Friday, March 30, 2012

Always Learning

Homeschooling my boys has been an educational journey, not just for them, but perhaps even more for me. I will have four years under my belt when May 4th rolls around and we call it quits for 2011-2012. I'm not even half-way there for my youngest. But as each year comes to an end, I realize how often I am having revelations about new ways to do this crazy thing we are doing.

This week I found that I just didn't feel like doing the things I had planned. In fact, the closer we get to our last day, the less I feel like doing pretty much anything related to structured homeschooling. The boys have picked up on my poor attitude and use it to their advantage whenever possible. Something in me must have known this was coming because the field trip a week plan has been a life-saver. We enjoy the days out and a great deal of learning generally takes place.

Don't get me wrong...we are still making progress. Both of the boys continue to have daily reading assignments, work on vocabulary and spelling, math and grammar. History studies are almost exclusively conducted as read-aloud sessions from various sources, including ancient, American and Pennsylvania history every week. Science is reading, discussion, movies and the field trips. This week we also began construction on a volcano model that has been in our craft closet for three years.

The main difference right now is that the start time of our structured schooling gets pushed back later every day. The boys have some ambitious projects they are working on together in their morning hours. Today they were creating their own board game based on a universe JT and EM have been constructing all week. When I see that creativity in motion and need to say, "Time to start our work." I feel like what I'm really saying is, "Work that is important to you and enjoyable is a waste of time. Stop now so we can do something none of us feel like doing." So I let it continue a bit longer and before I know it, we have too much to do and not enough time to do it.

This is work.

This is NOT work.


Not work.

See the difference? Me neither.

So my new plan for the rest of this year and something I will incorporate into future plans will be the need to have less 'plan' for the last two months of our school year. We have accomplished so much by this time each year...why do I feel the need to keep pushing at the same pace right up until the last day? From here on out there will be more self-planned project work. As long as it's creative I'm happy.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the immense responsibility that comes with home educating. There are so many things I'm afraid I will do 'wrong'. It seems so complex. But is it really? Maybe it's so much more simple and I'm making it too complicated. Maybe one of these days I'll find the perfect balance.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


When a field trip starts with a sign like the one pictured here, you can be sure you are going to have a good time!

Monday afternoon we went on our third field trip for our geology unit. The Bear Valley strip mine, also known as the Whaleback, is an exposure of folded rock. DCNR has information here. I can share a few pictures, but you can not fathom the enormity of this place until you have actually been there.

The description on the DCNR website has this to say about the Whaleback:

Arguably one of the best exposures of folded rock structure in the United States. In this small area, all the structural elements and (6) stages of deformation for the Valley and Ridge Province can [be] seen and studied. It is considered the type locality for examining the style, mechanics, and stages of structural development for the rocks in the Appalachian folded mountain belt. Individual structural elements such as faults (3 types), folds, joints, cleavage, lineations, and slickenlines can be examined in a hands on setting.

Before our trip, I did a little research on what we would be seeing. I printed out a diagram of folds of rock layers showing anticline and syncline. If you don't know the difference, don't worry...I didn't either until we started this unit! Anticline is a fold that slopes downward on both sides of a crest...the 'whale' is an anticline fold. There is also a syncline at the same site. A syncline is a fold that slopes upward on both sides of a common low point. The picture that looks like a giant smiley face is the syncline.

When we came home, I wanted to figure out some way to reinforce the learning from our little excursion. I decided to take the list of structural elements of the site from the DCNR description and have the boys match them up to pictures from our day out. I printed a pack of pictures for each of the boys. I also gave them each a list from the DCNR site. The anticline and syncline were easy. Then we had to start doing some research. And when I say WE, I mean WE. I knew fault, cleavage and joints right away. Lineation and slickenlines were new to me! In the process of searching for good resources to explain these terms, I stumbled upon the USGS (United States Geological Survey) education website. What a treasure trove of useful information! Tomorrow the boys will be watching a video called Living Rocks on the site.

I started this unit with a very vague list of what I wanted to cover each week. I'm finding that I can't plan too far ahead because our field trips are influenced by weather and scheduling issues. For example, I wanted to visit a cave next week, but found out the cave isn't open to the public until April, so we had to bump that one and move our trip to Gifford Pinchot state park up from week seven. I'm really having to improvise and let the learning flow more naturally than I ever have before. It's been a fun ride for me. I hope I can carry what I'm learning into my planning for other subjects in the future.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Who Wants to Stay Inside Today?

This is one of the tributary streams at the state park we visited yesterday. Our weather has been especially gorgeous lately. We really had no winter to speak of in the Northeast United States this year. I know I will regret it when the insect populations are horrible this summer, but for now, I'm loving every minute of it!

My boys have been outside every single day for the last two weeks. Not just for a few minutes, either. They have been out for at least three hours most days, sometimes more. Sometimes I worry our neighbors might report us to the local authorities for not schooling our children, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. We can complete our 'formal' schooling for the day in less than three hours. Why should they sit in the house for more time than necessary? They learn a great deal on their own in the backyard. Some days they even take some assignments outside on their own.

Another reason we have been outside so much lately has to do with my most recent visit to the doctor. I have been avoiding having my cholesterol levels checked for about five years. My numbers weren't fantastic last time, but they were within the acceptable limits. This time, my luck ran out. With a family history of high cholesterol and vascular problems, my doctor wanted to put me on medication to lower my numbers. I told her I'd rather try correcting it with diet and exercise. I have not been exercising much for the last two years. Arthritis in my hip has been my excuse. High impact aerobics, my favorite form of exercise, had become nearly impossible. Every session ended with pain. With bad cholesterol numbers as motivation, I started walking again about a month ago. Then I started wondering if I could run. It turns out, I can do about half of the two miles I travel at a decent jogging pace. This week, I started taking one of the boys with me most days. JT commented that he didn't think he had ever seen me run before. I told him that it's probably because most of my running has been chasing after him, so he's not looking at me when I do.

Next week, I'll share a bit about our first two geology field trips. I'm glad we decided to incorporate more outside time right into our science unit. If the heat holds off a couple more months, it should be an excellent end to our school year. I checked the calendar today and we only have 35 more school days until we reach our required 180. Not that the learning will end on the appointed day. In fact, there will probably be even more when the boys have every day free to explore the world around them.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


This week we started our final science unit for the school year. This is probably the unit I felt the least comfortable planning. As a child, I was an avid rock collector, even declaring at one point my goal to grow up and become a mineralogist. I know rocks and minerals fairly well, but geology is such a HUGE topic that I felt a bit overwhelmed trying to pull something together that we could cover in just eight weeks.

When I first planned my science units for the year, I picked my topics in an order that took the weather into account. Entomology would be the first unit so we could collect our insects in the late summer/early fall. Marine science came next with a late autumn trip to the shore. Cellular structure and microscope use made sense for the cold winter months. Geology seemed perfect for spring. I wanted to be able to get outside and explore with the boys. We were very lucky that our very first week of geology happened to line up with a homeschool geology program being offered at one of our favorite state parks, RB Winter.

At the park today, we took part in many different activities that helped us learn to identify various rocks and minerals. We also discussed the three types of rock. We were allowed to bring home samples of 12 different rocks and minerals to add to our own collection. We even learned how to use GPS to find a special kind of geocache called an earthcache.

Here is an explanation from the Earthcache site:

An EarthCache site is a special place that people can visit to learn
about a unique geoscience feature or aspect of our Earth. Visitors to EarthCache sites can see how our planet has been shaped by geological processes, how we manage the resources and how scientists gather evidence to learn about the Earth.

This picture is the site where we ended our caching experience. Our guide told us that rockfall is rare in PA; we have more rock 'creep' here. Water and roots cause many of the changes to the landscapes in our area.

My original plan for the geology unit involved time spent looking at textbooks, doing a few at home activities, movies, and maybe one or two field trips. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that geology is a science that requires work in the field. So my revised plan will be a little different. We will be going on one field trip for every week of our unit. To make my planning even easier, I found a fantastic resource to help turn my idea into reality. Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has put together a series of approximately twenty park guides, specific to geological features of Pennsylvania state parks, that can be downloaded as PDFs from their Trail of Geology website. I absolutely love it when the learning opportunities jump out at us like this! We already had the guide for the park we went to today. With seven more weeks in our unit, we will try to get to seven more parks within driving distance. One or two will be a 2 hour drive each way, but I don't mind hitting the road when the weather is good. Each week we will spend a few days at home prepping for the trip by studying the guide for our field trip location. We will also do further study on any new concepts we come across so we will know what we are looking for when we get to the park. In addition, we will cover the usual rock cycle and volcanoes that everyone HAS to cover when studying geology. It just wouldn't be geology if we didn't build a messy model of a volcano!

I know this unit will probably require more energy from me than the previous three combined. But I am certain my boys will be much more likely to remember days spent hiking in the woods, seeing the things they are learning about first hand, than they would if they read it in a science textbook. Taking the learning out of the books and into real life works for me every time.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Self Confidence

We are a family of nerds. My husband and EM tend to lean a little more towards the geek side most of the time, but I would say JT and I are pretty firmly placed in the nerd camp. If you are unsure where you fall on the nerd/geek/dweeb spectrum, here's a handy Venn diagram to help you out. The bottom line is...nerds and sports typically don't mix.

When we first began schooling at home using a cyber-charter school, I decided we should find a way to incorporate organized physical activity into the lives of the boys. They have both always been very active in general; few moments go by when one or both of them aren't pacing, bouncing, tapping or doing acrobatic moves on furniture. They both play outside whenever the weather is cooperating. Neither is overweight and neither could be classified as lazy. But fearing the dreaded accusation of lack of socialization too often thrown at homeschoolers, I thought signing up for a sport might be a good idea.

We heard about the Upward Basketball program from a friend. It is a church-based program that encourages teamwork, good sportsmanship, and Christ-like behavior in all of their players, parents, referees, and coaches. We liked the fact that they would only have one hour of practice and one game per week. This was a big plus for us. I would see so many friends having to run ragged trying to make it to multiple practices and games for their children every week. I didn't want that kind of stress added to our lives. We signed JT up that first year and have loved the experience for the four years he has been participating. EM signed on the second year when he was five years old.

The first year, JT struggled to keep track of what he was doing in the game. He is a kid with a lot on his mind. This often means he's not in the 'now' all the time. Basketball really requires you to be paying attention. Our second year things started to improve. JT had a coach that worked the kids hard. He helped JT to understand how the game worked. JT realized that sports had a scientific aspect to them. He found that if he knew that a player on the other team tended to run to his left every time, he could dribble on his right side and be more likely to keep the ball from being taken. More and more, I saw my absent-minded boy fully focused on what his body needed to do in the here and now.

Part way through the season last year, I suddenly realized that both of the boys were really becoming excellent basketball players. It was a complete shock to me! How could the children of nerds turn out to be athletic?! My husband and I were discussing this amazing development recently. We came to the conclusion that if they had played on a typical public school team, they would never have turned out the way they did. One of the great things about Upward is that ALL of the players play an equal amount of time in EVERY game...even the kids that would be bench-warmers on any other team. The coaches put those kids out on the floor and then they encourage their team mates to get the ball to them so they can try. One little boy on EM's team could not dribble at all in the first game this season. He would get the ball and take a step or two before he would pass it. Last week at the game, he made a basket and EVERYONE cheered...coaches, team mates, opposing team members. It was a wonderful moment.

My boys have learned self-confidence they couldn't have found sitting on a bench on a typical team. We never would have known what excellent players they are. They would have grown up thinking they were not athletes, just nerds like their parents.

Now they know they can be both.