Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Legends of Arthur and His Knights

One of the Books On Alice's Reading List for Second Grade was The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, a retelling of the Howard Pyle version of the tale and adapted by Tania Zamorsky.  There are actually many versions of this tale -even written in easier-to-read formats.  We also read, Arthur of Albion by John Matthews and Pavel Tatarnikov (this one was beautifully illustrated) and Knights of the Round Table by Gwen Gross.  Some of the tales are also told independently such as, "The Kitchen Knight - A Story of King Arthur" by Margaret Hodges and retold by Trina Shart or Young Guinevere by Robert San Souci.  If you'd like a digital take on Arthur, you might try this link when you are done, please let me know what you thought of it by adding a comment.

Before reading the Legends of King Arthur and his knights, you may want to cover a little information about Medieval Knights so your student(s) will have a firm grasp on related vocabulary and concepts regarding the chivalric code.  Knights will offer you the vocabulary (in italics) and links and resources you may desire to do just that.

At some point during a unit where you read about the legendary King Arthur, you'll probably want to discuss the differences and similarities between legend and myth.  To do so, the article, "Fiction or Biography? Legends of King Arthur" will provide helpful historical resources.

I believe it is great fun to have kids read a few legends and a few Tall Tales and compare.  Then, have kids turn their own life story into "Legend,"  OR if father's day is nearing, dedicate the story to Dad by turning him into a Legend for a fabulously fun Father's Day Gift.  Alice was still a bit to new to writing to get much out of her at the time of writing this article, but I will try again.

For us, most of the objectives while reading the stories were to learn more about characteristics of the characters within a story but the tales can be used to discuss plot, setting and themes as well.

Some generic questions to ask after you have read about King Arthur and his Knights that should work with any version you might choose to use.

  1. Name an important characteristic of Arthur.  Then list three things he did or said that demonstrate this quality.
  2. Which knight was your favorite?  Why?
  3. Which legend of the Knights was your favorite tale?  Why?
  4. Why is it important that Arthur's Table was round?
  5. Describe a lesson Arthur learned and how he learned it.
  6. Who was Merlin and what was his role in Arthur's Life?
  7. Name one Antagonist and describe at least one problem he/she caused for Arthur and how Arthur solved the problem.
  8. Name at least one of the Women in the life of Arthur and his Knights.  Describe her story.
  9. What rules were included in the code of chivalry the Knights of the Round Table followed.  Why were these rules important.
  10. Why do you think tales about Arthur and his Knights have been told for so many years?  Why do we still enjoy them?

Teen and Pre-teen:

After Reading some of the Tales with your preteen/teenager, you might want to checkout a book from this booklist to read.  Ask your child to defend how the book is an Arthurian Legend.  What similarities does the book have to the legends you read together?  What is the message of the newer book?  Does the newer story have any similar themes? characters? setting? plot? How does the book your child read differ? Which version does your child like better and why?  Just for fun, you might view some episodes of Merlin from the BBC.  I have not seen, "King Arthur" with Clive Owen, but it might be of interest as well.  I know Merlin is available on Netflix streaming.  No, Merlin does not follow the original legends even closely, but that is part of the fun and of course you can discuss comparisons as part of the experience.

Primary or Elementary:

For a full guide regarding King Arthur, the associated history and completing a unit regarding King Arthur and his knights, you will find this article quite useful.  This website has further links and information to use with your primary student while this website sums up the tales that are most popularly told about King Arthur (also at a primary level).  After we were done with all the reading, we also watched Disney's Sword in the Stone just for fun.  "The Sword in the Stone" is available through Netflix and, true to Disney fashion, tells the tales in an entirely different way to the legends.  It simply creates a great opportunity to ask your child to make comparisons.  Create a chart with two columns one titled "the same" and the other "different" or use a Venn Diagram with your little one.

More To Read:

If your late elementary/middle school child LOVES reading and wants to read more.  Try the series, "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper.  It has a Lexile score of around 830 (depending on the specific book) and is for readers generally between fifth and ninth grade.  You might also try books from the list linked here and here for your even slightly older kids.

Something To Watch:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - BBC Documentary retelling interspersed with explanation and wonderful complimentary visuals.  The film shows Simon Armitage as he journeys in the footsteps of Gawain and considers Gawain as a possible man and how it must have been for Gawain as well as the literary merits of original poem.  The video is probably well suited to teens, but is not likely to engage the interests of younger kids.  Preview the video to determine if you think it a good experience for your child and his/her particular interests and appropriateness of subject matter.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dealing with Perfectionism

What is wrong with striving for perfection? You might ask.  Well, it can also be crippling to anyone that is so worried about attaining perfection they won't even try something in the first place.  It can also truly slow down artistic processes to degree that means virtually nothing is happening AND for kids who are learning, striving for perfection can bring the learning process to a halt.  I spent three years teaching kids that carry a "gifted" label and a label attached to a variety of learning disorders. Almost every one of them struggled with perfectionistic tendencies that became disabling at times - it is an innate tendency in some kids.

It is especially a very common problem among gifted children.  There are a few things parents can do that can worsen the tendency when it already exists, create a tendency toward perfectionism where one did not exist before, or conversely, help their kids try, and succeed or fail with grace.

If you have a child that is overly focused on perfection or doesn't like to try things for fear of failure, here are a number of things you can try that might help to at least mitigate the problem if not do away with it entirely.

Create an Environment Focused on Effort:

Make sure that you are focused on his or her efforts and "journey" as opposed to accomplishments. The most obvious way to do this is first to ask the question, "did you do your best?" If she wins and/or has a great success at something, ask, "did you do your best?" If she can honestly say she did, celebrate with her. If she says no, say, "why not?" Do the same if she fails at something. "Did you do your best?" "Yes" - well, lets have your favorite pizza for dinner then."

Other, less obvious ways to create an effort - focused environment, include:

Minimize Praise and Critique:

Instead of praising your child for accomplishments, ask about his or her feelings in regard to that accomplishment, "what do you think about your soccer team's win today?" Likewise, if your child has had a failure, "What do you think about what happened today?" If the answer is, "I did my best, but I don't know what happened" you are receiving an invitation to offer constructive feedback. If your child feels he or she already knows what went wrong, let him or her make the appropriate adjustments - or at least lead the conversation.

Instead of praising or critiquing your child for something done, simply notice it non-evaluatively, "I noticed you controlled the ball five times today during the game."  If he feels that was an accomplishment, he'll feel good about your statement. On the other hand, if he feels he could have done better, he might say, "yeah I know, I held back." Now you know how your child feels about it and you can respond accordingly.

As an example, at Alice's first TKD tournament, she wound up having to spar against a beloved friend.  She still dominated the field but did tell me she hadn't kicked as hard as she can when I asked, "did you do your best."  The kids wear lots of padding and the way points are scored is by kicking hard enough there is a resulting sound that the judges hear.  She may not have won anyway, and it was a good match but she didn't do her best.  At the same time, her reason for not kicking hard was a good one, "I didn't want to hurt my friend."  She and I were able to talk about how the padding protects everyone and of being competitors on the mat and friends off the mat. 

Praise and Punish only Effort and even use that sparingly

When critique is required, try to offer her the chance to come up with the alternative action or attitude that will be more productive.   You can also often put it on yourself or as a standard in society instead of as if it is a problem with her.  State what the problem is, "It really bothers me when the house is a mess." or "people don't generally like to be laughed at like that."  Follow that with what you need your child to do starting with "I," "Therefore, I need you to keep the house a little cleaner."  or with the society "Friends and other people are more likely to appreciate it you offer help when they slip and fall."  Then, invite her to be part of the solution, "How can we work on helping you remember to keep the house clean together?" or "What can we do to help you feel less inclined to laugh when some one else slips and falls?"

Make Sure She Has Examples of Success After Failure

Include Stories from Fiction and From History

"Meet the Robinson's" and its message of "Keep Moving Forward" is a great one. We also refer to the "Up From the Ashes" song and scene from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" at our house.  Both movies show an inventor failing AND succeeding.  How many times did Babe Ruth strike out versus his Home Runs? Apparently Einstein was horrid in elementary school.   Thomas Edison tried TONS of other options before coming up with just the right filament for the light bulb, or what about Alexander Flemming and his chance discovery of Penicillium?  Michael Jordon once said,

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." 

Share things like this with your perfectionistic child often.

Include Examples from Your Own Life

Share your most embarrassing moments with your kids - couched with something good that came out of it - a lesson learned, a friend made . . .  Do the same with all the failures you've had and can share in this same kind of light.

Include Examples from your Child's Own Life:

Your child didn't always know how to use the potty, couldn't always dress him/herself or button buttons etc.   Practice had to happen first.  Even if you have to dig deep, make sure your child knows he or she has been through this before.  Every child will have something you can point to that needed practice for attainment.  The skill of tying shoes, playing an instrument, dribbling a basket ball. . .

Offer Chances to Fail in Private

Give challenges at home you know your child can handle, but your child isn't totally sure about.  For example, you might offer a book your child will think is a little too tough and say, "but I really think you'll like this story. What if we read it together? You read it to me and if you get stuck you can ask for my help." (I did this with my own daughter to get her to try reading chapter books - now it is hard to find good books, at the right level, in her areas of interest fast enough!)  Then, if something IS a challenge just be supportive through it.  At the end ask, "Did you do your best? and How did that feel?"

When Failures Occur, Treat them as A Learning Opportunity

Seriously, when your child fails at something - celebrate it! "Woo-hoo, a chance to learn something - okay what is it, what did you learn, or what did we learn from this one?" Don't be so over-the top that it feels cheesy or you will look like you are being patronizing, but genuinely empathize with the disappointment, embarrassment, whatever and then say, "But you know, the good news is, I BET there is something to be learned here - that's the way the greatest scientists see it anyway."

Teach and Model Positive Self Talk
Let your kids see you make mistakes and respond to them the way you wish they would respond to theirs: "Oh my gosh! What a mistake I made! Ah well, everyone does. I'm going to just keep moving forward" or, "I won't let it get me down" or, "Good thing I know mistakes are often a learning opportunity. what can I learn from this?"

Let your kids see you try something new and fail: "Oh, singing is So hard - my voice cracked all through my half hour lesson today. Ah well, I know if I keep practicing, I'll get it."

It will take time, but, overtime, these techniques along with just quality attention and time together will make a difference for your perfectionist kid.  He or she may still struggle with perfectionism, but it is a lot less likely to cripple him or her into doing nothing because of the fear of not doing it perfectly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Designing Your Own Gingerbread House

Our Treehouse
One favorite classic holiday activity many people enjoy is making gingerbread houses for the holiday.  Of course corporations have taken full advantage and you can now go buy baking molds, specialized cookie cutters and even pre-made, pre-baked kits that make it easy to slap a house together.  However, it is less expensive, requires more planning and creativity of your kids, and offers up measurement and other math skills practice opportunities when you plan and make your own.  Besides, designing your own can be really fun AND results in a unique house each year.  

We went with the Log Cabin style when Alice was three (shown below).  The advantage of using the log cabin style is that the sides of the house are stacked and built up a bit like Lincoln logs which makes things a lot easier for little hands.

When you make your own, you can create a log cabin, a western desert style house, something inspired by a favorite story, a famous landmark, or you can keep it traditional and go with either a Victorian or fairytale style house.

Here is how to make the "log cabin" style house: 

You'll want a large-ish square or rectangle for the roof.  Ours was about 5 x 7 inches or so.  Two right triangles of matching dimensions whose hypotenuse matches the "end" dimensions of your roof.     You'll also need to make the "logs."  Really these are just rectangles of gingerbread of different, but related sizes, and a  quantity of small squares.  

For the logs I recommend some of the logs match the dimensions of your roof in length.  If your roof is a rectangle, this will mean making logs to match BOTH the length and width of your roof.  You will also want logs that are about half the length of the longest logs, and logs about two thirds the length of the longest logs to allow for the creation of openings for windows and a doorway.   

You can plan it all out so you know how many of each you will need, but if you are doing this activity with your kids, some of them will break, some will get eaten and inevitably you will find you didn't have the right number anyway.  I suggest you just make lots of each size and let your kids "play" with the cookie sticks as though they are Lincoln Logs.  They'll enjoy eating the extras and the whole adventure will be a lot more fun for everybody.  

If you add one more piece that can act as the doorway by resting against the house where the "door" is, you can have a closed door as well, though this is certainly not necessary.  Decorate as you wish.  (This year, I'm hoping to incorporate left-over Halloween Candy that is still sitting around).

Gingerbread and Frosting Recipe and instructions

To Design almost any other Style of House:

This is by far the hardest way to make your house.  I highly recommend that you START SIMPLE!!!  You will need to sketch out how your house will look from all sides.  By doing this first, you can have a visual of the shapes that make up your house.  How many triangles will you need and what are their relative sizes?  

Then you'll need to test your design using cardboard.  In this way you can shave down edges, make appropriate measurements, make sure everything fits AND test out the general physics of your design.  This is the engineering stage.  Plan some time for it.  Construct your house so it can be deconstructed because you'll need the cardboard as patterns for sizing our your cookie pieces.  Later, you can reconstruct the cardboard house and "Cheat" by having the cardboard inside to help the structure hold strong as well - but don't tell any one I suggested that!
At left, you can see our very first ever, self designed GB house.  As you can see it is made up of VERY SIMPLE shapes.  Because we were entering it in a contest, we couldn't use the cardboard underneath so you can see right inside as well.   Pueblo style houses, four sided "box houses" like often come in basic kits, and simple A frames are all great "starter houses."

Once you have the cardboard version of your house constructed, mark the pieces to remind you which piece will be adjacent to which other pieces.  For example mark an A on the left side of the front wall and a B on the right.  On the adjoining wall, mark a B next to the B on the front piece and a C on the side opposite the B.  Continue in this way until all your pieces are marked.  You'll want to deconstruct your cardboard house so you can use the pieces as a patterns for your dough.  You'll also want to keep track of the dough pieces by placing foil markers under them with the same writing.  "Front," "Roof," etc. seem like they would be sufficient, but even a square won't always work when turned a different direction later unless you are incredibly precise while resizing the cookies immediately after taking them out of the oven.  You'll need to place the cardboard on the dough and trace around the edges of it cutting with a knife.  Sometimes the dough reshapes a little when you lift it onto the cookie sheet.  So I recommend a GIGANTIC spatula if you can find one for this purpose. 

Make Cardboard Forms First
Bake the dough at 350 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes.  When the dough comes out of the oven, you'll need to re-cut it using the cardboard pieces again before it cools enough to become hard.  However, if you move the dough too soon, it can also crack.  Wait about 2-3 minutes before moving the dough to the counter and resizing the dough.  That gigantic spatula will come in handy again here.  resizing and cutting the dough is a delicate procedure and requires caution. 

To resize your cookies, simply place your cardboard pieces on their matching cookies.  For any spots where the cookie has swollen, make appropriate adjustments with your knife.   You do have some time before the dough hardens to the point where this is likely to cause cracking, but not a LOT of time, so work efficiently.   If the dough does harden, you can score it on both sides where cuts are needed first.  Score many times and then treat it as though it is tile, but this increases the likelihood you will be re-baking your walls.

After allowing the cookies time to cool and harden you can use the recipe given on my other article about Gingerbread houses to glue the whole thing together.  As mentioned before, I suggest using your cardboard "test structure" under your cookie structure to help hold everything together unless you will be entering a contest with some rule against such a choice. 

Finish by decorating as desired!

Gingerbread Houses - A Recipe that Really Sticks

Of course making a gingerbread house is a great, classic holiday activity and these days you can purchase pre-made kits.  You can also get reusable molds and cutters (there is a link to one below).  Of course, doing it the old fashioned way and designing your own is still a super fun possibility.  Anyway you bake it, here is a recipe that works really well.

Little House in the Big Woods Inspired Alice for THIS creation
1 cup butter (room temp)
1 c sugar
1 c molasses
1 egg
1 tbs vinegar
1 1/2 c sifted flour
1 tbs baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt

Place butter in a bowl and cut in sugar until it is a mixture of pea - sized balls or smaller.
boil molasses and pour into butter and sugar mix. Add vinegar and blend.  Cool.

Add egg and blend.

In a separate bowl sift all the remaining dry ingredients together.  Then add butter and sugar mixture.  Refrigerate overnight.

Roll out and bake at 350 degrees for 8 - 10 minutes

3 tbsp Meringue Powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Mix ingredients together at high speed and use immediately (will harden into a glue-like substance quickly.  Add a few drops of warm water as needed to soften if it gets too hard too quickly).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Toddlers and Cleaning Up

Many parents sincerely struggle with how to get their kids (specifically toddlers) to clean up after themselves at the end of a period of playing.  It is often a tough skill to teach and even those kids that at first think it is fun are likely to protest at some point in their lives.  I was a preschool teacher that dealt with the issue frequently with little ones.

Some Things for Parents and Guardians to Consider:

Your two or three year old is capable of A LOT more than you may realize, AND A LOT less capable than you might realize all at the same time.

A toddler is capable of picking up a toy and putting it in a bin, but may not be fully capable of sorting out one type of toy from another EVERY time.  Even if your child is good at sorting by colors and shapes, sorting by TYPE is actually somewhat different and also has to be practiced and learned.  Sorting skills can make cleaning up more challenging than you realize if different things go in different bins.  However your toddler CAN learn this and a two or three year old should be able to be expected to clean up after himself if he has first been taught how.

A toddler's attention span is small and they are easily overwhelmed.  Sometimes too many toys out can create a situation where a child can't understand where to begin. 

Transitions are often tough for this age-group.  Do you have trouble getting your child to switch from play time to bath time but then when it is time to get out of the path your child is again reluctant?  That is because your child has trouble with transitioning from one activity to the next (completely natural) not necessarily because he or she is fighting the bed-time routine.  The same is true for clean-up.  Going from play time to clean-up time poses a challenge simply in regard to the fact that it is a transition.

Some Techniques that are Likely to make A BIG DIFFERENCE:

Avoidance of Overwhelming Messes:

Own fewer toys.  Kids love real-world play so as much as you can allow them access to the real thing, do so.  Alice loved her kitchen toys and they have been useful in teaching her certain kitchen skills, but as she cooks and bakes more and more on her own, the toys simply become less and less relevant.  It won't be long before they are handed down to her cousin I'm sure.  You can also be choosy about the quality of the toy that comes in.  We DO NOT ALWAYS get the children's meal when we are out and instead frequently get two adult meals (for the three of us) and a side and share.  The children's meal becomes an occasional treat when the toy offered looks like it might actually be fun.  Instead of a toy drum set, use old pots and pans with wooden spoons.  Instead of a toy house or tent inside, occasionally get out all the blankets, rearrange your furniture and build one together for them to play in.  Fewer toys means less to store and less to make a mess with.  It also encourages other, more authentic activities anyway.

Clean up more frequently.  Instead of one big clean up right before you leave or at the end of the day before bed, have a clean-up session periodically throughout the day.  If you notice the play area starting to look like a mess, call for a clean up and then just let them start over again.

You might try a rule where he can only have one - maybe two kinds of toys out at a time.  If he is playing with his train and train set, those have to be put away before he can switch to blocks.  This way there is less to clean up and less sorting involved.  This rule helps in avoiding problems related to being overwhelmed by the mess that has been made.  If you adopt this rule, I suggest following the spirit of the rule, rather than the letter of the rule though.  Some toys combine quite nicely - especially as they move into more imaginary play.  For example, if a child has a train set out and wants to build a city around the tracks, blocks are a natural toy to use and mix with the tracks.  At two and the beginning of three, Alice was allowed one toy at a time.  As she moved through into the older half of three and into fours and fives, she was allowed two types of toys at a time, as long as both sets were being used.  If toys that were not being used were left laying out she was asked to stop her play to clean up the other toy.  Now that she is six, we are a lot more loose about the rule.  She can have ten types of toys out if they are all being used together (but she is also a lot more capable of cleaning up a lot more mess on her own too). 

Dealing with Transition Challenges:

Give a five and 3 minute warning before ending play time to help in transitioning.  "Okay you have five more minutes before it is time to clean up."  "Okay, now you have three more minutes."

Include it in a routine or two.  Have a pre-meal routine that includes tidying up the toys, washing hands and setting meal ware on the table.  Incorporate clean up into bed time and pre-leaving the house routines as well.  This way they learn to expect it every time.   

Teaching the Requisite Skills:

Make cleaning up something you do together.  This means you are modeling the proper behavior for your child.  At first, you might put away ten toys for your child's every one toy, but if he or she is picking up a few things, that is progress compared to not cleaning up at all.  Gradually, you can expect your child to pick up more and more of the toys.

If you have different bins for different toys, it saves hassles in many respects but creates a sorting problem for your child.  Realize that toddlers do not yet know how to read, so even if you have labeled everything you have not helped your child.  Use picture labels.  Take a photo of the dolls and doll stuff to put on the doll bin and a separate photo of a bunch of cars and piece of car track to put on the car bin.  Even still, be patient, because they are still having to use matching skills which are also new, but you are then giving your child a chance at getting it right.  If things don't exactly end up in the right bin every time, celebrate the effort your child made and move on.

It also Helps to Make a Game of It:

Kids learn from the games they play.  Learning should be fun and even chores can be rewarding with the right attitude.  Do you want to do drudgery?  I don't.

Sing a song, "Clean up Clean up everybody every where, Clean up clean up, everybody do your share". is a common one (just make up your own tune).  There is also, "Whistle While you Work" from Snow White and "Happy Working Song" from Enchanted.

See who can get the largest number of toys cleaned up in 60 seconds.

Can your child "beat the clock?" set a timer and celebrate together with cheers and dancing if it is done before the clock beeps.

Make it a learning practice game:  Okay, how long will it take to clean up all the red cars?  Can we do it in less time than the blue cars took?

If these methods don't work, THEN as a LAST RESORT

Generally, punitive styles do not really motivate kids with cleaning up.  Especially at the toddler stages - they simply do not have a good enough grasp of cause and effect yet.  For that reason, it is probably best to not push so hard you wind up in a fight about it.  At three, if the child stops cleaning up, you can probably also stop and say, "Oh, I can only clean up when you are cleaning too!  Bummer you won't be able to play unless this gets done, I guess we'll just sit here."

For older kids you can of course,  try the more punitive method of removing toys.  The best idea for doing this that I've seen is where a "Toy Void" is created.  You might have a big clear bin the child isn't allowed to get into (keep it out of reach but in sight).  Toys you have to clean up for your child that is a mature two, three, or four (or older) go into this bin.  In order to get the toys back, the child has to clean up his own toys, PLUS help with something extra.  For each time the child cleans up her own toys and does a little something extra he or she earns a toy back.  The idea that he can earn toys back from the toy void is far better than just giving the toys back after a set number of days, because it creates a situation where the child is learning that he or she has to rectify the problem that caused the toys to be lost in the first place.

With any of these methods consistency, patience, understanding and scaffolding skills are all key components.  Hopefully, your child will learn to clean up with you and clean up time can be its own form of fun too on most days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Classics Kids Should Know: Papa Joe's Music

Papa Joe's actual name was Franz Joseph Haydn, but his students, including both Beethoven and Mozart would have referred to him fondly as Papa Joe.  Haydn had a great sense of humor and was a kindly mentor and instructor as well as an incredibly talented musician and composer.

Three pieces kids might really appreciate by this great musician are his "Surprise Symphony," "Toy Symphony," and "The Clock."

Surprise Symphony

SOME people have always had trouble staying awake while visiting a concert hall where a symphony is being played.  Haydn used to get really annoyed that people would fall asleep while music was being played, so he developed his symphony number 94 as a joke for these sleepers.  

Listen to the Surprise Symphony, and I think you will understand what the thinking was.  

Can your child listen enough times to begin to anticipate the surprise?  How many times is the audience meant to be surprised? 

Toy Symphony

No one REALLY knows who wrote the Toy symphony for sure.  It may have been Haydn, it may have been Mozart or it may even have been written by another.  However, it certainly fits with Haydn's style and sense of humor and so I include it here.  Young children will have a blast listening for the cuckoo and ratchet sounds that help to give the symphony the sense of toys at play and the fun spirit that makes it so appropriate for the young.

Can your kids identify the gears?  Do they hear the cuckoo clock?  Can they identify any other sounds like the toy trumpet?  Watch while the musicians play.  The ones with the funny hats have highlighted instruments that were not typically considered a part of the symphony regulars.

The Clock

The Clock is so named because, well, listen to the second movement and you'll know.  It will take a minute, but kids will be able to identify the reason too.  Let them dance around to the tic-tock beat and really feel the clear steady beat to the piece.  The official name of The Clock, is Symphony No. 101.  This is a great one for young kids because they can really hear the beat providing you with a great example of "beat" for the young.

Franz Joseph Haydn

Classics for Kids did two audio descriptions about Franz Joseph Haydn I suggest if you are studying the composer with your kids.  They are:  Father of the Symphony and Franz Joseph Haydn.  Of course, he and his music are also discussed in other audio files on the site.  Obviously, there are tons of other compositions to check out by Haydn, please explore and let us know which pieces are your kid's favorites.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dissonance and Beethoven's Gas

You know how eight and nine year olds LOVE gross things like burping, farting, pooping etc?  Well, I have a great way for you to take advantage of this fascination with the disgusting to engage your child in Beethoven.

First to Explain for the Educator's Benefit:

During his life (years) Beethoven developed serious gastrointestinal trouble that caused him to hiccough, burp and release gas at the other end of the system frequently.  He was also extremely depressed during this period of his life, but managed to develop his symphony number 2 in comic relief of his own ailments.

Beethoven had a pretty rough life.  He was abused and even by standards of the day his childhood was considered to be a rough one.  He did not look like he is often depicted and was rather ugly and considered to have horrible hair (again even in his day).  It was his talent that would get him women, power and money but then in 1796 he began to have ringing in his ears.  By October of 1802  knew his hearing loss will be progressively worse and was incurable.   He wrote out his will and considered suicide in 1802, but that was also the year he wrote his second symphony (including its fourth movement) - one with a pretty upbeat sound and some odd little dissonances within it.  Once you know that in 1802, Beethoven had a really bad case of gas, the odd little dissonances start to make a lot of sense.  Burps, rumbles, you name it - he struggled with it.  Well, if you can't laugh at yourself who can you laugh at?  He put all his bodily movements right into his music.  WHAT A SENSE OF HUMOR this guy had!  (Perhaps it was "Papa Joe's" influence).  For all its crassness, his composition is truly beautiful and entertaining with its unexpected little twists (well, some are less little and more gigantic) throughout.

Beethoven's Symphony no. 2, fourth movement

Listen to the piece of music first and identify its first phrase has a "hiccough."  For yourself.  Listen to the moments when things are "moving" along pretty smoothly and the interruptions of further "hiccoughs," and "burps."  You can even hear the anxiety that comes before a troublesome bout with his intestines.  It is truly storytelling in music at its finest AND its grossest!

For more information about Beethoven and access to his music for purchase click here.

The Lesson

Once you've listened and identified the hiccoughs and burps to which I refer for yourself, play the movement once for your kids (without the background info).  Ask them what they thought and just hear them describe how they are reacting to the music.  You might prompt them to describe in more detail by asking if they heard any "strange sounds."  Ask them to hum favorite melodies within the music (or at least a melody that stood out if they won't agree that any of it is valid of being called a "favorite")

Before you play the piece a second time, describe dissonance to your kids.   Dissonance is the word we use to describe sounds that when made together seem to clash and are as awful for the ear as wine, pistachio, canary and ruby would be if all four of those colors were put together in one ensemble.
If you listen to the fourth movement from his sixth symphony (click here) you will hear a lot of dissonance.

Now, listen to the fourth movement of his second symphony again.  This time, specify that your kids should jump, raise their hands or in some way signal to you when they hear dissonance.  After they've heard the piece a second time, read the biographical information on this link OR listen to this short audio biography for kids together.  Add in the information about Beethoven's intestinal troubles.

Explain to your students or children that Beethoven used a combination of dissonance, disjunction (where notes are far apart) and staccato (where notes are played in such a way that they sound like a jump or a skip and end abruptly) to depict his own gas in the music you have been listening to.  Wait for the laughter and jokes to die down and then ask them to tally how many burps, hiccoughs and, well, other "gaseous moments" they can hear in the piece while you listen to it a third time.  Trust me, your kids will never again have trouble remembering who Beethoven is, or in particular, the fourth movement of his second symphony.

Of course you can continue on and learn even more about Beethoven by listening to more short lectures about Beethoven (These are great, for example, "Roll over Beethoven" discusses uses of Beethoven's music in contemporary culture and includes some funny jokes), Listening to Beethoven's Wig (a funny album that adds lyrics to Beethoven's masterful and most well known work to make it funny and memorable for your kids), and hearing more of his music.  You may also have noticed the little quiz from "Classics for Kids" you can have your kids fill out.


I would like to extend a message of gratitude to Professor Robert Greenberg for the golden nugget of information about Beethoven that made this lesson idea a possibility.  I first heard about Beethoven's gas problems and their expression in his music from Prof. Greenberg's course, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

It worked!

"It worked!" Alice exclaimed as she walked up to the back door this morning.

"What worked?" I responded.  Then, before she could answer I saw exactly what I needed to know.  There was our cat squaring off with the dog from the neighbor's house behind us on our back patio.  The cat, tail bushed out and big hissed and advanced a hopping step forward.  The dog (whose name is Spot) crouched down, haunches up and tail wagging excitedly, yipped playfully.   The dog was actually smaller than the cat so it was more comical than scary, but none-the-less the cat was freaked out and the dog was trying to play in the cat's territory (our back yard).

Alice had been out back on her own for a little while yesterday and she loves the dogs on the other side of the back fence.  She plays with them through the fence, talks to them and even manages games of fetch.  They are sweet little things that want to play, but our backyard is not their home, we are not their owners AND it would be easy for them to escape our backyard into the bigger world with all its traffic dangers and what-not.

Unbeknownst to me, while playing games with the dogs, Alice had pulled rocks out from the bottom of the fence in order to allow them to dig a hole under it so they could play with her on her side of the fence.  I had seen her carrying rocks when I'd peaked through the window, but didn't consider the rocks might be from the other side of a neighbor's fence since our yard has tons of rocks and she often collects them and builds things with them.  The success of the littlest of the two dogs in achieving entrance to our backyard was what elicited Alice's, "It worked!" and caused me to connect the dots about the origins of Alice's rock finds.

Laughing inside, but very stern on the outside, I first asked Alice how she would feel if the dogs wandered out of our yard into the street (our gate pushes open easily) and got lost because they were no longer contained in the safety of their yard?  She looked at her feet and muttered, "not very good." and I said, "well, luckily that didn't happen, so it will all work out.  You have to learn to think these things through and your parents have had practice.  That is why you have parents here to help.  Next time you decide to alter a structure, talk to one of us about your plans K?"

We now are about to head out back and I will be watching with an Eagle-eye while she replaces every stone.  She also had to miss out on a mid-day playdate with a friend.  Not because she is in trouble, but because this is how natural consequences work.  The hole has to be fixed and we still have to get schoolwork done too.  Its a bummer but a good lesson at the same time.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Big Miracle

This heartwarming tale is available for rental at your local Redbox now.  If you missed it in the theaters (as we did), I highly suggest it now.  The movie offers up a fairly close to reality tale about three whales trapped in the ice in 1988 and the effort to save the whales from their icy trap.

The lessons to be learned from the movie include some tidbits of information about whales and a little history, but more importantly, how disparate groups can find ways to overcome their differences to achieve a goal together.  Perhaps our political leadership (and I am speaking of candidates and incumbents here) should be forced to sit on a couch and watch together, but I digress.

Alice saw the movie during her overnight at the whale museum and has been asking to see it again ever since.  When we saw it available, we rented it and I'm really glad we did.  She enjoyed it all over again.

Link to IMDb movie information and cast list

Read an article summarizing the true tale

Anchorage News Photo from 1988

Cambell Plowden's (Greenpeace Coordinator) Take on the True Story

Fairbank's Daily News

25+ Picture Books Every Child Should Read

Trying to decide on the best picture book to get that niece or nephew or for the baby to be?  Here is a list of some classics that every child should have at some point.

First of all Authors:
  1.  Anything Dr. Seuss, but especially Horton Hears a Who, The Sneetches, The Lorax, Bartholomew and the Oobleck and Oh the Places will you Go.  You might like to check out "The Bippolo Seed Collection" a post-mortem collection of stories printed in newspapers but never in books.  
  2. We ADORE Mo Willems in this house.  Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and The Knuffle Bunny Series are both spectacular, but we also enjoy the Elephant and Piggy books, Cat the Cat books and The Naked Mole Rat.
  3. But Not The Hippopotamus and Oh my, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs were handed down to us and we so enjoyed them, we began looking for more books by Sandra Boynton.  She also wrote Barnyard Dance and Barnyard Bath, Hippos go Berserk, Hey Wake Up, Dog Train (really a song book she illustrated), What's the Matter Little Pookie and many, many, more.
  4. Anything written or illustrated by Eric Carle: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Very Quiet Cricket, A House for Hermit Crab, Pancakes Pancakes, A tiny Seed, Brown Bear Brown Bear, The Very Busy Spider . . .
  5. Maurice Sendak didn't only write Where the Wild Things Are.  He also illustrated the beautiful and wonderful stories of Little Bear, Is responsible for all the books in The Nutshell Library and Zlateh the Goat (another book that should not be missed).  It is almost as though he should have been named Midas Sendak - anything he touched was golden. 
  6. Margaret Wise Brown is probably best known for Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, but she wrote hundreds of wonderful books including The Little Island and Big Red Barn which also definitely belong on this list.
  7. Beatrix Potter is well known for good reason, but aside from the tales of rabbits and Forest critters such as those about Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and the Flopsy Bunnies; Mrs. Tittlemouse and Jeremy Fisher and of course Gemima Puddleduck.  Beatrix also wrote the Tailor of Gloucester, Two Bad Mice and Wag by Waal - all fabulously engaging tales.
  8. Mem Fox wrote the beloved Koala Lou and Possum Magic along with other wonderful books such as Guess What (which appears on challenged books lists), and Night Noises.
  9. Shel Silverstein is a poet and author best known for The Giving Tree and his collections such as Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Lafcadio and The Missing Piece are also wonderful and shouldn't be forgotten. 
  10. Finally, Ezra Jack Keats also can't be missed.  With winners like, Goggles and The Snowy Day his books continue to help our multi-cultural world grow in understanding toward one another while simply entertaining.


  1. The Hello Goodbye Window by Chris Raschka
  2. Drummer Hoff by Barbara Emberly
  3. Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
  4. Joseph had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback
  5. Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully
  6. Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy
  7. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  8. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema
  9. Tar Beach by Faith Ringold
  10. A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams
  11. Always Room for One More by Nonny Hogrogian
  12. The Sign of the Seahorse by Graeme Base
  13. Stone Soup by Marcia Brown
  14. St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges
  15. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper.
Of course there are many more books that are also wonderful tales, but these are some of the ones that have been tried and true favorites in my house, classroom, and the homes of the little ones I have cared for.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Outdoor Education in the Snow

As we move into winter, it is still important to get outdoors at least some of the time.  Here, you see Alice getting some help fixing her gloves with her "papa" in the snow.  There are all the typical fun things to do in the snow like build a snowman, have a snowball fight and make snow angels, but even these super fun activities can get pretty old quickly.  I know getting outdoors everyday might be asking too much for a time of year when the days are short and darkness comes early, preparing for the cold makes it take longer to get ready for the outdoors and there is more to "clean up" when you come back in.  In addition, you are busy with holiday baking and other preparations, but it is so worth it when you consider the positive impact the outdoors will have on the mood of your kids and yourself.  

Most of us in the Western States particularly enjoy the thrill of downhill skiing and snow boarding, but cross country skiing is a great replacement to hiking this time of year.  There is host of choices when it comes to winter sports to try if you have the means and time for a vacation together but I'm talking about quick activities you can do right at home (assuming it is cold enough outside).

Here are some other things you can try:

  1. Build a snow fort or Igloo.  This is a great trial and error lesson in building and engineering if you have enough snow to do it.  Take photos and record your efforts each day you try together.  Once inside, put together a "journal" like a good scientist would recording what worked and what didn't.  There is a Curious George episode you can watch together for the very young.  This is only a portion of the actual episode, but I'm pretty sure you can borrow the episodes from Netflix or maybe it'll even be showing soon.  You might also try hulu.
  2. If the roads are safe, drive to a wooded area and take cover from the wind and chill in the trees while you read, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".  Sit quietly and just listen to the winter woods for a few minutes.  Instruct your children to really think about what they hear and see.  Then, while you drive home, ask them to write a story, poem or description about what the woods are like in the quiet of winter.  
  3. Go on a footprint walk.  Even though many animals migrate or hibernate through the winter, there are still plenty around and on the move foraging this time of year as well.  Find an area where you can go for a short easy hike and find as many footprints as you can while you walk (snowshoe, or ski) the area.  sketch the shapes of the footprints, or if you can, photograph the footprints (pretty tough to do, but possible if the light is just right).
  4. Look up A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes - This is an old book now, but its a good one for learning about how to do nature observations in winter and getting fresh ideas for things you can look for.  Look for wasp or midge "apartments" on dried goldenrod stems sticking out above the snow.  Draw twigs and branches you see while you are outdoors with your kids.  Go bird watching.  Learn which birds are still in the area, put out a little seed for them and then sit very still and wait for them to come.  Identify those that you see. .  .
  5. From the cozy indoors, sit near the biggest window in your space and have the kids do some free writing about how winter makes them feel.  For older kids, ask them to go back through the free writing that was completed and incorporate some of those feelings into a poem that uses winter symbols metaphorically to illustrate their feelings about winter.
  6. Have your kids spend ten minutes outside looking for 5 "winter symbols" they can sketch quickly.  When they come in, they can turn their sketches into drawings while sipping on some cocoa - to make the cocoa really special, drop a peppermint stick in it.
  7. Go people watching.  Find a somewhat sheltered park bench or place to sit in a public space.  Draw people passing buy in their winter wear or looking into a shop window decorated for the holidays, describe the people you see to illuminate mood.  Do the people shuffle or do they glide?  Are they hunched over and looking down, or are the briskly walking along erect and smiling?
  8. Spend at  4-6 consecutive weeks one day/week noting when the sun rose, when it set and how high in the sky it appeared at noon.  
  9. Go out at least one evening after dark during the full moon and draw the winter you see as it looks lit in silver instead of gold.
  10. Decorate an outdoor tree (even if it is a small palm tree).  You can make snowflakes out of foil or use outdoor lights and decor you already own (or both) if you are worried about sentimental decorations being ruined in the weather.  You don't have to decorate for Christmas either.  Hanukkah and Kwanzaa both also occur in December.  Use decor that matches your family's religion's nearest holiday in time.  For example, blue and gold decor with menorahs will work well for Hanukkah or green and red candle decorations for Kwanzaa.  Hindu? hang lights to celebrate Diwali and put up a laminated sign about the holiday for non-Hindi neighbors. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Secret is Out - Santa Claus

So, Sadly, my daughter figured out about Santa today.  She was actually pretty calm about it and didn't seem too distraught about things.  I think she really had it figured out long ago but hadn't really built up the courage to ask yet.  Anyway, it made me remember this article I wrote a few years back when a niece of mine had figured things out.

My niece has grown up and figured out about Santa.  Of course both she and my sister-in-law are feeling pretty devastated about the whole thing. Luckily, I have not yet had to face this particular question, but I know the day will come and, like my sister-in-law was, when asked directly I want to be honest. of course I also don't want the answer to feel like a devastating blow to my child. I thought this may become a concern for some of you as well. I know how my parents dealt with it with my sister and I but I was hoping everyone would be willing to weigh in. The more ideas, the more likely everyone will find something that works for them.

My first thought was to do what my parents did which was to tell me about St. Nicholas. How he would sneak into poor children's homes and put a little gold in the bottom of socks hanging by the fireplace to dry out (he actually didn't do this for all children, in reality he only did this for girls who were about to be of marrying age and wouldn't have anything for a dowry without a little help, but that detail was probably unimportant to a seven-year-old). They then told me that when St. Nicholas got too old he asked the parents and communities surrounding children to help carry on his good work and that was the way it had gone ever since.  The tale about St. Nicholas also stresses that he attempted to do his good deeds in secret.  The idea being that a good deed is an even better deed when we don't have to boast that we've done it.  In giving St. Nicholas the credit now, it is like we are honoring him for having kept it a secret when it was him doing the giving.  With this idea in mind, my parents made it my job to keep the magic alive for my little sister (and other children) until they figured it out themselves.

My sister-in-law's thought was, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" - the movie. This great classic stresses the SPIRIT behind St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, etc. and discusses how he is real in the joy of the season and the hearts of all those who believe in giving to others etc. etc. It might be a soothing thing to watch and reaffirm the existence of Santa even if Santa is not a jolly old elf with a nose like a cherry and a stomach like a bowl full of jelly.  I guess when the day comes with Alice, I figure my hubby and I will likely come up with a combination of things.

Any other suggestions or ideas?  What would, or did you do?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Kindergarten Book List

These are the books we read together for Literature and Comprehension as well as for Geography Lessons.

My Black Book of Colors by Rosana Faria Menina Cottin
Over in the Meadow
My Five Senses by Margaret Miller
The Ant and the Grasshopper by Luli Gray
Atlantis: The legend of a Lost City by Christina Balit
The Beggar's Magic as retold by Margaret and Raymond Chang
Little Critter: Lost Dinosaur Bone by Mercer Mayer
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Sobodkina
Stone Soup
Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

Fairy Tales:
The Emperor's New Clothes
The Elves and the Shoemaker
Princess Furball
The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Retelling Fairy Tales - Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood as retold in the Starbright Foundation's "Once Upon a Fairytale"
Lon Po Po: A Red Riding-Hood Tale from China by Ed Young
Little Red Snapperhood by Neal Gilbertson
Flossie and the Fox by Patricia McKissack

Hans Christian Anderson -
The Little Match Girl
The Ugly Duckling
The Real Princess
The Steadfast Soldier

Wanted: Children -
Tom Thumb as retold by Jesse Watson
The Gingerbread Man
Little Oh
The Sugar Child

Beatrix Potter -
Tale of Peter Rabbit
Tale of Benjamin Bunny
Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies
Two Bad Mice
The Tale of Johnny Town

Australia -
Possum Magic by Mem Fox
Koala Lou by Mem Fox
Wombat Walkabout by Carol Diggory Shields
Biggest Frog in Australia by Susan Roth

Europe -
The Boy Hero of Harlem
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
The Story of Ferdinand by Robert Lawson
Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leadhaus
Cinderella by Charles Perrault

Asia -
The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese
The Tongue Cut Swallow
Tiki Tiki Tembo as retold by Arlene Mosel
Yeh Shen: The Chinese Cinderella as retold by Ai-Ling Louie

Africa -
A Story a Story by Gail Haley
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aarderna
The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters as retold by John Steptoe (A Cinderella Tale from Zimbabewe)

We used Bob's Books, a number of "I Can Read" books and Dr. Seuss as reading practice for Alice to read to us.

Grattitude Box

Who's it for?
The whole family will be able to enjoy looking at the box, and a preschooler can certainly learn from using the box, but the craft itself is probably best reserved for slightly older kids (first grade or so).  

What's It For?
The idea is to start using it right on November first.  As the month progresses you clip things for which you are grateful to the box each day of the month leading up to thanksgiving.  It acts as a countdown to thanksgiving and then, when all the clips are full you have 25 items (or so, depending on the month) to be thankful for on thanksgiving day!  Since it is also a box, the clips can easily store away inside the box until next year when you can start all over again.

Things you need:  
- Craft sticks - large size (Popsicle sticks).
- an old cocoa box, coffee can, or other container with a snap, on lid that is large enough to hold     approximately 30 clothespins,  
- 30 clothespins.
- small decorative items to use on the pins of your choosing (we used silk leaves, stickers glued to a craft foam sheet, and buttons in fall colors.
-Rubber bands
- Glue (hot glue might be a little quicker and easier, but Elmer's all purpose or a generic brand is safer and more accessible to the younger kids. 

What to Do: 
1.  Clean the box.
2.  Glue the craft sticks around the box making sure to align them so they do not interfere with the lid.
3.  Place rubber bands over craft sticks at top and bottom (and middle if needed) to help hold them in place until the glue dries thoroughly.  While this is done a younger child can glue decorations onto the clothespins.  It is important the child be old enough not to eat the buttons and small decor items! It is also important that he or she understand to only put one bead of glue along one side of the clothespin.  Let dry.  

Note: if you are using stickers on foam sheets, they don't stick well
for long - I recommend glue for these too.

4.  Add a few more craft sticks, strategically to create spacers.  These will create space between a ribbon and the container leaving you room for a second place to clip your clothespins in a later step.  See photo to right.  Allow project to dry.

5. Place drops of glue on the "spacer" craft sticks in a horizontal line around the center of the box and then place a ribbon over these glue dots.  Tie tightly and allow for dry time.  Place box lid inside box, and position clothespins around box lip and ribbon (one for each day remaining until Thanksgiving).  Add a gratitude note daily to a clothespin until Thanksgiving day.  Enjoy your month of grateful thoughts.

Decorate the Clothespins if you Wish
This project can be adjusted to act as a countdown calendar to any holiday or an advent calendar (In the case of use as an advent calendar, place the notes on before hand with reminders about holy days and traditions, and things you need to do as a family to be ready for the holiday).

Obviously you will choose a different color and decor scheme depending on the holiday chosen, but the same basic idea and procedures are still in play in these circumstances.

It can also be adjusted to be a chore assigner.  Choose weekly chores and make sturdy cards with one chore on one side.  Clip the cards to the clothespins so your kids can't see the chores from which they are choosing.  Each child pulls a chore card and that is the chore that child is in charge of on that day.  The card then goes in the box until the following week.  Do this each day until all the weekly chores have been completed.  No more arguments with you about whether your choice was "fair" or not.  You can color - code the card for different age levels if your have multiple ability levels.  You would simply color the side of the cards that does not have the chore on it according to whatever age ranges you feel fit your kids and your family needs best.  For example, Kids 3-5 might have blue, while kids 5-9 would have green and kids 10 and older could have yellow. 

Have fun!  I'd love to hear your thoughts after you've given it a go and know what you used the project idea for  with your family.