Friday, April 26, 2013

Looking a Little Closer

insect sample
Every now and then a great opportunity for learning comes along that has nothing to do with what we are currently studying. Sometimes we let those programs slip by and sometimes we throw our routine out the window for the day and explore that path. This week just such an opportunity became available. A member of our homeschooling Meetup group was approached by a professor at Bucknell University with an offer to bring the homeschoolers into the microscope lab for an afternoon. EM was not all that interested, but JT knew it would be right up his alley. Many times I take both boys to events that I think only one of them will find interesting just to see what happens. This time, I did choose to leave EM at home because I wasn't sure what level the material might cover and I didn't want him to get antsy if it was over his head.

cool bug
The professor running the program had five of his students set up at different learning stations. The homeschoolers were split up into groups and traveled around the lab. Our first stop was a short discussion on forensic science. We talked about DNA evidence and how it is used to solve crimes. From there we moved on to using a stereo microscope. The university student running this station had taken entomology the previous year and brought his insect collection for viewing. JT had opportunity to discuss his favorite subject while we checked out the bugs in detail.

creepy cat
The lab also had a fluorescence microscope station. There was a slide show of fluorescent animals running on a nearby computer while we were learning how the microscope worked. These animals had been treated with a dye, as opposed to the biogenetically engineered animals JT has been reading about in the book, Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts. JT launched into a discussion of the book and told the student he should check it out. We were able to see some pretty cool slides of organelles at that station. Another student then explained how a polarizing microscope worked and showed the kids slides of sugar, salt, and citric acid.

on my Christmas wish list
My pathetic manual microtome couldn't hold a candle to the instruments in this lab! The homeschoolers were able to slice samples and prepare slides for histology, both in the slower method using the microtome on the left, and also witnessed the preparation of a slide using the much faster frozen section procedure which is used most often during surgeries where cancer is being ruled out or diagnosed.

As a final treat, the professor had one of his students do a demonstration using liquid nitrogen. Although it wasn't directly related to microscopy, he told us it is always a 'crowd pleaser'. He was certainly right about that. The student poured a Styrofoam cup full of the liquid. Then he placed various objects in to show us what would happen. First he froze a few cherry tomatoes and threw them on the floor to smash into bits. He also froze a penny, a new one made mostly of zinc, and had a young boy smash and break it with a hammer. He poured more of the nitrogen into a large Styrofoam container so he could put a small inflated balloon in to watch it freeze and shrink. When he removed it from the liquid, it quickly re-inflated and he passed it around to the children. JT's favorite part of the demonstration was when a frozen banana was used to hammer a nail into a block of wood.

rock hard banana
The university students did an excellent job sharing some of the interesting things we can see when we take a closer look using tools in the lab. JT's desire to study science in college was renewed. He even suggested that I should get a job at the university now so he could go to school for less in a few years.

I'm hoping some doors have been opened that will allow us to visit the school again, either as homeschoolers or maybe in the future when JT has started on his way in the real world as a young adult.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Does Learning Take a Vacation?

summer dreaming
Summer break is just around the corner. So naturally I'm starting to picture days of sun, relaxation, traveling, and learning. I guess learning may not be the first thing people think of when planning their summers, but learning is such a natural part of our daily lives now it seems ridiculous to imagine a break from it.

I watched a video this week about a high school that is experimenting with new ways to allow students to direct their own learning. As part of the plan, each student chooses an independent learning project that they spend a large portion of a semester exploring. That made me start thinking about ways to put my boys more in charge of their own learning. So I'm going to try an experiment this summer. Instead of having them do school work one day a week, like I have done in the past, I asked them to choose something they want to learn on their own throughout their summer break. We haven't set the choices in stone yet, but for now here's what they are leaning towards.


EM recently started showing more of an interest in computer programming. Earlier this week, in an offhand way, my husband handed this Hello, Android book to him and said, "Here's a book for you to read," not really thinking he would. EM picked it up and started right away. He quickly decided that he should write some apps and make loads of money. We told him that was a good long-term goal, but he might need to start out a little more basic. As the week went on, his interest seemed to be holding. I suggested that this might be something he'd like to work on this summer. He seemed positive about that possibility.

louder than they look
JT has been spending more time drumming. This is working out well for my husband who has been waiting to form his own version of The Partridge Family for years. I would like to see JT commit to learning some songs that he might think of as beyond his ability for his project. I am not sure if we will sign him up for formal lessons or just continue allowing him to learn on his own. I think it would be nice if he took lessons, but I also know that in the past that hasn't been the best way to motivate this particular child.

I don't want to turn these projects into something that feels too much like work. I want this to be the thing they do when they are tempted to claim boredom. I plan to help them set a few tangible goals before we reach the last day of formal schooling so they have a little direction, but nothing too tedious. After all, summer is not supposed to be about about deadlines and checklists but about relaxing with no schedule ...

and learning just for the fun of it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring has Sprung

early flowers
It's hard to believe that we are only fifteen days from the end of our fifth year of schooling at home. The weather has been gorgeous and I am having a hard time cracking the whip to keep these boys working. I've cut back a bit on what I expect them to accomplish each day to allow them more time outside.

In all honesty, there is very little I feel we need to do yet to have a full year of learning. We will wrap up our American history with a book about the 13th president, Millard Fillmore. EM will finish off his Singapore Math 4B book. JT is writing a short research project on an animal he knows little about, the Tasmanian Devil. EM will take a four week pottery class at the local Y.M.C.A. arts center. I also plan to take a field trip to see a planetarium show in Harrisburg to complete our astronomy unit for science.


But most of all, I want the boys to enjoy the outdoors. It always seems such a shame to me that children are stuck inside so many hours a day when the spring weather first hits. By the time June rolls around, it's starting to get too hot to play outside all day. With our last day being May 3rd, the boys will have a full month of freedom before summer comes along. This will also give us more time to work on our gardening projects together. We are not planting as many vegetables this year since we joined a local CSA. However, we do want to experiment with some container gardening. I went to a program at the library with my daughter last weekend and came home with new ideas.

As homeschooling has become a more integrated part of our daily routine it seems there is less of a line between summer vacation and the school year. Sure I like having an open chunk of time where I won't be actively planning for the next day's schooling, but I also don't mind that planning part of my life so much anymore. Maybe some day I'll give up the planning completely.

Would that be so bad?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Healthy Eating Unit

good food
Our health unit this year came about because of a class I took in January. An Introduction to U.S. Food Systems was offered through Coursera by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The knowledge I gained through that class has caused us to make major changes in our shopping and eating habits. I decided to develop a health unit for the boys to help teach them why we are making these changes.

As a family, we watched the movie Food, Inc. This was an eye-opener for all of us. My husband said it was the scariest movie he had ever seen, and I agree. From that point on, we decided we wanted to try to buy meat that had not been produced in factory farms. We also decided to start taking part in Meatless Monday. It's a simple concept- reduce your family's meat consumption by skipping meat every Monday. We also began reducing our red meat consumption to only a couple times a month (grass fed only), eating organic chicken, and sustainably caught seafood.

labels are important
 The next step in our education about food was to learn what all the different labels mean. Just because something is labeled 'all natural' or 'farm fresh' doesn't mean much. We found this guide to help us sort the truth from the fiction. JT quickly became my go-to at the grocery store. He memorized the 'dirty dozen' and 'clean fifteen' list to help me decide which vegetables and fruits we should avoid if they weren't labeled USDA organic.

We also started looking for more local buying options for our food. I quickly discovered that we are fortunate enough to have a CSA in our area. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The members buy a 'share' in the farm and then during the growing season, get to pick up their share of the produce. The boys were able to learn more about this concept by watching the movie, Out to Pasture, available online, produced by John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. We became members of our local CSA and will start receiving our produce in June. We will also be able to volunteer to work on the farm to get a real feel for how our food is grown. The farm that runs our CSA also sells meat, so now we have a good local source for our chicken, beef, pork, and turkey.

There is an entire curriculum available through John Hopkins covering this topic. It is set up as a high school level course, so I decided not to use it since I wanted our study to be for both JT and EM and it seemed a little too advanced for a 9 year old. 

Finally, JT has also been reading the book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. This book has really brought out some anger in my justice-concerned boy. In the grocery store this week, I was allowing EM to buy juice made by Nestle. I know it's not organic, but we are still working to eliminate all of our vices. It's 100% juice, so I feel it's a step in the right direction. JT saw what EM was getting and said to me, "Do you have any idea what an awful company Nestle is?"

I told him that EM is working to change the way he eats and that I was allowing him to do it in his own time.

JT said, "You could just say 'no'. Don't you know the advertisers are using your child as a tool against you?!"

Teach them a little and look what happens!