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.