Personal Education Plan Conference

After working through about six weeks of the school year it was important to have a conference with each of my students (children) to discuss their accomplishments, what they are currently working on and their ideas of future study for the year. Because my kids have lots of control over their education and primarily work independently throughout the day conferences are important to ensure we have a solid education plan.

First, I asked them to list activities they spend their time on during a typical day and to estimate how much time is spent on each activity.

My son's list:
Engineering Class at High School 1 hr
Band Class at High School 1 hr
DuoLingo 30 minutes
Programming 30 minutes
Reading different books 1 hr
Geometry 1 hr
Walking 30 minutes

My daughter's list:
Reading 1-2 hrs
Algebra II 1 hr
Sewing 30 minutes

We discussed each of their activities and whether it was a short, medium or long term activity. Short term activities take one week or less to complete. They include easy research topics such as what is the Maginot line, but can lead into research of additional tangent topics. Medium term activities take 6-10 weeks. A few examples include unit studies such as Greek History, or the solar system. Long term activities can last the entire year. Completing an algebra book or continued study of a foreign language are good examples.

Therefore, if the school day lasts six hours, six long term activities are the most that can be fit in one school year. If one hour per day is dedicated to medium term activities, approximately 3-6 can be covered in a year and 36 or more short term activities can be covered in a one hour period over the course of a school year. 

For my son, his day is pretty full and most of his activities are long term. I suggested that he add short term research topics into his day especially if he feels he has finished something. That will give him the opportunity to briefly touch on many different topics.

My daughter has some time available in her day. In addition to what she listed, she had been visiting a doctor three days per week, cooking at least one meal per day and attending rehearsals for theater four days per week. Therefore her schedule is a bit busier than it first appears.

Next I listed standard school subjects: reading, writing, math, history, geography, science, foreign language, art, music, p.e., and technical classes. Then I asked them to determine which subjects were being covered and which subjects were lacking.

With an idea of time available in the schedule and subjects that could be covered better I asked them both to list a few things they would like to study in the near future. My son wants to learn about Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Hitler. My daughter didn't have any strong desires.

So for the next six to eight weeks or so, my son will continue down the same path until we sit down and reevaluate again together. I felt my daughter needed some more guidance. So I added several activities to her schedule including: reading the Story of the Greeks, finishing the book In the Hall of the Dragon King, working through Lightning Literature and Composition, finishing a spelling program we began at the end of last year called Uncovering the Logic of English, studying the Human Body with the book The Way We Work, and watching various musicals that are great for kids such as Singing in the Rain. Many of these activities I will be doing with her but she can do some on her own. Just like with my son, I will sit down with my daughter in another two months or so to discuss our plan.

My goal is the make the independent learners so I want to give them lots of freedom, but I also want to make sure they are progressing and learning each day. It is definitely a balancing act of give and take, suggestion and trial to meet those goals, but I we are all satisfied with our current plan.

Coding for Kids - Snake Game in Python

My son created a snake computer game using the Python language.

Since my son was about two years old I have predicted that he will become some type of engineer. Now I think he may become a computer programmer. He is very interested in programming and will work for hours trying to make his games work.

Last week he decided to learn a little about the Python language. Since he has never worked with this language he found a tutorial to get him started.

Following the steps in this video he was able to create a simple game where a snake moves around the screen to eat a piece of cake (another square dot). This was not a complicated activity since it only took him one afternoon, but a great way to learn a little about another programming language.

For me, the program was cool, but my son taking the initiative was the success story. I really like the fact that this was a self-directed activity. This entire project was completely my son's idea. Somehow he got the idea to create a game using Python, and then searched youtube to find a resource to get started.

When kids have basic skills of reading, writing and math they are capable of learning more about anything which interests them. One of my main goals for this school year is to teach my kids how to learn. I want them to become more independent, able to find resources on their own and more passionate about their learning. This is definitely a step in that direction.

Learning about Theater

My daughter was an orphan in a local production of Annie.

Participating in community theater is a great addition to any education program. Attending performances is an excellent place to start. You might just have a child who wants to be on stage and watching a show may be all the inspiration that's needed.

My youngest child has loved being on stage since she was about three years old and had her first opportunity to be in the spotlight. In Germany, we participated in a traditional German dance class that put on numerous performances during the carnival season. When my youngest was three years old she happened to be much younger than any of the other kids in the program. I think the nearest her age was around 6-7 years old. She was involved because both her older sister and I were dancing at the time. She learned the dances by attending our practices and could actually do the moves and remembered the dance. Needless to say, she was noticed because she was young and because she had a little talent. The dance club decided to dress her in a special outfit and had her lead the other dancers onto the stage.

After she performed her dance with her class she was supposed to stand still on the stage with the other kids while the MC talked about the kids. She saw this as her opportunity and rather than standing still, wowed the crowd with a series of high kicks, cartwheels and splits.

The second night she performed her dance the teachers made sure she knew she was supposed to stand still, but she still managed to steal the spotlight. She did the pee-pee dance throughout her routine. It was quite entertaining.

Later that year, her pre-school teacher in Germany gave her a prominent role in the school play. Dressed as a mouse, she had to dance with a six year old on the stage. My daughter didn't hesitate as she knew people would be watching.

Fast forward several years...... The past two summers she attended a two week theater day camp and loved it. So when we heard the local theater community was putting on Annie, I knew she had to try out.

This was my first experience with theater and my daughter's as well and we've both been very happy with it. First, I was stunned when 60 children turned out to audition for the seven orphans parts in the musical. The director ended up choosing the seven, plus an additional fifteen or so for the orphan chorus. That is the part my daughter received.

Since the initial audition, she attended a call back audition, and then began rehearsing. As show time approached, rehearsals became more intense and ended later at night. I'm thankful that homeschooling allowed her the flexibility to sleep in after late nights. I'm also thankful that the director and all those involved with the production kept such a positive, encouraging attitude.

This was a memorable experience and she learned so much. She learned there is lots of down time backstage when you are not in a scene. Down time presents great opportunities for making friends and having some fun. Performers don't just turn up on show night for thundering applause. Instead, they train like athletes for several months before performances. She learned a lot about singing. With no formal training, participating in the musical is at least worth a music credit. Practice and hard work are required. In the end when the audience cheers, it is worth it!

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend participating in a small production of some sort. Kids gain so much knowledge with each unique experience they have and this is a great way to introduce them to new opportunities, people and the local community.

Gerrymandering Explained to Kids

Here is a free and fun worksheet used to explain the concept of gerrymandering to kids.

Gerrymandering Worksheet

Gerrymandering is a way politicians draw voting district lines in a way that helps them retain power. With elections coming on November 6th some states have proposals on the ballot to reduce gerrymandering. Regardless of your stance on the issue, this presents a good opportunity to understand the issue.

 This video from CBC news explains the issue and how it works.

After watching the video I printed out the worksheets and told the kids each of the four groups of blue and red people represented a state. Each state would have five voting districts with five people in each district. I showed them two ways the district lines could be drawn and then asked them if they could draw the lines in a way that the blue guys won the election.

Just like the politicians, they had to draw oddly shaped groups. Once they were finished I declared them qualified to draw voting district lines for actual politicians.

Free Motion Quilting with Kids

My daughter and I are learning free motion quilting. Free motion quilting is a technique used to hold quilts together. Once the top is pieced together and that top is sandwiched with a backing and batting layer free motion quilting can begin.

Free motion quilting is something like doodling, but instead of paper and pen, you use fabric and a sewing machine. We are very lucky to have access to a high quality sewing machine to learn this craft, but there are many cost effective machines equally capable of being used to create free motion designs. All that's required is for the machine to have the ability to lower the feed dogs.

Feed dogs are the pieces of metal below the needle that move when sewing to suck the fabric through the machine. When the feed dogs are lowered, the seamstress is in control of moving the fabric and can move it in any direction desired. 

My daughter has been sewing since she was about 4 years old. She loves it. All my kids were introduced to sewing at a young age, but only two out of the three pursued sewing.  Kids are just as capable as adults at mastering free motion quilting and they don't have to have much prior knowledge of sewing. They should be comfortable with a sewing machine, but not an expert. The first key is practice! and the second key is a great resource or teacher!

We love Angela Walters. She is a great internet teacher who began by learning to quilt, progressed to machine quilting for others and now is the author of several books, has created her own quilting rulers and has created an excellent series of video tutorials.

We highly recommend her Free Motion Challenge videos that begin with teaching basic stitches such as the meander and progress into waves and swirls.

We began learning to free motion quilt when finishing up our 2017-18 school year quilts.

You can see swirls stitched above the basket.

This is one of my daughter's first attempts at free motion quilting. She did this on a traditional sewing machine with the feed dogs lowered. You can see her meanders in the upper right hand corner, and her swirls in the lower left. Above in the middle she tried some work with the rulers.

Refinishing Furniture with Kids

My daughter refinished a cabinet.

This year the kids have lots of control over their education in that they can select research topics and activities from a pre-approved list or suggest their own. One of the items on the list was refinish the small cabinet in the family room. My hands-on crafty daughter selected this item right away.

After she decided to refinish the cabinet, I told her she would have to do some research and put together a plan before starting. Therefore, she began by spending an afternoon watching DIY videos on youtube and then describing her plan. Once the plan was in place, we headed off to Home Depot to get supplies.

Since she wanted to paint the cabinet instead of restain it, we learned that she didn't need to fully remove the existing stain. Thus, her first major task was sanding.

But before sanding, she removed the hardware from the front door and removed the front door from the cabinet. I doubt the hardware had ever been cleaned. So she researched how to clean brass and learned she should coat it in catsup and let it sit for an hour and then wipe it clean. She did and now the hardware really shines.

Sanding even a small cabinet sounds like a big task for a little girl, but she actually had some prior exposure to sanding so had an idea of what to expect. A few years ago we did a major family project and refinished twelve Adirondack chairs.

Since there were so many chairs and foot rests, everyone in the family had an opportunity to use an electric sander.

We all got to stain, and stain some more.

I think, seeing such a dramatic improvement in the chairs motivated her to select this project.

During the sanding process, the back of the cabinet practically fell off because it was so old. So my daughter went back to the store, this time with her dad, and purchased some wood to create a new back for the cabinet.

Together they measured and marked the new back piece and then my husband cut it out.

 Once the sanding was complete, she began with primer and finished up with paint.

The entire project ended up taking about three weeks. She had to take a few days off because of a sore throat and a few more days off because the humidity was extremely high. Nevertheless, she persevered through the entire project and now is very proud of her finished cabinet. We are proud of her too.

Advanced Sewing and Color Theory for Middle Schoolers

My daughter implemented color theory to create a beautiful table runner.

Last week I described a few of my sewing educational goals for my daughter as well as her first project; a robe. Since she hopes to be a designer in the future, I thought a good skill to improve would be her knowledge and use of color. Therefore, one item on the list of acceptable school activities was learn about color theory and create a table runner implementing the newfound knowledge.

The first thing she did was read the book Color Play by Joen Wolfrom. This book is written for quilters and begins by explaining the color wheel, and how colors relate to the seasons. Tints are colors that contain white, shades are colors that contain black and tones are colors that contain gray. It goes on to explain analogous and complementary colors then describes color combinations that work well together, the reasons why they are appealing and many examples.

Once she was finished reading the book she used the quilting program within Bernina Embroidery Software 8 to design her table runner. What she did using this program could have been done using a paper and colored pencils. The point was for her to make a plan before beginning to sew.

 Once the plan was made she selected fabric and began cutting and piecing.

I love the way she used the complementary colors of yellow and lavender as well as many of their tints and shades to move around the table runner.

I think reading this color theory book will have a big impact on the clothes she creates this year, but we will have to wait and see.

Advanced Sewing with Middle Schoolers

My sixth grader is learning much about sewing techniques.

This year, the kids have had a lot of say over their education. Though they don't have complete autonomy, they can select from a list of acceptable topics/activities or suggest their own. My goals are for them to become independent learners excited about what they are studying. In addition, I want them to persevere through difficulties and explore a wide variety of material implementing and enhancing their current skills as well as reading, writing and math skills. I've written several posts describing my son's exploits with Xcode, and now I have to tell you about my daughter.

She loves SEWING and DESIGN and HANDS-ON projects, so it was no surprise to me when she decided to sew a robe, learn about color theory and then implement what she learned by creating a table runner, and refinish a small cabinet. Reading a book on Greek Mythology was not a complete surprise, but a welcome addition to her crafty endeavors.

Last year we spent one day per week sewing a very elaborate quilt. My mom, I and my daughter each created a similar quilt. The project involved a multitude of new sewing and machine embroidery techniques. We all learned a ton.

This year we want to continue learning to sew, but one goal of mine is to make sure my daughter is continually learning when in school. Therefore, if she wants to sew, I would like her to sew something new or incorporate a new technique. Since sewing day last year was all about the quilt, it makes sense that this year should be all about clothes.

Her first project of the year was making a robe. Although she has created a few clothes items from patterns, reading patterns is a skill that she can definitely improve. To make the robe she selected the fabric, and worked with my mom to read the pattern. Most of the skills required to sew the robe were familiar to her, but she learned to match dots and marks within the pattern, put in sleeves and sew a square of stitching at the end of the belt rather than a straight line to hold the stitching in better.

Proud is my word for the year. I am proud of her and she is proud of herself. This was one great project for starting the year.

How to learn Xcode

My son created his first app using Xcode.

Although we are not following an unschooling approach, this year the kids have had a lot of say over their education. Because their activities need to be approved, the philosophy is a little more in-line with Montessori if that philosophy were used for older children.

When my son said he wanted to learn Xcode, I was apprehensive because he was entering a territory of information completely beyond my knowledge base. Despite this fact, I was excited because he was following his interests. Since my husband is a computer programmer, he has been my son's primary support system in this endeavor. However, he himself doesn't know how to program using Xcode, so the material my son is learning is also beyond his scope of knowledge.

After a week of persistent effort to get Xcode up and running, my son began creating his first app. Thank goodness we have the INTERNET and TUTORIALS. Because of my husband's experiences, he was able to point my son to the Ray Wenderlich Library of Tutorials for Computer Programmers. Some tutorials are free and some require payment to become active, but my son was able to find a free tutorial to help him get started.

The app my son created is called the "Hit Me" app. Basically it is a simple game where the person playing is given a number and asked to move a slider bar labeled 1-100 closest to the number given. In the photo below, you can see the game being simulated on a phone within the computer screen.

Although the app is mostly finished, it is not quite complete because he is having difficulty getting it transferred to an actual iPhone. It seems lots of developers have had this issue and he is currently searching the internet for different solutions that worked to help others overcome the problem.

I know app development is not for me because these types of issues would frustrate me too much, but these are precisely the types of challenges my son and husband thrive on once they are conquered. It is great to watch my son persevere, research and be self-motivated. He is so proud of his incremental accomplishments and we are both proud of him.

It's amazing how you can help kids to gain knowledge without being familiar with the material yourself.

Homeschooling to High School and back to Homeschool

My oldest daughter is a senior and considered a homeschooled student. She was a full time student in Kindergarten, and 11th grade. This year she is taking AP psychology at the local high school and Organic Chemistry and Anatomy and Physiology at the community college. The rest of her day she is homeschooled. Next year she will be going to a technical college and has already been accepted.

Her schedule is strange I know, and she knows. Sometimes it bothers her a little, but she mostly just jokes about it. After being a full-time student last year, she was hoping to graduate from the local high school. Unfortunately that didn't work out.

First day shadowing at dental office

The main issue was the Anatomy and Physiology class. You see, my daughter wants to be an orthodontist. Who knows if that will happen, but that is the path we are working towards now. She completed AP chemistry during homeschool as well as most general education requirements such as government, history, English, foreign language, etc. Last year she completed AP Physics and AP Biology at the local high school.

Therefore, the next classes required for most biology degrees is Anatomy and Physiology and Organic Chemistry. We thought she would be able to be dual enrolled at the high school and community college there by letting the local district pay a portion of her educational expenses. While this was possible, the high school said they would not pay for the Anatomy and Physiology class at the community college since the high school offers Anatomy and Physiology and she had not taken it there. They said this despite the fact that she has met all of the requirements to graduate from the high school and that the high school A&P is not a prerequisite for the college A&P.

While this could work, we felt it would be a huge waste of time. Although by all accounts the high school A&P course is excellent and college-level, there is no way to obtain college credit for taking the course. She would have to take the college A&P course the following year thereby delaying any courses for which A&P was a prerequisite. In other words, she would delay herself a year and take a very similar course two times.

Since the high school said they wouldn't pay for it, they also would not offer credit for it. She could still take the course but to graduate from the high school, she would have to take four classes. (They would pay for and give her credit for two classes for the organic chemistry course, and two additional class credits would have been given for A&P if it was approved.) Unfortunately, there isn't time in the day to take four high school classes plus two college classes especially when driving time and course schedules are considered. That made the decision easy for us. Homeschool again.

As I said earlier, she is taking one class at the high school. This will enable her to stay in contact with the friends she has made at the high school as well as participate in the school play. (Homeschooled students in Michigan are allowed to take any elective courses and participate in any clubs the school offers. No competitive sports.)

Her exposure to the public school system has been good. I think it was important for her to take a few classes and see how the more traditional education systems works. She learned a lot! Not only did she learn the course material, but she saw how structured the system can be. She now understands how much freedom and say she had over her own education which allowed her to progress at her own pace. She sees the difference between learning to seek knowledge verses learning to get good grades. She sees inappropriate behavior and also found kids who can challenge her academically. Although she is quite independent and thinks for herself, she now cares about her appearance and has learned a little about fashion.

Although I'm mildly sad she will not be able to graduate from the local high school, it's probably more appropriate for her to graduate from homeschool. After all, she spent 11 years as a homeschooled student and 2 as a public schooled student. We're just glad we have a good plan for this year and that she has been accepted to the technical college she wanted to go to.

One Way Homeschooling and High School can be used Together

Last week I described how we are using a Montessori inspired approach to middle school and my son's progress in learning to program in Xcode. In addition to programming in Xcode, he is working on a math patterns book and taking two courses at our local high school.

At the end of the last school year we were studying a book together entitled Pattern Explorer. He liked this book enough to decide to complete it on his own. I really like the Pattern Explorer book because it teaches students to think about math in a non-traditional way. The book he is completing is perfect for kids who are at the pre-algebra and algebra level of math. It is a level 2 book, so there is also a level 1. For more information on this book click here.

At the high school my son is taking an engineering class and band.  In Michigan homeschooled students are allowed to take any non-core classes. That means they may take anything that is not specifically required for graduation. Parents must provide transportation, but for us the school is close enough for him to walk. My older daughter has taken many art classes as well as AP biology, AP physics, AP composition and a dentistry class at the tech center.

So far he is really excited to go to the public school for a portion of the day and I'm happy this opportunity exists. He will get to see some of his friends from scouts and see what public school is all about. Taking two morning classes will require him to wake up with an alarm clock on a very regular basis with no slack for sleeping in. Although we have had a regular schedule for school, the school system will be much more rigid and structured. It will be good for him to see this system. He will get to learn from people new to him and he will be expected to meet their expectations. Overall, I hope he has some fun, learns new skills and finishes knowing that he is smart and capable.

Although it is still too soon to tell, the first few weeks were good. I'm optimistic that the two hours he spends in public school each day will be beneficial.

Montessori in Middle Homeschool - Xcode

Last week I mentioned we are implementing a Montessori inspired approach to middle school. After giving the kids a long list of research topics mixed with hands-on activities and small projects to choose from, my son exclaimed that he wanted to learn to program in Xcode, an Apple programming tool used to create Apps. Well that wasn't on the list, but an acceptable topic none-the-less.

After completing three days of school he unfortunately hadn't gotten too far with Xcode, but had been very persistent and learned a lot. His main issue was getting access to Xcode which was a real challenge since he has a Windows computer. In what must be an effort to increase sales of hardware, Apple makes it quite difficult to run Xcode on a non-Apple machine.

He actually did get Xcode running but it runs slow on his Windows machine. To get it going, he figured out how to create a virtual Apple desktop on his PC. This was quite a process which involved lots of trial and error, and an unwanted bit-coin mining virus. In the end, Xcode will run on the virtual desktop, but runs too slow to be an effective solution. Next he investigated remote logging-into my husband's Apple machine to see if he could run Xcode that way. Well it tuned out that the best way to access Xcode was directly through an Apple computer. Now he is in the research and tutorial phase of learning Xcode. I can't wait to see where this leads him.

Most Montessori programs are designed for pre-school through elementary. What I like about the Montessori philosophy is that students are motivated by selecting their own activities. However, un-like an unschooling approach where the student has complete control over what they study, I like the way the Montessori approach sets-up the classroom and effectively gives students acceptable choices. I see our approach to education as Montessori inspired because the choices are given by the adult but selected by the student. It tends to be quite hands-on and often involves learning life skills. Since middle and high school students are capable of reading, a list of acceptable topics and activities for this age works well. Also, unlike the elementary years where students are learning the basics and have necessary manipulatives readily available, for this age, resources are gathered and research completed based on what the student selects to pursue.

So far this approach to education is accomplishing a few of my educational goals for the year including teaching the kids to persevere, making them more independent learners and getting them excited about school. They have been motivated to read and research because they have selected what they want to study. Both my husband and I assist them and try to offer suggestions when we see them getting stuck or progress slowing.

Although this project has taken the majority of his time, he has a few other smaller projects he is working on. I will explain more next week.

Homeschooling Middle Schoolers with Montessori

Welcome back to another school year! My kids will be in 6th, 9th and 12th grades this year. Last year I didn't do too much blogging because we focused a lot on the basics (reading, writing, and math). We actually followed a writing curriculum and it worked well. Since we followed lots of curriculum, we weren't doing many unique things for school, so I didn't have much to say.

This year, with the new school year approaching, I felt the need to change things up a bit and am moving more towards a Montessori approach to education. We've already finished week one and it is working great! We will probably keep working with this approach until Thanksgiving at least, and then I will re-evaluate.

If you are familiar with Montessori, then you know it's a philosophy that is typically used for elementary aged students. If you are familiar with this blog, then you know I admire certain aspects of many education philosophies (Montessori, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, Unschooling), but stick with an eclectic approach I call Highhill Education.

My initial goals for this year are to make my 6th and 9th graders much more independent and excited about learning. We have always done a variety of book and hands-on activities for school. Some of which have worked great and others which needed to be rethought. Anyway, anytime I mention school, my younger two kids roll their eyes and get ready to fight anything I have planned. The bottom line is that school just cramps their style by taking a large chunk of time out of whatever it is they would have been doing. In other words, they start complaining. Since they haven't spent much time in traditional school, they have nothing to compare homeschooling to and just don't realize how good they have it.

My youngest would spend all of her time sewing, painting her nails, designing clothes, reading and doing crafts. My son would spend all of his time riding his bike to his friend's house to hang-out, swimming and playing video games. I don't have an issue with their activities, what I have an issue with is what they aren't doing. That's why this approach is currently working well. Let me explain.

To start the year, I gave the kids a long list of items they could choose to study. Some things on the list include:

If Hitler was so bad, how did he get a whole country of people to follow him?
What did Steve Jobs do before starting Apple?
Learn to program in Python
How are math and origami related?
Study the Life of Fred Geometry book
Why is poetry so difficult to understand?
How do producers create special effects for movies?
How did jazz music evolve?
What is the Picot-Sykes Line?
Install a water bottle holder on a bike
Repair the sprinkler system
Refinish the kitchen chairs
How are rising oceans effecting coastal cities?
Plan a weekend family vacation within a three hour driving distance

Hopefully you get the idea? My husband and I told them they need to pick a minimum of one thing and maximum of three things to investigate. Each of these topics are meant to keep them going for a few days to months. We also said they should be prepared to discuss their projects and findings and shouldn't look into something for an hour or so and give us a quick answer. These questions/topics are meant to inspire, so we asked them to select something that interests them. I'm hoping that the lines between when school starts and stops will become blurry and that they will be so interested in what they select, that they will work on it during much of their non-school time as well.

I already mentioned that we finished week one, but I didn't mention that they have been constantly working on the projects they selected. I will describe them in the next few posts. What I'm worried about and haven't figured out yet is how to get them to do a variety of activities without much prompting. If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them. Anyways, I'm happy with their progress thus far, but the lack of variety is what is likely to cause us to shift gears again in November. I will keep you updated.

Welcome back. I hope your school year is off to a great start.

Bridge to Terabithia

My oldest daughter, a voracious reader, has volunteered to review some of her favorite books on Highhill Education. Here is her first review.

     In a heartwarming and heartbreaking story, Bridge to Terabithia follows the friendship of two fifth grade students, Jess Aaron and Leslie Burke. It was published in 1977 by Katherine Paterson, and won the Newbery Medal in 1978. In 2007, Bridge to Terabithia was adapted into a film. A moving story of friendship and loss, Bridge to Terabithia is a story for children aged around 12 and up.
     Using deceptively simplistic language, Paterson eloquently weaves an incredibly complex story.     Though it primarily follows Jess and Leslie, several other characters (including May Belle, Mrs. Meyers and Janice Avery) are carefully developed. Most, if not all of the characters experience loneliness; which is a key theme throughout the novel.
     In the beginning, Jess’s greatest dream is to be the fastest runner in fifth grade. However, though he has trained all summer, his dream evaporates when he and other boys are easily beaten by the strange new kid: his neighbor, Leslie. Initially, Jess’s disappointment appears as anger, and he and his classmates shuns Leslie. However, Jess eventually realizes Leslie is quite an interesting person, which leads to their becoming friends. Together, they create the world of Terabithia, a magical kingdom of which they are the rulers, where they can escape from their worldly problems. However, one day, in a failed attempt to reach Terabithia, Leslie is terminated, leaving Jess anguished and full of despair.
     Overall, Bridge to Terabithia tells a compelling story which examines the essence of human nature. As reviewed by The Horn Book, “the story is one of remarkable richness and depth.” It is a book which the reader will continue to think about, and may even reread. Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful story for children aged around 12 and up.

Nailed It Cake Baking - Chemistry? - Problem Solving?

Have you seen the cake baking show on Netflix called Nailed It? If not imagine selecting three average people, showing them a gorgeous cake and challenging them to make it. They are given internet access, supplies and a time limit. As the three bakers compete against each other to recreate the best cake, three experts watch and comment among themselves discussing interesting ideas of the bakers as well as things they should probably have done differently. Some people do quite well, but most end up doing some improvisation. All use their best problem solving skills to attack the given challenge.

The results are hilarious, especially when time is in short supply and plans do not go as expected. What would you do if your cakes overflowed? How do you make melted chocolate look like mud? Have you ever made fondant?

This show has inspired our latest series of educational activities. Earlier in the year we made bread for science and then we learned to make candy. In both cases a recipe was both given and followed for every activity. Thinking scientifically in terms of chemistry, students are typically given an experiment to follow which is much like a recipe.

In more advanced chemistry classes, students are given only basic instructions and asked to design an experiment which will solve a problem. These cake baking challenges are more in-line with advanced baking because they involve using problem solving skills. Whether or not they are considered chemistry is up for debate, but they are excellent activities for middle school children. Nailed It was such a natural inspiration.

Because I wanted the kids to be successful in the challenges, I made a few alterations to the rules. First, we did not have a time limit. In fact, they were given the challenge several days in advance and asked to come up with a plan which included a shopping list. They were given internet access which they could use to find a recipe or directions or examples of items they were trying to recreate. Secondly, they were asked to work together. Since they are siblings, they are constantly competing. I wanted these challenges to be fun and cooperative.

For the first challenge, they were asked to recreate the emoji cakes created on Nailed It.

They had watched the episode and heard the experts suggest using butter to grease the pans and did so themselves. Despite this fact, their cakes still stuck to the pans. We still haven't discovered the problem.

The kids have never made fondant before, and had to learn how. On the emoji episode, some of the bakers had never used fondant and that proved to be an issue. One added too much food coloring ruining the fondant. Therefore, icing was used as a last minute substitute. The result was acceptable, but fondant would have been much better.

Here are the cakes my kids made. Keep in mind, I didn't help in this activity at all. Bonus!

Their biggest issue was creating black fondant. I think you can purchase black food coloring? That however wasn't on their shopping list. Instead, they mixed all the colors and were able to come with a shade of grey. I think it looks pretty good.

The cake tasted good too. Now I'm no expert, but love a little sweet every now and then.

Pattern Explorer Review

Pattern Explorer is one workbook, from The Critical Thinking Company While their other workbooks were equally engaging, I felt this one was the most appropriate level for my kids. Their workbooks are unique because they are designed to teach kids how to think. This one really works! I would recommend it as well as trying others.

Pattern Explorer comes in Levels 1 and 2. The Level 2 book pictured here is geared towards students studying pre-algebra or algebra. Each page contains several picture problems such as the one shown below. The top problem on the left shows a series of figures containing solid and transparent circles. The student is asked how many shaded and total circles appear in later stages of the series.

This may seem like quite a difficult question, but the table below the figures assists the students in finding the answer by helping to recognize patterns. Once the table is completed it becomes much easier to see how the number of circles in later figures is determined.

The page on the right above shows a different type of problem in the book. The balance problem works a little like solving a algebraic problem in which you can divide both sides by the same number, or subtract the same number from both sides. For example, the top problem asks how many diamonds will balance a pentagon. One pentagon sits on the top left scale balancing four triangles. Two triangles balance three diamonds on the other scale. To solve the problem, students must figure out how the different shapes relate to each other. Students can arrive at the same answer thinking about the problem in different ways.

In addition to these two types of problems, the book contains sequence problems, function problems and number problems all designed to teach kids to think. As a child I was always good at math, and now I have kids who are good at math. These books are excellent for kids excelling in math, but would also be good for those struggling as they approach problems in a pictorial way that appeals to the brain in a different way.

Life of Fred English and Grammar

Did you know there are Life of Fred English books?

The creator of Life of Fred is a retired high school math teacher who entertains students while doing an excellent job teaching the application of math. Unlike a typical math textbook, the books require little "kill and drill" problem work.

In the language art series, five year old math professor Fred, travels to Australia and ends up teaching language arts. In the same way the math books teach application of concepts, the language arts series aims to teach the application of grammar.

I worked through the series of four books over a period of about six months with my fifth and eighth grader who have a good background in creative writing and some knowledge of the parts of speech. We found the books entertaining and a good overview of English and grammar.

Because language arts does not naturally build upon itself like math, we found it difficult to retain all of the concepts presented in the books. Therefore, I would recommend working through these books as a review or as a tangent to other language arts lessons. They are worth while, but I would not rely on them as the sole method for learning literature and grammar concepts.

Firekeeper's Son

Set in Korea, The Firekeeper's Son is a fictional story based in history.

Long before telephone communication and the internet, the Koreans used signal fires to warn the king of a pending attack. In case of attack, enemies were most likely to arrive by sea. Therefore, the firekeeper living closest to the sea would light a fire every night to signal he did not see enemy soldiers. There were a series of firekeepers between the sea and the palace, and it was each firekeeper's job to light a fire after ensuring the fire in his line of sight was burning. If ever a fire was not lit, it was a sign of trouble.

Firekeepers tended to come from the same family. In The Firekeeper's Son, one night the fire didn't burn as usual. When the son went to investigate, he found the fire should have been lit and made sure the job was completed proving himself to be a qualified firekeeper.

This tale of courage not only teaches children about a small part of Korean history, but inspires. When kids hear tales of children taking responsibility it empowers them to do the same. I recommend this picture book for kids K-4th grade.

Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos - Book Release

My husband wrote a book and my daughters and I illustrated it! Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos

I'm so excited to tell you about our second product from Highhill Educational Supplies, but first let me tell you about the author.

Jeff Norkoli is an informed citizen who has learned to gather information from a wide variety of news sources and thereby think for himself. Being aware of issues in the country is a passion of his, and living overseas in Europe for six years has given him a unique perspective. As a homeschooling father since 2007, he has learned to appreciate the value of a great story.

He holds degrees in both civil engineering and computer science. Throughout his career he has continuously been given tasks which include writing because his co-workers..... (didn’t want to do it)…. discovered his gift of word smithing. 

Long before becoming a homeschooling father, his own father shared with Jeff his talent for creativity with words often writing poems for birthdays and other special occasions. Jeff enjoyed listening to his father’s ballads and inherited his ability to naturally create them. His talent for writing coupled with his interest for educating children in an entertaining way inspired him to write this children’s book.

With sales down at his taco restaurant, Johnny Van Socken invents a new delicacy that becomes an instant success: jelly bean tacos! Unfortunately for Johnny, his success poses a threat to some of the local business owners. When the other business owners convince the local government to pass rules to control the sale of jelly bean tacos, Johnny stands up to protect his rights as a businessman, as well as the rights of his customers.

Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos is written in verse and perfect for kids ages 4-10. The story introduces kids to the concept of government protectionism without ever mentioning the phrase. Like the card game Speed! which is truly a game, Johnny's Jelly Bean Tacos is truly an entertaining book. Although kids will come away with an understanding of protectionism, this is not a lesson in disguise. It is a great story!

The Giver

 What does a perfect world look like to you? Would you like to live in a place with no pain or fighting? Would you like to live in a place where each person works in their ideal job and where nobody suffers from hunger?

 The Giver by Lois Lowry tells a strange story of a utopian world. All the people are happy and just go about their lives questioning nothing. What they don't understand is what they have given up to live in this ideal world.... Free choice and so much more.... After all, their ideal world was created by their ancestors many generations ago.

This book is an excellent read for children 11 years old and up as reading it will invoke questions of personal beliefs and philosophy.

Learning to be a Designer

For over a year now my youngest child has stated she wants to be a designer. More specifically, she is referring to a clothes designer.

When she was five years old she met Denise DeMarchis, creator of the Matilda Jane clothing company. At the same time she met three other individuals connected to Matilda Jane. Shortly after that she began talking about becoming a designer, and for the last year she seems quite convinced that is what she would like to do.

My daughter is a creative child who loves art and would create and sew the entire day if possible. Because she wants to be a designer, at least for now, we are doing as much as possible to incorporate that into her education. For her computer work, she is learning how to draw using the free vector graphics program Inkscape. She watched a Netflix series on Art and Design and we are sewing again this year.

Sewing has been the highlight of her school week for two years now. My mom is a sewing fanatic and has been teaching my daughter and I everything she knows. Here is a glimpse of a few of the projects she has completed this year.

Snowman Potholder: This project involved sewing machine in-the-hoop applique and the chenille technique of fraying appliqued fabric, as well as incorporating heat protective layers into sewing projects.

 Christmas Tree Pillow: Paper piecing is a quilting technique for creating detailed designs with a pattern.

 Snowman and Christmas Tree Wall Hangings: These projects involved sewing with the blanket stitch, fusible wonder under for applique, applying rhinestones, and sewing on buttons with the sewing machine.

Flower Pillow: This pillow was sewing on the serger sewing machine and incorporated piping and unique fabric tucks.

Puffy Pillow: This pillow used texture magic, a heat sensitive product that puffs up when exposed to the heat from an iron. The iron actually never touches the material.

Batik Fabric Dying: These two pieces of fabric were created in a class to learn techniques of Batik Fabric creation. Wax was used as a resist and ironed off to remove from the fabric.

Design is a field that can go in many directions and there is an endless supply of machines and techniques to learn. Projects are varied and endless. Sewing day is not only the favorite day of the week for my youngest, but it is my favorite school day as well. I love learning and creating along with her.

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