Thursday, December 26, 2013

Celebration and Relaxation

We are continuing to enjoy our break from schooling for the holidays. Some time in the next few days, I know I am going to need to work out some plans for the new year. But for now, I'm just trying to relax.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Exploring Creative Outlets

mountain fortress
EM has just completed his fourth class at our local YMCA Art Center. He usually wants to take the pottery classes, but this month there were not enough students for that class and instead he ended up in an abstract expression class. He wasn't sure if he would like it, but after the first class, he was sold.

He was allowed to work with some tools I tend to shy away from at home, things like hot glue guns and sharp knives. 

EM is a people-pleaser, so he is more inclined to work hard just to make an instructor happy, where JT never worries about whether anyone approves of his behavior or work. These opposite personality traits generally result in EM doing more organized events and JT sticking with independent projects. Remember the piano lesson difficulties?

EM's pottery instructor is great with kids. He has all the patience in the world. EM is always excited to go to his classes. After the last session ended he gave a small piece, a cat, to the teacher because he knew he liked cats. It's nice to see my kids finding adults that they can look up to as mentors. One of the things that can be lacking in a homeschooling child's life is the opportunity to find that one teacher who fills the role of mentor.

The house that EM built.
I'm not saying that I think a child can't find a mentor if they aren't seeing teachers every day. I believe mentors can be found in many places, not just schools. I have worked to place my boys in situations that allow them to participate in activities where multiple age groups are involved so they can see people that have already succeeded in something they are starting to explore. JT's drum lessons and EM's art lessons are just two of those opportunities. Upward basketball, scouts, and church functions have been other places we have looked for those relationships.

future mobile
I know that even though my children have looked at me and their dad as their prime role models for years, it is important to expand their vision to those outside of our family. My goals for life may not match what the boys see as important. How will they know that unless I allow them to find other inspiration? It will only be through seeing how others deal with challenges in life that they will be able to make well thought out goals for their own futures.

 As always, I try to remind myself that as a parent, I'm trying to work myself out of a job. My primary role is to get these boys ready to handle life on their own when they leave home. They will have a better chance at success if they have many mentors to give them advice when they encounter difficulties along that path to success.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Garage Chemistry

A month ago a package arrived at our home from Home Science Tools. The  box had a few warning labels on the side. I sat down and studied the instructions for the various contents. I spent extra time reading the directions for the alcohol burner to avoid any potential disasters. Then I put off actually using these new items because I didn't feel like I was ready to dive into full-blown chemistry. This week we took the plunge.

Go ahead, try to pull those off
Our first goal was to study the difference between a physical change and a chemical change. We combined a mixture of 3 parts sulfur to 5 parts iron filings. When these two items are combined into a mixture, it is easy to separate them into their individual components by passing a magnet over the mixture. Note to self: Next time do not use favorite magnet to do this. (I can't believe I actually have a 'favorite' magnet.)

Next we placed our mixture into a metal lid and placed it over the alcohol
professional lab equipment
burner. The lid got incredibly hot very quickly! Good thing I brought my tongs out from the kitchen, right? The reason we decided to set up our little lab in the garage was to avoid fumes in the house. We could open the big doors and let the air flow through. About the time the mixture started to smoke I said to the boys, "I guess it might have been a good idea to bring the fire extinguisher out here." Maybe next time.

Now things really started getting exciting. EM said, "That stinks!" and promptly ran out of the garage. JT stuck around to see what would happen. A few moments after the flames died down and the newly formed compound started to cool, we removed it from the burner and let it reach a safe temperature. Notice we used a piece of slate under the burner. The directions said to use a non-combustible surface. I looked all around the house for something I could put on the table that I wouldn't mind ruining and found nothing. When we got outside, I saw the pile of slate I have for my garden. Perfect solution.

new compound
Our new compound, iron sulfide, had the magnetic properties of the original iron filings, but could no longer be separated from the sulfur. Even when we crushed up a bit and looked at it under the microscope, we could not see the separate iron particles. It was now one new compound instead of two. Energy was given out when new bonds formed. The flames were a pretty good indication of that.  A perfect example of a chemical change.

Cleaning up was fairly easy. JT wanted to keep the iron sulfide, in case we ever need it, so we put it in a small labeled storage container. The excess alcohol was returned to its original container and the tongs were thoroughly scrubbed.

Overall, the experiment went very well. No one was burned. No one succumbed to toxic fumes. Everyone wore their safety goggles. And we all learned something about chemistry.

I just hope the neighbors don't start wondering what we are doing with a chemistry lab set up in our garage...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pizza Day

call me

A local homeschooling mom arranged for our MeetUp group to have a tour at Papa John's. I was on the fence about going for a few reasons. Our recent conversion to mostly organic foods makes most restaurant food off-limits, EM doesn't really like pizza anyway, and the tour started at 10am. In the morning. I do not like activities that start in the morning. That is MY time for lounging around the house and getting a slow start to the day. But I decided I was being silly and made everyone get up and go make pizza.

veggie toppings
Our group consisted of 17 kids and 6 adults. When we arrived, EM realized one of the adults was his Kindergarten teacher. She was there with her grandsons who homeschool. EM had a chance to catch up and tell her how he's doing. One of the grandsons had been in his class for Kindergarten, so it was nice for him to have that reconnection. We had a short tour of the store, learned how the pizza ordering process works, and then the real fun began. Each child got to make their own pizza. JT chose mostly veggie toppings, EM tried some bacon.

pizza goes in this side
The kids all managed to line up, despite jokes I've heard about homeschoolers who don't know how to do that. Everyone was quiet and respectful while the manager explained the process. The kids chatted a bit with each other while they waited their turns to make their lunch. Then everyone sat down at the tables to enjoy the fruit of their labors. Socialization success!

Sometimes I find myself avoiding the local homeschooling activities. It's not necessarily that I don't want to get together with the other families, it's just that I have so many things I want to do and I can't do everything and stay sane. I have to say no fairly often or we'd be running ragged all the time. Some people like that frantic pace in their lives. I'm not one of them. The boys aren't really into that kind of lifestyle either. Maybe when they are older, but I don't really see it happening. We are content to live at a slower pace.

finished pizza comes out here
I think as parents in America we are made to feel inferior if our kids aren't running from one activity to the next all day long. Being out of the school system helps avoid that a little bit because we don't get fliers announcing sports try-outs and other activities sent home in backpacks. But the temptation is still there. When friends ask what sports the boys participate in and I say, "JT is no longer doing any sport and EM will do Upward basketball this year," it might sound like nothing compared to the kid who plays every sport offered through the school and participates in every other league out there. I think it's enough of a sport to send the kids running around the backyard, jumping into the giant pile of leaves they made, or soon, sledding down and hiking back up the hill.

We are perfectly happy with our backyard...

 and an occasional pizza party.

Friday, November 29, 2013


high-tech graphics
Now that I'm stuffed full of turkey and pie, I am ready to take a few days off from homeschooling and prepare for the next holiday. I try not to get too caught up in the mad consumerism of a capitalist society, but it's not always easy. This year I am trying to embrace the becoming minimalist ideals. Not always the easiest thing to do with kids in the house, but much easier with homeschoolers who don't watch television than it would be if my kids were constantly bombarded by advertising and peer pressure to have the biggest and the best toys.

I watched a video this week, The Story of Stuff, that really made me think about my relationship to stuff. The boys thought it was a real eye-opener. After watching it, EM told me he only wanted books for Christmas. We'll see if that statement holds true when the shopping starts.

When I try to think of the things I am thankful for, it's too hard to boil it down to a simple list. In fact, I'm trying to work on my attitude of thankfulness. What I really want is to learn to be content in any situation. If I can learn that, and pass that trait on to my sons, even if I teach them nothing else, I feel that I will have been successful in my role as their educator.

With that in mind, my list of things to be thankful for would have only one item on it:


Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I'm Not Crazy Yet

Homeschooling was not what I had in mind when I had children. I left my job when JT was about to be born and planned to return to the work force when both boys were in school.

If only things always went the way we plan...

You may be wondering how I keep such a positive outlook now that I've found myself at home with two boys, teaching subjects that I sometimes find interesting, sometimes most definitely do NOT, listening to those two boys do everything they can to irritate each other AND me, spend quite a bit of my spare time researching how to do chemistry experiments, how to teach Algebra to a kid that wants nothing to do with it, how to get a homeschooled child into college, and seeing the possibility of ever having my own dreams of a college education fulfilled fade into the past.

I'll share the keys that I have found to keep me sane through these crazy days.

First of all, LOTS of coffee. I kill coffee makers. Seriously. I recently had a yard sale where I had SEVEN carafes from the coffee makers I have annihilated in the past four years. The warranty people from Black & Decker and Mr. Coffee all know my voice.

Flexibility. I mean it. When something comes up, we move our schooling schedule around to make things happen. If I just can't seem to get everyone motivated to finish the whole list for the day, we alter the list and add things to days later in the week. Everything eventually gets done. The boys are still working at grade level or above in all subjects. I am not worried that their futures are going to be negatively impacted when mom suddenly decides she REALLY doesn't want to read aloud from the Pennsylvania history book on a dreary Friday afternoon. It's not the end of the world when the list is not finished. It took me many years of hard life-lessons to accept this truth. Take it from me, life is easier when you write your to-do list at the END of the day and cross off all the things you completed.

Support. I have been blessed with the most supportive husband in the world. From the very beginning of our homeschooling journey he has been behind the plan one hundred percent. I feel horrible when I read about women whose husbands worry that their kids aren't getting what they need homeschooling. Of course we have days where we question if the kids could do better in a more traditional school setting, but when we have those days, WE have them. It's a discussion. We also have the support of the rest of our family. No one thinks we are nuts for homeschooling. At least, if they do, they don't tell us.

Time to recharge. I love my boys. I even like my boys. But I DO NOT want to be with them all the time. Fortunately I have people in my life who allow me to get away. Because my husband works from home, I can skip off on a quick errand and leave the boys with him. They are old enough now that they can do their own work and he can continue to do his work with little intervention. Not having to take them on every trip to the grocery store allows me a little breathing room. When my husband and I want to get away for an evening, or an extended trip alone, our adult daughter and her husband always step up and take the boys. I am very thankful that we have someone we trust who enjoys taking care of them. She also understands most of their quirkiness which makes it even easier on all of us.

My own life. One of these days, the boys will be finished with their years of schooling and I'll have loads of free time. If I allow my whole life to revolve only around theirs, I'll be in a sorry place when that time comes. I try to avoid that pitfall. I stay active in our church, helping with as many efforts as I can without overextending myself. I make time for my friendships. Most are long distance friends who I keep up with via email, chatting, and phone calls. I try to stay healthy and go running regularly. My favorite past time has always been reading. I don't always get to read what I want anymore because I have to read ahead in textbooks for planning, but I still keep a book beside the bed and in my purse when I leave the house. I also take classes through Coursera when I can squeeze them in, hoping to stay up to speed with my own learning in case I ever do make it back to school.

But if I don't make it back to school, it won't be the end of the world. I no longer feel that I can't be successful without a college education. I already feel successful because I am doing something I never thought I could do. I am happy doing it. My boys are making great progress in both their book learning and their real-life learning. Our family is close and we continue to enjoy spending time together. Who knows if that would have been the case if the boys were away at school for hours each day and I was busy with a career? 

I do know that I am glad things don't always go the way we plan.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Current Projects

I mentioned in a previous post that I added 'personal project' to each of the boys' weekly schedules. I thought I'd give a quick update on where they both are in their projects.

EM is working his way through his robotics book. Today he made a solenoid using a straw, wire, AAA battery, electrical tape, and a needle. At first we couldn't get it to work right, but after a little tweaking, we had success. You can see the working project in the video. Tomorrow we are making the first of what I know will be MANY treks to Radio Shack.

JT continues to work on his food web game. This week he has been play-testing the rough draft to see if they can keep a stable ecosystem for five game years. At one point today, I saw him working on the computer. I thought he was doing his math, but when I asked him, he said he was researching black bears. He felt he needed more detail on the black bear card for the game. Fighting back the urge to push him to do the math that needed to be done, I let him follow the path he was on until he was ready to shift gears. It's not always easy for me to do that. In the end, I think it worked out well because he found what he needed AND did the math without any arguing.

You light up my life.

This picture shows the center of game play. As in all real food webs, the Sun is the source of energy for the system. Right now, JT is using LEGO pieces to show the connections in the web, but later plans to find something more appropriate. The cards are all still hand drawn. I've been very impressed with the amount of time he spends researching as he makes his cards. Each card represents a different plant or animal. When he has his rough draft cards completed, we will help him find appropriate software to make them more professional.

game in progress
JT also spends a good deal of time thinking through the actual game play. He wants to be sure that it moves at a good pace and keeps the interest of the players. EM has been playing with him and decided he didn't want to finish the current game all in one sitting. Having a brother as your guinea pig may not be a good idea. It's hard to know if he's just bored or being spiteful. I think we'll end up calling Daddy in as a substitute to get a more honest opinion. I am not a huge game player, so I wouldn't be a good choice.

I like to see the boys following their interests on a regular basis. It's been a busy week for me due to an ongoing remodeling of the living room. Their projects are keeping them engaged and allowing me to get the necessary work done without needing to watch over their every move.

Now if only their interests could be something like painting the living room for me...

But that would be too good to be true.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Writing Bug

potential teaching tools
At the conclusion of our 2012-2013 school year, I sat JT down and we had a talk about the year to come. I told him as he was moving towards what would be his high school years, we would need to focus on two things more than we had in the past. Math would need to take more of a front seat in his schooling. But far more importantly, his writing skills would need to be developed in preparation for higher education.

Thanks to signing up for a Thinkwell math class, I feel the first goal of more focus on math is being met. For the first time in our homeschooling history, JT is taking control of his own math learning, setting goals, working to meet them, getting excellent scores on quizzes and unit tests because he works until he knows the material. In previous years I would feel nothing but stress about his math studies. Planning was difficult, getting him to do the work was torture, and I hated grading the work because when I found mistakes I knew it meant I had to help him through corrections and try to get him to understand the importance of getting it right. Now I write, 'Thinkwell math', on his daily list and he does it. This week he told me he was having a little trouble with one of the exercises so he planned to do more practice worksheets and re-watch the instruction videos until he understood the concept. That kind of self-motivation would have been impossible to imagine a couple months ago.

With the math learning now taking shape, I need to develop the plan to reach our goals for writing. JT has always been a prolific writer, when it's something HE wants to write. The writing assignments I make are often approached with an apathetic attitude. He will do the least amount of work possible and act reproachfully when I insist that he edit his work. After our talk about the need to improve his writing skills in order to go to college and study biology, he started trying a little harder.

EM begins a report
During the planning phase for this year, I collected several books related to grammar and writing to use with the boys. I found Painless Grammar at a book sale over the summer. I used this book to form an outline for our unit. At the beginning of the week, we all read a section out of the book together. Then the boys each have assignments from their grade-appropriate workbooks related to what we read. I also give a writing assignment at the beginning of most weeks. Sometimes we just do a quick journal activity, but other times I make it something a little more in depth. For example, the last two weeks the boys have been working on short reports about an animal they learned about at the Wetlands Institute during our trip to the shore. EM chose horseshoe crabs, JT chose the great egret. EM is pretty new to the report writing scene, so I have to spend a lot of time showing him how to put his thoughts together.  A friend recommended trying the PEAS model for writing, especially for EM. We put that into play for this report and I think it has really helped him understand the purpose of report writing.

Something else that is influencing the writing in our house has been a little project my husband has been working on for the last five weeks. During a visit, one of our friends and my husband were discussing some writing advice given by Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy. He says that if you just write 250 words a day, in a year, you'll have a novel. So my husband and his friend agreed to write 250 words a day and email them to each other. A few weeks in, another friend joined. Now all three of them have 11,000 words written. They are not critiquing the work yet, just sharing. A few days ago, JT who has been following the process, decided to join the fun. He has been very dedicated. I have not read any of what he has written so far, so I asked my husband how it was going. When I asked about JT's grammar and writing mechanics, my husband said he hadn't thought about it before I asked, but once he did, he knew that JT was doing a great job since he hadn't noticed any obvious issues.

My husband's dedication to this writing activity has brought about an awakening of a passion in JT that he would not have found through a typical writing curriculum.

Once again, life wins out as the greatest teacher of all.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Messy Science

Sometimes I look at my life and am surprised to see where I am. I step back to take inventory of my accomplishments and see how I measure up. Today I did that and thought, "How in the world did I end up spending my day mixing household chemicals into a pile of green goo?"

Ah, the glamorous life of a homeschooling mom.

EM's robotics book ended the chapter titled,  Housing: Robot Bodies, with an activity to make 'frubbery robot skin'.  He is really enjoying these mini-projects because he can do most of the work on his own. I only had to help find the supplies and get him set up.

It's the blob!
In science, we are studying chemistry, so the mess is not limited to EM's goo creation. For the first part of the school year, we spent most of our science time getting background knowledge before beginning the hands-on portion of the unit. We read all about forms of matter, the elements, atomic structure, physical and chemical changes, mixtures, compounds, acids and bases. We watched quite a few videos on the Internet. We found fun websites to expand our understanding of what we were reading. This week we finally broke out the chemistry kit I bought this summer, put on our safety glasses, and did science!

The Chemistry C500 kit has 28 experiments in the instruction manual. We completed the first four on Tuesday. These experiments all involved reactions combining acids and bases. JT had seen similar demonstrations in the past, so I expected him to complain that the kit was boring. I was happy that the little bit of extension I added kept his interest and helped him apply some of the knowledge he has been accumulating through our reading. I made up index cards with the chemical equations of the reactions. I put the reactants on one card and the products on another for each one. Then we matched the cards and discussed why these equations were balanced. Both of the boys are looking forward to moving ahead with the kit. I also have another old book, Chemistry by Experiment by Paul Roberson, that I hope to use. The biggest problem I run into with these old science books is finding the supplies they list for the experiments. Apparently you could buy a lot of fun things at the drug store in the 1960s that you can't pick up so easily now!

stick man
Tonight I took EM trick or treating alone for the first time. JT decided he was finished with that part of his childhood after Halloween last year. It was a bit of a relief considering the kinds of costumes he would request and what I had to go through to create things like angler fish, paramecium, barrels of toxic waste...

EM waited until three days before Halloween to get serious about a costume. His original plan, an archer, wasn't coming together, so I Googled 'easy Halloween costumes' and came up with the stick man idea. I really don't know where I'd be without the Internet. Halloween costume needs aside, we use this vast resource to educate our boys on a daily basis. And it doesn't hurt that it helps me connect with other homeschoolers so I don't lose my mind.

Friday, October 25, 2013

At the Shore

perfect day
We are home again and I'm really missing the beach. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it's currently 32° here. Our trip was just about perfect. We spent time walking the boardwalk, playing on the beach, checking out a retro arcade, eating good food, visiting a nature center, and watching far too many episodes of Chopped on the Food Network. EM has developed a Chopped addiction! Unfortunately for him, we don't have cable at home, so he's suffering from withdrawal.

builders at work
Friday was a beautiful day. We spent the morning on the boardwalk checking out the shops. Two years ago when we visited it was later in the season and most of the stores were already closed. This time we had a bit more available. At lunch time, we walked a few blocks back into the center of town and had a nice lunch. After a quick stop at the hotel for our beach gear, we hit the sand. Because the temperatures were much lower on our previous trip, the boys had not even set foot in the water. Now they finally had their chance to play in the sand and surf. EM was especially thrilled by the experience. He could barely contain his excitement. JT built a very elaborate castle and town along the edge of a puddle at the high tide line. The beach had very few people on it. It was a school day and the numbers did pick up a bit after 3pm, but mostly we had lots of room to spread out. We headed back to the hotel, had supper, and hit the pool. More Chopped episodes and we were ready for bed.

salt water marshes
Saturday morning we packed lunches and traveled south to the Wetlands Institute. Here's an excerpt from their overview page on their website:

We believe that people will value wetlands and coastal ecosystems if they understand how they work and why the health of those systems is so tightly intertwined with ours. That belief is the moving force behind all our programs.

JT has been reading a great deal about ecology in the last few weeks. He's starting to zero in on exactly what he wants to study in preparation for a career. The Wetlands Institute was a great place to further those interests.

The institute has an observation tower for a great view of the surrounding wetlands. They also have an aquarium and touch tank, a terrapin station, horseshoe crab exhibit, a gift shop, and a trail through parts of the marsh. We ate lunch in the picnic area while egrets went fishing nearby. In the afternoon, there was a 'creature feature' that focused on crabs. Brooke Knapick, the director of educational program development, did a wonderful job with the presentation. The four of us were the only attendees, but she still did a complete program, allowing us to handle several different crabs and other animals commonly mistaken for true crabs, such as hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs.

rescued terrapins
After the program, she told us about their terrapin conservation program and allowed the boys to hold some of those as well. Many times we find ourselves visiting places during the off-season. Sometimes it means we don't get to experience all of the things available at busy times of the year, but more often than not, we end up getting the full attention of staff members. This allows the boys to get all of their questions answered and not have to just be one in a crowd.

Probably the most exciting thing we saw at the institute was the feeding of Ollie the octopus. We arrived just in time to watch her work to open a plastic pretzel container to retrieve the yummy fish swimming inside. I had read many things about how smart octopi are, so seeing her in action was really cool. My husband wants a pet octopus now. As if our family wasn't weird enough already...

Sunday we had to pack up and come home. It was hard to leave the relaxation I was enjoying. Even though I took almost nothing to 'do school' the boys did plenty of learning.  The trip to the Wetlands Institute was educational, but even if we were not homeschoolers we would have visited. Learning is so much more than schooling for us. It is woven into everything we do.

Life is learning.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Meet Your New Overlords

I prefer my overlords with googly eyes.

Ever since our trip to Ocean City two years ago we have been planning to visit again. I've been watching online for a good deal. It came this week, so we made last minute plans to hit the road. I scheduled a light week for the boys to allow us to get packed. JT has been doing quite a bit of independent work on Thinkwell for math and his Coursera literature class, so I didn't need to do too much with him.

EM has been working his way through his new robotics book. On Wednesday we made the first major project at the end of chapter two. The Vibrobot was made from things that we had around the house: Styrofoam cup, wire, batteries, cork, pens, and a 1.5 volt motor. I love the fact that this book has projects that EM can easily do in a short period of time with great results. He was so excited when his vibrobot starting hopping around on the paper. He ran to find his brother to show him.

robot art

As the robot was moving around, EM started evaluating its performance. The book directions suggested using three markers. EM thought the vibrobot was moving a little too jerkily with three so he wanted to make it four in order to add stability. The end result was fantastic. I really like the fact that he was ready to jump right in there and hack the directions with confidence. EM struggles with some of his school work, especially the reading and writing, so it is great to see him finding a place where he can really shine.

I'm going to keep this week's post short since we are currently in the hotel at Ocean City and everyone is waiting for me. Next week I'll give a detailed post of our trip. We're going to be visiting the Wetlands Institute and will be exploring the shore.

Off to the beach!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Finding the Path

key to relaxation
We went on our annual fall camping trip last week.  As always, we enjoyed our vacation. For some reason, we all agreed that this was the best one ever. Maybe it was the perfect weather. Maybe it was the cleanest cabin with the most comfortable mattresses we have encountered on any of our trips. Whatever it was, we were in no hurry to come home.

Let's go explore!
We stayed at Moraine State Park in Western PA. This was our fifth year camping and our second stay at this park. We were trying to visit a different park each year, but Moraine had been our favorite so far and we wanted to go to Pittsburgh during our vacation, so it seemed like a good fit. We booked a cabin for four nights. We had a tiny bit of rain as we traveled to camp. The majority of the week was beautiful weather in the 70s. Thursday had some storms, but part of the day was clear.

PPG Aquarium
JT has recently shown interest in zoo careers. So it was convenient that we were already planning to visit the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium during the week. The Friday before our trip I suddenly had the idea to find out if someone at the zoo would be able to speak with him about career options in that field. As a homeschooling mom, I often find myself making phone calls that start like this, "I'm not sure who I should talk to, or if this is even possible, but here's what I'd like to do..." (insert crazy homeschooling mom idea here) This time I called the zoo and after going through my usual spiel, ended up connected with Margie Marks, education director at the zoo. She said she'd be happy to talk with JT during our visit.


I had him think of questions he'd like to ask before our meeting. Wednesday morning we sat down with Ms. Marks and she told us the path her career had taken to bring her to her current position. She also shared some tips for getting an internship at a zoo and things he should think about doing now to better his chances of success. After our meeting, we spent the rest of the day exploring the zoo and aquarium. If you are ever in the Pittsburgh area, be sure to take the opportunity to visit.

one of many bridges
The zoo closed at 5pm. We had plans to meet an old friend for dinner at 7pm, so we had some time to kill. We went into downtown Pittsburgh to visit the Point State Park because our friend had told us about an unusual visitor to the city. Parking was tight in the lot nearest the river. We had never heard about this particular state park before and found its location in the middle of a city interesting. Future trips will bring us back to see the Ft. Pitt Museum located inside the park.

you're the one
The reason we braved rush hour traffic in the city was floating in the river. A giant rubber ducky. Why we felt compelled to see this is unclear. I guess the novelty of a bathtub toy as big as my house played into the decision. But could you NOT go see it if you had the chance? When they are old men, my boys will probably tell stories about how their crazy mom made them walk even further when they were already exhausted from the zoo to see it.

view from our dock

Friday was bittersweet. We weren't ready to go home, but we were also going to spend the day visiting with a family of homeschoolers that we only see about once a year. We left the camp, had a great visit, and hit the long road home.

JT continued his exploration of zoo careers this week by reading, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French. He also started thinking about other job possibilities - park naturalist, ecologist, etc.

deep in thought
Today we attended a homeschooling program called Predators and Prey at our local state park nature center. The bulk of the program focused on food chains, webs, and pyramids. When we came home JT was inspired to start designing a card game with a food web theme. He often has these ideas and will work for a bit on something, only to lay it aside after a few days. When I pointed out that he might need a few changes, I expected his usual, "It's fine the way it is!" Tonight he said, "Mom, I'm serious about this one, so this is only a rough draft."

It looks like he is really starting to find his path for the future. These are just the  first steps, but it's good to see the journey has begun.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Can You Guess?

We are on vacation this week and have limited internet connectivity, so I will not be writing a full post until we return home.

In the meantime, I'll give you a few clues to let you guess where we are...

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Rivers converging.

30 foot rubber ducky.

Many pictures to follow!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Teach to Their Interests?

Who keeps buying all these books?
For the last few years, EM has consistently responded when well-meaning strangers ask, "What would you like to be when you grow up?" with, "a veterinarian." Originally this interest stemmed from a friend who also wanted to be a veterinarian. Nothing new had come along to replace the idea, so he just stuck with it. I'm not really sure what prompted the recent shift. It might have been the recognition that he doesn't have a driving interest in the field.

Whatever the reason, EM has now decided he wants to pursue a career in electrical engineering, possibly in robotics. Granted, he's only nine years old, so things can change, but I feel this plan is very attainable considering his strengths and interests. From as early as his toddler years, EM has been the kind of kid who revels in taking things apart to find out how they work. He is very mechanically inclined. He is also the child who knows how to operate all of the electronics in the house. Child-proof locks were a joke when he was around.

Robot or not?
This year I decided to add another component to our weekly schedule. Each boy is working on a project or subject that interests them. EM is studying robotics. I found a great book, Robotics, Discover the Science and Technology of the Future With 20 Projects, when searching for 'robotics for kids'. This book is just what we needed to get started on his exploration of the topic. The end of the introduction includes an activity titled, "Robot...or not a robot?" that helps the reader explore the definition of a robot and where we can find them in our lives. We made a table on our white board listing a few things
we have around the house and worked to determine if they meet the definition of a robot.

I also tried to enroll him in a robotics class for kids at a local university, but it was canceled due to a low enrollment. We are on the list for an electronics for kids class in November, but so far the enrollment for that one is pretty dismal as well. I've been telling all my friends with kids that they should sign up so it doesn't get canceled. I even offered free transportation if they enroll. I guess I'll have to wait and see if I get any takers.

JT has pretty much always known he wants to work in the life sciences some day. For the longest time, he only wanted to be an entomologist. Now that he is older and college is starting to loom in his future, he is broadening his potential career path to include possibilities across the entire field of biology. Lately, he has been talking about college more often. He is realizing that high school is only a year away, and after that, there won't be much time until he has to make some important decisions about his future. This new focus has really helped to ease some of my stress. He doesn't give me as much trouble when he has to do work if I can explain how it can help him meet the goal he has in mind. And that's the real key... I am avoiding giving him work that doesn't make sense for the path he wants to take. His elementary years were all about exploring a huge range of potential interests. The last year or so we have started to narrow our focus. Now that he has something specific in mind we are examining each new lesson from that point of view.

Vocabulary based on Latin and Greek roots?

Essential for an understanding of scientific terms and binomial nomenclature. 

Learning to write excellent essay answers to questions about material he has read?

Essential to form an ability to express through writing an understanding of complex new ideas presented in scientific courses.


Essential for the ability to think logically through a problem and find the correct solution.

Allowing students to learn with a purpose makes all the difference in their engagement in the process. Could this be why we keep hearing that schools are failing? Kids are not driven to succeed when they can't see the why behind what they are doing.

My purpose from here on out will be to make sure that I provide the hows for their whys.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chemistry Studies

not just a coffee table book
My yearly plan for science rarely remains intact as the weeks progress. Our chemistry unit has been no exception. I started out a mere five weeks ago fully intending to use the American Chemical Society's Middle School Chemistry lesson plans. But as we worked our way through the lessons, we found they were a little too routine for us. So I scrapped the entire plan and pulled out a 5th grade science textbook to form my own basic outline with higher level supplements from all over the Internet.

Gotta love the yard sales!
My basic outline looks like this: properties of matter, elements, changes of state, mixtures, compounds and chemical changes, and acids, bases, and salts. When we get to the more hands-on topics we'll be breaking out the chemistry set I bought over the summer. We'll also be supplementing with experiments from an old Golden Hobby Book, Basic Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent.

element of the day
While I was looking for a good way to explain molecular structures, I stumbled across this site where I could download some really cool Power Points and worksheets. That is also where I discovered the idea for our Element of the Day. The student fills out a notebook entry each day about a different element. At the top of the card there is a place for the atomic number, symbol and mass. Then the student needs to determine how many protons, neutrons, and electrons the element has. We also learned how to draw a Bohr diagram for our entry. The boys need to look up the name of the scientist who first identified the element. Once they have completed their entry, they watch a video from this site, The Periodic Table of Videos . The team from the University of Nottingham has made a separate educational video for each element.

Carbon Tetrachloride and Ethanol
We also broke out the molecular model set from Home Science Tools that I bought a few years ago anticipating our chemistry studies. JT was especially happy building the compounds.

I hope to continue our chemistry unit until our Christmas break. Obviously this will only be an introduction to chemistry with a full course when the boys each reach high school.

For now we're doing a little learning while having a lot of fun.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Literature in the Age of the Internet

Even cats can learn online.
Our entire family thoroughly enjoys J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle Earth. We have all read the books, seen the movies, played various board games based on the books, and own far too many Lord of the Rings LEGO sets. When I saw that Vanderbilt University was offering a class through Coursera titled, Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative , focused on Tolkien and Lord of the Rings Online, we jumped at the chance to take part.

JT, my husband, and I all signed up for the six week course. There are two tracks for the class, the regular track and the distinction track. Students following the distinction track are required to play Lord of the Rings Online, or LOTRO. JT and my husband are taking part in the game playing track. I am only following the regular track. I have never been good at those kinds of games. I can't even keep my character on a path, let alone fight the bad guys. EM is not taking the class due to his age, but he is watching some of the lectures with us. He also watches JT and his father play the game.

week one lectures
The nice thing about taking this class as a family is that we can all watch the lectures together. We hook my laptop up to the TV in the family room via an HDMI cable, take the wireless keyboard to the couch, and settle down for learning.

You can see a list of the first week's lectures in the picture to the right. In addition, week one's reading assignments look like this:

Reading for Week 1:
• J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring
Read the “Prologue, Concerning Hobbits, and other matters” and Book One of the novel.
• Jesper Juul's Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds
Read the first 7-pages of the "introduction, " available online for free as a downloadable Pdf file at:
• Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca”
Available for free in the original Greek and several English translations at “The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive.” In the videos, we have used the translation by Daniel Mendelsohn:

The Distinction Track students have a separate week one assignment to set up their accounts with LOTRO and complete the introductory quests.

The only potential problem I can foresee is trying to limit JT's time playing the game. Typically he isn't allowed any game playing on the computer before his school work is completed. The boys are free to start their independent school work as early in the day as they would like, then we do our schooling together after lunch. JT almost never does any work before lunch time. Today he was happy to start his classwork making his character on LOTRO and completing those quests. We'll have to see what kind of controls I need to put in place as we go along. The exception allowing morning computer use will end when the class ends. I'm sure I'll hear more than once, "But Mom, I have to play. It's required for the class."

Modern parenting certainly puts me in strange situations.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Music Instruction

My dog has fleas...
I finally got my act in gear enough to put a five week plan together for this year's music instruction. The general format will be the same as what we did last year, except now we will be adding more instrument work.

EM has never been all that interested in learning how to play an instrument. We have a good variety in our home to choose from, but he wasn't especially drawn to any. I realize that not everyone will be a musician, but I wanted him to have at least some basic instruction and plenty of exposure to music. Last year we bought him a ukulele for his birthday when he seemed to want to play. My husband taught him one song, and then EM tucked it away in his room. Now we went ahead and bought a beginner's ukulele book and hope to engage his interest a little more. But I must say, ukuleles are weird! The tuning makes no sense to me.

I don't want to work...
JT will continue to learn to play the drums. We finally signed him up for lessons with a local teacher. This teacher played with a well-known rock band, and continues to work as a professional musician. JT absolutely LOVES his lessons. After the catastrophe that was piano lessons, it is wonderful to see him so happy to learn to play an instrument. In fact, this week his lesson had to be moved a day later due to a schedule conflict and he was not at all happy that he had to wait that extra 24 hours.

The more 'bookish' part of our music instruction will take place for the next five weeks. We will continue our study of past American musicians and use BrainPOP to learn about things like time signatures, reading music, and musical styles. But when the five weeks have ended, the learning will not. The boys will continue their individual studies, JT with his professional lessons and EM learning from my husband. We will also attend the Young Person's Concert put on by the Harrisburg Symphony, as well as any other local performances that come along.

Music is a pretty integral part of our life. Just like most of the other subjects I teach as a homeschooling mom, it's hard to tell where life ends and school begins.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Out of the frying pan...
Earlier in August, the boys attended a Fire Safety Day Camp for three days. This was their third year at the camp, but the first year they went to the sessions for the older kids. The experiences were a little more hands-on. They each had an opportunity to go through the 'smoke house' to see how hard it is to find your way in a burning building. The smoke was only artificial, so the kids were allowed to decide if they wanted to wear fire fighting gear, including the breathing apparatus. EM chose to go through without it. I can't even get that kid to wear clothes with tags let alone all of that equipment! JT went for the full experience.

In addition, a team with search and rescue dogs came and gave a demonstration, they had a presentation by a group of paramedics, the boys helped put out small fires with fire extinguishers, someone from DCNR came and gave a talk about forest fires, and they had a class on the history of fire fighting in the United States. And the highlight of the week - a water fight. The kids were armed with water balloons that they had to get from a bucket that the fire fighters were targeting with their water canon. Note to self: next year take more towels.

On the last day, one of the fire fighters came up to me and said, "You must be doing a great job with your boys. During the presentation on the history of fire fighting, your older son knew all about the Buffalo fire in 1813. He even knew why it happened and all about the War of 1812. Half of the adults here don't even know there was a War of 1812!"  Of course, that glowy momma pride came over me. As our conversation continued the man said, "Right away I knew you must homeschool." And I thought, "Finally, I get to contribute to positive attitudes towards homeschooling."

But on the way home I started to wonder about that. Was this really contributing in a good way? When people think of homeschoolers, I know they often think of religious people first. But the next stereotype I hear is that homeschoolers win all of the spelling bees and contests because they are the freaky smart kids. In our case, both of the boys were identified as gifted when they were still in a traditional school setting. Yes, they are ahead of the some subjects, but not all. I know many homeschoolers, and I would have a hard time grouping them all into one broad category like the world seems to need. Homeschoolers are homeschoolers for more reasons than I can count. The only thing I can see that we all have in common is that we aren't just like everyone else. We left the safety of 'normal' and forged our own paths.

In the end, I guess I am still happy that JT was able to share his knowledge about history. The funny thing is that I had little influence in that case. Both of the boys love reading about history and know far more than I know about many events. On the day of that conversation, I couldn't have told you a thing about any fires in Buffalo. Since then, I looked it up and read about it. In this situation, it's actually the boys doing a great job teaching me and not the other way around.