Friday, September 26, 2014

Road Trip and Multigenerational Lessons

Living in Texas means more time with grandparents...which means more road trips.  As often as we can, we make the trek to Dallas to visit.  And on the way we always stop at Baylor University.  And the main attraction is always a stop at the bear's home.  The bears are the mascot and are treated like royalty.  Their names are Joy and Lady.  This provides a wonderfully long time for the children to observe bears up close and personal.  They make comments about the size of their paws, compare them to the much bigger grizzly bears they had learned about when we visited the Grand Teton National Park, and make plans to research to see what black bears eat. 

I love her expression as she watched me with my camera!

Sic 'em, Bears!  By the way, these bears are trained to do the Sic 'em Bears bear claws.  If weather conditions, game conditions and the mood of the bears are all good, these big girls also make an appearance at Baylor football games.  I can assure you, it is quite impressive (though I'm just a tad bias...but seriously, the other team shows up with a mascot in costume, and we show up with live black bears!  I'm just sayin...).  :)

Our visits to Baylor's campus are always a highlight for everyone.

Then on to Dallas to visit grandparents.  And here is where organic learning really shows its colors.  Because learning is not relegated only to textbooks but is instead part of everyday life, we continue learning while we are on road trips.  Learning is not just something that happens from 8am until 3pm, Monday thru Friday.  It is a lifestyle, and that lifestyle continues no matter what we are doing or where we are going.  So, when they get to their grandparents' house, they play and explore.  

Today the boys came up with this unique activity.  They played a game of sorts, where they challenged each other to create something.  They had access to Grandpa Jerry's tools and raw materials.  And their rule for this activity was that they had to make their creation in secret without letting each other see it until it was finished.  See, I had nothing to do with this activity.  In fact, I was taking a nap while they went outside with their grandpa.  When I woke up, I asked what they were doing, and this is the activity they were involved in...of their own choosing.

See some math going on here?  A ruler was used to measure wood for one of the projects.  They weren't measuring something because it was a school assignment but rather because it was necessary for what they wanted to accomplish.  And this is what I love about organic learning.  It's a lifestyle.  They learn because they want and need to know something specific.

Clenching his teeth while he worked, T sanded the wood to make a frame.  His grandpa taught him the basics, and then he took it from there and sanded for a long time.  This was big fun.  Access to tools and raw materials is a great experience.  

And Grandpa Jerry gives some pointers.  This multigenerational learning is something they all love.  It's living life together and passing on experiences and lessons from one generation to the next...and having the best time doing it too.  This is priceless.

Here's the frame he created, and look at the rounded edges.  Very impressive.  Tomorrow he and his grandpa are planning to make something to go inside the frame.  It's a secret.

And here is D making his creation.  It is a sled.  Here he's explaining to me his idea.

It takes lots of work to get the nails in the boards straight.  Lots of tries and well as a sense of accomplishment when it is finished. 

And this is when D unveiled his surprise creation to T, and they talked about how cool it is.

When learning is a lifestyle and happens organically as life unfolds, there is an almost limitless amount of experiences and activities that can be launched.  And it can happen just as easily on a road trip as well as at home.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NONthreatening Math

I'm blogging this on the heels of the post about Organic Learning in Math.  This goes hand-in-hand with that post but deserves its own dedicated space.  

Let me just put it out there. Of all the "subjects," math is most often the one that has both a fan club and a haters anonymous.  Right?  Many children develop math phobia.  I was one of those kiddos myself.  I remember being in Mrs. Finn's 2nd grade class, and I asked her this question: "If multiplication yields bigger answers than addition, then why is it that 1 plus 1 equals 2, while 1 x 1 only equals 1?"  Good question, right?  But Mrs. Finn didn't like that question, so she put me in timeout in the "bad kid's desk" and made me face the wall until I could figure out the answer to my dumb question.  Yep.  Good ol' Mrs. Finn (whom I've forgiven, by the way).  I bawled and bawled for what seemed like hours, and I never did figure out my answer.  From that young age, math became threatening to me.  And for one reason or another, math is often threatening to many children.

My opinion on why?  Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the environment in which we approach math.  Is it safe?  Loving?  Patient?  Stress-free?  And those crazy textbooks can be pretty intimidating for the youngest of children.  This is because their minds are still working in concrete terms, not abstract.  Then we place an abstract math problem in front of them: 1+ 4 = ?   And their brains have a difficult time understanding.  Math often gets placed into the "wow...that was hard to understand" category.  And, unfortunately, bad reputations are hard to shed.  Poor math!

So, it's essential that in the younger grades, we give children concrete tools to work with.  There are several curricula out there that do this.  I have enjoyed Shiller Math.  It is a Montessori-based math program with lots and lots of good hands-on materials and activities.  For our youngest children (K- 2nd or 3rd grade), we purchased Kit 1.  You can see all the goodies in the box if you go HERE.  And I  have been very happy with this.  T did this last year until he felt very ready to move onto the abstract math on paper in another curriculum.  Until that point, he was doing all math with manipulatives.  It felt a lot like play time, not math time.  

Here is G after I pulled out the Shiller Math mat yesterday, which she knows means a fun activity is coming up.  

Here is a Shiller Math activity that G really enjoyed last year, so this is the first activity we pulled out this year.  She was comfortable with it and had fond memories of it, so she did a great job identifying every shape.  This doesn't feel like math.  It's simply a fun game to her...find the triangle, find the hexagon, etc.

But let me show you what happened when the lesson in Shiller asked me to show her 2 circles on paper and ask her to point to the bigger circle and then the smaller circle.  This is a FINE activity, and most children can do this easily.  But do you remember the blog post where I talked about how she shuts down and completely freezes when she feels the least bit threatened or under pressure?  Well, I happened to catch one of those moments on camera.  I was hoping to just get a photo of her doing a simple math lesson, but as it turned out, this particular lesson felt threatening to her.  Perhaps it's because it didn't feel like a game or fun but instead just looked like a paper that required her to "perform."  

Here's the paper that I showed her.  We talked about bigger and smaller, and I showed her the bigger circle and the smaller circle.  Then I asked her to point to the bigger circle.

Shut-down mode began...  Hands to her mouth, eyes diverted away from me, withdrawn.

I repeated it, showing her the bigger circle and then the smaller circle and then asking her to show me the bigger circle.  Nope.  Shut-down mode progresses to the next zone-out...looking away from me and away from the paper...won't say anything, won't move.

She freezes, with her eyes being the only thing moving (darting back and forth...her biggest sign of stress).  This all happened within about 2 minutes...from happy to frozen.  As a momma, I need to be able to see the signs of a threatening environment and do whatever I can to help change it.

I quickly changed the activity back to the shapes so that she could experience some happy before we closed the math box up for the day.  She sat up and got right back into the swing of things once she saw a fun math activity come onto the mat.  I put the book away and made a mental note that I needed to cover the concept of "bigger" and "smaller" in some fun way during our regular days.  I needed to present the same concept but in a very nonthreatening way.  (**Side note: Shiller Math is NOT the problem.  It is a great math curriculum, and we love it.  But for this one child on this one day, that particular math activity just felt threatening.  So, we had to change things.) 

Soooo, the next day, I grabbed 2 Pooh bears.  G saw me carrying them and was thrilled that Mama was playing with Pooh.  I sat them on my bed and talked about BIGGER POOH and smaller Pooh.  This was fun to her.

She grabbed onto Pooh's feet as I talked about him.

Then I asked her to point to the "BIGGER POOH."  Yay.

And which one is the smaller Pooh Bear?  

And let's look at it in another fun way.  Bath cups.  I talked about the bigger cup and the smaller cup.

I asked her to show me the smaller cup.

And which is the bigger cup?

Ahhhh, concept grasped (and will be repeated many other times when we see big/small comparisons in real life).  This time the concept was presented in a fun, familiar, nonthreatening way.  And THIS is how math should be.  Because it really IS fun.  One day, she will probably be able to do the activity in the book without any issue, but for now, I will work with her and make math as fun and safe as I can.   And as she grows, we will continue to do this by way of fun math games, a relaxed approach to math textbooks, and an incorporation of math into everyday life. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Organic Learning : Math

For families considering a more natural approach to learning, perhaps the biggest question is: What about math?  And I believe that there may be as many answers to that question as there are families.   And even from year to year, the answer to that question may change within the same family and from child to child.  So what you're going to read here is just one family's approach to math.   

Let me get this off my chest: I am really not happy with any one math curriculum.  There.  I said it.  I've been exposed to MANY math curricula over the years, and not one of them makes me sigh contently.  With that being said, our choice of math this year was based on the professional advice of a neurodevelopmentalist in the Atlanta area.  By degree, she is an engineer and has a high view of math.  By profession, she specializes in training brains.  So, after debating many math choices, I decided to go with her recommendation.  For elementary, she recommends Spectrum Math.  These are very straight-forward math books that show some promise.  A bonus is that they are inexpensive.

The neurodevelopmentalist recommended a certain method of teaching new concepts in a way that the brain can learn easily.  She said for the teacher/parent to do 2 math problems so that the child can see how it's done.  Then allow the child to do 3 math problems on their own.  If they do them correctly, then lesson done.  Keep it short (which keeps in step with Charlotte Mason's brilliant idea of short lessons).  It is not necessary to do all 600 problems on the page.  If the child does not understand, simply do 2 more problems and then let the child try again.  This seems almost too simple, but if a woman who has been specializing in brain training for 25 years says it works, I'll go with it.  So far, so good.  Lots of success...and no whining children.  I'll let you know at the end of the school year if I've finally found a math curriculum to smile about.  

For high school students, the neurodevelopmentalist recommended the Keys To series, which does seem to be a good approach for the brain to process algebra and geometry.  Our high school student is very right-brain dominant...incredibly gifted in the arts...and with not the least bit of love for math (just like her Mama).  So, even the Keys To series needed a boost. We threw in some Painless Algebra this year.  Not sure how painless it really is, but let's just say that we are praying and plodding our way through algebra.     

So, how do we do math in an organic learning style?  Well, for us, we always include math in our daily life.  We are always cooking and baking, so we are always measuring, converting fractions, doubling recipes, etc.  And math really does come up often in the course of daily happenings or in things we read.  For example, the other day we were reading about the number of pilgrims who survived the first rough winter, and one of the children figured out how many had died, based on knowing how many pilgrims began the voyage in the first place.  This is higher-level thinking, as it is applying math in order to solve something they want to know, rather than simply what a random math problem asks them to figure out.  To me, this is the goal...that they can APPLY what they learn in math to real world situations...that they know HOW to think on their own.

I've heard of many unschoolers who don't open math books but rather learn math in life, and I applaud them.  I've heard of many who go on to higher maths, naturally intrigued by math.  If this interests you, you can simply google unschooling math and do quite a bit of reading.  But after reading much information about it, I decided to keep math books in our lives but to have a relaxed relationship with them.  In other words, we do use math books, but we also have many other avenues of learning math in very fun ways.  

Here are our math shelves...  Math takes many forms, and games are a GREAT way to learn math.  Have you ever been the banker in Monopoly?  Now that's a way to do math for HOURS!  All the games on the math shelves are fun, so these are inviting and aren't seen as "work."

Here's one of my personal favorite games: Color Connection Maze made by Discovery Toys.  I've actually had this game for 17 years, and it's still working perfectly and still one of the favorites.  I cannot seem to locate it on DT's website, so I'm wondering if they no longer make it!  UGH, too's just the best ever.

The goal is to get the little balls into their respective color slots below.  You can do this by colors (i.e. to get the pink ball into its slot, you need to choose the red and the white switches on the left + white equals pink) OR you can do this by numbers (the pink ball needs to go into the pink slot below, which has the number the child can choose the 8 and the 1 switches on the left in order to add up to 9).  After the switches are chosen, they hit the play button and watch to see if the ball rolls correctly through the maze and then drops into the correct slot.  It's a GREAT way to do addition.  Keep in mind that this is FUN, not "work."

You can up the difficulty level by covering up the maze so that they aren't tempted to trace the path with their fingers but rather figure it out mathematically.  You can also up the difficulty level by setting the timer so that they finish the maze within a set period of time.

Here we see that the brown ball is the next one that needs to be placed into its correct slot.  Looking down at the brown slot below, we can see that brown has the #14.  To get 14, we need to choose the switches that are labeled 8, 4, 2, which add together to get 14.

Then, he hits the play button to see if the brown ball falls into the correct slot.  And yay, it did!  There is immediate reward for correct answers.  

Here's another math game.  This one is the Multiplication Master, and it is a timed game to see how many correct multiplication problems you can do within a certain amount of time.  This is much more fun than using flashcards to practice multiplication tables.  You can also try to beat your high score, so there's always a competitive aspect.  I found this math game at Toys R Us some months ago.

This is not what I would call a "fun game," but it is definitely a much more interesting way to do some basic math sentences.  This can take the place of boring columns of math problems that test basic skills.   

This game is made by Discovery Toys.  It covers a range of skills for younger children...matching colors, matching shapes of bugs, adding, completing patterns, etc.

Also from Discovery Toys, I have Playful Patterns.  These also cover a range of skill levels, beginning with fairly simple and getting more difficult.  

If this one looks simple, think again!

When I pull out these games, I do not announce that we are going to be "doing math."  I simply pull it out as a fun game.  Sometimes I will pull out the quieter of these games for one child to do while I read aloud that day.  Sometimes I pull them out for one child to do while another child helps me make dinner.  These are FUN (not work!), and I keep it that way.  But, while they are having fun, I also know that they are learning math concepts.  

Blokus is a game that is fun for everyone to join in.  We have both the travel size game for 2 people and this full-size game for 4 people.  (Sorry for the photo with a mind of its own that will not turn on its side no matter what I try!)  We pull this game out, and the whole family enjoys it.  Our littlest, who is not developmentally ready for this game, also sits with us and helps me organize my game pieces (which are bright and shiny and very fun to play with).

Also on the math shelves are fun math books.  These put math in story form and make a concept come across in the course of short stories with characters.  The ones I have for the younger children are Math Start.  

One day last week, instead of working in the math book with addition problems, I pulled out this book and read it to one of my children (and all of them listened in).  This particular book was about counting the number of shoppers who walked into the mall and awarding the 100th shopper with some silly gifts.  The children had to add groups of people and then add them all up to see when they reached 100. 

And the books I have for the upper elementary ages are the Sir Cumference books, which are raved about.  These are located on the math shelf and are picked up when someone has an interest.  I often don't know they are even using these until a child will come tell me what a good book they just read about Sir Cumference.  The math concepts in these books are great.  I could also choose to pull out one of these books after one of the children has covered a certain concept in his simply solidify the concept in a fun way.  But, so far, D has picked these books up on his own in his free time because they are enjoyable.  Again, it's fun, not the concepts are learned almost effortlessly...AND in they mean something.

 And there's a good activity book that goes along with the Sir Cumference books.  Interesting activities can be done in conjunction with the books that are read so that the child can try his hand at the math concept that was presented in the adventure they just read.

This is another book we sometimes use: Math Perplexors.  It contains perplexing stories that require students to use deductive reasoning to figure them out.  These are definitely challenging and use higher-level thinking skills.  Great to add in every once in awhile for a challenge.  If they did these every day, it would probably be frustrating (especially to those children who are not in love with math).  But done once a week or a couple of times a month is a nice change in pace to challenge them to figure out the math "mystery" in the story.  I like these perplexors.

Okay, let's talk organic math for special needs children.  G is very much an organic learner.  No canned lessons for this one.   So today she asked me if I could do these certain flash cards with her.  They were up in a cabinet, and she requested them.  I'm not normally a fan of flash cards, but since this child loves these particular ones (as in, she claps and says ooooooh when I pull them out!), we dive in.  

Today we chose to do the shape and color cards.  I like them because they repeat.  I've laid out the black and blue cards to show you what I mean.  There are many other colors too, so we just keep repeating.  She says, "Black circle" and then moves on to the next card and says, "Diamond," then "Oval," etc.  When we switch to another color, she says, "Blue Circle," and so on.  She does these well.  She does hang up in a few places.  For example, she confuses rectangle and square.  And she struggles greatly with saying "Square," which has that difficult consonant blend (though I will say that I was thrilled when her very last time of saying "square" was verrrry close!!).  As far as shapes and colors, she's golden and was most thrilled with herself today.  (Again, doesn't like to rotate in Blogger for some reason)

To recap...  Learning math organically can happen with or without textbooks.  We choose to incorporate the textbooks that were recommended for building brains, but we don't use those exclusively nor do we complete every math problem on every page.  We supplement in many math games, fun math books and real life math as often as we can.  Any math concept that we can illustrate in real life, we do that in preference to textbooks.  We are relaxed with math as with other "subjects."  If one of my children has been working in his math book for a few days but then wants to take a break, he will pull out a math game.  Or sometimes I will look at his math problems for the day and realize that we have a game that covers that same concept, so I will suggest that he pull out the game instead (though ultimately I leave the choice to him).  Sometimes a child will be so intrigued with his math lessons that he CHOOSES to do 3 lessons that day instead of 1.  I am supportive of this too.  Organic learning has wonderful freedom within boundaries.

In the high school years, we relax math by allowing our daughter to choose when she does her math.  She knows she needs to complete her algebra in order to receive credit for it, but we don't keep her on a tight all-day schedule with a block of time set aside for math.  We tried that last year, and we all hated it.  So, we relaxed her schedule, and she responds much better and is more productive being in charge of her own hours and lessons.  I will go into this in more detail when I blog about organic learning in high school (which some of you have asked about).