Monday, December 15, 2014

Bringing Unit Studies back into our homeschool

Norse myths unit study

I hit a wall a few months back, and was incredibly discouraged about my ability to work and homeschool my kids at the same time - it was all too much and no matter how hard I worked at it, I fell further and further behind schedule and felt like I was drowning. 

Some reflection led me to realize something that should have been obvious: I had gone on sabbatical from work this year and allowed the way we do school here to mushroom until it filled all that additional time and energy I had while not working.  Slow goal-creep had occurred until we were (rather ridiculously) trying to do two foreign languages per child (and they had selected different languages!), American History AND Ancient World History (once again different programs for each child), and on and on .... Basically each time I encountered something I thought we should be learning, I just added it right on top as if we could do it all at once.

No wonder I couldn't keep up with my own expectations. 

We simplified.  A lot.  I kept the core skills stuff in place: math, grammar, spelling, handwriting, reading, writing, typing.   Music lessons continue.  My daughter dropped her "extra" foreign language, while my son decided to continue trying to do Spanish with his sister and German on his own.  And then we just let go of all the literature, science, and history we had been studying. 

It's not that I don't think science and history are important.  I just couldn't maintain that we had to follow these timelines and programs, on top of everything else.  Instead we have turned to Unit Studies again.  And I'm turning the managing of the unit study over to the kids themselves.

Our interpretation of the unit study method:

  1. Ask the kid what they want to study.  Have them pick a topic for the next unit study.
  2. Acquire a rich variety of resources and supplies for them to use as they study this topic.
  3. Give them three weeks to study the topic, with a daily place holder of "Unit Study Time" on their assignments.
  4. On the last week of the month, there are no other assignments except for the essentials(practicing musical instruments for us), and all the time is spent on wrapping up the unit study and preparing for Presentations.
  5. Presentations must always consist of a written report And something else of their choice (a poster, a movie, a hands-on demonstration, etc).
  6. Get a real audience for the Presentation, even if it is only the Other Parent (the one that is less involved in the daily homeschooling) or a Grandparent.
Repeat, with a new randomly chosen topic the next month!

So far, this has been a Huge Improvement for us.  I have handed the responsibility for this part of their learning over to the children, to a fairly great extent.  They are studying things they want to study, so their motivation is their own and I don't have to supply it through my management.  It's more fun, and no doubt they will remember these topics and projects more because they had intrinsic motivation and applied meaning - all that good stuff we want to foster with our pedagogy. 

No doubt my children will have strange and unique educations as they wend their way through the paths of knowledge guided by pure whimsy and wonder.  But that will be just fine, I think.

(What have we studied so far?  Norse Mythology, "other alphabets" - which then settled into "Runes", Cooking, and Steampunk.  In January they have selected Marine Biology and Medieval Architecture.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Walking Challenge, a year in review

Black Friday Hike

Well, it has been the full year for our walking challenge, and here are the results: We FAILED.

The backstory:

Last Thanksgiving we went on a Black Friday hike with my mom and the kids, on a busy and popular trail.  The kids were, in my opinion, ridiculously lame about it and whined and sat down and claimed to be unable to walk on.  I have a crazy inner drill sergeant in my head (who yells, and I know that's not nice, but well ...) and before you could say "she's gonna blow!" there I was giving my children the full brunt of it.  "You think this is bad?!!!! Alright - if you can't handle this then clearly you need to WALK 100 MILES!"  Or something like that.  And so we had the challenge; we would walk 100 miles before the next Thanksgiving.

Here's the post I wrote about it last year, for the fresher perspective on how it went down.

I set up an excel spreadsheet and instituted a policy of one diet breaking treat for every five miles logged (diet breaking in the sense that I let the kids have gluten after five miles - our convoluted dietary story can be another post for another time).

We were amazing at first.  I was getting them out and making them walk local trails about three days a week, even through the cold winter weather.  Then it started to be an issue ... how much time did we really have for this? 

Then we ran out of local hikes that we hadn't done already, and that was a downer ... driving farther afield took even more time and then we couldn't do that on a weekday. 

All of these are nothing but excuses.  Excuses! screams my inner drill sergeant.  But you know what?  I'm OK with that.

We walked 50 miles together this year. Only half of the randomly selected huge scary goal I pulled out of my a$$ when my kids irritated me. We didn't count any miles I did by myself, and we didn't count miles done by bike.  We did some urban walking - especially when on trips to Portland and Boston - but mostly we explored all the walking trails in our town and did some close-by hikes.  And the kids got better at it.  They have more stamina, and they have a reference for long walks.  How long will this be?  Oh, about as long as the loop around the creek.  When will we get a break?  When we see a nice spot for getting out our sandwiches. 

We went out together again this Black Friday.  The kids wanted to drive out to a cool trail we had done earlier in the year, but the website warned it might be closed for the season, so we opted for a close stand-by trail.  The kids weren't thrilled to be doing "this one again!", and my daughter bailed and sat down and we finished the last half-mile or so without her and then collected her again on our way back. 

But, folks, we did a 4 mile walk together without much fuss or bother.  I didn't freak out - I'd come to understand what motivates the kids and when they can't be pushed any further.  The kids whined but not too much.  They know the drill now.  And we talked about it and decided that this year we want to do another challenge - 60 miles, so just 10 more than we did last year. 

That, I think we can do. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Faith of a Naturalist: a Book Post

Darwin Book

Today is the anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin.  As I regularly make it a practice to find good resources for my congregation and put them into calendars that mark dates like these, last month I checked out a bunch of Darwin books from the library.  Many I was already familiar with (One Beetle Too Many and The Humblebee Hunter are my favorite picture books, and I really like the YA novel Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith), but I also received a stack I had not read before and I had to choose just one as I didn't have time for them all.  My choice was a fortuitous one, and I am happy to say that Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks by Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a most fascinating book.

Unlike other books about Darwin that I have read, this book focuses on the inner journey and his growth as a naturalist through the daily writings he kept on his trip aboard the Beagle.  Haupt is herself a student of ornithology, so she admits to focusing on his work with birds mainly because that was the part that interested her the most, but also because she thinks birds are one of the more accessible areas of nature study for the general public.  As I also like to casually watch birds, I found myself agreeing with her.

While there is a great deal of interesting science and history here, in the end it wasn't the science or the history of the book that was the real take-away for me.  Haupt describes what she calls "the faith of a naturalist" and uses examples from Darwin and from her own life and studies as well as a few interviews she conducts that were in some way related to her topic.  She weaves between the historical and the modern, the scientific and the philosophical, and it was a lovely and thought-provoking progression.

A few quotes:

In our own lives as homespun naturalists, the moments we do manage to spend becoming educated by our native places can wend their way into our daily lives, making it more and more difficult to see ourselves as individuals, self-sufficient and cordoned off somehow from our humus-y ground.  We begin to see, rather, our lives as embodied, unseparate, inseparable, rushing forward with the whole of wild life.
Yet it is here, in the spaces between what can be seen and what can be spoken, that the naturalist's faith often lies.  This is why it is called faith.  Intimacy, residence, patience, a sense of dwelling alongside wild nature, earthen insight, gratitude, affection, kindness, a kind of grace, a kind of joy - all of these unutterable things find a place in the naturalist's task.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Large Doses of the Outdoors


This year we found a wonderful program for my son to do, attending the "Environmental Connections Outdoor School" which is a once a week full day of nature study, free play, and exploration outdoors.  They meet in a local park, and they do have a picnic shelter with a roof but otherwise they are really outdoors all day, all year.

Yesterday was a rainy and blustery day, which my daughter and I spent indoors (at church and at home) and still felt the need to go out for steaming hot bowls of pho for lunch.  As we looked out the window at the rain, we said "poor buddy, he's probably all wet and miserable".

When I picked him up, however, the sight that met me was not a bunch of bedraggled children huddled under a picnic shelter.  Instead, the children were playing in a shelter they had built in the woods, playing tug of war with an ivy vine they found that was apparently indestructible, and sliding through mud puddles and pits.  Yes, my son was all wet and dirty, but he was decidedly Not Miserable.  In fact, he said he had the best day ever and couldn't wait to do it again.  He had spent the rainy day carving sticks, building a fort, dissecting owl pellets, hearing local history stories (about the first peoples of this land and the settlers who came later), and generally having a grand time. 

We all belong outside, but children especially should be outdoors.  The connection with nature, the survival and resiliency skills learned, the healthy benefits of fresh air and plenty of physical activity - these are precious and valuable aspects of outdoor education. 

I'm so glad that 20 % of my son's schooling time is now spent in this way!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Christmas just keeps running over Thanksgiving

ornament making at church

It's hard to keep Christmas at bay right now.  We've put away all of our Halloween decorations, and the little box of Thanksgiving decorations is always a disappointment to open compared to the multiple bins I have for Halloween and Christmas.  The kids are already working on Christmas songs for their music lessons, I've ordered my cards, made my plans, and we had an ornament making party for the Giving Tree project at church yesterday.

ornament making

I'm torn on this issue - on the one hand the Christmas Machine is just such a monster that it does need to be contained (and a simple Thanksgiving focused on gratitude for what we have is such a lovely thing it shouldn't get sacrificed to the beast) and then on the other hand the To Do list for December gets overwhelming and getting a jump on it makes it all much more manageable.

So I've done a few Christmas things.  But now,  to focus back on Thanksgiving and just tuck those things away!

Back to the Turkeys!

handprint turkeys

Monday, November 10, 2014

More Books (my new hobby seems to be posing books where I was sitting when I read them)

2014-11-08 14.04.31
Over an anniversary weekend away with my husband, I had some time to read in the Lodge lobby by the great big fireplace.

Last week I hit a milestone: 100 books read for the year.  And yet, that leaves 75 to go if I want to finish my 14 x 14 in 2014 challenge (and only 2 months to do it in - it seems not humanly possible).

Since the 100th book (which was Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie), I have read a few more:

  • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (Poetry category)
  • Slow Family Living: 75 Ways Simple Ways to Slow Down, Connect, and Create More Joy by Bernadette Noll (Parenting category)
  • Dancing with Joy: 99 Poems edited by Roger Housden (Poetry category)
And then, on my weekend away I finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Around the World in Alphabetical Order category).

This "epistolary" novel (meaning it is written in the format of letters and telegrams sent back and forth between the characters) is the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands and how the people survived and recovered, as well as a most delightful love story.  I'm using it for the G letter of my Around the World in Alphabetical Order category.

The rules of the Reading Challenge do allow me to apply a book to more than one category, so if I pick the books with care I could finish the challenge in less than 75 books - but still I need to get cracking with my reading!

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Years (A book post)

2014-10-13 15.08.18

Alas, I am accepting the fact that I am unlikely to finish my 14 x 14 in 2014 challenge on time.  It's a lot of books, folks!

But here's another one down: The Years by Virginia Woolf.  I love the way Woolf writes, and her descriptive turn of phrase kept me going through this sprawling and disjointed look at one large extended family through forty years.  Time passes without any explanation of exactly what happened in the mean time, leaving the reader piecing it together through passing remarks and a few recollections. 

Along the way, the characters spend plenty of time musing and philosophizing about the meaning of life and just what they want out of it, and this adds to the plodding sense of tragedy as the years roll by and youthful possibility is replaced by elderly regrets and "what-if's". 

It's not all tragedy or meaninglessness, however, as there are moments described where characters find themselves sublimely happy.  Those moments are the times when the characters are alone and truly living in the moment, enjoying the world as it is now rather than looking to the future or to the past.