Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

This Eclectic Life

Which way do you like to homeschool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in environmental issues, Home

Almost Home

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

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

I found the dresser! Three cheers for little wins.

It also has had me reflecting across the day.

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

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

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

And then…

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

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

The current state of affairs reads something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Curious Minds

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How important is curiosity to you?

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

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

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

Some points to ponder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy exploring!

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

The Big Worries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in environmental issues, extraschooling, 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, Home

Leverage

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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.

Hmmm.

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, 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.