How about a different kind of science curriculum?

I love science. I want my kids to love science, but the way it’s taught in the US recently is a travesty.

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Here’s what science looked like in our house in 2007.

In the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, I’m going to offer  my thoughts on teaching science at home.

The bedrock of Charlotte Mason’s science education was keen observation. She emphasized the practice of nature study, every day if possible, with nature notebooks full of detailed illustrations and diagrams. For teachers she advised not trying to explain everything. Not giving the answers. Asking questions and letting the students explore the material for themselves, without bulky textbooks. When books were used, she advocated living books—whole books, written by a single author with a passion for his or her topic.

She said that teachers should not make connections for the student. “Education is a science of relations,” she wrote. That means that we are offering copious material (living books, art, music, experiences, a rich home life, and opportunities to observe nature anywhere we can find it) and allowing our students to connect the dots between Mendel’s pea plants and CRISPR, or marble towers and Newton’s theory of gravity.

Sounds like all of the science curricula I’ve bought, what about you? Actually, it sounds like none of the books or materials I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on.

If I were of an entrepreneurial spirit, I would make this into a homeschool science curriculum and tour the country to sell it to you. I’m not an entrepreneur, so I’m going to present this idea like all my other ideas here—freely—and hope that you may adapt it to breathe some new life into your study of science at home.

Here are the foundational ideas I’d like my kids to learn from science:

  • Science takes teamwork.
  • Science requires us to pay close attention to details, and then to step back and ask “why?” or “what then?”
  • Science requires trying again, and again, and again.
  • Science is not about knowing an answer up front, but using the available data to make judgments to predict behavior of physical objects.

And I’d like to teach these ideas with inspiring stories, great characters, and examples.

My proposal is a book-and-movie study of October Sky (book: Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickman, Jr.), Apollo 13 (book: Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger), and The Martian (book: The Martian by Andy Weir). All three are about the space program, but you could apply these ideas to any books with good science in them.

Apollo 13October SkyThe Martian: A Novel

I recommend you and your student(s) read each book bit by bit. When you get to a part that has an experiment or a question, STOP. Take the time to understand the problem and work it. You might need to do some other reading to gain the knowledge you need to solve the problem, or you might need to experiment yourselves. The stories are all suspenseful, so you’ll have to have some strong self-control not to rush ahead and finish the book or watch the movie. Finish the problem. Then keep reading until the next one. When you finish one of the books and all its science, watch the movie and decide for yourselves if they got the science right.

Rocket Boys tells the story of 4 middle school/high school friends in a small, West Virginia coal mining town, who built rockets. There is lots of great history (the Cold War, Sputnik, coal mining, JFK) in the story as well (and some stuff about the teenage obsession with sex, which I skipped when I read it aloud to my middle schoolers). In addition to being a great story, the book exemplifies the scientific method: make an observation, form a hypothesis, and test it. When you’re wrong, change one variable and try again. This book would be a fantastic companion to chemistry, since a lot of their experiments involve rocket fuel. Also, rocket design (aka aerodynamics). A helpful companion text would be Backyard Ballistics (Gurstell).

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 is an example of why working the problem is so important. 55 hours into Apollo 13’s voyage to the moon, an explosion caused a critical failure of the spaceship. “Houston, we have a problem.” The combined efforts of NASA engineers and the astronauts (both in space and on the ground) were needed to save them. The problems encountered in their voyage include the amount of oxygen needed for survival and basic engineering (with a fun puzzle problem you could simulate with a bunch of supplies from the hardware store). Apollo 13 is one of our family’s favorite movies.

Finally, the book that inspired this idea: The Martian. Weir’s story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is a bonanza of problems to solve, including biologic (how many calories does a human need to survive? What about vitamins? What about water? How much water do crops need?) chemical (how to make water), and physics (astrodynamics, vectors, velocity). All of it requires math, and the math really matters in this book. I realize I’m making it sound boring, but this is a fantastic story that had my whole family on the edge of our seats- first on audio, and then in the theater. The character Mark Watney has a delightful sense of humor and a problem with swearing (full disclosure), so be warned.

I have no idea how long this would take- maybe one book would be a semester, or most of a year. If you try it out, please come back and tell me how it goes!

For a unit on pandemics, I would recommend Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, and Gina Kolata’s Flu. (You could add the movie Contagion to this list.)  Obviously, you couldn’t be working with deadly microorganisms to work the problem, but you could study the medical principles behind virulence and attack rate.  Two games to play in this unit would be Pandemic (a board game) and Plague, Inc (on your phone or tablet).

The Andromeda StrainFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused ItThe Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola VirusPandemicPlague, Inc

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Daybook: Mid-summer

Outside my window: the sun and the wildfire haze are duking it out. Right now, sun is winning, at least where we are.

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It’s been hot enough that if I don’t run early, it doesn’t happen at all. But the morning light has been worth getting up early.

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In the kitchen: on Wednesday, I did a minor cooking marathon while it was cool enough to have the windows open. We ate 24 breakfast burritos in 24 hours. (Before you judge, please remember that there are six of us.)  Anyway, now they’re gone and I’m going to have to make food again tonight. Sigh.

Around the house: Honestly, it’s a mess. Yesterday I found one of the kitties poking at a group of ants carrying away breakfast crumbs. I did manage to get some laundry done, so at least we can wear clean clothes around the dirty house.

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In the garden: Not much. I thought I had a lot going on there until I pulled all the weeds, and now I can see that there’s only a little bit of bitter lettuce, two carrots, and zinnias. Thank goodness for the farm.

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In the school room: we are on official break. This is the first summer I didn’t set learning routines for us (normally, some math and foreign language.)  Part of the change stems from my teens’ job schedules, and part of it is the desire to give my kids unstructured time to hang out together. I’m not thrilled with how much time is being spent on screens, but I am thrilled with the family game nights and the insides jokes they’re developing.

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Meanwhile, I’m working on next year’s school plans.  I’m outsourcing some science (AP chemistry for my 10th grader, Biology for my 9th grader), but I have a lot of prep to do for literature and history.  We’re on the ancients again, so I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World. Her delightful sense of humor shines between her really insightful connections between the streams of different civilizations.

The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome

I’ve decided to use Bravewriter’s Boomerang (high school) and Arrow (5th grade) curricula as the framework for our literature/composition study. I previewed a few lessons last winter and was happy with them, so we’ll be doing more this year. I like the book lists, so I’m reading those and writing my questions for those as well.

Also on my reading pile: I’ve just reread Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which is one of my all-time favorite books. (It’s on the Boomerang list for the fall.)  Every time I reread a favorite, it’s like a new book because I am a different person than I was the last time I read it. This time, I noticed all the times he talked about how the soil cannot keep the young people in their communities.  What ties a young person to home? It’s a question planted deeply in Wendel Barry’s books, too, and it’s on my mind.

The book talks about fear, and the many ways that fear causes us to build walls and barriers between people and communities. The picture of forgiveness painted in the book is powerful.  Lots to think about.

Grateful: My kids have attended a backyard theater camp run by a pair of retired teachers for 14 years, and they are hanging up the towel after this summer. This year’s play was Much Ado About Nothing.  The kids managed to perform 21 pages of Shakespeare (cut down from 56 pages) after a week of rehearsals and set-building.

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I am so grateful for Gracie and Don’s investment in my kids and for the weeks of low-key backyard fun and creativity they’ve given us.

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Phoebe was Leonato, and Moriah played Beatrice. (Total typecasting.)

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Praying for: so many people dear to me are struggling under depression.  I am praying for them, and also for those struggling with chronic pain. Finally, my heart is breaking for the families torn apart at the border, and for refugees trapped in camps that, as horrible as they are, are marginally better than what they left behind.

What’s on your mind?

One down, three to go

I can hardly believe it, but he graduated.

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Of course, I believe it, but…

Wasn’t he just a baby?

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I expected to be really emotional about it all, but there was so much going I didn’t have time.  Nor do I have anything deep to say about it other than I am so, so grateful for the opportunity to spend 18 years with this amazing person that is my son.

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Happy Mother’s Day

I ordered Sam a gift for Father’s Day. I know he’s not my dad, but my kids stink at doing anything for Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, so I thought I’d pick up the slack for them just this once. Anyway, when it came, my daughter was convinced the box contained something for her and she talked him into opening it before I got home. So he found his gift already. Happy Father’s Day.

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I know many moms want to spend Mother’s Day spending wonderful family time together, but my M-O has always been to spend Mother’s Day doing something away from my family. For years, I would leave them immediately after church and disappear for hours until dinner. Sometimes I’d go to a coffee shop to write. A few times I took a hike. Whatever I chose, it was always by myself: a smidge of the precious alone-time that fills my tank. Now that my tank has a little more in it than it did when I had littles, I like to spend Mother’s Day working on Labor and Delivery. It’s a chance to pay forward all the coaching and cheerleading I have received over my many years of being a mom.

One of my favorite parts of my work is helping new parents transition from life-as-adults into life-as-parents. It’s a very different task, and one that requires not just education, but a cheerleader. When I was a new mom in 2000, I was still using a camera with film (anyone else remember what that was?), and all the photos of my oldest child are either with him as a tiny speck far away, or really close up and really blurry. When I transitioned into part-time work in 2003 to spend more time at home, I discovered parenting blogs on the internet. There I found a community of parents who were struggling and were honest about it. Uploading photos to the internet was still a pain, so the pictures of messy houses and chaos were painted in words. Those stories of how hard parenting could be held me up through the next few really busy years as we moved to Colorado, had baby #3 and began to home school. Soon after that, I joined the ranks of (mostly) moms sharing stories of the good, the bad and the ugly online.

What I see now online lately is a new beast, one with perfectly curated photos and “influencers” who make everything look like it’s going to beautiful and easy if you only listen to this podcast or buy this pressure cooker or monthly subscription box they are advertising. What used to be a lifeline for me has turned into yet another place I can go to feel bad about yelling at my kids and having a messy house and weak abs.

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So Happy Mother’s Day to you. May you find a safe place to cry if that’s what you need. May you have enough quiet to hear the truth that you can do this. It’s not going to be perfect, or even beautiful most of the time. But you are enough. You have what it takes, even if the neighbors might hear you yelling at your kids now that it’s warm enough to have the windows open, and your kids are more resilient than you know. I believe in you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Seven Quick Takes: College Application Edition

One: This is NOT the SQT where I will reveal where my oldest is going to go to college for the simple reason that he doesn’t know yet. So there. However, this IS the SQT where I will diss bitterly on all the ridiculousness that this process has entailed. You’re welcome.

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Two: Remember back in October when we visited my alma mater and a whole bunch of book stores? Well, that school and a whole bunch of the others filled more than 50% of their spots in “Early Decision” (aka in November). Consequently, there are very few spots open for everyone else later.

Three: There are three options for applying, and the process is different from back when I applied. Here’s my primer on applying to college.

One recruiter (I think she was from Duke) described Early Action as dating. You can date more than one person and you can apply early action at multiple schools, except when the schools specifically say they are serial monogamists and they don’t like you to do early action applications at more than one school. (Or, in case you’re my son, who took that analogy to heart and said, “I would never date more than one person at a time, so why would I do Early Action?”)

As a side note, I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal which says the DOJ is looking into whether Early Action violates anti-trust laws.

Four: Then there is Early Decision, which is like getting engaged. You only ask one school to marry you, and if they say Yes, you’re done in December as long as you can afford the school that you chose. If you can’t afford it, then you have to break that engagement and move back into the regular dating pool with everybody else.

Five: The rest of America’s 17 year-olds apply with Regular Decision in January and February. With great relief, they hit send on that last application and think they’re done until May 1, when they’ll have to make a decision. But they’re not actually done, because there are Intentional Learning Communities (I’m not making this up) and scholarships and dorms and research fellowships with their own applications and essays and deadlines that just keep coming. The students aren’t really done… and now they’re mad. They’re like the Bachelor who’s back on the show after an earlier stint as one of the many candidates hoping for a rose and then came back as the Bachelor but broke his last engagement and knows America hates him but is really sure he’s going to find love this time around.

Six: I think the nail in the coffin of this process for my son was a prestigious private school that invited him to apply for one of their Intentional Learning Communities that came with a scholarship. He wrote three extra essays and then, after about 6 weeks, received a letter addressed to someone else, “Dear Lauren B., we’re sorry that we have to inform you we can’t give you the scholarship…” He emailed back to say, “Hey, I’m not Lauren B.. Can you check on my application?” To which he received an email reply, “Okay, we looked and you didn’t get it either.”

So that school is off the list. (The more schools that behave badly, the easier it is to choose!)

Six: We’re currently down to two schools, one of which we will visit for the first time this weekend. He is an alternate for an Intentional Learning Community (see, this actually is a thing at multiple schools – I’m not making it up) but will only get that spot and scholarship if the first choice cis- white male (CWM) with a smidge of Mexican backs out and goes somewhere else.

Seven: So, with 10 days left before the deadline to choose, our current decision algorithm looks like this:

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Really, this is just like the Bachelor. With lower ratings. Stay tuned.

For more Quick Takes, go check out Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum!

Shaking it up: Poetry

Last week I took the girls out to a new coffee shop near us for tea and poetry.

Book - Zen Ties by Jon J Muth

Jon Muth’s Zen Ties is one of our favorite children’s books (a lovely, gentle story, beautiful paintings, and humor: what’s not to love?!) , and it happens that Stillwater’s young cousin, Koo, speaks in poetry. “Hi, Koo!” I brought it with us, and we read it over tea and croissants.

We spent half an hour writing our own haiku. First we each wrote one about the coffee shop. Then each of us wrote two words for the others which they had to use in their poems. (I got “candy” and “east” on the first round, and “San Pelligrino,” “Danger” and “Monkey” in the second. Hazards of being in a coffee shop, I guess.)

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I’m counting this for poetry, syllables (early grammar), and Lit.

Are you shaking things up during these last two months of school? If you’re not changing things around a little, do you need to?