Class Notes, Oct. 2013

Besides our Main Lesson Bloc in Shelter/Achitecture some of the other subjects we’re studying are:
Geometric Visualization Problems: This work challenges perceptions, math concepts and has the element of challenge which builds excitement in the class. Also, it cuts across the many levels of math competance you have in a mixed-age, mixed-rigor group of home-schoolers. Math divides. (Every fifth grade I’ve taught had at least four math levels in children of the same age.) So for the Finnstitute we find concepts and exercises that unite a disparate group.
Optical Illusions Drawing: These are for some mystically mysterious, for others a visual, physics conundrum to be solved, for all fun and considerably drawing-skill-stretching.
Recorder: Little by little we are beginning to learn the simple pure tones and being able to breathe and make reasonably harmonious sounds together, an important and for some difficult social step.
Music: We’re learning American History and playing in Ensemble fashion, using any instruments the children are comfortable with, American folk music. We’ve also started playing some two and four-part rounds.
Recitation: We’ve been reciting together seasonal autumn poems and practicing simple and difficult alliterative verses and tongue-twisters.
Dramatic Presentations: Groups of children will pantomime scenes or do still-life scenes for the other kids to guess. They seem to get very into this, which bodes well for a class production.
Native American Pattern Drawings: You never know what lessons will resonate; drawing these difficult Sioux, Ojibway, Woodland, etc. patterns, and requiring them to really follow them has inspred the children to invent their own patterns; and this has become a favorite free-time endeavor.
Clay and Beeswax Mental Math: While working modelling clay and warming and shaping beeswax we free our intellects to try and answer simple to complex mental math problems. It was an experiment, and it seems to work.
Writing Exercises: We’ve worked with a number of fun word games buiding up absurd class poems and sentences. We’ve written some stories, and will be moving into the study of simple forms and structures, as well as grammar games.
Life as Opera: We make up songs of all sorts about many subjects that occur during the day; and this sense of improvisation and creativity allows children to relax and intuitively recognize that learning has joy, humor and surprise, as well as hard work and intensity.
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Class Notes September 2013

 Autumn unfurls it’s flags in the wind… We’ve been studying water, beginning with many experiments involving water, it’s qualities, and properties. We’ve drawn diagrams of every experiment in our Science book, and written up in simple scientific method some of them; i.e. Materials, Procedure, Observations, Conclusions. Others we’ve added to the diagram the Conclusion, or scientific reasoning informing our observations. In this way we were able to do more actual experiments, and still have a level of academic rigor that would enthuse them but not overwhelm them with writing. We did a colorful drawing of the Water Cycle, and followed with an demonstration in class of the actual process, evaporation, condensation and precipitation. 
   Another direction to our studies was local waterways,  (and eventually history, botany, ornithology through those water bodies.)  We looked into some wonderful NY canoe streams and rivers and thought highly of the possibilities on the Clyde River trip; not only is there fantastic lagoon-like birdwatching of some 230 species, but the trip starts at Lock 27 with a chance to get our canoes lowered in a lock. We read an Iroquois folk tale “Drop Star” , or Kayuta, that took place at a lake nearby that got it’s name from the story – Lake Cayuta; we’ll try and go there. This coming week, if the weather is condusive, after studying water seeking it’s own level, which informed a couple earlier experiments, we’ll follow our local water downstream: starting at Monkey Run, at the end of Turkey Hill Rd., the nearest access to Fall Creek, then on to Flat Rock, ( exploring turbulence, etc. ) then to the Wildflower Garden creek access,on to Beebe Lake dam then on to the Suspension Bridge at Cornell, then on to Ithaca Falls, then to the suspension bridge over Fall Creek by Stewart Park and Newman GC, then out into the lake at the lighthouse.
   The children were enjoying probability studies with dice. With hundreds of throws by the class of three dice with the possibility being 3-18, the mean being 10.5, after tallying all throws in the chaos of possibility, our average throw was 10.7! The children enjoyed working on their geomtric number boards, creating diverse geometric string drawings.
   We start our mornings with a movement study of the four, eight and sixteen directions and geometric shapes based on the number of students, in the big room and some games; then we recite a Navaho rain chant and play recorder. We’re starting slowly for those just beginning and learning to listen to one another in recitation and recorder.
   In Music we’ve been learning American history through it’s folk music, and playing with multiple instruments and percussion in an ensemble, hootenanny style. In Creative Writing we worked on stories, in Drama we acted out dialogues, in preparation for playwriting. In Geography we played Borderline and acted out U.S.State charades. In Art we’ve worked on gesture drawings and quick sketches with the students taking turns to pose, and sculpture with some nice modeling clay we ordered. Thanks for being part of the Finnstitute Experiment!
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Class Notes, April 25, 2013

I’m so proud of the beautiful, careful, exacting work the children are doing in their Geometry books: the Proof of Pythagorus’ Theorem using square tiles and area, the Pythagorean Proof using equal right triangles in two irregular pentagons, the complex, dramatic 6 and 12 division of a circle and connected chords, the graceful, spinning-in-frozen-math-time Spiral of Archimedes, the exquisite, organically-precise Geometry of a Trillium in three circles describing equilateral triangles, (which leads us into botany and the geometry of wildflowers, which we’ll be pursuing outside in May). The level of improvement in facility and hand-eye coordination using ruler and pencil, colored pencil, and compass, has been remarkable to observe. I’m glad I persevered in these satisfying endeavors (many of the children didn’t break for lunch for a while, mesmerized by their work) in spite of early challenges. They worked hard, overcame setbacks with my help, and I praise them.

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Class Notes, March 25, 2013


I want to keep you apprised of some of the work we’ve been doing before it sifts through the sands of my mind… which reminds me of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” which we’ve been reciting – “the lone and level sands stretched far away.” We’ve also been reciting “The Fairies”, Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, and “Song of Wandering Aengus” Hopkins’ “The Windhover”, Nashe’s “Spring the Sweet Spring” and  Browning’s “Pippa’s Song”.

   Our exploration of  Babylonian Math revealed astounding innovations and principles still in play. Their astronomers developed the twelve-fold Zodiac, and the division of the year, hour and minute, based on 60 or sexagesimal system of numbers. They advanced the measurement of the circle and divided it into 360 degrees, worked on chords, diameters, radii, and a relative Pi. They advanced the study of square numbers, solved cubic dimensions, and solved complex algebraic problems, as evidenced by many of the 500,000 cunieform clay tablets found to date from the period, 2,000 B.C.
   To advance our study of Area and Geometry we’ve been working with graph paper and floor tiles to explore square dimensions; and we will be corraborrating the work we’ve done outside, as Egyptian surveyors, or rope-stretchers, using the 3-4-5 triangle, by working on and proving the Pythagorean Theorem. We’ll also look into the history and eccentricities of his exclusive school of knowledge. We’ll also explore some of his elegant geometric proofs.
   Some of the pieces we’re practicing and considering presenting, at an end-of-year performance are:  “The Talking Mule” an Appalachian folk tale, “Skunny Wundy”, an Iriquois tale, “Sambara and Indra”, a Hindu myth, “The Unicorn” by James Thurber,  “Yankel the Chicken Man”, “Chelm Goat Mystery”, Jewish folklore, “Pat and Mike and the Snake”, an Irish-American tale, “Gal’O Mine”, American Folk legend, Market Scene from “Isis and Osiris”, Egyptian play,  “Raksashas and the Rainbow”, Buddhist myth.
   We began our study of Atelier drawing, a method I studied as a youth, a Rennaissance method that involves light, dark, reflected light and cast shadow, and careful observation. I brought many different hardnesses and softnesses of drawing pencils and charcoal, so the students could experience various visual qualities. We started with simple natural shapes and will move to casts and drawing in situ.
   For St.Patrick’s, beside the Yeats and Hopkins poems, I taught them some Irish tunes I learned first-hand from the Bothy Band on their first American tour in the 70’s, when they stayed five days at my friends farm in Amish country   “The Butterfly” and a Gaellic air. We continued to work on “Perky Nuthatch”, “I am a Giant “, “The Unicorn is a Mythical Beast”, all songs I  wrote for plays. Best of all, we were at a Jewish/Buddhist alternative Passover Seder, and after singing “Dayenu”, I convinced my daughter to sing with me the version I wrote to that tune to teach her fifth-grade class all the Finger Lakes. She remembered them all perfectly. So I taught the song to the kids today and began a conversation about a class trip to some of the lakes, and a planning for bird-watching, canoeing and camping. We also did some geology, comparing the depths and heights above sea level of all the Finger Lakes. We discussed the Thermal Mass, or radiator effect that the lakes had on the grapes ripening in the many local vineyards.  We’ll also begin to take day-trips to the Wildflower Garden and Lab of Ornithology.
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Class Notes March 2, 2013

  In our study of Area we all drew a 12×12 grid in multicolored squares and also in whole numbers, with a bright diagonal dividing the square containing 1,4,9,16,25,36, and all the square numbers. Any shape we drew on one side of the diagonal could be matched exactly by matching the numbers on the opposite side; they were in perfect symmetry. Also the eternal nature of the different endings to each times table seemed compelling to the students: 24680,24680, 24680 forever for the 2’s, 48260,48260 for the 4’s, 62840,62840 for the 6’s, 86420,86420 for the 8’s, all the numbers for 1, 3, 7, 11 tables, and the perfect acending and descending 9’s. This was preparatory to our study of the Egyptian rope-stretchers and our staking out on the back field a 50 ft. by 50 ft. pyramid base. First we all did a careful architectural drawing on graph paper of the pyramid plan. Then we knotted rope, cord and twine every ten feet which took some time. Then we determined North South according to Egyptian custom, in honor of Ra, by using compass and protractor to pull  or ” stretch “a north/south line on our site.  Then, using our ropes, cord and twine we were able to stretch a baseline 90 degrees or perpendicular to our N/S line, using the 3-4-5 right triangle method employed by early Egyptian surveyors. Then after assesing the site for levelness we made the bold decision (imperative to any building project)  to set the first stake, our SW corner at a point on our baseline. Off this stake and baseline we once again employed , as a group, our ropes, cords and twines to pull a 30, 40, 50 ft right triangle and create a perpendicular to our baseline and stake; we then extended it to 50 ft. and drove in our NW corner stake. We’ll continue the stakeout next week.
   Our study of Egyptian mythology and the many gods they worshipped was followed by an extensive study of Egyptian culture, including Pharaoh as god, role of women, life of children, mummification techniques, the making of papyrus and hieroglyphics, the partition of land and taxes and meting out justice, (which connects to our rope-stretchers), the construction of the pyramids, their social, spiritual and political purposes, the evolution of pyramid design, and the use of the inclined plane and rollers (the wheel) in their construction.
   Because there was so much slave labor involved in these massive, monumental constructs, we sang and played “Let My People Go”. “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” seemed a good musical companion piece to that, and the children enjoyed singing and playing it. We’ve also been learning “Perky Nuthatch “, a piece I wrote some years ago about a nuthatch outside another classroom, which is a good precursor to our study of ornithology this spring. We’ve easily learned “The Unicorn is a Mythical Beast ” a quirky little march I wrote for the acting out of an ironic, absurd story by James Thurber, which I hope will be part of our June performance. We’ve been gathering and acting out stories and vignettes from many different cultures. That gives every child a chance to be something noteworthy in a piece. We’re starting to get a repertoire we think we can present. The children are always eager to get ” parts “.  Some kids want to be every big part, some want to be every small part. Having this montage and variety enables me to tone down certain kids and encourage others, a big part of the work as a teacher of a class; Yet I can still let the thespians shine and it will be fun for the audience as well. Any folks who have a proclivity for costumes and/or props that want to help, please let me know, because these things take time, and some students I see two days.
   I’ve given the children Geometry books, and we are going to move through Egypt to the Babylonians, through the Greeks, Pythagorus, Euclid, Archimedes et al, and on to Gauss and some others. With this in mind please make sure your student has a working compass of sufficient quality as we will be doing some proofs.
   Interesingly, the children are still compelled by Pip, and his adventures and trials, in Great Expectations, and ask for me to read it to them every snack and lunch period. In recitation we’ve  been working on “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, and “Sea Fever” by John Masefield. As we prepare for our drama work I’ll begin doing Greek dramatic exercises with the children, discus, javelin, wrestling, jumping used by ancient dramatists to sharpen specific skills of the actor.
   There are many other things to discuss but that’s enough for one missive. I’ll write again soon on other topics. Thanks again for being part of the Finnstitute.
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Class Notes January 24, 2013

 Here is a look at some of the things we’ve worked on of late at the Finnstitute:
   We followed the the remarkable capacity of Buddha to withstand Mara’s manifold demons and Raksashas, and his evil cunning. The image of thousands of viscous and sundry weapons turning into flowers as they struck the rainbow that protected Buddha sitting serenely under his tree seemed to resonate with the students; even more so than the arduous, manifold methods he tried until he was able to meditate, so profoundly and completely, focused on the souls’ path to freedom from suffering, and, eventually, enlightenment.
   In Geometry we studied some of the shapes of plane geometry, circle, line. triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, nonagon, decagon, hendecagon, dodecagon, and where have all the flowers gone. We compared supplementary, complementary and congruent angles; acute, right, obtuse, straight, reflex and full rotation angles; and, by crossing two parallel lines with a transversal, alternate interior, alternate exterior, consecutive interior, vertical and corresponding angles.
   We began a study of the myths of Egypt and what will be a comprehensive study of the culture and ancient civilization that still holds such facination for children. We’ve been rehearsing a play about Isis, Osiris, and the evil brother Set, which has been able to transport the children livingly into the middle of the stories that they’ve been hearing in class.  The devotion to the body in the Egyptian rites, the mummification under the watchful gaze of Anubis, to mimic the body of Osiris not decaying after death, Isis long search for her king’s body, are things that would never happen in Hindu or Buddhist myth or culture, where the body is just ephemeral and transitory in a stream of incarnations and bodies inhabited and cremated. What a different world view happening in ancient Egyptian times, a devotion to the body which engendered such skill and science of preservation, that we can, as modern students, go and see these actual mummified bodies, thousands of years old, in museums. We’ve just started our study of hieroglyphics, and the Rosetta Stone and the relatively recent deciphering of the code that made up the Egyptian writing. The class is excited to try and write messages using their aphabet.
   What a wonderful time we’ve been having with the old South African folk song, from the singing of Marais and Miranda, ” Zulu Warrior” which we sing and act out, faster and faster. The children have learned it remarkably well already on recorder, violin, piano and percussion, and we had a rousing, wonderfully fun ensemble session playing it to our heart’s content one chilly Tuesday afternoon.
   We began our study of simple machines: wedge, wheel, inclined plane, screw and lever. I brought in dozens of tools of all sort, which the kids were able to try using in their functional manner (mostly); all sorts of first class, second class and third class levers,  many of whch they were familiar with, but didn’t recognize as simpe machines and clever combinations of simple machines.  We will continue this study in a very hands-on manner, which the children love, with bigger levers, wheels, pullies, in all their fabulous cofigurations, and inclined planes. (We noticed that the Egyptians used enormous, monumental inclined planes, and dowels (wheels) to build the great pyramids.
   We’ve been very much enjoying the adventures and travails of Pip in Dickens’ “Great Expectations “. So much drama, humor and human observation have kept the children’s interest keen. With all due courtesy to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I just felt the need to surround the children with great literature, in the quiet reading times.
   These are just a few of the areas we’ve been exploring together.
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Class Notes, December 21, 2012

 Our December Science Bloc was fun and interesting, and a perfect complement to the many holiday-time endeavors. Here are some of the experiments we tried:
Water and weight – By making a seesaw balance with a wooden ruler and pencil we placed two cups with water on each end, nearly balanced. By placing a finger in the water of one of the cups the balance tipped towards the extra weight, surprisingly consistently.
Water and Air Pressure, Surface Tension – In a large bowl of water we let a glass fill with water under the surface; slowly we pulled  the glass up – the glass stayed miraculously full of water all the way until, after geting heavier and heavier the rim of the glass cleared the surface, and the weight and tension released. The air pressure on the water in the bowl had kept the water pushed up into the glass.
Water and the dry paper – We filled a bowl with water and pushed a paper towel into the bottom of a glass. We then inverted the glass and pressed it down into the water; we pushed it partially down ( surely the water must have rushed in ) and all the way down. When we pulled the glass up the paper was always completely dry, protected by the air trapped in the glass.
Density, Diplacement and Shape – We filled a big bowl with water and tried several objects reasonably similar in size: which would sink and how fast and in what motion, which would float and what percentage of the object would be submerged. It was fascinating to the children and we will carry it further later on. One interesting phenomenon was with our ball of clay which sank in 1/2 second, but when shaped into a wide thin boat floated very nicely!
Solar and Sideral Year – We affixed a Lincoln head penny to our desks and rotated another penny around the fixed penny with continuous contact. To our surprise it rotated around not once, but exactly twice. The earth’s yearly orbit of the sun is similarly 365 1/4 days or 366 1/4 days depending on vantage point. I know a parent who can help us figure this out in the future.
   One learning experience the videographers liked for their Home-school video was moving a septogram in the big room  (there were seven kids that day) and then coming into the classroom and having each student draw the shape on the chalkboard . It’s a very satisfying shape to draw and the children certainly improved with each effort. We often move the shapes corresponding to the number of children present, decograms, decogons etc. in the big room; and  find the triangles, squares, pentagons and hexaons that fit into and make up the larger shape. Then we bring it into the classroom and draw it. Number and Geometry are everywhere. Watch out!
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Class Notes, December 6, 2012

  We began at the trestle bridge over Fall creek near the Wildflower garden and the Plantations. The metal X’s and angled  I-beams, above the metal roadway hold up the cross beams that supports the road. We sketched it and it’s structural components safely from the grass by the river. No one fell in.
    Next we drove past the lovely stone bridge over Fall Creek by Beebe Lake. We parked on Thurston Ave., a couple blocks down and walked towards the North end of the Suspension Bridge. Right before the bridge we marvelled at an elegant  little stone arch over a small stream. At the Suspension bridge we examined the enormous concrete ” dead-man ” into which are fastened the huge turnbuckles that hold the main cables. We saw how the main cables went up over the tall metal tower sweeping down to walkway level in the middle and then back up over the other metal tower on the other side of the dramatic gorge and back down into the turnbuckles fasted to the huge concrete “dead-man” embedded into the cliff on the south side of the span. From these main cables secondary vertical cables were suspended supporting U-shape I-beams on which the walkway was laid. We drew these basic sructural components. We noted the block building down  by the waterfall in the gorge Larry George had mentioned Cornell having some water-powered generators and I pointed out that the generators were in that building. I took a class in there 25 years ago.
   We next looked across the wide emptiness created by centuries of churning water and saw the Stewart Ave. Bridge. It too was a flat roadway supported by triangular trusses but the support system was UNDER the bridge . We sketched that bridge’s structure.
   We mounted the stairs and came out near the Johnson Art Museum . We turned left heading east along the river until we came up to the startling, large, cantilevered wing of the Architecture School thrust across the road in front of us. We sat in one little patch of grass and attempted to draw the daring and challenging perspective of this bold design. Each and every child could not initially bring themselves to draw (and perhaps did not initially perceive) the dramatic difference between the leading edge and rear edge of the structure’s side wall. Once I showed each of them on their drawing they were suddenly able to see it. It was very interesting.
   Next we walked across the heavily-travelled, innovative new, metal-arched bridge across the gorge by Noyes Lodge. We circled down around behind the lodge along Beebe Lake so we could view the structural make-up of this unusual bridge design. There were two huge pairs of metal arches, embedded in the cliffs, one below the roadway and one arching above it, with vertical metal support beams suspended down from the top arch and supporting the cross beams that held the roadway. After attempting to draw the unique structure of this leading-edge bridge design, and being inordinately distracted bythe suddenly heavy traffic of college students, we decided that that was enough work.
    We then went over to a little park on the north shore of Beebe Lake and played Foxes and Squirrels, a game using trees and subtle glances to try and outsmart or outrun the fox. Then we drove back to the FOL just in time to play our recorder song and say goodbye.
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Class Notes, December 1, 2012

 Thanks to Monica and her daughters for bringing Tinickling, a rhythmic, challenging dance skill to our morning circle. The children broke into groups and tried out the steps in dry runs and then with the sticks moving in and out. It was exciting and exacting; the children progressed nicely as they practiced more. Monica left the sticks and boards with us so we can continue to practice. Thanks!
    The Ramayana has many characters, Rama and Sita, and Ravana’s five thousand year old Spaceship. But among them is one of the most memorable characters in all Mythology, Hanuman. It was wonderful to recount his great feats and story with the class. All their drawings  were enthusiastic and respectful of the great monkey hero. But the central moment in the long tale, recited for thousands of years in myriad couplets, was the final meeting between Rama and Ravana, He Who Makes the Universe Scream. When the  arrow enters his dark heart he realizes finally, and countless generations realize, that goodness is more powerful than evil. How else could a civilized society endure, create culture and laws, any society, without some powerful metaphor that affirms that. Without that humanity is doomed; therefore every culture has some story to give hope to humanity. the Ramayana is one such essential human expression.
   The one thing missing in that ancient Hindu cuture was compassion; and so we’ve begun the story of the soul of Prince Siddhartha, its many reincarnations, its meeting with Brahma,Vishnu, and Shiva, and the young prince’s  choice to become the greatest of Hindu Kings, or a beggar teacher, a Buddha.
   In a class preceding the execution of a Scale-drawing of our Savonius windmill project I noticed the seeming arbitrariness of the markings on a ruler to the children. So we folded a paper in half. We folded the halves in half to get quarters. We folded the quarters in half to get eighths. We folded the eighths in half to get sixteenths. We folded the sixteenths in half to get thirtyseconds.  We then looked at the ruler’s markings again with some appreciation of the practical mathematical lawfullness of that measuring system. An ancillary problem presented itself: the paper was getting harder to fold. I gave them the pronouncement that paper could only be folded seven times; then I asked them the classic estimation problem – If the paper could be folded in half 100 times, how thick would it be. Some kids estimated, arithmetrically soundly, 2 inches thick. Some bold prognosticators essayed 20 feet! Of course it’s exponential; some kids sensing the tricky nature of this shot ou the prepostrous 100 feet estimation This week we’ll discuss just how many miles thick it would be. We did some problems where we used Logic to solve mystries. The students showed a real interest and skill in taking the sequential steps in thought process to catch the crook.
   We had a wonderful big music jam in the big room with percussion and melodies flying. They’re starting to function “ensemble “.
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Class Notes, November 18, 2012

 We finished up our current session in Botany with the Rose Family, a wonderful grouping of species that include our dear friends the cherry trees and the apple trees.With that in mind I would like us to visit the Cornell Orchards right down the street from FOL.  That study inspired me to teach the students A.E. Housman’s ” Loveliest of Trees “. We’ve also worked on ” Sea Fever ” by John Masefield and ” Silver ” by Walter De La Mare. The children are working together more and more confidently and capably in two, three and four part rounds on the recorder.
 We’ve been looking at the 360 degrees of a circle, and angles in general. Point out right angles, 45 degree angles, 60 degree angles, 30,60 90 triangles, right triangles, obtuse and acute angles wherever you see them in your home or travels. That will make them part of the children’s understanding and less abstract.
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