Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Making room

Two weeks ago, I went through 3 large storage tubs of my teaching stuff.  I had already gone through it before we moved to Alaska, there was more like 10 or so boxes then,  What was left, was the stuff I thought of as the really good stuff. 

It was really good stuff, for a classroom.  What has surprised me most about going from a former teacher to homeschooling mom, is that most of my classroom stuff now looks like busy work to me.  I was an innovative teacher.  I never handed out a plain ol' worksheet.  The usual set up was 1/2 the class in a small group setting and the other half at hands-on independent learning stations.  I planned 10-15 of these stations every week.  It took a lot of planning and creativity to come up with fun and challenging projects for my students.  I was proud of the kind of projects I put out for my kids.  I loved seeing them walk in on Monday, excited to see what was ahead for the week.

Two weeks ago, I decided I was tired of stepping around the 3 boxes in my sewing room.  I had already filled up a small filing cabinet with stuff I barely used.  I opened my filing cabinet and those boxes and whittled it done to what seemed like really fun projects that I though my kids, might actually do.  I ended up with one organized filing cabinet and 2 large garbage bags.

It was hard.  So much of what I threw out this time, represented hours and hours of my time and creativity.  I also completely let go of the idea that I might someday teach in the classroom again.  That was hard too.

The bonus was that as I looked at all these things, I could see that Oliver had learned all these skills without the classroom and felt assured that Benton and Linnea wouldn't need this stuff either.

I popped into Dan's office for a little encouragement.  He said exactly what I needed to hear.  Something along the lines of "You are making room, both physically and mentally for more creativity."  He was so right.  My sewing room had been unusable, but later that week, I got started on projects that had been sitting in my closet, untouched for a year or more.

So, my sewing room is somewhat organized.  Now what about the rest of the house?  It feels like there is too much.  How do I simplify?  How do I whittled down my kids' things to the essentials and what I hope will inspire more creativity and play?   How do I do that and still be respectful of their things?  Right now, our playroom is crazy messy.  They love it when it has been reorganized, but a day later it is crazy messy again.  I do know that my creativity inspires them, so sewing again is part of the solution.

Well, I will continue to ponder all of that, but for now I better get up and start putting some things away.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


This summer, we stuck with the Read, Create, Play idea.  We mostly played, did a little creating, and reading is always somewhere in our day.

The above picture is Oliver and Benton in tissue paper monster masks they made.  They are not really impressive pieces of art, but they really wanted me to take their picture.  Actually, the reason I thought to share it, is that it wasn't at all my idea, but they didn't just come up with it on their own.  We have lots of books, art supplies, and manipulatives around the house to support their learning.  And, several boxes that I have yet to unpack.

Some of our project idea books-from art to science, there are plenty of colorful pictures to inspire

Anyway...The masks are based on a project they found in a book, but modified to fit their desires and skill levels.  This one required a fair amount of hands on time from me, which is probably why I hesitated a little when they showed me the picture, but then I reminded myself that my job is to say yes to projects and "how can I help?"

The point of all this is that I was busy and Oliver wanted something to do.  So, I said "Just go look through the books and find something you want to do."  By the time I had finished cleaning up my kitchen, he was back and had a plan.  I like that.   Actually, I am a little jealous.  I wish I could make a plan to create something and complete it in one day, but so it goes.  Parenting is a long term project that is keeping me pretty busy at the moment and I like that too.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Math at our house

I feel like I get a lot of questions about math.  Granted we are not talking about calculus, but thought I'd share how our kids are learning what they need right now.

Learning basic math skills is as natural and interesting to my kids as it was to learn to walk or learn the alphabet.   We want our kids to think mathematically and continue to love playing with math.   For me, that means, just like learning to read, we let our kids learn what they need when they need it.  Math is everywhere and we have math moments everyday.  We have been having them everyday since our kids were little.   Here are several examples from the last 2 days:

  • As I write this, I am sitting on the couch with my laptop. Benton and Oliver decided to sit next to me and each other with their magnetic boards.  This is a gift they got as little guys, but is still used nearly everyday.  Today, they were drawing, but it just turned to number writing.  I missed the transition, but they were writing together:  100, erase, 200, erase, 300, erase, all the way to 1000.  They did it together, discussing their numbers and how to write them properly.  At 2000, they decided to write the year, 2011.  Then on to 3000, back to 11, then 4000 by thousands up to 10000 and then back to drawing people.

  • Last night, I had my digital scale out on the kitchen counter.  When I was done, Oliver started weighing various things in the room and looking at the total.  He had two things, a Lego project and a bottle opener on the scale and asked our friend Alex how much one of them weighed.  So, Alex walked him through taking one item off and how to determine the weight of the item he took off.  It was 6.15 ounces with both items, and 1.15 ounces with just the Lego item.   Oliver figured it out in his head and announced his answer and moved on to something else.  Later, Alex and I were talking about how math is part of our everyday conversations and he said that he had fallen into one of those moments with Oliver and enjoyed Oliver's enthusiasm.
  • My husband Dan is always a great resource for the kids.  He works and thinks mathematically everyday.  He enjoys working with them to figure things out.  One night Oliver and Benton got an intro to the geometry of a circle.  They had a compass and were drawing circles.  It turned into a conversation about measuring circles, circumference, the diameter, the radius.  Someone went to get a ruler and a piece of string.  Next up was 2 PI x r and PI x diameter.  Oliver is only 6, but was loving it.

  • Before I could finish this up,  I caught Oliver in another math moment.  He asked "How many days until my birthday?"  I said "I don't know, go get the calendar."  "What's today?"  "Monday, in the last week of August."  "August 29th."  and he started counting, while I grabbed my camera.  :)  Only 28 days until his birthday, 29 days until his brother's birthday and 22 days until his sister's birthday (that one he just subtracted 6 from 28).  He talked about what day of the week the birthdays would be on and then moved on to the next month.  He sounded out October and flipped through the calendar and back to January through August.  He read all the months, noticed some holidays and then announced to his brother the number of days until his birthday.  Then it was over. 

So, those are just a few examples of what I mean when I say math is part of our everyday life.  Math is part of our daily play too.  Just as we have easy reader books and other language arts items, we also have many items that support math exploration, some I purchased, some were gifts.  

In the above picture, the kids are playing Pirate Arithmetic from Haba.   A great game that should work for us for a long time.  Benton (age 4) uses some counters to check his work and Oliver does everything in his head or on his fingers.   Just to give you an idea of some of our math toys, we have the basic stuff, like the compass and ruler, as well as pattern blocks, real and fake money, "What Time is It?" clock game, "Make a Pie" fraction game.  We also have some math bingo games, as well as number cards that Oliver has used to make up problems (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to solve for himself.

All of those items are used just like other toys.  They decided when and how long they want to play with them.  Sometimes I play with them, sometimes they play on their own.

What is math like at your house?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Embracing Unschooling

I searched and googled, trying to find a local homeschool group that I thought would be a good fit for us.    I was looking for diversity, which the few other groups I found, didn't offer.  I figured others might be looking for something different too.   So, I decided to start a.l.l.  The prevailing idea behind the group is secular and inclusive with the hopes of creating a diverse group of home learners where everyone feels welcome.  

As my husband recently shared on Facebook, we picked the group name and the acronym because it describes our family and our style of learning, but also addresses my desires for a secular and inclusive group.  It might not be the right group for everyone, but I hope anyone who appreciates diversity, will find our group welcoming.  Admittedly, I kind of hope that a.l.l. will lean in the unschooling direction, but at the same time, I want a.l.l. to support all homeschoolers.

So, as it turns out, when you get a bunch of Alaskan homeschoolers together, two questions regularly come up:  "What program are you with?"  and "What curriculum do you use?" Being at the unschooling end of the homeschooling spectrum, my answers often surprise folks. 

Not only are we life learners, aka unschoolers, we're independent. I often get a blank look or simply "Why?  Why wouldn't you want the money?"

In the past, I have often used the fact that I am a former classroom teacher as a quick out.  I usually add that I have boxes and boxes of education material left over from my teaching days.  In other words, I don't want the funding to buy curriculum.   We use a lot of that material, but not like they might imagine.  It is my kids' decision, not mine, whether we do something or not.  We're independent because I believe in my children's innate desire to learn.  I want to support them in their learning, not direct it.  I also do not want testing to have any bearing on how I support them.  I think standardized testing is one of the biggest problems with public school, but that is another post altogether.

Many people think unschooled is equal to uneducated.  It absolutely is not.  Dealing with those blank stares and the occasional criticism has made me reluctant to embrace the term unschooling.  Lately though, I have felt a responsibility to speak up for child-led learning.  I really believe it is what is best for my kids and quite frankly, for most kids.  So, call us life learners or unschoolers,  I am ok with either one.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A New Rhythm to Our Days

A quick confession, I recently considered preschool for Benton.  Seriously considered it.  I wondered if he need a place of his own and if the social situation could help him improve his speech.  So, I visited the local Waldorf school and thought it was lovely.  Everything they said to sell me on the program, I could believe in.  By the time I got in my car I was thinking about enrolling both Benton and Oliver and felt terrible about it.  I fundamentally believe kids do not need preschool, so why was I suddenly feeling like our home was not enough for my kids?

After that visit, I came home and talked with Dan and I felt inspired to do better.  By better, I mean that I felt like I was just treading water this past year.  There was so much to do, as we settled into this house. Dan and I talked about what we had imagined as homeschooling parents, and why I thought we were not there yet.  Between moving in and back out for a remodel, and back in again, plus having a nursing child,  it was very difficult to stick to any sort of schedule, but we've moved on from all that now.  I don't know how many times this year I tried to pencil out a schedule.  I could never figure it out.  There was just too much going on.  That is how I came up with Read, Create, Play.  I just had to keep it simple.

Well, now that things feel a little more predictable in our house and our daily life, I was able to sit down and come up with a schedule.  It is a little for the kids and a whole lot for me.  There is so much to do as the mom, I have a hard time devoting my full attention to my kids.  I mean there is always laundry to do, dishes to deal with, cleaning and then there is all the stuff I feel like I am constantly trying to put away.

Anyway,  in case you are curious, here is a pretty honest schedule.  It is not exactly what I typed up, but when we get there, I'll share that one.  :) 

8:30 am - wake up, kids pick 1/2 hour show to watch while I check my email and then start breakfast (coffee first)
9:00 am - hot breakfast, usually we have eggs and toast or oatmeal
9:30 am - kitchen cleanup and sometimes a 2nd cup of coffee

One morning we read some books about vegetable gardens.  Oliver and Benton made a list of the vegetables they want in their garden this year.  As a former teacher, I loved how this activity came about naturally and with so much more meaning than what I would have done in the classroom.

10:00 am - Focused Learning time - this when I want to give my kids my full attention and really be a resource for them.  We head down to our playroom and read books, play games, do some art, whatever.  Sometime a question will come up so we've look for more info or videos on the internet.  Sometimes they do their own thing without me, but we always start with reading aloud.  I pick some books related to a theme for the week and they pick books too.  Lately, Ollie reads a few books to me, which I am really enjoying.  If they are busy playing without me, I might start some laundry or tidy up the playroom.

Noon -  They are usually ready to do something different at this point and lately, they go outside while I make lunch.

I wrote out a schedule for the rest of the day, but really, it is still fairly fluid.

1:00 pm - might head out for our a.l.l. activity, meet friends or to the library.  If we stay home, the kids are usually outside or playing on their own.

2:30 pm - Quiet hour - Linnea takes her nap, the boys get 1 hour of computer time and this is my quiet hour too.  :)  I am usually on the computer, sometimes I watch a little tv while I fold laundry.  There are lots of things I should be doing, but I need a little down time too.

3:30 pm - Oliver and Benton usually work with playdough, draw or write in their journals.  I am usually moving around tidying up around them or checking and responding to emails, making plans for a.l.l. or blogging.  Ideally, I would journal with them.  Hmm, need to put that on my to-do list.

4:00 pm -  Right now they are big fans of Wild Kratts on PBS, so they watch that at 4pm and I try to remember to turn the tv off after it is over.  I am always trying to clean up my house, but it is never really clean, because there is so much to do and I am easily distracted.

They might go back outside and Linnea and I will go out for a bit, but then I head in to start figuring out what to feed them when they come in hungry.  Linnea pretty much hangs out with me.

6pm - dinner and Dan is done with work and we all settle into our evening routine of family time and eventually getting ready for bed.

I love this warmer weather because the boys are outside so much.  Maybe this coming winter will be a little easier on them than their first winter here. Anyway, it is not too exciting and, as any mother knows, there a ton of things that don't fit into any schedule, but I know it is kind of nice to see what other home learning families are doing. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Read, Create, Play

This was quite a year for our family.  First of all we moved across the country.  As some of your know, moving is no small affair.  Although, we had visited many times, my kids and husband, were not Alaskans yet and we are still settling into who we are as Alaskans.  I kind of know who I am, but being the mom, makes it different.  We remodeled our house (still working on that one). I started a secular homeschooling group. :)  All while caring for a family of five, including a nursing baby and a giant puppy.  I was just trying to get through the day and could barely think any further.

Meanwhile, Oliver became an official homeschooling Kindergartner. Having been a Kindergarten teacher, I had big plans for Oliver.  When he was about 2, I could barely wait to start teaching him.  Ha ha.  That kid made it very clear that I would not be teaching him.  He does the learning on his own.  Having children greatly changed what I believe about how kids learn.  To Oliver, I am a valued resource, but he is in charge of his learning.  I believe my job is to give guidance and inspiration, opportunities, supplies, books and to say "yes" when someone wants my help to learn something in particular.

So, with everything that has been going on this year,  I set a simple goal for us.  A daily to do list: 


It was and is perfect for us.  Most days, if we did 2 of those items and everyone was fed and dressed (at some point), I was doing well.  I recently added two more things I would like Oliver to do every day:  Help (with caring for our home and family) and Write (he has a journal and likes to send letters).

I love how simple, yet complex Read, Create, Play can be.  Read - includes listening, reading alone, reading to someone else.  Create - usually means art, building with blocks, train tracks, baking, cooking, etc.  Play - go outside, please!  or playing with toys.  I kind of like to get them outside everyday, when possible.  For Oliver, this has been his to-do list as a kid.

For me, it is a reminder that I need to fit those things into my day too.  Right now, I am working on the create part  (I want to organize my sewing room)  I am also working on the writing in a journal right along side of them.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I never quite fit in

So, I went to the IDEA fair and felt strangely out of place.  Only one of the workshops appealed to me, it was kind of an intro to Waldorf, but even in there, I heard so many questions about how to do it right.  I wanted to speak up and say "You are the only person who knows what is right for your kids.  Relax, believe in your children's natural ability and desire to learn.  Be confident in yourself and your kids!  You can do this and everyone will turn out fine."  Thankfully, the presenter kind of said that, but I am not sure the person who asked the question was satisfied.

The conference hall full of stuff and salesman, actually made me feel anxious.  I am more of an online shopper.  I like to take it all in and then after days of research, make a purchase.  That goes for everything, from clothes to furniture.  I did show some support for the Alaskan toy store - Enchanted Forrest, co-owned by the Waldorf presenter.  I ignored the packaged (and often scripted) curriculum they gave me as a classroom teacher and can not fathom buying it as a parent. I didn't even stop at any other booths.   Maybe as my kids get older, and need credits for diplomas,  it will make sense.  For now, we are doing fine with a simpler approach.

I in no way mean to offend, if those things appeal to you.  I believe strongly that every parent and child are different and support choice of all sorts.  We all must seek out the best for our families,  whether is unschooling or school-at-home.  The reason I started a.l.l. was to find open minded folks, so we can support each other and learn from one another, no matter what style of learning we choose.

I lean towards the unschooling end of the spectrum, which really just means child-led to me.   During these early years,  I don't think my kids need workbooks or even lesson plans.  I want them to love literature and believe they are writers, not be stressed out focusing on the the minute details of sounding out letters or painfully writing sentences, one letter at a time.   They are naturally creative and artistic and they can create beautiful things without precut pieces or me directing every step.  My kids do sound words out, write everyday, and figure out mathematical equations but not because I said it is time to do it, but rather because they are natural learners and work at it for their own intrinsic rewards.

I thought I might get something out of the IDEA fair, if nothing more than the general support from being in a room full of homeschoolers.  Surprisingly, I left there feeling disconnected from the local homeschooling scene.  Oh well,  I am grateful to have our small, but growing group of families that do make me feel supported and understood.