Thursday, October 23, 2014

Biology Stinks!

a mighty stench awaits
This year JT is doing a full high school level biology course. We were indecisive about our plan and changed curriculum at least two times before settling on Apologia's Exploring Creation with Biology. I know some people find Christian based science texts to be inferior in their scientific content, and I sometimes agree, but this book has been very thorough. In fact, I'm very impressed with the first three modules. The labs are well thought out and rigorous. And smelly.

why I never throw jars away
Module 2 is a study of kingdom Monera. The lab required JT to find a pond to obtain water samples. He needed to place the samples in four separate jars. Each one had its own type of nutrients available for the life forms; egg, hay, soil, and rice. After a few days, he had to open the jars and make slides for the microscope. The instructions warn, "When you open each jar, be prepared for a mighty stench!" They were not kidding! After doing the first slide in the house, I made him move outside to make the next three. We saw some pretty incredible things in those cultures. Let me just say, I won't be swimming in any ponds anytime soon.

This course is far more difficult than anything I remember taking in high school. For both modules two and three, JT has been required to construct his own biological keys to identify organisms. I would have a hard time with that assignment. He seemed well-equipped to do it once he had completed the work in the unit. I hope the remainder of the text continues at this level of instruction. If so, I believe he will be ready to handle college level courses with no difficulty. I will also be looking at purchasing Apologia's chemistry for his 10th grade science course.

The next module is going to cover fungi. Time to start growing some mold!

Friday, October 17, 2014


We are leaving in the morning for Ocean City, NJ. I know we just spent a week at the lake, but the deals are always good in October at our favorite hotel. And after the week I've had, I need a vacation. Our cat has been sick since last Wednesday and I have been taking care of him. If you've never seen any of the 'how to give a cat a pill' posts or videos, go ahead and Google it; you'll thank me.

I also had a deadline in my Chemicals and Health Coursera class that I had to meet before our trip. I had five essay questions to answer in a peer assessment assignment. Sometimes I'm not sure why I think taking classes will be a good idea. I guess it's good for the boys to see me actively learning, but maybe there's an easier way.

But now all of that is behind me because tomorrow afternoon I will be walking on the sand and feeling the salty air on my face.

Next week I'll tell you all about the surprise we found in our pond water cultures JT is using for his biology lab. I'll also tell you how I finally proved to him that algebra can be useful in real life. But that can wait. The beach is calling...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Play Plus Focus

best toy store ever!
While we were on our trip last week, we stopped at a toy store recommended by a friend. Playthings Etc. is like no other toy store I've ever visited. When we walked through the door we were greeted by an employee, "Welcome to Playthings Etc., the world's coolest toy store!" with an invitation to 'play with anything that's out of the package'. They meant it! The employees actively played with the boys. At one point, EM and JT were riding around the store on scooters, shooting one another with rubber band guns, while employees offered helpful advice.

strangest building
The store is unique in other ways, too. The building is shaped like a stealth bomber. My picture doesn't do it justice. You really need an aerial view to get a feel for just how unusual it is. You can read about the architecture here

We probably spent two hours playing. They had a large model rocket/RC vehicle section in the store and we wanted to pick some things up for my dad. Unfortunately, we couldn't reach him to find out what he needed. Instead, we decided we could stop in again on our way home on Thursday.

The boys decided to blow a good chunk of their savings on rubber band guns. They each bought one the first day we were there. After hours of shooting one another back at the cabin, they each decided to buy one more. The guns take different gauge rubber bands and most can be loaded with more than one at a time, some as many as twelve. And, yes, they do hurt when you get hit by one... or twelve.

tally sheet
At home again on Friday, they set up a game in our library involving EM's clone trooper collection and the guns. They even took the time to make rules for playing and keep score.

This week we have moved back into our usual work routine. EM had his third piano lesson and continues to make good progress. He's already playing songs that involve both hands and complex rhythms. JT had a drum lesson today and has been obsessed with a song he is trying to learn since then. Of course, that completely destroyed his focus for all other subjects the remainder of the day. I regularly have to deal with his total concentration as a hindrance to other learning. Some days it drives me nuts. Other days I chalk it up to the 'absent-minded professor' syndrome. I try to keep in mind that the freedom we have as homeschoolers allows this deep reflection time that he wouldn't get in a more typical setting for school. I can see that in a regular classroom he would either be in trouble or never have a clue what's going on when he turns inward to work out a problem. For me, it's just something to work around. Hopefully, as an adult, he'll find a career that requires intense concentration with no regard for any outside input.

I can dream, can't I?

Friday, October 3, 2014

From the Shores of Lake Arthur

We are home from our annual trip to a PA state park cabin. This year was a return trip to our favorite park, Moraine, on the shores of Lake Arthur. The weather was perfect, mid-70s, and the leaves had just started to turn.

As usual, we did a little trail hiking. We generally stick to the easier trails since my husband has some knee problems when hills are involved. The Sunken Garden Trail was a nice level hike that followed the  southern shore of the lake for a mile, then wrapped back around through more heavily wooded areas. Unfortunately, the rain started about halfway around the 2 mile trail. We rushed the second half a bit, but it was still a nice hike.

This notice was on the sign at the trail head. We were sure to use the boot brush on the way out, even though we were getting soaked at the time. I didn't want any aliens in our van.

I like to take pictures of any fungus we stumble upon during our treks in the woods. The boys usually don't share my fascination. I just love the colors and textures.

I liked this part of the trail. You don't often find such a nicely mowed pathway through the woods. It was a nice change after the rather muddy path along the shoreline.

Yet another fungus. I found this one along the paved bike trail on the north shore of the lake.

The boys sat along the edge of the water for a long time watching this guy. We were hoping to see him (or her) catch a small fish. Instead, he slipped under a log and we headed down the trail.

More invasive species issues at the park. We saw quite a bit of these weeds along the shore.

We took the boys down to the beach so they could build a little in the sand. JT is getting to the point where he'll join in to keep EM occupied, but I have a feeling now that he's entered his teen years, this might have been the last year he'll want to take part. I spent some time looking back through pictures from our previous vacations to the parks and couldn't believe the changes in the boys since our first trip when JT was just 8.

Our week had just a little organized homeschooling, but as usual, they did plenty of learning while we were at the park. EM decided to write journal entries for each day of the trip every night. He's not a writer by choice so that was good to see him taking initiative. We also took our electronic keyboard along so he could practice his piano pieces for his lesson and he did that each day. JT worked on some German and biology. He also brought his drum pad to work on his lessons.

The final morning arrived and I got up early to enjoy a few quiet moments alone. Those are hard to come by during the rest of the year at home with the boys. Recharging complete... I'm ready to return to our homeschooling routine.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Beyond the Three Rs

flash card production
JT and I have been learning German using Rosetta Stone's Homeschool version. We both completed the first unit of level one this week. Although I am starting to get a feel for the language, as I mentioned before, we are struggling to figure out the rules because they are not specifically taught in the program. This week we started making flash cards for all the nouns we have learned in the first unit. I was having an especially difficult time remembering their definite articles, so the cards are going to be a big help.

conjugating verbs
JT's difficulty centered around knowing the proper form of a verb. We made a list of the verbs we learned on the white board and my husband gave us basic instructions on how to conjugate a weak verb. German has weak and strong verbs where we would call them regular and irregular in English. Most of the verbs we know so far are weak, so that made it easier. Once he could see the pattern on the board, JT did a much better job picking the right word when needed.
Bronies play piano too.
EM had his first piano lesson on Friday and LOVED it! His new teacher is a perfect fit for him. Just the right amount of encouragement and fun. EM is very excited to go to his lesson tomorrow. He practiced every day this week with no need for me to remind him. Hopefully that pattern lasts for a long time! We went out and bought a new folder to carry his music. EM and JT are both My Little Pony fans, so the Rainbow Dash folder was a winner. If you are unfamiliar with the Brony demographic, be sure to check this out. We aren't the only weirdos out there.

EM continued his research on Mongolia. Today we watched a National Geographic Live! program about Tim Cope's horseback journey across Mongolia. EM will do a little more traditional research in the next two weeks and then put together a presentation.

staging area
But first we will be spending a few days in a cabin at Moraine State Park. I started the preliminary packing this week. I begin by dumping piles of stuff into the living room and will eventually transfer it all to the back of our van before we head out next week. We have put in a solid six weeks of work already this school year and we are ready for a nice break with nature. I believe keeping a good balance of work and relaxation has been a key component to the success of our homeschooling lifestyle. We always have more energy to tackle what lays ahead when we take the time to recharge. I'll leave you with my favorite picture from our last trip to Moraine. Hopefully I'll have many more to share from Lake Arthur next time.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In and Out of the House

source of congestion
This week has been lacking in productivity. JT and I are both dealing with allergy flare-ups from ragweed pollen. He's having a hard time getting motivated to do his work each day. Tonight, as of  7:50pm he's still not finished with his list. I'm not a huge fan of winter, but an early frost guaranteeing death to the ragweed wouldn't upset me this year.

Tomorrow EM will be starting a new adventure. He is going for his first piano lesson. He's a little older than an average beginner student, nearly eleven, but I wanted to wait until he showed real interest in trying an instrument before we tried lessons. Due to his auditory processing disorder he's been a little slower coming to a desire to study music. Other than learning a song or two on his ukulele, he's never really played any instrument. Tonight he asked his dad to play Rock Band on the Wii with him. Usually he only wants to do the singing, but today he's on the drums. I hope this new interest in music will continue for him.

Despite the ragweed effects, we had a few out of the house activities this week. Our first Brown Bag Book Club of the school year happened on Tuesday. Local homeschool families get together at the library so the kids can share the books they have been reading and then we stay after the conversation to have lunch together. It's always a good place to get ideas for books the boys may want to read next. The other advantage is that the boys are learning to speak in front of a group when they share about their book. JT also went to his second fencing class on Monday. They were told they'll be able to start trying matches against each other in two more weeks. Then things should get really exciting!

In the next week, I'm hoping to do some work with JT on a project to create flashcards to supplement our Rosetta Stone German instruction. We are both having a hard time remembering the genders of the nouns we are learning. I decided that we could both benefit from some extra study. Flashcards seemed like a good idea. We'll be able to work together to make them and then quiz each other. I would have to say the one downside of Rosetta Stone is the fact that the program doesn't teach you grammar in a straightforward way. You are expected to pick it up through the lessons, but never given the rules on how things work. We are fortunate that my husband already has a basic knowledge of the language, so he is able to help us when we have questions.

EM is starting work on an independent project of his own. Later this year we will be studying Asia in our geography unit. Leading up to that unit study, he will be choosing a country of Asia each month to research and share with us. This month he has chosen Mongolia. He's doing a good job looking for information in our books and online. He is definitely doing more independent work this year with confidence. I can see him directing his own school plan by the time he reaches his high school years. It's always a good thing to see the boys taking their education into their own hands. I know when they do that they are getting far more out of it than I can ever give them no matter how much planning I put into it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Something New

En garde!
We are not sports people. The boys have both played Upward basketball but we never did the soccer thing or T-ball or anything else that would count as an organized sport. I consider us to be a fairly active family.  We spend an ample amount of time outdoors. The boys run around the yard, often chasing each other with home-made weapons. Generally we don't go for activities that turn play into something with rules. That changed Monday night when JT attended his first fencing class.

A few years ago I played around with the idea of fencing classes for him, but couldn't find anything local, so I figured it was a lost cause. Two weeks ago our town had its first ever Renaissance Festival and we saw a group of fencers give a demonstration. The next day my mom told me about an ad in the paper for a local fencing club that was starting group lessons the following week. I contacted one of the instructors and he told me all about the club. For only $60 JT can be in a 12 week class that meets every Monday night for 1.5 hours. They provide all of the gear for no additional charge. I kept asking him to verify the price and length of the classes. I couldn't believe I would only be paying $5 per lesson. But it was true!

He told me that he is in his 80s and that fencing is a sport for any age. It's about speed and tactics, not necessarily strength. He said I should think of it as physical chess. In the years he has been involved in the sport, he has met many people. He told me that fencers are usually very interesting, sometimes a little kooky. I found that reassuring since we are definitely a LOT kooky.

and it's machine washable!
The night of the lesson, JT and I arrived 15 minutes early. He had to be fitted for his protective gear. The next student to arrive was also new to fencing. She was happy to chat with us about a huge range of topics. As the night continued, it was obvious that we had found 'our people'. One of the instructors is a retired professor of history. He told the students that he will give them a lecture on the history of swords at a subsequent lesson. For the first lesson, he split them into two groups; those who had any experience, and those who had none. They were each given a sword and spent time on footwork, technique, and safety. The instructor who taught the experienced students used to coach the fencing team at Duke University and later owned a fencing club in Chicago. He did a great job helping all of the students during the class.

It's funny how our school year started out looking so much different than what we are doing now... and it's only the fifth week of schooling. What other surprises are in store for us? If great opportunities like this one keep popping up, it's going to be an awesome year!