Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Homeschooling at the Acropolis

If you were looking for us on Saturday, you would have found us here causing quite a spectacle.  I'm certain the Acropolis has seen homeschoolers before, but for some reason we attracted quite a bit of attention.  What were we doing that was so exciting??


We must have looked rather curious, as lots of people approached us, including the Acropolis staff.  They were horrified at the site of Kitty Bill, age 5, sitting with a tin of colored pencils and a notebook.  They were concerned that he might go wild and start drawing on the gazillion-year-old marble rocks.  After all, defacing the place is punishable by law... apparently, so is singing.... which we do a lot.  But we managed to restrain ourselves just this once.  And rest assured, Kitty Bill was completely engrossed in drawing a picture of Lykavittos Hill that he didn't even think about drawing on the marble.

It was a long walk up to the Acropolis.  First in surprising torrents of rain, and then just as quickly, melting in the glaring sun.  We stopped in the tiniest bit of shade cast by the Parthenon behind us, resting and sketching the caryatids of the Erechtheion.  One woman was so taken with the sight of us that she thought we needed pictures.  She grabbed our camera and started snapping away.

Our visit to Greece was absolutely fantastic.  More on that to come...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Baby knitting

We have finally finished knitting for the new baby across the street. The week he was born the sky filled with storks-- over 100 of them. We counted!!

I'm not pleased with how the sweater turned out. It's like one of those magic washcloths that grow exponentially when wet.  Seriously.  It started out life much, much smaller... it was only when I blocked it that things went terribly wrong.  Next time I won't be blocking anything on my birthday.  I'm sure that had something to do with it.  It was another good exercise in showing the children how to accept defeat.  On your birthday, no less.

But it's still cute.  I gifted it anyway, and despite its faults, the mom adored it.  Whew!  It's so hard when gifting goes awry.  The pattern is the very cute Duck Soup by Anny Purls.  I will be making it again, larger, with different yarn.  The kids are all insisting that they need one in their sizes, too.  Funny kids.  I think that top knot has them enchanted.

I also made the baby a blue berry hat, just because, with a leaf embellishment.  Though I have since been told it was a cultural faux pas to give a baby hat without straps.  I wonder is this really true?  In America it's pretty standard to have hats that don't tie.

Sunburst knit the baby a pair of socks.  She did a nice job with them, and she was very excited to see him wearing them yesterday!

The pattern is called Leftovers Baby Socks (or as the pdf link reads: Baby Socks - Turned Heel).  This was Sunburst's second time making baby socks-- though it has been a long time.  She found this pattern easy to follow on her own, and she has since made another pair for another baby.  I have to say that they are great newborn size, but for bigger babies they would run a bit small.

And Moonshine helped me knit the doll for the baby's big sister.  This little girl has been feeling a bit displaced by her baby brother, and she was very pleased to be receiving a gift, too.  It's just a tiny doll, but she pushes it around in her doll stroller just the same.  And she chews on the hat.  She's only two.  I find it fascinating that the texture of wool is something she finds comforting enough to mouth.

The girls are so pleased to see their gifts being used and loved... it's good incentive for them, since there are still two more babies to knit for.  I think it must have something to do with all those storks!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wir schreiben Deutsch!

Yesterday I told you about the German lessons I created for my children.  Today I want to tell you about two books we're using for book work and how we're making them fun.

Moonshine, my 8.5 year old, is using "Fun with German" by Lee Cooper.  It's written for English speakers, and the point is to be able to pick it up and read in German from the very first page.  It's empowering, it's colorful, and it's fun.  It actually is.  It touches on pronunciation, starting with very small steps, and continuing on in such a simple manner that before long you are actually reading and understanding quite a bit of German.

Moonshine is LOVING it.  She can't get enough of it lately.  It's what I find her doing first thing in the morning and the last thing in the afternoon.  We're both hoping it will help her feel even more empowered.  She is already tickled by the fact that she can now read in German.

We're taking each page and turning it into a lesson-- reading it aloud many times, copying the writing and the picture, underlining whatever words she wants to underline-- those new to her or ones she thinks are new to her-- and sometimes adding in a new word that she might need help pronouncing.  We're using colored pencils to make it more fun.  And I'm doing it along with her in my own book.  My kids really enjoy embarking on a project together with mom, it feels special and important.  And she's so proud of herself already!

Here's what her first few lessons look like:

And then she noticed there were so many words that mean "the" -- so I explained and we made a page for them.  In Moonshine's drawing below, the gender neutral quality of das is illustrated by a "suitcase" she says.

The thing about this book is that you don't have to work hard to make it exciting.  The pages in the actual book look pretty much the same:

And 30-odd pages later you're able to read something of this length:

Doesn't it look like a fun book?  I can't say enough good things about Lee Cooper's books.  They are all like this-- Fun With Spanish (two books), Fun With Italian, Fun With French... They're old enough to be out of print, but there are still many cheap copies to be found in a quick Google search.

Sunburst, my 11.5 year old, is using the Das Sind Wir readers by Peter Oram.  He created these German readers for use in Waldorf schools in the UK, and they are very well done.  Each book (there are two) has fifteen lessons.  They're meant for Grades 5-6, I think, and they assume that the child has some grasp of the language already... which is perfect for Sunburst.

Each lesson has a theme (waking up, school, my city) and at the end of each lesson are the related vocabulary words and phrases for that lesson.  In the back of the book there are some questions pertaining to each lesson, meant for the teacher's use, as well as a lesson by lesson glossary.

My only problem with this book is that it assumes the teacher is fluent in German.  All the material directed at the instructor is also in German... and while I get the gist of some of it, I haven't had the time or the inclination to really sit down and fully grasp how I'm supposed to be using it.  So I'm making it up.

First we read the lesson together.  She likes to read it in German and then translate it aloud to the English equivalent.  Then we take this lesson and pretend it's a letter which we have to reply to-- at the end of each lesson, as part of the reading, are questions based on the reading (Where do you live?  What do you play?  Are you fully awake?) And so we use those as a jumping off point and write a letter to the boy in the lesson.  If he talks about his town, then we do, too.  And we make sure to answer his questions.  We keep our letters in simple little notebooks.

Just to give you an idea, here are a couple of Sunburst's (uncorrected)"letters."


This is really fun for Sunburst, and again, she loves that I'm doing it with her. We compare what we wrote, and it's really interesting to see how different our letters become. We're doing one lesson per week, and that seems like plenty. Her goal is to be able to check out books at the library and read to her heart's content. I think by the time she's finished with these books she'll have no problem. Certainly she will be able to check out German early readers after only a few more lessons.

You can find all of Peter Oram's books at the website Starborn Books.

(This is my first post with the new Blogger interface, and it's giving me fits.  So if it looks too wonky on your end, please let me know.  Thanks!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wir sprechen Deutsch!

Today I found myself acting out a wild story about a boy who wanted to make a birthday cake for his friend, with candles, but he didn't know how old she was. He called her on the phone, but it was a bad connection. So he mailed her a letter, but he forgot to use a stamp. Then he decided to go ring her doorbell, but the doorbell was broken. So he knocked... nothing. Then he began pounding and banging on the door, but no one heard because the mother was running the vacuum cleaner.

Imagine, I'm standing there banging furiously on the dining room door with one hand while with the other I am running the vacuum cleaner and pretending not to hear. Meanwhile my kids are calling out suggestions, laughing and smiling, and completely engaged. They love it so much, and I'm so pleased-- because we're actually, at this moment, homeschooling. And what I'm presenting is their German lesson.

The funny thing is, I don't speak German. Not really. I took it in college, but outside of class, I didn't use it. Not once. And if you don't use it... well, in twenty years time it just seems to float away on the breeze. It's not the most useful language you can learn as an American living in the Southwestern US. Spanish would have been a more obvious choice, and I probably would have stayed that course had my friend and I not met these cute Austrian brothers at the opera. The college crush, both blind and fleeting-- it was as good a reason as any to learn a language. Even if I never used it again... and I didn't. Not until I decided to teach it to my kids, and then I had to start over, from scratch.

When we lived in the US and my girls were younger, I used songs and games and very basic attempts at language introduction. For resources I googled fingerplays and checked out picture books and cds from the library. I sang them songs and made up silly little games. My goal was not to create fluent speakers. I simply wanted them to play with the idea of language-- hear new sounds and try to make them. If they learned a few words and had fun doing it, then that was a bonus.

And then we moved to Switzerland, and my focus changed. For the first year we honestly didn't even need German. Hardly anyone spoke to us in the city, and so our language usage was pretty much confined to asking for a bathroom and reading ingredient labels on food packaging. Now that we've been living "auf dem Land" for the last year, learning the language has become somewhat of a necessity.

It's hard teaching a language when you don't speak it fluently yourself. We've tried just about everything-- Rosetta Stone, books, cds, random internet resources... The materials I've found just aren't enlivened enough. So I decided to make my own. I've started putting together a few ideas from here and there, including psychology research on language acquisition, and the girls can't get enough of these lessons. They love them. They beg for them. And it makes me so happy.

And just in the last few weeks that I have been implementing this, I have seen a HUGE change in the girls' language abilities. And in my own. I'm far from fluent-- but I think we're definitely onto something VERY good here. Even the neighbors have been commenting to me about how well the girls are speaking lately, and I couldn't be more encouraged by this. It's astounding, really. Every day they come in from playing to tell me excitedly that they understood something someone said, or said something that was understood. They are starting to feel empowered again. Imagine that! It makes me cry, really.

Basically, I'm telling very short, simple, thematic stories twice a week. I have two characters, Johann and Julia, and the stories revolve around their comical interactions with each other.

My rules for the stories are:
  1. I have to tell the whole story in German (as best as I can).
  2. It has to build on words they already know.
  3. The words have to be contextually connected and useful.
  4. It has to be simple.
  5. It has to be funny.
So I tell the story, acting out bits and drawing pictures and words on the chalkboard as I go (usually with a dictionary in my lap), and then the girls and I draw the picture together on paper, purposefully making it as ridiculous as possible. We discuss which words to write-- we only pick a few (less really is more), and I make sure to include verbs. I label my paper, Sunburst copies the words from my paper, and then I help Moonshine label hers.

We've been doing two stories per week, on Monday and Wednesday, and then on Friday the girls are required to put on a very short play for me from the week's lessons. They love this. Plus it gives them a reason to review the work and practice using the language in context and without judgment. Nothing kills the joy of learning a language like judgment. So we don't do that. We just try, together. We keep it fun and silly, and we make complete fools of ourselves. Learning a language requires that above all else-- the courage to look/sound stupid.

Here are some of our pages. Like I said, my stories are pretty ridiculous. I'm sharing all three versions (mine, Sunburst's, and Moonshine's) because I can't choose between them. Anyway, when we feel like we have enough pages we'll bind them together in a book, along with some other (not so exciting) pages we made last year.

Basic greetings, including Swiss and the triple Swiss kiss:

At the Swimming Pool:

A (very strange) Race-- this tied in nicely with a our week of lions:

Cooking with the Baker:

Feeding Chickens:

Bird Party (tied in with bird fables):

These lessons are the heart and soul of our language learning. And they're working. We're really starting to speak and understand German!

We're also doing some fun book work with the language to work on our reading skills-- but I'll have to share that tomorrow.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The last two weeks

Fables and heroes - finishing up second grade work with Moonshine:


The Peacock and the Nightingale/Peacock and the Crow -- I combined the two, and they went together very nicely:

We all painted peacocks together, but Moonshine's came out the best.

The Sun and the Wind:

Studying the Greek gods and goddesses with Sunburst:

Oh, what a joy Ancient Greek mythology is! The timing really seems to be perfect for her-- I'm so glad we waited for fall and didn't try to cram it in before summer holidays.

We covered the whole set of Greek gods/goddesses. Not all of them made it on the chalkboard. All of them did make it onto paper. Here's just a little taste. The first one is mine, the next two are Sunburst's drawings. The poems were a joint effort.

Sometimes Kitty Bill comes and copies my drawings off the chalkboard. He's almost five. Here are his renderings of Hiawatha and Apollo... notice he didn't draw Artemis?!

With thoughts of a bow and arrow he made a short leap to Robin Hood. He made sure to write the name on the chalkboard because I had written Apollo's name. Sunburst wrote the letters down for him, as he requested, and then he copied them onto the board. Very cute.

We have these lovely, very simple Robin Hood readers from Rosie Earnshaw that we picked up for Moonshine in Sherwood Forest last summer. Can you see the striking resemblance to Kitty Bill's drawing?

With bows and arrows on his mind, Kitty Bill went outside and promptly made a set from branches he pulled off the tree. It worked, somewhat, so Sunburst rushed in and showed him how to make a proper bow and arrow set. Apparently you have to bend the branch as you tie the string on so it will stay taut. Between the two of them I have seen enough "arrows" whizzing through the house to last me a very long time. The phrase "not in the house" doesn't seem to register... I'm starting to think they don't speak English anymore. Perhaps they only speak warrior now?
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