Thanksgiving Thoughts

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Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article on the front page about people who prefer to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends instead of family. The article was mostly a fluff piece but part of it bugged me enough to want to post about here. Putting aside why the idea of a “Friendsgiving” is news-worthy enough to be on the front page of the A section, the part that bothered me is summed up in this quote:

She is among those who ardently believe in the superiority of a Thanksgiving spent with friends. Benefits: no travel, no drama and the ability to sleep in your own bed, assuming that you don’t pass out on your buddy’s couch. It’s not that Friendsgiving advocates aren’t thankful for family. They definitely are. Just, you know, from a distance.
“There’s something to be said for friends being the family you choose, as cliche as that statement is,” says Alexander, now 31. “You get to be with people you actually want to be around and aren’t just obligated to be around — crazy aunts and uncles and brothers you might not get along with.” (emphasis mine)

What bugged me about this was the underlying assumption that what we should primarily consider on Thanksgiving (or any day) is our own happiness/comfort/satisfaction. Why deal with crazy uncles and brothers who you don’t like? Instead, make your own family. Find your own happiness. I see this attitude extend to other settings. Why stay at a church with that bossy director of ministries? Why stay at a church that doesn’t have the programs I want? The church down the street makes me happier: it offers a thousand different Sunday school classes and kid’s programs and has Starbucks in the narthex. Why deal with my spouse who isn’t so fun anymore after 20 years of marriage? I don’t feel happy. That guy in my yoga class makes me happy because he listens to me and makes me feel good. ( Just to be clear: I haven’t been married 20 years, have never taken yoga and my spouse is still quite fun.) Maybe this seems like a big jump: from Friendsgiving to adultery. But I think the underlying attitude is the same.

I’d argue that there are two good reasons for putting up with Crazy Aunt Lucy or Annoying Choir Director Bertha. First, is that maybe it doesn’t make you happy but it makes them happy. Yes, maybe your Grandma’s store bought pumpkin pie with Cool Whip isn’t the Pinterest-worthy gourmet concoction that your friend Elsa can make. But Grandma is awfully proud of her contribution. Maybe it is more boring to listen to Uncle Jim and Aunt Betty tell about their trip to the Grand Canyon for the eighth year in a row and you would rather be part of a raging party where 20something and 30something hipsters watch retro movies all night long. But Uncle Jim and Aunt Betty love you and look forward to having someone to listen to them.

The second reason is that sometimes it’s good for us to learn how to love the unloveable. It’s pretty easy to be thankful sitting at a table full of cool kids just like us. It’s a bit harder to do that sitting next to Uncle Bob who is just dying to tell you why your political party is the wrong one. Or when your teenage niece won’t stop texting during the prayer. When we only love those who are like us and who are easy to love, we take the easy way and we ultimately lose out. Taking one day a year to play Charades with all your crazy relatives is not going to kill you. Boredom or a lack of fun never actually hurt anyone.

Two caveats. First, I do understand that some people aren’t able to be with family on the holidays. It’s too far too travel or too expensive or perhaps, there are deep serious unresolved issues. I’m not talking about that here. We invite friends to our Thanksgiving and are glad when they can come. I think it’s great to have a community of friends around you, especially at the holidays. It was the idea in the article that friends are better (and why) that bugged me. Second, I should say that none of the examples above are my family. I have no Uncle Bob or Aunt Betty or Crazy Aunt Lucy. My family, if they are reading, are of course perfect in every way and would never be annoying in any way. Whew.

So, this Thanksgiving I say, be thankful for your family. Even all the crazy aunts and uncles and siblings who you don’t really get along with. Spend the day thinking about how to make them happy instead of wishing that they would make you happier. Surprise your brother by smiling at his dumb jokes. Humor your aunt by agreeing that her weird Jello salad is “really interesting”. Take a walk with your uncle even though he insists on wearing a turkey hat and saying hello to everyone you see. Embrace the weirdness and awkwardness and craziness. Maybe it will even be fun.

The Scraps Book

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Lois Ehlert is one of those picture-book authors where you can blindly choose a book off her shelf in the library and know you are going to end up with a winner. Favorites of ours include Feathers for Lunch, Planting a Rainbow and Waiting for Wings. Her bright colorful collages are beautiful and have great kid appeal. She writes about topics kids are curious about: butterflies, birds, food, flowers. And she manages to strike that perfect balance of writing simple prose that a 3 year old will listen to but that will still appeal to a much older kid. I’ve always loved the extra notes she includes in each illustration that give just a bit more information about whatever she is writing about.

Her new picture book biography, The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life, is not to be missed if you are also an Ehlert fan. If you aren’t, then read it anyway and see what you’ve been missing. Ehlert uses her trademark collage illustrations to tell about her own life and work. The focus here is on her work, with very basic biographical details. Her parents encouraged her early interest in making things by giving her a private art space where she could create. Artistic kids will be inspired to read about how Ehlert gets ideas for her work and the process she uses to make her books.

Perhaps the highest recommendation I can give this book is that after reading it together David said, ” I feel like doing art now.” And so we did. I think Ehlert would consider that equivalent to a 5 star rating.

The Scraps Book has been nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction category. 

 

Armchair Cybils

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It’s time for the best book challenge around, the Armchair Cybils hosted by Amy at Hope is the Word. The great thing about this challenge is it really simple: just read as many Cybils nominated titles as you can/want to. Simple, fun, with a goal to read a lot. Sold!

As I have in the past few years, I will concentrate on picture books. It gives me an extra reason to look for and read books with my youngest kids (and the 11 year old still enjoys a good picture book too). I haven’t read as much as I had hoped to by this point so I’m just going to link to reviews of what I have read and talk about a few books I’m looking forward to reading. I’ll save discussions of favorites and predictions for when I’ve read more in any one category.

First what I have already read and reviewed:
Fiction Picture Book Reviews:
Brimsby’s Hats by Andrew Prahin
Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder (nominated by me)

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade Book Reviews:
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
Colors of the Wind by J. L. Powers
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Mysterious Patterns by Sarah C. Campbell
The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock (nominated by me)

I have a lot more in my book basket and even more on hold at the library. I’m looking forward to the new Bear and Mouse book: A Library Book for Bear by Bonny Becker. There are three (count ‘em) books by Mac Barnett that look like they could be great (Telephone, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and President Taft is Stuck in the Bath). There is a new book by Marla Frazee, who I love, that looks odd but intriguing: The Farmer and the Clown. In the non-fiction category, there are quite a few in our book basket that I want to read: The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert and Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins. I also want to get my hands on Jason Chin’s Gravity.

Outside of the picture book categories I really can’t wait to read the poetry book Firefly July, reviewed here by Amy. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeir is hard to pass up as a memoir of seventh grade in the 1980’s. I listened to one Meg Wolitzer book and found it kind of meh, but I’ve been wanting to give her another chance since I see so many positive reviews of her work. Belzhar, her new young adult novel, might be the time for that second chance. I think both John and I will enjoy Minion, the companion book to John David Anderson’s Sidekicked. And I can’t pass up Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird as a lifelong lover of Harper Lee’s masterpiece.

Ok, that should keep me busy. Wet your appetite for more? Check out the nominations at the Cybils site or see what everyone else is enjoying at the Armchair Cybils round-up.

Scenes from the Washington Monument

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Someone at our co-op arranged a Washington Monument Field Trip. The Monument had closed for a few years for earthquake damage repair but recently reopened. It was a cold but beautiful late fall day. And quite windy, as you can tell by the flags.

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I’ve lived in the DC area for 21 years and have been in Virginia my whole life but I’ve never been inside the Washington Monument. (At least not that I remember, it’s possible that we went when I was a small child.) I think it’s one of those things that you always think you’ll get to when you live in a place or it seems like something locals don’t do. It was a perfect day for it, with clear blue skies and fantastic visibility all around. The most interesting part to me were the monument stones that are visible on the descending elevator ride.

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I signed up for this field trip a few weeks ago but had been thinking about canceling last week. Due to our fall birthday season (almost over after tonight’s sleepover at our house) we have had a lot of short weeks and missed school. I told H. that I was thinking of not going and he said “That would be sad.” I decided he was right. And he was. It was a beautiful day. We learned a little and had fun together. And they even got in a tiny bit of math and writing and reading and piano before we left. When I told H. about the day he said it sounded like the perfect homeschooling day. Right, again.

A Boy and a Jaguar

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In this new autobiographical picture book, Alan Rabinowitz tells his own story of living with a disability and following a lifelong passion. As a young boy, Alan struggles with stuttering. He is put into a class for disturbed children because he “disrupts the class” with his stuttering. He feels broken.

What makes him feel whole is his ability to talk to animals. He has a special connection with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, although seeing her in her cage makes him feel sad. When he grows up his love for animals leads him to study black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains and Jaguars in Belize. He goes on to work in wildlife conservation and be instrumental in establishing the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize.

Kids who struggle with a disability or with bullying or just with being different will find something to love in A Boy and a Jaguar. However, I think kids who don’t struggle with the same things will still find this a compelling and inspiring story. Rabinowitz’s message isn’t so much overcoming disability as it is one of hope and passion. The stuttering is a key part of the story but it becomes secondary to Rabinowitz’s gift with animals. The biographical information on the jacket says that Rabinowitz believes that he would “not be on the path of his passion- saving big cats” if he had not been a stutterer. He has come to believe that the stuttering is a gift.

I can’t end this review without a mention of the lovely paintings by illustrator Catia Chien. They are the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful book.

A Boy and a Jaguar has been nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category. 

Art x Math = Fun

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David loves art. And hates school, or at least there is nothing about school that he likes as much as playing Legos all day or riding around the backyard on his bike or just doing nothing. He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment but he hasn’t quite gotten to the age where he understands that he might not like learning his multiplication tables but he still has to do it. I’m becoming more relaxed in my schooling approach but I’m not relaxed enough yet to give up the multiplication tables.

Still, even if I can’t take away some of what he doesn’t like, I can add in more of what he does like. Which means more art. Even better if the art also relates to other things we are learning. David has been working on memorizing the poem The Tyger by William Blake:

Tyger, tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

See the rest of the poem at the Poetry Foundation.

A few weeks ago he went through and picked out words from the poem he didn’t know and we used that as a vocabulary list. One of the words was symmetry and I thought it would be fun to explore that concept more fully. I remembered the fabulous book Seeing Symmetry by Loren Leedy and got it out of the library again. Leedy’s book covers all kinds of symmetry: vertical, horizontal, and rotational and gives many everyday examples so that kids can easily start to see more examples of symmetry in the world around them.

That might all sound well and good but what about the art? The classic symmetry art project would be a butterfly, but I found something a little different in a google search that looked fun.

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I used the instructions from this Prezi presentation. First, we talked about symmetry and asymmetry again. We also talked about geometric shapes vs. organic shapes (which nicely fit in with Ruth’s kindergarten math curriculum). Then we drew robots using more geometric shapes. The goal was to have our robots in an asymmetric pose but to have the details on the robot be symmetrical.

IMG_0631Then we painted the robot using acrylic paint and a dry brush. We used a blue toned gray and then tried to do some shadowing and highlights with a shade and tint of the same blue. After letting the paintings dry, we outlined the details in Sharpie marker and then painted the details using mostly warm colors to contrast with the blue tone.

IMG_0634This one cracks me up, it’s Ruth’s robot. I know it’s blurry (sorry about that) but she put shoes with purple flowers, very red lips and hair with a blue headband on her robot. But, hey, it’s symmetrical!

I’m usually more free with art projects. I tend to believe more in the process than the product. It’s ok of it doesn’t “turn out ok”. It was interesting to me doing this project which parts were difficult for Ruth and David. They had a really hard time painting with a dry brush. I realized it’s because we almost always use watercolor and they are much more use to doing very free wash-technique kind of painting. I think in some ways being a bit stricter about how they did it was good for them. I wouldn’t want every art project to follow a recipe but I think it did have value for teaching them how to follow instructions and teaching them a bit about certain techniques (highlighting/shading, dry brush painting, warm vs. cool colors, mixing paints).

There you have it. An art/vocabulary/math/poetry lesson all rolled up into one. If you care about that kind of thing, it probably meets all sorts of core requirements and makes cross-curriculum connections. Or, you can just say it’s better than doing multiplication tables.

 

 

Nonfiction Monday: Mysterious Patterns

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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

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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

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 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.

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Armchair Cybils!

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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!