Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reflections on Christmas

It has been quite a while since I posted on this blog. Homeschooling has been pretty routine, so that didn't seem like a noteworthy topic. I have discovered that my allowing for only one week off school for the Christmas holiday was not very realistic. First of all, I need time to prepare for Christmas even if we keep it simple like we did this year. Secondly, The Pillowfight Fairy can't concentrate on school work if she hasn't had a chance to play with all of her new toys yet. So we are taking a second week off to help satisfy the kids and to allow the parents some time to get life back to normal.

For those of you who follow my husband's blog, you know that we received some unwelcome news that our expected baby is not the healthy baby we had hoped for. She has many defects that will probably take her life fairly early. This is not the kind of news one likes to get at anytime, let alone Christmas. But after the initial shock and sadness, we are finding ourselves managing fairly well.

Christmas is usually one of our most stress-filled holidays. I have to consciously limit my Christmas activities or I make myself sick. Added to that, we frequently have one or more of us involved with a Christmas program of some kind (practices are not easy to juggle when there are young children). Then there has been a death or other family struggle/tragedy in most of the holiday seasons for the last 15 years. On top of that is the "who do we spend which holiday with" family politics. Don't get me wrong. I love my family and I am quite fond of my in-laws. I like spending time with them. But it is not easy to pack up the family for a visit on particular pre-determined date, especially in winter. And somehow, kids are never on the same schedule as the adults, which adds to the general stress. Then there is the fact that all three of our kids have birthdays plus Christmas in the space of about three months and we are inundated with new stuff, requiring sorting, storing, rearranging, and the discarding of old things.

With all of that, somehow this has managed to be one of our better Christmases in years. The family Christmas celebration was just across town for us this year, so we didn't have the travel stress. None of us were in a Christmas program this year, though we did attend a couple as audience members. We did keep our Christmas simple. I didn't have a lot of time to prepare ahead, being busy teaching up until the week of Christmas. Then I had extra doctor's appointments and big issues on my mind regarding our baby. Somehow, anything other than simple would have been way out of place this year. I did have a cold, but it was going away by Christmas instead of just coming on.

All this makes me reflect on what would be an ideal Christmas in my opinion. My ideal Christmas would involve:

  • Spending time with immediate family doing simple things that we don't usually get to do.
  • Not being concerned about other people's expectations of gift giving and simply giving gifts as prompted by our hearts and perhaps doing more gift giving to those in need rather than people who have everything they need.
  • Remembering that Jesus is what the celebration is all about.
  • Treating the people around us better than we usually treat them and perhaps better than they deserve.
  • Move the focus off of what we want, and put the focus on what God wants and what others need.
  • Maybe we could sing and dance more, too.
  • As much as we treasure particular things, we should never let them stand in the way of the lives and relationships we need to treasure more.
Somehow when issues of life and death are on your mind, most of the stuff that goes on around Christmas is so trivial it is ridiculous. But without those big life and death issues weighing on the mind, those trivial things start to take over. Although the unpleasant things of life are in fact unpleasant, they do help us keep in perspective what is important.

Friday, November 21, 2008


About a month ago, I was talking with an older gentleman at church (whom I respect) and he brought up the subject of homeschooling. He had heard that we were homeschooling and, not knowing much about it, he was curious. He was not on the attack and he wasn't trying to condemn. But, I found it interesting that instead of bringing up the socialization topic like most non-homeschoolers do, he asked me to whom am I accountable.

I had a simple answer at the time that I think satisfied him, but I've been thinking about the question on and off ever since. The more I think about it, the more I think he was on the right track with his question. I'm sure that this "accountability" question probably raises just as many hackles with homeschoolers as the "socialization" question does. But, think about it for a minute. In the socialization question, people are saying that it is important to be like all the rest of us who educate our kids this other way. In the accountability question, it is asking who do you answer to keep you on track and doing what you should.

The way I see it, accountability is important to everybody. But, this gentleman realized that accountability is a separate thing from being like everybody else. Most people think that if you are like everybody else then the accountability question is taken care of through normal channels and they don't have to think twice about it. However, most homeschoolers are not satisfied with the accountability provided in the normal channels and for one reason or another reject the idea that they need to be like everybody else.

The public schools are accountable to parents, school boards, and government regulation. Private schools are accountable to parents, school boards, government regulation and in the case of religious private schools the faith tradition they are a part of. Homeschoolers are also accountable. Except in their case the parents are the school board and the teachers and the administration. Homeschoolers also have to satisfy whatever government regulations have jurisdiction over them. Many homeschoolers are part of a support group which can be an accountability partner for them to stay on track. Religious homeschoolers are either accountable within their faith tradition or accountable directly to God.

All of these methods of accountability are useful and good within reason. But any one of these can get overbalanced and become a tyranical dictator rather than an accountability partner in the education of our children. It is also this that scares people when they hear horror stories of parents who use homeschooling as a screen for mistreating their children. The public decides suddenly that there isn't enough accountability if it was allowed to happen.

The things that I see in all this is that there are good individuals and bad individuals and all of us have some mixture of the two (so don't get too puffed up about being a good guy). It is in every parent's best interest for their children to thrive and succeed. If we all operated on this self-interest, there would never be a parent who mistreats their children. Unfortunately, there are and they are not limited to any one segment of the population. For this reason, I understand the need for accountability. I consider myself personally accountable to God for my actions. I am also accountable to my husband, and he to me, in how we conduct ourselves with our children. We are accountable to extended family, who love our kids as much as we do (and for the record, most but not all are happy that we homeschool). We have church connections that help us be accountable as good parents. We are not thoroughly connected to a homeschool organization for accountability, but we do have several casual friendships with other homeschoolers. Living in California, we currently do not have many governmental regulations to be concerned about. On the whole, I think we are sufficiently accountable while at the same time having the freedom to decide what is best for our kids.

I would challenge all parents (public, private, or homeschool) to consider to whom you are accountable. If you have a long list, you are probably doing all right. If you have a very short list or an empty list, you probably need to find yourself people to hold you accountable to be the person you need to be for the sake of your children.

Half-way Point

As of today, we have completed half of what I have planned for a 36 week year. We have completed week eighteen on time, without letting the schedule slide. I am quite pleased that we've been able to do that since I expected that sick days and other surprises would have caused us to push the schedule later than planned. But, so far the sick days were few enough to allow us to catch up with just a little extra work per day.

Keeping on schedule is very important for me this year. This is partly because I don't want anyone to be able to claim that I am incapable of teaching my daughter at the high standards we have set. There were some who upon reading the coursework we had planned, said that we had bit off more than we could chew and that we should thin it out and be more realistic. I have news for those people: It is working. Our daughter is being challenged at an appropriate level. She is not showing signs of being in over her head. She is making steady progress in all subjects. Some of it she likes. Some she doesn't. When I look at various standard lists of what my child should be learning in first grade I find that she is either at grade level or above.

The other reason I find that the schedule is important to me is that according to my calendar, my six week on one week off plan (with an extra week off for Christmas) results in ending our "official" 36 week year on April 24th. Exactly 3 weeks before my baby is due. I do have more work planned at a more relaxed pace during the summer. But, doing much schoolwork with a newborn infant in the house is folly as far as I'm concerned. 3 weeks is not a lot of wiggle room and babies are rarely inclined to appear at convenient times.

So if I'm on schedule and pleased with my daughter's progress, why am I nervous? It just dawned on me this week that I won't have the month or two of planning before the next year starts. Those months will be taken up by baby care and lack of sleep. I don't recommend doing meaningful planning in those circumstances. That means that I have to guess how my daughter progresses to the end of the year and make plans early.

With our bought curriculum, this isn't so bad. She is doing well with it. It seems well-paced for her. We will just pick it up at the next level. I'll just have to preview it to make sure there are no surprises. But I've made up my own lesson plans in a few areas. Preparing for a new year with these takes a lot more work. For instance I need to finalize new lesson plans for religion, literature, art, and science. I also need to research how we plan to teach cursive and get ready for that. I also need to research grammar curriculum since our daughter will be finishing up her current program early and I'm not sure that publisher has the next level to just pick up where we left off. You can't do planning like that in a day or two.

But even with the nervousness, I'm starting to get a little excited at the prospect of something new for the coming year. I always loved starting a new year when I was a kid. Besides, next year we are going to be studying two of my favorite areas of science: Earth science and astronomy (Yay!)

For our literature studies I have been trying to do literature from the time period we are studying in history. This year it has been Ancient history accompanied by myths and legends of the nations we study with Aesop's Fables filling up the empty spaces in the schedule. (As a side note: I highly recommend Aesop's Fables for children. My daughter loves them and they teach wisdom. They are also the perfect size for beginning narration training.) Next year we will be studying from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. Yeah it's a cool time period to study. However, I'll have to take a slightly different approach to the literature since the writings from this time period are not necessarily child-friendly. One suggestion I've come across is reading lots of biographies of people from this time period. That idea has merit, but I'm sure that there are at least some primary sources that we could read parts from. Just think of all of the religious writings, scientific writings, chronicles, eyewitness accounts of historical events, fiction, and plays. Surely some of that could be read to a 2nd grader. But the question remains: "which ones do you choose?" There are a whole lot more writings available for this time period than for the ancient world. Any suggestions are welcome.

Religion won't be hard, just time consuming. We are reading through the Bible. By my schedule, we will be in the book of Numbers by the end of the school year. We are taking it very slowly in small chunks. So far we have only skipped a few passages that I didn't think I could explain with a simple explanation. I know we will skip more later on this year for boredom and redundancy reasons. However, I am trying to give as much of the original as I can since it all relates together and gives the broader context for later teachings. This means that I read through it all ahead of time to plan what those daily chunks are going to be.

With art I think I will probably take a different approach next year. I like the book we used "Drawing with Children," but I've found that it helps my daughter only so far. The Pillowfight Fairy has gotten to a point she is comfortable with and isn't making much progress. In fact the book encourages self-expression to the point that my daughter doesn't even want to do a straight copy job without altering the picture to fit what she wants it to be. I figure my daughter has no lack of self-expression. She is very good at it. What she needs to learn is a little more artistic discipline to learn new methods. So I'm on the lookout for something that can help us in that direction.

I have researched cursive enough to know that it is more commonly started in third grade. However, both my husband and I think that she is ready for it and will probably like it. She is becoming rather comfortable with writing and has developed a very nice print style. She likes her letters to be somewhat artistic. She is also sometimes frustrated when she tries to read script and then gives up. With her temperment, we can picture her either loving cursive because it is pretty or hating it because it requires constant practice. We don't think she is too young. My mother who has excellent penmanship first learned cursive writing in first grade. Of course more things were handwritten back then.

So as you can see, I'm already switching gears into my planning mode. I also have to keep in mind that I might be starting the Adrenaline Junkie on Kindergarten sometime next year. So I'll need a schedule that will allow me to teach two kids at different levels while having a toddler/preschooler and infant keeping me hopping. I keep hearing that the first year of homeschooling is the hardest. My question is, "Is that my child's first year of homeschooling or my first year of homeschooling?" Because this is my third year of homeschooling and it has been comparably challenging to our first year when she was a reading preschooler. And from this vantage point, although this year has been going smoothly, it isn't easy. Next year somehow seems like it will be harder with two students and two distracters.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Extreme tiredness

I had thought that I was doing fairly well this pregnancy with being able to stay awake and just keep on going. Yeah... so I do need my afternoon nap. Yeah... so I tend to run out of energy fast in the evening. But, last night I reached a new depth of tiredness that I had never achieved before.

I fell asleep while reading a book. OK, that seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. Let me revise my description to give you a better idea of how extraordinary this was. I was reading Dr's Suess' ABC to my son, aloud. I knew I was tired, but I didn't realize how tired I was until I felt this fuzziness fade over me and I woke myself by hearing myself continuing to talk as if I were reading but strange words were coming out of my mouth.

I had fallen asleep while watching videos with my kids. I have had close calls in the car on long afternoon drives (why I don't drive long distances in the afternoons when I am pregnant anymore). I had fallen asleep while breastfeeding. I had fallen asleep while bottle feeding. I have heard of people falling asleep while standing up. I have never fallen asleep while I was reading aloud before. Parenthood really is exhausting. First-time parents find that out pretty fast. What nobody tells you is that if you keep having kids, you learn new depths that you didn't know existed.

To be fair, some of the sleep deprivation is self-inflicted since I am determined to keep on going and keep up a normal pace of activity. I am grateful my husband can step in and help with the kids in the evening when I completely lose steam. Though I think he is getting tired of doing bedtime routines for all three kids while his wife is asleep on the sofa.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What is our child's educational level?

UPDATE: added a link to the site that estimates reading level with a little more detail about it.

The question came up again recently about what is our daughter's educational level. Since we are homeschooling and can tailor her education to fit her individual needs, the actual grade level is just a convenient label to us. Her peers are six. She is six. She attends a first grade sunday school class and thinks of herself as a first grader. But what educational level is she at? We don't feel the need to get her tested to determine her level so how do we know what to teach her?

Well, I guess we started with reading. She can read. So now it is a matter of what she likes to read. What stories grab her attention? What stories does she read to herself and what stories does she prefer to be read to her? Lately, I've been getting a lot of "step 2: intro to reading books" from our local library. They are simple chapter books with easy stories and vocabulary. The Pillowfight Fairy finds them easy and fun. Her little sister likes them too. The older reads them to the younger, then they spend the next week reenacting the stories in their free time. According to the information on these books the reading level is grades 1-3. That gives some clue, but as I said, the Fairy finds them easy. On the more advanced level she enjoys reading some of the Beatrix Potter stories. I found a site that gives the reading level for book titles that you enter. It is called Scholastic Teacher Book Wizard and you can find it here. When I looked up some of these stories on the site's "Bookalike" search engine it ranked the reading level and I found that the stories have a "interest level" of kindergarten through 2nd grade, but has a reading level of 3.5 grade level. "House at Pooh Corner" is listed as interest level of 3rd-5th grade and reading level of 5.1. Books that she prefers to have read to her are some like "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web," and "The Wind in the Willows." I don't think it is because they are too hard to read. I think it is because they are longer chapter books with longer plot lines. She can't finish them in one sitting, so she prefers to be read to so that her imagination can just take it all in. If she were reading it herself, she would still be dealing with the mechanics of reading and couldn't enjoy it as much. So we just try to get her good books, whether for her to read or for us to read to her. Our theory (taken from Charlotte Mason) is that if the child reads good literature and interesting books, the reading abilities follow along nicely.

We also started her out doing some spelling work to try to reinforce the phonics we had taught her. She loved it and is now in the second book of our chosen curriculum (Spelling Workout) which is labeled as for 2nd grade. I found that I couldn't advance her too fast in this curriculum, because it is aimed at a child who also has similar writing and thinking skills to the older age level. So I have extended the life of the curriculum by following the series of spelling lessons with vocabulary work taken from the dictionary in the back of the workbook.

Thanks to some of the spelling and vocabulary work we have done, she has made good progress with her writing skills. She doesn't like writing sentences, but she can do it well enough now that she will sometimes compose several sentences for fun during her free time, on whatever topic is of interest to her at the time. She still prefers to use simple words when writing, but she will take a chance on spelling a more complicated word if it is the one she wants to use. As far as her ability to write, I would rank her as about 2nd or 3rd grade. However, the content is more along the lines of a 1st grader's simpler view of the world. During the course of our current school year I have increased the amount of writing that I expect from her. She used to do one sentence per writing assignment at the beginning of the school year. Now she is doing three sentences per writing assignment. I have added an additional sentence every six weeks. It has worked out so well that I plan to continue it until she is writing six sentences per assignment by the end of our school year.

We are using Horizons math with her at the 1st grade level. We are satisfied with the steady and challenging work she is getting with it. She is picking it up at a reasonable pace. She also seems to prefer word problems, which I detested when I was her age. But it fits the way that she thinks.

As for her other subjects: history, science, religion, art and music. This is more fluid. None of it is actually graded. The history is designed to be used for any kid between 1st-4th grades. The Science is handled in a similar way. The teacher adjusts the lesson for what the child is capable of. The art is simple enough for any age level (child through adult). For religion, we are reading from a children's Bible that is at a 3rd grade reading level. The piano work is based on completion of lessons in order rather than "grades." So these areas of study either mirror her progress in reading and writing or they train for specific skills that are not quite so age related.

Just writing this post is reinforcing to me that the basics of reading, writing, and math really are the basics. I feel it is important to develop these abilities so that she will always be challenged a little more. If we can keep her at the level of steady improvement at a challenging level, I think she will be capable of the same level of work in the other subjects that are dependent on reading and writing and eventually also math. So, I guess my determining factor in our child's educational level is in reading, writing, and math. She is reading and writing much better than the typical six year old. She is doing math at a first grade level. She still thinks like a six year old however and has the emotional and activities needs of a six year old. I sort of see the information she is picking up in history, science, religion, art and music as frosting on the cake. She is learning new facts that she doesn't have a lot of context for yet. We are trying to provide some of that context for her. But I can see good things coming from following our current path. For instance, how many six year olds are confident about how to spell: Egypt, Pharaoh, Abraham, and Osiris. She is learning about lots of different kinds of animals. She is hearing the actual bible stories instead of paraphrases. She is getting training in art and music at a level that suits her abilities.

We still have a little over half a school year's work yet to go, so it will be a while before I can start planning for next year. But, I can see how each year lays a new layer to the foundation she is building on. I don't have any concerns about her not being ready to advance to new levels in reading or writing. She is right on track with her math. This year's work has shown our plans to be successful as far as material covered and educational level to follow. Looking ahead, I can still see the basic subjects (reading, writing, and math) to be the arbiters of how challenging the other subjects (history, science, religion, and fine arts) will be. And in the end those other subjects will become foundational later on when she starts hitting the logic stage, and she has to start wrestling with the facts that she has already been exposed to.

The more I look toward the future, the more I get excited about the shape it is taking. I almost feel sorry for my daughter that she doesn't have the perspective yet that allows her to look ahead at what the future holds for her. She has had such a good beginning. Yeah, she grumbles and gripes with the best of them. But she incorporates what she has learned into her play as if it is now a natural part of her. She doesn't realize how much she has changed in just the last few months. To me, as her parent, it is exciting and hopeful. I almost look forward to the day when we will be wrestling over arguments and grappling with great ideas.

In the meantime, I'm starting to teach the Adrenaline Junkie phonics. I get to learn how to juggle the educational needs of two kids in a more formal fashion. I get to figure out what my second daughter is ready for and whether we will start kindergarten next school year or in the following. (Her birthday is just a few days after the official cut off, so that will be it's own challenge.) After that, maybe I'll write another post about educational level. After all, I don't have a lot of experience dealing with more than one person. I'm sure I'll have figured it out a bit more after that.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why do we homeschool?

As I look back over the last two and a half years of homeschooling, I have realized that our original reasons for homeschooling have transformed a bit. So I was wondering if I ever posted about why we homeschool. After looking back in my archive, the answer is: not really. I have mentioned reasons in passing, but mostly I wrote about how we decided to homeschool, not why. So in an effort to spread some enlightenment, I'll try to address the whys of our homeschooling journey.

Both my husband and I went to public schools growing up. We did not have any horribly traumatic experiences that changed our lives forever and caused us to swear that we would never inflict that on our children. We both had good educations growing up. But, neither of us saw our good, public school education as problem free. We each have our weaknesses and strengths. As a result, we saw that our good, public school education allowed us to coast on our strengths, while avoiding the need to address our weaknesses. As for socialization, you could say that neither of us saw public school socialization, in general, as a positive thing. In every group of people (in school or otherwise), you have leaders, followers, and a few odd balls that neither follow the leaders, nor inspire followers. The public school system is designed to work well for leaders and followers. Both Tim and I were odd balls. As a result, we saw how it did not always work well for people like us.

After High School, both of us went off to college. Tim went to a state college and I had a varied journey through a public junior college, a private university, a state college, and a small private college. We had good educations and got decent jobs. As newly married adults, we found that we were both of the mind to examine the choices we made before we automatically followed the crowd. As a result we found that we often did not follow the crowd. One decision we made early on that went against societal norms was to do without a television. Our household has been TV free since 2000 and we haven't regretted the decision.

As we started making plans for having a family, we would talk about what we wanted for our children and the topic of education would eventually come up. We both were of a mind that we wanted not just a good education for our children, but an excellent one. We expected that we would be the ones to decide what that education would look like when the time came. We talked over the pros and cons of public, private and even homeschooling, but never came to any conclusions. After all, we didn't actually have any children at that time so it was all theoretical.

Once we had our first born, the Pillowfight Fairy, theory started to be met with reality. We were a happy little family with nary an educational care until about the time she turned two. You see, this little girl was a bit on the early side for just about every childhood milestone. But, since she was our first child, we didn't have much perspective on what was normal, except what the people around us would tell us. They were astounded when she was crawling and pulling to a stand at six months. She was walking by nine months. They were shocked to hear her pronounce words perfectly at ten months. She had memorized some of her favorite books by eighteen months and could recite them to herself happily. By the time she was twenty months, she had words like "metronome" in her speaking vocabulary. But what really started to make us realize how unusual her skills were was when she memorized the 50 states by shape, location, and name (sometimes mispronounced) two weeks after her second birthday thanks to a map puzzle she was given. That sort of tipped us off that this kid was not learning things in quite the same way as the other kids her age. That is when we started evaluating what should we do for her education.

The first question was whether or not to send her to preschool. Many of our peers were planning to send their kids to preschool when they turned three, partially to prepare them for school, partially to give them some fun activity with other kids, and partially to allow the parents to do other things. When I looked into what was taught in preschool, I realized that my two year old already knew most of it. So, academically that choice didn't make sense. Socially, we are not isolated. Between our church connections and my MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group, she was getting lots of time with other kids and fun activities. As for myself, I was still going to be a stay at home mom. By this point, we had our second daughter (the Adrenaline Junkie) and I was going to be home taking care of her and didn't see any reason to ship off one kid so that I had more time alone with the other one. So Tim and I kept thinking about educational options. by the time she turned three, we had decided that we can do her preschool years at home. That way we can teach her what she is ready for and not be concerned about being out of sync with the preschool. Besides, I just didn't like the idea in my gut to send her to someone else to teach when I was perfectly capable of doing it myself. I don't think kids should be separated from their families as much as is common in today's society.

Not long after we solved the preschool issue, wouldn't you know it but our little angel decided to spontaneously start sounding out words on her own at three and a half years old. That's when the next question came up. Do you delay teaching her to read because that happens later in school or do you go ahead and teach her and deal with the fallout from that decision later. Tim and I both agreed that you teach what a kid is ready to learn, regardless of whether it is convenient. So, we did a little research on reading lessons, did sounding out practice with her, made a few mistakes and came back to phonics in the end. In the process, we were discovering more about how our daughter thinks, how she reacts to lessons, what kinds of strengths and weaknesses she had. We were also watching how she interacted with other kids her age. We knew that the decision about kindergarten was just around the corner. Would we put her in public school for kindergarten? Would a private school be better? What about homeschooling? We knew that at the rate she was going, she was going to be academically advanced for her age. But socially and emotionally, she was not. We knew that if we placed her based on her age alone, she would be hopelessly bored. We knew that if we placed her based on academics, she would be horribly handicapped trying to deal with kids more socially and emotionally mature than her. We were realizing that, based on our own experience in the public school systems, that public school would be a bad fit. The more we researched and read, the more we realized that a private school would not be much better. The issue we were dealing with was how to teach a kid who was her own category. There was not going to be a classroom of kids exactly like her to put her with. We wanted her to have an excellent education, but we were not willing to make the compromises necessary to force her to fit into a classroom setting. The classroom setting became the focus. You see, any time you bring a group of people of varying skills into a classroom to learn, you have some who learn quickly, some who learn at an average speed and some who for one reason or another learn slowly. You also have to deal with the dynamics of one teacher having to juggle the needs of all of the students. No matter how good the student-teacher ratio, the attention given has to vary based on need. We knew our daughter to be a fast learner. We found that she also has a lazy streak and resists new things if she thinks she doesn't want to put much effort into it. After all why work to learn something when you could just learn the things you like that don't take much effort at all? We could see her in a classroom setting excelling in her favorite topics, but getting bored and not doing what she was capable of, since it wasn't expected. Yet at the same time, she would be labeled as uncooperative or even behind in some areas because she would refuse to do the work to learn the material. There aren't many teachers willing to break through our child's stubborn/lazy streak to get her to do what she is perfectly capable of. I have even noticed in the community classes and chuch classes she has been in, that she has a knack for manipulating the teacher to make exceptions for her. The more we watched her as we taught her at home, the more we realized that the classroom environment was the biggest issue we had. We also realized that we as her parents could get better results from her than other teachers. I think this was partially because we knew her so well and partially because we have a vested interest in her success.

So, If we didn't put her in public or private school because of the classroom dynamic, that left homeschooling. Homeschooling solved a lot of issues for us. We didn't have to worry about what the other kids were learning and whether our child was on track with that. We just had to teach our child what she was ready for. We didn't have to worry about whether she was emotionally or socially in sync with her peers (she will always be a little out of sync), she would be in an emotionally and socially accepting environment of her family. We had already been teaching her from infancy, and knew that we could. I never had any doubts as to my ability to teach the subjects. My own education was well rounded to the extreme. My college majors were (in chronological order): Physics, History, Library and Information Science, and Bible and Theology. I have taught adults how to do basic research at the college level. I have the ability to teach my own children. The only thing that was still an open question for me was whether I could do it as well as raising my kids (the third child being on the way at the time), taking care of the house, being a wife, all without exhausting myself or destroying our family. I am ambitious, but I do recognize that I have limitations.

What finally helped me realize that I could in fact do homeschooling, was a visit from Tim's uncle and aunt. They homeschool and I was able to watch them in action and pick their brains a bit to understand what homeschooling looks like at the daily level. Like most people with a institutional school background, I was still thinking within the box. If I tried to homeschool before that point, I probably would have exhausted myself by trying to reproduce the school setting at home. After that visit, I had a new vision for what school can be.

Ironically, we have chosen a completely different path than Tim's uncle and aunt. We did our research, figured out what was important to us, and figured out what we thought would work with our child. As a result, we have chosen to follow the classical model of education with plenty of emphasis on history and literature. Up through our daughter's kindergarten year we just worked with reading, writing and arithmetic. This year is her first grade year and we have added spelling, grammar, memorization work, history, science, religion, art and music. So far we have covered 13 weeks of school and seem to be on track with our goals.

During this time I have noticed that my ideas about homeschooling have continued to evolve and develop. We have found homeschooling to be very freeing. We are able to cover the material much faster than is done in the classroom setting. Once she has mastered one lesson we can move on to another or otherwise adjust the schedule as needed. We can take holidays and breaks when we need them rather than at the convenience of the school schedule. If we suddenly need to travel, we can either take a break from school or take it with us. We can work around illness in a more flexible way.

We have also found that we are more in tune with our responsibilities as parents and teachers to give our child an education that is tailored to her abilities. We now see having someone else teaching our child as "outsourcing" the job that is our responsibility. The biblical exhortation for parents to teach their children as they go about their everyday activities resonates with us like it never did before. We always expected to teach our children in that way, but now with homeschooling, we find that the verse mirrors what we do much closer than it would otherwise. We also feel more empowered to be active participants in our child's education. We don't have to find an expert on children's literature to read to our child. We don't have to wait for a specialist to tell us how our child is doing, we can see for ourselves by being there when it happens.

We have found that we are separating the concepts of learning from school insofar as lessons don't have to look like the schooling that we had. Yes, our daughter has plenty of sit down lessons. But, she also likes to play verbal games of word problems at the dinner table (her initiative, not ours). She likes to read to her sister (reading practice or social time? Maybe both). She decided one day, during a lesson on addresses, to write a letter to her aunt and uncle who live across town. So we had a lesson on proper epistolary composition which I've been wanting to do with her, but it was her idea completely.

We have found homeschooling to increase our joy. We get to hear first hand some of the quirky things our daughter comes up with in that brain of hers. We get to see the younger kids wanting to do "school" too. We get to enjoy our kids for who they are as we help them reach toward their potential. Each one of our kids is different. The younger ones might even fit in slightly better in the classroom setting than our first child. But, at this point we can see the benefit of homeschooling so well that it seems silly of us to even consider it. Our second daughter is much more active and loves to act out the stories read to her. She is also more precise in her writing and drawing than her older sister was at this age. Our son is slower to talk, but has managed to learn his phonics sounds before he turns two. He seems to be a self-motivated thinker and problem solver. We are expecting a fourth child in May and are curious to find out what this one will be like.

We do have daily struggles over how much work our daughter puts into her lessons and whether we have made reasonable goals. But, through these struggles we know each other better and find ways to work together to meet our goals. Our daughter is even learning some negotiation skills. It is said that relationships become strong when you struggle and work together. It is our hope that at the end of our homeschooling journey that not only will all of our children have an excellent education, but that the relationships will be strong because of the journey we have followed together. We hope that this homeschool journey will not just prepare our kids for their future lives but will teach them about life itself and how to live it well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mommy Fashions

I've been thinking lately how silly some of my fashion choices have been lately. To give you some background, please understand that I have never been a fashion maven. But, I do have a conscious fashion identity that I have shaped and molded in various ways since Junior High School. I like certain styles and rejoice when they come back into the latest trends. I hate other styles and think that those clothes should be buried somewhere obscure in the deep of the night. I tend to like classic styles (those styles that last longer and don't really follow the ebb and flow of the current fads). I also like a few fun eccentric things, that most people would probably avoid simply because "everyone isn't doing it." I tend to do my own thing and toyed with going into fashion design in during my High School Years. It is probably good I didn't. I'm too much of an independent thinker. I've never noticed anybody treating me like a trend-setter. In addition, I have a huge practical streak. Practical and Fashion almost never work well in the world of trendy culture. It drives me nuts every time I find something that works for me because it is practical, then within a year I can't find it anywhere because the latest thing pushed it out of the market. But the latest thing is cutesy and very impractical.

So, what kind of fashion choices have I made that amuse me? It is the Mommy Fashion thing. Things that I do simply because I'm a mommy. Things that I probably would never have thought of otherwise. Auntie Jean pointed one out to me about a year ago that I hadn't really noticed, but was kind of funny. No matter what I wore, I would always add a little touch of white, usually tossed over a shoulder like a loose scarf. This bit of white scarf was of course a burp cloth made from a thin cloth diaper. I've done this for most of the first year and a half of each of our kids' lives. To someone who knows me, it's become my normal fashion. To a complete stranger, they probably wonder about my sanity.

Another one I noticed this past summer was a fun little colorful accessory. If you plan ahead, you can even coordinate with your day's outfit (which I never did). This accessory was a pacifier on a strap that was usually clipped to my belt-loop or pocket. This position ensured that the child to whom it belonged would not be dragging it through the dirt. But, for my benefit, it provided a fun little swinging motion every time I walked somewhere.

The latest addition to my wardrobe that amuses me is a pair of shoes. I love shoes. I am one of those people (if I didn't have a practical streak) who would have a pair of shoes to match every color of outfit I own. I have always liked three inch spike heels (which make me 6 feet tall). This is not at all practical with young kids in your life (possible but not practical). I also happen to be rather active. I don't do sports. I don't do a gym. I don't run or bike or swim. I walk. I currently have a daily walk of about 1.2 miles (pushing a double umbrella stroller). I have found that with a combination of young children and the daily walk, I am incredibly hard on shoes. I usually would choose athletic shoes as the most practical choice for my daily footgear. No matter what brand I would choose, It would fall apart quickly and I would be shopping for shoes again. Cheaper brands fell apart faster. But the expensive ones didn't last long enough to justify the expense. My last pair of athletic shoes looked terrible (cracking, tearing, soles pulling away from the shoe) in just one month. What's a mom to do?

Heh, Heh...

Men's workboots. Stanley brand. Steel Toes! (how many times does a mom have her kids step on her toes!) Fashion-wise they resemble black and grey hiking boots. They were $30 at Payless ShoeSource and half price on day I bought them. It took me about a week to break them in. So far they seem to be doing a great job. We'll see how long they last.

So, it makes me wonder what is next? Knee pads? Face mask? Funny hats? Then I started to wonder if other people do strange things like this or is it just me. So if any of you reading this have stories to share, please do. I would love to know that I'm not the only one.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

One quarter of the school year is complete!

I'm feeling rather accomplished at the moment. I've kept up the discipline and made the Pillowfight Fairy do her schoolwork when she would rather be playing. We have now completed nine weeks, which in a 36 week school year equals one fourth. She is learning. She is making progress. For one thing, she is getting more comfortable with writing longer sentences. She is also getting more comfortable about risking misspellings if the word she wants to use is long and/or complicated. I see this as definite progress for a little perfectionist. She has developed the habit of checking the spelling in a book where she knows the word is used, to help her when she is uncertain (that was her own idea).

In literature, we have read many Aesop's Fables, Some Egyptian Myths, a tamed down and shortened version of the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as a pretty good section of the book of Genesis. She has worked through nine lessons of basic spelling words successfully. She has memorized two poems. We have covered the differences in common nouns and proper nouns. I had intended to get her to write letters once a week. But, I have discovered that she has more writing assignments than I had originally realized and so we haven't done that yet.

In math, she has covered the basics of single digit addition and subtraction, measuring, telling time, money and fractions. We are still practicing those. She has just recently started double digit addition (without carrying) and adding a list of three numbers.

In history, we have covered early nomads, Ancient Egypt, Sumer, Akkadia, Babylon, and the Assyrians. My husband reminds me to say that this is not an exhaustive study. We have touched on these areas of history to give her a familiarity with it. First graders do not study history in exhaustive detail. This is an introduction to help her start to put the pieces together for future understanding. In my parents' last visit, my Dad was surprised to hear that we were teaching her history already. I realize that first graders don't usually get a lot of history. Usually it is social studies more along the lines of family relationships, neighborhood "helpers" and major holidays. In the classical method we are using, the framework is history. First graders start to learn about the world from early times to the present. Seeing as she is already getting the other "social studies" in our everyday life, I don't see this as a problem. My hope is that it will help her develop a bigger perspective.

In science, We are still covering the animal kingdom. Twice a week we do reading on a different group of animals. Then she has to tell me something she has learned and write it down.

In the fine arts, she is studying art and piano. Once a week she has a lesson regarding art technique. Once a week she studies an historical piece of art. The rest of the week we have fun art (sometimes connected to a lesson, sometimes not). For piano, her Daddy is giving her lessons from a piano instruction book. She is still in the "I don't want to practice" stage, but she is making progress even so. We'll see how she feels about it as she gets better.

I mentioned her religion instruction in the literature section, since it has mostly been reading through the Bible. I keep the readings very short. We have only skipped a few things that I thought were too complicated to explain to a first grader. We are currently in the story of Joseph. She also gets classes at church on Sunday mornings, and Wednesday nights.

For exercise we walk about 1.2 miles every day.

So, what are my impressions of my first year of full homeschooling so far? Well, it's a lot of work. The lessons are not difficult and she learns very fast so I'm not having to work hard at teaching. The work is actually to keep myself disciplined so that lessons don't slide, to keep her focused when she doesn't want to do her work (which is most of the time), and to keep on top of the paperwork and check her progress (so mistakes get caught and corrected). There is also, filing away the work she has done and preparing for the next day. I find that I have to know what I'm covering for a day's schoolwork the night before, otherwise there are too many distractions to keep it all straight. Despite some of the daily frustrations, I think this is working out.

Another thing that I'm proud of is that I started doing phonics work with the Adrenaline Junkie this past week. Just a few minutes a day is all we do. She is enjoying it and doing well. She is getting better at sounding out words and even wanted to play the sounding out words game this evening before bed.

The Happy Boy is still a little frustrated that Mommy can't always give him attention when he wants it, but I console him with books and puzzles in my available times. He is getting pretty good with his letters and numbers. Now if we could only get him to say more words.

If we stay on schedule, we will finish 36 weeks in late April. I do have more planned for the year, but the rest is more along the lines of filler to keep her in practice and not forgetting what she learned. Of course we haven't been hit with the winter sicknesses. That will throw things off. But, with one quarter done, the rest of the year looks possible. That's a good thing. If you have visited my husband's site recently, you may have seen that baby number four will be coming sometime in May. I hope we can get most if not all of the year's essential work done by then. After all, I'll need some of the time after the baby comes to plan next school year for not just one but two kids.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Well Deserved Rest

As of last week we finished our first six weeks of school. We have kept on schedule and didn't have any missed days (excepting the important holiday of Mommy's birthday). The Pillowfight Fairy has been making steady progress, so to celebrate we are taking a vacation week this week.

Her writing is improving. I have determined that she has neater writing on the smaller lined paper (1/2 in size) rather than the big stuff (1 inch?) used for young learners. She has done well enough with the written narration pages that I've upped her from one sentence to two sentences on topic. If she finds the reading interesting, she is usually wanting to compose the sentences herself. If she isn't interrested enough to compose, Mommy comes up with them and she gets dictation practice. She also has shown me that she does better verbal narrations when she has done the actual reading herself instead of listening to me read it. (I understand that some people do better the other way around, go figure.)

She is right on schedule with her math work. Which reminds me that both with her math work and her spelling work, she now has tests. Every ten lessons in math (once every two weeks by our schedule) and twice a week in spelling, she has tests. She is having to learn to follow the instructions exactly without reminders and do her work without Mommy checking it until she is done. That is a bit challenging since she likes to do things her way and prefers immediate feedback, but even so she has done excellent work.

The new subjects this year are History, Science, and Bible. She seems to have mixed feelings about history. She gives the impression that she isn't interested most of the time, but later on she will say or do something that tells me that she did pick up some of it. I keep reminding myself that she is a first grader. The object is to introduce these facts and ideas to her now so that they can be built upon later. I suspect that she actually has very good retention for a not quite six year old.

In science, we have been learning about animals by reading through an animal encyclopedia and any science books I can find from the local library. One book series that her Daddy and I find annoying, but she enjoys immensely is the Magic School Bus. So far we have checked out one that talks about bees and one that talks about Ocean life. She rereads them several times a day when she has them and can tell you all you want to know about bees. The one covering ocean life impressed her more with the plot line of the story than all the animals it talked about, but she can still talk about many of the animals listed. So now every time I go back to the library, I check to see if they have a magic school bus book on a topic we are covering.

In her Bible studies we are reading through the Bible starting at the beginning. I've tried to keep the readings small, so that it would be simpler to do narrations. I haven't left much out. I was concerned about how much to read in some of the stories since the Bible doesn't hold back on some of the nasty stuff people do. Also, as my husband has pointed out in his blog, the version we are using is at a third grade reading level making the text understandable at a third grade reading level. I finally decided to use a simple rule of thumb. If I can't explain something to her with a simple, quick explanation, it is probably better to leave that story (or part of the story) for another reading when she is a little older. As a result, she is reading about all sorts of villainy that is easy to explain. I've only held back on just a few stories because they dealt with more complicated villainy than usual. Still, I've noticed that you can't leave too much out because those stories are referred to later on. The biggest gap so far has been a few paragraphs in the Sodom and Gommorah story and the story of Lot's daughters after they all fled to the hills. It is still an exciting read even so. She liked the story enough to illustrated a picture of it along with her usual narration page.

We do have a pretty full schedule, but she can usual finish most of her work by lunchtime if she stays on focus. My biggest challenge is to juggle keeping The Pillowfight Fairy going with schoolwork (sometimes with me, sometimes on her own) while keeping the Adrenaline Junkie and the Happy Boy going with appropriate activity. Some days that works just fine and some days the house is a disaster area at the end of "school-time." There are usually a few times when I can read to the other two or play with them. They can also play on their own at times. But, I need to find a way to get a consistent time with the Adrenaline Junkie so I can start working on her reading skills. She is right at the prime time for learning to read. She is interested. She knows her letters and the sounds they make. She can even write most of her letters. She has learned how to sound out simple three letter words that don't have anything tricky about them. With practice and a little teaching, she will be well on her way to reading. But I need to find some time every school day to spend time with her doing it.

The Happy Boy is sort of in his own category right now. He wants Mommy's attention. He wants Mommy to read any book he wants repeatedly ad infinitum. If left to himself he would climb into off-limit places and cause havoc. He is also in the midst of teething his last four molars and eats everything. Tim wants to change his pseudonym to the Omnivore. I'm holding off, because I think he'll grow out of it. He is now eighteen months old and seems to be entering the terrible twos a little early (all of ours hit it about this stage). He gives the biggest tantrums of our three kids. I think that part of it is fed by frustration. He hasn't learned to say very much yet. He laughs for "yes" and he shakes his head for "no." He is making sounds like he is attempting to say things and gets close enough for me to recognize it in context. But, no one would call what he says understandable talking. Added to it all, his wishes are getting more complicated than he is able to communicate. This causes frustration and big tantrums. Ironically, he has fallen in love with our videos that teach the Junkie reading skills. He knows his letters and their sounds already. He is acting like he would like to learn to read before he has finished learning to talk. So, I keep trying to encourage him to try to say simple useful words. He's made some progress, but the same sound can mean half a dozen things. Some day I'm sure the switch in his brain will flip and he'll start talking in full sentences. In the meantime it is frustrating for all of us.

After writing that, I realize that I will probably get people saying "don't worry about it, lots of kids don't talk until two or after." Yeah, I know that already. I'm not worried about it. I'm frustrated because he is hard to understand and he's frustrated because Mommy isn't reading his mind. You see, I never had a kid this age and this stage not talking yet. Both of his sisters were earlier talkers than this. The oldest was saying perfectly pronounced words at ten months. The second was starting to say her first words around one year (less understandably). So, this is a new experience for me. It is unusual to me to have an eighteen month old who can't verbally tell me what song he wants or which book he wants or what food he wants, but who has all the same preference levels that his sisters had.

So, this is our vacation week. I've decided on a break roughly every six weeks. That seems long enough to make progress, but not so long that we get burned out. So what do we do for our vacation break. We play more, we read for fun, watch an extra video a day, we play our video games. The Pillowfight Fairy still has piano practice. We still go for our morning walk. But the schedule is just a lot more flexible for doing fun things. When I told the Fairy that we were taking a week off from school work she said "I don't want a vacation!" (this from the child who complained nearly every day that she didn't want school work). So, whether the Fairy wants it or not, Mommy gets the vacation. Would you believe that on the first day of our vacation all three kids were showing signs of a variety of mystery illnesses (one cold, one fever, two with intestinal issues). So much for the vacation. At least the illnesses are currently mild, so we can still have some fun. maybe the worst will be over by next week and we can pick back up with work again.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thoughts on Teaching the Bible

After my husband published a post about the dilemma of reading all of the Bible to a five year old during our homeschooling lessons, he received a few comments back that definitely show different people's approaches. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I definitely have some opinions about teaching the Bible. Before I start spouting off on one or more of my soap box issues, it would probably be good to give a little background. That way you might be able to see a little bit of where I'm coming from.

I have a fairly conservative Christian upbringing. My parents raised me in the Church of Christ. One thing about the Church of Christ that many people (even some who belong to it) sometimes mistakenly overlook is that although many congregations appear to be the same, the reality is that there is no official connection to keep them all in cookie cutter unity. Each congregation is in control of its own affairs and tries to follow the Bible or get off track in its own way. The church I grew up in was a bit of a trend setter (at least during my childhood and high school years) that was usually middle of the road or slightly liberal leaning within "the brotherhood" of Churches of Christ. My parents' faith experiences also colored my religious background. My Dad grew up in the same faith background that I did. However, my Mom grew up going to any church that the most available family member with a car went to that week. She had a big extended family and they went to every church on the map. With that background, she helped bring a little perspective to what I grew up with.

When I say "conservative Christian," I know that many people will want to stop reading right there. And others, who have had bad experiences with my denomination, will want to stereotype me there. To that I can only say, if you wish to remain ignorant of another person's faith journey, so be it. Stereotypes are just that, stereotypes. They can't tell you about a specific individual. I think that it would be accurate to say that although I have encountered closed minds, faulty logic, and hypocrisy among my fellow faith travelers, I have also encountered plenty of open minds, well refined logic, and sincere faith among many of them, too. So, please give us a chance. I was raised to know the Bible. I was raised to follow God and my conscience to the best of my ability. I was encouraged to think critically and be well educated.

As a result of this background, I entered a long college career that took me to four colleges and four majors in completely different subjects. The one that applies to this post is my last one. I was a Bible and Theology major. For a variety of reasons relating to family responsibilities, work responsibilities, social life and such... I didn't finish my degree. I was about five classes away from my 2nd Bachelor's degree in Bible and Theology. I make no claims to be a famous scholar. I never even took Hebrew or Greek. But, I still think that I probably have a better religious education at the college level than your average person off the street. The education I have does impact some of my thoughts on teaching the Bible.

When we started homeschooling our daughter she was preschool. The Bible classes she got at church were fine. Then she was Kindergarten and I tried to supplement her classes by following up on the Memory verse work and asking her questions about her lesson. I could write another post solely on my opinions of church Bible classes. I did quickly determine that my daughter found the memory verse work so easy she was bored with it. And she was more interested in the crafts than the stories (unless they were "icky" stories such as those my husband mentioned in his post). In talking with the people in charge of the curriculum to know what was to come in the grades 1-6, I learned that they didn't start a systematic study through the Bible until second grade.

We didn't start homeschooling for religious reasons, but we are religious. And our faith is important enough to us that I knew that one class a week on Sunday morning was not going to be good enough for us. So I decided to add religious studies to the schedule when I was planning for this year. We are following a historical structure in our studies so, she will learn about world religions as we encounter them in history. In fact, we our learning some of what the Ancient Egyptians believed, in our current studies by reading some our their myths. But, for our own family's faith, we are reading the Bible since that is the core of our religion.

Some people think that collections of Bible stories are most appropriate for young children. I agree up to a point. I've been reading Bible stories to her from numerous books of compilations since she was interested in being read to. She knows all of those stories, but she is lacking in context. And all of those convenient compilations are paraphrases. They are not actual translations of scripture. On the plus side, they eliminate most of the scandalous violence, the breaking of sexual taboos, the grievous misdeeds of the heroes of faith, and the difficult to explain passages about God himself.

I have a strong bias toward reading primary source material. Don't slice and dice my literature, history or even religion please. There is so much to gain by listening to an author as he or she intended to be heard. So, I made the decision that if I am teaching our daughter world history and literature in first grade, then I will be reading her an actual translation of the Bible. This gives her the context for those stories she has learned. She learns the order that things happened. She learns a lot more about how God interacts with people, than the cut and paste version served up in story books.

In addition to this, she learns that there is usually more to the story than she has ever heard before. Some of that story causes me my dilemma of whether to read absolutely everything. I mean... she's only five after all. She doesn't need to hear about everything does she? So, since I make a detailed lesson plan, I started reading through the Bible trying to divide up the readings in appropriately sized chunks.

I was a little nervous about including Noah getting drunk (remembering some of the interpretations of that story that I've heard through the years), but It went OK. It helps that I went out and got a translation that aimed at a third grade reading level. Some of the more difficult phrases to explain become euphemisms. The next problematic story was the story of the visitation of the angels to Sodom and Gommorah. I haven't got to that one yet, so I can't tell you how I'll handle it yet. Either I will edit my reading to give the gist of the story (it is a major story that is revisited many times later and therefore necessary to my eyes), or I will read it straight and deal with any questions from my daughter as they arise.

Of course there are all the long genealogy passages... I'm reading them. Genealogies were important to the people of that time and you can learn the occasional tidbit from them. Then there are the long passages in Exodus where God describes in detail to Moses how to build the Tabernacle, then Moses describes in detail to the people how to build the Tabernacle, then the people build the Tabernacle and it is described in detail. Whether or not that section takes up half of the book of Exodus, it feels like it does. I'm planning on editing that down to give her the highlights and give her an idea of what Israelites were told to do in their religious practices. Then later on there are all of the Levitical laws about how to do the various sacrifices, how to do the various feasts, the day to day legal issues, cleanliness laws, etc. I will try to give her some of it, but not too much. These laws are brought up later. Every time I considered skipping something, I would be reminded how it is brought up later with the assumption that it is no longer new information. Yes, much of it is deadly dull to us. Yes, some of it is downright icky. But, I found that in small chunks, it didn't look so bad and the few sections that I had the most problem with probably should be skipped for attention span reasons. She is only five!

I do not feel guilty leaving out a few things. You see, I'm leaving most of it in. Very few things hit my don't read threshold. And those are mainly because of her age. This will not be the only time we read the Bible. As she gets older, we will read every bit of it. By the time she is in high school I expect reading the whole Bible to be at least an annual activity. We are going slower this time through. I plan to be most of the way through Numbers by the end of the school year.

Another consideration is that we are following an educational approach that encourages exploration of facts and information for the youngest kids. It is not to gain mastery at the beginning. It is to lay foundations for further study. I learned from my Master's program (Library and Information Science), that people learn things better if they have already been exposed to that information. But, the young age level is not necessarily very good at analyzing what they read. It's the older kids that wrestle more with why and wherefore. So I feel comfortable with providing a much bigger slice of the picture than most kids her age get, with the idea that the small bits I've left out, will fit better when she is old enough to handle a little bit more heavy-duty mental wrestling that some of those passages prompt.

One commenter at my husband's blog made the helpful suggestion of starting with the New Testament in our reading. I appreciate the helpfulness, truly, but the suggestion undercuts a basic premise in my teaching of the Bible. That premise is that it is almost impossible to get a full understanding of the New Testament without a firm grounding in the Old Testament. I'm sure that steps on a few toes, because I have known many people who think that the New Testament somehow overshadows the Old to the point of making it obsolescent. In my mind, reading only the New Testament is like reading the end of a story but not the beginning. Have you ever flipped channels on your T.V. and been sucked into a movie only to find out that you watched only the last 15 minutes. Yeah, you saw the climax and the way it ended, but you are completely oblivious to what put the characters in their situation to begin with. You didn't see the character development or the trials and victories that came before. And remember, the people who wrote and read the New Testament when it was new, thought of the Old Testament as their scriptures. The Old Testament was their Bible.

So...I suppose I should report on how it is going. After all, we've been doing Bible readings for the last three weeks. Well, I have found that by Genesis chapter 15, I have not had to edit anything out. My daughter likes some of the readings but not others. I can tell how much she likes it based on how eager she is to come up with a sentence for her narration page and whether she wants to illustrate the passage (this last being completely optional). Some of them are pretty bland, but some are hilarious. For instance, the story of Cain and Abel. She never mentions the fact that Cain killed Abel (the obvious point for most of us). Instead she was impressed that Cain farmed, so she wrote "Who likes crops?" and had a picture of a very happy-looking stick figure of Cain showing off a platter of vegetables. I keep all of her work in a binder to document her progress. But even without that motive, The Pillowfight Fairy's work shows a very amusing view of the Bible.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The First Week of School

I suppose I should share how our first week of school went. It actually went very well. A while back my husband shared an overview of what we planned for this year and we got a lot of feedback saying that we were taking on too much, our daughter would be at her schoolwork too much of the day and that I would burn out in no time. After just a little over two weeks into it, I think we planned well and that the doomsayers are wrong (so far).

Our daily schedule looks something like this:

  • 7:30 am Get up/breakfast/etc.
  • 8:30-9:00 am Go for daily walk/stroller ride (the earlier we get out the better as the weather is hot right now).
  • 9:30-10:00 am Start schoolwork (Bible reading, narration page, illustration page, math page, read an Aesop's fable, narration page, illustration page, spelling assignment, grammar lesson (3 days a week), Short history or science reading, narration page, illustration page, memory work (maybe once or twice a week), art lesson or free art time.)
  • 11:30-12:00 am School is over.
The list of lessons sound like a lot, but they are really short. The only days we have spent much more time than I like is when I've let my daughter spend as much time as she wants on her illustration pages. These were a feature of her schoolwork that she wanted and asked for. Sometimes a quick drawing is enough, but some days she takes her time to create an intricate masterpiece. We sometimes have to take a break for lunch and continue with whatever remains when the younger kids go down for naps. We have not gone any later than 2:00 pm and that was purely because of the time she decided to put into her artwork.

I have noticed a few things in the past week and a half that will have a bearing on the future:

First, we took a holiday for Mommy's birthday and it threw off the schedule. I noticed that other homeschoolers have mentioned that they plan by week instead of by day. My schedule was by day. The problem with this is that skipping a day in a carefully crafted week's schedule is that you either shift the whole week by one day, wrapping around to the next week, or you shift the work to other days, or you skip those lessons. While some lessons are not urgent in and of themselves, skipping lessons is not my first choice. I first thought that we would just shift the work by a day, but that was grating against my orderly personality. Besides, we have carefully planned library days that have to happen at their scheduled time. So I decided to shift the work of the extra day over the course of three days to catch up. That seems to have worked without putting an undue burden on my daughter. This will be an issue as we proceed since sickness and other needful interruptions will occur. We will just have to play it by ear. I hesitate to make my schedule less detailed, since I find it easier on me to have the preparation work finished to that level. I merely have to look ahead every two weeks to make sure we have the appropriate library books and craft supplies. Then I lay out the next day's work each evening and double check that I understand the teaching that I need to do.

Second, It will take a while for my daughter to get the hang of narration. At this point, I'm asking questions to get her thinking, but if she isn't in the mood to think, we stall pretty fast. I don't want to get in the habit of answering the questions for her. Nor do I want to reread the passages to help her learn what she missed. The point of narration is that she needs to learn to use her memory on one reading. It is a skill that takes some time to learn and she will need that time to learn it. Fortunately, I have experience that tells me that she will get it eventually. When I was a young whippersnapper (High school age or early college age), I annoyed my family by asking them questions about the Sunday morning sermon over Sunday lunch. You see most people forget the sermon almost immediately even if they liked it. At first, my family was simply annoyed that I kept pointing out to them how short their memory was for something they ought to be remembering. But, within a month we were having lively lunch conversations about the morning sermon. I'm looking forward to some lively conversations with my daughter about what she is being taught.

Third, It will be a challenge working more schooling for my younger daughter into the schedule. We have done some, but not to any set schedule. I have also taken time to read to my son. Both of the younger kids get some of Mommy's attention while the oldest is working mostly independently on some of her work (especially art). But, for the most part the younger two play the whole time and the room is a mess at the end of our appointed school time. On the plus side, the younger kids are playing independently or learning to play with each other without a lot of interference from Mommy. It is nice that Mommy does not have to do everything for them all the time. As they get older, I expect it will get a little easier to juggle teaching two kids set lessons.

Forth, I might want to reconsider the time of year that I start school. I've been in the midst of a nectarine harvest that couldn't wait. Traditionally, school started after most of the harvesting was over. A month ago we were drowning in plums. For the last two weeks it has been nectarines. The peaches are showing signs of being ripe any day now and the golden plums will probably be ready sometime soon as well. I've barely been keeping up with daily tasks and staying up late to preserve fruit. I have fruit frozen in the freezer for a more convenient time to make jams and jellies. I've sliced probably 200 nectarines for dehydrating and made fruit leather from nectarines and plums (3 gallon bags of fruit rolls; 3 quart bags of fruit chips). Our fruit loving kids are tired of the fresh plums and nectarines and we were giving the fruit away. Even if I don't plant a vegetable garden next year (although I do plan to), I still will have oodles of fruit from the trees alone.

Fifth, the purpose of all of this is to teach our daughter. Some useful questions may need to be asked. Is she learning anything? I think so, but the learning process is so gradual at times it can be hard to see. Is she enjoying her schooling? Yes, she was eager to get started and even plays school when she isn't actually doing it. Do I see evidence that she is maturing in her abilities? Yes, she is taking more responsibility for doing things herself. She is helping her sister by reading to her and teaching her. She is very proud of the fact that she is a "first-grader" and is thankfully oblivious that her skills are more advanced than her peers in many areas. She has an incredibly intense competitive spirit and would be an annoying braggart if she were aware of the differences. She has a way to go to get her social and emotional levels to match her academic ability, but I have confidence that a homeschooling environment is a more nurturing environment to work through the tough spots there. Having been in a similarly disjointed academic age/emotional age situation myself, but in a public school, I don't want her to have to go through some of the painful stuff that I had to go through. It took me about a decade to work past some the the emotional scars I got in public school (and that was in good schools, with good teachers, and generally good kids). And lest anyone thinks we are not "socializing" her, let me assure you that she is not isolated. She has classroom experience in church with her age peers. She has community involvement through the local parks and rec. programs. She is not shy and will often speak her mind to strangers to my mild embarrassment (as I am very introverted).

My conclusion is that we are not overworking our daughter. She has an appropriate amount of schoolwork. As it gets more challenging, she will probably spend more time on it, but at this point I have no concerns about that. There is room for improvement, but if there weren't our job would be done. It is sometimes hard to juggle it all, but that is because I have chosen to do so many things all at once. I am trying to be realistic and keep perspective on what is most important.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Gardening thoughts

We have lived in our home almost five years and this was the first year we have put in a garden. We have been adding trees little by little, but this is the first year that I feel like our garden is up and running so to speak. I guess it would be more accurate to say that it is in full production. This is an update on how our garden grows and what thoughts gardening has reminded me of.

We already have a decent fruit orchard: red plums, golden plums, cherries, nectarines, peaches, asian pears, standard pears. We also have a decent section dedicated to berries: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. This spring, we planted a variety of herbs, salad greens, radishes, cabbages, carrots, onions, and brussel sprouts. Of those only about half germinated. We got a large crop of lettuce (two kinds), radishes, and carrots. We are still waiting on the brussel sprouts. They are currently forming the little edible sprouts, but it is taking a lot longer than we expected. We only got one cabbage, which sprung up where I didn't plant them.

Once we harvested most of these foods, we planted the summer crop: Sunflowers, pole beans, peppers, pumpkins, zucchini, crookneck squash and a cherry tomato plant. We also planted four grapevines which will be a permanent part of the garden. I'm planning on training them into a fountain form instead of the traditional way. About the time we put in the summer plants, we also put in a drip irrigation system. The plants did better at this point.

All of this gardening has prompted a variety of thoughts:
  1. Food grown in your yard tastes better than what you get at the store. The flavors of everything, even the most hum-drum foods, are stronger.
  2. We spend a lot less on produce these days. One of our daughters thinks she can't go a meal without fruit and our son is starting to think the same way. We used to buy a lot of produce, not anymore.
  3. When you decide to plant food crops, and land, water, and sun are sufficiently supplied, God will provide an overabundance. I'm inclined to believe that this is because He is generous. I am also inclined to believe that he expects us to be generous with his bounty. Thus some of the food should be given away. Unless you are selling it for a profit, this is a necessary activity if you don't want perfectly good food to go to waste. I'm pretty good at using and saving, but we can only eat and preserve so much. I've got a quart ziploc in the fridge filled with fresh green beans ready to use or preserve. I've made apricot jam (from a neighbors donation). I've made two blackberry pies. I've made dried plum chips (not exactly prunes). I'm making plum fruit leather (my first try at this as I'm desperate to use a huge supply). I've made plum pie (rather tart, note to self... use more sugar). We're having trouble keeping up with the strawberries despite the children's fondness for them so strawberry jam will be made in the next few days. I'm contemplating drying some of the green beans to use in soups this winter. I am so glad my Mom gave me her dehydrator. Thankfully, the blackberries, cherries and plums are finishing up or done. But the Nectarines are starting to ripen. The tree is full. One branch broke the other day and we lost 50-100 nectarines. That was a small portion of what is still on the tree. We will have to work harder at thinning the fruit earlier in the season.
  4. Gardening helps me refocus on time in a different way than we are accustomed in our culture. You prepare the ground at the right time of year. You plant the seeds when those seeds need to be planted. You water and weed without any sign of growth for weeks. Only then, with patience, do you get the new plants sprouting. You tend and watch them grow. All you can do is water, weed and wait (some people add some fertilizer). You can't make plants grow faster than they do. You can't rush the new fruits or vegetables to form at your convenience. They are ready when they are ready. Once it is time to harvest, you harvest or lose it. Once you harvest, you use it, give it away, or preserve it for later use. If you don't let the garden guide your time-table, you will be doing the needed things at the wrong times and therefore getting a bad result.
  5. Farming is hard work. I already knew this and I'm not considering myself a farmer. Both of my parents grew up on farms and I visited my grandparent's farm on many occasions. I do not have an idealized view of farming. It is hard work. It is hard on the people working in the fields. It is hard on the people processing the food for later use. You have to be the right kind of person to thrive in this setting. My grandpa was one of those people. He loved being a farmer. He loved trying new crops, working with the animals, keeping bees, going fishing in the pond. It was harder on my grandma, but she managed to run the kitchen, raise six kids, and help sell some of the food to the neighbors (she also learned to paint and became a income tax preparer in her later years). Having a big garden like we have, I understand better what my grandparents were doing with their kitchen garden (about the size of our entire backyard). They fed themselves all year with what they grew in that garden. The field crops were for market. Besides the honey, milk, meat and eggs that they got from the animals (of which they kept only a small portion for themselves and sold the rest), the kitchen garden was what they lived on. My Dad remembers that they would supplement with wild berries and a few fruit trees in the summer. I remember my grandparents had a huge pecan tree in their front yard. They would send us a box of pecans at Christmas time which would last us most of the next year in my Mom's baking of desserts. I realize that we could create a similar kitchen garden to help us lower our food purchases. However, such a garden is a full-time job throughout the growing season. As the kids get older, it is more feasible to do this. Right now, it is just an intense hobby.
  6. My kids are learning about plants and where food comes from. A garden is a great way to teach botany. The kids can help plant, water, weed and watch the plants develop. They also get to taste the results of the work. Young kids like ours, don't have a lot of patience for the everyday stuff like watering and weeding. But they are fascinated with planting and harvesting. The Pillowfight fairy loves to help me harvest berries. She has plenty of patience for that since she loves to eat them. I'm glad that I'm passing along some of what I learned when my family had a garden when I was a kid. Maybe, at least some of my kids will show an interest in growing some of their own food as they grow up. I will try not to expect them to love it as much as I do.
  7. Being outside in the garden and just outside in general, is good for us adults. In many ways, our backyard is becoming a little oasis from the cares of the world. That is a very worthwhile thing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

When should the school year start?

If you didn't have any outside influences making up your mind for you, when would you start the school year? Now we all have some outside influences that help us make this decision, but since we homeschool, we don't necessarily have to follow the public school schedule. For instance, we finished up most of our school-work back in May. Right now we are very casually finishing up a few things that were left undone, but could be considered busy work, since they are not vital to her schooling. So how do we answer this question?

Well, one way to find an answer is to ask if our child is ready to start her new year of school. The answer to that one would be "yes." She has seen the new books. She has seen Mommy making plans and shopping for supplies. Oh yes! she is ready! She has on occasion asked to look at her new text books for the fun of it.

Another way to find an answer is to ask if the teacher (that would be me) is ready to start teaching. The answer to that one is "not yet but soon." I have always loved the start of school, but I also see the need for a little bit of a break before diving in to a new year (especially since we have a lot more planned for this year than last year). I also have to consider how to plan around other summertime activities. Last week was day camp week. This week and next are swim lessons. Both of these things had us completely shift our family schedule to accommodate them. After swim lessons are over, we are free to start a new year whenever we please.

Are there any other influences that might determine when we start? Well, yes. The society around us does influence us some, even though we are relatively out of sync from it. As far as I'm concerned the labels "Kindergarten," "First grade" and so on are artificial constructs and we are teaching our kids where they are. But, our children do interact with other kids (yes, homeschoolers do know other people) who are in public school and to whom such labels matter. Therefore these things matter to our kids. Our oldest has already started telling people that she is a first grader even though we haven't actually started her studies yet. The summer always was an awkward time where you always have to clarify whether you are finishing a grade, in it currently, or about to start it. I generally have liked the idea of year round school, but you still need to have some kind of starting and stopping point to be able to easily talk to others (especially non-homeschoolers). In our life, those other people we spend the most time with are at our church. Our kids are in classes divided by age or grade level as appropriate. This is where they get their "classroom" experience. So when does our church start the new year? July 6th of all things. I think this is actually because it allows the year to be divided up into relatively neat quarters for planning of classes. As a result most of the kids start their new grade long before they start school for fall. So we could start about the same time and be in sync with the church classes or we could do our own thing (whatever that is).

Another consideration is convenience. I had hoped to be pregnant by now so that the early months of pregnancy (when I generally am in a sleep-deprived fog) would be out of the way before starting the school year. Sometimes, that which is convenient doesn't happen and you have to make do with a more inconvenient alternative. Having no idea when said pregnancy might happen, it wouldn't do to delay our kid's education for it.

There is also the fact that this is the first year that we have to satisfy bureaucratic rules. Since we live in California, we will have to file our affidavit as a private school to exempt our daughter from compulsory attendance in public school. But that doesn't need to be done until October. Still, we have to figure out if we are going to join a homeschool support group (probably), decide on legal representation (since you never know), and watch what is going on in the court case that might change everything (probably no news until September).

So, have we come up with an idea of when we will start our new year?

We probably will start in early July. I don't want our break to be too long or our daughter will start forgetting last year's stuff and may decide that she doesn't want to go back to her school work. We will be in sync with her church friends. And we can do all the bureaucratic stuff as needed along the way. Though I may wait until after my birthday. :-)

Teaching to the Test

You know... one of the things that I like as a homeschooler is the ability to concentrate on comprehension and mastery without having to "teach to the test." There is a freedom in this. There is quite a debate in our society right now about how to teach kids and how important testing is. I tend to be on the side of those who say teaching to the test isn't the right approach.

That is why it is so ironic that I find myself "teaching to the test."

Why would I do this? Because my daughter wants to participate in our Church's "Bible Challenge." It is a Bible knowledge quiz (handled much like a spelling bee) that they have every year at the end of summer. It is open to kids who have finished kindergarten through sixth grade. They divide the kids up into age groups for appropriately challenging questions for that group. For every correct answer they earn a ticket to redeem for prizes. Everyone who completes the challenge without missing an answer gets a trophy. My daughter really, really, really, wants to do this. So we have the list of questions that they handed out in June for the quiz in August. The idea is to encourage Bible knowledge, not to try to trip the kids up with surprise questions.

So, this week I have been teaching to the test. We have been reviewing the questions. I was happy to see that the questions didn't cover anything that she was unfamiliar with (with the possible exception of how many books are in the Bible). She knows all the stories mentioned in the questions, so I'm happy that she knows the context of what the questions are talking about. She also knew most of the answers. However, I have needed to encourage her to stick to the answers they expect the kids to give. Restating an answer in your own words is fine as long as it is accurate and doesn't confuse the issue (she has been fond of riddles lately and has sometimes tried to answer questions with riddles).

Now I have to try to find a way for this review of questions to stay fresh or she will get bored and not put effort into it. It would be heartbreaking for our little perfectionist to miss an answer in this much anticipated contest. (Heartbreaking for her that is, we are OK with it).

Which brings up another question: Are perfectionists that way all their life? Are there any recovering perfectionists out there? I've never seen evidence that this personality trait changes. Not being a perfectionist myself, I've never seen much point to it. My husband is one (that must be where she gets it), but he manages to use it to give himself the drive and endurance to work until he gets right whatever he is working on. That is an adult form of perfectionism. In our five year old, it tends to work more like "If I get something right the first time, I love it and want to do it constantly until I get tired of it. If I get something wrong the first time, I hate it and I will fight every attempt to get me to do it again." Anybody got ideas on how to move this stubborn perfectionist from point A to point B? I've just been making her do things anyway, until she gets it right (then I can't stop her). Nobody said parenting was easy. Parenting and teaching can be twice as hard sometimes.

So anyway, I am teaching to the test this summer as a favor to my daughter. How is that for a twist?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Confirmation that the Happy Boy is acting older

Over the past few days, I've been retiring old baby toys and generally removing some of the clutter of toys from our living room. As a result of this, I saw little change in my son's activities. So far, so good. I was removing toys that he didn't play with. Today, In the process of helping my girls clean away some unneeded items from their room, I decided to move the playmobile toys to the living room to be shared toys. These are the playmobile toys that are appropriate for 1 1/2 year-olds and up (fewer moving parts). I figured that he has only 2 more months to go to meet the age limit and he already loves to play with them every time he has managed to get in his sisters' room.

The result of this experiment? All of the kids play with the playmobile toys more. However, the Happy Boy is in heaven. He is playing with these toys for an hour or so at a time, with no complaints (except from his sisters if they are playing at the same time, he tends to act like Godzilla). The clutter is back in the living room, but it is a clutter from a different kind of toy. It is also the clutter of a well played with set, rather than the pick-up and drop five seconds later scenario we had before.

So what kind of play is this boy doing? The usual pretend play. He helps the playmobile people go down a slide. He puts them in cars. He puts them in and out of houses. This is pretty standard, I realize. But it shows that he isn't that far off from playing like his sisters do. It gives me hope that in about a year, they might actually be able to play together (all three) at times.

How are the girls handling the changes? Quite well actually. I've moved toys and books around and had them help me select which stuffed animals to keep. They know that many of the toys are going to be given new homes. It doesn't seem to bother them a bit. I'm sure that it will bother them the next time they want a particular toy and we don't have it anymore. But, that too is part of learning about life and the consequences of one's decisions. As for their play habits, I noticed them doing something new the other day. They were playing "Cinderella." They would take turns being Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother (or Fairy Grandmother according to the Adrenaline Junkie). They acted out the key events of the story in a whirlwind short version that took no more than five minutes. I think their Daddy's wish that they get involved in drama will probably come true because every time they finished, they would switch off roles and do it again. They entertained themselves like this for at least an hour straight.

Let me tell you...any time kids these ages can entertain themselves for an hour straight, it is a blessing from God. If I hadn't been suffering from a cold this week, Life would have been perfectly blissful. Well, OK, they did cry and complain and whine a little this week too. But they always do that. I'm trying to count my blessings.