December 15, 2011

End of the Year

One of the big differences of homeschooling from from the traditional kind is that the calendar is so much more flexible. With two moves in one year, Casia hasn't held to the traditional school year and so we picked up in September in subjects she hadn't completed the previous school year. Now that the calendar year is approaching its end, I thought it would be good to finish up her current courses in math and science and start something new in January. The rest of the topics we'll just continue as planned.

Casia's nearing the end of her Algebra course and Biology as well. I decided that it would be good to finish these up before our break for two reasons. We'll be switching gears to Geometry in math and physical sciences and I need time to plan (I'll get almost a week over break) and she can have a sense of completion on topics that she started almost a year and a half ago, as well as giving her something new to look forward to when we resume school next year. 

In math, it means she has to spend almost double the time each day to get in the extra work, but's she's willingly doing it because she loves geometry and can't wait to move on to that. In science, we've completed all the lessons I'd planned, but I realized that Casia wasn't retaining the science vocabulary, so she's going back and reviewing the whole course for a cumulative final. 

Casia was not a happy camper when I first explained that I was going to test her on everything she'd learned this past year and a half in science. Admittedly, it would have been better had she known going into the course, but it didn't occur to me that she'd forget so much and it would be necessary. Usually her memory is exceptional, but apparently, science terms don't make the same impact on her as say, Magic: The Gathering cards or Doctor Who episodes. I noticed that in Spanish she isn't picking up the vocabulary as quickly as I'd expected either. Since I know she is so much smarter than I am, and these tend to be easy for me, I figured they be a piece of cake for her, but it's definitely not her strong suit. It's always good to identify weaknesses as well as strengths!

I explained to her that if she studies the terms again for the final, it will make it that much stronger a connection in her brain and she's not as likely to forget them in the future. It's her first time having to really study, which, considering she's in middle school, is a good experience in itself. I know it took until college before I really had to work hard on learning (*cough* organic chemistry *cough*). I am glad I get to provide that experience to Casia at an age where the stakes are lower and the shock won't be as severe. 

November 22, 2011


Casia is the type of person who likes to collect. She received two Carebears when she was about two years old and for the next few years, her goal was to collect them all; she came close. She was given a Webkinz a couple years later and the same obsession overtook her. If she has the first in a book series that she likes, she wants the whole set, even after she no longer reads that series (i.e. The Magic Treehouse). 

Usually this is a frustrating characteristic for a parent. I have to constantly curtail her collecting to avoid hording. It's always a struggle because she becomes emotionally attached to things. And they can be ridiculous things to want to save. She once kept the plastic shrink wrap from an Easter egg for more than two years (the egg had long since been eaten). When I throw out old craft projects that are broken she gets upset. Casia has been brought to tears when she outgrows clothes and they have to be donated.

I hate clutter myself, because I find it visually distracting and mostly, because I hate to dust. The less things there are the quicker the dusting goes. So between us, there are many battles about the state of her bedroom and the contents of her closet (which, although it it technically a 'walk-in', you can never actually walk in it.) I have to admit that in the last year, she has gotten better at discarding old things or giving away items she no longer uses. She is still upset when it's time to remove old clothing from her closet to make way for the new, but she accepts it begrudgingly.

Now every once in awhile, this obsession of hers actual makes my life easier. For instance, we are currently studying Colonial America and she found this series of books in the library, the America the Beautiful state books. They are not actually 'colonial' books, but the first half of each book gives the history of that state complete with the natives peoples, early settlers and all sorts of other cool and interesting details. We checked the Pennsylvania and New Jersey out of the library because I wanted her to to get the feel for the colonies other than Virginia and Massachusetts; colonies on which we'd already spent a lot of time. She likes them so much, she now wants to read all thirteen books from the states that were the original colonies. I told her she could skip the ones that we'd already covered, but she wants to read ALL of them. She is even talking about reading all fifty of them as she learns about them entering into the union. I had thought she'd balk at having to read so many similar books, but I wasn't counting on her need to complete a set. Having started, she is diligently working her way through the collection. It's always good to be reminded that even negative personality traits can have their plus sides.

November 7, 2011

Instant Messaging

Casia now has a laptop and it's wonderful for the whole family not to have to share computers. Now, I can be doing prep work while Casia works independently on a writing assignment or her math. In order to allow me to quickly send her links, I decided to create a second skype account that is used strictly for Casia to communicate to me or her dad in instant messages. Mostly it's very helpful, particularly since her work space is the loft area upstairs and our office is in the front of the house downstairs. Not that I'm opposed to running up the stairs a few extra times a day (that activity actually forms the basis of my daily workout), but the time it saves for quick questions that don't need me in person has made it a valuable tool.

On the flip side, it's also becoming a toy for Casia. We're not gadget people here. No smart phones, iPads or kindles in this house. My cell phone doesn't even have text messaging. Casia's living in a technological vacuum and we're clearly behind the times. So for Casia, instant messaging is a pretty cool new way to communicate... as evidenced by the fact that she sends a constant barrage of messages to me whenever she is on her computer. 

Seeing as how this is all new to her, I'm hoping that soon it will loose that novelty appeal. Until then, I am trying to be patient. A few of her messages have made me laugh out loud. They are almost always accompanied by a graphic face.  Some have been sweet little messages telling me she loves me. Others have have been nagging me to tell me time's up with the assignment (an assignment she's clearly not working on since she's typing to me) and just recently, when I told her to get back to work, she sent me an angry face icon. I was NOT amused. I reminded her that I can take away the skype messaging just as easily as I set it up. She quickly deleted it and came down to apologize and said she meant it to be funny. So there was a lesson in there after all. She learned that the written word doesn't always communicate humor as effectively as face-to-face, since tone is often lost. Happily, it's reading time, so she's curled up by the fireplace with a nice big book and I can finish my blog entry in relative quiet.

November 3, 2011


I never tire of seeing glimpses into Casia's thought processes. Yesterday, she was reviewing mitotic cell division and came to me with a question. She wanted to know what happens to the parent cell, in a single celled organism, when it divides its DNA in half during replication and then, through the stages, splits into daughter cells. I thought she was confused about the process, so I started to review the various stages and she stopped me. She explained that she understands how the process works, she wants to know what happens to the original cell. Does it cease to exist? Is it dead? Are there now two of them? Just half of it? Wow! Well, that was an unexpected questions and it led to an interesting discussion, one more philosophical that biological in nature.

Then this morning, Casia was given a new problem in algebra that she hadn't seen. Previously, we had covered multiplying polynomials and she had that down. Today, a question popped up about factoring a quadratic equation (x+ 7x + 10 = 0). I was prepared to have to break it down for her and explain how to figure out what two two-term polynomials could be multiplied together to get the three term polynomial. Again, she stopped me in the middle and told me she's got it. Skeptical, I asked her to show me what she has to do. She said it's obvious; the first term is a square, so the first term of each of the factor polynomials will be the square root of that term, or x. And if in the first polynomial we call the second term 'a' and in the second polynomial we call the second term 'b', then a + b must equal the coefficient of the second term, or 7,  and 'a' x 'b' will equal the coefficient of the third, or 10. She proceeded to quickly do the math and find the answer.Yup, she got it and on her first introduction with no instruction. Sometimes she makes my job so easy. But it leads me to a more important question....

If my nine year-old can figure out algebra on her own and contemplate the demise of the parent cell in its quest to replicate itself, why can't she figure out that if she wears a skort and a short sleeve t-shirt when it is only 40 degrees out she will be cold? 

October 31, 2011

Magic, The Gathering

So Halloween is almost upon us and it is time to finish up the kids' costumes. This year the kids have decided to be Magic cards. In case you've never heard of it, Magic, The Gathering is a card game that Jacob and I used to play back in our college days. We saved the cards and recently, during a hurricane power outage, we brought them out to teach the kids; something to pass the long days stuck at home.

Well, the kids have really gotten into the game. And because this latest obsession happened to occur during the Halloween season, they decided to change their costume ideas from Diablo characters (a computer game) to magic cards. Casia is used to dressing as unfamiliar characters; for second grade she was Lady Macbeth and last year she was Medusa (fortunately, the Percy Jackson books have popularized Greek Mythology and so a few of her friends were familiar with the story.) I warned them that most people will have no idea what they are and they're okay with that. It will actually be fun to wander the neighborhood and learn which of neighbors used to play.

October 25, 2011

Falling Behind

It's not Casia I'm speaking of, it's me. I'm falling behind. I'm behind on almost every project I'm working on including homeschooling Casia. I don't even look at my monthly schedule any more, because I'm so far behind, it depresses me. I'm so far behind, I don't have time to look up synonyms in the thesaurus to replace all the behinds I've just typed. Off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few other behinds, but they just don't have the right meaning. So here I sit, on my behind, getting further behind talking about behinds.

Now that I've vented, I need to give myself a pep-talk. So here it goes... On the flip side, I still feel like Casia is learning a lot. She's had a great attitude this past month and has been very proactive on her independent projects. Socially she is doing marvelously. I think she's is getting a well balanced education. We managed to get in math and language arts every day and science, history, Spanish and computer science a few times each week. I just wish I had about five more hours in the day; two with Casia and three more just for myself. Or maybe I just wish I had enough energy to make use of the last three hours of my day. Either way, I've been feeling more and more tired and my to-do list is growing; not shrinking. Damn! My pep-talk just turned negative. Not a good sign. I'm trying to decide if I need a vacation or need to work harder to catch up. It's a tough call. 

October 24, 2011

From Salem, MA to Stanley Milgram

As part of her studies on Colonial American History, Casia has been learning about the early settlements. Our first stop was Roanoke. She read a couple of books on the lost colony and then watched a movie. Casia was intrigued by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the colony with the cryptic clues left behind.

Next, Casia learned all about the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown. We spent a couple of weeks on this unit and then followed it up with a trip to the historic Jamestown Settlement. We then moved on to Williamsburg. A benefit to living near Williamsburg is that the library is packed with books on the historic town. There was no shortage of reading material available. I couldn't find a movie on this topic, but we did spend a day in Historical Williamsburg and had a marvelous time.

We then moved further North and started a unit on the Plymouth Colony. Again, she read several books and we followed it up with, you guessed it, a movie. Combining history with literature, we also read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter together, and Casia wrote an essay on the symbolism in the novel, and then, naturally, we watched the movie. I opted for the less steamy, but slower version staring Meg Foster. Having seen the R-rated Demi Moore version, I felt it was not appropriate for Casia. Honestly, I'm not a fan of either versions and think this could be made into a much better movie.

We are currently finishing up our unit on the Salem Witch Trials. I found this excellent website from the  University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School with links to transcripts of the original court records including arrest warrants and examinations. It's a treasure trove of primary sources on this dramatic period of our history. We've also read Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the movie from Netflix.

As Casia and I compared the historical aspects of the Salem witch trials with the fictional versions, we enjoyed speculating on the true causes of the panic and hysteria that swept through the town. We talked about the religious climate of that era, political issues going on in the town and possible personal motives and influences on the young accusers. We talked about why it is so important to always think for yourself, question authority and act always as your conscience dictates. Then we started talking about the repercusions of people just following the crowd or doing things because their leaders told them they must. Our conversation then led to Nazis Germany. We haven't studied this period specifically but Casia is familiar with Holocaust having read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

I was reminded of a study I once read, and so I looked it up to discuss it with Casia. It was Stanley Milgram's Experiment, in which he studied individuals' responses to being asked to inflict pain on another person. The disturbing results showed that the people in his study readily complied with such a request. It was a very stimulating conversation and while I ruminated on how we got onto the topic of Stanley Milgram whilst discussing Salem, MA, I was glad to have had the flexibility in our schedule to allow for such interesting tangents. 

Books and Movie Resources:


  • Lady Maragaret's Ghost by Elizabeth McDavid Jones
  • Traitor in WIlliamsburg by Elizabeth McDavid Jones
  • Williamsburg: Cradle of the Revolution by Ron Goor
  • Colonial Williamsburg by William Coleman
  • Williamsburg by Judy Alter
  • Williamsburg: Cornerstone of Freedom by Zachary Kent


  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Mayflower Compact by Judith Llyod Yero
  • Don't Know Much About the Pilgrims by Kenneth Davis
  • The Daily Life in the Pilgrim Colony by Paul Erikson
  • A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple by Kathryn Lasky
  • You Wouldn't Want to Sail on the Mayflower by William Cook
  • "Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower"
  • "The Salem Witch Trials" by the University of Missouri at Kansas City
  • "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller
  • The Salem Witch Trials by Judith Bloom Fradin
  • History Channel's "The Salem Witch Trials"
  • I Walk in Dread by Lisa Rowe Fraustino

October 18, 2011


One of the added perks to homeschooling is the ability to take a vacation whenever it suits you. I love that flexibility. I just wish I had it. That's the downside to homeschooling one child and sending the other off to public school every morning. I'm still tied to the school calendar. I still have to get up at 6am to ensure Garrett makes it to the bus stop by 7:15am.  

This past week, I made the trip up to my home town in Upstate NY to visit my newborn baby niece. I had to make the decision whether to pull Garrett out of school or leave him home with Jacob, who had to stay behind and work. I decided to pull him out. He didn't want to miss meeting his cousin, he loves getting a day off of school and he didn't want to be left behind; all excellent reasons in my mind.

I felt mildly guilty about pulling him out of class for personal, not medical reasons, especially since I know I will be doing it again at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. I know it's disruptive to the class having kids out unnecessarily. But family always plays a dominant role in my life and I think that making the effort to put family first, even at the inconvenience of our day-to-day lives, is an important value I want to instill in my kids.

So on this ten-hour long car ride, I had plenty of time to ponder. I was planning field trips that I want to take Casia on this year in and around our state. Many of them I think Garrett would enjoy and really get a lot out of, yet sadly, I am going to have to leave him behind. It is at these moments that I really wish I were homeschooling both children. I don't feel compelled to pull Garrett out of school because of a poor academic fit, as I did Casia, but I am beginning to love the idea of homeschooling as a way of life, not just a temporary fix for Casia's education. After one year of homeschooling, I see the benefits beyond the basic scholastic skills. I wish I'd pulled Casia out sooner. And I start to wonder if maybe it wouldn't be better, for Garrett, for me and for the family as a whole, if we pulled him out to homeschool as well. It's just a seed of an idea at this point, but it's starting to grow. We'll see what happens over the course of the year.

October 11, 2011

Lesson Plans

There are probably as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. I know some homeschooling parents that buy all their curriculum. I completely understand the appeal to buying a ready-made curriculum. All the work is already done as far as writing the lesson plans, assignments, tests, etc. and I'm sure they stay far more organized than I ever am. On the flip side, it's very expensive and if you change your mind about what you want to cover or if you move through it faster than expected, you've got the added expense of buying more.

There are online instructional resources that you can buy, and for math, we have chosen to go this route. We use ALEKS, among other teaching resources, and have had some success with with it. There's a monthly fee or yearly if you want to commit to it that long (they offer a free trial), and it includes practice problems, instruction and tests as well as continual progress reports. It moves at the child's pace and the cost doesn't change even if you go faster through the material. The downside is that Casia does more math on the computer than with paper and pencil and sometimes this leads to her doing math in her head when she should be writing it down to work it out. It also means she picks up sloppy habits in her notation that makes it tough for others to understand her steps. So we don't rely entirely on ALEKS. We've used other books and lesson plans that Jacob or I have developed depending on the topic she is working on in ALEKS. I do like how it retests her understanding of previously covered topics, just to make sure she doesn't have any gaps and it lets us know, based on what she has already mastered, what she is ready to tackle next. I don't think it stands alone well, but we've been using it as the basis of her math instruction off and on since Kindergarten (before she was given accommodations in school).

For every other subject I teach Casia, I develop my own curriculum and lesson plans. Mostly, I like doing it this way. But it is very, very time consuming. I can spend up to five or more hours a week planning lessons for the upcoming week. I use the internet and library as my primary resources for ideas and materials. I have a text book that forms the backbone of the science curriculum, but I am always supplementing it with lab experiments, videos, handouts, worksheets or other reading. In writing, I usually try to incorporate an assignment that corresponds to another subject area like history or science. 

In an effort to cut down on the amount of time that I spend surfing the web for ideas and printouts, I signed up for a free trial of Lesson Planet. There are so many sites out there for lesson plans, but this one actually gave me a free trial (I don't want to plop down the monthly or annual fee without knowing what I'm getting). It's $40 a year and it allows you to search based on grade level(s), type of activity, whether it's a lesson plan or work sheet you are looking for, and  of course, subject. 

On day one of my free 10-day trial, I was so excited, I thought a couple of clicks later and I'd have all the lessons for the week done. It wasn't that simple. For science that week, when it selected my criteria it came back with 50+ links. I had the chapter in the textbook that explained the topic, but I wanted a diagram or a  couple of worksheets that Casia would have to answer using her textbook. And most importantly, I didn't want to have to write any of it myself (which is what I usually do). I did end up finding what I was looking for, but it still took more than an hour. And that was just one subject. My trial period for Lesson Planet ran out a few weeks ago and mostly due to poor planning on my part, I didn't make the most of my free trial, so I ended up signing up for one year to really get a feel for it. The verdicts not out yet on whether I'll get my $40 out of it.

October 2, 2011

History Comes Alive

Casia and I took an amazing field trip to Colonial Williamsburg yesterday. Shortly after our arrival, Casia decided she wanted a colonial dress as an early birthday present. It looked so cute on her, I couldn't resist. 

For twelve hours we visited historic buildings, took tours, listened to the expert docents, and enjoyed the ambiance of the village. Then we ended the day with an excellent show called Cry Witch. It was a mock witch trial where we got to participate by deciding the innocence or guilt of the accused. Casia was thrilled when we got selected to sit as two of the twelve member council. We sat up with the judge and got the best seats in the house for this well acted performance.

We got caught in a torrential rain on our long walk back to the car. Soaked and tired, Casia proclaimed this outing as the best field trip ever! 

Casia in the Garden at the Governor's Palace.

Casia in the window seat of the Everard house.
Kitchen of the Peyton Randolf house.

Slave quarters of the Peyton Randolf house.
Parlor of the Peyton Randolf house.
Casia in front of the St. George  Tucker House.
Upstairs bedroom in the Everard house.
Slave quarters in the Everard house.

Standing outside the Governor's Palace.
Casia in the garden of the Governor's Palace.
Casia by the spinning wheel.
Casia trying to look sad as she stands in prison.

My favorite picture  from our trip:
Casia peering into a locked out building.

September 29, 2011

Computer Science

Just when I thought we had a bit of a schedule in place, we decided to add a whole new course of study. So I shaved 10 minutes off of each subject and shortened our previously leisurely lunch, and now Casia has a chance to learn all about computing.

She started showing an interest when a good friend of ours pointed her in the direction of a program called Scratch. It's a programming language developed by a group at MIT to make it easy for kids to create their own games, art and animations. Casia has been using it to create games for her brother and friends to play. From a layman's prospective, it seems like a great way to get a child interested in programming in a free, user friendly way. 

Naturally, when she'd run into a computer question, Casia didn't come to me. She'd head straight to the software engineer in the family, her daddy. She was getting comfortable with most of the functions, but she was running into problems of not being able to do specific things she wanted or having to repetitively add the same element over and over again. When she'd approach Jacob for help, he was very frustrated because he thought it was a very limited tool and felt like she should just learn a more useful programming language. After a few weeks of these discussions, he finally convinced her that she should learn some programming basics.

Thus, the new course of Computer Science has been added. Fortunately, this class is handled entirely by Jacob. He spends his lunch hour giving instructions. He does the planning, gives the tests, and assigns the homework. Casia couldn't be happier about all this. She loves learning how it all works. And I think she really loves having her daddy involved in her homeschooling. It's a great opportunity to learn from a different teacher with different strengths. It also gives her a greater understanding of what Jacob does for work. And Jacob is doing a great job. He's breaking it down for her and making it fun; it's no wonder it's become one of her favorite classes. I'm so proud of them both!

September 26, 2011

Chef Casia

As part of a unit on nutrition, Casia was given the assignment of planning, shopping for and making a whole day's worth of meals. She had to make healthy, well-balanced meals based on daily recommended guidelines.  

Here's her menu (with pictures, of course!):

Well, I forgot to get a picture of breakfast, but she made oatmeal with raisins and a side dish of fresh strawberries.

For lunch Casia made guacamole grilled steak sandwiches.

Casia making guacamole.

Casia grilling the steak.

Casia assembling her sandwich.

 For a snack, Casia made yogurt parfaits with graham crackers and fruit.

Garrett and Casia enjoying the snack.

And for dinner, Casia made baked honey chicken, a garden salad and three bean salad. I didn't get any pictures of the finished meal because I set the table for her and forgot (probably due to my hunger building as I smelled her yummy chicken baking!)

Casia preparing the raw chicken.

Making the sauce for the chicken.
Basting the chicken.

I might be a little biased here, as I think Casia's a pretty impressive kid, but this time, she out-did herself.  She really got into the project. She spent a lot of time picking meals that fit the nutritional requirements and allowed her to do most of the work. She helped with the shopping. She did an awesome job making all the meals and through it all she was loving it!

September 22, 2011

Jamestown Settlement

I have to admit it, history is my favorite subject. Casia loves it, too, and field trips are one of the best parts about homeschooling. Oh, sure, Casia had field trips while in public school, but never more than one per year. And they never allowed flexibility to check out the things she was most interested in, nor was there the time for her to ask her great multitude of questions. She relishes our field trips that are tailored to her whims and fancies. We spent almost an hour talking to a Pawhatan guide in the village because she was fascinated by the choices of rocks and how he made the weapons. She remarked, as we were returning home that day, how much she enjoyed being able to stay longer in some areas and move faster through others that didn't appeal to her. Casia said that she couldn't do that in her old school trips and paid me the compliment that mine are the best field trips ever. I love adding to the reasons to homeschool!

This year, learning early American history and living in Virginia, we have a wide variety of suitable field trip locations. Our first for this year was to the Jamestown Settlement. It's not the original site of Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement) but it is a re-creation of the site, complete with the fort, the ships and a Pawhatan Indian village. Historic Jamestown is the actual site of the first settlement and can also be visited. It is a current archaeological dig site, which is very cool in and of itself. Yet I choose the re-creation because I thought all the hands-on stuff would really appeal to Casia. We'll try to get out to Historic Jamestown another time. 

Our first stop in our visit was to the Pawhatan Village:

Casia learned that seven layered deer skins makes for a very comfy Pawhatan bed.

Casia enjoyed being able to touch the beautiful animals skins.
This bear was gorgeous.

This bobcat was so soft!

Unlike a museum, everything in this village was meant
to be touched and examined. It was wonderful!
Casia's playing with the arrow (minus the arrowhead) she found in the quiver. 

Casia was sanding a stone down the old-fashioned way:
rubbing it in a stone basin filled with water and sand.
It was a very slow process.
 Our next stop was to the port:
One of three re-created ships in the port at Jamestown,
the Susan Constant had multiple decks to explore.
Casia got to learn where the passengers and crew slept (on the barrels),
who got their own rooms (the cook and the captain) and
how to tell a gun powder barrel from the rest
(they used copper instead of steel so it didn't spark.)

Cook's cabin. My favorite; he got his own room and he could snack between meals
(which numbered one per day!)
Casia is standing at the bow of the Susan Constant.
The Discovery and Godspeed are in the background.
We were able to go on those boats as well, but were limited to a tour of a deck.
Still worth it though to hear their stories.

They offered a cannon demonstration where Casia learned all about the benefits of breach artillery. 

Susan Constant from on board the Discovery.

Our last stop was in the re-created fort:

A building replica in the Jamestown fort.
Casia was very disappointed to find we were not allowed upstairs in any of the building.

Casia in the window of a house.

Casia at a writing desk.

Casia trying on her armor. She said it was heavy and uncomfortable.
The pointy stomach area that I thought was just a silly fashion
actually served to send arrows flying off to the side. 

Inside one of the roomier and well appointed houses.

That's Casia up there with her head peeping over the pulpit.

The Jamestown Settlement was a great field trip. It was very accessible to children, you could get through it in one visit (about four hours) and it was relatively inexpensive. It cost us $22.25 for the two of us and we packed our own lunches. The facilities were very nice, the guides knowledgeable and the atmosphere very inviting. 

September 19, 2011

Spices vs. Microbes

Casia switched from ancient civilizations to early American history this past spring. As a lead in, we studied various indigenous people of the Western hemisphere and early exploration and conquest by Europeans. To go along with this line of study, I found a couple of interesting articles on the big why behind the drive to explore. 

Since the acquisition of spices was such a major impetus, I found this interesting article on the subject and shared it with Casia. Spices: How the Search for Flavors Influenced Our World, written by Paul Freedman, examines the historical impact of the spice trade. In another article, What's So Hot about Spices?, by Gail Jarrow and Paul Sherman, the authors discuss the use of spices as food preservatives. This led me to the idea to combine some science and history and after a little Googling, I found this experiment:  Food Preservation.

I prepared some broth ahead of time. Casia then selected five spices: salt, pepper, sugar, cinnamon and allspice. She labeled the containers with the spice names, plus one for a control and the other labeled boiled.

She then added one cup of broth to each container followed by one teaspoon of the corresponding spice. No spices were added to the control or boiled containers.
 Casia stirred.
And then they were left without the lids on overnight in the kitchen. The next day, Casia covered all the containers except for the boiled. The boiled sample was first boiled and then left to cool for a few minutes and then covered. All containers were then left to sit for three days.

I asked Casia at the start of this lab to guess which containers would have the most microbe growth. This is what she predicted:

Most growth to least:  sugar, control, cinnamon, allspice, pepper, boiled and salt.

Now that the containers had been sitting for a few days, it was time to open them up. Casia did a great job with her lab write-up including a chart she made for her observations. She inspected each sample for smell, then with the unaided eye and then under the microscope. 

We decided that a good way to determine the amount of microbe growth would be to randomly select four areas under the microscope and then she would estimate what percent of the area that she saw under the microscope was covered in microbes. Then she averaged the four samples per container to come up with an overall estimate of microbe growth for that solution.

Casia got a lot of practice making her own slides for this lab. After six smelly containers (Casia claims the allspice solution still smelled 'yummy'), seven slides, 28 views under the microscope, and ten minutes to calculate and make a snazzy chart, Casia was ready to announce the winners in the spices vs. microbes.

Most growth to least:  sugar, control, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, boiled and salt.

Here are her results:

Spices Salt Boiled All Spice Pepper Cinnamon Control Sugar
#1 15% 20% 10% 60% 40% 70% 70%
#2 5% 40% 50% 30% 90% 65% 80%
#3 30% 32% 5% 70% 2% 80% 60%
#4 10% 25% 90% 20% 50% 40% 70%
Average 15% 29% 39% 45% 45% 64% 70%

Casia's guess was really close! Her allspice and pepper were reversed. We both agreed that we we wouldn't want to consume any of the samples, as even the salt smelled foul. And with only four random samples per container, some with a range of more than 80%, she probably should have taken more sample views. But she was given only a couple of hours to complete this section of the lab. It also might have been interesting to see what would have happened had she combined multiple spices in a given sample. 

Overall, this lab was very easy to do (though a little smelly), used supplies I already had on hand and rated an awesome from Casia. 

September 14, 2011

Start of a New Year

I left off blogging abruptly last spring when everything got chaotic during the move. I continued homeschooling Casia for a couple more weeks, but then just gave up when my list of to-do's got bigger and her excitement about the move got too distracting. We picked it up again for a few weeks over the summer, but with a constant stream of visitors and activities, it seemed like more effort than it was worth trying to squeeze it in here and there.

So here we are, the second week in September, with one week under our belts in our second year of homeschooling. I think it is really interesting to see how both Casia and I have grown in our roles as student and teacher over the last year. 

The changes I've seen in Casia from the start of last year to the start of this year are huge. To begin with, her attitude has improved immensely. She's more accepting of my dual role as parent and teacher. She transitions from one activity to another more smoothly. And most importantly, her enthusiasm for learning has increased.

In addition, her ability to work independently has come a long, long way. Since she's technically in Middle School this year, I've incorporated a 'study hall' into the day's activities. It's the last hour of school before we go pick her brother up at the bus stop. She has a calendar of due dates and assignments, and anything she couldn't finish earlier in the day, she has that hour to complete it. If she doesn't have any assignments to work on, she can use the time to practice her violin or read. If it's not finished by the end of study hall, she has homework; a dreaded concept for her, so she becomes very motivated to use the time wisely. At the start of last year, when  she had a block of time for independent work, she would continually come back to me for guidance and reassurance. This year, I only see her if she has a question for me or if her work is complete. It's so reassuring to see her blossoming self-reliance.

Another area of growth for Casia is in her test taking and assignments. A year ago, she was interested in giving the most concise answers to get it done quickly. This year, she is much more deliberate. She takes her time and gives well thought out answers with a lot of detail. Overall, I feel she is in a much better place to begin the new school year than when we started last year. 

On my part, I think I am a lot more relaxed than last year. I'm still a person that thrives on a schedule, so I do make daily and weekly ones. The difference is, that this year, I don't get (as) frustrated when we can't keep on track. In fact, I've come to expect it. I also put more wiggle room in our plan to accommodate disruptions and to allow for added time on discussions that take us onto interesting tangents.

I think the biggest change in me this year is that I no longer really care what people think about the fact that I homeschool. Initially, I felt the need to explain why we were homeschooling. I felt like I had to convince people that it is a good option and in Casia's best interest. Now, frankly, I don't give a damn. I'm tired of explaining myself, only to find that people that are against the idea, still think I'm making a mistake. I'm tired of being asked how Casia's going to get the 'appropriate socialization' or how am I qualified to teach her what she needs to learn and how do I even know what she needs?

The academic success of homeschooling Casia is glaringly obvious to me. At nine years of age, currently in 6th grade, she is successfully working at the high school level in multiple subjects (something she was not allowed to do while in public school). She has many friends, is involved in team sports, is participating in various musical groups and has managed to make more acquaintances in our new neighborhood than even I have. She's a social person by nature and with the freedom to interact in the world around her (more freedom offered her than if she were confined to a brick and mortar school for seven hours a day), she is successfully navigating peer relationships and interactions with children of various ages. She will independently  place an order at the deli counter, call the local toy store to see if they have a product she desires and converse with adult neighbors about the new houses being built on the block. Socially, I think she is doing just fine.

With one year into this educational endeavor, I have become confident enough in my own judgement; I witness daily the academic and social opportunities that only homeschooling can offer; and I can see by the eager smiling face that greets me every morning, that this is definitely the right choice, the best choice for my daughter.

May 27, 2011

Science and History Collide

A couple of weeks ago, Casia was learning about the skeletal system in science. She had fun memorizing all the major bones in the body and learning about the structure of bones and how they move at various joints. During this time, she also started a unit on Native American civilizations and European explorers. It was a happy surprise when the two unit happened to overlap while watching the video called "Great Inca Rebellion"

It's a National Geographic film and it takes a look at Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire and the physical evidence that supports the idea that he had a tremendous amount of help from other indigenous people who were enemies of the Incas. The medical anthropologists reveal new evidence unearthed in a hastily made burial ground. While we were watching the video, they made mentioned of many of the bones Casia had just learned and she was very excited when she realized that she knew exactly which bone they were referring to! I love it when a lesson immediately demonstrates itself to be useful.

We also watched a couple more movies that I highly recommend. "Cracking the Maya Code" was a Nova video about the anthropologists who  spent decades trying to understand the meaning of the Mayan hieroglyphs. This was one of Casia's favorites. She really enjoyed the artistic nature of the hieroglyphs and the puzzle to solve their meaning. Her other favorite was Nova's "Ghosts of Machu Picchu". In it, they showed the elaborate design and incredible engineering that went into building Machu Picchua. Casia really enjoys architecture and this video gave  her a fascinating look into the difficulties of building an enormous estate high atop the mountains and how the ancient architects were able to overcome the abundant rainfall that allowed it to remain intact five centuries later.

May 11, 2011


In science, Casia has been learning some basic biology this year. We started with evolution, and learning about the scientific process and how to use tools, like the microscope. Then I taught her a bit of chemistry, so she had some basic understanding going in for the unit on cells followed by cellular respiration. Recently, she's been studying the diversity of living organism and learning about the different kingdoms and their general characteristics. We started with the single-celled organisms and worked our way through fungi, plants and then animals.  

I thought it would be good background for Casia to understand the various animal phyla (plus it makes 20-Questions more fun!), and I found this great resource from PBS. They have a video series called The Shape of Life. It was an awesome eight episode guide to most of the animal phyla. They had some online sheets, Introduction to Phyla and Phylum Comparison Challenge, that I used as background and a study guide for Casia as well. It took us awhile to get through all the episodes, but each was just under an hour long, which was the perfect length. They were extremely well done; informative and entertaining. We both enjoyed them and I highly recommend the series.

Now we've moved on to humans. This week, Casia has learned about the skeletal system and we're moving on the muscles next. If I'm able to stay on target (always a big IF), we should get through the rest of basic human anatomy, with some genetics, reproduction and nutrition thrown in, by the end of the school year. Our units are quick (just a few days each), but I think it's giving her enough biology basics that I'll feel comfortable moving onto something new next year.

May 9, 2011

Changing Gears in History

A month or so ago, Jacob and I had discussed changing gears in history and focusing on more modern history. Jacob felt I was spending too long covering the ancient civilizations and didn't feel it was as important as modern history for Casia to learn. He thinks it's important to have a general understanding of history, but not necessary to go so far in depth. Casia is a depth person. She likes to sink her teeth into topics she enjoys and really spend time exploring them. And history is one of her favorite subjects. 

Admittedly, I've fallen behind in my schedule of where I wanted to be in the history curriculum. I wanted to cover all the major ancient civilizations through the world this school year. So far, I've gotten as far as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. I was planning on tackling Mesopotamia next, but abbreviating the material covered. I was still hoping I could get to ancient China and India as well as the ancient civilizations of the Americas, at least in part, by the time the new school year rolled around and we started modern American History, from the Civil War to present.

But two weekends ago, we made a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. I hadn't been there since I was a kid, and Jacob and our children had never been, so it was really exciting. Casia loved the time period clothing, the old buildings, the tour of the Governor's Palace and the old-time feel of the place. When she found out some of the residences are privately owned, she declared that she too, someday, would live in Colonial Williamsburg. She also wanted to work there, and if possible, she'd like to have her next birthday party there as well. Needless to say, she has has started a new obsession.

Casia, hoop trundling in front of the Governor's Palace.

Casia and Garrett in the stockades.

For this reason, I've decided to rework the history curriculum (best part of homeschooling: the ability to change things up as the need or desire arises!) We are skipping the rest of the ancient civilizations for now and focusing on the Americas. Casia spent one week on catching up what happened between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Age of Exploration. I felt she needed to understand the changes in Europe and the Middle East to understand the drive for exploration and the technologies that made it possible. Currently, we are spending a couple of weeks learning about the indigenous people of the Americas and then we will move on to Colonization. 

Casia had some colonial history in 4th grade, but  it was a superficial covering and considering her new interest, I thought she'd enjoy some more depth. I'm still hoping to do modern history next year, but we'll have to do some history over the summer to get there. Living in Virginia, we are centrally located for early American history, so I'm hoping to be able to take a lot of exciting field trips!

May 5, 2011

Moving, Again!

Admittedly, I haven't been very good at keeping up my blog. This trend will likely continue the next month and a half. We're moving again, only this time, it's just down the road. Our new house is almost built (after living in a 170 year old farm house for a dozen years, and six months a a pint-sized rental, I'm very excited to have a brand-spanking-new house!) 

Our move is set for the beginning of next month. In some ways this move will be so much easier. We already know the area, the ride will only take ten minutes (instead of 17 hours), and I don't have to get a new drivers licenses or library card. But I still have to change over all the utilities. We're in a new school zone, so there's extra paperwork for that, and there is still the hassle of having to coordinate everything (moving truck, movers, PODS delivery, closing, cable installation; the list goes on and on). 

So once again, I will be homeschooling while I'm packing. Combining trips to the library with trips to pick up boxes. Packing dishes while Casia and I discuss her reading assignment. Making endless phone calls for a change of address while supervising Casia's online math curriculum. And the one aspect that actually makes this move more complicated than the last is that we are trying to continue the kids activities while we are moving. In December, Casia took a lot of time off from school. For a week, all activities ceased and the whole family focused on this one ginormous family task. This time, Jacob is coaching both Garrett's t-ball and Casia's softball. We actually had to schedule the truck rental pick-up around a game and a practice. Garrett is attending school, so I will be juggling the closing, installation appointments and being at the bus stop on time. Jacob is taking only one day off and I am continuing to homeschool Casia even through the week of moving, though I will be forced to abandon it that last day because everything has to be packed. I anticipate another whirlwind month!