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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!


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.

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home


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What do you want most for your child?

I have been reading Ben Hewitt’s book, Homegrown, and in it was struck by his desire for his sons to have their sense of place. It resonated with me, the idea of implanting in your child this grounding force, this knowledge of where they belong in the universe, this innate feeling of their correlation enmeshed with their ability to be happy wherever they are and with whatever surrounds them because they feel at home within themselves. While I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, it has led me to also consider what else I find vital to impart.

As I touched on in The Four C’s, I think curiosity is essentially the engine that propels humanity. Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with imagination; one fuels the other in a snowballing effect. In my son’s early education, this has been the keystone I have focused on: promoting his curiosity, feeding his wild imagination, exposing him to the possibilities, differences, questions, and wonders that surround us on both a grand and tiny scale: the immense mystery of the cosmos, the global human condition, the life that abounds at dirt-level on our acre.

My assumption has been that with a healthy sense of curiosity and a whopper of an imagination, he will be both inspired to pursue a variety of educational paths naturally and then have the where-with-all to find solutions to problems that arise. I have thought about this in a small scope though, just to the degree they apply to his “school age,” shall I say (though it’s not like there is a point we technically stop learning – I learn far more now as a mother than I did at that age it seems). I know that the more interested and engaged one is with a topic or issue, the more one learns, gleans, probes, and adds to. But it wasn’t until recently I began to think of the longer view and how these elements can be of service to him.

I admit, this fall has not been my favorite. There has been plenty of personal stressors at play in my life that I have yet to sort out, and it has led to plenty of self-reflection. During a recent visit with homeschooling friends, I was asked if I felt I had been adequately prepared for life by my experience being homeschooled/unschooled by my father. My answer was a bit muddled at the time, but I have continued to roll it over in my head and I have realized some of my difficulty in answering is because of the overlap of parenting and education. These two things are – and should be – so connected that it can be hard to discern where or if there is a separation at all. I think now my answer would be something like this: Yes. I was given the tools and the choice to use them. I was exposed to the world while taught that my own space is enough. I have always felt intelligent and competent. I was given the gift of knowing there is more than one path to success, as well as that success is in fact located in more than one destination, including simply finding yourself happy in your own skin. My hesitation in answering was due to my wondering if I should have been pushed harder, forced to achieve more based on capability. Later I concluded this is a very individual parenting decision – and one I don’t yet know quite where I stand on.

This conversation tied in with the importance of curiosity and imagination to me. I sometimes ask myself, as many do, if I should do more “formal educational stuff” and have more consistency and structure. I make the comparison mistake when considering those subjects that are being drilled into my son’s peers. Do they know their ABC’s? Can they read? How high can they count? What sort of math can they do? …And so on. Nope, I am not immune to this line of thought. But then I snap out of it (until next time I forget myself at least) and remember how amazing this child I share space with is. Can he read? No. Is he mesmerized by stories and happily listens to thousands of books a year? Yes, across a vast array of subjects. Can he do basic math? With some help, if he wants to – which, at almost 6, he rarely does. There’s a back yard to play in and the dirt beckons with a siren’s call. What does he have? This insatiable curiosity that perpetually astounds and stumps me as he asks the questions I can’t believe never occurred to me. To keep up with this, he has this ever-burgeoning imagination that is about a half-step away from being able to make something out of absolutely nothing. It is akin to alchemy what he can concoct.

And that is what I want most for him. I want his life to be like this morning, when we sat on the porch and read about the creation of the Boeing 747. Before the book could close his eyes were lit up with possibility and he exclaimed, “I want to build a plane!” There is now a flamingo making test flights through the house in a bucket with everything from a miter box to magnets to vacuum parts attached. I want this because someday he will have a season that doesn’t go well, and he will need to navigate his way through it. He will need to be curious enough to wonder if he can chart a course and be able to imagine possible paths. There is more to pretend play and childhood creations than fun and games; it is them test-driving their problem-solving skills. Daydreams are practice for seeing other possibilities later on when naysayers are telling them something can’t be done. Literacy and arithmetic are essential skills, but so is the ability to conceptualize something necessary, new, audacious, or maybe even a little crazy. I want him to always be able to come up with a question for himself and then work out multiple ways to answers from there. My dad liked to say with a lever placed strategically enough one could move anything, and so what I want most for him is to equip him with the lever of imagination placed just so on the fulcrum of curiosity.

What is important for you?

Posted in education, Home

The Grade Debate

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Here at home, we take school pretty lightly still. My son is five (and a half, he would tell you) and would only just now qualify to begin kindergarten, which is optional in our state anyway. By taking it lightly, I mean it is highly disorganized and informal; I live off that view of my father’s, that everything is a homeschool lesson, and long ago realized tons gets learned through simply being present in life (note I said ‘present’ – i.e., taking an active role, not just existing). We explore, play, read, and roll with whatever pops up. I foresee this having a natural pace of development for the both of us and being a really organic and fun evolution. But. That is not always the case – for us and many others right now. Due to the pandemic and concerns over schools re-opening, we are helping a native public-schooler this fall, a 5th grader who will return to her usual environment eventually. This has led to a number of new considerations for all of us as we have begun testing the waters of this joint venture. One of these for me has been the issue of grades.


How do you grade a sudden homeschooler? Do you even grade homeschool?

I have to admit, I loved grades, whether at home or within an institution. I got good ones most all of the time and was always very competitive – with myself even if with no one else. I was known to argue grades and their overall merit, push to correct a correction even if it didn’t affect my grade, and also sink my grade in a class if I deemed it unworthy – but overall, I strove to hit top marks the majority of the time. Now, though, as the teacher, I am wondering what a grade really amounts to, and how fair it is of me to impose one on work.

The argument against grading includes several factors. This is a year we have both been dropped into; I am working to learn what she knows and how she operates while she works to learn the process and my expectations. If I pull out a 5th grade math text and expect she can handle it simply because she is that age, what good does it do to rate her against it? She could be above, below, or at that point. My job isn’t to whip out the red pen, it is to figure out how to best lead her to the next step in her educational path – whatever that is. I have no outside funding to flaunt test scores in front of to keep the doors open. If problems are wrong, that shows us what we need to focus our attention on. If they are right, it shows us we need to ramp it up a notch. I want her learning, curious, and ready to try new things, not focusing on getting an A or worrying about getting something wrong. Yes, I want her to be diligent, but in an effort to understand, not get a certain mark.

So are there reasons to assign rankings to homeschool work? I did actually decide yes to this, just not in the traditional sense. There are no percents, no lettered grades. Instead, we are operating on a color system (which I have considered making akin to a stick shift, with several forward gears, a neutral, and reverse – we’ll see). In essence, green denotes forward progress, yellow means things are holding steady, and red means things are moving in the opposite direction as desired. Within this framework, I look at 3 qualifying areas: work accuracy, thought/effort, and individual growth. Thus the standard score gets mixed with how much attention was paid to it as well as what it sparked personally, and is considered over a length of time, rather than per assignment. For example, last week I ranked science as our top subject when we learned about the solar system. The work wasn’t perfect, but the involvement and interest certainly filled in the gaps; likewise social studies led to curiosity and discussion throughout the week. Meanwhile, what I lump as “Extras” we rotate through (music, language, etc) got a yellow as they were perfunctory across the board. English fell in the red zone as the work suffered from minimal effort despite the assignment being tailor-made according to a favorite activity.

Does this alternative ranking system amount to a hill of beans? Not sure yet. I did feel the need to have some accountability within our work, but akin to that of a parent: I will praise the good and encourage more of the same, hold accountable for the bad, and let the rest coast as is allowable. Additionally, there are explicit instructions that when encountering something too complex, to write “I don’t know” rather than waste energy: learning should be fun, not a chore. There are also extra points (not sure what they count toward!) for recognizing a bad question if we are using supplemental material, asking good questions, and having an opinion, hypothesis, or idea of one’s own. It is on the docket to actively find things of interest to examine more closely, even if that throws my lessons off course.

The most important grade, in the end, will be the one I receive as temporary instructor. I hope that this rare chance for so many to educate at home offers both the children and the adults something of value that they can take on in life. I feel the need to impart a lot in a short amount of time, but we will see how it all turns out. There is such a beauty in breaking down the walls, so to speak, of formal education. If nothing else, I hope to get past the point where I get questions that begin with “Can I…?” We should never be taught to ask permission to learn and expand our universe. If I can get that alone instilled, I will give myself at least a yellow.

To grade or not to grade – or how to grade? What works for you?

Posted in extraschooling, Home, Uncategorized

A Few Summer Musings

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Oh, dear!

I’ve been pretty derelict, haven’t I?

I must admit I have been absentee for over a month, both here and on the Facebook page. Part of it is the new eye issue, part is ongoing internet problems, and part is just the doldrums, to be honest. I haven’t found myself hit with inspiration as much over the last so long – or maybe just have too many things competing for brain space – and I just have fallen into bad habits. However I finally decided to dig in and do a little work. If you peek across the menu up top, “Featured Activities” is now “Features,” as I decided to add book recommendations along with lesson ideas (also this month you can find a Homeschool Supply Checklist, with items that are handy to have around). I posted our current early-literacy practice along with a dozen books we have fallen in love with this month. I also went page by page and tried to clean up old clutter from each so it stops looking like the construction site it has been since March. Hopefully I will keep this motivation and add some new topics on the Learning Ideas page, but for now… I am here.

I don’t have a specific thread of thought for this, I’m afraid, but rather some scattered observations of late. Bear with me!

This summer we have stayed away from lakes and pools, but ironically this is the year my little one seems ready to start swimming – with only our little 8-foot pool to work within. It has reminded me again of the key to him learning: Show him what’s possible, then leave him to it. Whether walking, drawing, swimming, or anything else, he will resist my every attempt to push him along. Then one day he’ll suddenly do it all on his own, with a mysterious proficiency, as if he gets up and practices at midnight when I am unaware. I started this summer where I ended the last, trying to convince him to try floating on his back. He wanted none of it, and for a multitude of reasons. This month I was then surprised to see him suddenly snorkeling his way around the pool, diving underwater, and attempting handstands as if it was second nature. Typical!

He has always avoided art like the plague… until he suddenly decided to devote himself to a careful rendition of his all-time favorite toad, Flower. Who knew he was such a great artist?

Discipline can be tough sometimes. I recently had a bit of a cranky spell; then, after a couple nights of lackluster sleep, he took my place. I found myself both annoyed and feeling bad for him, as he wound up eventually sent off to an early bedtime. It seemed unfair, as I generally feel he is the better person of the two of us, and I don’t face such repercussions when I act up. Granted, I did once upon a time. Next, though, I realized I rather wish I did have someone to crack down on me at such times – someone to stick me in time-out or force rest upon me when necessary. In fact, there are plenty of days where the notion of being sent to rest in a quiet room would actually be a very welcome opportunity. I ended up struck by the notion that I have come full circle and what was once a punishment of the direst sort would now be considered a nice break, and the irony that by the time the consequence of an action is understood, it is no longer an option due to the demands of parenthood. And I went in to give him snuggles and read a bedtime story in a bemused state of mind.

I miss faces. I am not the most social creature, so I was surprised that just going about basic errands, like grocery shopping, I began to really miss people. A lot is made of how much of an individual lies in their eyes, but I am finding this but half of the picture. When my son was little I was constantly told by random strangers how refreshing it was to see a baby’s mouth without a pacifier in the way, to be able to see his expression and hear his noises. This is how I feel now: I want to peruse unencumbered faces again, enjoy the multitude of shapes, sizes, and ways we emote with them. I want unmuffled voices and to see mouths form words. This was not a complication of coronavirus I had anticipated, yet strangely the desire to see a whole human again is getting to be really high up the list.

Lastly, a few conversations recently led me to the epiphany that often what at one turn may be considered our worst quality may in another instant be seen as our best. My son was wanting me to better explain this to him, so I offered an example for each of us: I can offend people as I can come across as blunt or tactless at times. However, that same directness can be useful and appreciated when there is an issue that needs to be dealt with. Meanwhile with him, there are days my eyes start to pop out of my head and my ears want to run away from his endless talking, questioning, and wanting to know everything that is going on at all times. But on the flip side we were recently doing an exercise of picking one adjective for each person sitting around the table, including ourselves. What did I pick as the word that best summed him up, the word that described what I love best about him? Curious. He is endlessly curious, which is hard to be if you are tuned out and not busily thinking up excellent questions. Funny how we balance out! Forgive the extremes and enjoy the spectrum. We are not just A or Z, but all the alphabet in between as well. To that end, I will leave where I started, with another Andre Gide quote:

The color of truth is gray.”

Posted in extraschooling, Home

The Eye of the Beholder

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This afternoon I sat weeding my garden, on the verge of tears. This is a strange sentence to contemplate, as I both enjoy gardening and am not known for crying. This also is an abrupt sort of introduction. One might think that during the recent world slowdown that I would find myself online far more, with oodles of time for writing and building this site. However, I have had more on my mind than just the pandemic, have often lacked inspiration, or even recently had too much in too many directions. For the past few weeks I have felt the call to write about a couple different topics, and will hopefully attend to each, but today one flared up as I sniffled over a little patch of dirt. So here I am, and be warned: this may have little to do with anything related to other things on this site. However, I am not a journal sort of person – ironically, writing is not my thing – and at the end of the day, this is a learning experience.

At some undetermined rate, I am losing my eyesight, a fact which has surprised me across corona-time. I had thought I had been experiencing age-related vision issues over the last few years, and was delaying the inevitable trip to get glasses as I have no insurance and a bizarre nose-tickle that cannot tolerate eye wear of any sort. About six months ago – after several months of studying – I had taken the plunge to get internet at home in hopes of finding freelance work online to help support myself and my son. It very accidentally led to the creation of this website, as I initially wanted to play with design so I could learn the ins and outs, but then I realized I have a passion for education at home. This site does not generate an income though, so I have also continued hunting work in my desired field of proofreading. I landed my first job in March. It lasted about a week, a few hours each night, and… I could barely see the screen by the last night, and my eyes wanted to run for the hills. A few weeks later I was reading and randomly started playing with covering one eye, then the other; this was when I found my left eye is shrinking and distorting what it sees.

When in doubt, what do we all do anymore? We Google. That night I did just that and realized I may not have been as fortunate as I’d hoped in my genetic lottery: macular degeneration was listed as a possible cause. I have some family history here. There is Stargardt disease in my family – I had just always understood it to be the juvenile form of macular degeneration. I turned 36 just before my epiphany about my left eye; surely I was out of the woods by now. But no. As I continued to search and read, I learned that although it is typically the juvenile form, it can hit at any point in life. Two eye appointments later, the verdict is in: I have it too.

On the bright side, I have heard, the older-onset variety tends to be slower and less severe. This may be more comforting for someone who hasn’t already watched how fast this disease can progress. Also, I have no idea how long it’s already been toying with my vision. The specialist was optimistic as I still have 20/20 vision in my good eye and only 20/30 in my bad. I am trying to be heartened too. However, I know I now have trouble reading to my son unless conditions are perfect. I know my left eye feels constantly blurry, like when you first wake up and need to blink a few times to see straight. I know it has gotten much worse this spring. I know it when I drive. I know it when I look through just my left eye at a photo of my son and his face is warped. I know it when I need to focus on detail in a project and my eyes ache until I can’t. And I know it when I am trying to weed my damn garden and can’t see the tree for the forest.

I sat there today, unsure of whether I was pulling a vegetable or an intruder. I could see plants, but a specific little sprout was nearly impossible to isolate. I had been working on a paper model of a digital clock so my son could practice telling time, but the focus required while drawing the numbers hurt, so I moved outside for a break. The frustration and sadness when I realized my supposed relief was proving to be equally hard was steep. Two activities in a row that I enjoy – helping him learn and working in the dirt – were proving inaccessible. So where do I go from here? Heck if I know. I was thinking the other day that life is like a baseball game: sometimes you get to pitch, and maybe you can throw a no-hitter and excel. But then you have to switch out and step up to the plate, and life can toss you that proverbial curveball. Can you hit it?

Stargardt disease has no treatment. It can lead to being legally blind as well as color blind. It attacks your central vision, leaving holes akin to sun spots where you simply see nothing – and, as I have, issues like micropsia (where objects appear smaller) and metamorphopsia (where objects are distorted – for instance, words in a sentence seem to be riding a wave). The problem is, there is no timeline. Will I still be able to drive at the end of the year? In five years? Will my son learn to read before I can no longer read all the oddball text arrangements they put in picture books? Will the vision of both eyes become distorted, to where his face will look, as I have read, similar to a Picasso painting?

My brain can barely go there yet. The initial appointment took the air out of me; by the second I was ready and more stoic, yet the little moments creep in, like today. I remind myself: it is not fatal. I am very lucky to have something that still allows me to grow old with my son – and hopefully many grandchildren (or great-grands!). There is so much going on in the world right now that is on a far more epic scale – the civil issues in this country currently are also weighing so heavily on me and vying for brain space, and then there’s all the covid-craziness in the background. In the end, it’s okay. I will be okay. I am thankful to have had three and a half decades of good vision, which have led me down the paths that created the delightful little sidekick whose face I have tattooed on my soul – I’ll see him regardless. Admittedly, I work very badly with the unknown, but this uncertainty may prove an excellent lesson in humility and other character traits I need to build. There will be frustrations and sorrows, but I expect it will not define the coming years. I expect to continue to enjoy life and the company I walk through it with. I just may need a little help gardening.

If you are experiencing vision disturbances of a similar nature, have recently been diagnosed, or want to learn more, here are a few resources:

Posted in education, extraschooling

The Learning Web

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Some days I actively approach a topic with my son. Some days I don’t. And then some days it just happens, and I am happily surprised when I look back on it. Today was like that. It occurred to me tonight, as I reflected on the ground we had rather accidentally – and somewhat haphazardly – covered, that the learning process is so well-suited to life at home because it is just not linear by nature, something it has to be within an institution that has to serve the masses. Food chains have been far more accurately described as food webs, and education works this same way: one thing leads to another, then some random off-shoot takes you down one or more paths that then branch off in their own directions – including, sometimes, back to where you started.

Our morning began logging our egg experiment that we began last night. We documented our set-up, initial observations, hypotheses, and questions, then examined the egg and noted the changes. Next thing I knew I was being invited to a “dinosaur show,” which consisted of my son acting as a presenting paleontologist, going through nature artifacts, like a nest with unhatched eggs from last year and random bones. We wound up comparing a T-Rex pelvis with that of a human when he tried identifying it, and when he pulled out a snail shell it led us to wondering if they were around at the time of the dinosaurs. I mistakenly called them arthropods rather than gastropods for half the day, which of course led me to researching all these points once I realized my error, finding snails have existed for some 500 million years and are in the same phylum as the octopus, while arthropods include insects and crabs.

In a move that will seem unrelated, we switched over to math, as I had been flipping through some new library books while he was eating, and he requested I read. I had been looking at Fun with Roman Numerals, which may be joining our personal stash soon, so I started showing him how they worked. I have not looked into Latin for backing, but I discussed how C stands for 100 so likely bears connection to words like century while M may be because of ties to millennium. (Which, typing this, I just learned has two n‘s – who knew? Spelling was never my forte!) Now hold that thought until the next paragraph, because, remember, I mentioned how learning is not linear, so – we then tried skip-counting by 5’s with the book Hands Down, in which we also read that oak trees are the most susceptible to lightning strikes, a fact we will be tracking down to see why this may be. (Height? Moisture content? Who has a theory? Ask your kids for thoughts before you check Google!) Afterwards we played around with fractions thanks to Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire, which he really enjoyed and seemed to catch onto the easiest of the three concepts (though it would seem the most complicated of the lot to me).

It has been rainy for a couple days, but we got the itch to go for a hike, so we donned our ponchos and headed for the hills. After feeding the neighbor’s horses and amid walk and play, we delved into discussing the role of bright colors in nature (warning or mimicry), why sudden sun on a humid day makes me think of how microwaves work (heating the water content of an item), identifying birds by sight and call (because it is his passion), explaining the process that leads to a hay bale (there were tractors, and I grew up on a farm), considering the role of scent markings (since last outing we smelled a possible bear), how rain in the mountains leads to flooding in the valleys (the area is under a watch right now), and hunting fractals (of course!), we came full circle: we found a centipede. This created a twofold conversation. First, how ideas are combined within words: -pod, -pede, -pedal refer to legs/feet, then gastro-, centi-, and bi- tell us how many or give us more information. Second, centipede and millipede are connected to those Roman numerals (or at least my theories of them) in that centi– is related to century, and milli- is related to that two-n’ed millennium. And there it was: paleontology, Roman numerals, and hiking all suddenly fit together. Of course. That’s why Paleonumeriking 101 is an essential class in school, right? There is just that natural link, after all!

This evening we watched Big Al (Allosaurus: A Walking with Dinosaurs Special) and did our last analysis of the egg for the day to fully round out our experiences, while I considered the beauty of the winding path of exploration and education. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for hitting the books and being able to put your nose to the grindstone – but this is the foundation for that. The more you discover, the more you realize awaits you, and one simple question suddenly leads to five or ten of increasing complexity. The more you feed and develop that curiosity and taste for knowledge, the more effort you are willing to put into pursuing it. You can sit down and learn about a subject, or you can follow it to a point of inspiration and then take off. Just like a spider’s design, learning is an art form, a science, a bit messy at times, and something to marvel at.

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Free-Range Learning

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My son loves to learn. He is so full of curiosity and enthusiasm for whatever topic piques his interest. However, there is a surefire way to make him grow immediately cold and disinterested: all I have to do is say something like, “Let’s sit down and do some schoolwork” or “Today I’m going to teach you about…” I find my educational approach is a match to my nutritional approach; essentially, I believe in exposing him to a variety of elements and finding ways to incorporate my goals within something he enjoys. Although I have an unschooling lean, I don’t go entirely that way for the same reasons I don’t let him plan the menu – he doesn’t know all that is available to try, and one cannot live on pasta and dessert alone. So I integrate many different flavors into our pasta-heavy diet, and he has discovered vegetables are not the evil things he once believed, all while enjoying a well-balanced meal. I see education the same: I like to build upon his interests and show him additional directions, applications, and concepts. I don’t expect him to be interested in them all or master or even understand them all yet – I just want him to know that they are there. If, in the future, his path circles back to one of these items, then he will have a foundational structure in place to facilitate further exploration.

There are a lot of versions of homeschooling out there, but I haven’t quite found one I completely subscribe to. I think mine would be called something more like “Open-ended Schooling” or “Free-range Schooling.” I like to have just enough structure to then launch our learning adventure. I would say my main tenets are these:

  • It is easier to push a rope downhill. If they are interested, they will learn better, faster, and more thoroughly – and likely be primed to launch into connected areas of study. This may mean being interested in the topic at hand or in the method of examining it. (For example, a kid who wants to play outside may not be into math but may enjoy the idea of fractals in nature or using nature materials to perform equations.)
  • Play and hands-on activities are crucial. This is true at any age, but vital for the elementary-age crowd. Tangible representations will go miles further than the abstract any day. Give them something that they can touch, manipulate, have fun with – not only will the lesson generally last far longer, but there will be a physical memory to bolster the mental one.
  • Read anything and everything. Books, books, and more books. They have opened so many doors for us and allowed his mind to expand so far. The imagination can run a mile for every inch it is sparked, and every book is a match.
  • Get the most bang for your buck. Know those combination exercises, where you do a bicep curl along with a squat or some such thing? Look at lesson opportunities the same way. How many elements can be covered at once?
  • Provide early, recurring exposure to a wide variety of subjects and ideas. Mention ideas whenever the opportunity presents itself. When talking to a baby we naturally do this: before they can speak we are offering words in this fashion – “See this red flower?” “Look at those horses. What does a horse say? Neeeiiiigh!” …And we expect that this leads to them gaining language. However there is often a disconnect with this theory when considering more advanced topics. They may not understand fractions as toddlers, but they likely love to help in the kitchen – so why not provide a similar banter as you cook? “So we need half a cup. See this? This is one cup. We need half. The way we show that is…”

Following these principles, I look at the topics for the week, create a starting point, and then introduce it in a fairly informal way. It may take off and consume our day (week, month) or we may quickly discover it’s not a fit at the moment and find something better to do. I was recently asked about how or if I incorporate different subjects into our letterboard activity, so I’ll share a couple of examples of how this can take off from the simple, open-ended structure it offers:

For S I assuredly had many great plans, of which I remember none. All I now recall is that as I was preparing items he happened to spot a flashcard about Stonehenge and was instantly fascinated. I pulled up a couple of YouTube clips aimed at kids, then at our next library trip we got a National Geographic video and a book about it in greater detail. This led me to think about Easter Island, so we read a picture book first and then learned more about the collapse of that society. He has always been very environmentally conscious, so we latched onto the discussion of living in a sustainable fashion. Then there’s the notion of solstice and demonstrating the science behind our days and seasons. Historically, this was at a time when the Stone Age was ending and metals were being introduced; it’s a good excuse to experiment with tool making and learning about the substances used, the history of tools in our society or by animals, and more. There is also the artistic aspect, which can be a great excuse to get out for some exercise in order to gather nature materials and create a version of it or something straight out of your own imagination.

Obviously a lot more than a letter is covered, which is why letterboards can work for older ages as well. The line of study for S may appeal more to older crowds (or 5-year-olds with an inexplicable passion) but there are far more lighthearted, simple ideas to try. A C-filled day might resemble this:

Over some Cereal you might Consult a map and Compass to Choose a Course. Your Clothes for the day might be very Colorful or have Characters or some other relevant thought. You could do a walking tour to a C destination (street, business, what have you) and along the way Chart vehicles – maybe Count how many red Cars versus blue, or Cars versus trucks – or white versus all others and later Calculate the percentage. On the return trip, switch tactics: point out items beginning with C or find it on signs. Have a Container to Collect items in, and when you get home sort them into sets – do some intersect? When you are ready to relax a bit, Cuddle up in a Comfortable Chair with some C-centric snacks and read books like Curious George or Clifford. Once rested, put on some Chopin and use your seats to play musical Chairs. Maybe Cook or Create some art… or Chill out and Call it a successful day. Whatever you choose across the day, just note, “Hey – you want to go climb a tree instead? That starts with C; go for it!” The more playful and relaxed, the better it goes over, I promise. Remember how little pressure you felt when teaching about the red flower or the horses in the field? Gentle repetition while enjoying an experience together can move mountains.

Teaching kids is something natural and shouldn’t be compounded by feeling a sudden external pressure of conforming to educational guidelines set forth in schools that are meant to deal with the masses. Neither should it be constrained by a specific style or curriculum. Ideally, all these elements should have a fluidity and be able to complement each other rather than cause stress or concern. Working at home allows a deeper connection to that which is necessary to learn, and the ability to be flexible in approach. My son mastered red and horse in a process that we both enjoyed, and that is what I strive to maintain. I look for there to be growth, development, curiosity, interest, and enjoyment on his side. My job is to provide the spark, momentum and conducive environment. If a seed has dirt, water and sun, it will grow. As a teacher it is my responsibility to nurture him along to help him reach his full potential, but with the understanding that the potential is already inherent within him, not something I have to provide. Basically, I act as the gardener, offering an enriching environment and a supportive structure, pouring on some fertilizer as needed in the form of inspiration, and watching him take off and thrive.

Posted in Home

When Real Life Resumes

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Today is the one-month mark since we last spent time with friends, so it seemed a fitting occasion to pass on some musings on the current state of things. A month is a long time to spend at home – and we have been home almost exclusively in that time; today we made our second trip to the grocery store and it was incredibly exciting as a result, even if we were only nabbing a couple quick items. (Pandemic or not, sometimes you just can’t refuse the siren call of ice cream…) Not only have we been home, but it’s us. The two of us. Day in, day out, all 24 hours. Granted, this is by no means unusual; for the last two years I have reflected back at the end and have only been able to count about 10 hours in each that we have spent apart. Thus, I had expected this time to be a pretty easy and relaxed sort, but there were a few things I hadn’t counted on – as well as several delightful discoveries that have crept up on me.

With good company and a steady supply of books, anything is possible

First, in regards to our time together – I love it. I do. I am blessed beyond belief to be able to call this kid mine. He is so darn smart, with a smile and laugh that can light up the world, and he gives the sweetest butterfly kisses (or, yesterday, kisses to butterflies). That doesn’t mean it’s always easy though. I felt immediately sorry for him to not have playmates; at five, you need someone who can keep up with you, both physically and imaginatively. I wear a lot of hats around here and for him, but playmate isn’t really one of them. Part of me feels bad about this, but the other part of me realizes it is not up to me to fill every role in his life. He needs to need others, and to rely on himself as well. On my end of the deal, it took a while to realize how much I need the little moments – the drive into town, the quiet at the library, the distraction of running errands – to get that slight break for myself. Without those little snatches of time – which I never really thought of before as an anything, since we’re still together for them – I found myself getting cranky. Without a time or two a week to play with a peer, he got restless. And cue the head-butting. Thankfully, we do have a solid base and adore each other, so we are finding our way – but yes, we have our moments. And we look forward to our mini-breaks with friends and daily rhythms when Real Life resumes.

Giving a black swallowtail a kiss

My second big realization: it is amazing how little I can accomplish when I am home 24/7. Seriously. The house looks like a tornado hit it pretty much always; I am adrift in unfinished projects; I have probably done fewer creative educational activities in the last month than any in recent history; I have neglected writing; I have yet to finish even one of the books I checked out over a month ago… and the list goes on and on. How is this possible? It seems when the outside world hit the slo-mo button, I went for pause instead. We have been in a bit of a drought weather-wise, so pretty much every day looks like this: rouse late, head for a sunny spot on the porch with coffee, set up the picnic blanket in the yard once the coffee is drunk, and… straggle back in before dark. Our dining table is used only for dumping projects on at the end of the day when we drag ourselves in for bedtime stories. I have begun to fear I will prove utterly useless when Real Life resumes.

Our current motto: anything worth doing can be done outside

Another thing I have been noticing is the beauty of spring. This may sound fairly absurd, as I’m pretty certain this is the season most noted for beauty, but hear me out. We are in town multiple times a week normally, and town is about 500 feet lower in elevation than we are. I never noticed the contrast before. Now we are seeing our spring, which is a more rural version. In town the streets are lined with beautiful, blooming trees that eclipse the more subtle hints of the season. I enjoy them every year, while barely noticing the nuances that surround us at home. This year, we hit town one day at peak bloom and were wowed, as our trees were still pretending it was winter, gray and dull and seemingly stubborn. I found myself frowning at them, inspecting them, and then slowly marveling at them. The town trees went from vibrant color one trip to full-tilt greenery the next. Meanwhile our trees very slowly winked and teased with traces of color. I discovered spring is like a secret fall: you can see all the colors, just in whispers. The trees right now shimmer with yellows, greens, reds, oranges, browns – in miniature. The baby leaves let you in on what is to come a couple of seasons from now. How have I never seen this before? I am determined to pay more attention to detail when Real Life resumes.

Our very stubborn trees ignoring the grass and flowers about the change of seasons

Beyond plants, we have both been caught up in our surrounding nature during this and feel so fortunate for where we are. My hat is off to anyone living in less rural areas; the countryside and its inhabitants have truly been our saving grace in this time. I posted recently on the Facebook page about my son and his kinship with animals – a chance encounter with a random critter can be the difference in a whole day for him. Across the last month we have enjoyed two salamanders, a snake, a couple of frogs, horses, our cat and dogs. We have been thrilled to see the local pileated woodpecker up close and have blue jays begin building a nest in a pine along the edge of the yard. We have mourned the loss of our senior male cardinal and extend our sympathies to his widow whenever we hear her call for him. We cheered the return of the hummingbirds and the butterflies. We are distressed over the absence of a favorite toad. Essentially, this has broadened and deepened our kinship with our fellow inhabitants. We are both nature lovers, but now we have the luxury of time and necessity of of filling it to expand upon the basics and feel the pulse of everything sharing our space. I hope we can keep that connection when Real Life resumes.

Appreciating the little things – the little things with many, many legs

Overall, I am so thankful for this experience. It has had nothing to do with the the one thing it has everything to do with: the global pandemic. I’ll admit, I don’t watch the news. I have not, even once across this time, watched the news or read a newspaper or even a full article on the subject. It is impossible to escape though, so I hear plenty, and occasionally check local statistics. I observe guidelines and protocols and am saddened by how many lives have been lost or are in turmoil in the many ways this has affected people, and I in no way intend to cheapen that by relating our experiences. But here on our little green hill, I am grateful for the time, if not the circumstance. I appreciate the challenge it has been, the lessons it has taught, the quiet moments it has shown, the insights I have gained. If I could change anything on this month anniversary, it would be to see our friends again, to spend another fun day together watching the boys romp. And, by golly, we would eat out. I am pretty ready to not cook for just one night. A week or so ago I was starting to pull my hair out a bit and very ready to be done with lockdown, but apart from a few details like these – I’m honestly going to be a little sad when Real Life resumes. (…Though still a little happy, too.)

How are you?