If I could, I would write this post in teeny tiny little letters, as its’ all about our last science unit of the fall semester: nano science. Nanoscience is so new, so cutting edge, that finding enough materials for the unit was a challenge. Neither of our libraries had a single book on nanotechnology or nano science! The internet, of course, was ripe with websites and ideas, so that was direction we went.

After a few less than exciting months trying to dutifully slog through a packaged science curriculum we had decided to try, things were a bit uninspired in the science department at the Gerhardt Schoolhouse. And this in and of itself is a travesty, because no one loves science more than AJ, and the whole point of what we are doing is to feed the passion, not drown it! It felt a bit like the fire had been extinguished, and I was determined to light it again. I also was determined not to get bogged down in trying to meticulously plan the rest of the semester of science, I wanted it to be spontaneous and inquiry-driven.

With that in mind, we went to a great class at the museum center on Nanotechnology. As with all the classes we attend there, they always send us home with a pile of great readings and ideas. This time it included a copy of “NanoNews”, a magazine for kids on nano science (which I am totally ordering, by the way), as well as a few other hand outs full of facts, ideas, and the latest in the developing technology. The class was fascinating–the kids were able to do all kinds of experiments!IMG_2819


First of all, it seems important to clarify what nano science is all about. (Here is a cool website for kids that will explain it better than I could: You can tell this topic is cutting edge, because that website has none of these out of date, slightly lame websites. There’s all kinds of great resources: an online exhibit on nano science from the Science Museum in London, a way to test your nano-IQ, go on a Nano-mission, play games in nano space, and one we are still exploring: Geckoman.

We’re talking about particles so small, a microscope can’t even see them. At that size, nothing acts as expected. Gravity is not really relevant. Things like surface tension become a much bigger deal. As Ms. Karen (the museum teacher) explained, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what nano science is going to do someday. Right now, it has resulted in windows that repel dirt, and paint that resists stains, and that color match makeup. But as she told the kids, most likely they will be the ones to discover what nanotechnology really can do. How amazing is that to think about?  And really, that class is full of amazingly smart homeschooled kids, so my money is on one of them becoming the Bill Gates of nanotechnology someday.

I was quite taken with nanotechnology. I don’t completely understand it (as with most things AJ has asked to study in recent memory), but that doesn’t intimidate me. I like learning about these things with him, because then the learning is driven by our actual questions. I am also hoping he is learning that it is okay to not know everything, and that learning goes on well past school age. There is something pretty captivating about learning about a technology so new.

Without books to wade through (and to clarify, there are certainly books on nanotechnology, but none at either of the libraries we have access to) we developed this unit as we went. We spent quite some time discussing what nanotechnology might be used for someday (windshields that repel water so we don’t need wipers? AJ was determined to develop something that eliminated the need for diapers. Maybe that will happen before he has to change any…).

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My favorite part of this unit was an experiment we developed on the fly while pouring through the Nanonews. In a box on the side of a page, it asked us how many drops of water we thought could fit on the face of a penny. It’s only clue was: it’s more than you think! We developed this one together, and wanted to share it with you because we both had a great time with it.

Nano-cents Experiment (developed by AJ and Megan):


  • Coins of various sizes (penny, nickel, dime, quarter–we also used some foreign coins just for fun, including a pound and a 2 Euro coin).
  • Eyedropper
  • Cup of water
  • Piece of paper to record predictions and results

1. Begin with the penny. All students and teachers should make a prediction as to how many drops of water they think will fit on the penny before the water spills out onto the tabletop. Record all predictions (this is also a great time to talk about hypotheses testing and the scientific method).

2. Using the eyedropper, slowly start to drop the water onto the face of the penny. (Hint: this needs to be done by someone with a steady hand and some patience, so the drops come out one at a time, slow enough to count). Record the drops until the water seeps off the top of the coin onto the tabletop. Record the actual number and compare to your predictions. Why do you think the prediction was different from the actual result (assuming it was–it definitely was for us!)

3. Next, go back to the penny and repeat the experiment again. Not only is this a good way to demonstrate the importance of being able to replicate your results in science, it allows you time to really talk about and try to understand what is happening down on the nano-level. this experiment is all about surface tension, and how many droplets can truly hang together before that surface tension breaks and the water breaks loose. We played with this in a few ways before moving on to other coins, and these manipulations helped us with future predictions. For example, what happens if you start dropping the water off center on the coin, versus dropping it on the center? Why?

4. When you are ready to move on to other coins, make your predictions and record them on your sheet. How many droplets on a nickel? It’s bigger, so one would predict the drops would go up. But also think about the head on a nickel, versus Abe’s head on the penny. It’s bigger too, and of a higher height. Will that impact the surface tension? The space available for droplets?

5. Continue on with all the coins and compare your results.

Here is what it looked like in action:

Starting our experiment...

Starting our experiment…

How many drops of water can you fit on a penny?

How many drops of water can you fit on a penny?

A lot. More than you think.

A lot. More than you think.

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We had a blast with this, and were able to think about the role forces like surface tension play at the nano level.

I’m looking forward to studying nanotechnology again in a  few years, hopefully when even more resources are out there and more amazing things have been invented using the new technology!


Whodunit? Forensic Science

IMG_2811We have missed choosing our own themes and putting together our own units, so from now on, that’s what we’re doing for Science. Definitely. We gave the packaged science curriculum a solid try, but it just wasn’t enough fun for anyone around here. And science should definitely be fun, especially when you have a 9 year old who LOVES science. So I just asked him what he wanted to study for science. The answer? Forensic science. He has several Eyewitness books on this topic that he loves reading:

eyewitness Crime and Detection 2 He was also signed up to attend a Museum Monday class on Forensic Science, but came down with a fever and couldn’t go, so he was anxious to learn about it on his own.

How should one  study forensic science when they are 9?  That was a tricky question. Aside from playing Clue, I was scratching my head on the right way to approach this one. We made a trip to the library, gathered our books, and then I gave AJ an activity book called Detective Science and told him to choose the activities he thought looked the most interesting. I highly recommend this book–we only did about 4 of the 40 activities for this unit, so lots more to explore:


One rather non-suprising hiccup of this unit theme was that some of the books we checked out were a bit too, eh, graphic. We started reading this book called “WhoDunIt?” which walked you though crimes and how they were ultimately solved, which seemed quite interesting in theory, but the crimes were pretty grisly and we just couldn’t handle it, so we had to ditch that idea.

And in terms of videos, I wasn’t a huge fan of offering up things like the First 48 or Forensic Files, as it seemed likely those would be nightmare inducing. We did find a few good PBS choices–including “Can Science Solve Crime?” and “How Sherlock Changed the World”. Thanks PBS!

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AJ also started reading a set of books called Traces, based on a crime scene detective:

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But really, the whole unit was a fun hodgepodge of microscopes, magnifying glasses, clues, evidence, fingerprints, and mysteries. We kept it flexible and recaptured the inherent fun that we always seem to have when we let our topics take on a life of their own.

We took a look at our fingerprints, CSI style. We did this once years ago (I remember thinking it was surprisingly tricky to get a good fingerprint). This time AJ did his prints and identified each one, and then compared them to mine.

Another activity he choose out of Detective Science book was the study of hair. We read about the DNA in hair roots, and then plucked out hairs to look at under the microscope. (I actually had to supply the hair, since AJ’s is so short). After an in-depth of study of hairs, we retrieved some dog hairs (not in short supply around here) to compare the difference.  under the microscope. They do look quite different, in case you were wondering. Give it a try!


We do have a pretty good microscope. It’s not amazing, but it’s simple enough for AJ to use one his own and serves it’s purpose. I swear the child could spend hours using that microscope. We don’t have that many prepared slides–a few that came with the microscope, a few we made ourselves a few years ago during a science unit, but not many. Watching his wonder and joy at looking at dog hair under the lens, I ordered an entire set of slides for him for Christmas. I am contemplating an even better microscope, but we’ll see….

Side note: here’s some pics of our science lab. It’s really a walk in cedar closet. But it works great as a lab:

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Probably the most fun of all the activities AJ chose was the Crime Scene Re-enactment. This is easy to do with almost no supplies or resources. Armed with a notebook, a pencil, a camera, and a tape measure, AJ had to pretend one room in the house was a crime scene. He chose his bedroom. Which does usually look like a crime scene, incidentally. First, he had to take notes on what he saw around him: was the room a mess? Clean? What was laying out? Was the bed made? Were the windows open?

Then, he had to photograph the scene from different angles, and look for clues. The most time consuming part was the mapping of the scene. He had to draw the layout of the room–doors, windows, furniture. Using his tape measure, he had to note how far apart everything was. This was a good activity for him, as he doesn’t have great spatial or drawing skills, and he loved doing this. It kept him busy for over an hour on his own.


Amazing crime scene photos

Amazing crime scene photos


The Detective Science book was full of many more activities we can do next time around–analyzing ink, handwriting…so many great ideas. I also have a police fingerprinting kit in the closet that I may break out on the next rainy weekend. I am sure it will make a huge mess, but will likely be great fun 🙂

So we’re back in full swing on our science adventures. I am glad we tried something new, if only to realize how well what we’ve been doing for science is the best approach for us. And I’m totally ordering the board game Clue for AJ for Christmas. Not really educational, per se, but who doesn’t love Clue? We have lame Clue Jr. currently, so time for an upgrade.

In the spirit of letting the topic take on a life of its’ own, and letting it last as long as we are still finding it interesting, this one will be ongoing for a bit longer. We have a few more project we want to try, and AJ is heading to a Nano Science class at the museum tomorrow. I told him it would be fun to study nano science as a topic, to which he replied, “Forensics is really all about nano science if you think about it, mom. So really it just fits right in.”

There you have it.

Indians were Not Indian: European Explorers

IMG_2403A word about this globe. I found it at a rummage sale at an old church, and it is fantastic. It glows. Here you can see AJ assessing the likelihood those European explorers were going to get to India by heading west from Europe…

After exploring the tribes of indigenous peoples in North America, it was time to hear about those intrusive European explorers. Previous exposure to this had mostly been on Columbus,  but this time around we did a deep dive, starting all the way back with Erik the Red. First AJ mapped out the various explorers and their eventual discoveries (I thought the coloring of Asia was a bit overzealous, but he really didn’t agree that the map needed to be colored at all. World’s biggest opposer to coloring=AJ).


After the nonsense of coloring was complete, he moved on to what was clearly a more important use of his time–questioning the intent of Columbus. That was actually the title of the chapter. This exposure, along with a few supplemental books on the topic, set the stage for our understanding that most of the explorers were largely clueless, ill prepared, and rather cruel and destructive. Columbus was really kind of a jerk, who didn’t actually discover America, and ignorantly called the indigenous people Indians. And as the globe makes painfully obvious, he was pretty far from India.


With the right mindset in place, we ventured on to learn about the explorers of the Southeast. Included in this were the explorers of Ponce de Leon (fountain of youth, anyone?), Navarez, de Vaca, and de Soto. We had books from the library on these explorers as well:


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Then we moved to the north, learning about Henry Hudson and the attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Kudos to Intellego for all the great activities and discussion questions. One of my favorite discussion questions led us to talk about how hard it might have been to find sailors to agree to man these exploration voyages–with rotten food, disease, rough seas, and hostile natives waiting to greet them.

All in all, we learned about Erik the Red (including a heated discussion about whether Leif Erikson and Erik the Red were the same person. Father & son, just in case you were interested…), Columbus, Cabot, de Leon, Balboa, Verrazano, Cartier, de Soto, Coronado, and Hudson. How can we remember all of these, you ask? Well…

One of our most favorite ways to learn around here is creating Things on Rings. AJ is a very hands on learning, and while he loves books of all kinds, since he was very young he has loved all kinds of flashcards. Not the drill and kill flashcards, but interesting flashcards full of fun facts. For years, when we have been working through units that had lots of pieces to remember and understand, we have used Things on Rings. The trick: metal fastener rings of all sizes, a hole punch, and then any sort of thing you may want to bring together. We have used this with Greek/Roman/Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Homonyms/Synonyms, U.S. Presidents, Leaves, and last year–Kings and Queens of England. So of course, we now have Explorers on Rings:

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I love these because even after everything else has been filed and put away, the Things on Rings hang on nails in AJ’s room, or in our Schoolroom, and he pulls them out and looks at them over and over again.

IMG_2595But we didn’t stop there….next up? The first settlements!

Grade 3.

IMG_2262 The Gerhardt Schoolhouse has existed for three entire years, starting on four. This year, like every other, I’ve fielded questions about whether we are going to do it again. The answer: until we aren’t enjoying it anymore. I love all kinds of education, as long as they work for the kid in question, and hands down, this one is working for mine. His health is better than ever, so much so that I might go out on a limb and say he might be fine to go to school elsewhere (though I am not quite brave enough to test that hypothesis). And over the last three years, the value of this adventure has slowly shifted from one that was designed primarily to keep AJ healthy to one that has proven to be just an amazing way to live.



Full disclosure that it is also a lot of work–an investment of energy, resources (financial and mental), and a choreographed time management operation that requires both Matt and I to juggle our jobs, the Schoolhouse, and the usual responsibilities of being parents, all at the same time. The second most frequent question we get (after “are you really still doing that?”) is “how in the world are you pulling that off? And like anything else, the answer is that if you really want to do something, you find a way to do it…and our way is involves creative scheduling, a energetic group of college students, and willpower 🙂

We’ve actually been back “in school” for four weeks already, and updating the blog has been on my list for well, four weeks. But here we go, better late than never…

Here’s what’s new at the Gerhardt Schoolhouse for third grade (and some tried and true approaches that we are hanging on to):

The Unit Study: The themed unit study has been a MVP at the Gerhardt Schoolhouse since the very beginning (our first kindergarten unit was Ancient Egypt!). That concentrated, deep dive focus onto one topic (usually science or social studies), integrating reading, writing, and art seems to break our year down into manageable and interesting pieces. While I have planned every unit theme we have done thus far (though sometimes borrowing heavily from those wiser than I who have created workbooks and study guides online), last year I began to realize that AJ wanted more depth on many of the topics than I could easily piece together in one Sunday afternoon. We’ve covered many of the usual (and many unusual) topics in history and science at least once, some of them twice (like Egypt, Native Americans, Presidents, Rome, Outer Space, Human Body, Volcanoes, Robots, etc). It used to be easy enough to piece together a good unit–some great library books, videos, online links, experiments, art projects. But he wants more, and I am humble enough to admit I am tapped out on many of these topics–I don’t know much more about chemistry, for example, than we covered last year, and that just barely tapped the surface of what he seems to want to know.

So I did some research last spring, and found Intellego Unit Studies.  They cover a wide range of topics, primarily science and social studies, though there are units on other things as well. They are broadly grouped by grade ranges, (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, etc), which was another selling feature for me–they align with the common core for those grades, and it provides some flexibility about how much depth you go into on a particular topic (meaning if you are really into it, there’s a lot you could dig into, and if something is less interesting to your child, you can just get some basic coverage and move on to the next activity).

I was tempted to buy the “bundles” (there’s a 3rd grade and a 4th grade bundle with 6 units each, which is also a deal in terms of pricing), but before I took the plunge on 6 of them I wanted to try out one or two. And while Intellego had bundled 3 world history units with their third grade set, I opted to start with American History, as we did a lot of world history last year, and our trusty Home Learning: Year By Year suggested a strong emphasis on American History this year. Intellego had great looking American History units as well, so I downloaded “American History Vol. 1: Before the New Nation” to kick off social studies this year.

The unit themes are similar to what we have done in the past, with readings, online links to content, videos, and hands on activities. I promised AJ we would still bring home books from the library to go with whatever we are studying (which is his favorite part), and we have continued to add a few activities of our own when we get a brainstorm.

We decided to do a science themed Intellego as well, and AJ chose Chemistry (big surprise). So we are actually doing two units at once, as well as Math and Language Arts (weekly spelling lists, independent reading, writing practice, and grammar). Two units at a time is a bit of a departure as well, and we weren’t entirely sure if it would work.

Matt spent the first day reviewing Math U See, introducing the first spelling list, and making time for a fun field trip to the park to launch some rockets. One Day 2, I tried to tackle the Chemistry and the Before the New World Unit Studies, back to back.

That did not work.

It was a lot to digest, and since they are formatted similarly (you start with a KWL chart, gather all the materials you need for the activities, and dive in), it got a bit repetitive.

So we regrouped and decided Matt would be in charge of Chemistry, and I would handle the First People. Since we tag team out on the teaching, each of the subjects is now tied to one of us, and that means we can keep track of where he is at in each and build other activities around it. Matt does most of the math, I do most of the language arts, and AJ is in charge of his independent reading (current book: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Lightening Thief).

After a month of this, our feedback is that these seem to be working for us. We’ve split them into smaller pieces each week (usually a chapter per week if things go well). There are a lot of embedded links to online material, some of which is really great (like the Smithsonian activity on the Yupik), some of which is kind of dry, but we tend to move along through things that are less interesting and linger on those that are more engaging, just like we would with books or anything else. I love all the curated resources they have pulled together, and we are still having fun finding our own books and planning our own activities and experiments.

For example, on my one and only day of teaching chemistry, we were learning about physical changes versus chemical changes. One of the examples they gave of chemical change was burning toast…and within 30 seconds we were up and in the kitchen to watch a chemical change in action. (Toaster? check. Bread? check.):

IMG_2182 IMG_2185Those are the moments I love, and we can still create them–especially if we have someone else pulling together the foundations and material for us. It has been a huge time saver for me.

We also have made the decision this year to load up the school schedule with a lot of activities. AJ is such a social creature, and while I could happily sit in the house with books for a month at a time, he needs a lot of activity and interaction. So while we have spent a good amount of time on First Peoples and Chemistry this month, his schedule has also been packed with museum classes, zoo classes, park days and field trips with his homeschool friends here in town, library classes, and his new activity: Cub Scouts 🙂

Skate park day with our homeschool friends…and a giant caterpillar!

Skate park day with our homeschool friends…and a giant caterpillar!

The new scout :)

The new scout 🙂

So lots of new, and a bit of the same rhythm that has gotten us through so far.



The Road is Life…

“The world is the true classroom. The most rewarding and important type of learning is through experience, seeing something with our own eyes.” –Jack Hanna


First passport stamp!

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of our summer of learning. None of it took place physically here at the Gerhardt Schoolhouse, but much of what we learned last spring here at the Schoolhouse laid the foundation for the epic summer that was to come. If you look back at our themes from spring, you will see weeks on Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Versailles; if you search back even further you can find units of Italy, Einstein, WWI and WWII, Paris, Wonders of the World. In short, for people who basically have no separation between home and school, our travels this summer created a full circle experience where so much we had learned came to life…and while we are back to business as usual at the Schoolhouse, it would be hard to say we are Back to School…I would argue we never left.

Perhaps the experience is best summarized by AJ himself, during the moment he found himself standing in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Versailles itself was both amazing and insane, the number of visitors almost unbearable and the crowds pushing forward at a pace that did not really allow you to enjoy or appreciate the gravity of what you were looking at. The Hall of Mirrors is the biggest room in Versailles, so we had a rare moment to catch our breath and stop to look around. AJ turned to me and said: “Mom…just a few weeks ago I was reading about this place. Now I’m standing here!”


And that, I think, is the very best way to explain the experience we had over and over again this summer. As you may recall, I signed up to teach for Europe for six weeks this summer, teaching leadership to undergraduate students as we moved from Luxembourg, to Switzerland, to Milan. That was the primary purpose of the trip, and that experience itself could fill an entire blog. The students were wonderful, the class was a success, and I count it as one of the highlights of my career to date. AJ and Matt travelled with me, occasionally attending the city tours and such that were part of the program, but we also had a parallel amount of experiences on our own, after classes were done for the day, beyond the cultural experiences that were formally part of the program, and during my weekends “off”, when the students left to travel and explore on their own, and we did the same. Before I go any further, I must simply say that I am beyond grateful to have a job that I love, that also occasionally allows such an incredible opportunity for learning–for all of us.

While I cannot recount all of the amazing experiences we fit into six weeks into one blog post, I will chronicle some of the highlights…..

Brussels: While everyone was jet lagged during the walking tour of this city (and we were only there a day), we learned an incredible amount and saw some memorable sites. We visited the original wall that surrounded Brussels, saw the statue dedicated to the man who discovered longitude and latitude (Gerard Mercato), had a killer Beligum waffle, and saw the much heralded “Little Boy Peeing” statue (AJ’s favorite).




Infamous “Little Boy Peeing” statue…

Brugges: Another very quick stop on our travels, just for one morning, and another walking tour.  A fairy tale canal town, with white geese, pommes frites, and enough charm to necessitate another trip back when we can stay several days.

A fairy tale town...

A fairy tale town…

Luxembourg City: We made several trips here over the 2.5 weeks we lived in Luxembourg. It is a gorgeous city, with a palace (it is a Grand Duchy, after all), a beautiful river, a bustling city, great gelato, and most interesting, the casements. We also visited the museum in Luxembourg City and learned all about the history of the city and it’s culture.

The beautiful Luxembourg City...

The beautiful Luxembourg City…

Differdange, Luxembourg: Our home for 2.5 weeks, where we lived in the beautiful chateau that houses the campus of the university. Differdange itself is pretty small, but full of playgrounds, hiking trails, parks, interesting food, and several languages…plus the new challenges of grocery shopping in a foreign country and navigating public transportation. In the time we were here, it began to feel like home to us, with our “regular” pizza restaurant, and the familiar landscape of the old stone steps up to our apartment at the chateau. We visited both the American and German WWII cemeteries nearby, realizing the unique dynamics of the relationship between the US and Luxembourg due to the events of WWII. We also made it to Vianden (an amazing castle in northern Luxembourg, one of my favorite stops), and Trier, Germany (a quaint little German town).  Someday, I hope to come back to Differdange for a longer stay…

The chateau in Differdange, our home for 2.5 weeks...

The chateau in Differdange, our home for 2.5 weeks…

American WWII cemetery

American WWII cemetery

Vianden--one of my favorite stops!

Vianden–one of my favorite stops!


Paris: A word about Paris. This was my third trip, and the first two were nothing to write home about. However, this was THE place AJ wanted to go in all of Europe, asking how I could possibly take him to Europe and then NOT allow him to go to Paris. So our first free travel weekend, we went to Paris. I had put a good amount of planning into this weekend, choosing a hotel with a great location (Latin Quarter), mapping out a possible agenda of events, and buying our tickets for Versailles ahead of time. I really could not have anticipated how truly amazing of a weekend this would be, though. The hotel was in such a better spot than the previous place I had stayed (which was far removed from most of the things one would want to see in Paris)…the Latin Quarter is bustling and lovely and full of all kinds of things to see, and very close to Notre Dame and the Thames. We spent our first afternoon wandering from Notre Dame down the Thames to the Louvre, the Tuilles, down the Champs-Elysses (stopping for crepes along the way. Of course) to the Arc de Triumph. I had been to all of the those places (save the Tuilles) on my other trips, but not that way, wandering along and leisurely happening upon them. We spent Friday evening at the Eiffel Tower, where we stood in line for 2 hrs (almost without complaint) to take the elevator to the second level, and then ate more crepes as we watched the tower light up at 10 pm. Magical.

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The next day I had bought the Big Bus Tour pass, thinking AJ’s little legs would not be able to hack it for the day. Surprisingly, we didn’t really need it, though we did take a couple loops around in the morning and then later that evening, just to make sure we saw everything we could. But most of the day was spent at Napoleon’s Tomb and the Army Museum. Which oddly, are not on the Big Bus Tour. But we found them eventually. These are places I had not ever been, nor did I have a particular desire to go, but someone was obsessed with seeing Napoleon’s tomb. Obsessed. We then spent most of the day wandering around the Army Museum, learning more about French military history than I thought I needed to know. But AJ could probably still be happily entrenched there, spouting off fun facts about Naploeon (“You’re all clear this is Napoleon Bonaparte’s horse, right? THE horse.”)

Napoleon's Tomb!

Napoleon’s Tomb!

Saturday morning we hopped the train to Versailles. We explored the gardens first, which were truly amazing. If I were to go back, I would just do the gardens again. It was very, very hot, but worth it. AJ desperately wanted to rent a rowboat and row around the lake, so we did. It was the best part of the day :). The palace itself was of course incredible, but much, much too crowded with lots of people shoving to see things, which is not really my cup of tea. But AJ loves Louis XIV, Versailles, the French Revolution, and so it was all worth it.


Cologne: Our second travel weekend we ended up in Cologne. With Luxembourg as our home base during the early part of our trip, we wanted to spend one weekend in France and one in Germany. It was Matt’s birthday weekend, and while he really wanted to travel to Munich, it is quite a haul to Munich from where we were, and no easy way to get there–multiple trains transfers, tricky itineraries, and too much time on the train for the time we had to travel. So Cologne it was, which was a crazy university town with a jaw dropping cathedral in the center of it. The Dom (cathedral) was hands down the best part. We explored even more of it than we planned, with AJ insisting we visit the treasury in the basement to see the ancient relics (“Really? We go all the way to Cologne to the Dom and you don’t want to go see the ancient relics? Come on!”). So once your 8 yr old lays on the guilt trip, you of course rally and go see some religious relics. I must point out that the reason I suggested skipping the relics was because we were going to the Chocolate Museum next, and I for one thought that sounded better than religious relics. Sorry. But not my 8 year old! The bones of the 3 Magi were down in the treasury, so I am quite glad we down there, and after googling the 3 Magi, AJ declared he was now going to be “quite religious”.  The Chocolate Museum also rocked, obviously in a different way, and had a definite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory vibe. We bought ourselves a bunch of chocolate, which then promptly melted all over since it was about 99 degrees outside. We also went to the Mustard Museum and the Cologne Zoo, and I was surprised how much fun it was to go a zoo in another country. Totally different kinds of animals. We took a cable car over the river (super terrifying) as well, and of course spent some quality time eating German sausages.


The amazing Dom in Cologne (with treasury underneath)


Chocolade Museum…watch out Willy Wonka!


Playing in the local fountain in Cologne…

Grindelwald, Switzerland: Jaw dropping. People tell you Switzerland is beautiful, but it doesn’t even look real. We spent only 4 days here, but the boys took 2 long hikes in the Alps (fun fact: a “kid-hike” does not mean it is easy, it means it is educational…), and we all travelled up to the top of Jungfrau, the highest point you can reach in Europe on a train. Unreal. We went sledding and went to the Ice Palace. It was a bit tough to breathe up there, and totally surreal. We couldn’t even imagine how they went about laying the cog-wheel train tracks to get up there–but it really is the Top of the World. 


On the way up the Alps…


Surprise blizzard at the top of Jungfrau!


Top of the World


Milan, Italy: Milan was our final official stop on our trip. It was here we saw the Last Supper, which was my favorite part of Milan. I keep saying surreal, but I don’t know how else to describe it. You are allowed in for about 15 minutes in small groups in a climate controlled room. (Incidentally, we had watched The Da Vinci Code on the bus on the way to Milan, so that helped build the suspense). Our graduate assistant that came along on the trip had an apartment right next to the building where the Last Supper was, so every day she actually walked by it. That is surreal. The Duomo in Milan is also breathtaking, especially the roof.

The Duomo

The Duomo

Family picture on the roof of the Duomo!

Family picture on the roof of the Duomo!

The other museums in Milan were a bit lackluster, in my opinion, but at this point I would say we are museum snobs. It was an interesting cultural phenomenon though–unlike other places we visited, the museums (like the Natural History museum) did not seem to be kept up well, looking decades old and outdated. The only exception to this was any museum connected to the church, which were much better maintained. The Duomo museum, for example, was fantastic, as was the baptistry under the Duomo (I highly recommend both!). I had all kinds of other educational experiences in Milan with the students that the boys were not along for–we toured a Parmesan cheese factory in Parma, an amazing balsamic vinegar “factory” (a lovely building with marble and an old attic with barrels to age the vinegar), and a trip to the famous opera house, La Scala.

Cinque Terre, Italy: For our final travel weekend, we went to Cinque Terre, Italy. It was incredible. We stayed in Riomaggiore, a fishing village. We rented an apartment here, which gave us a bit more of a taste of local life. We saw 4 of the 5 villages in the Cinque Terre–no museums, but watchtowers and beaches, delicious pasta and seafood, and a bit of R & R. We loved it there. 10295281_10152300149257054_4914079643307039772_o 10373052_10152300148117054_7100606514795987211_o 10382542_10152300149322054_2640634579219721178_o 10446198_10152304575967054_5036701638327068965_o 10479646_10152300148302054_7407180540100439904_o 10498269_10152300148662054_878915604452804807_o



Then, just because we were so close, we hopped the train an hour south to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa:


Then we headed back to Milan to end the trip. It was an unbelievable six weeks.

There’s much more to say, but I could never truly capture it all in words. It was a totally different kind of learning, one that further convinced me to we are living the definition of education that I believe in most. And so I will simply close with one more quote…

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

–jack kerouac







Not at Home-School…

Every week, I write up how we approached our unit theme, and if I’m really on top of things, I snap some pictures to document the process. However, the term “homeschooling” is a bit of a misnomer, as so much of our learning takes place outside of home. In our third year of this, I have tried to stop using terms like “it’s time for school” or  “we need to do school” or “we are wrapping up the school year”, mostly because the lines between school and life are largely blurred here. There are days when we need to “get school done”, but those have become the minority, instead being replaced by a perspective that everywhere is school, and “school” really just means learning.

We have always been proactive about seeking out as many interesting and unique opportunities for learning as we can, as well as opportunities for AJ to see his people, as I call them–he is such a social being that he craves being around other kids as much as possible, so we try to make that happen as often as possible. As I put together the portfolio of work from second grade, the best part was seeing all the great pictures from many of the places AJ ended up.

I will let the pictures do the talking on this post. A year in review:

Get ready….

Get ready….


Cincinnati Zoo

Cincinnati Zoo


Des Moines Science Center

Des Moines Science Center




Crayfish hunting at the creek

Crayfish hunting at the creek


Old Capitol--University of Iowa

Old Capitol–University of Iowa

University of Iowa Natural History Museum

University of Iowa Natural History Museum

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Kinney Pioneer Museum

Kinney Pioneer Museum

Winnebago Factory Tour (no photos allowed!)

Winnebago Factory Tour (no photos allowed!)

Pilot Knob

Pilot Knob

The actual puppets from the Sound of Music--McNider Museum, Mason City, Iowa

The actual puppets from the Sound of Music–McNider Museum, Mason City, Iowa


Science Museum

Science Museum

Learning about simple machines @ the bike shop

Learning about simple machines @ the bike shop

Simple machine?

Simple machine?

Apple Butter Festival

Apple Butter Festival

Rock Climbing Team

Rock Climbing Team

Manual labor: The Apple Butter Festival

Manual labor: The Apple Butter Festival

Milwaukee--Lake Michigan!

Milwaukee–Lake Michigan!

Electric trains!

Electric trains!

Newport Aquarium!

Newport Aquarium!

Penguin Parade--Newport Aquarium

Penguin Parade–Newport Aquarium

Teaching Cousin Molly all about fish!

Teaching Cousin Molly all about fish!

Chinese Culture Festival

Chinese Culture Festival

Chinese Culture Festival

Chinese Culture Festival

Chinese Culture Festival

Chinese Culture Festival

Hip Hop Class!

Hip Hop Class!

Hip Hop Class!

Hip Hop Class!

Richmond Museum (mummy)

Richmond Museum (mummy)

Richmond Museum

Richmond Museum

Richmond Car Museum

Richmond Car Museum

Abe Lincoln's Actual Chair--Richmond Museum

Abe Lincoln’s Actual Chair–Richmond Museum

Richmond Museum

Richmond Museum

Maple Sugaring Class

Maple Sugaring Class

Maple Sugaring

Maple Sugaring

Tapping the trees!

Tapping the trees!

Maple Sugaring

Maple Sugaring

Cincinnati Zoo

Cincinnati Zoo

Football at Miami University

Football at Miami University

So appropriate. At Lincoln Comes Home event.

So appropriate. At Lincoln Comes Home event.

Invited to tour a family diner (owners were homeschoolers!)

Invited to tour a family diner (owners were homeschoolers!)

Freedom Center with friends….

Freedom Center with friends….

Freedom Center with friends….

Freedom Center with friends….

We are heading to Europe next week. Watch for updates on AJ’s study abroad experience over the next six weeks!

Out of this World

IMG_1250Inspired by a Cincinnati Park District class on constellations at the Planetarium, we decided to revisit space (the final frontier) this week. Space is one of those topics that we have a LOT of resources on, meaning no trips to the library were needed. This was a good thing, as there is way too much happening around here right now, so the less complicated the lesson planning is, the better.

Lest you think I am kidding, here is what I pulled out of our schoolroom the Sunday before we started this topic. As in, we OWN all these things:IMG_1206

I took a democratic approach to lesson planning this week, and let AJ sort through all the resources and decide what he wanted to study first. We did a space unit last year (or maybe it was the year before), so certain things were old news. Space exploration, constellations, and black holes seemed to be the most interesting this time around.

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IMG_1215 IMG_1216 IMG_1233

It might have been the constellation class the week before, but he was quite taken with learning all the names and stories of various constellations.

IMG_1230H.A. Rey, of Curious George fame, has a lovely book that describes all the constellations, how they got their names, and where to find them in the night sky at various times of year. This book alone occupied half a day. rey_constellations_style rey_ha_astronomy rey_ursa_major

We also had a surprisingly good resource/activity kit–the Dover Fun Kit of Space Exploration (not sure where I picked it up–Half Price Books, maybe) that contained coloring and activity books on space exploration and the planets, planet stencils, stickers of the planets, constellations, spaceships, and even paper spaceships (similar to paper airplanes) you could make. That is, you could make them if you are better at it than I was…


We also had 2 separate planet kits that had been in the science lab–one a smaller version of the others. AJ’s baby-sitter came over and together they constructed both sets, and hung them in the living room, essentially turning the room into outer space. They faintly glowed in the dark, adding to the effect.



IMG_1250We also pulled out our Melissa & Doug Solar System floor puzzle, which we have owned for probably 7 years, but we’re always up for a good puzzle around here.

Coincidentally (meaning I didn’t plan it this way), this week also contained Earth Day. We gave Earth Day our own spin, choosing instead to study Earth, the planet on that day 🙂

The internet of course provided all kinds of resources for this week as well, including several NOVA episodes of various levels of interest (one was shut off fairly quickly, with the strong declaration that it was NOT EVEN INTERESTING). You never know with a NOVA.

One of the things I continue to appreciate is that as long as AJ has a big stack of books on a topic, he’s pretty happy. Some weeks we get fancier and have all kinds of activities, kits, projects, and those are always fun and add to the variety, but if he can comb through a big stack of different books and pick out a few to read, that’s the most important thing to him. Some he reads on his own, and some he still asks us to read with him, just because he loves to read with us.  Weeks like this allow us to rediscover books we already own that have been sitting too long on the shelf. These were some favorites this week:

IMG_1212 IMG_1211 IMG_1210

We are moving right along with our math curriculum (I say we, but this would be all Matt and AJ). AJ and I work on fractions and telling time together (we have the greatest games, tools, and resources for both of these things), but Matt has been in charge of the main math curriculum (Math U See) and what they have accomplished has been nothing short of amazing. After spending a good amount of time on Alpha (the first level), and sticking with it until AJ had it absolutely mastered, the second level (Beta) has gone really quickly. He has mastered multicolumn addition, adding and subtracting money and making change, odds and evens, estimating, perimeter, so many things that seemed unlikely at the beginning of second grade.

Spelling also seems to be progressing at an amazing rate. As long as he doesn’t have to write the words (which he does, particularly early in the week), spelling seems to come very easily. The writing part not so much, but we work on that every day too, and it is coming along.

This week wrapped up in an epic style….a field trip was canceled, so instead we headed to the store with a plan to make an Out of this World Dinner.  We decided on an appetizer of star fruit and moon cheese, a main course of Galaxy Shrimp (which looked like moons) and Rings of Saturn Tortellini, and dessert of Milky Way brownies (brownies with tiny pieces of Milky Way inside). We also ended the week with Friday Family Movie Night, where we watched Ender’s Game (which does take place in space, so close enough). We could have watched Star Wars AGAIN, but this one we hadn’t seen yet.

The Menu!

The Menu!

IMG_1252 IMG_1246out


Out of this World.


What’s the Matter? Molecules, Atoms, and Elements

I started this week having no idea what to study.  We are closing in on the final piece of the semester, and I figured we would just focus on some key concepts that I wanted to cement before the end of the year: random language arts concepts (alliteration, anyone?), similes, more time on capitalization and punctuation…Matt has been pushing ahead with some more complicated math concepts (2 and 3 digit addition), etc. Nothing flashy, but necessary to tie up loose ends.

That lasted 1.5 days. Mid day 2, after completing some work on the always awesome alliteration (not really, this goes in the limerick category for me, sorry), AJ declared that he “needed to study molecules”. Immediately.Barring any other compelling ideas, I decided to let him run with it. We have a giant periodic table up in his science lab, and it also describes the atom structure, and he loves looking at it. He also found a molecule kit in there, and he had a blast putting together his own molecules:

IMG_1109 I asked him exactly what he wanted to learn, and it was mostly about protons, neutrons, electrons, and elements.

We didn’t have much in our library on this topic, so it was off to the curriculum lab. I let AJ screen all the possible books and choose the most interesting ones and we found several molecule kits as well. Some looked way beyond what we were going to figure out (entire structure of DNA–AJ would have loved this but I thought it could wait til we were a bit older). We did get this DNA kit:


So the curriculum this week was completely AJ-driven. He wanted to learn about atomic numbers, all the elements, matter, and anything else we could find. Here were some of the the books he chose:

IMG_1122 IMG_1121



He found the general idea of matter interesting (more so than Matt & I did, it is safe to say). The different charges of protons, neutrons, and electrons also seemed interesting to him, but his favorite was the elements.

Let me stop here to share this They Might Be Giants video–Meet the Elements:


So the elements were the star of the week. We started with this book:


It was a good starter book, and more in-depth than we thought at first, as each element has its’ own atomic number (not the 6 on the antennae), but also different hands, arms, etc based on structural differences in the elements.

But the superstar book of the week most definitely was:


We are going to have to buy this book. AJ absolutely loved it. It has all the elements, a description of them, what you do with them, etc.


And his favorite, of course:



I am going to admit here that this week went way over my head. I thought a lot of the material was way too advanced, so I let him choose what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to learn about the kinetic theory of matter, organic compounds, and isomers. Seriously. Those are the things he was most interested in. I read through the description of these things with him and covered the basics (kinetic theory of matter: when matter moves faster, it gets hotter, so matter is moving faster when it is hot outside than when it is cold. That concludes what I understood on the kinetic theory of matter).  I was showing him the atomic numbers and then the formulas for things like H2o (2 hydrogens, 1 oxygen), and was planning on skipping over the more complicated ones, but no deal.



This is the material he wanted to talk more about-isomers and ionic bonds:

IMG_1125 IMG_1127Which we did not, other than reading what is said in the book, because I didn’t actually understand it, and therefore could not teach it to him. I did promise him I would ask a Miami chemistry major to come teach him as much as he wanted to know about these things once he started third grade.

If you think I am exaggerating this, or you happen to know anything about isomers, we invite you to come visit.

Anyway. I moved things right along to learn more about Marie Curie. We had talked about her during Einstein week. She was a pretty impressive woman. The radioactivity did her in at the end, but she probably figured it was worth it.

IMG_1124 IMG_1123


We finished this week with a thirst to learn more about this, so I promise you will see it again. Next time I will be fully prepared with more books and several chem majors on staff.


Luck O’ the Limericks!

IMG_0897The only challenge with holiday-themed weeks of school is that it becomes obviously apparent when I blog about them a month later that I am a bit behind…but such is life. I am one month behind in the blog, but rest assured second grade has been chugging along at the Gerhardt Schoolhouse. We are actually just a month from wrapping up things at our home-based Schoolhouse, and taking this show abroad for what hopefully will be an epic second grade study abroad adventure.

I have scratched my head this year at a few of the “suggested” second grade objectives, including learning about limericks, which just wouldn’t make my list of any necessary life knowledge. I wasn’t going to sweat it if we didn’t get around to this, but I do love a good holiday week of learning, and it seemed like St. Patrick’s Day & limericks would make for an obvious week of fun. So Luck O’ the Limericks was born!

In piecing together the plans for this week, I happened upon all kinds of great stuff, including a St. Patrick’s Day Unit Study Guide (, St. Patrick’s Day Spud Science experiments, Lear’s Limericks, crafts, and much more. Despite my reluctance to venture into limericks at all, it ended up being a great week with lots to learn.

Monday was St. Patrick’s Day. AJ read all about St. Patrick (who was NOT even Irish, by the way), and explored all about the traditions, customs, and history of the holiday.  Enchanted Learning has no shortage of crafts, worksheets, and projects for this holiday…there were St. Patrick’s Day crosswords and anagrams ( &, and of course checking of the leprechaun traps he had made the night before.

We have two leprechauns that visit here every year–Lucky & O’Malley. This year they not only dyed the milk green (again!), but left green ink on AJ’s nose, wrote on the bathroom mirror in dry erase marker, and made themselves a hot tub out of green water and soap bubbles in our kitchen.

We continued learning about St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday with some “Spud Science”–I found this on CurrClick and it was very cool (  Not terribly complicated, science related, and of course that important potato connect with Ireland. He also made “stained glass shamrocks” with wax paper, green crayons, and the iron (this is always a good go-to craft, we got mileage out of it for Valentine’s Day a few years ago as well).

We ventured into the realm of copy work this week with Edward Lear’s Limerick copy work book (also found on CurrClick: If you read this blog regularly, it will not surprise you that AJ was not a huge fan of copy work, but he did get a kick out of Lear’s limericks:

lear limerick LearfourlineWe also read a book called “Lots of Limericks” and worked on memorizing a few (also a suggested second grade skill).

Later in the week, AJ wrote his own limerick, with his new knowledge and mastery of the ever important limerick rhythm and content. (His was on Star Wars, big surprise).

The limericks led into a revisiting of Shel Silverstein, an old favorite…

silverstein.2 Ssilverstein

Friday of this week involved a fairly cool field trip down to the Cincinnati Museum Center for their Lewis & Clark: Meet the Press event. This has absolutely nothing to do with limericks, or St. Patrick’s Day, but we had signed up weeks before. Spring is always a good time for classes, as many kids are on Spring Break, so the museum always extends their programming. The Lewis & Clark event involved an hour long press conference with Lewis and Clark, wherein the kids (in this case, AJ and several classes of middle school kids, which was a bit of an odd combination, but it didn’t seem to phase him any) got to get up and ask Lewis & Clark questions before and after the time of their journey. AJ asked whether they saw any grizzly bears on their trip (they did):

After the press conference, there was a showing of the IMAX Lewis & Clark movie, detailing their journey. IMAX movies make me woozy, for future reference.

This week also marked the continuation of AJ’s swimming lessons with Miss Elizabeth, who I have decided is the best swim teacher in the world. She has taught him an amazing amount in the month or so he has been working with her–he knows 3 official strokes now and how to do them with the correct breathing. She is teaching him to dive in from the side of the pool to begin his swim, and in general she is just awesome. Of course she is graduating this year, which means I will be hunting for a new awesome swim teacher for next year, as swimming appears to be AJ’s sport:


So this was all and all a great week–a good combination of holiday theme, crafts, history, science, language arts, and of course, our regular mix of math and spelling for good measure.

War of 1812: Star Spangled

Last fall, when I was zealously researching what one tends to learn in second grade, I was able to check off all the suggested history/social studies topics as ones we had already studied in either kindergarten or first grade, with the exception of one: War of 1812.  I gave up the notion awhile ago that we were going to study history in any kind of chronologically way this first pass around–we’ve skipped around so much based on what AJ was interested in at the time. I figure we will study all of these again as he gets older, and maybe in a more orderly fashion (or not), but for now, whichever way the wind blows….

So the War of 1812 was on our chalkboard for awhile as a possible topic. We have been doing a lot of  more geographically based themes lately, and although this was still in the social studies realm, AJ is always up for studying a war. I could remember almost nothing about the War of 1812, except for maybe that catchy song (“In 1814 they took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the Mighty Mississip…”). Side note: songs as learning tools rock. Think about how many of those catchy little songs are stuck in your brain after all these years.

I admitted to AJ that I didn’t know much about the War of 1812, and that we were going to have to learn it together as I put the lesson plans together for the week. I found a lap book unit online, but it was very dense, even moreso than AJ would be interested in, so we ditched that idea and decided to just see what we could find. The War of 1812 was a pretty short war, as these things go, which made it more manageable to break down into a week or so of learning.

We found exactly 3 books:

IMG_0784 IMG_0785 IMG_0798The final book (Francis Scott Key: Poet and Patriot) was WAY too dense for us. I actually found it on our bookshelf in the Schoolroom (and was quite proud of myself that I just happened to have such a thing), but it was really just way more than any normal person would want to know about Mr. Francis Scott Key, unless they were writing a term paper on him. We chose just one chapter of that one and felt quite informed about the Star Spangled Banner after that. So much so that AJ took on his own:

IMG_0805 IMG_0806I thought he did an excellent job with this. He is not crafty–at ALL–and I was pretty jazzed about the writing on this, if you want to know. Given the daily blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into getting this kid to write legibly, this is a total win. And yes, there are the correct number of stars and stripes on this for the time of the War of 1812.

We bounced around to a lot of different sources this week. We found this website, which was nothing short of awesome:

So if you do nothing else in your study of the War of 1812, you should just go to that website. Mr. Nussbaum did a pretty amazing job–the website is interactive and by far the best thing we found. You can scroll over the different battlegrounds and read about the battles that took place, there’s actually a reading comprehension quiz (timed) that was great. AJ is a whiz at reading comprehension–in an almost scary way. I was grading papers while he was doing this particular activity, and there were a few questions on the quiz that I thought had different answers than he seemed to think they did. He didn’t miss a single question (and I’m pretty sure this was aimed at middle school kids), but I missed several. So the conclusion here is either that he is smarter than I am, or that his young, spongy brain has more room for knowledge on the War of 1812 (I’m going with that one).


PBS also had a quite a bit on the War of 1812:

It really was an interesting story. AJ loved the American Revolution, and this was basically the American Revolution, Part II. He found it interesting that the British were trying to back the Native Americans to oppose the U.S. expansion. And that the British were splitting their attention with their skirmish with Napoleon. AJ is very into Napoleon, so I anticipate this will need to be on our list for third grade history.  He was also jazzed the USS Constitution made an appearance–we saw this in Boston a few years ago (Old Ironsides!) and the fact that it thwarted the powerful British navy was pretty interesting.

USS Constitution (okay, not really, but we decided it would work...)

USS Constitution (okay, not really, but we decided it would work…)

Also raising our interest was the appearance of James Madison (and Dolly). We read an interesting story (that was half fiction, half nonfiction) about how the Dolly Madison (0r her slave, depending on the account you want to believe) saved the portrait of George Washington from the White House.  Then, the burning of Washington, D.C. was fascinating (I predict a trip to D.C. soon as well). Shortly after, AJ declared that when he was old enough to get a tattoo, it was going to be a tattoo of James Madison, standing in the burning town of Washington, D.C.  I would have put my money on Lincoln. So you just never know.

AJ reading about Madison

AJ reading about Madison

Andrew Jackson was also featured this week, and if you can learn more about 2 presidents, that’s a good week around here.

IMG_0787The conclusion of the War of 1812 was pretty non-impressive. Nobody won. The Treaty of Ghent basically gave everybody back what they had before the war. Huh. That was sort of anti-climatic….