Thursday, August 29, 2013


Out of the frying pan...
Earlier in August, the boys attended a Fire Safety Day Camp for three days. This was their third year at the camp, but the first year they went to the sessions for the older kids. The experiences were a little more hands-on. They each had an opportunity to go through the 'smoke house' to see how hard it is to find your way in a burning building. The smoke was only artificial, so the kids were allowed to decide if they wanted to wear fire fighting gear, including the breathing apparatus. EM chose to go through without it. I can't even get that kid to wear clothes with tags let alone all of that equipment! JT went for the full experience.

In addition, a team with search and rescue dogs came and gave a demonstration, they had a presentation by a group of paramedics, the boys helped put out small fires with fire extinguishers, someone from DCNR came and gave a talk about forest fires, and they had a class on the history of fire fighting in the United States. And the highlight of the week - a water fight. The kids were armed with water balloons that they had to get from a bucket that the fire fighters were targeting with their water canon. Note to self: next year take more towels.

On the last day, one of the fire fighters came up to me and said, "You must be doing a great job with your boys. During the presentation on the history of fire fighting, your older son knew all about the Buffalo fire in 1813. He even knew why it happened and all about the War of 1812. Half of the adults here don't even know there was a War of 1812!"  Of course, that glowy momma pride came over me. As our conversation continued the man said, "Right away I knew you must homeschool." And I thought, "Finally, I get to contribute to positive attitudes towards homeschooling."

But on the way home I started to wonder about that. Was this really contributing in a good way? When people think of homeschoolers, I know they often think of religious people first. But the next stereotype I hear is that homeschoolers win all of the spelling bees and contests because they are the freaky smart kids. In our case, both of the boys were identified as gifted when they were still in a traditional school setting. Yes, they are ahead of the some subjects, but not all. I know many homeschoolers, and I would have a hard time grouping them all into one broad category like the world seems to need. Homeschoolers are homeschoolers for more reasons than I can count. The only thing I can see that we all have in common is that we aren't just like everyone else. We left the safety of 'normal' and forged our own paths.

In the end, I guess I am still happy that JT was able to share his knowledge about history. The funny thing is that I had little influence in that case. Both of the boys love reading about history and know far more than I know about many events. On the day of that conversation, I couldn't have told you a thing about any fires in Buffalo. Since then, I looked it up and read about it. In this situation, it's actually the boys doing a great job teaching me and not the other way around.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The old label on the jar is a mystery.
My intentions for a week occasionally match the end results.

This was not one of those weeks.

I spent last weekend carefully planning a fairly full week of schooling. We would cover all of our usual subjects, except for music. I have not finished my plan yet and we only do about 6 weeks of structured instruction for music anyway.

The week started on a positive note, but by Tuesday I was already starting to feel a bit drained. Our neighborhood is having a yard sale on Saturday and I have been working to clean things out in preparation. In hindsight, thinking I could accomplish that goal AND a full-ish schedule of homeschooling was probably a bit optimistic...maybe even insane.

But we dutifully plodded on. Today we had some major breakdowns. Mostly mine. It was supper time and we hadn't even gotten to our science lesson yet. I made an executive decision to postpone science until tomorrow. Or maybe Monday. We'll see what tomorrow brings...

In the meantime, here's what we are doing for science this year. On my original four year science plan that I laid out, this year we were to cover the periodic table, chemical compounds and reactions, and molecular models. All of these were at JT's request. I had just started looking at some chemistry texts when I found this awesome website, Middle School Chemistry, developed by the American Chemical Society. The site has lesson plans for six chapters. The plans include the teacher guide, student activity sheets, links to videos of demonstrations, and answer keys. The best part is all of the material is free to download and use. So far, we have completed only two lessons. The student activity sheets are great because they are very hands-on and really make the boys have to think about some of their answers. I am using the material for both EM(9) and JT(12). At times, JT might not be challenged, but I did pull up some additional reading for him with the first lesson. The only other problem I am running into is that because it's very hands-on, I have to prepare in order to make the learning meaningful. By the end of today, that wasn't going to happen! I will definitely need to invest more time in advance if I want them to get the most out of these lessons.

Next week my intention is to spend more time looking through the upcoming science lessons, try out the demonstrations, and find supplemental material to enrich our schooling. Maybe this time I'll live up to that goal.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Life Skills Learning

Pillow cases are tricky.
This week has been a slow warm-up for the schooling year. I made a very sparse schedule knowing that we had to adjust to our new classroom environment, attend Fire Safety Day Camp, and begin a new chore chart plan that I have been meaning to implement for what feels like forever. This week it finally became reality!

Our daily homeschooling schedule works like this. Mornings are for free time. This can include reading, games, or playing outside, but not television or computers. We also complete errands, or other away from home activities. We generally eat lunch close to noon. Then the boys have one household job they must complete, either dish washing or vacuuming the kitchen and dining room. When those are completed, we move downstairs to our classroom and have anywhere from two to four hours of more structured activity. Evening hours are generally taken up by family time or other scheduled away from home activities.

The boys have always been expected to make their beds, take care of their own messes, and put their laundry away. Keeping their rooms clean wasn't a high priority. The mess would build until I had enough and declared it time for a cleaning day. I  would occasionally ask them for help with other jobs around the house, but not on a daily basis. Over the summer, I made up a list of jobs I thought they could do with a little instruction. I didn't want too much to start, just a few new responsibilities. I had a talk with the boys about what days of the week they would have the most time available to do these new chores. We decided splitting the work up over three days would work best. Each of those days would have a specific job for each boy. They would do the same jobs for a month and then the jobs would rotate.

Monday was day one of the new process. JT was assigned to straighten up and dust the living room and hall. EM was in charge of vacuuming the area. Because they already know how to use the sweeper, EM was able to do this new job with no instruction. JT has never done a lot of dusting, mostly because of his allergies. I handed him a Swiffer and went over the idea of starting in one corner of the room, moving around the outside edge, to end with the furniture in the center of the room, always working from top to bottom. He did a fairly thorough job.

Wednesday was the next day chosen for chores. This day would present a new challenge. Even though they have always made their own beds, they have never had to take off the sheets or put them back on from scratch. They stripped the beds and delivered a pile to the laundry room. Later in the day, I took them into my room to show them how to make the bed. After the demonstration, I sent them to their rooms to see what they could do on their own. There were a few difficulties, but over all they did fine. In fact, EM didn't want to sleep in his bed that night for fear of messing it up.

Tomorrow will be the final day of new chores this week. Both boys will now be expected to clean their rooms every week, including running the vacuum cleaner. Needing to sweep the floors will ensure that all the LEGOs are actually picked up and not hiding under the edges of furniture.

As time goes on I plan to add a job here and there. Their daily after lunch chores have been part of the routine for about a year now, and rarely require a reminder. I'm hoping the new jobs will soon be part of our typical day. JT and EM both approached the new responsibilities with a positive attitude. They were pleased with the results of their labors. Hopefully that positive attitude will continue and even be transferred to other areas of their lives...maybe even school work?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Classroom Makeover

Last week my classroom still looked like the picture on the right. In fact, it pretty much looked like that until two days ago. Then I realized it was time to get serious about getting this place in order if I wanted to start schooling Monday.

For a few years now I have been thinking about changing things significantly in our classroom. The boys have been sitting at standard school desks ever since we started homeschooling over five years ago. They have grown a bit since then. JT didn't really fit at his desk last year. He would do most of his work on the couch or at our game table in the library. That wasn't really a problem except when I wanted them to be able to take notes while we were all working together in the classroom.

new and improved
Ta-da! Nothing spectacular, but much more appropriate for my long-legged boys. I have a feeling there will be plenty of fighting as they get used to sharing a table. You would think 5ft would be enough room for both of them, but I am sure territorial behaviors will begin right away on Monday. I think the table will work especially well for our art projects. The desks were never quite big enough. I bought the table from IKEA's website. (Linnmon table top)

sturdy chairs
I bought the chairs at a yard sale. They were already used by many homeschooling children, so they should hold up well. I also picked up a little set of storage drawers on wheels. Since the boys no longer have their desks to store things, we needed a way to keep those items close and organized. Each boy will have a small and a large drawer. I also picked up the little metal buckets on the table for their pencils and markers. I think one of our first art projects might be to decorate their pencil holders.

bookcase and cat window seat
This is my favorite part of the change we made to the classroom. For years we've been using the inexpensive crates Wal-Mart sells to make a MacGyver style bookcase. As the boys got older and the books got heavier, things got pretty saggy. Now I have my beautiful new bookcase from Target. JT and EM each have a section for their own books, mostly reading, grammar, and math. The other two sections are history topics and science.

storage/science lab
What used to be my office is now mostly a storage room. And really, it had never been a true office, more of a storage room with a desk. I moved the desk out into the classroom to replace the larger desk we are selling. I bought the small writing desk on clearance at Target to use for our microscope and other lab work. I took quite a few things off of the old shelving in the classroom and stored it in the rickety crates. I also weeded out some of the curriculum I no longer use and sold it to other homeschoolers.

getting better
This side of the room still needs work. My desk area feels cramped. We store art supplies in the cabinet on the left. I don't know how much longer that will be staying. We had to put the printer on top of it since the printer stand goes with the desk I am selling. I will probably keep looking for something that might be a better fit. It will have to do for now.

I am not a big fan of change. I know the first few months might require some adjustment. The flow of the room will feel wrong for a while. The boys will more than likely push each other around on their new table. Things will just feel wrong. But as we work in the room day to day, we will find the best ways to use our new furniture.

Now I just need to figure out what I'm going to teach these kids next week!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Time to Get Back to Work

Mommy's ticket for a day off
Today I enjoyed one last wild day of summer freedom. I spent the day in Mt.Gretna with one of my oldest friends. We first met in our Girl Scout troop when I was in 4th grade. Now we live two hours apart so our time together is most often virtual. Today we met in real-life to see The Wizard of Oz at the Gretna Theatre. It was good to get away from the hideous pile of work I need to do before we start schooling in a little less than two weeks.

Two weeks?! I'll never make it.

Hey kids, there's lots of room!
 First of all, the classroom has about 5 square feet of open floor space right now. This may not be the best learning environment. Fortunately the calendar is almost completely clear for the next week. Under pressure, I should be able to get things in order. The reason everything is such a mess is because I decided it was finally time to upgrade our classroom. One online shopping spree later and I now have new furniture, most of which still needs assembling. My goal is to have things in order so I can share the pictures next week.

future curriculum hides here
In addition to the physical upheaval of the classroom, there's also the less tangible planning mess. In my office, I have all the ingredients necessary to educate the boys this year. Right now, it's a storage location until the classroom has been arranged. Once I can get in there and sort, I'm hoping things will come together quickly. I know what we are doing for science, American history, world history, art, and math. The rest of the subjects are still a bit up in the air. So, I have some serious work to do.

Every summer around this time I really start worrying that nothing is going to come together, even though in the three years I have homeschooled without the cyber-charter, that has never happened. I might not start the school year with a perfect plan, but things seem to start falling into place as we go. I'm trying to allow myself to get out of the way with my need for perfect order so the plan can develop in a more natural way. No matter how much time I spend preparing, I know learning will happen, and that's the only goal I need.