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.  

A Single Shard: One Hill, One Valley, One Day at a Time

We always begin our school year with an inspirational quote.  My goal is to allow my students to see themselves as part of the greater continuum of intellectual efforts and metaphysical thinking.  That was a mouthful!

In other words, school is not just learning facts. Homeschool Happymess is built upon the premise that learning can actually be interesting.

This year we are bridging the fun of summer with the seriousness of school with a wonderful novel, A Single Shard, written by Linda Sue Park.  The story takes place in 12th century Korea and teaches the values of friendship, honesty, integrity and hard work within the context of creating beautiful Celadon pottery.

The protagonist, Tree-ear, is a young orphan boy who desires to learn the art of pottery.  His mentor, Crane-man, is a homeless man who instills values by asking difficult questions which can only be answered through personal introspection.

When Tree-ear is presented with the question of facing hunger or stealing rice, Crane-man’s voice echoes in Tree-ear’s mind, “Work gives a man dignity, stealing takes it away.” Tree-ear ponders, “Does a good deed balance a bad deed?” He knows that Crane-man would say, “Questions (of morality) serve in two ways…They keep a man’s mind sharp, and his thoughts off his empty stomach.”

A Single Shard is a walking, talking vocabulary lesson.  The following is a sample list of the vocabulary words that Bounce (Grade 3/4) needed to learn in order to properly understand the story:  Perusal, Urchin, Garner, Sluggardly, Deftly, Emboldened, Impudence, Precariously, Ministrations, Diligent, Insolence, Parched, Felicitous, Vicious and Suffice.  Bounce’s actual list was much longer.  He rewrote every word, looked up the definition and wrote the definition along side each word.  Bounce was delighted to learn such interesting and unusual words.

Eventually, through hard work and self-sacrifice, Tree-ear is given the opportunity to represent the work of a famous potter, Minn.  He accepts the task, with encouragement from Crane-man, to carry Minn’s work to the faraway town of Songdo, where it will be viewed by the royal court.

This journey is so long that Tree-ear has grave doubts about his ability to carry out his mission.  But to not go is even more impossible.

Crane-man presents the journey to Tree-ear in the following manner,

“Your mind knows that you are going to Songdo.  But you must not tell your body.  It must think one hill, one valley, one day at a time.  In that way, your spirit will not grow weary before you have even begun to walk.”

Happymess kids immediately recognized this quote as applying directly to their own lives.  Each child at our impromptu book club was able to think of a way in which this applied directly to themselves.  The group agreed that they had all grown weary of many school-related tasks long before the task had been attempted, yet alone completed.  They committed to taking a more cheerful, thoughtful and dedicated approach to this year’s enterprises.  In short, they recognized that often fear of hard work is greater than the actual work itself.

As a conclusion to our reading the children suggested making banners to remind themselves that each step in a task must be taken on its own merits.

We had great fun making the banners, even though for some of us this Herculean task took several days and nights.

And so there you have it, our 2012 school year quote with which we will commence our studies.  Our journey may be long and arduous but we will embark upon it one day at a time, lest our souls grow weary before we even begin.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is seeking inspiration in novel venues.

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

Color My World with Sunshine

We are studying the earth, the placement of the continents and the energy sources necessary to power our lives on planet earth.

Bounce, and his friends, have created their own world powered by an outer space solar energy gathering machine entitled “The Beam Machine.”

We started our study of the earth and the continents by doing numerous jigsaw puzzles.  As Bounce spent time with each puzzle he was able to recognize the variations in geography, topography, climate and lifestyle customary for each region.

 Adventure Bear proved to be particularly adept at puzzle making.  We like this puzzle series by Ravensburger (Family Puzzle #13 464 9).  The box contains 4 puzzles of earth, each with varying number of pieces and each mapping a different element:  animals, peoples, vegetation and politics.  When combined they form a composite view of our world.

 Next Bounce created his own map of the world.  He studied various Atlases and found that the world can be diagrammed in multiple ways, each showing a different aspect of planet earth.   Here he is studying time zones.

 Making a Bounce-sized map of South America gave him the opportunity to study every contour as well as the mountain regions, political divisions and river systems.  We like the Rand McNally Schoolhouse Intermediate edition of the World Atlas.


What study of geography would be complete without creating our own version of the world?  We used an old round tablecloth (plenty of pre-existing stains) as the “globe.”  Bounce drew the continents and then painted the land and the sea.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let The Sun Shine In

Now that Bounce has the world in his hands, it is time for him to understand our energy resources.  After studying various fossils fuels and non-renewable energy sources, Bounce decided to concentrate on learning more about solar power.

Bounce created a poster board to illustrate current solar technology and also depict an alternative technology that could connect with current electric grids to enhance the use of solar power.

He included his luminaries to illuminate his life sized solar energy prototype.

Here is his world and electrified urban skyline powered by imaginary solar power technology, The Beam Machine.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Mandela

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is imagining the impossible and building the dream in our minds and hearts.

Catherine the Great: A Winter Book Review

Robert K. Massie’s recent bestseller, Catherine the Great, is a wonderfully engrossing tale of 18th century Russian History as experienced by one of the world’s dominant female rulers, Empress Catherine the Great.

We have been reading this book as we travel throughout New England from one frozen mountain to the next. This is certainly a winter book and as we stomp our feet in the frozen snow or curl up by a winter fire we empathize with the location of the characters of this grand book:  the frozen tundra of a winter Russia.  The backdrop for many adventures is the horse drawn sledge, pulled miles across frozen lakes and ice-covered roads.  Occupants bump about, averaging 12miles a day, as they lie huddled beneath bear furs. The winter winds rush across Russia with the same ferocity that we hear as the barren ice-covered branches of New England’s trees clack against one another and against our winter windows.

Young Catherine

In a word:  we are there.  Massie has created a portrait of Catherine the Great that provides us with a window into the very soul of Russian history.  He begins the tale when young Catherine is only 14 years old and becomes betrothed to the hapless, then adolescent, Peter III.  As a young wife, suffering under Russian Empress Elizabeth, Catherine is sequestered and prevented from loving contact with her friends and family.

Isolated, the young girl turns to books, and these become her true friends and allies. For a period of almost 12 years Catherine is prohibited from social interaction, and yet through her intellectual curiosity she is able to grow and develop and ultimately become one of the most knowledgeable and sophisticated leaders of her era.

A look at Catherine’s reading list should give us all inspiration.  Catherine read incessantly and describes herself as, “always having a book in my pocket…” Some books of particular note are the 10 volume edition of General History of Germany, and the Annals by Tacitus, a history of the Roman Empire through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  Tacitus emphasized the destruction of personal liberties by the cruelties imposed through aggressive rule. Catherine also read Montesquieu and was moved by his Enlightenment thinking.  This exposed Catherine to the ideas of a society ruled by rational thought, rather than pure power.  In addition, Voltaire was a favorite with his irreverent and witty modernistic philosophy.  As Catherine grew in intellectual and emotional maturity she was able to view some of the behaviors of the Russian court in the context of previous despotism and began to form her own more enlightened attitudes towards autocratic rule.

Massie intersperses Catherine’s own diaries throughout the book and in this way we come to know Catherine through her own voice as well as her actions.  Constant shifts in power impact Catherine and her life is filled with political upheavals, romance and desire for power.  Ultimately, through a series of astute machinations she becomes Empress Catherine and she now has the opportunity to put some of her enlightened thinking into action.  Regrettable she finds, as have so many leaders, that granting liberty and equality to the human masses is not as easy or as personally painless in practice as it is in theory.

Empress Catherine

As Empress Catherine’s power grows so does her political savvy. She begins to realize that she cannot free the Russian serfs, as she had once dreamed and that her future lies in continued actions of aggression against her neighbors.  Her motives are personal and political, tactical and geographic.  Russia needs to secure trade routes through the Baltic ocean, and therefore covets waterways and harbors belonging to other nations.  Catherine finds that her continued aggression in the region wins her foreign accolades as she is triumphant in battle after battle.

As reader we are placed in the uncomfortable position of watching an unchecked leader exercise total power over her hapless subjects despite her initial best attempts at Enlightenment Thinking.  At all costs, Catherine sees that she must protect herself and the ruling class.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

This fascinating story of the late 1700’s is a tale which effects us all.  The revolutionary thinking of the times, beginning with our own American Revolution, the resulting French Revolution and ultimately the demise of the British throne had seeds which were sown in the great mistreatment and inequality of the vast majority of the proletariat.  Enlightenment thinking and satiric philosophers also paved the way for new thinking: Words do have the power to effect great change.

Catherine the Great covers each of these uprisings and we can understand them both from the perspective of the people as well as from the monarchies the people sought to overthrow.

Russia in 1725

One of the great joys of this book is to follow the action on a map and to see how the countries borders were constantly being redrawn.  It is fascinating to understand the diplomatic reasoning behind tactical acquisitions and to see how the ordinary person was constantly expected to realign themselves with a new governing body.

It is also interesting to see the way religious lines are drawn, almost by the map, as battle-lines are drawn between Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox believers.  The late 1700’s were a time of deep faith among Christians, and yet that deep faith did not yield greater understanding, tolerance or Christian love for one another.

We really recommend this book to anyone who loves a great tale, enjoys romance and intrigue, is intellectually curious about the philosophers of the 18th century and loves history and geography.  Suggestion:  Read this book on a cold winter’s day by a warm fire while the snow is falling thickly and the logs are burning crisply.

Follow-up reading:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  This intertwined tale of love, politics and social inequality, gives a unique insiders view to the guillotine and the French Revolution.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is admitting that 300 years ago people were better educated than they are today.   

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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