Friday, November 21, 2014

How Much Do I Have to Learn?

When the boys were younger I spent much more time doing traditional instruction in my role as teacher. If they were learning parts of speech, I would make cards with words that they could use to create sentences. When they learned about the water cycle, I drew diagrams on the white board. During our art projects, I was doing prep work the day before so they could create something in the morning. But things are getting harder for me now. They are starting to study things that are more challenging for all of us.

JT is learning German using Rosetta Stone this year. I am also going through the program. Right now I have fallen a little behind him with the schedule and when he completes a supplemental worksheet, I need to ask my husband to check his work. EM is working his way through a reading textbook with comprehension questions at the end of each story. If I don't read the story, it's impossible for me to know if he is answering the questions correctly. I am trying hard to stay one chapter ahead in the biology text but have let that one slide at times. Then I have to skim quickly to help when it's time for the module review. The American government textbook is interesting, but I don't always feel like reading a chapter or two to verify that JT's answers to end of chapter questions include all the details they should.His algebra worksheets from Thinkwell need corrected. I can look at the final answers to know if he has them right, but if there's a problem, I can't always determine where he is having difficulty so I call the husband in yet again.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy learning many things. I take Coursera classes for fun when I can squeeze it into my schedule. It's just that I do not necessarily want to study German, algebra, biology, American government, or a 6th grade reading text. But when I don't stay ahead of the boys in their studies, I feel like I am not giving them the best shot at success. I'm starting to go a little bit crazy here trying to do all of this on top of prepping their work for each week, running them to activities, taking care of our house, feeding ravenous teen boys, and allowing myself a minute or two to do something I like each day. You know, things like showers or sleep.

Do I have an obligation to have a complete knowledge of the things I ask them to learn? If they were in a traditional education setting I would be aware of what they were studying, but probably have little involvement in the work beyond helping to study for tests. Because I have chosen homeschooling, have I by default chosen to learn all of these things as well? Can I just point them in the direction they need to go and hope they figure it out?

At the start of this year, I thought things were getting easier. I guess I was wrong about that one. That's the great thing about homeschooling; I'm always learning from my mistakes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Expanding Creativity

pants and pottery
EM has traditionally been our most mathy, practical, child. He has a great imagination that often comes out in what we call "blowing things up." This involves some imaginary battle he has in his mind as he darts around the room making explosion noises. He has now found a friend who also enjoys this activity and they spend hours blowing things up together over the telephone. I can't understand the entertainment value. I guess it's a boy thing.

In the last few months EM has really started to show an interest in the arts. Up until recently, he had not wanted much to do with those kinds of activities. Last year EM took a few pottery classes at the local Y.M.C.A Arts Center. His classes focused on hand-building pottery. This year he expressed an interest in trying the more advanced pottery wheel classes. An opening just became available this month and he was finally able to try it out. He seems to be getting the hang of it although he says it is much more difficult than his other classes. He always comes home covered in clay. I guess that's a sign he's really getting into it.

music selection
We have also added music instruction to his schedule this year. After only seven lessons, he is playing some pretty tricky pieces. His teacher says he is one of the best students he's ever had. EM loves playing and practices every day, at least once, sometimes more. Many times I have to tell him to stop and get to work on other things he needs to do. He likes the challenge of learning new songs and will work until he can play each one from memory. I can only hope this trend continues!

fine art
He added another new pursuit this week. He decided he'd like to learn how to draw better. He was talking with his dad about how he thought he wasn't a very good artist. Dad suggested that he try using this Star Wars book to give it another try. Now that EM has been learning that patient hard work can lead to success through his piano lessons, he seemed more willing to sit down and make mistakes to get to where he wanted to be. Several times this week I have found him in his room or at the table in the classroom working on his art work.

I know that we are told over and over how making mistakes and having patience are the best ways to learn new things, but it's easy to forget when we watch our children struggle to master a new skill. We tend to want to make learning easy for them. We want them to be happy, not frustrated. But in all three of these activities EM has struggled and now he is thrilled that he has conquered those challenges. Hopefully I can keep that in mind as the boys take on more difficult things in their lives and allow them to grow through those struggles.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Finding Direction

Nearly two years ago I attended a conference where Jesse Schell was a keynote speaker. At the end of his presentation, I approached him to ask advice for JT since, at the time, he was interested in computer game design. Mr. Schell gave me his business card and directed me to encourage JT to become active in his game design community, GameSprout. JT has contributed a little bit on the site, but was more interested in making his own board games and card games at home.

A couple weeks ago, in a moment of Mom Worry - which happens on a regular basis, most recently in early September - I started to panic about JT's future. It is so clear to me that he loves coming up with ideas for games. But once again I was concerned that his difficulties with math and art would hinder his ability to move ahead in that field. So I decided to bother important people with questions about a career in game design.

I found a contact email for Jesse Schell on his site and sent him a message asking what kind of path a non-math, non-art, wanna-be game designer should take. I was very pleasantly surprised to receive an encouraging reply that basically said, game designers come from all kinds of backgrounds. While art and math are very helpful, they aren't 100% necessary for a career in a creative field. He even sent quite a few links to biographical information on game designers who have non-typical degrees. I had already purchased his book, The Art of Game Design, that I had been saving for JT for Christmas. However, after sharing what Mr. Schell had said with JT, I ended up giving it to him right away. He loves the book! He has been up late reading it, coming up with tons of ideas for new games, and taking another look at his old games with his new perspective. He also returned to GameSprout and started contributing more to the community.

We still don't know the exact path he will need to take, but now he knows that he can take a path that suits his personality and interests to reach the goal he has in mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Biology Stinks!

a mighty stench awaits
This year JT is doing a full high school level biology course. We were indecisive about our plan and changed curriculum at least two times before settling on Apologia's Exploring Creation with Biology. I know some people find Christian based science texts to be inferior in their scientific content, and I sometimes agree, but this book has been very thorough. In fact, I'm very impressed with the first three modules. The labs are well thought out and rigorous. And smelly.

why I never throw jars away
Module 2 is a study of kingdom Monera. The lab required JT to find a pond to obtain water samples. He needed to place the samples in four separate jars. Each one had its own type of nutrients available for the life forms; egg, hay, soil, and rice. After a few days, he had to open the jars and make slides for the microscope. The instructions warn, "When you open each jar, be prepared for a mighty stench!" They were not kidding! After doing the first slide in the house, I made him move outside to make the next three. We saw some pretty incredible things in those cultures. Let me just say, I won't be swimming in any ponds anytime soon.

This course is far more difficult than anything I remember taking in high school. For both modules two and three, JT has been required to construct his own biological keys to identify organisms. I would have a hard time with that assignment. He seemed well-equipped to do it once he had completed the work in the unit. I hope the remainder of the text continues at this level of instruction. If so, I believe he will be ready to handle college level courses with no difficulty. I will also be looking at purchasing Apologia's chemistry for his 10th grade science course.

The next module is going to cover fungi. Time to start growing some mold!

Friday, October 17, 2014


We are leaving in the morning for Ocean City, NJ. I know we just spent a week at the lake, but the deals are always good in October at our favorite hotel. And after the week I've had, I need a vacation. Our cat has been sick since last Wednesday and I have been taking care of him. If you've never seen any of the 'how to give a cat a pill' posts or videos, go ahead and Google it; you'll thank me.

I also had a deadline in my Chemicals and Health Coursera class that I had to meet before our trip. I had five essay questions to answer in a peer assessment assignment. Sometimes I'm not sure why I think taking classes will be a good idea. I guess it's good for the boys to see me actively learning, but maybe there's an easier way.

But now all of that is behind me because tomorrow afternoon I will be walking on the sand and feeling the salty air on my face.

Next week I'll tell you all about the surprise we found in our pond water cultures JT is using for his biology lab. I'll also tell you how I finally proved to him that algebra can be useful in real life. But that can wait. The beach is calling...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Play Plus Focus

best toy store ever!
While we were on our trip last week, we stopped at a toy store recommended by a friend. Playthings Etc. is like no other toy store I've ever visited. When we walked through the door we were greeted by an employee, "Welcome to Playthings Etc., the world's coolest toy store!" with an invitation to 'play with anything that's out of the package'. They meant it! The employees actively played with the boys. At one point, EM and JT were riding around the store on scooters, shooting one another with rubber band guns, while employees offered helpful advice.

strangest building
The store is unique in other ways, too. The building is shaped like a stealth bomber. My picture doesn't do it justice. You really need an aerial view to get a feel for just how unusual it is. You can read about the architecture here

We probably spent two hours playing. They had a large model rocket/RC vehicle section in the store and we wanted to pick some things up for my dad. Unfortunately, we couldn't reach him to find out what he needed. Instead, we decided we could stop in again on our way home on Thursday.

The boys decided to blow a good chunk of their savings on rubber band guns. They each bought one the first day we were there. After hours of shooting one another back at the cabin, they each decided to buy one more. The guns take different gauge rubber bands and most can be loaded with more than one at a time, some as many as twelve. And, yes, they do hurt when you get hit by one... or twelve.

tally sheet
At home again on Friday, they set up a game in our library involving EM's clone trooper collection and the guns. They even took the time to make rules for playing and keep score.

This week we have moved back into our usual work routine. EM had his third piano lesson and continues to make good progress. He's already playing songs that involve both hands and complex rhythms. JT had a drum lesson today and has been obsessed with a song he is trying to learn since then. Of course, that completely destroyed his focus for all other subjects the remainder of the day. I regularly have to deal with his total concentration as a hindrance to other learning. Some days it drives me nuts. Other days I chalk it up to the 'absent-minded professor' syndrome. I try to keep in mind that the freedom we have as homeschoolers allows this deep reflection time that he wouldn't get in a more typical setting for school. I can see that in a regular classroom he would either be in trouble or never have a clue what's going on when he turns inward to work out a problem. For me, it's just something to work around. Hopefully, as an adult, he'll find a career that requires intense concentration with no regard for any outside input.

I can dream, can't I?

Friday, October 3, 2014

From the Shores of Lake Arthur

We are home from our annual trip to a PA state park cabin. This year was a return trip to our favorite park, Moraine, on the shores of Lake Arthur. The weather was perfect, mid-70s, and the leaves had just started to turn.

As usual, we did a little trail hiking. We generally stick to the easier trails since my husband has some knee problems when hills are involved. The Sunken Garden Trail was a nice level hike that followed the  southern shore of the lake for a mile, then wrapped back around through more heavily wooded areas. Unfortunately, the rain started about halfway around the 2 mile trail. We rushed the second half a bit, but it was still a nice hike.

This notice was on the sign at the trail head. We were sure to use the boot brush on the way out, even though we were getting soaked at the time. I didn't want any aliens in our van.

I like to take pictures of any fungus we stumble upon during our treks in the woods. The boys usually don't share my fascination. I just love the colors and textures.

I liked this part of the trail. You don't often find such a nicely mowed pathway through the woods. It was a nice change after the rather muddy path along the shoreline.

Yet another fungus. I found this one along the paved bike trail on the north shore of the lake.

The boys sat along the edge of the water for a long time watching this guy. We were hoping to see him (or her) catch a small fish. Instead, he slipped under a log and we headed down the trail.

More invasive species issues at the park. We saw quite a bit of these weeds along the shore.

We took the boys down to the beach so they could build a little in the sand. JT is getting to the point where he'll join in to keep EM occupied, but I have a feeling now that he's entered his teen years, this might have been the last year he'll want to take part. I spent some time looking back through pictures from our previous vacations to the parks and couldn't believe the changes in the boys since our first trip when JT was just 8.

Our week had just a little organized homeschooling, but as usual, they did plenty of learning while we were at the park. EM decided to write journal entries for each day of the trip every night. He's not a writer by choice so that was good to see him taking initiative. We also took our electronic keyboard along so he could practice his piano pieces for his lesson and he did that each day. JT worked on some German and biology. He also brought his drum pad to work on his lessons.

The final morning arrived and I got up early to enjoy a few quiet moments alone. Those are hard to come by during the rest of the year at home with the boys. Recharging complete... I'm ready to return to our homeschooling routine.