turning back time (in a way)

Somehow, I find that I’m often restless.  Perhaps I can blame it on my mom–she was constantly rearranging the furniture of one room or another as I was growing up, so life seemed full of excitement and change.  At any rate, I feel like I have reinvented our homeschooling life in one way or another countless times in the last two school years.

I’ve gone the furniture angle.  We started with one small work table and switched to using individual desks.  I rearranged our work space in the front room two or three times to increase efficiency.  This past winter I even switched our work space to the family room at the back of the house by the kitchen, combining play space with work space and moving our living room furniture to the front room where (ideally) it makes for a more formal, cleaner-looking entry (except when the kids colonize it as their fort-building space).

I’ve gone the curriculum angle.  We’ve switched writing curricula, math curricula, history plans, spelling materials, Spanish tactics…  Frankly, I’ve discovered that I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to curriculum, and I can’t seem to use anything as-is; I find myself always adjusting techniques or cobbling a few resources together into something that better suits us.  Perhaps I should bill it myself as “confident and adaptive” rather than “unwilling or unable to follow established plans.”

I’ve gone the scheduling angle.  We used to start promptly at 9:30 with a snack and read-aloud.  That time has gradually moved later (and later), since I hate to interrupt productive, happy playtime.  I’ve also adjusted the content of our days, spending a full week on science followed by a full week on social studies, testing out alternating subjects on various days, lengthening or shortening our lessons and work time.

FreePlay

The older they get, the more I find myself prioritizing moments like this, thankful that we have the time to enjoy a gentle rain and to let imaginations run wild.  Perhaps it’s because the older they get, the more I realize that simple things like this won’t always bring them such raw joy, and we’d best make the most of the present moments and the joys they offer.

Last fall I felt like I was simply trying to crowd too much content into our lives.  I was burnt out from trying to plan math and history and writing and grammar and science and Spanish and art and…  You get the idea.  Even with many of those subjects being only once or twice a week, it was a lot of juggling–particularly since for most of it I’m either creating my own curriculum or heavily modifying existing materials (and, like a perpetual first-year teacher, I’m always preparing new material).  I felt like I wasn’t really doing any subject especially well, and worse yet, the kids had lost some of their joy for learning.  There was no way I wanted to quench that spark so early in their educational careers!

After pondering what had made learning together so magical when the kids were younger, I decided that it was mostly because it was instigated by their interest and thus had their complete buy-in.  I realized a few other things as well: first, I tended to get restless and need change every month or two; secondly, if I changed our subjects of study every couple months, we could cover fewer subjects at a time and still rotate through a full complement over the course of a year.

Thus, my six-week block scheduling began in January.  In a way, this is like turning back time, reverting to the priorities I had when they were preschoolers: following their lead and being willing to shift focus as their personal goals shifted.  (It sounds odd to think of preschoolers as having personal goals, but if you watch carefully, they’re always working on some skill–even if they themselves don’t realize it.)

I started by soliciting ideas from the kids of things they’d like to study; near the end of each block, this process is repeated.  If they run stuck on ideas, I make suggestions–which they often tweak.  Sometimes the kids choose separate topics–Liddy wanted to draw and learn about animals while Asher was interested in math and the geography of South America and Australia–but in general, I try to limit us to about four topics and combine as many as we can.

It’s working.  Both the kids and I are still facing each day with excitement over what we’re going to do, even though we’re nearing the end of a semester (or trimester, since I tend to think of summer as its own academic time), when we’d usually be rather blah.  In fact, each evening the kids are eagerly asking what our work will be for the next day!

While I do keep a review rotation going so we don’t completely forget our parts of speech or basic math, most of what we do is kid-driven.  And as soon as we so much as start tiring of what we’re studying, we discover that it’s already time to think about what we want to learn next.  Hooray for excitement and motivation and learning and joy!

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hands-on history/experiential science: dinosaurs

Out of the blue, the kids decided that dinosaurs sounded like a fun topic of study, so I dutifully planned to incorporate a dino study in our next six-week block.  (We have taken to block scheduling in six-week increments, and it’s glorious!)  I had a little more trouble with the “hands-on” and “experiential” portion of this study, but I did my best!

Background: Fossils and Paleontology

Fossil

Our finished product left us with both an artifact and its imprint.

To begin our study of dinosaurs, I wanted to provide a little background information on fossils and paleontology.  I began our study with these three activities, which I did on three separate days.  The book Fossils Tell of Long Ago (Aliki) provided a snuggly way to reinforce the hands-on learning.

  1. Discovering Fossils – This first activity requires a bit of advance preparation.  Select a small object to be your “fossil” and wrap it inside a small lump of air-dry clay.  I chose a coin, since I figured it wouldn’t break and cause dismay if my kids accidentally chipped away at their clay with too much vigor.  Make sure your air-dry clay lump is not too big or it will take an eternity to dry and/or crack open as it dries.  Mine was fine within 12 hours, but I kept it small.  (I’ve also seen this activity done by coating objects with petroleum jelly and using plaster of Paris to bury them, but I already had clay on-hand.)  When you’re ready for your activity, provide your kids with a few different tools to uncover their fossil.  We used small screwdrivers for the grunt work and paintbrushes for the final dusting.
  2. Fossil Imprints – Often what paleontologists find is what ISN’T there.  We happen to have some bathroom tiles with impressions of various leaves stamped into them, which we used to discuss fossil imprints.  We also have a local park at which the planners thought they would cleverly imprint various animal tracks in the wet cement (except that at times you can see the marks of the tool they used to roll on those tracks…).  Both these and some PlayDoh fun allowed us to see what sorts of imprints plants and animals might have left behind.

    Paleontology

    This small paleontologist tries to identify a fossil to assemble his skeleton.

  3. Assembling Fossils – Well, your little paleontologists have discovered some fossils–now what?  Using some little dino skeleton kits from the dollar store, we pieced together a couple dino skeletons.  We discovered that even with instructions this is pretty hard work because many of the pieces look alike.  It’s hard to imagine how real paleontologists can take the few bits they find and determine what pieces they are and what type of dino they belonged to!

Dino Basics

  1. Introductory Reading – Once we had some background knowledge, it was time to introduce some basic information about dinosaurs.  We read both the picture book Magic School Bus: In the Time of the Dinosaurs (Cole) and Magic School Bus (Chapter Book #9): Dinosaur Detectives, but much of the information is redundant so you could easily choose either one or the other.

    DinoCharts

    We posted our charts and some of the kids’ creations on a wall.

  2. Dino Periods: A Quick Research Chart – Did you know that the “time of the dinosaurs” was actually divided into three distinct periods?  Not all the dinos you’ve seen on T-shirts were alive at the same time, and the world was a vastly different place from the beginning to the end of the era.  We checked out the book When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic (Bonner) to give us a glimpse of the vast amount of time we were studying by taking on the topic of dinosaurs.  While some of this probably went right over their heads, it had a LOT of information on the Triassic Period presented in humorous text and delightful cartoons.
    If we had been doing a more in-depth study, I likely would have studied each period on its own.  As it was, I knew we were just planning a brief overview.  So our next step was to compare the periods and make generalizations about their climate and vegetation, as well as noting which types of dinosaurs lived in each period.  I handed the kids a few books with each period marked and had them read and look for facts about each era, which I then copied onto a chart.  They were surprisingly enthusiastic about this project and were delighted to admire the results of their “research”.  (See our resource list below for book ideas.)
  3. Overview: Oral Reading and Notetaking – Next we began a more thorough overview of the actual dinosaurs.  For this, I chose to have the kids read the Magic Treehouse Research Guide #1: Dinosaurs (Osborne).  They took turns reading chapters aloud over the course of several days, and as we made our way through the book, I suggested that each of them take notes on things they found interesting.  Goobie chose to illustrate her observations, while Peatie preferred to make long lists of facts.
    • Dino Eggsperiment – In the course of our reading, we stumbled across a few interesting tidbits about dinosaur eggs.  For one, they were probably a little spongy like reptile eggs, so they wouldn’t break when they were laid.  (Some eggs have been found in a row, so some dinosaurs may have laid eggs as they walked!)  We used a chicken egg compared to a playground ball to visualize this difference and the reason behind it.  (What would happen if you dropped each from a foot or three off the ground?  Try it!  Which one would a baby dinosaur need to be inside to survive?)
    • Dino Eggsperiment, Part 2 – Additionally, paleontologists believe that the biggest dinosaur eggs would have been no larger than about 10 inches, or roughly football-sized.  Why?  Because the bigger the egg, the thicker the shell would need to be to support it, and they figure a baby dino couldn’t have broken out of an egg larger than that.  We used clay (PlayDoh would also work) to help kids visualize the thickness vs. size comparison.  You can make a small cup shape with very thin sides, but if you try to make a bigger cup with thin sides, it will collapse.  Have them use toy dinos to try to break through a thin-sided cup and a thick-sided cup.  What’s the difference?

Digging Deeper

  1. Organizing Information: Dino Cards – Now that we had a basic overview of the Age of Dinosaurs and some knowledge of dinosaurs themselves, it was time to dig in a little more.  Using our various books, we took a couple days to search for more information on the dinosaurs we had taken notes about during our reading–and discovered a few other interesting ones along the way.  We made a notecard for each dinosaur, listing the period in which it lived, the family it was part of, its size, what it ate, and any other interesting tidbits we learned.
  2. Herbivores vs. Carnivores: A Comparison Chart – It was time for a new chart.  This time, we compared meat-eating dinosaurs with plant-eating dinosaurs, using our various books to check what we thought we knew about each variety before writing the facts on our chart.
  3. Dino Reports – Each of the kids chose their favorite dinosaur to write a brief report on.  Using the facts we’d listed on our cards, they crafted a paragraph about their dinosaur of choice.  I loved how each kid’s paragraph showed which bits of information they valued and really incorporated their voice into the telling of the facts.  Having already collected facts together, the kids merely had to select which ones to include, choose a logical order, and turn the bullet points on the card into full sentences.  Actually, this was rather like the IEW (the Institute for Excellence in Writing) method.
  4. Dino Measuring – Finally, we took a handful of our dinosaur cards and set about measuring the relative sizes of the dinosaurs.  We happen to have a nearly straight shot from one end of our house to the other, so we were able to measure from the front door and place labeled painter’s tape to mark the lengths of the various dinos.  (Though we couldn’t fit a Diplodocus!)  Then we hung the matching dino card on the wall beside the tape mark.
DinoTour

A measurement marker is visible on the floor, while our display wall marks the end of the dino measurement walk.

The Big Finish: Dino Tour

For our grand finale, we invited Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa to see what we’d learned about dinosaurs.  (This was the kids’ idea!)  The kids started at the front door and showed them our dinosaur measurements and dino fact cards (making sure everyone noticed the most interesting facts), pointed out our comparison charts and a few assorted other creations hung on the wall, and topped off the tour by reading their reports.  They were so proud of themselves, and the grown-ups got to share a little of that joy and learn a little something new.

Resources:

  • Fossils Tell of Long Ago (Aliki) – A good early-elementary picture book on what fossils are and what we can learn from them.
  • Magic School Bus: In the Time of the Dinosaurs, Magic School Bus (Chapter Book #9): Dinosaur Detectives – The facts in these are, of course, more like accessories to the story, but they are a nice, gentle way of introducing some basics.
  • When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic (Bonner)- This included way more info than we could really process in the single day we gave it, but it’s a brilliant mix of humor and information that was fun to read.
  • Magic Treehouse Research Guide #1: Dinosaurs (Osborne)
  • ‘Love’s ancient copy of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (A Giant Golden Book by Watson) – While this had a LOT of text and not many pictures (though it certainly made sure to have realistic gore), we did skim some of the surprisingly-conversational information contained in it.
  • The Children’s Dinosaur Encyclopedia (New Burlington Books, Consultant Prof. Michael J. Benton) – This one had dinos organized by family with facts about the family and then details about each dinosaur.  It was pretty cool!
  • Dinosaur (DK: Eye Wonder) – This is a great book for early elementary because the text is large, the reading level is pretty simple, and there’s not too much text per page.
  • Walking with Dinosaurs: A Natural History (Haines) – This one was more texty than we needed, but the photo-realistic images of dinosaurs in their likely habitats were really cool to look through!
  • The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History (p. 42-59) – I was surprised to find several pages devoted to dinos in here, and the information was actually pretty nicely compact and easy to comprehend.

the domino effect of reading

Through the years, I can’t count the number of times when “I read it somewhere” was the only answer I had to give others who wondered where I’d learned things.

Though I’m not sure exactly when it began, somewhere during elementary school I became a voracious reader.  At one point I remember being frustrated with our town library because I had read any chapter books in the kids’ section that I found remotely interesting (that being a majority of them), and there was nothing new to read.  So the notion of soaking up information through books is nothing new to me.

And yet, sometimes I am still surprised at the ways in which reading connects to other areas of learning. I was reminded yet again this week of the truly interconnected nature of skill-development.

After hovering forever around the A to Z Mysteries and Boxcar Children level of books (for something like a year!), Peatie has FINALLY increased the difficulty/reading level in what he selects to read during his evening free-reading time, and I’m in my glory.  Why?  There are lots of reasons to rejoice, but here are a few:

A) Because he’s as excited about reading these books as he was about the first A to Z and Boxcar books.  (After the first few, it seemed like he read more of the same just because of momentum.)  He now comes dancing out of his room every evening to report on the latest happenings at Castle Glower.

B) Because he also pokes his head out every evening to ask me a vocab word or two.  He now knows about crenelations and retorts and griffins and privy chambers and any number of other glorious words.  Have I mentioned how much I love words?

C) Because he’s incorporating the tone and vocabulary of the book into his conversation at times, which I think is awesome.  The other night he was reporting in on the relative ages of the various characters when he informed me (with a smug smirk), “I don’t know Bran’s age, but I do know one thing for certain–he’s a wizard!”  The deliberate pace, the turn of phrase, and the pregnant pause were perfect, and he knew it.

D) Because even his writing is improving.  The story he started today sounded vastly more interesting and stylistically mature than what he’s written in the past.

A story he wrote a month ago started like this: “One time a bear lived in a tree. His name was Zub. He loved being up the tree, but suddenly Zub saw a hunter trying to get him! The hunter started racing up the tall tree. Zub raced into the high branches.”

His latest story begins, “The wonders of the different worlds spread across the worlds fast. Heartland (a world) had many towns, and one of them was Size (Named because it was HUGE)! In the town of Size the houses are small, and they have many stairs. In Rattle the Rat’s house the shows on TV were always watched on the 2594th floor.  (Now we can’t go over what all his house was like, because it has 10000 levels.) So he was watching a show when he heard a sound.”

Earth-shatteringly brilliant writing?  No, but in my opinion there’s definitely noticeable improvement, and I’m excited for him.  (And for myself.  His stories before were all rather formulaic, insanely improbable, and hard to follow–and I had to read them all.)

All these delightful effects (and more that I haven’t noticed, I’m sure!) come because he’s now read a couple more challenging books.

Isn’t it fun to watch your kids learn and grow, making connections and getting excited about new information and improving their skills!?  I can’t wait to see what he learns next!  I love this job!  (Well, most of the time…)

**In case you’re wondering, he’s currently working through Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle series.