Shaking it up: Poetry

Last week I took the girls out to a new coffee shop near us for tea and poetry.

Book - Zen Ties by Jon J Muth

Jon Muth’s Zen Ties is one of our favorite children’s books (a lovely, gentle story, beautiful paintings, and humor: what’s not to love?!) , and it happens that Stillwater’s young cousin, Koo, speaks in poetry. “Hi, Koo!” I brought it with us, and we read it over tea and croissants.

We spent half an hour writing our own haiku. First we each wrote one about the coffee shop. Then each of us wrote two words for the others which they had to use in their poems. (I got “candy” and “east” on the first round, and “San Pelligrino,” “Danger” and “Monkey” in the second. Hazards of being in a coffee shop, I guess.)

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I’m counting this for poetry, syllables (early grammar), and Lit.

Are you shaking things up during these last two months of school? If you’re not changing things around a little, do you need to?

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Growth v. Confidence

This has been a challenging year for us as a family, and as homeschoolers. I can’t share much of that here, but I want to reflect for a minute about one particular pitfall of homeschooling, and how I’m trying to work around it.

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My school experience as a kid was one of boredom. I spent years finishing my work before the rest of the class and having to sit quietly at my desk while other kids finished. When they “pioneered” a gifted-and-talented program at my school, it meant that after I finished the regular work, they would pull me out and give me more work. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe a few of us should have different work, or be able to work at our own pace.

That experience led me to design our homeschool to be a place where my kids could work at their own pace(s). When they master a concept, they move on to the next thing. The idea was not to “waste” any time sitting around being bored by repeating the same old information they’ve already mastered. On the other hand, if they need more time on a topic, we can spend as much time as they need before moving on.

We’ve been doing that for twirteen years now, and for the most part it has worked well. Most of our time is spent at the growing edge, or at the place where we’re all being stretched.  I have noticed one problem, though, and it’s this: living at the growing edge can be pretty uncomfortable. And tiring. Working at the growing edge doesn’t ever let you rest in a place of mastery, which builds confidence.

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There are several sources of confidence. One is internal, where the experience of repeated success causes us to trust our skills and our mastery of a subject or skill. The other is external, where we are able to see our mastery in comparison to others, or hear from others that we have mastered a subject. (Think: exams, teachers, certificates, races, performances, etc.)

While I hated the boredom of my own education, it was pretty great seeing that I was ahead of everyone else academically. That built my internal confidence. I had many teachers who gave me a lot of messages that built my confidence externally.

In our homeschool, my kids have very little opportunity to compare themselves academically to their peers. Instead, they compare themselves to one another, which leaves my younger children feeling lost as they compare themselves to a much-older, academically very gifted sibling. Our homeschool has effectively erased a major source of external confidence. On top of that, I have eliminated the sense of mastery that comes from lots of repetition by engineering a learning space in which we spend most of our time with new material.

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Where do I go from here?

We are trying to spend more time resting in mastery. As much as the repetition grates on me, I need my kids to see how much they know. This means different things for different kids- one needs more opportunities to perform. One needs opportunities to do things without an older sibling making suggestions over her shoulder. Another needs to spend more time reviewing material we’ve already done. They all need opportunities to compare their work to their own peers (instead of to their older siblings.)

What does the balance between growth and confidence look like for you? I’m looking for ideas here, friends, so please don’t be shy sharing in the comments.

Daybook: mid-March

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Outside my window: snow, but not enough to shovel. Just enough to make driving a pain. Last week our crocuses bloomed, and the tulips are getting taller. Sam pruned the roses earlier this month, so we can actually see the bulbs emerging.

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In the kitchen: kittens wolfing down their tuna. (I should used a cat metaphor there. Lioning? Cougaring? Ew, no. Wolfing will do.)

Sam went to the grocery store yesterday, so there’s a chance I’ll cook some food this week. Moriah made these lemon basil cookies, so in a pinch we can just eat those.

We can’t eat it, but my orchid rebloomed. This is the first time I’ve ever kept one alive long enough to bloom a second time. Hooray.

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In the school room: We’ve had a lot of performances. Willy Wonka (we are the proud parents of an Oompa Loompa) and High School Musical, Jr. were early in the week, and dance was this weekend. Whew. Everyone is beat.

During the plays, we had a lot of complaining about “being forced” to watch one’s siblings’ performances. Then afterwards, I asked them all what the difference between the performance and the dress rehearsal was. (Same stage, same cast, same costumes, same lines… but no audience.) We had a good discussion about the importance of the audience, and- thankfully- everyone came without complaining to the dance performance.

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I might be slightly biased, but I thought they were great.

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We all are ready for a break. The boys’ outside classes all have different spring breaks [they lose], but we are trying to embrace a lighter schedule. We took a few good walks [totally worth the whining] and are planning to see the Degas exhibit later this week.

In my shoes: I managed one run this week, and I love walking. I’ll take what I can get.

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On my reading shelf: I’m creeping through Deuteronomy, Hannah Coulter (Wendel Berry) and The Newcomers (Helen Thorpe.) I have a shortage of reading time right now.

Grateful: For the abundance of these days. For good conversations with my kids. For walks and crocuses and birds awing and hens laying eggs again. For all of it.

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Praying for: Mandy. Judy. Austen. Caregivers and new parents and those who grieve. Kids making college decisions (and their parents). Stillness within the storms.

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Calamity: You Have Dysentery

Fresh off the heels of winter break, I started in on Spring semester with new energy and a few new plans. I try not to overhaul everything, but I had a few changes to make:

  • make a few more field trips happen, especially with Phoebe and Moriah. (The boys online and college schedules make that more difficult for them.)
  • run longer distances regularly.
  • begin a more formal literature class with Owen and Moriah. I bought a few of Bravewriter’s Boomerang units to this end.

Our first field trip was to History Colorado, a museum in downtown Denver with some good hands-on exhibits on mining, small-town Colorado life in the early 20th Century, the displacement of Native Americans and the Sand Creek Massacre, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. They also were advertising an Oregon Trail IRL exhibit, which fit right in with our history studies (and our generally sick sense of humor.) Alas, the Oregon Trail IRL is a special event (this Saturday only, tickets must be purchased in advance, if you’re interested.)

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Several days later, I came down with the stomach flu. It wasn’t actually dysentery, but it was close. Enough said, though it certainly put a stop to my running (ha) and most of our worthwhile activities at home.

Once I recovered, we had another field trip, this one to the Colorado Symphony’s Time Travel concert for grades 3-8. It was outstanding (and not just because no one came down with dysentery afterwards.) They began with a full orchestra and then “traveled” back through time to the Baroque period, explaining what the orchestra looked like then. As they moved their way forward, the orchestra grew, and each change was explained by a commentator between the pieces. The whole concert was one hour- just the right length for a squirrely fourth grader (not that we know anyone like that) and included John Williams’s Sherzo for X-wings from The Force Awakens. It was altogether a great concert, and I highly recommend it. (There’s another concert on Feb 6- the link to buy tickets for homeschoolers is here.)

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Anyway, I wish you lots of great field trips that don’t end in drawing a Calamity! card. If you have one to recommend, please post it in the comments.

Snow books

It’s finally snowing here for our first day of winter break, and we’re going to pull out all our favorite snow books today. They are (in no particular order):

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The charm in Uri Shulevitz’s Snow is that Boy with Dog knows better than everyone else who tells him it’s not going to snow. The illustrations are fantastic, and the sparse prose is exactly right.

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Virginia Lee Burton’s classic, Katie and the Big Snow, is chock full of details. The only thing I change when I read it aloud is “The doctor couldn’t get her patient…”

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Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon perfectly captures the haunting silence of a snowy night.

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Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day was Phoebe’s favorite when she was little (and I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that I substituted her name in for the main character’s.)

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Jaqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley is the true story of Wilson Bentley, the man whose passion for natural beauty led him to photograph snowflakes. His work was amazing, and this children’s book about him is beautiful.

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I loved Carolyn Haywood’s Snowbound with Betsy growing up and dug an ancient copy up a few years ago. I still love it.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter haunts my dreams: the food running out, the Christmas box that couldn’t make it, the cutting for the train…

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Winter Holiday, the third book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, takes place on a frozen lake and is full of all the fun you imagine you’d have with like-minded kids and utter freedom.

I don’t think we’re going to have enough snow to give me time to read all of them today… but I’m going to give it a shot. What snow books am I missing?

Daybook: Mid-December

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Outside my window: dark. And cold, too, though it’s supposed to warm up enough for a comfortable run later. Whether I’ll have time is  different matter.

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In my shoes: I’ve been running at the end of the day again. Somehow, between the aforementioned darkness and cold, I can’t quite get myself in gear to run before our school day starts. Instead I’ve had a few beautiful sunset runs, one under the Supermoon (which connected me with a whole bunch of moon-runners on Instagram) and one where I saw an enormous owl, whom I managed not to scare away.

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In the kitchen: I’m in a cooking funk.  I write out meal plans but don’t want to go to the store, so when it comes to four o’clock and I drag myself back into the kitchen (which is invariably awash in piles of dishes and school books and bags and mail) I realize I don’t have some crucial ingredient.  Some weeks are like that, even in Australia.*

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When I went though my photos last week, I found that I had taken almost the exact same photo of this ornament 7 years ago. His name is Harry. He’s what I feel like every day at 4:30p.m., which is exactly why I need to run in the afternoon.

On my reading pile: We started our annual reading of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and we all sat around chuckling at the same jokes as we always do. I love that book. When I’m without children, I’m reading Lydia Reeder’s Dust Bowl Girls, which I mentioned over here on my book blog.

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In the school room: I realized a few weeks ago that we hadn’t been doing enough art.  My high schoolers were whining and complaining when we did it, so I’d been skipping it, but my youngers need a lot of art. So we’re back to sitting at the table while I read, at least once a week. The boys can opt out if they want, but I’m making it available. (More often than not, they join in, even though they’re too cool# for it.)

We’re doing our exams this week on history and literature. This involves narrations (e.g., drawing a comic, making an annotated diagram, writing a page, or asking 5 questions about the reading).

Also, it’s recital season. Last week we had two recitals (one piano, one piano and violin), and this week we have a concert and two Nutcracker performances. It must be December.

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Grateful for: great music teachers. My in-laws’ beautiful reminiscences of their dad last week. Xeljanz. Running. The upcoming release of my book, Lost Things.^

Praying for: Mandy, Judi, Lori, Christine, Bishop Gerry, Scott, Aimee, Austen. All those who are mourning lost loved ones more than ever at this time of year. Refugees and those who minister among them.

*No, I’m not in Australia. #No, it’s not humanly possible to be too cool for art. ^Coming out January 10, 2018.

Of invisible growth and winter blooms

As my oldest child is applying to colleges, I’m doing some heavy reflecting. Our time, which once stretched seemingly forever (I’m just talking about between dinner and bedtime, here) is now short. No matter how many times he comes home after he graduates, I will no longer be his primary educator. I wonder what I neglected to cover and what we spent too much time on and should have breezed over.

Many years ago, my friend Erin gave me a Christmas cactus. It was beautiful, covered in trailing red flowers. It was just the thing for my dull, hard winter. And then its blooms faded and fell.  I’ve been waiting for it to bloom ever since. We’ve moved homes twice in the intervening years. I’ve moved it around our houses, searching for the best light. Watering it faithfully. But nothing. Nary a bloom to be seen.

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There are lots of websites with instructions for how to force a Christmas cactus to flower. They recommend cool darkness and drought. For whatever reason, I never tried any of the tricks. I’ve just been watering it faithfully once a week for seven years and moving it from house to house.

There have been many seasons in our homeschooling where it seemed that there was nothing happening. Despite our faithful daily math and daily reading, progress was invisible, maybe even non-existent. I looked for short-cuts and magic curricula. Perhaps I needed to put the kids in a local school, where they would flourish. (Especially in February. Every February, the grass always looks greener at our local school.) My lofty goals and ideals crumbled into shards of I-wish and what-if.  What if he never gets this? I wish our days/school room/crafts/history lessons looked like the ones I saw on fb/pinterest/instagram.

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Last February, something looked different on my cactus. Almost imperceptibly, the tips of its fronds (leaves? arms?) turned red and then opened. It was blooming. I hadn’t done anything different: same windowsill, same weekly water ration, same morning sun. But all the invisible, internal work it had been doing burst forth in blossoms.

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I’m seeing the same phenomenon happening in my older children this year. Habits I used to have to enforce daily now happen without my reminding them (most of the time). Where I used to hear, “I’m bored,” now they say, “I need more time to finish what I’m working on.” It’s amazing, especially since I haven’t done anything different. It’s just their own invisible process finally producing fruit I can see.

Please help me remember this come February.