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.