It's still a little blurry, because I'm so close to it, this year of homeschooling......but I think I have enough perspective to reflect on what has transpired. Have you reached that point in your life yet when you have to hold objects away from your face just to see them? Oy. The fourth decade has its novelties, doesn't it? Brace yourself if you are not there yet -it's coming!
The purpose of this post is to reflect on the last year of our homeschooling experience with a 10-year-old in the 4th grade and to decide what needs tweaking for next year. These are the questions running through my mind right now:
1. Was it a successful year? YES.
2. Was it a stressful year? Yes, but I can thank myself for that.
3. Did I reach burn out? Yes (ouch).
4. Did Max thrive? YES.
5. Did our homeschooling lifestyle have a positive effect on our family? A resounding yes!
6. Are our relationships with one another better because of homeschooling? Most certainly.
7. Are we sticking with homeschooling next year and the years after that? YES.
8. Am I going to do things differently next year for 5th grade? Yes, oh yes!
This year can be summed up as an experiment, an 'in-house' rigorously tested trial of eclectic eccentricity, laughter, wild historical rides, and very little predictability. We were all over the place in our studies, trying this and that, now and then hitting upon a rhythm. Most of the time we bumped along happily and Max grew in knowledge, experiences and maturity level.
Occasionally I tripped, lost my balance and didn't know what to do next. Like many newer homeschooling parents, I did pay homage to the WORRY monster and let him toy with me occasionally. Were we covering 'good' material, whatever good means in this context? Was I being inclusive in my choice for resources, again, whatever that means? Was I helping or hindering him? Was I missing important pieces to the giant puzzle of education? More importantly, what was my definition of a great education (I've thought about this a lot)? Was I putting too much pressure on him? Was he keeping up with his peers, even though the very thought of just thinking that felt like rubbish, but I admit, I did pay a teensy bit of attention to that niggling question. All of this was almost a constant low-grade buzz in the back of my head as we traveled through the year, but I plugged on and was gamely determined to find that happy middle ground where Max was growing and learning. Overall I think we did great and we all have emerged with lessons learned and valuable information for the future as to how to continue to do this wonderful thing called homeschooling.
Okay, to explain myself, I don't take on something new lightly. I attack that something with all of the vim and vigor I can muster (it's my good German upbringing, I guess.) I go full-bore for as long as I can hold it together, and then eventually collapse in a heap of dust, face down, after exhaustion has grabbed me by the shirt collar and yanked me roughly to the ground. Skinned knees, the works. This technique has always been my modus operandi, and it's probably not going to change anytime soon, being that I'm in my fourth decade and all. I plan like a madwoman, make lists, start files, ask questions, search and search for resources, turn things over in my mind and then subject everyone around me to the grand unleashing of the 'GREAT ENDEAVOR'. I'm currently immersed in a garden project and am clearly following this pattern which is so natural to me. It will be a wonder if I manage to stay on top of it and the carrots survive. I start out so strong and am pretty much a marvel (stated humbly, of course).
According to the laws of nature, this type of concentrated energy simply can't be sustained; therefore I end up suffering for burning so much energy in such a short period of time. I'm like an extremely inefficient furnace (hah - a forty-year old model!) Classic maneuvers, very much me. Absolutely, homeschooling has been subjected to this crazy way of operating, but I have learned much and have developed a slightly healthier perspective because I continually remind myself that this is not about me. It is about Max. I have had to learn how to reign in my raging inner beast to accommodate his needs, and believe me, that was by far my most challenging task of the year. Max's was math :). I was wrestling with my inner self and he was wigging out over worksheets. Plus, I wrote a post about the concept of 'slow parenting' and that notion has provided much for me to chew on. Max is certainly not a project.
Eclectic is the word that best describes our homeschool over the last school year. If you've read any of my blog posts, you may note that I cast a broad net to find resources that are unusual, fun, clever and quirky. That has been the whole purpose of this blog - to share these resources and to encourage families to inject some laughter into learning. If you haven't looked at some past posts, go ahead and browse a little. You might find some treasures with which to line your bookshelves! We hit upon so many terrific materials and enjoyed them immensely, both of us, and there are many still left for us to dig into. I'm glad I put the time and energy into finding these gems because we can always pull the appropriate piece and fit it in to what Max is doing. I did think it interesting that on several occasions we stumbled upon the perfect accompaniment to what we were studying, at just the right time, helping the information to gel quite nicely. Some sort of cool homeschooling karma?
We primarily used a unit study approach with a dash of unschooling and a smidge of structured curriculum. Whatever felt right, I went with. The unit study way of homeschooling is fabulous, albeit a huge amount of front work for the homeschooling parent. For this reason we have been homeschooling six weeks on, one week off throughout the year. These mini breaks gave me a clear space in which to prepare the next unit study. I vaguely had subjects in mind for the unit studies, but did ask Max for his input on what he wanted to learn about. Once we settled on a topic, I hit the ground running and brought in tractor loads of information to choose from, which was total overkill. I learned to tone it down as we went....... We did units on Ancient Greece, Prehistoric Man, Ancient Egypt, Whales and Dolphins (Cetacea), a short unit on Anne Frank and the Holocaust, the beginnings of a unit on Outer Space (this is where the burnout started rearing its ugly, hairy head), a short unit on honey bees, and now are finishing up with a unit on the human body. Incidentally, all of the materials utilized in these units are detailed in this blog - click on 'unit studies' to find them. I started assembling the Outer Space unit, but just couldn't muster the willpower to make it complete, so we tackled an introduction so-to-speak. Stephen Hawking to the rescue, here. He and his daughter wrote some insanely terrific books about the solar system that whet our appetites for more space adventure. I was very happy that we got those read - great adventure stories perfect for kids.
Grammar was a bit more structured. Max did daily worksheets out of the Daily Grams curriculum and I used the Internet to supplement and clarify. Short and sweet. We are almost to the end of the workbook and it has been an adequate tool. I would have liked for him to have had more instruction, so probably should have purchased the teacher's manual. I signed him up for an online live grammar webclass in May for a week to pull it all together. Max likes grammar and has a knack for it.
Science was kind of all over the place. We got much covered within our unit studies and ventured outside those boundaries to whatever we thought was interesting. We goofed around with various experiments and setups. We enjoyed several physics classes with Science Jim online. Brown Paper School books made us think and laugh. Jay Hosler tickled our funny bone as well with his graphic novels about honey bees and human eyes. Many documentaries were watched via Netflix. We played the Totally Gross game, enjoyed software like Clue Finders and went to see Slim Goodbody. Stephen Hawking wowed us with the wonders of outer space. The current unit on the human body is ripe with science! I considered signing up for a science co-op, but wanted to curtail the amount of running around we did each week.
Max learned some geography by visiting the huge world map and U.S. map taped up in the hallway. We did some blackline maps, not a favorite, while studying Ancient Greece and Egypt. We played The Amazing Mammoth Hunt to learn country locations and names. Brown Paper School has a great book called The Book of Where that is foundational. We dug into it, but did not finish it. We also used http://www.freerice.com/ to quiz ourselves on the name of countries and locations and Carmen Sandiego lended a hand, too.
Literature - this was a strong element during the year. I am a fan of reading aloud to your child, well into his teens if he'll stand for it. Max and I read oodles of books together, most of them novel length. From August until now I think we have logged about 36 books. Books like Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Benedict Society, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, George's Secret Key to the Universe, The BFG, The Curse of the Titans, etc. I started a list of interesting books a long time ago, so there is plenty to choose from depending on our mood.
Writing. Sore spot! Max is a reluctant writer. I tried all kinds of tricks from creating zany book report sheets to starting silly stories and asking him to add to them to starting a blog for him to write in (it's about his hamster), to dictating his stories. He sputtered with all of this. I decided to give him space and time to grow into this side of himself. The curriculum I have chosen for next year incorporates more writing. Hopefully he'll be more open to it, but it's fine if he's not. He has plenty of time to discover that inner expressive part of himself. Maybe he's just not a writer.
Art. We fiddled with painting, an art treasury book of projects, cultural art as part of the unit studies, a little sewing and whatever else he wanted to create with his hands. I did not pursue a structured art program. Max likes to draw, so we got him a drafting table where he can work. I purchased a few drawing technique books for him to peruse at his leisure.
Music. Fun! Max started drum lessons in the fall and has taken off with it. His ability to hear a rhythm and memorize it is kind of scary. He bangs away on his drum set as he sees fit. I don't put any practice pressure on him. Drumming for him is an outlet and he is drawn to his drums whenever he feels the need. I grew up playing the violin and was made to practice and I disliked that.
MATH. Math was the most tricky, treacherous territory to maneuver through the entire year. I spouted out several times in this blog about the joys of a living math approach, one where you create a strong math foundation by reading all kinds of books about math and play games about math concepts. Penrose taught us math through the eyes of a cat, The Great Number Rumble was a fab read about how math is everywhere and we can't live without it. The I Hate Mathematics and Math for Smarty Pants books by Brown Paper School were entertaining. We used www.freerice.com to practice addition and multiplication facts and used Key Curriculum Press products to learn about fractions. Family Math was pulled out occasionally, too. Alas, this is where the WORRY MONSTER tackled me and I couldn't get away, no matter how hard I bit him. I am in the process of purchasing a structured curriculum called Math U See for Max for next year - it's one he used during his charter school days. Our current state of affairs is just too piecemeal for me and my reasoning is this - if for some reason Max has to go back to 'regular' school, he is going to be mighty embarrassed to have to do remedial studies in third grade math, because that's pretty much where he is sitting right now. Maybe even carrying more weight is my growing belief that math facts serve a person well if they are learned well - by that I mean our brains store information after a certain amount of repetition. This is a different kind of math foundation, but one that is equally important as a conceptual foundation (as in the living math approach). If the basic math facts are readily accessible inside a child's brain........well, that just makes learning the rest of math less stressful down the road. Our brains are so complex, we don't even understand exactly how things happen up in that gray matter; but scientists who study how information is sorted and stored in the brain do know a few tricks for encouraging long-term retention. Much like we need to exercise our muscles to keep them in working order, we need to exercise our brains in different ways, too. Some contend a child can use a calculator when needed for math facts - I think this does the child a great disservice down the road just for the sake of laying down effective brain pathways. There, I said it. I am buying a math curriculum!! I'm not abandoning the premise of living math because I still like it and admire it very much. We will combine that approach with a structured, orderly curriculum. I am certainly not structured and orderly and I think Max needs that balance in his life. So it is to Math U See that I am turning. I am SO relieved about this, I can't even put it into words.
History. Huge part of our unit studies. We used some of Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World. We giggled over Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. The units on Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt were fascinating and probably our most thorough studies. Anne Frank and the Holocaust definitely turned Max's head. I still cannot answer his question of 'why' and will never be able to.
PE. Karate lessons twice a week and plenty of sword play while I read aloud, bike riding, walks and hikes with dogs and wrestling/karate with Dad.
These are the things I absolutely love and cherish about homeschooling:
1. I have had the pleasure of being re-introduced to my child
2. I get to see him have his light bulb moments when he makes a connection
3. I get to laugh with him often
4. I get to play catch with him in the middle of the day
5. We get to stay in our jams until noon or later
6. We avoid that horrible morning rush
7. We wake up rested and refreshed, not harried and stressed
8. We get to tell Dad about what we did when he gets home
9. I can share some of my passions with Max and he can witness me enjoying my hobbies
10. I can feed him good food throughout the day
11. We can take breaks whenever we need to.
12. We can switch gears and tailor our materials as needed
13. We can take whatever we are learning and travel with it to different locations.
14. We take field trips, enjoy the zoo, and other city sites when they are not crowded. Grocery shopping is less stressful, too.
15. He has many close friends in the neighborhood and from his old school who he sees frequently
16. I can drag him to Lowe's with me when I need some wood or a welder.
17. We can hang out with our animals all day long and enjoy them. He can read with a cat on his lap or his pet rat on his shoulder.
18. We can take a nap if needed.
19. We can navigate the mom-son relationship and learn to communicate well and this extends nicely to his relationship with his dad, and to everyone else for that matter.
20. He doesn't cry over homework anymore (that broke my heart, honestly. They weren't manipulative tears but tears of real stress and angst).
21. He gets to MOVE his body all around the room when we are working. He's an active 10-year-old who needs an outlet to develop his gross motor skills!
22. He does not get sick nearly as much as he did while in school.
23. He seems content and happy. Much of the stress in his life has dissolved. He is fun to be around.
24. We no longer have to run all over the place, back and forth to school, to afterschool activities.....it's blessedly CALM around here! And we're going down to having just one car. Good for the earth, good for the pocketbook.
Oh, I could go on and on and on. Homeschooling has terrific perks and often does wonders for family health and well-being. Admittedly, next year will have a different tone to it, but I remain incredibly excited about this journey we are on. This last year has been pivotal. It was a dramatic lifestyle change that has had positive reverberations which continue to sing in our ears. Simply put, I love homeschooling, even when my internal furnace has conked out due to burning too much fuel too quickly and I have to find a way to repair myself. All I really need to do is look at my kiddo and see how he is coming into his own person, how he carries that smile on his face, how he enjoys many moments during his day.
Next year will be different, yes. He won't have to rely on me so much for his materials, and that's a good thing (for me and him). He needs to work more independently and I think he's ready. Plus, I'll be less likely to implode, which is also a very good thing. I can't wait! No more implosions, or at least they will be fewer and farther between one another and maybe I can cut down on the amount of dark chocolate in the house. It's gotten me through many a moment, let me tell you. I am looking forward to his school work being a bit more orderly, but we'll still sprinkle it with fun. Innately, I think humans crave at least a little structure - having some boundaries like that can be a relief! Babies like it. Dogs need it. I don't think that changes as we grow up. Fourth grade was a massive undertaking from which we both learned vital information - some of it educational, some of it emotional, some of it logical. All of it necessary. This is a long journey we are on and I fully expect that we will have to continually adjust as we go.
In summary, I would not change much about this last year of homeschooling, maybe just my approach to certain things as we would have benefited from a little more structure. At one time I toyed with the idea of unschooling and researched it. I peered across the abyss and couldn't summon the courage to jump. I admire people who can. Get too far from structure, chaos steps to the plate, and as we've learned, my mental status gets compromised. I'm proud of what we accomplished and so very happy that Max is happy, that he has room to revel in his childhood. There - I think that statement just nailed it. Kids should have time to revel in childhood. Homeschooling makes plenty of room for that to happen!