Friday, May 27, 2011

Break Schooling

We have spent most of May either preparing to travel, travelling, or recovering from travel - not a lot of schooling going on here.  But that's okay, that's why we more or less homeschool year round, it takes the pressure off.  If we blow off the month of November to go to Hawaii, or oops, don't get anything done in May, it's okay.  Bean doesn't have to worry about making up any homework when she's sick and I don't have to sweat days that are more about appointments than academics.

This was our big spring family trip, a birthday trip since Bean and I both celebrated ours while abroad.  We flew in and out of Dulles, with brief forays to DC and Baltimore and a longer stint in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I know many homeschoolers would have turned the itinerary into curriculum, but that's just not how Dr. Yap and I do things on vacation.  As it was, we had a much busier trip than we normally do and it was chock full of educational opportunities, both intentional and serendipitous.

Flying from right to left across the country means that the first day was dedicated to travel.  The only thing we learned - besides the limits of parental sanity when traveling with a two-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a grandmother - is that Virgin America is a very civilized airline.  Everyone and everything was so pleasant, we didn't mind paying for all checked bags and anything beyond the first drink.

It also helped that after years of trial and error, I think I actually perfected the on-board entertainment for each kid.  I bought each of them a legal-size flat plastic pouch with a zipper at our local art supply store for $1.99.  Each one was stocked with age and personality appropriate art supplies and activities and both bags fit nicely in a ziptop tote bought from Target for less than $20.  These art pouches were pulled out over and over again during down time at each hotel.  For the way home, I streamlined each pouch, putting things that hadn't been touched during the trip in the suitcase and adding in a few new things we picked up along the way.

We spent our first two nights on the fringes of Old Town Alexnadria, on the Virginia side of DC, and took one day in DC to see what we thought would be most interesting to Bean and Boo.  Of course, two-year-olds and eight-year-olds have different ideas about what is worthy of their attention, but we had Oma in tow so we figured between the three of us, we'd work it out.

Dr. Yap and I are both city girls at heart, but for one reason and another, we have spent the last decade in a town that has many monikers, but compared to any metropolis I like to refer to it as Hicksville-by-the-Sea.  We thrilled for the chance to ride a proper subway - a clean, well-lit subway with good signage to boot.  The last time either one of us rode the Metro (though not together) was during the 1993 March on Washington for GLTBQandeverothersexualother.  So even though we had to figure out the complex fee structure instead of riding for free and even though the drag queens in all their colorful regalia were replaced by Queen Bean in all her colorful regalia (and Oma wearing the first of what I think were 10 separate coral colored t-shirts - I'm not complaining, it made her easy to find) - we made a point of taking the Metro.  Fun was had by all.

After a brief foray into the Smithsonian "Castle" to get our bearings we made a beeline for the cafeteria at the Natural History Museum (eating at odd hours is the most inconvenient part of traveling from coast to coast.) After fueling up and making a presumably unavoidable stop in the obligatory cafeside museum shop, we headed straight for the second floor Insect Zoo.  Bean loved trying to suss out all the creepy crawlies in their cages and Boo just thought it was creepy.  He had a similar sentiment about the forensic anthropology exhibit titled "Bones."  After about twenty minutes he declared himself finished with this dark, "yucky" museum and Dr. Yap left with him, heading towards the Air and Space Museum.

Bean, Oma, and I took advantage of the toddler's absence and meandered slowly through this fantastic Bones exhibit, a good portion of which relied on the local Chesapeake Bay area to provide historical forensics cases.  Bean, of course, was most interested in any part of the exhibit showing teeth, and their were plenty.  The whole thing culminated with a visit to the forensic anthropology lab, where Bean had an education specialist, a bunch of jaws, and lots of dental x-rays all to herself for at least half and hour.  After those two exhibits we felt like we had gotten our monies worth (admission to many Smithsonian museums is free) and meandered toward the Air and Space Museum.

We were waylaid for an exceedingly pleasant half an hour in the Sculpture Garden outside the Hirshhorn  Museum.  For a while, Oma and I did nothing more than contemplate the wonderfully odd, but sublime architecture of the Hirshhorn and watch Bean run barefoot laps around the central fountain and in and out of the Sculpture Garden.  Then Bean discovered not one, but two birds who met a sad fate at the hands of the Hirshhorn windows and asked Oma to film her made-up-on-the-spot nature series.  Once she started poking the poor creatures with leaves to compare their anatomies and injuries, it was time to continue our sojourn to the Air and Space Museum.  (We found out later that Dr. Yap and Boo had taken a short break in Hirshhorn garden as well.  It really is a wonderful oasis right off the Mall.)

I wish I had seen Boo's joy in the Air and Space museum firsthand, but by the time we arrived, he and Dr. Yap were already in the museum shop and Bean had as much interest in the air and space craft as Boo had in the Natural History Museum treasures.  I know he loved going in the airplanes and spaceships (as he put it) because we heard a lot about both for the next few days.  The museum as a whole looks like it's getting about as much funding as NASA is these days, despite the heavy foot traffic. It was exactly the same as I remembered it from my last visit more than 25 years ago.

We didn't spend much time in Old Town Alexandria, other than to sample the local seafood for dinner, but we happened to be there on a Friday evening when the Torpedo Factory Art Center was having an opening and Bean discovered her new favorite contemporary artist, Leslie Blackmon.  Her Baa-America!  show featured crocheted 3-D sheep in the guise of famous artists and celebrities.  Bean's favorites were Jackson Baa-Ollock and Martha St-ewe-art.

The next day, we drove to Baltimore, which is home to the world's oldest dental college and that dental college, now part of the University of Maryland, is home to the National Museum of Dentistry.  Yes, that's right, my tooth-obsessed Bean discovered that one of her favorite kid-oriented dentistry websites, MotherPower Online, was the online home of the National Museum of Dentistry.  We'd been trying for a while to organize a trip to Williamsburg and when we found out about the museum, we knew this would be a perfect addition to the birthday voyage.  As we started trying to figure out how we were going to make all these different locations fit into one trip, we discovered that Baltimore has a little more going for it than the dentistry museum.

We stayed right on the Inner Harbor, and only had a chance to explore a fraction of this redeveloped waterfront, filled with a mall, restaurants, museums, decommissioned Naval and Coast Guard vessels and a Revolutionary War era fort.  The first stop, before even checking into our hotel, was the National Dentistry Museum.  The Museum is on two partial floors of the original College of Dentistry, which itself is right in the middle of the University of Maryland medical complex. We had the whole place to ourselves and it was obviously well-funded and the exhibits were very up-to-date (one was about DNA and genetic link to oral health.) We spent about an hour-and-a-half there and although I think Bean enjoyed finally being there, I think she was disappointed that we were the only ones there and I think that she was actually far more engaged in the forensic anthropology exhibit at the Natural History Museum in DC.  She wanted to go back the next day, hoping there would be other kids who share her unique enthusiasm.  Dr. Yap and I were a little relieved when the kids decided they were too worn out from the excellent children's museum, Port Discovery.  We don't mind indulging her passion at all, and truly hope she will find someone with whom to share her interest, but we aren't eager to see her get hurt if her chosen audience rebuffs her willingness to disgorge all she knows about dentistry and orthodontia.

Since it was right there across the street from our hotel, we also visited the National Aquarium.  I don't know if we were tainted by our many experiences at our local Monterey Bay Aquarium, or if our assessment was truly fair, but no one was impressed.  Boo thought it was too dark (this is a theme with him, and being two, it's a big criteria for him - that and how much freedom he has to run around.) Bean thought both the individual exhibits and the museum as a whole were poorly laid out and difficult to navigate.  Dr. Yap thought there was too much concrete and too many large photographs of fish were there should have been actual fish.  My two favorite aquariums, the aforementioned Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga both focus almost exclusively on local water life and I really think the National Aquarium missed the boat in neither focusing mostly on the rich Chesapeake Bay nor clearly curating exhibits of American water life region by region.  The curation was all over the place regionally and lacked focus.  Oma thought it was just too much darn walking.

After two nights in Baltimore, we headed south to Williamsburg, stopping outside Richmond to see some of my relatives whom we have always seen far too infrequently.  We stayed at the Great Wolf Lodge, a water park resort, which is an experience itself.  The water park was a blast but the main attraction was proximity to the Colonial Triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.

Dr. Yap has never visited the patriotic trifecta (and please don't ask her to rate her interest in these sights on a scale from one to ten, her answer is probably not on the scale and probably not an integer) but I've been twice before and have wanted to take Bean ever since she became interested in the American Colonial era a year ago.  The first time I visited Williamsburg, I was six and it was the summer after the Bicentennial (please don't feel the need to do the math).  I don't know if was because Williamsburg was still awash in the glow of the Bicentennial celebration or if my memory is wonky, but I remember having a blast with the historical interpretations and with hands-on demonstrations of making marbled paper and dipped candles.

For whatever reason - it was too hot for my family of Coastal California weather wimps, it was too early in the season for everything to kick into high gear, we took the wrong advice about where to park and ignored the right advice about attending an orientation - this was not the same experience.  Bean did love the wigmaker, who was properly and humorously in character, and found the blacksmith shop fascinating; and Boo took full advantage of access to dozens of doors that he was allowed to march up to and try opening.  Much of the rest of Williamsburg seemed lacking and after two half-days trying to make it the historical experience extraordinaire, we decided to pack it in and head to Jamestown and Yorktown, which we had initially planned to overlook.

And we would have been so wrong had we overlooked the amazing state parks at Jamestown and Yorktown.  That's right, state parks.  If you want to see what's left of the actual settlement at Jamestown or the actual Revolutionary war battle site at Yorktown, by all means visit the federal parks in those locations.  If you want to have a historical experience extraordinaire, buy a combined ticket for the two state parks (the tickets are good for an entire year), Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center.  The parks are about 15 miles apart and each sit near their federal counterparts.  The facilities are so nicely done, with museums inside and vast interpretive areas outside, that I just couldn't get over that these were state parks.  We can't even keep all of our state parks open in California, let alone provide them with enough funding to offer visitors such a complete experience.

We visited the Jamestown Settlement first and spent about 2.5 hours there.  The site has three separate outdoor interpretive areas: a Powhatan Native American village, life-size models of the three ships which brought the first English settlers to the area in the early 17th century, and the Jamestown fort.  All three sites were fully staffed with people in period costume who fully embodied their characters.  I didn't hear any questions they couldn't answer with gusto.  We were allowed to fully interact with the interpretive environment in each area (except they prudently disallowed Boo from firing a musket during the quarter-hourly demonstrations.) We wandered in and out of Powhatan homes, and up and down the three ships, and Bean even tried a straw mattress in the Fort.  In the Native American village, we noticed four staff members in traditional clothing, each taking part in one of the daily tasks that would have been commonplace in such a village at the time.  A fifth staff member was demonstrating how to shape a needle out of deer bone that had been generously provided by registered hunters in present-day Virginia and she invited Bean to try her hand at running the bone splinter along the sharp edge of a rock.  We noticed this staff member was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had an ID badge.  It turns out, she was new and hadn't yet made her deer skin dress.  In addition to doing extensive research in primary sources and the most trusted historical research, staff at Jamestown learn hands on how their character would have lived.  As Bean and I were invited to use an oyster shell to help the new staff member scrape the hair off one of the three hides stretched on frames around the village, it became obvious why the interpretive team was able to provide such thorough answers.  There were a few anomalies, such as a female blacksmith in the fort and a woman among one of the ship's crew, but they were so good at what they did who were we to quibble?

We finished the day by giving ourselves a self-guided driving tour of the federal area at Jamestown and headed to the Yorktown Victory Center the next day to experience live on an early farm and life among the soldiers encamped at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War.  The kids weren't quit as impressed with this one, but the adults were pleased.

When were weren't soaking up science and history, we tested the strength of our stomachs on the waterslides at Great Wolf.  The next time, we take a trip like this, I will try to remember to take more photographs of edumacational stuff for our homeschool consultant (I apparently started and stopped taking photos at the poorly-lit dentistry museum.)  I'd also try to encourage Bean to use her art materials and journal a little more along the way to document the experience, not just as hotel-room and airplane entertainment.

Now, to try getting back to regularly scheduled homeschool "programming."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cranberries and Cheese

Pretty much everyday, Bean and I have a salad with our lunch.  It's a simple salad: washed baby greens and olive oil with a generous helping of dried cranberries and goat cheese, blue cheese, or feta cheese on top.  The greens are the important part, just that alone would be sufficient, but the cranberries and cheese give it added flavor and nutritional punch.

That's exactly how I view music and art in our curriculum.  We could do without either one and we'd still be meeting the state requirements and the kids would be learning a sufficient amount of academics to get along in the world.  Life and learning are much richer for Bean and Boo when they have music and art, and not just what they absorb in the world around them, but when we intentionally introduce them to artists, composers, movements, and the vocabulary of art and music.

With both art and music, the instruction possibilities can be divided into three areas: practical (hands-on production of art and music), theory (composition, vocabulary, themes), and appreciation/history.  Typically, as far as I can tell from my experience, schools focus on a limited combination of practical and theory for both art and music, until kids reach the point where orchestra and band are offered. I remember only having art in early elementary school, about fourth grade, then it disappeared entirely for students on strictly academic, college-bound track.  Kids who were encouraged to go a more vocational route, may have taken art and/or drafting in junior high and high school.  Unless a student was in band, orchestra, or one of the choirs, music was over at about fourth grade too.  Since I am the teacher, principal, superintendent and school board (not to mention the comptroller), I get to decide what kind and how much music and art instruction my kids get.

One of the many things that enamores me to the curriculum laid out by Rebecca Rupp in Home Learning Year by Year, is that she outlines a very thorough program for music and art, giving them almost as much real estate as the "academic" subjects.  Actually, she treats them as academic subjects, giving them serious heft.

We have tried over the years to introduce music lessons to Bean and whether she was too young or the teachers were not a good fit is open to debate, but so far nothing has stuck.  I am determined to keep this idea alive and keep offering the possibilities whenever they arise or whenever we are at a curriculum turning point (otherwise known as new grade levels).  She insists that she only wants me to teach her, so in September, I ordered the first level of the Alfred Piano Course for Beginners, figuring I could at least get us started with my four years of forgotten piano lessons and that I would be learning too.  It was going okay at the beginning, but Bean soon complained bitterly about the illustrations in the books and the names and content of songs.  I promised myself that I would keep going with the lessons myself so she would absorb something and hopefully join in eventually, but that soon fell by the wayside.  Recently we have been talking about looking for another piano course with a different format - maybe a course intended for adults.

I don't dwell too much on music theory since Bean isn't doing an instrument at the moment.  I do go over the Music section in each grade's edition of What Your ...Grader Should Know: notes, rests, measures, time signatures, etc.

For me, the real fun is the music appreciation.  I see great irony in this. Neither of my parents were at all in tune with popular music when I was a kid (this made the musical predilections of my adolescence all the more alarming to them, delicious to me).  My mother in particular was emphatically interested in classical music and classical music only.  I remembered the on-going negotiations over the requirements for my attendance at the small symphony in my hometown.  The first concession was getting to wear jeans, then bringing a book (and being allowed to read it), the final coup de grace was getting to bring my WalkMan (and getting listen to Tears For Fears instead of Tchaikovsky).

During the fall, we went through The Story of Orchestra  (a Costco purchase from years ago) and listened to the accompanying selections.  We also read about the composers listed in What Your Third Grader Should Know and delved into our iTunes library for the featured pieces.  Currently, we are using a library copy of Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times, and What the Neighbors Thought to learn about different composers.  This book features short, slightly irreverent biographies of about twenty composers both famous and not so well-known, with descriptions of several of their compositions at the end of each bio.

I love these little interludes in our school week and although Bean's interest level ranges somewhere between indifferent and mildly intrigued, the closest she has come to negotiating her way out of it is insisting that she get to pick the composer each week.  I readily concede because I'm always curious who she'll pick and why.  Recently, she picked Clara Schumann because she had never heard of a woman composer before (alas, the only recordings we were able to come up with where her husband's.)

We follow a similar trajectory for art, though the hands-on part pretty much takes care of itself.  Bean has always been a prolific artist.  I have always made all art supplies readily available except the printmaking  tools and the acrylic paints.  These are the only two things on a high shelf because I like to know before my kids use supplies that could cause permanent damage to themselves or others.  Very often, Bean and Boo are working on art projects while I am reading history, science, or fiction aloud to them.  I may pull out something new or little used once in a while, but mostly I stay out of the way and try to remember to save samples for our public school consultant.

As with music, the only theory we cover is the lessons in What You're...Grader Should Know.  I figure it won't hurt her to learn the technical vocabulary of art, though I have yet to see her explore the finer points of composition on her own.  (Though she is a mean color mixer.)

No matter.  The real fun is inflicting art history upon her - um, I mean exposing her to artists past and present.  Despite growing up in proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, I didn't know of any artists but Monet and Georgia O'Keefe until college so I feel like this is a gift to Bean and Boo, rather than education.  Bean genuinely enjoys this, but either loves an artist or is indifferent.  She's been drawn to Van Gogh since she was young, and her current favorite is Frida Kahlo.  (I'm really hoping there's a Frida Halloween costume in my future.)  By coincidence, we are using Lives of the Artists, from the same series as the music volume.  Bean picks an artist, we read about him or her then look up their work on the internet and in The Art Book, which we have at home.  She picked Andy Warhol after seeing an Arthur episode with a Warhol character and Hokusai after seeing an exhibit of an artist who used trash to recreate Hokusai works at our local marine science center.

She may not be impressed by art theory, but she often creates art in the style of an artist who's made an impression on her, and that's enough applied theory for me.

Of course, actually experiencing live music and art in person is the best education there is, and we do that as much as we can, but between having a toddler and Bean's aversions to noise and crowds, we don't do that as much as I'd like.  For now, I just settle for cranberries and cheese to inject a little calm and beauty into a haphazard or rancorous homeschool day.