Thursday, December 29, 2011

Geek Presents

"So your kids are so smart...what do you buy them for Christmas?"


When people ask me questions like that I really wonder what they think we do with our kids. No, we do not sit at home and teach them least, not yet.

My answer was, "The same stuff other kids"

I guess in all honesty, some of the things our boys received this year weren't exactly what everyone else would be getting. They did get the usual stuff like LEGOS, NERF guns, and spy gear night vision goggles. But one of the biggest hits of the day happened to be the documentary movies.

JT received a new book of piano music. His playing has surged lately. Remember when we dropped the piano lessons? I wasn't so sure that experiment was going to work the way I hoped. Out of nowhere, about four months ago, he started working to figure out a song he wanted to play. Before I knew it, he was playing a couple times a day...on his own! Recently, he started trying to play a few of George Winston's pieces from the album December. I found this sheet music and knew he would love it. He generally plays by ear, but sometimes he has me play parts of a song for him so he can watch and copy. He never really reads the music. So maybe the book is more for me than him?

We also bought a few science related presents. We already own one pocket microscope, but I decided to get each of the boys their own. I'm tired of sharing! We are about to launch into our next science unit which will cover microscope studies and cellular structure. So these new tools will be needed.

We also threw in a few pet tornadoes to add to the fun. You may have noticed the increased volume of photos in this post. That is due to the fact that I received a new camera! I have to spend some time really getting to know all of its awesome features, but hope to start incorporating more visuals to my blog with its help.

Finally, I spent the last two weeks doing a little cat-sitting for a neighbor. I was told by the pet owner that I should spend the pay buying 'a little something for myself'. The little something is probably going to come from this page of microscopes. I'm leaning towards a stereo model, due to my own poor vision, but think the monocular may be better for upgrading to add a camera option in the future. Anyone who wants to weigh in with advice, feel free. I would LOVE to be able to get images from the microscope to my computer. Plus, I'd like to get as high of a magnification as I can. AND I'd like to stay under $300. That's why it's taken me so long to pick the right one.

Overall, Christmas was a big success. We plan to extend our vacation to the 9th of January. Until then I will be working to plan the science unit, get our health unit ironed out and come up with some organization of my civics material. We are looking forward to a fantastic New Year and wish the same for all of you!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Benefits of Public School

My husband and I were having a discussion about ways to help our boys understand certain math concepts this week. Every time I find what I consider to be an especially ingenious way to present something new, I realize if I were teaching classrooms full of students, I could take this knowledge and re-use it, honing it to perfection. As it is, I only get to teach the same grade level twice to one student at a time. This realization lead to the idea to write a post about the benefits of public schooling as a contrast to my post on homeschooling benefits.

Experienced teachers

I often feel like I am re-inventing the wheel when teaching my boys. If they were in a typical public school environment, they would have the benefit of teachers with years of practice presenting the same material. Teachers who have gone through training on how to deal with a kid who may seem like a math whiz until they run into multiple step word problems that make them declare, "I hate math!" Most times I can find ways to get around these hurdles by an internet search or a question posted to one of the homeschooling forums I follow. I also have a few friends who have very creative ideas on how to deal with learning hang-ups that I can call for help. At some point, I assume we will reach an obstacle that will require professional help. I know I can find a tutor or other mentor when that time comes, but because we are homeschooling, it will likely not be free.

Art Classes

We currently have both of the boys enrolled in art classes at our local Y.M.C.A Arts Center. Prior to signing up for these classes, I always felt that our art lessons were lacking. While we have spent a large amount of time studying art history and styles we didn't always try a variety of projects ourselves. Some of that may have been lack of supplies, but more often it was lack of motivation on my part. It's one thing to introduce a whole classroom of students to some new messy medium; it's another thing to drag it out in your own house for two young, less than tidy boys. Once again, we have found a good fix through the art classes, but there is the associated cost.

Science Labs

We are still a couple years away from a full-fledged chemistry class, but when it comes, I'm not sure exactly how I plan to handle the need for lab equipment. It would be so much easier to have access to a fully stocked chemistry lab! It would also be nice to have a variety of lab partners available for my boys. Recently we were at a local university for a Saturday Science program. While we were there, I spoke with two different professors about the possibility of enrolling the boys in a basic chemistry class when they were high school age. They weren't sure about the university's policy, so I will be looking into that as a possible option. If needed, I will buy what we need and maybe try to assemble a small group of local homeschooling families to hold a class together. I've also been hunting for the perfect microscope for our upcoming science unit on cellular structure and microscope studies. Wouldn't it be nice to have free access to a quality microscope like this one?

Free Extra-Curricular Activities

In Pennsylvania, schools are required to allow homeschoolers to participate in extra-curricular activities offered within their school district. However, we have had little luck getting involved in anything through our local schools. One problem is that the definition of extra-curricular really means only things held outside of school hours. Because of that, we were told that JT can't participate in the elementary level band due to the fact that instrument practice happens during band class within school hours. Some districts make allowances for homeschool participation. So far, ours does not. I'm not sure if we will be able to do anything at the high school level either. JT would like to play basketball with the school when he is too old for Upward basketball, but I'm not sure that will work out.

Free Text Books and Supplies

Most homeschoolers will tell you that there is really no need to buy expensive curriculum in order to teach your children. While that is true to a point, I find that there are some items that are almost necessary to buy. We were fortunate in that we spent two years with a cyber school that provided all of the materials we needed AND allowed us to keep everything. I have been able to re-use quite a bit of those things. We also spend a great deal of time at library sales, garage sales and other places where we can pick up low-cost items. Even if you only use free resources online, you might need to use ink and paper to print out worksheets. I know that some public schools ask the parents to provide supplies for the students, but for the most part, the text books and workbooks are free.

Child Care

Perhaps the one thing I miss most about the days when I had children in the public school system is free time. Don't get me wrong, I do love having my boys with me every day. They are also both fairly adept at entertaining themselves so that I can have time to myself to get things done around the house. However, just this week when I had to schedule an appointment that both I and my husband have to go to, not having the kids in school means I have to find a sitter. Very few people who sing the praises of public school will mention this most obvious benefit to parents. If the boys were in school, I would have the time to keep my house as clean as it was many years ago. I'd have time to take classes like I've wanted to for years. I'd have time to throw a day away reading a good book on the couch with no need to stop until that school bus rolled down the road at 4:25pm.

My list for the benefits of public schooling is about half as long as my benefits of homeschooling list. When I compare the two, I still feel that homeschooling wins hands-down for our family. Maybe I would have more money to spend on something other than science materials, maybe I would have more free time to spend on myself, but ultimately I think my life has been made far richer because of this adventure we have undertaken. Hopefully, when my boys are out and on their own, they will agree that we made the right decision too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gimme Gimme

This time of the year can bring out both the best and the worst in people. Teaching children the joy of giving can be a wonderful lesson during the holiday season. But, too often Christmas turns into a chance for the 'gimmies' to take over.

I had already been thinking about this topic when I read an excellent post about Stuff on Defying Gravity. My family can tell you that I am the kind of person that doesn't get carried away purchasing material goods, books being the one exception. My one weakness aside, I can usually resist the desire to have the latest gadget, clothing or thing for my house. I'm fairly content when it comes to my stuff. My boys seem to operate along the same lines. Is this an inherited trait? Learned from observation? Or is it the lack of exposure to the usual gimme triggers?

Because we do not have cable, satellite or even the most basic of television reception, my boys have had very little experience with commercialism. The only times they witness television advertising is when we watch television while visiting the homes of relatives. We also spend very little time at the malls. In fact, online purchases made up the majority of my Christmas shopping this year. JT and EM like to check out the toy aisles when we are in Target, just like any other kids, but once they leave the store and those things are out of sight, they really are out of mind for the boys. Plus, without that daily interaction with large groups of kids their own ages, they don't have the kind of comparisons to make about what they have and don't have. I keep our Christmas budget small and they never seem to notice that we aren't spending the kind of money that other families we know are spending on gifts. It appears I have found yet another benefit of homeschooling!

This week I will be taking each of the boys out to do their shopping for our family. They honestly seem to get more happiness out of the giving at Christmas than they do over the getting. I hope as the years pass they continue to appreciate the simple joy found in sharing what we have with others.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tools of Power

I have a love-hate relationship with the book, Home Learning Year by Year, by Rebecca Rupp. When I start to worry that my boys might be 'behind' in a subject compared to 'normal' kids, I pull the book out to see where we stand. Most of the time we ace this little test. But sometimes I find that we're not measuring up in one place or another. I have never been one to worry too much about where we are in comparison to others. I want the boys to follow their own learning path with only a few defined expectations at certain points along the way. However, once in awhile I find a goal in this book that makes me say, "Wow! Why haven't I taught that to the boys yet?" I found one this week.

I was casually flipping through chapter four where the grade two requirements are listed. I figured EM should have most of these mastered since we consider him to be a third grader. We chose that designation mostly for the testing requirement that Pennsylvania homeschoolers must meet.

Under the Language Arts heading in the book I found this one:

Obtain specific information from print materials. Second graders should be able to use structural features of the text-table of contents, chapter heading, index-to locate specific factual information.

I remembered how both JT and EM were having trouble finding certain snakes in a book they were using recently. When I suggested they "look it up in the back of the book" I was met by blank stares. At the time, I just filed it away as something to work on in the future. But now this book was telling me that even a second grader should know how to use the index, etc. Time to get serious!

Both boys are fairly capable of using a dictionary to find a word. And I don't mean online...I mean a REAL dictionary. They are also familiar with the thesaurus. So, I pulled out a wide variety of reference books from our shelves; atlases, dictionary, travel guide, encyclopedia, Bible commentary, concordance, a textbook and a non-fiction book with a glossary AND an index. We sat down together surrounded by a wealth of information. I explained how the table of contents works in most books. We looked at the way the encyclopedias had an entire book JUST for the index. We saw how the concordance was split into sections with both the Hebrew and the Greek words. I showed the boys the difference between a glossary and an index. Then I asked each of them to find something for me using these tools. When we were finished with our lesson, it was hard to drag them away from the awesome maps in the atlas. In fact, it was hard for ME to put them away. After all, who can resist a good map?

Of course, you may be thinking, "These kids are growing up with the entire World Wide Web at their fingertips. Why not just teach them to use Google?" Call me old-fashioned, but I think it's important to know how to use all available resources when we are searching for an answer. And you never know...some stormy night, when the power goes out, and their smart phone is missing, they might really need to know the capital of Guam...and then where will they be?

Silliness aside, as homeschoolers we often talk about how we want our children to 'learn how to learn'. Knowing how to use these tools of power is the first step on that journey.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Top Ten Benefits of Homeschooling

In a blog post three weeks ago, I mentioned that flexibility is on my Top Ten Benefits of Homeschooling list. I decided that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to list the reasons I am thankful for our homeschooling lifestyle.

No early morning bus stops! This is of course the most important reason of all. :-)

As I have already said, schedule flexibility is on my list. More specifically, that we can move our school days and content around when we have a crisis or just need a day off for mental health.

Plenty of time for the boys to be outside. One of the things that makes me sad for kids in traditional classrooms is the lack of time they get to be outdoors.

Time for play. All children learn through unstructured play. When you have 8 hours or more away from home everyday, it makes it hard to find time for enough play.

No need to worry about bullying. I know that there is always the chance that the boys may encounter a bully at one of their many away from home activities. However, most times these events are likely to have an adult there who can stop things before they escalate.

Vacationing during the off season. This is one of my favorites. I detest crowded museums, parks and beaches. Being able to travel while the majority of families can not, allows us to avoid the crowds and learn at the same time.

Family time. I love that we are all at home together most days. Recently an acquaintance expressed surprise at how much time our entire family spends together. I don't often think about how unusual that is for most families. I am thankful that we have that benefit AND that we are all happy about it!

The ability to find the best fit for curriculum, or even the lack thereof, for each subject for each of the boys. We have found that no one math curriculum works for both, so we use two. We also know that while JT can learn anything by reading about it, EM needs more of a hands-on approach for most subjects. Even though more and more schools seem to be attempting to teach to different learning styles, they can't cater individually to each student in every subject.

Freedom to work at a pace that suits our own personal rhythms. I know at some point in their lives our boys will probably need to work on someone else's time schedule. Right now we can enjoy that flexibility. If we are having fun finishing an art project, we don't need to put it aside to get to math. Math can always wait until we are ready.

Finally, I love that we get to learn together. We are exploring our world and loving every minute of it. I am usually just as excited about the new things we discover as the boys fact, sometimes more. (Just ask any one who has visited our house recently and been forced to look at my sand samples with the microscope.)

So that's my list. Some days it is hard work to guide these boys. Some days it feels like I'm cheating the system by having so much fun with them. All I know is that they are happy, they are learning and I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of their journey.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ocean View

We had a short educational journey over the weekend. In celebration of our second science unit this year, marine biology, we decided a trip to the shore was in order. Our boys had never seen the ocean (I know, I'm a horrible mom!) and JT has been asking for years to visit an aquarium.

I was not sure what to expect from Ocean City, NJ in mid-November. I knew we certainly wouldn't be doing any swimming, but I thought it would be warm enough for playing on the beach and possibly even walking along the edge of the water. The weather prediction called for 60 degrees and sunny. It turns out, 60 degrees and sunny with a substantial breeze, is a bit on the chilly side. We managed to spend an hour or so on the beach, but in heavy coats and hoods. The boys had a good time anyway. We came home with a collection of shells, seaweed and a possible shark tooth.

After two days at the shore, we moved inland to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. We really enjoyed this hands-on aquarium. The boys were able to touch sharks, stingrays, starfish, sea cucumbers and anemones. How awesome is that?! They had a diverse collection of animals. We were disappointed to find that all of their shows were in the mornings and we didn't arrive until after lunch. If we plan another trip in the future, we will be sure to go in the morning hours.

Back at home on Tuesday, we made a microscope slide of the seaweed from the shore and another from some mint from our garden. We compared the structure of terrestrial plants to marine plant life. We also looked at our sand samples we brought home with my hand-held Carson microscope. This awesome tool may be one of my favorites for our classroom. If you have never looked at sand up are really missing something amazing. The book, A Grain of Sand by Dr. Gary Greenberg, is currently somewhere in the postal system on its way to my home.

Our marine science unit will probably be the shortest of our four science units this year, but I think it might end up being my favorite!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A couple years ago, I was looking into opportunities for our boys to improve their chess skills by taking classes or joining a club. After a bit of searching, I found there wasn't much available in our immediate area. Having no desire to make a two hour round-trip for them to play chess, I took matters into my own hands and attempted to organize our own little chess club.

My personal knowledge of chess is rather limited. I know how each piece can move, how to set up the board and I even know that the proper name for the 'horse-thingy' is actually the knight. Oh! I also know that Bobby Fischer was an incredible chess player because I saw the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Needless to say, I was not equipped to teach a group of children how to be experts at chess.

Using my feminine charms, I was able to convince my husband that he would make a great chess instructor. I asked a few friends if their children would like to play and our chess nights were born! We usually average around 6 kids, but if everyone showed up at once, we would have 14. The kids range from age 12 down to our youngest player, age 4. My husband begins each session with instruction. He often links the laptop to the television and uses the website chessKIDSAcademy to explain new concepts to the group. Once instruction has ended, he pairs the kids up and they play a few games. He usually tries to have them apply whatever new tactics they have learned in that lesson.

Dealing with a group of kids involved in many activities creates scheduling challenges. After a few months of spotty attendance and shuffling dates, we were ready to go last week. Friday morning, my husband announced that something had come up for work and he would be tied up on the computer at the exact time the kids would be arriving. I knew that I was not capable of pulling off the instruction. I also did NOT want to be the one to have to cancel again. My husband came up with his own alternative. JT could be the teacher.

I must say, I viewed this plan with much trepidation. Could a ten year old really pull this off? I sent out a few emails asking the moms to plan to be more hands-on than usual. (Most of the time, the moms, including me, hide out upstairs and chat while my husband and any other dads are sent to the battle front.) Everyone was very positive about the last minute change. JT spent some time working out a plan with my husband. He would review some of the previous tactics and have a question and answer session for the instruction portion of the evening. He wrote out a sheet with notes to follow and seemed at ease with his leadership role.

The night went well. JT led the group in the review. He asked questions and encouraged those who answered. When games were played, he went to the different tables to help the younger kids. After the first round of games had been played, he had a chance to play a couple games himself. All in all, he did a fantastic job.

JT is a natural when it comes to teaching. He has such excitement about sharing knowledge; it's hard not to be interested when he speaks. I think with a few more years of maturity, he will be able to lead groups like this with little problem. For now, I know that I have a teacher-in-reserve, if the need arises again.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Schooling Amid Crisis

Flexibility has always been in my 'Top Ten Benefits of Homeschooling' list. This week it became abundantly clear why that is.

Friday my father was taken to the emergency room with what turned out to be multiple strokes. I spent most of the next week going to the hospital, updating family and friends via phone and Facebook and trying to keep things relatively normal at home. The freak October snowstorm that brought us nine inches of wet, heavy snow did little to make that an easy task.

On Saturday, while I was trapped at home watching the snow come down, I put together a plan for the next week. I knew I would probably need to be leaving the boys at home from time to time with my husband as an indirect supervisor of their work. They are old enough to be able to do a great deal of their work on their own, as long as an adult is in the house. My husband's working from home allows him to physically be in the house, but not necessarily able to fully supervise everything they are doing. With that in mind, I tried to work out a plan that was mostly independent work this week.

One of the educational tools I have come to rely on in times like these is our home and public library documentary supply. This week we borrowed the first DVD of the History Channel's 2005 series, The Presidents. We counted that time towards our American history studies. This week was also the kick-off for our marine biology unit in science. I pulled our Planet Earth DVDs from the shelf and the boys watched the portion called Shallow Seas. The backbone of our unit is based on the book Marine Science, Book 2, put out by Dandy Lion Publications. It focuses on the kelp forest ecosystem which is nicely covered in that Planet Earth DVD. We will also watch another episode of The States series for geography tomorrow.

In a good week, when life cooperates, we rarely use the television as instructor. But having this back-up material ready to go made a bad week much more manageable. I know I could have just scrapped the whole week of schooling and had the time I needed to take care of family matters. However, I think keeping the boys busy gave me one less thing to add to my worries.

For now, my dad is stable and in an excellent rehabilitation facility. Knowing I have flexibility to make our schedule work when I need to help, makes dealing with the future much less daunting.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nature Education

One of our local state parks offers homeschool days from time to time. Today we had an opportunity to participate in a program called Arachnid. Not my first choice of topics, but perfect for my boys.

RB Winter State Park has a nature center to die for! The place is packed with books, puzzles, nature related toys, animal exhibits and a wealth of educational opportunities. They even have a nice propane fireplace with rocking chairs beside a giant picture window overlooking their collection of bird feeders. On top of all of that, the park naturalist is an enthusiastic teacher.

The day started with some instruction about various
arachnids found in our area. We discussed the taxonomy, life cycles and anatomy of many different critters. Then we all went outside to find some live specimens to observe. Each child was given a bug magnifier and sent into the woods. After everyone had found something, we stood in a circle and passed our boxes around to get a close look at a variety of small animals.

Later the kids split into groups of two and worked to come up with a presentation about an arachnid. Each pair made a poster and shared what they had learned with the whole group.

Today was the perfect wrap-up for our two month entomology unit. Starting next week, we move on to marine biology. I hope all of our science units turn out as well as this one has. Here's a brief breakdown of what we covered in this unit.

JT read through The Practical Entomologist
EM and JT used the DK Eyewitness Insect Workbook for daily activities.

We covered classification of living things, food webs, habitat, life cycles, anatomy, contributions insects make to our world, harmful insects, ecology, and careers in entomology. We watched videos and read MANY books. We also learned how to collect and display our own specimens. We went to a marsh, the woods, an insect fair and arachnid day for field trips. We also successfully raised three species of caterpillar and one species of moth from larva to adult. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to top this unit!

One thing you should notice here is that I keep saying we learned, we did this, we did that. I did not know everything I wanted the boys to learn before we started this unit. I was not an expert on the subject. One of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is that I get to learn nearly as much new stuff as the boys. I have to get outside of my comfort zone. Today at the arachnid program, this arachnophobic woman held a magnifying collection box with icky eight-legged creatures inside. It was a learning experience.

I wonder what I'll be learning next.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Critter Zoo

Rogue learning got in the way of my scheduled plans for this week. We woke Tuesday morning to a glorious fall day. I threw the boys outside to enjoy the weather while it lasted. Rain was predicted for most of the day Wednesday and some of Thursday, but Tuesday was perfect. The forecast was a bit of a bummer considering the fact that a homeschool day at Hershey Gardens was scheduled for Wednesday after being re-scheduled due to rain about FOUR times. They finally gave up and permanently canceled it.

Close to the time I wanted the boys to come in for our work in the classroom, I realized they were in the midst of a massive project. They were creating various habitats for animals they had found in the yard and making their own critter zoo. The exhibits included pill bugs, millipedes, woolly bear caterpillars, ladybugs and a red-backed salamander. They had set each up with exactly what they needed, even coming inside for their various handbooks to research what each animal needed for food.

salamander habitat

I realized there was no need to drag them in the house to sit and 'have school' when they were learning with wild abandon on their own. And then they made a fantastic discovery! EM found a northern ring neck snake under a paving stone. It was only about 6 inches long, probably born this spring. We managed to get it into a jar. The picture here is not very good. I just couldn't get a clear shot because he was hiding.
camera shy snake

After doing a little research to identify our snake, we found that he might make a good pet for our classroom. That meant a trip to the pet store for supplies. Tonight we moved Grima (named for a Tolkien character in The Two Towers) into his/her new home.
classroom terrarium
Our classroom is starting to be a bit cluttered. Between the terrarium for Grima and the critter cage for Zim, the hissing cockroach, it's starting to look like a menagerie!
When we were checking out at the pet store, the boys were telling the clerk all about our pets. He said, "You are lucky to have such a tolerant mom!" I had never really thought about it, but I guess not all moms are happy to have the kinds of pets we do. I'm happy to continue sharing in their wonder of the world, just as long as they never ask for a spider...

Thursday, October 13, 2011


For the last two years, our study of Geography has consisted of little more than workbook activities. This year, I decided to make the study of our place in the world a little more project based.

The idea came when I received a packet in the mail from Highlights Magazine about their Top Secret Adventures program. After looking at what was offered, I decided I could pull off something similar with my own materials. The sample packet came with a few of their guide books for various countries, stickers and one 'passport'. I had each of the boys make their own passports instead of using the one included. Each month, they choose a country they plan to 'visit'. In the beginning, I am having them choose from the countries represented by the books we received from Highlights, but later we will move on to others and find appropriate resources elsewhere. During the month that follows, they are to research their country by reading the book and finding other information on the internet. At the end of the month they must show what they have found by making a poster or writing a composition. For September, JT chose Japan and EM chose Greece. They spent three weeks doing their research. During the final week of the month, they each put together a poster for their country. Then they presented what they had learned to our family. When they were finished, we put the corresponding sticker into the passport to record their visit.

JT's Japan poster

EM's Greece poster

For our domestic Geography studies, we are using a great set of DVDs I picked up off the History Channel website. The States is an entertaining and informative series. Each episode thoroughly covers five states. I come away with a great deal of new knowledge every episode. Watching this series may be the next best thing to actually visiting each of our states. We are trying to cover one episode per week.

The final portion of our Geography study this year is map work. EM is using Maps, Globes and Graphs Level C put out by Harcourt. JT is using Maps, Charts, Graphs Level F by Modern Curriculum Press. Both books teach map skills and themes of Geography. I only pull the workbooks out about two times a month. I don't want to turn the excitement of discovering new places in our world into tedium with seat work. They are already capable of finding both states and countries on our map of the United States in the classroom and the world map in our library. They probably know the location of more countries than I do, just from playing games like Risk and Axis and Allies with my husband! I hope someday we will be able to explore our world in much more of a hands-on way through travel as a family. For now, we will read our books and watch our movies...visiting with our imaginations.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Potpourri of News

I have a couple of things on my mind this week that I want to share. None of them fit under one specific train of thought, so it will be a potpourri of news.

For some time I had been thinking about signing the boys up for some sort of art classes. We are fortunate in that there is a YMCA arts center not far from home. Every time I would look at their offered classes, the schedule never seemed to fit ours. Then I had an idea. Why not call and see if they could offer a class during the day for homeschoolers? It turns out the director of the center thought that was an excellent idea! I posted a message in our local homeschoolers online forum to gauge interest. Quite a few moms wanted more details. Two months later, our first class began on Tuesday morning with seven children ages 9-12 signed up! The instructor worked out a schedule where two age groups, 9-12 and 5-8, will alternate months for four classes each session. If interest remains high, she will continue throughout the school year. JT started drawing at a very young age, but in recent years had not shown as much interest. When he came out of the class, he was very excited about the things he had learned. He had also drawn a very good still life. EM will be taking his first class in November. One of the important benefits I see in this plan is that both boys will have opportunity to spend some time with children their age, in an instructional setting. So go ahead and ask me if my homeschoolers get enough socialization now!

On Monday, EM went to his monthly eye therapy appointment. Diagnosed with intermittent exotropia about two years ago, he has been doing computerized eye therapy at home three days a week, in addition to an hour of in-office therapy once a month. This week the therapist announced that because EM's therapy is going so well, he will be seeing the eye doctor at our next appointment and more than likely be weaned from the therapy. All of this in spite of the fact that the first doctor he saw told me that EM MUST have surgery and that therapy could NEVER fix his problem. And that, right there, is why I NEVER trust the experts!

The best thing about the excellent progress EM is making with his eyes is that he finally wants to read more. I always suspected that his vision problems, sometimes resulting in double vision, kept him from wanting to read. I knew it also might just be that he didn't enjoy reading. Not everyone is a bibliophile like me. But I wanted to be sure I removed all possible barriers for him. Last week he suddenly announced that he was going to begin reading The Fellowship of the Ring. He is making good progress...about two and a half chapters. Not bad for someone a week shy of their eighth birthday!

Another area where I have struggled to interest EM has been creative writing. My two older children seemed to be born to create elaborate stories at the drop of a hat. EM is very factual. Once again, I know not everyone is born to be a writer. I just wanted to give him opportunity to try it. Last week I came up with an idea. I was searching for something to use for writing instruction for EM. I found an old workbook I had picked up at a library book sale, Poetry Parade by Pamela Amick Klawitter. Published in 1987, this 48 page book is broken into four sections, Poems that Follow a Pattern, Poems that Rhyme, Miscellaneous Poems and Poetry Projects. At first I worried that poetry might be a bad idea considering EM's dislike of creative writing. But I thought I'd give it a go.

The first page, the Five W's Poem, showed an example of a poem that had a structure like this:
line 1 - WHO or what is the poem about?
line 2 - WHAT is he, she, or it doing?
line 3 - WHEN does this action take place?
line 4 - WHERE does it take place?
line 5 - WHY does it take place?

The book also suggested that you find a picture to use as inspiration.

I pulled several old magazines off the shelf and had EM find a picture he liked. It was a little rough at first; he wanted to use the same words over and over again. I pulled out a thesaurus and showed him how to use it. That really helped. He struggles with the concept of a synonym at times...seeing so many examples made it clearer for him. His final poem, about a pair of fighting dinosaurs, came out like this:

bash heads
in ancient times
near a furious volcano
to win the victory.

I finally realized why this new method worked. Writing is hard for EM because he is such a structured person. He needs to know exactly how something needs to be done. He needs rules. The formulas involved in writing these kinds of poems make sense to him! When I assigned another poetry writing page for him about acrostic poems, he was ready. He asked me, "Where is that book that gives you all the words that mean the same thing?" I found the thesaurus and handed it over.

Suddenly writing isn't something with vague expectations that he can't understand. I am always happy when we have these kinds of ah-ha! moments in our little classroom. I'm guessing that writing will never be something EM loves to do; math is definitely his first love. But for now, he will have an opportunity to express himself using methods within his comfort zone. For that, I am thankful.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Learning on Location

For the three years we have been homeschooling both boys, we have had a tradition of taking a family vacation in early Autumn. We spent this week visiting south central Pennsylvania. As we did in years past, we stayed in a modern cabin at one of PA's state parks. This year we chose Gifford Pinchot State Park. This park had a lot of potential for fun. Unfortunately the record rainfall we have had in PA in the last month coupled with rain three out of the four days we visited, made the trails a bit messy. We made one attempt at hiking and decided we'd best spend our time somewhere a bit drier.

We had already planned to make a one day trip to Gettysburg National Military Park. With the mud situation being what it was, we made it the focus of the entire vacation. Tuesday we made our way to the new visitor's center. I had not been to Gettysburg since the early 1980s. I had no idea they had built a new facility. It was pouring when we first arrived, so we decided to check out the museum. Our family of four paid $34 for admission to the museum, 20 minute film, "A New Birth of Freedom" and Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama.

One bit of bad luck we had was that the museum bookstore was closed for inventory our first day there! That fact alone sealed the need to return for a second day.

There are several ways to tour the battlefield at Gettysburg. You can take a bus tour, horseback tour, self-guided auto tour with or without an audio guide, hire a professional tour guide to ride in your own can even take a tour on a Segway! We decided to purchase The Gettysburg Story Battlefield Audio Tour three CD set. The complete tour is estimated to take about three hours. The set came with a book outlining the entire tour. This was the perfect choice for our family. We were able to take our time on the tour. We ended up breaking it up into two days. This particular auto tour is performed by actor Stephen Lang who played "Stonewall" Jackson in Gods and Generals and George Pickett in Gettysburg. Starting from the visitor's center, you follow red signs labeled 'auto tour' around the battlefield. You listen as you drive. At each stop, the recording covers another part of the story. For most stops, we would get out and look at the memorials and talk about what we were seeing. That first day, we only made it to stop five before the sun started to set.

On our way back to Gettysburg Wednesday we ran into major rain storms. Fortunately, by the time we reached the park, it had stopped. The night before I had done a little research about other things we could do and found out about the ranger guided programs that are offered daily. A program covering the third day of the battle was being held at 3:30pm. We made our visit to the bookstore and then met up with the group on Cemetery Ridge. The ranger took us on a short walk to the center of the ridge and explained what Pickett's Charge would have been like for the soldiers. She spoke for an hour. I was pleased and surprised that my boys were able to stay attentive the entire time. They were the only children in the group and I was worried they might be distracting for the other guests.

When the talk ended, we continued on the auto tour until nearly dusk. We did not make it to the end of the tour, completing only twelve stops out of sixteen. The great thing about the audio guide was that we were able to finish listening to the final disc while driving home. We couldn't get out and visit at each stop, but by that point we knew enough about the battlefield to be able to appreciate it anyway. Now that we have had a taste of Gettysburg, we look forward to going back again and again to explore this memorial park.

I did not take anything with us directly related to our normal homeschooling activities. There was no need. Our days were packed with learning experiences. No classroom could have provided the learning that we were immersed in while visiting Gettysburg. We purchased each of the boys a set of Civil War army figures in the museum bookstore. When we got home today, they set them up and re-enacted several of the battles we had learned about on our trip. Tomorrow I plan to have EM write a journal entry about our trip. I am also going to ask JT to write a composition titled, "What if?" in which he will be required to chose one pivotal point in the three days of battle at Gettysburg and speculate on what might have happened if events had gone differently. Other than that, I have no long term plans to incorporate our trip into our schooling. But I am sure it will be incorporated into our lives without any plan on my part.

Evening at Devil's Den

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three Ways I Gave in This Week

This is Zim. He is our new pet.

I have always known we would eventually end up with more animals gracing our home with their presence. Madagascar hissing cockroaches never made that list. Then we went to The Great Insect Fair in State College on Saturday and came home with this low maintenance bug. In case you are wondering, his name comes from the main character from Invader Zim, a quirky and short-lived Nickelodeon cartoon series. Zim doesn't need much to survive. A closed container with places for hiding and wood chips on the bottom, a damp sponge or paper towel for water and pretty much any vegetable to eat. He only needs his home cleaned out about once a month and can live for up to five years in captivity. Perfect! Plus, we can gross out quite a few of our friends.

The first way I found myself giving in this week was the acquisition of Zim. Normally, I would have responded with a firm 'NO', or even 'Forget it!', or maybe even, 'Have you lost your mind?!' I am definitely learning to go with the flow a little more these days.

The next test of my flexibility came because, on a whim I decided to buy a tent.

My husband and I used to go tent camping about once a year, before we had the boys. We had little cash, so vacation usually involved state parks and our tent. As we got older, tent camping lost all of its charm for us. Now we prefer 'camping' in modern cabins with beds, electricity, coffee makers...

When I saw a great clearance sale on the Sears website, I bought a tent. A big tent. It's almost as big as our living room. I also bought a queen-sized air mattress. When I told the boys I bought the tent, they were very excited and wanted to know if we could sleep out in our backyard. So, Tuesday evening we set the tent up and prepared for the great camp out. The boys actually did a little better than I thought they would. After some complaint, JT seemed to be good in his sleeping bag. Because our yard is one big hill, it was hard to find a completely level place to set up the jumbo tent, so EM kept rolling down the hill and into our air mattress. We finally moved him into bed with us. A little bit of sleep happened at some point in the night. I can't say that it was the most enjoyable evening I have ever spent, but I survived it. The boys were able to do something they had never done before and we are now ready to consider camping in the tent at some point next year.

There was one other way I ended up giving in to something this past week. When I was planning for this school year, I was very excited about the K12 Literary Analysis course I picked up for JT. It seemed so perfect, so challenging. When we really started to spend time working with the material, I realized it might be a little too challenging in some ways. The reading level seemed perfect, JT enjoyed and understood all of the selections. Even though the essay questions based on the readings were a little tedious for him to write, we worked through that by turning them into discussion starters instead. The vocabulary unit using Vocabulary from Classical Roots, level C was right on target for his needs. But it quickly became clear that the composition and grammar portions of the course were just too much. I hated to give up on this material. I could tell that eventually it would all be perfect for him, just not yet.

So I had a talk with him on Monday and we made a new plan. He will continue to use the vocabulary book as his spelling curriculum. This has actually worked out even better than using our old favorites, the English from the Roots Up flashcards. In the past, we didn't get into defining and using our spelling words as much as we are with this book. JT used uxorious and odious correctly in conversation this week thanks to this new material. We are dropping all other portions of the literary analysis material and saving them for the future. For reading, JT will be working his way through a few standard 6th grade novels. He will also use the reading text book provided by loan from our public school district. For the grammar portion he will be using a Calvert grammar workbook left over from our days with PA Cyber. I'm still up in the air on what I want to do for composition. I'm afraid that I will not push hard enough if I have nothing set in stone for that instruction. For now, he's working through a Critical Thinking workbook that requires quite a few essay style answers to questions. I might pull some of the old writing prompts from my file or I might just pick a topic and have him write one composition a month.

For now, I'm happy that JT helped me to decide which direction we should go. We didn't consider it a failure that we had to drop the K12 material for now. We just accepted it as something that wasn't working. I like the fact that we can be flexible like that. I'm never satisfied with just pushing my way ahead in an obviously incompatible situation anymore. There are far too many choices out there to allow ourselves to be resigned to a tedious fate.

The flexibility shall continue. Let the giving in begin!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Measuring the Learning

Call me strange, but I've always enjoyed taking tests. I loved them in elementary school. The teacher passed out those little slips of paper we used for spelling tests and we would number them 1-20, happily anticipating that first word. I loved the quiet classroom, pencils scratching as the minutes ticked by. Later in high school, I even enjoyed the essay questions in classes like British Lit and World History. And don't get me started on the joy of filling in the little bubbles on the SATs.

I really should go back to school soon.

You may be wondering what all of that blabbering about tests has to do with the picture in this post. Don't worry...I'll tell you all about it.

On Monday we took a field trip. It was a surprise birthday field trip for my husband. Being a guitarist, he has wanted to visit the Martin Guitar factory and museum for many years. When I was trying to think of something special for him this year, I remembered that and decided to combine birthday and school time all in one big, fun day.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Nazareth, PA make sure you go see their number one attraction. When I saw that they offered a factory tour, I was expecting something similar to Hershey's Chocolate Factory Tour or the Crayola Factory Tour where you don't really go in the factory itself, but instead learn how the factory works in an amusement ride or performance setting. This tour was the real deal! We were taken on the actual floor of the factory. We spoke with the workers while they were doing their jobs. We could see each step of the process up close and personal. Our tour guide was full of great information and he obviously enjoys his job. After the tour, we visited the on-site museum. It is a good sized museum; just about the right size for two active boys with sporadic attention. My husband also spent some time in their 'pickin' parlor' playing some of the top of the line Martin guitars. Did I mention that there is no charge for any of this?

Right before we headed into the factory, the guide told the boys since they were homeschoolers, there would be a quiz at the end of the tour. We all had a laugh and went on our way. Later I thought about it again and started looking at how we measure learning as homeschoolers.

When I first began homeschooling, we used a cyber charter school. Because of that, my boys had to do monthly tests and mail them in to the school for grading. Over the last year or so that I've homeschooled without the charter, I have found myself moving away from most testing. We continue to do a weekly spelling test out of tradition. Neither of the boys has ever complained about those tests, so they will probably remain in our routine. I don't think I could say that they retained more knowledge in the years that they were regularly being tested on the things they were learning. In fact, I honestly believe they may have retained less. In order to prepare for a test for every subject, every month, they usually had quite a bit to cover and review. We never stopped to dive deeper into a subject because we just didn't have the time. That depth driven by interest is what makes you remember something.

I could make the boys write reports about what they saw at the guitar museum. I could make them draw a picture of the factory floor and recite the steps in the creation of a guitar. Would that mean they had learned more than if I just sit and talk about the wonderful time we had together on Daddy's field trip? I'm guessing not. I'm guessing that starting a habit like that would just make them dread future field trips. Kind of like the way knowing you have to write a book report makes you dread reading a book. I want the boys to learn just for the joy of learning. I know they will need to take tests to get in to college and tests when they are there. As they move closer to high school age, I will be sure that they can answer those essay questions and fill in the bubbles. But for now, I'm just going to focus on exploring our world and learning as we go.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Inconveniences, Sickness, Natural Disasters

My week has been far from the put it lightly.

We were supposed to be going on a field trip for to Hershey Gardens and Zoo on Wednesday. I had checked the weather last week and everything looked fine. I checked again on Saturday and all of a sudden rain was predicted...for DAYS. Field trip delayed, then canceled. Tropical Storm Lee decided to come visit central Pennsylvania. He has not been a good guest. All of the cities and towns in our area that border the Susquehanna River are experiencing major flooding. We are fortunate to live on VERY high ground with no direct flooding here. However, we are cut off from most of civilization for now.

Not only are we physically unable to get to town, but yesterday our internet access went kaput. As hermits, staying home through the mess would have been just fine with all of us. But without our high-speed access to the virtual world, we felt out of touch with what has been happening in our community. Our ISP provided temporary dial-up connection to all their WI-FI customers. Nice of them...but let me just say, you can NEVER go back once you have been living with high-speed. No flood videos for us this week. Also, no pictures or links for this blog post.

On top of all of this, I woke up this morning to discover I had been infected with some sort of nasty stomach bug. I spent most of the day in bed while my wonderful, temporarily unable-to-work-due-to-lack-of-internet husband, not only took care of my sickly self, but also took care of schoolwork with the boys.

And now, I'm heading back to bed. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as our community recovers from this mess.

**Hooray! Five minutes after I posted this we had a call letting us know our high-speed internet was back!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mom Loses It

It all started Sunday night.

I was doing my predictable last minute planning for the week to come. It was late. I was tired. As I worked subject by subject, child by child to make my plan, I turned to my husband and said, "These lists are getting long. Maybe I'm trying to do too much this week."

Man, was I right about that!

Monday was a typical day. Even though we hadn't finished our list completely by 4pm, I wanted to get to the library, so we saved the history reading for bedtime. The boys did their Story of the World map work while having a bedtime snack. All was well.

Tuesday was the beginning of a downward trend. We started on time, but no one seemed ready to work...including me. My parents were coming for supper so I was trying to straighten up while bouncing in to check on progress now and then. JT was having difficulty with a few components of the K12 Literary Analysis course. I didn't feel like I had the time to sit and explain it thoroughly for him. Maybe he should just read the directions again? EM was playing with random toys he always hides in his desk. He didn't seem to want to get serious about any of his work. No one seemed able to stay on task. I was repeating instructions over and over because no one was listening. I was getting aching shoulders (always a sign of stress in me) and that was making everything more annoying.

Late that afternoon, the yelling started. And pretty much continued the rest of this week.

On Wednesday morning, I made the decision that we needed a day out. I had the boys finish a few things from their lists, a little math, a little reading, a bit of science, and then we took off for a day at a local amusement park. We discovered that going to the amusement park when most kids are in school is definitely a benefit of homeschooling. No crowds. The trip to the park gave us a chance to unwind, but the lists were still at home...waiting.

After another dismal day Thursday, I took a good look at what was really happening here. I think I just get over-excited at the start of the school year. There are so many new things to do; I just can't stop adding more to the list. My biggest problem this year is the K12 material I am using for JT's literature studies. It's fantastic material. I love every part of it. I just need to break it down into smaller chunks to keep it from taking over our days. Remembering that our homeschooling lifestyle is supposed to be about the journey and not the destination would also be a good idea.

So, I'm going to take a deep breath...and reduce the lists for next week. Our days do not have to look like a typical school classroom, running from one subject to the next, no time to stop and explore the small details that make our lives so rich. We want time to stop and smell the roses.

On our way to the park, I asked the boys how they would respond if someone asked them why they weren't in school. After some discussion, we decided the best response would be, "The world is my classroom."

Now I just need to make sure I stay true to that statement.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And They're Off!

Year number four in our journey has begun. We started the week off with a field trip to Millbrook Marsh Nature Center in State College. Considering my plan to make this our most unstructured year yet, an afternoon of casual traipsing in nature seemed like a perfect beginning.

JT has enthusiastically jumped into his new English program. I picked up copies of K12's Level 8 Literary Analysis and Composition Teacher Guide and Student Pages at a library book sale this summer. At first, I didn't think I could use them for much more than an outline for a reading course. I quickly realized I would only need to purchase copies of the reader, English skills book and the vocabulary book the course uses and I could do everything except the online portion of the course. I picked up two of the books, second hand, for pennies. The vocabulary book used in the course is the Level C Vocabulary from Classical Roots, which I already own! This course is a perfect fit for JT. There is a great deal of depth in the lessons. The reading assignments are right on target for his level of comprehension. The composition portion of the work will be challenging. Even though he has resisted composition assignments in the past, he says he is excited by the way it is presented in this method.

EM will be spending more time this year developing his writing style. When it comes to writing, he only believes in giving the vital information. He is a math-man all the way. Today we had a good discussion about expression in writing. Together we wrote up several possible topic sentences for a paragraph he was composing. I tried to show him how changing the order of the words, adding more detail and imagery would make someone want to read the rest of the paragraph. I don't know if writing in this way will ever come naturally for him, but he will at least understand why he should try.

Both of the boys are really enjoying our new way of studying science. We currently have two Monarchs in their chrysalides and one white-lined sphinx moth pupa in our classroom. Both of the links for those insects come from the website Bug Life Cycles. This site is an excellent resource for our entomology study. The vivid photographs have helped us identify more than one of our specimens. I am getting a lot out of this study...maybe more than the boys. It has been a great refresher for my rusty taxonomy skills.

The highlight of the week came early. While we were walking around the marsh, EM came up to me and said, "Mom, I'm so happy you brought us here today. I love school!"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fire Safety

"safety education, including regular and continuous instruction in the dangers and prevention of fires"
~24 P.S. § 13-1327.1 Home education program

In PA, homeschoolers are required to teach fire safety every year. My favorite reference site for homeschooling in Pennsylvania,, has a great page that gives many creative ideas for teaching fire safety. We had an opportunity this week to move beyond the worksheets and participate in Fire Safety Day Camp. For two hours a day, three days this week, they are learning all about emergency services.

The first day of camp a local police chief talked with them about crime prevention. He showed the students how handcuffs and leg irons are used to keep criminals from harming others. The kids really enjoyed learning about how a taser works. Next they learned about the jobs of EMTs and ambulance drivers. They were able to tour two different types of ambulances. The grand finale of the day came when the local hospital helicopter landed on the field and the kids were able to get inside and talk with the pilot.

Day two involved discussion of fire prevention and fire safety. They learned how to escape a burning building and how to make a 911 call. The volunteer fire fighters put on their equipment and showed how each part of the uniform helped to keep them safe. Then the instructors demonstrated rope rescue. The kids split into teams and had a hand in pulling a 'victim' to safety.

Tomorrow they are going to use fire extinguishers, man the hoses on the fire trucks and end the week with a giant water battle. (I'm guessing the fire hose will play a part in this.)

Overall, it has been an excellent NO COST program for my children.

When we originally signed up, I was told that parents were free to stay or leave their children. The camp was split into two time frames for two different age groups. My boys both fell into the morning group, ages 7-10. I decided I would stay because I thought it would be interesting and I also didn't really know anyone involved with this program.

On the first morning, I found another homeschooling mom to chat with during the program. She said to me, "I can't believe how many parents just left their kids here." I hadn't really thought about it too much, but when she mentioned it, I realized how most parents are used to leaving their kids with strangers on a daily basis. I know that school teachers aren't really 'strangers' because they are employed by the school and have been thoroughly investigated to a point that we need not worry about our children's safety. However, it is a practice that may not be second nature to those of us in the homeschooling world. When given the option, I often stay to see what is going on with the boys. Not necessarily because I think that I can't leave them, but more out of curiosity. I want to know what they are learning so we can talk about it later. Some might think that is being over-protective or smothering. At this point, my boys don't seem to mind my almost ever-present self. So as long as they let me...I'll be there learning with them.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Odds and Ends

Even though our insect collecting supplies are in transit (last time I checked, they were in Bismark, ND) my boys have decided to dive headfirst into the entomology study. JT brought me a handful of molted cicada skins he found under our apple tree. Later, when I said, "Get those dead things out of my house!" He quite correctly answered, "Mom, they aren't dead. They were never alive."

That's what you get for teaching your kids.

I finally received a letter from our home school district declaring my homeschool portfolios for last year acceptable. I was fairly certain we had done everything required, but I still felt like I was holding my breath until I got the news.

Our last week of summer vacation is going to be a full one. We will be going to VBS at our church from Sunday through Wednesday, so our evenings will be busy. Wednesday through Friday the boys will be taking part in a Fire Safety Day Camp in the mornings sponsored by a local fire company. It sounds like a good program, but whenever I have to sign a waiver warning me of potential injury or death for my children, I get a bit worried. We'll see how that turns out!

Sometime during all of that craziness, I will need to finalize lesson plans for the first week or two. Because I am going for a less structured method this year, I'm wondering exactly how much planning I will be doing on a weekly basis. I guess I'll have some tweaking to do as I try different methods.

After much avoidance, I did iron out my plan for music instruction earlier this week. That was one subject I had been avoiding like the plague. Although we listen to music most days, have instruments all over the house and attend a number of musical performances most years, I just dread trying to teach music to the boys. I found a slightly dated book called Music Skills for Classroom Teachers published in 1979 at a library book sale. We will cover just five chapters from this book and supplement with a study of several famous composers. Also, because I'm a glutton for punishment, we will be buying recorders that they will be learning to play.

Tonight a cool breeze is blowing in my classroom window. The summer has slipped away and before I know it the snow will be swirling against those windows. Even so, I no longer feel the same anxiety I used to when fall would sneak up on us. There used to be such a rush to get everything ready for school: shopping trips, back to school night, the need to get the kids to bed earlier so the race to the bus wouldn't be so traumatic. They are all behind us. Our life has such a steady rhythm now. I can't imagine ever going back.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Science Planning

My planning for this coming school year is nearly complete. The subject that I both enjoy and dread when it comes to planning is definitely science. Don't get me wrong...I love science. It has always been my favorite subject. At one point in my life I was registered as a biology major, but life doesn't always follow the path you expect and that's another story. The biggest challenge here is narrowing down what we are going to study for the year. There are just too many choices!

At the beginning of last year, I had set a goal to spend more time focusing on specific topics of interest in science and less time jumping around from topic to topic the way most elementary science text books tend to do. I also tried to incorporate as much hands-on learning and experimentation as possible. As the year went on, I started to worry that the boys wouldn't be on target for what they should know in science if I didn't use a grade appropriate text book as a guide. So I pulled one for each boy from my supply and started the tedious process of reading from a text book.

This year, there will be little need for text books in science! My overall plan currently looks something like this:

I will have a grade appropriate text book on hand for each of the boys. I will give them free rein with those books. They can read them, page through them, or completely ignore them.

We chose four major topics we want to cover for the year. Entomology, marine biology, cells and their structures (definitely spending considerable time on microscope use) and finally, geology with a dose of paleontology. As you can see, this year leans heavily on the biology side of the science spectrum.

At this point, I am working hard to outline what I really want to cover in our first unit. JT has been after me for 4 years to have an 'entomology course'. He will finally get his wish. I am using the book The Practical Entomologist as the backbone of our study. We certainly have a large selection of reading material covering the insect world. I hope to tie our study of word roots with the scientific names of the insects. I am shopping on the Home Science Tools website for all of the fun accessories we may need to create a spectacular collection of insect specimens. Also, we will be going to The Great Insect Fair held in State College on the Penn State University campus. We have wanted to attend the last two years, but our schedule prevented it. They also sponsor a Build-A-Bug contest that both boys are planning to enter. When I look at everything we could possibly do with this unit, 45 days (1/4 of the required 180 school days in PA), will never be enough!

One last thing I am planning for our science studies this year, involves nature journaling. I am buying a copy of The Nature Connection by Clare Walker Leslie for each of the boys AND one for myself. This book comes highly recommended and when I looked through it, I could certainly see why. After two introductory chapters titled, "How to Be a Naturalist" and "Learning the Sky" Leslie launches into Part Three, "Exploring Nature: A Month-by-Month Guide". The book is designed so that you can record your observations directly on the pages. Readers are encouraged to add drawings and photos to the journal. Each section covers a different month and discusses different plants and animals that you might encounter at that time of the year. It also has a place to record temperature, weather and astronomical data. I plan to hold these books in reserve until December. We will begin our data gathering at the start of the calendar year. I'm hoping that will encourage us to get outside when we might prefer to stay indoors and hibernate.

The more time I spend planning this year, the more excited I am about our prospects. My expectations are not always accurate. But I know that's part of the learning process...and I'll accept whatever comes my way.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Best Week of the Year

My children look forward to Kids' College week almost as much as Christmas week. Kids' College is a local enrichment program offered for one week in the summer to students from second through fifth grade. This year, as always, the program was fantastic. This was EM's first year as a student. I wasn't sure if he would enjoy it as much as JT does. When I asked what he thought after the first day he told me it was 'alright'. By the second day, he was hooked.

The schedule included three classes in the mornings: Wiggles, Squiggles, Fun and Giggles; Medieval Magic and Foreign Forensics: CSI East Asia. Each day was jam-packed with exciting hands-on activities. EM, who is not the biggest fan of drawing, even enjoyed the creative drawing activities in the Wiggles, Squiggles, Fun and Giggles class. JT had an especially good time trying new foods in the CSI East Asia class.

Two things come to mind as I file away this year's experience. First of all, I really appreciate the way the instructors treat the students with respect. I understand that in a regular classroom, order must be maintained or mayhem would quickly result. However, too often I have seen adults 'in charge' take this to mean that the children are lesser human beings and that their individual needs come after the need for conformity. But one example from Kids' College shows that the adults here are ready to listen to the opinion of the students.

The program is held on the campus of a local university. The building that is used for Kids' College is also being used by university staff. The children need to be respectful of the employees while traveling through the building from one room to another. One way the instructors remind them to behave is by placing sets of Styrofoam eyeballs in strategic places throughout the building. This helps the kids remember that there are eyes on them at all times. One set of eyeballs ended up in the boys' bathroom. A few of the boys decided that this was not exactly 'appropriate' to have the eyes 'watching' them while they were in there. When they brought their concerns to the instructors, it was discussed and determined that it would be best to remove the eyes from the bathroom. This may seem like a minor issue, but it really shows the attitude of the teachers. The students' opinions were given value. They were treated as thinking beings that could provide input to the community.

Secondly, during the week the boys were at camp, I read a wonderful blog post at Scientific American titled, The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience. The author explores the question of whether our traditional methods of instruction, including memorization of facts and imitation of instructors, help or hinder a child's ability to learn. It was a fascinating article. The studies that are referenced throughout the post hammer home the idea that allowing a child to figure out for themselves the best way to do something helps them to get the most value out of their education. When I look at the experience Kids' College provides to the students, I see how well they are applying the principles these researchers are touting. The following excerpt from the post by Andrea Kuszewski explains how learning really happens:

You need to make mistakes in order to learn. If you never know why an answer is wrong, you will never be able to come across a novel situation and make a good decision about how to act. Making errors and struggling through problems is what increases cognitive ability . Spending time pondering a question, weighing choices, thinking about whether or not an answer fits, and why—this is what drives positive change. That’s what learning is. That’s what our education system should be focusing on. (source)

Kudos to the creators of Kids' College for allowing that sort of learning to happen. It may be messy, it may be a great deal of work...but the kids are gaining more than can be measured.

When I asked EM and JT if there was anything they would like to say about Kids' College, JT said, "It was awesome!" EM said, "I wish it could go on forever...until I grow up."