Category Archives: science

Animal Classification Booklet

Click to download PDF

Click to download PDF

Our winter session of homeschool co-op is just five weeks of classes, so I’m offering an animal classification class for ages 5-8. This is a really fun age group, very enthusiastic, and while it’s called “animal” it’s really vertebrate classification. We’re learning about one class of vertebrates–mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians–each week.

I wanted something for the kids to write in and keep. (Some of the kids really like paperwork.) After hunting around on the Internets a little bit, I decided just to go ahead and make my own, which I’m now sharing with you, because, well, why not? What you see there is just the cover. It’s a PDF file designed to be printed landscape on regular printer paper so you can fold it into a booklet. Print pages 1 and 2 back to back, and pages 3 and 4 back to back. Assemble and fold together. Each page has room for the kids to write down the characteristics of that particular vertebrate, and the back cover has a little bit of matching. All the images are from the fantastic image library at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

I also plan to share my full lesson plan with the activities and resources I’m using. Coming up: Mammals and Fish.

{PBL} Projects + School

One of V's scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of V’s scenes in his organic farming movie.

One of my biggest frustrations with school is how much time it takes up. My oldest chose to remain in school, and I haven’t managed to support him on any self-led projects on nights and weekends, which fly by so quickly. The school describes its curriculum as “project-based,” but their definition and implementation is somewhat different than mine. Recently, my son completed a school project on organic farming. The curriculum is pre-planned, and my son chose the topic from a pre-set list. The projects had certain requirements—for instance, each student had to interview someone local pertaining to their topic, asking at least five questions. Interviewing somebody is great—if the student decides that’s the best way to get information that otherwise is unavailable. But assigning an interview takes away so much of the learning process…What do I want to know? How can I find it out? What resources are available to me? Instead, it seems like somebody else decided fifth graders should interview “experts.”

Several weeks ago, my son and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Him: I think I want to make a movie for my project representation.

Me: That sounds cool. None of us have experience with that. Can Miss [x] mentor you as you figure out how to do that? [Because that is what is supposed to happen in project-based learning; the student has a mentor.]

Him: I don’t know. I think there’s a video camera I can borrow?

Me: That’s a start. Do you have an idea of how you want your movie to be?

Him: Well, I want to start with a scene of fields, you know, with the crops.

Me: Okay. It’s December, though. You won’t be able to film that here, unless you’re okay with, you know, dead-looking fields.

Him: But that’s not what I want.

Me: Could you draw a background for that, maybe? Or perhaps try stop-motion? I can show you some examples.

Him, beginning to sound frustrated: I don’t have a lot of time to figure all that out! Maybe I’ll just do a poster.

Me, after a long thinking pause: I can understand, given that you have a deadline for this, why you would want to do a poster. I won’t think less of you if you do. But it makes me sad that you have an idea and don’t feel you have the time or support at school to see it through. I’ll do whatever I can to mentor you, if you want to try a movie. I hope, if you don’t do a movie for this project, we can come back to it when you have more time to dig into it.

And we left it there, for the most part. It seemed my son had decided on a poster. He let me know the materials he’d need (my role in his homework is mainly procuring supplies when necessary). For Christmas, we gave him the book Unbored, which I’d hoped to look through myself, but I can’t get it out of his hands! After his first day back at school, he told me he was going to do a movie after all. Unbored has a chapter on stop-motion, he told me, and now he had a better idea of what he needed. Awesome, I said. Make a list, and a storyboard. A storyboard? “Draw out each scene—figure out what you want to show and say. Then you can figure out what props you need.”

And this he did, in detail. After looking at his storyboard, I pointed out that it didn’t seem stop-motion would work, but perhaps a series of photographs? He brainstormed props. I thought I remembered a Duplo farm set…we checked his sister’s LEGOS and yes, indeed, she has not only a bus and a mailman but a farmer with flowers, a chicken, a pig, and a tractor. He received her permission to borrow her farm LEGOS. He figured out solutions for his other scenes—he transformed a bottle of spray fixative into a pesticide bottle by drawing a new label. We added an acorn and butternut squash to the shopping list. He painted grains of rice black, to represent harmful insects on the plants. We lucked out with a sunny Sunday afternoon, he set up each scene in natural light, took multiple shots, and chose the best ones.

Shooting film for his movie.

Shooting film for his movie.

I’d have liked to set him loose to figure out Movie Maker on his own, but given the time constraints, I tried to figure out the basics ahead of time so I could help him. Together, we added his photos, edited the duration of each shot, and recorded his narration, which had to be matched to each scene just so. He typed up the title and credits, and we strung it all together. It is amazing. If this were a home-based project, more time would have been spent on figuring out the program and investigating different methods of movie making. It’s hard for me to accurately describe what I see as the difference in school projects and home projects, but I’ll try:

School is more interested in showing what was learned about the assigned topic. The movie is a means to prove he learned about organic farming.

I am just as interested in the learning going on to create the representation. Learning about a topic is one part of the learning; acquiring skills to share information in a chosen way is just as (if not more) important. He drew a storyboard, wrote a script, arranged his scenes, photographed them until he was satisfied. He had a vision and manifested it. He struggled with the computer program, worked through that, we figured it out, and he created a finished product which pleased him. All of this is more important to me than the facts he acquired about organic farming.

I still hope he returns to this interest when he has more time to dig into it for the sake of digging into it rather than as a means to fulfilling a school requirement. I will nudge, and I will mentor. And I am so glad he chose movie over poster after all.

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.

Field Trip: Dinosaur State Park

Last weekend we took a day trip to visit Dinosaur State Park, which is not too far south of Hartford, CT–about a 90-minute drive for us.

This is just a *fun* picture!

The main attraction is the dinosaur trackway. The Connecticut River Valley had great conditions for preserving dinosaur tracks, but not at all good conditions for preserving fossils. We’ve seen tracks before, at the Amherst Natural History Museum, at the northern end of the Valley, which boasts the largest collection of dinosaur tracks, many collected locally. But these tracks are right where the dinosaurs left them. It’ll give you goosebumps, if you think about it.

Dino tracks

The trackway is complemented by additional displays, which were all interesting to the adults in the family, too. In fact, we went on my husband’s birthday, and he chose the destination. He’s a big dinosaur fan. Isn’t it amazing that during our lifetimes, the dinosaur-bird link progressed from a crazy, derided theory to fact? The exhibits mentioned this as well, because one of the first people to examine these tracks when they were discovered was Yale University’s Dr. Ostrom, who revived the dinosaur-to-bird evolution theory.

This is a fossil of a fish (obviously!).

Fish fossil

The explanatory text said that the arching of the neck and back indicated the fish entered and died in toxic waters.

The park includes nature trails, too, so after we explored the inside, we took a walk outside. We kept seeing this red dragonfly, and finally he posed quite nicely for me.

Dragonfly

He’s not quite as large as his prehistoric counterparts, but still, quite pretty.

This trip included a lot of time in the car, but it was a nice day for a picnic lunch, and an interesting destination, with lots of information about local (-ish, to us) geology and the always-big pull of dinosaurs. Worth a day trip!

A Plan, of Sorts

[Insert your own metaphor here] The other day at the beach, it was so clear we had a great view of Block Island offshore. But this is rare.

As I described in the last post, I’m not one to plan the learning step by step. But I’m not unschooling, either. That’s where I thought I’d fall, when I started homeschooling way long ago. The reality, though, was that my oldest wanted and needed a bit more structure. He liked workbooks. (Me? They give me hives.) He liked seeing tangible progress of work completed. He was five. I adjusted. I even bought a complete curriculum for his first grade year, but I ended up changing and adding so much that I was going to take a completely different approach the next year, except then he began school.

This time around, with my younger son, I’ve gathered some books and I’m keeping it loose, with a very short list of items that need to be completed daily. Because three years of school has him convinced he hates math, I started him with Life of Fred over the summer. The addition in the early books is below his current ability, but those books have reinforced some items that just didn’t stick at school, such as telling time and the order of the days of the week and months of the year. My only math requirement to begin the year is a chapter of Fred a day. I know without a doubt that math will be included in all the other subjects we do, in his daily life, and in his project work. This child needs to see the practical use of something; he’s not going to learn anything just because somebody tells him to. (And I don’t think he will ever be asking for workbooks.)

My state doesn’t even require we teach history, just geography and civics. Perhaps this is why he apparently learned no history through second grade. (My older son had a completely different–and better, in my opinion–second grade experience at the same school with a different teacher, but that was before they revamped the second grade. He did learn history, though. We’d already covered many of the same topics in our first grade homeschool, but still.) Nevertheless, I asked him if he’d like to start at the beginning, in the ancient world. He’s very enthusiastic about learning more about the ancient Egyptians. I bought the first volume of Story of the World to help us tie everything together in historical context, something I was having a hard time doing myself with books that focused just on Egypt. I’m not using the activity books, though, since having somebody else decide what to do takes all the fun out of it! We’ll be supplementing and going more in depth with library books, the local art museum (which has a wonderful collection of ancient art), and whatever related projects my son decides he wants to pursue. We’ll move on when he’s ready.

He also asked to do chemistry experiments. We’ll be using Adventures with Atoms and Molecules, Amazing Kitchen Chemistry Projects You Can Build Yourself, and library resources (including a science dictionary for any terms that need to be looked up).

And finally, we’ll be incorporating project time.

I’m keeping the extras light. I think he needs to unwind from school and rediscover how much he likes learning things when he has a choice of what to learn. His knee-jerk response to anything schoolish is “I hate it” and “it’s boring.” After years of struggling to get him up and on a bus, I don’t plan on spending most of our homeschooling time trying to get him in a car on time. We have one co-op day, and I’m really excited to be part of a great group. We are planning on enrolling him in karate; we think this might be a very good fit for our intense, oppositional child. (Team sports? He can’t stand them.) And that’s about it, at least to start the year.

We will begin where we are and see what develops, maintaining flexibility at all times. That’s the main gist of any plan I’m making.