Thursday, July 25, 2013

Strawberry Preschool

This year, I have two preschool aged children to keep busy, entertain, encourage and enrich. These two are a dynamic little duo. If I don't find them something to do, they will find themselves something, and I probably won't like it. 

I have been collecting quiet school time activities for them for at least a year. But, I had no plan to use them. I found myself pulling the same 3 items out of the closet over and over. 

The first thing I did was make a little structure for their day. 

1. School time activity
2. Coloring/art/craft
3. Read stories
4. Free play in playroom
5. Free play outside

Next, I took inventory of our available materials. I made two numbered lists. One for non-messy school time activities, one for artsy-crafty type activities. 

PreK Activities
1. Tangrams 
2. Sandwiches  and cookies
3. Magnets-letters, numbers, shapes, with small, metal trays
6. Puzzles-wooden board and small pieces
7. Shape Sorter
12. Crayons and coloring books
13. Hammer and tack nails
15. Pipe cleaners
17. Beans and Rice boxes- tubs filled with dry rice or beans, and miniature sand toys

Creative Activities
1. Crayons and paper
2. Cut and paste
3. Craft Kits
4. Stamps and paper
5. Stickers and paper
6. Water colors
7. Finger paint
8. Markers and paper
9. Play dough and toys
10. Colored pencils and paper

Most of these items came from the Dollar Tree or Target's Dollar Spot. Many were gifts. Keep your eye out for things that look like fun, whether they are meant as toys or not. 

I have a planner for the first time this year. I made sure I had a space for the toddlers. I scheduled in one of each type of activity each day. Yesterday was cut and paste (I just introduced scissors and cutting paper. I gave each of them a used piece of construction paper and a pair of safety scissors), and wikki stix  (we got these in kid's meals). Gem also requested some Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head time, so they also did that. 

That takes care of most of school-at-the-table time. Now they need some Mom Time. 

We go to the library every 1-3 weeks. I check out 8 picture books - 4 of my choice and 4 of Gem's choice. I have over 200 children's books downloaded onto my Kindle, many of them picture books. The little people have a reasonably substantial collection of books in their shelf. 

We have a quiet snuggle, and read together. 

Each day, we read 4 books. 
1 ABC book
1 Counting book
2 story books 

Last, I set aside a little time each day to sing songs, do finger plays, and otherwise connect with the tiniest of these. I have The Little Big Book for Moms next to my chair for inspiration. We have a few other books of this same sort. 

Snacks, meals, naps and joining in with group art, science, literature, music, game time and religion lessons round out their day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How We Create Our Own Science Units. You Can, Too!

Our resident toad

I have never found a formal science curriculum that I liked. At least not enough to pay the sticker price for. 

Instead, we use living books and documentaries, nature studies, community classes, human resources-including me, museum exhibits, and any other resource we stumble upon. 

The wonderful thing about science is that it's everywhere. We are science. Our very existence- our bodies, our homes and gardens, the night sky-all science. 
I love science. 
Green anole
When my little ones were little, I read to them from the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Science. The bright graphics and simple explanations were perfect for holding the interest of 2 little boys and sparking lengthy discussions and little imaginations. While it certainly is not a curriculum, it was a lovely resource. 

As my little people have gotten bigger, I have felt the need to add a more structured approach to science. More than a year of research had failed to yield a program that fit well for us. I began to despair.

Then I discovered Netflix. More specifically, I discovered the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. Whoa. Half an episode in, I knew what we needed to do. Create a science unit around this series.
I mapped out the original series. Not only dinosaurs, but the entirety of natural history is encompassed in the Walking With series. 
Walking With Monsters shows the pre-dinosaur giant insects that I had not contemplated. And wish I was still ignorant of. It's horrifying. I had to leave the room.
Walking With Dinosaurs comes next.
Walking With Beasts brings us into the age of mammals.

Walking With Cavemen  is newly released. We'll be watching it tomorrow. I'm excited.
After finishing the series, we watched other documentaries about dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. My favorite was Chased By Dinosaurs. It sounds cheesy, but it was highly visual, intensely dramatic and tremendously fun. 

In addition to the documentaries, the kids drew pictures, invented games, asked questions and researched answers, we read stories, they purchased, played with and identified toy dinosaurs, and enjoyed rousing games of Dinosaur Bingo.

Skipping stones, learning about weight, mass and surface tension

This experience brought our science studies to life in a new and exciting way. Much more than loosely organized experiments, discussions, classes and dry textbooks ever could. We have to continue making our own units. 

Picking wildflowers and identifying native plants
I have since developed a scope and sequence which I find logical. It begins as a rough outline, and I will fill it in as we go.

I. The Cosmos

    A. The Universe
        1. Stars
        2. Galaxies
   B.The Solar System
       1. The Sun
       2. The Planets
       3. The Moon    

III. Planet Earth
     Physical Geography

IV. Life on Earth 
     A. Evolution of Life
        (this is where the Walking With series fits in. We will watch it again)
     B. Aquatic Life
     C. Land-based Wildlife of the Current Era

V. The Human Body
    A. Anatomy, Systems, and Cells
    B. The History of Modern Medicine
    C. Alternative and Traditional Methods of Healing
    D. Nutrition and Various Methods of Agriculture (Organic/traditional vs Commercial/Industrial)

VI. The History of Science

VII. Technology

Clearly, I'm still working this out. As I continue researching my materials, I discover more topics I want to cover. Right now, I'm looking at about a 5 year cycle. Because I have kids of varying ages, I will repeat the whole sequence a couple of times, adapting and adding resources for various ability levels.
I'm not ruling out a formal science study at a later date. But for now, this is working for us.
Identifying native birds
The major change this year is that I'm switching from a video-based spine supplemented with stories and activities to a living book-based spine supplemented with videos and activities.

What is a living book? A living book is a book written to convey specific information to a specific audience. It is not a textbook. 

I am fortunate to have access to a wonderful library system with friendly, helpful, knowledgeable librarians and state-of-the-art online access. This is a homeschooler's dream. In fact, early in my homeschooling career, I seriously considered using library resources exclusively. This is quite possible. But then, I discovered Rainbow Resource Center, and that's a whole other thing. 

Sprouting seeds

So, how does one design a science unit?

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? It isn't.

1. Decide what you want to study.
    You can write out a full sequence, like I did above, or you can just choose a single topic, like I did last year. Ask your kids what they want to learn about. Watch them go through their days and surprise them with something you know they will love. Choose a topic that you want to learn about. Choose a topic that you have specialized knowledge of. Sky's the limit here. 

2. Familiarize yourself with your resources.

   Do you have Netflix, Crackle, Hulu?

   Have you been to your local library? Neighboring libraries? The library in our little town is not the one we use for school. We use a neighboring system. The local library is small, and underfunded. It is well stocked with classics and within walking distance. In a pinch, it will do. But for a science unit? Not really adequate. Fortunately, there is a branch library not far from D's work, so if we can't make it to the city, I can preorder online, and he can he can swing by the pick up window on his way home.

   What local resources do you have access to? A state park, nature station, national park, interpretive center, science club, physics lab, university, planetarium, museum?

   Search for websites and online communities based around your topic of choice. Whatever it is, there are going to be people dedicating their lives to it. 

Ask around, visit, get familiar. 

3. Start building your unit.

    What this looks like is going to vary wildly depending on your topic, and the resources available to you. 

   You will need a spine. What inspired your interest in this topic? Perhaps you can start there. For our dino unit, it was the Walking With series. I started with that, and built off of it. For our cosmos unit, I am creating a book list from texts available at the library.
4. Flesh it out.
    Now you know where to start. Add in the goodies. Added to the basics - a book about the sun, 3 about the solar system, one for each planet, and one for the moon- I am including some fun story books for the younger set, some astronaut-themed crafts, a book of space projects and experiments, numerous documentaries, and at least one trip to the planetarium. 

5. Schedule it out.
   You may choose to be more free here and simply work through your resources at will. But if you want to have a bit more structure/planning/control/accountability, you may wish to organize your resources and schedule your lessons out over time. This could mean choosing one episode of a series, choosing one chapter of the text or reference book of your choice, one fiction book and one field trip per week. Or it could mean choosing a selection to read each day. Or it could just be making a nice list of topics to cover, books and materials to use, in no particular order. Or whatever. It's up to you. 

6. Get started.

Read a book together. 

Hand an appropriate-leveled book to your older kid. Discuss it after he's read it.

Draw a picture and talk about the planets. 

Watch a documentary together. Pause it when someone wants to talk about something they didn't know. 

Hand out water colors and have them paint a picture of what they just learned.

Use Wikipedia For Kids to answer questions you don't know the answers to. Teach your kids to use it, too.
Take a trip to a place where these things happen. Talk to people who know more than you ever could about it.

You may have noticed that none of this is super expensive. That's part of the appeal. I'm not crazy about spending a ton of money on something that isn't really what I want. Building a science unit for your kids allows you to teach exactly what you want, how you want, with little to no cost.

Sounds good to me.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Vegan Blueberry Muffins

3/4 cup sugar
1 TBS flax meal
2 TBS water
1 TSP vanilla
1/4 cup olive or coconut oil
1 1/2 cups flour (All Purpose or whole grain)
1 TBS baking powder
1/2 TSP salt
3/4 cup Almond or other milk
approximately 1 pint fresh or frozen blueberries
1-2 TBS flour
Optional: Cinnamon sugar

In a large bowl, stir together sugar, flax meal, water,  oil (melted if solid), vanilla,, baking powder, and salt.

Add 1 1/2 cups flour. Stir until just combined.

Add milk, stir until just moistened.

Do not over stir these 2 steps. Over mixing will make your muffins hard and chewy. Batter should be thick and slightly lumpy.

In a separate bowl, lightly toss berries in 1-2 TBS flour. This helps evenly distribute berries in muffins, and prevents them from settling at the bottom.

Fold into batter. Spoon into prepared muffin pan, filling 3/4 full. If desired, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350 for 15-22 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Muffins should be pale and very moist.

Cool slightly. Remove from pan. Serve warm. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

A new school year with new curricula and an old approach

I haven't talked much about our homeschool. For the most part, it's just putting one foot in front of the other. Reading the books, discussing the lessons, giving instructions, watching and listening and checking.

This year, though, for the second time, I've had to reconsider my methods.

I started out, when Sagittarius was 3 and hitting milestones in an atypical fashion, as an unschooler.  We worked on things as he needed and wanted them, I made lessons on the spot, we spent a lot of time out in the community, at museums, at the zoo, at art galleries, at the library, at community events, at the university. We knew all the docents, all the librarians, all the zoo keepers, all the zoo animals by name, many local musicians, artists, craftsmen, and professors.

Educational opportunities abounded. I followed his lead, but mainly I guided him. I decided where to go and who to speak to. I asked questions and explained things. It was a wonderful, enriching experience for both of us.

At home, things didn't progress as smoothly. Sagg was indecisive. He couldn't choose a topic at the library, let alone a book. Not even a picture book. His writing skills were very poor and not progressing with the child-led methods we were using. He thrived in math, but wouldn't read aloud, even as mastered his phonics lessons. His spelling was atrocious, and not improving with the spelling program we were using. Putting pencil to paper was painful for everyone.

Complicating things further, I had another child, and then another, we had moved out of the city, downgraded to only one car, and no longer had ready access to all the resources we had been using before. I could no longer be the activity director. I needed Sagg to step up and develop some interests. He didn't. I found it increasingly difficult to use a child-led method with a child who refused to lead.

I first began looking for a writing curriculum. Sagg needed more instruction than I was providing. In researching materials, I stumbled in classical schooling. I had heard of it, read about it in the past, liked the concept, but at that early stage, had found it too complicated, to inflexible, too time consuming, and rigid. Now I found that same structure comforting and promising. We needed something more planned and rigorous. This looked perfect.

We jumped in with both feet. Grammar, writing, lots of copywork, worksheets galore, and tons of reading. We were already using the Story of the World. I added an activity book. We answered questions, wrote narrations, and colored maps. My kids' education was rock solid. They both progressed amazingly. It was wonderful. 

It was also exhausting. We added yet another baby. The toddler had speech problems. The 1st grader-while extremely bright and a very quick learner- had a short attention span. The 4th grader's learning problems were, for the most part, behind him. His days dragged on and on often ending at 5pm, with the longest day spanning 14!! hours. 

Burn out set in. I cut back the writing and copywork, set aside the history twice, never did settle on a science curriculum, and eventually ended our school year early, because no one's heart was in it, and nothing was moving at a pace that was benefitting anyone.

Where was the love? Where was the laughter? What happened to the joy of learning? School work was turning into drudgery. Repetitive lessons were preventing us from having fun and engaging each other in enriching experiences.

It was time for a change, again. 

While I love classical methods, and the progress I've seen in my kids is undeniable, the more-is-more aspect is smothering the life out of our little school. I miss the days of freedom and fun. Let's bring some of that back, shall we?

First up is writing. 

I didn't feel that my soon-to-be second grader was ready for the intense repetition of Writing With Ease. Sagg had seen such great improvements with it in 3rd grade, that I had ordered the full set. But, it just wasn't working for us anymore. The optional exercises in First Language Lessons would easily meet my 7yo's needs without straining his brief attention span. Less is more for this kid. 

I found Imitations in Writing from Logos Press. Similar method, much slimmer books. No copywork, more freedom for creative expression. Perfect.
This series starts around 3rd grade, which turns out to be an optimal time to begin formal writing instruction in my opinion and experience.

Next, math.

My original plan was to begin with Singapore Math, which at the time ended with 5th grade, and then switch to Life of Fred which then began at 5th grade.

Here we are, getting ready for 5th grade. Decision time.

I found, however, that now, both programs are comprehensive. Singapore now continues through high school and Fred begins in elementary. Uh oh. 

I have found over the past 2 years, that Singapore had become increasingly teacher-intensive. For 5th grade and beyond, we would need many more materials, and much more time from me, not to mention, the expense would triple.
That's the opposite of what I need. I have 4 students at 4 different levels. I need  Sagg to work more independently as the little ones require more of my attention. I want Sagg to have some much-desired self-reliance. I also don't have unlimited funds. I would not prefer to spend half my annual budget on a single subject for one child.

So, Life of Fred wins this one.

But what about Aries? Singapore worked so well for Sagg. But Aries is not a workbook kid. They just don't hold his attention the way a more hands-on curriculum would. Life of Fred is fun and engaging, mom-centered and hand-on. The lessons move quickly, and we can slow down or speed up as necessary. The books are a bit more pricey up front, but we can buy as we go, and reuse for the younger kids.

Life of Fred wins this one, too. We are now a Fred family.

For supplementation, skills practice, and just a change of pace, we will use Khan Academy, one of the great educational advances of our time. 

First Language lessons is going well for us. We already have the books. This is the highlight of our school day. Each kid gets one-on-one time with Mom, listens to stories, memorizes and recites poetry, gets a little writing practice, and I get to indoctrinate the minions in the grave importance of proper punctuation. Everyone wins. FLL stays.

We have used Explode The Code for 7 years. It's working just fine. It's staying, at least for now. I broke down Aries's lessons a tad, spreading them out and shortening them. 2 pages a day, 5 days a week. Bite-sized chunks.

We're returning to Ambleside Online's reading lists, instead of the ones I made based on Writing With Ease. Still plenty of classics. These alternate with twaddle of their choice from the library. I tweaked the lists slightly to better accommodate our own personal style and preferences, adding in complete series where they are available, rather than selecting out one book from the series. 

For history, I am still pleased as punch with Story of the World. We scrapped the activity book last year, in favor of more self-directed discussion, free-flowing geography using a globe and historical atlas, and getting the kids up to act out the stories as we all read together. This interactive approach is far more effective than coloring sheets. I have broken the chapters down into twice- and thrice-weekly readings, spreading things out without sacrificing progression through the materials. I will add narrations back in, if only occasionally. 

Science will need it's own blog post. We used Netflix documentaries to study the entire course of natural history last year. It was an amazingly informative unit, which sparked a plethora of discussion, and creative pursuits among the children. This year, we are studying the cosmos in a similar fashion.
 I have never been satisfied with a packaged science curriculum for the early grades. I have decided this year, that is because we have no need for one. We read books and watch documentaries and take nature classes and hike and learn, and none of that requires a textbook. So we're doing our own thing this year. Next year, Sagg will additionally have formal science texts, but will still participate in our family studies.
New stuff:
Sagg is now entering the Logic Stage, according to the classical model. New development requires the introduction of new topics.
In practical application, this means he's done with phonics, reading well, beginning to write original works, advancing to prealgebra, and finishing up grammar. (The previous stage is called the Grammar Stage, during which children acquire facts-grammar, phonics, math facts, handwriting, spelling-to be applied later in their education).

English From the Roots Up introduces Latin and Greek roots of words used in our modern English language. The cards are packed with vocabulary. Right now we are just reading a few at a time, and Ben tries to decipher definitions of words like photograph, telescope, and telegram. When he is familiar with all the roots, he will play Concentration and other games with the cards. 

The logic stage clearly requires an introduction to logic. 10 is a bit young for formal logic, and Sagg is more creative than logical, so we're beginning a gradual introduction with Logic puzzles


We are continuing our art lessons from, and playing with fun art techniques found on Pinterest.

After agonizing for much too long over music instruction, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I ordered self-teaching violin and drum courses.

I am adding a formal schedule of instruction for the PreK set, but I will address that in a separate post.

I had all of this floating around in my head and keeping me up at night. I finally caved and printed out a lesson planner. I am surprised at how much I have enjoyed setting it up and having everything in the notebook and out of my head. Phwew. This first time planning this way has been an enormous amount of work, and in truth is not finished yet, but I use the notebook every day, at least once, even on weekends. 

We are 3 days into our new school year. So far, I am thrilled with the more family-centered approach. My kids are much happier. They are enjoying their work, and pleased with the more relaxed atmosphere. 

We have more free time in our day. We will have a long school year- 204 scheduled days- but our school days are only 4 hours long, leaving more time for outings and fun, without sacrificing the quality of their education. 

It's going to be a good year.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Better Than Caprese Salad

It's summer time! In Louisiana, summer means tomatoes. And fresh, ripe, red tomatoes beg and plead to end their days in a Caprese salad.

I'm not a huge fan of mozzarella, and I wanted something a little more substantial and recognizable for the Little Strawberries. This variation retains the simplicity of the original salad, with less dairy and a nice fork-friendly appearance.

1. Chop or tear 2 hearts of romaine.

2. Chiffonade  one large handful fresh basil.

3. Toss romaine and basil in a large, pretty bowl.

4. Layer sliced tomatoes on top.

5. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

6. Sprinkle with GOOD shredded parmesan, asiago, romano, or a blend. Please do not use the white granules. Ever.

7. Top with a few grinds of black pepper. 

Serve immediately.