My Best Homeschool Teaching Tools (so far…)

We have been homeschooling for less than a month so far, but long enough to know that some things are definitely working, and some are not. We are not using a curriculum, at least for the rest of this school year. We’ll reassess for next year. In this post, I reflect on the tools I’ve used that have engaged my kids (5.5 and 7 years old) the most, and where I see them learning.

  1. The Outdoors. Anywhere, any weather. Something will be discovered, an interest will be sparked, a skill honed (social, practical, or both), and something will be learned. Check out Angela J. Hanscom’s book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unstructured Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children for the science behind how being outside in an unstructured (by adults) way benefits kids’ brains in a way that cannot be replicated through indoor play, or outdoor activities controlled and/or organized by adults. This is especially helpful for our kiddo dealing with sensory processing issues. Things we’ve done outside include: stream stomping in an ephemeral stream in our own neighborhood, identifying poison oak, trillium, blackberry, and other plants, checking out the flooded Willamette River, hunting for salamanders and rough-skinned newts in a creek, taking photos of blooming wildflowers, playing in our own yard, riding bikes to our neighborhood playground, gardening, swinging and/or reading together outside in our hammock, visiting city parks and playgrounds in the middle of the day when there is almost no one else there, kids playing in naturally formed tunnels in the underbrush at a park, talking to passers-by about their dogs, watching bees enjoy the flowers of spring, reading outside in our driveway, learning how to make polite social calls to our neighbors, etc.
  2. Elements of The Brave Writer Lifestyle. I really appreciate Julie Bogart’s approach to homeschooling. It’s a happy medium between structured academics with curriculum and free-for-all unschooling. It’s fairly similar to where we are with our own family’s educational philosophy. I’ve gleaned a lot of great inspiration and information from her book, The Brave Learner. We make time to enjoy Big Juicy Conversations, on whatever topic, when they come up (often they are juicier and last longer if there’s food present, if we are in the car, or it’s bedtime–see below). We’ve also done a lot of reading aloud, watched some movies and TV, and we use a lot of language games, one-on-one time, and Jot it Down (list-making is writing!). I want to move toward copywork and dictation, but we are not yet there.
  3. Podcasts. Some of the best ones for us have been: But Why?, Short and Curly, Ear Snacks, Highlights Hangout, Wow in the World, and Story Party on Audible (not a podcast, but recorded storytelling, so used in a similar way). We listen to them in the car, and sometimes during lunch. They expose the kids to science, humor, history, civics, and ethics, and they often spark lots of questions that we can then explore together.
  4. Hamilton (the musical). My kids have been listening to it non-stop for a month now and almost have all the words memorized, plus a deep grasp on a lot of the history it covers. We are taking advantage of that natural interest and exposing them to books about colonial and early U.S. history, slavery, forms of government, etc. Before we started listening to Hamilton, all I knew about Alexander Hamilton is what I could remember from this commercial from the 90s. Now, between the musical and all the supplemental reading we’ve been doing, I have a deeper grasp on that part of history than ever before. In addition to the musical teaching us about colonial U.S. history, it also brings up present-day racism and white supremacy, immigration, and careers related to music. AND, it has us learning about budgeting and money as we talk about out how we could make the dream of seeing Hamilton live in New York or San Francisco come true. We’re definitely going to use musicals as much as we can to study different subjects.

5. Food. If I put food in front of them at the table, I can usually keep their attention and interest on a topic for about 20 minutes or so. We’ve read chapters of What to do When It’s Not Fair: A Kid’s Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy this way, books about colonial times, the story and history of mathematics, and astronomy. During meals, we’ve also enjoyed listening to podcasts or stories, and had a lot of Big Juicy Conversations. Baking has also been a great educational tool– measuring, reading recipes, learning how to use the oven, stove, mixer, and other tools, not to mention the social and intellectual skills it takes to: a.) convince your mother that baking brownies at 9:30am is totally reasonable because it’s part of homeschool, b.) take turns with your brother using the mixer, and c.) discuss the risks of food-borne illness while licking the batter spoons.

6. Car rides. Something about being in the car, close together but not looking at each other, creates an alchemy just right for certain kinds of conversations.

7. Scavenger hunts. Reading clues is reading!

8. MadLibs and writing funny postcards. Both involve writing and part of speech, and they appeal to my silly, fun-loving five-year-old.

9. The library. We’ve visited the library about five times in the last two weeks, each time bringing home a huge bag of books, and going through most of them within a day or two.

10. Shopping. Reading a list, doing the math necessary for sticking to a budget, navigating a store, reading labels, and practicing appropriate behavior in a store. Such a rich educational experience!

11. Chess. I bought a chess board at a thrift store the weekend before we started homeschooling, and our seven-year-old has played at least one chess game every single day since then. He has also read books about chess independently, and watching videos on strategy and then implemented his new knowledge into his game play. Our five-year-old also knows the rules of the game and enjoys playing as well.

12. Bedtime. Education doesn’t only happen during normal “school” hours. It happens everyday, all day long. It starts the minute they wake up and start building a marble run or thinking about what to eat for breakfast. One of our boys talks to us about his goals and what he wants to learn about only during bedtime. We also read for about an hour with each boy, and sometimes we are reading about “serious” topics such as slavery, immigration, natural disasters, space, math, owning pets, etc.

What hasn’t really sparked much engagement or interest? Curriculum, parent-planned activities, workbooks, worksheets, structured classes outside of the home, structured Montessori-style lessons, or leveled readers. We do some of these things anyway, but there is a noticeable difference in the level of engagement and length of focused time for these activities. I believe that everything can be learned through anything. Rote skills in spelling, reading, and mathematics can be applied to any area of natural interest. I trust that my children can learn deeply when they follow their own interests, and I trust myself as a home educator that I can help guide those interests to also include the things that are important to me (and the State).

Homeschool Day in the Life

We are two weeks into our homeschool adventure now, and here’s a snapshot of a recent day when I didn’t have a specific plan in mind for the morning, other than to support their own interests in learning and offer a rich array of opportunities for discovery and exploration. This day followed a day that was rather tempestuous with emotions, so my main goal was to help them both feel supported and loved. There was plenty of learning going on, despite not having any formal lessons!

All of this happened before 8:30am-

-Upon waking, JRun played with a game called Equilogic, looking at numbers and patterns.

-Upon waking, ARun played a game of Mastermind with B before she went to work.

-We observed the chrysalides, and the boys hypothesized about why some of the chrysalides fell down. We wonder if the butterflies will still emerge if they are not hanging upside down.

-Boys looked at about 40 Word a Day pages. I read the word and the definition if they asked. It’s great to see them excited about words and language. We snuggled on the couch together while we did this.

-Both boys used “tempestuous” and “incessant” correctly in original sentences. I told them they would get “bonus points” if they used any of the Word a Day words during the day. (No actual rewards for doing it–just for the fun and satisfaction of it). ARun (five years old) used “incessant” again correctly at the pool later in the day. We talked about how storms can be tempestuous, as well as moods and emotions.

-After a minor incident, the boys discussed apologies with each other, and the ways in which they each like to receive an apology. I helped guide the conversation, but they were leading the communication with each other. Relationship building. This is the “real” focus of our education for them currently.

-I read a chapter of What to Do When It’s Not Far: A Kid’s Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy while they ate breakfast. Great book! It held their interest and they engaged in thinking and talking about envy.

-JRun had a conversation with me about his new marble run creation, and his new plans for modifying the design to solve a problem he had with it, then he went upstairs to work on it.

-We discussed the plans for the day. I talked about what we had scheduled and what was important to me, and they chimed in with what was important to them. I grab a blank piece of paper for this daily conversation so I can jot down all their brilliant and creative ideas of what could happen in the day. Writing down all the “have tos” and the “we coulds” and the “I wants” on a list of Possibilities helps the day go a lot smoother. They know that I’ve heard what’s important to them, and considered it. I know they are aware of what I am expecting from them and for the day. They know how much space they have for freedom, and what to prepare for. I know we won’t get to everything on the list. Everyone feels more comfortable that what is important to them isn’t forgotten. Sometimes at bedtime they’ll have a great idea, and ask me to “put it on the list for tomorrow.”

8:45am- Kids wanted me to make them a “Breakfast Scavenger Hunt” so I did. I think ARun saw something like this on YouTube, and he loves it. I write clues on Post-Its, and hide food, and what he finds he gathers at the table and eats for breakfast (second breakfast, in this case). Both kids did it, and ate all the healthy food I hid for them! Reading the clues is one of the ways that reading is organically cropping up into their homeschool days.

9am- Over second breakfast, we started discussing pets, and together we made a pro/con list for all the different pet options we are interested in. James took the lead in making this list (and the pencil- WIN!!!!) and created a voting system for how to narrow down the choices. On the list of possible pets: Bunny, Parakeet, Dog, Puppy, Bald Eagle, Rattlesnake, Cat, Kitten, Chicken, Ferret. 🙂

9:30am- Boys dispersed to get dressed and brush teeth. I cleaned up the kitchen and table.

10:15am- I set the boys up on the computers for math time. ARun chose to work on Prodigy, and JRun wanted to be on ABCya. He picked games under the 5th Grade Math heading (he’s eight, in second grade). I showered while they worked.

10:30am- Our source for handmade tamales knocked on the door while I was in the shower, as she made her weekly neighborhood rounds. The boys answered the door, and successfully navigated that interaction, and asked her to wait a minute, in Spanish. I got our tamales and we all got to practice some Spanish conversation.

11:30am- We ate tamales for lunch and continued to play math and logic games on the computer.

12pm- While the kids were happily gaming (and learning math), I took some time to work in the garden (self-care for me, and homegrown veggies and beautiful flowers for all!) ARun came outside to join me, and found a lovely pile of mud. I think he was expecting a scolding and had a “tricky” look in his eye, but instead I invited him and encouraged him to fully play with the mud, with or without his clothes on, so he made “mud angels” and had a great time. Then we got a bath going and mopped up a few mud tracks in the house. No big deal, and lots of fun for him.

1pm- We read two books together– one about colonial jobs and skills, and one about engineering, with a female main character.

1:45pm- We got ready to go to the pool and I texted our homeschool friends that we were going swimming. We listened to Hamilton on the way there. (JRun is in love with it).

2pm- Swimming at the pool with friends! JRun went off the diving board for the first time, and ARun had a swimming revelation and finally “got” how to kick his feet and paddle his arms at the same time! Twice-weekly Open Rec swimming for about an hour, leading into a half hour lesson, is our “physical education” time. I swim with them during Open Rec, and then I shower and dress (alone!) while they are in their lesson (self-care time for me).

4pm- After 1.5 hours of swimming, we got frozen yogurt. We found Jenga at the yogurt place, and played two games. We also talked about how many states the US has, and how many countries there are in the world. I tried to recite all 50 states for them (they helped me keep count).

5pm- We got back home (listened to Hamilton in the car) and played outside as a family with B until it was time for me to take JRun to choir practice.

6pm- I dropped JRun off at choir practice (we listened to Hamilton on the way there). ARun stayed home with B and they took slow motion videos of ARun jumping off the porch, among other things. While JRun was in choir, I went grocery shopping.

7pm- JRun and I went out for a date at a local taco place while B did bedtime at home with ARun. We stayed there until almost 9pm, watching basketball, sipping limeade, and talking about everything. He repeatedly asked me to hug him at the table throughout our meal. I figured, I have no idea how long his comfort with public hugs is going to last, but I know it’s a finite amount of time, so I’ll take it! He got all the hugs he wanted.

9pm- Back home, B and I read some Harry Potter to JRun before he fell asleep.

On days like this, I spend a bit of time at the end of the day reflecting on the skills and subject matter we ended up covering. This helps me see the educational value of the day, and also helps me see where the gaps are, so they can be addressed another day.

Skills and Subjects from today:

Interpersonal communication

Building loving relationships

Learning strategies for dealing with envy

Engineering

Physical activity and movement

Playing games with others, agreeing on rules

Strategy and logic

Problem-solving and improving upon a design

New vocabulary, use of adjectives

Reading

Weighing pros and cons of a choice

Voting

Spanish conversation

Sensory play with mud

Appropriate restaurant behavior

Computer skills

Math

Playing with dogs- how to play with them, dog behavior

Listening to and appreciating music

Colonial history

Forms of government

Countries vs. states

Learning and memorizing lyrics

Singing in a choir

Trying new foods

Manners and politeness

Imagining a world without modern technologies

Scientific method- creating and testing a hypothesis

Planning for a big purchase

Decision-making process

Diving off the diving board

Swimming

Holding and using a pencil

Goal setting and organization

Not bad for one day!

April 1 First Day of Homeschool (No Joke!)

We have made the plunge into homeschooling, and I am now home educating our two sons, ages 7 (“JRun” on this blog) and 5 (“ARun” on this blog). I’m sure I’ll write more about the backstory of our decision to homeschool at another time. At least for now, we are taking more of an unschooling approach, with a focus on plenty of unstructured free time for them to be active and engaged in their own ways. They need this time in order to “forget” about being jaded about and resistant to more structured school-like academics.

Our guiding educational philosophy at the moment is: Learning is happening all the time, and everything can be learned through anything. When there is trauma or emotional issues at play (we’ve dealt with bullying this year), learning cannot happen deeply until the person is feeling safe.

Here’s a Day in the Life log of how our first official homeschool day went.

7:40am- ARun got out breakfast for everyone of his own accord. We listened to Story Party while eating. The story was about tricksters like Coyote and Brer Rabbit.

8:30am- Boys started a chess game together while I paid bills and made a phone call. There was some breaking of pinky promises and hurt feelings, but since we are homeschooling, we now have all the time we need to deal with the feelings, and the time to do the work of building up the boys’ relationships with everyone in their family (especially their brother), instead of just rushing on to the next thing.

9:00am- We ordered our live Painted Lady butterflies together, and built 3D wooden butterfly puzzles. Talked about the three parts of the butterfly body: head, thorax, abdomen. Listened to “But Why?” podcast about amphibians (didn’t find one that talked about insects or butterflies in the moment, but we did find one later!)

10am- ARun served chocolate chips to us for table time. Aran wrote a few sentences for a thank you card to his grandma and drew a picture. Then he was thrilled to death about the fact that he could write “poop” and it counted as writing practice and he wasn’t getting in trouble for it. He even figured out how to write “poopoo” all by himself. (Sorry, Grandma, for so many “poops” on your thank you card!)

I was attempting to make table time last for awhile, and we made it until 10:50am. ARun was silly after the first ten minutes. JRun worked on writing an ad for a game partner to play Stratego and Chess with him. He’ll place the ad in a nearby Common House of an intentional co-housing community within walking distance of our house. He strongly resists writing, so we filled in the words of the ad where I had left blanks for him.

10:50am- They were ready to let loose and be free. They went upstairs together to make a blanket fort. I’ll let them play freely for up to an hour as long as they are peaceful with each other. They moved onto playing a game with a big yoga ball.

11:40am- Another conflict about physical safety came up between the boys. One boy has a heightened reaction to what he perceives as a physical threat. In reality, it’s something like Brother holding out his pinky for a pinky promise, halfway between their bodies, a good eight inches from the face. But, that action feels “like he was gonna jab me in the eye with his pinky, so I pinched his hand.” (That was the 8:30am conversation). This time, we talked about fight or flight reactions and heightened perceptions of danger, especially after someone has been bullied or hurt by people. I’m trying to give him language and an understanding of what is happening for him, while at the same reinforcing that it’s never ok to hurt someone on purpose, even if it’s because of a fight or flight reaction. Both at 8:30am and at 11:40am, both boys felt heard and like their feelings and experienced were important. Booyah.

11:50am- ARun did MathTango (addition and subtraction) on iPad so JRun and I could play Stratego, which he had been waiting for all morning.

12:30pm- iPad put away, we ate lunch and talked about hows dinosaurs died, the universe, black holes, meteors, and tornadoes.

12:50pm- I cleaned up the lunch things and kitchen while they did MathTango and LightBot Coding for a few minutes. JRun read for ARun inside the MathTango app.

1pm- Errands. Drive-thru bank deposits, grocery shopping with boys (they did awesome– I gave them each individual items to shop for one at a time as I went through the store). Listened to a But Why? podcast about astronomy in the car.

2:30pm- ARun pediatrician appointment. JRun did LightBot coding while he waited.

3:20pm- Unloaded groceries. While I did that, J and A unpacked a foot pump that had been delivered, and together figured out how it worked and how to blow up large pool inflatables that J had picked out at Costco the week before.

3:30-5:30pm- Went to the library. J talked to the librarian and got help looking up something he wanted to find. Then we enjoyed Minecraft Monday at the library from 4-5pm. JRun was his friends from school and had a good hour of social time with them doing what they love doing. ARun got to explore Minecraft and sit next to me, which is just what he wanted to do.

5:30- Back home, J and A spent more time figuring out on their own how to work the manual foot pump and get the inflatable pool loungers inflated. Good problem solving and teamwork happening. Zero involvement on my part! They got it working! I made dinner during that time.

6:00pm- Family dinner. Boys talked about things that happened in their day, which NEVER would happen after a day of public school.

6:30pm- ARun wanted to make sugar cookies in the shape of hearts (“for Mama”). Since the dough had to chill anyway, we had enough time to mix up the dough and clean up the kitchen before bedtime.

7pm- Bedtime. Reading aloud to boys until 8pm (for ARun) and 9pm (for JRun) is already part of our daily routine.

9pm- Both boys asleep.

9 Months Postpartum

I feel like something has lifted, some sort of ease has entered our family life that was missing since the baby joined us. Perhaps it’s a new level of maturity in the now-three-year-old, or perhaps it just always takes this long.  Nine months adjusting to the fact that a baby is coming, and nine months adjusting to the fact that the baby is here.

Medically, the postpartum period is limited to the first six weeks after birth. That’s the time it takes for involution to occur; the uterus returns to it’s pre- pregnancy size. Most moms find that the transition time after giving birth is much longer, sometimes even up to a year, or beyond. I’m telling you now that this is OK. It takes as long as it takes. To heal, to adjust, to settle. Take your time and be kind to yourself. 

Onward: Intentions for 2015

It’s already the third week of January, so I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but it’s time to state my intentions for this next year.

1. Produce more useful gifts and things for sell/trade

2. Follow my calling–Support postpartum mamas

3. Learn three new skills

a. Embroidery/cross stitch

b. Build a Little Free Library

c. Write a kids book and illustrate it

4. Do a better job of composting and recycling

5. Less coffee, more tea

What intentions are you setting for this next year?