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.