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!


  1. It sounds like you've gone well above and beyond your expectations! Congrats! :-)

    "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."

    I love how you said that! I'm sure you know, though, that to some people, just because they can't see something they think that nothing is wrong. "Invisible" disabilities can be some of the most pernicious to deal with, precisely because they're not visible. It's a delicate balance of managing that problem so you can deal with life, and having to explain to someone why you might not be able to do something. Especially when it's not a well known diagnosis.

  2. Sounds like a great start to homeschooling! I also liked what you said about managing challenges. :-)