Category Archives: elementary & up

Math, Gently

After three years of school, my eight-year-old believed he hated math. I didn’t send him to school thinking that, so yes, I consider this a failure on School’s part. I myself am quite comfortable with math; I got all the way up to Calculus, which was required for my BS in Natural Resource Science. I can remember doing my Calc homework as a break. I liked how orderly math was, the problem-solving required, the way the Right and Wrong are clearly defined. My point is that my children aren’t picking up on math anxiety from me.

My oldest, who was homeschooled through first grade using Singapore Math, began second grade in his alternative public school well ahead of grade level and continues to be a top student in math. His early-years math experience (and curriculum) was much different from his brother’s. My younger son had three years of Everyday Math, which, in my opinion, is a terrible curriculum. He never stayed with anything long enough to learn it. The curriculum jumps around, supposedly so lagging students get lots of repetition (but not all at the same time) and advanced students don’t get bored. For three years his only homework was math sheets and reading at home, and even though the math sheet usually took only ten minutes, we had to add in the twenty minutes of fighting about it. And it seemed he wasn’t learning anything. When he finished second grade, he was still shaky on, for example, time and money. All that fighting, and it was all a waste of time.

When I decided to homeschool him, I decided to start with Life of Fred, gently. We began over the summer with the first book, Apples. We began with me reading the chapter aloud and going over the questions with him while he wrote the answers. We did it all together for the first two books, a chapter per day. Some days he fought it, but it got better. By the time we hit fall, we continued with one chapter per day, but I began having him read the chapter on his own, do the questions, and then we’d go over the answers together. Again, he fought this sometimes, but it gradually got better. Now he reads the chapter, does the questions, checks his answers, and moves the paperclip to the next chapter, all on his own. If he doesn’t understand a question or needs help, he tells me. Sometimes he still whines about it. But he does it. He’ll be starting the fifth book soon.

I’ve toyed with the idea of introducing something more rigorous at the half-year point, but I want to tread lightly. I don’t want him hating math. I hope he comes to see it as I do, a useful tool to get to where you need to be. I use math all the time–in recipes, in knitting, in sewing–and I try to talk about it when I do. One day not too long ago we were talking about I don’t even know what when I mentioned an Ancient Greek had used only math to figure out the circumference of the earth, and he came super close to the actual measurement. How? my kids wanted to know.

So I looked up the details. My eight-year-old and I looked at our globe pillow and at the map. He said he pictured the equator as a rope around the earth. Perfect, I said, and we moved to our circle rug. Pretend the edge of the rug is the rope. Pretend we’ve cut the earth in half. He picked two points on the edge of the circle, we tried to find the middle of the rug, we measured the angle, we did the math. Mostly I did the math–it’s not easy math. But he was so excited by it.

This is not like school math! He exclaimed. This is math that really does something!

We borrowed The Librarian Who Measured the Earth from the library and read it aloud. I bought him his own protractor and showed him how to use it. I printed out a page of angles (from this awesome site) for him to practice measuring. Next up is drawing circles with the compass so he knows exactly where the center is, and trying to find the circumference using Eratosthenes’ method, a bit more precisely than we did with the circle rug. I predict we will be outside measuring the angles of shadows before too long.

I can just imagine if I’d decided it was time for him to measure a sheet’s worth of angles just because. Fight, fight, fight. (What’s the point? What do I need this for?) But because he is excited about the way this Ancient Greek used angles to satisfy his own desire to know how big around the earth is, he wants to know how to measure angles. And in this way, I remind myself (deep breath), he will come to learn what he needs to know.

O’Keeffe Leaves

(Inspired by “Gorgeous Gigantic Flowers” in What’s the Big Idea? by Joyce Raimondo.)

Materials: Watercolor paper (or other paper that can handle paint); paint (we used tempera cakes); pencil; permanent marker (we used Sharpies); leaves for looking at

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a straight-up art activity! My daughter said she wanted to make a painting using one of our Art Explorers books, so I told her to go ahead and pick one out. She chose the activity inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, but when I looked at the materials list I realized we didn’t have any fresh flowers on hand.

However, a suggested alternate was leaves–and it being October in New England, we have leaves a-plenty. We headed outside to collect some. When we came back indoors, I took my O’Keeffe book off the shelf and showed my daughter some more flower paintings and the way they took up the entire canvas.

G wanted to follow the suggested process exactly, so after choosing a leaf for inspiration, she drew with her pencil and then traced over those lines with a black Sharpie. Then it was time to add color. We both used the tempera cakes. I quietly noticed a couple of things–her ability to trace over a line, and the fact that she is old enough (and so experienced with art supplies) to remember to rinse her brush between colors.

There is such joy in observing her growing up in this aspect as well–she is so confident in the art room, so comfortable, so sure of her decisions and what she needs for her artwork. Here is her finished piece along with the leaf that inspired it.

She decided she wanted to use all the colors, and she enjoyed mixing them. (The tempera cakes are the primaries plus white, black, and green.) She enjoyed the movement of her line, as well.

I also did this activity–I am grateful for the time and space to draw and paint and this activity was challenging for me. I also tried to follow the suggested directions and make the leaf spill off the page, as O’Keeffe’s flowers do. I discovered that it was easiest to do this if I started from the center, with the veins of the leaf. Here’s my finished page, with the leaf that inspired it.

I’m sure I’ll be trying this again. (We have lots of leaves, did I mention?!) I like, too, the idea of taking something so well known–O’Keeffe’s flowers–and translating it to our own landscape. I think I will be using this activity in the art class I lead at our co-op, too. There are a couple of kids who tend to draw small, and I’ve been looking for ways to encourage them to go bigger; I think this is a good activity for that.

I enjoy following G’s lead. When she is in charge of the day (or at least part of it), we tend to do fun things. I had no idea we’d be using autumn leaves to inspire a painting…now I can’t wait to do it again!

Project Shelf

Inspired by Kate at An Everyday Story, I cleaned off an existing shelf in the living room in order to display some project creations.

I already talked about G’s map of Egypt and N’s cartouche and cat statuette, in the claywork post. I’m happy to report N’s cat stayed together just fine; we had to glue one paw back on. I haven’t talked about G’s mummy or the pyramid, which she created after the mummy, because that’s where mummies go. No matter the mummy and pyramid aren’t to scale; not the point. She cut out the base and triangles (using guides), let them dry, and then glued them together. It’s all a bit fragile, but it’s a pyramid. N also has plans to make a pyramid, but I needed to get more clay (which I did, over the weekend), and now I’ve commandeered the art table for a day or two to sew a Halloween costume. (We are challenged by needing to share project work space.)

The mummy was created early on in our project work, beginning in early September, and despite all good intentions I haven’t shared about it yet. When I told the kids my job was to make sure they had the materials necessary for their work, G jumped right on that. One morning she told me she had “a mummy in her head” and she would need paper, drinking straws, and paper towels. I provided these, and she asked for other items as the need arose.

Working on her mummy

She drew a sad face on her mummy. “He’s sad because he’s dead.”

(It’s hard to photograph white against white, and I used my phone for some of these.) When her mummy was complete, which took time as she worked out how she wanted the various pieces (including the straws; they’re in there too) to go together, she used the paper towel to represent linen wrappings.

During a later session, she painted and colored the squares that she then attached to both sides of the paper towel wrapping–you can see that in the first picture. This represents the paintings on the coffins.

Is this an artistically accurate modeling of an Egyptian mummy? Not at all. Does it demonstrate that this three-year-old understands what she’s been studying? Absolutely. I am blown away (again!) by the way in which she has translated her learning into her own project representation.

N’s planned pyramid will be too big to fit on the project shelf. We’ll have to come up with some other way to display it. My kids are used to seeing their creations displayed around our house and on our walls. I have many, many of their artworks (and my own) framed and hanging. They didn’t react in any particular way to seeing their project creations on the shelf, although my son did point out to his brother that I’d cleaned a shelf off just for them. I think they all consider the house their own gallery, as I have a high tolerance for random stuff taped to the walls–they do their own displaying, too. I think that’s a good thing.

There is a lot I’m not doing–dedicated display or bulletin boards for project materials in individual work spaces (which we don’t have) would be great. I’m not so good about scheduling in blocks of project time on multiple days per week. But I’m doing what I can, and as is often the case, it turns out that that is enough until I can do more.

{PBL} Claywork in the Egypt Project

I hope I can do this morning’s project time justice in this post. Way back when at the start of this project, my eight-year-old, who internalized a different meaning of “project” from school, decided he’d make a pyramid. I worried he’d jumped to this, that he was approaching this backwards, and we talked about it some, but I also figured I’d let this ride. We picked out some air dry clay and he worked with it a bit to get a feel for it. We talked about how he might want to make a model of a pyramid to make sure the different pieces fit together. (Ok, I talked. A little.) We continued to read about Egypt and the other topics he’d mentioned besides pyramids–King Tut, gods and goddesses–and we visited the MFA, which sparked more interests.

Earlier this week, I hung up the hieroglyphs poster I purchased in the museum gift shop and left out the hieroglyph stencil on the art table. My son was excited to come across this and immediately drew his name in his project notebook and surrounded it with an oval to make a cartouche. This morning he decided to use the air-dry clay to do the same thing.

Using the stencil in clay.

Using the stencil in clay.

Here is his full name, before he cut out the oval:

hieroglyphics in clay

Knowing his interest in the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, I made sure to point out the statuettes when we came across them in the museum. I wondered if he’d want to try to make one out of clay? I hadn’t taken pictures of any of the statuettes, but we do have several books on Egyptian mythology out from the library, and he looked through those for pictures. He decided he wanted to try to make a cat statuette.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Cat statuette in clay, drying.

Although he has played around with this clay before–just exploring, to see what it does–this is the first time he’s tried to make something like this, with different parts. He began by trying to carve out from a chunk of it, then switched to making pieces separately and joining them. I showed him how to scratch the surface of the clay at the join and moisten it, but I’m not sure how well this will hold together. I probably would have worked more of it in a piece, but we’ll see how it goes as it dries. I made sure to tell him: we have plenty of clay. If this first attempt doesn’t end up the way you’d hoped, you can try again, using different methods. That’s how you’ll learn how to get the clay to do what you want.

While all this was going on, my daughter was working with Model Magic, which is what she’d picked out when we went shopping for clay-type stuff. She’s been cutting out pyramid pieces for her mummy (which I haven’t even posted about yet!), but they weren’t dry yet–not that I think Model Magic gets really dry, not like the clay, but it was definitely still not-dry. So she began, rather without much notice from me, to work on…something. I figured she was just, you know, playing with the Model Magic. Occasionally she’d ask my help in cutting a chunk off or she’d ask for a certain tool. I was playing with a water-soluble graphite stick in my notebook and puttering around the studio area, not really paying attention. And this is what she ended up with:

G's map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

G’s map of Lower Egypt in Model Magic.

She made a map of Lower Egypt out of Model Magic. Now, you probably can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is she sees it. She pointed out the Nile River, and a boat on a hill, ready to sail. She made a couple of small mummies and put them near a statue of a dead person who is not a mummy, probably influenced by a statue we sketched at the MFA. She worked on this for at least an hour. I’ve already noted her interest in maps and mapping and had considered it as a possible project area before she informed me she’d be studying mummies. Lately she’s been asking me to point out Egypt on our wall map of the world, and she’s seen the map of Ancient Egypt plenty of times in books. Now I am thinking I need to find a larger map of Ancient Egypt that I can hang up for her.

In some ways, when these convergences happen, when the kids are following their own interests and clearly doing such deep work, I’m tempted to think that project-based homeschooling is almost cheating on my part. It seems so easy! Then I remind myself that I am doing quite a bit of work documenting, paying attention, providing materials, connecting dots, reminding the kids what they wanted to work on (more so with my son, who is still deschooling; my daughter tells me all the time what she wants to learn next and what she needs from me, step on it, Mama!). I write myself lists so I don’t forget what I need to do. And I still feel like I’m not keeping up.

But a morning like this? So, so sweet.

Getting Ready: Local Habitats Class

In the spring, when our co-op was figuring out the fall schedule of classes, the organizer mentioned to me that they could use something else for the 5-8 year olds. Hmm, I said. I could do…how about something on local habitats? Basically I scrolled through my own background and experience and pulled something outside-ish out of my hat. I’d already signed on to teach an art class, and that pretty much covers my areas, unless we add in a writing class (and truly, I’d love to take that on! ooh, or a book club…).

I feel like my environmental education jobs were a few lifetimes ago, but I was fairly certain I could gather my resources and my own imagination and pull together a class that covered local habitats and some animals that live there. In this case, the “local” is southern New England. I’ve loosely drafted a plan based on learning about one habitat each week, leaving time at the end to go further in depth (this, of course, requires the kids’ input). The first week will be an introduction to the concept of habitat and an overview of the habitats we’ll be looking at. My but that sounds dry. Take a look instead.

I’d like to find a picture book that relates to each week, and for the first week, I’ve chosen The Salamander Room. In this beautifully illustrated story, a little boy imagines creating a habitat in his bedroom for a salamander he found in the woods. Of course it’s not phrased like this, but the concept is there, as the boy’s mother asks how he’ll provide for various of the salamander’s needs.

On top of the book in that photo is some lengths of string and a magnifier (I’ll have one of those per child, hopefully) for a micro-hike, found in the classic resource, Sharing Nature With Children. My own copy is ancient and battered. Parts of it will seem dated if it’s new to you, but it’s still chock-full of good ideas and suggestions.

The colorful cards in the above photo belong to a habitat sorting game I put together.

The yellow cards have pictures of the habitats we’ll be looking at, the green have plants, and the blue have animals, and they are all identified by name on the back. Together, we’ll sort them out. They’re sorted by column in that photo, so, for example, the meadow sorts with Queen Anne’s Lace, the monarch butterfly, and the Eastern cottontail. The freshwater wetland sorts with skunk cabbage, the leopard frog, and the painted turtle. Can you tell I had fun putting that together?!

I’m really excited to guide a group of children (other than my own) again. I can’t wait to see what they have to tell me and what they’re excited to learn more about.

Sticky Notes and Washi-Style Tape

I will, at some point, get myself together enough to write about our typical day, but at the moment, my body is protesting the dual demands of getting one child up and off to school and then homeschooling the other two by getting sick. The days are long. Not long as in tiresome and dragging, but in the sense of beginning early and ending late. So I have a nasty head cold.

Meanwhile, I have been reminded daily–hourly, sometimes–that eight years old is still squarely in “early childhood.” My almost-four-year-old and my eight-year-old enjoy many of the same activities, and my son is, I think, getting a chance to recoup some of that lost time from last year. Among other things, they’ve been enjoying the washi tape stash. I admit, after a bit I removed my own authentic washi tape that I ordered in small quantities from Etsy, but the less expensive version from Target is all theirs. (Thank you, Target. You can find this in the office supply section, about $5 for packs of four rolls.) After we bought some square sticky notes from Job Lot, my son decided to combine them.

It’s hanging in my kitchen, brightening the (very early) mornings. (And lunch times, and snack times, and dinner times…I spend an awful lot of time in the kitchen.) My daughter eventually combined sticky notes with washi-style tape, as well as with stickers and drawing, but I don’t have any more photos because, quite frankly, my head is clogged and I forgot.

The Times Tables

Sometimes, you just need some flashcards.

My oldest, who returns to school this week, began learning multiplication two years ago in the third grade. But they don’t require them to memorize them anymore, apparently. This summer, I decided he was memorizing those multiplication tables before starting fifth grade. Mind you, his grades in math are fine. But as he moved into division this past year, I could see it was harder than it had to be. Do you remember chanting the times tables as a class? It was boring as anything, but knowing those facts make everything that comes after easier. My son, however, was really resistant to memorizing them. Eventually, early this summer, he was able to verbalize why: “I want to figure out the answer on my own.”

A-ha! He thought that memorization was somehow akin to cheating. I picked a neutral time–we were alone in the car together, on the way to the supermarket–to try to explain my reasoning to him. I told him that if he didn’t understand the process of multiplication, if he didn’t realize that 8×3 was the same as 8+8+8, then I wouldn’t want him memorizing the facts. Facts without understanding is no good. But he does understand the process, and now it was time to know these facts so well that his brain isn’t wasting time with 8+8+8, it just spits out 24. Just like he doesn’t have to start from A just to know what letter comes after T–he memorized the alphabet in order a long time ago without even thinking about it. That’s not cheating, he agreed.

He thought this over for a bit, and then he said, “I think writing them out would be a good way to memorize them. Often when I write myself a note so I don’t forget something, I end up not needing the note because writing it down made me remember it.” I told him I thought that was an excellent start, and chose not to remind him that I’d suggested this months ago and he refused. He needed to understand why he was doing this, and I was glad he came up with this strategy on his own.

Once he understood, the rest was relatively easy, because he was on board. I’d read somewhere to group the like tables, so we started with the 2s (easy), and followed that with the 4s and 8s. He wrote out the table, and I quizzed him with flash cards. I got out our Cuisenaire rods and we grouped them different ways to see how 2s, 4s, and 8s are related. Then we moved on to 3s, then 6s, then 9s, and finally 12s. I reminded him to use what he knew–if 7×2 is 14, then 7×12 has to end in a 4. If he wasn’t coming up with 12×8, I’d ask him 10×8 and then 2×8 before repeating 12×8. We left the 7s for last, because they’re not really related to anything else, but we’d covered everything in them by then, at least. (5s, 10s, and 11s didn’t need much work at all.)

They’ll need to be reinforced, of course, to make sure they stick. Sometimes I just ask him multiplication questions out of the blue, which has led to my youngest randomly stringing numbers together into math problems for us to answer. I wouldn’t have said I’m a fan of rote memorization, but it turned out I felt strongly that he should know these, really know them. Again, if he didn’t understand what multiplication is, I wouldn’t want him memorizing facts with no understanding. But I can also remember having to memorize oral presentations when I was just a little older than he is, and it certainly trained my mind in a certain way. Maybe next summer we’ll memorize some poetry…

Review: Art Lab For Kids

Note: I purchased this book myself via Amazon. All views are my own.

When I ordered Drawing Lab, Amazon suggested I might also like Art Lab for Kids by Susan Schwake. I was skeptical. I don’t much differentiate between art activities for kids and those for adults; my kids (especially my older ones) and I use the same quality materials and do the same activities, so I’m a bit wary of “for kids” books. But eventually I ordered it anyway. Turns out, this is the book I wish I’d had a year and a half ago.

I began this blog because I wanted to make creating art together with my children a regular occurrence. I wanted to make use of the space we had and introduce my kids to different materials and techniques beyond the usual art supplies that were always available to them. I was hoping I could find a more or less sequential presentation of art activities–not crafts–that covered the basics (drawing, painting, printmaking) all in one place, so that I could gather materials and follow along without having to re-invent the wheel. I didn’t find that. Instead, I pulled together ideas from various sources, my own experiences, and my own head, and decided to document them here for my own use and anyone else’s, if anyone else was interested. But if I’d had this book, it would have done nicely.

The Lab series of books all present 52 “labs” or lessons in the chosen subject matter, so if you chose, you could proceed through the book using one lesson per week. The Units in this book are Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Paper, and Mixed Media. Theoretically, you could start anywhere. Pick and choose what interests you and your kids the most. But if you’re looking for a book to lead a group, or to build a homeschool art plan around, or to get started with family art making (like I wanted to do), this would be a great guidebook. Although the title says “kids” right in it, the activities look interesting and inspiring to me, too.

The first unit deals with setting up a studio. I suspect this section will look overwhelming to many, especially if you are new to the world of art supplies. She lists everything needed for all the units–you don’t have to have it all! I’d suggest figuring out the first few lessons you might want to start with, and gather those supplies. (Quite frankly, it’s a little astonishing how many of these items I have in my basement already.)

I think we’ll be working our way through many of the activities in this book, all of which meet my desire for open-ended art experiences for my kids and myself. I love books as resources. The Internet is wonderful, but it’s also huge. Trying to piece together ideas from here and there can be overwhelming, and it’s great to have everything all in one place–to let someone else plan the lesson and just follow along and have fun.

Further links about Art Lab For Kids:

Author Susan Schwake’s website
Art Lab For Kids website
Guest post on Whipup
Review on Maya*Made

Experiments With Natural Dyes

Dyed with onion skins (with some sticker resist)

Last year we painted wooden eggs for Easter, but my youngest has since outgrown her egg allergy, so we were back to decorating real eggs this year. However, I wanted to get away from the fluorescent, fake colors. I’m the one who eats most of the eggs, and the food coloring dye that leaks onto the egg white always gives me pause. So this year we experimented with natural dyes.

Way back when, in the dark times before the Internet, I experimented with natural dyes while working at a summer day camp. A group of kids and I tie-dyed t-shirts using dye made from beets and blueberries. (We’d been learning about local Native American tribes, so I’m thinking, but am not positive, that I found these dye suggestions in my research, which would have taken place in the library, with books.)

So that’s where I began with Easter egg dye, and I added in onion skins after reading this post. That blogger boiled the eggs along with the onion skins, but I was a little hesitant to give my three-year-old a raw egg to wrap, so I decided to make the dyes separately and dip already-boiled eggs into the dye. There are lots of tutorials on this–such as here (via KiwiCrate) and here (via Craft)–but it looks like many dyes need a long soak, even overnight. I wanted something the kids could see working rather quickly.

The two orange eggs were dyed in onion skin dye. The reddish one at the front is from beets, and the bluish one at the back is from blueberries. The blueberry dye and beet dye looked almost exactly the same in liquid form, but as the blueberry-dyed eggs dried, they became bluer. For all of these, I boiled and then steeped the dyeing agent, then strained the liquid through a wire mesh strainer and added a splash of vinegar as a mordant.

Dyed with blueberry dye

A couple of days later we tried spinach and red cabbage as well. These weren’t as successful. I think the red cabbage would have required an overnight soak, and something interesting happened when I added vinegar to the strained spinach dye. First off, I didn’t need to-spinach contains its own acid, oxalic acid, which is strong enough to act as a mordant all on its own. When I added the vinegar, the liquid, which was a dark green-gold color, lightened into the color of lemonade–and had no effect on the color of the eggs. I’ve been searching for an explanation (what reacted with what?) and haven’t found one yet, so if you know, please tell me!

The Easter Bunny usually leaves my kids little rhyming clues as to where their baskets are hidden. This year, my oldest mentioned he hoped his clue was in code.

Cracking the code

I used a simple number/letter substitution, but I began at “N” as “1.” I helped him work through the first word, which was three letters, using logic to figure out where the vowel probably was (in the middle) and going from there. Then he was off and running. Every year, the Easter Bunny has to get a little smarter…

Have you experimented with natural dyes? What worked best for you?

Ready for the Art Show

Both my boys wanted to enter the art center’s collaboration show, like they did last year, again. G also painted a canvas, but she’s not sure on whether she wants to let the art center borrow it for a whole month. We’re going to bring it along when we drop off the others, in case she changes her mind. Here they all are together (click to see slightly larger):

Each canvas has both sprayed watercolors and liquid acrylic, some brushed, flicked, or dripped on and some printed with various materials–wine corks, sponges, and the like. The top right one (my oldest son’s) also has some dripped black ink. This sort of painting is definitely out of his comfort zone; he likes things to be planned. Once he got into it, though, he even said (in an amazed sort of voice), “This is really fun!”

The top left canvas (my younger son’s) has a couple layers of workable fixative sprayed on. He really puddled the watercolor, and the canvas isn’t really made for that. Plus, it seemed to have a different sort of finish than the other two–same type of canvas, but a different brand. There were tacky spots that just weren’t drying, but the fixative seems to have solved the problem.

The bottom one, then, is my daughter’s. I have to admit, a layer or so back she had some sponge prints that are obliterated now by her brushstrokes, and I had to remind myself to bite my tongue and let her explore the process. She decided when she was done, and I like it now, too, although, again, whether I like it isn’t really the point. She likes it so much she’s not sure she can let it out of her sight for a month.

We’re excited to drop them off tomorrow!