Archive for the ‘homeschool’ Category

Cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningIf you took World History in high school, your experience was probably like mine: the course was miles wide and only about an inch deep. This has everything to do with the amount of material that has to be covered, even over the course of an entire academic year. Therefore, I found Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning an excellent read. As the title indicates, this Timothy Snyder work covers one of the worst times in the history of our world.

This is a hard read because it is information dense. I’ve made a note to myself to go back through this book and take more elaborate notes for review and comparison because there’s just that much. However, it is definitely worth the read because Snyder covers so much that isn’t covered in typical history courses nor in most video programs on the Holocaust. For instance, right from the start Snyder traces the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party as a whole. Certain key ideas go all the way back to Germany’s former colonization of Africa and some of the actions of Hitler and Germany mirror actions from that previous time. Another example is an exploration of why Poland should have been Germany’s ally and not the Soviet Union. Snyder then covers the events and differences in the beliefs about the state which led to the opposite, with Stalin initially being Hitler’s ally and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
One of the interesting perspectives reinforced in the early part of the book is how much of Germany’s actions (and Hitler’s thinking) was about land. My old American History instructor used to tie most of America’s actions to a pursuit of more land. It was so common a theme (think Manifest Destiny) that she would often exclaim, “Land!” when discussing motivations. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase was about land. Jefferson struggled with it because he couldn’t find anything in the US Constitution which specifically gave the President the authority to make such an acquisition, but the deal was just too good to pass up! And in reality, the colonization of America in general was about land. Hitler saw a need for the expansion of Germany for more farmland and his ideology was completely fine with the idea of seizing that land from the “lesser race” even if that meant their complete extermination. The parallels to America are not accidental because Hitler saw what the USA did to Native American tribes, both through warfare and by forced exile to west of the Mississippi River, as an example of how Germany should act. And in Hitler’s mind, there was Germany (and possibly England and the USA) and there was everyone else. The everyone else had no rights, not even to life, and definitely no ownership over resources if Germans needed/wanted them.
If I have a complaint, it’s found in the Epilogue (titled Conclusion: Our World). There the author tries to link climate change with a recurrence of events leading up to and including the Holocaust because a leader will be able to spin similar ideology as Hitler did. Logically, this doesn’t follow. That a shortage of resources or perceived need might lead to such a dictator is not only plausible but we’ve seen that played out numerous times in history. However, such a leader doesn’t need Global Warming to generate that lack of resources. One only has to look at situations like Burma/Myanmar or North Korea today to see that. Also, if the concern is about food, there’s that general concern as the population of the planet increases. This is a concern regardless if Global Warming forecasts are correct.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. The complaint aside, there’s a wealth of information found in this one source that goes beyond what most folks know about the history of the Holocaust. There’s that old maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and with something as horrid as the Holocaust, we don’t want to repeat those series of events again. Looking at what led up to the Holocaust allows us to build defenses and warnings for events which might cause us to follow a similar road. Therefore, Snyder’s Black Earth is worth the read.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

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GundamBeamSaberRecently, Lockheed Martin announced plans for a compact fusion engine, one it believes can be developed possibly in the next 5-10 years. As soon as I heard the announcement, my mind went to a series of Japanese manga and anime, all around “mobile suits” called Gundams. Ever since the first Mobile Suit Gundam, the multiple series have produced both scientific and government inquiry into the possibility of producing a Gundam. There are a lot of limiters, but the biggest one is the power source. If a compact fusion engine becomes viable, it increases the viability of a real Gundam.

In reality, we may never see a mobile suit that approaches the capability of a Gundam. The cost is prohibitive. Still, it’s incredible to dream about. To get to the point where you could conceivably build a Gundam, there’s a lot of math, science, and engineering involved. When you’re a homeschool family like mine is, especially when you have children already absorbed into Gundam, this is a useful dream. Ultimately, it means what are typically banal subjects for a lot of students can be turned into opportunities to build towards the possibility of the dream.

That’s where I’m taking it. When I first proposed the idea to my two high school boys, their eyes lit up. Slogging through Calculus and Calculus-Based Physics and college-level biology isn’t very exciting to them. However, couched in terms of Gundam, and in seeing the possibility of how to make a Gundam, well, that’s a different story entirely. This should be fun and challenging.

As far as homeschooling is concerned, it’s one of the freedoms we do have. We can consider projects and learn based on them. In this case, we’re talking about something that all of us may be working on for years to come, because it would indeed be wonderful to have the knowledge to actually design and build a Gundam. I don’t have that knowledge now. Therefore, it’s not just a challenge to my children, it’s a challenge to me as well.

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Library!I was recently having a conversation with a co-worker about the public library near our work. I had to take some library books back and he went along for the walk. After I dropped off the books at the return, I showed him around the building, pointing out the various resources. He was amazed. Libraries had changed greatly from when he was back in school. I then recalled I had a similar conversation with some other folks I worked with who also didn’t realize how much the library had to offer. For instance, my particular public library offers these in addition to the regular physical books:

I won’t  go into detail on the classes and groups that meet, everything from sewing to how to build your resume. Altogether, libraries today provide a whole lot more resources than they used to. As technology evolves, most libraries have strove to embrace these technologies because they (a) reduce cost and (b) provide more services. Often times these library resources are free.

When you’re looking to develop and grow yourself, check out what your local library has for you. As you build your reading list, you can save money if the book you want to read is in your library. But what if your library doesn’t have it?

Interlibrary Loan:

Even if it’s not, there’s a not-so-secret service called Interlibrary Loan. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s where you can request your library borrow the book you want from a library it has an agreement with. Often times you’ll be asked to fill out a form that indicates:

  • How long you’re willing to wait to get the book
  • If you’re willing to pay to offset the cost of shipping the book
  • How long you’ll need the book

Most of the time you can get books for a few dollars as the holding library sends it to yours. So if your library doesn’t have a particular book, chances are that a library it has an agreement with does and you get obtain a copy that way. This is especially true of books that more folks request or books that you’d expect an academic library to hold. Work-related books dealing with communication skills, productivity, performance, and career planning are typically easy to get this way. However, you’d be surprised as what a library can get if you’re waiting to wait a little while. I can remember back in my high school days I was learning to play the King’s Gambit. However, there wasn’t much literature on chess, much less a specific topic like a chess opening, at my local library. I used interlibrary loan to get two newly published books on the subject and then was able to use that knowledge at my first chess tournament. If esoteric books like  books on a chess opening that has fallen into disfavor at the professional level can be found, chances are books from your reading list can be, too.

Joining Another Library:

But what if your library isn’t all that great? It’s not unusual to see libraries accept members from out of its region. My library does this for a modest fee of $65 a year. Folks from neighboring counties, especially technology folks, have made use of this because their county libraries don’t offer nearly as many amenities. And $65/year through my library is far below the cost of the equivalent service level at Safari Books if they were to pay directly, meaning they have access to a constantly updating technical library for that low price.

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In so many ways, practical skills are not being passed on to the next generation. I’m thinking of skills like sewing, cooking, home repair, automobile maintenance, etc. When I consider these skills, I was taught a bit of cooking and the very, very basics of how to sew something onto a military uniform, but not these others. There are many, many more than the list I’ve given here, but it gives you an idea of what I’m thinking about.

I want to make sure my children have a wide range of practical skills before they go out on their own. As a result, in early May I decided that the two oldest, our boys, would start doing practical skills projects each month. I’m intentionally allowing that definition to remain broad. The idea is that by the 15th of the month they’ll get the books they need for the next set of practical skills they want to learn. I’ve chosen my boys because they are both teens. While we’ve been working on practical skills all along, it wasn’t with deliberate focus and intent. That’s the big difference. So they know they have to learn this practical skill and then, one month later, demonstrate it. We’ll do one a month, meaning by the end of a year they’ll have put their time into 12 sets of practical skills.

Son #1 – Origami

My younger son decided he wanted to work on origami. I know this stretches the definition of a practical skill, but I felt it was all right. The key is to get them actively learning about something they want to work on requiring hands on effort. Origami has applications outside of just folding paper. Origami promotes nimble fingers, making music play, working in miniature, and the like easier. This was his “text” for the month:

Since there were 200 models in it, we agreed that a satisfactory demonstration would be to have 50 complete. It was hard, but he pulled it off:

Son #2 – Land Navigation

My oldest decided he wanted to learn more about land navigation. He has probably taken an interest in this area because we’ve been geocaching this year. We looked at several books, but he decided on an old standby:

For his project, he wanted to demonstrate several techniques to find the North heading. These are primitive techniques using tools you likely have or can scrounge in a survival situation. This won’t get you a perfect North direction, but what it will do is give you some consistency in your heading so you aren’t walking around in circles. The first technique just uses something that can cast a shadow and an analog watch:

The second technique uses a trio of relatively straight sticks, one of around 3 feet in height. First, you see the shadow being cast and mark it:

Then you wait 10-15 minutes, see how the shadow has moved, and then effectively connect the dots. This gives you an approximation of North:

I think the first month went well. For the second month son #1 has gone with drawing dragons. He draws and sketches a lot, so this will be good for him. Son #2 has stayed with the survival manual and will be making tools from what you can find around you. Les Stroud would be proud.

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We’re about to start rolling with literature in our homeschool this year. This is my area, along with algebra/pre-algebra, to work with the boys on. This year I wanted to pick our literature selections based on a theme. I took some requests from them as to what they’d like to see, so we’re doing the mystery/horror/fantasy bent this year. I like doing themes, as we can talk about how we see connections between books and compare how one author might have used a device as compared to another. A few don’t fit this theme but are books in this age range I want to make sure they tackle. Some of these books may be a stretch for a 7th/8th grader, but I think the boys can handle it, based on what we’ve seen and how they’ve scored on standardized testing. I would rather them stretch with some assistance rather than be bored and grow very little in this area. So without further ado, here’s what’s on top thus far:


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At the Kelley household we have a standing rule with regards to our homeschool: you must pick an instrument and take lessons in it. Any reasonable instrument is acceptable. So far my oldest chose the traditional guitar. His younger brother has gone complete non-traditional and went with ocarina. Ocarina can be a serious instrument, especially when that is the level of expectation. So what’s the deal with music?

Music Requires You to Learn Something Completely New

When you first learn to read music, that’s new. It’s not like reading that you’ve done thus far in your life. Learning music requires you to learn specific theory that has as its closest application some parts of physics and mathematics, but isn’t really similar to other subjects. Therefore, music requires you to think in new ways. This expands what and how you consider things. That’s probably why you see so many music types in IT, especially as IT becomes more and more complex.

Music Requires Diligence and Practice

There are some kids who are naturally good at the sports they play. Until they hit the collegiate levels, they don’t really have to try. We call them natural athletes. Some kids are the same way with certain academic subjects. I went to high school with a whole group of them. Music is the great equalizer. Even if you have immense talent there’s always something more difficult out there to try. If nothing else, trying to play with others in a way that is blended and sounds awesome is a new experience each and every time.

Music Teaches One to Listen Carefully

This starts with making sure your instrument is in tune or that you’re singing on pitch. You must listen and you must correct yourself or you will sound terrible. When you’re playing as part of a group, you must listen to others around you. I will never forget in elementary school when I got a chance to play the tympani. I really went to town, banging them with abandon. The problem was I was so loud that you couldn’t hear anyone else. I wasn’t making music, just noise. To make music you must listen. You must listen to yourself and you must listen to those around you. If you’re a solo performer and you have a wind instrument, then as that horn warms up from you blowing in it, its pitch will change. If you’re out in the sun, the pitch will change. So you’re constantly tuning, or at least, you should be. That requires listening.

Music Teaches Precision

If you’re going to play a well known piece, you have to play it precisely. Sure, you can add your personal touch and that’s expected. That’s part of the creative process. But if I try and play the Stars and Stripes Forever like a dirge, people are going to go, “Huh? That’s not right!” And I can speak from personal experience that messing up the piccolo solo on that march is something you really don’t want to do. You stand out and it sounds bad. Really bad. Therefore, you must be precise.

Music Teaches Cooperation

I am primarily a solo player as a flutist. I don’t even tend to play with piano accompaniment. However, I can play with a group because part of being able to play music is being able to do just that. There’s a different dynamic at play when you have to cooperate with others. If one person tries to hog the spotlight, folks know it. Therefore, you must cooperate. You must be part of a larger team. If I didn’t take anything else away from my experience as a member of The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes, it was this lesson.

Music Teaches Failure and How to Try Again

When you practice a difficult piece, you will fail a lot. The key is not to give up. When you try to put a piece together as a whole band or ensemble, it takes some work to get everyone together. That means, yup, failure. Failure is part of the learning process. It is not the end. And music, better than anything else I know, teaches that you can overcome failure if you keep working at it.


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