Thursday, January 26, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing

Our family spends a lot of time together... a LOT of time. We school at home, we do many outside activities as a family, and my husband works from home. Most of the time we enjoy our group hermitage. But then there are some days...
Remember that old Bill Cosby routine Brain Damage? There's one part of that routine that really resonates with me lately.
Will you stop touching me?!

I spend a great deal of time breaking up disagreements between the boys. These usually involve someone infringing on someone else's personal space. Many times EM will work on JT's nerves with some minor irritating behavior until JT has had enough and reacts in a physical way. I come on the scene and EM is in trouble for invading the personal space and JT is in trouble for not walking away from the situation or calling a parent to deal with it. Both of these issues have been discussed more times than I can count. Is there hope that eventually it will be planted firmly in their minds so that it brings about the proper reaction? One can only hope.

Now I know that all parents with more than one child at home deal with these kinds of issues on a daily basis. Kids will always have their squabbles. But I can also understand why so many parents rejoice when summer vacation is ending. The daily dose of sibling conflict is reduced. Less time together equals less time to fight. We on the other hand, have no reprieve.

Some times are better than others. When the weather is nice, they play outside with each other fairly well. We have an acre of land for them to spread out from one another. When there is snow on the ground, they play nicely together while sledding. They can even play for hours inside with LEGOs or other creative toys most days. But when the weather is nasty, day after day, or we have few plans that allow us to leave the house on separate errands...the tension begins to build and the conflict ensues.

This problem is not only an issue the boys must face. I also get easily irritated when I've been shut up with my crew for too long. For me, it usually comes out as a heightened annoyance with noises and personal space invasion. Little things, like JT's incessant need to drum on any available surface or EM's inability to sit still start to feel like direct attacks on me. Then my fuse is shorter and my reactions are less than cheerful.

Luckily, I am beginning to recognize the signs of an impending explosion. Now I need to start working proactively to prevent them. I am going to put a new policy in place. When any of us are starting to feel the pressure building, we will take a time out and go to our separate corners to do what we love. For me, it will probably be reading or playing either my violin or piano, JT will probably chose reading and EM will likely choose to play in his room.

Getting along harmoniously in such close quarters takes some work. Don't get me wrong, our happy times far outweigh the bad. I want our home-bound lifestyle to be one of peace, not strife. With a little effort, I think it can continue to be a haven for all of us.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Studying American History

I must admit, as a student I did not have a very high opinion of history. The first real memory I have involving studying history in school is of the most dismally boring American History class I had to take in 9th grade. The room always seemed too warm, perfect for napping, and the teacher had a monotone voice. I don't think I learned anything in that class.

So far, we have had great success in our study of ancient history. Using The Story of the World series with supplements like the Horrible Histories books, the boys have been able to stay interested because we are reading about history through stories, not boring lists of facts. I wanted to find something just as easy to use and interesting to read as those books, but focusing on American history. That search hasn't turned up the perfect fit yet, but we did find a good starting point.

All Through the Ages, History through Literature Guide by Christine Miller is a good resource that is helping in our search. This book is really just a list of books about history. It is split into time periods such as Exploration, New World Colonization and Colonial Wars. Each time period is then split into sections that can include; overview of the era, specific events, biography, historical fiction, literature and culture. Each of these are broken down into four different grade levels, as well.

Last year, we barely touched on American history, but what we did cover revolved around the pre-colonial Americas. We looked at the native tribes that were here long before the first Europeans arrived. This year, we started up with a bit more on what life was like for those native peoples. We then covered early exploration by Europeans and the Vikings. We looked at the first settlements and how the colonies gradually grew. One excellent book we read on the French and Indian wars was Struggle for a Continent by Betsy Maestro. I remembered very little about this time in history from my school days, so I enjoyed this book.

Today we started looking at the issues that led up to the Revolutionary War by reading the first two chapters in the book, A Young Patriot by Jim Murphy. This story is told through the eyes of a young man born in 1760 who ends up enlisting to fight against the British. It is well written and full of art from the time period. Once again today, I learned that the boys often know more than I do about a particular subject. One of the illustrations in the book was a picture of an engraving of the Boston Massacre done by Paul Revere. I said, "I never knew Paul Revere was an artist!" JT said, "Oh yes...he worked for a newspaper and was a silver engraver."

At this point, our plan involves spending as much time as it takes to make a leisurely walk down America's history. My preliminary outline goes as far as the time period immediately before the Civil War begins. We will cover topics like the early establishment of our government, early presidents and their work, California colonization, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, the Homestead Act, exploration of the southwest, the War of 1812, the Indian Removal Act, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of slavery, beginning of the anti-slavery movement, Women's Rights, the Mexican War, mining, Westward Expansion, and the Gold Rush. That brings us to the 1850s. I have a list of resources for each item included in my time line. Based on our love for taking our time and delving a bit deeper as we go, I'm guessing we might make it through this list by the time the boys are ready to go to college! Seriously though, I would really like to make it to the end of the list by the end of our school year. I want to start out next year with a couple months dedicated to the Civil War.

No matter how long it takes us to get through, I know we will enjoy it far more than if we just looked at dates and facts. Christine Miller puts it best in the introduction to All Through the Ages,

"It is very rare to find the reality of history in a history textbook. They are much too limited to even begin to contain its grand scope. History should be about the stories of the day: the people and their lives, the immediacy of their times."

Our goal will be to experience those times through the stories we read.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Changing Gears

We are back to schooling after a nearly three week break. I think we all really needed that time off. I felt a level of energy this week that I haven't felt in a long time. Over the weekend, I spent a large amount of time prepping both my next science unit and our civics unit for this year. I also spent a good deal of time updating our American history studies to include a much better plan of action.

Before I really dive into what is coming, I want to spend just a little time sharing some of the highlights of our Marine Science unit that wrapped up right before the holiday break. We dedicated six weeks to this study. Our texts included Marine Science 2, published by Dandy Lion, Discover Nature at the Seashore by Elizabeth P. Lawlor, and Ocean published by the American Museum of Natural History. Different topics of study included life in the kelp forests, anatomy and shape of fish, tide pools and their ecosystems, marine mammals and their habitats, ocean invertebrates, marine plants, and my favorite...sand!

I know the study of sand probably borders more on the geology side of science, but after seeing Dr. Gary Greenberg's work with sand, I can't get enough! We brought a sample home from Ocean City and I made a request to family and friends that if they get anywhere near a body of water, they must bring me a sample of sand to examine.

Here's a picture of a portion of our collection so far.

We also had a few ocean related field trips. Our annual visit to a performance of the Harrisburg Symphony turned out to be a perfect fit for our science units. One of the pieces was an excerpt from Claude Debussy's, La Mer. We took a family vacation to Ocean City, NJ in mid-November and also visited the Adventure Aquarium.

Each of the boys made a poster showing the life found in a kelp forest.

We enjoyed this unit because it allowed us to go places we hadn't before. The boys had not seen the ocean so our trip was a first for them. They learned a great deal about how diverse life can be, from the cold, dark depths of the oceans to the warm, tropical reefs. They learned about animals that can thrive in the freezing Antarctic waters and on the scalding hot ocean vents. For Christmas, JT received a copy of the series, The Blue Planet. As we watch it together we are able to reinforce much of what we learned in our marine science unit and will continue to add to our new knowledge.

And now for the new plans! After spending countless hours poring over specs on various microscopes, I finally made my purchase. I settled for the Omano OM118-M4. It arrived this week and I am in love! I might let the boys use it... if they can get me away from it. I also ordered a microtome to allow us to make many of our own slides. I could have made a homemade one using an old thread spool, but I couldn't resist the fancy version.

Our official name for our new science unit is cellular structure and microscope use. My plan covers the next eight weeks of schooling. I'm really looking forward to this unit. It's going to have a HUGE amount of hands-on work. The boys will get a chance to really learn how to put a good scientific journal together. We will also make many of our own slides and explore the world of the tiny. We have already started looking at cell structures this week. BrainPOP has been an excellent source for this plan. We will also use quite a few books for this study. A few of my favorites are in the picture on the right.

Next week I'll give some details on both our civics and American history plans. I know I have been posting nearly exclusively about science this year and would like to broaden my subject matter a bit as I continue. While reading, writing and mathematics are very important skills that everyone needs to learn, science can give us so much opportunity to be set on fire for learning. I know the desire to go a little deeper comes most often with my boys when we are exploring the world around us. That excitement can turn the need to write a paper or read a long passage from a scientific journal from tedium to adventure. So bring on the science and all the rest can fall into place.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What's the Difference?

This week we did not 'have school'. In Pennsylvania, we must log 180 days of schooling per year as homeschoolers. The designation for a year runs from July 1st to June 30th. For the 2010-2011 school year, we started counting days in late August and ended our year on May 24th. This year because we weren't making last minute decision on our schooling plans, we started counting one day a week in July and began full weeks around mid-August. Last week I sat down to do the math and found that even if we had no school days this week and took a week off in April for spring break, we could complete our 180 days on May 11th. So I declared our vacation extended!

Now the funny thing about all of this, is that this week didn't feel a whole lot different than any of our 'school' weeks. (The picture above shows the books that are currently next to JT's bed. He NEVER reads just one at a time. I'd say he was doing a bit of learning without any schooling this week.) So for this non-schooling week, the boys spent time reading, watching their new documentaries including The Blue Planet, building with LEGOs, playing outside, playing board games, looking at our latest sand from friends in faraway places, taking old clocks apart to see how they work, playing drums, playing piano and collecting samples of foods with mold for our next science unit. That list includes quite a few things that would be included in our regular school weeks. The only real difference is that I didn't mark an X for those days in the boxes on our tally sheet where we record our schooling.

I really started thinking about how seamless my life is becoming. My husband works from home. He has a job where he's in an on-call kind of situation pretty much 24 hours a day. Some days he's not very busy during 'typical' work hours. If it's nine o'clock at night and he's on his computer checking on a server, is he 'working' or not? If the boys are watching a documentary and taking notes (this has actually happened spontaneously with no encouragement from me!) and it's a day we aren't counting, are they 'schooling' or not? If my husband sits down and explains how the clock the boys have taken apart works, is he teaching them or not? If we play basketball are we having gym class or not? Is time spent thinking about work when we aren't on the clock work?

Why do we feel such a need to compartmentalize everything we do? I am not an unschooler by a long shot. I plan far too much of the boys' schedule to qualify. I want to be sure certain concepts are covered and I do feel the need for some structure in our days. But some days I really wonder how much further we will drift toward the unschooling style of learning.

At a New Year's Eve party we attended, I was part of a conversation with a few moms who were bemoaning the fact that school was starting again in two days. The moms were worried that their kids wouldn't be able to get up since they had been sleeping late every day for vacation. I just smiled a bit and one of the moms said, "Oh, I guess you never really have to worry about that! What time does your school day start?"

I answered that we typically start the structured part of our day after lunch and that morning is a time for free learning. The mom continued by saying that I would need to eventually teach my boys how to get up in the morning so they would be able to go to college and get a real job. I pointed out that there are many jobs in the world that don't require people to work the typical 9-5 work day. I reminded her that my husband works from home, I work in the home and even when I worked outside of the home, I had held several second shift jobs. She contended that those are the exceptions to the norm. But I don't necessarily think that is true. Look at how technology is moving us towards being able to do so many things remotely. Look at the concern over pollution and how that could be lessened with fewer commuters on the road. Look at how more and more colleges are offering classes online. I really believe that what we think of as 'the way things are' will be a thing of the past by the time our children are grown. AND even if it isn't, just because we spend years getting up and going to school doesn't mean we have mastered the art of getting to work on time. Learning to get somewhere when we need to is a skill that can be developed at any time of the day. My boys manage to get to basketball practice when they need to be there. They make it to scouts and art classes and other activities on time.

Maybe what we really mean when we talk about learning to get up and be at work on time is more about learning to accept the routine of monotony that can come with employment. I hope that by showing my boys how much more they can get out of life, they won't be willing to settle for a job that doesn't excite and inspire them. After all, if you really love what you do, are you working or not?

A career that brings you joy might even make it worth getting up early in the morning...

...but I'm not really sure about that.