Stories Teens Love: The World of Animé

Animé is growing on me. Slowly. So slowly. My kids took to animé due to the influence of friends who lived deep in the world of Miyazaki, Full Metal Alchemist, and Sergeant Frog. If the whole idea of this genre isn’t appealing, I’d like to invite you to take another look. As a homeschooler, I have found some value in animé. Here are a few things you can expect:

  • Animé is a varied, breathtaking, and evolving art form.  One master worth getting to know is Hayao Miyazaki. This Japanese artist has created many animé that make many All Time Best Animé lists. His mix of drawn storyboards and computer animation are simply stunning. Watch a blade of grass move in the breeze in The Wind Rises. You won’t regret it. For the uninitiated, start with My Neighbor Tortoro. It is a slow moving slice of life complete with magical beings. Your kids will learn that a movie doesn’t need loud sound effects and explosions in order to be good. For your older teensthe Madoka Magica series will be unlike anything they’ve experienced before. This series uses the Japanese art style called Superflat. Superflat is typified by flatness in a three-dimensional space where artists call into question the influence of consumerism and media. If you don’t feel like getting fancy, just take time to notice how the colors and backgrounds enhance the story.
  • Animé gives us a glimpse into history and culture. I loved watching the movie Steamboy which takes place in an alternative nineteenth century Europe. The impact of technology on our lives (we all struggle with this topic today, don’t we?) is explored in a Steampunk-style setting. For other cultural and historical movies, try Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (pre-WWII Japan), and Spirited Away (Japanese spiritual traditions). Even comparing a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid by Disney to a Japanese rendition (Ponyo) will give you a glimpse into a different culture. There is so much to notice in animé.
  • Animés tell some gripping stories. We have enjoyed the story arcs and complex characters in shows such as Sands of DestructionDeath Note, and Fruits Basket, to name a few. Not all animé is appropriate for young audiences, of course; some include violence, language, and mature themes. Check with your favorite media review source (I like Common Sense Media) to learn more.

I wanted you to have a short list of shows so you could dip your toes into the animé waters without drowning. I have to end with this graphic, though, which will help you choose the next animé once you become hooked. I may get there in a few more years. As I said, I move slowly.


anime recommendations

Following a Rabbit Trail: Allowing Kids to Direct Their Learning

Rabbit trails. I’ve heard this term a lot lately as I follow some homeschoolers on Periscope and Facebook. Here’s the idea: As homeschoolers, we have a responsibility not to impose the traditional “rules of school” onto our kids. Why homeschool if not to embrace the freedom allowed by our educational choice? Are we really going to set up a traditional classroom at home, complete with prescribed curriculum and schedule of subjects to be covered throughout the day?

If you’re me, the answer has too often been “Yes” to that last question. As a former educator, it was so hard to let go of the school mentality. I felt bound to “cover” a curriculum completely, although I never once got all the way through a textbook when I was a teacher in middle and high school. Ha! I adore the idea of interest-led learning, where a kid finds a topic she is interested in knowing more about, and then takes time to pursue it. We have done this a bit over the years: my kids have delved into the Celts, ancient China, and animé. But too often, I must admit, we depended on prescribed curriculum to get through a homeschool year, mostly because I was busy doing other things and didn’t have time to help my kids access the resources needed to follow a rabbit trail.

I am inspired to give my daughter the opportunity to build her history class for next year, though. Her story begins with a love of the soundtrack for this musical:


The girl has gone absolutely bananas for all things related to Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury secretary under George Washington. No one could have predicted this obsession! I had a sudden idea: What if we created a year of history related to Alexander Hamilton? A sort of “Six Degrees of Separation from Alexander Hamilton” if you will?

My daughter was on board. Great! Now what? Internet searching is a tiring procedure, but I started there. Resources for teaching history to a high schooler, U.S. history from the colonial era to the Civil War, to be exact. My daughter is going to create a website tying whatever we discover to Alexander Hamilton in some way. Here are some of the resources we’ll be using:

  1. Crash Course. Author John Green and his brother have created a series of informative, engaging videos on a range of topics. My daughter finds them hilarious, so we’ll definitely include the U.S. History ones.
  2. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  A search for topics related to the AP U.S. History exam led me here. I love the collection of videos, essays, and primary source documents because they are organized by time periods and by themes. There’s even an Alexander Hamilton-themed page! Score!
  3. Musicals. We’re looking into every historical musical we can find as well as information about what musical theater looked like during this era. We’ll see Hamilton this summer, and we’ll try to find 1776, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Amazing Grace and any other musical of note either in person or on video. I love the idea one educator had of comparing songs from the musical Hamilton with primary source documents (Washington’s farewell letter and the song “One Last Time,” for example).
  4. Field Trips. Historical sites from colonial times and the Civil War era abound in our neck of the woods, so we’ll definitely make a few pilgrimages. Gettysburg, Yorktown, Williamsburg, the Freedom Trail, Historic Philadelphia, and the Minute Man National Historic Park are all possibilities. As well as any site where Alexander Hamilton may have set foot, of course. 😉
  5. Books. We are trying out this book for a spine since it’s not a meaty textbook, but covers the basic scope of the time period.  We’ll pull from the great suggestions of the homeschool community for light reads, including Genevieve Foster’s books and the Horrible Histories series. Because, books = fun.
  6. Othello. We’re also delving into a year of Shakespeare per my daughter’s request, so I’d like to pair a study of Othello with the topic of slavery. While many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the problem of difference, this play does it excellently. I’m learning a lot from the Folgers Shakespeare library, and I relish using the wonderful ideas in this text to learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare.

[Edit: I had to add in this fabulous article tying the language in Hamilton to that of Shakespeare.]

That will get us started, anyway. I leave room for new stuff to crop up as we explore the topic. If we’re feeling ambitious, we might also explore History Day and see if we want to get in on that action. How are you planning for rabbit trails next year?


Prepping for College: Help Kids Find Their Story

As homeschoolers, we have the option to do high school in a myriad of ways. From unschooling to part-time public school attendance, we homeschoolers take advantage of the offerings to pick and choose what works best for our families. Awesome, right?

Well, somehow, high school threatens to steal our joy. As parents who have likely ridden the college prep high school education train, and as people with public school friends who are riding the bullet train version of that path to college, we start to worry that we’re not doing it right. What about transcripts? AP exams? Extra-curriculars? Resumés? Volunteer hours? Test scores? Yes, we homeschoolers panic as much as, if not more, than our public school counterparts because we are IN CHARGE OF IT ALL. If our kids don’t get into college, responsibility rests on our shoulders. Yikes.


I’ve spent a lot of mental energy on that worry. I still do. But I’ve learned a little something about what’s important for our kids to do before they get to college. Academics, sure. Volunteering in an area of interest, absolutely. Pursuing extra-curricular activities, why not?

But here’s the important one: Let’s help our kids figure out, to the best of our ability, who they are. What they care about most. What they want to pursue in this life. Because without that, college becomes an expensive exercise in spinning one’s wheels. No one wants that, right?

Here are a few online resources to help kids start to find their story:

  • Find your passion. Studies in temperament can help here. We like this one. We took a quick quiz in this temperament alignment at a homeschool meeting one day, and I remember finally getting why I sometimes look at my good friend like she’s a crazy woman. It’s because I’m a Guardian and she’s a Rational. We see life entirely differently. Kids will benefit from knowing how they see life.
  • Find how you learn best. This tip will make any learning situation your high schooler encounters from co-op, to online classes, to community college work go more smoothly. One learning styles inventory can be found here.
  • Get out into the community. Homeschoolers have a unique opportunity to volunteer during the day at the horse rescue or the library. This is the time to explore, to see what sparks an interest.

So let’s worry a bit less about helping our high schoolers ace the ACT. Now I’m all about the story my kid is writing. I’m helping her find the points and particulars for the essay on Life. Join me.

Teaching a Foreign Language? Tell a Story.

In my early teaching days as a foreign language teacher, I often didn’t feel good at my job. Kids were hard to control and I felt they didn’t retain anything I taught them for long. When I took a job in a school that taught level 1 through full immersion (where the teacher doesn’t speak English at all in class), my teaching hit an all-time low. I had students looking at me and begging, “Please, just tell us what you want us to do! We don’t understand you!” Ugh.

I went to a conference that summer and learned about teaching language through stories. People, it revolutionized my classroom. It turns out that teaching through Comprehensible Input, giving students stories to use as a context for understanding, made those students not only relax but also produce language on a level that astounded me.

Imagine the difference between teaching a set of vocabulary words like kitchen, bathroom, basement, garage, dining room, living room, attic, and house and teaching them a story such as:

The boy doesn’t have a pizza. He wants a pizza, but there aren’t any pizzas in Topeka, Kansas. He goes to Phoenix, Arizona and sees a girl with a pizza. He says, “Hi! I don’t have a pizza. I need a pizza. Do you have an extra pizza?” The girl says, “Yes, I have an extra pizza.” She gives the boy the pizza. The boy is happy.

Which group of vocabulary words do you think will stick best in your kids’ brains? Stories give us a hook for our everyday memories, right? They also can provide hooks in the subjects we study. History taught as a list of dates? Blech. History taught as a series of stories? Yes! I’m in! Foreign language is just the art of sharing our stories in another language. Storytelling and language study go hand in hand.

If you would like to adopt this approach in your homeschool, I guarantee your kids will have a blast.  I am teaching a homeschool co-op class to middle schoolers and high schoolers in French this year, and we’re using this book:

look i can talk

If you know the second language a bit already, the resources found at this site will work great for you. The book just includes a series of stories and comprehension questions. Grammar isn’t taught directly; it’s acquired through practice with the language. [Note: I do quick “Grammar Pop Ups” in my class where I’ll explain the difference between tu and vous, how nouns have a gender, how adjectives have to agree with nouns in number and gender, etc. They are just quick asides, though. We get back to storytelling as soon as we can, always.]

The idea is to give kids lots of chances to hear the vocabulary words and interact with them. Take the story above, for example. I introduce the first line with unknown vocabulary words written on the board in French and English. There is also a paper on the wall with question words in French. My script (with student responses in parentheses) might go something like this:

Class, there is a boy. He wants a pizza. Is there a boy or a girl? (A boy) Does the boy want a pizza? (Yes, the boy wants a pizza) Does the boy want a hamburger? (No, the boy doesn’t want a hamburger) Does the boy want a pizza or a hamburger? (He wants a pizza) Who wants a pizza? (The boy wants a pizza) What does the boy want? (He wants a pizza) Claire [class member], do you want a pizza? (Yes, I want a pizza/No, I don’t want a pizza)

And so on. It takes a while to get all the way through a short story using this question and response method. Just think of how many encounters the class gets with the words the boy, wants, a pizza, doesn’t want, and a hamburger! When we finish the story, we might draw the story cartoon-strip style, pointing to pictures as I say part of the story. They might try to tell the story in their own words using their pictures and the vocabulary. They also could write a new version of the story where the boy wants an elephant instead.

I love the way my level one students are adept at telling simple stories instead of labeling all the rooms in the house. Storytelling seems more authentic since the chance that they will tell a story in France one day is greater than the chance they’ll name the rooms of the house, right?

If you’re trying to approach foreign language with your kiddos, I invite you to make a simple story. Introduce how questions and question words work, then tell them a tale!

If you’d like to learn more about this method, this book does a nice job laying it out (though the language is chock full of education-eze; reader beware!):

fluency through tpr storytelling

While these products focus on classroom teaching, they’re easily adaptable for home use. Let’s get going telling some stories! Dust off that rusty high school French, Spanish, or German today!


Freaky Panda

This is a story about how stories can shape your life.

When my daughter was seven, she was terrified of big things. It didn’t matter if said things were “alive looking” or not. She found the stuffed polar bear at the nature center and the cardboard cutout of Wall-E at the movie theater equally menacing. I found a need to help my daughter, to connect with her about her fears. But how?

I’m not a lifelong writer. My shelves aren’t filled with journals from my childhood. In fact, I felt pretty lousy at the whole writing thing until one university professor finally declared, “Relax, Kirsten. Your writing is fine.” So writing has never been my way to interpret the world or to cope with it.

I’m not sure how it started, but I sat in the kitchen one evening and thought about Olivia’s scary experience at the movie theater. The time when she thought the cardboard Wall-E was going to “eat her, for sure.” And I decided to write about it. I told her story but twisted the end a bit to feature a courageous girl who was ready to defeat Wall-E should they have any future encounters.

I read the story to the family, and they laughed. Well, Olivia laughed, but through some tears. It had been a while, but the fear of Wall-E was still a bit too fresh, too raw. I changed Wall-E to Po the Panda from Kung Fu Panda, and suddenly, the story was funny to her. My goal was to help her get over a fear and to show her, though a humorous story, that I understood how big and scary the world could be when you were seven.

The story could have ended there, but it didn’t! Because of the “Freaky Panda” story, Olivia had the chance to launch her career as a youth storyteller. She first told this story at the Brandywine Storytelling Festival and eventually ended up at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase in Pigeon Forge, TN. As a family, we forged a connection to the storytelling community. Opportunities to tell stories and to meet fantastic tellers have shaped our family in untold ways. Stories can indeed change your life!

Here is Olivia’s rendition of “Freaky Panda,” told in Tennessee.

Can your family’s stories create new opportunities to grow and explore? Absolutely! Start by telling one at a local storytelling event.

Wizard Language Arts

Where to begin? I have so many ideas rolling around in my brain. It’s a bit messy up there in that caffeine-fueled space where I do all my thinking, let me tell you. I want to tell you about stories and the myriad of ways they fit into my life.

So the best way to start is just to start. Here’s a story I’d like to tell. Let me set a scene for you:

A small church classroom. A group of homeschoolers, ages 9-11 is gathered in front of you on the small area rug near the chalkboard. They are sprawled on the floor, bodies in various stages of sitting/lying/crawling-into-the-bookcase. Shoes are cast off, and everyone is at ease.

So, what to do? What to teach? As I got to know this particular group of homeschoolers, I learned they had one thing in common: they were all huge fans of fantasy novels. Magic. Wizards. Trolls. Dragons. Knights. This was the world where they lived in all their spare moments.

This was the genesis of my class Wizard Language Arts. I’m teaching it for the second time this year to ages 10-14, and I want to share it with you. If you have kids (at home or in a co-op) who love fantasy, why not structure your language arts time around this fabulous genre?

1. Pick a book. Or two.


This was our October book choice. I liked it because the world created was not just magic and fantasy, but had a basis in science and history. It’s a departure from your typical wizard-medieval-castle-knights-dragon fantasy story. Plus my daughter loved it, so I always take recommendations from her seriously.

2. Pillage and borrow from the Internet.

My big secret to success is the fact that there are so many great lesson ideas out there already, I hardly ever have to come up with one of my own. I assigned this book to be read at home over the month of October, and we turned our attention to writing during our in-class time. In September the kids had worked on creating their own magical world, complete with 3-D displays of their world which they presented in class. In October, I spent my time getting kids excited about writing their own novel. Yes! We decided to get involved in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I used the wonderful materials provided by the folks at NaNoWriMo to give my kids practice:

  • Developing Interesting Characters
  • Developing a Conflict
  • Planning a Plot
  • Getting Ready to Write Your Novel

Of course all the kids chose to write a fantasy novel of some sort.  So, during October, the kids read The Apothecary and prepared to write their novels during the month of November.

3. Every book talk is better with snacks.

At the beginning of November, we devoted our co-op class to book discussion on The Apothecary. My approach to book talk is pretty simple: questions, snacks, and souvenirs. I prepared a book-themed snack (in The Apothecary, birds feature prominently, so I made these). I found some discussion questions to get the chatter going, though I am always willing to let the kids talk about whatever they’re exited about/disgusted by in the book. They often have strong opinions. So much so, in fact, that for my first Wizard class, I had to pull this out on occasion:

talking hat

This was the “talking hat.” If you weren’t holding the talking hat, you had to try your best to hold your ideas in for a few seconds until it was your turn to hold on to the hat. Honestly, I only resorted to this tactic because the kids were all so excited to share their ideas that class discussion became a game of who could shout the loudest.  Ha.

Finally, I think it’s fun to do a science experiment, craft, or other hands-on activity that goes with our book theme. I’m probably one of the least crafty people I know, so I turned to my friend Mr. Inter Net to find a simple craft. The kids loved it. We made apothecary jars with these supplies:

Apothecary jars

The labels came from Etsy; everything else came from Michael’s. Glue a favorite label to a label tag, fill the jar with something delicious and chemical-looking, and tie the label on to the jar with cool string. Voilà! It was candy to go, basically, but the kids loved making them, so I was happy to sugar them up and send them on their merry way. 😉

4. Rinse and repeat.

This is the model we follow month to month. For December, we read this one:

the alchemyst

and during book talk, we used branches to make our own fancy tree houses/Yggdrasils (Norse mythology, anyone?).  I got the hubby to drill holes into wood so we could glue branches into a base. Add glue guns, small sticks, pipe cleaners, and string, and you’re good to go.


For in-class writing activities, I pull heavily from the Brave Writer methodology. We do freewrites, we play with words, we practice using all our senses to enhance descriptions, and we include improv games to enhance our storytelling abilities.

Wizard Language Arts is one way I share stories I love with kids. How do you expose your kids to the wonderful tales that make up who you are today?

Finding the overarching theme to life, work, and relationships. It all comes down to STORY.