Archive for ‘Homeschooling’

April 27, 2015

Testing

Note: This column appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Next year, my son will be in the third grade, and as is required by the state of Georgia for homeschoolers, he will need to be tested at the end of that year in his academic studies. I have to use a nationally standardized test, but I can administer it in my home, and we keep the results for our own files. This is fine with me. It’ll be good to see where my son is at and what areas he may need help in.

Earlier this year I decided to buy a 2nd grade test prep book – not so much to prepare my son for what he needs to know on the test but to teach him how to take a test. I didn’t want to make him sit down and face those test sheets and “fill in the bubble” scantron without ever seeing them before. Our practice test workbook also comes with some test-taking tips, and those have been helpful too.

As I go through the book with my son, I’m grateful to see how easily he reads the questions and answers the questions. It certainly gives me peace of mind that he’s doing fine. But I’m glad that this is just a small piece of our day too. Although I go over the few things he doesn’t know, he is not learning much by practicing test taking.

I am also looking at the comprehensive tests – the reading section alone is almost fifteen pages long – and thinking about how much time my son will have to sit in one place to complete that. Even if I read the parts that are “listening,” it will be hard for him to sit still and concentrate for that long. It’s not that he can’t sit still – he can spend eight hours putting together complicated Lego kits, but reading short passages or “stories” he is not interested in is not going to reveal his ability to sit and concentrate. But maybe by the end of next year, it will be easier for him.

I do not let my kids do anything they want. I do formal lessons with them, but I also follow their interests and figure out what works for them because that’s the best way to learn. Every child should have an education tailored to his or her needs and interests. When it comes to doing the things they don’t want to do, I believe in going slow, letting maturity and a little practice ease them into doing the harder stuff like sitting still for long periods of time to take a test.

Because of this, I am very skeptical about standardized testing for young kids. I don’t see how those tests given in the public schools can measure a child’s true abilities or knowledge. I have seen my own son miss questions that he could have easily gotten correct only because he was getting tired. I was pushing him too hard. Luckily for us, I can slow down when I realize I’m going too fast for my son, but school kids are being pushed to learn things before they are ready for it just to pass tests.

Young children should not be required to do things they are not yet developmentally ready for. I have read about several studies saying that children learn best through play. It improves their executive function, which is a fancy term for certain cognitive processes such as an ability to work independently. The latest article I read was in the Washington Post titled, “Report debunks ‘earlier is better’ academic instruction for young children.” It says that the best early preschool programs “focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals.”

Some children learn how to read early. Others aren’t ready until seven or eight. Some children can sit still for long periods; others (often the boys) cannot. Some children need to learn through movement; others learn better by listening or seeing. When I was young I had to keep moving forward in math even when I didn’t get it. I did well enough to pass, but I’ve always dubbed myself as “bad at math.” What if someone had just taught it to me differently? And waited until I got a concept before moving on, even if that meant waiting a year?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I am seeing complaints by teachers, who are not getting a chance to truly teach because of the push to “teach to the test.” There was that Ohio special education teacher who gave a shocking resignation right after winning a big teaching award. She was reported to have said, “I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere. I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment, if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”

Recently I interviewed a former teacher from Massachusetts for home / school / life magazine. (Spring 2015 issue.) She left the profession to homeschool her daughters, and when I asked her why she decided to homeschool, she said, “From being an education major (I graduated in 1999) to leaving the profession to have my daughter (in July 2006), so much had changed. The focus had shifted from teachable moments to teaching to the test (in a big, big way). As an educator my philosophy of education did not jive with what was taking place in our country’s schools, and I knew that it would be hypocritical for the girls to be part of a system that I did not agree with.”

This makes me understand why many parents are opting out of traditional school right now. There are about 2.2 million homeschooled students in the United States, and it is estimated that homeschooling is growing from 2-8% per year. That may not sound like much in the big scheme of things, but many parents ask me about homeschooling and tell me they are considering it among other options. When you see your child begin to hate learning, it is something to consider. Education should be about exploration and inquiry. Not cramming for tests.

April 1, 2015

Not All Clutter Is Equal

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 25, 2015.

I hear a lot about clutter. It’s a buzzword for stay-at-home moms and probably any parent my age. Kids come with a lot of clutter, and shucks, if you’ve lived in the same place for long enough, you’ll accumulate plenty of clutter with or without kids.

Most of the time, clutter is spoken like a dirty word. “I hate this clutter.” “I can’t get rid of all this clutter.” “What I am going to do with this clutter?” “I’m drowning in clutter!”

I admit, I’ve said all that too. I whittle away at our clutter whenever I get the chance, which isn’t often, but now that the boys are older, it is not as insurmountable of a task as it used to be. I recently went through one of my son’s closets and my own closet. I have a bunch of boxes in the back of my van and ready to donate next time we go into town.

For the past two years before Christmas, I have convinced the boys to pick out whatever they are willing to part with to donate. I tell them that they have to make space for the new toys that are coming. The first year they put together one good-sized box. This year, we had several boxes, and I was proud of them. Despite this, however, we still have clutter everywhere.

But not all clutter is equal, and I have learned to live with a certain amount of clutter, mostly out of necessity. For example, there’s no way I’m going to convince my husband to clean up the clutter on his dresser or bathroom counter. (If I do it, I get fussed at for throwing out some important piece of information.) And since I keep my fare share of clutter, I don’t have a leg to stand on anyway. (But at least I clean mine up sometimes.)

As I said before, kids come with a lot of clutter, and I don’t mind the toys on the living room floor. We clear it out and sweep and mop when we have time, but I don’t try to do that everyday. What is the point when everything will be put right back on the floor the next day? Instead of making them clean everything everyday, I have the kids clean up their dishes and sweep the floor after meals. They also have to make sure the walkways are clear so that no one will trip during the night. In the event that they make an unreasonable mess, they are ordered to clean it right away.

Perhaps the biggest clutter control that I have to deal with is my kid’s projects. My sons are always making something. My five-year-old likes to draw, and stacks of artwork emerge out of nowhere. My eight-year-old likes to make things out of cardboard or paper or any of a number of craft supplies that are spilling out of an old dresser I use to keep this stuff.

Currently our activity room (the former dining room) has a box of paper dinosaurs (origami style) in one corner, and a desk filled with clay artwork, a cardboard ship, mechanical hands made from old cereal boxes and string, and my son’s unfinished Jabba the Hut puppet. There are homemade (and store bought) posters squished between the wall and bookshelf, and my son’s robotics kit sits up on that old dresser along with a globe. On the floor are newspapers spread out with Styrofoam balls and paint because my son is making models of the planets. (His idea.) Add to this all our books and other homeschooling supplies, and you have one cluttered room.

I’m sure this clutter would make most mothers feel insane, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a bit loopy sometimes, but mostly, I don’t mind. When I look at it, I don’t see a mess. I see time well spent. I have chosen, in this era of my life, to make fostering my kid’s imaginations a priority over clutter. I spend a little less time cleaning the house so that I can do more projects with them. I let them decide what to keep and throw away (usually) because I want to show them I care about their work. I have always told them not to do any damage to anyone else’s work, and I abide by that rule too. When I do that, they feel respected, and they do more good work.

The thing is, these boys are going to outgrow these toys and projects quickly. There will come a day when I can clear most of it out, and later a day will come when the boys move out of the house and take more with them. At that time, I can declutter to my heart’s content. And I know I will sorely miss the days that projects were strewn all over the shelves and floors.

March 24, 2015

Why We Homeschool

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 11, 2015.

Over five years ago, I wrote a column about why we were thinking about homeschooling our children. My eldest son was not even school age at the time. It’s hard to believe how fast the time has gone between then and now. We have officially been homeschooling our eldest son for two and a half years, and though we don’t have to file a declaration of intent to homeschool for our youngest until he turns six, he’s been homeschooled right along with his brother.

My initial reasons for wanting to homeschool have not changed much. I wanted to allow my boys to learn at their own pace while also having plenty of time to still be children. That is, I wanted them to play, move, and use their imaginations frequently everyday. I wanted our time to be used wisely. I knew I could work with my children on their academic lessons in a much shorter amount of time than a teacher could with a classroom of 20 or so students. Then my boys could play and delve into the things that interested them and fueled their desire to learn. I strongly believed that what young children need to learn is not easily measured by tests, and I still believe that.

Now that we have been homeschooling for a while, I can say more clearly why we want to continue down this path, though it has its challenges. Now that my boys are growing and showing their unique personalities, it’s clear that homeschooling fits them, which isn’t the case for all children. When my eight-year-old was four, he blossomed in some classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and ever since then, he’s learned more about nature, animals, and science than I learned in the 35 years I lived before he was born. By setting up an environment at home where we have plenty of supplies for making things, and showing him how to use the supplies, he’s gotten used to being a doer and builder too.

He still needs his parents to do a lot of things for him, but when it comes to figuring out how he is going to spend his free time, he’s got that all sorted out. It’s not uncommon for him to say things like, “I have an idea,” “I thought of something I want to make,” “I have a science experiment I want to do,” or “Can you write down how to spell (for example) mata mata turtle so that I can look it up on the computer?” These statements tell me he’s getting what I had hoped he would out of homeschooling. He is learning how to learn, and not only that, he doesn’t consider it school. It’s just a part of life.

My five-year-old is both different and similar to his older brother. Though he enjoys the outdoors and loves to find interesting bugs just as much as his brother, he’s not as much of a “nature boy.” He does like building things, and I think when he’s older, he’ll be just as skilled at building Lego kits as his brother. He also draws with a passion that far surpasses his brother’s interest in drawing, and my floor is frequently littered with markers, paper, and growing stacks of his artwork. I don’t mind the messes. It’s a small price to pay for fostering creativity.

There are things I want my boys to learn, including the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, and I work my butt off to find the right resources that will make learning, if not fun, suitable for my boys’ interests and learning styles. I am grateful for the time that homeschooling offers me to get it right, and then we have time to stick to a concept until my boys really understand it. We also have more time to spend together and get outside on the days the weather is perfect. There is more time for the boys to sleep, and more time for them to spend on subjects that really interest them.

Perhaps my biggest reason for homeschooling, now that I see it in action, is the connections that our family is making on a daily basis. We are learning together, watching awesome documentaries everyday, and developing a closeness that I hope will never go away. My two boys play together well, and I think a bond is forming that will be there when they are grown up. While staying with my husband and me during the day, they also participate in running a household, and they understand why we have to spend part of the day working.

We have also made some wonderful friends through homeschooling, and we have met interesting people through the camps and classes that my son takes. These people are working in interesting jobs and teaching my son about the different possibilities he might pursue someday. I have found that by homeschooling, my boys are taken more frequently into the “real world” – the world that critics of homeschooling often say homeschoolers won’t understand when they are grown up. On the contrary, I think my eight-year-old has more knowledge about the wider world and the responsibilities he will have to undertake someday than I was when I graduated from college.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we have dealt with its challenges as well. Finances are always a source of stress, and I struggle to find freelance work I can do from home with decent pay. I also have to balance that work with the time I spend teaching the boys, helping them with their projects, planning lessons, doing house chores, and trying to find a few minutes to relax here and there. I also worry about whether we’ll be able to teach all the subjects my boys need to know, although so far, I have found that the Internet and community programs provide everything we need. Not living close to stores, extracurricular activities or friend’s houses gives life an added difficulty too. It’s hard to do everything I’d like to do, and I often wish there were more days in a week. But two years in, I can see more benefits than setbacks, and I’m always excited to find out what my boys’ next big interest will be.

February 26, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Paper Dinosaurs + 1

If you read my mid-year update, you might remember how I wondered why my eight-year-old didn’t build as much as he usually does last fall. Now I think that is because he was in a pottery class and otherwise occupied with things that satisfied his need to build. Once that class ended, and the holidays came, his building instinct came back. And it started with paper dinosaurs.

I am notorious for buying lots of cheap books at library book sales. One of my boys saw this book and wanted me to buy it, but it stayed un-opened on our shelf for a long time. This doesn’t make me want to “declutter.” I am a hoarder of books and educational materials because I know that any day, my boys might find something interesting that they didn’t find interesting the day before. I will only get rid of this kind of “clutter” once they are way too old for the items. Doing this has yielded some good surprises, such as these paper dinosaurs.

Over the holidays, my eight-year-old found the book, and he thought he might make one of the paper dinosaurs. I showed him how to do the first one, which was the easiest one in the book. The dinosaurs near the back of the book were NOT easy to make, and I didn’t have the patience for those. But my little builder did. For days, he obsessed about making these paper dinosaurs, and now we have a whole box full of them sitting on our floor with no place to put them. (This is clutter I would love dispense with, but since it still means a lot to my son, I don’t make him throw his creations away. A small price to pay for fostering creativity.)

I am always amazed to see how patient my son is when he’s trying to figure out how to make something. (He’s the same way with intricate Lego kits.) He will spend all day, and when I say all day, I mean all his free time during the day trying to finish whatever it is he puts his mind to. For days, he worked on these dinosaurs, and when he finally figured out how to make them without much trouble, and he amassed a good supply of them, he stopped making them.

+1 Project Element

But before he did that, he came up with one non-dinosaur paper creature of his own design. He simply tweaked one of the dinosaur designs to make a paper Jabba the Hut. If you read my mid-year report, you might also remember how I said his greatest interest last fall was Star Wars, though it didn’t lead to building any models. I had hoped it would, and this paper Jabba was his first representation of his interest in Star Wars since the fall. (And he made several paper Jabbas in all.) I was really excited to see it since I had wondered if his interest in Star Wars would go deeper.

I didn’t do a very good job of getting the paper Jabbas’ tails in the photos, but they each have one.

Since then, he’s done more Star Wars projects, and I’ll fill you in on that in my next column, which is all about his Star Wars project.

February 23, 2015

Art Fridays: Homeschool Art Lessons

I was pleasantly surprised that they got into my lesson about still life.

If I had more time, I would write a post after each art session, but instead I’m trying to catch up this homeschool year on my blog. (This is why I’ve been posting more lately, or actually, why I scheduled a bunch of posts over a few days in early February. Those will eventually run out. As you can see, I blog in spurts. Or between magazine issues. :) )

So here’s a little assemblage of various “art days” that usually take place on Fridays, though art is not restricted to that day. The boys do a lot of art projects on their own, but Fridays are the days when I initiate something, and sometimes I try to teach them a new technique and tell them about an artist who used that technique. I am neither an artist, nor do I know a lot about art, so I have used a few resources to help me out. My favorite go-to resource for this has been Amy Hood’s Art Together e-zine.

Some Fridays when I’m not (ahem) prepared, I say things like “My only requirement of you today is to draw a picture in your sketchbook.” (This usually results in more than one piece of artwork.) Or one morning, I woke up early and had already started to paint some of the nature collection that my son had left on the table the day before. When my boys saw me doing that, they immediately wanted to join me. (I didn’t know that this is called a “provocation” until I read Amy Hood’s recent art column in home / school / life.)

Sometimes I try to teach the boys a new technique, and they are not interested in doing the project, such as when I showed them Joseph Cornell’s art boxes (via Art Together). Usually they want to do something else like paint or draw. This is fine. Unlike math and reading, I don’t require them to do the art lessons because I think art should be fun and voluntary. When they see me produce the art, they are still learning about that technique, and they learn a new possibility.

Looking back over these art sessions, I’m reminded that there was a time when I felt like our homeschool was desperately missing out on art. Because of that, I was intentional about starting “Art Fridays.” I’m so pleased with how this has turned out, and I think my boys have benefitted from it greatly. Of course, there are other things I feel like we are missing out on, such as Spanish lessons or belonging to a big homeschool group, but alas, one thing at a time. As many homeschool moms have told me, you can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t worry about doing everything, and someday you may look back and realize you did more than enough.

Click on an image to enlarge and read the caption. Also, a big thanks to Mo Akwati for his tutorial on how to draw a moth, which my dissatisfaction of my own drawing inspired him to do.

 

February 18, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Sketching at the Botanical Garden

When my eight-year-old went to pottery class, I drove my five-year-old ten minutes down the road from the studio to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is probably my favorite place on this earth (and I’ve been a lot of places). I used to go there 2-3 times a week when I first moved to Georgia. I didn’t know many people, and for me, walking on the beautiful, wooded trails or sitting by a stream was like visiting with a friend.

Now that I have children, I don’t get to go there as much as I would like to, but I am happy that we have taken my boys hiking there several times, and my eight-year-old has even taken summer camps there. Sometimes my five-year-old and I took advantage of these times by walking on the trails while waiting for older brother.

I consider Fridays “art days,” and we usually don’t do our other lessons on these days. Luckily, pottery class happened to be on Fridays last fall, so while older brother took that class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden for our “art.” I didn’t do formal art lessons though. I decided to just take our sketchbooks and see what would happen.

I am not an artist and until now, I have never put any effort into drawing or painting because it hasn’t been a huge interest of mine. The main reason I’m giving it a go now is because my five-year-old LOVES to draw. He is always coloring or drawing a picture, and I have stacks and stacks of his work. I hang some of it up on the wall above my desk, and other artwork is filling our stairway. As another way of trying to support his work, I got all of us a sketchbook, and occasionally I try to use it. I’m not very good except, maybe, at drawing plants. So that’s what I usually draw. I find it’s a very relaxing exercise too, which is beneficial to me. My goal is to try to make it a weekly practice, although I don’t always get to it that often. (You can read more about how and why I started a sketchbook habit in this post.)

My five-year-old is not very confident at trying to draw new things by himself. He likes to draw “storms” or trees, and loves to use stencils. Usually he colors pictures from a coloring book or he has me draw something for him that he can color. But he has also created some really interesting artwork. Some of it is highly detailed too. Maybe you could call it “doodle art” or abstract art. You can see a slideshow of that on this post. I let him create art however he wants to do it, but I hope as we continue to explore art and drawing together, he will try new things.

Sometimes my five-year-old wasn’t into drawing at the botanical garden, but he almost always wanted to get a snack at the small cafe, and that was okay. (I didn’t mind getting a coffee.) After that, I would pull out our sketchbooks or whatever I brought. He rarely wanted to walk around the botanical gardens at this time, which was okay since it was cold outside, and I had never really sat and lingered in their visitor’s center before. This was definitely a huge treat for myself as well, and I already miss going! (Yes, I know we could go any day just for fun, but that is easier said than done.)

One day was particularly special. It was the day that he wanted to bring his camera, so on that day, we not only enjoyed a leisurely snack and drawing in our sketchbooks, he used his camera to document our workspace and everything around us. He even took his very first video, which turned out to be hilarious (imagine a five-year-old swinging the camera around and talking to his mother at the same time).  It is a video that I will always treasure, and I think he’ll enjoy watching it when he grows up.

Many of his photographs were blurry, but a few were great, I thought, especially since we were sitting in some wonderful light. Below are his photographs. I asked him if he wanted to walk around to take photos, but he didn’t want to do that. He took all of these from his chair. Above are a few snapshots I got with my phone so that you can see how serious he was about his drawing and picture-taking. He didn’t want me to take photos of him, so I had to be quite sly about it! That was necessary because I never want to forget this day. I wish every homeschooling day could be like this one.

February 16, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Pottery Class Update

I’ve written extensively about my eight-year-old’s interest in working with clay and his pottery classes. I thought I would update you with some of his latest work from his pottery class this past fall. It was an eight-week class that was extended for an additional three weeks. He had a different instructor this time, which I think was a positive experience because he learned new and different techniques. He learned hand-building and wheel techniques.

I don’t have photographs of everything he made. Here are just a few items, including my favorite sculpture: his two-headed chameleon. What impressed me about this work is that he didn’t copy what the teacher was making — he came up with his own idea. (He told me he changed his mind a few times before he settled on a chameleon.) And then he sculpted it from memory! At home he will usually look up a photo of an animal to draw or sculpt, but in the class, he didn’t have access to the Internet, so he did this from his own knowledge of what chameleons look like. I am not sure I could have done that!

He told me that he sculpted one head, but then at the last minute, he thought, “Maybe I’ll do two heads.” Okay, then! What an imagination! I think it turned out fantastic.

By the way, these photographs were taken with my phone. In my next post, I’ll tell you what my five-year-old and I did while the eight-year-old was in class. :)

 

I love the final product.

Here you can see a few pieces that were made on a potter’s wheel. The tall one on the left was made by a method of stacking more than one pot thrown on the wheel. He also learned about raku firing, which is a Japanese way of firing pottery.  I learned that raku firing does not make a pot safe to eat out of! The two-headed chameleon and the small bowl in the back right of this photo were raku fired. The raku firing can give a pot a metallic look, which can be beautiful.

I especially like that they make him clean up!

He opted to take a break from pottery this spring, but he says he wants to take a summer camp at the pottery studio. Since this is his project and interest, we’ll support whatever he wants to do (as long as we can afford it). I hope he sticks to it, but only the future will tell!

February 9, 2015

Project-based Homeschooling: Growing Mushrooms Update

This is an update to my previous post: Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go. That’s a very good post to read if you are having trouble with what seems like unfinished projects or don’t feel your child is going as deep as they can into a project. In it, I explain how my son wanted to grow mushrooms, and we tried a variety of experiments, but we never accomplished his goal. However, that was okay because he was satisfied.

But fast forward to last October when we went to the Makers Faire in Decatur, Georgia. One of the vendors at the fair was 5th Kingdom. 5th Kingdom is a mushroom farm in Atlanta, Georgia, and you should check out their website because I think their business is so cool. I think you can even order some of their products online, but I’m not sure about that. Send an inquiry, if you are interested.

Anyway, when my son saw they had mushroom growing kits, his interest in growing mushrooms came back instantly. Their kits were not expensive, so we bought one of their shittake mushroom kits for him. We all had great fun growing these mushrooms and then cooking with them. It only took about ten days for the mushrooms to grow to maturity, and all we had to do was mist the block while being careful not to spray the mushrooms.

This is the shiitake mushroom growing block right after taking it out of the bag. We had to keep it in the indirect light and elevated so that it wouldn’t sit in the water.

a few days later

ready to harvest :)

Since my sons are picky eaters, they wouldn’t try one, but my husband and I enjoyed them over pasta.

So the eight-year-old got his wish: he grew mushrooms. :)

 

February 4, 2015

Minecraft

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 28, 2015.

If you have children, you are probably aware of the video game, Minecraft. I first became familiar with it by reading homeschool e-mail lists. It’s very popular with homeschool kids, and there are even local groups who get together on a regular basis just to play Minecraft together.

The game is open-ended and allows players to build 3D worlds using blocks. The game can be played on many different devices, including a PC, Mac or Xbox. My sons play the Minecraft Pocket Edition on android tablets.

But it’s not just popular with homeschool kids. Over 60 million copies have been sold across all platforms, and Microsoft just bought Mojang, the company who develops Minecraft, in a $2.5 billion dollar deal. I can’t imagine what will come next.

You can play in survival mode where you have to work to find resources that will keep you alive and help maintain the world you have built. Or you can play in creative mode where you have unlimited resources, you can fly, and nothing can kill you. There is also an adventure mode where players play custom maps, but we haven’t got to that level yet, and it’s probably not available in the pocket edition anyway.

I’m not an expert in Minecraft by any means. When I look over my boys’ shoulders as they zoom around their worlds, showing me the incredible structures they have built – such as a house shaped like a wolf, a railroad that goes on forever, treehouses, gardens, underground houses, and the beginning of a big ship – I get a little dizzy and have to look away.

I introduced my eight-year-old to the game a year or more ago because he loves to build things, and he liked it, but after awhile, he lost interest. The game doesn’t come with tutorials, so it’s hard for new players to learn what to do, although there are thousands of tutorials on YouTube. It’s overwhelming sorting through those.

At first I thought my son just wasn’t going to catch the Minecraft fever, but at some point, he wanted to play again, and ever since then, Minecraft has been all the rage in my house. Little brother started playing too.

My boys only get to play about an hour or so everyday, but when they aren’t playing, they make plans about what they will build next. My eight-year-old tells me how he’ll dig for iron or some other material he needs in order to carry out his plans. He has watched a few videos and talked with a friend about the game, but he has mostly learned how to play through trial and error. He is so crazy about the game that he started building a “real life” cardboard model of the little Minecraft character.

By far, I love this video game more than any other game my boys have played on their tablets. It is educational in many ways, but my favorite aspect of it is that my boys are bonding over it.

The game allows multi-players, so with a wifi connection, one of my sons can create a world and then the other boy can find that world in a list, click on it, and voila, they are in the world together. My boys sit together and have collaborated on building large structures. I watched them build a railroad together – one of them would lay down a cement block, and the other one would lay down a track. They spend hours creating intricate worlds, and then when they feel like it, they create a new one.

They have showed me gardens they have planted together and the animals they have spawned. My eight-year-old has one house where his little brother isn’t allowed to go, and younger brother is fine with that. Sometimes I hear them disagreeing over something, but they always seem to resolve the issue on their own.

Once they played hide and seek in the game. My eight-year-old thought it would be impossible for his younger brother to hide from him in Minecraft, but as it turned out, he never found the hiding place, which was down in the water.

Some child experts write that video games or any “screen time” are detrimental to children. It keeps them from interacting with the world, or building real life skills, they say. Perhaps this can happen when children aren’t engaged in any other activities, but I have seen my kids’ imaginations grow through the games they play, and Minecraft has been the best yet. On the contrary to the naysayers, they are constantly interacting, collaborating, imagining new possibilities, and strategizing. If those aren’t real world skills, I don’t know what is.

February 2, 2015

Homeschool: 2nd Grade Mid-year Report

ft. yargo-1Unlike last year, which kept steady, this year’s daily life has endured many interruptions. Because of that, I’ve deviated from our original homeschooling plan, which I wrote about at the beginning of this year in the post 2nd Grade Homeschool Schedule and Curriculum (with Pre-K too!).

Last fall was a bit crazy. We had back-to-back visitors for several weeks, which was a great experience for my boys, but I don’t do formal homeschooling when we have family in town. I also had some unexpected freelance photography work, which I loved, but it made me busier than I wanted to be, considering I was also working for home / school / life magazine, hosting visitors, homeschooling, going to appointments, and keeping house. Don’t get me wrong — I actually enjoyed everything. It was just a little too much all at once.

I was looking forward to having a more leisurely 2015, but if you read my previous post about everything that has happened to us since the beginning of the year, you’ll see that hasn’t happened. Because of all these things, it’s made sense to simplify our homeschool lessons. At least, it feels simplified to me, although the boys are actually doing more work!

After the busy fall schedule cooled down a bit, I felt like my kids were behind in for-lack-of-a-better-word “formal” learning. They had a much richer experience with all the field trips and visiting they did with family, but I still want to keep up with that formal stuff. So, I abandoned our more leisurely pace, and almost every weekday morning that we are at home (and some Saturdays), I have had both boys work through their workbooks, concentrating mostly on reading and math:

  • They are still using the Star Wars workbooks by Brainquest.
    • My five-year-old loves doing his lessons and usually does more than I require. Of course, the preschool and kindergarten workbooks that he uses are fairly easy. Still, I’m impressed that he enjoys doing the worksheets and takes them seriously.
    • I especially like the 2nd grade reading workbook for my eight-year-old. They give him good reading practice, introducing new words and basic grammar concepts. It gives him a lot of writing practice, which he needs. I still go slow, when necessary, and sometimes I only require him to do half a page, but I make him erase any letter he writes wrong and do it again. Together with the extra reading we do, it’s good practice. The math workbook is just extra math practice — it doesn’t actually teach a strategy on how to do the math. He is much more willing to do the work without fuss now (and maybe I’ve learned just the right ebb and flow), which is a difference between now and the beginning of this year, so that’s another reason I’m going ahead and making a push for him to do a little more.
    • Mini review of the Star Wars books: If you have children who love Star Wars and need extra practice with their reading/math skills, then I recommend them. I don’t recommend them as a curriculum by themselves, although the reading and writing workbooks cover all the basics. However, I am sure we’ll be using more resources to hone these skills as time goes by. Since my boys both love Star Wars, they seem to enjoy seeing some of their favorite characters and learning some Star Wars vocabulary. Unfortunately, these workbooks only go through 2nd grade.

What I’ve added

I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking over the last month and having conversations with my husband. What was I thinking about? That test we will be required to give him (according to Georgia law) next year, in the third grade. I didn’t want my son to take a test without prior experience on test taking. So, I did some inquiries about the tests, and I found the one we might use. I considered ordering it and giving him the second grade version this year. However, it is more complicated than I thought it would be. It costs about $40, we have to order the test, administer it within a few days and then return the package for grading. That felt a little intimidating for just a practice test. So, I went on Amazon, and I searched for practice tests.

  • I ordered Spectrum’s 2nd grade Test Practice, which is supposed to correlate to most state standards. I like it. We only do about two pages per day of the “lessons.” When I come to the end of a section, there are “sample tests” that are a little longer. On these days, that’s all I require my son to do. At the end of the book, I’m going to give him a longer, more comprehensive test over several days, which is provided. The book even comes with answer sheets, which shows him how to fill in those little bubbles.  I also like it because there are test taking clues included in the lessons.

So far, it’s been quite easy for my son to work through this test prep workbook, which gives me confidence that we are progressing quite well! I’m really impressed with how well he is reading! I’m not quite sure what happened. I think at age eight, it has just “clicked.” I still would not call him an eager reader — he doesn’t do it voluntarily. (But that’s because he’s so busy making things. He has different interests, and I’m not worried about that.) When he has trouble, it’s usually because he comes to a word he has never seen before, and I don’t think that’s a big deal. He’s learning more words as we continue with this reading practice.

He doesn’t love the workbook, but he thinks it is easy, and since I’m being lighthearted about it, it hasn’t given him any stress. He knows the purpose is practice taking a test, and we’re learning about what he knows/needs to learn. There is no pressure to get it all right.

What I stopped doing (for now)

  • I stopped using Life of Fred: Dogs for eight-year-old’s math in favor of getting some more practice in that Star Wars workbook. I have also ordered Singapore Math based on recommendations from a friend and some extensive reading I’ve done online. Although I plan to continue to use Life of Fred because my son loves it, and I think it does a good job teaching a lot of math concepts and how math is used in everyday life, I didn’t think it did a good job of helping my son find a strategy of how to add and subtract in his head. So I’m hoping Singapore Math will be a good fit for us. Between the two, he should have a good foundation in math. As I see him increasingly become interested in science/engineering types of activities, I feel it is extra important to make sure he has a solid math foundation.
  • We stopped watching Salsa for Spanish lessons. I will probably continue this at some point, or either find a different kind of Spanish curriculum when I think we are ready for it, but we just got so busy, it was one of the things we dropped.
  • We stopped working through the science experiment book. Again, got too busy, but we’ll probably visit it again at some point. I’m not worried because our family’s daily life and deep interests includes so much science!

What they finished

  • In my first post, I mentioned how my eight-year-old was taking his younger brother through the basic phonic lessons on Starfall.com. They finished that. I do think it was very helpful, and when my five-year-old gets a little older, he might benefit from going through it again. It was a very good review for older brother. ;)
  • My eight-year-old completed his second pottery class this fall (third, if you count the summer camp he took). It was a great experience for him. He has opted to take a break from pottery this spring, but he wants to take one of the summer camps again offered by the pottery studio. Many mornings while he was in class, I took my five-year-old to the botanical garden, and we enjoyed a morning using our sketchbooks. I’ll write about that sometime.

What we continue

  • Like I said, we continue to use Brainquest’s Star Wars workbooks for our basic reading and math lessons, and I added a test prep workbook for my eight-year-old, which has helped me see that we are progressing just fine. The boys also read/listen to books of their own choice as well.
  • I continue to read to them from a book of my choice before our lessons. Although I wanted to use this time to explore literature, it’s hard to pick stories that both ages will engage in. So, currently, I’m reading one of my library book sale finds: World Book’s Childcraft See the World. (2000) It’s a good introduction to the different continents and cultures of this world. There will also be some chapters about map making. Mostly, I’m reading this because it makes a nice compliment to our ongoing study of the world through the many documentaries that we continue to watch everyday.
  • The documentaries deserve a post all of their own, but I did want to mention that lately we’ve been making our way through a series of BBC documentaries on Netflix. Each one focuses on a specific area of the world and has about five 50-minute programs. So far we have watched Wildest IndoChina, Wildest India and Wildest Arctic. What I especially appreciate about these programs are how they touch on the crossroads between the wilderness and humans, sometimes delving into human rituals, religion and the history of the area. It’s been a great learning experience for us all. (There are sensitive issues and history brought up, so preview first, if you think your child would be too sensitive for it.) For those who are interested, I keep a Pinterest board on the documentaries we watch. It’s the only thing I use Pinterest for these days.
  • I still use Fridays as art days! I don’t always do a formal art lesson, but click the link to see what we have been doing.
  • Since my son is taking a break from pottery, I have enrolled both my boys in Sandy Creek Nature Center’s homeschool science classes again. (They had conflicted with pottery in the fall, so we took a break from that.)

What has flourished

All last fall, I felt like we were in a “project lull,” and I was missing how frequently my eight-year-old used to come up with ideas to make and build things. I was worried that because I was so busy, I was missing opportunities to support my son’s interests. But now I feel like it was just a lull, and perhaps that is natural once in a while. (It’s not that my son wasn’t being creative at all. He was sculpting cool stuff in his pottery class and still putting together Lego kits. And we did some art projects and other things. He also spent a lot of time studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia — Star Wars seemed like his biggest interest last fall — and I let him do that because I felt like it might lead to something, which it did.)

Around the holidays, my son’s “building instinct” kicked in again, and he’s been working on a few projects. He also received a robotics set for Christmas, and I can’t believe how educational and beneficial this set has been. He’s been teaching himself programming! I’ll be sure to write about that too.

My five-year-old also has been continuing his love of learning about dinosaurs, drawing, painting and now, coloring. We are filling up spaces with his work, and I love it when I find him digging into the paper and markers (his preferred medium). In my constant wonder on how to support his love of drawing, I have inadvertently turned my eight-year-old onto drawing a little more. My five-year-old didn’t care about the how to draw books I had on the shelf for him to find, but my eight-year-old found them, and he’s been using them! More on that to come!

Keeping Priorities

Written out like this, it might seem like our formal learning is very complex and time-consuming, but actually, it doesn’t take too much space in our day. At most, we might spend two hours a day on the workbooks. We might work up until lunchtime, but after that, my boys are free to do their projects and play, which is what I’ve always wanted for them. (No need for rushing to get ready to catch the bus, stand in lines, do homework after an already long day at school, or get to bed early!)

Those two hours don’t include all our home “school,” however. My husband and I read them books, tell them stories, and we watch very educational television together as a family.  We have conversations about people, the world, history and what different people do for a living. We go to outside classes, take field trips, get out into nature (weather permitting) and spend time with friends. Everyday the boys work on their own projects, and I make myself very available to support them, especially in the mornings and right after lunch. So, I still follow my children’s interests, but I keep a small window of time devoted to the fundamentals they would be learning in a traditional school. I don’t want them to get behind in case we ever have to put them in school, although I hope that never happens.

I have been watching my boys blossom as they explore topics and find the things that they are truly interested in. It is not uncommon for my eight-year-old to ask me to write down the spelling of some animal he learned about in Wild Kratts or The Octonauts so that he can go look it up on the Internet and view better photographs of it. They are independent learners, ask questions freely, and they are always telling me their ideas for making this or that. I have seen them create a deep bond together as they play, especially as they strategize about their collaborative building projects on Minecraft! (Stay tuned for a column about that.)

I treasure the time that homeschooling provides for them to do these things.

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