Saturday, October 22, 2011

Homeschool Curriculum 2011-2012

Outside of "How do you live in only 380 square feet in the middle of nowhere?" the top three things I am most asked about are backpacking, canning, and how we homeschool. Though we talk quite a bit about the backpacking and canning, very little has been covered on our homeschooling. So, this year I thought I'd hit it a little harder than before. By the third year, we are starting to have a pretty good thing going and I feel comfortable enough to talk about it.
The Stats
The Barracuda is 7 years old and technically enrolled in second grade. For many of his subjects he is enrolled in 4th grade having completed/tested above the second grade standards. He is an incredibly intense student and we have learned not to restrain this, but to provide it knowledge as best we can. When restrained, he gets bored, naughty and generally becomes a butthead. Either that, or he decides to learn it for himself and some conclusions are a bit strange. (Did you know that Islamic berqas make it so that women can't see? I didn't realize this, but after some discussion I quickly clarified that berqas are meant for women to not be seen instead of being blind.)

Due to his intensity, some of this might look a little hardcore for his age. The topics are of his own choosing and he continually expresses what is working and what isn't. For the most part, if it isn't working we change it or drop it. Throughout this post I use the term "we" to mean us as a family and most specifically The Barracuda and I. Since we are in this together, we are learning together as well. Homeschooling is a family endeavor, there are just no two ways about it.

We would be considered structured unschoolers, in that The Barracuda gets to make a good 85-90% of his own learning choices, time commitments, and school structure. Due to his perfectionism, and the lack of personal knowledge he has some places where we insist he broaden his horizons (examples include, guiding him away from singular projects he is fixating on in unhealthy ways for weeks and weeks at a time, providing academic reading lists or books, requiring him to write even though it was difficult for him initially).

By October, most of the sand has been shaken out of our curriculum choices and we have found the rhythm of what is going to work. Like many homeschooling families, that which looks great on paper in August, doesn't necessarily turn out the same a couple months in. By now, we have a focal point in all our studies and a general backbone of where we are headed.

Curriculum for 2011-2012

Reading: The current goal of reading in our family (beyond just enjoyment and fluency) is to develop conversations in multiple forums about books. The Barracuda therefore will not only write his thoughts about books in report fashion, but also have discussions with adults and peers about different aspects of literature.
Personal Reading: Harry Potter series with book reports for each completed book. He will often choose fluff reading books here and there that he can just pound out like candy when he wants them.

Group Reading:
Going through the Top 100 Classic Books Novels list (the list gets reviewed every 10 years or so and you can find out more about where it came from here). These books are read by both The Barracuda and myself and we do Socratic discussion as a family.

Peer Reading:
Our homeschool group has a Literature Circle. A children's novel (Ms. Piggly-Wiggly, A Cricket in Time Square, etc.) is read independently, the kids discuss their thoughts about it in a Socratic seminar, and a project is completed about some facet of the book.

Writing: The major focus of this year's writing is to create cohesive essays which are constructed and revised with purpose. A focus on not only conventions, but cohesion and organization of ideas is the major goal.
Copywork: The Barracuda does regular copywork as he is trying to learn cursive writing something fierce. He picks a book of his choosing (right now The Arabian Nights), grabs a passage, and writes for a while.

Daily Paragraph Editing: The boy loves this stuff!

Essays: The Barracuda also completes shorter (only 5-8 paragraphs) essays on various topics he has learned about in science, history, or math. The focus is on thesis writing and clear exposition.
Social Studies: We do not do revisionist history or watered down current events in our household. We talk about smallpox blankets, not Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to eat turkey. My son listens to NPR, The Daily Show, and the Colbert Report with us and we answer his questions honestly. Sometimes it gets turned down a bit when talking about raping small children or equally graphic issues, since the point is to make him aware not scar him.
United States History:
We are doing American Literature and literary periods as they correspond with historical events. We try to read first hand accounts of literature (On Plymouth Plantation, The Declaration of Independence, Nature by Emerson, Civil Disobedience, etc) and discuss their common threads to create a cultural understanding of the time period. We mainly use "Elements of Literature: Fifth Course" (Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson). This is supplemented with Joy Hakim's "Freedom: The Story of U.S." and "Creating America: Beginnings through World War 1 Online Addition" (McDougal Littell) for maps, charts, graphs and pictures.

Geography: The Barracuda has decided he wants to learn the countries of the world as well as the mountain ranges, rivers, and other physical geography. This is taking the place of our world history for this year. We found this foundation to be essential since most of the books we have read are either ridiculously watered down, very stereotypical, or already assume you have a general idea of the regions geography. We are using "World Reference Maps and Forms" (Evan Moor) along with the great computer games at Play Kids Games (scroll down for the Geography games).

Local and Regional History:
The Pacific Crest Trail hike we are planning has become the largest source of our local history, geography, and social studies. The Pacific Crest Trail: A Hikers Companion by Berger & Smith is quite wonderful.

Civics: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and discussing how to implement the strategies in our lives.
Science: The goal of science in our household is for The Barracuda to understand the interconnected nature of everything around him. From his body to biodiversity and sustainable practices, we try to foster the idea that you must think about the minute details as well as the big picture.
Physical Science: Beakman's World is the jumping off point for many of The Barracuda's science questions. He is then allowed free reign on the Internet to Google topics and discuss what he finds. We also use Thames and Cosmos Physics and Solar Physics Workshops, build catapults and ancient weapons, and are a voluntary simplicity household which uses many simple and compound machines.

Earth Science: We hike and we hike and we hike. Most earth science is done through active discussion and participation. The Barracuda also keeps a Nature Journal where he draws, catalogs, and identifies most everything he sees (rocks, birds, bugs, fungus, plants, you name it).

Life Science: This is probably the most multimedia approach we have to any subject.
Puzzles: Melissa & Doug Human Body Floor Puzzle
Songs: Lyrical Life Science volumes 1, 2, 3 by Doug Eldon
Movies: Thank you NetFlix!
Books: The Incredible Machine by Robert M. Poole , Atlas of Anatomy by Anne M. Gilroy, Human Anatomy and Physiology by Spence and Mason (3rd Edition)
Art:The only time The Barracuda has ever asked to go to public school was to be able to have art class. I wasn't taking his desire for art seriously enough. So now we study a period of art, learn the historical/cultural significance, recreate great masterpieces from the period, and study the artist's technique and their lives.

He is a perfectionist and many of the paintings take him 6 or more weeks to complete. This is one area we have to "talk him down" from being neurotic and gently guide him forward. As far as he is concerned, Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is not completed yet and the city needs greater detail.
Materials: Acrylic Paints, PrismaColor Pencils
Books: Gardner's Art Through The Ages along with the book companion website
Time Period:
Currently Post Impressionists.

Math: Most of our math is discussion based. We incorporate our daily activities into mathematical practice. This year the focus is on multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Currently The Barracuda is working with least common denominators and conversion of fractions to decimals. I expect wrapping his brain completely around this concept (not just being able to do it) will take most of the rest of the year.
Drill and Kill Practice: Math Connection 4th and 5th Grade (Rainbow Bridge Publishing)
Enrichment: The Barracuda picks these things all by himself. The only time we put a halt on enrichment activities is if they will actively complicate other things he has already desired to learn. He would like to begin both Latin and Mandrin, but he has to learn Spanish first. He cannot start the formal dance academy since we will be leaving to hike the PCT in April. By next year we will begin both dance and Latin.
Spanish: Rosetta Stone and Dos Mundos (McGraw-Hill)
PE: Rock Climbing/Mountaineering and PCT Training
Music: Absolute Beginners Guitar Course
Sunglasses are essential for being a rock star and for learning guitar.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Artist At Work

So, what do we do without television? We paint! The Barracuda recreates great masterpieces and learns a lot about the time period, technique, and the artist themselves.

It is quite fascinating to watch a work of art slowly appear. The Barracuda's perfectionism and attention to detail can come out full force. Even if some paintings take him 6 weeks or more, he is always very proud of himself by the end.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Loop around The Three Sisters

There are a few versions of this loop depending on where you enter and which side trails you follow. It is all essentially the same, depending only on where you want to shave miles off as an ultra-runner and where you want to get your water. We parked at McKenzie Pass, followed the PCT the entire way down and then Green Lakes back up to Scott's Pass. If the LeConte Crater Trail still exists, we missed it completely, and that put us at 57 miles exactly. A 43.7 mile version is available here. Be aware that the Volcano Running itinerary uses a different entry point with a smaller parking lot.

When we returned home from the Loowit, school was officially starting. Due to Jules being a public school teacher, our homeschooling follows much of the same schedule. We don't really do holidays or anything, but we generally get a bit more lax in the summer and then pick up more standard work stuff around September. We figured we'd give a couple of weeks to finding school again before we took off on another hiking trip.

The third weekend in September seemed good. It was enough time given to schoolish pursuits for it to seem like we kinda cared, but not so long that the season had ended. Jules took off Friday, and we picked him up Thursday after school to make the long drive down to central Oregon.

The Three Sisters Wilderness is the second largest wilderness area in Oregon and is flanked on three sides by other National Forests. It allows for one rather giant expanse of "middle of nowhere" feeling. With the largest concentration of 10,000+ foot peaks in the entire Cascade Range, the Three Sisters Wilderness sports the only three triple peaks in the nation. They are also the third, forth, and fifth highest peaks in Oregon. The North Sister (Faith) is the oldest of the three and also the smallest. She is an extinct shield volcano held together only by a system of lava dikes and a large plug dome. There is no hope of The Barracuda ever summiting her as she is quite derelict. The Middle Sister (Hope), however, has an untrailed "Climber's Route." Though not exactly a walk-up, it looks like a good one for our Summer of Summiting in the future. Being an extinct stratovolcano she is quite solid and doesn't appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon. The South and final Sister (Charity) has a well established trail to the summit. It is brutal, but a walk up day hike. It was hard for The Barracuda to walk past the trail marker leading to the South Summit, but we had miles to go before we slept and it wasn't going to happen this year. She is a stratovolcano perched on top of an old shield volcano. Though this made her interesting for geological geeks, it wasn't until 2001 that people really took notice of this peak. In 2001, the South Sister began to awaken. By 2004 earthquakes were appearing and vulcanologists were getting excited. In 2007 things began to cool down, but her status has been upgraded to "Active" and eruptions might occur within the next 10 years. This knowledge made the hike even more exciting. The Barracuda versus the Volcano has become a rather interesting thought for our son.

Day 1 - McKenzie Pass to Linton Meadows - 15.2 miles

The North Sister and the smallest bit of the Middle Sister call you forward in the distance when you start at McKenzie Pass. The South Sister is still too far away to see. The weather was incredible all but the last day, and by that time, the rains were a welcome change.

We have never had a whining child. Even as an infant, he didn't whine or cry much. When hiking he has always been happy and ready to go. Imagine our surprise when less than 5 miles in, on level terrain, the child breaks down in tears exclaiming he cannot go on. I mean, complete freak out. We discussed it, he calmed himself down, continued less than 20 yards and more break downs. He said he wanted to quit, we turned around, less than 20 yards and he wanted to continue. To use the word "agitated" would not adequately describe the level of frustration Jules and I were feeling. On the last, "I can do it" it was decided that hell or high water the boy was going to walk. So we walked.

Thankfully, by the middle of the first day he had rallied and we pulled out 15.1 miles. Not what we were hoping for, but it didn't put us too far behind. (Shortly later he began to sniffle a bit. Ever since he has been on the edge of a possible cold whenever he gets tired. We think this might have had something to do with it.)

The alpine meadows in the Three Sisters are home to some of the worst bugs on the entire PCT. However, if you go after August, there aren't any. We found the meadows some of the greatest and most beautiful we had seen.

Living amongst the Cascade Range you see mountains all the time. In fact, fellow homeschool moms and I have often laughed at real estate agents calling something a "view lot." Around here you are either looking at a river or a mountain from some angle on your property. Everything is a view lot. However, the mountains in the Three Sisters are different. They have been formed lower on the tectonic plates than our mountains. This means they are in the middle between the granite peaks of the High Sierra and the composite volcanoes of our Northern Cascades. The granite substructure still exists, but the upper layers of more mailable volcanic rock are exposed. When the last Ice Ages came though, the entire state of Oregon was covered in glaciers. These glaciers ground away the upper structures of the softer volcanic material. What is left, are the crumbling remains of once giant volcanoes. Rather than the basalt we are used to, the ground is covered in red, porous extrusive volcanic rock which blew out of the last eruptions from the area. Acres and acres and acres of it. Every once in a while there will be a small, scraggly, misguided tree trying to eek out existence, but not much. Unlike the small, soft pumice we walked along at Mt. St. Helens, this rock is jagged, hard, and dense. It has the tell-tale bubbles of most lava rock, and is just as annoying to walk on, but adds a much more severe quality to the landscape. Rather than stark, the area looks brutal. Think Mordor from The Lord of the Rings.

Lava rock, lava rock and more lava rock. After the first mile and a half a trail emerges, but for much of the first day we were either walking over, or surrounded by lava rock. Here The Barracuda is descending down Yopoah Crater and the subsequent lava flows surrounding it. The lava rock really works the lateral muscles of the feet on all the uneven terrain. It cuts into your shoes, your pants, your skin and anything else it happens to scrape against.

These lava rocks were created from the flows of the North Sister's lava dikes. They protrude out the front end of the mountain to hold it together. By mid-day we began to pass the North Sister and into the saddle-like structure of her Middle Sister. Here the shield volcano status of the North Sister really shows through. The Obsidian Cliffs were a highlight of this trip. The trail is not only littered with obsidian rocks, but huge boulders of it make cliffs which shine in the sun. The rocks were everywhere. Their beauty was both stunning and dramatic with how prolific it was. Conversations quickly turned between geology and the native practices which valued the rock so much.

Day 2: Linton Meadows to Red Meadow - 24.7 miles

When the sun shot out and over the Middle Sister in the wee morning hours and illuminated the meadow in front of me, I was reminded of why we pack up before the sun and start hiking when it is still freezing outside. The beauty of moments like this is why we backpack.

We were moving by 6:30 and got to watch the sun rise over the mountains. I much prefer sleeping in places of exposure to watch the sun come up. At this point, when both Jules and I are there, we have figured out our morning packing up routine. Everything in our backpacks has only one place in the tent. Each person unpacking the tent has only one role. It all moves with a level of precision which allows us about 20 to 30 minutes from waking up to dressed, packed and moving. For someone like me who hates surprises this is a soothing and quite enjoyable experience. The Barracuda knows exactly what to expect as well, and this has greatly helped with the process. He knows his jobs, he knows the expectations, and there needs only minimal instruction. It gets the day off to a good start.

We filled up water at Reese Lake and began moving briskly to beat out the morning chill (another added benefit of an early start). It wasn't too long before we left the Middle Sister completely and began once again seeing evidence of obsidian. The South Sister is an old shield volcano, with a stratovolcano perched on top. Now the obsidian was in giant rubble style piles. Huge moraine mounds of obsidian followed us down from the meadows of the Middle Sister to the barren plains of the South Sister.

At this point we were supposed to take a short-cut side trail called the LeConte Crater Trail. It runs between the various rock outcroppings, craters, and mountains in this barren stretch. We completely missed it. If it exists, it cannot be signed well or marked as far as we are concerned. The trail stretches out for miles in front of you and no side trail could be seen.

The obsidian was a highlight of this trip. The entire pile of rock on the left side of this picture is made of obsidian - huge boulders of it. The trail is littered with obsidian. It is everywhere. The Obsidian Cliffs of the day before were not piles of rubble such as these, they were sheer walled towers. Talk about a geology lesson. The entire family was entranced with the beauty of this rare place.

The first trail sign we came to was Wickiup Plains. Normally the whimsy of this bent sign post sporting three or four different trail markers all heading in different directions would have produced a fond smile from me. It looked very much so like something out of a cartoon desert scene. However, in this instance it meant an added 4.4 miles to an already long day. The plan was to do 2 twenty mile days and a leisurely walk out the third to drive home. With the bizarre, stunted behavior of The Barracuda on the first day, and now this, that just wasn't looking like it was going to happen. It was a bummer coupled with a shocking surprise for me. My stress level shot up a bit. I wasn't a happy camper, but what are you going to do? You just have to keep walking.

By the time we rounded the South Sister and headed up the backside of the mountains we had begun to see day hikers and weekend warriors again. The eastern side of the Three Sisters is where most of the action is at. With both the South Climb walk up summit and the Green Lakes area, this is the most heavily populated of region. Before this, we had only seen dirty PCT hikers trying to pull out their throughs before the season closed in. Though The Barracuda greatly enjoyed these encounters, they were only a handful. Most of the pack had moved through the area and we were only getting the tail end. The Green Lakes area was a highway compared to the rocky, barren west side.

When we rounded Green Lakes the warm rain began to fall and the storm moved in. Though we were getting wet, the scene was enough to keep us happy. The rain pelted the water, the sun still cut through the storm and played up the colors on the shore. All the while, the backside of the Middle Sister looked on.

Spirits were lifting as we hit Green Lakes. We were obviously making good progress, regardless of the detour. The weather was looking a little treacherous, but we had managed to out hike the storm this far which added to our feelings of accomplishment. When the rains began to fall in sprinkles they were warm and we just kept pushing on. If it had to rain, it was a beautiful place to do it.

We were well past Green Lakes when the storm finally cracked above us. With thunder claps and pouring rain showers, we dawned jackets a laughed at our now familiar mantra of wet hiking, "At least it isn't New Mexico!" It all passed quickly enough and within a little over an hour we were dry again. By now we were meeting back up with a couple of people we had seen from the other side. One older gentlemen startled us with the comment, "You guys have come a long way." It took us a minute to place him before we responded with the same. He had been doing the same hike from the opposite direction. His starting place was south and clockwise, we were north and counter-clockwise. We shared trail conditions, water, and good tidings before pressing on. Much like the PCT hikers we saw the day before, this encounter raised The Barracuda's confidence a bit. He greatly enjoys seeing others who hike like we do.

By the time we were ready to find a campsite the day had been long and tiring. Though we had eaten lunch, our normal snacks weren't munched upon with the rains. The tent was pitched and food made as I went into sugar shock. I hate sugar shock. It sneaks up on me and really throws me for a loop. The Barracuda's blood sugar sensitivity comes from me and my side of the family. Jules forced food into me (almost literally since your body begins to feel extreme nausea and gag) and I sucked on extremely concentrated Gatorade before going to sleep. By morning all was well, but it worries Jules every time.

No mileage had been added up since we were slightly worried what the result might be for the last day. Jules had to make it to work the next morning regardless so it didn't really matter. It was only after coming home that we realized The Barracuda had reached another milestone. It was nearly a 25 mile day.

Day 3 - Red Meadow to McKenzie Pass - 17.2 miles

The trail was so very different from the backside of the North Sister. Gone was all the lava rock and open meadows. It was replaced by glacial sand and scrubby evergreens nearly the entire rest of the way.

Somewhere around day 2 or 3 the food conversation begins. This is about the time Jules and The Barracuda start in on what they want to eat. These discussions torture me even though I am often dragged into them. Why on earth do I want to think about the tastiest thing I could imagine when I can't eat it right now?! That just seems brutal. However, they love it. Discussions usually go something like this:

Jules: "You know what sounds really good? Taco Del Mar with a mocha and some Thai food."

The Barracuda: "You know what sounds really good? Dairy Queen blizzard with a side of steak and some pizza! We should go to Izzys!"

Jules: "Oh, you know what sounds so good? Los Reyos and some sushi!"

The Barracuda: "CHICK-FIL-A!"
By this point in time The Barracuda is practically squealing with delight. Jules is trying frantically to outdo him and they are both giddy. They begin to groan and moan in joy as if they are pleasurably eating the food right there in front of them rather than staring at miles more trail. I hike behind them thinking that many of these ideas sound really good. My mind begins to wander into territory of what I would like....a giant salad bar from Sweet Tomatoes....a really good breakfast skillet and some pancakes from the Hot Cake House or maybe a giant burger with a side of pancakes (a very hard decision even under normal circumstances)....a steaming hot bath with tea and cookies.....some Gorge Juice or maybe a Jamba Juice or maybe a peppermint latte..... It is a level of masochism that borders on psychotic. I don't know why hikers do this to themselves.

The last day of hiking a loop is often times the quickest and easiest. Somehow the terrain is never bad, the weather seems easy, and you are pressed on by the thoughts of either food or a warm car. This day had by far our worst weather. By the end of the day we were all in rain gear and cold with wind screaming by. We had moments of great weather, but nothing that would count as warm. The last few miles we were hiking to just stay warm and keep our resolve to make it to the car. It had the worst elevation. Scotts pass was 2 solid miles of unrelentingly steep uphill switchbacks. Every once in a while you would get a tenth of a mile of slight uphill only to once again tilt dramatically skyward for another long stretch. It had the most uncertainly. We didn't know what time we would be driving home, or how late we might be driving to get Jules to work the next day. There were also a couple of sections that seemed unusually long prompting Jules and I to shoot uncertain looks of "did we miss the sign?" Yet, it was by far our easiest day. We pounded out 17 miles before 3 o'clock and were hobbling into McDonald's before 4.

The whole family at McKenzie Pass just about a mile before the car. Don't let those smiles fool you, we are freezing! Guadie is sporting her backpack, and that giant, sad looking dog is Optimus. I have not formally introduced Optmius Prime yet. He is our family's 200 lb British Bull Mastiff puppy. He is still little and will probably gain another 20-50 lbs. This was his first long distance hiking endeavor so he didn't have to wear his backpack. He wasn't too sure he liked it, but he did really well.

Jules has been wanting to hike the Sisters since he lived in Georgia. It is a hike he would have flown across the United States to do and I was very glad we were able to complete it together as a family. It was a great ending to the backpacking season this year. With snow now moving in, our weekend/overnight trips might have to simmer down a bit, but there are still plenty of mountains we can summit all the way through October. Our move has pushed us to begin thinking about what is possible. We live close by and we've got gear so now all we have to do is make time!