Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Party, homeschool style: The Dead

Photos from our fabulous Halloween Party. Our unsuspecting invitees learned a lot about the Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, and Mayan traditions and beliefs about death.

I don't seem to be able to make the pictures match up with captions nor get them in any kind of order, so you'll have to figure it out.

We made four corners of our house, each set up to explain the four different traditions. We made poster sized pictures of the different gods from each regions: Persephone and Hades; Osiris, Isis, and Anubis; Michtlantecutli; and Morganne. Mi'ita wrote up explanations of the gods, legends that accompanied them, descriptions of their beliefs in the afterlife, and other such. When possible, we added pictures or objects. We made the most hideous papermache Cerberus that I have ever seen. We spent two weeks on it and all I can say is that it's finished and does indeed have three heads.

I built an ofrenda for El Dia de los Muertos, my favorite of the cultures. Every year I set up an ofrenda, a table filled with pictures of our dead family members (and cats) with candles, skulls, papel picado, flowers, butterflies, and other symbols of the tradition or objects important to our loved ones. We made luminarias, too, and set them outside with our pumpkins. (We also carved a turnip, which is what they do in Ireland, not pumpkins.) I made sugar skulls for the children, too, and they got to write their names on them in icing and decorate them.

I served dishes from the four traditions we were studying: pomegranates from the Greek legend of Hades and Persephone, humus and baklava from Egypt, pan de muertos from the Mexican Mayans, barmbrack from the Irish Celts. Barmbrack is a loaf of sweetbread with dried fruit baked with little trinkets inside. Each trinket means something and if you find a trinket in your slice, it prophesizes what you should expect in the next year. Mi'ita got the cloth, which means poverty. A coin means wealth, a button means that you'll never marry, a ring means you'll be the next to marry, etc. We also made jello red blood cells just to toss in some science.

We also made a full sized coffin out of cardboard just to toss in some fun.

Mi'ita had a great time at the party, as did all the other kids. I gave them a "quiz" at the end. I wrote up about 40 questions that our captions all over the house answered. We broke up into teams and each team had to go find out the answer to their question and then come back for another one. Mi'ita couldn't be on a team, since she knew all the answers, but she could assist by showing the teams where to find the answers. They did really well and enjoyed it! I thought it might bomb, but they kept coming back for more.

Unfortunately, trick-or-treating didn't go as well. Some kids stayed and trick-or-treated with us. Others went off to trick-or-treat with their families. Mi'ita was disappointed with who left and who stayed, nor could she agree with everyone else's consensus on where to go. So by 6:30 we left everyone else to their devices and came home with a teary girl. Too much sugar, too much party, too much stimulus, not enough flexibility.

Ah well. We accomplished what I wanted to accomplish: a huge amount of information about different cultures around the world, a taste of different foods, and fun.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Shifting gears again

Mi'ita's thoroughly sick of ancient history.

We were going to study Africa because we're going, then the Persians, then the Romans, then the Mongols, then China, etc, heading forward and around through history. But she has no interest in ancient history anymore.

I forgot a simple fact of children. They need variety. Sustained interest in a subject is rare. We've been studying ancient history since August and it's almost November.

I thought for a change we could head into science. I've been feeling terribly guilty at how piecemeal our science study has been. She is interested in Nazi Germany and the middle ages, though. I wanted to get out of the Euro-centric history, too. Oh well. One of the tenants of freeschooling is following their lead. I'm not really ready to teach Nazi Germany to a 9 year old, but we can do it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A schoolroom of one's own

When I told my friend, a Title I teacher, that Mi'ita and I were going to homeschool this year, she gave me some advice. "Have a schedule and a specific spot, not the kitchen table, to do your work."

She then went into detail about a fourth grade girl she had taught who had been homeschooled up until that point and then enrolled in school because she still didn't know how to read. She blamed it on the mother not actually teaching anything ... because she didn't have a schedule and a spot.

I then dutifully went home and transformed a section of my thankfully large living room into The Schoolroom with a whiteboard, bookshelves, two desks, and a lizard cage. The Schoolroom is now the Keeper of Materials.

Where do we actually work? We do latin in front of the TV and on the coffee table, because it's a DVD program. We do German, Swahili, and Carmen Sandiego Math Detective on the computer. We do history and writing in bed. We do science in workshops, on walks, at the pet store, and at school. We do math at the kitchen table with breakfast. We do art on the dining room table because it is big. We are actually papermacheing Cerberus in The Schoolroom because he is a long term project that needs his own spot.

What is our schedule? We get up and get breakfast and math done. Then we do latin. Then we do whatever it is that we want to do for the rest of the day. We are not often idle, but we definitely meander throughout many things--library, math games, writing, art, history. I let the day play out and only impose an activity if we find ourselves at loose ends, or if a Halloween party is looming and we need to get some stuff done for it!

What have I discovered? You definitely do not need The Schoolroom, but you do need a Keeper of Materials space.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scope and Sequence

Scope and sequence is an educational term that teachers use to describe what and when things will be taught. This ensures that certain subjects won't be over covered and others under. In science, for example, elementary school teachers are famous for spending lots and lots of time on zoology and almost no time on physics, chemistry, magnetism, etc. When you have a different teacher every year, having a scope and sequence makes sense.

I have no scope and sequence for science so far. This is part of freeschooling, the homeschooling model where she is obligated to learn the absolute basics (reading, writing, math) and is allowed free exploration of all the other topics. Mi'ita attends every science workshop we find out about, but hasn't really been interested in pursuing it at home.

History for some reason has become our focus and we've developed a sort of loose scope and sequence for it. Schools tend to radiate from the child outwards. Kindergarten is all about me and my family, first grade about towns and local history, fourth grade is state history, fifth grade is US history, etc.

The classic method of homeschooling turns this on its head and goes chronologically from ancient history forward, simultaneously studying ancient civilizations around the world. Since we started with classic homeschooling, we started with this chronology.

I like the idea of chronological history. US history, I think, makes a lot more sense if you have already studied democracy in Greece, tyrants, monarchies, religious persecution, and so on. What our country is came from this history of Europe.

Where this breaks down, though, is in studying all the civilizations of a time period simultaneously. You get a bite of Egypt in 2000 BCE, jog over to China in 2000 BCE, trot over to the Mayans in 2000 BCE, swing over to the Greeks, etc. Then you do all those folks again in 1500 BCE. Then again in 1000 BCE. Etc. This leaves you with a great sense of what was happening in the world at a certain time, but it fractures the history of one civilization.

I developed a method that I thought would work well. We started with hominids and stone age people. Then we went into the Egyptians, the first civilization in the world. Instead of skipping around to all the first civilizations of each region, we stuck with Egypt until it was conquered by the Romans. This means we learned a little about their Persian and Greek conquests, too. Then we moved into the Greeks, which were the first civilization that conquered Egypt thoroughly (the last eight Pharaohs were Greek.) Then I was going to stick with Greece until they were conquered by Rome, taking a foray into Persia along the way, since the Greeks and Persians very much influenced each other's history. Then I was going to stick with Rome until they were conquered by the Mongols. Then I was going to skip over to the Mongols and China, sticking with Asian history for a while until that came to a natural conclusion. Then I was going to come over to the Americas and learn about their ancient people. After I covered all the ancient people, I was going to work on the middle ages, using the same format.

I liked the idea of sticking with a civilization throughout their reign until they fell to a foreign power. The foreign power then becomes the next focus, starting at their 'beginning', relating that to what we already know about what the previous civilization was doing at that time.

We took a break for Halloween. Halloween's focus for us was historical, too. What are the Greek's beliefs in death? The Egyptians, the Mayans, the Celts? And, to top it all off, how did we come to celebrate Halloween in it's current form here in the US? The people who come to our party will be learning! We're also going to be making jello red blood cells. :-)

After our Halloween party on Saturday, we were going to finish up the Greeks and take our foray off to Persia before heading into Rome.

Then we find out we're going to Tanzania in the spring on Safari. We're switching gears again. We'll finish up Greece, quickly, and then study sub-Saharan African civilizations. There is a ton of info out there on South Africa and apartheid, but not a whole lot about Tanzania. But we'll get there, and maybe now we can work in more science.

Zoology, of course.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Next language: Swahili

It's always handy to have a rich grandmother in the wings.

Homeschooling is not cheap. Books, field trips, , stay-at-home mom, private lessons, manipulatives, computer programs, travel... Other people have figured out how to do it on the cheap and I could do it in a pinch. But there are sooooooo many cool things out there to buy!

My mother loves to travel and has said that as soon as Mi'ita is old enough she'd like to take her on Safari to Africa. Oma was in the peace corps in Swaziland in the 70's and has been back to Africa at least once since. She mentioned again that as soon as Mi'ita was old enough... and I said that now might not be a bad time. She is old enough to remember the trip and to endure some uncomfortable things, and young enough not to be an obnoxious teenager.

So we're off to Africa this spring! My mother is springing because I have no where near the $5000 plus each ticket price. Wow!

On the curricular table now is: Swahili, Tanzania, African history from ancient to modern, ecology, wildlife biology, biomes, global warming, poverty, AIDs, and I don't know what else yet but I know that's not it.

M&M Geography

I've talked a lot about M&M geography, so I thought I'd put you out of your misery and explain it. It's my mother's idea, again, and very simple.

Break out a map, globe, atlas, or whatever you have handy.

Have her find a geographic region, feature, state, nation, body of water, etc. I always quiz Mi'ita on whichever area we are currently working on. We've been covering Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East, so I have had her find Macedonia, Troy, Suez Canal, Nile River, etc. etc. etc.

Give her a minute piece of candy for each correct answer. It's called M&M geography, but I let her choose whatever treat she likes. One candy bar survives several bouts of M&M geography, usually more than a week. Any time she wants some bad for her item, I make her work for it during M&M geography. She is on the chubby side, so I make her work very hard for her sugar.

Whenever we pick up her friend after school and have an hour to kill before we need to go to ballet, we've been doing M&M geography. They get really good very quickly.

Math advice heeded and appreciated

Improvement in math attitude!

I synthesized everyone's input on my math dilemma and came up with a strategy.

We are sticking with Singapore Math, but if she can do the first five problems with good explanation of what she is doing and accuracy she doesn't have to do the rest. This morning she did five word problems and successfully identified how to approach them and completing them correctly, so she didn't have to do the last two. She has a strong grasp on how to approach a problem and solve it. She is still weak in her basic arithmetic (multiplication tables.)

I have ordered some math games. One is called Wrap Ups and works on basic multiplication, division, and fractions. The other is Carmen Sandiego Math Detective, for 1 cent on Amazon (plus $4 shipping.)

We did a math mystery for bedtime last night. She requested more and solved them all.

She was enthusiastic about doing her math this morning!

Y'all are brilliant. Thanks for your help.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Need some math advice here.

Okay. I researched math programs up down and sideways. I can tell you what the experts think about A Beka, Singapore, Saxon, Math Mammoth, and Math-U-See. I can tell you how Oregon's public school's math program rates nationwide (we got a D), who did well (California and Massachusettes were the only ones that got A's), how the US ranks internationally (24th), and who is the first (Singapore).

I was torn, and still am torn, between Singapore Math (ranked first world-wide) and Math-U-See (well reviewed and hands on).

Mi'ita's public school teacher foisted upon us the math curriculum she had. It is languishing on the shelf. Oregon got a D, you know.

We bought Singapore Math. It looks good. Mi'ita can do it fine.

But she hates it. She hated the school curriculum when she went to public school, too. She tested well, rated "exceptional" in their standardized tests last year. She is good at math but doesn't like it.

I bought a Math Mysteries book to spice up the math. Here is the dilemma. She requests to do Math Mysteries instead of Singapore Math.

Do I let her? Basically they are long word problems that star a couple of kids that have to solve mysteries using math.

Example: The other day we did one that involved figuring out the radius of a circle. Could a dog tethered to the center of a yard eat the tulips in the neighbor's yard? We ended up talking about the Greeks, Euclid in particular, who figured out PI in order to construct their amazing buildings. She extrapolated into talking about that Greek guy, what's his face, who figured out the circumference of the Earth. Then John had her do a couple problems figuring out the radius of the Earth. She learned how to use a formula, why they are handy, and how you would solve this problem without the formula.

I am torn. I think it is of the utmost importance for her to change her attitude about math. If she hates one but likes the other, it seems like a no brainer to do the one she likes. The problem, though, is these math mysteries are teasers. They do not teach math, they are games to use in addition to a math curriculum. The math curriculums teach math sequentially and theoretically completely. I would have no problem changing to a different curriculum, but should I use no curriculum at all?

Do I toss a math program out the window to do math games?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Talented and Gifted

Mi'ita was identified as TAG, talented and gifted, last year in 3rd grade. I always thought she was precocious, learned everything quickly, talked very young and constantly, etc. I was in a hurry to get her identified, feather in my cap to have a smart kid and all that.

Isn't it amazing how parents get all wrapped up in their children's achievements? I mean, having a TAG kid doesn't mean that I'm smart.

I haven't studied TAG kids much. I know they have a set of social problems that are pretty standard for them. They gravitate towards older kids and have low tolerance for kid who take a while to get things. You would think they would make good tutors for lower academic kids, but the opposite tends to be true.

That sure is evident at the homeschool group. The group has a bigger number of younger kids and they have divided the kids into two groups for instruction: 4th grade and lower are the younger and 6th grade on up are the olders. There are no 5th graders.

Mi'ita does fine with the other 4th graders and there is a bunch of girls her age that she likes well enough. She has no patience for the younger kids. Since homeschooling includes the whole family, there are a number of toddlers, preschoolers, and babies that are included, too, and those just about drive her nuts. (I like them.)

An example. The first day of homeschool they divided up the two groups to play dodge ball. Mi'ita was in the younger group that included tiny tots so the teen aged teachers had the youngers roll the ball to play so the little ones wouldn't get hurt. Mi'ita just about blew a gasket.

Another example. Mi'ita's cousin came to visit and we were playing M&M geography. Mi'ita was getting things like Macedonia and Tunisia. If she didn't know where these things were, I was giving her clues like, "It's in North Africa on the Mediteranean Sea." It would take her two seconds and she would slap her hand down on the country. Her cousin, granted in 2nd grade, was getting things like the United States and Mexico. She would find the United States on her previous turn. Then she would get Mexico and I would say, "It's right next to the United States, down lower." And she would look and look, off in a completely different part of the map. Mi'ita had no patience for this.

Perhaps I should be more focused on getting her to be more tolerant of younger kids. I admit, though, that I'm not particularly worried about it. Just being in the homeschool group is giving her way more exposure to working with multi-age kids than being in a class with kids all one age. She wants the kids to be split three ways and get those tiny kids into another group. That's not going to happen. I've suggested that she choose to work with the older kids. She does have the option and I'm sure she will try it, but I doubt it will help. She doesn't particularly want to be with the older kids, she just wants to be away from the kindergartners on down.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I hate school!

That is so weird for me to say.

I was a teacher for 13 years. I loved school all the way up to 5th grade and then again in college. I volunteered in Mi'ita's classes every year. When I was asked once what I liked best about my job, I said I loved all the hugs I got from my students. I only decided to homeschool because the local public school options tanked and there are no private school options here.

Mi'ita and I were roped into joining what would have been her 4th grade class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Mrs. M is a great teacher. They are doing the fun things when we come--science and social studies. It's just that it's a scheduled activity that interrupts what we're doing. Today we were papermache-ing our 3 headed Cerberus for our fabulous Halloween party. I wanted to get some poster sized drawings of the different gods of the dead going and some captions to explain all this stuff. But no, we had no time because we had to go to school.

Mi'ita was ready to quit this morning, too. "Do we have to go?" I should have jumped on it and said, "NO! Let's just quit." But no, she had her TAG class (talented and gifted) that she loves and that I want her to continue, and then I said that we would go to Mrs. M's class one last time and tell her that we were quitting. Of course they were starting a new unit on rocks, which Mi'ita adores, strange child, so now she wants to continue again. And really, I know nothing about rocks (no interest, I confess) and I'd really like her to get more systematic and scientific about her interest in rocks--identifying them, classifying them, organizing them. Mrs. M is a big science teacher and so this is all good.

It's just that it interrupts everything!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where's my schedule?!

I find myself panicking regularly about the lack of organization of our homeschooling.

I had such a lovely plan laid out in the beginning. I had the white board easel all set up with math, Latin, spelling, handwriting, dictation, science, history... It was beautiful. Granted I felt a bit uneasy teaching such rote work like grammar and spelling. Those things are hard to learn and there is tons of evidence out there saying that memorizing lists of spelling words helps no one. I figured those details could work themselves out, though, as we progressed.

My little Mi'ita blew the little white board easel out of the water after two days. It took a week before it was abandoned completely, but abandoned it is.

What is our schedule now? Well, we do math and Latin first thing in the morning. We read history at night in bed. On Mondays we spend the afternoon in the library. Other than that, we do this and that, depending on our moods. I have my list of "weekly requireds" for ice cream on Mondays. She needs to have 4 math lessons completed that week, 4 Latin, one science, one history, all her library books read, and a new writing posted to her blog with art (photography accepted.) German and guitar are on the list, too, but her guitar teacher has yet to start lessons for the year and the German program just arrived and we haven't installed it yet. She always earns her ice cream, my greedy Gus, but she is usually finishing her story Sunday night.

Our days are full, for sure. Today we did math and Latin, then spent the morning setting up our El Dia de los Muertos ofrenda. She did some writing for it, and we discussed a lot about Mayan culture, and about the Greek display we're planning. In the afternoon we went to the library, played in the park for an hour, worked on a papermache three headed dog Cerberus, then went off to play practice for the play she is in. Since she is only an extra, I am teaching her how to knit between scenes.

We have a Halloween party coming up and we've planned an ancient cultures' view of the dead theme. Mayan, Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, and Japanese displays will be set up with their views of the afterlife, their various gods of the dead, their ceremonies and food. We've tossed all "regular" schoolwork out the window until November 1st. Except math and Latin, of course, and writing.

My friend told me that I would "have a blast" homeschooling my kid. I didn't to begin with, but it sure has been fun lately. But I worry and I fret. History has become our overreaching theme that everything else fits in. I love history, of course, and so does Mi'ita. But what about science? We are learning science as it relates to history. Early hominids, Neanderthals, Euclidean geometry, and how that Greek guy measured the earth, radiocarbon dating. All that is tangential to learning the history. And what about writing? Can writing once a week really be enough? I can't think so, but I can't get motivated to push it more.

I'm reading her My family and other animals, a book about an English boy growing up in Greece in the 40's or so and being very lackadaisically homeschooled or taught by tutors or left to run amok. His running amok is quite educational as he was a budding zoologist and spent all his time studying the fauna of the island. I read it and think that his math lessons are really distracting him from the real lessons of learning zoology.

I am also reading The Dan Riley School for a Girl, a book about a father who homeschooled his daughter for a year because she was lazily and unconcernedly floundering in middle school. He had a schedule, with times on it no less! Which his headstrong and rebellious daughter followed! I am jealous.

And I am torn. My daughter is learning. She is playing to her strengths--reading and history and curiosity about the world. She is busy with ballet and a play she is in. She goes to once a month all day science workshops taught by experts. She is learning Latin, for gosh sakes!

But we don't have a schedule. And I gave up trying to get her to memorize spelling. I worry and I fret.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Last year Mi'ita had a lot of trouble with friends. There was a group of girls she played with and sometimes they would all play nicely together and other days they would exclude one or another of them. The saga took many forms and I had many a tearful updates. There was one particular girl that held friendship over everyone else's heads. She had "meetings" that only some kids were allowed to attend. It went on and on until I finally told her she couldn't play with that girl any more. Boy was that popular, but it did ease the situation.

I wasn't sure what this year would bring. I was hoping that she would discover a homeschool girl her age and they would become fast friends and that would be the end of her friendship worries.

That hasn't happened. What has, though, has been interesting. She invites all the girls that she used to play with over, one at a time and not the one that she had so many problems with. Since there is no pressure to look cool in front of others, no one excludes her. Everyone has joyfully excepted her invitations. One girl comes over several times a week.

Outside school these little power struggles are rare. I suppose there are still triangles and clicks in the adult world but I have never come across them myself. I avoid drama like the plague and if I find myself in a situation like that I just find new friends.

When you aren't trapped in school, you don't find yourself trapped in situations like this.

Friday, October 9, 2009

State Report: California

Remember all those state reports you had to do in school? State flag, state bird, state flower, state capital, most populous city, major industry, year it became a state.

How much did you really learn about that state? What would I know about South Dakota, where I have never been, if I could list for you all those details? Anything important?

Mi'ita drove the whole length of California, down I5 starting with an agricultural inspection and explanation on why California does agricultural inspections and other states don't. Past Mt. Shasta and little Shasta, and the little volcano to
the south of them, through their deciduous forests. Swiftly we hit the scrublands, overnight near Chico, past the state capital of Sacramento, explanations of what Sacramento means, why it's in Spanish, and why California has so many Spanish names and especially cities named after saints: San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, San Diego...

Spent the weekend in the Los Angeles metropolis, in two completely different neighborhoods: Burbank and Seal Beach. Swam in the Pacific Ocean, southern California style (very different than Oregon style.) We stayed with friends and family, seeing how middle class Americans live in one of the most expensive places in the country. Did Knott's Berry Farms on a Tuesday in October and almost never had to wait in a line. We got to go twice in a row on the log ride, which Mi'ita deems not as good as our own Enchanted Forest. Skipped Disneyland.

Her auntie gave her a tour of her work, a metal spring company where they fabricate springs using electricity to cut the metal. She explained why electricity is better than laser or water, which they used to use. Fascinating.

Headed north along the coast now, to Salinas. Had a good conversation about Cesar Chavez, migrant farm workers, unions, United Farm Workers, hunger strikes, sanitation services available to workers and how that effects food consumers, and immigration. Saw the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, signed an electronic post card to protect the sea horses, got a good lecture from her father about how to balance marine reserves and fishing rights. Headed over to see a protected forest for migrating monarch butterflies. Saw sea otters in a kelp forest in the bay. Discussed why California has sea otters and Oregon used to but no longer has. Our friend gave us a tour of her work as a plant pathologist for the USDA. We are still growing bacteria skimmed off Mi'ita's fingers in a petrie dish that we are going to look at under a microscope soon.

Saw the King Tut display at the de Young Museum in the Golden Gate Park. Saw the Golden Gate Bridge. Didn't stay as long as I wanted. Talked about Chinatown and Chinese immigration, but didn't get to see Chinatown, much to my disappointment.

Headed north along Highway 1, right on the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the Redwood Forests. Beautiful. Camped. Saw the Trees of Mystery, drove through a tree 2100 years old. Spawned a discussion of the crusades.

Spent the night in Crescent City, shaped like a crescent bowl ready to scoop up tsunamis started by earthquakes in Alaska. Talked about the tsunami that hit Native Americans 300 years ago.

Now that's a state report.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taking a page from my mom's book

My mother was a 3rd grade teacher for a hundred years before she finally retired. When she started she was terrified of teaching science because English was her forte. She had never taught science before. She eventually lost her fear and became Washington State's Science Teacher of the Year (go mom!) She had this lovely philosophy--if you don't know, make it up.

Well, I didn't know a lot of stuff driving eight hours through Oregon and northern California. I wanted to drive so that Mi'ita would get the scope of our country. California is huge. We live in a temperate rain forest and driving down I5 is showing her the land. So, here I am talking very knowledgeably about forests when I know diddly squat.

"We live in a temperate rain forest, Mi'ita," I intoned pedantically. "This area in southern Oregon is a semi-arid mixed deciduous and evergreen forest. See the oak trees and the ponderosa pines? Semi means half and arid means dry. It isn't a desert here, but it's much drier than where we live."

"See that stand of dead trees, Mi'ita? There are some pine beetles eating the trees. Loggers took out the mixed trees and planted a monoculture. Mono means one and culture means the plants that live there. The pine beetles eat the type of tree that the loggers planted and since there's only one type of tree, they are wiping out forests. If there were ten different kinds of trees, then only one tenth of the forest would be damaged and the animals would still be able to live there."

"Look at this dried up riverbed, Mi'ita, and how low Lake Shasta is. California must be having a drought. It's probably global warming."

Go ahead and laugh. Then tell me what I got wrong so that I can straighten her out.