Monday, May 14, 2012

Could it Be? The Washington Post Agrees with ME?

Just read this article called Why we're getting the homework question wrong.

I agree with absolutely everything in this article, the premise of which is that hours of homework after a 7-hour day in school is counterproductive. Well, yes. There is this one thing, though--If schools are to change this situation and assign less homework, then they will actually have to teach during classroom hours, test less, and relate more with students and parents. Authentic assessment and a vested trust in quality teachers will have to be the norm. This ship may be too big to turn, but it's great that people are speaking up.

I am so grateful that we don't face this issue--that our kids are done with school at a reasonable time and are free to pursue their own interests, play make-believe, jump on the trampoline, tromp through the woods, draw, read, or climb a favorite tree with a favorite stuffed animal. Yes, they watch t.v. and play computer games sometimes, but these are not their primary activities. They play games, have nerf-gun wars, play with friends, ride scooters, set up army men...They engage in classic childhood play. The sad reality, however, is that they do this in a neighborhood that is nearly devoid of other children out playing after school hours because they are all stuck inside behind their desks, so my children have lost out on the community play that I remember so fondly as a kid. We have to be very intentional to get together with other homeschooling families to make time for play with friends (and we do--often).

I truly feel for the parents that I know who must send their children to school for reasons beyond their control, who recognize that life behind a desk may not be the best existence for a kid. I hope that this situation changes for their sakes...I really do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tapestry of Grace Co-op: Pros and Cons of 2011-2012

I wrote a mid-year blog post about our TOG co-op and how it was going. Now that we are coming to the end of the year, I would like to consider the pros and cons of the situation and process through a bit of what we learned.

The pros were obvious:
  • We had a wonderful time meeting together with friends every week
  • The children enjoyed learning and playing together and engaging in activities we would not do on our own. 
  • After each 9-week unit we would hold a pot-luck style "unit celebration" with the other families where projects, presentations, and fun sewing projects and costumes were displayed. These were lovely evenings that everyone enjoyed immensely. 
  • We also scheduled regular field trips together, and these were smashing successes. Some favorites were a trip a gold mining museum, hiking, a visit to a Civil War battlefield, panning for gold, a lovely trip to the zoo, and a docent tour of French Impressionists at the NGA. 
Overall, our own studies at home were spurred on by the knowledge that we would be meeting with the group. It provided the accountability we needed to stay on track. Our weekly gatherings went something like this:
9:30 - 10:00 a.m. - gather and set up
10:00 - meet together and pray, go over scripture memory and any other memory work that we were working on (such as the Gettysburg Address).
10:15 - break up into smaller groups (lower grammar, upper grammar, dialectic) for literature discussions. 
11:00 - 12:00 craft or activity related to the week's topic
12:00 - lunch and play
1:00 - break up, clean up and dismiss
The cons were not as obvious and were a bit trickier to negotiate. Whenever there is the attempt to be a part of or to manage a group of people (no matter how wonderful) there are dynamics that come into play and some are inevitably going to be less than completely satisfied. I will discuss the cons from my perspective, and since my pals from the group will likely read this, I would invite them to comment and weigh in from their perspectives if they want to.

The group of moms and students that came together were wonderful. All of them became even better friends to our family through the year, and the kids grew and developed closer relationships with each other as well. It is from this group that we have most of our play dates and it is with these friends that the majority of our time is spent, so I guess I would say that the challenges lay not in any form of personality conflict, but rather in household dynamics, academic levels, and learning styles.

Household factors included illnesses, pregnancies and the arrival of a new baby, a dad deploying, large family needs and small family needs, dealing with toddlers and teenagers...the list could go on, but one could sum it up in a word--life! These (for me) were nothing more than an opportunity to extend grace and enjoy the diversity of our group. It became a very supportive community from my perspective, but there were moments when I'm sure it wasn't perfect for everyone.

I personally found the academic challenges more pressing. For instance, in combining students who were technically in the same level but possessed wide ranges of ability levels, it became difficult for the teachers to be able to satisfy all the students.
  • A very gregarious and advanced 2nd grade boy reading on a near-dialectic level in a group with a very quiet 1st grade girl who was not yet reading independently felt intimidating for the non-reader. 
  • The very quiet girl who is not really into group discussions but loves hands-on things paired with two other students who are talkative and always ready to answer left the teacher wondering how to reach the whole group effectively. 
  • The early-dialectic students combined with later dialectic students who were looking for a different sort of challenge made it difficult for the tutor to plan activities which could span the gap.
Another challenge that arose was that moms of dialectic students were finding it very difficult to fit in all the school work with just four mornings at home. If other activities were scheduled, a whole morning out took a big chunk of time away from core subjects and things you just need to be home in order to do. This became one of the key reasons for leaving CC last year, and over time, the same situation arose.

One might look at this list of issues above and suggest that this is just "life" in any classroom. Agreed. I was a teacher before I had kids and these are indeed the challenges that every instructor faces. Nevertheless, I am not necessarily seeking classroom dynamics for my kids. On the other hand, there is so much to be gained by group learning. This begs the question of where lies the balance between the two. I also had to consider that prepping for the group each week in addition to planning my own kids' daily lessons became an added stress. The result was a lovely case of burn-out in April, not only for me but for a few other families as well.

For the final unit, we decided to disband the weekly Monday morning meetings. We have taken a couple field trips and done a couple of activities on a smaller scale with the older group, such as literature discussions and a combined French class (not part of TOG) and West African culture lesson (which was from TOG). We are planning to have a field day for our final unit celebration, and our family will finish the last few weeks' reading over the summer months.

Currently, we are in the process of restructuring a bit--we are trying to fit together the best of what worked and lose the bits that didn't. One thing we all agree on is that we do not want to lose out on the benefit of meeting together. We are considering more of a club format, but this is not settled yet. I will continue with another post when we decide what that looks like. Look for that in late June. I'm about to be on a big, hairy break and that will not include planning for next year!

Week 32: In Which We Nearly Have Too Much Fun!

One of my face book status updates this week was "Pinch me...I may be too happy." This was due to the fact that I was going to be taking the kids to the National Gallery of Art the following day, and then on the weekend we would be celebrating our daughter's birthday...There was so much to look forward to. In this final unit of TOG, we study the French Impressionists, and what better way to do that than to go and visit their paintings in person. The NGA has a lovely collection of them and we enjoyed the tour very much.
Two days after that we took our kiddos to the annual education day at King's Dominion. It falls conveniently near my daughter's birthday each year, so for the past two years in a row she has celebrated her big day with a trip to the amusement park. We went with friends and had a blast--the weather was perfect! We had a big experiential lesson on the effects of g-forces on the human body, as we rode a 305-ft. roller coaster called the Intimidator. I rode it twice. I think that is enough for me. (Insert googly-eyes here)

Our school year is winding down. This is our final week of lessons before we take our long summer break. We have some grammar and math to wrap up, a piano recital to prepare for, and some reading to finish, and that is all! Golf started last week, so we have three lessons this week, the AWANA awards night, and then a week devoted to cleaning up the house from our very busy school year. After that, it's vacation, baby!

This will likely be my last weekly report for this year. I look forward to some time for reflection and the opportunity to write about other things than boxes being checked. It has been a busy, fun school year. I would say it has been the best we've ever had. We learned how to persevere, how to know when to pull back, how to balance a very full plate of "life," and how to enjoy each other in new ways. I look forward to what the next school term holds.

Happy Summer, everyone!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Week 31: In Which Mom has to say "Sorry" to the Kids

(We are currently listening to Around the World in 80 Days and every chapter begins with "In Which..." I like that. I especially like the chapters "in which Passepartout learns X." I love Passepartout.)

I haven't had time lately to do weekly updates since spring break, and here we are on week 31. We have been dragging the last few weeks--really dragging. Aside from one really great field trip to the National Zoo, there are no fun activities on which to report or cute pictures to reflect the idyllic nature of our homeschooling journey. It hasn't been very idyllic, frankly. I didn't take out my camera at all. The house is a mess, piles of library books are everywhere, Littlest Pet Shop seems to have taken over the family room, and there may even be some towels in piles upstairs where they were once left wet. Now they probably stink. (Thank God for baking soda and Lynelle who told me to put it in the laundry!) Okay, so before you think that it's all doom and gloom around here, let me share some photos of our wonderful day at the zoo...

Future Land's End Models

fun with the misters...

Matty's hair covered in mist...

Can't go to the zoo without a visit to the elephants...

sugar and spice and everything nice...

Our friend Isaac with his little Brother.

I'm quite sure this meerkat has a British accent.
So aside from the zoo, things had been sort of glum around here, with Mom really feeling uninspired to do lessons, the result of too much running around (especially on weekends) and not enough time to feather my nest and plan and care for the process. The trickle down effect meant that everyone else was pretty uninspired as well. It happens. I was about at the point of "chucking it in" and letting myself say that we've done so much this year already, it wouldn't be horrible if we quit here, but I said to myself, "Self--finish well!" This is a value that I try to instill in my children, and since it would not be wise to abandon the philosophy when it pertains directly to them, so we had a family meeting. Over dinner one evening this week I apologized for my attitude and modeling for them a poor spirit of leadership. I informed them of how I felt it so important that we "finish well" and not give up. I also reminded them of the wonderful break and vacation we have coming up, and how much more we'll appreciate it when we've run the race to the finish line. (In case you didn't know, this kind of speech is known as "preaching to the choir.") Before bed at prayer time we asked God for the strength and courage to push through and finish well.

Thankfully, the following morning was a complete turn-around, and attitudes were different. We ended up having a very successful school week and accomplishing more than I had hoped in a very timely fashion, leaving lots of free time for the kids to pursue other things that they have been wanting to do.

So...the plan is to complete Tapestry of Grace up through week 33. We will take a week off, clean up the house and school stuff, take our vacation, then over the summer we plan to continue math and language and any remaining reading that is assigned for weeks 34-36.


When we made the decision this year to leave CC and pursue TOG, I found myself thinking about a far greater number of things than curricula and which is the best. I was thinking about the future of our children, the final outcomes of their education, not just the nuts and bolts. What I desired was to find a curriculum that matched my vision for homeschooling, as closely as possible. We decided to write a vision statement for the education of our children. Here it is:

To raise and educate wholehearted individuals who are life-long learners, who understand and carry out our purpose and obligation to the Almighty, from worship to the spread of the gospel, to the establishment of Godly generations until the return of Christ. (Psalm 145:1-8)
This year has been phenomenal, overall. I have enjoyed every aspect of using Tapestry of Grace as well as our time spent with co-op friends. I would venture to say it has been our best year yet, but each year seems to be better and better as we gain new skills and new insight into our educational experience. I am learning better how to meet the needs of my children, and they are responding in ways that reward those efforts.

Our whole family loves the study of history, but I have found something this year that we love even more, and that is literature, especially literature that is shared. Tapestry of Grace encourages read-aloud selections for each period of history that is being studied. We read nearly all the assigned books this year (there were a couple we didn't get to) but we found that often one book led to another--as in the case of Oliver Twist, which led to David Copperfield, which led to Great Expectations, all of which were enjoyed immensely. We developed a habit of listening to audiobooks after morning lessons, over lunch. Tom Sawyer was a family favorite, as was the Secret Garden, and these are not the only stories, by far. One day I spent nearly four consecutive hours reading Moccasin Trail because none of us could bear to put it down! All of these books have greatly illumined the various periods of history that we are studying. It is the power of story that has made this school year come alive. It is the power of shared story that has breathed life into our days and made us feel excited about school. We still have the math and the writing and the grammar, but the knowledge that if we hurry, we can get to the story sooner...that is fun...that is learning!

So I am thinking about things in a slightly different way for next year. I am wondering how they will take shape, but I believe that for 20th century history, literature study will be front and center, helping us to understand and appreciate the events which have so impacted our current existence. I hope to be able to begin to foster a love for literature and for reading which will establish that vision that I have for life-long learners who are followers of Christ.