Middle School Day
Last year I had a twelve-year-old in seventh grade and a nine-year-old in fourth. For science, I wanted to concentrate on chemistry — one of my very favorite sciences! It’s the recipe book for the universe! — I wanted to make sure that my twelve-year-old would be very well-prepared to take AP Chemistry, or some equivalent thereof, later on. I searched high and low for materials that would make it possible for me to teach a solid chemistry course without too much math. I also invited another kid along for lab days; I find that it is more fun if we have an extra kid or two along for the ride.
For a text, I found Friendly Chemistry, a course designed for homeschoolers with plans for larger groups. Friendly Chemistry is quite clear, and it teaches a lot of chemistry, from atomic structure to stoichiometry to ideal gas laws. There is some math and it sometimes got difficult, but together we figured it out. There is not much of a lab component; it’s limited to easily-obtainable home items. It has quite a few games to aid in memorization of elements, ions, and so on, and several of them are well-designed. There are a few typos, but otherwise my only problem was that the solutions in the back of the book did not provide help with working out the problems. Only answers were given, and sometimes we got stuck.
I wanted lots of lab work, so I ordered the biggest chemistry set Thames & Kosmos stocks: the C3000, containing instructions for over 300 experiments designed to take the student from basics to more complex organic chemistry. T&K being a German company, I did find that a few extras it required were hard for me to find, such as hartshorn/baker’s ammonia and so on. Of course the experiments followed a completely different logic than the Friendly Chemistry did–it is all practical chemistry–but we didn’t have too much trouble with that. The variety was nice, and all of us appreciated the fun of setting things on fire. I needed more glass test tubes than were provided, and I came perilously close to running out of a few chemicals.
Meanwhile, my nine-year-old came along for the ride for much of this. She had the Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry text, which was OK but not wonderful. I would have preferred something else, but I didn’t find anything I loved. She and I worked through those chapters together, and otherwise she played the games, participated in the experiments, and did just fine. I am confident that she absorbed plenty of chemistry for her age.
Our schedule was as follows:
- Tuesday, read the chapter for the week. Start exercises and finish by Thursday.
- Thursday: lab from 12:00 until at least 2:00 (with extra child, who was also doing the same text at home). Go over the week’s lesson and make sure exercises are understood. Do any activities from the text. Do a section of experiments from T&K set and talk about them.
- Friday: give the chapter test. And make sure to practice memory work through games throughout!
Some of my favorite activities included:
Element/Ion Bingo: this was at the very beginning of the year, when we needed the kids to learn the elements and their symbols. I filled large bingo cards with all the most difficult symbols. After a couple of weeks of that we changed to ion bingo so they could practice distinguishing sulfate and sulfide, etc.
The Doo-Wop board: this is a proprietary game from Friendly Chemistry that helps students understand the structure of the atom. I found it quite helpful myself! We would pick an element and fill the shells with electrons until we had it right. (The electrons were white and chocolate chips, which made it a very popular game.)
Lego chemistry: I found this to be a great help with stoichiometry (which is figuring out how much of what goes into a substance). Get a large tub of plain Lego bricks, and assign each color an element. We had fun making them appropriate, but you can’t do that with all of them. Carbon = green, sulfur = yellow, calcium = white, etc. We made tiny white bricks be hydrogen. You can then build each molecule. Build ions first and then attach them. You can make this work pretty well for molarity, even. It is a great way to visualize everything and work out the formulae if you’re finding it confusing. The main trouble with this activity, of course, is getting more distractible kids to pay attention to the molecules instead of the really great spaceships they’re building!
We did some really great chemical experiments too, such as producing hydrogen by mixing aluminum with sodium hydroxide (lye), burning various substances to see the colored flames (a good time to talk about fireworks!), and so on. I wished for a lump of sodium to blow up, but I never got one. Someday! I videotaped one of our experiments, and here it is for you.
- Periodic Tales: a Cultural History of the Periodic Table, from Arsenic to Zinc, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
- Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks
- The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean
- The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (a classic!)
- Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, by Penny le Couteur (I haven’t read this one yet; it’s on my wishlist)
This is a reprint of an article we ran in October 2013.
Jane–Emily homeschools two daughters in California. She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict. Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.