Saturday, October 30, 2010


Every year, my local homeschool email group has a conversation about Halloween. It's an all inclusive group with both religious conservatives and atheists, as well as everything in between, and for the most part, we all do a pretty good job of being respectful of each other. Mud slinging about beliefs and practices is pretty rare, but it has happened, and it was over holidays. On the one hand, it's made me leery of conversations about it, but on the other, I think hearing why other people do what they do helps to understand, even if you don't agree. For the most part, I respect other people's belief systems, even if I don't share them, and would never try to corrupt their families with my ways. But, as a family that does do Halloween, I thought I'd explain my view on it.

 Personally, I love celebrations and holidays of all kinds, Halloween included, and I usually try to go to at least a couple of Halloween parties each year. When else can I get my husband to wear a mask and cape in public? Seriously, for us, Halloween isn't about death or darkness. It's more about costumes and, I'll admit it... candy. I love making costumes, dressing up, and seeing the other creative ideas people come up with. I wish there were more occasions that involved costumes, in particular, I mean occasions where it is socially acceptable for grown ups to dress up like Wonder Woman. It's a whole lot of fun in itself.
I once knew a woman who would have an all ages family Halloween party each year where costumes were mandatory for everyone. If you showed up without a costume, the little kids would make you one from their dress up box. Most people chose to arrive already in costume, and it was great to see all that creativity, especially amongst adults who are normally confined to more practical attire.

As for the candy, I know some people feel that there are inherent dangers in food from strangers, but my kids are smart enough to know that Trick or Treating is not the same as begging door to door or dumpster diving. I've never actually felt the need to have the candy X-rayed. Anything with a wrapper that is torn goes in the trash, not so much because I'm worried about poison, but because I gross out on germs. I am actually more concerned with the nasty artificial food dyes and chemical ingredients that the manufacturers purposely put in cheap candy than with potential foul play. For the most part, I just try to get my family to ditch the mystery import candy, and concentrate on the name brand chocolates we like. I miss the days when my kids were little and I could eat most of their chocolate while they were sleeping, and they would never even notice it was gone. Now, they keep a close eye and count.

With holidays, and pretty much everything in life, we try to emphasize what is important to us. We don't have a whole lot of meaning for Halloween itself, other than a time to celebrate as the days get colder and darker. We don't actually do the trick aspect of the holiday- we save that for April Fools Day.

I'm not so much concerned with or afraid of dark roots or pagan origins because those aren't what our tradition is about for us. We pretty much just dress up, eat sweets and have fun. I'm OK with that, and I think God is too, but I know just the name "Halloween" scares a lot of people. I know some churches don't celebrate Halloween, but have a Harvest Festival, that looks an awful lot like it with costumes and candy. Our church has a neighborhood Halloween party that is one of it's most popular events each year. Yes, biscotti and cheese sticks shaped like fingers are gross, but the kids like the icky fun.

Regarding death, we don't celebrate it, but we do usually set aside some time to remember and honor our dead loved ones on November 1st- Dia de los Muertos. When the weather cooperates, we like having a graveside picnic and sharing our favorite stories that help us remember. It's really far from morbid, but more of a celebration of a life that was. It's not about ghosts or spirits to us, just a chance to keep their memory alive, and it's a day I cherish each year. We tell stories about great grandparents my kids barely knew and dogs they knew and loved well. I love taking the time to share these people and these stories with my kids so they will grow up knowing and remembering them, and maybe they will even share them with their children.

So we've taken these days and just made them in to what works for our family. No one can choose what a tradition is about for anyone else- but that's what the next few days are about for us- creativity, laughter, fun, and remembering.

What celebrations or traditions does your family keep during this time of year? I'd love to hear about them.

Whether you celebrate this fall, or not, I hope you enjoy the season and your families.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thanks for the Well Intentioned Dream Squelching

Lately, I've been in the mood to dream, and my kids are dreaming right alongside me. I've always been a bit of a dreamer- sometimes it's unrealistic, and sometimes things don't work out, but in general I'm happier when I have active dreams than when I don't.

The latest dream or hare brained scheme, depending on how you look at it, involves attempting to visit all 50 states in the next 5 years. Phase 1 would probably be a car camping trip across the southwest states. My kids have been having a great time researching, plotting on maps, taking notes and looking at websites for all the amazing National Parks on the way. Girl Child has started a notebook to collect our research in, and Boy Child has started a change collecting jar to help with gas money. I've started talking to friends who live along the way that we'd like to visit. Of course, we'll have to come up with a lot more than loose change to pay for it, and there are plenty of logistics that I haven't yet worked out, but it's been exciting and fun to dream and scheme together. But, there are always people who will rain on a happy parade, even if they don't really mean to.

A very loving relative was just hanging out with my kids the other day, and when they mentioned the dream, I was surprised to hear the downer of a response. Instead of excitement, she told them that we shouldn't go, but to just wait, that they could go when they were older, even suggesting that they could always travel when they retired. Well, there are lots of reasons I can think of not to wait. Life is short, and time has a way of passing you by. My kids will grow and eventually leave the nest, so it looks to me like the time for family trips is now. I hope they do want to travel when they are older too, but there is a lot of world to see. I doubt they'll run out places to go. And seriously, they are 10 and 12 years old, and they should be thinking about deferring dreams until retirement? For goodness sakes, they are kids and they should be dreaming BIG!

I was not there during this exchange, but the kids said she suggested they tell me they didn't really want to go because I was only really wanting to do it for them, and if they told me they'd rather save up for something practical, we could do that instead. Her practical suggestions were indeed practical, and yes they were things that would make life nicer, but when I am old and on my death bed, I don't think I'd be fondly remembering the new water tank I once bought. I do think I'd remember a cross country adventure with my kids. Plus, trying to talk kids in to trying to talk me out of something sounds a little manipulative.

The last card pulled was the safety card. "You could get mugged." Well, that's true, but I could get mugged every time I go downtown or to the grocery store or park. I go to big cities in my state, why am I in more danger in another state? Are National Parks and Landmarks really so dangerous? The biggest safety concern I have is the car breaking down, which would of course be a huge bummer, but I have AAA and I'd just have to deal with it- just like I would have to if it happened in my own state. Besides, if we listened to the "wait till you're all retired" argument this same person gave, we'd all be too old and frail to run away or fight off all the scary bad guys.

Now, I know this person, and I know she loves my family. I am sure she meant well, but still... Thanks for the well intentioned dream squelching. Thankfully, my kids were not so easily swayed, and didn't just let go of their dreams. When I asked them what they thought about it, they said "No way, we want to go!" Plus, they know me well enough to know that I want to go to too. Like I said, we don't have all the logistics worked out, but we are having fun dreaming together, and I get a tad bummed at the squelching of dreams, mine or my kids.

Yes, having dreams means taking risks, and there could be disappointment if things don't work out. But, what is the alternative? A life with no dreams? Is that really what I should be encouraging in my kids? Just chugging along enduring a boring life with no dreams, well, I think that sounds like it could be pretty miserable. I think I'd rather take the chances on dreams.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Better Than I Thought

When we decided to try homeschooling through a charter school this year, I'll admit, I was a little on the skeptical side. I already knew that homeschooling works well for us, homeschooling our way, that is. I was a bit leery of having an administration that would try to squelch our style and squeeze us into a school at home box. I looked around a lot and asked a lot of questions before making a choice, but it still felt a little like sailing into un-chartered waters for my family.

Well, we're about a month into it, and it really hasn't been too bad. In fact, it's been than I thought. I'm a big fan of lists, and looking at the pros and cons, and so far, we are in the positive. The biggest benefit is that Girl Child is getting to take two dance classes and will get to perform at a fabulous old theater this winter. Boy Child elected to get his PE at a health club where we can play tennis, racquetball, basketball, and swim, so we all get to play. Next best are all the goodies we have access to. We're making very good use of the lending library of books and videos, and have been able to get our hands on things like the 39 Clues book 10 and the latest Artemis Fowl book much sooner than we could through our public library. Just about every time we've seen our facilitator, we've been showered with boxes of fun stuff to open- science kits, microscope slides, art supplies, books- it's like a birthday without the aging part.

One funny thing happened when I came home late one evening with some boxes I had picked up from our facilitator that day. Boy Child had been with his father that afternoon and evening, and hopped out of bed when he heard me drive up. Of course, both kids were so excited to open the packages, and see what had arrived, and of course, I let them. When Boy Child saw his new Scholastic Success workbook, he immediately asked if he could do a page of graphs right then. I had to laugh out loud that a child of mine would be so excited to do a workbook page at 10:00 at night. What was I going to say? No? So, he happily did a few pages, and I sent him off to bed excited for all the fun things the next day would bring.

The down side of the charter school arrangement is not really that much of a downer either. The kids took their online beginning of the year tests, and while they didn't enjoy them (there was some near tears and hair pulling,) in the end, they actually did pretty well. In fact, Girl Child tested in the 98th percentile of the whole nation in Language Arts! This is a  child who has never really had much formal curriculum in that area, so we were feeling pretty happy with that. In fact, she had asked me a few weeks prior if I thought she should start having weekly spelling lists. She is an excellent reader and a strong writer, so I didn't really think she needed it at the time, but now I know she is fine without it, and best of all, so does she.

I also wondered how annoying it would be to produce samples of my childrens' work, but so far, that hasn't been much of a problem either. They produce all kinds of things- the hardest part has been choosing what to turn in and how to present it.

So it looks like it's so far, so good for us with this leg of our homeschooling journey. I'm feeling much more at peace with my decision as I am seeing some real benefits for my kids. Besides the lessons and the fun stuff we now have access to, they are also experiencing an important life lesson. You usually have to do some work to get what you want in life, and some of that work may not be your favorite thing in the world. It's all about balance, and as long as the benefit of what you're getting overall is worth it to you for the time and energy you put into it, then you're probably on the right road. If the balance shifts and it no longer seems worth it, then maybe it's time to re-evaluate your course. Right now, I'm happy to say we're feeling like we're on a pretty good path for our family.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Play, Play, Play All Day

In the last month or so, I've met quite a few new people through my job, and when they find out that I homeschool my kids, the responses have pretty much always been positive- which I very much appreciate. It is never any fun being interrogated by people about personal decisions you've thought long and hard about. While I've had this happen before, my new co-workers have generally been affirmative in their comments. Some actually seem interested in the idea of homeschooling- or at least they do a good job of concealing it if they think we are freakish and weird.

The conversation almost always includes "What do they do when you work?" though, which is understandable since I usually see these people at work in the middle of a work / school day. Most of the time, I think they are a little baffled at the idea of homeschooling if I am not at home all the time. I only work part time, some of the hours are at home, and some are evenings and weekends, so I'm not really away that often, and we have a great support team of family and friends who step in during those times. I also try to schedule my work when my kids are in their art, drama or dance classes. But, I think many people associate homeschooling to mean that kids only learn at home and from their mom.

Sometimes I try to explain my whole life learning philosophy- how learning happens all the time in all kinds of ways, that I work alternative hours, and that we also do "educational" things on alternative hours. Sometimes, I'll mention that it really doesn't take a full day to complete bookwork in a home setting, or I'll tell them about all the independent ways the kids learn on their own. Sometimes, I'm not sure if they are asking what we do about school or just what I do with my kids, and I'll just tell them what my kids are doing that day.

The last time this happened, I said that my kids were spending the day with their grandmother who was taking them horseback riding with a friend, shopping and out to lunch, and then to the homeschool skate day. I realized in hindsight that it kind of sounds like all my kids do is play all day. I think a lot of people have this perception of us though, and to be honest, my kids probably do get in more play than many I guess. But, they also do a lot of amazing things, some of which are even academic. It does take some work on my part to keep the academic bit free flowing and fun, but it's so worth it. They read for hours on end without being prompted. They draw, paint, build and create things. They write for their own pleasure and for contests creating magazines, books, and posters. They do have some workbooks, but they also have lessons on DVDs and the computer. They also know how to cook and shop, tend for animals and clean up a house. What they don't do is hate reading or writing or learning. They love them all, and why? Because nobody is cramming it down their throats, so it's still fun.

Recently, after spending an afternoon playing cards with their great-grandmother, Boy Child told me how much fun he had. How many 10 year kids actually spend hours at a time willingly interacting with an 80+ year old? And how many would have fun with it? Personally, I think that time was much better spent with great grandma than it would have been doing worksheets. The worksheets aren't going anywhere, but you don't always have your elders around to learn from.

I think my kids can learn as much by staying up late to watch a documentary on 70 year old tightrope walkers in Armenia  as they do with a textbook during "school hours." Museums, field trips and all the fun activities that are "extras" in school are the basis for us. We do a little workbook stuff too, but it's the extra, not the basis. Sketching trees or Poke'mon while listening to good books, exploring the creek with our goats, making fresh bread and soup, or building yet another contraption all look like play, but are also all valid learning experiences.

I know there are people who think kids will grow up illiterate and obnoxious if they are not forced to do hours of pointless busy work. Some people seem to get really offended or even angry at the thought of so much freedom and fun. I can't say what would work for everyone, but I do know what I'm seeing in my house. My kids are well-read, well-rounded and pleasant individuals, and they are quite happy as well. I know I would not appreciate hours of meaningless tasks at a job, so why would I expect my kids to endure it? I want real work that I enjoy and that has meaning, and that is what I try to give my kids too. Of course, we all have to do some things we don't want to do when we don't want to them- that's life and we can deal with it. But just because some drudgery is a part of life, I have no desire for it to be the majority of our lives.

So, yes, we purposefully play an awful lot, and we have lots of fun while learning. We're enjoying it so much, that I highly recommend giving it a try.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Same Direction / New Path

As this last summer came to a close, my kids and I went through a few weeks of deliberate and intense scrutinizing of our plans for the upcoming "school year." We're all happy with our free flowing and flexible homeschooling lifestyle, and none of wanted to change that. We've been homeschooling independently through our own private school for the last few years, and we have loved, loved, LOVED that freedom. I love being in charge, and letting my kids follow their passions. They love being able to go at their own paces, and they certainly seem to be thriving. But,this year we decided to try a little change.

As we were making our big list of things the kids were interested in and wanted to do this year, we noticed something. There were a couple of potential activities that my kids wanted very much that just were not in the budget. Mainly, my Girl Child wanted to take more dance classes. She is an amazing tap dancer, and has been wanting to try more styles of dance. I love her dance studio and think that in an industry that can easily damage the self esteem of young girls, her teachers are wonderful role models as well as great dancers.

But dance classes are not free, nor are the costumes and shows that accompany them. As a thrifty mama who avoids debt like a disease, I had to think about how many extra hours I wanted to try to work to pay for this experience. I love my work, but I also very much value my free time, and love the fact that my job is very part time so I am able to fully enjoy life learning with my kids, do my own thing etc. Besides, in the current economy, extra hours at work are not always easy to come by. So, we thought about what we were willing to give up. Um, we're not big splurgers so there wasn't a lot to look at there. The one thing we do is take road trips, but none of us thought giving that up was an acceptable change.

That led us to looking at homeschooling through a charter this year. It took me a while to warm up to the idea because I really have no desire to follow someone elses path for my family. I think we're doing a pretty good job on our own, and my educational philosophy does not really put any weight into standardized tests or graded curriculum that most schools rely on. While I do like getting ideas and input from other people, I am not at all a big fan of being told what to do. We're a life learning family, not a school-at-home family, and so I had to find a charter that could mesh with our style.

My first choice was a charter that a good friend works at, but unfortunately, they do not work with the dance studio we want. Since dance was the whole reason behind this, we kept looking. We finally found what we wanted- a charter that allowed us to flexibly go about educational goals while offering us some benefits. We debated and hashed over the pros and cons for a couple of weeks. The kids decided they were OK with taking the twice annual standardized test  and meeting with the facilitator in exchange for the fun classes they wanted to take. I met with a facilitator who was also a homeschool mom, and understood my style. The required learning logs and samples didn't look too difficult- the hardest part being translating what we do every day into educator lingo.It seemed like a doable option where what we received would be worth what we had to give.

The kids were sold on the idea much sooner than I was though. Of course they are young and optimistic, and while I try to be positive myself, I occasionally have bitter and jaded views. I've also been known to be a bit of a rebel. I really struggled with the decision and felt a bit like a cheater, first going against my own free flying nature, and then not choosing my friends school, but in the end I had to accept that it wasn't just about me. It was about my kids, and they weren't the  ones with the philosophical objection to tests and grades. I was. They were willing to do their jobs to get what they wanted, and my part wasn't really that hard. So, in the interest of my kids, I decided to give the charter a try. We're wading in to the waters optimistically hoping for the best.

While we don't know exactly how this change in direction will go for us, I am firm on a couple of things- mainly that using the charter does not interfere with their love of learning. I don't want them to stop self directed learning or for them to start thinking that they should only do educational activities that count for school. I don't want them to think they need to separate and compartmentalize everything into subjects rather than just living life and enjoying learning about fun things that interest them. Mostly, I just don't want it to change what we do and who they are. If it looks like it is, we'll have to find another path because all the dance lessons in the world aren't worth that.

So far, it's been pretty good, and we're happy with our choice. I feel less like a cheater and more like a mom who is giving her kids some new opportunities. The first set of required paperwork came together pretty smoothly, and I've enjoyed chatting with our facilitator. She even put together a box of fun stuff she thought we might like- it was kind of like Christmas. We've also been thrilled with access to another cool library and have already borrowed a bunch of books, videos, CDs and science kits.

Sadly though, the beginning of the year math tests caused some serious bad moods, stress and tears around here. Even though I thought were all prepped with the"just do your best, it's just to see if you've done these kind of problems before, don't worry, the results don't matter, even kids who do math worksheets every day aren't going to know some of this stuff, yadee yaah yaaah" bit, it was not a fun experience. There were a few "Who cares?" and "What a silly question, why would anyone ever need to know that?" type of comments. It gave us plenty to talk about afterward, that's for sure. I had worked to make sure not to pass my bad attitude on to them, but they seem to have found their own frustrations with the process. I reminded them that that test was part of the deal, and overall the time spent was small- that the only thing it reflected was whether you had been using that curriculum and that there are other tests that simply measure what you've memorized, not what you've actually learned. I think they realize all of those things, but nevertheless, the test itself was not fun. Eventually, when they go on to college, the test taking skills will come in handy, but they were right about some of the questions being silly and pointless.

Of course anyone who has ever had a job probably realizes that sometimes you have to do things at work that you think are silly and pointless. And, sometimes, you just have to roll with the things you don't like so you can spend the rest of your time enjoying the things you do like. As long as the balance is in favor of the things you enjoy, then it's probably worth it. If the bad outweighs the good on a regular basis, it's probably not worth it, and it's time to re-evaluate the options. Despite that horrible and dreaded test though, our balance still favors the good things about the charter. And, even though we're on a slightly different path with our homeschooling, our direction is still the same. I'm sticking with my long term goals of happy, competent, well rounded young people, and am happy to find the best course to get them there.