymore, such as the rod as a measurement of length. Other measurement units are in use today and students may have a general sense of what a bushel or an acre is, but they are less a part of everyday life. In general, while measurement math is still a key component of everyday math and we have the complexity in the US of having to go between customary and metric measurements, this book drove home for me how it was an even bigger share of the everyday math people used a century ago. For one thing, we tend to deal with standardized sizes of things much more often. Doors, windows, pieces of paper, tablecloths, picture frames, etc. are all standardized. If we want to know how much land we own, we look it up instead of measuring. If we build something, we tend to follow preset directions instead of making them up ourselves with all the accompanying measurement challenges.

On the other hand, there are types of math that were never or almost never covered in the original book. For example, there were only a couple of problems involving averages. There were no problems involving estimation. There were no problems involving statistics or ratios. Very few problems involved fractions or percents, which surprised me. There were no problems involving permutations or combinations.

Life today is more complex with more choices. We tend to need to know more about combinations and permutations just to order off a menu or decide how to buy something or what to wear. We have to evaluate more complex data and statistics to understand a news article or a scientific claim on the internet. We’re used to bigger numbers. None of the numbers in the original book were very big. These days we’re used to hearing about numbers in the millions and billions. Our tax code and economy are much more complex, meaning that percentages come into play a lot more often. When the original book was written, people lived with a cash economy and prices were more straightforward. It’s different now.

When I tossed out those few problems from the original, I tried to replace them with ones that asked kids about making the sort of decisions that we often have to make using math these days. So there are problems about how to make basketball matchups, how to choose which toilet paper to buy, how to know if a statistic is reasonable, and other more modern conundrums than how many acres in your fields or how many fence posts you need.

Numberless Math

BalletBoy has always gravitated toward just getting his math done. Ideally, he likes to have a page of all the same sort of problem, let me remind him how to do them, and then just do them all. However, as he’s gotten older, this has meant a struggle for him to some extent. As the math gets more complex, with more to remember, not having a strong foundation in the whys of math has led to more and more difficulties for him. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may note that he’s jumped around programs in the last year as a result. I’ve been trying to honor the fact that he’s pretty good at getting the algorithms memorized while still helping him understand the whys. Finding the right approach hasn’t been easy. Most things have been too easy or too hard.

Recently, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math blog pointed me to the vintage book Problems Without Figures, which you can find as a pdf here. I immediately fell in love a little bit. Many of them have numbers, but there’s usually missing information so they can’t be “solved.” Instead, the question is focused on the process. If given this and this, can you find that? How would you do it? What other information might you need? Many of the problems can’t be solved unless you know more information. Others are easy, but they require a lot of steps. A ton of them require that you move between different measuring units. Many of them are filled with superfluous information.

There are also several trick problems. My favorite, by far, is the one that asks how you can find how old a coin dated 56 B.C. is. Obviously, a coin couldn’t be dated that (think about it…). The author of the book suggests that these should be sprung on students. I’ve already given the kids a few of these but warned them to look out for them. They were delighted to discover them and felt very clever doing so. I think it’s really good for kids to realize that the answer isn’t always straightforward, that it might be easier or harder than they anticipate, or that they might need different information than what you’re given or expect to need.

In general, I like the focus of having kids doing math that’s not about getting “the answer.” It changes the focus of math and makes it feel more approachable for BalletBoy. It helps kids with their writing as well. Mushroom has been using the Arbor School algebra series, which requires a lot of writing. I wish we had been doing these for a little while in preparation because they really focus a student on writing out a clear, step by step set of instructions for solving a problem. However, the small nature of the problems makes it feel like a doable task. Mushroom has struggled with the writing in the Arbor School series because it asks that he summarize everything he learned and give his own examples. This is such a small chunk and so specific that it builds good logical writing and thinking skills. Basically, it’s a great thing for kids to do for math, writing, logic, and thinking skills. Explaining how to solve a problem is just good across the board.

You may notice that many of the problems in the book are outdated. In order to easily use it with my boys, I updated the language for us. My next post is about that process and I’ll link to the updated version if you’d like to use it.