Friday, November 25, 2011

Awesome Art History

You might not think that very many junior high age boys would enjoy, be interested in, or willingly attend an Art History workshop. I wouldn't have guessed it either, but I currently have more boys than I know what to do with in my classes.

When I decided to offer Art History following my Hands on Science for homeschoolers, most of the parents of boys said they would just be bringing the kids for science only. Now, I often see more eclectic interests in homeschooled kids than in ones who go to school, but still, not many of the boys had a budding desire to sit and chat about old artwork.

The funny thing was, when it was time for Art History, no one wanted to leave. Every single kid stayed. I'm pretty sure they initially stayed just to continue hanging out and having fun with their friends, but by the end of the first workshop, I think I had most of them actually interested. Even the art....Renaissance paintings no less.

I'm using some Famous Artists Portfolios that were put together by our local Art and Science Museum. Each portfolio has 8 to 12 poster sized  hard backed prints all along a theme. Sometimes it's a period in art or a style of art or an artistic concept. Some are all works from one artists or about a particular subject. There's an accompanying book with info on the artwork and some sample project ideas.

I start the workshop with all of the prints displayed on easels. The kids are in groups and each group chooses a painting to study for a bit. The backs of the prints have information about them and I give the kids a sheet with some ideas to discuss.

After the groups talk amongst themselves, it's time to present their paintings to the rest of us. I try to do this "museum docent style."  We all gather around the presenting group and their painting, and tell us about it. It's really interesting to me to see the different things that the kids come up with and notice about the artwork- texture, style, lighting. and all sorts of details I might have otherwise missed. It's awesome to see these kids getting so into art, especially the energetic young boys.

After we've talked about all the paintings, we do a quick project. This group has a really wide variety of abilities in that respect, and I have yet to delve as far into the projects as I'd like to, but I'm optimistic we'll get more into the project side in the future.

Initially, I thought I'd go through art history in some sort of a linear order. But, when I managed to catch their interest of the unlikely students with the first class, which was full of beautiful old Renaissance paintings, I decided I didn't want to push my luck and risk losing them.

So I used the Sports portfolio full of boxers and horse races the next time. The action paintings were a hit. We've also done a portfolio on space and another on Mt. Shasta. The museum has a pretty wide variety of portfolios, so I figure I'll keep mixing it up each time we meet to keep it interesting.

If I could get them on board, I'd love to submit a collection of their art work to display next spring in a student show. I'm not there yet, but I am enjoying working with these kids in the mean time. Their observations are great, and some of what we're seeing and doing is new to me too. I'm having a great time learning right alongside them, and look forward to seeing what they pick up next.

I guess you never know what a kid will be interested in until you toss out something new to them.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hands On Chaos

In coming up with activities for our happy little homeschool this fall, I found some great resources at our local science museum. They have a number of very cool, hands on science kits called GEMS. It stands for Great Explorations in Math and Science, and the kits are in use in museums and classrooms all over the place. For a small annual fee, our local museum lets educators, including homeschool families check out the kits. 

They also have a Famous Artist Portfolio program where you can check out themed portfolios of 8 to 12 prints of famous works to study with kids, along with a book of information about the art and accompanying activity ideas to go with them.

Being full of ideas, I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to do these with a group of kids instead of just mine?" My kids agreed, so I tossed the idea out that I was offering Hands On Science and Art History workshops for junior high age kids to our local homeschool email list. I was bombarded with interest.

I expected 10 kids for the first session, but had 20. We only had one small explosion during "Chemical Reactions" and everyone still has their eyesight and limbs, so I feel like it was a success. Ironically, the explosion happened at table full of sweet and quiet girls, at the exact moment that I was lecturing my Boy Child's table not to shake up the mixtures. So much for profiling.

Having no formal training in this, and very little time to review the kits ahead of time, I'm pretty much flying by the seat of my pants with these, but fortunately, I fly pretty well most of the time. The kids are sure having fun, and mostly, I am too. 

It's wonderful for me in that I don't have to test them or try to force them to learn certain things. I pretty much just bring cool materials and ideas and facilitate. They have fun exploring and learning. Since the kids actually want to be there and are interested, they learn all sorts of things, and as long as everyone is being respectful, it works well. 

A few weeks ago though, we had a gathering that was a lot louder and more chaotic of an experience than I was shooting for. I had several new 5th grade boys, and made the mistake of having them all sit in one table. They were energetic and noisy and for once, not one single other parent had stayed. I was completely outnumbered, and being relaxed about their enthusiasm backfired on me. They spiraled into crazy land.

Loudness begets loudness and it morphed into a whole lotta noise. I mean an incredible amount. For the kids who wanted to focus it was frustrating. For me too- I felt like I needed medication. I didn’t exactly wish we were still in the days when teachers were able to rap students knuckles, but I sure did wish I had some strategies to rein them in. With my own kids, I can just use the old stink eye, and mention taking away their birthdays. With these other kids, I had nothing. I could understand how frustrated school teachers must feel.

In hindsight, prevention probably would have been the best idea.

I could see that I could definitely use some crowd control and classroom management skills. I've taught Childbirth and Breastfeeding Classes for years, but those are adults, who for the most part don't bounce up and down and shout out random and related nonsense. Junior high boys are another ball of wax altogether.

That’s probably what they teach you when getting a credential to be an actual school teacher- crowd control. Since I have no desire to get a degree in teaching, I just googled "classroom management," and came up with all sorts of ideas that are more productive than rapping knuckles with a ruler. I love the internet!

Now, I make sure to layout expectations ahead of time, and try to have things set up so we avoid madness in the first place.  I also make sure to have a parent helper, or two or three, too.

Our next meeting was a lot more fun, and successful. As long as the chaos is the fun kind, I'd love to keep offering these classes, and am even thinking of more to do in the future. It's awesome to watch these kids learning and be a part of the process- even if it is a bit loud, crazy and messy sometimes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


One of my favorite things about homeschooling is planning trips to go along with things we're learning about. No, I wasn't able to jet off to Europe when we studied the Renaissance, but I do like to coordinate traveling and learning whenever I can, and I usually find plenty of opportunities relatively close to home.

So, when  I recently picked up a volcano themed science kit, I decided it would be fun to take a field trip up to Lassen Volcanic National Park to go along with it. We'd been to the northern end of the park quite a few times, but had never done the drive through the whole park, or seen the southern end at all. The road is closed several months of the year due to snow and ice, but we lucked out with a warm spell. When I heard the road was open for a few days, we jumped on the chance to go before winter really hit.

A few nights before, we watched a documentary on Ishi, who was the last surviving Yahi native and lived in hiding with his family for nearly 40 years in the forests near Lassen. It's a sad story to be sure, as are many that deal with the fate of native peoples, but one worth learning about. The positive note in it seems to be the anthropologists who befriended him, gave him a place to live and helped his stories be translated. Ishi's people believed that Lassen was the center of the world, and it was a sacred place. It certainly is an impressive mountain, that's for sure.

Driving into the parks southern entrance, you are met by amazing views of the mountains. They were all snow capped and shrouded in mist off and on, which only added to the beauty. The lakes and ponds were partially frozen over already, and it was colder than I'd anticipated.

We stopped at the visitors center where we learned all sorts of things about volcanoes, including that within the parks boundaries, they have all four different kinds of volcanoes found in the entire world- shield, plugged dome, cinder cone and composite.

Lassen had a series of major eruptions between 1914 and 1917, but has been resting ever since. The mountain may be quiet now, but the evidence of its' power, in the form of boulders bigger than my car, which are still laying where they landed, can be found more than 3 miles from the mountain.

Even though the volcanoes are sleeping, the area is literally bubbling with geothermal activity. The boiling sulfur mud pits are a good incentive to stay on the trails. They smell awful of course, but still, you can't help but be impressed by the power of nature.

 Of course, we had to add in some snow play and a hike. Boy Child attempted some snow boarding, which I could call PE and Girl Child worked on photography, which falls under art. It was a lovely and complete homeschooling day, with plenty of learning despite the lack of a lesson plan and the fact that not one book was cracked open.

This is the kind of learning that I love best, and I think it's the kind my kids will remember most. I'm so glad the world offers so many ways to experience science and history. The only cost was the gas, since we packed food and have a National Parks pass. I'd say a few gallons of gas was definitely worth it. Later this week, we have a series of volcano experiments planned for our science group to round out the theme. This homeschooling life really is a good one, isn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Part 1 of Art (Almost) Every Day

For a supposedly "Artsy Mama," it should seem that making Art Every Day would be no problem. Of course, like so many things I attempt, this 30 day challenge has been just that- a challenge.

The pesky responsibilities in  life tend to push creative endeavors to the back burner, but that's exactly why I wanted to do this. My artistic side has been neglected lately, and I think creativity works in a similar way to muscles- use it and it will grow stronger / neglect it, and it will waste away.

Since the start of November, on most days, I have managed to complete, or at least work on, some sort of artwork. Sometimes it's felt more rushed than I would like, as in telling myself to hurry up and finish. The next few days, I hope to work on the "busyness" of it, and focus more on enjoying the process. In the mean time, even if it's not some beautiful and organic artsy experience, at least I'm squeezing it in, right?

So far, the menu has included oil pastels, pencils, colored markers, photography, and a kids crafty kit (Capsters from Klutz.) It's so fun getting out all of these things that have been collecting dust while waiting for me to pick them up again. I feel like I'm seeing old friends. As I dig around in my supplies, it's almost like Christmas. I'm getting all sorts of inspiration for new projects and reviving neglected ones too. It feels wonderful to use things that have just been laying around, especially when I actually finish something.

There was at least 1 day that I missed. It was just one of those hectic days that starts early and doesn't stop until late, and by the time I realized I had forgotten all about making any art work, I was already in bed. Rather than beating myself up for blowing that day or starting on a downward spiral about failure, I just made some extra art the next day.

I've had to prioritize- the other day, I sat in my car and sketched during my kids class instead of running an errand. For my kids, I think seeing their mom so productive with making things has been inspiring though. They're pretty creative anyway, but even kids get busy. When they see me working on art, they often grab a sketchbook, or a hunk of clay, or whatever is on hand and join in.

So, I'm 1/3 of the way there, and feeling good about my progress. I'm going to earn that "Artsy Mama" title after all.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


An old acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook the other day about an interesting challenge she, along with her yoga class buddies, are taking part in.  The goal is to stop complaining for 21 days. Of course, I immediately responded with how much I love this idea, but I also acknowledged that it seemed fairly unlikely that I could pull it off. I almost went on to complain about how hard it would be to not complain, but I deleted that part before I hit enter.

She definitely planted a seed in my mind though. I’ve been thinking a lot about complaining, and how much I dislike listening to and being around people who do it excessively. They’re depressing and negative and just suck the joy right out of a room. Then, I started thinking about how much I complain.

Since self analysis isn’t really all that fun, and it looked like it could be rather unflattering in this case, I decided to do what I always do.  Start googling.  I read that most people complain 15 to 30 times a day. When I think about it, I could probably complete that quota before noon, especially if I’m gabbing with my friends. If I get on a roll about things that annoy me, I can probably shoot off 15 complaints in an hour, easy. 

I like to think that I focus a lot of my complaining into sarcastic humor, which is better than just plain old negative complaining, since it often results in laughter, but is it really any better? It’s still negative and unpleasant, and it puts my focus on what’s wrong, not what’s right.

I know complaining effects me and my loved ones in unpleasant ways, which is why I love the idea of stopping so much. It rarely makes anyone feel better, well except maybe for a few minutes while you initially vent, but in the long run, the more I complain, the more I end up focusing on the down sides of my life, and that really just makes me less happy.

As I was sitting here debating ways to cut back on my own complaining, one of my dogs came over wagging and wanting to go out. In getting up to open the door, I spilled the entire contents of my fresh, hot, milky, sugary coffee all over the bed, soaking through every layer of blankets, and losing my delicious cup of morning yum. If that’s not easy fodder for complaining, I don’t know what is. It is taking all of my morning reserves to just let it go, and throw the blankets in a pile to be washed. Ranting isn’t going to get the laundry done, right?

That’s another thing about complaining. A lot of the time, we’re moaning about things we have no power to change. What’s the point in that? Misery? When it comes to things we do have the power to change, we’d probably be more successful in changing them if we actually did something besides sitting around whining. I could be complaining about my coffee and the blankets, or I could be getting a new cup and starting the washer.It depends on what I want more- to prolong my misery or get caffeinated. I'm going with choice #2.


Although I’m pretty darn good at complaining myself, I know I’m not the only one. As a culture, we’re fairly addicted to it. We like to compete about who has the busier schedule or the worse day. Once one person starts, everyone around starts groaning about their own woes. When you think about it, all that clinging to misery and pride in the greatest hardships probably qualifies as a mental health disorder. Of course, I’m not a mental health professional or in any way trained to make a diagnosis, but it seems pretty crazy to hang on to unhappiness. Maybe it’s just easier than dealing with taking responsibility.

 There’s even a website devoted to trying to make a complaint free world. They offer widgets to help you track your progress and bracelets you can wear as a reminder, switching wrists every time you complain, with the goal of going 21 days without switching. Again, that sounds mammoth to me, especially when you realize that every time you mess up, you start your 21 days over. Seriously!?

Like most things, the theory of not complaining is much easier than the reality of it. The woman who started me thinking about this with her challenge said that she feels it’s mostly about awareness. I agree that’s a great start. Just being aware of our thoughts, words, and intentions makes a huge difference because all of those things add up to subconsciously program who we are.

As a mom of ever growing kids, this really matters. They’ve always paid attention and reflected what was going on around them, but the older they get, the more they really watch and analyze the things the adults around them say and do. My attitude, positive or negative really sets the tone for the whole family. I know the more I complain or the grumpier I am, the worse off everyone around me is. It’s true that if mama isn’t happy, nobody is going to be.

As usual, for parents, it’s about so much more than just us. The fate of our households rest on our attitudes (no pressure or anything.) I'd love to hear how other people deal with complaining in their families- from both the adults and the kids.

I don’t think I’m quite ready to do a 21 day complaint free challenge- the thought actually gives me heart palpitations and immediately furrowed my brow. If my forehead crease gets any deeper, I’ll have even more to whine about, so I’m trying to avoid the stress of the “big challenge.” I am however up for being aware, and trying to avoid complaining thoughts and words as much as I can. I’m considering trying to tally all of my complaints for a day, just to see where I’m at at. 

I’m sharing the idea with my kids, but I think that even if they don’t consciously attempt it, there will still be a ripple effect from any positive strides I’m able to pull off. That's my positive thinking side in action. On the other hand, I'm still skeptical that I could be totally complaint free, ever.... (my less positive side is still alive too) 

Not everybody is cut out to be a spiritual master, but I'm hoping I can at least be less crabby as we head into the holidays. Imagine if we all cut our whining by 10%. I think we'd be more than 10% happier, though there's really no way to measure.

For now, I'm off to make more coffee and start my massive pile of laundry (and I'm conciously not complaing about it.)