May 192016
two girls wearing "smart is beautiful" T-shirts

Smart is beautiful, indeed!

When I posted a few weeks ago about finishing our math curriculum, I casually mentioned that we will move on to learning JavaScript. Readers Bertie and Mama Paul asked for details on what materials we are using to learn computer programming.

Per usual, I will give a long answer to a short question.

We decided last year that one of our goals for our children is that by the time they graduate high school, they should be proficient in computer programming in some way. Since increasing use of computers and technology is the way of the future, we feel that this is as important as being good at math or English. We haven’t nailed down the goal to a specific just yet and for now are just getting our feet wet in the world of learning computer programming.

My husband is one of those amazing self-taught people in computer programming. He will tell you that he is no expert but compared to the average person, he has mad skills in not just one but many computer languages. He learns by reading books.

I know almost nothing about computer programming. except for a little HTML. When I first moved to Washington, I tried learning C++ by reading a book during my commutes on the Metro. Since smart phones and tablets weren’t invented at that time, I was writing the exercises down on paper. When I told my husband this was how I was trying to learn C++, he told me that this was ridiculous and that there was no way to learn computer programming without sitting down and doing it at a computer. Sure enough, when he tested my knowledge by having me type one of my exercises into the computer, it was full of errors and didn’t work.

Through a lot of trial and error, I have come to appreciate that computer programming requires 3 general abilities:

  1. Logical/big picture thinking ability. Knowing how to structure things in the right order or how to creatively achieve a result within the limitations of your available resources.
  2. Mathematical ability. There is definitely an “applied math” aspect to computer programming. Many exercises, even for kids, require knowledge of geometry, algebra and other mathematical functions.
  3. Detail orientation. One of the more frustrating aspects of computer programming is the attention to detail required. If you have a comma or a bracket out of place or if you misspell a word, your program can fail and often you won’t know why until you spend a good deal of time hunting for the mistake.

In my experience, there is a lot of material out there to teach children generally about computers and computer programming but not very much when you want to learn an actual programming language! Learning the actual languages is generally reserved for kids who are at least in junior high and high school or even those in college. So, we have to give a lot of credit and respect to people who have been coding for decades, they are all probably self-taught with not very helpful learning materials to work with.

With my children, we started learning code last year through the website It is free and supported by major technology corporations. It is about as user-friendly as you can get. You code examples that move around characters from popular video games. The graphics and embedded videos are awesome…but it doesn’t teach actual programming languages. teaches more of skill #1, logical/big picture thinking. You “code” with blocks of text and you need to know how each block works but the code you are generating isn’t code that really works in any computer language. Sometimes they call this “pseudocode.”

I had to learn along with my children on It was tough going at first. Making the computer do anything requires a little mental gymnastics to figure out how you can express in code language what you want to achieve. Something like “Draw a circle” requires a lot more code than you might expect as well as knowledge of angles and degrees. We made it all the way through the available lessons on and they did get very challenging at the end!

screenshot of assignment

Example of a “free play” assignment on

Another activity my children have been participating in is an amazing local program called FredX Coders. It is also completely free! A wonderful group of local people created a coder dojo along with our local university. On select Saturday mornings, usually once a month, kids come in to learn coding along with a parent. My husband takes our daughters. Sometimes my daughters are the only girls in the class. This program so far has taught the kids about Scratch, a free online program that seems similar to in that it teaches pseudocode. The kids LOVE Scratch and play on it for fun. FredX Coders also teaches real languages too, often walking kids through a page of code and teaching them how to tweak various parts of it.

My daughter's first Scratch  game: "Lion Hunter"

My daughter’s first Scratch game: “Lion Hunter”

For this year, I wanted to move us forward into actually coding something in a “real” language. My husband and I discussed which language would be best for the children to learn and settled on JavaScript. I read great reviews of the book JavaScript for Kids by Nick Morgan so thought we would try that.

book cover JavaScript for Kids

JavaScript for Kids by Nick Morgan on

So far, we are about 100 pages in to the book. My 7 and 10 year old are handling it well and I am learning along with them. It seems to me that the book would work best for someone at least 12 years old. I was worried my 7 year old would find it too hard but she is advanced for her age and has been doing just fine. My 10 year old seems like a natural at computer programming.

The book is not perfect. For the age group I am teaching, I find that I have to paraphrase many of the pages and talk through each code example in much more detail than the book provides. I also have to take notes as we go and provide ways of reinforcing repetition and recall. For example, the book might just say: “Type var numbers” and I would say to them, “Write code that creates a variable called numbers.”

The early exercises are fairly simple but they are getting more and more challenging. Having a mentor (my husband) to guide us has kept us from giving up.

For example, when we needed to set up a JavaScript console, here is what happened:

screenshot of texts between two people about computer coding

The frustrations of coding

It turned out that it was there and his instructions were completely accurate, just missing one small but important step. You needed to click on a small blank window to the left. If you naturally would expect to have to do this, you are one with the computer! I am not. I need every little step spelled out.

Then, later, when we had to write our own code for one of the code challenge assignments (for which, as far as I can tell, there are no answers provided), we got completely stuck. We wrote some of it and just had no idea where to go with it to finish the challenge. When my husband got home from work, we showed it to him in frustration. He looked at it for a few minutes and then said, “Oh, you made a basic programming mistake of using = versus ==” He then went on to describe how we needed to restructure the program to add in another variable. When you see the answer, it makes complete sense but generating it yourself is excruciatingly hard.

screenshot of JavaScript computer code

The solution to one of our coding challenges. We definitely required help to get this done!

So, that is what we are doing and the book we are using! I need more time with the book before I know if I would recommend it to anyone else. We are definitely learning from it and it is well written and fairly amusing for a programming book, we just wish learning programming languages could be easier!

Are you or your kids learning to code? Do you have experience with any of the above programming resources? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on May 19, 2016 General Tagged with: ,
Oct 132014
Heading outside for art lessons.

Heading outside for art lessons.

Each year that I homeschool, I learn a lot about being a good teacher. In these early years, I feel that I improve as a teacher by at least 30% each year over the previous year. Most of what I have to learn has to do with time management, setting the right expectations and child behavior patterns–all great organizing lessons. Each year, I try to learn from the mistakes of previous years and try something just a little bit different.

Last year, we focused in hard on the core subjects of math and language arts. We did well in these areas but I felt like we fell down on a couple of subjects, like art, music, and history. So, this year, I made the decision to start each school day with our weakest subjects and save language arts and math for last.

Below is a quick run-down of our typical school day this fall and our goals for the year.


2014-10-13-artisticpursuits We start our days with an art lesson. While this sounds “fun,” this art curriculum is really quite serious. The ARTistic Pursuits Elementary 4-5 Book One focuses on the fundamentals of drawing. We are training ourselves to see like artists and learning the elements of art that make for more interesting compositions. So far, we are learning about looking for shapes, capturing details and learning about how and when to use shading. It is really a lot of hard mental work. It is kind of a struggle to get excited about teaching these lessons but we are all excited about how much we have learned so far.


Goal: Be able to draw with more detail and sophistication and identify simple drawing techniques in other artists’ work.

Still life with kitchen tools

Still life with kitchen tools

Drawing of Audobon owls

Drawing of Audobon owls

First drawing of an LPS toy

First drawing of an LPS toy

Drawing of the same toy about 3 weeks later in our lessons.

Drawing of the same toy about 3 weeks later in our lessons.

Still life of fruit and vegetables.

Still life of fruit and vegetables.


Screenshot from lesson.

Screenshot from lesson.

Because last year, we kept “forgetting” to do our piano lessons, this year, I built it into the school curriculum. Over the summer, I received an email notice from the Homeschool Buyer’s Coop about an Australian piano lesson curriculum taught completely online. For a onetime fee of $60, you could buy a lifetime subscription to the website This method of learning emphasizes playing songs rather than learning music theory. You watch the videos online for a quick lesson and then spend the rest of your week practicing on your own. Rather than practice 30 minutes per day per child, we practice only about 10-15 minutes per child. So far, my children are enjoying these lessons and they have both learned two songs already and will spontaneously practice them when they pass by the piano.

Goal: Complete the Level 1 curriculum and learn approximately 11 songs. We hope to perform the songs in an end of year recital perhaps for one of our older neighbors.

2014-10-13-piano1 2014-10-13-piano2


Balloon globes

Balloon globes


World geography is the theme for this year’s history lessons. We spent September learning about principles of geography and now are taking an around the world virtual tour. We will be visiting each of the continents and spending a few days in select countries. We created a “passport” that we complete for each country as well as an art project representing each country. We are making liberal use of our library card and our local library system has been amazing in terms of providing wonderful books for us to use.

Goal: Gain an appreciation that the world is a large and complex place as well as respect for different cultures and peoples.

One of our recent stacks of books from the library on Africa.  Our library has a terrific collection of both reference books and fiction from each country.

One of our recent stacks of books from the library on Africa. Our library has a terrific collection of both reference books and fiction from each country.

Example "passport" pages.

Example “passport” pages.

Our Congo art project: interpretations of Luba fertility sculptures.

Our Congo art project: interpretations of Luba fertility sculptures.

Our Ethiopian art project: paper mache interpretation of the guinea fowl found in their folk art.

Our Ethiopian art project: paper mache interpretation of the guinea fowl found in their folk art.


2014-10-13-ancientcomputing 2014-10-13-eyewitnesscomputer 2014-10-13-nyscience

Computer science is our focus for science this year. We started off with some introductory books on computer science, including the history of “computing.” We have now progressed to the K-8 Into to Computer Science Course at This is an amazing curriculum available to anyone completely free of charge. They provide all the lesson plans for the “offline” activities. My children, however, look forward to the “online” lessons where you get to practice coding through a series of interactive games. The first one we did was based on the games Angry Birds and Plants Versus Zombies. Each lesson is introduced by a video starring computer science greats like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, telling the children in simple terms what they are about to learn. This really is an amazing gift to U.S. schoolchildren and I hope that every school will someday take advantage of it. In addition to our computer science lessons, we are also doing a few pages per day from the study guide for the New York 4th grade science exam to prepare ourselves for end-of-year science testing.

Goal: Have at least a general idea of how one might write a computer program, including some of the language elements and logical constructs.

Screenshot from one of the online lessons at

Screenshot from one of the online lessons at


2014-10-13-spanishnow I looked long and hard for a Spanish curriculum I wanted to use. There is a lack of intermediate and advanced language curricula for elementary school students. It is also hard to find affordable programs. I finally settled on the Barron’s Spanish Now! curriculum that includes a workbook and companion CDs. This year, we are trying to focus more on speaking Spanish. I liked that this curriculum seems to have a lot of repetition in the exercises. You use variations of the same phrases over and over and over. The curriculum is probably designed for at least a junior high – adult student. We adjust it by doing only one page per day. The curriculum is similar to what we used last year where there is a story and worksheet pages to follow. We repeat the story every day and do the worksheet page. The CDs are great because they allow us to hear the correct pronunciation of words and also provide oral exercises. The curriculum also teaches Spanish grammar, like masculine and feminine, plurals, etc. So far, my children are handling this curriculum beautifully.

Goal: Improve Spanish vocabulary and understanding. Be able to respond to simple questions in speech and writing with at least a few routine Spanish phrases like “Es posible . . . “ or “Es necesario . . . .”

Language Arts

2014-10-13-commoncorela-4 2014-10-13-commoncorela-2 2014-10-13-vocab-4 2014-10-13-spelling-4


We are continuing with the Brave Writer language arts curriculum, graduating to The Arrow curriculum. This curriculum uses longer chapter books and provides copywork passages and literary elements for each book. Ideally, you complete one book per month. There also is a companion Partnership Writing curriculum containing several creative writing projects which you would also complete roughly one per month. My only complaint with the Arrow and Partnership Writing curricula so far is that it does not come with any sort of daily schedule or monthly lesson plan as to when to do what. There is a general guide in the Partnership Writing curriculum but it doesn’t cover basics like how many chapters are you supposed to read in a week to make sure you finish the book by the end of the month. I am having to figure that out on my own. In addition to the Brave Writer curriculum, we are continuing with the Common Core Language Arts 4 Today test prep books as well as a vocabulary and spelling workbook. This is also our year to learn cursive writing, which my children have been waiting for!

Goals: Improve patience for longer chapter books. Improve reading comprehension and vocabulary. Continue progress in creative writing.


2014-10-13-singmath-2a 2014-10-13-singmath-2b 2014-10-13-singmath-4a 2014-10-13-singmath-4b

We are continuing on with the Singapore Math curriculum, levels 2A/2B and 4A/4B. The only change I made this year was that I didn’t order the teacher’s manual for the books this year. In past years, I found that I hardly referred to it. There is so much to complete already between the daily assigned textbook and workbook pages that I didn’t need any other teaching activities to supplement. The only downside is that I don’t get an answer key without the teacher’s manual but the math is still simple enough at this age that we don’t really need it.

Goals: Complete each curriculum. The second grade curriculum requires addition with carrying and subtraction with borrowing as well as simple multiplying and dividing by 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10. The fourth grade curriculum requires multiplying by 2-digit numbers, adding and subtracting fractions, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing decimals and calculating area and perimeter.


Another twist this year is that I have one more student added to my homeschool, my preschool-age son! I am still trying to find a curriculum that works for him. I initially planned out a lot of fun crafts but after trying a few with him learned that his dexterity is still quite limited (although he loves painting with a brush) and that he has more enthusiasm for reading, games and playing outside. We are also doing some socialization learning for him through a sports class (more on this in a future post). Formal schooling isn’t necessary for him at this stage so I am not worried about doing a lot but am trying to keep him engaged in reading and learning in general. He always seems to end up in the middle of the girls lessons, whether “helping” them paint or accompanying them during their piano lessons so he is also learning quite a bit by osmosis as well.

This is the most ambitious homeschool schedule we have attempted yet! It has taken several weeks to feel comfortable with it but it is finally starting to settle into a groove.

 Posted by on October 13, 2014 General Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,