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Entries in learning (33)


Zoo babies (and more)

Speaking of flexible summer days, today we dropped everything and headed over meet the new river otter pups just introduced on exhibit. Actually, our zoo has several babies this year, including a camel calf we did not get to see, and river otter pups and grizzly bear cubs, all of which were very entertaining while we were there. We had a chance to see the otter pups nursing, swimming playfully, and even tumbling down the slide in a head-over-tails ball of baby otters. We also watched them them follow and perfectly mimic their mother's every move in what could only have been a river otter's version of home (zoo) schooling. The lesson included swimming, looking for food, and waste elimination, and it looked quite a bit like follow the leader. One of them must have stepped out of line, though, because we actually saw his mother drag him by the scruff, under water, across the entire exhibit, then haul him out of the water onto the shore (he's as big as she is, mind you), and sit on him. We didn't see what got him into that trouble, but I think he's not likely to do it again.

The grizzly cubs were equally as precious. The three brothers were brought to the zoo late last year after their mother was killed by a poacher (story here), and they are immensely fun to watch. While we were there they swam, chased each other, and tumbled over and over a log that was in their pool. It was as though they were daring each other to be increasingly brave. There were other animals that we greatly enjoyed this trip, too, like the giraffe drinking from a spigot, the ostrich eyeing us warily from the shade, the penguins (of course), the polar bear who was just a glass width away, and some hoppity kangaroos. We ate lunch in the shade of a powerless carousel (the power still out in parts of the zoo from last week's storms), and even happened to spy some non-resident birds: black-capped night herons (adult and juveniles), and a red bellied woodpecker. Wildlife at the zoo, just imagine that.

We have gotten pretty good at spotting interesting wildlife, actually. I am a naturalist at heart, much of my college learning being focused on animals, their behavior, evolution, adaptations, and habitats, and Calvin has long taken part in seeking, finding, and quietly observing nature with me. Recently we have started to talk more in depth about what differentiates various types of life, like plants from animals, or mammals from amphibians, reptiles, or birds. A few weeks ago, partly following suggestions in BFSU, we talked at length about energy as the driving force behind life and about speciation, which really added to our enjoyment of all critter sightings while we were hiking on vacation, and the same can be said about today's sightings, both wild and not-so-wild (and one green heron sighting back in our own yard). Which means, I guess, that this only seemed like just another trip to the zoo, and that, in fact, brings me back around to what I was saying yesterday about learning and life fitting quite nicely together, quod erat demonstrandum.

Or, put more simply, we had a great time at the zoo today.

Baby river otters!

Little bumbles

Black-capped night heron being sneaky in the vulture enclosure

Black-capped night heron juveniles being sneaky (and avoiding their parents) in the ostrich and kudu enclosure

Animal watching...

People watching...

Grizzly cubs (including the little guy above)

Young polar bear

Adult polar bear

Sadly, a powerless carousel
American bison


Little boy on an elephant sculpture

Red bellied woodpecker (from very, very far away, and very, very cropped in, but he's there)

Green heron flying over our yard at home


Re: structure

After I posted last week about needing to introduce more structure into our learning lives I received a concerned email from my mom.

Do you mean that with homeschooling you "teach" the same all year round and have no unstructured months where you learn as you go ?  

and it became clear to me that a) I have a tendency to assume my language is universal, when really not everyone knows what I mean when I mean it, and b) I have no idea what I'm doing and sometimes I post without thinking things through clearly. I answered that there just isn't a yes or no answer to that question. The long answer is probably a little philosophical, a little ideological, a little opinionated, so read on if you want.

One of the reasons we are homeschooling is that we believe learning should occur all year long, so yes, we learn (and "teach," I suppose, although I tend to think of it more as "learning together") all year round. The current public school method is based on an archaic system developed during the industrial age and the subsequent push for educational reform (link). At that time kids needed a safe place to go (and to be trained to do, not think) during the days (while their parents were doing, not thinking). Before the reform urban schools were an eleven month process (and rural schools were in during the summer and winter, but out during the spring and fall planting and harvesting seasons). But there was no air conditioning, and cities were hot and dirty during the summer, so after the reform public school was out during the summer months. The winter/summer learning discrepancy is an artificially imposed one, and that is part of the process that makes learning the enemy; By confining learning to a schoolroom and a school day and a school year we take away its authenticity, and if we, in all earnestness, ask kids to accept that bit of inauthenticity from us, how can we expect them to treat any of our other "lessons" with a respect that is due only to truth?

Then, about that dangerous "structure" word I should probably have been more clear, because when I say structure I don't mean sitting at a table doing math, reading, social studies, etc. for x many hours in a day. And I don't mean doing the same thing day in and day out all year long. But some people really benefit from knowing what to expect, and what is expected of them. Without some kind of structure I lose my patience more, and I think Calvin pushes buttons more when that starts happening. So what structure means to me is having a plan, even if it's a loose one. It does means that Calvin can expect to have quiet reading time every day (usually right after lunch when we're sleepy anyway), and he knows that he's expected to practice, or at least play, the piano every day, and complete at least three journal entries every week, more if he so desires. And by "structure" I also don't mean inflexibility, and it certainly doesn't preclude learning as we go. More likely it embraces it, giving us landmarks around which we create our chosen paths of learning. In fact, it's the matter of adapting those landmarks to what we "learn as we go" that gives them their authenticity, and enriches the things we explore.

We will never stop discussing and investigating the things we come across in life because that's just the way we live. Calvin is suddenly showing an interest in dinosaurs, following a great program at the library this morning. So we checked out books while we were there (for the reading time that we know we have at home), we made a plan to visit the museum next week, and maybe the zoo, and we made a list of things we wanted to know, and talked about where to find the information. We will write about what we're learning (in the journals we keep each week). If during that time he loses interest, or we discover something else he wants to learn about instead, we'll talk about whether we finish the dinosaur plan first, or change directions, but the usual landmarks will remain—the journal, the quiet reading time, the piano, etc. And again, as I've mentioned before, our homeschooling method is still under construction, and probably will be for all of its life, and I reserve the right to change my mind.


Dinosaurs, discovery, and make-believe

PaleoJoe was at the library today. If you're not familiar with PaleoJoe, which we weren't and likely neither are you, he's exactly what he sounds like: an energetic, entertaining, real, live paleontologist, complete with stereotypical hat. The beard suited him quite nicely, too.

PaleoJoe is a local author, and between book tours (or probably the other way) he's at a site in Utah, digging for dinosaurs. PaleoJoe had just the right amount of scientific information to share, mixed with just the right flavor of humor to make it lively and absorbable. We learned a lot. I, for one, had heard that new thought on the T-Rex paints him as a scavenger or opportunistic hunter, but PaleoJoe gave us all the great arguments for why that would be true. Just ask Calvin and he will likely tell you about that carnivore's poor eyesight, good sense of smell, and brain shape matching that of the scavenging vulture, the opposite of the super hunting eagle. There's a bit about the tiny arms, too, and the danger of running or lunging after the prey you are stalking if you have no arms with which to catch yourself if you fall. We also explored the theory of the great die off and the effects of the volcanic ash from a super eruption.

PaleoJoe brought with him replicas of fossils he'd found, and also so fun dinosaur puppets. A velociraptor with hair? Well, no, but very fine feathers that resemble hair, yes.

PaleoJoe also brought some of his books with him, because this was a book tour, and we are suckers for books.

After PaleoJoe Calvin has an enlivened interest in dinosaurs and digging. Later in the afternoon we visited the park by my parents' house and discovered great dig sites.

And femurs and teeth.

And then, because it's make-believe and can take us anywhere we want, he climbed into his futuristic lab and used the computer to create images of the dinosaurs whose bones he'd found, and shipped them off to schools world-wide for other kids to discover.


Room to err

This morning as I sat in my usual chair drinking my usual coffee I heard a most unusual flapping and splashing. Last night we had watched as one of the baby robins left the nest under our deck and tried his wings rather clumsily in the wide outer world and I thought to myself at the time what a good thing it was that he had not fallen in the kiddie pool just outside the window, but I didn't empty the pool, so when I heard the quiet splashing this morning I knew what had happened and the words that escaped my lips as I dashed out the back door are probably not to be repeated in kind company.

Rescuing that precious baby was not as hard as I thought. The pool being close to the wood pile I just reached over for a board, gently pushed it under his struggling feet, and lifted him safely out onto the ground. I left him in the sunshine and watched him from the window, at first shivering, then eventually calling to his parents, who showed up with breakfast. Calvin had watched the rescue from the window, and we both went through the day with a feeling of exuberance over this deed done for babies (our babies because they have lived under our deck, after all).

I didn't bother the baby with the camera at the time of the incident—enough trauma is enough—but he returned to the deck later in the evening. As soon as he'd hopped off this morning I'd emptied the pool, so drowning was no longer a concern, but the parents were now worried about our physical presence and as we rounded up toys from the yard she sat on our feeder hook and chipped at us to let us know she meant about as much business as a mama robin can mean.

Mothering is a tough job. From the moment children are born, be they robins or humans, they are preparing to leave the nest. You feed them and clothe them and try to keep them safe, but your job is to keep strangers at bay while they learn to fly, and fail, and try again; Your job is to bandage the knees, not to stop them from falling while they learn to run or ride a bike. That mother robin knew that. She knew that her job was to trust her baby to learn. It's part of her instinct.

Tonight we took a family walk and stopped by the park. Following the rain that finally relieved our parched grounds the air was cooler and less oppressive, and the sun was just peaking from around the retreating storm clouds. In the park Calvin gained the new skill of sliding down the fire pole without assistance. Watching from the sidelines is hard. Jon was there to help, but from a respectful two steps away, and I could see his arm muscles flex every time Calvin's feet left the structure and swung out into space to grab the pole (and my own arms jumped each time, too). Jon was ready to help if needed, but he was trusting the boy to know his own limitations, to learn the skill on his own. I think he is so much better at stepping back than I am. 

Jon and I have always tried to base our parenting and teaching philosophy on trust. We give Calvin choices and allow him to make decisions, giving him room to celebrate the good ones and learn from the bad ones. But it's not always easy. Assessing physical situations or dangers and providing appropriate support is one thing, but non-physical situations are more difficult to judge. Lately I feel like, when I give him choices, I end up pressuring him toward the one that I think is clearly right, and that is not environment I want to create for him. I need to provide support from one more step back, giving him room to err or to triumph and the space in which to assess things for himself. Like the mother robin I need to trust that learning and growing is entirely natural, and so are mistakes.


Reason #365 to homeschool: learning for yourself, too

We spent some time in our garden this weekend. This is the time of year that we are in the garden the most: it's a great time to put in plants, it's an important time to weed, it's sunny but not too hot. This weekend in the garden we discovered an enemy in the form of the Colorado Potato Beetle. It's the larvae that caught my attention—fat little grub like things dressed to look like a lady bug—all over one of my plants. Upon closer inspection we discovered several leaves with eggs, and probably almost fifty of the fat, greedy little larvae themselves. We don't have any potatoes planted, and they were light bug-years away from our vegetable gardens, but there they were nonetheless. Since as a family we honor and respect all life (it's with a certain amount of horror that I watch other children deliberately and triumphantly squash bugs on the sidewalk) there was a somewhat unwelcome lesson to be learned and taught as we systematically eradicated (squashed) the entire colony and even removed the plant to the fire pit. Our first family case of "it's either us or them."

Before this weekend I'd had no idea of their existence—none at all—and now I live in mortal fear of these insects decimating my eggplant (because next to potatoes I guess that's what they like best). It's a real fear, because last year we lost the last of our tomato crop to a giant tomato hornworm, and the year before that we lost the last of our squash plants to squash bugs. Thanks to our gardens we sure are getting to know a lot of pests. As Jon said to me over the insect carnage in our street this past weekend "Why haven't I ever seen these things before? Where have they been? Where did they come from?" He is talking about not only all these dangerous bugs, but also about new plants, animals, birds, ecological situations, that we've discovered together over the past couple of years between gardening and nature hikes and all manner of exploration.

With or without homeschooling in our lives we were likely to run into the aforementioned terrors, but without our inquisitive five year old we might have handled the problem and been done with it. Instead, we've learned about these creatures and about coexisting with them. And bugs aren't the only thing; homeschooling with Calvin has pushed me out of my standard comfort zone and has given me a reason, a need even, to become a perpetual learner in all fields. The flipside of that coin, of course, is that anyone who is willing and able to learn can homeschool, all it requires is the audacity to believe that it can be done.

No, I'm not a rocket scientist, but I can help my son learn how to find the answers he seeks or get the help that he needs to start down the path to become one if he should so choose. I'm not an agriculturalist, either, but after this weekend I can tell you a lot about the Colorado Potato Beetle, including how to get and keep them out of your garden.