Category Archives: Homeschooling

Elementary Electronics – Sewn LED bracelet

As part of our homeschool elementary electronics class, the kids wanted to finish up the class by making soft circuits, especially a sewn LED bracelet.

And I do mean kids because I specifically asked them – after the sewn flashlight difficulties if they were up to another round of sewing. They said yes. In fact, one fifth grader (who struggled a little with the sewing) said, “Well – I don’t know how to do it and that’s the point of learning, right? To try stuff you aren’t good at?” Oh, you could have melted my growth mindset heart!

A picture of three electronic bracelets.

Our family’s collection of hand-sewn LED bracelets.

After the success of the Chibitronics paper LED project, I knew this sewing design had to be more concrete and guided. A couple of hours (and one failed prototype) later), I had a structured lesson to present to the kids the next day.

Sewn LED Bracelet – Paper Prototype

I started by making a paper prototype. This way they could cut it out and see how their bracelet would fit together. The components would have to be placed a certain way so the bracelet could close and you could still see the LED. I also wanted to make it so that when they snapped it closed, the circuit closed and the LED lit up.

Hand-drawn paper prototype to give the kids a guide.

It was definitely helpful to have a paper guide for the students. So many of them wanted to jump ahead and try and figure it out – and that was okay. It was okay when we had to pull out their conductive thread because the circuit wouldn’t make any sense. Hopefully, those were learning moments for them. Mistakes always force us to look at the structure a little more carefully.

Hot glue guns help to move the project along.

Sewn LED bracelet – Process

My younger son and I had made his LED bracelet the night before class – for two reasons. First, I knew that I would need to help the other students and since he’s seven, he would need a lot of help. Second, I wanted to have a simple, finished product so the students could see how the circuits connected.

After everyone chose their LED and figured out how their battery pack worked, I brought them over – one-by-one-  to the hot gluing station. I glued their battery holder and snaps to the felt. This made it much easier for these elementary students to focus on sewing – without having to worry about pins keeping those components in place.

The hardest part was understanding how the battery would be connected to the LED. Since LEDs have be positioned a certain way (positive to positive), I went around to each student and made sure they would line up their LED correctly. They eventually figured it out and even though this class took an hour and a half – every single bracelet connected correctly. And they were so proud (and relieved?) that it lit up after all of their hard work.

Here’s the PDF Sewn LED bracelet (PDF) handout that I created for my students. If you are teacher, please feel free to use it, but do not reproduce or sell it without gaining permission. Thanks!



Current Projects

Keeping Track of Projects

My husband and I tend to forget all of the really cool things we do – and work on – each year. We get caught up in the day-to-day activities of working, teaching children, worrying, making lunch (and dinner), cleaning the house (again) and shuttling kids to various activities. Like most people, we are often busy, so we need a little help remembering all of the unique things in our life. We are fortunate to experience new places  – and make a lot of cool stuff. Here’s what we’ve been working on lately:

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. He' sitting it on a top of a re-purposed bookshelf (which he made years ago).

Joe created a desktop (for me) from piece of plywood and trim. It will sit on top of a re-purposed bookshelf. Oh yeah – he made the bookshelf years ago.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh that he created a 4-H project.

C (age 7) was so interested in the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, he created a 4-H project. Two weeks ago, he presented his project to a 4H judge. My shy, reserved son beamed when the judge praised his work.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

R (age 11) wanted to submit another project for the 4-H non-livestock fair. (He won a grand prize last year). This one is on his favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Liz has been developing her colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had years ago.

I have been developing my colored pencil skills. This drawing is based on an old penguin calendar we had; I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils.

Joe took our distressed, chipping dining table and stripped it. He then proceeded to sand, stain and lacquer it – repeatedly. It looks amazing.

Diary of a First Year FLL Coach

First Year FLL Coach – Me?

August 22, 2016
Today, I asked the 4-H robotics leaders if our club was going to participate in First Lego League this year. “Sure,” they said, “and would you mind being one of our first year FLL coaches?”

August 30, 2016
The FLL challenge comes out today. It’s called Animal Allies. I can’t wait to find out more about it.

September 5, 2016
Today, I gave a brief presentation to our club about First Lego League. I think I scared some parents, but gained the interests of the more experienced student members. We now have a team of seven students.

The coaches and mentors navigated the FLL computer system and got our team registered and the kit ordered. I had an easier time since I had gone through a Jr. FLL season with my older son two years ago.

September 18, 2016
One of our mentors (and 4-H robotics leader) built the game board. The kit and game mat arrived and the kids spent the meeting building pieces.

A picture of two 4x8 robot game boards

This was from our practice competition.

September 25, 2016
The game board is fascinating and the students finally finished putting together all of the pieces. We did a team building exercise and ran out of time.

October 2, 2016
We now have nine team members. The team has decided to split up into three groups and begin building a base robot. The team will then vote for the best design.

October 16, 2016
It took another meeting to finish and decide on the robot design. Now, the other teams are copying the robot design so that each team can work on the robot game. There has been little discussion about the animal project; everyone is more interested in the robot game.


The Robot Game, The Robot Presentation & The Project

October 23, 2016
Teams are finally working on programs to complete the robot game challenge. There have been some problems with such a big team. Everyone wants to work on the robot. Our initial talks about animal projects are centered on reducing ocean pollution. We are also registered for a practice tournament November 12. I have spoken to my sister-in-law twice in the last few weeks to clarify FLL rules. (She’s a FLL veteran coach and is immensely helpful).

October 30, 2016
More work on the robot game. My co-coach is amazing at finding team building challenges so the kids can develop their “core values.”

November 2, 2016
Our animal project is looking too much like a pollution/trash problem (which was last year’s FLL challenge). We have a mid-week meeting to focus on one animal and to flush out a general presentation idea for the practice tournament. The kids chose to study manatees.

November 6, 2016
I am out of town. More robot game. More team building.


November 12, 2016
Practice Tournament. Everyone did very well and it gave the students (and coaches) a better idea of what FLL is all about. Our team did better than we thought they would.

November 19, 2016
The robot design has been modified so that there is now only one robot to compete in the robot game. That means two to three kids work on the programming while the coaches help the other kids flush out the robot and manatee presentations. Team building happens at the end of every meeting.

December 4, 11, 18
The holiday season is in full swing and we are only getting three to four kids at each Sunday meeting. This has made it difficult to move forward with our presentation since no one wants to make a group decision with only part of the team present.

December 25 & January 1
Since we meet on Sunday, we have cancelled these meetings to enjoy the holiday season (and because a lot of people are out of town).


Getting Ready for the Qualifying Tournament

January 5, 2017
We have an afternoon meeting at the library/park to refine the manatee and robot presentations. The students decide what they want to talk about and we (the coaches) help them by writing down main points on an index card. They are to take them home, write down what they want to say and try to memorize it for Saturday’s qualifying tournament.

January 7, 2017
The tournament is an hour away and the day is very cold and very wet. It’s a bit of a shock for our central Florida area. Thankfully, the gym is warm and the 24-team double tournament is buzzing with activity. I sent our schedule out yesterday and made a couple of copies to leave on our table. Everyone arrived on time and we were busy all day long. Our team table was close to the robot game area and the students took advantage of the location. They watched how the other team’s competed and enjoyed hanging out with one another.

This was one long day. We had to be there by 8:15 and the award ceremony finished at 4:00. Our team won the mechanical design/programming award and received an alternate bid to the regional tournament. My co-coach and I were thrilled. This is such a fabulous run for a first year team – and 7 out of 9 members can return next year! They will have a better idea of what to expect. I definitely see some areas for improvement. For example, we left more than 30-seconds on the clock for the robot game and they could do a better job at learning to share speaking roles during the presentations. But more importantly, everyone was well-supported, courteous and focused on building a good team (and good people).

January 2017
My co-coach contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in our area and our team will visit their office to learn more about manatee rescue and how to write a regulation. Although our FLL season is over, we are still helping our team to go out into the community and hopefully, make a difference.


Reflections on Being a First Year FLL Coach

My co-coach and I were often coaching “from behind,” as he likes to say. We were trying to guide and ask questions (and sometimes direct) so that the students owned most of the decisions. That was really hard – especially as we tried to figure out the FLL rules. It took a lot of time to give everyone an equal voice, but I think it made for a stronger team. I also returned to being an adjunct instructor this past August and was trying to balance teaching on top of coaching. I felt like I didn’t prepare as much as I could (or should) have, but the students led the way and asked questions when they needed information.

I can’t say enough about First Lego League. This tournament is amazing and the purpose is not to win, or to get better at robotics. It’s to work as a team and to become familiar with the design thinking process. The purpose is to solve the world’s problems and to help kids (and their coaches) to know they have a voice and some power. They have power to work cooperatively. They have power to talk to government officials and business owners. This is project-based learning in action – with a little bit of legos and robotics thrown in for fun.

Making – Homemade Star Wars Costumes

This past spring, the parents in our homeschool co-op chose drama and theater as one of the classes for our weekly co-op day.

Thankfully, the parent who suggested doing a play recognized that he might have an uphill battle with this group of kids. They are mostly boys who love technology, playing ‘battle’ and building with legos.

But, then he suggested a few scenes from a Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars.  Well…you could have heard a pin drop. Those boys started to wrap their heads around the idea of doing a Star Wars play, and the rest they say, was history.


The book is directed at adults,and not children. The language was sometimes odd and the first few readings boiled down to a translation session. The play was a little bit above their heads, but they learned something about Shakespeare, old English and how to make some costumes on the cheap.

Each family was responsible for creating their own costumes. After initially paper prototyping a C3PO costume, my husband and youngest son declared it ‘perfect’ and finished. (Thanks to two grocery store paper bags). We added some gold acrylic paint and his costume was ready to go.

As usual, my older son already had something in mind for how he would dress as a short robot. After scouring the house for the perfect-sized box, he created his costume entirely on his own. He drew out R2D2, and then painted the box, taking a few days between coats. He even cut a whole in the top so that he could pop his head through and say his lines.

Overall, the play was a success, they had a fabulous time and they flexed their creative making skills.


Mistakes and First Drafts

Recently, my ten-year-old has been testing out my kid-friendly sewing projects. Although he has been sewing off and on since he was four, I’m grateful that he is so willing to test out new projects. This summer, I am teaching beginning sewing to a group of kids between the ages of 10 and 14, and he is the perfect age to see if my projects are ‘doable.’

A picture of airplane pin cushions

All made by kids, ages 10 and under

Sewing Mistakes, First Drafts

For the last two weeks I have been asking him (and my almost 7-year-old) to work on a lot of sewing projects. We’ve made cards and pins, bookmarks, wristbands and pin cushions. But, some of them didn’t go exactly as planned. For example, my older son wanted to make a bookmark – one where he sewed the right sides together and then flipped it inside out – except that it didn’t really work. He was frustrated, embarrassed and disappointed. He was also really afraid that I would take a picture of it! He shouldn’t have worried because I completely understand. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and hate for them to be paraded in front of me. I undoubtedly learn from them (quite a lot), but I quietly sweep them under the rug.

drawing of elephant

No, this is not a mistake, but my pride is about to take a beating. I feel obligated to show a picture of a “good” drawing. I can’t let the first drawing I post to this site be a terrible one. See? I’m no different than a 10-year-old!

Since he occasionally reads this blog, I devised this post as a way to parade some of my own mistakes, or first drafts, as I like to call them. Of course, these ‘mistakes’ are entirely self-selected. I’m not showing you the really ugly ones, nor am I parading all of those things that I’ve said (and shouldn’t). Nor am I writing about the times I’ve lost my temper or forgot that something was cooking on the stove. Ahem.

Just like a written paper (or blog post), I rarely create a perfect paragraph without a lot of tweaking. The same thing goes for our ‘maker’ projects. Below you will find some of my first drafts (ugly that they are…)

First Drafts

first draft of LED project

This was one of my first drafts for the LED constellation project. I was attempting to cover up the copper tape and SMD LEDs with a layer of painted tracing paper. It doesn’t look that good…

A badly drawn picture of my left hand

Ugh. This is awful. A quickly drawn sketch from a few years ago shows that I still need to work on capturing 3D images on paper.

A picture of sewing scraps

I started making this bag…over 6 years ago. Maybe even longer. I need to fix it slightly and then it will be close to finished. In the meantime, it’s definitely in ‘first draft’ mode.

A picture of a bad paper soldering joint

My soldering skills still need a lot of work and frankly, I’m not even sure how to solder conductive thread and conductive ink. It’s ugly. I gave up and just used tape for the second one.

Picture of sketches of nametag

These are some of the sketches, or first drafts, of the hand-sewn name tag I am making.

Just think – these are only the items that I could actually find in the house. Imagine all of the other things that I’ve had to redo so that it was just right, or at least good enough. As long as we are learning new things, we will have first drafts. And, second drafts. And, third ones too.

PBL Greece & Egypt Projects

A picture of kid-made mini-pyramids.

C’s handmade pyramids and clay mummy. Pyramids are painted with homemade, mustard-dyed milk paint.

It’s been awhile since I’ve chatted about the project-based learning that’s been happening around here. I guess you could say that we’re taking a self-directed learning break. Instead, we’re focusing on skill-building. The boys have chosen to target some other interests, namely basketball and art for my oldest, and learning Scratch for my youngest. These are their interests, but I am guiding them along with formal lessons and practice (which is sometimes unwelcome, but necessary).

My boys have also been helping me get ready for my summer classes by testing out sewing projects. I’ve been sewing for a long time and often my completed sample projects will look “too fancy,” especially to a new, young sewer. Nothing is more disheartening than comparing your project to your teacher’s example. Therefore, I try to make sure I have some kid-tested samples to show my students. Thankfully, I have two ready-made helpers!

A picture of a cloth bookmark.

C’s choice for his bookmark – C3PO fabric. From the kid that has never seen Star Wars. 🙂

PBL Egypt

Although we have temporarily moved on to other types of learning, I did want to mention the final presentations for my children’s self-directed country studies. If you remember, my oldest son chose to study Greece and my youngest chose to research Egypt (with a strong focus on ancient Egypt). A month ago, my youngest son presented his poster and was thrilled with the reception he received from his fellow co-op learners.

A picture of a poster on Egypt.

C, age 6, did the research on Egypt. I guided and kept him on task. And did some note-taking.

He put together the poster on his own and even though I wanted to help him with image placement, I bit my tongue. I tried really hard to let him make his own choices and discover where things would fit. I did ask him to lay out his poster BEFORE gluing so we wouldn’t have any major meltdowns. I realize that there’s value in letting them make that mistake, but it was the night before he wanted to present to the class. I’m not sure my nerves could have taken it.

PBL Greece

A picture of a white hardcover book.

R chose to present his information in a book (from Bare Books).  All drawings are done by him.

My ten-year-old son had to wait a few extra weeks before he could present his final project. He decided that he wanted to submit his project (and two others) to our local 4-H non-livestock fair. This was his first time entering any projects, but once he saw all of the categories, he became very excited and was thinking about other work that he could submit. He even happily filled out all of the paperwork and I taught him to sign his name. Thankfully, he had chosen to learn cursive this year, so he was ready to put it to good use.

A picture of a purple ribbon.

Best in category for his age group. Oh, yes, he was excited.

Yes, that is a best in category ribbon on his Greece project. I can’t help but be really proud of all his hard work and determination. That’s not to say that he was always willing to work on his project, but once he got started, he would find more and more items he wanted to include in his book. In order to help him organize it, I showed him how to make a storyboard. Then, he cut out the pieces to arrange the final order.

A picture of slips of paper.

He wasn’t sure where to start, so I showed him how to storyboard.

I definitely proofread his work and pointed out things he needed to correct, but the research, drawings and the topics were all done by him. And, if you don’t mind a little extra bragging, he also received a runner-up ribbon for his book report on The Lightning Thief. Awards for reading and writing? Oh, my little engineer, how far you’ve come!

A picture of an open book

A hand-drawn map of the major cities in Greece.

I think the ribbons meant a lot to him, but we have been careful to let him know that we are proud of him regardless of the awards he’s won. We are happy that he loves learning and makes the effort to try new things – even when it gets hard.

A picture of a red folder and book with ribbons

His 2016 4-H non-livestock submissions.

My Kids Hate Math

To be perfectly honest…they don’t really hate math. Rather, they hate the repetitive practice of doing math problems on paper.

A picture of Scholastic's Mega-Fun Card-Game Math

A good resource to help reinforce math vocabulary and simple memorization

My kids hate math

I can’t remember disliking math in school. It was pretty easy (except for those proofs in geometry) and I liked how it was complete. There was (seemingly) no open-ended math problems. There was an answer and it was my job to ferret it out and find it. Plus, I was good at memorizing…something I’m sad to say has been greatly diminished by motherhood. Plus, I was good enough that I didn’t have to take any math in college. So, I didn’t. Why is that?

In an attempt to change my children’s attitudes toward math, I’ve been seeking out different math-based activities to help them realize how useful math is in our daily lives. Here are some ways we’ve been playing with math.

1. We played store.
Then, we went to the real store with some money. I gave them each $20 in cash and asked them to buy all of the ingredients for a particular meal. They had their list and my ten-year-old had to add the cost as we went. He had to add up his items (on paper) and be sure that he had  enough money to pay for his groceries. He even finagled some junk food because he had left over money!

A picture of hand-colored paper maps for "sale"

A homemade store is a great way to learn about money.

A picture of money and a calculator.

The kids made their own money and determined what they wanted to “sell” at the store.

2. Before playing store, we played Money Bags. A lot.
I have followed these activities with some paper-based problems (adding and subtracting money with static decimals), but they don’t mind these nearly as much…perhaps because they understand the value of being able to add and subtract with money?

A picture of kids playing the game, Money Bags

A short game that has kids adding money as they “earn” it doing chores.

3. We use legos.
We use them for discussions on area, for counting and creating, and for game markers when playing math games. Yes, they get distracted and start building other things. But, I can usually redirect them. If I can’t, then we put the legos away.

A picture of a sheet of paper with a 1-9 multiplication grid. Also shown are two card - 2, 6

Products and Factors Game from Scholastic’s Mega-Fun Card Games for Math

4. Games, games and more games.
Multiplication Bingo, SUM 20 and ‘Factors and Products’ are paper-based games that we have been using lately. This book has been a wonderful resource and reinforces concepts without resorting to boring paper and pencil work. My kids are in love with this app, and although I don’t think it has a lot of educational value, they think it’s fun to do repetitive math since you get to be a ninja in-between problems.

We also love Zeus on the Loose, Rat-a-Tat-Cat and Addition/Subtraction War.

5. Bedtime Math – Books & App
The parent of one of my students turned me on to these fabulous books. My kids love to listen to these and will beg me to keep reading. Recently, I stumbled across this article and was delighted to see that the FREE Bedtime Math app has been scientifically proven to raise math scores. Woo! I downloaded it that evening to our ipad.

6. Write down their feelings toward math.
Usually, a little reminder about choosing a growth mindset  is enough to get my kids back on track with the right attitude. If that doesn’t work, I recommend letting your child write down their feelings about math on a separate sheet of paper – before doing the math. Are they anxious? worried? hate to struggle or be wrong? Acknowledge their feelings by letting them express them and listen as they describe their feelings about math. After acknowledging these feelings, move on. I don’t argue that they are smart enough or diligent enough to master math. I know they can do those things…and I think they do too. So, I ask them if these feelings help them to learn their math and they say no…and well, that’s that.

A picture of a black line made from electrical tape and a lego EV3 line-following robot

R tested out the robot’s line-following abilities – using the color sensor.

7. Teach them to use Scratch or Lego Mindstorms.
Scratch was meant to be used the way a painter uses paint. Students certainly learn about computer programming by using it, but they can also use it for other projects, such as demonstrating their knowledge of a particular historical event.  As they progress and want to learn how to do more things with Scratch, the more they will encounter various math concepts, such as the xy-grid, random chance or operations. The best part is that students will choose to encounter these complex problems, and all they need is a good facilitator to help make the connection to advanced math concepts. The same could be said for the complexity of the Lego Mindstorms brick (and robots in general). You are introducing very complex terminology (compare, degrees, etc.) before they have technically “learned” about them in math class. And, although they might not grasp the concept completely this way, it will make it much easier to visualize when they do come across it.

8. Be mindful of others who “aren’t good at math.”
We are very social creatures who are heavily influenced by others (even if we try not to be). This is especially true with our attitudes concerning math. Some of us have a lot of anxiety about it and if we pass that onto our children, we can negatively influence them. I think my children might be parroting some friends who struggle with math and in the interest of solidarity, decided that they too don’t like math. Gently remind your children that they use math daily and even if they struggle with it – that’s because their brains are growing. That’s how we learn.

If that’s not tough enough…here’s another study that says that parental attitude toward math can affect children, but only if you help with homework!

9. Spend time doing some math with them.
I know this contradicts the above statement, at least if you are math-phobic, but as a homeschool parent, it might be in my best interest to do some math with them. Notice – I said with them, not for them. I will often try to bow out of doing math with my kids. After all, they need the practice, not me. Besides, I have plenty of other work that I need to be doing. However, I recently read the book Mindstorms, and I realized that they might not see the value in it because they don’t notice when I use math. After all, they see me reading and writing quite often.

It’s something we should consider as teachers…to work on some math…and let our children see us do so. Or, come up with a different way of ‘teaching’ math that doesn’t require abstract learning and memorizing and find a way for them to construct their own knowledge about advanced math concepts. At my house, that might mean I need to invest in some upper-level Montessori materials…

A picture of a K'nex record player with a price tag of $100 and a model of the solar system - sitting on a shelf

This K’nex record player costs $100 because it took a while to make.


Return to SOTW Ancient Times

Since I already had the activity guide and the book, I bought the optional set of CDs, read by our favorite actor, Jim Weiss.

I already had the activity guide and the book, so this year I bought the optional set of CDs, read by our favorite actor, Jim Weiss.

A Return to SOTW Ancient Times

This year — our fifth using SOTW — we returned to ‘Ancient Times’ and my youngest son was excited to join us. Typically, I would not do so many activities with my six-year-old, but he seems eager for more work than my oldest was at that age. Perhaps that’s the fate of second born children?

Regardless, we needed to move beyond listening to the story and writing a story map, at least for my ten-year-old. I wanted to start with the big bang theory and capture the knowledge of how long ago the dinosaurs lived. I felt that a timeline would be the best way to introduce this idea. It didn’t hurt that a timeline was strongly suggested for the fourth book on modern times. While we didn’t do it last year, I felt it was time to see these historical events spread out on paper.

A picture of a boy making a homemade timeline for SOTW Ancient Times

Our friend A helped us to start our timeline for SOTW Ancient Times.

Deepening Understanding
I wasn’t quite sure how to encourage deeper learning with my ten-year-old – without asking him to do a lot of summary writing. I dislike writing for the sake of writing. When we write, I want it to be relevant and useful. So, I bumbled along with the first few stories and made sure my six-year-old was grasping the concept of history, nomads and the distinctions between countries and continents (he had studied continents last year).

A sample of the map activity for Ch. 15 by C, age 6.

A sample of the map activity for Ch. 13 by C, age 6.

To help with comprehension, I made copies of the map work so the boys could see what location we’re reading about, and together, everyone listens to the chapter as I read it aloud. Often, the globe is present by our side – to help place the location in our brains. After I finish reading the chapter, everyone does the map activity from the activity guide. Occasionally, the map activities are too ‘simple’ and the boys will add the major rivers and mountains for the area we are studying – just because they want to do so.

Afterward, we take a break for a couple of days and when we return to SOTW, I let Jim Weiss re-read the chapter and the older boys make summary maps and my six-year-old draws a picture.

C, age 6, draws a summary picture about the first Olympic Games in Greece.

C, age 6, draws a summary picture about the first Olympic Games in Greece. “They are running a race.”

The activity guide recommends literary suggestions to accompanying the stories, and if I think about it ahead of time, I will put a few on hold at our local library. Sometimes these are picture books and sometimes they are books for independent readers. I think these books are great way to plant the historical idea (or place) in the heads of my children.

But, I wanted my ten-year-old to go just a bit further in his understanding. Having a lively discussion about the chapter is good for that, but I wanted him to notice more of the details. Thankfully, a fellow homeschool mom turned me on to World History Detective from The Critical Thinking Co. This is a great activity for my older son to work through on his own and for us to discuss together, once he is finished. It also gives us a chance to notice various aspects of ancient history and see how they are covered differently between SOTW and History Detective.

He doesn’t do these exercises every week, but I use them to spark conversations about the time period and the written passage. Since my kids do not take standardized tests, this is a good way to work on some test-taking skills. We talk a lot about the best answer – based on the evidence in the passage. I wouldn’t want to do all of my teaching this way, but I also don’t want my kids to be blindsided when they do take a standardized test.

A picture of the book, World History Detective.

A side path into Ancient Greece – paring fiction with history

Although I’ve been wanting to read Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief for some time, it wasn’t until this past December that I finagled it. Since it was for my bookclub, my oldest son wanted to read it with me…which was exactly what I was hoping would happen. I didn’t make him read it, but he took off and finished the series (and Riordan’s next series) WAY before I did. But, in doing so, his understanding of Greek mythology was strengthened. I had bought the D’Aulaires Greek Myths back in August, and he found it and read through it…all because he was curious and wanted to know more. All on his own. I just made sure the resources were available and left where he could find them. I like to think that this is the value of a prepared environment.

A picture of the D'Aulaire's book of Greek Myths

This year, we also introduced the stories of Odysseus. Five years ago, none of us were prepared to sit through an abridged version of the The Odyssey, but this year, I brought book one home after Christmastime and Dad began an evening read-aloud. At the present time, they are awaiting book six from the library and can’t wait to find out what happens when Odysseus’s true identity is revealed. (Spoiler Alert: It’s a bit bloody and I hope Mary Pope Osborne has toned it down a bit. We’ll have to see).

A picture of a handmade timeline for SOTW Ancient Times

An up-close picture of our homemade timeline.

We are currently on chapter 26 in SOTW, but there are 42 chapters all together. We may skip a few, or we may read through them, but not make any writing or drawings to reflect our learning. As you can see, we don’t add to the timeline for every chapter – that would make it tedious and not very exciting. Instead, if we have extra time that week (or if I think the event is very significant), I’ll ask if they want to draw a picture for the timeline. Often, the answer is a resounding yes!

A picture of a homemade timeline for SOTW Ancient Times

A bigger look at the partial timeline for Ancient Times

My older son loves history and I think that’s what drew me to the Story of the World series. My husband and I are both history buffs and we love hearing about (and remembering) some of the stories from our youth. Our youngest son is also coming to love these historical stories and in turn, we are creating a shared cultural knowledge. We probably would read these stories anyway, due to our love of history, but it seems especially relevant when we consider our place in a global society.

A picture of a homemade timeline for SOTW Ancient Times

The start of our timeline. We used books from the library to find out what happened millions of years ago.

This is My Home, This is My School.

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.

Picture of cover of the book, This is My Home, This is My School

Written by Jonathan Bean, a grown-up homeschooled student!

Ages 3 and up
Bean, Jonathan. This is My Home, This is My School. Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York, 2015.

We love Bean’s other book, Building Our House, so when I noticed he had another book coming out, I immediately placed it on hold at our local library. Then, I heard that it was about a homeschooling family. Can you guess how excited I was? Most homeschooling books are written by adults for homeschooling parents, the notable exception being the Teen Liberation Handbook, which is intended for teenagers (and has some extreme viewpoints). Honestly, I can’t think of any mainstream children’s book that features a homeschooler. That alone would merit a more favorable review, but Bean needs no extra help. His book can stand on its own. It’s that good.

This is My School

We love this author-illustrator and my kids love that he is a former homeschooler. Even if you aren’t a homeschooler, you will love this sweet story about a family living and learning at home…and in the stream…and out in the world. This is My Home, This is My School offers simple sentences and funny pictures, so it’s perfect for a short attention span. The watercolor illustrations add much to the story and we spent extra time looking over each scene. Homeschooling parents will appreciate the messy house and the overwhelmed teacher-mom jokes, while kids will see the gigantic backyard and wish they had one too.

Picture of treehouse from the book, This is My Home, This is My School

A picture of their “playground” – a fabulous treehouse where the author, presumably, grew up.

The story begins with Jonathan who is describing his home (which we saw built in This is Our House), and then telling the readers that this is also his school. With short descriptions and lots of bright and vivid illustrations, the readers see how Jonathan and his sisters learn at home. Sometimes they sit at the table and do paperwork – just like in traditional school. But, sometimes, they are off in the pond, collecting specimens and learning about science. Sometimes they are reading in bed and that counts for literature class. Occasionally, their teacher is frustrated, angry and worn down – just like in traditional school! But, always, there is learning and love and a strong conviction that this is the right path for Jonathan and his family.

Picture from Jonathan Bean's This is My Home, This is My School.

Picture from Jonathan Bean’s This is My Home, This is My School.

Just like in This is Our House, at the end of the book there are old family photographs of Jonathan and his sisters. Although I love his picture books (and so do my boys), I think I love these family tidbits the most. The homeschooling parent in me appreciates the obvious love and joy he had growing up as a homesteading homeschooler. It’s just a little affirmation in support of a not-so-uncommon life path. Homeschooling does work and it can be successful and joyful.



PBL – Geography


Student Choice

Most of my favorite “teaching methods” put students’ choices at the forefront of their learning.

I know!!! You must be completely shocked that a Montessori-trained educator would value choice and self-direction! All kidding aside, a lot of research is saying the same thing. It’s easier to learn something if there’s an interest and often, that learning starts with a question. For older students, there’s problem-based learning,  where students collaborate to find a solution to a problem (or answer a question).

At our homeschool co-op meetings, we’ve been doing project-based learning. Our students range in age from five-years-old through twelve. Each of them are going to approach a topic differently. We need to honor that. Last semester, the parents choice physics as the topic of inquiry. Then, we supported our children through various explorations into windmills, bridges and catapults.

This spring, we’re focusing on geography, specifically an in-depth country study.  It’s self-directed because students choose the country they would like to study. They also decide how they want to present the information that they’ve learned. In this way, it somewhat mimics project-based homeschooling. It’s not quite as open-ended as project-based homeschooling, but it can be a good way to stay on track with project-based learning.

As an educator (not just a homeschool parent), I think it’s important to allow students the freedom to decide how long they want to study their country – and require that they present their information to someone else. In this case, my children will present what they’ve learned to their fellow learners at co-op.

Although it is more structured than unschooling, there is a lot of self-direction and choice. Maybe we should invent a new word – Monteschooling? Lots of choice, but with some guided direction (constraints) and adult facilitators around to help continue the learning when they get stuck (or want to give up).

Part of the "city" project - the boys were laying out and creating their own city.

Part of the “city” project – the boys were laying out and creating their own city with clay.

Project-based Learning – Geography

On our first day of “class,” I stood in front of our students and let them know they needed to choose a country to research, and that by next week I wanted two books on their topic. Since almost all of these kids are younger than age twelve, I wanted them to stick with books. Web research is great, but it requires some higher-order thinking to be able to determine a safe, reliable and accurate web site. For now, books are key. The obvious exception is the CIA World FactBook, since it takes the guess work out of determining whether or not it is an authoritative site.

Picture of kids' books on egypt and ancient Egypt.

Most of C’s books are centered around Ancient Egypt…not necessarily present day Egypt.

Then, I started asking questions. I suggested that they might want to pretend they are going to visit their country. “What would you like to go see first? What language would you need to understand? What type of food do they eat in your country?”

None of these are required questions to answer, and there is no standard form on how to give their presentation. Instead, we left it as open as possible, allowing for the fact that some students will go into more depth, while others might just draw a picture and point out one or two facts.

Since we have a large age range of students, each family was free to put more constraints on their children’s projects. One of our parents is requiring her two children (ages 10.5 and 12) to complete a presentation every 3 weeks. I asked my children to choose one of the countries that still exist from our study of ancient times, but didn’t put a time requirement on their learning. If they want to study one country for the next 3 months, I’m perfectly fine with that.

Making clay models of the pyramids in Giza

Looking at a library book to make the pyramids at Giza.

My kiddos decided to study Greece and Egypt, although the six-year-old is pretty fascinated with ancient Egypt, and I’m not sure how much present day Egypt will feature in his final presentation. I don’t care because he is reading all sorts of books and creating items to reflect his learning. For my oldest, I have asked him to include a works cited page in his presentation, but otherwise, he is only limited by his imagination. I think a large part of his project might be devoted to Greek Mythology, since we have recently read Rick Riordan’s fabulous series on the Greek myths.

I try not to put my judgement on their ideas or choices, though I know it happens. I try to offer multiple suggestions and leave resources (books, videos, etc.) around the house for them to discover on their own (if they didn’t find them at the library). Since they don’t know everything that is out there (nor do I), I think it’s a bit unfair to step back and assume they will know where to look. That’s part of their training in teaching themselves – exposing them to resources (the library, the Internet, local businesses and government offices). It’s not completely self-directed, but I do try to (mostly) respect their choices.

Picture of a kid's desk - pencil, paper, and opened book

R has decided to make a book about Greece. I sketched out a storyboard so he could plan out his book.

As such, I was asking my six-year-old how he wanted to show off some of his knowledge about Egypt and threw out a number of suggestions – a drawing of the pyramids, a written poster, clay models of the artifacts he found. He immediately jumped on the idea of making clay models of the pyramids and I made sure to follow through when we were at home that week.

picture of homemade clay pyramids

We have a big slab of clay on hand, so it’s an easy way to extend the learning.

I even managed to make a connection between the pyramid from our Montessori geometric solids and the pyramids he was making. Nothing formal, just an observation about the pyramids and how many sides they have, etc. He made sure to point out the four sides on his pyramids and I quickly agreed. It’s a slight connection, a teaching moment in the midst of an innocent art project. But, it helps to solidify small connections of learning, while reinforcing the  the value of a teacher-facilitator.

We’re continuing with projects. My youngest is feeling that his might be coming to an end, and my oldest is trying to meet a 4-H deadline. This week promises to be a flurry of making, writing and organizing. I can’t wait.