Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Letting Go

As homeschoolers, especially first time homeschoolers, it's easy to fall into the trap of following what school would do. PLEASE STOP. The beauty of homeschooling is that you don't have to follow what school does. You determine curriculum. YOU determine what your child will learn that year. What school is doing is irrelevant. I know, easier said than done.

I started homeschooling over 5 years ago because I felt that schools are developmentally inappropriate. I've felt that for my entire 20 years as an Early childhood special ed teacher. I quit public school teaching over 15 years ago because of this. So I am definitely NOT going to force my young children to do what they would have to do in school.

Knowing a little about child development helps. For instance, some children do not have the eye muscles fully developed in order to track. Tracking is a necessary component to reading. So how can you expect your 5, 6 or 7 year old to read if his/her muscles aren't ready for that movement? It is also developmentally appropriate for a child to NOT pick a hand dominance until age 5. Sure many do it before this, but it's within normal developmental ranges to go as late as 5. So if a child has just established hand dominance, how do you expect them to write?

I know that public school kindergartens have children reading, writing and doing basic computation. And I know it's hard to watch your child's peers do this stuff and your child is not. But understand forcing children to do this is actually developmentally inappropriate. It is also inappropriate to have young children sitting at a table or desk for extended periods of time. Children's bodies are built to move. They learn best through doing, exploring, and actively participating. Not memorizing, tracing, or repeating over and over. That's rote memorization, NOT learning.

I know it's hard to trust, but when your child is ready they will learn to read and write. I had one daughter who taught herself how to read at 4. My other daughter didn't read until 8. I never taught either of them to read. They were offered a literature rich environment, read to a lot, had access to books, and were allowed to develop their interest in their time. My then 8 year old decided she didn't want us reading subtitles to her anymore (Star Wars). So within 2 weeks she went from reading beginner books with CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words (cat, bot, gum) to reading chapter books like Junie. B Jones and Magic Treehouse. 2 WEEKS. Because she was ready and she was interested. Sure I could've pushed her to do it sooner, but WHY? Unless they are in school, there is no real reason an 8 year old NEEDS to read.

Now I may be an extreme exception, but as far as my kids teaching themselves how to read, that is not. Trust that when your child is ready, he/she will learn. Don't push them to do things that their bodies are not ready for. Let them be children. Take them out into the world, give them experiences, teach them through play and exploration. Their understanding, language and knowledge will be so much richer and deeper if you do this. If you don't believe me, look at some of the top producing countries in the world like Finland. They don't start school until age 7. There are also plenty of studies that show forcing reading on young children can actually be detrimental in the long run.

So LET GO. Let go of expectations. Let go of societal pressures. Wait until YOUR child is ready. I promise you, it will lead to happier and a more fulfilled life. And they will be fine.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Self taught? WHAT?

Many people have asked me how my kids can actually pass the end of year assessment when we mostly unschool. I get that it takes a leap of faith that children will learn when they are ready, but I can attest that this does happen.

My 9 year old daughter HATED reading when she was 5 and 6...and 7...and most of 8. LOL I was nervous and tried to force it for a little while but it just created stress, tears, fights and was just not worth it. Honestly kids learn to read so early in school because the curriculum demands that they read. An 8 year old who doesn't go to school does not really need to know how to read. So I left it alone. Well, about halfway through 8 years old, she decided she wanted to learn how to read. She was watching her school friends read so well and was tired of us reading subtitles to her. So she learned how to read. Period. End of story. She went from reading CVC word books (cat, bot, mit, etc) to Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse series in about 2 weeks. And I really did nothing but sit with her as she read aloud & helped her pronounce words that were hard for her. THAT'S IT!!

But HOW you ask? Because she was motivated, interested and engaged. It was important to her. And this is true of ANYTHING. Think about how much you learned in school that you cannot recall. I have re-learned so much as a homeschool mom! I have vague memories of The Revolutionary war and polymers, but now that I am interested, I really KNOW about these things. Think about all the things you did NOT learn in school that you use everyday....computers, internet, texting. I know I'm old as hell but NONE of these things existed when I was in school. How did you learn them then? Either because you were interested and took the time or your job demanded it so you buckled down and learned it.

So as far as our days go, I said we mostly unschool. I have to say that we totally unschooled until about a year ago. I honestly have run out of math ideas that are hands on and experiential in nature. So we do a math worksheet almost everyday and they sometimes use online games and websites. But that's about it. Everything else is just living our lives. They've always been interested in science, so since they were babies we've blown stuff up, made slime, had an aquarium for creatures we find in the yard, grown caterpillars into butterflies, etc. This is just fun for us. Now that they are a little older (11 and 9), we look a little deeper into the science behind these things. When they are interested, they research it. Get books out of the library, watch videos, go online. History has been the biggest surprise for me. I HATED history in school and retained almost nothing. I LOVE history now. We do a lot with trips. For instance we went to Boston a few years ago, so we did the Freedom Walk. That led to interest in the Boston Tea Party & Revolutionary War. We happen to live in the Hudson Valley NY and there are a ton of Revolutionary War sites here, so we went to them. We got books out, watched videos, etc. My kids could tell you more about the Revolutionary War than I ever could when I was in school. Both my girls love to read, so we talk about books. They write letters to pen pals. They like to journal so they do. They are starting to get into email. They are interested in other cultures so we celebrate holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year and learn about other parts of the world through their customs, celebrations and foods. We cook all the time - tons of reading, science and math there. We go to see plays, musicals and live music. We have a piano, keyboards, various drums and guitars laying around. Sometimes they watch YouTube videos to learn how to play something. They participate in local sports and activities like gymnastics, tennis, Girl Scouts and dance. We go to farms, museums, aquariums, the ocean, the mountains, and cities. They talk to their grandparents and great aunts and uncles about life when they were kids. They talk to adult friends and family about their jobs and interests. They live in the world and buy things with their own money and volunteer in our community. I could go on and on.....

So yes my children have learned a lot. They have never seen the inside of a textbook (I don't think), they sit at a table for 20 minutes a day maximum doing math (not weekends, holidays or summers - and we extend all of those beyond the school calendar). I test them at the end of every year with a test that has to be approved by our state (and NY is one of the toughest states to homeschool in) and the lowest grade received so far was an 85 on a grammar section because I've never taught grammar. They just picked it up from reading. I am more a facilitator of learning, rather than a teacher. If they are interested, I help them find out. I help them figure out HOW to find out. The key is learning HOW to learn, not memorizing facts. The world will be VERY different 20 years from now. They need to know HOW to go about learning that new thing when it comes around.

So yes it is possible to learn while unschooling. It may not be according to the school calendar, but who cares if all fourth graders are learning about NY state government? The learning is not even constant. There is a LOT of downtime when NONE of this is going on. It is during these down times that the trust in the process is really needed. Those days of video games and nothing else (like right now). This stuff comes in bursts. But when it's authentic, and it comes from them, and they are interested, curious and want to learn, it is the most meaningful and memorable learning that I've ever experienced.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Staying Connected

Do those of you who homeschool stay connected to your local school community? I ask because I barely know anyone who does. Although we pay school taxes, no one I know even attempts to tap into the resources that their local school has to offer. Here in New York, homeschoolers are allowed to participate in school activities and/or use school materials if the district decides to let you. Our local district leaves it up to the building principals. I am lucky enough to have a good relationship with both principals of the schools my children would be attending, so they allow us to attend school functions and after school programs.

How did I do that? Well my oldest did go to school for kindergarten and first grade. In that time I was VP of the PTA and volunteered in the building almost everyday. So I was able to form a good working relationship with that principal. Now you're probably thinking Too late for that! I can't do that. And in part you are right. But my oldest would now be in a building we had nothing to do with. I never really set foot in that building, I have barely met the principal there and we have never attended school there. But I established a working relationship with that principal.

HOW?! Well I'll tell you. Every year when I write my intention to homeschool letter (a requirement in NY), I send a copy to the building principals that my kids would be attending, as a courtesy. With that, I usually write a letter thanking the principal for allowing us to participate in book fairs, after school game clubs and the science fair. This year, since my eldest would've entered a new school, I wrote a letter to that principal introducing ourselves. I explained what we have been doing and I also explained that it is important to us to keep our children tied to their school community and friends and why. I stated that I would like to attend as many activities as possible, without disrupting their school day or flow.  I offered to come into school over the summer and introduce ourselves at a time that was convenient to her. I thanked her for her time, as I know how busy a principals job is and gave her my contact information.
School science fair

I have to say I was fairly shocked to get a call from her about a week later!! We spoke briefly on the phone and she welcomed us to join in any of those activities. Now maybe I am just lucky. Maybe I have already established a reputation in the district for not being a pain in the ass. Or maybe, just maybe, all we have to do is ask. What's the worst that can happen? They can say no. You really haven't lost anything, have you?

Now many people who homeschool have never sent their kids to school, so they don't feel the need to connect. Others left their school due to bad circumstances, so they do not want to re-connect. I get that. But understand the school has a lot of resources at your disposal. They can allow you to use materials such as textbooks, microscopes and other equipment. They can let you attend after school activities like game club or art club. They can go so far as to let you join activities such as band or theatre. I am able to host my girl scout meetings at the school my youngest would be attending.

I see it as a benefit in two ways (for us). One: my kids stay connected with their school friends, get to experience activities with them at school, and stay a part of the school community. Many would say Who cares? I care because I realize that one day my kids may want to go back to school. I don't want it to be such a foreign land or such a social nightmare that the option is removed before it's even considered. I also realize that homeschooling is a financial burden. A burden we manage now, but anything could happen in the future that might make it necessary for them to go back to school. And Two: I get to use the resources that my school has to offer FOR FREE! I am getting some return on my tax dollars that I wouldn't necessarily get otherwise.

It may feel awkward at first. It did for me and I was already known in the building. But now, 3 years later, it's no big deal. The school community knows who we are. Organizers of activities such as the science fair, reach out to us to see if we want to participate. It takes work on my part - staying up to date on school activities, finding out when holiday shops, movie nights and ice cream socials are happening, and going to events that feel awkward at first. But isn't it worth it for our kids?

So if this has struck a cord with you, I invite you to try it next year. Send a copy of your letter of intent to your local principal. Write a letter introducing yourself. Offer to come in and visit over the summer when it's not as busy for them. You might be surprised and you might gain access to a world of resources you never knew you could get!

Please comment! I'd love to hear how you stay connected with your local school community or ask questions on how to get started!!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Planning to Unschool

Yes, Yes I know. Total contradiction right? Unschooling is supposed to be all about letting go, letting your child explore his/her interests unrestricted, no intervention. Well, maybe not. Radical unschoolers will become very upset with my use of the term 'unschool.' And maybe I should reconsider. There is so much terminology out there - homeschool, unschool, hack school, project based homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, online schooling........the list goes on and on. I choose unschooling because it fits most of what we do. I don't tend to get wrapped up in the semantics or the politics of these things. I don't feel the need to defend ONE way as the RIGHT way. After doing this for 3 years now, I have learned that the WAY we homeschool changes every year.

But back to planning to unschool....WHAT?!?! Yes I plan. It is in my very nature to plan everything. Just ask my husband. It's like a friggin hobby to me. Sick I know. But in order to get the most out of our homeschooling/unschooling experience, I feel planning is essential. So how exactly do I do that? Glad you asked!

I just started planning for next year. The first thing I keep in mind are the vacations that we have planned. I LOVE to use travel as an excuse to learn something. For instance a trip to Boston triggered a massive learning experience on the Revolutionary war. So I look at the trips I have planned and try to figure out how to work them into our 'curriculum.' Now I should say that I don't plan trips FOR curriculum. Our trips are purely for fun. BUT if there happens to be something cool and different nearby, then by all means we are going to take advantage. In years past we've gone Herkimer diamond mining in upstate NY, to northern California (San Fran, Yosemite & Tahoe), Florida, North Carolina, Maine, Virginia Beach, Massachusetts, upstate NY.......we've learned map reading skills, states and capitals, measurement in miles, about different environments, the plants that grow there, the animals that live there, weather patterns, ocean life, different mountain ranges, glaciers, history, chemistry, literature on these places, math, art, music.....you name it! And the only thing that I did to spur such a massive learning experience was bring them there. I planned the trip.

Glaciers in the Sierras

Now it isn't quite that simple for kids that are programmed into learning the way traditional schools teach. It may take more time allowing them to explore and define their learning to get into this. We have always 'unschooled.' So my kids naturally ask questions, have curiosity, want to explore more. They naturally go somewhere and then want to get books on that place or that thing. But ALL kids are curious learners if you let them be. Just offer the spark and watch them ignite.

Sea Stars on the coast of Maine

So when we went to Yosemite, we visited a mock Native American village. This sparked a compare/contrast to western Native American tribes vs. the Eastern tribes we had already learned about. We did a starry night hike. This sparked a solar system interest. Of course the Giant Sequoias were amazing and Half Dome and El Capitan. Visiting beaches regularly - but especially Maine, where we found sea stars in the wild, sparked a learning experience on ocean life. Herkimer diamond mining sparked a chemistry lesson in how crystals were formed. Boredom in the car/plane led to map reading, finding out which states we've crossed and what their capitals are. Figuring out how many miles the trip is, how many we have already traveled and how much more there is to go (math).

Of course, you can stay local and accomplish the same thing. We are lucky to have a large group of active homeschoolers in our area. We are also lucky to have a lot of historical places close by, beautiful nature areas, and cities. So local learning experiences are never-ending!

Dragonfly hatching by a lake near our home

But let's say you don't have so much nearby. I also plan to unschool by finding interesting videos and books on topics that should be covered. There are so many websites! I usually just leave these things laying around for my kids to 'discover.' Maybe we go to a play that sparks interest in something. Talk to a grandparent about their childhood. Find creatures in our backyard (yes we have a tank for creatures in our backyard). Visit the pet store.

There are endless ways to spark learning.  I try to come up with fun activities and trips and then let the rest just naturally happen. So yes, I plan to unschool.  And for now, it works for us. Maybe you should try it too. You'll be surprised at how much learning takes place!!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Allowing it to happen

Recently I read an article on how teaching reading in kindergarten can actually be detrimental. My immediate reaction as an early childhood teacher, mother and homeschooler was 'DUH!' But I was somewhat surprised at the reactions by some of my friends when I posted that article. Some were very aggressive in their stance that teaching reading to young children is a life skill and totally necessary.

I do agree that reading is a life skill. What I disagree on is the necessity of a 5 or 6 year old to have that life skill. ONLY in schools do we see this. If you think about your day to day life and try to take school out of the equation, WHY would a 5 or 6 year old (7 or 8 year old for that matter) need to be able to read? THINK about it. They don't need to read their toys, they don't need to read their food labels, they don't need to read road or store signs (although they probably can), they don't need to read to socialize, they don't need to read in karate, gymnastics or baseball. So other than school, there is NO REASON to force a young child to read.

Sure there are many 4 year olds that want to learn to read and are ready. THAT is fine. I was one of them. My oldest daughter was one of them. BUT just because they exist, does not mean that all kids that age should be reading. If a young child starts doing it on their own, it demonstrates readiness. If you have a 6 year old who fights you tooth and nail, they're not ready.

If we look at child development, the muscles in your eyes that are needed for tracking (a necessary skill for reading) are not always fully refined by age 5. Add onto that the amount of time young kids (even babies) are spending on screens! This actually weakens the eye muscles and coordination needed for reading. Plus the amount of time needed to sit and focus in order to read. All of this adds up to a disaster!

My youngest didn't really start reading until last year and she was 7 at the time. So, my oldest was reading Harry Potter at 7 and my youngest was reading Dick and Jane books. Yes, as a former reading teacher and mother, I was stressed by the "late" reading. But I quickly figured out that as homeschoolers, forcing her to read was totally unnecessary. GUESS WHAT? Last year when she saw all of her friends reading and we watched movies with subtitles that she wanted to read, SHE STARTED READING. Yes just like that. No I did not teach her. And she didn't pick up Dick and Jane books, she picked up Junie B and The Magic Treehouse. Right on level with her school peers.

This is true with many other 'school skills.' Did you know that it is developmentally APPROPRIATE for a child to NOT have a hand dominance at age 5? If a child hasn't established hand dominance, how do you expect her to write? But they do in school. Little bodies (all bodies really) are meant to move. Sitting for hours at a time is harmful to health, has been linked to depression and obesity, and poor core strength and balance. You wonder why ADHD is on the rise? It's not. Schools demand things that are developmentally inappropriate and this results in fidgeting, acting out, and inattention.

Honestly, if you are reading this and your child is in school and struggling with reading, I wish I had an answer for you. School makes it absolutely necessary to read at a young age. If you can homeschool, do it. If you do homeschool, do not force reading on your child please! Offer them a literature rich environment. Read to them, make books available to them with no expectations, create books yourselves, go to the library often, read environmental print (street and store signs). They will learn how to read, I promise! And just like potty training, walking and talking, they will do it pretty much on their own in their own time.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Balancing It All

As parents, we often have a hard time taking care of IT ALL. Cleaning the house, feeding the family, running errands, holidays, birthday parties, work, kids playdates, kids activities, time for your spouse, and time for yourself (HA!). It can become exhausting and over-whelming. This is especially true of homeschool parents. We have gone beyond the stay at home status to taking on the 'school' status. Many of us work full or part time too!

So how to we find balance? Is it possible? Is it unrealistic? I don't think so. It takes a conscious effort to NOT get wrapped up in the schedules and 'to-do' lists, but it CAN be done.

#1  Schedule Downtime!

I know this might sound like a contradiction, but sometimes it is necessary. I am the type of person who likes to constantly be on the go. I thrive around lots of people all the time. My youngest is like that as well, but not my oldest. She is an introvert like her Dad. So I've had to adjust our lifestyle and our schedule to respect her need for downtime, alone time, and time to decompress. At first I found it annoying, but now I am so thankful for it! I have a habit of running full steam ahead until I am so drained that I meltdown and pass out. Having to work downtime into our schedule regularly has helped me to become more balanced, less stressed, and more relaxed. So pick 1 day a week or at least a few days a month and say to yourself 'we are scheduling nothing on this day.' Maybe write nothing really big in that square of the calendar or type it into your Google calendar. Whatever it takes.

#2  Take 15 Minutes

This has been one of the best things I have implemented into my daily routine. I wake up everyday, make coffee, stoke the fire in the wood stove and I sit, in quiet, by myself, and breathe. Now granted it doesn't happen everyday. There are days we wake up late, are running around like lunatics, rushing and freaking out. But for the most part, I try to set my alarm early to allow for this. It starts my day off calmly, with reflection, and focus. On the days this cannot happen first thing, I find 15 minutes at some point, to go into my bedroom, close the door, sit in silence and breathe. No iPad, no phones, no kids, no TV. Just silence. I usually leave the lights off. Seems simple, but try it!!

#3  Simple Solutions

If you are like me, you feel like you need a weekend away, a week at a beach resort, or a day at the spa to recharge. Yes those things are great! But they cannot happen on a regular basis. (Well at least for me they can't). So trying to find ways to relax and recharge at home is essential. Do whatever relaxes you. For me, it is taking a bath. You could read a book, sit outside on your deck, in your yard, listen to calming music, exercise, craft, knit.....it doesn't matter what it is, as long as it is something just FOR YOU, done by yourself. I know, I know. Easier said than done. I am the type to opt for family time over me time. But eventually that catches up with me and it's not good for anyone! So I have to schedule this as well. (Yes I have issues). However, after a while, it becomes part of your life routine and requires less and less scheduling. So find something that you enjoy, that relaxes you and that is FOR you and do it as often as possible!

#4  Learn to say NO

This one has been the hardest for me. I tend to be impulsive and want to do everything, all the time and it is just not possible. Believe me, I've tried. It cannot be done. You have to learn to say no. It is ok to say no. It is healthy to say no. The world will not come to an end if you do not participate in that bake sale, soup kitchen, or ASPCA event. Your kids will be ok if they miss that field trip, open gym, or painting class. Your kids will survive (and thrive) if they cannot do karate, softball, girl scouts, and basketball.  Yes we would love to see our friends and family, but sometimes we have to say no to a birthday party, communion, or barbecue. There will be other birthdays, other open gyms and other bake sales. It is ok if that math work gets pushed off to another day. You do not have to do it all!

So slow down. Take a breath. Dishes can stay dirty today. It's ok. Science can be skipped today. It's ok. You do not have to go to that field trip. It's ok. Order take out. Finding balance is not only important for your health (and sanity), it is important to model this for our children and the future adults they will become.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life Lessons

As we approach the craziness of the holiday season, I find myself taking more and more deep breaths. Trying NOT to get sucked into all the glitz, hype and credit card debt! It's hard, I know! But this year I have made a promise to myself to keep it calm, family centered and to NOT bust the budget.

I don't know about you, but I LOVE Christmas. I love all the decorating, the songs, the parades, the brunches, the parties...you name it and I want to do it all. I usually try, fail miserably, stress myself and my kids out, and spend waaaaaaaaaayyyyy too much money. And then I get upset when my kids are cranky and refuse to take yet ANOTHER photo! This year I am being more conscious about OUR choices. And I mean OUR choices. Usually I make the choices and the rest of my crew gets dragged along with about as much input as our cat.

As my kids get older, I want them to remember Christmas, and every holiday, with the fondness that I do. So I decided to reflect on WHY I love Christmas (all holidays really) so much. And it boils down to family time. My dad worked 4 jobs when I was a kid, so he wasn't around a lot. We did not go to brunch with Santa or any parades. We did not go see the Nutcracker or any fancy holiday light shows. I love the holidays because we spent extra time together as family, watching specials on TV, decorating our home, sledding down our front hill, caroling with friends and neighbors, and just being a family.

So as everything starts revving up and I am tempted to say yes to it all, I remind myself what is really important........Family Time. And I will ask my kids what they want to do, and I will schedule down time (because I have to - because I'm crazy). Maybe we will spend an entire day in our PJ's watching Christmas shows and drinking hot chocolate. Maybe we'll go sledding or ice skating. Maybe we will go to brunch or the Nutcracker. But only if we ALL want to and if we are not so over-scheduled that it stresses us out.

We are making our Christmas gifts instead of buying them this year. We will ask grandparents and family for experiences as gifts instead of things. I will shop second hand for as much as possible (I usually do this anyway). Because a lot of stress is caused by the amount of money spent (at least for me) and that isn't what gift giving should be about. It should be about showing loved ones that you care and are thinking of them. I don't know about you, but I'd trade a gift for time with a loved one any day!

Yes, when all the party invitations arrive and the friends are going to see this and do that, it will be very hard to say no. Yes, when I end up in the stores, it will be very difficult not to buy everything my kids' hearts desire. But there will be other parties and we can see our friends all year. And things are just that...........things. Now is the time to teach my children to be thankful, and caring, and family oriented during the holiday season - instead of modeling over-scheduling, commercialism, and chaos. Now, more than any other time all year, is the time to teach charity, cooperation and humility. These are the lessons that were passed down to me. These are lessons that will stay with them for life. And these are lessons that I hope they one day pass on.

Happy Holidays