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My children have actually made their own Halloween costumes every year. Although this sounds noble and intentional, it actually began more for economic reasons. I just couldn’t imagine spending their clothing budget on cheaply made costumes, and I haven’t ever known how to sew, the reason we’re all learning now. Ahem. In the past, they have used old dress-up, paper, toilet paper, tape, and other art supplies, some of which you might remember last year.

As I mentioned in this post in August, I have really tried to include handwork as a larger part of our learning this year. I don’t necessarily have a specific goal in mind for these skills, only that I know children generally love making things and as an adult having skills to make things can be quite useful. To begin, I’ve chosen a few general and somewhat foundational skills that might grow or apply to other interests down the road. Mostly, they are lessons I hope to learn right alongside them. (Wink.) We began with sewing, using the book Sewing School, based on a good friend’s recommendation, and the pace, images, and projects have been a perfect start for our novice group. As Halloween has neared this month, costume making seemed the perfect, fun way to put our new skills to use.

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Early on, Olive decided she wanted to be a baby bat, using a play mask we already own. Each month this year, the kids have received a play mask of an endangered animal in the mail from Opposite of Far, a part of their mask of the month club. (I wrote about some ways we’ve added them to our learning here last spring.) Blythe, a natural lover of design, wanted to take the masks and create costumes for each. Olive joined her, and one entire afternoon they sat on my bed discussing ideas and plans for everything from paws made out of socks and paper to tails made from boas and shirt bellies covered with cotton balls. Since Olive opted for the bat, wings were a must, something easily coupled with her black dance leotard.

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We shopped for a bit of brown felt at the local craft store, where I let each of the kids pick up a little something to add to their costume projects. I folded the felt and drew a simple pattern in chalk for the girls to cut, and then we pulled out the needle and thread and set to work attaching little bands to slide her arms through. She thought my idea for sleeves sounded far too hot.

I tied knots in the thread for Olive to begin. She still needs quite a bit of help, mostly because she gets distracted. When she lost interest and went outside to play, I finished the sewing, although I sort of regret doing that now. Instead of finishing, as she asked me to, I wish I would have simply shelved it until her interest returned. Live and learn, right? I sadly don’t have any images of her sewing this project. When Olive has a needle, all eyes and hands are on deck–I totally missed the photos. Still, you can piece together the idea.

Although our sewing skills are still quite amateur, I like that we’re all  (myself included) having to try something new, and when we fail or mess up–that happens often–we learn lessons about trying again or improvising. As I said, all of it is foundational, bits we’re learning through playfulness.

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This post was sponsored by Opposite of Far, a small business providing high-quality, handmade “tools” to parents and children for a richly imaginative and playful childhood. As always, all thoughts and images are my own. Thank you for supporting businesses that help keep this space afloat.  

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Around this point in every semester, my children and I tend to hit a lull in our learning together. The enthusiasm of fresh beginnings is waning and other areas of life begin to crowd in, diverting attention and easily sliding us out of routine. Am I alone in this? We are caught in the nebulous middle of our term, far from both the start and our finish around the holidays. Perhaps it is here where I’m most likely to forget goals each year, to lose sight of what we wanted in the beginning when I felt so hopeful and full of clear vision–or at least more energy. Wink.

By this point in our unofficial school year, I’ve realized maybe some goals I had in August are meant to be pruned and left by the wayside for another year or season. Our handwork, for instance, has been slow, as we’ve encountered trouble I didn’t anticipate. I’m not intending to let it go, but I didn’t understand how long it would take to work on skills unfamiliar to all of us. Slow is okay, I have to remind myself. We have no tests or checkmarks to prove, take your time and enjoy it. This seems to be a fitting reminder in all of our work. Some of our science or history projects have seemed to fall away simply because of time, which is okay too. But it begs the honest question of myself: how do I fight the lull, the longing to shove aside what is hard and instead sink into comfortable, yet aimless days? I know, as with tidying or anything else, I’m looking for that tender balance between effort and letting go. Here’s a few things I’m trying right now.

relax the routine a bit | Last week, emotions seemed to be running fairly high around here, and I knew we needed to change our routine up a bit. I let the kids sleep in and we limited our academic work to practicing maths and a bit of reading each day. We took a few mornings out for hiking and other things. It was sort of a fall break, a way for us to experience a change while keeping with a few, small goals.

make time for yourself to be inspired | I realized part of why I feel fresh with vision at the beginning of the year directly connects to the amount of time I’m giving to learning myself. I read everything from books to blogs, sifting through ideas and finding ones that might fit our family. Once we begin our school year, this sort of time naturally falls away, too. We are busy doing! This week, I’m planning a little more time for myself. I’ve begun sifting through books and magazines I’ve read before, notes I’ve made, perusing blogs or Pinterest for help revising my original ideas and searching for fresh inspiration. In short, I’m taking time to nurture my own love of learning. It’s a good start.

ask my children | This can seem simple and obvious, and yet I sometimes forget to simply ask my children their thoughts about our routine. Since my children are getting older this is getting easier to naturally discuss while we’re making dinner or reading together. I ask them them questions such as, “How is our work going for you?” “What’s difficult or dull for you during our day?” “What’s your favorite thing you’re learning right now?” “Is there anything you’re sad we don’t have enough time for?” These straightforward questions help bond us in such an insightful way.

Do you experience this sort of lull in your routine? How do you fight your own or your children’s lack of enthusiasm?  I would love to hear.

 

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Although it can be challenging to find the time, I really enjoy sharing bits of our homeschooling journey with others here and elsewhere to help encourage and inspire them on their own path. I recently wrote a bit about how we memorize poetry in our home for Babiekins Magazine, which you can now read today, and also have a tutorial for making wildflower seed balls in their current print issue. This month, I also wrote quite a lengthy article on how we are preparing our children for college (and adulthood) for Wild+Free, which you can find in this month’s bundle “Woodland.” Some other bits I’ve written in the last few months that you may find helpful (and linked in one place):

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We’ve never used a formal science curriculum over here. Instead, we’ve learned more through reading about and observing the natural world. My children will tell you it is one of their favorite parts of our days. This year, we have primarily focused on anatomy, and each has created their own body book (an idea inspired by my friend Kirsten).  We took a break from anatomy for much of March and April, as we spent more time preparing for our garden and working in the yard. As my children grow older, I’m more aware of how our school work ebbs and flows with our life work and seasons. I’m noticing patterns, more of which I hope to plan around better for next year–but that’s a different topic. Thus far, we have read about the circulatory, nervous, and digestive systems. As we are turning back to our books this week, we’ll aim to complete the respiratory, skeletal, muscular, reproductive, and endocrine systems. (Yikes–that’s a lot.) We’ve taken more unanticipated breaks through this study, but the nice part of homeschooling is not being in a hurry, or limited to a particular schedule, to complete a project. And so, we gather our resources and begin again.

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reference books | During our study, we’ve used many books from our local library in addition to the books we own. We’ve referenced everything from science encyclopedias to early readers, adapting as we go. I’ll usually browse several books ahead of time, to choose the ones that might work the best for us. We take turns reading and usually have several books open at once for visuals. Some of our favorite references this year have been The Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia, a neatly organized and detailed reference, and The Way We Work, by David Macauley, a robust and cleverly illustrated reference. We’ve also used simple readers we’ve collected over the years at used book stores or during our library trip, such as Usborne books, Let’s Read and Find Out Science series, The Magic School Bus series, and sight word readers.

projects | When possible I try to include a few projects or experiments since, like most kids, my own children love making or playing with ideas. This year we’ve done a few projects, such as taking our pulse/heart rate, identifying our senses by using a blindfold, or crafting a brain replica with clay.

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body books | This year, we’ve used the simple primary composition notebooks found in office supply stores to create our body books. The primary one is set up with partially ruled/un-ruled pages as shown. Next year, I’ll move to using the Strathmore notebooks, as they’re a little larger. Each lesson, my children sketch and color an image pertaining to the day’s reading. They then illustrate, label, and write a bit about what we’ve read together. The boys enjoy creating their own sentences, so after they’re finished, we look for spelling and grammar corrections. They record their misspelled words in their spelling notebooks, which become a part of a future spelling lesson. For the girls, I still rely on the narration/dictation/copywork model. We talk about what we’ve read. They give me a sentence or two, which I write and they copy. It’s a little advanced for Olive yet, but like most youngest children, she wants to do what everyone else is doing.

making mistakes | You’ll notice Liam still struggles with spelling, but he understands the concepts and how to create clear, concise sentences, as does my left-handed Burke who still struggles with letter reversals and capitalizing mid-sentence. In earlier years, I tended to correct them along the way, often seeing their mistakes as a reflection of my poor teaching–especially if it’s something someone else might see. I’m sharing the imperfections here so you see, no one is perfect, especially not this mother. Be patient with yourself and your children and try not to control the learning process, combing for results. I’m learning to move them forward in certain areas, while returning to basic skills in other areas over and over until they master them. That means Burke still does simple handwriting exercises and Liam is still in earlier spelling years, even though they both read voraciously far above his years. We repeat again and again, knowing it will catch one day. These mistakes are a part of life, a part of our body. They do not make any of us failures.

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The other day, I spoke with a friend who recently pulled her children out of public school to homeschool. Only a few months into the semester she was now upset and questioning her decision, “I think I’ve made a mistake. I don’t know what I’m doing.” I pulled her in for a hug, assuring her she wasn’t alone, and then I let her in on a little secret–none of us does. At some level, as parents and educators, we all feel inadequate to the task., and while there are several books and blogs and curriculums offering us the right or best ways to parent or educate, homeschooling is an organic process, something that requires us to adapt guidelines and ideas to our own children, our own family and style. I hope all that I write and share here is always in that context: ideas and concepts that can be tweaked and adapted into your own.

On a similar note, I recently wrote a bit about our homeschool for Little Zooey magazine. [I’ve now revised this post to include my editorial, since Little Zooey has been absorbed into Zooey magazine, and my text is currently unavailable online.]

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Each morning, after breakfast and a few morning chores, the kids and I begin our school day together at home. Everyone grabs their basket, filled with their composition notebooks and small books, and totes it wherever we’re meeting that morning. On the best weather days, we’ll meet on blankets under the backyard trees. Most days we meet around our large table, slowly sprawling to the living room floor or sofa. Over the course of the morning, we’ll read from history, science, and literature books together. The kids will also work independently through math and spelling materials, and I’ll use this time to help each as they need it and work through individual reading lessons with my five year old.

I began homeschooling the year my eldest son would have entered Kindergarten. Although my husband and I were educated in traditional school settings, we were open to a new journey for our own children, something more flexible to each of their styles and paces of learning, but also more reflective of our family culture. During their toddler and preschool years, we noticed each child’s intrinsic appetite for learning through experience, play, books, and conversation. Young children naturally want to question and explore their environments. They want to learn about the adult world and mimic home life. They want to be near us (parents). As a mother and home-educator, I hope to encourage these natural wants in my children, to teach them academics, but also about life’s rhythms and patterns and that ultimately we are always learning.

In our home, sometimes this family rhythm is slow and methodical. We focus on specific rote tasks like memorizing math facts or important history dates or more practically how to fold a shirt or make a meal or use the toilet. In the home-school, these things can and do happen simultaneously, especially with multiple children. In other moments, our family rhythm feels almost frenetic, full of wild energy and creativity and curiosity. We make a wreck of our home often moving from one space or piece of work/play to the next. During these moments, we often explore the outdoors, produce new art and Lego creations, bake together, or write and illustrate bits of what we’re learning through history, science, or literature. Although our days contain similar content and activity, they rarely occur in exactly the same pattern or manner–much like life itself.

How do we as parents continue to cultivate an appetite for learning throughout our children’s childhoods? Like so many topics surrounding parenting, it’s not a science. It is something that moves with us through each of our family rhythms and journeys. We can borrow ideas and aspects of home-life from another, but in the end, each family must answer this question for themselves.

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If you’re new to homeschooling or trying to figure out where to start with your 3-5 year old (beyond play), two of my very favorite curriculums are Handwriting Without Tears (handwriting and literacy) and All About Reading (reading, phonetic/phonemic awareness, comprehension, and puppets!) .  Both programs use a multi-sensory approach to learning language (ideal for this age group and beyond), meaning your children practice and learn language with all of their senses (and often their whole body). Also, both programs offer teacher manuals, ideal if you’re intimidated about homeschooling and prefer a more directed approach to education — BUT if you prefer to simply offer your children quality materials to play with and introduce more indirectly (child-led learning), they both offer several quality products all of my children enjoy.

In short, both of these programs easily adapt to whatever style of education you choose for you home. I’m somewhere in the middle, often borrowing ideas from several different styles and programs and adapting them to our family style. I’ve always loved the Montessori approach to education, especially for young children who are so eager to learn and work independently — “I can do it by myself!” If you’re interested in Montessori at home, this book is simple to read and follow. I’ll link to Montessori materials I use in addition to these program. They are not necessary, but I/my children love using them.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to show little glimpses of our homeschool here to help encourage/inspire other families.  Here’s one of last week’s morning activities with my daughter Olive (4) and nephew Shepherd (3). We are practicing the sounds of E.

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We pull out my box of HWT materials. The kids are excited and immediately begin pulling out the wood pieces. Olive grabs the small container with our sandpaper letters from the shelf. I open the alphabet poster . We sing the alphabet together, pointing to each letter as we go. I ask them what letters we’ve already talked about (A-D); I point and they tell me the names and sounds. I place the A-E sandpaper letters on the floor, scrambled; Olive puts them in order while Shepherd watches.

I ask them what letter comes next in the song, “E”! So I make sure they have the right wood piece to build E: one big line, three little lines. I pull out the capital letter card and we look at the picture of the E. I trace it with my finger — “one big line with one little line at the top, one little line in the middle, one little line on the bottom.” They build their letters on the floor. I ask them if their E looks like the E on the letter card. They make adjustments. I congratulate them for making an E! We then sing the Leap Frog song for E, “E says /eh/, E says /eh/, every letter makes a sound, E says /eh/.”

I ask them to get their pointer finger ready for writing E. Where do we start our letters? At the top! (We sing the HWT song, “Where Do You Start Your Letters?”) I dictate the strokes and they trace their E wood pieces. ” We start at the top with a big line down. Now, frog-jump back to the top. Make a little line at the top. Jump to the middle. Make a little line. Now to the bottom. Make a little line.” They repeat a few times. Again, big hoorays, “you made an E with your fingers!” “What does E say? “/eh/”

“Now let’s read a short story about elephants. Elephant starts with /eh/ E.” We read the three page story a couple of times. And then they’re ready to play outside, so we clean up our materials (throwing the pieces back in the box and returning it to the shelf). This took about 20-30 minutes.

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Normally, we spend our Spring Breaks visiting friends or family out-of-town and filling our days with fun, atypical activities. Not this year. This year, we cleaned out and organized (most of) our home to list on the housing market. Mark spent several of his days off from teaching buried in research for a paper he’s trying to have published this semester, and by Thursday of last week, all I could manage to say was, “this goes down as the worst Spring Break ever.” Sorry kids.

BUT then Friday came, and friends invited me and the kids out for a day trip to a state park (complete with a living farm). Of course, we gratefully joined them. I needed to leave my home and to be outdoors with friends. We all did for that matter. So thank you, friends, for taking us with you on your visit to the pioneer’s life, for softening the blow of hard circumstances, and for ending our Spring Break on a bright note — an afternoon filled with washboards and gardens and animals and handmade wooden tools and laughter and sun.  I’m so thankful for you.

 

learning at home toddlers

For a while now I’ve had other moms ask, “how do you do it? I want to homeschool, but I don’t know where to begin! Help.”  In great effort to do just that, over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring a series of “learning at home” posts. Each post will focus on a different age, including a my favorite age-appropriate resources and a few tips that I’ve learned along our [brief] way.

But first I need to say, one of the greatest lessons I have learned in homeschooling is that it, just like parenting, will take on the personalities in your family, so even if you’re using the same exact tools/resources as your friend, they will still appear different in your home. And that’s okay. So if you are interested in home-education, think less about what is the right or wrong curriculum or way to educate and more about what will fit your parenting/family style and the way your kids learn. This will help save you worry, time, and money.

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Now, on to toddlerhood.

Toddlers can be one of the most fun ages! They’re newly walking, running, jumping, talking, and of course, experimenting. When Liam, my oldest, was a busy two, I remember thinking, “Will I ever stop telling him ‘no’ or redirecting him?” The answer is no, but fortunately I tell him ‘no’ much, much less now. (Wink.) Learning at home in these years doesn’t have to be an elaborate project. They are learning so much through their environment without you even planning it! In terms of structured learning, these years are more about exposure and experimenting. Here’s a few tips and resources:

KEEP STRUCTURED LEARNING TIME SIMPLE.  Short attention spans and high energy require easy, quick activities. Think:

+  homemade play-dough (make or play)

+ simple blocks to build together while listening to music

+ daily walks hunting for a ___ (rock, leaf, bug, … etc)

+ simple art activity from one of my favorites — First Art

READ TOGETHER DAILY. Read-a-loud time during these years truly does cultivate a love of reading and learning through books as they get older.

+  To create a habit, try to pick a time of the day when you can be consistent, like bedtime or nap time.

+  Read a variety of stories, but also use this time to introduce letters and numbers. I love this set of board books from the Metropolitan Museum in New York — an introduction to letters, shapes, and numbers and also great works of art.

+  Try local story-times at the library or a book or coffee shop. This can also be a great place to meet other young mothers and homeschoolers.

BEGIN YOUR OWN RESEARCH. Use these years to inform yourself about the various homeschooling methods and learning styles.

+ Talk with other homeschooling moms if you know any.

+ Read The Homeschooling Option. This is my favorite intro to homeschooling book. Lisa Rivero is a homeschooling mom and professor at the University of Wisconsin. She tells a bit of her story while informing the reader of various ways homeschooling can look. It’s also full of additional resources from organizations to more specific books.

DON’T DESPISE SMALL BEGINNINGS.  Starting small will help you build consistency. For toddlers, one activity a week — or even a month depending on your family circumstance — might be enough. That’s okay. Blessings to you and your family.