Thursday, November 29, 2012


welcome to the jungle
Today there was very little home in our homeschooling. 

We were out the door by 8:45am heading to our first event.  As a side note here, any time we have morning activities to attend, I am thankful for all the days we don't have to rush out to catch a bus.  Most mornings in our house have a very casual beginning. 

One of the local libraries has been hosting a series of classes called Healthy Holiday Cooking, presented by a community educator from Penn State Cooperative Extension.  We have been learning about healthy menu choices, correct portioning of foods, evaluating ingredients through label reading, and tactics for frugal grocery budgeting. The kids also get to make cool recipes.  Today they made pumpkin pie in a bag!  Here is a link to a similar version of what we made:  pumpkin pie in a bag.  We have one more session in the series.  One nice benefit is that the boys get a chance to visit a library other than our usual one and spend time with other homeschoolers.

We left the library at 10:45am and headed out to a local coffee house with a play area for the kids.  Today was our first visit to this establishment.  It is run by a church as a community outreach.  We were impressed by the food, friendly staff, very nice facilities and beautiful murals in the parent area near the play equipment.

hanging around
The place was fairly busy since it was right around the lunch rush.  Quite a few preschool age children were there when we arrived.  An event had been planned through our local homeschool Meetup group, but only one other family came.  I was a little disappointed since there were no other kids close in age to my boys.  However, they didn't seem to mind that much.  JT asked me if anyone else his age would be coming, when I told him no, he just went back in to play.  He told me he was nearly run over by a 'swarm' of little kids.  EM spent his time policing the younger ones.  He used to tell me he wanted to be a policeman when he grows up.  That boy loves rules.

impressive detail
 I had a good time chatting with the other adults and drinking my iced mocha.  Mom definitely scored some socialization points today.  We spent about two hours hanging out, then set out for one more stop.

I needed to make a quick trip to the mall before we could go back home.  I remember the days when the boys were very small and a trip to the mall took all the energy I had.  Sometimes it surprises me to realize how much different things are now that they are nine and eleven.  We were in and out of the mall with only a short, unplanned stop in the bookstore.  It is pretty much impossible for our family to go in a mall without a visit to the bookstore.

When we finally returned home around 3pm, the boys quickly worked on the few items I had put on their lists for the day.  I knew we'd be busy, so I kept the assignments to a minimum.

So often, I hear misconceptions of what homeschooling is like.  The idea that we spend all of our days sitting at home, drilling the boys on times tables and preparing for national spelling bees, is nothing like what we really do.  In fact, I'm fairly certain our homeschooling days have more variety to them than what the boys could expect from a day in our local schools. 

Homeschooling is definitely a journey for us... more ways than one.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Short Week for the Holiday

Ninja with a slinky
Since we were only schooling Monday and Tuesday this week, I decided to make it a fun school week.  We packed the days with math puzzles, reading, hands-on science, art, and documentaries.

Our art project for this week was taken from the website Art Projects for Kids.  The boys both used the tutorial for drawing the Mayflower.  This is the closest we came to incorporating Thanksgiving into our schooling.  Like most Americans, we enjoy a big meal and family gathering to celebrate this holiday, but JT and I both have big problems looking at the early history of the United States with anything less than outrage over the way our ancestors treated the native peoples of this continent.   Our study of American history often turns into discussions on the possession of land and atrocities committed by early settlers.  I sometimes wonder if he would be able to contain himself in a traditional classroom if he wasn't given the opportunity to express his opinions about these things.

Both boys spent time on their reading assignments.  JT is reading the young reader's edition of Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy.  EM is working on My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  We are also currently reading John Quincy Adams by Jane C. Walker aloud for our study of American history.  Math has consisted of a review worksheet on multiplication of fractions and a puzzle sheet involving Mayan math for EM and puzzle problems involving addition of positive and negative integers and exponents for JT.

Our science unit right now is covering sound, light and energy.  The first three weeks have been focused on studying sound.  This week we have been reading the chapters related to sound energy in Janice VanCleave's book Energy for Every Kid and doing the related projects.  The slinky demonstrations were especially fun for the boys.  And let me tell you, it isn't easy to get a good picture of a slinky in mid-wave!

boys think they are funny

We have  also been looking at diagrams of transverse waves and longitudinal waves.  When I asked JT to show me how he could represent a wave with an increased amplitude, including a source for the sound, he proved he understood the concept and can be quite a stinker all at the same time.  He will need to work a bit on his portrait drawing; I really don't look that much like Pac-Man.

Finally, we watched some interesting documentaries online this week.  I sometimes forget how many great programs are available for free.  PBS is one site with a good selection for viewing.  On Monday we watched Can I Eat That? and on Tuesday we enjoyed Magic of the Snowy Owl.  We also watched a short program called The Science of Picky Eaters.  I now know that EM's extreme resistance to eating vegetables is more than likely genetic.  There is a good chance he may grow out of it, but for now I can rest easy knowing I am not a parenting failure just because my boy will not eat certain foods.

And that is a good reason to celebrate and be thankful this week.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Music in the Air

state capital building
The boys and I went on a field trip to Harrisburg last Friday.  The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra puts on two Young Person's Concerts every year.  Maestro Stuart Malina does an excellent job sharing his love of music with the children in attendance.  He is always engaging and entertaining.  Before the performance, a guide is posted to the website that allows me to prepare the boys for the pieces that will be performed.  We can watch videos of performances of the music or read about the life of the composer. 

full house
One of the pieces played was Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.  Maestro Malina explained the concept of a musical theme.  The orchestra then demonstrated what was meant by a variation in theme. When the performance of the piece was about to begin, the  audience was instructed to try and keep track of how many variations on the theme they could detect.  JT managed to correctly identify seven variations.  I wasn't so lucky.  I was a bit busy being distracted by the kids who kept clapping when the piece wasn't over.  It was funny the first couple times, but grew tedious quickly.

view from less than optimal seats

After the concert, we went for a walk around the capital.  It was a gorgeous day; beautiful blue skies, sixty degrees, perfect day for a walk.  After we were sure the crowds would have cleared out from the lunch rush, we went to the food court at Strawberry Square and ate unhealthy fast food.  I try to avoid that kind of thing, but sometimes I just can't resist. 

The day was a nice break from our usual at-home routine.  I'll be looking forward to the spring concert and another trip to our state capital.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rooting out the Meanings

spelling practice with a twist
I continue to teach spelling to both EM and JT, even though JT is no longer required, according to PA homeschooling regs, to include spelling instruction in his portfolio.  JT is a master of words.  He has always had an extensive vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it.  Often.  As in, no stop to the talking.  All day.  In fact, you could call him loquacious or verbose.  Both being recent words on his spelling lists.

But that is not exactly the point of this particular post.

I decided from the very beginning of our homeschooling adventure to focus on learning new spelling words based on the roots of the word rather than learning spelling patterns.  We also spend much more time looking at the meanings of words rather than just how to spell them.  For the first two years, I created our spelling lists using the English from the Roots Up flash cards.  I would make a new list each week, usually using two or three roots to make up a list of 15 words.  I would give JT a pretest on Monday, have him study definitions on Tuesday, write sentences on Wednesday, review on Thursday, and have a final test on Friday.  This worked well for a while, but he grew tired of writing sentences and definitions.  I needed to find something with more variety.

That's when I discovered the Vocabulary from Classical Roots series.  These books have been the perfect fit for JT.  There are three or four exercises per lesson.  Typically I have him do exercises A, B, and C each week.  We also have our pretest on Monday and our final test on Friday.  Today we worked on our review for the test.  JT usually will write each word on the white board as I call it out.  Any words he misses, we go back over again until he knows the spelling.  Today he decided to add illustrations to his words.  The great thing about this new idea was that I could really see that he understood the meanings of the words he has been studying.  When we came to the word sycophant, his initial drawing did not include bags in the hands of the man to the right.  We talked about how sycophant doesn't just mean someone who flatters someone else. Instead, it is someone who flatters for favors or gain.  JT quickly added the money bags to the man on the right.

You are SO handsome!
I see evidence that his early study of word roots has really helped him to discover the meanings of unfamiliar words.  I am hoping this skill will help him do well on tests like the SAT and ACT in the future.  In the present, it helps him when we study science and even in his leisure reading. 

JT is currently working in book D of the series.  EM will be starting in book 4 in January.  Up until now, EM has been using the Harcourt spelling series our local school district uses.  He works closer to grade level in spelling, so they were a good fit.  Now that he's getting more proficient in his language skills, I'm ready to move him into this series.  The book levels are 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, D, and E.  The first three lining up to their numeric grade levels, the letters running from 7th to 11th grade starting with letter A.  That means next year JT will be in his last book.  I'm hoping to find something along the same lines at a more advanced level when we reach that point.  I'm thinking there are bound to be good SAT prep materials that focus on vocabulary through etymology.

No dear, that is not correct.
One more thing about the word sycophant.  I'm glad my son could see the difference between the root syco and psyche, so we didn't end up with a picture like this one of the psychophant, drawn by my husband.

I'd hate to meet one of those in a dark alley!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Electricity Unit

fuse experiment
Tomorrow we will be concluding our study of  magnetism and electricity.  This ten week unit was the first of four science units this year.  The boys and I did quite a few hands-on activities including making magnets out of things like hack saw blades and sewing needles, making a compass and an electroscope, wiring series and parallel circuits, making a fuse, an electromagnet, and a generator.  Most of these activities were done with items we had lying around the house.  I love it when it works out that way!

retro Radio Shack
Ages ago, when I was in middle school, I had a cool Radio Shack electronic project kit.  I loved the orderly way you had to wire the components together to create fun little projects.  A couple years back, EM was showing a great deal of interest in electronic devices, so I bought a used one for him on Ebay.  Up until now, we had mostly left it in the closest.  We pulled it off the shelf for this unit and spent time on many of the projects. Radio Shack does make a newer version, the Elenco EP-130 Electronic Playground, but I prefer the retro model from my childhood.

schematics for every project

The boys would carefully follow the instructions, but often ended up making mistakes that resulted in a failed project.  Then they would have to trouble shoot their work.  Persistence was a required virtue.  The best thing about the manual is that schematics are included for every project.  The boys even learned how to design their own simple drawings for circuits they built. 

The first part of our unit relied heavily on one book, The Watts Laboratory Library Experiments in Magnetism and Electricity.  Later on we used Janice VanCleave's Electricity to add to our study.  Both books are wonderful in that they explain what you will do, the results you should see, and the why behind the experiment.

This unit also became the platform for my first endeavor in teaching the boys how to take notes.  At least one day each week, I would present material in lecture format.  While I was speaking, I would discuss how they could know when to write something down in their notes.  For example, when preparing to explain series and parallel circuits, I told them I was about to introduce them to two different kinds of circuits.  I would help them decide how they might put that down on paper.  Perhaps they would like to add a diagram, outline or list of examples of each kind of circuit.  As the unit went on, they started developing their own style in the way they took notes.  Earlier this week, I told them I would be putting together a test for the end of the unit.  I explained that it would include all of the topics I had taught while they took notes.  I showed them how they could study what they had written in preparation for the test.  Tomorrow we will see how that preparation has paid off when they take their tests.

I tend not to give the boys many written exams.  Learning has been more about discovery and discussion in most subjects.  I believe that sometimes too much testing results in incorrect motives for learning.  I don't want them to learn things only so that they can spew them back out on paper at the end of a unit and never think about them again.  Things they have learned should become a part of who they are.  But the rest of the world, including the part of their world that will include college education, involves testing.  So I want to equip them for that future.  Maybe by integrating note taking now, it will be a natural part of their learning process later in life, allowing them to put down on paper the things that are being added to their character.