Nonfiction Monday: Mysterious Patterns


When you think “math picture book” the words captivating, beautiful, and great kid appeal don’t typically come to mind. At least not to my mind. I might think educational but dull. Or interesting but not visually appealing.  Sarah C. Campbell breaks all those stereotypes with Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature.

The book begins with simple shapes familiar to most kids: spheres, cylinders and cones. She shows how these shapes are found in man-made items and also in nature. Campbell then introduces the concept of fractals (regular repeating patterns of shapes of diminishing size) by showing shapes from nature that traditionally were thought to be too messy to describe. (Think broccoli or a fern.) In 1975, a mathematician named Benoit Madelbrot introduced the concept of fractals and showed that those messy complex shapes are really made up of patterns of smaller parts. Campbell uses photography to highlight many examples of fractals: trees, lightening, mountains, human lungs.  Although fractal geometry is mathematically complex, even young kids should come away with some understanding of the concept.

Campbell includes instructions for making your own fractal at the end of the book. An afterword by Michael Frame, a Yale math professor and colleague of Mandelbrot, gives a little more background information on Mandelbrot himself and further expounds on why the concept of fractal geometry is so useful. (The wiring on the Internet is a fractal, DNA is a fractal, seismography uses fractals.) The coolest example he gives that should leave older kids wanting to learn more is an example of a radar invisibility cloak that uses the concept of fractals. (Just one step away from Harry Potter.)

More math books reviewed here at Supratentorial: 

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heligman (biography of Paul Erdos)
Edgar Allen Poe’s Pie by J. Patrick Lewis (math puzzle poems)
Mathematickles by Betsy Franco (simple math poems)
The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang (simple counting puzzles)
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (goofy story with math puzzles)
Mystery Math by David Adler (algebra introduction)
That’s A Possibility by Bruce Goldstone (probability and statistics for elementary students)
Zero is the Leaves on the Tree by Betsy Franco (introduces concept of zero)
You Can Count on Monsters by Richard Evan Schwartz (incredibly creative book on factoring)

Ok, so maybe I should go back and amend that statement about math books not being captivating or appealing to kids. Or maybe I should go back and read my own archives more often. I’m thinking of putting several of these on my library list; I’d forgotten about them and how good they are.

 Mysterious Patterns was nominated for a Cybils award this year in the Elementary/Middle Grade Non-Fiction Category.

Dog vs. Cat


Dog vs. Cat is one of those picture books that the adults in the house enjoyed just as much (and maybe more) than the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Button both happen to purchase a new pet on the same day on different sides of town. Having only one room for a pet, the dog and cat have to share a room. What happens next isn’t unexpected but is quite fun. Chris Gall’s clever text and even more clever cartoon like illustrations tell this familiar story in a fresh way.

First, the Odd Couple-like pair tries to get along. Dog shows Cat how to chase a tail (Cat’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding me…”) Cat shows Dog how to curl up with a good book (Dog: “Boring.”) But their differences become too much and the situation escalates to all out war: Cat fills Dog’s water dish with hairballs; Dog pours the water over Cat’s head at naptime. However, when they are finally separated they begin to miss each other and in the end they find themselves united against a common enemy: the Button family’s newest “pet”. (Hint: it’s loud and sleeps in a crib.)

The genius of this book is in the details, most of which are in the illustrations. The dogs at the animal shelter are holding up signs when Mr. Button comes to visit that read: “I like you”, Take Me!”, “I want to Lick You!” and “I”ll be your Best Friend!”. By contrast the cats at the cat store have signs that read: “I’m kind of a big deal…”, “I’m not looking at you.”, “Warning- High Maintenance” and “Whatever”. Perhaps it’s just that we’re former cat people who have adopted a dog this summer but we all found this one hilarious. Recommended for dog people or cat people or anyone who has a sense of humor.


Astronomy Adventures


 We’ve spent the fall studying Astronomy as a family. Both boys read and enjoyed David Aguilar’s 11 Planets: A New View of the Solar System. Put out by National Geographic after the new definition of “planet” that demoted Pluto, this book offers a fantastic introduction to our solar system. Each planet including the three dwarf planets (Pluto, Ceres and Eris), has a two page spread. The information is simple enough that my third grader understood it, yet comprehensive enough that my sixth grader (and his mother) learned some new facts about our solar system.

The back pages of 11 Planets include an activity to make a scale model of the solar system. This was similar to an activity we did three years ago when John was in 3rd grade. I remembered it being fun and a good visual representation of the vastness of the solar system so we decided to do it again.

It’s a fairly simple activity. You find items to represent the sun and the 8 planets (plus the three dwarf planets) IMG_1283. I didn’t get a photo this year of the things used, you can look back at my old post if you are interested. 11 Planets  has ideas for items to use; the first time we used the suggested items from this website. This time we used a small pumpkin as the sun. Earth was a mustard seed. The biggest planet, Jupiter, was a cherry tomato. Pluto was supposed to be a single speck of baking soda but I’d like to ask David Aguilar exactly how he managed to do that. I just drew a miniscule dot on an index card to represent the dwarf planets.

Once you have the items, head out somewhere where you can lay them down.  11 Planets and the website linked above both have directions for how far to walk each time. You will need a fair amount of distance. We walked about half a mile or more and we opted not to walk all the way to represent Pluto as the kindergartener in our group was getting grumpy. We are lucky to live very close to a bike trail which is ideal for this, providing a long straight path.

The wow factor is in how far you have to walk between the planets once you get to the gas giants. It’s also pretty interesting how close the four rocky planets are. The other wow item in the 11 Planets version was to include a comet, represented by 70 feet of ribbon. This was the almost the same distance as between Mars and Earth. That was mind-boggling. The other mind-blowing addition was to include an orange to represent the next closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri. The idea was to get to the end and then tell them we would now walk to the next closest star, but to have it be the correct-to-scale-distance they had to walk 2400 miles. However, we did this activity pre-lunch and to appease the grumpy kindergartener we had to eat Proxima Centauri midway through the solar system.

IMG_1286We joked that only in a homeschool could you combine snacktime, science, PE, nature study and pet care. And include three grades together. I’m not sure how much Ruth got out of this except to think the Sun is a pumpkin. But since I wrote last time that David thought that planets are peanuts I doubt it will cause her any lasting harm or confusion. It was a perfect activity for David’s age and a great review for John.

John has enjoyed several other Astronomy related books in the past couple of weeks. Primarily two by Ellen Jackson from the Scientists in the Field series: Looking for Life in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and The Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy and Black Holes. I also purchased Solar System: A Visual Exploration of All the Planets, Moons and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit our Sun before this school year and it’s been a great resource for research. For experiments we’ve been using some Science in a Nutshell kits by Delta Education. Both boys are Scouts and are working on earning various Astronomy badges and pins and things.

DSCN2786However, you can’t really study astronomy only during the day. We were quite lucky recently to be able to see a lunar eclipse. I actually had to go to work so had to do my viewing from the car but H. woke up the kids early and they went our for an early morning walk to catch the eclipse. On Friday we woke John up early so he could see a particularly clear sky where several constellations were visible. We plan on going to a planetarium and observatory and perhaps doing some more night viewing together. A generous friend lent us a very good telescope to use to enhance our studies. But the lunar eclipse reminded me that the best learning often happens when we seize an opportunity to do something together. This didn’t require anything other than waking the kids up and walking down the block to where there was opening in the trees. Learning can be fairly simple and at home and still be extraordinary.


Armchair Cybils!


It’s October and you know what that means, right? If your’e thinking cooler weather, kids in costumes and candy and pretty leaves…we’ll you’re technically right but that’s not the best part of October. The best part is that it’s the beginning of book award season, of course. And of my very favorite bookish challenge, the Armchair Cybils, hosted by Hope is the Word.

It’s super easy and super fun. Just read as many books nominated for the Cybils awards as you want to. Post about them on your blog. Link up. Read about the other great children’s books people are reading. Read more. Repeat. See? Easy and fun.

Head over to Hope is the Word for more details and to join in!

Scenes from the Smithsonian



We headed downtown last week for a field trip at the Natural History Museum. I set up a class at the new Q?rius classroom for John and other middle school and high school kids at our co-op. If you are in the area, I would highly recommend these classes. They are free, interactive, hands-on and really high quality science. If you aren’t in the area, check out the website anyway. They have other resources like live (and archived) webcasts with Smithsonian scientists. While John was in the class, David, Ruth and I had a good time hanging out in the museum.


After the class was over, we all headed to the Museum of the American Indian for lunch (with a brief stop on the overpriced but picturesque carousel). If we are going to spend money on the Mall for lunch, this is where we go. It’s not cheap but the food is excellent. The building is also really beautiful and I always enjoy going inside. I’m not as big a fan of the content which is a bit on the light side, but this day we lucked out and happened on a lunchtime concert by a Chilean music group playing traditional instruments. Ruth and David loved the music and broke out into a wild dance. David in particular could not keep his feet still and was eliciting many smiles from the smallish lunchtime crowd.

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Perhaps the best part of the day for the kids was racing leaf boats down the waterfall outside the Museum  of the American Indian. They could have stayed for much longer than I was willing to. And we stayed quite awhile.

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Finally, we ended up at the National Gallery of Art. Despite all our best efforts, none of our kids like art museums. John hates them and says they put him to sleep. David loves art and I think wants to like looking at it but isn’t there yet. And Ruth doesn’t have the attention span for looking at paintings. However, I really wanted to see the Andrew Wyeth show and one on Degas and Cassett so I made them go. I particularly enjoyed the Andrew Wyeth show. They do all enjoy riding the moving sidewalks back and forth through the light instillation between the East and West wings so we also did that.

As we were leaving I saw a sign for the gallery with Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture. David took an art class this summer where they had studied it so I wanted to show him the real thing. As we wound through the galleries looking for the right one we passed works by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and Degas. I pointed out several of them and we talked briefly as we passed about books we had read about the artists (posts on Matisse and Picasso) and on some of the techniques we had learned about. Art study is something I always feel like we do kind of haphazard but this trip made me realize first of all that we have talked about a lot, even it it’s not necessarily in some kind of systematic or formal way. And secondly, it made me appreciate again where we live and the fantastic resources we have available to us.


Lest all that sound too lofty I’ll fully admit that if you asked them what the best part of the day was they would probably say the leaf boats. Or maybe riding the Metro. Followed by the sticky sweet fry bread at the Indian Museum. They are kids with their priorities firmly in order.

September Reading


Fiction Read in September:

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
When people saw me reading this book and asked me what it was about I kind of mumbled something about not being smart enough to explain it. In a nutshell it was about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing and their ideas about mathematics, philosophy and logic. It was also about the eccentricities of each man and their tragic deaths. It wasn’t a fun read or really what I would call an enjoyable read but it was an interesting read and for that reason I’m glad I read it. 

Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney
Blech. Read for book club. I couldn’t get into this one. I didn’t like any of the characters and couldn’t get interested in what was primarily a character driven book. 

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Wonderful, sarcastic, clever epistolary novel about a middle-aged, bitter,slightly washed-up English professor at a small, not very prestigious Midwestern college. Told entirely through letters of recommendations that the professor is forced to write for his students, the story skewers academia and the literary world. What takes this novel to a higher level than just pure snark is the glimpses of true heart revealed in the professor and his colleagues. I would highly recommend this one for anyone who has ever had to write or read stacks of letters of recommendations and has had to parse the difference between “very highly recommended” and “most highly recommended”. This one’s for you.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
I spent most of the summer listening to this classic on audiobook and loved every minute of the 27 (!!!) CDs. 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Sadly, I am often the worst kind of reverse book snob. Or maybe I’m just a regular book snob. Whatever you call it what I mean is that I often hear of a very popular book and assume I won’t like it because it’s too popular. I’m not sure when I’ll figure out that sometimes popular books are popular because they are GOOD. Gone Girl was one of these. I admit to reading it because I saw the trailer for the movie and thought it looked intriguing but didn’t want to break my “can’t see the movie until you read the book” rule. I am so glad I read it. This was a burn dinner, ignore the kids, stay up way too late reading kind of book. If you’ve read it you know why. If you haven’t, stop being such a book snob and just read it already. 

Bark by Lorrie Moore
I am not a huge fan of short stories. I like the character development that occurs in longer form fiction better. However, I have started to read more short stories because I am growing to appreciate the art form. Moore’s new collection is beautifully written but shows a more bleak side of human relationships than I like to see. I know bleakness exists, but I prefer it tempered with a bit of redemption. There wasn’t much of the latter in these stories. 

Non-Fiction Read in September:

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
This was the last in a series of memoirs or sorts that I read by women (The Empathy Exams, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and My Life in Middlemarch being the others). Lively’s voice is unique in that it comes from a woman in her 80’s. She writes about memory and growing old and her life in books. 

Kindergarten: Ladybugs


Recently Ruth and I spent a week reading about ladybugs. We revisited an old favorite, The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. I can’t imagine that there is anyone out there who doesn’t know this story but if you haven’t yet met the grouchy ladybug, do. My almost 11 year old still loves it when the whale’s tail smacks the ladybug and sends him flying back across the land. It’s a fun book and if you want your fun to come with learning objectives you get lots of animals in their habitats and clocks and telling time.

We also read about a million of the Ladybug Girl books by David Soman and Jacky Davis. I love these odes to imagination. Of all the literary alter-egos that Ruth enjoys, this one might be my favorite. I think she prefers Fancy Nancy or Pinkalicious (both of whom are fabulous) but something about this red tutu wearing super-hero just makes me smile.

Other ladybug books we enjoyed:

Are You a Ladybug? by Judy Allen and Tudor Humphries
Ladybugs by Gail Gibbons
Yoo-Hoo, Ladybug! by Laura Ljungkvist

And why did we read all these ladybug books? Serendipitously, it went along with Ruth’s kindergarten class study of bugs at our co-op.


But the real reason was that our little ladybug turned five.


(Our ladybug with a friend who showed up on our dinner table for Ruth’s birthday dinner.)


Six weeks in: Musings on school


We’re six weeks in to the school year and it seemed as good a time as any to think about how things are going. I find that like my students I’m often relearning the same material over and over (“You CAPTITALIZE the first word in a sentence”, “7 x 8 is still 56 and always will be”,  “It’s and its are not the same thing. And neither are too and to. Not to mention two.”). But for me the lessons are more about expectations.

Lesson #1
You will not finish everything, learn everything or do everything that you want to.

Note I don’t say “you might not finish…”. You WILL not. And yet every year somehow I end up feeling stressed that we aren’t going to “finish” or that we left some things on the to-do list.

Recently, I’ve been in discussions with some parents of younger kids who are concerned that their kids are not learning enough in preschool. It’s tough not to roll my eyes at this. Or to give them a lecture about not worrying so much about what their 2 or 3 year old is learning. From my lofty perch of 7 years down the road, I realize that whether they learn their shapes and colors and letters this year or next will really not matter in the big scheme of things.

However, I was also recently confronted with my own ridiculous worries about “missing something” when I was reading an article that mentioned the Cuban Missile crisis and my first thought was,  “Oh, no! I haven’t really covered that with John! He doesn’t know much about the Cuban Missile crisis.” At which point I had to roll my eyes at myself (tough to do even on a good day) and remind myself that he’s in 6th grade and we can probably manage to squeeze it in before graduation. I’m not sure this worry about something left unsaid/untaught/undone ever goes away for parents, and particularly for homeschooling parents. A good friend of mine who has a daughter who is a senior in high school has confessed to me that she has to fight against a desire to “stuff” all the knowledge she can in her daughter this one last year at home.

So here’s the bad news: you can’t do it. You can’t teach it all. You can’t even teach most of it. You can’t do every project. You won’t finish a lot of the curriculum. You will leave out good things, things that are worthwhile. Things that you will be sad that you left out.

But here’s the good news: You can’t do it all. You can’t ever “finish” learning.  And really as a homeschooler, that should be part of what underlies our very existence. No, we don’t know everything about birds or Roman mythology or car engines or butterflies. We will forget to teach certain dates in history. Heck, we might leave out entire historical periods. There isn’t enough time in the day to cover every subject, even shallowly. But what we can do is teach them skills and teach them how to learn. And perhaps most importantly, we can model a life of learning. We can show them that butterflies and Roman mythology and car engines are all cool things to be interested in. We can glory in the “I don’t know”. We can enjoy it when they teach us something that we “left out” but they learned elsewhere.

Lesson #2
Focus on the yearly goals rather than the daily checklist. 

This one is sort of related to #1 but it seems slightly different to me. Often in the course of the homeschooling day, something will happen that causes our school day to come to a grinding halt. It might be a kid who is struggling with a concept I thought he already understood. It might be a kindergartener who needs a little extra attention and so is choosing to get it by annoying her brother in every way possible. It might be a lesson that takes much much longer than I expected or budgeted for in my plan for the day. So I try and tell myself it’s ok. It’s ok if we don’t finish everything I wanted to that day. Or week. Or month. Or year.

And that’s true. We won’t finish everything. But it also helps me to realize that the more important goals are ones that we are reaching and “crossing” off our list. Maybe we have to take a few days (or weeks) to sloooooow way down in math and make sure a concept is really cemented. So we might not finish that curriculum in the time-frame we hoped for. But the bigger goal, to understand math, is being met.

Sometimes the goals are even less checklisty (it should be a word). With my sixth grader many of our goals this year (and for middle school) are difficult to put on a list. Learning to work independently. Time-management. Being able to clearly express himself in writing and orally. Managing classes away from home. Sometimes I realize that a particular goal is being met even when smaller tasks aren’t being done perfectly or as I imagined them.

A lot of times I realize that the real thing we are working on isn’t academic at all. It’s patience or kindness or perseverance or a cheerful heart or forgiveness. I say that as someone who primarily homeschools for academic reasons. That may be true, but on a particular day working with one child on his need to learn to forgive or another child on developing a better attitude when faced with a difficult task might be the primary goal for that day. I wouldn’t count it a success if we end the year with patient, kind, hard-working, cheerful kids who can’t read or multiply. But I also wouldn’t count it a success if we end the year with kids who can read and do math and know lots about lots of things but who are unkind, impatient, and mean to their siblings.