Thursday, May 21, 2015

K-6th Science: The Solar System

I don't normally start new classes for the kids in MAY!!  This is when I want to be winding down and wrapping up!!

But as I mentioned in my previous post, my 12yo daugther finished her classes at her online school early this month and needed more to do for the next 6-8 weeks!  I asked her what she'd be interested in learning for the rest of the year one of the things mentioned was Astronomy.  Surprise!  So I looked high and low for something we could all do together and settled on Exploring Creatoin with Astronomy from the Young Explorer Series.  It's supposed to be adjustable from K-6th, so I went for it.

I bought one text book, one regular notebooking journal, and one Jr.. notebooking journal.  I made copies of each journal so that all 4 kids would have their own notebook to work in, and I read the text outloud.  I also bought the kit of ready-to-go science experiment supplies so that it would ease the burden of teaching this class. I love science. And my kids adore it.  But I've always dreaded the experiments because I hate rounding up all the supplies the night before at 1:30am.  So the pricy kit was totally worth it to me.

We've only finished our first lesson so far.  The kids are loving it! I find it easy to teach and enjoyable. I'm not reporting on this class to the PPP we participate in (mentioned in previous post) so this is the first text I've ever used from a "christian perspective".  It feels a little odd, even though we are very active Christians.  It's refreshing to have the option, but sometimes I feel the text is a little heavy handed.  We'll have to see how it goes as we progress.

So here's our model of the solar system we put up today.  It's balloons hanging from the cieling.  Our sentence that we made up to help us remember the order is:

My Very Eager Monster Jumps Silently Under Nasty Pillows.

Yes, we included Pluto.  The text let's you hear both sides of the debate and decide if Pluto should be included.  We thought that it should be!!

PreK, 6th, 2nd and 4th graders
I hope our little one was there participating too somehow.  She would be 15.5 months old now, being totally underfoot and keeping us super busy.   I would give anything to have her here making messes and destroying our projects.    We miss you baby H.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review of 6th Grade Online School at Williamsburg Academy

At the recommendation of a friend, we did something a little different this year for my 12yo daughter.  We enrolled her in an online school with live class sessions and mentors.  The school is Williamsburg Intermediate.  They claim to take a project based, liberal arts, literature strong approach to education, all of which sounded good to me.  And given that I was still dealing with a lot of grief, health issues and financial issues, I was more than happy to pay someone else to take on my middle schooler's educaton for a year.

Speaking of payment:  We only took three courses over the year: Leadership (required by all students), Humanities and STEM.  These three classes ran about 2K for the year.  Happily for us, the cost was covered by the state run parent partnership in which we particiapte.  I realize that some of you grassroot homeschoolers will not be able to condone this admission.  And I do have mixed feelings about it myself.  But in the end, I'd like to have our tax money back to help fund the education I really want for my kids.  Having the extra state funding in exchange for all of the reporting requirements is a trade I'm willing to make (so far) as it allows us so many opportunities that would otherwise not be available.

Moving on.

So after completing our first year at WI, I have mixed feelings about this program.  I'll share the pros and cons incase you're looking for a place for your middle schooler this fall too.

School Identity: My daughter loved having a school identitiy.  WI students call them selves "Burgers" and they have several ways to help identify themselves as such, creating a degree of school spirit.  For example, they have first Friday game night online hosted by one of the mentors.  My daughter only attended the very first of these.  She didn't find them worth her while.

Peers:  It was nice for my 12yo to meet other kids across the country who homeschool.  It gave her a chance to take a look at her peer group and see where she fits in academically, socially and emotionally.  She was surprised, I think, to find that a lot of 6th graders still struggle with simple assignments, they still interrupt, they still don't know how to work as a team on projects,  and generally make class annoying.  This also proved to be a con for her but I'm listing it as a PRO because where else do you get this experience at this age?

Leadership: At first I thought it was dumb to have her enroll in the leadership course.  I thought it would be something dull like study skills or something lame.  It turned out to be her favorite class and was very rich with meaningful material.  Honestly, she's very independent and I didn't hover so I can't give you tons of detail about any of the classes, but I saw her semester finals for this class that summarized the character traits and student qualities taught during the year and it was FAB.

Mentors: The teachers are referred to as Mentors and they are super!  My daugher found them to be very personable, approachable and caring.  I had one online parent conference with each teacher in October an dfound them to be very responsive to my concerns and opinions about the coursework and workload.

Literature: She really did read a lot of great books for her classes.  I was impressed with most of the required readings, even for math, and found that she was engaged in the readings.  She has always been a voracious reasder anyway, but I was happy to let someone else feed her reading appetite for a change! And the mentors absolutely had to supplement her reading schedules with MULTIPLE novels throughout the year.

Weak STEM:  I'll just say it. The science was really weak.  There didn't seem to be any labs of any kind.  There didn't seem to be any depth to the material. It was a very light survey of various topics with no real meat.  I'd say the same about the writing.  Humanities was extended an extra 20 minutes once a week to cover writing skills.  Very skimpy in my opinion.  Not nearly adequate.

Math: The school uses the free resources at for their math work.  The kids are expected to "master" a certain number of skills for their grade level at keep track of their minutes completed each week. Students choose to commit to 30, 45, or 60 minutes of math per day.  My daughter really disliked Kahn Academy. The only saving grace here was the live online math lab available for two hours a day where she could go get online help from mentors.  The Kahn videos alone were rarely enough to help her learn the material on her own.  Without the math lab, this course would have beeen a total flop.

Workload: I generally have high expectations for my kids. I'm by no means a Tiger Mom, but I like to see them working hard and stretching themselves.  The workload at WI was generally interesting, and broad in scope, but just too easy.  My daughter never had less than 96% in any class the entire year. I asked her if it was hard to get her As and she said no.  I mentioned this at our parent conferences with the mentors, noted above. The mentors did indeed step up her workload and expectations, but I still saw that she was not being pushed to her max capacity. It was just too easy.

I will also say that some of the "project based learning" felt like busy work.  She was asked to do things that we had covered in our Story of the World class years before.    Cooking and simple art projects were incorporated into the material, and I'm all about that. I love that.  But it required minimal effort from my daughter and somehow she still got an A???  For her second semester HUM final she had to write a poem.  A poem?   For a final?  She got a 100%

Timeline: WI schools start in August and end in early May, and two of those weeks are "review weeks" and two of those weeks are "finals weeks"  So there was for sure some dead time during the year.  Since the rest of my kids start school at least month later, and finish school six weeks later, it threw off our family rhythm a LOT.  Currently, I am putting together work for her to do until the rest of us finish up the school year.  And to be honest, I'm a whole lot happier with the work that I'm giving her now than the work she's had to do all year long.  I feel like she's getting more.  And she's having to readjust to more work again.

Notes: My daughter was happy in this school.  She loved being voted class president of her STEM section.  She loved that she won the contest for completing the orientation on time and being totally ready for the school year as was required. She received a prize in the mail for this, which she thought was pretty awesome.  She loved being independent of me and in control of her own scheduling.  She felt very autonomous and indeed she handled herself with a very high level of resonsiblity. She responded veyr well to the mentors and wanted to please them with her efforts.  She never complained about due dates (much) and was happy to have the challenge of meeting them.

Often times, she would just be giddy and say, "Mom I love my school this year! All my stuff is going great!"  But I have to clarify that WI was only a small part of this.  In addition to WI, she was also on the YMCA swim team, she participated in the weekly co-op where she took Art, Human Anatomy and Band (beginning trumpet), and this spring she was invited to audtion for the Music Man at the local Jr. High and lllllooooooovvvved it!! And after turning 12 she graduated to a new level of social involvement at church, which was thrilling for her.  So she had a lot going on outside of WI.  Still she seemed content enough at WI, which is saying a lot for this very social, very capable, totally independent, strong willed girl.

Conclusion: Am I glad we did it?  Yes.  It was a good experience.  As I mentioned earlier, this was certainly a year when I needed a few things cleared from my plate and WI was key in making that happen.  I almost completely left my 12 yo in their seemlingly capable hands while I dealt with personal stuff.

Would we do it again? No.  Probably not.  At least not for middle school, especially since the 6th and 7th graders are combined and cover the same level of coursework.  One of the mentors suggested that my daughter skip to 8th grade next year if she were to continue.   And maybe it gets tougher in highschool? I don't know. But we have plans to go back to our former methods for 7th grade and my daughter seems happy about that.  She said she was sick of doing "computer school" and looks forward to just working at a desk and doing "book and paper school" again.  ha ha.  I thought that was funny.  She missed our family group projects and classes and has happily rejoined them since WI ended earlier this month.

Overall, I think I'd give it 3 or 3.5 stars.  But for the price tag, and for my precious kiddos, I need 5 stars baby.  Adios Williamsburg.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Every  now and then a book hits home and changes a little part of who I am.  This was one of them.  I love reading about the 1930s and 40s.  I love stories of hope, courage, dedication and triumph over all impossible odds.  And I love learning about WWII.  Put that all together and you have one of my favorite books. I don't know if this book can compare much with Unbroken.  That book is in a class by itself.  But Louie Zamperini is mentioned, and it's all taking place during the same time period, so there are some parallels.  Without giving away too much, I just want to share with you why this book drew me in and kept me inspired.

For starters, I guess it's the stark contrast between today's entitlement mentality and the make-your-own-way spirit of the Greatest Generation.  I mean, this kid, Joe, was repeatedly abandoned by his family in one form or another starting at age four when he first knew illness, death and fear..  He also knew poverty. Real poverty.  Not the kind of poverty that means you get free lunch at school.  The kind that drives you to the forest looking for mushrooms to eat, or to the salmon spawning grounds to illegally hunt fish.  He knew lonliness; the kind of lonliness that comes when you are intentionally left behind by your father and step mother at age 15 to fend for yourself in an empty, half-finished homestead.  He knew loss. He knew a motherless childhood.   He knew what it felt like to have his interests and talents mocked and ridiculed by his peers and family.

If Joe had decided to turn in on himself, to hermit away in pain; or if he'd chosen to lash out in anger at the'd understand, right?  I mean, he had every reason, every excuse to turn into a rotten kid.  But Joe was made of better stuff.  Stuff that I hope to find in myself  Stuff like a willingness to work incredibly hard for the sake of survival.  An ability to find value in things that others disregard as useless or unuseable.  An optimism for the future even when the past only suggests more sorrow.  Reliance on self, creativity, resourcefulness.  A talent for finding peace and hope in simple things like music, nature, and a friendly face.  Joe had all of this and a good deal more.

Joe carried these things forward as he managed to somehow scrape enough money together to go to college.  Slaving away in the summer under grueling manual labor and working nights as a janitor at the YMCA, where he also had a cell-like sleeping room, allowed Joe to pay his own way through school at the University of Washington, where he tried out for the rowing team.

Rowing turned out to be a saving grace for Joe in many ways. The learning curve wasn't a predictable and steady upward line for Joe.  He was all over the charts.  First slipping back and then inching forward, making progess and then losing ground just like most of us do in so many areas of our lives. He still ended up with a gold medal.  And the analogies there are many. I saw myself in that cycle of one step forward, two steps back.

But let me quote a few passages for you that had special meaning for my own life.  These are passages that not only apply to very real circumstances that  I face myself, but to an entire "gimme" generation that seems to think the world owes them every desire of their hearts simply because they "occupy" space and time on earth.

The following quotes are from chapter ten.

"The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.  And yet at the same time-And this is key-no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does.....they have no stars.  The team effort-the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; teh single, whole unified, and beautiful symphoney that a crew in motion becomes-is all that matters.  Not the individual, not the self."

"Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews...Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat...."

"Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in resesrve,; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking.  Somehow all this must mesh.  That's the steepest challenge.  Even after the right mixture is foudn, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her ploace in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are.  It is an exuisite thing when it all comes together in just the righ way.  The intense bonding and the sense of exhileration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for tropheies or accolades.  But it takes  young men or women of extraordinary pull it off."

I feel like entire sermons could be written on those quotes.  It reminds me of the scriptures about the Body of Christ.  All parts are needed in one way or another to create a whole.  This can be applied in so many ways outisde of sports.  Think of your marriage, of your family, of your church group, your homeschool co-op, your work environment or your other organziatoin.  Think how abandoning yourself to the greater good, giving up something that might make YOU standout, make YOU feel better, so that the group as a whole can thrive.  It's hard!!  (Side note: I'm not talking about socialism here. I'm mtalking about voluntary teamwork.)

Let me share one more passage from chapter thirteen.

"There was a straightforward reason for what was happening.  The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth; they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted.  Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each had in his own way, they had all learnead that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strenght and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they.  The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility-the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole-and humility was the common gateway through which they were able to now come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before."

It reminds me of that saying that goes, "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."  Somethign like that.  And did you catch the definition of humility in there?  I love that.  I think it works.  And how did this humility come about?  By being winnowed down.  By experiencing hardship and difficulty.  NOT by having an easy life.

And I love that for all the toughness and skill, what really mattered for these boys' success was their character, their good hearts.  I've heard it said that America is Great because America is Good.  When America stops being Good, America stops being Great.  This book brings that saying to life in a very personal, individual, and every-day way.  

Good people, working hard, doing their best, loving and living, struggling and learning.  Good people overcoming hardship and difficulty.  Good people dreaming big and living small.  Good people relying on God, themselves and each other.  Good people living the best life they can.  I think this is what characterizes that Greatest Generation and makes me yearn for a time when young people cared more about being good than living comfortably.  

I hope that a little bit of  Joe has rubbed off on me after reading this book and I can focus more on being a humble, dedicated, hardworking team player that is Good to the core.