Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Questions for History Sources

I just finished reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially teachers and homeschooling parents and teens. Most of the book discusses how US history high school textbooks focus on white ethnocentric nationalism and heroism rather than teaching real, balanced history (not even close) and why they do so. It also gives a more complete picture of Columbus, Thanksgiving, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He discusses how to make history more engaging by igniting curiosity and asking questions of young scholars.

In the Afterward, Loewen present five questions students should ask when facing a source, be it a textbook, museum exhibit, or other source (pages 360-361, second edition). While these directly address history, I think they could be used similarly for any source. Students then learn to discern and think for themselves. I will paraphrase them here.

1) When and why was the source written or painted or produced? Who is the intended audience? What is the speaker intending? What is the social context (called contextualization) for the source?
2) Whose viewpoint is presented in the source? Whose viewpoints are omitted? An interesting project he suggests here is to have students rewrite the story from a different viewpoint, learning that history is not just factual information presented from one way.
3) Is the account believable? Does it contradict itself?
4) Is the account backed up by other sources? Or do other sources and authors present contradicting viewpoints and information?
5) Finally, "how is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented"? Or whatever the subject. This helps ferret out some of question one - what is the speaker intending?

Loewen then says, "Readers who keep these five questions in mind will have learned how to learn history." (361)

Asking these questions would take up a lot of time in a history class, which typically teach to the test in today's educational milieu. But as homeschoolers, we can give our children fabulous keys to real learning and discernment while also teaching them history by using these questions as a framework for advanced scholarship. While these are written for high school students, a version of them can be presented to younger students as well. When my 9-year-old and I read Story of the World together, for instance, we notice the author's bias towards Protestantism and the patterns of history presented that focus on conquest. Or when we read the Little House books, we discuss her perspectives on Native Americans.

History is alive and dynamic, not dead and boring. By following these critical thinking steps, we can teach our kids not only facts but also how to think wisely about those facts as they are presented. That's good learning!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Complete Homeschooling Curriculum for Free (Or Really Cheap)

Want to give your kids a world class education without spending any money? Here are my suggestions for a well-rounded home-based education that requires little or no money. Assume that all books are obtained through the library (learn how to use your local library's inter-library loan system). Also see what your local public school system has to offer homeschoolers; my kids participate in a once-a-week enrichment program that provides us with free curriculum. Museums often offer discounts to homeschooling families and groups, and they also offer free days. Trade lessons with friends: maybe you can offer child care or help remodeling a kitchen or canned tomatoes in trade for music lessons or mentoring. Visit thrift stores regularly and look through the education, books, and nic-nack sections - I've found science kits, books, unused anatomy coloring books, a decent globe, pencils, and book shelves for almost nothing at our local thrift stores. Book swaps are another great place to find free currciulum. Here are a few other tips by subject. Post your scores and ideas in the comments!

Language Arts

Read books. Visit the library weekly. Try new libraries and get cards to any system you are near.

Invite kids to write a lot: shopping lists, letters to cousins or pen pals, journals, texting with friends online. My daughter is currently almost 10; she and a friend are using Google Docs to write stories together. Then I (with their permission) read what they have written and offer feedback. I teach them about proper formatting and grammar, and ask questions about what they have written. When you give feedback, keep it positive. Tell your child what stood out for you and what you wondered about. Tell them what you can see clearly in your mind as you read.

Here is the key to homeschooling in my mind: Keep reading and writing focused on your child's interests. There will be time to encourage them to explore areas outside their comfort zones and in new subjects or formats. But they will only be able to get something out of those subjects and formats if they have a solid foundation of reading and writing that they really own for themselves. That comes from loving to read and wanting to be a good communicator. That's why focusing on their interests is so important.


This is the one subject homeschooling parents stress about the most. Don't. Consider that math has two levels. The first is foundational. Expose your kids to how you use numbers every day - time, shopping, cooking, banking, sewing, weather. etc. You'll be surprised once you start to look how much you use numbers (aka math) without even noticing. Cook with them. Sew with them. Garden with them. Speak out loud the calculations you make about dinner, shopping, budgeting, etc. Not in a forced, annoying way, just as you go through your day together.

The second part of the foundational level is to play games that teach math. We played the game Speedy Eddie a lot with my oldest - it teaches counting and adding in a simple way without being obvious or boring. We played Dino Math Tracks to learn place value, and used the cute dinosaurs as counters with our younger child. We play Set to explore mathematical thinking. We play with tanagrams (you can print them of the internet) and Lego and blocks. I have spent money on Lego or course, but I've also scored them at thrift stores and gotten gifts from family and friends.

How do you get free games? First, I think games are worth the investment. But again we rely on our community. Trade games with other homeschooling families. Look at thrift stores. Check local Freebie sites and newspaper listings for sales when schools go out of business. Ask for board games for birthdays and holiday gifts. You can score a ton by tapping into the community.

Another way to get free games is to make them youself. Google prinatable math games plus the age group or skill you are looking for. Include you kids in the creation of the game and any manipulatives you make. See for some ideas

The above suggestions will build a foundation of mathematical thinking in your students' minds. The next level of math engagement comes when they are 9-12 years old. You can get math text books and "What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know" books at the library. You can join local math clubs and gaming clubs. You can get all the math education you need on Kahn Academy ( And then, as they get older, they can take community college math classes if they want more than what Kahn offers. Our local public schools have a concurrent enrollment program that pays for high school students (in school and homeschooled) to take community college classes.


Three main sources: 1) Documentaries from the library. 2) The book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. 3) Story of the World, a four-volume series of easy to digest world history. 

I recommend reading Lies first, as it will give you a lens through which to read Story. We read Story of the World aloud while the kids color the coloring pages (print from online sources related to the subject or photo copy from the supplemental material). Interested students can watch documentaries on periods of interest. Older students should read Lies themselves.

Oh, actually, a fourth fabulous source: historical fiction. Book Shark ( has great lists of historical fiction if you need ideas, or ask a librarian for suggestions. There is also a great list of historical fiction at here. Order the books through the library, read together, discuss, and look up questions online. This could be your whole history curriculum, but be sure to research online what is factual and what isn't. That's a whole education in itself, and you will discover how history isn't a done deal but is full of mystery and controversy.


You know all those questions kids ask about the world? That is the foundation for your science curriculum. You, too, will learn a ton by simply following the trail of questions. This is what Google is for. Also, again, the library. The non-fiction kids books are a fabulous resource for subjects of interest like bugs, clouds, pH, ocean animals, and so on. You can also get science videos and books on science experiments to try at home at your local library. Think this isn't educational? Try it for a few years and notice what your kids have learned. 

Go outside. Visit local waterways with binoculars, a net (thrift store or an old hanger and a piece of mesh), some little clear containers, and a magnifying lens. 

Visit the local science museum and aquarium. This can get very expensive, and while I again see this as money well worth it, you can also seek out free days and homeschool group feild trips. Ask about a discount on memberships for homeschooling families. Ask for memberships for birthdays and holidays from relatives. 

As kids get older, if they show an interest and aptitude for science, look for internships. Museums, zoos, non-profits and the like often offer internships. Sometimes these are even paid, though more often they are not. They offer invaluable experience. 

The Arts

Repeating myself here, but the resources are the same. Library fiction and non-fiction books, thrift stores (paper, colored pencils, paint, the works!), free days at the local art museum. In our neighborhood there is an organization called DAVA (Downtown Aurora Visual Arts) that offers free art classes for kids every day. Some homeschoolers take art classes at thr local public  and charter schools, or join after school art clubs. Some libraries offer art (and science) classes for free. Local community and rec centers offer classes at very affordable prices. For ideas of course there is Pinterest, but also I love the website She has great ideas for linking literature and art. 


Most libraries offer free downloadable music. They have books on learning music and music theory. Thrift stores and yard sales often have musical instruments available (like shakers and xylophones - don't buy that old violin unless you know a good, affordable repair person). As I mention above, you may be able to barter or trade for music lessons. The local symphony often offers free or reduced day time concerts. Some homeschoolers join the local public or charter school band.

Physical Education

Go play! Hike, go to the park and climb, ride bikes, go swimming, dance. Our local rec program has affordable sports programs, too, if you kids are drawn to organized sports, and some kids join school sports teams at charter, parochial, or public schools. 


What have I forgotten? I think you can take these ideas and apply them to any subject or interest. What freebies have you found?

Summer Pagan Homeschooling

Today we made lavender wands. We picked lavender from the front yard, peeled off the leaves and wove them with purple thread. My daughter struggles some with fine motor skills, and is a perfectionist, so this resulted in a huge blow up (on her part - I've been able to grow a lot of patience by identifying that a lot of her traits are very Aspie). After she calmed down, I sat with her on the couch and we wove hers together. I talked out loud about the tricky parts: "Ooh, here's the part we keep getting confused on because the flowers poke through." I wanted to model that it is hard while also helping her through it. Success! We got a wand and we moved through the "I'm bad at everything!" bit.

Then she asked me what a lavender wand is used for. A friend of hers is getting interested in magic. I had explained that I would teach them magic if they are interested, but that magic and energy work are real and not something to just stumble around in, conjuring up any random energy. So I realized that this lavender wand, which I was originally just doing as a craft, could be a good place to start with magical instruction. So we wrapped the whole stem of the wand and sewed it down to make it more magic wandish. Then we set an intention for it and smudged both the wand and the girl.

I taught her then how to cast a circle. She was rather shy through the whole thing, but nodded shyly but with joy when I asked if she could feel it. She is rather sensitive, and I know that training her in magic and Reiki will help direct those sensitivities while giving her tools to manage her own energy (see the Aspie bit). Magic training has begun!