Thursday, December 16, 2010


I thought I should probably take a look at where we are as this calendar year comes to a close. Here's a little look at what we have been doing this school year and where we plan to go after our holiday break.

After starting the year with Singapore math for both boys, we decided Calvert math was actually the best fit for both of them right now. JT is skimming his way through the 5th grade text, only working on concepts he hasn't already learned and things he needs to review. EM has been working in the 3rd grade text in the same way. JT will probably cover 3 more chapters in the Calvert book. When he has completed those, I plan to move him to Key Curriculum Press's Geometry series. We may alternate between those and Life of Fred Decimals and Percents. EM will probably also work on the first book in the Geometry series and then move back to the Singapore 3B book.

When we started this school year, I borrowed text books from our local school district. In PA, school districts are encouraged to allow homeschooing parents to borrow the books for their child's grade level. I had the boys each use the school's reading text book. JT has already completed the entire year's reading from the book, EM is close behind. I also supplement with novels, books related to other subjects we are covering and poetry reading about once a week. EM has a workbook that ties in to the reading text, so he does some of that work. They are both also doing worksheets related to library use, alphabetizing etc. In the new year, JT will work his way through an older 6th grade text book I picked up at a library sale. EM will move on to reading more chapter books and short story collections.

I am using the Grammar Island book for EM and Grammar Voyage for JT. Both are part of the Michael Clay Thompson language arts curriculum. JT also uses a textbook from the 80's entitled, English Skills. I try to give each boy at least one writing assignment per week. JT does a great deal of creative writing on his own. I generally allow him to follow his own path for writing. EM needs a little more structure, as he doesn't naturally enjoy the process. However, he does a good job when he has a little help. Teaching him to outline and other pre-writing skills has brought about a great deal of growth in his writing style. I will continue to encourage him in that way. By the end of this school year, I would like to see him put together a short biographical report. JT will also be doing a research project in the spring on a science topic of his choice.

We have weekly spelling lists. There is always a pre-test on Monday, sentences or definitions later in the week, review game on Thursday and final test on Friday. JT uses the English from the Roots Up Cards for his spelling lists. EM is using the 2nd grade Calvert spelling lists and worksheets.

For History, we are working our way through The Story of the World, Volume 1, Ancient Times. The boys both find the stories engaging. We often do the map work in the activity book from the series. We do not always take the time for all the crafts and other work. Recently we discovered some really fun videos on Youtube for our history instruction. The creators have put history to pop music. My favorite is the Canterbury Tales to California Dreamin' by the Mamas and the Papas. Good stuff...and it's educational!

We decided to cover three major units in science this year. We started out with weather and water. I found a Christian based science series that we have enjoyed. God's Design for Heaven and Earth, Our Weather and Water, fit well into our plan for this unit. We also regularly use experiments from the Janice VanCleave books. After our vacation, we plan to begin a unit on geology. The boys are looking forward to breaking out the volcano building model kit and the rock tumbler. When that unit is finished, we hope to have time for an astronomy unit before summer.

Our remaining subjects are on our schedule once a week. Health, civics, art, geography and music are mostly taught in a hands on sort of way. For example, this week for health we watched a video on fats that we found on Brainpop (still my favorite online educational tool!) then we did an experiment we found on the Happy Scientist website. We took our chips, pretzel and tortilla chips from the cupboard. We placed a few of each onto a paper towel, drew a circle around each group, labeled the circle with the name of the snack and allowed them to sit for a bit. We then checked which had the most fat based on the greasy stains left behind.

Art is sometimes a tie in to our history lesson, sometimes it's a craft project, sometimes I just pull a step by step drawing book out and set them loose. We have a well-stocked art supply cabinet that is always available for their use. We also read a bit about art history and they spend time looking at examples online.

Physical education is part of our schedule, but it has no set time or place. Right now, the boys are starting their basketball season with the Upward program through a local church. When they aren't playing basketball, they ride bike, swim in the summer, run up and down our hill in the backyard and are generally active enough that I don't worry too much about 'teaching' gym. That may have to change as they get older.

Overall, I feel like we are accomplishing more this year than we have in any other year since we brought the boys home. We are keeping to our afternoon school schedule, usually wrapping up for the day a little after 4pm. I have found that if I don't jump right into schooling immediately after lunch, they resist starting at all. So I have to be diligent with the schedule. Our household has really relaxed into a good rhythm this year. We may be more laid back than some families as far as routine, but I feel what we have here fits us well. We are happy, healthy and learning as we go.

A note about my posting schedule. I will not be posting the next two weeks while we are on our holiday break. I will return January 6th of the new year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

About two years ago, I started recognizing patterns in some of my youngest son's 'quirks'. He had always hated places with loud noises. Going to a movie theater or fireworks display had been a problem...until I discovered earmuffs made it bearable for him. It soon became clear that he didn't even like 'busy' places. If we went to a place like the mall or a museum, he became distracted and irritated. Sometime around the age of three, we had him evaluated by a speech therapist. She worked with him for a brief time on a few minor problems he had. Background noises were a problem for him. If he was reading and JT made even the slightest noise, he would be annoyed and claim he needed to start the reading assignment from the beginning because he couldn't remember what he had read. Then when I started giving him spelling lists last year, I noticed that he seemed to have much more difficulty with simple words than I had expected him to have. His reading levels were above grade...why was spelling such a problem for him?

A friend suggested that he might be dealing with Auditory Processing Disorder. After reading the symptoms, I wasn't 100% sure that he was, but figured it might be a good idea to have him evaluated.

The evaluation was done at a local university through their speech and hearing clinic. I felt like I might be wasting their time, but just couldn't shake the feeling that something 'just wasn't right'. It turned out I wasn't imagining things. He has a problem with his auditory processing. The official diagnosis in the summary reads like this,

"Overall test results indicate an auditory processing disorder associated with decoding type deficits as well as maturational issues. Specific deficits noted include poor phonemic awareness, synthesis, and sound blending abilities. In addition, ----'s test results indicated abnormally large right ear advantage scores."

We were given several recommendations. We were told to begin using a home computer program called Earobics. We were given classroom suggestions; preferential seating (keeping him close to the teacher or white board), seating away from visual and auditory distractions, extra time to complete assignments when large amounts of reading are required. We should change multi-step directions to simple statements, one direction at a time. More use of visual aids. Keeping instruction time short. Students with impaired auditory function become tired more quickly, so they need regular breaks in the school day.

I have done all of these things since day one of our school year. But there was one more recommendation...

"A speech and language evaluation to determine current receptive and expressive language skills is warranted."

Next week, at his yearly physical appointment, I will be looking into having this evaluation done. I was hoping that just doing the home use of Earobics and being careful to instruct him in a way that suites his needs would be enough. But I'm seeing him struggle where he shouldn't need to be struggling. He is interpreting things we are saying in unusual ways. And now it's starting to frustrate him. During his testing, the audiologist gave me an example of where he had a problem. They read the word 'boat' to him. He was to tell them what he heard. He heard, "big toe". Some days I wonder exactly what he hears when I talk to him. When I told the audiologist that I had 'felt' something was wrong, but could never really be sure she said, "The gifted ones are tough. They do a good job making do with what they can do. They hide it well."

I am so thankful that EM does not need to be in a normal classroom environment. It would make his problem so much more of a problem. I am working to educate myself more thoroughly on exactly what is going on for him. I just bought a new book, When the Brain Can't Hear: Unraveling the Mystery of Auditory Processing Disorder by Dr. Teri James Bellis. I'm hoping this book will help me to help my son.

I know many people think if your child is gifted, you have nothing to worry about. If they can get good grades, why push them any harder? Why worry about challenge? If I had been happy with good grades, I would never have known something else was going on here. Maybe we can make things easier for him in the future.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Paperwork Paranoia

The day before Thanksgiving, two mysterious envelopes arrived in the mail. They each contained a document from our public school titled, "Pennsylvania Mandated Health Requirements for 2010-2011 Term for ALL STUDENTS."

I instantly broke out in a cold sweat.

Why does any paperwork I receive from our school district bring about this reaction? This being our first year homeschooling without the charter to deal with the paperwork, I am fearful of any new development in this department. Also, previous experiences would certainly have something to do with it. Back in the day, when JT was in the public school system and when we were attempting to get EM into the public school early for Kindergarten, most correspondence from the school was either bad news or...bad news. Typically an envelope from the school district would cause me to get angry before I'd even open it. This time they tricked me by using a plain envelope with no return address.

I started looking over what they had sent to me. EM's paperwork had him labeled as a first grader. This is understandable as he never attended their school AND he started Kindergarten at 4. Because they had him incorrectly labeled, they were asking for extra screenings. They also had some questions about his immunization history. JT's was even more irritating. He did skip 1st grade, so I would understand if they thought my 9 almost 10 yr old should be in 4th grade...but NO...they had him marked as a 3rd grader?! He even attended school there for the years when he skipped the grade.

Completely irritated and ready for action, I realized the school offices would be closed until the following Wednesday for the Thanksgiving holiday and the beginning of deer season. (It's a Pennsylvania thing.) Grrr! I spent a few moments off and on over the holiday planning my rebuttals. I wrote down all the proof of where they should be placed. I checked state regulations on medical requirements for homeschoolers. I was READY.

Wednesday morning I called the school and asked to speak to the nurse. She was extremely pleasant. After finding the boys' paperwork and making the grade corrections without question, she told me I wouldn't need those extra screenings after all. Since JT would be starting 6th grade next year and the state requires a physical for that grade, she suggested that I could, according to the regulations, get that physical for him anytime from the beginning of this school year. Overall, she was pleasant and helpful.

How silly I felt....and relieved.

So often as homeschoolers, we put ourselves in defensive mode as soon as anyone questions what we are doing. When you are being different, it's easy to feel oppressed. This experience taught me that it isn't always the case.

I'll still be ready for next time..."Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

Thursday, November 25, 2010


  • I am thankful I live in a country where homeschooling is legal.
  • I am thankful I live in a state where the paperwork side of homeschooling is minimal.
  • I am thankful I live in a house with a husband who fully supports me in homeschooling our boys.
  • I am thankful my boys understand that homeschooling is something to be thankful for.

I never knew I would grow up to be a homeschooling mom. I had big plans for myself. I was going to go to school, get a degree in biology, and change the world. Funny how things change....

If you are a parent considering homeschooling your children and never dreamed you would be even thinking about something as crazy as this... you are not alone. Many of the homeschooling parents I come across out here in the virtual world fell into this lifestyle. They had big plans. They were DOING things. But suddenly, someone needed them more.

That's why I love what I do. I may not have gone to college and gotten that degree. But I AM changing the world.

I am changing the world for my two boys...and I am thankful for that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


According to PA homeschooling regulations, all home schooled children must put together a portfolio and be evaluated for "progress in the overall program" every year. In order to be evaluated, you need an evaluator. We found our evaluator through a friend of a friend. I had a quick phone conversation with our evaluator when we first decided to break from the cyber school. Since then, I sent her a question or two via email. She seemed to share my attitude towards education, so I felt very comfortable with her from the start.

Because JT is considered a 5th grader this year, part of the homeschooling regulations require that he undergo standardized testing. In Pennsylvania, 3rd, 5th and 8th graders must do this when homeschooling. Parents can choose from a list of tests. They can be administered by just about anyone, except the child's own parents. It's even okay for siblings to do the job! Our evaluator offers testing services for a very reasonable fee, so we chose that route. Monday was JT's testing day.

When we first arrived at her home, EM was carrying a Far Side book under his arm. She immediately noticed it and said, "Wonderful choice of reading material!" That was when we knew she was perfect for us!

I had received a letter from our school district about a month ago, laying out my responsibilities in the homeschooling process. Since I was already familiar with homeschooling regs, I felt that some of their statements weren't quite on the money. I showed the letter to the evaluator. She asked if she could write on the letter. After I gave her permission, she proceeded to cross off their incorrect statements and add references to the homeschooling regulations in the margins. She even corrected the grammar in the letter. My kind of woman!

Testing was a smooth process. JT did a wonderful job. Our evaluator uses the Woodcock Johnson Achievement test. I prefer the out of level testing to the typical PSSAs given in our state. When you have a child that consistently works above grade level...on level tests tell you nothing about their progress. With this test, I was able to see where his strengths and relative weaknesses lie.

I am looking forward to working with our evaluator in the future. When the end of the year comes, the boys will each have an interview time with her. She told me that she likes the portfolio review to be a time where she can ask the mom about the child's progress and allow the child to hear praise for themselves from their parent. She's not worried about the minute details of our day to day lives. She wants to know what they love about learning, what they found most exciting about their year and what a great student they have been. No need for letter grades here...just praise and encouragement for our learning adventure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


If you are squeamish about certain parts of biology instruction, no need to fear! This post is about the dissection of an ancient calculating beast, not a once living animal. An old Packard Bell computer met its demise in our library this week.

My husband is a computer geek. Because of this, people regularly ask him if he wants their old computers. Sometimes he can use the parts and sometimes they end up in the recycle pile in my storage room. This particular specimen was heading straight to the pile when he had the terrific idea to let the boys take it apart all by themselves. In the past, he has shown them the insides of computers, but never allowed them to get their hands in the 'guts'. Once he came up with the plan, he told them they would be doing a dissection this week, but he couldn't tell them what they would be dissecting. JT guessed the obvious...frogs, bugs, cats....CATS?! He was actually a bit disappointed that it wasn't something more gory. When we are ready to take that step, I plan to reference this excellent dissection post by Lisa over at The Joy of Learning. For now, we'll stick with the metal and plastic versions.

Dad placed the subject on the library table and handed the 'scalpel' a.k.a screwdriver, to JT. As they removed parts, my husband identified each component and explained its purpose. He also told them how many of these parts would not be found in a current computer. This gave them opportunity to see how quickly PC technology is advancing. As the parts came out, the boys made labels and attached them. The process only took them about an hour from start to finish. But EM, my hands on learner, was loving every minute!

When the boys went to bed, we removed the sticky labels and lined them all up. The next day each of the boys had to re-label all of the parts. They were both 100% successful.

Applicable, technical learning is so rarely taught before the option might be presented at the high school level. I believe so many hands on learners are sitting in school never knowing they would like learning if only they were given a chance to learn in their own language. I'm striving to offer a multi-lingual environment here in our home.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Answer Keys

When I first started homeschooling JT, I could check his work without the use of answer keys. I very rarely needed to even use a calculator for the math he was doing. As the boys have moved further along in their studies I started needing occasional help from the answer keys. Most of the time, it was only a matter of convenience. I just didn't feel like doing the math for 30 long division problems.

But now we have a dilemma. Occasionally we are working on something where I don't know the answer AND I don't have an answer key! JT is using an older English textbook for grammar this year. It was published in 1984. I picked it up in the free pile at our public library. Yesterday I asked him to work on an exercise to place quotation marks in sentences correctly. When he was finished, I realized I wasn't 100% sure about the answer for one of the sentences. This was quickly remedied when I read the instruction section of that lesson. However, it opened my eyes to a larger problem. Will I need to buy materials that come with answer keys from now on?

I have enjoyed the freedom of picking up books from various sources; discard piles at the library, yard sales, used book stores. Up until now, I hadn't thought about what would happen when we ran into material that wasn't second nature for me. I always assumed my husband could conquer any math problems we ran into. (He WAS a math major in college for a bit, after all.) But what about the other subjects? Should I have to learn everything my children are learning and master it well enough to be able to find their mistakes?

This brought on a whole new line of thought for me...If I, as an adult, haven't needed to know the things I am expecting them to they really need these skills? Should I instead be focusing more on things they are passionate about? Obviously, I want them to develop their communication skills. A quick refresher course on grammar rules I haven't thought about in 25 years should be sufficient for those matters. But what about the names of the presidents or the capitals of the states or names of the Canadian provinces? Most of this information can be found quickly on the internet. Is there REALLY a need to memorize such easily accessible facts in our modern world? You could argue that the act of memorization, no matter the content being memorized, is a good exercise in and of itself. But what if I can tie that skill into something they love and might really need someday?

I am reading a book right now called The Element by Ken Robinson, Ph.D. Here is an excerpt from a review, quoted on Amazon, by Publishers Weekly:

Robinson (Out of Our Minds), renowned in the areas of creativity development, innovation and human resources, tackles the challenge of determining and pursuing work that is aligned with individual talents and passions to achieve well-being and success. The element is what he identifies as the point where the activities individuals enjoy and are naturally good at come together.

I am looking at how this challenge applies in homeschooling my boys. I want to find their passion and help them develop it in a way that they will succeed in whatever they are best suited to do. Unless their goal in life is to someday make it big on Jeopardy! I think they can live without knowing loads of trivial facts.

My new question will be have to be, where do the long accepted standards of education fit into the goal of finding The Element for each of my children?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Loosening the Chains

We have one full week of afternoon schooling under our belts and it continues to be a successful transition. With the new schedule, I'm finding that the boys are working on their own passions in their free time. JT started writing a story on Sunday afternoon about slugs and bugs. It has many epic battle scenes. His favorite books include The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Guardians of Ga'Hoole series and The Redwall series. All of those are full of battles and desperate times. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that his writing is following the same path. Monday and Tuesday he SET HIS ALARM clock so he could wake up early and write. Did you hear what I said? He WANTED to write!

In case you have forgotten...this child dreads the physical act of writing. He is full of excellent ideas, but when it comes time to put them to paper...forget it. I have spent hours in vain trying to bribe, threaten and plead with him to write a simple composition. So far, his story is 17 pages long. Handwritten. This is nothing short of a miracle. Remember what I said about finding your passion? I made a deal with him that if he continues to write the story, I will count it as his writing 'class'. I will type up the rough draft just as he writes it, but he will have to do all of the proofreading and correction on the computer himself. He loves to use dialogue in his stories, so I reminded him he will need to brush up on use of quotations in order to do his corrections. Sneaky mom. :-)

EM has started spending much more of his free time reading. After he resigned to the fact that the mornings were not to be spent on computer games and non-educational movies, he realized reading wasn't as bad as he thought. He checked a huge volume of Curious George stories out of the library and read it in 2 days. This is also unprecedented. Typically he spends much more time looking at pictures in books than reading the stories. He usually wakes up an hour or two before the rest of the family. Most mornings, I find him sitting on his bed reading Calvin and Hobbes or some other favorite from his book shelf when I get up. What a joy this has been for me.

We are still having fairly structured classroom time in the afternoons. Everyday we have reading, spelling, grammar/writing, and math. Two days a week we cover history. Three days for science. Health, civics, art, geography and music each have one day. Right now we are covering these subjects in approximately 3 1/2 hours a day. But based on how the boys are using their free time I believe those hours may turn out to be more educational than any of the structured learning I will provide.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Schedule Flexibility

What time of day does schooling need to take place? Is there a best time of day? I think that answer is different for every family...maybe every individual child.

Last year I was playing with the idea of teaching EM in the mornings and JT in the afternoons. EM is definitely more of a morning person and I thought he might do his best work then. Unfortunately, it never seemed to come to fruition. I just couldn't work out a schedule that allowed me to teach at two different times every day.

A couple nights ago, I was telling a friend that I do my best planning late in the evening, usually between 8pm and midnight. The problem with this is that the next morning I never feel like teaching. I'm too tired. My friend said, "Why don't you just do school in the afternoon?"


Last year this idea probably would not have worked. We had piano and violin lessons in the afternoons. Now that we have eliminated some of our outside activities, we have a very open schedule in the afternoons. Most of our doctor appointments and library activities are in the mornings. All of a sudden, schooling later in the day makes perfect sense. I was worried that EM might not do as well as JT, but he seems to be adjusting well. Both of the boys enjoy starting the day out with free time. It was often a struggle to get going in the mornings if they had found something to do before schooling started. Now they have a few hours to play with Legos or go outside or work on drawing one of their endless battle games they invent. I did lay down the rule that there would be no computer games or movie watching during this free time. I want it to involve creative play.

I have found that I am much more enthusiastic about teaching in the afternoons. I have been able to get housework out of the way in the mornings this week. It is so much easier to conquer those kinds of tasks before schooling. By the end of the school day, I am worn out from being the cheerleader for my kids. All I want to do is relax...not fold laundry or clean the bathroom. I also feel like I'm accomplishing more every day, so that gives me more energy to spend on them. I no longer feel that they are 'wasting' my time when they aren't moving as quickly as I'd like.

So, why didn't it occur to me to move our school day to the afternoon? I believe it has to do with the assumption that I have to do what the schools are doing. Even after three years of non-conformity, I just can't stop comparing what we do with what THEY do. Am I afraid people who find out we let our kids sleep in until they are well rested will think we are somehow depriving them of needed skills? I know that no matter what we do, there will be critics out there who think we are ruining the lives of our children by our homeschooling choice. I didn't realize just how common that attitude was until I listened to a call in radio program called The Kojo Nnamdi Show episode entitled, "Homeschooling Goes Mainstream". I knew the naysayers were out there...I had just never really thought about the fact that people have a real disdain for what I do. Most of the callers seemed to think homeschoolers were all doing something harmful to their children.

Regardless of the disgust of the masses, I know what I am doing for my children is the right choice for them. They are happy. They are learning. They are developing into fine examples of people who can think for themselves. They aren't being told they are 'bad' because they can't sit still to listen to something they may or may not need to learn. They aren't being stuffed into a mold of what 'all 5th graders' should be. They are being allowed to grow and think and learn that even if every one else has done it this way for as long as anyone can remember...they can do it their own way and succeed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


This week started out poorly. The boys were less than inspired to learn, which made me less than inspired to teach them. I know they are not always going to want to apply themselves...but this week...yikes!

By Wednesday things improved a bit. We made a barometer from Janice VanCleave's Weather book. JT was excited by his writing assignment. I asked him to compare and contrast two Pokemon. Sneaky, aren't I? Both of the boys are having more success with our current math plan. JT is back to Calvert(more on that shift later) and EM is being introduced to concepts of multiplication. The commutative, zero and identity properties are our friends!

After our rough start this week, I have been thinking a lot about focus. Then today I watched a video on YouTube about an 8 year old artist named Autumn de Forest. Her style of communicating reminded me of JT, except she had a control of herself that I rarely see in him. You could tell she was focused and intent on sharing her passion with others. The more I thought about her, I realized she had found her passion in her art and perhaps that is what took all of that talent and harnessed it into something productive. I see mostly counter-productivity in my home. I would love to find the passion my children have inside of them. Occasionally I will see a glimmer of the possibilities when one of the boys is working on something they love. The more I think about this, the more I believe the next logical step in our homeschooling journey will involve more project based learning and the exploration of their own personal interests.

The boys watched the video with me. When it was over, we worked with some new watercolor paints we had purchased last week. They were both more interested in the painting after seeing the amazing art Autumn could create. Maybe they just need to see more passion in others to push them to find their own inner drive. I plan to start exposing them to more success stories through reading and other media in the near future. Maybe if I can focus some of that energy, they can be motivated internally by their own desires, instead of being externally driven by me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Smooth Sailing

A couple weeks ago, we found two swallowtail caterpillars in our patch of dill. We put them in jars and fed them until they made their cocoons. We were sure, due to the lateness of the season, that they would over-winter in their cocoons. Yesterday we were surprised to see a butterfly in our jar! Apparently, it had other plans. We quickly moved the stick with the butterfly to our flower bed to allow it to prepare for its first flight. Later in the day, he (we are fairly certain this one was a male, based on coloration of wings) was gone.

In other news...we made a discovery. Not all experiment books are created equally. We have been working our way through a unit on weather and atmosphere. We generally plan to 'do' science three days a week. I also try to include at least one demonstration or experiment every week. Last week we were discussing cloud formation. I found a demonstration in one of our science books for a 'cloud in a jar' and thought, "Perfect!". was anything but perfect. This particular book recommended putting an inch of water in a jar, putting a lid on, placing it in a saucepan of water on the stove. When the water in the pot starts boiling, place a plastic bag of ice cubes on the lid of the jar and wait for a cloud to form. NO cloud. Sad kids. Grumpy mom.

So, over the weekend I searched for a better version of this demo. I knew I had one some book...(not that I have a lot of books lying around here...perish the thought!) Then I found it, Janice VanCleave's Spectacular Science Projects: Weather. Have I ever told you about my love for Janice VanCleave? My husband laughs at me when I start talking about her books because I get so caught up in my joy over the elegance of her experiments and her ability to teach science, that I literally tear up. Some women cry for sappy commercials...I cry for good science.

When I read her version of this demonstration I knew right away it would work. Put a small amount of water in a glass jar, swish it around a bit, dump most of the water out. Have an adult (important!) light a match, blow it out and hold it inside the jar for a few seconds. Immediately have a helper stretch a square piece of latex, cut from a rubber glove, over the top of the jar and seal it with a rubber band. Push down in the center of the latex. Then pull the center of the latex back up. The change in pressure, plus the presence of the smoke in the air, allows the water to condense and form a cloud in a jar! Happy kids. Happy mom. Concept grasped. Education acquired.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Polar Opposites

Today it was made very clear to me that I will need to customize our school days to fit the learning needs of each of my boys.

JT and EM were each given work to do in various subjects. JT blew through his reading assignment about the life of Shakespeare. EM had a fit when I asked him to read a short selection from a reading text about park rangers. JT learns well when reading and thoroughly enjoys it. EM's favorite form of literature is LEGO catalogs.

Later, we worked on science together. We have been studying earth's atmosphere and weather in this unit. Today we were discussing precipitation. As I was reading aloud, EM was distracted by every little thing. I told him he would have to pay attention because there would be questions on what I read to him. He said, "Mom...I don't remember the things you read. I don't store them in my brain." Maybe mom should stop reading aloud to the hands-on learner, eh?

Due to EM's difficulties with background noise, I have been keeping the boys in separate rooms when they are doing independent work. I only bring them together for art, science and history. Since I've been focusing on keeping things quieter lately, it slipped my mind that JT seems to work best with some background music. This was today's downfall. JT was out in the library STARING into space for a good hour. He was supposed to be working on a set of only five questions based on the reading he had done. Why should this take over an hour? Because mom forgot that the secret ingredient to get him motivated is to turn on the stereo. As soon as the music started, he plowed through those questions and moved on to math.

So many days I feel like my teaching and therefore their learning is such a hit or miss process. My husband says I'll get better the longer I do it. I just need someone here to smack me over the head with something every time I forget that one of the main reasons we homeschool is so I can teach to their specific learning styles and needs. I imagine traditional classroom teachers deal with the frustration of lost days. I know not every day can be the day my child's eyes light up with joy when he finally grasps a concept he's been struggling with...but wouldn't it be nice if it could?

Friday, September 24, 2010


We have just returned from a week long trip to northern PA and NY. It was a beautiful and exhausting vacation...and I learned something. Structure in vacation is almost as detrimental to the goal as structure is to education.

When planning our little voyage, I tried not to schedule too many specific events. I knew that over planning with our sensitivity rich crowd usually results in disaster. I decided just planning based on where to go versus what we'd be doing would work best. Our first day we arrived at the PA Grand Canyon. The picture is looking west from the Leonard Harrison State Park observation deck. Beautiful! We hiked the shorter trails and discovered just how out of shape we are! Then we traveled to the Hills Creek State Park, where we stayed in a modern cabin. This was far from a true camping trip. We had heat, bathroom and full kitchen with a microwave. The only problem we had was that there was some mold growing in the bedroom where the boys were supposed to sleep. We solved this by moving their mattresses to the living room floor. Not perfect, but workable.

We spent the next day hiking more trails and just enjoying the park. Since it was past the swimming season, the beach was completely empty on the lake. The boys had the biggest sandbox they've ever used all to themselves!

The next day was when planning started to get in the way of fun. We had decided to go to the Corning Glass Museum in NY. Previous trips to museums didn't always go well. I assumed these previous failures resulted because we went to crowded, noisy places. I knew this time it wouldn't be busy. It turns out our kids just don't really want to go to museums. They did their best to make us know this by the end of the day. They enjoyed the hands on part. They were each able to make something in the glass studio. JT made a set of wind chimes and EM made a small plate. After that...forget it.

Our final day we checked out of our cabin and traveled 2 more hours north to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. I thought, "What isn't to love?!" We'll hike a bit, see some interesting animals. It's not that structured...they'll learn things and love it. Nope. They were tired of seeing nature. I wanted to stay long enough to look for some of the bald eagles that live in the refuge. They just wanted to get in the car and get home. We followed the highway along Lake Seneca, traveling through NY wine country. We stopped to walk out a pier onto the lake. My husband and I are thinking we will have to take a separate trip to see what we couldn't see with the boys.

So...what did I learn from our adventure? My children learn best when I don't direct or plan what they will learn. They learn as life is happening. Their favorite part of the trip was the hour they spent on the beach. We hadn't planned that. They created a cool irrigation channel and flooded it to their heart's content. I thought the trip would be educational. The most educational moments happened by accident. The cabin had a handout about bears. JT read it and learned how to react if he came upon a bear while we were hiking. He learned about their hibernation, their diets, their habits. Bears were not in the 'plan' for the vacation. They just came along on their own. When am I going to realize that the more I try to direct what they do, the less they seem to get out of it?

Hopefully this trip will remind me that our classroom needs to be a place where learning comes life happens.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What is Working

We now have nearly a month of homeschooling under our belts. Things are starting to find a rhythm. I am starting to learn to go with the flow. If someone asks a question that has nothing to do with what we are studying, I sometimes even jump the tracks and follow that tangent! (most of the time it's me asking those questions)

Here is this week's example of changing things on the fly. On Wednesday we were working on art. Our current plan is that I read a bit from "A Child's History of Art, Painting", we discuss what we read and then we work on something related. This book is a favorite of ours. The authors, V.M. Hillyer and E. G. Huey, have a good sense of humor and place art in its historic framework to really bring it to life. This week I didn't really read ahead to see where the book was heading, so I just planned on allowing the boys some time to draw whatever they'd like after the reading. As we were reading the chapter on Mesopotamia, JT remembered that he had a book from the library about Mesopotamia in his bedroom. He brought it down and we looked at the section on arts and crafts. Then we continued reading and found that mosaic art was prevalent at that time in history. I realized we could make mosaics. Easy, fun and related to the reading! Several times this month things have just come together in such a way that I couldn't have planned them better had I spent my weekend thinking it through.

Now for the pictures. We have a new routine this year. Every morning we check the Word of the Day. Then we write it on a card and hang it on the 'Word Wall'. (This name irks JT because it's actually a closet door and he insists it should be the 'Word Closet'.) Misnomers aside, we also copy the word on another card with the definition on the back. At the end of the week we have a little game to see who remembers the most words. I would say I probably know 50 - 60 percent of them when we first pull them up, so even I am expanding my vocabulary. Here's a sentence from the collection...

The lupine repo-man will schlep down the road to distrain the car of his neighbor.

Aren't you feeling smarter already?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Groove is in the Heart

Our family has a bit of a musical inclination. My husband plays several instruments quite well. I have played piano from the time I was about 5 years old and recently took up violin. It seemed to be pre-determined that our children would be musical.

JT started showing signs that he was interested in playing piano at a young age. We signed him up for lessons. In the beginning he played regularly, with no reminders from us. He often wrote his own compositions. He didn't always enjoy the assignments his piano teacher gave him, but that seemed normal to me...I never liked much about my lessons either! He told us he'd like to try other instruments. Over time he learned some guitar, violin and drums. I insisted he continue with piano. He had such a talent, I couldn't stand seeing him give it up.

I started to realize he wasn't sitting down to play on his own anymore. In the past, even when he resisted playing the assignments, he would still sit and play his own compositions. I felt that he was losing his love for music. Was it my fault for insisting he continue with the lessons? His teacher had a different philosophy about music than we did. That didn't surprise us, we don't find common ground in matters of education with most instructors. But at his last lesson, she insisted that "real musicians" play from the music (meaning printed material). JT prefers playing by ear and is quite good at it. This comment rubbed me the wrong way for many reasons. My husband rarely plays from music. I would argue that few jazz musicians play from music. Improvisation would be unknown if all 'real' musicians played that way.

While all of this was weighing on my mind, I began reading a wonderful book. "Learning at Home: A Mother's Guide to Homeschooling" by Marty Layne. This is an excellent book for any homeschooling family. In Chapter 6, The Arts, Ms. Layne says, "If your child no longer wants to play an instrument, then accept your child's decision and move on to another activity. This may be difficult to do because many of us have been taught that a child can't really make a decision about whether or not he likes an instrument until he's played it a while." continuing later in the paragraph..."Music comes from the heart. If a child's heart is not in it, if the heart does not sing, then the music can't come through."

With the strict structure of the lessons and practice schedule, JT's heart could not sing. We offered him a deal. If he would sit down and play for fun, whatever songs he chooses, thirty minutes a day, three days a week, we would let him quit taking lessons. He agreed happily.

Some may think he's lazy or lacks the discipline and we should force him through this dry spell. I don't think that's the case. Why should he do something just because every one else thinks he should? Isn't that part of the joy of homeschooling? Not having to do what others think we should do?

One last quote...from the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus",
"Playing music is supposed to be fun. It's about heart, it's about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it's not about notes on a page. I can teach you notes on a page. I can't teach you that other stuff."

Let's apply that to education and learning...It's not about words on a page. It's about exploring and absorbing and applying. It's about excitement over the connections we can recognize in what we are reading. It's about those 'ah-ha!' moments. It's supposed to be FUN. It comes from the heart.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hands On

These books are the backbone of my homeschooling life. For our first science unit this year, we are studying atmosphere and meteorology. Janice Van Cleave's Weather book is an excellent resource. I have used her books in the past from time to time, but never to the extent I plan to use them this year. Today we began to explore convection currents. There is a very easy to reproduce demonstration in the book that perfectly showed the movement of air. We made a 'wind detector' by cutting a small strip of tissue paper, punching a hole in one end, then tying it to a pencil. The boys went to the door and held the detector next to it while I opened it. Since the outside air was MUCH warmer than inside, the paper was sucked out the door. We tried the same thing with the refrigerator was blown out of the refrigerator. Then they tried holding it as high as they could while opening the door again...the opposite effect! This simple experiment led to a very long, in depth discussion on the ways air moves through the atmosphere and how that affects both weather and climate.

Simple hands-on experiments seem to lead to the best retention of information for my kids. And for me, for that matter! I could have handed them each a book about wind, asked them a couple questions and then given them a worksheet to quiz their memorization of the facts. But I'm guessing that a week later, they would remember very little of what we had learned.

This has been another good week for us. I am learning to go with the flow a bit more with each passing day. I'm making a conscious effort to answer their questions...even if they lead us on a tangent that will last the rest of the day. I'm working to do as little seat work as necessary to give them the tools they need to succeed. Some days I worry that they will grow up and not be able
to ___________ (fill in your own perceived necessity for successful education).

But just today, JT showed me how left to his own devices, he will learn what needs to be learned. EM and JT were outside playing. EM found a 'cool' spider. JT asked for a jar (empty jars are one of the absolute necessities of homeschool life) and prepared it for his new 'pet'. After making sure it had all the comforts an arachnid requires, he disappeared into the classroom. Five minutes later he returned with a notebook page with his first entry in his observation chart. He noted that the spider, "responds to touch with a fierce jump toward it. Is it attacking the object that touched it?" He told me, "I figured I'd better start learning how to do this if I'm going to be an entomologist or arachnologist when I grow up."

So much for worrying that he won't be able to cope with life because I rarely make him write compositions.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

First Week

I started this week with a great deal of uncertainty. Would I be able to turn my new plans into reality? I think it may be working!

I discovered a few things in our first week of the new experiment.

  1. Planning is important. Monday morning I felt ready, but I really could have used a bit more preparation. Monday night I ended up spending a couple more hours re-planning my week. Now that we have one week under our belts, I think I'll have a better grasp on what is required in the future.
  2. Plans aren't everything. This morning, we were going to make a 'quick' birthday card for my mother. JT remembered a craft he had once made for me. We did some internet searching and found what he was looking for. Handprint paper flowers. (see the picture for our completed crafts) While doing this craft met our goal of an art project for the week, it was not the project I had in mind, and it wasn't at the time I had in mind. But...everyone had fun AND seemed more interested in learning the rest of the day.
  3. Differentiation. I NEED to start planning more visual and kinesthetic learning activities for EM. A couple weeks ago, I took him for an evaluation with an audiologist. The results of the testing show that he is not processing information correctly with his left ear. His hearing is fine, but his processing is not. I had a brief discussion with the audiologist that day, but will receive a full report, including recommendations in the near future. For now, we are waiting for our copy of Earobics to arrive AND I am working to focus on visual learning. I am an auditory learner and feel most comfortable in that medium, so it is tricky for me to translate into visual. One thing that worked well for us this week; EM needed some review on place value in math. I would give him 8-10 dice, he would roll one and tell me the first place value, "ones" and what he had rolled. I would write the digit he rolled on the board. We would continue up to billions this way. When we had all the digits in place, he had to read the completed number to me. We would then write it out on the board in word form, expanded form and discuss values of the various digits. This process worked MUCH better than a worksheet.
  4. I'm having fun. Out of the three years we have done this, I have never had so much fun right from the first day back to schooling. I don't know if it's the lack of that feeling of oppressive oversight, the new looser schedule or just an increase in my confidence. I just know that this week has been the best week of homeschooling I've ever had.
I have a few small things that are still stressing me a bit. I can't seem to find an easy way to keep all of their completed papers organized neatly. I will need examples of each subject, for each child from the beginning, middle and end of the year. I am already wondering which papers to keep and which can be discarded. For now, I'm putting everything in a folder for each. I think I will move them to a binder and perhaps pull a sheet for each subject every week and then whittle it down half way through the year. I am also having a hard time with the book log required for the portfolio. I started a spreadsheet for each boy where I have entered the books we have used so far. For some reason, I worry I will leave something vital out of the list. I'm guessing that no one REALLY cares what is on the list, as long as I have it. But part of me still worries.

Overall the new format is a success. I feel like I am more at ease. The boys seem to be having a good time AND learning new things. Of course, there is still the expected whining...JT never really wants to do math problems or write compositions and EM never really wants to write sentences or sit still for very long.

I guess I can't expect miracles...yet.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Summer just flew by me this year. I absolutely can NOT believe we are starting our regular schedule on Monday. The books are almost all here...a printer is ordered and on its way...the lesson plans are...

...not ready.

Hey, who needs lesson plans anyway?

I do know what books I'm using. This little impromptu bookcase (obviously we don't have enough bookcases in our house at this time) came about thanks to a sale at Walmart. I'm not a huge fan of this particular shade of green, but it feels peppy so I guess it will work.

I split the crates up by subject: upper left is writing/grammar/spelling, the middle row- left to right, is reading, math and fun math games. The bottom row is science/health, geography/history/civics and a bin of fun. I have a magazine basket with our art and music books. I also have a couple Spanish workbooks and other odds and ends on another bookcase. Each crate has EM's books to the left and JT's books to the right. I wonder how long all of this organization will last? It is helping me to have them laid out like this as I plan.

JT requested a more scheduled approach to our school days. He wanted certain subjects assigned to certain days. I'm willing to give it a try but know it could change quickly. I would really like to try to make it work. One of our biggest problems last year was the way we would waste time throughout the days. Sometimes my fault, sometimes their fault. JT would delay work as long as he could. This year I am starting out with a new rule. Each assignment will have a designated amount of time to complete. If he goofs off and doesn't finish something in that time, it will become...homework! This is a radical idea in our house. One of the joys of leaving public school has been the lack of school work in our evenings. But I am tired of begging and pleading with children to finish their work. I am tired of not getting to the 'fun' stuff because of it. So, I'm cracking the whip! All unfinished assignments will be completed on their own time.

Today something came in the mail that really excited me. A magazine called, "The Idea Book for Educators". It is put out by A&E, Lifetime, History and Bio. I think I must have signed up for it at some point and forgot. It is full of cool ideas and lesson plans related to programs put out by the sponsoring channels. I am not sure if we will be able to watch all of the programs as we do not have television access. However, I'm hoping we can catch some of them online.

I am feeling very optimistic about my plans for this year. JT has also told me he is excited about this new venture. He really likes the idea of less structured learning and more hands on. I have promised him things like that in the past, but it always turned back into the race to complete the Calvert material. I keep wanting to write out a detailed lesson plan, but I think that is exactly what I shouldn't do.

Maybe this time procrastination will result in success.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Beginnings

Here we are again...

Our adventure has led us further from the beaten path. For those of you who have been following our journey, thanks for tagging along. For those of you who are new to our story, you could best describe our learning mindset with this quote, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

You can catch up by starting here: Adventures in Cyberschooling.

I have been reading a few books this week about homeschooling. "The Lifetime Learning Companion", by Jean and Donn Reed is my current favorite. There is a story in this book that is helping me format my plan for this new endeavor. The Reed's son becomes intensely interested in sharks. He reads every book they own on the subject and asks for more. They point out that when he first showed this interest they might have decided to direct his study so it would include things like history, sociology, geography, etc. They could assign readings and test for comprehension and retention. But the thought never occurred to them. They allowed him to plumb the depths of this topic on his own. Because of that, he kept this interest for two years and learned many things about sharks, including all those topics they could have tried to tie in if they had been directing his learning. He more than likely would have lost interest when asked to confine that exploration to someone else's plan of study. They would have put out the fire!

I want to be VERY careful to avoid that pitfall as we move into a format where I have more control over curriculum. I do not want to kill the boys' desire to learn by over-directing their exploration of the world. There are certain things I know they must learn to give them a good foundation. However, does every child in 5th grade have to know the exact same facts about the United States government? Does every 2nd grader need to be capable of writing in cursive? In short, do we want cookie cutter children growing up to populate the world?

Leaving the comfort of detailed planning is going to be a tough one for me. But I think it will be worth it for my boys down the road. Anyway...what's life without a little uncertainty?