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July-August 2005 Selected Content

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

Learning with Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci is a treat for homeschoolers: just like us, he had a multiplicity of interests, and those studying him are thus likely to spin off in any number of mind-building directions. Variously a painter, sculptor, inventor, mathematician, meteorologist, geologist, biologist, philosopher, and engineer - and a left-hander, who kept his voluminous journals in mirror-writing - Leonardo is both an enviable role model and the quintessential Renaissance man. He's also just plain irresistible.

One starting point for early-elementary-level kids is Tony Hart's Leonardo da Vinci (Barron's Educational Series, 1994) in the Famous Children Series, a lightly fictionalized (there's invented dialogue) account of Leonardo's early years, when he astonished all around him with his talent, creativity, and passion for scientific observation and exploration. Leonardo and the Flying Boy by Laurence Anholt (Barron's Educational Series, 2000) features an older Leonardo, as seen through the eyes of his two apprentices, the good (but wholly fictional) Zoro and the naughty (but historically real) Salai. The book centers around an escapade in which the boys sneak into their master's workshop, pinch his flying machine, and take it out for a ride; many references, however, give readers an overview of Leonardo's many interests and accomplishments. Uh-oh, Leonardo! by Robert Sabuda (Atheneum, 2003) follows the adventures of clever mouse Providence Traveler who - along with her little brother and the twins from next door - is whisked by time machine to Renaissance Italy, where she meets a zany old inventor who turns out to be her hero, Leonardo da Vinci. (For more on Providence and a range of activities to accompany the book, see

For ages 8-12, Robert Byrd's Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer (Dutton Books, 2003), illustrated with wonderful ink-and-watercolor paintings, is a rich and gorgeously designed biography, packed with fascinating facts, anecdotes, quotations, informational sidebars, and insets in the style of Leonardo's famous notebooks. Included are a timeline and a bibliography of supplementary books and Web sites. Heinz Kaehne's Leonardo da Vinci: Dreams, Schemes, and Flying Machines (Prestel Publishing, 2000) covers Leonardo's major accomplishments in readable question-and-answer format, with illustrations from his paintings and drawings. Questions include, for example, "What's so great about long levers?" "How long should a nose be?" and "Who was Mona Lisa?" Also for ages 8 and up, see master biographer Diane Stanley's well-researched and exquisitely elegant Leonardo da Vinci (Harpercollins, 1996).

For the artistic Leonardo, readers ages 6-10 may enjoy Mike Venezia's Da Vinci (Children's Press, 1989), a short and cleverly illustrated biography of Leonardo as artist, illustrated with reproductions of his paintings and appealing little cartoons. In James Mayhew's Katie and the Mona Lisa (Scholastic, 1999), for ages 4-8, Katie and her grandmother visit the art museum where, while Grandma rests on a bench, Katie - hoping to help the Mona Lisa smile - persuades her to leave her frame and visit several other famous Renaissance paintings, among them Raphael's St. George and the Dragon (where they distract St. George), Botticelli's Primavera (where they break up the dance), and Carpaccio's Lion of St. Mark (which takes them on an exciting flight over Venice). Jean Fritz's Leonardo's Horse (Putnam Publishing, 2001) is the fascinating story of the gigantic bronze horse sculpture that Leonardo undertook to make for the Duke of Milan. Sadly, the project was never finished, and Leonardo died regretting it; however, the horse - with the help of Leonardo's original drawings - was finally completed in the 20th century through the efforts of American art lover Charles Dent. A great read for ages 7-12. (For much more information on the horse, see Leonardo da Vinci's Horse at Richard Muhlberger's What Makes a Leonardo a Leonardo? (Viking, 1994) is a more serious approach to Leonardo's art for ages 9-14: the book explores detail and technique in Leonardo's best-known paintings, pointing out those approaches that make his works unique.

The November 2001 issue of Odyssey, Cobblestone Publishing's creative science magazine for ages 9-14, is titled "The Science of Leonardo da Vinci:" various articles and associated activities cover Leonardo's philosophy, geological theories, anatomical studies, fascination with flight, backward mirror-writing, and more. Back issues of Odyssey are available from most public libraries. (The issue can also be ordered from Cobblestone Publishing, 30 Grove St., Peterborough, NH 03458; (800) 821-0115;; for $4.95, plus $2 shipping and handling.)

For inspired builders, Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci by Pierre Guerin and Anne-Marie Piaulet (Paper Models International, 1991) is a cut-and-assemble project book featuring three full-color 3-D paper models from Leonardo's notebooks: a helicopter, tank, and paddle boat. They look finicky, but fun: check them out at

For activity lovers ages 9-13, don't miss Janis Herbert's Leonardo da Vinci for Kids (Chicago Review Press, 1998). This - one of a series of terrific history-based activity books - combines a creatively illustrated and reader-friendly account of the life and times of Leonardo with 21 varied activities. For example, kids can make their own decorated paintbrush jar and picture frame, plant a Renaissance herb garden, or build a parachute kite and a simple lute.

In Jon Scieszka's Da Wild, Da Crazy, Da Vinci (Viking, 2004), Sam, Fred, and Joe, the irrepressible Time Warp Trio, visit 16th-century Italy where they meet Leonardo - here a wacky practical joker - outwit Machiavelli, and creatively save the day. One of a large series, this is an illustrated chapter book for ages 7-11. In Elvira Woodruff's The Disappearing Bike Shop (Holiday House, 1992), for the same age group, Tyler and Freckle discover the mysterious Quigley's Bike Shop, whose peculiar proprietor turns out to be the time-traveling Leonardo da Vinci. E.L. Konigsberg's The Second Mrs. Giaconda (Aladdin, 1978), for ages 10 and up, is the story of Leonardo and the mystery of the Mona Lisa through the eyes of his thirteen-year-old apprentice Salai, a bright and endearing rascal described by Leonardo as "a liar, a thief, a mule-head, and a glutton." A lot of information combined with a poignant story.

Also see:

Exploring Leonardo -; An excellent and multi-faceted site on all aspects of Leonardo's life and work. Great illustrations and many substantive projects and activities for kids.

Leonardo -; Take a personality test to find out if you're a Renaissance thinker, tour a Renaissance picture gallery, explore Leonardo's workshop, and experiment with an interactive biographical timeline.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Man of Both Worlds -; Explore the life, art, and science of Leonardo. This webquest is available at three different levels: novice, intermediate, and advanced.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Invention of the Parachute -; An account of Leonardo's parachute, an experiment with a reproduction da Vinci parachute by a modern skydiver, a list of (model) parachute experiments for kids, and many useful links.

Math Forum: Leonardo da Vinci Activity -; An study of anatomical measurement and statistics based on Leonardo's famous Vitruvian Man drawing.

Theft of the Mona Lisa -; A detailed lesson plan for middle- and high-school level students centered around the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa. Also see J. Patrick Lewis's The Stolen Smile (Creative Editions, 2004), a short book based on the Mona Lisa theft for ages 8-12.

For audiovisual learners, HBO's Leonardo: A Dream of Flight (Steeplechase Entertainment, 1999), available on either video or DVD, is an excellent introduction for young viewers in which Leonardo - already famed as an artist and scientist - befriends 11-year-old Roberto and with him explores the mysteries of flight. This is part of the excellent "Inventors' Specials" series in which each hour-long film features a different scientist, among them Galileo, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. Available from or Devine Entertainment (; (877) 338-4633).

And finally - for ambitious teenagers and adults - check out Michael Gelb's How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci (Delacorte Press, 1998), a seven-step program for becoming a creative genius, crammed with self quizzes, exercises, activities, a brief biography of Leonardo, and a beginner's "Da Vinci Drawing Course."

Performing Shakespeare: A Way to Learn

"Young people should not study Shakespeare's plays," writes Robert Sugarman, "they should do them." Sugarman's Performing Shakespeare: A Way to Learn (Mountainside Press, 2005) is a fascinating account - crammed with addictive anecdotes - of how kids ages six to eighteen become committed, impassioned, and highly literate Shakespeare lovers.

The book examines four different (but related) Shakespeare programs in depth. The first, initiated by Lois Burdett in Stratford, Ontario, introduces second-graders to Shakespeare's plays. (Check out Burdett's Shakespeare Can Be Fun series; these are terrific short versions of the plays for elementary-level students, illustrated with children's drawings. See

The Real People Theater, established by teacher Stephen Haff in New York's inner city, turns ghetto kids into Shakespeare-savvy writers and performers; Rafe Esquith's fifth-graders in Los Angeles - known as the Hobart Shakespeareans - put on challenging uncut Shakespeare productions; and Shakespeare & Company, a professional theater group in western Massachusetts, through creative and comprehensive workshops, appeals to kids of all ages, learning styles, and abilities. All the approaches are different, yet in a sense all are the same: participating kids do not simply read the plays; they immerse themselves in the language, analyze the personalities and motives of the characters, improvise, invent, discuss, re-write, add music and movement, and develop an understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote - the world beyond the plays, where dancing bears lumbered in the streets and traitors' heads were displayed on spikes.

Approached in this fashion, the plays become astonishingly real. An exercise from Shakespeare & Company, for example, is called "It Takes a Classroom to Do a Monologue." Onstage Hamlet and Claudius are talking, so - where's Polonius? What is Ophelia doing? Horatio? Gertrude? A play, the directors point out, is a small slice of a much greater world; and involvement in the play is enhanced with increasing appreciation of everything that surrounds it.

So what was Ophelia doing? Drinking tea? Sobbing in her bedroom? Having read this, I'll never view a play the same way again.

The book also includes many creative suggestions for Shakespeare teachers, facilitators, and directors, and an excellent and highly detailed act-by-act account of how to involve kids in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Most approaches to teaching Shakespeare are painfully superficial: we've all seen kids plow unhappily through a Shakespearean text just because it's on somebody's required reading list. The kids in Performing Shakespeare, however, have not only forged an empowering dramatic community of their own, but have gained access to an enriching new world. If you want your kids to read Shakespeare, there are many available paperback editions of the plays. If you want your kids to love him, however, try Performing Shakespeare. A very different, highly interactive, and wholly inspirational approach to the Bard.

$16.95 from Mountainside Press;; e-mail:; (802) 447-7094.

Science Verse

Ten years ago, author Jon Scieszka and artist Lane Smith collaborated on the hilarious, clever, and thought-provoking picture-book Math Curse (Viking, 1995). The curse - laid on the hapless narrator by her math teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci - causes her to think of everything (everything, from getting dressed in the morning to lunchtime pizza to birthday cupcakes) as a math problem.

Now the dynamic duo is back with Science Verse (Viking, 2004), in which a bulgy-eyed boy is afflicted with the curse of science verse after science teacher Mr. Newton announces, "You know, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the poetry of science in everything." Immediately the narrator does, and there follows a collection of zany and marvelously illustrated poems on such subjects as evolution, black holes, the spleen, the food chain, atomic theory, metamorphosis, the states of matter, and the Big Bang. Many are based on well-known poems: the paean to the spleen, for example, is a take-off on Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" ("I think that I ain't never seen/A poem ugly as a spleen"); others are plays on "The Raven," "Jabberwocky," "Casey at the Bat," "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." A handful are based on nursery rhymes: "Hey diddle diddle, what kind of riddle/Is this nature of light?/Sometimes it's a wave/Other times particle.../But which answer will be marked right?"

It's funny; however, unless readers are already well-versed in science and poetry, they won't appreciate the jokes. Math Curse was much better.

About $17 from bookstores; or check your local library.

Technically, It's Not My Fault

Technically, It's Not My Fault by John Grandits (Clarion Books, 2004) is an irreverent collective of concrete poems - that is, poems in which words and art combine to make pictures, patterns, and totally brilliant (and really funny) compositions. "The Australian Cane Toad," for example, combines verse, a replica of an encyclopedia page, and a multiple-choice worksheet into some truly poisonous science homework; "How We Ended Up with a Plain Pizza" - shaped like a pizza - proves that six different people can't possibly agree on pizza toppings; and "Spew Machine" is a print version of a Rube-Goldberg-style rollercoaster (ending with a parachute). "It's Not Fair" is an explosive celebration of forbidden fireworks in which words spatter across the page like colored sparks ("I am so grounded."). There are poems in the shapes of clocks, baseball diamonds, computer screens, and skateboard paths; and a poem that features a bright-red and truly bloodcurdling scream ("My sister makes this cool noise/when she's is the shower/and I flush the toilet").

A fun read for ages 10 and up; and a catchy inspiration for your own concrete writing project. $15 from bookstores; or check your local library.

The Teaching Company

The Teaching Company offers a wide range of classes, variously available on video, DVD, audio CD, or audiocassette, for high school and college-level students. Our experience with these programs in the past has been somewhat uneven - our kids enjoyed some and loathed others (the high-school chemistry course, for example, was notably deadly dull). The company updates and adds new material continually, however, and some of their latest selections are terrific.

Among these is The Joy of Thinking. Subtitled "The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas," this is an innovative overview of math aimed at early-college-level students - primarily math-nervous humanities students, but the scope and format of the course should certainly fascinate math-lovers as well. The Joy of Thinking is a 24-lesson lecture series, jointly taught by professors Edward Burger of Williams College and Michael Starbird of the University of Texas at Austin, whose stated goal is to introduce some of the truly creative and intriguing ideas behind mathematics and simultaneously to show students how to develop effective thinking strategies. Mathematics is often made to seem inaccessible, says Starbird - he blames this on the ancient Pythagoreans, who insisted that their mathematical studies be shrouded in secrecy - but in fact both its applications and philosophical implications are central to our culture. The pair then proceeds to a wide-ranging discussion of counting, geometry, and probability, using clear and easy-to-follow presentations and lots of catchy examples. There are forays, for example, into Fermat's Last Theorem, Fibonacci numbers in pineapples, Mobius bands and Klein bottles, Turing machines and Dragon Curves, coin-flipping, coincidences, and the question of whether monkeys, randomly typing, could eventually produce Hamlet and whether it's worth Bill Gates's time to pause to pick up a dropped $100 bill. The final lecture - "Life Lessons Learned from Mathematical Thinking" - sums up the problem-tackling strategies and perspectives presented. Suggested readings are taken from Burger and Starbird's The Heart of Mathematics: An Invitation to Effective Thinking (Key College Publishing, 2000), a very readable and attractively designed text reminiscent of Harold Jacobs's Mathematics: A Human Endeavor (W.H. Freeman, 1994).

The Joy of Science, taught by Robert Hazen of George Mason University, is an intensive 60-lecture integrated overview of the sciences, organized around seminal concepts in a wide range of scientific disciplines: astronomy, physics, chemistry, earth science, molecular biology and genetics, evolution, and environmental biology. The course stresses the interconnectedness of the sciences and also addresses the nature of science itself as a whole: how science works; what kinds of questions science can (and can't) answer. The course begins with a disquisition on the philosophy of science and the scientific method, and then proceeds through mechanics and Newton's Laws of Motion; thermodynamics; electricity and magnetism; the structure of the atom; the basics of chemistry from the Periodic Table to states of matter, properties of materials, and the nature of chemical reactions; the Big Bang and the life cycles of stars; plate tectonics and the dynamic Earth; the nature of life and the building blocks of cells; the genetic code; chemical and biological evolution; ecosystems; and - finally - those three great threats to modern society: the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect, and acid rain.

No mere list, however, can represent the real essence of the course: Hazen is an interesting and articulate lecturer, whose examples, anecdotes, and analogies make the featured material both appealing and readily understandable. Also his reading choices are excellent: essential reading for the course is The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (Wiley, 2003) by James Trefil and Robert Hazen, an intensive, excellent, and creatively designed text suitable for both science major and non-majors; optional reading includes selections from David Attenborough's Life on Earth, John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and Larry Gonick's The Cartoon Guide to Genetics.

The key word here is lecture. The Teaching Company courses are lecture-based - college courses in the comfort of your living room - and as such, the delivery mode is targeted, as the catalog states, at older teenagers and adults. There aren't a lot of bells and whistles here - just a lot of truly compelling information.

Both The Joy of Thinking and The Joy of Science give students a genuine sense of the scope, fascination, and multitudinous applications of their respective subjects. Highly recommended for mature high school-level students; this is what education should be all about. The Joy of Thinking costs $254.00 on DVD; $199.95 on video; course transcript books, $25. The Joy of Science costs $624.95 on DVD; $499.95 on video or audio CD; and $299.95 on audiocassettes. Transcript books are available for $55.00.

However, the fearsome full price is not the rule - all Teaching Company courses frequently go on sale at substantial discounts (usually 70% off list price) on a schedule that is thoughtfully announced in advance (check the catalog or website). The Joy of Thinking, for example, will be on sale in July for a mere $69.95 on DVD ($54.95 on VHS); The Joy of Science for $149.95 on DVD ($119.95 on VHS).

The Teaching Company offers a long list of course in science and mathematics, music and fine arts, history, social science, literature and language, philosophy, and more. For a complete list, course descriptions, and further information, contact The Teaching Company; (800) 832-2412;

© 2005, Rebecca Rupp

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