Friday, February 28, 2014

Train Unit Schedule and Lesson Plan

I really only planned a unit on trains because there's a model railroad festival in Ogden every year, and one of my Young Women told me a long time ago that she and her family liked to ride FrontRunner (our commuter train) to Ogden, then get off and see the model railroad festival and the train museum at Union Station, and then ride FrontRunner home.

That sounded fun, and I had been wanting to plan a unit around it, but I didn't really think there was that much to learn about trains. Ha! Little did I know. We are now all train "enthusiasts" (as the English would call us) and we're so glad we got to learn more!

Throughout the unit we watched several good vidoes---the boys' favorite was a TV show called "Extreme Trains." There are 8 one-hour episodes, each featuring a different train (freight train, high-speed train, circus train, etc.) and they are really fun. They show a lot of interesting "how-it-works" type of stuff, and though they tend toward the dramatic (lots of footage of the host saying "AWESOME!" or "This is serious business!"), we really liked them. I got the entire first season (I guess there only WAS one season) from the library.

We thought this movie about a train in India was pretty interesting too.

And this video, about our own FrontRunner trains, was very good---we were happy we watched it before riding FrontRunner.

Here's a news video about a real runaway train (Sam and I saw a movie about this awhile ago---it was intense).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Drugs and the Brain, and Animal Intelligence

During this unit, we also discussed the effect of various drugs on the brain. Here are some interesting animations showing the effect of alcohol and other drugs on neurotransmission.

And we talked about the brains and nervous systems of animals; how they differ from and are similar to our own.

We loved this video of a smart crow doing a multi-part puzzle!

And thought these NOVA movies were interesting too (with the usual caveats; NOVA always has a tendency towards sensationalism):

How smart are animals? 
What are animals thinking?

We especially liked the part in the second video where it shows evidence of altruistic behavior in mice and monkeys. Fascinating!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stroop Effect, Conservation of Liquids, Mirror Neurons

A few things I had pictures for, that didn't fit in on my other posts:

We tried out the "conservation of liquids" test on Daisy, who is right on the cusp of that developmental stage. (Children under about 5 are unable to make this mental leap. When they see two identical glasses of water that are equal in amount, and then they watch you pour the water from one of the glasses into a taller glass, they still say that the taller glass has "more water.") Daisy, as expected, didn't understand that the amounts of water were still equal even though one looked taller. The boys were very delighted to see evidence of this phenomenon before their very eyes! :)
We also really liked doing the "Stroop Test," which involves first reading a paper like this:
and then one like this:
The trick is, you have to say the COLORS of the words, rather than the words themselves, on both images. You time yourself doing both versions and then compare your times. For a pre-reader (Daisy and Junie) it's very easy and there is no conflict! They just say the colors of the words. But once your brain is able to interpret what the words mean, the meaning and the color interfere with each other on the second image and your time slows way down! If you try the same test but this time read the word instead of saying the colors, most people have improved times. This shows that the brain prioitizes meaning over color (and understandably so).

The children loved doing this test! They thought it was so strange and funny.

One more note: this unit stretched over Valentine's Day, so on that day we had a little party and made valentines and homemade oreos (with pink frosting, of course), and then we talked about empathy and love and how those emotions help us understand and be kind to other people. We watched this interesting video about "mirror neurons" as part of that discussion.


We had a lot of fun learning about memory and working on tricks to improve our memories! We learned about mnemonic devices and practiced using them to memorize things. We played this game of "what is on the tray" (you look at the tray for 3 minutes, then take it away and have 5 minutes to write down what was on it). After doing our best to remember (we could get 7-10 of the 20 things), I told a story that incorporated all the objects. Then we tried again, and ALL of us (even me!) were able to remember all 20 objects! Amazing.

Then we picked some other things to memorize, and came up with our own mnemonics. Abe memorized the first 20 digits of pi, which he now enjoys spouting off at random times. :)
We did the same maze a few different times, to observe how much our times improved the 2nd and 3rd times through. Our brains are able to learn and improve so quickly!
I relied heavily on my old Psychology textbook for this unit (Meyers in Modules! I love it!) and it was really fun to relearn a lot of the things I found so fascinating in high school and college. I loved my psychology and Human Development classes.

We watched these two video clips from NOVA:

This post about short-term memory and long-term memory is really interesting
This video of memories forming is cool also!

This page has some great resources on memory.

We played "the eyewitness" game as described at that link---I had Sam come into the room (he was working from home that day) several times while we were having school, and do several very strange things. He changed clothes between appearances, and did things like whistling, putting things over his head, moving objects around, muttering to himself, etc. But he was kind of unobtrusive about it, so though most of us looked up when he came in, we didn't comment or otherwise engage with him. Later on, I asked the children to write down everything they remembered about what Daddy was wearing, what he had done while he was in the room, etc. It was HILARIOUS to read how vastly differing these "eyewitness" accounts were! And it showed us how very unreliable our memories can be, especially when we aren't deliberately choosing to encode information.

We also enjoyed this game (from the same website):
Sometimes your brain makes up its own memories. Try to "implant" a memory by asking people to remember the words on list 1. Wait about five minutes, then probe their memory by asking them which words on list 2 they remember.
List 1: read, pages, letters, school, study, reading, stories, sheets, cover, pen, pencil, magazine, paper, words
List 2: house, pencil, apple, shoe, book, flag, rock, train, ocean, hill, music, water, glass, school
Did they say that "book" was on list 1? Only pencil and school were on list 1.
Try these words:
List 1: sheets, pillow, mattress, blanket, comfortable, room, dream, lay, chair, rest, tired, night, dark, time
List 2: door, tree, eye, song, pillow, juice, orange, radio, rain, car, sleep, cat, dream, eat
Did they say that "sleep" was on list 1? Only pillow and dream were on list 1.
Make up your own lists and see if you can create a false memory.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Placebo Effect

We spent a day talking about Pain---what causes it, what it is for, pain management strategies, etc---and along with that we discussed the placebo effect.

Early on in the lesson I told the children how it had been proven that chocolate contained chemicals that increased people's ability to jump high. (I made it sound more convincing than that. :)) I said that there was a small, but measurable, effect that could be observed even right after eating chocolate. Then I said we would test it ourselves. I told the children to jump up as high as they could and touch the highest place they could reach on the wall. We marked their highest touches with tape. Then I gave them each a chocolate kiss to eat. Afterwards, I measured their jumps again---and every one of them was able to jump higher than the first time!

Then I told them they had just seen the placebo effect in action. Chocolate doesn't have any jump-improving properties (sad groans from the children) but the mind DOES have power over the body! Fascinating! We also watched this video (warning: there are two swear words in this video, but one is about 5 seconds in and the other is about 5 seconds before the end, so they are easily avoided) about the placebo effect.

Here is an interesting article we read about the placebo effect
We also took this opportunity to discuss "pseudoscience" and how to be on the lookout for it. Funny article here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Vision and Perception

Seb made this "3-D" Rubick's Cube, using perspective to make it look more real. He got the idea from this video.
We had a unit entirely on Illusion last year, and it was fun to revisit and expand on some of the optical illusions we talked about then, for our study of Vision and Perception. We watched this short video on "Magic and the Brain," and talked about why it is that our brain interprets the world the way it does, to allow it to be fooled. Our brains are so amazing! We realized that again and again during this unit.

We really liked this movie called "The Boy Who Sees Without Eyes," about a blind boy who uses echolocation to move and navigate the world. He does amazingly well! But the movie also brought up some interesting ideas about self-sufficiency and what constitutes real success in life. We recommend it!

Here it is from the side; you can see how elongated it actually is.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Cerebellum: Balance, Muscle Coordination, and Proprioception

We had a great time studying the cerebellum, which coordinates muscle movement and balance. We also learned the new word "proprioception." It refers to the body's ability to keep track of itself---to know, for example, where your arms are in physical space. (It's why you can touch your nose or your knee accurately, even when your eyes are closed.)

We also discussed other senses besides "the five senses"---things our body can sense, like gravity, motion, posture, heat, cold, pain, direction.

This post has some good ideas about activities that use balance and coordination:
Balance – You want your child to be able to balance and keep control of their body – it is key to coordination. What can you do? Spinning, bouncing, somersaults and cartwheels are great ways to develop balance. Encourage your kids to walk on curbs, on lines, balance beams and walk toe to heel and keep their balance. Standing on one leg, then hopping on one leg is also great! When they are ready for a new challenge – have them close their eyes! 
Body Awareness – It is important for children to be aware of their bodies! Kids who aren’t will bump into everything, and have poor posture. Some will pull on their clothing and even bounce on their toes when walking. How to help? When these kids are moving challenge them to move in certain ways. "Simon Says" is a great way for kids to mimic lots of movement and be aware of where their body is in space. Have kids bounce and jump while staying in one place. Hopscotch is a great way for kids to work on accurately moving their body and placing their feet.  
We did some of these same types of things---balancing on lines, walking with books on our heads, hopping, etc.
Junie and Daisy really loved doing this!

We also tried a bunch of "body illusions" (some good lists are here and here). These are really fun to try---the children LOVED them.

Our last activity was going to play at a playground and give our cerebellums a workout! :) As it was a very cold day, we did this indoors at the Carl's Jr. playground, which was extreeeeemely exciting to the children (they are always pointing it out wistfully as we drive by). We had a great time!
And this happened (Goldie wanted to get in on the climbing fun!)

Hooray for the cerebellum!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Fake Smiles; The Lie Game

During our discussion of the limbic system and emotions, we talked about body language and facial expressions, and we took pictures of each child giving a "real" (tried to get real ones, by making them laugh, but I'm not sure it always worked too well) and a fake smile. Then we mixed up the pictures to see if we could tell the difference. It's all in the eyes, apparently. They should be squinched, but not too squinched. :)
Curse those "scented markers" that smell like fruit or whatever! My children always have marker on their noses now.
Seb expounds upon a (probably false) point
I also, and it's possible I may regret this, taught the children what I have always called "the Lie Game," but maybe it's has another name? Here is how you play:

1. Each person writes down, in just one sentence, a true thing they've done or experience they've had---preferably something kind of unique or strange or memorable, and something that no one else knows about. Usually you want each person to write down 3-4 of these experiences, each on a separate strip of paper. Then gather all the strips, folded, in a bowl so no one except the moderator can see them. Some examples are things like, "I saw Steve Young" or "I broke a drinking fountain" or "I found $10" or "I got hit by a bird."

(Note: When you're all in the same family, and everyone is young and so no one ever does anything without anyone else knowing about it, it's a bit tricky finding experiences to use. But it can be done. The older boys could use things they'd done in scouts or choir, for example, and you can also use things that are kind of small and generic, like "I lost my CTR ring.")

2. The moderator (that would be me) pulls one of the strips out of the hat and calls up three people ("the liars?" I guess I'll call them "the talkers," since one of them isn't lying), one of whom is the person who REALLY WROTE the experience. The moderator reads the experience out loud.

3. The guessers (everyone BESIDES the three talkers) then ask questions of the three talkers, about the experience. "When did this happen?" "How did you do it?" "Where were you?" The three talkers all answer the questions AS IF THEY WERE THE PERSON WHO HAD THE EXPERIENCE. Two, of them, in other words, are lying. They have to talk convincingly about what happened, and the object of the game is to make the guessers believe YOU are the real person who wrote down the experience.

It's a game, in other words, that teaches you to be a good and convincing liar. Hmm. But I love this game! And the children really liked it too. Sebby and Abe were quite unnervingly good at it. Daisy was really funny---she kept saying things like "It was when I went to Cub Scouts" that were totally not believable, but were cute. :)
Malachi looks skeptical
One more thing we did on this subject was learn the names and talk about different phobias---very entertaining. You can find a large list of phobias (phobiae?) here.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Book of Aim Zing*

(*Cross-posted from my other blog)
I have a friend, Jena, from high school. (I also have a friend, Ginna, from high school, and my kids refer to them as "Tornado Jena" and "New Mexico Ginna" to keep them straight. I'm sorry you have to be "Tornado Jena," Jena.) Jena is one of those people whom everyone loves. I sort of wanted to resent her when she joined the cross-country team our senior year (she was one of those adorable, sporty soccer players) and instantly became one of the best runners on the team. But I couldn't. She was just too sweet, and funny, and fun. I had an AP Psychology class with her, among others, and I have nothing but good memories of that. Then we lost track of each other for a few years. And then somehow got in touch again, and suddenly we were writing long emails back and forth, exchanging favorite book ideas and parenting ideas and (later) homeschooling ideas, and it was like no time had passed. I'm so grateful to have friends like that!

That's a lengthy and sort of unnecessary introduction, because what I want to talk about isn't Jena herself, but this goal book she made. But I feel like in some ways, I have to start with Jena herself, because she is IN the book. It's fun and colorful and happy, just like she is. It's amazing, just like she is. Aim . . . zing. Ha!

Okay, so, here's the short version: Jena loves to draw and doodle and make lists, and every year she makes a goal book for herself. You can read her own words about it here (I love the way she writes). She uses it as calendar, planner, quote book, goal book, kids'-cute-sayings-book---everything. Every year it evolves. This year, she made it in downloadable format, and customizeable so that anyone can use it. It can be arranged in any conceivable way, for any conceivable use. And it is ADORABLE. Doodles and boxes and circles and clouds, all intended to make organizing your life easier and more fun.
I was intrigued when I read her posts (here and here) about how she uses her book. She breaks her goals into pieces---weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals---and looks at them throughout the year. She writes down quotes to memorize. She keeps lists and sorts things into categories. Her book is a work of art! I admit that, seeing how she used it, I wanted to try it myself, but I was a little reluctant, because I am NOT a goal-book type of person. I don't make New Years Resolutions. (Not in a militant, "I WILL NOT make them!" sort of way---I just . . . don't.) I don't like writing down goals. I do like spreadsheets. I do like being organized . . . but sometimes I don't like being organized. I love my iPad. I also love colorful pens and post-it notes. Unpredictable, that's me! :)

But I wanted to try it out anyway. Mostly, I was pulled in by how CUTE it was! Colors and doodles. It looked fun. And I was tempted to do everything exactly how Jena does it, so my book would be as cute as hers. But I reminded myself sternly that if I was going to benefit from this, I had to make it my own. I had to make it work MY way. 
Oh, good. My way. Thank you, Vizzini. What's my way? That was the question at hand. Well, okay, I use Numbers and Pages and a Calendar app on my iPad extensively, so this book didn't seem like it would be useful if it just reproduced those things. But the first thing I thought of was the little books I used to carry around with me in college---just notebooks where I recorded images; odd things I overheard or saw; the details of everyday (as pictured above). (For a masterpiece in this form, read this!) The iPad isn't very good for jotted observations---too much trouble to turn it on and find the correct app, and in digital form you can't have the fun of flipping through them for inspiration, or adding little descriptive drawings. So this goal book seemed like it might be just the thing.

And as I thought about it, the bon mots of the kids (as we call them) needed a home, too---somewhere close at hand and easy to peruse when you need a laugh. And a place to take notes in church---I still prefer paper for that (less clinical, more friendly, less liable to be mistaken for someone texting or playing Angry Birds). And doodling! While note-taking, if desired. I am not a master of the form like Jena is, but I have my own preferred methods.

With these ideas in mind, I started to get really excited about the book. First I had to find the perfect house for it. Jena's is all printed on beautiful linen-y paper, which I would have liked to do, but I just wanted to get going on it, so I used the cheap-o stuff we have around, and it's fine. The cover was a thorny issue, though. First I thought I'd use a cute binder, but I couldn't find one that was right. Then I tried using some cute paper in a binder cover, but I didn't like that either. Binders are . . . how can I put this? It makes no sense, but they just aren't . . . friendly, in my mind. They are kind of cold and poky and mean. But report covers . . . they hold their pages snugly, like a novel, and they're soft instead of hard. They are friendly! So I looked for one of those. And I found one in yellow! My favorite color, so that was clearly meant to be. :)
Ah, much better.

The report cover won't hold the whole year at once, but it will hold half, and that works fine for me. In June I'll switch my calendar pages over and we'll be good.
At the beginning of the book, there are pages and pages of boxes to fill in with . . . whatever. I told you I don't like writing down goals. But I DO like checking things off a list. So I wrote down things that I don't really think of as GOALS. Just stuff I (or we) want to do and it will be fun to do it, and this will give me a reason to do it, and remind me to do it, AND I get to check off a box. Yay!
I totally needed a place to write down books I want to read. I have been keeping a list on my iPad, and on Goodreads, but again, it's a pain to access, and because I never look at it (unless I'm adding another book to it) I always forget what the books are when I'm at the library. And now I can check them off when they're read. And remember what they were, if I want to recommend them or revisit them later (since I forget everything these days). 
Another thing I love to do is memorize things. Just ask Abe---every time I see one of those "Gettysburg Address: Learn it, Live it!" billboards by the road, I launch into a recitation and there's no stopping me. I love having poems to say to myself when I'm sitting and waiting for something or during a quiet moment (ha ha). So I thought it would be fun to memorize a poem every month. I printed out a bunch of these blank pages and wrote out the poems I wanted to learn. Now when I have a spare minute I can turn to them and work on learning them! And write analysis notes by them. It feels like I'm in college again. Yay!
There are pages that are useful for a traditional "to-do" list format. I like how I can use these for a whole month at a time (scheduling things to be done on a specific day stresses me out, and I avoid it if possible).
I know I said I love my iPad calendar, and I do (alerts! repeating events! color-coded by family member!) but I actually am finding it quite nice to have this one filled in with the basics as well. It gives me a picture of the whole month, and what is coming up, in a way the digital one doesn't. Also, it allows me to draw little pictures and write down menu ideas or other random things as they strike me. I made sure I just scribbled out my mistakes right at the beginning (rather than white-out or something), so I won't get all depressed when I inevitably spoil the symmetry of my writing or smear my ink. I have to allow myself to get somewhat sloppy or I won't use it! I like how there are blank boxes for just whatever on these calendars.
After each month's calendar (and each one is different, with a different color and quote and so forth) there are pages for daily goals and lists. These are the pages I'm using for my notes and observations and random thoughts. I LOVE having a place for these things; it makes me feel like a real writer again. So for example, I'd read a couple of quotes on paradox that I really liked, and I wanted to think about them more, but generally speaking I am so overwhelmed with trying to just survive the chaos of each successive moment that I always forget what it is I want to think about. :) But I wrote down the quotes and I left an empty box by them, and sure enough in church I heard several things that seemed connected to my earlier, half-formed ideas, and then because it was on my mind I encountered the subject again in a news article, and that gave me a few more ideas about it so I wrote those down too. I love thinking about something fruitful during downtime rather than running my mind over things I'm worried about or can't control! Maybe these thoughts will turn into a poem someday, or an essay---but either way it just feels good to THINK. (Did I ever imagine, back in college, that I'd have to "schedule in" time for thinking? I did not. But what did I know?)
As I was busily working away on this book, happily switching between pen colors and so forth (this isn't a post about pens [more's the pity] but I must recommend these erasable markers shown above---I love them so much!!) my son Abraham kept commenting wistfully on how fun it looked. He loves list-making and planning things out, and it finally occurred to me that I could print out a book for him too! He was beyond excited when I told him he could have his OWN goal book. He told me which pages he wanted me to print, and I found him a binder to use (he told me he understood about binders being "unfriendly," but it bothered him more how MY book lost its margins in the binding of the report cover).
Abe adores being able to check things off of his list. He puts random things like "Do the Rubik's Cube" in his book just for the joy of checking them off. :) "This is just the sort of thing I like to do ANYWAY, but now it LOOKS better!" he told me. And it's really fun for me to see the types of goals he wants to set for himself. I love seeing what is important to him, what he wants to remember, and how much he's trying to improve himself and take control of his own time. He would fill up twice as many pages, if he had them. He told me he is RESTRAINING himself and purposely NOT starting to fill in March yet, because he wants to still have it to look forward to later. Whenever I get out my book to look at, Abe runs to get his, and we sit companionably and fill in boxes together. I love it.
And here's something totally adorable: for my birthday, Abe made me "An Addition to the Book of Aim Zing," containing pages that he thought might prove to be useful supplements to what I already had. For example: a page to write down "Funny Jokes" I wish to remember, a page to collect "favorites" for each month (I love that idea; how perfect for our family scrapbooks!), a page for my goals about the piano, and a page of "secrets" (this is folded up and enclosed in a sheet protector so I can write down ideas for presents I want to give to people, and he assures me he WILL NOT peek at it). :)

In summary: I, the non-goal-setter, have been able to turn this "goal book" into just the sort of random, hybridized Book of Everything I want it to be---and it makes my scribblings and ramblings seem beautiful and sort of charmingly idiosyncratic rather than deranged and disorganized---and it has even talked me into setting a few actual goals for my own Betterment. Which is all pretty . . . amazing, I think. Good work, Jena!

You want one, don't you? Well, you can buy one for yourself, here. (And of course Jena's not paying me to say this or anything. I just think this book deserves a wide and appreciative audience.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Homeostasis Machines

This one is Seb's crystal-growing machine
We learned about homeostasis and positive and negative feedback cycles, and then I had the children design a machine using the principles of homeostasis. I am fairly sure these wouldn't work in real life, but they looked really cool and I had fun listening to the boys tell me about them. :)

Abe's greenhouse
Seb's roller coaster

Monday, February 3, 2014

Motor and Sensory Neurons Body Tracing; Reflexes

I remember my brother Philip doing "body tracing" art in 5th grade---they just drew pictures of themselves wearing the clothes they were wearing, life-size. I thought it was SO cool. So, we decided to do the same here, but draw the internal view instead. :) We added two colors of yarn, one to represent the sensory nerve pathways going up toward the brain, and one to represent the motor nerve pathways coming back from the brain and spinal cord to direct muscle movement. We talked about interneurons and autonomic nerves too, but not everyone included those on his or her picture.

These pictures all turned out taller-than-life. Probably because the tracing was very, very difficult with such TICKLISH children. They couldn't hold still while being traced around (very gently, I might add!) to save their lives!

We also did some reaction time and reflex tests, as outlined in this video and this site, and of course we hit our knees with my drumsticks a lot, to test our reflexes. We love doing that.
Seb got really complicated with his. As you can see, his finger has just touched a candle flame, so he's got some reflex action going on as well.
Daisy was just happy to be included (I love how she drew her eyes and mouth on top of her brain)
Junie just got a picture, no nerve pathways. My goodness that drawing is alarming! Sam said it was because she colored her eyes yellow, but I think it has more to do with how I drew her face. *shudder*
Malachi "really just LOVES the digestive system" (his words) (??) and so wanted to include the autonomic nerves and some internal organs.
Seb + Seb
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