Learning On The Road, Part 1 of 3

Other than itinerary, the most frequently asked questions we hear are along the lines of the following:

“How does your schooling work on the road?”

“What are you teaching the kids?”

“What does your curriculum look like?”

“Are you using a virtual charter school?”

“What do you need to do for your state’s curriculum?”

So here goes: now that we’re a few months in, here’s what school-on-the-road looks like. We are doing a lot — both traditional and less traditional — so as the original blog post grew out of control, I decided to break it into 3 parts (Part 1: traditional subjects other than Social Studies; Part 2: Social Studies; Part 3: Reflections on Homeschooling as a Public School Advocate). As a result of the escalating size, it’s also getting finished later than anticipated, so please note that the timing is no longer accurate (e.g., we already visited Manzanar, and at least Elizabeth should have a blog post up about that shortly).

Math

Now that school is back in session in New Jersey, as many mornings as we can, especially when we’re not packing up and moving on, we now spend some time doing something that looks similar to traditional school. For Elizabeth, that’s mostly working her way through an Algebra book I picked up before we left on our trip, the highly-recommended Elementary Algebra by Harold R. Jacobs (I also picked up a teacher’s edition, solution set, etc., but so far — knock wood — I haven’t really needed them). Although the book was copyrighted in 1979, in many ways it’s a precursor of the good parts (yes there are good parts) of the Common Core approach to mathematics in that it walks the student through the “whys” of how math works. For example, today’s lesson is about order of operations. And yes, there are squares and dots, but conceptually they really do serve to illustrate what the student is doing with the calculations.

Of course, this reflects a Common Core irony: despite Common Core’s breathless claims of a “new” approach to math, as the 1979 publication date attests (and as was my own public school experience), many, many public school math teachers have taken a reasoning and why-it-works approach to math instruction for decades and decades. Common Core’s hubris in claiming new-ness is part of why it is so disliked, especially when coupled with pedagogical approaches that stupidly implement the standards.

The math humor in the textbook, however, is something of a mixed blessing: Elizabeth finds some of the cartoons funnier than perhaps is warranted, but she sometimes finds the “math humor” in which the answers to certain math problems are all the same in a row, or are numbers like 1776, 2001, etc. a little hard to take. What I love most about the book, however, is that it isn’t full of lame multiple choice test-prep problems. The explanations in the written text are generally clear, and the problem sets are deliberately set up to teach and reinforce concepts. The students actually have to generate answers themselves, rather than completing multiple choice problems aa significant portion of their math homework. Math isn’t Elizabeth’s easiest subject, but the book is set up to give her a challenge while not overwhelming her.

Right now, we’re still in review, and we are going back and we’re giving it some time because we’re seeing that some topics simply haven’t been covered fully and comprehensively when they should have been in elementary school: I’m looking at you, long division. And you, fractions.

As many of my Facebook friends know, Elizabeth found the book’s discussion of why 0/0 is indeterminate impenetrable, but I am fortunate enough to have many wise and mathematically inclined friends who could step in to suggest explanations that might make more sense to her than the ones the book — or I — could provide.

Elizabeth is also going back and working some Khan Academy, especially in the areas where she needs more review/practice.

Julianna is practicing lots of math facts to get her first “math license” (ability to complete 100 addition facts with at least 95% accuracy in 5 minutes, which is something Elizabeth’s 3rd grade teacher did) and we’re working through some of the curriculum via Khan Academy, etc. Once she displays real mastery of addition and subtraction facts we’ll move on to everything multiplication and division, and we’ll make sure to cover much of the rest of the 3rd grade math curriculum/standards as well. Math is a strength for Julianna, so I’m not too worried about her — she’s already in pretty decent shape.

Writing

Julianna, however, struggles a great deal with handwriting, to the point that it gets in the way of her ability to express herself in writing, and such that she worked with an OT on handwriting-related issues in the second part of 1st grade and much of 2nd grade (she “graduated” from working with the OT later on in second grade, but handwriting still remains a struggle). She also struggles with spelling. So Julianna and I have been going back to basics on handwriting: we’re sitting together and forming letters, giving her practice to correct letters she’s consistently mis-forming (which seems to be helping), and, based on a bunch of reading I’ve done, we’re working on cursive/script as well. So far this intervention seems to be working well: she’s forming a lot of letters more neatly, and her cursive writing in particular seems quite good (frankly, better than her printing). We should finish that shortly (we will be halfway through the alphabet tomorrow), and then I will work on assigning her morning writing exercises to keep her working on handwriting, and to have her start working on spelling and composing writing on paper as well.

Both girls, of course, as you’ve read, have been working on their writing by composing blog posts for this blog. Elizabeth writes her blog posts entirely on her own — if I’m lucky she’ll let me give them a read before posting, but some have gone up without me even seeing them first (which is fine — I trust her). I don’t know about you, but I think her voice is hilarious and well beyond her years. In classic young-folk style, Elizabeth does a great deal of her blog post writing directly on her phone (yikes).

Julianna needs more help and support with blogging, which of course makes perfect sense since she’s four years younger. She composes a draft in Google Docs, and then sends it to me for editing. I take a look and then we work together on editing and expanding it. I ask her leading questions, and take some dictation in helping her to expand her writing. The blogging is the bulk of our writing curriculum. As I write this, Julianna is working on a blog post about the Exploratorium in San Francisco — therefore she’s doing both writing AND science.

Reading/Literature

We are fortunate indeed that both girls are voracious readers. For the most part, I’m letting them read their books of choice, even when I want to pull my hair out because Julianna is reading her 11th Rick Riordan mythology book. She’s been through the Percy Jackson series, the Heroes of Olympus series at least twice (she is thrilled with the tool belt she got for her birthday, which she wears everywhere but to bed), and the Magnus Chase books. It’s hard to have a conversation with her without encountering multiple Rick Riordan references. This inspired her to ask for a non-fiction mythology book for her birthday, and as you can imagine, Greece and Rome are must-see stops on our itinerary.

When we were at the FDR Presidential Library (our first stop) I assigned the girls to read Farewell to Manzanar as the FDR Library had a terrific temporary exhibit about Japanese internment and FDR’s role in allowing/ordering this abhorrent treatment of Japanese permanent residents and citizens of the United States. I got a fair amount of pushback from Julie in particular about reading Farewell to Manzanar initially, and I stopped pushing her, but now that we’re going to Manzanar (now a National Historic Site) tomorrow, I prodded them both to finish the book today. Both did — and I see in Julie in particular how much her comprehension has improved, in part in that she really dove in and got a lot more out of it today, which is something that I think was a bit beyond her in late June/early July.

Both girls have the reading-only Kindles and they read constantly (especially Julie) to the point where our biggest discipline “problem” with Julie on this trip is getting her to stop taking out her Kindle every time we stop for a 10 second break. Any of you reading this who knew me as a child will laugh, as it is clear that I’ve been blessed/cursed with a daughter who greatly resembles me (I would even get punished by getting grounded from reading, as NOTHING else worked). When we stay in motel rooms, sits on the toilet reading in the morning if she’s awake first (don’t worry, the lid is closed and she’s wearing shorts under there).

I also read out loud to both girls at night, and we then talk about and do some research to explain what we’ve read. Julie and I are close to done with Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott. We’ve decided that the Campbell family likely lives in Salem, Massachusetts given that they don’t quite seem to be in Boston, coupled with LMA’s familiarity with Massachusetts. We visited Salem and learned a fair amount about the extensive shipbuilding, shipping, and import/export businesses based there. Seems plausible to us. We’ve also looked up corsets and 1870’s fashion, etc.

Elizabeth and I have gotten through the first few chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In addition, Elizabeth is also following along with her school curriculum to a greater or lesser degree. We originally headed to Salem to learn more about the witch trials as context for the fact that her class at school is reading The Crucible this year. At the moment, however, her class back at school is reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, so she devoured it in two days (and loved it, although she also noted that it’s very sad).

We’ve also talked about and read — as appropriate — literature associated with places we’ve visited. For instance, we visited the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and of course read some Dickinson poetry. In Monterey, California, we talked about John Steinbeck, and I’m thinking of giving Elizabeth a short Steinbeck novel to read — I know I read The Pearl for school in 7th or 8th grade.

Music

Both kids are practicing trumpet reasonably regularly, although it’s more sporadic than I would like recently. Julie is close to playing When the Saints Go Marching In, and Elizabeth is building a repertoire of Beatles songs.

Visual Arts

We’re seeing and appreciating art in museums and exhibits, and the girls are drawing. Elizabeth has a sketch pad she adds to when she can, and Julianna is happy as a clam with crayons and paper. We had a great discussion about the definition of art in the context of the Chihuly permanent exhibition in Seattle a week or two ago, and our trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum (despite the annoying as heck staff) was a highlight, as we can reference his work throughout the US portion of our trip.

Foreign Language

We still need to figure this out. I think it will be more of a focus on the international portion of our trip, but I do need to see if I can find some way to get Elizabeth at least keeping her Spanish from getting rusty. Julianna will likely switch from the Mandarin she’s been studying since kindergarten to Spanish upon our return to the Montclair Public Schools.

Science

So, so, so much science. Visiting National Parks is a crash course in geology and Earth science. We’ve learned about plate tectonics, various types of rocks, climate, wildfires, caves, and the interactions between animals and their habitats. We’ve learned about evolution and adaptation, and how biologists attempt to protect vulnerable animal populations from disease (e.g., attempting to protect bats from white nose syndrome). We’ve also learned about the limits of scientific knowledge: for example, based on airflow testing results, geologists believe that only 3% of Jewel Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota has been mapped, and it remains unknown whether Jewel Cave and its neighbor about 20 miles away, Wind Cave, are actually one giant cave.

What has been mapped so far of Jewel Cave.

Scientists cleaning fossils at the Badlands Visitor Center.

Redwoods (top) at John Muir vs Sequoias at Sequoia NP.

A result of volcanic activity at Death Valley NP.

Volcanically formed Mt. Ranier in Washington State.

Volcanic cinder cones at Craters of the Moon NM.

Results of volcanic activity at Yellowstone NP.

In addition to hands-on science of all types at National Parks, we’ve also visited some science museums. Our favorite by far was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which really gave us a hands on experience with physics and experimentation.

In addition, Elizabeth’s science teacher has sent us lessons for the material she’s covering so far, and Elizabeth is working on some of that as well. Right now, her science class back at school is focused on creating models to reflect the vastness of the time since the Earth’s creation. They’re also doing some math to help them come up with the proper ratios.

We’ve also listened to some science podcasts, but so far we haven’t found one we love that appeals to all four of us (one thing we’ve definitely learned on this trip is that Mike in particular is VERY picky about podcasts).

So far, I think we’re doing okay.

Next post: Social Studies.

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