Archive for February, 2012

February 29, 2012

Remembering my friend and storyteller, J.J. Reneaux

Note: I wrote this column for the Barrow Journal in 2009 in remembrance of my friend, J.J. Reneaux.  Today, February 29, 2012 is the anniversary of her death.  Since it only comes around every four years, I thought I’d repost it on my blog.  J.J. is the person who first taught me the importance of oral storytelling.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been ten thirteen years this week today since my friend and children’s author/singer/songwriter/storyteller, J. J. Reneaux, died of cancer.  I met her when she taught a storytelling class, and though I always loved stories and writing, she is the person who made me realize how important stories are in our everyday lives.  Without stories, we would have no way of framing our own lives.  They can offer wisdom, tell our history, entertain and enlighten us.

J. J. spent part of her life living in Southwest Louisiana, and the folk tales from her varied background, especially her Cajun roots, inspired her storytelling.  According to her obituary (Athens Banner-Herald, March 3, 2000), J. J. won many awards for her books and recordings, including the Anne Izard Storyteller’s Choice Award for “Cajun Folktales.”  Her book “How Animals Saved the People,” which is my favorite and was published posthumously, also won the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award and was chosen for the Outstanding Children’s Book of 2002 Award from the Southeast Booksellers Association.  She toured in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe, and she was a regular guest at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

I did not know how well known she was until I read her obituary.  This is probably due in part to my naïveté and also her easy, humble manner.  She had a beautiful, calm voice, and I looked up to her because I felt she had wisdom to impart to me.  I still think of her often, and I’m grateful that during the short time I knew her, she made me feel welcome in her home.  Whenever I feel like a fish out of water, I remember how she encouraged me to walk down my own path.

Before she died, I left for my yearlong stay in Japan where I was an assistant English teacher.  Though I knew she was ill before I left, I never once thought she wouldn’t be here when I got back.  I had looked forward to our continued friendship, so when I received word of her passing, it was very difficult for me.

I did receive hints of her condition before she died, however.  I used to write long, rambling e-mails about my experience in Japan to family and friends, and she rarely returned my messages except once or twice.  Once she told me that a person really learns whom their friends are when you are in a wheelchair.  She added that she encountered some toddlers whose expressions were like, “Cool Wheels!”  It’s this that tells me her courageous spirit was unwavering, and I can only hope to emulate that in my own life.

She left behind a loving husband and two children, and now that I’m inching up to the age she was when she passed, I can’t help but count my blessings and my stories.  I plan to use stories liberally while educating my children.  Moral lessons and history lessons are always more easily digested when they are learned through stories.  Part of the reason I write this column, I think, is to record the stories I want my kids to remember.  And if there is anything I can do for J.J., it’s write about her so that you can share in her stories too.  So, please, next time you go to the library, look up one of her books.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Note: To find resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.

February 28, 2012

Boys Like to Build

Once after watching an episode of Bob the Builder, the five-year-old told me he wanted to build a bridge. Who says TV is bad for kids?!

Thanks to Lori of Camp Creek Blog I tuned into the fact that boys like to build.  Boys like hands-on activities.  (Of course, lots of girls do too!) Building fosters their creativity, organizational and problem solving skills.

At her suggestion, I started of a box of building supplies, which you can see in my photo down below.  You might like to do this too, especially since it’s a great way to recycle!  Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:

  • cardboard from old boxes, cereal boxes, etc.
  • empty boxes
  • paper towel and toilet paper tubes
  • gallon jugs
  • string
  • popsicle sticks
  • wine corks
  • scrap paper
  • old bottles
  • clothes pins
  • toothpicks
  • anything laying around the house that looks useful!

I try to let my son run with his ideas, although he often comes up with ideas that are impossible to implement.  Without discouraging him too much, I remind him of what materials we have and don’t have, and I tell him when my skills are limited. Sometimes I have to tell him that we simply can’t do what he’s asking.  Then I suggest going another route.  I’m finding it very rewarding to sit back and let him find out for himself what works and doesn’t work.  I do have to help him a lot, but I let him instruct me as to what I’m supposed to do!  (Pssst: I’m getting better at not making suggestions. See Building the Titanic: Project-based Homeschooling.)

He can be quite the perfectionist, so if something falls apart on him, he can get quite upset.  Then I make suggestions too, and I keep telling him that he just has to try another way.  I’m hoping over time that his angst will lessen!

I try very hard not to micro-manage when he “builds.” I was very impressed with how he “measured” the bridge with a measuring tape,and then he counted the popsicle sticks to make sure they were the same size on both sides.

I’ve also begun to slowly accumulate some inexpensive store bought art materials on hand:

  • various sizes of construction paper and poster paper
  • special art paper such as watercolor paper
  • watercolor paints and pencils
  • crayons & markers
  • extra scissors & glue
  • paints and brushes
  • air-dry modeling clay
  • craft thread, squares of fabric & fabric scissors
  • felt
  • little wooden sticks and cubes
  • googly eyes
  • sparkly sequins etc.
  • stickers
  • colorful feathers
  • pastels
  • anything fun

Our box of building supplies.

In my attempt to allow the boys ample freedom yet also preserve paper, I keep a box for the scrap paper. We reuse as much as possible.

To my pleasant surprise, and before I even showed my five-year-old the box of building supplies, he announced one night that he wanted to make a rocket.  I have no idea where he got this desire, but I was so happy to have that box with a paper towel tube in it!  So I showed him the box, and ever since then, he’s frequently wanted to make something.  

The Rocket. Making things pretty is definitely a girl thing. I always suggest that we complete these projects by painting them or covering them with paper, but the five-year-old doesn’t care for that. He wants a simple structure that he can play with right away.

Sometimes he comes up with his own ideas.  Other times he finds something to build with and asks, “What can I make with this?”  The piggy bank was one such item where we started out with a gallon jug and searched for an idea.  EcoArt! by Laurie Carlson is a book that we were given one Christmas, and it’s full of great ideas.

Piggy Bank made from gallon jug and wine corks. Five-year-old did want to decorate this with stickers – his favorite!

So here’s a picture portfolio of some of his work thus far.  If you are wondering, “Where will she put all this stuff?” that’s a very good question.  I’m wondering that myself!  (Suggestions or advice will be much appreciated!)  Eventually we’ll be able to weed through some of this.  We’ll keep a few things and throw the rest away, but I think my son might build at a rate that I can’t keep up with!  It’ll be fun to see what happens, though.

octopus made with toilet paper tube, felt and googly eyes

Popsicle stick creations! My son made this, and it’s supposed to be a raft, although we haven’t tried to make it float.

This one worked well, though! Thank goodness my boys like to eat a lot of popsicles.

A blowhorn. Don’t know where he got the idea to make this. But it works well. Unfortunately.

Like the five-year-old at that age, my two-year-old loves to just cut paper. This is where that scrap paper box comes in real handy.

And we still love to make paper animals, which I wrote about when my son was doing preschool work.  The scrap paper box is essential for that.

How do you encourage your children to create?

February 26, 2012

Less Than Ideal Memories of My Early Education

Me and my kitty a very long time ago.

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on February 15, 2012.

When I was in the first grade, I sat next to a boy named Leo.  Every Monday the teacher would put a list of spelling words on the blackboard, and we were supposed to write them down.  I did it without a problem, but for some reason, Leo never completed this simple task.  He would hand in an unfinished list of words.

Since this was an ongoing problem, the teacher decided to punish him for not completing the list of words.  Every week after he handed in his almost blank sheet of paper, she’d take him out into the hallway and paddle his behind with one of those big, wooden paddles. This is when I began to notice him.

It happened every week, and every week, she’d take him into the hallway, and he’d return to his desk with tears in his eyes.

I don’t know when I started to do this, but each Monday as I was copying my words down, I’d glance over at Leo.  I noticed that he was staring off into space.  I waved my hand at him, and he looked at me.  I pointed to his paper.  He started writing again.

I don’t remember how many times I had to wave at him to get him to turn his attention back onto this spelling words, but I’ll never forget the look on his face when the teacher saw that he handed in a complete set of words.  She praised him and patted him on the back.  As he walked back to his seat, he smiled and looked at me.

I did it every single week after that, and that stupid teacher never knew it was me or that all he needed was a little help to refocus.  Forgive me for calling a teacher “stupid,” but as I remember that, it makes me angry.

That’s the only memory I have of first grade.  In second grade I remember being dismayed when on the first day of class, Leo walked into the room and immediately came to sit behind me.  Since at that time I thought he was kind of dopey, I was embarrassed by his endearment for me.

I wish I could say that spanking has been eradicated completely in America’s schools, but it hasn’t.  Though it’s banned in 31 states and D.C., it’s still legal in several other states.  Did you know it’s legal in Georgia?  Each district’s school board has a right to decide if it will be allowed.

If you’re surprised, you may find this recent article interesting: click here.

There has been legislation introduced to end corporal punishment in schools.  H.R. 3027 is a bill in the first step of the legislative process.  I hope it makes it further.

At least spanking is much less common now, and I’m sure it would never be used in such a manner as it was for Leo – a situation that did not require punishment.  One of Georgia’s guidelines is that it “should never be used as a first line of punishment.”

Thank goodness we know more about children and their needs now.  We know that children have different learning styles, that different kids learn at different paces, and they even have different needs when it comes to the environment they learn best in.  Proactive parents can make a huge difference in a child’s education.  (And, no, I’m not advocating homeschooling for everyone.)

The memory of Leo has been coming to my mind lately as I teach my son how to read.  I’m experimenting with different methods to see what works best, and I’m trying to gauge if he’s even ready for it.  Considering that I would put him into Kindergarten this coming fall, if I weren’t homeschooling, I would say he’s advanced for his level, so I’m not pushing it.

But last week I sat down with him and tried doing a word search with sight words.  I don’t do many worksheets with him, but he liked it when he first saw it.  However, after he found the first word, I saw Leo all over again.  My son sat back and looked at the ceiling.  “Look at the word,” I’d say.  He’d glance at it.  “You won’t be able to find it if you don’t even look.”

It makes me wonder if perhaps Leo was just too young to be in first grade at that time.  It also makes me wonder if more students need a one-on-one tutor to remind them to look at the words or even tell them that it’s okay not to do that right now.

What memories – good or bad – do you have of your early education?

February 23, 2012

What Labels Are We Placing on Homeschoolers?

Note: This column appeared in the print edition of the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.

A number of articles have been circulating lately about the growing diversity in homeschooling families.  Publications such as the Houston Chronicle, USA Today, and Newsweek have each reported on the number of homeschoolers who don’t do it for religious reasons, which has been a stereotype of homeschoolers.

Then in Slate, Dana Goldstein wrote an article titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids” in which she makes a case that homeschooling violates progressive values.  Madeline Holler responded positively to Goldstein on  She writes, “Homeschooling really isn’t the answer, certainly not for people who purport to value things like civic life and public institutions and who wish for those things to improve.”

While I’m glad the word is getting out that homeschoolers are a diverse group of people who choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons, I fear that more stereotypes are being made.  So let’s review. When you hear I’m a homeschooler, you might assume one or more of the following:

  • I may be an evangelical Christian that wants to indoctrinate my children with a religious curriculum that shuns science.
  • Or, I’m a bleeding left-wing liberal who breastfeeds my children well into their toddler years.
  • If we aren’t religious, then we’re probably atheist.
  • You may think we co-sleep with our infants and that we do not trust public schools to teach our children anything.
  • Or, you may believe I’m a “helicopter parent” who will never let my children flourish independently on his or her own.
  • You might think I silently judge others for making their children spend six hours a day in “prison.”
  • Finally, you may believe that we are “uber-intellectual” parents that have plenty of extra income to homeschool.

For the record, none of those descriptions fit us. But since we are not religious fundamentalists, I guess that makes us liberal homeschoolers, at least in the eyes of some of these writers.

Dana Goldstein writes, “This overheated hostility toward public schools runs throughout the new literature on liberal homeschooling, and reveals what is so fundamentally illiberal about the trend: It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families….”

She also writes, “If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

First of all, why do I have to be labeled either liberal or conservative?  I have some liberal views, and I have some conservative views too.

When it comes to homeschooling and staying home with my children, I’m more conservative, yet when it comes to rearing boys, I guess I’m liberal because I adhere to a few practices known as “attachment” parenting.  But even then, I don’t fit the mold because I didn’t breastfeed my children until toddlerhood, co-sleep with my infants or ever carry them in a sling.  Where oh where can I fit in?

I respect those who don’t homeschool or adhere to my style of parenting.  More than that, I understand that there are many people who can’t do what I do. Though believe it or not, there are many homeschoolers who didn’t choose to homeschool in the first place.

Having read many forums on homeschooling, I can tell you that homeschoolers are diverse and teach their children at home for more reasons than we can count.  There are single parents, financially struggling parents, and as I mentioned, parents who had no plans to ever homeschool.  They put their child in school, but something went wrong.  I have heard stories about parents who tried to make changes at their child’s school, but they got fed-up and turned to homeschooling.

I think that is more than what those writers can see when they try to lay a guilt trip saying progressive homeschoolers are hurting the wider community by not putting their children in school.

Sure, if I wanted to, I could put my children in school and fight to change them in a positive way, but what kind of energy and time would it take on my part to actually make a difference?  I would have to rally the support of many families, and then we’d have to agree on what changes we wanted.  Do you think we could agree on what changes would make an ideal school environment for all our children?

Part of the reason I’m homeschooling is because I believe children deserve to have individualized attention when it comes to finding out what is the best way they learn.  Another reason is because I want my boys to have more freedom to move and play outdoors.  What works for my kids wouldn’t necessarily work for other kids.

Yet I don’t think of public school as prison.  Despite the problems our schools have, it’s not lost on me that a lot of good goes on there.  I read articles about student’s achievements, awards, and projects.  I know teachers who engage and motivate their students.  Good teachers are important role models and mentors for young people.  I’ll always support our schools, and when I’m able, I’ll do for the greater good.

But I’m not going waste my time trying to change my local schools when my priority right now is my children.  I’m not going to use what little free time I have to serve the wider community when I desperately need to nurture my own mind and body so that I can meet the demands of this household.

You can’t help others before you help yourself.  You have to get your own affairs in order before you can give to others.  Does this mean I’m conservative or liberal?  I believe I’m doing what most Americans are doing – doing what they think is right for their families and what they can to get by.

Note: Since I wrote this column, Dana Goldstein has responded to the overwhelming response she received on her article in Slate.  You can read that by clicking here.  You may also enjoy reading Why Homeschooling Is a Boon to a Liberal Society in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf.  I also enjoyed reading Liberal Homeschoolers: What We Really Are on the blog, Quarks and Quirks.

Please tell me what you think.

February 22, 2012

January / February Activities with Small Children

One of my goals this year was to plan a lesson / activity around each of the holidays, and I wanted to try to start some new traditions too.  Unfortunately, I have not started off well in this 2012 New Year.  Though I’ve done a few projects for New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, and even Groundhog Dog, I didn’t feel very prepared, and I didn’t do anything for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or Washington’s Birthday.  Oh well.  I plan to do this every year, so I’ll make up for eventually.  Since my boys are so young, I have probably done just enough anyway.

To help myself, I’ve just looked up and bookmarked some sites that will tell me the holidays.  Here they are:

2012 American holiday schedule:

Here’s a few visuals and notes about what I did accomplish these past two months. (I’ll repost this next year before the holidays.)

January 1, 2012 – New Year’s Day

For New Year’s, I thought it would be a good time to go over the months of the year with my five-year-old.  He has already learned the days of the week on his own.  I think he’s motivated because he likes to know what our plans are, and he understands that some of our routines happen on a weekly basis.  He almost knows the months of the year, but not quite.

I made these calendars with the boys and laminated them, but I admit, it was more for me than for them.  They had fun creating a list of their “favorites” for 2011, though.  It’s a great item to put into their keepsakes box.

We put a 2012 calendar on one side and their list of favorites for 2011 on the other.  I invited them to decorate the calendars, but the five-year-old wasn’t really into it.  (This seems to be typical of him.  I think decorating is more of a girl thing.)  He did want to cut out his calendar and list and paste it to the construction paper, though.  He also picked the color black – one of his favorites.

I also made this peace dove for New Year’s.  Again, I thought five-year-old might enjoy making it since he likes making so many animals out of paper, but it turned out I did the creating here.  And it turned out rather blah too.  Oh well.

February 2, 2012 – Groundhog Day

If it wasn’t for checking the Internet on the morning of the 2nd, I would have missed Groundhog Day altogether.  Athens has a pretty fun Groundhog Day celebration with Gus, the groundhog who resides at Bear Hollow Zoo.  We may have been able to make it there that morning, but it was cold, and I wasn’t feeling that energetic.  So, I turned to the Internet to help me.

I printed off some fun sheets to color, which you can access by clicking here.  Whereas in the past my boys have not been into coloring at all, I’ve noticed that changing a bit.  They had fun with these sheets, and we hung them on the bulletin board.

I told my five-year-old what the holiday was about, and we watched several videos about groundhogs and Groundhog Day on YouTube.  Here’s a couple, and you’ll find many more on YouTube.

  • Ground Hog Day (2012 HD) – watch a real groundhog take a peek outside his burrow.  I enjoyed the music on this one.
  • Groundhog Day – Get some more information about groundhogs and Groundhog Day history on this one.
It happened to be a lovely, springlike day, so we also went outside to see if we could see our shadows!!
Despite my lack of preparedness, I could tell that my five-year-old enjoyed learning and celebrating Groundhog Day.  At the end of the day, I said, “I’ll have to check the newspaper to see if Gus saw his shadow today.”  The five-year-old said, “I just don’t understand…..groundhogs don’t understand like people do.”  He’s a smart little guy.  I told him, “Yep. The groundhog has no idea what all the fuss is about.  This holiday is just for fun….”
February 14, 2012 – Valentine’s Day

For Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d get an early start (unusual for me, if you can’t tell), so we started making crafts a week or two early.  I made this Valentine’s mailbox, and the five-year-old helped me decorate it.  I wrapped a box with some old paper that they had already drawn on.  (I try to recycle whatever I can.)

The best part of preparing for Valentine’s Day was teaching my five-year-old how to make a heart: by folding a piece of paper, drawing half a heart with its center on the crease, and then cutting it out.  Once he opened it up, he was so happy to discover a perfect heart!

However, he couldn’t quite draw half a heart very well, so my five-year-old was very disappointed with his first attempts.  Since he can be quite a perfectionist, he usually gives up when this happens.  I was pleasantly surprised to watch him keep trying this time.  Soon, he mastered heart making, and once he could make some good hearts, there was no stopping him!  We strung his hearts up along the doorway to our activity room and also pinned them to our bulletin board.  It was really fun for me to watch him do the decorating on his own!

We’re lucky to own a few Valentine’s Day books, so we read those too:

  • My First Valentine’s Day Book – This a great book for 2~3 year olds, and my 5-year-old still likes it too.  It consists of simple rhymes, and there are little cards on each page that your child can take out of an envelope and read.
  • The Best Thing About Valentines by Eleanor Hudson – Also for youngsters. A cute book emphasizing how we make our own Valentines and give them away.
  • Valentine’s Day by Cass R. Sandak – This is a great book, but I got lucky and found it at a library sale. It has the history and customs of Valentine’s Day throughout history. It’s for older kids, so I only read my five-year-old a few pages.

We also made (and bought) some Valentines for each other.  I made each of the boys a special card with their names on it and described their personalities and things they like to do.  Similar to the calendar, and it’ll go into their keepsakes box.

Unfortunately, on Valentine’s Day, I was extremely sick with a bad cold and fever, so some other things I had wanted to do will have to wait until next year.  :(

So please tell me, what kinds of traditions do you have during January and February?  Do you celebrate these holidays and/or celebrate other holidays / traditions this time of year?

February 18, 2012


This lovely photo was captured by Tambako the Jaquar. Click image to go to original source.

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on February 1, 2012.

Last year when my husband brought home the DVD box sets of Little House on the Prairie, I laughed.  Little House on the Prairie? I said.  It’s for the kids, he said.

I was surprised he would be willing to watch Little House even if he did love it as a child.  I did too.  I remember wishing Michael Landon was my father and that I could run around on a farm like Melissa Gilbert’s character, Laura Ingalls.

But as an adult, memories of Little House conjure up words like “sentimental” and “idealistic.”  Not to mention Michael Landon’s perfect hair.

But when we started watching it, I once again started wishing Michael Landon was my father (the one he played in TV – not the one in real life), and I wish I could be the spunky Laura, sticking up for what’s right in the world.

As a child, the television show was good entertainment, but as an adult, I realize that it was a show that attempted to deal with serious issues, and because of this, I have a newfound respect for it.  Watching it now, I realize that I probably acquired many of my values from that show.

Yes, the Ingalls portrayed the ideal family.  The mom and dad, Caroline and Charles, are wonderful people.  Their children are wholesome and good.  They love their parents and want to please them and even contribute to their family’s welfare when things get tough.

I don’t see many flaws in their characters except perhaps for Charles’ temper, which only seems to flare up when I – as a viewer – want it to.  And you can hardly call Laura’s spirited character flawed. When she gets in trouble, the viewer is usually cheering her on.

The show supplies the quintessential antagonists – the haughty storeowner Mrs. Oleson and her daughter, Nellie.  They look down on the Ingalls and do everything they can to let everyone in town know that they are more sophisticated and have more money.

Are these well-worn stereotypes and clichés?  They certainly are, but I’m not sure they would have been back when the show aired from 1974 -1983.  Watching it again, I find it fun and refreshing to watch something that clearly marks the line between good and not so good.

Despite Michael Landon’s perfect hair, the show still offers a view of life in the 19th century.  My five-year-old started asking questions like “Didn’t they drive cars?” and “Don’t they have a television?”

The show did a good job at depicting some of the harsh living conditions for early white settlers in America, including a snowstorm that almost killed the character of Charles, the death of Charles’ and Caroline’s baby, and what happened when crops were ruined and the family couldn’t pay their bills.

It’s been a good opportunity to introduce my son to that life in the “olden days.”  He has even gotten the connection between life depicted on that show and the real-life and well-preserved William Harris Homestead, which we visit often. (

As was typical of a family like the Ingalls, they were churchgoers and had a deep faith in God.  Whether you’re religious or not, I don’t think anyone could argue with the lessons that Little House on the Prairie was trying to teach, which is why I think it’s a great show for young viewers.  I like that Charles always had a different perspective than his sweet, devout wife, and I like that Laura is a girl with a strong and defiant spirit. She tries to do what is right even if it means getting in a little trouble.

In one episode, the residents of Walnut Grove have to deal with some “bullies” that try to settle there, though bully is too kind of a word for them.  In anger Charles says to the preacher, “Don’t go telling me there’s good in all people.”  The final lesson was that while we should give everyone a fair chance, there’s a time when you have to stand up for what’s right.

The show alternates between these serious topics and more light-hearted stories and watching them affirms for me the idea that what makes any story – or television series – stand the test of time is when it deals with universal topics.  The scenarios on Little House are still applicable today, and I’ve sure met my share of Mrs. Olesons. 

Today television scriptwriters may do a better job of painting more shades of gray, but in the end, we always like it better when the good guy wins.  In a world with many bad endings, I’m glad we still have shows like Little House on the Prairie to watch and remember.

What shows did you love to watch when you were a child?

February 15, 2012

Secular Homeschooling Is On The Rise

As a secular homeschooler, I can’t help but notice the attention we’re getting in the media lately.  Several articles and spin-offs of those articles are appearing in major media outlets.  Here’s a few:

Why Urban, Educated Parents Are Turning to DIY Education – written for Newsweek by Linda Perlstein

Home-schooling demographics change, expand – written for USA Today by Alesha Williams Boyd and Sergio Bichao

Secular Homeschooling Instills Love for Learning from a Non-Religious Perspective – written for Houston Chronicle by Ken Chitwood

I think this attention is good because it’s breaking the stereotype that all homeschoolers are conservative Christians seeking to indoctrinate their children, and that they only teach with religious curriculums, shunning science.  While there are homeschoolers who are extremely religious, I think it should be noted that many people homeschool for a variety of reasons.  Yet I believe every homeschooling parent wants to impart their own beliefs and morals on their children without the negative influences inflicting youth today.  Most of us want to allow our children to experience childhood without pressure from peers, testing or a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

It should be noted that self-proclaimed secular homeschoolers may or may not be religious.  Religion may play a part in their life just as many traditionally schooled children have a religious upbringing and attend church.  Yet religion indoctrination is not the reason for homeschooling, and they most likely teach from a secular perspective.  Secular homeschoolers seek more diverse and tolerant companions while socializing too.

As I’ve mentioned before, I respect every parent’s right to teach their children in their own way.  If I don’t respect your right, how can I expect you to respect mine?  I also appreciate that because of the work of many religious homeschoolers, homeschooling is now legal in all 50 of the United States.

I have friends who are religious and others who are not.  I think it’s a shame when someone may not want to befriend us because they don’t like our viewpoint, but I can’t do anything about that.  I seek open-minded people who are willing to see our similarities.  We all love our children and want what is best for them.  We want to give them a good education, help them build bright futures, and teach them to tolerate and respect all people as long as they do not physically or emotionally hurt another person.  (Believe me, I know it can be hard to respect other’s viewpoints, but I try.)

So, let’s spread the word: Many homeschooling families are moderate, run-of-the-mill people who find that this lifestyle fits their family!

What do you think?

February 15, 2012

Hiking at Harris Shoals Park

Harris Shoals Park, Watkinsville, Georgia

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on February 8, 2012.

Now that the boys are getting a little older, we’re ready to hit the trails.  My husband initiated a hiking ritual for our family, and at Christmas, he and I got some new boots to make it official. This has been a great winter to start hiking as a family because of the mild weather we’re having.

We love going to Ft. Yargo, but one of our goals is to explore as many parks and other wildlife areas that’s not too far away.  Since the boys are still young, we have to ease them into hiking.  Maybe by next year, they’ll be ready for some mountain trails!

Last week we went to Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville.  The entrance of the park is at Harris Shoals Drive, which is located on Highway 53 between Interstate 441 and VFW Drive.  The small park provides a valuable green space between the interstate and the town of Watkinsville.

There’s a large playground for kids with one of the biggest and best slides around, and the park offers some shelters and BBQ pits for parties.  There’s also a baseball field.  We headed over to the shoals, however, because my boys love the water.

The water that flows over the shoals is Calls Creek and eventually it meets up with the Middle Oconee River.  The shoals are flat rocks that have been there for thousands of years and have been eroded slowly over time.  It’s a picturesque and peaceful place despite the fact that you can hear some of the traffic on the surrounding roads.

It’s easy to walk out onto the rocks and splash in the water or in the case of my boys, throw rocks into the water.  My two-year-old is like a robot when he sees water. He throws rocks and little twigs in the river without even looking up to see their splash!  We literally have to drag him away when it’s time to go.

The flow of the water over the shoals was slowed somewhat when a dam was built upstream for the old Watkinsville Water Treatment Plant.  Take a short walk up the Harris Shoals Nature Trail, and you’ll be able to see the dam.

According to a leaflet that was provided by Christopher Adams for an Eagle Scouts Project this past fall, “The marsh area behind the dam used to be a more prominent creek until dammed up and was used to hold and treat water which was then pumped up to the city….After the water plant was abandoned, the dam area overgrew to the current marsh like condition of today.”

The area is a haven for wildlife.  Up the trail a bit, we found a beaver dam, and I’m not sure if the beavers still live there, but we also found evidence of their presence at a big tree stump which looked as if it had been chewed considerably by the large teeth of a beaver.

As we were walking, we also saw many birds, including a beautiful heron, which took flight at the sound of my children’s chattering and footsteps.  A marsh area like this would also be home for many fish, reptiles and amphibians.  We did see some little fish in the water at a place we stopped to rest while the boys threw more rocks and twigs into the water.

My favorite part of the park is the long bridge that crosses through the marsh.  I don’t think I’d want to cross that bridge in the middle of August, but right now it gives an interesting view to marshland.  I bet if you sat on that bridge alone in the early morning, you could watch some wild animals too.

Next time you feel like getting out into nature, drive over to Harris Shoals Park.  Bring a picnic and sit down next to the shoals, and don’t forget to pick up a few rocks to throw in the water too.

Where are your favorite places to go hiking?

February 11, 2012

My Childhood Memories in Nature

my eldest boy as a tot - tree hugger in training

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on January 25, 2012.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the importance for children and adults to get out into nature.  If there’s one thing I appreciate about my own childhood, it’s that my parents both enjoyed the outdoors and most of our family vacations were spent on the scenic highways of this country.

Though we only lived there four years, I also fondly remember the two-story house we owned in Littleton, Colorado.  It had a large yard with several small fruit trees and a garden that lined the back fence. The cherry and apple trees bloomed beautifully in the spring.

In the winter, my mom would warm up my coat and snow pants by an electric heater, and then she’d bundle me up and send me outside to play in the snow.  I kept myself occupied making snow angels and boot prints, and I lived in an active make-believe world, though sadly I don’t remember much about it now.

I do remember one time playing in the snow and sensing that something just flew past my head.  I turned to look behind me, but I saw nothing. Back to playing, it happened again. Finally, a snowball hit me on my back. I turned to find my big brother laughing and darting behind the side of the house.

When I was in the eighth grade, my best friend’s godmother took my friend and me snow skiing.  It was during the week, and we were the only two skiers on the bunny slope.  In my attempt to ski straight to the beginning of the line at the chair lift, I slid by the ropes and straight into a pole.  Perhaps that’s when I became less enamored with snow.

My dad loved boating, so when we lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, he took me to Lake Mead.  We would park the boat in one of the many sandy coves, and I’d go exploring. Once while I was exploring, my quiet reverie was interrupted by the loudest, blood-curdling sound I had ever heard.  It sounded like a ship’s horn.  I stood up and there across the cove on the opposite beach was a wild donkey staring me down.  Obviously I was too close to his territory, and he let me know about it.

I remember another time boating on Lake Mohave, which is on the opposite side of the Hoover Dam.  We found a lone big horn sheep on the bank near the water, and he stared at us in the boat, and we took several photos of him.

I also remember the nights we slept on the lake and the view I had of the Milky Way.  The universe was an arm’s length away.  I remember campfires, hot springs, and high cliffs streaked with nature’s palette of reds, browns and golds.

While having these adventures, I’m sure I didn’t appreciate them enough or realize how rare they were for most kids my age.  Now I know they made an indelible impression on me, and I’m an outdoorswoman at heart.

Most of our ventures outside were uneventful unless you consider the countless times my dad’s vehicles stalled and needed repair.  We were stranded many times, but to a young child, this isn’t so bad.  It just meant more time in nature, and more time to count the stars.

I hope my boys will remember playtime in their wooded yard, hunting for snakes and jumping in piles of leaves.  I hope they will fondly look back on the hiking trails, picnics and parks we visited.  I hope it will teach them to always seek out nature because we all need it to rejuvenate our bodies and minds.

What childhood memories of nature do you have?

February 7, 2012

In Response to a Teacher’s Questions About Homeschooling

Yesterday I read Why Are Urban, Professional Parents Choosing Homeschooling? by Judy Molland.  She was writing in response to Linda Perlstein’s recent article in Newsweek, and I think she brought up some good concerns and questions about homeschooling.  These are concerns I’ve heard before, so I thought I would answer them from my perspective in regards to why I want to homeschool my children. 

Molland writes:

As a teacher, I can say that with differentiated instruction, we try to accommodate all students’ needs and learning styles, but it’s impossible to do that perfectly with a classroom of 30 unique, individual kids.

But is that such a bad thing? Don’t children need to learn to work together with their peers and help each other? And is it such a good idea for children to be constantly with their parents as they are growing up?

As Molland points out, many homeschoolers do it because they want to give their children a tailored education that meets their needs.  This includes me.  As she mentions, it’s impossible to accommodate all the children in a classroom, and I do think that’s a bad thing.

Some children may be able to compensate and do very well in traditional school.  (I’m not totally against traditional school.)  But I think, if possible, every child could benefit from having one-on-one instruction with someone who is looking out for his/her individual needs.  If the child isn’t homeschooled full-time, parents should “supplement public school with homeschooling” as someone I knew once said.

I read in Discover Your Child’s Learning Style that it has helped students when their parents took the time to figure out what his or her special learning style was.  Though the classroom instruction was not changed (it’s impossible to change it to meet just one student’s needs), it helped that student to realize that he wasn’t stupid or couldn’t do it the work.  It confirmed for him that he is unique and capable.  And by helping him learn his own style, he could apply certain techniques at home to help him with his studies.

(Also, I’ve already written about why I think it’s a good idea to Support Your Child’s Interests.)

Don’t children need to learn to work together with their peers and help each other? 

Ideally, yes.  But I’m not convinced this always happens at school in positive ways.  I can remember being devastated in second grade when a new student influenced my best friend (and several other children) not to be my friend anymore.  I think this actually had consequences on my self-esteem and trust in friendships for many years after.

And the “help” I remember getting from fellow students as I got older was answers to tests that I should have been taking myself.  I’m glad to say I didn’t cheat a lot, but it did happen, and I knew other students who did it too.  Students can help each other beat the system, and the group culture can foster underachievement.  It was never cool to be smart in school.  It was cool to be pretty, wear the most fashionable clothes, and to be popular.

I know that doesn’t happen to everyone, and I know there are some awesome schools out there.   But I can homeschool my children, and I can give them opportunities to find out who they are and what they love without peer pressure.  This is their one chance to have a childhood and find a direction for their life.

I think my children will learn to work together and help each other better when I’m helping to create their social network.   The world is always going to try to beat down their self-esteem, and the cruelty of the world will rear its ugly head at them.  I don’t think I have to worry about sheltering them too much.  But I do want to help them build a platform of self-esteem, self-reliance, a love of learning, and a heart full of compassion so that when something bad happens to them, they won’t be crushed by it.

Is it such a good idea for children to be constantly with their parents as they are growing up?

Maybe not.  Because I know it would probably help my mental health if I had some breaks from my kids!  However, I love being with my kids, and I believe being a close family is a reward of homeschooling.  Society is always touting “family values,” but I see very little support for these so-called “family values” we’re supposed to have.  Why are people so concerned about homeschoolers when they truly care about family values and are doing something about it?  Also, I don’t think we’ll constantly be together.  As they get older, I’ll find more outlets for them.  There are classes, camps and many other opportunities for homeschoolers to spend time away from home.

Homeschooling is not perfect, but I would rather take its imperfections over the imperfections I see in our current public schools.

Molland goes on to write:

It is true that nowadays there are lots of resources available for homeschooling parents including, in some cities, curriculum, centers and classes designed especially for these youngsters.

And yet, I worry that these homeschooling parents will become the helicopter parents of the future, unwilling to let their children flourish independently, or to give them the freedom to grow as separate individuals.

I can’t speak for all homeschoolers, but I’m homeschooling my kids exactly because I want them to flourish independently!  Please go back up and re-read the first part of this post to see some of my reasons.  In addition to that, I can say that although I’m sure I’ll experience the pains of an “empty nest” someday, I know it’s in my son’s best interests to at some point let go.  As someone who advocates child-led learning, I don’t see myself not letting my children flourish independently.

I am the first person who will encourage my sons to meet new people, try new things, and do for themselves.

I’ve already written about how I plan to teach my children more than what they’d learn in school in What Are We Preparing Our Children For?   

Right now, at the ages of 5 and 2, I try to ask questions as much as I parcel out information.  I want them to know that their thoughts and ideas are valued.  In a classroom, a teacher may ask questions too, but how many students answer?  There’s usually one or two who raise their hand a lot and the rest of the class stays silent.  (I was always too shy to answer a question in school, and I hated it when a teacher asked me a direct question.  Going to public school did not help me overcome shyness or insecurity.)

I would advocate that any mom should not let go of her interests too.  While we may do less of the things we love while rearing children, we need to keep a flame lit so that when the time comes for our children to step on their own path, we’ll have our own path to travel too.

Molland’s final questions are these:

Will These Kids Know How To Interact With Others From Different Backgrounds?

And, as someone who grew up in a very isolated town in the southwest of England, it also concerns me that these children won’t know how to interact with people from backgrounds quite different from theirs.  What do you think?

I wish I could ask her, “As someone who grew up in a very isolated town in the southwest of England, how did you learn how to interact with people with backgrounds very different than yours?”

When I was in school, I wasn’t very aware of “different backgrounds.”   In college, and throughout my twenties and thirties, I began to realize what adults consider the “dividers” in class, culture and beliefs, and I finally experienced the pain of that through first-hand experience.  This might tell you that I was a middle-class white girl without a lot of experiences to clue me into these deep emotional divides.  Yes, I was quite naïve.  And guess what?!  I attended public school.

Again, I’m not saying everyone has this same experience.  I know young people who are very aware of things I had no clue about growing up.  I offer it as an example that public school doesn’t always allow us to learn how to work with people of different backgrounds.

But come to think of it, as I became an adult and lived in London and Japan for a while, I never thought that I needed to “learn” how to interact with people in those countries.  I just did it.  I learned about customs and nuances as I went along. (I believe my son is doing the same thing in his five-year-old world as we meet new people and go places.)

When I returned from Japan, I learned that most Americans don’t know half as much about the world outside their borders as people in other countries know about us.  Schools may do a better job of having multi-cultural lessons and events, but we do not make learning a second language a priority in our schools.  My husband is a college professor who teaches world history, and he says that students coming out of our high schools don’t seem to know the first thing about other religions of the world such as Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam.  With all the globalization that has been happening for many years now, shouldn’t our students have a basic knowledge of these religions?

This is a reason I want to homeschool!  I want to teach my children about the world, different beliefs, different religions, and if possible, I’d like to teach them a foreign language.  In Our Homeschool Mission, I listed Religious Education as an emphasis of mine.  I don’t mean one religion.  I’ll teach my children about my personal beliefs, but I’ll also teach them about others.

I realize that there are many homeschoolers who do so for religious reasons, and they do want to shield their children from any other beliefs.  While I don’t agree with that, I have to respect a parent’s right to teach their children in their own way.  If I don’t respect their right, how can I expect anyone to respect my right? (Child abuse is a different story, and unfortunately, it will exist occasionally for all children – traditionally schooled children and homeschooled children.)   Frankly, I believe parents can still shelter children even if they go to public school, and children often grow up and continue to hold the same beliefs and attitudes their parents did.  (I think the parents who don’t shelter their kids will have a better chance of their kids not rebelling than those who do.)

I respect people who voice concerns about homeschooling and ask good questions, but these concerns are unfounded, especially when you consider the countless students in public schools who are left behind.  There are so many kids out there who need help….  who need food….  who need new clothes.  Why do people keep bringing up these ridiculous concerns about homeschoolers?

There may be some students who are at a disadvantage while being homeschooled, but there are many who are disadvantaged in our public schools.  Most homeschooling parents are doing so because they love their children and want to give them a good education.  They hear these concerns and they do what they can to overcome any negative effect that homeschooling may give their child. 

Personally, I would rather deal with the possible ill effects of homeschooling than the possible ill effects of public education.

That is what I think.

Shelli Pabis is a newspaper columnist, photographer and homeschooler living in Georgia.  Sign up for her RSS feed by clicking here.


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