Words Fail

As I sat down to write this morning, I saw the headline about another terrorist attack in France.  Another.  These acts of violence–whether domestic, abroad, politically-motivated, racially-motivated, or simply undefined–leave most of us angry, sad, or at the very least, unsettled and uncertain.  Here, in a quiet neighborhood in the northeastern US, I can easily see the world as pleasant, safe, and rich with beautiful opportunities to learn and work freely in any way I choose.  These are true qualities, and I give thanks for them.  It would be easy to see myself and my life as largely unaffected by recent tragedies (gun violence, bombings, terrorist attacks, protests gone wrong).  After all, in my little world, the biggest problems revolve around reading aptitude, sibling squabbles, and whether or not the recycling goes out this Tuesday.

But those feelings of security–while comforting and lovely–only last until I take one small step toward seeing myself as a citizen of the WORLD, instead of only as a citizen of my city.  When I find the bravery to look beyond my family and my house, my neighborhood and my church, I risk the pain and fear of the scary world out there, but I open myself to grow in love and compassion.  I set myself up to learn and to stretch my mind and my heart.

The stretching, growing, and learning is what I want for my children, too.  Of course, I pray for their safety and always hope that they will not come face to face with tragedies like the ones we’ve seen in the news, but I also wish for them to know the personal–and potentially global–benefits of seeing their fellow human beings as travelers on the same journey, as brothers and sisters.  That shared experience comes with risk–a risk I find worthwhile.

Wishing you Peace in these trying days.  ~*~Erica~*~

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Planning

My husband took my son for the day earlier this week so that I could think about and plan our first few weeks of school for the fall. I have done a lot of reading and I have a ton of ideas, but if I were to have to sit down tomorrow to lead our first day of school, I had no idea what I would say or do.  The theory of homeschooling sounded like a great idea from the safe distance of a couple of years. Now that kindergarten is looming and theory needs to be turned into action, I am getting nervous.

I am planner by nature. I like to know what is coming next and to know how I am going to get from here to there.  I like to have a solid plan and preferably and solid plan B and plan C to fall back on. I would prefer for those plans to be presented in a bullet pointed list. That’s just me and it always has been.

The mother in me knows that homeschool is going to be messy. Our days are not going to fit into my neatly organized plan and go unfailingly according to schedule.  The planner in my shrinks in horror at the prospect of that mess and feels the compulsion to make lists. So I sat down and made lists.

Veteran homeschoolers will most likely laugh at the image of me surrounded by four curriculum books with three documents open on my laptop screen trying to cobble together a daily schedule of goals and activities. I will probably laugh at this memory in a few years when I have the experience to know what I am facing come the new school year.  We are just starting kindergarten though and I am a newbie.

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After a few hours of this my head hurt and I felt even less prepared than I did before I started my quest to tame the homeschooling beast.  The ideals of Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, unschooling and project based schooling I started with are all still swimming around in happy chaos in my head.  Though the document I drafted is 15 pages long, I still feel ungrounded and unsure of what we are actually going to do.  Part of me feels like I have planned too much – too many activities, too many subjects, too much structure. Saying that my son is not a fan of structure would be a drastic understatement.  The other part of me feels like there is no way what I have planned to going to fill our day (or even an hour of it) or teach my son what I think he needs to know.  It’s hard to move forward from a place like that.

I realize that flexibility is going to be a huge part of the adventure we are about to embark upon.  Some of the things on my painstakingly developed schedule will work and others will be downright rejected by my son who has plenty of opinions of his own.  I planned four weeks – enough to get us started, perhaps enough to determine what is working and what isn’t working, hopefully enough to at least give me an idea of which direction I need to take this project next!

How do you address the planning process? Do you follow a curriculum you purchased? Do you un-school and not need a weekly/daily plan? Do you re-use material from older siblings? Do you trust that everything will work out in its own time and refrain from torturing yourself like I am doing?  Finally, and I’m thinking that the answer to this question is a resounding “YES”, am I over-thinking this?

Mixed Ages

One of the many joys of homeschooling is being able to use your time as you’d please. Your days are more flexible to structure in a way to meet your family’s needs.

A second homeschool joy is regularly playing with kids of all ages. What a beneficial experience it would be to regularly spend time with senior citizens. Seniors have so much to offer to our young kids. 

One thing that we schedule into our days is an every other week visit to my grandmother who lives in an assisted living community. The girls’ call their great grandmother, Gigi.  It’s about an hour’s drive from our home. We arrive early to visit a bit and then have lunch together. These visits not only bring joy to my grandmother but to the other folks living there who love seeing a young face and all the energy they have to spread around. To be honest, our visits have become not so fun. While my grandmother loves them, she is not the best at interacting with them and the kids pick up on this. We have discussions where I try to gently navigate telling them how important these visits are to Gigi and how we want to be sure to soak up our time with her as we never know how much time we have with somebody   on earth. It’s doesn’t bring out the enthusiasm I wish was there.

These not very exciting visits were prompting me to want to think about how to better their relationship with Gigi and all older folks. So I organized an intergenerational play day at the community she lives in. My thoughts were to create a mutually beneficial day for the older guests and the children. The children could bring joy to the older folks and build relationships. The guests could enjoy the fun and energy the kids brought to day. 

My idea was to be outside and let the kids run around and play together as the guests watched or joined in. I put out beads for necklace making in hopes of guests and kids working together to make necklaces for themselves or others. A joint activity they could focus on and hopefully conversation could open up around this. The morning went well and the kids warmed up to folks a bit. My hope is a regular play day will lead to relationships being built.  

Naturally the girls took a break from beading to perform a play they threw together followed by a few songs from Sound of Music for the guests. This was something we plan to do monthly. It was great for the kids to connect two of their worlds by sharing this experience with their friends. 

~Kate

A Special Summer

This summer is truly a special one.  We are welcoming a new baby in August.  The arrival of a new little one (our fifth!) is a thrilling time.  When I look back at those early postpartum days and weeks with my other children, I am overcome with the beauty and other-worldly quality of those lovely periods of time.  I remember blocking out the rest of the world, creating a protective bubble of snuggly blankets, nursing marathons, and very familiar marching songs for fresh-to-the-world babies.  We have been blessed with friends and family members who take on some of the burden of making meals, leaving us to the essentials of baby care and family bonding.  I’m one of those moms who rushes home from the birth center as soon as possible in order to introduce the baby to his or her siblings.  I want to begin our “new normal” right away.  I can’t help myself!  I want to hunker down with my brood and forget about everything else for awhile.

I know that the postpartum period isn’t so blissful for many growing families.  Believe me; I do not take for granted how fortunate I am to have the support to make this time beautiful.  I am making one specific step toward a postpartum period that we will all enjoy.  I’m removing the pressure of homeschooling.  No, we aren’t giving up on our homeschool decision!  But we are starting our year on July 1st in order to accumulate as many instructional days as we can before Baby #5 shows up.  When baby comes, we will take as much time as we need to enjoy him (or her), rest, recover, and figure out how life is going to look moving forward.

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Summer has an entirely different vibe than the rest of the year, and instead of trying to stifle that feeling of freedom and curiosity in order to get “back to school,” I am really trying to embrace that feeling and potentially keep it going through the rest of our schooling.  The opportunities for play, for observation, and for trying new things feel abundant during these happy, summer months.  Somehow, I forget that way of life when I’m in the midst of the regular routine in November.  I don’t want to forget!DSC_0209[1]

Instead, I want us to keep on walking this amazing path of home education with our eyes wide open–ready for adventures, art, and play everywhere we go.  And soon, we will have an extra little friend along for the fun.  ~*~Erica

 

Rewards and Motivation

We love to read.  We devour books. I had to set a rule about me not reading out loud before breakfast or I would be reading books to my son two minutes after we roll out of bed in the morning.  When we aren’t reading a book, we are usually talking about the book that we are reading – what might happen next, what might the character’s motivations be, what would life be like if we were a part of the story.

Given the general love of books and reading in our home and our proximity to our local library (we can see it from our front yard) joining the summer reading program seemed like a great idea.  For the kids program, the library will give you a free book to keep for your very own once you read and log one book in the system and another free book to keep for every five books you read and log after that.  Sweet deal!  We love new books, especially free ones.

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Once we started the program though, I saw an interesting change in the way my son interacts with books.  Instead of reading what he loves for the sake of enjoying it, he started counting how many books he needed to read to get the next prize. He began requesting short picture books instead of the longer more complex stories he has been listening to for about a year.  He was reading for the external reward offered by the library instead of for the internal reward of an interesting story and new ideas to think about.

We have never been big on rewards and punishments here so he has little experience with external sources of motivation. There is no time-out here; there were no M&Ms for potty training; he doesn’t get a cookie for cleaning his plate; there are no gold stars or chore charts.  We rely on teaching him to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; we try to encourage him to make the world a better place; we thank him for considerate and thoughtful behavior, but no more profusely than we would thank an adult.  Remarkably, he often chooses to do the right thing, or can usually be pretty easily redirected into doing the kind and considerate thing once reminded of our values.  He doesn’t need those external sources of motivation because he has such strong internal sources of motivation.

Seeing his reaction to a reward system, reminded me of one of the big reasons we chose to home school.  Avoiding the tests, grades, behavior charts, punishments, rewards and artificial competition of the classroom is important to us. We want him to love to learn and to learn for the sake of satisfying his own curiosity rather than learning what the teacher says is necessary to pass the test. Would it be easier for me to follow a curriculum which listed a set of skills which the student must achieve before the end of the school year than it would be to rely on his internal motivation to learn and design our days to encompass his curiosities? Perhaps. In a way, that would soothe my anxious parental soul and assure me that he is where he is “supposed” to be on the learning curve, but at what cost to his creativity and curiosity?  And at what cost to the pure joy of learning?

We are still reading and we are still part of the summer reading program at the library.  Luckily, the change in reading behavior was short lived. He is back to longer and more interesting books and he seems to have forgotten pretty quickly about the reward system. I’m still deciding if I should tell him that he has already earned the next free book or not.  – P.L.H.

Of Toys and Tea

It is interesting to me how life has a way of rendering simple things into complicated things, and complicated things into simple things. In the category of seemingly simple things, I put toys. From the Free Dictionary, the definition of toy includes the following: “a small ornament,” “a bauble,” “to trifle,” “to treat something casually and without seriousness.” Yet, toys have a way of becoming complicated—they can become laden with ideas and emotions, they can excite, they can enrage, they can intrude. As a result, toys are often singled out by moms as something in need of simplification, leading to articles with titles like “Why I Took My Kids’ Toys Away” and “Why It’s Time to Throw Out All the Toys.”

While I like getting rid of things as much as the next Konmari-worshipping mom and admire those who can get by with Waldorf-style simplicity, getting rid of all the toys would definitely not work well for my family. Toys have recently become a serious interest of my five-year-old son, sometimes crowding out, though not replacing, his favorite “academic” interest: science. He plays with them, sure, but he also studies them. He collects information about them—pores over catalogs he cannot yet read but nonetheless understands. Though I worry about the commercialism and the global and environmental implications of too many toys (and we no doubt have too many, despite my best efforts), I have been aiming to treat them seriously and respectfully when I can, because I want to treat my kid’s interests seriously and respectfully. I want to remember that if play is the child’s work, toys are the child’s tools.

Even if play wasn’t work, I’d be a fan of playing—that is, I don’t want to make toys into a serious School Subject—but I’ve also noticed some other cool things that my son does with toys. For one, he uses them to compose—scenes, videos, stories. I have recently become completely enamored of Julie Bogart’s Brave Writer, an amazing homeschool writing program that recommends teaching writing by catching young children in the act of composing (aka talking excitedly about something) and by jotting down their ideas. I have been doing this since fall and nearly all of the compositions that my son and I have written have been about toys. At our recent homeschool co-op “share fair,” he chose to show a complicated Lego Star Wars ship that he put together himself (it was impressive, especially for a five-year-old!) along with a composition describing its features in careful detail. He has also recently started creating his own videos about his toys, which he thoughtfully plans and edits by doing multiple takes. As I tell myself when I worry about handwriting, et al., this IS writing for a five-year-old. I love the creative, unusual, and surreal tableau that emerge.IMGP5097

My son also uses toys to communicate, to make connections. He breathlessly compares data with other kids: “Do you know about Star Wars? Ninjago? Nexo Knights?” (Lego is popular here). His favorite plea as of late is “Momma [or Daddy], tell me about something you liked when you were little.” And we tell him about all of the toys and shows that we took delight in as a child (and have come to critique as an adult for being too consumerist, but we don’t tell him that part): Thunder Cats, Care Bears, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Glow Friends. I even tell him about the terrible ones that I would really try to avoid letting him watch if they were on now, like the blatantly toy-promoting and narrative-bereft Potato Head Kids. Then, we play “being” different characters that we each “liked when we were little.” And we bond. We have surprisingly deep conversations. It is fun, and wonderful, and fosters the sweet family culture I want for our homeschool. And it’s also educational, by the way, since he’s learning about toy history, something that has nicely coincided with the Heinz History Center’s recent toy exhibit and with a cool vintage toy store find on our trip to Columbus, OH. History, after all, is all about connections—the history of G.I. Joe alone is the history of all the American wars since the Cold War.

On the other side of the coin, life—or perhaps in this case, homeschool life—has a way of making complicated things simple. To my mind, there is nothing more likely to be designated as complicated than poetry. Unlike “toy,” poetry doesn’t even have a simple definition, and the best definitions are poetic, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim that “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it” (come to think of it, this sounds exactly like the kind of toy my son would like!). Poetry is ever in need of that “poetry consciousness” that lets one read a line with both thinking and feeling brain, simultaneously trying to understand it and letting it be. I teach poetry sometimes at the college level and this is a tough thing for my students to do. Many people either don’t enjoy it or try very, very hard to uncrack what they think is a hidden, elusive meaning, inevitably pushing them away from what is on the page.

And yet, and I must entirely credit Julie Bogart here, poetry has become a simple delight of our homeschool. Julie points out the wonderful truth that poetry is best presented to children over tea and treats, as a “Poetry Tea Time.” She recommends keeping it simple; the treats can be store bought if necessary, and all can be as casual (or as fancy) as one desires. You read whatever poems you want, without fanfare or interpretation or instruction. The children also pick poems to read or have read to them (the non-readers can use the accompanying pictures in many children’s poetry books to choose their poems, creating a feeling of participation and ownership). The idea is that children become comfortable with poetry and start to imbibe some of its structures and ways of operating, without that intense effort that can render it uncomfortable and unpoetic.IMG_3842

We have been doing poetry teas since winter and my son loves this! He has developed a particular affinity for the Victorian poet, Edward Lear, who is the author of the only poem I ever memorized as a child (“There was an Old Man with a Beard”) and of our new favorites, “The Scroobious Pip,” “The Two Bachelors,” and “The Nutcracker and the Sugar Tongs.” It’s the most fun watching my son act out the nonsensical “Teapots and Quails” and ask excitedly for more poems. And I must say that this is a really enjoyable interest to cultivate as a family—we have collected a modest number of poetry books (a few from an awesome children’s book store we found in Columbus, OH), we have explored tea houses with friends, and we have big plans to try teas and desserts from all over the world. Our first foray in this direction, as you can see in the photo above, included making Persian sequin candy. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

One highlight of our most recent tea house excursion is that we found a tea whose name was poetry in itself: “Naughtea.” This epitomizes the complexity that can be held in simplicity. I think Lear would have approved.IMGP4594

–Anne

Mapping it out

Two weeks, 3 kids, 2 parents, 1 minivan, 3 regions to explore, and zero reservations made! That’s right, we went on a two week trip, mapped out the general regions we wanted to visit and could not commit to a schedule or exact places we wanted to stay. My inner control freak, live by the calendar self was somehow not the least bit worried about this as we packed up the car to head out. I certainly felt I should be worried but somehow embraced it. 

 We had decided to explore the Hudson Valley region, visit friends outside of Boston and explore southern Maine. We had a tent and other camping gear and planned to use Airbnb as well. Our lack of schedule worked out really nice. When we felt we got to see an area, we moved on to the next. If we got really excited, we stayed an extra day or two. Our travels were a lot like our homeschooling rhythm. Despite my attempts at planning our curriculum, we rarely seem to follow it.  We get pulled into an area of interest, they get consumed by a topic or we have fun things planned or invitations to spend time with friends or exciting events taking place.  We get pulled in so many directions. Our days are full and fun. Learning happens and we enjoy our time together. 

However, I still struggle with feeling I should have our days more carefully mapped out, our rhythm set and our curriculum laid out. I compare our homeschooling to others and fear I’m not quite doing it right. I worry that I’m too all over the place.  I think we are finding that balance and perhaps next year we can follow some plans a bit. This year was just fine. Like the road trip, we found our adventures, found some great places to stay and things to explore.

~Kate 

Escape to the Farm

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One thing that I’m sure countless homeschooling families have had to deal with upon deciding to homeschool is their extended families. Any time you choose the road less traveled, there are often questions asked, usually coming from a place of concern, sometimes a place of judgment, others a place of unfamiliarity. This isn’t a post about that decision or navigating those questions, though. This is a post about family, specifically extended families, and a best case scenario in which they become a source of support and balance for this homeschooling family, where the world is our classroom.

I think I have a pretty amazing husband. He’s my partner and best friend in every sense of the words. But I also have amazing in-laws. His parents are two of the most loving, kind, and compassionate people I have ever encountered. And while we have chosen an urban life, with sidewalks and many neighbors and city buses, they chose a rural life, with chickens and sheep and trees and green for as far as the eye can see. My mother-in-law is a farmer on a small-scale, sustainable farm. She is truly an inspiration. She possesses a vitality and love of learning that I can only aspire to. She also welcomes us to the farm with open arms, putting all three kids to work immediately, cultivating in them a love of nature and dirt and an understanding of where our food comes from and why.

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Last month we headed to the farm for a few days, and as always, the kids spent morning til night outside, exploring, climbing, digging, breathing, living. It’s the beginning of the growing season for my mother-in-law, and this trip included baby turkeys, planting potatoes, and thousands of iris in full bloom. It was beautiful.

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It’s so easy to second guess the choices we make for our children. Are we doing it right? Are they getting enough? In the quiet moments, late at night, the doubt creeps in, making me wonder if we’ve given them enough space to explore, enough opportunities to be wild and free. But then I remember the farm, an oasis of growth and open spaces. I remember my children’s grandparents, who are so full of knowledge and joy, and are so ready to pass it on, to share their love of stories and words, of music and art, of sustaining life and working the land. We may not have it all for them right here in our backyard, but we have places to take them for new experiences, to expand their horizons and nurture their interests. We have a whole farm to escape to.

-Becky

To Market

Oh happy day!  Our farmers market is back.

Every year I imagine that I’ll be really devoted to shopping the market, buying all of our produce from friendly, local farmers.  Instead, each trip looks a little more like a visit to the carnival than an actual agricultural haul.  My children spend the time asking for popcorn, snow cones, and lemonade.  No one gets excited about the basil or the beautiful asparagus.  Well, except me.

But it’s still really fun.  I like farmers markets in much the same way that I like many other romanticized iconic ideas–like pen pals and tree houses and my record player.  They represent things that characters in storybooks do.  The farmers market is simple in a way that the big grocery store never can be.  Surprises pop up now and then, like the aqua colored chicken eggs and the dried apple slices with cayenne pepper!  Neighbors really do convene at the farmers market, and we happily chat with friends while our kids examine a cool (yet creepy) cicada.  Someone plays guitar and sings familiar songs behind us.  We go home with warm kettle corn (couldn’t resist), a big cup of lemonade, asparagus, and kale.

No, we don’t gather a family’s worth of local produce each Thursday, but we mark our calendars for another week and relish the simple fun that is always found at our farmers market.

~*~Erica

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The Children’s Festival

From silly to strange, from colorful to soothing, from crafty to creative; the Children’s Festival has a little something for everyone.  The Children’s Festival is a four day long gathering of children’s theater groups from around the world accompanied by booths from pretty much every organization which works with children in the city. There are arts and crafts, balloon animals, street performers, food trucks, a dress up photo booth, hula hoops and jump ropes, Lego car races and so much more – all for FREE!  The Children’s Festival is a great example of why homeschooling in the city is so much fun.  We have attended the festival for several years now and always find tons of interesting things to do there.

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The beginning of our Children’s Festival adventure is always the bus ride downtown. We do not take the bus often even though the bus stop is a block from our house because the only place the bus goes is downtown and there isn’t normally much there for kids to do.  The week of the Children’s Festival is definitely an exception to that rule.  The excitement of going to the festival builds through the wait for the bus, the process of boarding the bus and finding our seats, the ride through the busway tunnel and finally the trip through busy downtown.  We emerge a block or so from the festival in the middle of the city bustling with people going about their daily business; it’s a lot to take in for a five year old! I love that the journey to the festival is as much a part of the tradition as the festival itself is.

This year we saw “Egg”, “The Sheep” and “Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny.”  The variety of theater and the vastly different approaches the theater groups take to children’s theater amaze me every year.

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Egg was a dialogue-free performance which featured three birds as they grew from hatchlings to young birds ready to leave the nest and fly with the other birds.  It was sentimental, repetitive, and addressed the challenges of being left behind.

The Sheep was also free of dialogue and was hilarious. Rather than taking the life lesson approach taken by Egg, they took the physical humor approach. The show included a “sheep” escaping the pasture and running into oncoming traffic on Penn Avenue, a “sheep” being “milked” and the milk being fed to a child in the audience and even the shepherd tackling a “sheep” and shearing it. The kids, and most of the adults, were cracking up the whole time.

The third show, Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny nearly put me to sleep; I suppose that makes sense given the topic.  The production was slow and soothing with beautiful imagery in the sets.  As lovely as it was, the slow pace did not hold the attention of any of the children near me for long.

These different approaches to theater made me think about the myriad of ways we approach homeschooling based on our needs and the needs of our children. Each show appealed to different kids in different ways just as each approach to education appeals to different kids in different ways.  As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to pick and choose the methods and curriculum we use, the topics we focus on, the mix of active and sedentary times we work into our days and the pace at which we proceed.

We can throw in a sentimental Egg-type activity when our kids is struggling with a new developmental milestone, a silly The Sheep kind of day when we all need a break from the serious business of learning or an afternoon of Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny-inspired quiet time to reconnect when things get too hectic and overwhelming.  This freedom and flexibility to craft our days around the needs of our family are two of the things I am most looking forward to when we start our kindergarten studies in the fall. – PLH