Posted on 1 Comment

If You Give a Boy a Camera


My middle son is an amazing writer, a deft creator of unique
characters. He will sit for hours crafting a tale. He usually enlists his
younger brother, Søren, to illustrate because he is not particularly fond of

Every Thursday we break out the cameras. We use a couple Polaroid cameras and
sometimes we experiment with cell phones. We use disposable cameras and,
occasionally, one dinosaur that uses 35mm film. Mostly we snap digitally. Our
students are encouraged to explore and observe their world through the

Liam loves the art of photography.

One day I gave each student a green apple and told them to
use it in a still life arrangement of objects with interesting shapes and
textures. Liam was the youngest
student looking through the viewfinder that day. His photo was, by far the most
sophisticated—a minimal composition of the circle, square, and rectangle, a
simplistic balance of light and shadow.

Looking to explore photography more with your children?

Lesson Plan: Element of Art / Kodak

13 Lessons About Digital Photography

Happy clicking!

Posted on Leave a comment

Salvia & Vinca

I imagine spending summers with my family at Dalguise House
in Pertshire with Beatrix Potter. I
imagine chasing Peter Rabbit down a lush Scottish lane.

But hoe in hand, all the chopping at clay soil I can muster does
not a Dalguise garden make. I don’t know what color my thumb is but it
certainly is not green.

So I imagine a compromise. I stop fretting about the lawn in
my front yard that manufactures crabgrass and settle on crafting miniature
gardens in containers where the soil is controlled, pliable. I have, in my
suburban plot of land, fashioned a satisfying eye-full of Scotland in
galvanized tubs.

I have created a backyard biome for my children to observe
nature in the city. We have worms, and moths, and butterflies, and June bugs,
hummingbirds, and squirrels. We even have a rabbit named Greybone that goes lippitey
lippety in circles around the containers.

Salvia is a favorite in my garden—easy to grow and that lush
purple hue, well the image etched on my retina says it all. It had to be
related to sage… I just knew it. Turns out I was correct. Those velvety leaves
were a dead giveaway. I love these unkempt ornamental shrubs and their aromatic
flowers that bloom and sway in panicles.

Liam’s favorite four-letter word is still “d-i-r-t” so he
jumped at the offer when I asked, “Hey, how about working in the garden with me

“Sure Mom!”

We walk up the hill with the squeaky rusting wagon to the
neighborhood nursery to pick up some plants for a handful of containers that
need refreshing. I suggest Liam choose some plants for the raised bed near the
front door.

(His response warrants three, if not more, exclamation points).

“Yes, of course you can!” He sets out on a furious journey
and is back again sooner than I expect with an armful of Vinca.

The flowers flash in my face and make my heart sink. It’s
true. I am actually shocked by my response to this mass of cutie pie flowers. I
mean, I have to engage in some serious and immediate introspection, “Vinca
doesn’t match the rest of the garden, is that it? No, I don’t think so…that’s
not exactly the rub. I shake my head, snap out of it, and pulled it together
for my lovely son, “Great Liam.” I feel much better when I see his proud smile
beaming from ear to ear.

Back home, Liam takes to task without a prompt. He turns the
soil, digs holes with his bare hands for the tiny plants, pats them into their
new home, and sprinkles the bed with water all the while smiling cheerfully. Cheerfully…
yes, that’s it!

Liam chose Vinca because these flowers are just like him: Cheerful.
And cheerfulness is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when
describing me. I can be cheerful, but I am, by nature the Salvia melancholy
sage. I am not the image of Vinca though I’ve longed to be that image at times.
I truly believe that my gut response was because, in that moment when Liam
lifted the mass of Vinca to my eyes, the flowers caught me off-guard and sneered,
“You are not like us.” And in that moment I slipped into an ancient insecurity.

But I’m the teacher who values individuality, even my
own. I am thankful for the Vinca
challenge that kept me on my toes that day. Sipping a glass of iced tea on my
front steps, I smile at Liam’s bed of Vinca, thankful for his cheerful nature,
and then, when ice is left to jingle in the glass, I wander to my Salvia

Posted on Leave a comment

The Scientific Method & The Pepper Seed


Taylor was told that a seed from a vegetable purchased at
the market would not produce fruit. He had no in intention of growing a bell
pepper for consumption, only to test what he was told and relish in the fruit
of his labor no matter the outcome.

Scientific Method
A body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

Posted on 1 Comment

Coming Together Over Books


Plain and simple, book clubs are fun!

Nothing seems to fosters the higher-level thinking that allows children to form ideas and opinions about real life, more than hashing through a story in a discussion circle. There's something about listening and talking things through with friends that stimulates the mind to process and absorb without the added pressure of a graded, written response.

Using Blackbird & Company literature discovery guides in our co-op school provides the perfect framework for a weekly book club because there are discussion
questions built into every section. There are questions designed to
spark student’s memories, trigger their interpretations, and get them
thinking beyond the page about how a story can relate to their actual

Consider the following when putting a group together:

A real book club should be comfy and fun! Gathering in a comfortable area, whether in chairs or sitting on the floor, helps set discussion time aside as special and relaxed. Groups of 6-8 work best for allowing everyone to participate. Treats are always a welcome addition too!

READING ABILITY Inviting students with similar reading skills allows the group to coalesce. As students begin to feel comfortable with their group even reluctant speakers will share what’s on their mind.

Having a regular scheduled time each week helps students pace through their reading and builds anticipation.

Be inspired by student responses and guide the discussion where it wants to go naturally. Don’t worry if things get a little off track as long as students are thinking creatively. Often one question will lead to another resulting in lively and interesting connections.

Feel free to use the questions creatively. For example, assign each question to a different student for presentation to the group; allow two groups to take sides and debate the pros and cons of a particular question; or allow students to role play their response to a question.

As you're planning for the coming school year, think about making a place for your children and their friends to come together over great books! It can help create passionate, thinking readers and it's sure to breath fresh life into your language arts studies!

Posted on 3 Comments

House of Makers

For the past ten days I have been in Residency. I’m entering
the last leg of my MFA journey. Each day I leave the house with complete confidence that my three sons
are safe under the supervision of their sister, 20-year-old-benevolent-dictator, Hannah.

Yesterday when she picked me up at 6:30. I was informed of
the day’s adventure by all four of my children… simultaneously:

Liam wanted me to
drive through the carwash
        and Hannah
blasted the theme song to Little Big Planet,
… at the park, there
was a… rode my scooter and feed the ducks…
        library and Barnes &
Noble there was a book with a Lego guy
and I checked out a
book about orchestration so I can…
        one on Constantine’s
early rule and a biography of John Lennon… 

Surveying the state of the house when I arrive home, I
realize the morning was an equal bundle of good times. I begin to tidy the
clues. I don’t mind the mess. The process of cleaning up actually helps me
unwind after a day of academia… I mean literally

I follow a mass of tangled white yarn that is strewn from
the kitchen to the living room. What I discover at the end of the line is tremendous—two forks cocooned
to stillness, functional objects transformed to a beautifully still
non-functional state. I pause in awe of the ingenuity that drove the artist
into this work and marvel at the result. The sculpture speaks to me, hangs a
question, “Is the yarn limiting the fork or expanding its potential?”

I collect the fork sculpture and head toward the Gathering Ledge, the place in my kitchen
where I put such misfit items, and kneel to my hands and knees to begin
gathering loose items from the low spaces. I pick up some stray pencils, toy
cars, and sit up when I come upon two sheets of paper, ovals mysteriously cut
out of the center.

Back on my feet I move swiftly toward the trash and am
halted when my peripheral vision is intrigued by a yellow blur… the missing ovals. But they are much
more than ovals. They are prototypes,
furniture design—a bench and a chair that would make Ray and Charles Eames

Not sure where I collected the Eye that’s painted on a scrap of canvas, but I do know that Taylor
plans for this to be a small contribution to a very large installation.

Continue reading House of Makers

Posted on 1 Comment

On the Road


Today we’re packed up and headed to the first of our July shows, the 27th Annual CHEA Convention in Pasadena. The energy is great and we love catching up with old friends and meeting new ones! It’s a great opportunity to get inspired and stock up on everything you need for a new school year. If you’re planning on being there…make sure you come by to say hi and pick up a free bird whistle!

We’re very excited about our new product:
Intro to Composition: The Essay Writing Discovery Guide*
Discovering da Vinci Observation Art Pack
Courage of Sarah Noble Level 1 Literature Discover Guide
Patricia Polacco & Art Earlybird Literature Discover Guides*
The Hundred Dresses & Lawn Boy Level 1 Literature Discover Guides*
The Liberation of Gabriel King Level 2 Literature Discover Guides*
Treasure Island, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle Level 3 Literature Discover Guides*

* Presales, ships October 2010.

Posted on Leave a comment

Sharpening Pencils


When Hannah was five her best friends were twin boys. The trio devised all sorts of amusing
activities. One sunny afternoon I noticed they were spending a significant
amount of time gathered round the child-sized picnic table that Hannah’s father
built. “How cute, they are conversing,” I thought to myself as I went for my
camera to capture the moment.


When I zoomed in I spied a couple Willie’s screwdrivers and
a little pile of screws in the grass. I zoomed in closer. Yep, the trio was seated
around what would soon be the once-upon-a time-child-sized picnic-table. They
had spent the better part of the afternoon disassembling not conversing. Still,
they were so focused, such dedicated little carpenters, that I didn’t have the
heart to stop them. Instead I rehearsed the speech I would deliver to my
husband, “…it was all very, well, Montessori …and after all we can easily
re-build, right?”

Okay fast-forward about fifteen years. Last week my
mother-in-law assigned Liam the task of sharpening fifteen dozen pencils that
she would be taking to an orphanage in Uganda this summer. I appreciate how she organizes these
perfect child-sized humanitarian activities for my children.

Liam got to work immediately. At a minute per pencil, 180
pencils, the task would take about three hours without a break! The task took
Liam most of the morning. At one point he came in and asked me if he could use
the manual pencil sharpener.

“The electric one might be faster.”

“But it’s clogged.”

“Okay Liam.”

“Thanks mom.”

A couple of hours later Liam came bounding into the kitchen
with a pencil stained grin holding in the sharpened pencils safely tucked back
into their original packaging.

“Wow Liam, all these pencils!”

“I hope the children in Uganda are happy when they write!”

I choked back the lump in my throat, “I hope so too Liam, a
job well done son.”

Later that evening I went into the studio to tidy up, there
it was, a brand new installation: The manual pencil sharpener had somehow been
removed from its perch in the pantry and re-attached with screws to our antique
Craftsman desk. I caught my
breath, mortified, then after a moment of letting the shock settle, enjoyed the
smile cracking. My son set up shop, got the job done and I must admit, I’m

I pulled out the speech and began rehearsing, “…very
Montessori and after all…”

Posted on 1 Comment

Exploring Haiku & Tanka

What better way to whittle away the sunny summer days than by writing poetry? Even if you don't fancy yourself a wordsmith, haiku and tanka are two short forms that can provide a fun, creative, and addicting challenge.

Haiku and Tanka are very old forms of Japanese poetry. 

Haiku are 17-syllable
poems that paint a single image in three compact lines. Haiku were
created for beginnings to a longer work of poetry. Haiku rarely rhyme.

is simple: one
short line, one long line, and another short line

first line begins
a b o u t   7   s y l l a b l e s
end the poem with

crickets, well I have
a lizard named nick who loves
crickets at midnight

          – Hunter (age 15)

Tanka are 31-syllable
paint a single image in five compact lines
. While Haiku were created for beginnings, Tankas were created for
Tanka rarely rhyme.

is simple: one
short line, one long line, another short line then two long lines

first line begins
a b o u t   7   s y l l a b l e s
use five for line
a b o u t   7   s y l l a b l e s
a b o u t   7   s y l l a b l e s

dark clouds curl above
sails thrusting through a summer storm
an unexpected
sunset drops behind the splish splash splish
splash splish sounding of the waves
                            – Jonathan (age 12)

Now pour your children a glass of lemonade, find a shady spot and have fun with haiku and tanka. Their poetry can be about anything at all, just have them take a look around and write! After they have filled a page or two, pick a favorite and share it with us here by leaving a comment.

If you are interested in exploring these fascinating forms of poetry more with your children, we highly recommend the following two books:

Haiku (Asian Arts and Crafts For Creative Kids), by Patricia Donnegan

Cricket Never Does: A Collection of Haiku and Tanka, Myra Cohn Livingston

For a strong introduction to the forms and fundamentals of poetry for 5th grade through high school students, check out our Exploring Poetry unit.

Posted on Leave a comment


With a bingo ball and a Lego block, that’s how summer begins.

It is a typical shopping day:

Hop in the car. Back out of the driveway. “Who has the
list?” Oops… forgot the list, back into the driveway. Søren is chosen for the
journey there and back again. I
watch him up the driveway… there he goes, two minutes later back again clutching
the list triumphantly. My youngest son jumps into the car and we’re off…

 We arrive at Trader Joe’s in nothing flat. In summer we
don’t have to battle traffic patterns.

Splitting the list into five sections, we scurry in five
directions, grab the goods and get in line. It’s a little game we play, our
version of Beat the Clock. I get a kick out of the items slipped into the cart
by my frenetic shoppers: Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies, Altoids, frozen
pizza, Hansen’s Soda, lime popsicles, and even rice milk when they’re
desperate. Sometimes I smile, let
them see me turn a blind eye, but mostly I draw the line, “Put it back please.”

On this particular day, the first shopping day of summer, we
are fast, no doubt accomplished our trip in record time. The five of us want
nothing more than to be home doing nothing, that’s right n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

Continue reading Summer…