Fossil data

What could be more fun in our house than a giant zip-top plastic bag crammed full of fossils??

Obviously a rhetorical question – because NOTHING could be!

We ordered this fossil sorting kit from Educational Innovations. When it came, the first thing we did was immediately look at the sorting guide. L took the lead on separating all of the fossils into their different types.



Once we sorted them, we counted how many of each type we ended up with. We’ve been talking a lot about the idea of data, so this seemed like a perfect moment to pursue that concept. It provided a nice moment to think about groupings by 10’s (and with crinoids, even 100’s!)

Counting ammonites

Counting ammonites

Crinoids in tens and our data capture

Crinoids in tens and our data capture

We talked about how to represent the data and decided to graph it. I asked her how many boxes we would need to fill in to show 158 crinoids. She grasped that 158 boxes was going to be a lot!! For the first time, we went to the computer to pursue our graph. We logged onto the NCES Create a Graph feature. We chose a bar graph and L entered all of the data herself. It created the following graph:

L's graph

L’s graph (note the headers’ spelling!)

We’ve also been talking a lot about multiple ways to interpret the same dataset, and given L’s interest in evolution and time, we decided to re-analyze our data by time. We began by finding and printing a geologic timeline. We then cut out the information about each of the fossils and attached them where they belonged on the timeline.

Fossils in time order

Fossils in time order

Finally, I wanted to stretch her thinking into the logical and organizational realms. We wrote the three periods the fossils were found in (Devonian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous) in black marker. I then asked L to identify her favorite events in Earth’s history. We wrote those in blue marker. She then went through the work of ordered the blue events on our kitchen floor.

Sorting events

Sorting events

Once the blue events were in place, she placed the period markers at their appropriate locations (under the line to differentiate the periods from the events). Finally, she placed one of each fossil in the timeline as well. Here are the two parts (she wanted a big delineation between the Devonian and Jurassic, so they were about 10 feet apart):

Timeline, pt 1

Timeline, pt 1

Timeline, pt. 2

Timeline, pt. 2

Overall, this was a great hands-on synthesis of one of her favorite subjects with some higher-order thinking. I love it when her “work” feels more like play. Her brain was engaged, but so was her body and her giggle!


introducing evolution

L asked the other day, “Why did some dinosaurs evolve and others go extinct when the meteorite hit?”

Great question! One answer is, “I have no earthly idea!” but I feel as if she’s looking for something more detailed than that. I got to thinking that the answer to that question really encompasses the idea of adaptations, environments, and a little bit of luck, too. I’d been contemplating when to really start the discussion of evolution with her, and it seemed like the time was upon us.

She knows that birds are modern dinosaurs. She also knows (from an exhibit at the museum) that certain beaks are better for some tasks than for others. I decided to use the bird beak adaptation lab as an entry point into this discussion.

I consulted a number of examples of this lab online and eventually merged some ideas from many of them into our lab, which took place this morning.

I prepared the materials and laid them out on our kitchen table:

5 beaks

5 foods

I then asked L to make predictions about which beak would be best at eating which type of food, after making sure she understood that one beak went best with one food. The circles represent those predictions that were supported with evidence (we revisited after the lab was complete) while the X’s represent those predictions for which we found no evidence.

initial predictions


We then created a chart listing the beaks down the side and the foods (what they actually were and what they represented) across the top. She then selected a beak and proceeded to try each food with that beak. She told me her observations and I recorded them in each cell. Once we finished all five trials with a beak, we used the purple marker to cross out those foods for which the beak simply didn’t work. When we figured out what food the beak was perfect for, we outlined that cell in blue. Once we outlined a cell, we used the orange marker to cross out those remaining cells for the beak. I wanted to present her with the difference between eliminating a choice through observation and eliminating one through the process of elimination.

the completed data chart

We then wrote out our conclusions. She’d already stated that the straw drinking the nectar was a hummingbird while the tweezers getting the insects out of the wood must be a woodpecker. In our conclusions, we also included the/a type of bird that had a beak similar to the tool we used.


So cool!

She then mentioned how a hummingbird couldn’t live in the ocean. I asked her why and she stated that there are no nectar-filled flowers in the ocean. This seemed like a great time to talk about adaptations and natural selection, so we started with oceans, hummingbirds, and pelicans:

adaptation to ocean eating

From there, it seemed like a quick jump to natural selection and the creation of adaptations, so we talked about hummingbirds. I asked her, if a hummingbird had a choice to mate with a hummingbird with a short beak or one with a long beak, which would the hummingbird choose? She told me that the hummingbird would choose the one with the long beak because that one would be better at getting nectar. Exactly! We talked about how their baby would have a long, skinny beak too (although traits aren’t 100% heritable, this didn’t seem like the time to introduce that!). I drew a second generation and posed the same question. She again chose the long, skinny beak. She them told me, “So the hummingbird beaks just keep getting longer and skinnier!” Precisely, small human. Precisely. Here is my written record created through that conversation:

hummingbird natural selection

This launched a great many more questions, most of which I didn’t have great answers to! So, off to our local independent children’s bookstore we went! We came home with a few texts. The one we’re reading first is Did Dinosaurs Have Feathers? by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. She’s started reading it aloud and is about a third of the way through. This book does a nice job of introducing the direct relationship between modern birds and dinosaurs (theropods specifically). As we finished our reading today, L told me that she rejects the distinction between theropods and birds. In her mind, the features are so similar that the difference is one of language, but not of features. She told me that “we know that birds are living dinosaurs” (that part wasn’t new information). What was new, though, was her addition that “theropods are ancient birds.” Makes sense to me!

And now we are at ballet class where I hear her yelling, “This is like speed and velocity!”

Nutty little girl. Love her so much. Thanks for reading.

Introducing stereotypes?

What is the appropriate age to let your little one know that the world thinks there are things she can’t do based on her demographic identities?

Herm. When I say it like that, the answer is clear! And yet, I know I’m doing my best to ideally prepare my kiddo to live in the world, not preparing my kiddo to live in an ideal world.

This idea has really been on my mind because of Legos. For real!

Her female scientist set was delivered today. She spent the remainder of the day painstakingly constructing the paleontologist and dinosaur (shock, I know!). Before she began, I was telling her the narrative of the set. I told her that a woman decided there weren’t any paleontologists or astronomers, so she decided to make a set. I showed her how Ellen Kooijman proposed the idea, got support, and eventually Lego decided to manufacture it. I read her the intro page from the book that comes with the set. My husband mouthed a question, wondering if I should introduce the idea of the gender of the minifigs being important. I decided to decline.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s fair to tell my four year old that some people think that scientists don’t look like her. She doesn’t know that, but I know the world will tell her.

She’s a girl.

She’s biracial.

She’s adopted.

She’s adopted by White people.

Her birth siblings are not with us.

She’s brilliant.

I think she’s going to receive a number of socializing messages about who she is and who she ought to be.

I want her to be able to stand up for who she is, and raising someone concerned with equity and social justice is really important to me. It’s why we talk about same-sex marriage rights and poverty and homelessness and a host of other issues.

I can’t seem to bring myself to tell her that these issues apply to her directly, though. Not yet. I don’t know when the “right” time is – I don’t even know if there’s a “right” time, or if the “right” time is when it comes up. I don’t want her to be oblivious, but I also don’t want to introduce stereotype threat before I have to.

I don’t want to tell her how unusual it is that her world isn’t ONLY pink and purple and glittery (don’t worry, there’s plenty of that in our home, too), that we’ve had people (seriously) inquire about whether or not we’re crippling her socially by not introducing her to the princesses.

I don’t want her to think that what she likes is noticeably different than what it “should be”. I just want it to be what she likes. I don’t want her to become self-conscious about her choices and interests and clothes and… well, everything else I’m self conscious about as an adult woman!

I just want her to be four. I want her to be unencumbered by all the crap adults create and perpetuate when we turn our pattern-making intellects on the social world for as long as she can be. It will all come soon enough.

So, for today, I didn’t talk about how cool it was that the three Lego scientists are girls. Someday I will, but today just wasn’t that day.

Creepy crawlies

L simply adores science. It’s funny, because that is the one subject that I really never developed a deep love for in school. The universe has found so many ways to send me the child that I need (and to send my child to the mom she needs)…

She’s been enamored of dinosaurs for about a year and a half now. For the first year, it was exclusive to dinosaurs. She was unwilling to really read, talk, watch, or play anything else. It was a long but quite instructive year! She tore through every book we could find about dinosaurs, discarding the ones written or illustrated inaccurately (A T-Rex with three fingers? Please!). She even got in her first really good snarky response to not cleaning up based on dinosaurs (she was age 3 years 3 months):

Mom: L, clean up your dinosaurs, please.

(walks away, L reports they’re cleaned up. Mom returns to see dinosaurs on the ground)

Mom: I thought you were done cleaning up your dinosaurs? (pointing at dinosaurs)

L: I AM done. Pteranodons are not dinosaurs.

Oh my. Sweet girl. True information. How about, “Put away anything from the Mesozoic era that you don’t want in the garbage?” Sigh. Also, in retrospect, we didn’t “know” she was gifted at that point. HOW?!?!?! Seems like kind of a clear indicator in retrospect.

In any case, I digress. Dinosaur obsession.

Her project last winter (while she was enrolled in the school that we ended up not returning to) was to construct a dinosaur timeline. Now that it’s complete, it’s about 5 feet tall and 10 feet long. It hangs in our homeschool room but occupied the kitchen for a long while.

Dinosaur timeline

Dinosaur timeline

You may not be able to tell from the picture, but the timeline is divided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Dinosaurs (and pterosaurs!) are grouped by family: (from the bottom) sauropods, ceratopsians, ankylosaurs, theropods, pterosaurs, stegosaurs, pachycephalosaurs. She decided which family to do and which dinosaurs she wanted in each family. I went online and found illustrations of them, typed the names under the illustrations, and printed them off. She then cut them out, used the ipad to figure out what period they lived in, and glued them in place. This took weeks of sustained work, but she loved it.

In the past few months, she has added new interests to dinosaurs. The human body, ocean animals, and carnivorous plants, especially. Today, her work was to read a 16-page book on carnivorous plants (guided reading level N ~ 3rd grade). She answered aloud the comprehension questions at the back. I then asked her to write or draw one interesting thing about each of the four types of plants (see pic).

Drawing carnivorous plants

Drawing carnivorous plants

I plan to (tomorrow) help her create a chart that compares the four plants on various characteristics (digestive juice, uses sticky nectar, hairs, etc) to help her think about similarities and differences among items in a category. The nice thing about work like this is that it isn’t “work”! All she knows is that she’s learning about something she wants to know more about. For us, this is the strength of homeschooling right now: She’s not drawn to some subjects the way she’s drawn to others. We can plan around her interests and strengths in a way that is harder to do in a classroom with lots of children with lots of different interests and strengths.

Back to school

So, we’ve “taken a break” from planning/recording anything for about a month. We’ve traveled a decent amount, had multiple visits from out-of-town friends and family, had her birthday (which ended up being about three weeks of celebrating!), she had a gymnastics camp and swim lessons, her first piano lessons started in June, you get the idea. We’ve been busy.

In the past few days, though, she’s been bored. Wandering around like a little lost soul, unable to focus on any play or reading, just not like herself.

I mentioned to her last night, “So, tomorrow we’re going to do some school.” That was it — just a drop in.

This morning, we had a leisurely start to the day. I told her around 9:45 that we were going to finish up what we were doing and start school. Apparently when I was getting dressed, she asked Daddy when she could start her work. I knew it! I knew she needed to be engaged again!

We did a couple of easy, hands-on tasks. We worked on decomposing 10, 9, and 8 into number pairs using unifix cubes (see photo below).

2014-07-28 10.39.02

We also used a moveable alphabet to spell out the answers to some riddles and practiced critical thinking skills. My little dino-lover wrote questions with the answers “sauropod” (7 questions) and “dilophosaurus” (6 questions). My favorite was a dilophosaurus question: “What species of dinosaur had a crazy neck fan?”

She spent some great time working on her “bunny puzzle” which she loves and is great for critical thinking skills. We also read a Judy Blume book together and she spent some time on Starfall’s website. We went for a nice, long walk at a local park (longer than we meant because while we weren’t lost, there was awhile when we weren’t really sure precisely where we were). We played and ate dinner, and now we’re getting ready to watch the third episode of the new Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. After a story, bedtime for the munchkin.

That’s how we homeschool. There’s not a ton of “curriculum,” but she’s clearly learning. Also, she’s happy and that means the most in terms of keeping her engaged with learning. I adjusted at several points during the day to her mood and we had a pretty harmonious time. Bliss!