Friday, February 15, 2013

Spring, education and stupidity

It's only February but already there are signs of spring. The crocuses and a few daffodils have popped up, I can see buds forming on the maple trees, our peach tree is already blooming, and the little frogs are crick-cricking away in the wetlands around here. 

The robins are showing up in our yard in large numbers and this is always a sign of Spring here in North Carolina. I do Feederwatch counts all year for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but this week is also the Great Backyard Bird Count. It's a great way to learn about the birds in your area and take part in easy citizen science.

I only have a couple of quotes for now. I've been perusing "educational" quotes and this one struck me as particularly true:

"History is a race between education and catastrophe." - H.G. Wells

We've been listen to Story of the World tapes and my kids have made the observation that history seems to be a series of wars and people greedy for power. It's sad, but I have to agree with them.

Just as I found that quote, my daughter, who is reading about Korea, Japan and WWII ( So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima) asked me why we dropped two nuclear bombs on a bunch of innocent civilian people in Japan. I have no good answer for her. She said, "Humans are stupid. War is stupid." Truer words have never been said. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Random Stuff From a Homeschool Week or Two

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the child's natural bent.” 
― Plato

Wise words from a really old guy. I just found a lovely trove of quotes I may be fobbing off on my five readers here for a while. I force my kids to do things, of course, but it's always much better if it was their own idea. Don't you agree?

I have no wise words these days, but I do have a motley collection of things that we fell into doing these past few weeks, and let me just say that the things we do are such a direct outgrowth of who my kids are. My daughter, in particular, is constantly taking me into things I never thought I would be doing.

Spelling Bees, for instance. The thought of standing up in front of a bunch of straight faced judges is very daunting. Even if I could have spelled anything correctly as a child, I don't think I ever would have signed up for that. My daughter, however, has found that it's a challenge she likes. Not only that, but she's good at it. We took part in the annual Scripps Spelling Bee again this year. Our homeschool group is the only one that takes part in this in our area (as far as I know), and I am very thankful for the opportunity this gives us. The winner goes on to the regional competition with all the winners of the school competitions. My daughter came in third this year behind two very impressive and well coached brothers, and I am very proud of her.

She does love the limelight. Sometimes I wonder who's kid she is. We have also been taking part in a homeschool program sponsored by a community theatre in Raleigh called the Raleigh Little Theatre. RLT is an institution that has been around since the 1930's and puts on some really good shows as well as offering top notch education. They have a class called RLT Homeschool Players to Go. After auditioning, the kids spent several weeks practicing their theatrical skills and learning their parts and then they took the show on the road, performing for various preschools and track-out camps in the area. We've got one more week to go with this and it's been a really great run. This year the play is something called "Revenge of the Pigs". My daughter is a really mean and hungry Mrs. Wolf and the kids watching it have just loved the play while the actors are having a blast doing it. This is all done with minimal set and costumes since it has to be easily transportable.

With my son I have been doing the "Tracks and Signs" lessons (see this post here) and this week took a trip out to Historic Yates Mill County Park for a very nice program. It poured the night before and stopped raining just long enough for a lovely walk where we saw beaver tracks and many other things. It seems the boys, in particular, really just love any chance to be doing something and then out and moving. The teacher did a really good job keeping their interest as well.

Unfortunately, this week, some of the illness that has been going around has also finally caught up with us. When my son came down with a fever I thought to myself, "Drat! We made it all the way through the holiday season and now it gets us?" He slept pretty much an entire day and spent another one convalescing and is almost fully recovered now. My daughter came down with it three days later and is now currently coughing her head off if bed.

I continually marvel at how each child seems to take illness in much the same way no matter what it is. My son often shows little or no signs of how bad he feels until he suddenly gets grumpy or tired or loses his appetite. After that he continues to be easy, quietly suffering in his bed or on the couch, napping when he can. My daughter, as with everything, is a drama queen. "Mommy, I feel terrible. Mommy, I feel like I'm going to die." In the middle of the night she'll come and wake me up, "Mommy, my nose is running. Mommy, I can't breathe." In her world, misery loves company and if she's miserable it seems the rest of us have to suffer with her. It always ends in a week or more of coughing and I'm often at a loss of what to do. She will cough herself into throwing up. She will cough all night. I'm desperate here and we are going for the "vapor rub on the feet" cure. I only have the all-natural version of the rub, and the "remedy" seems ludicrous, but I'll try anything.

Randomly, there was a bit of science last night involving copper pennies and vinegar. I came into the kitchen to find dad and daughter shining up copper pennies and coating nails in copper. If you are interested in trying this, a good place to look is here.

We are also getting ready for a couple of birthday parties. If I had to do it all over again, I would have never gone in for the big parties, because once you do it, it's really hard to say no the next year. My daughter always wants a party at home and always wants to invite EVERYONE. Fortunately, she has started doing most of the planning herself. Every year we make a piñata. It's something that is incredibly easy to do. So far, however, we haven't figured out how to do any shapes other than round, as we shape it around a ballon and then pop it. All you have to do is mix white flour with water and then dip paper (newspaper, tissue paper) into the mixture and apply it to the outside of your shape. When it's dry you fill it up with whatever you want. It's attaching the rope that is tricky.

This year my daughter wants an "international" party and so the piñata is going to be a globe. Unfortunately, right now it looks more like a big blue egg than a big blue marble. Well have to work on that.

Finally, to wrap up this rather random assortment of topics, I thought I would share a really lovely little video I found this week. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lesson Plan: Tracks and Signs

One of our Co-ops is focusing on the State of North Carolina this year. It happens to be where we live and is part of the state curriculum for fourth graders. We don't by any means follow the curriculum the state mandates, but it seemed like a good umbrella topic for the year. We have parent members in our group that have a range of specialties and abilities, and so we each take three consecutive weeks and craft some lessons for the group. The end result is everything from dance and art to history and beyond. I seem to be the "science" person so I figured I would do something concerning the nature of our area. 

This is a tough group though. These kids have been to the local museums multiple times and have had all kinds of instruction on the plants and animals of North Carolina, not to mention having spent a great deal of time outdoors in the woods. I thought I would take a page from the realm of applied science and have some fun with them learning about how to find and identify tracks and other things left behind by our forest creatures. 

A great resource for this is a booklet that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science has on their website called Animal Tracks and Signs. I took many of our activities from this guide and will be taking them to the Museum, itself, in a couple of weeks for an information hunt amongst the "Mountains to the Sea Display". There is also a Curiosity Class on "Animal Tracks and Signs" at the museum but I wasn't able to get in. The museum was completely booked two to three months ahead of time, so if you are thinking of bringing a group for one of their terrific classes, I'd suggest booking early!

The first thing we did, after brainstorming things we might look for (scat, tracks, hair, broken twigs, disturbed soil, etc.) was focus on scat (i.e. poop) and think about how it might be different for different animals. I used the scat story provided in the museum booklet,  reading the story out loud and letting them try to guess what kind of animal left each item in the story. Incidentally, they loved being able to say "poop", though I insisted on the more scientific term.

After this, I moved on to the various tracks we might find in the area. A couple of good books are Wild Tracks! A Guide to Nature's Footprints by Jim Arnosky and Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent E. Selsam. Wild Tracks! has some great fold-out pages with life-size tracks to look at.

I also happened to have a "tracks" poster and I used this to point out some of the main differences in the different kinds of animals and the tracks they leave behind. For example, you almost never see claw marks in the tracks of felines because they have retractable claws. Not so for dogs and other Canids. Their claws are usually easy to see. 

In addition to the books, there are some nice field guides out there. There is a Peterson Guide called Animal Tracks that I have found to be quite useful. For usability I always prefer the Peterson Guides to Audubon or Stokes. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but I find things easier to locate in these books and to have better pictures and more pertinent information. I also found another field guide called Animal Tracks of the Carolinas by Tamara Eder that looks very helpful. We haven't used these yet, but we may do so next week when we visit a local park called Yates Mill Pond. For $25 the folks at the park will give us another instructional class on animal tracks and signs as well as a guided walk to see if we can find anything out near the pond. 

A web search had yielded me this post, which had a couple of nice YouTube videos we were able to watch. There are some other resources here that might be useful as well. Here are the videos.They are only a couple of minutes long.
Finding tracks in the snow: 

Finding tracks in mud: 

I had the kids work on this little matching sheet and see how well they could do. 

After that we did the "Track Story" activity from the Museum booklet in groups. Each group was given one of four drawings depicting tracks and other signs and told to see if they could figure out together what had happened and tell the "story". This was a fun group activity that got them thinking and working together to try and use their powers of deduction. Most were not correct, but it was fun to do anyway. 

There are many other activities you can do, of course. We just don't really have the time in our group. One classic activity is to make plaster casts of tracks you find. You can find directions for that and a number of other activities at these sites.