Posts Tagged ‘dinosaurs’

Living Books for High School Biology

Dear Reader,

My oldest is finishing up his 9th grade year, that first year of the dreaded high school which seems to throw us homeschooling parents into such a dither. While I expect him to take outside classes at some point, for this year we were still doing everything at home (well, almost; see the bit about labs below). Never one to take any curriculum as I find it, I ended up piecing together different bits for his first year of high school science for which the topic was biology. To see the initial plan, refer to this post from the beginning of the year.

There were three parts to his biology course this year: a video based curriculum from DIVE Science, a lab component through Landry Academy, and a number of living books. Though he has done not the lab yet (that’s in about a month), I will say the living books have been the treasure of this year. I am really glad I decided to use them rather than just taking the readings assigned by the DIVE curriculum, which on a brief perusal I had found deadly dull and quite one-sided, and I am recommitted to including living books in future years.

I would like to give you reviews of both DIVE and Landry, but I will save that for a future post (or two). For now, let me share with you the books I had him read and how each of them worked out for us.

Living Books for High School Biology:


Here is the schedule he used. It’s not very fancy, I know, and I am not sure in this picture how much you can read. If you can see at the top I wrote in “Narrate daily – written 1x/week.” I realize in high school he should perhaps be doing written narrations for everything, but I thought this might still be a bit burdensome for him. He’s a great narrator but has always struggled some with the physicality of writing too much. In other words, it slows him down a lot and he holds his pencil in such a way that his hand aches. Maybe next year we’ll up the quota on that. I’d also like to point out that in true Charlotte Mason style, this is a pretty simple, straightforward approach. Yes, I felt the need to add in the video component to make sure we weren’t missing key points and to give more of a method of evaluation (I made him do the tests from DIVE) and to add labs as well because I know colleges like to see those, but to me the core of it all is the living books. There is not a lot of busy work here, no worksheets and reading comprehension questions — just read and narrate, read and narrate. And it is effective. I really feel like he learned a lot this year and took a real interest in his studies as well.

But I know you are waiting for the main course so here it is:

Evolution by Paul Fleisher – To start off with the most controversial, I had my son read this book on evolution. The DIVE curriculum is unabashedly literal 6-day creationist and I wanted him to get a sense of all sides of the issue. You can read my own thoughts on the topic, which are quite rambling and ambivalent, here. Fleishman has a number of books on science topics. Not all are so controversial (not much is, after all). They are all slim volumes and we have found them well-written. He is good at taking what could be complicated topics and explaining them simply. In general I’d say his books are a middle school level.

To balance things out, I then had him read The Great Dinosaur Mystery: Solved! by Ken Ham. As the title suggests, this book seeks to explain (or explain away, depending on your point of view) the scientific evidence regarding dinosaurs in the light of that literal 6-day creationist understanding. Though intended for adults, it is written at a fairly simple level and is quite accessible to a younger reader as well. The edition I have is perhaps a bit dated but my impression is that the basic arguments remain the same. I do not find this book  convincing myself. As a biblical scholar of sorts (I almost got a PhD in Biblical Hebrew but for a little thing called a dissertation), this book irked me. The whole topic led to a number of good in-the-car-type discussions and also led me to write this post on the evidence (or lack thereof) of dinosaurs in the Bible.

For a little bit of a lighter take, the next book I had my son read was The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. This classic is about a scientist on an isolated island who is operating on live animals to alter them. The results are grotesque and disturbing. It’s a good book.


The World of Biology by John Hudson Tiner — This volume does not on the surface look like a living book. It is laid out more like a textbook and its content would make a good, if slim, middle school biology course. But it is relatively interesting in how it is written. My son after reading a chapter told me not just how food is digested in the various parts of the body but the story of how they found out that chemical reactions happen in the stomach. It was pretty interesting and I learned something as well from his narration. And he seemed genuinely interested and eager to tell me. If that doesn’t make  a living book. I don’t know what does. The content here might be a bit simple for a high school level class which is why I am calling it “Middle School” but combined with others, I think Tiner’s book made a wonderful addition to our curriculum. And he has many others as well that I look forward to using. In fact my 8th grade daughter has been reading his History of Medicine and though she does not tend to be as enthused about her studies, she too seems pleased with her book.


The next book was a treasure: Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow. Gamow is an older writer who has written a number of volumes which teach science in a narrative format. Most of his books are on physics but this one is biology. The premise of the book is that Mr. Tompkins goes about his day, starting with a visit to his doctor’s office, and falls asleep a lot and dreams of, for instance, traveling inside himself with his own blood cells. This is a fairly dense book and I would say it is high school level. My son really took to it and it didn’t seem to go over his head at all. FYI, the book Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life seems to be a subset of this book and could be worth using if you have less time to spend on it. But if you have time, do the whole thing.


Next up is Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster: The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine by Albert Marrin. Marrin is a favorite author and we get his books whenever they are relevant. He has more on history and I suppose this one is history too in a way but it is medical history. When I asked my son which was his favorite book this year, this is the first one he mentioned. Marrin does a wonderful job of making a story of things, even things one might not expect to be interesting like oil. This is not too long a book and is an upper middle-early high school level.


Lastly, there is Spare Parts :  From Peg Legs to Gene Splices by Wendy B. Murphy. My son has actually not gotten to this one yet but I read it myself and am excited for it. It is the history of what we do to our bodies from ancient prosthetic noses (kind of gross and with pictures!) to modern genetic engineering. The modern stuff is a bit more scanty but the whole thing is pretty interesting. My sister-in-law has a fake leg and I found the part of prosthetics, of which there is quite a bit, fascinating. It really made me realize how much she goes through or has been through that she never complains about.

And that’s the list. Next year will be chemistry and I am excited to use the Life of Fred Chemistry book (we love all things LOF) ut am also looking for living book suggestions.

Edited 5/23/2020: I have now had all four kids go through biology. We never used DIVE again and my experience with it is what has convinced me to stick with living books for high school science. Occasionally a child has already read some of these books so we have used a few different ones with different kids. My second child did a year on ecology and environmentalism and some of those books were use by numbers 3 and 4 as well. You can find that list here. My fourth child wanted to study diseases in 8th grade. Many of those books would work for high school biology too. That list is here. Also with the latter two kids I couldn’t find labs locally so I got some things together and we did them with a few other families. Read about that here.



Books about Fossils

We have been studying geology in our homeschool this year. I had posted previously about many of the books we have used. Up until this time it was mostly rocks, plate tectonics, etc. But lately we have been reading about fossils and dinosaurs so I thought I would share with you the books we have been using on those topics. As a warning, I am not a young earth creationist (see this post, among many others). Some of these books might still be acceptable if you are, but most would not.

The first few books we read were about people who hunted fossils:

Rare Treasure by Don Brown — a picture book about Mary Anning

Barnum’s Bones by Tracey Fern — another picture book about a guy named Barnum Brown

Dinosaur Hunter by Elaine Marie Aplhin — an easy reader type chapter book about some boys who discover some bones. My 8-year-old enjoyed it.

The Hunt for the Mastodon by Georgianne Ensign is also about boys discovering bones (mastodon, not dinosaur, obviously). It is  a longer book (my 10-year-old read it) and gives more info along the way about the animals.

Some other shorter books that my two younger kids also read:

A Woolly Mammoth Journey by Debbie S. Miller — a picture book that tells of a mammoth family and how they lived. It’s fairly simple but I think my 8yo liked it.

The Crocodiles Still Wait by Carol Carick — another shorter, simpler picture book but my 10yo appreciated the battles between an ancient crocodile and some dinosaurs.

Saber-Toothed Tiger by Joanna Cole — we are actually doing this one next week. It is another picture book about prehistoric mammals. It looks good.

Some books we read together:

Tiniest Giants by Lowell Dingus and Luis Chiappe — this is the story of an excavation in Argentina in which they found a large cache of dino eggs and the first fossilized embryonic dinosaur skin. It is written by a couple of the people on the expedition. It is  a bit dry in parts but does a good job of showing the process they go through. It definitely takes 4-5 sittings to get through.

Dinosaur Ghosts by J. Lynett Gillette — I am not sure this is the best written book but for some reason it took hold around here. It is a longish picture book type. It tells about a cache of dino fossils found in the American west (can’t remember which state; Arizona?) and theorizes about how they all came to be there at once and how they died. It is presented as a puzzle which I suppose is why my kids got into it. After the first days reading, I asked the kids how they thought the dinos had died. The littler two were very excited about the idea that there might have been a giant battle. But for some reason my 10yo son could not get over the idea that if they had all killed each other something must have happened to the last one left. He didn’t seem convinced when we suggested if there was a last one it could have just left and not been found there. Finally he decided that the last one must have died of amnesia. After laughing at him a while, we asked him if he knew what amnesia was. The most surprising thing is that he did (thank you, Dukes of Hazzard). So we pictured this last dinosaur sitting on a  pile of his friends’/foes’ bones and wondering who he is and why he is there and finally dying because he couldn’t remember to go home or eat. The real solution is  a lot less satisfying. We were able to discuss how scientists sometimes just don’t know all the answers though.

The Tales Fossils Tell by Jonathan R. Gallant — Gallant is one of those very prolific kids’ authors with books on every subject one can imagine. I was looking for  a general overview to read aloud to all my kids and this was the best I found. It is a bit dry but was bearable. I liked when they discussed the earliest ideas people had about fossils.

Finally a couple of books good for bigger kids. Both of these are real treasures:

Forgotten by Time by Robert Silverberg — This is a wonderful book if you can find it. It is all about “living fossils” which the author defines as animals or plants which bridge gaps between categories (is it a fish or a reptile?) or which have survived over long millenia with little change. It is very well written. I read the whole thing myself and am now having my two older kids read it. Not only is the subject matter intriguing, Silverberg makes a good story out of each case.

The Great Whale of Kansas by Richard W. Jennings — This is the fictional account of a boy in Kansas who discovers a fossil in his backyard. It is a compelling story. It slips in some few tidbits about the various eras and epochs, but mostly it is just fun.