Sunday, September 14, 2014

Homeschooling or Unschooling

Lately I've been coming across lots of mentions of unschooling. I've known about this idea for some time now, since my very good friend, mentor and co-author unschooled her child all the way to graduation. It it always sounded so radical and enticing and scary. I tried it a few times in the last couple of years and it always went something like this:

Day 1: Yeah, freedom! Asking M what he wants to do. Helping him do it. Totally enjoying the way it feels to unschool, the way M feels when he's not made to do things he doesn't want to do.

Day 2: Still going strong...

Day 3: Talk to a friend (or see a Facebook post) about that friend's child and how he reads this and does this in math. Freak out over my child (same age) not doing these things yet. Make a secret promise to myself to trick my child into wanting to do these things the next day.

Day 4: M sees right through my attempts at tricking him into doing "regular school". He resists. I get scared and angry. We fight (sometimes both end up in tears). We stop unschooling. The end.

So here's where seeing so many examples of successful unschooling, from the ones in Peter Gray's book to the various articles, including the latest one in, of all places, the Outside magazine, to blog posts like this one, to just seeing kids who unschool, all this helps. It leaves very little time to "compare and contrast" my child and my friends' children. And it makes not freaking out a bit easier.

Now that M is technically in the second grade, we are once again trying unschooling. Which doesn't mean we do no learning. Instead, it means M's learning is driven by his interests (instead of by someone's curriculum or my own anxiety). His current interests are chess, LEGO robotics, programming, and fencing. And, as usual, he just loves listening to the stories we read to him.

For now his English reading consists of exercises in his chess book. And his writing is, for now, very minimal, and again tied to chess (learning to record games). But I also ask him to read book titles and chapter names in the English and Russian books he wants me to read to him. There are some other times when he reads, like when he wanted to get hummus at a grocery story and had to make sure it had no jalapenos, olives, red peppers, garlic or horseradish. But again, this is a very purposeful reading that he's been doing and it's driven by what he wants to learn and do. Maybe because he is more focused, more in control of what he reads, or doesn't feel stressed out, his reading actually got more fluent, especially in Russian.

Math is a lot easier for us. We play lots of card games and board games. And he plays some apps on iPad. We read living math books. I play-test all the books that come my way for editing and feedback (and there've been some really exciting ones lately). And, of course, we play Moebius Noodles games.

Programming - we talked a bit about flow charts and M created some funny ones based on our joint "how to grow a beard" flow chart. We also play Silly Robot (another of Moebius Noodles games), paper programming, and a bit of I found some good programming lessons on Khan Academy, but not sure if M will like the format.

LEGO robotics - that's our Jr First Lego League team (I'm coaching it this year) plus whatever he builds at home using WeDo and EV3 kits. He also loves spending time with other Wake Robotics kids, playing with MaKeyMaKey, littleBits, and 3D printers (ok, these he just observes and asks questions for now).

We also try to get outside whenever possible. We have some really great parks nearby where M explores little streams, looks for interesting rocks and plants, digs, builds and gets to have "wild and crazy time".

I'm not saying this is how it's going to stay. But I'll try to be patient, believe in my child a bit more, and KEEP CALM and UNSCHOOL for a bit longer.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Infinite Zero

I am trying to clean up my Inbox (you know, the whole "zero emails" goal). As I'm working on it, I've come across an old e-mail where I recorded my conversation with M. This took place a few days before his 7th birthday (hence the wintry picture up top). So I'm transferring it here for record-keeping.

He said: "I'm drawing an infinite zero". I asked him to explain. 

Him: See, this is a big zero (draws). Inside of it I am drawing smaller and smaller zeros, so infinitely many. So that's infinity zero. Like our eyes and heads are infinity zeros because like eyes are round and then there are circles inside like zeros and then pupils are made of atoms. And there are like so many of them. Also, if we look for zeros around us in the universe, there are infinite many of them - planets and galaxies and atoms. Squares are also infinite but it's harder to find them 'cause like we don't have square heads or eyes or anything square in us.

Me (worried that he doesn't understand what zero really is): Ok, but you know, a square is a shape. Is zero a shape? 

Him: No, it's not. It looks like circle, but zero is when there's nothing 

Me (relieved): ok, so what's now?

Him: you see this wooden block? It's square and we can cut it into many squares (shows how to cut into thin squares with same area as the original wooden block)

Me: so how many squares would you get that way?

Him: a lot, depends how thin you can cut it. Can be a hundred, a thousand or more.

Me: and if we use a laser that cuts very-very thin slices?

Him: yes, can be many-many squares. 

Me: what if we want infinite number of square slices? How thick would they have to be?

Him: very-very thin

Me: will they be zero thin?

Him: no, not zero. They will only get zero thin when we run out of wood. But they will be super thin almost zero and there will be infinite many of slices. So that's infinite zero.

Then he goes of to draw lots and lots of nested circles, nested squares, nested ovals, saying how all are infinite. Then he says, looking at all those nested shapes:

Him: You know, + and - always work the same in infinite circles and in infinite squares or anything else infinite.

Then he mentioned something that was "zero infinity", so I asked him to explain. Here was his explanation:

"Imagine you are on an island. It's infinitely big. But you don't see anything at all"

Me: why can't I see anything?

Him: because there isn't anything on this island. Because it's a zero infinity island.

Me: ok, my mind is officially blown, I gotta write it down.

The end.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Awesome Time Travel Camp - Blackbeard's Last Fight

That was the boys' choice for the second "cozy camp" (that's what I'm calling it 'cause it's just the two of them). Both boys were very well prepared after their other pirate camp in Bath, NC earlier this summer. Both have read the Treasure Island, watched Pirates of the Caribbean, read lots of books about pirates and all that. Additionally, M got to go to the Tall Ships at Cape Charles festival a few weeks ago, participated in their pirate parade and school, won a medal and was overall a very experienced pirate.

This time around we started with another great book, Blackbeard's Last Fight. It is very well written, lots of interesting details and a spooky ending (sure, we all knew how it would end, the title kinda gave it away, but there were a couple of small details that were unexpected).

After the story the kids got to put their knowledge to the test. I played a "silly professor" who was going to read a lecture about Blackbeard's life and adventures. But the silly professor makes a lot of mistakes and some of them are easy to catch and others - not so much.

Next both boys had a lesson in the proper terminology for the many parts of tall ships. We had a couple of 3-mast models with sufficient details. So each boy had a model ship and as the captain gave orders, they were to show which part of the ship they had to climb on, which sail to take in, and such.

Then it was time time for sword-fighting, of course! Even though we reminded them the safety rules, we had to stop this part after about 10 minutes as it was getting way out of hand. Instead, I suggested to turn it into a game M loves to play at his fencing practice. It's basically the good old "red light - green light" game, but with a twist. Here's how it's played:

Kids line up at the start line. An adult is at the finish line facing the kids. Kids can move using proper fencing moves. Kids can move only when the adult is not looking at them. As soon as the adult looks their way they have to freeze. If the adult notices a kid moving, the kid is sent back to the start line. Everyone took turns being "the adult" in this game. It was way fun except we were all getting hungry.

So we hurried back into the house for some lunch at a seaside tavern. A simple fair of bacon and eggs with some crusty bread and a mug full of grog (orange juice with water) all tasted delicious. Now it was time to search for treasure on a LEGO island. First, we replayed the last battle with the two model ships we used earlier and with some LEGO mini-figs. We did change the gruesome end a bit though. According to our story, Robert Maynard found Blackbeard's treasure chest, but there, instead of treasure was a note with some coordinates. Using these coordinates, kids had to find the island on the map, sail to it in their ships, walk through a labyrinth solving a few puzzles along the way and find the treasure.

This was going to be the final activity, but they didn't look ready to wrap things up. So I suggested they would make their own treasure maps of their own treasure islands. We cut up a brown grocery bag and the kids set to work drawing and labeling. Among the notable place names were "Davy Jones's Tooth", "Skeleton Cave", "Bloody Lake", "Tall Grass Flats" and a few others. This was exciting and it got even better once they started working on aging their maps - crumbling, stomping on them, burning the edges, burning holes through the middle with the magnifying glass, pouring candle wax and rubbing raspberries (blood) on them. Pretty soon the maps looked very old and just about impossible to read. Happiness galore!

Next trip, it was decided, was going to be to Apollo 11's historic Moon landing.

Awesome Time Travel Camp - Samurai School

A friend came up with a great idea to run a series of playdates that are all about travelling back in time and exploring different countries and historic events. Well, his original idea of "everything will be made out of and role-played with LEGOs" had to be substantially reworked because the kids didn't care for it much. So M and I suggested limiting or even eliminating LEGOs from these playdates and doing lots more hands-on stuff like crafts and battles and food.

For our first adventure both M and his friend chose to go to medieval Japan, to the time of the samurai. With this in mind, we got together at our house a couple of weeks ago for a morning of samurai school. First, we read the You Wouldn't Want to Be a Samurai book and chatted a bit about samurai training.

Then the kids learned some Kanji (I was amazed that M actually remembered most of the symbols from that one little exercise a few months ago when he wanted to learn some Chinese). The idea was for them to pick a symbol or two to paint on their banners. Both ended up with "Volcano" and drew almost identical banners to take into battle with them.

We then read a legend of Susanoo and the 7-headed serpent and the kids drew their own illustrations - lots of blood and snake guts. It was interesting that both M and his friend were so busy drawing the battle itself, that neither of them bothered to draw the right number of heads on the monster. M came up with a creative explanation that he drew the remaining heads after Susanoo already chopped some off.

It was time for some origami next and we made paper cranes. This is a very challenging origami even for adults, not to mention antsy 7-year olds. But they persevered through the difficulties and got nice looking cranes as rewards.

But after this they were DONE sitting down. They demanded to go out to the backyard and run around. Fortunately, the second half of the samurai school involved some archery practice (supervised) and sword fighting with foam swords. So this was great fun until, after about half an hour of non-stop sword fighting and jumping around in the heat both were tired and cranky and fighting over something. Blood was shed as M's friend hit M right in the mouth with a stick, bad enough that the somewhat-loose tooth got really loose and there was a cut on M's gums.

After everyone was calmed down and ice administered, the kids once again made friends and, realizing that they were starving, asked to make sushi. The day before this camp, we went out to a Thai restaurant, M asked for sushi and got to watch the chef make the rolls. Our sushi didn't turn out nearly as pretty, but the kids didn't seem to mind.

Afterwards, they wanted to jump around and sword-fight some more. But I wasn't all that eager, so instead I offered to try their hands at making zen gardens with rocks and sand. M had a good idea of what a rock garden is because we went to the one in the Raulston Arboretum. It also helped that he understood the ideas of meditative space (thanks to yoga) and wabi-sabi (thanks to an awesome book titled Wabi Sabi). M's garden also had a house on the sea shore (wavy lines on the sand) and was guarded by a twisty wavy sea serpent made out of rocks.

So that was it for the 4-hour camp. The kids decided that next week they wanted to visit pirates, specifically, Blackbeard, on the day of his last battle.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Almost a Year?!

Has it really been almost a year since my last post? Wow, time sure flies when you keep promising yourself to "post tomorrow evening". No sense it trying to play catch-up now - too many things happened, too many pictures were taken and all that. Let's just say we are all a year older now. And are totally into pirates.

And I got a new camera. It's not fancy, but a big improvement over my old one (RIP, little SONY point-and-shoot). Except this camera has too many options and the only way to figure them out is to download this huge and terribly confusing manual. Which I've done. But now I have to read it and, well, it's another case of "I'll just do it tomorrow". So for now there's no noticeable improvement in picture quality. So I try to go someplace really scenic to make up for this. Fortunately, Virginia is only a couple of hours away although since Chris's been back we don't travel there every weekend.

Ok, won't be dragging this out. After all this is meant as a short post to get me back to the blog. Hopefully next one will be dated July 2014, not July 2015.