Thursday, September 29, 2011

Time 4 Learning Review

We recently had the opportunity to preview Time 4 Learning - an online multi-subject educational tool that is great for homeschoolers or for folks who are looking for a supplement. 

We are not the schooliest of homeschoolers, meaning we like to keep things interest based and fun, and this program had several things that appealed to me in that respect.

First, the material was presented on the computer in a game like manner. There were quizzes and tests, but they all had that game like feel, which my kids like a lot better than workbooks. 

Now one thing that I am often leery of in children's "educational" games is annoying animated characters and loud obnoxious voices. There are two very common types of "educational" voices I notice- the ones that speak very slowly and clearly and use very simple words so as not to confuse little minds. We call it the preschool teacher voice, and thankfully we DID NOT find that voice in this program at all. The other common "educational" voice is too loud and too fast and sounds the character had a bit too much caffeine. There were some fairly excited characters in this program, but none were too bad. So, it passed that test.

Another thing we all liked was that the kids could choose not only the subject, but also from an assortment of activities within each subject. Choice is good an keeps things interesting. 

My Boy Child mostly used the program for 6th grade math, and had this to say: "Whenever you try something new, it walks you through the first few problems to make sure you know how to do them, then it lets you some by your self. One other thing I liked about Time4Learning is that it will give you real life examples on how you would use the problem in real life."

My Girl Child, who worked in the 8th grade level said, "The math section was the most helpful for me, because of the way they walk you through lots of examples- something a workbook couldn’t do. The language arts would be my second favorite; I thought it was pretty interesting and interactive. The science section had some pretty cool experiments, but you have to understand that it's not something you can do entirely on the computer. The social science was my least favorite. It wasn't very interactive; mostly just reading texts. And, I thought the social science quizzes were especially hard, because they were testing me on random facts I had only read once. Overall, it was a good program, but I would recommend taking the trial before you sign up to see if it's right for you."

And, I think that's good advice. It's always good to try before you buy if possible. This seems to be a well put together program with a lot to offer, but when I am paying for an ongoing service, I feel the need to use it often to make it worth while. Right now, we have so many activities going on both in and out of the home, that I think we would all feel pressured if we added another thing to our plates that we "had to" do. I count us as blessed to have so many options, but don't want to overwhelm my family with too much. For families looking for a good base program, or to add a regular practice into their homeschooling, I think kids could have a lot of fun learning with this program.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Response on Charter Schools

I recently came across a blog post on a subject I have heard over and over again- the debate on charter schools and homeschooling in California. Generally, I try to focus on things that bring people together, and don't see the point in trying to define who is a "real homeschooler," but I did want to respond from the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the fence.

As a family whose children have lived in California and homeschooled their entire lives, we've rotated between complete independent  homeschooling and using charter programs based on what our family was looking for at the time. My children have never gone to school, nor have we done "school at home" either.

To get right down to business, why did we ever use a charter? Yes, it was about money. But, before you start throwing stones, in all honesty, why do people have jobs? Hopefully people enjoy their work, but in the end, don't they jump through hoops for money? I am always a little taken aback when people use the term "selling out" in regards to charters and wonder if they feel that all people who work are "selling out" too? Do they think their husbands are "selling out" their lives as they head out every morning? I know I've met countless adults who hate their jobs and seem to be "selling" a lot more of their lives for money than we ever have by using a charter program.

When making any big decision for our family, I base it on whether the benefits will be worth any drawbacks, and as weird as I may think another families decisions are, I try to trust them to do what's best for their family rather than judging them.

I know a number of independent homeschoolers who are far more structured and use much more "set curriculum" than we have ever used, even though we have gone through a charter. In some cases, these parents have lectured me about being directed by an outside force, which I find interesting because they pay money to make their children follow another persons outline, and we pretty much do what we want when we want.

We strongly lean towards an eclectic / interest  led style and would not even consider a program that wanted us to follow a set curriculum. I value our lifestyle immensely, and try to avoid time wasting, soul sucking experiences as much as possible, whether it is for me, or my kids. If ever a program didn't meet our needs, we'd bail and move on.

Currently, my daughter loves to dance and wants to take several classes, which are expensive. In order to give her that opportunity (which she is thriving with) I could choose to work more hours away from home, or use a charter.  My kids didn't want me to work more, and frankly, neither did I. Again, I value my freedom.

So, we researched and talked and found a program and facilitator that have really enriched our family. The paperwork is much less than many people do for their own portfolios, and my 13 year old actually does her own. We have never been given an assignment nor have any of our samples even been questioned. She is fine with taking a once a year test at this age, as she plans to go to college, where tests are a part of life, and she feels the paperwork is worth the dance classes. She treats it like a job and actually enjoys being organized with it. Most of the time, she is really happy with the arrangement, and I would say if you are happy with your work most of the time, you are luckier than many people.

So this year, for me, using a charter actually gave me freedom to spend more time with my kids. I know some people would have no problem working more or asking their husband to work extra hours at a job he hates to fund their kids classes. I don't get it, but it's not my life, my family or my choice- it's theirs. I just find it odd that some will judge me for doing a bit of paperwork instead.

Charter schools aren't for everyone, all the time- nothing is. Like homeschoolers, charters come in many different styles with many different requirements and offerings. Parents have choices, and that is the beauty of it. Right now it's a helpful tool for us, but as we look at high school, we may fly solo just depends. Just like a job, I try to find opportunities that we enjoy, pay off and that are worth our time.

I'm sure that schools and teachers exist who try to dominate your choices, just like in any profession. But, others also exist who know the beauty of a life learning experience and enjoy helping families with enriching resources. It's not really fair or accurate to lump them all together any more than it is to lump all homeschooling moms into a category of minvan driving women in denim jumpers.

I too am sometimes sad or worried about other families who don't seem to be empowered enough to make their own choices, don't know they can say no, choose their own path, make learning and life fun etc. This isn't limited to people who use charters though by any means, and I prefer encouraging people to find their own way over judging that they are choosing a different route than me.
In the end though, if people are really concerned about outside forces making decisions for their family, and wanting to preserve their freedom, then shouldn't they honor other people's choices and freedoms with their families too?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Loss, Mess, and Perspective

Yesterday started off with such promise for good things.... and promptly took a nosedive. It was the first morning of a new project that unfortunately required us to leave by 7:30 AM. If you have read my blog or know me in any way, then you may have noticed that leaving the house in the 7 o'clock hour is not something I like doing at all. In fact, I dislike it and make an effort to avoid making a habit of it. Mornings are my happy and quiet time when I prefer to be left in my own little bubble.

But, the kids had this good opportunity so we decided to go for it, and I was actually feeling positive at how well our morning was moving. Just as we were almost ready to head out the door, I asked my Boy Child to get the ice chest and some frozen water bottles, as I planned to do a little food shopping in town. He came back from the garage to tell me that there were no frozen bottles. No problem, I thought- I'll just buy ice, but then he mentioned that there was four inches of water on the bottom of the freezer. That is never a good sign.

 I went out to find tragedy. The entire contents of my huge freezer had thawed and were ruined. This was not just food that I bought at the store either. My Girl Child and I had spent hours and hours laboring this summer to make soups, sauces and broths with the bountiful summer veggies and herbs. I had never done anything like that before- filled my freezer with food I had made from scratch- and I was feeling so proud and Ma Ingalls like for having put away all that home made goodness to feed my family healthy food all winter.

Baffled, I looked around as to why on earth my food was no longer frozen. The plug was in. The circuit breaker was on. Then, I came to the on / off / temperature control knob on the outside of the freezer. It had a skateboard crammed up against it, and was turned all the way off.

Now I know that nobody turned the freezer off on purpose, but I think the owner of the skateboard- the one who crammed it there- might have some responsibility in this matter. I called him to look at the evidence. Immediately, he went to denial and shifting the blame which only made me more annoyed and angry.

We had to leave to get the kids to their obligation, and were supposed to be spending the next 12 hours in town. There was no way I was going to come home to face that mess after that long of a day, so I made the executive decision that we would cancel our afternoon plans, including guitar and band practice. Here came Round 2 of annoying responses as the Suspect semi- complained that he would have rather skipped the morning obligation- which is harder, longer and requires a lot more thinking, but also allows me to go to a yoga class and sauna while they are busy. Guitar practice is not long enough for me to do much besides a quick grocery run. Since we were supposed to be at Activity 1 in less than a half hour, and I felt that I needed yoga more than a grocery store trip, I basically told him to cork it, and my plan won.

I dropped the kids off, still stewing and deepening the crease in my forehead, and headed to my class. I had a few minutes and decided to call my Dad back. He shared with his own tale of woe about a faucet that leaked and flooded his laundry room, the office on the other side of the wall, and probably damaged some shared walls in his condo requiring the ripping out of walls, carpets and other massive efforts. OK, I realized I'm not the only one with troubles.

My yoga class started and was taught by a lovely woman who just radiated relaxation, while softly encouraging you to hold near painful positions for long periods of time. All the deep breathing and stretching was helping, but I still couldn't help an occasional snarl when I thought of the loss of time, money, food, and effort and the big mess still waiting for me. I thought of how most of the contents were in expensive glass jars so I couldn't even just throw them away, I had to wash them, and how I dislike doing dishes about as much as I dislike going places early mornings. I breathed deeper and tried to listen to the calming voice of the instructor.

 The class was nearly over when a woman with swollen, red eyes appeared in the doorway and waved to the woman on the mat next to me to come out of the class. She quickly headed for the door, and before it could close, we heard the words "Your brother is dead."

My tense jaw dropped, my breath stopped and everyone on that side of the room froze for a moment, not sure we had heard correctly. Sadly, we had heard correctly, and while I don't know these women or the details of what happened, my heart felt for them so much at that moment. I recognized the look of shock and pain on the mother's face, and I remembered the feeling of hearing that my child, my first son, had died so many years ago. The foggy brain, the disbelief, the details of hallways and paintings and faces of hospital staff-  those things are burned into my brain forever.

 For the rest of the day- in the sauna, while picking up my kids, and even while cleaning up the freezer mess- those women were in my heart, and I felt like I was grieving with them. The loss of my freezer contents was a bummer, but just isn't that big of a deal in perspective.

I hope that family is being loved and supported as they go through the next hard days and weeks. I know I'll be thinking about them, and sending prayers their way. I also know that no matter how annoyed I am with my own kids, I'll be hugging them a lot anyway.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th

I was curled up in bed in a nest of books with my little ones around me when my mother called. Living in a tiny cabin without electricity in the mountain, this was how we usually started our days- without television or news or internet, but with stories.

"You'd better turn on your generator or whatever you need to do to see what's happening on TV!" I had no idea what she was talking about, what was behind the fear in her voice. Something about planes and buildings. I didn't know what it had to do with me in my happy little world, but she was upset, so I obliged.

The TV usually only came on with the generator for an hour or so every few days- timed so I could run laundry while one kid napped, another one watched PBS kids and I tried to get online. I was never a fan of watching news and the negativity it brings into my home even when I had an unlimited supply of electricity. I certainly wouldn't choose to endure starting a loud, gas guzzling generator that was older than me just to feel I was up to date in the world. But with the urgency of her voice that day, I did.

My Boy Child was still a baby, oblivious and happily playing. My Girl Child was not even three herself, but had always been a thoughtful child tuned in to others around her. Sensing something was wrong, she stayed attentive and close.We both stared at the tiny screen in shock as the video replayed a plane crashing into a smoking skyscraper. The announcer rambled something about the number of people working in the building. It was astronomical- the number of people that were in that building was higher than the population of the entire county we lived in.

She only had one question. "Mama, were there any children in that building?"

All I could say was that I hoped not. This was the exact reason I chose not to normally watch TV. Now, at the young age of two and a half, my girl had this image in her mind.

When the buildings fell, I expected that the death toll would be in the tens of thousands, and could hardly believe that it was less than 3000. Of course that is still huge and tragic, but I couldn't help but be in awe, and I still am, at the massive coordinated effort it must have taken to evacuate and save so many people.

I've never been to New York city, but its reputation doesn't generally make one think of words like "friendly," "neighborly," or "kind." That's what makes it even more striking to me. Even in big cities full of strangers and terror, the world is full of very good people. It gives me hope.

Ten years later, my kids don't remember the day the Twin Towers fell, but in looking back, I hope they too will have that sense of amazement, not just horror at the atrocity, but wonder in the bravery of their fellow humans. Goodness is everywhere and it will shine, even when things look bleak.

We were all touched by this video and these unsung heroes, everyday people who literally helped save the day. I thought it was well worth watching, and I hope you do too.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Fire Drill

It's been such an unbelievably mild summer in northern California, I haven't even thought about fire season. Until now. Suddenly, it's oppressively hot, and to top off the misery of melting in front of my swamp cooler, the wind is blowing so fiercely that it woke me this morning sounding like a motorcycle speeding on the freeway. The grass is bone dry, the plants and trees have shriveled, and something in the air just seems like trouble brewing . It feels like fire season.

I don't want to freak out my kids, but I do want them to be prepared, to know what to do just in case. So, I ask them to start thinking about it. We've been through this before, of course, which is probably why I did end up freaking them out anyway. My kids may have never had a school fire drill- they've never been to school, but living in the mountains, they have had the real thing more than once. No alarms and orderly exits, just smoke, wind and quickly trying to evaluate what is important enough to save and how to move so many animals.

It's a strange feeling to think about what you actually want to take with you. During our first wildfire scare, we had the luxury of a day to think hard about just that. The fire started a few miles away, but the wind was blowing in our direction, and the only thing in between were pine trees and manzanita bushes. Even before the call from the sheriffs office warning us to start packing, it didn't take a genius to figure out that we should be doing just that.

Of course living things came first, and we have a lot of them around here. Thank God for wonderful friends who came and picked up everything from our cats and dogs to our goats, chickens and ducks and housed them temporarily at their homes, even though they were not set up for such things.

Next came pictures and then as we still had a few hours before we had to be out, we packed our favorite clothes, books, art and toys. I let each kid pick for themselves what would go in their suitcase because you never really know what's special to another person. Some of our helpers couldn't understand why my Girl Child was choosing a doll made from a pancake syrup bottle over an expensive porcelain doll, and seemed upset about it. I think they expected me to be the voice of reason. Well, I reasoned that since Girl Child was the one who played with the things, she could probably decide what was actually important for herself. Mrs Butterworths made the cut.

We still laugh about that, and we'll probably still have that syrup bottle to give my grandkids. Our neighborhood was evacuated for a few days, but fortunately untouched by the fire.

Our next scare came a few years later. This time, we were in town, and noticed a huge plume of smoke in the east. Since it looked like it could be near our house, and fires moves quickly in the foothills, we skipped the rest of our errands and headed towards home. As we drove the 20 miles, the kids began to freak out about our elderly dog being stranded and unable to escape. I tried to calmly reassure them that we would be home in time.

Well, I looked like a big idiot a few minutes later when we found the road to our property blocked by the worlds grumpiest police man. He had no compassion whatsoever as he dryly told my crying kids that we could not get in, no matter what. A man with a press pass went in, but we couldn't. My Girl Child wanted me to just hit the gas and floor it past the cop, but he seemed like the type that would shoot out my tire and then drag me out of the car and taser me in front of my kids, so I opted not to. But, I was furious. Unfortunately, Officer Meanie made just about the worst first impression my kids could have ever had of the police force with his complete lack of kindness, respect or empathy.

Cars full of equally angry neighbors lined up, all of whom were being told no, you cannot go save your horses, your dogs, anything. One woman was near hysterics as her teenage son was home alone with no car to get out, but she was told to just wait while they did their jobs. I imagined the press man in there taking pictures of our burning things while we were supposed to sit there and wait.

Thankfully the fire fighters did their jobs very well. No homes, animals or people were harmed, and we very much appreciated their hard work. We went home and planned what would we do if it happened again. Things were a little more organized "in case of emergency" for a while, but of course life goes on. We can't live with all of our important things packed and ready all the time. They are out everywhere all over the house being looked at, used, played with and enjoyed.

But today when I woke up to hazy air and dry leaves rustling in the hot wind, I realized it's that time again- we need to think along those lines of being prepared. I mentally located my favorite picture albums while I told my kids to at least know where their most prized things are, just in case. I stepped out for a bit and came back to find my kids had packed bags, cat carriers and dog leashes ready to go. I'm very proud of them for thinking and planning, but I hadn't really meant for them to take it that far. I'm pretty sure I scared them and think if I had been gone too long, they might have started taking the pictures off the walls.

I let them know that it's looking like the haze in the air is coming from fires that are far away enough to the north that we aren't at risk from them. It's still the season and we're not out of the woods yet, but we don't have to pack up everything into boxes just so it's ready "in case." Just knowing where things are, and what our priorities are will have to be good enough. Maybe we'll attempt a rain dance as well.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Organizing the "School Year"

Just when I've been trying to hold on to summer and ignore the cooler nights and the bombardment of activities that fall brings, I remember the charter school will want me to start keeping track of what my kids are learning again. It's actually a small price for all the enriching things our family gets access too, but it can put a damper on my eternal summer lounging dreams.

I figured that getting organized for our "school year" will be helpful for me in getting in the swing of things. I really have trouble with the "school year" concept because learning seems to occur fairly naturally and year round when I don't push it, and a part of me just has an inherent resistance to outside forces that want me to do things at certain times "just because." But, rather than being ruffled over my inability to conform easily, and the silliness of it all, I'm focusing on the fact that external forces aside- this place is a mess, and a little organization could benefit us all.

So, I started with some book shelves that we keep a lot of "educational" things on. About midway through I began to question what on earth I had started.

First, the incredible quantity of dust hit me. Literally. In the face. So, now I have itchy eyes and am sneezing and amazed at what can hide on the back side of bookshelves. It's not like we don't dust either. I mean, I pay my kids to do it weekly, but this is the behind the scenes action, and it's not pretty. I am convinced it would not be this bad if there were pavement withing a quarter mile of my house, but who knows. It might be anyway. We're really not that great at housework.

Anyway, next, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of stuff. Where did all this stuff come from, and why do I have it? Some of it's good, and has just been hidden. It's like a surprise holiday with presents. Some of it consists of things we just never got around to doing and probably never will. Some is stuff that I can't imagine why I hung on to in the first place. I pulled it all off the shelves, sneezing and whining and making a huge and overwhelming mess. I was tempted at this point to just head out to the pool with my book and a glass of wine, but had a sneaking suspicion that this disaster would still be waiting for me when I returned. On rare occasions, one of my children will spontaneously clean something up, but this calamity was beyond their skill level.

So, I buckled down and got to work. I sat for what felt like days, but was probably hours, creating piles around me- to keep, to give away, to recycle, to throw out. The keeping stuff got further broken down- science, math, history, art. It all was shelved neatly, arranged by subject, then within that, arranged aesthetically by size and shape. I'm quite proud of my effort, and excited about all the fun things we have to choose from. We are blessed indeed.

The give away pile got further sorted as well- stuff that goes to friends and stuff that goes to the thrift store. So far, it's only made it to the garage, but I'll be glad to see it go for good. The mini mountains of trash and recycling have been hauled away.

There was also a decent sized pile at the end consisting of stuff I didn't quite know what to do with. For now, its sitting on the other side of the room so it doesn't ugly up the view of the pretty shelves I have carefully organized. I guess the job isn't completely finished, but I don't really have it in me to deal with that last bit today, and why not celebrate what I did accomplish?

I wonder how long this will last though? Maintenance is a trick unto itself. Do any of you well organized people have secrets about keeping things orderly? I am just not naturally inclined that way, but I really do appreciate the beauty of it.

For now, I think I've earned my poolside lounging. I'm even bringing a few books I found during my hard work with me.