Tag Archives: homeschool

Grown Up Science Books for Middle Schoolers

One of the things I wanted to emphasize in my book about homeschooling middle school (which you can still buy!) is how your middle schoolers reaching this new age makes them more fun to teach. You get to learn alongside them more. They have the ability to learn more complex information and discuss it in new ways, with new depth.

For science, that includes reading adult level nonfiction for many middle schoolers. It’s good to start slow with this sort of nonfiction. Read it aloud. Ask students to read articles. Magazines like National Geographic are a good place to start. But once they can do it, it opens up such a huge world of nonfiction reading, especially in the realm of science. Americans struggle with science textbooks and we all know that the science program options are limited for homeschool students. However, the amount of great science nonfiction for adults is terrific.

“Just read,” is also good advice for some kids for science and history in the middle grades. It’s great when you can do more and get hands on, but it’s also okay if you don’t have a formal curriculum and focus instead on engaging with good books and films. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few ideas to get you and your middle schooler started on reading popular adult nonfiction.

Image result for the planets dava sobelThe Planets by Dava Sobel
The Science: Astronomy, specifically covering the planets.
Difficulty: It’s a very short book, which makes it useful for kids without much reading stamina. The text is very poetic, which can be a barrier for some readers.
Why Read It: Sobel is a great writer and this little volume is just beautiful. It combines the history, the science, and the poetry and art about each planet in our solar system (and includes Pluto, since it’s a little older). This is a great read for a middle school astronomy study.

Image result for longitude dava sobelLongitude by Dava Sobel
The Science: History of science, geography and engineering, specifically the engineering of clocks
Difficulty: It’s very short, which makes it within reach for many younger readers.
Why Read It: Who says history of science can’t be fun? This book was so compelling that it was even made into a mini-series. This would be a great addition to early modern history for a science lover.

Image result for in the shadow of manIn the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
The Science: Zoology, specifically the study of chimpanzees and a little about other primates.
Difficulty: This book is a very easy read overall. Goodall’s talkative style is what made it such a bestseller.
Why Read It: Most of the books on this list are by science writers or scientists writing about the science done by other people. This book is Goodall’s primary account of her own scientific studies. It discusses her methodologies and thought processes, as well as her observations. This is a science primary source. Aside from the fact that it’s just an interesting, compelling read, and enlightening about one of our closest biological cousins, it’s also important to read scientists writing about their own work sometimes.

Image result for michio kaku physics of the impossiblePhysics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Science: Physics, primarily theoretical physics and astrophysics, with a little bit of engineering thrown in.
Difficulty: The concepts in some of these chapters get pretty heady if you’re not already versed in the basics of physics. The writing is accessible though, and the coolness factor helps make it more appealing. Still, not a book for a reluctant reader. One nice perk is that chapters stand alone, so someone can read a few parts they’re most interested in.
Why Read It: Kaku is one of the best writers when it comes to things like theories of multiple dimensions and time travel. This book covers all of the “cool” and out there physics concepts that young people like to imagine, like time travel and transporters.

Image result for the disappearing spoonThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Science: Chemistry, specifically the elements.
Difficulty: This isn’t an easy book and it’s not short, but lots of interested middle schoolers have made their way through it. For interested students who need an easier read, there’s a new young reader’s edition that looks good, though I haven’t personally checked it out yet.
Why Read It: Kean’s account makes the Periodic Table much more interesting than anything else I’ve ever read on the subject. Little stories about each element’s uses and discovery make it really come to life. Parents should note there are a few adult leaning references, but I wouldn’t call it risque. This is a popular middle school read.

Image result for gulp mary roachGulp by Mary Roach
Science: Anatomy, specifically human digestion, with a lot of odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: The text is easy and talkative, however, Roach references a lot of popular culture and uses humor that might go above some younger students’ heads.
Why Read It: Mary Roach is one of the best science writers working today and her ability to make odd branches of science interesting is unsurpassed. A lot of the science she discusses is on the fringes, such as technology to see inside the body or the budding science of fecal transplants. However, in the process, she talks about the basics of digestion and generally gives insight into how scientists think and the difficulties of the human body. In addition to the books mentioned here, any of Roach’s work could be of interest to this age group, though she does occasionally tackle adult subjects, such as sex, in her writing.

Image result for packing for mars mary roachPacking for Mars by Mary Roach
Science: Astrophysics and engineering, as well as more odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: All of Roach’s books have the same feel. They’re easy to read and she’s a talkative writer, but she also references pop culture and has a quick wit that might be too fast for some younger students.
Why Read It: Yet again, Roach’s sense of humor and ability to make science seem fun and approachable is unmatched. In this book, she imagines all the different aspects of getting ready to take humans to Mars, which includes a lot of the little practicalities like food, toilets, beds, and clothes. Parents should note that there is a chapter about sex in space. When I assigned this book for school, we just skipped that one.

Image result for surely you're joking mr feynmanSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Science: Feynman was a physicist, but this book just touches on his work and is more of a memoir.
Difficulty: This is an easy read. Feynman’s charm was part of what made him a popular figure, and it comes through in this writing.
Why Read It: This book isn’t so much enlightening about science itself, but rather what drives a person to be interested in science, how creative thinkers in science think, and how to approach problem solving in science. The memoir is really about various episodes in Feynman’s life and he tells little stories about the internal clock, lock picking, ant trails, and other things. He talks a good bit about his work on the atomic bomb here as well. Parents should note that there are references to things like drinking, drugs, and a nude models in a chapter about art, as well as some risque language. The opening chapters, which are much cleaner, can be read on their own if you want to tackle the book, but not deal with trickier conversations.

Image result for the soul of an octopusThe Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Science: Zoology, especially animal cognition, or how animals think
Difficulty: Montgomery has an easy, engaging style. It’s not for reluctant readers, but most interested middle schoolers could tackle this one. It’s also a perfect length and filled with light anecdotes.
Why Read It: Many middle schoolers are deeply interested in animals and zoology, so this is a great tie in for that interest and hopefully would expand a student’s interest from pets to more unusual animals. It tackles a lot of bigger questions about how animals think and how aware they really are of us and the world around them. There aren’t easy answers to these questions and our understanding of them is changing all the time, so the juicy discussions you can potentially have from a book like this are excellent.

Image result for the code bookThe Code Book by Simon Singh
Science: Cryptography, the science of codes
Difficulty: It’s not for reluctant readers, but this is definitely a book middle schoolers can tackle. The math can get a bit hard to understand, but the historical anecdotes help the whole story feel engaging. There’s also a young reader’s edition. I use that in my Simplify class about codes. I’ll be teaching a mini-version of that course, including with the young reader’s edition, again this summer.
Why Read It: Secret codes are so much fun to learn about. This is a topic that I think inherently appeals to middle schoolers. Plus, it shows off how math has practical applications and how interdisciplinary topics like history, politics, math, archaeology, and science really are. There are a lot of fun ways you can extend this as well, by doing cryptoquote puzzles or writing you own codes.

GPS at the Rowhouse

GPS is Global Perspective Studies. My business partner at Simplify, Jill Harper, named it and I’m a little bit over the moon at how clever this name is. It’s the high school history and literature core that Jill and I planned and I wrote. The first year, or “Core” is being released soon and we’re running a contest for a free copy. You still have time to enter!

Some of the inspiration for this program comes from my own school experiences, where I took an interdisciplinary course in literature and history for my first two years of high school. In fact, vintage copies of the textbook I had in school, Prentice Hall’s World Masterpieces, is included and heavily used in GPS. The first year program focuses on Africa and Asia, so it includes things like short stories by Najib Mahfouz, Rabindranath Tagore, and Lu Xun and poetry by writers like Rumi, Hafiz, and Shu Ting. It also gives us excerpts from classical texts like The Rig Veda, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Bible. I get a little verklempt when I talk about the joys of this textbook.

Mushroom and BalletBoy have been my product testers. I don’t know if they’d say they love it as they’re not the literature lovers that I am. However, they’re in the midst of reading Siddhartha right now and BalletBoy sang its praises as one of the best books he’s read in awhile, so that’s a relief to hear. However, I feel good about how much they’re learning and how they’re advancing through it.

It’s not always an easy program for them. It pushes them in a variety of ways. One of my goals this year was to up our work level across the board. I wanted them to be writing more, reading more, and just doing more at a high school level. Having students who are really engaged with high level work is an important educational value for me in high school.

Most weeks have short answer history questions. They have to pull out a textbook or read a history book about the place and time period and answer complex, multi-part questions in a paragraph. BalletBoy has a tendency to wax grandiose about topics with no facts. Ancient civilizations in Africa were “the greatest” and had “many innovations” and “eventually led to other civilizations.” Um, way to tell us nothing. Mushroom likes to procrastinate and go over and over these repeatedly. “But what was the cause again? Where is it in the book?” Over time, they’ve been improving. BalletBoy wrote me a lovely explanation of why Aurangzeb’s leadership weakened the Mughal Empire last week. They’ve finally learned to rely more on the textbook and stop trying to furtively check Wikipedia for everything.

Mushroom has turned in a few great assignments for GPS. For his graphic memoir, he had to write about a time he misunderstood something as a young child. He wrote and drew a lovely comic about being a preschooler on a merry-go-round and then thinking that the bed was really, actually still spinning when he went to sleep at night afterward. He also made a hilarious video explaining all the Hindu gods.

I wrote the program to the student, but it’s definitely been a hands on teaching experience for me. Sometimes the kids do the work and I check that it happened and we let it go. Other times, they get stuck and I step in. One of my best moments was carefully dissecting a Hafiz poem with BalletBoy. We read through it, then read it again, and then again. We talked about the meaning of every line and discussed each metaphor and theme. After that, he was able to do the reading questions about it.

We’re currently wrapping up the unit on the Indian subcontinent. The history book we’re reading, The Ocean of Churn, focuses on the Indian Ocean, which has been interesting. Soon, we’ll move on to China and Japan to wrap up the year. I’m worried that we may not quite finish it all. But that’s okay. I packed it full. I know that I often tell people that if they finish more than 80% of a program, that it’s okay to call it done. I’ll definitely be laughing at myself if we have to skip a final reading, but it might happen.

I constantly second guess myself about things like this. Was everything culturally sensitive enough? Did I include enough guidance for students and parents? Could I have done more to touch on history topics I had to gloss over? Should I have chosen different books? But overall, I’m proud of this program. I’m proud to say my kids are doing it.

Make It Middle School

I was doing some cleaning out of old files and found what I think were some of the first notes I made when I started writing my book about homeschooling middle school. I was writing a blog post about why it’s so critical to homeschool during the middle grades… and by the end of it, I was jotting down random questions. I think I gave up and moved to a new document where I started mapping a book instead.

I wrote…

If you homeschool one period of schooling, make it middle school. I’m saying this as a former middle school teacher. I really do believe that middle school can be so bad for kids that even if the relationships at home degrade pretty badly or if your child really wants to go to school, that it’s better to wait. I think even if you have to unschool middle school, kids will be in better shape overall.

While that’s obviously a pretty strong opinion, I thought I’d back it up by talking a little about statistics. Did you know that in several different studies where they looked at kids from the same populations who attended middle schools vs. K-8 elementary schools, that the kids who went to middle school had their test scores go down while the kids who went to K-8 schools had their scores rise? Middle school did that little for them.

Some other things worth noting. First, while homework may have some moderate benefits to grades and test scores in middle school, once you get over an hour per night, that benefit disappears, yet most estimates show that middle schoolers have more homework than that – sometimes a lot more, more like four hours worth. Also, we know that bullying is often its worst in middle school. And my number one complaint as a former teacher is that a lot of that work looks good on paper – it sounds cool to parents – but it’s a lot of effort for not a lot of learning. It’s basically false rigor.

Every time someone tells me they got something about of that book, I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. But also, it makes me hope they’re able to give their child a good middle school experience away from the way that most American middle schools are run.

You can still find my book on Amazon. Tweens, Tough Times, and Triumphs is the title.

PS – Last call for my secret codes and puzzles class over at Simplify. This class is definitely a go and begins next week! I’d love to have your middle schooler!

Is It High School Worthy?

Look, you are in charge of your own homeschool. Your kids are your kids. You know them and what they’re capable of. Lots of people have special situations and the joy of homeschooling is that you can cater to what your kids need. It’s absolutely great that we can tailor a class around a student who needs remedial texts or extra supports.

However, if you’re writing a high school curriculum and including multiple books that the publisher recommends for grades 3-7 or grades 4 and up or ages 9-14… then maybe you need to rethink. And if you’re looking at high school programs that are based around multiple books that are geared toward upper elementary and middle school readers, I beg you to think long and hard about whether you’re doing your student a disservice. In the last couple of days, I looked at two different programs that did this that claimed to be high school level and I’ve seen others in the past. I worry that some homeschool parents aren’t choosing these for kids who specifically need lower level reading or an easy class, but because they simply don’t realize that this is not appropriate for most students.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes children’s books can help illuminate a subject in a new way. I used to read Yertle the Turtle to kick off a study of the French Revolution when I was teaching high school history in the classroom. I always recommend to students doing their own research that if a topic is truly brand new to them, to start with children’s reference books, which break information down in a way nearly anyone can approach. Heck, I do it for myself for topics I don’t know much about. Plus, some books are timeless. A student can listen to The Little Prince as a young child and get one meaning, then read it again as a young adult and find a new one. I just included the fable-like Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the high school program I’m writing. It doesn’t have one right age range or message.

However, it is our job as parents and teachers to push our kids to read beyond children’s books in our homeschools. That same high school program I’m writing also includes classic literature like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. There’s no one canon students should read. However, I strongly believe high school students should be reading classic literature, both recent and ancient. Students should be engaged with difficult texts. They should be learning to engage with meaty books and primary source texts. When they read about history or science, it should be books written for older teens or adults.

We should not send kids to college who got credit for doing all their history reading for four years in graphic novel form or studied science with books intended for 7th graders. We should not send students to college who have only ever read young adult literature. I love YA books and they include many literary gems. Including a few YA books for required reading in high school is a great thing to do. However, it should not happen at the expense of reading more difficult books as well. Kids need to be challenged in their reading.

Not sure what high school students should be able to read? No matter how you feel about Common Core or actually using any of the ideas in your homeschool, the exemplars text list will give you a sense of what most American college track students are expected to read. The high school books include titles like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As much as I enjoy quality YA and middle grades books, they will not prepare a student to suddenly be able to dive into texts with that level of complexity. I want my kids to be able to read books like that because they’re important, essential books.

Earlier this year, I ranted about how we protect our kids from difficult topics in history and culture too far into their education. High school students have to be confronted with the real history of slavery, the Holocaust, and other such difficult and controversial topics. However, I think we’re not doing it in a vacuum. A lot of families are giving their kids an exciting middle school level set of readings for high school. That’s in terms of both emotion and reading level. I’m really begging you. If you have a bright or average homeschooled teen, look at your reading lists and make sure you haven’t dumbed them down or bought into a program that dumbs down an appropriate education.

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.