Friday, 28 June 2013

The Italian Experience: Ready to Depart

I haven't expected us to be spending so much time just learning about Italy.  It has been four months since we first started with Marco Polo and we haven't even left Italy yet!

Luckily our current approach to home education gives us the flexibility to study a topic in depth without having to rush through it.  However, I think we have had enough of Italy by now so I am happy to report that we are finally wrapping up at a suitable place - by the coast.

We were at Canterbury over the weekend where we walked along the Roman city wall.

We were on our way to see the Reculver Towers and Roman Fort.  It location is stunning and right by the coast.  Very appropriate for a departure by sea (as Marco Polo did when he first left Venice), don't you think?

Before we departed, we had a very delicious meal at an Italian restaurant.  The food was so good that I completely forgot to take photos of them until we had finished eating... Fortunately, the restaurant has a shop section that sells food-related items from Italy so I took a few shots of the wide variety of food stuff there:

Since we have been all over the place (in time), reading the historical fiction recommended by Julie from Highhill Education has been very useful to take us back to 13th century Venice.

We are going to take a break from The Travels of Marco Polo for now and resume his journey in the autumn.  You can read all of our Italian Experiences with him here.

This post is linked up to:
  1. June Culture Swapper
  2. History and Geography Meme #80
  3. Hobbies and Handicrafts - June 28
  4. Collage Friday - Being Intentional About Doing Nothing
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with Gymnastics Camp
  6. Hip Homeschool Hop - 7/2/13

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Italian Experience - Roman Baths

Learning about Mount Vesuvius' eruption has given us a reason to revisit some aspects of the Roman culture, which in turn is the perfect excuse to visit the city of Bath...

and its world famous Roman Baths.

The exterior of the site is very impressive.  There are classical statues all around it (built during the Victorian times) with the original bathing pool extremely well preserved.

Compared to my previous visit to the Roman Baths about 15 years ago, the venue has had a major makeover with a large exhibition room.  The exhibits are all very clearly labeled, with detailed explanations and models.  There was a section about Roman life in general, and the people who would have visited the baths back then.

We also learnt that the site was much bigger than what has been preserved, and that there was a temple attached to the bath.  It seems that the Romans made an occasion of visiting the baths not just to clean themselves but also to seek healing from a sacred spring as well as to visit the temple of Sulis Minerva.

What we found to be most interesting was the section about the structural design of the baths.

We also attended the guided tour to learn more about the structure and history behind the baths behind the archaeological findings.

Watching the following documentary adds on to what we have learnt about the structure of Roman baths:

We were very impressed by our visit.  It is definitely a place worth visiting.  You can take a virtual tour of the great bath (the largest pool) here.

This post is linked up to:
  1. June Culture Swapper 
  2. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/25/13
  3. History and Geography Meme #80
  4. Hobbies and Handicrafts - June 28
  5. Collage Friday - Being Intentional About Doing Nothing
  6. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with Gymnastics Camp

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Backstage Pass

Yesterday, my blog stats jumped five folds.  Wow.  That's thanks to Beth from 123 Homeschool 4 Me who has very kindly listed this blog as one of her 13 Homeschool Blogs You Should be Reading!  I feel it to be a great honour to be publicly mentioned in a positive way by anyone, so I want to take this opportunity to thank Beth and everyone who finds what I write here to be useful.

As we approach our end of year (we plan to start our summer at the end of July), I have been reflecting quite a bit on the school year.  To put it very briefly, I don't feel very successful about this past year, and I am working on plans to bring about positive changes in the new academic year.  Therefore, to find this blog on the list in the midst of my internal struggle to find a solution for what I would consider a 'better' year starting in September, compels me to write this post in order to clarify any romantic/idealistic ideas that anyone might have of how life is around here.

Just to set the record straight:
1.  This blog is a record of one narrow aspect of my life, i.e. the more academic aspects of homeschooling my son.  It is a one dimensional view.  I don't set out to present myself, or my family, or my approach to be perfect, and would be disappointed for anyone to read this blog then go away thinking that I have it all together or all figured out.  As it is, I regard homeschooling as equivalent to my full-time day job, and I put my best efforts into it.  I record and share what works for us in terms of academic pursuits.  I work 'behind the scenes', so to speak, to resolve challenges and personal struggles but I don't feel the need to voice my grievances in public because they are essentially private matters to be resolved privately.

2.  I think motherhood is a very challenging job.  Add homeschooling to that, and the pressure to do well instantly doubles.  If you read this blog and it looks like my homeschool runs smoothly and effortlessly all the time, just know that it takes constant, tremendous amount of work to get here and we are not at where we want to be yet.

3.  My son is a very spirited child.  Like everyone else, his personal characteristics can be interpreted either as strengths or weaknesses depending on the situation he is in.  A child who knows his mind is very rarely one who is also readily compliant or eager to please anyone else.  As his mother and his primary teacher, it is my duty and responsibility to assist him to build on his strengths and to overcome his weaknesses.  This aspect of character building is very seldom mentioned on the blog because: (1) I don't have any curriculum to recommend, and (2) it is a constant work-in-progress so I don't feel I can give any advice.

On that note, I want to let you know that I will not be writing for the rest of the Homeschool Help series.  I have been thinking about it alongside with all the points mentioned above, and I don't feel that I can contribute adequately to the rest of the topics.  Nonetheless, I will continue to support the series by reading the insightful posts written by the other contributors.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Italian Experience - The Disaster

For some reason, we did not study the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius when we studied Ancient Rome.  Luckily, we get to do it this time round because of Marco Polo.  Who would have guessed?

We started by reading many books about the event in Pompeii:


This was followed by several cross-curricula activities from this book, which included learning about Pliny the Elder's route (geography), reading a play version of the story of Pliny the Elder as narrated by his nephew (comprehension, drama, reading), and labeling parts of a volcano (earth science).  The more hands-on activity was the making of a topologic map, 3D model of Mount Vesuvius.

Tiger used some terracota-coloured clay and worked layer-by-layer using the copy of the topologic map provided in the book.  The final result:

Originally, I only intended to watch one documentary, but we ended up watching three different ones to get a really good understanding of the event from different perspectives:

With a good understanding of the event, we were able to better appreciate our visit to the Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition that is currently showing at the British Museum.

While we were there, Tiger attended a full-day workshop related to the exhibition.  At the workshop, the children were introduced to several re-enactors who took on different roles as people who were in Pompeii on that fateful day in AD79: Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, a freed slave girl, a rich merchant, a priestess, a slave.  Through their interaction with these different characters inside the exhibition hall, the children were given good insights into life in Pompeii at that time, how people lived, their different roles, and how the Roman societal hierachy was organised.

We enjoyed our visit to the British Museum so much that we are going to relive the experience on the big screen next week!

This post is linked up to:
  1. June Culture Swapper 
  2. History and Geography Meme #78
  3. Hobbies and Handicrafts - June 14
  4. Collage Friday - Try Not to Destroy Their Imagination
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: Camp Week
  6. Science Sunday: Happy Father's Day
  7. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/18/13

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Science in the Garden

As we continue to spend more time learning science in the garden, we attended a workshop at the Chelsea Physic Garden on this topic.  The garden is an interesting place, to say the least, and its history stretched as far back as 1673.  For a start, we saw the Wardian Case which was invented in 1829 to transport exotic plants on sea.

The garden is home to many plants that are used for medicinal purposes, for example the the Ayurveda tree from India, a cork tree, a Scopolia Carniolica plant (used as a painkiller), and mandrake plants (used extensively in the Middle Ages).

In the small greenhouse, the children were given an introduction to exotic plants such as the cacti, pepper corns, and the pitcher plant.  Our guide talked about how the structure of each type of plant is useful for adaptation to its environment.

In the bigger greenhouse, we saw more plants that have originated from tropical countries: tamarind, black pepper, vanilla, coffee, ginger, and pak choi.

The children spent some time at pond dipping and trying to identify interesting creatures that were caught in their trays.

Pond dipping is not new to Tiger, but what we found most interesting was that there were frog spawn and toad spawn very close to each other in the same pond.  Do you know how to tell them apart?  Apparently, frog spawn comes in a clump, while toad spawn is the stringy one.

Frog spawn - in a clump.
Toad spawn - stringy.
Being in a garden, the children then planted a few seeds in pots to take home for germination.

After our time outdoors, we went indoors to the education room where there were more samples of plants, seeds, and seed pods.

The children were given the task to examine the leaves, seeds, and pods under the microscope to: (1) draw the seeds as they appear under the microscope, and (2) determine how they are dispersed.

Finally, the children dissected the flowers that they collected from outside and labled the various parts of the flowers accordingly.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Spring Carnival
  2. Hobbies and Handicrafts - June 7
  3. Collage Friday - The Week of Practicum
  4. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the Grumbling
  5. Science Sunday: Nature Study for your kiddos
  6. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/11/13

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Technology: A Few Considerations

The original title of this post is "Your Favourite Apps (iPad or Droid) or Learning Websites".  If you are looking for a list of favourite technological applications, please skip ahead to the bottom of this post to the links of the other contributors since they can probably give you a more comprehensive list than I can.

If, however, you are interested to take a step back from the discussion of the attractiveness of technological applications and consider the soundness of the underlying assumptions, I invite you to join me for the rest of this post.

Nowadays everyone seems to be so wired up 24/7 by all kinds of electronic gadgets that the use of technology is welcomed into all aspects of our lives without question.  It appears to me that almost everyone is so enamoured with the convenience, efficiency, connectivity that technology supposedly offers that many assumptions have been made with regards to it being a solution to all the problems of modern day living.  I would like to suggest that we, as homeschooling parents, make the same careful consideration about the usefulness of technology in our children's educational life as we would about the usefulness of public schooling as part of our children's educational experience.

Consideration 1: Which Aspects of Educational Problem Does Technology Solve?
If you do a quick search on the internet about technology and education, you will find overwhelming support for the use of technology in schools and learning.  Technology can indeed increase access to information for children who live in remote parts of the world where access to modern schooling would otherwise be very difficult.  In such cases, we're talking about access to information.  Amassing information does not automatically translate into being educated, although it is certainly a step above having no information at all.  I am assuming that if you are reading this post, you have overcome barriers to access information so your concern would be that of using technology to help your children gain a better education.

That brings us to the question of definition.  What do we mean by a 'better' education?  Is it academic achievement?  If so, the quote below tells us that technology doesn't solve this particular problem.
"... there is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students' sustained use of multimedia machines, the Internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement."
-- Larry Cuban
former president of the American Educational Research Association

Are we then referring to motivational issues whereby we believe that children will learn certain subjects (e.g. reading, maths, chess) more effectively using software programmes with cartoons and/or animations?  Apart from some children with very specific developmental needs who may benefit from such instructions, I am not sure learning from a machine is more gratifying than learning from an interested adult, especially for a child.

As for using technology to hold children's interest, I would strongly suggest prioritising the child's social and emotional needs first.  Many so-called motivational or behavioural issues displayed by children and adolescents are symptoms of unmet social and emotional needs, which can only be corrected through interaction with another caring human being.  Don't take my word for it -- do your own research and decide for yourself whether this is true.
"... education is not a mechanical system, it's a human system.  It's about people."

Using technology as a substitute for human interaction in the face of learning issues does not offer any effective long-term solution.  Take for example playing chess.  I could have easily saved myself the trouble of driving over 30 miles each week to take Tiger to the chess club by having him play against chess softwares online.  But I don't.  Chess softwares can't model resilience (losing a game with grace, winning a game with integrity), humour, and friendship in the ways that his chess coach and team mates can. 

Consideration 2: Age Appropriateness
By age appropriateness, I am not referring to the content ratings such as PG or 12+, etc.  I am thinking about whether the use of technology is what children need most to achieve a balanced development in childhood or adolescence.  While technology offers much convenience and efficiency to the work of adults, I am not convinced these same goals are applicable to children's development.  I strongly recommend parents do their own thorough research into child development, brain neurological pathway developments, and child psychology to determine for themselves whether factors such as having a strong relationship to caring, communicative adults in the family, developing empathy and social skills in the real world, establishing a connection and an awe for the natural world, are not as important, if not more appropriate, for the child to become a well-adjusted, balanced individual.  This report is a good place to start.

When I travel on the London Underground these days, I often see families where each member appears to be more interested in their hand-held devices than interacting with one another or noticing what is around them.  I have watched a preschooler who did not look up once from his iPhone game (no doubt it must have been an "educational" game) for the entire one-hour journey on the Tube.  His parents were sitting on either side of him, equally engaged in their own iPhones either texting or playing games.  What happened to face-to-face human interaction?  How much creative thinking or real people skills is a child who spends more time looking at a screen than looking at real people's faces going to have?

Consideration 3: Consumption versus Production
I am aware that some parents are convinced that their children are learning a lot of valuable skills through playing computer games.  I have also read about children who allegedly learn programming skills and games design skills through spending most of their time playing computer games.  If those reports were true, then these remarkable achievements ought to be congratulated.

For many years, my husband and I have tried to elevate our status from 'food consumers' to 'food producers', but we have not had much success with growing our own food.  Having said that, I know of many people who have successfully grown their own food.  That's why I'm not knocking the reports of those outstanding children who have managed to make the leap from being consumers of computer games to producers of those games.  The key difference is making the leap, and I don't think that is an automatic or easy process.  An obvious example is that I haven't heard of any musician who attributes his/her musical achievements to having been exposed to the very lucrative 'Infant Great People' merchandise.

A few people in our family hold well respected positions in the technology industry, and not once has any of them expressed a concern that Tiger is missing out by not spending enough time as a consumer of the latest technological gadget.  In fact, Tiger has proved the whole 'missing out' idea to be a moot point because he was interested enough to persuade his father to spend the most part of a weekend to teach him the basics of network architecture.  Since I don't know much about this part of technology, I am relying on my husband's assessment that Tiger is fully capable of understanding the fundamentals.

In addition, if Tiger didn't know what to do with himself at any time -- that hasn't happened yet -- I would rather see him lose himself in his daydreams or staring at the sky, than to see him spend time in front of a screen.

So, What Applications Do We Use?
We do use technology sparingly at this point, taking into consideration Tiger's age and his needs.  I expect to be using a somewhat different approach during the high school years, so please bear in mind that my response above applies to what I find to be most appropriate for Tiger so far, from birth through the elementary school years.

The most frequent use of technology in Tiger's education is YouTube.  We use it mostly to watch documentaries, as a supplement to what he has already studied from various books.  The other website that we use occasionally is Khan Academy.  I can foresee Tiger using more of this website in the future, but in the near term our focus is still primarily on hands-on, concrete activities.

If you've read the entire post up to this point, I want to thank you for staying with me through the thinking process.  For your patience and tolerance, you can now finally look at lists of useful apps provided by the other contributors:
  • Despite all the technology her family is surrounded with, Bernadette and her crew are NOT Technie Home Schoolers as they are still basically book, paper and ink types.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/4/13
  2. Hearts for Home Blog Hop #20
  3. Collage Friday - The Week of Practicum
  4. TGIF Linky Party #79
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the Grumbling
  6. Share it Saturday
  7. Sunday Showcase - 6/8/13

Monday, 3 June 2013

What's growing in the garden?

Every spring we try to grow something in our garden.  I say "try" because we always have good intentions of having something growing in the garden apart from weeds, but we haven't had much luck.  Nonetheless, this year we're trying again.

This year we bought a few packs of seeds from the supermarket and got ourselves started.  We have two out of three success rate from the first lot.

Encouraged by having seeen some plants actually not dying on us, we bought another lot of seeds (sunflowers and strawberries) and got into the groove of sowing seeds.

It was then that I realised that it would be nice for Tiger to observe the growth of roots and stems.

  1. We gathered different seeds for this purpose: stones saved from an avocado, dried pulses (pop corn kernels, chickpeas, beans, sesame seeds, wild rice, normal rice).  The seeds were soaked overnight.
  2. We lined a few glass jars with kitchen paper and stuffed them with straws to hold the paper in place.
  3. The smaller seeds were pushed in-between the paper and jar so that we can observe any growth.
  4. The avocado stones were planted in pots.
After two weeks, we observed the following: nothing else grew except for the chickpeas.  We were able to see the roots clearly, followed by stems and leaves.

We were put to shame when we visited a permaculture farm where we were shown the basics of this type of sustainable farming that is actually how farming used to be, before commercial farming and the extensive use of pesticides and GM crops came into being.

At first glance the place looks quite untidy, unlike the industrialised farms where everything is highly mechanised and organised.  However, after hearing about the history of how this particular permaculture farm came about and about its development, we could understand why it looked the way it did.  Because the principle of permaculture is such that everything is organic, utilises the laws of nature, nothing is wasted.  Therefore, everything that looks like waste to us (therefore has to be thrown away) is being recycled and/or laid to rot for mulch.

The day at the permaculture farm was an eye-opening experience.  We learnt about the thoughts and plans that went into its development, saw how far removed we have become from our food source, and realised how little I know about the natural way to grow food sustainably.   To be honest, I can't quite get over my own igorance in this area

Update on June 29th, 2013:
I just found the following documentary to add to our understanding of permaculture:

This post is linked up to:
  1. Spring Carnival
  2. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/4/13
  3. Hobbies and Handicrafts - June 7
  4. Collage Friday - The Week of Practicum
  5. Weekly Wrap-Up: The One with the Grumbling
  6. Science Sunday: Nature Study for your kiddos

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Couples and Young Families

Inspired by the pond studies done by Claire and Lucinda, we decided to see what's going on at one of the bigger ponds near us.  Compared to the study done by the above-mentioned families, ours is more like the slacker version of the English pond study.  I wanted to take a break from being indoors, so I took some bird food for Tiger to feed the birds and headed out without any specific lesson plan.  My idea for that day was: we'll just see what we see.  Hardly inspirational, but there you are.  Some days I just need to relax.

The pond was busy, and every bird was hungry.
This year spring has come very late in England so on that day we saw many birds paired up, ready to set up family:
  1. pochard
  2. greylag goose
  3. mandarin duck
  4. mallard
Bird couples
 Further along, we saw a few other birds that seemed to be on their own:
  1. coot
  2. moorhen
  3. mute swan
  4. canada goose
Eligible bachelors
But wait, what did we see among the reed beds?

A young family of Canada Geese
Baby coots!
Mrs Swan sitting on her nest.  Cygnets hatching soon?

What else did we see?  Different shades of green.  With just a quick glance, we saw at least five different shades of green.  Isn't nature simply marvellous?

We took frequent stops on the walk for Tiger to take down a few observational notes in his notepad.  There are no fancy drawings to go with his notes, but he's done better than I have in terms of taking field notes, which means I'd better shape up as a role model in nature journaling... I guess relaxation time is over.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Spring Carnival
  2. Hobbies and Handicrafts - May 31
  3. Collage Friday - Joy and Loss
  4. Weekly Wrap-Up: The First Week of Summer Break 2013
  5. Science Sunday: It's no kids week!
  6. Hip Homeschool Hop - 6/4/13

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