Saturday, August 27, 2016

When life gets in the way of blogging

Phew.

Everyone is now in bed.

We have enjoyed a day long block party.

B. and A. moved their stuff out and back onto campus for the new school year.

M. set up a studio in the basement because Chicago apartments can be so annoyingly small.

Piano lessons.

And one distraught L. because the Tooth Fairy forgot to take her tooth and leave a quarter for the second night in a row. If it hadn't been for the distraction of a block party, a stern note was going to be written.

Pictures on Monday. Of the block party, not the stern note to the Tooth Fairy. I'm hoping we can dodge that bullet.

If you need something to read in the interim, you can take a look at my new article: Is International Adoption Right for Me? 

Friday, August 26, 2016

In which I pretend to be part of the media and my children eat their weight in snacks

Who says blogging doesn't sometimes pay off? It's just a little harder to see it if you so strongly dislike advertising that you don't put it on your blog even if it pays you money and product reviews are few and far between. Every so often I will say yes to an offer that arrives in my inbox and the invitation to a sneak peak at the new Regenstein Learning Campus at the Chicago Botanic Gardens was one of those times.

So this afternoon I loaded up nine children (no P., who had a guitar lesson, but we had B., a special treat) and headed up to the gardens. The new campus is really lovely, and it was doubly nice to have it virtually to ourselves. The first thing you come to are outdoor play areas.

There are grassy hills for climbing and running and rolling up and down.

G.

And other areas with rocks to climb on and tree trunks to crawl through.

L. (on left) and G.

L.


More grassy hills

There is a winding stream where children can play or walk through.



And a little waterfall to splash in.


But those grassy hills do beckon. 

R., who wasn't sure she wanted to climb up, but did make it eventually.

Y. made it, too. At first she looked at them and announced that she couldn't do it. When I said that was silly, of course she could, she gave it a try and kept climbing.

See her go?

Then we got to go inside. The first stop was the preschool classroom that will hold a nature-based preschool. It was a lovely classroom filled with all sorts of cool activities. My younger crew could have stayed here for much longer than I let them.




In the outdoor area of the preschool classroom was this water table. I am in love. Swooning, see it in my dreams love with this water table. You can't really tell from my photograph, but it has three tiers that the water can run down. It was fantastically well designed and once again, I had to drag people away. I loved it so much that I came home and found it online. Well. It is just going to have to live in my dreams. Reality and budgets kind of stink sometimes.


After the preschool classroom, we got to see the kitchen classroom. (See the movie camera? This was a real 'thing' we got invited to.) Everyone got to make tortillas and then eat them.




R., H., and Y.

The last stop for us was the children's growing garden. There they had a nice selection of activities to do with plant polination and a really cute hummingbird puppet that I may have to fine for our house. They had some really interesting plants there for the children to look at and investigate. Even some not-so-welcoming ones such as this one. Not only does this thing have spikes on the tops of it leaves but has equally wicked spikes on the underside as well.




R. trying to get a grasshopper to sit on her hand.

L.

Y., G., and B.

There's the puppet I mentioned.

In another part of this same garden are watering cans and a spigot so that children can go and water the plants.


G.

Y. carrying her watering can

R.

Y. and H.

We had to leave before the saw the water area with frogs and things. (Yes, you can tell that M. was not with us, as this would otherwise would not have been allowed.) 

Thank you to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. We had a fantastic afternoon, and good snacks that my children ate their weight in weren't so bad, either. 


If you have a chance, you should go and visit. The grand opening to the public is September 10 and 11. Check it out.

#GrowYourLifeStory

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Getting closer

On my new neat and tidy schedule (that I still have to print out), it says we start school on Sept. 7. (Note that is the day after the day after Labor Day. We celebrate our educational freedom around here by going to a museum on the day after Labor Day and enjoy having the place to ourselves.) Anyway, if we are really going to start school, I still have a little more work to do. 

Today I spent some time copying and printing bird poems and then printing out pictures of the birds the poems are about. (Of course, I laminated all of it.) I saw something like this at the children's museum in Pentwater, MI a couple of weeks ago and decided to steal it. L. has been my helper and has been quite smitten with the bird pictures and poems. They are now hanging on the schoolroom walls, because I find passive learning (as in putting things on the walls that people read despite themsevles... or books in the bathroom) to be quite effective. It's actually how we work on sight words, adding them to a list on the wall as we come across them.

So here's what I have so far. Our display table now now has birds on it. (See that huge book? It's called The Bird in Art and it is in full color and gorgeous. I bought it 'used' for a song and it came still in it's plastic.) Behind it you can see some of the poems.


And some more...



Here is another wall. They're kind of spread out.


One last one. They look so nice and professional hanging up on the wall in their laminated shininess.


Of course, here is what I still need to sort and put away.


I also have a couple more learning games to make, including one with Venn diagrams which I'm pretty excited about. I'll show it to you when it's done.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Read this book

During H.'s EEG yesterday I was able to read a book recommended to me by a reader, The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It's a chapter book written for children (I would probably hand it to a child older elementary and up), and is set in London and the English countryside during the evacuations of children during World War Two. The part of it that I want to share with you though, is that it has some of the best descriptions of what goes on inside the head of a child from a hard place that I have ever read.

For instance,

I didn't know what to say. Somehow Christmas was making me feel jumpy inside. All this talk about being together and being happy and celebrating -- it felt threatening. Like I shouldn't be a part of it. Like I wasn't allowed. And Susan wanted me to be happy, which was scarier still. (p. 206)

Or,

     My mittens looked like they had two thumbs apiece. Susan showed me how one thumb-part went over my thumb, and the other went over my littlest finger. She had taken very thin scraps of leather and sewed them across the palms. "They're riding mittens," she said, watching my face. "See?"
     I saw. When I'd first started riding Butter I'd held the reins in my fists, but Fred insisted I do it the proper way, threading them through my third and fourth fingers and out over my thumb. In these mittens I could hold the reins right, and the leather strips would keep the yarn from wearing away.
     "I made them up," Susan said. "They were all my own idea. Do you like them?"
     It was one of those times when I knew the answer she wanted from me, but didn't want to give it. "They're okay," I said, and then relenting a little, "Thank you."
     "Sourpuss," she said laughing. "Would it kill you to be grateful?"
     Maybe. Who knew?  (p. 190)

One more,

     I stomped my crutch. It landed on one of Jamie's paper planes, smashing it into the rug. Jamie howled. I didn't care.
     Miss Smith got up. "What's wrong with you?"
     "My stomach hurts!"
     "You're angry," she said. "But you can't take it out on Jamie. Say you're sorry and see if you can fix that plane."
     "I'm not sorry," I said.
     Miss Smith pressed her eyes shut, "Say it anyhow," she said.
     "No!"
     "Jamie, come here," Miss Smith sad down on the sofa and opened her arms, and Jamie crawled into her lap. Ever since she'd hugged him in his classroom, he'd been cuddling up to her. I could hardly stand it. "Your sister's having a hard time," Miss Smith told him. "She didn't mean to rip your plane."
     I wanted to say, I did too, only it was such a lie. I never meant to hurt Jamie. He just sometimes got in the way. But looking at him curled up on Miss Smith's lap made me want to scream. Nobody did that for me.
     Except that Miss Smith patted the space beside her. "Sit down," she said. "No, really. Sit."
     And then she put her arm around me, and pulled me halfway over.
     She did.
     I was almost on her lap.
     "You're so stiff," she said. "It's like trying to comfort a piece of wood."
     It felt very odd to have her touch me. Of course it made me tense. But I didn't go away inside my head. (p. 140)

It's a good story, well told, and the author absolutely nails the conflicting emotions, fear, and panic that are inside of the head of a hurt child and how that looks to the people around them. Plus it has horses. The only weak part, I felt was the ending. My inner book-loving child adored the ending because everything was tied up neatly and happily. My inner book-loving child was satisfied. The adult me, though, realizes that children who experience the level of abuse and neglect that this child did, do not get neatly healed by page 316. It is a slower and messier process. The adult me wanted a little glimmer of acknowledgement of that truth inside the happy ending.

Even with the neat and tidy ending, anyone who lives with a child from a hard place, or knows a child from a hard place, or is supporting a family raising a child from a hard place could benefit from reading this book. It helps to make a little sense of the sometimes nonsensical behaviors that these children display. And it does so with grace and thoughtfulness and compassion.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Multi-grade homeschooling - our version

Yesterday I did a general overview of how multi-grade homeschooling can work. It all sounds good on paper right up to the point where you have nine people asking you what to do all at once. For this to work for us, a schedule is definitely called for. I had delusions last spring that we could just sort of wing it, with everyone doing their thing and me calmly and serenely wandering from child to child helping as needed. (Bwahahaha!!! Excuse me while I snort into my coffee at the memory of it all. There was nothing calm or serene about any of it.) So, we are back to a schedule. It's just better for everyone involved that way.

But how was this imaginary schedule going to work? Nine children, approximately eight different levels and abilities, and one mother. Oh, and I wanted to get everything done in three hours or so. I really strongly believe that academics don't need to take longer than a morning. There are so many other things in this world that are interesting to learn about and do and think about. Why let textbooks get in the way of that? The exception to that is for high school, but three hours of concentrated work should even be sufficient for that as well. I ended up spending far more hours on this than it would seem to hear me explain it.

Here is what I've ended up with. (This is the abbreviated version and not the 20 minute by 20 minute detailed account.) We always begin our morning all together so I can read the Bible chapter we are on. (We are working our way, chapter by chapter, through the Bible.) Then the older people go to their places and begin their work and the six youngest come upstairs with me. The exception is that D., who often finished early anyways, has agreed to lend me a hand for a bit. He is going to help get K. and H. started on their individual work, thus freeing me to start immediately working with the littles. This was the key to making it work. Once D. does this, he can go and do his stuff.

I will start with R., and then in either 20 minute or 30 minutes increments, I will rotate through the others. The other key is what the others are doing when not working with me. I have a variety of plans, depending on the age and ability of the child. I have now divided all of the school room activities and games and toys into different categories. Every 20 or 30 minutes, the little people will get to choose from one of these categories when it is not their turn to work with me. For, R., who is not quite at the point of being able to entertain herself, H. (after she does her independent work) is going to be her assigned helped. I think this will be good for both of them and give H. some more 'big kid' experience. Other things to occupy the time include, snacks for the ones who lean towards the exploding side of things, piano practicing, and some breaks for large muscle use. It will probably never run like clockwork, but with some practice, it will at least keep everyone moving and give me time with each child in the morning.

All of this fun ends at about 11:30. At that point, we will all gather together to do one of the two special topics we will be learning about this year. Those are History from between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and the study of birds. This time together usually involves a lot of listening to me read, timeline and map work, and sometimes documentaries. I think we'll be making lapbooks for our bird study, so we'll have little books to create about what we've learned as well.

This is what we do Monday through Thursday. Fridays are a little different and we spend them focusing on learning about art and doing art projects. It is also a day where we often do field trips as well. I found a great book about classical music based on bird themes. It tells a little about each piece and then includes either an excerpt or the entire piece on a CD.  We'll work through this instead of focusing on one visual artist this year. I also have some fun looking art projects to tackle.

There you go. What didn't I answer? What's still confusing? I'm happy to try to clarify.

Monday, August 22, 2016

5 Steps to Multi-age Teaching in the Homeschool

With school starting again, I've been seeing lots of questions being asked about multi-age teaching. Since I've had a little experience with this, I thought I would share how we make it work. This could promise to be a fairly long and detailed post. If you are not a homeschooler, I give you permission to just skip this post and tomorrow's and come back on Wednesday. Of course, even non-homeschoolers are welcome to read along. I know this is one of those, 'I don't know how you do it!' questions.

I did the math and figured out that this is my 19th year of homeschooling. For this school year I have P., who is a high school junior; H., doing early elementary work; TM, 8th grade; D., 8th grade; R., early childhood activities; K., 2/3 grade work; Y., will be doing 3/4 grade work once she gets the English reading piece down; and G. and L., 2nd grade. (That's nine children, if you lost count.) I will admit that the crazy spread of ages and abilities made it a bit trickier this year to make a homeschool schedule work. I think I have one figured out, though we have yet to give it a trial run yet. (It's still August, people. Regardless of what every other school district in the country is saying, that's still summer in my book.)

I know the vast majority of people are not trying to juggle nine unique individuals, so I'll start out by giving a broader example of how to make multi-age teaching work. Tomorrow, I'll share my great plan for our own school this year, because based on the questions I often get, I know people are curious.

Settle in, grab a warm cup of your preferred beverage, and here we go.

5 Steps to Multi-age Teaching in the Homeschool

1. Take care of the littlest first.

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers is challenging. While I could probably write an entire book on the subject (and possibly already have if you go back through old posts), I'll hit the highlights here.

The younger the child, the more they need a parent's attention. If you start your day by filling that need, they are much more likely to let you work with older siblings for a while. (Depending on the age, be aware that 'for a while' could mean anything from 15 minutes to two hours.) Read them stories, rock with them, sing songs, play a bit, spend some unrushed time together. With the emotional needs met, then pull out one of the toys or activities you have stashed away that only come out during school time. In the past I've rotated in and out Duplo, Playmobile 123, puppets, trains, plastic figures, and whatever else I know will keep their attention. These are things that only come out during school time and then go away. I usually get a different toy out each day so as to keep everything fresh. This does require having large enough bins and enough out-of-sight storage to make it work, but I find the pay-off to be worth it.

Other things that can help distract/engage young children are tactile experiences... sand, clay, water, digging in beans or rice, etc. Of course, you either have to take precautions to contain the mess or just decide the mess is worth it. I like to save these types of activities for days when it seems the little people just can't settle. Then the peace and activity it brings is well worth the mess.

When we are doing group work (more on this in a moment), I also let the little people join us as much as they can. Are the bigger people writing in notebooks? Then I make sure I have a cheap notebook for the little people to 'write' in as well. Are we doing experiments? Then let them watch and try it as well. Are we reading together? Then they can certainly listen, though they might need some toys to play with while they do. You will be amazed at what they pick-up doing this. They feel like big kids, which they desperately want to be, and because of this are usually more amenable to cooperating... or at least not being disruptive.

Of course, things don't always work as you would like and for those day, you can either wait until nap time or bag the schedule and go outside or something equally desperate. And you know what? That's OK, too. Life happens, especially life with young children. One day (or even one week or one month) of a disrupted schedule because of a fussy or clingy young child is not going to ruin your older children. Relax! Read a story together. Take a deep breath and remember that your relationship with your children is far more important than whether you made it through that page of phonics.

2. Focus on learning to read

When I'm planning my own family's schedule, I spend the most amount of concentrated one-on-one time with a child during the learning to read years. Once a child can read, the world opens up and you have more flexibility, but you have to get there first. I have found I can do just about any other subject with more than one child and they will learn, but teaching reading is the one thing that (in my opinion) has to happen individually. So that is what we do. The first step to creating a schedule is to carve out time with each child who is learning to read. (This is also what made our current year's schedule so tricky to make.) For some, this will take a year, and for others it may be a multi-year affair. Each of my children have learned to read fluently at vastly different ages and you can't really predict what timeline each child will take. Once again, paying attention to the child and the child's needs should come first and not some misplaced expectation that by age 6 everyone should be reading fluently.

(We'll pause here for a little rant. This current expectation that all children will learn to read fluently by the end of kindergarten is hogwash, in my opinion, and probably the single biggest cause for future reading problems in children. Please, do not join the craziness. Early reading is helpful for classrooms of children because teaching readers is just easier. You do not have classrooms of children and can work around reading issues for years if necessary.)

3. Encourage students to work independently

I know there is a stereotype out there that homeschooled students are incapable of working on their own and figuring things out independently because they are so used to having someone sitting next to them helping them every step of the way. I actually don't know any students like that, and I certainly do not do this for mine. (I'm not even sure I could if I wanted to, short of cloning myself.) I expect my children to work on things on their own while I'm working (usually on reading) with another child. This includes handwriting, math, other copy work, and grammar. Of course, if they have a question they can ask, but usually it is a quick explanation and they are back at work. (Usually it's a quick explanation... learning to identify and diagram direct objects and predicate nominatives can hang us up for a while. And no, until I taught it, I couldn't  have done it myself, even with my gifted education and pricey, exclusive college.)

4. Do everything that you can all together

I have my children work independently on reading, handwriting, math, and grammar. These are areas where each person learns at an unique pace and are also things that need to be covered sequentially. I think it would be nearly impossible to expect one child to move at the same pace as another. Not even my identical twins do this. But other subjects? Science, history, geography, people, literature, music, art... these we do all together. Everyone hears the same lesson, but not everyone responds to it the same way. Older people are expected to do a little more... a little more writing, a little more detail, a little more effort... while younger people are doing well to listen and help tell things back to me. I do try to find projects that are interesting at different levels, sometimes aiming higher and sometimes lower to cover all the bases (thank you Pinterest!), but ideas and map work and listening to stories is pretty much the same regardless of ones age and ability.

I will also add that we don't do all of these things everyday. I usually have two different topics that we are learning in depth in any given school year and can usually fit each of these categories into those topics over the course of a year. More on this when I explain our schedule for this year tomorrow.

5. But what about high school?! (Don't forget the panicked whine)

Once again, I could probably write a book on this. People think high school is scary. Heck, I thought high school was scary way back when, when M. was starting freshman year. But you know what? It's not really. Yes, there's science. We've done lab sciences at home with a textbook and a science supply kit, in a class with other people taught by another person, and non-traditional sciences created by ourselves... like B.'s bees. Yes, there's math. We've done video courses, textbooks on our own, and made use of tutors when needed. If I had someone who really, really like math and really, really wanted to do a lot, I would probably look into a community college class or something.

Our high schoolers work independently. They are actually the easy part of multi-grade teaching. We create a course of study together; I help them plan out their schedule for work (as much or as little as they want me to); they do their work on their own schedule (which for some is mostly done at night); and we check in together every so often. They also take outside classes and outside pursuits to a greater degree than they did when they were younger. I am more of a supervisor and acquirer of resources than an actual teacher.

There you go. It's completely doable. Appropriate expectations are really the key. Here are a few things to write on a poster to remind yourself of everyday.

  • Life will always get in the way of the schedule, and it will be OK.
  • Relationship is always more important than worksheets.
  • A happy and calm child will learn more easily than an upset and frustrated. It's OK to stop before the math book gets thrown across the room.
  • If you are feeling angry, it probably means you are scared about something. Stop and take a break, remembering that you are not failing your child. You really do have all the time you need to help your child reach his or her potential.
(Linked to the Hip Homeschool Hop)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Spots!

We are a bit of the plague house around here these days. There is a dreadful head cold that various children seem to be passing around and last night it hit K. This morning when he woke up, he felt a bit better, but has the cutest gravelly voice at the moment. The reason I tell you this is that you need to know that K. is under the weather to appreciate the heart-stopping moment I had this morning.

I was in bed, drinking my coffee and waiting for my brain to wake up. You would think the parade of noise that had been trooping through my bedroom for the previous half hour would do that, wouldn't you? But, no, it doesn't. K. broke off from the parade and came and sat on my bed. He was talking to me about something and I happened to glance at his arm. This is what I saw.


Let me tell you what happens when your pre-coffee-fogged brain glances at your son's arm and sees red spots like that. The internal sirens start going off... WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP!... and the early panic alert system starts making dire announcements... MEASELS! MEASELS! MEASELS! MEASELS! (Remember this is pre-coffee, so all rational thinking stations are not on-line. We do vaccinate.) With the alert system going at full force inside my head, on the outside, I calmly say, "K, what's that on your arm?" When he immediately hides his arm, the screaming alert system shuts down. All is well. I wait a moment while he looks a bit sheepish. "Is that marker?" I prompt? He nods his head yes. "Oh, K, please don't draw on your arm," I say. The marker restriction isn't so much for the drawing on the arm, but because the full-firing of the early alert system is taxing and I don't like to experience it too often.


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