Archive for ‘Homeschooling’

November 24, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Rube Goldberg Machine

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 19, 2014.

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A Rube Goldberg machine is a complicated machine that performs a simple task. Two years ago, I found a video of a very enthusiast little boy who made a Rube Goldberg machine and posted it online. I loved it so much, I shared it on my blog. My son and I watched it several times, and it never failed to delight us. Audri’s excitement is infectious.

At the time I thought my son would probably like making one himself, but he was only six-years-old, and I didn’t say anything. If it were my idea and not his, it would surely fall flat. Besides that, I wasn’t sure I could even make one – they seem complicated!

Fast forward to late last week when my five-year-old wanted to show me what he made. I went into the living room to find that he had set up several items, and he showed me how a ball would go from one item to another and knock them over. Nothing was actually attached to each other, so I knew it wouldn’t work. He was just pretending and walking the ball through the course.

After he demonstrated this to his brother and me a couple of times, I told him he might want to watch Audri’s video. My eight-year-old could remember the enthusiastic little boy and that machine, but my five-year-old did not. So I found the video, and they both watched it several times. It was just as exciting as the first time we saw it.

After that, my eight-year-old said he wanted to make a real Rube Goldberg machine. I said okay, and we dedicated this past weekend to making the contraption. I did my best to let my son make all the decisions. I kept my mouth shut even if I knew he would fail.

And fail he did. His first idea was to use his scribble bot (a lightweight robot that moves some pens around on a piece of paper) to knock a heavy ball off a table, and that was supposed to knock a bottle of water over and into a funnel. The funnel was attached to a pipe and the water was supposed to go through the pipe and eventually come out where a pinwheel (which was spinning because a fan was blowing on it) would carry that water over into a bowl.

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As you can imagine, there was a lot wrong with this machine, but my only request was that he do it in the kitchen where I knew the water wouldn’t hurt the floor.

There’s so much to be learned from failing, and my son was having fun. He was thinking, problem solving, and trying things out. It didn’t take him long to see that nothing quite worked right and using water wasn’t a good idea.

My husband suggested he use a ball and gravity, and my son agreed. At this point my son also wanted to look up some other videos of Rube Goldberg machines to get ideas, so we spent some time doing that.

While watching the videos, I told him to think about what those machines used that we also had on hand. We don’t have pulleys or dominoes or large equipment, but we do have toy tracks, lots of balls, blocks, pieces of wood, string, popsicle sticks and other small items. I suggested that we take all these materials upstairs to our big room and look at them and see if it inspired anything.

At this point, it was getting close to lunch, and my son’s patience was waning. He sat in the room and fumbled around, not accomplishing anything. As he gets older, he is getting more patient and realizes that it takes time to build things, but that doesn’t stop him from getting frustrated or fussy. He wanted more of my help, but I knew at this point I’d just be taking over, if I did that. Instead, we opted to have lunch and try again the next morning.

The next day after breakfast, we were both fresh and ready to build this machine. I reminded my son that using gravity – starting from a high point – would help a ball gain momentum, and I reminded him that whatever we put into motion had to hit something else and put it into motion. I reminded him how in the videos we watched, sometimes a ball would pull a string, which would release another ball, etc.

I got him started by putting a spiral racetrack up on a box and connecting that to a ramp. The little car hit a ball at the end of the track and sent it down a ramp.

That was enough to get my son’s own ideas going. By now I had more ideas of my own, and I think I could help set up a course that would have gone clear across the room. But I kept my mouth shut and let my son do his own thing. (That was so hard to do!)

It took a long time to set up his last three steps – the ball hit another ball tied to a string. That string pulled away a popsicle stick and released another ball down a slide. That ball hits another ball that then rolls across the floor to hit and ring a bell.

It’s not a long, complicated machine that you might find if you search for Rube Goldberg machines on YouTube, but it’s my eight-year-old’s first Rube Goldberg Machine. After much trial and error, he finally got it to work, and during the process I heard him say, “If it doesn’t work, just try again.” Yes! He may be happy with his machine, but I’m happy about what he’s learning through this whole process.

Here’s a video of his final machine. All pics & video taken with my new smart phone. ;)

October 15, 2014

a few small things

I think the last few months have surely been the busiest of my life. Fortunately, I love everything I’m doing, or I would be a little more batty than I am right now.

First, I’m happy to tell you that the fall issue of home / school / life magazine was released yesterday, and I think it’s excellent. Of course, I’m biased, but I’ve heard from a few other people who aren’t biased, and they think so too, and that makes me happy. I wish I could take credit for the wonderfulness of this issue, but my editor-in-chief did most of the magic with two fabulous articles — one is about the 10 best cities in the U.S. to homeschool in. She set certain criteria, did tons of research, compiled it together and scrutinized the data to come up with this list. Though we’re not planning to move, I now have some town envy for sure! She also wrote a great piece about asking yourself important questions that will be helpful to you as you enter and navigate this homeschool journey. I’m pulling out my journal one night with that one!

I also love all the columns in this issue, especially Amy Hood’s tips on visiting an art museum with kids and Patricia Zaballos’ letter to her beginning-to-homeschool self. She sure knows how to comfort the frazzled homeschooling mom!

As for me, I wrote an article about how to become a better family photographer. If you’re a novice behind the lens, you may enjoy it! And something about writing this feature stirred up photography in my life (before-hand I had pretty much put it to rest for awhile) because suddenly I found myself with three photography clients. What fun it was to take photographs beyond the family snapshots I had been taking! You can see my work on my photography website.

And this brings me to my next piece of news: I started a Facebook page for my photography. It will probably remain mostly personal work, which is what I intended my photo website to be, but I also wanted a way to connect more easily with my clients and share their photos. If you are interested, I’d love for you to follow me there.

Between all this busy-ness, I have not neglected my homeschooling duties, and my eight-year-old has been delving into some new interests. I already told you about our adventures with tardigrades. We also recently had the opportunity to visit a Makers Faire near Atlanta, and I wanted to go to that because I knew there would be a lot of robotics groups there showing off their latest creations. That’s because my eight-year-old has been interested in robots lately! I wish it were easier to support this interest faster, but since good robotics kits aren’t cheap, he’s going to have to wait a little while for his wish to come true on this one. Anyway, I’ll be sure to write about an easy scribble bot we assembled with a kit from the faire, and I also have a surprise continuation of a project that I thought was finished: growing mushrooms. You can read about part 1 here, and I’ll fill you in on part 2 soon. (Of course, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know all this.)

I’ve been trying to support my five-year-old a little more with his drawing interest by displaying his work and also creating a corner in his room with art supplies and space to work! I’ll write about that, eventually.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready for out-of-town guests. (I told you I’ve been busy, right?) So if you don’t hear from me for awhile, that’s why.

I hope you are having a wonderful fall season! Please write me and tell me what you’ve been up to.

October 10, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Tardigrades

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via flickr creative commons https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3

photo courtesy of Don Loarie via https://flic.kr/p/kbHNe3 This image is the closest to what we saw through our microscope.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, October 8, 2014.

My family and I have been enjoying watching the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is a documentary series that explains the principles upon which science is based. It’s a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It uses storytelling and special effects such as Sagan did in the first series, but it’s all updated, and it’s a beautiful show.

In the second episode my family learned about tardigrades, and my eight-year-old became very excited. Tardigrades, or “water bears,” have to be one of the most amazing creatures on earth, and they are everywhere, but my family had no knowledge of them until now. This is because they are only .5mm – 1.2mm in length. They are big enough to see under a low-power microscope, but not big enough to notice when we’re walking through the woods on one of our hikes.

What is amazing about tardigrades is that they can live in conditions that would kill most other living creatures on earth. They can live in freezing temperatures (just above absolute zero) or in boiling water. They can withstand pressures that are far greater than that of the deepest trenches in the ocean. They can go up to ten years without food or water, and they have survived the vacuum of outer space. Because of these abilities, they have survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions.

Their secret is cryptobiosis, which slows down the tardigrade’s metabolic processes. Without water, according to wired.com, “it can dehydrate to 3 percent of its normal water content in what is called desiccation, becoming a husk of its former self.” When you add water, they come back to life.

See why we were amazed to learn about these tiny creatures? My eight-year-old looked them up online, so we were able to view some photos and film taken of them under high-powered microscopes. We read more about them, and we also learned that it’s easy to find tardigrades in our backyard, so my son wanted to do that too.

We learned in Cosmos that they live in moss or lichen, but according to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC), tardigrades can be found almost everywhere. The center also said there are over 900 described species (though I have read over 1,500 species on another site), and they have been found in the mountains, ocean, rain forests and the Antarctic. That site also mentions that “Live tardigrades have been regenerated from dried moss kept in a museum for over 100 years!”

First my son wanted to gather some moss in the backyard, which we did, and we looked at it under our microscope – no tardigrades. So then he wanted to look up “what is the best kind of moss to find tardigrades in.” We tried that and found something more helpful – complete instructions on how to find and care for tardigrades.

We learned that we would probably have a better chance of finding tardigrades in lichen and that once you get a sample, you need to soak it in distilled or rain water for several hours or overnight. My son gathered some moss and two small containers of lichen and let it soak in rainwater for 24 hours.

The next day my eight-year-old wanted to look at the moss water first. You’re supposed to squeeze out the moss and then put the water in a shallow dish such as a petri dish and then spend about 15 minutes looking at it under the microscope.

We found nothing in the water with the moss, but when we looked at the water with the lichen, we found some tardigrades almost immediately.

We were surprised to see that they are translucent. What we saw was a reddish outline around their body. We could make out their eight legs, but we couldn’t see the claws. We also saw their tubular mouth. My son said they looked like little, chubby caterpillars to him.

We also found all sorts of other wiggly things in there too! We haven’t identified those other creatures yet, but I think one is a nematode, which looks like a worm, and tardigrades prey on them.

I left the microscope and the tardigrades on our table so that my son can observe them for a few days before we release them back into the yard. My son is fascinated with the microscopic life in this tiny dish, and now he says he wants to learn more about bacteria. You never know where this might lead.

September 16, 2014

Our 2nd Grade Homeschool Schedule and Curriculum (with Pre-K too!)

I love new school years! It’s an accomplishment to close out the previous year and plan a new one, and in the beginning of the year, everything feels so tidy and structured. I like structure, but I try to remain flexible about our schedule as the year goes on. It’s inevitable that new priorities will pop up, and some of what we do will fall to the wayside. But I think that is what is awesome about homeschooling – you get to be flexible. You get to follow your instincts about what is best for your kids on any given day. Just do that, and you’ll do great.

The five-year-old joins us.

My boys just turned eight and five! I am considering them in 2nd grade and Pre-K. This is the first time I’ve attempted to do any formal work with my five-year-old, and that’s because I can tell he’s ready for it. Earlier last year he would play while my older son did his lessons, but later in the year I noticed he would hang out at the table and watch/listen as his brother would practice reading. So earlier this summer I offered him a little ABC workbook, and he gleefully cheered “yes! yes!” After that he demanded what he termed his “reading lesson” everyday, even when I wasn’t planning to do it. Now he’s happy to take a day off, but he still likes doing his reading lessons alongside his brother.

What has changed since last year.

I have a popular post from last year about our first grade schedule and curriculum, and I always worry when a post becomes popular because we remain in flux, and while I try to write the truth of any given moment, the next month we might change what we’re doing! But I’m relieved that as I look back over last year’s schedule, not too much changed. But a little did:

  • I nixed the stretching fairly quickly. My boys just hated it. It felt useless to keep trying even though I still think they could use it.
  • When I wrote that post, we had a Friday morning bi-weekly class, and I thought we might have the occasional play date then too. Well, the class didn’t go, and neither did the play date, but later we enrolled my son in his pottery class, which was on Friday mornings for eight weeks, so the schedule didn’t really change after all.
  • Other than this, we kept that schedule fairly well, although we definitely had days when we didn’t do our lessons because other things took priority. I used it as a compass to get back into a routine when I felt we needed it. (Mostly I need it to stay sane. The boys would be fine with just playing everyday.)

So below is our weekly plan this year. It’s not too different from last year.

2nd grade MOL Weekly HS Schedule  copy

What this doesn’t reflect: It doesn’t reflect all the little things that pop up like play dates that I don’t have a regular date for on my calendar and all the outings we do as a family, which could be considered field trips. We like to go hiking and to museums and other places of interest whenever we get the chance. Some days we may just go shopping. It also does not reflect my son’s project time.

Project Time

Last year our lessons were shorter, so we had an hour or more for projects in the mornings before lunch. This year, our lessons are taking us right up until lunch, so here is what I’m going to experiment with this year:

Since I want my son’s projects to have priority, every Monday morning I get our project notebook and go over what he’s told me he wants to do. He gets a lot of ideas that he doesn’t follow through with, and that’s okay. He’s in charge of his education. He knows that if he wants to build something or learn about something, we will make time for it. I’ve told him I’m willing to skip our lessons completely, if needed. So far this year, however, he hasn’t been doing anything that he needs me for, or either he seems to make small inquires at other times of the day. He does have one thing he wants to make that we don’t have the materials for yet, so when we get everything, we’ll do that. I’m also wondering how I can spur him on to dig deeper into his latest interest – Star Wars. I’ll write about how all this goes in the future.

Curriculum

Our curriculum is very eclectic. I choose our curriculum based on 1) what I think my kids will actually like and 2) what we have on hand or can find conveniently and/or cheap. I get a lot of resources from teacher-friends, though I don’t use a lot of that stuff. I have bought little workbooks and things on sale over the years and saved them. I have bought some things full price because I thought they were perfect for my boys. Buying a full curriculum that would cover everything has never seemed prudent when each subject requires its own strategy for my boys’ particular needs.

The weekly plan.

I have told my eight-year-old that he has to learn reading, writing, math, etc. The law requires them, and he understands that. But I also tell him we’ll go slow, at his pace, and we’ll try to use books and resources that he likes. This is not always easy, and I’m always wondering when I should nudge or pull back. This is just an ongoing part of homeschooling, I think, and I try to use my good instincts, though they fail me at times.

I am still not completely comfortable with unschooling my eight-year-old or using project-based homeschooling as our sole means of education, though a big part of me wants to do just that. I have opted instead to require him to do just one page in a workbook (to help build his handwriting and reading skills) and read just one or two pages in a book. If it gets hard for him, I usually make him finish at least part of what we’re working on, and then I take a break from it the next day or use a different resource. As I said before, I am willing to take long breaks from our lessons and work on his projects too. But I feel a slow progression in the fundamentals is important, and he is progressing, and I’m happy with that.

This is my order of things that happens between breakfast and lunch unless we have an appointment outside the house or a project to work on. Sometimes we don’t finish before lunch, but we usually do.

Read aloud – This is new. I have sorely missed book time, which is what I did when my son was little. Now we don’t have time in the a.m. for everyone to pick one or more books of their choice, so I’ve decided this is the time I get to pick one book of my choice. I can cover a lot of different subjects this way. (In the evenings before bed, my husband and I read to the boys, and they get to pick the books they want.)

1 Page Workbook – I have purchased simple workbooks (the kind you can get at Walmart or Target or teacher’s stores), and this year I’m having them each do one page each in a workbook. My eight-year-old hates the physical act of writing, so this is kind of an experiment, but also a slow way to build up his muscles and just get him used to writing a little bit. Below are listed the workbooks my boys have completed or are working on. (We started this during the summer, btw!)

The eight-year-old

–I started him out in an easy kindergarten workbook in which he only had to trace and write letters. This is because, as I said, he hates the physical act of writing, and I just wanted him to get used to having to write a little.

–I was not in the market to buy more workbooks, but we were in Barnes and Noble one day, and I happened to find Brainquest’s Star Wars workbooks. I picked them up because both my sons love Star Wars. I’m not so dumb as to think my eight-year-old will also love the workbooks, but if I can make doing what he dislikes a little more fun, I’ll try it. And the reading workbook happened to cover just the things I want him to work on. So we’re just now starting Star Wars 2nd Grade Reading. This is already proving to be difficult, and he’s in tears over it. It’s not that he’s not smart enough to complete the work, he just hates doing it. I may have him do only 1/2 a page at a time or pick and choose the pages. Part of me would like to nix it. Not sure what to do yet.

The five-year-old is my easy kid! He likes doing these workbooks! (I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that he loves drawing too.)

–Stick Kids Workbooks: Amazing Mazes

–A+ Alphabet Workbook

–A+ Numbers 1-12 (He’s almost finished with this.)

After this, I’m going to have him start:

Brainquest’s Star Wars Workbooks: Kindergarten Writing & ABCS

Brainquest’s Star Wars Workbooks: Preschool Number Fun

Reading Lesson – This is for the eight-year-old, but the five-year-old usually listens. I have him read 1-2 pages in a book. We have worked through most of the follow-up books recommended at the end of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. We have two more to go on that list, and I’m hoping he’ll be willing to finish those books, but I’m not going to push him. I’ve had great success at letting him read books about the things he loves most, which are Legos’ characters and Superheros. We just finished Scholastic’s Super Heroes Save the Day! It makes a huge difference when he can read something like this versus any other book. I will probably alternate this will the workbook because doing both in one day proves to be too difficult.

Starfall – This is for both boys, although I didn’t tell my eight-year-old that. I asked him if he would sit with his younger brother and go over all the phonic reading lessons, games, books, and videos on Starfall.com.  They do about two rows every time they sit down to do this. I knew my five-year-old could benefit from it, but I wanted my eight-year-old to get the review as well as gain confidence in his reading ability. It’s working well, and my eight-year-old is shining as “teacher.” They don’t do this everyday, but they are almost finished with all fifteen rows on the website. I’m not sure if we’ll continue this, or go to other sections on that site.

Math – This is for the eight-year-old, but the five-year-old usually listens. We started right in on the next Life of Fred book this year! We are working on Life of Fred: Dogs, which is the fourth book in the series. I have considered changing our math curriculum in the past, but now I feel confident that the quirky story format of Life of Fred is perfect for my eight-year-old. (We are story lovers around here, after all.) I think Life of Fred does a great job teaching him what he needs to know, and when I feel it’s getting a little above his level, we just stop and practice math in other ways until I feel he’s ready to move on. Doing math twice a week still feels just right. If this book starts to get too hard, we’ll pause it awhile and practice math with other resources for awhile.

Science – This is new, although science has always been a huge part of our homeschool. I’ve never made time for it during our lesson time because my son’s projects, the homeschool science classes, the books he picks to read, and all the documentaries we watch daily have skyrocketed him well beyond 2nd grade science! Despite all this, I have a goal to study science in a more systematic way, especially when he gets older. And, this year, his pottery class conflicts with homeschool science, so we’ll have to miss out on those for the first time. (I’m really sad about that, although a little relieved to have a lighter class schedule.) Each year, I seem to be able to weave one more thing into our homeschool. Last year, it was art. This year, it’s science. (I hope by next year, I’ll find a way to take our Spanish lessons to a higher level.) We’re starting with something simple. I happened to have DK’s 101 Great Science Experiments, so we are working through this book and doing 1~2 science experiments a week. By the way, the first time I asked my son if he had a project he wanted to work on, he said, “Can’t we just do the experiments?” So, in a way, this is still his project.

Spanish – I wanted to find a better program to work on, but in some ways, I think watching Salsa is still the best bet for my boys so that they don’t lose interest in Spanish. I still write down the vocabulary, and I watch every episode with them – because I want to learn Spanish too!

Art – Last year at this time, I felt like we didn’t have enough art in our homeschool (despite all the craft and building projects that my son initiated on his own). I wanted to be able to teach a little bit about different artists and techniques. It’s also a part of project-based homeschooling to introduce children to new tools and techniques so that they’ll have a variety of mediums they can choose from when working on their own projects. I’m proud of myself for working in several art lessons last year and establishing a sketchbook habit with my younger son, who loves to draw. This year, we’re going to make Fridays our art days, and I’m using Amy Hood’s fun Art Together e-zines as my guide. Right now we’re learning about printmaking techniques and the artist Hokusai. When my son begins his pottery class, I’m planning to use that time for sketch booking with my five-year-old.

This is probably the longest post I’ve ever written, and it may seem like a lot on the page, but it only encompasses about 1~2 hours of our day. If you have been following my blog, you know that we do a lot of other things, and we have certain priorities for our boys that haven’t change. In brief:

  • We want them to have time to move, play and explore the things they love. In the afternoons and early evenings, they have lots of time to do the things they love the best, including playing with Legos and a variety of other toys, playing games on their tablets, and watching T.V. Sometimes we go to play dates, sometimes we cook together, and sometimes we play games together. But this is also the time I have to work and get my chores done. I feel grateful for homeschooling because I feel it is creating a strong bond between my boys, and they are learning to be independent doers!
  • We want them to love nature, and they do. But we make a point of getting out into nature a lot by visiting parks and going hiking. My son will slowly be working toward earning the third junior ranger badge this year too.
  • We also keep a garden, and in the evenings after dinner, you might find the boys and me outside watering it and picking ripe tomatoes. I find that by late August and September, the boys are less interested in this though. But I don’t mind having a few minutes alone outside!
September 12, 2014

New School Year

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 10, 2014.

September always feels like the real new year to me. It’s a time to regroup, plan a new schedule, and there’s that refreshing feeling that comes with the anticipation of cooler weather. Now that I have kids, and by coincidence both their birthdays are in late August, this time of year definitely feels like a walk around a new corner.

My boys just turned five and eight, and I know I say this every year, but I can hardly believe how fast they are growing. They are at fantastic ages. They are interested in the world and learning new things. My older boy is slowly catching on to the fact that not all of life is a bowl of cherries, and we have to contend with his bad attitude about certain things, especially when he’s helping to clean the house, but none of that surprises me. I will not take for granted these easier days of rearing young children because I know it’ll only get more challenging the older they get.

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we can start school whenever we want, and I choose to start after Labor Day. Since my eight-year-old is starting 2nd grade and my five-year-old pre-K, we have a lot more to do this year, but none of it is a drastic change. I had been doing reading lessons throughout the summer and a little math, and we already started working through a book of science experiments, which is a huge interest of my older son. Add to that a little more math, handwriting, a readaloud, art projects, and my son’s own projects, and you’ve 2nd grade.

So far my five-year-old has made school easy for me. He demands his “reading lessons,” which is only two pages in some workbooks while his brother works on the older version workbooks. I am sure his eagerness has a lot to do with sitting and watching his older brother do his lessons these past few years. I am glad I haven’t pushed him to start earlier, but instead I watched for clues that he was ready.

I also asked my eight-year-old to sit with his younger brother and take him through all the lessons on starfall.com. If you aren’t familiar with this website, it’s a wonderful tool for teaching younger kids to read, and a lot of it is free. The learn to read section has 15 rows of phonic lessons, and it uses little games, interactive books and videos to teach the letter sounds and decoding techniques.

I went through all these starfall lessons with my eight-year-old when he was four, and now I think his younger brother could learn from them, but my main purpose in asking him to teach his younger brother was to give him a little review. And it’s working. He even told me the other day that it’s been helping him. (Sneaky Mama.) And it’s been fun to watch him in the role of teacher. He’s a natural at it, and so patient!

My eight-year-old will be starting a new pottery class soon, and more play dates will be added to the calendar when the weather cools off. I want my five-year-old to take a class too, but I haven’t quite decided what yet. I am somewhat mourning the end of the more laid back days of summer while at the same time looking forward to seeing people and doing more intentional learning with the kids.

I always think to myself that we will have to take homeschooling year by year. We will have to assess what seems good for the kids each year. I’m glad that so far they seem to be thriving in this atmosphere. I’m grateful for the friends we’ve made, and I’m grateful for the chance to tailor my kid’s educations to their abilities and needs. As I watch their imaginations flourish, and they get a chance to do things we wouldn’t have time for if they were in school, I’m grateful we can do this another year. If we’re lucky, we can continue for many more years to come.

August 16, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Angry Birds – You Never Know

I don’t know much about the Angry Birds game except that it used to be my son’s favorite game when he played on his dad’s Nexus, and when I sat down to watch him play, it seemed absolutely silly. But hey, it’s not for me. It’s for him, and I’m glad he’s having fun. I don’t have a problem with screen time, and while we do enforce some limits (it’s just part of our daily routine), our day’s overall screen time is definitely higher than what most conscientious parents prefer.

It’s really cool, however, when I see his interest in a game turning into a little project. All on his own one day, he made these angry birds and their raft. (Note: He already had access to all the materials he needed, and he knew how to use them, so he didn’t need anything from me.) How cool is that? Now the game doesn’t seem so silly, huh?

Never dismiss, restrict or belittle your child’s interest. Ask questions, nurture it, and it may blossom into something productive and cool! You never know!

August 12, 2014

What We Watch

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 30, 2014.

It seems like I’m in the minority when it comes to the amount of television I let my children watch. Most of the parents I meet will surprise me by making comments on how they’ll let their children watch “20 minutes of a movie” at a time or one “thirty minute show” while they are taking a shower. (I kind of think they’re crazy.)

I used to keep silent, but I finally wrote several detailed blog posts about how much T.V. we watch, and now more moms have been willing to tell me that they let their kids watch T.V. too, so I know I’m not alone. It’s not like we let them watch all day long, but when you homeschool, and your days are full of cool activities, field trips, play dates, lessons, reading and more, television compliments your busy schedule. It’s a time to relax as well as a time to learn.

I am amazed by the educational benefits of television these days. When I was young, I loved the occasional Marty Stouffer’s Wild America, but now we have Apple T.V. and Netflix, and beautiful, thought-provoking documentaries are available whenever we are ready to sit down and watch – and that’s the key to today’s technology. We can access it when we’re ready for it. We don’t have to wait a week to see our favorite show.

Recently Apple T.V. has acquired several channels that offer free programming. (We have to pay $8 a month to access Netflix, but that’s worth it to us.) One of the free stations is PBS. PBS offers most of their programming on Apple T.V. for a certain period of time, so you have to watch it while it’s available, but generally the shows are up there for several weeks or months, so we don’t have to worry about missing something.

We have watched every single PBS Nature program on there with the boys. We usually do this at lunchtime. Although I don’t consider watching T.V. a substitute to going out into nature, it makes a great compliment. We take our boys out into the woods as much as we can, but every single day they are learning something about nature and animals through those programs. I think it has been a great way to instill a respect for nature in our boys.

We were thrilled to see that the GPB show Georgia Outdoors is available through Apple T.V. (and it’s online), so we’ve been watching an episode everyday for a few weeks now. What a wonderful show! The narrator, Sharon Collins, has taken us on tours of the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia’s waterfalls, its coastline, and there’s a great episode about fly-fishing in Georgia.

Collins talks about the history and ecology of each place she visits in Georgia. The show is introducing us to lots of places we’re hoping to take our boys, and we’re learning about places we weren’t aware of. I think we’re all so proud to live in such a beautiful state after watching this show, and that’s a great thing to instill in my little boys.

While my boys are young (they are seven and four now), nature programs seem to interest them the most, but we have watched some science programs and history programs, and there’s more waiting for us when they get old enough.

In the evenings, we watch other kinds of shows on Netflix. Stuff that’s family oriented, but more for fun. We’ve watched Everybody Loves Raymond, The Andy Griffith Show, Family Ties, and we have even watched a few episodes of Duck Dynasty on the A&E channel on Apple T.V. That may not suit everyone’s taste, but I think it’s hilarious.

Believe it or not, these shows have led to some great conversations and learning opportunities. It’s not that we have serious, adult-talk; we keep it on a seven- and four-year-old level, but I think it has been a good experience for my sons because we watch with them.

For example, we talked about history while watching The Andy Griffith Show and how the roles of men and women have changed since then. My seven-year-old liked the character of Michael J. Fox in Family Ties so much that he wanted to learn about the actor, and that led to a mini-lesson about Parkinson’s disease.

My boys also have opportunities to watch children’s programming by themselves, and I’m grateful to have Netflix so that they don’t have to be bombarded with ads for toys while watching them. Not to mention all the shows they watch are very educational, and even some of their most recent favorites like Ninjago and Super Heroes teach good lessons.

I grew up with a lot of television shows, and I have nothing but good memories of watching them. As I look back on my childhood as an adult, I can see how I learned from my parents, my teachers, my friends, and those shows. As long as parents are monitoring what their children watch, and they use it as a compliment to a lot of other good activities, I think television is a phenomenal way to learn, relax and be entertained.

August 2, 2014

Homeschooling: Our 1st Grade End of Year Review and Progress Report

homeschool review-1{Homeschool Progress Report} {Free Printables}

Like everything in our homeschool, our end-of-year reviews are evolving. I know that eventually I’ll settle into a way of doing this that sticks. I think this year was a winner.

When my son was preschool age, I decided to go ahead and use grade levels despite the fact that I know they are arbitrary — yet not so arbitrary if I can pick a grade that I feel best suits my son’s level and then not be rigid about keeping him in that level for all subjects. I simply use it as a frame of reference for myself as I plan our few formal lessons, and I think there’s nothing wrong with letting him feel a sense of accomplishment as we close out one year and start another.

When he was little I did a Pre-K “graduation,” but afterwards, I felt that was overkill. I wanted to mark the end of our years, but I didn’t want to attach a heavy meaning to it like a graduation each year. That would detract from the real graduation when he’s 18 years old.

Last year I decided we would simply call it our end-of-the-year review. As project-based homeschoolers, I find this review to be another way of reminding my son about those things he has shown interest in. If he sees it and says, “Oh yeah! I want to do that again!” we can work on that project some more. If not, it’s a nice closure to the project.

Before the review, I prepared the legal stuff I’m supposed to do for the state of Georgia even though we are only required to keep it for our files. That’s an end-of-the-year progress report. I know that many people wonder how to write these progress reports, and really, you can do it any way that you want! But if it helps, I’ll let you view my son’s first grade report. (I’ve removed his name from it, and I’ve created links back to each topic that I’ve written about on this blog, if you want more detail about something.) There’s also a blank progress report on my free printables page for you to adapt to your needs, if you want to.

(For more details about the Georgia law on homeschooling, see this document I created: Georgia’s Kindergarten and Homeschooling Laws.)

For my own pleasure I also keep a book list, and I used a three-ring binder to keep my daily charts and any paperwork my son did for the year, including the progress report. In the binder I also put any receipts for classes or pamphlets of the places we’ve visited. The binder or portfolio does not document our whole year, however. I would say my blog is the best-detailed documentation of what we did, and the progress report is a nice summary.

Our end-of-the-year review is for fun, and the main thing we do for that is view a slideshow of the past year.

So far each year I have created a slideshow of everything my seven-year-old did over the year. It was so fun to review his projects and creativity as well as the hard work of formal lessons. I included our field trips, his classes, camps and everything that had to do with his “homeschool.”

This year I had a hard time getting started with the slideshow. I couldn’t figure out what format I wanted to use, and I kept thinking, “Why is this so hard?” Then it occurred to me that making a slideshow of the 7yo’s work wasn’t relevant anymore. My 4yo has been accomplishing quite a bit lately, and even though he’s not “officially” homeschooling, I needed to include him.

And then there were all the family snapshots and vacations pictures. When am I ever going to get around to putting those in something the family can view and enjoy?! To be honest, I’m the only one who has even seen all the pictures I’ve taken! …for many years! I am just too busy to do anything with the photos other than the few I use online.

It’s so silly I didn’t think of this sooner, but I decided to make a slideshow of our whole year. Badly exposed family snapshots, trips, projects, hiking, home life, the wildlife we found in our yard and elsewhere and the books my son has used for his homeschool. Because all of life is learning, right? It was a massive slideshow over 45 minutes long. I was worried it was too long, but my husband and the boys loved it, and they even reminded me of things I needed to add. So, I think this will continue to be my “summer project” each year.

I also give my son a certificate of completion for the year, and this year I felt the four-year-old might feel left out if I didn’t do something for him, so I made him up a little certificate too. I also like to give my boys a small present, but I want it to be something to encourage their interests and learning:

  • For the seven-year-old, who is still slowly learning to read, I bought him the books he seems the most interested in reading, which are some comic-style Lego books about various super heroes as well as some Ninjago books. (I’m happy to see he really loves them, and he’s even looking at them when we’re not doing our lessons!)
  • For my four-year-old, who loves to cook with me, I bought him some wooden spoons that would be just for him to use, and I promised him we would cook together more this year. (That’s something I still need help getting motivated to do!)

So, here’s a summary of how we mark the end of our years. I put in bold what the family sees. Everything else is what I do behind the scenes!

  • I have no particular date we do this. “Sometime in the summer” is the best I can do.
  • I prepare the end of year progress report required by the state of Georgia. To see a blank example of how I do our report, which you are free to download and adapt to your needs, and all these other print-outs I use, see my free printables page. To see this year’s report, click here.
  • I print out the progress report and book lists, and I put them into a 3-ring binder that I’ve kept for the year along with the daily charts I keep, loose paperwork my son has done, pamphlets for field trips, receipts for classes, etc. (None of that is required by Georgia law. I do it because I’m an organization freak because I want to.)
  • I prepare a slideshow of our past year for the family to view and enjoy one afternoon. 
  • I prepare a certificate of completion for my son’s year and give him a small gift to encourage his interests.
  • I put the past year’s portfolio in storage, and I prepare a new binder for the new school year. (I’ll probably keep binders for about three years since Georgia requires we keep our records for the past three years.)

I’m not doing anything special to mark the beginning of my son’s 2nd grade year. We simply continued with the light summer routine consisting mostly of reading lessons. I will add a few other lessons in early September, but other than that, I consider our end-of-year review a nice occasion to review and remember all the fun we had this year, clear off my desk, put away the binder, and continue on with the next year.

What do you do to mark the end of your school years?

July 24, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go

mushroom project-1Last year when my seven-year-old told me he wanted to learn about and grow mushrooms, I was excited. This was something I could sink my teeth into. Though I’m a novice, I love plants and gardening, and mushrooms fascinate me. We see so many cool ones around here, and they never fail to excite me. My boys love looking at them too. So I was looking forward to learning about mushrooms alongside my son.

I had visions of learning how to identify mushrooms, creating a mushroom poster, and learning how to grow them at home. But I was a good PBH Mama. I didn’t mention any of that. 

Instead, I sat down with my son and asked him what he wanted to know. This is what he said and how I wrote it down in our project journal:

Mushrooms — “I want to grow them in the house or in a terrarium.”

  • Where are their spores?
  • Are they made of spores?
  • What are they made of?
  • How do they grow?

“My idea is to crumble mushroom into a terrarium.”

We’ll experiment with layers of dirt and scraps from woods. Mushroom from outside, but we need to identify.

1) Learn about mushrooms –> books from library

2) My idea to use terrarium. (I gave him an old venus flytrap terrarium we had.)

Don’t worry if that doesn’t totally make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I need to take better notes!

We checked out some books about mushrooms from the library, and when we got them home, my son enjoyed looking at the mushrooms in the field guides, but he wasn’t as interested in listening to me read about mushrooms. Despite the questions he asked, he mostly wanted to grow mushrooms. I knew his idea to crumble mushrooms into the terrarium would not work because I had looked up some videos on how to grow mushrooms for my own knowledge, and I showed him at least one video too.

I realized two things. 1) He wanted to do it his way, and I just needed to let him try that, and 2) growing mushrooms isn’t simple, but letting a seven-year-old try out his way of growing mushrooms is simple, and that’s what I needed to do anyway.

So, over a month or so, we tried some different things. I found a few notes I took in our project journal:

Sept. 13, 2013

He wants to chop mushrooms smaller and put under dirt. (Current project is very smelly.)

Later, I tried to sum up the few things we did in the journal. (I’m not very good at keeping this journal on a daily or even weekly basis, but I do manage to update it now and then.)

Oct. 8, 2013

We took old carnivorous plant terrarium with its dirt and added wood chips. (Because the seven-year-old knew that mushrooms needed a substrate.)

1) Bought button mushrooms, cut them up, put them on top of wood chips. We kept dome on and left it on front porch — they just rotted. We also put some of the mushrooms on leaf litter in the woods – nothing happened.

2) Seven-year-old found mushrooms with yellow caps in yard. [Since we’re not sure which mushrooms are poisonous and which are not, we never touch wild mushrooms with our hands. My son managed to gather these using two small sticks.] He put that in the pot and left dome off. They were gone in the morning. We think squirrels got them!

3) We bought Bunapi mushrooms at Dekalb Farmer’s Market. 2 days in refrigerator. We put them in terrarium, left dome on, and we’re keeping it inside house. Mist with water.

Unfortunately, my notes stop there, but nothing ever happened with those mushrooms either.  Eventually the terrarium ended up back in the garage, and my son’s other interests kept taking precedence.

However, something serendipitous happened! During the summer we were given some sundew seeds to try to grow. Remember my son’s carnivorous plant project? We kept them in a little cup with another plastic cup over it because it needed to stay wet and humid inside. Though the sundew never grew, we did find this one day when we were checking them! It was unintentional, but we did grow a mushroom!

For a long time, I thought this project was a bust. I felt like I did something wrong because he didn’t pursue it further, but actually I did ask him about it, and he didn’t seem interested in pursuing it further. That’s actually the whole point in project-based homeschooling: you let the child decide when he’s finished with a project. As I began looking back over this year to create an end-of-the-year review and write some of these end-of-the-year blog posts, I realized that we did, indeed, do a mushroom project. It just didn’t look like how I envisioned it would be.

Trying something and failing at it is one of the best ways of learning. Deciding not to pursue it further is a worthy decision. Though my son may not be able to identify the mushrooms that grow in our yard, and he doesn’t know how to grow mushrooms, he has actually learned quite a lot about mushrooms. He’s learned everything he’s wanted to learn about them. At least for now.

When I realized I needed to write this blog post, I thought I would ask my son one more time. He was standing next to my desk as I was looking at some of the photos we had taken of his mushroom experiments.

“Do you remember how you wanted to grow mushrooms?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to do anything more with that?”

“No.” A definite shake of the head. He walked away.

As I’ve written, learning is like a chain-link fence. We build our knowledge one link at a time; it expands and grows in different directions. My son has several links in his knowledge about mushrooms. If it ever matters to him again, he can build onto that knowledge, but it won’t mean much unless he wants to learn about it.

I think it’s neat that he had an idea, and he tried it. That’s what I want to encourage. Questions. Curiosity. Getting excited about attempting things he doesn’t know. 

As for me, I know that if I want to, I could do my own mushroom project. I could learn how to identify and grow them and share my interest with my boys, but as it turns out, all I really want to do is take photographs of them. So, for fun, I’m sharing my photographs of mushrooms here with you in this slideshow. Aren’t they beautiful and amazing?!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What are you learning about today?

 

July 21, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: DNA

Way back in September 2013 when I officially kicked off my seven-year-old’s first grade year, I thought we were going to start a project on mushrooms. That’s what he had been talking about for awhile. He had mentioned DNA once, I think. So on that first day, when I pulled out the journal I try to keep updated with the things he talks about/asks about/says he wants to do, and how we follow up on them, I read off what he had recently told me, and he surprised me by saying he wanted to do a DNA project first. So that’s what we did.

(We also did some work with mushrooms, and I’ll write about that in my next PBH post.)

What he wanted to do most of all was build a DNA model. Remember how I told you he’s turning into a little builder? He wanted to buy a kit to build the DNA model, and maybe because his birthday had just passed, I told him he could buy one with his own money, if he really wanted it. But I suggested we look around at our supplies and try to make a homemade DNA model first. He agreed to that, and I tried to go with his ideas on what to use for the model. We ended up using ribbon, straws and pipe cleaners:

I didn’t think we would get it to stand up or twist, but I didn’t say anything, and look what he managed to do? Over time, it has fallen down, however, and he replaced the two pieces of cardboard holding it up with popsicle sticks glued together. That hasn’t held together well either, but he still has this model in his room. I was pretty proud of him for making this!

He still wanted the kit, so then I let him order it. I found the ScienceWiz DNA kit on Amazon, and I highly recommend it. It has a lot of cool experiments and little pieces that you can put together to make a nice DNA model. My little builder did that first.

This is one of my favorite photos of him ever. And I love all these photos I took of him putting together this kit. He is happy. He’s in his element. They speak volumes about who this kid is, so I’ll treasure them forever.

And we did more than that! First, we checked out The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA by Anna Claybourne from the library, and we read most of that book in several, short sittings. I think we checked out some other books, but this was the one he was interested in listening to once we got home. It’s a beautiful book. I wish we owned it. Some of it was a little hard for him to understand, but I think he got the gist of what DNA is. I mean, this isn’t an easy topic for ME, so I wasn’t worried if he didn’t understand everything.

Around this time we watched a documentary about the human genome project (I’m sorry I can’t remember the title). I think my son was able to understand it a little better having learned about DNA!

We had the most fun when we extracted DNA from a kiwi fruit! The instructions and most of the supplies were in the DNA kit. If we try it again someday, I may post the instructions on my blog, but for now I’ll send you over to one of my favorite blogs, The Scientific Mom. She’s got some instructions for you there. Because for some reason, though we could see DNA in the final step, we couldn’t pull the strands of DNA out of the tube. We had wanted to see them under a microscope. After they warmed up in just a few seconds, they seemed to disappear in the tub. So, I’m hoping we can try it again sometime with a different fruit.

Though you can’t really see it in the photo, we could see strands of DNA in the tube. (It looked like gooey string.) We could see it even better after putting it into the freezer for several hours.

There are several more activities to do in the kit, but after this one, my son seemed satisfied. Recently, however, he said he would like to do another project from the kit, so maybe we’ll do that this summer. Though the DNA project lost its momentum after this, I’ve seen it come up here and there, such as when they were playing with their zoob pieces.

And even just a week or two ago the four-year-old was practicing writing his letters on a dry erase board, and he thought he’d add some DNA to his number practice. :) What a memory!

All our projects are open-ended. I remind my son about his projects, and if he’s not interested in pursuing them further, that’s okay. (Although I admit sometimes that disappoints me because I want to learn more!) He seemed to lose interest in this after we finished extracting DNA from the kiwi fruit. Indeed, that felt like a grand finale! But this is a project I think we’ll continue over the long-term as we do more with that DNA kit, and maybe as he gets older, he’ll be able to better understand DNA and that will help him too.

Have you tried extracting DNA from fruit? I would love to hear about your experience.

 

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