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.