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.