Learning Notes, first week of March


We dove into our new Expedition, first thing in the morning.  Want to know what it is about?  Maps!


We will be studying what maps are used for, what kinds of things (not just places and spaces!) you can map, the makers of maps, the history of maps, and whatever else pops into our heads along the way.  Suggestions are welcome, especially (as usual) reading suggestions!

We discussed what we know about maps, and what can be mapped, and a whole lot of other things that I can’t remember now (it was a long discussion) and then the kids each drew, freehand and without measurements, a “birdseye view” of one room of their choice in our house.  It was fun and it was supposed to introduce them to mapping without all the pressures of precision and mathematics and all that stressful stuff.

Then we googled “floorplan” so that they could appreciate some standard use of symbols in plan-making (such as gaps where windows or doorways are.  They loved this and loved imagining the interiors to some of the obviously larger and more luxurious living spaces that we came across.

We did some Math afterwards: they drew clocks inside circles with an octagonal frame.  It was challenging but they enjoyed the final result.  I introduced the eldest to the formula to calculate the area of a triangle and then we divided the octagon into triangles so she could calculate the area of the octagon.  Also challenging, but she got into it.

There was some drama about the handwriting assignment and I am trying to decide if it is worth the battle…

After lunch, we read from Rifles for Watie and of course the kids played BananaGrams while I read, practicing spelling out some of the more difficult words.  Those tiles are really quite useful.

They also made a gazillion paper airplanes (“for the science project, Mom!”) and they are Everywhere now, hooray.


We started the formal school day rather late because we were pretty busy watching the newly-emerged butterfly shake off the cocoon and the wet goo on his wings and figure out that whole flying thing.  So cool.


In Math we just worked some basic sums and played a “Corners” game.  It was fun and there was no whining at all.

Then we relocated to the library, since I don’t have a single atlas with us and getting online just doesn’t compare with having one of those mammoth books to thumb your way through.  We gathered a few and just took our time browsing on our own, then we all gathered on a couch to read a book that introduced some basic mapping vocabulary and concepts (scale and key and that sort of thing).  I can’t remember the name.

We collected books to bring home, both picture books and more fact-based books.  Two finds that I am happy to have stumbled across at the Joeten-Kiyu library here on Saipan are:





And I have already mentioned this one, about timezones, in an earlier post.

We had a couple of stops to make on the way home, one of which was to buy a compass that actually works so that we could work on these beauties:


I found the idea here.  The kids LOVED the practice with the compass, especially.

For their writing today, I had them write “notes.”  It was supposed to be a pre-writing assignment wherein they made a “map” or “plan” before they started writing, but we were short on time so we just practiced writing down notes from memory.  It worked pretty well and I could see some lightbulbs going off in the little brains…

Then it was time for A.’s tennis lesson where BR served as “ball boy” and L. read about a third of a new chapter book (of course).

We met the new homeschooling family who just recently arrived on Saipan (woohoo!) and the kids played on the beach together.  We read a couple of chapters of Rifles for Watie before bed.


Daddy began the day with part 2 of the Science Fair lesson.  They refined their research questions, did some preliminary research online and got some coaching on next steps.  They are all gung-ho.

Math came next and the two younger ones did a Review Lesson (which is a RS code word for test) while I explained to the 5th grader about shifting decimal points right and left, depending on whether you are multiplying or dividing by factors of ten.  We’ll need some more on that, I can tell.

Then it was time for L.’s second “work experience” gig at the Java Bakery.  She loves helping out there.

I read out loud with the other two and mapped out where Uri Shulevitz had lived and moved to in his early life, which was pretty mind-blowing to the kids until we mapped out where they have moved to and lived so far!

The girls finished up their writing assignments for the day before lunchtime and then it was time to go to piano lesson and then soccer.

We watched a pretty worthless documentary on some prehistoric fish and then read Rifles for Watie.

The butterfly progress was monitored throughout the day and I expect that until the last one flies away, we will not have any rest from the continuous updates.


We had set a Skype date for first thing in the morning (because of the timezone difference) and that pushed school back to 9am.  Then everyone was pretty rowdy so I had to do a “calming activity.”  Then I gave up and we all went outside to map the yard.  They used the heel-to-toe method to measure the fences, and then we came back inside and measured their feet and multiplied.  And then divided in order to figure out how many feet and yards, etc.  They also plotted the position of trees and made up symbols for the different shrubs and varieties of trees.  It worked pretty well.  It also counted as our Math practice for the day.

The mapping led to a discussion of the Forestry Service folks we had met on Tinian and their project to map out the vegetation within plots of a certain size (can’t remember now what it was, exactly).  Everyone appreciated how much work would have to go into a project like that, and how adverse weather could really make things difficult.

We tackled a map tracing project, but it turned out to be quite difficult so we decided to continue that tomorrow instead. The little kids read a book on maps and then reported back to me.  Also, the final butterfly hatched so it was hard to focus.

Then I rushed off for a swim while they turned on a documentary, intending to be back in no more than an hour.  But I lost the car key somehow while swimming, and I needed to get a locksmith to come out.  And felt awfully silly standing there in my swimsuit when he finally did, and then he lectured me about the stupid lock system we had had installed on the car (“I remember this car.  Didn’t I have to come unlock it some other time, at Forbidden Island?”  Yup, that was us, all right…).

At least the spare and the ignition key were safe so it was not more of a hassle than the $30 and the embarrassment.  Also: I saw yet another ray up close which was fantastic.  One of the regular swimmers told me that he often spots a pair who evidently make their home near the tanks.  I hope to take the kids there soon and with any luck, we’ll spot them.

I got the kids working on writing assignments once I returned, and ate a very rushed lunch.

Then we drew a compass rose following these step-by-step directions which covered Geometry and Art for the day.

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We began the day with a Catechism lesson at the Adoration Chapel at Kristo Rai.  If you go early enough in the morning, it’s not too hot in there to be able to bear it inside.

At home, I took the kids through a geometry tools lesson one-by-one (since we only have one set of drawing tools) and they loved it.  They have finally caught the drawing-geometric-designs bug and have learned, along the way, what happens if you are not careful to be as precise as possible.  While waiting for their turns, they added some more to that Gratitude Poster that we’ve been working on since January and will probably never finish at this rate.


We read aloud from this clever book: Maps, Getting from Here to There, by Harvey Weiss.  I love it and I find it very readable, but we only made it 3 chapters in and then I realized the 2nd grader didn’t care any longer.  I changed gears and opted for a hands-on activity.  We took the author’s advice and pulled out some string to measure on one of our own maps at home.  We measured all around Africa and then did the calculations: the kids came up with 16,775 miles.  We compared online and what we found said that the coastline is 16,100 so we were off by less than a thousand (we did not measure Madagascar or any other islands) which was pretty cool!

Working with the string reminded us that we had never made the old fashioned “can telephones” we had talked about making so we pulled out a couple of old cans and cut a long piece of string and played around with that for awhile.

A. had begged for a picnic lunch a few days ago and today seemed like an ideal day for a change, so we ate lunch outside.  I set us up in the shade, which is also just under some awfully creeky and flexible bamboo that makes some of us (ahem, L.) very nervous.  Hardly a relaxing picnic for her, I am sorry to say…


We read a long chapter from Rifles for Watie after lunch and I am still surprised at how enthusiastic my youngest is about this particular book choice.  Something about the author’s style is very engaging for his little mind.

A. wrote some more thank you notes for birthday gifts and a journal entry and the other two completed their chores and then messed around with the string and the cans.

In the evening, we attended Stations of the Cross and then the First Friday Film event at AMP on “Future Food” which was too far above their heads to have had much educational value, I suspect.

Linked up with the Wine Dark Sea



Maybe the title of this post alone is enough to scare away some readers.  But to me, this is the fun stuff.  I love coming up with ideas, making up an outline, researching sources and having an excuse to spend extra time in the library while working on making my ideas into learning plans.  I say “learning plans” because I am not particularly skilled at making “lesson plans” yet. My method is to gather enough books on a particular topic, to “strew” them around the living areas of the home, and then try to think up ways to make the lesson-time engaging, and maybe even fun.  So I have a sort of learning “sequence” by the end, if not a plan!

Let me back up for a second, though: When my husband and I were trying to decide about spending some time in Saipan, I agreed on condition that I could homeschool.  I also insisted on a 1-year work contract for him.  There are plenty of other reasons for that, but one was that planning a curriculum for our three kids sounded a lot less daunting if there was only a single year to map out.   I wanted a custom curriculum, suited to each of their individual interests, that would be challenging and fun for a whole year.


I knew what I did NOT want.

See, my elementary years were spent in a French educational system, leftover from a colonial era (that was still alive in well in a lot of respects).  Pedagogy followed a very traditional, seat-work heavy, learn-your-cursive-and-do-your-rote-memorization-drills kind of pattern.  I didn’t hate it, because I didn’t know any different at the time.  But I was awfully bored.

Overall, my own children have had a very different experience of school in their various public school settings.  There have been seasons–a full year for one daughter–when they have landed in the classroom of a teacher for whom worksheets and rigid methods of classroom management have been the rule.  I have tried to guide them away from those experiences into environments where their individual interests and talents are welcomed and celebrated.  We have known some truly excellent, inspiring teachers as a result, and I am happy that we did not settle for less-than-satisfactory situations.  It is entirely because of the engaging lessons and topics and the creativity and hard work of these teachers that I had the guts to go ahead and try this out, on my own, on a tiny island in the tropics.

Here is how that happened: over the last couple of years, all three of my kids have been enrolled in a public charter that follows the “Expeditionary Learning” model wherein teachers create short, or long, learning expeditions that include and/or emphasize case studies, fieldwork, projects, consultations with experts and connections to the local community.  Students are encouraged to take charge of their own learning, to become experts on their topic, and to share what they are learning in high-quality, relevant final products (and beyond). The EL model stresses the importance of personal creativity and the individual interests of students, independent as well as collaborative work.  There is also a strong focus on issues of morality and justice.  Here are some examples of expedition titles:  “Inventions that Changed People’s Lives,” “Biodiversity in Rainforests of the Western Hemisphere,” “Kindergarten Tools: A Kindergarten Expedition Into Tools and their Uses,” “Stories of Human Rights, a Fifth Grade Expedition.”

Now, don’t those sounds like subjects you might want to spend a few weeks (up to an entire year) studying?  I sure would.

Ideally, the three R’s, along with social studies, science, art (along with anything else you care to throw in) should and can be incorporated into a single Expedition.*  That said, this is easier to do with certain topics and some expeditions will necessarily be slanted more one way than another.  The “Inventions” one above is really brilliant because I imagine that it could include history, science, biography, literature, cultural studies and more…


So, since EL was a model with which the kids and I felt familiar, it was an easy decision to use it for inspiration for our year in Saipan.  All I needed was to brainstorm ideas for expeditions that would be relevant (and possible!) on a tropical island territory of the U.S.

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It was not at all hard to come up with ideas (I have several that I will not use and I am happy to share those with anyone looking for some suggestions) but it was more difficult to find ones that would be portable during travel.  In the end, I have decided on four for this year: two short ones and two longer ones.  Our first one was only a week long and was intended to be a “Kickoff” to the rest of the year.  The guiding questions were straightforward:

How do we (the three of us students) know things?  

How do we learn what we do not know?  

How do we make choices about where to go for answers to our questions?

It was a very short week’s focus on learning and research, with two case studies, divvied up as follows:

The eldest (the 5th grader) was to research an answer to these questions: What is the “Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands”?  (What is a U.S. Commonwealth?  Are there others in the U.S.? In the world?  What are the U.S. Possessions?  Name them.  Find out when they became Possessions.  Was Hawaii always a state?  Was Alaska?  What is a Territory? How is it different from a state?)  The final project for this was a video speech about the CNMI.

The 2nd and 3rd graders collaborated on their topic:  Why is Saipan part of the United States? (Who were the first settlers on Saipan and the CNMI?  Who came next?  What other countries have administered Saipan? When did the U.S. incorporate Saipan as a U.S. Territory and why?)  The cumulative project was a timeline about the settlement of Saipan.


Readings during that week included as many picture books about libraries and museums as we could find, some books for children on how to conduct Internet research, as well as encyclopedias and dictionaries.  (psst: there is absolutely nothing about Saipan in any children’s encyclopedia that we found.)  We ended up relying on books about Puerto Rico for facts about what a U.S. Commonwealth is.

It was a success and just enough for one week.  We all learned a little, and I understand the Dewey Decimal system a whole lot better now, ha ha!

Later on, we will have a travel-themed expedition.  I am not yet sure of the guiding questions or title, but it will have to do with how children around the world live, and how they eat, with a particular focus on whatever countries we end up visiting (Thailand, China and…?).  Our library has quite an extensive collection (for a library of its size) of fiction and non-fiction on diversity in lifestyle among the World’s children.  It also has a rich Asian collection of fables and folktales.

Unicef children

I can’t tell you about our other last expedition (due to begin in late January) because I promised to keep that a secret for now.  But I will tell you that at the moment, we are about six weeks into the first of our two long expeditions.  We are studying the ocean: what lives in it and from it.  How life is possible in the water, and how humans make their living from the sea and its resources.  Part I is all about the physical ocean and how it is a habitat for marine animals and plants, Part II is about the many ocean products that people extract and use in order to survive or to sell, and about ocean-related careers.  Part III is about conservation challenges for today’s oceans.

We have already studied waves, tides, salinity, gyres and other physical features of the world’s oceans.  We studied the biological classification system and tidal pool habitats; we conducted a case study on hermit crabs.  We have gone snorkeling (though not enough, as I said already), we’ve discovered new and beautiful picture books about the ocean and ocean creatures.  We have watched some excellent documentaries and a few mediocre ones (I highly recommend “Turtle: the Incredible Journey” which is currently on Netflix streaming), and dived into some classic literature about the sea or about surviving off the bounty of the sea and her coasts (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Swiss Family Robinson).  We will learn about some famous navigators and maritime explorers and then we’ll take a look at myths about the sea and mythical creatures (the Great Kraken!).  I expect people will want to don costumes for those units and I am trying to brainstorm how to do that…


(there are endless options for ocean-related art projects)


(vocab and spelling word poster)

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This post is long enough already, so I will just say: this is SO much fun.  I wish I could have lived on an island fringed by coral reef and studied all about it when I was a kid!

Sure can’t complain about getting to do it in my mid-thirties, though.

*note: This is an example of an excellent Expedition.  I especially love that this particular teacher even incorporated Math exercises into the Expedition–or, rather that the Expedition was designed in a way that would incorporate Math.  This is not easy to do, folks!