Thursday, December 30, 2010

Geography: Collecting Quarters

Tim and N. have been collecting the special "states and territories" quarters for more than a year and they have them all except Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.  My sister recently bought N. a folder in which to display them and it turned the quarters into an amazing geography learning tool that N. has really loved.  He likes quizzing us on the dates when the various states entered the Union, and testing himself on his recognition of the states by shape and location.  My sister also got us the folder for the "National Parks" quarters so we've begun collecting them.  5 new designs will be minted each year until 2020, when N. will be 16 (which is completely unfathomable).  We'll see if he's still interested in collecting quarters then!  In the meantime, I recommend quarter collecting as a fun way to learn the U.S. map.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Learning and Games: Christmas Edition

Tim picked out two games to give N. for Christmas and they were a huge hit: Parcheesi and Squadron Scramble.  None of us knew how to play either game, so we've been having lots of fun learning the games together.  Parcheesi is an ancient game of strategy, chance, and counting.  Squadron Scramble is a card game invented in 1942; it is basically rummy, but the cards are bomber and fighter sets from both the Allied and Axis fleets.  N. loves World War II planes, so he loves this game (and, like Parcheesi, but unlike, say, Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, it is equally stimulating for adult and child players).  The game prompted N. to bring out his long-neglected sets of little American WWII planes and to draw the planes pictured on the cards.  And he's been doing lots of independent reading of the plane names and info on each card.  As I've written before regarding Monopoly, it is easy as an adult to forget just how intellectually productive board and card games can be for kids in the early stages of literacy and numeracy.  Equally important is the fun the three of us have playing together.  Hooray for new-old games!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

James Herriot at Low Tide

Our homeschool had been in high-tide mode for much of the fall semester, with lots of written number work, handwriting practice, and more formal learning (along, of course, with lots of play).  Then right at Thanksgiving N. got quite sick, and all he wanted to do was lie on the couch and listen to one of us read aloud to him.  Like, all day.  In the first few days of his illness, he only wanted comfort-reading: favorite chapters from favorite books re-read -- no new books.  I spent most of the Thanksgiving weekend on the couch with him, reading The Railway Children, the Betsy-Tacy books, and Homer Price.  Then as he started feeling just a little bit better, he and Tim resumed their reading of James Herriot's books, which they've been working their way through all fall.  They've read All Creatures Great And Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and they are now on The Lord God Made Them All.  N. just loves these stories, and he loves the serial nature of them; like the fairy tales Tim read to him nearly every weekday last year, these books offer seemingly endless episodes. 

As N. continues to feel under the weather, and with the disruption of the holidays, most of Tim and N.'s "school" time lately has been primarily long stretches of James Herriot reading and piano practice.  I've been so grateful that we can change pace to suit N.'s needs as he's been sick.  N.'s immersion in James Herriot's Yorkshire in the 1940s has been just as valuable as his more formal learning.  Of course there's vocabulary; N. used "subcutaneous" in a sentence the other day, and we all learned that the term "husky voice" comes from the raspy cough that animals get when afflicted with "husk."  There's history and geography; for example Herriot enlists during WWII and in the 1960s he travels to Lithuania where he encounters Soviet life.  Most important, there are countless nuggets of life wisdom as Herriot interacts with the complicated people whose animals he treats.  Herriot's gift as a story teller is to render that complex humanity in such rich color that it is fascinating both to a six-year-old and to his dad.  We've all really enjoyed our James Herriot "curriculum" and are grateful for his books, as well as for the opportunity homeschooling gives us to immerse ourselves deeply in them.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

First Principles: Categorizing & Classifying

Brick masonry patterns
N. likes categories.  Most of his major interests thus far in his life (construction vehicles, trains, cathedrals, butterflies, etc.) lend themselves to sorting and differentiating by categories, and one of the ways he masters a subject he is interested in is by learning all the iterations and types associated with it.  For example, recently, he and Tim have been studying styles of brick masonry (as a subset of N.'s passion for buildings) and everywhere we go they identify the brickwork of buildings as "running bond," "common bond," "Flemish bond," etc. and the positions of the bricks as "stretchers, headers, soldiers, or sailors."  N. loves learning specialized terminology! 

Tim drew on this mental tendency in order to introduce scientific classification.  In November, after reading about the classifications and the organisms in each category, N. copied out lists of the 5 Kingdoms of Organisms and the Classes of Animals and invented little accompanying illustrations, as you can see here.

We did not go into the full (fascinating!) history of scientific classification and the various schemes that have been introduced over the centuries and only lightly touched on the disagreement among scientists about the current "kingdoms" (are there 5 or 6? what should they be called?) and the classes of animals.  The idea of classifying organisms was the main concept to learn at this point, to think about why and how we can group living things for comparative purposes.

While building on N.'s interests in their learning together, Tim has tried to emphasize what John Barth (in a very different context) calls "first principles:"

"But my talent for doing correctly the small things that constitute the glorious whole was defective -- I never mastered first principles -- and so the finished product, while perhaps impressive to the untutored, was always mediocre to the knowledged.  To how many of my youthful achievements does this not apply!  I dazzled old ladies at piano recitals, but never really mastered the scales; won the tennis championships of my high school -- a school indifferent to tennis -- but never really mastered the strokes; graduated first in my class, but never really learned to think."  [The Floating Opera by John Barth]

We try throughout our life as a family to emphasize that process trumps product, that it is infinitely more important to learn to think than to graduate first in your class.  At the same time, the product of one's thinking is of course going to be much better if you've mastered the process.