Monthly Archives: September 2010

Keep the Old Books!

As I always do when it’s time for a new unit in science or history, I went to the library to swap out the books we’ve finished for books about new topics.  This week, for history that meant books about Clovis and Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne.  Both of the libraries within walking distance are under renovation right now and the temporary library set up in a store front is a little pitiful, so I haven’t been going there.  Besides, we often need more books than our branch library can provide.  I’ve taken to going to two different libraries: the central library and a large branch library northwest of us.

Our central library has a pretty decent children’s book section in a big room with lots of windows.  It’s not the best facility ever, but it could be much worse.  The branch I’ve been going to is smaller, but it has something that none of the other libraries in our system have: old books.  Everything in our entire library system for children seems to have been published after about 1990.  Even older books are much more likely to be reissues from the 80’s and 90’s than original or older editions.  On the one hand, this is nice.  The collection, while not perfect, is relatively current.

On the other hand, look at this beautiful specimen of book I discovered while looking for stuff about Charlemagne.  It’s A Picture History of France by Clarke Hutton, in an edition from 1958.

Look at those illustrations!  The text is also very appropriate to elementary school.  It’s not a long, wordy book.  However, it’s not the brisk overview of an encyclopedia either.  There’s some meat there.

I went and told the librarian on duty how thrilled I was that their branch had old books.  She looked pleased that someone had noticed and was appreciative.  From what she said, I had the feeling that the library may have to defend its collection sometimes.  I’m not sure how often a book like this circulates.  I know that the books that get the most use are the ones the library wants to invest their money in.  However, if the kids want a Judy Moody book or a Magic Treehouse book and the library doesn’t have it, I can just pop over to the bookstore and buy it.  If we need an older book or a reference book for school, sometimes it’s impossible to buy it.  Books like this one are a resource for the library.  Yes, they take up shelf space, but it makes me so sad that libraries often toss these books out when they renovate or get new books in.


I’ve gotten a little behind on my children’s book blogging.  This is mostly because I’ve gotten behind on my children’s book reading and on reading in general.  Some actual adult books held me up and then I had a slight cold or a case of fall allergies or something and when I’m under the weather, I always just want to reread something.  But then the sequel to the middle grades novel Savvy caught my eye so now I’m back.

I didn’t love Scumble quite as much as I loved Savvy, but to my mind, Savvy was a near perfect gem of a book so it would have been a mighty tall order to exceed it.  Scumble tells the story of Ledger Kale, who acquires a very powerful savvy, or talent, on his thirteenth birthday: the ability to make things fall apart.  After some initial disasters on his way to visit his uncle’s ranch, Ledger sinks into a funk.  Sarah Jane (no, Who fans, not that Sarah Jane), a girl from town, adds complications with her outlandish tales and her discovery of Ledger’s family’s secret powers.

Ingrid Law weaves together a lot of characters and themes in the book.  In the end, Ledger has to scumble his savvy, or learn to tame his powers, so that he can go home and head to school in the fall.  Meanwhile, his uncle’s ranch, and with it, his family’s secrets, are threatened by Sarah Jane and her rich father.  I like books like this one, that have one foot firmly in reality and another one firmly in fantasy.  Overall, it was a very satisfying read.

In Which We Make the News (sort of…)

Wow, this blog is really overactive today!  Sorry, folks, if I’m flooding your reader.  I just wanted to share a couple of links to another blog, the one for our local NBC station, where the husband is a part time local blogger.  You know, the kind who gets paid for what I’m doing here for free.  It’s education week at NBC, so he, of course, decided to write about homeschooling for a couple of his pieces.  Check it out here and here.  You can see Mushroom and BalletBoy featured in the pictures he chose.

Reading Treasure Hunt!

Starting when Mushroom and BalletBoy were about three, we started doing treasure hunts around the house for fun.  I began with simple pictures – a box, a rug, a toy, etc. Sometimes I would get creative and draw a picture of something complicated, like the Tibetan mandala on the living room wall.  Each clue leads to another clue until you get to the prize.  By the time they were four, I would occasionally add in a word, like “TV” or “pot.”  By the time they were five, BalletBoy could read all the words with ease and was ready for simple sentences like, “Look under the sofa.”  I had to split up the treasure hunting at that point and make two sets of clues according to reading ability.

The prize at the end of the hunt is usually pretty small – a couple chocolate chips or maybe some cookies they would have gotten for dessert anyway.  However, this has been one of our most enduring games over the years.  I used to use cut up scraps of paper, but I recently started using tiny sticky notes.  BalletBoy begs for a hunt nearly every day and suggests elaborate, usually time consuming ways to improve them.  In order to keep his clues challenging, I’ve begun writing couplets: “Look in the place that keeps things cold.  Food won’t spoil or get old.”  Okay, really lame couplets.  Maybe I need to reread A Suitable Boy and fall in love with rhyming couplets again so I can improve the quality of my couplet writing.

This simple game’s a painless way
To practice reading every day

No, that was still lame.  I’ll stick to blogging and fiction and avoid the poetry.

Are Textbooks Irrelevant?

When I taught school, I often didn’t use textbooks much at all.  The books I was given to use in public school were poorly written and organized.  The private school where I worked didn’t use textbooks for most subjects.  I relied on literature, as well as things I photocopied from various sources or worksheets and handouts I created myself.  I also made pretty heavy use of the internet and worked some with the middle school students I taught on screening and understanding information from the internet.

Through one of the blogs I look at, I happened to come across this challenge.  The blogger asserts that, “there’s not much in your children’s textbooks that isn’t available in at least a dozen places online for free.”

As a homeschooling parent, I have a deep familiarity with the textbook resources we use.  I chose them and I use them.  I think it all depends on how you define the question.  Is the basic information contained in all our workbooks, curricula and texts available for free on the internet?  Of course.  It’s first grade.  Of course you can find it on the internet for free.  Our math curriculum is already free online.  We could also find free handwriting pages online easily.  The National Right to Read Foundation provides a pretty good free phonics primers with good word lists, not to mention that Starfall is doing its part for early phonics.  Wikipedia has, I’m sure, every ounce of information from our science and history books.  However, we use these books because I like the way the information is organized and presented.  I like the way Handwriting Without Tears organizes the letters by their shape.  I like the way Miquon, which we use as a supplement, encourages the kids to think about numbers in a new way.  I like the way Explode the Code has already organized the words for us into activities.

Furthermore, I can’t imagine sitting on the sofa reading sections of Wikipedia to my kids instead of Story of the World.  How absurd!  The information is out there, but it’s not written with children as the intended audience yet.  And even if there are enough suggested activities on the internet, it can take me hours of searching to find the right ones.  Textbooks gather those activities together in one place so I can pick and choose them quickly.  I can easily imagine that this will change in the near future.  However, for now, textbooks still have a place at our house.  They package information and activities for children in a way the internet does not.  At least not yet.


We are currently in the midst of Arabel’s Raven as our evening read aloud story.  Joan Aiken is an author that I’ve only recently discovered, much to my chagrin.  Honestly, this book might be one of the best new old books I’ve read in years.  I liked it so much that I went back and read the parts the husband read to the kids when he did bedtime, which is something I almost never do (mostly because it’s often a book I’ve already read).

The story is about a girl who acquires a pet raven.  The raven, whose name is Mortimer, knows only one word, which is apparently the only word ravens ever know: Nevermore.  Mortimer causes no end of trouble around the house.  For one thing, he eats unexpected objects, like stairs, and likes to put spaghetti in strange places, like your pockets.  He also makes what sounds like an enormous mess everywhere all the time.  However, Arabel and Mortimer have a special relationship with the sort of love and deep understanding that can exist between ravens and girls in children’s books.  So Arabel’s parents put up with Mortimer with amazing good humor.  The story has a very Roald Dahl feeling in places because of the absurd and silly situations portrayed.  However, the parents are so loving and most of the adults are so well-meaning that you know it can’t be a Roald Dahl book, though those Quentin Blake illustrations certainly invite the comparison, don’t they?

Suffice it to say that this made a perfect read aloud for us.  Humor is such an essential element in books and this one is one of the funniest we’ve read in awhile.

Science Week 3: Heat

We skipped a week of science, but we’re back on track this week with heat.  The kids and I sampled the full range of hardcover nonfiction series book entries about heat from the library during the week.  They were okay, but as with all these sorts of books, nothing to write home about.  If I had to pick one that was worth looking at again, I’d say we got the most out of Heat by Sally M. Walker.  It had simple, easy to understand text and reasonable photos.  Oh, Let’s Read and Find Out series, why couldn’t you have had a book about heat?  You know you’re my favorite.

In the realm of more fun resources, I happened to find a copy of Horrible Science: Killer Energy at the thrift store for 60 cents.  Score!  So we read a little about energy and heat in there.  We watched the Magic School Bus crew try to insulate themselves and retain heat in the Arctic in an episode.  Also, as always, Bill Nye amused us with his antics.  Here, please feel free to get yourself over to Youtube to enjoy the parody song from this week’s episode.  I’m telling you, Bill’s making me miss the 90’s.

On to more important things.  With heat, I felt pulled in too many directions and I admit I had trouble distilling for the kids what they needed to know the most.  In the end, the information I think they got most clearly was that heat makes (most) things expand and rise.  Also, that some things conduct heat while others insulate.  I also introduced the three methods of heat transfer: conduction, convection and radiation.  We also did a good bit with temperature.  This was the first time my kids had been exposed to the Celsius scale, so that was an important thing to introduce.

We started this week by cooking up some s’mores in our solar oven.  The marshmallow got a little gooey and the chocolate turned to liquid, making them extra fun to eat.  Heat radiated by the sun sure isn’t heat radiated over a fire quality when it comes to marshmallows, but they were enjoyed by all.

Then we moved on to a bunch of experiments and demonstrations about heat.  This was our first week of experiment flops.  Alas!  The first experiment flop was the trick with the cold bottle.  I’ve read about this one in several places.  You take a frosty, cold bottle and put a penny on top.  Then you use the heat from your hands to warm it up.  The heat should make the coin “dance” or even flip off the top.  Well, it didn’t work for us.  Another one that didn’t work was this one, which I thought had a lot of potential.  You can see the jars below all in a line losing heat…  well, aren’t we all losing heat?  But these jars are doing it for science!  I liked that the experiment allowed us to go through more of a scientific procedure by predicting which materials would insulate the heat best and explain the reasoning.  However, in the end, the results weren’t clear.  All the water lost heat at the same rate.  The temperatures were nearly identical in all the cups.

So, on to the stuff that worked!  First, I let the kids play with a bunch of thermometers: digital ear, meat, oven, alcohol and old-fashioned mercury.  Then, I had a set of alcohol thermometers and let the kids go put them in places of their choice to check the temperature.  We went around and checked them all: upstairs and downstairs, inside and outside, in the fridge and in the freezer.  We also put one right next to the solar oven and got to see how the brick of our stoop had reached nearly a hundred degrees!  However, once the sun went behind the clouds, we checked it later and saw it had dropped nearly ten whole degrees.

Another success was this basic experiment that illustrates that warm or hot molecules move faster than cold ones.  To further illustrate that idea, we moshed like hot water molecules then posed frozen with hands linked like cold ones.  Last, we did an experiment suggested in the Bill Nye episode where we put a small butter pat on a plastic knife, a metal knife and a popsicle stick.  Then we placed them all in scalding hot water.  Again, the kids got a chance to predict which butter pat would melt first.  When the metal one slid off into the hot water, we talked again about insulators and conductors.

Of course, we also added to our journals with some new vocabulary words.  Then the kids ran off to play some game where I was accused repeatedly of being a jewel thief while I cleaned up the mess we’d left.

Tearful Morning

We’re on the heels of a couple of tearful school mornings.  It’s not even always the same kid, so it’s hard to blame my methods or the kid for “going through a phase.”  Tears are always discouraging and I hate them so much.  They’re just such a practical nightmare as well.  They seem to come out of nowhere most of the time.  One moment, Mushroom or BalletBoy will be cheerfully copying words for spelling or answering a question in math, the next moment, I’ll say something like, “No, wait, let me show you how to do that,” and he’ll break down into a fit.  I always give the crier a hug and suggest we change gears or stop and do it later, but there’s usually a long, protracted cry of “No!”  Whoever is crying inevitably wants to sit and finish whatever we were working on.  It’s hard to teach a half-hysterical kid anything, so that’s usually not possible, which occasionally leads to a full on hysteria.  More often, after some futile hugs and reassurances, I have to force the crier to retreat to the other room to calm down on his own.  Then I’m left with two kids who are on different pages of their math workbooks.  Drat!

On the one hand, days like that make me feel like we should just ditch it all.  On the other hand, I don’t think I require that much of the kids.  I think we probably do less than half an hour of proper, concentrated “seat work” style schooling on most days.  Furthermore, when the kid returns later, they always grok the concept that stymied them in the first place, which makes me feel like it’s primarily a problem of attitude and expectations, not cognitive ability.

There are many things I think are more important than addition or reading.  I want my kids to know learning isn’t always easy.  I want them to know that it’s important to fail and try again.  I want them to be able to listen and learn, as well as intuit and figure out.  If we didn’t do formal learning of any kind, I feel like they wouldn’t learn those things.

Deep breath.  Let the day begin and be a gentle one.

Why can't all the mornings be like this one?

What Do You Need a Curriculum For?

The other day, I saw someone ask on a certain homeschooling forum for help finding a curriculum to teach her kids how to do their chores and learn home economics.  If I recall, the kids were in early elementary school.  I bit my tongue (or held my fingers?) and didn’t respond with something snarky like, “Good grief, just print out a chore chart and be done with it!”

I feel perfectly confident that there will be gaps in my kids’ learning.  However, there’s going to be gaps whether I buy a curriculum or not.  There’s going to be gaps whether they’re homeschooled or schooled.  Everyone has things they really ought to have learned but didn’t.  Conversely, everyone has things they learned that they really didn’t need to unless they happen to be on Jeopardy.

The other day, Through the Wardrobe posted about how you just don’t need a creative writing curriculum.  Here, here!  However, that got me thinking.  All my life, I’ve written and read books for pleasure.  The world of words is a comfortable one for me.  In my former life, I taught humanities.  I feel no intimidation about needing a curriculum for humanities.  We have books, like Story of the World, to use as guidelines for history, but I don’t feel married to them.  We don’t even have guidebooks for reading writing, unless you count the handwriting practice books.  Nor can I imagine getting any.

On the other hand, we have two math curricula we’re drawing from and I probably overplanned science in my zeal to make it a bit more organized this year.  I wonder how much of that reflects my level of comfort with those subjects.  I don’t worry about English or history because those are things I know the best.  Math and science are interesting and fun to me, but they’re not the subjects that I excelled at in school.  I haven’t taken a formal math class since high school (I do not count the odd, if inspiring, math seminar I took at Mount Holyoke as “formal”) and I’ve never in my life studied physics formally, which is essentially our science topic for the year.

In the Scriptorium

Since we learned about the monks who kept a sliver of Roman learning alive after the fall of Rome, I decided we should make books.  Making books is a former hobby of mine, so this was fun for me.  We used one of the projects from the book Making Books that Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist, and Turn.  I have a couple of books about bookbinding, but even though this one is for kids, it’s my favorite.  The projects are spelled out very clearly with photos and drawings.  The materials are simple.  Even though the book tries to dictate a purpose for each kind of project, you can easily imagine different ways to adapt each project, as I did to make our books when we imagined being in the monastery.

First, I cut two pieces of cardboard for each kid that was just slightly larger than a piece of standard paper folded in half.  The kids chose two colors to create the color.  The first color was wrapped over the cardboard.  We cut a triangle off the corners so it would glue down flat and neat.  Then the second color was used for the spine.  The kids cut that paper in half lengthwise then, leaving a space between the front and back covers, glued it on and folded it over to the inside.  You can see BalletBoy showing off his cover with a pink spine from the inside and the outside.

Next, we folded a small stack of standard paper in half.  With my help, we used an awl to punch five holes in the fold.  I helped the kids use dental floss to sew up the pages.

To finish the book, the kids choose two end papers.  They glued one side to the inside of the cover and the other side to the folio on the front cover then the back, attaching the folio to the cover.

Finally, I had the kids copy just one sentence from the bible.  I went with the 23rd Psalm.  Not my favorite bible verse, but I thought it made sense for kids.  I showed them how to make an illuminated letter and let them use the gold Sharpies, at great risk to my dining room table since they leak.  Then I let them use my calligraphy markers to write the bible verse.  They were impressed that the monks had to copy the whole thing, over and over again.  Also that the books were chained to the walls to protect them.  I told them if we had as many books as we do now back in the dark ages, we’d be bajillionaires.  If only it were the dark ages, kids.  I’d love to be able to make millions just by selling off the books.

After we finished our project, I told them they could do whatever they wanted with the books.  Mushroom immediately rewrote his bible verse in a blasphemous way.  It was very unintentional, so I find this pretty funny.  If you don’t, apologies.  The kid really didn’t know what he was doing when he inserted his own name in there.  Then he used the remaining pages to write a story about his beloved bath toys: Mary and the Frog.  The kids have been plotting out Mary and the Frog’s website empire for years, but apparently for now a book will do.