Sunday, September 21, 2014

Math Club: Stuffed Animal Venn Diagrams

My stuffed animals LOVE to come to math club.

Unfortunately, they're so enthusiastic that they get...overly rambunctious. This means I only let them come about once a semester.

("But we'll be angels this time, we swear! It was the kids! The kids made us do it!")

Uh huh.

Still, when they DO come, everyone has a blast. Here are some pictures from one of my very favorite activities last year, involving elementary set theory.

First, I selected which animals were invited. This led, naturally, to some arguments. ("No fair! Scheherezade got to go last time!" and "I feel the unicorns are over-represented whilst we non-magical ruminants are being ignored".)

Sadly, due to space constraints, I was forced to select along specific criteria, with preference going to mammals, reptiles, and magical creatures. While there were a token frog, fish, and bird or two, I apologize to the categories left cloistered in the closet who felt slighted. Their comrades told them later that being squished at the bottom of a laundry hamper for several hours was really not fun, but I'm not sure the excluded arthropods believed it.

Above: "Me, me, me! Take me!"
Below: "Can't...breathe...squashed..."

When it was time for our activity, I presented a short lecture about basic set theory. Venn and Euler, intersection versus union, subset and superset. The right side of the board, below, is relevant. The left was from our earlier practice problems that day.

Then the fun part. Let loose the stuffed animals! ("Freeeeeeedom!!!!")

[I note, sardonically, that the stuffed animals have, in theory, been "free" for five years, now. (They have declared independence and set up their own "government" but they have yet to ratify, or even write, a constitution.) That didn't stop them from acting like sailors on a rare shore leave spree. --ed.]

It was inevitable that the animals and kids would play together and ask for introductions. The children were sociable. ("Miss Gail, what is this mouse called? Oh, hi Reepicheep.") The critters, however, being severely self-centered, seemed to see the kids more as objects than people. Tsk.

I brought out several different colors of yarn and assigned the kids to make large circles on the floor. Then I had them sort stuffed animals by various criteria. This took some time since I had to compete with distractions: barks, oinks, loud conversations, fights, children whose eyes had just been clawed out...

We got there eventually.

Below, you see "animals with wings" in the red circle, animals who can fly in the yellow circle, and the intersection of those two sets in the center. Left to right: Opus the penguin; two dragons and Hedwig the owl; and Rasputin the reindeer, who moonlights for Santa. I also see and Season the sea serpent, but he really shouldn't be there, since he swims but doesn't fly. (Either one of the kids snuck him in incorrectly, or I'm remembering the criteria wrong. It could be animals with wings and magical animals, but there were more magical animals than that....

Yes, I should post these things when they're still fresh. Mea culpa.)

Here's another picture.

It looks like we had magical creatures on the right and maybe non-magical creatures on the left? I think that's right, but it looks like this picture was taken before we adjusted the circles so they didn't overlap.

I recall some charming arguments over which animals were, or were not, magical. The unicorn was obvious, but the kids were dubious about Tecumseh the skunk. I tried to offer a short--short! two sentence!--explanation from American history, but I don't think it penetrated. Fortunately, his impressive cloak swayed the doubters. Or something.

One of my favorite moments involved an argument about Hedwig. Some of the kids thought she was obviously magical, because she's from the world of Harry Potter. Others claimed that she might just be an unusually intelligent "squib" owl. (In Harry Potter, a squib is someone who is born and raised in the magical community but who doesn't possess magical powers.)

It's driving me nuts, now, that I can't remember for certain what our selection criteria were.

I do definitely remember Bear and Teddy being loud, obnoxious, and disruptive, though. They were so bad I was forced to put them in time out. (So, like every other day of math time.)

This picture below looks like "all animals" as a super set and "mammals" as a subset. More Euler than Venn.

There was also a three-circle problem with "real", "mammal", and "extinct". Jon's wooly mammoth Fred--you can tell my engineer of a husband named him instead of me--fit at the intersection of all three sets.

More awesome arguments from the kids:
"Dragons aren't extinct! They're not real!"
"No, they're like the dinosaurs. They belong in the yellow circle."

I tried not to interfere. Instead I just grinned and enjoyed the moment. Sadly, I don't have pictures of that one.

Meanwhile, younger siblings played happily with extra animals in the corner.

My imperfect memories and imperfect pictures are frustrating. I think I was so busy "teaching" (okay, fine, playing) that I didn't adequately document stuff.

Obviously this means we should do it again, right? --But only if the animals PROMISE to behave. No fights! No eating each other! No biting the kids! No loud grunts, growls, moos, and neighs while the teacher is talking!

("We swears. On the precious!")

Okay. Seems credible. Let's do it. ;)

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Julie Kimball, who handled it calmly that day when I showed up on her doorstep looking like a maniac with my hair in a wild, lopsided, fraying bun atop my head. I rushed around frantically for a minute, babbled incoherently, dropped off Littles, and then asked "Do you have any yarn?"

She rose to the occasion beautifully, taking my insanity in stride and producing a skein of cheerful yellow yarn within seconds.

Thanks, Julie. You're a real pal. :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Math Club: Origami

We did this activity on January 21, 2014.

Simple but fun! I invited kids to bring in square paper, origami books, and any origami creations they were particularly proud of. One kid brought in some amazing origami dragons with wings that flapped! Other families brought in gorgeous paper and awesome resource books. I love how supportive everyone is.

We did our regular 60 minutes of problem solving, and then for the last half hour, I just turned them loose. It was pretty unstructured, but kids chatted and experimented and tried new "recipes" and played with beautiful paper.

It might not seem like a very educational activity, but I believe that kids learn through play and experimentation. This was "applied" math, where kids hopefully observed, and intuited, some relationships among different kinds of shapes and ratios of lengths.

We did discuss things like "isosceles triangles" a little, as a sop to my conscience. But really, sometimes it's okay to keep things simple and just enjoy the social aspect of math club.

Behold, pictures:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Math Club: River Crossing Animal Puzzles

There is a category of logic puzzles called "river crossing" puzzles. Sometimes they involve "missionaries and cannibals" or "foxes and hens" or "jealous husbands."

I took a few and adapted them for stuffed animals.

My stuffed animals were delighted to participate, of course. They love outings! Getting that many passports processed was a nightmare, but the silly beasts brought that problem upon themselves when they declared independence in "the velveteen revolution" five years ago.

Gail: An omnivore bear goes to a special market at a Renaissance Faire, where he purchases a carnivorous predator animal, an herbivorous prey animal, and a sack of magic beans. To transport them all back home, he needs to cross a river, but he has a very small boat which can only fit one item in addition to himself. Only the bear can pilot the boat. Also, the carnivore cannot be left alone with the herbivore, because--
Kids: He would eat it!
Gail: Yup. He'd stand trial for the murder later, of course, but that would be too late for the poor victim. Also, the herbivore can't be left alone with the beans for the same reason.
Kids: It's not murder if it's a plant!
Gail: Right. ANYWAY. What's the most efficient way for the farmer bear to get all his purchases across the river without anything or anybody getting eaten?
[The kids form small groups along the river and divvy up the animals.]
Kid1: I want the dragon! She's a predator!
Kid 2: Awwww. What's the zebra's name? She's an herbivore, right?
Bear: You know, I could swim across. And I think I'll try eating just one of the magic beans...
[Note: Bear ALWAYS disrupts math time. --ed.]
Gail: Now, be gentle! If you pick someone up by the ear and toss him around, you'll probably lose a finger or two. It's happened to kids at church. Bitten clean off. And don't blame me. I'm just sayin'.
Kids: [Giggle]

Here are some pictures from that day, in early December of 2013:

The kids loved the activity. The animals loved it too, but I'm afraid they kept getting distracted. After entirely too much roughhousing with each other, I told them sternly that if they couldn't behave, they wouldn't be invited back. That settled them down...mostly.

It took some kids longer than others, but eventually everyone worked out a good solution. The "boats" were just sheets of paper, but it helped the kids to model the problem tangibly and visually. ("What if we send the bear and the beans, come back! The tiger is eating the unicorn! Well, what if we put the bear and the unicorn in the boat...?")

Okay, fine. There were also distracting gruesome chomping noises and dying screams and an argument about the unicorn fighting back with her horn in there, too. So they didn't always stay on task. That's part of the fun! ("Nomnomnom!!! Aaaaaargh!!!" [Scuffle] [Death rattle])


Once that was over, we worked on another one all together:

"Three carnivorous, predator animals, and three herbivorous "prey" animals all need to cross a river. They have a boat which can fit at most two animals at a time. At no point, on either shore or in the boat, can the carnivores outnumber the herbivores, because then somebody would get eaten. The boat cannot cross the river un'manned'. What is the most efficient way to get everyone across the river without anybody getting eaten?"

I sat back and let the kids do all the work. Well, I refereed a little like "Let Gertrude tell her idea", but I let them do all the thinking. They got that one, too!

Obviously, this coming school year, I will need to try something more...tricksy.

I wonder if I could adapt the Konigsberg bridge problem for stuffed animals....?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Letter Game: Eric

Dear Mom,

War was declared recently. I found out last night. I decided to join the army because we’re poor and the job pays well. Dad joined as well, leaving you with my six younger brothers and sisters, and no relief parent. Poor mama, how she suffers. I’ll send you my pay. I hope you stay sane.



Richard, you sneaking scoundrel! Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Your father has always been a ne’er do well – you know I don’t try to hide that, because I believe in being brutally honest  -- but I had hoped for better things from you.

I haven’t scrimped and saved all these years to keep you in school so that you could throw it all away in a stupid civil war! And you didn’t even tell me which side you’ve joined! And if you HAD to encourage your father to run away from home, couldn’t you and he have joined OPPOSITE sides? That way the family would hedge our bets. If our village changed hands several times, we could tell the occupying forces “Oh, I have a husband in your army” or “I have a son in your army”. And, that way, we’d be guaranteed that at least one currency would be worth something when the dust settles.

“You’ll send your pay.” Oh, joy. Do you have ANY IDEA what confederate greenbacks were worth at the end of the American Civil War? Of course you don’t, because you never paid any attention to your teacher, no matter how many times I screamed at you to do better, and yelled at him to be more interesting. I despair, I really do.

You’ve joined the communist rebellion, haven’t you? Aaargh! Did it occur to you to think about this at all, first? They’re communists. They don’t like money. They don’t have a stable government, they don’t print their own currency, they can’t pay their fighters. They’re probably getting funding from Ruskya for supplies, so hopefully you’ll get free food (some of the time) and a working gun, but how that will help me and your siblings? And even if you got paid in rublern, it’s not like I can use it locally!

Also, I’m worried you’ll get yourself killed. And if that happened, it would encourage Mitchell to follow suit.

I will keep the farm and family going as long as I can, but if things get bad, I will take them and flee to Shock Rock.

Also, remember to change your underwear frequently. And make sure the latrines are always placed far away from the water supply! More soldiers die from disease than from combat. That’s another you thing you’d know if you’d ever paid attention in history class. Or science. You’re hopeless at science!

I hope you know I love you. Even though you drive me crazy and I yell at you a lot. It’s only because I’m worried about you. And – oh, just  quit the army RIGHT NOW and come home and be a doctor!

Your furious mother

Dear Mother,

I would like to clear up a few misunderstandings.

First, I paid more attention in school than you realize. Sure, I got bored and distracted at times, but I still learned a lot. You act like I learned nothing, which is totally incorrect.

Second, I didn’t join the communists. I joined the loyalist forces, under King Fredrick of Chrenyin. I’m not entirely sure which side Dad joined, or why you want me to come home and be a doctor, sorry.

Also, the army is somewhat boring, and to entertain, I told my tentmates stories about your childhood, which I heard from my grandmother. I realized later that those stories were very embarrassing, and I regretted telling them. How can I ever make up for what I’ve done?



Cpt. Chen
32nd Company, 2nd division, Loyalist Forces

Dear Sir:

I hope my boy isn’t causing you too much trouble. I know he’s lazy and immature, but I’m sure you’ll beat that obnoxious streak right out of him. It seems impossible that anyone could make a real man out of him, but maybe the army can do it. Remember not to coddle him! If he complains about blisters or heat exhaustion or dehydration or a stomach ache or a broken wrist or any other minor ailment, just ignore him. He whines a lot.

But can you please check and make sure he eats his vegetables? I’m afraid he’ll be so homesick he’ll lose his appetite. You might need to get his messmates together and have them force food down his throat. Remember the stewed turnips! He claims to hate them, but I know they’re secretly his favorite food.

Now, for the reason I’m writing: I’m concerned about his embarrassing habit.  I so hate to embarrass my son, but I feel that national security is more important. I don’t want the deaths of his comrades upon my conscience, and he’s so sensitive, he might neglect to mention it.

He’s always been a sleepwalker. Once, on a camping trip, he started trying to climb a mountain in the dark in only his underwear. When his buddies tried to wake him up, he freaked out and started fighting them. They were lucky to restrain him before anyone suffered a serious fall. That was frightening, of course, but it was really weird how he yodeled the entire time.

What if he did something similar near enemy lines?

Probably the best thing you could do with him would be to re-assign him to a support position deep behind the lines. Maybe if he were put in on latrine duty? That would be a good job for someone of his limited intellectual abilities. If you must keep in with the forward infantry, may I respectfully suggest you put a leash on him and gag him at night?

I hope I can count on your discretion about all this. Whatever you do, please don’t show this letter to his buddies. I would hate for him to get teased about all this.

Thanks for your time and attention.


Mei Ling Chiang

Dear Mother,
That letter was extremely embarrasing. [sic]

And Captain Chen took it seriously! I was lucky to convince him not to transfer me to the 17th company. Also, the captian’s [sic] second-in-command/assistant saw your letter and decided to tell his freidns [sic] that embarrasing [sic] story about me climbing a mountain in my underwear. His freinds [sic] told their freinds [sic], and soon the entire COMPANY knew a garbled and far more embarrasing [sic] version of the story.

A few days later, the second-in-command resigned. He said he couldn’t bear the guilt of having told such an embarrassing story. I might have been promoted to replace him, but the captain didn’t want a complainer as his second-in-command. And that’s what he thougt [sic] I was, having read your letter. So instead of me, some guy named Ming got the position.
You’ve ruined my career. I might recover, but not while you send embarrassing letters. So try to be more tactful next time. And please, THINK IT THROUGH before you send another letter!

Your humiliated son
P.S. You never said how to make up. Also your letter was wrong about a few things. I’ll explain later.

Dear son,

Welcome to the army. I KNEW it would involve hazing and humiliation. I was just trying to teach you that lesson earlier rather than later. (Well, I HOPED I would succeed in getting you away from the front lines, but I knew that was a long shot. Public disgrace was plan B.)

You’re far better off abandoning your delusions now. It’s much better to be a clear-eyed realist when facing short rations, awful sanitation (and smells), mayhem, gore, and death. I have done you a favor, in the long run. You’ll thank me some day.

There’s an old saying: “Eat a raw toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Of course, your current embarrassment is nothing compared to siege and starvation, capture and torture, but I can’t help that. I’ve learned that I’m better off not obsessing about things I can’t control.

By the way, remember to brush your teeth every day! I don’t want my boy coming home—assuming you DO come home—with missing teeth. It would make it even harder for you to find a nice wife, which would make it harder for me to acquire grandbabies to spoil rotten. I’m trying to be positive, though. Since you’ll probably come home—assuming you DO come home, alive—missing some other body parts. A few fingers, a nose, maybe even a leg or two. Compared to that, a few missing teeth will be nothing.

Still, ANY missing body parts would make it harder for you to find a wife. And I doubt you’ll meet any nice girls in the army. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of beginning negotiations on your behalf now. If we can get some kind of contract signed, it will be harder for Jun Kwong to wiggle out of the engagement after you return maimed. You remember Jun Kwong, right? Such a nice girl. A few years older than you, of course, but still well within child bearing years! I’m surprised nobody else has expressed an interest in marrying her; she’s so strong and truthful! She’d be a real worker, someone who could deliver a baby at noon and be back to helping you with the hay harvest three hours later. She reminds me a lot of me. SUCH a nice girl.

As to ruining your career, I don’t believe it. You might be promoted to sergeant without an education, but then you’d hit a dead end. If you wanted to be an officer, you’d need to finish school.

Now, as to how you can make it up to me that you told embarrassing stories about me to your tentmates? Are you really that dense? That letter to Captain Chen was my revenge! How do you expect to get promoted when you have no sense of strategy or tactics? Oh, right. You expect to get promoted precisely because you have NO understanding of strategy, or tactics, or realism, or how the world works. I despair, I really do.

All that effort, and I’m afraid you haven’t even learned your lesson. No wonder you did so horribly in school, you dolt! Now come home right now and study to be a doctor!

Your loving mother.

P.S. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU LOST YOUR FATHER???? He may be a ne’er do well drunken spendthrift who never supported his family or listened to me, but I am rather attached to him. But I just remembered what my herbalist said about staying positive and not obsessing about things I can’t control. Deep breaths.  I’m sure it will be fine.

But have you tried looking in all the local bars? Oh, speaking of bars, remember to practice your ukulele every day. That is, until you lose your first few fingers.


Dear mother,

You have a good point, but it will take a bit more than that to get me to quit the army.

Also, about Jun Kwong, why on Earth would I want to marry her? She gave me cooties when I was 7 and again when I was 9. And my best friend refused to invite me to his birthday party because I had cooties. And also, when I was 15, my buddies and I pulled a prank on our teacher and Jun Kwong told on us even after we swore her to secrecy. No way will I marry her.

Another thing. Why do you want grandbabies? You still have 5 kids at home. Besides, I’m a little young to be getting married.

Dear Son,

Well, your father finally dragged himself home. He was in a state: bedraggled and filthy, with lice swarming through his matted hair. His arm was in a sling, which helps to explain why he had abandoned all attempts at personal grooming, but still, I found it very unattractive. He tried to claim the broken arm was a heroic war wound, but I suspect he was injured in an inglorious bar brawl. He’s probably AWOL from the army, too, which means soon enough we’ll have constables here harassing us.

Speaking of unattractive people, I’m so happy to hear that your objections to Jun Kwong have nothing to do with her appearance. It’s so shallow to judge people because of things they can’t control, like huge feet and disfiguring smallpox scars. Sadly, most of the other boys in the village think she’s ugly, which I find sad. She’s a beautiful person inside, and I’m glad you recognize that. This is your chance to capitalize on an under-valued asset. (I’ve been reading up on financial investments. Since your father will never support his family, it falls to me to provide the cash necessary to get your siblings an education.)

Now, as to your other objections, I am rolling my eyes. You know I try not to interfere with your life, but really! If you think you’re old enough to run away from home, join the army, and –ha!—become an officer, you ought to be old enough to give up ridiculous notions of cooties. And even if she did have cooties, you should be man enough to handle it! Your father has HEAD LICE, but you don’t hear me complaining! I suffer in silence!!!

As to Jun Kwong being a tattletale, I assure you she’s outgrown that. Be charitable of the mistakes she made in her youth. After all, do I still hold grudges about all the idiotic things you did when you were that age? Do I sit at the ladies sewing circle and whine about how, when you were fourteen, you told your best friend our strategy for the village “capture the scarf” game, and he betrayed you to his team, and we lost horribly for the first time in THIRTY YEARS? Do I continue to blame the entire thing on you, five years later? Of COURSE not. I forgive you for being young and stupid, because that’s what mature adults do. Besides, Jun Kwong was acting out of conscience, trying to respect the teacher.

Also, you’re never too young to get married. Just look at me! I married your father when I was sixteen, and we’re still going strong.

Since you don’t have any substantive objections to Jun Kwong, I’ve gone ahead with the marriage negotiations. If you came home right now, you could get married promptly. I could be a gram within a year! In fact, your child could grow up with his or her aunt or uncle. Because, just between you and me, I think I will be delivering another sibling for you, in about eight or nine months. Hopefully THIS time your father will stick around and deal with his responsibilities.



P.S. I hear there was an outbreak of dysentery or cholera or typhoid or whatever they call it. Something awful involving diarrhea, anyway. Please be careful in camp and wash your hands scrupulously, especially before you eat. Of course, if you’d ever paid attention in science class and studied medicine like I wanted, you’d already know that.

Dear Mother,

I don’t care what you say, but I stubbornly refuse to marry Jun Kwong.

But anyway, you said you were pregnant. How miserable you must be. When you were pregnant with my baby sister Rowen, you were vomiting all over, and it was brutal. That might have been a one-time thing, but I don’t think so, given what happened with my little brother John. I know you think it impolite to complain about those things, but it’s fine. Really.



P.S. The outbreak was of typhoid. You couldn’t identify it, but I could, so I’m better than you at medicine. Ha.

Dearest darlingest Richard,

I can see that I pushed too hard about Jun Kwong. I’m sorry that you felt threatened and emasculated by my harmless suggestion. (But really, if you weren’t interested, whyever didn’t you just SAY SO in the first place? You men are so passive aggressive, I despair, I really do.) You know I’m not the kind to flail the undead horse with nagging. That just causes maggots to feed on an unhealthy relationship. So we’ll just forget the whole thing.

Also, don’t worry about hurting Jun Kwong’s feelings. I’ve talked to her – SUCH a nice girl – and she said she understands. She said she’s “probably happier being alone than married to an immature guy who wastes my considerable dowry on gambling.” So mature. She would have been delighted to use her dowry to assist us in our penury (SUCH a nice girl, and so non-judgmental about your father running off AGAIN), but she appreciated your honesty and has moved on, so you don’t need to feel guilty about breaking her heart or abandoning us to abject poverty again. Though, really, it’s actually easier when your father isn’t around, because then at least he doesn’t waste the meagre funds I earn from taking in washing.

Now, about typhoid, of COURSE you could identify it better than I could since you’re on the scene. You probably overheard some of the field nurses discussing it. Not to say that you couldn’t be a great doctor if you tried. I’ve been telling you that for years.

Though if you really wanted to be a doctor, you could come home and take care of your ailing mama. You’re right about this pregnancy being miserable. I vomit several times a day, and it’s so frustrating. If I’m not going to keep anything down, I shouldn’t waste it. I should instead parcel out the nourishment among your younger siblings. But then, I think of the baby, and I think I should try to eat for its sake. I want it to grow up healthy and strong like its oldest brother.

Speaking of which, when you put your foot down about Jun Kwong, I realized that you really are all grown up, mostly. I guess it’s time to let go and admit you’re an adult and back off. If you MUST be a soldier, just make sure you’re a really good one. Except don’t go on any insane berserker charges to the front because you could get killed that way.

Actually, your example of decisiveness has inspired me to divorce your father. I’m better off without him. It’s not pretty, but it is a resolution. I’m sorry if this news distracts you from your mission of patriotism or whatever it is you’re fighting for.



P.S. Please forgive any bloodstains on this letter. I’m afraid my knuckles are raw from all the laundry I’ve been doing. I guess we’ll all just need to get used to that. You just focus on being the best soldier you can and don’t worry about us.

P.P.S. I just heard a rumor that you’ve won a major victory and the war will soon be over.

P.P.P.S. It's true! I'm so relieved! Oh, now you can come home and help out with all the young'uns. Unless you'd rather go to college, of course. I expect there will be a program to help soldiers get through school. There's a very promising medical tech program at the local university...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Naggy Boy

My boss promised to get me his customer rewards information so I could make an important business purchase.

"Nag me about it if I don't get it to you tomorrow" he said.

That was five days ago.


Day 1: "Sweet reason and gentle persuasion."

Lovely, lilting, lyrical song.

(Remember I only got a few "takes" before the boys rioted. Also, there was some coughing because of my asthma flare-up. I am "fighting perfectionism" by publishing anyway. Brave, I am.)


Nag nag nag nag, I need that Staples info, Tim,
Nag nag nag nag, about all your rewards.
Nag nag nag nag, and if you don't deliver soon,
Nag nag nag nag, I'll loose the boy sword hordes.

Nag nag nag NAG, I'd like to buy that laptop now.
Nag nag nag whine! You're almost out of time.
Nag nag nag SCREEEEEECH! Just think -- as soon as you give in,
Instead of nags, in peace, shall silence reign sublime.


Day 2: "Howler"






Day 3: "The Sabbath is a Day of Rest"

I took the day off. Ah, silence.


Day 4: "Loose the boy sword horde!"


You don't suppose he's waiting just because it's entertaining to see what I come up with next, do you?

Sorry, Tim. That's as good as it gets. No "Day 5" tomorrow: I'm going on strike. I REFUSE TO NAG YOU ANYMORE until I get what I want!!!

P.S. I love my job.


Day 5 Update: The Heavens are opened! Going on strike worked where all the previous nags did not. (Actually, I suspect he was out of town.)

It would have served him right if the sale had expired, thus negating the effect of his rewards coupons -- but I eschew further needling.

I sent this message, instead:

"Good job! I KNEW you could do it!
"I understand that people who struggle against the adversity of attention deficit disorder have an extra hard time getting stuff done, so I want to award you this SPECIAL TROPHY in recognition of your achievement. I'm sooooo proud of you!!!"

So is it worse to prod or to patronize?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Math Club: Fractals

We did some fun math club activities last school year (2013-2014). I took pictures and promised my kids I'd publish them eventually. Yes, I waited until the very end of the summer, but we haven't actually re-started yet, so I think I squeaked in under the deadline. ;)

Here's one we did on March 25, 2014.

I talked to the kids a little about fractals and drew a rough Sierpenski triangle on the board. Here's a much better version than my poor freehand:

We talked about some basic principles of fractals, which was challenging, since I don't really understand them. Basically, you take a shape and repeat it a lot, on different scales. In a cool pattern.

We also did a quick Koch Snowflake:

And I mentioned Vi Hart videos: and Hart

I also brought up a google image search to inspire them. (See some examples below.)


But enough boring adult lecturing! At math club, we minimize that as much as possible. Time to turn the kids loose! We distributed paper and crayons and colored pencils and some rulers. "Draw something fractal-ly," I said. "Or fractal-ish or fractal-like. Whatever. Just draw!" And this is what they came up with:








Meanwhile, a helpful parent -- there are so many of those, bless them all! -- wrote a resource on the board:

The kids chatted and compared notes while they worked, which is part of the draw of math club.

I took pictures of as much art as the creators permitted. (Some kids were shy.) I also tried to match the artwork to the kids as much as possible. My apologies for the unlabeled/unattached ones below! I'm pretty sure those creators declined to be included. Still, if any of my math kids feel slighted, please let me know. I can always add (or delete) more artwork to this post.

Below are some examples I pulled off a google image search. Amazing pictures! --But I like my students' stuff better.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Letter Game: Daniel

[Last week, I had an Inspired idea.

The kids need a structured writing assignment each week. I've wanted to play the letter game for years but could never find a willing partner in crime. Epiphany: Why not combine them?
I have hapless guinea pigs under my tutelage. I can MAKE them play the game with me, and call it an inviolable homeschool assignment! The idea is that Eric or Daniel would write a "persona" (in-character) letter to me. The first letter should give the setting and a reason why the characters are apart.

I encountered this idea when I read Sorcery and Cecilia, a charming book by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. It was adorable! The best thing is when they throw characters or plot points at each other with an obvious "Ha! What will you do about THAT?" challenge.

I've decided to publish the letters as we go so everyone can watch the story unfold. The boys, knowing they will be published, should (in theory) be inspired to demonstrate good writing mechanics. (
I'll edit and ask them to revise mistakes, but if they refuse, I'll just publish with an embarrassing [sic].) I get blog material. My readers get entertained. Win/win/win!

Okay, yes, it's quite possible that three months in there will instead be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let's enjoy the initial enthusiasm for as long as it lasts, okay?]

Here's the first letter, written by Daniel, July 22, 2014:

Dear Joseph,

While I am aboard the LCS Terminator, I hear you are working nearly 24-7 as an assistant ship mechanic in my absence.

Hopefully, once you learn to act like a mindless drone, you will begin to like your boooooooooring job.



Dear David,

How nice that your ship launches on Pioneer Day. You're a modern-day pioneer, heading out into space on a lunar colony ship! (At least, I assume that's what you mean. How embarrassing if you're departing on a vessel charted by the Licensed Clinical Sociopaths or Libertine Curmudgeonly Snoods.)

I don't think you fully realize what you're getting yourself in for, though. Remember the old song "Pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked, and walked...". Has it occurred to you that you'll be on your ship for a very, very long time? Granted you'll have books to read and movies to watch, but you'll also be sharing your cramped cabin with three cranky roommates--and it's not like you'll be able to move out or find a change of scenery or get a breath of fresh air. You're stuck.

Meanwhile, I put in an eight-hour shift -- yes, I pulled some over-time last month, but nothing like your exaggerations -- fixing things while watching all the ships come into dock and leave again. Every new arrival and departure involves drama, and you wouldn't believe the trouble the tourists cause. Just today the customs officials discovered a pet monkey disguised as a baby. The monkey, understandably resisting arrest, climbed to the very top of the dome and led the authorities a merry chase for two hours. I got to watch the whole thing while working on the #2 engine of an old-fashioned chemical rocket. After they finally lured the imp down with food, they threw the owner in jail. Scuttlebut is he's facing a really heavy fine: bad enough he tried to violate the quarantine, but his animal got loose and threw biological contagions around. (You should have seen the poop splatters on the custom agents' uniforms. The monkey had great aim. Ewww.)

That kind of thing happens all the time, here. Meanwhile, you're probably discovering just how small and loud your tin can of a ship is. I bet there are young families with babies, and the babies cry all the time. Is the Terminator one of those older ships in which they make people share the sleeping bunks in shifts? Watch out for head lice.

I'm going to meet Kay and Lenny for dinner and then get some sleep. My cubicle may be small, but at least it's private and well-insulated.

At least the ansible means our letters can transit instantaneously. If I'm not too busy, I'll try to write to you sometimes. I consider it my charitable duty to help you stay entertained.



Dear Joseph,

It is good to hear that you will have a last meal with the soon-to-be soldiers who leave for the LCS Terminator tomorrow morning if that helps you and your forgetfulness about dates. Meanwhile, I get to work with the new light converter engine and get my own comfortable, roomy, windowed, cabin with several entertainment systems, and everyone has their own cabin; your space station is half the size of the Terminator. (No wonder you’re working on chemical engines (which are three times as loud as ours).) Have fun working constantly.



Dear David,

You always loved to exaggerate. A ship that’s twice the size of the space station it launches from? Good grief. The economic insanity of each person having his own cabin aboard a honkin’ COLONY ship is absolutely ridiculous. Like they aren’t going to cram the humans together to make room for the heavy terraforming equipment--! Don’t get me started. I suppose that if you had been a Separatist aboard the original Mayflower (look it up on the lunar wiki), you would have claimed that the captain had graciously offered you his cabin because of your seasickness.

Let’s not argue about it anymore, though. Instead, let’s argue about you kidnapping my friends. THAT was a low blow. I can’t believe Kay and Lenny left their jobs here to head to  NewNieuwNueva Amsterdam. What good is 400 acres and a tractor if the terraforming is still 50 years away from finishing stage 2?  I know you’re an insane optimist who…well, I can’t think of a tactful way to say you lie all the time, so I’ll just say it. They ought to know better than to trust you by now, but they were always slow learners. What did you promise them this time? Shame on you, exploiting them that way! You may expect a blistering letter from your mom, by the way. She’s even more upset about it than I am, seeing as how you’ve stolen her hydroponics assistant.

I admit am jealous of the light converter engine. It still seems fantastic. Do you remember when we were kids and the latest generation of matter converter engines came online? There we were, in 7th grade recess, drooling over the specs…and the artificial gravity went out. I recall watching helplessly as the data pad floated straight into the sewage intake.

I keep wondering about the LCS Terminator. I pulled up the specs for it, and, as I suspected, your descriptions of spacious, personal cabins is exaggerated by an order of magnitude, but even so, I can’t see how the Centauri Colony Company can afford that level of luxury. I would expect you all to be crammed into cryostorage pods, to be honest. They must have a wealthy investor, but who?

By the way, I am studying for my technician’s license. I’ve done some work as an apprentice on modern matter converter engines, but as soon as I pass my test, I can work independently, as a journeyman. I’m working my way up the ladder while you’re still rattling around aimlessly. Looks like I’m on track to win our 10 year bet.

Crankily yours,


Dear Joseph,

I don’t have much time to write this, but I’ll try to fill you in.

Our military blockade has been breached and a small fleet of battleships is headed your way.
As a beam of light, we should arrive a day before that hostile fleet. Start evacuation IMMEDIATELY when we arrive.

Spread the word.



Dear David,

I thought your message was a joke until I saw the news reports. I had barely been following the news lately, and had been only vaguely aware of a blockade in the Gaullic system. (What the snarkle got into them? Is this like the time they rioted because they were sick of the wintry weather on their planet?)

Anyway, I’m not taking the “war” all that seriously because it looks like they have a disorganized military. I suspect they managed to get this far by surprise but will be driven back within a few weeks. Nonetheless, we’ve been ordered to evacuate the space station as a precaution. (Your mom is furious that she must abandon her plants. Apparently she’d just transplanted a rare variety of Arcanium Snaptrap and it needs hourly tending to turn out right. Now she’ll need to “plow them under” and start over. You might know that if you ever wrote to her, which is another thing she’s livid about.)

It’s preposterous to think that everyone on Lunar Station could fit on your ship. Have you even looked at the specs of the vessel you’re serving on? Don’t blame me if you get fired.

Meanwhile, those old chemical engines you disparaged have been ferrying Lunar citizens to Earth with great dispatch. It reminds me of the Battle of Dunkirk, except that one involved heroics and this is just politicians panicking.

I doubt I’ll see you when you arrive, since I should be back on Earth, “protected” from the “threat” by their orbital “defenses” by then. Still, if I do see you, I’ll also get to watch your mother greet you. I’m snorting already at the thought. Remember the time you ate her prize marsizures, which upset the delicate ecobalance in her greenhouse? I will always cherish the memory of her dumping a bucket of beetles over your head in the hallway at school, in front of Yolanda Snodgrass. Let’s just say she’s even MORE upset this time. Snicker.


Dear Joseph,

We were attacked by a battleship and it slowed us down.

I’m sorry to hear you were captured and are in a dungeon.

I have arrived and found that your space station has been blown up.

Earth is being ruled by Sue Miller for fear of her creating a solar flare so big it consumes Earth.

Hope things improve,


Dear David,

Ha! The hologram of the ruined station fooled you, too! Don’t feel too bad. It worked on the Gauls, of course, but it also “got” several other ships. Of course, those were freighter or passenger ships, not–snicker—“war” ships commanded by supposed military geniuses, but that’s okay. I’m sure your captain is a lovely person, even if he’s a few neutrons short of critical mass.

I’m also glad our disinformation campaign is working. We hacked into the Gauls network a little. Not much, but enough to adjust their prisoner manifest. This is a big secret by the way, and if it got out, I could get in trouble for “loose lips”, but I just can’t resist bragging. Plus our encryption keys are so amazing, I don’t see how the Gauls could crack them.

Anyway. I am most certainly NOT in a dungeon. I’m in a “secure undisclosed location” working on an amazing project vital to solar security. Granted the d├ęcor is a bit lacking, but I’m doing such amazing work and learning so many new things about technology! I’m afraid I really can’t give you details, though. It’s well below your security clearance and I’ve said too much already.

I am sorry to report that your mom is stuck on Earth. She’s going to be very, VERY cranky that you didn’t get to us in time to defend the space station. Our evacuation went surprisingly well, but there are always hiccups in that sort of thing. Her confrontation with the pilot who wanted to use her plants as reactor mass will become legendary, I’m sure. I really hope somebody got a picture of him flying the ship with spiked gripple fronds shoved up his nose. Anyway, if she did that to him, imagine what she’s going to do to you. It was bad enough when she was ranting about paying taxes to a stupid space navy that couldn’t even protect a station a mere 3.8 x 10^5 kilometers away, but now that she’s stuck on the gravity well of Earth while Sue Miller holds it hostage? Oh, I bet she’s livid.

P. S. One of your ex-girlfriends is here. I can’t tell you which one, but I CAN tell you that she has lots of…interesting…stories about you.

Dear Joseph,

Nice try, but I saw through your act. As we approached the space station, we saw another ship fly through a large chunk of it. Later on, we also discovered remains (debris) of it.

So, I know you completely destroyed the station as “scorched Earth policy” then set up a hologram to make the station still look intact.

You must have taken an escape pod to Earth and then been captured. I’ve hacked into the records of Sue Miller and I see the rest of your party were all executed.

I also know you’re in a padded cell. Since you think it’s a secret science lab, you’re obviously crazy. When you stop denying reality, they may release you to mine coal. Sure, you’ll have laser drills but you’ll still be in a bad condition since they can’t even afford a simple mining suit.

Our fleet will be there soon and hopefully we can get you out.



Dear David,

You really ought to have more faith in me. Granted, I didn’t share ALL the details in my last letter, but that’s because I know better than to offer top-secret intelligence in an unsecured channel.

Congratulations on figuring out the space station “mirage.” I wish I’d had more time to program it so it was more interactive to external stimuli like ships docking. A really good program would have shown explosions if a ship had “rammed” it. I DID have time to program a docking scenario, though. As I watched from my escape pod, I saw an enemy ship approach the station, clamp on, and then begin disembarking personnel. The look on the face of the first few people who “stepped” onto the station, only to fall into the void of space? Priceless. They figured it out quickly and only lost two crewmembers, but still. I’m including a picture for your enjoyment. (Don’t worry; I also programmed a warning for friendly ships not to attempt that procedure.)

Now, as to my current status – yes, I was captured by the forces loyal to Sue Miller and placed in confinement, as were the rest of my group. And, yes, we were all slated for execution.

You may imagine my despair that night as I faced my mortality. I confess I didn’t see any way out of the situation. The thought of our friends…your mom…all of us facing death at dawn…well, it led to some bleak introspection.

You may, then, also imagine my surprise when my cell door creaked open several hours early. I looked up, apprehensively…and saw a blood-spattered monkey holding a set of security keys. The juxtaposition was jarring: she smelled like a skunk had rolled around in month-old pee and dead bodies, but she looked like a shining vision of Valkyrian redemption.

Let me back up. Do you remember the monkey? Several letters ago, I mentioned one climbing the dome, stealing stuff, and throwing poo at security guards? Well, apparently in all the confusion, she escaped custody and stowed away in my escape pod. Also, apparently she has a…Thing…about authority. Show her anyone in a security guard uniform, and she goes berserk. I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course; I’ve been trying to interpolate what happened as best I can since the rescue.

As nearly as we can reconstruct, she escaped custody in all the chaos on the station, stowed away in one of the escape pods, and hid from the guards who arrested the humans. Then she snuck out of the pod, went on a rampage against the guards, killed some, and stole their wallets, keys, personal electronics, and nose boogers. (No accounting for taste, ew.) Then she let me out. It took a lot of persuasion to get her to hand over the keys, but after a promise of the best meal she’s ever had, she handed them over. I’m still not sure how much she understands, but she does seem to have at least a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. Anyway. I organized a jail break and rescued all the prisoners I could find. No doubt you’ll be thrilled to hear your mom is one of them; I covered for you and didn’t tell her that in your last letter you neglected to express any concern for her safety. You’re welcome, not that you deserve it.

To throw the security forces off our scent, we falsified the records to show all the prisoners had been executed as ordered. Then we snuck away and established a base. And, YES, it includes a science lab. And NO, I won’t tell you where it’s located. No offense, but I don’t trust you to be discreet. When this is all over, I’ll buy you a drink if we’re both still alive. I can tell you all about the details, and you can tell me glorious lies about your exploits.

It is good to hear from you. You may be unreliable and untruthful, but I do enjoy your letters. They give me something to look forward to. A little bit of comedy diversion is a good thing when one is working with weaponized [censored] in lethal doses.

P.S. I’ve included a super-encrypted file with intelligence on Miller. Please forward it to your C.O.: he’ll know what to do with it. If your ships really will be in range, soon, it would be nice if you could, I don’t know, bomb her HQs or something.



Dear Joseph,

I note that you never mentoned [sic] anything after making camp. I have also been doing things. Here’s the important stuff: I got up, got breakfast, went to the engine room for a few hours, took a lunch break.



Dear David,

As I recall, your first letter to me mocked me for my boring life. Since then I have evacuated a space station, been unjustly imprisoned, gotten rescued by a psychopathic monkey, and then I joined a top-secret resistance cell in which I get to be a mad scientist doing awesome experiments while also fighting to Sue the Tyrant.

Meanwhile, you’re eating. Nice. So, I’m Gandalf and you’re a hobbit who stayed in the shire. Well, to each his own.

I can’t talk long; I need to go check on another lab experiment now. Hopefully the tomatoes only liquefied but didn’t actually disintegrate.

Assuming I can get the tomatoes to generalize to people, and assuming I get the settings on the death ray right, I think the war could end soon and we could return to our normal lives. Maybe we’ll both be war heroes! That should help us find girlfriends, right?



Dear Joseph,

I find it odd that you would quote a 21st century video, but then you were always interested in past tech.

We have called in an air strike and I was surprised to see how terrible her air defenses were. (I think they might have interfered with her master plan.)

I guess she didn’t expect anyone to rise up. We have defeated Sue Miller and destroyed her machines.
I look forward to meeting you in our new base. (Sue Miller’s lair.)