Sunday, September 14, 2014

Add a Little Adventure to Your Home School

Add a Little Adventure
to Your Home School

Life isn't just a matter of fun and games, but a spoonful of sugar sure can help the medicine go down. We can help our children actually enjoy the process of doing their work rather than just tolerating it. In the process, they will learn their own lifetime techniques for making tasks interesting. 

Middle school kids are naturally inquisitive. This creates big demands as Mom and Dad are barraged with “how” and “why” questions at inopportune moments. Within reason, we should not squelch curiosity, but catapult it into self-motivated learning situations.  Here are some ways to enliven academic pursuits:

Hobbies: Hobbies can provide beautiful balance to a home education program. They offer brain-enriching opportunities to plan projects, select materials, follow patterns and instructions, develop skills, care for equipment and supplies, make useful items, and nurture creativity. You could spend tons of money on this (“I want a pony!”) but many activities are free or cheap. 

Imagination: Encourage your children to use their imaginations to ask “what if?”  Let them dream about what they would do with a million dollars or what new technology they want to invent. Even middle school kids can enjoy a well-stocked dress up box for making up their own skits and shooting videos.

Interests: Plan some of their school lessons around their own interests. At the beginning of one school year, I let each of my children choose one independent unit study topic to do for three weeks. One daughter chose dogs because she was passionate about them, even though we haven’t ever had one. She became a virtual “walking encyclopedia” about various breeds. She knew how big they are and the countries from which they originated. She constantly checked out library books about dogs, including titles on how to draw them. Her walls were covered with her sketches, original stories and collages of magazine pictures. For her birthday, I found the Dogs and Puppies Complete Identifier guide book featuring more than 170 breeds in full color photographs. As you can see, from this one interest, she learned reference skills, geography, math, literature, art, creative writing and alphabetization -- and she didn’t even know she was doing school work!   Later, she switched to other interests like music and British literature.

Literature: Include adventure stories in their literature selections, especially as they relate to a unit study. When we studied Australia, we read the first three books of Robert Elmer’s Adventures Down Under series, set in the 1800s. It didn't even seem like school time.

Seasons and themes: Plan art projects, literature, field trips, music, and cooking to enhance holidays, seasons and unit studies.  For example, at Christmastime you can plan an Advent Adventure unit by singing carols, baking cookies, making presents, and reading favorite Christmas poems and stories. For St. Patrick's Day, make green foods to eat, and read about the real St. Patrick.

Bookmaking and displays:  Let your children make an illustrated book or display to creatively summarize what they have learned about a topic. For tabletop projects, we might use three panel folding display board.

Creativity box: Fill an odds-and-ends box with spools, straws, craft sticks, cord, clothes pins, toilet paper tubes and other items for kids to make things of their own. Collect old small appliances for your young tinkerers to dismantle.     

Nature study: Go on nature walks and collect specimens to identify and observe. Are there any nature trails in your county? One of my sons, by age 11, was a nature lover and a talented photographer. He combined these two passions by taking pictures of birds and plants, then editing them on the computer and uploading them to his nature blog. He also recorded bird songs with our video camera. He extended this to academic studies by doing research on birds and their habitats, as well as making detailed pencil sketches. We equipped him by providing several high quality bird guides, including ones that have an audio component that plays bird calls for each page. The best thing we can do is give him plenty of time for this hobby!  This is a huge part of his science studies.

Field trips: Visit local sites such as a history museum, art museum, science center, wildlife refuge, botanical garden,  community theater, beach, etc. If you will be visiting a location often enough, consider getting an annual pass.

Clubs and Classes: Check out art and music instruction, social clubs, hobby clubs, drama groups, choruses, and other group opportunities.

Science experiments: Check out books from your library to find activities which are educational, entertaining, and fairly uncomplicated. Keep basic science exploration supplies on hand, such as magnifying glasses, magnets, and test tubes.

Gardening: Let them plant a garden. If you are a novice or have a black thumb, try buying mature plants instead of growing from seed.  This is also a time to build relationships with neighbors; if you see someone working outside and they have a great garden, ask for advice!  People are usually thrilled to share their expertise.

Pets: Get a class pet. Think through this decision carefully. With most pets, your commitment runs at least a few years. If your pet is unfriendly, your child may resent caring for it. If you choose a nocturnal animal such as a hamster, it might make noise at night and sleep through the day!  You can also choose temporary pets. Our kids keep a terrarium on the back porch ready to house lizards, frogs and other small critters they catch in the yard. They might keep them for a few hours or a few days and then let them go. I like this kind of pet best of all!  Our kids also loved keeping fish. They started out with small aquariums, learning a lot about different kinds and the care they need, and eventually worked up to a 50 gallon aquarium with convict cichlid fish in it. Some of the cichlids had hundreds of babies, which was especially fascinating to watch.

Games, puzzles and crafts: Try strategy and word games such as chess, Pente, Rummikub, Boggle, Scrabble, Twenty Questions, Concentration, etc. Let your child keep score to sharpen math skills, especially in Scrabble, where there is doubling and tripling. Find related games, puzzles, and crafts to supplement regular lessons. Teacher’s manuals and web sites sometimes include ideas for these, but you and your children can make up some of your own.

Group festivities: Participate in your support group’s science fair, history day, international festival, fine arts show, or other opportunities. If they don’t already offer these activities, why not volunteer to do it this year?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Over Utah in January" - Geography in Poetry

"Over Utah in January" 
by Virginia Knowles

I am in the sky looking down on
Vast speechless stretches of frozen white
Curved round and round by
Slicing crevices and streams
And human roads abandoned though they be
Foothills then soaring mountains beyond
Majestic tall yet distant small
From the sky where I look down

Clustering pines (wilderness steeples)
Defer to barren ground below
Shedding to it cumbering, nurturing snow

Upright spires green
Evergreen over branches, trunks, 
Rough and woody brown
Rooted deeply into ascending slope
Yet as living arrows aiming high
To the sky where I look down

Up and over mountain towers, fly
Peering through mottled fog outstretched
Amid earthy upturned layers, variegated ripples
Shadow clouds now upwisping 
Sharply angled peaks

Oh! These are of no human construct or design
Not even marked by footprints in pristine snow
Just fingerprints, signatures divine
Where winter earth meets winter sky

Yet in the valley I see manly habitation
In patterned rows, casual curves beneath the mist
Nestled in yet beckoned to a deep and high communion

Only bold ones venture beyond certain fringes
Strive upward, breathe hard, ascending steep, behold

Some faithful cannot climb 
But still lift souls to see
To know and long to know
Others seem content merely to stroll 
In evenness beneath, below
Oblivious to wonder

I am in the sky looking down
Then gazing up in awe at Him
Who gazes down in grace on me below
On me, who sees and longs to know.

I just started teaching a 6th-7th grade integrated American history, geography and English class three days a week at a private Christian school.  Today, we were talking about some of the geological features of the western United States, especially mountains.  I told them how I had the opportunity several years ago to fly to Salt Lake City for my grandmother's funeral, and how awestruck I had been in the airplane while looking out the window.  Before we even landed, I started writing the poem "Over Utah in January."   While I was there, my aunt gave me a digital camera, and I took these pictures and many more to go along with the poem.

I tied this in to the writing process, which we are also learning. I had already been encouraging my students to observe the world around them as inspiration for their writing.  I used this as an example, as well as my recent blog post, Catch It While You Can.  In addition, I told them about the value of having other writers critique your work.  When I write poetry, I usually send a draft copy to my step-cousin Dan, a poet, artist, musician and teacher whom I met at Grandma's funeral.  Though he is very different from me in many ways, in other ways we think alike (such as our love for wonder and beauty), and he always helps me out.

So I'm posting this here because tomorrow I want to read this poem to them and show them a few of the pictures to go along with it.   You can see more about it here on one of my other blogs: Three Poems and the Stories Behind Them, Starting with a Funeral


Virginia Knowles

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Sword of the Spirit: The Story of William Tyndale by Joyce McPherson (A Review)

I'm so delighted to see a new children's biography by Joyce McPherson, published by Greenleaf Press.  Her newest title is The Sword of the Spirit: The Story of William Tyndale.  The Reformation Era is my favorite time period to study in World History, and Tyndale's is a fascinating story about the translation of the Bible into English at great peril.  Tyndale studied Hebrew under Martin Luther, constantly fled persecution by the English government, and was eventually betrayed by a friend, arrested, and executed as a martyr for the gospel in 1536.  His dying prayer? "Lord, open the king of England's eyes..."  Two years later, King James authorized The Great Bible, largely Tyndale's work, for use in the Church of England.

I am most familiar with Tyndale through Scott O'Dell's novel The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day, which I've taught as literature in our co-op a few times.    Most of our reading selections this coming school year will wrap around The Mystery of History Volume 3: The Renaissance, Reformation, and Growth of Nations (1455-1707) that we will be using for history.  That's why I'm so glad to now have a well-researched factual account of his life written for children ages 10 and up. (Independent reading level is 5th/6th grade.)  Beyond the fact that I want my children to be versed in this essential history, I find I myself am more easily able to grasp the concepts at this level.  This is not a dry theology book, but a story with vivid descriptions of people, place, and plots.  Sprinkled through the book at the start of each chapter are key quotes from either Tyndale or another theological giant.  Here is one quote from his prologue to the 1525 New Testament in English:
"When the gospel is preached to us, he (God) openeth our hearts, and giveth us grace to believe and putteth the spirit of Christ in us, and we know him as our father most merciful, and consent to the law, and love it inwardly in our heart, and desire to fulfill it, and sorrow because we cannot... the blood of Christ hath obtained all things for us of God."
I first read A Piece of the Mountain, the author's biography of scientist Blaise Pascal, back in the late 1990's, when my sister passed it along to me.  Later, after I met Joyce at the Florida home schooling convention, we realized we (along with her husband) had been classmates in AP American History in high school in Virginia as well as friends from the Christian fellowship there.  Since then, I've read her biographies River of Grace (theologian John Calvin), Artist of the Reformation (Albrecht Durer), and Ocean of Truth (scientist Sir Isaac Newton).  

As a home schooling mother of 9, Joyce has an amazing grasp of European history, helped by the fact that she is also fluent in French.  You will also love her amazing Homeschooling Toolbox on-line, which is full of over 100 free worksheets, charts, flash cards, notebook materials, booklists & tips on getting started in home schooling.  I'm looking forward to digging in there!

Grace and peace to you and yours,

Virginia Knowles

Friday, March 22, 2013

St. Francis of Assisi in History, Current Events, Literature, Writing, Art & Music

Dear friends,

You know by now how I love to integrate English with history!  The 5th-6th graders in our home school co-op are using the Mystery of History Volume 2 text (by Linda Hobar) on the time period of the early church up through the Middle Ages for their history class.  One of the lessons this past week was about St. Francis of Assisi.  I decided to shape my literature and writing assignments around that.

In class on Monday, I read the picture book Saint Francis of Assissi: A Life of Joy by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  There are many pictures books about St. Francis, but this is my favorite, and the author (son of Bobby Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy) has had a keen personal connection with his subject since childhood.  Charlotte Mason would say that's the best kind of author to read!

Our main literature resource this year is The Book of Virtues edited by Dr. William Bennett, so I assigned "The Sermon to the Birds."  Francis is well-known for his love for all animals, as well as the rest of nature. (I also assigned the poem “Kindness to Animals” in light of this.)  This is so evident, no only in the bird story, but also in his "Canticle of the Sun."  There are many translations of this, but my fav is the one from the back cover of Kennedy's book:

“Canticle of the Sun”
by St. Francis of Assisi

Most high, all-powerful, all-good LORD!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright and precious and fair.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather’s moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious, and pure.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night. 
How beautiful he is, how gay!  Full of power and strength.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

All praise be yours, my Lord,
Through those who grant pardon for love of you;
Through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace, by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin! 
Happy those She finds doing your will!
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.

The other notable thing about St. Francis is his unwavering kindness to the poor.  Born into a wealthy family and serving briefly as a soldier, he left behind his riches so he could live sacrificially as an itinerant preacher, serving the Lord, seeking peace, leading a religious order (Fratres Minores, now known as the Franciscans) and giving to the needy.  You have probably read his inspiring prayer many times...

“The Prayer of St. Francis”

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

I find it interesting to note that the new pope chose the name Francis I because a cardinal embraced him and reminded him not to forget the poor.  Francis I, who is from Argentina and is the first pope elected from the Americas, is known for being a humble and simple man who lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, and rode the bus.  He has pledged to bring a new era of justice and mercy to the Catholic church, which has been wrought by corruption and scandal in recent years.  Though I am not Catholic and my students aren't either, this is really encouraging.  Be sure to watch this NBC news report: Pope Francis describes wish for 'poor church for the poor'

The writing assignment for the week was to write a factual narrative or a made up story about being kind to other people or to animals.  

This is what my daughter wrote:

The Homeless

I have had the opportunity to help the homeless twice, once about two months ago and another this week. The first time my sister Julia teamed up with another man to help the homeless. Julia got a lot of people to help out and  collected a bunch of jackets, sleeping bags, first aid supplies, snack bags, wash cloths, shoes, clothes and lots of food. I helped out with serving cake, muffins and cupcakes along with helping my mom with the snack bags.

The first aid bags had a sheet of paper in it that said where to go to get help. Our English class packed all of the supplies in the bags and put them in a box to bring to the homeless outreach.

The other time I helped the homeless was after school on Monday. All us kids asked my mom if we could go to Sam’s Club to get a soda. She agreed to go after we picked up my brother. So while we were on our way to pick up my brother I saw a homeless couple with two dogs near Sam’s. So after we picked up my brother, we stopped at our house so I could get some snacks and water for them. I packed four fruit roll ups, two bags of pretzels, a bag of graham crackers, and two bottles of water and put it in a plastic bag. Then we drove back to Sam’s Club and gave the bag to them. They were glad and said, “God bless you!” So that is how I was kind and helpful, to help feed the poor.  St. Francis was a great example to me for doing the right thing for the poor. Someday I hope to be as helpful to the poor as St. Francis.

Here is a quote that St. Francis wrote about giving:
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that have received--only what you have given.”

(You can see pictures here: 

Weekend Gratitude: Homeless Outreach in Downtown Orlando.  We're going again in April.  Wanna come?)

You can read more about St. Francis by doing a Google search on his name.  Here are two  articles: Who Was St. Francis? by Leonard Foley, O.F.M. and St. Francis of Assisi Took Amazing Twists, Turns (a recent article mentioning Pope Francis I).

I love to incorporate art and music, too.  You can do a Google Image search and come up with loads of beautiful paintings, drawings, and sculpture.  It's interesting to notice that most of the art features birds.  Ask your children if they know why he looks the way he does with the robe and the bald spot on his head.  The plain hooded robe with rope belt was the typical poor monk's clothing, and the bald spot is called a tonsure.  That's how monks wore their hair.  Invite your kids to draw their own picture of St. Francis.  Or, be like St. Francis and learn to appreciate the beauty of nature.  Draw pictures of flowers and animals.  Francis was also a lover of beautiful things that reflected the truths of God.  He created the first nativity scene, which is also called a creche.

You can add in a vocabulary lesson with words from his life and legacy, such as monk, monastery, chapel, priest, religious order, friar, tonsure, vow, poverty, chastity, pope, itinerant, patron saint, soldier, stigmata, sultan, creche, nativity, and Eucharist.

You can also watch musical videos of the "Prayer of St. Francis"

What can you and your children to do to follow the example of St. Francis in the 21st century?

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

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