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2012 January 8

Ways to respond to literature using New York Times models

Last November, the NY Times published an article about alternatives to the standard school book report for English classes: Beyond the Book Report: Ways to Respond to Literature Using New York Times Models.  I read the article then, and forwarded the link to my son, my wife (who supervises his humanities education), and my son’s consultant teacher.  I meant to blog about it right away, but it got buried in my over-100 draft posts of things I mean to blog about as soon as I have time.  The pointer just got forwarded to the other home-schoolers at Alternative Family Education, so it is past time for me to write this post.

The article offers 13 alternative assignments for the usual “book report” or “literary analysis” assignment (which I have ranted about before in posts like Death to high school English and Reluctant Writers).  I don’t know that we will use any of them exactly, but they did help spur some thinking about some of the assignments my son has done for his “Alternative Realities” English class so far this year:

  • description of the caste system in Brave New World
  • sociolinguistic analysis of NewSpeak in 1984
  • extra chapter for Alice in Wonderland, describing her adventures in a land that looks a lot like Minecraft
  • map of Gethen, the world (or part of the world) in Left Hand of Darkness
  • travel guide for Arde, the world in Planiverse

He has not been having the huge problems with writer’s block that he had last year.  I think that being able to craft his own style of response to each book (in consultation with his mother, who is choosing the books, discussing them with him, and giving him feedback on his drafts) has helped a lot in allowing him to keep moving on the assignments.  His consultant teacher has indicated that he needs to do six assignments each semester to get full credit for an English class, and he seems to be on track for that.  We’re thinking of a dramatic reading (with sound effects) for the 6th project.

He’s been doing writing in his other classes also.  His time-line for history class requires a lot of one-paragraph summaries, he’s done one lab report for physics (I should require a couple more), and he has been doing fairly detailed write-ups for his calculus homework sets (the Art of Problem Solving faculty provide feedback on the writing, so his math writing has improved enormously since he started precalculus with them last year). His science fair and robotics projects have not generated much writing yet, but he’s been keeping notes in his science-fair lab notebook and has a draft of the general introduction to his science fair project, so I’m hopeful that he’ll produce a decent report this year without too much prodding.  (His previous science fair reports are good, but took a lot prodding to get him to complete.)

Overall, I think that the writing he has done this year has been good for him and has not been much different in quantity than if he had been in school.  He’s felt less pressured about it, because each writing project has been one he has chosen, or at least agreed is a necessary component of something he has chosen.  We’ll see whether he can do the writing needed for the Shakespeare class he is taking this spring (in preparation for a trip to Ashland), or whether the prompts there turn out to be too inflexible for him.

2011 October 25

Home schooling weeks 5–8

Following up on Home Schooling week 4, this post describes our 2nd month of home schooling.  We had another meeting on Monday with the consultant teacher to touch bases and check on progress.

Spanish 3
Nothing particularly new here.  He still likes the instructor and still is doing well on tests.  They’re learning the subjunctive now.
English reading
He decided not to revise his essay on Brave New World—the corrections needed were fairly minor, but he didn’t see much point to fussing with an essay that he really didn’t care about.  He finished his map of Gethen for Left Hand of Darkness and has started on the essay about Newspeak for 1984. The essay on Newspeak will be as much linguistics as anything else, building on his interest in conlangs. I don’t know what book is next on his assigned reading list, but probably not another dystopia. He has, of course, been continuing about a book every 2 days of recreational reading.
We’ve decided to drop the creative writing idea for this semester.  We’ll look at it again next semester, and we’ll also consider his taking a tech writing course over the summer (either this summer or summer 2013) to catch up on the writing requirements.
 He added a few more events to the timeline, so he is up to about 20 events that have some snippet of information with them.  He was able to demonstrate the timeline to the teacher this time, and he has agreed that he will (eventually) put it on-line to share with other students.  He’ll have to add links to further information (even if only Wikipedia pages) for each entry and make sure that all his images are released with a license that lets him use them.  (Many are Wikimedia images, which are all under Creative Commons license, but he has a few from other web sites that he’ll have to check on and either get permission for or replace.)
He  is mostly off-book now for the lead villain role in the play he is doing, and they have blocked most of the scenes.  I think that this play has the most lines of any of the plays he’s been in so far, but the character is a fairly simple melodrama villain, so there isn’t a lot of complexity to the part.  His improv class continues to be fun, but the average age of the kids is a bit lower than in the play production, so I think he is occasionally a bit frustrated with the quality of some of the improv.
Physics C
 We had three meetings now of the Physics lab and have been making good progress on reading the book, doing problems, writing programs, and doing lab work.  About all that is missing is doing technical writing.  I think I’ll make the students write up the modeling they’ll be doing of springs (see Physics Lab 4: spring constants and Physics Lab 4: spring constants continued).  I also had a good conversation about the physics curriculum with my airport limo driver. 
We’re on schedule for finishing Part 1: Mechanics in the Matter and Interactions text before the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam. I’ll take that exam along with the students in the spring.  Next year, my son and I will do the second half of the text, and in his senior year, he’ll do a chemistry course somewhere (probably at the community college).
 The top-of-tether box is done (other than some strain reliefs).  We have ordered waterproof strain reliefs for doing the dry box penetrations, which we hope will come in the next week.  We decided to go with those and home-made waterproof disconnects rather than IP68 connectors, since we can seal the penetrations with casting resin if needed, and the home-made connection boxes can hold some of the electronics (like the ethernet-to-USB converter).  I’m not 100% convinced that the homemade connection boxes are a good idea, but it shouldn’t cost any more than the IP68 connectors.
It took longer than planned to get the strain reliefs, because of some miscommunication between the students and me.  I was looking for a parts list to order, and they just had a list of cable measurements.  Finally my son and I sat down with the measurements and the computer and spent an hour finding and ordering strain reliefs that should meet the requirements.  (We ended up with Sealcon strain reliefs ordered from, because Digi-Key did not seem to have what we needed.)
The students have also started assembling the motor controller that I designed as an Arduino shield.  We have an earlier version that I designed that would work for them, but the newer design should be a little easier to work with if they decide to mix motors and servos.  (It also has some LEDs to show whether or not power is being supplied.)
We have a pressure sensor soldered to a breakout board now and it seems to work.  We tested it using Lego pneumatics.
In two or three weeks the machine will be ready to put in the water and start testing (there will need to be a fair amount of programming before they can actually control the robot).
Machine Learning (Science Fair)
He’s gotten the input parser written and abstract base classes for his classifiers.  He’s not been putting in much time on this project, so things are not looking good for him getting it done by science fair.  His teacher has asked him for a one-page lay-person’s overview of what his project involves.  He’ll need that for the science fair poster and report, and it would be good for him to write this in the next 2 weeks.
Calculus BC
The AoPS Calculus class has been going fine, though he is a little behind schedule on the homework.  He likes the class and the instructor, but it takes him much longer to write up the problem solutions than it should.  I don’t know whether the problem is with insufficient facility with the math or whether is it another symptom of his writing problem. 
Physical Education
He continues the usual 4 hours of bicycling a week (plus nightly sit-ups and leg lifts).  He’s biked about 270 miles since the beginning of the school year. He gets a PE credit for every 15 hours of exercise, so he has earned 2 so far.  He has 5 from 9th grade PE last year, so he only needs to earn 3 more, which will take about 3 months of bicycling to the community college.  If he takes Spanish 4 there next semester, then he’ll have cleared his required PE this year.

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