Archive for ‘My Newspaper Columns’

March 24, 2015

Why We Homeschool

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 11, 2015.

Over five years ago, I wrote a column about why we were thinking about homeschooling our children. My eldest son was not even school age at the time. It’s hard to believe how fast the time has gone between then and now. We have officially been homeschooling our eldest son for two and a half years, and though we don’t have to file a declaration of intent to homeschool for our youngest until he turns six, he’s been homeschooled right along with his brother.

My initial reasons for wanting to homeschool have not changed much. I wanted to allow my boys to learn at their own pace while also having plenty of time to still be children. That is, I wanted them to play, move, and use their imaginations frequently everyday. I wanted our time to be used wisely. I knew I could work with my children on their academic lessons in a much shorter amount of time than a teacher could with a classroom of 20 or so students. Then my boys could play and delve into the things that interested them and fueled their desire to learn. I strongly believed that what young children need to learn is not easily measured by tests, and I still believe that.

Now that we have been homeschooling for a while, I can say more clearly why we want to continue down this path, though it has its challenges. Now that my boys are growing and showing their unique personalities, it’s clear that homeschooling fits them, which isn’t the case for all children. When my eight-year-old was four, he blossomed in some classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and ever since then, he’s learned more about nature, animals, and science than I learned in the 35 years I lived before he was born. By setting up an environment at home where we have plenty of supplies for making things, and showing him how to use the supplies, he’s gotten used to being a doer and builder too.

He still needs his parents to do a lot of things for him, but when it comes to figuring out how he is going to spend his free time, he’s got that all sorted out. It’s not uncommon for him to say things like, “I have an idea,” “I thought of something I want to make,” “I have a science experiment I want to do,” or “Can you write down how to spell (for example) mata mata turtle so that I can look it up on the computer?” These statements tell me he’s getting what I had hoped he would out of homeschooling. He is learning how to learn, and not only that, he doesn’t consider it school. It’s just a part of life.

My five-year-old is both different and similar to his older brother. Though he enjoys the outdoors and loves to find interesting bugs just as much as his brother, he’s not as much of a “nature boy.” He does like building things, and I think when he’s older, he’ll be just as skilled at building Lego kits as his brother. He also draws with a passion that far surpasses his brother’s interest in drawing, and my floor is frequently littered with markers, paper, and growing stacks of his artwork. I don’t mind the messes. It’s a small price to pay for fostering creativity.

There are things I want my boys to learn, including the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, and I work my butt off to find the right resources that will make learning, if not fun, suitable for my boys’ interests and learning styles. I am grateful for the time that homeschooling offers me to get it right, and then we have time to stick to a concept until my boys really understand it. We also have more time to spend together and get outside on the days the weather is perfect. There is more time for the boys to sleep, and more time for them to spend on subjects that really interest them.

Perhaps my biggest reason for homeschooling, now that I see it in action, is the connections that our family is making on a daily basis. We are learning together, watching awesome documentaries everyday, and developing a closeness that I hope will never go away. My two boys play together well, and I think a bond is forming that will be there when they are grown up. While staying with my husband and me during the day, they also participate in running a household, and they understand why we have to spend part of the day working.

We have also made some wonderful friends through homeschooling, and we have met interesting people through the camps and classes that my son takes. These people are working in interesting jobs and teaching my son about the different possibilities he might pursue someday. I have found that by homeschooling, my boys are taken more frequently into the “real world” – the world that critics of homeschooling often say homeschoolers won’t understand when they are grown up. On the contrary, I think my eight-year-old has more knowledge about the wider world and the responsibilities he will have to undertake someday than I was when I graduated from college.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we have dealt with its challenges as well. Finances are always a source of stress, and I struggle to find freelance work I can do from home with decent pay. I also have to balance that work with the time I spend teaching the boys, helping them with their projects, planning lessons, doing house chores, and trying to find a few minutes to relax here and there. I also worry about whether we’ll be able to teach all the subjects my boys need to know, although so far, I have found that the Internet and community programs provide everything we need. Not living close to stores, extracurricular activities or friend’s houses gives life an added difficulty too. It’s hard to do everything I’d like to do, and I often wish there were more days in a week. But two years in, I can see more benefits than setbacks, and I’m always excited to find out what my boys’ next big interest will be.

March 17, 2015

Star Wars

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal in February 2015.

Science fiction fans have been all abuzz about the new Star Wars movies, the first of which will be released this coming December. Now that my eight-year-old has been well informed about Star Wars, he’s pretty excited too. We all are. My husband and I have always loved Star Wars, and my five-year-old likes it too, although he’s not quite as crazy about it as his older brother.

Long before we had children, I gave my husband the DVD set of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V and VI). He couldn’t wait to watch them with our boys, and though I was reluctant to have them watch so young, I couldn’t hold back the force (pun intended) of an excited science-fiction geek like my husband.

We haven’t watched the first three episodes with the boys – not real excited about that since they weren’t very good, but we have been watching some of Clone Wars, which is supposed to fill us in on the story before episode three. These animated, made-for-television shows are entertaining, and the animation is beautiful. Adults and kids can enjoy it, but they can be violent, so I’d used discretion for young children.

The first time we watched the original trilogy, my boys loved it, and my eldest boy even enjoyed watching the documentary (included in the DVD set) about the making of the movie. He didn’t care so much about the history of George Lucas and how he got into the movie-making business, but his eyes lit up when it got to the part about how they did the special effects. When he saw the small models of the ships that they filmed against a blue screen for the space battle scenes, he said, “Maybe I could make something like that.” Not long after, he made a simple model of Darth Vader’s ship out of recycled cereal boxes.

I, however, loved the story of George Lucas and all the difficulties he had filming Star Wars. Watching the documentary, he struck me as a kind of perfectionist, but obviously that paid off. I didn’t know that Lucas suffered from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized at one point. I didn’t know that all the actors in the movie wondered what in the heck they were filming. Or the problems they had with the robots not working, terrible weather conditions, going over budget and running out of time to film. Everyone was prepared for the movie to be a bust.

The actors were not privy to any of the special effects that would be added later in post-production. For example, Lucas did not find the person who would do the voice for Darth Vadar until late in the movie-making process, so the actors did not hear the voice of James Earl Jones or the sinister breath of Darth Vadar. Instead, they heard the voice of the actor who was in the costume – he had a Scottish accent.

On the first days of filming The Empire Strikes Back, horrible storms and avalanches made filming on location in Norway almost impossible. The director, Irvin Kershner, did not want to get behind schedule, so he improvised. Mark Hammill had the pleasure of going out into the snow right outside the hotel, and they filmed from a doorway in the hotel.

I like it when we come across stories like this because it’s a good lesson for my son to learn. He can get frustrated when he’s trying to make something, and it’s not turning out the way he envisioned it. Sometimes he wants to give up, but I encourage him to take a break and come back to it later or think of something else he might try.

When I’m lucky enough to be watching a documentary with my son about George Lucas and all the problems he had making Star Wars, I say, “See? He really had a hard time, didn’t he? But he had to keep working on it because a lot of people were counting on him. He didn’t give up.” I can see that the difficulty of making Stars Wars and similar stories like this have influenced my son, and now he says things like “you just have to keep trying” and “you have to be patient.”

My son spent so much time last fall studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia that I wondered if that would lead to any other Star Wars type project. Finally this winter, he decided to make some models of Jabba the Hut. He’s created paper Jabbas, a clay Jabba, and he’s been slowly working on a moveable Jabba puppet, made out of several materials: part of a plastic bottle, wire, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, fabric and more. It’s almost finished, and I can’t wait to see the final version.

I’m not sure how much longer my son is going to be crazy about Star Wars, but I have a feeling this will last a long time, especially considering how my husband and I continue to enjoy Star Wars well into adulthood. And when the new movies come out, we are going to keep our fingers crossed that they are going to be awesome.

Stay tuned…In my next post I’m going to break down exactly how my son’s interest in Star Wars has played out as an example of project-based homeschooling.

February 4, 2015

Minecraft

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 28, 2015.

If you have children, you are probably aware of the video game, Minecraft. I first became familiar with it by reading homeschool e-mail lists. It’s very popular with homeschool kids, and there are even local groups who get together on a regular basis just to play Minecraft together.

The game is open-ended and allows players to build 3D worlds using blocks. The game can be played on many different devices, including a PC, Mac or Xbox. My sons play the Minecraft Pocket Edition on android tablets.

But it’s not just popular with homeschool kids. Over 60 million copies have been sold across all platforms, and Microsoft just bought Mojang, the company who develops Minecraft, in a $2.5 billion dollar deal. I can’t imagine what will come next.

You can play in survival mode where you have to work to find resources that will keep you alive and help maintain the world you have built. Or you can play in creative mode where you have unlimited resources, you can fly, and nothing can kill you. There is also an adventure mode where players play custom maps, but we haven’t got to that level yet, and it’s probably not available in the pocket edition anyway.

I’m not an expert in Minecraft by any means. When I look over my boys’ shoulders as they zoom around their worlds, showing me the incredible structures they have built – such as a house shaped like a wolf, a railroad that goes on forever, treehouses, gardens, underground houses, and the beginning of a big ship – I get a little dizzy and have to look away.

I introduced my eight-year-old to the game a year or more ago because he loves to build things, and he liked it, but after awhile, he lost interest. The game doesn’t come with tutorials, so it’s hard for new players to learn what to do, although there are thousands of tutorials on YouTube. It’s overwhelming sorting through those.

At first I thought my son just wasn’t going to catch the Minecraft fever, but at some point, he wanted to play again, and ever since then, Minecraft has been all the rage in my house. Little brother started playing too.

My boys only get to play about an hour or so everyday, but when they aren’t playing, they make plans about what they will build next. My eight-year-old tells me how he’ll dig for iron or some other material he needs in order to carry out his plans. He has watched a few videos and talked with a friend about the game, but he has mostly learned how to play through trial and error. He is so crazy about the game that he started building a “real life” cardboard model of the little Minecraft character.

By far, I love this video game more than any other game my boys have played on their tablets. It is educational in many ways, but my favorite aspect of it is that my boys are bonding over it.

The game allows multi-players, so with a wifi connection, one of my sons can create a world and then the other boy can find that world in a list, click on it, and voila, they are in the world together. My boys sit together and have collaborated on building large structures. I watched them build a railroad together – one of them would lay down a cement block, and the other one would lay down a track. They spend hours creating intricate worlds, and then when they feel like it, they create a new one.

They have showed me gardens they have planted together and the animals they have spawned. My eight-year-old has one house where his little brother isn’t allowed to go, and younger brother is fine with that. Sometimes I hear them disagreeing over something, but they always seem to resolve the issue on their own.

Once they played hide and seek in the game. My eight-year-old thought it would be impossible for his younger brother to hide from him in Minecraft, but as it turned out, he never found the hiding place, which was down in the water.

Some child experts write that video games or any “screen time” are detrimental to children. It keeps them from interacting with the world, or building real life skills, they say. Perhaps this can happen when children aren’t engaged in any other activities, but I have seen my kids’ imaginations grow through the games they play, and Minecraft has been the best yet. On the contrary to the naysayers, they are constantly interacting, collaborating, imagining new possibilities, and strategizing. If those aren’t real world skills, I don’t know what is.

January 19, 2015

Life’s Bumps

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If nothing else, I can say that, so far, 2015 has been anything but boring for my husband and me. Where do I begin?

Two days before Christmas, my husband tripped on a heavy box, and he caught himself before he fell, but he must have twisted something pretty bad. At first, he was just sore, but by the end of a week’s time, he could barely walk. We spent the 30th going to doctors and the orthopedic urgent care clinic to get x-rays. Luckily, he had no broken bones.

Despite all the medication he received, including pain and muscle relaxers, the next day his leg locked up on him when he sat down in a kitchen chair. He couldn’t move, and he was howling in pain. After spending time on the phone with our doctor, taking more pain meds, and waiting a while, he still couldn’t move, and he was in excruciating pain. I had to call 911.

I will digress here to say that while the Barrow Emergency guys who came to get my husband were awesome, I was quite unnerved that during my first phone call, the dispatcher could not hear me. I could hear him, but after yelling into the phone, I realized we had a bad connection. On my second call, he could hear me, but another emergency call interfered with my call, and I couldn’t hear him because I could hear another voice – in another call – loud and clear. What the? Fortunately, that passed, and I was able to talk and hear clearly. But I wondered how I would feel if I had been calling because an intruder was in my house? Geez.

So, we spent the afternoon of New Year’s Eve in the ER of Athens Regional Hospital. The experience was not good for my husband, who was hoping for the doctor to find out what was causing the pain. Instead, he had a doctor who didn’t actually visit him until she was ready to send him home, and her bedside manner was lacking greatly. He told me she said that pain wasn’t a reason to admit someone to the hospital (he wasn’t dying, that is), and he needed to go home and deal with it.

Since I was in the cafeteria getting my boys some food, I wasn’t privy to that conversation, but I was surprised they were sending him home in so much pain too, especially after our doctor said he would probably need an MRI. Apparently they don’t do that in the ER. Instead, they gave him stronger pain medication and muscle relaxers, and he was able to walk again, though stooped over and limping.

To make matters more complicated, we had to switch health insurance this year, and that kicked in at midnight on January 1st. We could no longer see the doctor we have been seeing for years, but we felt that maybe the change would be good. So far, it has. We can get our new insurance – Kaiser Permanente – on the telephone so much faster than we could ever get Blue Cross Blue Shield on the phone.

We’ve been impressed so far with the Kaiser facilities and doctors. We got an appointment for my husband right away, and the doctor ordered him an MRI. He had that on Friday, and we’re awaiting the results. We also met our children’s new pediatrician, and I’m doubly impressed that I can actually e-mail him questions!

To add to all these changes and my husband’s pain that won’t go away, we also found out that the school he teaches at will be absorbed by another university. We are uncertain what the future holds for his job, and that stress is worse than the pain. The day after this announcement, my youngest son had a stomach bug, so I was dealing with a lot of throw up too. What a fun week!

But life goes on, and there are some good things that have happened. For example, my son recovered quickly from his bad stomach bug, and no one else in the family caught it. My eldest son has been taking full advantage of the robotics set that several family members pitched in to buy him for Christmas, and he’s been building robots and learning programming all by himself – that kid never ceases to amaze me. I have finally taken time off from freelance projects that kept me way too busy all last fall and before the holidays, and I feel more relaxed despite the problems we are having.

To say I’m worried about my husband is an understatement. He’s in a lot of pain, but I am hopeful that whatever it is, it will heal. I am hopeful that he will at least still have a job by next year when the merger is more complete. If not, we will adapt and change as necessary even though our prospects feel rather bleak right now.

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Since writing this column, we’ve had good news and bad news. The good news is that my husband’s job should be secure for the foreseeable future. The bad news is that his back is pretty damaged, and we will be seeing a neurosurgeon. I have also dealt with a bacteria infection of my own, though thankfully I’m feeling a little better. My spirits are okay, though, since I know this is just life’s bumps. I’m grateful that all of it should pass.

I will be writing some homeschool updates soon.  Meanwhile, I hope you are well.

December 21, 2014

Gift Ideas for Young Kids

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 17, 2014.

I was at the hobby store with my boys last week to buy a birthday present for my son’s friend when a woman stopped us to ask advice on getting a gift for a seven-year-old boy. Her son was twenty-six, so she felt out of touch with the younger generation and thought my eight-year-old and five-year-old could help her. Indeed they could, and my eight-year-old was happy to tell her what he liked.

She was specifically asking about art supplies, so first we told her about air dry modeling clay. My boys love playing with this stuff, and I like it so much better than play-doh. My eight-year-old used to watch YouTube videos to learn how to sculpt small things, and later this led to him taking pottery classes, which he still enjoys. After drying this clay will get brittle, and small parts may break, but that hasn’t been a big deal to my kids. One big box of clay is about $8 and lasts a long time.

I also keep craft supplies on hand such as beads, feathers, popsicle sticks and whatnot because my boys love to build things with them, and for my younger son, he likes to take a hunk of clay and stick those things in it. Makes for an interesting decoration.

My eight-year-old’s favorite toy has been Legos, and over the past two years he has gotten all kinds of kits that he will spend hours putting together. Eventually these get taken apart and the pieces get mixed in with other Legos, but I think that’s okay because then my boys begin to use their imaginations and make creations of their own. I think Legos are awesome and educational, and I wish I owned stock in the company.

My five-year-old still plays with our dinosaurs and other animals almost everyday. I think it depends on the kid, if these plastic animals can hold their attention. We have hundreds of them (at least it feels that way), and my son will line them up on the floor as if they will fight each other, or either he’ll make a zoo by setting up our various blocks as pathways and cages for the animals. My favorite brand is Schleich because of the quality.

Another favorite toy are my boy’s remote control monster trucks. I’m not talking about a cheap one though. You need to spend at least $30 to get a good one, and be sure to buy extra batteries as part of your gift because these things suck battery life quickly. (You may need different kinds of batteries for the controller and the car.) However, these toys get my boys outside, and they build obstacle courses for them. Anything that gets them outside and using their brains and creativity is beneficial in my book.

Both my boys enjoy drawing and painting, but my five-year-old especially loves it. I bought him a sketchbook, and I’ve found that to be a great way to contain the hundreds of pages of drawings he can accumulate.

I’m also a fan of quality art supplies for kids because it makes a difference in the experience, and they are more likely to enjoy painting with good stuff. My eight-year-old even commented to me that he noticed a big difference between our acrylic paints and the Crayola washable ones. I think a great gift would be some good watercolor paper and watercolor pencils or quality paints. Good paintbrushes can offset the frustrations that cheap ones can give you when the bristles fall out while painting. You can also have more control over where you want the paint to go when you are using a nice brush instead of the cheap, bushy ones in kid’s sets.

Of course, some kids aren’t going to do anything with these kinds of gifts if they don’t know how to use them. The best way to get a child to be creative and try new things is to do it yourself – without the expectation that the child join you. That’s right. Children rarely want to do what you tell them to do, but they tend to follow you around and want to do what you are doing. So give yourself a gift of some new art supplies or a building set or even an obstacle course with a monster truck and don’t be surprised if a little person wants to join you.

I could have added many more things to this list that foster creativity. What would you add?!

December 13, 2014

Our Favorite Books

Holley Home, Twin City, Georgia

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 3, 2014. Also, unfortunately, the photo is not of my house.

I love to read, but I am the slowest reader you’ll ever meet. Couple that with very little free time, and I don’t have a very long reading list from my past year, but I thought I’d share a few titles I’ve enjoyed and a few of my boys’ favorites too.

“…And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer – If you liked Gone with the Wind, you’ll enjoy And Ladies of the Club. It’s a story about several families in a small Ohio town right after the Civil War. It’s about their lives, their mistakes, and their triumphs. It’s a meandering novel that somehow kept my attention through its very human-like characters. It does have a very slow beginning, and I almost gave up on it, but I’m glad I kept reading because once I got used to its pace, I was lost in this little town and its inhabitants. It also delves into the politics of the day quite a bit, which got a little tedious for me, but it showed me that nothing has changed either.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson – I felt like I was reading a movie when I read this very light and fun book. It reminded me a little of Sweet Home Alabama, but it’s more intelligent than that. It’s about a woman growing up and making better decisions. It’s about two families who are in in feud, but the main character is an important link between them. It’ll give you a glimpse into what it’s like to live as a deaf and blind person as well as what it’s like for the family caring for that person. It’s very predictable, but if you just want to be entertained, that’s not a bad thing.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – This was by far my favorite book I’ve read this past year. It’s been made into a movie, and I haven’t seen that yet. I want to savor the memory of the book before I watch it. This book is on one level about the immigrant experience, but it’s also a universal story about family and growing up. It spans two generations, but most of the book focuses on the son of two Indian immigrants who settle in America and how he spends most of his life trying to extract himself from his Indian heritage, but as an adult he begins to understand his parents and their experience better. It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking and not predictable. I think any adult could identify with some of these universal themes.

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. – I’ve been reading this book for research on a magazine article I’m writing, and I have found it fascinating. Unlike other self-help or “how to be happy” books, Lyubomirsky has been studying what really makes people thrive for over twenty years. This book draws on real scientific evidence, and yes, some of it may seem like common sense, but much of it is enlightening. There is a quiz to help a person understand what might work and not work for him because, of course, there is no magic formula on how to be happy. There’s also an excellent chapter on depression and the best therapies that have proven to be the most beneficial for people. Whether or not you consider yourself a happy person, you’ll learn a lot from this book.

Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown – My eight-year-old is in love with all things Star Wars, and this book about a young boy entering Jedi Academy and facing many of the same problems any middle-school student would have has delighted my son. It’s written through the main character’s own comic strips, journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings, which makes it fun. We finished reading it together, and my son immediately asked me to start it again. (I’m happy to discover there is a sequel to this book, and I’ll be ordering it soon.)

My five-year-old doesn’t give me many breaks from reading books about dinosaurs, but thankfully he has a few other favorite books that we’ve read together, oh, 200 times? That’s not much of an exaggeration, and if you’re the parent of a small child, you’ll believe me.

He loves the three-book gift set that we received years ago. The books Little Pea, Little Hoot, and Little Oink by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace take a spin on those things that all children hate to do such as eat their veggies, go to bed, and clean up their rooms. But in the case of Little Pea, she has to eat her candy, Little Hoot has to stay up all night, and if Little Oink wants to “grow up to be a respectable pig, he has to make a mess, mess, mess.” The illustrations are beautiful, and after reading these books so many times, I still enjoy them too.

I hope you get all the good reading material you want these holidays. Happy Reading.

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. ;)

November 16, 2014

New Smart Phone Convert

red maple treeNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 5, 2014. I don’t have a photo of my smart phone, so I’m sharing an unedited photo I took with my phone — some beautiful autumn foliage I found recently.

Last week I checked off another year and turned 43 years old. For my birthday, my husband bought me a smart phone, and he bought himself one too. Actually, my birthday was just an excuse to finally upgrade our “dinosaur” phones. That is, we’ve never had anything other than a basic, cheap cell phone that could only make phone calls.

Though we love all things tech, my husband and I could never see the benefit in paying high monthly phone prices or spending hundreds of dollars on a phone, but recently T-Mobile came out with some competitive pricing. Also, my husband has increasingly needed texting ability for his work, and he wanted me to have a more portable camera so that I wouldn’t have to lug my Nikon around anymore. (Although, I love my Nikon, and I will still lug it around sometimes.)

I knew this day was coming because my husband has been researching phones for, well, years, but recently the conversations about cell phones had been increasing. Since I had no interest in doing that kind of research, I usually just nodded and said, “Whatever you think, dear.” But even though a big part of me wanted a smart phone, another part of me didn’t.

I certainly didn’t want to become one of those people with their faces always buried in their phones. I was afraid it would be too tempting to always check my e-mail on the road, or see if anyone has tweeted me. When I’m outside, I don’t need to know those things.

Now that I have a smart phone, however, I understand why people’s faces are always buried in them. First, there’s a huge learning curve trying to figure out how to use one. I have spent the past few days with my face buried in my phone not because I’m wasting time on social media but because I’m trying to figure out how to make a phone call! And how to get to the things I’ll really use like the camera – which I found easily, but then where do the photos go? And how do I get them to my computer?

I’ve never had the ability to text someone before, and it is fun, but I also don’t see why it’s so popular. It takes so darn long to type out a message on that tiny keyboard that it would be much quicker to just call the person. But while I was typing, I discovered the emoticons available on my phone – those little smiley faces and pictures that you can insert into your text. There must be hundreds of them to choose from! No wonder people have their faces buried in their phones.

I’m still not sure how to use all the features on this phone, but now that I’ve had it a few days, I’m glad to discover that I check my e-mail and twitter about as much as I used to. But I’ve also discovered that it’s fun to have access to these things while I’m waiting in the car for my husband who is in the store, or I’m waiting at the doctor’s office. I’m a smart phone convert now.

I’ve also realized that when you look at someone with their nose buried in a smartphone, it may look like they aren’t connecting to the world around them, but actually, a big part of our world is online and we connect to each other on these devices. While sitting waiting somewhere, I have caught up on interesting articles and my friends’ lives…something I couldn’t do at home because there’s always more pressing things to do here.

This afternoon my husband and I were trying to make calling each other on our phone a little easier, and we played around with the ability to make a different ring tones depending on the person who is calling. We were sitting on our bed with our boys, and we were all laughing at the silly sounds the phones can make. My eight-year-old especially likes it when my phone croaks like a frog each time I get a text message.

Yes, we have finally joined the club of smart phone users.

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 29, 2014

Georgia Food Tours: Agro Cycle Tour

Agro Cycle Tour-4

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 24, 2014. I think these tours would be awesome for older homeschooled students who are interested in farming, food and/or bicycling. If you’d like to see all the images I took on this tour, click here.

Last week I had the pleasure of tagging along and photographing an Agro Cycle Tour in Monroe, Georgia. Mary Charles, the owner of Georgia Food Tours, organizes these cycle tours three times a year, and she’s been coordinating walking food tours of downtown Athens for several years. She has also expanded the tours to Roswell as well.

Mary Charles hired me to photograph the cycle event, and though I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, I knew it would probably be fun – as long as I didn’t have to ride a bicycle. Lucky for me, they were kind enough to drive me to the different stops on the tour.

I met Mary Charles and her crew in the Windstream parking lot early one rainy morning. There were quite a few people signing up for the tour, getting their bicycles checked by the mechanic, and listening to Mary’s brief orientation. The rain didn’t seem to bother too many of the bicyclists, but I was glad that I thrown my rain jacket in my bag at the last minute.

Agro Cycle Tour-14

The first stop on the tour was Foster-Brady Farm, which I had never been to, but I was delighted to learn about. Since I arrived before the cyclists, I had a few minutes to wander around its historic buildings, including a beautiful little church. According to its website at foster-bradyfarm.com, this is a popular venue for small weddings and photo shoots.

Agro Cycle Tour-36

The farm used to grow cotton, wheat and other cash crops, but now it’s a Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) farm for produce, timber and wildlife habitat. They sell their produce to local restaurants and markets. In 2003 Foster-Brady Farm was honored with a Centennial Family Farm Award, and the Georgia Association of Conservation District Supervisors honored it as a Conservationist of the Year in 2013.

Agro Cycle Tour-51

The next stop was Darby Farms, and though I was too busy taking photos to listen to very much of the farmer’s talk, I did catch that owner Daniel Dover was once a computer scientist, and he turned to farming after years of struggling to find a diet that didn’t hurt his body or mental health.

Agro Cycle Tour-80

Dover raises poultry, pork and beef, and all his animals are fed a non-GMO, corn/soy free diet, and they rotate the animals every few days to a new area on their 50+ acres of pasture and mixed hard wood/pine land. This allows the land to heal as well as gives the animals a healthier way to forage. Dover said all his Thanksgiving turkeys were sold, but you can buy other poultry and meat from him by checking out his website at darbyfarmsga.com.

Agro Cycle Tour-100

The third stop on the tour, which was optional for bicyclists who were ready to head back to their cars and lunch, was Down to Earth Energy, LLC. According to it’s website at downtoearthenergy.net, they are a “Georgia-based biodiesel research and batch continuous production facility serving the southeast region of the United States with clean, safe and cost-effective fuel for commercial fleets and the agriculture industry.” If you have bought Smarter Starter Fluid at Home Depot, you’ll be happy to know that you’re supporting this up-and-coming local company.

After all this, the bicyclists ended up at the beautiful William Harris Homestead for a festival with great food, bluegrass music, shopping, sheep herding demonstrations and more.

You never realize just how beautiful Georgia is until you get lost on its country roads while someone else is driving. I love taking photographs, the countryside, and good food, so this was great fun for me, although it was a tiring workday too. If it sounds fun to you, be sure to check out the Georgia Food Tours website at www.georgiafoodtours.com. And rest assured, you could join the bicycling tour by car too.

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