Thursday, September 29, 2011

Learning on Location

For the three years we have been homeschooling both boys, we have had a tradition of taking a family vacation in early Autumn. We spent this week visiting south central Pennsylvania. As we did in years past, we stayed in a modern cabin at one of PA's state parks. This year we chose Gifford Pinchot State Park. This park had a lot of potential for fun. Unfortunately the record rainfall we have had in PA in the last month coupled with rain three out of the four days we visited, made the trails a bit messy. We made one attempt at hiking and decided we'd best spend our time somewhere a bit drier.

We had already planned to make a one day trip to Gettysburg National Military Park. With the mud situation being what it was, we made it the focus of the entire vacation. Tuesday we made our way to the new visitor's center. I had not been to Gettysburg since the early 1980s. I had no idea they had built a new facility. It was pouring when we first arrived, so we decided to check out the museum. Our family of four paid $34 for admission to the museum, 20 minute film, "A New Birth of Freedom" and Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama.

One bit of bad luck we had was that the museum bookstore was closed for inventory our first day there! That fact alone sealed the need to return for a second day.

There are several ways to tour the battlefield at Gettysburg. You can take a bus tour, horseback tour, self-guided auto tour with or without an audio guide, hire a professional tour guide to ride in your own can even take a tour on a Segway! We decided to purchase The Gettysburg Story Battlefield Audio Tour three CD set. The complete tour is estimated to take about three hours. The set came with a book outlining the entire tour. This was the perfect choice for our family. We were able to take our time on the tour. We ended up breaking it up into two days. This particular auto tour is performed by actor Stephen Lang who played "Stonewall" Jackson in Gods and Generals and George Pickett in Gettysburg. Starting from the visitor's center, you follow red signs labeled 'auto tour' around the battlefield. You listen as you drive. At each stop, the recording covers another part of the story. For most stops, we would get out and look at the memorials and talk about what we were seeing. That first day, we only made it to stop five before the sun started to set.

On our way back to Gettysburg Wednesday we ran into major rain storms. Fortunately, by the time we reached the park, it had stopped. The night before I had done a little research about other things we could do and found out about the ranger guided programs that are offered daily. A program covering the third day of the battle was being held at 3:30pm. We made our visit to the bookstore and then met up with the group on Cemetery Ridge. The ranger took us on a short walk to the center of the ridge and explained what Pickett's Charge would have been like for the soldiers. She spoke for an hour. I was pleased and surprised that my boys were able to stay attentive the entire time. They were the only children in the group and I was worried they might be distracting for the other guests.

When the talk ended, we continued on the auto tour until nearly dusk. We did not make it to the end of the tour, completing only twelve stops out of sixteen. The great thing about the audio guide was that we were able to finish listening to the final disc while driving home. We couldn't get out and visit at each stop, but by that point we knew enough about the battlefield to be able to appreciate it anyway. Now that we have had a taste of Gettysburg, we look forward to going back again and again to explore this memorial park.

I did not take anything with us directly related to our normal homeschooling activities. There was no need. Our days were packed with learning experiences. No classroom could have provided the learning that we were immersed in while visiting Gettysburg. We purchased each of the boys a set of Civil War army figures in the museum bookstore. When we got home today, they set them up and re-enacted several of the battles we had learned about on our trip. Tomorrow I plan to have EM write a journal entry about our trip. I am also going to ask JT to write a composition titled, "What if?" in which he will be required to chose one pivotal point in the three days of battle at Gettysburg and speculate on what might have happened if events had gone differently. Other than that, I have no long term plans to incorporate our trip into our schooling. But I am sure it will be incorporated into our lives without any plan on my part.

Evening at Devil's Den

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three Ways I Gave in This Week

This is Zim. He is our new pet.

I have always known we would eventually end up with more animals gracing our home with their presence. Madagascar hissing cockroaches never made that list. Then we went to The Great Insect Fair in State College on Saturday and came home with this low maintenance bug. In case you are wondering, his name comes from the main character from Invader Zim, a quirky and short-lived Nickelodeon cartoon series. Zim doesn't need much to survive. A closed container with places for hiding and wood chips on the bottom, a damp sponge or paper towel for water and pretty much any vegetable to eat. He only needs his home cleaned out about once a month and can live for up to five years in captivity. Perfect! Plus, we can gross out quite a few of our friends.

The first way I found myself giving in this week was the acquisition of Zim. Normally, I would have responded with a firm 'NO', or even 'Forget it!', or maybe even, 'Have you lost your mind?!' I am definitely learning to go with the flow a little more these days.

The next test of my flexibility came because, on a whim I decided to buy a tent.

My husband and I used to go tent camping about once a year, before we had the boys. We had little cash, so vacation usually involved state parks and our tent. As we got older, tent camping lost all of its charm for us. Now we prefer 'camping' in modern cabins with beds, electricity, coffee makers...

When I saw a great clearance sale on the Sears website, I bought a tent. A big tent. It's almost as big as our living room. I also bought a queen-sized air mattress. When I told the boys I bought the tent, they were very excited and wanted to know if we could sleep out in our backyard. So, Tuesday evening we set the tent up and prepared for the great camp out. The boys actually did a little better than I thought they would. After some complaint, JT seemed to be good in his sleeping bag. Because our yard is one big hill, it was hard to find a completely level place to set up the jumbo tent, so EM kept rolling down the hill and into our air mattress. We finally moved him into bed with us. A little bit of sleep happened at some point in the night. I can't say that it was the most enjoyable evening I have ever spent, but I survived it. The boys were able to do something they had never done before and we are now ready to consider camping in the tent at some point next year.

There was one other way I ended up giving in to something this past week. When I was planning for this school year, I was very excited about the K12 Literary Analysis course I picked up for JT. It seemed so perfect, so challenging. When we really started to spend time working with the material, I realized it might be a little too challenging in some ways. The reading level seemed perfect, JT enjoyed and understood all of the selections. Even though the essay questions based on the readings were a little tedious for him to write, we worked through that by turning them into discussion starters instead. The vocabulary unit using Vocabulary from Classical Roots, level C was right on target for his needs. But it quickly became clear that the composition and grammar portions of the course were just too much. I hated to give up on this material. I could tell that eventually it would all be perfect for him, just not yet.

So I had a talk with him on Monday and we made a new plan. He will continue to use the vocabulary book as his spelling curriculum. This has actually worked out even better than using our old favorites, the English from the Roots Up flashcards. In the past, we didn't get into defining and using our spelling words as much as we are with this book. JT used uxorious and odious correctly in conversation this week thanks to this new material. We are dropping all other portions of the literary analysis material and saving them for the future. For reading, JT will be working his way through a few standard 6th grade novels. He will also use the reading text book provided by loan from our public school district. For the grammar portion he will be using a Calvert grammar workbook left over from our days with PA Cyber. I'm still up in the air on what I want to do for composition. I'm afraid that I will not push hard enough if I have nothing set in stone for that instruction. For now, he's working through a Critical Thinking workbook that requires quite a few essay style answers to questions. I might pull some of the old writing prompts from my file or I might just pick a topic and have him write one composition a month.

For now, I'm happy that JT helped me to decide which direction we should go. We didn't consider it a failure that we had to drop the K12 material for now. We just accepted it as something that wasn't working. I like the fact that we can be flexible like that. I'm never satisfied with just pushing my way ahead in an obviously incompatible situation anymore. There are far too many choices out there to allow ourselves to be resigned to a tedious fate.

The flexibility shall continue. Let the giving in begin!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Measuring the Learning

Call me strange, but I've always enjoyed taking tests. I loved them in elementary school. The teacher passed out those little slips of paper we used for spelling tests and we would number them 1-20, happily anticipating that first word. I loved the quiet classroom, pencils scratching as the minutes ticked by. Later in high school, I even enjoyed the essay questions in classes like British Lit and World History. And don't get me started on the joy of filling in the little bubbles on the SATs.

I really should go back to school soon.

You may be wondering what all of that blabbering about tests has to do with the picture in this post. Don't worry...I'll tell you all about it.

On Monday we took a field trip. It was a surprise birthday field trip for my husband. Being a guitarist, he has wanted to visit the Martin Guitar factory and museum for many years. When I was trying to think of something special for him this year, I remembered that and decided to combine birthday and school time all in one big, fun day.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Nazareth, PA make sure you go see their number one attraction. When I saw that they offered a factory tour, I was expecting something similar to Hershey's Chocolate Factory Tour or the Crayola Factory Tour where you don't really go in the factory itself, but instead learn how the factory works in an amusement ride or performance setting. This tour was the real deal! We were taken on the actual floor of the factory. We spoke with the workers while they were doing their jobs. We could see each step of the process up close and personal. Our tour guide was full of great information and he obviously enjoys his job. After the tour, we visited the on-site museum. It is a good sized museum; just about the right size for two active boys with sporadic attention. My husband also spent some time in their 'pickin' parlor' playing some of the top of the line Martin guitars. Did I mention that there is no charge for any of this?

Right before we headed into the factory, the guide told the boys since they were homeschoolers, there would be a quiz at the end of the tour. We all had a laugh and went on our way. Later I thought about it again and started looking at how we measure learning as homeschoolers.

When I first began homeschooling, we used a cyber charter school. Because of that, my boys had to do monthly tests and mail them in to the school for grading. Over the last year or so that I've homeschooled without the charter, I have found myself moving away from most testing. We continue to do a weekly spelling test out of tradition. Neither of the boys has ever complained about those tests, so they will probably remain in our routine. I don't think I could say that they retained more knowledge in the years that they were regularly being tested on the things they were learning. In fact, I honestly believe they may have retained less. In order to prepare for a test for every subject, every month, they usually had quite a bit to cover and review. We never stopped to dive deeper into a subject because we just didn't have the time. That depth driven by interest is what makes you remember something.

I could make the boys write reports about what they saw at the guitar museum. I could make them draw a picture of the factory floor and recite the steps in the creation of a guitar. Would that mean they had learned more than if I just sit and talk about the wonderful time we had together on Daddy's field trip? I'm guessing not. I'm guessing that starting a habit like that would just make them dread future field trips. Kind of like the way knowing you have to write a book report makes you dread reading a book. I want the boys to learn just for the joy of learning. I know they will need to take tests to get in to college and tests when they are there. As they move closer to high school age, I will be sure that they can answer those essay questions and fill in the bubbles. But for now, I'm just going to focus on exploring our world and learning as we go.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Inconveniences, Sickness, Natural Disasters

My week has been far from the put it lightly.

We were supposed to be going on a field trip for to Hershey Gardens and Zoo on Wednesday. I had checked the weather last week and everything looked fine. I checked again on Saturday and all of a sudden rain was predicted...for DAYS. Field trip delayed, then canceled. Tropical Storm Lee decided to come visit central Pennsylvania. He has not been a good guest. All of the cities and towns in our area that border the Susquehanna River are experiencing major flooding. We are fortunate to live on VERY high ground with no direct flooding here. However, we are cut off from most of civilization for now.

Not only are we physically unable to get to town, but yesterday our internet access went kaput. As hermits, staying home through the mess would have been just fine with all of us. But without our high-speed access to the virtual world, we felt out of touch with what has been happening in our community. Our ISP provided temporary dial-up connection to all their WI-FI customers. Nice of them...but let me just say, you can NEVER go back once you have been living with high-speed. No flood videos for us this week. Also, no pictures or links for this blog post.

On top of all of this, I woke up this morning to discover I had been infected with some sort of nasty stomach bug. I spent most of the day in bed while my wonderful, temporarily unable-to-work-due-to-lack-of-internet husband, not only took care of my sickly self, but also took care of schoolwork with the boys.

And now, I'm heading back to bed. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as our community recovers from this mess.

**Hooray! Five minutes after I posted this we had a call letting us know our high-speed internet was back!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mom Loses It

It all started Sunday night.

I was doing my predictable last minute planning for the week to come. It was late. I was tired. As I worked subject by subject, child by child to make my plan, I turned to my husband and said, "These lists are getting long. Maybe I'm trying to do too much this week."

Man, was I right about that!

Monday was a typical day. Even though we hadn't finished our list completely by 4pm, I wanted to get to the library, so we saved the history reading for bedtime. The boys did their Story of the World map work while having a bedtime snack. All was well.

Tuesday was the beginning of a downward trend. We started on time, but no one seemed ready to work...including me. My parents were coming for supper so I was trying to straighten up while bouncing in to check on progress now and then. JT was having difficulty with a few components of the K12 Literary Analysis course. I didn't feel like I had the time to sit and explain it thoroughly for him. Maybe he should just read the directions again? EM was playing with random toys he always hides in his desk. He didn't seem to want to get serious about any of his work. No one seemed able to stay on task. I was repeating instructions over and over because no one was listening. I was getting aching shoulders (always a sign of stress in me) and that was making everything more annoying.

Late that afternoon, the yelling started. And pretty much continued the rest of this week.

On Wednesday morning, I made the decision that we needed a day out. I had the boys finish a few things from their lists, a little math, a little reading, a bit of science, and then we took off for a day at a local amusement park. We discovered that going to the amusement park when most kids are in school is definitely a benefit of homeschooling. No crowds. The trip to the park gave us a chance to unwind, but the lists were still at home...waiting.

After another dismal day Thursday, I took a good look at what was really happening here. I think I just get over-excited at the start of the school year. There are so many new things to do; I just can't stop adding more to the list. My biggest problem this year is the K12 material I am using for JT's literature studies. It's fantastic material. I love every part of it. I just need to break it down into smaller chunks to keep it from taking over our days. Remembering that our homeschooling lifestyle is supposed to be about the journey and not the destination would also be a good idea.

So, I'm going to take a deep breath...and reduce the lists for next week. Our days do not have to look like a typical school classroom, running from one subject to the next, no time to stop and explore the small details that make our lives so rich. We want time to stop and smell the roses.

On our way to the park, I asked the boys how they would respond if someone asked them why they weren't in school. After some discussion, we decided the best response would be, "The world is my classroom."

Now I just need to make sure I stay true to that statement.