Summer Activities for Kids

July 1, 2010

Recently I read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he points out that Japanese children attend school for 243 days each year, while the average school year in the USA is 180 days.

In addition, he cites tests that show that the academic difference between students from lower income families and those from higher income families, has little to do with the schools they attend, but rather is a result of how they spend their summers. Higher income families take their children on vacations, enroll them in summer camps and encourage them to participate in reading programs, while low income students are usually left to just “hang out” in their neighborhood with friends. The result is that the latter students when tested at the beginning of the next school year will actually show a decrease in academic achievement on tests, while the former will have a significant increase. During the school year all students will improve at roughly the same rate, which shows how important the summer vacation is in our children’s educations.

My oldest children and I are teaching film / computer classes this summer – this gives them the opportunity to develop skills of producing training material, marketing the classes and of course teaching. And hopefully we will be helping the students who attend explore new subjects. If you live in Knoxville, take a look at Knoxville Summer Camps to see what we are offering.

We have just returned from a trip to New Mexico. As we roadtripped through about 10 states to get there and back, it was a great time of informal geography learning. In addition, we went geocaching in Santa Fe (the city has a challenge set up) which taught my kids new mapwork skills. And of course geocaching is done outside, so it is perfect for summer. It is fairly easy to make Geography Fun – click the link for many cool ideas.

Our family loves board games, and summer is a great time to play more of them. Invest in a few new ones that are both fun and have some educational value. You can find geography related ones at States and Capitals Games. And you can also find CD Rom and online games there – which are other activities kids will enjoy – and learn from.

Of course you need to be sure your kids have enough time to just have fun with friends and have plenty of unstructured ‘playtime’, but do keep in mind that it is important to make sure that your kids keep learning – even during the vacation!

Photos from Wikimedia Commons by Nicubunu and Flickr by mda621.


7 Lessons for Kids Inspired by the Icelandic Volcano

April 20, 2010

I love using real events to teach from – this goes for both at home with my own children, and in the classes I teach at our local co op. This week I will be using some aspects of the Icelandic volcano erupting in my middle school economics class, and as I started planning for that, I realized how many other lessons can be taught around the topic, so here are my ideas:

1. Economics

I will be getting my class to think about the economic implications of the volcano – I will ask them who is impacted economically and will steer them in the right direction so that they consider the impact on the airline industry, people stranded on vacation who aren’t back at their jobs, countries who export perishable goods etc

2.  Linguistics

The volcano’s name is so unusual to us westerners that it will provide a great study of how different languages are – and why. Let the kids learn how to pronounce it – click here for an article to help you.

3. Earth Science

What a perfect time to study volcanoes and how they operate. It will be so much more real to children while this is headline news.  And there are wonderful photos of the volcano you can share with them.

4. Geography

Now is a perfect time to study Iceland – and the countries the ash is blowing over. There are nice simulations of the way the ash is moving and you can get the kids to work out which countries it is most affecting. Use Google Earth to take a ‘closer’ look at these countries.

5. Creative Writing

Let them imagine they are a traveller ‘stuck’ somewhere because the airports are closed. They can write their adventures trying to take another route home, or their feelings as they just wait and wait. Or they can pretend they are in Iceland and can write about the actual eruptions.

6. History

Compare the effect of this eruption with other eruptions in history like Vesuvius when it decimated Pompeii or when Mount St Helen’s erupted.

7. Ecology

How does all that ash in the air affect the world we live in? As humans we can wear masks and move to other areas, but what about the plants and animals in the nearby areas? How are their habitats affected? Will there be any long term consequences?

I hope that gave you some ideas … please post any more you may have in the comments section.


Kids tutoring kids

January 23, 2010

I coach a Science Olympiad team and this year our B team (or JV team) was short on members. The 3rd grade sister of one of our A team members volunteered to take on the Fossils event. Typically Science Olympiad team members are 6th grade and above, but as we needed an extra student, we were happy to take her. Fossils happens to be her older brother’s event and he has started coaching her. I believe he holds up a fossil and asks her what it looks like. She may say, “like a unicorn horn”. He lets her write that down in her notebook – and then tells her the scientific name which she writes alongside it. Later he tests her – and when he holds up that fossil, she looks at her homemade key – finds the ‘unicorn horn’ and gives the correct name from her homemade key.
Isn’t that a cool story? And the best thing is, her brother will be cementing the knowledge in his brain as he teaches her.

** Update: since writing this post we had our Regional Science Olympiad contest and the little 3rd grader I just wrote about took the bronze medal in Fossils – despite the fact that all the other kids competing were middle schoolers! So it worked.
As a high schooler I tutored other high schoolers in math – and I am convinced that is why I still remember all my math even though I have never used it since then. And it wasn’t just beneficial to me – my students all went up at least a grade, probably because I was more on their level and could relate to them better than an adult.
My oldest daughter who is now in college made money as a high schooler tutoring as well. It paid better than babysitting – but as she was far cheaper than regular tutors she found as much work as wanted. And once again – her knowledge in the areas she taught is excellent as there is no better way to learn than to teach someone else.
So, if you have a child that needs help, and you can’t afford $35 an hour tutors, find an older student who is doing well academically and offer them $10 an hour. And if you have a teen with good grades who needs extra cash, get them to make a leaflet and put it up at the local public library.
And if you have success with this idea, come back and post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.


How culturally aware are your kids?

October 30, 2009

My son’s topic for speech class this week, was to describe  some need in the world today. He chose to speak on the need for Americans to be more culturally aware. As the world becomes more and more a ‘global village’, the need for us all to know more about our ‘neighbors’ in other countries increases. So, how do we teach this to our kids?

If you can possible travel abroad, do. Save every cent, stop eating out at restaurants, and you will find it is do-able. We have taken our kids all over the world, and there is no better way to teach cultural awareness. But if you really can’t travel abroad, look for ways to experience other cultures right where you live. Our city has annual Greek and Spanish festivals. There are Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indian restaurants within 10 minutes of our home.

Read books with your kids that are set in other countries. Books are a wonderful way for children to see the world through a different viewpoint. We use Sonlight Curriculum and we loved books like The Wheel on the School set in the Netherlands and The House of the SIxty Fathers set in China. A search on your local library webite should help you find suitable books. Magazines like National Geographic (there is one for kids too) will also open children’s eyes to the world.

My kids have also learned much of their geography and knowledge of foreign cultures by playing computer games, watching travel documentaries and playing geography board games. Fun ways to Teach Geography contains our favorite geography games and movies as well as more ideas on how to teach kids about the world around them.

And of course, America itself has a huge range of indigenous cultures for us to learn about too. Don’t overlook  those as we also need to understand the people we are living among as much as we need to understand those who live across the oceans from us.


New Science and Math Contests

October 12, 2009

student-contestI learned about 2 new contests today:

1. Kids Science Challenge This is actually in its second year, but I only just discovered it. Visit the very appealing site to sign up 3rd through 6 graders in this contest that encourages kids to think about the world around them. Kids can either work by themselves, or in teams. There are loads of prizes to motivate students. And games on the website help kids to start thinking scientifically. I signed up my 4th grader immediately. It is free to register.

2.American Math Challenge

This contest is brand new, and it is also free. Students must be ages 9-14. Schools can sign up students, or if their schools aren’t participating, they can sign up as individuals – as can homeschoolers. There is one week of practice, and then the various online math challenges begins. Not a lot of prizes in this contest – but I think it will be very challenging and good for students to work on speed and accuracy. My 2 youngest will definitely be participating.

Interested in more contests? Visit Contests for Students


How to teach kids to write well

October 10, 2009

Essay writingOne of my sons had to take the BJU Writing Evaluation yesterday – so writing is on my mind. Teaching a child to write well is one of the hardest things I have had to do. If you are hoping I am going to give a foolproof method of doing it, sorry. I can’t. All I can do is share with you some things that have worked with my kids:

1. My Access

My Access is an online writing program that provides immediate feedback. I started using this with my oldest daughter when she was in 8th grade. She did not agree with the feedback I gave her on her writing, and I was tired of arguing with her. My Access solved all my problems. It became the ‘bad guy’ telling her all the things I had told her, and I became the ‘good guy’ helping her fix her errors and improve her score.

My Access allows multiple submissions of the same essay, so students can polish their writing until they receive a decent grade. I now use this program for all my children. And if you are a homeschooler you can buy it through Homeschool Buyers Co-op for $49.95 for a year for 3 students. Other students can purchase a package for 3 students at $99.95 from Vantage Online Store.

My Access has improved my children’s grades  by 20-30%. There is also a SAT essay add-on that you can purchase which my 16 year old has been using this year.

2. Give them a good reason to write

Children often see writing as a form of torture. An 8th grader I know wrote this recently for a writing assignment:

Creative writing! The curse that beckons us all to come and waste our time on this misleading demon. Our parents have already been enraptured. Why do you think we are forced to do it regularly? Why do we even need to write?

I try to let my kids write ‘for real’ whenever possible. And as I homeschool, I try to get them to write for an audience other than me. One way is through contests. View my lens on Contests for Students to read more about History Day which has a research paper option, and other writing contests.

And I get them to publish what they write online. My 16 year old son chooses to publish many of his essays on Facebook and invites comments. He also has  blog and a website which reviews computer hardware. He now understands why he must learn to write well.

And then a few months go, I discovered Squidoo. Squidoo is free and it allows anyone to quickly put together an article on anything. They call these articles ‘lenses’ as they focus on specific topics. And what is even better, Squidoo makes it easy to add in links to Amazon, Cafepress etc – which adds the possibility of making money from what they write! This has been sufficient to energize my own kids to write – and I have managed to convince a number of students in the Business Class I teach at our co-op to make lenses too. All of them have written about subjects that interest them

My son wrote one on  Airsoft, one student wrote one on How to Give a Speech and one wrote on Authentic Beauty. You can also use Squidoo to publish any book reports your kids might write – see my son’s on Fallen Angels.

My kids have also written for our church mission’s magazine and for our co-op’s newspaper. And my oldest daughter had a letter she wrote to the editor of our local newspaper published.

Knowing other people will read what you write, and that you may make some money if you do it well, can be a great motivator.

3. Try to find a writing program that fits your child.

Each child is unique. I have tried to adapt writing assignments and even the programs we use to fit each of my children. My oldest daughter is a good writer and she entered many writing contests, and won some of them. My 11th grade son is gregarious, and as I have already shared, he likes putting what he writes in cyberspace for all to read and comment on. My next son (9th grade) is good at writing stories, so this year he is doing something completely different and using the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum and by the end of this school year, he will have written an entire novel! My youngest (4th grade)  is using My Access and publishing her work for her grandparents to read.

So, if you are frustrated by your kid’s lack of ability to write well, try some of these ideas – and brainstorm for a few more. Try changing what you are doing, and hopefully you will eventually see some improvement in your kids as I have in mine.




Using Contests as a Learning Tool

October 2, 2009

My kids do a vast number of contests each year, and I encourage that as I have seen all the good things that contests achieve.  It does mean that you, as a parent, will need to be their cheerleader, their scheduler and many more roles. But I believe all the effort I put in each year is worth it. So – what are these results that competitions achieve?

1. Students work harder
I wish my kids always worked as hard as they could at every subject – but they don’t. However, I have noticed that when there is a chance of placing in a contest, especially if there is potential money to be gained, a lot more work goes into the essay, presentation, studying etc. Contests really do motivate my kids to try harder. If they write an essay just for me, there is not much reason to polish and polish it. When it is for a contest, well, that’s another story.

2. It shows students’ strengths and weaknesses
It is easy for us as parents to think better or worse of our children’s abilities than we should. We my think our kids are amazing at geography, but a few rounds of the geography bee could tell something different. Conversely, I’ve seen parents only realize their children’s potential after seeing them excel at a contest. Contests allow your children to compete against students all over their region, perhaps all over the USA. This will give you a good picture of their strengths and weaknesses.

3. Contests teach perseverance
If the contest is an event (eg Geography Bee), preparation is necessary if your kids hope to achieve any success. Other contests, like National History Day require many hours of research and more hours spent working on the project. At first your kids will probably be motivated and enjoy the challenge. But after a while they will tire of studying, researching, writing etc. Having a deadline to work to, and the chance of ‘success’ will keep them going. I have seen this with our Science Olympiad team. Just before Regionals the students are so tired of studying, but they keep going as they don’t want to perform poorly on the day.

I have written an article on some of my favorite Contests for Students. Take a look and see if there are any that would motivate your children.


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