Saturday, February 11, 2012


My friend Natalie and I have been planning a screening for the documentary film Race to Nowhere for some time now.  Funny that the one we chose to attend happened to fall during this week.

Looking ahead to our schedule, I checked the calendar, and noticed it looked . . . a tad packed.  Some things couldn't really be helped.  There were five (count'em!) doc appointments that couldn't really be put off.  Son#2, our resident artist, had a one-off 90-minute art class for homeschoolers at Longwood Gardens.  I could have canceled that commitment, but didn't really wish to do so.  We had gym class, swimming, gymnastics, karate, and fencing all at our regular times, plus our weekly library trip.  I had my ironic trip to see Race to Nowhere Wednesday night.  We had other commitments lined up as well.

If you read last week's blog, you'll notice we are not casual homeschoolers; people who think homeschoolers "do school" in 90 minutes a day or less are not thinking about our family.  Occasionally we bend to get around an appointment here or there, but this week was looking a bit extraordinary.  Four thoughts occurred to me.  
  1. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress myself out
  2. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress the kids out
  3. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would stress my husband out
  4. If we attempted to put in a regular school week, I would be setting everyone up to fail.
Number four above felt particularly unacceptable.
What's a homeschool Mom to do?  Just a few weeks out from a pretty generous Christmas break (2 1/2 weeks?  3?) it was too early for a full-on vacation, and if I tried to call this kind of a week a "vacation," the kids would cry foul-- there was too much running around.  But getting in a half-hearted attempt at school didn't work for me.  Enter the "Fake-Cation!"

Analyzing the schedule, I noticed everything was clustered on Tuesday and Thursday, or Monday and Wednesday evenings.  Monday morning, the kids woke up, expecting a regular school week, and instead found this note on the kitchen table:

Welcome to Fake-cation

1.  You may read or play what you wish until Mommy is finished with her shower and breakfast.
2.  No regular school books this week.  You may leave them put away.
3.  This week we will spend:
  • some time on "special projects"
  • some time cleaning up the house together
  • some time at doc appointments, classes, and errands
  • the rest of your time is free play time.  This time may be academic-related or not-- it's you're choice.
And then the fun began!

Son#2 watches Son#1 make the first cuts in their 3-hole miniature golf course, under construction.
Son#1 files down his work while Son#2 creates pilot holes for drilling.

Son#2's turn to man the drill.  There are still many steps to go here, but you get the idea.  So much for my constant indignant insistence that homeschoolers never lock their kids away in the basement <grin>.
Longwood Gardens' meadow is beautiful in winter, too.  Son#1 and I had 90 rare minutes to ourselves while Son#2 took an art class for homeschoolers.  I guess we do get out of that basement.

Proving we let Son#1 out of the basement once in a while.  He's enjoying being 11, outdoors at Longwood with Mom!
Okay, back home, time for fun science.  Hint number one:  it floats in water . . . 
Hint number two: It turns into a fluffy souffle in the microwave!  Why does this famous soap behave like this?  (Look!  Kitchen, not basement!)
Son#2 built a circuit, and now turns a hand crank to start charging his rechargeable battery, verifying with the LED light that he's cranking fast enough, and checking the battery's voltage using the Volt/Amp meter.  (Dining room now.  Still no basement).*

Not pictured, is cute video of Sons 1 & 2 attempting to blow up a 10' long balloon made from Diaper Genie refill tied off at one end . . . and Mom proving she can do it in ONE breath (thank you Steve Spangler Science) and wonderful jumping cups (thank you to Rob Krampf's Happy Scientist and a great discussion of the scientific process, rather than the usual demonstration masquerading as a lab).  We worked in Brain Pop videos, which were a first for us, the coin-toss flash card game, reading as usual, and our usual karate, gymnastics, homeschool gym class, fencing, library time, chores, and game/play time, on top of our usual dose of Minecraft, and still had time to dote on a very welcome visitor from across the country. 

Oh, right!  Son#1 brought his camera along to Longwood too.  He's never owned a camera before, so these are among his first-ever pictures.  I only gave him minimal coaching, and told him to take pictures that show how he views the world as an 11-year-old:

 There you have it.  Son#1's first ever photo display.  You can say you knew him when.

Watching the Race to Nowhere (upcoming Blog: A Homeschooler's Response to R2N) in the midst of all of this was an interesting experience, and it absolutely validated my choice to back off and have some fun with the kids this week.  Particularly given that we homeschool year round, we had the time to spare from formal studies.  It's roughly six weeks until my husband's spring break, so the timing is right for a mini-break, but only a few weeks in from Christmas, we weren't quite ready for a complete vacation.  And although my kids do enjoy learning our traditional way, this week reminded them that we can keep on learning even when we're really having fun.

I think everything we did this week was actually important, and an important part of their growing up.  I'm glad we had this week.  I'm glad Son#1 gets to be there for Son#2's neurology appointments; it helps to make him a better big brother and bonds them more closely together, as well as helping him understand his little brother's challenges, smaller though they are becoming, that much better.  I'm glad we can take a week to focus on woodworking, circuitry, "fun" science that wasn't necessarily planned to the teeth, and just being outdoors.  I'm glad Son#1, who thinks of himself as completely non-artistic (and are we partly at fault for that?  Do we word things around the house that way sometimes?  Perhaps?) got to experiment with a new expressive medium.  Everyone needs one, whether it be through words, pictures, dance, or whatever. 

This week was in its own way, just as big a part of their education as the usual weeks filled with Latin and grammar and chemistry.  All of that NEEDS to be balanced with play. That was a major point of Race to Nowhere-- it's important for children to not lose themselves, their sense of who they really are-- in some quest to become whatever it is they think their parents want them to become.  More on that next time.

--Thanks for Reading!

*For those of you lost about why I keep on with the in the basement/not in the basement references, I recently had yet another run-in with a well-meaning but clueless individual who was "concerned about socialization" of my homeschoolers.  I didn't have time to answer them very thoroughly, sadly.  We were too busy running off to activities with other children, of mixed ages, genders, and backgrounds to spend time justifying ourselves . . . if I thought the person was actually open-minded enough to really listen rather than just wanting to expound their own point of view, I might have invited them for a ride-along to meet some actual real-life homeschoolers and see what a day is like . . . 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Schedule Scramble: Listening to the Kids

Some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kids approached me with an idea: break up our subjects into different blocks of time instead of studying “everything” each week.  I was skeptical.  This is not exactly a new idea, and other home schoolers do exactly this type of plan quite successfully, of course.  But . . . was it right for MY kids?  Could it really work, or would it just feel too fragmented?  I didn’t really think it was a great idea.  I let the idea percolate.

I thought about what the kids were saying.  I looked at our schedule.  We are studying a lot of stuff, for ages 8 and 10.  A lot.  My expectations are quite high.  Trying to cram all of it into every.single.week. might be a lot to ask at ages 8 and 10.  So instead of their suggestion, did I need to take stock of the overall curriculum?  What should we drop?  Well .  . .  looking it over . . . nothing.  I liked our plan.  Most of the “optional” stuff was stuff we were only doing once or twice a week, and was stuff they really enjoyed (ie computer programming, mind bender puzzles).  Hmmmm.

I continued to  mull it over through the Christmas holidays, and came back around to the suggestion the kids had made.  What would be the effects of it?  5 day per week subjects might move more slowly.  Two day per week subjects might move more quickly.   With fewer things to focus on in each week, we could go into more depth in each thing, tie them together better, and spend more time, or opt for shorter days on some days, as circumstances required.  Hmmm.  The kids idea might have some merit.  We could always go back to the old schedule if the continuity issue resulted in problems.  And they would feel more invested in their school process.  Okay, let’s give this a shot.  So . . . what does the new schedule look like, and how does it feel, a month into the rotation?

Science and Math Focus Week

DS (now 11) works on:
chemistry (primarily NOEO level2, plus the texts from RS4K, KOGS from RS4K, Happy Scientist videos, ScienceWiz kits, Some Ellen McHenry Units, Some information from BFSU, Lab of Mr. Q, and some others, all as I can weave them into the NOEO spine to keep the coherent order to things)
math (primarily Life of Fred PreAlgebra, with some work in Art of Problem Solving as a light supplement—LoF is definitely our spine in math though—with some Khan Academy and living books tossed into the mix as well)
 logic (KidCoder computer programming, Mind Benders and Critical Thinking pages from The Critical Thinking Co)
Music and Art (Trumpet practice, Mark KistlerArt, Classics for Kids Podcasts, Art KOGS, and other activities)
writing (Unjournaling on Friday, typing practice with TypetoLearn4)
German (Rosetta Stone, Usborne Easy German, Pokemon Videos, Other activities.  Not trying to be stereotyped here, just separating the two languages in different weeks)
 Reading (min 45 minutes self-reading per day, plus group read-aloud of literature per day above and beyond his self-choice reading time)
Geography (ongoing project to learn to map each continent by heart; review world map on Friday).  
 **All subjects are daily, except for writing (typing is twice per week,  Unjournaling only on Friday), Logic (Mind Benders are a Monday wake-up), Music and Art (different activities except trumpet practice are spread through the week).

DS8 works on the same subjects, but in different, age-appropriate programs.  
 He focuses on Singapore math (US Edition) as is his spine, with Life of Fred Elementary as a fun supplement (though we are pretty pleasantly surprised at just how MUCH math is packed into those books!  If you skim them or read them fast, you’ll miss it; if you take your time, there is pretty advanced stuff in there!) as well as Khan Academy and some other fun stuff.   
He also does NOEO Chemistry, but at level 1, with the same chem supplements as his older brother, minus the KOGS.  There is nothing wrong with NOEO; we’re just a little science crazy in our house!   
For Logic skills, he hasn’t starting programming quite yet, but loves the Mind Benders, Ken-Ken, Sudoku, and other types of puzzles.   
His musical instrument is the recorder, but the otherwise does the same music and art activities as his brother.
  He also does Unjournaling and typing for writing this week.  
 He works at Rosetta Stone for German quite successfully; I love how easily they pick up the grammar and spelling from that program!  At 8 years old, though he does work through it at a slower pace and goes back and repeats some lessons, and I sit with him and guide him through the worksheets.   
 His self-reading time is supposed to be 30 minutes, but he often sneaks in much more, and has to be told to put the book down and work on some of his other work, and naturally group reading time includes him as well.
He practices mapping the same way as DS11 for geography.

History and Language Focus Week

For H&L week, DS11 works on 
history (HistoryOdyssey Ancients 2, plus much extra reading (he makes great use of the library and his new Nook Simple Touch!) and any extra activities, trips, or movies I can dream up, plus the mapping project)  
Latin (Big Book of Lively Latin I, Latin Crossword Puzzles, Visual Latin, and a variety of activities); 
vocabulary (Vocabulary Workshop)  
music and art (same as in Science and Math Week)  
Writing (Writing With Ease, plus writing from history program, and typing)
grammar (was GrowingWith Grammar, now Grammarlogues)
reading (same as Science and Math Week)
math (A lighter schedule than during Science and Math week, with LoF on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Khan Academy on Tuesday, and Alcumus on Thursday).

DS8 again follows a similar plan, but in an age and skill appropriate manner.  
I decided to hit Ancients and Medieval history with him this year, so he has finished History Odyssey Ancients 1 and is now in History Odyssey Middle Ages 1.  It’s a good thing he loves to read, because there is a lot of fun stuff for him to read now!   
He is nearly finished with Prima Latina, and will soon begin   The Big Book of Lively Latin like big brother.  There will be a small amount of repetition, but at his age, that is a good thing.  
He studies spelling with Spelling Workout rather than vocabulary, at this age, concentrating on natural vocabulary development.  
Like DS11, music and art are unchanged from science and math week.   
Writing consists of Writing With Ease and typing lessons, as well as anything he needs to write to summarize history lessons.  I still help him by scribing a lot of history, but we stop and discuss sentence structure, using specific words instead of general words (names instead of “those guys,” for example), and other details.  Typing is also done twice per week.  
 Grammar continues our experiment with the definitely non-secular but very solid Rod & Staff.  
As with DS11, reading is the same as the prior week, with the minimum self-reading time set at 30 minutes for an 8YO, though he frequently exceeds it.  For History and language focus week, Singapore math is only completed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; on Tuesday, he does some type of playful math, and on Thursday he works on Khan Academy.  He works in Life of Fred (elementary series) whenever he has time, just because he’s a fan of Fred J.  By the end of this year, he will have completed 2 years of Singapore math, a year of Math Mammoth, many topics in Khan, and learned a tremendous amount from Fred, so dialing math back every other week doesn’t particularly bother me.

So, how’s that working for you?

First of all, the kids have been highly gratified that I took their suggestion seriously and really listened.  They understand that trying this schedule out does not mean we will keep it, but they appreciate being heard.  That said, I think they are really on to something here.

A month into this experiment, I think we are all less stressed out, are exploring each subject more deeply, feeling less rushed and more flexible about our daily schedule, and more able to explore any side trails that pop up and become interesting.  I have had buckets of additional “extras” that I have been wanting to add in to their studies to either make them more interesting or more memorable, and I feel more able to just add things in now, because we are cramming less into each day, and each day flows more naturally into the next than it did when we tried to do Chemistry on M-W-F and History on T-R.  I found a great book of English to Latin Crossword puzzles on Amazon, and we try one of those out each week.  We have time.  I found some Pokemon movies in German, and we have time to sit and watch them together .  . . what a difference to watch something in the language you are studying, instead of just conversing about who is eating rice or wearing the green shirt or riding the large horse!  I feel free to schedule a day to just sit and read extra folk tales from the period of history we are studying, or to put the brakes on somebody who is moving ahead too fast for comprehension to sink in, and say, “Nope, let’s not move ahead yet; let’s master this first!”  It doesn’t break the flow to do so. 

Next week is supposed to be science and math week.  I have decided, looking at our schedule of various appointments, that we will take a Fakation instead.  That’s half days of educational activities not using our usual materials and curricula, followed by half days “off” for the kids, when we aren’t at some kind of appointment.  The week after that will be Science and Math Focus Week, business as usual, nothing missed, and we’ll then roll onward until my husband’s spring break, nearly 2 months.

Kids have good ideas.  Even though we are in charge, and responsible for the decision and outcomes, it’s still a good idea to listen and take them seriously.  

So, let me know:  What different kinds of schedules have you tried, and how have they worked out?  I am sure that as we grow, gain experience, and evolve, different option will continue to present themselves with varying degrees of success-- I'd love to hear some of your experiences with scheduling trials and tribulations, and success stories!

--Thanks for reading!

 PS:  Okay, I got the links up.  In many cases, I tried to make them more useful by linking directly to a specific book or portion of the curriculum to which I was referring.  However, this increases the likelihood of broken links as various publishers revise their web pages.  If a link breaks, just let me know, and I'll hunt down the new one and fix it!  --NJ