All posts by farrarwilliams

Puzzles, Codes, and… online classes

At the moment, I’m up to my ears in secret codes, brain teasers, riddles, and logic puzzles. Seriously! I’m in the midst of planning one of the classes that we’re offering for middle schoolers over at Simplify Homeschool.

Part of me is nervous about all the balls we have up in the air right now. We’re still podcasting, still helping clients, and we have a high school humanities core that’s about three quarters finished and currently being beta tested by Mushroom and BalletBoy (I’ll post most about that soon, but BalletBoy gives it a thumbs up and Mushroom grumbles about it, though that can be said about his  reaction to nearly everything except attending theater performances these days). But now we’re also starting these online classes! It’s a big undertaking. Our class page just went live, so you can actually sign up now (or share, please share for us!). I think I’m actually most excited about keeping my feet a little bit in with the middle school world. Middle schoolers are the best people.

But more about those codes and puzzles!

The book I’m using for the class is a young reader’s edition of an adult book. I love young reader’s editions because they bring content that’s almost within young people’s reach to within their grasp. This one is The Code Book by Simon Singh. The one with the blue cover is the young reader’s edition. As I go, I have also had the Murderous Maths book Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them by Kjartan Poskitt sitting at the table with me as well as the Murderous Maths book that covers permutations and combinations, Do You Feel Lucky, also by Kjartan Poskitt. If you don’t know Murderous Maths, they’re so fun and whimsical. While they look like books for younger kids (and can be appreciated by them sometimes), the math is mostly at a middle school level. The other two books I’ve been looking at that are excellent are Top Secret by Paul Janeczko and a cheapie Dover book called Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing that’s by the esteemed Martin Gardiner.

The math of the codes is really fun. I feel like we don’t do enough math of counting and probability with students, and this is closely tied to that.

However, I have to admit that my real passion when it comes to puzzles is word puzzles, not math ones. I love a good crossword. I love puzzles like the trivia puzzles on the NPR show Ask Me Another even more. Or the sorts of mystery puzzles that are in Art Fraud Detective or The Great Art Scandal by Anna Nilsen. I thought about using those mystery books for the class, or the wonderful art mystery series for upper elementary and middle school that begins with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But instead, I decided there’s really no other book series for puzzles than Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen mysteries. Each book is packed full of puzzles, most of them the sort of witty word puzzles with anagrams and so forth that I love. Eric Berlin also runs an amazing puzzle service that’s free called Puzzle Your Kids, that you should absolutely sign your kids up for if you have any interest.

This is all just to say… teaching is fun. Hopefully teaching online will be fun. And if nothing else, I got to dig through a lot of great resources, which is almost always my favorite thing to do.

The “Say Yes” Mentality

Years ago, when my boys were toddlers, I read an article where the mom resolved to try saying yes for one day to everything her very young child asked to do. There were limits, obviously. Kids need to be safe and it’s just not possible to get a pet unicorn (unfortunately!). But the idea was to say yes whenever possible to see how it felt.

That concept really stuck with me for a long time. We spend a lot of time telling young children “no.” I have definitely sat in the park and listened as a parent just said “no” to a 2 or 3 year-old over and over. “No, it’s not time for snack.” “No, not up on the big slide yet.” “No throwing.” “No, that’s not your ball.” “No, we can’t go over there now.” And so on, ad infinitem. Sometimes I see parents of young children telling their children “no” even as others say yes. I remember seeing a parent tell a child they couldn’t disturb a pile of mulch at a park once, only to have the landscaper turn and say, “It’s okay. I’m just going to spread it here in a few minutes.” The parent still led the frustrated child away.

The benefits of saying yes seem really obvious to me. Yes respects children as individuals, respects their wants and needs. Yes allows children to learn to self-regulate. Yes gives children the freedom to learn. Yes improves our relationship with our kids. It gives our no more weight because they recognize that it’s not empty and given in reflex. Sometimes you have to say no. But I like the impulse and stop and examine. Make yes the default.

As my kids have grown up, at some point, I thought, I have this “yes” thing totally down pat. Also, now that they’re teenagers, who cares? They know I respect them. They know I give them leeway. We’re all good.

Then, the other day, BalletBoy asked if we could start school a little late and play a board game.

I’m SO BUSY, I thought. I’m SO TIRED, I thought. Why THAT game, I thought. You have SO MUCH high school work, I thought.

And then I made myself say yes.

The yes mentality is something that I still have to relearn sometimes, I guess. But I needed the reminder that it’s still important.

It just changes. I don’t have to trail after my kids telling them no, no, no anymore lest they accidentally stumble into the mortal dangers of traffic or that mysterious thing on the ground that somehow looks appealing to stick in their mouths. Now that they’re teens, the dangers are so much more complex and so much more long term. You can’t just pull them back from the road like toddlers and know that they’re fine. They have to figure out how to approach first loves and complex friendships. They have to come to their own understandings of why they need to work hard or engage or have goals. And there’s not one moment when it will go right or wrong.

It’s as key as ever that I say yes so they can figure out their own boundaries and trust that when I say no, the no has weight. Just like when they were little, I still have to say no sometimes.

But the moments when they want my attention, advice, or my ears are also more precious and fleeting than ever. Yes, you can tell me about that video game strategy. Yes, you can play that song in the car. Yes, we can go for a hike instead of finishing up math.

So this is a reminder to myself. Say yes.

 

 

 

Let Them Read It

I’ve recently been in several discussions about books for middle and high schoolers where people have shied away from reading about “difficult” topics. No violence, no romance, no abusive characters, no murders, no controversy.

Sometimes the kids in question are apparently sensitive. Other times, covering difficult topics is against the family philosophy, at least until the kids are ready for it.

The problem is, by the time they get to high school, they need to be ready for it.

Kids in high school should be headed toward joining that “great conversation” about the world’s great works of literature. Or, at the very least, toward understanding the world around them, including its history, and being able to grapple with questions about the darker side of human nature. How are they supposed to do that if you don’t ever read about love or hatred? How are they supposed to understand history if they can’t read about the Holocaust or the Cultural Revolution or the Civil War?

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it isn’t just a nice saying. It’s actually true that if we don’t understand these things at all, we are likely to repeat their mistakes. High school is the last bit of compulsory schooling before kids head off into the world. Hopefully they pursue higher education, but then high school has to prepare them for that.

A college professor told me recently about students she had in class who had never heard of Jim Crow laws. Because they were relevant to the topics they were doing, she provided them with some background readings when she realized this gap in their education. Several students accused her of making it up.

If students are taught a sanitized version of history all through their formative years, they’re going to struggle to understand the complexities of the world later on. It’s that simple. Your high schoolers are nearly adults. It doesn’t mean you should constantly push the worst horrors of history on them, but it does mean that they need to be ready to deal with some of them. Don’t assume they can’t handle a gentler dose in middle school either. There are amazing middle grades novels about difficult periods of history. These are books that are written for ten, eleven, and twelve year-olds specifically about difficult topics.

I plead with you as parents. Teach the Holocaust. Teach the Rape of Nanjing. Teach the horrors of trench warfare. Teach the realities of slavery. Teach the legacy of racism and colonialism. Teach the realities of abuse and oppression through stories of people who deal with it and persevere or overcome. Your teens deserve to know this stuff so they can be good global citizens. Let them grow up and understand the world in a deeper way.

Math With No Numbers

Can you do math without numbers? The answer is obviously yes.

Several years ago, I read about someone asking for more math problems without numbers and thought to myself, huh? What’s that even mean? What would it look like? From there, I discovered the vintage book Problems Without Figures by S.Y. Gillian.

Reading on, I discovered exactly what a math problem with no numbers looked like.

If you know the width of one stripe on a United States flag, how can you find the total width of the red stripes?

See what I mean? In order to answer the question, students need to know how many stripes are on the flag and how many are red. They need to understand that to find the total width, they’ll need to choose an operation. In this case, they need multiplication. And in order to answer the question, they’ll have to explain it, because the problem doesn’t tell you the width. The only way to answer is by explaining your process.

See how sneaky a numberless problem is? Sometimes numbers worm their way in there, and several of the problems in the original book did include a number or two. However, most of them were like the problem above. They made students really think about the process of solving the problem.

When students face a word problem, they often revert to pulling all the numbers out and “doing something” to them. They want to add, subtract, multiply, or divide them, sometimes without really considering which operation is the right one to perform or why. When you don’t have numbers, it sidesteps that problem. For students who freeze up when they see the numbers, this can be a really good way to get them to think about their process with math.

That’s been an increasing focus in the wake of Common Core to get kids to be able to show that they understand the math they do. This is a very old fashioned approach that does exactly that.

However, when I first read Problems Without Figures, I saw that Denise Gaskins, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math, pointed out that it could really use a rewrite. Excited to give it a try before using it with my own kids, I did just that for the first few dozen problems and went on to use them off and on with my kids over the last few years.

Recently, I pulled out the book again and decided to give it a full facelift and publish it. Some of the problems just have updated language. However, for many others, updating didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. Take this gem:

I know the length of a field in rods and the width in feet, how can I find how many acres it contains?

Kids are barely familiar with acres today and rods are entirely bygone as a system of measurement. Some problems like this got rewritten. I added problems with meters, for example. However, some of the problems just needed a totally new take. I tried to add a lot more problems about figuring out how to navigate all the choices we have nowadays.

If you plan to leave approximately a 20% tip on your restaurant bill, what’s a quick way to calculate that amount?

Overall, this was a really fun project. I hope other people find it useful! You can find it on Amazon.

High School Planning

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I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again, but I really find that our years tend to be a little bit Reggio Emilia most of the time. That is, the curriculum gets written in a backwards way. Rather than writing it up at the start, I don’t know what we’ll do until it’s done. That’s why I only updated the 8th grade section on my curriculum posts recently. I didn’t know what it would be until it was done.

For next year, it may turn out to be different. I guess we’ll see. However, with a “real” co-op – the sort with long term classes that you sign up for – and online courses and a need to track high school credits, we might finally have a year that is more or less what we planned at the start. I’m not sure, but I guess we’ll see.

Reading about science education, I became a fan of the “physics first” approach, so we’re giving that a shot by starting with an online physics course and adding in a high school level physics kit and some extra math.

For math, it’s time for geometry, so we’re continuing with Jacob’s. The algebra program worked very well for both my kids. BalletBoy made the switch mid-year from Dolciani, which had become so muddled and difficult for both of us by that point. I’m excited to have one final year of teaching math before I really exhaust my abilities to stay ahead of the kids and need to hand them off to another teacher for algebra II.

For history and English, Jill Harper from over at Simplify and I are cooking up a whole 9th grade curriculum. It’s going to be non-Western history focused, with different units looking at Africa and Asia. I’m currently furiously reading and re-reading African and Asian literature and getting excited about this. My kids will be the guinea pigs and we’re hoping to have the program available before the spring, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

After a lot of hard thinking, we’re going to delay doing Spanish. I know the traditional wisdom is to knock out those foreign language credits early, but I’m just not on board with the price tag and have decided to hold out for when they can dual enroll and be successful with that, just because it will be so much cheaper.

With the co-op and online classes my kids are taking, they’ll have some interesting electives. BalletBoy will end up with “Urban Architecture” or something along those lines. Mushroom will have coding. Overall, I’m excited for them and starting to get excited for the school year.

Some of My Favorite Middle School Curricula

As I was writing my book about homeschooling middle schoolers, I went back and forth about whether to recommend specific programs. In the end, I decided not to. That stuff changes so fast. I’m familiar with so many curriculum options, but compiling a single list seemed to be too much in a book where I didn’t want the focus to be taken over by long lists of stuff. So in the end, while there are a few resources named here and there, I kept the focus on other things, like how to get organized, how to support and challenge your kids, and how to understand middle schoolers.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t name a few curricula that I really like here! This isn’t a comprehensive list. And these aren’t all programs that I actually ended up using. Sometimes you may love something, but realize it’s not right for your homeschool for all kinds of reasons.

Prufrock Press’s Exploring America Series
This program really takes a deep dive into individual decades of American history, examining social, cultural, and political factors through primary source documents. The format of the books is a little frustrating sometimes and some of the questions can get repetitive for students, especially in an one on one homeschool situation. But the structure and the material make it absolutely worth it. Not only does it ask your student to read a ton of great material, from speeches and newspaper articles to short stories. But it also exposes them to TV clips, paintings, photographs, and popular music. I don’t know of any other program that gets kids really thinking about what popular music lyrics say about a time period. This is a great program for later in middle school or for gifted students interested in history.

Jacob’s Algebra
Jacob’s Algebra is so flexible and well-presented. The introductions in each section are actually engaging reading about the math followed by excellent examples. Each section contains one short spiral review, two practice sets of material, and one brain teaser or tricky problem. The teacher’s guide is a little difficult to use and finding answers in the back can be a bit annoying. However, it also contains even more great, engaging introductions to the material and ways to approach it. It even includes some demonstrations and interesting hands on math lab type work. The book is challenging enough for students who love math, but simple enough for average students. The way the material is presented may hook kids who aren’t usually math lovers.

Brave Writer’s Faltering Ownership and Boomerang
You guys know I’m a sucker for all things Brave Writer. Faltering Ownership is a series of projects for a full year. It has some really neat ones, such as creating a cover for a book, and includes a great build up for a first research paper with lots of celebrations of your student’s hard work. The Boomerang is Brave Writer’s literature and dictation supplement. The book lists for the Boomerang really range from upper level children’s books, to young adult novels, to classic literature, which is perfect for older middle schoolers. Together, these make a very full language arts program for middle school.

Twisting Arms
This is a great short program just focused on writing persuasive papers. It has some good lead up activities, like examining advertising and political art, as well as thinking about the ways that words persuade people. Then the process of writing a thesis based essay is broken down extremely well into small steps. This program is too short for a full year, but it makes a good quarter-long project, or semester-long if you really stretch it out.

Middle School Chemistry from ACS
This program is free, which is why you definitely need to check it out if you’re at all interested in doing a serious chemistry unit in middle school. The materials, including real chemistry glass and chemicals that you’ll need to purchase from scientific supply stores, will set you back at a little, but it will be worth it. The basis of the program is learning through hands on experiments and demonstrations. There’s a strong focus on beginning serious lab work skills. This is a real science program at its best for middle schoolers.

Build Your Library’s 7th and 8th Grade Programs
The book lists for BYL’s 7th and 8th grade programs blew me away when I first saw them. This two year geography focus, which incorporates some really great texts about geography and world religions, is wide ranging and thought-provoking. The literature takes kids from modern children’s classics like Habibi and Walk Two Moons, to grown up ones like Fahreneheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird. With a math program and a science of your choice, the program is otherwise comprehensive.

Figuratively Speaking
I’m not usually a huge fan of workbooks, but sometimes they really get the job done. This one is a good example. It’s easy peasy to implement and do and covers literary elements from alliteration to theme in a handful of quick lessons. Most chapters take between half an hour to an hour and include some workbook style work followed by trying out the literary element in a creative writing assignment. If you poke around online, you can find plans to pair each chapter with one or two classic short stories that are easily found free online to turn it into a full year literature program that’s just as strong as programs that cost dramatically more.

MEP Math’s Middle School Series
This program is so great for middle school students who aren’t ready to go into a traditional pre-algebra program yet and need more practice. If you’ve seen the MEP lower grade programs and didn’t like them, the pared down layout and extra practice problems on the MEP grade 7-9 program may really surprise you. These can also be excellent for practicing specific topics that a student may have missed out on or just need more support with during middle school.

Dino 101 through Coursera
If your middle schooler is going to try just one MOOC (massive open online course) then you might want to make it this one from the University of Alberta. The videos are great. The information is engaging and super clear. There are some cool interactives. The quizzes are easy but meaningful. There’s no other work necessary to complete the course. While the information is very accessible and focused on dinosaurs, it introduces tons of great concepts that are fundamental to biology like adaptations and evolution. Throw in just a couple of great dinosaur and evolution books or videos and a trip to a natural history museum or an actual dig site if you have one nearby, and you’ll have a really solid semester of science with very little planning, which is kind of the unicorn of homeschool science, right? Something meaty, fun, and yet easy to plan and not messy.

 

Deep Breath

I discovered at least three kinda not awesome typos in my book. Cue the panic attack.

Homeschoolers are brutal too. I know y’all are going to tear into me! I swear I read through it multiple times and had my husband, who just happens to copy edit as part of his job, do a serious once through. I know I need to let it go, but it’s hard!

Someone I know shared this classic Onion article the other day. As I found my typos, I had a few of those thoughts. Oh no. That’s it. I’m discovered for the fraud I am. Someone is going to leave a one star review and I’m going to cry. And I might. I know we all have these feelings sometimes. Mine are not necessarily that bad most of the time, but sometimes when it hits you, it really hits hard. Deep breath.

Last week, I took BalletBoy for his first appointment with a physical therapist who specializes in dancers. She was wonderful and clearly knew her craft. It was a pleasure to watch her interact with BalletBoy and assess what would help him. I thought: here is a wonderful expert. We have to pay out of pocket for her, but she will be worth this hefty fee.

Then I thought, I need to remind myself sometimes that I am also an expert in the things I know about and have studied for years. My knowledge is also worth something.

I’m headed off to the SEA Homeschool Conference this week, with some family stopovers along the way before I arrive. I’m psyching myself up for networking and believing in my own worth, even with typos and any underlying worries.

Deep breath.

And when I get back, I’ll make an edition that fixes all the typos!