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.


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:

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.


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

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:


  • 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:


  • 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


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:

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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

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.



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…


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.


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:

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.


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”.


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!


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.


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?


Throwback Thursday: Prehistory and a Pangaea Flip Book

Today’s Throwback Thursday is about prehistory. It includes links to some great picture-intensive books about pre-history as well as a link to a website where you can print a pangaea flip book that you can make.

Prehistory – Books to Read and a Pangaea Flip Book to Make

Since I wrote that post, there are a few more in the same series:

We haven’t gotten around to reading them yet, though, but we loved the earlier books in the series.

Project: Osmosis and a Permeable Membrane

Everyone has a different background. My degree just happens to be in Molecular Biology, so I have a lot of sciencey stuff going on in my head all the time. That makes it easier for me to spontaneously unschool in science than in history or art. Those are the two subjects I probably have the least breadth or depth.

(The best part of homeschooling is that I’m slowly fixing that over time as I learn with my kids!)

Anyway, I can throw together a short unit study in anything in science almost accidentally, and I thought I’d share an adventure in membranes and osmosis from a few weeks ago.

First, my son read the beginning of The Way We Work, a lovely illustrated book about the biology of people. It touches on the chemistry and physics you need to know to understand how biology happens. It’s funny, it’s whimsical, and it covers a vast amount of molecular and cell biology, plus anatomy, reproduction, and I can’t remember what else.

I introduced it because I thought it was time he knew some more details about biology, and the large cartoony (and silly!) illustrations might be able to hold his attention. He uses some pretty weird but amazing visual metaphors. I had my son read a few pages while his sisters finished their math work, and then had him tell us a few facts he learned, just to check to see if he had paid any attention to what he was reading.

As it turns out, those first pages are about atoms, ions, and diffusion (among other things).

A few days later, he just happened to show up in my home office, bored. I didn’t have time to amuse him or do anything long and involved, so I just showed him where the dialysis tubing was in the science area of the homeschooling room, I gave him a vague idea of what to do with it and sent him a youtube video of how to use the dialysis tubing.

After he turned his hands blue, he came back up to my office, so I sent him off to watch the Crash Course video about Membranes and Transport (CC Biology #5).

Then he came back again. He hadn’t watched the video and got discouraged that nothing had happened to his experiment after five minutes. (Oops. I forgot to set his expectations for how long it would take).

We had a quick talk about what force was going to be moving his dye around, and he realized it was diffusion. I pointed out that even without the membrane, in five minutes the dye wouldn’t spread out. So now he’s off to go make his experiment again, this time with a control. He’ll have a second cup/beaker with no membrane — just dye and water. That way he’ll know if he should have expected anything to happen, or not.

He can watch the Crash Course video while he waits, then try out this PhET Membrane Channel Simutaion. It lets you play with a few particles and some different types of channel proteins.

But in reality, what actually happened is instead of re-doing the experiment, he played with the simulator. Then a friend logged on to Steam and they started up a game of StarCraft. Things happen.

I guess tomorrow he can set the experiment up again. And if he’s still bored after that… well, it’s spring. It’s a great time to scoop some organisms out of the now-thawed lake and look at them under the microscope.

Homeschooling, working, writing, living

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