Opinions and Reviews Archives - Page 2 of 3 - Eva Varga

March 6, 20114

In our history studies, we have been exploring the Mayan and Incan cultures.  Unfortunately, our history spine, Story of the World, only briefly touches upon these cultures.  We thereby spend a lot of time expanding our studies by reading the non-fiction books available at our library and doing a variety of projects.

Recently, a friend and fellow swimmer, happened to ask Buddy what he had been learning in school this week.  Buddy replied, “I started learning division.  In history, we are learning about the Maya and the Aztecs. We are also learning about Newton and motion.” As a result, he recommended to me a book called Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

As he spoke, I was increasingly fascinated by the premise the author presented.  As we were going to the library that afternoon, I made it a point to locate the book while I was there.  At the time, the book was checked out but the librarian informed me that she could request the National Geographic DVD recording based on the book.  This turned out to be a blessing as the book is well over 500 pages.  The DVD would enable both the kiddos to develop an understanding of how these ancient cultures declined after the arrival of the Spanish.

This work was first published in 1997 and won the Pulitzer Prize. In this historical, archaeological, and linguistic investigation, Diamond (a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles) seeks the root answers to why European societies (and their American offspring) became the dominant powers on Earth in terms of wealth and power. He traces the causes – the development of deadlier weapons technologies and medal working, immunity to germs, and writing systems–to the way food production varied in human societies.

The munchkins and I were fascinated by the film, though we broke it into 3 viewing segments just as it is divided on the DVD:  Out of Eden, The Conquest, and Into the Tropics.  Afterwards, we discussed the concepts presented and I asked them each to narrate a summary (see follow-up post, The Conquest of the Americas :: Part 2).  [Admin Note:  Lesson plans to accompany  Guns, Germs and Steel are available on PBS.]

Shortly after, I was discussing the film with a Peruvian friend who suggested that we also watch a documentary conveniently shared on YouTube,  The Great Incan Rebellion.  This NOVA/National Geographic special presents new evidence that is changing what we know about the final days of the once-mighty Inca Empire. Through a mix of crime-lab science and archeology, this story of discovery begins in a cemetery crammed with skeletons that offer tantalizing clues about a fierce 16th-century battle between warriors of the collapsing Inca Empire and Spanish invaders.

Both documentaries are available on Netflix and YouTube (in segments).  I highly recommend both.

October 22, 2010

The Secret of the Kells has recently been released on DVD and we were fortunate to receive it from Netflix just last week.  The movie gives viewers a glimpse into the world of illuminated books, particularly the infamous Book of Kells.  The Book of Kells (sometimes known as the Book of Columba) is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created by Celtic monks ca. 800 or slightly earlier.  Though it didn’t quite fit the time line for our history studies (we are presently in the 1500s), we were able to cover a topic that Story of the World had not included in its narrative. 

The story has to do with a young boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) living in Ireland during the Middle Ages, a time of mystical superstitions and ‘barbarian threats from the north’.  When Brendan’s village is visited by a master book illuminator who carries with him a mysterious, unfinished book, the 12-year old vows to help him complete the book, a promise that involves the boy’s venturing into a forbidding forest outside the village wall and meeting beguiling sprite prone to shape-shifting into a white wolf.

The artistry of the film is delightful … reminding us a little of our favorite Japanese manga artist and prominent film director and animator, Hayao Miyazaki.  It was wonderful story and my kiddos didn’t even realize that the ‘barbarians from the north’ were actually Vikings.

June 9, 20092

A little something different (I generally share children’s literature) but this one is too good to pass up… particularly because most all of my readers are in fact Stay-at-Home HOMESCHOOLING Moms. If you have ever doubted your decision to stay home with your children (I know I have – particularly the first couple of years). If you have ever been frustrated with the mundane chores that never end (who hasn’t?!). Then this is a must read.

DH actually recommended this book to me. He had read a review about it in the Wall Street Journal and thought I would be interested. I wasn’t familiar with Dr. Laura prior to reading this book. Now that I am – I wonder, “Where was she my first year at home with Sweetie in ’02?!” Better yet, “Where was I?!”

October 8, 20082

Today was the day of our first official 4-H Adventurers Club gathering. Our focus was on Leaves – one mom brought a leaf press. Remarkably, iIt presses and dries the leaves within minutes in the microwave. I was very impressed and of course want one of my own.

We started out with a couple of everybody books – I mistakenly returned the one I had wanted to read ( ) to the library so I had to go with an alternative. Sweetie was delighted with my selection, In the Leaves by Huy Youn Lee. It is basically about a young Chinese boy who introduces his friends to several Chinese characters (grain, fire, autumn, field, sprout, pig, family, mouth, harmony, and rice). It is a cute story but it did not focus on ‘leaves’ as much as I had hoped. We also read Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert – more for the artistic leaf collages than for the text.After the stories, everyone gathered around the table I explained how to do the leaf prints. Everyone worked so well – there were no conflicts despite 13+ bodies around our small dining room table (seats 6). I was very impressed with how attentive the moms were – everyone chipped in and helped assure that everyone’s needs were addressed. I didn’t even have to wash the brushes or anything once everyone had departed – another mom had done so on my behalf while I worked on our last activity. I was surprised and delighted! Thank you!
The last activity involved a set of leaf cards that I had made years ago for my classroom. There must be 20+ different leaves represented. We worked together to learn how a dichtomous key is used for identification. The key vocabulary I emphasized was the difference between simple and compound leaves.

Before everyone departed, I announced the focus for November – Handcrafts. My vision is to have several stations set up so the kids can make several simple crafts as gifts for family & friends this upcoming holiday season. I encouraged the other moms to bring an activity. Based on the feedback I received already, I know it will be a fun afternoon.

August 2, 20082

Last week, DH and I attended a Shakespeare play in Ashland as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It has become an annual tradition, this being our 3rd year. In past years, we’ve seen A Winter’s Tale and Romeo & Juliet (the best production thus far). This year, I selected Othello.

As we had won a silent auction package at a Chamber function earlier in the year, our seats were good (Section A Row S). However, we were in the balcony and it was difficult to hear the actors. I don’t know if this was solely due to our seats or if the actors were not as audible as they have been in the past.

Othello is performed on the Elizabethan stage open to the air, my favorite. Last year, we attended the preface to learn more about the story, themes and characters of Romeo & Juliet. This year, we didn’t have the luxury of time. I wish we had, however, as I was less familiar with the story of Othello than I was of Romeo & Juliet.

In the playbill, the director writes, “The thing that makes Othello so very modern – and so frightening – is the way it takes us on a journey into madness. It is deeply psychological before the invention of psychology. Iago is a mesmerizing guide on this journey…” Dan Donohue, who plays Iago, is great! He is my favorite actor in the company.

Preforming in the courtyard, prior to seating, were The Hobart Shakespeareans, a group of students from Los Angeles. Inspired by their performance, I bought the book Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith. It is a fast read and is certainly inspiring!

After reading the reviews on Amazon, however, I agree that Rafe has a rather large ego. One of the biggest advantages he has over the typical public school is that he teaches in a year-round school and though it is an inner-city school, many of his students have previously been identified as ‘gifted’. Additionally, there is a big difference between the children of new immigrants seeking to make a new life for themselves and the children of impoverished families who have lived in American housing projects for generations, have little faith left in the system and are often unmotivated as students and parents.

The book is a fast read and provides several suggestions for fun games and challenging educational activities in all subject areas. Though I had hoped for more practical information on how to teach Shakespeare and integrate baseball into the curriculum, I was intrigued by the diversity of the projects he undertakes in Room 56. I would recommend this book to teachers both in the classroom and in the home.

Barb inquired about the production in a comment she left earlier; “I would love to hear about Othello. We were actually thinking about going to the Festival this year but couldn’t decide on which play to see. We thought Othello might be too dark for the kids.”

To answer her question, I think that older children would do well with the psychology of Othello. Many of the Hobart Shakespeareans were in the theater also enjoying Othello. If your children have been exposed to Shakespeare and are familiar with the stories – they’ll enjoy Othello.

May 21, 2008

Two families joined us for our monthly Roots & Shoots activity (three others called with apologies they wouldn’t be able to make it – we’re going to do a make-up session on Thursday). We started out with a read aloud, a great children’s book called, In the Woods, Who’s Been Here? by Lindsay Barrett George. There are 4 books in this series and all are great. Each page gives little clues or details about an animal and asks, “Who’s been here?” The kids make guesses and when we turn the page, we discover the answer. At the back of the book there is a brief description of each of the animals that was introduced. I love these books and use them frequently. Yesterday morning, the kids and I lead our weekly nature walk at the museum and picked up In the Garden, Who’s Been Here? – the one book in the series I hadn’t yet acquired.

After the book, we did a fun activity from Project Learning Tree called Tree Factory. There is a similar activity in Ranger Rick’s Trees Are Terrific called Build a Tree. The kids basically act out the parts of a tree and in doing so, learn how a tree works like a factory. We all get to act a little silly. It is a lot of fun.
We also did an activity I call, “Secrets of the Forest”. I distribute to each child a small paper bag with assorted things that can be found in the forest (cones, a small rock, a stick, a feather, a beaver chip, an acorn, a tiny tree cookie, lichen, moss, a deer tooth, etc.). The kids put their hand in and try to guess the contents without looking into the bag. It can be varied slightly depending on age – today for example, we did one item at a time and after we went around the circle, each child revealed one item.
We went around twice and then we dumped out the bags to see everything. As the kids investigated the items in their bags, I asked them to pick up the Pine Cone. There were actually three cones in each bag (Pine, Spruce or Fir, and Alder). Most of the kids picked up all three… some picked up just one. I then revealed the secret that not all cones are Pine Cones. Cones on a Spruce should be called Spruce Cones, those on a Fir are Fir Cones, etc.
We had also planned on going for a walk but it was too cold and windy – odd, since we had 90 degree temps over the weekend! The other kids are not accustomed to cold nature walks so instead, we enjoyed a light snack and then allowed the kids to play while we visited.

For the next few weeks, I have asked the kids to draw a picture of a plant or animal that lives here in the community. We are then going to use their illustrations and any research they may do to create a field guide for our community (focus is on native species; excluding ornamentals that have been planted in yards as landscaping). I’ll also incorporate photographs and factual information about each species. We hope to sell the field guides to raise money to buy bird houses for the meadow and the park.