Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lessons from National Geographic

Since starting RPM a year and a half ago, my way of teaching Philip has evolved and expanded.  In the beginning, I didn’t really know where to start.  Philip would have been in the fourth grade, but at his school, they did not have grade levels and he was still trying to identify coins and match digits 1-5 with the corresponding number of blocks.  I did not know what he knew.  I started by using my second grade daughter’s take-home papers from school.  I taught Philip about habitats and communities and had him complete fill-in-the-blank vocabulary sheets.  From my friend Susan, I learned about some good curriculum guides which I started one year below grade level and quickly got him caught up to grade level.  I used What Your Third Grader Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Steck-Vaughn Focus on Science, and McGraw Hill U.S. History.  For the longest time I could not get Philip to answer simple math questions like “what comes after 21?” or “how do we write 16?”  Susan gave me a tip she learned from her son Michael who is 4 years older than Philip and also learned from Soma.  He told his mom, “Start at a high level and then bring it down if necessary.”  When I expressed my frustration with Philip’s inability to do math, she suggested I put a handful of coins on the table and ask him to show me the value.  I thought there was no way he would be able to.  That night I tried it and lo and behold, we had our math breakthrough as he pointed on the letterboard the correct amount to the penny.

As Philip moved beyond just answering academic questions to being able to answer open ended questions and give his opinions, I started trying to pick topics that were more relevant to what was going on in the moment like the Olympics or the Oscars.  Oftentimes when there was a day off from school, it would be a holiday like Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  It gave me a reason to teach him about these historical figures and their significance.  I learned about the iPad app called Brain Pop from another blog of a parent called Emma’s Hope Book.  I began expanding on lessons with Brain Pop to fill in the gaps about interesting subjects related to what we were studying.  For example, Philip and I got into reading all sorts of biographies.  After reading a biography on Jonas Salk who developed the polio vaccine, we did Brain Pop lessons on vaccines and the immune system.  I was learning right alongside him.  It was fun! 

Another source of teaching has been through our church’s Stockade program.  Similar to Boy Scouts, Philip earns badges for achievements.  I help Philip do his achievements which range from learning how to take care of the environment, Biblical studies, going to Dad’s workplace, and knowing our rights and responsibilities as citizens.  Philip is so proud each time he gets a badge or a treat from the prizebox.    
Recently we have been making good use of the National Geographic subscription we got for Christmas from Philip’s grandparents.  Before Philip gets home from school, I preselect a few interesting pictures from the magazine that Philip will have the opportunity to write about, whether a story, poem, or essay.  After choosing the picture, I read him excerpts of the article related to the picture and do an academic lesson.  At the end he writes his piece about the photograph.  Today Philip chose this photo of flood zone squatters in Manila:

The corresponding article was entitled “Rising Seas.”  We talked about global warming and its causes, how sea levels rise, and the possible consequences.   We particularly looked at Miami, where we used to live, and how the rising sea levels has been posing a threat to Florida’s freshwater supply.  After Philip answered some questions on the reading, he wrote this poem based on the picture.

I Know a Plan

My family is poor.

I plan to venture to the States of America.

We live in slums overlooking the sea.

The sea releases each sort of debris.

It stinks.

Son to mean world

I rinse myself to wash away the torment of each day.

I wash away my past

like the rising tide swallowing our land.

I kiss this life goodbye.

I know a plan.

Dream to make haste to a kind, gentle world.

I leave now.

I won’t look back.


  1. Beautiful! I am using National Geographic pictures to elicit some good conversation. Your instincts are fabulous, Lisa. Keep up the good work.

  2. Can we connect? I need to be infused with confidence and learning. I am going to start RPM with my son but always resist. He is really smart and knowt hat there is so much in there. Tracy

    1. Tracy, if you are on Facebook, look me up. There is also a wonderful RPM group called Unlocking Voices- Using RPM. It's incredibly helpful to have a support group helping you through. I have to add you though since it's a closed group. Here is a post I wrote about the beginning phases of RPM.
      Resistance is a given in the beginning, but please be patient with yourself and him and keep practicing even when it's hard. Persistence is key!