Posts tagged ‘homeschooling’

July 6, 2015

Birds

mama feeding chicks 6.21.15-1

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on July 1, 2015.

I may call this the spring and summer of birds. My family and I have always enjoyed watching the songbirds in our yard. We love the cardinals, bluebirds, tufted titmice, hummingbirds and chickadees. Every time my boys see a flash of red out the window, they call out, “There’s a male cardinal!”

But this year, birds have become more of a focus, and though I wish I could take credit for it, it has all happened by chance. First, we were lucky that a family of Carolina wrens took up residence in a birdhouse we keep on our back deck. This birdhouse has been sitting empty for several years, and we wondered if it were in a bad spot, or maybe it was too close to the other birdhouse we keep on our front porch. We’ve had bluebirds nest in it consistently, and we know they don’t like to compete with other bluebird families for food.

Though we’ve enjoyed watching the bluebirds on our front porch feeding their babies in the past years, and we could always hear the little chicks screaming for food, we had never before seen the baby birds fledge. This year, to the squeals of delight by my sons, we saw not only a baby bluebird sitting on our front porch rail, we also looked out the window the exact moment when a Carolina wren flew from its birdhouse into the big wide world for the first time.

After all this excitement was over, my eldest son noticed a cardinal building a nest in a bush right outside our living room window. She placed it where we could see it perfectly, and we got very excited.

It took Mama Cardinal about a day to build her nest, and two days later, we could tell there were at least two eggs in it. After that, Mama consistently sat on the nest most of the day, though she seemed to leave for a while in the evenings, probably to find food. She protected the nest through some rough storms too.

About twelve days later, we felt the chicks would hatch soon. We began to see Papa Cardinal hanging out in the trees nearby. Sure enough, they hatched two days later, and then we had the pleasure of watching both Mama and Papa feed the two little chicks, though not quite as frequently as the bluebirds seem to feed their chicks.

Little by little, they grew until we could see they were now looking back at us through the window, and one night, they jumped from the nest into the branches of the bush. There was no sign of them in the morning, so we hope they made it to the safety of the nearby woods.

Not surprisingly, birds have been a theme in my sons’ interests lately. Even before these birds began nesting in our yard, my five-year-old has had a fascination with feathers, and most evenings after dinner, he likes to take a walk with me so that he can look for feathers – you’d be surprised at how many you can find, if you just start looking.

The boys have always loved looking at the bird field guide app, especially when they see an interesting bird they want to identify, and someone gave us The Bird Songs Anthology by Les Beletsky, which features 200 birds and the sounds they make. I have discovered that my eight-year-old has an uncanny memory for bird songs, and whenever we’re outside, he’ll say, “That’s the tufted titmouse!” or “That’s a cardinal!” My ears could never sort and remember all those bird songs, but I have always suspected my son is very auditory, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

The birds have given my family a show this year, so I think I’ll always remember this as the year of the birds. Or maybe it’s the beginning of many years of learning about birds. I can’t wait to find out.

Eventually I’m going to post more photos of the cardinal family, but until I have time for that, you can see a bunch of them on the home/school/life Facebook page.

June 22, 2015

Engineering for Kids

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on June 17, 2015. 

It’s no secret that the United States has been pushing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. Though I’m not sure I agree with all the motives for that, and I certainly don’t want to see cuts in the arts due to it, I’m glad there are more opportunities for kids to learn and explore these areas. Many kids thrive with hands-on learning, so there should be more of that.

My eight-year-old is one of those kids who seems to be on a track for a STEM career. Sure, he could change, but when I was his age, I was already writing poetry. (He’s so not me. Thank goodness.) He likes to build things, and he loves science. He’s crazy about Legos and Minecraft. He enjoys art and has even written stories, but the passion isn’t there. His preferred craft is pottery, which, of course, has a lot to do with using one’s hands and building too.

We have done everything we can to support his interests despite the fact that my husband and I come from a business and liberal arts background. (It’s been a steep learning curve for us.) Last year I looked in vain for classes within driving distance to support my son’s love of robotics. He’s learned a lot at home, but there’s only so much more we can do here.

CO2 powered dragster races

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 click above image to go to video

For these reasons, I jumped for joy when I found Engineering for Kids of Northeast Georgia, a franchise that is serving Barrow, Dawsonville, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson counties. Engineering for Kids provides programming for kids ages 4 to 14 that introduces STEM education. They go into the schools, offer after-school programs, homeschool programs, camps, birthday parties, you name it.

This past spring, I enrolled my son in their STEM Club Saturdays that was being held once a month next door to INK Musuem in Gainesville. He had a great time making a CO2 powered dragster, a model of a roller coaster, and a bottle rocket.

Building a scale model of a roller coaster and learning about kinetic and potential energy in the process.

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bottle rocket. click above image to see video.

The owner of the franchise, Jeffrey Butler, told me that he was working on securing a facility in Barrow County for his summer camps, and he did. They will be at the Sims Academy of Innovation & Technology this July.

They will have a “Pirate Academy” and “Junior Robotics: Adventure Stories” for ages PreK-2nd grades. At the “Apprentice/Master” Level (3rd-8th grade), they are offering an “Out of This World Space Camp” and a “Robotics: Mission to Mars” camp. They offer discounts, if your child wants to stay for a full day and participate in both camps.

Butler says they plan to offer a year-round Engineering for Kids Club in Winder in the fall. He said they started this last year at the Lanier Technical College Winder-Barrow campus. They will release their 2015/16 schedule of classes in the summer, and they plan to do an Open House/Customer Appreciation event at their Gainesville campus in early August.

If you’d like to learn more about Engineering for Kids, go to engineeringforkids.com. For the Northeast Georgia home, see https://engineeringforkids.com/location/northeastga/home

June 8, 2015

Cloudland Canyon State Park

main overview at Cloudland Canyon State Park

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 3, 2015.

Last month we had time to take a short vacation, so we decided it would be a good time to visit Cloudland Canyon State Park. It is located in the very northwest corner of Georgia. We stayed in a cabin in the nearby small town of Rising Fawn, and from there we were only 20 minutes from Chattanooga, TN, and four miles from the Alabama border.

The canyon is a must-see, if you haven’t been there. I didn’t even know about it until I saw it on an episode of GPB’s Georgia Outdoors. The canyon is vast and beautiful, full of trees and shrubs, painting it with different shades of green.

Cloudland Canyon

The ancient sandstone is still eroding, and it’s a great place for geology enthusiasts. Over 200 million years ago, this area was completely under the ocean. Lookout Mountain was formed through the same seismic activity as the Appalachian Mountains, but later, as the ocean receded, the rim of the canyon was a beach. To this day, you can see ripples in the rock that long ago was sand on the ancient shore. The canyon was formed from rivers draining out to sea – what we now call Sitton Gulch Creek and its tributary, Daniel Creek.

The ripples in the rock indicate where there was once an ancient shoreline.

For three days, we went over to the park in the mornings and hiked. There are trails for those who are experienced hikers and backpackers, and then there are those for the rest of us. We took the moderate trails, not just because we had small children, but because my husband and I are noticing that hiking more strenuous trails isn’t as easy as it used to be!

There is a short trail anyone can use to see the grand vista of the canyon, which we stopped at first. Then we took a trail down to Cherokee falls. I was enchanted with this small crevice between the towering rock walls, filled with beautiful hardwoods and moss, and the sound of water cascading into a small green pool. We sat on the rocks for a while to eat a snack before we left.

There are two waterfalls you can hike down to, but if you don’t think you can make it back up the 600+ steps, I recommend just going to that first waterfall. The second waterfall, Hemlock Falls, was beautiful, but you can’t get as close to it, and there’s a small platform that you are restricted to while viewing it. That wouldn’t be fun on crowded days.

Cherokee Falls (photo taken without a tripod)

I would have liked to have continued down from these waterfalls and hiked ­­­­Sitton’s Gulch Trail, which is a two-hike along the Sitton Gulch Creek. I have a feeling it would have been a gorgeous hike with several mini-waterfalls along the way. But we weren’t sure we were prepared to keep going down when you have to turn around and go all the way back up!

Another day we took the West Rim Trail, and I highly recommend this trail. It has beautiful views overlooking the canyon and the nearby small town of Trenton, Georgia. We drove into the rim and parked so that we could make the hike a little shorter than it would have been if we started it at its trailhead, which was the same place where the waterfall trails start. Except for one part that went slightly uphill, it was moderately flat, but anyone on this trail should be sure-footed because you have to walk over thick roots and rocks. There are also several drop-offs with no railing. Our boys did extremely well on this nearly five-mile hike, but they were ready for it to end by the time we got back to our car!

view from West Rim Trail

Little did we know that the area around our cabin would be one of the loveliest places we’ve ever stayed. We had mountain views, and there were small lakes within walking distance. The best part was that there was a horse pasture on the other side of the fence in our cabin’s backyard! The boys were thrilled to get to pet the friendly horses and feed them carrots.

our cabin

See the red roof in the middle of the photo? That was our cabin.

in the backyard of our cabin

taken from the backyard of the cabin

first time fishermen

My boys went fishing for the first time during our trip at one of the little lakes near the cabin. Every evening they went down there and caught lots of little sunfish, though most were so little they needed to be thrown back, and we didn’t have the right bait to catch the large mouth bass that we could see swimming through the shallow water. By the time we left, my eight-year-old could bait and cast by himself, and my five-year-old was getting pretty good at casting the line too.

If you’d like to learn more about Cloudland Canyon, check out http://www.gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon. And if you’re interested in the cabin we stayed in, just send me an e-mail and ask, and I’ll send you a link.

I still have lots of photos I’d like to share with you from our trip, but I’m going to save most of those for some Nature Watch posts. So stay tuned, and thanks for reading my blog!

May 7, 2015

Indian Springs State Park

Note: This column appeared in the May 6, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Last month we enjoyed exploring Indian Springs State Park, which is located almost right in the middle of Georgia. It took us about two hours to drive there, and like all Georgia state parks, it’s beautiful, but we didn’t realize what a rich history this particular park has.

Indian Springs is thought to be the oldest state park in the United States because it has been operated by the state as a public park ever since the land was secured from the Creek Indians. It did not become an official state park until 1931 when, along with Vogel State Park, it became one of Georgia’s first state parks.

Our first quest when we arrived at the park was to find the natural spring that is said to have curative properties. The Creek Indians used the water in the spring to heal their sick people, and by the 1820s, white people flocked to the site to taste and bathe in the water, claiming it had healing properties. It didn’t take long for a flourishing resort town to spring up around the park.

Now the spring is located inside a house-like structure built of rocks. Water constantly pours out of a spout and what is not collected goes down a drain. Apparently, people are still collecting the “healing waters” because when we got there, a man with several empty gallon jugs was taking his fill. Later, we saw a woman with a trunk load of containers going to collect water.

the spring is located in that small building where the people are standing

In order to earn another junior ranger badge, my eight-year-old was supposed to drink some water from this spring. The spring has a very strong smell of sulphur, and at first, my son hesitated. But when his mom and dad reached down and scooped up a handful of water, he tried it too. (My five-year-old refused to try it.) Though it’s drinkable, the water tasted “thick” and had a strong taste due to its mineral content. Since we are not used to it, it wasn’t water that we would want to drink on a regular basis.

From there, we walked over to Big Sandy Creek where a fast current flows over some shoals. It was very pretty, and the boys enjoyed throwing rocks in the water, and I took photographs of the stone bridge crossing the creek.

As we walked deeper into the park, we came to the park office, which was a beautiful, historic home. Named Idlewilde, it is a twentieth century two-story “New South” structure with four over four rooms. It still has its original beveled glass windows, heart of pine floors, door handles and light fixtures. There are all kinds of historical items inside the house, but my favorite part was walking through the rock terrace in the backyard. Apparently, one of the women who built the house, named Gi-Gi, was an avid gardener, and she had the terrace built. There still remains some of the Day Lilies and Jonquils that she planted.

The house has an interesting history, but I liked reading about the history of the Creek Indians in this area the best. In 1821, after this area was already becoming a resort area for white people, 1000 acres were reserved for Chief William McIntosh. Chief McIntosh was born in 1778, and he was half Creek and half Scotsman. In 1825, he signed a Treaty of Indian Springs, which handed over Creek land in southwest Georgia to the state for an equal amount of land west of the Mississippi River plus $400,000.

This “Treaty of Indian Springs” was illegal because only eight out of fifty-six Creek towns supported Chief McIntosh. Not even President John Quincy Adams considered it a valid treaty. A few days after the treaty was signed, Chief McIntosh was killed, and in 1826, a “legal” treaty was signed, and the Federal government seized the land.

From the park’s office, we walked toward McIntosh Lake, walked across the levy, and then followed the shore until we came to the manmade beach area where the kids played for awhile. By then we were ready to head back to our car. We only saw a thumbprint of this beautiful 528 acre park, so we plan to go back some day.

The park offers camping, cottages, fishing, boating, swimming, miniature golf, hiking, a museum, and it’s close to many other attractions, such as Dauset Trails Nature Center and Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site. Be sure to visit http://gastateparks.org/info/indspr/ to learn more about this park, and visit it when you get the chance.

What new places have you explored lately?

April 27, 2015

Testing

Note: This column appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Next year, my son will be in the third grade, and as is required by the state of Georgia for homeschoolers, he will need to be tested at the end of that year in his academic studies. I have to use a nationally standardized test, but I can administer it in my home, and we keep the results for our own files. This is fine with me. It’ll be good to see where my son is at and what areas he may need help in.

Earlier this year I decided to buy a 2nd grade test prep book – not so much to prepare my son for what he needs to know on the test but to teach him how to take a test. I didn’t want to make him sit down and face those test sheets and “fill in the bubble” scantron without ever seeing them before. Our practice test workbook also comes with some test-taking tips, and those have been helpful too.

As I go through the book with my son, I’m grateful to see how easily he reads the questions and answers the questions. It certainly gives me peace of mind that he’s doing fine. But I’m glad that this is just a small piece of our day too. Although I go over the few things he doesn’t know, he is not learning much by practicing test taking.

I am also looking at the comprehensive tests – the reading section alone is almost fifteen pages long – and thinking about how much time my son will have to sit in one place to complete that. Even if I read the parts that are “listening,” it will be hard for him to sit still and concentrate for that long. It’s not that he can’t sit still – he can spend eight hours putting together complicated Lego kits, but reading short passages or “stories” he is not interested in is not going to reveal his ability to sit and concentrate. But maybe by the end of next year, it will be easier for him.

I do not let my kids do anything they want. I do formal lessons with them, but I also follow their interests and figure out what works for them because that’s the best way to learn. Every child should have an education tailored to his or her needs and interests. When it comes to doing the things they don’t want to do, I believe in going slow, letting maturity and a little practice ease them into doing the harder stuff like sitting still for long periods of time to take a test.

Because of this, I am very skeptical about standardized testing for young kids. I don’t see how those tests given in the public schools can measure a child’s true abilities or knowledge. I have seen my own son miss questions that he could have easily gotten correct only because he was getting tired. I was pushing him too hard. Luckily for us, I can slow down when I realize I’m going too fast for my son, but school kids are being pushed to learn things before they are ready for it just to pass tests.

Young children should not be required to do things they are not yet developmentally ready for. I have read about several studies saying that children learn best through play. It improves their executive function, which is a fancy term for certain cognitive processes such as an ability to work independently. The latest article I read was in the Washington Post titled, “Report debunks ‘earlier is better’ academic instruction for young children.” It says that the best early preschool programs “focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals.”

Some children learn how to read early. Others aren’t ready until seven or eight. Some children can sit still for long periods; others (often the boys) cannot. Some children need to learn through movement; others learn better by listening or seeing. When I was young I had to keep moving forward in math even when I didn’t get it. I did well enough to pass, but I’ve always dubbed myself as “bad at math.” What if someone had just taught it to me differently? And waited until I got a concept before moving on, even if that meant waiting a year?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I am seeing complaints by teachers, who are not getting a chance to truly teach because of the push to “teach to the test.” There was that Ohio special education teacher who gave a shocking resignation right after winning a big teaching award. She was reported to have said, “I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere. I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment, if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”

Recently I interviewed a former teacher from Massachusetts for home / school / life magazine. (Spring 2015 issue.) She left the profession to homeschool her daughters, and when I asked her why she decided to homeschool, she said, “From being an education major (I graduated in 1999) to leaving the profession to have my daughter (in July 2006), so much had changed. The focus had shifted from teachable moments to teaching to the test (in a big, big way). As an educator my philosophy of education did not jive with what was taking place in our country’s schools, and I knew that it would be hypocritical for the girls to be part of a system that I did not agree with.”

This makes me understand why many parents are opting out of traditional school right now. There are about 2.2 million homeschooled students in the United States, and it is estimated that homeschooling is growing from 2-8% per year. That may not sound like much in the big scheme of things, but many parents ask me about homeschooling and tell me they are considering it among other options. When you see your child begin to hate learning, it is something to consider. Education should be about exploration and inquiry. Not cramming for tests.

April 20, 2015

Find me elsewhere

I have written two installments in a new series on the home / school / life magazine. This series, At Home with the Editors, is a look into Amy’s and my homeschool. Though we feel strongly that every family has to figure out what works best for them, we also thought it might be a good idea to let our readers know how we do it too.

So, check out Shelli’s Homeschool for a snapshot of how I educate my boys and all the curriculum resources we have used thus far, and then read Shelli’s Project-Based Homeschool for a good summary of how project-based homeschooling has worked in our home and the valuable lessons I have learned from it so far. To read all the posts in this series (because Amy is writing some pretty helpful stuff too), click here.

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 19, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Timeline of My Son’s Star Wars Project

I wrote about Star Wars and some of my son’s projects for my column, but here I will explain how his interest in Star Wars has evolved. It’s a good example of project-based homeschooling, and if you have a child who has an interest but doesn’t seem to do much with it, this may be of interest to you. Because Star Wars has been a long-term interest for my eight-year-old, but it didn’t produce anything that might look like a real project until recently. In fact, I doubt my son considers that he has a “Star Wars project” going on right now — I am the one who has noticed his interest and tied all these “dabblings” into a neat bundle.

It was well over a year ago that my husband decided it was time that we watch the original Star Wars trilogy together. I was a little hesitant because my boys were young, and the movies are violent (though no bloodshed). Anyway, I was no match for my husband’s enthusiasm, so we went ahead and watched them. My boys enjoyed them. The eight-year-old especially liked them (he was seven at the time) because he could understand them better.

It was great fun watching them again, talking about the storyline, and showing my son yet another example of how stories have to have conflict in order to make them interesting. I think Star Wars has great life lessons, and the black and white good vs. evil in this sci-fi adventure is probably easier for young children to understand because there are no shades of gray! Teaching storytelling, the elements of a story, and what makes something an “action-adventure” gives this an educational twist that Mama likes. But I digress…

Since we own the DVD set, it also comes with the documentary of how the movies were made. My eight-year-old (then seven) enjoyed watching that too, especially the parts about how they did the special effects. He loved seeing the small models of the ships! He said he thought he could make something like that.

(Read my column about how watching the difficulties George Lucas had with making the film has influenced my son and helped his perfectionist tendencies!)

It was shortly after watching the movies and documentary that my son made a cardboard model of Darth Vadar’s ship. Although he told me the center part would be a cube shape because making a sphere out of cardboard was too hard.

Then, nothing else happened with his interest in Star Wars for at least a year. (Well, except studying the Star Wars website, which I’ll explain below.) Star Wars is part of our culture, so it would come up sometimes, and my son was glad he understood the allusions to the story. We may have checked out one or two Star Wars books from the library. I’m not sure. But he remained interested in Star Wars. He even got some Lego kits and small Star Wars toys for gifts, which he enjoyed.

Sometime this past year my husband started watching Clone Wars with the boys on Netflix. At first it was a once-in-awhile thing, but now we are all watching it regularly. It’s been pretty fun too, and it continues to fuel my son’s interest in the whole Star Wars saga.

At some point before we started watching Clone Wars, though, my son wanted to look up something about Star Wars online. This is when we discovered the official Star Wars website. It’s a great site with lots of pictures, and with my son’s growing reading skills, he has been able to navigate it pretty easily. He has perused it so much that he noticed when they made big changes to the website’s structure too.

Over the course of months, my son studied this site. He would always ask me if he could look something up on it, and then he might spend time perusing it. He never spent an excessive amount of time on it at one time, so I let him spend as much time as he wanted on it. No, I didn’t consider this part of his screen time. I considered it time well spent as he was learning how to do research on his own, and he was immersing himself in his topic of choice — something that is essential to learning and that shouldn’t be rushed.

I kept wondering if he would ever build a model of something, draw something or do anything else that would look more like a project, but I never said anything. I knew he would have to do this on his own, if he wanted to. I knew if Stars Wars was a deep interest of his, he would keep going with it. If not, then nothing else would happen. Either of those was okay with me. But I know this kid is a builder, so I kept expecting a building project to emerge.

Later, I realized that all last fall he was in a pottery class, and I bet that fulfilled his need to build. After the class ended, and during the holidays, he became interested in constructing paper dinosaurs, and at the end of that project, his Star Wars interest manifested. He constructed his own paper Jabba the Hut. (Read more about that in Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1.) When he showed that to me, I secretly jumped for joy.

Over the holidays, at my son’s request, we watched the Star Wars trilogy again. It had been a good year since we had last watched it, and he had been asking to watch them again for a while. He specifically wanted to watch the documentary about the making of Stars Wars again. This time, my son paid the most attention to the part in the documentary about how they constructed the puppet for Jabba the Hut, and how puppeteers maneuvered the huge puppet.

It wasn’t long after this that my son came up with his idea to make a Jabba the Hut puppet. He worked on this slowly at different times, which is a little different from his usual spend-all-day-until-it’s-done obsessive manner. He still hasn’t finished it. He’s stuck wondering how to complete the back of it. He says he wants to finish it, and I have offered my help and also to forgo our morning lessons to give him more time, but he always turns me down. I think he’s frustrated by it, but I think he’ll figure it out eventually. Or maybe it won’t. That’s okay too because this is his work and not required work.

Jabba the Hut puppet. He attached the arms, eyes, and tongue to sticks so that they would be moveable parts. He still wants to put a back on it and add green dots.

He also made a clay Jabba the Hut. He told me it was so much easier than the puppet, and I was like, “Well, yeah!”

Clay Jabba.

His latest creation is the Republic Attack Gunship. He’s not finished with it either. Again, he’s having a bit of trouble figuring out how to make some parts out of cardboard, and he’s resisting my input. That’s okay. It’s just my job to remind him of his work and ask if he’d like to work on it again.

Republic Attack Gunship –  unfinished.

I added a little to his interest in Star Wars by buying my boys the Brainquest workbooks for their formal homeschool lessons. I liked what these covered, and I thought if it makes learning a little more fun for my boys, great. I hoped, however, that I wouldn’t ruin my son’s interest in Star Wars by turning it into work. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. My eight-year-old actually seems to enjoy his reading practice in these books because it tells information about the characters and the plot lines in episodes I, II and III (which he hasn’t seen yet). Whenever a character appears in the Kindergarten level books that my five-year-old is using, and they don’t know the name of the character, my eight-year-old offers to look it up for his brother. So the books have actually seemed to encourage more interest instead of taking away, and I’m glad.

In addition, we are currently reading a fun spin-off series by Jeffrey Brown. The first one is titled Jedi Academy. These books are geared toward middle schoolers, but my eight-year-old loves them. He got the first one as a gift, and we’re buying the others as they come out.

I have been very hands-off this project, and I think it’s so cool that my son has had these ideas and implemented them all on his own. I help only when he asks. It definitely shows that my son is growing up because I remember a time I was “silently feeding” his interests, or giving more suggestions. I have a feeling his interest in Star Wars will continue, though it may be a kind of project where he dabbles in it here and there. I will continue to be a good PBH Mama by recording his work and finding all the connections!

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 26, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1

If you read my mid-year update, you might remember how I wondered why my eight-year-old didn’t build as much as he usually does last fall. Now I think that is because he was in a pottery class and otherwise occupied with things that satisfied his need to build. Once that class ended, and the holidays came, his building instinct came back. And it started with paper dinosaurs.

I am notorious for buying lots of cheap books at library book sales. One of my boys saw this book and wanted me to buy it, but it stayed un-opened on our shelf for a long time. This doesn’t make me want to “declutter.” I am a hoarder of books and educational materials because I know that any day, my boys might find something interesting that they didn’t find interesting the day before. I will only get rid of this kind of “clutter” once they are way too old for the items. Doing this has yielded some good surprises, such as these paper dinosaurs.

Over the holidays, my eight-year-old found the book, and he thought he might make one of the paper dinosaurs. I showed him how to do the first one, which was the easiest one in the book. The dinosaurs near the back of the book were NOT easy to make, and I didn’t have the patience for those. But my little builder did. For days, he obsessed about making these paper dinosaurs, and now we have a whole box full of them sitting on our floor with no place to put them. (This is clutter I would love dispense with, but since it still means a lot to my son, I don’t make him throw his creations away. A small price to pay for fostering creativity.)

I am always amazed to see how patient my son is when he’s trying to figure out how to make something. (He’s the same way with intricate Lego kits.) He will spend all day, and when I say all day, I mean all his free time during the day trying to finish whatever it is he puts his mind to. For days, he worked on these dinosaurs, and when he finally figured out how to make them without much trouble, and he amassed a good supply of them, he stopped making them.

+1 Project Element

But before he did that, he came up with one non-dinosaur paper creature of his own design. He simply tweaked one of the dinosaur designs to make a paper Jabba the Hut. If you read my mid-year report, you might also remember how I said his greatest interest last fall was Star Wars, though it didn’t lead to building any models. I had hoped it would, and this paper Jabba was his first representation of his interest in Star Wars since the fall. (And he made several paper Jabbas in all.) I was really excited to see it since I had wondered if his interest in Star Wars would go deeper.

I didn’t do a very good job of getting the paper Jabbas’ tails in the photos, but they each have one.

Since then, he’s done more Star Wars projects, and I’ll fill you in on that in my next column, which is all about his Star Wars project.

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