Monday, January 25, 2010

Homeschool Mondays: reality check

I was going to write about how to create a course, or more specifically how I create a course around my ideas and all the materials I find while researching.

But I think I need to throw in a caveat here. All the brilliant plans, exciting reading lists, and carefully delineated check lists don't do any good sometimes because life gets in the way, or more often than not, your student just doesn't "get 'er done". My 10th grader is in many ways the ideal homeschooler. He loves to read, is inquisitive and articulate. But he has hit a wall this year, which I can partially attribute to his stage of life -- the brain-dead-throes-of- puberty-stage. Much of it, too, is pure laziness. He is still doing good work, but just enough to get by and all at the last minute.

I'm distracted by all the details involved in packing up my oldest for his move across country so I'm not being a hyper vigilant and involved homeschool mom. Ah the guilt!! Here I want to blog about homeschooling to encourage others to find the wonderful world outside the curriculum box and yet I can barely squeeze an essay out of my 10th grader. Ack! The hypocracy!

The reality check is that I'm like every homeschool mom: wracked by doubt and second guessing and positive that all those other moms are really doing a much better job....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

52 Books...week 4

The Little Book by Seldon Edwards

The table of paperback books at Costco is much too hard to resist as the pile of unread books on my bedside table can attest. The Little Book was an impulse buy from last summer which I finally got around to reading. Part time travel book, but mostly historical fiction set in Vienna of 1897, it is a fun, interesting and unpredictable read. I think the back cover blurb by Maureen Corrigan from NPR's Fresh Air has the best summation: "A...thing of joy whose only purpose -- and I mean this as a compliment -- is to delight and entertain."

What makes this book even more delightful is that it is the first novel by author Selden Edwards. He explains in his note at the end of the book the genesis of the idea over 30 years ago and it's subsequent evolution through many drafts over the years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My boys....

I took this photo of my 2 boys and our dog on Thanksgiving Day.
Now the boy in the brown shirt is taller than the boy in the blue.
And next week the boy in the blue is moving to the other side of the continent.

They drive me nuts, and they drive each other nuts.
But they are going to miss each other.
And I'll miss all their silly conversations and jokes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Review

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

I don’t know what took me to the “C”s in the fiction section while I was searching for a library book, but I happened upon a lovely short mystery by Michael Chabon that features a very old and retired Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is never mentioned by name, it is obvious who the old man is because of his bee hives, and how his skills of old come into use, and because his neighbors have heard was once a man of some renown.

It is the summer of 1944 when a young boy and his African Grey Parrot wander into the view from Holmes’ front window. The boy is a Jewish refugee from Germany, and his parrot spews out long lists of numbers in German. The parrot disappears the same morning as a murder and the local police come to ask for Holmes to help in solving the case. The murder doesn’t interest him, but he agrees to assist the constables in order “to find the boy’s parrot”.

Chabon’s prose is simply lyrical. It was just a joy to read and, this is a silly comment, but he used so many wonderful words, some of which I didn’t really know, but that couldn’t have been replaced by anything else. “...the flashing heliograph of his smile”, for instance. I just loved it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Homeschool Mondays: The Joy of Researching

True confession: A very strong argument can be made that the only reason I homeschool is to have an excuse to a.) buy books and b.) to pretend like I'm back in grad school doing research.

I love doing research. I love the process of discovery, the serendipity of finding a wonderful book on the library shelves when I was looking for something else. I love making new connections between seemingly unrelated topics. I love Google though there are times when I clearly need to learn how to refine my search parameters. I love that Amazon has reader reviews and the lists other readers create. I like the simple act of scribbling down titles and ideas, I even love the look of my notebook pages when they are filled with messy lists and tiny sideways commentary about books or library call numbers. I love how much I have learned by simply researching topics for homeschooling.

I also love discussions on the WTM high school discussion board about books that teens have loved or that moms recommend. Over the years I've jotted down several pages of titles, and while I have used only a fraction of them, it has been an excellent starting point for planning a reading list or a course.

The research part is easy. Start with a germ of an idea and do a Google search. Throw in the words "lesson plans" to get a different subset of hits. Go to Amazon and search for books on the subject, read the publisher's description, read the reader reviews, then click on the related titles they suggest. Look for documentaries. Then search your local library to see if they have any of the titles you like. Head to the library and browse the section where books or DVDs on this topic are shelved and look for other titles that you missed in your searches. Sit down right there in front of the shelf and flip through all the books on that topic. Do the same thing at your local book store.

Deciding what is worthwhile isn't always so easy. There are many insipid reader reviews on Amazon, but there are also thoughtful reviews about the merits or shortcomings of a title. I only bookmark a tiny fraction of Google hits. I look for sites that have really useful activities, or that have nice back ground articles. You have to trust your judgement, something that will become more refined as you gain experience in teaching a class or developing a course for your kids.

I do this kind of research for every course and class I have ever planned, and I don't find it all that time consuming or overwhelming. It does require some quiet time, but since I enjoy it, I'm happy to spend my free time googling and searching. Some of the wonderful things I stumbled upon include a wonderful series of NASA lesson plans on Newton's 3 laws of motion which I have used in co-op settings and just with my kids. I found playground physics activities I did with an elementary science co-op and I found high school level biology projects for my 10th grader. I ordered a cinematography book from Amazon for my oldest ds based on reviews, and learned after it arrived that it is considered "The Bible" of cinematography titles.

The funniest part is that between my research and Christmas shopping, Amazon has no clue what my real interests are. The recommended titles that show up when I open the main page are laughable -- today I am greeted with a list of Lego books and sci fi titles, several editions of Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World and a smattering of Disney trivia titles. They'll never know the real me!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book Review

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield

I bought this book solely based on the cool map on the inside cover. It is a stylized map of Europe during WWI, with the countries drawn as beasts such as Russia as a giant bear with it's mouth open and giant teeth ready to eat Germany, and Italy as literally a boot. I love imaginative illustrations and there are more by artist Keith Thompson scattered throughout the book.

Leviathan is a young adult, steam-punk adventure novel. It is WWI, but in an alternate universe where Darwin learned to create hybrid creatures that work like machines and the Germans designed enormous walking tanks much like the AT-ATs in Star Wars. This alternative world felt real and plausible and I was immediately drawn into it, and wanted to spend time in this world.

The main characters though are the standard issue for all young adult novels -- the tough and feisty girl who is out to prove herself in a man's world, and the uncertain boy who has a destiny to fulfill. I liked them, but my 14yo gave up on the book about a third of the way through because he said he has had enough of these types of characters, that their story arcs are always the same. While he appreciated the unique illustrations and steam punk setting, it wasn't enough to keep him engaged.

My biggest problem with the book is really a quibble, though. It could have been a stand alone book, but it is of course set up without a resolution because there will be another in the series. Harry Potter at least had a conflict and resolution in each of the 7 books, but this was 440 pages of exposition.

I think this would be a great book for any young lover of fantasy and sci-fi, and for any reluctant reader. It has enough real history for introducing a young reader to WWI, and cool machines and "beasties" to keep them interested. I love the fact that there is a trailer for the book which uses the illustrations to promote the book on YouTube (and imbedded in the author's website.) Check it out here on You Tube.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wordless Wednesdays

The view from my book. Two weeks ago.
Wanting to be there with another book.
Right now...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Homeschool Mondays

Based solely on the forums at the Well Trained Mind, I see a trend among homeschoolers to abandon the unique freedom of homeschooling in favor of formulaic learning in the form of prepackaged curricula. They may not all be doing "school in a box" like Calvert or Sonlight, but it seems everyone describes their school years and their children in terms of products: Lightening Lit, Omnibus, IEW, Beautiful Feet and so on.

I think it is such a shame that the art, the freedom and the joy of creating a unique education for our kids is being lost or abandoned because of the shiny and simple offerings of publishers. Just as the standard public schools have squashed independent thinking in their students, these products do nothing more than offer summary questions and essay questions that are designed to shape a certain "world view". There is no room for opinion, no room for interpretation and the need for the student to defend his position.

There is almost the mind-set that an auto-didact is inferior to someone who passively receives pre-packaged information.

There is an obvious need in some subjects for a curriculum, the most obvious examples being foreign languages, math, logic and grammar. By high school there is a need for a science text for the formal lab sciences. But why for history and literature? Why limit science to a text book and lab manual? Why limit math to the problem set after each lesson? Why is it that homeschool parents can't or won't research, think through then distill material and ideas when those are skills we want to instill in our kids?

I'm going to spend Mondays writing about the nuts and bolts of being an independent minded homeschooler, and hopefully be honest too about my shortcomings and how I'm handling them.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mind Voyages

My virtual WTM homeschooling buddy and reading partner in crime, Robin from the blog My Two Blessings, has come up with a reading challenge for 2010 called Mind Voyages. It is a reading challenge designed to get the reader to explore a broad range of sci-fi and fantasy. There were several titles on the lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners that caught my eye, and I'm reading Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy at the moment, so I figured, why not?!

Robin asks "what do you think about" when you hear the words science fiction and fantasy. I think about some of my favorite tv shows and movies -- Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who. (I'm writing this in fact while watching the Doctor Who New Year's marathon on BBC America.) But when I think of the literary genre I see a real crap shoot! There are books I love and books that have astonished me, there are brilliant and imaginative authors. But there are so many books that are too bloated, too predictable and formulaic. While reading Dune last summer I started wondering what it is that makes one author able to immerse a reader so effortlessly into a believable alternate universe. Taking on this challenge offers the opportunity to look into that question more deeply, and while I may not come up with any profound answers, I'll write some reviews and ponder on the good and the bad of the books.

I'm also going to keep reading everything else under the sun, and continue blogging about homeschooling the high school years, but I like having something to focus on.