Friday, May 25, 2018

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.

Friday, May 18, 2018

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.

Friday, May 11, 2018

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.

Friday, May 4, 2018

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.
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