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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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?

Growth v. Confidence

This has been a challenging year for us as a family, and as homeschoolers. I can’t share much of that here, but I want to reflect for a minute about one particular pitfall of homeschooling, and how I’m trying to work around it.

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My school experience as a kid was one of boredom. I spent years finishing my work before the rest of the class and having to sit quietly at my desk while other kids finished. When they “pioneered” a gifted-and-talented program at my school, it meant that after I finished the regular work, they would pull me out and give me more work. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe a few of us should have different work, or be able to work at our own pace.

That experience led me to design our homeschool to be a place where my kids could work at their own pace(s). When they master a concept, they move on to the next thing. The idea was not to “waste” any time sitting around being bored by repeating the same old information they’ve already mastered. On the other hand, if they need more time on a topic, we can spend as much time as they need before moving on.

We’ve been doing that for twirteen years now, and for the most part it has worked well. Most of our time is spent at the growing edge, or at the place where we’re all being stretched.  I have noticed one problem, though, and it’s this: living at the growing edge can be pretty uncomfortable. And tiring. Working at the growing edge doesn’t ever let you rest in a place of mastery, which builds confidence.

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There are several sources of confidence. One is internal, where the experience of repeated success causes us to trust our skills and our mastery of a subject or skill. The other is external, where we are able to see our mastery in comparison to others, or hear from others that we have mastered a subject. (Think: exams, teachers, certificates, races, performances, etc.)

While I hated the boredom of my own education, it was pretty great seeing that I was ahead of everyone else academically. That built my internal confidence. I had many teachers who gave me a lot of messages that built my confidence externally.

In our homeschool, my kids have very little opportunity to compare themselves academically to their peers. Instead, they compare themselves to one another, which leaves my younger children feeling lost as they compare themselves to a much-older, academically very gifted sibling. Our homeschool has effectively erased a major source of external confidence. On top of that, I have eliminated the sense of mastery that comes from lots of repetition by engineering a learning space in which we spend most of our time with new material.

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Where do I go from here?

We are trying to spend more time resting in mastery. As much as the repetition grates on me, I need my kids to see how much they know. This means different things for different kids- one needs more opportunities to perform. One needs opportunities to do things without an older sibling making suggestions over her shoulder. Another needs to spend more time reviewing material we’ve already done. They all need opportunities to compare their work to their own peers (instead of to their older siblings.)

What does the balance between growth and confidence look like for you? I’m looking for ideas here, friends, so please don’t be shy sharing in the comments.

7QT: Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?

One: After two weeks of illness (one child on antibiotics, another on Tamiflu, me on nothing as I hacked up one or more of my lungs) we are finally clawing out way back into schooling at home. Sam is coming down with something now, too, but since he’s goes to work to be sick, I don’t really count him as one of the stricken.

Two: Man, getting back into this is rough. In the midst of that, Sam and I both traveled. I really should have stayed at home, but… I wanted to see my friend. I saw her, but I spent the whole time afraid I was going to give her the plague.

Three: Speaking of plagues, we adopted a lovely cat. His name (spoiler alert) was Julian.
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Then his larynx swelled up, and despite high-dose steroids and a veterinary ICU and more steroids and another vet, he still died. After his necropsy, at which the vet couldn’t determine the cause of the allergy/infection/laryngeal edema NOS, she called me back to ask if I’d been able to get his shot records from his previous owner. No, I hadn’t. So she put us on Rabies Watch, had the county public health nurse call us to find out our travel plans and if any of us were acting strangely, and billed us $65 for rabies testing. Just like that, our family went from the infectious disease specialists to the possible source of an urban rabies outbreak. (Better spoiler: he didn’t have rabies, and neither do we.) Here is a gratuitous photo of the new cat, whose rabies vaccination I have documented on paper.

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Four: Anyway… now, two weeks later we have adopted a replacement cat, and everyone is trying to get back in the groove. To that end, everyone made it to the co-op for classes this week, all the adults went to their gainful employment, and I’ve been trying to teach things to the children with limited success.

Five: On Monday, I made it till one-thirty before I had to crawl into my bed for a nap. When I got up, I went to see where Phoebe one of the children was with her work.

Mom: Where are you with your school work today? Do you need help with math?

Anonymous Child: Why are you asking? Don’t you have some work you’re supposed to be doing?

Mom: I was under the impression that helping you with math was my work.

So that was really successful. I should have stayed in bed.

Six: Yesterday I finally made it outside for a run. I discovered three things:

  • two weeks without exercise turned me into a meatball, and I couldn’t breathe.
  • spring is coming, whether the bomb cyclone and Storm Emma realize it
  • exercise is my anchor activity.  Once I made the effort to exercise again, all sorts of other things became possible, like making dinner and putting bleach in the toilets and following up on my daughter’s math.

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The guardian of spring.

Seven: However, an anchor is not entirely sufficient to return everything to normal. In order get us back in the routine, I had to pull out the paints and insist everyone make some art while I read aloud to them. An hour later, the children wandered off to play Minecraft and left me with a huge arty mess to clean up. I think this means we’re back in the groove.

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Be sure to visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Snow books

It’s finally snowing here for our first day of winter break, and we’re going to pull out all our favorite snow books today. They are (in no particular order):

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The charm in Uri Shulevitz’s Snow is that Boy with Dog knows better than everyone else who tells him it’s not going to snow. The illustrations are fantastic, and the sparse prose is exactly right.

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Virginia Lee Burton’s classic, Katie and the Big Snow, is chock full of details. The only thing I change when I read it aloud is “The doctor couldn’t get her patient…”

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Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon perfectly captures the haunting silence of a snowy night.

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Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day was Phoebe’s favorite when she was little (and I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that I substituted her name in for the main character’s.)

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Jaqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley is the true story of Wilson Bentley, the man whose passion for natural beauty led him to photograph snowflakes. His work was amazing, and this children’s book about him is beautiful.

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I loved Carolyn Haywood’s Snowbound with Betsy growing up and dug an ancient copy up a few years ago. I still love it.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter haunts my dreams: the food running out, the Christmas box that couldn’t make it, the cutting for the train…

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Winter Holiday, the third book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, takes place on a frozen lake and is full of all the fun you imagine you’d have with like-minded kids and utter freedom.

I don’t think we’re going to have enough snow to give me time to read all of them today… but I’m going to give it a shot. What snow books am I missing?

Daybook: late October

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Outside my window: Still dark. But once the sun comes up, there will be leaves to rake and a crisp morning. I’m hoping to make it out for a run today.

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This autumn has felt especially colorful and precious to me, and I think it’s because I missed much of autumn last year because of my injury. I couldn’t run, or even really walk around the neighborhood, because my foot hurt so badly. Now I am so grateful to be outside.

In the kitchen: my mental energy is elsewhere right now, so it’s going to be easy staples this week: simple soups (butternut squash, potato-dill, Jerusalem lentil) and eggs of various kinds. And maybe some pumpkin ribbon bread.

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In the school room: Phoebe had a breakthrough last week, seeing some progress in areas that have been challenging for her. I think it’s very hard to be the youngest- she spends a lot of time thinking she’s behind, when really, she’s just younger.

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Meanwhile, Jonah is working hard on college and scholarship applications. This process has shown me where lie some gaping holes in my educational plans. It’s hard to be the oldest- he’s the guinea pig for all my theories.

Today is the end of our first quarter. We need to get to the library for new books (and return all ones that are overdue…)  I think it’s time to schedule a reading day.

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We collected a bunch of leaves two weeks ago before the snow, and last week I got around to ironing them in waxed paper.  The kids couldn’t remember the word for ironing board and were very puzzled as to why I had it out. We certainly never use it for ironing clothes.

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Grateful for: second (and third and fourth) chances. The medical miracle I witnessed last week. Friends.

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While Jonah and I look at colleges this weekend, Owen’s going to visit his godparents. I am so grateful for our children’s godparents and their investment in our kids.

Sam and I had a chance to get away this weekend. It was a trip we’d scheduled and then had to cancel last year. We slept in, read books, ran long, and ate delicious meals we didn’t have to prepare or clean up afterwards. So many gifts.

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Praying for: New life, both literal and metaphorical. Mandy. Luke. Upcoming college visits. Discipline. Our group of four young confirmands at church as they prepare for confirmation.

 

Of invisible growth and winter blooms

As my oldest child is applying to colleges, I’m doing some heavy reflecting. Our time, which once stretched seemingly forever (I’m just talking about between dinner and bedtime, here) is now short. No matter how many times he comes home after he graduates, I will no longer be his primary educator. I wonder what I neglected to cover and what we spent too much time on and should have breezed over.

Many years ago, my friend Erin gave me a Christmas cactus. It was beautiful, covered in trailing red flowers. It was just the thing for my dull, hard winter. And then its blooms faded and fell.  I’ve been waiting for it to bloom ever since. We’ve moved homes twice in the intervening years. I’ve moved it around our houses, searching for the best light. Watering it faithfully. But nothing. Nary a bloom to be seen.

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There are lots of websites with instructions for how to force a Christmas cactus to flower. They recommend cool darkness and drought. For whatever reason, I never tried any of the tricks. I’ve just been watering it faithfully once a week for seven years and moving it from house to house.

There have been many seasons in our homeschooling where it seemed that there was nothing happening. Despite our faithful daily math and daily reading, progress was invisible, maybe even non-existent. I looked for short-cuts and magic curricula. Perhaps I needed to put the kids in a local school, where they would flourish. (Especially in February. Every February, the grass always looks greener at our local school.) My lofty goals and ideals crumbled into shards of I-wish and what-if.  What if he never gets this? I wish our days/school room/crafts/history lessons looked like the ones I saw on fb/pinterest/instagram.

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Last February, something looked different on my cactus. Almost imperceptibly, the tips of its fronds (leaves? arms?) turned red and then opened. It was blooming. I hadn’t done anything different: same windowsill, same weekly water ration, same morning sun. But all the invisible, internal work it had been doing burst forth in blossoms.

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I’m seeing the same phenomenon happening in my older children this year. Habits I used to have to enforce daily now happen without my reminding them (most of the time). Where I used to hear, “I’m bored,” now they say, “I need more time to finish what I’m working on.” It’s amazing, especially since I haven’t done anything different. It’s just their own invisible process finally producing fruit I can see.

Please help me remember this come February.