Our School Room

We live in a modest sized home and like most homeschool families, our lifestyle of learning is evident in the decor of our home.  Our projects and activities are strung about and ‘on display’ all the time.

The foyer and nature center. All our field guides are stored in the cupboard below the curio cabinet.  You can see our field bags under the table and our walking sticks in the corner … ready for an impromptu outing.  Our journals are on the table … along with the Handbook of Nature Study, a few specimens, and our microscope. 

The hallway with posters that correlate to our current studies and a few projects the kids have recently completed.  This is a new feature in our home and we’ve only begun to use this as a teaching tool.
Looking into the living room from the foyer … the piano and our library of resource books.  There are also two 4-drawer filing cabinets full of material but those are in the corner of Sweetie’s bedroom.
A close-up of our library.  The two wooden boxes on the floor store our Book of Centuries,    postcard albums, and other materials we use regularly.  The kids’ Mandarin bags are tucked between the boxes when not in use.  

The living room showing the coffee table or where you’ll find the kids’ math workbooks, our library books, and their writing journals.  These seldom get put away because we use them so frequently. Beneath the table is a box with dividers to organize pencils, scissors, post-its, tape, glue-stick, etc. This is where we do our school work – either independently or cooperatively.  We’ll spread projects out on the floor, cuddle up on a couch and read, or each find a comfy spot to work on our own.

We Are Unschoolers

If you told me nine years ago when we first started our homeschooling journey that I would be an “Unschooler” I would not have believed you. As a matter of fact, I probably would have laughed. But here I am, a former public school teacher with my type-A personality doing just that – homeschooling my two munchkins using a very relaxed, eclectic approach.

To clarify what I mean by a relaxed, eclectic approach {the definition may vary depending on who you ask} … for our family this means that we do not stick to a rigid schedule where the same thing occurs at the same time every day. Rather we allow for flexibility and changes within our day to best suit that days learning. The only consistencies in our schedule are predominately our electives (Mandarin, violin/piano, & swim team); because these are scheduled events that are taught by others, they seldom get pushed aside.

When we first started on our homeschool journey,  I spent hours planning a schedule and writing out lesson plans in a planner but we never seemed to adhere to them.  Since then, I have come to learn that a tentative and flexible plan at the beginning of each school year (essentially an outline of what we want to accomplish each school year – unique to each child) is what suits us best. Therefore, I no longer write our lessons in a plan book ahead of time – they were changed so frequently, my pencil erasers were all worn down to the metal ring – instead, I record what we have accomplished and when after the fact.

I have also come to realize – very recently in fact – that my kiddos dislike busy work and while I love them, they also abhor lapbooks. I used to spend hours researching clever activities and projects to integrate into our lessons – but the kids were always reluctant and many of these projects remain incomplete to this day. When I inquired about what they could remember about past topics – some recent, others rather distant – I was surprised to hear how much they could recall. Additionally, they often times interject facts and tidbits they have picked up from BrainPop, Oregon Field Guide, and other educational resources into our daily living. These conversations proved to me that they are both remarkable auditory learners.

I strongly believe learning occurs best in a relaxed environment. This does NOT mean there is no structure, rather it means that our lives are not ruled by a strict schedule. Additionally, I try very hard not to over schedule extra- activities. There are kiddos on our swim team that are constantly rushed from one activity to another (swimming, soccer, tennis, music lessons, etc.). We wonder when they actually have time to “play”.

Our relaxed atmosphere has given our children a love for learning that never tires.  While we ‘school year-round’ we take frequent breaks and our levels of intensity ebb and flow as often as the tides.  The important thing though is that my kiddos love learning .. they love watching documentaries and programs like How It’s Made. We still teach our children how to stay within certain time constraints – deadlines are, after all, a part of life. Our relaxed approach, however, enables us to spend more time on a concept or subject if we choose. This gives us the ability to focus on something a little longer than originally planned.

“It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, 
very little of what is taught in school in learned, very little of what is learned is remembered,
and very little of what is remembered is used.  The things we learn, remember, 
and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, non-school parts of our lives.”
~ John Holt

By its very definition – there is no typical unschooling day! Unschooling is a philosophy that assumes learning is naturally part of life. It takes into account the innate curiosity of the child, the dynamic of the family living together under one roof, and the experiences we encounter each day and says, “This is education”.  This is not to say that there are not moments where I want to throw in the towel … even seemingly endless arguments and frustrations.  My little guy, for example, is a tough one.  I seldom seem to catch him in the frame of mind suitable to learning.  He is so very active and when we do sit down, he complains of being uncomfortable and wiggles about constantly.  He tests my patience on a daily basis.  Yet I can see evidence of growth and maturity.  One day at a time has become my mantra.

As they grow older, however, it is becoming clearer that they are capable of taking on the responsibility of their own education.  Making choices that best suit them.  It is my job to help guide them along their own journey, after all.

Curriculum Plans 2012-13 (5th and 3rd grade)

Like most homeschooling families, our curriculum is hand picked each year by me. In doing so, my choice is dictated by the learning style of each child. Fortunately, they both really enjoy listening to me read aloud from Story of the World and both have had great success with Singapore Math. They both respond similarly to other curricula I’ve used so this makes making new choices easy – as well as less expensive since they can use the same textbooks (I need only to buy new consumables or workbooks).

One of our favorite components of our history curriculum is the use of a Book of Centuries or Timeline Book.  Buddy began his just a year ago and while we were setting his up, Sweetie decided she wanted to redo hers.  She was not happy with the way she had done hers previously so I helped her set up a  new one.  Essentially, they both now use a spiral bound notebook with hard covers (found at Barnes & Noble).  On the left side they adhere the timeline figures which we print onto sticker paper.  One the right, they write a brief sentence about the figure(s).  Sweetie’s book is pictured in the forefront of the photo below and mine is in the background.  My book is different in that I matte the figures onto color-coded paper (one color for each continent) before adhering them into the album.

“All men who have turned out worth anything 
have had the chief hand in their own education.”
~ Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832)

The most recent choice we’ve settled upon is First Language Lessons; as I hadn’t formerly taught English grammar lessons to Sweetie – the kids are working through this together.  We started with volume 2 a year ago and are now underway with volume 3.   Though some of the material has been redundant, I make an effort to skim through the lessons ahead of time – sometimes choosing to omit or modify lessons according to taste.

As we proceed with our education, I am beginning to see evidence of their growing maturity. Sweetie is taking on more responsibility for her own education – working through Life of Fred independently before we continue with Singapore. She generally also completes her assignments for Mandarin with little or no guidance from me – choosing to email her tutor when she has questions. This works very well since she is truly becoming bilingual and I am not able to help her with the nuances of the language. This year, she will also begin working through a writing curriculum on her own, Writing With Skill Level 1. I look forward to seeing her blossom into the young woman I occasionally see glimpses of today.

Touching Moments

Upon departing for home yesterday after four days of camping over the Fourth of July weekend, we stopped at a local Wendy’s for a quick bite. Seated at another table were two elderly gentlemen and a woman. One of the men was wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap. As we departed, the kids and I stopped at their table and I said, “Thank you for your service, sir.”

The man’s eyes lit up and he delightedly introduced us to his companions, stating that the other man was also a veteran. “Oh! What war, sir?” I inquired. He playfully replied, “1812.”

“You jest,” I remarked with a smile.  I then turned to Sweetie and said, “We know something of the War of 1812, don’t we kids?” 

Sweetie exclaimed, “Yes. That’s when the Star Spangled Banner was written.”

“That’s right!”  The man said.  He then picked up an American Flag and asked her if she knew what it was. 

“It’s our American flag,” the kids stated in unison. He further inquired if they knew what the stars meant. “The 50 stars are for the 50 states,” Sweetie stated.

“Perfect! Do you know the names of the last two states to join?” He questioned again.

 She pondered the question a little. I knew this questions was stumping her so I gave her a little hint by saying we’ve been there and I used body language to show someone snorkeling. “Hawai’i,” she proclaimed with enthusiasm.

“That’s one. Can you name the other?”

I pointed to Buddy and I said, “Gold Rush.” He chimed in, “Alaska!”

The man then turned to me and asked, “Do you homeschool your kids?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“I can tell. They are smart!”

Barnesklubb Fair Booth 2012

Our beloved Sons of Norway Lodge in Central Oregon had an active youth group.  Our lodge here in Northern California does not.  This is one of the hardest things about moving – adjusting oneself to the changes and finding a new niche.  Not disheartened, over the past few months the kids and I have been working to establish a community of young families interested in learning about Scandinavia.  We started a Barnesklubb or youth group that meets one afternoon each month.  Our hope is that they will become members of the lodge – but ultimately, we just want to share our love of our heritage with others.

We thereby chose to take part in our local county fair – putting together a Youth Feature Booth to share with the public a little about our activities.  An added incentive was the premium offered per class – $100 for 1st, $80 for 2nd, $60 for 3rd, and ribbons for 4th and 5th.  As our new lodge is small and has no source of income (our former lodge owned their own building that they rented out for weddings, classes, etc.) – there is no funding for the club activities we desire to do.  I’ve had to pay for everything out of pocket.  Winning a premium would be awesome!

sons of norway

Sadly, the group here is so new … we didn’t have much help in constructing our booth. Those who have taken part in our activities were unable to help.  True to their Viking ancestry, my two didn’t let this deter them.  They said they would do it alone.  When Grandma was in town last month, we brainstormed ideas and they settled upon a Viking ship to represent our focus on our heritage.  The kids painted the mast, unique shields with the flags of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland for the ship, the Sons of Norway logo for the mast, and drew out a dragon hull onto cardboard.  I cut it out for them as it required the use of an Exacto-knife.  I then helped them to tape the cardboard pieces together with shipping tape.

When we set it up, one of the fair coordinators came up to us with some misgivings and concern, “You realize,” she said, “the feature booths are for youth groups?”   “Yes,” I replied. “This is a youth group.”  “Where are the kids?  The kids are supposed to put the booth together.”  “These are are the only two active members,” I replied.  “Oh!” she exclaimed in surprise and walked away.

With that, my husband cautioned us not to expect much.  “Don’t get your heart broken if you don’t win,” he said to us.  I assured him that winning was not our primary goal.  Most of all, we want others to simply have knowledge of us – perhaps to take part if they are so inclined.  I should have realized he was foretelling the future.

sons of norway vikingWe then walked over to see our other entries – the kiddos had each entered a few “Arts and Crafts” as well.  They were again disappointed.  Those that know me personally, know that I do all I can to teach good sportsmanship and humbleness in my kiddos.  We have been taking part in the fair since the kids were toddlers.  We use it as a means of learning from others and to seek new inspiration for creative projects and handcrafts.  We look at individual entries carefully and evaluate what was done well.We attended the fair on opening day – eager to see the other exhibits as well as to see how we fared.  

We allowed the anticipation to build by first walking through the commercial exhibits.  We then browsed all the exhibits and entries en route to where our booth was located near the rear of the building.  By the time we arrived at our booth, we knew there was only one other booth in our division – Junior Feature Booth.  While we were in the “Activity” class – the other was in the “Fair Theme” class.  Knowing therefore that we had no other competition – or perhaps only one other competitor if they judged the division as a whole rather than by class – we expected to do pretty well.  We were heartbroken to see that we didn’t receive any recognition whatsoever.   

I honestly believe that I am NOT one of those moms that feels my children are entitled to accolades.  I don’t give them false hope or praise.  I am the first to admit when they don’t put in their best effort or when I can see areas of needed improvement.  The focus of this blog entry, however, was on the Barnesklubb Youth Feature Booth.  Regardless of how the kids fared in the Junior Still Exhibits “Arts & Crafts” division, the lack of any ribbon whatsoever for our Youth Feature Booth perplexed us.  If there were other entries with whom we could compare – we perhaps could have come up with some theories.

I inquired with a volunteer on hand who led us over to one of the judges – the same woman who had questioned us earlier about the lack of other youth.  As she spoke, she gave me the impression that someone else judged the booths but I can not be certain.  She stated that the judge had felt our booth didn’t have a clear message.  That we failed to utilize the 10′ x 10′ space effectively.  They don’t like people to walk into a booth and thereby the pictures on the back wall were too small.  There was no lighting.  “The judge thereby decided not to award it at all.”  Essentially we took this to mean we had been disqualified.

viking boat fair boothAccording to the County Fair Exhibitor Guidebook, Junior Feature Booths are judged using the American System of Judging and use the following score card:

      • Title  10
      • Subject  10
      • Conveys Message  30
      • Holds Interest  15
      • Appearance  10
      • Workmanship  15
      • Lighting  10

 100 possible points

So what does American System of Judging  mean?  I did a little online research and came upon the following clarification:

A rank-order scoring system which awards the top exhibitor 1st, another 2nd, 3rd, etc. based on a score is called the “American System” or the “Peer System.” There may also be special categories such as “Top of Class”, “Best of Show”, etc. While the American system uses standards and requirements, it primarily uses the idea of competition between exhibitors, pitting one competitor against another to establish the rankings. In the Olympics, there can be only one gold, silver, and bronze. That is the “American system” of awards.

In the “Danish System” sometimes called the “Group Method”, exhibitors are measured against standards, not ranked against other exhibitors.  In 4-H, and in many junior classes of events in state and county fairs, most judging involves the Danish system of judging. In this system, the judges do not judge one person’s work by comparing it to another’s. Instead, a judge determines whether the exhibitors meet or exceed standards. Often a score sheet, available from the county 4-H office, is used to help the judge group exhibitors consistently.

Wow!  So based upon this information, we should have been compared to other exhibits in the same class (there were none) or perhaps the same division (there was only 1 other).  The woman I spoke with this afternoon said,  “The judge thereby decided not to award it at all.”  She further added that she would give me the score sheet the judge used to score our booth when we picked it up at the end of the week.   Score sheet? Sounds to me like they were using the Danish System of Judging.

I am so frustrated.  If there were other booths that had better met the qualifications or received a higher score, I could understand why we had not fared well.  But this was not the case.  There was no competition.   I thereby do not understand.  How then, do I explain the results to the kids??


Burnout & Rediscovery

For much of April and May (perhaps even longer),  I was struggling with burnout.  I am tempted to say even mild depression, yet I didn’t ever consult a physician and I certainly do not want to minimize the struggle of those who do.  I just was not myself.

I was not inspired to blog.  I was barely teaching any formal lessons.  So much of what I had enjoyed in the past – running, swimming, teaching, blogging – was lost to me.  I couldn’t find the desire to do the things I desperately wanted to do.  Rather than get up early as I generally would two years ago, I would sleep in and wake only when the sun’s rays shining through the blinds in my bedroom forced me out of bed.  In comparison to my ‘old self‘, I was lazy.

To make matters worse, the kids and I just couldn’t see eye-to-eye. Sitting down to do lessons was a daily battle.  I was not into it and they knew it.  This further aggravated the situation.

My mom came down in mid-May to spend the week with us … to see #1s first play … to see the kids compete in a swim meet (#2’s first) … and to celebrate our birthdays.  The kids and I were very excited to spend quality time with her.  We planned a few outings and Grandma tagged along to some of our routine activities (Mandarin, swim team, & music lessons).  Though it wasn’t planned, her presence turned out to be a major blessing.  She stepped in a few times to reprimand #2 and made a few suggestions to me on how I might change my own approach.

After she returned home – I spent some time reevaluating things.  I knew in my heart that homeschooling was the right choice for us.  That was never in question.  What I discovered though was that I was still approaching it as I would if I were in a formal classroom.  I thought I needed to plan activities to engage them that would also demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter – lapbooks, interactive maps, elaborate projects, etc.

My kiddos were never very excited to do these and balked whenever I would ask them to do so.   One day, I asked them to simply write out what they knew about the Revolutionary War (our current focus in history).  I was amazed at how much they recalled … just from reading aloud Story of the World, watching Liberty’s Kids, and talking.  It suddenly became clear to me that a lapbook (or other tangible) was not critical to their success.  I discovered that we are much more “Unschoolers” than I anticipated.

I also came to realize that I missed blogging.  I do not have many followers and for a while, I was bummed to see the accolades and recognition that some of the other homeschool bloggers were receiving.  Pinterest didn’t help.  I fell into the trap of comparing myself to others.  Judging myself against all that others were doing.  To be honest, I was jealous and I let this interfere with why I started blogging and homeschooling in the first place.

A homeschool blogger friend recently posted a link on Facebook to a blog post by another homeschool blogger, why blogging matters, and it really hit home.  Blogging or writing helps me to process things. If I can write about it, I’ve learned it. If I can write about it, I can let it go. It is my creative outlet of expression. Writing also motivates me – knowing that what I am doing,  even what I am struggling with may help someone else.

These past few days, I have been aggressively playing a little catchup.  Composing blog posts to celebrate our successes and to share our adventures.  It is a fun way to reflect and relive these moments.  I am rediscovering me.