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.

Sarcasm

My daughter is what some would call sharp-witted. She has been described as precocious, sarcastic, witty, and funny by family members and friends alike. I say this not as a boast, but to set the stage for you so you’ll understand where I’m coming from. It can be a pleasure, a joy even, homeschooling a 5th grader with a penchant for sarcastic retorts. Well, it can be a joy on most days. However, there are other days – I must admit – where the last thing I want is an eye roll and a sharp comment, even if it’s said in good fun, which it always is.

I have had days where between the two year old, the four year old, and the seven year old (who is also homeschooled), that I come to my fifth grade daughter with anything BUT patience. And I sit down with her to work on her schoolwork, and she’s being sarcastic and trying my patience, without even meaning to, and I snap. I do. I tell her to get serious, get back to work, and then look up and see the hurt in her eyes.

At her age, in fifth grade, she has a knack for hurt feelings. It goes along with that age I suppose. And nothing derails a school day more than a little girl edging toward teenager with a heart full of hurt feelings. At this point, Teresa can’t concentrate on her language arts, her math, or anything else. These are the moments when I have to reassure her that I was being unfair, apologize, and then give us all a break. Take 15 minutes, step away from the schoolwork, and maybe even run around outside for a few minutes … because ultimately the problem wasn’t hers, it was mine.

She’s got a knack for the quick comeback, and I’m proud of that verbal ability of hers. And I need to remember to take 5 minutes every once in awhile, and restore some of my patience, because to do anything less than appreciate that quality in her is to do her a disservice.

Online Learning

Online learning can be a boon for some, but for others it can be the exact opposite of what they need. I’ve seen some children thrive in an online learning environment, and still others in the same family begging for books instead of the computer screen. Online learning is definitely something every family should explore, but very often it can’t be the ultimate choice. The child’s individual learning style has to be taken into account, as well as other factors.

When my daughter started her homeschooling journey, I had a boxed book-based curriculum. I very quickly found this to be too restricting and too boring for her. Being as it was only 1st grade, that didn’t matter all too much, but I knew that the following year I’d want to find something different. More often than not I found myself skipping some things and adding others, to adjust to the way my daughter liked to learn. I didn’t know then, but I was applying the fundamentals of why I wanted to homeschool to begin with.

The next year, we discovered Time4Learning, and it seemed the perfect fit for us. My daughter enjoyed the animation, and she seemed to progress much faster than when she sat down with the books. I loved seeing her progress in her studies, and I felt as though we’d made a huge step in our development as homeschoolers.

However, after about 6 months my daughter came to me and told me she missed the books and the papers she used to work on. She expressed that she didn’t just want to stare at a computer screen all day, and that she was getting bored. I was perplexed, because she was progressing well and her grades were great. However, I knew she was serious.

We spent the next few years trying a few different things out, although I always kept a Time4Learning account open; we just didn’t do it every single day. Now, my daughter is in 5th grade, and we’ve comfortably settled into – what I think – is the model that works for her and for our family.

She still does the bulk of her schoolwork online. As she progresses up in to the higher grades I feel like this is helping her to learn more and retain more. But, while doing her work online, she also takes notes and works out problems on paper. This gives her the best of both worlds, both online and book. We also have days where we take field trips, or find some outdoor educational opportunity.

She never says she’s bored anymore.

Motivation

Motivation. At one point or another we’ve all been lacking in it, and it makes any day that much tougher. Some mornings I get up and just know that it’s going to be one of those days. On those mornings I’d like to call a “teacher conference day,” or perhaps call in my substitute, but … I can’t. I’m it, and I have to drum up some motivation and get going.

I think lack of motivation is a two-fold thing. Some days are just THOSE days, and no matter what you’ll barely be able to get out of your own way. On days like those we take the path of least resistance; we try to do the kids’ favorite subjects in as lighthearted a way as possible (while still learning). Time4Learning is also wonderful for those days, because they can work at their own pace and I can check on their work after.

I’ll be honest, sometimes on those days I DO call a “teacher conference day,” or perhaps it’s a “snow day.” There is nothing to be gained from banging your head against a wall if everything seems to be going wrong and you just can’t get going. I’ve found, personally, that by taking a day off the rest of the week flows so much better that we more than make up the time. Besides, we don’t always take the real snow days off anyhow, so it all comes out in the wash.

Other times, I think motivation wanes because it’s almost time for a vacation. There is only so long you can go, and go, and go before you have to take a break. This applies to adults as well as children. Once you learn to recognize the signs of burnout it becomes easier and easier to let go and take breaks as needed.

As I’ve written in the past, we generally follow the public school schedule for vacations, simply because the kids have friends in the neighborhood that they enjoy playing with on their breaks. But homeschooling allows us the freedom to take breaks when we need them, and still finish early because we get so much more accomplished in a typical school day.

We also take our own mini-vacations as needed. It may be needed by the kids, or perhaps I need a few days off to recover my equilibrium and replenish my reserves of patience, but whatever is needed we try to attend to it. If we don’t we end up paying for it in less work getting accomplished. I’ve found that by paying attention to the needs of each individual one of us – including me – we are a happier, healthier, more productive homeschooling family.

The ability to serve the needs of your family as a whole when you’re lacking motivation is yet another reason why I love homeschooling so much. I can tailor our program to accommodate everyone and in the end we’ll all be happier … which is really the point, isn’t it?

Math

My daughter loves math. I’m quite thrilled about this. She’ll tell anyone who asks what her favorite subject is that it is math. She does have an aptitude for it, and since we started on our homeschooling journey, once she grasps a math concept, she absolutely loves doing her math work.

Notice I said “once she grasps.” That’s the key. There are days – and many of them at times – when whatever new math concept we’re tackling is about as foreign as if I were asking her to learn how to speak Martian. And that’s fine! But, she struggles with that. Now that she’s in 5th grade, she has learned many of the basic math concepts and is preparing to move onto more advanced mathematics.

Her learning style, in math, is one where she needs lots of scratch paper, lots of time, and lots of patience. She needs to see it, hear it, and write it before she can have that AHA moment. Once she has that, she’s fine, and will pass much more quickly through her work. But sometimes getting there is the problem.

When doing her online math, Teresa had to always make sure she worked out the problems on paper before she worked them on the screen. At times, this seemed to take twice as long, but I found that what that did was make it stick in her mind much better than just on paper alone or on the screen alone.

Fifth grade has proven to be an interesting turning point in many ways, and math is no exception. As she’s preparing to enter middle school next year the math has gotten tougher, and she has had to work harder. But I believe we’re seeing results in how quickly she is picking up the new concepts and how long it takes her to do so. Every day is a new journey.

Little Brothers

Little brothers … so many thoughts are conjured up with the utterance of that phrase. My daughter could probably entertain you for days with the trials and tribulations she’s endured at the hands of her three – yes three – little brothers. (When I gave birth to her third and final little brother she sighed and said “I guess I’m never getting a sister, am I?”) All in all Teresa has been pretty long suffering to the many antics of the boys, but still there are days when I’m sure she’s daydreaming about another girl in the house, or perhaps being an only on the really challenging days.

While some days are better than others, there have certainly been moments when having that many little ones underfoot makes for a challenging homeschooling experience. The boys are 2, 4, 7 – and in 2nd grade, and then there’s Teresa, in 5th grade at 11 years old. Constant interruptions and background noise (screaming, fighting, playing, etc) make for a very interesting school day.

At first, when we were starting out and I just had one little brother for her to contend with it seemed almost impossible. Her brother was into everything and I felt as though I were pulled in too many different directions. Frustration abounded in those days, and I even entertained thoughts of giving up homeschooling altogether. I can’t quite say how we moved past those early days, but over time and with the addition of two more brothers we seem to have fallen into a rhythm.

I’ve learned that the most important factor of homeschooling with other little ones around is not to be too committed to a schedule. I have things I want to accomplish but I look at the entire week rather than a day by day itinerary. This way I don’t let one day of interruptions discourage me from continuing. Some days we can literally tear through a pile of work, and on other days we might only get to one subject. And I’ll put my hand up and admit that yes, I have curtailed school in the first 15 minutes when I sense that we are just getting nowhere that day.

On the flip side of this, there are so many benefits to having the constant activity swirling around while we do school. I’d like to think that we’re teaching the kids to multitask no matter what is going on around them.

A good friend of mine reminded me of something just recently. What I had been calling “interruptions” were actually yet another learning experience for my daughter. For the hundreds of times she has stopped work to help out the 2 year old, get a lost toy for the 4 year old, or explain something to the 7 year old she has learned things they can’t teach in books: patience, kindness, respect, love. When my 2 year old woke up crying the other night and reached his arms out to his big sister, finding comfort in her arms, I realized we’ve been on the right track all along.

Learning To Read

When my daughter was learning to read, it was an eye-opening experience. Of course I started with the basics: phonics. Introducing letters and the sounds they made was a simple job. She learned them quickly. But that was when the real work began. I soon found that the act of stringing the sounds together to make words wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It seemed that we pushed on for weeks with her sounding out words like c-a-t but never making them come together to form “cat.” I remember getting very discouraged, thinking somehow I was doing it wrong. I even began to question my decision to homeschool, thinking that I must not have what it takes if I couldn’t do the most simple of acts in teaching my oldest child to read.

Then, one day, it was as though someone flipped a light switch. “Cat.” “Dog.” You name it, she was suddenly reading it. We tore through anything we could get our hands on. I felt much better about homeschooling, and as she progressed from early reader to strong reader, many aspects of homeschooling became easier.

And then along came my second child, my son. Although he is different than his sister in every way, for some reason I made the assumption that teaching him to read would go much the way it had with his sister. At the beginning, it did. We started with a solid foundation of phonics, and started to take the next step into forming words. At that point we hit a brick wall. For some reason, my son had the hardest time putting the sounds together. We worked and worked, but for all our efforts he was reduced to frustration and even tears at times. I’ll admit there were days I cried too. Again, I questioned my ability to homeschool, at least with my son.

But, just as I was thinking he would never read, again someone flipped that light switch. One day, it just all made sense to him. Again, I was filled with relief that I hadn’t failed my child in teaching him to read. However, after a few weeks I was confused by the fact that he didn’t seem to be progressing past rudimentary sounding out words.

My son loves to play video games. His favorite is The Legend of Zelda, which involves a lot of reading. Up to this point, he had always asked me to read it to him. That’s when the epiphany struck: the next time he asked me to read, I told him “No. You either have to read it yourself or you can’t play.” So he started trying to read the dialogue in Zelda, and something amazing happened. His reading progressed exponentially in a very short time. Within months, not only was he reading proficiently, but he could read fast and retain basically everything he read. To this day he is an amazing reader.

Watching my son learn to read well through playing a video game taught me not to reject any learning opportunities, as off-the-wall as they may seem. His love of the Zelda game inspired him to try harder than any schoolbook I could give him, and I learned to let him follow his interests more.