Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Learning with K'NEX Education, a review

I am so excited to share this resource with my fellow homeschooling families. T received this K'NEX Education set as a Christmas gift from his Aunt, Uncle and Cousins (they are also a homeschooling family). I was just about as excited as he was when he opened this gift on Christmas morning. Honestly, I did not even know that K'NEX offered educational kits. No, I did not make him wait until now to start playing with it. He actually built one of the models the same day but I didn't get any photos and his Dad was helping so I didn't get to see the steps. The following review contains photos from a few weeks ago, I am just getting around to writing the post.

First, I am in no way affiliated with K'NEX, we received this set as a gift from a family member. We loved it so much I had to share. There are so many different sets, I can't wait to try more of them. They have simple sets for Early Childhood, Elementary sets, and even Middle/High school sets. The elementary sets follow STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) which includes the set I am reviewing.

We have Intro to Simple Machines: Gears which is recommended for grades 3-5. My son is in the middle of 2nd grade (technically speaking) but with Montessori education they are often introduced to concepts earlier than in traditional education. My 7.5yr old son had no problem understanding the concepts or building the models. He does have a long history with building toys, which I am sure helped. This set only costs $39.99, which actually shocked me. (Sorry Sis, I only looked up the price because I wanted to review it). When I saw this gift I thought it had to have cost a lot. What can I say? I'm used to paying Lego prices. I was wonderfully surprised by the reasonable prices of these sets, especially since this particular set includes 7 models.

The first thing I noticed with this set was the sturdy plastic box it came in. It has a snap on clear lid that allows you to see through it. They are also stackable, which means if you buy several you can stack them neatly and you can see inside to know which set you are working with before opening it. It comes with an instruction manual for the child (or children) to use when building. There is also a CD that contains the teachers guide. I saved the teachers guide to my iPad so that it was easy to access. There are also blackline masters on the CD that show diagrams that the children can use. Instead of printing out these sheets, I just had T look at them on the iPad.

This set contains 193 pieces of K'NEX which can be assembled into one of 7 models. Only one model can be made at a time. The instructions are written more for a traditional school setting so if you have more than one child, they can work together on a single model or you can buy two sets and they can each build their own.

Let's get to the building. T had so much fun building these three models! He learned all about spur gears and crown gears, and the difference between them. We started with the Crank Fan model which teaches about spur gears and the relationship between gears of different sizes and the input/output of the fan. First, he pulled out two gears of the same size and meshed them together as spur gears work. He discovered that the driver gear will turn one way and the driven gear will turn the opposite direction.

T had no problem following the instructions by himself. He wouldn't even let me help, so I sat and took pictures instead.

His first model had two gears of the same size one on top of the other.

Here is another view of the same model.

The completed model, he is turning the blade using the crank on the back

Side view.

We measured how fast the blade turned in relation to the crank. We found that for each turn of the crank, the blade turned one time.

Next, we swapped out the gears with a tiny blue gear on top and a large yellow gear on bottom (the colors don't mean anything, I just mention so you can see what I am talking about). The large gear is the driver gear because it is connected to the crank. When you turn the driver gear, it turns the driven gear on top which is connected to the fan blade. We measured and the fan blade rotated 6 times for every full turn of the crank. It was much more difficult to turn the crank. There was much more input but also much more output.

Finally, we switched the gears making the tiny gear the driver gear on the bottom and the large gear the driven gear on top. This gave us opposite results as the previous model. The crank was very easy to turn but the blade moved very slowly. For every single turn of the fan blade we had to turn the crank 6 times.

He concluded that you would use the different gear configurations depending on your input/output needs. One configuration would give you more output but would take more effort, the other would give less output but would take less effort. 

We worked on crown gears another day. There were two similar models and he wanted to make both the same afternoon. The first was a blender and the second was an egg beater. 

Crown gears mesh together with one horizontal and one vertical. They also turn in opposite directions. In the photo he is looking at the blackline master in the teacher guide for the crown gears and then trying it out with the gears.

The gears meshed together mid construction.

Adding the top of the blender

A closeup on the gear box.

Of course, we had to add a little extra demonstration by using a real blender. We made a strawberry yogurt smoothie. We looked at the gears and it was a little different because some of it is enclosed but it did help with his understanding.


Finally, he built the egg beater model. He was actually most excited about this one. It has two sets of crown gears.

In case you don't know what an egg beater looks like, there is a photo in the instruction manual. We actually do not have one so T was happy to see the photo.

Close up of the two sets of crown gears. Two yellow medium sized gears are connected to the crank. They are meshed together with two tiny blue gears which are connected to the beaters.

This model was more for fun since it was the same concept as the last. It was great to reenforce though. T enjoyed beating some dish soap and water in our science lab (an attached bathroom).

You know I am going to suggestion a book to go with this. We love the book The Way Things Work by David Macaulay. I had so much great information in it, including a section on gears. We looked at both spur gears and crown gears.

It even had an eggbeater shown as an example.

I hope you enjoyed this review. We had a blast learning with K'NEX Education and plan to buy more sets in the future. I think the set is fun, educational, durable and open ended. I will also mention that K'NEX has great customer service. We had one problem, a single piece was broken when we opened the box, so I emailed them. They mailed me a replacement (and an extra piece) free of charge and in less than a week. Great customer service!

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Story of Communication in Signs: Great Lesson #4

I say it every time we do a Great Lesson, I am in awe of Montessori's genius. The Great Lessons really are the core of her philosiphy and a driving force in the elementary grades. I realize that most Montessori schools would be finished with the Great Lessons months ago, but we are behind as usual.  We are continuing to plug along slowly but surely. I am hoping that we can get some enthusiasum about cursive through this lesson. T has had some initial interest in cursive but quickly decided it was "too hard" and didn't want to continue. I am hoping this lesson on the history of writing will spark some new interest.

I did something a little different this time than in our past Great Lessons. Normally, I would use the lessons from Miss Barbara's Great Lessons page, but this time I found it to not be what I was looking for. There was a lot of info, but very few pictures. I read through it and decided that T would not sit through that entire lesson without getting bored. She has a lot of great info, but I think that version would be better for upper elementary students with longer attention spans. This time we went with the store from moteaco. It has the story and simple pictures to go along with it. We then pulled out lots of books to get more details.

We had a couple of books in our library about hieroglyphics that were very helpful. I also borrowed several books from our local library system that had wonderful photos and stories.

T's favorite book was a book called Hieroglyphs from A-Z.  On each page of our modern alphabet it shows a large hieroglyph that starts with that letter and then a smaller picture of the hieroglyph for that letter.  As you can see in the picture below, A shows an Archer and the hieroglyph is a vulture. B shows a Beetle and the hieroglyph looks like a foot.

This book also came with a cardboard stencil for the entire alphabet. T had great fun using it to make codes.

Translation: Hello Dad
He loved the book Ox, House, Stock The History of Our Alphabet. It shows the progression of each letter over time. He loved the first four letters and then got a little bored so we just skimmed the rest of them. There is a lot of info with great pictures.

We enjoyed the book The Story of Writing by Carole Donoughue, as well. This one has some very informative stories that put the reader into the character's shoes. It describes being a scribe having to learn to write cuneiform writing but in the story YOU are the boy learning to be a scribe. It showed some of the cuneiform alphabet and how it was made in clay. So we gave it a try with play dough. T asked if I would beat him if he made a mistake, like the scribe boy in the book would be. Of course not! It was a great way for him to relate to how life was so long ago.

T's attempt at the cuneiform for Cow 

He had fun with this so he decided to try doing the same thing with hieroglyphs as suggested in the book Pyramids: 50 hands on activities to experience Ancient Egypt.

The Letter X and the hieroglyph for X
I also used the book The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson for my own research. We looked at some of the pictures in this book but it is not meant to be a children's book. I found it helpful for myself though. I also found a lot of information in the Mid-American Montessori Language Albums. I plan to print out some of those pages for T to work with but this was just our initial lesson, there will be plenty of time for follow up.

On a side note, this past weekend we attended the open house of a lovely Montessori school in our area. I have mentioned before that T attended a Montessori school for primary. This was a different school but it was like coming home to visit this school. I just love this environment so much!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Struggling with Stress

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably read about a homeschool crisis we were having this week. I promised to post about it and share our struggles. Honestly, I thought about not posting because I hate admitting that we have struggles with homeschooling. However, I think it needs to be shared because I would really love to see some other blogs that show the nitty gritty of homeschooling, not just the wonderful learning and happy children. I'm not trying to say that I don't enjoy seeing that, it is very inspiring, and I do not know if these families struggle as we do, but sometimes it is disheartening to read how other children the same age as my son, get up and happily start working on their school work all on their own. They get excited about schoolwork, they even do schoolwork on the weekends sometimes. I would LOVE if that were how our homeschool worked, but we are far from that. We struggle almost every day and we cannot wait for the weekend so we can stay out of the classroom altogether.

I will give you a little background on our situation. My son was an only child for 5.5 years of his life. He went to a church preschool at age 3 because we did not think we could afford Montessori school. We then decided that Montessori was worth the investment and he attended a true AMI Montessori school for age 4 and 5. The school was having some issues which led us to homeschooling at age 6. I understood the concept of Montessori while my son attended the primary 3-6 program at a true Montessori school. I did not know how all of the materials worked exactly but I learned about most of them. I knew the basics of how the classroom worked in terms of the children choosing their works. Our biggest challenge was the fact that we switched to homeschool between primary 3-6 and lower school 6-9. I had not even observed a lower school classroom. I did not really know the materials or how the classroom worked. I did not know how to get my child to choose work on his own because he did not show interest in any work.

We have been homeschooling for a year and a half and we still struggle. I struggle with planning, making materials and buying materials at the correct time. Recently, I purchased a large order of materials only to have them arrive unusable. I have been fighting to get my money back for that order for months. The stress was just too much last week and I closely considered quitting homeschooling and sending him back to a Montessori school. My husband and I had a few long talks about the situation and we have decided to try some techniques before giving up. We are going to try having a schedule that is a bit more strict. I have been trying to follow the child for a very long time but the child won't choose appropriate works. I have decided that he needs me to choose for him more because he gets stuck when its time to pick something. We also need to get our materials in order so they are here when we need them. I'm struggling with this a bit because I am still waiting for my refund so that I can order new materials from a different company.

We are still considering sending T to a Montessori school in the Fall. We will be visiting two local schools in the next few weeks for their open houses. I plan on comparing them to see if either would be a good fit, but also, I am going to ask some questions about how the elementary class runs that maybe I could apply at home. For now we are sticking with homeschool and hoping that our changes bring us a more pleasant homeschool environment. Please share any resources you think might help us. We would be very appreciative.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Back With Some Museum Photos

I’m happy to be back to blogging after a little vacation. I really needed some time off over the holidays. I am sure that you other parents, especially those who homeschool, can empathize with that. I didn’t get a break from my normal mothering duties but I did get a break from my teaching duties which was very nice. The kids really enjoyed their time off as well. We had a chance to travel across country to visit my family. And we got to play in the snow!

My kids, especially T, are very close with their Grandmother despite the fact that they only see her twice a year. We try to make each of those visits about a week or two long so it makes up a bit for how infrequent they are. We also got to visit with my sister and her family. My sister homeschools her three girls, the oldest of which is T’s age, and they have another little girl on the way. I was thrilled with how well all of the children got along this year, especially the two oldest. They have grown up so much in the last year, I can see how they have both made it to the second plane of development.

One of our favorite things to do when visiting other cities is to explore the local museums. We visited two of the local museums last year on our visit but we weren’t able to explore them entirely. We stopped by the natural history museum this time and took a few hours to look in areas of interest at the moment. This museum had some wonderful exhibits that corresponded with the 3rd and 4th Great Lessons which we are between at the moment.

A comparison of the Human skeleton, Gorilla skeleton and Chimpanzee skeleton.

A comparison between the Neanderthal (L) and Cro-Magnon (R) head/face.

Checking out some hand tools from early humans.

Lots of actual fossils of prehistoric animals. He loved the Smilodon.

There was an awesome area showing a rainforest including a research area with beautiful drawers of collected specimens.

B loved opening and closing the flaps, especially when her brother was trying to read what was under them. 

The Age of Mammals display

Checking out dinosaur bones full size and up close.

It is easier to look a T Rex in the eye when his head is at your level.

This is the one exhibit from my childhood that I will NEVER forget! I always loved it, especially the sound effects (sorry I couldn’t get video). I was a little worried that B (almost 2 at the time) would be afraid but she loved it, she didn’t want to leave.

Some fossils categorized by period.

We moved on to the mummy area, which T was most excited about. They had a mummy of a man who’s job it was to wash bodies of those who had died. It was interesting to learn that they did not only mummify royal or “important” people, but most people were mummified. 

I was so proud of T, he walked up to the man who was working in the mummy area and asked him all his questions. They had a lovely conversation about mummies and we learned about the man’s trip to Egypt. I feel like the Montessori education, and also homeschooling in general, really helps children learn to use other resources for information. I did not have the answers to his questions, the information on the exhibit did not give him all the info he wanted either, so he decided to seek this information somewhere else. 

They even mummified many animals like the birds shown here.

The Rosetta Stone! I loved seeing this because T has not seen it yet. We are about to do the 4th Great Lesson, the History of Writing. This stone has everything written in three languages, Greek, Egyptian and hieroglyphics. I am hoping to either find a replica or a book with a nice picture so we can take a longer look at it.

This museum has an awesome exhibit on early cultures around the world. It actually takes up an entire floor (this museum has 3 floors of exhibits). We did not make it through most of these this time (the toddler was ready for a nap). We did explore most of this floor last year when we visited.

And more early human comparisons including skulls, tools and evolution of man in general.

One of the kids favorite parts of the museum was a butterfly room with tons of live butterflies. The butterflies actually landed on their fingers, heads, and shoulders. Please ignore B’s hair from here forward…she loves to pull her hair rubber bands out of her hair and makes it look wild. 

The chrysalis chamber.

And the part of the museum that I was most excited about was the visual Tree of Life. We did the 2nd Great Lesson: the Coming of Life really helped T understand this.  It was beautiful.

Near the Tree of Life there was a fun section with hands on activities. 

Lots of specimens to explore

Taxonomy of a Snake. There were a few of these but he enjoyed the snake the most. They had 3 snakes that were similar except the color. He had to go through several steps to determine if the snakes were the same species. 

Checking out some Geology samples

Using a microscope is always exciting to T. I actually don’t remember what he was looking at but he sure had fun.

B was loving the sensory experience of the shells on this large sedimentary rock.

We are all excited to do the next Great Lesson now. I am hoping to present it next week. T has already been exploring the ancient civilizations because he is fascinated with them.