Spy unit.

We like spies, secret agents, puzzle, and the rest. So I thought, for a good change of pace, we would do a spy unit for our lesson.

First, we got dressed as spies. Nicholas and Abby went through the dress up box and got dressed as spies. She put on her Ariel dress; he put on a hat and lab coat. Okay. Well, it was their disguise.

Next we did some worksheet problems:

Help the spy find the right laser angles.

Write your own detective comic.

Which agent?

We did some code breaking worksheets:


We also went onto the NSA’s code breaking webpage and played around for a while. We brought it up on the laptop, and spent some time as a family working through all that the website had to offer.

Then we did some mysteries. Nicholas did most of the reading of the problems to me and Abby. Then all three of us had to solve the problems. They aren’t as easy as we thought. And sometimes we had different solutions from the answer codes – but so long as the solution fit the problem I was fine.

Lastly, we learned about fingerprints and made fingerprint charts for each of us.

When we completed all the activities, I handed everyone their “detective badge” because they had earned it with all the work they did.

You’ll notice we worked on reading, writing, critical thinking, math, problem solving, and science….all without using those terms. Most of all, the kids were so involved in the fun and lesson that we spent 3 hours on the lesson before we realized all the time that had passed. It was awesome!


Nature #3 – Living and non-living.

Sometimes I find lessons that I like – I mean really like – online. I really like lessons that are complete where I don’t have to change a thing. I found this great lesson on living and non-living things. Here’s the link:


In addition to the lesson we did a living/non-living scavenger hunt in our house. The kids got a piece of white paper and one side was labeled “living” and the other “non-living.” They took their pencils with them and had to find one thing in each part of the house/yard to put on their lists. They got pretty creative: Nicholas put down that his toes were living, as were bacteria. I was informed that even after cleaning, bacteria can live everywhere.

It was a fun lessons and super easy to do.

Nature #2 – Rainbows.

It isn’t that this is the time of year for rainbows, it is just that this is a fun lesson for older and younger kids. It can be adapted for any age group. If there are younger kids, you can have them learn the colors. For older kids you can discuss and use prisms to show how light moves to make a rainbow. Best of all, you can pull out a hose and use a mist feature to create rainbows.

For the first time we made lap books. I know lots of people are fans of lap books, but after this experience I’ve decided I’d rather just make posters. Lap books can be a good way to corral all the “stuff” about the various things. But I’m teaching my kids to use iMovie and I’d rather have them make posters, hold up the posters, talk about the posters, and merge all that into a movie. Regardless – here’s how our lap booking went:

1. For the front I used a picture of a rainbow. I made Nicholas write the word “rainbow” under his. Abby just had to color the rainbow (which Nicholas did too). Here’s the link to the rainbow picture we used: http://www.coloring.ws/t.asp?b=m&t=http://www.coloring.ws/patrick/rainbow.gif

2. My kids love watching stuff on the computer. It makes them feel awesome. So we watched two clips on rainbows. Here’s clip 1, and here’s clip 2. Clip 1 is more fun while clip 2 is more scientific.

3. Next we did a rainbow counting puzzle. This puzzle was above Abby’s level, but below Nicholas’. To make it harder (for Nicholas) I not only cut the puzzle vertically, but horizontally too. The kids got to glue it together (this was the top inside page of the lap book.

4. For the last inside page of the lap book, Abby and Nicholas did two different things. Abby had to do this puzzle. I had cut everything out. She had to stack it all together. Then we stapled each set into the back part of the lap book. Nicholas had to do something else. We spent some time reading this page on rainbows. I wanted him to pay attention to how the white light hits the water, then refracts back to our eyes as a rainbow. He got a blank piece of paper and had to draw a diagram. That was an interesting thing to do. After that, he insisted on creating a movie about the rainbow, so we did.

5. For the back page of the lap book I took a plain rainbow coloring page, that had the colors in German, and had them recite the colors and then color in the rainbow, or der Regenbogen.

After this was all done, we went outside and played with the prisms to make rainbows. We also stuck the mister on the hose and made rainbows. Then we came inside and ate fruit loops because they are rainbow colors.

For reading/writing practice Nicholas wrote all the rainbow colors.  We also did more addition – we are working on having the 3’s as memorized as the 1’s and 2’s. We also had to read books today, and my kids chose all the Dr. Seuss books in the house. So I made Nicholas share reading time with me. He will read if he thinks we are reading for fun. But when he things we are reading for “school” he refuses to read. Silly child of mine.


Nature lesson #1 – Leafs.

It’s nice weather outside again. This means we go back into nature lessons so that we can spend lots of time outside. So our first lesson is on leafs.

Parts of a leaf

Leafs are wonderful. They are our first nature lesson.

Leafs are wonderful. They are our first nature lesson.

The first thing we learn is the parts of a leaf. I printed this page – which has all the parts labeled (at least the parts we are going to learn) and some places to practice writing underneath. I had the kids color the leaf and then trace the words. Nicholas then had to write the parts of a leaf on the page as well. Abby just got to color the words.

Then I printed this page – but with the words whited out.  Abby had to name and point to the parts of the leaf. Nicholas named, pointed, and then had to write the words with arrows to the right spot. It got kind of messy with his writing and arrow drawing, but he still did it.

Purpose of a leaf

Then we went over what the purpose of a leaf is.

1. To produce food for the pant through photosynthesis (this includes the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange).

2. To look pretty 🙂

3. To help us know what kind of plant it is.

So we went outside and found leaves on our plants and talked about how they helped the plant with these three purposes.

Drawing a leaf

Next we drew leafs. We looked at the basic shape of leafs in our garden (most of the are ovals). And we drew them. Then we drew veins and stems on them. It was an interesting drawing project.

Leafs in our garden

Lastly, we went and looked at leaves in our garden and neighborhood. We took this leaf identification sheet with us. When we found a leaf, we looked at our sheet and pointed out what qualities it had and how it was, or was not, like other leaves.

Our other activities

In addition to our leaf activity we did other things today. We did our math and reading practice. We added another letter – L – to Abby’s letter garden. We also added another flower to Nicholas’ word flower garden. The flower had the following words on it: leaf, stem, blade, oval, green, and tree, on it.

Making screen time about more than just the screen.

Asking questions can be the best interaction during a movie.

Asking questions can be the best interaction during a movie.

There are days when moms just need breaks. These days come when mom is sick, there is a lot of cleaning to be done, or simply because life hits. Sometimes kids need breaks. We like to call these days, “Lazy days,” and I make sure we have one a month at least. They come after we do a lot of traveling, when there’s a lot of “life” going on, or because we just need some bonding time.

But I try not to make the day about plopping the kids in front of the screen (television, computer, iPad, LeapPad….) and not interacting with them. There have been numerous studies that show that if you interact with the kids during screen time, they will learn and retain more. Mostly, I use screen time as a time to teach them to follow story lines. Sometimes we use screen time to learn things (LeapFrog videos or NASA educaiton hour and various science shows/history shows). But a lot of the time it’s just about watching our favorite movies and TV shows on our off days.

I simply ask questions and listen to responses. They don’t have to be great responses – but they have to be ones that show my kids heard the question. Here’s the list of questions I have in my “Mom folder” and use when we are watching screen time. I’ve broken the questions down into two sets – one for non-educational programs and one for educational programs.

Questions for “fun” shows

1. What is happening?

2. What just happened?

3. What do you think will happen next?

4. Who is the main character?

5. What is the plot?

6. Who are all the other characters?

7. Why do you like this part of the movie?

8. What song are they singing?

9. Can you move like that? (I use this one when we watch anything with movement. Sometimes we run around like cars after the question, and sometimes we dance).

10. Where are they now?

11. When did that character do                                           ?

12. What does that remind you of?

13. Who is the protagonist and antagonist? (Yes, my kids know these terms. I use them and explain them while watching shows. I want them to get to know the proper literary terms as soon as possible).

* The key is to notice that none of these questions are “yes/no” questions. Instead they are somewhat open-ended and allow for interaction. I almost always grab the child in question and pull them onto my lap and cuddle while asking the questions (This won’t work for older kids. You might have to offer them a snack and pretend to be a cool mom instead).

Questions for educational videos

1. What are they talking about?

2. What have you learned?

3. Who is talking? Who is teaching?

4. When do you think you can use this?

5. Where does this work? (Mostly for science stuff).

6. What else do you know about this subject?

7. What else can you do with the things you are learning?

8. How might this work for us?

9. Can you sing me a song about what you learned? (My kids like to make up songs about what they learn).

10. How does this work with other things we have learned?

So why should I do this?

I’m not saying you have to do these questions – make up your own. But by asking questions you are interacting and reinforcing concepts the kids are learning in the videos. Even if they are playing a video game these questions work. It simply involved interaction with kids so that they aren’t all by themselves and becoming drones while watching screen time.


Finishing the orchestra unit – and the field trip.

Our completed orchestra seating chart.

Our completed orchestra seating chart.

I wanted the kids to learn about the orchestra instruments. We love music at our house and have multiple instruments available for them to play. In addition to learning about music, I teach piano. I teach both my children and other students. Music is an important part of our life, and learning about the musical instruments is a fun thing to do.

We learned about the instruments in their various groups: Woodwinds, strings, percussion, brass, and the conductor. I had a very old, “History of Music” book which provided some of the pictures. MS Word Clipart provided the others.

When we did each musical group we would:

1. Identify what instruments were in the group.

2. Show/learn how each one makes a sound – and thus why it is in the group.

3. Identify the similarities between each of the instruments in the group.

4. Listen to a famous piece that highlights that instrument (so when we did woodwinds, we listened to 4 different musical pieces).

5. Played an instrument from that group.

6. Learned about a famous musician who composed the music we listened to.

7. Learn the names in German.

After we did all that, we would put the pictures up on our orchestra chart. The pictures are all laminated so I can take them down and use them again when we do this next year.

The best part was that we took a field trip to our local music store afterwards. I had called a week in advance and asked if we could come and play the different instruments that we don’t have at home. I explained that we were homeschooling, and the kids were learning about instruments and asked what we could play. They nicely said we could play what they had. So we went, and got to play each and every instrument in the orchestra – and some that aren’t (think sax, electric guitar). It was a blast to hear the kids talk with the music guy about the different instruments.

By listening to them talking I learned that sometimes I teach stuff and it really does stick with them 🙂

My favorite math worksheet sites.

Math can be a lot of repetition. There’s not a lot of need for a math book in our house – both my husband and I are fairly decent at math (at least until we get to differential calculus) and can explain how to do it. I also find new and interesting ways (we add jellybeans, figure out area of the floor to clean) to show the same basic skills.

What we do need are math worksheets to practice with. Math worksheet books can be expensive, and often don’t cover exactly what I want. So after some looking around on the Internet, I found my 4 favorite websites with math worksheets. Here they are:

http://www.softschools.com/math/worksheets/addition_worksheets.jsp: This website lets you design your own worksheets. It’s great for the basic math practice.

http://www.math-aids.com/Addition/: This website has some predesigned worksheets and a fabulous math addition table.

http://www.superkids.com/aweb/tools/math/add/: Another create your own website. There are more alternatives here that on the Softschools websites.

http://www.kidzone.ws/math/addition.htm: This website has basic addition sheets in various themes. I like their Fall addition sheets for right now.

There you go – this is how we make our own addition worksheets and don’t pay for a math book.

The monuments in Washington D.C.

We are back to studying, or at least reviewing, the things we have already learned about the monuments before we go. So far, we have learned about Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington and why they are important. Now we are looking at the monuments themselves and why they are neat.

The National Park Service has a great Junior Ranger book for the Mall and the monuments on the Mall. We printed it out and filled in what we could fill in. There are some places in it to draw pictures of the monuments (those will have to wait until we get there) and some other things like that. But all of the trivia and the puzzles we did. It was a great review of the Presidents and why they might have monuments dedicated to them.

The National Park Service also has a website dedicated to games about different national parks, solving mysteries, and all kinds of fun things. The website has over 50 games. It took my son 2 hours before he wanted to stop playing with the national parks games. I normally don’t go for that much screen time at once, but the games were really interesting. He now knows a lot of trivia – he’d make a great date to a cocktail party if he was older than 4.

We built our own Washington Monuments out of sugar cubes. We tried to get them really high, like the real monument, but failed. It was interesting talking about how the Washington Monument is built out of stone and not glued together, so we tried that with our monuments and it wasn’t really working. It was just a fun, hands-on activity to demonstrate how hard it must have been to build the Washington Monument.

We also did some talking about WWII. My grandfather and grandmother are WWII veterans. Both of them served in the Army Air Force. My grandmother served as a nurse and my grandfather as a doctor. It was interesting to try and put WWII into context for a 4 year old. It went like this: There was a big fight among all the countries of the World – that’s why it was a World War. During this war, lots of people died. But eventually, the U.S. won and now everything is peaceful. It is an extreme oversimplification, but I’m not going to do a deep, in depth, explaining of WWII for him. He tends to take information and assimilate it in dreams, and I don’t need him being scared.

The reason we talked about WWII was to lead in Vietnam and the Vietnam Memorial and the WWII memorial site. He helped me fill out the papers to add my grandmother and grandfather to the WWII memorial, and we sent it in. We talked about Vietnam and I showed him pictures of the wall. He understands that Vietnam was only in one location on the globe (unlike WWII) and that lots of people went missing and died, and that we honor them. I don’t know what he’ll remember of this, but it was worth a shot.

Then we finished up our day with letter practicing and math. We always do our writing and math – I think it’s important to get a good grounding in basics.

Some odds and ends we haven’t covered.

I realized, in my theme lessons, that there are some glaring holes. First, we haven’t covered anything about the U.S. flag. Here we are, getting ready to go to D.C., ad we haven’t learned about the flag. Second, even though we’ve been learning about the oceans, we haven’t learned where the oceans are. There are other random bits and pieces of things we haven’t covered, and I felt the need to create a few 2 minute lessons to cover these things.

The Flag

First, we found the story behind the U.S. flag. I am starting to let Nicholas do the Google searches for specific things – so in this case I helped him type in “history of U.S. flag” and we went to the U.S. flag history site. We spent some time looking around the website. Then we found pictures online of the U.S. flag. Finally, we colored a picture of the American flag with the appropriate colors (although some of the stars did turn blue) and wrote the words “American flag” underneath it.

The Oceans

Learningpage.com has a great archive of monthly pages and in their June 2008 section, they had a map of the world that had the land masses outlined. I had Nicholas color the land green, the oceans blue, and then we labeled the oceans. Then, just because it would be fun, we put a star where we live (in California, on the Pacific Ocean) and a star where we are going (Washington D.C./Virginia Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean).

The order of the Presidents

We’ve learned about Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. We know that Washington was first. Then comes the question, “Mommy, who was after Washington?” Also, “Was Washington President until he died?” This got me thinking – we need to cover these two things. So we printed out a timeline of the Presidents. I took the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song and inserted the names of the Presidents. Unfortunately, my son really likes this song and so I’ve been hearing it non-stop for about 3 hours. We also pulled out my copy of the Constitution and spent some time reading the preamble and the different articles and amendments; we learned that Presidents can only serve for 2 terms of 4 years each. As he proudly announces after this, Nicholas knows that 4+4=8.

We also did more math practice today. We are up to regular addition with our 2’s (2+1, 2+2, 2+3, 2+4, and 2+5). I try not to move on too quickly with addition – I want to make sure he really get the addition problems before moving on. We also worked on writing the letter Q and words that end with “ell.”

George Washington – the first presidential super hero.

The key to making any lesson about a historical figure enjoyable is to link the historical figure to something your child already likes. Sometimes this is easy (The Wright brothers link to airplanes) or this can be harder. In this case, I decided to make George Washington a super hero.

To make our George Washington super hero costumes I needed a headband, cotton balls, paper, and yarn. I printed up a picture of George Washington (with the funny hair do).

Step one for a super hero – make a cape. I poked two holes in the paper and threaded yarn through them so we could tie the yarn in front and wear the paper like a cape. Then Nicholas got to color the picture of George Washington (which watching the School House Rock version of the American Revolution/No More Kings). Then he cut them out and glued them on our capes. Our capes were finished.

Step two for a super hero – make a hat. Our hats were headbands covered with cotton balls to mimic the funky wig that George Washington wore. Nicholas had fun making these with hot glue (I supervised). Our hats were finished.

Now that we were dressed, we had to read to find our what George Washington’s super power would be. We spent time reading these short stories about George Washington and then found out what his super power would be…..

George Washington’s super power was cutting trees down. I let Nicholas pick the super power, and this is what he decided.

We had to memorize some facts about George Washington. I chose the easiest facts from this list of facts about George Washington: He was the first President; he was a general in the Army; he never lived in the White House; he was president for 8 years; he had a wife named Martha.

Then we spent our computer time looking at these sites:

George Washington timeline

Presidents’ Secret History (by PBS kids)

It was a fun way to study a historical person.

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