homeschool, learning

The value of frustration in homeschooling (and life, probably)

Today has been all about the threshold of frustration.

I watched Sam work with paper polyominos for over an hour this morning, trying to get them to fit into various shapes, moving them around and flipping them and lining them up before scattering them over the table, mumbling “nope,” and starting all over again. His frustration mounting, he started to crumple up some of the pieces. Suddenly, the corner of his mouth twitched and a ripple of understanding spread over his face. Eyes gleaming, he started moving the pieces very quickly into place and sat back hard, his chair making a satisfied “bang” on the hardwood floor.

“Did it,” he declared simply, and got up to get some water.

Meanwhile, Lucy was on the driveway, pushing her bike slowly along with her toes, stopping every now and then to sigh heavily and shove the pedals around to get them out of her way. Her little brother zipped past her every few minutes, now on a tricycle, now on his new balance bike, whizzing so close to her leg that he ran over her foot one time. As he and her twin sister rode circles around her, she kept trying to pick up her foot and put it on the pedal. She would get it partway there, wobble back and forth, and then put her foot back on the ground with yet another gusty sigh.

I bit my tongue, resisting the urge to give her pointers.
She hates pointers.

Finally, after almost an hour of persistent effort, she dragged the bike back up to the top of the driveway where there is a slight incline. As she coasted down the tiny hill, balancing, she managed to pull one foot up to the pedal and start it going around. Her other foot swung uselessly in the air for a second, then made contact with the other pedal…and she rode. With both feet. Pedaling a bicycle. All by herself, with no help from me or anyone else.

This from my girl who waited eighteen months to the day to take a single step is a huge accomplishment.

It’s pretty amazing for a Monday- two instances of frustration overcome, persistence paying off, and goals achieved. As I watched them both struggle, trying to stay out of their way and fighting the urge to “help” them, I reminded myself that homeschooling (and parenting in general) is often more about learning to tolerate my own frustration than helping them learn to tolerate theirs. While they are working hard to solve problems and develop skills, they are building up their frustration threshold. Every time they work through that frustration before having a breakthrough moment, they’re learning that it is worth it to struggle with things that are hard. They’re learning that they are capable. They’re learning that they can persist and be victorious, even if it’s not easy. This learning doesn’t depend on me at all- they’re coming to it on their own.

The worst thing I could do in these moments is to jump in and “save” them. I’m working just as hard as they are, breathing through my own frustration, learning to watch them flounder a little without offering advice or telling them what they could be doing better.

Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching our kids is letting them figure something out on their own. Of course we often know a different way, a better way, a tip or a trick that might make something easier. But before we jump in with that helpful piece of knowledge, why don’t we let them struggle for a bit and see what they come up with? It is so hard to see them biting a lip, rocking a chair back and forth, drumming their fingers on the table or chewing a pencil. If we can take a deep breath, though, and see that frustration for what it is- the sign that real work and learning are happening, independent of our sweeping in and making everything okay- we will be allowing our children to learn that they are capable of figuring things out. We’ll be giving them the chance to try and fail while the consequences are still relatively small. We’ll be providing them space to struggle safely…and when that breakthrough comes, we’ll be giving them the chance to feel the rush of joy and satisfaction that comes with knowing they did something amazing.

And we’ll be there in the front row to cheer them on.

7 quick takes, giveaway, homeschool

7 Quick Takes: Homeschool Week 1 Highlight Reel

Well, we did it! It’s past sundown on Friday, and the first week of our new school year is over. Everyone survived. There were moments of bliss. There are some little hurdles we’ll need to overcome and some bugs to work out…but mostly? It went great.

Here’s our week in brief, for our friends and loved ones (and those of you who are curious about what we did):

1. Pictures.

Yes, we do first day of school pictures, mostly so I have something to compare with at the end of the year when we do portfolios. I didn’t post them on facebook, but you can see them now! Look how big everyone is…especially the little brother with the photobomb skills.

2. Morning Time

Now that we’re in our second year of starting the day with Morning Time, it runs more smoothly. I felt like I spent much of last year trying to round everyone up and get everyone to sit down for even a few minutes together to start the day. This year, I’m not telling them it’s time to start. Instead, I’m just playing a song as a musical cue, and they have until the song is over to wander dreamily into the room (or come dashing in dramatically at the last minute).

Both of those things happen every single day, by the way.

What we do in Morning Time could probably be its own blog post someday, but in brief, we have a prayer, sing a song or two, go over our memory work, and do something beautiful (read a poem or story, do an art picture study, listen to a new piece of music, paint with watercolors, or work on our nature journals). We end with a short prayer and go on our way to do other work or to play. It takes about fifteen minutes, unless we get carried away with the beautiful part, which we sometimes do. Things have a way of leading to other things, you know. It’s a good life.

3. Reading. Lots of reading.

We read a lot around here. Usually, I do our main read-aloud at lunch time, but we read other books throughout the day (and upon request from Felix, who frequently comes up with a book in hand, declares it’s his “vewwy fave-rit!” and asks us to read it. We almost always say yes.)

Sam reads something on topic (usually science or history related) for about half an hour every morning, and he spends a couple of hours during the day reading whatever he’s reading for fun. Right now, it’s mostly the Redwall series, but he took a short break from those to devour The Trumpeter of Krakow this week.

4. History.

There’s no better way to kick off a new year than to start up a new co-op, right? This year, we’re meeting with friends to do weekly activities for our history study using Story of the World, Volume 2 (which covers the Middle Ages).

It was our turn to host, and our backyard was briefly the scene of a battle reenactment between the Romans and the Celts. (It turned out no one wanted to be Romans, and the battle kind of fell apart. Still, I think we made the neighbors curious- there’s no better way to look like a wild, unsocialized bunch of homeschoolers than to run like crazy all over the yard during school hours waving homemade cardboard battle axes covered in foil and screeching with your capes flying out behind you.)

I’m excited to see how the rest of the year goes.

5. Science

Sam is studying Chemistry this year using the book Adventures with Atoms and Molecules. I like it a lot so far- it’s really clear and easy to understand with simple experiments that mostly use things we have around the house. We’re aiming for two experiments a week, and right now, that seems realistic. I’ll keep you posted.

6. Math

We are sticking with Life of Fred for math, backed up with some extra practice using the Reflex software program (which I can’t say enough good things about- it’s amazing). Sam generally despises repetition, so lots of practice problems can ruin a whole day for him (even if he needs the practice). Using the computer for the practice part seems to make it less of an issue.

7. Kindergarten

Yes, we do it…although it is mostly just reviewing lowercase letters right now, doing some math-y stuff and playing a lot. This week, we’ve played grocery store, restaurant, princesses who own their own housecleaning business, and something the girls called “baby Viking warriors.” I didn’t get in on that last one.

Today the weather was perfect, so we went outside for a long time. Felix drove our fleet of Cozy Coupes (which he calls his “van-cars”) all over the driveway and the girls played hopscotch. It was pretty wonderful.

And really, that’s what I want to remember. It’s all pretty wonderful– to have the freedom and the opportunity to do school this way while it works for our family. Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m tired. Even when it’s late on Friday night and I am scrambling to finish a dessert and this blog post because of how busy our week has been.

It’s a lovely life, and I’m thankful for it…and I’m thankful for you for reading along and sharing the adventure with us.

Speaking of sharing, I was going to give away a book, wasn’t I?

Let’s see…Rebecca D, you’re our winner. Let me know how to get in touch with you, and I’ll mail you a copy. Congratulations! I wish I had one to give to everyone…it really is a lovely book.

I hope you all had a great week. Next week, I’ll be talking about books and book clubs (and my strategy for books I don’t really love but need to finish) over here, so please come back and weigh in.

For more Quick Takes, visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum.
homeschool

Taking stock…homeschool evaluation time

Our homeschool evaluator is coming on Friday. This naturally makes me reflective as I help Sam look back over our year and choose things he’d most like to show to her as part of the evaluation.

As he picks through his history notebook and slides drawings of Roman soldiers and diagrams of Egyptian pyramids into page protectors, I think about all the things we’ve done this year and type out a list of what he’s studied: history, spelling, languages (Latin and Spanish), movie making, bread baking, astronomy, art, piano, music from the Baroque period, grammar, multiplication. It’s all important and it sounds impressive to me when I list it out.

But there’s the bigger life stuff: how not to overwater your seeds when you are an excited new gardener. How to use pi to determine how much gravel you need for your backyard fire pit. How to share a room with a toddler who loves you so much and messes up all your stuff. How to separate laundry so your white shirts won’t turn grey. How to not buy that Playmobil guy you want with your allowance so that you can save up for the Playmobil dragon set you really want. How to persist through part of a book that’s kind of boring so you can get to the good part that’s coming. How to know when you’ve invested enough time in a book that’s not for you and should just move on to a new one. How to respond to that retired NASA engineer who called you and your cousin out for running in the space center when we went on a field trip. How to channel your frustration when the parachute experiment doesn’t work right the first eight times you try it (and you just want to cry and give up).

Learning is so much bigger than school.

Here, at the end of our third year of homeschooling, what I see is that homeschooling for us isn’t really as much about “school” as I thought it would be. It’s more about making space for the curiosity and love of learning that already exist here. It’s fanning sparks into flame. It’s giving the gift of time to let passions grow slowly and to explore them deeply. It’s reading a lot of books, going outside to play and pretend to be characters from those books, and then coming back inside to read some more.

I didn’t start out to homeschool, and I said it would be a year-to-year decision. I still feel like we have made the right choice for our family, but my reasons are slightly different now than when we started. When we began, I was mostly concerned about what Sam wouldn’t get to address his unique needs in our public school.

Now, this year, the main thing I see is time.

Our time is our own, and still, I feel there’s never enough of it. Every day feels full from start to finish with projects, ideas, crafts, tasks, talks, meals, games, and books. When I think about what it would cost in time to have Sam leave for hours every day to go to school, I think he can’t afford it…and neither can I.

As parents and educators, we talk a lot about how the early years are the formative ones, the “window” in which we have the greatest opportunity to give our little ones a great start in life.

Hanging out every day with my now seven-and-a-half year old, I’m so grateful that the window is still open- that I still have the chance to spend my days with him, that my influence is still strong, that he can stretch his growing brain and his growing muscles here with us and that we can share in the process.

When the evaluator comes, she’ll see his carefully-compiled portfolio of work, of course, but she’ll also see him…a person who has grown and changed exponentially this year since she last talked with him. And despite the frustrations and the sometimes chaotic, always noisy environment here, seeing that progress strengthens my resolve to continue to do this work that’s before me. He’s blossoming. He’s curious and passionate and interested and interesting. Yes, we’ll still be homeschooling next year. What exactly that will look like depends on lots of different things…but the further down this path we go, the less “homeschool” looks like “school at home” for us…and the happier I am about that.

31 days, homeschool

31 Days, Day 5: Home.

Home.

What it isn’t: always neat and tidy, no matter how much I wish it were. Not always quiet, either, or ever, really, except occasionally between the hours of 11pm and 5:30 am.

What it is: the center of everything these days.

Before we became homeschoolers, I couldn’t have fully appreciated what the decision to educate a child at home does to a home. With that decision, home becomes more than just his soft place to fall or his jumping-off point. It’s more than a base for exploration or a place to sleep. It’s his classroom, sometimes. It’s his lunchroom and his playground and his quiet space for reflection. It’s his library and his project space and his place to goof around and be as silly as possible. It’s the scene for tickle fights and spelling tests, for bubble baths and science experiments (sometimes at the same time). It’s the place for brownie baking and novel reading, Shakespeare memorizing and poetry reading, Lego building and aqueduct modeling. There is something going on all the time here.

It’s kind of a mess, really, because when curiosity and discovery bubble up on their own, they don’t often do it in an orderly fashion.

There are piles and piles and piles of books, too…and the UPS guy is on a first-name basis with us, because he’s always bringing more of them.

It is terribly tempting to try to control all this action- to funnel activities into certain periods. Now it is school time. Now it isn’t anymore. Time to play. Time to work. And while everything has its time, there is so much overlap here between school and life that I can’t tell where one stops and one begins. Some days, the distinctions feel forced and artificial. It’s not how I expected it would be at all. It’s not school at home. It’s just home, where we live and move and have our learning, too- at the kitchen table, in the backyard, in the bathtub, and everywhere in between…and I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I have to remind myself almost every day to unclench my hands and just let it happen.

Find the rest of my 31 days of Five-Minute Free Writes here.

homeschool

Second grade, Day One- Homeschooling Update

Today was our first day of school for the year, officially speaking.

I know that we don’t really need a first day, considering we have settled into a school-life balance where learning is just part of our normal flow, but I still want that for my kids. Maybe this is because I am a product of the American public school calendar and it’s hard-wired into me. Maybe it’s because everyone else’s first day of school pictures on social media are so cute. Regardless, we kicked off the year today.

My second grader was exuberant. He was dressed and ready, shoes on and already-finished cereal bowl in the sink, before most of us were even out of bed.

As we prepared for the upcoming school year, I asked Sam to think about his goals as a second grader. He reminded me today that I had promised to post them for him. Here are his plans for this year:

“My goals are to build a robot, read some King Arthur and Shakespeare, learn to write in cursive, learn more about castles and how they were made (and big weapons they used like catapults, ballistas, etc.) and learn to make bread. Also learn to identify some new constellations I haven’t learned yet.”

This list makes me so unbelievably glad that we’re homeschooling. I can’t wait to dig into all that stuff with him!

We started our day today with breakfast, chores and free reading, followed by our Morning Meeting. Then we headed out to meet friends at our local greenway trail for some nature exploration.

The explorers ended up at the creek (as they often do). There’s something magnetic about kids and water. The creekside nature exploration became kind of a mid-creek exploration, and the rocks were slick, and, well, you know…

In the end, two out of three walking Dupuy children were wet from the waist down, so we went home for dry shoes. (I had dry clothes with us, and snacks, and water bottles, and everything we’d need…just not extra shoes. Silly me.)

After a wardrobe adjustment and a snack, we met up with our homeschool group at the library to build some catapults that shoot marshmallows. Sam had made one of these a long time ago with a slightly different design (with hilarious results that might have ended with an interview by a catcus-turned-sports-commentator), and he was excited to try again now that he could do it without help.

When he was done flinging marshmallows around, we checked out some books and headed home for lunch and rest time.

I was dismayed to find that Sam had checked out a pretty awful My Little Pony book for Lucy at her request on his library card. This leads me to believe she asked him because she knew I would try to talk her out of it, since I had already read it to her five times at the library (and since it was SO AWFUL). 

The afternoon was spent doing a little math (Life of Fred, which Sam says he’s missed so much that he couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen in this next installment), some grammar review, and some light saber construction out of PVC pipe and painter’s tape.

Sam got in some piano practice before dinner with a little assistance from the shortest member of the family, who has a real fascination with all things musical. I expect he will be over there every time the piano is open for a while. Fortunately, the gap between their ages is old enough that Felix never annoys Sam, just amuses him. It’s amazing to see what a different reaction Sam has to Felix – he’d have been completely frustrated by his sisters’ doing something similar, but when Felix does it, it’s just cute. Sibling dynamics fascinate me.

We also celebrated the feast of The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a stack of Krispy Kreme donuts and some candles. (That’s what happens when feast days sneak up on mama after vacation and coincide with homeschool donut fundraiser delivery day.) We’ll call it Anti-Pinterest Liturgical Living- Do Not Try This At Home, Because You Can Surely Do Better.

All in all, it was a pretty awesome day.

How did your first day go? Anything you are planning to do differently on the days to come? Anything that went so well that you’ll never change it again? I want to know!

Thanks to Janell for the creek and library photos!

homeschool, learning styles, project based homeschooling

Vikings before Sunrise: Differences in tempo and project-based homeschooling

“I want to learn about Erik the Red. And build a life-size Viking ship out of cardboard boxes and put a dragon head on the front. And craft weapons out of cardboard and cover the shiny parts with foil so they look real. And be Viking invaders with my sisters and make a movie of ourselves doing that. Let’s do THAT.”

This conversation began SuperSam’s second semester of kindergarten in our homeschool.

I thought it would be helpful to ask him about his goals for the rest of this year.
It was a good idea.
Otherwise, I would not have had any idea that he wanted to study Vikings.

I think it all started with a book about the Middle Ages we gave him for Christmas. He loves reading it during quiet rest time, curled up under his loft bed as if in a little cave. He loves for George to read him sections of it before bed, making silly sound effects for the sword battles and jousting matches.

The book has some information about Vikings…just enough to make him really curious about them.

Sam checked out some books from our local library and read through them, renewing them several times, but then his interests shifted to other things. He read fiction for a while and dabbled in the Olympics.

Then, he saw a book about Vikings on our trip to the Green Valley Book Fair yesterday. He read it all the way home. This morning, before the sun was all the way up, he was in my room with plans to build a Viking longship for his Playmobil guys.

When he is ready to start something, he is already halfway done.

I like to plan, to make lists, to sketch, to write drafts.
He likes to try things NOW and see what happens. He didn’t even want to wait for breakfast.
I know I’m no good to him before breakfast, especially not before coffee, so I asked him to gather materials. He waved the perfect piece of cardboard in my face, already clutched in his hand…a long, flexible strip from a dish box that I had saved in case he needed it.

He was beyond ready to build.

I cut some lengths of duct tape to his specifications and went to get dressed.

He interrupted me three times with new ideas, design changes, and requests for more tape. He decided to use a toilet paper tube as the “throat” for his dragon head on the ship’s bow “so the people can be eaten by the dragon and go in through his mouth and fall into the ship.”
 

Playmobil Guy disappears into the dragon’s throat.

I was amazed by how far his skills had come since he built the Roman aqueducts from similar materials last year. Having gained experience with construction and tape and cardboard, he already knew how things would fit together best, and he really needed very little help to construct the ship to match his vision. I just cut tape for him. Once, he asked me to brace the bow with my hand while he taped it into place. The ship was coming together beautifully, and I was so impressed.

This is the beauty of project-based learning. By working with things and manipulating them himself, by making and learning from his own mistakes, Sam has figured out what works for him. How much better is that than if I had told him, “That’s not going to work; do it this way instead”? If the goal of education is to help people learn to think and to make them independent (and hopefully passionate about what they are learning), this method seems like a no-brainer to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut when I can see that something isn’t going to work the way he wants it to…but because I kept my mouth shut all those other times, today he didn’t even need me to say anything. He hardly needed me at all!

He ran off to the bathroom to do some flotation tests with scrap cardboard, having decided he wanted to sail the boat in the bathtub by pointing a fan at it. A couple of minutes passed. He came running out and asked to listen to “Viking music.”

The only thing I could think of was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. He is already familiar with this music and excitedly declared it would be the perfect soundtrack for his Viking movie. And just like that, he abandoned the ship.

The dead Viking hero, waiting to be picked up by the Valkyrie on a baby’s rocking horse. (Sometimes you have to work with what you have on hand.)

He corralled his sisters, insisted I find a video of an orchestra performing the piece, and began explaining the girls’ roles as Valkyries. He built horses out of kitchen chairs and stools, brought out blankets and costumes, and started acting out the Valkyries’ descent to bring the “dead heroes” back to Odin’s castle and the halls of Valhalla.

A cute little girl snuggling a hippo? No, a Valkyrie fetching the dead Norse heroes from the battlefield.

Apparently, it is all in the book he got yesterday.

At some point, discontent with the Berlin Philharmonic, he asked me how to spell Valkyries so he could google it himself. Pulling up a video of Wagner’s full Ring Cycle, he parked himself in front of it for the next hour and read the English subtitles aloud, directing the girls at how to play the parts. (The link is to the beginning of Act 3 of the Metropolitan Opera performance with James Levine- it’s worth watching the first few minutes to see the Valkyries slide down onto the stage and sing together – all 8 of them!)

Sam was distressed that we didn’t have enough actors for all the parts, so he pressed some large stuffed animals into service.

A Valkyrie wraps up the bones of a dead Viking warrior sock monkey.

The speed of it all almost made me dizzy.

By lunch time, he was planning a movie shoot and storyboarding the scenes on an easel. He didn’t want to stop to eat or take a nap, but I was exhausted just from watching him.

What I’m striving to remember is that our differences in pace are just that- differences. He has a plan for his work and a preferred working speed at which he’d like to execute that plan. My need for coffee and my hesitations and questions about drafts and sketches aren’t helpful to him when his idea is already burning a hole in his brain. He needs to try it. NOW. Really, ten minutes ago would have probably suited him better.

One of the big advantages of doing school at home is that he can work at his own pace. He doesn’t have to sit and wait until “it’s time” for everything. His internal clock has him up before the sun, and he does some of his best work in that time before everyone else is up and moving around.

I think eventually (as he continues to need less help with tasks and has a better understanding of the adults’ need for sleep in the predawn hours), this won’t be an obstacle for us as a homeschooling family. Right now, I sometimes feel like throwing something at him when I hear him rattling the doorknob first thing in the morning. It means he’s about to burst into the room with a fully formed idea and start asking me to cut tape and get out dowel rods and plug in the hot glue gun.

It’s amazing to watch him work, even if I can’t quite understand the need for such a frantic pace. I can completely understand the frustration of not being allowed to work when you’re ready just because someone else isn’t ready.

I don’t want to be the one in the way of his process, so I’m doing what I can to facilitate it (starting by giving him access to as many materials as possible in his own space).

As I finished eating lunch and prepared to clean up and get the kids ready for nap, Sam (long finished with his food) was back in his workspace, tinkering with the ship again and humming Ride of the Valkyries. Nora was asking to get down and had stacked her dishes neatly on the side of her tray. And Lucy was still eating, very slowly working her way through her rice cake, deliberately dipping each bite into her applesauce. She grinned at me, her face completely smeared with peanut butter, and said, “I’m not nearly done yet.”

It was a good reminder that as our family and our homeschool grows, we will have more people with different learning styles and different tempos to accommodate.

Good thing I’m up for a challenge.

creativity, homeschool, learning styles, mess, project based homeschooling, project space

When creativity makes me grumpy

Sometimes, I find myself wishing that once, just once, he would use something the way it was intended.

That tangle of plastic pieces up there? It’s a marble run.  A quiet, self-occupying marble run. Only it isn’t a marble run to him- it is a marching band. It is the polar opposite of quiet. The pieces are all over the house, turned into instruments worthy of inclusion in a Dr. Seuss book. He outfits his sisters with their own euphoniums and off they go, doot-dee-dooting the Superman theme at full volume until it rings off the hallway walls.

Or this? It only looks like a drum. It’s really a helmet. It used to be a space helmet, but now it’s a knight’s helm. Last week, when Nora wanted to play the drum (you know, with a drumstick, to make music), we couldn’t find the drum head. Eventually, someone discovered it in the box of costumes and dress up stuff.

Why?

Because it’s not a drum head anymore. It’s a shield, of course…covered in foil and made wearable by criss-crossed rubber bands. The drumstick is a “pixie sword,” an overturned pink plastic teapot lashed to its top with the tiebacks from his bedroom curtains.

There’s never any toilet paper in the bathroom any more. It has been turned into bandages for wounded armies of interplanetary soldiers engaged in a battle between good and evil. When the fate of the entire universe is at stake, how can I begrudge someone a roll or two of toilet paper?

In my heart, I know that Exceptionally Large Quantities of Wasted Tape and Entire Rolls of Aluminum Foil are a small price to pay for a mind that sees the world in such a wide-open way.

To SuperSam, life is only endless possibilities. Every object in this house is a potential idea waiting to be realized.

To me, sometimes those possibilities just look like a big mess.

It’s a struggle for me. I like things to be neat. I’m not nearly as neurotic about it as I used to be, but messes make me grouchy. Clutter makes me feel like the walls are pressing in on me. When every inch of every surface in the kitchen is covered with works in progress and piles of paper, I feel like I can’t breathe deeply.

My son is so different from me.

This is SuperSam’s workspace (photographed to share with his permission).

On his worktable, currently: seashell collection, assortment of bouncy balls, microscope and scattered slides, cardboard box that was briefly an airport and is awaiting its next role, dinosaur fossil excavation in progress, copy of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” highlighted alternately in blue and green crayon. Nearby, but outside the margin of the picture: styrofoam painted yellow to be a yellow submarine, characters and props for toilet paper tube staging of Orpheus and Eurydice (complete with boat made from an egg carton for crossing the River Styx), plethora of recycled materials (tubes, boxes, styrofoam, egg cartons, plastic containers- some of which contain dead bugs that are being “preserved” for later study).

The main reason he has his own workspace (in a room that’s not his sleeping space) is because he needs to be able to leave projects unfinished and come back to them later. His timetable isn’t like mine- he’s not ready to clean things up just because it’s time to make dinner in the kitchen. I realized that to make this project-based homeschooling arrangement work for us, he was going to need a space that could house his ongoing work. There are usually at least three projects going at once. Sometimes he works on them simultaneously. Other times, he takes breaks from one to pick up something else for a while and then returns to the original idea when he’s ready.

We gave up our mudroom so he could have this space. It has to be in a separate room with a closeable door precisely because of how he keeps it. Mess and clutter don’t bother him. He thrives on having everything out in the open where he can seize it in a moment. He needs to be able to instantly react when a bolt of creativity shoots through him.

I just need him to be able to find his own shoes…and I need to be able to close that door and pretend that the visual evidence of his brain-in-perpetual-motion isn’t there.

All the beautifully organized, Pinterest-worthy toy storage and art table ideas in the world can’t save us, I fear. We are two different kinds of minds. I take joy in organization and planning and using little galvanized steel buckets with labels as storage containers. He takes joy in living and thinking and working full-throttle…and for him, that means putting things away is a low priority. 

The thing is, I also take joy in seeing how he works. He amazes me almost every day. Even when I find him maddening, I’m in awe of his brain and of the ideas that come out of it. It’s an amazing brain, and watching him use it with such delight and freedom is a privilege.

I doubt I’ll ever see the mess as a privilege…but I’m working on being less irritable about it.

catapult, homeschool, Olympics, project based homeschooling, projects

Olympic Catapult

We are seriously inspired by the Olympics around here.

Since SuperSam is also going through a fascination with all things Viking and Middle Ages, he has been wanting to build a catapult. I saw this great post last week with a number of different designs. After looking through them, we decided together that this one would be the simplest for our first attempt.

SuperSam gathered the materials, read the instructions, and put the pieces together with some help. I did the rubber banding- it seemed a little beyond his fine motor capability that day, and he was impatient to get to the “shooting.”

He loaded up the catapult with a variety of plastic barnyard animals, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. He shot them across the kitchen for several minutes before deciding to go Olympic with it.

“We need trials!” he proclaimed. “We need to measure who goes the furthest and give the winner a medal. They get two attempts, but we throw out the low score and keep the furthest one.” Walking in frenetic circles around the kitchen, he stopped suddenly and said, “I need the tape measure.”

We duct-taped the tape measure from my sewing box to the floor and lined up the catapult. SuperSam wanted to make a chart to track the results, so I helped by writing the names of the four competitors in his notebook. After the first few trials, he took over writing down the results in the appropriate column.

Once everyone had two turns, we examined the results. SuperSam circled the highest score for each participant. He struggled slightly with figuring out which numbers were bigger- he was fine as long as he only compared two numbers to each other, but trying to decide how to work in all four numbers was confusing him. I had to strongly resist the urge to tell him how to figure it out.

Finally, he decided to just place each animal on the measuring tape at the point of its furthest distance traveled. “That way, I can just see who went the furthest,” he said.

He laid the animals out on the tape measure and was able to easily tell who had flown the furthest.

What a great idea that was! I’m not sure my “help” would have given him any greater understanding of the distances he was trying to compare. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.

In true Olympic fashion, he made “medals” out of colored twist ties (one of those things I always save without any real idea of what we’ll do with them). Once the animals were wearing their medals, he arranged them on a podium and asked me to sing the national anthem. (All three medalists happened to be from the United States.)

Finally, he made a pair of glasses out of some twist ties, put them on my cactus plant and had “Bob Cactus” interview the winner. I wish I had video of this part, but sometimes being present in the moment is more important than recording it. The iguana had a really squeaky voice and kept saying, “Well, I really just decided to try my best.”

All in all, this was a really simple activity with lots of really practical, hands-on math built right in. Having plans to follow for the catapult design made it possible to do the whole thing in one morning. Although it might be a better engineering experience for SuperSam to design his own catapult, I think having the plans this time helped him understand the mechanics behind the catapult better than pure experimentation would have. I think he’s actually more likely to experiment with making his own design now that he’s built one using someone else’s plan.

My favorite part was definitely the Bob Cactus interview…but I’m guessing everyone’s catapult experience has a different kind of ending.

Let us know if you try making one!

7 quick takes, homeschool

7QT: Answers to those Homeschool Frequently Asked Questions

So, how’s it GOING?

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, almost as often as I did back in the fall when we first decided NOT to send SuperSam to public school kindergarten and to homeschool instead. I guess it’s a new year, halfway through a school year…everyone wants to know if we think we did the right thing.

(Okay, not everyone. That might be overstating it a bit.)

Still, a lot of people want to know what we think of our choice to homeschool this year. I think people are mostly just curious because this is such a different path than the ones George and I traveled as kids. Some people are concerned, too, and their questions reflect their affection for Sam and their wondering about how we are handling things.

So, to put all of your minds at rest, I’m sharing the answers to the 7 Most Frequently Asked Questions about our decision to homeschool this year (with lots of photos of SuperSam’s education in progress, for your viewing pleasure).

These takes might be slightly less quick than usual. I do want to be thorough, you know?

Testing to see if this viewer will work as a telescope

Do you think you made the right decision in homeschooling this year?

Absolutely, 100% yes. I have no doubt that we did the right thing.

My son is an interesting kid.

  • He’s curious and creative with boundless energy and lots of faith in himself. This can make him a challenging family member. 
  • He is always certain that what he has to say is the most important. 
  • He doesn’t have a “lower” volume setting. 
  • He wiggles almost constantly and often falls off his seat at mealtimes or during church. 
  • He gets distracted easily (especially by written material, which he always has to read even when it isn’t for him, especially if he’s supposed to be doing something else). 
  • He has laser-sharp focus for hours on projects or books that capture his interest, but he can’t remember to get his shoes on if you send him to his room for that purpose. 
  • He puts everything in his mouth…you can immediately recognize his pencils because the erasers are chewed off. 
  • He often makes crazy bad decisions in the name of science because he wants “to see what will happen.” 
  • He remembers everything he reads. (Yes, I really mean everything.)
  • He corrects adults when he knows they are wrong and has to be reminded that it’s not always polite to do so. 
  • He has no patience for rote tasks or for daily chores, like making the bed. (“Why? I’m just going to unmake it when I sleep in it, anyway…what’s the point?”)

Basically, he’s a high-energy, intelligent five-year-old boy.

He is completely awesome at the following things: making up wildly entertaining stories, creating and performing plays with complicated plots, doing research to answer questions he thinks of while he should be sleeping, climbing things, memorizing poems, baking cookies, reading and retaining information, solving addition and subtraction problems with his whole body, planning menus, building things using multiple types of materials at once, digging in the dirt, remembering both the Greek and Latin names for mythological characters, riding his balance bike, ordering pizza online, composing catchy riffs with inventive use of vocal percussion.

Areas in which he does not excel: sitting quietly, waiting patiently, raising his hand before speaking, using his walking feet, using his library voice, remembering where his coat (pencil, wallet, shoe, sock, favorite stuffed planet) is, doing repetitive tasks, finding things that are right in front of him, being aware of where his body is in space.

I’m pretty sure that if he were one of twenty-something kids in a classroom, his teacher would be pulling her hair out. It’s okay for me to say that because I love him dearly and sometimes, I’m pulling my hair out, too.  

The thing is, SuperSam is flourishing in our current arrangement and has learned a lot this year. He’s very enthusiastic about it. He’s not anxious about school. He has time to explore his interests deeply and has read a lot of books. He’s having fun.

I’m free to adjust things to suit his learning style and his need for perpetual motion. I let him chew gum or chew on straws when he needs to sit still to do a task (which is hardly ever). We are putting sensory bands on the bottom of his seat at the table so he’ll have extra input for his feet (and maybe won’t fall off quite as often during dinner). He has the freedom to work fast, read for hours, and spend lots of time outside poking the roly-poly bugs under the swingset and drawing different kinds of clouds. He can still take an afternoon nap, which he really needs.

Most importantly, he didn’t need an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) to get any of these accommodations. I didn’t have to advocate for his needs in the classroom or have him tested. We can just do what works for him.

It’s pretty amazing, really. Like him.

How does he get to socialize?

This question frustrates me. It assumes that socializing with people born the same year as you were is the most important factor in whether you will grow up “normal.” Once we get out of the K-12 setting into the “real world,” we are around people of all different ages…for the rest of our lives. It seems like it would be as important a life skill to know how to socialize with all ages of people, right? I’m not even sure what year most of the people I know were born.

Anyway.

He is actually socializing regularly with other people born in 2008, both at church (where they have age-graded classes) and at violin group lessons (where the other kids in his group are generally Kindergartners or first graders). He played on an age-graded soccer team in the fall and might do so again in the spring. We also have a few other homeschooling families with children his age with whom we hang out/paint pumpkins/take field trips/build Legos/ride bicycles/climb trees/catch crayfish/hunt for salamanders.

He also talks to our neighbors (all adults) when he sees them, makes his own requests for materials at the library (even when his favorite librarian isn’t there), and volunteers to tell strangers at the grocery store about what constellations are visible this time of year. He politely and competently orders his own food in restaurants.

He’s fine.

How can you be serious about school when you have the twins at home to deal with?

I know where this question comes from. Anyone who has ever met a two-year-old can imagine having two of them at once…the noise! the squabbling! the diapers! the constant unrolling of toilet paper!…and legitimately wants to know how I can accomplish anything at all around here. Taking on the serious task of educating my oldest child on top of behavior managing the Sisters seems like a lot to handle.

This is true. It is a lot to handle, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

First, school is only so serious at this point. It’s Kindergarten, and he already knows how to read, so the biggest hurdle was crossed before we started. Before school in general became as test-driven as it is today, Kindergartners used to play a lot more than they do now. They had dress up and blocks and lots more free play.  They got to focus on things like dealing with their frustration when there aren’t enough red square Legos to make the airplane they designed, or working out how to share one wheelbarrow between three eager gardeners. I have absolutely no problem with going back to that model around here. He has his whole life to get serious about academics…he’s only 5.

Second, the Sisters like to do what SuperSam does. If he’s at the table working, they want to do “school,” too. They each have a composition book that they like to make lines in while he is practicing handwriting. When that gets boring, there is a bag of special things that they can only use during “school” time. It keeps them busy for a while most days. Sometimes, they play with magnet letters on the refrigerator or play with the kitchen toys and make pretend food for us while we are working. If all else fails, I put a dishpan of water out for them and let them wash their babies or their dishes (which really just means that they get water all over the floor and each other). It usually buys us 30 extra minutes. Most days, that’s all we need.


Some days, we finish school while they are napping.

On the days when nothing else works, we go outside or build a fort in the living room with blankets or set up a grocery store with the toy cash register and all the canned food from our pantry, and everyone plays. If you ask me, this is a perfect use of time- they’re all together, they’re working out their problems, they’re being creative and doing dramatic play. We’ll call it the best-case scenario for our mixed-age classroom.

Aren’t you worried that he’s missing out on what the other kids are learning at school?

No.

We are covering the basics with lots of extra time left over to explore various interests. SuperSam is a voracious reader, and he chooses books on all kinds of topics. This fall, he worked on dinosaurs, Greek mythology, Ancient Rome, and space. He also had a brief fling with Russian culture.

He has learned to add, subtract, count money and tell time because he wanted to know how to do those things. Math is his favorite subject, he says.

Finally, he’s studying Latin. (This was his choice. Most people start later, I know, but he can do the reading just fine and has a real knack for picking up the vocabulary. I see no harm in allowing him to accumulate lots of Latin vocab now as it will only make later language study easier. As a bonus, he’s learned some Latin prayers that we use at church sometimes, and that helps him feel he can participate more fully.)

Violin practice also takes place as part of our school time.

I know he’d be learning different stuff at school, but I’m not concerned about gaps in his knowledge. If he needs to know something, he asks or finds out somehow. Even if he somehow made it to adulthood without some key piece of information he should have learned in Kindergarten, I’m confident he would be able to find out what he needed to know.

Also, I’m sure there are things he’s not learning from his would-be schoolmates that I’m just as glad he doesn’t know yet.

So no. Not worried.

How long do you think you can keep this up? Are you putting him in first grade in public school this fall?

I expect we will keep this up as long as it works well for everyone.

We are not planning to put him in public school first grade next fall.

Things are working out great, and we see no reason to change the plan unless there is a reason to change the plan.

What curriculum are you using?

We are not using an “out of the box” curriculum at all. I’m piecing things together based on SuperSam’s needs and interests. One of the biggest advantages of doing school at home is that I can personalize things for him without needing to label him “ahead of grade level” in one area or “at grade level” in another or “needs extra work” in a third. We can just work on things he needs to work on.

We are using Saxon Math 1, but kind of loosely so far…no need to rush into things (after all, he’s just 5). Saxon has a placement test on their web site, which is handy for determining which book you need. We’ve enjoyed finding some great deals on gently used books through cathswap, a yahoo list where you can post items for sale and look for items you need. It’s been great (even if the volume of e-mails is slightly overwhelming at times…it just means there is a robust used book market for homeschoolers!).

We try to visit the library every week for new books to read (although we got off schedule a bit over the holidays). SuperSam generally selects his own reading material with occasional guidance from me. I figure if he gets something too difficult, he’ll figure that out when he starts reading it. I do try to encourage at least one more challenging book for every two or three picture books (which he still reads and enjoys a lot).

We are using Prima Latina from Memoria Press for Latin, and we love it.

We use Zane-Bloser for handwriting, and it’s fine- he really likes doing handwriting, for some reason.

Finally, we spend a lot of time doing hands-on experiments and working on SuperSam’s various projects. Since these are interest-driven, we don’t need a curriculum for them. He finds books at the library when he needs to research something or looks things up online with supervision.

Next year, we’ll add more stuff, but this is plenty for now. Again- Kindergarten. Not inherently stressful unless I make it that way, right?

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently so far?

I wish we spent more time outside. It’s tough with the cold weather, but I expect as spring weather arrives, we will be doing lots more hikes and nature walks again. Almost all learning is portable, so there’s no reason to stay cooped up indoors all the time. Being outdoors seems to calm everyone down, and SuperSam’s boundless energy is less noticeable when there aren’t walls for him to bounce between.

I also wish I had worried slightly less about whether I was doing the right thing by choosing to homeschool. I lost a lot of sleep over it. I guess the upside of having worried so much is that I’m now confident that we are doing what’s best for our son and our family at this stage.

So, there you have it…the not-so-quick answers to your 7 most common questions about our homeschooling life so far. If you made it all the way to the end, thanks! 

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

7 quick takes, homeschool

7 Quick Takes: The First 7 Things I Loved About Homeschooling

So, we officially began homeschooling with SuperSam this week. We have been easing into it for a couple of weeks, and our generally curious lifestyle (frequent google searches and trips to the library for information he HAS to have on a given day) set us up well to be successful as a homeschooling family, I think.
The first week has gone really well. I didn’t expect things to feel quite as different as they do now that we are officially “in school.” I think we are both liking the change. SuperSam is excited and proudly tells people that he is in Kindergarten but doing school at home.

Although I also didn’t expect to feel so tired at the end of the day (and to fall so behind on housework!), it has been a good week.  We haven’t changed much about what we are actually doing, but something about the intention of it (thinking of it as school and loosely keeping track of what we’re reading and studying) has taken more energy than it did before. I know I’ll figure out the balance and that the good will keep on outweighing the bad. I just can’t believe I never folded the three loads of laundry that are still stacked in my bedroom.

Anyway.

Here are the first seven things I have loved about homeschooling this week:

SuperSam’s quote of the week: “The best thing about homeschooling is that I can still go outside as much as I want, even after school starts.”

Our classroom has been outdoors this week more often than it has been indoors. Walking on the Greenway, observing butterflies in the backyard, watching the groundhog that has made a burrow under our neighbor’s shed, sketching a praying mantis on our back deck, studying earthworms, and counting dead monarch caterpillars on a walk have all been opportunities for learning. We have freedom to study whatever is interesting where we are, and we have the flexibility to pursue those interests wherever they lead, no matter how long it takes.

We love that.

Staying home for school means that most days, we have no rush to be on time. On days when we have to be someplace at a certain time (like Sundays!), the extra stress of getting everyone out the door makes me tense and more likely to yell. When we can start the day in a leisurely way, I don’t have to worry about how long it is taking SuperSam to get ready, and I can relax and enjoy his company. He’s an awesome kid to hang out with…just don’t ask him to put on his shoes quickly.

We have been reading and reading and reading. SuperSam loves to read on his own, but he has been reading a lot to the Sisters this week, too. He and I have been working our way through The Hobbit a bit at a time. I’ve even been reading my own books while he reads (either the Magic Treehouse series or nonfiction books about sea creatures and ocean life) in the afternoons after his nap time while the Sisters are still sleeping. I love that reading with and to him is such a big part of our day…and since I don’t have to teach him to read, some of the pressure is off for me for this year.

Surprisingly, one of my favorite things so far is doing Bible stories with the kids. Of course, we have always told them Bible stories and read to them from Bible story books. Since we’ve decided to make it part of our curriculum, though, SuperSam and I have read or retold the same story of Jesus calling Simon Peter every day this week. On the second day, I remembered a little song about it from my childhood Sunday School days, so I taught it to them. They’ve been singing it every day since. Our story even inspired a science activity (I’ll get to that in a minute).

It’s easy to forget as an adult that the stories of Jesus’ life are exciting and kind of magical. They’re fun to tell and fun to act out and fun to draw. We grownups get hung up on what Big Spiritual Benefit we are supposed to be getting from them. “What does this mean in my life?” we ask. To our kids, though, they are just some really cool stories. As SuperSam said, “Jesus was, like, totally awesome.”

(And Lucy responded, “Baby Jeezus tode-ly ah-suhm.”)

Kitchen sink science has got to be one of the coolest things about homeschooling. We’re thinking about Simon Peter’s fishing boat? Let’s make a boat and see if it floats. What can we use? Oh, aluminum foil, ok. How should we design it? Hey, let’s make three different designs and see which one works best. Now let’s pretend these pennies are fish and count how many fish each boat can hold before it sinks. Let’s draw a chart and fill in the data. Wow, these pennies look dirty. Let’s wash them with soap. That didn’t help? Let’s try vinegar and salt and see what happens…and on and on it goes.

I love watching SuperSam’s brain work, figuring out what questions it wants to ask and how to answer them. Mostly, I just say, “Oh, okay, what do you think you need?” or “How could you fix that?” and see what he comes up with. It’s never dull.

The Sisters want to do school, too. I didn’t expect this. I love that they want to be in on what SuperSam is doing every…single…minute…but it is making me a little crazy. Trying to come up with ways to keep them engaged and occupied is going to be the hardest part about this whole thing. It doesn’t help that they are in a stage of constant competition with one another.

Our best successes this week happened when I moved things outside. Taking the easel outside and letting the Sisters draw while SuperSam works in his playhouse has been a great way for him to get some space to himself.

So this one isn’t so much MY love, but SuperSam’s: my kid loves math. Really, really loves math. I don’t know where that came from, but it is my duty not to squash it or to in any way suggest that he should not love math. I take this responsibility seriously, even if I wonder whose genetic material caused this strange love of numbers. He certainly didn’t inherit it from either of his parents.

Much to my surprise, he has been grasping math concepts quickly and naturally and asking for more every day. I wasn’t even going to really do a formal math curriculum with him, since we do so much “real life” math with cooking, measuring, telling time, counting money, playing with shapes, etc. Now I’m wondering if I should let him go ahead since he’s so interested.

That’s the first week for you- so far, so good. It’s not going to be easy, but there is a lot to love about homeschooling here with my family, and I’m certain that it’s the right decision for us at this time.

If you don’t think so, please don’t tell me this week. 🙂 I’m very tired now and I don’t have the energy to defend our position with a smile on my face. Wait a while until I’ve gotten my homeschooling bearings…then I can take you on properly.

Oh, and lest you fear for his social development, SuperSam will be on a soccer field for the first time tomorrow morning (in the cutest little cleats and shin guards I have ever, ever seen.) We’ll let you know how it goes.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!