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Filtering by Tag: Home Education

Home Education: Easy Math Games

alec vanderboom

Next week I have my home-school review. This semester I really pushed the limits of unschooling. For most of the Spring Semester Mom was either hugging a toilet, howling on the floor in back-pain, or unconscious with allergy symptoms. 2010 was truly the year of the "child led curriculum." I made 3 trips to library the entire semester and I didn't have time to artfully 'strew' interesting projects around the house. As I compile my kid's work for their portfolio review, however, I'm shocked that unschooling works. My kids did actually learn stuff. Here's a quick review of our math work.

2010 was the year I officially pitched Math-U-See. I thought this was a dazzling math program when Hannah was 4. Unfortunately, it's still set up in a typical "linear", classroom type manner. Hannah got stuck on "number placement" which is covered in lesson 2. She's got her numbers memorized up to 30, but she doesn't see the relationship between 0-9, 10-19, and 20-29. With their cute "decimal street" pictograph Math-U-See promised me that this was an easy concept to master. Instead, Hannah and I have sat on this issue since the first month of Kindergarten.

Thankfully, I realized that Math is a great subject to home-school on the fly. I've got a mental note on where both of my kids are stuck in Math. We sort of dance around learning different concepts and wait for that one concept to fully gel in their mind. For example, because Hannah has really figured out that the numbers 31-39 model the number 0-9, I just simply don't go over number 30 in any of our math problems. So instead of learning to count to 100, we've actually stayed in the small numbers and learned DIVISON this year!

It's shocking to me, but division can make complete sense to a 1st grader! At least for Catholic siblings! My kids entire focus in life is to make sure that all the Benjamin siblings get an equal share of candy, gum, toys, etc. I made up a super fun Division Math Game. We took our large collection of rubber bouncy balls and our four Zhu Zhu pets. I asked Hannah to close her eyes and then placed different numbers of Zhu Zhu pets and bouncy balls in front of her. "Can you make sure that each Zhu Zhu pet gets an equal amount of balls for the party?" Then I had Hannah record her answers with the division sign and different colored pencils for the pet and the balls. The color change kept her consistently dividing by the right number.

A second fun Math game involves Addition. We get a thousand Oriental Trader magazines at our house. I told Hannah to pick out party favors for an imaginary party.I asked "How much money does Mommy need to give you to order your supplies?" We cut up pictures of the items and glued it on some paper. (I rounded up the cents on each item into whole dollars.) Then I asked Hannah to add up the cost. There was even a handy graph with Greater, Less Than and Equals Signs to estimate the shipping cost.

Another fun way to teach "Greater or Less Than" is to play the card game War with your kid. Write a Greater Than Sign on a small piece of paper and place a Less Than Sign on the other side. On a separate piece of paper make the Equal Sign. Explain that the Greater Than Sign is a hungry alligator who always wants to eat the bigger number. (We put teeth and eyes on our Greater Than Signs). Play War. Each time you finish a hand, ask the kids to place the hungry alligator facing the right way. If you tie, bring out the equal sign.

A big break-through I had this year was how to teach Math to a left-handed kid. Hannah has a terrible time with reversing her numbers. In Math, if you reverse a "2" and a "5" you automatically get zero credit for your work. Hannah also just hates handwriting in general. We ended so many Math session early because of her total frustration with writing "boring" numbers.

What finally worked for me was to separate Hannah's Math lessons into several steps. Step A: I just let Hannah talk through a problem, no hand writing required. This lets us focus purely on her understanding of the concept. We usually do about 10-15 oral math problem before moving on to written ones. Step B: I get Hannah to record some problems in her "scientific journal." I let the handwriting look messy. I let the numbers get all reversed. Step C: I tell her that we need to record some of our work for her "teacher" (our home-school reviewer.). I get a fresh sheet of paper. I also have a number line with the numbers 0-29 written out.) At this point, we recopy her work in a slow, careful manner. I always prompt her "Did you mean it to be a 2 or a 5? Look at the number line and decide which way the number needs to point."

With this new method we "officially record" less than 10 problems a day. However, our Math lessons are SO much easier! I'm really happy to stress that Math needs precision. If Hannah wants to do well in Math (a subject she naturally loves) she needs to make herself double check her answers. This is one of the most amazing reasons to home-school! No one else is going to care as much as a parent. Hannah's got a natural ability in Math, but her brain is also giving her some stumbling blocks. It's so beautiful to take the time to give her the skills and coaching that she needs to succeed in a favorite subject.

Viking History Unit

alec vanderboom

An amazing thing happen this year, the entire Benjamin family fell in love with Cressida Cowell's "How to Train Your Dragon" series. We're currently doing bedtime story time with Book Five. This imaginary series based on the heroic misadventures of a young Viking named Hiccup, his dragon Toothless and his best friend Fishlegs are wonderful. My kids are all still non-readers, but these books have made reading a family adventure.

Our love of all things Viking have also made for interesting Catholic History lessons. Here are some highlights.

The Viking Era starts with a raid on the Irish Abbey of Lindisfarne in 787. The Vikings had a thing for attacking monasteries and killing unarmed monks. (If the grown-ups want a good laugh, check out the theories proposed for these "harmless" historical facts in the Adult Viking History Section. My favorite theory was that the Viking attacked Christian monks preemptively because they were horribly afraid of the Baptismal Font.)

One notorious Viking raid leads to interesting ethical questions. In around 900 AD, the Viking leader Hestein attacked the Italian town of Sarzang, thinking it to be Rome itself. Seeing that he was outnumbered, the Viking leader hatched a terrible plan. Hestein asked the local Bishop to baptize him, pretending to have a change of heart. That night, there was wailing from the Viking ship. The Vikings told the Bishop their leader had died in the night and asked for the Bishop to conduct a Christian Funeral Mass. Feeling pity for his former enemy, the Bishop consented. In the middle of the Funeral Mass, Hestein suddenly rose out of his coffin and killed the Bishop with his sword. All the Viking mourners throw off their cloaks, reveling their swords and started murdering everyone in site. The entire "baptism/funeral" request had been a ploy by Hestein to enter a heavily fortified town. This event gave a great springboard for my kids to talk about "loving your enemies" even when they trick you. We all decided that the Bishop did the right thing in in offering Baptism and Funeral Rites to his enemy, even if it ended up destroying his entire monastery.

Thankfully, the Vikings all ended up converting to Christianity.* One of the most interesting acts of conversion in Catholic history happened to Vikings. In 1000 AD, the entire settlement of Iceland voted democratically to accept Christianity. One leader proposed "Some of us believe in the old Gods. Some of us believe in Christ. It is not good for our people to be divided, therefore let us vote on whether we should all become Christians." There are many interesting stories of how Kings or Emperors were converted and then brought Christianity to their respective countries. I don't think there is another country which became Christian through a democratic vote.

*(We excuse our beloved Viking hero Hiccup for not being a Christian since we assume that he lived before St. Olaf and the mass conversion of Danish Vikings.)

For a kid-friendly lesson on how to dig up Viking Era Artifacts check out this great Dig It Up game from the BBC.

How to Teach A Reluctant Boy Subtraction

alec vanderboom

Our Kindergarten Word Problem of the Day:

"If there were 10 people on an airplane that landed on Jurassic Park Island and a mean Dino ate 3, how many people are left?"

To figure out the answer to 10-3=7, Alex drew a picture of 10 people running from a fierce Dino and then drew a bloody red x on three of the victims. I'm not sure how thrilled our home school reviewer will be with this teaching method, but it works! My son got the tricky conception of subtraction mastered in one day. Hurrah for our new invention of "Dino Math!"

We Passed Kindergarten!

alec vanderboom

Many thanks for all of my friends and blog readers who listened to my pitiful complaints during this first year of homeschooling. I took a teeny portfolio and Hannah herself to our second semester review session. We passed! The reviewer actually said "You did the right thing by keeping her home this year. Look at her!" How is that for Holy Spirit confirmation?

I must have read 10,000 articles on "how to homeschool" in the past year. Not one had this suggestion, "pray fervently to Saint Anne and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to give you a sympathetic reviewer." Yet, that is the advice I want to hand out. Having a public school employee who is encouraging and helpful makes all the difference for the faint of heart.

We I got pregnant with Hannah seven years ago, I did not dream about entering into a homeschool adventure. In fact, I looked forward to many parent-teacher conferences happening in uncomfortably small chairs. Many thanks to God who knew me better than I knew myself.

If God wants you to do something that is clearly impossible, do it. As the priest said on my Catholic retreat. "Get out of the boat! God didn't call you to walk on water because you were already a saint. He called you because he wanted to do something beautiful in your life."

There are so many benefits of homeschooling, but one that I like best is that it develops perseverance.

"We should be grateful to the Lord our God, for putting us to the test, as he did our forefathers. Recall how he dealt with Abraham, and how he tried Isaac, and all that happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia while he was tending the flocks for Laban, his mother's brother. Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. it is by way of admonition that he chastises those who are close to him." Judith 8:25-27 (from today's daily hours)

This first year of teaching has been a "crucible of the heart."I look forward to many more years of "heart crucibles" to follow.

Medieval Times

alec vanderboom

For the past two weeks, I've complimented Alex's interest in Knights with some in depth study of the Middle Ages. We found a great list of Children's games from that time period: stilts, piggyback rides, wrestled, climbing trees, marbles, balls, hoops & sticks, make-believe swords, tag, leapfrog and hopscotch. Hannah invented her own hoops game by rolling my wooden bamboo steamer around the house.

One of the "unit studies" I'm working on is the History of Medicine. We found a great book called "Medieval Medicine and the Plague by Lynne Elliot. There's nothing like see a doctor with a giant bird beak designed to stop the plague germs with fresh smelling flowers.

Of course, many of the Medieval History books have a lot of anti-Christian bias. One of Alex's Knight books shows the graphic burning of the stake of heretics by the Knights of Templar. (Weren't these Knights the heroes that built the first set of hospitals?) Other books complain that women only wanted to become nuns to get out of marriage.

The great Caldecott Honor book, "Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction" by David Macaulay starts with these words: "For hundreds of years the people of Europe were taught by the church that God was the most important force in their lives. If they prospered, they thanked God for his kindness. If they suffered, they begged for God's mercy, for surely God was punishing them." pg 1. This book celebrates the mastery of Medieval Architecture while ridiculing the engineers "outdated" belief in the Divine.

My favorite anti-Catholic lines come from the Medieval Medicine book. "People in the Middle Ages were not sure what cause diseases, including the Black Death. Many of their ideas came from their religious beliefs. They believe that God sent illnesses as punishment for people's sins or to test their strength and faith. The cure was to pray to God or give charity to the poor. Other people's theories about illnesses were based on scientific ideas of the time. They thought that the movement of the planets caused bad air, which affected people's health and caused diseases." (I love that astrology is classified as "scientific" while caring for the state of the soul is "ridiculous.")

One fiction book we love is "Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page" by Richard Platt. Fun illustrations, a poachers trial, and a jolly Saint Stephen's Day Party put us all back in time.

As a Catholic the study of the Middle Ages is fascinating, deep and familiar. This quote is from "Children and Games in the Middle Ages by Lynne Elliot. "The word "holiday" comes from "Holy Day", a special day in the Christian Church. Christmas and Easter were among the holiest days in medieval times." pg. 28. These days are still holy in my house. Here I thought I was living a retro 1950s life, but really I'm a 1050s type of gal!

Yet another reason that I'm happy to be teaching at home. Who knew anti-Christian bias in non-fiction history of the Middle Ages textbooks are as warped as the Marxist theories contained in 1950s Soviet history books?

Benjamin Academy of the Arts and Sciences

alec vanderboom

It's official, we passed our first review with flying colors!

The Holy Spirits fingerprints were all over this meeting. We had a tender Asian grandmother do our review. We were supposed to bring a sample of reading material for our review. I limited myself to 2 books per subject area. When I brought out the plastic bin of books, the darling Mrs. L burst out with "so many books for a kindergartner! That is good! That is very good!"

We had the most pleasant hour of conversation. Mrs. L is completely on the same page as us. She was so happy to see Hannah's drawings and scribbled "books." As a former math teacher, she was all over Math-U-See and my random collection of unfinished Number Street drawings.

"Emotional security counts," according to Mrs. L. "The most important thing you can do is read them a book each night, sign them a song and then give them a hug from Mommy and Daddy. That way the child had no bad dreams fearing that they are alone in the world."

Can you imagine a sweeter, more confidence building portfolio review? So much for my fears of being busted for not more vigorously pursuing phonics!

As a final mark of the Holy Spirit's presence occurred when we got to the music section. Last Saturday, I completely panicked over our lack of music lessons this semester. For Hannah's portfolio I photocopied two Catholic hymns. That section seemed a bit small so I added our Nutcracker unit. When typing out the labels for the portfolio, Jon made a mistake and wrote NUTCRACKER BALLET in huge bold letters. The words jumped out from you on the page. We were going to change it but ran out of time.

So in the midst of this delightful review, Mrs. L turns the page and NUTCRACKER BALLET leaps off the page at her.

She stops in silence for a moment. Catches her breath.

Out tumbles this long story of how much she loves this ballet and how important it is for young girls. Her own granddaughter performed this ballet in front of 1200 people in St. Louis at age 10. Mrs. L loved the performance so much so put the Nutcracker as the ring tone on her cellphone.

So when she turns the page and sees the pictures of Hannah's dance and choreography notation, she almost faints. "This is so advanced!" she shouts and notes all sorts of nice things on our official paperwork.

And to think, that was one of the many parts that sort of landed in the portfolio by accident. Yes, just another day of the Holy Spirit at work.

(It went so well, I'm sheepish about all my earlier stress. It wasn't until later that I realized that in both side of my family we have public school teachers who are deeply opposed to our decision to home school. Jon and Ibuilt it up in our minds that the entire public school system in Maryland was hostile to home-schooling. I'm glad to know that some boogymen only exist in our imaginations!)

New Year's Resolution: To Learn How to Suck with Grace

alec vanderboom

In a few hours, I have my first home school review with the State of Maryland.

Ever since my husband and I heard the first nudging to "home" school for kindergarten some nine months ago, I've sat in dread of this review. All of my poor friends have spent months listening to me verbally roll my eyes at this meeting. I cried during the five hours it took me to assemble a portfolio of Hannah's work on Saturday night. Then on Sunday night, I feel into sin. I screamed at my kids for dragging the chocolate King Cake into their bedroom and picked a fight with my husband when he tried to ease my nervousness with hugs and words of comfort.

All of my sin is because I'm a baby. I don't want to go to a meeting with a State Official telling me that "I'm doing it wrong."

My Mother is an Education Professor. "Doing teaching right" has a far, far exaggerated place of importance in my mind. Home schooling has revealed a definite tendency towards perfectionism in my life.

There's no way to be "perfect" in this portfolio review and that lack of a standard is driving my pride crazy. I couldn't find a specific checklist on how to "pass" this review. Even the basic guidelines contained in my meeting letter such as, "make a list of your textbooks," is problematic for me.

As an unschooler, we don't use textbooks. We don't have worksheets. For my Science Class, I'm bringing a Audubon Magazine article about Venus Fly Traps because that what we do for science class. I read a fun article about endangered carnivorous plants and then we all jump around pretending to eat flies with our arms and make up theories as to why the Venus Fly Traps are losing their populations in North Carolina.

I don't know how this is going to go over with my Portfolio Reviewer. It might go over well, but it might totally miss the mark especially since, I tend not to be the best "recorder" of all of our spontaneous fun science conversations.

Besides, kindergarten isn't really supposed to be about unit studies on carnivorous plants. It's supposed to be about learning how to count. Somehow, we've gotten stalled on anything past the number 9.

My daughter, Hannah, doesn't get the whole "number placement" thing. She doesn't see any pattern yet from 0-9, and 10-19, or 20-29.

I've got the sweet Decimal Street from Math-u-See with the tiny green house for the ones and the blue apartment building for the 10s and the red castle for the 100s. Yet Hannah doesn't get the rule that only nine people can fit into the "ones" house and then when another friend comes to stay they all have to move into the 10 place and leave the ones place empty with a giant zero.

Hannah does like math rules. She thinks that if a friend is coming to stay, they can all hang out in the green "one" house. "The green family doesn't need to move into a new house, Mom! The little girl isn't coming to stay. She doesn't need a new bed. The little friend is just coming to play for a few hours!"

Hannah likes to do math Hannah's way.

"You do math your way, I'll do it my way." That statement has been repeated often during this semester. Curiously, the lovely teacher on Math-U-See does not have any guidelines for the great "why do we all have to count the same way at the same time?" going on in my kindergartner's head.

We've stayed stuck on the parallel play during math time for a few months now. As a result, our portfolio has pages and pages of Number Street, with detailed drawings and my cut-out pictures of "numbers of Popsicles" needed for the ice cream truck. Hannah has people, horses and flowers numbering 11, 13, and 27 hanging out all in the "ones" house. Whether this meets the criteria of "regular and thorough home instruction for the State of Maryland" is anyone guess.

The State Reviewer might tell me to give up and start giving out math worksheets. Oh, and please give more tests and informal assessments. (I'm really bad at the recording and testing where we currently are thing.)

Also, I'm pretty sure we flunked the physical education section. Because in hind sight, I did a "here's the playground go play," which is more recess than a "progressive program in cardiovascular fitness" which counts a P.E. Honestly, we didn't even get recess nearly enough because I'm a bookworm who hates the cold. Bundling up the 18 month old, finding the missing gloves and hats, and locating that one missing shoe never seems worth the effort. So mostly we stay inside and let the kids jump around on our couch and swing on the door handles. I'm not sure this honestly qualifies as "gymnastics."

Teaching is humbling work, because it's too vast to do well or perfectly. It's a lot like parenting or being a spouse.

My priest has told me to "do the work the best you can and hand the rest over to God." Today is the day to test my virtue of obedience.

Today is the day I listen to some criticism, not as "punishment" but as a source of direction in my life.

I would never choose to be vulnerable like this to someone in authority such as in this home school meeting. But humiliation often leads to the virtue of humility.

Blessed be the name of the Lord. He leads his servants in the ways they need to go and not where they want to go.

Upside Down Kindergarten

alec vanderboom

One of the crazy outcomes of having a feminist mother with a PhD in Education, is that while I still have no idea how to treat most carpet stains, Bloom's hiearchy of knowledge is firmly entrenched in my mind. Bloom's theory is that children acquire information in set stages: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. You can imagine these six stages lined up in a pyramid. Children are supposed to have the longest "base" of knowledge. Meanwhile, children are supposed to use their "evalation" skills the least since that sits on the tip of the pryamid.

Imagine my shock to read that teaching theory for "talented & gifted" children is the exact opposite. The information pyramid is turned upside. Talented kids are supposed to spend the MOST time on evaluation skills and the least on knowledge.

That's a pretty radical theory. It's the opposite of most Kindergarten classrooms. Kindergarten, at least in my area, spends most of the day learning concert knowledge such as phonics, handwriting, or counting sequence. Almost no time is spent creating things, asking deep "why" questions, or simply daydreaming.

My own personal Abby Benjamin theory is that ALL children learn in an inverted pyramid. For example, my daughter Maria is 15 months old. She barely has any concrete knowledge. She spends her entire day in the evaluation stage of learning. She picks up a block, puts it into her mouth and takes it out. She's not mastering "knowledge" which is defined as acquisition of facts. She's making judgement decision like "does this taste good?" "is this comfortable in my hand?" "do I like this or not like this?"

My three year old has an interesting evaluation of the American Revolution. He's decided, without much context, that "I like the Redcoats." Where does this evulation come from? Does he like the red uniform over the blue of the Contential Army? I don't know. I do know that it is really, really fun for me to explore the facts of the Revolutionary War from an entirely different prospective --pro-British

You won't believe how much the content of the facts change when you approach history from the ""wrong side." My Tory son is going to acquire a different slant of knowedge about the Boston Tea Party than his older sister. Yet this is so neat. This is part of the individual fingerprint of learning.

My twin collorlary is that the "best practices" for gifted and talented students are actually best for all students. Our society made a distinction to radically change the content of education for a few "gifted" students. Those select few are the only ones worthy of being trusted to direct their own education. Society also recognizes that it would be an incredible "waste of potential" if the wrong fit in school curriculum causes a student to disconnect from his own innate sense of wonder. I think the tragety of an impaired and dulled intellect are far more common that we currently recognize.

For now, I'm happy to find my unschooling approach neatly translated into educational lingo on this site.

Portfolio Review-Or Liking The Thing You Thought You'd Hate

alec vanderboom

As further proof that God uses all things for his glory, I have now become the biggest fan of the "portfolio review." For those of you blessed to have either "school in a box" or a State that doesn't micromanage your home education curriculum, this sounds odd.

I live in the 16th largest school district in the United States (Montgomery County) in a state with some of the most stringent home schooling laws.

The way home education works in Maryland is that you choose one of three options. Option A, is the portfolio review, where you meet up with a public school administrator twice a year for a review of your child's school work. If the work is not up to par, you get a 30 day remedial period. If the child hasn't made satisfactory progress, you kid is immediately placed in public school.

Option B is to go with a special correspondence school (only two are licensed in the whole State.) Option C is to go with an approved home education curriculum. Under Option B and C, the local school board has nothing to do with you beyond filing a piece of paper. All assessment of your child's progress is left to be completely monitored by the home ed school of your choice.

Everyone who home schools in my parish assured me that it was "impossible" not to go with Mother Seaton, the only Catholic Home School curriculum approved by the State of Maryland. (Which I find hysterically ironic that there are multiple Amish, Mennonite and Free-Will Baptist curriculum available, but only one Catholic curriculum in the state where American Catholic Church began!) Even with the Mother Seaton set, I was strongly advised to sign up for the Home-School Defense Fund and remain on guard for unmerited reports by concerned neighbors to Children's Services.

Going the easy way is never really an option with the Benjamin Family. We prayed and prayed and prayed. It seemed pretty clear that while Mother Seaton has beautifully educated one of my favorite people (Maria from Ordinary Time), it isn't a good option for Hannah. As my husband blithely said "you can either have the daily stress of trying to enforce a curriculum that doesn't fit, or you can have two days of great stress as you meet with the school board each semester." We opted finally for the two days of great stress.

So now I'm trying to figure out what goes into the portfolio? Which is a much larger questions "how do you document unschooling?" and "if you measure something does it change the thing you are trying to measure?"

I'm going to print out the state kindergarten guidelines for Math, Language Arts, Science and Social Studies. I'm just going to file them in the back of the portfolio and check them off as we go along. I also invested in a Teacher Planner Book. There's no grand plan. Rather I just stop every so often and write down what we did that day.
The benefit is that while, I think that we spend most of our day simply "hanging out together", in hindsight there is quite a lot of learning activities going on that would make even the most stringent public administrator proud. That hungry crocodile game just appeared during one quiet nap time.

The benefit of the portfolio review is that it forces me to better reflect and record what happens each day. I'm please to realize in a concert way that what we call "living life" has other official educational names. For example, Hannah's home-made comic book is also called "mastering the concept of return sweep." I feel like I've moved from "Teacher" with a capital T, to 'scribe' with a small s. In my heart, I know this is where God means for me to be.

One of the most complicated thing I had to do as a swimming instructor was teach a kid how to float. There are lots of guidelines in the Red Cross handbook about how to teach the arm movements in free-style or the breaststroke kick. There is no strategy for teaching a kid how to float. Yet, all of swimming depends on that basic building block.

The problem is learning how to float is counter-intuitive. You need to completely relax in the water and "trust" that this "dangerous" substance will hold you.

To teach the youngest swimming class, I didn't focus much on this one critical skill which determined whether the kid passed or needed to repeat the class. Instead, I focused on gaining confidence in the water. I played crazy splashing games. We pretended the water was a boa constrictor that ate us slowly, first the feet, then the knees, etc.

On the last few classes, I held the kids in the water on their backs. My only direction was "put your ears in the water." I held then with both hands until I could feel the tension in their bodies relax. I asked their permission first to drop on hand, and finally simply hold up their bodies with the pressure from one finger. The way I taught kids how to go from "non-swimmers to swimmers" wasn't written in any textbook. I simply hung out patiently in the water with them for 8 weeks. When they were ready to try to float on their own, they told me. I was there to catch them if they sunk. In a class which was supposed to have a 35 percent average failure rate, I never, ever had a kid not be able to easily pass the critical floating test by last day of class.

I hope that this "hang out in the water thing" will work in a similar way for reading and math. As my kid's teacher, I naturally go for the more unstructured "wait, follow the kid's lead" approach. I'm so blessed to have this extra time together. I love hearing Alex theorize that the "red ball" will go faster in our gravity experiment because "red is the fastest color."

I'll leave you some notes on my blog from our journey this year. It's a little intimidating in the beginning, but we are already blessed with beautiful views.

Math Games

alec vanderboom

Here's a fun way to explain "greater than" and "less than".

Take a small piece of paper. Write a "<" sign. Embellish with crocodile teeth. On the opposite side write a "=" sign.

Play Go Fish (or any other card game).

Have you kid deal the cards, counting out the right number for each person.
After the first match, explain that this is a special kind of hungry crocodile. His hungry mouth always wants to point to the person with the most pairs of matching cards.

Change the crocodile around whenever another player has more in his match pile.

Whenever there is a tie, flip the paper over to show "equals."

Hannah loved this visual way of keeping score. The whole greater, less than, and equal concept made complete sense to her in this circumstance. I was surprised to discover the >, <, = symbols are listed as 3rd Grade math.

As an added bonus, this concept cut down on her innate competition. She didn't freak out that I got a match as much as soon as she figured out that a score of 4 matches Mom to 6 matches kid, didn't flip the hungry crocodile around. (Did I mention that my kid easily beats me in Go Fish?)

Just another day messing around ias an unschooler. I love these type of "happy accidents."

Home School Experiment- Day Two

alec vanderboom

Despite lesson prep, this morning was a bit of a fiasco. Turns out Alex is the troublesome one in homeschooling, not baby Maria. He wants to be included, but doesn't stay on task as long as Hannah. When I give him a more entertaining & age appropriate task (like cutting out Spiderman tattoos) that distracts Hannah from her work.

I took all three kids to the "big" library in the afternoon. Hannah got her first library card, what a treat!

Home School Experiment- Day One

alec vanderboom

Hannah is due to start Kindergarten this September. (My lovely state has lowered the compulsory school attendance act to age five.) Since I can’t find a kindergarten program that I like, I’ve decided to start my own. I’m pretty nervous about the whole managing the three kids ages 4, 3, and 7 months. Between the round the clock teething nursing sessions, the 2 AM nightmares, the wet sheets, and the ever present “MOM I NEED YOU NOW” moments, there have been plenty of mornings that Mia Bean & I don’t get out of our pajamas until lunch.

I’ve spent the last two weeks freaked out that kindergarten was a no-win situation. It was impossible to imagine sending my athletic eldest daughter to a full day kindergarten (either Catholic or public) where she would be forced to sit at a desk for seven hours a day filling out worksheets. Whatever happened to “playing in the water table”, “doing show-and-tell” or even “taking naps”? What happened to “kindergarten”? You know, kids in an imaginary garden messing around with seeds grown in eggshells and reading books on carpet squares? (At least in my D.C. suburbia, those activities have been swept away by hourly phonics drills required for high stakes testing.)

As for the “answer”- home-schooling seemed even more terrifying than parent-teacher conferences where my kid may well receive multiple demerits for tapping her toes too loudly during math drills. I’ve got a knack for teaching. Trying to keep the house from being over-run with laundry, maintaining consistent discipline without loosing my temper, surviving sleepless nights with baby number three- those mothering matters are another story all together. I worried that adding “primary school teacher” to the mix would topple over the fragile peace on the home-front that I’ve constructed over the past two years.

After lots of fruitless worry, my husband came out with the obvious answer. “If you are so worried about making it work in September, when everyone, including the state of Maryland is looking over your shoulder, why not start practicing now?”

This Monday was day one of the experiment. I started the school day at 10:00 AM. Hannah enjoyed working on her new Kumon tracing workbook. I realize that I need to create a seperate lesson plan for Alex (age 3). After just twenty minutes, we took a break. We had lunch with Daddy. My major failure of the day was completely losing my temper while attempting to get three little ones into appropriate snow gear “for recess.” At one point, after apologizing four times to everyone, promising that I wouldn’t raise my voice anymore, and then promptly screaming when yet another kid did the opposite of my instructions- I just knelt on the floor in my bedroom and cried for Jesus to help me.

Somehow we all got outside in one piece. The day got radically better when Hannah found a pine tree with miniature pinecones. I conducted an impromptu science lesson. We got enough samples to make an identification using the Audubon Society Tree Guide. That prompted a detailed conversation of “conifers” versus “deciduous” trees. I had special reading time with each child. Alex and I mastered a silly song about dreaming of eating a marshmallow and waking to find that you’ve eaten your pillow before he went down for a nap. Hannah and I had another private handwriting session. She’s a lefty. I was so inspired to learn more about her special writing challenges that I called my sister to get more handwriting advice for left-handed people. By three, Alex was up from his nap. I let them watch Spiderman while I got dinner on the table.

Summary: For the most part, teaching is the “fun” part of parenting. I really enjoy getting one-on-one time with each kid. At one point, Alex and Hannah were happily playing in their room. I just sat down and played a silly game with Maria. (Usually, I’m trying to get housework done.) I like tailoring our program so minutely. We’re extremely “slow” in phonics and handwriting; extremely advance in science and social studies. Bad parts: the recess meltdown was pretty ugly. It’s hard to be needed in three places at once. I have no idea how to eventually fold in some housework into our routine.

I did have one really cool event. At the end of reading “Henny Penny”, I had to explain that the meaning behind "no one ever say Henny Penny again" meant that the fox ate Henny. This understandably upset Hannah and Alex. “Why did the fox eat her?” they asked with trembling lips. I thought for a moment. I started talking about the food chain. Then I got inspired to teach “the truth.” I talked about how when Jesus comes back creation will be healed and “the lion will lay down with the lamb.” That answer was infinitely more satisfying to all of us. I think that I’ll have a few more of these moments over time where I can pull our Catholic faith into traditionally secular academic subjects. That’s something that still feels wonderful and exciting as a recent convert to the true faith.

Homeschooling Part II

alec vanderboom

I apologize for the light posting this past week. My mind is eaten up with anxiety over this home-schooling decision. (I’ve even broken out with acne from all the stress for the first time in eight years.)

I’ve always been a relatively cautious one--worried about coloring outside the lines. Choosing to home-school, especially with my background of four generations of public school teachers, feels like coloring outside of the established lines.

On Saturday I went to confession to clean up some of the sins I committed during the decision-making process. In the middle of my confession, my beloved priest said a) home-schooling is good for families that can do it, b) education of children is the decision of the parents BUT c) I need to be realistic about how much time I’ll be able to devote to home-schooling with a 1 1/2 year and a 3 year old in the house. “How fair will home-schooling this be to your 5 year old?” he asked. “Why don’t you just come to our January open house and check out our good parish school? Well, that’s all I’m going to say about that” and he turned the discussion to my next problem.

I came out of that confessional with such anguish. I truly believe that the advice given by priests in the confessional is directly inspired by Jesus. (I could have saved myself and my husband much anguish in our 2006 job search by taking my confessors advice “Don’t be so focused on New York City, be open to living in other cities” a bit more seriously—instead of immediately dismissing it as “that poor priest doesn’t understand artists!”) So most of Saturday night was miserable as I kept turning around my priest's words. Am I being unrealistic about the time commitment involved in teaching my kindergartener myself while trying to mother two other young children? Am I truly following God’s will?

At the same time, Hannah’s academic achievement is honestly one thing I’m not worried about if we home-school. We are already working on “education” and “socialization” and “religion” sixteen hours a day around here. Even if she only gets my undivided attention for instructing proper letter formation for twenty minutes a day, won’t she still come out ahead? Or as my blessed, calm friend Maria states: “How does competing for attention with two siblings from one mother so much worse than competing for attention with twenty-nine classmates for the attention of one teacher?”

Whatever your position on home instruction, please pray for my husband and me to have wise discernment on our children’s education this week. Thank you.

A Solid Foundation-Homeschooling Part I

alec vanderboom

When I first saw Hannah, I didn't have my glasses on. My newborn daughter was a blurry face wrapped up like a burrito in a pink and blue striped hospital blanket held aloft by her pediatrician. I was still being stitched up after an emergency c-section and my glasses were in my husband’s shirt pocket. I squinted my eyes to see Hannah better. I could make out that her eyes were blue: vivid blue eyes in an inscrutable expression. “This is my daughter, I have a daughter” I kept repeating to myself. It was days before those words felt real to me.

Despite all the horror stories of pregnancy heartburn and long labor, I found the emotional journey of becoming a mother much more arduous than any physical aspect of conception, pregnancy or birth. There are these tiny milestones that all add up to the sudden realization that another life is dependant upon you: the first nursing session, the first night of rooming in, fixing the car seat straps, carrying the baby up a flight of stars, figuring out how to slip a sleeping baby peacefully onto the bed, the first time you change her diaper alone in a public restroom. There were so many, many first moments.

At first it seems overwhelming. Then you start to do a task slowly, and clumsily. Then you start to make up some of your own short cuts. Before you know it, you feel like a pro- at least for a few moments before suddenly the game changes and your back at square one again (only this time dragging even more kids behind you.)

I’m at a new stage in my mothering. After one and a half years of worrying, after four months of solid praying—my husband and I have made a plan to home-school our daughter for kindergarten. I’m more than a little intimidated.

My state happens to have strict home-schooling guidelines complete with a twice-yearly portfolio review. After a few nights of not being able to sleep because I was excited about planning the curriculum (one whole week devoted to “ducks”- what they eat, where they live and my favorite Boston story “Make Way for Ducklings) I started freaking out about meeting all these impossible school standards. “How am I going get our plan approved?” I asked my husband at 3:30 AM. My beloved spouse gently reminded me that I did in fact practice Education law for four years. Moreover, as the daughter of an Education professor I grew up breathing Educational Theory in the womb, if not precisely studying it in college.

Next January, I hope my nervousness over home schooling seems as odd as remembering my panic of diapering a newborn in public for the first time. Change always starts with a deep breath and a few wobbling first steps.

But I Want Her To Go To Yale

alec vanderboom

Yesterday was the open house for the parish Catholic school we'd like Hannah to attend next year. This issue of finding the "right fit" in a major Metropolitan City has my entrails tied in knots. My parents and my husband's parents simply sent us to the local public school up the street. The choices for our kids are overwhelming without adding clarity to the "right fit" part.

We'd hyped the benefits of this school for so long, the actual Open House ended up as a bit of a disappointment for me. After getting all three kids pinned into their car seats, I asked my husband "So list the good points you noticed and then the bad points."

"What bad points?" he answered. After a brief discussion we arrived at the parking lot of Jon's work. As we traded places in the drivers seat, he leaned over to kiss me. Then he said brightly "there's nothing much to worry about, after all we don't want to send Hannah to Yale!"

My stomach turned. "But I want her to go to Yale."

I have such lovely memories of Yale: the neat quadrangles, the fantastic college sailing course, the Yalies I debated against in APDA rounds.

There is a saying going around homeschooling sites which says "educating for heaven not Harvard." I have issues with this. My concerns against Harvard are the amount of TAs that teach undergraduate courses, not a bias against ivy league education in general. I like Yale, and Williams, and Swarthmore, and of course, Smith. I'd be happy if Hannah chose to stick closer to home at Catholic University, or skip college all together to pursue a dance career in NYC at age 18. College is her choice. My role is to insure that her talents have time to develop into a solid foundation for wherever God's plans will take her. Still, I have issues with the assumption that the path of a serious scholar is not also a path to Heaven.

Catholicism is the one religion that fully engages both my intellect and my heart. I'm invited to ponder the most difficult theological thinkers and also enter happily into mysteries which are beyond my understanding. I personally need both. I need the challenging Catholic writers, St. John of the Cross, and the tangible kindness of my Catholic choir director. (My cure for the lonely futility of the Catholic housewife last Friday was to engage in a literary criticism of "On the Road.") I can't imagine my life without my finely tuned love of reading. That type of love is less likely to be inspired by hanging out in kindergarten with "leap frog" learning stations.

I'm sure this present dilemma of kindergarten; public, French immersion, Catholic, or homeschooling, will resolve itself by February. My discomfort with the "anti-intellectualism" in some Catholic circles will remain.

Such is the lot of a girl in the middle of the working mom's cultural debate. A mother with a huge educational loan debt who is still happy that her "useless" graduate school education enables her to cheerfully stay-home and serve as the primary teacher for three small souls.

My Homeschooling Philosphy

alec vanderboom

I'm in year two of homeschooling preschool with a 4 year old and 3 year old. It's somewhat embarrassing to call myself a "homeschooler." After months of obsessive reading, the philosophy that I've finally hit upon involves long periods of doing nothing. I don't mean, I stock the home with interesting Montessori things and then let the child direct his own learning. I mean, I really do next to nothing. I live my regular life and occasionally throw in explanations using smaller words targeted for preschool ears.

I'm an artist. A good portion of my day involves messing around, thinking, reading, relaxing, cleaning, nursing, cooking new strange recipes, dancing with scarves to "Life is a Highway" with Hannah, figuring out how pistons run on steam trains with Lex, looking for missing Spiderman sneakers, napping and doing nothing. "Dilly-dallying" is what my mother called it. Me and the kids sort of hang around, shoot the breeze, and mess around with whatever strikes our fancy.

Although I have a reputation in my Mother's Rosary Group for being a "doer," since I frequently drag my kids to Smithsonian Museums, it's hard to explain that museum going is simply "dilly-dallying" in a different place. We hang out at the dino exhibit, then we eat some gummy dinosaurs at the cafeteria and make up crazy games about plant-eaters vs. meat-eaters. We're the only preschool set that regularly staked out the DaDa exhibit at the National Gallery, then we dip our toes in the nearby fountain. We like to watch Barney because he sings songs about "if all of the rain drops were lemon drops and gum drops." For the rest of the day we make up weirder and weirder candy concoctions until we become rivals to Willie Wonka.

So with the exception of some daily focus on learning the Catholic faith, "dilly-dallying" is pretty much how we fulfill the rest of our time. UNLESS, I have a skill set that I'm really focused on them learning. Learning how to share- was a big one that occupied almost all of last year. Man, I didn't just say "share", I brought out all of my conflict negotiation skills honed by years of being an attorney.

This year's vague focus is "learning how to count" and "learning how to read." Math-U-See and crazy car addition games makes the math part both fun and easy. I was totally stumped on reading part, however.

There's a strong current of dyslexia in my family. I was pretty worried that Hannah was headed down that path. (We had a surreal breakfast conversation when Hannah mentioned that Aunt Emily's fish was named after "the pig's friend." I had no idea what that meant until my two year old son finally said "her name is Scarlett, not Charlotte." I figured out that Hannah was talking about Charlotte's web, but Hannah couldn't ever figure out the sound difference between "sc" and "ch.")

Since then I've been searching the Internet, trying to come up with innovative phonic games. Guess what broke the ice? This totally bizarre PBS cartoon called "Super Why" The plot is so dumb, that Maria and I fold laundry whenever it comes on. Yet Hannah and Lex are transfixed. After two weeks of faithfully dropping everything to tune in at 2 PM, both kids start begging to learn their letters. I started the ten thousandth time with "A" makes the "ah" sound. Then Jon had a better idea, "Let's teach them handwriting?" "Handwriting?"

Now every night after dinner, my husband pulls out the chalk board. The kids pick up their magic eraser slates. Then for two letters a day the kids go over old fashion handwriting drills. The kind that we all did in 3rd grade. Both kids love it! My super kinetic learning daughter can make these perfect letters right off the bat.

We are only officially on the letter "D", but Hannah had a decoding breakthrough in the car today. "S T O P." Those are the letters on that sign, Mom. I explained that it spelled Stop. She was so excited. Now she helps me drive by noticing the letters in street names, the numbers in our big neighborhood highways, even the crossed out P in the no parking sign.

I can't tell you how exciting it was to drive around town with a four year old today who finally figured out that knowing her letters will make life easier, especially for exciting adult only tasks like driving a car.

Handwriting drills, dilly-dallying in the car with Mom, and PBS cartoons. This combination for literacy development is unlikely to receive a No Child Left Behind Grant. I'm still proud. I'm not trying to foster literacy in a nation, only one Benjamin child at a time.