Sunday, February 27, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Presidential Palate, or Learning American History through Cooking

Before explaining this project, I have to give a shout-out to my homeschooling support group, Cary Homeschoolers. We are so fortunate to homeschool in Cary, NC, not only because there are so many homeschoolers here that we have lots of programs and resources, but also because we have so many really well-informed parents who are so generous in sharing their expertise with each other. So, for example, when I want to know what terms to search for on Google to find out more about that human tendency to make sense out of abstract or random pictures or symbols, I know exactly who to ask (it's called "Pareidolia," she informed me). Or when I'm trying to help my son figure out whether he should display his data as a bar chart or a pie chart or some other statistical analysis, I know who to call. Or when I want some obscure historical reference on some topic that I don't know that much about, such as the liberation of the serfs in 19th century Russia, I know exactly who can lend me a book on that subject. I could go on and on about all the people who have helped me to get the information I need to educate my son. I just want to publicly acknowledge what a gift it is to homeschool within that kind of a community.

However, it is not only the academic knowledge that this community provides. I have a friend whose social action inspires me to be more involved in political issues. I have another friend who attends my spiritual community and assists me in my teaching there. Yet another friend is redoing her kitchen, and helps me see that improving my house is a possibility.

One CHS member who has galvanized me to do some more imaginative cooking for my family is my friend who writes a delightful blog entitled Siggy Spice. She concentrates on delicious-sounding recipes, but writes about them in a wonderful humorous voice. She is homeschooling three children, plus parenting another, and yet manages to come up with original meals several times, PLUS she manages to photograph them and blog about them. Her example has helped me to upgrade my cooking, at least in terms of trying some new recipes and such.

But as I was trying some new recipes--which I really enjoy doing, by the way--it also sparked a new idea for our history studies. This year we are learning about the US Presidents. And I don't know about you, but I kind of muddle up a lot of those Presidents in the middle. I mean, I'm good for the first four to six or so, and I'm solid in terms of Eisenhower on. Plus, I know the ones around the wars. But all those guys in the middle--Garfield? the Harrisons? Taft? For me, at least, those guys kind of run together.

I've written on several occasions, perhaps most recently here, about how I think incorporating food into lessons really helps students remember the lesson. (After all, food is kind of a priority for this age group.) So I came up with a new approach to learning the US Presidents. First of all, we are going to "chunk" them into groups of four. Chunking is an educational theory that we can learn limited amount of information at the same time -- so, for example, we learn our phone numbers as 919 (one chunk), 555 (another chunk), and 1212 (a third chunk).

But in addition to "chunking" them into groups of four, we are going to add an experiential component to each chunk. We (my son and I) are going to cook a meal of four dishes that represent the four Presidents in that chunk. We are going to assign one President to main dish, one to vegetable, one to dessert, and then one other to some other side dish. We plan to combine dishes that were authentic to the time period to modern dishes that relate to outstanding facts about that President.

My intention is to combine research and learning about American Presidents with an interest of my son (cooking), along with teaching him cooking skills, which I think are lifelong competencies. I think this way of approaching the Presidential timeline might help him at least place those less renowned Presidents in the right framework for their time.

We cooked out first Presidential Palate meal this week as part of our Presidents Day celebration. So I plan to post specifics about our Washington-Adams-Jefferson-Madison meal tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Art Era Timeline

One of the things that is so fabulous about the Internet is that it allows people to share resources and perspectives from all over the world. Recently I ran into a great blog called Practical Pages by a Christian Charlotte-Mason-inspired mom homeschooling in South Africa. She has a bunch of good ideas and wonderful resources, and it is just as easy to access them as it is the ones from my friend just a few miles away.

My favorite thing that she is sharing with the world, however, is a series of terrific timelines of art eras. She has them divided by centuries, with the name and country of different art movements (Neoclassicism, Hudson River School, Bauhaus, etc.) with representative artists and works of the different style displayed by the years of that movement. It would take a ton of time, not to mention some degree of expertise, do create this, but you can download it for free from her blog by clicking here.

She also some some other great downloadable pages on Famous Artists and Famous Impressionist Artists that are appropriate for lapbooks or timelines or art notebooks. Finally, because they are studying Impressionism this year, she has posted a whole bunch of lesson plans for creating a hands-on Art Appreciation project of various Impressionist artists, often with printable resources, and again, all for free. Click here to review those projects.

So if you are looking for some help in your art history studies, go check out her blog. I know it is a perfect resource to accompany the 19th Century history studies we are doing this year.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Presidents Day

It is the Presidents Day national holiday here in the US. While it began as a consolidation of the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's birthday on February 22, it also recognizes the other 42 Presidents as well.

If you need brushing up on who all they were, check out this short video, which gives a short snippet of information about each US president in order, all sung to....well, I'm sure you'll recognize it.

Happy Presidents Day to All!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Qwiki Is Turning Information into an Experience

I've recently discovered Qwiki, which bills itself as the first company to turn information into an experience.

For example, my son recently gave a short presentation on the Mason-Dixon line for our history coop.  But here is what it looks like as a Qwiki:

You can click on many of the pictures to see them in more detail, or if you watch it on the Qwiki website, you can watch it in "Contents" and see the written text all at once with explanations of the related pictures or videos.  Also on the website is the ability to contribute to the "wiki" part of Qwiki by rating the presentation, giving feedback, or offering additional information or resources to improve the experience.

Apparently, it does all this on the fly, searching the web for open source material such as Wikipedia and putting those items into a computer-generated presentation.  So I think that is pretty amazing.  But they are working on a version that publishers can use to create similar presentations out of their proprietary information sources.  The company recently got $8 million in investment money from people like the co-founders of Facebook and YouTube--the kind of people who know what they are doing in the new world of social digital media.  I think this indicates that Qwiki may be a major player in the next level of digital information packaging over the Web.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Persian Fairy Tales, Small Worlds, Bananas, and the Power of the Internet

I love words (as regular readers of this blog might have realized, since I use so many of them!)  One of my favorite words is "serendipity," which Wikipedia defines as "denotes the property of making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, or the occurrence of such a discovery during such a search."  And while I have long loved the word, and work it into my conversation and writings as often as is appropriate (another word like it that I love is "cacophonous," which the occasion to use arises, alas, all too often), it was not until tonight that, perhaps inspired by my recent post on the word history game Etymologic, I looked up the derivation of the term.  (Man, what a sentence.  And while I think it is grammatically correct, my homework is to try to diagram it.  It's what I tell my son to do, so I need to follow my own advice.)

Anyway, it turns that, according to my favorite etymology resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary, that serendipity was actually coined by a specific person--namely, Wallace Walpole--on a specific date--January 28, 1754.  He said he created it from a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip," within which the protagonists "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of thing they were not in quest of."

So I don't know what worked for the ancient Persians, but my favorite vehicle for serendipity these days is the good old hyperlinked World Wide Web.  I can easily begin with a simple task (like looking up the etymology of the word serendipity) and get lost for 30 minutes in Persian literature and foreign languages and translation difficulties and who knows what else.  But blogging is a particularly great vehicle for these serendipitous encounters, as people seek out your site while you seek out their posts, based on some common interests.

That happened to me today when, in following up a comment someone made on one of my posts, I discovered a marvelous resource.  Another homeschool mom out there is writing a great blog about her homeschooling adventures under the name of SmallWorld at Home.  I'm not sure where the name comes from, but to me it brings to mind William Blake's wonderful words:
To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

Maybe that's just me, who has 19th century poets on the brain as we study them along with our 19th century history--but what a lovely way to describe what we do as homeschoolers, and, really, as parents in general.

But more to the point, however, is the fact that this past week, we've spent a lot of time on writing--fiction, non-fiction, and quasi-fiction (see my son's blog, The Madisonian Blog, to see how easily he can morph one into the other).  Specifically, we have been working on mastering the Five Paragraph essay.  He is taking a class at our homeschool coop on this topic, where the teacher has been doing a masterful job of trying to move the students from their preferences for storytelling to the tighter format of an essay. But the real work needs to be done at home, where they do their actual writing.  So we've done draft after draft after draft on my son's essay, which is about the history of bananas (which turn out to be a fascinating not fruit, but technically an herb).

So what do I find at SmallWorld at Home but a very useful post on writing an essay, with this oh-so-validating comment:
If you spend a whole year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay and its various types (descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.), you'll have accomplished much of what is covered in a basic freshman composition class.  Imagine how far ahead your student will be if he is familiar with the format in middle school and fluent by high school!

So bless you, Smallworld mom!  It's worth all the time and effort after all....

If you want to read her resources about writing essays, click here to read that post.  She also has a whole wonderful series about creative writing that is especially geared to beginning and reluctant writers.  Look at this neat link she has created for that resource:

SmallWorld's WordSmithery

So I'm really grateful that I live in a time of technology-facilitated serendipity, and for the support I get for my journey from all these other bloggers and web writers whose insight I soak up, even if we never meet.

Monday, February 7, 2011

NC Homeschoolers Should Be Watching State Proposal HR 41

Today, Representative Paul Stam, the new Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, was supposed to introduce a bill he has called one of his legislative priorities:  HR 41, entitled "Tax Fairness in Education."  The gist of this bill is to give a tax credit to North Carolina families who take their children out of public schools for other educational experiences.  While most of the buzz has been around using the credit to offset the costs of enrolling in a private school, this take credit also applies to families who choose to homeschool their children rather than send them to private schools.  The bill provides for an annual state tax credit of $2,500 per child (K-12), and also allows counties to supplement that with up to an additional $1,000 per child.  And the bill provides not just for a deduction, but an actual credit; that is, if the $2,500 (or more) tax credit is larger than the total tax due for the year, the family would actually get a check from the state for the difference.

Some key factor of the current proposal include:
  • The credit, which is proposed to start for non-public enrollment from July 1, 2011 on, only applies to students who spent the previous two semesters enrolled in a North Carolina public school.  So, for the approximately 96,421 students currently in traditional private schools and 81,509 students currently in home schools (NC Department of Instruction figures for the 2009-2010 school year; the current year's figures are not yet available), this bill does nothing for them.  The students would have to be enrolled for a year in NC public schools (dropping to one semester in 2016) before they would be eligible to return to private schools/home schools and still receive the credit.  Stam claims that he is committed to ultimately including all non-public students in the program once the state's economic situation gets better.  For right now, however, the justification for the program is reducing the cost to the state and counties of educating students they are already paying for by getting them to switch to private schools and home schools.  
  • This program is a refundable tax credit RATHER than a voucher system.  In a voucher system, the government pays the private school chosen by the family a certain amount to educate those students. In this bill, the money would be going to the family to reimburse costs instead of going to the schools themselves.  The advantage of the tax credit approach is that it avoids the criticism of government directly funding private schools, and the constitutional issues that raises if the schools are affiliated with a religious faith.  The disadvantage of the tax credit approach is that families have to have enough money up front to pay the school tuition, and will only get some or all (depending on the tuition amount) of that money back from the state in the form of a tax refund.  Thus, tax credits favor more moderate-to-high income families, who can afford to pay tuition and get the tax credit at the end of the year, while vouchers are available to families of all income (although voucher programs often do not pay the full price of the tuition, in which case the family still has to come up with some additional funds).
  • There is an upper income level of $100,000 for a family or $60,000 for a single parent to be eligible for the credit.
  • This does only apply to students in K-12 schools and, of course, students in charter schools would not be eligible because charters schools are a division of NC public schools.
I'm not going to get into the pros or the cons of the bill, because that will depend on people's different political orientation towards government involvement and/or support of private versus public schools and tax equity questions, etc.  I have my opinions, and I'm sure some will agree with me and others won't.

What I do believe, however, is that homeschoolers should be keeping an eye on this bill, because I think if it passed (and I have no idea of the likelihood of that, although it is generally believed that Governor Perdue would veto the bill as it stands now, so the question is whether there is enough support to over ride her veto), it could have some influence on the homeschooling culture in North Carolina.

First of all, there could be a sudden influx of new homeschoolers.  Stam predicts that the bill would initially result in 8,000 - 15,000 students pulling out of NC public schools.  Currently, the split of non-publicly educated students in 2009-2010, according to the NC Department of Public Instruction, is 54% private schools, 46% home schools.  So, 46% of 8,000 - 15,000 students would mean 3,664 - 6,870 new homeschoolers.  So beginning in July 2011, there could be an influx of new homeschoolers that would represent 8% of the existing homeschool population.  

But I think the tax refund might shift the balance between public and home schools, so the number deciding to homeschool could be even larger, especially among lower income families.  When I looked at a number of websites for current private school tuition in my area (not an exhaustive search at all), them seemed to range from a little over $5,000 per person per year for schools like Cary Christian School and Thales Academy to over $19,000 for Cary Academy.  Even a tax credit of $2,500 per student is not enough to pay for tuition at any of the schools that I looked at (although there may be some where that is enough).  On the other hand, because this is a tax credit, not a tax deduction that requires proof of eligible expenditures, home school families may receive tax credit in excess of whatever they spend for this homeschooling costs.  So, for example, if you had a large family of, say, four children, K-12, who were homeschooled, the family would receive a refundable tax credit of $10,000--or, if the family lived in a locale that supplemented the state credit with the allowable extra $1,000 per child, even a total of $14,000.  This could make homeschooling very attractive to some lower income families.

Let me make it clear that I am not opposed to having more homeschool students, and I would love for more lower income families to have an opportunity to home school their children if they think that would serve them better.  However, for all these new home school families to be successful, they are going to need support.  Where is this support going to come from?  The state's Department of Non-Public Education is small and already so understaffed that they ask for volunteers to come in and help them file their paperwork.  In my experience, most of the responsibility for educating new homeschoolers about the laws, curriculum choices, effective homeschooling practices, etc., has fallen upon either churches or non-profit homeschool support groups.  But it is going to be a big job for these organizations to deal with a situation where nearly one out of every ten homeschoolers is brand new--not an unlikely prospect, I think, if the numbers predicted by the bill's sponsor are correct.

My other concern is about government regulation.  In North Carolina, we've had little governmental oversight of our curriculum and educational choices, which has resulted in a wonderfully diverse group of homeschoolers experimenting with all kinds of different approaches to teaching our students.  I fear that once the government starts "funding" homeschooling through these tax credits, however, someone is going to start wanting to have more control over how those public funds are being spent.  I think it would be a MAJOR issue for those of us who have already chosen to homeschool our children, due to  the freedom it gives us to educate our children as we think is best for them as individuals, to have that freedom restricted because of tax credits that we aren't even eligible to receive.

So I'm not saying that we should necessarily support or oppose this bill.  But I am saying that homeschoolers and the groups that support them should be aware of what is going on, because it could end up having a major impact on homeschooling in our state.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Fling the Teacher

One of the fun free educational software programs that you can use to check your students' knowledge on a subject is "Fling the Teacher."  In this software, students get to change the look of the "teacher"--hair and skin color, hair style, mouth/teeth, accessories (glasses and earrings), etc.--stick him in a barrel, and fling him through the air using a trebuchet they construct by answering 15 questions correctly.  It is pretty much just a fact recall quiz, but it is kind of cute and the students enjoy building up their equipment until it is ready to toss the digital professor into the air.

We used this software this week in our 19th Century History Coop to review some of the facts about the Westward Expansion and Industrial Revolution in the US.  The link for this game is:

There is another quiz about this time period as well, which you can see at:

What is nice about these games is that they are quick, so you can complete them in a short enough period of time that the students don't lose interest.  You can do them several times in a role to get enough right answers to complete your trebuchet and fling the teacher; the software scrambles the answers (and sometimes the questions), so the students really learn the questions they answered incorrectly at first on subsequent tries of the problem.  Best of all, the software is open to everyone to create your own quiz using your own questions for whatever subject you are studying.

Here is a website with a list of Fling the Teacher quizzes from American History.

Here is one with questions about World, but mostly European History.

Here is one with other subjects.

And if you want to make your own, here is where you download the software.

Or, even better, get your students to create one to demonstrate how much they have learned!