Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Kid Can Recite All the Countries of Africa: 2012 International Fair

Having done it both ways now, I've decided that I like it much better when my children present a project that they've already been working on for their various homeschool academic fairs, rather than coming up with a particular project especially for each fair. I feel like their projects show more depth, and are completed in a much more relaxed and enjoyable manner when they're presented simply as a chance to show off an area of interest that's already being studied.

With that in mind, our homeschool group's recent International Fair was my favorite one yet--my kiddos have been studying Africa off and on for months now, so they knew right away what areas they wanted to focus their reports and presentations on, and what projects they wanted to elaborate on to display at the fair.  Honestly, the biggest debates centered around what NOT to bring!

We did not bring the girls' salt dough maps of Egypt, but Sydney, who intended to discuss the ecosystems of Africa and their respective animals, created a salt dough grasslands watering hole, and used some carved wooden African animals that my mother gave her for Christmas in the display:

I brought my computer, set it next to the girls' display, and streamed our favorite Africam webcams through it throughout the fair. Matt's special job was to keep a constant eye on the webcam, so that he could turn it off if the elephants that were lounging around the watering hole started to have sex again.

Willow discussed Egypt in her report, and brought a Styrofoam block pyramid that she built:

We did not bring our Montessori Puzzle Map of Africa (I was afraid of losing pricey pieces), nor the pin flag map (I was afraid of toddlers getting ahold of the sharpy-sharp pins); the main display item is our giant map of Africa, which has been so colored on, labeled, pinned upon, and outlined over the months that, while it may be unrecognizable in some aspects, it is certainly kid-owned.

Syd outlined the main ecosystems of Africa in drippy school glue mixed with acrylic paint--I should have laid the map on the ground for her to do this, in retrospect, and then the paint wouldn't have run:

See? DEFINITELY a kid-created project!

After the Biography Fair, when Sydney burst into tears in the middle of reciting Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," I have a horror of asking her to recite, so her oral presentation consisted of telling the audience about the ecosystems of Africa, already drawn onto the map, and some examples of animals that live in those ecosystems, with pictures of the animals already glued next to their ecosystems, and I still thought that she was going to cry for a few seconds there, before she pulled herself together and nailed it.

Willow has yet to cry during an oral presentation, so she prepared a special feat. I purchased the "Countries of Africa" rap from Rhythm Rhyme Results, and she practiced it over and over and over again--


--until she had memorized all of the countries of Africa:


Have I ever told you about my dark history of helping children cheat at their academic fairs? After college but before grad school, I had a job with Score! doing private SAT tutoring. Score! charged outrageous fees for this tutoring (One-on-one in YOUR home! All our tutors have the highest SAT scores!), which meant that all of my tutees were outrageously wealthy. Although you were supposed to arrange all of your tutoring through Score!, all the families knew that while Score! paid their tutors well, they didn't pay us nearly as much as they, themselves, paid Score! (seriously, families paid Score! something like 10x the average tutor's average fee, and I'm telling you, Score! already paid us well), and most families would ask for extra off-the-books tutoring at a price that surpassed our regular salary but also undercut what they'd have to pay Score!.

Of course, helping a kid with their English class is a different animal than helping a kid prep for the SAT, and in most of these families, "tutoring" a kid in a particular subject actually meant that you were supposed to just do the work for them. I tried to at least sneak in some learning, at least for the younger kids whom I tutored, but in one pretty common example, as I was in a child's playroom leading her by the nose through her multiplication homework, her mom walked in to consult with me about the appropriate punctuation on the poem that she was composing for her child to turn in for her next day's English homework.

I earned buckets of money with that family, "helping" their younger daughter with her History Fair project (I designed a display board that had a giant cardboard cut-out of an original-style Coca-Cola bottle on one side and a contemporary Coca-Cola bottle on the other side, and in the middle had a wheel you could turn so that one window would pop up a year, and the other window would pop up a trivia fact about Coca-Cola from that year. At least the kid helped me with the construction!) and their older son with his Science Fair project (I designed a giant poster with cut-outs from magazines of popular icons and images, he did an experiment at school in which he timed kids looking at the poster and then recorded what they remembered, and then we did this big 3D bar graph out of spray painted Styrofoam rods to represent the results of the experiment). I spent entire weekend days with these children, eating restaurant take-out lunches with them, taking breaks to watch "Full House" re-runs with them, driving them to the big-box crafts store for more spray paint and Styrofoam, getting paid by the hour. They went to a fancy-pants private school in Ft. Worth, Texas, and I kid you not, out of an entire gymnasium full of elementary school projects, there was not a single one that looked like a child had even been allowed to touch it.

And that's why I can tell you that my absolute favorite thing about our homeschool academic fairs is that it's perfectly clear from looking at the displays--

--listening to the presentations--


--and watching the confidence of the children as they talk about their areas of expertise, and the pride on their faces as they show off their work, that these are kid-owned, kid-created projects.

And that's so much more empowering for the kiddos.

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