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  • Your One-Year-Old: The Fun-Loving, Fussy 12-To 24-Month-Old
    Your One-Year-Old: The Fun-Loving, Fussy 12-To 24-Month-Old
    by Louise Bates Ames, Frances L. Ilg
  • Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant
    Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant
    by Louise Bates Ames, Frances L. Ilg
  • Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (Myths)
    Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (Myths)
    by A.S. Byatt
  • The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (Revised and Updated Edition)
    The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (Revised and Updated Edition)
    by Susan Wise Bauer, Jessie Wise
  • The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area
    The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area
    by Kevin Feinstein, Mia Andler

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.


First in, first out

Seamus and I had a little surprise on Thursday night:

Man, he said he washed his face! Those lamps aren’t as bright as I thought.

He’s been wiggling that tooth for a while, and on Wednesday I mentioned to a friend that I should head on down to the bank and get a roll of Sacajawea or Susan B. Anthony dollars before it came out. I figured I had more time - he wasn’t dangling the tooth over his lip or anything that screamed “tooth loss imminent!”, and I figured if either of my kids would do that, it would be Seamus. I would have gone today, in fact.

Then we made spaghetti and meatballs on Thursday night, and sometime between the boys washing their hands before sitting down and getting out of the bathtub, the tooth vanished. I’ve swept the floor several times in both the bathroom and kitchen, and I suspect he lost it while biting down on a meatball. 

He bummed out at the thought of not being able to wish on his tooth and slip it under his pillow. I asked him to hang on while I put Tristan to bed. While Tristan nursed down, I came up with a plan that I hoped meant I could avoid sifting Seamus’ poop while still honoring his now quite lost tooth. When Tris fell asleep, I went into my room and unearthed a two-dollar bill I’d been saving for a rainy day.

I gave the bill to Seamus before we read Robin Hood

“I thought you could wish on this,” I said, holding out the bill. “They aren’t very common. I’m sorry your tooth is gone. I’ll keep looking after you go to bed.”

I read to him and we snuggled for a bit afterward while I told him the story of his tooth. How it had been the very first one he cut, how he’d drooled endlessly, how I worried about giving him too much Tylenol. He kept calm until I told him that we should say goodbye to his tooth, and thank it for all its work in teaching him to eat hard things, then the tears came.

“I don’t want to say goodbye to my tooth.”

“Because it got lost, or because it’s no longer a part of your body?”

“Because it’s not a part of my body. I want it back.”

We talked a bit about how this was part of growing up, and how he’d soon have a new tooth that he’d get to keep forever. After he fell asleep I tried to remember what it felt like to lose a tooth. What did I feel that first time?

I started losing my teeth sometime after we moved out of the Alamo Square apartment we shared with my dad, but before he vanished. I remember being excited about getting money from the tooth fairy, but I can’t remember feeling anything about losing my teeth. Maybe losing bits of myself made sense at the time, since so many things and people had fallen away already. 

Before he fell asleep, he mentioned that another tooth felt loose. I’ll have to get to the bank for those dollar coins, and start preparing another tooth story. I wish he didn’t feel sad about losing his teeth, but I’m ready to help him mourn the end of his early childhood. I hope 35 years from now he can remember the sadness and how he was allowed to feel sad while we worked to make things okay in the end. And how the day after he cried about that lost incisor, he began trying to whistle through the gap in his teeth.


One year out and I'm still in

It’s been almost a year since I watched Tristan smoosh his birthday cupcake and thought about how I couldn’t see myself in my sons’ adult lives, and wasn’t sure I wanted to make it that far, anyway. 

I still have a hard time seeing myself at 60, but I can see 40-45. Like our commitment to Seamus’ school, I’m taking things in small chunks of time. I have amazing days and dark days, with lots of in between. I’m slowly applying myself to the things that I know will help me come out of The Compleat Fucking Sad. Saving my own life is hard work, and doing so sometimes clashes with my other responsibilities. I layer my needs with those on my family members in order to squeeze in the exercise and quiet time, but the dietary changes are hard when I’m trying to trim our food budget. Why haven’t I gotten some outside help, be it therapy, medication, santeria? Mostly because Patrick’s work switched the insurance around so often that I’m not sure if the old non-Kaiser practice takes our current provider. And. Well. I don’t have extra childcare for therapy appointments. It’s not a question of money; my sitters are not available during the week. So I’m doing my best to get a goddamn grip by getting more structure into our days and dragging my hapless family along for the ride. If Tristan gets more time to nap and the dog gets more walkies and Seamus eats less sugar, I can live with that.

I’ve spent a lot of time working on the house and making it our home base; as you can see from the pictures I’ve posted, it’s coming along. My goal for this year is to paint the boys’ room and decorate so it will age well as they grow. We’ve begun entertaining again by holding a potluck every six weeks, and we’ve begun planning the back yard and front garden. Planting trees and bushes that won’t bloom and bear for a few years yet is my declaration of hope; I will witness the results of my work. It beats hanging a bikini on my closet door in hopes that I will run, anyway.


The boys

They’re almost two and six and a half now, funny, strong boys who slip through the various stages of play when together, from careening through the house and backyard to each sitting with a book. Tristan’s features are still soft and call up echoes of Seamus, whose chin and brows and limbs are now firmly Kid, not Baby. 

Their rhythms don’t quite sync. Tristan wants to wake early, nap late, and stay up later still, making it hard to give him the same attention I gave Seamus, as his awake time is jammed with the logistics of preparing for the day and transporting Seamus to and from school. I watch one of Shay’s classmates on Monday afternoons; the occasional triangulation is hard on Tristan as he gets left out. Tristan’s protracted bedtimes are hard on Seamus, as Patrick is often home late, making my big boy’s evenings lonely while I nurse down his brother. The trick seems to be for me to get to bed by nine-thirty every night, and scheduling our days with some rigidity - Mondays for x, Tuesdays for y, etc. This only works provided we’re all hale and hearty; the cold season leaves me improvising and relaxing my already lax standards for housekeeping. Especially right now. I’m home alone today with a cold that’s given me episodes of vertigo while Patrick takes the boys to a museum and to Seamus’ appointment with the orthopedist.

Did I tell you all that Seamus broke his arm three weeks ago? It was a clean break in his humerus, just below the growth plate. Three weeks in a sling and then we’ll check it again (today!), the doctor said. We hosted a potluck that weekend and he led the other kids in climbing in and around Patrick’s truck, making footholds of the tires and leaping off of the tailgate. In the dark. To prove that he can keep up, Tristan already has racked up three black eyes this new year, and can now climb into Seamus’ loft bed unassisted. They are children of action, mostly allies who drive each other up the wall about twice a week, usually right before dinnertime.

They have their differences. Tristan’s fine motor skills outstrip his brother’s, but Seamus had greater reserves of energy at Tristan’s age. Tristan loves music and sang before he spoke, and Seamus is very visual. They complement each other while remaining temperamentally similar, and Tristan mimics Seamus as much as possible. Since Seamus is learning to get some of his emotions under better control, this gives me hope for the years ahead. And they work together to help clean up the toys, musical instruments, books, and art supplies that litter the house at the end of the week. Not perfectly, not without some resistance, but they try to help.

We’re so glad they’re here.