March 31, 2010

Field Trips

Our family loves field trips and we have gone on many through the years. September and October tend to be big field trip months for us as so few people are at all the best locations. Not many schools take field trips in the first few weeks of fall as they are settling into a school routine so it is a perfect time to schedule and attend field trips as a homeschool family.

Recently we went to a beekeeping and candlemaking trip that the kids really enjoyed. We learned all about beekeeping and the different kinds of bees. We learned about how important bees are and how many of our crops will not do as well without them decreasing food production here in the United States. We also learned about the various kinds of honey made (varied by the pollen of different plants) and all about how the hive works and where beeswax comes from. The kids then got to make a hand dipped beeswax candle and see the beeboxes. They all enjoyed this one though it was quite a drive from where we live.

This week we went to the Raptor Center here in Minnesota and learned about owls and various raptors. They got to see several kinds of owls, hawks, and bald eagles. They dissected owl pellets and learned some interesting facts about owls and raptors as well as received the "take care of your environment" message from someone other than me, which is always a good thing. Sirah LOVES owls and it was the first time I have seen her reaching out of her seat with her hand up in the air. We had a talk about that on the way home as at times she was excessive and I explained why that was not good. However, the enthusiasm that represented was encouraging to me. It was her request that led us to the field trip in the first place.

Teaching in Secret

This week Maria pulled a textbook off the shelf in our home library and asked me why she has never had Literature as a subject? She said "I need to have that so why don't you teach me that, other 5 graders have it as a subject, why not me?" It is true I have never taught "literature" as a separate subject. I thought this was ironic coming from a girl who reads non-stop and I continually run out of good reading material for. I responded by asking the following questions.

What is a protagonist?
What is an antagonist?
What is a character foil?
Can you tell me about exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement of a book?
What is theme? Character? Setting?

It was then she realized I have been teaching her this subject just secretly for a long time. She knows how to answer those questions for both books and films. She has to answer these questions regularly this semester especially in her book club that I organize, in her film criticism coop class that I teach and just in regular conversation about books she is reading.

I told her I do teach you this subject I just call it Star Wars or Narnia and you never realized the formal name for what seemed easy to you was actually a subject called literature. I recently taught two classes at our homeschool cooperative - one about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the other a film class looking at the films of the Star Wars saga. We used the Freytags pyramid in both these classes often while I never called it that or introduced it as that.

I reminded her that when we go to the library I hand her a selection of books I want her to read before she gets to read one of her choice. We read aloud a book together and talk about what the meaning of certain passages are or we compare one author to another in our regular discussion. All of these things are teaching you literature.

So why did I never introduce it as a separate subject? Why no text? Why no big deal about it? I suppose because it was easier and more fun this way. There was never anything scary about learning or teaching it this way. It was natural and easy and truthfully fun. When we get around to her reading Shakespeare later it will be easy to understand who the protagonist is because she already understands Anakin Skywalker and why he played that role in the Star Wars saga. Charting a book or film using the above triangle will seem easy because she has done it for so long and learned the triangle and terms after she already understood what would go on there just because she understands how a story is written and plays out.

This past year we have been very fortunate to have a great group of her friends who really love reading meeting once a month for a book club. We have been part of book clubs before and none of my kids really enjoyed them because they felt they were more play dates then book discussion. This one is different. These kids can easily talk 45 mins to an hour each time about the book, author, literary terms and all the above mentioned topics and it is not like pulling teeth. Why? They all love to read and they get to pick the books. They all pick big thick and often fairly well written books that are filled with lots of great discussion topics. We tend to spend a lot of time in the fantasy and science fiction genres because they are most interesting to this particular group of kids. It has been a joy.

So yes I often teach in secret and later on my kids realize I was teaching. I prefer to do it this way whenever possible, though it is not often possible I know. Going back to my college studies I always had an affinity for Socrates and his approach of teaching the student by leading them naturally down a road until they realize they already knew something themselves. It seems to hold more weight with a student when they discover something for themselves. So I teach in secret and later will admit I was teaching all along.

When my kids were really little and learning their letters I would play the letter of the week game. Each week we would literally "play" with a letter. I had a cardboard box where we kept new household items each week all starting from just one letter. We would read books all week with topics and names that all started with the same letter. It was fun and it was easy. All through our week we would keep track of all the words around us we could think of that started with the letter of the week. This did a lot of things. It helped teach my kids their letters and sounds but it also built their vocabulary quite a bit and made our reading branch out into a wider variety of areas. I might not have picked up a book on armadillos had it not been a week, and I am not sure we ever would have tried quince if it had not been for Q week. Mostly though it started a habit of teaching my kids without them realizing I was teaching them through having fun together.

I need to get back to doing that more with my younger kids especially. Board games are a great way to teach in secret as are nature walks which we do a lot of. I suppose teaching in secret sounds bad or deceitful which is not my intent. Others will call it using teachable moments. Sometimes though if my kids discover I am trying to do a "Teachable moment" they will shut down where if I can keep it more natural and indiscoverable they seem more receptive. What subjects to you find you often teach in secret on?

March 30, 2010

"Mom, how do you spell...."

How many times a day do you hear those words? I hear them often. Each time I remind myself I am thankful my children want to spell correctly so they ask. I am thankful that I can answer their questions and help them. Sometimes though I grow weary and want to secretly mumble under my breath or pull my hair out after being asked how to spell every word in a sentence, knowing there are many more sentences to come.

Today I introduced my son to the Rainbow Dictionary and my day became a bit quieter. This is an old school kids dictionary published in the 1940's so it is not up to date. Really though how up to date does the dictionary of my 9 year old need to be? All of my kids have enjoyed this dictionary because it has pictures, not many words but all the ones they seem to need, it is easy to use and understand.

After being asked about 10 words in about as many minutes I showed him the dictionary and taught him how he could use it himself. He actually enjoyed doing it, I think he liked the freedom of being able to find out his answer and not needing to admit he was unsure of how to spell words he was writing in his letter. I still got the occasional follow up question but only about 3 more times through the course of the letter. Then I only had to give him the first 2 or 3 letters of the word and he looked it up and copied it himself.

Ahhhh the joy of a dictionary. Maria at about this age decided she wanted to read that dictionary for fun so she did. That always made me think of the scene in Say Anything where Lloyd flips through her dictionary amazed at how many words she read. I am doubtful Ciaran will make the same choice but I am happy he is excited to use it and was able to learn the skill quickly and now my day is slightly quieter in that one area.

I will still hear "Mom, how....." probably another 20 times today at least but that is what I am here for. I will take joy in the small victory in this one area today.

March 29, 2010

Thoughts from my deck

It has been a long time since I could blog comfortably from my deck with the sun shining and a comforting breeze blowing my hair, today I can. Perhaps for some blogging outdoors barefoot in high 50's would seem very cold but after a long Minnesota winter it feels positively refreshing.

Clear blue skies, birds chirping, sun gently sharing the last of the days rays with me, seems a calm way to spend the few moments of quiet I can steal for this day. Back to school Monday after a sugar filled and late night birthday while the rest of the neighborhood kids are all running around outside off for their spring break seemed like a recipe for disaster this morning but we muddled through.

The thought of throwing in the towel did cross my mind before we even began the day. The house was a mess from last night, kids public school friends called to see if we could go swimming in the middle of the day and no one wanted to focus on anything remotely educational. It would be easy just take a day off and make it up later, why not?

They why not is because as warm as it is to me right now sunny 75 degree May days are not that far away. Days when my kids really do not want to be indoors working and when it would be nice to follow our tradition of finishing school in the first or second week of May. The freedom of May forces me to look at the reality of where we are in our educational plan for the year and keeps me motivated to work through our neighbors spring break. Besides we essentially took a spring break in Colorado a few weeks ago. Sure we did some school on the road and a touch of it at our families home but not much so onward march forward this morning much to everyone's disappointment.

The day actually turned out to be better than I expected. The kids realized school was going to happen one way or another and decided quickly and painlessly would be preferably to long and dragged out. That is always a positive development when it occurs and one wonders why they do not always realize that. The promise of a history documentary as a reward actually helped smooth things over as well. Yes I did not say the "torture" of a historical dvd. My kids actually really enjoy watching what I call "edutainment" entertainment with some educational value, maybe it is because we so rarely watch TV they are happy to settle for whatever we throw their way :) We watched the beginning of a made for TV miniseries on Marco Polo as we just finished up studying the Khan's and Marco Polo.

The beginning of the DVD was fairly good for a TV history documentary and the kids were very engaged and commenting on what they learned in history and what was being presented. We had to stop watching when it got to the romance portion of the film mostly because it explains things that would be inappropriate for young audiences such as multiple women being brought to the king and crimes committed by the kings armies. Thankfully I realized it was coming and stopped the film before it got to those points. I will continue watching and see if I can resume the film anywhere along the way for them to get any more out of it.

While we were sitting there watching and discussing the film and the girls were knitting and I was folding laundry I thought about what a different sort of education the kids are getting and how thankful I am for the opportunities we have right now in homeschooling them. Even in the little comments like Sirah (age 6) saying "that must be coal" when marco saw the rock that brought fire, or Ciaran (age 9) talking about the caravans on The Silk Road, or Maria (age 10) trying to explain why flashbacks are used in a film or book to make the story more interesting. We kept pausing the film to make comments or have discussions and it just seemed to happen naturally. I love those teachable moments and being able to take advantage of them as they arise and create an environment in which they can easily happen.

Serona and I were recently discussing our long term goals for our kids education. In the long term there are 3 main goals:

1. Research
They need to be able to research and learn anything they want or need to. They need to have the tools and abilities to know how to find the answer to any question they may come up against in life. They need to have excellent critical thinking skills to be able to tell good and bad research apart from each other and understand how to spot biases in positions and be able to synthesize the materials they collect in a logical way.

2. Argument
They need to have the ability to create good arguments and positions. They need to have the abilities and tools to translate their research into well thought out positions and be able to put that all together in an organized fashion. Essentially they need to understand how to take the research, make sense of it as it fits into the world at large and the particular circumstances and then bring it all together.

3. Presentation Skills
They need to be able to present their research and arguments in a variety of written and oral communication styles. They need to understand when and how to present information to different people and how best to express and relate their knowledge. They need to be able to translate and utilize all that knowledge somehow.

There are other things they need to understand and we know a solid education will give them. There are skills they simply need to have during their education, things they have to memorize just because (like multiplication tables) and test taking skills are important as well. In the end though if we can help our children become life long learners with the above skill set I will feel we did a pretty good job overall of educating our children.

Someone told me start with the end in mind and work backwards, those are skills I hope my adult children have in the long run. Those are some of my thoughts from my deck on this sunny day in Minnesota.

March 27, 2010

Ciaran is 9

Today we celebrate Ciaran and all his energy and enthusiasm for life. He is one of the most affable kids I know. He has never met a person, old or young that he can not talk with. His big broad smile helps charm us all and look the other way when the mischievous side takes over. He is inventive and creative and innovative, always building something or thinking about that next thing he can do. This is an encouraging combination with his mathematical mind, he just naturally picks up math concepts very quickly.

He loves baseball and can't wait for his season to begin soon. Biking, roller blading, skateboarding, anything with wheels or quick moving are favorites of his. Fencing, swimming, rock climbing are some others. Video games are a favorite past time, current favorites are Mario Brothers for Wii and MLB All Stars for Wii. Musically he is learning to play piano at his own pace and keeps eying the guitar to want to try out soon.

I keep telling him to "stay little" because soon he will seem so tall to me and eventually he will tower over me I would guess. The last year of single digits and the start of that transition to a teenager and eventually a young man. Still he is still very much a little boy and will leap in my lap for a snuggle, wrap his arms around me tightly for a hug or stand near me so I can still tousle his hair. I will miss those things and need to spend a lot of this time treasuring them.

Still watching him grow up, develop friendships, mature, and have fun is such a special opportunity. I am so thankful I am home with him and get to spend as much time with him as I do. Even when his energy and his enthusiasm for irritating his sisters gets under my nerves I still love that I am with him all the time. In many ways little seems to change from year to year as you walk the journey with them you see very little change from year to year.

The biggest positive change I can see this year in him is he learned to love reading. The boy who would never read anything unless absolute forced and then only by counting pages and minutes can now be found in his bed in the mornings reading a book or telling me just one more minute while I finish my chapter. Not sure what caused this transition but eventually he found some books he liked and discovered there are other interesting worlds there in those pages. We could barely pull him from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Eragon. Books I never could have imagined him looking at much less reading last year. I still remember taking away all electronics in first grade until he would buckle down to read and thinking we were never going to get out of bob books and primary phonics books. Amazing to think less than two years later he read a 700+ page book! Encouragement for any of you with slower to come around readers.

My heart has such a soft spot for Ciaran and his energy and enthusiasm and the loudness with which he attacks life. I am tired sometimes just being around him and I am always amazed at how he can just keep going and going and never seem to tire. His volume level is loud, louder and loudest. Yet he brings a joy and smile to my face every day. He warms my heart every time he smiles or runs into me with a head butting hug, even though they are starting to hurt from his strength.

Today we take him and his friends to the Mall of America to enjoy the rides and then home for cake, ice cream and hours of playing Wii, a perfect party for him and what he asked for. Much has changed in the past 9 years still I have had glimpses of the boy in front of me since he was about 2 years old when his nature and these traits started to really show through. Amazing.

I love you Ciaran, thanks for being such an amazing little boy and awesome son!

March 25, 2010

The Kids Asked Me to Blog

You know something is off when the kids ask you why you have stopped blogging and would you please start doing it again? I am still trying to understand why my almost 9 yo son decided this was important but I will give it a more faithful go again. I am thinking I need to get back to just shorter regular bursts. It is not that I do not have anything to write about it is often I think it will take too much time and then I never start, you know the Type A part of my personality that many of you can relate to. If anyone even still reads this blog since I have left it fairly defunct over the past year or two.

In honor of spring here in Minnesota I can try for a new beginning again. The snow has melted and my kids can resume being outdoors for more than a half hour at a time. My sanity and peace of mind return around this time of year as well :) All around I think we feel more inspired, like coming back to life after a long rest. In many ways I really feel like winter here is like a hibernation for everyone. We still get out occasionally but something just is off and all of a sudden the switch gets flipped and everyone has energy again and everyone is outside and together again. Neighbors walking dogs or just visiting in the yard together, kids on bikes, baseballs and basketballs flying around the neighborhood, the smell of bonfires in the air. Life going on around me all the time.

Ciaran turns 9 this week. I started this blog when he was 2 years old, how crazy is that? So much has changed in these past 7 years and in other ways things feel the same. I am amazed we still live in Minnesota, a place I never would have picked off the map and knew only was "the hat" on the map when we moved here. We are still homeschooling which I did not know what to expect at all when we started. We are a family that still shares basically the same values though we have grown and matured during these years. Those of you who wondered many years ago if my kids would ever stop nursing or get out of my bed I can honestly say they do eventually and all have, I told you then it would happen before college :) We still read a ton and I still keep lists though I have not published them in a long time. I keep yearly lists now rather than monthly ones. Maybe I can make that a goal to update by the end of the school year as I still get comments requesting I resume that. Last year I thanked our library and told them how much money that had saved us (over $10,000 had we purchased all the books we read there) according to our book recording software.

Of course the kids are older and many of the lessons and field trips are different but some we keep repeating for our youngest or so the older ones can get different things out of them this time around. I sometimes can not believe I have a 5th, 3rd and 1st grader. I am soon coming to the next great transition where I will have 3 independent readers - it will be interesting to see what that brings into our homeschooling journey. I am going to miss Little Bear, Frog and Toad and Dr Suess, dear old friends in our house. I will even miss Telly the teaching time clock that has gotten under my skin many a days as I listen to the clock say way to loudly what the time on the hands is. Still my kids all loved this toy and learned so much from it.

We now run to baseball and swim team practice, meets and games. We fence, ice skate, ski, bike and many other new things we are trying out together as a family. We still love to travel and sometimes will just up and go for a week loving the freedom homeschooling provides us. Somehow I feel busier now than I ever was when I started blogging with kids aged 4, 2 and newborn thinking those days would never end.

Just today reading Farmer Boy out loud looking at my two girls working on the scarfs they are knitting and my son building something elaborate with lincoln logs I thought the more things change the more they stay the same. I still read aloud and they still play or work in the room with me. I still love this time and wish we had more and more of it. I still seem to have lots of library fees no matter my best intentions to keep track of nearly 100 books at a time.

If you are still around and here reading this blog feel free to ask me a question, maybe if I have accountability I will be more consistent. I once offered a Q and A time here of homeschooling questions or questions about our family life. So here we go again. Feel free to leave a question in the comments or send me an email. Please ask something you think might make an interesting blog post and encourage me to write :)

Kiss and Hug your kids and keep on reading to them always!