Posted in extraschooling

Files from a Bookworm

What do you like to read? For me, 2021 was The Year of the Book. I have always loved reading, but the busyness of life and young adulthood got the best of me for far too long. Around the time I became pregnant with my son, I finally had gotten back into reaching for a good book now and then – only to have motherhood and the dissolution of marriage again distract me. 2020 gave me a wonderful opportunity to plunge back in… only to discover, with my first read of lockdown, that there was something screwy going on with my eyes. My sister – who has been legally blind since age 20 – finally convinced me that I should try audiobooks. It took some doing; I’m one of those who often stops to backtrack in a book for better understanding or to repeat an especially good passage, as well as an old-fashioned bibliophile who simply loves the heft and smell of a real live book. I quickly gained appreciation for the art of listening – not, I admit, my strongest skill – and, more slowly, I realized that I loved hearing the narrator flesh out the nuances of their story (also, as a single parent in the woods who is not overly social even in non-pandemic times, it nicely filled the need for hearing another adult voice on occasion).

I went on a bit of a rampage, thanks to access to resources like Libby and Hoopla through our local library. I had been coming out of a memoir phase and entering the nature kick I am still happily in the midst of. I decided to share some of my favorites here and would love recommendations to add to my future list – especially if they are available on audio! I do occasionally still dabble in print books; in my bee zeal this spring I found Thor Hanson’s Buzz featured in a pollinator display at our library for the #PlantWildflowers initiative and have since been slowly savoring my way through his body of work. However, free audiobooks are my staple, so if you know of a winner, please leave a comment!

Here are the books that earned at least 4 stars from me across the last year and a half. This is in mostly chronological order of my reading, with bold plus a * ranking to show my absolute favorites, along with some notes:

Authors –

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer *** (!!! She is amazing, and I absolutely recommend listening to her narrate her books, as there is this delightful, warm smile tucked into her words.)
  • Helen Macdonald * (When she’s good, she’s terrific; I just found her a little inconsistent from essay to essay.)
  • Bernd Heinrich (He can be a bit dry at times, but he knows his stuff!)
  • Gerald Durrell ** (I’ve listened to 4 of his books so far, and I have thoroughly enjoyed them all.)
  • Timothy Egan (If you are interested in the era around 100ish years ago in America, this is your guy. He is incredibly knowledgeable in that time period. My favorite book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, I very nearly didn’t finish, as it started soooooo slowly, since he is almost too well-researched at times.)
  • Peter Wohlleben
  • Thor Hanson ***
  • Sue Hubbell *

Individual Titles –

  • Reason for Hope (Jane Goodall)
  • There Is No Me Without You (Melissa Faye Greene; I couldn’t get into her others, but found this gave me the feeling of sitting down to chat with a friend over a cup of coffee.)
  • The Inexplicable Universe (Neil DeGrasse Tyson; I love him, but actually don’t care for space as a topic, so don’t read that much of what he writes.)
  • The Vanishing American Adult (Ben Sasse; I found myself agreeing with a lot of his points while not being entirely sure how much I liked him, and I couldn’t get into his next book I tried.)
  • The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe; I don’t recall much now, except that there were parts that reminded me of my father and his death, so the rating might have been more sentimental.)
  • The Prophet *** (Kahlil Gibran; my dad gave me this book when I was a teenager. I have treasured his inscription, as well as many sections of the book, for over two decades now, yet this was the first time I actually sat down and read it cover-to-cover.) 
  • Ladysitting (Lorene Cary; less a great book than I enjoyed her and the narration.)
  • Five Days (Wes Moore; it started so strong, but then I felt it petered out a bit, and I was disappointed.)
  • A Primate’s Memoir * (Robert Sapolsky; I still want to read more of his, but for some reason haven’t.)
  • Homegrown * (Ben Hewitt; the only education book I’ve read, and I enjoyed it so much from the start that I paused reading the library copy in order to buy my own to make notes in.)
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (Caitlin Doughty)
  • Our Wild Calling (Richard Louv)
  • Humble Pi (Matt Parker)
  • The Soul of an Octopus (Sy Montgomery; I read several of hers… This one was outstanding, while I could barely get through the others.)
  • The Tao of Pooh * (Benjamin Hoff; my son – then 6 – loved this as well and even listened to it on his own several times.)
  • The Universe Within (Neil Shubin; I’m not sure what it says about this book, that, despite having given it a 4-star rating, it is the only one that I remember nothing about besides realizing the author’s name sounds familiar…)
  • Saving Jemima (Julie Zickefoose)
  • American Wolf *** (Nate Blakeslee; this book might have been my absolute top read, as it led my through every. Single. Emotion. Amazing must-read.)
  • The Curve of Time (M. Wylie Blanchet; this book was given to my father way back when I was a kid and we lived in the general area. I decided to track it down and read it – the views of the time can make a body cringe here and there, but the adventures of the family are hard to not want to be a part of.)
  • Becoming Wild (Carl Safina; yes, the quote on the home page came from this book.)
  • Why Fish Don’t Exist (Lulu Miller; I found her writing on others fantastic and riveting, but her personal bits she intersplices the book with I could have completely done without. I think she should’ve just written two books, as to me they simply didn’t mesh at all. I felt perhaps she really wanted to do a full memoir, yet wasn’t feeling quite ready or bold enough to commit to it completely.)
  • We Are All Stardust (Stefan Klein)
  • Three Cups of Deceit (Jon Krakauer)
  • What a Fish Knows (Johnathan Balcombe)
  • A Life On Our Planet *** (David Attenborough; joins Braiding Sweetgrass and American Wolf in my top 3 reads of 2021. The man is just phenomenal at everything he does.)
  • Tribe ** (Sebastian Junger; simply a powerful book.)
  • Underland * (Robert MacFarlane; a bit claustrophobic at times, but such an interesting subject wonderfully rendered.)
  • The Food Explorer (Daniel Stone)
  • Finding the Mother Tree (Suzanne Simard; just the Canadian accent alone had me, but she is the preeminent tree scientist working in this new area of study to boot.)
  • Quackery (Lydia Kang)
  • The Professor and the Madman (Simon Winchester)
  • Dancing With Bees (Brigit Strawbridge Howard)
  • Coyote America (Dan Flores; this wasn’t quite what I expected, and it was in fact a depressing, almost painful book, yet that is why I gave it 4 stars in the end – it’s important to look at how starkly ugly humanity can be if we’re ever going to change.)
  • The Secret Lives of Bats (Merlin Tuttle)
  • Cry of the Kalahari * (Mark & Delia Owens; I am not a fiction person these days, so I’ll leave her crawdad book to everyone else – but, yes, that Delia Owens… Though I actually preferred Mark’s parts.)
  • The Bears of Brooks Falls (Michael Fitz)
  • Empty Mansions (Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr)
  • Breasts (Florence Williams; I also read her book The Nature Fix, which is a solid intro for those realizing the benefits of the outdoors – but, if you’re already pretty into all that, this will be a bit fluffy with no new information.)
  • The Library Book (Susan Orlean)

Okay – your turn: what’s everyone reading? (I’m off to grab Thor Hanson’s book Feathers and relax for a bit before dinner – have a great weekend!)

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

This Eclectic Life

Which way do you like to homeschool?

I’m still working on fully defining this for myself – and it could prove ever-changing, since homeschool allows for, and even breeds, such evolution. We certainly fall under eclectic, meaning I pull from many different resources and methods to sculpt something that fits us. I would say my style is probably a blend of three main types: traditional, unschooling, and interest-led.

As a homeschool/unschool graduate myself, it might strike some as odd that I have an element of the traditional in me, but I do. I am the offspring of teachers, so perhaps it is in my blood – or an unconscious nod to how permeated our culture is with a certain concept of what “school” looks like… Or maybe it simply speaks to my personality. Whatever it is, I both like and feel the need (which I don’t always like) for some structure, some bookwork, and a little grind-it-out mentality.

However… I also struggle with how stifling open-and-shut projects and ideas can be. I prefer to learn and teach in an organic, exploratory fashion. If you ever pick up an Extraschooling book, you will find the essence of what I enjoy. Something will come along and catch my interest, which will remind me of something else, which will inspire me to share some knowledge, and then we’ll be off down some rabbit hole on an adventure. Those books show the paper version of so many explorations we’ve undertaken. In fact, I’ve often said my son would make a perfect unschooler. He has such a boundless curiosity and the enthusiasm to see it through.

But… I can only venture just so far into the unschooling world myself. While I think it can be an amazing way to learn that has the potential to build skill sets hard to achieve many other ways, it has its downfalls as well. As much as anything, I have struggled with some of the community. For a philosphy that begs to have a very relaxed mindset, I have often found it anything but, and I struggle when it gets taken to the extremes, as I feel boundaries, rules, expectations, and so forth can be helpful for all of us.

I probably find it the most comfortable to settle into the notion of an interest-led approach. This is a bit separate from the term child-led, however. Education in this house is a joint venture; I certainly learn as much as he does, and we dive into our schooling side by side. I love helping him explore his passions, but I think it’s important to share my own, too, as well as those of others, so that he has a treasure trove of ideas to enhance his current collection. This also goes along with the concept that we don’t know what we don’t know; my dad always talked about the benefits of exposure to a wide array of topics, and I now subscribe to that wholeheartedly myself.

…Which can then lead back to some traditional studies. And so the circle keeps on going round.

A hard part about all this is finding the right community, as I don’t quite seem to fit in most that I’ve tried. I like to walk the middle of the road much of the time and keep my options open. I also struggle with social media – when we aren’t face-to-face, and when we are typing rather than speaking, much can get lost – and then take a turn for the worse. With all this in mind, I’ve decided to take the plunge and create a community of my own. Want to come along for the adventure?

Let’s build an open, friendly, safe space to share in each other’s journey. The Extraschooling Community Support group on Facebook has just launched and is open to everyone who joins in their child’s education – and especially to all the folks who are almost-not-quite-ish, un-label-able sorts. Let’s celebrate this eclectic life together!

Posted in environmental issues, Home

Almost Home

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We are doing a 6-week wellness challenge at the moment, hosted and created by our closest friends. Each day we have a specific task to accomplish along with movement and nutrition goals. Today’s activity was “Take a few minutes to tidy up your space.”

We have recently begun to shed some old possessions and reclaim long-lost corners of the house, so we are caught somewhere between small successes and burnout. This was a quick way to get back in the flow: we each picked a target area and set our timers for 10 minutes. When the timers went off, we were still in a groove… So it became more like an hour, and we got twice as much done as we’d planned on, and it both looked good and offered a happy sense of accomplishment for minimal investment.

I found the dresser! Three cheers for little wins.

It also has had me reflecting across the day.

I bought this place – my starter home I forgot to leave – 13 years ago this past February. I was in my mid-20s and single, having just lost my father while simultaneously gained my dream job at an animal rescue close by. My dad had always said my middle name was “Go,” so I had very appropriate panic attacks as I closed on this place; I both wanted roots and wanted to run.

We had moved so much as kids – I recall saying that if I counted anywhere (including motels) we had spent at least a month, I had averaged a house a year for my first 18, and my early adult years were equally mobile. While I loved a good change of scenery, I’d always wanted to own something just to be able to put my stamp on it – to decorate it and mold it the way I liked. My first year on my little acre I went to work with a wild abandon. I hired contractors and repaired and remodeled alongside them, painted and primped, arranged and planted. I was proud of the work, and it felt good to be surrounded by reflections of myself for a change.

Some of the “neighborhood.” I have always been a country girl at heart and wanted to live on this road the first time I ever drove down it.

And then…

Life happened. Jobs changed, and changed again. Money grew tighter. Relationships formed and required time. Marriage, a baby, a separation, single-parenthood, stress. They all began to conspire with the dust, the disrepair, and the clutter. Then, to boot, my son came out a born naturalist and environmentalist. Suddenly my house became a zoo, and my horticultural dreams for the yard morphed into watching a sort of wild nature park take over.

There has never been an animal he hasn’t had the time or enthusiasm to pause and meet.

The current state of affairs reads something like this:

The house is a mess. I would like for it not to be, at least on the rare occasions there is company, but maybe at some other times, too. However, we would rather be outside, and indeed are generally outside, and thus lots of outside gets inside, and it just seems quite pointless, especially when you add in the dogs. If we were in more, perhaps we would care more. But… we’re not.

But, really – why be in when you can be out?

The yard is a jungle. I wish I had a green thumb, but I don’t. Weeds are a welcome part of our gardens, as at least we can count on them to bloom and feed the pollinators. I do actually suspect we have produced quite a few veggies this year, but some combination of local wildlife has eaten them all so far. We use no chemicals in our yard and have only a reel mower, shovels, and hedge clippers to tend the cacophony of greenery with, so it has been known to overrun us, at which point there is little to do but wait for winter to chip in and drive it back a bit.

One of the resident brown snakes checks out the balloon flower I planted and the wood sorrel that planted itself.

We have become seasonal beings. The only time I had AC here was during the brief stint I was married. When the husband was done, so was the window unit. Each year we have become less interested in running the heat as well. Winter often finds the house in the low 50s and us outside, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun in the yard. The windows and doors stay open most of the year, as we value fresh air and the sounds of coyotes and rainstorms over climate control.

Where you can find me every morning possible, while the little one roams the woods beyond (with the cat, on this particular day).

Open doors and life in the woods lead to a house that is less a residence of people than it is a critter hotel. The spiders hanging from every nook and cranny pay their rent by acting as our “pest control.” As noted in the Little Green Hill series, we spent one winter re-homing either 52 mice or two of them 26 times. I have listened to opossums getting lucky under the floorboards at 2 am. There was a skink lost in the kitchen much of last summer. A milk snake got stuck in our magnetic screen door two years ago. I have had to catch a chipmunk in the dining room, a wood frog in my bedroom, and a wren in the bathroom. For Christmas a few years ago I gave my son a bug catcher to keep up with the constant demands of his insect relocation program.

And so on.

Around here, if you see a shadow on the floor at night, it is always best to turn on the light rather than thinking it’s just a leaf and going on your way (yes, that happens).

I have changed so much in 13 years. My goals and perspectives are so different, and while I am generally in favor of the shifts taking place, I still struggle to reconcile it with societal norms. I get embarrassed by the disaster zone when people with nice, regular houses pop by. I envy my neighbor’s gorgeous landscaping. I do sometimes begin to think there may be more bugs in than out, and they all want a bite out of me while I try to sleep.

But.

He and Rusty the dove attend to the yardwork. Or not.

Last night I heard a rustling out my open window and, after squishing a flashlight and my face up to the screen, was rewarded by seeing one of the possums clamber out of the lilac. Two months ago I walked into the kitchen and found a wolf spider that would’ve spanned most of my hand if I’d held it, and, for the first time ever, I calmly photographed it, then caught and released it – and when I found another a few days later missing legs, I felt quite sorry for the rough night it must have had. The porch I had built my first summer has now housed over a decade’s worth of carpenter bee generations, and I can’t help but imagine how grand their structures must be. I find I like winter more and more the less I run and hide from it. (I might never like summer, but I still have to admit that little beats a night bursting with the songs of cicadas.) The house feels less like a possession to be protected than like a shared habitat. I look forward each year to adding to my knowledge of the rhythms of this acre and better understanding my natural neighbors.

Just as long as it doesn’t want my coffee, I suppose…

In short, this house is starting to feel more like a home.

And it was nice to show it a little love this afternoon.

It’s our little piece of wild. And boy is it wild!

P.S. For anyone in a similar state – we read a picture book within the last year by Christina Soontornvat called The Ramble Shamble Children that we instantly fell in love with, as the kids try to “fancy up” their home until they realize how little all that matters. We, like Jory, would much rather find a good mud puddle to play in.


Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Curious Minds

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How important is curiosity to you?

I have said before that, for me, it might be at the top of the list of the 4 C’s. It is such a vital element of how we learn around here, with a question or hypothesis launching an exploration into new terrain. I have also named it as the first word I think of to describe my son; his mind is always rolling over the possibilities in anything he comes across.

But is this the case for everybody? It doesn’t quite seem so. Much has been said, in one forum or another, about whether public school crushes innate curiosity in children. I think it can, but it doesn’t have to. There are various factors that can lead to its diminishment, but none are a definite death knoll. I’ve seen some parents say their children simply aren’t curious by nature, and perhaps that is possible. I have a feeling though that curiosity is a pretty innate drive in us, as it is one of the forces that led to all the great discoveries and inventions that humankind is known for, and spurred us to ask some of the fundamental questions of life, such as. “Is that edible?” and “What’s that noise in the bushes over there?” Probably everyone has wondered at least once, “Where do we come from?” or something similar, or I’m not sure that either astronomy or religion would exist.

So, yes, I think we all have at least a degree of curiosity within us. This (of course!) begs the questions, How important is it in your household? and What do you do to cultivate it?

Some points to ponder:

  • Do you have active interests or question things in your day-to-day?
  • Do your kids see this, or is it something you pursue in your downtime?
  • Do you encourage discussion and debate over a wide range of topics, or are some off-limits or closed subjects?
  • Is disagreement okay?
  • Do you help your kids find answers to their questions, applaud their interest, and/or counter with a follow-up question of your own?
  • Are there any “dumb questions”?
  • Are you comfortable working with an unknown concept?
  • For abstract questions, do you provide concrete answers or an array of possibilities and why some people believe in various ones?

When it comes to education, I am definitely someone who prefers to learn organically. I start with a rough idea and see where it takes me. I might get inspired and dive deep or I can fizzle out and move on to the next great thing, but one thing that I just don’t do well is plan. Recipes, instructions, or any other sort of step-by-step how-to’s are just not in my wheelhouse. If I do an experiment, I’m likely to not look ahead to see what’s supposed to happen. If I do, I then become goal-oriented, and it becomes about the destination rather than the journey. Not only is much of the fun lost (for both of us), but the extra chances to learn are as well.

Lessons, projects, and experiments in books are often written with a formula such as: Do steps 1 through 5 and X will happen because of blah, blah, and blah, as discovered by so-and-so.

Ummm… did you have the chance to wonder about, oh, anything?

What if it said this instead: Try doing X, Y, or Z. What do you think might happen? What did happen? How do those two compare? Does this make you think of anything else? Who first decided to try this out? Why? Did this lead to any other discoveries?

I tend to avoid close-ended projects in favor of an interest-led style because, while the former is not guaranteed to crush curiosity, the latter is giving it room to grow. There are times for cut-and-dry lesson plans that get a point across, can be wrapped up quickly, and get you to the next thing or offer a sense of accomplishment when complete. Time, confidence in being able to “teach” what you may not know yourself (really better called something like guided exploration rather than teaching), resources, and other factors can dictate the way learning is approached. However, I think it’s crucial to find time at least occasionally to explore something in an open-ended way – and the more this is done, the easier it becomes and the more opportunities for it are discovered.

Cultivating curiosity is also a two-way street. My son is naturally curious, but there’s some nurturing in there, too. We feed off each other and lob ideas back and forth. Unknowns are not a thing around here; if a question is hanging out there unanswered, the refrain of, “Let’s look it up!” is soon to be heard.

Here’s some ways to begin integrating it into your typical day-to-day routine:

  • Mealtimes or car rides are perfect moments to have a “What if…?” type of conversation or discussion of a news item. Switch out who brings the topic, and try to find ones that have multiple viewpoints or possibilities. What will they find at the “edge of the universe”?  Why did someone first decide to write something down? What is the right amount of screen time?
  • Have everyone pick an item from around the house and then make guesses as to where, when, and why it originated.
  • Read a random chapter or passage from a book at bedtime and try to concoct a story around it. How did the characters get where they are? Where should they head off to next? What inspired the author to write the book?
  • Grab a food from the kitchen while making dinner and examine it. If it is a fresh item such as produce, consider why it might have the color, shape, texture, etc, that it does. Where is it from? Who eats it? What does the rest of the plant look like? How has it been cultivated? Is it native or introduced? If it is a prepared food, where was it first created and how has it been modified? What sort of nutritional content does it have?
  • When there is something someone in the family either loves or can’t stand, take it a step further. What makes for the strong reaction? Are there related things that might bring out a very different response? Why is this? And why do certain subjects make us feel deeply in the first place? What topics universally elicit such emotion? What does this say about us?
  • Send everyone off to find 3 or so questions. Any questions. We did this recently and my son brought back ones like, Who invented hammocks? Why does a branch decide to form where it does? and How is salt made? They may take 2 minutes to answer or inspire 2 weeks of exploration… Run with it!

On the flip side, if curiosity is not high on your list, then that will (of course!) lead me to ask – So, what is? …Let me know in the comments.

Happy exploring!

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

The Big Worries

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There are a handful of questions and concerns that crop up regularly in any homeschool forum, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to gather some advice in one place. For additional thoughts, read the recent post Homeschool Reality Check, look over the Homeschool Supply Checklist, or consider a guided planner. I hope all this is will be helpful!

How do I start? First and foremost: know your laws – and your resources. Some regions require registering as a homeschool by a certain age; some places have no requirements at all. For some, you must administer yearly tests; others need to see a portfolio of work. Some areas offer funding for homeschoolers; in others, you’re on your own. Look to your state department of education or similar government institution for the specifics for where you live. After that, I always advise to start small and add to your repertoire bit by bit as you start to find how your family learns best.

Am I doing enough? ‘Enough’ is a dangerous rabbit hole of a term. I would replace this question with, “What is my goal here?” The goal, as I tend to get a bit preachy about, is to create lifelong learners. How? By helping them stay curious and enjoy learning and by equipping them with the ability to learn – to know how to question, research, sift information, and so forth. I have to admit, I did not enjoy my foray into college; I always grumbled that I wished it could be completed in the same manner as taking the GED to pass high school. I wanted some cumulative exam to show I knew how to take a test and write a paper, as the rest felt like mind-numbing tediousness just to prove the same thing in the end. The earlier grades are much the same: we need a working grasp of math and other concepts, but the mountain of stuff waded through in school is, by and large, trivia meant to fill the days and check the boxes.

What about socialization? Socialization in homeschool will look very similar to socialization in normal life: you go to functions, run errands, go see friends, visit family, and talk to random folks waiting in line with you. Peer socialization may require being a little more intentional as so many kids are tied up in school most of the day, but hitting the park around 3:30 can help with that. Likewise, many activities – 4H, Scouts, library events, and so forth – are built around public school schedules, so there’s plenty of time to find other kids. If you want to find other homeschoolers, there are endless groups online these days, so chances are getting continuously better that you can make connections.

What does your day look like?/What curriculum is best? No two homeschool families are the same and comparing will likely not be all that helpful – plus, asking this will find you quickly drowning in responses with 100+ variations, which can be wildly overwhelming. There is no best, just best for you. There is no requirement for what a day or week should look like, and no schedule has any particular merit over another. Chances are next year (or sooner) will find you picking up a new book or adopting a new routine – or tossing both books and routines out the window. Assume that trial and error are your best bet and start experimenting!

I’m not sure I can teach. That’s fine – you don’t have to. And kids can have a tremendous ability to teach themselves, depending on age and subject. What you need to be able to do is to be their facilitator – the person who can help them find resources and reach their goals. This may be through teaching, discovering mentors, researching programs, or just encouraging them. At the end of the day, most of us can probably fumble through early math and whatnot; after that, it’s more important to keep showing them how to find their own answers, as I mentioned earlier, than for you to be able to instruct them. Think of it like cooking: if you can provide a kitchen and supplies, and then show basic safety and techniques, there comes a point where it’s up to them to find a recipe to follow – or to make up their own.

My child doesn’t want to do anything I try. Give yourself a little grace here. Being together – especially for those used to a different set-up – can be trying at times. We butt heads here, too. Honestly, it’s usually my fault. I can get a little carried away or determined I can make something happen just because I want it to. I like to challenge us with concepts and to offer exposure to advanced ideas and can forget when to bring it down a notch. Or sometimes it’s him doing that child-testing-their-parent thing. It happens. We talk about our successes and failures, and it’s another learning experience in the end, and tomorrow is another day. It takes time to figure out exactly what everyone’s role is, plus those roles change as we age. Time is on your side, though. If it’s not working today, toss it aside. Try it again tomorrow, next week, or next month, if you want.

Why did you decide to homeschool? Because I was homeschooled, and I know the benefits as well as the reality behind the myths. Because I have been teaching him – or helping him learn, at any rate – since the beginning. Because I want his days free for more: more fun, more adventure, more interests, more time to just be. Because I get to learn too, and I get even more out of it now than I did way back when. Because I love watching him light up when he figures something out or discovers something new. Because life is short, and I want to be present for as many moments as I can. Because I think the education system needs an overhaul. Because there is a lot more going on in schools beyond learning that concerns me these days. And… honestly, many more reasons, including simply because I enjoy it.

I hope this answers some questions and assuages any concerns – if you have more, feel free to reach out and ask. If you want to know more about what I consider important, read previous posts such as The Four C’s, which are the main tenants that guide what I choose to focus on. It may take time to find a rhythm, but it is definitely doable and absolutely worth it. Best wishes in your own adventure!

Posted in environmental issues, extraschooling

The Wild Things

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We went to the woods today.

It was one of those almost shockingly beautiful days, so incredibly fall – a crisp, rich blue sky, blazing fireworks of leaves exploding in every shade from lemon-lime to ruby. The sun was warm enough and the air cool enough to balance the scale perfectly, and a light breeze tickled its way through the forest.

We are amazingly fortunate in that we have neighbors who not only allow but encourage us to roam their property, and we live beside a state park, so we get to slip in and out of its boundary, in an area not crushed by crowds. We spend hours out there, inspecting the edges of mud puddles for tracks, visiting old tree friends, peeking into crevices for bugs, and testing the depths of burrows. It is a magical fairyland, a wilderness playground, a place I feel out-of-my-mind lucky to be able to offer my son. One learns lessons in nature not found anywhere else and cultivates facets of spirit not attainable elsewhere. This place is where we both come into our own, reconnecting with our roots as we explore those of the trees.

I was lost in all this today, reveling in it, taking photos every few steps as I fell in love with yet another maple in a bright pink-orange display. And then – and then I noticed our dog, who was noticing something of his own. Our last two trips we have been fairly sure we’ve happened upon a bear, and this being, as I mentioned a moment ago, not regular stomping grounds for others, I am always on alert. We have a couple of dogs, but my old girl tore her ACL on this hike a couple years ago, so I am having to learn to trust in my son’s dog. He will be 4 in February, so he is beginning to lose his puppy goofiness, and I am increasingly impressed with him on our ventures. Now I keyed in on him as he began to prick his ears, pause, veer off, and train his attention over the edge. We were on a shortcut trail that drops down into a 6-way intersection where the park service road comes through, and we had limited visibility right before the brief descent. My son was about to rocket down to the clearing, but I warned him back and we went cautiously together. As we popped out of the rhododendron I saw and heard a flock of birds – big birds. “Turkeys!” I exclaimed, which I had been somewhat suspecting by the dog’s actions.

“No, Momma,” he said. “Vultures.”

It was a dead coyote. Over the edge, maybe twenty feet below us. A place where locals, maybe even our own beloved neighbors and their family, have dumped trash over the bank for years, now laced with broken bottles and rusting cans. Here, as if it, too, were garbage, rather than a unique, special, and necessary part of this glorious wilderness. This was no natural death; it had been tossed here, discarded.

My heart felt heavier with every slow step down to the body. This beautiful, perfect day in the woods had a sudden stain upon it. I stood beside the small form, remembering earlier in the week when my son had called me outside – “Come out if you want to hear the coyotes singing!” It had quit before I got there, but I had heard it several more times later – not the usual lively chatter, but a haunting, brief, solo call. I felt sick realizing we had probably been listening to this creature’s mate wondering why it had not returned, or telling what they had seen happen.

And why? I mean, why? Beyond this lone coyote – the wolves, the bear, the mountain lions. Why have we humans historically felt it our duty to eradicate every predator we run across?

I have hit the age of appreciating my mortality without fearing it. Across our seasons in these woods, I have come to love it more than all the other hiking areas around – and we live in a land of plenty here – because of the very fact it still feels wild, like while I may be at the top of the food chain, I am not all-powerful. There are things out here that warrant respect. I have been so thankful of the times we have been alert to bear, so I can help my son understand how to share space. How to be knowledgeable in one’s actions so as to not need to fear. How to be so that others can, too.

We stood over the coyote for a while. I felt like something needed to be said, some sort of apology offered up to our surroundings. The air was still with sadness. The smell finally drove my son back to the trail, and I followed after a long, last look, gathering the now-tethered dog and resuming our travels under a black cloud I couldn’t seem to shake. I told my son I was sorry; this was his first coyote, and this was no way to see one. Growing up on a farm I had seen plenty. It was a very different time: their cries at night spooked me, and we lost the occasional barn cat to them. The farmer would try to shoot them, and back then, I would tell him when I saw one, watch him take aim. Thankfully, he was a lousy shot. You live and you learn, I told my son. I am wiser now. I am also thankful I have known them; that I know their calls, know their habits, have seen them sit like regal statues on knolls, or run the fields with the farm dogs, as if playing.

We walked on, to Crinkleroot Corner, as we call our favorite spot. A tree there bears the face of a wizened old man that we like to think of as Jim Arnosky’s loveable woodland character. My son headed to play in the creek while I decided to walk to the end of the trail, less than ten minutes on. I ambled down the hill as leaves swirled thickly around me and the dog trotted on ahead. At the bottom, the path turns back up and away from the water, and fallen trees create an obstacle course. The dog went through them slowly, sniffing keenly at the vertical branches and eyeing the trail. I continued a bit farther before deciding from his behavior that I was trailing something that had probably come down for a drink. I called him softly, and we went back the way we had come, surprising my son with our quick return.

My decision wasn’t made out of fear; I just don’t need it all. We had our spot to explore for the afternoon, and the animal was welcome to the rest. I want to be a good neighbor. I want to leave a positive mark by not leaving one at all, or the least possible, anyway. Around our area of this state park, the divide between the people and the land is glaring. There are properties that look like rotting junkyards. The litter is obscene. This poor, dead animal that – what? Maybe nabbed a chicken or two? Or simply was, like the coyotes of my childhood? Compared with the incredible beauty we were busy soaking up – it is a stark contrast. If you want to see what I mean, look at the photo for this post; I took it today. With the bottom cropped off, it is quite idyllic, isn’t it?

I’m not sure how to wrap this post up. There is no neat bow to tie on it, I was simply feeling the need to get words out. It hurts to see my favorite places – not just this one in particular, but nature as a whole – scarred by human actions, and I am tired of always having to explain to my son what we need to do better. I want him to see people feeling the way he does and joining in protecting and caring for our planet and its inhabitants with him. I want him to see wild things doing wild stuff, not laying in crumpled heaps after a senseless death. Call me crazy for getting so upset over a dead coyote, but I don’t know. It just made me so darn sad.

Posted in education, extraschooling

Homeschool Reality Check

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What does it mean to be homeschooled?

There was a time when those of us who were homeschoolers were just that… Homeschoolers. It wasn’t that long ago either. Now, though – phew! You might be unschooling, Funschooling, gameschooling, wildschooling, roadschooling, or virtual schooling. You might be Classical, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Eclectic, or Waldorf-Inspired. You might do unit studies, block scheduling, interest-led, or boxed curriculum. And don’t forget to deschool if you were originally in public school!

It makes my head spin, and I’m a veteran at this stuff. I’m rather amazed newcomers ever manage to wade through the overwhelming pile of terminology and get to what’s really important: the learning.

It doesn’t matter how you go about it. Seriously. What matters? That it works for your family. How do you get there? What does that mean? Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth.

Take your time. There is no rush. There is no ticking clock with a bell that is going to ring periodically. You do not have to start at 8 am on a late-August morning. You do not have to be mindful of days of the week, holidays, or any other time constraint the school around the corner does, nor do you have hundreds of kids to attend to. You have the luxury of time.

Start slow. Don’t try to figure it all out at once. You may have a hunch what your schooling style will be, but let it evolve. Depending on your choice, it can range from dirt cheap to really expensive, so test the waters. I always recommend starting off with an inexpensive book or two to cover math and English basics, then spending a lot of time playing games, reading, exploring interests, and other low-key activities. If you run across a resource that seems to fit, ask around (hint: when looking for advice, ask for the why in any opinion; that will give you a better understanding of if it will work in your situation) or test it out. There may be free samples, giveaways, or used options out there to begin with. Build over time in this way, until you feel you have a solid collection or know you want to invest in something specific.

Find your balance. Ignore labels and boxes. You may be a structured homeschooler using a grade-oriented boxed curriculum 4 days a week, but there’s nothing stopping you from unschooling the rest of the time. Or vice versa – let them have at all week long, but maybe Saturdays are workbook bonanzas. It’s okay. We all fall at different points along the schedule spectrum. Some of us (ahem) are a little disorganized but require at least a pretense of structure. Others have their ducks in a straighter row but like to let their hair down now and then. I’m betting all methods have their pluses and their minuses… The only thing you need to adhere to are the laws for where you live. The rest? Bahhhh. If I had to label our style, I believe I’d invent a new term altogether: Medley-schooling.

Grow your village. Be it family, friends, people in your community, fellow homeschoolers, or online groups, expand your circle. Homeschooling is amazing, but it can also be a lot. Not everyone relishes every aspect of it, and we all need some support at times, not to mention inspiration, commiseration, advice, sounding boards, and regular infusions of humor. Lots and lots of humor!

Know your goals. This is two-fold. You will undoubtedly have your own goals for homeschooling, but there are a couple big, universal goals to any education out there, and if your version is achieving them, you’re set. The overarching goal is to nurture a lifelong learner. This is done by first fostering or maintaining a love of learning and encouraging curiosity and exploration. Then it is fortified with the ability to learn, a working knowledge of how to ask the right questions, find the right resources, and absorb the right information to propel oneself forward in life. If you have those in your back pocket, you can set your course in any direction you wish and find your way.

Embrace change. What works today may not tomorrow. We change, we grow – it’s natural. Luckily, homeschooling is malleable and can adapt to your needs. Adjust anything at any time, put stuff on hold for a while, or take a time-out from routine to go off on a lark. Education should be an adventure, so see where it takes you.

Remember the words way up at the top of this page: Explore, learn, laugh, grow, repeat. They’re more important to keep track of than all those terms I listed at the beginning. Homeschooling sure seems a lot more complicated than when I was a kid, but it really isn’t. The upside of the astounding variety of choices is that there are a lot of really great resources out there now, and homeschooling is far more popular and mainstream. If you need additional help sorting it all out, there are three versions now of the Extraschooling Guided Planner & Journal: same information to assist you in navigating your way, different sizes because… You know. That schedule thing. Different strokes for different folks, as my dad would say.

See them on Amazon:

90-Day Jumpstart

180-Day

Year-Round

Posted in environmental issues, extraschooling, Home

To Wasp or Not to Wasp

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I have these neighbors… Maybe you know the type? They are the kind that brought about the phrase “good fences make good neighbors.” They like their space and don’t care for anyone overstepping their boundary marker. They are a bit brash, sometimes downright in-your-face, and not to be trifled with. On the bright side, they are only temporary, not fond of our winter chill. I have had one run-in with them that left me on guard, yet it also gave me a better appreciation of them. They are, of course, yellow jackets.

I love yellow stingy things as a rule. This is why I created a whole section on bees, after all. Few animals send me shrieking these days – I am still trying to reach this level of maturity around snakes, yet sadly I have a ways to go – but honestly it has never really occurred to me to be scared of bees and their kin. I’m not sure why, as it’s not like I have successfully avoided being stung – quite the contrary, in fact, and I have even discovered an allergy in the last decade. Yet I remember as a child listening, fascinated, as an older girl described being able to pet bees, and then trying it myself on the next ones I saw. Their plight in recent years has won me over even more, and at this point I let out a celebratory whoop each season as the first arrive.

This summer I was out mowing the grass late in the evening, near dusk, with our reel mower. My son wanted to help, so after cutting our hill I turned it over to him to tend the flat top area. Just as I walked off, I felt a piercing pain at the front of my ankle. I had on mud boots (ahem, snakes) and had to wrestle one off to find the wasp still stuck in my flesh. I flicked it free and it zipped off about ten feet, wheeled in midair, and then set a course for a fly-by. A little voice in my head wondered, “Aren’t these guys capable of multiple stings?…” But the yellow jacket only buzzed past me and disappeared. I would later learn I had just rolled the mower over its nest, and that was likely where it was hightailing it back to.

To make what turned out to be a long story short, I had another allergic reaction. Unlike the first (also a yellow jacket – I have never yet reacted to a bee of any sort), this was not immediate. The sting hurt, but we were headed in to read and go to sleep, so I had my ankle up and was resting, not swirling the venom through me, I suppose. By the next morning my foot was red, swollen, and itchy, and it only worsened across the day. By mid-afternoon I couldn’t bend my foot, the swelling was over halfway to my knee, and I was starting to feel just not quite right, so I called the local urgent care for their advice – which was to come down. It turned out I was beginning to have an anaphylactic reaction – yes, it can happen a full day later! – and required 2 shots, a pill, monitoring, and a week’s course of steroids and Benadryl. I limped out nearly $400 poorer, ankle still looking like an angry balloon, and greatly humbled by a little bug, a feeling that only intensified over what wound up being a much longer convalescence than I had ever imagined.

So that left me with the question – what to do about the yellow jackets? It was maybe a week later that my son, ever observant and tuned in to nature, spotted the nest in the backyard. I was torn. I am averse to pesticides and a huge proponent of letting the natural world be. Yet the damage wrought had left me shaken. I spent a night researching yellow jackets, trying to decide what to do. I had always heard yellow jackets are nasty, mean-spirited, and aggressive, too territorial and dangerous to coexist with. But, wait, let me think about that – isn’t that what most, if not all, animals might write about humans? I had to do a serious re-think. To begin with, I was fortunate. If I still used a whirring, roaring gas mower, there might have been a lot more than one I disturbed. Time of day surely played a part too, as well as the fact that area is thin of grass and doesn’t need much tending. If they want territory, I can probably spare that spot. I want territory too, and I take up far more, and fence it to boot. If someone came at me with blades, I’d likely be more aggressive than to take one jab at them – in fact, just the thought of wiping out a whole colony over one sting kind of points to me being the far more aggressive one, doesn’t it? I also remembered my resolution for this year: to be less reactionary. A fear-based, knee-jerk reaction is, in my experience, not when people typically make their best choices.

We decided to let them have their summer home. In a few months, they’ll be gone. In the meantime, their territoriality means I know where they are, as there won’t be another nest nearby. We put up his toy traffic cones around their hole. I had it pointed out to me laughingly that this wouldn’t keep them in their nest. No; it keeps us out. That’s their turf, and we need to be aware of it and not blunder over their fence. It has been a month, and we are living peacefully enough together so far. They occasionally pay a visit to rest on the laundry while I hang it, but that’s about it. I leave them a 3-foot berth or so when I mow, and we call it good. I’m still a little grumbly about the fact I learned they prey on bees – and the doctor bill certainly hit me where it hurt as I am notoriously cheap and unfortunately uninsured – but I am also finding myself, perhaps absurdly, glad I had a reason to get to know them better and to improve my ability to be a decent citizen of this patch of earth.

We choose to wasp.


In other news… Time immobilized has led to lots of creative endeavors! Please check out the Bookstore page to see the titles added across my downtime and pass the link along to anyone who might be interested… Consider every purchase a donation to our community urgent care!

— Stay safe, stay kind, stay curious,

JA Smith

Posted in education, extraschooling

Back to School… Or Staying Home?

It is somehow already August… There are kids starting back to school, and others will be following in a week or two. What will school look like this fall? It is still quite up in the air, it seems. In our area the Delta variant of COVID-19 is spiking at the same time that the local school board has voted to no longer require masks. The collision of the two issues is causing many in the community to feel uncertain and reconsider their options. Thinking on one’s toes and being able to pivot as needed has definitely been the name of the game for the last year and a half now!

I hope that wherever you and your family are, you feel safe, comfortable, and confident about your choices for fall. For our part, it is an exciting time as this is going to be the first year our homeschool will be officially registered with the state. If you are in our same situation, you may want to try our project from last summer, Name That School, to get everyone excited about your launch. You may also want to check out the Homeschool Supply Checklist to see if there are any items you want to add.

Additionally, I am thrilled to say across this year I have begun working on homeschool journals and planners, and the very first one appeared on Amazon just yesterday! It is geared especially toward new homeschoolers who are trying to sort through the noise and get their footing, figure out their style, and gather materials that will work for them. However, if you’ve been homeschooling for a while but want to explore deeper or change things up a bit, it’s got you covered too. This is a 90-day crash course to get your thoughts organized and test-drive your methods. This month there is a giveaway on the Extraschooling Facebook page, so be sure to enter – like, share, and leave a comment about why you enjoy homeschooling and your name will be added in a random drawing to win a free copy of the book at the end of the month.

This coming week the “Look inside” feature should become available on Amazon, but in the meantime, I’ll post a couple of sample pages to give a sense of what to expect. The idea is not for the book to tell you what to do, but rather to ask the questions that will help you find your own answers, and to do so in a progressive way, where one topic builds on the next. One of the things I really love about the 90-Day Guided Planner & Journal – that will feature in all of the ones to follow as well – is a scrapbook section to collect the fun (and funny) moments along the way. One of the biggest assets we can have is a good sense of humor! One of my all-time favorite lines from my son was when he was 3 and I was asking him to identify shapes. I pointed to a circle and he exuberantly announced, “Roundtangle!” These are the moments to treasure.

So, happy August! For everyone – homeschoolers, public schoolers, private schoolers, and any other schoolers, including lifelong learners of all ages – I hope this upcoming season finds you happy, healthy, and hopeful. We all could do with more of that these days! Keep your chin up, keep making the decisions that are best for your family, and keep smelling those roses. Here’s to the new school season!

UPDATE:

The flip-through video here is for the original version of the 90-Day Jumpstart Guided Planner & Journal. I have since improved the Filing Cabinet and planner sections… But the front matter still has all the same great tips, prompts, and information!

Posted in extraschooling

The Year That Was

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Being nearly a week now into the new year, I suppose it is time to reflect upon the old, though I imagine some might rather not. Where was I last January, a time that seems more than a year ago? Well, I recall I spent New Year’s Eve working on my main goal for 2020 – creating an account with an online agency to begin freelance proofreading work. As January kicked off, I quickly realized all I didn’t know about online work: I’d never done any sort of video call, I don’t have my phone at my side – or with the volume at a noticeable level – all the time to catch alerts, I had never read a blog in my life (which much of the work was related to), and didn’t know the ins and outs of working within a website. Nor did I have a lick of experience, remotely relevant (or recent) work history to show, or any sort of portfolio with which to sell myself to prospective bosses. So what to do? I decided to play around with designing a free, private website where I could type a couple articles for practice. I found a site outlining ways to start a blog, picked the most popular option, and went from there. There was a steep learning curve that got me close to throwing it all in, but I finally caught on – and in turn learned about associate programs, image design, and whatever else I blundered into. I discovered how much I enjoyed what I was doing and building, and decided to go for it, invest in a website subscription, and launched Extraschooling.

February found me obsessed in a delighted sort of way, passionate about getting this unexpected new baby of mine growing. I toiled and typed and tweaked almost nightly, enthralled. Then by March I began to come back to earth, realizing that this was a hobby of mine that was but a tiny drop in the vast ocean of the internet, and that I needed to find some work that paid – as I also realized, a bit frantically, that maybe everyone else would be doing this too, as lockdowns loomed from this crazy disease suddenly sweeping the globe. However, unlike my total lack of success after a few weeks in January in applying for jobs, when I tried this time – portfolio in hand – I got replies on the first two I sent applications in on. Granted, one was for $10, and I discovered I had no idea how to do the job in the end, but it was still a victory. I landed the other job, which promised to be recurring, feeling rather giddy and hopeful. This first batch of work – which lasted around a week and a half – led me to realize something was going on with my eyes, though I didn’t yet know what.

Then April came. Lockdown! We had already been home for nearly 2 weeks by then, and I was on my way to the cuckoo house. Yet, it began to dissolve a few days into officially being sequestered. I posted on my personal page on April 6th a long journal-esque analysis of the state of affairs: “I am struggling here at the end of this week. … I am both ready to resume normal life and simultaneously wanting this experience to continue and help cause some sort of mental shift or growth or prove something to myself somehow. As with most exercises, I guess it is a no-pain-no-gain deal.” We had needed a change of scenery that day after many at home and had taken a meandering drive to a local gas station for a treat. There I had marveled at how friendly and relaxed the patrons were, as well as regretting the fact we would someday soon “…likely return to our busy, snarky selves.” From that day on, I had turned a corner. I think now I will always hold that month as one of my dearest, the unicorn month (I wrote in depth about this at the time in When Real Life Resumes). On this recent New Year’s Eve I went back through my posts for the year and shared the one that stuck out to me most – from April, of course. It came a day after I had taken a photo of my son and his dog when I found them both with sticks in their mouths, and the post is a picture of a bug with the caption, ‘I think we’ve officially gone feral. (My son) just walked out, brushing his teeth & saying “This bug was in my hair!” with a rather happy excitement. Then, “I’ll just set it here” – here being the dining table – and walked off.’ (For the record, I entirely forgot about the bug after taking its picture and later laughed at myself for how unfazed I was by the whole event and seriously wondered how fit we were going to be for polite society at a later date. I hope the bug found its way back to where ever it came from.) As I explained in my share of it last Thursday, “…it kind of sums up how I want to remember it all: the little laughs that tided us through; the sense I got in April of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we all had to just pause, be, and savor; the glee of turning a little wild in the midst of such seriousness; the simplicity I wish life always held.”

As spring headed for summer I got the news about my eyes, watched as covid and civil unrest amped up, and and tried to find my footing and path in it all… and the year began to unravel as it drug on. As I thought back today, there are two main ways I can sum up 2020. On a global level, it was a year of adaptation. We all needed to be able to think on our toes, shift and dance as necessary, and figure out how to go with the flow without sinking. I felt like a lot of the Big Issues I did well on. I would say we have come through the pandemic thus far as well as can be hoped, with an enormous gratitude for where we live. We learned to adjust and make the most of what we were served. Likewise I felt I helped my little guy navigate his crash course on race relations pretty well, and, while horrified at the realities causing the turmoil, was thankful he could get a true sense and even take a small part in it in order to leave a permanent stamp on his soul and help mold his future self. On a personal level, it was a very reactionary year for me. It seems life happened, and I either dealt with it well or didn’t. I may have handled the global and national crises with some aptitude, but for me personally, I have never known such a stressful year or been less able to retain an inner poise. As December ticked by I finally came to understand the change, as always, must be me. I can only change my end of a given problem, and I choose to change how I react. How fast I react, how emotionally I react, how thoughtfully I react.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so ready to turn the page and get a new year started. I think my hopes and expectations for this year are considerably lower than when I was a starry-eyed wanna-be proofreader with an infant website to play with, but maybe that’s okay. My goals for this year would be namely to control what I can control, find peace with what I can’t, love and learn and grow with my son, and keep my April promises to myself. I am viewing this coming year as a challenge, whereas I think I found last year to be one. I plan on meeting this one head-on, eyes open, and ready. It owes me nothing; I owe myself – and most importantly, my son – everything.