Tag Archives: teaching

Book Review :: Story of the World

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

We are on our fifth year of using the Story of the World Curriculum. That means we're cycling back to ancient times.

We are in our fifth year of using the Story of the World Curriculum. That means we’re cycling back to ancient times.

Audience: Ages 6 and up
Reading Level: 4th grade and up due to lots of historical names

Bauer, Susan Wise. The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child: Volume I: Ancient Times: From the earliest nomads to the last Roman emperor. Revised Edition. Peace Hill Press: Charles City, VA, 2006.

Bauer, Susan Wise. The Story of the World Activity Book I: Ancient Times. Peace Hill Press: Charles City, VA , 2006.

Story of the World

This is our fifth year using the Story of the World (SOTW) curriculum. That’s saying a lot for a homeschooling family. We have a lot of choices to choose from and need not stick with a curriculum unless we really like it.

As for my own teaching style, I use music CDs, workbooks, regular books, library videos, dinnertime discussions, general observations and board games to teach my kids about the world (and math, writing, reading, history, etc). I use Montessori materials for reading and math (up to age 7 or so). It’s rare that I use any sort of comprehensive curriculum – except for SOTW and as they get older, Beast Academy and Singapore for math. Although there are a number of activities you could require your children to do with SOTW (including tests), I follow the lead of my children and adapt the curriculum as needed.

Picture of all four books in the Story of the World series.

A glimpse at all four books in the Story of the World curriculum series.

I really like SOTW because it’s a chronologically-based history ‘program.’ The stories are told in order, beginning with the nomads and moving up through modern times. When my oldest was young, we started with the nomads and I didn’t worry about encompassing the big bang theory or placement of the dinosaurs (something we corrected when cycling back to ancient times).

I think the chronological order mimics Dr. Montessori’s Cosmic Education without requiring too much learning (or buying of resources) on my part. The Cosmic ‘Curriculum’ is presented in the 6-12 classroom, and since I did my training for ages 3-6, I love that SOTW has stories that are easy for me to read and that the guide has pre-printed maps and suggested activities. It’s less prep work for me. I also love that I can adapt it to my needs and feel less pressured to use the “correct” Montessori materials (i.e. prepared timeline).

First Year – Story of the World – Ancient Times – Ages 5 – 7
The first year we started with SOTW, my oldest was five and a half, but he LOVED listening to stories. He didn’t care for reading instruction, written math or having to retell a story. He wanted to listen to the stories and that was it. So, that’s what we did. With a globe nearby, I read the stories and supported them with the occasional picture or non-fiction book (many of which were recommended in the guide). We discovered the “craft” section of the guide and R chose a recommended activity each week. We also skipped some chapters and focused on a few select topics. At the end of the year, he knew a lot about ancient Egypt, ancient China and the Roman Empire. He was also very familiar with the non-fiction section of the library.

Although my oldest doesn't remember re-enacting the Silk Road, my husband and I do - and it is one of our fondest memories!

Although my oldest doesn’t remember re-enacting the Silk Road, my husband and I do and it is one of our fondest memories! These were drinks of water so they wouldn’t be parched in the Gobi Desert.

His younger brother offered to be his camel on the silk road en-enactment - complete with stuffing in his back.

His younger brother offered to be his camel on the silk road en-enactment – complete with stuffing in his back.

Second Year – Story of the World – Medieval Times – Ages 6 – 8
There are typically 42 chapters in each book, so we really didn’t get to the end of the first book until the end of the summer, which meant that we started the second book around October. These stories seemed much more interesting – knights and castles and barbarians (which he didn’t really like because they were scary). Since he was technically a first grader, we didn’t do any summaries or written work. I read the stories and he chose an activity from the guide. Since his younger brother was much more active that year, we didn’t even do a lot of literature reinforcements, just a chapter and an activity.

Picture of a homemade marshmallow and cereal castle

This castle is made from puffed cereal and melted marshmallows. Four years later, my children STILL remember it fondly.

In addition to choosing an activity or craft from each week, we made sure to visit the local Medieval Faire that year. Also, for R’s 7th birthday, he and his dad attended the show at Medieval Times in Orlando. While it’s not quite authentic, it’s close enough for a 7-year-old. All of these events helped to make the connections in his brain grow stronger and hopefully solidified some knowledge of medieval times.

Third Year – Story of the World – Early Modern Times – Ages 7 – 9
This was the year R attended a charter school, at least until Christmas break when we pulled him out to continue homeschooling. It was a change we all needed and has served us well in the ensuing years. Regardless, he said he wanted to keep reading the stories when he went to school, so once a week we read about history from the 1500s to the 1850s. His second grade teacher required a written summary each week, so he often chose to summarize the chapter that we read (upon my suggestion).

This was one of the hardest things my struggling writer had to do, but he made his way through it. Often, he would dictate his summary to me and then copy it in his own hand. His thoughts were much more advanced than his limited spelling and writing skills, and this was a good way to bridge that gap. It also gave him good practice with learning how to summarize (sort of). His assignments came with no “summarizing” instructions, but we talked about what was most important in the story and he took it from there.

After he returned to homeschooling, I taught him how to do summary maps using this book as a general guide. It provided the concepts of main and supporting ideas and gave my visual-spatial learner a way to organize his thoughts and write a summary – without having to write an entire paragraph.

Fourth Year – Story of the World – Modern Times – Ages 8 – 10
For the fourth year of history, I continued to require that he make story maps for one of the stories in each chapter, though we did try to begin outlining, as Bauer recommends. He just wasn’t ready, especially since he didn’t particularly care for the summary maps either. I did read many of these aloud to him, but as his 4.5-year-old brother was becoming interested in the stories (and these are pretty violent retellings), I had him read many of the chapters to himself. He was an accomplished reader at that point and had already been reading lots of kids’ books on WWII, civil rights and current events.

Looking back on these past four years, I realized that I used this curriculum to create a love of history (and hopefully pattern recognition), to establish the concept of geography and a sense of being part of a bigger whole, and to gently introduce writing and note-taking skills (with transferable results).  I have been very happy with the ability to adapt the SOTW curriculum. I have been able to add or remove activities and stay on certain topics longer, if I choose to do so, and if my children show an interest.

It’s important to note that the author does place a Christian-slant on history by including chapters on Abraham and God, and the birth of Jesus, but she also introduces many other major religions and includes their origin stories, specifically Islam and Hinduism. If you are not Christian, you could skip such chapters as there is not a Christian theme throughout the rest of the chapters.

This year, we have returned to ‘Ancient Times’ and my six-year-old has joined us in our ‘Story of the World’ activities. I will be detailing our return to this time period in a follow-up post. Since it is my ten-year-old’s second time through this curriculum, we have increased the activities and added elements that deepen our learning and understanding.

This is a pretend stop on the Silk Road - complete with chocolate chip "snacks" that you could buy at a local store.

This is a pretend stop on the Silk Road – complete with chocolate chip “snacks” that you could buy at a local store. I can’t wait to re-enact the journey of the Silk Road.




Computer Science without Computers

This is the last post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the previous posts about the game, Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, the game of ‘Be the Robot’ and What’s Inside of a laptop.
computer science without a computer - workbooks

These are some resources I’ve found that teach logic and computer science skills – without a computer.

Since I am not a classically trained computer scientist (or programmer for that matter), my use of the term ‘computer science’ may differ from others (here’s a really great explanation of the differences). I use the term vaguely – to imply a lot of different computer-centered activities. That might include logical thinking, seeing things from a different perspective, noticing patterns, finding out about computer parts, learning about key programming concepts, such as repeat loops, and of course, using icon-based programming languages to write programs.

So, with that being said, I have gathered a lot of great materials and hands-on tools over the last few years, such as Lego WeDo kits, Ozobots and creative instruction with the icon-based language, Scratch. But, I have had times when I’ve needed activities that didn’t require a computer. I needed to teach computer science without computers. Sometimes these activities were used to fill a break in my coding or Robotics camps. Sometimes, I was asked to teach where there were few resources and only a couple of computers. We needed a way to rotate computer use, but still be working with programming concepts.

Computer Science Without Computers

This need led me to the DK Workbook, Computer Coding. This looks to be a companion to DK’s book, Help Your Child with Computer Programming, except that this slim workbook starts out by introducing the Python programming language, which I do not teach. Although I will be teaching a kids’ web design class this summer, most of my classes do not use text-based programming languages.

I know, we could have a whole other debate about how HTML isn’t a true programming language…but let’s hold off for now, shall we?

DK's book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

DK’s book, Coding for Kids, is a good resource for kids who are ready to start using Python.

If you skip ahead in the Coding workbook, there are some really cool exercises on “thinking like a robot” and writing out simple commands, such as ‘forward(50).’ I drew out some of these on the board and had us work together to complete them. Honestly, it wasn’t as much fun for the 9th graders who were my captive audience. They had a hard time making the connection to why this type of learning was important – and they weren’t intrinsically interested in coding. In that case, I really could have used some computers to set them free with Scratch. Usually, the free expression in Scratch can hook any reluctant teen programmer.

But alas, that wasn’t an option for a cash-strapped camp who wanted to offer some computer science programs. I did find a curriculum that looked interesting, but didn’t come across it until after my “no-computer” camp experience. This free “Computer Science-in-a-Box” curriculum is from the National Center for Women  & Information Technology. Although this curriculum is geared toward ages 9 – 14, I haven’t used it in my camps. It does seem a bit like “school” work and my campers are not so willing to take up paper and pencil during the summer. But, like most curriculum, I’m sure there will be some great insights that I can find to use with my students.

A good resource from Code.org.

A good resource from Code.org.

I’ve also looked over the curriculum from Code.org – “Intro to the Art of Computer Science.”  Both of the above items are well-researched, but most of the activities are too tedious or abstract for my younger students to appreciate or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – I like the guides and learned a lot from them. I also think think they offer a lot of valuable information, but not for my age group (or for uninterested kids). They seem to be written for the computer scientist in mind – those kids who know they want to work with computers, have played with Scratch and maybe Python, and want to know everything about how binary works and how a computer thinks.

Many of the kids I encounter are unsure that they can even tell a computer what to do, so we have to find a way to break down the abstract concepts into something much more concrete. It’s why I love Scratch so much. Regardless, I do recommend the guides – if only as a way to gain more background knowledge and vocabulary for the teacher.

I would also recommend reading more about Seymour Papert and his thoughts on computers in schools and how children use them (or should use them). Palpert was at MIT, helped to develop the Lego Mindstorms concept and has left his lasting influence on the openness of creative learning, which is something that the creators of Scratch have carried forth into their teacher’s guide. I also think their article on computational thinking is well worth reading.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

I am a huge fan of many of the workbooks from The Critical Thinking Co.

Since we are talking about abstract concepts – I am a huge fan of logic problems and really like the ones put out by the Critical Thinking Co.  Last summer, I made some copies for a few kids in my camps because I knew that they would finish up faster than the other kids and might like a good challenge. Some of my other students found these too difficult and had a bit of a fixed mindset about discovering the solutions. Either way, having them look at information in a new way (which is what logic problems do) is a great skill for any kid (or adult) to try.

Lauren Ipsum

Finally, this book has been sitting on my shelves for many months now…just waiting for the right opportunity to read it aloud to my six and ten-year-old sons. Of course, we had to get through The Magician’s Nephew, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now, we need to finish The Odyssey (abridged), but we’ll get to it because I’m really looking forward to reading a fantastical story that has computer science elements.

All told, there are a number of resources to impart logic and computer science concepts – without a computer. As noted above, you can check out my previous posts on Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, Be the Robot and Making a Paper Laptop.

Unfortunately for those schools (or camps) that do not have the resources for a computer lab, these non-computer activities will only take you so far with computer programming. As far as other materials that teach “programming,” I am a huge fan of the 1.0 Ozobots since they have their own “color” language and students can use regular markers and a large sheet of paper to write some programs. They don’t require as much space as laptops or desktops, and students could work together as a group, so it would cost less money. To see how I’ve used Ozobots in my camps, check out “Using Ozobots in a Classroom” and “Making Maps with Ozobots.”

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

A student is testing out the programming codes for an Ozobot.

What’s inside a laptop?

This is the fourth post, in a series of activities, that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices. Check out the first post about the game Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles and the game of ‘Be the Robot.’
A collection of final projects from some of my summer campers.

A collection of final projects from some of my summer campers.

Inside a Laptop – Make a Paper Laptop

This multi-day project was one of the kids’ favorite activities. I think it impressed the adults too. Everyone seemed to like this activity – both the process and the final product. There was structure, there was learning and there was enough creativity the kids could ‘make it their own.’ I did this activity with kindergarten through fourth grade students. They all loved it, although I think it was too much for the younger kids (K and 1st).

The purpose of this project was to reinforce the idea that computers are made up of parts. We, as people, construct them and we need to tell them what to do (at least at this stage in the game). I don’t want the kids to think that it is just a magic box. I want them to understand there are lots of connected pieces that work together to make a working computer.

With a little bit of guidance, students can craft knowledge about the inside of a computer.

This was a great lesson on drawing attention to where the letters are laid out on the keyboard. The students copied a real keyboard and wrote the letters onto their paper computers.

This activity came about because I needed a computer science project for a church camp, but they had no computers. There were minimal materials available, but I am a hands-on educator. I needed to find a way to engage the students without droning on and on. I don’t lecture (at least not for more than 5 minutes) and almost never for classes that include young children.

After some desperate web searching, I came across a few ‘computer parts’ worksheets and thankfully, this blog post by Creatiful Kids. Since I am a Montessori-educator – and I was trying to discourage the “magic” feel of a computer –  I created my own, realistic-looking materials so my students could build their own laptop.

I drew my own parts (that looked somewhat realistic) and labeled them. Then made copies for the kids to color (if they wanted to).

I drew my own parts (that looked somewhat realistic) and labeled them. Coloring was optional.

Connecting the Paper Laptop with a Real-Life Laptop

Then, I needed a computer to take apart. Thank goodness I had one laying around. It managed to stick around despite during my 2014 minimalist-inspired purge (as it’s called in our house). Somehow, I didn’t manage to get rid of the old Macbook. That laptop was still hanging out in my husband’s office, so I immediately grabbed it. I found a YouYube video on how to take it apart and started unscrewing. I attracted the attention of my youngest son and we worked together.

C and I watched a YouTube video on how to take apart my old macbook.

C and I watched a YouTube video on how to take apart my old macbook.

Since it was a very old laptop (from 2005), some of the screws were stripped and did not come undone. There was some cutting and pulling, but we took the top off and figured out where the main parts were.

You can see how old this laptop is...by all of the dust in the components. Yuck!

You can see how old this laptop is…by all of the dust in the components. Yuck!

Now I had a real-life visual to show the kids and they could replicate the “real” laptop by making one out of paper. I asked them not to touch any of these parts because I wasn’t sure what sort of chemicals were coating them after so many years of use. I also removed the battery and placed it in a plastic bag and showed it to them, but didn’t pass it around.

The keyboard is removable and it's fun to watch the kids' expressions when I take it off.

The keyboard is removable and it’s fun to watch the kids’ expressions when I take it off.

Did I expect them to remember the names of the parts? Maybe. Did I expect them to remember them at the end of the project? No. But, my older students did. I was quite impressed.

Use old cereal boxes (or a cardboard box) and fold it in the middle to act as the outside of the laptop. Leave the inside part black since we will refer back to the "inside" of the computer.

Use old cereal boxes (or a cardboard box) and fold it in the middle to act as the outside of the laptop. Leave the inside part blank since we will refer back to the “inside” of the computer.

Be sure and only glue on the screen - that way students can lift up their keyboard and see the inside.

Be sure and only glue on the screen – that way students can lift up their keyboard and see the inside.

Will they remember the names of those parts next summer? No.

I’m not there to reinforce the concepts, but they should remember that a laptop computer is made up of various parts which are housed inside the computer. That’s one step closer to taking the magic out of a computer.

I have put both hand-drawn sheets and a lengthy list of instructions on the web site, Teachers Pay Teachers, under the title, “Make a Paper Laptop.”


Hour of Code

Monday, I volunteered at our local library to help students work their way through an hour of code. Hour of Code is a worldwide movement to introduce coding to students. The organization also hopes to get computer programming into every school curriculum.

Trying out the hour of code. A is testing our new student computer for Artisan.

Trying out the hour of code. A is testing our new student computer for Artisan.

I love the logical thinking that comes with programming. I love the idea that we can create something out of “nothing.” And, I like the idea that students will learn to create rather than consume – if they know code.

But…rather than piling one more thing onto our already stressed out kids, I’d like to see it incorporated into the entire curriculum. Personally, I think it could be a great way to showcase self-directed projects, but since project-based learning isn’t ubiquitous, what about replacing part of the math curriculum with a computer science curriculum? Do kids really need to know mean, median and mode in 3rd grade? What if we spent four weeks teaching them how to use Scratch?

For example, when my oldest son was eight, he began working with the programming language, Scratch. He was introduced to the xy-grid. We had to talk about angles and degrees when recreating the game Pong. He has never been formally taught about coordinate planes, but he understands them because he’s written programs using coordinates.

Many of the upper-level programming languages require complex math equations. What a fabulous way to include real-world applications for math. In fact, this man thinks math could be taught through computer programming.

Of course, once kids know Scratch, they could then use it to replace some of their written work – book reports could be written in code. What about projects in geography class? Why have everyone stand up in front of the class with PowerPoint when they could make an interactive game or map that tells about their country?

Think of the possibilities! What a fabulous chance to help our students become creators, not just consumers.



Book Report :: A Visual-Spatial Experience

My children are my greatest teachers.

I could go on (and on and on) about how much I have grown mentally, spiritually, and physically just by being their mother. But, I have also grown as a teacher because I am able to observe them closely and watch how they learn. Because it’s different than the way I learn.

He prefers a cluttered desk - whereas I can't stand it!

He prefers a cluttered desk – whereas I can’t stand it!

My older son has given me permission to share his work on this blog and I hope that it will help other visual-spatial learners.

A little background to his relationship with writing – he hated to write as a young boy. Asking him to write anything was tantamount to watching a volcano erupt. Lots of rumbling and growling before a full-blown explosion occurred out of sheer frustration. He was frustrated that it didn’t look perfect. He was frustrated that it hurt his hand (he pushed really hard on his pencil). He was frustrated that he didn’t know how to spell anything and that would block his thoughts.

So, this was one thing I let go. I didn’t push it and I hoped that by the time he hit middle school many of these issues would be resolved. Plus, we’ve always written thank you notes and homemade birthday cards, so it wasn’t as if I never asked him to write anything. But in the last year, something clicked for him.

He discovered the value of writing fluently and his resistance has lessened. Maybe the muscles in his hand are further developed, or perhaps he isn’t struggling with spelling as much (to which I attribute his extraordinary love of reading). I’m not sure why the time is right, but it is. He has unconsciously decided to communicate more in the written form.

His first draft - which he went back through with a red marker and marked his needed corrections.

His first draft – which he went back through and marked potential corrections.

In fact, the idea of a book report was his idea – spurred on by some outside events. Since 2003, I have been part of a book club of friends. Each month, we rotate houses to host the group. This month was my turn to host – and to choose the book. I chose The Lightening Thief . My kids and I have been studying ancient history in our Story of the World (SOTW) curriculum and we’re taking a deeper look at the Greek myths in the coming weeks . Plus, a juvenile book is always a good choice for our busy, mom-filled book club.

Well, my son was ecstatic. He read the book before I did and he mentioned that he wanted to give a report at the book club. I told him he could write a book report, to which he responded, “Huh? What’s a book report?” So, I proceeded to tell him and he accepted the challenge.

Visual-Spatial book report. First step is to make a story map. We broke ours down by color - yellow was for the setting and time; blue, green and red represented the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Visual-Spatial book report. The first step is to make a story map. We broke ours down by color – yellow was for the setting and time; whereas blue, green and red represented the beginning, middle and end of the story.

The project was a bit overwhelming, so I suggested that he make a word map of what happened in the story. He’s very used to this concept since this how we talk about each chapter of SOTW. He found this to be fun and relatively easy. I prompted him when he got stuck.

When it came to writing the actual report, you could see the terror come into his eyes, so I found a way to break down the map: colors. We went online and found this easy “how to write a book report” web site and broke down the report into three main categories. He chose the colors and I circled the setting and character ideas using a yellow marker.

Then, he chose blue and decided what was significant to the beginning of the story. Next, came green for the middle part and finally, a red marker for the end of the story. Some of the ideas didn’t quite fit into one category so they got two colors.

Some simple writing reminders - capitalize the beginning of each sentence!

Some simple writing reminders – capitalize the beginning of each sentence!

After a bit of grumbling, he got down to writing and came to show me his work. He was so proud of himself (and I was too), so I praised his hard work. Then, he went over it (on his own) and followed the above editing rules. That way, I wasn’t marking up his work – he was. And, for him that makes all the difference. He went over his draft and capitalized the start of every sentence, proper noun and circled his suspected misspellings. Then, we fixed it together.


I wrote down the correct spelling for the words he didn’t know.

Over the course of three days, he made a story map, wrote a first draft, edited his work and rewrote the final version of his book report. Last month, I introduced the concept of a first draft when he wrote a thank you note to a city official (as part of his city project). I’ve also set the expectation that your first draft is for creative ideas, and then you go back and fix the grammar, spelling and sentence structure. My favorite explanation for this process can be found here.

But, the best part of this whole project? He instigated it. Would he be as proud if I had demanded it? Probably not. Of course, he’s at this point because we have incorporated tiny real-world writings into our weekly routine. He’s also a voracious reader who doesn’t equate reading with writing. And, we all know that in order to be a great writer, you have to be a prolific reader.

Book report on The Lightning Thief

Final book report on The Lightning Thief


Growth Mindset for the Elementary Child

As a homeschool parent and part-time technology teacher, I am firmly entrenched in the world of educational pedagogy. Recently, the topic of grit education has been at the forefront of many education discussions.

I am a strong proponent of a growth mindset, and think that it can be a life-changer with regard to attitude and one’s belief in the ability to learn. However, we need to be sure we are using it appropriately for our audience. Often, I have seen it applied solely to school work, whereas I think this is a lifestyle mantra. Elementary-aged kids need to see it in action.

Yes, we can apply it to plowing through school work (and I do a little of that at home), but rather, I want my kids to be encouraged to continue with their dreams and keep working through a problem, knowing that failure may be inevitable, but there might be a resolution out there too. Just because you aren’t good at – math, reading, river dancing – doesn’t mean it will always be that way. I don’t want them to give up on their dreams because it gets too hard. You can get better, but you have to believe that you can.

I’ve talked about it before, but we are a growth mindset family and I try to incorporate the vernacular during the classes that I teach. I only have students for a week or two at a time – not quite long enough to establish a growth mindset classroom – but long enough for students to know that making mistakes can help us learn. When we discover a mistake, we stop and reflect on why it went wrong and how we can change the product. (Sometimes we know the answer…and sometimes we don’t).  I’ve found the following ideas to be helpful when applying the concepts of helping elementary students to begin to develop a growth mindset.

Talk (briefly) about how the brain works
This can be anything from a formal presentation, complete with video examples or just an in-class demonstration and discussion. Use play dough to represent the two parts of their brains and make a new connection, or try magnets as a way to show how once you get it – the connection occurs.  I rarely do that in my camps because my time is limited. Rather, I favor incorporating the language of a “growth mindset” into my teaching. When I see my kids getting frustrated, we identify the feeling and reassure them that it’s normal – that’s just our brains growing and making new connections. It’s supposed to be hard! And, if it’s not, then you need a challenge!

However, my oldest son (the skeptic in our family) was moved by this handout and keeps one by his work space. Whenever we get down on ourselves or get too frustrated, we remind one another about the different types of mindsets. Is this a fixed way of looking at the problem? or is there another way? Parents – expect to say this often with kids. They forget. They get overwhelmed. They need reminders. Over and over and over again.

Our oldest son does not always find written math to be enjoyable. He would rather be building and figuring it out in his head. A few days ago, he said that math didn’t come as easily to him as it does to others, so he’s not good at it. My husband and I reminded him that those people who seem to be good at math are truly interested in it and practice it more often. We then asked him how much attention he gives to math (outside of written work) and he sheepishly acknowledged where his problem might be. The next day, he said he was ready to tackle a little more math each day.

Praise the specific effort
I didn’t learn this in Nurture Shock or Mindset. Instead, I learned it during my Montessori training as this is the language of a Montessori classroom. I still let slip the occasional, “good job,” but I try to find something specific to mention. For art work, it might be, “oh, I like how you used the color yellow.” Or, “Tell me about it” – to hear about the process of how it was created. I might ask, “are you happy with your work or would you like to practice one more time?” “I like how you wrote down information from the problem to help you solve the math problem,” or “I like how you kept trying even though you were frustrated.”

Forgive and learn and try again
Although I have been “living a growth mindset” for a couple of years now, I am far from a master. My Montessori training has helped, but I still make a lot of mistakes. We teachers (and parents) miss cues, have bad days and just plain interpret things incorrectly. In short, we are human. We can learn from our mistakes and it’s important for us to show our kids that we aren’t perfect. We all need reminders and it’s important to remember that life and learning is a process, not an end product.

Help them to realize its importance
I am a huge fan of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, which talks about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the most important motivators for human beings. Although the last one may not readily apply to young children, I do think it’s important that they take responsibility for some of their own learning. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work if our only answer to why someone has to learn something is because “that’s just what it means to be a kid.” Help them to make the connection. Maybe your child wants to be a pilot and so they need to conquer their fear of math. Maybe they want to be a marine biologist, so help them to understand that they need a college degree and will need this “tough” math to get there. (Can you tell that math is a hot button issue for us?) This doesn’t work for all kids, nor for those younger than eight or so, but it can be a powerful tool.

Live the mindset yourself
In your words and in your actions, show your students or your children that you want to have a growth mindset for life. That doesn’t mean tackling everything with gusto, but it does mean accepting that some things might take longer. You can still accomplish that goal, but it might take you longer than the person down the street. That’s okay. Talk about it. Express your frustrations and then outline how you are going to keep going. Help your children to see that the person who is “good at history” might like it better and so they pay more attention to it. It’s not that they are smarter – it’s that they think about it more often, therefore strengthening the connections in their brains.

If you have a chance, please go out and read Dweck’s book or at least some of the research on growth mindset. It’s one of my all time favorite topics.


PBL :: City Presentation Finale

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Lessons Learned for Co-op and Bridges.

Their personally planned city - complete with a street grid and zoning.

Their personally planned city – complete with a street grid and zoning. Buildings and cars are made from air-dry clay.

This past week the boys presented their city project. I was definitely ready for them to be done as all of their projects seem to require more cheerleading toward the end. And, by November, I need a break from “school”, cheerleading and structured learning. Bring on the field trips and the holiday celebrations!

This was an interesting project because they started out with an end product in mind and while they did complete their project – it was not in the detailed way that I imagined. I wonder if that was due to the end of a lengthy project? Or, they never intended to go further with it? Or, maybe they wanted to go off and play…

Just some of the books they checked out from the library. These were the ones they used the most.

Just some of the books they checked out from the library. These were the ones they used the most.

Either way, they did a lot of exploring and research. That meant a lot of writing and rewriting. It meant a lot of reading and comprehending information. It also meant going out into the community. And, of course, it meant a lot of drawing.

A's hand-drawn maps of local cities.

A’s hand-drawn maps of local cities. Project-based homeschooling is a perfect way to celebrate your artist’s way of learning.

There was a lot of map reading and discussions about directions and grids. There was also a lot of thinking about how different cities are organized and how they get their power. There was curiosity about other cities and their design. And almost of all of this learning was self-directed.

R's hand-drawn maps. He made these while researching city design.

R’s hand-drawn maps. He made these while researching city design.

Of course, there was also cooperation and negotiation. There was learning to listen to your friend and there was learning to speak up. There was learning how to work together and take turns “winning” the argument. Overall, I would call the project a success. They were both happy with their progress, their learning and they enjoyed themselves.

Homemade skyscraper - a great project from the Cities book about the value of steel-framed skyscrapers.

Homemade skyscraper – a great project from the Cities book about the value of steel-framed skyscrapers.

Marker Bots

After working with the more “traditional” circuits, the good folks at The Exploratorium gave us our next assignment – make your own scribble bot.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

A prepared table, a short video of other kids’ bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

The kids and I ended up christening them “marker bots” as we felt that described our own creations a bit better. There’s some truth to that as many of the examples we saw used markers (since they scribble more easily), but as they tinkered, the kids began breaking out of the traditional “sample” bot and into new and uncharted territory.

My six-year-old had the most physical limitations as his dexterity isn’t nearly as well-developed as the two nine-year-olds. He had trouble getting the markers to stay and needed more help with setting up the battery. If I were to do this with lots of young students, I would do what many others have suggested and try soldering small washers onto the ends of the battery wires to make it easier to connect and disconnect in the broccoli band.

Six-year-old's beginnings

Six-year-old’s beginnings…yes, that’s a partial hot glue stick sticking out of the motor…used to propel the bot.

My sons’ friend was at our house and participated in our “maker” afternoon. I think he enjoyed himself and really learned to apply some growth mindset to his creation. Initially, he had a tough time deciding how to design his bot, but he eventually modified his design and took away the markers and created a moving robot. Success!

My nine-year-old jumped right in and loved that he could make a bot almost exactly like the same one we saw in the course video (strawberry baskets). After figuring that out, he went on to modify his creation and created a ledge for his bot to hold the marker caps.

All told, we spent a good hour and a half tinkering with our creations. A few days later, we revisited the single battery and motor combination and I tried to make a Lego car move (unsuccessfully) and my six-year-old, inspired by his friend’s creation, decided to make an airplane. Although his plane didn’t move he made multiple modifications and we did all sorts of battery and motor tests. Funny enough, everyone single boy who has come over has glanced at it with a “whoa…cool, dude” sort of look.  Needless to say, he is quite happy with it.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

This assignment was one of the easiest to attempt and to complete. The entry materials are low — a 3V motor, a single AA battery and whatever craft supplies you have in the house. And, if you need more assistance, check out the Exploratorium’s online guide.

The end of our first work session.

The end of our first work session.


Tinkering – more than trial and error

As part of my Tinkering Class, the facilitators host a Google Hangout each week. Today, I finally had a chance to watch last week’s video. Wow.

This week’s guest was Edith Ackermann and I thoroughly enjoyed her insights and her enthusiasm for one of her topics of expertise – play. Ackermann* works at MIT and has studied under Piaget and Seymour Papert. Although this is a poor explanation, one could say that both of these theorists place a lot of value on hands-on activities and self-exploration.

Anyone who has studied the field of education has heard of Piaget, although it is much lesser known that he was first a follower of Dr. Montessori’s. (As a Montessorian…it has to be said)!  I have read a few of Papert’s papers on computers and children because of the work I do with Scratch. In fact, I was heavily influenced by this paper during the initial development of Code Camp’s structure and activity design (though I really need to read it again and tweak the class a bit more).

Regardless, I came away from the video reaffirming my idea that a “growth mindset” is important to success, but realized that I strongly agreed with Ackermann’s vision that tinkering should be more than just trial and error. Her point being that tinkering should encourage a person to view the problem and/or the solution from a different perspective.

Talk about an abstract concept to quantify and pin down. It reminded me of something I was told by a local French teacher. She was talking about the value of watching French Disney movies  – and obviously from the look on my face I wasn’t buying the initial educational usefulness.  Instead, she mentioned that it was another way to for them to “get it in their fingertips.”

As my educator husband and I have used that phrase many times over the years to describe really knowing something, I have just realized that this is probably what Ackermann is referring to when she mentions being able to see something from a different perspective. Only by being able to use/hear/encounter the French word in a different context are you truly going to be able to understand the problem and secure it in your long-term memory. Only by being able to see the problem/solution/object from a different perspective will you truly be able to understand it and then be able to change it and use it for something else entirely.


Or, maybe that’s what I “thought” I saw. Within psychology there doesn’t always seem to be a clear answer – most likely it’s purposely vague! Either way, it has me thinking and making small changes in the way I approach learning with my students. And, that’s a good thing.


* I can’t even begin to tell you how many papers and books that I have marked to read, suggestions from this course. Ackermann’s paper on “teachers as designers” is next on my list. As a Montessori-trained educator, I firmly believe in a prepared environment and I’m looking forward to seeing how she defines lesson design.

Book Review :: Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover computer programming books aimed at children, as well as reality-based children’s books.

Picture of the book, Teach Like Your Hair's On FireThis book is a departure from the typical children’s book that is usually showcased on this blog, but this book was too inspiring not to share. It is one of the most useful and uplifting books that I have read on teaching in a long time. Not only has Rafe Esquith been teaching for over 20 years, he has also been working with mostly low socioeconomic students for whom English is a second language. Do not make the mistake of assuming he was born the perfect teacher, rather he humorously shares how he has learned to be a better teacher – by listening to and observing his students and other teachers.

This book would be just a “feel good” story for the students of L.A. if it were not for Rafe’s anecdotes and practical suggestions for other teachers. He shows how much time and effort he expends (12 hours a day) to help his students rise to the challenge. In addition, he names books and curriculum he uses in his 5th grade classroom to help him achieve his lofty goals for his students. He is a truly inspiring teacher who provides hope for the world.