Thursday, May 7, 2015

Timeline Quiz

Most of the history we've studied with N. has been through reading aloud, and through travel.  Over the past few years, Tim and N. have read together most of Joy Hakim's History of US.  They've also read some British history.  We talked a lot about French history when we spent a month in Paris.  They dip into A History of the World in 100 Objects, with particular focus on prehistoric objects, every so often.  Tim has read many many biographies and autobiographies of famous and/or interesting people to N., which always involves history.  And of course N. learns history through his passions for trains, old buildings, and music.  Other than working through Hakim's set of books chronologically, none of the history studies we've done with N. has been particularly systematic.  We explore topics as they arise and arrest our attention, whether they are out of order or jumping from one geographical local to another.

N. has never done any history projects or processed his learning of history formally, other than through extensive conversation with us, as well as through play in his drawings and the stories he tells about his imaginary world.  He takes a yearly standardized test, but these Iowa tests seem to focus more on "social studies" skills rather than historical knowledge.  So Tim was curious earlier this year to see if N. could put some major historical events in their proper chronological order.  

Here are the events Tim asked N. to put in order:
A. French Revolution
B. Rise of domesticated crops and animals
C. Crusades
D. American Civil War
E. Columbus finds America
F. Napoleonic Wars
G. Modern humans arrive in Europe from Africa
H. World War I
I. English Civil War
J. Neanderthals settle Europe

We were quite pleased to see that N. correctly put all these events in their proper order (whether he could assign them dates is also an interesting question, but not one we've asked yet).  This confirmed for us that our primarily unsystematic approach to history is nonetheless working; through all our reading and talking and traveling N. is constructing an accurate mental history timeline that he will continually add to as he learns.  I think the recursive nature of homeschooling is especially conducive to building historical knowledge.  We circle back around topics and historical events from different angles over the years of reading and talking together.  We remind each other of what we've learned and make connections.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Favorite Books of Fifth Grade

I'll post my usual lists of the books N. read and that we read aloud at the end of the month, but I thought I'd note two series that have thoroughly absorbed him this year: The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood.  It took N. a little while to get into the first Wildwood book, but once he did he was hooked.  There were many days where he begged to read just a little more before his regular "school" time with Tim started, or just a bit more past his already long-gone bedtime.  He's been pestering me to read the Wildwood books so we can talk about them, and I'm planning to do that now that my semester has ended. 

We don't assign reading to N., or any activities related to his reading (reports, etc.).  We talk so much together about the books that we read aloud that I think we don't need to do any additional instruction in reading comprehension or analysis at this point.  It seems to me that approaches to reading in conventional school risk killing the joy of reading, and cultivating that joy is a primary priority in our homeschooling.  Even if N. doesn't explicitly analyze the books he reads, he's absorbing so much about how fiction works just by reading a lot.  

While we don't assign reading, I spend a lot of time looking for books I think he'll enjoy and putting them in front of him to pique his interest.  Since he learned to read, N. has always loved reading non-fiction; sometimes I've taken to nagging (or even ill-fated bribing) to get him to put down the Trains magazine and read fiction (he loves having fiction read aloud to him, however).  But that's as close as we get to forcing him to read.  And when a book really grabs him, I feel so grateful for his flexible homeschool schedule that allows him to read in bed for an extra half hour (or more!), morning or night, when he really really wants to.  

When I was in fifth grade, I remember getting caught reading a book on my lap instead of following the math lesson (I wish I could recall what the book was!).  I was startled to be called on to answer some math question and had to explain that I had gotten lost in my book and hadn't really even noticed that we'd started math (quite some time ago).   My kind teacher's tone of voice changed from frustrated to forgiving, and I've always felt gratitude to her for not punishing me for loving to read (and hating math).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cello Lessons

Earlier this year, N. began taking cello lessons from a friend of ours.  Given N.'s love of playing and writing music, Tim had been encouraging him to take up another instrument in addition to piano.  Why cello?  N. didn't want to play a wind or brass instrument, so Tim suggested cello because we already had my cello and N. liked it.  It turned out he isn't quite big enough for a full-sized cello, so we had to rent a 3/4-sized cello, but this means I can use mine to practice with him, which is quite fun.  On the day pictured here, April 1, N. suggested we practice outside in the gorgeous spring twilight, so we sat on our front walk and serenaded the tulips and cherry blossoms.  It was lovely!

If N. was to take up a second instrument, it needed to remain a low-pressure and low time-commitment project.  N. currently practices two hours a day on piano, sings in a chorus that rehearses two hours a week, and takes a weekly music theory lesson which has its attendant homework (plus weekly ballet class).  Enough!  He has to have free time too!  We explained our goals to the cello teacher, and she understood.  N. practices cello a minimum of 10 minutes a day, after supper (while he practices piano mid-day when he is at peak energy).  Sometimes he ends up playing longer as he gets interested in playing around on the instrument.

I started cello lessons in 6th grade at age 11, so just a year older than N. is now.  I've enjoyed comparing N.'s initial experience of the instrument with my own.  Piano and music theory have given him such a thorough understanding of the structure of music that he picked up right away how the cello is organized -- how the strings, positions, and intervals relate to each other.  At first he was frustrated with how hard it is to make a clean sound on a string instrument, but he's persisted and I think appreciates his slowly developing skill.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday French Lesson

I was very excited last week to read these sentences that N. wrote in his French workbook.  Real sentences!  "I want to go to Paris.  I'm going to visit the Eiffel Tower and eat in a French restaurant, ride the Metro, visit the Louvre, go to Parc au Buttes-Chaumont, and eat a croissant and a baguette."

I wish we had time to work on French together more than once a week, because N. enjoys and is easily learning what he's studying now and I know he would easily make quicker progress if we could do more lessons.  Maybe in summer.  Meanwhile, I'm very happy with the foundation he's building now.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Our Little Free Library

N. received a Little Free Library from his grandparents for Christmas.  We mounted it in our front yard in January and we've had so much fun rummaging our shelves to stock and restock it.  We've also made trips to the local used book store to find favorite titles when we don't want to give away our precious personal copies.  We regularly check to see what's been taken and what new titles appear overnight.  Neighborhood parents of young children have told us their kids love walking over to check out the selection regularly.  Both N. and I are really enjoying spreading our love of books throughout our neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


N. received several months of a Tinker Crate subscription for Christmas from his grandparents and he's really enjoyed it.  He especially liked last month's kit, which was all about hydraulics.  He experimented with various configurations of the syringes and tubing.  I've been impressed with the construction of the kits: they begin with a basic project, and then suggest several modifications to make the kit more open-ended.  The projects are structured to encourage tinkering, not merely following directions.
Building an automatic drawing machine
Making slime
Though we have quite a few educational science/engineering kits, such as SnapCircuits, and Lego Crazy Action Contraptions, along with chemistry and physics sets, the Tinker Crates have been more successful with N. for both learning and play.  Partly I think this is because they arrive in the mail and get his attention, unlike a box that sits on a shelf for months (or years!).  I've talked before about the learning power of the fortuitous moment; when something piques our curiosity, we are primed to learn more. 

Building hydraulic systems

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do Homeschoolers Get Snow Days?

(Steeper than it looks in this photo)
It's funny how many times people have asked us if as a homeschooler, N. gets snow days.  The answer is "Of course! But not as many as the kids here in North Carolina do..."

We've had two days this winter of real slide-down-the-hills-and-throw-snowballs snow this winter.  On those days, N. is up early and out the door along with all the other kids in the neighborhood.   Since all car traffic virtually stops in our city as soon as flurries begin and snow plows never make it to side streets, the kids gather with sleds at the top of a steep little street in our neighborhood.  Parents guard the intersections while chatting and drinking hot drinks in thermal mugs.  If the conditions are good and you have the right sled, you might get a two-and-a-half-block run downhill.  Adult neighbors catch up with each other while kids throw themselves down the slopes for hours.  The mood is festive because snow is rare and short-lived.

By the next day, the snow is mostly melted and the plow has probably come through.  There's no more sledding.  But the schools in town are still closed! And will continue to be so for days, due to fears of icy roads or unusually cold temperatures.  During a 14-day stretch in February, the public and private schools here had about 3 1/2 days of school, I think.

I love the festivity of the initial snow days, but this excessive fear of a little bit of snow, ice, and cold, drives me, a native Minnesotan, nuts.  Canceling school the moment the mercury drops below 32 is very hard on working parents and the many kids who depend on school for meals.  And I confess to feeling a little smugness along with sympathy as the snow days drag on, seemingly unnecessarily, wreaking havoc on the lives of our friends.  While other kids are home day after day driving their parents crazy, N. and Tim go easily back to their regular studies and routines.  We get all of the fun and little of the disruption caused by snow days in the South.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Would the Quimbys Do?

I recently finished reading Ramona Forever and Ramona the Brave (Beverly Cleary, of course) aloud to N.  He'd been asking to come back to a few of the Ramona books that I hadn't already read to him or that he hadn't read himself.  I resisted because these are easy books for him and I thought he should read them himself; I like to read aloud books that are more advanced, a bit beyond his own reading level.  But he begged and it seemed mean not to give in.  I didn't have another read-aloud in mind, and anyway Ramona is such fun.

I didn't regret reading these aloud because while they might be rather easy reading for a fifth-grader, the stories are emotionally complex.  The world isn't easy for Ramona to navigate!  We talked a lot as I read about her complicated reactions to her experiences.  She gets angry, envious, scared, and pouty.  These are great books for helping kids give voice to their own complex emotions, and the books represent for the adult reader what it feels like to go through the world as a somewhat fractious, complicated kid -- a kid who wants to be loved, wants to be thought "good," but who also has a strong sense of her own self, her needs, her wants.

As a  parent, I was especially struck by the way that Ramona's parents deal with her unhappiness at school, both in kindergarten (in Ramona the Pest, which I read to N. a couple years ago) and in first grade (in Ramona the Brave).  In her first two years of school, Ramona wants desperately to be liked by her teachers, and feels underappreciated by them.  For about a week partway through the year she boycotts kindergarten.  In first grade she begs her parents to get her switched to the other first grade classroom because she has had a series of misunderstandings with her teacher and has come to believe her teacher doesn't like her.  Her parents ascertain that the teacher is not actually a bad teacher, just somewhat formal and old-fashioned, so they make Ramona stick it out. I would probably be exactly the opposite kind of parent: rushing in to meet with teachers, demand changes, etc. to insure my child an optimal learning experience.  I can't even read the resolutions of Ramona's school crises without getting teary!  After all, this is at least in part why we homeschool: to give our child a learning environment better suited to his temperament.

But the point of these episodes in both books is Ramona's resilience.  She survives, even thrives.  Her essential Ramona-ness is not thwarted by being misunderstood.  The bravery of the title is not only shown when Ramona faces down a fierce dog on her walk to school, but when she exercises her "spunk" and shows her teacher who she really is: creative, artistic, resourceful.  She's able to do this because of her parents' confidence in her.  "Buck up, Ramona," said Mr. Quimby after refusing to intervene with her teacher. "Show us your spunk." Ramona was comforted by him singing "Oh my gal she am a spunky gal! Sing polly-wolly doodle all the day!" as he washed the dishes later that night.  Buoyed by this belief in her, Ramona walked to school the next day "filled with spirit and pluck." "She was determined that today would be different.  She would make it different.  She was her father's spunky gal, wasn't she?"

There's been so much research on the importance of inculcating grit, resilience, and determination in kids by letting them wrestle with challenges without parental interference.  Cleary's Ramona anticipates this research.  Though we've chosen not to send our child to traditional school, I hope we are are not depriving him of opportunities to test his ability to face challenges and solve problems -- to be spunky.

(Ramona's originality goes unrecognized)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I think I know my son's tastes pretty well, but I was utterly surprised by the book he's currently obsessed with: Roz Chast's memoir "Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?"  I don't think this was intended for a 10-year-old. It's an account told mostly through drawings of the last years of her parents' lives and of Chast's own efforts to care for them, clean out their apartment, move them to a care facility, etc.

N. had read an excerpt in the New Yorker and begged to get a copy of the book.  I can't really explain why he likes it so much and I have to wait my turn to read it!  But I think he likes the tragicomic tone, and Chast's wry drawings. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Little Help from a Small Bear

The other day we were talking about the new "Annie" movie starring Quvenzhan√© Wallis.  N. told me there's a girl in his ballet class named Annie who looks like the girl who played Annie in a local production of the musical that we saw a couple years ago.  I said, "Maybe they are sisters."  He said, "No, there wouldn't be two girls in one family named Annie."  I looked at him, puzzled, and then he started laughing, realizing his mistake: of course the girl in the play wasn't named Annie, she just played Annie!  

Then N. said, "Take your daughter back!  Take your daughter back!"  I had no idea what he was talking about, didn't even realize at first that he was quoting something, and certainly didn't recognize the quote.  N. said, "Remember when Paddington went backstage?"

Aha!  N. was referring to an episode in "A Visit to the Theatre" in A Bear Called Paddington that we'd read (probably several times) years ago, when Paddington doesn't realize that the people on stage at a play he attends are playing roles.  He goes back stage at the intermission to try to patch things up between the characters.  N.'s momentary mistake about the name of the girl who played Annie immediately reminded him of this moment in the story.  

I love how this conversation reveals unconscious cognition at work.  N. didn't consciously search his memory for something that would help make sense of a funny mistake that he was a little bit embarrassed about.  But the story jumped to the front of his mind through the power of association. Reading (and being read aloud to) gives us access to a wealth of life experiences through which we can understand our own.