Computer Activity: Creating Educational Flash Animation

I am by no means a computer whiz. However, I do like to tinker around with a few software programs. Back in 1998 I learned how to create simple, interactive animations through a Macromedia program known as Flash (I think it’s called Flash MX now).

I’ve been showing my girls how to use it as well. I believe it’s important for my kids to be tech-savvy. Although they won’t be getting a cell phone or a Myspace for years to come (perhaps when they are 18? Hee-hee… I’m such a mean Dad!), I do hope that they will be brilliant at web-page design. (Or at least know how to have fun with the process.)

Here’s an example of something we’ve been working on: An interactive guide to Jane Austen. Enjoy!

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="500" height="600" wmode="transparent" /]

Reading All Weekend

It’s been raining here in California. The cloudy skies are welcome weather. Although I’m sure in most parts of the country right now, people are sick of the wet and the cold. Our family, on the other hand, relishes these days. It gives us an excuse to stay indoors. It compels us to take down a a board game or dance around while listening to showtunes (My kids and I are currently hooked on “The Drowsy Chaperone”).

Best of all, these are the days where we like to curl up with a good book. And when I say curl, that means that either Mom or Dad is reading on the couch and the girls are curled up, on top of us, like overgrown house cats.

Yesterday, my wife read to us for about three hours straight. We listened to “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman. It’s a creepy book I many ways. The story arc is that of your typical good kid goes into a scary world and faces her fears. (I’ve written a couple of those myself, so I rather like the genre.) As we paused after each chapter, my wife would ask the girls questions:

  • “Would you do that?”
  • “Do you think she did the right thing?”
  • “What did she learn from that experience?”

Most days, the girls are off reading their own books. My older girl is still hooked on “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side” My younger one is devouring the most recent “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book. It’s wonderful to have kids who enjoy books on their own. But it’s also wonderful to spend time as a family reading aloud and discussing literature.

What has your family been reading lately?

Construction Play Dates

Do you have nothing but boys in your homeschool family? Or are you like me — you are the proud father of two (or more) lovable daughters… who happen to be tomboys.

Now, my girls can be feminine and frilly. My 7-year old still dons a princess tiara during tea-parties. And my 10-year old likes to wear a fancy dress when we go out to the theater. But for the most part, they like to climb trees, plays sports, and get dirty.

So, this week-end we did a very Tom-boyish thing. We got up at the crack of dawn (that wasn’t my idea, by the way, it was theirs), and we went to Home Depot. The girls decided that they wanted to build something — they didn’t really care what. And, best of all, they insisted that they were going to use their allowance money.

So, before we went, I asked them to brainstorm. They wrote out a list of different ideas (my 10-year old sketched some of her thoughts), and then they each decided on a project. The results: a “ground fort” (because we don’t have the resources to safely build a tree fort) and an airplane. That’s right — an airplane. However, they decided they would be happy if it was an airplane-shaped board on wheels.

Then, we got out some sidewalk chalk and the girls began making blue prints. They designed their structures by outlining their inventions on the cement in our backyard. Then, they got out the tape measure and took notes about the length of each piece of lumber they would need. (It wasn’t an exact science — but they came up with some good concepts.)

Now, as you probably know, wood is not cheap. However, most places such as Home Depot sell “scraps” of lumber that are no longer a specified length. We found a lot of great pieces, each for 50 cents. Not bad. We bought some wheels and a larger plank for the “airplane” (about the size of a boogie board). Finally, we went back home and spent the rest of our Saturday morning building stuff.

Then, we spent Saturday afternoon playing with the stuff they built.

I highly recommend a construction play date with your kids (and maybe their friends too). Just remember to offer words of wisdom as you go (“Measure twice, cut once”), and be certain all safety measures are followed. Use common sense, and have an uncommon amount of fun.

Bug Box City

We’ve got a collection of boxes, some big and some small, hanging out in our garage. And I’m glad that we do, because anytime my kids and I are feeling creative, we grab a box and make something.

Yesterday we made a bug box. My kids are obsessed with pill bugs (they call them “rolly-pollies”). So, we decided to create a temporary home for some of our backyard friends. We took a cardboard shoe box and spent the morning decorating it. Now, some kids would simply create a pseudo-natural environment with leaves and grass and dirt. Not my kids. They created a city landscape with streets and a background of skyscrapers. They even added a few stop signs. (Perhaps not the most friendly locale for our bug visitors; however, I released the pill bugs after a short stay in Bug Box City.)

After adding all of the artistic details, we collected our pill bug friends and then placed them inside our cardboard town. Then, the academic portion of the day began. We began writing down questions — scientific questions — anything related to our buggy subjects. Here are some of the inquiries my girls recorded:

  • How long do pill bugs live?
  • What do they eat?
  • Do they hibernate?
  • Do they lay eggs? If so, how many?
  • We observed the pill bugs for a while. And then, continuing our questions, we headed for the internet to satisfy our curiosity.

    It was a fun day. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll construct Snailsville.

Tutor Or Not Tutor? That Is the Question!

As a homeschool parent, one must decide: “Will I teach my child every subject? Or will we seek outside help for certain topics?”

Now, my wife and I love to read. I teach literature and freshman composition classes. Yet, whenever I sit down with my daughter — she starts to feel this pressure to read and write on demand. She has struggled with language arts for years. Therefore, my wife and I chose to find a tutor that would supplement her at-home instruction.

We homeschool, in part, because we know that every child learns at a different pace. Every child possess individual strengths and weaknesses. We are confident that our daughter will blossom, slowly but surely, and that here reading skills will increase. And we’re glad that we have found a tutoring center that provides a positive learning environment that nurtures her (instead of inadvertently stigmatizing her — the way some public school special needs programs might.)

But we didn’t rush into tutoring. First, we tried a variety of reading programs. Here’s some just to name a few:

  • 100 Reading Lessons
  • Hooked on Phonics
  • Ready, Set, Read!
  • Headsprout — An Online Reading Program

Each of these learning systems helped. But because of our daughter’s level of “visual processing,” it seems that a lot of the information just doesn’t stick. So, finally, we decided to give someone else a try.

Our tutoring center hasn’t offered any breakthrough technology. Nor have they performed any academic miracles. But progress has been made over the course of this year. She can now read at a “Third Grade Level” — and our hope is to get her up to Fifth Grade standards. Overall, tutoring has been very positive for our daughter. She embraces the chance to work with someone besides her Mom and Dad, and she also enjoys interacting with other kids too. So far, we’ve been quite pleased.

Do your children work with tutors? How has the experience been for you?

Magazine Mosaics

One of my favorite art / history projects to do with my kids is to make a “Magazine Mosaic” — it’s really just a collage, but the word mosaic gives it some nice alliteration, don’t you think.

Here’s how it works: save your old magazines (if you subscribe to them) for a few months. Certain magazines work best for this — National Geographic, Time, Life, Newsweek, anything that covers global events and human interest stories. If you don’t buy or subscribe to these magazines (or if you’d like to get an abundance of them) visit your local library or Goodwill store. Very often, you can find older editions of these magazines for dirt cheap. (We buy National Geographics for a quarter each).

Next, choose a theme. Almost a year ago, my wife had the girls create a “Visioon Board,” a collage filled with images of hopes, dreams, and goals they would like to achieve. During a science unit, I had the girls cut out images of the different ecological environments: tundra, desert, rain forest, etc. Using the magazine pictures they created environment backgrounds, and then found animal photographs (or drew pictures of their own) to place into the foreground.

Now, a lot of people cherish their old magazines and want to keep them in storage for years and years. In that case, this project might not appeal to you. However, in my family’s case, I learned long ago that after reading the magazines they just hang around in the bathroom, until our magazine rack is chock full. So now our rule with magazines is this: read them thoroughly, use them for creative purposes, and hang our favorites on the wall!

Celebrating Martin Luther King’s “Dream”

About a year ago, I sat my older daughter down and we had a long history lesson.  We flipped through a Life Magazine book of American History and talked about some of the more disturbing images: photographs showing the devastating effect of racism and segregation. (A very depressing but essential subject.)

Then, we spent the week learning about the civil rights movement.  We watched a documentary about Rosa Parks.  And finally, the unit ended with a viewing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.”  One of the most wonderful aspects of Youtube is that, even though its filled with a vast ocean of non-sense, there are also many islands of knowledge to be found at the click of your mouse.

I am not certain when the best age is to talk about racism and the civil rights movement.  I suppose it depends on the child.  But for more family, we were ready to begin exploring the subject when my daughters were 6 and 9.  Now, watching Dr. King’s eloquent and inspiraton speech has become an annual tradition.

Thanks to all who have struggled (both overseas and at home) to make America the land of the free.

Homeschooling Isn’t Always Happy-Schooling

If you’ve been reading these blog entries, then you have been learning about my families many happy experiences with homeschooling.  Most of the time, my kids have a great time.  However, I wanted to make sure I set the record straight.  Homeschooling has its ups and downs.  There are some moments when the children and the parents are equally miserable.

Case in point, two days ago my ten-year old daughter was working on her math.  She is adding fractions.  And for the most part, she’s pretty good at it.  However, the story problems sometimes bewilder her.  She is still developing her reading skills, and the combination of math and words gets a bit frustrating.

And on this particular day, she was getting REALLY frustrated.  Normally, she works on a math sheet for about 30 minutes and then she’s done.  This time around, she had been working on it for almost an hour.  Now, this is when my wife and I reveal our different teaching philosophies.  It’s kind of like good cop, bad cop.  I suggest things like, “Why don’t you relax and take a break.  Do something fun and then come back to it.”

But my wife says, “No — she can do this. She knows how.  Keep working until you’re finished.”  So, my daughter went up to her room to work on it without any distraction.  When I popped in about twenty minutes later she was still toiling away — adding nothing to her worksheet except teardrops.

Eventually (with her mother’s instruction) she figured out the correct answers.  But, man, it was a tedious experience for the kid.

Homeschooling offers so much freedom for parents and children… but if there is a downside (at least from the student’s point of view) it’s that sometimes so much one-on-one attention can overwhelm the pupil.  I remember my days in public school, how easy it was to get lost in the crowd of thirty other students.  It was sometimes nice to feel anonymous, to know that the teacher wasn’t always pushing you.

With homeschooling, the student is always with the teacher (her parents).  During study time, reading time, laundry time, and lunch time.  So, the homeschool experience isn’t 100% happiness…

(But it’s at least 98% wonderful!)

The Boredom Chair

When I was a kid, Santa would fill up my stocking with a few presents (maybe a Hotwheels car and a Pez Dispenser), but mostly it was crammed full of walnuts and mandarin oranges.  Things were different at my wife’s house.  When she was a little girl, Santa loaded her stocking with lots of truly stellar presents: A-quality toys, clothes, and candies.  (She must have been higher up on the Nice List.)

My kids are lucky (i.e. “spoiled”) because we have adopted my wife’s holiday tradition.  Those girls of mine get way too much cool stuff in their stockings.  Now, just last week, we journeyed back from our X-Mas vacation, and we’ve slowly been unpacking.  The girls have a couple bags with stocking stuffers — many of which are educational toys, books, games.  And many of which have not been fully enjoyed.  In all that frenzy of wrapping paper, it’s easy to open one ting and then move onto the next mysterious box.

Now, I want them to appreciate each gift fully… so here’s what I do.  Any gift that has any sort of education valyue is placed next to a comfy green chair in the corner of our house.  I call it the Boredom Chair.  For the next two months or so, anytime the girls come up to me and say “Dad, I’m bored,” I’ll say:

“Great!  Let’s pay a visit to the boredom chair.” once there, we’ll grab whatever is on the top of the pile.  If it’s an activity book they attack it with an ink pen.  If it’s a game, they’ll play it.  If it’s a new Leapster cartridge, they’ll try it out.

Of course, you don’t need to have old Christmas presents next to your family’s boredom chair.  Dig out some old National Geographic magazines (perhaps ones that you wouldn’t mind being turned into a collage).  Set some arts and crafts next to the chair.  Look on the shelves and find some of your favorite operas or classic rock CDs.  Find a busted clock radio out in the garage and give them permission to take it apart.  Anything that will stir up their imagination and make them fall more in love with learning — find it and place it next to the Boredom Chair.

Try it out — and let me know how it goes.  Here’s to 2009 — and the end of boredom!

Digging Holes

You might assume that the title of this blog entry is metaphoric.  However, it’s not.  My kids have been digging holes lately.  There’s a spot in the backyard that is great for digging. 

Why have my kids been digging a grreat big hole between the rosebushes and our evergreen tree?  Well, first they were looking for buried treasure.  Then, they wanted grapefruit sized diamonds.  Then, they were happy just huinting for quartz (which they actually found!).

For a brief while, they contemplated digging to the center of the Earth.  But they soon became worried about hitting magma.  And just yesterday, they decided that the hole would be for a giant oak tree they want me to adopt.  They’ll probably be digging again tomorrow, sneaking a few shovelfuls of dirt between their math lesson and spelling practice.  What will their reason for digging holes be tomorrow.  I can’t wait to find out.