17 Days Until Portfolio Review: Look at Pictures

(Whoops — as it turns out, things only publish when you actually click the Publish button.)

One of the ways I demonstrate “regular, thorough instruction” is through pictures. Many of the activities we do in our homeschool don’t leave a paper trail at all. Ballet and soccer are the obvious ones. But we also do a great deal of science observations and activities that are hands on. Or we play math, science, or history games. So i take a picture. In addition, it is way easier to get kids to write on white boards or the tile table in the homeschooling room, so if they do, I just take a picture.

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I just spent an entire day going through pictures on my phone from the past four months. I uploaded about 150-200 pictures to Flickr and have I don’t know how many more on my regular camera. I guess I’ll take care of those tomorrow!

I like Flickr because I can tag the pictures for review, tag it with subjects, or even list them all out by date to find an interesting picture per kid for each month. But, there are plenty of other services out there that can organize pictures for you.

Pictures are also a great way to keep a record of three-dimensional projects, artwork, and all the other beautiful things your children make that take up too much room in the house.

Other posts in this series:

19 Days until Portfolio Review: What’s the Law?

Oh no! The portfolio reviews are coming! The portfolio reviews are coming! It’s time to freak out, right? What if I don’t have enough worksheets or tests or book lists or…

Breathe.

That’s it. Take a deep breath. Imagine you’re on the beach. Hear the waves.

Calm yet? If not, go back to the happy place. I’ll wait.

No rush.

Okay, now we can talk about portfolio reviews.

I’m going to do a series of posts about this, because it’s a pretty huge thing. Now, note that much of this will be Maryland-specific, but people in other states might get ideas about how to keep track of student portfolios. Or not. It’s up to you.

For those of who don’t know me, this is our ninth* year homeschooling. We spent three in California and six (I can’t believe it’s been that long) here in Maryland. Hopefully I have some experience I can share with people new to homeschooling or to the state.

(*”Ninth? But your oldest is in seventh grade?” — yep. But we started really actually homeschooling when he was 4. We joined the homeschooling community and all that good stuff. If you think preschool or whatever we did doesn’t count, then just replace ‘ninth’ with ‘eighth’ in your head whenever I say we’ve been homeschooling that long. I won’t tell.)

Maryland Homeschool Law

Here in Maryland, we do two portfolio reviews a year with our county school system. The law that covers homeschooling is short and easy to read: COMAR 13A.10.01.

In this post I’m going to draw your attention to a few important parts of it.

(Note: I am not a lawyer. I once wanted to be a supreme court justice, but decided not to once I learned that you probably have to be a lawyer first. That said, some of my friends and family are lawyers — I have nothing against them. I just didn’t want to be one. Also, anything I say is not meant to be legal advice, just regular old boring human advice.)

Instruction Program

Part C indicates what homeschoolers are expected to do.

(1) Provide regular, thorough instruction in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age;

This is completely vague and mostly useless. Children of the same age often learn rather different stuff, especially kids with learning disabilities, gifted children, etc. Heck, some kids take music all through high school while others never see it after 5th grade. There’s basically nothing in this rule that is actionable.

(2) Include instruction in English, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, health, and physical education; and

These are the eight subjects for which you’ll need to show a portfolio. This doesn’t count a lot of things, like technology classes or foreign languages.

Some of them are pretty easy to figure out — English is about things like learning comma rules, writing papers, reading poetry, and literature.

Others are also pretty easy but some people can get hung up on what kids in public school are doing — “Oh, third grade? That’s world history” or “Oh, sixth grade has to be earth science”. Um, no. Don’t feel you actually have to follow what the schools have decided to implement.

Other subjects seem pretty opaque, like health. I had trouble when I first moved here, trying to figure out what on earth kindergarten health was. So looked up what the local schools had listed in their information for parents. Not because I felt like I was forced to cover the same things, but because I wasn’t really sure what it entailed! As it turns out, in Maryland, health includes things like understanding your emotions, metal health, bullying, fire safety, and dozens of other things that don’t really fall in the other subjects.

(3) Take place on a regular basis during the school year and be of sufficient duration to implement the instruction program.

Still… pretty vague! And you know what? That’s good! Vague is great. That means you have a lot of wiggle room to do things your way — the way that works best for you and for your kids.

Basically, this means you can’t show up to a portfolio review and tell them you already did health last semester. You have to show examples every semester. Yes, even though the public school kids actually don’t always do all eight subjects every semester.

It also means that a lot of reviewers will require you to show dates for the samples you bring, just to show that the instruction happened over time.

Educational Materials

Section D indicates what a portfolio should contain.

(1) Demonstrates the parent or guardian is providing regular, thorough instruction during the school year in the areas specified in §C(1) and (2);

Basically just what we said above. Your portfolio has to show that you did the things they say you have to do.

(2) Includes relevant materials, such as instructional materials, reading materials, and examples of the child’s writings, worksheets, workbooks, creative materials, and tests;

The key words here as such as. This is not an indication that you have to do all of these things! These are just examples of ways you can demonstrate compliance. In later blog posts I’ll list all sort of things you can use to show compliance. I don’t give tests in my homeschool and we don’t use worksheets or workbooks very often, either.

(3) Shall be reviewed by the local superintendent or the superintendent’s designee at the conclusion of each semester of the local school system…

You’re probably not going to meet up with the actual superintendent. They have better things to do with their time. This is where there is some difference among the counties.

In some counties, such as Montgomery County, you get a letter asking you to sign up for a review time. All the homeschoolers are reviewed over a period of a few weeks in a big room full of reviewers. These reviewers generally have other normal jobs and just do reviews a few times a year. They often have very little familiarity with common homeschool terms and curricula.

In other counties, like Frederick County, there are only a couple of reviewers who are focused solely on the homeschooling community and will generally have more familiarity with the homeschool laws, culture, and curricula. They review people all year long so reviews can be when it’s convenient and so they can make their own schedules more bearable.

…at such times as are mutually agreeable to the local superintendent or designee and the parent or guardian.

This part means that they can’t require you to show up on a particular day in a place that’s hard to get to. They also can’t decide to show up at your house if you do not want them to.

Now, I’m not saying that you should refuse to meet unless they show up at midnight on the spring equinox in a meadow… just that if you’re going on a long trip you should expect they’ll work with you to find a place and time you can meet.

Usually you’ll meet at a school building or office, though I once met with my reviewer outside of the local library because her office was very noisy because it was being treated for flood damage.

Review Meetings

Section E has a few more details about what reviews can and can’t involve.

(1) The review is at a time and place mutually agreeable to the representative of the local school system and the parent or guardian;

This is the same as above.

(2) The purpose of the review is to ensure that the child is receiving regular, thorough instruction as set forth in §C;

This is key!

They are not reviewing you to see if your children are on grade level. They aren’t there to see if your kid even learned anything. They can’t test your kid or refuse to pass you because your kid hasn’t mastered Algebra. All they can do is review to see if you offered instruction.

“But Katie,” you say, “Why wouldn’t I want my child to be on grade level and master algebra? What is wrong with you?”

Do you want someone who doesn’t understand you, your child, or homeschooling to decide if you child passed without even meeting them? Yeah, me neither.

It means you can go in a different order than the schools do. It also means you don’t have to fight for an IEP for children who have learning disabilities. It means you have a lot of freedom to decide how to run your school.

(3) There are not more than three reviews during a school year.

They can’t just keep harassing you with reviews.

But it mentions three reviews instead of two. Most homeschoolers will have two reviews. However, if you fail one of the normal two reviews, you can have another review thirty days later to show that you’ve fixed the problems they found in your instruction program.

(Note: I have a story about failing a review. Stay tuned to find out what happens and how it really isn’t the end of the world. You’ll probably find it comforting.)

Additional Requirements

Part E is super, super, super important.

A local school system may not impose additional requirements for home instruction programs other than those in these regulations.

Your county can’t just add requirements for tests, more reviews, different subjects, or anything else. It’s illegal for them to do so. There is only the state law about homeschooling. They cannot have county-specific laws or rules. Period.

Summary

So, to sum up, you have to teach eight subjects, mark the dates, show up twice a year, and show them a few samples of what your kids did.

Hopefully you enjoyed this post, and hopefully I’ll find time to continue to write them as I get ready for my review in 19 days.

Other posts in this series:

14 Days until Portfolio Review: Gathering Materials

So we already discussed what Maryland law requires and we got all the pictures off of our cameras and phones. Now what?

The next step is to collect everything else that tells us or is an example of anything the kids did or that you tried to teach them, such as (and not limited to):

  • Workbooks
  • Papers and worksheets
  • Puzzle books
  • Art — paper, glass, 3D structures, whatever.
  • Pamphlets from museums and events, ticket stubs, park maps, class materials, and any other ephemera.
  • Scraps of paper
  • Calendars
  • Notes
  • Lesson plans
  • Written and online records
  • Diary entries
  • Facebook or other social media sites
  • Screen captures from Minecraft or anything else that lives solely online
  • MP3s or videos your kids created or starred in
  • Text books
  • Book lists

The goal is to just get all of this stuff in one place before you search through it and try to figure out what it all means. Chances are that, unless you’re a spazz like me, you don’t have nearly all of those things above. Maybe not even half. Just collect what you do have.

(Side note — my reviewer actually recommends keeping all the papers and things for each month in a pile… At the end of the month, let the kids search through everything and pick their own samples. That’s also a spectacular idea! Of course, that doesn’t work when you don’t actually do it, or the pictures are on your phone for four months, or your kids don’t care about showing off math or heath and just want to pick 87 pictures of watercolor ponies.)

Workbooks

You could choose to bring in the whole workbook or just pull out a few pages. Each choice has pros and cons.

For example, if you use mostly workbooks, and there’s eight subjects, and you have three kids… well, you’d better bring a pack animal to carry all that weight.

On the other hand, if you have to pull pages out of non-perforated workbooks, it’s messy. Also, some kids really like everything together in a book and would never let it be hurt in such a fashion.

But remember, workbooks are in no way required. Maybe you don’t have any at all.

Papers and worksheets

Worksheets are, of course, super easy to work with. No book to tear them out of and they usually have a place to mark the student’s name and date.

Of course, some kids just refuse them, so maybe not so easy. We don’t use a super huge lot of worksheets around here, either. If we are, then you know I’m stressed out and the kids are just being super nice to me.

However, we do generate large amounts of paper for drawings, sketches, watercolor, pastels, chalk, etc.

Puzzle Books

The workbook’s more fun cousin is the puzzle book. We do a lot more of those. Which Way USA is one of our current favorites for Social Studies, and the little ones have enjoyed Highlights, High Five, Puzzle Mania, and other similar things. They tend to be smaller than a workbook, so it’s easy to just bring the whole thing with you.

Artwork

This can be awkward if they like to make 3D structures or delicate glass art. My daughter is currently enjoying making lots of shoe box dioramas. Glass and large 3D art projects are not easily brought in as examples, so frequently I’ll just choose something else or bring a picture.

Ephemera

I just love the word ephemera. It sounds neat and it’s a useful word — basically it’s things that are written or printed, but aren’t intended to be kept or last a long time.

It includes pamphlets from museums and events, ticket stubs, park maps, class schedules, and anything else that might be handed out to you or your kids that just shows that you went places and did things.

Scraps of paper

I don’t know about you, but I have all sorts of weird scraps of paper and post it notes around to remind myself of something we worked on or planned to work on. Sometimes it’s just enough to jog my memory.

Calendars

Whether it’s on your wall or on your computer, calendars will list a lot of things about what you and your kids did. Maybe you lost the pamphlet from the aviation museum and you forgot to take pictures. That’s ok, it’s still good to remember you went, even if you don’t have examples from the trip. You can describe the semester’s lessons without showing examples of every single one. More on this later.

Notes

Some years I’ve taken notes as we learn things just to remember we did those things.

Lesson Plans

I’ve used paper planners and online planners. Once again, it won’t be a sample of work, but it will remind you of all of the different topics you’ve tackled this semester, so it’s very handy for writing a summary.

Written records and Online records

Maybe in your system you don’t write plans so much as what you already did. Or maybe you write plans and just check it off when it’s done.

Diary entries

Same as above.

Facebook or other Social media sites

I tend to post about fun and cool things we’re doing, so this can also be a reminder or a way to find pictures other people took of my kids that I can use as examples. Plus, once your kids get older, maybe you can use a social media site as part of their portfolio — Facebook essays, beautiful photography on Instagram, sketches on Deviantart, music on SoundCloud.

(Yes, I’ve played music from SoundCloud from my laptop during a review. The reviewer remarked, “Ooh! Sounds kind of like Imagine Dragons!” It was awesome.)

Screen Captures

Sometimes games can be educational (actually very frequently!) and the only way to get examples is through screen shots. Maybe it’s the perfect orbit that your child managed in Kerbal Space Program, or a well-done titration or laser beam through PheT simulations, or even working logic gates in Minecraft. When we used Khan Academy, a screenshot was often the best way to get math examples from it.

MP3s or videos

Maybe your child wrote a song, played an instrument well, or starred in a home movie they wrote and directed. Maybe they learned stop-motion photography and now you have a video about lego people being eaten my a shark. Perhaps your child runs too fast in gymnastics so you can’t get a photo that isn’t blurry, but you can get an amazing video of him doing a flip.

Yes, I’ve brought in videos of gymnastics… but decided against the lego video.

Text books

If you use them, get your text books in a little pile somewhere. You may want to glance over the Table of Contents to remember what topics you studied.

Book lists

Lists of books you read to the kids, audio books, and books the children read to you or themselves.

I use Goodreads to track our books. It keeps track of the date the book was finished and I have a shelf for each kid (to remember who read what) and a shelf system to mark which semester they read it. So any particular book will have 1-3 tags indicating the child or children plus another tag for the semester, such as 2016Spring.

It also can scan barcodes (yay!) and even has a bulk scan capability, so I can scan a whole ton of books before we take them back to the library.

At the end of the semester, I just use the filters to make a list for each kid for that semester and print it out.

Summary

Once you’ve gathered everything in place, we can move on to summarizing what topics the kids worked on in each subject.

After that, another post about translating everything into educationese, followed by choosing just enough of the right kinds of portfolio materials.

Finally, I’ll post about how to prepare yourself for the review visit.

Other posts in this series:

13 Days Until Portfolio Review: Make a List

Okay, so if you’ve followed the previous posts, you’ve learned the lawgone through you pictures and maybe even tagged them, and gathered all the things that you and your kids did that remotely related to homeschooling. Now you’re sitting around surrounded by book lists, workbooks, glass sculptures, a cello, albums full of pictures, and random scraps of paper… or maybe you just have a computer full of pictures and three pamphlets.

Now what?

Well, if you’re me (actually that would be weird, please just be yourself), you make lists. I love lists. Lists are great for organizing things.

So either on paper or on the computer (my current method is just using Google Drive) I just make a chart that looks something like this:

Class All kids Kid 1 Kid 2
English / reading
Math
Science
SS
Art
Music
Health
PE
Other

It’s the eight required subjects in MD, plus columns for each kid plus a column for the things the kids all did together. Even if you have very different kids, some things (like field trips!) will often be the same for all of them.

Then I go through the stuff I’ve gathered — the pictures, workbooks, puzzle books, worksheets, notes, lesson plans, ephemera, and so forth — and I make bullet lists of the topics we covered, organized by subject.

For example:

English / reading

  • freewrite haikus
  • suction cup
  • handwriting sample?
  • suction cup
  • handwriting lower case
  • alien helmet freewrite
  • reading kids post and stuff
  • Wee Free Men
  • Oral spelling,
  • spelling in games,
  • email to family
  • read popular science
  • read minecraft and terraria wikis
  • handwriting, caps, punctuation, better formation
  • Hunger games
  • druiddawn
  • read fairy books
  • wrote stories
  • 8 parts of speech (MCT)
  • parts of sentence (MCT)
  • types of verbs 
  • handwriting — finish caps, do some lower case

As I go through all of their work, I write down any samples that might work well to take to the portfolio review. I don’t do it in any sort of systematic way yet, just if it strikes me that something is a good choice, I’ll make a note of it in the left column. (You could make an additional column to hold those, or put them at the end of each kid’s list, but I find this makes the whole chart smaller and the efficiency of it all pleases me.)

I’ll write another post about what sorts of samples work best and how I choose which ones to bring, in a few days.

At first, the list will be sort of random. I grab topics from the books we read — for example in social studies I might just say “read OUP ancient greeks, chap 2-14, covers years 1000 BC – 500 BC”. Or I might mention a project – “made a series of shoebox dioramas of life in spring, ancient nubia, etc.”.

In subjects where you go pretty strictly by the book, you’ll probably have fewer entries:

SS

  • C&O canal
  • WWI telegram
  • FDR & stuff
  • greek chariot
  • C&O canal
  • FDR and stuff
  • SOTW 4: thru 4-22
  • finished adaptation of the odyssey
  • indep. rading on WWII, civil war.
  • Greeks, etc

In subjects where you do more scattered passion-following, unit studies, or unschooling, you’ll end up with a lot more entries:

Science

  • rocket center GPS
  • visited okeanos
  • reading sample
  • visited okeanos, etc
  • ph stuff
  • crystalradio
  • distillation
  • nature walks — tree, bird, etc identification
  • county fair
  • achaeology, history techniques
  • ocean science! — watching nautilus. okeanos
  • habitats: beach, md, al
  • wild horses
  • hominid evolution
  • history of life on earth
  • chemistry — stoichiometry
  • mushroom identification
  • aquarium! twice
  • raptor festival
  • NASA Wallops, rockets
  • astronomy
  • rock and mineral show
  • radio stuff
  • electronics and
  • programming minecraft!
  • velvet worms
  • rocket museum
  • tech museum
  • hiller air museum
  • heart, organs, veins
  • cabbage juice indicator
  • forces
  • concentration
  • diffusion

Tips

Here’s some quick tips.

Tip #1: Don’t worry about grammar or spelling.

These notes are just for you, not for your reviewer to look at, so don’t worry about it making sense to anyone but you. Don’t fiddle with caps, spelling… or logic. It’s just quick notes. Don’t let it take forever.

If you look at my examples above, they’re chock full of errors, sentence fragments, and I no longer know what “FDR and stuff” as a work sample could have meant.

Tip #2: Write lots of topics down.

Don’t discount things that you thought you could have done a better job of, or things you’re still working on, or things your kids might not have learned.

Write it all down. It all counts — it’s instruction you provided, even if your kids didn’t necessarily learn as much as you expected.

Also, you might be wrong. Maybe they learned more than you know they did. I can’t tell you how many times my kids have seemed to just glide through a topic and I figured only a little of it actually stuck but months or even years later they just pulled that information out of the dark recesses of their brains.

(Of course, sometimes I was sure they learned something and a conversation with a grandparent or a friend or a stranger shows that I was totally fooling myself and they know absolutely nothing about it. Oops.)

Tip #3: Give yourself a pat on the back.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in anxiety about what our kids have learned that we forget how far we’ve come. So make sure you write down everything you did this semester (or year, or whatever time period you’re tackling). Let the list get really long and just bask in it. Roll around in all the luxurious learning you planned and provided. Feel happy and content and amazing.

Tip #4: Use this to plan your next semester.

Okay, now that you feel awesome, look at the list again. The list can help you see where you need more content. We’ll talk about this more in a few posts when I talk about picking samples, but if you can’t find more than one or two bullet points or you can’t even find two or three samples… maybe it’s time to give that subject a little more time or find a way to document it just a little more thoroughly.

This is one way to find any giant gaping holes in their education.

Next Steps

In the next post, I’ll show you how to summarize the topics your children studied and re-write them in educationese.

Other posts in this series:

7 Days Until Portfolio Review: Summarizing and Educationese

You have your materials together. You’ve made a list of topics. You’re almost there!

Now you just take your lists of topics and join them together in a nice summary, sprinkling in educationy-sounding words.

Maybe for science you have the following:

  • density – and submarines, liquids, gases
  • flight — kites, airplanes, helicopters, future design
  • migration
  • food webs
  • life cycles & reproduction, genetics
  • geothermal processes, volcanoes, tsunami, plate tectonics, astronomy — comets, sun, stars, planets, constellations, satellites
  • some quantum mechanics
  • observing mantises, caterpillars, garden,
  • fixing things, watching things get fixed, building things (wooden car, bird house, soccer net, etc.)
  • garden and soil testing

You can join a few together and make it a shorter list:

  • Physics: flight, states of matter, astronomy
  • Biology: life cycles, food production,
  • Geology: soil, volcanoes
  • Engineering and materials science

Whatever makes you happy. The point isn’t to have an exhaustive list, or a list you’re going to turn in to someone. It’s just a quick list of things you can use to answer questions that the reviewer asks. And I highly recommend practicing your answers in your head, or even out loud.

Example Dialog

Reviewer: “What did Bobby do in science?”

Me: “He studied the physics of flight, astronomy and the states of matter… aspects of biology, including life cycles and food production.”

And what’s best is as you’re saying the words, pull out an example. You probably won’t even need to list all of your bullet points.

Example Dialog, Now With Samples!

Reviewer: “What did Bobby do in science?”

Me: “We studied the physics of flight, astronomy and the states of matter. Here’s a picture of Bobby being taught about the controls of an airplane at the Frederick airport.”

(I pull out the picture and hand it to the reviewer.)

Me: “He also studied aspects of biology, including life cycles and food production. Here’s a picture of him testing the garden soil’s pH.”

(Hands over picture of kid with pH meter.)

Reviewer: “Excellent! Now how about Social Studies?”

Does This Really Work?

Yes. Yes it does.

When you take a little time to organize ahead of time, you will look organized and put together. If you exude confidence and can state everything quickly and efficiently and hand over a sample, the reviewer will see that you’re doing a great job!

And it can be fun, too. One semester I made our summary for Language Arts and realized we’d read several books in the Harry Potter series, the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Wee Free Men, and watched A Christmas Carol. Somehow I’d accidentally created a semester-long study of British Literature! You never know.

But Isn’t This A Lot of Work?

Honestly.. yes? Maybe? Just writing it up in this series of blog posts makes me feel like my method is a little complicated and I can just imagine everyone walking away thinking I’m a little overly list-obsessed.

You’d be right, actually. I do love lists.

But I do like to point out that one of the more annoying aspects (to me) of portfolio reviews is that it would actually be easier to make a really nice looking fake one. It would be easy as pie to have my kids fill out two worksheets per subject and back date them. I could bring in samples that have nothing to do with the way we really homeschool.

But that would make me feel bad — I’m an honest person. And it wouldn’t be teaching my kids how to be honest. But it sure would make my job a lot easier.

Summary

Prepare some nice lists and practice your answers — even if it’s for just a few minutes the day before — and you’ll exude confidence and competence.

Next, I’ll write about which samples work best!

Other posts in this series:

2 Days Until Portfolio Review: All About Samples

This post is filled with everything you wanted to know about portfolio review samples but were afraid to ask. Or maybe you did ask. Whatever. I’ll update this page as I find other questions that people ask — but I’ll warn you this is a meaty post already. Get some tea, kick back, and enjoy.

(It’s actually 17 days until our portfolio review now — it was postponed. But I figured if I titled this one “17 Days Until…” it would get confusing.)

So now we know the law, we’ve sorted through pictures and gathered other samples and notes, made a list of the topics we studied, and summarized them into handy notes for the portfolio review meeting.

Now we need to choose samples.

New homeschoolers usually have a lot of questions about samples:

And more!

How Many Samples Do I Have to Bring?

Some people want to do the bare minimum, other people like to bring an abundant number of samples because they like to share, they like external validation, or they are worried they will fail. I have a few recommendations.

Bring 2-4 samples per kid per subject

“Is that all?” Some people will ask. Yes. That’s all. But let’s do some quick math here — I have three kids and eight subjects. 3 x 8 x 2 = 48. 3 x 8 x 4 = 96. So I’m going to bring 48-96 samples to my review. That’s a lot of time to find them, list them, and organize them. Also, if I brought any more it would be really quite heavy!

Can’t I just bring more and be safe?

Well… I hope you won’t. Not just because I value your health and I think that more samples might cause a back-related injury, but because it can make reviewers start expecting it of all of us. The county reviewers in some counties really don’t seem to know the law or the culture of homeschooling and will ask for way, way more than the law allows. The more we let them get away with it, the more they will grow to expect it. Please — think of my bad back. Or the unschoolers. Or people who have children with learning disabilities or chronic illnesses. Some kids can just churn out samples like well-oiled machines — but some people homeschool because their kids cannot.

Also, if you bring 90 samples for one subject and only two for another, the reviewer will often tend to think you’re slacking in the subject you brought less of. It’s simple human nature. They’ll compare what you brought and assume it represents the way you homeschool — if you have 90 of one and two of the other subject, they will think you spend 45 times more of you time on one subject and maybe you’re not doing enough of the other subject. I’ve seen it happen.

But I love to share and hear how awesome I am or my kid is!

Yeah, I know. That why we made that list earlier of everything you covered, so you could feel awesome. So read off that list of topics you covered to your reviewer (but don’t give them the paper!), share with grandma, make a blog post, put it all in Pintrest, give yourself an M&M for every awesome thing you and your kids did… but don’t look for validation from the public schools just to feel like you’re doing the right thing.

Maybe your reviewer will love what you did. But maybe they won’t. Why leave your self-esteem in their hands?

What Counts as a Sample?

Almost anything! Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Your child’s hand written note.
  • Your child’s typed story.
  • A picture your child drew of unicorns.
  • A picture your child drew of how distillation works.
  • A diagram your child made of how telescopes work.
  • A picture of your kids playing baseball in the backyard.
  • A pamphlet from the Air and Space Museum.
  • A picture of your kids enjoying their cousin’s rock concert.
  • A picture of your kids standing around in historic ruins.
  • A test paper.
  • A workbook.
  • A puzzle book.
  • A worksheet.
  • A picture your child took with a camera.
  • A blog post your child wrote.
  • A picture of something your child built out of tangrams.
  • A paper towel artistically colored with red cabbage indicator in various colors.
  • A sample of non-fiction your child read.
  • A list of books your child read.
  • A note about a conversation you and your kids had.
  • A certificate your child earned.
  • A map from a state park.
  • An MP3 of a song your child wrote.
  • An MP3 of a poem your children collaborated on and set to creepy music.
  • Notes you jotted down about what your kids asked or noticed during a history reading.
  • A video of your child doing gymnastics.
  • A program from a play or musical.
  • Scraps of paper your children wrote on for a word game.
  • Pictures of your children playing a math game. (Or a social studies game or…)
  • Pictures of kids trying out instruments or learning how to play them.
  • Pictures of writing, math, or drawing on a white board (good for kids with poor fine motor skills).
  • Pictures of kids playing “educational” video games — and I don’t just mean the ones that are supposed to be educational
  • Pictures of a robot they made, or kids using a telescope, or kids soldering circuits or…
  • A list of types of music they listened to.
  • Artwork they viewed — don’t forget this includes ancient sculptures and architecture!

I think the real question is what *can’t* you bring as a sample. So far the one thing I’ve thought of and discarded was “a sweaty shirt that the kid ran around in” as a sample for PE.

What Makes a Good Sample?

Now you have to start thinking strategically. If I’m only bringing 2-4 samples, I don’t want them all to be the same. I won’t bring four spelling tests, for example.

Usually, the “core” subjects are the ones I’ll bring 3-4 samples for: math, language arts, social studies, and science. In some counties they even recognize those as the core subjects, but not in all counties. For the other subjects (art, health, PE, and music), I usually bring two samples, unless the kids insist I bring others.

Language Arts

For language arts, I admit that I bring more samples and choose more carefully than I used to. I mentioned earlier that I did once fail a review. Yes, it was in language arts. I’ll tell that story soon… but it did affect the samples I bring for language arts, which irritates me. I don’t like to change how I homeschool to please people who don’t know much about homeschooling, me, or my kids. But I do get stressed out by portfolio reviews and, considering all angles, adding one sample per kid is easier than dealing with the extra anxiety.

Anyway, for language arts I try to bring:

  • At least one sample that shows my child’s handwriting — it might be a book they wrote, freewriting, or a spelling “test” (the kids sort of insisted on them? They’re weird.)
  • At least one sample that shows their reading ability — this might be a printout of a challenging science or history reading, a list of books they read on their own, or an example of phonics lessons we’re currently doing (depending on age and ability).
  • At least one sample that shows some kind of reasoning ability — they don’t just do copywork or spelling or reading, but they can form ideas of their own in their heads and somehow turn it into coherent English words.
  • Often I bring one sample that shows some sort of grammar or editing ability.
  • If we went to one, a pamphlet from a play or musical, historic writer’s house, etc.. Field trip!

Some of those could be combined in a sample. And sometimes I don’t manage to bring all of those. But it’s what I generally aim to look for in our samples — a wide variety of samples that display different language-related skills.

Math

I tend towards three math samples, usually. I try to show samples from different math topics. I wouldn’t bring three samples of the same sort of subtraction problems, for example.

I attempt to have at least one sample that isn’t from a workbook or worksheet if I have them (the kids sometimes demand math worksheets, so we usually have them). A non-worksheet sample might be a picture of the kids playing chess or mastermind, or a picture of the kids using french toast as tangrams. Maybe even a math-related book they read, such as the Sir Cumference series, the Number Devil, etc.. It could be a picture of a hands-on math activity, such as measuring a circle’s circumference and diameter to show what pi means. Or a historic math method or technology we made*, such as a quipu (recording device made of knots) or a papercraft enigma machine (I still need to post about that, too!). Or even just a math puzzle from a puzzle book.

(*For subjects the kids show less passion towards, I like to combine activities with a subject they like. So a lot of our learning is about history or science, with a math or English tie-in.)

Social Studies

The social studies samples vary greatly depending on age. For the little ones, it could be a map or coloring page based on the reading we’re doing. My middle kid likes to make crafts, models, and art about historical times.

For my middle schooler, I once brought in a map we made in Google Maps of all the places we called on our amateur radio. As we contact someone, we look them up to see where they live — geography! I also brought in his amateur radio license as a sample that could easily cover a semester of social studies (you don’t just need to know geography, but learn many US and international laws), math, and science.

This time I’m bringing in pictures from Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruins we visited in Mexico.

Science

We live, eat, and breathe science here at Dragon Academy. I never bring in worksheets for science. We don’t do them. I almost always bring in pictures of the kids doing science, diagrams they drew of how things work, books they read, and pamphlets (or pictures) of museums and events we visited.

The year we failed language arts (everything turned out fine! I promise!), the same reviewer passed us for science because I showed ONE picture of my garden. I don’t even think the children were in the picture and she never looked at the rest of the samples I brought. That one picture of a garden was plenty. You really never know what you’re going to get as far as reviewers go.

Music

Music is usually two samples — one that shows them learning about music and another that shows them doing music.

Learning about music could be going to a show, listening to a type of music (jazz, bluegrass, etc), learning the sounds instruments make, music theory of some kind, etc..

Doing music is often a picture of them playing a music instrument, performing music, dancing to music, or an MP3 of the music they made.

Art

Art is another subject where I bring two samples, one about learning art and the other about doing art.

Doing art could be either art they made or a picture of art they made (my son is into making glass art and there is no way I’m carrying that and 100 pieces of weird papers and pictures with me). It might be movies they made or pictures they took on a camera. Or drawings, pixel art, painting, chalk on the sidewalk, sculptures, dioramas, and a billion other things.

The other sample might be a pamphlet from a museum, thoughts they had while viewing famous art, artists or periods we studied, a list of art they looked at, art techniques, graphic design information, color theory lessons, etc..

PE

PE is usually two samples — pictures or videos of the kids engaged in something physical: soccer, ballet, gymnastics, a wall climb at the renaissance fair, playing baseball in the back yard, an obstacle course they made, nature hikes, riding their bikes, playing in the pool, etc..

I think you could make a case for bringing in tickets from a game the kids watched. I know that after seeing a Real Live hockey game, the kids are more interested in watching and doing sports. Maybe an example of learning sports rules would work, too. Or learning about warming up and cooling down, how muscles and tendons and things work, how to properly lift weights, or how to design a healthy workout program… but maybe that would fall under Health, instead. Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV).

Health

This is the question people have so often, especially for little kids. What counts as health?

When I first moved to Maryland, I couldn’t figure it out on my own, so I googled the local school’s information for parents, to see what the schools consider health, especially in the lower grade.

Things that count as health for a kindergartener in Maryland (from Montgomery County’s website):

In later grades they keep those seven basic categories, but add age-appropriate topics, such as: bullying, online safety, first aid, stress management, peer pressure, depression, illegal drugs, OTC medications, pregnancy, body image, eating disorders, information about food borne illnesses, self-esteem, conflict resolution, communicable diseases, decision-making, goal setting, health care products, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, health resources, sexual harassment, puberty, weight management, modes of disease, respect, drug laws, nutrients, caloric intake, risk, gun safety, emergency response, telling vs tattling, family traits, the process of growing, the process of food production, senses and food, food animals, mental illnesses, addiction, dating, parenting, and so on.

So any two samples from that wide variety of health-related concepts would work fine! Scouting organizations often include plenty of health-related information, since much of what they do is about hygiene, camping, and helping in emergencies.

Some samples I’ve brought (or will bring this month) include:

  • a daily food chart (how many of each food group the kids ate at each meal).
  • pictures of children cooking meals for themselves.
  • pages from a safety curriculum coloring book (Kidpower).
  • an elementary school anxiety workbook.
  • vaccination pamphlets.
  • typed notes from a conversation we had about vaccinations, diseases and safety when travelling abroad.
  • drawings from an art lesson about how faces look for different feelings.
  • pictures of grandpa showing the oldest how to properly shoot a gun and about range safety (perfect veteran’s day activity).
  • pictures of children learning how to build a fire.
  • a paper where the child wrote their name, address, and phone number.
  • a picture of visit to a farm and/or farm animals.

Can I use (whatever) as a sample?

Probably, yes.

If your kid did it in this time period (semester or whatever you’re being reviewed on) and it’s an example of something that has to do with this subject…. then yeah.

However, I’d aim to have different types of samples, because variety will give the impression that you did more things than if all of your samples look similar or are about only one topic.

How can I make sure the reviewers will like my samples?

You can’t make them. Some people will just be difficult. But there are things that, while not legally required, can help influence reviewers to favor you:

  • Be organized (see below).
  • Date the samples if you can — some people will say it is unnecessary and not part of the law. But… well, I’ll fight over a lot of things… but for me it’s just easier to put dates on my samples. The stupid thing is that the reviewers have no idea if you dated them honestly as you went or just back-dated your favorite samples the day before the review. Once again it would be so much easier to lie than to just date everything as you go. I don’t recommend lying. I’m just saying that when reviewers require things that are hard to do honestly but are easy to cheat at, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
  • Bring a variety of types of samples about a variety of topics. The more varied things are, the more it shows that you did a lot of stuff over time. (Also it helps reviewers see that everything doesn’t have to be tests and worksheets).
  • Make sure your samples aren’t all pamphlets. I love bringing those in, but make sure some of your samples show your kids actually doing some sort of output. It will keep the reviewers from doubting you.

Do I have to organize my samples?

Well, the law doesn’t say you have to, but it’s more persuasive if you do. You see, most of portfolio reviews are social engineering — persuading people to do what you want them to do.

You want to persuade the reviewer that you are a good homeschooler who offers through instruction to their children. What would prove this? They don’t get to see you teach your kids, they don’t get to spy on you or make you sign in every day to a learning log on their web page, and they don’t even get to see or talk to your kids if you don’t bring them (hint: don’t bring your kids).

So the way you prove it is by bringing some nice, varied samples. Dates help them see that it occurred over time… and other than that you convince them by looking competent.

I bring my samples with one folder for each child. Each folder has a divider for each subject. If I know the order that the reviewers will ask for samples (for example, Montgomery County has a standard form for reviews) I put the samples in that same order.

Then I have my overview sheet of bullet points of topics we covered in each subject and a list of each sample I’m bringing for each kid in that subject, so I can glance at my notes and easily make smart, coherent sentences with more information than the reviewer can write down in the little box on the form, showing each sample as I mention the topic.

I make sure to sound happy and excited about the wonderful things we did that year. I might share an amusing anecdote if time allows or it seems like a nice time to add one. I paint a picture with words about the lovely wholesome time we have. I share some of our favorite resources (I had a reviewer once go look up Kidpower because I gushed about it so much — which is good, because I love what they make).

Be easygoing. Be enthusiastic. Be organized.

Do I have to have tests/worksheets/whatever?

No.

“But my county sent out a letter that said…”

No.

“But how can I show that…”

No.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just make my kids do a couple of tests and bring them in?”

Gosh no.

Bring in your legitimate work. Don’t use your kid’s compliance with your requests to make it easier on you. Don’t let the reviewer push you around and demand tests if you don’t want to do them.

If you want to do them or your kids do, by all means go for it. Some kids even ask for them — I’m not saying say no to your kids because tests are evil or anything like that. Just don’t change what you’re doing for the school system. Do your thing. Show it off. Be persuasive!

Summary

There are a lot of ways to bring in portfolio review samples.

Don’t feel like you have to do what I do. I’m just laying out my own techniques and strategy so other homeschoolers can take or leave what they think will help them. I won’t be offended, I promise.

Other posts in this series:

Gaining Confidence Through Failing Our Portfolio Review

Failing our homeschool portfolio review gave me the confidence to keep homeschooling my kids my way.

What? Failing made you confident? Are you insane?

Nope. I’m not. I’m just weird and unorthodox. But that’s sort of required in order to be a homeschooler, isn’t it?

Fear and the Portfolio Review

When faced with a portfolio review, most parents are not excited. You don’t feel like you won a ticket to Disney World. You feel like you have to open yourself to disapproval of your teaching methods, criticism of your children, and the possibility of having to send your kids back to school against your (and the kids’) will.

So of course homeschoolers are afraid of portfolio reviews! The entire point of it is that someone who doesn’t know you or your children is going to decide whether you are a bad parent and shouldn’t be allowed to make educational decisions for your kids.

This fear results in homeschoolers lying on their reviews, forcing their kids to do worksheets that both parents and child know are stupid, causing parents to change their homeschooling activities in other ways, and forcing moms and dads to pay money to umbrella groups just to save them from their own government’s interference.

All because of this fear.

Portfolio Reviews Are Not Valid

Let’s step back a second here — In what universe can you ascertain if a parent is teaching their child just by looking at a stack of papers for half an hour twice a year?

I don’t care how amazing a reviewer is, this is an impossible task.

Because it’s impossible to do any other way, they are mostly using intuition to determine if you are doing a good job. They use cues, such as seeing if you have a wide range of types of learning, if you sound confident, if it looks like genuine work, if you are organized, if you show up to the meeting on time, and other personality “tells”.

They could not write a paper or publish a study proving your worth as a homeschooler using this stuff as evidence. It’s not possible.

Fake Portfolio Reviews Would Be More Convincing

However… strong, solid “evidence” is pretty easy to fake.

You can always make a list of topics you studied that simply isn’t real. You could show a list of books that no one really read. You could write papers for them. You could grab pamphlets from museums that your kids never paid any attention to.  You can fake a multiple choice test.

You can be pretty confident-sounding that you taught a kid everything they need to know if the list is just one you got from the local school’s web page.

It’s a real review that’s a lot of hard work. I often wonder how many honest portfolio reviews the reviewers see.

I mean, I bring the “good” word samples, not the things the kids got wrong, or never finished, or dropped food on, or just wrote the word “poop” on a million times. But that’s not what I mean. I mean the people who embellish what the kids learned… or presented last minute worksheets that look nothing like what the kids actually did all year. Or straight out lies.

Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

I’ve done my best to convince you that portfolio reviews are more easy to fake than do honestly and that the entire premise behind them is basically impossible.

Portfolio reviewers are going to compare you to school kids. And they will compare you to people with fake portfolios. So why do you care what they think? They have a pretty skewed idea of what homeschooling really is, simply because (unless they homeschool their own kids) it’s not something they have very much to do with.

So, remember: your goal in the portfolio review is just to get through it and continue to homeschool, not convince someone that you’re the best homeschooler ever. They really don’t have the evidence or ability to tell you that one way or another.

But What if I Fail?!

That’s the biggest fear of all. That you’ll fail, it will go on your permanent record, you’ll be arrested, there will be a huge “FAIL” sign stapled to your forehead, and your kids will grow up to never hold a job above minimum wage or have happiness ever again in their lives.

Guess what?

I’ve failed — and we’ve thrived.

The Story of How We Failed Portfolio Review

This happened several years ago, when my son was younger and more hyper, my daughter was younger and a little more clingy, and the youngest was just an older infant or young toddler. They weren’t very independent people because they were so young.

Usually I drop the kids of with my parents for reviews, but this time my parents were sick. I didn’t have enough time to find anyone else to watch them, so the kids came with me.

By the time we got to the building where reviews are done, I had a migraine. I’ve gotten them for about thirty years now. They don’t just hurt a lot, but they also cause me to be more clumsy, more easily confused, and I tend to have more trouble forming thoughts into sentences. It’s basically the opposite of looking organized or confident.

We settled in for the interview. I had my papers in folders, my topics listed, and I practiced what I was going to say the day before. But I had trouble remembering words. The toddler kept grabbing my papers and my folders and throwing them on the floor. The kids were trying to quietly color, but they seemed to need to ask me something about every 27 milliseconds, breaking any concentration I might have managed to muster.

I sounded like a frazzled, confused person with no business teaching anyone anything, particularly writing.

As it turns out, my random reviewer’s personal issue was Language Arts. A lot of times reviewers will, of course, be more particular about their favorite subject — maybe they teach it, or they think it’s more important for some reason. And hers was Language Arts, and I already sound like English is my second language and I didn’t even have a first.

So she asks me, “Did you do reading comprehension worksheets?”

Me: “No… we don’t do those.”

Her: “You have to do reading comprehension worksheets in the third grade. Otherwise how are they going to be able to handle fourth?”

Me, picking up papers the baby dropped on the floor: “… What?”

Her: “Third grade is reading comprehension worksheets. Didn’t you do any?”

Me, waving off confused child with broken crayon, “Um, no, we don’t do those. But we do talk about stories and things we read during and afterwards, so I know they understand what they read.”

Her, shaking her head disapprovingly, “They need reading comprehension worksheets. That’s how they…” (And she listed some things that they “prove”.)

I then offered many examples of how we handle those things. I think one of them was being able to predict how a story will go, so I pointed out that we do that in History lessons. That as we read the history chapter, we notice things repeating that happened before, and make prediction about how it will turn out.

Apparently that wasn’t good enough. Even though I gave examples of all of the ways we handle the same things she says reading comprehension worksheets do, she shook her head… and failed us.

Now think about this — what if I had said, “Sure, we do reading comprehension worksheets, I just didn’t happen to bring one.”

What would have happened? Would be believe me, and let us pass, showing that it’s all just an invitation to lie? Or would she fail us anyway, indicating that homeschoolers are supposed to be mind readers and bring the “correct” samples, even though reading comprehension worksheets isn’t listed in the law?

It was a lose-lose situation.

The very same reviewer only looked at one thing for our science portfolio. I showed one picture of our vegetable garden and barely said one sentence about it before she stopped me and made a big checkmark in the “science” column of her review sheet. Yep. She was that thorough.

Aftermath

I was angry when I left. I think I cried on the way to the car, I was so upset. I ended up with a speeding camera ticket a few weeks later, just to add insult to injury.

I was marked on the forehead with the dreaded metaphorical FAIL stamp.

How would I ever show my face in the world of homeschooling again? What if they made the kids go to school? What would I do now?? 

I went home and I ranted at anyone who would listen.

What Actually Happens When You Fail

There really isn’t a stamp. Other homeschoolers didn’t care. As it turns out, sane people don’t blame you for not doing reading comprehension worksheets for just one kid who you talk to every day.

Good. I didn’t want to change how we homeschooled. It was working just fine the way it was!

As it turns out, when you fail, they don’t just grab your kids off of the street and throw them into the nearest school. You have thirty days to prove you’re actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing. In our county, it wasn’t even with our original reviewer! It was with the head of the homeschool program. And instead of being in person, I could just scan things in and email it.

So, I scanned the same samples. I added an extra Language Arts sample — back then I only brought two samples in the portfolio, so this brought it up to three total.

Then I wrote an email, explaining what we did and a little about our Language Arts philosophy, explaining my samples a little better. I’m much better in print with time to think, instead of in person with a migraine and children climbing all over me. I appealed to the authority of our curriculum, an excellent one actually used in some public schools’ gifted programs. His philosophy of writing instruction was to make sure children could write a good sentence before you start having them write long, bad paragraphs.

I toiled over word choice, correct punctuation, and sounding confident and just plain awesome. And unemotional, not angry. And finally, I clicked send, while my stomach attempted to eat itself alive from the stress of not knowing.

This was our last shot before we had to go to drastic measures.

I got an answer in about an hour. Pass. The review form was scanned in and attached to the email. It was not just easy, it was easier than the original review!

Confidence

Once you experience one of your worst fears, a strange thing happens. You become less afraid of it. The worst thing about fear is the unknown. Your imagination goes crazy and thinks of the worst things that could happen. But the worst almost never happens.

I have the confidence of a person who has failed and survived. I can go into the review knowing that it isn’t the end and nothing bad can happen that day, unless I let it get to me. (And speed. And get a stupid ticket.)

Without the fear eating at me, I look pretty darn amazing. I bring our weird samples. I don’t do reading comprehension worksheets. I bring what I want to bring: 2-4 samples, per subject, per kid.

If I fail, I’ll just send those samples again. If I fail that, I’ll pay my protection money to an umbrella.

And we’ll thrive.

Other posts in this series:

TBT: Coding and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Today’s Throwback Thursday involves teaching the kids to code… by making them tell me how to make a peanut butter sandwich. It’s a very classic coding activity. I remember doing the same in my computer class thirty years ago.

Enjoy!

Yep, Birds Are Dinosaurs

Classification of living things has changed a lot since I went to school. Seriously, it’s changed a ton. They’ve invented entire kingdoms and added a bazillion layers of stuff. There are a lot of living things out there.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a good resource for learning how things tend to be classified now. Scientists actually rarely agree, so this web site just shows the classification as is agreed upon by several resources. That’s just how science is.

The Tree of Life website has been around for over twenty years (in fact, it was born on my birthday in 1994… be still, my heart!). That pretty much makes it an Internet antique — but of course they keep it updated, so you can trust the information contained within.

Anyway I thought I’d draw attention to the “Dinosaurs including birds” page. Because birds are dinosaurs, officially.

What Does Science Look Like at Home?

I was just watching a periscope (a live video thing, though I watched it after it was saved on Katch) by Julie over at Bravewriter. It’s about unstructured vs. structured learning… and her main point was “what does learning at home look like?” — http://blog.bravewriter.com/2016/04/11/the-split-between-structured-and-unstructured-learning/

As a liberal arts major, she could easily figure out how to play word games, pick out amazing books for Big Juicy Conversations… and so forth. (Watch the periscope! And all her other ones! They are so good!) But she didn’t necessarily know how to do the same thing in math, or maybe even in science.

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So how do you get kids excited about science? How do you get them curious and interested?

Let me give you a huge hint — it’s not by doing labs where they already know the answers. It’s not by writing up lab reports. It’s not by getting the “expected result”. That isn’t science! That’s really, really boring!

Babies can do science. Every time a toddler drops their toy car and watches it hit the floor, they’re testing gravity. It becomes a fun game watching mom or dad pick it back up again… and then dropping it again. That baby doesn’t have a lab write up. That baby doesn’t know the word gravity. But that baby just intuitively learned “things go down”. And “making mom and dad do things is fun”.

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Babies love making observations. They use all of their senses (especially taste!) to test everything around them non-stop.

The thing is… science is messy. And dangerous (especially if you want to use inappropriate sensory organs too much). And parents don’t like messes. They don’t like even minor risk, usually. So science becomes safe and boring. Parents worry that the experiment “won’t go right” so they want a tried and true experiment or demonstration (most “science” ends up being a demonstration, not an experiment anyway). But that’s boring! It isn’t fun!

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If the experiment doesn’t work, great! Now you get to troubleshoot it! That’s what real science looks like. Maybe it was a badly planned experiment — an important aspect of science is experimental design and identifying flaws in other people’s experiments. Not out of malice, but being an independent observer who can maybe see something that you missed. That’s what peer review is.

In our school we do use simulations sometimes — they let you play with things in ways you might not be able to otherwise… like nuclear reactors. But parents worry about screen time. Who cares? Do you know what science looks like? Messes and lots of computers.

I try to let the kids get exposure to real life experiences as much as life allows. Let’s make paper airplanes. Let’s learn how to solder and build a robot. Let’s go to the zoo and observe the penguins or fish or whatever.

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Once we stood around an aquarium for at least 30 minutes observing this weird little fish who decided to move rocks around with his mouth. These were huge rocks! He really struggled. Should we have stood there that long? Sure. We watched him, made observations, and guessed at what he might be doing. Eventually one of the people who volunteered there came over and told us what they thought the fish was doing. It was great!

We never wrote it up. I think I posted a picture on Flickr… maybe?

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Homeschooling, working, writing, living

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