Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

 

Cross-posted on Finding My Ground, my personal and religious blogging home.

October 16: Opposing viewpoints are welcome as long as they are on point and respectfully presented. I’m glad to have a conversation that is respectful. All comments will be held for moderation to assure conversation remains civil. 

 

Beyond Curriculum: Teaching Science and Scientific Thought (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant and curriculum in Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking. Critical thinking is up next. Stay tuned.IMG_1584

“Mom! Look at this!”

I leave my vegetable garden to join my younger son in his crouch over the remains of a parsley plant. Just days ago, we’d picked a few healthy sprigs for a soup, but today, I can only find a few intact leaves. What happened?

“Look, mom!” My son points at a small caterpillar stretched across a stem, inching toward the remains of a leaf. We watched, silently, focused on our visitor/thief. It took a moment before I saw the rest of them, six or ten similar caterpillars marching and munching. At only a few centimeters long, skinny with yellow, black and white, they were attractive. Fascination quickly replaced annoyance with our garden guest as we explored the nearby plants, inspecting them for visitors and damage. Only the parsley was eaten, with the flower to its right and the tree to the left untouched and uninhabited.

After a long observation, we went inside to research what we’d seen. Using an insect field guide, we identified the caterpillar as the larval stage of a swallowtail butterfly, common to our area. We returned the next day to check on our friends, but they’d stripped the plant and, apparently, moved on. The parsley plant rebounded, but was never touched again that season. We never finding a pupae nor an adult swallowtail. We’d done science, though, and that was satisfying.IMG_1277

My children’s science education started early, although it was one of the last subjects I taught formally. Before my older son was three, I named the plants for him. Hydrangea. Tulip. Black-eyed Susan. Boxwood. Dandelion. I’d named other parts of his world: His trains from Thomas the Tank Engine. Animals at the zoo. Colors. Letters. Numbers. Foods. Adding the flora of our yard just made sense. Is naming science? Certainly. Naming fills the sciences. Our planets, stars, and galaxies have names, as do elements and compounds. Taxonomy alone would make for a meager science education, but it’s a lovely place to start.

Naming gives a common language for what happens next in a child’s science education: Questions. While “What’s that?” is the refrain of the toddler, “Why?” is the mantra of the preschooler. Sometimes, we don’t know. It’s okay to say that. We’d be wise to model their question-asking by wondering aloud back to them. Why does the bee sting? Why does the ice melt? Why do the stars twinkle? Why don’t the planets? We can ask without answering, allowing time for wonder.IMG_1346

Scientists, the ones in labs and in the field, after all, don’t have all the answers. They have questions that are borne from observations paired with wondering, and they look for answers, but answers, the hard and firm kind, are often elusive, and life-long scientists are used to having more questions than answers.

Teaching our children and ourselves science and scientific thought required that we do three things:

  1. Observe the world, both natural and technological, naming what can be named.
  2. Name what you see. If you can’t name it, see if you can get close.
  3. Ask questions about what we see, wondering how that world works.
  4. Through research, experimentation, and more observation, pursue answers to those questions.

IMG_1448It doesn’t require the right curriculum (or any at all) or an advanced degree in science or math. It simply requires curiosity and the willingness to think about what is, wondering why and searching for answers.

Observation is simply a matter of practice. Take time to follow the ant. Watch the clouds move across the sky. Take off the back of your computer and look around. Turn your houseplants and watch their leaves turn back to the light. Take a magnifying glass to the mold on your bread. Watch yeast come to life when you go to bake new bread.

Observation can go beyond our homes and haunts. Nature and science videos — well done ones from reputable folks (most NOVA, Cosmos, David Attenborough, etc.) offer fine views of what we can’t see locally. The internet offers us even more, although use caution when taking your science observation online. Not all you may see is real, and using good critical thinking skills to sort through sites is a must (more on those skills in the next post).  NASA.gov takes us to the stars and beyond.  The Periodic Videos bring us chemical reactions we should not try at home. BBC Nature provides images of the very big, very small, and very hidden.  While nothing beats observing the natural world unfold in real life, these sites and more can bring the big, small, and hidden into view.

IMG_1557Name what you see. Our best research tools at home are a set of field guides. While we buy some new, we’ve picked up most at used bookstores over the years. (Don’t be put off by old editions. A cardinal from the 1960s is still a cardinal, although given climate change, you may want a more current source for its geographic range.) Find guides for flowers, birds, trees, garden plants, clouds, and rocks and more. Yes, you could use guides designed for cell phones, but, for me, it’s easier to page through pictures in a pocket-sized field guide, looking for a match than to peer in bright sunlight and tiny images on my phone. Either way, look it up. Name what you’re seeing.

Ask questions. Specifically, teach your child to ask questions by asking them yourself. When first guiding a young child in this process, ask questions you know the answer to along with ones you don’t. It’s good for kids to hear an adult say “I don’t know,” followed by “What do you think?” That’s science.  Use naming language in your questions as much as possible. “What’s that male mallard duck doing when he sticks his head under the water?”  “How does that penicillin treat your strep throat?” Use the language of science — specific names paired with specific events  — as you form your questions.IMG_1313

Pursue answers.  Look up what you don’t know. Some families keep a notebook handy on walks for questions to look up later. We’re not one of those families. (I figure what we remember to pursue is what caught our attention the most.) Again, be careful of the sites you trust when taking science online.

Then take the next step. Do the experiment. Does the yeast bubble (respiration — releasing carbon dioxide) at a different rate if the water is cold than if it is warm? What does hot water do? If you add a bit of sugar, does that change the process? Plenty of experimentation can be done at home without fancy equipment. Resist buying books of experiments. While these guided demonstrations can lead to better understanding of a principle, they rarely have the child ask the question. Instead, the question is provided along with the answer.

You can use those books of experiments to spur questions, however. Use the lab as a demonstration punctuated with questions like “What do you think will happen if…” and “What do you think is happening?” Or turn a lab into a demonstration and let the questioning begin. Consider the experiment where the hard-boiled egg pulls into a bottle when the flame at the bottom of the bottle burns out. It’s a study of temperature and air pressure. Rather than doing what most experiments do — explanation first with lab later — invert the order. Do the experiment. Then ask questions. For each proposed answer, think about ways to test the answers. Do what’s practical and safe. (And discuss the impractical and unsafe along the way.)

Above all, have fun. Observe the world with curiosity and thought. Name what you can. Ask questions. Search for answers. Cultivate your own and your child’s scientific thinking every day.

Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 

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Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.

 

 

 

Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 

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Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:

 

 

Summer at Sixteen

It’s summer. Not the calendar kind but rather the school kind. Well, my younger son is finishing three Online G3 courses while my older strolls through the ends of a writing course, but it’s mostly summer.

Summer vacation once meant a break from school entirely. Aside from problems from the Math Can, weekly piano lessons, and plenty of time for reading, summer meant no planning for Mom or regular work for the boys. But last summer, we decided to move some of my older son’s study to summer, freeing up some time in the fall for the college coursework he had planned. He started a Coursera literature class towards the end of July. I started teaching Physics at the start of August, partly as security against the inevitable illnesses that would interrupt our study and partly hope that we’d finish before May. (We did.) Thus summer as free and light ended and some form of year-round homeschooling began.

Summer remains simpler than the school year, at least a bit. For my newly sixteen-year-old son, it offers a chance to focus on a few subjects, some  passions and some despised necessities, but without the distraction of five or six other areas of study. By age, he’s a high school junior. He has 19 college credits from the past year, although acquiring more isn’t the agenda this summer.  For the next three and a half months, he’ll focus on a few carefully chosen subjects, along with the usual piano study, balancing what he needs with what he wants. I like to think of it is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. He may have a different analogy.

For the remainder of May, he’ll study for the SAT subject tests in Physics and Math Level 2.  It turns out Calculus 1 and 2 don’t help you recall the vagaries of trigonometry identities, probability  and matrices, so those are receiving the bulk of his time. Physics is fresher and going well on practice exams, so less work is required there. Why bother with the standardized tests? Because some colleges like proof of mastery, plus studying for exams is a skill that could use some practice. Plus, as many homeschooling parents know, no matter how much we feel we’re getting this homeschooling right, a bit of outside evidence doesn’t hurt.

My older will also start driver’s ed, albeit with much anxiety from both of us. He’s not that eager to drive. I’m eager to have another driver, but I’m not so excited about it being from that tiny, helpless baby that slept in my arms sixteen years back. Growing up is hard on moms. He’ll also finish a programming course in Python through Computer Science Circles (University of Waterloo). He’s resisted programming for years, figuring like foreign languages that it was not accessible to his brain. For once Mom was right. It’s different from a foreign language and is now a preferred activity of the day, done first each morning. And after Python, he’ll move on to another language, possibly Java, although through what route of study remains to be seen. He sees it as fun, making just about any route effective.

With a friend and fellow electronics nut, my older son will work his way through Make: Electronics (Charles Platt), an instructional electronics book with plenty of photos and fun. (The first of 36 projects is to lick a battery.) From there, they move on to building progressively more complicated circuits, exploring transistors, logic chips, magnetism, and a host of electronic wonders I don’t understand. To document the work done, the boys will make a series of YouTube videos of their projects. He’d been dabbling informally for much of the past year, and formalizing the study encourages him to fill in holes, complete projects, and allows me to issue some credit for the amazing amount of learning that went on when I turned my back.

The “medicine” end of summer includes finishing an online writing course. With two assignments remaining, this shouldn’t take long, but somehow writing is always his last priority. After that, we’re moving to a literature study of a hopefully appealing kind: Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, a Coursera offering. It’s not his mother’s literature class, but he’s a very different learner than his mother, so that makes sense. In my most optimistic mode, I’m picturing adding a history/English hybrid, with readings about scientists, mathematicians, and the history of science and technology. While I initially wanted to start that this summer, I’m becoming overwhelmed with the list of confirmed summer study, so perhaps that will wait for fall.

On top of his studies, my older has started repairing computers (PCs) for others. He received certification (TestOut PC Pro) by exam after completing a PC Troubleshooting and Repair class at a local community college. While this isn’t likely to produce steady work, it’s something he enjoys and does well. We’ve discussed communication with clients, turn-around time, rates, and other business practices, and are hoping for the best.

As I read through his plans for summer, I’m awed. He’s come so far in the last year, a time when I was frankly hoping he was reaching the bottom of the teen slump, since I couldn’t imagine him dipping any lower. Clearly, he’s on his way up and out. Along the way, he’s found his passions — computers and electronics. His passions match his skill-set, and he knows he’d like to pursue computer and electrical engineering in the years to come. I’m relieved. He seems to still find plenty of time for Minecraft, sleeping, and goofing around, top activities in his niche in the teen boy culture. And he still seems to like his family, at least most of the time. At sixteen, that’s a fine sign for our summer together.

Teaching Other People’s Children

Thompson Lab 10.2:  And the color change after

I never planned to teach children. At different points as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist,  an astronaut, a brain surgeon, and a social worker (although I didn’t know what they did). So naturally, I spent college as an English major. My inner scientist emerged a few years later, and I found myself as a Physician Assistant with an inkling that writing professionally and teaching in a PA program would come later.

It’s eighteen years later, and I write for free, don’t teach at the Univeristy level, and do teach children, my own and Other People’s Children. Oh, and I still practice as a PA. Of all those, it’s teaching other people’s children that’s stretched me the furthest and taught me the most.

My movement into the education of offspring other than my own (beyond a bit of Sunday School) started four years back, beginning what is now known as MacLeod Biology or Quarks and Quirks Biology.My older son, then 12, was ready for high-school level biology, and I had a history of flaking out on labs and formal science study. His buddy, another gifted kid, needed Biology as well. I knew I’d not flake with two, so after a summer of reviewing biology books, chatting with my biology professor of a father, and making then unmaking plans, I started teaching my two charges.

October 2010 031I’ve not looked back. Teaching someone else’s child increased my follow-through as well as my drive to find supporting materials for classes and labs. I did, after all, have two hours once a week to fill, and being responsible for the education of another’s offspring brought out the more responsible  me. I kept a list of labs, videos, assignments, and readings on a website, thus (ideally) fostering some independence on their part as well as a record of what we’d done.

Delighted with our success, the boys and I moved on to high school level chemistry. I was nervous. Where biology offered the comfort of the familiar, chemistry brought the promise of review. My chemistry over 20 years old, dusted off only in the context of medicine and revisited only lightly as a homeschooling parent of children under the age of 13. I expected a rough time of it and was surprised how quickly the material returned. My son and his friend brought enthusiasm for the subject matter. I brought the discipline that comes with maturity and far better discernment when working with fire and potentially hazardous materials. They distilled spirits, made black powder (not an official lab, but safely done), and regularly reviewed lab safety while learning an impressive amount of Chemistry. As a teacher, I honed my test design skills and learned when to stretch my students. It was a fabulous year.

Last year, without a science to teach (having drawn the line at physics), I taught six weeks of bioethics and team taught six weeks of research paper writing. With a group of ten, classroom management issues appeared. Faced with a spectrum of skills and experience, I was stretched further than previously to make a concept clear in several different ways for the varying learning styles of my students. When teaching them to write a research paper, I learned to discard global expectations and simply work with each student individually, attempting to improve a few skills during our six weeks of writing.

The lessons learned with those students led me to start teaching writing one-on-one this school year. Most of my writing students are profoundly gifted, and some also have a learning disability. Familiarity with my home-grown versions of twice exceptionality gave me only a hint of how to start approaching other people’s children with similar challenges. The first weeks or even months with each student can be littered with my missteps and mid-course corrections, and patient parents, tired from the battle, become my allies as we pick our way through the labyrinth of their children’s complicated minds. Generally, we find a way through, a pace that works for the family, and perhaps even a bit of rhythm.

Teaching writing to other people’s children informed my work with my own sons’ writing. As one who loves to write, my older son’s writing challenges and resistance have frustrated me. After teaching other people’s children,  I began to think differently about the process of teaching him to write. I now work with him through Google Docs, making notes in the margin and through the text, just as I do with my distance students. This seems a bit less personal than red marks all over a paper. It provides some distance we both need, which helps both of us.

IMG_0162This year also found me teaching physics and physical science. Both boys needed the material, and both had a friend or two also in need. My one and only physics class was 25 years back, but, alas, several of the topics we’re covering were not in that semester of coursework (electricity seemed to be a second semester offering, for example). It’s work. Hard work at times, explaining what I’ve just only figured out. But teaching as I’m learning drives me to reach deeper understanding faster than if I were learning the material on my own. Additionally, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the universe. More of the world makes sense, and that delights me.

Teaching other people’s children offers an opportunity to share what you love, to hone a skill that’s been dormant, or to learn new material, even the type that scares you. It broadens your appreciation for the differences between kids and between homeschooling families. It can even help you educate your own children more effectively, if you can bring the patience cultivated from that experience back home. That’s the benefit the whole family can appreciate.

Review: EEME Genius Light Circuit Kit

IMG_0170

A completed Genius Light

It’s a physics year. Both boys are studying the subject with friends under the tutelage of yours truly. It’s been a good deal of work (see Working at My Edge), given my one and only physics course was over 20 years ago and was the semester on kinetics and heat transfer. Having convinced myself that I could indeed do well in the course for engineering majors, I moved on to other pursuits that didn’t involve hinky lab equipment and equations to memorize. When electricity came up in both boys’ curriculum (CPO Foundations in Physics for teens and CPO Physical Science for the preteens), I knew I had some studying to do. I’m keeping up well, thank you very much, and some of my sense of confidence came from a small circuit kid from the start-up EEME.

EEME pairs hands-on projects (just one now, the Genius Light) utilizing real electronic components — a breadboard, four wires, two resistors,  one white LED, a photoresistor, a battery box with a switch and wires, two AA batteries, and a box to hold the Genius Light. Not sure what some of that stuff is? No problem. EEME provides video instructions including explanations of the why behind the steps on their website for no extra charge. According to the website, the activities are appropriate for ages 7 to 12 with the intent of teaching electrical engineering concepts. I picked up my Genius Light kit during a promotion, paying only $10 for a kit that retails for $50. At this writing, this is the only kit available, although two more appear to be coming soon (a DIY Display kit and Buzz Wave kit).IMG_0169

So how does it work? Essentially, you watch the video with the kit in front of you, building as you go. There are 45 minutes of video broken into 22 bite-sized pieces. After two introductions, including a review of the contents of the kit, each piece of video is either an activity (building something on the board), a question (a single multiple choice question about material learned), or informational (labeled “learn” and designed to teach about circuitry).  In general, the activity comes first, with the instructor giving step-by-step detailed information about what to put where. Explanation of the path of the circuit is repeated at the end of the step, with further information about the hows and whys appearing in the “learn” sections. The instructor speaks clearly and at a reasonable pace, with only his hands and the equipment visible. He doesn’t joke but he does keep it interesting and moving along. It’s clearly the circuit that’s center stage, not the instructor. By the last step, you’ve built the Genius Light, a light that comes on in the dark (or even just a normally lit room on a cloudy day) and turns off in the light.IMG_0171

I integrated the project into the electricity study of my three younger (ten and eleven years old, all gifted learners). In previous weeks, we’d discussed electrical flow, had heated debates about the conventional direction of flow and reality of that direction, studied Ohm’s law a bit, and build circuits in series and parallel. In short, they were a prepared audience with plenty of ready knowledge. I had them preview the video at home before the build day, preferring familiarity with where we were going so the project would fit in the hour we have allotted for class. Any of them could have built and understood the circuit on the first pass through, however, but this did help our process as they built on Genius Light together.

I’d been concerned about the fine motor control required to work on such a tiny board. Finding one’s place on the breadboard isn’t easy and, at least for my eyes, requires good light. They managed far better than I thought, and what they lacked in coordination they more than made up for with good eyesight and smaller fingers. As they progressed through the activity, they grew more comfortable with the (real) electronics and how to make them fit the space of the board. They were even quick to pick up the way a breadboard works, which isn’t easy, since the connections aren’t visible.

Overall, the quality of the kit was good. The electronic parts were standard, with the wires cut to the necessary length for the project, which made for easy identification (“Now take a short wire…”), made even more easy by the match of color of wire in the video to those in the kit. These small details make a big difference, as does having a kit ready-to-go out of the box. Warning: the thumb pins that hold in the battery pack and breadboard are as delicate as the instructor says they are, and I broke one putting in the battery pack despite  thinking I was heeding the warning to be careful. This has no impact on the project, but I’d not expected the plastic to be that brittle. Be gentle with the case!

So what didn’t I like? The online information mentions eight quizzes. In reality, this is eight single questions. They’re pertinent questions but not worthy of the word “quiz.” Second, as  clear as the video instructions are, I’d like to have a written set of instructions with diagrams to go with them. While it’s not hard to stop the video while building, I’d like a hard copy of the instructions to refer to, rather than just the audio. I’d also like circuit drawings and a diagram of the connections in a breadboard for teaching purposes.

Finally, and most significantly,  I feel the $50 price tag is far too high, even with an excellent video (which is free to those not buying the kit). None of the electrical components are at all expensive or hard to obtain. If the containing box for the device is the big cost (It is clearly manufactured specifically for the product.), I’d gladly do with a piece of wood on which to mount the battery and breadboard with, if desired, a cardboard foldable top to display the lights.  It’s just too much money for a single, hour-long project. Better yet, I’d like to see the kits bundled, with many projects in one box. While it seems it’s designed to be a permanent project to keep, I doubt this is a priority for many families. I’d rather have a kit I can reuse, creating new circuits after disassembling the old. After all, that’s the beauty of the breadboard — alterable circuits without the permanency and work of soldering.

Overall, the EEME Genius Light is a fine product with excellent instruction via video. There is nothing needed from the user to complete the kit, making it truly and open-and-do project. That’s appreciated. The electrical instruction is sound and clear, although an instructional insert with diagrams would add more to the learning experience and support those who don’t follow auditory directions well. Additionally, its price point is too high for a single-project kit. This makes it unlikely I’ll purchase the kits to come despite our enjoyment of the first one. If it fits your budget, however, the Genius Light from EEME is an excellent way to introduce your young learners (and yourself) to circuit building.

There are other options for taking education about circuits to the next level. Snap Circuits, while simple to build, contain advanced circuitry in even the 300 level kit. While I’ve heard many parents dismiss them as “too simple” for their kids over the age of six, I doubt they’re utilizing them fully, as there is far more to the sets than following the maps to build the circuits. The highest level kits include software for computer interface. While the instructions for Snap Circuits are scant, there is information along with the directions to help the learner grow their knowledge.

For students wanting more breadboard work and the ability to control a circuit with computer code, check out the Arduino. My older son’s been tinkering with that, relying on an excellent starter kit and booklet (a bit hard to find in the US but worth the search). This isn’t designed for the younger set, but the booklet provides excellent directions and information about the components included (tons of bits and parts, all reusable) as well as information about the circuits and programming. I don’t see him outgrowing that anytime soon.

Nearing The Half: Curriculum Keepers and Changes

We’re closing in on the end of the semester. My older has finals for two of his courses in two weeks, with the rest of the term ending in three. While we caught a breath at Thanksgiving break, it was not the idyllic week of rest I envisioned. How could it be, with classes going through Tuesday night, past when company arrived? The following five days were a flurry of cooking and eating followed by a few too-short days of respite from a semester that started at the end of July.

Yes, I’m tired. Tired, with a to-do list that grows by the minute, urgency growing on numerous items. I’m longing for more evenings where no one needs to go anywhere and just a few weekends where, “What do you have for homework?” doesn’t escape my lips. Fortunately, a break is coming, and the second semester is set. Here’s what we’ll be doing for Winter 2012

A.D. (15)

Classes at a local university are going well — astonishingly well, given my doubt three months back. My son doesn’t seem as surprised, but he is pleased. Despite a few hiccups and a resulting rapid revision of study habits, he’s pulling good grades in both his Sign Language class (our answer to a foreign language, and the first of four semesters) and Calculus I. He’ll move on to the next in both come January, with more of the series the following semester. I do like predictability and pattern.

He’ll add a third college-level class, PC Troubleshooting and Repair, come January. After building his own computer with a neighbor and fiddling with it endlessly on his own, he’s itching to know more about the innards of those machines. Now, I get antsy at the suggestion of even opening the case of any computer, sure that my mere presence will frighten the workings of the thing into an eternal black screen of death. I’m limited outside the box as well, having a few quick fixes at my fingertips but quickly phoning a more capable friend (or more recently my son) when something goes awry on the screen. While this isn’t a class with credits likely to transfer to a university some day, it could lead to the ability to perform some helpful work around this house and the homes of others. I’m enthused, as is he.

Personal Finance (Dave Ramsey), taken with a handful of friends, continues until early spring. Initially, he was certain this course had nothing to offer him, a sure sign to me that he very much did need some financial education. A few months in, he’s enjoying himself and appreciating the information. (Since I’ve not been watching the lectures, I can’t give a full review of the curriculum. Ramsey is entertaining to watch although overly optimistic about saving rates and investment returns. Watch this series with a post-2007 reality check from a well-grounded adult.)

Piano continues, albeit with a new instructor. I’ve shared our piano woes here before (Piano Lessons), and we’ve learned a good deal about the importance of chemistry between music teacher and student as well as the necessity of teens to set their own musical course. I’m optimistic, as is he. (A full post on music education will follow).

Physics, taught by me to my son and his friend, continues as well. We’ve finished our tour of mechanics and have moved on to sound. Next semester takes us to light, magnetism, electronics, fluids, heat, and quantum physics. I have quite a bit to learn. Our original goal was the SAT Physics Subject Test, but I’ve not looked at where we are on that road in some time. Add that to my very long list.

Ironic as it may be, I’m farming out writing instruction to a tutor. It seems teaching writing to one’s own teen isn’t always effective or desirable. Now, as a source of some of my income, I rely on that fact, but it took me until now to act on it at home. So my older is looking forward to ten assignments spread over 20 weeks, all lead by someone who is Not Mom. I’m smiling, too.

A.B. (11 years old)

My younger son will enter his fifth semester with Online G3, lead by the brave and nearly saintly Jamie Smith. With an assortment of gifted kids in the 8 (or younger) to 13 (or older) age group, he’ll take three classes. Magic Lens/Word Within the Word 2B continues his trip through Michael Clay Thompson’s books by the same name. Aside from adding weekly vocabulary quizzes and reviewing the new stems and words with him, he’s independent in this class. American Literature will round out his Language Arts study, carrying him through Huck Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Red Badge of Courage, and Call of the Wild. The accompanying text is from Lightening Literature, a series with which we’re familiar. Finally, he’ll take Government. He’s been prepping for months, if one considers his immersion into the election and regular (guided) watching of The West Wing. Jamie, beware.

Math will continue as before, with the goal of finishing Discovering Mathematics 1A and 1B (or 7A and 7B, as the new editions are labelled). Well, unless we’re distracted by other math. An interest of trigonometry will return us to Challenge Math after our current chapter in Discovering Mathematics. I’m in favor of side roads on this journey.

Physical Science (CPO Middle School series) continues, and we’re adding a third young person to our studies come January. Overall, the book is serving us well, and we’re progressing through at a reasonable rate with rather impressive retention. I’ll review this more thoroughly a bit later.

New to the schedule will be Latin with The Pericles Group. This is Latin via video game  (practomime), and he’s enthused. I’m interested to see how much he actually learns. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up and requires a good amount motivation and initiative to be worthwhile, says the creator and Latin teacher. My younger son doesn’t lack either, so I’m betting he’ll be fine. When we know more, I’ll report it here.

His Coursera World History class is winding down, and he’s done a fine job keeping up with 750-word essays, challenging readings, and over two hours of lectures a week. We’ve just started a Coursera class on argumentation, and while I’m not sure we’ll take all the quizzes or make it through all the assignments (which walk right through the two weeks when  I don’t want to discuss homework), so far the lectures are interesting and even amusing. The wisdom of placing a naturally argumentative child and his mother into an argumentation class is not open for debate.

Piano and fencing round out his schedule. He’s happy with his piano teacher of the last four years, and he steadily progresses.  He’s also quite satisfied with his with his fencing coach and venue, feeling accepted and challenged. He’s started to enter local tournaments, fencing foil at the  under 12 level. He loves it, and he’s gradually gaining skill.

Those are the plans. We’ll see what really happens. My older son thrives on the greater challenge and demands from his college-level coursework. My younger continues to do well whether I’m in charge or someone else is, although his schedule is heavy on outside courses this semester. Everyone, myself included, is learning. And perhaps just as important, everyone is feeling successful and happy. Sounds like a fine start to second semester.

Working at My Edge

For the latest lesson plans for our physics class, visit Don’t Touch the Photons.

For reasons that somewhat elude me now, I offered to teach high school level physics this year. I swore I’d never take that science on, since it’s the one in which I have the least formal instruction. Biology was a treat and came quite naturally. Chemistry was generally comfortably doable. Physics scared me. I’ve had one semester of engineering-level physics in college. I did well. Twenty-four years ago. How much of that have I used since then? Precious little. But my older son was due for physics, and he already had two classes at the local university. With questionable study habits and plenty of unknowns facing him during this first year in a new setting, I was pretty sure adding physics there could be a big mistake. So I did what I said I wouldn’t. I offered to teach it myself.

Sure, I could have just taught it to my own child, but science is best when it’s collaborative. Besides, I was certain I’d plan far better if I had a child other than mine also counting on me to guide him through this coursework. I’ll admit that I have more planning drive when I’m responsible to more than just my child. I don’t understand why my slacker self is straightened up by the presence of children other than my own, but I know it’s true and act accordingly.

Eleven weeks in to teaching my own 15-year-old and his 17-year-old friend, I’m generally feeling confident. Well, most days.  Overall, it’s going well. We’re well into mechanics, just finishing projectile motion, friction, rotational motion, and too many inclined planes. Heat, light, magnetism  electricity, and quantum physics all are yet to come. And that single semester of physics seems a light year in the past.

I’m not sure how much I really appreciated the connections and underlying concepts back then. While I did quite well in the course, I recall points of disconnect, where I learned enough to solve the problems but felt I was missing some critical understanding. As a person with a tendency to over-think everything from the meaning of life to which socks to buy, my nagging feeling might have been more self-doubt than reality, but likely there was a bit of truth to it.

Truth be told, that feeling is still sometimes there.

This is hard work. It requires a fair amount of study as I go, and I’m never that much ahead of them. I once said in an interview for either undergrad or graduate school that one of my strengths was being a skilled learner. I know how to learn new material and resurrect material that once was in my head. I’m good at recognizing what I don’t know, seeking it out, and soaking it up. I have a high degree of tenacity that undoubtedly annoys those closest to me yet serves well when faced with a challenge.  To put it briefly, I’m smart and stubborn as hell. It works for me. Still, this is hard work.

I also have physics-oriented friends who offer their help when I’m struggling. One leads monthly labs that reach beyond the more typical labs I have the boys do during our weekly class. He pushes them further and (hopefully) is spreading his passion for the subject to them simply via his high energy about the subject. Another answers my questions in English. He’s quick with an example or demonstration and patient with my quizzical looks. Until recently, I’ve underutilized him, not wanting to appear as lost as I sometimes feel. I’m wising up, however. As I tell my kids, use your experts. And then thank them profusely.

Even with a decent brain, tenacity, and a supportive team of experts, this road has been trying. Just vetting books for the course overwhelmed me. The search for something that covered what we needed, appeared approachable, and had a solutions manual available took a good month. I’m fairly pleased with our choice, only second-guessing about every other week. Other years, I’ve caved midway, adding a second text. This year, I’m trying to keep it a bit simpler.

While I do love to learn something new or deepen previous knowledge, I can’t say that I’d have chosen to spend that energy on physics unless my son had needed the class. I am enjoying reviving neuronal connections associated with torque, energy, and friction, admittedly. But it’s tiring to work at my edge continually, relearning then teaching, week after week. There’s a pride element here, too. It just feels a bit better to teach what is comfortably in my domain. And, frankly, in this domain, there’s still so much I don’t know, and what I do know isn’t all that comfortable. I have to muddle through problems just like the boys do (and sometimes they pull me through rather than the other way ’round). I look plenty of things up and utter, “I don’t know,” at regular intervals. This is a stretch.

Not that I’ve not had other stretches before. Matrices, translations of functions, points of inflection, and many other elements of precalculus left me asking my older son (15) for more answers than I was giving him at times. I learned quite a bit, not least of all being that Calculus was something I’d farm out. My younger boy, 11, has learned to skip mom as a history resource (smart child) and head straight for a book or the computer. Then he’ll come back and tell me what he found, whether I’m curious or not.  Somewhere between all my “I don’t knows” and “Let’s look it ups,” he gained some terrific research skills along with a recognition of his mom’s limits. What I’ve offered during these times is a model of how to learn and how to persist. I’ve taught them when to seek out an expert and that asking is strength rather than weakness.

While working at my edge through energy equations and free-body diagrams might not be always comfortable or fun, it’s worthwhile for my boys and for me. The boys watch someone learn and sometimes struggle. They see read and re-read and hear me ask questions of those who know more. The process also expands my knowledge. I ask them to learn plenty of things that don’t fascinate them, and it’s okay for me to learn what doesn’t always entrance me. (Although I do love the aha moments and my deepening understanding of the workings of the universe.) I’m better for the process.   But next year? Next year, we’re back to biology.

A special thanks to J.K. and B.S. for encouraging me, educating me, and not laughing when I make mistakes or just look lost. You’ve given me the courage to walk this road. 

 

 

 

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.