Monday, September 26, 2011

Nature and Natural Math

Last weekend the kids went with their Dad to “Bugfest” and had a great time. This is an event the NC Museum of Natural Sciences puts on every year highlighting everything buggy. Seems my kids spent a great deal of time constructing huge webs with string. They also drew some lines with markers and watched as termites crawled along the lines, following the smelly trail of the marker (apparently it mimics their own pheromone trails). The most jaw dropping thing they did, however, was eat an assortment of buggy treats. Here is what was on the menu:
Fried dragonflies with mushrooms and dijon
Mealworms with salsa on crackers
Chocolate covered mealworms
Graham crackers with melted chocolate and giant waterbug meat
How can my son, the one who eats the same 8 things every day, have eaten giant water bugs, loved them, and gone back for more? I can hardly believe it. Apparently, water bugs taste like chicken and dragonflies taste like crab. Uh, no thanks.
On Thursday Noah went to “Math Club” while Jessi went to her Stream Study class (Great things going on at the CCEE!). While Jessi was sampling the stream for temperature and dissolved oxygen levels, Noah was making paper airplanes, making “math machines”, figuring out how to make a trapezoid out of an apple (see Maria’s blog post about this here), and watching a really cool video about making math doodles (Infinity elephants). Math machines are when you come up with an equation (i.e. what the machine does). You tell everyone what goes in and then what comes out, and they have to guess what your machine does. For example, Noah made his machine do two things. It adds 10 and subtracts 3. If you input 6, out will come 13. Somehow, the kids have to figure it out. The infinity elephants were also very neat, and it’s worthwhile watching the videos posted by “Vihart”. There are several on YouTube.

Maria's math club's are wonderful, as she tries to make math fun and accessible, and shows kids that math is everywhere. She's got several projects in the works to spread this "math love". I'll definitely be posting more here about what the club is doing.
Continuing with our math and nature theme, this weekend we had another wonderful outdoor walk with Bob. One of the things he showed the kids is how to calculate "pi" on a millstone (we were at Yates Mill Pond, which has a working mill). 

We also learned about how to build a log cabin, how to make rope out of tulip poplar bark and/or milkweed stems, and how to make a caffeinated tea out of yaupon holly. We also spent some time dip-netting in the pond and pulling out all kinds of lovely creatures.

We found dragonfly larvae, giant water bugs (yum!... not), scorpion bugs, tadpoles, a frog still with a tail, fish, and even a very cute baby musk turtle (he was about the size of a quarter). 

I can’t help but marvel at all of the wonderful things out there to learn and all of the wonderful ways of learning them. The possibilities are endless.

Incidentally, our Life of Fred reading has had to take a back seat these past few weeks. I hope to get back to it when some of our other classes end in a month or so. Seems I'm just like many homeschool moms out there. I always have the best of intentions of finishing something and then life gets in the way. Anyway, we WILL get to it. It'll just take longer than I thought.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Some of our Favorite Books

When my daughter started reading, it seemed like there were so many outstanding options out there. Maybe it's just because I'm also a girl (and a heavy reader), but I could reel off a list of great books for her to try just from memory. We started with the Little House on the Prairie books, scooted through all the American Girls books, threw in some Puppy Place, Royal Diaries, Magic Attic Club, and horse books (The Black Stallion, Pony Pals, Saddle Club, Misty of Chincoteague) and she was set for a couple of years. This doesn't include the classics we also read (sometimes together, sometimes her on her own): Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Phantom Tollbooth, Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn, Charlotte's Web, The BFG, Julie of the Wolves, and Mouse and the Motorcycle. The past year as she has gotten older, she has fallen for the Warriors series (about a society of tribal cats), Guardians of Ga'hoole (a society of owls), the Golden Compass series, and a host of Dragon related books (Dragon's Milk, The Fire Within, and her all time favorite book The Last Dragon).

It's been harder to find beginning reading material for my son. We are in that no-man's-land right now between Early Reader books and longer chapter books. Ponies and stories about young girls just isn't gonna cut it. What to do? Well, I've got a lot of reading material at home (maybe too much), but he just hasn't been interested. I started bringing him to the library weekly in the hopes that one of these times he would discover something to "float his boat". Sure, I've read out loud to him the Percy Jackson books and we are working on Harry Potter right now together, but I felt like we just needed something compelling enough to get him to want to actually pick a book up and read it on his own without prompting. He quickly got bored with the early readers, and there are only so many picture books to go through (I think we may have read most of the libraries stock!). One day he surprised me by bringing home Geronimo Stilton. After that first book he was hooked. I think what he liked the most about them is that there are pictures, and a lot of the words are colored or in funny type, and they are full of "cheesy" puns, and yet it's a chapter book and he can feel pretty proud about that. Next, a friend of his told him he should read the Beast Quest books. This series is a little more like Percy Jackson, but a lot simpler and shorter. The type is a little smaller and there aren't any pictures, so I feel like he's moving up in the world.

Who knows where he will go next, but if there is anyone out there with some good suggestions for books for boys just starting out, please post them here. We'll probably give it a try!

In the meantime, here are some other good books I could recommend. These are all chapter books and in no particular order. All are good for young audiences, though some deal with serious issues. Can you tell I have an unhealthy book obsession?

Cricket in Times Square
The Tale of Despereaux
Ginger Pye (and Pinky Pye)
Music of the Dolphins
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
The Poppy Stories (Poppy, Poppy and Rye, Ragweed, Ereth's Birthday, Poppy and Ereth)
A Dog's Life
My Side of the Mountain (also On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful's Mountain)
The Magic Tree House Series (of course)
Dear America series (historical fiction)

Finally, if you are looking for homeschool related books and reviews, this site is a pretty good source:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Off to the races... why?

It's been our first really crazy week of the Fall. There have been a lot of new classes and places to get to, and I always seem to have the most trouble in these first weeks, just because things are so new. I can't seem to get my stride. It's not until we all get used to the routines that I am able to figure out when I can sneak in a little shopping trip, get the kids to do their math between classes, or find some time for housework or cooking dinner. Until then, I just can't seem to be very efficient with my time. Add to that the fact that I am VERY slow on my feet (literally) and am still having to fit in things like physical therapy, eye appointments and what-not, and it feels a little like we are on a wheel running but not really getting anywhere yet.

It'll come together eventually, but why all this running around? We are most definitely NOT one of those self-contained homeschool families that spend a lot of time at home with the parent planing and giving lessons daily. It's not that I don't think that would be nice, but (1) my daughter starts to go stir crazy after a day at home and just doesn't seem to want to let that happen and (2) there are so many wonderful things out there to do and see. Over the past few years, I have managed to farm out some of the teaching to people who really know what they are doing, trying to save myself some trouble. Sometimes I feel I'm more a chauffer than anything else. This leads me to my next thought... "Well, geeze, aren't I just trying to re-create the wheel here?" I've sought out teachers for things like art, piano and science. I've joined co-ops where the kids get to learn with other kids some of the time. Isn't this just what school does? Didn't society come up with the "school" idea as a way to get our kids to learn with their peers from "experts"? Wouldn't it just be so much easier to send my kids to school and let those "experts" teach them without all this running around? One stop shopping, right?

Well, yes, it would definitely be easier for me in some ways. But in others, it most definitely would not be. When I think back to the problems we were having and the fact that I couldn't just leave my kids at school without being involved somehow, I know that I would be there with them anyway. It would just be much less efficient. We'd have to be doing piles of homework, fundraisers, meetings and special events. I wouldn't necessarily know or like the people my kids were with all day, and I would have a lot less control over what was being crammed into their heads. Also, there is no guarantee that they would even be with the same kids from one year to the next, so the argument about steady friends doesn't even hold for us. My kids would be exhausted and wishing they could do so many other things that we just wouldn't have time for. I think also that there is a big difference between a few hours of co-op lessons a week with people we know and like, and eight hours a day, five days a week of a school environment. Also, I am free to seek out quality teachers that fit our learning style.

It's a matter of degree. I want them to be able to learn in a group environment, but not all the time. I want to be able to change things if something isn't working out. I want to be able to spend time going places and doing things that are REAL. In this way, I can ensure that the things we do are quality activities with quality people. We've distilled the "school" activities down to only those that are really necessary and fit in so much more besides. It's amazing what can be accomplished without the bureaucracy and crowd control, and they will be so much more enriched in the end and so much more conversant with life outside of the "school" environment. They are learning with experts, but in small groups or one-on-one in a more personal way. Occasional larger classes add experience and maturity but don't swallow them up. The rest is opportunity, interest and experience. Reinventing the wheel? Maybe, but it'll be a souped-up custom model in the end.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What We Learned Today

Today we had our first "Bob" class of the Fall. I call them "Bob" classes for lack of a better name. They are classes taught by a local "guy-of-all-trades" named Bob, who also teaches at the Science Museum, and he is such a well-spring of knowledge. I wish I could just transfer everything he knows into my brain. As my husband said, if society were to collapse, THIS is the kind of guy you want to have around. I think these classes are some of the best of the things we have had on our calendar the past two years. Last year we learned about Native American and Colonial ways of doing things: making rope, basket weaving, stone tools, candle making, fire starting, cooking on a fire, etc. Our next set of classes were on "Simple Machines". We learned about levers, inclined planes, batteries, screws, sundials and compasses, and trebuchets. This time around the topic is something close to my heart; Nature Walks through local forests learning all about the things that are there. This is the kind of knowledge that is very hard to get from a book, mostly because you wouldn't know what kinds of questions to ask to find out.

We learned about annual and periodical cicada life cycles. Have you ever found a cicada flying or on the ground without an abdomen? It's still alive and moving but seems to be missing most of it's body. Well, it turns out the reason is that there is a fungus that feeds on the abdomen of male cicadas. Since adult cicadas exist merely to mate and die, this isn't a huge hardship and the male doesn't really need it's intestines. It transfers the fungus to the female when it mates and the fungus gets to live on in the next generation. We had an emergence of the 13 year cicada this year, and so it's especially interesting to talk about them now. We won't see that particular cicada above ground in these parts for another 13 years. My daughter will be 23 when they emerge again!

Our next lesson was on the longleaf pine. This is a native of the Southeastern US and the State Tree of North Carolina. He explained how this tree is adapted to periodic fires and fire suppression is a main cause of it's decline. The first stage of a long-leaf pine seedling is the "grass stage". It stays like a small bushy bit of grass for a long time, but it also has a huge tap-root where it stores energy.
 After a fire the tree will sprout up really quickly in the "bottle brush" stage. This way of growing is advantageous because that bit of height is what it needs to get above the usual fast moving, but low  brush fire. It's bark is also thick and scaly and fire resistant.
You can contrast this growth with the growth of a loblolly pine. The loblolly sprouts right away and tends to grow like your average tree. Little saplings with thin bark. These do well when the fires don't come, but will burn up in a fire.

We learned many things, but just let me relate one more really interesting thing we learned and then I'll stop being the nature nerd I am.

Doodle bugs. Do you know what a "doodle bug" is? Did you even know that there was a real bug that goes by that name? Well, here's another question. If you've ever spent time around picnic tables or shelters outdoors, have you ever noticed some little craters in the dirt? It looks almost like they were formed by water falling on the ground when it rains. Turns out those little craters are really the pit traps of the doodle bug, also known as the antlion. We dug a few of these up and looked at them. Here is a picture of one close up, which is much scarier than seeing them as little specs coming out of the dirt.

Surprisingly, this is the larval form. The adult looks a bit like a lacewing or a damselfly. Here's the wikipedia page if you are interested:

Maybe not everyone would agree with me, but this is the kind of learning I think is so often missing these days. Real people relating real knowledge directly through experience. You just can't beat it. These kids, and the adults too, will remember this stuff, and whether or not it ever comes in handy, it's a piece of their world they will understand, know something about and marvel at. Admittedly, antilion knowledge may not actually come in handy, but you never know.:)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some of Our Favorite Music

Music has always been one of my favorite things to share with the kids. Of course, when the kids were babies I started by singing them some of the songs I knew the words to. Later, we listened to things like Laurie BerknerRaffi, and The Wiggles and danced around the room. When they went off to Montessori preschool, we were lucky to be provided Kindermusik classes and materials (a local source is here). This is a program that can start in the baby years and has the kids moving, singing and dancing together while learning about rhythm and instruments.
These days I've branched out in our "kid music". I am always trying to find things the kids like that also won't drive me nuts. We do a lot of listening to things in the car, and sometimes it's just nice to put something on while we are working at home. Classical is always a good background choice. If you like classical and want to find a fun way to introduce some of the famous songs and composers to your kids, here are some fun ones, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend them as background music.

The Classical Kids series is a lot of fun and they are CD's that come in a story format. An interesting story ties together the composer and the work into something that kids can relate to. This series includes: Vivaldi's Ring of MysteryBeethoven Lives UpstairsTchaikovsky Discovers America, Mozart's Magic FantasyHallelujah Handel, and a few more.

Another fun one is Beethoven's Wig. I would caution you, however, that you should not put this on if you are adverse to singing silly lyrics in your head for five days straight. My kids played this "ad nauseum" until I can't hear the classical pieces anymore without singing the lyrics. I had to ban it for a while.

Some kid music that we enjoy that is a bit more soothing is Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's Not For Kids Only. This is rather folksy but fun. Also, who could not like Jack Johnson and Friends: Curious George?

I found this little gem a couple of years ago. Elizabeth Mitchell: You Are My Little Bird. Elizabeth Mitchell has several CD's out that are soothing and sweet. Not too hard on the ears.

If you like to shake things up a bit, you could try Putumayo Kids: World Playground for an international flavor. There are a few CD's in this series that are collections of music from around the world, but this is my favorite.

Finally, in the vein of the Broadway musical is Philadelphia Chickens. Utterly ridiculous, funny, and oh-so-true. These songs will also stick in your head and you may have to ban the music after a while. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It Takes a Village Part II

How could I address the family in our lives without also addressing all the wonderful friends we have as well? Without a network of people around us, this homeschool journey of ours would never have worked. We are so fortunate to have found a large and open group that I could go to for advice, moral support, ideas, and perspective. Especially in those early days, when I was trying to muddle through the lifestyle change of homeschooling, and so unsure of everything I was doing or not doing, it meant so much to be able to go to the moms who had been doing it for a while. More often than not they would tell me to relax, it all works out in the end. These "experienced moms" as I thought of them, were so self assured, and their kids, who were often older, were proof positive that homeschooling could produce thoughtful, well-adjusted, and well educated human beings. The injection of thoughtful common sense meant so much to me.

These days my kids never seem to lack for social connections and seem to have more friends than I can keep up with. Even better, I know these kids and I know their families, and I like them all. I'm not sure that would have happened if my kids had stayed in school. We are a community that shares a common purpose and I would say most are willing and able to help each other out in whatever way they can. Sometimes it's a ride to and from an event, sometimes watching each other's kids in a scheduling crunch, sometimes it's the sharing of materials ideas and connections, and sometimes it's a meal or financial help for a family in having a tough time. I often try to help out when I can and often wish I could do more. This past Winter and Summer I was at the receiving end of the "kindness connection" and I can't say how thankful and honored I am to have found such wonderful people to be around.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hummers and other great little guys

I was looking at my little hummingbird summer companions today, noticing how chunky they are, and thinking about how they will all be leaving us soon for warmer climes (They can double their body weight in preparation for migration.) However, after reading this fascinating article, I realized that the little gal I was looking at this morning might not be the same one who spent the summer with us. Ruby Throated hummingbirds can start their migration as early as July and move south as the days start getting shorter. These amazing little bundles of energy then fly across the Gulf of Mexico to Central and South America. It's hard to believe something so small could survive such an epic journey. Yet they do it every year and come back to our feeders in April after a winter vacation in the tropics. The kids and I love watching them all summer from our kitchen window and eagerly await their return each year. Their chattering and aerial dog fights are great entertainment. Better than any TV show!

We also keep feeders for other kinds of birds, and it's a wonderful way for me to share my love and interest in wildlife with the kids. My daughter can tell you the names and habits of most of our local birds, and it's just because we like to watch them from our kitchen table as well as on hikes out and about in the area.

If birdwatching interests you at all and you think you might like to take part in an easy science project, check out Project Feederwatch. This is a program run by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. People all over the country are counting the birds in their back yards and reporting them to the lab. At the end of each season, you can see country-wide maps of different species and actually see how the birds are moving. The information that the lab collects is helping scientists learn about seasonal movements, overall population changes and shifts, and identifying important areas for conservation. This is real science, and it's easy to do. They have developed a special unit for homeschoolers and have a free guide you can download. You can also watch birds nesting each Spring and Summer on their live cams. It seems all the fun is over for this year, but it might an interesting activity to keep in mind for next year. I can tell you the kids and I got addicted to watching a barn owl nest box a couple of years ago (oh, the drama!). There are a number of nest cams out there on the internet each Spring. You just have to do a search for them. Talk about up close and personal!