Monday, November 18, 2013

Know When to Fold'Em

Ever have that wonderful feeling that you just found THE ultimate curriculum that will be so completely perfect for your kiddos, will not only facilitate learning the subject material you have targeted to learn this year, but also build up bonus material of life skills or something else on the side?  This pile or box or set of plans just has you quivering with anticipation to get started . . . you are SO excited to unleash the excitement for learning that you know will happen when you merge these materials with your teaching skills and your kids . . . and . . . WHAM!!!

That was the sound of everything hitting a brick wall when the completely over the top perfect, exciting plans you have are a complete, total, abysmal, cataclysmic failure.

Ever have that happen?

We have.  The vast majority of what we try works pretty well for us.  But when we swing and miss, we go big.  So what then?  Start over.  Either look back at something else that worked or start from scratch.

This year we experienced that brick wall in a big way.  Although I still feel it is a terrific program -- for families that are not ours-- our brick wall this year was Exploration Education physics.  I was terrifically excited about it from the time I saw it in in a friend's hands.  I KNEW it was exactly what I was looking for in physics-- experiment based, mathematical, kid-directed, and it had two levels for my two kids, standard and advanced, that could still work together very nicely, without needing "tweaking" to make them work together; the more advanced mathematical pages were just left out of the standard book, so younger could watch or assist with older's additional labs without being responsible for the extra data recording and analysis.  What more could a homeschool Mom ask for?  Right?  Wrong, in our case (I still think it's a worthy program, for what it's worth, and know another family who is doing really well with it-- this post is NOT a ding against EE itself).

As an added bonus for us, I liked how the instructions for building projects were written directly to the kids; I really felt one of my DS's could gain some self-confidence from learning he could follow the instructions to put together the projects without me helicoptering over him and make these cool motorized race cars, gliders, sail boats, and more that are involved in this super cool kit.

The reality turned out differently.  I'll spare you the ugly details, but let's just say when you have a kid who has never been interested in building, don't buy him a physics program predicated on building the experiment components required for conducting the experiments.  It is one thing to set up the experiment; it is another thing to have to build the car or glider or boat first before you can experiment with it.  This is NOT the time to convince a kid he can learn to love building.  For a kid who LOVES building already, this will be a great experience.  For a kid who has never loved building . . . not so much.  Physics time was turning into, "OH, I think I have a headache, Mom, sorry, can't seem to concentrate today!" time.  Not cool.

When homeschooling, we all eventually face this dilemma-- usually more than once.  In many cases, it is wise to teach your kid to buck up.  We all have to do things that are not inherently fun, but have to be done anyway, and it's a bit of a disservice to teach kids that they can abandon necessary work just because they "don't wanna."  Young kids work can generally be crafted to be pleasant by an observant homeschooling parent, but as they enter the upper logic stage and rhetoric stage years (7th--12th grades for non-classical folks) it is time to start training them to do things even when they don't feel like it if you haven't yet.  You don't feel like writing this paper/doing this math assignment/finishing this project/cleaning the litterbox?  Do it anyway.  Life is like that, and you will find it hard to hold down a job or pass in college if you only do the things that appeal to you, kid.  However, in this case, the situation had a different feel.  When I looked at the situation, I felt that my biggest objective for the kids-- learning about physics-- was being impeded by road blocks in the learning plan that had nothing to do with physics.  I had to decide:  what was more important this year?  Physics, or learning to glue balsa wood together?  Different families could really have gone different ways on that for a 12 and 10 year old.  There is value in learning to use your hands and create stuff, and follow directions successfully.  I, however, chose the physics.  I did not want to leave the kids with a bad taste in their mouths regarding science.

So how, three months into our "year" do we reinvent the wheel?  We looked to last year's successful year of biology.  I sat down with a set of physics books that I like for their clarity of organization (Prentice Hall Science Explorer) a science encyclopedia, and the Creek Edge Press task cards, and I prioritized a list of concepts and mathematical relationships I wanted the kids to get over the remainder of our year.

Our first week looked like this: 

Monday:  Go research inclined planes and wedges.  For each one, draw me a diagram in your science notebook, and label all the parts.  Tell me what you find out about effort and force.

Tuesday: (stack of books on science and physics supplied, at various levels of intensity)  Read more about simple machines, focusing on inclined planes and wedges.  Make a list of things they are used for in everyday life.  Where do you see them around the house?  In living things?  Have you found mathematical relationships that describe what they do?

Wednesday:  Lab day.  We did a whole slew of labs revolving around inclined planes (wedges were harder).  We also worked on DS10's K'Nex roller coaster kit.  They explored the effects of mass on things going down inclined planes as well.  Not really related, but they also started watching a mini-series on the origins of the universe at their request (NOVA).  We kept data on white boards, and found averages and medians of different runs.

Thursday: Go research different classes of levers.  Label them, including the fulcrum, effort, and force.

Friday:  Read more about levers.  Show me where you find different levers being used around you, and what class each lever is.  Have you discovered anywhere that describes the mathematics of levers?  What do levers do for you in terms of force and effort?

DS12 also started reading a high school or college level text on physics-- reading is his preferred mode of learning.  I'm no longer forcing him to learn in a mode that is completely against his grain.  Everyone is happier, and learning a lot more physics.

I'm feeling a big difference too.  I no longer dread telling the kids it's time for physics, which really ought to be a ton of fun-- it really is, as one of our books is titled, "Physics with Toys!"  And Snap Circuits.  And a chance to learn stuff on your own and go on treasure hunts.  And drop stuff, bang stuff, stretch stuff, throw stuff . . . 

Most of all, I just have a feeling that we made the right call by chucking EE, which was not working for us at all.  Sometimes you tell the kids to buck up and get it done.  But other times, it is just the right call to quit what isn't working, ask yourself what your priorities are, and find a way to head towards your actual priorities and stop doing what isn't working.  Because . . . 

You gotta know when to fold'em.  Know when to walk away.  Know when to run . . .

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