Saturday, October 5

Visiting Jamestown

Samuel tries on a 1607-style military helmet and vest.
Hands-on history? What could be better? Except Jamestown Settlement has improved over the years.

Since we last visited, the foundation has constructed a beautiful new exhibit hall and visitor center that includes a first-rate movie about the England's first colony in the new world. Script-writers carefully wove their way through the delicate issues of slavery and European encroachment on the Indians, and side-stepped the myths perpetuated by Disney and others regarding Pocahontas.

In bad weather, a visitor likely could still learn much about the settlement through the film, photos and items stored inside facilities constructed for the 2007 anniversary of Virginia's founding. For us, making the 200-mile trip from Northern Virginia, it was worth waiting for nice weather.

Uriah also wandered about in
military garb while in the fort.
The outdoor exhibits have remained much the same since we first visited about 15 years ago, although I think the ships may have been rebuilt. Re-enactors stroll about and demonstrate the life-style skills of the early 1600s in the fort, Powhaten village, and ships that brought the original settlers. Because the tools and buildings are reconstructions, children are much freer to explore and play than they would be at a typical historic site. This is a crucial distinction for kids, especially those like Samuel that are extremely impulsive.

Those traveling greater distances often combine trips to Jamestown with visits to Virginia's early capital at Williamsburg and Yorktown, the site of the final American continental army's victory over the British. For us, one major historic site was plenty any given trip!

Tuesday, September 24

Moms don't get days off. Just about anyone with offspring has said this, but it is especially true of homeschooling moms. So when I messed up my back over the weekend, Monday morning schooling came all too quickly.

I had handled this before with our older kids. You can do a fair amount flat on your back, and my little guys thought it was pretty cool to spend the day in my room. We skipped English composition but otherwise got everything done.

At times, homeschooling parents have to get creative. After back surgery 12 years ago, I spent several weeks watching movie productions of Shakespeare plays with our second-oldest daughter. To this day, she enjoys Shakespeare. I have to wonder if the results would have been the same with a more traditional approach to studying literature?

Today I'm up, but being really picky about what I'll do.  Lord willing, this will soon be a forgotten blip on our homeschooling year.

Sunday, September 15

Is It Christian Curriculum?

After being away from a major Christian education publisher for a few years, I've had a fresh look at the examples given in the curriculum. The A Beka grammar books provide an excellent, traditional approach to the subject. Our oldest told me the lessons gave her a solid foundation for college writing.

Baby Samuel "helps" brother Isaac with math.
This year marks my first year using their language arts materials with Samuel and Uriah. During the first two weeks of school, a slight uneasiness crept into my mind, but it wasn't until the end of last week that I could identify the problem.

The textbooks give random selections of scripture quotations in the artwork. (I have to say in passing, that the books are very attractive and appealing and these attributes are a major selling point for us.) Sentence examples often draw from Biblical characters or use modern evangelical jargon: "Suzy Smith accepted Jesus as her savior."

None of these things by themselves are a problem. But I have a sense that these materials are presented as "Christian" because of the use of this language. In other words, if the examples or poetry side-notes were not specifically quoting from the Bible or using scriptural examples, they would no longer be "Christian." If you scatter enough Bible in, you've made the curriculum "Christian."

This contradicts what we teach our children. All of life is under the dominion of Christ. When they draw pictures of flowers it reflect as much upon their faith as diagramming a sentence with Noah as the subject. A formula in math reflects the orderliness of God's creation as much as a reflection on the Genesis narrative. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against quoting scripture in textbooks or anywhere else. But I get uneasy when I sense a divide between our faith and the so-called secular world. We will continue with these books, but I will need to make sure that the children aren't lulled into making the same distinction.

Thursday, September 12

A Spark of Genius

Baby Einstein videos flew off the shelves when they first came out about 10 years ago. Parents hoped to spark genius in their babies. Statistically, especially if that baby were a boy, about 1 in 100*  ended up with some form of autism diagnosis. An even tinier percentage proved to be both autistic and genius.
Jacob Barnett who was 12 when
 this picture and videos were made.

That makes moms give their children a second look, especially when a boy like Jacob Barnett comes along. Jacob is that rarest of children who shows talent beyond wildest expectations after an early-childhood autism diagnosis. If you haven't seen his video take a look at this budding mathematician and scientist. 

I definitely see a little bit of Samuel is him, particularly the memory, interest in math and science, and that irrepressible, nervous, friendly energy. A theory, shared by people like Temple Grandin, suggests that the autistic mind is simply wired differently. While that can surface as social difficulties, it can also make shortcuts in the brain that allows brilliance.

Sadly, that "different wiring" can result in children who have no ability to interact with the world around them, and no real way to discover or develop talents. 

I have no idea what Samuel will be able to do in his lifetime. I can cheer for the Jacob Barnetts of the world and remind mothers that they can be the best advocate for their spectrum kids. This video from 60 Minutes shows why.

* The autism statistics vary wildly, not helped at all by changes in how these kids are diagnosed.

Tuesday, September 10

Last night, while researching a future field trip, I came across a gem: the Smithsonian sponsors a nation-wide free museum day that extends well beyond its own museums and the confines of Washington D.C. With a little planning, you may visit a participating museum nation-wide and encounter no admission costs for one person and her guest. This is one day only, Sept. 28.

I've not participated before, so I cannot vouch for this activity, but will likely try it. By visiting the Smithsonian Magazine site, you may see which museums participate and print a required ticket to visit.

Note that this only gives you admission to a museum and does not cover any associated costs, such as parking. In some cases, this will give you no savings at all. For example, the Udvar-Hazy Center near us, never charges admission, but does charge $15 for parking before 4 p.m. You'd still have to pay this parking fee.

However, the Museum of the Shenandoah would normally cost $10 for an adult and $8 for a child. So that's a big savings. I also noticed several science and children's museums, which also normally charge admission.

The site gives you several search options. Since we're studying Virginia history, I searched within the commonwealth.

Monday, September 9

Making Music in the Mountains

Campers awoke to a foggy morning at the
 Rockbridge Mountain Music Festival
The music continued long into the night at last weekend's Rockbridge Mountain Music Festival. To the west of my tent, cloggers and contra dancers tapped along to a four-woman string combo. North, the sonorous tones of a bass fiddle thumped in the darkness. To the northeast, two women tried to sound significant in their duet. They didn't always succeed, but the rest of their group sounded sweet and happy.

What were the boys thinking? Snug in their tent about 18 inches away from mine, they likely reveled in camping for the night after an adventurous day. Or perhaps they remembered trying to make old time mountain music.

I loved the generosity of the music-makers. One bunch of Richmond musicians invited us into their campsite and were happy to answer our questions. ("We're studying Virginia history, what can you tell us about the music?") When Samuel looked a little bored, one guy practically tossed a mandolin into his lap. This was a nice instrument, mind you, made by Martin.

Over the course of about an hour, Uriah and Samuel tried out a banjo, ukulele, fiddles, and several mandolins. My guitar is the only stringed instrument these boys have ever held, but they've had a chance to see violins and a cello played at church. Somehow, that was enough for them to know how to get a fairly nice sound out of the fiddles. As we walked away from the group, one woman -- a retired teacher -- was calling out exact directions to find a fiddle that would be the proper fit for each boy.

My tent. Just kidding. The Paxton House, built in 1831
overlooks the Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista, Va., site
of the festival.
At the dance in the evening, I explained the moves as they were called and told the boys what I knew of the round dance that came over from England and evolved into our contra and square dances. Maybe, just maybe one of the boys will grow into being a partner for me at our local contra dance?

We had only been at the festival a short time before the boys started talking about "next year." Mmmmm. I suppose if we do American history next year, this music and dancing would fit very well, thank you.

Thursday, September 5

Science on the Wing

If you've been around Samuel for more than five minutes, you know he has become crazy about birds. I've decided to run with that interest for science this year.

Almost all field guides show you where a species is likely to occur. How do the writers know that? In recent years, birders have contributed much of this information. By following specific protocols, they can help ornithologists grasp how many individual of a species live in a particular area. Put these observations together, and you get the species' range.

What if that information changes over time? Studies such as the Project Feeder Watch run by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology allow scientists to monitor the number of birds in their native winter habitat. Increases or decreases in number can signal improvements in habitat, loss of food sources, increases in predation, and many other significant factors in a bird's life cycle or ecosystem.

We will gain much by participating in Project FeederWatch. Samuel has learned a great deal about the sciences through his own reading, projects with other youths, and participation in interactive programs at museums. Project FeederWatch will enable us to do science. We will have to follow specific protocols to create useful data, keep good records, and submit them electronically on a regular basis. We can also develop hypotheses, then watch to see if our data supports them. Is there any correlation between feeding patterns and incoming weather systems? Do we see more aggressive feeding territorial behavior on a rainy day? We could ask a million questions, and we have a whole school year to answer them.

We're also going to learn bird anatomy which can create a good foundation for all vertebrate zoology. And to round out this year's science, Brian wants us to do additional physical science too. I'm thinking about following the boys' interest in space. More on that later.