Monday, December 28, 2009

Looking Back at the First Half of the Homeschool Year 2009-2010

Perhaps the fact that the calendar year is coming to an end this week is bringing this to my mind. I've been thinking of the first half of our homeschool academic year and thinking forward to the second half.

Our family's homeschool academic year starts on July 1. I chose this to be in alignment with American society who ranks children by their grade level. To enroll into summer classes and camps even a homeschooled child must use society's classifications of grade level, and the society considers the school year ended near the end of June, calling the rank of a child for the summer months as the grade that will begin officially in September. So it is the same with us.

This year for the first time we homeschooled through the summer. Yes, we traveled and took vacations and did typical summer things such as attend Cub Scout sleepover camp and Boy Scout camp too. We did a lighter schedule and only limited subject work. The reason for this was that I was feeling that due to being over-scheduled with outside paid educational and enriching classes plus the extra-curricular things such as music lessons and Scouts last year, that my kids could use more focused time on some of the Three R's. It also struck me clearly at the end of the last academic year that keeping up a full-tilt home lesson schedule while being also busy with outside classes and cyclical events (i.e. participation in the Science Olympiad) is just not possible. The kids get fried; they can only absorb so much, or be 'on' so much. Rather than isolate ourselves at home to concentrate on home studies I thought some other arrangement of studies may work out better.

(Above: my older son and Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons at the Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut, December 2009.)
Another reason that our summer was different was in June 2009 and my older son (then eleven years old) was diagnoses with mono. He had gotten sick yet AGAIN with fever and I looked back to my calendar in which I jot very brief notes on illness and realized he'd had a fever every three weeks since New Years Day but with various other symptoms which were diagnosed as being all different minor illnesses (i.e. ear infection, flu, common viral cold) and sometimes being put onto antibiotics, when having visited the urgent care center on weekends.

This time I insisted he be examined by our pediatrician and the enlarged spleen was found on exam (by the pediatrician who didn't even want to see him saying "he's just fighting a virus"). So some of our paid summer plans were cancelled due to the need for immediate bed rest. At least we knew the reason for his general fatigue for months and why he was acting 'lazy' for months and months.

I also consulted with his Infectious Disease doctor, the one who has seen him for his multiple cases of Lyme Disease in the past who concluded it was 'just mono' and not some chronic Lyme condition. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was not diagnosed at this time (which I'd started to worry about since my son was so tired he couldn't even walk around the block and even avoided riding his bike in the driveway saying he was tired out).

So in the summer when not doing summer things my sons did fiction reading 45-60 minutes a day, two or three lessons of math daily and read nonfiction science books to themselves. This did help when fall began and we got busy running around. Then they could focus on other subjects and not feel we were slacking off in math or science content.

I began using the Brave Writer curriculum this fall although honestly not as thoroughly as I'd thought. My sons are doing the free write weekly or at least three times a month which has opened them up to doing creative writing ALL ON THEIR OWN in their free time. This is a major breakthrough. I'd intended to use Arrow with both but have not gotten around to it. I'm also thinking that really my 7th grader should be doing Boomerang.

My kids took an astronomy class taught by a scientist-homeschool father-astronomy buff from August through the end of December, twenty sessions total and door to door it took 3.5 to 4 hours. Getting home between ten and 10:40 p.m. fried the kids (and ME thus I pawned off some of it to my husband). The night Scout meetings on nights bracketing that night didn't help them feel rested or relaxed either. So I feel they've gotten exposure to science information. I do worry that we've not done enough science experiments or documentation of the scientific method lab work process. I am vowing to get through the Real Science 4 Kids curriculum including the lab experiments before this academic year is over.

Regarding math my younger son begged to try Teaching Textbooks like his older brother and he tested to do the grade 5 even though he is officially in grade 4. He loves the program. My older son had finished TT5 last spring and started on TT6 but I felt it was way too much review. I realized 1/3 of it is review so was going to skip him forward then gave him the TT7 placement test and it said he could start that. So we switched to TT7 and I cut out some of the review since it was the same as he just did with the beginning of TT6!

Now that we've used it I have a bit of insight that I'm not happy with. I don't like that there are only two problems for the new material in each lesson, and the rest is a spiral type review. The issue is they can bomb the new material and not understand it but still get an A grade score on the work for that day. It also moved very quickly through fractions without much practice so I had to give him supplemental work to give him more practice that led to mastery. I now have my sights set on as a math program for the near future.

This issue with TT has been echoed by two homeschool mom friends of mine who formerly loved TT but have since switched to Aleks does not let the student move forward until mastery is achieved. There is no textbook, it is presented online and it is purchased through a monthly subscription fee. For now my younger son is doing fine with TT5 so we have no plans to change his math program.

My older son continued on this treatment for an eye tracking problem. That is nearly all resolved but earlier this year his reading speed was said to be just behind grade level. The focus has been on increasing his visual processing speed. Our behavioral optometrist (developmental optometrist) is instructing my son and I to do exercises that I have seen recommended by occupational therapists and neuro-developmental specialists. Things are beginning to overlap at this point which is interesting and confusing at the same time. He is doing home exercises that reinforce certain neural pathways to 'strengthen' them, to challenge them and carve wider paths, it is hard to explain, that's the best I can attempt. These doctor visits and home therapies take up our family's time and my son's neurological energy too.

 (Above: my twelve year old on the campus of MIT for the Splash event, November 2009.)

I began using even more learning and study strategies geared toward visual-spatial learners (aka right brained learners) for my older son. I'm growing weary of the debate over whether learning styles are real or imagined. The real life situation I see in front of me is that different kids learn faster with certain teaching methods. Some kids need to study in specific ways in order to master the content (i.e. learn how to spell that word correctly, to memorize the right spelling, memorize a vocabulary word or remember the meaning of a scientific word). I don't know why some people recommend certain learning strategies and present them as 'normal' yet when some kids don't learn and other methods are suggested some bristle and almost seem angry that a different strategy is being employed. Perhaps those people would be happier if we just gave up on the struggling learner, called them stupid or 'below average' and let them keep on failing, or hating learning? Is that what they want?  If it is, they can do that with their child, but I'll not 'leave my child behind'.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me which hit just this month is that my son, now half way through seventh grade homeschool, needs to begin focusing on study methods that will help him retain content and learn the material he is exposed to (no matter what form the content was delivered or presented to him in). It is time for him to learn the traditional basics of good note taking and then how to study. I think this comes from much practice, as tedious and boring as it may be. Since not all content magically enters and stays in this son's mind, he needs to learn what to do to 'make it work' for him.

No matter what label someone may want to put on him, no matter what learning style someone or some test may say he has, he needs to learn to do what he needs to do to master the content and learn to learn in a school-ish way. I say this also because the path he is choosing, so far, to proceed on, a path to a college undergraduate degree in engineering will definitely require college attendance, taking a college entrance exam and so forth. So my role as his mother and his homeschool teacher or facilitator is to help my son on this path. He may not like to learn and practice study skills but it is necessary unless he switches plans to prepare for some entry level, low skilled job that doesn't require college attendance.

(Below: my older son walking independently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, October 2009.)

My younger son has been growing and changing as well. His preferences for learning and what motivates him is very different from that of his older brother. This is not easy for me because the old way of just doing the same plans for both kids together at the same time, when possible, is not really panning out any longer. More and more they need separate work. Since their reading levels are different they are independently reading different books for their home studies as well as fiction pleasure reading. My younger son thrives on assignments, challenges, goals and completing tasks. I find it a struggle to give him what he seems to need as I hate all those things and had thought that the unique nature of homeschooling could and would include leaving those things behind for other methods. Well it can still, but when using those methods this son is not thriving. Should not each child be given the opportunity to shine and thrive with the freedom that homeschooling allows?

(Below: my younger son at nine and a half, trying to be his own person and taking his own path.)

Right now my email inbox is filling with opportunities for outside classes and events. News of Scout camping trips and even family events is building up. The Science Olympiad competition date is looming about three months away. I'm on a waiting list to get into a homeschool co-op so my kids can make some new friends and have more group learning with a set group of kids (not one-off field trip classes).

This last fall once again my boys were at wilderness school, a six hour long class that occurs once a week. The sessions are ten weeks. They usually do one in the fall and one in the spring and have also done the in-between shorter sessions of late fall and winter. They have gone up to 32 weeks in one school year. This is our fourth year in the program. This last fall my older son aged out of his former class. I wanted to keep them there on the same day due to the 45 minute commute each way plus to keep using the carpool I was in, to save my time and gasoline. However my older son's closest friend dropped the class on day one before it even began. My son was disappointed. Also he didn't like the content of the class which was a combination of wilderness survival with an Outward Bound challenge about trusting the team and pushing oneself to do scary things (high ropes etc.). A class just like his favorite class, but for older kids his age is offered on a different day of the week. We have a conflict with repeating the great filmmaking class that our sons did in the fall or having my son go to wilderness school on that same day. Right now my son is choosing to leave wilderness school which saddens me. Either way it ends up going, both that film class on one day and the wilderness school for my younger son on the other day uses up a great deal of our time, time away from home lessons. It is hard to say no to great outside classes sometimes.

 My inclination for the second half of this year is to turn down some of the one-off opportunities. We've done a lot of art history and fine art appreciation including contemporary art. I think we will relax back from that. We'll keep our once monthly fine art appreciation/history class with social game playing time after and then pizza with multiple families. We won't do all the Scout functions as we just can't fit it all in.

We will focus on home studies for the second half of the year including a push on writing composition; discussion focused reading comprehension and science with labs and use of the scientific method. We'll push through history hopefully getting at least the year 1850 if not beyond.

Lastly my nine year old wants to begin private community Lacrosse which I believe is two practices in the afternoon on weekdays and one Saturday game. This will be a major change for our family. We all should be  focusing on fitness, actually. I hope my older son can regain more physical stamina as he is still fatigued from the mono (the doctors say). I would love to be in shape too.

(Below: my younger son age nine loves playing the guitar, something that sets him apart from his brother and parents both.)

Although I do feel we did wind up being over-scheduled YET AGAIN this fall what was different this time was I was not frantic about it. Unless we were sick with fever or some other contagious sickness we attended all the appointments we had. (We lost almost two weeks while self-quarantined with the H1N1 Swine Flu.) We did as much homeschool lessons as we could fit in between the appointments. We also adjusted well to the increase in visits to the orthodontist now that both of my kids are having new and different work done to straighten their teeth. I am not worried about homeschooling, about gaps or my kids being behind. I have a feeling they are all three things: ahead in some things, on grade level in others, and maybe behind in a couple of areas. I'm going to make time in the rest of this year to try to deal with the weaknesses.

I also tackled a major culling of the books we own (homeschooling books and some curriculum). I tackled it head on and it took me MONTHS to deal with. I realized that I had over-bought. I had also maybe under-planned. Lastly the fact that neither of my kids wants to sit and read tons of history and science books is an issue. They only read what I force them to read. At first I was upset about this thinking that I wanted to raise kids who were readers and who loved books. I wanted them to find pleasure in reading. I took their lack of interest in *reading* about the topics as a disappointment. It dawned on me just last week that they do enjoy learning about those topics but not necessarily taking in the content from books or reading. I then realized I'm a huge reader, comparatively speaking to statistics about Americans, yet I never reading science or history on my own in my spare time! I only read what I'm trying to learn in order to homeschool my kids. This does not mean I'm not a 'reader' or that I'm not skilled in being able to read nonfiction and to analyze and comprehend nonfiction. This doesn't mean either that I don't like those topics or that I dislike learning.

Back to the books I have more than thirty boxes in my basement waiting to figure out what to do with them. I could get rid of them quickly by donating them to a library fundraiser book sale. I'd like to resell them to get back a fraction of what I spent on them but don't know that I want to put in the time and energy to do so. I have also not been letting myself feel negative emotions about the too-many books some which we never used and to instead focus on the good that our homeschooling has yielded in real life. So what if we didn't get to read the seven Thomas Jefferson biographies? We did have an immersion experience about the Civil War and toured Gettysburg and saw some historical sites right here in Connecticut that I, a Connecticut native, never even knew existed until just recently. I'm trying to focus on the good and what was accomplished rather than obsess on what was not done to the level of thoroughness than I'd imagined we'd do. I am coming to realize my hopes and imagined plans for the future are sometimes far too large-scale to ever come to fruition. I need to adjust my expectations a bit so they are more attainable. I think realizing that flaw within myself or realizing my error is a breakthrough. If I'd not figured that out I might have gone on for more years worrying about gaps or wondering if this homeschooling that I've crafted has been a failure.

Another important thing I can report is I've really enjoyed my kids in this first half of this year. This has not been without challenges, including the realization that there is no Santa or a Tooth Fairy and one child's first exposure to porn. Social slip-ups have happened too. My kids are not perfect; I've never said they are, it's just that I feel an obligation to try to raise good kids. I'm doing the best I can, I'm not perfect either, I have my limits, my patience grows thin, and I do use a bad tone of voice sometimes. The closeness of homeschooling, the lack of privacy and the increased time together means that my kids see my flaws. They are both out of the stage where they think their parents don't make mistakes. They know that my husband and I are human, we are flawed, we make errors; at least we do apologize and try to mend our ways when we slip up.

(Below: my younger son while on a nature walk with me and our extended family on Christmas Day.)

I'm trying to parent my kids through their normal stages of development and to ride the waves as they come our way. My kids are growing up so fast that I can't believe it, both as people, developmentally and physically. My twelve year old stands as tall as my nose and he's wearing larger clothes than me now, yet his voice hasn't changed yet and there are no signs that shaving is on the horizon (thank goodness). I'm dealing with raging puberty hormones and seeking social opportunities for my older son that go beyond the 'playdates'.

I feel like I'm learning, growing and changing as I parent and homeschool my children. This thing we call a home school is a process, an ever-changing situation which is only partially in my control. It is a melding of the parenting journey with my children's education; some of the challenges with the homeschooling lifestyle are not just about homeschool academics, the challenge is a parent-child dynamic or are normal parenting situations which sometimes are intensified by being together nearly 24/7 and also in the parent-teacher role (not just parent role or parent supporting the child's education by inspiring their academic excellence through a third-party school). I'm both trying to create a learning environment at the same time that I'm reacting to my children's involvement in it. It's a process and a journey. It's like that phrase about the river, that it is ever changing and you can never dip your toes into the same river twice. This is where we are right now. I wonder what the situation will be in six months when this academic year is over. I'd like to say I know how it will all pan out but my past experience has taught me that while it's right to make plans what happens in real life is often different, it is never perfect, and it usually has both positive and negative elements: things to celebrate, things to hope to avoid, experiences to recreate and things to remediate.


dstb said...

Because our boys are similar ages, I like to see what you are up to. It sounds good!

Regarding homeschooling through the summer, how did you get the kids to go along with this? I think my boys would have a cow! I'm also not sure how much we could accomplish because we are back and forth to Maine so often. Maybe we could do the projects we never seem to find time for during the rest of the year.

I bought Brave Writer at the end of last year. The boys really like Tuesday Tea (I think it's the snacks) and will often request it and pick out poems to read even if I haven't planned it. Although I had planned to jump into the free writes this fall, I ended up getting them into a writing class. Very similar style though.

I enjoyed your update, thanks.

christinemm said...

Hi Sarah,
When I thought of the summer idea I mulled over 2 plans. One was to spend summer time doing projects like history blitzes and museum visits and maybe some science experiments or composer study or hands on art technique lessons.

However I decided to just do the math, science reading and fiction reading.

The fiction reading they already do during the school year so that was no big deal.

Back at that time of the year they were doing xBox360 1 hr weekdays and 2 hrs on the weekend. I did not want summer to turn into a free for all like it did in 2008 with tons of TV watching and many many hours of video game playing.

I just said, "This is what we have to do" and they did their science reading and math work (takes under 2 hours total for those two) and the fiction, then you can do video games."

That is the way it is here. I lay down the law and they listen. There is no coercion, no charts or rewards, no threats or yelling, no punishment. I just say jump and they jump.

Actually we talk about it too and I explained that this is kind of both catch up work not done in the spring due to busy-ness with stuff they wanted to do, or being too tired, and some was 'do ahead' for fall in order to give them time to do things they wanted in the fall. So on the one hand they went alone just because I said to but on the other hand it was kind of an agreement that if they wanted to do wilderness school and filmmaking class and Science Olympiad again then they need to find a way to get the other stuff done so this was one way.

So in under 3 hours they were done (in the morning) then we had the rest of the day free.

A harder thing was adjusting back in fall to load on more work than that as they were used to under 3 hours of work then suddenly we had writing composition, vocabulary, spelling, history, etc.

Love 2B Homeschoolers said...

This was a lovely post, Christine, I'm so glad to have read it. Our boys are the same ages, so often I find myself understanding and appreciating exactly what you are experiencing.

You have reminded me that we can only do our best...

April Mitchell said...

Reading this post from the carnival of Homeschooling. Its fun to see what other homeschool families with boys are doing.

Lyssette Flinchbaugh said...

As a mom who is new to homeschooling and CT, I am really enjoying reading your blog. I am looking for a developmental optometrist for my son, and hoping you have a recommendation. I have tried searching through the CT Homeschoolers inclusive group's archives, but I can't seem to find the name.