Saturday, October 29, 2011

Portrait of a Homeschool Kid

Many misconceptions abound regarding homeschool kids. As a homeschool family we have heard them all : the kids aren't socialized. They aren't educated enough. They aren't exposed to the real world. They miss out on the opportunities to x, y, and z. All negative opinions from those who have never been there and have no idea what being a homeschool kid actually means. Most of us weren't homeschooled as kids (I wasn't) so our "reliable" source of information on the topic hails from television news stories notorious for sensationalism and one-sidedness. Six years ago we decided to use our own brains and parental intuition to decide what was right for our children, and we've never regretted it!

What biggest thing does homeschooling offer that traditional schooling does not? Time. Plain and simple, it offers us the time we need to pursue whatever the kids want. There is no hour wasted on the school bus or in the lunch line. No time spent sitting in a classroom twiddling thumbs or getting into mischief as a math lesson is taught five different ways to ensure the lowest common denominator stands a chance of passing a state-mandated test at the end of the year. No time wasted on politics, on procedure, on disruptions.

There is no substitute for one-on-one teaching. Knowledge is transferred directly from teacher to student with no interference, in whatever means best suits that student. A homeschool parent quickly figures out what style of learner they have on their hands and can make a lesson meaningful and impressionable the first time around. This means the core curriculum of math, reading, science, and social studies can quickly be pursued and conquered, leaving time for art, music, a foreign language, or diving in depth into anything the child desires.

A traditionally schooled student spends at least eight hours a day at school or on the way to and from it, and then has an hour or more of homework every night. Suddenly it's dinnertime, and bath time, and the half hour of reading hasn't been completed and bedtime is swiftly approaching. Yes, there is time for the basic math-reading-science-social-studies education, but there's not time for anything else. No time for playing with friends, no time for trips to the park. No time for the exploratory pursuits essential for a child's development.

Another thing homeschooling offers is opportunity. I'd like you to meet my oldest son, Alexei. He's ten years old and in the fifth grade, and since preschool he's been lucky enough to be schooled at home. That's right, I said lucky. During a typical school week, Alexei is a self-starting learner and completes his four main school subjects. Then he attends two homeschool PE classes a week with twenty to twenty-five other students in or near his age range. After PE he gets to play with his friends and torture his sisters at the park. On Wednesdays he attends a co-op class with a dozen other kids, learning about science (a six-week study of the classes of mammals), art (learning pointillism, cubism, and more), and culture (an upcoming class).

Since he is afforded time, Alexei can fully involve himself in the 4-H program. He is the elected chairman of his club's historian committee and is responsible for photographing and documenting club events. He raises and shows rabbits, has qualified for the 4-H state team in rifle marksmanship, and loves honing his photography skills. The three project record books that go along with his 4-H interests keep him educated and financially sound with regards to his activities. This year he also attends the 4-H county council meetings and hopes to one day be a county officer. A valuable education in leadership, citizenship, and perseverance is his for the taking.

This past February Alexei earned nine blue ribbons and four red ribbons at the county fair for his whopping thirteen entries, along with $90 in premiums, two medallions, a Best in Show trophy, and the advancement of his photography entry to the state competition. He chose to take on all of his own projects and put effort into many different areas. Next year he already has big plans to increase the project load and earn all blues. Since he is homeschooled, he is able to complete his schoolwork and still have the time and, perhaps even more importantly, the unbridled enthusiasm to undertake so much extra work. He doesn't compete in 4-H out of any obligation; he does it because he loves learning and working hard towards his goals and eventual successes.

Recently we've signed the paperwork to lease a horse from a lovely woman who wants to enrich the lives of a 4-H family. Alexei has ridden and shown a little bit in the past and would like to ride well enough to one day show in 4-H. Like the rest of the family he understands the responsibility that comes along with such a huge animal, and that the hard work of cleaning a stable always comes before riding. Since he is homeschooled, he has time to learn not only the finer points of riding but also what it means to have patience, and humility, and the benefits of hard work.

Like all typical fifth grade students, Alexei can read, write, solve math problems, and regurgitate facts from his textbooks. He has a good, solid foundation laid down by a teacher who knows his learning style best, and then he has the time and innocence available to want to keep learning about the things in the real world that interest him. He can take the lead and determine his interests, and run with them while we encourage from the background. He will continue to be a success in school and in life because he has the time and the opportunity to explore, and that's something homeschooling is in a unique position to afford.

Friday, September 23, 2011

ramblings of a former NICU mom

It's amazing how some experiences just seem to stick with you forever. I was thinking about my new niece who will be born later this year, and that got me to thinking about Coral, who was born ten weeks prematurely. It's like this emotional force you never truly escape; some days you don't feel it at all anymore and other days it feels like you're privately obsessing about it.

After Coral was born, I went through some mild post traumatic stress. I kept flashing back to sitting in the OB's office, and his last words were, "You need to go to the hospital, right now." I was 29 weeks, 5 days pregnant. Then we had the six week NICU stay, which was absolutely agonizing with two young children at home. Finally she came home, on prescription caffeine and wearing an apnea monitor 24/7, just a hair over 4 pounds. Her second night sleeping safe and sound in her crib just inches from me, she aspirated reflux and stopped breathing. I still remember that night like it just happened; groggy, confused, apnea alarm screaming, taking her into the kitchen thinking the stupid machine must be broken. Seeing her pale, limp body and screaming over and over, "She's not breathing!" Laying her on the coffee table and ripping open her sleeper, the CPR video looping through my head, my heart racing under my pajamas. She wasn't making a sound, her eyes were closed, she was lifeless. I gave her breaths and began CPR. Finally, finally, she let out a tiny little sound and took a breath. I held her in my arms for hours as the junk in her lungs worked its way out bit by tiny bit, scared to ever let her go.

The post traumatic stress escalated from mild to barely held together. I would have flashbacks constantly of her lifeless body. I would wake in the night, Coral in my arms, thinking she wasn't breathing. We'd go through a toll booth and the beep of our Sunpass would make me jump. It took well over two years for the nightmares to die down, but every once in awhile I still wake up thinking she's not breathing.

At some point shortly after she turned two, we decided to have another baby. Although it wasn't the main reason, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, having a "do-over" pregnancy will make everything right again. And it went much, much better this time. I was freaked out pretty much the entire 37 weeks, but in good spirits heading to the hospital knowing I had made it and everything looked good. Six hours later and Hobie was born via emergency c-section, after an extremely painful and frightening placental abruption that could well have taken him away from us. Suddenly I went from feeling scared and stressed to just plain broken.

Coral is four and a half now and I still find myself waiting for that "do-over." It's occurred to me that maybe it's not a new pregnancy I'm ruminating over, but all the problems with the old one. As if I could change anything about five years ago. Yes, I have a happy, healthy, wonderful child and I am eternally grateful for that. Yes, I know we were so lucky that she was merely ten weeks early, with only a couple of minor, minor heart issues that are slowly resolving. But it still doesn't feel right. I want to go back in time and ask, why didn't this go better? Why wasn't I more proactive about how badly I was feeling? Why didn't I do x, y, and z? Why did the doctors not know what was going on? Why, why, why? How do you ever get past the whys?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

baby bunnies!

I'll be posting about our science co-op shortly but while I was gathering up all the info, our fuzzy lop doe surprised us today and kindled her first litter! We were literally standing right there next to the cage wondering what she was doing; she hopped out of the nest and there were three squirming little pink blobs laying in the hay. The kids got a quick and thorough education on afterbirths and what most animals do with them, and that was about it for the fanfare! So far the babies are sightless little blobs. They all appear to be healthy but since Wuzzy is a first-timer, I'm a little nervous about her mothering capabilities. Only time will tell!

One of the babies has definite pink skin and the other two have gray skin. It will be interesting seeing what colors they grow out!

Friday, August 26, 2011

cave art and toddler lapbooks

We've made it through the first week of school; this used to be a big deal but this year for the first time there wasn't a whole lot of, "Oh crud, what was I thinking?!?" going on. I guess it only took six years to get here! I've set our days up to have Friday be more of a relaxed, fun subjects kind of day. I do sneak in writing but so far they're pacified; that may change when they're writing rough drafts. Soon Friday will mean 4-H activities, but until our books come in, the major subject of the day is art.

Today we made our own cave paintings, to help understand lines and form. I cut up paper grocery sacks and wrinkled them for a realistic textured effect, and the kids were told to use a black crayon for outlining their main elements in their drawings. Suggestions were horses, mammoths, simple people, plants, and so on. After outlining they could use pastel chalks to add colors to their cave wall.

Hobie sat and ate Goldfish crackers and watched his siblings intently. He's at the age where eating directly from the bag is the only acceptable mode. I had to cut the top off the bag so his little T-rex arms could reach the bottom (he fed the dog the majority of the bag's contents yesterday). He also unfolded all those placemats in the background. I love toddlers.

I also whipped up an Ocean Animals Lapbook from one of my favorite pre-school sites, 1+1+1=1. I didn't glue the pieces in even remotely the correct order and we didn't have any file folders so I used an old paper folder - thus the kooky spacing. Do yourself a favor and do it the right way! Thankfully Hobie didn't care about the layout and he thoroughly enjoyed coloring his very own special new book, just for Hobie. This weekend I need to find/make some more just for Hobie activities, or he's going to drive us all insane!

He looks so innocent, doesn't he?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

my take on handwriting without tears

Let me preface this by saying we've been using the program for a grand total of two days now, so I am subject to change my mind on this at a later time. But I don't think I will : everything I've seen thus far with our new Handwriting Without Tears workbooks has me excited. I did some research over the summer (but mostly I lounged around the house in the a/c) and I knew this particular line of books existed, but had never paid much attention. Everything I'd heard from friends touted its greatness, but I personally like to see and feel my books in a store before making a purchase, so if Wal-Mart or Books A Million didn't carry it, I didn't own it.

I was thoroughly impressed with the HWT website; they seem to have included just about everything. Samples, PDFs of actual pages, research, lots of reasons to use their curriculum because of their unique approach, and even access to free online tools. If nothing else they have a slick marketing team. I bit the bullet and purchased two of the Printing Power workbooks suggested for grade 2 and one copy of Letters and Numbers for Me suggested for the kindergarten set. My older kids need serious work on their neatness skills, especially Alexei, and HWT's 3rd grade book is in cursive; I chose the print version to get back to the basics, and since the HWT approach uses an entirely different line setup than they're used to. I was extremely pleased that the Printing Power books do not state a grade level anywhere on them; no 5th grader wants to think he's working in a 2nd grade book.

The books themselves are very clean and uncluttered. The pages have simple, attractive black and white illustrations and the Printing Power books work in a lot of practical grammar without being obvious about it. There are even games and puzzles within the book, not something you typically find in a handwriting series. Alexei absolutely despises handwriting practice and has always put forth as little effort as humanly possible into it, but this book even has him making an attempt at neatness. There is hope for him yet! The price is also very reasonable, it does run higher than the handwriting books readily available at the store, but at $7.50 each it feels like a worthwhile splurge.

The kindergarten book Letters and Numbers for Me has a really unique approach to learning the formation of letters with a method they label, "Wet, dry, try." On the advice of another homeschool friend (hi Tami!) we went ahead and purchased the small slate board and it is a great size for little hands. In addition to writing the letters in the book, children are encouraged to trace a chalked letter on their board (written first by the adult) with a small wet sponge or towel. Then they trace the wet line with a dry towel. Finally, they trace the dried outline of the letter with a piece of chalk. For something so seemingly simple, this is a pretty amazing approach to building confidence in a beginning writer. Coral tried the "wet, dry, try" method for the first time today and was smitten.

My only real complaint is that it's a little tricky trying to introduce this concept of line spacing that HWT utilizes. I think it will be a real asset for Coral, who will know this method from the get-go, but for Alexei and Ibis who have used the traditional three-lined handwriting paper or regular notebook paper for several years, this may take awhile to grow accustomed to. Ibis especially seems to think that she needs to write between the sets of guidelines in her new science journal. I'm sure this is something that will be mastered over time.

Two days and nary a tear shed over handwriting - if you've ever had a reluctant writer you know this in itself is an accomplishment!

And yes, in this house toddlers in pajamas routinely plot sneak attacks to try to sit on the dog. And the dog wised up long ago. But that doesn't stop him from trying.

Monday, August 22, 2011

back to school

Today was our first day back to school after a leisurely summer break. A first day of school juggling three elementary students in different grades and a rambunctious toddler goes something like this:

I kick everyone out of bed and make them get dressed and assembled for school pictures. An opportunity to torture children with the camera would be a pity to pass up.

Alexei is in 5th this year and has an attitude to match.

Ibis is in 3rd and has mixed feelings about the whole thing.

Coral is starting kindergarten a year early and is an eager beaver.

Hobie is 20 months old and enjoys dumping toys on the floor and getting into the trashcan.

I have the brilliant idea of staggering the start times for each kid; in my mind I was envisioning kindergarten opening for business at 8:30, followed by 5th grade at 9:00 and 3rd grade at 9:15. It goes well for the first 5 or 6 seconds, until Hobie realizes there's no 20-month-old class.

I set him up with some crayons and paper for a brief respite from his screams while Coral works on her very first official math page.

She breezes through phonics and I get the big kids started on their math lessons; the new Go Math books are really awesome. Then Hobie decides that a brand new box of crayons is way better than a few stinky old half-chewed toddler crayons, and he almost has them. So close!

After a snack break, Ibis finishes math and science, Alexei enters plant and animal cell diagrams into his science journal, and Coral creates her very first self-portrait journal entry.

While Hobie raids the garbage can and finds a pudding cup tossed in at snack time. Mmmm, garbage....

Then the big kids try out their new Handwriting Without Tears books (liking it so far) while I chase Hobie around as he gleefully unfolds all of my freshly stacked laundry.

We are officially back in business.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

a back to school project

Yesterday the big kids had their 4-H awards ceremony, where they got certificates, pins, and ribbons for the project books completed earlier in the year. When I have more than one free hand I will find the photos and give you all the juicy details. Having a toddler along for the ride magically made two hours of festivities seem like an all-day torture.

Back to the reason for the occupied hand : yesterday evening the kids came in, clamoring about a kitten lying in the road. I went out and didn't see anything, and then a little black shape slipped under a fence into someone's backyard. Alexei wanted me to toss him over the fence so he could get the kitten and was rather upset when I told him that A) there was no way on earth I was throwing him into a backyard of people who weren't home, and B) we'd probably never catch it. End of story.

That would be too easy, right? An hour later I went back out by myself on a whim, and the kitten was lying on the sidewalk, face planted on the ground. It hopped into some bushes flanking a house, and I gave chase and reached down to nab it. The poor, pitiful thing rolled on its back, mouth open and claws bared in a feeble attempt to save itself. I brought it home to a chorus of, "Awwwwww!" and now we have another baby in the house. This skinny little kitty gives new meaning to pathetic. I think it's a girl, probably 6-8 weeks old. It loves turkey baby food (ew!) and can manage wet kitten chow. However, it wants to be held and gives you big, sad green eyes if you set it down. I've contemplated strapping it in the Ergo baby-style but that might be too crazy cat lady-ish.

I'm wondering what subject malnourished kitten raising can apply towards : science? The humanities? Community service?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

shotgun schooling

I've been gathering up all the goodies to begin our school year next week, and balance the needs of a self-starting (if grouchy) 5th grader, an ADD 3rd grader, a year-ahead-of-schedule kindergartener, and a crazy into-everything 20-monther. Exciting stuff. But you know what has come to me? In all of this curriculum wrestling, I've realized that public schooling is like shooting a shotgun. A teacher aims and shoots a bunch of tidbits of information at the class and hopes that some of it hits each student.

I'm not playing blame-the-teacher. I think about some of the genuine in-the-schools kindergarten books we've used in the past, which are nothing but activities showing children how to wash their hands, brush their teeth, stop at a stop sign, recognize safety officers, etc., etc. These are all things that a five-year-old should already know. So much of what is being taught in school to children in all elementary levels is stuff that they should already have been taught at home. But a lot of kids don't know. Their parents don't teach them basic hygiene, or safety rules. They never get to play outside. They don't come to school understanding concepts like sharing, listening, or showing compassion, because those examples don't exist at home.

You also have classrooms that have been integrated. There's no money for kids of different levels and abilities to work at their own pace, so they're grouped together and that shotgun is fired in the hopes that the students who are behind or have a hard time working any way but one-on-one (like my 3rd grader) are hopefully pegged by a few bits of the blast. Conversely, the kids who are motivated learners may be hit by even less, because there's simply not enough time to aim in their direction. Each lesson has to be taught three or four different ways to explain the same concept, because we all learn best in different ways. That's why kids can spend 8 hours a day in school and come home with an hour or more of homework when they're in the first grade.

There are also children for whom English is not the language spoken at home. These kids, too, are now integrated into a classroom where they may have a hard time understanding the teacher speak, much less learn to their full potential. A teacher has to balance the needs of all of these children because a public education is just that : an education that applies to everyone. Our public is filled with such a variety of learners from so many different backgrounds and cultures; could you imagine entering a room full of adults taken at random from your neighborhood and trying to teach them all, in an hour spent writing on a board and looking at pictures in a book, how to change the brakes on a car? I bet not too many would be able to step outside and do it.

The moral of the story for homeschoolers is this : don't let the approach of public school intimidate you. You don't need 8 hours a day to instruct your student because you are instructing your student. Not the mass public. Not the greater good. Your student. If it takes 5 minutes to understand a concept, you don't need to approach the concept three other ways to get the point across. Books are important tools, but they are just that : tools. Real life experience is a bigger tool and as homeschoolers we're often afraid to think outside the public school box for fear we "aren't doing enough" with our kids. We purchase extensive, mind-numbing curriculum in the hopes that we're duplicating a public education, when in fact we should be diverging from it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

mmm, chocolate!

I've been hanging on to a certain chocolate bunny lollipop since it made its way home with us on Easter; well, actually it made its way home with us times four. The other kids' lollis were in various states of decrepitude but there was one pristine bunny remaining. I missed out on playing with the studio setup with any Easter props, so today was my chance. The subject was very willing!

To say he liked it would be putting it mildly. This was a definite first for him. He was feeling very protective of his treat!

Then he was feeling rather thankful and amazed at this gift from the chocolate gods. Who knew the day would be so amazing? Who knew such things existed?

Finally, he was rather contemplative. Why have I never had this before? he wondered. Who's been holding out on me?

He has no idea of the plans I have in store for him.

Monday, May 2, 2011

the S. family photos

On Saturday I had the honor of taking photos for Miss E's upcoming second birthday. I'll admit I'm a little bit biased about E's family, because this is our third time taking photos together and they are always SO much fun! This time they wanted to have photos of E riding on the ponies at Disney's Fort Wilderness. It was a real challenge with the varied lighting conditions and very bright sun but the weather could not have been nicer and she was just darling! I got so many great photos that we all love. Here she was in her beautiful dress made by her mama:

Then her mama wanted to take some fun, footsie photos on the beach at the Fort Wilderness lakefront. I'm not sure how Miss E felt about it!

Finally we captured some sweet, happy family moments of the three of them. They are all such naturals!

I can't wait for our next session!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


It finally happened : 15 puzzle pieces came together and were glued on a piece of cardstock to form a photo of a much-wanted Leapster Explorer game. The completed puzzle was handed over and the family made the trek to the store, where the game was signed, sealed, and delivered into the hands of the hard-working student. A small miracle happened today. Ibis followed through on a goal to fruition. May it last!

Sometimes the rewards have to be tangible. There's schoolwork out there that some kids are just going to have to get through even when it's not fluffy and fun. But then there's another incentive we've recently stumbled upon that is its own reward : postcards and the pen pal. The postcards are part of our state project and the kids have gotten their feet wet learning to send little notes and write addresses. The pen pals are brand new. For the first time ever today, Alexei sat down to write a letter not only without complaint, but without even being asked. And not only is he interested in talking back and forth with another homeschooled kid his age, but he's trying to improve his handwriting (aka chicken scratch) and spelling to impress his new pen pal. Sometimes peer pressure is awesome.

Ten weeks of school left in this year!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

finding your way

There's a lot out there about the myriad ways to keep your homeschooled kids happy and socialized - basically, as with anything else in life, the amount of effort you put into it relates directly to the amount of satisfaction they get out of it : in other words, it is what you make of it. I have zero doubts about my kids' opportunities and quality of social time. Something you never seem to read about is where you as the parent fit into the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes it's hard to feel like you fit in when you're a homeschool mom, especially if you have a large family that spans a substantial age range. I'm not just a toddler and preschooler mommy since my older kids don't go off to school each day; nix the preschool set of friends. Many baby/toddler groups these days absolutely forbid older kids attending. On that same axis, since I have a preschooler and toddler to keep up with, I'm not just a homeschool mom. Field trips that require concentration, quiet, and two hands? Forget it.

I used to have hobbies. Once upon a time there was the opportunity to train and show horses. I could sit down and draw. I really enjoyed taking photographs, not just of my kids but for other people as a budding profession. If I felt like it, I could even sit down and read a book.

You give up a lot as a homeschooling mom. There's the time and the effort that go into the planning and the doing, but mostly you give up being normal. You give up fitting in with the moms you used to hang out with, because their kids went off to school and yours didn't. You give up on society thinking you're a sane person who knows what you're doing with your kids.

Even after almost six years, I feel a little lost sometimes.

But I don't think society ever thought I was a sane person.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

four years ago....

There's just something about the kid that enters life in an eventful way - I once ran into a lady who must have had a premature baby at some point, because she was so right. It's not that they're your favorite, or more loved, but the fight they went through to get here always holds a special place in your heart.

She was a month old and three pounds in this photo.

Coral is four years old today. Four years ago my May baby became my February baby. We did six weeks' hard time in the NICU, holding her tiny hand through all the ups and downs of preemiedom. We brought home a tiny, four pound infant who decided to stop breathing after two nights home. Then there were the countless appointments with her pediatrician, cardiologist, opthalmologist; the prescription caffeine we swore would make her addicted to coffee in her later years; and the much-hated apnea monitor we lugged around for six months. We worried about her learning to eat, learning to sit up, learning to walk - she finally met that milestone at eighteen months. There were times we thought she'd be tiny forever.

And now we have a smart, sassy, funny, sweet spitfire in this tall, lanky kid that you'd never recognize as the preemie she was.

She definitely has a special place in our hearts.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

all's fair that ends fair

Finally, the photos from the last weekend of the fair are upon us! In addition to Alexei's rabbit activities mentioned in the last post, Ibis had her shoebox float parade and the kids had to work for an hour in the 4-H strawberry shortcake booth as community service to help raise money for our county's clubs. The last big thing was the awards ceremony.

Ibis loved the parade again this year; it's almost too bad she won't be a Cloverbud next year!

The strawberry shortcake booth was a lot of fun; they even roped Coral into some free advertising.

Alexei's head was almost too big to fit through the door when we got home after winning his best in class medal and best in show trophy and ribbon for his photo story.

The fair was amazing, but it was so nice not to have to drive out to the fairgrounds this evening!