Tag Archives: homeschooling

Road Trip Comics

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks here at the Rowhouse. Everything is in transition. You know how transitions are. Plus we’ve been sick. Is there anything worse than a spring cold? Plus, we’ve been getting ready for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which is today. I hope the kids are able to show off their hard work. And directly after the festival, the most epic thing of all… we’re headed to Global Finals for Destination Imagination. As you can imagine, we’ve been antsy and excited.

We have gotten a little school done amidst all that, but writing assignments for Mushroom got suspended as he very single-mindedly decided he absolutely had to make a comic to share with his teammates at Global Finals. There will be one issue every day with a total of four issues. They’re all short, but clearly drawn and very adorable, about an imaginary Destination Imagination team that is also going to Globals. They have some small adventures and in the last issue, they happen to meet our entire team and trade pins with them.

comics

Mushroom often dreams up big projects like this, but he rarely brings them to completion. His anxiety really gets in his way on that very often. He will begin something and then question his ability to really accomplish it the way he wants and give it up rather than keep working. This time he was convinced he had to finish. He let me help him with his spelling. He even insisted on photocopying, collating, and stapling them himself. I’m so glad that he stuck with this project completely on his own with very little help or prompting on my part. He advocated for wanting to work on his own project during all our writing time and I was happy to agree.

One of the things we’ve been aiming for this year has been more kid-driven learning. Up to this point, the kids haven’t really wanted to drive their own learning as much. Even when they’ve had their own projects, they’ve wanted school to stay school. Slowly though, they’re advocating for picking more of their own work, which is exciting to me. I do want to get back to some of the things we had originally intended to do in the last week, but this is much more exciting – a writing and art project he dreamed up himself, carried out without help, accepted some help editing in the last stage, and now has published himself to give out to friends.

So we’re off to Globals! Wish us luck and here’s hoping that Mushroom’s comic series is well received.

Homeschoolers Do DI

I have many times on this blog shared how much I feel that Destination Imagination is one of the most perfect homeschool activities. This is our sixth year of participating in Destination Imagination (I have coached about half of those years) and the second time we’ve won our regional tournament and had the chance to go to States. However, it’s the first time we’ve ever advanced to Global Finals! The boys’ team took second place at States, which qualified them to move on to the biggest DI party on the planet. I’m still a little bit in shock about it a couple of weeks later. It’s a huge win for them.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Destination Imagination (and the formerly related organization Odyssey of the Mind, which is very similar) is a creativity competition. Kids choose a central challenge (unless they’re in the special, non-competitive K-2nd Rising Stars challenge) from among technical, structural, improv, service learning, scientific, and fine arts options. The challenges change every year but generally ask kids to make something and incorporate it into a skit. For example, the technical challenge might ask kids to make a vehicle that can travel to a certain box while they do a skit about travel. The service challenge might ask kids to do a service project that incorporates a logo they make themselves and then present at the tournament. Kids spend months working on their challenge solutions. There’s a second component to Destination Imagination. Teams also have to face an instant challenge at the tournament. This is usually something they have to build or a performance they have to present, usually with only a few minutes to prepare.

Getting ready for a Destination Imagination tournament – both the central and instant challenges – involves a lot of teamwork, of the best sort, the kind that doesn’t feel artificial the way “group learning” does in school. This teamwork feels authentic, the way decisions are made in the real world. It fosters independence since team managers and parents have to sign non-interference contracts. It teaches skills and information of all kinds. You never know where a challenge is going to lead exactly. The kids have learned about historic figures, face painting, movie editing, entomology, structural engineering and more. There are always a lot of rules to a challenge, but finding a way to be creative within those boundaries is part of what encourages kids to really stretch themselves. Instead of just a blank canvas, Destination Imagination gives them limitations but asks them to make something anyway, to look for ways to think beyond the limitations.

Really, I can’t sing the praises of this sort of activity enough. As we’ve done this for several years, the kids have gotten into the culture of DI. They collect DI pins, get excited to design their team shirts, know that zany hat wearing is part of being at the DI tournament, come up with silly call backs when the judges ask if they’re ready, and look forward to the generally positive atmosphere at the tournaments. It’s a competition, but the spirit is friendly. Teams tend to be appreciative and inspired by each other. Basically, Destination Imagination is fun even when you lose.

Of course, we’re so proud that the kids won this year. They have dreamed for a few years of getting a chance to attend Global Finals, which is supposed to be both fun and educational. However, we were pretty surprised by the overall cost. Family has helped out and we expect to foot part of the bill, but we did get sticker shock seeing the cost. A lot of teams have the institutional support of their school, but obviously that’s not the case for us. We’re not even part of a large co-op that can raise the money. As such we’ve done what people do these days and set up a GoFundMe to see if we can raise part of the money for the team to attend. Feel free to share.

Shakespeare! (Plus Free Scripts)

Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)
Three of the fabulous actors from our Much Ado show hanging out backstage (via Highwood Theater)

I haven’t been posting much in the last few weeks because two events have taken over our lives – Destination Imagination (more on that in a post soon) and Shakespeare.

We’re definitely reaching the stage of homeschooling where I can look back through this blog and find exactly the thing I’d like to write again about what we’re up to. And here it is:

Advice for Any Foolhardy Shakespeare Directors Out There

It’s from as we were gearing up to perform Macbeth a couple of years ago. We just wrapped up Much Ado About Nothing, which was by far our most elaborate production. We’ve now done this four different ways and I through all that, I stand by all that advice. To sum it up:

  • The most important thing you need to direct a Shakespeare show with kids is the will to do it. The kids, the scripts, and even the spaces can all fall into place. Most homeschoolers are practically begging to have their kids have an opportunity to do some meaty Shakespeare.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to play theater games and have fun, even right up to the wire. Kids learn things like blocking and projecting their voices that way, plus thinking of rehearsal as a fun time can be important.
  • If you’ve got kids under age 10, have them learn their lines before beginning rehearsals in earnest.  Before about that age, the majority of kids can’t really act and hold a script and read lines all at the same time. Give them some time to learn the lines after handing out roles and then get started, with everyone off book all at once.
  • Don’t underestimate how hard it is for kids to learn blocking. Kids are sponges. Saying a long Shakespeare line – no problem! But remembering not to do it with your back to the audience and standing behind your best friend – that’s hard.
  • Don’t be afraid to be creative with sets and costumes. Or to just be minimal. I’ve had four productions, all with massively different types and amounts of set pieces and costuming. It can work with a ton of cool set things or nothing but a few simple props.
  • The biggest challenge for me has consistently been finding rehearsal and performance spaces. We’ve used someone’s home, a church gym, a local historic building, and a theater space to rehearse. And we’ve performed in two local professional theaters, a church stage, and a big meeting room. This year, I decided to approach the theater where Mushroom has done a couple of shows and see if they’d like to work with me to try and expand their homeschool program. It was nice not to have to scramble for spaces and afforded us some amazing set and costume help. However, there was something nice about keeping costs low and having other parents pitch in to help bring everything to fruition. Both ways can work.

For elementary schoolers, I found Shakespeare with Children by Elizabeth Weinstein to be the best source of scripts. They’re short, with lots of roles for a large group, and with Shakespeare’s original language throughout, except for a narrator. From that, I edited the scripts by taking some of the text away (for The Tempest) or adding some back in (for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, I’ve also cut two plays for us to use ourselves and thought I’d provide those scripts here for anyone to use.

MACBETH SCRIPT

This script was cut extremely short specifically for performance in the twenty minute time limit set by the Folger Library’s Children’s Shakespeare Festival. It could be a good script for a classroom or co-op performance since it’s of a much more limited scope. It includes many roles, but some can be condensed for a smaller cast.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING SCRIPT

This script is about an hour long. This play is often not performed by children because of it has more innuendo than some of the other comedies. Innuendo likely to be understood by children has been removed from this version. Also, Leonato’s condemnation of Hero is greatly softened, as is Hero’s alleged betrayal. We staged our version in the 1920’s with music, but you could stage it in any era. We also had Beatrice sing Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More, Ladies/Hey, Nonny Nonny” at the start of the show. Note: There are a few typos in this script. I went back to fix them and the original version that wasn’t pdf was missing and editing from the pdf was difficult. Oops. So you get the script with the dozen typos though most are very minor. However, there’s an error on page 12 where Don Pedro enters and speaks to Claudio, except he’s not quite on stage yet.

The Book Talk

booktalkIf you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.

I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.

There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.

Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.

Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?

It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.

We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.

Chemistry from ACS

I know that the blog hasn’t had the big science focus that I had a couple of years ago. However, we do still do science regularly with a small group and I facilitate hands on learning and occasionally experiments. Since we did a full cycle of science topics over the course of four years, I decided to ask the kids what they wanted to revisit. First, we did some physics, but next they wanted to take on chemistry, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.

I looked at a lot of different potential resources for teaching chemistry and I thought about using Inquiry in Action from the American Chemical Society, but it seemed too simple with too many things we’d done in the past. I considered doing The Elements from Ellen McHenry, but it was so focused on a single aspect of chemistry and after doing most of The Brain, I knew I liked her products, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this particular program. I thought about doing chemistry the way we always have by doing our own demonstrations and explorations. I bought an excellent book called 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances with that in mind. However, in the end, I decided to go with the American Chemical Society’s free middle school program. Some of the information has to be scaled down a little since I am working with a group of mostly fifth graders and a few younger kids. However, it has been interesting to use an actual, full science curricula for the first time ever.

The cover page of Middle School ChemistryThe program is not long enough to take the whole year. There are six chapters. Doing the bulk of the experiments from each chapter with a small group is taking us about two weeks per chapter. If I had the kids filling out every table and worksheet, this would be different, but often we do most of the hands on stuff together as a demonstration and discussion and I choose one or two activities to have them really do fully on their own with more writing and recording. I haven’t had them do many of the worksheet elements at all. Instead, we’ve talked about the questions on them. However, even if I did, I doubt it would take a full year.

Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections have student and teacher pages. The student pages are extensive instructions with worksheets and tables to fill out. There are often sections with additional science background for the teacher, which I found very useful. Each chapter has a section of student reading, which we have used for each chapter. I like the progression of information, both overall in the program and within each chapter. Sometimes the organization of the information feels a little overwhelming. It would be much more usable as a physical text, but since I have only the pdf, there is a lot of scrolling to do, which isn’t always ideal. There is multimedia available for every chapter, however those pieces are pretty simplistic. Most of them are short animations of models of molecules interacting to imitate what students have just done in their hands on explorations and experiments.

chemistry

The heart of the program is really the hands on element. I liked that the experiments are tied very closely to the information. For the most part they have “worked” the way that we expect. This was not a “household substances” sort of program. Most of the things we’ve needed have been things we have around the house like water and salt, or things that are easy to get like Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, and clear plastic cups. However, many experiments also call for chemistry glass like graduated cylinders and a few call for chemicals you need to special order or seek out particularly, like calcium chloride. Also, special equipment like a ball and ring apparatus, density rods, and density cubes is called for. I spent a decent amount on supplies at Home Science Tools. However, I figure we’ll be glad of having the science glass later on and all of the special equipment I bought turned out to be great fun. The ball and ring apparatus shows how molecules expand when heated. We did that demo several times over because it was fun to see. And the density cubes were great fun to play with. We really enjoyed having them, so they were worth the money. The fact that the program is free helps offset some of the costs of buying classroom type equipment.

Overall, I really like this program. We have shied away from science curricula because nearly everything I’ve seen has felt like busy work with very little hands on components and only poorly written text. This program is really all well-organized, worthwhile experiments. I would still love to have a more engaging, longer text than what the ACS program has, but at least it’s succinct and well-written. I’ve also had to supplement with videos I find myself, but we’ve found a lot of great ones. We’ve especially been enjoying many of the TED Ed videos and we’ve returned to using a lot of the old Eureka! shorts, which have covered the information perfectly. Here’s the TED Ed chemistry playlist. And here’s a playlist for all the Eureka! videos.

I think we might have been better off waiting a year or two to try this program so that some of the things I’ve had to simplify could have been more fully explored. But that’s what happens when you put the kids in charge of what they want to learn. Overall, we’ve been pleased and it gives me hope that while elementary science programs weren’t our cup of tea, we may find more options for serious home science study in the upper grades.

Reading Short Stories

We changed up how we do reading at the rowhouse a little more than a year ago. We used to do “required reading” from a list of books. The kids had to choose one book per month. I think that was an okay system, but we began to find it difficult to keep up. If my kids were voracious readers, it might have been perfect. However, as it is, they’re just not. They enjoy reading, but they’re not stay up all night readers. And while I had chosen good books at their level, I found that my central goal of wanting them to just read more wasn’t being met by pushing them to read specific books.

So we dropped that. Now, instead, we do an hour of required reading before bed nearly every night. The only requirement is that they read something new to them for at least half of the reading time. In other words, a new book for at least half an hour and then rereading a graphic novel is okay if it’s what they want, which it is sometimes. This has filled that goal a lot better. They read a lot of what I would consider “junky” books, but they also routinely choose interesting books by good authors. Most importantly, their fluency and reading enjoyment has improved, so that goal is met. They read more books than they used to, which is great.

However, I found that as they got older I had another goal. I wanted to push them to read more difficult writing and practice closer reading, such as marking up a text, pulling out quotes, discussing and supporting your opinion, as well as beginning to look at literary elements. Reading one novel a month hadn’t met that goal because everyone was reading something different. We can do a little of that with poetry at poetry teas and also with read aloud novels, but I wanted to add another component, which is why I turned to short stories.

Short stories are perfect for close reading. You can introduce kids to classic authors and stories in a much less intimidating way. You can really pick apart a story from start to finish and feel like you had a meaty discussion. Everything in a short story is condensed so that things like the plot arc become clearer and things like character development and message have to be done with the bare minimum.

To keep it simple, I decided to make it one short story a month. I printed a bunch and put them together. We have mostly stuck with it and I feel it has worked really well. When I initially introduced this and asked the kids to underline and mark things in their copies, they weren’t at all sure what to do. But as we have practiced, I’ve seen them get more adept at finding the things I ask for, such as examples of metaphors, places where you can see a character’s motivation, descriptive writing, examples of irony, or other things. They’ve also gotten more eager to sit and discuss the story, which we do at a special poetry tea time, of course.

I chose stories by looking at lists and short story collections. A few of these we haven’t gotten to yet because we’re not finished with the year, but I thought I’d put our list here. Lists of middle school short stories was a good starting point, but many of the classic stories, such as “To Build a Fire” and “A Sound of Thunder” are ones I wanted to save for various reasons.

Good places to find short stories:

  • Best Shorts edited by Avi is a great collection with stories just right for this age.
  • Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen is a good collection with a more contemporary feel.
  • Guys Read series edited by Jon Scieszka has several volumes with different themes and is continuing to add more. The stories are chosen with boys in mind, but they’re really just great stories by a variety of authors and the “boy” angle can really be ignored. Many of the stories are by popular contemporary authors. For example, the fantasy collection has a Percy Jackson story. However, they also include some older and classic authors.
  • This list is an excellent list for middle schoolers, compiled by polling teachers on a popular education site.

The Stories I Chose for Fifth Grade

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
A great one for homeschoolers because it imagines a very dull sort of future homeschooling. And a good one for talking about the ways that we perceive the future and what’s important for learning and childhood. An easy and quick one to read.

“Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
A parable style story about a boy and the goat he can’t bring himself to take to be butchered.

“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
This was one of our best hits, which inspired a great conversation about human nature and laws. A classic short story about a woman who catches a thief and instead of calling the authorities, takes him home for supper.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
A perfect Christmas season read. The classic story of literary irony. This one was a great hit.

“Scout’s Honor” by Avi
A great funny kid story from author Avi’s childhood. He and his city friends try camping without really knowing what they’re doing.

“The Grown Up” by Ian McEwan
This is from McEwan’s collection of short stories about one boy called The Daydreamer. This one is essentially like the movie Big in short story form.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calabaras County” by Mark Twain
The language in this story is a slight stretch for some kids, but the story is great for thinking about dialect and untrustworthy narrators. Plus, it’s funny.

“Nuts” by Natalie Babbitt
A funny take on the devil as a trickster. This is from Babbitt’s collection of stories about the devil.

“Miss Awful” by Arthur Cavanaugh
A story about a nice teacher and a mean one. A good one to talk about authority figures.

“The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken
A modern feeling fairy tale. A nice one to potentially read with other stories about wishes, such as “Wishes” by Natalie Babbitt and “The Stone” by Lloyd Alexander.

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
The classic anti-bullying story. Just an amazing short tale. We actually read this with our co-op, but I had to include it on this list because it’s my favorite of all time. Bradbury has many others that are appropriate for middle school, but this one is perfect for upper elementary too. Note that there’s also an excellent short movie of the story, which can be easily found online.

 

Writing Projects: Poetry Collection

I wrote a little while ago about how after we finally finished up all the projects in Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing I decided to keep coming up with more for us. While sometimes it’s nice to have a writing project that dovetails with another subject, a co-op topic, a contest, or a real world need like writing a letter, it’s also nice to have writing projects that are focused on writing and language as their own interesting things. The projects in Partnership Writing were great like that. We played around with secret codes, wrote little reports using the five question words, made up our own island chains and wrote about them, made catalogs to sell weird products, and more.

I posted already about the thumbprint biographies we made. They were fun and short. Before that, we did a poetry collection project for our writing project and it was also fun, so I thought I’d post about that as well.

Step One: Poetry Teas and a pile of books

As one might expect, we started this project with a poetry tea and actually held a couple more than usual during the course of the month. We don’t do poetry tea every week, but this forced us almost to do so, which was nice. In case you don’t know what poetry tea is, it’s when you pull out your pretty china, clean off the mess from the table, make or buy something tasty and sweet, and sit around for an hour reading poetry with the kids. In our house, we take turns reading poems and sometimes discuss the poetry as well.

In preparation for this project, I checked out a slightly larger pile of poetry books, thinking especially about exploring different forms. These included:

The Creature Carnival by Marilyn Singer
This book, in addition to just being fun, has poems with great varied and interesting rhyme schemes. Many of Singer’s others books are similar in how they use different forms. Her Mirror, Mirror is a book of reverso poems that we would have checked out as well if we hadn’t already read it a million times.

Dogku by Andrew Clements
This picture book tells the story of a stray dog taken in by a family with a series of haiku.

The Oxford Book of Story Poems
A nice collection with appealing poems of a variety of lengths and from a variety of time periods.

A Kick in the Head by Paul Janeczko
I don’t love this collection that much, but it’s perfect for this project because it has examples of more than two dozen different poetry forms.

African Acrostics by Avis Harley
Exactly what it sounds like. Acrostic poems about African animals, but very well done.

Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto
A collection of odes to childhood all set in a Latino neighborhood.

There are plenty of other options out there, of course. I never try to overthink book selections too much. I generally rely on the library and try new things often. While I learn about new books from blogs and recommendations, I find even more by just running my fingers over the stacks.

Step Two: Write lots of poems

photo 3 (5)Armed with various poetry books filled with a wide variety of example poems, we began to write our own poems. We tried a couple of different poetry forms for our writing time a week. We didn’t do everything we could have done and if you poke around online you can find dozens more potential poetry writing exercises, these are just the ones we chose.

photo 4 (2)I’ll add that for whatever reason, despite the fact that I have read tons of totally free form modern poetry to my kids, they are very stuck in the poems should rhyme mindset and this didn’t really break them of it. BalletBoy even wanted his haikus to rhyme, despite me only reading unrhymed haikus as examples (because when have you ever read a rhyming haiku anyway?) and entreating him that it was really not intended to rhyme, he still wrote two that had internal rhymes. In the end, I think that’s okay. I once attended a how to teach poetry to kids conference where the speaker bemoaned the kids who wrote cutesy rhymed poems as having gotten bad instruction and several times slammed the famed children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. But kids like mine love Jack Prelutsky. If that’s the kind of poetry that really speaks to them, then of course that’s what they’re going to want to write. And they should.

  1. Haikus
    A haiku is 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. We read several traditional haiku, as well as the book Dogku. I emphasized how a haiku is really a quick thought, a simple reflection. Haikus are often about how something looks or feels. They’re often about nature or everyday life. We practiced chin wags to measure syllables, just a reminder. Then we each, me included, wrote about half a dozen or so and shared them as we finished. They’re so quick and easy to try, even if not every effort is a stunning success.
  2. Couplets
    A couplet is two lines with the same number of syllables and an end rhyme. We looked for pairs of rhymed lines in Marilyn Singer’s poetry books. We made up couplets aloud for awhile then turned to writing them. I had not intended for this to be the case, but both boys immediately wanted to write longer poems comprised of couplets so I let them do so.
  3. Found Poems
    A found poem can be made a couple of ways. One way is to photocopy a page from a book and mark out words in black marker, creating a poem out of the words that you leave unmarked out. We used the second way, which is to make a poem from words found and torn out of magazines. We all did this assignment. I had a lot of fun making a poem about hide and seek after I saw that phrase repeated in an old ad campaign in a magazine. BalletBoy found words about food and Mushroom clipped words about animals and put them together to make a poem. This was a relatively long activity, but once the poem was finished, there was no revision needed, and it certainly looked cool made of all those cut out words.
  4. Odes
    An ode is written to praise someone or something. To get kids writing odes, I think it’s fun to encourage them to write an ode to something they really love but is unexpected, like their favorite shoes or a chocolate bar or a computer game (imagine how many “Ode to Minecraft”s we could get). Mushroom immediately started in on an ode to the inventors of the computer. The only real rule I gave them was to write lines of praise, but Mushroom set his into couplets.
  5. Acrostic
    Acrostics are those poems where the first letter of each line spells another word, typically the theme of the poem. We started this one by reading acrostic poems. It’s typical for kids to write acrostics about themselves, but I let them choose anything they wanted. Both the boys wrote a few, all of them with short 4 and 5-letter words.
  6. Free Verse
    I introduced this by trying to get the boys to choose a color to write about. Other suggestions I’ve seen for starting a poem from scratch include writing about the seasons, or about a specific memory, or about a meal. They tried, however, in the end, this exercise was mostly a flop for us. They were so attached to rhymes and forms that this one didn’t fly.
  7. Limerick
    People associate limericks with bad rhymes, but since my kids were so excited by really specific forms, I thought they would enjoy this one since it was still short enough and light enough for them to try out, unlike something like a sonnet. In fact, they enjoyed writing them very much, even though the results were very silly.
  8. Other ideas…
    We also read some story poems and talked about epic poetry and tried our hands at writing a story poem. BalletBoy loved it and included his in his collection. However, partway into the exercise it felt like it was probably too big a thing for me to have asked and it was just a fluke that it took off so well with one kid. So maybe only a good one to try with real poetry lovers. That’s all we did, but there are plenty of other poetry exercises and forms out there. For younger kids, a diamante is a really good form to play with (we have previously written those a few times). Cinquains are similar to diamantes and also have a very set form where kids can fill in words, so they can also be a good choice. Concrete poems, the ones that form a shape, can also be excellent and there are lots of good books of concrete poetry to share with kids. And, of course, there are many other forms of poetry and starting points. For us, the whole idea was just to try different things and play around with poetry forms.

Step Three: Choose and Revise

photo 2 (14)After doing two or three days of poetry writing exercises a week for about three weeks, we were left with a nice pile of rough draft poems. I told the kids to choose three or four poems they wanted to revise and polish for their collections. Some of the poems, we decided were fine with very little change. BalletBoy chose a haiku that was lovely just the way it was. Mushroom chose his limerick and we agreed that changing it beyond fixing the spelling and capitalization would ruin the rhyme scheme and the form.

For other choices, we agreed that revision was important. BalletBoy’s acrostic about birds was good, but we agreed to look through the thesaurus for stronger word choices. Mushroom’s set of couplets about a carnival were cool, but we agreed they needed a couple more in order to feel like a full poem and make it clear that it was about the whole carnival. He added a couplet about another ride and one about the carnival food: “Have a hot dog and funnel cake / Or try a burger and cheap steak.” We spent a couple of days working on revising all of the poems, then fixing spelling as the kids and I typed them up.

Step Four: Publish and Share

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Once they were typed up, I let them put each poem on a separate page and choose its font and formatting and add images. BalletBoy made his whole collection this way, except for his found poem, which was already made up of clipped magazine words and phrases. Mushroom left room to draw illustrations on one of his pages. They each made a cover and we stapled the poems together. Of course, you could make a little book or put them in a nice folder. We’ve done things like that for many other writing projects, but this time, after all the work on the writing, we kept it pretty simple.

Finally, the boys both proudly read their poems to the Husband, who thought they were pretty cool. Overall, this project came out much better than I could have wished. I don’t think either of my boys are “natural” poets, whatever that means. However, this was a fun way to play with words and think about language and strong words and phrases, as well as creative rhymes.

Homeschooling and Anxiety

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Since I got several questions about Mushroom’s “positive thought cards” that I mentioned in our day in the life post, I thought I’d post a little about those cards, some other things we’ve done for anxiety that has worked, and generally how things are going with a kid who has some anxiety issues.

Before I get any further, I feel like I have to say this. There are a lot of good books, good blog posts, and good tips out there for helping kids deal with anxiety. If you have a child who suffers from anxiety, it’s good to try those things, but if they’re not working, please, please seek professional help. There’s no substitute for a good therapist. Anxiety can really hold kids back and the sooner you resolve those issues, the better.

Okay, with that out of the way… I’ve posted before about how Mushroom suffers from some anxiety issues. They have really waxed and waned throughout his life. The peak was really more than a year ago when he was experiencing anxiety about a huge range of things, including dogs, going outdoors, public bathrooms, and schoolwork. After working through an anxiety workbook and trying several things, we decided it was time to see a therapist, which we did off and on for several months. That helped solidify the strategies we were using and gave us some new ones as well. I think we were mostly on the right path with him, but without the outside voice saying to us all, keep it up, you’re doing it right, it’s easy to question your strategies and jump around more. Mushroom worked through the worst of his fears and things have been mostly pretty calm.

Here are the things that are the go to tools in our box for helping him stay on the calm and capable path:

Positive Thought Cards
This suggestion came from the therapist. These are homemade index cards with specific thoughts to counterbalance Mushroom’s negative “bad brain” thoughts. He has written some and I’ve written others. They’ve changed over time as some fears have almost completely faded and others have arisen. When he first started them, he had to read them all several times every day to memorize them. Now, I pull them out when he’s feeling generally anxious. Part of the goal is for him to be able to pull those thoughts up himself when he is anxious. However, the concrete cards are so useful. When I hear him saying something negative, such as, “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t have enough time!” then I have him go find a card that will speak to that fear from the pile, such as, “Farrar makes sure I have plenty of time to do my work.” or, “Nothing bad will happen if I don’t finish my school work.” There are a lot of general positive thoughts in there like, “Most people are good,” as well as specific things for him. This has been one of the most enduring things we have used from therapy.

Deep Breaths
This one is a no brainer. Taking deep breaths helps when you’re getting anxious. I began teaching both the boys this when they were pretty little. We’re not masters of this technique by any stretch. But it does work to head off budding anxiety sometimes. More importantly, when he gets really upset, it helps him calm down. It’s important to practice taking a deep breath when everyone is calm. We try to do this before bed most nights, just doing a few deep breaths before tucking in.

Worry Time
This suggestion came from the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much, which is a book with exercises written to the child. It’s a good first stop if you have an anxious kid. The text is simple but doesn’t talk down to the child at all. I highly recommend it. The idea behind worry time is that some kids want to discuss their worries endlessly. Instead, they get one short worry time every day in which to really let out every negative thought. But at all other times, parents have to refuse to engage with them or let them talk about the worries. This was a tough thing to implement with Mushroom at the start of trying to help him with his anxiety. However, once he had other strategies in place, it became a good routine. He rarely has as much need to talk through the worries, but when he does, he knows that he can. This is another thing we have pegged to bedtime and tuck in. When he needs to, he’ll simply say, “I sort of have a worry thing…” and we open up worry time again.

Name It
This was a trick that came out of therapy for us and while it initially seemed a little cheesy to me, it has been one of the things that has helped most. Mushroom named his anxiety “the bad brain” and we talk about it in those terms, as an almost separate thing from him. When he’s struggling with a negative thought, I’ll call him on it by saying, “That’s a bad brain thought. That’s not what you think.” When he makes a poor decision based on anxiety, we’ll talk about how he’s letting bad brain control him. Externalizing it has helped him a lot.

Not Shying Away from the Worries
One of the nice things about homeschooling a kid with anxiety is that you can take time to do things at their pace and be by their side supporting them at every step. I think most of us would agree that especially in the early grades, the focus on testing and academics is one of the things that’s leading to a whole generation of anxious kids. We can back off when things are tough and give kids time to grow and mature so they can be ready to tackle difficult things, be they academic, social, or otherwise. On the other hand, homeschooling also makes it perhaps too easy to let kids avoid their worries every single time. We’re always there with them. We know how they feel. It’s easy to let them get out of having to really face up to the worries and that doesn’t do them any favors in the long run. The way to overcome a fear is not to avoid it, it’s slow and consistent exposure with plenty of positive support. It’s a tricky balance sometimes. Sometimes it’s good to give kids a break and regroup or tackle something in a new way, especially with scaled down expectations. But overall, I’ve learned that it’s important to not shelter kids from their worries. I know that with Mushroom, he has mostly conquered his fear of dogs. However, if he somehow goes several weeks without seeing a dog, the fear starts to build up again. We have to be sure to stop and say hello to a dog routinely to make sure that the worry doesn’t begin to build again.

Three Good Things and a Joke
This is the strategy that I use most often with BalletBoy when he’s stuck in a sad or anxious day, though I use it with Mushroom as well sometimes. He doesn’t have anxiety like his brother, but every kid can have a bad day and need a little help. The jist of this is just that we name three good things from the day (or maybe the week, or three things he’s looking forward to, or three things he’s proud of recently – it can be anything along those lines). Then I tell a joke or show him a silly video on my phone. When someone is feeling anxious or upset, the tendency is to want to talk about the anxieties. However, talking about the worries isn’t really good for moving on from the worries. This is really about changing the focus to something positive instead and then distracting the kid with something else to think about other than themselves. And after telling a few jokes and laughing, you can shift the conversation or the activity to something else.

Keeping at It
The final and maybe the most important thing is keeping up the strategies. At least for Mushroom, anxiety is cyclical. It comes and goes with high and low points. If we don’t keep some level of practice with the positive thought cards, the deep breathing, the relaxation exercises, and so forth, then it’s much harder when the anxiety inevitably comes back. It’s hard when a kid is having a great day to say, okay, and now before bed let’s check in about worries. It feels unnecessary and I know I have a tendency to want to drop all of the things we usually do when times are good. However, having it as a consistent practice is important.

Overall, I have to say, Mushroom is doing really well with his anxiety issues. However, as we head into a notoriously difficult age, I know that there will be a lot of new challenges. Hopefully we’ve laid enough groundwork to meet them.

Probably Probability

We had never covered probability, so I felt like it was time to dive in with a little bit of a focus. Now that we’ve done a good bit of it, I feel like we would have been fun and totally possible to have done it a few years ago as well and then returned to it with a stronger focus before moving into pre-algebra. It’s one of those topics that’s not really covered in books for younger kids, yet kids are constantly encountering probability in their lives, in part because of games. I think it makes a huge amount of sense to cover it earlier.

game sticks
Throwing game sticks in an activity from the GEMS Guide.

Picture Books
There are a couple of good picture books for younger students about probability. The first is the MathStart book Probably Pistachio by Stuart J. Murphy. This is really not one of my favorites in the series, but it does introduce the concepts, especially about using probability to predict what comes next. It’s Probably Penny by Loreen Leedy is similar in concept, and readers who like Leedy’s classic picture book about measuring will recognize the same characters. However, my favorite was A Very Improbable Story by Edward Einhorn from Charlesbridge. This one is more clever and introduces a lot more basic vocabulary to start talking about probability, not only for what happens next but also for games.

Chapter Book
Of course there’s a Murderous Maths book for kids who are just a little older. Are You Feeling Lucky? is yet another excellent resource. We have been loving the Murderous Maths series. This one, like the one about shapes, asks readers to try a number of things out and I think it’s best when you do the activities with the book, such as flipping a coin or rolling a die. The book also covers some combinations math, which is nice for us as a follow up to some of the Beast Academy combinations math. If you haven’t yet discovered the Murderous Maths books, know that they often cover some surprisingly complex and difficult math, far beyond what kids would typically do before high school. However they cover it in such a friendly and humorous way that it feels approachable and enjoyable.

Activities
The GEMS guide In All Probability is an excellent one. It’s intended for students grades 3-5. I think the activities could be done more quickly for older kids who need an introduction to the subject as well and perhaps beefed up a little. There are five sets of activities that include flipping coins, making spinners, rolling dice, and making game sticks based on a Native American game. I really like the thought behind the GEMS Guides in general, however, as always, you have to adapt them to homeschool use since they’re really set up for a large class. In this book, some of the activities assume that you’ll gather lots of data from the games. Also, I wish the books were organized with the math more clear and more in depth. There is a teacher section in the back that explains the math behind the activities in more depth, but, for example, the number of chances in the Native American game sticks activity is tied to Pascal’s Triangle, yet it never mentions that. Still, I like the way the investigations are set up for real discovery math and Mushroom and BalletBoy both enjoyed building the spinners, making game sticks, and playing all the various games.

I wanted some pages to practice probability problems, so I had Mushroom do some of the pages from MEP Math that deal with probability. You can find them in the 5b book at the end of this section and the beginning of this one. An alternate source of probability problems and text could have been the NCERT 7th grade math book chapter on data, which covers a variety of concepts, including probability. You can find that here, if you’re interested.

Of course, since probability is in our lives so much, it’s good to look at other places it appears. We started with something greatly revered in our house: game shows. In case you didn’t know, the Husband won us the down payment on the rowhouse many years ago on a game show. Thus the game show’s exalted place in our hearts. It’s fun to look at the odds on nearly any game show. However, the classic game show problem is the Let’s Make a Deal problem, which has been written about a ton, most famously by Marilyn Vos Savant and Martin Gardner (if you’d like to be a math nerd and don’t know who Martin Gardner is, you need to remedy that, by the way). It’s great to actually watch the show and learn about the problem. I saw a great demonstration of it by Ed Zaccaro of the Challenge Math books at a conference once, using envelopes instead of doors. With three envelopes, it’s not clear which one to choose. However, with a hundred envelopes, it’s almost immediately clear. We tried that and talked a little about how probability is one of those things that can be tricky to think about sometimes. This was followed up on nicely by the Murderous Maths book when it talked about how pennies don’t have memories.

If you look up probability lessons on Pinterest, you’ll find lots of options. However, the classic probability lesson that I wanted to be sure to do was with M&M’s. There are many variations, but essentially you have students calculate the probability of drawing an M&M out of the bag. The more bags you calculate, the closer you can start to get to what is, presumably, the actual ratio in which M&M’s are actually produced. You’re finding the experimental probability, so this is a good activity to introduce this term. The theoretical probability can also be found just by looking up in what ratios the M&M/Mars company actually makes the M&M colors. It’s slightly different for each type of M&M, but you can find it easily online.

Finally, we simply tried to be more alert to probability in our lives, such as in weather forecasts, board games, video games, and random events. It’s nice when kids can see math in the real world, especially when it’s things that aren’t money. Overall, this was a good unit for us.

Questions for Snow Days and Sick Days

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It’s been a weird week. BalletBoy has some sort of mysterious wasting disease. I say that only partially in jest. He has been sick for three weeks and keeps showing signs that he’s getting better only to fall back into lethargy. After lots and lots of tests the doctor has found nothing and is potentially referring us to an ENT doc or an infectious diseases doc since really we have no idea what’s going on. I never thought it would be so difficult to have a sleepy child! He does seem to possibly be getting better for real this time, though it’s hard to say for sure. It’s hard to have one kid sick and one well, especially for a long time. This raises lots of important questions about sick days…

  • How much screen time is too much when you’re sick?
  • How do you let a sick kid veg out with a screen while the healthy one does spelling without sowing resentment and revolution?
  • How do you convince a sick kid to take care of himself by just drinking some water for goodness sake?
  • When a kid is clearly sick but not too sick to go play foosball in the basement, how much work do you make him do?

Usually sick days are a free for all of screens and laziness, but there’s no way that can fly for three whole weeks. In the end, we made BalletBoy do a little schoolwork and let Mushroom watch movies with him. No obvious answers except to play it by ear and adapt to the circumstances. Oh, except for that water thing. The answer is that you stand there and chant, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” until he finally decides to hydrate because we don’t mess around with that when we’re sick.

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Meanwhile, it was also a snow day here finally. I know some people have been buried in snow for weeks or months now, but we keep getting just a tiny coat here and there. We finally had a proper thick blanket of the white, more like five inches, which is still not a ton, but enough for snow play and delays. I have to say that I have a love hate relationship with snow days as a homeschooler. Here’s the conundrum that arises every time there’s a snow day:

  • Do we drop everything to go play in the snow or use it as an opportunity to get more work done?
  • Is it possible to have it all – snow play, academic work, time curled up together drinking hot chocolate?

This is part of the problem I call the tyranny of weather. Do you take advantage of the good weather (be it snow or that cool day in summer or that beautiful warm day in late fall) to drop everything and use it to its outdoor fullest or do you push on through and get your work done? It’s compounded on snow days because they mean our other activities get canceled. And these days, with our overbooked lives, that’s an important and valuable thing to get. This go around, we tried to have it all. After initially thinking there was no way he was up for sledding, BalletBoy decided he wanted to go. I cut him off at less than an hour and he was, indeed, extremely tired afterward, but he recovered later and didn’t just collapse (a good sign that possibly means he’s actually healing?). We also did a light school day though.

You know, I wouldn’t want to trade places with any of my friends in New England right now with their crazy piles of snow. On the other hand, sometimes i remember snowmageddon back when the kids were in first grade and get a little misty when I recall just how much school we got done while forcibly shut in the house. I’m sure you’re all going stir crazy, but I’ll bet you’ll also manage to finish your history curricula on time.