Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cartoon Histories

Something fun just arrived today via Amazon used.  We frequent a local bookstore as well as the library system as much as possible (and thanks for the establishment of that system goes to Mr. Ben Franklin!).  We've made great use of the inter-library hold option wherein we can have the books we need sent from different branches to your closest one, but I can't help but hold on to a fondness for Amazon and it's used marketplace.  Here's what came today:

Perfect for this year and for years to come, since we're focusing on early American history right now, poking around into the recesses of our past. A few pages in and I'm already chuckling - he makes learning about history way fun! Thanks, Mr. Gonick.  The drawings are worth the purchase alone - great characterizations who emote in delightful ways.

I discovered the whimsical, hilarious, catty nature of Larry Gonick last year in another one of his cartoon anthologies, the Cartoon History of the Universe.  If you happen to be a secular homeschooler, this tome should have a designated place of honor on your shelves (he starts off the history of the universe with the big bang theory).  Reading it will tickle your funny bones in all the right places.  We read parts of it last year together.  One of these days I'll make a point of working through it all the way and will save the rest for Max to take in when he is older.  Gonick's books serve as a delightful introduction to the whole of a subject, leaving plenty of room for digging deeper if you like. 

Due to the nature of cartoon strips, he doesn't mince words and will cover a big event in history with just one fell sentence.  It's up to you to figure out more about the event if you wish.  I'm contented with the big picture view right now and will leave much of the nitty gritty to diehard historians (people I very much admire, by the way).  Here's what the Cartoon History of the Universe looks like:

You can't possibly cover history of the WHOLE universe in one book, so Mr. Gonick went to the trouble of writing more of them:

He has several other cartoon guides to varying subjects like physics, chemistry, and even.......

Yes, he does.  Read the reviews about it before passing judgement.  This will be an excellent resource when the hormones begin their mighty march during the teen years and I plan on purchasing it at that time.  It's factual, straightforward and spot-on about the subject we humans seem to have a hard time discussing sometimes.  Don't be shy about this one - it's not vulgar.  Just the facts, ma'am with a lot of Gonick-derived humor thrown in.

Larry Gonick has a unique ability to make us humans look at ourselves and see how silly we are sometimes.  Boy, can we be silly.  Hats off to anyone who can effectively illustrate the big picture - that's why I like this guy.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

I just had to share this one.  It's right up my alley because I simply crave this style of teaching; apparently others feel the same because it got a near-perfect all star rating on trusty old Amazon. 

Seriously, go check it out.  Admire the beautiful dog on the front (Miss Emmy) and read the back.  Take a gander at the reviews and then hit that wish list button.  We are a ways off from this book as it is a smidge elevated for an eleven year old, but then again, maybe not.  I love the concept, the highly unusual approach to teaching a heretofore cumbersome subject.  A read through this book will probably allow you a glimpse of the inner workings of Einstein's mind, among other genius physicists.  It's such an intriguing manner to approach a hefty topic; humor goes a LONG way here!  Emmy is a talking dog and she has all sorts of questions for her human pal, Chad.  He patiently explains things to her through the trained eye of a physicist and she begins to apply her new perspective to the world about her, with particular interest reserved for catching rabbits and tunneling through fences. 

Amazon also tells me that "Chad Orzel is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College, where he carries out research in the field of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics. His blog is renowned the world over for its humour and its clear explanations of complex principles of physics".  Must go take a look at his blog, too.

Stuff like this is golden.  It's on the 'hold' shelf in my brain as a terrific resource down the road.  And the search for others like it continues!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Not to be Missed. Free-Range Homeschooling

Not sure how this works, but it seems that one good thing leads to another, doesn't it?  No, I'm not talking about popping M&M's.  I'm pointing out what happens when you open the door to your worldview and let something new waltz in.  You plop it on your lap, hold it up, examine it carefully and intuition beckons you to try it on for size.  Sometimes the cut and color are perfect, as if it were truly made for you.  This, in turn, leads to more knocks at the door and before you know it, your worldview has experienced a major remodel.  I cherish this process in life, how serendipitous it seems, how vital it is to growth.  Change is GOOD.

Homeschooling is an unusual worldview unto itself, one that deserves to be held up and examined.  I wish deep in my bones that more parents would take a moment to try it on and see how it fits for their children.  Homeschooling is something that can be tailored to fit beautifully, remarkably.  Homeschooling can change lives for the better.  Oh gosh, I think I'm becoming the homeschooling zealot that I did not want to be!  Actually, I'm very good about keeping a lid on the boiling pot and not letting too much steam loose.  I just close my eyes and wish really hard about it for some kids that I meet along the way.

I am deep into the following book right now and cannot express how timely its arrival on my doorstep has been.  Silly, but I nod my head enthusiastically while I'm reading each paragraph and feel like breaking out all the highlighters in the house, just like in college.  The authors words ring true and crystal clear for me - they resonate deeply and are dancing a mighty jig with my beliefs about homeschooling.  Can you hear the clickety-clacking?

by Laura Grace Weldon

What caught me was the title:  Free Range Learning:  How Homeschooling Changes Everything.  That's where it began.  I learned about the book on a secular homeschooling website,    Free and range are buzz words in my world lately.  I happen to be interested in the plight of chickens in the food industry and think they deserve better from humankind (kind in this context is an oxymoron, isn't it?)  Over the summer we've raised eleven chicks from the day-old stage to sixteen weeks and almost laying (another month or so before we see those eggs) and I made sure to give them ample space to do chicken stuff.  They peck the day away happily, at least what I would call happily.  Who knows how a chicken thinks, but the ladies seem about as happy as I can anthropomorphise them to be.  I like that they have freedom to move about and follow their avian instincts to their heart's content.  I like that they are not restricted to a tight structured way of life.  I know it is the right thing to do and that's why I do it.  My husband always says, "do the right thing and the right thing will happen".  That's a grand philosophy of life and I'll pull it from my back pocket as often as I am able.

So, I have happy chickens.  Which leads to thoughts about other areas in our life, like homeschooling.  Can this same idea be applied here?  Do I have a happy kid?  Not giddy, silly happy, but content, secure happy.  Not always happy, but happy much of the time.  Kids do need structure for a sense of security, this I believe; they also need it to keep them safe, no doubt.  Within those walls of structure though, can they be turned loose to follow their curiosities, their inclinations, their developing interests?  Can we parents back off and turn into guides rather than leaders?  Read what Laura Grace Weldon has written and give this concept some time to percolate.

Last year was a free-for-all learning fest.  We read about math, but didn't do much math.  We read umpteen books from the library about anything Max wanted to.  We played lots of games.  We did several unit studies based on his interests (all of which are detailed in the blog - click on the 'Unit Studies' link over there on the left), or what he thought he was interested in.  Sometimes after starting something he proved not to be so interested and we changed course.  We were all over the map and I have to admit that it went against my desires for a structured workbook curriculum and set-order-of-events type of schooling that I thought was the best course of action.  This was evidence of my schooling days rearing its ugly head, telling me that I was miles from my comfort zone without a GPS.  Things like drill work, worksheets, memorization, rote learning, outlines, flowcharts, deadlines, papers due, muckety muck.  How much of what I learned in that manner do I remember??  Very little, if any.  Yet, I worried about it constantly, if we were doing the right thing.  What if he had to go back to regular school?  What if he fell behind his public school peers in math?  What could I do given the fact that he hated to write things down, did not like to be faced with pen and paper unless it was to draw?  Should I force him to write against his will?  Was he playing me to try and assert some independence, or did he really not like to write?  What about multiplication?  Don't all fourth graders nail down their facts?  Would this mess him up considerably when we hit the algebra stage?

My mind was a raging battle unto itself.  How the heck did I know if what we were doing was beneficial?  I did know a few things.  I knew that he loved to be read to and would beg me to get the books out so he could build forts in the same room.  So, was this him just wanting to build forts?  We read some sixty books last year in that manner.  His vocabulary has improved dramatically and I experience a kind of jolt when I hear him use certain words - like, 'where the heck did he come up with that one?' jolt.  I saw his conceptualization and spatial realization of world geography improve considerably via some of the games we played.  I saw his anxieties about learning decrease and his curiosities increase.  I saw him relax into the rhythm of his days and read with cats sprawled across his lap.  I saw a well-rested child with much to content himself with.  Lo and behold, we were on to something!

But still my brain said, "he needs more structure.  He needs a curriculum to follow for next year."  Over the summer I found a curriculum that I thought suitable, and I still really like it.  It's the Connect the Thoughts curriculum and we are currently using pieces of it successfully.  He is also taking two online classes in history.  I find us slipping back into the way we did things last year, though - wanting to read more, play more games, explore more and head to the library, the museum, the zoo or wherever.  Maybe because it feels right.  Maybe because it's the right thing to do.  Maybe because free range leads to the right thing happening.

Ms. Weldon's book is just what the doctor ordered.  It is one of the most valuable contributions to the homeschooling movement that I have read to-date.  Please, if you can, get your hands on a copy and read it cover to cover.  Then read it again.  It may help change your worldview and then some.  Hooray for free range chickens, for free range learning, and for M&M's (which I'm eating right now mixed with salted cashews!)  Try that, too.       


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bouncing Through Early American History

I was in the mood for the library today, so we headed over this afternoon to see what we could drum up about George Washington, American colonists, pioneers, Abe Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Native American tribes...........anything that would help us learn a little more about early American history.  As mentioned in a post a few posts ago, we have been watching The Story of Us on DVD.  It has served as a great jumping off point for digging up more information about anything that has interested us, which has just about been everything.  Which is a little unnerving since there is so much history to learn!  Good thing we have lots and lots of time to absorb this stuff!  Based on what we've seen so far, Max thinks highly of General George Washington, not having even met the man :).

I'm considering this year a gentle introduction to American history.  We'll hit the high points and probably miss all kinds of details, but that's okay.  The main point is to get EXCITED about our past!  Meet who we can and table the details for later.  I'm not a lover of dates; I'm much more intrigued with the idea of developing a mind for history, of understanding it and applying it to the now as much as possible.  Last year I set up a timeline on the wall for our look at prehistoric man, ancient Greece and Egypt, but Max clearly had no interest in seeing where the details fell on the line.  I think I need to listen to that and not force the date thing with him.  Maybe that will come later and he'll want to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

On a secular homeschooling forum I recently learned about an online series of history classes called History at Our House (HAOR); parents who have used it have raved about its value and their kids have loved the classes.  I am looking at HAOR and am considering starting it after Christmas if classes are offered then or maybe waiting until next year - want to check into it a little more to see if it's a good fit for us.  From what I have read so far I am liking the teacher's philosophy and it seems that he succeeds in sparking genuine curiosity about historical events.  If you want to check out his programs you can watch an introductory YouTube video HERE

Here are some materials we've been using over the past couple of weeks to familiarize ourselves with the history of America.  We are jumping here and there, which I'm not sure is good as far as fitting it all into context, but we're taking a sweeping look at the big picture and deciding together what to focus on, which is guided by what Max finds interesting.

Play this game a few times and you'll be able to spout out all kinds of interesting things about the beginnings of your country  Easy and hard levels.  This is a fun dinner-time game around the table, too.

I posted about this DVD HERE - it's fantastic, although I personally could do without all of the commentary from people from our current pop culture (Michael Douglas, Sheryl Crow, etc.)
Already posted about this book; Max is impressed by how much Mr. Franklin did in his lifetime.  Are men like Ben still around?  He was pretty awesome.

On it's way in the mail

Appealing look at the man and what drove him.  We learned a bunch by watching this.  I tucked a number of historical documentaries into our instant play list, so we can pick and choose according to our mood.  We'll probably watch one about Abe Lincoln next.

Is it okay to read these to an eleven year old boy?  I think so.  We've read two out of the series and he is asking for more.  Great mental imagery of life on the prairie.  Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder!

The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz
Max just completed this for a history through literature class he is taking online.  He struggled to get through it because he didn't find it that interesting, but the part at the end when the main character gets to meet General George Washington and have dinner with him made up for the lackluster read.  This story is set much earlier than the Little House on the Prairie series, so a different look at pioneer life.

I covet this series and wish to own every single one.  It won't happen, but I can still wish it!

Really looking forward to this one - it's on its way from Netflix.  It's a PBS series about present-day families who are put into historical situations - I'm sure some very interesting things come into play!

I like the authenticity of this book - real pictures to balance out some of the comical pictures we've been looking at in the other books - that's a good thing!

This is one book of another interesting series - this one takes awhile to pick through as there are lots of little pictures and side comments sprinkled all over the page, similar to the DK Eyewitness books that are available.  It's nice to hunker down and hunt through the book together.

I did pick up a book that contains the words to the Declaration of Independence and read through it.  I know Max and I know he would not 'get' much of what was being stated.  I'd like to find one with translation into everyday ordinary language so that we can have a better appreciation of it, or maybe we'll look at this document when he is older. 

Herein lies some of the elements in our introduction to early American history and I'm certain many tangents will result (which is the best part!)  This is merely scratching the surface; I'd like for us to learn about the Native American tribes and what happened to them, about some New Mexico history as the Santa Fe Trail was a vital piece of Westward expansion.  This is the way we homeschooled last year for 4th grade - following a scent and seeing where it might lead.  I'm finding it challenging to try and stick to a structured curriculum, and I think there might be some strong and valid reasons for this.  I have some thoughts to share on that subject and will post soon with them.

If you have other materials you've used to learn about American history, please share!  We can learn so much from one another as we homeschool!   

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Biographies for Kids (and Their Grownups)

History has been and will continue to be a big part of our homeschool, mostly because we find it fascinating!  Not to mention applicable, valuable and thought-provoking.  I am eating up all of this history business and feel like I'm really learning it for the first time in a real way.  Kuddos to biographers, researchers, writers and of course all those clever folk who can sort the grit from the fluff and give it to us in engaging ways.

This week we delved into a Time for Kids biography about Benjamin Franklin, which was the perfect introduction to this undeniably great man.  Max was really surprised to learn how much Mr. Franklin accomplished in his lifetime in many disciplines - the man had an incredibly active brain and insatiable curiosity and he was driven for a better future for his country.

These are rated for ages 4-8.  Max is 11.  I'm not buying the 4-8 thing and think these are a good segue into more material about a subject. 

I really like the format of these books.  Factual, colorful, varied, interesting and manageable.  These are perfect for this stage of the game so that we can begin to introduce ourselves to remarkable figures in history.

To follow up with more on Ben, we'll be using this book:

Here are some other biographies by Time to note and perhaps search for at the library:

The following series is rated for 9-12 year-olds and are touted as being humorous.  I'd like to look for these, too:

We had a good week learning about George and Ben and Henry (Ford).  Some of this is directed by an online history class Max is taking, and some is directed by whatever trail we pick up and feel like following.  I, for one, am happy to know a lot more about how our country was knit together by some undeniably brilliant and historically well-timed people. 
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