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Entries in homeschooling (95)



Teaching cell biology to an octopus today


Lego photosynthesis

6CO2 + 6H20 = C6H12O6 + 6O2

Hands on learning doesn't always have to mean getting your hands truly dirty. There is no easy way to put your hands on Photosynthesis. Our current science unit is about plant cells and their functions, and without a high tech lab, anything beyond viewing onion skin in a child's microscope is out of our league, but that doesn't mean we have to give up our usual hands-on approach, it just means we have to be a a little more creative in our lessons, or a little more loose in our definition of hands on.

Earlier in the week we took cuttings from plants around the yard and looked at their apical leaves through hand-held magnifiers to get a good feel for how they really grow. To cement that understanding we drew comics illustrating the process, and continued to watch our basil plants grow in the hot weather all week long. But photosynthesis is a bit trickier.

We have been using Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding for about six years now. We started with Volume I in the early years and this past year we finished Volume II while beginning Volume III. Aside from the fluidity of the books, one of the things I have loved about them without reserve is the focus on physical learning. Nearly every lesson provides a clearly explained project that gives kids a chance to literally feel their way through the topic. And I'm not talking about baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. The experiments and demonstrations included by Nebel are entirely topic appropriate and devoid of nonsensical gimmicks.

So while we couldn't actually witness the enzymatic process involved in Photosynthesis, the recommendation was that we use blocks, styrofoam, or any other physical product to symbolize the molecules involved and work the process ourselves as though we were the enzymes. With the caveat that it is clearly simplified, and that more than one enzyme is required in a real plant, we still got a good feel for how the greenery in our lives is constantly at work breaking down CO2 and providing us with O2. It's a little physical, a little mathematical, a lot scientific, and entirely, educationally, fun.  


Fox on a farm

When Calvin did his first YPT show last year I remember being skeptical when the powers that be warned us about post-show depression. There was entire handout on the topic, warning us to be prepared for irritable, recalcitrant children in the week or two following the production. In my head I giggled a little, but remembering the validity of similar afflictions, like post-holiday ennui, I filled those weeks with activities sure to keep a young mind engaged. 

Having at first inwardly giggled let me tell you, post-production depression is a real thing, and it way outpaces post-holiday ennui. These kids put so much work in the show that it becomes a defining part of their lives for the two plus months they rehearse. During tech week and production weekend, the show really is their lives. And's gone. Just like that this creature they'd been nurturing with all their energy and time has passed away, and the days following such a loss will inevitably be devoted to mourning. Inevitably.

Last year, all the activities I had planned were not enough to ward away the blues, but I know they helped, so this year I focused on a combination of extra activities, and a pointed return to routine. After letting him sleep in for a couple of days I dragged him out of bed and kicked him out the front door to play with the kids at the bus stop. When I set our weekly school calendar (after having taken tech week mostly off) I planned all the subjects in their usual places, but lightened the load a bit in most. And I registered us for two homeschool field trips during the week.

But you know what doesn't care about my kid's depressing week of post-show mourning? The weather. So we didn't make it to the frog catch-and-release field trip because even though frogs don't mind the rain, we do. And our second field trip was almost as much of a bust except that laughter, and our own brand of sarcastic cynicism, is also good medicine. Because Northfork Farms, where were slated to enjoy a morning of reliving the wild west, turned out to be a strange mixture of backwoods zoo, cheap carnival, and run-down roadside tourist trap. We played some "old wild west kids' games", which until I've seen their resources I'll be convinced were games they made up to go along with the cheapest plastic kid toys they could get on clearance last fall. We embarked on the Louis & Clark trail, which was a short walk through a collection of small dioramas in plastic boxes so yellowed by the sun that it was hard to see the "animals" in them (I'm still not sure whether they were taxidermied or merely plastic molds with fake hair glued on, but I'm leaned towards the latter). We went to a saloon (where they ran out of time to give us the snack we'd been promised) and learned that women didn't go to saloons because they didn't (not couldn't...didn't) vote back then. What? We washed our rags at the "Chinese laundry" (a mini lesson so racist I was embarrassed just listening) and panned for a gold piece that later chipped away until it had returned to its original state as a pebble. 

So the trip, while disappointing, turned out to be okay, misleading and offensive lessons aside, simply because it was such an easy target for comedic absurdity. That, and because there was a baby fox. A baby fox who loved people and just wanted to be held. Who wouldn't love holding a baby fox? (And here I'm refraining from touching on how I actually feel about a fox in captivity, or the coati, tiny monkey, and peacock they also had in captivity, all in tiny cages, because that's a big subject for another platform). And then we rode off into the sunset (because that's what they do in the wild west, right?) on a weird oil drum mini-train (because that's what they do in the absurd wild west, right?), and laughed all the way home. And they do say that laughter is the best medicine...for post-show depression.


Baby owls

Another beautiful, sunny morning promising soft, enjoyable afternoon temps today. Last week we went on an afternoon hike, Jon enjoying a rare respite from work in the fresh air, to go see the baby owls in Eberwhite Woods. In a nature loving, family oriented town like Ann Arbor, it didn't take long for people to find, and then news to spread about, the family of Great Horned Owls nesting in the wood adjacent to a local elementary school. With tree leaves not out yet, the nest and its growing babies have been visible, easy to find even, and the woods has seen more frequent traffic than probably any other time in its history. On our own first pilgrimage a week ago we found the owls easily, and enjoyed watching the babies peer at us intently over the side of the nest before stretching their wings and toddling around in it. 

The wonderful thing about homeschooling is flexibility. When I planning the year out, slaving over a computer calendar poolside in Stratford last summer, I commuted our science book studies in favor of hiking time for most of the month of May. Then, when good weather arrived early, and the allure of owls was too great to ignore, I swapped some April weeks for May weeks in order to free up some time to breath in teh warming air, soak up the brightening sun, and strike out into the woods in serach of owls. So that first pilgrimage was followed by several others as we watched the owls stretch and toddle with more alacrity until the first one fell out and proceded to grow and develop on the ground. 

We learned a lot from our almost daily hikes in the past week. We looked up Great Horned Owls and learned about their development—their growth, their instincts, their learned behaviors—and we learned about the goodness, or protectiveness, of the people around us. the entire experience has been incredibly sweet.


10 reasons to include performing arts in (home)schooling

There are all kinds of articles and studies out there right now in support of keeping fine arts in the schools. This comes at a time when the greater push is to improve and intensify academic learning in an increasingly homogenized and student saturated environment, all with fewer funds, so the battle to defend (or, on the flipside, defund) the arts is real, and it's a brutal one. 

A few months ago we were at the GP's for Calvin's anual checkup. His doctor, a young man whom I for speaking to me like an equal and Calvin like a capable human being, went over Calvin's list of "out of school" activities with us. I think he was just curious, or he may have been checking in because he knows that Calvin is homeschooled, and although we seemed to pass any test that might have been administered, we also seemed to flummox him with regards to Calvin's arts involvement. That's a lot of music, he said. It wasn't said with any kind of tone, so I don't know if it was meant as a judgement or merely as an expression of surprise, but it got me thinking. 

Calvin has choir rehearsal twice a week, band rehearsal twice a week, dance class twice a week, and a weekly piano lesson. He participates in anywhere from 2 to 4 theatrical performances a year. We study fine arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, and art viewing) at least twice a week. This is a lot, especially when I see it typed up here in front of me, and by no means do I think this level of involvement is right for everyone. But Calvin does the performing arts the way other kids do sports. He is trying several of them, and the amount of time he dedicates to them over the year is not really more than a child involved in team sports dedicates to those. Yet his involvement in the fine arts elicits a very different response than a child receives who is heavily involved in sports. 

Why this unequal respect for the two main paths of "extracurricular" involvement? Sports are heavily lauded for the benefits they bestow upon their participants, and rightly so. A sense of teamwork, self-respect, and physical fitness are just three of the many important things they are charged with teaching kids, and I don't at all doubt the veracity of those claims. I do, however, think the same things are taught through participation in the performing arts. I read an article recently that urged people to stop defending arts in the schools, the argument being that they need no defense, their value speaks for itself. If that were true, though, the battle for funding and support wouldn't be raging as we speak.

So in defense of performing arts in schooling (home or not), here are some of the things kids will learn or gain from that study:

Self discipline
It won't come right away. It might take years to achieve, in fact, but practice is self-discipline, and all arts require it. I've always told Calvin at the piano that music practice in particular is self-policing. Practice is sitting down to play a small part of a song over and over again until the whole family is going crazy, but you can finally play it right. You can't fake it, it's either right or it isn't. If it isn't, keep practicing. 

The point of practice, or self-discipline, is to perfect a skill. In the days between classes or lessons, kids are responsible for putt their best effort into this achievement. It's a little like homework in that a parent can make a kid sit down and play their scales they way they can make them finish their math, but arts practice is less mechanical in nature, and the resulting achievements are assessed more fluidly. Ultimately, students practicing the fine arts are more responsible for the value of their practice time, and, thus, more fully accountable for their achievements or lack thereof.

The skill of public speaking
This is an obvious benefit from stage performance, but the ability to get up in front of others is taught in any and all performing arts. It's in the performing part. In preparing works to share with others, be they piano songs practiced for recital, or vocal music to be performed in a choir concert, children are learning the skills of selection and preparation with an eye toward communicating with an audience. Then they actually get up in front of that audience. Not everyone who practices performing arts will be a talented public speaker, but I'm willing to bet that they will all at least improve in this area.

Confidence and Self-respect
Similar to the skill of public speaking, kids who go through years of performing arts education gain a level of self respect from lessons learned about preparation and performance. Youth performance environments are designed to be supportive and encouraging. The main goal of youth recitals is to help young performers gain confidence in their skills and in themselves. A secondary lesson is: put your best into it, get your best out of it. Everyone applauds at a child's recital, which is supportive and encouraging, but kid will know when they've truly done their best, and many will learn to respect themselves and the process enough to the work in between.

Nothing is more frustrating than a section of song you can't quite get, or a line you can't remember correctly, or a step you keep tripping on. And nothing is more rewarding than finally getting it right. Practice may not always make perfect, but done correctly it does always improve capability, and that reward teaches perseverance.

Duets, ensembles, stage performances, dance troupes...though many people think of performing arts as producing divas, the truth is that, as in sports, there are more team players in the discipline than individual rising stars. Get your instruments in tune, set up group practices, follow the director as one, don't miss your entrances. Collaboration is key.

Self expression
All kids long for self-expression. We see this in the child singing at the top of their lungs in the shower, or in the three year old screaming at the top of their lungs on the grocery store floor. Performance arts, any fine arts, really, provide a healthy means of self-expression.

Social exploration
Any collaborative approach in any performing art gives kids a common goal and asks them to set differences aside to achieve it. As part of team work, kids will learn ways to overcome social obstacles together. More literally, kids participating in theatrical arts are given the opportunity to play-act a wide variety of social situations. Kids do this on their own in imaginative play, but here they'll do it with the benefit of coaching.

Cultural and global exploration
All of the arts are celebrations of culture and heritage, and many performing arts programs seek out pieces from world cultures for students to try out and learn from. 

Health and fitness
Especially true in theater and dance, but to some extent in all disciplines, the arts require a healthy life style and encourage physical fitness. While this necessity is obvious in dancers, think also of the need for great breath control and capacity in singers and wind instrumentalists, and also posture and fine motor control for all musicians. Piano players have some really strong arms and amazing abs.

Expansion and connection of all other subject areas
We've probably all heard about the studies linking music in particular to improved mental acuity and performance in other subject areas, like math. Reading music can help students improve their language skills as well. But we also try to include music, literature, and visual arts in our history and culture studies as we go. Since the arts are a celebration of culture and heritage, arts through time can be considered primary sources—snapshots in time—and there is a lot to be gained from studying them.