The Expository Prose…FDR: His Library, His Life… Sandwich

Teaching beginning expository prose is never fun.  Not fun for the teacher and certainly not fun for the young student.  So now is the time.  This year Bounce and I will be exploring the wild shores of expository prose and I hope to arrive at the other side with a competent writer in tow.

FDR Bounce with flag So where do we start?

As part of Bounce’s Boy Scout (Webelo) Citizenship Badge, he is required to write a short paper on an American president.  We chose FDR because his New Deal program has some obvious parallels to current politics.  Why not see where it all began?

fdr1 cartoonWe began by reading short books on FDR and doing some quick Internet research.  Bounce wrote a muddled 2-page paper on FDR.  Not surprisingly, it was evident that Bounce didn’t really understand any of the Big Ideas:  Great Depression, Dust Bowl, New Deal, WWII, etc.

FDR and BrooksWe decided to take a field trip and visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.

The Library does an amazing job of telling the story of crisis and intervention between 1929-1945.  Each room has short videos that explain the “facts”, followed by artifacts from the era.  The entire exhibition, gallery upon gallery, provides an excellent view of history.  One has the sensation of riding a time-travel train through the lives of Americans, both wealthy and indigent.

Bounce finally understood each of the salient points of the time period.  We were left with the impression of the monumental importance and success of Roosevelt.  Where would we be without him?

FDR 100 daysUnfortunately, there are few counter arguments and questions about alternative paths or the ultimate effect of the rising scope and growth of government.

As Edward Rothstein noted in his June 27,2013 review in The New York Times,

The most intriguing displays are actually scanned documents on video screens that present the controversies and debates during the Roosevelt years: Did the New Deal really end the Depression, or did the coming of the war? Why didn’t Roosevelt support federal anti-lynching legislation? (He did not want to lose Southern Democratic support.) What were his attitudes toward race? What was behind the executive order that interned Japanese-Americans along the West Coast? Did Roosevelt do what was possible to help Jews fleeing Hitler’s executioners? (At one point Alaska was considered as a refuge.) And did he give away Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta?

Please see complete article here:

No matter one’s political view, the FDR Library is impressive and educational.  Bounce learned more in one afternoon than would have been otherwise possible.  We bought and read three new books about FDR.  Bounce noticed that all three told different versions of the “truth,” a fact certainly worth noting when reading secondary sources.

For great online resources directly from the FDR Library check this out:

Bounce struggled through creating an outline for a formal paper, with thesis statement and supporting evidence.  We discussed that each paragraph should contain one topic only, and begin and end with bridge sentences that would lead to the next topic.  Finally, his new 3-page paper is complete.  We both heaved giant sighs of relief.

Bounce remains blissfully unaware that my real goal in this exercise is the teaching of expository prose. I am happy to “hide” expository prose in a history-Boy Scout sandwich.  Am I a genius or a coward?  You decide.  But it is working.  Word by word, Bounce is learning to write.

FDR 1932 Presidential Election

1932 Presidential Election map.  Need we say more?

As FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

But what if I fear government take over and the loss of liberty and individual freedom?

FDR Pequot warNext topic of government intervention (also prompted by the Citizenship Badge):  The Great Swamp War.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is munching on expository sandwiches composed of real life experiences, while sailing the high seas of independence.  

Team I.C.E. Wins First Place in Two DI Challenges and National History Day!

We had a busy but exciting weekend, with the Destination Imagination state tournament and the National History Day district competition both this Saturday.  My high school team, which competes in both competitions, split up into two factions and tackled their challenges.

Destination Imagination, a theater-based competition that stresses teamwork and problem solving, requires teams to choose from five annual “Challenges” or sets of rules they must adhere to while creating their skits.  Eager to push themselves even more, my high school team, Team I.C.E. (Imagine. Create. Empower.) took on two challenges for the 2011-12 season: a rare feat.  For each challenge they were required to present a skit and do a top-secret “Instant Challenge” that wasn’t revealed to them until just before they began.  Instant Challenges can range from building a tower to performing a skit—Shhhh, we can’t tell you what it was until after the competition season.

With two main Central Challenges and two Instant Challenges, the team had a lot to do at the tournament.  Their first challenge was “News to Me:” an improvisational challenge.  The team researched six articles in advance.  At the tournament, one of their articles was selected.  This article was “Hunger Games: Importance for our Generation.” (The team had gone to the midnight premiere and read all the books, so they were prepared.) Team I.C.E. was also presented with a headline for a news story they hadn’t researched: “Nice Wheels: Student Invents Motorized Couch.”  The challenge was to make up a story about how one news event caused the other to occur.  The team had four minutes to decide that the students invented the motorized couch to get to the Hunger Games, because they were too young to drive a car.


But the challenge didn’t stop there.  Extra! Extra! This just in!  The team had an additional one minute after their four minute set up time to decide how to incorporate an unexpected “One Minute Glitch: OMG!”  Their glitch: all skit characters are on a reality TV show.  The team appropriately added drama, and a cameraman, to their skit.



Time to perform!  And don’t forget that human scenery!


A machine for analyzing news data


A bike


And a boat (with a built-in radio, of course, so the team could sing an original song.)

The judges were impressed with their teamwork, and Team I.C.E. did very well—and had a ton of fun.

After that, it was time for the team to present their prepared skit for their second challenge, “Coming Attractions.”  For this challenge, they had all season to create an original four-minute skit (with just one-minute set up time) in the style of a movie trailer, incorporating the cultures of two different nations, an original soundtrack and a special effect.  The team studied France and Japan, and incorporated the cultures by creating a giant pointillism painting (pointillism is a form of French art) and folding 1000 origami cranes (in keeping with the Japanese tradition that completing this task earns the folder one wish.)  Their skit also included “Can Can” dancers, made from cans, of course, a mime, a haiku performed in Japanese, and original songs.  The team used personification of abstract ideas to express how understanding other cultures conquers fear of them, and their special effect was a hot air balloon that lifted their hero, Willy Makeit, into the air.




Their dress rehearsal…


…and their performance for the judges.


Uh oh! Their backdrop had some technical difficulties.  The team fixed the problem quickly and went on with their skit, scoring very highly regardless of the issue.


Team I.C.E. won first place in both challenges, and will be advancing to the Global Finals in Knoxville Tennessee in May!  They have tons of work to do to polish up their skits and raise money for their trip, but they are really excited.

And what about National History Day?  The team earned first place for their website “All’s Faire in Laissez-Faire: The Industrial Revolution and Social Reform.”  The website addressed the annual topic: “Revolution, Reaction and Reform in History.”  In addition to preparing a website and doing tons of primary source research by visiting historians and private collections, they also had to document it in an extensive (ultimately 81 page long) annotated bibliography.  They will be advancing to states!

Here’s their website:

And a link to their “News to Me” improv performance:

It was a great day overall.  Go team!


Let Me Count the Days: Homeschooling is Learning Through Competition

Finding Creative Inspiration

Creative inspiration is a necessary ingredient for every part of life, but certainly needed when educating and inspiring children. We need to be creative in our approach so our students are engaged and we need to continually reinvent the lesson to maintain both their level of interest and our own.


So where do we find our creative inspiration? Our Happymess approach is usually to look at each lesson as part of an inter-disciplinary component.

We ask ourselves, "How does this one piece of learning fit into the giant puzzle of knowledge?" I typically try to find at least 3 different disciplines related to each individual subject. I try to surround our nugget of factual study with small pieces of art, history or literature that will make the "fact" seem more "real" to our aspiring student.

For example, when studying math we ask ourselves, "Why is this really necessary? Who has used this knowledge in the past?" "Why might we be interested in knowing this in the future?"

These type of questions quickly lead us to a study of history, both ancient and modern. We can look at the ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians and learn how they studied the general principles of the world. We can study the lives of Euclid and Pythagoras and learn about the Euclidean algorithm for determining the greatest common divisor, or in Saxon Math terms, the greatest common factor (GCF). We study Pythagoras' theorem for determining the hypotenuse of a right triangle: a squared + b squared = c squared.

We see immediately that these are not merely formulas to be memorized. These are scientific principles that govern our natural world. These principles were observed by great minds of the past and were simplified into tangible equations.

So now as we commence our exercises we see that these Saxon math questions are part of an ancient dialogue. These questions have been asked, studied and answered for thousands of years. So "Why," our student wonders, "do we need to keep studying them?"

This is an excellent time to look at some current scientific uses for which these theorems can be helpful. They include use of GPS, navigating in outer space and measuring areas of a building or bridge for the purpose of construction.

Athena and I were recently purchasing tile for our kitchen. We went to several tile stores and were unable to determine the exact cost of the tile due to the lack of unit pricing. The salesperson was unable to provide us with a unit cost per square foot so that we could compare various prices of tile. After tap-tap-tapping repeatedly on her calculator she finally looked up sheepishly and said, "They just don't give us an app for that so I can't answer the question." Then she turned to Athena and said with a smile, "You see, that's why you have to study math in school." Athena just smiled back because she had already calculated the various sums in her head while pretending to study the ceiling.

We left the store thanking Pythagoras and his ancient friends for enabling us to get an honest price quote. Expanding the relevance of an otherwise "dry"

subject takes a creative approach but makes it much more fun to teach and much more entertaining to learn.

Where do we find our creative inspiration? We just keeping asking, "Why?" and "Who?" and "When?" each time we learn a new fact.

Let Me Count the Days: Homeschooling is searching to find the past and the future while struggling to understand the present.

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History is the Study of Lives, not Events

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana, also invoked by Winston Churchill

Napoleon, Empereur de francais…

A typical history course is one which follows a fairly straight forward, chronological, path through a series of wars and various social and cultural upheavals. This approach to the subject of history can be uninspiring to the young student. When I first began homeschooling I searched for a good history curriculum and was surprised (not really) that the textbooks where dull and the "story" moved intractably from one violent event to the next with little human empathy or emotion being imparted to the reader.

Inevitably I found that I needed to create my own curriculum if I wanted to get my students' attention. In the past 6 years we have studied the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the history of China from 1000 b.c. through Mao and the Cultural Revolution to the present, the history of Japan, the American Revolution, slavery and the Underground Railroad, World War I, the inter-war years and World War II, and at least another dozen sub-topics.

I have found that the best approach is to start with a simple skeleton or outline of the basic facts. This is reinforced by having my students create their own timelines of the key events. For this we have used long rolls of paper that stretch across the room. The timeline can be marked with measurements reflecting the desired time intervals. The students then write draw and create a collage of events, images and accomplishments from that section of history. We have also used printed book timelines that allow multiple timelines to be created on the same page so that various events from around the globe can be compared and the student can appreciate the different events that were occurring simultaneously. We have also used digital timelines that create the same effect but allow for uploading images and films to create a newsreel effect.

I have found, not surprisingly, that the best materials are the primary sources. When we are able to read a first person account of an event then the moment truly becomes "alive." Suddenly it is apparent that real people have lived and thought and tasted these events. We care about the event because we care about the people. Wasn't that the whole point anyway?

We have also had great success reading literature, seeing theatrical pieces and visiting museums. All these resources give a sense of how the past is both similar to and different from the present. We always consider the questions, "How is this similar to today?" and "In what ways are these issues still affecting our society?" also, "Is our culture really different or have these driving forces just manifested themselves differently?"

Ultimately we still turn to respected historical resources for information and analysis. After doing so much of our own research these texts provide real benefit. The student can discern from what viewpoint the text has been written and can evaluate which information has the most value. The study of history becomes the study of our lives and our predecessors, and as such, the study of history becomes indispensable to our study of humanity.

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The Big E Captures the Romance of the Country Fair

A recent visit to the Big E, Eastern States Exposition, gave our 21st century urban children the opportunity to experience a good old fashioned country fair.  We visited farm stands, tasted cream puffs, rode on an elephant, saw real farm animals (I know to some that may sound mundane), rode on real farm tractors and went on as many spinning ferris wheels and roller coasters as possible.  Oh..and saw the most amazing one ring circus in which each act really was death defying and heart stopping. 

Bounce and Quantum may now believe that goats and camels reside happily side-by-side on most American farms.

Riding on an elephant is not nearly as easy as one would imagine when reading the Arabian Nights.

Watching piglets nurse and eggs hatch was endlessly fascinating to our urban-suburban group, most of whom are only familiar with cats and dogs and assume all pigs and spiders are friends, like Wilbur and Charlotte.

Of course nothing can compare with chasing one another through nets and tubes 100 feet above the ground.

Except, perhaps, riding high on a swing hundreds of feet above the earth.

Crazy Mouse at dusk: this was everyone’s favorite ride.

It was a beautiful day, made even more magical by sunset.  This was certainly a “naturally inspiring” lesson in our ongoing study of early American History.  Don’t worry, another day will be filled with proper lessons, notes and quizzes. But today will remain in all our memories as a tour of old-fashioned Americana, and of good plain fun, along the scale of Wilbur and Charlotte’s country fair.

Literature as a Window on History: The Crucible

We are opening our school literature season with a reading of the play, The Crucible by Henry Miller.  This play, written in the 1950’s, revisits Salem Massachusetts at the time of the Salem witch trials.   Today we discussed the nature of the insular Puritan society and the perceived impropriety of two girls caught dancing in the woods.  We discussed the ease with which a small lie can escalate into a communal lie and how quickly a community can rush to persecute the individual, in particular to protect itself from humiliation, or in this case, death.

This play was produced during the era of McCarthyism and ominously warns of the dangers in fearing the unknown and in erroneously accusing others. The notorious witchhunts of the 1950’s ruined the careers of many artists and playwrights as they hastened to defend themselves against accusations of Communism.

We talked about modern applications and the efforts that we make today to avoid these types of global persecutions.  The Crucible portrays fear, persecution and the phobic need for continuity of the current society as unfortunate aspects of the human condition.

Our Homeschool is Now Officially Open!

We spent our first day of school with several hundred other homeschool families at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.  This is a great way to experience first hand the daily life in a small New England village in the early 1800’s.  We were delighted with the apparent simplicity of existence and the quiet beauty of the village.

Bounce was thrilled to run into each village home He visited the Meeting House, the lawyer’s house, the Towne family home and several others.  He was able to see original writing instruments (quill pens and ink), spools of cloth, jars of pickles and nails and scales for weighing non pre-packaged merchandise.

Bounce and Scooter made miniature town houses, studied archeology, made coyote footprints and also created solar photographs with leaves and flowers gathered from the garden.

Creatress, Quantum and Truth made candles, rode an oxen team and studied hard in their faux one-room schoolhouse.

In all, this was a great opening to our study of early American history.

Lights Out after Irene

We are still in the dark one week after Hurricane Irene and the Happymess kids are surprised at how many things in our home require electricity:  everything!

Sometimes it is more fun without lights!

One question that the kids keep asking is, “When will the power come back?”  It leads one to wonder what people did in the days before electricity was invented, which, contrary to my childrens’ belief, really wasn’t too long ago.

And, speaking of kids and electricity, this website was created by a team of high schoolers for the National History Day competition: This site explores the Rural Electrification Act and the process of electrifying America.

Once again I find myself inspired by what kids can create.

Our Fabulous Constitutional Rights

It is September and time to be grateful for the best gift of the season: the right to homeschool our children.


One of the happiest laws is a non-interference law. Each day I am forever grateful that in this marvelous country of individuality we have the freedom to educate our own children in the manner that seems right for our own families. This freedom seems like it should indeed be a natural and unalienable right. We are responsible for all aspects of our children's care. As parents we naturally make every effort to provide love, food and shelter. However, our most important contributions to our children's welfare are more subtle. Through our everyday interactions with one another we strive to create a moral framework, an appreciation for faith and love. We teach compassion for others. Our families are designed to create a nest in which our network of values and expectations can be taught to the next generation. Thus it is our unalienable right to additionally teach Math and Science and English, if we so desire. What could be more natural?

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