Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Museums and Unschooling

During our trip to Florida, we visited the Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast.  It is a great museum where kids play in different exhibits much like Explore and More in East Aurora.

There is a really large pirate ship with activities about sailing and exhibits with activities about daily life and occupations.

The concept reminds me quite a bit about the book, The Unschooled Mind.  It proposes that kids would learn better by doing activities in a museum setting under the guidance of experts who run exhibits of sorts.  Kids would complete age appropriate active projects in each area.  As they got older the activities would get more complex, self-directed and lead to apprenticeships in their occupational area of interest.  The idea is that students could perform better by continuously applying what they learn.

As I said before, we are balancing these ideas for unschooling with the Time4Learning curriculum we are using.  We do a little work on our curriculum each day, and when I can manage it we make it out to a local attraction for a field trip.  We also enjoy walking to the places in our neighborhood for our regular activites and errands building skills through daily living and exposure to city life.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Homeschooling: Time to Change Political Parties?

Like most people, I am pretty discouraged by politicians generally.  Most seem pretty clueless about what regular people are going through and only interested in being re-elected.  Currently, I am a registered democrat, not because I am thrilled with them, but because they seem a little more in touch with regular people than republicans.  Not only do most republicans running for office seem bigoted against low income or minority people, I don't believe in their general philosophy that government shouldn't have a role at all.  Clearly the resources of government can, when used properly, bring equality and stability to the wide citizenry in a way that competition alone cannot.  Unfortunately, democrats take it too far by not only having government fund basic services, like education, but operate them.  While cut-throat competition is too far, the inefficiencies of government is not all that desirable either.

Then I read up on Ron Paul's views on homeschooling.  He is proposing tax credits to defray the cost of homeschooling.  It is perfect.  Government funding of education without operating it.  Parents who are the best champions of their students would be in charge without the penalty of a reduced income.  It is a real program of equality.  Low and middle income people wouldn't have to be afraid to give up an income.  While homeschool is more efficient and so it doesn't take as many hours to educate students, taking kids out of public school does mean parents are without free day care making a second income almost impossible.  The credits would fix this.  There would also be more family stability because a parent would be home to be a homemaker removing some of the stress of the over scheduling that often goes on in two income families.

Should I rush out and change parties?  Not sure, I think it was Ron Paul's son that thought civil rights went too far.  Also, most republicans don't want federal involvement in education, but leave it to the states.  Perhaps, I should lean on my state politicians for consideration of tax credits.  Mark Grisanti, my state senator whom I already strongly support, despite being a republican has gone out of his way to support equality by supporting gay marriage and funding for the NFTA (public transportation is a very important way to further equality).  He is the type of Republican that would be well worth changing parties for if it came down to it.  However, voting for Ron Paul would also sent a message to politicians about homeschooling.  If republicans in NYS took it up, they could begin to cut education costs in half since the $5000 that Ron Paul is proposing is half the per student cost in most school districts in WNY.  Time to send our politicians an e-mail!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Homeschooling and Parent Illness

In a recent post, I talked about the advantages of homeschooling when it comes to kids getting sick.  It is pretty intuitive that the flexibility would be an advantage.  But what about when you, the parent, are sick or maybe have a chronic illness?  Most people would assume that you couldn't homeschool, but my experience has been that homeschooling is far better.

From talking to my counterparts with kids in traditional school, despite turning their kids over to professionals thirty plus hours a week, they still face significant work in educating their kids.  There is homework (even in the younger grades) with deadlines, getting them ready for a school bus on a tight morning schedule, being home to wait for the bus (or drive to pick up their kids), calling the teacher about progress reports, meetings with the principal over bullying, etc.  All of these things are stressful, deadline driven activities.

I stopped working several years ago due to pain and signficant fatigue which I recently found out is fibromyalgia, an illness that is not life threatening but life changing.  I need to live at a careful pace to feel well and keep up with daily activities.  I rest ten to twelve hours a day and have a careful exercise routine of swimming and stretching.  Even with these careful measures, I still have quite a few bad feeling days.  Getting up on a strict schedule (the stiffness in the morning can make things hard) or having to help with homework in the evening with waning energy would be very difficult.  It would be unfair for T & C to do poorly on a homework assignment because of how I am feeling.

With homeschooling, we can go at our own pace.  On a good feeling day, we do a field trip or go to a homeschool group.  On a bad day, they can stick exclusively to their online Time4Learning and free play (puzzles, library books, board games, blocks, dolls) at home which requires virtually no work on my part.  Most days are in between where (in addition to their online lessons) we go out for an hour or two to the playground or library and some local neighborhood errands before my energy starts to fall again.  On balance, I probably don't spend any more time than my traditional school parent counterparts, with far better educational results and very little stress.  The flexibility also makes it possible for Dad to pitch in when needed since he can be with T & C whenever he isn't at work.

I hope this helps people understand more of the advantages of homeschooling.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Urban Homesteading: Rat Bait Station

Fortunately, the rats didn't get into the house while we were gone.  We kept filling in the one area where they seemed to come in and I think it worked.  However, the little bit of snow made it easy to see the tracks all over the yard.  The small TomCat brand bait stations didn't attract them so far this winter; so I went to two home stores (on my best bus route) to see about getting the industrial bait stations that the exterminators use.  The nice staff person at the Valu explained to me that since the new law banning the sale of separate poison and bait went into effect, that they no longer carry them and that is why I would have trouble finding them.  I explained that if they sold the large ones with the poison already in it, that I would buy it, but obviously they are nowhere to be found.  The HomeDepot staff tried to get me to fall for buying plain rat poison and leaving it out.  This wouldn't work because it could hurt other animals (not too concerned since pets are supposed to be on leashes) and it would not last in the rain or snow.  So, I decided that we would make a station to contain our spring traps:

The idea is that it is enough of a box to shelter the trap set up and the lid can come off to remove the snap traps.  Since it doesn't appear that reasonable products are available for outdoor rat trapping, I feel entitled to give this a whirl.  In the past I paid for very good, but expensive exterminating (when they got in the basement - not the living space, thank God).  Now, trying to handle it on our own, there are no appropriate products available for purchase.  I am not clear if this is concerned appropriate, but we are trying it.  Let me know your thoughts and I will keep you posted on if it works.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

We're Back!

For obvious reasons, I didn't tell you that we have been away for more than a week.  Everything came together at the last minute and we went to Florida to see the grandparents (not the set in the board game post).

The kids were great in the car!  They practiced reading signs and by the end of the way down, T and C realized that food and gas signs on the interstate are always blue and that the exit ones are green.  I am a little embarassed though that I was so exhausted from the little bit of driving I helped with, that I didn't do most of the techniques I read about in Carschooling, even though it is a really great book.  I felt silly reading it because we don't own a car and need to rent one to leave town, but it is a great read regardless.  It really does have have great ideas for covering all subjects on many types of car rides, from long trips to commuting.

I also thought that it would be fun to check out the homeschooling laws in Florida.  Before I looked, I assumed that they would be less stringent than New York.  Was I wrong!  While I didn't see anything about quarterly reports, Florida requires a specific type of log and under certain homeschool options the need for a certified teacher to adminster tests.  It seems a little more stringent to me.  Of course, I only read the summary by HSLDA.  Still, it made me thing that New York may not be the most difficult state for homeschooling.  More on our trip in future posts!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Homeschooling When the Kids Are Sick

My daughter got a rash on her face, temporary and not serious.  It reminded me, however, that neither of them has been too sick this winter.  They each had the same long but very mild cold and the same six hour stomach virus, but that is it so far.  This could change of course before winter is over. 

When I think back to my own childhood, unless I had a fever or threw up, I went to school.  It is a good thing that I did too because when I had chicken pox and was out for several days, it was horrible trying to catch up.  It seemed so unfair to just finish being sick and then go back to school and have to do double the work.  It is a wonder we didn't get sick repeatedly from being worn out.

That is the best part about homeschooling.  When the kids are sick, they can take a day off or do a shorter day.  With the little ones, maybe it is a day for cuddle schooling, anything that can be done curled up on the couch with Mom (or Dad).  When we cuddle school, we read books and watch Spanish DVDs.  I didn't make up the term "cuddle school"; I have heard the phrase from many homeschool moms.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dressing for the Weather

It is another warm, yet rainy, day in Buffalo.  It takes me back to a dinner party many years ago in the winter when a gentleman mentioned that the weather didn't concern him because he got in his car in his garage and drove to the office and got out in a covered garage.  What if you are an urban homeschooler reliant on walking and public transportation?

The right outerwear takes priority over cute outfits, first of all.  Second of all, it is great fun for kids to look out the window check the outside temperature on the computer and learn to select the right coat or footwear for the weather.  Preschoolers can even practice dressing themselves for different scenarios.  As a city dweller in Buffalo, the right outwear saves us the very large expense of a car.  Paying attention to the forcast on weather maps can even help with geography.  I myself learned the placement of states in the US by watching the the Weather Channel as a kid.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Outcomes for Urban Unschoolers

I very much like this blog post (and blog):

City Kids Homeschooling

See it and my response by clicking on the link above.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Defensive Testing

It seems that homeschoolers are often homeschooling because they don't like that schools seem to "teach to the test" or think that tests are not a good measurement of how well a child is educated.  What about testing as a defensive measure?  In New York State, standardized tests must be given every other year starting in 4th grade, but not all states require them.  When T finished kindergarten before he turned 5 I thought that there would be many people, maybe at the school district, but more likely naysaying extended family members or acquaintances who would question whether he really learned what he was supposed to learn by that age without going to school.  I decided to take a chance on it and give him the California Achievement Test for kindergarten thinking that, by the standards of those who believe in conventional school, it would prove that he really did well enough in kindergarten to proceed.  Fortunately, he scored 60 percentile or above on everything.  While I don't believe that standardized tests are a great measure of acheivement, it feels like one more piece of evidence that we are on the right track.  What do you think about defensive standarized testing?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thermostats and Why Our Schools Are Failing Us

First of all, in the effort of full disclosure, I keep my house at a lower temperature to save energy and money.  I set my thermostat at 63 during the day, wear several layers and even let it go lower at night.  It seems to work.  Despite my older home with little insulation, my gas bills are pretty low.  This year's more mild temperatures helped too, but during the most recent cold snap when lows got into the single digits, I observed some scary behavior which I will get to shortly.

When I was in college, I had several roomates, not all or most, but several that reacted to temperature.  If they were cold, they put the heat on 80 degrees they as soon as they were hot, they put on the A/C down to 68, back and forth.  I knew that thermostats set a floor and no matter your preference you generally picked a temp and stuck with it.  68 degrees indoors is 68 degrees indoors whether it is 30 degrees outside or 5.  It was clear that despite graduating high school and getting into college that they were still clueless about how a thermostat actually worked.

Recently, some people I know (adults in their 30s), also high school graduates, were complaining that when it got really cold that they couldn't turn their heat up.  It was 68 degrees in the apartment and they were desperate to get 74 or 76 during the cold snap.  Because of the older house their apartment was in and the older furnace combined with already being about 60 degrees difference from the outside, the temperature struggled to get up that high.  While they are entitled to whatever temperature they want in their home, it is still quite puzzling as to why 68 degrees was fine for them when it was 25 degrees outside, but not when it was 5 degrees.  It just doesn't make sense.  Rather than logic, there was a knee jerk reaction that more cold outside had to mean more heat inside.  What kind of a country are we in that this cluelessness about basic home features is so widespread?  It is especially horrifying with climate change and energy costs being such hot issues.  Kids go to school full-time and don't know this.  This is why homeschooling is so important.  While book smarts are very important, so much time should be spent on it that there is no time for basic common sense day to day living skills?  Really?  Time for us to wake up.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Board Games with the Grandparents

You just can't beat them as an educational activity, board games: reading or math many times, principles like good sportsmanship, and socialization, yes socialization.  Being able to get along with people of all ages, including the older adults like their grandparents.  It is a great way to learn.  Since I hadn't played Chutes and Ladders in many years, I forgot how great it is for math with all the spaces marked with a number 1-100.  By advancing through the board, kids get in the habit of seeing what happens to the larger numbers as they add numbers between 1 and 6.

Board games are a great, simple, low cost, low stress winter activity that can reinforce valuable skills and provide for hours of fun.  In our modern times of overscheduled children, it is something that warrants rediscovery.  Homeschooling can give you the time to use them more often and enjoy family time too.  Any way that we can teach our kids with less stress and more fun is a way to reinforce lifelong learning!  How often do you play board games with your kids?

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Joy of Reading

One of the greatest joys about homeschooling is the excitement that comes with watching your child master something, like reading.  Of course, it normally happens in stages, but one day they are reading 3 letter, short vowel words.  Another day it is a new vowel, then long sounds, then double vowels.  It is a wonderful process to watch.  The best part is that you get to see it, not a stranger, but you.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Being Thankful for the Bus

We are finally getting the snow, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for the bus, the NFTA Metro bus.  When we had a car, I remember how nail biting driving in the snow was.  We would avoid unecessary/semi-necessary trips out.  Work, school, and maybe church were it, not much else.  Today, however, I went out walked a few places and took the bus downtown to the central branch library of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.  I didn't need to go to the library - I just wanted to - so I did without any stress and without risking my life (which we all should acknowledge we do when driving a car especially in the snow).

Public transportation is critical for homeschoolers even though most people in a smaller city, like Buffalo, don't think of going without a car.  First of all, using public transportation is a good skill for kids to learn including reading schedules and maps.  Second, there is an opportunity to learn about science and climate change.  Third, homeschoolers can more safely go on local field trips.  Fourth, there are all kinds of people on the bus and that builds general community awareness.  Fifth, and maybe the most important, is that the bus is less costly than a car.  This is critical because expense reduction is the best way for a parent to reduce their work hours to be able to homeschool.  Certainly it isn't easy in all cases, but would both parents need to work if the family went carless, got rid of cable, went to prepaid cell phones and Skype, did their own hair cuts, and ate out less (not hard if one parent is home to cook)?  Something to think about.

Our bus dependence is a little more complicated than just homeschooling, because there are other financial factors with which we are dealing.  That being said, strong public transportation may be the way to combat some of the lack of upward mobility going on these days.  Saving money on transportation may be one of the final sources of funds for the middle and working classes if the economy stays in its current state for the longer-term. If you live in Buffalo, please sign the petition to restore NFTA funding.  If you live in another small to middle size city, pay closer attention to public transportation in your area and support it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting Ahead in Math by Taking Your Time

One of the great luxuries in homeschool is being able to take your time on lessons that are difficult and being able to move more quickly through lessons that are easier.  Math is an area where this seems especially important.  Some concepts come more easily than others.  Sometimes kids just need the extra time and freedom to work their own examples for true understanding.  T spent about an hour and a half playing with pennies to figure out odd and even while he was doing a worksheet from Time4Learning.  While it felt like a long time, by the end of this largely self-directed exercise, it was apparent that he really got it.

This happened countless times in math in the past year.  By stopping to get a full understanding, he could move ahead with confidence.  He is working ahead on first grade math, despite just turning 5 recently.  The same has been true for C.  She is way ahead of her peers progressing through kindergarten, slowing down when necessary and speeding back up when possible.  Conventional school just doesn't have this advantage, no matter how good the teacher.  We can all remember times when we were in school when we needed more time to learn something and other times when something was easy and we were bored.

Only time will tell if the pace of T and C will get slower or faster, but either way it will be their choice!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Outdoor Art Class Meets City Surprises

I know that it seems that weather keeps coming up, but this long warm spell we have had in Buffalo has put the focus on the outdoors despite the winter season.  For days, T and C have been begging to try new 3D chalk they received for Christmas.  Today, we finally made it out to give it a whirl.  That is one of the best parts of homeschooling, the ability to take a advantage of good weather days in the winter.

On our way to Delaware Park, we came upon the local balloon artist who made balloons for the kids.  He is often at the Elmwood and Bidwell Farmers' Market but I never expected to see him in January.  Of course, that is one of the great things about city living even in a smaller city, walking out your door and feeling like the world has come to you. 

It seems that the best homeschooling happens when you take advantage of your environment particularly in either very rural or very urban settings.  While I have never lived in the country, I imagine rural dwellers have the benefit of a great connection to the land and the pride in producing things they need.  In the city, it is the exposure to a variety of people and experiences so close to home.  There are also great conservation opportunities in more dense land use, climate control of multiple unit dwellings, and the use of public transportation.  Homeschooling can give you the time and focus to fully benefit from your surroundings!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Drinking Smoothies in Winter

While still not all that winter like today, when you look at the calendar, it says January.  Why the heck are we drinking smoothies?  Ideally, we would be eating local and organic fruits.  Organic gets expensive so we do this for some items, but not all.  By January there aren't many local fruits in Western New York it seems except for well-stored apples.  Since produce must be brought in from further away and the nutrients start to disintegrate, frozen is a great option until the local farmer's market starts back up in the spring.  Most people think of smoothies as a warm weather food, but for us it is a small part of adjusting our food habits to the season.

It feels strange trying to explain this to my 5 and 4 year olds who walk through the local grocery store begging for fresh fruits that have traveled very far.  Of course our frozen fruit travels too, but it may be the most nutritious alternative until great local produce is back!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Homeschooling in a Time of Fewer Opportunities

Today when listening to On Point on NPR, I couldn’t help but think about homeschooling and the future of my kids. The topic was about the decline in upward mobility compared to previous generations and how upward mobility is currently greater in Europe than the U.S.

Education kept coming up even though it wasn’t an in depth discussion on education. I had to think that by the time my kids are completing school and possibly college, that the paradigm will likely be different than that faced by us in generation X and Y. Until recently (and it still continues to a certain extent), kids were sold on the idea that as long as they worked hard and got a college education that everything would be fine.

Unfortunately, this is far from the case. In Buffalo, this is very apparent. While Buffalo is under-rated in certain respects regarding jobs, you can still look around and see a significant number of people with graduate degrees (plus) working in retail outlets and call centers doing collections work, brilliant people. Brilliant people who worked hard, did all the right things, and even took on heavy student loans.

Homeschooling is a good opportunity to try things differently. Many kids will finish high school at home sooner than their peers. Perhaps this will allow time to complete projects to earn scholarships or start an apprenticeship in a technical field or start a business. Homeschooling may just provide the flexibility to work sooner and be more careful about choosing a field that is both interesting and has good job prospects. While upward mobility may continue to be on the decline, homeschoolers will be best able to face it!


Friday, January 6, 2012

Homeschooling on a Balmy Day in Buffalo

It’s hard to believe that it is the first week in January. We are smack in the middle of the solstice and the peak of winter (around the 3rd week in January) and it hit 50 degrees today. While other parts of WNY received more significant snows this winter, the City of Buffalo itself has received very little, several dustings and about two inches at my house. I (Liz) am very much torn between fearing that we are in for a horrible February and believing that it really may be a mild winter courtesy climate change.

Today we skipped the bus and took the stroller on our errands. They are pretty big now so they take turns walking and riding. We got a little over confident about the weather and hit the playground, but didn’t last long due to the mud that is quite prevalent in Buffalo in winter and spring. While I look forward to being able to teach the kids about climate change and good environmental stewardship, it is amazing how much they’ve absorbed already from our conversations and use of public transportation Once when we walked home from the playground and errands, T told me that he knew “why all the cars had angry faces.” When I asked him why, he told me that it was because they were “hurting mother Earth and making God sad.” I know for sure that we never told them that cars had faces, but it is satisfying to hear them express some understanding of our values.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

When Nothing Goes Right

Even though most days go smoothly, or at least feel like things were accomplished, today was just one of those days. Despite the milder temperatures, we didn’t make it out anywhere. T has to redo several lessons over the next couple of days. No cleaning got done. A self-created new recipe didn’t work out and we had to revert to the same old one from the cookbook.

We have to remind ourselves to put things into perspective. T is now finding his online lessons tougher because he worked ahead. He also can’t fall behind since he isn’t in a class with like aged peers. Being able to follow existing recipes is a strength and the cleaning, while important, isn’t urgent.

Tomorrow will be another day!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to homeschool?

While we knew at the beginning that homeschooling is more efficient and that we didn’t need to spend the whole day at the dining room table, we still fell into the trap of trying to design highly structured activities around the alphabet, numbers, and nursery rhymes. At the end of the first week, Liz was ready to call it quits and Tom was not far behind. After all, the whole idea behind homeschooling was giving the kids more of a chance to be kids. It was also too stressful for Liz who felt the increased family time and flexibility of homeschooling was supposed to keep our stress level low and well-being high.

Then we began our quest for a curriculum that the kids could enjoy at their own pace that wouldn’t wear us out. At the same time, we felt a pull towards the freedom of unschooling after reading many homeschooling books from the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. It just felt like unschooling took real confidence and courage. This was not us as new homeschoolers! So, we decided to look for a curriculum to use as a base so that we could be sure we covered the core material that they should know. The rest of the time would be unschooling. We also had two years to get a handle on what we were doing before compulsory school age became an issue.

We began using Time4Learning, an online curriculum, as our base curriculum. Overall, it fits us, but as the year went on we still tried adding other things and oscillated between the online lessons only and adding so much that we were beginning to get overwhelmed again Each element that we added was valuable: some classic picture books, non-fiction books, handwriting, workbooks, other websites, Spanish DVDs and several field trips. Unfortunately, sometimes we tried doing all the elements in one day and were back in the same predicament. Needless to day the right balance was and continues to be a struggle!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Reinforcement of Materialism: Parents vs. Peers

Today was the kind of day in Buffalo that it was so cold that you wouldn’t venture out unless absolutely necessary. Except for the little bit of shoveling I needed to do, I (Liz) did as much housework as I could handle and listened to a lot of NPR in between our lessons today.

On “Tell Me More” on NPR today, there was a segment on when parents should give in to the desire of their kids to wear expensive brand names. Overall, the segment was very good. It talked about the way people are treated based on their clothing/appearance as well as the inverse relationship between altruism and wealth. Definitely things that are of interest to frugal homeschoolers especially those concerned about the character of their kids.

However, one thing was very interesting about the program. One of the experts made a statement that the parents are the main source of socialization in this area with peers as a close second. I don’t know about you, but it seems that kids are concerned about what they wear more because of their peer group, at least if they go to school. Certainly, parents’ priorities affect kids. If parents want the latest brands in order to fit it, it certainly sets an example; but it seems that the core amount of pressure in this area is peers. Is this an accurate observation? If not, are parents broadly deceiving themselves about this peer influence and similarly the effect of full-time peer immersion in schools?


Monday, January 2, 2012

Homeschooling: Was it really for us?

It was this time last year that we began. T had just turned 4 and C had just turned 3. Even though we could have sent T to PreK the previous September, we didn’t. It just didn’t feel right that a child who isn’t even 4 should be in school essentially full-time. What happened to the 1980s with half-day kindergarten starting at age five and a half? That is when we came up with the idea that we would homeschool our children until they were six, the compulsory school age. This decision would give us time to research all the short-term and long-term scenarios.

In some ways exploring homeschooling seemed natural. While not extremely popular, it kept coming up. We would run into someone who did it or knew someone who did it or asked us if we did it. On the other hand, the idea seemed quite strange. Three out of four of our parents were teachers; and education as well as the institution of school was revered. Our parents gave us the very best private and catholic education possible where we each lived. Liz remembers going to school sick. A fever was necessary to stay home and how dare her classmates’ parents take them out of school for a vacation! Tom’s cousin homeschooled her kids, but her husband was in the military. Wasn’t everyone who homeschooled in the military, overseas for work, or a rural conservative Christian right winger?

Preliminary research, however, showed that most people seemed to be “accidental” homeschoolers. In other words, like the military, they had some sort of logistical issue: a bully got bad, a learning disability wasn’t treated properly at the local school, or some other situation brought on by concrete circumstances, not religion or educational philosophy.

What were we? Accidental? - a reasonable beginning school age was not prevalent in Buffalo (and the rest of the country in recent times) so we came up with our own solution. Or Philosophical? - kids are forced into formal school too young or at least for too many hours a day and we were rejecting formal early childhood education wholesale. Either way, we were beginning homeschooling and a year of research to determine just what our philosophy would be.