Sunday, December 2, 2012

Winter Nature Study

Even in winter - no matter the weather - you and the children can connect with and learn about nature. In parts of the country right now, it's pouring so hard it's flooding. Obviously keeping safe takes priority over study.  Weather preparedness and care teaches our kids a lot about how to be in the world. Making sure our homes and our neighbors and animals are all ready and safe, as best we can, teaches kids about community, self-care, and respect for Mother Nature.

But given that you and the family are safe, you can study weather maps and learn where your weather comes from. What is "upstream" and how do meteorologists forecast the weather? Then make a weather station, putting out rain gauges, barometer, and digital or old-fashioned thermometers. For ideas and tips, see Franklin's Forecast. This can be as simple as a clear plastic container to collect rain and snow.

Look at the collected rain under the microscope. Anything living in it? Each raindrop - and snowflake - has a piece of dirt in it. Look for them under the microscope. Test the pH by using a pH test from science supply stores or basic science kits, or make your own indicator using beet juice.

If you're like me, you miss gardening this time of year. In some warmer climates, like Los Angeles, you might even have a garden right now. Plant some seeds whenever you can! Here in Colorado it has been dry and warm, though it has gone below freezing a few times at night. The kids wanted to plant seeds, so I gave them some of the orach seeds I saved from last fall, and they planted them in an empty planter box. They can handle the freezes, and will sprout in the spring. Or if you are stuck inside, try a kit like this one that lets you grow root veggies and see how they grow. Make your own root view box by following these directions. Or start some winter sowing. This is a great way to start perennials in winter.

We've also been able to get outside a lot - biking, walking, and playing in the dirt. We've been enjoying the winter animals; we've seen geese, bison, hawks, and jackrabbits, to name a few. If you don't have any local nature areas you like to visit, take some time to identify a few using google. Just search "greenspace" or "nature area" and the name of your town. Make it a family project to see your local nature areas in all kinds of weather.

If it's snowing where you are, bring sleds and snowshoes and head outside. Some outdoor stores and rec centers rent snowshoes and skis - the student outdoor center at my college rented them cheaply to students. This is a good way to try a sport without going broke.

Whether you get outside or observe nature from the warmth of the house, encourage lots of drawing. Get some magnifying lenses and a loupe to look at brown leaves, ice crystals, and bug carcases. Then draw what you see. Check out The Private Eye for ideas.

Another great resource for year-round nature study is the fabulous book For the Birds by Anne Schmauss, Mary Schmauss and Geni Krolick. It gives month-by-month tips for attracting wild birds to your yard - and keeping squirrels off the bird feeder! I've become a wild-bird hobbyist thanks to this book.Look for it at your local independent bookstore.

Enjoy the winter gifts of the land, wherever you may live!

I Am in Charge

My meditation of late is to remind myself that I am in charge. When my daughter starts to freak out (she has massive melt downs, usually from a low frustration tolerance), or the kids are fighting, or everyone is moving as fast as snails to get out of the house, my blood pressure rises, and I silently say to myself - "I am in charge." My blood pressure lowers. I relax a little. I am able to see how best to respond, rather than reacting in anger. This anger, which can flare so fast and big, usually stems from my feeling powerless. When I remind myself that I am in charge - not my daughter's anger or the clock or my toddler's need to wear that one filthy outfit - then I regain just enough sense of power within to settle down. And that's the key - it's not "in charge" in a "power over" another person kinds of way. While I do have a certain level of power over the children and the day and whatever, ultimately I don't - I can't control them. I can drawn boundaries and hold the line, but power over nearly always turns into a power struggle. Being in charge is a "power within" kind of power. I am in charge of my reaction, my space in the world. I am in charge of what comes out of my mouth, and the ability to drawn on my skills as a communicator and parent. I am in charge of this one moment, which for me exists for me. Taken moment by moment, in charge of my space in it, I can do this crazy parenting/homeschooling thing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Technology, Balance, and Literature: Some Thoughts from the Homeschooling Frontline

One of our more central homeschooling activities is reading aloud. Over the past year or so, my daughter and I have enjoyed my reading to her Grace Lin's novels, the Ramona Quimby books, and (currently) the Little House books.  While reading Lin's books, we ate Taiwanese food and discussed the differences and similarities between Taiwan and China, and (since my daughter is 7), Japan and China and other Asian countries. We wrote to Grace Lin and entered a giveaway of hers, and received a hand-written post card and bookmark from her. It sits proudly on the refrigerator. The Ramona books inspired us to make slow cooker beef stew of all random things. We examined how the books had been written over a period of thirty-five years, and discussed how certain things hadn't changed between my mother's childhood, mine, and my daughter's. Other things have changed, like phones. In Ramona, they have one phone in the hallway, attached to the wall. No cell phones, no computers. No email. In one of the earlier books, I believe there was even a party line, which I explained. Many  adults today don't even know what that is (we had one when I was my daughter's age!).

Now we are reading the Little House books, which are based on real events and took place in the 1870's. Not only no phones - no cars, electricity, running water, or flush toilets. Trains are new; in By the Shores of Silver Lake they take a train to the end of the line, in the Dakota Territory. On the train Laura sees a water faucet, unlike anything she's ever seen.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and we studied some about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. The pilgrims came to the New World in 1620, over two hundred fifty years before Laura rides this train. I was struck by how not much had changed in that two hundred years. Two hundred years after Laura lived, we meet Ramona, who lives in a pretty different world. And only one generation later, we have this blog, cell phones, smartphones, and little girls the ages of Laura and Ramona (and some of the kids on the Mayflower) who are today totally computer literate. For whom everything happens right now - pictures taken are seen and deleted or sent out to everything immediately. Spelling is learned so one can search for the right thing on Google. And I've chosen not to send my kids to school, which Laura saw as a privilege and which met sporadically, which Pacy's parents endured in Taiwan, and which Ramona and Pacy took for granted.

In my house these computer literate kids now how to do certain chores, but they fight doing so tooth and nail. Laura wouldn't dream of complaining that she had to carry in firewood or hand stitch a dress. Ramona sets the table each night, and helps her sister with the dishes. But no way would Ramona be married at 17. Both are tough, independent characters. But the advent of technology has changed what this means. And today I am raising my kids to know how to bake bread and raise chickens, but because of technology and the way our country now runs, they don't have to know these things to survive. (At least not yet - if we don't change to renewable fuels everywhere now, that may change.)

Have technology and affluence (by which I mean 90% of Americans, not the 1%) created kids who don't have to grow up? What does growing up even mean in our culture today? And what do I want my kids to know and understand about the world? How can I balance computer use with being outdoors, knitting, baking bread, and making art?

I think that today, to grow up is to know your true self and to have some idea (ever evolving though it may be) of how that self, that purpose or calling, fits into the world. I think that was true for Laura, too, and for Ramona. But Laura was basically handed that role: pioneer girl and farmer's wife. Only later does her daughter Rose encourage her to write. Ramona never questions what she will be when she "grows up"; she's just told to Grow Up by her irritated sister, and she quips that she's trying to! What that means is sort of nebulous, though her father's struggles with employment and being an artist sort of frame the idea of growing up. Grace Lin's Pacy spends an entire book trying to figure out what her true calling is, and it turns out to be a writer and illustrator. This book was written most recently, and reflects this idea that finding one's true self is the work of today's children (and, I would argue, adults). But in finding ourselves, do we lose the ability to care for ourselves? That was a fear of Ramona's time (for while she is timeless, she is also largely a product of the 70's and 80's). The goal was to get a job first, then if you're lucky you will be able to be an artist.

How will technology dictate or influence the definition of growing up for my children? I embrace technology, and my kids' use of it. But I want to balance that with spirituality and the ability to do things in the real world, like build something or raise animals for food. So I homeschool, read, study history, and learn how to do things myself. Right now I'm learning to knit. And every day I try to balance my daughter's use of the computer with real-time engagement, which for her is not easy.

In the crunchier homeschooling community there can be some judgment about computer use. I also have homeschool and not homeschooled friends for whom the computer - gaming, iPads, etc. - is a central part of existence. Neither approach works for our family. Finding balance, though, is a daily struggle. It seems that one way to frame this balance is to read together and to explore, as a family, where that reading brings us.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Our First Badge - Healthy Eating

My daughter earned her first homeschool badge, Healthy Eating, by writing the following essay, her first ever essay.

Perfectionism and the Journey

I caught myself thinking this morning - Why is this parenting stuff so hard? Why didn't I read everything I needed to know before my kids were born and get it all figured out long ago? (As if that were even possible.)

Then I realized how I let myself learn about any other subject as I go - while writing a book, keeping chickens, gardening. I don't see it as a failure, but a journey deepening into something I value. Somehow learning to parent as I go feels like a failure. And into my mind popped the image of my daughter (age 7) melting into a pile of self revulsion because she can't draw or play piano or spell a word perfectly the first or second or third time. Hmm, I thought - while my response is less dramatic, it's the same pattern. Expecting myself to be beyond perfect from square one.

Time to let myself grow as I go, even as a parent, and to show my daughter my process. I've tried to show her my mistakes and learning in other areas - sewing, cooking, my career - but never my biggest project of all, parenting.

My daughter is an amazing artist. And she has a lot of room to grow. I guess maybe I can say the same about me as a parent - the former can be true, and the latter is okay, too.

Control or Mutual Creation

I'm reading articles in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Home Education Magazine about how other homeschooling and attachment-style parents are working towards not controlling their children. They are seeing how their fears have gotten in the way of letting their children grow into people who realize their own self control, aware of their own limits and their choices for honoring those limits. I feel myself resist a little against their words. This morning we had yet another explosion from my 7-year-old. It set off the whole house. I'm tired of her being the center of everything, the "spoiled brat princess." My response has been to ignore, stepping in only if she can't bring herself down. Usually she can't. So I offer empathy, which usually sends her distress higher. She's a bit of a drama queen. She started crying yesterday, for instance, because her imaginary sister isn't even real, so she is so very sorry and sad that she is all alone in the world. I wanted to roll my eyes and say, "Please. Get over yourself already." But I didn't. Not exactly. I sure did want to control her, though - control her outburst, control her hyperbole, control her personality which so often triggers me. So anyway, this morning, after the outburst when she was still lying on the floor kicking a half-deflated helium balloon and both she and her brother had asked their dad to play with them (I was lying in bed with a horrid cold), I overheard my husband say with great irritation, "Okay, everyone - first I need to clean up the kitchen, and then I can play with you." A little something clicked in me, a memory of how my daughter's behavior was really really challenging a few months ago and how "putting her to work" really shifted the energy. I said, "You can go help Daddy clean up the kitchen," to which she said, no, I'll wait, and I said, no, you won't - you can go help or vacuum, or clean up your room. So she reluctantly helped put away the dishes. And then clean up a few other messes, trying to include her three-year-old brother in the process. He naturally didn't want to help, so she made a game out of it, and they cleaned up together. By the end, her mood had shifted completely.

So then I'm reading these articles, and loving the idea of not controlling my children, but remembering this morning when I told my daughter what to do and it helped her. I wiggled uncomfortably in the thoughts that it actually helped me by reducing my distress at her outburst, and by creating more control in the house. That really I'm controlling. That it won't help in the long run. That by trying to control her behavior I am actually setting up a horrible situation and am a horrible mom.

But a reframe stepped politely in the picture: I'm not trying to control her, I am inviting her (with some pressure) to participate in the family. This gives her a locus other than the world revolving around her, which is never a happy place to be. We expect it to turn out a certain way, because we are at its center, and it never, ever does. But when the locus is the unit of the family, then it's not about control, it's about support and mutual creation.

So I'll be looking now at my ways I automatically try to control my kids and how I can instead invite them into mutual creation and belonging. It's going to be interesting.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Badges Project

After a friend of mine went to Yellowstone this past fall and her daughter collected jr ranger badges, I got me a homeschooling idea. I discovered that on ebay one can purchase girl scout badges for about $1 a piece. Some of them say something, like "gardening" while some of the older ones are just images - a bird, a butterfly, a horse. So we're doing some nature study these days with that same friend, and I've purchased badges for our girls to earn. We're pretty unschoolish, so while my background in outdoor education peeps its head out of the backpack now and then, mostly we just explore and play. We might develop a website someday based on this idea - homeschool badges - where homeschool families can gather online, earn both literal and virtual badges, and get ideas to connect with nature (and other badge-earning projects). But for now we're just keeping it small. Thought I'd pass along the idea!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Importance of Homeschooling Community

I asked myself recently why mainstream culture is so bent on handing responsibility over to others. We give our power to doctors, pharmaceutical companies, teachers and schools, banks and so many more entities and institutions. We have learned as a culture to not trust our intuition, healing ability, bodies, or ability to learn and be curious. Those who do trust themselves are accused of not trusting anyone else, as in the case of homeschooling, for instance. Why is there such a fear of taking responsibility? I think this is because in our current society, we see either/or: either the responsibility is ALL on my shoulders, or others will be my parents and take care of me. We want to be taken care of. The world is overwhelming and scary. I want someone to hold my hand. Who doesn't?

The greater culture has become so attached to giving responsibility to others that we can't even see that a middle ground is possible: I can check with my doctor, then take herbs. I can homeschool and hire tutors. I can grow a garden and shop at the grocery store. I can earn a living and ask for help when I need it. Doing both is not shameful nor disrespectful.

The problem is, our society is set up in such a way that we can only see one or the other: homemade herbal remedy or antibiotics and other drugs. School or homeschool. Order or anarchy.

Truth is, there is a middle ground, and it neither means giving away power nor taking all the responsibility on my own shoulders. This "middle ground" is called community. The doctor becomes a member of your tribe, with knowledge and access we can tap into. The child learns from the parents, a tutor, gymnastics instructor, other parents, her friends... and so on.

As homeschoolers we can help shift the paradigm of either/or to the circle. The dance. The flow.

So let me ask you: What would the ideal homeschool community look like? Where do you need help? What do you have to offer others that supports your soul work while supporting others?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Art on the Patio

I've always wanted to get a big roll of paper, unroll a big huge section, and let the kids go to town with paint. So I did. I got the paper and paints through Rainbow Resource.

The drawing was so long I didn't have a wall to hang it on. We had to tear off one end to make room! Somehow I didn't get a picture of that. But you can imagine the color.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Soul Centered Homeschooling

My husband just finished a power-filled retreat with Bill Plotkin, and one of the insights he brought home with him is this chart of soulcentric development. It perfectly captures why and how I homeschool (or at least towards what ends I aspire). I see my toddler as an Innocent in the Nest, and my school age child as an Explorer in the Garden. Homeschool as a way for them to explore the garden in the context of family, community, and nature. It sets up ideal conditions for them to do necessary work as teens, when they need to create a secure and authentic social self, something that is very hard to do in most of today's high schools. With this ground work they will grow up to be authentic, strong adults able to do their work in the world in a meaningful way. And by work I don't mean being successful economic units, although that can be a part of it, too. I mean soul work. Inner work that translates into a calling that makes the world a better place.

Plotkin bases his wheel on the four directions of Native American tradition:

Which of course relates to the Wheel of the Year in Pagan and Celtic spirituality (this lovely one includes some other spiritual holidays as well):

For original, see

And evokes Susun Weed's Medicine Wheel of the Wise Woman Tradition (on page 81 of HealingWise - can't find an image of it online). Weed's wheel also draws on the four directions, but in a context of becoming a power-filled wise woman. If we apply it to child development, early childhood (SE)  is about Surrender: trust, flexibility and chaos. Middle childhood (what is often call "school age") is about Abundance: ecstasy, optimum, nourishment, and self-love. Teens focus on Commonness: simplicity, persistence, and protection.

Another frame that mirrors Plotkin's wheel comes from a totally different tradition, Leadership Education. The phases of learning (and development) that DeMille describes fit right into the soulcentric wheel. The phases according to age are:
  • 0-12 Play/Family Work
  • 12-16 Scholar Phase
  • 16-20 Superb Education
  • 20-24 Depth Phase (Liberal Arts College)
  • 24-50 Build Two Towers (a Family and an Organization)
  • 50+ Impact the World (Statesmanship)
These frameworks as guides for human growth and development, and therefore schooling, bring the focus off of economic and political power (as our current school system is focused) and onto soul development. We are here on earth to grow as souls. Plotkin writes, "When a sufficient number of contemporary people have reentered nature's soulstream and become conscious contributors to the unfolding story of the world, industrialized nations might mature into sustainable, ecocentric, and soulcentric communities, inhabited by people who are wildly creative, imaginative, adventurous, tolerant, generous, joyous, and cooperative members of the more-than-human world." (Soulcraft, 332) Amen brother.

So what does this "look" like? It looks like balance. Lots of time outdoors, but also (for our family) time watching tv or playing (non-violent) computer games. Time together. Time alone. Writing, reading, dancing, playing, arguing, making up, napping, dreaming, going to gymnastics, playing the piano, making smoothies, crafting herbal remedies, playing board games, and so much more. For some it will include a curriculum, like the lovely Oak Meadows on Enki guides. Others might be a part of a school community, but one that fosters and supports soul growth. Like a flexible Waldorf school or an alternative school. Some families will have found a faith community that supports soul growth. Whatever it looks like, the ideas named by Plotkin underlie all the family does. Having language for our intentions, such as Plotkin's wheel, can help us identify what sits right for our family and what we choose to move beyond.

Kid Directed Learning: Earwigs!

Yesterday we discovered earwig colonies under a bunch of rocks in our backyard. There seemed to be a large earwig, a whole bunch of teeny earwigs, and some little white eggs. I was curious about why all of these would be clustered together, so looked up earwigs online. Apparently they are one of the few insects that show some maternal behaviors, as the mother earwig stays with the nymphs at least to their first molt. They molt five times before becoming adults. The mothers also watch over their eggs.

I've never really liked earwigs, but I knew they just eat decaying matter like dead leaves, and they in doing so are an important part of an ecosystem. But those pincers do look nasty, so I also looked up whether or not earwigs bite. They can pinch but can't really break the skin and aren't aggressive.

As I was perusing the wikipedia page on earwigs, my son said, "I want that coloring page!" So I printed out the two images of prehistoric earwigs that lived at the time of dinosaurs. He colored them orange, his favorite color, and I helped him cut them out.

I never would have set out to do a lesson on earwigs, of all things. But just by following our curiosity in the backyard, we included science, art, and fine motor skills in our day. I love it when homeschooling evolves this way. The kids are invested, we're all more interested, and we learn something about the creatures that share our home (preferably outside!).