Category Archives: curriculum

Food science & history with crappy camera-phone photos

Started the food history lecture today (we spent the first week getting hung up on math assessments). Good enjoyable stuff–PK making connections between what Professor Albala was saying about prehistoric cooking practices and things he already knows about prehistory*–and it turns out that there is a downloadable course booklet that comes with each of the Great Courses. In the one for this course, the professor specifically mentioned, there are accompanying cooking activities. So I went and looked, and the first activity was a perfect hands on, homeschool type of science/anthropology experiment. Here ’tis.

Boiling Water in A “Skin” Bowl Made of Paper


Yes, that’s a Trader Joe’s bag

Make a cup out of a large, flat piece of paper (not one that’s been cut and glued into a cup, b/c the seams will leak)–an 8″x8″ square cut from the side of a grocery bag will work well for this, as the paper is thick enough to hold the water without soaking through and 8″ is large enough that you can hold the corners without burning your fingers.

Light a candle in a holder so it’s ready to go (or just hold it in your hand and have the kiddo do the next part, assuming kiddo is old enough to have sufficient motor control). We burned a whole taper down and were just short of boiling when we finished, so I’d suggest using either a high-quality taper or a larger candle.


No, the sink is not clean. This is not one of those blogs that pretends to perfection.

The cup may drip a tiny bit (ours did), though, so if you are using a pillar candle there’s the possibility that accumulated water will put

it out; I recommend a good taper held sideways–or just laid down with the burning end over an open area.

The kitchen sink is perfect since it’ll contain any spills and there’s water just in case something does catch fire….

Fill the paper cup halfway with water. Hold it over the candle flame. In a few minutes, the water will start to steam and then, to boil.

Stuff you can talk about while you’re waiting:

  • Why isn’t the paper burning? (It will probably smoke, and if you pay attention you may see little ember glows within it right above the flame.) You can point out that an animal skin (leather) would be even less flammable than paper, of course, and therefore better able to stand up to an actual campfire as opposed to a tiny candle flame. Plus it’ll hold more water.
  • Do you think cooking this way would be something that would be more characteristic of settled agrarian people or hunter-gatherers who had to move around a lot to find food?

We did ours, as I said, in the kitchen sink; initially I held the candle sideways and PK held the cup, but once he realized that this was going to take a while, we decided to just rest the candle on the side of the sink while I held the cup and PK did his job of cleaning the kitchen. :-) It’s fun to watch, though, especially if you look for the tiny embers that you can occasionally see through the water. Because I am a klutz, I twice spilled some water while adjusting the candle as it burned down, which means that by the end we had very little water in the “cup,” and the candle burned all the way down before the water actually started to boil–but there was quite a bit of steam by that point and the water was quite hot to the touch, so we deemed the experiment successful.

*Including the interesting fact, so PK says, that the sword was the first weapon built exclusively for fighting and killing other humans. Other weapons used for that purpose (spears, slingshots, clubs) can also be used against animals, and axes and knives can be used as tools, but swords are too big and unwieldy for either hunting or even to cut up an animal carcass; they are weapons built to be used in a situation where your opponent will not run away, but will stand and fight. i.e. there is a “rule” about the fight. He did not, however appreciate my thought that this fact suggested that the laws in pre-modern Europe and Japan (and for all I know, other places as well) that actually forbade commoners from owning or wearing swords, along with accompanying ideas about sword-carrying being a mark of nobility, effectively meant that the idea of status in complicated modernizing societies basically amounts to being able and willing to kill other humans (and therefore, to forbid others from having this power), since he is a 12yo boy and still really wants to believe in the idea of knights, soldiers, etc as protectors….

Back to school…..

So having decided to give PK the summer off has turned out very well … for ME. Because it’s given me time to plan for the year. And boy howdy have I planned. I always did enjoy creating syllabi.

So, with the wisdom of ONE WHOLE YEAR of this homeschooling thing under my belt, here is what I have learned.

1. The first year is a wash, or at best you’re treading water. Maybe this isn’t true for people who start out homeschooling from the beginning? I dunno. But for pulling a kid out of school, oh yes. When the unschooling people say you need at least a year to “deschool,” they aren’t kidding. BUT.

2. That’s cool, because while you’re flailing around trying stuff, you’re learning what works and what doesn’t. Between that and the kid taking the summer off, I’ve done a lot of observing him, a little bit of initiating conversations (“so, for next year, do you think you’d like to try an online course…?”), and a lot of listening to his random thoughts (“Mama, you know what I’d do if I could design the perfect school…?”)

3. So I planned this year based on PK’s vision of the “perfect school.” According to PK, a good school should have one subject per day, so that kids can focus and go into depth. Teachers should be there to present new information, sure, but above all to facilitate while the students explore stuff on their own–to answer questions, to ensure safety (“but don’t step in unless something is genuinely dangerous, or if someone is bullying!”). He reckons that about three hours a day is a good length of time to ask kids to stay focused. So, having observed his interests and listened to his thoughts, here is our plan.

I’m going to sign him up for a math class through Art of Problem Solving because I hear good things and b/c I think he needs someone who actually understands math to help him; he’ll start the school year by taking their assessment test to figure out which class to sign up for.

For history, the Great Courses folks have a new “food history” course that, when I saw it, I immediately latched onto; PK loves food history. So we’ll use those lectures as kind of the “backbone,” and I’m going to supplement with a lot of stuff I’ve found online (if you follow my Pinterest board, you can pretty much tell what I’m planning subject-wise because there’ll be a flurry of pins on it). I’m going to spend some extra time, I think, on the Renaissance (since that’s what he’s “supposed” to be doing according to our state standards) and on the African diaspora/African-American history, because I love that stuff and think Anglo-Americans have rather a major responsibility to educate our kids about race. Luckily PK is pretty interested in talking and learning about race and racism and global foodways–he already knows a fair bit about the Columbian Exchange–so I expect that will go over pretty well. Plus I had a huge brainwave, thinking about how I would fill three hours on this while mixing up activities and decided I’ll try having PK plan a meal one week and then cook it the next (or maybe cooking once a week can be “homework”). YAY SCHOOL/CHORE SYNERGY.

I’m going to bite the bullet and make him start doing some writing this year. I anticipate that’ll be my biggest challenge, since he loathes writing–but now that he can type, hopefully it’ll be easier. I’m also going to do some general “how to learn” stuff on those days, since no one writes for three hours at a stretch; we’ll start by doing the Brainology course that’s based on Carol Dweck’s work. I’ve also made him (and me!) PLANNERS, based on some of the stuff I’ve been reading about ADHD and organization. I don’t know that either of us have ADHD–though we might, and I hope to get assessments done at some point–but god knows organization is no one’s strong suit in this house, and the advice around ADHD and organizing has been super helpful.

One of my big observationally-based “aha” moments was realizing that PK freaking *loves* to draw. Which I knew, but hadn’t really thought to do as a subject until I slowed down and paid attention. So we’re doing art this year as well, which will involve drawing, letting him build artsy craftsy stuff (which he loves doing) and I think monthly field trips to museums. He’s always loathed museums, but I think if, instead of taking him and hauling him around we go, pick *one* thing to look at, and practice sketching it, that might be a way to go. Plus I am hoping it’ll help with the mindfulness and observation/slowing down things that god knows he needs help with.

Science is going to be kind of a mixed bag. He has a chemistry set which he’s barely dipped into, because I’ve always put him off (the mess! the time! I’m busy!). I proposed just using it for science this year and he agreed, so we’ll work our way through the experiments there. He also has some other science kits he’s barely touched and a digital microscope his father got him for Xmas a couple years ago, so I’m going to order some slides. But my real goal for the first half of the year is going to be getting in touch with the community college chemistry department, schlepping him over there, and seeing if they think he is ready (and if they are willing) to take a cc chemistry course in the spring.

Finally, I’m planning a kind of economics & political science course. He loves to ask questions about economics and spends ridiculous amounts of time hypothesizing about what kind of political systems are ideal, so. Mostly I’ll be using cartoon guides / graphic novel type intros to various subjects–luckily there are a lot of those on topics in econ, sociology, Marxism, Capitalism, etc. I also asked my Facebook friends for book recommendations and got a lot of fiction which I can weave into the writing/language arts days for some interdisciplinary practice; am thinking, for example, of having him create his own “cartoon guides” to novels he reads.

You may have noticed that that’s actually six subjects–and if we only do a subject a day, presuming he gets weekends off (which he will insist on, believe me), that’s one subject too many. I’m not yet sure which two subjects I’ll combine, or perhaps swap every other week: possibly art and econ, since those are more “electivey” than the others. The husband has every other Friday off from work, which means that we’ll do either art or science on Fridays, so that the whole family can visit museums or so that his father can occasionally do a science project with him.

That huge robot head? He made that the other night while he was up and not sleeping. This kind of thing is why we're doing art (and also why I still need to figure out a separate space to store art materials and supplies, because kid goes big).

That huge robot head? He made that the other night while he was up and not sleeping. This kind of thing is why we’re doing art (and also why I still need to figure out a separate space to store art materials and supplies, because kid goes big).

Finally, I finally bit the bullet and went out and bought some stuff to set up a work space for him, after finally reading Lori Pickert’s book, Project-Based Homeschooling. She says something in there that I think is very wise: if you want your kid to value his or her work, then you need to show that you value it by creating space for it in your home. Now, our house is quite small, and there is no space for a “homeschool room”–but there is an unused fireplace in the living room. So we bought PK a small desk that has some built-in shelf space, and I bought some magazine holders, one per subject, which I color-coded (I have also used color-coded portfolio folders in his planner). He is SO. THRILLED. to have a desk of his own, and an office chair with wheels–which he uses to roll around the living room. It’s the first year ever that he’s been excited in any way about “back to school stuff”–so thank you, Lori Pickert!

Finally, since this post is part of the “Where & How to Begin” GHF blog hop, two other book recommendations. The book that actually made me think I could do this was Lisa Rivero’s Creative Home Schooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families. I believe she is currently working on an updated version, but I’m not sure when it’s coming out–meanwhile, though, the existing version is (imo) first rate. And specifically for math–everyone is always worried about math, including me–for god’s sake get a copy of Denise Gaskins’ Let’s Play Math: How Homeschooling Families Can Learn Math Together, and Enjoy It! I hestiated on that one for a bit because I was concerned it would mostly focus on younger kids–but I needn’t have worried. It does mostly focus on younger kids, but there is plenty enough in there to start with for middle and high schoolers, believe me–and again, I think she is working on either a revised edition or a separate book specifically for older kids (I forget which).

So to sum up, my advice, such as it is:

  • Spend the first year dabbling with various topics and approaches, don’t sweat it too much, and pay attention to what your kid is interested in and what approaches he or she likes best.
  • Ideally, ask your kid what their “perfect school day” would look like, and try to make your “school days” as much like that as possible. (If nothing else, this helps address any complaints later!)
  • Collect ideas like crazy (Pinterest, if you’re an online person; notebooks if you’re the pen-and-paper type; whatever works for you). It won’t take long before you realize there is way, WAY more out there than you could ever possibly use–but that’s great, because it means you can pick your resources, pick your approach, and pick your topics based on what you think will work for you and your kid.
  • Three books that are very worth buying: Lori Pickert, Project Based Homeschooling; Lisa Rivero, Creative Home Schooling; and Denise Gaskins, Let’s Play Math. Links are above in main post–and for the record, no one has asked me to promote those books and I don’t know any of those women personally. I just truly believe that those three books are excellent.

Stay tuned to see how my plans work out. As Burns says, the best laid plans o’ mice and homeschooling mamas / gang aft agley….

Click here to read all the other posts in the hop!

Click here to read all the other posts in the hop! #ghfblogger

Math Epiphany: A Review

PK and I have been working our way through the Interactive Mathematics Program v. 1. Veeery slowly, as I have to struggle with both his $@*! math anxiety and the fact that I’ve forgotten almost all the math I learned in high school :(.

Luckily, however, I actually do have a pretty good head for math (I did well in it, mostly–but my own $@*! math anxiety prevented me from pursuing it once I got to college, and meant that I didn’t actually learn it thoroughly enough to remember it), as does PK. And his father does use higher math pretty regularly on the job and remembers it very well, so when we get stuck we can ask him to help explain what it is we’re missing. More often, though, because this program is all about figuring stuff out with peers, PK and I reason our way through something together and only need the husband to explain what it is we’ve “learned” after the fact (Me: “so is there a way to simplify this problem now that we know how to write it? Is this some form of the quadratic equation?”)

PK and I were really proud of ourselves a couple of days ago, because I had him read the page below out loud to me before we set off on some errands, thinking we could maybe try  to figure out the answer while we ran around town. (Click to enlarge)

"Checkerboard Squares"

I hadn’t yet read it myself, though, and PK pretty quickly said that this wasn’t something we could just reason out in our heads–we’d need pencil and paper, and looking it over myself, I agreed. No biggie; we’d do the pencil-and-paper stuff after we got home, maybe, or the next day.

But while we were erranding, PK was thinking about the problem, and he realized that the smart way to do it was not to start out by trying to figure out how many squares on an 8×8 board, but rather to figure out how many squares on a 2×2, 3×3, etc–and then figure out the formula from the lower numbers. So he started figuring out the lower squares in his head, and when we got home we wrote down the answers (and double-checked the 4×4 board, which was already starting to get hard to hold visually without an actual thing to look at).

So far, so good: despite “we can’t,” PK kept thinking about the problem. More and more I’m realizing that he does that, even when the “we can’t” is more like “WE CAN’T AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME AND I HATE YOU” followed by door-slamming and crying. Point one for homeschooling: I have the freedom his teachers don’t to just let him walk away when his anxiety peaks, knowing (after much observation) that that doesn’t actually mean he’s giving up (and freeing us both from compounding the problem with a pointless power struggle that just makes him more anxious and more angry).

Awesomeness of IMP program: the book didn’t tell us how to solve the problem, which meant that PK was free to take a different approach, and I felt super accomplished when I said “hey, let’s use an in/out table to figure out the rule here.” (The book has walked us through in/out tables, which were something I never encountered in my own math education but that PK tells me he did in 5th grade math. Wowsers.)

And it didn’t take too long before we figured out the formula: x = 1^2 + 2^2 + 3^2 + 4^2 ….

We both got to feel super pleased that we’d worked through a “Problem of the Week” in one evening (the last one had taken us much longer), and without Papa’s help (the husband being gone on a work trip). So far, so good; I have hope that repeated accomplishments like this one will eventually help overcome PK’s “we can’t” anxiety and reawaken his enjoyment of a tough math challenge.

The epiphanies, however, happened this morning, when I took a risk and opened up the book while PK was eating breakfast. He didn’t immediately start shouting, which is a good sign. I looked over the problem just to make sure that we’d covered it–so far I’m not having PK do the “write up”s to these problems, because writing is another whole ball of refusal that I don’t want to add into the mix quite yet–and said, “hm, we’ve solved the problem, but the book is asking us to explain why the solution works, and maybe how it might be a useful thing to understand beyond the “how many squares on a checkerboard” question. Which is an interesting problem, but not terribly useful in real life.”

We looked at it a bit, and I had my epiphany first: “oh, I get it! The reason that it’s 1^2 + 2^2 + 3^2 + 4^2 and so on is that a “square” in geometry is the same as a “square” in algebra! They just look different! A drawing of a square looks like this, but in the language of math, you write that as x^2!”

(“The language of math” is an analogy I’ve used to try to explain to PK the difference between “getting” math in the reasoning/visual sense–which he’s good at–and being able to “do” math in the algorithmic sense–which he has to learn. IOW, the equations and stuff you see in a “math book” are like words written in English (or any other language) on a page, and learning to “read” math is a slow process, kind of like sounding out words at first–but if you stick with it, I tell him, and don’t let frustration get the better of you, you’ll get fluent at it just like you are as a reader.)

PK’s epiphany–which didn’t feel like one to him, but as you’ll see, it was anyway–was a bored, “Mama, that’s not an explanation. That’s just restating the problem.”

Why yes, it is, I realized. In fact, that’s the WHOLE POINT of this exercise in the textbook–helping us to see that the algebraic expression is just a way of “writing” the geometric/visual drawing (and the abstract figure that it represents)–and vice-versa.

In other words, “the language of math” isn’t just an analogy; it is, in fact, what we’re doing with this algebra stuff.

Once I explained this to him, he “got it.”

This should make the whole thing so much easier, for both of us. I don’t have to be teaching him math; I’m just helping him learn how to read and write it by learning it alongside him.

One Day at a Time

So homeschooling is turning out to be kind of like sobriety? Which started as a joke–and no, I am not an alcoholic or addict, except for being a former smoker, which does, actually, count–but on thinking about it, I wonder if there might, actually, be a more than casual relationship between addiction and “giftedness” that’s like the one between “giftedness” and depression. Or for that matter, addiction and mental illness. At least, in my experience of the latter, a big part of the problem is the gap between conception and reality. One sees problems globally and is overwhelmed by realizing that you can only chip away at them in tiny increments, or imagines a fabulous project or goal but is frozen with anxiety by not knowing how to start, or by perceiving the enormous gap between starting and actually achieving the thing.

I’m starting to think that this gap is a big problem for “gifted” kids–kids in particular, because their abilities are so limited simply by the circumstance of being a child. PK often complains, for example, that he can’t get research funding (!) or access to “real” scientific equipment. He has a chemistry set, but of course no lab, and was enormously disappointed in middle school when he realized that he wasn’t going to have access to a school lab until seventh grade. He frequently feels overwhelmed when he comes face to face with the gap between what he knows and what an adult knows, for instance when he realizes that something he’s thinking about has “already been invented” or proven. And yes, this kind of thing depresses him, and his anger and sense of despair over it remind me, a bit, of the addicts I know and have known. I have read a bit lately connecting these things–if I were better organized, I would provide some links, but my learning curve on this stuff is so steep right now that I’m not paying too much attention to mapping my path yet, just to trying to keep my footing.

One of the things I am figuring out, though, is that homeschooling a kid is more about “forcing yourself” to do the work “to focus, to pay attention, to offer dedicated support,” than it is about forcing the kid, as this really helpful and thought-provoking blogger points out; “by setting aside those blocks of time, you are making it more likely that [your kid] will be able to do the work she wants to do. You are helping her turn her ideas into reality.” This has always been a problem for me with PK, and I’ll bet I’m not the only parent with a bright kid who has it: if I followed every new whim or passion of his, I’d never have time for my own thoughts (and dammit, he gets his brains from me and the husband, and as a brainy person myself, I value time with my own thoughts!). It would be impossible to keep up, and prohibitively expensive to boot.

But I can, and am beginning to, not only provide him the space but also some carefully-researched and chosen materials. So, for instance, the Interactive Mathematics Program that albe recommended. Yes, I am having to “force” him to do it in the sense that he is not going and picking up the book on his own; but it’s not at all in the way that I used to have to “force” him to do his math homework. The way it works is that I say, “let’s do some math,” and maybe we negotiate a bit on whether to do it Right This Moment or In A Little While, and then we sit down and read the book and talk about and work through the problems together. (Which works great with this curriculum, by the way, since that’s how it’s designed to be done.) It’s challenging to me as well as to him–not least because, as the adult/teacher/parent, it’s on me to stay calm when he starts to get frustrated, and to subtly and indirectly keep him on task by staying curious and calmly saying, “I’m going to keep trying to figure this out” when he stomps off in a huff (which SO COMPLETELY WORKS by the way–literally less than a minute later he was back with a new idea, and eventually we worked through last night’s problem). And because math is, in fact, something that he wants to learn, that’s what he needs: the focused, supportive hand-holding to help him struggle with and through his fear and frustration when it gets hard and scary.

I’m not gonna lie: there are times when I completely fucking hate that I am having to take on the unpaid, uncredentialed job of being his dedicated teacher. And the limits in terms of money, time, and patience reinforce my belief that it would be far more effective and cost-efficient to provide this stuff collectively, through the public education system. As we’re in a historic moment of enormous educational inflexibility, though, and we’re too goddamn cheap *to* provide those resources in public schools (see above re. no lab for sixth-grade science just for starters), well, thank providence PK’s mother has the (credentialed!) research skills, connections, and years of therapy to be able to find the material and step up to the plate with the dedicated support, while his father has the income-earning potential, math/science background and motivation to back me up.

Books, and Bookkeeping


The internet, which allows one to buy used books from all around the country, is a marvellous thing. The following titles are currently winging their way to PK and me:

Following a conversation earlier today, I’m also getting it through my thick head, finally, that he actively wants me to run things (up to a point), because soliciting his opinion triggers his anxiety. Hence buying some books. (It also helps that we got paid on Friday and I actually have some money to do so.) I’ve also decided that we’re going to call the afternoon “school time,” which gives him the option of sleeping all morning or, if he gets up, puttering about online, and also makes it clear that the time after dinner is his own. He can choose what he’s going to do during school time, or I will, but it isn’t going to be random video games or tv (games or documentaries with specific learning objectives are okay sometimes).

I’ve also assigned him a project, of sorts, after noticing that while we were waiting at the doctor’s office today (vaccination booster) he borrowed a pen and paper from the receptionist and then drew a two-sided explanation of how one might use stem cells to genetically modify human DNA to give people super powers. Complete with a drawing of a chromosome. The project is a loose one: he’s going to draw plans of his various ideas and schemes, and we’ll create a portfolio of sorts. We may eventually choose one or two of his ideas to actually pursue or build, physically or virtually–or not. But it will get him some writing/drawing practice and give me some documentation. Plus it will provide us with a specific text to refer to when he explains his ideas, which I hope will make those “conversations” a lot easier and less rambling. At least today, while we were walking home, he did a much more coherent job of explaining his superhero genetic modification plan than he often does. Having to think stuff through on paper, after all, does rather help focus one’s thoughts. (Walking and talking works well for us, plus he needs the exercise, so I will try to work grocery store trips and the like into the “school” time so that he can get out of the house, get some exercise, and do his yammering in the fresh air.)

As with everything, of course, we shall see how this goes and if everything falls apart. But at least when I explained the plan to him, he added a couple of modifications but generally seemed ready to buy in. (I think he’s getting a little bored, FINALLY, with his all-day-every-day videogame schedule; yesterday the husband and I went out and when we came home he’d started a Buffy marathon and shut the laptop.)

I’m hoping it works, though. Not least because it’ll give me the mornings….