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Posted in extraschooling, Family, Home

Being a Quitter

Are you a quitter?

Is that a loaded question to you?

How about this one: are you capable of being a quitter?

I have been rolling this topic around of late, and I have come to the conclusion that quitting is sometimes perfectly fine, even recommended.

But let’s not talk about people for a moment; let’s talk cheetahs. Yup, cheetahs. What happens if Momma Cheetah gives up on her cubs? That decision wouldn’t bode well for the species, now would it? What about if Momma Cheetah needs to feed those cubs, and takes off pell-mell after the strongest gazelle in the herd she’s tracking? I’d say that wouldn’t fill many bellies, would you? Much better to turn her attention to the one lagging behind the herd. This is my point, in a nutshell. Momma Cheetah has to know when and where to expend her energy, and where to save her strength. I am trying to channel this fundamental principle in my life: know when to hit the gas and when to hit the brakes.

I am a full-time single parent to a delightful, smart, headstrong 8-year-old who I homeschool. I work, do all the upkeep associated with owning a home on an acre of land, plus handle the daily chores that come with having a family. I always have too many irons in the fire – right now I am working on the website redesign, the spring 90-day planner, the next book in the Little Green Hill series, along with its accompanying packet, and the mouse badges for the characters in the stories. I’ve been trying to start up a local reading group, spend more quality time adventuring with the little one, and slowly sift my way through personal books and interests. Quite frankly, I generally feel about a step or two from exhausted burn-out, and the side to which I am standing from that line varies.

I have come to respect the idea of energy conservation. Much like the cheetah in hot pursuit of her quarry, I want the biggest return on my investment of resources. To that end, I am beginning a list of some criteria for when it is wisest to quit and turn my attention elsewhere:

  • If something is interfering with my mental wellbeing.
  • If something is detracting from my family time.
  • If it’s a gazelle I’m never really going to be able to catch.
  • If it’s not something my heart is truly behind.
  • If I’m trying to work against my personality and/or skill set.

This New Year’s, I decided to make my word for 2023 time. I wrote this as my resolution:

“I felt this year I was constantly playing catch-up, always running behind, always in a hurry, not enough time to relax enough to smell the roses, which is against everything I aim for in life. I felt all year I didn’t have my stamina for activities and life-y stuff back yet here post-pandemic. I am also feeling the tick-tock of the clock. At eight, the little one is seeming so grown up, and our years of close-together time are counting down.

My goal this year is to manage my time far better. I want to:

Make special, quality time at home a top priority, with lots of fun and adventure and memories made.
– Make time to explore my own endeavors
– Balance my days better; go to bed earlier, get up earlier, schedule better.
– Dump things that aren’t worth the time.
– Keep up on the little things better.”

I was someone who long prided themself on an ability to persevere, push through, carry the world on my shoulders. But my aging self is getting continually wiser, and I’m now asking myself, “Umm… why?” Why did I value myself for that when I could have been valuing an ability to make wise choices of when to give and when to let go. I could have been valuing balance and happiness rather than needless, crazy-making heroics. Well, you know what? It’s never too late, and I’m finding a delicious sort of freedom in being a quitter. Don’t get me wrong though… I do think it is important to see things through, as well. It’s about priorities, and my top one is of course my own little cub. What are yours? Are you finding your balance? Do you know how to quit when you need to?

Be kind to yourself!

JA Smith

Posted in Family, Home

Raising Boys

I am a proud boy momma. I had always wanted to have a boy; before I even knew that he was a he, I had started buying boy clothes, just to convince the powers that be to grant my wish. Growing up, I generally hung out with the guys. I felt far more at ease with them than with the girls, and I much preferred running the woods and getting muddy to having my hair done and playing with makeup. Granted, these days there is a push against labelling activities boyish or girly, but back then, I was a tomboy, through and through.

Today I saw a post about empowering girls to grow up strong and confident in themselves and their unique beauty, and it got me thinking, and thinking back to related topics that have been swirling around in my head for a couple of years now.

My father used to tell of when he reached an age of social and self-awareness. Born in 1935, this awakening occurred in the 60s, as he watched the country wrestle with developing a new, fuller understanding of civil rights. He said it hit him one day that there he was, all full of himself, when in truth, his life had been essentially handed to him. He was male, white, tall, fit, blond, and in his assuredly unbiased opinion, good-looking. Yes, he was intelligent and hardworking, but it dawned on him that wasn’t necessarily why he had any of the advantages he did in life – he’d simply been born lucky, blessed with what the society he lived in deemed positive attributes. With this in mind, I have always felt the weight of being a boy momma. While the balance continues to shift, my son was still born lucky. He wields a power he hasn’t earned, and so it is my duty to ensure he is a force for good in his life.

He takes taekwondo, and I was thinking today how in martial arts, there is the concept of using your opponent’s strength to enhance your own, and that has some correlation here, I believe. Power doesn’t necessarily have to be reassigned, but put to good use. Boys have many doors open to them simply by accident of birth, and so it is our job to teach them to then hold those doors for others as they grow.

To the original idea of empowering girls, we must certainly help them develop and retain their self-confidence. However, boys are seeing the same messages about body image that girls are; it can affect them personally as well, but it also tells them to de-value women as much as it tells the women to de-value themselves. This leads to a vicious cycle, as the women are often going to the lengths they are in order to impress the men, and if they’re both being told women aren’t enough as-is, well… It feeds itself and perpetuates the lie. We need to bring the men in as allies to women, and to all work together to end the current notion of “beauty” as something one can buy in a bottle. On the bright side, I don’t think this would be an uphill battle at all. As someone who, as I said earlier, has had a lot of guy friends, I can’t tell you how many times they have surprised me – in a good way – with their views on women. They do actually like us as we are – but we have some advertising monkeys-in-the-middle muddying up the message for us all.

My son also has the benefits of color, socioeconomic status, good looks, and a strong body. He’s cute as a button and should not learn to rest on his laurels but to realize his charm could help him be a spokesperson for others. We’re by no means rich, but he’s never gone hungry, so I need to show him how that looks, so he always feels the pull to care for those around him. While he thinks the term “white” is weird (he says, “Momma, my skin is not white – look at it!”), society still smiles brightest upon his color, so it’s up to him to stand up for continued change. He will be big before I can blink twice it seems, with the ability to cause harm if he chooses. I must ensure he understands the wisdom in turning a cheek, the power in walking away, the strength in being a protector of others.

I have no girls, but I have been one. I understand how we teach them to be smart, to think and plan ahead, to look out for themselves in ways boys don’t have to worry about. I know those sorts of conversations and lessons occur within the other categories as well. It is good to empower and be empowered, but it is half the battle. We must create a dialogue and bring everyone into the fold. One side might not realize how the other truly feels, or one might not have stopped to consider what the other goes through. A lot of knots might get quickly untangled if we sit down for a collective chat. In raising a boy, I feel the responsibility to teach him how to reach across the aisle, to listen, and to ask how he can help. I want his greatest power to be his desire and ability to empower others.

I am all for kids being kids and being able to relish their childhood, but with the knowledge we will soon be handing the care and custody of our planet to these same kids. We all want to change the world at some point in our lives, and it seems our best way might just be through parenting; raising ever-wiser and more compassionate generations – and especially, still, of boys.

What sorts of responsibilities do you feel as a parent? What concepts or qualities do you most wish to instill in your child(ren)? What sorts of shifts would you like to see in our current culture?

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Your Inner Darwin

I really shouldn’t play the favorites game, but… I am so in love with the new book! If you only ever grab one Extraschooling title, make sure it’s In My Nature. This book has all the best of me in it, as it not only combines my passions of nature and education, but was also requested by my son and compiled with him in mind. And, while most of the ideas I write about are based on learning adventures we’ve had, I made this book specifically for us to use in our current day-to-day. I could keep on about it, but I’ll spare you. In short, if you are a nature-loving family, want more excuses to get outside, or are looking to cultivate a broader awareness of the great outdoors, then here – go grab a copy!

Okay, now, moving on…

We love science around here. One of my favorite things about it is that, while science seeks to answer a myriad of deep and important questions, it is infinitely approachable. With my other recent reads behind me, I quickly ran through The Earth Moved, by Amy Stewart, and am now listening to Darwin’s Backyard, by James T. Costa. The first pulled heavily from Darwin’s research on earthworms, which piqued my interest and made me reach for the next book. The other night there was a passage that struck me, about the origin of the term scientist. A word that can now seem so lofty was only coming on the scene when the man who would become one of history’s most well-known scientists was sailing around the globe on the HMS Beagle.

Did you know the number of toes on a salamander can help identify it?

Darwin was what any great scientist – professional or, as he was, home-based – still is: an experimenter. This is the beauty of the subject; while it is great to amass knowledge in any of its many branches, there was a time when nothing was understood, when everything was a fresh marvel. Just as babies reach out to feel, squeeze, and examine everything interesting that crosses their path, so were the many mysteries of life on and off this planet uncovered. One does not need a degree or a reference book or a step-by-step instruction guide in order to explore. All one needs is to be able to squint thoughtfully at something, tap their fingers a few times, and utter the words, “What if…

We are surrounded by a wide world to question and consider.

This has been our weekend of schooling around here. I got out the salt and posed a few questions. I knew enough to be able to offer up the elements from the periodic table that create salt and water, and then that ran my store of chemistry knowledge pretty well dry – but that was enough! So far we have had oodles of fun poking and prodding these two basic ingredients to see what happens. We have:

  • Cut a small potato in half and immersed one part in plain water, the other in salt water for a day.
  • Dried both potatoes and left one as is while covering the other in salt.
  • Checked to see if there is a point at which salt stops dissolving in water.
  • Let the water sit overnight to see if the salt settles with time.
  • Boiled both salt water and plain in covered pans to make “clouds” on the lids to see if salt evaporates with the water.
  • Boiled the water off to leave the salt behind.
  • Set up a stalactite string.
  • Frozen salt and plain water to see if they freeze differently.
  • Had a bunch of discussions.

And none of it required an ounce of research or planning – just a question, and a few simple materials.

Just add salt and… presto! Let the fun begin.

Science is about curiosity, discovery, experimentation, delight, and being willing to get your hands dirty, make guesses, be wrong, and then to try again. It is about making volcanoes in the sink, blending paint colors on a canvas, stalking bugs in the yard, peering through a telescope, taking a closer look at the world, and approaching life with “What if…?” always on the tip of your tongue.

Hint: Goldenrod is an amazing place to find a wide variety of incredible creatures.

If you want to try some explorations with your family, here’s a download to get you started, ripped from the pages of – you guessed it! – In My Nature: A Field Notebook for Kids Who Like to Explore on the Wilder Side. This is based on the scientific method, which is all the guide you need to dive into this amazing, diverse, and fantastically fun subject.

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.

So to all the folks who are almost-not-quite-ish, un-label-able sorts – you’re not alone. It’s perfectly okay to not fit in a box – or to fit one day but not the next. Learning should be a fluid, adaptable, enjoyable process, and that is what really matters, rather than what your approach is defined as. Let’s celebrate this eclectic life together; feel free to comment or reach out and connect whenever you need. Here’s to blazing your own personal learning path!

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.


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