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Monday, December 14, 2009

Write with Primary Terms

Michael Clay Thompson is the author of a fabulous but unconventional Language Arts program. He made a few interesting points in this video on vocabulary and writing.

I have always taught my boys to add adjectives and adverbs to their sentences when writing. So what Thompson had to say about these was quite a revelation to me... Well, can you tell I am not a language expert at all?!

Here are some of his points I have extracted from this particular video.

1. Plan A to writing and editing is to choose precise NOUNS and VERBS.
Don't try to rescue weak nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs.
If you aren't happy with your nouns, change your nouns. Not add an adjective.

If you see an adjective, kill it.
- Mark Twain

The adverb is not your friend.
- Stephen King

2. Wordiness is usually a modifier problem.
Modifiers add syllable counts and noise to a sentence; diluting interest level.

This kind of succinct writing reminds me of that advocated by William Strunk in The Elements of Style.

The Classics

Have you ever thought about reading the classics (either yourself or to your children) but shoved the idea because of the possible encounters with "old" words or expressions? Here is a list of classical words that you may want to be familiar with before taking the plunge.

I hope to work through these... somehow... ... ...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History : Patricians and Plebeians

I have Charlotte Mason to thank for being able to integrate reading, comprehension, writing, spelling, vocabulary and grammar into history and social studies. I rolled all that in within an hour of read aloud, discussion and written narration!

Well, this is just what we do regularly. Unconventional?... I know. But it works for us.

We are in the middle of our study of ancient Rome, using The Story of the Romans by H. A. Guerber as our spine. We covered the period of the Roman Monarchy (750-500 BC) and are now into the period of the Roman Republic ( 500 BC-0). I interspersed our readings with commentaries from our Truthquest guide. These commentaries put us into perspective regarding how all these history go in line with biblical principles.

Here is my boys' narration of the two chapters we read today:

The Wrongs of the Poor

The poor plebeians were ill-treated by the rich patricians. When the plebeians had not enough money to pay their taxes, they had to borrow from the patricians. When the plebeians had not enough money to pay the patricians, the patricians were allowed to take their land and even sell them as slaves or put them in prison.

When the people from another city, the Volscians, attacked them, the plebeians were forced to go to battle. They didn’t want to fight for the patricians because the patricians were ill-treating them. The patricians promised the plebeians that when they come back from fighting, rules will be changed so that they will not be ill-treated anymore. When they came back, the patricians didn’t change any rules.

The Fable of the Stomach

Since the patricians didn’t keep their promise, the plebeians ran away to a mountain known as Sacred Mountain. Both the patricians and the plebeians suffered. The patricians had no farmers to till their land, no market men to buy food from and no merchants to buy articles from. The plebeians had only brought a bit of food with them, so they were starving. Yet the patricians couldn’t persuade them to come back. So they sent a wise man named Menenius to try convince them to come back.

Menenius observed that the plebeians didn’t understand the patricians’ long speeches. He decided to tell them a simple fable to show the plebeians what the situation is. The fable was about body parts. All the body parts didn’t want to work for the stomach, so the stomach ended up weak. The other parts of the body soon grew weak too. When the plebeians heard this story, they understood that they were the other parts of the body and the patricians were the stomach. So they all went back to Rome.

After that, new rules were made that pleased the plebeians. Officers were appointed to take care of the needs of the plebeians. They were called the Tribunes. The Tribunes can veto any law that is not fair to the plebeians. That means the Tribunes could disagree and stop the passing of any law that is ill-treating the plebeians.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Art : Oil Pastel Layering

[This project was done MANY months ago... ;-p]

Jan Van Eyck was known to be the first to experiment with oil paints and brought it to "perfection". Oils, unlike egg tempera (a common medium before van Eyck's time), gives paintings a certain kind of shine and lustre. Colours are thick and rich. Some of the characteristics of oil paints can be achieved using oil pastels. We experimented with more blending with oil pastels. In this series of pieces, I was trying to demonstrate the effect of layering.

All the pieces here are done on small postcard-sized paper. The adventage of small sized paper is that you try out techniques and complete a piece in a short time. Each took about 50 minutes to complete; a comfortable duration for my active 8 year olds.

This is one of my demo pieces... I was trying to show how putting a yellow under a green could give some interesting effect...

Boys gave it a try with many pieces from imagination. Here is one by B. He did manage to mix a few colours but have not really work one colour into another... Nevertheless a start in the right direction :-)

D attempted a beach scene. He was able to mash the colours more thoroughly in the sky and sun (pink?!) ...

For more practice, we googled for images using words like "sunset", "mountains" and "sky". (not much inspiring scenary here in Singapore I'm afraid) I preselected pictures that have some interesting colours but that are not too complicated. I was hoping to give my boys more practice in "getting the colour" with oil pastels.

[I have included the links to the photographs we used so you can make the comparison if you so want.]

This is D's country road winding through a scenic field in the Tuscany, Italy

B's picture of another country road.

I am always captivated by sunsets, so here's my attempt of Lake Audy in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada. This little exercise was really quite a challenge even for me ...

Boys are slowly getting the hang of it. I was pleasantly surprised one day when B suggested we capture a beautiful scenary on paper when we saw one. :-)

Here is a related website, an interactive landscape adventure - it is effective in bringing one to an awareness of how artists can create different moods and weather in a landscape.

There is more technical information on oil pastels here: How to use Oil Pastels

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Typing in Chinese

I realized that many people are not aware that their Microsoft Word allows them to type Chinese characters. I have been asked numerous times how I do it so I thought it would be nice to just post the instructions here.

This was how I turned on the Chinese Language mode in my Microsoft Word...
(I am using windows XP):
You have to add on Chinese as one of the Language options by going to
  • Control Panel
  • Regional and Language Options
  • Languages
  • Details...
  • Add - Chinese PRC(Chinese simplified)

After that, there should be a little icon at the right hand bottom of the screen that says EN or CH. Left click on that and you should be able to choose between EN(English) or CH (Chinese).

If you are using Vista, refer to this site for instructions.

Once you can type in Chinese characters, you can make your own flashcards and worksheets. Also useful when you want to search for Chinese book titles online.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Light (part 2)

Here are two optical instruments we made while we were on the topic of "Light".

This is our periscope made by cutting and re-shaping a cereal box. It was painted white so it will camouflage with our white walls. ;-)

I found a place that sold little pieces of mirror quite by accident! God's providence! The periscope turned out to be a wonderful toy for play and my boys are now begging to make another extremely long one so they could spy on each other when they are on different decks of their bunk bed. What a practical application?!

This is our second instrument; a pin-hole camera made from a cream cracker tin. We wrapped blue paper around it and decorated it with gold stars to give it a whimsical look.

This is an example of what we looked at.

And the inverted image on the screen (made of tracing paper).

Here are some pointers if you want to make a pin-hole camera too:
  • Use a big tin if possible
  • Line the interior of the tin with black paper
  • Pin-sized hole will produce quite a dim image; a toothpick-sized hole worked better for us. (the bigger the hole, the larger your camera has to be)
  • Design a way to move your screen in or out so that you can get the image in focus
  • Image will appear clearer if your eyes are cupped.

Related post : - Light

Monday, September 14, 2009


First we read a 2-page spread from a book I have selected. Next, boys do a notebook page. Whenever possible, we try out an activity that demonstrates what was covered in our reading.

Here are a few picture-worthy activities we did...

We learned that light could come from various sources. Looked at how light was produced in a glowing hot wire. Read about how an incandescent bulb works. Set up a simple circuit to see the bulb light up. (You wouldn't believe it, but this is the only incandescent bulb I have at home!)

We read about the various behaviours of light through and on various material. Played with flashlights mirrors and such. (Oooh... lots of excitement here!) After experimenting with lens, we took a look at the physics behind the eye. Here is an interactive site that explains the workings of the eye and how lens can help correct eye defects. (ignore the registration request by clicking on "maybe later")

We tested to see how light travel in a straight line...

See how the angle of reflection is the same as the angle of incident ray...

We split white light into its rainbow colours using our home-made prism (made by taping 3 pieces of microscope slides together, using a plastacine base and filling it with water).

Observed this same phenomenon right in our aquarium that day and wowed at it. Later, we discovered that we get this treat everyday! (Lot of good information on rainbows here.)

We made our own coloured lights to see how colours mix. This was achieved using coloured cellophane papers (red, blue and green), kitchen towel cardboard cores and 2 torches.

Red + Blue = Magenta...

Blue + Green = Cyan...

Red + Green = Yellow...

The tough part about this experiment was that our torches were of different brightness. The "correct" secondary colours would only show up well when the two coloured lights were of about the same intensity. The colours were more obvious when we shine them on a white surface at a very close range. However, my camera could not capture these. The coloured spots turned out overexposed. :-( I decided to post the pictures that had less obvious secondary colours. These were taken with the lights shone from further away. (I am not a professional photographer!)

I was at first tempted to not try this experiment ourselves (and a few other activities also...). Instead, just settle for watching a video clip of a similar experiment done very professionally (or simply reading about them). Then somehow, somewhere, this quote jumped at me as I was deliberating:

"Accept no substitute for fun!"

It was like a wake-up call! I was resolved to not short-change my little guys. Well, ... it is fun for me too. ;-) I am making this our motto for Science from now on!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Space Rocks at Breakneck Speed

We completed one whole chapter in our Exploring Creations in Astronomy book in record-breaking time! It was the lesson on Space Rocks. All done in one afternoon! Why? Because we wanted to catch the meteor shower - Perseids. (That was the second week of August)

We and another homeschooling family headed to the Lim Chu Kang cemetry (at almost mid-night) to have an unobstructed view of the night sky. The peace of God was with us... so it was not spooky at all ;-) Unfortunately, we were not able to see anything exciting; no shooting stars. We were mentally prepared for that. Well, at least we tried...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why the long silence?

I have been having a lot of trouble with blogger for the pass few months. Every time, it is a different problem.

First, my edit page was all messed up so that I could not "see" my draft. After that several other page formats gone all wrong as well. It took me time to search through the Internet to get the problem fixed. Even then, it was a temporary fix as the same problems keep resurfacing. Later, on some days, I could not upload pictures. Many times blogger would just hang on me! Much frustration has caused me to leave blogging for a while.

That did free me to do other things (so that is good)... and after that, I kind of lost momentum... ... ... ;-b

Surprisingly, I am not pressured to keep posting. As I know that even when I haven't had any new posts lately, the my old posts are still read by many. Thanks to those who took the trouble to email and encourage me. Just wanted you all to know that I am in the process of getting things ironed out. :-)

I do have quite a number of drafts; mostly waiting for pictures to be added. A backlog of about more than a month worth of posts would take quite a while for me to sort out!

Monday, August 24, 2009


While working on our Miquon labsheets ... ... ...

Me: Er... three-sixth? Can that be simplified?
B: Hmm... oh yes! One tooth!
Me: Ha?
B: I mean half.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's All About Readiness

Six month ago, I started a math problem solving assessment book with my boys. Somehow, my boys had difficulty drawing the models. I know that they understood the problems because they could tell me the answers to the question. They saw the whole model drawing process very tiresome and complicated; they couldn't see the need to go through all that trouble to solve what could be solved mentally. So each session was met with a lot of resistance.

My assessment of the situation? Laziness, ill-disciplined, blah blah blah... everything negative :-(

I finally decided that this is not a battle I want to fight. Math had been one of their favourite subjects. I don't want to change that. We put the book aside and have been working happily on our Miquon labsheets since then.

Just this week, I blew the dust off those books and tried them out again. They completed what would have taken 30 minutes previously in just TEN! Boy! Was I surprised?! What shocked me more was when B said, "Can we do more?" :-o

What happened?!

I am slowly beginning to believe what I read. Some homeschool parents have assured that it is perfectly okay to start formal math at age 10. The Moores and Bluedornes come to mind. Their take is that less effort is required for learning when a child is developmentally ready. I am not that "brave" to take it to THAT extreme. But it is a good reminder that I don't need to get frustrated if they don't "get it" NOW... ... ... They will "get it" ... one day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Art: Skies

I am always spellbound by the beauty of God's art work. Just look at how he paints the sky! This picture is taken from our window.

Here are my boys' attempt at capturing some of such brilliance.

We used a mixtures of 3 different techniques:

1. Sunset
Wet wash and blending
2. Cumulus Clouds
Clouds are white and left unpainted.
Cloud rounded on the top and flatten underneath. Clouds nearer the horizon are thinner.
Layering by adding raw sienna onto the base of the clouds while paint is still wet.
3. Stratus Cumulus / Cirrus Clouds
Wet wash and blotting damp wash with dry brush or crumpled tissue.
This little exercise was a side projects in our Jan Van Eyck study. He was known to be very observant of his surroundings and so our little artists were challenged to paint something of their own surroundings!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chinese Booklist

I benefited from the Chinese book list posted by a fellow homeschooling mother in her blog. I had checked out some of her books and really liked them. So I thought it would be useful to list here, some of the Chinese picture books we have enjoyed recently. They might not be hot from the press, just what caught our eyes: [library reference code]

  • 五个小怪物 [JP DYE] -
  • 在森林里[JP ETS] - translated from In The Forrest by Marie Hall Ets
  • 爷爷的天使 - my personal favourite
  • 布朗家的天才宝宝 - comical
  • 布朗家的超级明星
  • 岩石上的小蝌蚪 [JP XEH]
  • 鲸鱼 [JP GOM] - reminds us of the Nazca drawings we read about in our history
  • 两个好朋友 [J ESC]
  • 两个好朋友的争吵 [J ESC]
  • 院子里的小岛
  • 我不想生气 [JP MOR] - short book about anger management (will want to look at others in the series)
I just want to make special note that we really love 爷爷的天使. It is a living book due to its wonderfully thougth-provoking illustrations. This book is about a grandfather's reflection of his whole life on his death bed. He spoke with pride about his bravery when he was young and how nothing terrible seem to ever happen to him; even through the war years. But as you read, you see pictures of his guardian angel protecting him time and time again. Then you will realize that he really had nothing to boast about at all.

Here is a picture of him falling down a tree but was not hurt because he was cushioned by his angel...

Other pages showed him boasting about how he dared to walk along dangerous deserted paths. At a corner, his guardian angel puts her hands over the eyes of his potential attacker...

This book brings to light how we often take God for granted.

My boys love to scrutinize the drawings. It became especially relevant one day. Their grandparents brought them to cycle so that I could have a "break". It was an exceptionally challenging trip for them. They cycled along the park connectors from Bedok to Changi AND BACK! Well, that is not all that impressive...

Along the way, D lost control and cycled into a HUGE drain. It was so deep, if Grandma had not been cycling behind him, nobody would have known where he had gone. His bike and him just disappeared completed. He was eventually fished out of the drain with minimal scratches! I was told, the drain was DRY and had LOTS of dried leaves in there to cushion his fall. This is clearly God's hand of protection!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Chemistry Week - Laboratory Experience

We attended a series of laboratory sessions at the Singapore Science Centre during their Chemistry Week. Most of the workshops used concepts in Chemistry learnt at the Secondary 3/4 level. Of course, my 8 year-olds don't get it all! But they had fun just "playing" with the apparatus. ;-)

For the sake of future reference, I will go ahead with noting down the specifics of what was done.

Workshop 1 - Sulfur Dioxide and its Role in Preserving Food

What we did :- We tested for the presences of SO2. Hydrogen peroxide was added to food samples (preserved mango, dried sour plum, preserved papaya, raisins, potato chips, fruit juice). This causes SO2 to be oxidised to form sulphates. This sulphate will precipitate out as barium sulphate when barium chloride is added.

My observation :- Boys got the droppers all mixed up and in the process contaminated the solutions!

Workshop 2 - Recycle Paper - Transform Newspaper to New Paper

What we did :- We blended newspaper shreds in a blender with some water. The resultant pulp was gently laid on a mesh that is submerged in a tray of water. The pulp is spread evenly to dry.

Some dried flowers were sprinkled throughout.

We had some leftover pulp, so we made a smaller circular shaped paper.

My observation :- This is the most straight forward of all the workshops. The boys needed to learn that "more doesn't mean better"... I had to remove most of the dried flower they "dumped" onto the paper.

Workshop 3 - Hydrogen Fuel Cell

What we did :- We produced hydrogen gas by reacting magnesium with hydrochloric acid. Hydrogen gas was tested using a glowing splinter.

Too slow in preparing the glowing splint. Ops... fingers too small to stopper over test-tube opening, so most of the hydrogen escaped! ... Managed to get a soft "pop"sound (positive test for hydrogen). Phew!

The set up here was used to electrolyse water.

Green solution of Universal Indicator was added into the water. We observe that the colours at the two graphite electrodes were different. The indicator cahnged to orange (acidic) on the anode (left arm) and violet on the cathode (right arm).

The electrode reactions are as follows:
at the anode:
2H2O(l) → O2(g) + 4H+(aq) + 4e–
at the cathode:
4H2O(l) + 4e– → 2H2(g) + 4OH–(aq)
2H2O(l) → O2(g) + 2H2(g)

The aim of showing the children the electrolysis of water is to show the working principles of a hydrogen fuel cell. The electron gradient produced can be be channelled through an electrical circuit.

Workshop 4 - Green Chemistry - Balance with Nature

What we did :- We investigated the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Two identical set up like this was set up.

Carbon dioxide was put in one of the boxes. The thermometer poked into the box allowed temperature in there to be taken over a period of 8 minutes after the lamp above it has been switched on. The temperature gradient was significantly higher in the box with carbon dioxide.

This was another experiment where we investigated on the effects of various solution on shells. You can see that there is a hole in the middle of the shell on the left. That is the result of submerging it in hydrochloric acid. This experiment aims to show the effect of acid rain.

Conclusion : I realized that my boys had a lot to learn about basic laboratory skills! These include measuring, planning and general apparatus handling. I found a simple lab sheet on Laboratory Safety and Measurement that we can work through at home. Alright, more hands-on session at home from now on...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Horse Unit Study (part 5) - Drawing Horses

For Art, we were broke away from our usual and galloped off on horses! Let me explain...

We were in the mood to draw horses since we have been reading so much about them. But horses aren't exactly the easiest animal to draw. So I pulled out some of my art books to see what I could put together. I read from How to Draw Animals by Jack Hamm. This book is published in the 1960s but yet the clarity of its instructions far surpasses that of more recent how-to books on the same subject.

What started out as a simple copying of horses unfolded into many successive sessions on animal drawing!

We started working from the beginning of the book where we learned about the shapes found in a generalized animal. We then learn how to put those basic shapes together when we look at an animal.

Here are some outlines we copied from the book. Notice the shoulder muscles, hip muscles and rib cage. These outlines are supposed to help in later shading and rendering of other surface details.

Shading of a generalized animal body was the emphasis for the next few sessions. It really gives the drawing depth and perspective.

Here's an attempt at applying the above concepts. I let my boys try outlining the animals from looking at photographs of animals. I wanted to see if they understood the concept. This is what they produced. Here is my boy's drawing of the basic outline of a donkey. He looked at a photograph in our Apologia Zoology 3 book.

The later part of Hamm's book focuses on different animal types and the usual challenges of drawing these animals. We jumped ahead to the section on Horses. (Couldn't wait!) We copied some of the horse drawings in that section.

Then each of us selected a picture of a horse from one of our other books to copy. Here are my boy's outlines. This was B's sketch from James Herriot's Treasury for Children.

This is D's mustang sketched from Album of Horses by Marguerite Henry.

Drawing and colouring are two separate skills. In the past, I noticed that my boys will be very discouraged when their colouring "ruined" their nicely drawn pictures. This time, I decided to make photocopies of their drawing for them to colour on. This is so that credit can be given to the drawing as well as the colouring; and each having something to show for. We used oil pastels. I joined in the fun too using my boys' drawings.

Drawing animals is indeed very challenging. A mistake in proportion can make a deer look like a dog, or a horse like a cow! For a long time, I myself have shied away from drawing animals. I am now glad I overcome my own phobia and gave it a try because I am pleasantly surprised at my boys' enthusiasm. I guess children just have a natural affinity for animals. I now wished I had done this little off tangent project sooner when we still had our zoo membership!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Science :Botany - Ferns

I found it difficult to complete this chapter on ferns without mentioning the concept of the alternation of generations in plants. In the end, I decided to introduce it to my boys. These are some useful sites:
My objective is to expose them to the concept. I didn't want to overload them with technical terms.

I found a good diagram in one of my old Biology books called Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology by Mauseth. (Here is another good diagram.) It shows the haploid and diploid parts of the fern in its life cycle. I found the easiest way to get my boys to understand this complex concept was to let them colour the diagram; using yellow colour to indicate the parts that are haploid (with one set of genes) and green colour for the diploid(with two sets of genes) parts. The "ah-ha" moment came as they were colouring.

From there, I could then further make a comparison between the spores of the ferns and the seed of flowering plants. They are not quite analogous. The spore is haploid while the seed is diploid, the result of a fertilization process.

We collected sporangium from our fern to view under our Brock Magiscope (mag:200x). I managed to capture it on my camera just by positioning the camera directly over the eyepiece!

You can see the thin side walls of the sporangium and the very faint outlines of the spores within. The cells surrounding have jointed rings (annulus) that will strighten hygroscopically to break the thin side walls, throwing out the numerous spores within. We left the whole set up as is to continue with our other activities for school. Three hours later, this was what we saw. The sporangium opened!

Visit Rumphius Science Webpage to learn more about how we approach Science in our homeschool.
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