Saturday, June 30, 2012

First Weeks of Homeschooling; Weekly Plans & Workboxes

I spent months researching, scouring blogs, seeking out any wisdom I could glean to help me wrap my head around what it is we will be doing when we homeschool. I've researched philosophies behind homeschooling, visited homeschooling families, subscribed to the local homeschooling Google group, determined organizational plans, and researched the many curriculum choices. In addition to the research, I laminated, labeled, reorganized closets, moved the scrapping stuff (is this what happens?), printed out reading lists, and borrowed 4-5 Sonlight curriculum to try out for the summer (Thanks Leah). I've modified the Instructor Guides that come with the curriculum, not because I'm a control freak (although I am) but because we are not doing the curriculum straight through, but only as a way to see if this system and materials are a good fit for our family. Here is a look at our first week's plans. The original organizational method I wrote about in my first post on planning, didn't work, once I had decided to give Sonlight a solid try.
You may be happy to know we are officially into week 3 of school. And if it weren't for the workboxes I use to organize it all, my son Caleb might not even know we have started school. We are doing much of the same things we've always done, only I'm pre-planning what we do, and coordinating so we get a wide variety of subjects each week. Below is week 3's lesson.

You'll notice that I've stopped being so particular with what stories are read. Logistically its just easier for us to know that we need to read 2 out of this one, 3 out of this one, etc. Then I just keep a piece of card stock as a bookmark, that the adult reading the story records the date and what has been read. That seems to be working much better. I love the anthology books with the classics in them. These are book I remember reading as a kid, but wouldn't have necessarily searched them out in a library. This is exactly what I needed. I've discussed my lack of confidence in picking out quality books, as I  talked about in my post, Chosing and Reading Children's Books. Sonlight curriculum helps me with this. (We still check out 10 library books every 2 weeks!)

I'm not a full-time stay-at-home mom, as I work two days a week at the local university and  also volunteer two mornings a week as a science lab teacher. So the homeschooling responsibilities are not solely on my shoulders. I make the schedule for the week, and whoever is home with the kids can follow the lesson plans, be it me, my husband, or our college-student baby sitter, who also happens to be an elementary education major!

I'm a sucker for having things in containers (I had a severe addiction to Longaburger baskets in the 90's) so its no surprise that I liked the idea of workboxes. I found some great resources like Sue Patrick's Workbox System, 1+1=1, Just Laine (just found, love, love her site) and No Reimer Reason. And finally decided to do it. 

Here is a collage of our workbox drawers here in the early stages in our homeschooling "career."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Free Thematic Corn Unit for K-2

I'm so excited to share with you the details of my corn unit. While I've designed this thematic unit for my pre-K son, it is probably more realistic for K-2 students. Because this is the first year we live in the country, I wanted to do something with the plants growing all around us. Therefore, our  unit started by me wanting to collect data in the corn fields around us. So that's where I started. I love curriculum development, albeit for the secondary, post secondary, and graduate level student. So this has been a bit of a stretch for me, and I'm sure I'll have modifications on this unit in the future! But I wanted to share what I've developed for our summer/fall 2012 science unit.

The concepts covered in the unit are:
  • measurement
  • seed growth (germination)
  • soil
  • earthworms   
These are some of the books I've purchased for our unit.

Because I have a method that worked well for me in the past, I'm organizing units the way I did as a full-time science teacher. I use tables, and briefly describe what activity I have planned, what resources I'll use, and then a column for notes about things I may need to know about that day's activity. It worked great for me in the past, stay tuned for how it works for me now as a homeschooling parent! Here is a look at how I organize my units. 

Without beating it to death here are the basics of the unit I've designed:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Living, Non-living vs. Dead Lab

Part 1 (Living-Nonliving Part 2)

I have found that it is worth spending two full class periods on a lab that challenges students' preconceptions of what it means to be alive! I designed this lab years ago, and it remains a favorite of mine. A free student handout is available at the end of this article.
The day before lab day (may only need a 1/2 class period) we brainstorm qualities that living things must have. At this point I just let students list a bunch of things on the board, and I don't filter them at all. Then as ideas slow down, we start lumping overlapping ideas together. From our list, each student chooses 10 to list on their data table. Below is a list of common characteristics student usually come up with. Remember, its OK if they come up with characteristics that are not the  actual characteristics of life. By completing the lab, they'll figure out that some of the characteristics they choose are not good indicators of life! And some that might be the best indicators are not always easy to observe!
  • need air
  • breaths
  • poops
  • exhales
  • moves
  • reacts to stimuli/environment
  • needs food/eats
  • needs water/drinks
  • has cells 
  • has atoms
  • it can die (I love this one)
  • thinks
  • has babies/offspring
  • has genetic material
  • has chemical reactions going on inside of it

Monday, June 18, 2012

Magnet Lab


The purpose of this Magnet lab is two-fold. In Part 1, students use iron filings sprinkled on top of paper to get a look at magnet force lines. My goal is to impress students with how this invisible force, is visible using the iron filings. There are a whole lot of analogies one can make about the invisible, becoming visible because of the evidence of outside elements.


Let that settle in, and you can think of all kinds of parallels. With the teenage boys I work, with there's all sorts of deeper issues we can discuss. For example, although the influence of friends and music may not outwardly visible, the changes we make in our lives because of those influences are evidence to attitudes in our hearts. You get the idea!  One of the post lab questions asks them to draw a parallel of this idea to their own life.  

I experimented with many ways to have students work with the magnets and iron filings. I tried putting the filings in zipper bags and I tried using glass between the magnets and the filings, but it was too thick. I would have liked to have had plexiglass, but I couldn't get my hands on any. I settled on paper, knowing the risk of messiness. The paper works just fine, but be sure students label north and south markings in their lab drawings.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Measuring Plants-Corn Unit

Photo of 2 boys by a corn field

Well its June, and our corn plants have been growing so fast since May. Here are some photos for you to compare. This has been a dry spring and early summer, we are inches below where we should be here in the midwest, but the corn in the field next to us is doing extremely well. In fact, the field we chose to measure is the best looking field for miles! 

Baby Boy eating apple by a corn field

As you can see, in May Corban was still taller than the corn, and by mid-June, it is taller than Caleb!

Boy wearing Batman suit next to Corn field

I wanted to update you on how our Corn data collection has been going. Every Tuesday (or close enough) we head out past our mailbox at the end of our lane, walk across the ditch, and find the orange piece of yarn at the base of our stalk. We did this so we would always measure the same plant! 

In May, I enthusiastically described how we would be using legos to measure corn. While the concept is a good one, it didn't work for us! My background in middle and secondary science is proving difficult to translate to the Kindergarten level. Go figure! So I'd like to explain a list of modifications I've made to our data collection process.

First, we are no longer measuring height. My goal is to instill a sense of awe and wonder with how quickly the corn is growing. Learning to take accurate measurements, is no longer my primary goal.

Instead we are counting the number of leaves on our plant. The photo below shows the beauty in how the corn leaves emerge! They are rolled up and unfold as they are pushed out the top! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Oobleck-Glow in the Dark Style

Cornstarch and water...who would have thought? If you have never tried it, I don't care if you have kids or not, its cool. But add the element of glow in the dark? Forget about it! Its AWESOME. I got the idea here at Train Up a Child. There's nothing like a moving picture to show you what I mean. 

How do you do this? First to make glow water; empty the ink from a highlighter into a small amount of water (I should have used less water but it still glowed with the black light.) 

Slowly pour the glow water into cornstarch. While its roughly equal parts, error on more cornstarch than water. Enjoy the texture! Take your time. You'll know its just right when you can roll it into a ball in your hand, but it turns runny when you open your hand!

Then, using a Black Light, the Oobleck glows! Amazing! 

Now, the science of it all! Usually Oobleck is a referred to as a non-newtonian fluid. That is, it acts like a liquid when being poured, but like a solid when a force is acting on it. You can grab it and then it will ooze out of your hands. But technically speaking, the goo is a SUSPENSION, meaning that the grains of starch are not dissolved, they are just suspended and spread out in the water. So why does this concoction act the way it does? Most of it has to do with pressure. The size, shape, and makeup of the cornstarch grains causes the cornstarch to “lock-up” and hold its shape when pressure is applied to it. People have filled small pools with oobleck and they are able to walk across the surface of it (as long as they move quickly.) As soon as they stop walking, they begin to sink. (Science background directly from Science Bob.) 

If you let the goo sit for a while, the cornstarch settles to the bottom of the bowl. I also found out that you cannot store oobleck, it develops a foul odor. Consider it a one-time use activity, but the ingredients are cheap, so don't worry. When disposing of the goo, throw it in the trash, not down the drain! Imagine what that would do to your pipes! Not fun! 


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Documenting Dilemma- APA vs. MLA

APA or MLA...that is the question! or is it? 

When writing the STEM Student Research Handbook, I did a lot of research to determine what style of documentation I would be promoting in my book, for high school researchers.  When I received feedback from the reviewers, they questioned my use of MLA. But I stood my ground and defended my use of MLA with high school students.  

I settled on MLA for several reasons:

  1. My class was often the students' first exposure to ANY type of parenthetical documentation, and MLA is simpler to learn. 
  2. I wanted to support my English department, who teaches MLA documentation in students' senior year (I know-I know, they shouldn't wait that long!)
  3. While many think APA is the scientific documentation style, its not. Its the education style. Scientific journals (not science education), do not usually ask for APA, but their own version of an existing style. Fact of the matter is, before scientists submit an article to a journal, they must determine the style the journal wants. So for me, the extra work it takes to teach APA, was not worth it. 
  4. Its the concept of documentation that is important, not the style. I cannot stress this enough. Using parenthetical citations is important for ideas, not just quotes. Students need to understand that citations do not show weakness in writing, but strength. Students must learn to take information from others, filter it through their own lens, synthesize concepts, and then reframe the information in context of their own research. That's a lot for young researchers to do! Using citations make your writing credible, not less. This is NOT how students first view documentation.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Collecting & Dissecting Owl Vomit (Pellets)

You may recall, we have the wonderful pleasure of providing the home for a family of Eastern Screech Owls. My first post on this topic introduces the family in a proper manner. As for now, I want talk about their vomit! No really! As a high school teacher, I only knew owl pellets as something that I could buy from a biological supply company, varying in price from $2-$6, depending on the size of the owl. Make sure you see the "Dirty Jobs: Owl Vomit Collector" that I posted in my first post about our owl family.

So you can only imagine the excitement I felt the moment I realized that I could collect my own pellets. I knew nothing about doing this, I just started looking below the branches where I know they perch, and voila! I'll admit they are a a bit more wet then what I was used to seeing, but talk about fresh! 

For those of you who are wondering....why on earth would you collect owl vomit, or what on earth can you learn from owl we go. 

Owls eat small animals and insects. They eat their entire meal, feathers/fur, exoskeleton and all. However, they cannot digest the bones or the feathers/fur, so these are regurgitated 12 hours after they've eaten. So in this little morsel is a story of what the owl has eaten. Make this lesson about food chain/web or about primary, secondary, & tertiary consumers!  Make it a lesson in skeletal anatomy or play CSI detective. Its up to you how you want to approach it!  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Easy Way to Plan for the School Year

I'm in a unique position right now in my teaching career. In some ways I should totally be prepared for homeschooling my son, but in so many ways I'm feeling inadequate. When that happens, I fall back on what has worked for me in the past.

On the NSTA listserves, I recently responded to a request for suggestions on how to plan for an entirely new class. In this case, it was an experienced teacher looking for direction on designing a new course from scratch. But it could apply to a first-year classroom teacher, or to a first-year homeschooling teacher, like me! I posted a version of what I am going to share with you here, and got an overwhelming response. While my organizational tactics may seem old school, there's something very tangible and do-able that has a strong appeal! 

I got this idea from an elementary school teacher. Buy one of those cheap poster boards (can you get them for under a dollar any more?), divide it into 4 quadrants, each representing one of the grading quarters. Then use post-it notes to put in the over arching topics (units) you want to cover each quarter. With different colored post-it notes add the labs you want to do, fieldtrips you want to take, speakers you want to bring in..etc... Play with the post-it notes until you feel like the conceptual order makes sense, and provides a thorough examination of the course objectives! 

Again, I feel better planning the big picture first or else my units last too long because I get so excited about a single topic. It focuses me, and helps me know where I am headed. If you don't plan the actual lessons during the summer (like you might be saying you will do) that's OK. You'll feel prepared to teach this fall just having the big idea of your course conceptualized. And if you know what topics you want include, you can keep this in mind as you gather ideas for activities and labs. Consider using Pinterest as a way to keep track of the cool ideas so you can find them again quickly throughout the school year.

Here's my suggestion:
  1. Purpose: Determine the purpose of the course. Look for course descriptions and talk to anyone who has previously taught the course to get a feel for its goal's. 
  2. Standards: If the course is associated with specific standards (Common core or otherwise), make sure you know which ones!
  3. Audience: Who takes this course? Whether its your first year teaching, or its a new course or grade level, determine the types of students with whom you will working. What have they learned in previous classes on which you can build?
  4. Topics: Knowing the purpose, standards, and audience prepares you for beginning to determine the sequencing of the topics you'd like students to learn. Place post-it notes (I suggest the Super Sticky Notes if you plan on keeping the poster board around all year, which is what I always did!)   
  5. Activities: Once you have the big ideas in place, as you come across ideas, you can jot them down on a post-it, and place it in the appropriate quadrant so remember to revisit the idea later! 
[As you can tell from the language I use, I'm speaking to this issue of planning from a secondary teacher's perspective. However, this method of planning works for any level.] 

How do you plan your school year? Any tips of how this might translate for  homeschool planning? 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Celery & Transpiration Lab

I volunteer as the science laboratory coordinator at an all boys Christian boarding school. What this means is that I go in two mornings a week, one morning to tutor in science, math, and writing-and the other morning to do a lab with they boys. One of the labs in the SOS (Switched on Schoolhouse) General Science 1 course is about celery. But I was unimpressed with the purpose of the lab. It seemed to me, that it was being used as a demo in which it reinforced the concept that water moves up the stem, into the leaves. But to me, this is such an elementary idea, one in which my 5 year old understands.  

Its all in how you approach a topic right? Sometimes the simplest concepts are quite abstract and can strike a sense of wonder in us, if we just stop to reflect on what we think we know. Yeah, water goes up from the soil, up the stems of plants, and into its leaves...big deal! Well it is. Remember gravity? How does the water go against gravity? What if I told you, it is a passive process and doesn't take energy to do? Impressed yet? If you're thinking to yourself, "Well how does it go up?," then I've got you in the right frame of mind to do an experiment. With your students, before handing out this lab, you might have them do a reflective journal entry trying to determine how they think water moves up stems. Then maybe they'll have a higher motivation to try and understand it!   

In this lab, I provide a brief introduction to capillary action, surface tension, adhesion, all leading up to a discussion about transpiration. Ah....transpiration. This is the key to getting that water up the stem! Excess water evaporates off the leaves, and the water below it is PULLED up the xylem (tubes that cary the water in plants). And, this takes no energy!  

Before I forget, here is a copy of the student handout. On my scale of inquiry, I would consider this lab a level three, which means that the teacher poses the question, but the student plans the procedure and formulates the results. The question students address is, "Can we speed up the rate of transpiration?" They pick what variable they want to test and then the methods in which will help them answer their question. Really allow students to pick their variable. Its more fun this way! I had fans, lights, thermometers, rulers, and protractors all sitting out as they thought about what they wanted to do.  

While you listen to students talk about what they think will speed up transpiration, see if you can guide them to the understanding that sometimes by testing one variable, we're introducing another. For example, the group that tested intensity of light was inadvertently also adding a variable of heat, if they used an incandescent  light bulb.  They key here is not to tell them what to do, but to ask questions at the right time in their process thinking. You must also refrain from answering every question they ask. Refer them back to their group, and see if they can figure things out. I found myself asking questions such as
  • How might you set up the plant to make it as "fair" as possible? 
  • If you want the results to be drastically different, where will you place the stalks of celery?
  • How can you control for extraneous variables (heat, people around the experiment, time of day)
  • How will you measure the rate of transpiration? (For rate you need distance and time!)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It Looked Better on Pinterest!

Photos of pinterest boats compared to one done in real life.

It looked better on Pinterest! I'm hoping that this is true for other people too. Some of the ideas I get from Pinterest...well, don't look like the pictures!  

Exhibit A: I pinned this birthday idea from to put balloons on the floor on your kid's birthday so that they'll wake up to a sea of color. Cool right? I mean really. Look how smiley that little girl is. I couldn't wait for my son's birthday to try this.    

Then I also saw this photo from Secrets of a Super Mommy to cover the kiddo's doorway with streamers! Again, great idea, couldn't wait to implement it. (I knew I'd have to modify this one, because our Caleb shares his room with his 1 year old brother who doesn't always sleep through the night.)  

Reality check: Here's how the Pinterest-inspired special event went down in our home. I spent an hour blowing up balloons after the kids went to bed, I taped streamers between the bunk bed and the shelves, only to have a crying little boy at my bedside several hours later complaining of sore legs. (We think these are growing pains...I wouldn't know anything about that--I'm only 5'.) After I settled him down with hugs and kisses, he asked what all that stuff was in his room. I explained that for his birthday I wanted to do something special and decorated his room for him. He looked me square in the eye and said, "That was a bad idea, Mom." Humph.

My Logical-Mathematical Son

Multiple Intelligences (MI) is my favorite theory of learning styles. My first post in this series, Multiple Intelligence and STEM explains the importance of identifying differences in how kids learn. I made the assumption in that post that most STEM teachers are probably strongly Logical-Mathematical. And so this is the first intelligence that I want to discuss. 

Home EDucator's Resource Directory, has a post on how teachers, particularly homeschooling parents, can understand and teach their strongly Logical-Mathematical students.  If you visit this link, I only caution you that you don't pigeon-hole your child. All of the intelligences work together, affect one another, and therefore, you need to consider how the logical-mathematical parts of your child work in combination with his/her other strengths. 

Logical Mathematical kids enjoy:
  • Counting
  • Categorizing
  • Patterns
  • Classifying
  • Problem Solving
  • Graphing: all visual representations of data
Kids who are strongly Logical-Mathematical may:
  • Categorize their toys by shape, color, or size
  • Enjoy mazes, puzzles, and anything that allows them to consider logical issues
  • Want organization and structure in their learning environment
  • Figure out the "how" of something before it is taught (albeit maybe not the way you would have taught it!)
  • Enjoy experimenting as long as they have a say in the methods and analysis (Not a cookbook lab-where the outcome is known and the methods are predetermined.) 
"Logical Mathematical learners solve problems with creative stolutions and have no problem with experimenting." Home EDucator's Resource Directory
Ever since my boys were born, I was curious as to what learning style they may be.  Having no experience in early childhood education, I had no idea at what age I might start to see glimpses of learning styles. But here we are at five years old, and I can tell my oldest, Caleb, has logical-mathematical tendencies.  Much of our time is spent doing activities in which counting and logic are key. So checkers is one game we enjoy. He likes playing it "for real" (not our iTouch app) because he can cheat when I'm not looking; claiming he's helping me move my pieces!  

In addition to checkers, Caleb love doing mazes. I was so pleased to find the Krazy Dad website that offers all sorts of FREE printable puzzles, and mazes. The site includes Sudoko, Crosswords, Slitherlinks, and a bunch of other puzzle types I've never heard of. The mazes are categorized into easy, intermediate, challenging, tough, and super tough. And the mazes come in all shapes, sizes including all sorts of animals and dinosaurs, which is perfect for Caleb. However, at this point the Easy mazes are not very challenging but the Intermediate frustrate him. So his momentary disposition dictates which maze I hand over for him to do. You'll notice I put the printouts in plastic sleeves and have him use *washable* dry erase markers. This helps so he can easily erase when he needs to backtrack. And it also allows us to reuse mazes!