Tag Archives: homeschooling

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

The Fourth Way: DIY Curricula

Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.
Be willing to venture out on the rockier path. The Husband and the boys on Billy Goat Trail.

These days, I feel like I see people embarking with homeschooling in a few different ways. First of all, some people want to learn without formal materials at all and to see where the unschooling life leads them. A second sort wants everything planned out for them and end up with a box program or enrolling in an online school. A third group treats curricula like a checklist, beginning with a list of subjects and filling in the blanks with various programs.

However, we’re increasingly choosing the fourth way, which is to make the curriculum ourselves.

I don’t see a ton of people doing it this way, but I wanted to tout the benefits of stepping away from the prefabricated options while still “doing school.” It’s my understanding that in the early days of homeschooling, before there were legions of companies eager for homeschool dollars and it was difficult to find a packaged curriculum of any sort, this was much more common.

I’ve written a couple of posts about what this looks like in practice at the rowhouse. (See Anatomy of a Project: Houses and Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs as well as Science Without a Net) I tend to begin by compiling a stack of books and other resources and making a loose list of writing assignments, art projects, field trips, experiments, and other things that might take up our time. Other people plan it out with specific readings and timetables. Either way, I think it’s a way of doing school that can work for more people than are doing it at the moment.

For one thing, when you’re the one who did the research and came up with the plan, you’re inevitably more invested in what you’re doing. You know more than when the plan is laid out for you by someone else and are more prepared to respond to rabbit trails and a child’s questions. You also know why each resource was chosen and what its merits are. You believe in the things you’ve chosen and want to use them, unlike when you have a preset list of books and readings, some of which you may actively dislike.

It also allows you to respond to your child’s needs directly. There’s no rereading things the student has already done. All the resources are right for the child’s level. The assignments are made to engage or challenge or remediate your child’s specific needs. You can make a subject that’s dull to your child more interesting by tweaking the focus such as by making history about the history of science or art or making it focused on reading fiction or on not reading at all. You can take a subject that your child is passionate about and make other subjects get covered that way. If a child is passionate about bugs, you read fiction books about bugs, write stories and reports about bugs, draw bugs, eat bugs (the UN says we should try it?), and watch documentaries about bugs. If a child is passionate about Pokemon, you read and write fanfiction and make fan art, you come up with a project like researching which real animals are like which Pokemon or studying biology vocabulary like anatomy terms by looking at Pokemon or studying geography by learning geography terms by looking at Pokemon maps.

Finally, it lets you stay flexible and responsive. Even if planning everything out helps you, when it’s your plan, you know where things can be added or dropped if need be. Not only that, but you’re more likely to stick to it when you can and more likely not to beat yourself up about it when you can’t. After all, you were the one who made it, not some outside entity.

Being willing to take on planning for yourself is intimidating for some people. There’s definitely a learning curve involved. I find the most important thing is figuring out how much can realistically get done. We’re doing a philosophy unit now using several resources and I’m already feeling unsure about whether my original expectations and goals for the unit can be met. Figuring out if you have too many or too few books, the right number of projects or assignments, and the right number of resources for your time can be tricky. It can be tricky both ways. For everyone who ends up with too high expectations and a pile of untouched books, I’m sure there’s someone who thought the project or unit would take much longer or hoped to follow some rabbit trails that never quite emerged or didn’t turn out to have enough appropriate resources to follow.

When you’re planning for yourself, you have to be willing to roll with the punches and make changes. I think the most important thing is to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to ditch a book that isn’t working to look for a better resource. You even have to be willing to ditch an entire topic or plan sometimes. You have to trust that all the reasons you chose to plan for yourself were worth it. You have to trust the process.

On the other side, you also have to be willing to hold yourself accountable. For many people, the appeal of a boxed curriculum is in the preset schedule that tells you, if you haven’t done this, you’re behind and you’d better catch up. Different people have different needs in terms of what makes them accountable. I admit that I find this easier than most people. But if you don’t it doesn’t have to be onerous to make yourself a plan or a checklist. For many people, making a strong routine is good enough. If you need a schedule, make a schedule. It doesn’t even have to list specific resources. It can have a checklist that says, simply, watch a documentary this week. Did you do it? If not, you can’t check it off. Of course, maybe you’ve decided it’s not the right week for one, which is fine, but remember that there was a reason you originally planned it that way. You have to be willing to change your plans, but you also have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids and the unit you’re doing together or if you’re doing it because it’s just easier for you to let go. And if you are letting it go, are you happy with that? It can be a tricky balance. I find I often need to let go of things, but I also often need to push on and make us continue so we can feel satisfied with the work we did.

Just like homeschooling isn’t for everyone, DIYing your curricula isn’t for everyone either. However, I think more people should give it a try these days. Be willing to go without a preset program and see where it takes you.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

Boing Boing Boing

I rarely recommend products here (and I’m not getting anything out of it this time), but I want to tout the awesomeness of our mini trampoline.

All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.
All the photos I tried to get were this blurry.

It’s a Jumpsport. We bought it a few years ago when we decided we needed more of an indoor energy outlet and I wish I had bought it years before. However, my experience with mini trampolines had been pretty negative. They creak noisily and don’t have a ton of fun bounce.

Someone recommended that I look at a Bellicon mini trampoline because the design is completely different. Most mini trampolines use metal springs. The springs are what creak and you can even get caught on them. The design for this other type of trampoline involved large bungee cords instead, so no creak and a higher bounce. To help with the bounce, the trampoline is also up on taller legs. At time, the cheapest Bellicons I could find were more than $600, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I was sold that a bungee trampoline was the way to go, so in looking around, I found the Jumpsport, which was a cheaper option. I decided to risk buying it. It was still a lot more than a traditional mini-trampoline, even if it was a deal next to the Bellicon. Now there are others that use the same bungee design, so there are even more options now, but we’ve been really happy with the Jumpsport.

We adore this trampoline. I can’t even begin to say how much use it has gotten over the years. In fact, it got so much use that when I looked at the cords not long ago, I realized that several of them had worn out so I ordered a new set from the company and restrung the whole thing. Now it has brand new bounce, which is pretty exciting.

Every time someone is freaking out, or upset, or fidgeting, or has energy to burn, they just go to the trampoline and jump. Sometimes, the kids jump on the trampoline off and on for hours. Sometimes, they sit on it to do math or other work, even though they can’t bounce. It’s just such a beloved spot. It is the best tool for cheering up and focusing that I know of. Basically, if you don’t have a mini trampoline in your house, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most important school tools I know of.

90 Second Newbery

90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.

We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.

This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:

I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.

The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.

Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.

Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.

Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.

Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.

I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.

Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs and Evolution

At the end of the summer, I asked the kids what they wanted to study in the fall and “dinosaurs” and “extinct stuff” were two of the proposals. Now we’re toward the end of this project and I thought I’d do another Anatomy of a Project entry. I think a lot of people are intimidated by going DIY with a large portion of schooling or cobbling a subject together using different resources, but it can be really rewarding and positive.

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Planning

I usually embark on these sorts of things by gathering stacks of resources, some of which I buy, some of which I check out from the library, some of which I just make note of in case we want to use them later on. I don’t always have a specific plan for this stuff. Usually I’m just getting stuff to get us excited as much as anything.

The biggest thing I did was talk to the kids about trying their first MOOC. MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses offered for free by colleges. I heard great things about Dino 101 from the University of Alberta, which is offered through Coursera. I enrolled myself (after a lot of debate about how to deal with users under 13) and planned to have us all do the course together.

I looked at various curricula. Build Your Library has a unit study on evolution that I flirted with getting but decided against, in part because we had already read the fiction book they use, The Education of Calpurnia Tate. I found a couple of other unit study type things, but they were mostly for younger kids so I decided not to get anything, at least for the moment. The one curriculum book I purchased was Life Through Time, which is a GEMS guide. We’ve used some other GEMS books in the past with success. I got this one and it looked pretty exciting.

Then I dove into the books. I bought and checked out a huge number of books. I didn’t really do a lot of searching. Instead, I found the nonfiction section about evolution and fossils and took out everything in the right reading level. We’re lucky enough to have such a good library that I can do that.

Beginning

We started our school year with a lot of field trips and excursions. We went to sketch and explore the fossil collection at Q?rius, the older kid discovery room at the Smithsonian National History Museum. We looked at a number of different things, but one of the coolest things we got to handle was large agatized dinosaur bone. It was polished and beautiful to see the inside of the bone. I also let the kids spend a couple dollars to buy polished fossils from the shop, which was quite a treat. We added these to other fossils we’ve collected over the years, like shark teeth and ammonites, and put them in a case together with labels.

Not purposefully, but we started with a lot of films. We had a chance to see two IMAX films – one about dinosaurs and another about mammoths. We also immediately turned to NOVA as one of our favorite shows and watched an episode about Spinosaurus, an unusual dinosaur that preyed on fish. Because we had just seen the film about mammoths, we also read the related book Mammoths and Mastodons by Cheryl Bardoe, which was an excellent read.

We began to read more books. We began with Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle. This book was at the right level for the kids to read independently. We used it as a good book for practicing written narrations and summaries. I had them read a few chapters (they’re quite short) and write a summary. We also dove into dinosaur books. I let the boys pick what they wanted to read. BalletBoy chose to read a Scientists in the Field book called Digging for Bird Dinosaurs. Mushroom read Sue: The Story of a Colossal Fossil. Each of those books were longer and more in depth. Again, we used the books as a jumping off point for practicing writing skills.

The Dino 101 MOOC turned out to be just as good as people promised. There are interactive questions in the middle of the lessons. While parts of the course have been heavy on vocabulary, for the most part it has been both in depth but accessible to the boys. Many of the topics have allowed the kids to delve into other issues such as basic animal anatomy, Latin word roots (did I mention the vocabulary?), geology, and evolution. It has been a really far reaching course and we’ve all really enjoyed it. The quizzes are pretty easy for me. I cut and paste them into a document and let the kids take them too, though they’re more challenging for the kids. Each quiz is just five multiple choice questions. The kids have mostly done pretty well on them, but I’ve helped them study.

BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.
BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.

We also took a field trip to Dinosaur Park. We’re really lucky to have a small regional park nearby where outcroppings are from the late Cretaceous period and have included dinosaur bones. Of course, we didn’t manage to find anything interesting, but it was neat to see so many impressions of bark and other plants from the time of the dinosaurs and to learn how to look.

As topics arose in Dino 101, we used it as a chance to explore other topics. When evolution was explored, we took another look at it, reading the excellent graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hossler and practicing written narrations by writing about how evolution works. We watched episodes of Nature and discussed concepts like adaptation and natural selection. When geologic time came up, we explored it by looking at other time periods and trying to tie together our fossil collection and other topics we had explored, like mammoths earlier in the fall. We especially liked the series A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before the Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner. The book When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth was our favorite. This series was more in depth than I expected. We made geologic timelines to try to tie everything together.

Mushroom spotted in a catalog that a new Cardline game was about to come out – Cardline: Dinosaurs. If you’ve never seen the game, there are lots of different versions. In this one, each card features a prehistoric creature and facts about it. Players only have access to what the creature is with a drawing. You try to place the creatures in order of a chosen attribute such as how much they weighed. It can be much more challenging than you expect. We immediately bought the game and played it. We also used the cards to practice organizing dinosaur types, distinguishing which ones were dinosaurs and which weren’t, looking at different geologic eras. This was just a great addition to our studies.

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Mushroom’s geologic timeline

We also enhanced our study with drawing a little bit. We found a library book about how to draw different dinosaurs. We added some dinosaur poems to our poetry teas. We had some by Jack Prelutsky and another book by William Wise. They were light children’s poems, but I like the way we can find these connections across the different things we study.

Since we were also using Faltering Ownership from Brave Writer, the next writing project was supposed to be a mini-report about a natural disaster. I wanted to combine this with our current project so I asked the kids to choose a dinosaur to write about instead. It was a big undertaking to learn to write down sources, use notecards for organization, and then write their first real report, but both Mushroom and BalletBoy did a great job. Partway through, Mushroom asked if he could change his to becoming the text of a picture book about Argentinosaurus, which he did.

After the reports, both the boys said they were feeling basically done with dinosaurs and evolution. We still have to finish up the MOOC and we have an upcoming workshop to look at fossils to understand climate during the time of the dinosaurs, but other than wrapping up loose ends, we agreed that the project had wound to a natural end.

Regrets

One of the hardest things about wrapping up a project is all the roads not taken. We read The Sandwalk Adventures but we didn’t get around to Hossler’s equally good Evolution, another graphic novel explaining the concepts of evolution. I had hoped we would go back to Dinosaur Park more often, but weekend commitments made it hard. I had hoped we would do more fossil sketching, but we only did a little bit because the kids weren’t that into it. There are a pile of books on the shelf that we never got to, such as books about pterosaurs and books about the links between dinosaurs and birds. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at Feathered Dinosaurs by Christopher Sloan and thinking, huh, maybe we can squeeze in one ore? I’m especially sad we weren’t able to adapt the activities in the GEMS Guide Life Through Time, but many of the activities didn’t end up making sense in a homeschool context and others were edged out by other things we decided to do.

While I could easily think of a whole other semester of stuff we could do about dinosaurs, evolution, extinction and other related topics, the kids are ready to move on to the next thing and pushing it too far would likely just make them dislike the good work we already did. We’re going to start a unit on philosophy and I’ve asked them for ideas about what they’d like to do next, so I guess we’ll see where we end up after the holidays.

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The books headed back to the library

 

Instant Challenge!

Do you do DI? I’m always trying to spread the Destination Imagination word to people. I think it’s a great activity for homeschoolers especially because it focuses on team building and social skills, but of the real world sort and not the annoying class project sort.

Basically, in DI, your team chooses a challenge (they’re different every year) and prepares a “solution” to present at the tournament. The challenges range from improv games to building robots to creating weight bearing structures to making plays to helping people. This year, my kids’ team chose a challenge where they have to create a mystery story. But, being DI, of course there’s more. It has to be set some time in history, it has to be presented on a wacky shaped stage with the audience sitting facing each other, it has to include some sort of clue that uses engineering of some kind, and the kids won’t know the ending until they start the skit so they had to prepare multiple endings. That’s the sort of thing you do in DI.

There’s one other piece of competition in DI and that’s the Instant Challenge. An Instant Challenge happens super fast. Kids are given just a few minutes to work out a “solution” to this one and it can be anything. Some are performances, like make a skit about a road trip where you meet three monsters or make a skit where one person can’t talk and everyone has to figure out why. Others are tasks and the tasks can be anything. There’s a lot of bridge building and tower building with things like paper cups and chenille sticks, but I’ve seen task challenges were you have to move things around or create secret codes or float boats or send projectiles across a room. Other challenges ask kids to make something, like a painting or a building or anything really, and then use in somehow in a skit.

Instant challenges are great for teamwork and practicing quick thinking. Even if you don’t do DI, you can do Instant Challenges. They could be great for starting off other group meetings like scout troops or robotics clubs. They could be a good get to know you or fun challenge in a class or co-op. They could make an interesting party game. Yeah, I know, I’m a DI crazy person, but I do sort of think it’s true. Instant Challenges are wacky and fun.

Here’s some of my favorite sources for IC’s (aka Instant Challenges). Some of these collections include old challenges really used at tournaments and others are just ones created for teams to practice. None of these documents have names so I had to give them random ones.

The Mouse Set (my favorite set)

The Ruler Set (more from the Mouse author… this is a great challenge writer)

The Gazebo Set (last one from the same author)

The Iowa Set (old tournament ones)

The Tennessee Set (includes some non-IC team building too)

The Ohio Set (from an old official practice set)

The Random Set (another from an old practice set)

 

Balancing Imperfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please Help Your Kids With Their Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mushroom’s Techie Bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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