Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My recent epiphany

"I've just had an apostrophe."

"I think you mean epiphany."

I'm probably quoting that wrong, but bonus points if you can tell me what that is from....

In any case, I had a homeschooling epiphany recently. Not a huge one, but a significant one nonetheless. It was something I had thought about before, but it really sunk in and I realized how to use the concept to make a difference in our homeschool - for the better.

Curriculum is a tool. It isn't the goal.

Simple, right? I read something along those lines from Sarah at Amongst Lovely Things (such a wonderful and inspiring homeschooling blog) a while back (and I'm not sure which blog post it was, otherwise I would link to it directly, but seriously, read her stuff). She talked about not letting curriculum rule you, but using curriculum as a tool to achieve a goal. At the time, I nodded along as I read it, thinking I agreed. And I did. But the reality of what that really meant, for ME, here in OUR home, is now becoming apparent. And it is relieving a lot of stress.

I'll explain with an example. This year we are studying US history and geography. I have a very nice US geography curriculum. I looked at how many lessons there are, to give myself an idea of how often we should try to do geography each week. It really stressed me out. After all, there are 50 states, and each state has a number of things to cover. If I thought of the curriculum as the goal, I'd be trying to cram it all in, whether we really have that much time to devote to it or not, because somehow finishing the curriculum in a school year = I did enough geography.

But what if I looked at it differently? What if we have a goal that isn't the curriculum? What if our goal is: learn about the states and capitals. What if I cast off the strictures of the school year and realize we don't have to do this all in one year. We can, and we very well might. But if we don't, is that going to ruin them? Do I have no further chances to teach them about the states and the capitals?

If our goal is "learn about the states and capitals," and the curriculum is our tool for doing so, suddenly my planning (and stressing) is a lot different. I don't have to figure out how to jam learning about 50 states into roughly 36 weeks of school (that would mean more than one state per week - yikes!). I can let it flow as it will. Sometimes we will go through a bunch of states in a week, or even a day, if the kids are into it. Other times we might not cover a new state for a while, if we are busy with other projects. We're flexible like that, and I want to be, but it is hard to maintain flexibility without stress and guilt if the curriculum is the end goal.

So I'm keeping that in mind as we settle into another school year. I'm writing down some goals, and they aren't "finish X curriculum." I'm focusing on what I want the kids to get out of certain subjects, or what I want to emphasize, and the curriculum we use is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. And that feels pretty good.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First day of school!

I don't know about you, but we had a great summer. There have been so many things I've wanted to write about, but I was a little busy this summer writing a book. (Squee!) We had a summer full of sun and play and lots and lots and lots of free time. My writing frenzy translated into a lot of play outside time for my kids - definitely a good, old fashioned summer. They spent quarters at garage sales, held a lemonade stand, rode bikes, climbed trees and played countless games with their friends in the neighborhood.

All good things must come to an end, and today we joined the ranks of families going back to school. Although by "going" I mean "going downstairs." 

This year I have a fourth grader, a second grader and a kindergartner. It is still sinking in that my youngest baby is five years old and I no longer have a preschooler. I've had at least one child in preschool (or at preschool level) since like 2008. It is crazy to think that my kids are all in the elementary zone.

This is our fourth year of homeschooling (which also seems crazy), and I've learned a lot about what works for us and what doesn't. I've learned that simplicity is a good thing, over-planning (which is my natural tendency) is rarely worth it, my kids come up with better project ideas than I do, and I have to pace myself with read alouds or I lose my voice (that's one I was reminded of today). 

We'll be tackling more writing projects, US history and geography, astronomy and probably some life science later in the year, a lineup of fun books to read and dissect, as well as the mainstays like math and reading and handwriting. 

I'm excited to start another school year with my kids. Every year is different, and we adapt and change, finding new ways to learn and have fun. I don't exactly run a Pinterest-worthy homeschool, but we delve deep into our interests, experience a lot of interesting things, and spend a ton of time creating and building. Like I always say to people who ask me about homeschooling, it works well for our family.

Heck, it works AWESOME for our family.

I'd love to be among those posting cute first day of school pictures of my kids, but so far I have not convinced two of the three to get dressed, so pictures will have to wait. I'm not gonna lie, clothing is definitely optional at the Frank Academy of Awesomeness (although underwear is required).

Happy first day of school! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A simple picture

My husband picks up the boys from their jiu jitsu class on Thursdays so I can take Ella to gymnastics. It works out nicely because not only does it mean slightly less running around for me, but Daddy gets to watch them practice.

Typically, their jiu jitsu class ends with 10-15 minutes of grappling matches. The coach matches the kids up based on both size and skill and they get the chance to practice what they've been learning. The kids who aren't grappling sit on the side and watch.

Today, during a grappling match while our boys were sitting on the side watching, my husband snapped this picture:

They had no idea he took it. I don't think they've seen it yet. They weren't posing, they weren't asked to sit near each other, to put their arms around each other. They were sitting like that, together, watching their classmates.

Because that's how they roll.

My husband and I value family closeness a lot. Things like eating together and playing games and spending time as a family come naturally to us because this little group of crazies, this is where it's at for us. Things aren't always sunshine and unicorns, because we're all human; but fostering a family environment that values closeness and cohesiveness is important to us. It isn't even something we necessarily consciously strive for; it just is.

But even with our commitment to creating a close family, I don't know how we got so lucky.

That picture says in ways that I can't articulate in words what our family is about. I wish I could take credit for it, but that would be highly presumptuous of me. I suppose we've done some things right (and surely some things wrong). The fact that my kids are so close to one another makes my heart soar.

My children are normal little people. They get on each other's nerves and argue sometimes. And they also genuinely like each other. As homeschooled kids, they spend most of their day together, and amazingly enough, it is awesome. They miss each other when they're apart. They are the first ones they run to when something good (or bad) happens. They hug each other, they comfort each other, they have fun together. They all sleep huddled together in one room because they like being together.

I couldn't ask for anything more. When I think about what I want for them, what I wish for them in their lives, this one ranks pretty high on that list. I want them to be close. I want this family to be their safe place, their roots, their rock, their foundation. The core of that is my husband and I, but each of them have an important part to play. To see their relationships with each other blossoming is an amazing, and very humbling, experience.

I suppose this post is turning into a mommy-gush-fest. It isn't like I can write "how to have siblings who love each other in 10 easy steps." I don't have those answers, and I think in many ways it is by the grace of God that we're this lucky. But if I had to distill it down, it is simply this: it is all about love. John Lennon was on to something there. We love on them a heck of a lot, and we don't accept anything less than them loving each other. Part love and part luck, and I get a moment like this, captured in a picture.

Sometimes they simply take my breath away.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fun With Poetry

We've spent some time focusing on poetry over the last several weeks. We enjoy reading poetry pretty regularly; Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky are favorites around here. Recently we've done some fun writing exercises, creating our own poems, and even some acting, creating some silly dramatizations of poems as well.

Today I drew ideas from Rose, How Did You Get That Red, by Kenneth Koch, a book about teaching children to write poetry, using classic poems as inspiration. Shout out to my Aunt Linda for the book - she was kind enough to get me a copy. It is fantastic.

We read The Tyger, by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The whole poem is a lot of fun to read, but it does have language that children don't usually understand immediately. We spent some time talking about many of the stanzas, thinking about what the words meant and what the author was trying to say.

Then they set about writing their own poems. As suggested by Koch in "Rose, How Did You Get That Red," I suggested we imagine we were talking to a creature or thing, and had the chance to ask it questions. The subject could answer back, or not, it was their choice.

I love what they came up with this morning; I just had to share.

Ice and Water, by Grayson (age almost-7)

Ice, ice, why are you so hard?
Why aren't you soft, like water?
Water, water, why are you soft?
Why can't you be hard like ice?
Water, water, why can't you hold a hammer?
And make ice sculptures.
Why are you liquid?

The Sun, by David (age 9)

Sun, sun, why so bright?
Sun, sun come out at night.
Shine your rays upon the night.
Do you fall asleep at night?
Like a flower, gleam and glow,
In the spring, melt the snow.
Why so yellow and so bright?
You are light.

Aren't those just lovely? Ok, I am biased (just a little), but I thought they were both really sweet. I'm proud of their hard work today!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflections on 37

Today is my 37th birthday. I've never been one to worry too much about getting older. I have always seen it as simply part of life; the natural way of things. We all get older. Plus, if I start complaining about being "old" when I'm in my 30's or 40's, I am literally going to spend more than half my life complaining about my age. How does that make any sense? We either get older each year, or, well, we don't... meaning, we're dead. I'll take older, thankyouverymuch!

But sliding down the other side of my 30's, I am struck by how things have changed. I've had the same group of good friends since we were all in our 20's, and we often look around at our lives and wonder, "How did this all happen?!?" Gone are the days of hanging out after work until late on Friday nights, and sleeping in on Saturdays; of spontaneous road trips and weeknight snowboarding; of reading that 1000 page book cover to cover in 36 hours, barely coming up for air. For you, it probably looked a little different, your life as a young adult. But if you're heading towards 40 (or beyond), you have probably noticed things aren't quite the same as they were 10 or 15 years ago. (Especially if you have kids!)

So in honor of my birthday, here are some reflections on my later-30's:

Ten years ago was not 1998
Have you seen that meme? Good grief, that is SO true. I still think 10 years ago was sometime in the 90's. I'm not sure when my mental calendar is going to catch up with the rest of the earth, but I am still floored when I think about how many years have passed since certain milestones, like high school graduation or my marriage (20 years next year, and 15 years in June, respectively).

Movie theater trips are for GOOD movies
David and I were movie people. Before we had kids, we probably saw a movie at least 3 or 4 times a month. We saw just about everything. And if it was awesome, we saw it again. Now, between the expense of going to the movies (seriously, why is it so freakishly expensive!), plus the need for a babysitter, we reserve going to the movie theater for movies we really want to see on the big screen. Even movies that look enjoyable, but aren't necessarily visual or action-packed, don't make the cut. It needs to be theater-worthy, and our standards are pretty high.

"Late" has a new meaning
My first 6 or 7 years of motherhood were spent with at least one child who either a) didn't yet sleep through the night, b) woke at 6am or earlier, or c) both. I was in bed by 10pm every single night. Now my kids are more merciful and don't wake at such an awful hour (have I mentioned I am NOT a morning person?), but I still need to go to bed by 11 in order to be a nice human the next day. Staying up late used to mean 3 or 4am. Now? I'm a crazy party animal if I'm up past midnight.

Shopping for cars is all about utility, and rarely about coolness
I can't even think about cars with any sense of what might be cool to drive anymore. Cars are a tool to get from point A to point B, with a zoo of kids in tow. I wasn't a big car person before, but now? I drive a minivan. And I love that thing. Seriously, the doors slide open so I don't have to freak out about my kids dinging the car next to them! There's plenty of space so they rarely wind up elbowing each other in the back seat! What more do you need out of a car than that? I'm so out of touch with "cars as status or coolness symbol" that when my husband has asked me what kind of car I'd get if I could have any car in the world, I can't fathom anything with seating for less than 7.

I'm still me
My mom once told me that one of the strange things about getting older is that you still feel like yourself - the you from your twenties or thirties or whatever. But as the number gets higher, you feel like you ought to be different somehow. When you're 25, someone who is 40 seems a LOT older than you. You might not think of them as an "old person," but they seem like they are in a different category than you are. It's like the seniors when you're a freshman - dude, they're SENIORS. They're on some other plane of existence. In young adulthood, adults who are a decade or more older than you seem similar - older, more experienced, maybe lamer (maybe not). But then you hit that age, and you think, "Wait, I'm not lame. I'm not some old fuddy duddy. I'm still ME. I'm still the ME that I was when I thought 37-year-olds were like waaaay older than me." And yet now you're the 37 year old. Or in this case, I am. Weird.

Getting older is a funny thing. We move through seasons of life and watch things change, and yet who we are, at our core, remains. I have more experience and (hopefully) more wisdom than I once did. I'm rockin' a little bit of pixie dust in my hair, and my life has certainly changed in a lot of ways. But I'm still me.

With a minivan.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Our medieval feast

My kids decided weeks ago that they wanted to have a medieval feast. We've been reading and learning about the middle ages over the last few months, and this seemed like a fun way to wrap up our study of this fascinating time period.

I wanted to keep it simple. No roasting a suckling pig all day or making seven courses of decorated tartlets and meat pies. Medieval lords had a staff of cooks and servants - they simply had to shell out the gold, show up, and eat all day. Me? No staff here. So simple it was. We invited some family, served some good food, and the boys put on a show - good times.

The boys had been working for days on their knight costumes. David even sewed himself a cloak.

It turned out really well. They also used poster board, card stock and a lot of duct tape to make armor. Add to that their shields bearing the colors they chose and their coats of arms, and they were decked out!

Dinner, as I said, was simple - but awesome, if I do say so myself. We had roasted turkey legs, ham (of course they had Honeybaked ham in the middle ages, duh!), soup, crusty bread, and some assorted cheese and fruit plates. It was easy to throw together, and everyone had a great meal. Since there wasn't a ton of preparation involved in making dinner, I made a couple of medieval-inspired desserts. The apple turnovers may not have been strictly authentic, but pastries with fruit filling were common at feasts; and they were delicious, thanks to my amazing Grandma's apple pie recipe. I also made some lemon cakes, which were somewhat authentic, although made with modern ingredients. And they were good - really good. Seriously, go make some.

Our table. Yes, those are paper plates. Remember the not having of servants? Yeah.
We had medieval harp music on in the background (thank you Spotify). We said it was a minstrel in the corner, certainly not a cell phone hooked up to a set of speakers. The kids also made some decorations to make our feast more medieval.


Ella made this torch all by herself. I love that she added flower and butterfly stickers
The sign David made to greet our guests. It might be hard to see in the photo, but he drew dragon heads and the tissue paper is their fire breath
After dinner, the two Prince Knights did battle in the arena! I wish my camera had not chosen that moment to run out of batteries, but I did get part of their tournament. It was a lot of fun. They wound up calling it a draw at the end, hugging and bowing to each other. Seriously, these kids are ridiculous. I love them. (And I can't get the video to upload here, but here's a picture of the beginning of their battle.)

It was a great evening. We enjoy any excuse to invite family and friends to eat lots of good food, so this was right up our alley. And keeping it simple meant it wasn't a source of stress or tons of work for me (which can definitely happen when my kids have ambitious ideas). Maybe we'll have some fun and do a big meal from other time periods we study.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Illuminated manuscripts and why I joke about being a lazy homeschooler

One of the largely agreed upon benefits of homeschooling, at least amongst fellow homeschooling families, is the flexibility. Sometimes that means taking a vacation in November and enjoying shorter lines at Disneyland without the concerns of kids missing class. Sometimes flexibility is a little smaller; a simple matter of watching your kids interest pique and allowing an unforeseen and unplanned diversion to take shape.

Today we read, Marguerite Makes a Book, a lovely story about Marguerite, a girl living in 15th century Paris. Her father is an aging manuscript illuminator; a highly sought after artist who is currently behind on completing a prayer book for a noble woman. When her father's glasses are broken, Marguerite takes it upon herself to complete the beautiful illuminations so the book will be complete on time.

About half way through the story, as Marguerite is painting using the paints she has just mixed herself, Grayson exclaimed that we should do a project and make our own illuminated manuscripts, just like Marguerite. Then he said he wanted to make a book of all the prayers he knows, and illustrate the pages.

Clearly the answer to that request is a resounding yes.

The results are enough to make this homeschooling mama's heart soar. First of all, multitasking awesomeness. We have art, penmanship, reading and history all rolled into one. Are you kidding me with that? Plus, they were so interested and invested in their work, they all sat at the table, carefully drawing their designs and painstakingly copying the words. It was so... quiet.

Grayson chose a prayer, while David thumbed through a book of poetry and found one he liked that wasn't too long. Ella wanted hers to look "just like Grayson's," so she watched him carefully and tried to copy his pictures.

We never made it to the other work I had laid out for the day. We had outside activities this afternoon, and this took up the time we had left before lunch. But I wouldn't trade it for all the pre-planned, checklist checking-off in the world. Today was awesome.

Are all our days this good? Well no, not really. Most days we go through our schoolwork for the day and move on to other stuff, and it is fine. But once in a while I see that light in their eyes and they come up with an idea that turns out awesome.

Days like today are why I joke about being a lazy homeschooler. I'm not really, but I have relaxed my approach and found that less is often more. I used to try to plan all sorts of projects and activities - but it was hard to keep up with them, many fell flat, and I felt like I was putting more work into all of this than was necessary. Now that I plan less, I find we do more - and not only more, but projects that interest and motivate them like nothing I could have planned for.