Motivating the Student: Powering the Quest for Scientific Knowledge

Motivating young students to search for difficult answers to complex scientific questions can seem like an insurmountable challenge.  HappyMess is sharing a detailed synopsis of our Solar Energy curriculum because we really saw an evolution in the minds of our young scientific team, The SolarNauts.

HappyMess has spent 9 months guiding a diverse group of 7 students through the process of scientific inquiry.  After reviewing our incremental steps we noticed that our success was partially due to the process.  Our team used a truly multi-disciplinary approach to arrive at their final goal:  a comprehensive (grade appropriate) understanding of the fundamentals of energy, solar energy in particular.  The steps are listed here in order of execution.

Competition The SolarNauts, our Elementary Destination Imagination team, are competing in the Science Challenge, The Solar Stage.  These (young) students are learning to do their own scientific research and writing, no easy task.  They are struggling to grasp concepts such as renewable vs. non-renewable energy sources, composition of fossil fuels, creation of electricity and the existential nature of energy itself.

The competition focuses their energies, gives them specific goals and really motivates the students.  They need to work as a team, be creative, scientifically accurate and be able to demonstrate their knowledge through a theatrical production.  They are motivated because it is fun to work as a group and they want to win.  These two factors make them determined to do their very best each time they are together.

Library We began our research the old-fashioned way, at the library.  The SolarNauts chose books on energy, renewable energy sources and experiments with light and electricity.  We read these books both as a group and individually.

Unexpected Favorite Book: The Day-Glo Brothers, by Chris Barton. This fascinating picture book tells the story of the Switzer brothers who, through a combination of hard luck and tenacity, discovered the chemical formula needed to create Day-Glo paint, thus changing the color of our world and leaving an indelible color imprint on the 1960’s.  We really recommend this book.  It is totally relevant, educational and motivating.  The Day-Glo Brothers shows how science can be entertaining, fun and useful in so many diverse ways.  It will change the way you look at color as it demonstrates the chemical changes that occur through exposure to sunlight.

Engineering Our next step in the process of scientific exploration was to attempt to build a solar powered toy car.  This task proved to be too difficult (delicate wiring to be done by tiny hands) but along the way the team was able to see for themselves how a solar panel would generate power which could travel through the wires to a small engine.  The solar powered engine moved gears, thus turning the wheels of the car, and causing it to “drive” across the floor.

Art As part of our understanding of light and illumination The SolarNauts created luminaries to experiment with the way light is displayed through color and how an image changes when it is lit by background and foreground lighting, seen in the light and seen in the dark.  To create the luminaries we used black card stock.  The children left the card stock “whole” but cut designs out from within the card stock, thus creating a negative space design.  They then filled the cutouts with tissue paper collages.  When the room is darkened and the luminaries are lit from behind only the tissue paper images are visible, thus creating a stained glass effect.  The results are quite striking and the kids were pleased.

Puppetry We studied shadow puppets as part of our further inquiry into light and illumination.  In this area our very Favorite Book is William and the Magic Ring by Laura Robinson, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  This is more than a book.  It is actually a spiral bound theater for your home.  The book describes itself as, “a shadow casting bedtime story.”  It comes complete with a flashlight.  Each page is a board that creates a shadow image on the wall of a darkened room.  The story tells the tale of a boy who is frightened by the shadows in his room only to discover later that they were made by ordinary parts of his bedroom.   We read this book, in the dark, repeatedly.  Then we got out our black paper and scissors and made our own shadow puppets.  It was a great lesson on light and dark and storytelling with a surprise ending.

Discussion Our team discussed solar energy.  The information was complicated and definitely required repeated exposure.   When we were together we read our science books aloud.  Each student had the opportunity to explain the reading to one another.  We studied energy from multiple angles and it was clear the students were still only slightly grasping the complicated topic.  We had a long way to go.

Internet What science project would be complete without Internet research?  We found multiple interactive websites on both solar energy and electricity.  Our two favorite solar energy websites were http://www.eia.gov/kids/energy.cfm?page=solar_home-basics and http://www.going-green-challenge.com/solar-energy-for-kids.html .

The electricity website we found most helpful was http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/gamesactivities/electricitycircuits.html .  This website allows students to build virtual electric circuits and turn lights off and on with the flip of a virtual switch.  The Internet proved to be a great resource for images of all sorts of solar powered vehicles and solar panels.  These images provided concrete pictures of both current and future solar technology and allowed our students to begin to visualize how the components of energy work together.  We were beginning to understand.

Power Point Presentation One of our (slightly older) team members created his own power point presentation to explain solar energy technology.  He then presented this information to the group, becoming a team teacher as well as a team member.  His confidence encouraged the other team members.  If he could learn it then so could they.  Our team returned to the Internet and began to excitedly find new images of solar technology and do further research on child-oriented science websites.  They were beginning to understand that the information existed and that they could find and understand it..

Interview One of our fathers has a career in the renewable energy sector and made himself available to discuss current solar technology. Our group came to understand the current limitations on use of solar power and solar panels.  They also were surprised to learn that their team “invention” of collecting photons in outer space and sending them to earth via solar energy beam was actually something that scientists are contemplating for the future!

Electric Circuitry One of our favorite tools for teaching about electricity and circuitry is the Snap Circuits set.  Bounce built countless small electronic devices from this set including a light, a doorbell and a little revolving helicopter that could spin and fly. This set really teaches the fundamentals of circuitry. You can follow the directions for building 100 projects or, as Bounce did, you can create your own projects once you understand the basics. Snap Circuits helped Bounce understand how the Electric Grid works.

Prototype Creation The SolarNauts designed the Beam Machine. This prototype of the future would be a working solar photon collecting station floating in outer space.  The Beam Machine would collect photons, convert them to thermal energy, then to electricity and ultimately send the electricity from the space station (Beam Machine) directly to earth’s electric grid via a high energy laser light beam.  They built their Beam Machine out of refrigerator boxes.  These boxes were covered with various recycled materials to create solar panels and photovoltaic cells.  Plastic water bottles turn water into steam, creating thermal energy.

Display Board At the center of the Beam Machine is a scientific display board. The team created this display board to demonstrate their understanding of current use of solar space technologies.  Many space stations currently collect photons to power their stations. Future technologies are anticipating the creation of “solar elevators” which will be able to transmit electricity from space to earth. The SolarNauts board highlights these ideas while also creating a clear portrayal of how their own design, the Beam Machine would work.  Team members later took this board to their respective schools and used it to teach other students about solar energy.

Field Trip No research project would be complete without a field trip. Our SolarNauts visited a local farm which is partially powered with solar energy. This farm uses solar panels to collect energy which is then converted to electricity. The farm typically creates about one third of its needed electricity. During the summer months the farm sometimes generates excess electricity.  Excess electricity is then sold to the electric company, through the electric grid.  The farm also uses solar power to create thermal energy to heat the solar hot water heater.

Eureka!  After months of studying, reading, discussing and building the kids finally understood!  They saw real solar panels, real electric panels, real thermal panels and they understood just how they all worked. The SolarNauts happily explained the science behind the hardware and the farmer was surprised by their knowledge.

This farm also creates its own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil.  The farmer gave a complete description of how he can power all his vehicles with old oil from restaurants’ French fry machines. The SolarNauts were very impressed that anything as disgusting as old vegetable oil could still be useful and good for the environment.

"I learned that chickens stink!"

 Of course, the best part of the trip was seeing all the animals.

 

Favorite Science Books After all our research and our many library books we finally stumbled upon our Favorite Energy Book, The Shocking Truth about Energy by Loreen Leedy.  If you read only one book on the subject it should be this one. The Shocking Truth about Energy is a captivating picture book that describes all the most salient scientific points in simple terms using appealing and educational illustrations. This small book told the whole story and reads like a bedtime story, not a book filled with “facts”.

Our second Favorite Science Book is Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun by Michael J. Caduto.  It gives simple explanations of complicated facts and is filled with surprising and simple experiments that will inspire your children.  Our favorite:  to better understand the impact of electricity in our modern world, Spend 24 Hours Without Using Electricity for Anything!  This is the type of simple experiment that has immediate meaning to children. Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun is filled with numerous, more complicated, but equally achievable experiments.  You and your students will certainly enjoy this book.

Writing Now it is time to put it all together. The competition actually calls for all this information to be put into the context of a theatrical presentation. That means writing a script. The SolarNauts divided this task with two members writing the script and a third member writing a theme song. Remaining members collaborated on an opening song to introduce the play and provide set up time. Writing the script required creatively integrating all the scientific knowledge while solving a fictional problem. We won’t tell you the whole plot here as we can’t reveal all our surprises while still competing, but the team managed to create a story which highlights the need for solar energy while also providing a solution to current solar energy inadequacies.

Mother Earth costumeTheater So now that the script is written and the team has learned all the words to the songs they are ready, almost.  SolarNauts now need to make their costumes, sets and props.  This is the fun part.  The team each made their own costumes, designing, gluing and examining themselves from every angle.  Everything they create must be done by themselves.  A component of this competition is that part of this play must be performed in the dark.  Yes, the dark.  The SolarNauts sprayed all the clothes with glow-in-the-dark paint so they would be visible in the dark. They covered lanterns with colored cellophane to create mood lighting. They used glow sticks and flashlights to illuminate their Beam Machine.  The youngest members of the team dressed in phosphorescent clothing and posed as “photons” while other orange-suited SolarNauts tried to “capture” them as an energy sources.  The play was ready to be performed.

Running down the road with the Beam Machine"We made it!"Teaching Our team never wants the final performance to be the dress rehearsal. With this in mind, rehearsing is a key component of the competition and performance process.  The SolarNauts received permission from the local nursery school to perform their play one time for each individual class.  After 6 performances, and many question and answer sessions The SolarNauts were set for the big time:  an evening parent performance to be followed by a pot-luck dinner party.  By this time The SolarNauts were confident in their performance and also articulate about their subject matter:  solar energy.

The 5 AM UHaul

State Competition The big day is finally here. But, are we worried?  Not a bit.  This team has researched, studied, learned, written, created, rehearsed and performed.  They re-glued a few broken props, did one trial run through of the performance and they were ready.  The stage was set and this time when the lights went off the team was truly in the DARK.  Their sets glowed, the flashlights illuminated the set and before we knew it the performance was flawlessly executed and the cast members were saying their final lines,  “We saved planet Earth just in TIME!”. Hooray!  Our goals are achieved.  The SolarNauts have really learned the material and are able to teach others!

SolarNauts discuss their Solution with AppraisersAnd The SolarNauts reached their goal! 

They are now this year’s State Champions!  Next stop Global Finals where they can compete with teams from around the world!

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is using as many different approaches as possible to allow our students to be inspired by their own education.

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.

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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.

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

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A machine for analyzing news data

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A bike

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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.

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Their dress rehearsal…

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…and their performance for the judges.

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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.

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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:

71553612.nhd.weebly.com

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm4Q56APCuQ&feature=youtu.be

It was a great day overall.  Go team!

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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.

Kimono of 1000 Cranes

Japanese tradition says that folding 1000 cranes will grant you a special wish.  Happymess kids are wishing for greater understanding amongst differing cultures, with the belief that understanding can conquer fear (of the unknown).

Happymess kids have made a goal of folding 1000 cranes.  There are currently about 2/3 of the way and still folding.  They are using their cranes in many creative ways.

In this picture they have created a paper kimono consisting entirely of cranes.  Gold cranes make a belt design.  Not pictured:  a pair of dangling crane earrings.

While folding cranes they are studying Haiku, the Japanese form of poetry that involves writing a very short poem.  These poems are typically 3 lines, with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.  The word haiku comes from the word “cut” and thus these poems cut to the essence of the subject matter.

Basho Matsuo (1644 ~ 1694) is known as the first great poet in the history of haikai (and haiku)

Spring departs.
Birds cry
Fishes’ eyes are filled with tears

Bush clover in blossom waves

Without spilling

A drop of dew

These poems are often about nature and reveal man’s connection with nature through imagery, juxtaposition and a surprise conclusion.  Our team tried writing several haikus and then visited a Japanese teacher who helped them translate their English haikus into the Japanese language.

I have reprinted here an informative instructional piece to inspire your students as they attempt this deceptively simple style of poetry.  The original can be found at this link   http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Haiku-Poem

What you feel should be in a haiku. When you see or notice something that makes you want to say to others -“Hey, look at that!”-include that in a haiku. Many people go for walks just to find new inspiration for their poetry.

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Many haiku seem to focus on nature, but what they are really focusing on is a seasonal reference (not all of which are necessarily about nature). Japanese poets use a “saijiki” or season word almanac to check the seasonal association for key words that they might use in a haiku (thus the haiku is a seasonal poem, and often about nature. But it does not have to be about nature if the seasonal reference is about a human activity). The season is important for coming up with words to use in a haiku, because the poem has so few words, simple phrases such as “cherry blossoms” or “falling leaves” can create lush scenes, yet still reflect the feeling of the verse. Moreover, season words also invoke other poems that use the same season word, making the poem part of a rich historical tapestry through allusive variation. In Japanese, the “kigo” or season word was generally understood; “autumn breeze” might be known to express loneliness and the coming of the dark winter season.

  • Winter usually makes us think of burden, cold, sadness, hunger, tranquility, death or peace. Ideas about winter can be invited with words like “snow,” “ice,” “dead tree,” “leafless,” etc.
  • Summer brings about feelings of warmth, vibrancy, love, anger, vigor, lightness, action. General summer phrases include references to the sky, beaches, heat, and romance.
  • Autumn brings to mind a very wide range of ideas: decay, belief in the supernatural, jealousy, saying goodbye, loss, regret, and mystery to name a few. Falling leaves, shadows, and autumn colors are common implementations.
  • Spring, like summer, can make one think of beauty, but it is usually more a sense of infatuation. Also common are themes like innocence, youth, passion, and fickleness. Blossoms, new plants, or warm rains can imply spring. For more information on seasons, go to the link listed below.Seasonal references can also include human activities, and Japanese saijikis contain many such listings. Be aware that some references to human activities, such as Christmas, are effective season words, but require a geographical limitation; while Christmas is a winter season word in the northern hemisphere, it’s a summer reference in the southern hemisphere.
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Add a contrast or comparison. Reading most haiku, you’ll notice they either present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else or do the same with the first line and last two. A Japanese haiku achieves this shift with what is called a “kireji” or cutting word, which cuts the poem into two parts. In English, it is essential for nearly every haiku to have this two-part juxtapositional structure. The idea is to create a leap between the two parts, and to create an intuitive realization from what has been called an “internal comparison.” two parts sometimes create a contrast, sometime a comparison. Creating this two-part structure effectively can be the hardest part of writing a haiku, because it can be very difficult to avoid too obvious a connection between the two parts, yet also avoid too great a distance between them that , although this is not necessary provided that the grammar clearly indicates that a shift has occurred.

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Use primarily objective sensory description. Haiku are based on the five senses. They are about things you can experience, not your interpretation or analysis of those things. To do this effectively, it is good to rely on sensory description, and to use mostly objective rather than subjective words.

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Like any other art, haiku takes practice. Basho said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. It is important to distinguish between pseudo-haiku that says whatever the author thinks in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and literary haiku that adheres to the use of season words, a two-part juxtapositional structure, and primarily objective sensory imagery.

We have found that studying and writing haiku style poetry is a great linguistic exercise.  The poems are short and the attributes quite specific, thus making the haiku less intimidating for the young student.

Worksheet for Creating Your Own Haiku

Click to access howto_haiku.pdf

Girl folds for world peace

Kimono of 1000 cranes

Dressed for tolerance

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is a haiku of global learning.

Sharing the Love: Our Favorite Childhood Myths are as Real as You and Me

There are discussions as to whether or not there was a “real” St. Valentine, and if so, who he really was and how he became the symbol of love.  Like concerns about the validity of St. Nick, or Santa Claus, I find the discussion irrelevant.  The “realness” of these characters is not important.  What is irrefutable is the FACT that these two saints, be they real, embellished or imagined, have brought very real love and caring into our midst.

At no time is gift giving more prevalent in our predominantly secular and me-centered world than at Christmas.  Why?  Because we all believe in the importance of Santa Claus.  We do his work on his behalf.

 Similarly, there is no better love than the love we share with others.  A few days ago on St. Valentine’s Day, our Happymess Kids and their Destination Imagination team visited a local nursing home to distribute roses and homemade cards.  AT first our group was uncomfortable with the whole idea.  They weren’t sure what they would find at the nursing home and they were afraid it would be embarrassing speaking to strangers.

“Can’t we let someone else (from our church) distribute the flowers?” they whined.  And (believe it or not!), “But we have SO much homework…”, trying to appeal to me, the rabid homeschool mother.

I firmly directed them into the car and off we went.

 One of the first women we met was Emily.  She is 107 years old.  She was truly delighted to have her rose.

 Scooter was afraid to get too close but he loved giving roses.  We stayed awhile and talked to Emily.  The children quickly realized that the flower was not the real gift.  The real gift was the visit and we made sure to stay and talk with each person.

 Annette was delightful, kind and articulate.  She put her arms out to Bounce and Scooter explaining, “We’re not scary.  We are just old

In the end, after spending almost two hours at the nursing home we found that we had visited with many people and we gathered to share our stories.  One woman asked us to put her flowers in a vase by the window so she could enjoy them.  Another began to cry when she realized the rose was for her.  Still another thought they were for sale and began searching for her purse until we could explain the rose was gift.  All of the people were pleased to have visitors and we found that we had very much enjoyed talking with everyone.  The patents had become “real” to us.  They were people too.

Team I.C.E. (Imagine, Create, Empower) was humbled.  They were no longer embarrassed.  They really connected with the needs of the patients and felt that they had been able to bring joy through the gift of a simple rose and a moment of shared  kindness.

Now they are planning their next visit:  daffodils for Easter.

 Is St Valentine real?  Absolutely, every bit as real as the Easter bunny.  We could have visited the nursing home at any time, but we didn’t.  We went to honor the holiday of love.  We were sent by St. Valentine, whomever that may be.  And we are grateful.

Next we look forward to helping out the Easter bunny on his mysterious missions.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is learning that sharing love with those less fortunate is a gift we can give ourselves.

One Good (Page) Turn Deserves Another

 

Greetings Bibliophiles, Literacy Advocates and (Home) Educators.  World Book Night is almost here!

Here is an opportunity for each one of us to take a step toward improving literacy in our communities.

World Book Night is an amazing idea that began last year in the UK.  This year it is coming to the US as well.  The organization is offering to give away FREE 1 million books from people (like you) who love books and love to read to (others) who perhaps do not yet share your joy in reading..  You choose the book and the venue for giving.  They send you the books.  You give them away.  It is that simple.

This is a call for action.   We can put our thoughts into action. We can share our love of reading with those who have not had the same opportunities.

 

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.
 – Frederick Douglass

http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/

Follow this link, choose your books and register, but BEFORE  Midnight Monday, February 6, 2012.

This could be you!  On April 23, 2012 we distribute 20 copies of our favorite book to our favorite people or favorite charity.  How fabulous is that?

If you choose to participate, follow the above link, then come back and reply to this post with which book you chose, why and where you plan to make your distribution.

We chose I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  This is a beautifully written autobiographical story written as a novel.   It has long been one of my favorite books.  We plan to donate 20 copies to a local charter school that has dedicated itself to improving literacy in an impoverished community.  They have a limited library.  The 20 copies could go to individual students to kick-off their summer reading program.

Now it is your turn.  We look forward to hearing about your choices and actions for improving literacy in your community.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is sharing the joy of reading with others less fortunate.

State of The Art: A Homeschool Studio

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

Vincent Van Gogh

The best part of art is getting a chance to make it yourself.  With this in mind, Happymess kids have invited their friends over for an all-day art festival.  They plan to take their studies in to their own hands, literally, and create the paintings they have been studying.

Happymess kids have been studying Impressionism, modern 20th century art and various forms of sculpture.  They are particularly interested in Pointillism.   This school year, Happymess kids have had great fun visiting several museums in NYC and Washington, DC.

The artists they most want to learn from are Seurat, Van Gogh and Monet.  They have chosen three specific works to study.

Seurat: La Grande Jatte

Van Gogh: Starry Starry Night

Monet: Water Lillies

It is now time to try their hand at the artistic process.

They want to create a composite painting that will encompass several different Impressionist techniques and will reflect the work of Monet, Van Gogh and Seurat.

 We have almost a dozen children filling our small art studio.  They are involved in several projects simultaneously:  painting, gluing, folding, drawing and drilling.  The biggest obstacle is trying not to step on wet paint and buckets of glue.

The younger group is creating a sculpture from found objects.  This is a major project, with this being only the first step but they are hard at work building, gluing and constructing separate pieces to be added later.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh is beginning to make an appearance in this Impressionist collage…

Quantum is learning origami.  He is hoping, with his friends, to fold 1000 cranes so they can make a wish for good luck.

It is time to begin adding Monet to the masterpiece…

Finally, the composite Impressionist painting is completed.  The final painting is 8’ by 8’ and has been painted, in one day, by a total 5 student painters.

The best way to know God is to love many things.  Vincent Van Gogh

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is spending the entire day in the art room, studying and painting in the tradition of the grand salons.

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.   

Occupy Wall Street vs. The Tea Party: Happymess Investigates

Do Occupy Wall Street and its polar opposite, The Tea Party, share anything in common?  To answer this question, outside of the reported news, we decided to investigate both movements ourselves.

The Tea Party

On September 12th, 2009 we had the good fortune to be staying in Washington, D.C.  Our intention was to visit several museums.  We discovered that we had inadvertently arrived on the same date and time as the nationwide tour of the Tea Party was staging its final protest at the Capitol.  What could we do?  As good homeschoolers we had only one choice.  Seize the moment and drag our children off to the protest.  What we found was fascinating.

Upon emerging from the subway we were immediately surrounded by thousands (actually almost one million) shouting, mostly white, middle class Americans.  Other than their signs and the shouting, these people seemed ordinary in almost every way.  They came from across the country, although most seemed to hail from the middle of the country.  These were the consummate “average” Americans.

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

The Tea Party people had several specific messages they were intent upon communicating.

  1. They were against any sign of “socialism” in the government.
  2. They were vehemently against nationalized healthcare, and repeatedly chanted, “Read the Bill, Read the Bill…”
  3. They believed in the Constitution.
  4. Unfortunately some likened Obama to Hitler, although no clear connection was drawn.

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

Tea Party Washingtonm DC 9/12/09 (Allia)

We had a great time marching with the crowd down to the Capitol.  Many stopped to talk to our children and assure them that they were getting the “best possible history lesson.”

Occupy Wall Street

So, now that we are in 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street group is getting national attention, it seemed only fair that we should join them for their protest as well.  With this in mind, we traveled to Liberty Park in New York City and tried to join the protest.  Only there really wasn’t one.  We were quite surprised by what we actually found.

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

In fact, there seemed to be no movement at all.  Liberty Park could more accurately be labeled, “Tent City.”

Occupy Wall St. NYC 10/26/11 (Allia)

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

Amongst the entire group, which was under 100 people, there were no two signs that reflected the same message.

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

This was a combination protest with every person representing his/her own interests.  No cohesion, no common message, no protest, no energy.

Happymess Reportage:

Happymess kids tried to be incognito under their sweatshirt hoods. (Allia)

  1. 1.     Quantum (12):  I thought it was going to be a formal protest against Wall Street (tycoons).  It turned out to be a bunch of derelicts.  They weren’t even all protesting the same thing.  Some of them were even sleeping!!  This was fun because the media was very off on their reporting (of this event).
  2. 2.      

Truth (11):  I though it was going to be something like the Tea Party.  It turned out to be just some people with tents and signs that said things like, “Eat the Rich.”  It was a really cool experience.

  1. 3.      

Creatress (14):  “Occupy Wall Street” was much less well organized than I anticipated.  I expected marching, chanting and unification.  Instead I encountered a disorganized group without energy or a common message.

  1. 4.      

Bounce (8): I thought that everybody was going to sit down while holding signs and that a mayor would stand on stage and talk.  Instead, half of the signs didn’t have anything to do with money at all and the other half (of the protestors) were asleep!

Occupy Wall St. NYC 10/26/11 (Allia)

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

We thought we had come to see the great Class Warfare Battle.

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/26/11 (Allia)

A Typical Spokesperson for the Cause (Allia)

But there were no soldiers, only human relics who were clearly living on the fringe of society.

Investigative Journalism and the Homeschooler

What did we learn?  We learned that in neither case, were the actual events reported accurately.  The Tea Party appeared more mainstream and had many more supporters than was reported.  Occupy Wall Street had few supporters and no message in person, despite their strong online and media presence.

In both cases, Happymess kids became motivated to research the issues.  What is really happening in government and in society?  Why do these people feel so strongly?  What is the history of the protest movement?  How important is Our Right to Assemble?

Placing current issues in the context of history makes both the present and the past more interesting and relevant.

Creatress found this quote from Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), in reference to economic Socialism:

We must remove another possible subject of reproach, namely, that while looking after the advantage of the working people they should behave in such a manner as to forget the upper classes of Society; for they also are of the greatest use of preserving and perfecting the commonwealth.

Conversely, this week, October 23, 2011, The Vatican is calling for the great class equalizer by establishing global financial standards that would prohibit class diversification.

“Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of a Global Public Authority,” was at times very specific, calling, for example, for taxation measures on financial transactions. “The economic and financial crisis which the world is going through calls everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural and moral values at the basis of social coexistence.”

As we know, class warfare has had a long, and mostly ugly, history.

Through experiential education (field trips) we hope Happymess kids and their friends can learn to make informed decisions and to place value in truth and justice.

Would you take your child to a political rally?  Why or why not?

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is stepping out the front door and seeing the world for yourself.

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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