What the Summer is Boiling Down to

Photo taken from Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. You can see all the way to the Smoky Mountains.

I am sitting here wondering where the summer is going. It’s already late July, and here in my county, children will start back to school on August 1st. Luckily, we’re homeschoolers, so I can start our new “school year” any time I want. On the official paperwork, I pick September 1st. But in reality it’ll be sometime in the beginning half of September.

Both my boys were born in late August, exactly one week apart. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s turned out to be convenient. It’s at the end of our school year, so we take time off, and when the celebrations are over, it’s time to start a new year. There is a catch, however. Since the local schools start school August 1st, some of our outside appointments begin again in August. So we will be getting busier just as I’m planning birthdays, winding down one year and thinking about a new one. Oi.

This summer has not turned out to be exactly as I imagined it would, but that’s not all bad. I always think of summertime as a time to be outdoors, but we’ve been having the hottest summer that I ever remember living through in Georgia. (I’ve lived here for twenty years.) Starting in early June, temperatures soared to the high 90s and it’s stayed there. Most afternoons it’s between 95-99 degrees F. That’s way too hot for the boys to play outside. So we’ve been inside almost everyday, all day long.

Except for one day last week. We drove up to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. It was very cool on top of the mountain! Hopefully we’ll take some other day trips soon too.

It’s a very steep .6 mile climb from the parking lot to the top of Brasstown Bald.

I have tried getting the boys outside to play early in the morning, but 1) they like to sleep late, and 2) if they have to do lessons, they want to get them over with in the morning. Sometimes I just skip lessons and make them go outside, but would you believe it, my six-year-old is going through a phase where he really doesn’t want to be outside. So he’ll pout on the porch for a long time and then finally start playing just as it’s time to come back inside.:/

Despite being inside most days, I am actually enjoying the summer. (At least, after I finished the terrible cold I had in June and the heart-breaking task of euthanizing my cat.) I get up early in the mornings before the boys, and I either take a walk (nice and cool then!) or I do some yoga and write.

I water the garden by myself on most mornings and evenings. There was a time my boys fought over who got to water the garden, and it makes me sad they aren’t interested anymore, but it’s also quite peaceful standing outside watering all by myself. We’ve been having some good rain this year too, which has made growing flowers and vegetables much easier.

I feel good when I can keep my early morning schedule up. I am finally digging my heels into a medium-long writing project, but I will tell you about that another time.

I’m also enjoying the light lessons. We either do some science or practice multiplication tables, or the boys work in their apps. I have some workbooks I do some days with the six-year-old, but I’ve been lenient on this. It’s nice to not worry about accomplishing anything and just move along through our lessons like a meandering river.

I’m reading Old Yeller to my nine-year-old, and the six-year-old sometimes listens too. We also read about the great composers, and this week, my boys have been wanting to paint and draw again! I had noticed their enthusiasm for my “Art Fridays” was waning (to say the least), but one episode of Bob Ross on Netflix and I have little artists again! **Yay! Thanks, Bob Ross!**

One day this week we all drew/painted while listening to classical music. Another day, I read Old Yeller while the boys drew. I would love for every homeschool day to be just like that!

The nine-year-old is pushing ahead in his piano lessons as well. He is doing solid intermediate work now, so our days are filled with music. I can’t express how good it feels to walk around doing chores as I listen to my own son play so beautifully on the piano! His dedication awes me.

This summer we had the opportunity to try a new piano teacher because our current teacher received a scholarship to study in Europe for a few weeks. (Yay, him!) The summer teacher came highly recommended, and her experience and expertise were impressive. She was very impressed with the nine-year-old, saying it was remarkable how far he’s come in such a short time. We liked her so much that we seriously considered switching to her permanently. But ultimately, the nine-year-old said he wanted to stick with our current teacher. We are not sure whether this is the right decision, but we felt it was important to honor his request, especially when we haven’t been with the current teacher that long. After all, piano is his thing. We want him to own it.

So summer is boiling down to art and music and literature. How can I complain about that?

We’ve also had a couple of great play dates with friends, and the six-year-old and I are playing Uno and Yahtzee together a lot when my nine-year-old practices piano. We also baked chocolate chip cookies one day, and I’m still trying my hand at baking bread from scratch. (More about that soon.)

As I move into fall, I hope I can somehow retain this feeling of easy days. I know our appointments will build up, and I’ll get harried and worried about making progress, so when that happens, please, Someone, whisper in my ear, “Be a meandering river. You are a meandering river.”

May your homeschool days be like a meandering river too.

 

Everybody Needs a Mentor

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 27, 2016.

This bread-baking mission I’m on is full of frustrations, but since I’m doing it for fun, that’s okay. It’s like a puzzle I’m determined to figure out, and I’m relieved I have no deadline for it.

I bought a book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker’s Handbook, and I read it carefully, followed the directions, and the results were so-so. I have watched YouTube videos, read blog posts, and I’ve posed questions to my Twitter followers. (I really appreciate those who are helping.)

But I have realized that EVERYBODY BAKES BREAD DIFFERENTLY. I try this, I try that, and still, I’m not happy with my results. How do I get that beautiful sourdough bread with all the holes and good taste?!

I would love to have a bread-baking expert by my side to help me. This person could look at my sourdough starter and tell me if something is wrong with it. She could watch me mix and knead the dough. He could note the temperature of my house or other conditions that might affect the bread baking.

When it comes down to it, you can only teach yourself so much. Sure, someday I may figure this out, but how long will that take? Will it happen before I waste a barrel full of flour? Will it happen before I get so frustrated I give up? Or maybe I’ll finally produce a loaf I can live with, but I’ll never know what I could have produced, if someone had shown me a better way to do it.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. Everybody needs a mentor, but most importantly, children need mentors. I don’t believe the way most kids are educated these days is enough. Kids are graduating from college and many of them are struggling to find decent paying jobs, let alone jobs in their chosen field.

Sure, learning through the school of hard knocks can build character, but most of the time, the school of hard knocks just knocks people down, and they can’t get back up again. Or if they do get up, they are too far behind to catch up in this life’s rat race.

I would rather a child build character earlier in life, and I would rather them have a step ahead in these basic areas like “what am I going to do with my life?” Don’t the people who believe in the “school of hard knocks” realize that the people getting ahead and accomplishing amazing things usually had help? Sometimes you hear a great story of how some person raised himself out of a difficult life and accomplished something great, and we love those stories because they are RARE.

Most of the young people who are accomplishing great things had a great education and great mentors, or “connections,” if you’d rather call it that. Sure, money helps. But I feel certain behind every success story there was someone who recognized a talent, fostered it and told that child exactly what he needed to do to get ahead. They put him in touch with the right people, and this by itself can be very motivating to a child. Doing these things for a child costs nothing.

When children don’t have anyone who is interested in their unique talents, they start to see these talents as something negative instead of positive. So they go down another path, and many of them end up in a less than desirable situation.

Whenever I meet a child, I am struck by how that child has a special talent or interest that is unique to him or her. Whether she has achieved a billion points on her favorite video game, or he loves collecting rocks, it makes me believe that we’re all born with an innate curiosity and drive to do things.

It depends on what happens to us in childhood whether we use our potential or not. Did someone tell us to “stop acting like that” when we let our imaginations go wild, or did someone take an interest in our wild notions?

A mentor can be any person, but for a child, the parent is the person who knows him best, and as an adult, a parent has the ability to give a child a helping hand, lend a tool, do a little research, or find another adult who can help. Don’t let kids waste their potential and then struggle to compete with peers who are well ahead of them. Kids need our help and guidance. Be a mentor.

Waiting for Brother

An evening I’ll fondly remember when the boys are grown.

This little guy will sigh and ask, “How much more does he have to play?” Older brother used to have more time to play, and quite honestly, he still has lots of time to play, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a six-year-old to wait patiently through an hour (sometimes hour+!) of piano playing twice a day. And he needs to remain somewhat quiet.

But he’s so good. And really, he is patient. He steals my heart.

He used to sit on the floor playing with his dinosaurs, and while a little noise doesn’t hurt, the banging and roaring of dinosaurs was a little too much. So then he began to draw on the art app on our iPad while his brother played piano. After months of that, he grew tired of it, so he moved on to other things. When the weather warmed up, he decided he’d  go outside to swing and play with our dog, and he still does that often. Sometimes he sits in the kitchen and looks over our Calvin and Hobbes books. Sometimes he just curls up with me on the sofa and waits.

Sigh. “When’s he gonna be done?” (After the first piano practice, the boys get to play games on their digital devices, so it’s especially difficult to wait for that.) But he does.

I was kind of sad when he stopped drawing because for the last few years, he loved drawing and coloring, and he often occupied himself doing this. But then he stopped, and I wondered if that interest was fading.

But the other day I suggested we color together in his bird coloring book. (I had suggested it in the past, but he always said no.) This day, he said yes, and ever since, he’s been coloring in that book on his own every time big brother plays piano. I snapped this photo the other night because I wanted to remember the moment, and I love his expression as he colors. He takes his work very seriously, as you can see.🙂

I love this photo also because it nicely wraps up the boys main interests right now: for the nine-year-old, piano, and for the six-year-old, drawing/coloring and birds.

I know someday they may move onto other things, but I hope not. I hope whatever they choose to do with their lives, they’ll always love classical music, and they’ll always love birds. And maybe the six-year-old will continue drawing too, even just for fun.

Today, the six-year-old brought me his coloring book to show me which birds he had colored, and he told me that for now on, he would color in it while his brother plays piano. Then he hugged the book to his chest and said, “I love this.”  He steals my heart.

(And then I went and ordered two more bird coloring books.)

At the Heart of Homeschooling

I made some minor changes to my blog. First of all, I switched to a new template, though it’s very similar to what I had before. But it opens up the menu and side margin a little, which I like.

I also changed my tagline to “at the heart of homeschooling.” I did this partly because I couldn’t think of anything else, but also it seemed right. We are at the heart of homeschooling. That is, in the thick of it! There is no turning back from it now. We are educating our children so much differently than they would be in school. Is it better? I think so. But I’m not saying school is bad for all kids either.

Our kids are engaged in learning almost all day. When they play, they are deep in a crazy, imaginative make-believe world of their own creation, which I believe is the best kind of learning for kids. They don’t have the stress of constant test taking or having to switch gears so often. They are learning at their own pace. We have conversations about dinosaurs, classical piano concertos and composers, Calvin and Hobbes, birds, Star Wars, and oh the endless questions…which are all encouraged!

I’m learning more and more how odd we are, though. Most people don’t live like us. Most people aren’t excited about learning or exploring the world. They don’t ask questions, and they pretty much do what everyone else is doing. They put their boys in sports and girls in gymnastics. (I’m not saying these activities are bad! They can be very cool, but they are also more popular.) It’s hard to find people who do the uncommon stuff. People don’t talk about the cool fossil they bought at a rock show, sketching at the garden, obsessing about the birds in their yard, taking piano lessons, and general things that geeks love. (But I’m not saying people don’t enjoy these activities or a combination of popular activities with these either! It’s just hard for me to find these people.) That is, unless they are homeschoolers. Homeschoolers understand more about these things.

I don’t consider us privileged. I certainly don’t consider us better than anyone else. And we definitely aren’t swimming in money to make our lives easier. But we’re different. We make different choices. We have different priorities. We don’t fit in with the crowd. And that’s okay.

Then again, a lot of people don’t fit in with the crowd. But they are probably like us…they are sitting at home reading a book, taking a coding course online, working in their workshop, or spending time at the library. They are a quiet crowd. They are busy doing their thing and not caring what other people think.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts as I make some tweaks to the blog and reflect on this lifestyle I’m writing about here.

On Homeschooling and Mommy’s Learning Curve

pretending to read
pretending to read

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 17, 2016.

I’ve been noticing lately how easy it is to sit down with my six-year-old and do his lessons. He might complain that he doesn’t like lessons, but when we sit down together, we usually have fun, and sometimes he wants to write extra math equations or letters. I’m always a bit surprised but delighted by that.

It wasn’t the same with my older son, at least when comes to the sit-down, pencil-on-paper work. Even though he could do it, I don’t remember him having fun. I blame myself.

It may be part personality. It may be because my six-year-old likes to sit and draw, so writing letters and numbers aren’t far off from that. But I think mostly it’s because I didn’t make him do this kind of work until recently, and since this is my second time around, I’m not worried at all that he’ll get it.

Whenever my kids struggle with something, my mantra is: “Don’t worry. You’ll get it.” That is, we’re just going to keep going over this in very, very short lessons, and eventually you’ll catch on. There is no pressure. We don’t have a test we’re cramming for. I don’t care if you get it this year or next, but I know you will learn it. And in the meantime, we’ll also learn about all these other things you’re interested in learning, especially since you’re absorbing it like a sponge.

With my first child, I felt pressure to prove to myself that I could actually teach him. So I started giving him formal lessons right after he turned five. He already knew his ABCs and all the sounds of the letters, so I figured he’d learn to read easily. When he didn’t catch on quickly, I got frustrated, and sometimes I took that out on him. Even when I tried to hide my frustrations, he could sense I wasn’t pleased. I know this affected him in a negative way.

If he went to public school, he would have been expected to start reading in Kindergarten and 1st grade. He would be expected to write sentences. I got caught up in thinking that he should be able to do those things because his counterparts in school were doing them, although really, I wonder how many other children struggle with it too?

It didn’t take me too long to remember why I wanted to homeschool in the first place. I think too many kids are being pushed to do academics before they are developmentally ready for it. Now that I’ve watched how my older son learned how to read so easily – like a lightning bolt struck him one day! – but not until he was ready for it, I am convinced that all kids should be able to learn without the pressure of keeping up with their peers.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that when you realize you’re making a mistake, you can stop, regroup, and try again. When I realized I was pushing my son at too young of an age to read, I stopped using the reading curriculum I was using at the time, and we tried other things. Many months later, we picked up that curriculum again, and it was so much easier.

After that, I knew I wouldn’t push my younger son to read at such an early age unless he proved to me that he was ready to learn. Waiting and relaxing about those academic milestones has made all the difference for both my sons and me. Learning should be fun.

 

How do you balance supporting your child’s interests while also achieving the academic goals you believe they need?

One of the main reasons I began homeschooling was so I could support my children’s interests. We all learn better and retain information when we are engaged with what we’re doing and we want to learn the subject. I have never seen much point in forcing kids to keep learning about things they aren’t interested in (notice I didn’t say to not teach at all) or forcing children to learn subjects they are not developmentally ready for.

Yet as my son turns nine-years-old, I find myself teaching him more and more, and it’s not just because he’s getting older, and I don’t want him to get behind… I admit that’s partly it. (After all, I never planned to unschool him.) But now I see a more important reason for teaching him. It’s from observing my son and supporting his interests these past few years – key components in project-based homeschooling – that I find myself doing more directed learning with him. I know that sounds contradictory. Let me explain.

There are some career paths in which my husband and I feel it is not necessary to go to college, so we are not opposed to a different path, if that turns out to be in our child’s best interest, but we feel college is still going to give young people the best options in the long run. Most importantly, our eldest son’s interests, if he keeps them, will probably lead him to college.

As a conscientious parent who spends considerable time observing, talking with, and supporting my son’s interests, I have found that he is going down a certain path that I can further support by making sure he is solid in his academic subjects, especially math and science.

***

When I was a child, I wrote poetry. I played with my stuffed animals, and I enjoyed reading books. When I was ten, I said I wanted to be a writer, and I never changed my mind. I’ll also add that I always hated math, didn’t like science, and avoided all those classes as much as I could. Sadly, if I had been introduced to them differently, my appreciation for those subjects might have been different, but I digress.

If I had a child like me, I would be homeschooling much the same way, although my child’s interests would probably make us sit on the sofa reading books more than we are now. I would supply my child with lots of paper, pens, and pretty journals. I would take more dictation. I would want to give my child many different experiences, just as I’m doing with my boys now, but those experiences might look a little different. Maybe we’d be going to more theatre and story times and author readings than science classes. It would depend on what peaked my child’s interest the most.

***

In contrast, my son loves working with his hands. Whether it’s Legos or clay, he’s a natural builder, and now he’s playing the piano too. He also absorbs information about nature and animals like a sponge. He’s always seeking more information on these subjects. Though I read literature and poetry to him, he has only a mild interest in these subjects. He is also not the athletic type. He enjoys classes in which he learns something. He likes listening. He also likes teaching others. My mother-in-law says he’s a little professor.

In the course of his short life, my son has said he wants to be a “snake scientist,” “scientist,” and now “engineer,” specifically a “bio-engineer.” He also decided he wanted to take piano lessons, and he’s doing much better than we ever imagined he would. As many of you know, music uses many of the same skills as you would use in math.

We don’t care what our son chooses to do with his life as long as he continues to love learning and becomes a productive citizen who can make a living. Most kids love dinosaurs and robotics and similar things that my son likes, so he’s probably going to add many more possibilities to finish the statement “I want to be _______” before he becomes an adult.

But there’s a good chance he will go into some kind of STEM career, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to fail him by not teaching him the skills that will help him get into the best programs available. Even if he veers off this course and picks music instead, I would feel the same.

(Let me add here that I’m talking about my eldest son. He has always had a vision for his life. If you ask my younger son what he wants to be when he grows up, he’d say, “I have no idea!” which I love because of course it’s hard to know at such a young age. But my eldest son is more like his father and me, who both had clear intentions early in life.)

***

This is why math is a priority this year even though it’s not his favorite subject (although he does like our Life of Fred curriculum). We will also work on the other academic subjects because all of it is important, if he is college bound.

We are also willing to sacrifice some luxuries in order to put him into classes that support his interests. He takes piano lessons, and occasionally he takes pottery classes. This year, we were lucky enough to find some homeschool classes that will introduce him to the different fields of engineering. If he says he wants to become an engineer, he needs to learn more about it so that he can make an informed decision someday.

I will interject here and add that I wonder, if I had been given more guidance into what it takes to become a writer, would I have stuck with that plan? Giving children a chance to explore their interests at a young age can help them learn earlier what their limits are, what they are willing to sacrifice for, and therefore help them make wiser decisions as they choose their vocations. This doesn’t mean they’ll always make the right decisions, but I don’t believe traditional school helps children learn about the real world or their chosen vocation like it should.

***

But this leaves me in a place where I find it sometimes difficult to balance his immediate desires with my desire to instruct. As I make my child study math and become a more competent writer and reader, I am often tempted when the going gets tough to cut our lessons short and let him play because I know that has great value for a child. Other times I find myself pushing too hard, causing tears, and my husband comes down from his upstairs office and takes over, making the lesson funny and light, and I think, “Why couldn’t I have done that?”

Homeschooling is hard, folks.

But it’s also flexible, and I’m re-learning why I chose this lifestyle. Because we can go slow. We don’t have to do it the same way they do it at school. I can try different things. We can take a break. I have my husband to thank for reminding me of that.

With the holiday season upon us, I’m going to go slower and begin emphasizing the things that are most important to me – creativity, nature, books. It’s a good time to take a break from the harder stuff.

I don’t know if I have it right. Striking the right balance is hard, and sometimes there is no balance. I will keep observing my son, and I will try to make sure he learns what he needs to know so that he’ll have plenty of good options when he becomes an adult. But I’m going to try different speeds and sometimes different resources until I get it as close to right as I can. Learning can be challenging, but it shouldn’t be torture.

 

Stay tuned. I’m going to write about how I am trying – though not always well – to make time for my children’s projects in an upcoming post.

Is Homeschooling Hard?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 11, 2015.

While I was running errands in Winder recently, someone asked me if homeschooling is hard. Since I was having a good day, I said, “Not really. Not if you like learning and don’t mind doing some research.” By that I meant that if you don’t mind engaging in the learning yourself, and if you’re willing to search for the right materials and activities, it’s not that hard to teach your kids. But that doesn’t mean that homeschooling isn’t hard sometimes

I’m sure different moms would have different answers to that question, but I don’t believe the challenges I face are any different than what is hard for any parent. Raising kids is difficult no matter how you decide to educate them, and everybody has different opinions on how to do it.

Knowing what is best for any child is always difficult because every child is different. What worked for one of my boys may not work for the other whether I’m teaching him how to read or teaching him how to behave at the dinner table. We have bad days just like everyone else, but they come and go. Children go through phases, present different challenges, and parents get frustrated and impatient all the while searching for the right solution, even if there isn’t one. Fortunately, most struggles are worked out over time.

Just like any parent, the most difficult thing for me is that there aren’t enough hours in the day. On three week days, one or both boys have outside classes and activities that I drive them to, so I do most of our “formal” lessons with them on three other days (including Saturday) from about 9-2pm. I usually prepare and go over my lesson plans the night before.

In the afternoons and evenings, I am “free,” but of course, there are several things I “should” be doing. 1) Cooking a nutritious meal for my family. (This usually turns into “what can I cook in 20 minutes or less?”) 2) Cleaning. (This gets partially done.) 3) Exercising. (Not just for pleasure anymore. During the past few years when I put off exercising, I developed bursitis in my right hip, and exercising helps to relieve the pain.)

4) Writing. (Again, not for pleasure. We need the extra money. I already wrote a column about the difficulties of a family trying to live on one income, and that remains high as one of our challenges.) 5) Take care of all the other things that come up in a family of four. (i.e. enduring endless interruptions in my work.) Clearly, I can’t do all of this in a short afternoon or evening, so a lot doesn’t get done, or I do a sloppy job of doing a little bit of everything.

A lot of people think that homeschoolers aren’t socialized properly, and I’ve learned that those people are quite ignorant of what homeschooling is about. My boys’ social life is not the problem – it’s mine! My boys enjoy long play dates with friends, classes and camps with kids of different ages, and visiting museums where interesting adults talk to them. All the while, I am busy driving them places and missing the time and energy I once had to join groups with common interests such as the photography guild and writing groups.

Don’t get me wrong – I have some wonderful friends who I have met through homeschooling. I enjoy talking to these other moms about homeschooling and motherhood. But I am not just a homeschooling mom, and I miss meeting people who share creative goals.

Equally difficult is meeting moms who don’t homeschool or working moms. They have different schedules, and sometimes they look at me strangely. Either they think I’m crazy or they wonder if I’m judging them for not homeschooling, which couldn’t be further from my mind. Once a couple rolled their eyes when I said I homeschooled. As a homeschooling mom, I am subjected to all kinds of stereotypes, and this can be frustrating, and at times, painful.

But as I said before, most of these are challenges that a lot of parents face, and every parent has endured the “opinions” of other well-meaning parents. So homeschooling usually is not “hard” for me. When I love what I do most of the time, it’s enjoyable, and I accept the sacrifices. I wouldn’t expect everyone to feel this way because just like children, adults are all different too.