An Interest-Led Learning Expedition

Our sailing sloop, Infinity

Our sailing sloop, Infinity

History credits Christopher Columbus with opening the “Age of Exploration.”  We studied Columbus in the fall, and while the results were not as epic as the beginning of an age, our study did open the way for more exploration.  Our learning expedition kept us engaged up until the holidays, and now it seems that we have moved on to other areas of study.

The decision to study Columbus was mine.  I admire those teachers and homeschool parents who provide stimulating environments and provocations and then gently guide their students to take the initiative in project-based learning.  I have never become one of those teachers or parents.  My students, and now my children, have always seemed to need just a little bit more direction to keep them on track.  As I homeschool my boys, I always try to have areas of study waiting in the wings, but I also have plenty of flexibility to follow that study wherever it may lead.

Such was the case with Columbus.  I had planned to start some reading in early American history.  It just happened to be October, near Columbus Day, and I just happened to have some good children’s books on Columbus.  I did not merely set these books out.  I sat down and read Meet Christopher Columbus by James T. deKay with Jack, and I gave Thomas reading assignments, complete with a study guide for Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? by Jean Fritz.  Of the two books, I like Where Do You Think You’re Going? better because it gives a more balanced view of Christopher Columbus.  In his final writing assignment, Thomas was able to conclude that, “although he was a good sailor, Christopher Columbus was not a good leader.”  Jack’s book focuses only on the first voyage to the Americas, but that was enough for him.  Indeed, it was Jack whose interest was really piqued by our Columbus study.

Studying the Santa Maria

Assimilating what we’ve learned

Soon Jack was busy drawing pictures of ships.  We read about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, and even more ideas started percolating.  (It is so fun to watch Jack think because he is quite transparent.  Thomas is a little harder to figure out.)  After he had finished writing his assigned report about the Pilgrims, Jack wrote his “Yellow Pod and Green Pod” story.  It’s rather a compilation of things he learned from Columbus and the Pilgrims, and I have included it here.

Jack's ship pictures

Jack’s ship pictures

Of course, it was only a matter of time before we had to start making boats.  We used a You-Tube tutorial to make origami boats, but Jack was a little disappointed that they were not seaworthy for very long before becoming waterlogged.  We also used a large box from a friend to make our own sailing sloop.  It is pictured above, and though also not seaworthy, it was fun to make.  We even learned some sailing terms in the process.

Jack tried reinforcing our origami boat with duct tape.

Jack tried reinforcing our origami boat with duct tape.

Thomas engineered a rudder for a small cardboard ship model.

Thomas engineered a rudder for a small cardboard ship model.

I tried to find more library books about sailors and ships from the same era, but I had trouble finding very much at Jack’s second grade reading level.  I did find a book about Ferdinand Magellan.  I also checked out Pirates Past Noonwhich is part of the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.  This became Jack’s first independent chapter book.  He read it in a matter of days, and he has been hooked on the series ever since.  To date, he’s read about ten more Magic Tree House books.  They are a perfect fit for him.  He is building reading fluency and confidence, he his learning a lot of facts, and he is fostering an enjoyment of reading.  In my estimation, these are all good things.  Jack has also spent quite a bit of his allotted computer time on the Magic Tree House website, and he’s taken to carrying a notebook in his backpack just like the “Jack” in the series.

I was looking for Jack to do his chores, but I ended up unloading the dishwasher myself!

I was looking for Jack to do his chores, but I ended up unloading the dishwasher myself!

It is actually a Magic Tree House book that may determine our next area of study.  Shortly after reading Pirates Past Noon, Jack read Eve of the Emperor Penguin.    Much dramatic play ensued, with Jack in the lead role as “the Little Blue Penguin.”  I can’t be sure, but I think a polar expedition may be in our near future.  I’ll keep you posted . . . .

"Captain Jack" in the Infinity.*  I'll share some of our boat-making process next week.

“Captain Jack” in the Infinity.*  I’ll share some of our boat-making process next week.

*The idea for Jack’s pirate/Halloween costume came from his reading as well, but not from Pirates Past Noon.  This past summer he was immersed in the Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant.  In one of the books, Henry dresses up as a pirate.  Thus, our Halloween costume, which also works very well in a cardboard boat!



The Introverted Speaker

It has been almost a year and a half since I finished Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  The book piqued my interest, and I wrote a post about it.  I went so far as to think that introversion would have been a good high school speech topic.  Although I was a bit dismayed to come up with this topic about twenty years too late, the irony of the idea did not escape me.  Why was I, a shy, highly sensitive, introvert, thinking fondly of my time on the high school speech team?  I thought I should write some more about that.

Those were my intentions back in June of 2012.  The lavender and roses were blooming, and I took pictures in the garden.  Then life went on, winter came, and spring.  The lavender and roses bloomed again.  Now they are snug under their blanket of fall leaves, and I really should be blogging about “How to Roast Brussels Sprout for Thanksgiving Dinner” or something like that.  But no, today, I am blogging about an introvert on a high school speech team.

How does an introvert participate successfully on the high school speech team?


Many introverts are able to give effective speeches.  Susan Cain is a prime example.  Her introversion drove her to write a book on the subject, and to date her related TED talk has elicited over 5 million views.  How is this possible?

First, there are some introverts who are not necessarily afraid of public speaking.  I think I might be one of these.  Giving a prepared speech is much different than say, mingling at a party.  There are clear roles for a speaker and an audience.  You stand and speak.  They sit and listen.  When you are done, the audience (hopefully) applauds.  You smile, thank the audience, and sit down.  This seems much safer, to me at least, than mingling at a party.

Second, although many introverts and even a number of extroverts are afraid of public speaking, they can train themselves or receive training to overcome this fear.  They are probably still nervous, but the fear is not debilitating.  They can speak effectively on a subject that is important to them if they have had time to prepare.  This training and support is helpful even if debilitating fear is not an issue.  Susan Cain suggests that it is especially helpful for introverts to get the training they need to make public speaking easier.   It is this training, I believe, that made my high school elocution success possible and my high school years something I can think of fondly.

My training came in the form of a coach.  I woke up this morning thinking of him, and that is why I am writing today about introversion and high school instead of Brussels sprouts and Thanksgiving.

My high school coach sought me out at the end of my freshman year.  He wanted me to sign up for debate in the fall.  It seems that academically minded students do well on debate teams, and I fit into this category.   The only problem is that in a debate you have to speak and you have to make eye contact while you do this.

I signed up for debate beginning in the fall of my sophomore year.  It changed the course of my high school career.  Oh, I probably would have earned the same grades, but I wouldn’t have had the same experience.  It was definitely a change for the better.

At the beginning of tenth grade, I wasn’t really scared about speaking in public, but I wasn’t good at it either.  Picture a shy, awkward, underclassman.  That was me.  Now picture a high school teacher and coach willing to spend time helping this shy, awkward, underclassman because he believed in her.  Picture this coach simply talking to the student after school to encourage her to look him in the eye.  That was my coach and teacher.   Now picture a classroom, across the hall from the cafeteria, with an old couch and an overstuffed chair and all the desks pushed askew, as a safe place for like-minded students to congregate and feel accepted.  That was his classroom.

I loved that classroom, and I spent many hours there over the next three years.  I came to it early in the morning for “zero hour” debate and speech classes.  I usually returned to eat my lunch there with friends.  After school, I would often come back to practice before going home.  My high school was relatively small, five hundred students in all, and almost everyone on the debate team was also on the speech team and maybe in theater as well.  During the fall semesters, I participated in debate alongside my dependable partner and childhood friend, during the spring semesters, I gave informative speeches, and when the opportunity arose, I dabbled in theater.  I made good friends, and I had fun.  My speaking abilities improved, and I started bringing home trophies and contributing to our team victories.  I had an identity, and I liked it.

Concordia University, 1994 My high school dabbling allowed me to play the part of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during college.

Concordia University, 1994
My high school dabbling led me to play the part of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during college.

My teammates, my coach, and I were not all alone in the high school world.  We had our assistant coach, Tracy, who was as capable as she was kind.  We had our parents, and mine were certainly supportive.  My parents let me drive the second car so I could go to school early and come home late, often picking up or dropping off a friend along the way.  My mom helped me fine tune my writing, and my dad helped me make my visual aids.  We had other teachers.   The small school phenomenon meant that students who were in debate, speech, and theater, were also likely in the performing arts group if they were musically inclined.  Our eleventh grade English teacher was also our performing arts director.  He provided us with meaningful opportunities and inspired us to do our best.

If you, Dear Reader, were a member of this high school support group, thank you.

Dinner Theater 1992 Speech and performing arts often overlapped.

Dinner Theater 1992
Speech and performing arts often overlapped.

Most of the trophies I brought home are gone now.  Those that are left are somewhere in the attic.  But tucked in my jewelry box next to a lock of my firstborn’s hair, I have something better:  One day, after an event, our coach sat down with a legal pad and wrote little notes to everyone who had participated.  My note said Deb-nice job again.  The fact is, I hadn’t given a particularly stellar performance at this event.  I hadn’t brought home an award.  It didn’t matter.  I still got a note.  My coach still believed in me.  I kept that note in the pocket of the skirt I was wearing that day until I “grew out of” my teenage clothes.  It is well-worn and wrinkled, and now it is safely tucked away with my keepsakes, much like the lavender bushes are tucked away under the fall leaves.


Encouragement is a valuable commodity, and encouragement given to a teenager is especially precious.  One morning during the winter of my senior year, I arrived for our zero hour class in particular need of this precious commodity:  I was convinced that the speech I had worked so hard on was no good.  We were given an in-class assignment that day and uncharacteristically,  I couldn’t do it.  I just sat there, teary-eyed,  paralyzed with self-doubt.  My coach kept me after class, and he and Tracy asked what was up.  They told me everything would be all right and sent me on to my first hour class in a somewhat better frame of mind.  I never did quite as well as I hoped to with that speech, but my coach and Tracy were still right.  I did well enough, and the world did not end when I didn’t make it to the final round of the state tournament.  Everything was still all right because I was part of something bigger.  I was part of a team, and I was valued and accepted, imperfections and all.

In retrospect, my early morning breakdown was perhaps a foreshadowing of the depression and anxiety that would descend during part of my adulthood.  For a few years that paralyzed feeling became all too common.  Perhaps, if as an adult,  I could have continued my visits to the classroom across from the cafeteria, I would have fared better. . . .   That, of course, is fantasy.  The high school is far from my current home.  It has been remodeled, and the classroom, as it was, is no longer there.  My teacher and coach has retired and is hopefully fishing in relative peace and anonymity.

I miss him.

He took a shy, introverted student, and he taught her to make eye contact and deliver a speech.  More than that, he gifted her with confidence and a sense of self.  He gave her a place in the high school world.  This thank-you is probably far too public for someone trying to go fishing in relative peace and anonymity, but I couldn’t help myself.  I wanted to share this part of my story.  It is much more interesting than Brussels sprouts.










Savoring the Season


Our homeschool year is in full swing.  We are doing the work of learning, work that includes early morning hockey practices, violin and cello lessons, Sunday afternoon science experiments, and plenty of math and reading.  One of Jack’s reading selections is Frederick by Leo LionniFrederick is the story of a little family of mice who all seem to be busy getting ready for winter – all except for Frederick:

“Frederick,” why don’t you work?” they asked.

“I do work,” said Frederick.

“I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

And when they saw Frederick sitting there, staring at the meadow, they said, “And now, Frederick?”

“I gather colors,” answered Frederick simply, “For winter is gray.”

And once Frederick seemed half asleep.  “Are you dreaming, Frederick?” they asked reproachfully.

But Frederick said, “Oh no, I am gathering words.  For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

~ from Frederick by Leo Lionni, published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1967

I suppose we have been engaged in some Frederick-like work as well.  The autumn blue sky beckons, and we set aside our indoor pursuits.  We are off to the park, to the apple orchard, or to our friends’ 20 acres.  We soak in the sunshine and the colors, just like Frederick.





Back at home we continue our savoring as we cook some of the apples we have picked, and yes, even carve out time for a Halloween celebration.



The days are getting shorter; Daylight Savings Time is expiring even as I write.  But as the cold, dark, winter days approach, we plan to be well stocked with memories of autumn warmth, light, and fun.


Getting Up

Several nights ago, I read a thought-provoking post.  I found it on a pretty blog with pretty pictures, written by a pretty young woman – a blog that I like to read because I find it to be a pleasant diversion.  This particular post was about “making it happen.”  The writer is making the life she envisioned a reality.  “Making it happen” is the reason she is excited to get up in the morning.  Indeed, her blog stories suggest that she is successfully accomplishing her dreams, and I wish her all the best.  Nevertheless, instead of being pleasantly diverted, I found myself sighing.lakemichigan1

I would like to be excited to get up in the morning.  I would like to believe that I could get up and “make it happen.”  But I don’t.  Perhaps I am not as idealistic as I once was:  I am not the girl looking out my bedroom window at a sparkling blanket of snow and thinking that the world is a perfectly wonderful place.  I am not the twenty-something Christian school teacher, committed to excellence for my students at all costs.  I am not even the young mother envisioning an ideal childhood for my sons.

No, I am one who has come through a great sea of depression and is trying to stand now on the opposite shore.  Such a journey will change one’s perspective.  Hold your dreams lightly because they may be taken away.  And the waves still lap at my feet, and they sometimes knock me over, but I no longer feel as though I am drowning.


There is a name for this change of perspective.  The late Polish psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, called it positive disintegration.  Author, Martha Burge, describes it like this:

If you think about the person you were in your twenties or earlier, and then think about the person you are now, you’ll see a difference.  Your attitudes, beliefs, and view of the world have changed.  These changes happened when your view of the world no longer worked.  You had no choice but to let it fall apart and rebuild it so that you could handle the situation that was intolerable in your old view of the world.

But I still have to get up.  When the waves knock me down, I have to get up.  When the sun rises in the morning, I have to get up.  If I’m not going to “make it happen,” then why should I get up?


St. Paul has some words of advice:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.  Romans 12:1

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.  Colossians 3:23

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Colossians 3:17


Getting up and working with all my heart is my spiritual act of worship.  And it is completely appropriate to ask God to bless the work I do.

Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days….May the favor or the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.  Psalm 90:14 and 17

I will get up, and I will work with all my heart, and I will not do this perfectly, but through Christ, it will be my act of worship.  That is my perspective.  Some of my work may involve envisioning, planning, and reaching goals, and some of it will not.  My job is simply to walk the path God has given me.

And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

I will stumble, and I will fall, and my perspective may change yet again.  But God will pick me up.  He will never change, and His love will last forever.



1. Quote from Martha Burge, The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2012)

2. All Bible verses from the New International Version

3.  Photos by John David Duke Jr.  Taken at Lake Michigan, July 2010.



Last Week

Last week Jack lost one of his top front teeth.


He also started to learn the notes to “Etude” on his cello.

The temperatures warmed last week, and the ice melted, giving us a bit of a reprieve from skating.  We used our time in academic pursuits such as multi-digit multiplication and a trip to the library.

We were in the juvenile nonfiction section of the library looking for books on bees and bears.  We did find the desired books, and Jack also happened to see Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Medieval Castle by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degan which we had read in the fall of 2011.   “I love this book,” he said.  That’s always good to hear.  We checked it out again.

our medieval castle from October 2011

our medieval castle from October 2011

Thomas worked quite diligently on the aforementioned multi-digit multiplication.  He also put in some good violin practice, polishing pieces and working on long, straight, bows.

And yes, I did watch the next episode of Downton Abbey.  I really don’t like being addicted to a television show, but that appears to be the case.  I explained to my table full of boys that I like watching it because of the pretty dresses.  Thomas said, “You don’t even like t.v.  You ought to have a better reason than that.”  Okay, I really like the shoes too.  At least there are only two weeks left in the season, and then we can all move on to bigger and better things.

jackstooth2Besides, I think this fellow is at least as handsome as Dan Stevens.  Don’t you?




You know you’re an introvert when….

you have three library books featuring the word Quiet in the title.

This post is about just one of those books, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  I started with a Goodreads review, but there were just too many interesting points, and I couldn’t include them all.

Susan Cain is featured here, and after watching her TED talk, I decided to order her book from the library.  It is quite a comprehensive volume on introverts and how they differ from extroverts.  At times, I felt the material was a bit repetitive, but I made it through.  Here are some of the points that piqued my interest:

First, I was intrigued that certain chemicals in our brain may affect our introverted or extroverted temperament.  Some introverts, for example, have a genetic variation that causes them to process serotonin less efficiently than extroverts given a stressful environment.  This same variation, however, allows introverts to process serotonin more efficiently than extroverts given a healthy environment.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that effects mood (thus all the anti-depressant SSRI or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs on the market).  Those who have this genetic variation will be more likely than their peers to suffer from depression and anxiety under stressful situations, but they will also be less likely than their peers to experience depression and anxiety in healthy situations.

Dopamine is another chemical that is processed differently.  The dopamine pathways generally appear to be more active in extroverts than in introverts, allowing many extroverts to feel more of a “buzz” associated with exciting or rewarding experiences.  This is why extroversion is often associated with an adventurous and reward-seeking temperament while introversion is associated with a more cautious and risk-avoiding temperament.

Of course, the history books contain the stories of both introverts and extroverts, and we need both temperaments in our society.  Some notable introverts include Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.  A present-day introvert whom Cain compares to Eleanor Roosevelt is Dr. Elaine Aron.  She is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person.  Having read that book awhile back, I was pleased to see her work included in this study of introversion.

Finally, Cain sheds some light on how we might function more productively as a society given what we know about both introverts and extroverts.  For example, brainstorming as a group is a very popular workplace strategy, but studies show that this group work actually produces fewer ideas than individuals working alone.  Yes, we do need to work together sometimes, but not all the time.  The same might be said for the classroom.  Many conscienscious teachers learn that it is best practice to have their students work cooperatively in groups, and they work to implement this in the classroom.  Students do need to learn to work cooperatively, but again, not all the time.  Desks in rows might not be such a bad thing after all.

There is much more I could add, but I think I’ll stop.  Honestly, I did not know so much study had been done on the subject of introversion and extroversion.  If I were back on the the high school speech team, I think I could make this my topic.  How does an introvert successfully participate on the high school speech team?  Well, that might be the subject of another post…







Summer Reading

August is here with all the bounty of the summertime.  Festivals, farm stands, and fun in the swimming pool mark the days of August.  The days are full, but here in Buffalo, New York, we know they are fleeting.  Given the brevity of the season, I thought I’d better begin with my summer reading post while there is still a little summer left!

Long ago in one of my undergraduate classes, we learned that literacy involves the creation of meaning through writing and reading.  An author is most certainly engaged in creative work.  When I read her creation, I make meaning out of it for myself.  Reading and writing both qualify as “creative comforts.”

This summer I read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells.  The stories are set in Louisiana which makes for good summer reading.  Here in Western New York, I can even read comfortably and enjoy the fact that our summer temperatures rarely rise above the mid-eighties!

Both books center around Viviane Walker and her family, especially through the experiences of her daughter, Sidalee.  Little Altars Everywhere is actually the prequel to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  It was written first but often read second.  Opinions abound as to which book should be read first.  I would recommend reading Divine Secrets first and continuing with Little Altars if desired.  Little Altars Everywhere is darker and more intense.

I am puzzled by the reviewers who label the books as “funny.”  Interesting, compelling, and entertaining are descriptors I would use.  Funny is not.  Rebecca Wells offers her readers what I think is a poignant and engaging look at the human condition  viewed through the lens of central Louisiana culture.

The most pleasant chapters are set at the swimming hole and summer camp house at Spring Creek.  The most heart-wrenching chapters involve a lot of alcohol and “belt-whipping.”  The ending is more bittersweet than a fairytale, but love and forgiveness do prevail.

A few words of caution: I am not sure how I would feel about these books if I were either Catholic or from Louisiana.  Ms. Wells was raised as both and must be qualified to write about such things.  What she portrays is not always pretty.  If there were no dysfunction, then there would be very little drama.  We all are prone to a bit of dysfunction, but I think readers will realize that most Catholics and Louisianans are quite healthy and not nearly as dysfunctional as the Walkers and their supporting characters.  Additionally, the language can be a bit strong in places.  It is realistic, I suppose.  If I found myself thinking bad words after I was done reading for the day, I just watched an episode of All Creatures Great and Small to reprogram my language more appropriately!

Have you read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or Little Altars Everywhere?  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  The titles link to Amazon.com, but I’m sure you can find them at your local library.