Friday, March 28, 2014

Filming a documentary on homeschooling

Today we had a film crew over, who were shooting a documentary on homeschooling. The children were having their gardening class, and barely noticed the cameras:

Later in the afternoon Rose the music teacher came over for what we call Band Practice. I had forgotten the film crew was still around until I walked into the room – the shoot had turned into a music video!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tinkering class

This spring we are participating in the Homeschool Science Programs at the Exploratorium on the San Francisco pier.

In March, the children have been taking a class on tinkering – building simple machines, and learning about electronics, circuits, mechanics, and the basic laws of physics in the process. It was run by Ken, an Exploratorium staff member who had a knack for demonstrating everything from static electricity to robotics.

Here he is explaining how magnetism works:

The children made many projects. One of their favorites were robots that drew strange patterns:

In this video, we're working on building a simple electric motor – watch us get it to work!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Math games

In 2012 at the annual Adventures in Homeschooling conference I attended a talk by math teacher John Bennett titled "No Math? No Problem", where he argued that math, which is fundamentally about inductive and deductive reasoning, would be better taught through logic games than traditional school exercises.

Here's a short TEDx version of it (which unfortunately doesn't include the part about his favorite logic games):

Since I met Bennett we've been playing math games, including the simple two-player game he taught us using teddy bear counters (the bears are useful and we keep a set handy, but any small objects you have in sufficient quantity will work).

Here's how the game works:

Set out on a table
  • Five bears of any color (say, blue)
  • Three bears of another color (say, green)
  • Two bears of a third color (say, yellow)
Now, each player can take away as many bears of one color as they want - but they always have to take at least one bear, and they can't take bears of different colors on the same turn. The objective is to take away as many bears as you can without being the last one to take a turn. The player left with the last bear loses.

Here's an example game flow:
  1. Player 1 takes the five blue bears
  2. Player 2 takes the three green bears
  3. Player 1 takes one of the two yellow bears
  4. Player 2 loses, because now there is only one (yellow) bear left for her to take!
It's a really simple game of strategy where the players have to compute moves and outcomes to win.

This week we tried a new game that worked quite well: Think Fun Math Dice Jr. The youngest child played the short version of it while the older children played the full game. All could play at the same time, which was nice!

Drawing from life, and watercolors

In the past weeks we've been learning to draw from real life and paint with watercolors.

We've been using the book Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain, which is an excellent guide to learning to draw from real life.

E started with the exercises.

This is an upside-down copy of Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky: 

A few weeks later, when the weather was nice, I decided to teach the basics of aquarelle technique to the children. We started by watching this video I had made of my grandfather, who was a painter, and taught me when I was a teenager in art school:

During the next few days we went out to the nearby square and painted with watercolors. We learned to tape the paper to the board to prevent curling, to start the composition with the horizon, to paint wet on wet, etc. We started by doing a landscape of the Painted Ladies:

The next day we did a close up of the flower bed - same location, different framing & composition:

Learning how nature copes with the drought in California

We went on a hike in the Mt. Tamalpais national park with ranger Dave. Hikes with him are fascinating - he finds creatures (salamanders, centipedes, frogs...) where you wouldn't expect to look, and can tell a good story.

Northern California is experiencing a drought, and the lake on which the frogs breed was dry. Some of the frog population was apparently still hanging on, because we could hear them in the trees.

We found tiny holes made in acorns by acorn weevil larvae:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spring birds

It's spring and we've been noticing a lot of bird activity going on, so we decided to spend some time learning about the birds around us. Our bird feeder recently broke in the storm, so it's been necessary to wander out of our own yard to see more of our winged friends.

We've been carrying Mac's Field Guides (the Northwest Backyard Birds and Northwest Coastal Water Birds ones) and putting stickers on the birds we spot. Among the ones stickered so far: the yellow-billed magpie, the California gull, the cedar waxwing, and the Western bluebird.

An American robin couple has been busy at work collecting grasses, twigs and other nesting materials from our yard, but we haven't been able to locate their nest yet.

We also went to the nearby Randall Museum, which has a great bird exhibit and was perfect for us, because we got to see many of the common (and some much less common) birds of the area close up. The cawing raven was everyone's favorite.

Also, we've played Christine Berrie's Bird Bingo, which is really great. (We recently also got the Bug Bingo as a present, and will probably use that too later on).

Among the books we've used are An Egg is Quiet, and DK Eyewitness Books: Bird. Photographer Sharon Beals also has a beautiful book out about birds' nests.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Baking from a recipe

Almost every week we bake something. This time, before baking oatmeal raisin cookies, R had the children first write down the ingredients and the recipe:

Then they got to work:

The cookies were eaten before I had the chance to take a picture!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Money: earning, saving, spending, donating and investing it – or not having any

This week we've discussed money: earning it, spending it, saving it, donating it and investing it; as well as situations where people find themselves without enough money to live on. Thematically this was was a follow-up to the unit on jobs.

The San Francisco Bay Area has both poverty and extreme wealth, and we live in a neighborhood where the two co-mingle, so wealth and inequality are important themes in our everyday lives.

In anticipation of this we had watched Chaplin's The Kid, about poverty in the tenements. It is probably his best movie, and the children loved it.

In the morning we read Judith Viorst's Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday. Before starting we had set out a cup full of 100 pennies. The children counted out the pennies each time Alexander spent some – until he was no longer rich.

One evening in the week we watched the 1971 film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and discussed it (we prefer it to the Tim Burton one). We also read the book out loud over the course of the month – we recommend the edition with the original illustrations by Joseph Schindelman. Here are my notes:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - discussion
  • Veruca Salt - wanted a golden goose but fell in the garbage chute
  • Violet Beauregard - gum-chewer who turned into a blueberry
  • Augustus Gloop - obese boy who fell in the chocolate river
  • Mike TeaVee - always watching screens, was shrunk by the WonkaVision contraption
  • Charlie Bucket - the hero, stole fizzy lifting drinks but gave back the Everlasting Gobstopper at the end.
  • Slugworth - the evil competitor of Willy Wonka, who offered $10,000 to Charlie if he could bring him just one Everlasting Gobstopper (but who was really Willy Wonka’s agent)
  • Willy Wonka - was he good or bad? He let bad things happen to the mean kids, but they were ok in the end.
  • Grandpa Joe - understood what it’s like to be a kid - but foolishly got Charlie to try the fizzy lifting drinks
What happened in the end? What do you think Charlie will do with the chocolate factory? What will Willy Wonka do?
To the children, Veruca Salt was the most intriguing character.

C had ordered a Money Savvy Pig (a piggy bank with slots for Save, Spend, Donate, and Invest) for the school. We talked about what each of the slots means, and decided to save up for a telescope.

Last summer C and S set up a lemonade stand on the High Line in New York with some friends, which was a financial success. Now we revisited that experience and role-played the various decision points: deciding what enterprise to embark on (we pretended we were a family-owned pizzeria), investing your starting capital, putting in the work to create a product, and then selling it for a profit.

On another day, we discussed spending the money we have earned, and how our wants are different from our needs (this unit on wants and needs can be found in the Oak Meadow curriculum). The children ran around house labeling things with Post-Its: red for things they thought they really needed, green for things they wanted but didn't really need.

The dog got a red sticker:

We are planning to keep developing the theme by creating our school store, perhaps on Etsy, when we have come up with a good enough product to sell.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wind and Poetry

The thermometer outside our window broke in the wind! It was quite windy this week.

We also learn poetry, and since it was windy, we learned "Who has seen the wind" by Christina Rossetti:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through. 

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by. 

I learned this when I was a child too.

I am a great lover of literature, and when looking through the curriculum we use as a template for our classes, I was not impressed with the poetry at all. The stuff you learn as a child sticks in your head for the rest of your life, so it's better to have good poetry stuck in there! So, we've had some Blake, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Makepeace Thackeray, in addition to Christina Rossetti, who wrote wonderful poems suitable for children.