Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Your Inner Darwin

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

Okay, now, moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

This Eclectic Life

Which way do you like to homeschool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in environmental issues, Home

Almost Home

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

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

I found the dresser! Three cheers for little wins.

It also has had me reflecting across the day.

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

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

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

And then…

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

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

The current state of affairs reads something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Curious Minds

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How important is curiosity to you?

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

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

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

Some points to ponder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy exploring!

Posted in education, extraschooling

Homeschool Reality Check

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What does it mean to be homeschooled?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See them on Amazon:

90-Day Jumpstart



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

The Four C’s

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You’re probably familiar with the three R’s of school – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. They have been around for over 200 years now, which suggests they may be in need of an update. I personally have a different set of educational goals: curiosity, creativity, communication, and compassion. With these four elements you give your child the tools to tackle just about anything in life, which is what we are ultimately trying to do by educating them. Let’s take a closer look at each element, shall we?

Curiosity. I just can’t say enough about the importance of this. If I had to order these concepts, curiosity would likely top the list. I recently shared Goalcast’s video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaking about retaining a child’s natural curiosity on the Extraschooling Facebook page. The video is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet. I want my son to always enjoy learning and push himself ever onward because of a question leading to exploration that then exposes ten more questions. I want him to know that the only bad question is the one not asked. I want him to want to experiment and attempt, no matter how many failures he might face, because the urge to discover is still so strong in him. I want the words “What if…” to be always on the tip of his tongue, with an accompanying gleam in his eye.

Creativity. There are many forms of this in the world. Creativity is the artistic spark. It is also the beginning steps of many entrepreneurs. It can help solve interpersonal or international problems. It can light the way when conventional methods aren’t helping something to be understood and can inspire someone in a rut. Having creativity in your back pocket is like having a survival kit in your pack. You may be able to get by without it on many occasions, but it can be your salvation in a moment of need. We all have times when we need to somehow make something out of nothing, and our creativity dictates the result; it is a quiet but vital tool to have at your disposal.

Communication. It is such a tricky thing these days. It seems like we communicate constantly, thanks to the internet and social media; yet at the same time that the quantity seems to have skyrocketed, the quality seems to be suffering. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are often overlooked. Words are typed faster than the brain can think it seems, and things that would never be spoken in person are engraved in the cyber cloud. One-liners take the place of dialogue. Tone and body language, the nuances of communication, are lost. Now that we have mastered computer discourse, it is important to revisit real communication. I want my son to be able to articulate a well-thought-out idea: I want him to know how to research, discern the information presented, construct his own opinion, and be able to convey it in a clear and understandable fashion. If he has strong communication skills (which include the ability to truly listen to others – true communication is a two-way street) then he has the potential to move mountains.

Compassion. Again, if I were to assign rankings, this would be vying for the top with curiosity. We are in this thing we call life together, not a vacuum. We do not have to like each other. It would be great if we could at least understand each other. But it is imperative that we are at a minimum compassionate toward one another. From the beginning, he has heard me go on about the fact we are all different, and thank goodness for it. Our differences make the world a better, more interesting and vibrant place. Certain differences can make life very hard for some, and we need to always be cognizant of that and aim to find ways to better the society and world in which we share space. This extends beyond humanity of course; we need to practice this mindfulness in terms of our planet as a whole. I am grateful that I have a son who has a love of the natural world, and who early on latched onto the theme that some people may be one way, some may be another way, and that’s okay. There’s room for all of us.

So there you have it – my four C’s. The shift from the three R’s is necessary for me, because parenting and school is so intertwined; I am not looking to just help grow and shape his mind, but to help grow and shape his character. The two seem rather inextricably linked, so it makes sense to tend them equally and simultaneously.

Posted in education, extraschooling

What Are They Supposed to be Learning, Anyway?

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…And are we capable of teaching it?

For some people, the idea of homeschooling seems monumental. If you aren’t a certified teacher, can you teach? What if you weren’t a straight-A student yourself? What if you didn’t even like school?

Well. Then you’re like many of us. Don’t sweat it.

I was recently reading posts discussing reasons to homeschool, fears of new homeschoolers, and common criticisms doled out from those who opt for public school. There were some common themes repeated in each category. For reasons, there were comments like freedom to choose what to study and how, being able to better assist those with special needs, getting more time as a family, avoiding bullying, the ability to set your own schedule, not being tied down geographically, and simply the love of helping your child learn.

The fears and criticisms were generally closely linked, and one was definitely at the top: Am I/Are you capable? (The whole socialization debate – a close second! – we can save for another time!)

One refrain made me laugh. To answer if they were capable, several made the argument that they went to public school, so if it is such a great thing, then they should be able to handle it. It is an amusing quip, but not exactly the answer I give. First though, let me fill you in on my hodgepodge of an education.

I went to preschool. This is the one “grade,” if you will, I ever completed in public school, though I went to most of kindergarten. After that I was homeschooled by my father through the sixth grade. Up until the last year he created our entire curriculum. It was a mix between what would now be considered more unschooling and using thrift-store textbooks. The final year he taught us we were traveling, and he ordered a bunch of workbooks from a homeschool catalog. By the time I would’ve entered seventh grade, he said we needed to be self-starting in our education, and that was the end of that. I wound up having to attend about 4 months of the 8th grade in a public school, then when I turned 17 I borrowed prep books from the library, studied for two weeks, and got my GED. A few years later I attended a few semesters in a community college before realizing my propensity for dropping out of classes was an expensive habit. I was willing to go back to a trade school for a specific purpose if the need arose, but school for the sake of a degree was just not for me. So of course it follows that now I love creating lessons and helping kids learn…

But to get back to the point. When I am asked if I am concerned about my ability to teach my son, the answer is no. Few of us remember the endless, time-filling trivia of school. What you need from an education is this:

  • the ability to function under pressure (take a test)
  • the ability to gather your thoughts into a cohesive argument (write a paper)
  • to know how to find answers (research techniques)
  • to be curious and enjoy learning

Obviously along the way the basics (ABC’s, 123’s, etc) fit in there, but these four things will get you far in life. For instance, you may not know how to do a new job right off the bat, but if you have the ability to communicate and know how to find answers, chances are you’ll master it quickly. And though this post obviously is with homeschooling in mind, I want to be clear that I am in no way saying these cannot be achieved in public school or any other format; I would merely say that regardless of how your family chooses to educate, these are some good standards by which to evaluate how any system is working. If all four boxes are getting checked, it seems you’re on the right path, whatever it may be.

The beauty of homeschooling to me is that you can really cultivate the love of learning, and focus on building these essential traits, rather than filling hours and days and weeks with busywork. You don’t have a quota or a boss or finals breathing down your neck; pick topics that matter, and then approach them in a way that makes that clear. If they come alive, they’ll be better remembered, and offer a frame of reference for others.

The last point I would make was one I saw repeated constantly in all those posts: if you arm your children well along the way, you cease holding the lead role in their education right around the time they might hit into subjects we no longer recall how to explain. At this point your position changes to that of facilitator, while they take the reins and run with it. So whether you’re trying to do all their schooling at home or adding enrichment on the side, just know: you are fully qualified, because you care enough to be trying to be even better.

Posted in education, extraschooling

Join in the Journey

That is likely the first thing anyone who visits this site sees. So what does it mean? I said in another post that in the old journey vs destination debate, I am a journey kind of person; and that is at the heart of a lot of the suggestions and ideas that you will find me posting on here.

One of my favorite things at this stage of my life is inspiring that spark of curiosity in kids – that sudden light in their eyes, the look when those gears start chugging away in their brains. I don’t actually write these posts because I love to write; what I love is to feed a love of learning in people. We are all born with it, so it seems a shame if it is ever allowed to die out.

Give me a topic, and I will enjoy the challenge of creating a way to bring it to life. I enjoy tailoring learning opportunities to engage people. But what I don’t have any interest in doing is making a neat package that can be tied up in a bow, something that guarantees a frame-able finished product in 15 minutes or less. That is just not my style. I like to dig in and get my hands dirty when I learn, and the end result is something discovered when I get there. With the chance it will have zero reflection on where I started.

What I’m trying to say is this: I like projects that are open-ended, much in the way a good reporter’s questions should be. Occasionally I may have one whole thought on a matter and be able to deliver it in set steps, but more often it will be more like a smattering of suggestion. The instructions are probably going to read like this most times: start with ingredients A, B, an C. But you could add D, Q, Y or 5. Mix to taste and see if it needs a little pepper. Bake if desired, or freeze into popsicles, depending on temperature and preference.

I use a cooking metaphor because that is essentially how I cook; I glance at a couple recipes, halfway merge the most interesting parts, stir in whatever strikes my fancy past that, and see what happens. To simplify: I look for a little direction, a little inspiration, and then I do my thing. And THAT is what I mean by the journey, and THAT is what I want to do for anyone looking at this site for lesson ideas for their kids. I want to give you a baseline thought, a few suggested ways of pursuing it, and then let you run with it where ever you wish. Where ever it takes you. (Additionally I will strive for fairly simple and always low- or no-cost.) I don’t want to hand you a destination. I want to hand you a path to explore, at your own pace and in your own way.

Ideally, I would love to build a community where we can all peek in from time to time when we’re feeling a little “teacher’s block” or whatever you may call it. I get it too! Are you stuck for ideas on how to get the ball rolling on a certain subject? Leave a comment or reach out. I will try to offer some suggestions. Have an interesting method you used to approach a topic? Share it! It may be just the thing someone else needs to propel them through. Use this site as a tool in whatever way best suits your situation. And enjoy the journey!

A path will only take us as far as we take it.
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Posted in extraschooling

Everyday Learning

Taking advantage of all the chances around us to help kids grow

I am a big fan of no-frills experiences. This is in regards to pretty much anything – I like to hike to simply be out in nature, no big views or destination needed; I think the good old stick and puddle can captivate a child far longer and in more meaningful ways than any flashing, beeping toy; and I am grateful that we can teach our kids for free what so many fancy devices and product lines claim we need them for.

For instance, go search for “sorting toys for kids.” There is a colorful plethora of birds, bees, blocks, shapes, numbers. There’s hard, soft, blinking, musical, sensory. There’s trains, trucks, tools, puzzles, food… What there is, is total overload. So how do you choose? How do you ensure your child grows up able to put rings in the correct ascending order or match colors or align shapes onto a tray for the pure satisfaction of them fitting?

I would say… don’t. Save yourself the headache of wading through the seemingly endless choices and the price tags that can vary from $10 to – gasp! – $300. Then go grab the load of laundry that is likely waiting to be put up (if you’re me anyway), and bring your kid along for company. How old is your little one? Give your baby colorful socks to play with. Have a set of nesting funnels? Hand them over, showing off how they can fit together or how funny it is to stick their socks over the pointy end. Let them test out various fabrics and colors.

As your child ages, branch out. There are so many sorting opportunities – go beyond sets into subsets. First clothes are divided by person, then by category (shirts? pants? hung? folded?) and for some items they are further put into matching pairs by color and style. Folding and hanging gets filed under motor skills and life skills at once. Is there an allowance given for chores? Great – help them understand budgeting and saving. Have them label each pile to practice their reading and writing, then count the pieces and add the number. If someone has 5 shirts, 3 pants, and 10 socks, how many items do they have altogether?

Don’t forget to play either. Pile all the laundry on them for a laugh. Use the basket as a hideout. Talk with sock puppets. Dress up in silly ways with the clothes. Use toys to deliver the folded laundry. Use the items for a version of Impromptu Storytelling Tag while you work. Or use the time to talk and really engage your child. Working side-by-side is a great way to get conversations flowing. Come up with a list of topics to discuss, keep them in a jar in the laundry basket, and grab one each time.

This is but one example of how easy it is to integrate learning with what you’re already doing; there are so many more. Check out the February 1st post on the Extraschooling Facebook page for another bunch of ideas, related to meal preparation for National Bake for Family Fun Month. You not only save time and money by engaging them in activities you need to get done anyway, but even more importantly: you get to share more time, laughs, and learning together.

Happy sorting!

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