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."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Suffering From Lack of Motivation

My long-awaited planning week has finally arrived. The boys are both attending Kids' College for five days. Theoretically that should mean I have a large pocket of free time each day. When I wrote that on the calendar several months ago, I assumed I would use this week to get the classroom, and myself, ready for our next school year.

So far this week I:

  1. Looked over math books on Monday.
  2. Did a huge pile of laundry.
  3. Ordered books from three separate websites, despite my previous promise to do no such thing. (In my defense, I did order Singapore Math and Key Curriculum materials from one site.)
  4. Went to see the Harry Potter movie with my mom and daughter.
  5. Had lunch after the Harry Potter movie and went to another book store to buy more books. (Buy 4, get 1 free! You would have done it too!)
  6. Briefly stepped into the classroom to consider whether I should be doing more planning.
  7. Went to a HUGE library book sale and came home with a large bag of books for only $20.
  8. Went swimming because it was still 96º at 6pm!
  9. Figured I'll do a little planning tomorrow since it will be the last day the boys are out of the house.
This is a picture of just one table at the book sale I went to today. The near bursting bag on top of the books is my daughter's bag. She really knows how to pack them in. Even after her handles broke, she kept re-organizing to stuff it completely.

My bag looks like this. Not quite as impressive, but I'm happy with what I found. Among the haul I have a handful of science books, three books I hope to use for music instruction and a cool book called Fantasy Cartooning, that I really think the boys will like for art.

Next week I plan to blog about the boys' week at Kids' College. I will also explain why after reading an interesting study about learning, I decided planning wasn't as essential as I originally thought. It was very convenient that I read this during the week I should have been planning. It certainly cut down on the guilt I probably should feel right now. Tomorrow we are expecting temps near 100º so I might just end up in the pool again. Or not. I don't want to make too many plans...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Summer Activities

You might say that we like games in our house.

This picture is a portion of the 'game closet' in my husband's office. He also keeps his own personal stash in our bedroom closet that includes such marathon games as Twilight Imperium. If you think Risk takes a long time to play, you have never experienced Twilight Imperium. This summer the boys discovered a few old favorites of ours...Super Mastermind, Mancala and Memory. All of these are excellent thinking games. EM blows us away when we play Memory. He has always been good at finding things we misplace around the house. Now he has another way to put that talent to use.

It has been a struggle to keep myself from allowing the boys too much screen time this summer. I'll let them get on the computer and suddenly I realize a couple hours have flown by. Then I need to shove them out into the sunshine for a bit. Board games have made a great filler for when it's too hot to be outside.

One computer related activity that I have been allowing this summer is Gamestar Mechanic. This is an excellent teaching tool if your child is interested in game design. You can read the teacher's FAQ here. There are two different options for accounts, free and premium. The premium is about $50 a year. So far, both boys are only using the free membership. However, I think JT will soon be moving to premium. I made a deal with him. If he will enter the local newspaper's history essay contest, I will buy him the premium account. He needs to write an essay about what social issues could cause a civil war in the United States today and what the outcome might be. He has a good idea with solid arguments, so I think it will turn out to be an interesting essay. So far his motivation is good. The deadline for submission is August 19th, so he has plenty of time to finish it.

Back to Gamestar.... I like this site for a few reasons, but my favorite is the level of monitoring going on there. Because it is designed to be used in educational settings, they really keep a good eye on the online community. The users design games which are then played and reviewed by other users. The reviews are watched for any unsportsmanlike comments. JT actually received a warning once for a fairly mild negativity he made on one game. We used that as an opportunity to discuss online etiquette and how important it can be. He has really taken off with the game design and is always coming up with new ideas for his next project. EM also opened an account and has made a few games. We think he might be ready to try out Scratch when we get back to our regular school schedule.

Speaking of our regular school schedule... I have deemed August 22nd as our first 'official' school day. We will actually log about two weeks of time before the start date with outside learning opportunities, but our in home work won't start until the 22nd. Our first day will be a rough one! We will be taking a field trip. EM has an eye appointment that day and there just happens to be a geology museum near his doctor's office. Both boys whined a bit when I told them our start day, but when they found out a field trip was involved, they were appeased.

As usual, I can't believe how fast summer has been flying by. I'm hoping next week will provide an opportunity for me to really sit down and make some definite plans for the upcoming school year. Both boys will be attending Kids' College at our local university. This will be EM's first year there. I will have FIVE mornings of freedom! I wonder if I will actually be motivated enough to get to work...or if I'll just pour another cup of coffee and unwind.

Only time will tell.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Making a Difference

In early April, I took the boys to a homeschooling program about fish at a local state park. It was a great day. The boys spent the day learning about the anatomy of fish, habitats, etc. In the afternoon, they were each assigned a 'mystery fish' . Given a picture of a fish with no identification, they had to use the resources in the nature center to find out which fish they had. JT had the johnny darter, EM had the American eel. After finding their fish, they needed to put together a poster to present to the group.

A couple days later, as a follow-up activity, I had the boys watch BrainPOP's video about fish. Half way through the movie, JT yelled, "That's not right!" When I investigated the problem, I found out that the movie stated "All fish have swim bladders." JT knew that this was not correct because HIS fish from the homeschooling day did NOT have a swim bladder. I told him that he would have to write a letter to the producers of BrainPOP if he wanted to let them know their error.

When he started writing, I explained that he couldn't just tell them they had their facts wrong. He would need to prove it. He would need a reference to cite. He found the pamphlet that he brought home from the state park and found an online version. He wrote a very concise, professional letter. He was also sure to let them know how much he loves their movies. I was one proud momma!

Several months went by. I started to assume that BrainPOP doesn't do a whole lot to communicate with their fans. Then one day in June, the Federal Express truck rolled into our driveway.

BrainPOP not only replied to JT's letter, they also sent him a package full of BrainPOP swag! But more importantly, they changed the movie based on JT's information.

I see two important things that can be learned from this letter writing adventure. First of all, if you know someone is incorrect, and teaching others something that is incorrect, it is important to let them know about it in a professional manner. When you do that, intelligent people will look at your arguments and make a change to what they are presenting to others. The second is that those in teaching positions, whether it be 'real' teachers, parents or even cartoon robots, need to be willing to listen to the opinions of others. I try never to assume I KNOW the right answer. There's always a chance that I may be proven wrong. If the evidence is there, I need to remember that I am not the expert. And even if I was an expert on something, experts make mistakes too. I am on the same learning journey as my children and therefore should always be ready to learn something new.