Friday, November 29, 2013


high-tech graphics
Now that I'm stuffed full of turkey and pie, I am ready to take a few days off from homeschooling and prepare for the next holiday. I try not to get too caught up in the mad consumerism of a capitalist society, but it's not always easy. This year I am trying to embrace the becoming minimalist ideals. Not always the easiest thing to do with kids in the house, but much easier with homeschoolers who don't watch television than it would be if my kids were constantly bombarded by advertising and peer pressure to have the biggest and the best toys.

I watched a video this week, The Story of Stuff, that really made me think about my relationship to stuff. The boys thought it was a real eye-opener. After watching it, EM told me he only wanted books for Christmas. We'll see if that statement holds true when the shopping starts.

When I try to think of the things I am thankful for, it's too hard to boil it down to a simple list. In fact, I'm trying to work on my attitude of thankfulness. What I really want is to learn to be content in any situation. If I can learn that, and pass that trait on to my sons, even if I teach them nothing else, I feel that I will have been successful in my role as their educator.

With that in mind, my list of things to be thankful for would have only one item on it:


Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I'm Not Crazy Yet

Homeschooling was not what I had in mind when I had children. I left my job when JT was about to be born and planned to return to the work force when both boys were in school.

If only things always went the way we plan...

You may be wondering how I keep such a positive outlook now that I've found myself at home with two boys, teaching subjects that I sometimes find interesting, sometimes most definitely do NOT, listening to those two boys do everything they can to irritate each other AND me, spend quite a bit of my spare time researching how to do chemistry experiments, how to teach Algebra to a kid that wants nothing to do with it, how to get a homeschooled child into college, and seeing the possibility of ever having my own dreams of a college education fulfilled fade into the past.

I'll share the keys that I have found to keep me sane through these crazy days.

First of all, LOTS of coffee. I kill coffee makers. Seriously. I recently had a yard sale where I had SEVEN carafes from the coffee makers I have annihilated in the past four years. The warranty people from Black & Decker and Mr. Coffee all know my voice.

Flexibility. I mean it. When something comes up, we move our schooling schedule around to make things happen. If I just can't seem to get everyone motivated to finish the whole list for the day, we alter the list and add things to days later in the week. Everything eventually gets done. The boys are still working at grade level or above in all subjects. I am not worried that their futures are going to be negatively impacted when mom suddenly decides she REALLY doesn't want to read aloud from the Pennsylvania history book on a dreary Friday afternoon. It's not the end of the world when the list is not finished. It took me many years of hard life-lessons to accept this truth. Take it from me, life is easier when you write your to-do list at the END of the day and cross off all the things you completed.

Support. I have been blessed with the most supportive husband in the world. From the very beginning of our homeschooling journey he has been behind the plan one hundred percent. I feel horrible when I read about women whose husbands worry that their kids aren't getting what they need homeschooling. Of course we have days where we question if the kids could do better in a more traditional school setting, but when we have those days, WE have them. It's a discussion. We also have the support of the rest of our family. No one thinks we are nuts for homeschooling. At least, if they do, they don't tell us.

Time to recharge. I love my boys. I even like my boys. But I DO NOT want to be with them all the time. Fortunately I have people in my life who allow me to get away. Because my husband works from home, I can skip off on a quick errand and leave the boys with him. They are old enough now that they can do their own work and he can continue to do his work with little intervention. Not having to take them on every trip to the grocery store allows me a little breathing room. When my husband and I want to get away for an evening, or an extended trip alone, our adult daughter and her husband always step up and take the boys. I am very thankful that we have someone we trust who enjoys taking care of them. She also understands most of their quirkiness which makes it even easier on all of us.

My own life. One of these days, the boys will be finished with their years of schooling and I'll have loads of free time. If I allow my whole life to revolve only around theirs, I'll be in a sorry place when that time comes. I try to avoid that pitfall. I stay active in our church, helping with as many efforts as I can without overextending myself. I make time for my friendships. Most are long distance friends who I keep up with via email, chatting, and phone calls. I try to stay healthy and go running regularly. My favorite past time has always been reading. I don't always get to read what I want anymore because I have to read ahead in textbooks for planning, but I still keep a book beside the bed and in my purse when I leave the house. I also take classes through Coursera when I can squeeze them in, hoping to stay up to speed with my own learning in case I ever do make it back to school.

But if I don't make it back to school, it won't be the end of the world. I no longer feel that I can't be successful without a college education. I already feel successful because I am doing something I never thought I could do. I am happy doing it. My boys are making great progress in both their book learning and their real-life learning. Our family is close and we continue to enjoy spending time together. Who knows if that would have been the case if the boys were away at school for hours each day and I was busy with a career? 

I do know that I am glad things don't always go the way we plan.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Current Projects

I mentioned in a previous post that I added 'personal project' to each of the boys' weekly schedules. I thought I'd give a quick update on where they both are in their projects.

EM is working his way through his robotics book. Today he made a solenoid using a straw, wire, AAA battery, electrical tape, and a needle. At first we couldn't get it to work right, but after a little tweaking, we had success. You can see the working project in the video. Tomorrow we are making the first of what I know will be MANY treks to Radio Shack.

JT continues to work on his food web game. This week he has been play-testing the rough draft to see if they can keep a stable ecosystem for five game years. At one point today, I saw him working on the computer. I thought he was doing his math, but when I asked him, he said he was researching black bears. He felt he needed more detail on the black bear card for the game. Fighting back the urge to push him to do the math that needed to be done, I let him follow the path he was on until he was ready to shift gears. It's not always easy for me to do that. In the end, I think it worked out well because he found what he needed AND did the math without any arguing.

You light up my life.

This picture shows the center of game play. As in all real food webs, the Sun is the source of energy for the system. Right now, JT is using LEGO pieces to show the connections in the web, but later plans to find something more appropriate. The cards are all still hand drawn. I've been very impressed with the amount of time he spends researching as he makes his cards. Each card represents a different plant or animal. When he has his rough draft cards completed, we will help him find appropriate software to make them more professional.

game in progress
JT also spends a good deal of time thinking through the actual game play. He wants to be sure that it moves at a good pace and keeps the interest of the players. EM has been playing with him and decided he didn't want to finish the current game all in one sitting. Having a brother as your guinea pig may not be a good idea. It's hard to know if he's just bored or being spiteful. I think we'll end up calling Daddy in as a substitute to get a more honest opinion. I am not a huge game player, so I wouldn't be a good choice.

I like to see the boys following their interests on a regular basis. It's been a busy week for me due to an ongoing remodeling of the living room. Their projects are keeping them engaged and allowing me to get the necessary work done without needing to watch over their every move.

Now if only their interests could be something like painting the living room for me...

But that would be too good to be true.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Writing Bug

potential teaching tools
At the conclusion of our 2012-2013 school year, I sat JT down and we had a talk about the year to come. I told him as he was moving towards what would be his high school years, we would need to focus on two things more than we had in the past. Math would need to take more of a front seat in his schooling. But far more importantly, his writing skills would need to be developed in preparation for higher education.

Thanks to signing up for a Thinkwell math class, I feel the first goal of more focus on math is being met. For the first time in our homeschooling history, JT is taking control of his own math learning, setting goals, working to meet them, getting excellent scores on quizzes and unit tests because he works until he knows the material. In previous years I would feel nothing but stress about his math studies. Planning was difficult, getting him to do the work was torture, and I hated grading the work because when I found mistakes I knew it meant I had to help him through corrections and try to get him to understand the importance of getting it right. Now I write, 'Thinkwell math', on his daily list and he does it. This week he told me he was having a little trouble with one of the exercises so he planned to do more practice worksheets and re-watch the instruction videos until he understood the concept. That kind of self-motivation would have been impossible to imagine a couple months ago.

With the math learning now taking shape, I need to develop the plan to reach our goals for writing. JT has always been a prolific writer, when it's something HE wants to write. The writing assignments I make are often approached with an apathetic attitude. He will do the least amount of work possible and act reproachfully when I insist that he edit his work. After our talk about the need to improve his writing skills in order to go to college and study biology, he started trying a little harder.

EM begins a report
During the planning phase for this year, I collected several books related to grammar and writing to use with the boys. I found Painless Grammar at a book sale over the summer. I used this book to form an outline for our unit. At the beginning of the week, we all read a section out of the book together. Then the boys each have assignments from their grade-appropriate workbooks related to what we read. I also give a writing assignment at the beginning of most weeks. Sometimes we just do a quick journal activity, but other times I make it something a little more in depth. For example, the last two weeks the boys have been working on short reports about an animal they learned about at the Wetlands Institute during our trip to the shore. EM chose horseshoe crabs, JT chose the great egret. EM is pretty new to the report writing scene, so I have to spend a lot of time showing him how to put his thoughts together.  A friend recommended trying the PEAS model for writing, especially for EM. We put that into play for this report and I think it has really helped him understand the purpose of report writing.

Something else that is influencing the writing in our house has been a little project my husband has been working on for the last five weeks. During a visit, one of our friends and my husband were discussing some writing advice given by Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy. He says that if you just write 250 words a day, in a year, you'll have a novel. So my husband and his friend agreed to write 250 words a day and email them to each other. A few weeks in, another friend joined. Now all three of them have 11,000 words written. They are not critiquing the work yet, just sharing. A few days ago, JT who has been following the process, decided to join the fun. He has been very dedicated. I have not read any of what he has written so far, so I asked my husband how it was going. When I asked about JT's grammar and writing mechanics, my husband said he hadn't thought about it before I asked, but once he did, he knew that JT was doing a great job since he hadn't noticed any obvious issues.

My husband's dedication to this writing activity has brought about an awakening of a passion in JT that he would not have found through a typical writing curriculum.

Once again, life wins out as the greatest teacher of all.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Messy Science

Sometimes I look at my life and am surprised to see where I am. I step back to take inventory of my accomplishments and see how I measure up. Today I did that and thought, "How in the world did I end up spending my day mixing household chemicals into a pile of green goo?"

Ah, the glamorous life of a homeschooling mom.

EM's robotics book ended the chapter titled,  Housing: Robot Bodies, with an activity to make 'frubbery robot skin'.  He is really enjoying these mini-projects because he can do most of the work on his own. I only had to help find the supplies and get him set up.

It's the blob!
In science, we are studying chemistry, so the mess is not limited to EM's goo creation. For the first part of the school year, we spent most of our science time getting background knowledge before beginning the hands-on portion of the unit. We read all about forms of matter, the elements, atomic structure, physical and chemical changes, mixtures, compounds, acids and bases. We watched quite a few videos on the Internet. We found fun websites to expand our understanding of what we were reading. This week we finally broke out the chemistry kit I bought this summer, put on our safety glasses, and did science!

The Chemistry C500 kit has 28 experiments in the instruction manual. We completed the first four on Tuesday. These experiments all involved reactions combining acids and bases. JT had seen similar demonstrations in the past, so I expected him to complain that the kit was boring. I was happy that the little bit of extension I added kept his interest and helped him apply some of the knowledge he has been accumulating through our reading. I made up index cards with the chemical equations of the reactions. I put the reactants on one card and the products on another for each one. Then we matched the cards and discussed why these equations were balanced. Both of the boys are looking forward to moving ahead with the kit. I also have another old book, Chemistry by Experiment by Paul Roberson, that I hope to use. The biggest problem I run into with these old science books is finding the supplies they list for the experiments. Apparently you could buy a lot of fun things at the drug store in the 1960s that you can't pick up so easily now!

stick man
Tonight I took EM trick or treating alone for the first time. JT decided he was finished with that part of his childhood after Halloween last year. It was a bit of a relief considering the kinds of costumes he would request and what I had to go through to create things like angler fish, paramecium, barrels of toxic waste...

EM waited until three days before Halloween to get serious about a costume. His original plan, an archer, wasn't coming together, so I Googled 'easy Halloween costumes' and came up with the stick man idea. I really don't know where I'd be without the Internet. Halloween costume needs aside, we use this vast resource to educate our boys on a daily basis. And it doesn't hurt that it helps me connect with other homeschoolers so I don't lose my mind.