Thursday, January 26, 2017

What is Life of Fred?

Life of Fred is an engaging story-based math curriculum spanning from elementary school all the way through university math courses such as calculus and statistics.  For the elementary years, Life of Fred includes ten books in the elementary series for 1st-4th grade and three books in the intermediate series for 4th to 6th grade. The beauty of Life of Fred as a math curriculum is that it is humorous and fun for kids.  Rather than focusing specifically on math concepts and then having the child work through problem after problem like a traditional math curriculum, Life of Fred instead weaves the math concepts into the story of Fred's days.

Fred is a 5-year-old math genius who teaches math at a university in Kansas. He lives with his doll Kingie in his office at the university. Although Fred is obviously precocious in math, he is lacking many other life skills and accordingly he often ends up in strange situations (such as when he adopts 30 dogs to save them from being euthanized, or when he ends up being swindled out of all of his money by a con-artist).  In addition to the math concepts, many other concepts are woven into Life of Fred books as well, such as the differences between carnivores and herbivores, details about the Orion constellation, and basic information about nutrition.

After each chapter of the book, there is a short section titled "Your Turn To Play".  This section generally includes a few math problems as well as other questions related to the content of the chapter. As the books move on from the earliest elementary books, "Your Turn to Play" also often includes a "Row of Practice" that can be used to reinforce the math facts (such as addition and subtraction facts).

 a random page from one of the Elementary Series books

Our Experience With Life of Fred

We've been using Life of Fred in our homeschool for over 4 years. We are currently working through the 7th book in the elementary series.  My children LOVE Life of Fred.  They ask to read it often, they enjoy the math problems, and they find the bizarre storylines to be very entertaining. I use Life of Fred in addition to games, everyday math, and a few other math read-alouds for teaching elementary math without a traditional math curriculum.

 spontaneous answer to the question, "What do you think of Life of Fred?"

My daughter will be 10 years old in March, and my son will be 7 years old in a couple weeks. Because my children are 3 years apart in age, their math comprehension is not at the same level. Instead of reading two different Life of Fred books to match up with their math skills, I just read one Life of Fred book at a time, continuing to progress through the books even though some of the math concepts have moved beyond my son's level.  That doesn't mean that my son doesn't get to learn math through Life of Fred; rather, I customize their experience with Life of Fred so that it works for both of them at the same time even though they are 3 years apart.

Tips for Teaching Life of Fred to Children of Multiple Ages

When teaching Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages concurrently, I try to keep in mind three principles:
• Avoid the Glaze
• Inspire, Not Require
• Customize the Math Problems

Avoid the Glaze

While my children generally love Life of Fred, sometimes there may be a math concept introduced that my kids are not ready to engage in. I can tell if a concept is a bit too abstract or complicated if I see the "glaze" on my kids' eyes.  For instance, in the early elementary books the author keeps bringing up the idea of cardinal numbers versus ordinal numbers.  This concept is one that I can tell my children are uninterested in or not ready for yet, as they get the "glaze" over their eyes whenever it is mentioned. I don't think this concept is important for them to know at their current ages, so I just skip over those parts and skip over any problems in "Your Turn to Play" that focus on that concept.  There is plenty of time for my children to learn about the cardinality of numbers as they get older (and, indeed, that same concept is introduced later in Life of Fred: Fractions, which is one of the middle school math books).

When reading Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages, sometimes the glaze will only be present in the younger children.  At those times when I note that my son's eyes are glazed over (or he seems otherwise uncomfortable) but his older sister is still engaged, I make sure to reassure him that this particular concept is just for his older sister, and that he'll be ready to learn about it later.  That gives him the confidence to be okay with not understanding the concept, and then I can proceed with teaching it to my daughter.

(As a side note: I think that avoiding the glaze is very important in other subjects in addition to math. Because I am endeavoring to create a Love of Learning in my children, the glaze is a signal for me to know when it is time to back off.  Sometimes the glaze just means that the student is tired and not ready to engage at that particular moment, but other times it means that I need to back off and wait a few months before coming back to that concept.)

 a random page from one of the Intermediate Series books

Inspire, Not Require

"Inspire, Not Require" is one of the 7 Keys of Great Teaching, and applying this principle to our math studies is a crucial part of keeping math enjoyable for my children. I know from previous experience that forcing academics in our homeschool is detrimental to creating a Love of Learning in my children. In applying the principle of "Inspire, Not Require" to our use of Life of Fred:
• I don't require the children to participate in Life of Fred.  However, they enjoy it so much that they request it often.
• Both of my children have had periods of time when they did not want to participate in the "Your Turn to Play" section at the end of the chapters. I've given them the freedom to choose whether or not to participate. When they choose not to participate, I just work out the answers to the problems on a dry erase board so they can observe.
• I am working my way through my own math studies and reading math classics myself. I am working my way through the middle school Life of Fred books as a way to refresh my memory before jumping into the Life of Fred high school and university level math books. In this way, I am leading out by showing my children that math is important enough that I am willing to spend some of my free time brushing up my own math skills. When they see me working on my own math skills, it often inspires them to do the same.

Customize the Math Problems

When we get to the "Your Turn to Play" section at the end of each chapter, if both children have chosen to participate, my younger child gets first dibs at answering each question. If he declines a question (usually by saying "too tricky"), then his older sister gets to answer the question. Because I keep things light and fun, with no pressure, my son has no issue with saying that he can't do a particular problem. If there are no questions that I think would be appropriate for my son, I will make up a few so that he has a chance to participate.

Once we've worked through the questions, if there is a "Row of Practice" to do (for practicing math facts), my son will answer any that he can and the rest will go to his sister. In the books we are currently using, none of the problems are appropriate for my son, so I will make up a few problems for him to solve while his sister works through the problems from the book. In this way, both children are able to participate as much as they want to, and I am able to individualize their math lessons even though I am reading from only one math book for both of them.

How We Use Life of Fred

In case it is helpful, here is a run-down of how we use Life of Fred in our homeschool.
• A few times per week, I read Life of Fred out loud while the kids eat breakfast.
• Because we do our morning chores right after breakfast, reading Life of Fred during breakfast gives us a nice little interlude of learning in the middle of our morning routine. This also helps to break up our school time into smaller chunks, which works better for keeping my children's attention.
• Both of my kids like using small dry-erase boards to write out the answers to their math problems.
• If neither of my kids feels like writing out the answers to their problems, or if their hands are too messy from eating, they will just answer the problems out loud.
• Often, when they are done with their own problems, the children like to quiz me with math problems they come up with. They can come up with quite tricky problems for me to do, such as one where I had to use the order of operations and eventually ended up dividing 2,187 by 26,500. Sometimes they like to use calculators to check my answers.
• When there are periods of time during which my children aren't interested in me reading Life of Fred to them, I don't force it. I know that they will always come back to Life of Fred, and it's okay to take an occasional break.  Nonetheless, we've already made it through three Life of Fred books this school year.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

26 World Picture Books

When I posted a list of our favorite world fairy and folk tales, I promised to also post a list of our other favorite picture books from our Homeschool World Trip.  These 26 picture books span 6 continents and 14 countries.  I have found picture books to be a wonderful way to engage my children in learning about other countries and cultures.

Kenya

Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship is a sweet tale about a friendship between an elderly giant tortoise and an orphaned baby hippopotamus. My children loved reading about this unusual pair.

The Circle of Life: Wildlife on the African Savannah is a large, full color photography book filled with amazing photos. My children pored over this book, soaking in all of the details.

South Africa

The Dove is a story of a grandmother and granddaughter who are struggling to get by after a flood. My children loved hearing about the ingenuity of the granddaughter and how it was able to put food on the table.

France

Madeline has been an adored character for both of my children since they were toddlers. While we were "visiting" France, they loved re-hearing these classic stories of Madeline's life at a French orphanage ad her escapades in Madeline and the Gypsies.

The Story of Babar tells of an orphaned elephant who runs away to live in Paris. My children giggled along as Babar decked himself out on clothes and learned how to fit into Paris society.

England

My children enjoyed seeing the sites of London in The Inside-Outside Book of London. It includes many of the popular sites, such as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, as well as everyday places such as an umbrella shop and a bus.

Madeline in London continues the tale of Madeline and her friend Pepito, the son of the Spanish ambassador.  My children enjoyed this Madeline book just as much as the others, and it included sites of London that they were able to pick out as we read.

Out and About is one of my favorite children's books to read aloud. It includes short poems about everyday life in England, taking us through the seasons and showing many ways that kids can play outdoors. We especially love the illustrations in this book.

The Caribbean

The Sea, the Storm, and the Mangrove Tangle is a fascinating book that tells of how a mangrove seed floating in the ocean can create a habitat. This book was an excellent addition to our World Trip that showcased some of the Caribbean flora and fauna.

Brazil

The Great Kapok Tree is a great book for discussing care of the environment with children. Both of my kids liked hearing the perspectives of the different creatures who relied on the kapok tree, and this book was a good addition to our study of Brazil.

Rainforest is a large book of full-color photographs of rain forest flora and fauna.  This photos in this book are breathtaking, and many of them offer up-close details that are amazing to look at. My children and I loved looking at this book.

Guatemala

Corn is Maize is a book that weaves together both science and culture.  This book details how corn grows as well as its uses by native peoples in the Americas.  This book gave my children a better understanding of this important food source while we studied Central America.

Mexico

My children were fascinated by Family Pictures and In My Family. These two books show snippets of traditional Mexican life, ranging from birthdays to wedding celebrations to everyday family activities. The text is printed in both Spanish and English.

Caribou Song is a book with striking illustrations that tells of a family and their experience with a herd of caribou. My children waited with bated breath to see if the children would be injured by the caribou, only to breathe a sigh of relief and joy as the magic unfolded.

Scaredy Squirrel is a germa-phobic, meticulous animal who tries to control all the risks in his world. This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and had my kids begging me to read it over and over again. The other books in the series have proven to be just as entertaining.

Australia

Are We There Yet? tells of a family's long road trip around Australia. My children liked learning about the different sites in Australia and had fun watching the family as they adjusted to life on-the-road.

Japan

The Perfect Sword tells of a master swordsmith and his apprentice, and their search for the right owner for the perfect sword they have created. This book served as a good character study for my children.

Kamishibai Man is the story of a man who performed paper theater for children, yet he was slowly made obsolete by up-and-coming technology.  In the end, the Kamishibai Man is once again telling a story, and this time there is a crowd ready to watch. This story was a nice reminder of the simple, beautiful life of the past. The illustrations in this book (as well as others by Allen Say) are gorgeous.

Tea with Milk tells of the author's mother, May, who lived in San Francisco as a young girl but then moved to her parent's native Japan.  Back in Japan, May felt out of place and homesick, caught between two cultures.  This interesting narrative captured the interest of my children as they watched to see what would happen to May and how she would finally find home.

Russia

The Littlest Matryoshka tells of a set of nesting dolls, created by a craftsman in Russia and eventually sold in the United States. The littlest nesting doll becomes lost and separated from the others, and my kids were so happy when she was finally reunited with the rest of her doll sisters.

China

The Empty Pot reads like a folktale of ancient China, weaving the story of Ping, a little boy who loves flowers. When the emperor sets a challenge in order to select the next emperor, Ping is not able to make his plant grow, and yet his courage and honesty show the emperor that Ping is the only one worthy of being the next emperor.

Daisy Comes Home is the story of Mei Mei and her six happy hens. The illustrations in Jan Brett's books are always a delight, and her entertaining stories are always a hit with my children. In this book, Daisy the hen is lost, and Mei Mei finally finds her and brings her back home. Both of my children love any books featuring chickens, since we have our own flock, and this book set in China was an interesting twist on the theme.

India

Same, Same But Different is a cute story, telling of penpals who learn about the many differences between life in India and life in the United States. The penpals find that, although their lives seem very different, they are also similar in many ways.

Finders Keepers? A True Story of India tells of the author's journey in India, wherein his lost wallet was returned to him by a young boy. The boy adamantly refused to accept any reward for returning the wallet, as the idea of accepting a reward for just being honest made no sense to him. I could see the gears turning in my children's heads while I read this book, as they thought about the deep lesson of doing right just because it was the right thing to do.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Golden, Buttery Mashed Potatoes

This recipe for mashed potatoes was developed when we were "visiting" Russia during our homeschool world trip last semester. In looking around for Russian mashed potato recipes, I found two things I wanted to incorporate into my own mashed potatoes: spices in the cooking water and sour cream along with the butter and milk. Those two things give these mashed potatoes a nice depth of flavor, and this recipe has become my new "standard" mashed potato recipe.

Golden, Buttery Mashed Potatoes
Serves 8-10
1. Peel the potatoes and chop them into ~1&1/2 inch chunks.  (I love my Rada vegetable peeler!) Put the potatoes in a 4-quart pot, cover with filtered water, and add a little sprinkle of salt.
2. Peel the garlic. Place the garlic and bay leaf into the pot.
3. Bring the potatoes to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer.
4. Simmer the potatoes for 20-25 minutes, until they are soft enough that a fork easily pierces and breaks a potato chunk.
5. Remove and discard the garlic and bay leaves from the cooking water.
6. Drain the potatoes. I prefer to just put a lid mostly on the pot and then pour out the water that way, rather than using a colander, since it allows a bit more moisture to stay with the potatoes.
7. Cut the butter into a few chunks and add it to the potatoes. Allow the butter to melt.
8. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes. I like to leave the potatoes just a tad-bit lumpy when I mash them.
9. Add the sour cream, milk, and salt. Stir well to get everything combined.
10. Serve and enjoy! These potatoes make a superb side dish for Beef Stroganoff Meatballs.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What's Working and What's New? Our Homeschool Mid-Year Review for 2016-2017

I plan the bulk of our homeschool curriculum once a year in July, but each January it is time for our mid-year review. The whole process of our mid-year review takes only 1-2 hours.  The intent of our mid-year review is to look at the following with regards to our home school:
• What has been working well?
• What needs to be improved?
• What needs to be removed from our curriculum?
• Is there anything new to focus on?
• What specific needs does each child have over the next few months?

Pen and Paper

I start the process of our mid-year review by writing out the answers to the above questions.  I think back on the previous semester with an open mind to identify things that need to be changed. Sometimes there may be a particular book or curriculum resource that I was very excited about, but that my children don't engage well with.  I may find that there are some subjects that we never even got off the ground with, and I need to decide whether I will re-commit to working on those or let them drop off the to-do list.

I think about each child and what needs I can identify. Perhaps they are struggling with a certain activity, chore, or skill; perhaps they need extra support in some specific area. I think about each child's current interests and ways that I can direct our schooling to make the most of those interests.

Mentoring Conversations

Once I have written down my own thoughts, the next step is to have a conversation with each of my children to discuss their goals and desires, needs and wants. This year, we are using this free homeschool compass to record what each child wants to focus on in the coming months.

I write down my children's input, and this shows the children that their input is valued and important.  While I may make gentle suggestions during this process, the children are ultimately allowed to decide whether or not they want to focus on anything in particular. This gives my children a sense of ownership over their own educations. Their own interests are just as important as my own agenda for their learning. Mentoring conversations are a time for me to get a better understanding of what I can do to help my children in reaching their goals and pursuing their own interests.

2016-17 Midyear Review: Things that Are Working Especially Well

World Trip
From June through November 2016, my kids and I went on a virtual world trip. We "visited" 20 different countries, exploring the culture in each place through books, music, art, and food.  We all thoroughly enjoyed this.

Life of Fred Math Books
Although last school year Bedtime Math was my children's favorite math book, this year they are totally into Life of Fred. We have breezed through two books and are already over halfway through a third book. My kids are asking me to read them Life of Fred so often that I'm going to have to order some more books for the coming semester!

Classic Audio Books on USB Sticks
During our daily afternoon quiet time, my children have been enjoying listening to audio versions of classic books.  We invested in a couple USB memory sticks that can hold many audio books (as I was tired of burning audio books to CD's), and I downloaded a bunch of free classic audio books from Librivox. My kids have been listening to books ranging from Tales from Shakespeare to The Adventures of Johnny Chuck to Swiss Family Robinson to Book of Dragons.

2016-17 Midyear Review: New Curriculum for the Coming Semester

United States Trip
I had planned to start studying Ancient History this coming semester, but that is going to slide to the next school year. My children loved our World Trip so much that I decided to do a United States Trip for Spring 2017. Some of the resources we are using for our United States Trip are:

2016-17 Midyear Review: Notes from Mentoring Conversations

9&1/2 year old daughter Alina
In addition to pursuing the interests I already knew of (Native Americans, horses, and animals), Alina set a goal for herself to start learning cursive. She also decided to start working on correct capitalization and lower-case usage in her handwriting. With the help of the Project Inspire - Learning Log Book, she chose a few new books to read, and set a few goals of places for us to visit including White Sands National Monument and Fillmore Canyon.
Nearly-7-year-old son Ian
In addition to learning more about his obvious interests (vehicles of all kinds), Ian wants to learn more tricks on his bike, how car jacks work, and how to whistle. He wants to continue his reading lessons and learn to make more Lego creations.  He selected some more classic audio books to listen to, and set goals for us to hike at Picacho Peak and Dripping Springs this semester.

Not Just for Home Schoolers

Mid-year reviews are not just for home schoolers. Any parents who are fostering a love of learning could benefit from periodic planning and mentoring sessions. These are wonderful tools for focusing our efforts on the things that our children need and desire in order to find their own personal missions.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Cherry Cranberry Sauce

I was inspired to try a new recipe for cranberry sauce for the holidays when I saw Elana's recipe for cranberry sauce that included cherries. I normally make my cranberry sauce with the addition of apples, but since I still have sweet cherries in the freezer from last summer's harvest, I was intrigued to try making cranberry sauce with cherries.

This Cherry Cranberry Sauce recipe uses fresh-squeezed orange juice and honey to balance the super tartness of the cranberries. The cinnamon stick adds a nice depth of flavor to the sauce, and this recipe resulted in a yummy sweet-tart cranberry sauce that made an excellent addition to our holiday meals. While I typically only make cranberry sauce around the holidays, my children enjoyed this recipe so much that they have begged me to make it several more times. This cherry cranberry sauce makes a yummy side dish any time of day, and is also great with granola or stirred into plain whole-milk yogurt.

Cherry Cranberry Sauce
Makes ~3 cups

• 2 cups cranberries
• 2 cups pitted sweet cherries
• 1 cup freshly-squeezed orange or tangerine juice
• 5 Tb mild-flavored honey (or more if you like your sauce sweeter)
• one cinnamon stick
1. Combine all ingredients in a medium pot. I use frozen cherries and cranberries in this recipe.  A lemon reamer works well for juicing the oranges/tangerines.
2. Bring to a simmer and continue to cook for about 30 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and the fruit has gotten rather soft. Stir occasionally.
3. Use a potato masher or fork to lightly mash the fruit, and cook a few minutes more.
4. Turn off heat and remove the cinnamon stick.
5. Allow to cool, then refrigerate in air-tight containers.
6. Enjoy this cranberry sauce as a side dish, with granola, or stirred into some plain, whole-milk yogurt.

Does your family enjoy cranberry sauce? Do you eat it only around the holidays?

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