Thursday, October 9, 2014

No way—Nothing's better than Eragon

I was given a challenge last week by one of the kids in my writing class.

It went something like this: 

Him: "Do you like Eragon?"

Me: "Meh."

Him: "No way. Eragon is the best. It's like in my top favorite of all time books."

Me: "That's awesome. But I bet I can find books for you that will knock Eragon off its throne of power."

Him: "No way."

Me: "Yes way."

Him: "Bring it on."

Me: "Oh, it's coming."

So the time needs to come, and it needs to come now. Here's my list so far of books that I think he will like even better than ERAGON (he also liked Mysterious Benedict Society, to give you an idea of his preferences):


Any other ideas????

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How We Do Homeschooling (right now) Part Two


Age: 6
Temperament: Cheerful (unless she doesn't get what she wants—then hound dog is the best way to describe her)
Struggles that make homeschooling tricky: Can be lazy. Prone to fibbing. Doesn't like to do hard things.
Passions: art, writing

I was worried about homeschooling Flannery. I've always had a rule since I attempted this back in 2008 that I would never homeschool a child until they were completely self-sufficient, particularly with reading.

But you try telling your six-year-old that everyone else gets to be homeschooled while you have to go to school by yourself. She liked Kindergarten most of the time, but her teacher was not super tuned into her (or any of the kids), and there were times last year when she asked why she couldn't be homeschooled like Mary and Shaemus.

I will admit something right now. There was a lot of meaningless threatening going on the first few weeks of homeschool. I probably said, "If you don't do (fill in the blank), you will go back to school tomorrow," five thousand times.

I didn't really mean it, but I said it, and it did no good, but patiently training Flannery has done some good. She is very, very independent. I just have to make sure she's actually done what she says she's done.

This is Flannery's schedule:

Cello practice from 8-9
Math with Teaching Textbooks from 9-10
Reading from 10-11
Workbooks (see below) and writing 11-12
Art (drawing, sculpting, painting)/P.E./Piano/Building/Science and basically anything else she's interested in doing the rest of the day.

Official school isn't that long for Flannery, but because it is really long for everyone else, she ends up doing extra work without knowing it's happening. We have a bazillion books for her to explore here and we go to the library every week. I'm finding her curled up alone with a book, her lips moving silently, more and more often. Her reading gets better every single day, and she's doing surprisingly well with math.

She likes to save everything she makes and everything everyone else makes, and she never wants to clean up after herself. She makes my house a wreck. This is a MAJOR problem I have patience with about one time out of ten, but...

I am loving homeschooling her. I told a friend just yesterday that everything around our house seems to get happier and happier as each day passes.

My kids are being creative, and they are being creative all day long.

Yesterday, Flannery made a crazy elephant out of playdough. It doesn't sound like much, but she spent a long time on this elephant, and it was the best playdough sculpture I've ever seen. She's been designing her own board game complete with complicated instructions, math, warnings, and fabulous pictures. She made a 3D map of the world the other day out of model magic—all done completely on her own, and it was really, really good! (I'd post pictures if I had a phone that took pictures, but I do not. Maybe one day.) She has been teaching herself the piano, and she really is doing it! She works in the yard with me and makes discoveries every few seconds (Mom, what's a grub good for? Why does that squirrel have an ouchy on its back? What would hurt it? How is this growing here? Why do weeds keep coming?). Her stories are fabulous—about things like jellyfish that eat vegetables for a job.

All of this comes from within her. It seems to me that creativity is something that bubbles and froths and grows and grows when given the best ingredients. It is limitless. It never diminishes under the right conditions. And the confidence kids get when they create something interesting from start to finish after much trial and effort is indescribable.

If you gauged learning on engagement (meaning both mind and heart are completely occupied in a task), Flannery is learning at home every single second of homeschool (with the possible exception of the two workbooks I have her work in every day...). Not a minute of her time is wasted, and man, that makes her one happy kid.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How We Do Homeschooling (right now) Part One


Age: 14 (scary!)
Temperament: Good. Pleasant.
Struggles that might make homeschooling tricky: Prone to despair. Time management. Organization.
Passions: Music

This is Mary's ninth grade year, so these are the things we decided she should study:

Music History along with some art history
Music Theory
Alexander Technique (a truly awesome thing)
Cultural Geography

Boy, that sounds awesome doesn't it? I should just leave it alone at that. Superhero homeschool Mom of the universe!!!

In truth, this is Mary's day:

Practice viola—four to five hours
Math—one hour
Reading/Literature—at least one hour (She's currently loving THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO)
All her other subjects, she squeezes in whenever she can around math, practicing, and her bazillions of music rehearsals. She probably spends three to four hours per week on each subject. Other than German (which she takes through BYU's Independent Study Program) and her math, she doesn't have tests. I don't require assignments other than some writing. She studies her books, takes notes—the end.

So how do I know she's studying and learning?

Tough to say. I don't 100% know anything. I examine her notebooks regularly, and they are chock full of great stuff. She's allowed to write in her textbooks, and there is a great deal of underlining being done. But is that enough to know?

I second guess myself constantly on this issue with all of the kids. Kids in the United States now spend an average of 30-40% of their time in school taking tests. Kids in Finland spend 3% or less of their time taking tests, and Finland rocks the rest of the world on every measurable test. I'm on the side of Finland!!! I remember so little of what I memorized in Junior High and High School and College. So very, very little. Memorization only takes you so far especially when we live in this age with such easy access to all sorts of information.

What I'm trying to worry about is her ability to express herself and her ability to think and her ability to learn on her own and, finally, her ability to take ownership for that learning.

She is studying anatomy because she wants to better understand how music affects the body and how a musician physically learns to play.

She is studying literature with my guidance, but selecting her own books.

She is studying Music History rather than plain old World History because it relates so deeply to her passions.

She is studying German because she wants to live in Germany or Austria one day with its deep tradition of music.

She talks about her learning regularly in casual conversation. Her writing is clear and well-organized. She needs to work on it, as we all do, but she's growing. I can see it.

Most importantly, she works enthusiastically and independently all day long. She decides when she does what. She keeps a record. She knows if she doesn't do what she needs to do, going to college is going to be tough. She knows what she is learning will impact her now and in the future—and not just because of college. She knows that time wasted is gone forever.

I am writing this down because it is tough to remember this. It is tough to remember that I know my daughter is learning and growing when people say things to you like, "They've got to go to school to face the tough knocks. How else will they be prepared for life?"

I have no answer for this but that I want her to learn a great deal more than just tough knocks.

Here are the texts Mary is using for her various subjects. There are pros and cons to them, but, for the most part, they are the best we could find, and we're satisfied. We do Teaching Textbooks for math and LOVE it. We also have a Shakespeare class she takes on Fridays and I teach a writing class to the same group (about eighteen teens). It gives her a chance to present, discuss things in groups, etc... She really loves that.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Five Paragraph Essay

If you google: Should we dump the five paragraph essay? you will see mostly a list of articles saying that yes, we should. You will see a few defending it. You find a lot of articles where college professors bemoan this essay form taught in so many high schools, claiming they have to teach their students all over again how to write.

I am on the dump-it side of the equation. Lots of people have different reasons for this, but I have one and only one reason:

Who wants to read an essay where the writer first explains what they are about to say, then explains it, then says the exact same thing in a conclusion?



They are boring. puts together what they think are the ten best news articles from 2013. For my writing class, I took the first paragraphs from five of those articles and put them in one document. Each one looked something like this:

They had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down into the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. The families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother’s Day card, which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. “A difference-maker,” the organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his 7-year-old son, people would be compelled to act.
Where is the thesis statement in this article? Where is the clear explanation of everything that will follow? I think we can say from this paragraph that this article will be about gun control, but we don't know what it's going to say.

Not only that, but this paragraph throws us right into action. There is no history given here, no recounting of events so we know where we stand. This paragraph starts right with Mark Barden going down into the basement to find a photo. Every one of the ten articles begins with action. They also begin with a question or questions. From this paragraph, I want to know if Mark Barden found that picture. If it made a difference. I want to know who he made that promise to. I want to know which politicians listened and which politicians did not. I want to know more about Mark Borden. There are a lot of things this paragraph makes me want to know, and that's why I keep reading.

The five paragraph essay does not lend itself easily to questions. It is difficult to provide mystery in such a confining form.

I think the five paragraph essay is taught to give students a rudimentary structure to follow. I think it's taught to keep them focused. I think it's taught because it is easy to grade.

Rubric: Thesis statement? 4. Supporting paragraphs? 3. Conclusion? 2.  Grade: 3.

Why do we teach forms of writing that don't mirror anything we do in the real world? Why do we teach forms of writing that will—without question—bore these students to death so that they hate to write?

Too many kids hate to write, and it is the fault of the people teaching them what writing is about.

This, by the way, was my students favorite of the five paragraphs:

Remember that crazy story about the dude in Mississippi who mailed ricin to Obama and then tried to frame some other dude in Mississippi for the crime? Well, as Wells Tower discovered when he traveled to Tupelo and started poking around, the story is a thousand times crazier than you thought.

No thesis statement here, but there sure are a lot of questions...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Falcon Fever—Can any kid love falconry?

This is a bit of a strange post. It's a lot about schooling and it's also about a book I haven't read. It's also about my quest to help my kids figure out the things that they love.

Calvin loves facts. He loves facts about everything. If there was a job where you could memorize facts and quiz people about them, Calvin would love that job.

It's not hard to find him a book he will like, but to find him a book he will love... that's a trickier thing.

All of my kids have to read some non-fiction and take notes/write about it every day. What they read is up to them as long as I approve it (mostly to check the complexity).

I have a lot of visions for my kids, and one vision I've occasionally had for Calvin is that he might be a falconer one day.

I know. That's weird. A falconer. Aren't there, like, three falconer jobs in the entire world? Why would I encourage this as an interest?

The answer is this: I don't know.

But in my desire to encourage falconry (???), I bought Calvin this:

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Falcon Fever by Tim Gallagher. 

This is not juvenile nonfiction, and as much as I wish I could say differently, I've never had success getting my kids to read most adult nonfiction. This book doesn't have pictures. Any. Zero. It's 336 pages long.

But this is one of the reviews of the book:
*Starred Review* Falconry, a sport most of us equate with medieval kings and Arabian potentates, is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Gallagher, author (The Grail Bird, 2005) and editor in chief of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s journal Living Bird, brings this arcane sport to life in his memoir-cum-travelogue-cum-falconry-history. Although he was born in England, Gallagher’s family moved to Canada and finally California in his childhood. An abusive father drove the young boy to nature, and when he discovered the thirteenth-century book on falconry by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, he was hooked. In part 1 of the book, Gallagher recounts his boyhood, obsessed with hawks and falcons, running with a less-than-perfect crowd, getting arrested for selling marijuana, and spending time in jail. This formative period segues into part 2, when the author decided to spend a year following in Frederick II’s footsteps, both figuratively and literally. This engaging book draws readers in from page 1, and we want to learn more about Gallagher’s life, his quest for understanding the souls of falconers from Frederick II to himself, and the majesty of the hunting falcons. A gem.

The reviewer says: "This engaging book draws readers in from page 1." 

It drew Calvin in, but I doubt it would draw many other kids in, because how many kids are going to love a book about falconry (actually maybe a lot would...). The point is, I had a hunch about a book Calvin would like despite its lack of flash and lack of pictures. He likes this book FOR THE TOPIC. He is interested in this subject, and he will, therefore, read difficult books about it. He's not finished with this beast, but he's already asking for more books on falconry.

I believe the same thing can happen for ALL CHILDREN on a lot of different subjects. If we as parents, teachers, the community as a whole, would recognize that we should help children find their particular interests, nurture them, help them grow, the children of this country would grow exponentially in their reading and writing abilities and other basic skills. 

And they wouldn't even know it was happening because they'd be too focused on falconry to wonder if they're going to make benchmark this year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Julia, Child

Lovely, delightful, a celebration of childhood. The pictures are the sort of thing I want to hang on my walls. (Which maybe gives you an idea of the kind of things I hang on my walls...)

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Ages five and up.

Julia and Simca are two young friends who agree that you can never use too much butter -- and that it is best to be a child forever. Sharing a love of cooking and having no wish to turn into big, busy people who worry too much and dawdle too little, they decide to create a feast for growing and staying young. A playful, scrumptious celebration of the joy of eating, the importance of never completely growing up and mastering the art of having a good time,Julia, Child is a fictional tale loosely inspired by the life and spirit of the very real Julia Child -- a story that should be taken with a grain of salt and a generous pat of butter.