Browse and Seek

Fall updates

We’re getting our Christmas tree tomorrow. Where did the time go?

It went mostly into homeschooling. I rewound a chunk of the summer curriculum because I wasn’t happy with how we covered it, and declared the week of the Fall Equinox our first official day of school. Don’t ask Seamus how he feels about that summer of first-and-half-grade, I’m sure he’s still pissed. I filed a Private School Affidavit (aka the PSA in CA homeschooling cirlces) in October during the filing period, which makes me Head of School here at The North Island School of Poetry and Power Tools. North Island is a play on both our town and last names. That was the easy part. the rest has been trying to get Seamus to engage in the material, and oh, hey, challenge himself a little. There are days he freaks out due to anxiety, and days he freaks out because he feels out of control with regards to his schooling. Underlying both are executive function deficits and the ability to socially engineer his way out of things to compensate. I’m working on the former and ignoring the latter for now, and hopefully during our quarter break I can start sketching out a long-term plan. When he engages with his work, he does kick some ass. 

Tristan is flirting with potty training. By “flirting” I mean if you leave him bottomless long enough, he’ll use the potty or the toliet EVENTUALLY, but I worry that’s he’s holding his pee deliberately. He’ll pee through underpants and leave them on, so I’m sticking to naked bottom time for now, and we’ll probably move onto underpants and sitting on a potty at timed intervals closer to his birthday should this stasis continue. He loves to climb and splash in puddles and paint right now.

Patrick was laid off last month, and immediately began planning the production of his own shows, while being offered work from a few different folks. That second part astounds me. Patrick gives so much of himself to his working life and he’s mentored so many people along the way, and at times I’ve felt very cynical about it. But so many people have been excited for him, interested in working with him, or both.

I’m hanging in there. Last night I spent three hours in ER with chest/back pain, nausea,  and shortness of breath. My EKG, X-ray, and labs came back normal, so it was either a)an intercostal rib injury from cleaning out a closet, or b)an anxiety attack. Neither is great, but they both beat a heart attack.



Nope, impossible. Seven? Jeez.

My violet-eyed baby turned seven last month. We took Seamus to Muir Woods, where we hiked out of the park to an inn on Hwy 1, ate lunch, and hiked back down for ice cream. Then we threw him a party that weekend. I came to my senses after his fifth and swore that there would be no more until he turned ten, but Shay asked so nicely and hit every single red button of mama-guilt without jamming them while doing so, so I caved.

We did a Maker-ish theme, as we were missing East Bay Mini-Maker Faire by throwing a party. In the living rom I pulled out cardboard, markers, old slides, sequins, feathers, LED lights with batteries, and low-heat glue guns. In the family room I set out an old stereo receiver, a printer, and a toaster oven with screwdrivers and pliers. I dumped nine gallons of Lego onto the boys’ bedroom floor, set up poster paints and a roll of craft paper in the kitchen. Then I laid out brunch and pie, put on Motown, and called it good.

I think I’ll do it every year till he begs me to stop.

Seamus is reading EVERYTHING, from Tintin to Harry Potter to The Boxcar Children to the adaptations of the Iliad and Odyssey that I bought for school. He wants to clean up the planet, and take pictures, and play the kettle drums. He tried team sports this fall for the first time, and it was so good for him. He also tried running, which challenges him in deeper ways, down where he wrestles with his private self that Patrick and I never see. He is starting to enjoy chess, checkers, and Stratego, and learning from his losses. We started multiplication last week, and after a few days of one-on-one, he’s beginning to get it on his own. He still blanks if you hand him paper to fill out, but if he narrates while you write, he shows me that he’s comprehending almost everything that he reads. Some things go over his head, but he is a huge re-reader so I suspect that all will come.

He is kind to Tristan and our pets, and tries new things. As kids go, I think we’ve made out well with this one. Happy birthday, Seamus. I love you.


Two and a half revisted

I started this several months ago, before homeschooling ate all of my time. It’ll stay unfinished, but it’s a good snapshot of Tristan in late August.

“Who is that boy? Perhaps I should go speak to him!” A jump, and small sneakered feet plant into woodchips as Tristan runs across the plaground to the big kid structure. “Pardon me! Can I play with you?” The boy in question is about a year older, and does not respond. He’s tall, this kid, and still sees the soft cheeks and shaggy hair that says baby in kidspeak. Tristan smiles at him with the big-eyed grin we call “muppet face”. The boys runs off. “Where you going?”

“He’s gonna go play, honey.” I put an arm around tiny shoulders and try to kiss his cheek, but he dodges and runs off to do his own thing, which seems to be either following the bigger boy (who is indeed three), or climbing. He climbs better than Seamus did at this age. It could be that he’s seen his brother do it, it could be the difference in motor skills, but it also seems like Tristan truly enjoys a challenge. Puzzles, legos, stacking blocks that Seamus avoided for years live in his hands. 

Every kid is different. We knew this. But where the differences lie often startle me. Tristan is indifferent to nature but loves the industrial landmarks that surround our town. He is a terribly picky eater, and has little interest in potty training. He expresses his emotions with surety and confidence. And since I think Seamus will either be a wildlife photogapher or a CIA agent, I was not prepared for that first tiny, candid, “I’m so MAD!”




School dazed, the home game

We’re halfway through our first quarter, with art camp coming up in a couple of weeks, which will comprise the two-week project/travel/sick time window. Seamus is still transitioning to his new routine. I still get a lot of push-back, but it’s less about control and more about anxiety. Writing is a challenge for him, and it triggers almost all of his blow-ups these days. I think it’s a combination of issues (lack of fine motor skills and some executive skills combined with anxiety over not doing something well when he is so capable elsewhere) rather than a learning disability like dysgraphia, so I had him take a break from most of his writing work for about a week, then began sneaking it back in. He’s not doing blocks of text right now, but he writes a little each day, spanning all of his subjects each week, like this:

Math: Twice a week he solves word problems in Life of Fred.

Language Arts: Once each week he works in Handwriting Without Tears, Twice each week he has vocabulary or sentence work in his spelling book, and once a week he does a short piece of copywork from the stack of reading books, or a supplementary item I may have left out for him to peruse.*

Reading: This week we’ll begin moving from narration (which he disengages from alarmingly fast) to answering questions about the books in writing. He’ll do this twice a week, alternating with narration, or some sort of graphic organizer. I’ve made a big attributes chart so we can compare several creation myths we will read over the course of the year, and I’m looking for others that will support deeper reading. I’m loving ReadWriteThink these days, and can’t wait to try their comic strip lesson plan.

History/Geography: I’ve made a giant timeline out of a roll of easel paper (we’re covering 40,000 BCE - 500 CE this year, and trying to not Dead White Men our way through it), and Seamus is encouraged to read with an eye to finding pertinent items to post on the timeline. He writes them up on a large Avery label and sticks them in the right millenium. This helps keep him reading the body of the text and not just the image captions as well. I used a Venn diagram last week to help him identify important architectural aspects of Jericho and Catal Höyük, and I thought the results were encouraging.

Science: We’re just getting started, but I found a stack of different organizers, including one for writing up experiments. So we’re going for it. I think after a while we could phase that one out and move to his science journal to document his work.

It feels a little worksheety here right now, but I don’t care, because he’s engaging more and that’s crucial to this whole Operation Writing and Learning Are Not Scary thing. I’ve added more projects. This week he designed a city, and had to think about who would live there, what resources were at hand, and how it would be built. We’ve foraged, tried our hands at cave art, and caught wild yeast for bread-making. Next week we build a ziggurat.

Tristan has just finished two weeks of rice/lentil play in the sensory bin (because I went through a box of vacuum cleaner bags, between that and the pet hair), and has moved on to playdough, which the boys watched me make and color. His easel is out every day, so he often paints or makes a chalk drawing, and he has more interest in fine motor activities than Seamus did at this age. Like Seamus could, he can sit through a good hour-plus of storytime, and since I rearranged the shelves he has gotten more interested in our picture book collection. We do a lot of puzzles and I’m laying a lot of wooden train track.

They love the library, our local playground, and swim lessons. Tristan starts a music class in August, and Seamus will start playing soccer with the local club in September. Shay would like to add music and art to his schedule this fall, as well as lacrosse in the winter, but we’ll see what money and time allow. Mostly time. They still need to run wild.

Pics when I can pull ‘em off of my cranky phone.

*This practice of putting things out so your kids discover them and possibly trigger some self-directed learning is referred to as “strewing” in unschooling circles. You can read about it here.


Saddle up, the windmill's waiting

When we first enrolled Seamus at Montessori Option #1, we didn’t know how long we’d be there, or how well Seamus would take to the environment. Looking over the past two years, we’ve been pretty happy overall; we love the teachers, and we hope to enroll Tristan into Shay’s old Primary classroom in 2015. For the next year, however, we’re taking a break from private school. Money is tight, the house needs more assistance, much faster than we can do it while wrangling the boys, and Patrick and I both have exciting dental work coming up that insurance companies don’t enjoy paying for. We need a year to regroup, to pay off a few bills, and to finish our DIY drainage and retrofitting projects. 

Does this mean we’re switching to our local public school? Well…no. Some of this is because of Seamus’ various quirks: He’s very bright and capable of working above his grade level, and gets bored easily when things are too simple. He can get into mischief when he’s bored. He is not a leader; if someone doesn’t do something he enjoys, he casts it aside if he wants to be friends. He will also cast aside rules, to the point where I often think that Sartre had it half right; Hell is other people’s children. Perversely enough, Seamus has manipulated both a TA and a parent volunteer into doing what he wants them to do. As you might have guessed, we’re still trying to help Seamus master some executive skills - impulse control, emotional equilibrium, and help him deal with some anxiety, which he expresses via tantrumming.

And some of this is because of the quirks belong to the school district: The uncommunicative nature of the main office- I have called and emailed several times with questions, and no one has ever gotten back to me. How despite having at least one magnet school, all the school information nights are held on the same date at the same time, making it difficult for parents to comparison shop if they so wish. The choice of an aftercare vendor whose policies are zealous to the point of exclusivity, which doesn’t seem to make the kids in their charge any safer. The lack of constructive criticism from the community - it was difficult to get any sort of feel for our zoned school, and Kindergarten Night left me very underwhelmed when thinking about the school for first through fifth grade. Testing.

None of these things are egregious enough on their own for me to stop everything and homeschool, but combined, I can see the potential for everything going wrong quickly, and  I am unwilling to enroll him and gamble on getting a teacher who can/will work with his somewhat asynchronous development. 

So two weeks ago I started our Summer Quarter here at the Norton School for Poetics and Power Tools*. My goal is to provide an academically challenging environment that plays best to how he learns (visually and kinesthetically), to provide time and opportunities for him to expend his huge reserves of energy, and to let him explore his interests. There are three legal paths to homeschooling in California, the one we’re choosing is to file a Private School Affidavit (PSA), which requires me to maintain an attendance record, a student file, and to provide appropriate instruction comparable to current state standards. California does not require testing or other evaluations, so I have a lot of leeway.

Two weeks in, here’s what I’ve worked out based on my reading, my paying attention to the kid, and trial and error:

Calendar: We will school year-round, with a dedicated 10-week block of academics, and two weeks in reserve for sick days, outside classes/camps, projects, or travel. I made travel and project journals for that two-week block, so they are school days . There is one week each quarter of downtime. I’d like to make our school weeks just four days, but we’ll see how things look by the end of the summer quarter.

School Day: Since the boys like to get up and GO first thing, we start early. The last two weeks have shown me that Seamus does best with some physical activity first thing in the morning, and that he can handle five academic works in a day before he bonks. I can sneak in about half an hour of “practical life” work somewhere in the middle of his day, and need to work in a break mid-morning.

Curriculum: I know, you were all waiting for this one. 

I’ve read The Well Trained Mind, Project-Based Homeschooling, and Elizabeth Hainstock’s books on teaching at home in the Montessori way, and I’m mixing them together to create a secular classical curriculum. Many of the materials I’m using spiral, so Shay will reinforce old skills and content and build on them - similar to Montessori works extensions - which matches the way I’ve seen him pull information from books. Here it is, by subject.

Math - I bought these review workbooks post-kindergarten, to keep Seamus up on what he had learned, and he hated them. Since more of his first grade math has been traditional pencil-to-paper, I pulled them back out, but added the delightful, narrative-driven Life of Fred. Fred is a five year old math professor at Kittens University, and the series captures roughly a year of his life while taking the student from addition facts up to calculus. It spirals lightly and encourages logical thinking and problem solving. It’s not purely secular, but the religious tones are negligible. I’m dropping the review books this week, and introducing Miquon Math. Miquon was developed in the 1960s and is based on the idea that all children can learn to do higher math at younger ages. Miquon encourages creative problem solving, uses manipulatives, and takes kids from counting numbers to pre-algebra in a three-year program. It is also a spiraling program, revisiting concepts in increasingly complex problems. My plan is to alternate with LoF through this year, unless a preference is made. Both series are very affordable compared to the Montessori-derived Right Start and Schiller math programs, which can run you $300+, based on what you need. I think both LoF and Miquon cost me $60 each, and I can reuse both with Tristan, or sell them.

Language Arts - We’re trying the Spelling Workout Series right now. We’re using book B, which is pretty easy in its choice of words, but is giving Seamus some good practice at vocabulary building by requiring he learn definitions of each word  and how to use them in sentences with each lesson. I use the KISS Grammar program, which is free, and spirals. Like Miquon, it encourages teachers to check students’ mastery of a concept by having the student create a lesson. So far, grammar is Shay’s best subject. For reading, I am creating a reading list based on the social studies component, so we have read Frozen Man by David Getz, Kali’s Song by Jeannette Winter, The First Dog by Jan Brett, and a Day with Neanderthal Man by Fiorenzo Facchini. As we progress through the millennia, we’ll read myths, fables, and folklore. Seamus is writing averse, so we’re doing a lot of pre-writing activites right now, and will start to sneak writing in via science and social studies this summer, before trying Writing Strands this fall.

Social Studies - The classical curriculum suggests carving world history up into four years and revisiting them, going into more detail each time. Despite starting homeschooling in second grade, we are starting with the first year, which is Ancient History (Ice Age to approx 500 CE). I’m using the Kingfisher Illustrated World History along with the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, and lots of supplementary materials as I find them. One local museum is showing an exhibit of Copper Age art right now, and another opens an exhibit on the ancient history of the Arabian Peninsula In October. I’m using selections from the Map Trek series for Geography, and we’ll make a timeline.

Science - The Well Trained Mind suggests pairing Life Science with Ancient History and Ancient Myths. This summer we’ll do selections from Exploratopia, then move on to Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding. We’ll supplement as needed and take advantage of the fantastic science museums surrounding us. 

Art, Music, PE - Aside from trying to keep us all more active in general, I plan to outsource much of this. The boys can take swim lessons, and Seamus can pick two additional extracurriculars, I think. I want us to be able to do other things as well, so I don’t want to overschedule him.

More on this later, I need to read through next week’s material.