Monday, May 30, 2011

Tasting your way to learning geography

 In my Twelve by Twelve quilt challenge group, our current challenge has required us to work with "spice" colors."  It always takes me a while and some researching (or mindless browsing, more like) before I settle on what I want to do.  I'm working on a map series these days so that led me to thinking about where spices come from, and that led to some delightful visual discoveries, like the spice-filled map above, courtesy of a very informative website called "Adventures in Spice." 

And that image set me on the path of looking at spices and geography.  And, as a home-schooling mom, I was delighted to find a great array of information and even lesson plans on using spices as a way to study geography.  (Digression here:  I found geography in high school totally boring.  How I wish it could have been taught with a little creativity, to show us how our own lives were impacted by other places in the world so geography would have felt relevant.  How fun would that be for a school project, to pick a spice from food we actually eat, and trace where it came from and what the trade routes were and find recipes in different countries that use the spice?)

So in case you're intrigued by this, here are a few of the fun things I found:

** National Geographic's website has a whole lesson plan on "Spice Geography"

** A website called "Spice Advice" has a "spice encyclopedia" where you can get facts about all sorts of spices, and even a timeline all about spices

** The McCormick's website has a section called "Spice Field Reports" where a spice buyer reports on where he goes to get spices, how they grow, what they're like in nature, etc.

Of course, after all of this I didn't do anything that involved geography in my spice quilt.  But it was a fun exploration and that McCormick's site had me distracted with delicious-sounding recipes, too.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Notebooking Pages

There are so many resources for homeschooling families on the Internet. I start looking at one thing, and then I follow a link, or two, or seven, and along the way I discover all sorts of tools I hadn't known about. 

Here's one I've just found.  I've not used it yet, but I'm interested in the resources it provides.  It's called  The idea is that you and your child use pages (sort of like scrapbook pages, really) to keep track of what they're learning.  The pages provide a framework for organizing basic information about a person or place or event.  And there is (or can be) creativity in making one's own page or even filling in a pre-designed page.

It looks like there are some potentially helpful suggestions on how to use notebooking to facilitate learning.  I"m thinking this looks like it'd be very useful for younger kids -- it reminds me of something I once saw demonstrated at a local Waldorf school where teachers showed how the kids built their own textbooks as they learned.  I can see there might be some useful applications for older kids, too.  I think C would be turned off by anything that looks too canned or repetitive or is reminiscent of filling out useless worksheets. 

But I like the idea.  And having some prepared notebook pages could come in handy. Hmmm, maybe those art and composer ones would be good for an easy way to frame art and music appreciation.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Daily Schedule or lack thereof

I've read a lot of homeschooling blogs and sites that set out daily schedules.  I can see the advantage to using that sort of scheduling -- certainly helpful for homeschooling younger kids where predictability is so important, and probably a great sanity-saver for a mom homeschooling multiple kids.

But because we came to homeschooling first as a reaction against a school world that C had come to hate, our goal from the outset was to have the continuation of her education look and feel different to her.

At first, I envisioned that we'd be at the kitchen table by 9am, sorting out what her tasks were for the day, etc.  Of course, C's migraines --which were still recurring frequently at that point -- usually hit in the morning and she wasn't functional at all until after lunch.  So that went out the window.

It also became apparent that with C so resistant to the idea of anything that seemed even remotely connected to the idea of "school," if I planned to sit down and talk about "school" or its optimistic synonym, "learning," she'd show up cranky and determined not to enjoy it.

So, our "schedule" such as it is evolved in part by necessity due to the migraine thing, and  by my wanting to step back and let C come to the learning when she was ready.  That's what we've used over the past year, and it's worked well.  Better and better all the time, in fact.

Each Monday (or Sunday evening) I give her a lesson chart for the upcoming week.  It sets out each subject and it has each subject broken out into suggested work for each day, but C knows that it's up to her to decide how to use the daily work so that she has all of the work done by the end of the week.  It's up to her to keep track of what she's done and what is left to do as the week goes by.  In reality, I see that C pretty much follows the daily chart.  But -- to my "likes to feel like she has options" kid, it's important to her that she can choose when she does what.  There are quite a few days where she'll get involved in something and enjoy it and keep going so before she realizes it she's finished the week's reading or watched a full set of video materials, etc.

I also stopped worrying about what time C gets up.  Some mornings she wakes up with a migraine and goes back to sleep.  Others she'll lie in bed and read a bit before getting up.  (And I never complain about reading, ever.)  So, she gets up at her own pace, has breakfast, and then she starts in.  Although in the "institutional school" days she'd dread doing homework and procrastinate and fuss and make herself miserable about the mental weight of the work still to be done, now she seems to have realized that if she just does the work, she'll have the time afterwards to enjoy and work on her own fun things.

And, most amazingly to me, more and more often I see that the line between "work" and "fun" is getting blurrier and blurrier.  She'll enjoy a Teaching Company lecture so much that she'll listen to it again while she's drawing.  I'll find her lying in bed reading her World History book just be cause she became engrossed.

Of course, C may not realize that I do have a scheduled lesson plan and I'm keeping track, too. I've learned not to get to wedded to a schedule, because as soon as I do, something requires changing -- a sick day or two will throw things off, or I'll want to let C learn more about something she's loving so I'll let her take more time with a subject.  I remind myself that flexibility is key, and if learning is taking place -- and more importantly, if ENJOYMENT of learning is happening, then the schedule doesn't matter so much.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Which We Learn About Cathedrals and Enjoy It

I have been meaning to write a series of posts about the curriculum we're using for C's 9th grade year.  And I keep meaning to write a lot about how I've set up her study of World History.  It's going beautifully and we are both learning a lot.  I've incorporated a lot of visual tools in our course, because I've seen how C responds so well to information presented visually.  If there's humor involved, too, so much the better.

I'll get back to that topic soon.  But today, I want to remember to report how excellent this video is.  It's "Cathedral" by David Macaulay (of "The Way Things Work" fame), and it provides a terrific and enjoyable way to learn how and why gothic cathedrals were build they way they were. There are beautiful sequences in actual cathedrals, combined with animated sequences that explore a story of a fictional gothic cathedral being built.  In a charming and totally accessible way, this video provides a lot of information about the historic period, the relations between the church and the community,  and the architectural elements in cathedrals and why they are they way they are.

C enjoyed this so much that she has already watched it twice.

It's available on DVD, but if you're willing and able to watch a video, you can probably find it for far cheaper.  I highly recommend this.  (By the way, we watched "Castle" too, and though we liked it, we both liked "Cathedral" better.)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Does this hard hat make me look smart?

So I used to have a fear of homeschooling.  Well, not a fear, exactly.  More like I thought that it involved me sitting at the kitchen table having to impart my knowledge about the academic subject matter at hand.  And as much as I love my child and I actually did manage to learn a few things at school, the idea was daunting. Plus it sounded like a sure way to make your child hate you pretty darn quick.

I was especially worried about high school.  That's when the subject matter gets, well, complicated.  Geometry!  Biology!  Algebra!  World History!  Plus, your high school records follow you a ways into your budding adult life, what with colleges being kind of pesky about wanting transcripts and test scores and all.

But the more C's experiences in school seemed to be grinding her into an increasingly smaller, sadder version of herself, the more I looked into homeschooling.  And I had a Major Revelation:

I wouldn't have to actually TEACH high school subjects.  Homeschooling high school is more like acting as the General Contractor** and hiring subcontractors to deliver each subject to your child.

I can't even TELL you how much that calmed me down and made it totally doable. And that has been my approach.  I, in consultation with my client, um, student, decide what the subjects are for the year.  I decide how many hours/credit equivalent time she needs.  I research what the subject delivery systems are, and there are plenty: online courses, videos, textbooks, tutors, etc.

So that's my approach to home schooling in high school.  And so far it's working great.  I'll write more about how I've organized things and the course options I've explored, and why I chose what I chose.  But if you're daunted by the high school (or even middle school) content for home schooling, just remember:  You can put on your general contractor hard hat and go hire some subs.

** If you happen to be writing a blog post about general and subcontractors, and you want to find a picture of a woman in a hard hat, don't go googling images of  "female in hard hat."  You wouldn't believe what comes up.  Then again, you probably would.  Just saying.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Our School Calendar

When we started homeschooling this fall, I had a revelation.  We could make the course schedule whatever we wanted it to be.

I'd seen C grow anxious and stressed over her body of schoolwork, even while the work in each subject matter was reasonable and not difficult for her.  I'd tried various ways to both lighten her academic load and to make her FEEL that the load was lighter.  C's perception of her workload, I realized, was the real problem.  And, more importantly, I realized that, for her, the perception issue wasn't about the content or the difficulty of work.  It was simply the feeling that she had a certain number of balls to juggle at one time, and just that fact alone overwhelmed and stressed her.

Reading homeschooling info one evening online (as I do frequently -- seeking guidance and reassurance as I often do on this unfamiliar path), I came across a mom who reported that her family's schooling worked best when they did ONE thing for a few weeks, and then switched and did something else, but always one subject at a time.  LIGHTBULB!  Who says one has to do 5-8 courses at one time?  If that's what was freaking C out, why couldn't we try something different?

What a mind-opening idea.  It's amazing, really, how often the institutionalized school world defines my own expectations and assumptions in ways I don't realize.  And this was another. So, I sat down with C and we had a discussion.  I laid out what subjects she needed to cover for 9th grade.  And I asked her:  Did she want to try doing one at once?  Two or three at a time?  I pointed that that her work in each course would still need to cover a year's worth of material by the end, so if she did one at a time, she'd still be putting in the same general time every day, so it'd be an intensive dive into whatever the current subject was.

After some contemplation we agreed to try this:  She'd do two core courses at a time for half of the school year, and halfway through she'd switch to the other two core courses. That'd mean she'd do a year's worth of math in a semester, for example.  And we agreed that foreign language needs continuity, so we included a little bit of language every day all year long.  The advantage of this is that it'd give C just THREE subjects to keep track of.  And, I reminded her (and myself), if it didn't feel like it was working, we'd adjust.

It's been brilliant.  For September through mid-January, C studied English and Geometry, working about 2 hours a day in each of those two subjects.  She did a short language lesson every day, too, just as art and PE have continued all along. And in mid-January, she changed to World History and Biology, with ongoing foreign language, art and PE.  The change in her attitude about school work has been remarkable.

The plus side of this?  C feels far less stressed with only 3 subjects to juggle.  She gets to work in-depth a bit more in the core courses, so she can accomplish a lot in a week in each of those courses.  Another perceptual advantage: when she's wearing thin on a subject, she knows she only has a few more weeks to go before she's done with it.  It's also been advantageous for me, as it's made my planning of her work and progress easier as well.   That concept of juggling fewer things makes life easier for me, too.

I'm not sure how this would work for other kids.  But that's the great thing about homeschooling: you can tailor things to what your child needs and how she works best.

**Oh! That's the calendar over my desk up there.  It's from Paper Source.  Isn't it pretty?

Monday, February 7, 2011

How We Came To Homeschooling

I wasn't one of those moms who knew from the outset that I wanted to homeschool.  When we adopted C (who is from China, by the way), I envisioned her trotting off to public school and having a long and successful school career in the midst of the diverse school community there.

Kindergarten through fourth grade went great.  She went to our local public school (a medium-sized K-6 school) and we were delighted with the quality of the teachers there. C is quick and picked things up fast, so academics were never a problem.  But as the fourth grade year went on, we starting seeing signs of ... something.  C would often come out of school sad, or crying, or grumpy about having hated the day.  She liked her teacher, she was sailing along with the school work, but the social world was becoming complicated.  We chalked it up to the whole girl clique thing, and her teacher told us that C was clearly gifted and gifted kids don't always fit in well with their peers.  It was clear that C just wasn't interested in the things the other girls her age were interested in.  By the end of the year, C was flat-out miserable, so we started taking her to a counselor who specializes in working with kids, Judy.  And Judy immediately wondered whether Aspergers was at issue, although she agreed that if so C was presenting "borderline" symptoms.  We also wondered whether the issues stemmed from that particular cohort of girls in her grade, few of whom seemed interested in school or in doing well.

For 5th grade, we moved C to a very small local public school to see if a new mix of kids and a smaller environment would help.  For a while, it did.  C got a wonderful, experienced teacher whose focus was on helping the kids to identify their own learning styles.  She was flexible and allowed the kids to do what they needed to do to learn comfortably.  For C, that meant that she often chose to sit outside and read by herself where it was quiet and she could focus.  We wondered further about Aspergers, kept watch, but overall it was a pretty good year.

That all went downhill fast in 6th grade.  C's teacher was pleasant but pretty clueless woman whose classroom strategy seemed to be to put them into groups for constant group- project work, and if problems arose to leave them to deal with it themselves until things really got out of hand.  It was a disorganized, noisy room, just the sort of environment in which C had the hardest time.  She was frequently unhappy, and started having melt-downs in class.  We became more confident about an Asperger's diagnosis, and realized that she was spending a huge amount of energy to cope with the environmental stresses of noise, chaos, negotiating the social skills necessary to work in groups, and a clueless teacher no matter how many times I went in to talk with her.

We eventually had C undergo an in-depth evaluation by a neuropsychologist, who confirmed the Aspergers diagnosis and was able to pinpoint some specific issues we'd seen C experience but hadn't really understood.  We learned that she has an amazing memory but that she has a hard time selecting material out of a bigger pool of information.  We learned that she has specific difficulties recognizing faces and, to some extent, facial expressions.

Armed with that information, we decided that our public junior high school option was not a viable one.  It is a big, chaotic place, with even less oversight by teachers (especially at unstructured, out-of-the-classroom times that are the hardest for Aspies) and we knew C would not cope well there.  We enrolled her in a very small, new private school in our community which promised very individualized attention and very small groups.  C's 7th grade class had 12 students in it.  We'd talked to the headmaster and teachers about C's Aspergers, how that would affect her in school, and what sort of support she would need from them.  They said all the right things, and off we went.  The first few months were great.  C was happy and reported that she liked school.  Her best friend was there too, to C's delight.

And suddenly, things changed.  We still don't know why.  C started having almost daily migraine headaches, often so severe that she could do nothing but sleep all day until it went away.  She hated going to school and often begged to stay home.  We weren't able to learn about any specific issues causing all of that -- and believe me, we asked questions and watched and tried to figure out what was going on.  Now, looking back, I know that there was some subtle bullying going on, and that C's core homeroom teacher -- who was also the person designated as C's "safe" person to go to if she was having any difficulties -- provided no assistance or support at all when C went to her.  She got more migraines, then missed more school, then fell behind, then was even more stressed and got more migraines.  It was a miserable time for all of us, especially as we worried about the causes of her migraines.  A neurological work-up with a pediatric neurologist assured us that she had no organic issues, but "just" suffered from chronic migraine syndrome which can get quite severe during puberty when hormones are running rampant.

I could rant for a while about my unhappiness about how that teacher and the school in general treated C and us through all of that, but suffice it to say that we realized that C was not just missing school constantly, but also that her being at school seemed to be affirmatively harming her emotional state and self-esteem and feelings about learning.  I spent a lot of time at that school during those months, and what I saw from C's core teacher just appalled me.  She didn't understand Aspergers and, it seemed, she didn't want to.  Ultimately, we chose to remove C from that school and allow her to just focus on feeling better.

So, suddenly I was homeschooling.  We signed up for Time4Learning, an online learning site that has game-like lessons in the core subjects.  My thinking was that the main goal was to have C be stress-free and have schoolwork be really different from classroom work and more like game-playing.  We figured that academically C was ahead of most 7th graders her age anyway, so the academic content took second place to the low-key and fun aspect of it.  We also arranged to have C meet once a week with the science/math teacher from 7th grade, a guy who was amazing and delightful and made learning fun.  He "got" C, and made her feel good about her abilities.  So school during that phase meant daily online lessons through Time4Learning, and weekly tutoring.

And it worked.  Having the time away from a school schedule meant that we could focus on getting Grace's migraines under control.  We let her sleep and play as much as she wanted to.  We went on field trips, to the local parks and to the city for museums and zoo trips.  Life started looking up.

We were so encouraged by C's improvement that we wondered if some sort of virtual school-from-home program would work.  We liked that a virtual school - where you "attend" by being at your computer with microphone and webcam at class times to participate with other students and the teacher online -- would give C the ability to be at home while also maintaining contact with classmates and teachers.  It seemed an ideal solution.  And, we wondered, if the environmental and sensory stresses of being in an actual classroom were removed, would C just zoom forward with the academics?

We ended up applying to Stanford University's "EPGY" -- "Education Program for Gifted Youth" program.  It's a virtual school with solid looking academic classes, a great deal of flexibility, and the whole virtual thing.  Husband and I were greatly reassured that if C had to do a "nontraditional" school path, at least it'd be something with a reputable name attached to it.  C wrote her entrance essay (shades of applying for college -- it was a detailed application), was accepted, and away we went for C's 8th grade year.

I'll cut to the chase.  Some things worked, some didn't.  The virtual aspect was cool and worked well.  C's classmates were located all over the world.  The teachers were, for the most part, really excellent, and the content they covered was well presented.  But we saw that C started in with migraines and stomach aches, even while she had A's in all of her classes.  She could handle the academics.  But the schedule of work, even with virtual classes, seemed to stress her out a lot.  She'd get sick, then fall behind, and we'd be in that same circle of stress-sick-stress-sick thing.  By Christmas time, we saw that she was starting a decline in her health again, and she was increasingly depressed.

By spring of 8th grade, it was clear: this wasn't good for her.  She had A's in her classes, but she was falling apart emotionally.

Homeschooling, here we come.