Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leading by Example

On Saturday, I participated in my first 5k event. My only goal was not to come in last. I placed 42nd out of 69 runners, overall and 6th out of 16 in my age category. With a time of 31:48:45, I certainly have a lot of room for improvement. But it's a good start!

In February, my doctor let me know my cholesterol levels were bad. My overall and LDL were both at a point where medication was being recommended. I flat out refused to take any of those drugs for many reasons, so a new health regime had to be developed. I started out walking two miles per day and gradually increased to running three miles every other day. Sometimes I would have company from a bike-riding boy, and rarely, a running boy. After initially seeming to want to join me in my new hobby, the interest died off. I didn't push them. Partly because I enjoy my time alone when I run. But also because I don't want to force them to exercise in a way that isn't necessarily their forte.

Saturday morning my husband and boys came to the race to cheer me on. EM brought his stopwatch to keep time. The race was held at a local state park, so most of the course was easy to watch from a fairly central location. They followed my progress and took some very unflattering pictures that no one will EVER see. The race was advertised as a walk or run event and there was a handful of kids under 11 yrs participating. When the boys saw the kids getting prizes, they decided that they want to run the next time I do.

JT and I will start his training as soon as he recovers from a nasty respiratory infection he picked up this week. His goal is to participate in a race being held in the middle of November. He's a fast runner, he just needs to work on his stamina. My husband has been having knee issues for a year and now that he has been doing physical therapy, is nearly ready to get back in shape. He is hoping to be able to walk the event with EM.

Getting healthy as a family will give us more opportunity to spend time together meeting our new goals. I hope setting these examples while they are still young will help them to carry through into their adult lives. Of course, if they start running faster than they do now, I'll have a harder time catching them when they are in trouble.

Maybe I shouldn't share that thought with them...

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Up until about two hours before the start of our first school day, I was unsure how my science plan would play out. You see, I waited until the last minute to order vital components for our hands-on magnetism and electricity science unit. I tracked our package from Home Science Tools anxiously. It looked like it would arrive Monday...but we never know for sure when our UPS man will get to our house. Luckily this time he showed up at 10am. With a scheduled start time of 1pm for our science activities, I just made it under the wire.

In the picture you can see our new Alnico V horseshoe magnet. Regardless of its diminutive size, it packs quite a punch. For this experiment, we were predicting magnet strength based on shape, size, and composition. First JT tested how many paper clips our bar magnet could hold. After he found it could hold 27, we read that our Alnico V was about five times stronger than a bar magnet. Its name comes from the fact that it is made from a steel alloy with the trade name Alnico #5. Based on this information he predicted it would hold about 100. We kept running out of paper clips and had to search the house for more several times. Finally, our horseshoe magnet failed at 116. Keep that thing away from my magnetic media!

Another hands-on activity this week involved making our own magnets. We turned a hacksaw blade into a magnet using the stroking method with our horseshoe magnet. We identified the poles on each of our magnets, hanging them from a little construction we made using a paper clip, thread, some heavy duty copper wire, and an old piece of Styrofoam packaging. We also magnetized and demagnetized a steel sewing needle by pounding it with a hammer. The boys enjoyed that project!

I feel like our first science unit is well under way. I was struggling with how much of our text, The Watts Laboratory Library Experiments in Magnetism and Electricity, we could get through in our ten week unit. I will have to skip some of the experiments to make it work, but we will read the explanations of most, even if we don't do all of them. I'm sure we can come back to this book in the future for more fun.

I was lucky in a different way with our last minute planning for American history. I made an inter-library loan request last Thursday for a book on Zebulon Pike. I had hoped to start reading it with the boys today, but it hasn't arrived. Then we had a great surprise on the doorstep! My friend, Annie, from Learn at Every Turn, had sent us her extra set of the first five books in the History of US series by Joy Hakim. We read the first chapter from the first book. I have heard many homeschoolers declare their love for this series and after one chapter, I can definitely see why they do. We decided that after we read the Zebulon Pike book, we will continue our timeline of America using this series. We will probably supplement with other readings, but I think they will make a great backbone for our study.

One final addition to our schooling this year will be EM's beginning study of computer programming. JT has already been working on that subject for a few years. Now that EM is a fourth grader, we decided it was time to get him started. We looked at Alice, Scratch and a few other possibilities. None of those were really a perfect fit. Then I noticed that Khan Academy had added a computer science series. I think it looks fantastic. You can watch the computer science launch video, if you are interested. EM tried out the intro to drawing tutorial today. Very intuitive and it held his interest. Looks like a good way to learn how to program.

It has been a week full of surprises. The best surprise of all, was the attitude the boys are showing toward their work this year. Both boys told me that they really like the direction we are heading. They especially like it that we are continuing our science using the four unit a year method we started last year.

Here's hoping things continue as they have begun!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Final Countdown

This week we had a semi-start to a full school schedule. The boys are attending a three day fire safety day camp. Several local fire companies work together to put on this excellent program every summer. I wrote more fully about the program last year in this blog post.

I feel like I am nearly ready for next week. I spent a few hours yesterday re-working my daily schedule for the boys. You might remember that our general practice has been unstructured learning time in the mornings, classroom structured work in the afternoons. I decided to add a few responsibilities to the boys' morning routines for this year. Our recently acquired Wii Fit is being worked into the plan. I will have JT use it Mondays and Wednesdays and EM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Wii Fit has an option to log exercises done throughout the day. When the weather is good and they can be active outside, they will be able to track it on their personal accounts. When the weather is bad, they will be using the personal training on the Wii Fit indoors.

I also set up a Mango Languages account for each of the boys, thanks to free access through our local library. I want them to do three lessons per week during morning hours. In addition, two morning per week I want each of them to spend more time working on either computer programming classes or computer skills learning. JT is signed up for another Coursera class in the Fall. This time it's a Python programming class. EM will be working to learn how to use a word processing program and Power Point.

I think they should be able to complete these goals in less than an hour most days; leaving plenty of time for free play. Even though these are responsibilities being added to their day, they are not like the desk work we do in the afternoons. As they get older, I will encourage them to choose something they would like to work on in these morning hours. Up until now, mornings have been spent entirely in free play. While I feel free play has a great deal of value to their personal development, I also want them to set their own goals in learning.

I need to share another small victory for this homeschooling mom with paranoia over whether she is doing a good enough job at teaching her boys. JT completed his first written assignment for the Coursera History of the Internet class. He also did his peer grading assignment, requiring him to read and grade the work of five of his classmates. I was worried that as an 11 year old in a college level class, his work would seem amateur to those who graded it. He received his scores yesterday. His essay received a score of 9 out of 10. He had a few nice comments from his peers. They told him he was very concise and obviously knew the material. They also told him to add more details in his future writing. Oddly enough, that was the SAME advice MOM gave before he submitted this work. :-) I found that the opportunity to read and evaluate the work of others has been an excellent educational moment for JT. I helped him to turn his thoughts on the writing of his peers into the comments they would be reading. We had interesting discussions on how he had to look past the language barriers (many of the students are English language learners) to see what they were attempting to express in their essays. He was very critical at times and it gave me a chance to point out the fact that he needed to read his own work with that same level of discernment when he is editing. I am definitely learning to love Coursera.

I guess I may not be 100% ready for our launch date on Monday. My Home Science Tools order will not arrive until Monday afternoon, my printer is spewing streaky documents more often than not, my classroom floor has ever-changing piles of books and materials strewn about, but mentally, I am ready to start.
I am confident that learning will happen next week.
I am confident that we are going to get back into our groove quickly.
I am confident that another fantastic school year is just around the corner.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Progress is Relative

Here is where I stand in planning our homeschool year 2012-2013.

I do not have a clear outline for most subjects.
I do not even have a hint of an outline for our first science unit.
I have a white board covered in vague ideas about things like music lessons and art classes.
I have not spent more than a few minutes this summer seriously working on the plan.

However, my classroom no longer looks like it did in the above picture. Now it looks like this.

The desks have been cleaned and organized.
Most surfaces in my office are free of clutter.
Old books have been gathered and passed on to others.
The boys have already put in several days of schooling, thanks to Kids' College and Coursera.
The books are nestled all snug on their shelves.
And so on...

Unfortunately, I still lack a concrete plan and I have only ten more days until the day we chose to be the beginning of our fifth year of schooling at home.

Luckily for me, many of our subjects can just pick up where they left off at the start of summer. American history and world history are both ongoing studies, following a timeline using a variety of reading selections. My overall plan for math was put together early in the previous school year and I will continue on that same path. My purchase of new grammar workbooks should allow a more independent approach for each of the boys for that subject. Our unit studies for some of the 'minor' subjects will be following the same outline from last year. They just need a little tweaking before we start. Spelling, reading and art will pretty much be a continuation of last year. The only subject I really need to sit down and outline will be science.

Apparently, homeschooling the same two children for multiple years, means the work lessens as the time schooled increases. If this trend continues, I'll have absolutely nothing to do in a few more years!

I know that is not really a true statement, but there is some truth there. Because they are in the same classroom, with the same teacher, year after year, they can have a fluid, individualized learning experience.

And I love it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Virtual Learning

JT and I had our first taste of online education earlier this year. We both took the Computer Science 101 class offered by Stanford University through Coursera. The class, although offered by a university, was designed with high school age students as its target audience. JT did an excellent job with the class. The format of the class included watching several short lectures every week and doing assignments, sometimes programming, sometimes quizzes. At the end of the course, we each received a certificate of completion stating that we finished all of the work with a score better than 80%.

Due to our success, we decided to sign up for more classes this summer. Last week we started two classes, Listening to World Music and History of the Internet. These classes were designed with a different audience in mind. These classes include writing assignments. Writing assignments that are peer graded. In the music class, all students who submit essays must also review the work of at least five of their classmates.

This was a bit more than I bargained for.

Initially I decided to just go with the flow and see how JT did with some of the writing assignments. Then I got a look at the first group of choices for the music writing. I decided he could drop the class, we would watch the lectures together, and only I would complete the assignments. I chose what I thought was the easiest prompt and fretted over it for a few days. I finally sat down to write. After nearly two hours, I felt I had a decent product, considering I've never taken a college level class AND it's been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school. I clicked the submit your assignment button on the screen and...
I missed the deadline by an hour.

I spent some time in the class forums and found I was not alone. I also found there was nothing to be done to fix my mistake.

All of that said, we are both thoroughly enjoying our other class. The first week our assignment was a multiple choice quiz. Piece of cake. This week we have a writing assignment. But this one is not as complex as the music class assignment, and I think, with a bit of encouragement, JT can pull it off. AND this time, I am submitting WELL before the deadline.

I must admit, I was feeling like we might not be suited for these classes. I wondered if JT is in over his head with the level of the course work. I worry that JT will feel he's never ready for these kind of classes if I let him drop out so easily. Then I started thinking about the expectations Coursera has for us. There really aren't any except our own. If we do not complete the assignments, no one will remove us from the class. We can watch the lectures at no cost. We can take part in the greatest experiment in education happening during our lifetimes. Coursera is doing something no one has done before. Offering free college level classes to anyone with access to a computer. Our History of the Internet class forum has a thread where students are stating their age and what country they call home. The ages range from 11 to 81! People from countries all over the world are taking part in a group discussion about how it's even possible for all of us to be doing just that.

The video below is a TED talk that Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera gave in June of this year. Her vision gets me excited about the future of education. So I'll continue to play my role as laboratory rat. And maybe I'll even learn something along the way.