Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Process of Planning Our Homeschool Curriculum

"X-Y-L-O-C-A-R-P. Xylocarp."

When Husband and I first decided last spring that we were going to homeschool Bear, the sheer amount of information available was overwhelming. I searched. I bookmarked. I libraried. I read, and re-read, and decided, and un-decided, and re-decided. I investigated boxed curriculums and checked out reviews. I read about unschooling. I read about deschooling. I read about Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Waldorf, online school...I read and researched until my brain hurt. And then, slowly, a picture of what our year might look like began to emerge. Here's how it's worked for us so far:

I researched state laws

Kentucky is pretty homeschool-friendly and the legal requirements are minimal. Basically we just have to let the school district know about our intentions to homeschool and to make sure we cover  what the state considers essential (reading, writing, spelling, grammar, history, math, and civics).

I researched standards

I don't really care if Bear is learning all the same historical facts or doing the same science experiments as her peers, but because we work best with some structure, I knew I wanted her on the same page, at least. So I did some digging and built an overview of the general topics that are frequently covered in 4th grade. Once I knew what topics we should try to hit on, I made a list to reference when tailoring lessons for Bear.

I asked Bear what she wanted to learn about

She LOVES tornadoes (source)

This was a big one for me. If you've ever gone on a Wikipedia bender (you know, where you casually look up one quick fact and before you know it you've become the foremost expert on the history of Saturday Night Live and King George I?), then you know why. When you're interested and engaged in a topic, you want to keep going with it, uncovering new information and soaking it in. While it makes sense to garner a general knowledge of world history, science, literature, etc., it makes even more sense to latch on to whatever engages you and dig in deep.

For example, I remember learning quite a bit about ancient Mesopotamia in high school. I retain that it reminded me of mashed potatoes. And it was, like, over there somewhere. A long time ago. That's enough for me to "get" the reference during The Daily Show and move on with my life. But ask me about, oh, I don't know—women's artistic gymnastics. NOW we have a topic I can talk about in depth.

Most people are like that. Bear will be, too. She needs enough general knowledge to function in polite society, and to be able to dive in as deeply as she wants when something really interests her.

I put it all on a big, fat list

And then, once I had it all in one spot, I began choosing what we'd do this year. I made a second list of the stuff we definitely wanted to cover in some capacity and then color-coded the items according to what time of year we'd hit on them: fall, winter, spring, or year-round.

The nice thing about the second list is that I have some direction and a nice overview. The nice thing about the FIRST list is that we can pull from it if we need to (or want to) and add to our year. The plan is not incredibly detailed. The stuff that's being studied now or in the near future is more solid, with books checked out, journal prompts chosen, and some activities planned. And I have a few ideas for the stuff that comes later, but I don't focus too much on that.

I found activities and books I wanted to use 

...and either bookmarked, saved, printed, or put them on hold at the library. Not for the full year, obviously. Just for the first 4-6 weeks of stuff, for the most part.

I took a deep breath and gave myself permission to throw it all out the window at a moment's notice

Flexibility is key!
Because flexibility is one of the single most important elements of homeschooling for us, and I don't want to forget that. If we decide that Ancient Greece sounds so awesome and I plan three weeks of amazing Greek lessons only to find out four days in that we're bored to tears...we can walk away (another reason I'm not letting myself plan too far ahead and in too much detail).

So that's sort of how I began plotting out our homeschool plan. Honestly, we're in week five and it's already changed and evolved several times. I anticipate this trend will continue. I think a flexible plan has been my best friend in all this. Bear is doing well, and I've begun to learn on a deeper level how she learns and works best. That's been really cool for me.

Now if I could just figure out how to keep Bug from grabbing books out of our hands and trying to eat our pencils...

Friday, September 14, 2012

What I've Learned in My First Four Weeks as a Homeschool Mom

"But I wanted things to move faster. So I followed my instincts."

She learns best by doing
Four weeks into our homeschool adventure both Bear and I have already learned so much. Actually, I've probably learned more than she has, but don't tell her that. 'K?

In no particular order, here are a few of the things that have become evident to me so far (and this is by NO means a comprehensive list):

Bear does not respond well to rote work

Okay, so I knew this already from years of helping her with her homework, but it was really driven home when I tried to implement some of it. She just shuts down and we both end up frustrated and nothing is really learned. However...

Mini marshmallows go well with vocabulary and spelling

And Bear has NO problem hollering out definitions when there's a mini marshmallow on the line. I still have her write out her own flashcards and look up the definitions herself, but she finds that far less tedious when she knows she's going to get to munch on puffs of sugar for her efforts. Once in awhile, anyway. ;)

Learning does not have to take eight hours a day

We;re generally done in about an hour, total. This freaked me out a little at first, but then I reminded myself that I'm working with one kid, at her own pace, according to her attention span and learning style. And another reason not to worry is that I've seen firsthand how learning does not stop when the "schooling" does. We may pack up our notebooks and log off the computer, but...

Evidence of learning does not require a written exam

Again, I knew this (I think we all do), but seeing it firsthand is incredibly rewarding. For our first unit, we read The School Story. It's about two 6th grade girls who scheme to get a book published. It's really cute and it's a great way to learn a bit about the publishing industry on a kid's level. We took our vocab from the story, did a few journal entries based on what we were learning, and even did an art project to design a cover for the protagonist's book. That was all fine and good, but I really saw the lightbulbs going off for Bear when she began "playing" the book. She adopted a pseudonym (like in the book) and began writing her own novel. She'd also sit in her room and play out the story. She's always done this with books and movies she loves, and I believe that for her, that's where the real learning takes place. When she can take what she's heard or seen and process it into play, she's "getting" it. It was so, so awesome to see, and I'm so happy that I get to be the one watching that happen now.

It's okay to make up missed or abandoned lessons on Saturday...or not at all

Sometimes our days get away from us due to unforeseen plans, trips to the library or grocery store, or just life. But with just one child to work with, it's very easy to make it up on Saturday, or decide something (like a day of journaling) is okay to skip this time. It's not like learning isn't taking place when we're not sitting at the table, so I don't feel like Bear is getting behind if we have to put off fractions for a few days. Again, that's one of the rewards of homeschool—working at our own pace. And setting it.

Reading together is my favorite part of school

I think compiling our reading list was my favorite part of the planning process, and reading together is definitely my favorite part of our learning. We love a lot of the same types of books, and I'm really excited to tackle some classics together, especially those that I've never read myself. And Bear is a really great reader, so even if Bug is being a little clingy and my arms are occupied, we can still enjoy the story together.

I'm really, really glad I didn't drop hundreds of dollars on curriculum

So. Much. FREE STUFF. There are fantastic websites out there for just about anything you could want, and even entire lesson plans you can use or adapt. Sure, piecemealing a curriculum takes a lot more planning that purchasing one that's ready to go, but it also allows us to study whatever we're interested in in more depth. And then there's the public library, which takes me to the point that...

We might have the best library in the country

Kenton County is consistently ranked in the top libraries in Kentucky, but seriously—what a resource. In addition to the fantastic collection of books, they have curriculum packs (Bear grabbed a massive duffel bag brimming with fraction activities), a website that leads to a plethora of incredible other sites, and a staff that is not only capable, but ready and willing, to assist in any way possible. They have programs specifically for homeschool families (last week Bear made a geode from an eggshell and got to open her own real geode, too—for free), and plenty of programs for all ages.

Seriously. I am in love with our library. I feel so, so lucky to live where I do.

Kids really do learn more when they give a crap about the subject matter

I loved seeing the light go on in my little budding meteorologist's eyes when I told her we were going to be doing a weather unit. She eagerly watched the DK Eyewitness Weather DVD (which we got from the awesome library), not even losing interest during the drier parts. She eagerly looked up the difference between cirrus and nimbostratus clouds. And she's very excited to build our rain gauge and begin our weather journals this week.

It's okay to change the plan if it's not working

We started out with a math program I was really excited about it, but Bear was bored to tears and found it FAR too easy. So I pulled up Time 4 Learning, an online curriculum program. When I showed it to her, she got very excited and exclaimed that they'd used it sometime at school for fun computer time and that she loved it. SCORE. It's $20 a month, but you get everything (not just the math) for that price. So we have access to all the lessons across a variety of topics, which will be great when we have one of those inevitable weeks where I've been too busy or flustered to chart a decent plan or when we feel like we're not quite hitting a subject adequately. I don't want to use T4L as our primary curriculum (I like planning our school around Bear's interests rather than a set plan), but it's a terrific supplement and well worth the money since she enjoys it. 

I cannot imagine taking on the challenge of educating twenty-five children at once

I feel great about my ability and my decision to educate my child. My hat is still off to the teachers who report to our schools day in and day out, pulling out all the creative stops they can muster to educate dozens of children in a system that not only gives them little to work with, but that actually works against them. That's dedication. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Just Today, Don't Be an Asshole

"I know it's wrong to skip class, but Janis said we were friends. And I was in no position to pass up friends."

It's National Don't-Be-A-Dick-To-Your-Fellow-Man/Woman Day. While you're out enjoying the stunning, reminiscent weather, let that lady with the minivan full of kids merge in front of you, even if she has a bumper sticker that makes it clear she's voting for the other guy. Pay for that college kid's coffee so he can get through class without falling asleep and afford lunch today, too. Shut off the tv after dinner and toss a frisbee with your dog and kids. And if you see a cop, firefighter, soldier, or any other serviceman or woman out today—give them a holler. Hell, buy their coffee, too.

Just don't be a dick. This one day, be okay with people being rude or lines being long because it's actually fine and your life is still beautiful.

That's all I got. After eleven years, I have no poignancy left. Have a breathtaking day. :)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nurturing Children's Interests

 "I think I'm joining the Mathletes."

She loves bowling!
I bookmarked this article in Good Housekeeping months ago because it reminded me so much of my little Bear. The child has enthusiastically signed up for a dozen activities, only to flame out within weeks or months (or days, in some cases).

The author writes about her similar experience and frustration, and acknowledges that her tendency to compare her girls to those kids who seemed to spring from the womb with their passions and talents at hand is unhealthy and unfair. I too am aware of this fault, and yet I still find myself wondering why my girl can't stick with anything or find something she really loves.

This section about the three stages of learning really resonates with me:

"'Stage one is unconscious incompetence, when you don't know what you don't know—a kid picks up a guitar, thinking it'll be as easy as professionals make it look. Stage two is conscious incompetence, when a kid realizes this is hard and she has a long way to go. Stage three is conscious competence—she puts in the effort and learns to play. Most give up in stage two. Fear and insecurity have to be overcome. Some kids are little perfectionists. If they can't do something perfectly right away, they get frustrated and want to quit.'"

The "expert" goes on to explain that there is often a dormant period between stages two and three, when the child will rediscover an interest in an activity and might want to re-explore it with the wisdom of experience on their side.

I can absolutely see that in Bear. Some things are clearly just not for her, but I think that once she finds her "thing," she'll really excel. With her it's a matter of understanding what she responds to—which is not pressure and external expectations. She responds well when she's given the tools and left to her own devices. This, I think, is why competitive sports and stuff like guitar didn't work well for her. Mentally and emotionally, she's not yet ready for the discipline required if it's not something she truly loves, anyway. She needs to have a fire for something in order for the work to feel worth it.

So I'm letting her try things. She has to learn that some things require hard work and discipline, but I think it's important to let her figure out what those things are on her own. As she gets older she'll become increasingly capable of tackling difficult challenges, but at the age of nine, life should still be fun and her primary job is to play. There's plenty of time to learn to think like an adult later. For now I just want her to explore her interests at her own pace.

Easier said than done, of course. One of the things she desperately wants to do is to act and sing, and if you get cast in a show there is simply no room for a lack of discipline. She's auditioning for a show next week and whether she gets cast or not, auditioning is a valuable experience. But I have had to put some level of expectation on her. She has to prepare her music, she has to understand audition protocol, and if she is cast—she has to work very hard on something very repetitive for eight weeks. That's heavy. After MUCH inner turmoil, I decided to let her give it a try. One way or another, it will be a learning experience for her. 
It's all about balance, amiright?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pinterest in Real Life: Microwave Caramels

"Man, I hate those things. Coach Carr makes us eat those when we want to move up a weight class."

I love caramel, so when I saw this delicious looking, super simple recipe on Pinterest, I was very excited.

Here is the photo that inspired me:

Photo by BarbryT on Food.com

And here is my outcome:

So it was late, I was tired, and I was craving fast sugar. I began by just skipping the ENTIRE cooking step and pouring the mixture right into the dish. It looked "off" to me, so I re-checked the recipe and face palmed. But despite the title—MICROWAVE CARAMELS—I was still apparently confused, because I scraped the mixture into a saucepan and cooked it on medium heat.

I am truly baffled as to why this failed so colossally. What could possibly have gone wrong?

I won't pretend I didn't grab a spoon and start shoveling runny caramel down my gullet. 'Cause I did.

And in case that first photo didn't provide you with the full picture, here are a few more.


Just like at the candy shoppe.

A spoon full of...whatever the hell that is...