Woodshop

When I was in 5th grade, I attended a public school. In that school, I took – as all the kids in my class did – a woodshop class. I can vividly remember disliking that class intensely. I didn’t want to build those little boxes, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable around the power tools, and I especially wasn’t in the mood to build those little wooden boxes that we all had to build. And, as I recall, my box fell apart before I even got it home that day. Perhaps woodshop wasn’t the class for me?

In homeschooling, we don’t try to copy everything the public school does, and I don’t want to. And so I certainly never considered adding “woodshop” to my 5th grade daughter’s homeschool curriculum. Nor do I want her to have a similar experience with power tools and wooden boxes that fall apart in about 3 hours. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little variety into the day, and I’m sure she would enjoy the break from the books. Still, I’m not really into the whole woodshop idea.

Last weekend, though, my husband took her outside to work on a birdhouse she had wanted to build. They assembled the pieces from scratch: measured, cut (with help), nailed, glued, until the pieces of wood took shape into a cute birdhouse with a perch for a bird outside the hole. Once that was done, she sanded the pieces and took her time painting it, and then added designing touches to make it her own. I was thrilled both with the time my daughter was spending with her father, and with what she had accomplished with his help.

That’s when I realized what she had done. She had done so much more than I had been able to do in that woodshop class. She had not only learned a great deal about building with my husband’s careful guidance, but she had a great memory of the experience. That’s one of the great things about homeschooling: instead of a classroom full of people you may or may not enjoy spending time with, she had the loving teaching of her dad to show her how to build this birdhouse, and that’s something she’ll remember forever. That’s much better than my memory of the box that fell apart!

Video Games

I can already see you rolling your eyes at me. How can I suggest video games as a learning tool, or even as part of our homeschool curriculum? Well, maybe part of the curriculum is a bit too much of a stretch, but … we have definitely found some advantages to video games, and have gained from letting the kids play them. In one of my past blogs about reading, I told how my son’s reading skills were advanced simply by his desire to play a game. In this blog I’d like to expand on that, and show how many different games can be used as an aid.

When my son was in first grade his favorite game was The Legend of Zelda. Actually, that’s still his favorite game, but I digress. The Zelda series has, by its design, quite a bit of reading as part of the game. It’s a game of both skill and thinking, and reading is a necessity to play. When he first started playing, either I or his older sister would read him the dialogue, and help him to think it through. I reasoned, at the time, that he was only 6 years old and a beginning reader, so it was only reasonable to help him along in this way.

Then we hit a snag in his schooling. His reading skills stalled at beginner; he couldn’t seem to move past slowly sounding words out, and I was at a loss as to what to do. Then one afternoon, when he asked me to again read the words from Zelda to him, I came to a realization. I told him no. I explained to him that he was now learning to read, and if he wanted to continue playing his favorite game, he would have to read the words himself.

And so, for the next few weeks, pushed by his desire to play and love of that game, he started reading all those words. And an amazing thing happened: his reading improved. And then it improved more. And by the time a few months had gone by, he had gone from barely reading to reading quite well, and all through The Legend of Zelda.

My 5th grade daughter found another game called World of Goo. This game is an interesting one, and at first I was skeptical when I heard other homeschoolers talk about how great it was for learning. The object is to get all these little balls of goo basically from one side of the screen to the other, but to do so you have to build connecting lines and towers. But that’s where the learning comes in. These towers of goo respond correctly to physics and weight, so my daughter, while having fun, was learning spatial relationships, physics, and gravity in a setting I could never duplicate. The younger ones enjoy watching for the fun aspect, but she has learned so much through just this game.

All in all, I’d say some video games have useful things to teach our kids, if we let them.

Holiday Vacation

Christmas, Christmas time is here … so it’s that time of year again, and of course my children are bursting with Christmas spirit. More to the point, they’re full to the point of bursting with excitement over their soon-to-arrive presents! I have to admit that I’ve given in to the temptation to hold Christmas over their heads, as in: “Get your schoolwork done” or “Clean your room, or Santa isn’t going to bring presents!” I always feel guilty after using such blatant coercion but I can’t seem to help myself.

In other news, my daughter has reported to me at least a dozen times what day Christmas vacation starts for her friend, the girl next door who attends public school. She was literally counting down the minutes until Christmas vacation started and they have TWO WHOLE WEEKS OFF!!! (Emphasis added by her.)

So how to handle school vacations? When my daughter was younger, and more unaware of the public school’s schedule, I very often worked her right through many a “school vacation week.” My reasoning was twofold: to end our school year even sooner, and to not stop if we were in the middle of learning something new. However, she soon made friends at Girl Scouts and in the neighborhood, and it was hard to sit and do school with kids knocking on our door wanting to play.

Even though we follow most of the public school’s vacation schedule, we still finish at the beginning of May, which is nice, I must admit. In light of this fact, this year I started our Christmas break a full 4 days earlier than our public school counterparts. I’ve gone round and round with why I did this, but the full truth is very simple: we have family coming over for the holidays in a few short days, and typically I can either: homeschool and clean the basics, or take a day off school and REALLY clean.

Just because we’re not sitting down with books I’ve found that we can still learn a great deal even if we’re not “doing school.” My daughter loves learning about the origins of holidays, so I’ve gathered both her and her little brother to learn about the origins of all the holidays at this time of year, and the various ways they’re celebrated around the world. This didn’t take me long at all in my holiday cleaning/cooking schedule; I simply went online and printed out some printable worksheets for them to do. Since my daughter is in 5th grade and can handle more advanced material she gets the meatier stuff, and for my son in 2nd grade he has simple word searches and vocabulary sheets pertaining to the holidays. After they finish their sheets my daughter condenses down the history she read and tells her brother all about it.

This year promises to be a great holiday season. We’ve put away our regular studies, the house is shaping up – as much as a house with 4 kids can shape up – and the kids are happy AND learning.

Happy Holidays!

Tweens

Ahhh, tweens. That lovely age of not yet being a teenager, not quite still a child. My daughter is plowing through her fifth grade homeschool curriculum, and is fully in the throes of entering “tweenhood.” If that isn’t a word yet, it should be. We go from sweet happy child one day to moody contrary tween the next. When you add homeschooling into that interesting mix, it can be a bit difficult to navigate. I’ve found this year to be, in many ways, our most challenging homeschool year yet, but the challenges have absolutely nothing to do with the actual homeschooling. It’s all in the growing and changing of my fifth grade daughter.

When first considering homeschooling, and eventually deciding to do it, I never considered the many ways the passing years could affect the way we homeschool. But I’ve learned that to be the case. Back when my daughter was in first or second grade, I can remember her coming cheerfully to the table and doing her work, and the only waves we encountered were when she couldn’t master a topic. But giggles and smiles were the order of the day. It was a sweet time.

Now, things are a bit different. I wouldn’t say she’s sullen, but what I would say is that moods play more of a role in our day than they ever did. She is still a pleasant, agreeable girl; I’m fairly certain she always will be. It’s just her nature. But there are days when I find her practically in tears or scowling down at her paper. Fearing the worst, I will ask her what is wrong, and it could be anything from her pet rabbit that died three years ago to something one of her friends said just the day before. Obviously, these things are very real and important to her, so even though schoolwork must be completed, it can’t be while she’s in the storm of these emotional ups and downs.

So we stop. When she needs to, the schoolwork goes away, and we work on her. We talk, and I let her open up, and through it all I hope she’s coming to learn that she can always, always talk to me about anything. And yes, some weeks we end up falling behind where I wanted to be with the schoolwork, but I think in the end what she’s gained is more important: the knowledge that her mom will always be there when she needs a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.

After Halloween

So, it’s the day after Halloween: do you know what your child is doing? Well, I can tell you what my four children are doing. They’re tearing through their Halloween candy as though candy will be illegal tomorrow. Although I question the wisdom of letting them eat so much candy in a single sitting – and I’m anticipating stomachaches in our immediate future – our dentist actually told us it’s better for them to let them eat it all, brush their teeth, and be done with it, rather than to have a few pieces a day. Less chance of decay, I’m assuming.

My daughter has been steadily working on her fifth grade work, fueled in part by the sugar she collected last night in her trick or treat bag. I’m deluding myself, in a way, into thinking this is helping because she’s definitely extra energetic, although this too shall pass. (Disclaimer: I don’t normally feed my children junk nor do I let them subsist solely on sugar. Halloween, as they say, comes but once a year). In fact, I had to rouse her out of bed extra early today because we’ve fallen behind in a few subjects, so I thought the extra time – and yes, the sugar – might help her to pick up the pace a bit so we can catch up.

Besides, there’s more to this than simple sugar rushes. I have a plan to go with this bag of candy. After she catches up on her necessary work, I have an ulterior motive. With a bit of Googling, I’m going to print her out some pages on the history of Halloween, and the different ways it is celebrated around the world. That’s a timely lesson on a holiday that she has so thoroughly enjoyed, especially this year.

But I’m not going to stop there. I think, as a little health lesson, we’ll also spend some time homeschooling online, learning about teeth, cavities, and the effect of sugar on those precious pearly whites in her mouth. She’s had some not so wonderful experiences at the dentist already, and having a few fillings I think some lessons about what sugar will do to her teeth – not that she doesn’t already know, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded – will go a long way to her remembering to brush well after the candy explosion.

Speaking of sugar, there are more ways it affects the body than just super high dentist bills. We may have to do this tomorrow, depending on when she finishes her work today, but I think her curriculum would be greatly enhanced by learning the affect of sugar on the body in general. Fifth grade isn’t too early, I don’t think, to learn about digestion, the insulin response, blood sugar spikes, etc. That might also help her to understand why she feels so unwell after a binge on candy … and why she just handed me her candy bag and said “No more for me – I’m done!”

Halloween

It’s that time of year again – Halloween! The kids are beyond excited at the prospect of costumes, trick or treating, and – of course – candy. Here at our house, we started the preparations exceptionally early this year, with the kid discussing costume choices while they were still running through the sprinkler in August. We take Halloween seriously in this house, and so the kids take their costume choices seriously as well. Add to that the additional consideration of who has grown out of what, and the necessity of starting the costume choices early becomes all the more clear.

I made the annual trip to the basement family room to find our bin of Halloween costumes. Since I have a girl and 3 boys (in that order), the boys usually just pass costumes down the line to each other as they grow. My daughter usually has a few costumes to choose from, and since she tends to grow more slowly than the boys we don’t often have to buy her a new one. This year, however, she rejected her pirate and witch costumes in favor of being Selena Gomez, the teen tv and music star. Homeschooling has definitely not affected her ability to be tuned into what other kids her age are into, so she chose the teen star as her costume this year. This proved to be a challenging costume, because Selena Gomez dresses like most teenage girls. So my daughter and I spent some time Googling images of Selena, and she finally settled on an outfit she wore in one of her videos. From there, we had to put the outfit together without spending too much money, which wasn’t that hard once I was able to locate stores online that had reasonable facsimiles of the shirts she wore. All that was needed at that point was a microphone, and voila: teen pop star Halloween costume.

My oldest son was heartbroken to discover that he had grown out of not only his Jango Fett costume – beloved costume of the last 3 Halloweens – but also his Darth Vader costume. Being a diehard Star Wars fan, he took it quite hard. However, down in the bin we found a Spiderman costume that was too big last year, but this year fits quite nicely. He warmed to the idea and so his costume was set. Coincidentally, he had grown out of a Spiderman costume 2 years ago that we still have, so his younger brother decided to wear that, and so we had matching Spidermen.

That only left the baby, the two year old. He has inherited so many hand-me-down costumes that we had a hard choice. He made the most adorable Yoda anyone has ever seen, but ultimately he settled on being a knight, complete with foam sword, axe, and shield. And it turned out to be a fantastic choice: he looked great.

Our homeschooled children visited 3 different Halloween celebrations – including Halloween itself – 2 of which were with their public schooled friends. I’d like to think they got even more “socialization” than their friends, simply by virtue of having more flexible schedules to attend all the festivities.

Happy Halloween!

Those OTHER subjects

Those OTHER subjects – you know the ones I mean, right? Music, art, computer, physical education … these are the subjects that so often get left behind in even the most well-intentioned homeschool curriculum. I can remember telling friends and family alike that our kids would have the best teaching in these particular subjects because my husband and I are both self-avowed “computer geeks,” he’s an artist so that should cover art, I play piano so music should be a cinch, and kids play outside, so that covers physical education, right? Well, as I’m learning lately, not so much. Fast forward a few years, and I think we’ve been neglecting some areas of these subjects.

Art, I think, hasn’t been neglected, at least with my daughter. She has exhibited natural ability in this area, so I guess instead of teaching art I’ve kind of let her follow her own path in this area, which was actually a very good choice. She is always building, drawing, creating, crocheting, I can’t even begin to name all the ways in which she artistically expresses herself. It’s amazing to watch. Still, an actual art curriculum is never a bad thing to add.

On the other hand, my son dislikes art, and so I haven’t really pushed him to do much in the way of art. In his younger years he wouldn’t even finish coloring a picture because he disliked it so much. I realized recently that I’ve done him a disservice in this area by not encouraging him to find a mode of expression he enjoys.

Computer skills, in our home, have definitely been one area where we’ve done well. With 7 computers in the home and one in each child’s bedroom, they couldn’t avoid learning how to use the computer. In this area I feel confident that they’ve learned as much or more than they would have in a public school setting.

Music is another story. Although I play piano I haven’t yet brought my piano from my dad’s house where it is, so without realizing it I used that as the ever present excuse to not start any formal music training, or even singing songs, unless you count singing along with the radio. Again, here is an area that I’ve allowed to slide by the wayside, and that needs to change.

And then there’s physical education. I deluded myself into thinking the kids could play in the backyard and that would be enough. They also play sports in the community, but since they only play baseball and softball, that’s only in the spring and early summer. Our daughter went to her first school dance the other night with some of her friends from the public school, and her legs hurt for days after from the two hours of dancing. That made me realize that perhaps they need a little more structured physical activity if dancing hurt her leg muscles.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m feeling that the other subjects need some attention from our homeschool program as well. And perhaps this will add some needed variety to our days!

Staring Out the Window

Some days you just don’t want to sit at a desk and do work. Or, conversely, you don’t want to stare at a computer screen. I can remember plenty of days in my school career where I would stare out the window longingly at the larger world outside, and wish beyond anything to just not be in that classroom. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t learn much on those days. Once in a while, a teacher would take the classroom outside, and we’d sit in the fresh air and sunshine, which helped, but still … that wasn’t what I needed.

As homeschoolers, we have the freedom and flexibility, to a point, to allow the kids to have that time outside when they need it. There are days when I just look at my kids and know that we won’t be learning much at all if they don’t soak up some sun, and perhaps run around for a few hours. My 5th grade daughter will sometimes come to me in the middle of a science lesson, or perhaps math, and just say “Mama, I really need a break. Can I go outside?” Sometimes I’m tempted to say no; because I’m afraid we’ll lose progress or fall behind in where we need to be. But then I remember staring out that window when I was in school, and say yes.

There are other ways to allow that time out of the homeschooling classroom, and yet still continue learning, often without them even knowing. Today, for instance, I’m planning to take the kids to a local science museum. It’s about an hour away, and we have a family membership that I’d like to take full advantage of. We recently got about a foot of snow, so the kids have gotten a little stir crazy since it’s been too cold to play outside for long.

At the science museum, the kids learn – without even realizing it – about sound and how it carries across long distances, shadows, constructing with Lego’s, mixing different substances, and much, much more. They run around excitedly “playing,” yet learning valuable science lessons that I can’t duplicate at home. My daughter, of course, gleans the most from this, and talks about it all the way home every time we go.

Tomorrow, we can pick the exhibit she found the most interesting, and do a little research online so she can learn even more. Then, I’ll have her write a paper or perhaps do a little project, which she’ll be thrilled to do because it involves something she found so fun and interesting.

And it’s all because I let her out of the classroom when she stared longingly out the window.

Spelling

Spelling is the bane of my homeschooling existence. Yes, I just said that. My daughter – bless her heart – is a terrible speller. Well, I should say she is a phonetic speller, just like my husband. (He once gave me a card in which he wrote “Happy Easter Sweetheart.” This has given me years of teasing material!) Unfortunately I’m what most people call a “living spell check,” and living with phonetic spellers is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard.

The worst part about this is I feel as though somehow it reflects poorly on me as a homeschool teacher. This may or may not be correct, but I feel as though people see my daughter spell and then instantly judge my abilities to teach her. I find myself justifying her spelling, explaining it, making excuses for it, even trying to hide it, but the fact of the matter is – it is hard.

Most likely, all of these judgments that I’m sure people are making are all in my head. Kids don’t all have excellent spelling, and there is still plenty of time to correct her spelling waywardness. I think many homeschoolers – myself included – have a tendency to be extra hard on themselves. In a way, that is very good, because the weight of our children’s education is very much on our shoulders. But we shouldn’t let that become a layer of guilt that bears down on us.

In reality, if I’m honest, the only real honest judgment has been from a few well meaning family members, who use anything they possibly can to “encourage” us to put the kids in public school. Everyone has these people in their lives, and we’ve learned to mostly ignore them. When it comes to the spelling issue, though, I have a hard time. I just don’t see the results I want to see in that area, and it makes me wonder.

My daughter has picked up on some of this, and recently started announcing to people that she is “a bad speller.” That’s what really made me realize that perhaps I’ve been approaching this the wrong way. The absolute last thing I ever wanted was for her to feel badly about herself, and I’m fairly certain negativity will not help her in our quest to improve spelling. If it takes me years, what I want out her homeschooling experience – besides a good education – is for her to have a great self image, because I feel that is a big part of how far you go in life.

I think perhaps the real problem is that I just haven’t found the correct way to teach her spelling. The whole list of spelling words on Monday, activities all week, test on Friday thing has never worked for her. But that’s just one method: there are computer programs, online learning games, printouts … I could even incorporate spelling into our daily life. That’s just another great part of homeschooling; if the educational shoe doesn’t fit, then try on another one!

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry can be hard on any family, but it’s that much harder in a homeschooling family, especially when you’re teaching multiple children. We’ve had our share of struggles with sibling rivalry, and although the struggles are of course outweighed by the joys of siblings we still have to find ways to accomplish our schoolwork.

Little BROTHERS. That’s what my daughter says, quite frequently, whenever she is interrupted, pulled on, called out to, or otherwise bothered. She has definitely put up with her fair share of little brotherliness without TOO much complaining. I’m tempted to say she might even enjoy the break if the little brother is interrupting something she wasn’t really in the mood to work on, but I won’t go that far.

Our first – or possibly second – year of homeschooling was a definite challenge. Teresa’s little brother was about 2 or 3 and busy busy busy. It was hugely frustrating to work with her and keep him entertained. Now she’s in 5th grade, that busy little brother is in 2nd grade, and we still have a 4 year old and a 2 year old to contend with … life has gotten much more interesting.

There are times when I have the two older kids at the table where I can identify the rivalry at work. My daughter is the least guilty of this at her age, so most often it is her younger brother – the 2nd grader – who will initiate it. If he thinks I’ve spent too much time with my daughter he’ll suddenly “forget” something basic to get me over to where he’s working. As I try to teach him this thing he “forgot” again, my daughter will sense that I’m perhaps being played and call me back. This begins the push and pull that can derail even the best of school days.

Once we start down that track, add in a 4 year old who wants to be 10 but can’t quite stop being 4 and a 2 year old who is 2 in EVERY sense of the word, and you have a recipe for something that’s a cross between chaos and a headache. In the midst of all this I have to somehow impart the day’s lessons and not get too frazzled, which isn’t always easy to accomplish.

With all that being said, this is one of the myriad of reasons that certain people point to as a downside to homeschooling. But I respectfully beg to differ. In the “real world” you have interruptions, multiple things vying for your attention, and yes, your siblings exist there too. Perhaps learning in an environment that is as varied as the outside world will help to prepare for it that much more? I think so.

So the next time my daughter complains about her “Little BROTHERS” I’ll just remind her that in their own small way, they’re helping her learn. I’m pretty sure I can predict the response I’ll get, but I’ll say it anyhow.