Posts tagged ‘education’

February 17, 2014

What Is Homeschooling?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 12, 2014.

The other day I was eating with my family at a restaurant in Winder, and we started chatting with our waitress. Like many people do, she asked my boys if they were in school, so we told her we were homeschooling. She was interested. She said she had a two-year-old, and she had considered doing something like that because she is concerned about everything “that is happening at schools.”

What she meant by that, I’m not sure, but I do know many parents have concerns about the state of our public schools whether it be too much pressure to teach to the test, peer pressure, violence or other reasons.

Then she asked, “So what happens when you homeschool? Does a teacher come to your home?”  The waitress seemed like a bright, young woman, but she did not understand what homeschooling is about, and there are probably many people like her.

Once I spoke to a representative at the Georgia Department of Education, and he told me a woman had just called him to say she was fed up with her kids’ school and wanted to homeschool. “So where do I send them?” she asked.

Let me make it clear: If you want to homeschool, you will be completely responsible for your children’s education.  You will be their teacher. You may decide to hire a tutor for a particular subject, or you may find some community classes or a co-op to enroll your child in, but you are completely responsible for making sure your child gets what he or she needs to make it in our society as an adult. Not only that, your child will be at home most of the time. That’s why it’s called “home” school.

There are many different philosophies and approaches to homeschooling. Some parents are strict “school at home” homeschoolers, and they make their children do everything exactly as they would at public school, but they do it at home. There are also online courses that provide a public school education in the comfort of one’s home, and you and your child would be in contact with a public school teacher from time to time.

The opposite extreme is “radical unschooling.” These parents believe that their children will learn everything they will need to know through life experience, and they follow their child’s lead when it comes to what they will teach. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about unschoolers because people think the children aren’t learning anything. This is not true, and I know that to unschool a child, a parent has to be willing to work hard and learn alongside their child.

Most homeschoolers fall somewhere between those two extremes, and most homeschoolers love their lifestyle because it gives them the opportunity to tailor the education to their child’s interests and needs. If their child has a learning disability or needs more time in a particular subject, they can go at the child’s pace. Likewise, gifted children do not have to be held back because a teacher has to make her class accessible to a wide range of children’s abilities.

There are homeschoolers who call themselves “Waldorf-inspired” or “Montessori-inspired,” or a mix of any number of educational philosophies. Most homeschoolers start out doing one thing, and then realize that they can relax because children are amazing, and when given the freedom and offered a range of experiences, they want to learn.

I’m not one to push aside the fact that you can find cases where children have been abused in homeschooling families. But as a friend of mine told me, school children are abused too, as she was. Going to school didn’t stop it.

Without fail, uninformed people always maintain that “socialization” is the big problem with homeschooling. I don’t really understand this when I remember the “misfits” in my high school who were ostracized by their peers.

Education is supposed to prepare our children to be productive, stable adults, and public school just doesn’t work for every child. Homeschooling may not work for everyone either, but at least it’s a viable option.

When considering homeschooling, parents should remember that no one, homeschooling family is a good representative of the homeschooling culture at large. Start doing some research.  Join local, online homeschooling e-mail lists such as those on Yahoo Groups or Facebook, and start asking questions.

It takes time to find a community when you homeschool, so start early. Now that we’ve been homeschooling for a few years, I’m happy that we’ve met some great families who are homeschooling not for extreme reasons but just because it seems like the right choice for their children.

Sometimes we get crazy looks when we tell people we are homeschooling, but I have noticed that more people are interested and supportive. Not long ago we met a woman who is a grandmother, and when we told her that we were homeschooling, she smiled and said emphatically, “Your kids will get to see the world with you.”

Yes, exactly. Homeschooling offers a lot of possibilities. It’s worth thinking about.

February 6, 2014

Magic Tree House Books

Magic Tree House BookNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 5, 2014.

For over a year, my husband has been reading the Magic Tree House Books by Mary Pope Osborne to my seven-year-old every night before bed. There are over fifty titles in the series, and currently they are reading #39, Dark Day in the Deep Sea. My son is thrilled because the two protagonists, Jack and Annie, are going to meet an octopus! Though I haven’t read the series with him, I’m privy to many retellings of the stories.

Jack and Annie are a brother and sister, and in the first book, they find a magic tree house and travel back into prehistoric times. In every book, they are sent on an adventure throughout time to different places and even to mythical places.  Through these books, my son has been introduced to Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci, the Civil War and the American Revolution, William Shakespeare, gorillas in the Congo rain forest and so much more.

The books are a great introduction to history and mythology, and there are even companion non-fiction books that will teach children more about the people and places Jack and Annie meet in their adventures, though we aren’t using those.

Starting with book #29, the books are referred to as “The Merlin Missions.” They are longer and the reading level is higher, so children can continue to be challenged as they grow with the series.

I have heard some criticism from other parents about the quality of writing in the books, which can make them unappealing for adults to read. But my husband has enjoyed reading the series with my son. He says the writing is simple and appropriate for kids, and he considers them to be fantasies and adventure stories for children. He thinks the author does a good job of getting kids excited about history, and he appreciates the author’s attempts at depicting the daily life of everyday people in the time periods the characters visit. From a history professor, that’s not a bad review.

Though we discovered the books while browsing at the bookstore, we only own two of them. My husband has been able to find all the books at nearby libraries by checking online first to find where the next book in the series is located.  No library seems to own all the books, but he has found them all by searching for them at the Winder, Auburn, Statham and Bogart libraries. Since they are short books, he checks out three or four of them at a time. That way they always have something to read each night.

Since I haven’t read the books myself, I thought I would interview my son about them. This is what he said:

Me: Why do you like Magic Tree House books?

My son: I like it because they do all these adventures, and there’s magic, and they meet all sorts of giant animals like a cloud dragon and an octopus and a sea serpent.

Me: What is your favorite book in the series so far?

My Son: Dragon of the Red Dawn, #37

Me: Is there a subject you wish she would write about?

My Son: She already has lots of cool books, but maybe one about going to a volcano and seeing a fire-breathing dragon.

Me: Are you glad Daddy is reading the series to you?

My Son: Yes.

Me: When you finish the Magic Tree House books, what series will you read with Daddy next?

My Son: I want to read Robin Hood with daddy. It’s not a series though.

Me: Anything you want to add?

My Son: They’re really good.

So there you have it from the seven-year-old himself.

Have you or your child read these books? What did you think?

January 30, 2014

Legos

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Legos is all the rage in our house right now. My seven-year-old is happiest when he is at his table putting some kind of Lego kit together. He doesn’t have very many of them, but I have a feeling we’ll be collecting more of them. I don’t mind.

The first time he wanted to try building with Legos was after he watched one of his friends do it, so last year we got him a helicopter-airplane-boat kit. He can only make one of those at a time, so it’s a lot of fun for him to make one, keep it a few weeks, and then he can take it apart and build another one.

This Christmas he got two new sets. The first one he had been asking for because his friend has one. It’s called the Warp Stinger, but it looks like some kind of mosquito to me. The second one was a complete surprise and came from grandma. It’s a coast guard ship. He loves both of them.

I don’t know why people say children have short attention spans. My son will sit at the table straining his neck and shoulders to put these kits together, and even when I try to get him stop for a break, he wants to keep going like some workaholic. If only he approached his reading lessons with the same spirit! I’m happy he likes Legos, though, because it is a very educational toy.

Any kind of blocks is educational because it’s an open-ended toy that gets a child’s creative mind going. As small children they build motor skills and begin to realize that they can create things in three dimensions. Blocks can be used to learn how to sort and how to learn about patterns. Legos can be used to teach about engineering and technology, and there are even Lego robotic teams that compete in national competitions.

The educational benefits go on and on. The Lego company has a whole division dedicated to getting Legos into the classroom, and they offer lots of instructional materials on their website too. (See https://education.lego.com)

I like them because they keep my boys busy. My seven-year-old will spend a long time putting one of his kits together, and he rarely needs me to help him. Sometimes I wish he would create something original instead of using the kits, but I find it amazing that he’s able to follow those instructions and put 300 of those tiny pieces together. I would never have the patience to do that.

My four-year-old is not old enough for the kits, but he has a big bin of Legos that he likes to play with. He likes to cover a baseboard with the Legos, or either he’ll build a “city.” He especially likes it when Mama will help him, and I have to say that there’s something relaxing about building with Legos. It’s not one of those toys that are fun for kids but mind numbing for adults. Legos are fun.

Recently I was surprised to find out that you can build almost anything with Legos when I stumbled on the website of an artist named Nathan Sawaya. He has several exhibitions that have toured North America, Asia and Australia. He uses Lego bricks to build sculptures of people, objects and even a red tail hawk. He has turned this simple toy into works of art.  Check out his website at brickartist.com.

Hmmm… Maybe next time I feel the urge to get creative, I’ll go for the Lego bin instead of the paper and paints.

Please share Lego creations from your house!

January 25, 2014

Teaching Children About Money

The Math and the Responsibility

When it comes to teaching my son about money, both the math side and the responsible spending side, it seems logical to me that the only way he’ll learn is to use real money. And learning how to count money is very motivating when you are counting your own money!

Teaching Math with Real Money

For math, we’ve done a variety of things. As I mentioned in my 1st grade math post, I have used some workbooks to teach math, and in the past, I’ve used storybooks and even my own stories to teach about math too. (This is something I will continue to do!) For teaching about money & coins, I’ve also done the following:

  • When my son was first learning his coins, I pulled out a piggy bank of loose change, and we sorted them into piles and rolled them into paper wraps.
  • We also have a fantastic little toy cash register. It comes with pretend money, but we can also use real money with it! The boys love playing “store.”
  • For a Christmas present one year, my brother’s family gathered “Coins of America” collectible quarters and sent them to my boys with some storage folders. The boys had a lot of fun putting the quarters into the folder and learning about each state in the process! (A good geography lesson too.)

Teaching Financial Responsibility

To begin the long process of teaching my sons about financial responsibility, the first thing my husband and I have done has been to talk honestly and straightforward about money. We let them know how much things cost. We let them know our house, our cars and food all cost money, and that’s why we have to work.  A great byproduct of homeschooling is that because the boys are home all day, they see firsthand what it takes to care for a home, and they go shopping with us too.  We discuss what we can and cannot afford to buy, and we talk about how we sacrifice some things in order for me to stay home with them full-time and homeschool.

Note: We don’t pound this into their heads. It’s simply a matter of mentioning it once in a while when a question or issue comes up.

Second, I have a little pouch for each of my boys with their names on it. Whenever they are given a little birthday or Christmas cash, they keep the money in the pouch, and they are allowed to spend it on what they want. (My four-year-old doesn’t understand this as well as his big brother.) My only rule is that once they see something they want, they wait one week to buy it. (I thank Lori Pickert for giving me this idea.)

I was afraid that when I began doing this, my seven-year-old would want the first toy he saw in every store. (He was six when I started this.) But he has impressed me by not doing that. He spends his money, and he hasn’t saved much, but he’s thoughtful about his purchases, and he doesn’t want “just anything.” He doesn’t spend all his money in one place. He’s always willing to wait a week too. So far, he has not changed his mind during that week, but I do think over time, it will teach him how not to be an impulsive shopper…. He’ll understand that the product will still be there, if he wants to wait a while.

I’m also hoping that over time, he’ll begin to see a pattern like this: I really wanted that horseshoe crab when I bought it, but now I rarely play with it. (This is something I plan on pointing out to him on occasion too.)  I’m also starting a spreadsheet that will show how they spent their money, and how much they would have had, if they had saved it.

I think having freedom to make his own decisions with his own money is important, and except for asking him to wait, we’ve let him decide what to do with it.

With a few exceptions, we do not buy him toys other than on Christmas and his birthday. Since he has his own money, we let him buy something, if he wants it.

I should also note that we do not give allowances. Housework is something everybody is expected to do. To earn money, however, I have told the boys that they can do extra work that is beyond our regular cleaning routine. For example, I’ve told them they can help clean the walls and base boards for money, and they have done this on occasion….not very well, but that’s not the point to me. (I might give them $1-2 for this, depending on the amount of effort expended.)

Only time will tell if this teaches them to be responsible with their money, but I think it will help. Ultimately, I think children learn from their parent’s behavior regarding money, and if the parents are responsible, the children probably will be too. Modeling good behavior, conversation and real-world experience go hand in hand.

Please share your advice for teaching kids about money in the comments section!

January 18, 2014

1st Grade Homeschool Math

Read these posts to see how we’ve made it this far in math:

I’m a firm believer that you need to find whatever works for you and your child. Don’t be scared to try different things until you find what works!

Last year we completed through Chapter 13 (out of 19) in Life of Fred: Cats, which is the third book in that series.  My son loves Life of Fred. It is story-based, quirky, and you can access the link to my review of it above.  Using it as a guide, I found other ways to practice the math concepts he was learning in that book. But by Chapter 13, it just got too hard for him, so I stopped.*

Part of the reason the book got hard was not because of the math. Because Life of Fred is a story, the author brings in anecdotes about other things, which is interesting and educational, but for my six-year-old last year, it went over his head.

I didn’t think he was ready to continue it this year either, so I have been reviewing math concepts with him.  To begin with, we didn’t use anything too exciting. I had some workbooks, so I used those:

I don’t like making my son do a lot of worksheets or workbooks, but in math, it has been necessary in order to hone in on important concepts and help him not forget what he has learned.

All of the concepts he has learned up until now, he’s very good at. He’s especially good at counting coins and telling time! He does well with place value too. He can add and subtract well but he doesn’t have his addition and subtraction facts memorized. I’m not going to worry about that yet.  I’ve noticed that something has “clicked” for him this past year in math (and reading). I think for some children, age seven must be when things come together.

Note: We do math lessons twice a week. Doing more than that has not given me better results, and I think doing more formal lessons would make him hate math. Right now he doesn’t mind it because of the slow approach I’ve taken as well as finding fun ways to learn it. As he gets older, we’ll continue to reassess what his needs will be.

I am planning to continue in Life of Fred again, but I may wait a little while. (*UPDATE: Spring 2014 – We did eventually go back to Life of Fred: Cats. I decided to start at the beginning of the book again, and then we finished the whole thing. So just waiting awhile really helped my son.) I have found an app for our iPad that my son and I both like very much, and he’s getting a lot of good practice with it. I like it because it keeps track of what my son is doing, how he is doing, and it automatically goes to the higher level when he has completed a lower level.

  • The app is Splash Math for Grade 1. It costs $9.99, which is much more than I usually pay for an app, but it has been well worth it.

Splash Math is a lot like doing a workbook, but it’s on the iPad. My son likes it much more than doing a workbook, and that’s okay with me. Unlike other apps, I consider this one our “math lesson,” so I sit with him as he works through the problems. Sometimes he needs help reading the word problems. I have also taught him “greater than” “less than” by using this app.

I also like that I can turn concepts on and off. If they are off, they won’t be included in my son’s practice. For example, I can turn off questions about “data and graphs” until I’m ready to teach it to my son. I have found that by sitting with him while he works through the questions, if he comes to something he doesn’t understand, I can explain it to him or do one problem for him, and from then on, he gets it.

My son likes it because he gets rewarded with an “aquarium,” and he gets something new for the aquarium periodically, such as a fish or crab, as he earns more points. The graphics don’t thrill me, and I don’t care for the anvil that you can drop on a crab’s head, but he likes the app, he’s practicing math, and that’s all that matters.

Sum Swamp game is great for practicing early math skills. The little container of vehicles does not come with it, but that’s how my four-year-old plays with it.

My boys’ favorite way to learn math is by playing Sum Swamp. I can’t recommend this game enough. We play it a lot (not just for math lessons). I bought it so that the seven-year-old could practice addition and subtraction, but it has been a great way to introduce the four-year-old to math, and he loves this game. He asks me to play it with him, and he will even play it by himself! (He uses manipulatives to add and subtract. The seven-year-old doesn’t need them.) It’s even fun for me!

Sum Swamp teaches addition, subtraction, the operation symbols + and -, even/odd numbers, and how to be a gracious winner and not a sore loser! Although we’re still working on those last two!

In my next post, I’ll be addressing how I’ve taught my son about money – both how to count it and financial responsibility. (Click here for that.)

That is it for first grade math. Please tell me what resources you have enjoyed using!

January 11, 2014

First Grade Homeschool Priorities

Homeschooling is exciting to me. I can think of a hundred different things I want to introduce to my children, and then I get frustrated that we don’t have time to do it all. There’s simply no way around that. However, when I lay out my priorities, I see that we are achieving quite a few of the most important ones. That is an achievement, and I know I should consider anything else icing on the cake.

I promised a post about our priorities for this year a long time ago, and it’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about that, but finally, here it is. I struggled with this post because my priorities for my boys have not changed from when they were five and two years old. I wondered if there was any point in writing a new post. Briefly, this is what I wrote two years ago:

As I look back at this list, I’m happy to realize how over two years I have been able to keep these a priority! I emphasize over two years because it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture on those bad or lazy days!  So allow me to boast a little bit:

  • Imagination/Play/Motion – My boys play, move, and use their imaginations everyday!  They create things and come up with their own crafts, and they have plenty of time for playing make-believe too. There are days I don’t think I’m accomplishing anything, but it is on those days my boys have more freedom to create and play. I know that setting up an environment where they are free to do this has been a huge help in achieving this goal.
  • Literature – We read lots of books, and I make up a story for my seven-year-old every night before bed. My husband has told my four-year-old a story about Dig Dig the T-Rex every night for about a year now! Even on days that it feels like nothing else was accomplished, we end our days with book reading and storytelling. It’s an established ritual, and I can easily forget that it’s very much a part of homeschooling too.
  • Nature – I want to get outside everyday, but this just doesn’t happen. Yet when I think about our hikes, the classes at the nature center (which usually include a hike), and play dates at the beautiful parks in this area, I know we’ve done a good job of exposing our boys to nature. And that doesn’t even count our daily dose of nature documentaries!
  • How to find answers – Over two years my husband and I have done a very good job of honoring our son’s questions. I get frustrated that I don’t always have a notebook to write them down, and many of the questions slip through the cracks, but he continues to ask questions, and we have honored his interests. I have taught him to use the computer, library, and I’ve modeled how to ask experts when possible. This is a priority that is woven into our everyday parenting, so over the long haul, it will get done.
  • Spend quality, stress-free time together – I’ll be honest. Our time is not always stress-free. Daily life with children is hard, and no matter how much I’d like to ignore it, there are chores and work to be done too. But in general, I think our life is pretty good. My husband works at home, and we enjoy being together. We can sleep late, start and stop school & projects when we need to, watch T.V. together, and we take field trips whenever we can. As long as I don’t panic about the small stuff, it’s a good life.
  • Teach Responsibility/involve him in my work – I think this a positive byproduct of homeschooling. When children are home everyday, they have to see what it takes to make a household work. And, with everyone home all day, the house gets a lot messier, so they have to help. There is no way around this. We also do not hesitate to talk about money and how much everything costs. When mom and dad have to do their work, the kids know why. Though I have not involved my son in blogging/writing, he is aware of what I do, and he likes to look at my blog. He is interested in photography, and now both our sons have their own cameras!

Our priorities have become the stuff of daily life. How awesome is that? These will never go away.

So what about the first grade priorities? They have turned a little more academic, though I strive to balance that with everything you just read about, and I want to go at my son’s pace. These are the big priorities for this year, in order of importance:

  • Teach him to read. I know there’s a lot of differing opinions about teaching children how to read vs. letting them go at their own pace. While I didn’t want to push my son beyond his level, I felt that at age seven, there was a good chance he would be ready to go to the next level, and I was right. I don’t think he would have gotten here on this own, so I’m glad we’ve continued to practice reading at an easy-going pace.
  • Math practice. I wanted to make sure my son was solid on some math concepts, so instead of moving forward in Life of Fred, I have been having my son practice math. It’s going well, and I’ll tell you how I’m doing that in an upcoming post.
  • Giving him time for project work.  I wanted to make sure he had time to pursue his own interests, which is mostly in science and building projects. By keeping my other academic priorities light, he’s had plenty of time for this. I’ve written about some of his project work, and I’ll continue to do so as time allows. He has been dipping into various projects this year, including his carnivorous plant project, building DNA models and learning about DNA, building ship models (and in the process learning about history), and doing small crafts that he picks out and loves to do – like making paper airplanes and cutting out snowflakes.

I should also mention that I consider a lot of this work both “project work” and “fulfilling a typical course of study.” My son’s interest in nature and science has meant that we make attending the Homeschool Science Classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center a priority. I never miss a class unless we’re sick! My four-year-old has also been taking the knee-high naturalist class this year, just like his brother did at four-years-old.

A lot of the books we read have to do with science or history, and when we watch television, we watch nature and science programs or other shows that lead to good conversations. (Right now we’re watching The Andy Griffith show. We’ve talked about history, family values, stereotypes and more by watching that show!)

So much overlaps in our homeschool. If you homeschool, I’m sure you will understand.

Of course, we study other things, such as Spanish, different cultures, religions, art, and financial skills. These are priorities, but I’m not listing them as first grade priorities because these are things that I want to teach slowly, over the course of their childhoods and teenage years. At some point they may become more prominent in our everyday teaching, but for now, I think these are best done through books, conversation, fun lessons, and other means. Like I wrote before, learning is like a chain link fence, and we add links here and there through age-appropriate activities.

But reading is an essential skill that is the foundation for independent learning! And math skills build upon one another…it’s important to master one concept before moving onto the next. So we’re working on these. And project work is my son’s work, and that is what all this learning is for in the first place!

Thank you for reading this long post! I will follow up with more specifics about our 1st grade reading and math lessons.

December 12, 2013

North Atlanta Gem, Mineral, Fossil & Jewelry Show

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 11, 2013.

I’ve been waiting all year to tell you about the North Atlanta Gem, Mineral, Fossil and Jewelry Show. We went last year, and we’ve decided to make it a yearly tradition because we had so much fun. It’s going to be this weekend, December 13-15 at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross. You won’t want to miss it.

This is a great show. It is huge, and there are so many beautiful and interesting things to look at. Maybe you like rocks or fossils, or maybe you prefer jewelry…there is something for everyone. The prices are lower than most retailers, and you’ll find things that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Last year the boys were excited to walk into the show and find two big dinosaur bones on the first tables we encountered. They were triceratops thigh bones or femurs, and we got to touch them! We talked to the men who had excavated them. Did you know you could go dinosaur bone hunting on your vacation? That’s what these men did.

Then there was the lady from the Meteorite Association of Georgia who taught the boys what the difference is between a rock and a meteorite and gave them a tiny meteorite for free. She wasn’t the only person at the show who had some small rock or fossil to give away to children.

Last year my four-year-old was three, and all “hands-on,” so I stayed by his side as we looked at some delicate fossils and rows and rows of those shiny, polished stones. There were plenty of items he was allowed to touch, so it wasn’t hard to lead him to safer tables.

My seven-year-old loved the shark jaws full of teeth and a wholly mammoth tusk. I found some pretty jewelry, and I picked out a polished ammonite charm that I still love to wear.  For less than a $1, I bought the then three-year-old a shiny stone, and he was happy with his new treasure.

There were countless fossils of fish and shark teeth. Mosasaur teeth were pretty cool too. I especially loved the fossil of a small stingray on a big slab of sandstone. We also found some fossilized dinosaur eggs!

My husband says that going to the show was like going to a museum. We also learned that the people who sell at these shows usually do it for a hobby, and they are friendly and happy to talk to you. We can see how it might be addictive to go fossil and rock hunting because a few years ago when we went to the beach, my husband got a little obsessed hunting for shark teeth in the sand. Because of his determination, my son has a nice, little collection.

The highlight of the show last year was when our seven-year-old picked out what he wanted to buy. We had given him a price he could spend, and surprisingly, he found that it was enough to buy an almost fossilized tibia bone of a bison that is between 11,000-15,000 years old! He placed it proudly on his shelf in his room.

Admission to the show is just $4 for adults, and children under 16 (accompanied by an adult) are free. Parking is free too. For more information see their website at http://www.mammothrock.com.

To see all of our photos from last year’s show, click here.

October 29, 2013

Homeschooling Preschool the 2nd Time: My Four-Year-Old’s Letter D

In some ways, I hesitate to say that I homeschooled preschool with my first son. I was fairly relaxed with him during his “preschool” years (which isn’t to say I didn’t worry or wonder if I was doing it right), and he made it easy because he learned to recognize the ABCs before he could even speak all their names at 22 months. At two- and three-years-old all I did was play with him with some rubber letters in the bathtub. Sometimes I would write the letters in chalk outside on the sidewalk. It was all fun and games to him. At age four, I just got a little more intentional about what I was doing.

I’m also relaxed (more so) with my four-year-old, but for completely different reasons. (And I’m not worried about whether I’m doing it right anymore. Be sure to read The Only Preschool Curriculum You Need Is Your Enthusiasm.)

My four-year-old is a very different boy, and he’s having a completely different experience during these early years from what his brother had. While my first born spent a lot of time at home alone with me because we didn’t have as many friends back then, my four-year-old has the benefit of not only more friends but tagging along to classes that my older son attends. He has also started taking the knee-high naturalist class like his brother did at this age, and I’m able to leave my older boy home with his dad, so he can have his “own” class.

My current preschooler did not learn his letters and numbers early like his brother, but without doing any intentional ABC “games” he has mastered at least half the ABCs on his own. And now he counts to 10 flawlessly.

He loves to count things. For a long time, he counted, although he was wrong most of the time. “One, one, one, one,” he would say. Or “One, two, three, six, eight,” he would say. I didn’t try to correct him much. I praised his effort, and sometimes we would take turns counting.

Slowly his counting improved. He might miss just one number. Then he would count to ten correctly one time, but the next time he would trip up. Now, he counts to 10 perfectly every time unless he starts to count too fast or gets silly about it.

It’s been fun to witness this progression. And relaxing. I haven’t really done anything to promote or encourage it. I just watch and listen and follow his cues. Since I’m busy working with my older son on his projects, it eases my mind to know my preschooler is teaching himself.

I see the same thing happening with the alphabet. Recently my preschooler has been enjoying some little cookies with the letters printed on them. When he eats them, he wants me to sit with him and tell him what each letter is, and he asks me what sound it makes. Whenever he happens to pull out an alphabet book or alphabet puzzle, I try to tell him the letter and its sound.

I keep the rubber letters that I used in the bathtub with my older son in a basket downstairs now. The other night, my four-year-old began spreading the letters around on the living room floor, and he wanted me to sit with him. Then while we were looking at them, he took the letter D over to the activity room, and through his actions, I knew he wanted to try to make something – it was the first time I witnessed him initiate a building or art project like his older brother does!!! I was very excited.

I just watched him awhile. He got a strip of white paper that we had been using the previous day to make bookmarks. Then he got out some pens and string and scissors and tape. He was very serious as he went about decorating this piece of paper with the pens and string. And then he folded it up.

He was trying to make a letter D. But he couldn’t get the paper shaped right. As I watched him, I saw how I could gently fold and bend the paper to make a D shape without compromising his efforts too much, so I did that for him. He was pleased.

And I was tickled pink. Here’s my preschooler, teaching himself and beginning to emulate the positive actions of his older brother. Of course, I also give myself (and my husband) some credit. We have created a household where books are loved, stories are told, conversations brew and questions are honored.  I have created an environment where both boys have access to materials for creative endeavors, and I don’t stop them from making messes. And I get excited about their work, I showcase it, and I take so many photos of it that if I forget, they’ll remind me!

I guess you can say that now that my sons are seven- and four-years-old, I am seeing my efforts pay off. I am seeing results, and I get the feeling that we’ll continue down this course of learning how to love learning. It makes me giddy.

Please share. What’s your child’s latest handiwork?

October 24, 2013

What Kind of Learning Do We Want For Our Kids?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 23, 2013. 

Last week I read an article in The Atlantic that depressed me.  Titled “My Insane Homework Load Taught Me How to Game the System,” it was written by a college freshman looking back at his junior year of high school.  He says he felt a lot of pressure to get good grades because colleges like the kids who take “the hardest classes and still get straight As.”

He goes on to explain how he and his friends learned how they couldn’t do all the work and get the As. “We found shortcuts and we minimized our efforts in order to get the grades we wanted.” At his conclusion he states that this is probably what high school is for – to prepare him for college. “Maybe the point of high school is to create good students,” he writes.

What depressed me is that he makes it clear that a “good student” is very different from a “good learner.” He writes how early in his high school career he took challenging classes and got some B’s because “I was more concerned with learning thoroughly than I was with getting good grades.”

Let’s repeat that: “I was more concerned with learning thoroughly than I was with getting good grades.”

Is it just me, or shouldn’t we want our kids to learn thoroughly? I think I’m in a minority because more people are concerned with children’s grades, and yes, the kids with the grades usually go on to succeed in the workplace. So maybe I’m doing my kids a disservice by expecting them to learn thoroughly.

Since we’re homeschooling, they won’t be in school learning how to game the system, and this may hurt them in the future. But I can’t help it. I want something different for them from what I had.

I remember doing the same thing in high school and college as what this kid wrote about in the article, although I wasn’t a straight A student. For me, it wasn’t so much about learning the material as it was about doing enough to get a decent grade, hopefully an A, but I settled for Bs and Cs too.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, I was required to take one history class.  It was an 8:00a.m. class in a big lecture hall with over one hundred students. (This is quite smaller than some universities.) I never spoke to the professor directly. We had a stack of books we were required to read, including Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is over 700 pages.

I thought it was an interesting class, but the amount of material I had to absorb was overwhelming.  I took advantage of the professor’s teaching assistant’s offer to give an optional review of the material every morning before class at 7:30a.m.  Only a handful of students showed up that early. I’ll never forget what I learned from that teaching assistant one morning.

As a graduate student, the teaching assistant had more required reading than us undergraduates. Someone must have asked him how he managed it all, and he explained to us that it’s impossible to read everything. You simply had to figure out what is most important and read that. Maybe he said to do a lot of skimming…I don’t remember the details. But it was the first time I was introduced to the idea that I didn’t have to do all my homework. Not that I always did all my homework, but apparently I didn’t learn how to game the system in the proper way because I was more of a B student.

When I was a junior and senior, I loved my English literature classes, and I did quite well. But I was spending a good twenty hours a week doing one course’s required reading, so I didn’t always have it in me to do everything for every class. (And, yes, you see I didn’t become a rocket scientist either.)

Call me an idealist, but I would like children and young adults to learn how to become good learners. I want them to get excited about learning. Education should be more than teaching kids how to game the system.

October 17, 2013

The Power of Time and Materials

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 16, 2013.

One day last week after our reading and math lesson, I helped my son finish one of his creations – a “robot spaceship” made out of recyclables. He used a toilet paper tube for the body, part of a plastic bottle for its head, thin cardboard rolled up for its arms and legs, and toothpicks for fingers. It turned out great, and as always, I’m awed by my little boy’s imagination.

My seven-year-old is turning into a little engineer, and he doesn’t need a lot of help, but he wants me to sit there because he’ll need me to do something that he doesn’t quite have the manual dexterity to do. Once in a while, I might be able to help him see an easier way of doing something, but there have been times when my ideas failed and his were better.

I try not to interfere too much with how he wants to make something. I just show up and support him, even when it’s hard for me. I can think of at least ten other things I need to be doing, and five other things I would like to be doing.  And since he is only seven, he works much slower than I could. Once I see what he’s doing, I know I could cut the cardboard into a tiny circle much faster than he could. But I wait until he asks me to do it.

This morning my son decided to add a sleeve to a dragon puppet he made a few months ago. He said that way when he holds the puppet up over the sofa (where we do our puppet shows), no one will see his arm. He pulled out the felt and craft thread we have in our overstuffed “craft supply” drawers. I got him a needle, which is one item I keep stored in another place for safety reasons.

Not quite finished. He still has to attach the sleeve to the dragon head, but you can see his handiwork.

After that, he began to sew the sleeve, and then he added scales or “plates” on the dragon’s back. Occasionally I have to help him when he makes a mistake while sewing or gets the thread tangled up, but he knows how to thread the needle, and he is finishing this project on his own. Again, I’m proud and a little amazed too.

But all it took to get him here was time and materials. Even though I would like less clutter, I have made a space in the heart of our home where he can reach every kind of art material I can afford to buy.  I have bought a little bit at a time, and I’ve taken advantage of sales to have a little extra on hand.

Last year, I found some little dinosaur finger puppets on the Internet, and I thought my son would enjoy making those. I am not skilled at sewing, but I know how to thread a needle and sew some stitches. So I showed him what I know, and he enjoyed it. He made his own, silly “alien” finger puppet too. It was enough to get my son started, and now he has sewn this big dragon puppet, which is his own design.

We also spent time collecting a big box of recyclables. Paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, bottles and almost anything can be made into something fun with a little imagination and hot glue.  I spent some time showing my son how to make some things, and now, since the items are within his reach, he just goes to get what he needs when he has a new idea.

Spending time teaching him to work with these materials is important, but the most important “time” is the free time I give him to work.

Last week we were busy with play dates and errands, and I found him looking at the calendar on our refrigerator. He noticed that nothing was on the calendar for Friday afternoon. “I’m going to build my Lego airplane on Friday afternoon.” After that, I made a mental note to try not to add anything to our day on Friday!

Some people may say my son is just very creative and likes art and building, but I bet all children, given a little instruction, access to materials and plenty of free time would take advantage of it. Fostering children’s imaginations, honoring their interests, and teaching helpful skills at a young age will make children doers instead of passive learners.

The other day my son said to me, “It occurred to me that if I want something, and I don’t have it, I can just make it!” That’s exactly what I was aiming for.

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