Saturday, January 24, 2015

Week Ending 25 January 2015

Miss 14 is back from her week long ornithology field course and had an amazing time. Mind you a brief text I received mid-week already clued me in to that - 'Mist netting is so cool. Lesson to take from it is that kingfishers bite hard :)'.

Not sure if this was the offending kingfisher or not, but that bill sure looks like it can bite hard!

I'm amazed at how much they fitted in to the week. There was lots of practical work - wader watching most days and nights.

Then there was mist netting and cannon netting where birds are trapped (passerines in the mist nets, waders in the cannon nets), stored in bags or crates (to calm them and prevent them injuring themselves) then banded, weighed, measured, assessed and otherwise processed before being released.

Then there were classroom lectures and presentations - how to identify waders, bird anatomy (including a dissection), migration, moult patterns, how to deal with the paperwork side of birding - using ebird and filing a rare bird report among other things. They looked at the ecology of the area more broadly - taking samples of the sand, using microscopes to study the small creatures the birds foraged for and investigating the plants plus other creatures that live in the area. This included a spider walk but Miss 14 has real spider phobia (her older brother had to be hospitalised for a spider bite once and I think this has put her off even though she was far too young to remember the incident herself), so one of the tutors took her on a frog walk instead!

There were also presentations by some students on bird projects they were involved with plus plenty of informal learning such as the course coordinator (who got into birding via art) who spent one lunchtime giving her pointers to improve her field sketches. Although she was by far the youngest person there - by at least 20 years - she had a fantastic time. She added at least twelve new species to her year list; five of them new to her life list as well.

A New Zealand Dotterel - one of the new additions to Miss 14's life list.

By seeing a much larger number of birds in one place than we get down here - hundreds of knots seen every day as opposed to us occasionally seeing one or two - her familiarity and thus ease of identification improved. Plus she got to actually handle birds and learn from a variety of different experts. Despite being really tired - some days involved getting up at 4:15am and she could not be described as a morning person - she was buzzing when she arrived home and hasn't stopped since. All in all a fantastic start to the year for her.

In other news Mr 17 landed his first real part-time job. He has been delivering  circulars for several years but will soon start as a bakery assistant in the same supermarket Miss 20 works in. He'll be working a few more hours than I'm entirely comfortable with so I've made it clear that if he can't keep up with his homeschool work then the job will have to go. Neither Mr 22 nor Miss 20 had real jobs until they were at university (we preferred to support them and enable them to focus on learning) but different children need different things and I think a job is just what he needs.

I spent all week battling what seem to be an inner ear viral infection. The bad news is there is nothing that can be done but wait for it to run its course. The good news is that is usually 7-10 days so I'm hoping I'll soon be free of it. When the vertigo hits it is really debilitating and I can't move for several hours. As a result I've been sticking close to home all week, which meant I missed the annual Busker's Festival.

We ended the week with a family video - The Birder's Guide to Everything. Because as you know we (at least Miss 14 and me) just can't get enough of all things bird related around here!

Linking up with Kris's  Weekly Wrap-Up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Classics Club: 7. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

When you talk about reading the classics many people imagine long, serious novels with small print, written in the nineteenth century if not earlier. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is none of those. It is short - my version a mere 140 pages in medium to large font -  and first published in 1979. And the story could hardly be described as serious - ridiculous, far-fetched, ludicrous, absurd, and unbelievable maybe but never serious.

However, this work of comedic science fiction has much to say about serious themes such as politics, science, exploration and human folly.  And what it has to say is as relevant today as it was when it was first published, and is likely to remain so into the foreseeable future, making it a modern classic, at least in my opinion. As I read I frequently found myself nodding and relating what was happening in the book to current happenings in my world. For instance Arthur Dent discovered that the public notification of council plans to demolish his home to build a bypass consisted of the plans being "on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'." I was, unfortunately, able to draw parallels with the less-than-perfect public notification processes of my own local council.

If you are looking for a change of pace from your more usual classic fare then I recommend you join Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and the others on their journey through space, ending (for this volume at least) with  their visit to  Magrathea, the planet that made planets for others. Not only will you enjoy a rollicking sci-fi yarn, but you're likely to think more closely about your own society as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Classics Club 6: Germinal

Emile Zola's Germinal tells the story of a coal mining community in Northern France in the 1860s, in particular the lead-up to and effects of a strike. The main character is Etienne Lantier, a stranger who arrives desperate for a job. Spurred on by conditions both in and out of the mine he is drawn to socialist principles and becomes the miner's leader when a change to their pay rates pushes them to strike.

The novel is harsh and uncompromising, bleak and depressing. Based on his own observations Zola provides lengthy detailed descriptions of the mines, their working practices, the village, as well as the violent riot. These descriptions really helped me as a reader feel part of the unfolding action and connected me to the characters.

The lives of the miners seem desolate and hopeless, a situation that is compounded by some of the decisions they make in both their personal and working lives. The managers  and their families seem utterly oblivious to the true circumstances their workers face, choosing to believe that the workforce is privileged with the mine providing everything needed.  It is not surprising when the strike finally turns violent but the barbarity is shocking nonetheless. Nor is it surprising that the strike is ultimately unsuccessful. The suffering and loss of life seems all the more pointless.

One more shocking act is still to come when Souvarine, an anarchist, deliberately sabotages one of the mines, leading to many deaths and a long desperate rescue mission.

Zola does end the novel on a hopeful note, alluding to successful revolutions still to come. However, I found the extended metaphor that he used to make this point somewhat overdrawn. It felt like Zola was hitting me, the reader, heavily over the head to make his point - this strike failed but the workers will ultimately succeed.  In light of the rest of the novel the light imagery he used to make this point felt somewhat jarring as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Week Ending 18 January 2015

It's been a busy week for Miss 14. Seven hours of trampoline training per day from Monday to Friday. When she got home she was tired - enough energy to read but not much else. Certainly no birding, although we did watch Birders: The Central Park Effect. Now we both want to go birding in Central Park during the spring migration!

Since that is not likely to happen any time soon Miss 14 will be satisfied with a more local birding adventure. On Saturday morning she flew up to Auckland (where she was met by complete strangers - this stretched my comfort level somewhat! - who drove her for the second leg of the trip) for a week long ornithology field course at the Miranda Shorebird Centre. It's an amazing opportunity for her - not only to see some birds we don't get down here, but also to learn different aspects of ornithology from a range of experts. She sent me a text on Saturday night to say she'd added three new species to her life list that day. She sounded pretty happy.

Before she left we managed to fit in one of our favourite summer activities - a trip to a local berry farm for some of their delicious berry ice creams.

I've spent a lot of my time this week trying to get a big picture overview of how I want this year of homeschooling (Mr 17's last- gulp!) to look and feel. To this end I've been re-reading  articles and re-listening to audios over at The Homeschool Alliance. Given I've been officially doing this homeschooling thing for 18 years, you'd think I'd have it figured out. And to a certain extent I do. But each child is different and I've been feeling flat and jaded so it seems like a good time to reframe how I'd ideally like our homeschool to look before getting bogged down in details of what subjects to study and which resources to use. I've been enjoying focusing on the big picture and considering how ideas from a wide range of authors could apply to my practice of homeschooling. Julie's audios have been really helpful at adding a practical homeschooling slant to the readings which are not your typical homeschool fare.

In addition I checked out a couple of MOOCs. One is a short four week course titled Learning How to Learn. So far I've picked up a few useful tips and tricks. Mr 17 is supposed to be working through it himself but I'll just pass on the highlights to Miss 14 since she's otherwise occupied for two of the class's four week. One of the topics she expressed some interest in studying this year is Music History so I was keen to check out Coursera's Introduction to Classical Music. The timing isn't great for her and there is a bit much work to easily fit into her schedule. Since it isn't exactly what she is after - a bit too abstract and technical we won't be taking advantage of it this time around. However, I'm trying to  keep going myself. Perhaps when the course moves away from theory and onto particular composers she might be keen to join me since I think that is more what she is after - educated musical appreciation.

I've also managed a lot of personal reading. I finished Germinal (a grim tale set in the French coalmines of the nineteenth century) and also read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as part of my Classics Club challenge. reviews should be coming soon. Seems I enjoy reading the classics more than I enjoy writing reviews about them! I also raced through Pointe, a Young Adult novel covering the "cheerful" topics of child abduction, rape, and anorexia among other things and What She Left Behind, which had left me wanting to bang my head against a wall at the power and injustice of the mental health system in the mid-twentieth century. I need to make sure that my next read is a little lighter I think.

I had great plans to get to all sorts of household chore this weekend but I seem to have come down with a virus. On Friday night I was overcome by a weird dizziness spell - the room was spinning, the walls were bulging and I felt like I was falling off the bed. Just one short recurrence since then (thank goodness) but I'm lacking in energy, feeling slightly light headed, slightly nauseous and just generally not quite right. Hopefully it will pass quickly. I had great plans for the coming week - including some one-on-one with Mr 17 before his sister returns.

Linking up with the Weekly Wrap-up over at Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mystery Class 2015

Journey North's Mystery Class project is a really fun, albeit sometimes challenging long-term geography project. It is one of the more enjoyable academic activities my kids and I have done. This year's project gets underway on 30 January so it seems timely to reprise this post of mine from last year.


One of the most enjoyable long term projects that I've done with my middle school aged children (some have taken part at a late elementary and early high school age but, for my kids at least, middle school has been the perfect fit) is Journey North's Mystery Class. Using sunlight and sunset data, plus a variety of other clues, the aim is to correctly identify the locations of ten secret sites - the Mystery Classes - from all around the globe. This year's project runs from January until May. Although it is well underway there is still time to enrol and participate fully. Alternatively you could work with just one or two locations to give the project an unofficial try this time around. There is a Participation Guide  plus resources online to help you on your way. Or you can read on and see what we do.

Every Friday we receive an email with a link to the current week's data - the time of sunrise and sunset for each of the ten sites on that Friday. You also need to obtain the time of sunrise and sunset for your own town that day. And no,  you don't have to actually be awake at the time in order to note them! Ours are in the local newspaper. If you can't easily find the information for the place you live pick a major city nearby and you'll easily find what you are looking for online with a quick Google search e.g. "New York sunrise sunset".  Once you have that you calculate the photoperiod for each site - how much daylight they received. Miss 13's favourite approach is as follows. If the sunrises at 7:27  and sets at 20:34 she'll write down 33 minutes (the amount of time from 7:27 until the next hour - in this case 8:00 am). Next she'll write down 4 hours (to take the time through until 12 noon). Then she'll write down another 8 hours and 34 minutes (to take the time from noon until sunset - in this case 8:34 pm). Finally, she adds the three together to get 12 hours and 67 minutes. In this example she'll then regroup to get 13 hours and 7 minutes of daylight.

One of our data sheets showing the sunrise, sunset and photoperiod for one of this year's secret sites.

The next step is to plot the information for all eleven sites - the 10 Mystery Classes plus your home site - on a graph. After a few weeks you'll start to notice patterns. Some classes will be increasing the amount of daylight they receive while others will be receiving less. In some cases the changes will be gradual; in others far more abrupt. By looking at these changes and comparing the relative amount of daylight that different locations receive you can start to narrow down their likely latitude.

Our graph showing every site's photoperiod each week. 

In addition to the weekly data you will also receive links to a journal page that encourages you to reflect on the data and guides you through the process of locating the Mystery Classes. An early journal page asked us "How do the data and graph lines show you which Mystery Class sites are north and south of your latitude?" while last week's asked us to draw our graph the way we predict it will look at the end of March and to explain why we think so.

Once during the project, around the time of the Vernal Equinox, you'll receive a special set of data that, with a few calculations, will allow you to estimate the longitude of each site. This is because on that day all places with the same longitude experience sunrise at the same time.

One of our longitude clue sheets from last year.

During the final four weeks you'll receive a variety of clues that will lead you to the continent, country and finally city you are looking for. These might be facts about history, language, sports or climate. Sometimes there will be a picture as well.

Once the final clues have been received you have two weeks to submit your answers - if you choose to do so. Then all ten locations are revealed along with the names of all the groups that successfully identified all ten locations. The final week is a meet and greet with photos, videos and other facts and messages from each of the ten Mystery Classes.In 2012 some of the locations were Rabat in Morocco,  Shaw Island USA and Palampur, India. You can have a look at  their introductions for an idea of what to expect. This information from each class is a great way to learn about different parts of the world and can then be extended in whatever way you like - a party with food from each country for instance.

This year Miss 13 and I are splitting the data and calculations between us. We've both participated before and are familiar with the process so it's only taking us about 20 minutes per week. If you are just starting out and if only one person is doing all the work allow more time - maybe an hour or slightly longer. This Friday the longitude clues will arrive. It'll probably take us a little over twice as long. It is difficult to give an estimate of how long we'll spend during the final four weeks as we try to use the clues to correctly identify each location. In the past my kids and I have found some places fairly straightforward and others much trickier and more time consuming. It all comes down to a combination of prior knowledge, research skills and sometimes a little luck!

If you want to participate this year I have a couple of tips that might make it more manageable and fun. The first is to work as a group - friends, family or both. If everybody calculates, graphs and searches for just one or two locations the workload is much more manageable.  I've found younger kids can join in too if they receive a little help as needed.You can also share tips and pick each other's brains if you are struggling to identify certain sites. Another suggestion is to only calculate and graph the data for every second week. You'll still gains the trends and comparisons which is the key information. And you'll still be able to complete all the journal pages if you want - or you can simply discuss some or all of them. This might save time and is a good way of sharing ideas and thought processes in a group situation. Or, as I mentioned at the beginning, you can not officially enter but just pick one or two sites to work on for fun.

I've found Mystery North to be a great real- life application and extension of knowledge about seasons, latitude, longitude, time zones, universal time, equinoxes and more. It's  a good chance to hone research skills and a fun way to learn about life in other parts of the world.


My two youngest children were both lucky enough to be Mystery Classes. This gave us a whole new level of involvement and insight.  You can read their class introductions here (2010) and here (2014).

Based on several years of participation I high recommend Mystery Class as a wonderful addition to your homeschool.

Linking up with The Geography Blog Hop

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Week Ending 11 January 2015

This has been my favourite sort of week - one where I've had absolutely no outside commitments. I love being able to structure my day without needing to factor in having to be at a certain place at a certain time. Miss 14 and I have made the most of the freedom and have gone birding most days. The good news is we added 20 species to our list for the year. And she managed to get a photo of the African-Collared Dove  that we missed last week due to a camera malfunction. The bad news is that despite two attempts we haven't yet located the rare Arctic migrant that has shown up at a local estuary. Very frustrating but hopefully we can squeeze in another visit - a successful one this time!

Meanwhile Mr 17 was enjoying a great time at camp. He spent most of his time up a rock helping to run the abseiling base. Frequently I'm amazed at how different my children are from me. This would be one of those times since I am not sporty and neither do I have a head for heights.

When we were at home we spent time observing the changes in our Monarch caterpillars. What a difference a week makes. Last week we had a few very tiny caterpillars. Now we have a much greater number of caterpillars and they are noticeably larger.

For the past couple of years I haven't had a diary/planner/journal or the like since I simply couldn't find a style that I liked. Any planning, lists etc have been jotted down on whatever piece of paper that happened to be close to hand. But then I stumbled across bullet journals - perfect for list-makers (that would be me!) or so they claimed. Inspired by this I have designed my own planner/journal - taking from the bullet journal system but adding my own tweaks. Finally a system that works for me and that I can easily change as my needs change. It's making me very happy!

I should get plenty of opportunity to use my new planner/journal next week. Our unstructured time is coming to an end since Miss 14 has a week long trampoline day camp. I intend to use the time to finalise plans for the school year. I know some Mums dislike planning but I enjoy it, so I'm looking forward to next week, albeit while ruing the freedom that this week afforded.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Classics Club: 5. Antony and Cleopatra

Although I completed this play over a month ago, I've struggled with writing this review. And I think the reason is that I didn't really enjoy reading the play. Perhaps things would have been different if I had seen it performed (Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed rather than read after all) but I struggled to believe in the characters and tended to be annoyed at them, rather than sympathise with them and share in their struggles. "Make up your mind, Anthony. Cleopatra or power in Rome. You can't have both," I wanted to shout at him. For some reason the strength and genuineness of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra just didn't come through to me. Their passion seemed overwrought and fake, which may say more about me than about these characters and Shakespeare.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's longest plays and it is comprised of many short scenes. To me this made it choppy and the story didn't really flow as a result. (Wow, am I really commenting critically on the greatest writer of the English language?) Compounding the problem, from my perspective, was that many of the scenes related to battles which, since they couldn't be portrayed due to the limitations of the theatre, were described instead. Even though they were short, these scenes often dragged. Again this probably says a lot about me and my preferences. Military history and manoeuvres just don't interest me.

While I can appreciate Shakespeare's mastery of language and what he has to say about choice, duty, honour, and reason versus emotion, among other things, Antony and Cleopatra won't be winning my vote for "Most Beloved Shakespearean Play". I'm unlikely to reread it (unless I want to check whether my current opinion holds) but I would be interested to see it performed. I wonder if, for me at least, this play loses more than most from being read rather than watched.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Fortnight Ending 4 January 2015

Christmas Day passed in the usual way - much eating and merriment, plus the usual disasters. One of Miss 14's presents didn't arrive - and it was ordered in mid-November; dh forgot to give his mother her gift - he only noticed it after she'd left. Everybody had a good time regardless- and Miss 14's gift arrived eventually.

The days since then have been mostly relaxing (for me at least).

Miss 14 and dh have been obsessively watching series 3 of Once Upon A Time.

I picked up a new pair of glasses. They are my first pair of progressives. So far I don't like them. AT ALL. Apparently it can take a couple of weeks to adjust. I'm hoping it takes me less time because right now I feel like throwing them out and reverting to my old reading glasses!

Mr 17 was lucky enough to attend two days of an international cricket test match - believe it or not a test match lasts for five days. A friend of his had spare tickets. Our country won which made it all the better. He's now left for a week long Scout camp where he'll be working as part of the abseiling crew.

Miss 20 has been busy working extra shifts at the supermarket. Lots of her colleagues have wanted time off but she has been happy to pick up extra hours - particularly on public holidays when staff must be paid time and a half. As she said, with a grin, one morning "Twelve hours pay for eight hours work."

Speaking of Miss 20, Christmas came early for her, with a letter from the university on Christmas Eve notifying her that she was one of their senior scholarship winners.  In an amusing twist of fate Mr 22 won one of those scholarships a few years back and dh also won one, more than a few years back, when he was a student at the same university.

Miss 14 and I, sometimes accompanied by Mr 22 and sometimes by dh, have gone for several walks, with some bird watching on the side. She was lucky enough to spot a Shining Cuckoo on one walk - I missed it :-(  
The Pohutukawa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree. We spotted this one on one of our walks.

Since the New Year we've been out birding at least once every day - slowly working on building up our year list. So far we've spotted forty two species. Last year we managed 102. The goal this year will be to try and beat that number. The highlight so far has been an African-Collared Dove. It's our first new addition to our life list for 2015. Miss 14 tried to take a photo but her camera malfunctioned. We weren't far from home so went back to get another one but by the time we'd returned the dove had gone. Still she has managed some other nice shots.

This is the time of the year for baby birds. On one outing we enjoyed watching young scaup (L) and young coots (R).

I especially liked this series of shots Miss 14 took of the coot parent feeding its young.

I've spent some time most days mulling over plans for the current year's homeschooling. I think Maths, Latin, Geography and World Literature are sorted for Miss 14. Physics and Art History are possibilities that are still works in progress. Ornithology may or may not make it as an "official" course - I'm still thinking - possibly overthinking if truth be told. As for Mr 17, he still hasn't expressed any strong desires as to what he wants to study or thinks he should study. We'll be doing some brainstorming once he is home from camp.

My parents visited today. It was great to see them, especially since it meant my Mum's back has recovered enough for her to make long car journeys. Apparently she still needs to stop and walk every hour, but even a month ago she couldn't sit for that long.

We were delighted to discover - finally - some Monarch eggs and a couple of tiny caterpillars in the garden.  Last year we had a lot more eggs and they were laid a lot earlier. A couple of years ago the first Monarch eggs were laid as early as September and by January we'd be on our third batch. Hopefully it is just cyclical variation and not yet another sign of environmental degradation.

Tonight we're hoping to spot Comet Lovejoy as it passes over. It is supposed to pass close to one of the few constellations I can easily find so our chances are somewhat positive!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Classics Club: 4. A Christmas Carol

One common definition of a classic is a work that you can read again and again and get something new from every time. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol fits that for me. Every Christmas for the past several years I've experienced A Christmas Carol in one form or another - reading it aloud to my children, listening to an audio book version, watching a movie. For my family Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Scrooge.

This year I simply read it to myself. While the plot is familiar - miserly Scrooge is transformed after visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - I found myself considering things I hadn't before - possibly because I was reading it myself and not sharing it with children.

For some reason I was particularly taken with considering why Scrooge was the way he was and linking that to issues in his formative years that are touched upon during his time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, especially a  cruel father and banishment to boarding school. Focusing more on the young Scrooge gave me a different insight into the adult Scrooge. I was also taken with the role of the novella in our concept of Christmas, Dickens' symbolic use of light and dark, and possible connections between Scrooge's transformation and the annual seasonal transformation from winter to spring. Once I finished reading I also spent time exploring references to A Christmas Carol in popular culture today - another thing that marks this work as a classic.

Some people find Dickens difficult due to his lengthy sentences. The relatively short length of A Christmas Carol - a mere five staves - makes this less daunting. And the fact that it is frequently referenced today makes it less strange and therefore more accessible. For those who haven't yet sampled Dickens this is a great place to start. And for those who have it is a work that warrants a reread. I know I'll be returning to it at the end of the year.