Inside the Mommyvan

Homeschooling & Life Inside the Mommyvan - an old dog learning new tricks


My kids, like my husband and I, are fascinated with anything that has to do with outer space. We kicked off our school year with a star party at Kennedy Space Center during the Perseids meteor shower, and the educational activities that UF Astronomy students provided really inspired me to find ways to make science more interesting this year.

One thing that really caught the attention of my crew during the KSC visit was that a few different people talked about the “Mars generation” — that the first astronauts to travel to Mars are, right now, kids around their age. I thought I’d capitalize on this surge of interest, and a little poking around on NASA’s websites found a page chock full of Mars resources for educators. The main Mars Exploration site is another good starting point, and NASA’s main educational resources page if you have interests outside of just the red planet.

You’re in training, I told them. If you want to be the first humans on Mars, now is the time to start learning all you can about your mission. They’re eating it up. Even when it’s about side topics like what’s up with all those GPS satellites?

A big hit has been the Surviving and Thriving on Mars [PDF, 5.3Mb] activity booklet. Color printing makes a striking front-and-back cover page holding 16 (B&W) pages of games, coloring, puzzles, and Mars facts.

Destination: Mars [PDF, 1.1Mb] from Johnson Space Center has activity guides for teachers/parents and worksheet pages for students on everything from orbital dynamics to imaginary Martians.

I loved the Mars Match game [PDF, 4,2Mb] from the Phoenix Mars Mission robotics lessons page. We got into a great discussion about how scientists can figure things out about places we can’t get to ourselves from images alone, and what other types of data they use to answer questions about what might be happening on planets in our solar system and elsewhere!

If you have access to Discovery Education videos, Red PlanetRover [43 min.] is a great addition to these activities, following the Curiosity rover and the NASA engineering and science teams through the first 200 days of its mission.

Science is, for me, the easiest subject to make into interesting learning that they maybe don’t even realize is schoolwork, but it still takes some imagination and some preparation. NASA has a wealth of resources that make all of that even easier!

Well, <h1> (in html) used to strike me. But i do html with ease <h1> is heading (h) 1! I started with javascript, went to python, then to html, then css. 4 languages fast I enjoy this. You should too, or at least try to!

If you learn other languages like java, python, or css first. But it’s very wise to start with python. And how did I learn it? You will say “of course” but, i used python for kids! Its not just for kids. Adults find it fun! They find it most fun doing it with their kids! (the kids think it is very very very fun with parents too!)

I hope you find yourself telling everyone else this:

(you don’t need to read all this, its the same thing up there! 🔝🔝🔝)

“Well, <h1> (in html) used to strike me. But i do html with ease <h1> is heading (h) 1! I started with javascript, went to python, then to html, then css. 4 languages fast i enjoy this. You should too, or at least try to! If you learn other languages like java, python, or css first. But its very wise to start with python. And how did i learn it? You will say “of corse” but, I used python for kids its for adults to! Trust me! Do it with your kids and both of you find this activity fun!”

We spent some time at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa yesterday. One topic of discussion this morning was the high-wire bike, and why the kids woule never ever go on it.

We did a little science project about center of mass and how it affects balancing, and now they can’t wait to ride!


We got our copy of Adventures with Atoms and Molecules in the mail last week, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.

I love that it has simple, straightforward experiments that demonstrate physical and chemical principles, without asking kids to figure out concepts that are far above their level of knowledge. There are plenty of science experiment books out there, and this is an important thing to remember when using any of them. At this age (we’re ramping up for 2nd grade), students need to observe, record, and learn from the experiments. These activities shouldn’t be “magic tricks” that are never explained, nor should they be unfathomable mysteries.

This morning we watched (groups of) molecules move and talked about the differences between how the molecules move in warm water, cool water, and ice:




Kids love to play with magnets, and there are some great learning experiences to be had with even a small educational magnet kit.

Those iron filings, though. They create such a beautiful illustration of magnetic fields for young and old alike, but the potential for a disastrous mess–especially with younger students–makes me dread even opening the container.


Until today’s brainstorm: my trusty Ziploc bags to the rescue! I dumped the iron filings into a large (gallon-size) zipper bag and sealed it up. With the help of a paper plate or thin piece of cardboard, I can now make those beautiful field line images, and even let the kids fool around with them, with no mess!


This is the magnet kit we’re using. It comes with a bar magnet, two sizes of horseshoe magnets, iron filings, and a batch of small steel pellets that are great for comparing the strength of different magnets.

I have another guest post at Parentwin:

Last fall, one of my young students began to struggle with a particular math concept. In his case it was adding mubers with sums just beyond the next ten, like 8+7 or 43+9, and doing similar subtractions “across a ten.”. i put that away for a bit and moved on to some different math topics, thinking maybe we just weren’t quite ready to tackle that. The “Asian math” curriculum we’ve been using as our primary is known for being fairly rigorous and fast-paced.

When i revisited it in December, the results were no better; if anything it was worse. i tried every teaching methid i could think up or read about, but nothing seemed to stick with this child. ALL of the manipulatives came out: the unit blocks, the base-ten set, the abacus, the ten frames. i drew oictures and diagrams. I explained with words and we counted on our fingers. We used online programs and iPad apps to make it more interesting. I offered bribes and made dire threats. He could get to the correct answer by brute force (and, interestingly, he had many of the sums between 10 and 20 already memorized) but i could tell that he just wasn’t gettting the key concept.

(That concept, for those interested, is that the “ones” being added are split into two parts. First enough are “given” to the other addend’s ones digit to complete “the next ten” and then the remainder become the ones digit of the sum. 28+5 becomes, first physically with blocks or abacus and then on paper with little tens-and-ones pictures and finally with numerals, (28 + 2) + 3, and on to 30 + 3, and finally 33. That they learn this before the old “carry the one” vertical addiition algorithm is critical to developing strong mental math skills.)

We’d hit a brick wall. This child was going nowhere, and I had exhausted all of the topics with which I could work around this one. If we were going to progress, I had to find a way to get this idea into his brain. My patience was wearing thin at this point, and i was about ready to throw in the towel and… i don’t even know. We even tried an outside enrichment program, to no avail (it wasn’t a very good one).

Finally, I took a leap and putchased another popular math curriculum. I’d prevoiusly shied away from it because it seemed to have a lot of busywork, drill quesns which looked like duplicates of work we were doing online. it wasn’t cheap for something i wasn’t even sure we’d use, but i was desperate. It devotes a couple dozen pages to slowly building this particular topic up, step by tiny step. Surely the kids would be bored before we were halfway through, going over and over the same material.

I pulled every page relevant to our trouble topic out of both the main text/workbook and the supplement. i reviewed the first baby step with our manioulatives. I took a deep breath, and set the first page in front of him. He breezed through it! We tried two more pages the next day… same result. I could see the light bulb flickering to life! Before long, he’d made it through the entire section. Best of all, he’s gotten a taste of success where previously there had been only frustration, and he’s enjoying it! He is now doing sums in his head that he could previously do only with base ten blocks and lots of coaching.

Often, a failure in the classroom – even a homeschool classroom – is unilaterally placed on the student’s shoulders. It’s inattention, carelessness, laziness or willfull obstinance, even a learning disability. For some students this is accurate, but before slapping one of thise labels on we need to be sure it’s not instead a failure of the teaching. As homeschoolers, we have the luxury of slowing down, even backing up to try a different teaching method or curriculum, but we must remember to take advantage to that and not be slaves to the checkboxes in our lesson planners. In our case, a simple change from one math book to another was the ladder we needed to hop right over that brick wall we’d slammed into a few months back.

Making the rounds recently is the idea that computer programming skills are a “superpower,” especially in reference to teaching programming to kids. I don’t think this is far from the truth, with one important caveat: how it’s taught can make or break the entire learning experience. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is all the rage in education these days, but often overlooked is the fact that the real power of STEM is not in its results, but in its methods.

The ability to display a colorful web site, make a robot crawl across the floor, or have alien creatures chase each other around a smartphone screen can seem like high wizardry, but how one gets there is where the keys to the universe lie. There are any number of simple, drag & drop interfaces which can be used for website design, even for sites that include interactive features. Actual programming isn’t far behind. Kids can open up a visual editor, follow some instructions in a book, and end up with a working computer program or a functional robot in an afternoon. This is fantastic, especially to those of us who remember a time before personal computers, but that part alone will not bestow any superpowers.

The real magic comes when they explore, think outside the box, make plans, and try to build something from that blueprint. It happens when they fail, figure out what went wrong, and then make it work again. It happens when their creation breaks and they figure out how to repair it, or when they want a new feature and work out a way to add it on. It happens, perhaps most of all, when they discover the fatal flaw in their original design and go back to the drawing board with their hard-earned knowledge.

I cannot even begin to enumerate the areas of my life in which these skills have proven invaluable. Even setting aside the large segments of my career that have been directly involved with programming computers and related technology, I have been able to use my superpowers to make nearly every area of my life easier, more successful, and more enjoyable. Cooking dinner, planning vacations, buying houses, going fishing… things that would seem to have little to do with science or technology still benefit from the analytical thinking, problem-solving, figuring-out, and general stick-to-it-ness that comes along with a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of science & technology.

There are many tools which can help kids along this path, again with the proviso that how they are used can make all the difference. Simply following instructions to end up with a working whatever does nothing to exercise a child’s brain, at least the part we’re talking about here. Building and programming alone won’t do it. Allowing kids to be successful right out of the gate, while useful encouragement in small doses, teaches little. The words we need to be using are: brainstorming, designing, planning, analyzing, problem solving, experimenting, figuring out, breaking, fixing, and sometimes even starting over.

Last week I came across the Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles, a game that can be used to teach these superpowers to children as young as preschoolers. It’s not a new concept—the Logo turtle, in various incarnations, has been used to teach kids programming for over 40 years—but the idea of making it a physical, face-to-face interaction thing in the simple, familiar format of a board game is brilliant. Up front it says the game is for 3-8 year olds, but the game designer (a geek dad of twins) has developed an additional set of rules for older kids and adults too. This campaign wraps up in a couple of weeks, and the game may not be available after that, so if you’re interested in giving your kid superpowers, grab it now.


Graphs are fun. It’s a nice break from the fact-memorizing, the math-sentence-building, answering “Do I do this with plus or minus?” for the 73rd time this morning.

Today was graphs. Embracing the Singapore Math model to its fullest, we built graphs with colored shapes. We identified one problem with using different shapes in our graph, in that they don’t line up with one another very well. We moved on to making math link cubes, in matching colors, to represent each shape.

From there, it was on to picture and symbol graphs on paper, plus a Discovery Education video showing different types of bar graphs. Finally, we did a few SM worksheets, reading graphs printed on paper, into which were snuck a few difference problems. It was fun to watch the kids pull a lesson from last week out of their brains, finding “how many more” and “how many fewer” using subtraction sentences. I’m not sure they even realized they were doing it, but I sure did, and it is reassuring to know that some of it is sinking in!

Lego bricks are a wonderful thing.

Anyone who spends time around kids knows how great they are for young children, encouraging creative play, fine motor development, spatial reasoning (a fancy name for understanding how things work in a 3-D world, a very early precursor to mechanics / engineering / physics concepts), sorting into various different categories (color, size, etc. — this is a cornerstone of both early math and science), even teamwork and following directions (for the kits that come with building plans). Later on, a world of motors, gears, and programming robots awaits to take older kids deeper into the increasingly important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas.

I’ve even heard it said that they could be used for home defense, as any parent who has found Lego bricks in the dark with their bare feet can imagine.

There are many ways that Lego pieces can be used as math manipulatives. Just do a web search for Lego and math, and you’ll discover tips and lesson plans for everything from preschool-level color identification, sorting, and pattern-making to fractions, graphing, statistics, and more.

One concept that popped up here during Lego play one day was multiplication. Although it will be a while before my own kids are memorizing their times tables, they are already “getting” the concept of multiplication while working on addition: they know that 2 + 2 = 4, and that 4 + 2 = 6, so it’s a short Lego bricks logical jump to 2 + 2 + 2, or three twos, is also equal to 6. Did you get that? Three twos make six. 3 x 2 = 6.

They didn’t quite get it at first, but one of the most common Lego bricks illustrated the concept perfectly. See the red one there in the middle? Three rows of two studs each. 3 x 2. I pulled a few more bricks from the bin and we looked at their “multiplication stories” — 2 x 6, 2 x 2, 4 x 4, 1 x 4 — which happen to be very similar to the names commonly used to refer to the size of a brick or plate (“one by four” or “two by two”).

Suddenly I saw light bulbs flicker to life above my little students’ heads. Multiplying is almost the same as adding, which they already understand. In fact, multiplication is adding, just a shortcut to adding the same number together many times. As is true for other math ideas, it’s a lot easier to see in some concrete way for the first time, or the first several times. When the manipulatives are something as fun as Lego, the learning sometimes seems to happen all by itself!

We’re working on basic math facts right now, and as any parent of a grade-schooler knows, this part — as with most things that require rote memorization — isn’t much fun. It’s essential, though, for them to have the basics drilled into their heads until they come as naturally as walking, because these are the tools they will use when they’re doing more advanced math later on.

The basics right now are the “number bonds” (as the Singapore Math curriculum calls them) up to ten. That means that they’re working on all the ways to add two numbers to make any sum up to and including 10. I especially like the “number bonds” concept because it encompasses subtraction and the beginnings of algebraic thinking using single-digit numbers, without much more work on the part of the student.

My younger readers (or those with older kids) may already know this, but for those of us who attended grade school in the stone age, it’s a new way of thinking. Here’s the old way: addition facts (1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, etc.) now, subtraction next year, word problems after we’d memorized the number facts, and algebra much later on.

The new way is to learn number bonds or number families, and the whole & part operations related to a number family all at once: for example, we worked on 5s today. 5 has three number bonds, one for each set of addends: 0 + 5, 1 + 4, and 2 + 3. For each “family”, they wrote down the addition and subtraction facts, plus some missing number problems — this is the algebraic thinking that will serve them well in years to come — e.g. 2 plus what equals 5?

There are also “number stories”, where pictures and words are used to help the kids grasp the idea of part and whole — a concept as important as the number facts themselves. The picture might show a group of 6 animals with various distinguishing characteristics: standing vs. lying down, different colors, babies vs. adult, and so on. The student is to come up with as many different “stories” as they can about the picture, such as “Three dogs are sitting and four are standing up. How many dogs are there altogether?” This reinforces the part-and-whole thinking that gives meaning to the addition and subtraction facts they are memorizing at the same time: 3 (sitting) + 4 (standing) = 7 (all of the dogs). For a subtraction-based story: of the seven dogs, four are standing up; how many are sitting (translation: 7 – 4 = __ )? This is sure to take some of the pain out of deciphering word problems later on too!

At the end of the day, though, they still have to memorize those basic number facts, and repetition is the way to get there. Nothing says the repetition has to be bland worksheet after worksheet, though, so I have been on the hunt for ways to make these drills fun. Ihit on some real winners yesterday, activities from The School Bell’s Number Family area. On the Worksheet Packet page, the “T-Bar & Puzzle” worksheets were a big hit! After writing all of the addition facts in the T-Bar section, they got to color, cut, and paste the puzzle pieces… and then write the numbers again underneath each completed block. The Number Family Booklets are also turning out to be fun — I’ve skipped the circle mat and counters, and just let them draw little X’s or spots instead of writing the numbers in each half of the circle on the booklet pages.

I hope these resources help, and please share anything you’ve found to make this math memorization process more fun!