Monday, August 31, 2009

Check out "Homeschooling Strengthens Families"

at Why Homeschool. The Cate family adopted a foster child some time ago. This post describes the many ways their homeschooling lifestyle has benefited their new son along with their three daughters. It's really beautiful and worth the short time to read.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Another thing to love about Boy Scouts

Last night and this morning my boy was out helping a fellow Scout work on his Eagle project. (This is a large project required to become an Eagle Scout, the highest award in Boy Scouts.) Last winter he helped put up a deer fence in a local park. This time the project took place at several local playgrounds. The boys - young men, really - spread new wood chips on the playground areas.

The projects represent a lot of hard work. But they are always fun. A group of men together can have a lot of fun accomplishing something.

My boy always comes home from these work days tired but happy. That sense of accomplishment just doesn't come from helping mom do the dishes. Mowing the lawn is a better example of similar work to do at home, but it still isn't quite the same as doing it with a bunch of other guys. I mean, young men.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sometimes, we just have to get to work

We went bowling earlier this week, using the kids' free bowling coupons. There was something new in the bowling alley: big banners advertising a "Moms Open House." It's taking place during the first weeks that schools are back in session, and is designed to introduce moms to the joys of league bowling. The flyer promises fun, and prizes, and gift bags.

My kids asked if I wanted to go. No, I said, I'd rather be home with you.

Homeschool moms sometimes feel conflicted this time of year. We are happy to have our children home with us. We don't like seeing other mothers rejoicing at getting their kids out of the house when school starts. We don't join in the champagne celebrations at the bus stop. (I truly did see someone's blog post describing such a thing.)

Of course every mother needs to get away from her children sometimes, and kids need to be away from mommy (more and more so as they grow up). But it is kind of ugly, the way mothers are so eager to get the kids out of the way so they can get on with their lives. I have to wonder how a kid feels, watching his mother do a happy dance as he gets on the bus to spend most of his day away from home.

(And of course I am not talking about all mothers of schoolkids. Just those that are sick of their kids after summer vacation and can't wait till they're out of the house for eight hours a day again.)

But then, after we stop feeling superior, the envy can set in. Those other mothers, the ones with the kids out of the house all day, have free time. They could go bowling! They could have cleaner houses, more beautiful yards. They could go shopping and out for coffee; or just sit on the couch and read. All while we are staying home fighting over math while the dishes stack up and dust bunnies frolic.

So we go to our homeschool mom friends and cry out our frustrations: "I'm overwhelmed. I can't do all this." We are tired, we are burned out - and that's just from the planning. We're not even doing anything with the kids yet; they're still out in the back yard on the trampoline. We plan to "start school" real soon now, but keep pushing it back because we're not ready, not up for it yet.

And we pat each other on the back and say "oh, yes, of course you feel that way. Take some time off, let the kids stay on the trampoline a while longer, rest and relax, and you'll feel better. You are trying to do too much." And we believe we are offering encouragement.

But sometimes that's not encouragement. That's enabling. That's letting us revel in self-pity and giving us reason not to get on with with what we need to be doing. Real encouragement says "yeah, we're all tired. But we have a job to do. Get to work."

Christian homeschoolers often like to quote Jesus's offer of rest. Yes, His yoke is easy and His burden is light. It is important to remember that; I am not making fun. But we tend to forget the parts about hard work. Jesus didn't let tiredness, or being in a bad mood, or feeling down keep Him from His work. He got up when he was tired. His disciples worked hard too, and they didn't wait to get started till they felt up for it. They endured greater hardships than any tired homeschooling mom.

Years ago when my sister's four children were small, I was amazed at the amount of work she did for them. She wasn't homeschooling, but she helped with Girl Scout cookie sales and Boy Scout fundraisers, made the girls' dresses and everyone's Halloween costumes - and these were elaborate, sewn-from-patterns costumes, not cardboard, felt, and duct tape creations. She was always busy and she didn't get much sleep. When I expressed concern for her lack of sleep and rest she always said "I'll sleep when I'm dead." She wasn't being cynical. Her rest wasn't important to her. Maybe her rest came in the satisfaction of seeing her girls wearing pretty dresses, in watching them have a great time on Halloween, in helping them enjoy their activities in Scouts.

Her kids would have turned out fine without the cool Halloween costumes, but it was something she chose to do - no, something she felt she was supposed to do. It was important to her. And she didn't complain about being tired while she was doing it.

Of course the costumes and the lack of sleep are not the point. Of course we are supposed to get our rest. (For all I know, my sister is one of those people who only needs 4 hours sleep a night.) Of course if we are sick we should stop and take care of ourselves. And of course we all need a little downtime. This month I finally set myself a goal of spending one hour reading each day. Real reading, in real books - not magazines or websites. It's been wonderful, and refreshing, and motivating. But I'm still doing my other work. I'm still homeschooling.

So if we're homeschooling because we feel it's the right thing to do, or feel called by God to do, then we need to stop talking about how hard it is, and go do it.

This morning I overslept. When I got into the kitchen, I remembered some things I had let slip the night before, so I had work to do right from the start. Because I overslept, bread dough I'd left rising in the refrigerator all night wasn't going to be in the oven when I wanted it to be. I was pretty annoyed with myself for my poor planning.

I could have called on some girlfriends who would have sympathized with me. They may have told me that I must have needed the rest and that I shouldn't be so hard on myself. They most likely wouldn't have said what I needed to hear, which was, "why didn't you go to bed earlier, and set the alarm to wake you up?" Or, "why are you calling me now instead of getting things done?"

So, I didn't call (or write); I looked up a Bible passage. No, not Matthew 11:28 - 30. Instead, I went to the first chapter of the book of Acts. Jesus has just ascended into heaven, and the disciples are standing there:

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

In other words: "Why are you standing around? You have work to do. Go get to it."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Carnival of Homeschooling

The "We've Got Style!" edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Homeschool Bytes.

It's a beautifully illustrated edition, too. I'm looking forward to getting some ideas for lunch from Homeschool Talk: School Lunches at Aimee's Land. Around here lately it's been a little hit or miss, with nachos the most requested (though not most granted). But then I've never done lunch well.

I like the sound of "How to Educate for Beautiful Results" at Pajama School. And "Using Nature Study to Study all Areas of Science" at Katie's Homeschool Cottage has some great ideas for expanding science learning.

Of course there's lots more at the Carnival.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Semi-schooling history

After finishing the 4-volume, 4-year cycle (that we took 6 years to complete) of The Story of the World earlier this year, I decided that this would be our year of unschooling history. Not because I don't like studying history with my kids. We love history. I have never understood people who say they dislike history. I stare slack-jawed at homeschool moms who say they don't know how to teach history. I can't even comprehend their problem.

But we have some other things to focus on right now and we really don't need to move right back into a full-on study of history. Except I really can't unschool very well, so, we have a bit of a plan. I can't manage without some sort of plan. I don't have room for all our history books to be out of boxes and available all at once, for free perusal during the year. So, we're dividing up the year, and world history, by quarter:

Q1, July - September: Overview and Ancient
Q2, October - December: Medieval
Q3, January - March: Renaissance through Civil War
Q4, April - June: the rest

Obviously no one can effectively teach world history in a year. But I'm not really trying to teach it. I just want to keep the history fire burning till our next academic year when we will focus on American history.

Our read-aloud is a wonderful narrative history book: A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich. It's an overview, designed to create a love of history in kids. It's written a little below my kids' reading level right now; I've had it a long time, and foolishly waited till we were finished with Story of the World before starting it. (That was a dumb thing to do and I regret it. I frequently remind homeschooling mothers that they should not make themselves slaves to the curriculum; why didn't I listen to my own advice? I should have just taken a break from SOTW to read this beautiful book.) But they are enjoying it, and I am happy to say that a good bit of it sounds familiar to them. My boy retained more of ancient history than I thought he would, but then I shouldn't be surprised, he's always had a good auditory memory. My girl was little when we started our history cycle so it's not surprising she doesn't remember so much. Still, she's taking it in now.

As I read, I am having the kids make a simple outline of the book - just writing down the important people and events of each chapter. These are skills they haven't really picked up yet.

We're also watching the dvd course World History: The Fertile Crescent to the American Revolution by The Teaching Company. This is a series of 30-minute high-school level lectures. It's a one-man show - the teacher presents his lecture in period costume, and assumes the role of a character of the time he's lecturing on. It's engaging, sometimes funny, and the kids are getting a lot out of that too. There is a student workbook to go along with the course, but we're not using that now. Maybe in a few years we'll come back to that.

For the rest, the kids are mostly reading on their own. They're using the internet, too, more than they have in the past. The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of the Ancient World is a great tool for this. Lots of text and great illustrations, and links on (nearly) every page to find out more. I hear "hey, come look at this!" a lot when one of the kids is reading it or looking something up.

Of course we use lots of good books too. I read them The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum - one they could have read alone, but my memories of The Iliad and The Odyssey had faded a little and I wanted a refresher. I'll probably read some others along the way, too. But mostly they are doing their own reading. Narrative histories, biographies, historical fiction. Lots of books I wish I had time to read too, like The Bronze Bow, The Golden Goblet, Mara, Daughter of the Nile, In Search of a Homeland (children's version of the Aeneid), and Black Ships Before Troy. Some I'd like to reread: D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, among others.

One fabulous library find is Battle At Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare. This is keeping the boy really engaged. It's a gorgeous - and useful! - book and might have to find its way into our permanent collection.

Our box of ancient history books is overflowing. Some books might get a cursory glance as they really are for the younger set. There might be some sentimental value attached to Growing up in Ancient China but I don't think it will really be needed. Maybe I can put that and a few others into my pile to sell at a curriculum fair next year. Some books won't be used for a few years yet. I can't wait to get into the Greek plays but have to be patient for a little longer. But I also found my college edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh which we read in a picture-book version years ago; I think it's time for the real thing now - I'll read this one to them. And the "Oxford Profiles"- Ancient Egyptians: People of the Pyramids, Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition, and Ancient Romans: Expanding the Classical Tradition - are a good fit for this year, at least as "browsing books" though likely not for complete reading yet. (We will use them more extensively next time around.) We bought these years ago for much less than they are priced now. Probably as we were packing to move I wondered why I was carrying these books around, but of course now I'm so glad to have them.

Browsing through the "Profiles" book on the Greeks, I came across the listing for Pytheas, who is believed to have voyaged from Greek Marseilles up to what is now England. That reminded me that some time ago I picked up The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek so I'm previewing that to see if it's a good candidate for reading aloud.

Yeah, it'll be hard to fit all these books into the next month and less-than-a-half. But I'm not looking for comprehensive reading. I have to remember I am just keeping the fires burning.

So far it's working out pretty well.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The weirdest birth announcement I've ever seen

This fits into the "too much information" category: announcement of the birth of a new boy, including, among all the usual vital stats, the fact that he will remain "intact." Also included were links to various websites about the evils of male circumcision.

Now I don't have an opinion one way or another on male circumcision. And I'm all for people educating others about controversial topics that are important to them.

But, please, not via the birth announcement.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I don't love my health insurance company. We have a fair number of claims, and it's a rare occasion when someone doesn't make a mistake; they either reimburse the wrong person, or incorrectly reject the claim altogether. It can take a few frustrating phone calls and a bit of a wait to get reimbursement. Writing the premium check every month is pretty painful, too.

Still, I don't ever, ever think to myself: This sure would work better if the government took healthcare over.

I can't even imagine the problems I would have with those claims then, assuming the services were even covered. And I don't believe anyone, from the President on down, who tells me "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan." I'd actually like a better plan; wouldn't you? But the government isn't going to give us one.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's the Lolcats edition...

of the Carnival of Homeschooling, at HomeschoolBuzz. Lots of funny animal pics along with the usual wide variety of homeschool-related writing. I am particularly interested in Taking Science to the Next Level with Engaging Online Explorations at ChoosyHomeschooler.

PS: Being more of a dog person myself, I prefer Loldogs.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer Reading: The Ingenious Edgar Jones

It's been a long time since I read a book quickly, stealing time as often as possible to sneak in a few pages. My reading has been sporadic for so long; I pick up a lot of books but rarely finish them. Or, I finish them but it's slow going. I haven't been totally lost in a story for a long time. Finally I found one to race through, eager to get back to it when life interrupted my reading.

I was attracted to the cover of The Ingenious Edgar Jones (by Elizabeth Garner) at the library. I love beautiful covers but of course am often disappointed by what's between them. In this case, I wasn't... and I was.

The story is beautifully written. Edgar Jones is born, mid-19th-century Oxford, on a remarkable night. He is a remarkable boy. The story is his, from birth to about age 14, and his parents'. His mother was the daughter of a tavern-keeper; his father a porter at Oxford University. The father sets great store by books and learning; Edgar displays a different kind of intelligence, one his father cannot understand and thus cannot respect. Eventually, things go badly.

It is not a happy book, but it's not grim either. Well, it's the story of a family's disintegration; how can that not be grim? That's how good the writing is. The parents, in particular the father, show a complete lack of understanding of their child and how to help him grow up. The father's expectations of how his son should turn out render him unable to see his boy for who he is. The mother seems a little more able to see and understand the boy, but is unable to help him either. It is a sobering book for parents: could these things happen to my family? Am I paying attention to my kids, to their talents and skills? Am I trying to fit them into a box of my making?

There are beautiful moments too. Did I already say it's beautifully-written?

The disappointing part came at the ambiguous ending. Suddenly, elements of magical realism were introduced into the book. (I like magical realism, a la Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits, but not when it's inconsistent with the rest of the book.) Perhaps they'd been there, in a subtle way, all along. Certainly there was something magical about Edgar. But at the end, it felt as if the author couldn't quite decide what to do with some of the characters, so... well, I won't say what happened but it was not what I was expecting. I'll just say I'd rather have a realistic unhappy ending than a completely contrived one.

Still, I found a lot to like, and to ponder, about this book. I'll look for others by Elizabeth Garner.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Growing up and away

One of the benefits of homeschooling is the freedom we have not to assign our kids into a single grade level. We know that grade level in the American public school system is an artificial construct, developed to facilitate mass education. In the adult world, the people in a college classroom, or in an office, or on a construction crew were not all born within a year of one another. We know that within a group of 8-year-olds, skills and knowledge will vary widely. So, we don't need to separate everyone out by age. We can have classes covering multiple grade levels or ages.

We've participated in some multi-age classes and they've mostly worked out well. For the past two years we've been part of a reading and writing group wherein the kids read books, wrote on a variety of topics and shared their work. It was great because each child could work at his own level. The proficient writers encouraged those less so. A piece of writing for our monthly "magazine" could be as simple as a description of a day at an amusement park, or something more involved: a book review, instructions on making a craft, or a complex story. We also read books and shared them via oral reports, posters, dioramas, Legos projects. Of course, there are Legos.

The group of kids consisted of toddlers up to 11-year-olds; most kids were in the 6-8 range. No, the toddlers didn't participate. But, they were always there, in all their noisy glory. Last year a sweet 3-year-old gave her first oral report. I don't remember what she talked about; I couldn't understand much of it anyway. But it was good for her, to get up and speak to this group of kids and mothers.

Multi-age classes are so nice. They are helpful to the mother: all the kids in one place at one time! Learning about the same thing! It's also good for kids to be together with their siblings, and with kids of other ages.

One of my favorite homeschool memories is of our Greek Olympics day, about 6 years ago. Another friend and I were introducing ancient history to our kids, using the same materials, so we got our two families together for some Olympic games. The group consisted of 2 boys, aged 6, a 5-year-old boy, a 5-year-old girl, and a 2-year old boy. Everyone had a great time, especially the 2-year-old who won the applause of all the big kids. On the same day we did this, a friend whose kids went to school told me how her 6-year-old daughter and a friend from her class shunned her 5-year-old daughter while playing. It was, of course, the effect of being in a classroom with kids all of the same age. The younger child wasn't welcome anymore.

But sometimes homeschooling mothers start thinking that there is (almost) no limit to this. Some in our reading/writing group want to start adding more classes into the mix. Science, maybe PE, art... But the mothers of the newly-turned-12-year-olds are pulling back a little. We (as I am one of them) and our older kids are not so interested in a science class with this group. Nor PE. Art? Maybe. The mothers of the younger kids don't understand this. They see how well it's worked before and want to do more. They don't get that the older kids are moving on, growing up. They need something different, not more of the same.

Some topics lend themselves well to wide age ranges; some don't. It's great to have mixed ages and abilities in a writing class; the older and/or more experienced kids can encourage the younger/less experienced while working at their own skill level. The little kids' presentations might be a bit boring, but older kids should be learning how to show interest and kindness to the little ones. The reading projects were set up so that everyone read on the same topic, but not the same book. So when the subject was "boats"- intentionally broad so everyone could find something of interest - the little kids read and talked about picture books like Gail Gibbons' Boat Book; the olders worked with "bigger" books such as Men of War: Life in Nelson's Navy. Everyone had something to share.

But other topics don't work out so well. Can someone really teach a science class that is accessible to 5-year-olds while not being a complete waste of a 12-year-old's time? I'm not talking about particularly gifted little ones, though some of the younger kids in the group are really bright. Nor about severely learning-disabled older kids, though some (such as mine) do have some problems that hinder them a bit. A well-read 12-year-old will usually have a lot more science and history knowledge than a 7-year-old. They are tired of watching baking soda and vinegar volcanoes erupt, bored with making and playing with flubber. They want to dig deeper. They have learned lots of facts about, say, World War II; now they need to connect those facts to the past, and the future.

(Fans of classical education might say this is the difference between the grammar stage and the logic state. Exactly right.)

It is so easy to take something that works and apply it too broadly. The sweet vision of kids of all ages working and learning together is so beautiful, so tempting. And it works well, sometimes. But when it doesn't, we need to set aside that vision and move on. The kids grow up; mom needs to grow her educational plans with them. We may be happy and comfy in our group, but the day comes when we need to step out and find a new one.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Googling school days

By far, the most common google search I see on my sitemeter is a variation on "how many hours of school a day." It leads people to a post I wrote during my first school year in Pennsylvania, which is when I had to start tracking "school days."

I always wonder about the motivation behind that search. Who's asking the question? Are they kids wondering how long other kids are in school? Mothers trying to plan their lives once their kids get to school age? People considering homeschooling? People who are worried kids aren't spending enough time in school - or too much?

Are they trying to find out how many hours the child is actually in school, or the amount of time educational activities are going on? It's not the same thing.

Last month we started our third homeschooling year here. We still have to count our 180 days of educational activity. Both kids are getting 5 full days in this week: the boy is at Scout camp enjoying swimming (PE), rocketry (science), stream pollution (science again), hiking (more PE), working in the kitchen (community service), maybe doing some building projects. All with a bunch of other boys (socialization). There's more, I'm sure.

My girl is home but going to a history day camp at one of the many local historic houses. She's making crafts (art), playing active games (PE) - yesterday she got to try walking on stilts! - learning local history, learning about plants (science), and hanging out with other kids (socialization).

So, if you want to know how many hours a child spends, or should spend, in school each day, it's probably best to call the local school district. But, if your google search brought you here, go ahead and ask about homeschooling too.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Fabric scraps and memories

One of the boxes that got wet when the basement flooded was full of fabric. We pulled it all out, thinking I would have to wash it all. Imagine my delight when I got to the bottom and found that it was all dry. There was a layer of styrofoam at the bottom of the box, protecting my precious fabric.

Because we paw through the fabric a lot, it was a disorganized, wrinkled mess anyway - but at least a dry mess. My girl and I stood together, sorting and folding - there was no room to sit, since so many boxes from the basement had to be moved into the rest of the (small) house. I was hoping we'd find some to get rid of at a garage sale we're planning with our Girl Scout troop.

There were large pieces, enough for a girl's dress, and small pieces suitable for doll's clothes or quilt squares, and everything in between. But even small scraps of fabric may be useful, someday. And so many have memories:

"Look, Mom, here's a bit left over from that the first Easter dress you made me! Oh, I love this fabric." I wondered what happened to the dress; she remembered that we'd given it away to a sweet two-year-old when we left Oregon. I hope she's worn it, or will wear it when it fits. Or did her mama put it in a garage sale?

"Oh, here's some from that picnic blanket project that never worked out! Do you think we'll ever make a real quilt?" I sure hope so, Honey.

"Mmm... feel this fleece from my pajama pants. Do you think there's enough here for something for Sarah [the best doll]?" Oh yes, fold it up and put it on the pile.

We found scraps from the "art quilt" that the boy helped me design a few years ago. It was a sea scene, with a pieced boat, a fussy-cut lighthouse motif (where did I ever find that fabric, anyway?), appliqued rocks, and fish buttons. We still have it, though he doesn't really want it hanging in his room anymore. Scraps from the one and only Barbie dress I made; scraps from a gorgeous piece of fabric that was to be the centerpiece of a fall quilt, but was turned into a special doll dress. Leftovers from making 24 matching napkins for the crowd coming to Thanksgiving dinner one year. (We still use those napkins, though they're getting a bit frayed.) Bits and pieces from so many projects, some we've made, some still in our imaginations.

We only found one piece, out of hundreds, that we could stand to give away.

Some things just have to stay with us, no matter how hard we try not to care about them.

The bright sides to a flooded basement

1. Finding things that can be donated to the Girl Scout garage sale.

2. Rediscovering old picture books we'd forgotten about.

3. Realizing that some of those old picture books are not as precious as we'd thought (see #1).

3. Discovering that we stored the cardboard boxes of books in the driest end of the basement.

4. Finding a cooking magazine with a recipe I'd been missing and thought was lost forever. Once I found the magazine it was in, locating it online was easy, so I never have to lose it again.