A Biology Lesson

Our biology “spine” book for the past two years has been The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland, illustrated by Bert Dodson. This book breaks a few of Mason’s rules. It is illustrated, for one. Enzymes are depicted like lumpy potatoes with hats, photosynthesis as a ballet, amino acid production like a donut shop. Miss T is enjoying Hoagland’s creative metaphor making.

You might think that a book with many illustrations would harbor some pretty poor writing, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In fact, I’ve been captivated by some of the ideas he expresses, the creative ways he manages to describe phenomena that are fairly complex. For example, to explain how the process of cell differentiation begins in the embryo he introduces it thus:

“The first step toward the creation of a body comes when a few cells occupying a space no bigger than the point of a pin begin to take on the general character of what we’ll call “topness,” and others adopt “bottomness”; still others assume “frontness” or “backness”; “outsideness” or “insideness.” There’s no sign yet of a head or a tail, a backbone or belly, skin or internal organs – to say nothing of things in between. Multiplying cells that have made the commitment to, say, topness will, generation by generation, make small changes in their character and forge new relationships with their neighbors so as eventually to become a recognizable head.”

How would a cell know, I wonder, that it will be on top someday? Can a cell sense its destiny? I rather like the idea that even the lowest cell has a certain quality about it.

The problem with richly illustrated books is that Miss T. can be tempted to simply copy the illustrations without thinking much about them. She made one of those errors last week. She has been studying the process of speciation in one book, and cell differentiation in this book – coming on the heels of DNA replication, and our study of genetics last year. The book compares cell differentiation to a cook that starts a soup with onions and parsley, and then divides the soup in two pots. One pot is likely to have more onions and the other more parsley. Into each pot the cook adds different ingredients and then divides them again, with unequal results. And so on.

When I looked at Miss T’s illustration and had her narrate it to me, I realized that she’d confused this cell differentiation process, which the author calls “the lineage plan,” with the process of hybridization and the actual creation of lineage. The cook metaphor had confused proteins with alleles in her mind. If I had not been paying close attention to her narration, and had her show me her notebook, I would have missed that. Is that a problem with the book? Possibly, but I think it could have happened with any book.

It is generally important to have your child draw from their own mind, but my daughter finds this to be beyond her capabilities. My challenge has been to find what she can do with an illustrated book like this. This is similar to saying: put this in your own words, which is the process of a verbal narration. I want to ask of her: put this idea in your own pictures.

Living science, then, demands more of the teacher than science out of a text – which will have built in quizzes and questions to test comprehension of at least the main points. And it demands more of the student. The student has to be able to effectively teach a process, an idea, or a set of related facts as a whole, not merely to spit out bits and pieces in response to questioning. To be an effective receiver of narrations, then, you will need to read the material along with your student, just as with history and literature. If this isn’t realistic, it behooves you to enlist your spouse or a sympathetic friend to help out.


Profile This

Dear Friends,

I’m just one white lady. One really, really lucky white lady. One might even say “privileged.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the particulars of the Ferguson case don’t matter much, although it was the right thing to do to release the documents. There are reactions ranging from super-rational and puzzled, to anguished and rage-filled. What matters is that a wound has reopened. What matters is that racism divided the community of Ferguson long before punches and bullets ripped it apart. And their division threatens to widen to include the rest of us; it’s a wound that threatens to open further.

These days image counts for a lot. I learned in college that the reason affirmative action works is that it puts the image of success into a person’s mind; it shows anyone who might care to pay attention, and even those who do not, that black faces belong everywhere you see success. So I want to post some images of my own. Profile this:


These are my neighbors. These are the kids my kids looked up to growing up. Their sister taught my daughter Latin. Their dad has a t-shirt that says: Black Nerds Unite. Their house is the hub the neighborhood revolves around. Every one of those four kids is gifted in some way: academically, musically, you name it. They are never content to hang out and just observe, instead they are actively involved in some project or another. Here’s the thing: I know that if my son gets drunk and does something idiotic (which I hope he never does, but hypothetically), there  is some grace built in to the system for him. Automatically. This is a grace that my neighbors would have to earn, if they can expect it at all.


My son’s former fiddle teacher is on the right. He plays in a Portland based bluegrass-fusion group called the Renegade String Band. If you are in the area and you get a chance to hear them, they are absolutely amazing. He introduced P.A. to some great technique and some outstanding music. He’s also what you’d call a social justice “entrepreneur,” starting a successful non-profit in a depressed area to teach disadvantaged teens life and work skills.


This is my son’s orthodontist. We chose him because he is quite conservative in his approach. He watched over my son’s mouth for years before he would put braces in it, and patiently answered my stupid questions. His work is high quality (meaning that nothing has broken despite my son’s insistence on testing the limits to what he can and cannot eat), and his clinic is jammed full of patients every. time. we. go. His son is also a dentist, and graduated at the top of his high school class.

Feel free, my friends, to come back to these images after watching the news. Meanwhile, I need to make some tea and cookies for my neighbors. I am privileged to know and to learn from them.

Naming Trees

Nature study is a hard sell at our house. But I know we can at least make lists. And the northwest is nothing if not forest, and in the forest there are trees. One M & M per tree listing in the nature notebook wasn’t enough, evidently, to buy a snark-free walk, but, Pojar in hand, we set out.

Crossing our street: “You can put crabapple in your list, Miss T. We spent enough time in those trees, picking apples and making jam.”

“Alright.” Monotone. “How long do I have to do this?”

“Until 4 o’clock.” Half an hour. She will know the names of the trees in our neighborhood, at least. How can you have a relationship with it if you don’t know its name? She snarkily asked if she could just name them all George and be done. My husband didn’t help. He thought she had a good idea.

Our street is full of trees, many native, some strangers. It is November, so most of the leaves have fallen. One neighbor has an enormous Western Red Cedar, so huge that its trunk is naturally buttressed like a gothic church. It is behind a fence, but I can pick up its seed cones near the street. “Do you know where there’s another?” I ask. “Noooo,” she says, tentatively. “Grandma’s woodshed is built around one.” If you lean against it and breathe in the scent of its trunk, a woody, oily perfume greets your nose. When cut the boards smell spicy. Miss T. played in that woodshed among the stacks of wood. Pojar says that a Coast Salish myth has the Great Spirit creating the tree to honor a man that was always helping others – so useful was the tree for clothing, baskets and shelter.

We cross the street. “Funny, I can’t find these maple trees in the book,” I say. But she is quiet, picking up leaves. They are native big leaf and big tooth maple. She notes the difference in their leaves. They were a beautiful red-orange last week.

We cross the street again. “The cottonwood is here somewhere.” “Where is it?” she asks, betraying some interest. She and her brother used to collect bags of the fluffy cotton in the late spring as it collected on the sidewalk. The tree is in a stand of alder on a steep hillside. We can’t get close enough to be sure. None of the trees quite match the trees in Pojar. She resumes a petulant air and continues down the street. I follow her with a sigh, not knowing whether it’s time for an upbraiding or not, but knowing for myself that I wanted to stay out until dark becoming better acquainted with the trees.

“Let’s stick with the conifers.” I say, ignoring the attitude, but suddenly she is looking past me, her eyes wide. Gudelia is here, on her walk. Gudelia is the kind of person who has such complete faith in your power to be good that you cannot help but live up to her view of you. Miss T is no exception. Gudelia hugs Miss T and walks on. We are near the park now, and Miss T is skipping, the joy of open space, clear air and unconditional love having worked their magic.


Cedar and Douglas Fir Cones


“Look, Miss T, a Douglas Fir.” Miss T has been studying David Douglas, the Scottish naturalist responsible for many of the names of flora and fauna in the Northwest. Pseudotsuga menziesii, the species name came from Archibald Menzies, who first noted it on expedition with Vancouver. It’s a Christmas tree when young, nothing like the tall columns of the forest so I have trouble recognizing it for its youth, but the seed cones have the distinctive mouse-feet-and-tail bracts emerging from the scales. I will have Miss T draw the cone for her term exam.

By now it’s time to go home, but I’ve spotted an Amabilis fir, with one purple barrel shaped cone left intact. I must have it. If I were to leave it, it would disintegrate in the tree, leaving only a spike behind. Miss T skips on. All the firs are young, so I can reach the cone, and it comes off intact in my hand.

A Geology Lesson

Earth science has been relegated to 8th and 9th grade general science coursework for so long that it’s almost regarded as a “soft” science. As with biology, it is assumed that what makes geology most interesting to the student and lay reader is the extent to which a geologist can piece together a history of the earth. Can one “read the rocks?” Persons of faith can take either of three positions on this. Those less charitable towards these scientists’ efforts distrust the time signature in uranium to lead decay and view efforts to read the rocks as a dismissal of the Biblical record and an attempt to prove that God was unnecessary to creation. Persons of faith who are more enthusiastic towards scientific interpretation, or at least resigned to the idea of an old earth, view such efforts as filling in the Biblical blanks. A third group of faithful is patiently waiting for science to catch up to what they already know has been revealed. We’re all hoping someday to have a match.

I’ve looked at two geology books that attempt to put geology into a “big picture.” The rocks “tell a story” about the earth’s history in the same way that archeology tells a story about ancient civilization. The first is The Rocks Don’t Lie by David Montgomery and the second is Geology Matters by Doug Macdougall. The first is a book length rebuttal of the idea that one global flood is responsible for the entirety of geological formations on earth. The second blends scientific attempts to piece together the past with an understanding of how geologists attempt to predict earth’s future. Both books work within a lay understanding of geology, so actual detail is sparse. A third book, Geology by Design is an attempt to present evidence in favor of a worldwide flood by cataloging a host of planetary features irrefutably a result of flooding. As a result, it lacks a full picture and it contains it’s own version of “geological time,” that is a bit, um, fanciful. But I shall review these books in greater detail in a later post.

The problem with the above books is that they were written to prove a point, an opinion. There’s a difference between an idea and an opinion, which may be hair splitting but I can feel it when I compare books by scientists who write to defend themselves and their ideas with books written by scientists who are simply in love with their work.

One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and to older persons) instead of ideas. We believe that an opinion expresses thought and therefore embodies an idea. Even if it did so once the very act of crystallization into opinion destroys any vitality it may have had; pace Ruskin, a crystal is not a living body and does not feed men. We think to feed children on the dogmas of a church, the theorems of Euclid, mere abstracts of history, and we wonder that their education does not seem to take hold of them. Vol. 6 p. 110

Perhaps no rules for the right conduct of life are more important than the following: (a) that we may not play with chance opinions; (b) that our own Reason affords an insufficient test of the value of an opinion (because Reason, as we have seen, argues in behalf of Inclination); (c) that we must labour to get knowledge as the foundation of opinions; (d) that we must also labour to arrive at principles whereby to try our opinions. Vol. 4, p. 59

For example, Montgomery, who seems to be sympathetic to the idea that flooding has in fact shaped the earth, spends an inordinate amount of time writing about his incredulous reaction to visiting the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. There is little point to that except to bolster an opinion that young earth creationists are stupid.

Which brings me to the book I did choose for Miss T., Northwest Exposures by David Alt. What I’ve concluded about geology is that for a Charlotte Mason high school course I’m looking for a book that is closer to field geology than, say, a treatise on geological time. CM students will have completed numerous field studies and should know about the different types of rocks. They’ve read about glaciers, volcanos, and the action of rivers and seas. By high school they should have enough chemistry to understand the chemical makeup of various minerals. What is most appropriate, then, is a book about how geologists study a terrain, more advanced discussion of features and formations, and, yes, how geologists draw conclusions from the rocks about the past and the future, and what might lie below should one start to dig. It should complement ongoing fieldwork, hence it probably should be local. I have used a book in the past that covers earth science with a broad brush, and I think the two types of books can be complementary.


I thought this book would be a challenge, but Miss T. finds it intensely interesting. She asked me to slow down her coverage of it, so that rather than co-review it with me she could actually learn from it. Alt covers all of the northwest, from Montana and Wyoming to the Washington coast. There is a lot of new vocabulary, suggesting that if one has not studied many different types of rocks and minerals, one should have a field guide handy. This week, we learned about volcanic piles in central Montana, which have dikes that were formed of shonkinite magma. (shonkinite is a kind of potassium enriched basalt). At the ends of the dikes, the magma intruded into an underground space and formed a blister, called a laccolith. Miss T. was fascinated by the idea of a blister on the earth full of hot magma, so she drew that in her notebook after narrating. I underlined the vocabulary words that I thought she needed to understand and remember (with science, there is far more new vocabulary than with other subjects, so in the upper years it is very hard to avoid learning a good many new terms), and she defined them under her picture. She is familiar with basalt from our many volcano field trips over the summer, so she was able to picture shonkinite.

This book presumes an old earth, is peppered with thoughts about how long a given feature took to form, and divides its chapters by “geological time,” but Alt does not bother arguing about it. It is primarily a discussion of features and how they may have formed, and if an old earth time frame is problematic for your worldview, you will need to help your child construct a lens with which to view this book. Personally, I found the Montgomery book more difficult to grapple with, and he purports to be friendly to people of faith.

A High School Physics Lesson

Miss T would love for all of her science lessons to be reading lessons, so today was a happy day for her. Her favorite science topic is physics, so Monday is usually Asimov day. Here is his book, which we used last year and this year:


I balked using this with Miss T at first, because Asimov is not shy about discussing the math, but after she eagerly picked it up and demanded Asimov be her teacher I couldn’t say no. (Miss T is a big fan of his Robot novels.) It has been amazing. Asimov masterfully and seamlessly blends math, history and science concepts in short but intense bites. She’s had little trouble understanding and articulating the chapters, and this was supposed to be the “challenging” physics choice. Last year we covered Motion, Sound and Heat. This year we are working on Light, Magnetism and Electricity. I don’t know if we’ll use the third volume.

While some might think Asimov’s science is “dated,” (the book was published in 1966) I believe that at the high school level this is more than adequate. In fact, Asimov does not give in to the temptation to delve into the more abstract physics that is so fashionable to discuss in the physics books marketed to the general reader today. He sticks to the basics of human experience with motion, matter and energy, which makes this volume vastly superior as a living physics text to anything written more recently. And the basics are anything but simple.

Last week, Miss T narrated about the Tyndall effect, and we were both surprised to learn that the sky is blue not because atmospheric particles reflect the color blue, but that the light excites them to emit the color blue. Also, a beam of light is ordinarily only visible through a colloidal suspension (such as milk) because the particles are just the right size. After narration, Miss T and I discuss what she will draw in her notebook and include in the caption. This is what she decided to do:


And here is this week’s notebook entry:


I’m sharing these so that no one looks at other teen’s beautifully done diagrams and pages filled with words and feels discouraged. While it is important, very important, to encourage your children to give their entries their best work, the value of regularly making a journal entry is not about the art lesson. Making a visual is very important in science, because if you can’t picture a phenomenon or a process, you can’t explain it. Entries should include some sort of diagram, with labels and an explanatory caption. We’re almost there. I’m making notebooking a priority for Miss T this year, not just with labs but also science reading.

Notebook aside, nothing quite compares to watching her bound up from her room after finishing her assigned reading (yes, at 16 she still bounds up the stairs) to ask me: “Did you know that there’s a Doppler Effect for light???” She proceeded to give me a 15 minute narration of the chapter, including the discovery and the nature of invisible light, how the red shift helps astronomers measure the motion of the stars, and why Doppler was wrong to think that reddish stars were moving away from us, and bluish stars towards us. A selection of comprehension questions in the back of a textbook chapter could not begin to capture what she remembered, neither could it generate the enthusiasm of a kid making her own discoveries.

A note about the math – most physics teachers will tell you that you can’t do physics without the math. For the most part, this is true. Many of the chapters on motion and force were math heavy, the optics chapters have not been. I have used a combination of resources for the math, one is Great Formulas Explained by Martin Betkas, and the other is Physics Classroom, which is a fairly complete website for teaching physics and can fill in any gaps if your student is planning on taking a physics SAT. One thing I have tried to teach Miss T is that the math tells a story. Math tells us how things change when you change variables like time, mass, energy, velocity and distance. We worked with formulas in a spreadsheet and entered different data and I asked her to look at the results and tell me the story. At first she was mystified by this, but over time she got the hang of it.

5, 2 or 1

This week I want to quote extensively from Tricia, who writes a weekly reflection for our church website. I am blessed to work with and for her. She’s one of the smartest women I know, and she frequently gives us much food for thought. This Sunday’s gospel is the parable of the Ten Talents: Matthew 25:14-30

            “Servant (sometimes translated as slave), talents and fear are prominent in this Sunday’s  gospel. Jesus is coming to the end of his journey and is not messing around. He knows that it will take everything that everyone has to build the kingdom of God after He is no longer walking around. Only radical and complete stewardship will do.

            The Greek word translated servant/slave is doula. Yes, like the person who as a witness, supports a woman in labor and after she has given birth! Talenta are weights that are used as money.  Fear is phobia, as in: an uncontrolled response to something that impairs one to act rationally.

            In the story, the Master (this is Jesus, of course) is leaving and entrusts 5 talents to one doula, 2 to another and 1 to the third.  When he returns the first 2 have gone out and doubled the talents! The third, out phobia/fear, has buried the 1 talent. The master is angry at this doula for such waste of the talent.”

Tricia goes on to talk about areas in her life personally where she has been given 5, 2 or 1 talent, or gift from God. Sharing my own life here, I can say with her that I’ve received 5 or 2 talents when it comes to my country of birth: the U.S., my intellect and education, my parents, my spouse, a generally positive outlook and great physical health. Tricia goes on to say that “Like most people, it is easy to share myself out of these areas of abundance.  It is low risk.  On the other hand, where I have only 1 talent, fear/phobia can keep me from risking what little I have.” Again, replacing her example with my own, I think of singing: I have the ability to read music, carry a tune and keep time, but it is not necessarily lovely. I love to do it within the protective confines of a choir, but our choir director can not carry the entire load as cantor and director. She needs a pool of other cantors for the psalm. “How do I act,” Tricia asks, “in spite of my phobias?” How do I sing when I am terrified that I’ll sound terrible, when I am so anxious my throat is constricting? How do I invest this tiny talent of mine?

            “Does Jesus really expect me to share all my talents? Even where I have little? This is where Sunday’s first reading sheds some light:  Proverbs 31, a woman of worth. Written over 3000 years ago, as a woman she had received 1 talent.  Women were generally not permitted to own land, teach, or engage in investing endeavors. Yet, it describes a woman who buys and sells land, reaches out to the poor, plants a vineyard and instructs with wisdom. She must have struggled with fear, but risked anyway.”

            “Pope Francis could dwell on his limits as the first non-European pope, not wanting to risk disappointing some people.  Instead, he risks the displeasure of the Curia, many bishops and cardinals and lots of Catholics by calling a Synod on the family to look at the thorniest issues in Catholic life.  He washes the feet of women and marries people who had been living together.  Archbishop Romero of San Salvador was given 5 talents in intellectual prowess and contacts with those in power and 1 in courage and contact with the poor. Yet, he risked his contacts (and his life) to speak out.”

            She goes on to note that: “Being a part of life at [our parish], I am inspired by how people act as doulas with their 1 talent or areas of wealth: someone on a fixed income who contributes every week…the person who teaches [First Communion class] every Saturday, who has a scarcity of time from a full time job and family…the people, whose lives are as complicated as everyone else, who sing in the choirs and appear every Sunday.”

            Tricia invited us to make 3 lists of where we have received 5 gifts or talents, where 2 and where 1.  “Ask yourself, how am I being called to return to God what I have received?  Where am I being called to act in spite of my phobias/fears?  Who is needing me to be a doula/witness for their life in Christ.”

Catholic News Service reports on Pope Francis:

When asked about the best way to share the faith with others, the pope said going out into the world and living as true witnesses of Christ and his message is the only way.

            “There is no other way. To live in a way that others become interested and ask Why? This is witness…A community that goes out makes mistakes. Mistakes are made, but it is so wonderful to ask forgiveness when one makes a mistake,” he said. “Be not afraid!

The Living Science Project

Living Science: what ideas does that conjure up in your mind? What makes science “living?” For many people, it means doing science rather than reading about it. For others, it means learning interesting things about space, and animals, and volcanos, and other things you may not have much up-close and personal experience with. For still others, it’s about playing with technology: building robots and computers.

I think some of us of a certain age might remember when we were turned off by science. It was everybody’s favorite subject until high school; we couldn’t get enough of it! Those who really loved science even did it at home, with projects and books. I think of Oliver Sacks, in his “chemical boyhood,” taking chunks of elemental sodium and dropping them into the river from a bridge to watch them explode. Then, by high school, science became a chore. It became lists of phyla, chemical nomenclature and obscure vocabulary to memorize. It became incomprehensible math, divorced from reality as you experience it. It was the chemistry lab that didn’t “work” with no chance to redo it. It was an abrupt and painful transition from the glorious study of nature in elementary school, and from learning how a refrigerator works in middle school, to a sheet of math problems in high school.

Note the stack of flash cards. This was for memorizing the kingdom/phyla/class/order/family/genus/species of quite a number of plants and animals. Fun, huh?

Note the stack of flash cards. This was for memorizing the kingdom/phyla/class/order/family/genus/species of quite a number of plants and animals. Fun, huh?

I started my daughter in Year 7 with a text that was to take us two years, covering all four areas of study for science: chemistry, physics, biology and earth science. I thought to add one non-text book in for each subject: Secrets of the Universe covered physics, The Elements by Theodore Gray for chemistry, Life of the Spider by Fabre for biology, and Earth Story by Lamb and Sington for earth science, adding in Eric Sloane’s Weather Book later in the process. What my daughter and I discovered is that she learned far better from the supplements than from the text. She asked questions, she remembered details, she made connections. And when we came to earth science, we found the text to be fairly deficient, covering material she already knew, and horribly boring. So we dropped it.

When we finished, it was time for us, like all good Americans, to split out individual science subjects. So, learning something from her middle school experience, we collected more “supplements,” and used a text and a lab manual, and created a chemistry course. While biology typically comes first, I felt that chemistry was foundational to biology, not the other way around. If she wanted advanced chemistry, she could take an advanced course later. And the math was no more difficult than her pre-algebra work.

Again, the text became boring, difficult, and full of minutiae to memorize. We weren’t getting anywhere, except with the supplements, and her labs were fine.

What if, I thought, I just tossed the text? What if you could make a high school level course without it?


I knew this book would be good. It has a sailboat on it.


It’s been done, well and in great detail here and here. What has interested me is the possibility of doing it the way Charlotte Mason might have done it, and how it has been done in countries that integrate science until the 11th grade. I believe there’s a lot of development going on in teen brains in the early years of high school, and concepts not understood as a 14 year old may be easier to grasp at 16. What differentiates Mason’s approach from what is typically followed is that it is developmental, it is integrated, it balances field and lab work with living literature, it eschews detailed processes for big ideas, and it strikes a balance between giving youth enough technical know-how to light a fire or even build a project, without turning them into mere technicians. It grounds inquiry in a firm foundation of prior knowledge.

Our bathroom lab with some equipment. Rubber duckies optional.

Our bathroom lab with some equipment. Rubber duckies optional.

Rather than lay out a curriculum, I hope to lay out our process and to review some of the resources available. I hope to share some of the science learning we’ve done so far, and some of the obstacles we find in our way.