Adventures in Reading: The Ranger’s Apprentice Series


I’ve been reading to my son at night from the time he was two or three.  Some of the books I read to him were ones I enjoyed when I was his age, such as My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, and others were ones that are fairly new.  Along the way we found some real treasures as well as an occasional snore-fest.  One series I began reading to him when he was around seven or eight is the Ranger’s Apprentice, by John Flanagan.

1The Ranger’s Apprentice is a series of novels set in the fictional land of Araluen.  The stories follow the adventures of a young apprentice named Will and several of his friends: Horace, a young knight, Alice, a royal courier, Cassandra, the princess of the realm, and Erak, a fierce warrior from a northern land who is an enemy at first and later grows to be one of Will’s best friends.

The stories are engaging and fun to read.  I found myself enjoying them as much as my son, and often read the books ahead of our nightly reading time.  In fact, I liked them enough that I have started reading through the series again.  If you enjoy great adventure tales like I do, it probably won’t take long to get you hooked.

I think he Ranger’s Apprentice series has great value in regards to homeschooling.  Though they are fiction, and the lands and peoples mentioned all have names invented by the author, they have direct correlations to real world countries, cultures, and history.2

For instance, Araluen is a fictional version of medieval England, Gallica is France, the Skandians are Vikings, and so on.  Much of the information about those countries and peoples fairly accurately depict their real-world counterparts.  The stories could, in my opinion, be used as activities for both English and History.  One could easily have the student identify the various cultures and lands presented in the stories, and (depending on the age of the child) describe how they are similar.

The Ranger’s apprentice stories have value in discussing ethics and morals.  There is a clash of ethics throughout the series, for instance, between Will and Horace.  The rangers often prefer a less than direct method of dealing with enemy forces, in contrast to the knights, who have a strong sense of honor and fair play.  The conflicts and the way they’re resolved could serve as a starting point for a discussion.  For instance, in the first book, The Ruins of Gorlan, Will and Horace start out as rivals, and for a while, appear as if they will become enemies, kind of like Harry and Draco in the Harry Potter series.  However, they are able to finally work out their differences and they become the best of friends.  The manner in which they do so is handled well, in my opinion, and avoids becoming overly sentimental or sappy.3

Flanagan has released book 12, The Royal Ranger, which seems to be the end of the series.  My son, after finishing it, mentioned that it was sad the stories are over.  I felt much the same way.  The Ranger’s Apprentice has become one of those stories, for me, that when you read the last one, it’s almost like saying goodbye to a good friend.  I strongly recommend the series.  As far as an age level, I believe I began reading the books to my son when he was 7 or 8, and by the time he was 9, he had started reading them himself, jumping far ahead of our nightly reading times.  Depending on the reading ability of the student, I would say around the age of eight as far as reading level goes.4  As for the content, I didn’t find anything objectionable in the stories.  The heroes and heroines strove to develop themselves ethically and morally, and most of the conflicts were resolved in a decent manner.  The only word of caution I would add is that there could be some scenes that might be slightly frightening, especially in the first two books of the series.  There are some monsters the heroes encounter that could frighten younger readers.  Aside from that, I think the only thing to be concerned with is whether or not the books fall within the particular student’s reading level.

Go check them out; I think you’ll enjoy them.

My Son, The 12 Year Old Scholar of Ancient History


Homeschooling brings joys, challenges, and the occasional ‘bad day.’  Moments come when the child you were sure would love mathematics in all its forms, just as you do, sits at the table with a frown on his face begging to do anything but his new math lesson.  There have been days when I was positive I would have had an easier time dragging a stubborn mule down the road than teaching my son the next mathematical concept.

Still, the homeschooling experience has been largely rewarding.  And it’s the moments like one I had recently that really make the whole voyage a grand one.

I was in our upstairs office room, where we have three computers and all the educational books and tools.  The room serves as my wife’s home work-space as well as a classroom for my son’s education.  Anyway, I was seated at the desk playing a video-game, Titan Quest, on the computer.  Titan Quest is a role-playing game where you create a character and go off on an adventure through ancient Greece, Egypt, and China, battling all sorts of mythological creatures along the way.  The makers of the game did an awesome job of depicting the ancient lands.  The graphics were very well done, and apparently they did their historical research, for many if not all of the buildings and devices were based on real ones.

As I was sitting there playing the game, in a stage set in Egypt, my son came into the room and watched my progress.  Suddenly my son pointed at the screen and said “hey, that’s a shaduf!”

He might as well have been speaking ancient Babylonian.  I just looked at him and said “what the heck is a shaduf?”

My son then proceeded to give me an education in ancient Egyptian irrigation techniques.  Apparently a shaduf is a device used to bring up water out of a river for the purpose of irrigating a field.  The game designers for Titan Quest had correctly thrown those into the game, as there were several of the devices along the river that flowed by a village one must guide his character through as the game progresses.

Here’s a link that illustrates a shaduf and how it would have been used.

It was an inspirational moment for me, and for my wife when I relayed it to her later in the day.  My wife was a history major, specializing in ancient and medieval history.  She has a passion for the study of history like few other people I’ve known.  That passion showed itself in the education of our son.  He has a broader knowledge of the ancient world than I did at his age, and I daresay he would give most high-schoolers a run for their money.

I remember moments like that one often, and call them to mind when we hit one of the difficult times.  Like it or not, even in homeschooling there will be subjects that hold no interest for the student.  But overall, my wife and I have seen it pay off; my son, who is now in his sixth grade year, loves to read and learn new things and has a strong grasp of history, literature, and science.  Sure, I wish he shared my passion for math and mathematical concepts, but you can’t win ’em all.  I have to be content knowing that when it comes to ancient history, I often have to go do a little research before getting into a debate with the kid.

The Ever-Versatile Duct (Duck!!) Tape


Over the course of my life, I have found a myriad of uses for duck tape.  I remember my grandfather and my uncles using it for temporary stopgaps on leaky hoses and pipes, wrapping handlebars, taping broken toys together, and other uses.  When I enlisted into the Army, I found duck tape to be indispensable.  Every soldier carried a roll of it in their rucksacks, using it for all sorts of things such as taping up loose straps and whatnot.  Today, I almost always have a roll or two of it around.

This past week, I experimented with yet another new use of duck tape.  My son is studying the history of ancient Greece this year, and he’s read various works dealing with Greek mythology, including the Iliad and Odyssey, collections of Greek myths, and the Percy Jackson series of books which takes Greek and Roman mythological characters and creatures and throws them into a contemporary setting.  For Halloween, my son decided to make Greek history and mythology the theme he would use for his costume.

Enter the dad.  We’ve been on a bit of a shoestring budget the last couple of months, so there wasn’t a lot of spending money at our disposal.  Looking around the house and in the garage, I found a few items that I thought I could utilize to make a least a passable shield and spear for my son’s costume.  I did have to make a couple small purchases, but most of the items I needed were already in our possession.

Basically, I used two colors of duck tape, an old round sled I had bought for my son years ago, a picture I printed and then had laminated, some nuts and bolts, and an old pair of blue jeans.

This is the sled before I modified it:

The sled was about the right size for what an ancient Greek warrior would have carried, if my son were a Hoplite marching off to battle.

The sled was about the right size for what an ancient Greek warrior would have carried, if my son were a Hoplite marching off to battle.

First step, drill some holes in the center for attaching arm straps.  For the straps, I took strips of an old pair of blue jeans and then wrapped them up completely in gold duck tape, then attached them with bolts to the sled/shield.

Not bad for old denim and duct tape.  The denim is fairly durable, and with the duck tape 'coating', tough enough to withstand a good amount of rough handling if my son chose to play with it.

Not bad for old denim and duct tape.

The next part was the most tedious:  wrapping the whole thing in shiny black duck (gorilla!) tape and putting the design for the shield onto the front.  For the design, my son decided to use the symbol of one of the figures from Greek mythology.  Kudos to any of you who can identify the symbol and the mythological deity or demigod it represents!  I printed the design onto copy paper, then laminated it and cut it out so it would fit in between the bolts holding the straps in place.

Here’s the finished product:

I 'blacked out' my son's face  for privacy purposes.  No, my son does not have an almost perfect solid black oval for a head.  :D

I ‘blacked out’ my son’s face for privacy purposes. No, my son does not have an almost perfect solid black oval for a head.

The spear that my son is holding was made from an old handle (from I don’t remember what now), black duck tape for a grip, and gold duck tape that I used to fashion a spearhead.

All in all, it was a fun creative exercise.

DIY Bacteria With Zometool


No, I’m not writing about creating a strain of bacteria in a basement laboratory at home.  Or in a secret hideout somewhere in the middle of the city.  I mean using a really cool set my wife found recently and bought for my son to enhance his home school education.

Zometool is a seriously awesome set of pieces that can be connected together to form any geometric shape imaginable.  There’s an example of what’s possible up top in the header picture for this blog.  The middle picture above is of a fractal star we assembled a couple of weeks ago.

Zometool consists of balls and several different size struts, in a variety of colors, that can be used on projects that will help students gain a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, geometric concepts and relationships.  Want to build a model of a Phage Virus?  How about a carbon molecule?  Perhaps you’d like to make a model of a protein polymer, a DNA strand, or a crystal lattice.  Those who are more ambitious might decide to construct a rhombic dodecahedron.

One word of warning:  If you’re anything like me, your son might have to stand in line behind you to get to use the set.  I love math and geometry, and it didn’t take long at all before I was hooked on Zometool.  This is definitely a ‘toy’ bought for the kids that the dads will end up using.

It can be really challenging to build.  There’s more than a few models I attempted to put together and found myself having to take everything back apart because the way I was doing it was clearly not going to work.  The fractal star model I mentioned previously had to be restarted four times before I got it right. The pictures of the models look deceptively simple, but once you get started building them, it quickly becomes clear that you have a puzzle you’re going to have to put some work into to solve.  But no fear, there’s something for everyone here.  Models range from fairly easy all the way to constructs that could probably give a rocket scientist pause.

Here’s some images of a construct I assembled, with my son giving me an occasional pointer.  Yes, in this case, it did become a bit of the student teaching the teacher.  Notice on the two images looking through the center of the model how there seem to be several star-shaped patterns popping up.  One of the things a user will learn, if he didn’t know already, is how often the star pattern occurs in nature.  This is a great educational tool, and will help students gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

This may look easy, but it does take a bit of planning.  Once you get past the challenge of figuring out what pieces you're going to use in building a model, you then have to figure out the right order to use in fitting everything together.  It's as much of a puzzle as everything else.  Several times I had to take it back apart and start over.

This may look easy, but it does take a bit of planning. Once you get past the challenge of figuring out what pieces you’re going to use in building a model, you then have to figure out the right order to use in fitting everything together. It’s as much of a puzzle as everything else. Several times I had to take it back apart and start over.

Note the recurring star patterns in the model, in this image and the one following.

Note the recurring star patterns in the model, in this image and the one following.

7a

You can check out Zometool yourself at their website.  I’m going back downstairs to build another model.