Monday, September 30, 2013

DIY Great Lessons Charts

The Great Lessons of the Elementary Montessori classroom are essential. They are part of the backbone of the elementary curriculum, Cosmic Education. They go along with several key lessons or key experiences which get the children interested in doing their own research and understanding the abstract rather than concrete.

The First Great Lesson is known by several names "The Coming of the Universe," "The Beginning" and "God with No Hands". It is basically the Big Bang story starting from nothing, continuing into the creation of our sun, solar system, planets and into formation of the earth. It ends when the earth is ready for life to arrive, and that is where the second Great Lesson begins.

For this First Great Lesson there are impressionistic charts which are shown during the presentation. They give a visual example of what the story is describing but they are abstract rather than concrete. These charts are often confusing when reading manuals because sometimes they are not shown, sometimes they aren't even described and just given as chart numbers. There are some albums that give pictures but they are often black and white outlines and often too small to really see well. I use the Montessori R&D Manuals and they only show very small, black and white outlines of the charts. I wanted something beautiful. I decided to make my own charts because I felt like they were not that difficult and this is what most Montessori teachers do when they do their training. There are places you can buy them if you don't feel up to making them, I will share a link at the end of this post.

Once I decided to make the charts I had to decide on a medium. My first thought was poster board since it seems easy to work with and easy to obtain. My worry with this was that its not very durable. I would have to somehow store these charts and use them for many years without them getting torn or folded. Once you roll poster board it is very hard to ever get it to lay flat again. These charts will be used each year in the elementary classroom which is 6 years. My son is in his second year which is 5 years for him but then 6 years for my daughter and only one of those years will overlap. Plus the children should be able to look at the charts whenever they want so it could be a lot of use. I decided that poster board just wouldn't hold up and I would be making new charts every couple of years if I went that route. Instead I decided to use fabric. Fabric is easy to paint on, rolls nicely and will lay flat when unrolled. It is very durable, it won't tear or bend and the paint won't fade like markers and colored pencils sometimes do. I bought some white canvas, taped the edges (I don't sew) and painted the pictures with acrylic paints. I am not a painter so these were not very easy, but they weren't terribly difficult either. I looked at a few examples online and drew them freehand. It took me about an hour for each of the more intricate charts and maybe a half hour for the sun/earth chart including all my prep time. These charts are approximately 30"x22".

Chart 1. The Earth's size compared to the Sun

Chart 2. The Dance of the Elements

Chart 3. The Time of Volcanos

Chart 4. Beautiful Earth

There is also a chart that shows the planets in our solar system but I decided not to make it. It seems to have been removed from the main story and used for follow up work instead. Plus there are so many of these charts out there that its not hard to find. We have several of these in our home already that will be used when needed.

I would like to thank several websites for their help in my chart creation. I used these resources to find lovely drawings and colors for the charts that I made. If you would like to make your own charts and would like to see more examples please click on these links and visit them, they also have great descriptions for the lessons as well.

Montessori Services has a nice set of charts you can buy. They have beautiful colors and are on fabric as well. I used these for my main inspiration for the coloring in my charts.

Montessori Services does not show you all of their charts on the website. One of my favorite blogs What Did We Do All Day? Has shared each one of these charts with us. This is where I referenced the charts when I was doing my paintings.

Montessori Teachers Collective has a wonderful article about the First Great Lesson. The charts are shown but they are small black and white outlines. They are nice for reference if you just want outlines. They also have experiments and the story on this page

Montessori Trails is a great blog for elementary Montessori homeschooling. She doesn't show all of the charts but her chart for The Dance of the Elements is lovely and easier to draw freehand than the one from Montessori Services. She also has lots of info on the Great Lesson on this page.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Practical Life: Building a Guinea Pig Cage

My son LOVES Guinea Pigs! He found this love at age two. I'm not sure where it all started, honestly. His first pet Guinea Pig was a stuffed one from IKEA. Over the years he collected more of these stuffed friends because we refused to buy him a live one. We already had a dog and cats and we really didn't feel as if he were responsible enough to care for his own pet at any age prior to now. He really has entered his second plane of development and we have seen a huge difference in him since his 7th birthday early this summer.

He is quite excited that we decided to allow him to get Guinea Pigs. Part of the decision was from his willingness to do research on them. He found out exactly how to care for them, where they come from, what they eat, how long they live, the best type of cages for them, and the best way to obtain a Guinea Pig.

Our Wildlife Treasury Card for Guinea Pig.

Lots of info on this card

What he learned was very helpful in planning for our Guinea Pigs. I say Guinea Pigs, because he found out that they are much happier if they have a companion to live with. He learned that they come from South America and their proper name is Cavy. As pets they will eat timothy hay, pellets, water and fresh fruits and veggies. He learned that they live for about 5-7 years and are not easy starter pets. He found that the best way to obtain a Guinea Pig is not the local pet store. There are lots of Guinea Pigs that have no homes and are living in shelters and rescues all over the country. We did a quick online search and found a rescue in our area. We lucked out and found them right after they had several of litters of new babies from rescued mama Guinea Pigs. Not only are we helping Guinea Pigs who have no homes, we are lucky enough to get a couple of new babies too. We've had to wait until they are 3 weeks old before they can leave their mama so we had time to build the cage and collecting the supplies.

About the cage we found out that they need a lot of space so we chose to do what is called a C&C cage. It is called that because its made from cubes and coroplast. The cubes are wire mesh cubby shelves (we got ours at Target) and the coroplast is a plastic version of corrugated cardboard. My son had to determine how big he wanted to make his cage according to the space in his room. He had to assemble the cubes into a large rectangle. They attach with plastic pieces that you can push on or use a hammer if its too difficult. He had to use the hammer on some and others were easy enough to just use his hands.

He then had to measure the cage and add length and width to makes the sides of the box to be made from the coroplast. We ordered the coroplast from a local sign shop. My son and I went alone in my husband's pick up truck to pick up the coroplast (which was 8x4 feet). I got a lesson from my 7yr old on how to tie down a large sheet of plastic on the back of a pick up truck so it wouldn't fly out. I thought it was pretty cute but I went along with it because he was so sure of what he was doing so I just followed his directions and it worked fine.

If you would like more info on making a cage like we made please check out the page

After he constructed the outer part of the cage he placed some of his precious stuffed Guinea Pigs in it to see how it would look with Guinea Pigs inside.

We had to wait a few days for the coroplast to come in stock at our local sign shop. He chose yellow for the coroplast which I think really looks nice. Here is the cage completed.

We decided to use fleece and towels for the bedding. We've always been very interested in conservation and reducing our carbon footprint. We can use these over and over rather than throwing away a large cage full of wood/paper bedding each week. It is a similar concept to cloth diapers (which we also use) so it was a pretty natural choice for us. This picture also has cardbord boxes lining the cage which is baby proofing since our Guinea Pigs are still tiny. These will be removed after about 3-6 months depending on how fast they grow.

My son made the box hidey and the cardboard hay tray. The lady from the rescue gave us the small fleece blanket and fleece bag (

Introducing our new babies: Edison is the one with the brown face on the left, Franklin has the white stripe down his nose and is on the right.

 A close up of Franklin

He loves his babies! 
(yes he has a new hairdo, it was cut during the time between making the cage and getting the piggies)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Nature Walk

We go on nature walks quite often. My kids love being outdoors and the fresh air does us all good. We happen to live in an area where it is very hot and humid in the summer so we don't get out as often as we'd like. The weather is starting to cool off some and I am excited to do more school outdoors in the fall.

Our first stop was a pond that has a walking path around it. There are always frogs, turtles, fish, ducks, geese, and other animals to observe. We were lucky enough to see a large crane at the pond on this day, but I was not fast enough to get a photo of it. Sometimes it is hard juggling a toddler during our field trips.

My son took along a bucket, a small magnifying bug container (from the target dollar spot), a backyard explorer net, and a magnifying glass. He was scooping out lots of plants with his net and observing them.

We walked around the pond and looked closely to see what we could find. We found this lovely yellow butterfly and my daughter was very excited about it.

My son was able to use a small fish net (the kind you get at a pet store) to scoop out some small fish. He placed them in the magnifying bug container and observed them for a while.

We decided to take the fish home for a while to continue observing them. We filled the bucket with water for them and then placed the pond water and fish into a small fish bowl in our home. We allowed them to stay for a few days (we fed them goldfish food) and then returned them to the pond. 

While on our nature walk we went over a small bridge. My son was very excited because we had been studying the Roman Arch and this particular bridge had an arch under it. It wasnt exactly a Roman Arch but it was an arch built with stones and it was the closest we could find in our city.

This Montessori material is what sparked his interest in Roman Arches. It is called the Roman Arch and it is made up of small wooden blocks in a particular shape/size to build an arch. This particular Roman Arch is from Neinhuis but I got it with a group of used materials from a Montessori School. It is missing some of the basic rectangle pieces but all of the necessary building pieces are here. My son added some of his Kapla blocks to fill it in a bit. He built this arch over and over again.

This is what it should look like:

You place the half circle on the stand between the two stationary base pieces. Then you build the arch over it with the nine trapezoid shaped blocks. Gravity will pull the trapezoid pieces downward and together as you add the layers of blocks above the arch. Once you have completed the arch you remove the stand with the half circle and the arch remains standing. It is just amazing how easy this is but so impressive. My son just loved this material!

Our last bit of nature for the day was a night time friend. This beautiful Green Tree Frog was enjoying some moths on our front porch once the sun went down. We often get tree frogs but this was the first time my son saw one, since he is normally in bed before it gets dark enough for them to come out.

Acid or Base?

My son loves science experiments. He always has and I'm not surprised. Before I was his Mom/Teacher, I was a chemist. Science has always been a love of mine and it makes my heart happy to know that I've passed that on to him.

T is 7 years old and we are working on the Montessori 6-9 curriculum. I often add in experiments for us just because he is interested in them. The problem is that he thinks the experiment part is fun, he isn't interested in the reading of the instructions, writing and/or illustrating the results, or cleaning up afterwards. When he was smaller I let some of this slide since he has been struggling with writing. This year he has finally started writing at a pace that will allow us to actually write things down as we do them. This was his very first experiment where he did all of the recording of results.

This particular experiment I got from a science kit. I sometimes purchase ready made science kits when I find them cheap because it is a good way to get the "chemicals" (by chemicals I mean safe child friendly chemicals like baking soda, etc) and lab "glassware" (test tubes, beakers, etc but they are always plastic in these kits, although cheaper than buying them separate). I recently was able to buy a nice science kit with real lab glassware so we used that instead this time.

This is the kit we used for the experiment.

The experiment was to determine if common liquids around the house are acids or bases. First we took our holder full of test tubes around the house collecting liquids. Then we went back to our science lab and mixed up the pH indicator solution. The kit comes with a packet of Red Cabbage Juice Powder which is mixed with water. We added a couple of drops of the indicator solution to each test tube using a disposable pipette (which also came with the kit). As we did this, we took note of what color the liquid in the test tube changed to. Pink or red indicated the liquid was an acid, blue or green meant a base, if it was purple the liquid was neutral.

Our pH indicator solution

He found an acid (red)

This one is purple so its neutral

We ended up choosing mostly acids and a couple of neutrals but none of our chosen liquids turned out to be a base. I wanted T to know what it would look like if it were a base so we took out some baking soda (included in the kit) and dissolved it in a little water and then did the test on it.

Base (blue) Baking Soda and Acid (red) Vinegar

As we worked he filled in this page in his lab notebook. First he made the list of what was in each test tube. Then he drew himself with 7 test tubes and numbered them. As we worked he colored in the test tubes on his drawing with the appropriate colored pencil. When he finished the experiment he added the label acid or base next to each liquid on the list. He didn't have enough space on his list to add baking soda so he put it on top and numbered it 8.

Just to make it clear which liquids we worked with I will list them here, I know his spelling and penmanship isn't perfect yet.

1. Soap Neutral
2. Coke Acid
3. Hot Sauce Acid
4. Coffee Acid
5. Milk Neutral
6. Pickle Juice Acid
7. Saliva (yes he insisted on testing his spit) Neutral
8. Baking soda Base

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dwyer Reading Folders

The Montessori reading method is wonderful. There are so many activities for children to do without ever even realizing they are learning to read without pressure. My son attended a Montessori school for primary (4-5yr) and used the traditional pink/blue/green reading approach. When we brought him home for school at age 6 he was reading but still struggling with comprehension and anything that he couldn't sound out easily. I looked into the p/b/g approach and found it to be so labor intensive for me and got overwhelmed. By the time I was able to find the info I needed, school was already started and I didnt have time to find a bunch of tiny objects and print, laminate, cut hundreds of little word labels. We ended up just skipping it and reading lots of books together. He already had the foundation and I thought it would be ok. Well, he struggled last year. Near the end of the school year I discovered something else to try.

The Dwyer Reading approach

Im not going to go all into how this approach works because there are other sources that have already done this. I will say that I find it much easier to make/obtain the materials for this approach in a homeschool environment. We skipped ahead a bit since my son already had a good foundation in reading. He still struggled with the phonograms so I made him the reading folders. I still need to make the phonogram dictionary.

Here are some links to my favorite blog posts on Dwyer.

Basket of 13 Reading Folders

Outside of the folder, closed with a rubberband

Contents: phonogram cards and tiny booklets

A peek inside the tiny booklets, phonograms are in red

The back of the phonogram cards have the phonogram on the front of the folder for control of error

Materials for these folders were: red cardstock letter size, blank index cards, black, red, blue sharpies, red rubberbands, white printer paper and stapler.

The folders I decided to make 5.5" square which is the same size as the metal insets. I folded up the bottom of the red cardstock paper horizontally so that the sheet was 5.5" x 11", then folded the entire sheet in half making it 5.5" square with pockets on each side. I stapled the pockets on the ends to close them.

The phonogram cards are just blank index cards cut in half with the phonogram on one side in red and the folder title phonogram written tiny in blue at the top right corner on back. If I were to do this over I would make these cards bigger or the folder pockets smaller because then are almost totally covered when they are in the pocket.

The tiny booklets were printed on regular printer paper, cut and sorted. The covers are made with the red cardstock. When you print the words for these booklets make sure you go through all of them and say them to yourself using the phonogram indicated to make sure it is correct for your region. Some of the words were not even close to how we pronounce them. Also, there were a couple of folder title phonograms that did not match our region. 
Here is a link to the download at Kingdom of the Pink Princesses:

Another great resource for reading folders is the book BASIC Montessori by David Gettman.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Life in the 1850s

On Friday, we had the opportunity to visit a living museum featuring a village in the 1850s. This particular museum is about 2 hours from our home but it looked very interesting and we wanted to try it out. I first heard about it last year at a Homeschool Convention but didn't want to spend the time driving with an infant. This year my daughter is older so the car rides aren't as bad. If you aren't aware of what a living museum is, I will explain. A living museum has people who act, dress, speak as though they are living in that specific time and place. This particular one is an outdoor museum that showcases an entire village. There were several buildings that looked as they did during the 1850s. We were able to walk through many of them and look at the way people would live. Some we could only peek inside, others had more than one floor to explore. There were people who wore time appropriate clothing and spoke as they would long ago. Some people spoke with us as though we were visiting and they were actually the person they were portraying. Others spoke to us as though they were teaching us how things were back then. Both types of people were interesting and fun.

As you can see in the picture above, my son had fun trying out some old time toys. This one was just a ring of wood that he could push and chase as it rolled around the field. He did this for a good 15mins and probably would have continued except that this next toy became available.

He has a little trouble with the stilts but he gave it a good try. They also had wooden horses that my daughter loved, even though they were too heavy for her to hold up.  

Here they had a station to build log houses with Lincoln Logs. My daughter sat there for quite a while trying to figure out how to build one. She is very much into Duplo right now so she expected these to work the same way. They also had paper dolls which we just brought home with us, as the workers were on a lunch break at the time.

T got to try his hand at several activities. Here he is using a plow. All of the other children we saw kept plowing the same area over and over again and said how easy it was. My son insisted he plow a section that was less worked because it would be more real. He had a little difficulty but he went all the way to the end and back, and was so proud of himself. It kind of reminded me how Montessori students do not like busy work.

Here he was basket weaving. He got a lesson on how these strips of wood were made and got to see many types of woven baskets

Leather working, he got a small piece of leather which was sprayed with a little water. Then he chose some patterned punches and hammered them to put the pattern onto the leather. He stayed there working until there was no more room left. They also gave us a lesson on how shoes were made back then.

This activity was not his favorite. Here he is making a candle by dipping the long wick into liquid wax. They used a fire with a large iron pot and the smoke was bothering him. He has very sensitive eyes and he couldn't handle this long enough to make a full candle. We went through and dipped it 4 times I think and then he was done. Most kids didn't dip for long, but there were a few patient kids that had nice thick candles. 

He really enjoyed watching the blacksmith demonstration. The blacksmith talked to them about how the fire works, the bellows, the way the metal softens and rehardens. 

We spent a large amount of time just walking through all the buildings and trying to imagine how life was so long ago.

The Cotton Gin

The Cotton Press

A loom where they were making a large blanket. The kids also got to try weaving yarn.

We learned about the differences in how people lived depending on their status. There were homes of ordinary people, wealthy people, poor people, and even slaves. My son had many questions about slaves so we talked quite a bit about that on our car ride.

 Here is a home of a wealthy family, there were several rooms in this home. In fact it was more like two homes connected. Plenty of furniture and even decorations.

My son was particularly interested in the children's room. These two photos are of the same room in the fancy home. There were nice beds with linens, furniture, decorations and even toys. It seemed a little sparse to my son who's room is overflowing with legos and other toys. But then we compared it to some of the other homes here and he saw how this home was much more fancy.

This is the slave home. My son first said that it didn't seem so bad. I had him look again. This is a house, that is one room. The bed and the eating area are right next to each other. I also had to point out that this was not a home for only one person, it was for all of the slaves.

We did have a nice little trip. I'm not sure if I will make the long drive again next year (they do a yearly homeschool day). We ended our trip with a horse drawn wagon ride which turned out to be the highlight of the day. My son got a chance to sit up front with the driver for part of the time which he loved. My daughter is all about animals right now and horses are one of her favorites. She got to pet one of them also. T promptly pulled out his legos when we got home and built his own horse drawn wagon. It was a fun day!