Category Archives: Fun Learning Stuff

Typin’ Tyootorrrial

This quiet blog must make it obvious I’m still taking it slow and easy after last week’s excitement.
We’ve kept mostly to home, except for piano lessons. Our old high-tide
mood is upon us, has been for a couple of weeks, so there are lots of
read-alouds and lively discussions going on (this I can do from the
sofa!), and Jane is in love with a giant tome on chemistry, and Beanie
and Rose are elbowing each other for FlashMath turns on my iPod Touch,
unaware that this game is nothing but math drills. I guess if it’s on
the Touch, it’s automatically fun?

Yesterday Beanie asked for a turn on the computer to play “the
typing game,” which means the Mavis Beacon typing tutorial CD-rom. Jane
hunted it up for her. But I think she might enjoy this new discovery even more: the BBC’s online Dance Mat Typing site. I found the link at Educating Emme. Personally, I’m a little mixed on these lessons—the whole rock-and-roller goat thing wears thin very quickly. I mean, he’s a goat.
On the other hand, I love his Scottish accent. On his tongue, banal
phrases like “use either of your thumbs on the space bar” become
delightful dialogue.

On the other hand, he’s a goat.

(And his cartoon hands—a goat with hands?—in the keyboard demos: shudder.)

But I guarantee Beanie’s gonna love it.

Journey North Mystery Class

In yesterday’s links I mentioned with some jubilation that the Journey North Mystery Class is starting this week. Tami asked,

do you know if it’s too late to join the Journey North class? In a
nutshell, can you explain it, and how much time it takes? Thanks!

With the caveat that I am incapable of writing the ‘nutshell’ version of anything (hee!), I’d love to take a stab at answering this. We (Jane and I—the younger kids have not yet been interested) have participated in the Mystery Class the past two years, and it has been delightful.

It is definitely not too late to join. Things are just getting rolling. Here’s how it works: Journey North has selected ten classes of schoolchildren in cities all around the world. Their locations are kept secret until the big reveal in May. These are the ten "mystery classes," and the game is to figure out where in the world they are.

You begin by figuring out their latitudes. Each week you compare your own local photoperiod (the amount of time between sunrise and sunset) to the photoperiods of the ten mystery classes. You graph this data on a chart. In just a few weeks’ time you’ll begin to see patterns and get a feel for where some of the mystery classes might be.

(It’s very exciting.)

Sometime in March, Journey North will release "longitude clues." By performing some calculations, you’ll be able to determine the longitude of the Mystery Classes. Now you’re really starting to have an idea where these classes might be!

Next come the cultural clues. Each week, as you continue to chart the photoperiod data, you’ll be given a set of clues about the culture and terrain of the ten mystery locations. This is when the fun kicks into high gear. You’ll be able to zero in on the specific towns in which the mystery classes are hiding.

In late April, you submit your guesses to Journey North. The following week, the answers are posted on the website and you can see how close you came. You may participate alone or as part of a group. All you have to do is register at the Journey North website (no cost, no strings). All the instructions and clues are there, along with a download of the chart.

The past two years, I led a group of online friends in the activity. We divided up the Mystery Classes so that each family was only responsible for calculating the data for one or two locations. (This is totally permissible and is in fact encouraged. Most participants are classes of schoolchildren who are usually divided into partner groups, each with its assigned mystery class.)

This year, I’m hosting a group of local friends. The kids in Jane’s peer group have been coming over every other week to read Shakespeare together (such a blast), and we’re going to set the Bard aside for a while to do the Mystery Class project together. We’ll be meeting weekly, more or less, to keep up with the data-sharing.

If your family was working solo and found the eleven sets of calculations to be too much to keep up with (ten mystery classes plus your hometown), you could easily drop some of the mystery classes and just work on a few. The registration with Journey North is largely a formality; there is no real interaction on the website except for submitting your answers at the end (which you don’t have to do if you don’t want). Of course, the JN folks love feedback, and they post lots of letters and ideas from participants.

It is amazing how much learning is packed into this activity: we have learned so much about geography, latitude, longitude, other cultures, math, etc etc etc. I cannot say enough good things about the project. I’ve been positively giddy about getting started this year. Jane too. Last year she worked side by side with the one local friend who was part of our online group, and those two eleven-year-olds had a wonderful time, let me tell you. So did their mothers. Right, Erica?

The project is just beginning this week, so it is by no means too late to get started. You calculate your local photoperiod every Monday—that is, you use each Monday’s sunrise and sunset times for the calculation. Here’s a website where you can look up the sunrise and sunset times for any date. Journey North releases the week’s new clues on Fridays, but the info is always up on the website for whenever you are ready to work with it. We’ll be doing all our work on Wednesdays, for example.

Working with online friends was great fun, these past two years. With hometowns spread all over the world, simply comparing our local photoperiods was fascinating. And I have to say, charting the increase in daylight time week after week really helped combat the late winter blues. (The first year, I mean, when we still lived in Virginia. Here in San Diego, last winter was a marvel of sunny days. This year has been quite a bit chillier.)

Tami asked about the time commitment. As you get started, it doesn’t take very long: a math problem on Monday to get your local photoperiod; and then however long it takes you to figure out and chart the photoperiods for the ten mystery classes—or however many you are responsible for. A half hour, perhaps? If you’re doing all ten? Maybe an hour for a younger child? I would say an hour a week is probably realistic, for the first six or seven weeks. The longitude day will take longer, but it’s fun, exciting work.

Later you’ll spend lots of time on Google and elsewhere, reading up on the tidbits revealed in the cultural clues. That’s fun time, detective time, and it flies by.

I told you it wouldn’t fit into a nutshell! Not even a Brazil nut.

Earlier posts on Journey North Mystery Class:
this one has a picture of our graph
this one was from last year

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Games & Fun Stuff Master List

Too many posts! Too many links! If you go through my Fun Learning Stuff archives, you find oodles and boodles of links to online games and things. But that’s a lot to wade through. Allow me to spare you the wading.

Free online word games:

Babble (a combination of Boggle and Scrabble)

Neopets Word Poker

Eight Letters in Search of a Word (both this one and Word Poker are "see how many words you can make out of these eight letters" games)

Scrabulous (online Scrabble, and yes, it is fabulous)


iSketch (like Pictionary) (beware the public rooms—create your own private room and invite friends)

New! Karen just reminded me of, a charity-linked vocabulary game that devoured a thousand grains of my time last week

Puzzle/logic games:



History, math & science:

BBC History Games (a whole bunch of fun stuff here)

Ancient Greece game at Snaith Primary

Absurd Math (Jane’s favorite)


Test your reaction time with the sheep game

Geography games & links at Studeo

Tetris with the United States

Music & art:

Note reading drill

Art lesson plans from the Getty Museum

Mark Kistler drawing lessons on YouTube

and on his website

Not games, but cool:

Earth Album (a Flickr/Google Maps mashup)

Journey North (especially the Mystery Class project that begins in January—we’ve had such fun with it the past two years)

Online Word Games

I know I read a post somewhere recently that linked to a free online word game in which players make as many words as they can from a certain number of letters. I played the game once, but now I can’t find it. Anyone know what I’m thinking of?

It wasn’t Babble (a combination of Boggle and Scrabble), which we love.

It was a lot like Neopets Word Poker (my favorite Neopets game), but without the pirates.

I can’t remember what it was called, nor where I saw the link. Hmm. This is…puzzling. (Ba dum bum.)

UPDATE! Hypatia found it. It’s Eight Letters in Search of a Word, which I’m sure I, like Hypatia, first read about at The Common Room.

There are other fun game suggestions popping up in the comments. Thanks, and keep ’em coming!

By the way, my kids and I are back on an iSketch kick. I go in first and create a private room, then send an invitation to the other computer. (We have two usernames.) Much shouting and hilarity ensues: this game, which is an online version of Pictionary, is a blast. In years past, we used to have great fun setting up iSketch dates with faraway friends. Might be time to resurrect that tradition!

What I Just Stumbled Upon for Firefox

I love Firefox. Have I mentioned that I love Firefox? I was browsing the add-ons this morning and found some good, good stuff. 1-Click Weather, for example: a handly little extension that puts current-weather icons in the status bar at the bottom of your screen. Here, I’ll show you:


How handy is that?

I’m also quite pleased with the add-on, which I should have installed a long time ago. It puts two small icons in the top bar of your browser, right next to the window where you type in a URL. The first icon takes you to your bookmarks, and the second one ("tag") allows you to quickly add a new page to your bookmarks. What I especially like is that the tag page pops up in a new window, saving you the trouble of clicking back to the page you were reading. I am using more and more for tagging articles I want to come back to, post about, etc.

But the coolest find of the morning? StumbleUpon, which many of you probably already know about, but I only vaguely recall having heard of before. (Here’s the link to its Firefox add-on page.) StumbleUpon adds another little bar to the top of your browser, under your bookmarks toolbar. At first I didn’t like that at all (since it makes the text area of my browser window just that much smaller), but after playing around with it for a while, I’m totally sold, and here’s why.

When you click on the Stumble icon in that toolbar, you are instantly taken to a random website. When you set up your free StumbleUpon account, you can select categories for these random sites to come from. The sites are recommended by other StumbleUpon users. You can click a thumbs-up icon ("I like this site") or a thumbs-down one ("don’t like it"), or do neither and just go to another page. Okay, thus far, StumbleUpon is just a websurfing tool, right? But what I LOVE about it is the little "Send to" icon in the toolbar. When you click on that, a little pop-up window lets you quickly and easily email the link for the page you’re viewing. No cut-and-pasting. I want to share a site with Scott? Click! It’s on its way.

I LOVE this feature.

It works for any page you’re on, not just sites you have "stumbled upon." Likewise, you can thumbs-up (or down) any website you are visiting. Since the StumbleUpon toolbar is in your browser window all the time (remember, that’s what I didn’t like about it at first?), you can recommend or email any page, any time, very conveniently.

And there’s some pretty interesting stuff to be stumbled upon, I must say. I gave my first (and so far, only) thumbs-up to this awesome site. I have to say awesome like a kid because I am that excited about it. It’s called Earth Album, and it’s the marriage of Google Maps and Flickr. You’re shown a world map, and when you click on any area, a little slide-show bar appears at the top of the screen, with Flickr photos of the region in question. I can’t wait to show this to my children. It’s going to be the perfect compliment to our Journey North project.

What are your favorite Firefox add-ons?  What other awesome hacks am I missing?

Saturday Hodgepodge

I have an in-box full of email (again), a file full of posts-in-progress, and a head cluttered with a bunch more post ideas. I think I’ll declare today a cyber-decluttering day and just cram everything into one big messy post.

The Lucky Scrotum Matter, Revisited

I liked Monica Edinger’s post on the subject at educating alice. She told her class of fourth-graders about the controversy and read them the "offending" page.

When I reached the dreaded scrotum passage there was no reaction
whatsoever… no confusion, no giggles, no questioning. I kept going to
“….he killed that snake even though it bit him in the place where it
hurts the worst for a male…” (3) where there might have been a smile or
two, but no more. After a few more paragraphs I stopped. Eager hands
went up. “It is about the drinking, right?” Others nodded. Finally, one
said, “It’s about what happened to the dog?” The two who already knew
and I nodded. And the kids all said they didn’t get it. That they see
dogs with scrota every day after all. That it was no big deal.

She links to another Times piece on the book (this time an editorial) and some letters to the editor.

Chocolately Goodness for the Ears

I pulled into the library parking lot yesterday morning and put the minivan into park, only to be met with an aggrieved "Mommy, how COULD you???" from Rose—who was the child who begged me to take everyone to the library in the first place. My crime? Turning off the ignition, therefore cutting off Eric Idle in midsentence.

See, we are listening to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory on CD, and Rose isn’t the only one captivated by Eric Idle’s performance. He makes a deliciously funny book even funnier. The voices, oh, the voices! It’s Monty Python on a serious sugar high. I had to play some for Scott, just to watch him weep. He yelled at me too when I turned it off.

We actually did bail on our library trip yesterday. At the girls’ impassioned request, I just drove around for a while so they could keep on listening to the story. We had about twenty minutes to kill before our next appointment, and it would have been tough to squeeze a library visit into that short span of time anyway.

Speaking of Appointments

Yesterday afternoon, Wonderboy had an appointement with a neurologist. Our new pediatrician wants him to make a new-patient visit to all the subspecialists he was seeing in Virginia. This, on top of his speech therapy and audiology appointments, makes for a dizzying amount of running around. I’m tired of it, and we have barely begun.

At least the children’s hospital (where most of these sub-specialties are located) isn’t too awfully far: it’s about a 20-minute drive on San Diego’s fabulous freeways. I adore the freeways here. Have I mentioned that? There are a million of them, more or less, all over the place, and unless you have the misfortune of needing to travel at rush hour like my poor hubby, driving on these highways is positively zippy. Zip, zip, everywhere. And the road signs say exotic things like "Los Angeles, right lane" or "Mexico, keep left." Zip!

But yesterday, it just so happened that I was running a teensy bit late. Not VERY late, just a little. I suppose I should count my blessings because it’s possible that if I’d been on time, I’d have wound up IN the accident that brought traffic to a standstill on the I-8 just minutes after we zipped onto it. Stand. Still.

I knew I was now going to be late to the neurology appointment. I made a frantic call to Scott to tell him to call the doctor’s office and explain that I was ON MY WAY. He was happy to oblige, except for the tiny complication of his not exactly being in the office at that exact moment. I’d caught him on his lunch break, in line at the grocery store. He promised to hurry back to work and make the call. I’d have done it myself but I didn’t know the number by heart, and digging through my bag for my Wonderboy Medical Records Notebook isn’t something I was in a position to do at that moment. Nor was dialing the phone. I can punch Scott’s speed-dial with my thumb, but more than that I dare not do while driving, even at non-zippy speeds.

I arrived at the neuro’s office 20 minutes late for our appointment. The waiting room was empty and I figured they’d taken the next patient already. No problem, right? Oh so wrong. The receptionist sort of jumped when I gave her Wonderboy’s name.

"You didn’t hear? We canceled your appointment."

"Oh no!" I cried. "My husband called to let you know we were going to be late! Accident on the 8!"

She hadn’t caught the details, just the "going to be late" part. Shrugging apologetically, she informed me that the doctor had already given our slot another patient, and after that he had a meeting, but he could see us at 9 a.m. Monday morning.

I could make this a very long story, but without a nice happy ending, I don’t have the heart. Here’s the nutshell version: the doctor wouldn’t see us. Even though the next patient wasn’t due for another 20 minutes. Even though Dr. Neurologist was sitting alone in his office on the other side of the wall. He needed forty minutes for a new patient app, he insisted, and he’d already moved the 3:40 patient to come in at 3:00 and then he had a meeting at 3:40. My pleas to just squeeze in a quick 20-minute app fell on deaf ears. Well, actually they fell on the receptionist’s fairly sympathetic ears, but I could hear her relaying them to the doctor and HE was certainly not responding in a manner indicative of having heard with compassion or understanding.

I turned down the Monday-at-nine appointment, much to their surprise; I told them I had no more openings in my schedule until April.

"Really?" blinked the receptionist.

"Yup," I said, loudly, assuming that if I could hear the doctor through the wall, he could hear me. I explained that my son sees a number of other subspecialists and has consults stacked up through the end of April. There’s always the possibility the doctor will realize he missed out on the chance to pick up an unusual case, and next time maybe he’ll be a little more open to making creative adjustments for unavoidable delays. Slim possibility, but I’m an optimist.

(Hmm, look at that, I did make it a long story anyway.)

A Much Pleasanter Subject

Wednesday’s mail brought a serendipitous conjunction of treasures: a pile of nice fat letters from our dear friend Keri, who is in the middle of a year-long wandering in the Far East, and a copy of Richard Halliburton’s The Royal Road to Romance. The latter is Halliburton’s engaging account of his own Far-East travels. We savored Keri’s letters over breakfast Thursday morning—they are gems, and I am sharing them over at Lilting House—delighting in the soft, petal-strewn, handpressed paper and the colorful descriptions of Thailand penned in Keri’s friendly handwriting. And then of course we had to dive right into the Halliburton book, skipping directly to his Bangkok chapter and comparing his route to Keri’s on the globe. We’ll go back and start at the beginning when I figure out how to make time for one more book in our daily-reading pile.

I’m in My Junior Year of Blogging Now

GottaBook’s Gregory K., inventor of the poetry form known as the Fib, shares a fib in honor of his blog’s one-year anniversary. This reminded me that I missed my own two-year blog anniversary in January. Here’s what I started with:

"You really have your hands full."

This is what I’m always hearing from people, variations on the
theme. Either I have too many balls in the air or too much food on my
plate, or maybe it’s PLATES I’m supposed to be juggling instead of
balls, and I guess in that case any amount of food would be too much.
And it’s true, I’ve had plenty of days when it seems like the
metaphorical spaghetti is raining down upon my head. Especially this
past year, since the baby was born.

But I’m of the mind that a little pasta in the hair can be a good thing, metaphorically speaking.

Full hands are a blessing. Juggling can be exciting. A plate heaped
with food is generally considered something to be thankful for.

And oh boy am I thankful. Sometimes I’m dizzy with thanks. Other
times I’m just dizzy—life whirls by so quickly. What’s on the spinning
plates is a blur. So I thought I’d write about what’s on each dish, the
whole savory smorgasbord.

Happy to say nothing has changed (despite everything having changed this year). I’m still dizzy, and thankful, and savoring the feast.

George in Orange?

Jane heard from a friend that dollar bills were going to be printed in orange from now on. I didn’t think that sounded correct, so I suggested we look it u—

Look it up?” snorted Scott. Jane guffawed. Oh, sure, they mock me, but they love me.

Well, we did look it up (so there) and here’s what we found. As I thought, there are no plans in the works for orange smackeroos, but the U. S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing website offers a nifty interactive tour of the new and improved tens, twenties, and fifties.

By the Way

The other day, Angela (Mother Crone) asked for books and resources about Scotland to go along with my Martha books. I’m working on that post, Angela, and will put it up as soon as I get all the links ready. Didn’t want you to think I’d missed the request! I have a long list of titles and I’m delighted to share it. Thanks for your interest!