Monday, August 29, 2011

The Epic of Gilgamesh

After completing study of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, our Story of the World moved back to Mesopotamia. Since we have been also reading integrated literature, I decided it made absolute sense to study what is possibly the oldest piece of known literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Fortunately, a children's version of the Sumerian legend is available, a picture-book trilogy by Ludmila Zeman; Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar, and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh. Since it was unavailable at my local library, I decided to go ahead an purchase it, and I'm glad I did. Though large modifications were made to the story,  such as the glaring change of the Sumerian Inanna to the more commonly-known Babylonian counterpart Ishtar, the work did an excellent job in capturing the essence of the epic in both words and illustration. Both my kids (ages 6 and 8) enjoyed the story, and came away with some familiarity with one of the world's oldest stories.

I have through the course of homeschooling reminded my children of the phenomenon of the same stories being told and retold, so it was especially enlightening for them to see this occur in even the world's oldest stories, as Utnapishtim's flood story (which predates and clearly mirrors the Biblical flood story) is included in this children's version of Gilgamesh as well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Math Fact Mastery

I just wanted to post about two excellent math fact mastery programs to use as a supplement to a standard math curriculum.

The first is the most universally useful, a web site called XtraMath. I spent my first two years of homeschooling searching for a web-based math fact program to keep my child's fact mastery sharp. You'd think this would be a simple proposition. In theory, the technology should allow for a superior option to even the old standard of teacher-given timed fact tests. Instead I encountered site after site of awful flash animations, gimmicky games, and sites with obnoxious glitches and sound effects.

Finally I ran across a recommendation for XtraMath at A Well-Trained Mind forum. Following the link, I found exactly the kind of math fact program I had been looking looking for. XtraMath is clean, crisp, and user-friendly. It covers all four basic operations and tracks daily progress. It modifies fact drilling based on the student's performance. It has no annoying sound effects, no pop-up ads, it reliably works, and it is FREE. What a service to students everywhere, whether they are educated in a traditional or non-traditional setting.

The second program I found extremely helpful is Times Tales. This is a DVD for higher multiplication and division facts only, but appeals to visual/auditory learners. Let's face it - in a pinch, if a student forgets an addition and subtraction fact, it can always be calculated fairly quickly. Since this is not the case with higher level multiplication and division, the mind that is more inclined to remember stories and mnemonics can benefit greatly from this program.

Let me be clear: it is campy and the illustrations are truly awful, and the tone is more condescending than I'd prefer. This did initially turn-off my almost-9-year-old daughter. However, when she saw her results after giving it a fair chance, she ceased the eye-rolling. A story-oriented individual or audio/visual learner can use their strengths to "calculate" a forgotten multiplication or division fact by recalling the story and/or images.  It doesn't take long to remember these simple tales.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mummies, Mummies, Everywhere

The theme of the day today - MUMMIES! What is more fascinating to an elementary school child than a corpse having its brains extracted through its nostrils, organs bathed in cinnamon and stored in canopic jars, the remaining body wrapped and sealed in a golden sarcophagus, preserved in mystery for thousands of years?

Not much!

Even my generally squeamish daughter took avid interest. This study goes along with our study of Ancient Civilizations this year, using Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World, Volume I as a primary spine. (As of this posting it has been quite some time since I posted - I'm going to backtrack and add some entries retroactively with the intention of posting more actively this school year.)

I wanted to share the resources we used as part of this subject, for those who might be interested.

The first is the haunting picture book I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Christiana. The book may be more aptly described as poetry than a children's picture book. Poetic language portrays the life and internment of Heb-Nefert, wife of the pharaoh's brother. While the poetry's examination of life, death, and legacy may have been somewhat lost on my children, the beautiful illustrations and narrative were not. 

Next on the list was my first use of this year's subscription to Evan-Moor's Teacher File-Box, which I got a great deal on through the Homeschool Buyers Co-Op ($70 for the year.) Some of Evan-Moor's materials are a little too busywork for my taste, but they have some great materials as well. Due to several recommendations I had intended to purchase their History Pockets for the kids this year, and for a lower annual cost the subscription gives me access to a much broader array of materials that I can in turn print on card stock, which I prefer. Also I've found that some of the materials designated in the grades 4-6 range are perfectly appropriate for my 1st and 3rd graders. Today's assignment, in fact, included a mummy craft activity, wrapping a mummy in gauze bandages and then placing it beneath flaps to demonstrate the multiple coffins that were placed inside each sarcophagus. The activity was designated for grades 4-6, but I found even my 1st grader could do it, though with imperfect result.

Pictured above in the background is the 1st grader's version of the Evan-Moor project (my 3rd grader more appropriately layered the coffins to more accurately demonstrate the internment of mummies.) In the foreground is a mummified carrot. This carrot was mummified in a "Tombs and Treasures" summer camp over a year ago at our local science center. We opened it for the first time today, revealing a preserved if very shriveled-up baby carrot, much to the fascination of the children.

The study concluded with the not-very-educational but super fun activity of the children wrapping each other up like mummies. This activity, of course, was of their own invention, and I permitted the sacrifice of time and toilet paper in order to foster their enthusiasm for today's history subject.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Life, the Universe, and Everything

While I can't claim to possess the humor and wit of Douglas Adams who coined the term "Life, the Universe, and Everything" in his thematic parody of finding the ubiquitous Answer, curiosity regarding the nature of life and existence is no joke.

My grand plan for this year's schooling involves beginning a several-year cycle of studying world history, beginning with ancient civilizations, as a chronological approach to the study of history popularized in independent education circles by Susan Wise Baeur, author of The Story of the World. In this study, children as young as six are exposed to the study of history, starting at the beginning. While children this young retain limited knowledge, a framework for future understanding of the world is established by addressing questions such as:
  • What is history?
  • How is it studied?
  • How can we really know what happened long ago?
  • What is the evidence?
  • What conclusions can be drawn from that evidence?
  • How did history begin?
  • Are historians always right?
In essence, this approach to history with young children is to begin at, well, the beginning.

This is distinct from the current American public school model, which is to focus on community and local history, expanding outwards.

Knowing that this is my plan moving forward, I thought it would be apropos to do a summer unit study on prehistory - to read and discuss with my children the absolute beginning of everything that ultimately leads to the beginning of the world's story, which in Bauer's The Story of the World, is presented as a narrative.

And here you are faced with it. The big Evolution vs. Creation argument. How controversial.

I personally am what is called a theistic evolutionist. That is, I believe in a divine Creator, that ignited the spark that Banged Big, and wrote the laws that set the universe (or universes) in motion. Evolution, as it were, being a natural byproduct of this creation. It is as real as the evidence suggests, I believe, but it does not invalidate my belief in divine creation.

So, we read it all. We read creation myths. We read Genesis from the Children's Illustrated Jewish Bible. We read the Life on Earth: the Story of Evolution by Steve Jenkins (an excellent book, a library find that I'd like to permanently add to our personal collection). We read EyeWitness books about dinosaurs and early man. The kids created cave drawings in a makeshift cardboard "cave". We even went to see Sue, the infamous T-Rex who fortuitously happened to be on display at the local US Space and Rocket Center. A veritable smorgasbord of prehistory wonders in two short weeks, on which my children's little minds might feast.

I have found it interesting that many parents want their children exposed to only Creation or Evolution, and rarely both, save for the purposes of invalidating one of the two worldviews. This exclusion appears to me to be more popular among the Creationists, as if fearing the evidence satanic deception that may taint their young one's minds.

So I found it particularly interesting that both my children, the Spirited One and the Pragmatic One, have a natural desire to accept a measure of the creationist view at face value.

The Spirited One, age 8, appeared to accept the scientific basis of evolution as truth, though unshaken regarding her belief in God.

Very on topic, during these studies we also watched the Discovery Channel show Curiosity, featuring Stephen Hawking. The episode we watched asked the question Did God Create the Universe? The episode crescendoed to a triumphant conclusion that celebrated the reveled truth of atheism. This deeply troubled my Spirited One, and she sat perplexed and haunted by the presented argument that God did not exist. I told her it is, indeed, possible that God does not exist, but I also demonstrated to her how the logic presented by Stephen Hawking was deeply and fatally flawed. Ultimately, she would have to examine the evidence, what she can sense both intellectually and spiritually, and decide for herself. That freedom, I could tell, was both troubling and comforting. I could offer her no final answer, but nor could Stephen Hawking dictate it to her.

Meanwhile, my Pragmatic One, age 6, upon reading The Story of Life, declared defiantly, "These evolution mutations make no sense! I think God just created everything at once."

I looked at her and said, "Well, a lot of people agree with you. I don't, but that's OK. We'll learn together so that when you're older, you can decide for yourself."

And that is the kind of education I want for my kids.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The School Room

For the last two years I have used my dining room as our school room. For the past two years, I have desperately tried to retain the illusion that this dining room is, in fact, a dining room.

We completed all work in a manner that would allow the evidence of learning to be swept away into cabinets and drawers in the event of company or a holiday meal. I even went so far as to purchase a large bookshelf for my office across the foyer, that I might be spared the embarrassment of visitors beholding the untidiness of papers, projects, and books that are inevitable in the home of any homeschooling family.

This year, however, I've resigned myself to the fact that our home is an unapologetic place of learning. It began when I realized my daughter (who is learning cursive this year) would need a cursive reference constantly available. Should I print out a cursive alphabet and laminate it onto a card that can be tucked neatly inside a bookshelf?

No. Enough. When I ordered my daughter's Handwriting Without Tears curriculum, I also ordered large classroom-style cards.

I didn't stop there. I kept surfing the web. I ordered two large maps - one of the world, and one of the United States, of the dry-erase adhesive variety, that I could plaster directly on my walls. I ordered educational posters. I selected "Gifts of Ancient Civilizations" posters, knowing that this year would begin our formal study of world history. I purchased a small end table that matched our furniture that I might place our lovely globe (a generous gift from Grandma) out in the room where my children actually learn, instead of squirreled away behind my computer on my desk like a decoration.

I cleared the knick-knacks off the hutch, and placed them elsewhere in the house, and used that luscious horizontal space for everyday book and folder storage, and a laptop recharging station. I mentioned I wished I had a rustic wooden caddy for colored pencils and scissors, and my husband built one for me.

Holiday meals and guests will, for the foreseeable future, be entertained in the company of our schoolroom menagerie.

And I embrace that fact.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Increased Blog Activity

August will begin our third year of homeschooling and hopefully some regular activity to this blog. After spending quite a bit of time archiving old work and deciding what to keep, I concluded that posting regularly to this blog will add an additional level of record I feel obligated to keep, in the event that I should ever encounter any legal trouble for our decision to home school. Alabama law is vague on the subject, and I've always felt that due to my very informal covering, it is wise to keep ample records of work completed by my children.

So here we go.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Our 30 Seconds of Fame

Tonight my daughters and I appeared on the local television station, WAAYTV, in a story about local homeschoolers.

The reporter, Rebecca Shlien, is an acquaintance of ours from the Jewish community. We were both attending Shabbat dinner at the home of a mutual friend when the host announced "If anyone has any story ideas for Rebecca, let he know! She has to come up with two a day."

While I did take that opportunity to suggest a story about area homeschoolers, I can't claim credit for the story being aired. Apparently a few days after that evening, Ms. Shlien actually received this story as an assignment from her supervisor. Homeschooling is fairly popular in Huntsville, so it doesn't surprise me that the local television station would, at some point, want to run a human interest story on the local education trend. The timing, however, proved quite serendipitous.

We were delighted when Ms. Shlien contacted us and asked if we would allow her to come into our home and film some homeschooling activities and interview us. I felt this was a great opportunity for my kids, to see how a story is filmed, edited, and aired first hand. I also took the opportunity to coach my oldest in interviewing skills and etiquette. Make eye contact. Speak clearly. Anticipate possible questions you might be asked ahead of time and think of what you might say. She presented herself beautifully, and although the footage of her "interview" was not used in the final piece, it was a great educational experience all around.

And I must confess I was relieved to find that when the piece was aired, that not only did I appear to be a normal and articulate mother with civilized children, but Ms. Shlien presented homeschooling in a fair and favorable light.