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, 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, 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.