Monday, August 8, 2011

The 12 Month School Year

What’s that?  12 months of the school year?  Didn’t You mean to type 9??

Well, no, I didn’t.    You see, we didn’t take a summer break this year, our first summer of home schooling.  We took several summer vacations.  We celebrated the accomplishing of all of our academic goals for the end of our inaugural partial year of home education with a mini-break.  We celebrated the end of the district’s end of school year by taking off their first full day of summer vacation, so the kids could play all day with an ecstatic neighbor child.   We took a couple of random days off when the brutally hot weather—too hot to enjoy the swimming pool or beach, let alone hang out much outdoors—broke here and there, and just hung out at the pool and the beach, or I turned them loose to play with the neighborhood kids when it was cool enough to play outdoors.  We traveled to with my husband to a math conference, an event that was both fun AND educational, and we spent a week at our family farm, gathering with our extended family and hiking in the mountains and swimming in a mountain lake.  We’ll take my DS7’s birthday off of course—when you homeschool, your birthday is an official day off from school—and head to an amusement park, which is his preference to a bunch of presents.  In his words, “Mommy, I have enough things.  I’d rather have a really cool day with you guys.”  Done!  Okay, he’ll get a couple of presents.  And in between, when it was brutally hot, it was back to the books, experiments, reading, and everything else we do.

So what is business as usual in the Hillandale Farm School in summer?  I mean, isn’t it just cruel to do school all summer?

So, for their “What did I do over the summer” essay, my kids could easily write about heading to Vancouver, or hiking by waterfalls in northeastern PA, or jumping waves at the beach, having sleepovers with friends, watching the incredible fireworks and fountains fourth of July display at Longwood Gardens, or they could write about declining nouns in Latin, conjugating verbs in German, reading about Ancient Egypt and excavating a miniature pyramid and wrapping a mummy of their own, learning to play an ancient Egyptian board game using throwing sticks instead of dice, attending a book signing for a newly released book by an author they personally knew, learning about Pi or multiplication and division, memorizing funny poems about Egyptian pharaohs and stanzas from “Horatio at the Bridge,” making cartouches of everyone’s names, and practicing Cuneiform writing in clay with a stylus, reading about King Arthur and Sharyar and Sharaazad, exploring the Civil War site of Fort Delaware, learning how to draw a map of the world’s continents from memory, taking trumpet lessons and learning recorder, blowing the library's summer reading program out of the water, learning how to identify trees by leaf and bark characteristics, learning to compost, raising a tadpole into a tiny froglet on the back porch, building molecular models, and doing amazing chemistry experiments with balloons, static electricity, water, oil, food coloring, baking soda, vinegar, hot water, Coca Cola, batteries, Mentos, and test tubes, and comparing double negatives in speech to double negative signs in arithmetic, and more. 

Or, they could write about all of the above, because we had plenty of time for school, travel, and play, and still lots of time to just sit and drift on the swingset out in the back yard, and even (heavens) to play some videogames.

So, you're cool with making your kids social pariahs, just like all other HS kids?

Yes, we had a few confused knocks on the door from time to time from the kids in the neighborhood, but since they all know we homeschool, and we could generally give an answer regarding what time school would be done that day, they’d happily enough come back at the appointed time to play that afternoon.  Most of them had summer camps strewn throughout the summer, and didn’t think it was all that odd to be busy in the summer—with just one week of camp each this summer, my two kids, as it turned out, were actually two of the most available kids in the neighborhood in their age group, as summer camps have become so ubiquitous in this two-wage-earner or single-parenting world.  We also had many instances in which kids in the neighborhood thought what we were reading or studying was just so cool, they requested permission to join us.

Don't you guys ever burn out then?  I mean, I loved summer, because I needed down time from school!

Despite a school year that is planned to last about four weeks longer than a typical PS year (40 weeks), we still anticipate extra time throughout the fall, winter, and spring to take days off to go hiking, apple-picking, traveling, or just have a day off when we wish, thanks to having ¼ of our year done before most people have even started (some year-round homeschoolers actually maintain a 3 weeks on, 1 week off schedule throughout the year, for regularly scheduled mental breaks or hobby time.  Right now I’m not that organized, but I can see the appeal).  We’ll have extra down-time during the more pleasant fall and spring seasons, when it’s actually nice to be outdoors, and when we can go and enjoy local and distant attractions when everyone else is in school or at work!

So, in the long run, getting the first quarter of the school year done over the summer seems like a pretty small price to pay for the flexibility we will now enjoy for the rest of the year in terms of having an ability to take time off when we need or wish to do so.  Illness, travel, or opportunity to explore need not derail our educational plans, and instead  of review and time spent getting organized and back up to speed, come September all we have to do is just keep on rolling.

Thanks for Reading!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Show and Tell time

This week's post is just for fun!  I thought we'd show off a little bit of what life is like around a home schooling house.  These photos are not really a "day in the life;" they span quite a period of time.

In this first photo, we get the best of both worlds; although we don't have to miss school for snow days like our public school counterparts, we get to play with our friends who are home from school during play time!  And unlike our local school, we get to go OUTSIDE and play in the snow!  Hooray!
Here is DS#1's favorite way to spend time reading-- with a cat in his lap.  I happen to love this shot, because he's reading, "I Am Spartapuss," a book as full of terrible feline puns as the title suggests, which kept him laughing all the way through, but which also inspired him to head to the library to begin researching the real Spartacus while we were studying the ancient Romans this winter and spring.

DS#2 is preparing our timeline, part of which you can see here.  He's drawing the lines for some of the cultures we plan to study in the coming year.  This timeline now dominates one wall of our family room, and we add to it every time we encounter important dates in our history lessons.  It's a pretty neat visual on when different cultures rose to prominence and then ebbed!

Sleepover time!  Kids woke up before I did, and decided it was a nice morning, so they dug out "Life" and set it up on the back porch.  Homeschool kids have sleepovers and do normal social activities just like any other kids!

Son #2 has been appointing himself to assist in the kitchen lately; he decided to make brownies the other night.  Despite the upside-down directions, the brownies came out right side up and tasted pretty good!

Son #1 jots down his observations during a NOEO Chemistry experiment (are gas molecules very far apart compared to liquid molecules?  If we coax the gas out of the soda, will the liquid level change in that bottle of Coke?)

Son #2 returns to cooking-- time to make the french toast!  It came out just as well as the brownies did!

How do we open Khufu's pyramid?  First we have to decipher these hieroglyphs to find the secret entrance!

Success!  Now with archaeologist's tools, we excavate the inside of the pyramid, looking for the sarcophagus and canoptic jars, and even a mummy wrapped in linen!  We want to get back to doing some more of those hieroglyphs.  The excavation took a really long time.

Somehow, when he reads, he always ends up with a cat in his lap.  Greek and Roman mythology . . . again.  This is free time after school was done.

1,2, . . . 3?  It's not unusual to end up with an afterschooler joining us in our house unofficially.  Chemistry experiments are just so cool, it's no problem to come and do them with us after school, even if NittanyJen makes you write up a lab report for it!  Today we're watching how food coloring dissipates differently in hot vs cold glasses of water . . . why does it go faster in the hot water?

We just wanted to share some of the fun we've been having, and of course help homeschoolers answer  that ever-present question:  What do you do all day??  Of course, we don't have any action shots of our math or grammar texts :).  But we hope you enjoyed seeing some of the fun side of things!

--Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 3, 2011

What to expect when you're live with homeschoolers

Please welcome guest blogger, my husband, who makes home schooling the way we do it in our house possible!

Switching to homeschooling is a big deal. It's a life change on par
with moving to another state or starting a new job, but most of us
have some similar experiences to draw on for those milestones. Nothing
prepared me for what homeschooling would be like. Yet as I look back
over the transition our family has made, I realize that the event in
my life that most closely matches it was the process of expecting and
having our first child with my wife. Indeed, I see now that I should
have expected...

...TO DISCOVER A HIDDEN WORLD. Like many dads, I stumbled about in
shock most of the time in the months leading to my first son's birth.
I had been blissfully clueless about the distinction between a
bassinet and a crib, the sectarian splits formed around brands of baby
bottles, and, yes, even Elmo. As revelations about coneheads and
bilirubin counts and night terrors and LeapPads continued to spool out
over the months and years, I came to adopt a near-Zen state of
humility towards the major matters of this world which I know nothing

When it comes to homeschooling, you soon learn that there are multiple
curricula, support groups, message boards, state officials, classes at
local institutions, and many, many items for sale, all revolving
around this world which previously you never noticed. You find out
about religious fervor regarding, well, religion, but also less sacred
items like math textbooks--all of which to me resembles nothing so
much as the constant controversy that seems to swirl around

The cool part is that once you break through the hoopla and actually
begin the experience, you feel a bit as though you've been inducted
into an elite society. I mean, lots of other people have done this
before you, and people who don't go through this experience aren't
really any poorer for it...aww hell, it's hard not to feel smug pity
once in a while for the saps who continue to lead their little,
unenlightened lives.

...TO BE POORER. Oh, yes, did I mention all those items for sale? You
may naively think that God, or His prophet the Internet, will shower
down upon your family everything it needs for a first-class education.
Then you will remember that in the US of A, value is measured in
dollars. There will be books, software programs, and chemistry sets to
buy and store. Plus, maps, posters, private lessons, and more books.
As in the case of having a child, I remain skeptical that all of this
stuff is really necessary, and, as then, I try to keep my own counsel
as my wife wears out the credit card.

...TO BE A ROLE PLAYER. Keeping your own counsel is a big part of the
pregnancy gig, as veteran dads know. You have a role on this team, and
it is not the star. (This rule is not so relevant to actual
childrearing, except on TV.) When there are 7 seconds left and your
team needs to sink a 3-pointer to win, the ball is not coming your
way. You are Robin, not Batman: in theory, you are needed, but they
could make the movie without you.

As a (college) teacher myself, I know that insecurity comes with the
job, because so much is hard to measure and out of your control
anyway. So, my newly homeschooling wife wants to talk a lot about what
she's learning and teaching and planning for our kids. She seeks my
opinion on many things, but I think what she's really looking for is
reassurance. I know she's smart and thorough and a natural teacher, so
I'm not often inclined to weigh in, but she may need to have a
conversation anyhow. That's my job. But I can't get insistent about my
way of looking at things, because I am not the one delivering the

...TO PINCH-HIT. Everyone who's been partner to a pregnancy knows that
there are meltdown days. True, to some extent these are
physiologically driven. But daily exposure to whining, inquiring,
resisting, lollygagging, interrupting, clarifying, complaining,
daydreaming, and general wall-bouncing takes a physical as well as a
psychological toll. You won't believe it unless you try it, but
teaching is exhausting.

No doubt your job is hard too, but at the end of the day your clients
aren't still expecting you to make them dinner and play War with them.
(Unless you are a Michelin-rated arms dealer, I guess.) You need to
step up your game on some days and take one for the team. It's not
about what's fair, it's about long-range sanity.

...TO SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY. Bringing a child into the world
changes your perspective. Long-term problems like wars and economic
collapses and environmental degradation take on new personal
importance. At the same time, you gain a renewed sense of wonder at
how even the most mundane things are often miraculous.

As a product of public schools and a public university, I have always
wanted to disregard the perennial Chicken Little cries about the
American educational system. They've been going on since I was in
school myself. Those cries are often still exaggerated. But I finally
had to concede that our local public elementary school wasn't working
for us.

Now I have watched my formerly bored sons become passionate learners
of history, chemistry, and languages. They devour books for pleasure.
We conduct dinner table conversations in which I can't consult
Wikipedia fast enough to answer all of the questions. Their old school
starts to sound more like a prison every day. (Seriously. Our state's
schools became infamous for trying to send a first grader to reform
school for using a Cub Scout pocket tool to eat his pudding.)

I'm glad we didn't wait to make things better for our kids and our
family. Really, I'm envious of the education they're getting. As it
was with bringing them into the world in the first place, my concern
for our ability to care for them properly has evaporated. Instead--and
this was completely unexpected--my worries are for the world and
country we're bringing them into.

I have come to believe that it's time to rethink the school model at a
deep level. The system was shaped by and for the industrial
revolution, when a high school diploma meant a decent job that could
support a family. Those days are never coming back. Schools are not
producing the citizens we need, as you can tell from the rampant
irrationality and magical thinking that surrounds all public
discourse. We need a new model for the Information Age. I cheerfully
admit that I don't know what that model should be--after all,
homeschooling won't scale up to national size. But I'm sure it's going
to take creative, critical, and informed leaders to make this happen,
and I feel like we're doing our part. From our kids, I expect great

--Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Our First "Year" In Review

Wow, we did it!

When we began our homeschool journey near the end of February of this year, we figured that it made more sense to set academic goals to reach in order to end the school year, rather than ending the school year on some arbitrary calendar date.  Remember that tradition from public school?  One of two things would always happen to me, it seemed.  Either we would finish the material the teacher had planned, and we ended up in an endless loop of rather silly field trips, busywork worksheets, and assemblies as the teachers strove valiantly to fill the hours of required butts-in-seats time, or we would run out of school just about at the time when we were going to reach the chapters of the books that were finally starting to look interesting!  It seemed that I NEVER got to get into the interesting last ten or so chapters of the books in the classroom. So, we decided to take a different tack-- school would be over for the year this year, early or late, when we met our goals.  This occurred this past Thursday, with a final "clean-up day" (literally and figuratively, with DS 7 manning the vacuum cleaner and DS10 learning the ins and outs of the dust mop, as well as our usual Friday trek to the library).   And so it came to pass that at the end of the day on Friday, we declared school year 2010-2011 over and a smashing success.  We'll be taking a 1--2 week "First Summer Vacation" (one of a few) and then we'll open school year 2011-2012 for business.  The kids are already excited about their new subjects and have been sneaking the books off of the shelves, particularly history.

So . . . what exactly did we do?  I wasn't sure it was all that much, really.  I mean, we're brand-new at this.  We kept Fridays "casual" and put away all our regular books and took trips, went to the library, took classes unrelated to our usual science.  We went out to lunch, enjoyed the park, snuggled the cats, and spent time at the athletic club (I am always surprised when I hear HS families don't prioritize athletics or physical education-- I end up thinking, "Really?  Isn't the ability to get up, move, and play one of the reasons we do this?").  We ditched some attempts at learning and started others brand-new partway through.  I refined my ideas about my approach to homeschooling, spent probably too much time on the various message forums (forae?) and definitely spent way too much money getting started up.  With all of that, what did we actually do, throwing together a 7YO who happens to have reading and auditory and physical issues stemming from his extra X chromosome, complicated by being intellectually gifted alongside that frustrating mix, and a 10YO who is also academically gifted, but who has grown really comfortable by not being challenged at all by 5 years in the PS system?

I think we surprised the heck out of all of ourselves, is what we did.

History:  Surprise #1:  Everybody loves history, formerly my most hated subject in school.  After much consultation with The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and various friends, and following my DS10's heavy interest in the Greeks and Romans and their mythology, I struck out on my own here and created my own curriculum.  I taught son#1 and son#2 together, using the Usborne Encyclopedia of the Ancient World* as the "spine," or guiding outline, from which we explored.  Taking all of the end of February, March, April, and the first part of May to explore the Ancient Greeks and Romans, we:  Read out loud Padric Colum's Children's Homer, a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey that I thought would be way over both kids' heads, but instead held them spellbound.  We followed this with Penelope Lively's In Search of A Homeland, a retelling of the Aeneid, another hit, and then Geraldine McCaughrean's The Epic of Gilgamesh.  We worked our way through the library stacks as we went through the Usborne pages; son#2 became fascinated by Socrates (What? A guy who asks questions all day long just like me??) and found a great biography, and son#1 began reading everything he could lay his hands on about Alexander the Great.  We read books from the very silly (Die, Clawdius, Catligula, I Am Spartapuss) which inspired more serious study (DS#10 promptly began researching the real Spartacus) to age-grabbing readers such as Magic Treehouse and Time-Warp Trio books that helped form a minor miracle-- my reading-resistant DS7 ("Reading is too boring" -- ie, reading is so difficult it isn't worth the effort) has actually begun reading for pleasure! You Wouldn't Want to Live in Pompeii, by John Malam, et al, was another favorite. 

We explored Greek architecture by visiting the local university campus, along with a field guide I put together ahead of time (thanks, Usborne!) and identified all the columns we spotted, photographing them and categorizing them as Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian.  It was a fun way to spend an afternoon, and we got to talk to a lot of interesting, and interested, people on campus, who were curious about our project.  We also built a model coloseum, and used an online game to dress different gladiators with different types of battle armor and weapons.  We each made a scutum, a shield with an identifying design on it, and we held them interlocked together as we marched through the livingroom in phalanx formation.  We drew a giant map on the triple floor to ceiling glass of the sliding deck doors, covering the northern coast of Africa, southern Europe, and western Asia, and each time we first encountered a body of water, mountain range, or new city or tribe, we did our best to freehand it into place on the map, after locating it on the globe, on a wall map, and in a history book.  We created a gigantic timeline on the wall, a good 4 feet long, out of several pieces of heavy posterboard, from long long long BC up to about AD400, and we added events, inventions, and people to it as we read about them, on separate lines for the Greeks and Romans.  We have several blank lines available for future civilizations yet to be encountered.  We practiced Roman Numerals, played a Roman version of chess, and created wax tablets and practiced writing in them.  We talked about the Greek alphabet and how it's still used today, and both boys began studying Latin.  We acted out plays from Greek mythology, and compared the Greek and Roman gods.  Using the resources in the Evan Moor History Pockets, we played a game on the Appian Way, and now my 7YO can tall you all about the significance of that road.  We summed up Ancient Rome by playing a game of Ancient Rome (you know the game, answer in the form of a question-- I don't want to say it, for heaven knows how they might enforce trademark laws) that I made up.  But most of all, and what my kids tell me they enjoyed most, was the daily "lesson" in which we all piled up on the floor of the livingroom, sometimes in front of the fireplace, and I essentially summarized a few pages from Usborne.  I re-told it like a story, and they loved it, and hung on every word.  I didn't realize they were getting much out of it, until DS7 started popping out with comments such as, "Well, if Diocletian knew his history better, he'd have known what happened to Alexander's empire when it got divided up and then fell apart because it was weaker, and then he would never have made that mistake!"  I figured if my 7YO with auditory processing issues could pull a thread from a lesson several weeks ago and relate it to a lesson from another culture, he was absorbing something pretty well.  I also took some "separate" time with each boy, reading some easier books with the younger one (If I Were a Kid In Ancient Rome, Cobblestone Publishing) while my older one learned how to begin outlining some of the pages in Usborne that we did not discuss.  Son#1 also started reading the "adult" history book by Bauer, The History of the Ancient World, jumping through the Rome chapters.

We spent a LOT of time on history, using it as a springboard for literature, writing, geography, and even some science, as DS#1 also read Jeanne Bendick's books, Along Came Galileo, Archimedes and the Door of Science, and Galen and the Gateway to Medicine (that last one made him say, "yech."  DS#1 does not imagine himself becoming a doctor one day).  Throughout all of this, we had some good discussions about the problems with understanding and interpreting history, thanks to the reliability--or not-- of different things we read.  We talked about the differences between non-fiction, fiction, and historical fiction.  We talked about historians who write "on the scene" but don't have a longer view, and historians who write decades or even hundreds of years after the fact, who have a bigger picture, but may get the details wrong.  We talked about archaeological evidence versus tradition and beliefs and cultural tradition.  History has been a happy time, if a little bone-crushing in terms of preparation and research for me.  However, both sons now have a lively curiosity about the past, a desire to learn more, and a good foundation for understanding some fairly common literary references.  We will encounter these cultures again in their education, but this was a strong beginning.

Oh, I love science.  I love to teach science, and I love to get my kids hands-on messy with science!  Oh, how I dreaded these past few months of science, because this one topic is the one topic I personally have no use for (though I'm glad OTHER people do) but I tackled it anyway, because I knew it was high interest for my boys.  As with the history choice, Instead of "deschooling" the boys, I decided to go with subjects of intense interest to them so they would want to dive on in, and it really worked.  So off we went into the wonderful world of astronomy and earth science.  Once again, I plunged off the deep end, just grabbing a science encyclopedia (Usborne again!) and tackling a few pages a day.  For experiments, we studied the properties of light with the help of a Science Wiz Light Kit, and I have to admit, that part was pretty fun.  We also made a couple of trips to the planetarium at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.  We distilled water, placing food colored salt water in a huge measuring cup in the sun, with a shot glass inside, then covered it with plastic wrap and placed on a rock on top of the plastic wrap over the empty shot glass.  Instant water cycle-- or at least in several hours.  We made a cloud appear in a bottle (put a bottle with just a little water in it in a pan of warm water, then place a dish of ice cubes on top of it-- or wrap a bag of frozen peas around the top.  Cloud forms).  We discovered the series, "How the Universe Works," and I don't care what anybody says about TV, my kids will discuss what they learned on that show for weeks afterward, and it now dominates the dinner conversation instead of Pokemon.  We discussed volcanoes, mapped tectonic plates, looked at the layers of ocean and the layers of the Earth's crust, and more.  As with history, no tests are given in science-- I hear my kids discussing the topics, picking them apart, asking questions, theorizing and coming up with possible ways to test their theories, and making connections.  I am content.  And the new school year will soon begin, with a subject I am FAR more comfortable with-- and excited about!

The big shocker-- Latin.  I was expecting mild resistance, or at best, Lukewarm acceptance.  Instead I have gotten great enthusiasm from both boys.  Son#1 is using The Big Book of Lively Latin, and he is loving it.  He completed up through his first major unit test, and scored well into the 90's.  Son#2 is super enthusiastic about Latin, and looks forward to that time each day, and hustles to get out his Prima Latina book from Memoria Press.  He also did well on his first unit test.  Both boys can't wait to learn more of it, and we have copies of Harry Potter books in Latin waiting for them as a reward.  Latin is again a surprise for Son#2, as it would work against most of his disabilities, but never, ever him out when he really sets his mind to wanting to do something!  I am beginning to feel that we are well on the road to helping him put those "disabilities" in the category of past tense items.  Some things are with you for life, but you can become so skilled at dealing with them that they can become invisible to others in a practical sense.  That is management.

Both boys worked through an Evan Moor grammar workbook over the course of the last few months.  I was looking at this exercise as more diagnostic and review than forward educational, and I kept notes about what topics are locked down, and which ones will need more of my direct attention when they come up during the year.  Both boys completed the books in good time, and actually did improve, despite my low expectations.  I was able to slot them into an appropriate grade and program for the coming year.  Mission accomplished.

Son#1 had a challenge in math:  Could he complete all of Life of Fred: Fractions to end the school year, and not just complete it, but truly demonstrate mastery of fractions?  Indeed he did.  He passed the final bridge in that book this past Thursday, and I used his pencil to knight him on into the 5th grade.  Son#2 was simply to work as far into the Singapore 2A book as possible before we halted for the year, and he did fantastically well.  He may just be able, without much stress, get through the end of 3B by the end of the third grade if we stay on track.  We shall see.  I'm not going to crush him into it.  Considering one of the major things he has had to work on is not writing his numbers backwards, or reversing his digits entirely, which makes writing math down exhausting (sometimes we will dot the text portion of the book orally, just to give him a break) he did an awesome job, and the reversals are starting, with patience, to slow down.  Interestingly, the more intensely he concentrates on the actual math, the more number reversals there are.  He can't seem to do both at once.  We keep working on writing as a separate skill from the academics to relieve the pressure, and that seems to be working.  Both boys love Khan Academy, both for practice, and for the freedom to explore new math topics not yet introduced by their main programs.  And Math Mammoth has been a terrific help to both of them in shoring up some glaring holes in their backgrounds from public schools, where the scope and sequence just doesn't match up with their current programs.

Someone gave me the tip to start downloading the Classics For Kids podcasts, and I could not be more grateful.  We have been studying Mozart, and I have learned nearly as much as the kids, despite a pretty extensive music background.  Just 6 minutes long each week, these podcasts are short enough to hold their attention, well-narrated, and just pretty cool.  And the kids remember the information weeks later.  We've also been listening to Beethoven's Wig, which is pretty addictive, and also programs created just for kids such as Profkiev's "Peter and the Wolf." We also started recorder lessons.  Maybe next fall, we'll begin instrumental or voice lessons with an outside teacher, but for now, I'm competent to give the recorder lessons and teach the beginning music theory.  Both kids can identify several pieces by different composers when they hear just a snippet of it, and know the voices of several instruments of the orchestra, and are becoming familiar with the ideas behind tempo and rhythm.  Not a bad few months work in music.

Writing remains a work in progress, and much like grammar, our work to date has largely been diagnostic in nature.  I now feel confident of a direction to head and placement for both boys.  Both made consistent progress in spelling.

  I convinced Son#1 to not hate art.  Mission accomplished.  We have made mosaics out of rocks, made swords out of clay, and used a formal drawing book to draw Pokemon, among other projects.

Physical Education
I am always flabbergasted when I hear that homeschoolers don't put a priority on physical fitness.  Having time and space to move your body is one of HS's big advantages, and kids are such natural wigglers!  Son#1 has loved the gym class we enrolled in just for homeschoolers at the local Hockessin Athletic Club, where he also takes karate and swim team conditioning.  My husband takes the boys for "the big hike" every weekend, sometimes logging up to 4 miles.  We have daily outdoor time, at least twice a day during school time, on days we don't go and do school at a local park.  Our back yard is stocked with soccer, baseball, football, frisbee, swords, guns, rock wall, open grass for running, jump ropes, basketball, you name it.  Most of it is pretty inexpensive, and they can do a lot with just their imaginations.  Most of the neighborhood likes to congregate at our house on the weekends.  Son#2 is also in the HS gym class, gymnastics, and swim lessons, to augment his physical therapy.  He sits on a hippity hop for his lessons to work on core balance and strength, as well as for comfort.  This arrangement has vastly increased his work output and ability to concentrate.  I should probably add that neither of my kids is what most would call a 'natural athlete.'  We're so lucky we found an environment that truly encourages ALL kids to enjoy participating!

We also managed to take some breaks in that chunk of time-- including a spring break.

Looking back, it seems incredible how much the kids accomplished in a 2+ month period of time.  Planning for the upcoming year is pretty much done, and we're pretty excited about what lies ahead.  We have a few changes in store, but they should be good ones.  The biggest and best change has been seeing everyone so excited about heading to "school" in the morning!

Thanks for Reading!

Monday, May 9, 2011

So, What Do We Do All Day?

Okay, I didn't think I'd be missing weeks quite this early on.  What happened was this:  I have a subject I'm trying to tackle here for this blog, and it's a doozy . . . and I tried several times to write it.  A few times, I nearly had it.  Once I was just about ready to hit "Publish" and my computer shut down for the night . . . and naturally I had not made any backups.  So, after a few weeks of banging my head into the wall, I decided to back off of the "The 'R' Word-- Homeschool and Religion" topic for a bit and get the blog rolling again.  But that topic is still coming, I promise.

For today though, a question I do get with some frequency-- "So, what do you do all day?"

Good question!  That was certainly one of my preconceived concerns prior to homeschooling-- coming downstairs in the morning and finding two expectant little faces smiling up at me, and me returning their look and feeling just dumbfounded.  (My kids are naturally early risers.  I was too, at their age.  These days, I am not.  Fortunately, we have a kid-friendly breakfast setup and two children who are very reliable about what they will do with themselves for part of an hour in the morning between when my husband leaves and when I stagger downstairs, seeking a cup of chai.  Their first assignment of the day every day is 30-45 minutes of individual reading time, and this they enjoy enormously in a warm, quiet house with a cat for each kid to cuddle up with on the sofa, which is how I often find them when I come down).

I need not have worried.  For starters, my kids really do like structure.  They are not kids suited for a complete "unschooling" style.*  We have settled into a pretty happy routine, then, of a kind of eclectic-classical style of home-school over the last few months, that while still evolving, seems to be working pretty well for us.  Having noted that we have structure however, that structure is purposely designed to give us a whole lot of freedom to change our days about as we wish or need to-- because as long as we have a plan, we know that the kids are still learning at a good clip.

So . . . what do we do all day?  We read.  We read a whole lot.  We read separately.  We read together, out loud.  We read biographies, we read fiction, either just for pleasure, or that is related to some topic we are studying, or non-fiction or poetry or plays.  We read William Shakespeare or Laura Ingalls Wilder or Dav Pilkey.  Homer or Twain or Blume.  We talk about what we've read during the day, over supper, in the car, or at bedtime.  The kids summarize what they're reading for friends.  We read for history, we read for science, we read for ourselves, we read for writing class, we read for pretty much any excuse we can think of.

We do math, just like they do in school, only not quite like they do it in school.  We might take a day, such as one we spent last week, and spend it in the kitchen.  We needed to bake my husband a birthday cake, complete with homemade frosting-- but the problem was, I needed 1 1/2 of the frosting recipe!  Who could ever help me figure out 1 1/2 of 2/3 of a cup of cocoa powder?  Glad I had my 10YO mathematician on hand :).  Son#1 wanted to know why french fries turn brown when you cook them.  We handed him one of Alton Brown's books that discusses the chemistry of cooking food, specifically, deep frying, and he read the answer to his question.  We use lots of alternate materials, go exactly at the student's individual speed, review only when they need to, and move on only when they show mastery of the current material.  This means my kids work independently a lot, but also work "out loud" from time to time, explaining to me what it is that they're doing.  From that kind of one-on-one time, I can learn a lot about how well they understand what they're currently working on.

The kids use some books-- Son#1 (age 10) relies primarily upon a neat narrative series called, "The Life of Fred."  His review of this math series is thus: "Finally, a math book that treats me as if I have a brain . . . it doesn't spoon-feed me every last detail, because he assumes I can make some connections for myself and actually think!  The only thing I don't like is that I've never been challenged before, and it kind of freaked me out at first, but now I kind of like that."  That series does list as a prerequisite a solid foundation in the four fundamentals of arithmetic, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division through long division, and as he wound his way towards the end of the book, we uncovered a few areas in those fundamentals that needed shoring up.  We found a terrific resource in Maria Miller's Math Mammoth series of books, which are organized by either grade/level OR by topic, and by working at just a few pages a day, his confidence picked right back up, and he was back to soaring again in math.  I'd recommend Math Mammoth for any kid who wants to work independently, as the concepts  are presented very clearly and are addressed to the student.  For really fun practice, and a chance to branch out into new areas that are interesting, or further explanation of anything in Fred that is giving him trouble, Son#1 turns to Khan Academy online, watching videos and trying more practice exercises.  Finally, (Reading again!!) he loves books such as Penrose the Mathematical Cat and The Number Devil, which take him through  topics often not covered in grades K-12 math.  DS#2, on the other hand, uses an entirely different main curriculum, Singapore Math, because it suits his learning style better (and he's not old enough for Fred yet anyway).  However, we are also addressing some holes and lack of confidence in his basics from his public school time, and it's Math Mammoth to the rescue for him there, too.

Rather than enumerate what books we are using for every subject, let it suffice to say then, that we mix up our days-- we have hands-on daily life activities such as baking, shopping, cleaning, and so forth, that apply directly to our lessons, and we also do have traditional lesson time.  If it's sunny and nice out, we're free to slide our day around a bit-- maybe do some lessons in the park, or postpone them until later in the evening.  Or double up on math one day and leave some spare time the next day so we can play games together instead.  If it's cold and rainy . . . lessons might be in front of the fireplace instead of outdoors.  If we're hungry, they might be at the kitchen table.  If we're sick of the house, they might be at a friendly local restaurant where they've gotten to know us and don't mind us occupying the corner table.  We've done all of the above :)  But we do have structure.  I have a master plan-- a set of goals that each child should reach, and markers they should reach along certain points in the journey.  We use a blend of field trips, play days, and even (gasp) classical curriculum that forms the core around which we build the bulk of our days.  And each day, each child knows exactly what is expected of him, and what to expect, because we start with a list that includes all work to be done, all field trips, doctor appointments, etc, that list what time to be ready to leave the house (ie shoes on, dressed, bathroom used, had your snack, by 3:15 please!  And bring your history reader!)

So, here are a couple of different days "in the life." It wouldn't be fair to give you just one-- because every single day we have is completely different!

On a Monday:  Wake up, eat breakfast, look over the list Mom left-- start reading books related to history lesson.  Son#1 starts math, Son#2 starts spelling.  Mom staggers downstairs and starts groping for her chai.  Son#2 moves off of the couch and sits on his hippity-hop instead, getting more comfortable.  Son#1 moves onto the floor.  Around 10:30, we notice it's sunny outside and break for recess.  Son#1 practices his karate out in the yard, son#2 goes and checks the blueberry bushes.  We play soccer for a few minutes, decide to grab our stuff and work outdoors for a bit after getting a drink.  Son#2 also grabs a snack from the snack basket.  Kids ask if we can do some of our "together lessons," (usually, history, science, reading out loud together, if it's a Monday).  Kids divide up-- one starts some afternoon recess, the other does another individual lesson while I make lunch.  They do a 15-minute clean-up of the house, then break for lunch.  We assess where everyone is, and they finish recess time, and finish up any remaining work that needs to be done, often with one-on-one time from me as needed.  Son#2 finishes first.  He thinks about playing the Wii, but notices his brother concentrating hard, and picks up a book to read instead.  Son#1 finishes, and they both head to the computer to play Civ V until public school lets out and their buddy next door gets home.

On a Wednesday:  Wake up, eat breakfast, look over the list Mom left-- start reading books chosen from library for personal interest.  Mom staggers downstairs and gropes for chai.  Work through list pretty fast until mid-morning, then everyone does a 15-minute house pickup, packs bags, and drive to the park.  For next 3 hours, alternate play time in park with studying.  Eat picnic lunch, continue study and play.  Come home and rest for a bit by reading, drinking lots of water.  Off to the athletic club for swimming lessons by 4pm, stay afterward to play and meet up with friends there before their swimming lessons.  Come home exhausted and sleep well.  And why not?  They read Homer, learned how to divide fractions, discussed the problems of succession in dynasties, and more.

Flexible Friday:  All the usual books are put away.  Eat breakfast, check the list, read something of your choosing.  Mom staggers down and hunts desperately for her chai.  Work quickly through the fun math and history activities, then in the car to head off to the Natural History Museum for a science class that's off topic from our main course of study-- a regularly scheduled class every two weeks.  Eat dinner out at a restaurant, and then hit the library, and stay and read for a while.  In the car, we learn about Mozart via the Classics for Kids podcast, and listen to Beethoven's Wig.  Home by 1:30--2:30, depending on how long we ready, ready to have the weekend free-- no reason to have homework in homeschool :)  Studies show homework does no good in the elementary years anyway, and we don't believe in doing things that aren't productive!  Study after study shows that play IS very productive for children though, so off they go!

Actual instructional time, as I have tracked, ends up much higher than what they had in PS, as we don't waste any time repeating instructions, waiting for others to finish, moving down the halls or waiting for others to get quiet.  If we take time off for an unexpected field trip or activity, we can still stay on track, because there is a "master list" of goals we must meet and guidelines for about when we should be meeting them, and we don't review unless we specifically need to-- we can always take off on a Wednesday and work on a rainy Saturday, or double up one day, or realize we're ahead already and give ourselves a day off.  Or realize we've bitten off too much and ease up.  Dinner table conversations don't even count toward the time I figure in, and yet work to enhance their lessons just about daily these days.

Later, for the curious, we'll post some curriculum specifics .  . . and take another stab at that thorny "R" issue that's been percolating.

--Thanks for reading!

*I'm not going to argue with anybody about what unschooling means.  In short, it means completely different things to different people.  It can mean anything from a gently guided child-led learning environment to a completely laissez-faire attitude that the kid will learn if he needs to.  Since it isn't our style, I'm not into fighting for any particular definition of it, because as far as I'm concerned, anybody who chooses to unschool can choose their own definition for it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Too Much Togetherness? (Or, Have I Lost My Mind Yet?)

     One of the many excuses that I used to not homeschool for as long as I did was that, as much as I absolutely love my children, adore spending time with them, and think that they have fantastic personalities, creative minds, and unique perspectives on the world, they can be really exhausting at times.  In short, the idea of spending all day, every day with these two beautiful, short people scared the you-know-what out of me.  I enjoyed my walk with them to the bus stop every morning, and I smiled every morning as the bus drove away.  I came home, sometimes still wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, made a cup of cocoa or chai, curled up in front of the fireplace with a book, and relaxed for the first 45 minutes or so of my day before starting any chores or heading to the gym.  I never ran the television during the day, savoring the quiet.  And when time came to start watching for them to return from the bus, I'd put the garage door up, secretly watch through the curtains or "just happen" to collect the mail 5 or 6 times until they came home, and be ready for the chaos to resume.  Homework, snacks, hugs, chattering about the day, friends from the neighborhood arrived and the TV turned on while I made dinner (sometimes; other times that didn't happen until my husband got home and did the cooking) or else we'd jet off to karate or swimming or gymnastics.  Boys & noise, that's what a healthy house is all about!  But when the boys are home, somebody needs something about every minute and a half-- did I really want that 24/7 with no vacations?  No. I LIKED my quiet time each school day.  Nobody in the house was more enthusiastic than I about the arrival of each new school year.
     So.  Now we're homeschooling!  Have I lost my mind yet?  After all, it's been seven weeks of blissful togetherness with both of them, and eight with my litigator 7YO!  And the verdict is . . . we couldn't be happier.  Okay, maybe we could be a little happier.  The 7YO has just been nearly as sick as he's ever been in his life, which has led to us being nearly sequestered for the last 2 weeks or so, which has led to the 10YO going a little crazy and getting a little case of the lonelies and me going just a little nuts (for those of you who are a little behind, "homeschooling" is a bit of a misnomer for the vast majority of us who are not doing this for primarily medical reasons, and much of the experience is often conducted away from the home and around other human beings).  But except for these two weeks, we couldn't be happier.  And I am most definitely not going crazy (these past two weeks excepted, just a little; I've gotten used to use being able to go whereever and whenever we want).
     So, where did my hypothesis go so far afield?  It turns out that . . . school is fantastically cool when a) you are being challenged academically and b) the subject matter is interesting and c) you are free to move around and get into a comfortable position and take motion breaks as often as needed while working and d) you can think and discuss your ideas as you study.  So the kids are happy, enthusiastic, and excited about subjects they thought they would dread.  They are getting themselves out of bed at 6am just so they can start their day and see what is awaiting them.  For the teacher, I'm discovering that my kids are fantastically exciting all over again; I always used to wonder, during the day, what they were like in school, and now I get to see it.  I get to watch the lightbulbs go off, when my 7YO says, "Hey, shouldn't that Roman (Diocletian) have known he was doing something not smart by splitting the Empire in half?  I mean look what happened to the Greek Empire when Alexander's generals did the same thing after he died-- that's when the Greeks started to lose their power, too!  If this Diocle guy had studied history, he might have known better!"  I get to hear my kids say, "Turn off Spongebob!  It's time to read Homer!"  Even better, I get to watch my 7YO with mild learning disabilities finding his own rhythm as we work his therapies into his school day, and watch him improve daily.  Instead of "Reading is boring!"  I now find him curled up on the couch with a book.  Instead of getting back reports from teachers that his recall of stories is behind schedule, I find he can analyze and draw comparisons between stories in very intelligent ways.  My 10YO is discovering interests and abilities, and a new self-confidence that he never knew he had.  And he finally has the time to explore extra reading on topics that pique his interest.  During history he was fascinated by Alexander the Great, so now he is reading a biography about Alexander the Great, to round out the biographies of Herodotus, Socrates, Archimedes, and fictional works from a variety of series about the Greek and Roman myths and emperors.
     Okay, that's fantastic, but it doesn't really answer the question, now does it?  So, you're a selfish brat and want to keep all the fun of watching your kids light up to yourself?  (Couldn't resist-- the "People homeschool out of selfishness is one of my favorite lines lately).   Okay, so all that doesn't really answer how it is that I'm not going nuts. 
     If our school days were all like a typical weekend day or holiday back in our public school time, I would likely be certifiable by now.  But . . . they aren't.  Although we definitely don't just recreate school around the kitchen table, we do still have a certain amount of structure to our days.  It is a flexible structure, to be sure, but there is structure.  For each day, I look ahead at any appointments, pre-scheduled outside classes (science classes at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, gym classes at the Hockessin Athletic Club, science or literature or music at Longwood Gardens).  I estimate how much time we should spend on school that day, and then allocate to activities such as science experiments, math, reading, history, geography, grammar, Latin, music, art, etc, and then I create a list of activities for each child and leave it on the kitchen table the night before.  If they wake up before I do (a common occurance) there are things on there that they can do before I come downstairs and get that cup of chai into myself, such as silent reading.  Each kiddo has a scientific lab timer, so if son#2 is supposed to read for 30 minutes, he sets his timer for 30 minutes, finds a comfy spot and curls up with his book and starts to read.  Yes, reading longer than the timer is perfectly fine; that's a minimum time, not a max.  If something interests you, you can pursue it, and adjustments can always be made if we run out of time later!  Sometimes, we pack up and head to the park-- we might play for an hour or two, and then pull out some notes and do a history lesson in the shade while we cool off, sometimes attracting a few extra students to our "class." :)  One little 3YO joined us on Monday, insisting to her mother, "Story!"  The toddler Moms at the park were kind of smiling at the way the boys were jumping in with ideas, thoughts, and analysis of the fall of Rome-- both were really involved in the lesson, which was awesome.
     Oftentimes, the history discussion spills over into dinner, as the kids are still processing what we discussed.  Or sometimes the topic will be the music we're listening to, or the book we're reading together out loud (We've finished the kids' Iliad and Odyssey, and have moved on to the Aeneid). 
     They still have time for friends, Pokemon, chess, swimming, swinging a sword like a pirate in the back yard, and some down time on their DS's.  But no longer is all of their time around me spent quizzing me incessantly about which thingamabob is a Fire Type or which one could defeat a Psychic.  They have things to do, places to go, and things to read and think about, even during their free time when they have nothing assigned to them. In short, between the structure that gives them something to focus on, and the information that is actually occupying their minds these days, and, I believe, thanks to the degree to which I have gotten to know my children better, they have become more interesting people.  And it's perfectly fine, at ages 7 and 10, that they still want to discuss Pokemon from time to time-- that is, after all, what 7 and 10 year olds are supposed to do.   It just helps all of our sanity that they don't do it 24/7.
     Of course, it also helps that my fantastic husband also facilitates me getting the heck out of dodge every now and then!  My usual strategy is to go shopping with a friend for a few hours on a weekend day.  Failing that, dinner out by myself on a weeknight will do the trick.  This past weekend, we went with extreme measures, and even with son#2 rather ill, I stuck with my plans to attend a fantastic conference hosted by The Focus Foundation.  Aimed at parents of kids with 47,XXY (an extra chromosome), it featured a fantastic lineup of speakers, including Dr. Darius Paducah, Dr. Alan Rogol, Pete Wright, Dr. Kenneth Rosenbaum, Dr. Laura Tosi, Carol Stock Kranowitz, and Dr. Carole Samango-Sprouse, EdD, head of the Focus Foundation.  Okay, so I had a weekend escape steeped in information about my kid??  Yep!  It was a fantastic weekend, and I spent it with some really great parents, pediatricians, and school administrators (yes, they were) who all showed up to learn more about this genetic arrangement and how it affects those eXtra special individuals who carry it-- and all of the people with whom I spent the weekend were adults :).Great information, and time with adults-- and I returned ready to spend more great time with my kids!
     That leaves one missing piece-- exercise!  Exercise I work in while my kids are taking classes at the gym.  I can drop them off and then go work out myself, either karate or hit the cardio and weight machines and stretch.  It's not as much time as I'd like, but it's time at least.  And of course, if I take the kids to a playground or park, playing with them counts! Then I can put in some time at home while the kids join me and I can go at a pace where they can keep up.  I am sure this will not last for long, and my older son will soon be giving me a run for my money.  I do not let on that sometimes he already is.

So, looking back, it feels kind of silly now that I ever worried about spending time with my own children.  I mean, they're my kids, and I really, really like spending time around them!  They're neat people with neat ideas in their heads and interesting things to say.  And really, home schooling is not just endless free time; whether we go on a field trip or set up with specific learning goals for the day, we generally have an agenda to get after; we're all on the same team, and they're learning how to relate and negotiate in age-appropriate ways.  As long as I can honor that-- and as a mother, how could I not-- we are ready to succeed!

     --Thanks for reading!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Learning Curve: Spring Break, Attempt 1

One of the great things about home schooling, as opposed to our local school system, is that we can finally sync up our kids' schedules with my husband's schedule at the nearby university.  Despite being a university town, the local schools obstinately refuse to use the same spring, fall, or holiday break schedule as the university, even though the university schedule is published long before the school board determines their schedule.  Hence, in previous years, my husband would have his spring break, and we could not go anywhere because the kids were still in school.  Then, the kids would have spring break and we could not go anywhere, because my husband had to teach.  Wheeee.  Now, I am the superintendent, so I get to set the break schedules, and I decree that my husband's schedule has a lot to do with the kids' school schedule when it comes to short-term breaks and travel (including conferences to cool locations when the budget allows).

Indeed, we were all terribly excited for our first round of Whole Family Spring Break this year!  We could go visit Grandma!  We could go visit Wellsboro, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania!  We could go visit Gettysburg!  We could have fun!  Yeeeeha!  Spring break this year was the last week in March.  My Mom and I watched the weather as the initial weekend approached.  Plans changed at the last minute, as Mom has 12" of snow dumped on her, as did much of northeastern and north central PA, which also made Wellsboro seem kind of unappealing.  We aren't exactly wimps, but this is the end of winter, not the beginning, and we're ready for warmer weather.  Even walking around Gettysburg seemed like something we could postpone for better weather.  Hmmm.  Time for plan B.  It sure would have been nice if I'd made one!

Monday morning arrives, and we are still in town.  The boys have been dying to surprise Dad with the secret of the whispering bench at Longwood Gardens.  It is cold, borderline rainy (read wet-feeling and threatening) and kind of miserable in the morning, but off we go.  We do have a fun day, tricking a willing Dad with the acoustics of the whispering bench, and then exploring the indoor areas in the conservatories.  Son#1 notes that for "break" this activity feels suspiciously educational.  We smile, and after a few hours, we do take them to a local indoor play center for a few more hours of a good time.

Tuesday arrives, and we're still in town.  During lunch at Bertucci's, we break out the Children's Homer and read two more chapters; as a treat, for once Dad gets to read-- he's usually at work when we do this stuff, and misses out on the kids' activities.  Then we head into Philly and on into the Leonardo DaVinci exhibit, which is very cool, but once again, son#1 sees a trend developing, and mentions that for "break" this activity seems rather educational.  After the exhibit, we go explore some parts of the rest of the Franklin Institute, including the new version of the walk-through heart.  Kids agree they definitely want to come back and see more!  But, son#1 points out, preferably on a school day.  We finish up with a planetarium show about black holes, which, son#1 points out, is exactly what we're studying in science right now.  He doesn't miss a trick, that one.  Except we weren't trying to trick him; I just love planetariums.  On the way out, both boys begged to hit the gift shop-- not for toys; they each wanted to buy a book.  HAH!  Who's being educational now?

On Wednesday, Dad snuck into work for a few hours of grading and lesson planning and even (gasp) research, while the boys and I stayed home and attempted to relax.  We played some games, watched TV, and yes . . . read books.  Sounds delightful . . . except by 1pm, both boys were surreptitiously poking at their school books, looking for something more structured to do.  Thanks to the rainy weather, it was too cold and wet to go outdoors, and I was feeling really sub-par and not up to heading out to the athletic center to play.  The boys were actually starting to miss school.

Thursday was more of the same, except we went to the athletic center for gym class at the Hockessin Athletic Club, at their request (I gave them the option, since it was technically their school break week).  They love the gym class so much that they both wanted to go!  Unfortunately, right afterward, son#2 collapsed and became very, very ill, sending us right to the doc with a probably strep infection, and home with an antibiotic.  As of this writing, he's still a sick little boy and not eating, but at least he's awake now.

On Friday, son#1 and I head to the Delaware Museum of Natural History  for a science homeschool class-- at this point, why not-- followed by lunch out together, and then time at the library reading and getting some great new books.  He also started and read most of his book for book club next Wednesday night.  By this point, he's so relieved to have something interesting to do, that he has stopped mentioning that these activities feel rather educational for a break week.  I have not mentioned that a few of these days are actually going to be scored as school attendance days rather than break days at this point, based on the number of hours spent on educational activity.  Why spoil it?  He's had a lot of fun bragging to his friends that he's on spring break :).  We'll take other days off in the future and do other cool stuff instead.

Saturday!!  Son#2 is waking up more, and alert enough to play outdoors in the sun-- yes the sun-- for a short time, and we go play catch outside!  Even indoors he's awake enough for Hungry Hungry Hippos and other games, so we stay busy. My husband installs a new clothesline for me, so I can hang clothes outdoors (yes, I am a modern female with not one, but two college degrees and my name on peer-reviewed journal articles in more than one academic field.  And I am terribly excited by the fact that I now have an outdoor clothesline instead of just an electric dryer :D  Thank you darling! ).

Sunday:  the final day of spring break.  Son#2 is still a sick little boy, but showing some signs of improvement.  The sun is out again and it is even warmer, so we get him outside again.  My husband takes on the job of planting blueberry bushes, and the boys both help, examining the quality of the soil ("Wow, there's a lot of clay here!") and the depth of the hole and the distance between bushes.  They named the bushes (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and Hades; they are saving Demeter for a planned raspberry bush).  Again with the educational stuff, but again son#1 let it slide.

So, that's our first attempt at Spring Break.  I'd say, looking at the weekday week, we need a little practice at this "vacation" thing . . . since at least three of those days could qualify as school days, at least for son#1, who thinks maybe Hershey Park or something similar would be a nice try next time.  Gee . . . and I'd been thinking Williamsburg . . . But it wssn't all just me.  I caught son#1 reading a copy of "If I Were a Kid in Ancient Rome," along with his book club book, and son#2 reading a book about Pompeii.

So . . . what did we learn from this?

1.  Breaks during warm weather will be easier than breaks during cold/rainy weather.  We can always do stuff outdoors when it's nice out.  Parks, swimming, outside to play, whatever.  Therefore, cold weather breaks need a PLAN so that we don't go crazy or just sitting around and waiting for school to start again.  (And, we're homeschoolers, so if we want school to start again, we CAN, or we can go somewhere educational rather than having a normal school day-- field trip!).

2.  I need to seriously consider boxing up toys and games, and only getting them out when we're "on break" at home, so that they'll be "new" and fun again.  It'll also open up more space in the play room.  Win/win.

3.  I'm more convinced than ever that year-round schooling is the way to go, rather than the 9 on/3 off plan of the usual public schools.  I cannot imagine what the point of "skipping" school for 3 1/2 months straight would be.  Even though we're planning a real garden, taking care of it can be part of the curriculum.  (that's a future blog post).

4.  We're doing a lot right, but we still have a lot of stuff not figured out at all.  Like how to take a freaking break properly!!  After all the careful planning on how to do school, who would ever have figured that we'd have to think about how to take a break????  Whoops!  Chalk that one up under "Lesson Learned."
--Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hillandale Farm School Philosophy

Okay, the Hillandale Farm School has obviously been a very long time in the making.  It has been influenced by my homeschooling sister, a mutual friend to whom my sister introduced me, and a great deal of reading and introspection I have done on the subject.  Although day-to-day, we may leave a lot of room for spontaneity and for the kids to develop interests they wish to pursue more deeply, at different levels of planning, there is a very intentional path being followed at the weekly, monthly, annual, and school time levels.   I believe this to be one inherent strength of home education; with one set of people at the helm of the education, the overarching plan from inception of the plan until college time can be very logical and planned out, rather than the kind of patchwork effort that can occur as children bounce through different schools in a public or private system.  So, what makes the Hillandale Farm School tick, and how did we discern this particular approach?
Starting with a series of questions from Cathy Duffy’s 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, I started with a list:  What do you think is most important for your children to learn?  In no particular order:  I want my children to:
·         Learn how to think critically & analyze information
·         Become confident, independent young men
·         Be inquisitive, curiosity-driven learners who enjoy seeking knowledge
·         Develop self-discipline
·         Understand the role faith plays in their daily lives
·         Understand and utilize the scientific inquiry process
·         Read widely for pleasure
·         Value both teamwork and independent inquiry
·         Speak clearly, concisely, and persuasively
·         Write well
·         Understand how to overcome obstacles and rebound from mistakes
·         Incorporate daily physical activity as a given lifestyle
·         Make ethically based decisions
·         Face their days joyfully
·         Have a strong inner compass to guide their decision-making
·         Weigh desires and consequences, and freely make their choices
Obviously, this step does not instantly point to curriculum choice, but it is a start.  Creating a list such as this helps to understand the long-term goals we have for educating our sons.  If they can do these things, they will be well-prepared for college and the world in general, and clarifies why we want them to have an education in the first place.

                Next, also from a prompt from Duffy’s book, came a question about how we think children should learn, and following that, an elaborate checklist style questionnaire that helped us to compare several styles of homeschooling.  It was interesting to see that our initial impressions—heading back to basics in grammar, a strong spelling and writing program, unifying history, literature, and geography through the use of real books rather than dry texts for history, and taking a methodical approach through the sciences rather than the “a few weeks of this and that” that the public schools seem to favor, and real attention to music and art in the early grades were reflected in a couple of specific methodologies in the checkbox list—I netted high scores in unit studies, Charlotte Mason, and Classical curriculum approaches.  Although I read about other approaches with an open mind, I focused my further research on those three.  (I scored as 27% aligned with a “traditional” recreate school around the kitchen table program and 32% aligned with send your kids to someone else to homeschool them—validating the survey’s accuracy in my book, as neither of those approaches appeal to me in our situation).  Unit studies, Charlotte Mason, and Classical curricula all share in common an approach that makes logical connections between subjects, utilizes the reading of literature and quality books rather than overreliance on “textbooks” for learning, and if carefully planned, can allow for a logical progression of certain subjects over time.  Not all unit studies focused schools adhere to that last component; but it can exist.

                From here, and with the help of additional reading, thinking, more reading, more discussion, more reading, more thinking, we were able to begin trying out some ideas.  A good friend encouraged me to read Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, a book I had originally turned my nose up at as being too rigid, but which has now informed much of our approach to homeschooling, including its encouragement to not simply blindly follow all of its outlines, but to use them as a jumping point to make some of our own choices.  We incorporated Latin into the children’s program, and planned for later inclusion of additional language, logic, and rhetoric as they grow.  I was intrigued by the notion of the trivium—3 stages of learning—grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the idea of presenting history/literature/geography in more or less linear order by both Bauer and by running across the book Augustus Caesar’s World, which takes a snapshot of the world at the time of Caesar, so the reader can see all of his contemporaries around the globe.  I was also inspired by son#1, who for months had been going to the library to pick out books on his own to supplement his own interests—after reading Percy Jackson, he loaded up on Greek Mythology books and Ancient Greece nonfiction; after learning to play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, he went back to the library and loaded up on books about world leaders.  It seemed like such a natural way to learn!

                So now we had some goals to head toward, some beginning ideas for curriculum, and a background educational philosophy to guide us.  It was time to put down on paper a final statement—the Hillandale Farm School Philosophy Statement.  What is it that drives our decision making?  What helps us to decide whether we are heading down the correct path to meet our educational goals for the kids, or need a course correction?  Why are we doing what we are doing and how are we doing it better than anybody else could do it for the kids?

The Hillandale Farm School Philosophy Statement

Through homeschooling, we will foster a lifelong love of learning through which our goals will be achieved.  We will view the whole world as a classroom, and develop the practice of discernment to determine which lessons are bringing us closer to our goals.  We will work together to dismantle one another’s roadblocks to success, and rejoice in seeing all succeed.

We will accept responsibility for learning, and value knowledge for its own worth rather than external rewards, while also keeping appropriate respect for the worthiness of working toward a specific life goal.

We seek balanced, accurate, and deep knowledge in mathematics, science, history, and literature.  We will become fluent in written and oral communication.  We will understand the scientific process, logic and argument, and be prepared to respectfully and knowledgably navigate the world around us.  We will attend to our physical and spiritual health and fitness.

We will develop the confidence and ability to set and achieve goals that will enable us to live ethical, independent, and joyful lives.