# Homeschooling Corner: Introducing Mr. Poop & Custom Dice

I happened to have a poop-shaped pinata sitting around (Why? Look, sometimes these things just happen) of the pull-the-flap-on-the-bottom variety rather than the smash-it-with-a-bat kind, so I decided to add a little fun to our day by filling Mr. Poop with school-related ideas written on strips of paper. Give Mr. Poop a shake and a scrap of paper flutters out–today’s idea was to design your own game, which the kids are working on now.

I’ve decided to incorporate the Cub Scout handbooks–which have lots of useful information about subjects like first aid, water safety, civics, history, etc.–into our rotation. (The Cub Scouts have a different handbook for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.) Today we learned about knots–mostly square knots–complemented with The Camper’s Knot Tying Game. Knots are practical for anyone, but also good practice for kids with fine motor difficulties.

Over in Professor Astro Cat, we’re collecting space dust, keeping a moon journal (the eclipse was well-timed for this) and made impact craters in the sandbox. The book recommends spreading out newspaper indoors and using flour or cocoa powder, but sand, outside, is much easier to clean up. (Walmart sells beautiful colored sand for like \$4 a bag. I sprinkled some green on top of the regular brown sandbox sand to simulate Earth’s surface.)

Custom Dice

There are lots of interesting dice–math dice, fraction dice, letter dice, place value dice, etc. Customized dice are easy to make: just take a cube (you probably have a building block or letter cube or some Legos lying around,) cover it with paper, and write whatever you want on the faces. (Note it is probably best to write on the paper before applying tape, as many pens won’t write properly on tape.) I have a custom die with +,-, <, and division signs on it that I use along with custom “numbers larger than six” dice for math games. (“Looks like you rolled 5,000,000,000 divided by 7,000!”) (For smaller kids, you may want to stick to + and -.)

I’m still trying to work out good ways to teach history. I’ve got some rudimentary ideas, but I’ll save them for later.

# Homeschooling Corner: The Things we Played

I’m a really boring person who gets excited about finding math workbooks at the secondhand shop. I got lucky this week and snagged two math and 1 science workbooks, plus Bedtime Math 2 at the library. Since new workbooks/manipulatives/materials can be pricey,* I’ve been keeping an eye out for good deals for, well, pretty much my kids’ whole lives. For example, a few years ago I found Hooked on Math (\$45 on Amazon) at Goodwill for a couple of bucks; I found some alphabet flashcards at a garage sale for 50c.

I’m also lucky to have several retired teachers in the family, so I’ve “inherited” a nice pile of teaching materials, from tangrams to fractions.

*That said, sometimes you need a particular workbook now, not whenever one shows up at the second hand shop, so thankfully plenty of workbooks are actually pretty cheap.

But full “curriculums” can be pretty expensive–for example, Saxon Math plus manipulatives runs about \$200; a Lifepack 4 or 5-subject curriculum is about \$320; Montessori math kit: \$250; Horizons: \$250. I have no idea if these are worth the money or not.

So I’m glad I already have most of what I need (for now.)

This week we started typing (I went with the first website that came up when I searched for “typing tutor” and so far it’s gone well.) We finished Bedtime Math and moved on to Bedtime Math 2. (We’re also working out of some regular old math books, as mentioned above.)

In science we’re still reading Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (today we discussed eclipses,) and we started Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Workbook, which has been fun so far. It has activities based on space gloves, weightlessness, Russian phrases (used on the International Space Station,) Morse Code, etc.

(The gloves activity was difficult for youngest child–in retrospect, one pair of glove would have been sufficient. Eventually they got frustrated and started using their feet instead of hands to complete the activities.)

Professor Astro Cat has therefore been the core of our activities this week.

To keep things light, I’ve interspersed some games like Trucky3, Perplexus, and Fraction Formula. They’re also useful when one kid has finished an activity and another hasn’t and I have to keep them occupied for a while.

Coding continues apace: learned about loops this week.

Spelling is one of our weak points, so I want to do at least some spelling each day, (today we spelled planets’ names) but I’m not sure what the best approach is. English spelling is pretty weird.

# Homeschooling Corner

Welcome! Highly unscientific polling has revealed an interest in a regular or semi-regular feature focused on homeschooling.

Note that I am NOT some homeschooling guru with years of experience. We are just beginning, so I want some other people to discuss things with. I don’t have a curriculum picked out nor a coherent “philosophy,” but I am SO EXCITED about all of the things I have to teach I couldn’t even list them all.

I was thinking of starting with just a focus on what has been successful this week–which books/websites/projects we liked–and perhaps what was unsuccessful. I invite all of you to come and share your thoughts, ideas, questions, philosophies, recommendations, etc. Parents whose kids are attending regular schools but want to talk about learning materials are also welcome.

One request: Please no knee-jerk bashing of public schools or teachers. (I just find this really annoying.) Thoughtful, well-reasoned critique of mainstream schooling are fine, but let’s try to focus on the homeschooling.

This week’s successes:

DK Workbooks: Coding with Scratch (workbook) has been an amazing success.

Like many parents, I thought it’d be useful to learn some basic coding, but have no idea where to start. I once read HTML for dummies, but I don’t know my CSS from Perl, much less what’s best for kids.

After a bit of searching, I decided to try the the DK Coding with Scratch series. (This particular workbook is aimed at kids 6-9 yrs old, but there are others in the series.)

Scratch is a free, simple, child-friendly coding program available online at https://scratch.mit.edu/. You don’t need the workbook to use Scratch, (it’s just a helpful supplement.) There are also lots of helpful Youtube videos for the enterprising young coder.

Note: my kids really want to code because they want to make their own video games.

In general, I have found that toys and games that claim they will teach your kids to code actually won’t. (Eg, Robot Turtles.) Some of these games are a ton of fun anyway, I just wouldn’t expect to become a great coder that way.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space is as good as it looks. Target market is 8-11 years old. There’s a lot of information per page, so we’re reading and discussing a few pages each day.

There are two other books in the series, Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Activity Book, which I’m hoping will make a good companion to this one, and Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, which looks like it fills the desperately needed “quantum physics for kids” niche.)

I’m still trying to figure out how to do hands-on science activities without spending a bundle. Most of the “little labs” type science kits look fun, but don’t pack a lot of educational bang for your buck. For example, today we built a compass (it cost \$10 at the toy store, not the \$205 someone is trying charge on Amazon.) This was fun and I really like the little model, but it also took about 5 minutes to snap the pieces together and we can’t actually carry it around to use it like a real compass.

Plus, most of these labs are basically single-use items. I like toys with a sciency-theme, but they’re too expensive to run the whole science curriculum off of.

Oh, sure, I hand them a page of math problems and they start squawking at me like chickens. But bedtime rolls around and they’re like, “Where’s our Bedtime Math? Can’t we do one more page? One more problem? Please?”

There are only three math problems every other page (though this does add up to over 100 problems,) the presentation is fun, and the kids like the book better than going to sleep.

The book offers easy, medium, and hard problems in each section, so it works for kids between the ages of about 4 and 10.

There’s an inherent tension in education between emphasizing subjects that kids are already good at and working on the ones they’re bad at. The former gives kids a chance to excel, build confidence, and of course actually get good at something, while the latter is often an annoying pain in the butt but nevertheless necessary.

Since we’ve just started and are still getting in the swing of things, I’m trying to focus primarily on the things they’re good at and enjoy and have just a little daily focus on the things they’re weak at.

I’d like to find a good typing tutor (I’ll probably be trying several out soon) because watching the kids hunt-and-peck at the keyboard makes my hair stand on end. I’d also like to find a good way to hold up workbooks next to the computer to make using the DK books easier.

That’s about it, so I’ll open the floor to you guys.

# Comets

I’ve long wondered why comets have such eccentric orbits and come from the far outer reaches of the solar system. Why aren’t there more asteroids with eccentric orbits? Why aren’t there comets in round orbits? Why don’t they generally hang out closer to the sun?

Happily, I think I’ve figured it out. Yes, a comet is a “snowball in space.” But a comet isn’t just formed when liquid water freezes, as it often does on Earth. A comet is formed when a body gets so cold, the air on it freezes. The nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. This only happens very far from the sun–so comets can only form far to the sun. If they formed close-in, their gases wouldn’t freeze.

So long as a frozen body stays way out there away from the sun, we’re not going to see it. It’s only when comets come closer to the sun (say, by getting knocked out of their original orbits,) that their gases begin to sublimate under the sun’s glare and they appear as bright, fiery comets in the night sky. Then, if it is lucky, the comet swings back to its frigid neighborhood before it totally melts away.

This explains why the comets we see have such eccentric orbits–the eccentricity allows the comet to freeze, sublimate, and freeze again. Without that orbit, no bright comet.