Home Education Magazine
March-April 1997 - Columns
Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp
Almost everybody loves a train, from small-sized admirers of television's Thomas the Tank Engine to teen-aged students of American history, who want to know what happened to the much-talked-about Golden Spike that completed the Transcontinental Railroad. (For those who have rosy visions of driving to Promontory Point and extracting it, forget it: it's in the Smithsonian.) Our kids were first introduced to the appealing train through Watty Piper's classic The Little Engine That Could (Platt & Munk, 1930), now available in any number of editions, but all starring the determined little pale-blue train who finally ("I think I can; I think I can...") made it over the mountain with a load of toys. It's supposed to instill the virtues of courage and persistence in the very small; parents can quote bits of it comfortingly to frustrated five-year-olds, who have thrown a failed project on the floor and are stamping upon it.
For slightly older (5-9-year-old) readers, Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express (Margaret K. Wetterer; Carolrhoda, 1991) tells the brave and true tale of young Kate Shelley who saves the Midnight Express from disaster when, in July, 1881, the railroad bridge over Honey Creek breaks; another version of the same exciting story is told by Max Ginsburg in Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend (Dial, 1995), illustrated by Robert San Souci. Gail Gibbons's brightly illustrated Train (Holiday, 1988) gives interested young engineers a simple factual tour of trains, historic and modern, with illustrations of steam, diesel, and electric engines, plus boxcars, tankcars, passenger cars, refrigerator cars, and the ever-popular caboose. Look Inside Cross-Sections: Trains (Michael Johnstone; Dorling-Kindersley, 1995) shows trains from every possible angle: above, below, and sliced through the center, so that young readers can see how they work.
The Boxcar Children (Gertrude Warner; Albert Whitman & Co., 1989), a short chapter book for middle-grade readers, tells the story of four orphaned children who - rather than risk separation - run away and set up house by themselves in an abandoned boxcar; the story ends with their discovery and adoption by their very rich grandfather. There are many other books about the four children, in which they have varied adventures and solve assorted low-key mysteries; only the initial book, however, stars the Boxcar. And older readers might try E. Nesbit's The Railway Children (Dell, 1992), originally published in 1906 and still going strong, the story of three children in Edwardian England who take to the rails after their father mysteriously disappears.
Paul Goble's distinctively illustrated picture-book, The Death of the Iron Horse (Bradbury, 1987) is another true story: this is the tale of a band of young Cheyenne warriors who, on August 7, 1867, derailed a Union Pacific freight train - the fearsome Iron Horse, that breathed smoke and had a voice like thunder. The Transcontinental Railroad by Peter Anderson (Childrens Press, 1996), The "Cornerstones of Freedom" series for kids in grades 4-6 is a 32-page pro-train account of the great cross-country railroad, illustrated with photographs; also see the May 1980 issue of Cobblestone magazine, which features "The Transcontinental Railroad." (Back issues of Cobblestone magazine are usually available at libraries; they can also be ordered from Cobblestone Publishing, Inc., 7 School St., Peterborough, NH 03458-1454; (603) 924-7209 or (800) 821-0115.)
Bellerophon Books publishes a papercraft book for train-lovers, Great Trains to Cut Out and Assemble, with which kids can turn out four famous 3-D trains; the book costs $3.95 from Bellerophon Books, 36 Ancapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101; (800) 253-9943. The cream of hand-on train experiences, however, is probably the "Jensen Dry Fuel Steam Engine," a terrific little working replica of an 18th-century steam engine, of the sort used to propel early locomotives. The engine comes in pieces, which must be assembled using a few basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, and pliers); once completed, it's about eight inches tall, equipped with nickel-plated boiler, throttle valve, ear-piercing whistle, water gauge, and safety valve. The engine runs on dry fuel pellets, which are safe and simple to use. This is one marvelous little machine. Unfortunately it's also expensive - prices range around $100 - but it may be a worthwhile investment for a truly enthusiastic family of budding engineers. From Edmund Scientific Company, 101 East Gloucester Pike, Barrington, NJ 08007-1380; (609) 547-8880.
Jackdaw Publications, which specializes in theme-related packets of primary-source materials for history students, publishes a "James Watt and Steam Power" portfolio which includes six illustrated historical background essays ("Watt's Steam Engine," "Hero's Magic Machines," "Slavery and Newcomen," "James Watt," "Steam and Machines," and "Steam and People"), a detailed study guide with reproducible student worksheets and activity suggestions, and nine facsimiles of historical documents, including an engraved portrait of James Watt, photographs and diagrams of Watt's steam engine, a contemporary illustration of the first railway locomotive, and a chart illustrating the many uses of steam power. The portfolio costs $32.00, from Jackdaw Publications, P.O. Box 503, Amawalk, NY 10501; (800) 789-0022. The "Perspectives on History" series for kids aged 11 and up from Discovery Enterprises includes Iron Horses Across America: The Transcontinental Railroad, a 60+-page anthology of primary and secondary source materials on the building of the transcontinental railroad and its effect on American society. Included are maps, photographs, and period newspaper articles, letters, and journal excerpts. Each "Perspectives" volume costs $5.95; order from Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 31 Laurelwood Dr., Carlisle, MA 01741; (800) 729-1720.
Games for young train fans include Uncle Happy's Train Game (see review; HEM September/October 1995), a geography board game in which kids aged 6 and up build imaginary railroads (with erasable crayons) across a map of the United States. (About $16.00 from Mayfair Games, Inc., 5641 Howard St., Niles, IL 60714; (800) 432-4376.) Older players may be up to 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons, a dramatic game of transcontinental empire-building from Avalon Hill. Players attempt to lay track, buy trains and stations, and manipulate stocks, thus beating out opponents in the race to control the railroad industry. (The game reflects the robber-baron attitude of the times; we're building railroads here, not character.) Avalon Hill is noted for complex games of military strategy; most of these are rated by level of difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10. 1830 rates a 4, which means that it is recommended for knowledgeable players who have had some previous experience with strategy games. $30.00 from Avalon Hill Game Company, 4517 Harford Rd., Baltimore, MD 21214; (410) 254-9200 or (800) 999-3222.
For the transcontinental railroad on kid-friendly video, try This is America, Charlie Brown,Volume 3: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad, a delightful 24-minute animation in which the Peanuts kids and dog participate in the building of the coast-to-coast railroad and are present at the driving of the famous Golden Spike at Promontory Point, UT, when Atlantic and Pacific lines finally meet. About $14.00 from either Movies Unlimited, 6736 Castor Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19149; orders (800) 4-MOVIES; customer service (800) 668-4344, or Zenger Media, 10200 Jefferson Boulevard, Room 4, PO Box 802, Culver City, CA 90232-0802; (310) 839-2436 or (800) 421-4246.
And finally, for a touch of real train atmosphere, Music for Little People sells a nice wooden train whistle which makes a satisfying whoo-oo noise when tooted upon. The whistle costs $5.95 from Music for Little People, 4320 Marine Ave., Box 1720, Lawndale, CA 90260; (800) 727-2233. Use it to accompany a rousing chorus of "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
At heart, this is Monopoly for chemists. In the middle of the game board, there's a colorful chart of the periodic table; the playing path is an element-by-element tour of the table, with the exception of the lanthanide and actinide series, which are all lumped together. Elements on the playing path are identified by both chemical symbol and name, which is useful for those of us who never can remember that "Nb" stands for "niobium." The cash here - it looks just like Monopoly money, in the same Necco-wafer colors - comes in the form of "proton" and "neutron" certificates, in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100. Players start the game with an allotted stash of each; they collect 50 additional neutrons every time they work their way around the board and pass START. (Not GO.)
The object of the game is to accumulate as many protons as possible, while jockeying your opponents into proton-less atomic bankruptcy. This is done by laying claim to elements and element groups: when a player lands on an Element space, he/she can acquire the element by paying a number of neutrons equivalent to the element's number of neutrons (printed helpfully on the board). Owned elements are identified by a plastic chip in the player's chosen color (green, blue, white, red, yellow, or orange); subsequent unfortunates who land on that element must then pay the owner its worth in protons. Manage to acquire a whole group of elements - identified by matching colors on the board; the seven Group IA elements, for example, are turquoise-blue - and any player landing on any The group must pay the entire group's worth in protons. This can be horrifically expensive, and is the Elemento equivalent of slapping a Hotel on Boardwalk.
The inert gases (He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Rn, and Xe) are freebies. Players who land on these draw The 30 "ElementO Cards." ElementO Cards add human interest to the game: each lists some object or function with which a given element is associated. Examples include: "BATTERY SALE! Lithium required for rechargeable batteries. Each player gives you 3 protons." "RUST! You left Dad's tools outside. Give allowance to Iron works. Pay 6 protons." "LIGHT BULBS! Tungsten required for filament. 74 protons."
The game, to my mind, has a couple of shortcomings. For starters, no explanatory background information on the periodic table is included, which may leave absolute beginners and those non-chemist adults who haven't laid a finger on a test-tube since high school at loose ends. Before plunging into ElementO, you might want to prime your players with a book or two. (Vicki Cobb's Chemically Active!: Experiments You Can Do at Home (J.B. Lippincott, 1985), includes nice clear explanations of elements, compounds, atomic structure, and the periodic table for middle-grade kids.) Secondly, the periodic table as shown on the ElementO game board lists no atomic weights, which means that players have no opportunity to see where all those mysterious numbers of neutrons are coming from. A quick explanation of atomic number and atomic weight would add a lot to the basic premise of the game. And finally there aren't enough of those interesting ElementO Cards.
Those quibbles aside, ElementO is a real plus. It's attractive; it's fun; and players, after a few rounds of proton and neutron exchanges, will know all the elements of the periodic table by name, number, and chemical symbol, which is no small feat. (There's some nice mental arithmetic practice in there too.)
For 2 to 6 players, aged 10 and up. The game costs $31.95 plus $3.95 shipping and handling from ElementO, Lewis Educational Games, P.O. Box 727, Goddard, KS 67052; (800) 557-8777; (316) 794-8239.
A huge collection of "detective" projects for map readers in a fat 320-page spiral-bound book. The book begins with a short "Student Training Manual" which explains the basics of map-reading: direction, latitude, longitude, grids, scales, and distances. Upon completion of the Training Manual, readers are told that they have been selected for service "in the elite information-gathering corps of an ultra-secret committee known only as The Committee." And off they go, armed with a (reproducible) Data Report Form, to tour the globe. The Data Form includes a space for Agent Code Name (you pick your own); agents, as they pursue their assignments, must also fill in destination names and distances, terrain descriptions, modes and times of travel, and any special clothing or dietary needs encountered.
Assignments fall into eleven different categories: "One Country," in which kids track down sites within single countries, "World Regions," "United States Regions," and "Continental Topics," "Urban Topics," in which kids locate assortments of cities ("Forbidden Cities," "Top 10 Large Cities," "Summer Olympic Games Cities"), "Rural Cultures," "World Climatic Regions," "Specific Physical Geography" ("Islands of the World," "Historic Volcanoes," "Waterfalls"), "Human-Made Geography," "Historical Periods and Events," and "World Exploration." It's more complicated than it sounds: young gumshoes are simply given an assignment and a list of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates (10 to 12 sets per assignment); then they're on their own to track down all necessary maps and research materials.
One sample assignment: "Your job is to visit the following sacred mountains and find out about the geography of the peak and the regioin around each site. Be prepared to tell us what makes the mountain in question different from the other mountains in the area or from the surrounding terrain. Follow all orders and good luck."
Answers are all in the back; there's also a 40-page collection of reproducible black-line maps (no labels, no grids).
Gumshoe Geography by Richard S. Jones (Zephyr Press, 1996) is recommended for kids in grades 6-12. It costs $39.00 from Zephyr Press, 3316 N. Chapel Ave., P.O. Box 66006-C, Tucson, AZ 85728-6006; (520) 322-5090; FAX (520) 323-9402.
PBS Home Video/The West
The West, the eight-part PBS miniseries produced by Ken Burns, directed by Stephen Ives, and written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan, is now available on video. This is an overview of the history of the American West, from the days before the arrival of the white settlers through the late 19th century. Episode titles include "The People," "Empires on the Trail," "Speck of the Future," "Death Runs Riot," "The Greatest Empire Under God," "Fight No More Forever," "Geography of Hope," and "One Sky Above Us." Each runs about two hours and is fascinatingly packed with period photographs, film clips, literary quotations, first-person narratives, and commentary by modern historians. Our boys, who thoroughly enjoyed it, ranked it as "good, but not as good as [Ken Burns's] The Civil War." (But then not much is.)
We taped all eight episodes of The West off our newly functional television, for future viewing if desired, which leads us to the price of the official boxed set: $149.99 from PBS Home Video, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314-1698; (800) 645-4PBS. Ouch. Our family - television-less for the past several years, but possessed of a working VCR - is addicted to the PBS Home Video catalog; it's always crammed with desirable resources that are maddeningly unavailable at our local video rental stores. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (six videocassettes, $99.98). Eyes on the Prize (seven videocassettes, $149.95). Civilisation (seven videocassettes, $149.95). Cosmos (seven videocassettes, $149.98). "If the boys took an extracurricular class," my husband and I tell each other defensively, "it might easily cost that much or more, and PBS is often a mind-broadening and enriching experience." "Then again," we promptly reverse ourselves, "what if we order this thing and nobody wants to watch it? Or what if we lay out all this cash, they watch it once, and then there it sits in the bookcase gathering dust?"
There are no good answers to these questions.
Our experiences with PBS videos have been mixed. Successes - watched repeatedly, discussed enthusiastically, and impressively remembered - have included The Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Alex Haley's Roots, James Burke's Connections, and Ken Burns's wonderful The Civil War, all of which were well worth every single penny. (Well, thousands of pennies.) Out-and-out flops have included Cosmos (!) (which, luckily, we borrowed from friends) and A Glorious Accident (Films for the Humanities), purported to be a series of exciting and thought-provoking discussions among some of the foremost scientific thinkers of modern times, among them Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Oliver Sachs, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Toulmin. A Glorious Accident, for our viewing audience, was disastrous; the boys didn't last through tape 2.
Possible solutions to the want-to-see/costs-too-much problem: lobby your local video rental store; sometimes they respond to public requests. (Even ours acquired a few National Geographic specials.) Try the public library. Many libraries these days carry rentable videos; often they stock educational selections and series. Or ask around among friends. Many people have stockpiles of videotapes which they're willing to share. (Terry! Thanks for lending The Diary of Anne Frank. Call if you want to borrow The West.)
Dino Math Tracks
Many of the "dinosaur games" currently on the market are targeted at kids aged 8 and up, which means that often their content is too old for very little dino lovers. This board game, however, from Learning Resources, is appropriate for both older and younger players; it's cute and clever; and - the icing on the cake - it's approved by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The game board pictures a 4-lane playing path of rainbow-colored dinosaur tracks leading from the (start) waterfall to the (finish) rainbow. Purple tracks represent the numerical ones place; green tracks, the tens place; yellow tracks, 100s; and red tracks, 1000s. To win, a player must be the first to reach the rainbow with his/her herd of four dinosaurs (Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Triceratops, or - don't ask - mammoths). Each dinosaur (mammoth) in the herd is a different color (purple, green, yellow, or red) to match the dino tracks marking the playing path.
There are three permutations to the game. In the simplest, "Prehistoric Number Roll," players roll four number cubes, and then place them in the color-keyed "place value box" to make any four-digit number they want. They then move their herd of dinosaurs along the appropriate colored tracks, matching their movements to the numbers in the place value box. The purple dinosaur, for example, moves down the purple path the number of steps shown in the purple (ones) box. If two opposing dinosaurs land on the same track, there's a showdown: kids roll a number cube and the kid with the highest score moves forward the number rolled.
In "Dino Math Action," players draw The 36 "Action Number" cards after moving their dinosaurs, and follow the instructions. "Your red dinosaur skips ahead 2 thousands." "Your ones dinosaur has a thorn in its foot. Hobble back 2 spaces for help." And in the more challenging "Prehistoric Problem-Solving," players draw The 36 "Problem-Solving Cards" after moving their dinos and tackle the listed problem. "A flying dinosaur flew 520 kilometers last week and 603 kilometers this week. How far did it fly altogether? Move that many." "Archaeologists must ship 25 tons of dinosaur bones to the museum. If each truck can haul 2 tons, how many trucks do they need? Move ahead that many."
The game is recommended for 2 to 4 kids, aged 6 and up, but even younger players can handle "Prehistoric Roll." Dino Math Tracks costs about $20.00; it is available through toy and game stores, and is carried in a number of mail-order catalogs, including Young Explorers, 825 S.W. Frontage Road, Ft. Collins, CO 80522; (800) 239-7577; FAX (970) 484-8067.
My Best Math Puzzles
Author/mathematician Theoni Pappas - of "The Children's Mathematics Calendar" - and her mathematical cat, Penrose, have devised this illustrated 52-card deck of "My Best Math Puzzles" for mathematicians aged 12 (or so) and up. Puzzles, which vary from the mildly tricky to the mindboggling brain-buster, include logic problems, number puzzles, optical illusions, and geometry puzzles. Answers are included on a separate little paper booklet; we lost ours, which adds considerably to the challenge. The cards also work as conventional playing cards; if mathematically exhausted, you can play rummy with them.
"My Best Math Puzzles" is also available as a double deck of 104 different puzzles.
"My Best Math Puzzles" single deck costs $9.95; double deck, $14.95. Available from Math Products Plus, P.O. Box 64, San Carlos, CA 94070; (415) 593-2839; FAX (415) 595-0802; or from MindWare, 2720 Patton Road, Roseville, MN 55113; (800) 999-0398. © Rebecca Rupp
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