Saturday, September 29, 2012

Week 5: How DIY Projects Build Character

Stick with me...this story is a bit longer than most weekly updates, but it's not just a blow-by-blow account of a DIY project.

A couple of years ago I told my husband how dearly I would like to have a paver-style patio outside our basement door. I got an estimate from a guy and quickly realized that we would have to do it ourselves. His estimate was not unreasonable, just way more than we could pay for such a job with a decent contractor, so my husband decided to do it himself...but like most DIY projects we didn't get around to it until this year. Now, however, my son is old enough and strong enough to help with such a project, so my husband agreed to pay him $3.00 / hour to help, and help, he did!

"Houston, We have a problem..."
At the beginning of the project we realized it would take a week longer than expected because we had to install a french drain due to, well, drainage issues. Then we got a couple of inches of rain, indicating further  problems, so another weekend was spent on yet another french drain. Matty was out there in the ditch, swinging a pick-axe, getting muddy, and installing the drain, taking orders without complaint from his dad. The next weekend they laid the crushed stone base and used a hand-tamper to compact it. It was all tiring, muscle-building, blister-forming work. Then during the next few days it rained again so we suspended work and the following weekend we all pitched in and laid the stone. It was on this third weekend that I discovered that my son has an uncanny knack for patterns and numbers. He and I designed a pattern for the patio, he took one good look at it, and never needed to again. He did the job of laying the stones and calling for the next, never forgetting where we were in the pattern. We finished laying all the stone, with the intention of ordering the machine-compactor the following weekend, which would then be four consecutive weekends on the patio project. How many trips to Lowe's or Home Depot that adds up to I cannot venture a guess. Glen wants me to be sure to give a shout-out to his beloved truck, which faithfully hauled sand, bricks, a heavy compactor and anything else the project required. He should pay his truck, too...

Starting to dig the last drain
Finally the day we were to finish the project came and we unloaded the compactor. All three of us watched eagerly as Glen started it up, pushed it onto the bricks, and then watched in horror as the compactor, bricks, sand and base sank deeply into a hole of mushy clay, the entire project ruined in about 30 seconds flat. We realized that about half of the patio still had drainage problems, despite the two french drains already installed. I wanted to cry so I went inside and called my "b.f.f." who sympathized perfectly with our plight and instead of crying laughed hysterically with me over the whole scenario. My poor son who had put so much hard work into the project cried frustrated tears and just wanted to give up and plant grass. I couldn't blame him.

Here is where one begins to wonder whether or not it is worth it to pursue a project like this, but by God's grace I was able to see that we were not just building a patio, we were building character in a young man. Up to this point the job had endured some set-backs, but nothing like needing to start over completely, which is essentially what they had to do. He was tired, work-sore, wanting the job to just be finished, and I understood that, but I had to remind him what it means to persevere. I found our recent study of the Wright brothers a fitting analogy. After their first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, a rogue breeze came and picked up the flyer and smashed it to bits. I'm afraid I would have given up at that point! Thankfully they didn't but Matty's response to my lecture was, "Mom, I don't need to go down in history!" (Okay, but today you need to obey your dad, and he is not giving up, so neither are you.) A few minutes later he was out there beside his dad, removing every last brick, carefully digging up the sand and base, and once again, swinging the pick-axe and installing the last drain. He did not complain again for rest of the day, and even smiled through the ordeal.
Second Try!
Not wanting to give up a fifth weekend to this project I requested my husband take some time off from work and just get the job done. I released Matty from his regular school work, and so Tuesday of this week, they worked like maniacs and got the entire job done. Matty laid the patio while Glen and Molly ran bricks for him. The actual paving part was done in just three hours. The finished product turned out even better than the first attempt!
IT'S DONE! (the bale of straw is for the garden. It won't stay there!)
Now we have only to get the trampled lawn repaired with some top-soil and grass seed. We plan to install trellis and planter boxes along the bare wall, put a copper fire pit on the corner, and perhaps a swing or a few comfy chairs for evenings with friends by a cozy fire. By next spring, the DIY channel will be coming to our house for advice!

So what did we get done this week in "school?" Not a lot. A little math, a little grammar, some science here and there, but overall, this project was so worth the time we spent. Matty learned the meaning of hard work, perseverance, and stretching himself beyond what he thought he was able. He learned about sore muscles and going to bed really, really tired, but satisfied with a job well done. He built his relationship with his dad, and they truly bonded through this. He took orders and shared his opinion, and learned a valuable skill. He earned every penny of the check we wrote for him, and he is proud of it. I now can look back at the bricks in my backyard as a milestone of growth for my son, and can always remind him that he can do what he sets his heart and mind to do, and to not give up!

I am so glad that I did not hire that contractor. This patio is priceless.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Week 4: More than School

This week was a very nicely-paced week of school. Once again, my kids delighted me with their attitudes toward school. They seem to finally understand that every day that we get up and have breakfast on Monday through Friday, we are going to do school. You might be thinking "well, duh," but in all sincerity, there have been seasons in which there was a sort of disbelieving "What? We have to do school today?" reaction from them, as if it was some sort of new thing I was springing on them at random times. Perhaps they are finally grasping the concept of time and routine? Maybe? It may also be that on Monday and Wednesday mornings I roll them out of bed and take them to swim for an hour from 7:30 - 8:30. Perhaps while they are swimming their 800 meters they have time for it to sink in that they are going to do school when they get home. Whatever it is, I am grateful for the change.

This week Molly began reading The Wind in the Willows (Great Illustrated Classics edition). She is reading very well, but does not choose this as a leisure activity yet. She reads to me willingly out loud, but does not seem to enjoy silent reading as a personal pastime. On the other hand, she loves to listen to audiobooks and will choose wonderful stories to listen to on her own time. I am hoping that with a required time of 20 minutes of silent reading she will begin to enjoy reading to herself more often.

Gotta love school at home...still in pajamas, snuggled under a blanket.

Matty began reading about WWI for TOG. This immediately translated into miniature armies being set up for reenactments of trench warfare over No Man's Land. The kids had worked out rules for determining who got killed by rolling some dice, and played the game for several days. Nothing like applying what you are learning!

In science we began chapter 2 which covers bones. Both kids continue to be fascinated by the material. I am enjoying that we can cover the same science topic together--perhaps for the last time before Matty has to move on to a more advanced program.
Molly is adding pictures of healthy and unhealthy bones to her notebook
In addition to our book-learnin', the past few weekends have been spent immersed in a DIY project that turned out to be, well, just like most DIY home-improvement projects--long, drawn-out and fraught with set-backs. My husband and son rose to the occasion to build a patio just outside the basement back-door, leading to the back yard. I have wanted this for the seven years we have lived here. They did the research on how to do it, made a thousand trips to Lowe's and Home Depot, and we all worked together to get that thing laid. I am going to cut this blog post short and simply say that this project turned out to be one of those things where life teaches you more than any book ever could. I will post photos and the story in my next post.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Week 3: Full Week of Good, Hard, Work

This week was a week full of training--of bodies, of minds, of spirits, and of character. We are all tired, but satisfied for a job well done.

Both kiddos started swimming this week. Mondays and Wednesdays from 7:30-8:30 a.m., so earlier mornings and tired bodies were factors to contend with. We managed, but it seemed that Tuesday and Thursday both were the days I "paid" for their workouts. I know they will adjust.

Wednesday evening they both started back to AWANA--Molly to (her last year) and Matty to TNT (his last year).

Our best activity of the week was mapping Central America and the Carribean and labeling with "flags and tags." This week's history topics were Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. We read a very interesting book about the construction of the Panama Canal and so had plenty to discuss as we made our maps. I meant to take a picture but forgot, but wanted it to go on record that we made a large number of very tiny paper-cut-out-bits that went everywhere. I always feel we have accomplished something when there are tons of paper bits on the floor...and I actually directed the cutting and pasting.

The highlight of my week was our second co-op meeting for science and dialectic-level literature. We discussed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. This was actually an upper grammar (UG) selection, but there was great material for discussion and analysis. I have been discussing the literature using a Deconstructing Penguins style of discussion.

The co-op has changed a bit this year, as we decided to gear it more toward the Dialectic students. We have simplified it tremendously by not planning an activity each week, and by structuring the discussion to be a certain subject each time (i.e. literature), and by following a predictable format. We have also gone to meeting only every other week so that we have the alternate weeks to enjoy more field trips! We have also added a science lab for the second hour. The discussion this week was fantastic, and the kids enjoyed making, discussing, and eating cell models. (They were made from Jell-O.)

I promised my son I would post this photo on the blog for crossing his eyes.

Ours didn't come out of the bowl too well, but it didn't change the taste.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

More of my Favorite Things

If you have kids who color, you need Lyra colored pencils


These are the best colored pencils I have found. I have gone through the "just get cheap ones, it won't matter" stage, to "The gurus recommend good pencils so I'd better get Prismacolor" stage to the "I'm not sure colored pencils are all that," stage. That was until I came to these. I have in this picture a mixture of pencils, but they are all Lyra brand, both the "Ferby" types and the "Color Giant" types (the ones with painted sides). My daughter, who loves to color, absolutely loves these pencils. They are fat, they do not wear down quickly, they sharpen beautifully, and they never break inside--you know, that thing that happens when you're happily coloring along with a pencil and suddenly you have half a pencil and most of your lead stuck inside the sharpener? That never happens with these. The color is smooth and intense and blends beautifully. If you are starting out homeschooling with a young child just go ahead and spring for these and save yourself the heartache of spending over and over for inferior colored pencils. Spring for them if you have an older child, too. But wait, there's more...These pencils also have a set specifically designated for skin tones. My daughter is very particular about coloring people the right color. There is a whole box available for just skin tones. You need these. I didn't know there were so many varieties of brown "skin tone." Here are just a few because I have all of ours mixed together. There were 12 shades of skin tone in the pack.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that Prismacolor colored pencils are not good quality--they are. It is hard to find a soft lead that blends nicely and lays down smooth, intense color, and they certainly do. There is also greater variety of colors with Prismacolor, but for general coloring purposes, not to mention blending, these Lyra colors are the best. I would just save my money and purchase the Prismacolor much later.

If you have children who read books, and if you plan to discuss those books with your kiddos, then you need my next favorite thing:

This book has helped me tremendously in learning how to introduce literary analysis to kids. In studying literature with my kids, the thing I don't want to do is kill the love books for my readers. They really don't need to understand everything about literary analysis yet. What they need to know is how to really love and appreciate a book and how to ask questions about it. This book guides parents as they walk with their children through various book selections. The skills gained from these authors' experience leading elementary book club discussions will take students far in their journey of reading. 

My only reservation about this book is that in my opinion, they start the kids a little young. Not only would I not do a book club like this until 5th grade or so, I would also not discuss some of the selections they have chosen with children of the age they are describing. It is not a matter of them being unable to do so, but rather a matter of protecting their innocence for as long as possible.

This week we discussed Call of the Wild using the Deconstructing Penguins model of discussion with children aged 10-12. Every single student stayed fully engaged for over an hour as we discussed the beautiful progression of Buck from pampered prince to full-fledged King of the wild things. I have to credit this book with helping me to structure a conversation with the students that kept them so engaged for so long. All of them left feeling a deeper appreciation for the book than they had when they arrived. Mission accomplished.

Stay tuned for more of my "Favorite Things" as I think of them.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Week 2: Experiements, Museums and Book Clubs, Oh My!

It was a good, but short week. Monday was the Labor Day holiday, and on Wednesday we celebrated the fact that museums would be virtually empty by going to an exhibit and having the place nearly to ourselves! Wednesday held some important life lessons for us in addition to the information gained by the exhibit.

On Tuesday Dad was home telecommuting. Both he and Matty were pretty sore and tired from working on the patio they are laying in back, and we had stayed up quite late a couple of times over the long weekend. Tuesday, needless to say was not our most productive day, but we got some reading done and finished our mummified apple experiment from the previous week.

one week later: control apple was beginning to get moldy

Not a huge difference, but one has mold and the mummified one does not. Both dried out.
This week and next in TOG we will be covering the Titanic disaster, the Great San Francisco earthquake, and Teddy Roosevelt. Serendipitously, the National Geographic Museum in D.C. had a Titanic exhibit, to honor the 100th anniversary of the disaster. It was a fantastic exhibit, and if you have the chance to see it in another city, take the opportunity to do so. It is leaving here on the 9th.

entering the exhibit with friends
There were wonderful videos throughout the exhibit
Perry the Platypus! On the Titanic! What are the odds?
The detail of the 18 ft. scale model was amazing
more detail
the distress telegram from the Titanic
sad statistics...
The interactive wreck...step on the wreck and see where you are on the Titanic
detailed model of the wreck used in the movie by James Cameron
Hey, Perry!
We surprised the kids by bringing Perry the Platypus along (from the Disney show Phineas and Ferb) and starting what we are calling the "Where's Perry? Project." We will bring Perry along with us on field trips and travels, not unlike what a lot of people do with Flat Stanley. For my kids right now, Phineas and Ferb is much more relevant, crazy as they are about that silly show.

In literature, we finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, began listening to War Horse by Michael Morpugo, and covered 9 chapters! We hated to turn it off, so we just kept listening--over lunch, in the car, back in the house. It is a wonderful way to introduce WWI to kids, and while it conveys the miseries of war, it does so without too much graphic description that could traumatize younger children. Thanks for the idea, C.!

Thursday saw us doing more of the standard work: Geography, writing, math, reading. Matty returned to piano lessons after a long summer break Thursday afternoon. I asked him how it felt to be back and he said, "Well, it's like a boxer who takes a break from boxing, and goes back to it. He's ready to go back to boxing, but he's not happy about getting hit."

Friday we did morning work and then enjoyed getting together with friends for our first French class of the year followed by our first literature club meeting. We discussed Call of the Wild, and everyone came prepared and ready to participate. It was an excellent discussion and everyone left with a deeper appreciation for the book.

Learning Thesaurus skills with Writing With Skill
Mapping North America
Matty's World Empires map by Map Trek
Kirigami (Paper cutting) is Molly's hobby that she works on when I am busy with Matty
French Class!
Overall it has been a very productive week. Next week our regular activities of swimming and AWANA start, and the full routine will be in place. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

When Life is the Teacher...

I have always held the belief (in theory) that life is school and school is life. There is a certain amount of book learning that we must do to be well-educated these days, but there are days when life experiences are themselves the best teachers. We had a day like that this week. It had to do with driving in Washington, D.C. I needed to go here, to the National Geographic Museum, but instead ended up somewhere near Maryland on the far side of the city as I patiently followed the directions my computer navigator gave me. I had given my son the job of entering things in the Garmin and then reading street signs for me. He does a great job of finding the signs and telling me when it's nearly time to turn, but this time he had made the small error of not entering the correct numbers into the street address, and we did not discover the error until I felt that, after several miles and about 342 stop lights we were really not in the right part of town (I had been to the museum before and nothing looked familiar). Finally I asked him, "What numbers did you enter?" and surely, he had entered the wrong numbers on 17th St. and we were in a whole other part of town. To make a long and stressful story short, it took us 1.5 hours to get to a place we should have reached in 40 minutes. There was later another tangle with construction and lack of parking, a rainstorm and an acrobatics show that was expected to last 45 minutes that only lasted... 5 minutes. Yes, it was one of those days.

The lesson came over dinner, when we talked about what went wrong. Matty thought it was in not navigating well, not warning me in enough time to make turns, (I did go around blocks quite a few times because of this, which didn't bother me so much) but I pointed out that the greatest frustration was in getting lost due to the incorrect entering of numbers--a simple problem that could have been solved with a double-check. It was an honest mistake the first time, and next time it will be foolish. He got it. He took it in. I'll absolutely give him another chance. But this is really what it is all about, isn't it? Life is the educator! We both experienced the stress and frustration of getting lost, of carelessness, of being late for an appointment, but we were able to look back and glean some value from it. When I told him that I didn't blame him, that I would get him to navigate again for me, that I would continue to give him jobs that required his responsible diligence, he was relieved. He said, "You will!?" as though he really didn't think I would have faith in him for next time...but I do. Even if it means getting lost again.

When I think about "why I do this..." I cannot help but think it has something to do with days like this one--lessons learned hard, with a wise parent-friend to guide them through, to love them in spite of their shortcomings, to celebrate the overcoming of a thing.
It's not that other parents don't do this, because I know they do, and there are many great parents out there who don't homeschool. It's just that I love how it is so naturally woven into our daily life--that education and coming and going and living and experiencing are all the same thing, not compartmentalized into "this happened at home" and "this happened at school." School is life and life is school. Every day.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

These are a Few of my Favorite Things

Don't you love it when you find a tool that you can use for more than one purpose, or a purchase that you use over and over and really get your money's worth? Here are a few items that I believe have (or definitely will) be worth the money I spent on them because of the usefulness or enjoyment that we get from them.

1. Audible is the number-one purchase I have made for homeschooling. My kids and I love literature, and while I read out loud to them a lot, they read to themselves, there is always more to cover. We all absolutely love Audible. We can find almost any book we want to read, read by a fabulous narrator, and we get to enjoy it together. Maybe I'm just a big kid, but I still love listening to a story. I would much rather do that than watch t.v. I have also used audible for myself on a number of occasions and have "read" some of my favorite books this way. For instance, I read The Help and loved that book so much that I wanted to read it again, but took a different slant and listened to it on Audible instead. The performances by the readers of this book were phenomenal! I enjoyed it even more than I did reading it myself. Another book I couldn't stop listening to was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. My family couldn't talk to me for a few days and my ears hurt from the ear buds, but my house was very clean that week.

The kids and I look forward to lunch time every day because that is our literature hour. I prepare lunch and they turn on the iPod (stationed at a dock in the kitchen) and we listen. so far we have covered Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer, Around the World in 80 days, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, all of Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby series and the Henry Huggins series (fun for the summer!) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

My next favorite thing involves my favorite thing to do--write! Writing is one of those disciplines that I believe people THINK they understand, but in actuality, they don't. Most of us who were raised in the '80s were deprived of excellent writing instruction, and many just fell through the cracks, and this crisis persists even now. I remember thinking that I had aced English in high school, and was shocked and horrified to have my first freshman level composition returned to me, covered in red, with a recommendation that I seek assistance at the writing center. While I believe that I have overcome these initial shortcomings in my ability to write, somewhere down the line my writing instruction fell short. Therefore, I willingly submit to the expertise of someone who is a proven student, writer, teacher, and home educator to avoid the formation of those holes in the education of my children.

2. Writing With Ease by Susan Wise Bauer and her lectures entitled A Plan for Teaching Writing: Taken alone, Writing With Ease (WWE) is one of the best writing curricula out there. Combined with the lectures she has given, it is phenomenal. I have listened to the lectures numerous times--at least two or three times per school year. Bauer is a professor at William and Mary, she has multiple degrees to her name, she was classically homeschooled in an era when this was unheard of, and she herself has homeschooled her four children. There is an excellence about everything that she writes and every lecture she gives. If I understand "The Plan" and am willing to admit that this lady has some sense, I truly believe that my children will turn out to be competent, and perhaps even excellent writers.

5. If we're on the subject of Susan Wise Bauer, then my next favorite thing (which should probably be listed as my #1 favorite homeschooling tool--ever!) is her book The Well-Trained Mind. Don't use it as a formula, but as a guide book, road map, general reference, sanity-finder, talk-me-down-off-that-ledgerator. Quite simply, don't leave home school without it. 

4. Map Trek : There are two things for which I am constantly in search. One is the perfect vacuum cleaner, and the other is the perfect collection of maps. I have not found the perfect vacuum, but Map Trek maps are the closest thing I have found to the perfect collection of maps. They are relevant, clear, and can be printed out on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. There are maps for just about every topic in history that one could cover, and there is a student's version and a teacher's version. Perfect! The one shortcoming that they have is that the tiny details that may be found on some maps may not be present on these, so if you are looking to study physical features or mountain ranges in detail this would not be the right choice. These are intended to go along with the study of history. For example, when we were studying how the plague ravaged Europe in the middle ages, there was a map showing what areas were most affected and in what years. There are many other maps illustrating various other concepts. It is an ideal companion to the study of history, and can be dowloaded in a minute! For $47.00, you can own every map you would need to study history from Ancient times right up to the current war in Afghanistan.

5. Notebooks for Apologia Science: I'm finding that I really don't have to do things the hard way in order to be a good teacher. I don't have to create every worksheet and lap book from scratch! I have wondered for a while if the notebook companions to the Apologia textbooks were worth the money, and finally this year I purchased them to accompany our Anatomy and Physiology book. We have only worked on the first lesson of the book, but in so doing I am figuratively smacking myself on the forehead saying, "This is GREAT! WHY didn't I use these before!?" There are two levels, one for my younger student and one for my older. The notebooks include diagram exercises, study questions, vocabulary exercises, writing exercises, and copy work. You could choose to do all of it or just the pages that benefit your child most.

6. Sticky backed 8 1/2 x 11 sheets: I am so glad we discovered this! My kids love to print photos off from the internet to illustrate notebooks, timelines and lap books. Sticky-back paper means all we have to do is cut out the picture, peel and stick. While I don't mind glue sticks or glue to do this same job, there is a certain "cool" factor that this holds for the kids, since they have made their own stickers. They save time too, and that holds a certain "cool" factor for me.

So far this school year these are my favorite things. I'm sure I'll add to the list as time goes on, but it's early yet! Happy learning!