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.


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.

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.



Frank! by Connah Brecon



Frank is a bear who was always late.

It wasn’t that Frank was rude or unreliable. Nor was he a dawdler or a meanderer. 

He just liked to help out.

Frank’s lateness really becomes a problem when he starts school. Each day he is late and each day he tells his teacher a seemingly crazy story as an excuse. He rescues a cat from a tree and the tree runs away with him in it. He gets challenged to a dance-off. He rescues bunnies from ogres. The teacher and the reader have to wonder if Frank’s stories are just stories until the ending when Frank is called on to step up and save the entire school.

Overall, this is a a fun, quirky book. Readers of this blog know that I’m a little tired of the quirky trend in children’s literature. Frank felt different to me though. Connah Brecon has managed to achieve kid quirky with just the right amount of weird flights of imagination that real kids have, as opposed to adult slightly snarky quirky which is the trend I don’t like.

The colors and cartoon-like illustrations are bright and cheerful. On going back for a second read, I discovered lots of clever details I missed the first time. For example, all the stores in Frank’s town sell clocks or watches. Or the dance-off is raising money for people with two left feet.

I did wish that the plot was a little more cohesive and that the ending had a better explanation. A lot of zany things happen to Frank but they didn’t necessarily all fit together until the ending, which felt a little forced to me. And the last page seemed to me to need a bit more explanation. I think those issues are a little bit nit-picky on my part. The kids thought it was  a fun book and I think most kids would agree with them.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

This and That


We’re back in the full swing of school and activities and I find myself with tons of ideas of things to write about but not much time to sit down and do it. My friend Amy at Hope is the Word does an end of the week post called Odds and Ends that is part homeschooling weekly wrap-up and part a lovely mish-mash of things going on in her life. So I thought I’d try something similar.


* School is going well. John is more and more independent with his work. He is using AoPS Pre-Algebra this year for math and loving it. For some odd reason he likes to his math in the bathtub (without water). He’s good about getting it done, so I’m ok with the unorthodox location. AoPS is a challenging curriculum but so far it’s working great for him. The other big winner for him is the unit study approach we’re doing this year, which means he mostly reads. He’s loving that and it gives him a little more flexibility with his time to do other things.

*For David the big winner is the new writing curriculum we are using, Writing and Rhetoric from Classical Academic Press. We’re using the Fable book and he is really enjoying the chance to be a bit more creative with his writing. Well, he’s enjoying it as much as he enjoys anything about school. He’d prefer to spend the day riding his bike around and around our back yard, playing with our dog and building things with Legos. He gets to do all of those plenty, but he sees the rest of life as an interruption from playtime.


*Ruth is the opposite. She still is living up to her Little Miss Enthusiasm title and loving pretty much everything about kindergarten. Everything.

*Unintentionally we’ve had a slow ramp-up to all our fall activities. We started school in mid-August and had two weeks of just school which was nice. Then we added in ballet and co-op. Then the next week Scouts. Then tennis and piano and Odyssey of the Mind last week. And next week swimming starts for John, which is three times a week this year. That’s a lot of outside activities but doing it slowly has made it seem much less overwhelming.

IMG_0561 *We’re studying Astronomy all together as a family. We’ve done some activities from Science in a Nutshell kits. We’ve also been enjoying watching episodes from Cosmos. This is a really well-done series and both boys find it fascinating. Ruth prefers Magic Schoolbus, so we alternate which one we watch during our roughly weekly popcorn and a movie lunches.

*The best find of the week might have been a new-to-me food website, Budget Bytes. So far we’ve tried Creamy Vegetarian Enchilada Pasta and Greek Marinated Chicken. The whole family loved both (well the vegetarian member didn’t eat the chicken but otherwise they were both gobbled up). Both were easy and I’m definitely going to be going back for more ideas.


*Fall birthday season has begun with Ruth turning five. She likes to look back now on the good old days when she was four and “little”.

*We’ve been enjoying some of the cultural offerings at a local movie theater. H. and John went to see a production of Twelfth Night from the Globe Theater. It’s part of a series of plays that were “captured live” and then are being shown in movie theaters. Next week, H. and I have a date to go see another play at the same movie theater. And today, the whole family went to a free Family Film showcase that was part of the DC Shorts Film Festival.

IMG_0814*We’ve also been enjoying the gorgeous weather with lots of walks (with our newish puppy) and playing in the backyard. Ruth has almost mastered riding a bike without training wheels and the boys spend nearly every waking minute not doing school on their bikes. I’ve been working on our yard a lot this summer. I’m not really a gardener but I feel like it’s looking pretty good.

*As always, we’ve been reading a lot lately. I write about that in other posts so I won’t mention all the books here. Suffice to say that we have again maxed out our library cards, which means we have 150 books checked out of our local library. It’s 50 books a card, so I’m thinking Ruth needs to sign up for a card this year.





Scenes from Dulles Air and Space


DSCN1869a DSCN1979 DSCN1961a DSCN1952 DSCN1883We’re studying Astronomy now for Science so a trip to the  Air and Space Museum seemed appropriate. I like the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center location out at Dulles better than the museum on the Mall because it’s so huge that even when crowded it doesn’t feel like a crowd. Air and Space on the Mall always makes me feel a bit claustrophobic because it’s so incredibly popular with tourists. We happened upon the Dulles museum on a day when it was so uncrowded as to feel empty. And that’s saying a lot for a building so large that it houses an actual space shuttle in just it’s smaller wing.

The only downside to the Dulles location is the parking fee. It’s not a lot ($15 a car) but when you live in a city with free museums, you tend to get a little grumpy about paying anything at all. This time though we discovered that they have free parking after 4:00. And even better, in the summer they have extended hours until 6:30 which made the trip even more worth it.

A virtually empty free museum filled with cool planes and amazing space stuff ? Maybe putting up with the traffic up here is worth it after all.



Colors of the Wind


At the age of 15 George Mendoza suddenly began to go blind. In only a few months he had lost most of his sight, retaining only his peripheral vision. Despite what must have been a devastating loss, Mendoza found ways to overcome his disability. He first found an outlet in running: setting the world record for a mile run by a blind runner and twice going to the Olympics for the Disabled. Later, at the prompting of a priest friend who told him to paint what he saw, he began to turn his visions of colors and shapes into works of art.

Those works of art are the clear stars of this book. Each page layout has a full page full-color image of one of Mendoza’s bright joyful paintings. Many kids will enjoy looking at the book solely for the paintings alone. The story itself is told in spare prose on the other page of each layout accompanied by a simple pen and ink illustration. The illustrations often have a bit of color from the painting on the paired page which works well to tie everything together. The text by author J. L. Powers gives a summary version of Mendoza’s story, focusing on his determination to share his unique “vision” of the world.

The only thing I wished with this book was for slightly more information. There is an author’s note at the end which fleshes out some of the details of the story that are skimmed over in the text. However, I think even young kids will feel that there are places in the story that they are left wanting more. The most striking for me was when Powers quickly glosses over Mendoza’s trips to the Olympics and left me wondering how exactly he was able to accomplish such a feat. And maybe it’s just my medical background, but I really wanted to know even a little more about Mendoza’s blindness and his visions.

The title of the book comes from a blind girl who asked the teenage Mendoza what colors the wind is. Later when he began to paint he remembered that question and tried to show what colors he saw in the wind and the world around him. As I’ve  mentioned here before, I like to do art projects associated with books about artists. This book seems like it would be a perfect jumping off point for some really cool art with the kids.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

Stop by Non-Fiction Monday for more great kid’s non-fiction.