Loosening Up At The Edges

August 29th, 2014

We are coming to the end of our second week of school, and things are already starting to loosen up at the edges.  Some of the excitement of beginning a new thing is wearing off.  Some days some people just don’t feel like doing schoolwork.

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And of course, the ideal school day in homeschool happens about once every three months, and the rest of the days I’m constantly in a state of flex, regrouping for one turn of events or another.  It can be stressful, but the sooner I learn to just always prepare for the unexpected, the better off I’ll be.

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In case it’s not obvious, these pictures are of one of Paul’s not-feeling-like-doing-schoolwork days.  (Of course he had to do it anyway, and he found ways to make it more interesting to himself, such as this odd position.)

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Marie continues to enjoy learning more how to read.  This week I found her sounding out the words on a raisin box, and also on a tag in the store when we were out for groceries.  That was a big encouragement to me.  That means she wants to read things–and that is so huge in teaching a kid to read.

It is such a blessing that Rachel Anne is still a diligent “scholar” when Marie is doing her schoolwork and uses her special crayons to color and make lines in a tracing book.  She seems to have the idea that this is important and that it is part of school.  Of course, big kids do school work, and it’s very important to be a big kid!

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Hannah is continuing to make my spirits soar and exceed my expectations as she is quickly growing into an excellent independent studying student, and is vastly improving her ability to focus, stay on track, and complete her school list without me reminding her.  I attribute that to timely and abundant positive reinforcement from me.  The more praising remarks I make and give her for being a great scholar, the more she strives to be a great scholar.

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Paul is scrambling to bring back to his mind all the addition and subtraction facts he had learned so thoroughly last year.  (Wait until they start drilling him on his multiplication and division facts!  I haven’t told him what’s coming yet.)  The morning of this picture, he misplaced his normal timer and is using the timer on my phone to time himself for his math fact sheet (that he does every morning).

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One of my “flex” days I did not get the papers graded and the new school lists printed the night before.  Therefore, I explained it to the kids first thing in the morning, and told them they had to help do my work while I got their schoolwork ready.  Besides loading and unloading the dishwasher and brooming the floor, that also included peeling the potatoes for our lunch that day.

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In full disclosure, Hannah and Marie didn’t get all the potatoes peeled, but it was a good start and less that I had to do.

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Guess what the most popular past time is around here after the kids are done their school for the day?  You’re right.  Play school.  One day, Paul was teaching Marie how to read.  Then, Marie was teaching Rachel Anne how to read.  (Prior to this picture, she was teaching her words.  When I paused my work to get the camera, she had just switched to the alphabet.)  Later in the day, Marie, Hannah, and Rachel were playing school, and Hannah and Marie took turns being the teacher.

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Today, some neighbor kids came over for a little while in the afternoon.  Marie took it upon herself to give a reading lesson to Kristen (who is also 4 years old).  Marie wrote all these words on the white board and was trying to get Kristen to sound them out and read them.  Marie did a great job, and Kristen was very patient and cooperative.

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I am just thrilled at how much (I think) they are learning even when we aren’t doing structured, required school.  I also fully realize that the things they are learning in the (more) structured lessons is giving them the fuel and fodder to do this independent learning.

One of the biggest tools I use in my homeschooling is positive reinforcement.  I cannot overrate the effectiveness of this for my kids.  Pointing out all that they are doing wrong over the years has gotten disappointing results and basically no improvement and usually a bad attitude and even worse performance (on the whole).  However, pointing out all the good things they have done, all the work that was praiseworthy and excellent, and expounding on it and praising it specifically has gotten outstanding results.

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They then strive to do more and more of the work that gets neat little praise notes from Mom.  I try to be sure to be very specific about what I am praising–neat handwriting, good spacing between letters, good sentences, lots of correct math problems, diligent work, cheerful attitude during school, doing schoolwork without being reminded, and all manner of things like that–so they will know what I am praising.  Just “good job” and “you’re doing great” don’t necessarily let them know what they did good or great.

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Now, if there is something that is wrong (incorrect answer), I do make a note of that too and they have to correct it.  (I’ve found that if they have to erase something and correct it, they will quickly pay attention to get it right the first time.  If I just say “In the future, make sure you don’t reverse your 2’s”, they will keep reversing them.  Only when it actually makes extra work for them will they pay attention and get it right.)  (If that makes me a mean teacher, then I’m a mean teacher.)

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I require the kids to read their feedback notes, not only for the positive reinforcement, but also to see which ones they got wrong and so they will correct them.  Andrew was afraid they wouldn’t heed my instructions (to read the feedback notes).  The other day I asked the kids about it (after more than a week of giving feedback).  They both immediately told me they always read their feedback notes and expressed how much they liked reading them to hear how they had wowed me.  :)  I guess no problem there so far!

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I also use sticky notes to give positive remarks about the previous school day, and to highlight anything a bit different for that day’s school.  (Here it is posted on the front of Paul’s school list.)

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All this certainly takes more time than simply grading the papers and marking the problems that are wrong.  However, it pays off so well for me, and it has brought about great positive changes in my students that it is well worth the extra time it takes to write personal notes.  On top of all that, these are more than just students, they are my children!  I want them to feel loved, appreciated, and encouraged by me!

Here’s an extra tidbit of info.  Right before we started school, I bought myself a set of good, working colored pens.  I have about 12 different colors, and most of them write very well.  That way I can make the notes brilliant and exciting.  I also can write the notes easily, not scribbling, scraping, and scratching along with colored pens that only half work, or using wide, fat crayons that take up way too much space.  I’m so much more inclined to do things when it’s easy to do it.  (Showing my true nature here…)

For a word on the “extra” stuff that has provided the need to “flex” the school schedule and keep me out of a boring rut this week, it has been The Week Of The Grapes.  Andrew took this picture and said I had evidently returned from spying on Canaan Monday afternoon.

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We got done our school in a zip and a hurry Monday morning and then went to a grapevine about 15 minutes from here that some friends of my family have (they offer me their grapes every year).  The kids and I picked grapes for a couple hours and came home with 10 dishpans of grapes.  My neighbor graciously offered I could use her very large refrigerated space, so I kept them in there and up through Thursday I was doing grapes whenever I wasn’t directly teaching school.  I canned quite a bit of grape juice concentrate (using my wonderful steamer) and made 11 Sure-Jell batches of grape jelly and canned it (boy, is it ever good!).

Other things have fallen by the wayside, such as cooking and baking.  We had run out of bread the week before, so this week I have started both of my bread machines first thing in the morning to get dough made (that I then shape myself and bake in conventional loaf pans) so we have bread for the day.  I don’t know how we manage to consume about 2 loaves of bread every day!  On my most intense grape day, Wednesday, we had cold cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and cold cereal for supper.  We’ll get back to a better state of meals another week.

This morning my mom came and helped the kids and I pick more grapes.  This time I kept only about 5 dishpans of grapes (I only want to do 4 more steamers of grapes for juice) and gave the rest to one of my neighbors who wants to can grape juice and make jelly.  There are still loads of grapes left on the vines, but this is all I’m doing.  (I’m telling you, this must be the year for a bumper crop of grapes.  They don’t always produce like this.)  I will steam and can all that I can tomorrow, and then that will be the end of my grape operation for this year.  If I don’t get quite all of them done, I will give the leftover grapes to my neighbor.  Next week will be filled to the brim, I’m sure, but it won’t be filled with grapes.  And next week I may wear clothes that aren’t blue (if you saw me at all this week, I was probably in blue from head to toe so grape juice stains wouldn’t show on my clothes).

‘14-’15 School Year is Launched!

August 23rd, 2014

I originally planned to start school this week, but as time went on, I just wasn’t getting my prep for school done (that is, cleaning up my desk area so I could operate).  Earlier this summer, I had made a big step forward with a few hours of concentrated purging, but I had never gotten it finished.

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Thanks to my mom for keeping my kids for me last Friday, I was able to spend a chunk of time in unbroken concentration and get the rest of the stuff sorted through, put away, and get my organization set up for this school year.  For those who have never homeschooled, it takes more than you think!  Even with all that, I still was up late Sunday night getting school lists ready, putting together the “school trays” (which are shallow boxes, one for each student, to hold all their school books and papers so they are kept in one place and still portable), and making sure I knew what I was going to do.  A disorganized, fumbling teacher who can’t find supplies or is constantly running back to get this or that can compromise a school day in a hurry!  Good prep makes a big difference.  As always, I didn’t exactly feel like starting school, and certainly didn’t know exactly how to make things work out, but the best and only thing to do is just get started.  And that’s what we did.

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One of the things we started new this year was a specific science “class”.  We are studying chemistry this year, using the book Adventures with Atoms and Molecules by Robert C. Mebane and Thomas R. Rybolt.  It is a book of science experiments you can do with things you can get from the grocery store (such as food coloring, what we have used this week to watch the movement of molecules in different temperatures of water).  We are supposed to do 2 experiments a week.  I asked Andrew if he would be willing to take over that one (Since I’m the one who studied chemistry in college and he’s the math whiz, I teach the math, he teaches the chemistry.  Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?).  He was willing, and with his gift for teaching (and the nature of the class–an experiment!) the kids are loving it!  On two different days, he let me know about what time he thought he could work an experiment into his schedule, and then we paused our school day and the kids had a chemistry class while I folded wash or did something like that.

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I resumed alphabet review with Rachel Anne, and teaching Marie how to read.  We used alphabet blocks the first couple days, and I found out two things.

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Rachel Anne is much more interested in building trains with the blocks than focusing on the letters,

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and Marie thinks she is much too advanced to be doing “baby stuff” like using blocks to make words.  She requested to do her school at the white board!  I was surprised at the huge difference in her attitude toward reading it made.  She balked at it with blocks, but she loves it and thinks she’s a big kid and can read if we are at the white board.  You just never know what will make a kid feel like learning.

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You can tell how serious our school time is.
Marie is pushing Rachel in this box.

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Rachel Anne does a much better job with the alphabet when we are sitting on the couch with an alphabet book.  So that’s what we’ve switched to, and then she gets to play with blocks during non-school times.

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I’m trying to get more serious about our kids’ reading, and I got books from the library from the suggested reading list in The Well-Trained Mind.  I have never read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but our kids latched onto that one and have read it over and over.  I may just have to pull it out and read it myself.

Paul reading to Marie.

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Hannah is loving being in second grade so far.  She is way too happy that she gets to get up early and do math with Mom before breakfast like Paul used to do.  She is a wonderful girl, but with her creativity, over-active imagination, and flair, she easily gets off on rabbit trails when we are doing the math lesson.  I love her enthusiasm for life, but I’m finding I’ve got to steer her onto the subject so we can actually get the lesson done before a couple hours go by with her describing vivid details of things she imagines up.  That is way, way different from the early mornings with Paul (who is quite a focused guy).

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Paul has risen to the challenge of fourth grade much better than I thought.  He feels very responsible to set his alarm clock for 7:00 and get up and promptly get his school tray, take it to his desk, and get going on his math.  He does not like to stop for breakfast until he is done his math for the day.  One day he asked if he could come late to breakfast in order to finish first.  Of course I let him delay breakfast!  He takes his school work seriously, and with no prompting from me, just works through each subject one right after the other (following his school list that I print off each night for the next morning), until he has it all done.

We do our Bible time and history all together.  Sometimes we do hand-writing together too, so I can check to see if people are holding their pencils correctly, making their strokes the right way, and so on.  Even though we started school this week, we didn’t start grammar (for Hannah) or Latin (for Paul) yet.  I’m not sure how I’m going to fit them in, but we’ll make a stab at that soon.

I did several key things to try to create a positive start to a successful school year.

1.  I bought Ticonderoga pencils.

2.  I bought each kid a pencil box to keep their pencils, eraser, and scissors in.

3.  I bought each kid a nice, age-appropriate, new set of Crayola crayons.

I can’t tell you how well those three things have paid off!  I don’t know why I didn’t do at least 1 & 2 a long time ago.  Last year, I got so frustrated with each kid breaking the lead out of a couple pencils every day.  I kept a big bowl of pencils on the table, and would just pull out another one when the lead broke on one.  I was always getting high blood pressure trying to sharpen them.  The lead would break even as I was trying to sharpen them.  They would sharpen crooked, which I determined was from the lead being off-center in the pencil, and then there would be a wooden point with the lead up the side of the pencil somewhere.  It was maddening.  No one has broken a single lead in the Ticonderoga pencils in an entire week, and they sharpen like a dream!  One or two turns on the grinder, and the lead is sharp, at the point of the pencil, and it didn’t break off!  (I’m ready to do a commercial for them!)

The pencil boxes make everything so easy to keep up with.  The pencils and erasers aren’t rolling around in their school trays or getting lost.  It also gives the kids a sense of ownership, and they want to keep up with their own pencils.  (I gave them each two and put a sticker with the first letter of their name on each one.  Marie and Rachel have the fat pencils.)

The new crayons are a big hit.  Paul & Hannah each have a 64-crayon box.  Marie has a set of 24 twistable crayons, and Rachel has a set of 8 fat triangular crayons.  They each love that the crayons are their own.  They use them pretty much only during school time, and it is particularly helpful for Marie and Rachel.  They are so happy to color with their crayons when I am teaching the others hand-writing or during our Bible times.  When Marie is doing her school book work, Rachel is in a chair right beside her going to town in a tracing book with her own crayons and big fat pencils.  It really keeps them happily occupied.

So, that’s a summary of our start to school.  It was a good week in the ways that count the most.  It was a doozy of a week in other ways because I had so many extra non-school things going on that I felt like I might collapse trying to fit it all onto my plate.  But, by doing one thing at at time (and skimping a lot on sleep) we got it all done.  I’m determined to be harsh with my schedule from now on and not overload it so much.  I’m not sure how to tell my garden that.  It has taken off with tomatoes, peppers, and corn, and of course I don’t want to leave it out there to rot!  I am telling all my family and neighbors no when they offer me extra tomatoes, corn, and beans though.  If you need anything from my garden, just let me know!