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.

Daybook: mid-March

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Outside my window: snow, but not enough to shovel. Just enough to make driving a pain. Last week our crocuses bloomed, and the tulips are getting taller. Sam pruned the roses earlier this month, so we can actually see the bulbs emerging.

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In the kitchen: kittens wolfing down their tuna. (I should used a cat metaphor there. Lioning? Cougaring? Ew, no. Wolfing will do.)

Sam went to the grocery store yesterday, so there’s a chance I’ll cook some food this week. Moriah made these lemon basil cookies, so in a pinch we can just eat those.

We can’t eat it, but my orchid rebloomed. This is the first time I’ve ever kept one alive long enough to bloom a second time. Hooray.

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In the school room: We’ve had a lot of performances. Willy Wonka (we are the proud parents of an Oompa Loompa) and High School Musical, Jr. were early in the week, and dance was this weekend. Whew. Everyone is beat.

During the plays, we had a lot of complaining about “being forced” to watch one’s siblings’ performances. Then afterwards, I asked them all what the difference between the performance and the dress rehearsal was. (Same stage, same cast, same costumes, same lines… but no audience.) We had a good discussion about the importance of the audience, and- thankfully- everyone came without complaining to the dance performance.

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I might be slightly biased, but I thought they were great.

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We all are ready for a break. The boys’ outside classes all have different spring breaks [they lose], but we are trying to embrace a lighter schedule. We took a few good walks [totally worth the whining] and are planning to see the Degas exhibit later this week.

In my shoes: I managed one run this week, and I love walking. I’ll take what I can get.

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On my reading shelf: I’m creeping through Deuteronomy, Hannah Coulter (Wendel Berry) and The Newcomers (Helen Thorpe.) I have a shortage of reading time right now.

Grateful: For the abundance of these days. For good conversations with my kids. For walks and crocuses and birds awing and hens laying eggs again. For all of it.

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Praying for: Mandy. Judy. Austen. Caregivers and new parents and those who grieve. Kids making college decisions (and their parents). Stillness within the storms.

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Calamity: You Have Dysentery

Fresh off the heels of winter break, I started in on Spring semester with new energy and a few new plans. I try not to overhaul everything, but I had a few changes to make:

  • make a few more field trips happen, especially with Phoebe and Moriah. (The boys online and college schedules make that more difficult for them.)
  • run longer distances regularly.
  • begin a more formal literature class with Owen and Moriah. I bought a few of Bravewriter’s Boomerang units to this end.

Our first field trip was to History Colorado, a museum in downtown Denver with some good hands-on exhibits on mining, small-town Colorado life in the early 20th Century, the displacement of Native Americans and the Sand Creek Massacre, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. They also were advertising an Oregon Trail IRL exhibit, which fit right in with our history studies (and our generally sick sense of humor.) Alas, the Oregon Trail IRL is a special event (this Saturday only, tickets must be purchased in advance, if you’re interested.)

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Several days later, I came down with the stomach flu. It wasn’t actually dysentery, but it was close. Enough said, though it certainly put a stop to my running (ha) and most of our worthwhile activities at home.

Once I recovered, we had another field trip, this one to the Colorado Symphony’s Time Travel concert for grades 3-8. It was outstanding (and not just because no one came down with dysentery afterwards.) They began with a full orchestra and then “traveled” back through time to the Baroque period, explaining what the orchestra looked like then. As they moved their way forward, the orchestra grew, and each change was explained by a commentator between the pieces. The whole concert was one hour- just the right length for a squirrely fourth grader (not that we know anyone like that) and included John Williams’s Sherzo for X-wings from The Force Awakens. It was altogether a great concert, and I highly recommend it. (There’s another concert on Feb 6- the link to buy tickets for homeschoolers is here.)

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Anyway, I wish you lots of great field trips that don’t end in drawing a Calamity! card. If you have one to recommend, please post it in the comments.

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: Mid-December

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Outside my window: dark. And cold, too, though it’s supposed to warm up enough for a comfortable run later. Whether I’ll have time is  different matter.

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In my shoes: I’ve been running at the end of the day again. Somehow, between the aforementioned darkness and cold, I can’t quite get myself in gear to run before our school day starts. Instead I’ve had a few beautiful sunset runs, one under the Supermoon (which connected me with a whole bunch of moon-runners on Instagram) and one where I saw an enormous owl, whom I managed not to scare away.

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In the kitchen: I’m in a cooking funk.  I write out meal plans but don’t want to go to the store, so when it comes to four o’clock and I drag myself back into the kitchen (which is invariably awash in piles of dishes and school books and bags and mail) I realize I don’t have some crucial ingredient.  Some weeks are like that, even in Australia.*

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When I went though my photos last week, I found that I had taken almost the exact same photo of this ornament 7 years ago. His name is Harry. He’s what I feel like every day at 4:30p.m., which is exactly why I need to run in the afternoon.

On my reading pile: We started our annual reading of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and we all sat around chuckling at the same jokes as we always do. I love that book. When I’m without children, I’m reading Lydia Reeder’s Dust Bowl Girls, which I mentioned over here on my book blog.

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In the school room: I realized a few weeks ago that we hadn’t been doing enough art.  My high schoolers were whining and complaining when we did it, so I’d been skipping it, but my youngers need a lot of art. So we’re back to sitting at the table while I read, at least once a week. The boys can opt out if they want, but I’m making it available. (More often than not, they join in, even though they’re too cool# for it.)

We’re doing our exams this week on history and literature. This involves narrations (e.g., drawing a comic, making an annotated diagram, writing a page, or asking 5 questions about the reading).

Also, it’s recital season. Last week we had two recitals (one piano, one piano and violin), and this week we have a concert and two Nutcracker performances. It must be December.

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Grateful for: great music teachers. My in-laws’ beautiful reminiscences of their dad last week. Xeljanz. Running. The upcoming release of my book, Lost Things.^

Praying for: Mandy, Judi, Lori, Christine, Bishop Gerry, Scott, Aimee, Austen. All those who are mourning lost loved ones more than ever at this time of year. Refugees and those who minister among them.

*No, I’m not in Australia. #No, it’s not humanly possible to be too cool for art. ^Coming out January 10, 2018.