Sunday, December 30, 2007

We begin the new year studying the concept of civil disobedience. Our lesson plan centers on emphasis on college students who disagreed with the Vietnam War.

We will also examine the protesters who spoke out against the design of the Vietnam Memorial but then ultimately found it a moving, fitting, and proper tribute to fallen soldiers. Open-mindedness is an important attribute of citizenship, and even protesters can change their minds. We, E's parents, were at the Memorial's dedication ceremony 25 years ago. Four million people now visit the Memorial each year.
Here is a recent Washington Post interview with Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
The VVMF's Lesson Plans for studying Vietnam and the Wall are provided here in PDF format.

We begin with Henry David Thoreau's 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience. Click here at for full text.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

World geography puzzle....completed.

Aunt Barbara gave us an Esphera360 puzzle for Christmas. Building this is a great way to brush up on world geography.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What's ahead?

As we go forth perhaps not so placidly into the noise and haste of Christmas vacation, we would like to lay some groundwork for the start of our new year.

We will intensify study of art history and post assignments and essay questions along the way.

We plan to study the Vietnam War, not only in and of itself but as part of the change in national cultural awareness that led ultimately to the contest to build a memorial, culminating with the story of the remarkable Maya Lin.

And we will sharpen writing skills. Here is a good beginning: these sites deftly explore the best way to build an essay. All of these links have been vetted by us.

You must begin with a thesis and a clear thesis in your mind that is strongly expressed in a topic sentence. The writer must be very, very clear about the thesis of an essay. This can't be emphasized enough, because without a strong thesis, there can't be strong support, and doom, or at least lack of clarity, is inevitable.

Good advice from Purdue University on how to go about answering an essay question.

Grammar and Writing Handbook from Capital Community College Foundation.

Good writing is rewriting. What to check when you're editing.

Master the comma.

OR just skip everything else and go to this outstanding East Syracuse-Minoa Schools site on writing a listening essay.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Learning the art of abstract strategy.

If your home learner enjoys chess or the game of Go, then he or she undoubtedly will like Stratego. (Pictured is our vintage version of the game, but Target carries Stratego in a classic form for under $20. )
Here is an excellent site describing other strategy games.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Meals on Wheels was a special experience today. E. met the new cook, Robert, who is stationed at the Ken and Patty Adam Senior Center right near us. E. talked to him at length and got a tour of the new industrial kitchen. Then at our last stop, Frances and Norman presented us with some beautiful Christmas cookies.

PS We are reading another book by Lisa Yee. So Totally Emily Ebers includes an appearance by none other than Milllicent Min, girl genius.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rules by Cynthia Lord.

The author has a very good site that addresses the book's complex themes and it includes reproducible worksheets. E. answered all the thoughtful study guide questions, which works well as an approach to assess reading comprehension.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Making do. Surviving.

We are reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Thematically relevant to our Lewis and Clark studies, the modern-day hero (Brian) is lost in the Canadian wilderness (fortunately not in the winter, or it might not be a survival story) after a plane crash with a single tool and must survive on his own.
Here's a very good school site loaded with questions and study guides about the book.
PS Have we mentioned lately the terrific Southside branch of the Santa Fe library? Visit and plan to spend some time.

Hm. What IS "Social Studies," anyway?

Here are some helpful links we use for teaching history and "social studies" to a middle school home learner.

Mr. Kash's History Page

Today in History

Conversations with History (Berkeley)

Time's 100 People Who Shape Our World (arguable but worth a look)

Teaching Current Events

Colonial Biography Unit (Harvard)

National Geographic Lesson Plans and Activities

Mapmaking Guide (6-8)

Latitude and Longitude

Social Studies Lesson Plans (CalState Northridge)

Ben's Guide to the US Government for Kids (6-8)

Adeline Hornbek and the Homestead Act

The Moonlit Road (folktales of the American South)

Abraham Lincoln Research Site

Links to Lincoln on the Web (Education World)

World War II (Grolier summary article)

World War II History Test (Grolier) - 25 challenging questions

Lascaux Caves (art history)

The Middle Ages

An Introduction to the History of Time

China Social Studies:

Six Paths to China

China Unique

China: An Ancient Culture in a Modern World

History Teacher Dot Net AP quizzes

Jeffersonian Age quiz

World War II

Truman and Beginnings of the Cold War

American Presidents

Presidents 2

Presidents 3

Presidents 4

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Girls and science.

If you have any doubts, read this NY Times story.
Illustration by Victoria Power.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Our fiction break (as we continue study of Lewis and Clark) is a novel by Robert C. O'Brien that tells of a strong friendship between a mouse family and a band of intelligent rats. Here is a very good site for study of this book.

Thematically, the story ties in well with the Corps of Discovery as it illuminates the themes of friendship, courage, cooperation, and survival.


Saturday, December 1, 2007

Project GUTS meet-up

We participate in the 'Project GUTS' homeschool group. Other schools--private, public and charter--participate in this city-wide educational effort for middle schoolers.

The Project GUTS initiative is to teach 7th & 8th graders scientific methodology and some computer-based modeling. At our parent break-out group, we learned that part of the impetus for these groups is to prepare kids for the supercomputing challenges they might undertake in high school.

This quarter the students have been working on epidemiology. They use agent-based computer modeling to show how a virus might spread (or how something else might spread, like a rumor or a wildfire.) About sixty kids were in attendance today at this gathering of the various clubs. Groups presented the results of their work and some of the simulations they had created.

Next quarter, the kids are going to work on modeling 'egress' and 'ingress,' or traffic patterns and emergency planning. There will be a field trip to City Hall included in the planned activities.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Lewis and Clark Expedition.

This is an interactive chance to lead the Corps of Discovery by asking the student to make some difficult choices. Along with the interactive trail map and journals, E. was thoroughly engaged by the approach taken here. It may be a good idea first to view Ken Burns' excellent documentary about the expedition. The entire PBS website on the subject seems geared for home learners.
Good sites about specific skills:
We like this site by seventh grade cartographers.
Both of these Mapmaking destinations are tops.
Painting the Dakota (Seth Eastman, soldier and artist) A related area of study might be to research leaders of the Dakota nation, such as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Little Crow, Gall, and Crazy Horse.
For the journalistic approach
The home learner may:
Gather facts and biographical details about Lewis, Clark, and other Corps Members (ex: Meriwether Lewis Chosen by Jefferson to Lead Corps of Discovery; Sacagawea Joins Expedition West; etc.)
Recount challenges encountered by the Corps of Discovery
Specifiy exciting discoveries
Describe unusual encounters and events
Decide what else might be newsworthy
Remember: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Catchy headline, strong lead, no editorializing, and quoted comments or reactions from "newsmakers" pulled from journal entries.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Corps of Discovery.

When I worked as a guide at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, one of the most compelling facets of the man was his urgent focus on exploring the west. The Library of Congress site about Jefferson and western exploration is exceptional in this regard.

These are the texts we will study: Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac, which came highly recommended by a librarian at the fantastic Southside Library in Santa Fe, is told in two viewpoints, the voices of Sacajawea and William Clark.

Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., is told by nine descendants of the Indians whose homelands were traversed as Lewis and Clark led their expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific. And Across America: The Lewis & Clark Expedition is a young adult textbook by Maurice Isserman. As background I'm also reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, a biography of Meriwether Lewis that also portrays his complex relationships with William Clark, Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures.

Monday, November 19, 2007

We did not expect this, as we rented the DVD simply to watch, but Amazing Grace would make a good starting point for discussing slavery, abolitionism, the British political system, or the historical figures William Wilberforce, John Newton, and William Pitt. This fine site provides study questions for students who have viewed the film.

Community service.

We participate in the local Meals on Wheels program, bringing nutritious food to senior citizens. The people E. has met while doing this have been an education in themselves. We're lucky to know them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Homeschooling math.

In order to succeed at math, kids must attain mastery of each level topic before moving on. The solution we found is Math U See, which we like works.

The core of this approach is that the main reason to learn math is to apply it in everyday situations. To acquire confidence and mastery, don't confuse memorization with understanding. Take a look and determine whether Math U See might be right for your home learner.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Call of the Wild by Jack London... the next book we're reading. Photo of London in his twenties is from Take a look at the Best Dog Story Ever for more about Jack London.
This is a perfect reader for seventh graders. The Call of the Wild is a "classic dog story" about Buck, a privileged, dignified dog who is taken from his southern Californian home and shipped to Alaska during the 1890's Gold Rush. Along the way, mistreated by a series of owners, he learns to survive as a member of a dog sled team. As a result, Buck soon realizes that in these more primitive settings, "the law of club and fang" overrides the rules of civilized society. With each new experience Buck regressess, or reverts to a more primitive state. Finally, an experience of loss challenges Buck's last ties to civilization.
Here is a helpful study guide and vocabulary list.
Good words to study from the book:

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Re-emphasizing "point of view."

From the Scholastic website, here are three questions to ponder, chosen by E. after reading A Dog's Life: The Autobiography of a Stray, which is written from a dog's perspective. (Remember that Tale of Desperaux was written from the point of view of a mouse.) This book is probably targeted at younger readers, but this touching story is very useful in regard to POV.
Do you think Squirrel could tell the difference between gentle and harmful humans before they even touched her? What kind of behaviors would suggest to her whether a human might be kind or cruel?

During her lifetime, Squirrel spent time traveling with a companion (Bone, and then Moon) and later alone. If you were a stray dog, would you prefer to have company or to be on your own? Why?

Based on their interactions with Squirrel, Dr. Roth, Rachel, the Beckers, and Susan found that the stray dog had a quiet, gentle nature. If you were Squirrel, do you think you would be a gentle dog?

predator -- noun An animal that lives by hunting other animals for food. Lions, sharks, and hawks are predators.
abandon -- verb To leave forever. To give up.
wary -- adjective Cautious and careful.
haunch -- noun The hip, buttock, and upper thigh of an animal or person.
menace -- noun A threat or a danger.
rabid -- adjective Affected with rabies, an often fatal disease that can affect humans, dogs, bats, and other warm-blooded animals. Caused by a virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord and is spread by the bite of an infected animal.
asphalt -- noun A black, tarlike substance mixed with sand and gravel and then rolled flat to make roads.
scrounge -- verb To get things from people without paying. To get or collect things with difficulty. (The common British parlance would be "cadge.")
stalk -- verb To hunt or track a person or an animal in a quiet, secret way. Fierce or dangerous, as in a vicious dog.
contraption -- noun A strange or odd device or machine.
instinct -- noun Behavior that is natural rather than learned.

These are engaging art history texts for middle school.

The Mona Lisa book is specifically geared toward passing the Advanced Placement art history exam.

These are good art history texts.

And the Mona Lisa book is specifically targeted toward passing the Advanced Placement art history exam.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Santa Fe trail study questions.

Name three of the Indian tribes living along the Santa Fe Trail.

The Santa Fe Trail ran between which two locations?

How long is the Santa Fe Trail?

When it first opened, how long would it take to travel?
Who was Josiah Gregg?

Who were Charles and William Bent?

Why were relatively few women ever on the SFT? Which trail were they more likely to take, and towards what ocean?

What animals did the Plains Indians hunt? What was one of the reasons the Indians attacked the wagon trains?

They would go from Missouri to Kansas following the Arkansas River into Colorado before turning south at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Then they followed the Purgatoire River (Picketwire) to Raton Pass. From Raton, the trail went south and swung around the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Santa Fe. In terms of terrain, what might have been the toughest part of the journey? Why might the travelers have preferred the Desert Route to the Mountain Route, even though it had a fifty mile stretch without any water?

Conestoga style wagons (six foot tall wheels; two tons of cargo; curved canvas tops; eight animals needed to pull one wagon) were also known as prairie schooners. Why?

What event led to the closure of the Santa Fe Trail in 1879?

The Santa Fe Trail had been used for 60 years, and it brought the Southwest into the United States.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Bent's Old Fort Junior Ranger program.

This weekend we visited Bent’s Old Fort, a national park in southern Colorado. Bent’s fort is an 1840’s trading post and it is made of adobe bricks. The fort is on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travelers, and Plains Indian tribes came together peacefully for trade.
The main trading was done with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians for buffalo robes.
Bent's Old Fort national historic site is an outstanding destination for homeschooling families. The quality adobe reconstruction of an 1840s trading post on the Santa Fe trail is an example of what loving attention to detail can provide through living history. This isolated trading post, the Castle of the Plains, brought the Plains and Pueblo Indians, Mexicans, and Americans together for trade, and business, family, and political relationships developed that forever changed lives. Even the bookstore is of unusual quality, as it is stocked with many items accurate to the period, including powder horns, copper rum cups, shells, baskets, blankets, and hand-made leather pouches.
The Junior Ranger program at Bent's Old Fort is high-quality because instead of merely asking questions, the booklet elicits thought processes that put the kids in mind of the history that led to construction of the fort in the first place. For example, the first question is worded this way: "Imagine you are a trader out West in 1833 with Willam and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain. You want to build a new trading post. Where can you place it so you can attract the most trade? How do you decide? Maybe you could look at a map and start drawing circles on it where you might want to build a trading post..." The booklet provides a map of the region and denotes rivers, the Trail, 1830s Mexico, Indian camps, buffalo herds, and beaver, and then leads the student to a logical conclusion about where to build the fort. This is one of the best parks we've visited, and that is really saying something, because the National Park Service Junior Ranger program is an underappreciated gem. For more photos, please visit our Santa Fe blog. For a look at our related stop at the Comanche National Grasslands, click here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Santa Fe trail study and assignment.

You have to reach Santa Fe, New Mexico, so you are taking the unusual step of traveling with the traders and people of commerce on a wagon train. (No stagecoach.) You keep a diary (words and drawings) of your experiences.

What is a typical day like on the journey? Be as descriptive as possible and don't leave out the dangers you'll face. Include images and facts from Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies. Why does riding the trail seem to have a “sanative” or healing effect on health problems?

Use/depict some of these words and phrases, and add your own:
wagon corral/hollow square (p. 43)
cache (p. 47)
buffalo wallows
traders escorted only as far as Arkansas River (p. 19)
dressing for the prairie (p.33)
driver’s phrases: “Go! Catch up! All set!” (p. 35)
kitchenware (skillet, frying pan, campkettle, coffee pot, tin cup, butcher’s knife) (p. 39)
Cimarron River
oxen, mules or horses?
bustle in Santa Fe when caravan arrives (p. 80)

Since we'll be visiting Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, include what you learn there in your diary.

Bent's Old Fort area map.

Pressure on the plains.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

When you're studying the heyday of the Santa Fe trail, riding lessons are a good idea. E., it turns out, is a natural.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Santa Fe Trail.

A foray into 1830s-1850s western U.S. history leads us to a no-holds-barred study of the Santa Fe trail and life on the wagon trains. Here are the books we're reading. (We can already tell you that Commerce of the Prairies is a masterpiece of the genre.)
The trail ran between Missouri and New Mexico, opening in 1822-1823 after the first journey by trader William Becknell when the word spread of his success. About 780 miles long, the Santa Fe trail fell out of use in 1879, when the railroad reached (near) town. Much more to come!

The Santa Fe National Historical Trail bibliography (NPS) site provides a helpful list of resources.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Post-war fiction and the Red Menace.

A good starting point for explaining post-war psychology and anthropology to our middle schooler this week was The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of those movies people often refer to (Klaatu barada nikto and all that) but rarely seem actually to watch. So we viewed the film as a family and discovered that its message (as well as its production design and cinematography) stand up as well in 2007 as it did when made in 1951.

This is the kind of sci-fi that uses a robot and spaceship to make a moral and political statement -- in this case, "This is one planet. Unite. Stop being fearful instead of reasonable. Stop all the chaotic destruction or you yourselves will be destroyed."
There are classic visual references, such as the spaceship becoming the public's point of reference in Washington...rather than the Washington Monument, which fades into the background. And there are also historical cultural references, such as the craziness that ensued after Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast. It is EARLY sci-fi so there isn't a computer to be seen, not even on the spaceship.

Possible essay questions:

Explain the "Cold War" and how this film addresses the importance of learning to live peacefully in the nuclear age.

How might the film be seen as taking a survey of life in the United States in the 1950s?

Some people see the movie as a religious allegory, since Klaatu chooses to appear in human form, walk among humans, and adopts the name Mr. Carpenter. What other elements in the film might support such a reading? (We will examine other "alien messiahs" in science fiction cinema.)

Discuss The Day's story structure as a counterpoint to the science fiction of today, where special effects are preeminent and presenting a solid, well-told story has faded into the background. For instance, is there a climactic battle scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still? Why does the film's ending work, or not work, for you?

Robert Wise directed the film, and his astonishing body of work ranges from The Magnificent Ambersons to West Side Story to Run Silent Run Deep to The Sound of Music.

Movie music history: The Day was one of the first Hollywood films to include electronic instruments on its soundtrack. Why would Bernard Herrman have chosen this particular "sound" for his score? What moments of the film make particularly effective use of music to set the tone for the action? According to

The memorable music was written by the brilliant, tempestuous Bernard Herrmann. He used 2 Theremins for the otherworldly sounds, one pitched high and one low. The Theremin was an early electronic instrument that had occasionally been used with great effect in film scores, notably in Miklos Rozsa's music for Hitchcock's Spellbound. Herrmann rounded out the unusual instrumentation with electric violin, bass and guitar, along with 4 pianos, 4 harps and an unorthodox collection of brass.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fifty minutes per day.

E. spends fifty minutes each day drawing from observation. We hope this will strengthen her drawing skillls, but it is also an excellent way to get centered and focused, for example before writing an essay.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Growing up, I was weird. I was a bookworm."

In his first novel for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Tonight we had the chance to attend a reading by the author at the Indian Art Museum on the Plaza. He didn't do a reading in the traditional sense. Instead, he told stories based on the book.
Here are some of the highlights from Sherman Alexie's remarks in Santa Fe.
"Farm boys carry pigs around like they are already bacon."
"I'm an Indian, but when I go to NYC, I blend in and people think I'm half of whatever they are."
"We had only one Indian blanket. We needed Queer Eye for the Indigenous Guy."
When he went off-reservation to attend a private school, it was "the whitiest white place in the history of white places."
"When you're small, throw the first punch, because it might be your last chance."
"The res school was terrible. The only computer was a TRS 80 that I won in a raffle, and no one knew how to use it."
"I don't like to do appearances where I sit on panels with 'scholars,' guys in suits from Harvard and so on. I want to walk up to them [making a menacing gesture] and say, 'DECONSTRUCT THIS.'"
"At my school the white guys mixed up their knowledge of Indian names. 'Crazy Sitting Horse.' "
Here is an interview with the author from NPR.