Saturday, February 25, 2006

How much is enough?

I always wonder how much activity is enough. My sister's children, who are not home schooled, are at parties, sports practices or games, play dates, or lessons almost everyday. In the summer, the children are at one camp or another all summer. The girls who are in ballet with my six year old have soccer, gymnastics, piano and birthday parties galore. Some of the girls have multiple activities a day. The boys who are in cub scouts with my son participate in every organized sport available.

As with all choices regarding my children, I question whether I have made the right decisions. I chose early to limit my children's activities. I felt that it was important not to do so much that the children did not have time to think, pretend, and create. I didn't want to train them to need or expect constant activity or stimulation (We don't do TV either, but that is another blog).

I have seen the downside of overbooking: the "I am bored" syndrome; the little girls who have accidents at ballet because they are rushing so much that they don't have time to use the bathroom; the early burnout; and the mediocre performance at everything. I obviously don't wish this on my children.

Yet, every once in a while I wonder if I am denying my children important socialization opportunities and learning experiences. I hear the ballet moms talking about the parties and soccer league and it seems almost glittery with excitement. I know that my budding social butterfly would love these experiences. My son is not so social but I wonder if he had all these opportunities would he be more self assured?

Recently, I picked up The Parent's Tao Te Ching by William Martin. I was just flipping through the pages and found this:

A Quiet Place

Constant stimulation
of your children's senses
creates insensitivity.
They see so much they become blind.
They hear so much they become deaf.
They taste so much they become nauseated.
They desire so much they become forever unsatisfied.

They do not come to know
that which truly satisfies.

This quieted my conscience. I bought the book!

Seriously though, I renewed my dedication to moderation of activity. I do believe children need experiences outside the home, but I also believe they need time to learn to entertain themselves, time to imagine, time to find themselves and nature. I will continue to question and hopefully find a balance that is right for each of my individual children. Homeschooling gives us time to find that balance.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Baby Chicks

Today our new baby chicks came in the mail! Having had some really bad luck last summer and this winter with critters(a hawk, two dogs, and a racoon) and weather (Katrina) I found there were only two hens and a rooster left this Spring and they are so skittish. We may get chicks from them and maybe not.

So with the impatience that plagues me, I ordered fifty chicks -- 25 Buff Catalanas and 25 Barred Rock. We have had Buff Catalanas for a few years and they are a wonderful dual breed bird. When they are not stressed, they lay beautiful whitish eggs and have good meat, as well. I got the Barred Rocks (everyone around here calls them Dominques or Dominikers, though there is a real Dominque breed that looks almost exactly like the Barred Rocks)because they are a better dual breed bird than the real Dominques. Aren't they cute!

Because of the trouble we had last summer, we have reconstructed an old calf feeder that is next to the barn and a few hundred feet from the back door. This new chicken house should provide better saftey for the chicks. I am only hoping for warmer weather until they feather. The building is somewhat drafty. I've rigged heat lamps and used cardboard boxes to shrink the inside footage. It should be enough.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dirt Season

I have been planting my Spring vegetables!! Outside I have planted potatoes, onion sets, sugar snap peas, lettuce, carrots, radishes, and beets. Inside I have tomatoes (6 different varieties), eggplant, broccoli, parsley, and peppers. I love this time of the year. My husband calls it dirt season because I have so many trays of dirt lining the kitchen cabinet. It is dirt season for the children too! As I am called to the garden by the smell of the refreshed soil, my children are called to every mud hole. Laundry is now a wet, muddy blob. As they say in the picture book Toot and Puddle -- It is mud season! The joy shining on their faces as they walk towards the house completely covered in mud is a priceless gift of the season. Spring is definitely in the air.

The birds feel the change too! I can barely drive for all of the birds swooping and darting in front of the car. My yard is full of robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches, blue jays, mockingbirds, and red headed woodpeckers. I haven't seen the first brown thrasher, blue bird, or downy woodpecker, though I am sure they are near. I just haven't seen them yet. We are far enough South that most of the common backyard birds are near year round. I can't prove it, but I think they winter in the swamp (at least the parts that haven't been logged). The swamp seems warmer and still growing in the winter. On the warm days the birds fly out and see if it is time. Again, I am no expert, but I do like watching for the arrival of our friends.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Deep School

In my former life I was a public high school literature teacher in Chicago. My mentor teacher called this time of the school year Deep School -- the time at which you can not see the beginning or end. He said it was the period that separates the average and awful teachers from the awesome teachers. The challenge is to maintain energy and high standards and to keep the material and technique interesting even though the students have heard your jokes, know your typical activities, and can predict your questions during Socratic discussion. You lose the Deep School Syndrome at the college level because of the semester course changes and I would not have dreamed that Deep School would be an issue in the home school. But, I find that I am fighting the doldrums in my own home school.

We are half way through the incredibly predictable Saxon math text, 1/2 way through modern history, and 1/2 way through Latin Primer I, etc. As I plan our week, I feel bored, as if I am just going through the motions. Unfortunately, I know that the children will follow my lead and learning will suffer. How can I reclaim the excitement of the beginning of the year? I will use some of the tricks I learned as a public school teacher and some new ideas I have learned being a homeschooling teacher/mom.
  • Save one of your best or most exciting units for this time of the year. This can be a problem for home schools because you don't teach the same classes and material year after year. You can find a book or project that fits into your yearly plan that is particularly interesting or exciting for you. We are just starting Around the World in Eighty Days for geography. I am so excited about this plan.
  • Buy some new school supplies. The smell of new notebooks is certainly motivating and a new box of crayons or colored pencils simply irresistible.
  • Take a field trip -- something out of the ordinary, yet on topic. Perhaps a play or poetry reading, a camping or canoe trip, an art exhibition, or a trip to the capitol (state or national) could boost morale.
  • Take a mini break from the routine. We did not touch the Saxon math text last week and we won't this week. Instead we concentrated on one problem area in math and used other activities to master the concept (in our case multiplication facts).
  • Start something new! If art or picture studies fell by the wayside earlier in the year, use this time to add some zip into school. We have used 2 levels and 2 tracks of Meet the Masters art study and these are perfect curriculum boosters. Each artist lesson takes a few hours to complete (picture study, technique lesson, and master work creation), but the children learn much and have fun.
  • Play games! I often forget the learning opportunities of games. Dominoes is great for addition facts. Monopoly builds money handling skills and teaches making change (Let the child be the banker). Scrabble is a wonderful spelling teacher. The possibilities are endless, because the children love spending time with their parents and the learning goes unnoticed in the pursuit of victory.
  • Let your children enter a contest. Science fairs, writing contests, history fairs, 4-H competitions, spelling bees, and invention fairs provide opportunities for your children to show the things they have learned and to learn new things.
Remember, at least 1/2 of the attitude problem comes from your own boredom. Find activities that inspire you and your students will feed off your enthusiasm. Find and maintain your own joy of learning!!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Making the Most of Your Library Day

I don't know about you, but sometimes the weekly trip to the library can be a truly frustrating, disorganized disaster in which you come home to find you have nothing you need, many things completely inappropriate, and some things that must belong to someone else. I feel the children should be able to wander around and look at books and choose things they want to read, yet I want to monitor which things they actually take home (You caught me. I am a control freak). During this same trip I need to find books, books on tape, or videos that are used in more structured learning (i.e. history, geography, reading, literature). Obviously, this is nearly impossible to accomplish in the allotted library time.

Stressed, no fun for anyone, trips to the library used to be the norm for me and my family until I stepped back and solved some of the logistic problems so I could return the library to a treasured resource status. Make use of these ideas before you head out for the library and maybe your library days can become less stressful, too.
  1. What you see is not always what you get. Find out if your library is part of an association. I own more books than our tiny local library, but the library belongs to an association so they and I have access to the books in 20 + libraries.
  2. If your library has limited resources check to see if any reasonably close libraries have more. We use 2 libraries, our local library and a larger library in Jackson. I pay $50 a year for the guest library card, but the resources are worth far more.
  3. Use the library's online catalog. Order all books you want or know you need in advance. Find out how long it takes for delivery to your local library, ordering deadlines, and delivery days before you begin to depend on the service. The books will be waiting at the check out for you. You can then spend all your library time with your children, helping them make smart choices.
  4. Plan library visits on the day the delivery van runs. This is important for movies and books on tape since they have limited hold times. It also lets you adjust quickly if you can't get ordered books.
  5. Get to know the librarian or in larger libraries the librarian in the section you use (in our case, the juvenile books section). If your children know the librarians they will feel more comfortable asking questions and getting the help they need. They will also get invitations to special events.
  6. Keep a list on your Palm Pilot, in a notebook, or on anything you keep with you. On this list keep the names of authors your children enjoy, books you've already read, books that you plan to read, plans for upcoming lessons. If you have this information ready you can help your children bring home books that will be read, enjoyed and fit into your big plan. You, also, will find it useful if some of the books you reserved did not come in. The lists will help you redirect without stress.
  7. Make sure you and your children agree on "the rules" ahead of time. Clarify safety zones in each library you visit. There is nothing more stressful than losing a child. If you have rules about allowed books, make sure the children know.
Now, with everything in place you may interact with your children, helping them choose books on their level, that are appropriate and are deserving of their time. Remember to make the library experience fun and your children will continue to love to visit and take advantage of all the resources offered by the library.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Around the World in Eighty Days

We are starting a new book, Around the World in Eighty Days, this week. My son received this book for Christmas and hasn't opened it so I thought we would do it as a read aloud. I would like to use it as a geography unit, but this will require great self control - something we don't possess when it comes to books. I've read all the wonderful Charlotte Mason philosophy about short readings and agree in principle, but during a first reading I find it difficult to break the flow of action. My children agree.

This being said, we are going to attempt to break the book into segments and to plot the movement of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout on their journey. Today is ballet day, so we will be going into the city and I will be able to get the National Geographic Map laminated (I hope). Some of those cool map pins would be a nice touch. A travel journal complete with pictures could organize and store all the images and information. I thought we would do this on the computer since handwriting is not one of our strong areas, yet both children are verbose. We already own a Children's Atlas that has some good information and pictures about the countries, which can be supplemented with the internet and the library.

First stop, London, England! I'm excited about this one!!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Suspending Disbelief

That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

In graduate school I had a professor who expounded willingness to suspend disbelief on a biweekly basis. In fact, we wagered on how many minutes would lapse before he said the words. I agree with him, though. In order to participate in books, movies, and for that matter, Disney World, you must be willing and able to suspend disbelief.

Last week, while in Orlando, I took my children to Disney's Magic Kingdom. Everything from the eateries, to the landscaping, to the rides and shows is planned, scripted, and tested. Disney does a terrific job creating the magic that draws so many people each year. But I wonder . . . Can the magic continue?

While on Jungle Cruise, my children and I sat next to a young girl who at every turn said, "That elephant is not real," "That gorilla is not real," "Nothing is real!" She was so persistent that she even befuddled the comedian guide. I wanted to say, but politely held my tongue (until now), " You are right! Nothing is real." You are in Disney World - the world created by someone who read good books and was willing to suspend disbelief enough to visualize and then create replicas of flying elephants, mermaids, wooden boys, and Mickey Mouse.

Then, I thought why? Why was my reaction so strong (other than she ruined the ride for me)? She could have just been a precocious child who wanted to share her observations, not an accurate picture of what is wrong with the modern child.

Later in the day we had the opportunity to partake in The Magic Kingdom's newest amusement - Stitch. I believe it is the reconfigured Alien Adventure that was closed recently. My questions are these:
  • With all of Disney's available market research is this what they found appeals to the masses?
  • Is this the unreal reality the girl from Jungle Cruise was seeking?
Stitch is captured by Galatic police and is transferred to prison where he breaks out and runs amuck in the holding station. Most of this occurs in the dark with strobe lights and cool special effects produced with the shoulder harness. (The dark and moving shoulder harnesses were too scary for my six year old. ) But the "highlight" of the show was Stitch belching (complete with odor) and spitting (yes, you get wet). Needless to say, I was disgusted. The dark, scary "ride" complete with rude behaviors had longer waiting lines than any of the tamer exhibits, especially Tom Sawyer's Island and It's a Small World, except Dumbo which is popular with the toddler crowd.

Are the belching and spitting of Stitch what sell today instead of the peaceful family of elephants taking a shower of Jungle Cruise? I find it difficult to suspend disbelief.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Valentine's Present

Today, we were going to make Valentine's Day Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing in every shade of pink and red! We typically make cookies for every holiday and share them with the local octogenarians. They love the cookies and visit. We love their stories. We will have to wait for tomorrow or Monday, though. We are sick!

On our way home from Orlando my youngest started throwing up. We were going to try to make it most of the way home, but pulled into a motel for the night. My daughter could not go further than a less than optimal motel in Marianna. She felt better, though not good, Friday morning and we made it to our home and our own beds. Friday night my husband got sick, too. This morning was my turn. This evening, I'm feeling better and will find my bed shortly.

As I lay in my bed or in the tub waiting for the next wave of nausea, I realized our family was really working together and I attribute this to homeschooling. When you keep your children close to home, they get to see and live real life. They learn, among other things:
  • Cooperation
  • Respect
  • Self Reliance
My 9 year old son, the only person among us not sick, made pancakes for my daughter who felt like eating for the first time since Thursday lunch. He also kept the fires going, fed the animals, and made soup for supper. My 6 year old daughter loaded and unloaded the dishwasher, got water for me and her father, made get well cards, and amused herself all day, though she was not feeling super. I felt loved and I felt fortunate to have children who knew what things needed to be done and knew how to do them.

My children are just "normal" children and our family is not one of those super structured, teachers of home and farm skills type families, yet, because, on a daily basis, the children participate in life they are able and willing to "pitch in" when the adults need to stay in bed. Instead of being pushed out of the door to catch a bus with a pop-tart, homeschool children are able to help make pancakes or some other real breakfast food. They are not in school during the eight hours a day in which most of the chores are done, so they know what needs doing and how to do it. My goals for homeschooling never included producing children who could make breakfast and otherwise be self reliant, but what a present. I think my children deserve double cookies!

Sugar Cookies
  • 4 1/2 cups sifted flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
Preheat oven to 375. Butter baking sheets. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat well. Add dry ingredients, one cup at a time alternating with the milk and vanilla. Wrap and chill for an hour. Roll and cut. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool completely before decorating.

Royal Icing
  • 3 egg whites
  • 4 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt. Beat on medium high until stiff peaks form and the mixture is nearly triple in volume. Divide and color. To make run out(completely cover tops of cookies in smooth icing) do outlines with thick icing, then add a few drops of water to icing to thin and fill in with this. If you have a problem with raw eggs mix egg whites with a little regular sugar then place over a simmering pot of water until sugar melts, stirring constantly. Proceed with the recipe.

Friday, February 10, 2006


We made it home. What a wonderful feeling to walk into my own home after a week away. Don't get me wrong, we had a marvelous time. I am just happy to be home. While I was away a lot of people visited my porch for the first time thanks to the Carnival of Homeschooling. Thank you. I'm sorry I was away and unable to greet you properly. I had my laptop with me, but honestly, I was so busy trying to be super mom and reading that I didn't have time to write. I hope you will visit again because I have much to say.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Traveling School

Today we start packing and planning for our "business trip." We will be driving to Gulf Shores, AL tomorrow and will spend the night. Sunday we will finish the trip to Orlando. Traveling with hubby used to be easier before we had so many animals. So far, I have found someone to come over and feed the cats, found someone to keep the yellow dog, have yet to find someone to feed and check the horses, cows and chickens. Staying at home would be easier.

I am not so deluded to think that my children will want to "do" school when we are in Orlando, but I thought we might pack some of our reading for the trip down and for bed time stories. My 9 year old is reading On the Banks of Plum Creek. The family read aloud selection is The Strand installment from the Sherlock Holmes project. The youngest will bring her readers. I am bringing Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. I started it last night and I have never left a half finished book anywhere. I will also let each child bring a few other books, but I refuse to lug The Complete Calvin and Hobbs (3 volumes) that my son will want to bring.

Having a captive audience during the 15 hour drive, I could torture everyone with math facts or Latin pronunciation and conjugation that I have conveniently stored on my Ipod. Would I sink that low? Possibly. The only other things I will bring are the How Come? and How Come? Planet Earth books. Long drives bring out the questions I can't answer.

I am making bread and granola for the trip. We will have picnic lunches and breakfasts instead of fast food. The children and adults need a stretch of the legs rather than a stretch of the stomach. I know there will be plenty of opportunity for junk food without planning for it.

Off to the packing!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Resisting the Urge

As soon as I began seriously thinking about home schooling my children . . . For honesty's sake let me rephrase . . . As soon as my first child was born I was salivating over all the exciting things they could learn. I began reading to my son before he was born. After he was born I became obsessed with what he could do and what he had learned. "At age __ he knows or can do. . ." I used him as an extension of myself. I wanted him to succeed and be better than other babies, I suppose, to make me look better. When my daughter was born three years later, I had two "show" children. Finding a way to manipulate the conversation toward the children at every social gathering, I had the children performing their amazing feats of intellect. If they were not available I would still make sure everyone knew what wonderful things they could do. I even (gasp!) stretched the truth. You all know people like this and hate them or at least hate the way they act. I knew people like this and didn't like them either. So, why?

Who knows . . . Insecurity? Insanity?

Fortunately, my children, soon, put a stop to it by refusing to perform, acting embarrassed and simply asking those dreaded tough questions beginning with "Why?"

So, you guessed it, my biggest challenge as a home schooling mom is reining in my desire to create super intellectual children and freeing my children to explore and learn naturally. Each time I find a new philosophy of home education, new resource, new idea that I would like to explore and before I present it to my children I ask myself these questions:
  • Do I want my children to know this to impress others?
  • Do I want my children to learn this because I want to learn it?
  • Is this something that will enrich their lives?
  • Is this age appropriate?
  • Will this inspire learning?
  • How does this fit into what we are doing?
  • Am I moving on in the books because my children know the material and are ready or because I want to finish the book/math text/etc before the end of grade level?
When we get new books and materials, I am more honest with myself and as a result I have happier children who are learning much more than the "tricks" and "impressive feats" of the past. I am lucky that I saw the error of my ways early so that my children are able to learn in a more relaxing environment and I am able to be more accepting of them on their level thereby helping them to grow. Homeschooling is much more pleasant when you are honest with yourself about your own motivations and about your child's progress and needs.

I still get the urge to mention my children's studies (especially around public schoolers) but I am honest. Always.

The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage was not an easy choice for our Civil War study. I first read the book in graduate school and in graduate school you never read a book without completely deconstructing every sentence. This being said, I could not visualize the book as a good read aloud for my nine year old and possibly my six year old -- way too much allusion, impressionistic daubing of words, too much symbolism. I pulled the book off the shelf after a discussion at The Denim Jumper and read it again. It was a good read and I enjoyed just reading and noticing. Then, I struggled with the thought of reading it, not studying it, with my children and finally decided it was certainly a worthwhile book, possibly the best book for the topic, and I felt I could read it without pulling out my notes and "teaching the book." (This is my most difficult home school mom job.) I felt they could enjoy and learn from the book at the story level.

We read the book, a couple or three chapters a day, and guess what? My children noticed many of the literary devices even without my babble! My son, early on, said, "Why do they call Henry the youth so much?" and "Why don't many of the other soldiers have names?" I asked what he thought and he said he guessed Henry felt lonely and didn't know anybody and they didn't know him. My son also noticed the recurrence of the color red and the monster motif. My daughter was able to keep up with the story line and was concerned about Henry getting back home. They also learned about the reality of war. They learned Henry was lucky to get out alive.

Yes, I had to bite the pages of the book in order not to point out every single clue leading to a deeper understanding of the writing, but I learned to be quiet and let the book speak.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Window into our School

Though I was a public school Literature teacher in my former life, I have chosen to home school my children. We use a quasi classical/unschooling approach. I read John Holt early in our adventure and his philosophies seemed reasonable and guided our early education. My insane sense of insecurity in the face of inquiring minds, led me to a more structured school for a year or two. Now, even though we read great books, use Saxon math, and study Latin, my grammar stage children have a bit less structure and more freedom to choose. We don't claim any special knowledge, but I still want to share some of what we are doing -- cool resources, good books, successes and failures. My children are 9 and 6.

This week we are finishing a study of the Civil War. We started this study early in the school year because: The Civil War is in modern history and that was the goal for the year; we are Southerners and are drowning in the ghosts of this war; and my son became obsessed with the rebel battle flag and I felt the need to intervene in a less emotional way than burning every drawing and telling him 20 times a day "That flag is hurtful to some we don't need to draw/display/obsess about it even though it is displayed frequently here." We read these books:
  • The Boys War
  • Across Five Aprils
  • Bull Run
  • d'Aulaire's Abraham Lincoln
  • The Red Badge of Courage
We memorized the Gettysburg Address and learned about the states who left the Union first and why. We also visited the Vicksburg Battlefield though we missed the reenactment they have nearby. We didn't leave out the movie Gone with the Wind either. As it turned out, we all - including the six year old - enjoyed the readings and came away from the study with the realization that war is not glory and that injustice did not end with the end of the war. The battle flag issue has been resolved or ,at least, he has stopped being conspicuous with the flag. He still says it is prettier than the American flag.

I would like to have some adult discussion about The Red Badge of Courage, so I may do that here. . . tomorrow.