Sunday, May 31, 2009

Day of Dissection

As I mentioned awhile ago, one of our homeschooling friends set up a GREAT activity. She has a neighbor who is a retired neurosurgeon, researcher, and professor at USC medical school who volunteered to dissect cow's eyeballs with some of the older homeschoolers (who knew you could order cow eyeball dissection kits on the internet!). Mackenzie was very excited about this, especially since he's been thinking a bit more about maybe going into biology or medicine.

It was a really interesting activity. Not having done any dissection before, it was all new for the kids, but they got a lot of great information from their mentor and it really was fascinating stuff. Mackenzie wasn't sure ahead of time whether or not it would gross him out, but he really enjoyed himself. Cutting the tissues was quite difficult, but when it came to slicing away the lens and the iris, he found that all fascinating. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to be a surgeon working with such delicate tissues, and trying not to slice them all up. I call this Mackenzie's "mad scientist" look...

The lens was very hard, almost like a marble, but some of that comes from the preserving of the tissue. The backs of the eyeballs are reflective, like many animals, to aid in night vision. They looked irridescent, almost like an abalone shell.

Of course, no dissection is complete without some hijinks with the finished product.

One of the moms volunteered to lead a fun activity for the younger crowd. They designed containers using straws to drop eggs in, then dropped them from various heights and recorded whether or not they broke. Then they put on a skit for the rest of us when the dissections were complete. All in all, it was a very cool activity day. As the kids get older and more and more really interesting opportunities open up to them, homeschooling just gets more and more fun.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter 345 of Unschooling Adventures, In Which I Become An Algebra Teacher and Assign Homework

I've been many things in my mothering career - mentor, guide, coach, and of course The Mom, but I've never been a teacher. Unschooling has allowed me to learn alongside the kids, to help the kids, to be their facilitator, but I've never had to sit down and formally teach them a lesson (a fact for which I've been profoundly grateful). It's been an exciting journey to watch their interests grow and change, to take part in their learning without having to explicitly direct it every step of the way. When I've had the chance to overhear homeschooling parents' discussions of curriculums and enforcements of study time, I've felt mildly exhausted by proxy and thanked my lucky stars that I just get to be a participant in the kids' self-directed learning adventures.

So then what's an unschooling mom to do when her son comes to her and says "Mom, I want to learn Algebra"? You see, most of the mathematics up to this point are learned organically - by doubling a recipe that includes fractions of cups, by counting allowance and figuring out how many months to save up for a special item, by helping dad measure the deck and calculating square footage of lumber. But somehow I doubt that anyone learns how to simplify polynomials organically, and negative exponents don't just fall out of thin air into one's head. In short, Algebra kind of needs to be learned in some sort of structured fashion.

Now I've never been the kind of unschooler who completely runs in horror at the notion of any kind of formal learning. I do believe that there's a time and a place for it, specifically when the kid asks for it. And my kid was asking for it. What's more, our unschooled neighbor kids were also interested in learning Algebra, so all of a sudden I had a class! Since my remembrance of all things Alegbra is sketchy at best, it was off to the library and internet for me, and finding was a real bonus, I can tell you. Alegbra for Dummies isn't a bad resource either, much better than those old textbooks that I learned from.

Coincidentally, I was going through a box of my old papers and discovered the following poem, written by me at age 13 and attached to a bunch of my old algebra homework:

Algebra (A Rime by Robin)

Addition, subtraction and others
Muddle the thoughts in my head.
And then there's fractions (oh brother!)
I wish I could just sleep instead.

This class is a bore for me
And I imagine it's the same for you
And just think of being a teacher!
Listening to this the whole day through

We look forward to the bell
With visions of food in our brains
But the school food is just plain hell
And always gives me stomach pains

So this is the end of my rhyme
I have an assignment to do
I wrote this instead of using a dime
To place a telephone call to you

Clearly, I was not enamored of Algebra at slightly older than Mackenzie's age. And I certainly wasn't begging to learn it. Moreover, I could imagine no worse fate than being an Algebra Teacher, and yet here I am. On the bright side, I could clearly do no worse than my own public school teachers at making Algebra palatable, and as a bonus I serve better lunches than the school cafeteria.

I read this poem to the kids in one of our first lessons and we were off and running. Immediately I saw the need for them to do homework or they would lose the memory of how to do this stuff from week to week. And I also saw the need to review each of the last week's lessons at the beginning of class or it also could flee from the memory cells. I do my best to keep it lively, and with only three of them I can make sure that everyone understands each lesson before we move on. That was probably the biggest disadvantage of my experiences with math in school - sometimes I didn't understand so well what we were doing and why, and no one could take the time to explain it to me.

So far we've worked our way through Factoring and Absolute Values, Exponents and the basics of Polynomials. We've memorized definitions and formulas, and it's been a real learning experience for me to go back over this stuff and realize how very little of it I actually remember! I couldn't for the life of me have told you how to calculate a negative exponent for instance. It's also been a learning experience to see the world of teaching from the other side of the blackboard.

More than that though, it's a confirmation of all that I've believed about unschooling from the start: when a need arises for more formal education, unschooled kids are motivated to pursue it. Mackenzie wants to do more complex computer and robotics programming, for which some knowledge of Algebra is essential. Lately he's also been talking seriously about wanting to go into medicine, and he knows that this will entail a science and math-heavy college load at some point in the future. Keeping in mind that I've always loved pure math, when I re-read that poem of mine I feel sad for a math experience that caused me to turn my face away from the fascinating puzzles of the Algebra world. It's a wonderful opportunity to hopefully give my kids a different kind of approach to math, one that buoys up their natural curiousity about how numbers relate to each other, and respects their own timelines for learning.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Motherhood: The Tough Job

When it comes to celebrating mothers, the standards are in place: breakfast in bed, cards telling them how wonderful they are, maybe some flowers and chocolate. And motherhood really is awesome, of course, and certainly to be celebrated. The days that each of our kids were born were two of the best days of my life. I can remember the excitement with which I greeted them, getting to meet them for the first time. Heck, I remember Wayne and I crying together over the little blue line on the pregnancy test stick.

As it turned out, Mother's Day Weekend this year was both a wonderful celebration, and a testament to how hard the job of mothering can be. My mom arrived on Friday to celebrate the weekend with us, and as we were all sitting around after dinner on Friday evening, Asa's cat Bandit came wailing up the stairs dragging his hind legs behind him in a crippled fashion. We had no idea what had happened - hit by a car? Fell out of a tree? (he's a notorious climber). We were off to the Emergency Vet, where about half of the city's population of pets also seemed to be having similar crises. After several hours there and X-rays and blood tests, we were no closer to an answer to what had happened to our kitty - no broken bones, possibly snapped tendons, possibly a blood clot, possible a spinal cord injury. The best the vet could give us was a bill for $500 and an appointment with a specialist, and some dire predictions.

I spent Friday night completely sleepless with worry. We wouldn't be able to see the specialist until Monday morning, and I had the sinking feeling that what we would be told was something along the lines of "We can do an MRI (closest feline MRI machine is 100 miles away) and this $10,000 surgery, or we can put your cat to sleep." How could we possibly make that decision? In the good old days (or bad old days if you prefer) there would simply not be this option. A cat with no working back legs would make a trip behind the woodshed with the father of the family and his trusty shotgun. Tears would be dried and that would be that. Sometimes the miracles of modern medicine come with the price of very hard decisions.

Fortunately for all of us, the little patient was on the mend and by the specialist's appointment on Monday he had regained quite a bit of strength and mobility in his hindquarters. The veterinary specialist was a wonderful guy who spent a long time going over possibilities with us. Near as we can tell, Bandit jumped out of one of his high trees and probably did some shock to his spinal cord, causing his back legs not to work. As it is healing, he's regaining his ability to stand and walk. With any luck, a few weeks of rest and he will be back to normal (and unfortunately probably back to climbing trees that he can't get out of).

Completing the Mother's Day weekend picture was a sick chicken who just kept on getting worse over the weekend. By Monday, her fate was not nearly so happy, and Wayne thankfully spared me the job of dispatching her as we were definitely NOT taking a $500 trip to the vet for the chicken, sad as that reality might be. Still, Foghorn was one of our sweeties, and the chicken who recently graced our photos in People magazine. Perhaps one of the most viewed chickens in the country, a poster-chicken for backyard poultry everywhere, she will be missed.

So it was with relief that the rest of the weekend was more along the lines of the Hallmark Holiday Mother's Day. On Saturday night, we got to go watch Asa in A Taste of Broadway, a review of different musical and dance numbers from Broadway musicals, put on by Upstart Crow, the theatre company that she has been acting with for many years now.

On Sunday, we took Mackenzie's kayak up to the lake for its first launching. My mom brought her kayak and the two of them had a grand time exploring the lake together. Although I forgot my wetsuit, I still went for a swim even though it was really a bit cold to stay in for too long. When we got back, Wayne had barbequed up a giant salmon, and my mom had brought a delicious pecan pie that she bought in an auction. All in all, a great Mother's Day, with a reminder thrown in of why we should all value our own mothers. Sometimes, unbeknownst even to the rest of the family, they take on the pain and the worrying and the hard job of holding it all together (even on no sleep.)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Sharing Wisdom

As people go through life, progressing through education and careers, gaining experience and knowledge, they often come to a place and time in their lives when they are suddenly not so busy as they once were with career, children, etc. There are a wealth of such people in the world with specific experience to share, and possibly plenty of time to share it in. Homeschoolers do well to tap into the variety of experiences available.

We have been the beneficiaries many times in our homeschooling adventures of people's specific knowledge - whether its in music or art, writing or science, gardening or cooking. Not all adults are interested in sharing their abilities with kids, but there are many of them out there who are, so finding them and matching them to things my kids are interested in is always a part of our unschooling lives.

Recently, a woman who works at our local market heard that Asa was interested in singing, and she has come over to the house to practice singing with her. Another friend is setting up a physics lecture with a local expert. Another homeschooling mom has set up a really really cool activity, using this cow eyeball dissection kit, and a friend of their family who is a retired surgeon. Mackenzie is especially interested in this, since he has been thinking recently that going into the medical field is something he might possibly be interested in. We've been watching M*A*S*H this winter, in chronological order, and while it's full of lots of funny humor the show also includes a lot of medical terminology and action, so it's something he's become fascinated with.

I checked out the book The Way We Work, a book on the human body by David McCaulay, the same author who wrote and illustrated the excellent The Way Things Work series. We also just went up to OMSI in Portland to see the traveling DaVinci exhibit there. Along with some of DaVinci's codices, working models of many of his inventions and ideas, and an extensive exhibit on his paintings (including a fascinating portion on the Mona Lisa, including multi-spectrum photos taken with a 240-million pixel camera recreating how it looked when originally painted) there was a whole section of enlargements of his anatomical studies and drawings.

Once again, I love how so many of the things we encounter seem to dovetail and weave around each other - once you become interested in a particular subject, it seems that there are endless opportunities to study it from many different angles. One thing may spark an interest, but many different things can feed that interest, and one big benefit in our kids' lives that I see is the number of people who are willing to share their time, expertise, and interest with them as they pursue these different interests.