Monday, February 28, 2011

Presidential Palate: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison

We had our first Presidential Palate dinner last week honoring the founding fathers of the US Presidency:  George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Let's start with the meal component celebrating the Father of our Country, George Washington.  We didn't go with a food of that time period, but rather a more recent recipe that relates to one of those interesting facts about our first President.  Did you know that, on top of fathering the nation and winning the war and being the first President and operating a minor plantation at Mt. Vernon, George Washington ran the largest whiskey distillery in the country at that time?  So our main course to remind us of General Washington, was Whiskey Shrimp, which relates both to his whiskey business and the fact that his home was one the Potomac River, from which they caught much seafood (albeit not shrimp) for many a fresh dinner.

I made the dish with a recipe adapted from this one by Brooklyn Plated.  This recipe is particularly exciting because you ignite the whiskey and let it burn -- quite a display for our first President!  But instead of making it an appetizer and serving it on toasted bread rounds, I served it as a main dish over wild rice.  The wild rice paid homage to 3rd President Thomas Jefferson, who was so committed to improving rice cultivation in the Southern states that he smuggled some rice grains out of Italy under penalty of death!  You can read about Jefferson's contribution to American rice crops at this article from the Monticello (Jefferson's home) website.  We also served that with some raw cherry tomatoes, again in honor of Jefferson, who both grew and ate tomatoes although the prevailing thought at the time was that tomatoes were poisonous, given their close relationship to the belladonna, or deadly nightshade plant.

GW Whiskey Shrimp over TJ Wild Rice

We accompanied this dish with Faux Cream of Broccoli soup, our item for the Madison presidency.  Actually, James Madison was not that interested in food.  However, his wife, Dolley, was quite a social entertainer.  She threw many fancy dinner parties at the White House, many of which featured French Cuisine, which was the height of fashion at the time.  We figured Cream of Broccoli could represent that trend, since France was famous for cream soups, and broccoli was not commonly grown in the US until the 20th century.

The thing is, my son is allergic to dairy, which is why we made this a "faux" cream soup.  Julia Child has a technique for dairy-free cream soup, but it involves rice, which my husband's diabetes seems to be particularly sensitive to.  So the secret ingredients in our faux cream soup are (1) potatoes and (2) unsweetened coconut milk, which allowed me to make a remarkably creamy and relatively not-ridiculously-hyperglycemic vegan version of this quite tasty dish.  (Of course, back then, people weren't worrying about diabetes and food allergies and veganism.  But the point of this exercise is to make some meals that will help us to remember the Presidents without sacrificing our health, not necessarily to create authentic dishes from the time period.)
Dolley Madison Faux Cream of Broccoli Soup

We did have a somewhat authentic dish for the Adams presidency.  Our dessert was Apple Pan Dowdy, which was supposed to have been one of John Adam's favorite sweets.  This, again, we simplified (we were running out of time and energy, so we used pre-made pie dough) and adjusted (we left out the molasses to reduce the sugar content for my husband) from this recipe.  But if you don't know, Apple Pan Dowty is basically apple pie cooked in a pan where the top crust is chopped and kind of mixed in with the apple filling.  This part of the meal my son made all by himself (we worked together on most of the other parts), and my husband announced it was one of his favorite desserts ever.
Abigail Adam's Apple Pan Dowdy

So while our first dinner in this series took some research and preparation time, I would say it was a great success.  Now we are working on the next one.  Who can remember the four Presidents who came immediately after James Madison?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lesson Plan: The Presidential Palate, or Learning US History Through Cooking

Before explaining this project, I have to give a shout-out to my homeschooling support group, Cary Homeschoolers.  We are so fortunate to homeschool in Cary, NC, not only because there are so many homeschoolers here that we have lots of programs and resources, but also because we have so many really well-informed parents who are so generous in sharing their expertise with each other.  So, for example, when I want to know what terms to search for on Google to find out more about that human tendency to make sense out of abstract or random pictures or symbols, I know exactly who to ask (it's called "Pareidolia," she informed me).  Or when I'm trying to help my son figure out whether he should display his data as a bar chart or a pie chart or some other statistical analysis, I know who to call.  Or when I want some obscure historical reference on some topic that I don't know that much about, such as the liberation of the serfs in 19th century Russia, I know exactly who can lend me a book on that subject.  I could go on and on about all the people who have helped me to get the information I need to educate my son.   I just want to publicly acknowledge what a gift it is to homeschool within that kind of a community.

However, it is not only the academic knowledge that this community provides.  I have a friend whose social action inspires me to be more involved in political issues.  I have another friend who attends my spiritual community and assists me in my teaching there.  Yet another friend is redoing her kitchen, and helps me see that improving my house is a possibility.

One CHS member who has galvanized me to do some more imaginative cooking for my family is my friend who writes a delightful blog entitled Siggy Spice.  She concentrates on delicious-sounding recipes, but writes about them in a wonderful humorous voice.  She is homeschooling three children, plus parenting another, and yet manages to come up with original meals several times, PLUS she manages to photograph them and blog about them.  Her example has helped me to upgrade my cooking, at least in terms of trying some new recipes and such.

But as I was trying some new recipes--which I really enjoy doing, by the way--it also sparked a new idea for our history studies.  This year we are learning about the US Presidents.  And I don't know about you, but I kind of muddle up a lot of those Presidents in the middle.  I mean, I'm good for the first four to six or so, and I'm solid in terms of Eisenhower on.  Plus, I know the ones around the wars.  But all those guys in the middle--Garfield?  the Harrisons?  Taft?   For me, at least, those guys kind of run together.

I've written on several occasions, perhaps most recently here, about how I think incorporating food into lessons really helps students remember the lesson.  (After all, food is kind of a priority for this age group.)  So I came up with a new approach to learning the US Presidents.  First of all, we are going to "chunk" them into groups of four.  Chunking is an educational theory that we can learn limited amount of information at the same time -- so, for example, we learn our phone numbers as 919 (one chunk), 555 (another chunk), and 1212 (a third chunk).

But in addition to "chunking" them into groups of four, we are going to add an experiential component to each chunk.  We (my son and I) are going to cook a meal of four dishes that represent the four Presidents in that chunk.  We are going to assign one President to main dish, one to vegetable, one to dessert, and then one other to some other side dish.  We plan to combine dishes that were authentic to the time period to modern dishes that relate to outstanding facts about that President.

My intention is to combine research and learning about American Presidents with an interest of my son (cooking), along with teaching him cooking skills, which I think are lifelong competencies.  I think this way of approaching the Presidential timeline might help him at least place those less renowned Presidents in the right framework for their time.

We cooked out first Presidential Palate meal this week as part of our Presidents Day celebration.  So I plan to post specifics about our Washington-Adams-Jefferson-Madison meal tomorrow.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Software to Create Your Own Solar System

As I mentioned in my article about the New Zealand Charity Bundle from CurrClick, we are fortunate enough to live in the same region as Science Jim, who is an exemplary physics teacher.  He took a physics class with him last year that was supplemented with programming the physical phenomenon that was led by Maria of Natural Math.  It was a really good class, and I think my son learned a lot.

He has been really fascinated lately with one of the resources he discovered through taking that class.  He has been using the software, called About My Solar System from the PHet project at the University of Colorado.  The intention of the software is to provide students with the ability to run interactive simulations of physical phenomemon using computer.

In the program my son is using lately, one can choose a planet obiting the sun.  Then you can add a moon, and see what that does to the orbit.  But then you can have another moon show up, or another planet, or even another sun--all of which effect the student's solar system.  It allows the user to adjust all sorts of thing--trajectory, speed, storage weight, etc.--to see what happens in terms of its orbit.  Plus, it keeps the patterns of all the orbits, which after a while ends up look like some cool spirograph art.

It's a good program and we recommend it to all.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Should We Expand the Charter School Program in Wake County?

This week the NC Senate passed a bill to remove the cap on charter schools in North Carolina, which had previously been limited to 100 statewide.  The following are some of the arguments for and against expanding the charter school program, based on statistics for Wake County students:

Charter Schools Are Popular
Although Wake County already has the largest number of charter schools than any other county in North Carolina, those 13 charters can not come close to meeting the demand.  For example, Raleigh Carter High School advises new students they have about a 13% chance of getting into the 535-member school.    Applicants faced even worse odds attempting to enter Franklin Academy in Wake Forest.   In 2009, 1,842 students competed for 123 open spots, which represents only a 7% acceptance rate.  Even though the school expanded in 2010 to provide more openings, Franklin Academy reports that there are still about 2,000 students on its waiting list.
The existing charter schools only enroll a total of about 6,000 students.  However, the high application rate indicates that many more families would choose a charter school for their children if there were additional space available.
Charter Schools Are Innovative
Freed from some of the regulatory restrictions of traditional public schools, charter schools can experiment with new approaches and curricula, although they must still conform to the NC Standard Course of Study and participate in End of Grade (EOG) Testing.
Charter Schools Outperform Traditional Schools
While national studies have not shown a clear academic advantage in comparing average charter school student performance to their peers in schools, charter schools in Wake County do seem to have better average test scores.  According to the Wake Education Partnership, in 2007-08, 74% of students in Wake charters were performing at grade level, compared to 70% of general Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) students and 65% of students in public magnet programs.  Similar results were reported in 2008-09, when 81% of Wake County charter students were at grade level, compared to 76% of WCPSS students and 65% of magnet students.
Charters Reduce Diversity
Charter schools are much more racially unbalanced than traditional Wake County schools.  The Wake County Public School System reports that in 2010-11, approximately 50% of WCPSS students are White, 25% are Black, 15% are Hispanic, 6% were Asian, and 4% are mixed or other.  
However, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction states that among the 13 charter schools in Wake County, seven have enrollments that are 75% or higher White students, while three others have enrollments that are 75% or higher Black students.  Only three charter schools--Casa Esperanza, Southern Wake Academy, and Sterling Montessori--have a more racially mixed student population, although even those schools have a disproportionately high number of White students. 
Charters Do Not Serve Low-Income or Special Needs Students
Charter schools receive a per-student payment for educational expenses, but not for building and facilities expenses.  Therefore, they are not required to have cafeterias, nor must they participate in the free or reduced lunch programs designed to support low-income students.  
Charters do not have to provide transportation for students, which can effectively eliminate students from families who do not live nearby and who not own a car or other means to get their children to school.  Finally, charters do not have to offer services to students with special needs, such as learning disabilities or autism.
Charters Will Drain the Public Schools of Resource if Expanded Dramatically
Currently, Wake County charter schools only enroll about 6,000 students, compared to the 140,000+ students in the WCPSS.  Thus, the issues of racial imbalances in charter school or the relatively small numbers of low-income or special needs students in charters don’t have a large impact on the entire school system.  However, critics warn that as the program grows, it could continue to drain off the most affluent and successful students, leaving the public school system to deal with larger percentages of more challenging student populations, such as the low-income, non-English-speaking, and learning disabled students.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Donate to New Zealand Earthquake Relief and Get Free Curriculum from CurrClick

I've written previously about CurrClick, a prime electronic source for downloadable curriculum.  They, and some of the curriculum developers they represent, are running a new giveaway to raise money for relief efforts for the recent earthquake in New Zealand.  For a donation of $20  (100% of which goes to the New Zealand Red Cross), they will allow you to download a bundle of curricula that normally sells for $230.  Or if you don't want that, you can make a $5 donation through their site, with, again, all money going to the victims in New Zealand.

There are 27 different curricula in the bundle.  Of course, not all are at the middle school level, but many of you teaching middle schoolers also have other children of different ages.  There is a lapbook about New Zealand Flags and Symbols, which could be useful for discussing this disaster with children of any age.  There are some generic tools, like field trip notebooks pages and a meal planner, along with some interesting-looking resources on Shakespeare and Da Vinci.  But one resource I can recommend specifically for middle school students is the Bite-Size Physics book by Science Jim.  This 271-page ebook, which by itself normally sells for $35, contains 25 lesson plans and over 70 experiments on such topics as mechanics, energy, thermal dynamics, and static electricity.  We own this book, and have been fortunate enough to have taken both online and face-to-face classes with Science Jim (Mueller), and I can tell you that he is fantastic!  So if all you download from your donation is this book, you've already gotten a deal on a great educational resource and helped some people in distress.  What can be better than that?

Click here to see the details on the $20 New Zealand Charity bundle.

Or, click here to donate $5.00 to the New Zealand Red Cross via CurrClick.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Will A Military Man Bring Peace to Wake County?

Well, we've gone several weeks now without news reports of Wake County (NC) School members being ugly in public to each other, or someone threatening a new lawsuit or other legal action against the Wake County Public School Systems, or extra police having to be hired to keep the peace during school board meetings.  In most of the country--all those places the Washington Post education writer, Jay Mathews, is describing when he says-"over the years, I have found school board meetings to be as interesting, newsworthy, and uplifting as a trip to the dentist"--that is no big deal.  But in Wake County, NC, where school board meetings over the past years have featured diatribes, insults, protesters, and arrests, it is remarkable enough that the LACK of angry rhetoric received coverage in the latest issue of Education Weekly, one of the largest national new sources on education.

To what can we attribute this new wave of tranquility wafting over Wake County?  Could it be the spring-like weather we've been enjoying for the past couple of week?  A holdover from our holiday of love, Valentine's Day?  As one of the many who questioned the credentials of our new superintendent, I kind of hate to admit it, but I think it may be due to the arrival of retired Army General Anthony Tata as head of the Wake County Schools.  Mr. Tata has certainly negotiated his entry into Wake County as smoothly as could be expected, and brings some hope that he may be able to navigate through all the bad relations that have tied up progress on the educational issues that divide this community.

I got some insight today on the whole embarrassing spectacle that has been much of the Wake County school board operations last year when I read a blog post by Mike Rose, a really wonderful writer and teacher who works at the School of Education at UCLA.  In his latest post, The Meaning of Michelle Rhee, Rose looks at the continuing controversy over Tata's former boss, the head of the Washington DC public school system.  The whole post is worth reading, especially if you are interested in the whole school reform business.  However, I found this passage particularly relevant to the Wake County school system.

Writing about what Rose calls "weaknesses of current school reform," he said:
There is a belief in the tough, bold outsider, the gunslinger who will come in and clean things up. These gunslingers are often young, smart, quick on their feet, and very, very assured. But what comes with this character – a very appealing character for Americans – is a disdain for anything already in place, an unwillingness or inability to find the local good and take the time to learn local history. This attitude and bearing fits also with the technocratic dismissal of the old and the embrace of the new. A bad mix: the righteousness of the gunslinger with the na├»ve belief in the latest technology of reform.
The above suggests a Manichean view of the world; there are good guys and bad guys. You’re on the side of the good – and these days the bad are older teachers, teachers unions, ed schools, and pretty much anyone not on your reform wagon. Ms. Rhee is fond of saying that she and like-minded peers are in this “for the kids” and everyone else is simply looking out for their own adult self interest.

When I read those paragraphs, I thought "Exactly!"   When the new board majority were elected in 2009, they came in with guns blazing, claiming a mandate to reform the system.  However, they didn't seem to be very good shots, or maybe they themselves didn't know who they should be shooting.  What they did do, though, was manage to antagonist everyone who didn't agree with their plans 100%--including, famously, one of their own board majority members, who switched her vote when when the board leaders wouldn't share their plans with their own subgroup on the board, let alone the public.  And for those who seriously disagreed with their views, such as the NAACP, the board's own actions gave their opponents enough ammunition to bring lawsuits, accreditation questions, and even a federal civil rights review against their policies.  Whatever value or new ideas these members might be bringing to the system got lost in all the smoke of the hostility, incivility, and hubris the new board brought to the deliberation about how we should be educating our children.  And as I stated at the end of one of my previous posts, it seemed to me that the school board had forgotten that the public of Wake County are not their enemies--we are, indeed, their bosses.

In my experience, though, the ones who are quickest to threaten aggression against others are those who have never had to actually live with the consequences of that action.  It is generally the new recruits to the military who proclaim their eagerness to kill, not the older leadership who have had to kill and who have seen good people with whom they served be killed.

So I don't want to overstretch the whole gunslinger metaphor.  I certainly don't mean to suggest that anyone involved in the school debate intended any physical harm to each other.  But I am thinking that a man who has lived through the destruction created by physical violence may have the wisdom to help lift the system from its recent history of verbal turbulence.

Anthony Tata has made a good first impression on people.  And the thing is, it didn't take much.  He showed up and seems like a nice guy.  He is willing to actually listen to people.  He is looking for data instead of political positioning.  He has maintained an open office policy, and says he looks forward to talking with people on all sides of the issue.    It's not like it is brain science.  Yet, compared to what has been going on for the past year, it makes him look like a genius.

But after reading Rose's analogy, I went back and read Tata's first statement to the community.  In light of Rose's description, I found Tata's opening and closing paragraphs very reassuring.

I am humbled to be selected as the next superintendent of the Wake County Public School System. I intend to focus the system's impressive resources on the academic achievement of our students and on closing the achievement gap in student performance. I will ensure our teachers and principals have the resources they need to deliver this improvement. One of my goals will be to energize all aspects of Wake County's very large, complex organization to operate at maximum capacity and minimum cost so that we can push as many resources as possible to where they belong -- the classroom..... 
I believe I have the experience, heart, resources, and vision to help Wake County Public School System accelerate its drive to become a world-class education system. I will bring a primary focus to supporting schools and teachers so that they may achieve academic success for our children in the same way I delivered unrelenting support to our troops on the front lines as they served our nation. (emphasis added) 
So in his first statement, Tata affirms what is good about what we've already got in Wake County--which is a lot, especially compared to many school systems.  He talks about getting teachers the resources they need, not making everything their responsibility alone.  

But most of all, Tata knows that you don't win a war by bashing the troops you expect to fight your battles.  For so much of the school reform efforts, the entire focus is on demonizing the school teachers and their organizations--the very people WHO ARE GOING TO HAVE TO BE THE ONES to make whatever grand new vision of education you have ACTUALLY WORK.  

If nothing else, I believe Tata knows that attacking the teachers and/or the parents is not the way to build a 21st century school system that will work for all the students of Wake County.  That realization alone puts him ahead of many in the national school reform movement...not to mention some of his own bosses.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Art Era Timeline

One of the things that is so fabulous about the Internet is that it allows people to share resources and perspectives from all over the world.  Recently I ran into a great blog called Practical Pages by a Christian Charlotte-Mason-inspired mom homeschooling in South Africa.  She has a bunch of good ideas and wonderful resources, and it is just as easy to access them as it is the ones from my friend just a few miles away.

My favorite thing that she is sharing with the world, however, is a series of terrific timelines of art eras.  She has them divided by centuries, with the name and country of different art movements (Neoclassicism, Hudson River School, Bauhaus, etc.) with representative artists and works of the different style displayed by the years of that movement.  It would take a ton of time, not to mention some degree of expertise, do create this, but you can download it for free from her blog by clicking here.

She also some some other great downloadable pages on Famous Artists and Famous Impressionist Artists that are appropriate for lapbooks or timelines or art notebooks.  Finally, because they are studying Impressionism this year, she has posted a whole bunch of lesson plans for creating a hands-on Art Appreciation project of various Impressionist artists, often with printable resources, and again, all for free.  Click here to review those projects.

So if you are looking for some help in your art history studies, go check out her blog.  I know it is a perfect resource to accompany the 19th Century history studies we are doing this year.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Presidents Day

It is the Presidents Day national holiday here in the US.  While it began as a consolidation of the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's birthday on February 22, it also recognizes the other 42 Presidents as well.

If you need brushing up on who all they were, check out this short video, which gives a short snippet of information about each US president in order, all sung to....well, I'm sure you'll recognize it.

Happy Presidents Day to All!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Checking for Spring

So it has been gorgeous here this week in North Carolina--mostly in the 60's, but one day up to 70 degrees.  It's hard not to get Spring Fever!  But to check out whether or not it is actually spring, my son and I went to the JC Raulston Arboretum--the working garden maintained by the horticulture department at North Carolina State University.

Because we humans can think it is whatever season we want....but plants know better.

One of the great things about this arboretum is that they plant vegetation that blooms during all season.  So, for example, the have a winter garden that thrives during the cold weather (given that the winters in North Carolina are relatively mild).  It is, in fact, a great educational thing, if you live in the Raleigh area, to walk around this garden regularly, because it is laid out so that something is displaying its beauty during each season of the year.

However, as much as we would like to believe that we have a really early spring here, the plants aren't buying it--at least yet.

Only the front runners of the daffodils, which are the earliest flowers in the garden to come back in the new year, are displaying flowers:

Other than that, no native trees are blooming.  The blossoms appear only in those transplanted Oriental trees that usually send forth their fruit earlier than native plants, such as the Japanese flowering apricot:

the Manchurian forsythia:

and my favorite (coming from the Washington DC area), the beautiful if ephemeral cherry blossoms:

This is a great place to teach our children that humans may desire that seasons have arrived early, but nature will tell us what the truth of the matter is. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mother's Employment Increases Children's Health Risks

NCSU economics professor Dr. Melinda Morrill has some bad news for working moms.  In her study comparing health statistics of school-aged children with working mothers to those with mothers who stay at home, Morrill found that the children of mothers who worked were 200% more likely to be hospitalized overnight, to suffer an injury or poisoning, or to have a asthma attack.  
Morrill’s study looked at 20 years of health statistics involving approximately 89,000 children aged 7-17.  Her results differ from previous studies that indicated  children of working mothers were healthier, presumably because of higher income, greater access to health insurance, and increased maternal self-esteem.  Those studies were flawed, according to Morrill, because they had reversed cause and effect.  That is, the stay-at-home mother group had numbers of moms of children with such severe medical problems that they required full-time care or supervision, effectively eliminating the option of the mother to work outside the home.  But these children weren’t getting sick because their moms were home; their moms were home because the children were so sick.  When Morrill used advanced statistical techniques to account for such issues, she found that the opposite was actually true--that children of stay-at-home moms had highly significant better chances of avoiding injury and poisoning, hospitalization, and asthma attacks.
Morrill clearly wants to avoid setting off another “mommy war.”  She states “I don’t think anyone should make sweeping value judgements based on a mother’s decision to work or not work.”  “But,” she continues, “it is important that we are aware of the the costs and benefits associated with a mother’s decision to work.”   Apparently, one of those costs is increased health risks for the children of working moms.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Kid's Science Challenge

The deadline is fast approaching for entering the third year of the Kid's Science Challenge sponsored by Pulse of the Planet, an environmental educational radio program.  US students in grades 3-6 have until February 28, 2011 to submit their ideas for innovative experiments in three different categories:  Sensational Sounds (invent a musical instrument with a completely different sound), Super Stuff for Sports (invent a new material to improve your favorite sport), and Magical Microbes (find a new use for microscopic organisms).  The grand winner in each category gets to travel (most expenses paid) to somewhere like New York City, New Orleans, or Point Reyes, CA to working with a working scientist in the field actually trying to make that idea work.  (While not as flashy as winning a iPad or something like that, this could be a life-changing prize; working with a real science mentor could really cement a student's interest in a science career.)  Finalists can win a variety of science-related tools and toys.  For more information on the contest, see the website at this link.

Even if you aren't going to enter the contest, the site is worth checking out.  They have background information on each of the contest topics, along with some videos to watch, experiments to do, and games to play.  There are also lesson plans available on the sponsor site; click here to register to receive them.

This is a good site because it allows students to use their imaginations and potentially create their own experiments or new science activities, rather than treating science as a static field where the teaching is just trying to convey all that is known to the student.  But there is enough solid science content to keep it from just being a bunch of bells and whistle to get students excited about science without really teaching them anything.  For some hands-on learning, check out their Activities Page where they have instructions for making a battery from mud, growing a fungus garden, or creating some of everyone's favorite material--Oobleck!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Qwiki Is Turning Information into an Experience

I've recently discovered Qwiki, which bills itself as the first company to turn information into an experience.

For example, my son recently gave a short presentation on the Mason-Dixon line for our history coop.  But here is what it looks like as a Qwiki:

You can click on many of the pictures to see them in more detail, or if you watch it on the Qwiki website, you can watch it in "Contents" and see the written text all at once with explanations of the related pictures or videos.  Also on the website is the ability to contribute to the "wiki" part of Qwiki by rating the presentation, giving feedback, or offering additional information or resources to improve the experience.

Apparently, it does all this on the fly, searching the web for open source material such as Wikipedia and putting those items into a computer-generated presentation.  So I think that is pretty amazing.  But they are working on a version that publishers can use to create similar presentations out of their proprietary information sources.  The company recently got $8 million in investment money from people like the co-founders of Facebook and YouTube--the kind of people who know what they are doing in the new world of social digital media.  I think this indicates that Qwiki may be a major player in the next level of digital information packaging over the Web.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Black History Month Lesson Plan: African American Quilt Art

This is a project that I did for our 19th Century History Coop, but that also works for Black History Month.

We have studied quilt patterns as an art project in our history coop.  However, mostly we study the quilt patterns from European cultures.  African Americans, including (and, unfortunately, primarily) slaves, also made quilts during the 17th-19th century.  But because the slave quilts were used so much, relatively few of them have survived to modern times.

However, by looking at those that have lasted, along with studying the African American stories, it appears that there were significant differences between quilts made by the African Americans around the time of the Civil War and those of the white cultures.

First of all, there was the reality of quilts made by slaves that they generally only received the worst scraps of fabrics from their white owners.  Thus, they didn't necessarily have the ability to plan color-coordinated quilts using large amounts of the same materials.

Secondly, many African American quilts drew their designs from African traditions of textile designs, rather than the white American approach.  Some of those African traditions included:

  • bold and contrasting colors
  • asymmetric patterns (rather than the symmetric patterns preferred by European/American cultures)
  • lots of different patterns (apparently the ruling Africans showed their wealth/power by wearing fabrics woven with lots of different patterns, so different patterns were a sign of status within some African cultures)
  • irregular patterns that break straight lines (apparently some African tribes believed that bad spirits traveled in straight lines, so rather than maintaining a straight pattern that would create a straight line, they would interrupt the pattern and break the straight line, which was supposed to disperse the bad spirits)
Perhaps most importantly, however, is that the finest African American quilts that have survived suggest that blacks of that time created appliques story quilts.  Here are two examples of biblical story quilts from a freed slave quilt artist of the late 19th century, Harriet Powers:

When I asked my students why the slaves would have created story quilts, none of them got all of the potential answers quite right.  However, we assume these quilts were created because:
  1. To continue the African (but really universal) tradition of oral storytelling
  2. Because most slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write (in order to reduce their ability to protest or to escape their slavery), this was the best way to capture their lives and their stories
  3. When families were split up, this was one way to remind a lost spouse, sibling, or child of their family or place of origin (since they weren't able to write or send photographs)
So for our hands-on activity in this lesson, we created paper quilts out of scrapbook and other paper.  Each student was supposed to make a square that was an example of either African American quilt patterns or that was a story quilt.  Some examples are below:

As usual, the results were unique and creative, while still demonstrating an understanding of the lesson.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Free Presidents' Day Package and Other American History Curricula at CurrClick

I've noticed that my most popular posts have been about a free curriculum, so here is one for our upcoming Presidents' Day holiday.

CurrClick, one of the most abundant resources for commercial (but low-cost) downloadable curricula, is having a Presidents' Day sale where most of their American history resources are 40% off regular prices.  However, they are also offering a few packages for free.

One of the free resources is Living Books Curriculum Holiday Helper for Presidents' Weekend.  It contains some stories, quotes, and famous pictures related to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  LBC is a company that sells Charlotte Mason educational materials, which emphasis classic literature, oral expression, copy work, and inspiring art (among other things).  So if you are looking for some quotes, some artwork, or some stories about the lives of Washington or Lincoln, this resources might be what you are looking for.

There are a number of other free curricula during the sale, which ends February 24.  Some of the other free resources are:

American Revolution:  Time Line Game
Declaration of Independence Copywork Notebook
History Scribes-Bio-Presidents
Independence Day Skip Counting Cards
United States of America Notebook Pages

Not all of them are geared towards the middle school level, but I know some of you have younger children as well.

The catch is that the free titles are scattered among the titles for sale, so you have to page through the sale items to find them.  But I thought I would give you a list of the free ones so you would know whether or not it was worth your time.  And, of course, if you need some American history materials, this is a good time to buy them.

You can access the sale pages here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Giveway Winner

Happy Valentine's Day to all!  I hope your day was full of love of whatever variety.

As for me, I LOVE to announce that the winner of The Strange Case of Origami Yodaa book that our family LOVES, is Sally, who was selected by the Random Number Generator at!  Congratulations, Sally.  Please contact me to arrange how to get you the book.

Thanks so much to everyone for the great suggestions on books.  We hadn't read any of them, but now they are on my ever-expanding books-to-read list.

I'll be having another book giveaway next month in honor of another special holiday, so check in on March 1 for find out about that contest.  Maybe Month will be your lucky month!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Persian Fairy Tales, Small Worlds, Bananas, and the Power of the Internet

I love words (as regular readers of this blog might have realized, since I use so many of them!)  One of my favorite words is "serendipity," which Wikipedia defines as "denotes the property of making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, or the occurrence of such a discovery during such a search."  And while I have long loved the word, and work it into my conversation and writings as often as is appropriate (another word like it that I love is "cacophonous," which the occasion to use arises, alas, all too often), it was not until tonight that, perhaps inspired by my recent post on the word history game Etymologic, I looked up the derivation of the term.  (Man, what a sentence.  And while I think it is grammatically correct, my homework is to try to diagram it.  It's what I tell my son to do, so I need to follow my own advice.)

Anyway, it turns that, according to my favorite etymology resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary, that serendipity was actually coined by a specific person--namely, Wallace Walpole--on a specific date--January 28, 1754.  He said he created it from a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip," within which the protagonists "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

So I don't know what worked for the ancient Persians, but my favorite vehicle for serendipity these days is the good old hyperlinked World Wide Web.  I can easily begin with a simple task (like looking up the etymology of the word serendipity) and get lost for 30 minutes in Persian literature and foreign languages and translation difficulties and who knows what else.  But blogging is a particularly great vehicle for these serendipitous encounters, as people seek out your site while you seek out their posts, based on some common interests.

That happened to me today when, in following up a comment someone made on one of my posts, I discovered a marvelous resource.  Another homeschool mom out there is writing a great blog about her homeschooling adventures under the name of SmallWorld at Home.  I'm not sure where the name comes from, but to me it brings to mind William Blake's wonderful words:
To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

Maybe that's just me, who has 19th century poets on the brain as we study them along with our 19th century history--but what a lovely way to describe what we do as homeschoolers, and, really, as parents in general.

But more to the point, however, is the fact that this past week, we've spent a lot of time on writing--fiction, non-fiction, and quasi-fiction (see my son's blog, The Madisonian Blog, to see how easily he can morph one into the other).  Specifically, we have been working on mastering the Five Paragraph essay.  He is taking a class at our homeschool coop on this topic, where the teacher has been doing a masterful job of trying to move the students from their preferences for storytelling to the tighter format of an essay. But the real work needs to be done at home, where they do their actual writing.  So we've done draft after draft after draft on my son's essay, which is about the history of bananas (which turn out to be a fascinating not fruit, but technically an herb).

So what do I find at SmallWorld at Home but a very useful post on writing an essay, with this oh-so-validating comment:
If you spend a whole year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay and its various types (descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.), you'll have accomplished much of what is covered in a basic freshman composition class.  Imagine how far ahead your student will be if he is familiar with the format in middle school and fluent by high school!

So bless you, SmallWorld mom!  It's worth all the time and effort after all....

If you want to read her resources about writing essays, click here to read that post.  She also has a whole wonderful series about creative writing that is especially geared to beginning and reluctant writers.  Look at this neat link she has created for that resource:

SmallWorld's WordSmithery

So I'm really grateful that I live in a time of technology-facilitated serendipity, and for the support I get for my journey from all these other bloggers and web writers whose insight I soak up, even if we never meet.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Math Art

Today I listened to a very inspiring webinar through Maria Droujkova's Math 2.0 series.  The speaker was John Sharp, who has published a number of books about his work in studying math through art, particularly 3-D models and sculptures.  Once again, I can't begin to do justice to his work.  However, if you are interested, the webinar was recorded in full; you can view/listen to it in full at:
Full recording: voice, text chat, 90+ beautiful slides of math art, web tour

I was so inspired, both by the webinar and an exhibit at our local library that we visited after the class this afternoon, that my son and I sat down and did math-inspired art for a couple of hours this evening.  I'm not going to talk about it now, since we just have works in progress at this point, but stay tuned for future updates about our math-based art.

In the meantime, check out the webinar above or John Sharp's books, such as Surfaces:  Explorations with Sliceforms.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Language Arts Resource: Etymologic

If you have a middle schooler who loves words in your household, like we do...or would maybe like to encourage one into developing...check out the online language arts resource, Etymologic.  It bills itself as "The Toughest Word Game on the Web," which isn't too much of an exaggeration (although I would dispute the term game--it is just an online quiz).  The page brings up a word or a phrase that is appropriate for a middle school vocabulary, along with four proposed explanations of where the term came from.  All four options are reasonable, and none of them are obvious.  However, you can sometimes dwindle the choices just through some knowledge of the language from which it is derived.

It's not easy.  I'm fairly good on etymology, and I haven't done better than 7 out of 10 correct answers yet.  But it is a great thing to do with your middle schooler and to talk through the word and the possible origins.  And referring to my post earlier this week about Subtle Ways to Prepare Middle Schoolers for college, this is an interesting way to help them prepare for tests like the SAT or ACT, not only by improving their vocabulary, but also by practicing the skill of eliminating choices to improve your odds of getting the right answer, even if you end up guessing.

For real word nerds (student or parents or other interested relatives), there is also a neat function where you can submit your own question and proposed answer set for the question bank. We aren't there yet, but when we have a bit broader experience of ancient languages, I think my son will get a real kick out of making up his own questions and having them appear in the quiz.  And, of course, having lots of people contribute words helps keep the answer bank big and interesting.

Over 100 million people have visited the site, so it must be doing something right!  And let me know if you submit a word, and we'll keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Research Shows Social and Emotional Learning Improves Academic Performance

There was a lovely article in today's News and Observer, the major paper in Raleigh, NC, about a mentoring program for 20 middle schoolers in Ligon Middle School, a magnet school in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Raleigh (an area that was historically a black, low-income community, but is now undergoing some resurgence).  College students from near-by Shaw University, which is the oldest historically black college in the South, have spent Wednesday afternoons with the middle schoolers, teaching them about appropriate dress and behavior, etiquette, and other essential about becoming a "Gentleman of Excellence."  You can read the entire are at this link.

While the article says the school says it is too soon to tell if this program has raised participants' test scores, new research indicates it probably will.  In the February 4, 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Child Development, a research team led by Joseph A. Durlak, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Chicago, did a meta-analysis of 213 school-based program like the Ligon one described above, which are known in education-ese as "social and emotional learning," or SEL programs.  Looking at the results of all those SEL programs, which involved a total of 270,034 students from K-12th grade, the researchers found that not only did SEL participants improve significantly on social and emotional skills (including better behavior and self control, fewer discipline problems, improvements in following school rules and expectations, and better relationships with themselves and others), but both their grades and their test scores rose as well.  Plus, the academic increases were significant;  SEL participants' grades and scores were an average of 11% higher compared to non-participants.   While over half the participants were elementary students, 31% were in middle schools, like the Ligon program above, and 13% were in high school.  So this is an effective educational support for all ages of students.  You can read the entire research report at this link.

While the study reports only on school-based SEL programs, I can attest to the usefulness of such learning in non-school settings as well.  My friend Maggie is running a social skills class in which my son is participating.  It is a small group, and it turned out to be all boys, but they all seem to be enjoying it and picking up some key life skills.  The focus of our class, at least so far, has been on communication skills, but it has also reiterated the need to be more aware of the needs and feelings of those with whom you are dealing.   This week, for example, they talked about how to be a good listener, which included points like the difference between hearing and listening, the need to give feedback to show the speaker you are listening, positive body language to show the speaker your attention, etc.  Some of these things the boys hadn't considered before, and they all seem to get into the role playing of simulated conversations and problem solving better and worse ways of handing various problems or situations.   I really appreciate Maggie for leading this activity, and I know my son has benefitted even after just a few weeks of classes.

However, some of this could be done at home with just a parent and a child.  Simply talking through some of these things as a neutral topic--NOT when you are angry because they haven't listened or been respectful or have interrupted you on the phone on a trivial matter--can be really helpful, I think.  For example, with the listening class, I believe at least some of them who slump over or lie down because that feels good to them, hadn't thought that the speaker might take that as a lack of interest. To some of them, especially those who are uncomfortable in those rapidly-growing middle school bodies, it just makes sense to get comfortable.  Explaining to them how that can be perceived negatively by the other party doesn't take a class or a program; it just takes us realizing that at least some of our less-intuitively-social children need to have these things pointed out to them.  And while I've always tried to do that, I'm discovering that maybe I need to do it even more.  It is certainly a life skill that students need, but also tends to improve their self esteem and their relationships immediately, and, apparently, can even lead to better academic success.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

MathPath: A Summer Camp for Middle School Mathematicians

Even though it is only February, it is time to be thinking about summer camps and other activities.  Some of the best ones in our area fill up before spring, so you have to apply early to get your child into some of the most popular summer programs.

If you have a middle school child who is gifted in math, you might be interested in MathPath.  This is a national program that provides a 4-week residential math education program at a college campus for students aged 11-14 who show outstanding interest and ability in math.  According to the website, it is unique in the US for providing advanced mathematics summer camp activities geared towards middle school students.

The daily schedule at MathPath contains 3 all-inclusive sessions--1 on math history, 1 on some mathematical topic, and 1 analyzing solutions to test questions.  Then each student choose 2 breakout courses per day (each breakout course runs for 1 week).  This allows students to spend time on the topics and levels that are appropriate to each of them.  Finally, there is unstructured time for informal activities, including the Problem of the Day (prizes available!), talking with staff or guest lecturers, working on interesting problems, or math games.

Each year the program is held at a college campus, which helps prepare students for their postsecondary studies.  This year, the camp will take place at Colorado College in Colorado Spring, CO, from June 26-July 24, 2011.

The cost for the entire camp is $4,500, which I think is reasonable for a 4 week residential camp of this nature, but is still a good chunk of change.  However, there are both merit-based and needs-based scholarships available.

While this is not my arena of expertise--I was an Arts and Humanities gal, not a Math and Sciences woman--people in the math field that I respect say this is a good program.  And while I'm not an expert, it seems pretty unique for this age.  So if you have an 11-14 year old math geek (and I mean that in a good way), then you should at least check it out.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happy Birthday Jules Verne!

Today Google has what I think may be my favorite ever of all of its famous Doodles!  It is an INTERACTIVE undersea portal.  You can move the lever up and down and see marine creatures that live in the different layers of the ocean.  They even have my son's favorite cephalopod, the nautilus!

When I investigated why Google had done this, I found out that today is the 183rd birthday of the original science fiction writer, Jules Verne.  Born in France on February 8, 1828, Verne was famous for his imaginative novels involving technology ahead of its time.  And in our house, we are glad to see that Google chose our favorite Verne book,  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as its inspiration for its Verne Doodle.  Kudos to Google for its imaginative nod to a wonderful writer!  Check out the real thing on the Google home page.

Quiz question for the day:  Does anyone remember the name of the underwater vessel in Verne's 1870 deep sea adventure?

Also, a reminder that Google is running a student Doodle design contest, but you must register by March 2, which will be here before you know it.    See the details in my previous blog post.

And as long as I am doing reminders, remember that I am running a book giveaway for Valentine's Day.  If you haven't already entered, you can do so in the comments section of this blog post.

UPDATE:  Ooooh, we just found the Treasure Chest!  Has anyone else found it?  Or any other neat
surprises we might have missed?

FEBRUARY 9 UPDATE:  The Doodle has left the home page, but here is a YouTube video that lets you see it, in case you missed it:

Monday, February 7, 2011

NC Homeschoolers Should Be Watching State Proposal HR 41

Today, Representative Paul Stam, the new Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, was supposed to introduce a bill he has called one of his legislative priorities:  HR 41, entitled "Tax Fairness in Education."  The gist of this bill is to give a tax credit to North Carolina families who take their children out of public schools for other educational experiences.  While most of the buzz has been around using the credit to offset the costs of enrolling in a private school, this take credit also applies to families who choose to homeschool their children rather than send them to private schools.  The bill provides for an annual state tax credit of $2,500 per child (K-12), and also allows counties to supplement that with up to an additional $1,000 per child.  And the bill provides not just for a deduction, but an actual credit; that is, if the $2,500 (or more) tax credit is larger than the total tax due for the year, the family would actually get a check from the state for the difference.

Some key factor of the current proposal include:

  • The credit, which is proposed to start for non-public enrollment from July 1, 2011 on, only applies to students who spent the previous two semesters enrolled in a North Carolina public school.  So, for the approximately 96,421 students currently in traditional private schools and 81,509 students currently in home schools (NC Department of Instruction figures for the 2009-2010 school year; the current year's figures are not yet available), this bill does nothing for them.  The students would have to be enrolled for a year in NC public schools (dropping to one semester in 2016) before they would be eligible to return to private schools/home schools and still receive the credit.  Stam claims that he is committed to ultimately including all non-public students in the program once the state's economic situation gets better.  For right now, however, the justification for the program is reducing the cost to the state and counties of educating students they are already paying for by getting them to switch to private schools and home schools.  
  • This program is a refundable tax credit RATHER than a voucher system.  In a voucher system, the government pays the private school chosen by the family a certain amount to educate those students. In this bill, the money would be going to the family to reimburse costs instead of going to the schools themselves.  The advantage of the tax credit approach is that it avoids the criticism of government directly funding private schools, and the constitutional issues that raises if the schools are affiliated with a religious faith.  The disadvantage of the tax credit approach is that families have to have enough money up front to pay the school tuition, and will only get some or all (depending on the tuition amount) of that money back from the state in the form of a tax refund.  Thus, tax credits favor more moderate-to-high income families, who can afford to pay tuition and get the tax credit at the end of the year, while vouchers are available to families of all income (although voucher programs often do not pay the full price of the tuition, in which case the family still has to come up with some additional funds).
  • There is an upper income level of $100,000 for a family or $60,000 for a single parent to be eligible for the credit.
  • This does only apply to students in K-12 schools and, of course, students in charter schools would not be eligible because charters schools are a division of NC public schools.
I'm not going to get into the pros or the cons of the bill, because that will depend on people's different political orientation towards government involvement and/or support of private versus public schools and tax equity questions, etc.  I have my opinions, and I'm sure some will agree with me and others won't.

What I do believe, however, is that homeschoolers should be keeping an eye on this bill, because I think if it passed (and I have no idea of the likelihood of that, although it is generally believed that Governor Perdue would veto the bill as it stands now, so the question is whether there is enough support to over ride her veto), it could have some influence on the homeschooling culture in North Carolina.

First of all, there could be a sudden influx of new homeschoolers.  Stam predicts that the bill would initially result in 8,000 - 15,000 students pulling out of NC public schools.  Currently, the split of non-publicly educated students in 2009-2010, according to the NC Department of Public Instruction, is 54% private schools, 46% home schools.  So, 46% of 8,000 - 15,000 students would mean 3,664 - 6,870 new homeschoolers.  So beginning in July 2011, there could be an influx of new homeschoolers that would represent 8% of the existing homeschool population.  

But I think the tax refund might shift the balance between public and home schools, so the number deciding to homeschool could be even larger, especially among lower income families.  When I looked at a number of websites for current private school tuition in my area (not an exhaustive search at all), them seemed to range from a little over $5,000 per person per year for schools like Cary Christian School and Thales Academy to over $19,000 for Cary Academy.  Even a tax credit of $2,500 per student is not enough to pay for tuition at any of the schools that I looked at (although there may be some where that is enough).  On the other hand, because this is a tax credit, not a tax deduction that requires proof of eligible expenditures, home school families may receive tax credit in excess of whatever they spend for this homeschooling costs.  So, for example, if you had a large family of, say, four children, K-12, who were homeschooled, the family would receive a refundable tax credit of $10,000--or, if the family lived in a locale that supplemented the state credit with the allowable extra $1,000 per child, even a total of $14,000.  This could make homeschooling very attractive to some lower income families.

Let me make it clear that I am not opposed to having more homeschool students, and I would love for more lower income families to have an opportunity to home school their children if they think that would serve them better.  However, for all these new home school families to be successful, they are going to need support.  Where is this support going to come from?  The state's Department of Non-Public Education is small and already so understaffed that they already ask for volunteers to come in and help them file their paperwork.  In my experience, most of the responsibility for educating new homeschoolers about the laws, curriculum choices, effective homeschooling practices, etc., has fallen upon either churches or non-profit homeschool support groups.  But it is going to be a big job for these organizations to deal with a situation where nearly one out of every ten homeschoolers is brand new--not an unlikely prospect, I think, if the numbers predicted by the bill's sponsor are correct.

My other concern is about government regulation.  In North Carolina, we've had little governmental oversight of our curriculum and educational choices, which has resulted in a wonderfully diverse group of homeschoolers experimenting with all kinds of different approaches to teaching our students.  I fear that once the government starts "funding" homeschooling through these tax credits, however, someone is going to start wanting to have more control over how those public funds are being spent.  I think it would be a MAJOR issue for those of us who have already chosen to homeschool our children, due to  the freedom it gives us to educate our children as we think is best for them as individuals, to have that freedom restricted because of tax credits that we aren't even eligible to receive.

So I'm not saying that we should necessarily support or oppose this bill.  But I am saying that homeschoolers and the groups that support them should be aware of what is going on, because it could end up having a major impact on homeschooling in our state.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lesson Plan: Miracles of Jesus About Food (Wedding at Cana, Disciples Catching Fish, Feeding the Multitudes)

Last week in our World Religion class, where we are currently studying Christianity, I did a lesson about the miracles Jesus did that involved food.  I started with the Wedding at Cana, which was the first miracle reported in the Gospel of John.  With all three of these miracles, I simply told the story, rather than reading it out of the Bible or a written rendition.

For the Wedding at Cana, I had made some preparations beforehand.  I had a glass pitcher of water and a tray with enough plastic cups for all the students.  However, before class, I had put a tablespoon of red Kool Aid in each cup.  So as I told the climax of the story, I poured the visibly clear water into the cups where-Voila!-they turned into red liquid.  While a younger audience might be fooled by this, the middle schoolers figured it out, and started shouting out I had stuff in the class and that it was Kool Aid instead of wine, etc.  But I never said a thing.  I neither confirmed nor denied their accusations, and, of course, I never said that I was performing a "miracle."  However, when we were reviewing last week's lesson, they all remembered the red drinks and the water into wine story--which, of course, was my real goal for doing it.

The next story I told was when Jesus told Simon/Peter and Andrew to cast their nets into the water, even though they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing.  When they did as he said, their nets were filled with fish, causing Simon (whom Jesus called Peter) to be the first disciple to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah that had been promised in the Jewish Torah.  Once again, I prepared something before class.  I took a large white piece of paper and drew a rough fishing net on it with permanent ink (I used a Sharpie pen).  In between the...well, they weren't squares...looks like maybe they were trapezoids (thank you, Google!)....anyway, in the white space in the net, I took a white crayon and drew fish shapes.  I had to press down fairly heavily to leave enough crayon, but you still couldn't see it against the white paper.  Then when I was in class, when I got to the part that Simon cast his nets in the water and they filled with fish, I took some dark blue water color paint and painted over the nets.  TAAA  DAAA--the invisible fish suddenly showed up!  They thought that was really cool, and couldn't figure that one out as easily.  Once again, when asked about it the next week, the students could tell the story.

The last one was less "magical," but may have been appreciated most of all.  As I talked about the two stories, one about feeding 4,000 families and one about feeding 5,000, both times with just a few loaves of bread and a few fishes, I took an unsliced loaf of bread I had bought and tore it into pieces, put it into a basket, and passed it around.  I also had a bag of Swedish fish candies, which I put into another basket, and passed it around.  So they had a ghastly meal of Kool Aid, Sourdough Bread (albeit high-quality, natural, and without preservatives), and Swedish fish candies--most of which I would NEVER serve my son at home.  But, of course, it was a HUGE hit.

It's one of those rules of thumbs, really with most children, I think, but definitely with middle schoolers--if you want them to love your lessons, give them some food.  But it was educationally justifiable in this case!  And, as I said, they seemed to have a much higher recall then they have had with some of my other lessons.  What can I works.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Games in Education

I have to give my friend Melody the credit for our increased use of board games in our homeschooling.  She also homeschools her two daughters, who are about the same age of my son, and she told me that they played a lot of board games for educational purposes as well as just for fun.  I used to play board games with my son when he was little, but there was a while there when he wasn't interested in them, and I had kind of forgotten about them as a useful "subtle" educational tool.  But when Melody told me about her experience, I tried reintroducing board games, and they are a much bigger hit with my son than they were a few years ago.

So a cold and grey Saturday afternoon like this, when my husband was out at an activity, so just my son and I were at home, it seemed a perfect time for pulling out a board game.  My son had recently been given a game called Dicecapades, but we hadn't had a chance to play it yet.  Well, it was a BIG hit!  It has over 100 different dice of at least a dozen different varieties (triangular, octagonal, die within die, poker dice, picture dice, and so forth), so my son loved just that part of it.  Then you need to do all sorts of different things with the dice--math, of course, but also stacking them, or using them to select a trivia question, or using them as a subject of a drawing, and so forth.  There is lots of variety, and it is a fast moving game, plus it covers a lot of different subjects, and the things you have to do aren't foolish or too juvenile for an adult to enjoy.  I think this one will become a favorite in our house!

Of course, there are also lots of excellent games online as well that have educational quality (I'm talking about real games, not quizzes like Fling The Teacher I mentioned the other day, which make quizzing more interesting, but aren't really games).  My latest favorite is a game called Entanglement by a couple of part-time game developers (one from Hickory here in North Carolina) who have a company called Gopherwood Studios.  Entanglement is a lovely, fairly simple, and slow-paced game--a nice change from the kinds of games my son picks out to play online.  The game consists of following a continuous path through a bunch of hexagonal tiles overlaid on a beautiful Zen garden.  You choose which path to connect tile with tile, trying to create the longest possible continuous line without running into either the inner or outer wall.  It doesn't sound like much, but it is surprising difficult.  I, at least, haven't figured out the strategy to win the game--my scores are like 1/20th of the top scores recorded.  But you can take as long as you like to choose your path, making it quite meditative--and there is soothing Oriental music playing in the background.  But it is a great game for improving visual literacy (you have to visualize if these looping paths will end up running you into the wall or not) and taking time to consider the consequences of different choices--always a great skill to support, but especially among our young adolescents.

So I can full-heartedly recommend both of those games.  If anyone has an educational game, board or computer-based, that he or she would like to recommend, please add it to the comments below.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Preparing Middle Schoolers for College

I've said before that Jay Mathews of the Washington Post is one of my favorite education journalists.  He has been their education reporter for decades, so he has a deep background in personalities, policies, programs, and research in the field.

This week he wrote an article right up our alley that was called "8 Subtle Ways to Prepare Middle Schoolers for College."  He has long been an advocate that their are great educations to be had at all sorts of different colleges, and generally works to relieve the pressure students and parents put on themselves in terms of having to get into ONE particular college.  So his is not going to be a "Tiger Mom" type of list of intense academic achievements.  In fact, much of his list, which he compiled from talking to college admissions experts, he says is really more geared to making middle schoolers into better people, which will help them in college along with the rest of their life.

The Mathews/Educational Experts list is:
1.  Notice what they enjoy, and help them do more of it.
(Colleges like students with depth, and students should spend time doing what is important to them, not racking up achievements to look good.)
2.  Make sure your child knows that B's are fine in middle school and that fun is important.
(Don't start the pressure too soon, especially for overachievers.)
3.  Enroll them in Algebra 1 in eighth grade.
(This prepares them for high school level work.)
4.  Insist they develop some practical housework skills.
(They are going to have to balance taking care of themselves with their college workload.)
5.  Flavor family trips with a bit of college atmosphere.
(My husband makes fun of me about this, but my family's vacations always included stopping by a local campus or two.)
6.  Encourage children who are curious about the world to take a foreign language.
(My son and I just participated in an online class this afternoon with students from three different continents.  It truly is a global world.)
7.  Character counts.  Encourage its development.
(Mathews admits this can be hard with emotional early adolescents, but suggests we start by being good role models ourselves.)
8.  Do everything you can to encourage reading.
(One of his experts says the highest correlation among the very best test-takers is a strong background in reading.)

That's a pretty good list, I think.  But some of his readers added a few others:

--More sleep for teens/preteens
--Teach listening skills
--Raise career awareness and preparation requirements(in both college-required and non-college fields)
--Have them write
--Make sure they spend time outdoors in nature

Any other suggestions you have for low-key ways to help prepare 10-14 year olds for their college experience (if they choose to have one)?