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!