Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nature Comes Calling

Grima the Second
This is a snake.
On my carpet.
This was the second time I found a snake on the floor in one day.

This morning, as I was walking downstairs I see a snake shaped thing on the floor in the library. I assume it's one of the boys' rubber snakes. As I get a bit closer, I realize they don't have any that are quite so wiggly...and long...and alive. Luckily, I am not afraid of snakes so it wasn't as big of a deal for me as it would have been if something like a large spider were sitting in the middle of the floor. Then I might have dropped my coffee and run screaming back up the stairs. Instead, we found a container to pop him in and tried to decide what to do. As it is currently around 30 degrees Fahrenheit most days, it didn't seem like putting the poor thing outside would be an option.

I made a phone call to the park naturalist we know from some homeschooling events. She told me he had probably been hibernating in our walls and came out when we had a warmer spell the last couple of days. I already knew that the snake was a northern ring neck since the snake from our critter zoo was the same species. I also still had our terrarium in the garage from our last adventure in snake containment. While all of this planning was going on our visitor was waiting in a plastic container on my desk in the office. When I got off the phone and brought the terrarium into the classroom, I found the snake on the floor. It had escaped from the storage container. The lid was the snap-on type, but not the exact fit for that particular container. I never thought it could get out of there AND off the desk.

So, we scooped it up again and popped it into the terrarium. I made absolute certain there will be no more escapes. I took a pipe cleaner and tested all along the edge of the lid to be sure there isn't even a tiny space for him to slip through and terrorize the house. The boys named him Grima in honor of the first ring-neck who was also Grima. Our first Grima was released back into the wild in the fall of 2011. There was a bit of debate over whether this was in fact the same Grima. Ring necks don't do all that well in captivity, so we only plan to keep him until he can be released in April when the weather is right.

For now, I guess I'll be stocking up on red worms and keeping my eyes open for any more surprise guests this winter.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Where on Earth?

new book
Over our holiday break, I made a few revisions to our routine. One place where I made a change was with our geography study.  Last year, and for the first half of this school year, we have been doing one geography lesson a week.  This would include either work in the Maps, Globes and Graphs workbooks published by Steck Vaughn or our passport program we started last year. I found that one day a week didn't allow for great retention of new knowledge. I decided to switch geography over to the same model of study we use for other 'minor' subjects.  We will now be spending two to three days a week of more in depth study over a period of five or six weeks.  We already cover music, civics, and health in the same way.

Conveniently enough, there are five major themes in geography, so that works well with my plan of a five week unit.  Each week we will focus on a different theme using resources such as BrainPOP, our Usborne Geography Encyclopedia, and other online learning tools. In addition, I purchased a new book for our library, Challenging World Geography by Richard Rayburn. The book is split up into sections for each of the seven* continents. We decided to start with North America since our home happens to be located on that landmass. This new workbook is really helping the boys to learn how to use tools like atlases and search engines to find answers in the activities.  Yesterday they each had a worksheet that gave them a list of mountains of North America.  They had to find the location and height of each, arrange them in order from the tallest down, and then create a bar graph comparing the five tallest. Today they needed to locate notable bodies of water of North America.  We also watched a BrainPOP video about climate types and did the corresponding printable quiz.

I find that splitting subjects out into these smaller units really helps, not only for the boys' focus, but for my planning.  When I allow myself to spread a subject too thin, I don't always spend the time working out the details.  Concentrating on one thing for a few weeks at a time keeps the subject matter focused and keeps it from becoming tedious.

When we have completed the geography unit, we will only have our health unit left before our school year wraps up for the summer.  It's freezing here tonight, with an expected low of 2°F. It's hard for me to believe that summer is just around the corner when I feel that frigid wind blowing, but I know it won't be long before I'm wishing the heat away again.

*There was some debate in our household over whether or not there are seven continents.  We found C.G.P Grey's video, What are Continents? to be an amusing explanation and are still not sure what we believe.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Variation on a Book Club

Warrior Cats
A few months ago, while chatting with a fellow homeschooling mom and the children's librarian after an event, the topic of book clubs came up.  The other mom was sharing experiences her children had at recent book club meetings.  Many times the books were not of interest to her kids or it was obvious that others had not read them and couldn't contribute to discussions.  We wanted to look at starting our own book club, but finding the right book would be tricky.  Our pool of children would be small and span a wide group of ages.   

And then I threw out an idea,  "Why do they all have to read the same book?  Why can't we just allow each child to read what they want to read and then share with the group?" 

Therefore sealing my doom to start a new book club based on this idea.

In all honesty, this project has been an easy one with much support from those involved.  The librarian made the children's section of the library available to us an hour before opening on the days we will be meeting.  She also suggested that we bring lunches and have time to just hang out after our discussions.  I found a book in  my pile of resources, The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists with a section titled, "Book Report Alternatives".  This is a list of 50 ideas for sharing a book with others, including examples like number 25, compare the movie and book versions of the same story, or number 38, paint a mural that shows the key incidents in the story.  I shared this idea list with the parents that planned to attend.  Our local homeschooling parents have a Meetup group, so I posted the event on there. The most difficult part of the project came next.

I had to get the boys motivated to work on their presentations.

EM chose the final book in the first series of the Warrior Cats books, The Darkest Hour,  as his book for the meeting.  I told him it might be a good idea to just share about the world of the Warrior Cats, instead of focusing on the plot of the book he chose.  I knew it would be difficult not to give any spoilers to the story if he went into very much detail about that book.  He sat down with a couple of index cards and made his notes.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he took on this task.

book club poster
 JT chose the book Stowaway by Karen Hesse.  This story is historical fiction about a young man who stows away on James Cook's first voyage on the Endeavour.  JT made a poster showing the route of the journey and also historical maps from before the trip to show how maps changed after these exploratory journeys.

The day of the book club meeting we packed our lunches and book projects and headed off to the library.  The only other family to show up for the first meeting was the mom from the original discussion.  I had high hopes that more would take part, but I have learned not to expect too much when starting something new.  I was just happy that we had enough kids to have a meeting.

In all, there were five participants from age 9 to 14.  Everyone shared a book they were either currently reading or had recently finished.  Several wonderful discussions were sparked by the speakers.  Warrior Cats turned out to be a favorite of a few.  Two shared books that were based on video game worlds and that led to much discussion.  The librarian helped to facilitate when the speakers were unsure of what they wanted to say.  When all had shared their books, we broke out our lunches and kept the discussion going.

We ended up staying at the library for almost four hours that day.  My boys and another participant logged on to the library computers while I chatted with the adults.  Hopefully next time we will have a larger crowd to share the fun.

In the end, my homeschooling mindset of one size does NOT fit all, worked well with the book club.  Not everyone is going to want to read the same book...and they shouldn't HAVE to in order to participate in a book club. It's already difficult enough to get most kids to sit down and read a book when they have so many other options for entertainment. Hopefully, the book club discussions will bring new books to their attention, allowing them to expand their reading options.

Reading has always been one of my absolute favorite things to do.  I want my boys to share in that joy.  Nothing beats getting immersed in the world of a book. 

And that adventure should never be turned into a chore.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Out With the Old, In With the New

new composition books
Even though my boys kept their computer use to a minimum during the holiday break, I decided we should have a little laid-back schooling this week to keep the extended vacation time from turning into a week of slug-like activity.

Because I wanted to continue my planning work during this week, I came up with a list that allowed the boys to work independently most of the time.  I put daily assignments on separate index cards for each subject for each boy.  As they completed their work they placed the cards into the work basket.  Most of the days, they worked quickly without my help.  I limited the subjects to reading, math, computer programming, book club project, and educational videos.  I chose most of the videos for the week with each boy being allowed to make one selection.  They also spent time playing outside in the snow, visiting the library, trying out new board games they received for Christmas, and reading their new books.

While they were occupied with learning, I started some planning for the remainder of our school year.  I picked up a few new books over the summer that I haven't incorporated into our schedule yet.  Don and Jenny Killgallon's books Sentence Composing for Elementary School and Sentence Composing for Middle School are looking like a good alternative to a more traditional method of teaching composition, especially for JT.  I am also considering using Dandy Lion's Advancing Writing Skills with JT.  As always, I have too many good choices and am struggling to choose the best one.

a few math choices
This lightly scheduled week also allowed me to test out a few new ideas with the boys.  EM just finished Singapore Math 4A prior to our break.  Before I start him on 4B for the remainder of the year, I wanted to see what he could do with Henry Borenson's Hands-On Equations Learning System.  He flew through the first several lessons, immediately understanding the concepts.  I think I will be incorporating this product into his learning.  I also pulled out a fun logic book by Mindware, Sequencers, and found that JT excels with this kind of thinking, while EM needs more help.  JT also did a free trial on ALEKS math and decided he would like to use it for the rest of his pre-algebra studies.  I will also be opening an ALEKS account for myself.   I signed up for an algebra class with Coursera as a review for my old skills before JT starts it next year.  The professor highly recommends that all students have an ALEKS account to use for the work.  So now we'll both be using ALEKS math.

technology to conquer
My final project this week will involve learning how to use my dad's telescope for our astronomy unit.  It is a Meade Polaris 114DS.  Once I know how to use it, we will be able to link it up to a screen and stargaze from inside the house!  The rest of the unit is coming together fairly well.  This will be the first science unit where the boys will be working most of the time on separate materials according to their ability level.  I have the Our Night Sky lectures DVD from The Great Courses for JT.  EM will work through a fifth grade astronomy unit.  Both will use Janice VanCleave's Constellations book.  Plus, both will put the telescope to good use throughout the rest of the school year.

I feel like things are really coming together for the upcoming months.  It's hard to believe we are already half-way through this school year.  As always, time flies when you are having fun!