Thursday, September 29, 2011

Living in Spite of Yourself

This week, my wonderful church started a new women's Bible study: Living Beyond Yourself by Beth Moore. I took this Bible study five years ago, but life has gotten so busy that I need a refresher. How do you know if you need it? Well, if it is Wednesday morning and you know you cannot possibly get everything done that you need to get done by Friday without losing your mind, this is the study for you. Why? You learn to tap into a power, and a person, higher than yourself to get through the day without losing your cool or telling someone what you really think.

By relying upon the Holy Spirit, you end up enjoying Fruit whether or not everything on your to-do list gets a checkmark: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What? Get rid of all your bad habits while doing everything on your list. Nope! Fruit like that doesn't come naturally: it comes supernaturally through the Holy Spirit working in your heart. If you really don't think you need it, check out how many times you whine or vent on a Facebook status.

Besides supernatural power, other things have helped us keep up with our studies (we just wrapped up Day 18 and are half way through Week 4). Today, I will share how I set up my audio disc. Some of our day is primarily audio: Spanish lessons, folk song, hymn, Spanish song, Spanish fairy tales, recitation, composer study, listening to Librivox recordings, etc. Having it all on the computer means it is not portable. Today, in between delivering meals to the elderly through meals on wheels, Pamela did all of her audio work: forty minutes freed up to do something else at home! I have a hard time keeping track of one CD, much less five or six. Plus, that means getting up and switching disks every time we transition to another activity. By putting everything I need for the week on one CD, the day runs more smoothly: we can take it to the car with us or we can flip through tracks with the remote control.

Here are some tips that have helped me:

1. I put everything in order of frequency. The things we do every day go at the beginning of the CD, so we avoid wasting time flipping through tracks. The stuff we do only once a week goes at the end of the CD.

2. I love Audacity, which lets you edit your sound recordings. Before making a CD, I edit individual files for various reasons.

  • I edit the tempo (change the speed without changing the pitch). When someone speaks too quickly (Spanish or an audio book), I slow down the recording without making the changing the speaker's vocal quality.
  • I remove any annoying background noise. 
  • To introduce vocabulary words for Spanish, I copy and paste the person in the story saying the word. We listen to new words and point to pictures before the story begins to build our vocabulary.
  • I include only the part of the story we are reading. Because the Spanish fairy tales are short, we listen from beginning to the current stopping point. I cut the ending out so we know exactly where to stop. For Spanish only, we listen to the same segment two or three times a week. Our goal is building our ear for we already know the story.
  • I break up the English readings that are stories into day-by-day chunks. So, if we have five passages from the same book that week, I will have five different tracks with only the passage we need for each day. I have tabs and marks on the pages in the book so Pamela can find the right spot on the page on her own if I am driving.
3. I put all audio work in blue ink (not black) on our weekly schedule for quick reference.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Power of Ideas

Every educational philosophy seems to have some sort of emphasis around which curriculum is built. For example, unit studies intentionally build all subjects around a theme: a specific topic, a character trait, a country, etc. Traditional textbooks focus narrowly on a subject with information organized and presented very tightly, factually, rigorously. Classical education gives children what fits in each stage (in the grammar stage, i.e., elementary age, the focus is memorization of facts, rules, data, details, etc.). Unschoolers pay attention to the interests of the child and provides what is needed to pursue those interests. So, what is the emphasis for a Charlotte Mason approach?

CM homeschoolers tend to think in broad principles rather than fixed rules. When unsure of what to do, I often fall back on her principles. For example, when Pamela was struggling with picture study taught in the manner Mason described, I realized Pamela, as a person with aphasia and autism (personhood being Mason's first principle), required more scaffolding by giving her visual cues to show what I understood, having a grand conversation, and turning it into a theory of mind game with five levels of scaffolding. Now, Pamela can do picture study in the way Mason described.

Some may point to history as the pivot of a Mason curriculum, which actually takes a backseat to the knowledge of God. "The knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making" (Page 158) and "Next in order to religious knowledge, history is the pivot upon which our curriculum turns" (Page 273). While that may help us structure the books and things we choose, I think there is something more fundamental. While some subjects dovetail well into a chronological way of thinking (history, literature, picture study, composer study, architecture), others do not (second language, mathematics, science, handicrafts). Mason also added books completely out of the chronology she laid out for that school year! Why? I think the reason why has something to do with what we emphasize.

And, what do we emphasize you ask? Ideas. Mason touches on ideas in several of her many principles:
In saying that "education is a life," the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.

We hold that the child's mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is, "what a child learns matters less than how he learns it."

But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that,––

Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas. To help them in this choice we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.
The concept of ideas seemed very nebulous to me for a very long time, but the longer I work with Pamela, the more vivid it becomes. For example, last year, we read a book that absolutely captivated Pamela: The Tarantula in My Purse. Pamela fell in love with the idea of Jean Craighead George taking wild animals into her home, caring for them, and later releasing them. Then, we had an appointment from God the week we read the last chapter in the book: we helped a friend rescue two hawks! Since then, Pamela has talked off and on about rescuing animals. Last month, a praying mantis ended up in our house: I noticed it crawling on the ceiling while I was talking to a friend on the phone. A few days later, I snapped a picture of it hanging out on some furniture. All on her own initiative, Pamela dug out a mason jar and lid from the cabinet, carefully captured the misguided insect, and put it outside. I had my camera handy and caught her comments on video.

The most recent episode was concerning a walnut sphinx moth, whose identity Butterflies and Moths of North America kindly confirmed for us. (Oh, and as a result of our citizen science efforts, BMNA has added the walnut sphinx moth to the rolls for our county!) I have to admit: it wasn't a true rescue. I spied it on the back porch while setting the house alarm for the night. I found Pamela's butterfly garden netting and sneaked out to capture the poor thing, which we kept in captivity long enough to work through a few lessons from the Comstock book (Handbook of Nature Study) and make nature notebook entries. Tuesday night, we released the moth and Pamela easily saw why the moth is sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds. Its wings flutter quite rapidly.

But, this is not the end to the ideas. More are sprouting. We cannot do nature study on every animal such as those not native to our area or close enough to visit. So, our books inform us when real living things cannot. We are now reading a book about people moving to a location where a species of endangered animals lives and monitoring their health and well-being. These people became veterinarians and animal epidemiologists and moved to a jungle or forest in a far away just to work in this field. She is picking up all sorts of interesting ideas related to the original one that captured her attention: we can give diseases to animals, and they can give diseases to us. Sometimes, our diseases kill animals and vice versa. Rather than take them to a hospital like we did the hawks, these animal doctors work outdoors and shoot medicine and sleeping potions into dangerous animals that need treatment. I cannot wait to see where these newly sprouted ideas lead Pamela.

I will leave you with her final nature notebook entries of what she learned from our guest.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Flapping, Feathers, Sphinxes, and Other Fun Stuff

Yesterday, we wrapped up our second week of homeschooling, which flew by!

Language Arts - Pamela picked some interesting quotes for her common place book, one of which is a foreshadowing of Mark Anthony's speech and Caesar's funeral in the play by Shakespeare. One of the most memorable moments of the week ended up in the common place book. We have been reading a book about a girl from Boston living in Charleston at the beginning of the Civil War. Another girl insults her by calling her a Yankee, and her father smooths it over by explaining that the British call Americans that name. Then, we were reading an entirely different book in which one of our ships was visiting London and giving tours to people. The Brits remarked, "The Yankees were most civil" and, as Pamela read the line aloud, she added, "War. Just like 'Yankee girl'" and chuckled at her play on words. She laughs aloud during readings quite often when something strikes her fancy. Pamela did more copywork of Benjamin Franklin's wit and made only one spelling error in her studied dictation. I opted not to turn it into a lesson since the word was unfamiliar to her (erect).

Literature - Two weeks ago, I wasn't sure how Pamela would do with one particularly fanciful book that I'm enjoying because I can see threads that surely must have inspired Tolkien and Lewis. Pamela's narrations are wonderful, calming my concerns. I also worried about a mythology book I substituted for the one on the curriculum list which jumped from story to story too quickly. She had no problem shifting from one setting, Eustace Bright telling stories to his younger siblings and friends, to the myth. Her narration of the Gorgon's head tells me she remembers the action from day to day, which was not happening with the original book! Because the book retells six myths in great detail, she will glean the background knowledge needed to leap from one story to the next down the road. Sometimes, two steps forward requires one step backward!

Math - While I love our math curriculum, Pamela has a few issues with it. The program assumes Pamela has background knowledge that she lacks. I have continued to make sheets that blend word roots and concrete illustrations and practice activities that prepare her for the next exercise. She is doing really well and worked on things like classifying triangles (equilateral/isosceles/scalene and acute/right/obtuse), constructing her own triangles, finding the relationship between different sides and their opposite angles, etc. Last year, I took a break from the curriculum to nail down fractions, area, perimeter, etc. I gave her some review problems and she remembered what to do! She absolutely adored the "magical" moment when you are finding the median of a triangle, and all the lines cross at the same point. Not only that, all on her own, Pamela connected the word median to mediano (the Spanish word she learned for medium in last year's Ricitos de oro y los tres osos). If your math lessons lack magical "aha" moments, then you are missing out on one of the great joys of life.

Science - We have struck a great balance between reading, doing, drawing, and writing for science. The lessons are short and varied, keeping Pamela's attention. We finally shredded enough paper and cardboard for our worm composting bin, so this week we made holes in the rubber maid bin. Because the drill wasn't working, I ended up hammering nails into the bin. It proved to be great work for Pamela's fine motor skills because, once the nail was stable and no longer needed to be held, Pamela finished the job and then retrieved the nail with the claw end. This finagled approach worked well for the holes in the top and bottom, but the springiness of the sides of the bin rendered it ineffective. Eventually, I stumbled on Plan C: screw a hole into the bin, pound the nail until stable, and let Pamela finish the job. Borrowing a drill from my father would have saved us a lot of trouble but would not have given Pamela's hands a solid workout. Redworm composting is full of information for beginners: we chose the "deluxe rubbermaid bin" because I'm not willing to shell out the big bucks yet. Besides, the process of building the thing will make us both better and handiwork.

We made fewer nature study entries because we spent two days on the garden spider and two days on the sphinx moth, which I have submitted to Butterflies and Moths of North America for identification. I believe it is a walnut sphinx moth, but none are listed for our county. By the way, you know you are a homeschooler when you sneak out on the back porch in your jammies to capture a moth! I had an old swallowtail lying around the house, so we carefully observed the differences between moths and butterflies with our own eyes as Pamela wrote down details about the moth. We are collecting feathers and drawing them. Once we have enough, we will be sorting them by kind (the position on the bird). A feather is not simply a feather as you can see in the photograph.

Pamela easily distinguishes puffy versus blanket versus no clouds. She is still working on the scientific names: cumulus and stratus. We have had absolutely no rain for our rain gauges and no opportunity to paint nimbus or cirrus clouds this week. I find it hard to call these watercolor paintings science because they are so beautiful. Do you notice the little symbol Pamela invented to reflect "no clouds"?

Since we are studying clouds, we are doing experiments with evaporation. The water from last week's experiment finally evaporated below the rim lines of the jar. Pamela clearly saw that the lidless jar evaporated more quickly. We started another experiment to see which container shape will evaporate more quickly. The most fun experiment involved massive amounts of flapping, and Pamela loved it as you can see in the pictures of our flap-a-thon. We were trying to see the effect of wind on evaporation rates. You may notice that the science journal are entirely Pamela's effort: drawing and simple sentences (I guide her in the phrasing). I can spend less time on planning by letting her notebook reflect her thinking rather than represent the thinking of someone who created elaborate lapbooks. Kids really can think for themselves if given the chance.

Watercolor Class - Pamela painted the top and side views of an apple in watercolor class this week. As always, her colors make the subject seem alive.

Fine Arts - We were supposed to do a picture study this week. When it came time to open the ziplock bag of print cards, half were gone! I have no idea where they are. People think I'm organized, but I'm not. My ideas and plans are organized, but the concrete things in my life, i.e., stuff, have room for improvement. I'm still thinking through the back-up plan. Pamela has added to her collection of arches and columns in her drawing notebook.

Handwork - Pamela should finish this knitting needle case next week and get back to her finger knitting.

Foreign Language, Music, Geography, History - I have nothing much to add, except for a few morsels. Pamela and I learned some new things in Spanish: la manzana, está comiendo, and el lápiz. We are on track to finish the ten lessons (which are broken up into five-mini lessons each) by the end of the year! Pamela loves the songs we are learning. The other day, while we were walking, she was singing all the songs she knew and even making a couple of jumps for joy. While we were pounding holes in the composting bins, we sang just for fun. Pamela is still covering the same geographical places and just made the first entries into her book of centuries. It deserves a post until itself.

Physical Exercise and Community Service - I will close with pictures from the Prayer Walk for all of the schools (public and private) in our county. Hey, wait a minute! I just realized there were no signs for the homeschools. Hmmmm. Anyway, we walked three miles and prayed for schools along the way (or signs representing the schools). The organization had a great turnout: I felt so thrilled to be surrounded by so many people who care about education and are willing to pray for them. Pamela balked about a mile into it but managed to get a grip. After that, she was a champ. I took the walks off our schedule for Friday and Monday to provide rest. Oh, yes, I just had to take pictures of the yucca plant and swallowtail butterfly.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Watercolor Clouds

A couple of people have remarked on the watercolor clouds. They are so easy to do, I thought I'd share it here. We are painting clouds right now to get in the habit of looking at the sky to study what kind of clouds they are. Every day Pamela writes the name of the cloud (stratus, cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus). We are also doing a couple of experiments on vapor and evaporation before we dig into books later in the year.
Step One - I cut a 9 x 12 sheet of watercolor paper in half. I use 90 lb. paper because we like to save the more expensive 140 lb. paper for special projects. To make the lovely border, tape a piece of the cut paper to a board with masking tape or painters tape.
Step Two - Collect supplies: big brushes, paper towels, and two bowls with washes (basically dirty water made by dipping you brush into a color and cleaning it off with water). We have a kit of 24 watercolor tubes: black and cerulean blue are good for this project. Then, go outside and look at the sky to see what kind of clouds you have and what colors you need. Today is a gray overcast (stratus clouds).
Step Three - Make a wet wash. Dip the brush the dirty water (we chose black because of the stratus clouds) and get it "juicy" as Pamela's art teacher likes to say. Then cover the entire paper, making it nice and wet. You may see some puddles on your paper. It's okay. You can take care of that in the next step.

Step Five - Scrunch up the paper towel and quickly and lightly press on the puddle to sop up the puddle only. In watercolor, your paper towel is your best friend: it can lift color when you make a mistake or think the color is overpowering. (Colors never over power Pamela). A paper towel leaves an interesting texture and makes lovely clouds (try color lifting from a blue wash and you will see some lovely cumulus clouds). We have not made cirrus clouds yet (the feathery ones). I will post on that once we make them.
Step Six - Dip your brush into black (or blue) mixed with a little water. Dip the brush once into the wash (only once). Then dollop the color quickly onto the wet wash. It should still be wet to get the right effect. Keep in mind you have no control over what the colors do. Wet-on-wet is quite unpredictable and bleeds into all sorts of unpredictable shapes. If you have dark storm clouds, you will want more wet-on-wet. If you have stratus clouds like we do, you will want less. You can see in the picture how quickly Pamela moves her hand.

Step Seven - If you have too much wet or too much color or want to make some clouds, scrunch up a paper towel and dab those spots. You can see how quickly Pamela moves her hands. Once it dries completely, remove the tape and write on the border.