How I Taught 7th grade Chemistry


by Jane-Emily

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 legochemthis 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.


I also love popular bookPeriodic-Tales-Williams-Hugh-9780061824722s about chemistry.  Here are some titles that you might enjoy; you can tell the stories as you teach, or you might have an older student who will like one.

Janejane-emilyEmily 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.

February 2013 — Late Summer

by Rose-Marie

Previous post: Introduction

I decided to start our nature study journalling with the beginning of Daughter’s first year of school, which began around the end of January here in Australia. Naturally, it took a month to get around to it. Since I can’t remember the truth, I’m going to pretend that was deliberate, as I had come up with a brilliant idea to visit each of the major terrain types in our state, once each season. We live in ‘dry woodlands.’

I need to get another pet hate out of my system, if you’ll bear with me.  I think it is silly the way Australians whinge about the seasons not conforming to an inverted Northern Hemisphere system, when the Indigenous people have perfectly good and, unsurprisingly, more accurate calendars of their own. I am on a one-woman crusade to try and make people notice this and will post this link featuring our local indigenous calendar (which seems true to the Melbourne area and a fair chunk of central Victoria) whenever it comes up in online conversations. Which it just has. Heh.

Just so you all know, I have great plans for my daughter’s handwriting to end up better than mine. I do my best to encourage her to narrate the captions for her pictures, but as I said in the previous post, her learning challenges (Echolalia) get in the way a bit. So, for the foreseeable future, any writing in the journal will be a team effort.


This is the one hand-drawn picture she did about our first round of nature study tours. We went to the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park (would link if I could find a site with decent photos) to see the Mallee and Inland waterways terrain types. Lovely scenery, nearly went insane with the flies trying to climb into our eyes, ears, and noses. What you see below is an ant hill.


Her contribution to the notation was “the sand was orange and the ants were black.”

Next post: Early Summer to Late Winter

Rose-Marie was one of those enthusiastic planners who began researching when she was pregnant with her first. She wanted to homeschool because it sounded like an affordable adventure, then she met her kids personally…
DD is 6 years old and has Echolalia and some processing issues so isn’t speaking fluently yet. DS is 4 years old, has retained primitive reflexes and while there may be a deity somewhere who knows what’s going to happen with this kid, he/she/it hasn’t chosen to inform us. They live on a hill in rural southern Australia without enough solar panels and like it there.

In Defense of Twaddle

by Jane-Emilytwaddle

Twaddle is Charlotte Mason’s term for junk literature — books that are unworthy of attention because they are drivel.  Easy series books, comic books — everything that is more brain candy than solid nutrition.  It’s a wonderfully expressive term, too.  I just love calling things twaddle, don’t you?

Living books, on the other hand, are good literature that provide real mental stimulation, an imaginative journey that sticks with the reader.  While I certainly agree that living books are the best kind, I have developed a strong opinion that twaddle has a worthy place in a child’s library and should not be avoided.  So here is my theory — in defense of twaddle.

Any parent of a small child knows that little ones love repetition.  A preschooler will ask for the same book over and over and over again, until the long-suffering mother is ready to set a match to the thing.  Susan Wise Bauer often talks about this love of repetition as a child’s way of figuring out what things in the world stay the same, and what things change.  In a big world where so much is completely unpredictable from a child’s point of view, the fact that Green Eggs and Ham always ends with the fellow eating green eggs and liking them is a happy confirmation that some things don’t change.

As the child grows older, she learns to read.  She is no longer quite so interested in reading the exact same story over and over again, but she still enjoys repetition throughout the grammar stage.   Reading is very hard work that takes a lot of energy at first, and a child learning to read is navigating quite a bit of unknown territory.  Easy series books — stuff like Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, and the worst of the lot, Rainbow Fairies — provide practice with reading skills and story structure while remaining comfortingly predictable.  You never have to worry that Jack and Annie will get stuck; they always make it home.  Rachel and Kirsty will always be able to help the fairy and defeat the goblins.  Comic books will do the same thing.  There are no nasty surprises, and meanwhile there is enough variety to keep things interesting as the child absorbs vocabulary, develops reading ease and speed, and enjoys reading.  Twaddle provides repetition with variation, and that is the perfect formula for a beginning reader in the grammar stage.

I want to say it louder: twaddle provides repetition with variation.  It’s the next step up from reading the same picture book over and over again.

Meanwhile, it’s your job as the parent to require a little quality challenge as well.  Reading excellent literature aloud to your child stocks his mind with language that is far above what he can actually read.  It teaches him to appreciate a really great story with good writing, and allows him to focus all his energy on listening and comprehending.  At this age and for years to come, your child will comprehend more through listening than he will through reading, so you can read a complex story to a beginning reader very happily.  Reading aloud is an important activity for a long time, longer than we usually realize.   (I have a theory about that too!)

Of course, you can andtwaddle2 should require your child to read quality literature for school time.  This is where you can make sure that she reads living books if she isn’t reading them on her own.  If she is reluctant but it isn’t that it’s too difficult for her, try having her read aloud with you, alternating paragraphs.

I am a great believer in requiring some reading and allowing free choice for more reading.  A child ought to have both, and my preference is for more freedom than not.  I get so discouraged when I see children who have to do so much required reading from a list (for, say, the Accelerated Reader program, which I really dislike) that they never get to choose their own books!   It’s hugely important that a child have some autonomy about what to read, and in my opinion that should include the freedom to read twaddle.  Exerting too much control over a child’s reading choices can so easily crush the joy out of it.

So I say bring on the Rainbow Fairies, insipid and saccharine little nothings that they are.  They’ll be outgrown soon enough, and the child will go on to better things, having practiced the skills that make more difficult reading enjoyable.

Addendum, 10/18/13: Neil Gaiman, intelligent fellow that he is, agrees with me, and incidentally manages to pack in a lot of other things I also agree with.  Please enjoy this wonderful speech he gave at The Reading Agency.

Jane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embrjane-emilyoider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

Homeschooling with Haydn (et al.)

violinBy Kirie

When I sat and thought what made our family unique as homeschoolers, my mind immediately went to music. Both my kids have been taking music lessons for over half their lives at this point in time. Our musical journey started with an inherited 100-year-old piano and a 5-year-old with way too much energy and not enough focus, asking to start piano. I shrugged and found the kid a teacher with no expectations in mind.  My fingers were crossed that this child who couldn’t hold a pencil correctly might gain some small motor skills. Homeschooling wasn’t even in the cards for us for two more years. Here we are still trucking, 7+ years later, 5+ on the homeschooling. I had no idea how music would shape our world. Our homeschool is structured with music in mind and it gives a lovely rhythm to our days.

Whenever I talk about music at our house, I like to give some disclaimers:

  1. I have no preconceived notions that my kids are going to be musicians or performers.  Lessons learned from pursuing music can be applied to many things. I felt my own childhood was enriched by the pursuit of music, even though I did not pursue music after high school.
  2. I don’t think music lessons are for every child and every family. It helps to have an enthusiastic adult and a teacher that connects to your child as an individual (I know people who are teaching their own kids or have self-taught kids too, which is great).  Many of the lessons learned through pursuit of music can be learned through dedicated daily practice of any number of things.
  3. I am not a “Tiger Mom.” Not sure how else to put that! I think some people envision me cracking a whip over here. When we started, my goal was is to get the kid to the instrument six days a week as a discipline. That is still my basic goal.
  4. We use the Suzuki method. As my son and daughter age and advance, the use of Suzuki means less and less.  Any good teacher will welcome an involved parent. An involved parent is fundamental to success with Suzuki in young kids, so it makes a great way to start with kids age 6 to 8 and younger. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically magical about the Suzuki method, and Suzuki philosophy can actually be applied to almost anything.   I feel strongly that educational philosophies are great starting points. But connecting to individual kids is where success is found.

I’ve always wanted to sit down and puzzle out the gifts we receive from having music in our lives. So many parents seemed puzzled that we include this as a big part of our homeschool but I never get to have a real conversation about it.

  1. Kids get a chance to work with an expert mentor one-on-one at their own pace.
  2. Community. Kids that practice and play music are generally good kids with engaged families. Not always, but usually.
  3. Understanding the ins and outs of the way your child learns by sitting with them and learning with them every day. I’ve applied these lessons to all areas of our homeschooling.
  4. Appreciation and understanding of the rewards that come with hard work. Even if my kids are crabby all week about practice, they are joyful when they have a good lesson or perform well.
  5. Sense of history and cultural literacy. We learn about the composers we play. We attend concerts and shows with homeschool groups. We talk about where music ties to the past.  The first thing we notice when we walk into an elevator or watch a new movie is the music.
  6. Performance! It is a great life skill to be able to comfortably stand up in front of an audience.
  7. Fighting perfectionism. Learning something like an instrument is so incremental that there is always a way to do better and through that we learn there really is no perfect. We can just keep trying. It has helped my kids who started life so unwilling to want to try anything they couldn’t master immediately.
  8. Focus on the minutiae. We have some ADHD tendencies running around here – parents and kids alike. Stopping everything to focus on some very tiny things like the angle at which our finger hits a piano key, the difference in tone between two notes, or the way our pinkies sit on a violin bow have upped the ability to focus in other areas.
  9. Patience. Mostly for the Mom! I have gained patience in other areas through greater understanding of what makes my kids tick.

 I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.

—Shin’ichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method

Thanks for listening to the somewhat crazed ranting of a musically-preoccupied homeschooling parent!

Kirie is a secular, eclectic homeschooling parent of 2 in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In a previous life, she was a software engineer doing web-based projects and has always been a math geek.  Her family is working on mastering the long homeschooling road trip and has traveled through 30 U.S. states by car in the past 5 years.    She enjoys biking, reading, knitting, cooking, and playing the violin.

Introduction to My Nature Studies Series

by Rose Marie

Virtually everyone thinks nature study is a good and healthful thing to do. Most people think nature journalling is a good thing to do as well, but many find it hard to get enthusiastic enough about it to actually go out and *do* it.

One problem people have is knowing where to start. They want some kind of method to follow to feel like they are doing it properly. Looking out the window, I expect all of us would agree that there is some kind of “method to the madness” but it may not be humanly possible to sort it all out so we’d better not allow that to stop us! I must admit though, I felt a need for guidance when I was dithering aboutwallaby-feeding beginning nature journalling with my daughter. For several reasons, personality and language disorder among them, “draw something” was not something she’d respond to. I wasn’t even sure “draw this” would work, so I purchased some journal pages to get us started. Being in Australia, I purchased mine from Downunder Lit but I have it from a reliable source that North Americans get excited over The Handbook of Nature Study. Apologies to the rest of you, you’ll have to look on Pinterest!

The other problem people have with beginning nature journalling with small kids is, well, it looks like it was made by a small kid! There is something about nature journalling that can make a person feel like everyone else’s kids were born proficient water colourists while your kids’ drawing looks like a dog’s breakfast. What I hope to do in this series is show the evolution of my daughter’s nature journal, right from her first entry. Obviously *my child’s* nature journal could never look like a dog’s breakfast, not even to the unenlightened out there, but I must confess, it does look like the work of a small child. I would like to invite you to keep us company as we journal on…

But first, let me get my pet hate out of the way. I know it’ll come out sooner or later, so better to get it over with.

*There is no such thing as “fake nature” unless it really is made of plastic, ok? Weeds growing through cracks in the footpath are not very interesting in the scheme of things, but they are are as real as anyone else’s farm, mountain or coral reef. If you live in a concrete jungle and all the nature you have to look at is weeds and the neighbours’ hanging baskets, look at them. Seasons affect them. Bugs munch them. They are real! If you don’t even have that, look at the clouds. Everyone has weather and weather is real enough that people spend careers studying it.

*I quite agree that grass isn’t all that thrilling, but learning how to find the grass in your front yard interesting is a valuable lesson. A more valuable lesson than seeing a bear or a swamp wallaby, cool as they are. If nature study was only about the cool factor, we could go to the zoo once a year and call it good.
Ok. I’ve got that out of my system. Moving along…


What a grand beginning…
I think I said she could cut out the picture or stick the whole page in. I guess she wanted to do both.

Next post: February 2013 — Late Summer

Rose-Marie was one of those enthusiastic planners who began researching when she was pregnant with her first. She wanted to homeschool because it sounded like an affordable adventure, then she met her kids personally…
DD is 6 years old and has Echolalia and some processing issues so isn’t speaking fluently yet. DS is 4 years old, has retained primitive reflexes and while there may be a deity somewhere who knows what’s going to happen with this kid, he/she/it hasn’t chosen to inform us. They live on a hill in rural southern Australia without enough solar panels and like it there.

They Said It Couldn't Be Done…

shakespeare-caitilinby Caitilin Fiona

When my dear friend Ana suggested some years ago that we should extend my Shakespeare reading class into the realm of actual theater, I admit, I was dubious. It sounded too large-scale, too daunting, too serious! For starters, my eldest student was 15, and the majority were eighth and ninth graders, with a few younger ones thrown in. It seemed like one of those ideas we all have, the “pie in the sky, dream that would never work” ideas…and yet, somehow, it was so tempting to give it a shot. We did.

Our shot:

We decided to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it was fun, familiar, accessible, and short(ish). Our stage was Ana’s backyard acreage, with an outbuilding as backstage. Our costumes were homemade and improvisational. Our scripts were the Dover thrift editions of the play (which have been a real boon to us, as there is no way we could find a full length script at an equivalently affordable price).

We also decided to do our play practice somewhat on the model of our local homeschool group’s drama camp: campers were assigned their lines six weeks or so in advance, and came to the week-long camp with their lines (mostly) memorized. We worked on Shakespeare for one week, every afternoon from 1pm till 8pm, with a dinner break, and performed on Saturday evening to an attentive audience of relatives and friends.

Fabulous. It was nothing short of fabulous. Truly, it stands as a testament to the capacity of teens to succeed at something most people, of any age, would be to afraid to consider, much less attempt! We put on a whole Elizabethan play, uncut, with teen actors, inside of one week. It felt miraculous, (perhaps more so to me than to them!) that something so untested could come off so well.

Those same kids, nearly all of whom are now graduates, were still reminiscing about “our first year” and how wonderful it was when I saw them this summer. It is one of their most treasured memories. And this, this is why we homeschool, guys. This is the kind of opportunity we can provide for our kids, for whom the sky is honestly the limit because they don’t carry the baggage of worry that they’ll fail, socially or otherwise. It is the embodiment of the old saw about “that which is worth doing is worth doing badly,” as that was the risk they ran and passed right over, banners waving.

Since that first Midsummer year, we have performed four more plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, The Tempest, and King Lear. All have been wonderful, the kids’ acting superb. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Try it–take the leap onto the stage!

Postscript: link to the first year’s play here. From there, you can hunt around on the Shakespeare Camp tab and see other photos and descriptions. Enjoy!

Caitilin Fiona is a homeschooling mother of six children, ranging from sixteen year old twins down to a five year old. Her particular interests in the homeschool universe include teaching Latin, Shakespeare, and Great Books. Outside of homeschooling, her interests include language and languages, theology, cookery and nutrition, movies, and fooling around, er, researching on the Internet.