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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Countdown to school: T-7 days

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I have seven days till we start school.  This is my 13th year homeschooling, and my last year homeschooling my oldest.  Granted, things may change, but at this time it’s looking like I have a few years more to go.  No matter how many years I’ve been doing this, every year feels like a new, distinct challenge.  Here’s how I’m talking myself back from a precipice of anxiety.

We don’t have to start everything all at once.  When my kids were littler (and for the one who’s still little) I don’t start everything all at once.  I begin with a favorite subject (or two), and one that is new to us, sandwiching the new between the old.  Then when those are rolling well (which might be a few days, or in a harder year, a few weeks), I add the next.

We’ve got good books.  Much of our schooling is based on books, and if all else fails, we can retreat into our living room and read books for a week or two until I figure out where to go from here.

We take advantage of early-fall weather.  I love the fall as a time for hikes and nature walks and family bike rides.  There will be plenty of time come winter to hunker down at home for longer lessons.

“Important things will be repeated.” I stole that quote from my favorite medical school professor (Dr. Wood), and it’s true.  We can repeat and refine as much as we want, so why am I so worked up about every moment being critical?

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”  I take this quote to mean that we are learning together all the time, in the attitude (atmosphere) of our home: we ask questions, we pay attention, and we are curious; in the habits (discipline) we practice, and in all aspects of life.  Thank you, Charlotte Mason.

Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. –Charlotte Mason

Habit Training for the Long Haul

When we started homeschooling, I had a five year-old, a two year-old and a one year-old. We planned to school at home for one year. I never anticipated that we would still be at it ten years later. Now I have a ninth grader, a sixth grader, a fifth grader and a first grader. While the quantity of work and the style of our education has changed, one thing has remained constant: the need for good habits.

Obviously, habits guide many parts of our lives: physical (brushing our teeth and washing our hands), mental (paying attention the first time, putting forth our best effort), and spiritual (telling the truth and showing kindness). But I had most of those down when they were young, and most of the training was unidirectional, from me to them.

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Now, as we reach middle school and high school, my habits mean as much as theirs, and are as hard to learn.

Charlotte Mason wrote, “Education is a discipline—that is, the discipline of good habits in which the child is trained. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere—that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Vol 2, p. 247)

When my children were little, it was easier to overcome my fatigue or lack of preparation by the quality of our atmosphere. I could easily say, “Today is nature study!” and spend the day out-of-doors. Counting the petals on the flowers in bloom could count as math for the day, and labeling a diagram of a flower could count as writing. Now that my children are older, it’s harder to get away with that. Yes, my children have habits that, like rails that guide a train, get them going in the right direction if I am having a tough time getting started in the morning. But the stakes are higher now, and leaving the math ungraded till the end of the week can mean my kids have been practicing square roots wrong for five days before I catch the problem.

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Yes, the atmosphere of our home still matters. The focus on books and experiences instead of television makes a difference. The ideas we discuss at the dinner table shape the people my children will be. But as much as my kids were observant at five, they are ten times more so now. They know exactly when I am at my weakest, and they are quick to exploit it. If I am on the phone all afternoon, no one is going to learn much from an unguided exploratory search online.

My getting up before the children to gather my thoughts and plan the day makes a huge difference in how our day goes. Having a stack of living books lined up on the shelf means we don’t waste a week waiting on the library requests to come in. Checking in on the math and the writing every day or two keeps us honest, both in terms of getting the work done and learning it right the first time.

When I am off, physically or emotionally, our learning suffers. I can’t control the circumstances of our lives, but habits give us a head start. And at this stage of the game, my habits are as important as theirs.

A New Nature Table

I’ve been reading lots of Charlotte Mason lately– ever since Amazon raised the price on the Kindle Georgette Heyer books I’ve been consuming like candy corn.

Right now Miss Mason’s going on and on about Nature and getting kids into Nature and how our early exploration of Nature is vital to all sorts of later functioning, like Faith and Science.  Here are some quotes:

“It is infinitely well worth of the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them, a love of investigation.”

“Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun– the powers of attention, the discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing in his growth, what will they not fit him for?”

“There is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in.”

“The little girl: she it is who is most tempted to indulge in ugly tempers (as child and woman) because time hangs heavy on her hands… is it to the girls, little and big, a most true kindness to lift them out of themselves and out of the round of petty personal interests and emulations which too often hem in their lives; and then , with whom but the girls must it rest to mould the generations yet to be born?”   (All from Charlotte Mason: Home Education, Vol. 1, sections V, VII and VIII)
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But I struggle with Nature Study.  Seriously, I am supposed to make my children spend hours daily outside?  I’ve got laundry to do, people.  Our yard is the size of a two-car garage, and the only wildlife there I can see is the neighbor’s cat.
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I liked the phrase she used: “to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them” a love for Nature.  Maybe I can go back to shooting for an hour outside every day.  I notice that when we get our one hour outside (especially in the winter) in the morning, then we are more likely to want to go back out later.
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I want to bring more Nature into our home (and thus, our school).  I saw this great idea on Still Parenting recently: sandwiching a specimen from nature between two pieces of clear contact paper, for looking at later.  Duh, but it had never occurred to me.  Whenever I think, “Bring Nature inside,” I end up with a pile of crushed, dry leaves underfoot or a dead cricket in a glass jar.  So her idea– preserving the Nature so we can look at it– cherish it, investigate it— later was a  lightbulb moment for me.  It only took me 6 weeks to get my hands on clear contact paper.
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How do you encourage your children to Cherish Nature?

The Habit of Attention

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention.  It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them (Charlotte Mason: Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 146.) [emphasis mine]

I promised you a post about increasing attention span, didn’t I?
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But I want to back up, because the habit of attention has two parts really– the length of time we are able to sustain it, and the ferocity of attention we pay.  (Thanks to the amazing Brian Doyle for that phrase.)

Isaac Newton said, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.”  And Thomas Edison’s “1000 ways not to make a light bulb” relied on his determined attention to a singular problem.  Without paying attention, what can we accomplish?
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Okay, so nuts and bolts.  How to do we teach the habit of attention?

1. We offer interesting material.

2. We expect a high level of attention (eg., narrations from a first reading, not allowing dawdling, perfect execution of copywork) but for a short period of time.  Nothing makes me pay attention like a looming deadline.

3.  Charlotte Mason says that we ought to begin teaching attention from the earliest times.  When a baby drops a toy, we bring it back to her attention.  When a toddler moves on from an activity, we show them one more wrinkle on the game to draw their attention back to it.
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These photos are of SweetP and our young neighbor, who wanted to sew when I was trying to clean out our sewing box.  SweetP was ready to be done after about three tries, but I kept encouraging her to try a little longer.  Likewise, when O wanted to practice volleyball this morning, he was done after 10 minutes.  I challenged him to an extra ten hits.

In our school day, it requires my attention to teach their attention.  When I am wandering from chore to chore and telling them, “I’ll be there in a minute,” it’s no wonder that after half an hour, when I finally make it to the table, they have only done one problem.  But if I sit at the table with them and gently draw them back to the paper, five math problems can be done in three minutes.
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The reward for rapt attention is free time.  (And it’s odd, but my children do pay ferocious attention when they’re at their own activities.  I know they can do this… but we all have to learn to pay attention, even when it’s hard.)  A lesson completed in three (of fifteen minutes allotted) earns an extra twelve minutes of fun before the next lesson starts.  Or, if you’re my O, all your work completed in forty minutes yields hours of free time before lunch.

Practically, our preschool “attention teaching” will involve a timer.  For her school lessons, my goal is to keep the “teaching” to 60 seconds or less for each lesson, and then to work up her replication from 5 minutes to 15 minutes by the end of the year.

Picture Study: Cezanne

I love picture study.  Recently a friend asked me what is the point of picture study: is it to teach them how to do art?  Is it to make them memorize great works of art?  Is the point the history– so they can identify different schools of art?
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Education is a feast.  My goal is to set before my children- well, before all of us, really- a feast of ideas.  Ideas are more than morals, more than words, more than works of art.  But the great artists present ideas in amazing ways, and my job as a teacher is to introduce my children to them.  They don’t- can’t- take in all of a great painting any more than they can understand the whole of a great book in one sitting.  But each nibble, each time we study it, we grow a little more.