Meet the Masters: Learning About Vincent Van Gough

Yesterday we had a busy 4th of July, much of it spent driving to and fro (in between gobbling lots of hot dogs).  So today, we just wanted to relax around the house and work on artistic projects.

Things began smoothly.  I was using some old curriculum that had been ignored on the shelf for far too long.  It’s a progrma called “Meet the Masters.”  It explores the life and work of seven classical painters, starting with Vincent Van Gough.  So, the girls and I read a little bit about his life.  The information from the “Meet the Masters” book provides the basics of Vincent’s biography.  But since the book is geared toward 7 – 10 year olds, it doesn’t go into detail.  So, not being satisfied, I explored further.

YouTube is a great resource, but you want to be mindful of the content that lurks online.  For example, someone has made a crude animated cartoon about Van Gough’s severed ear hopping through an art gallery.  Not appropriate — and not funny.  I screened that one, and of course did not show it to the kids.

However, I didn’t make a slight mistake and I showed them something that I didn’t entirely screen.  YouTube has a ten-minute version of A&E biogrpahy — and I watched the first five minutes, and gaged the material as appropriate for my children.  Then, during the last five minutes, the video talked about Van Gough’s madness as a byproduct of his venereal diseases.  Ooops — too much information!

But I did find a great little clip from a 1956 biographic film starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn (playing Van Gough and Cesanne respectively.)  It’s just ten minutes, and it shows how enthusiastic Van Gough was about his art. Here’s the link:

After reading and viewing the material, we finally got to the best part: Artwork!

The girls and I used pastels and black construction paper to create our own versions of “Starry, Starry Night.” Sure, they don’t come close to the master — but it’s fun to try!

My Kids’ Favorite Magazines

This week, the mailman has delivered several of my kids’ favorite magazines.  We have been blessed with relatives that have given our girls a gift subscription for their birthdays.  But now, according to today’s mail, it’s time to decide if we want to renew.  And of course, in this economy, when most of America is tightening their belt, it seems that a canceling magazine subscription is an easy way to cut back a little.

At the same time, parents don’t want to deprive their child of something she loves, especially if it’s educational.  Here’s are some magazines my girls love:

#1) ASK Magazine
Ask Magazine
Always surprising, fun and informative, Ask Magazine combines science, social studies, and anything else inquisitive minds want to know. There are lots of colorful illustrations and recurring characters, but the text never talks down to the readers. Both girls read ASK from cover to cover, and if there’s one magazine they prefer to quietly read while hanging out before bedtime, it’s hands down this one. I think we’ll be keeping this subscription going for a few more years.

#2) MUSE Magazine
Muse Magazine
Made by the same publishers as ASK (Cricket Magazine), MUSE is geared towards 10 and up. Therefore, my 7-year old, even though she’s an advanced reader, isn’t always fascinated by the material. My inquisitive 10 year old love it when I read the articles to her. But since the sentences are sophisticated, and she’s still developing her reading skills, she’s not eager to try reading this magazine all by herself. At least not yet. However, I must confess, that I personally LOVE this magazine! It’s obviously created by intelligent editors and writers who still have the spark of childhood within them. They love to learn and to teach, and it shows in all of their articles, photographs, and illustrations. (I think I’ll continue to subscribe to this magazine, even after my children have gone off to college!)

#3) National Geographic for Kids
national geo for kids
Notice how there’s a dolphin on the cover? We just got a new NatGeo for Kids today — and guess what, it’s got a pair of dolphins on the cover. I think 33% of their magazine covers have dolphins, another third of the covers have some sort of cute lion or tiger cub, and finally whatever percentage or fraction is leftover has a funny looking dog on the cover. If you can’t tell, I’ve gotten a bit tired of this magazine. But perhaps that’s unfair. The magazine is filled with attention-getting graphics and surprising facts. They also publish articles about Pop-Culture. This month’s expose interviews the cast of the next Harry Potter movie. There’s fun stuff — but I’m afraid this will be our last issue for a while.

We have also been subscribers of TIME for KIDS, which I rather liked, but the girls never took an interest in the material. They would rather read over Mom’s shoulder while she peruses her “GROWN UP” Time magazine. And finally, for a while we subscribed to Cricket Magazine — a journal of creative non-fiction, poetry, and short stories. Cricket has been around for years, and I honor them for their quest to bring storytelling to children. Yet, that said, my girls at this stage in their reading seem more interested in the books they select at the library, rather than the monthly collection of stories from the well-meaning magazine.

So, we’ll be keeping ASK and MUSE for another year — and we’ll say goodbye to the others. But what about you? Are their ideal magazines for kids that I haven’t mentioned? Share your thoughts!

Design Your Own Board Game

My family and I love board games.  Today we played “Guess Who,” “Muppets Monopoly” and the anniversay edition of “Cranium.”  As much as we love our Pictionaries, Trivial Pursuits, and Chess boards, we sometimes hunger for something completely different.  And that’s when the girls and I get inventive.  We make up our own board game.  All it takes is some art supplies, some dice, and a bit of imagination.

Normally we we create our own board game, the girls select a theme and start deisgning the layout of the board.  They burn through a lot of scratch paper, and pretty soon we’re ready to move onto the proto-type stage.  Our garage always has a number of crad-board bozes, and this is usually what we use to make the board.  Since cardboard isn’t the best material to draw on, the girls use construction paper — they cut out images, paint, color or draw on the paper, and then apply the game board pieces to the board.

So far, we’ve created games such as:

The Pyramid Explorers

Restaurant Rush


Race Down the River

For the most part, the rules are pretty simple.  Get to the end of the board before your opponent.  But what I like are the game cards (similar to Monopoly’s Chance Cards) that the girls come up with.  (Some of them have been heavily inspired by the movie Jumanji.

Of course, some homeschool families have taken this pastime to a whole new level.  Several years ago, we had the pleasure of meeting the makers of “The Touch” Boardgame.  The creators of this game are a homeschool family who came up with a unique game that combines fun facts, tactile identification, and a ticking clock to increase the excitement level.

Has you ever deisgned your own board game?  Tell us about it!

When the Kids Are Away It’s Not Time To Play

My wife and kids have traveled north to visit relatives.  They’ve been gone for about three days, and they won’t get back until Monday.  What have I been doing with the family out of the house?  Here’s a sample:

  • Ordered a Costco Pizza (my primary food source)
  • Started teaching a summer class
  • Wrote and revised an old play

Basically, I’ve been lonely, but I’ve been having a good time tinkering with projects that I’ve been meaning to work on — but never found the time while the wife and kids were around to entertain and distract me.

However, now that I’ve gotten some “me” time, I realized today that this is a terrific opportunity to revamp our educational goals.  As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, we lactively learn throughout our summer, even though we are as regimented as we might be during the other seasons.  I am proud of my wife’s teaching accomplishments this year.  the girls have made huge leaps and bounds with math and reading.  And they’ve been on more field trips than I can remember.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve done as well.  Sure, I can use the excuse that I’m the breadwinner.  But the truth is, I could have spent more time with them on science and writing (I’m relatively please with out accomplishments in history).  So, I’ll be spending the rest of this afternoon, in my lonesome house, brainstorming the educatiopnal adventures we’ll be having when the girls return from their vacation.

My first goal: brush up on chemistry, physics, and biology.  So far, I have been using Harcourt Science as my primary textbook.  Any fun useful links or lesson plans you’d care to suggest?

Lemonade Math

Even though summer has arrived, my wife and I do not plan to slow down our children’s learning activities.  We might, however, make many of our lessons less traditional.  Summer at our house isn’t really the time to tell the kids, “Sit at the kitchen table and finish your multiplication.”  (Actually, we rarely do that during any season).

Instead, we try to devise fun activities that will get them where they want to be: outside and interacting with others.  And nothing is better than the quintessential summer job for kids: running a lemonade stand.

Our girls are delightfully capitalistic.  They always want to figure out ways of making money or starting their own business.  They don’t beg for spare change from us; they don’t expect a free allowance.  No, they enjoy earning money through their own hard work an ingenuity.  And they are always itching to open up a lemonade stand.  Even on a rainy day!

So, in the coming weeks, we will be operating a lemonade stand — and in the process the girls will be learning about spending, saving, and investing.

First, they need a lemonade stand to set-up shop. In the past, Sunkist has offered free lemonade stands, however due to popular demand, they have since run out of their promotional stands.  However, it’s good to be on the look out — check online and see what you can find.  The girls came up with the idea to get free boxes from their local Costco.  Not a bad idea — and it will be fun to watch them build their own homemade stand.

Next, the girls will be pooling their money together to buy the lemonade ingredients as well as the cups, napkins, and additional supplies.  I think it’s important that the kids purchase these items with their money, and not have the parents buy the material.  My girls will be creating an account sheet, with an itemized list of purchases and expenses.  That way, they’ll know how much they need to earn to break even.

Third step: figure out price.  There’s a classic game called “Lemonade Stand” that has been around since the early days of personal computers. Best of all, there’s a free version that you can play right now! This game helps kids learn about pricing.  How much should they charge?  How much is too expensive?  Too cheap? Of course, the game is quite different than real-life… but it will help with the initial choices regarding price.  One thing I want the girls to figure out for themselves: how much lemonade should be in each cup?  That’s something I hope they’ll learn through trial and error.  (Because if they sell 12 oz of lemonade for a mere quarter, they’ll run out of supplies mighty quick!)

Finally, at the end of the day it will be time to count up their profits (or lack thereof.)  The girls will tally up the numbers, and then decide what their plan of action will be for their next lemonade adventure.

And, of course, the girls might not simply be seeking their own financial gain.  There is a wonderful charity called Alex’s Lemonade Stand.  It was started by a young girl who started a lemonade stand to help children (like herself) who are diagnosed with cancer.  Sadly, Alex passed in 2004.  However, her charity organization lives on and kids all over the country donate some or all of their proceeds to help fight cancer.

Time to Organize, Purge, and Rediscover

We have way too much stuff at our house.  We’re not terribly materialistic.  (Living on a teacher’s salary, we can’t afford to be.)  The stuff that clutters our house isn’t high tech computers and gadgets. It’s not fancy sculptures our previous collectibles.

Instead, our shelves are deducated to the following:

  • Books
  • Educational toys
  • Art supplies
  • More books
  • Maps and charts
  • Science kits
  • Math tools
  • And did I say books?

Now, most of these educational supplies belong to our Charter School.  The institution has a small but impressive library.  Families are allowed to check out items for years at a time.  But there’s a downside to that availability, at least for us.  When we visit the library, our eyes are often beginning than our “educational appetite.”  Six months ago, we brought home a LOT of great stuff.  but we’ve only been through half of it — much of it has sadly gotten forgotten on the shelves.

But that all changed this week.  This week, my wife, the girls and I went through all of the shelves.  We removed material that we’ve already studied, completed, or simply grew tired of.  By the end of the day, we were exhausted, but we had reclaimed our space!  The shelves are organized again! (Who knows how long that will last, right?)

But something else happened while we purged the educational corners of our home.  The girls rediscovered dozens of books and games they had forgotten about.  Right away, they started reading “Bunnicula” (a book that’s been on the shelves for months) and playing with Math Board Games (that had been lurking undersneath some history maps). Now, even though we technically have less material right now, we’re starting off the summer with a clearer frame of mind (and a lot of great stuff that’s still waiting for us to read and experience!)

Roller Coaster Science

My girls and I visited Disneyland yesterday. Despite the fact that it’s the beginning of June, the park was not too crowded, and we went opn all of the ride we love.

My daughters have finally become daring enough that they now enjoy roller coasters. And since my ten-year-old has recently developed an interest in engineering, she has been asking questions about the physics of Roller Coasters. So, after going on “California Screamin'”, we talked about things like mass, gravity, inertia. But since I’m not a physics expert, I’ve turned to the internet to help learn more about Roller Coaster Science.

Here are a few great sites I’ve found so far:

Roller Coaster Simulation: A simple Java program with one purpose: to create a successful rollercoaster that doesn’t fly off the tracks.

How Stuff Works: Lots of details information on the science of thrill rides.

Absolute Science Podcast: And if you want an auditory explanation, these two science whizzes have a podcast episode that verbally explains the physics involved in roller coasters. They also give tips on the best seat for maximum fun!

Making Lists

My daughters are still at a beginning phase in their writing. They do have wonderful, creative spurts in which they write page after page of fiction or diary entries. However, more often than not, when it comes to homework, they sigh or groan when they hear that they must write a paragraph or two in response to a history chapter. In a previous blog entry, I wrote about how they loved “hands on” science experiments or science-themed field trips. they love to verbalize all about their experiences and new found knowledge. But if I ask them to write a paragraph explaining their new-found information, the thrill is gone. Their love of learning suddenly deflates.

And of course, that makes it tempting for me to just avoid asking them to write. After all, as long as they are retaining and processing the info, why do they need to write a paper about it?

Then I answer myself: Because writing is an important means of communication. So, write they must. However, when it comes to writing about tricky subjects (and certain chapters of history have been a bit touble some for them — now that we’re starting to get into the economics of Europe and so forth), I am not yet expecting them to write a full fledged essay. Instead, I have them make lists.

The girls create a bullet point style list of the most important points from a chapter. This first stage is basically note taking, but then I have them make another list. In the second list, they create sentences: A topic sentence and three supportive sentences, each one based upon the original set of notes. We worked on this yesterday, and by the time they were done with their list of four sentences, they were rather cranky. But before we wrapped up the assignment, I asked them what other details they might be able to add between the sentences.

Hopefully on Monday we’ll return to the list and be able to flesh out a somewhat eloquent paragraph. This seems to work a bit better than just instructing them to sit and write a paragraph from scratch. Why? For one, the girls love to make lists anyway, about anything. My ten year old just made a list of the summer movies she wants to see. But another reason it works is because they see that writing is an on going process. It doesn’t have to be a beautfiully constructed essay from the get go. It can evolve gradually.

So Proud of My Little Scientists!

My wife and two daughters went on a field trip to the Science Center today. I find that going out into the world and finding interactive ways to learn science works best with our kids. When we sit around reading textbooks, science can be interesting — but not terribly exciting. That’s why we are always on the look out for nature walks led by knowledgeable guides, visits to the observatory or to NASA, and any other opportunity where we can get hands on experience and face-to-face interaction with real scientists.

Today, the home school kids (there were about twenty kids in all) extracted genetic material from a strawberry. Mind blowing stuff! And as soon as the girls came back home, they anxiously told me about the whole process. They retain so much information when they are involved with interactive projects such as today’s activities. It’s just another reminder that I need to prepare more hands-on lessons for them. More things that we can do in the backyard or the kitchen. Things that will probably make a big mess — that always gets their attention!

My proudest moment of the day:

When one of the employees at the science center asked if anyone knew what DNA stood for, my ten year old quickly raised her hand and shouted: Deoxyribonucleic acid.

How the heck did she remember that? They are already getting to the age where they’ll be surpassing their parents. (Happy sigh.)

Do You Slow Down During the Summer?

Yes, now that traditional summer break is just days away, I’m wondering what are homeschooling schedule will be like in the near future. When I ask our friends in the homeschool community, “Do you plan to slow down once summer begins,” a lot of moms laugh at me and say, “I plan to stop all together!”

There are a lot of exhuasted homeschooling parents out there who are looking forward to tossing their academic schedule out the window. They are ready to relax.

Others take a different approach. In our household, we have a pretty low-key schedule. Lately, the girls have been doing math on a daily basis. And they have a tight schedule for music and a healthy regimen of reading. But many of the other subjects, such as science, history, and writing happen sporadically. (This is probably because I’m in charge of these categories, rather than my ever-efficient wife.) Because we keep a loose schedule with these subjects, sometimes working on them only once a week — sometimes working on the subject all week long — I don’t see the need to change during summer. Through the months of June, July and August, I will still have projects for them to work on. I will still sit them in the living room and have them write stories or essays or poems. I will still — between my work schedule — squeeze in a few history lessons.

What about you? Will your family be changing their learning pace? (Right now some unschoolers are saying, “HA!” we let the learner set his/her own pace, no matter what the season!) But for the rest of you, what are your schooling plans over the summer?