Friday, August 28, 2015

From Kandinsky to....

You plan, you pull resources, you set up, you begin the lesson. And then it all goes off the rails. How common is that in your homeschool? Happens all the time in ours! However, it is often during those organic moments, those times when kids are feeling free and permitted to experiment with their own education when some truly memorable moments happen.

Vassily Kandinsky

We had such an event yesterday. Incorporating little ones in our homeschool hasn't been a necessity for quite some time, but this week we spent an afternoon watching a nine week old baby and a nineteen month old toddler while their parents worked and spent their spare hours moving house. Although we are studying the ancients, I decided to throw in an impromptu modern art lesson, since many are so easily managed by a toddler. I chose that old school favorite, Kandinsky's circles.

While the baby slept and the toddler played with toys, I used our favorite art books (click here to be linked to the page that lists them) and some pictures on the web to introduce the girls to Abstract Art and Vassily Kandinsky. We spent some time flipping through our main spine and observing how realism slid into the softened images of Impressionism, followed by the blurred lines of reality and abstract that became known as Fauvism. Kandinsky abandoned reality and became one of the first to create truly abstract art. We put a few key points on the white board, along with our favorite Kandinsky quote. I showed the girls one of Kandinsky's circle paintings and sent them to gather supplies.

Using countless lids, cups, bowls, etc. in different sizes, the girls and I traced a stack of circles. By this point, the toddler, Bowie, was rather intrigued by what was happening at the table, and I put him on my lap. Holding his fingers in the scissors, I coached him through cutting out the circles. Somewhere along the line I started naming the colors for him to see if he would use the words. Moments later I decided that the lesson would be better if we cut out other shapes as well, so we decided to cut out squares, then triangles, then rectangles--all in different colors. As we cut, we named the shape and color names. 

Bowie's masterpiece

Of course, when it came time for gluing, our little guy was all over the idea of mastering the glue stick!

Kazimir Malevich

Since it seemed silly to only glue on the circles, Bowie did his own thing and his Kandinsky turned into a Kazimir Malevich. Pretty cool, right? The little guy moved himself into the next great art movement all on his own! Organic homeschooling is the best!

Reagan's masterpiece

Of the two girls, Reagan was the only one who stuck to the lesson plan (for the most part) and her final product looked like a more true-to-the-original reproduction. 

Chloe's masterpiece

Chloe, bless her, just couldn't let go of realism long enough to embrace the abstract for even the one assignment. You can tell what the beginning of school means to her--bring on the snow!

After Bowie decided his own masterpiece was complete, he decided that Reagan's Mod Podge technique wasn't quite up to par and took it upon himself to assist. Reagan is so awesome with the little people--she didn't even hesitate to let him leave his stamp on her project.

Chariot Challenge

For our first project of the school year, the girls made chariots to go along with our study of ancient Sumer. Our process is very different than that commonly used for projects: instead of giving them a set of directions and a pile of supplies that I bought in advance, I gave them a single image:

One afternoon last week, the girls and I went to the craft store. They brought along their picture for reference, and I gave them a few other guidelines they had to follow:
  1. They had a budget of $10 each.
  2. They had a time limit of 20 minutes.
  3. They had to use at least three different media.
  4. They could use items from our art cupboard at home.

It did not take long for the girls to reach the conclusion that they could purchase a wider variety of items if they pooled their resources. This discovery led to baggies of wooden wheels, wooden stars and several sticks that were long enough for both. That was when they realized they had a problem. Too much wood, not enough variety in their media used. They considered spending a good chunk on some thin copper sheet metal, but could not think of a way to attach it to the base--and what to use as a base? They found some paper mache boxes that were a nice oval shape. They were the perfect size, and easily cut down to the chariot's body shape.

The most difficult part for me is always leading them to workable ideas without giving them mine. This comes from asking lots of questions. Sometimes, if they are a little overwhelmed by all the choices, I will direct them to a certain aisle and ask them what they see that might be helpful.

In the end, they used some very diverse media, including paper mache, wood, decorative wire, and paint.

On project day, the girls assembled their purchases and items from home and got busy. Like most any project, some things, such as the first steps of cutting the chariot bodies out of the paper mache boxes and painting them, went as planned. As with the purchasing phase, I did not tell them what to do or give them a set of directions. They looked at the picture and thought through their own designs.

Things got a bit trickier when it came to attaching the axle (the girls used barbecue skewers) and the wheels. Reagan's original idea was to glue a fixed axle to the bottom of her chariot, affix a star to each of the chariot's sides just above the axle to keep the wheels from rubbing all along the chariot's sides, and then hot glue another star on the outer edge of the axle to keep the wheel from falling off. Unfortunately, she cut her axle too short, and when she glued on the outer star, it became attached to the wheel, preventing it from rolling. I asked how she felt about the idea of trying to detach the axle and cut a new one. She weighed two thoughts: did she want to waste supplies✴︎ and would pulling off the axel ruin her paper mache chariot base. She came to the conclusion that whether or not the wheels rotated did not matter to her and she did not want to risk ruining her main body of the chariot.

✴︎This matters because the difference between what they spend and what their budget was goes into a fund towards a trip out for ice cream.

Chloe decided that she wanted to try something different from Reagan in how she attached her axel, so she pushed holes through the side walls of her chariot (using a cork screw) and threaded her skewer axel through. She purposely cut her axel long enough to borrow Reagan's idea (Reagan called it stealing!) to secure the wheels on the outside with a star that was glued in place on the axle with the hot glue gun. Instead of putting a star on the inside, Chloe thought that a rim of glue on the outside of the chariot body around the hole where the skewer came through would be more secure and would interfere less with the rotation of the wheels.

Something we all thought would be easy, cutting the skewers to length to be used as axels, ended up posing a problem to solve. The small saw we found in the garage had far too large a serration to work. Initially, Chloe was going to opt to wait until her older brother, Carter, could help her cut it with his camp saw. Reagan decided to try the technique of clamping the skewer in scissors and twirling the skewer, thus slowly working through the wood. It worked very well, and all that was needed was a few strokes of Reagan's nail file to give a smooth face on the tip of the skewer that would affix to the star. In the end, Chloe also used that technique, as it worked well and she did not want to wait to finish her project.

Both girls opted to use a flat, narrow dowel and tooth pick, which they bound together with jewelry wire, to form the shaft and yoke.

In the end, the girls were both very happy with their project. By not giving them a pre-selected group of supplies and step-by-step directions, the girls were able to create a project they took ownership of and which made them proud.
Chloe's Chariot

Reagan's Chariot

Using this method, where students are not given a supply list and written instructions, teaches them so much more. This model of project completion maximizes children's creativity and sharpens their critical thinking skills. They have to visualize, experiment with materials, and work through construction concepts (and problems) on their own. It is a model that is easily employed with any project you do. Simply give them the picture and let them decide on the materials and process of construction on their own. It is very important that you do not offer suggestions; use questions to guide them toward their own ideas.

Chloe's Thoughts on Casting the Gods Adrift

Welcome to Chloe's (3rd grade) first book review!

My first impression of this book was that it was going to have a lot of monkeys! Look at the first page. A boat full of monkeys!

The main character was not a monkey, thank goodness. His name was Tutmose and the story tells us that if your dad is really upset, don't try to do anything naughty; make him a peace offering. The reason why he is really upset is that the boys' mom got a disease when they were moving to a different area of the country and she died.

Tutmose, his brother, and his father had a hard time because his father was really worried that he wouldn't be able to watch after his kids and make sure that they were okay and that they had enough money to buy dinner and all that.

A half-woman, half-man, half-god (yeah, that's a weird character!) helps them. Because he helped them, I liked him (her? it?) a little more, but I still thought it (he? she?) was kinda kooky. Everything turns out okay after all.

If you compared this plot to a roller-coaster, it started out going straight (kinda boring), then it went  up (really, really boring), but then it went down really, really fast--which was very exciting. Three quarters of the book was humdrum, but the ending was flashy enough to make the book worth reading.

There were some interesting details about ancient Egypt in the book. As a girl, I liked learning about the different ways they did their hair. The more important people had their hair done in fancier styles. I learned a lot about ancient Egypt from the illustrations--more than I learned from the text. The sketches were very detailed and are the biggest reason I enjoyed the book.

Cats played a big part in the story, so if you like cats, read the book!

I am eight year old girl and in the third grade. I might recommend this book to other kids my age who are studying ancient Egypt. I am not really crazy about ancient Egypt, but I think you might like this book if you are fascinated by this time and place. There were also not that many girls in the book, so I think boys might enjoy it more.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Gilgamesh and the Sumerians

Many history programs for young people begin their ancient studies with the Egyptians, which is a shame because in doing so they miss one of the most pivotal early societies, the Sumerians. Modern historians have dated the genesis of this Mesopotamian society at as early as 5500 B.C., making it easily, by anyone's reckoning, at least 1000 years older than the dynastic period of ancient Egypt.

From the Sumerians, we have the earliest written language (cuneiform) and the first wheeled vehicle, potter's wheel, sailboat, and sundial. A Sumerian tablet gives us the world's oldest-known medical handbook, from which we learn of a poultice of "rotted grain," which when placed on a wound would prevent infection--perhaps the first known use of what we know today as antibiotics. The first known written code of law originated in the Sumerian city of Ur, under the reign of Ur-Nammu, in about 2100 B.C., which supersedes by 300 years Babylonian Hammurabi's Code, the one most often given credit as being the first legal code. The Sumerian's also developed the sexagesimal system based on the number 60, from which our system of minutes and seconds and the geometric concept of the division of a circle derive.

Of all the things that we have gained from the Sumerian society, my favorite is, of course, a literary form. The epic, that great poem of heroism and history, was first written about a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, who ruled from Uruk around 2700 B.C. Luckily for all the children out there, there is a fabulous trilogy of picture books, written and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman, that share his story:

Gilgamesh the King, the first book, introduces Gilgamesh the tyrant king, Shamhat the beautiful temptress, and Enkidu, the wild man. While introducing these characters and sharing their interactions, Zeman, through her breathtaking illustrations, brings the lavish world of ancient Mesopotamia to life. Depictions of the architecture, dress, and instruments, to name but a few things, are accurately depicted, with the border of one page even replicating the famous art work, The Standard of Ur.

In The Revenge of Ishtar, tragedy strikes after much shared adventure. Again, the illustrations expand upon the tale itself. Favorites of mine include the stunning mosaics in the palace and a depiction of a game, known as the Game of Twenty Squares, that was originally found in a royal tomb in the city of Ur and believed to be the oldest known board game.

The final book of the trilogy of picture books, The Last Quest of Gilgamesh, tells the tale of Gilgamesh's search for immortality. In this book, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, once a great king of a fallen people, who tells of the great flood which he survived thanks to forewarning which caused him to build an arc and gather his family along with animals and plants. Gilgamesh is one of many ancient epics that tell of a great flood. If you are a religious family who accepts the Old Testament as part of your scripture, your children will see the parallel with the story of Noah.

My favorite nonfiction book for teaching elementary age kids about the Sumerians comes from a series by Heinemann called Understanding People in the Past. The book, authored by Naida Kirkpatrick, is simply titled The Sumerians. This book is written in fairly simple terms with just the right amount of detail for this age. The print is a bit larger than is often found in kids' nonfiction and there are a good many color photos and maps. Just about every aspect of their culture is covered, making it a great buy if you just want to purchase a single book for your study.

For fun, engaging learning, nothing beats Scholastic's series, You Wouldn't Want to... This series has books on just about every historical subject imaginable. The one that pertains to the Sumerians is called You Wouldn't Want to Be a Sumerian Slave! Accurate historical and cultural facts are shared via very funny and eye-catching cartoon illustrations. We own about thirty of these books, and they are always favorites of my kids, from Kindergarten through high school.