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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bird Beaks

Sara (our public-schooled nine-year-old) had a rotten cold one day, so she stayed home with Tom - and had a grand time being homeschooled. Truth is, homeschooling really is a bit tougher than school-school (higher expectations and more supervision!), but on the other hand it's often a lot more fun.

On the day she stayed home, we were planning a "bird beaks" lesson based on the recommended activity in the KONOS curriculum. It involved finding household items that resemble various different kinds of beaks, and foods (or non-foods) that resemble tasty bird treats - and then experimenting to figure out which kind of beak (and bird) works best with which food item.

We made spaghetti to simulate worms and used peanut butter to stand in for mud... found some unpopped popcorn for seed... tossed some uncooked rice on a plate to be bugs... and so forth. The kids had a great time with tongs, tweezers, and other "beaks," trying to grab each type of food. As they decided which type of food went with which type of beak, we then looked through our bird guides to find real-life examples of the birds, beaks, and food.

Tweezer-shaped beaks work well to pick up seeds like popcorn.

The EyeWitness Birds Book is a great image resource

Which beak works best to grab worms?

Sara learns how tong-shaped beaks work!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hands-On Homeschool Birding at the Audubon

To round out our Birds Unit, I thought we should take a trip to the Audubon Society and get a "real" birding experience. I called - and lo and behold, they were happy to put together a two-hour homeschooling experience for us and other local homeschooling families. Moral: it can't hurt to ask! About 12 families turned up, ranging in age from about 4 to 14.

We got an hour of indoor instruction (feathers under a microscope, mix and match food and bird game, exploration of birds and their beaks). Tom was distracted by an exhibit of eggs and skeletons, but managed to tune in to check out an owl feather under the microscope.

Following the indoor presentation, we hiked a bit around some ponds (just a few birds here and there) and then walked down to a fabulous spot on the tidal marsh facing Sandy Neck (a strip of pristine beach that sticks out into Cape Cod Bay). We had a chance to try out a real spotting scope and watch osprey on their nest - but the real highlights were the crabs and insects we discovered right next to the boardwalk!

Spotting osprey through the scope at Longpasture Audubon in Barnstable.

Bird feathers up close and personal.

Be jealous! This is the view from the Audubon to Sandy Neck, a pristine beach that juts out into Cape Cod Bay.

Owl feather (I think!).

This is just part of a fabulous group of horseshoe crab molts we found on the salt grass in the tidal marsh. We brought home four!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mastering "Same" and "Different" ??!??

How can a child who is mastering double digit multiplication, who can describe earth's biomes with accuracy, who can read a full-length novel with fluency - NOT grasp the concepts of "same" and "different?"

I am grappling with this question this week - in part because I simply can't figure out whether the problem is conceptual or semantic. Obviously, Tom can tell the difference between, say, a peanut butter sandwich and a cat. He can even tell you, when asked, the differences between summer and winter, oceans and lakes, and so forth.

He knows that birds belong to the same group - and that the bird group is different from the reptile group.

When I place two equations in front of him - say 7 +2 and 2 +7 - he can handily tell you that each adds up to 9.


When I ask him - "So - do 7+2 and 2+7 add up to the same thing?" He looks at me confused and says "I don't know... um... no."

"But - they both add up to nine."


"And nine is the same thing as nine, right?"

"I don't know..."

"Look, Tom, here's 2 + 7 using the cuisinaire rods. And here's 7 +2. Can you place them one on top of the other?" (He does - and they are identical in length.)

"Are they the same length?"

"I don't know... no."

"Tom! Look at them! They are exactly the same length!"

"They are???"

"OK, I tell you what, show me two rods that are different." (He pulls out a blue and a red rod.)

"These are different."

"Yes, they are. Now show me two the same." (He pulls out two reds.)

"These are the same."

"Right. So... are these two rods (7+2) the SAME length as those two rods (2+7)?"


OK, folks, is Tom just playing dumb? Am I using the wrong words? Or is he truly not grasping what looks to me to be the most basic of concepts? SOMEthing is going haywire here!!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Homeschool, Autism, and Time Management

When we started homeschooling this year, I decided it was time for Tom to take more responsibility for his own schedule. One of the strategies I thought we could try was a kitchen timer. We'd hand him the timer, and have him time his own breaks (our "lessons" are based more on content than on elapsed time).

Early on, we established that breaks would be ten minutes long. I showed him how to set the timer, and told him he could take the timer upstairs to his room so long as he listened for the alarm and let us know when it was time to start work again.

This worked beautifully for a few weeks. He mastered the skill of setting the alarm, and did a terrific job of letting us know it was time to get back to work.

Then, he started trying to negotiate for more time - fifteen, minutes, or maybe twenty. When we were firm, he started making the changes himself, and mentioning them to no-one.

Just yesterday, my husband Peter and I were exchanging notes, and Peter mentioned that Tom had actually reset the timer for 25 minutes... and that, since Peter had gone back to work (in his office) during the break, he really hadn't noticed the passage of time until he looked up at the clock!

At first, we commiserated, saying "how frustrating is that? We've really got to pay more attention to the time ourselves."

Then, we realized what a huge leap Tom had taken. Not only had he really, truly mastered the idea of measuring increments of time - he had also mastered the concept of RELATIVE increments of time (20 minutes is longer than 10 minutes), and he had worked out how to MEASURE a longer increment of time. Even more impressive, he had figured out how to manipulate his own schedule by SECRETLY changing the setting on the timer - a big jump in terms of "theory of mind." He knew we weren't paying attention, and that he thus had the power to make changes secretly, and change the schedule to his own benefit.

Having finally noticed the significance of this change, I then realized that he'd made other "silent" leaps that we'd essentially ignored. For example, he's decided to learn to bowl one-handed - entirely on his own - and while it's tough for him, he's persevering. He's noticing the emotions of other kids in the bowling league, and when one boy was upset we talked about the clues that showed us "upset" (red eyes, for one). Tom then remembered that HIS eyes had been red when HE'd been upset! He was also able to identify that a girl telling her friend to "shut up!" was just fooling around - because of the tone of her voice (which he was able to imitate).

Homeschool gym and "Hot Jazz" (afterschool jazz ensemble) are also a real breeze this year. Tom's joining in, paying attention, and generally connecting with the experiences being offered. While he still isn't really chatting with anyone else, he IS doing pratfalls, acting silly, taking his turn, smiling a lot - all wonderful social skills.

These changes are really pretty exciting - and seem to bode well for this year. Right now, I'm also considering a change in his clarinet teacher. He's working with a wonderful musician who was also the dean of a college music education department - and while it's good to be working hard on the basic skills of music and rhythm reading and execution, it isn't much fun. At this point, it seems to me that Tom should be focusing more on the idea of music as a way to express himself, join in with others, and generally find a place in the world - and less on sight reading and musical theory.