And back to school again

Back to School after 6 years out

Back to School after 6 years out

So, looking at the past today feeling nostalgic.  My daughter went back to school two years ago and my boys today.  This was their choice and I think it is a good one, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come without some anxiety and sadness.  I was happy as I watched them riding down the street.  I can not wait to hear about the day and have a plate of cookies ready for them.  But I am still a little bit sad.

I really enjoyed not cleaning the kitchen every 20 minutes.  I really missed the quick hug from little guy and the older one telling me in one breath about something he was learning about in Africa, how cool it was and do I know specifically why ice water is a little bit colder than ice.

I have learned so much homeschooling the kids.  One of the things I learned is that I was a homeschooler, going to Catholic school in the seventies.  We were homeschoolers when we schooled the older ones for pre-school and early elementary.  We are homeschoolers now that I have three kids enrolled in the schools down the street.  Homeschooling is not really about where you spend your days, it is an attitude about learning.

A Little Time….

When we started homeschooling, I had this vision of our days.  We would be engaged in all kinds of creative activities.  Mom and child, snuggled on the couch reading a story in front of the fire.  Planting in the garden, organically learning about plants instead of the kindergarten curriculum of coloring in pictures of plants.

Since homeschoolers all come with different stripes and spots, it is important for this post to understand we are the flavor that does do “curriculum” particularly in math and English.  The other subjects we cover and this kids are heavily engaged in how that happens, what they would like to learn about.

All three of my kids attended a Montessori preschool and when my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher gave her a kindergarten folder.  Each week, she and the teacher sat down, reviewed her work,  and the teacher made suggestions about what learning goals for the week were in different subject areas.  My daughter was free to complete the work at her own pace, free to complete the work as she saw fit, all at once, in  little pieces, whatever.

This was my fantasy about how we would home school too…who says Math must start at 9:05 and last for exactly 20 minutes.  It seemed to me rigid and limiting.  So off we went, weekly lists for my 7 & 9-year-olds.  The 5-year-old was still in story book time, we read several a day for pleasure so no lists for the little guy.

Did I mention that none of my kids are easily put off, all want what they want now, and all still think the best thing about homeschooling is they get to see me everyday?  I don’t quite understand this last one as I am not the most laid back mom in the world but they are great kids, what can I say?

So back to the weekly schedule.  Little did we know that one of my kids had an LD and vision issue.  As parents who have been in the situation can tell you, planning and organizing is not a strong suit of these kids.  It was taking my child 3 times as long to do his work.  Add to that his difficulty with written output, I ended up typing most of his work while he dictated to me.  All three kids, demanding my time now.  If I was working on math with one, the other two would stand over us and pout until we finished.  Pleasant learning environment?  Not really. Mr. LD would start tapping his pencil or repeating the same sounds over and over as only a little boy can do.  And me, I am an introvert with undiagnosed auditory sensory issues.  It all drove me up a wall!  My mantra was, “I love my children and I will be calm!” over and over.

Finding the solution has been a journey with many changes and revisions.  The current system works pretty well.  The first thing we did was make a schedule…mainly for me.  I looked at the work I required each child to do and marked the subjects that they need me for.  For my now 10 & 8 year olds, there are many subjects where I just need to get them started or to check in on a project they are completing.  My little guy, now 7 needs much more direction so most of his work is with me.

I made a daily chart by time of day and child’s name.  I  plugged in the “Mom” subjects first so there would be no overlap.  I then plugged in the “alone” subjects so they have a time and don’t get forgotten.  The kids know that they can really do the alone subjects whenever they like and in any order.  The “Mom subjects” must be completed at their assigned times and no one may  interrupt.  Well, ok, maybe for blood or fire, but not to ask me if they can have an apple or to tell me that they just finished their work.  We talk a lot about how important it is that they each get their alone time with Mom when there are no interruptions.  The most recent change has been to make sure that little guy gets his time with me first.  He is not yet able to self start like the other two.

The finishing touch is putting the daily schedule in a plastic sheet protector.  Each day as they finish their work, they cross off the subject with a dry erase marker.  The next morning, they wipe it clean and start fresh.  Less waste and work rather than printing the same list out every day.

It took a little time to make it perfect, but it works for us.  Work is done much earlier in the day.  My kids didn’t like the schedule idea first, but when they saw how much more free time they had, all three were sold on the idea.  For both perfectionists and the dwadlers, I think it has helped to know it should take you about 1/2 hour to do this much work.  And for Mom, it has helped me feel that the flow of the day is much more pleasant!

I would love to know what others do to keep their days running smoothly!

It’s Greek to Me!

On the roof of the National Hellenic Museum

This past week we had a great time visiting the National Hellenic Museum in Greektown.  This is a new museum, one we will definitely be back to visit.

The first floor is for children and allows the children to imagine life in ancient Greece.  A portion of the exhibit focuses on the Odyssey.  The kids had great fun inside of the Cyclops cave as well as spending time inside the Trojan Horse.

Inside the Trojan Horse

Inside the Trojan Horse

Making Mosaics

In the cyclops cave


We had a great class discussing Greek art, seeing examples of the black figure vases we had learned about and the kids were able learn about making mosaics.  As our tour closed, they had an opportunity to make their own mosaics.

The museum just opened in 2011, so the exhibit space is not yet finished.  I found this charming and a great way for the kids and I to see the thought process behind a museum exhibit.   I also liked seeing the history of Greektown in Chicago, the interactive nature of the exhibits allowing both children and adults to learn about the history of the Greek population in Chicago.

Add to the day, lunch in Greektown and a visit to the Sears Tower and we had a perfect day!

Cantigny – A Hidden Chicago Gem

Last week, I visited Cantigny for the first time with my boys.  It is a wonderful park, hosting formal gardens, walking paths, golf course and two museums.  We had limited time and were unable to tour the entire park.  This affords us the opportunity to go back and visit another day.

Cantigny was the estate and experimental gardens of Colonel Robert McCormick, longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and WWI soldier.  Coming from a Tribune family (my grandfather and uncle were both Tribune photographers), I remember hearing about “the Colonel” as a child, even though he died before I was born.

Our day started in the gardens, with the boys exploring and finding fish in the ponds.

We met our friends and spent a lot of time with the kids in the Tank Park, a collection of tanks from different times of American History.  We then toured the First Division Museum, filled with amazing displays, chronicling the history of the First Division from WWI to present.  I was hesitant at first about bringing small children into the museum, but the displays are created in such a way that children can understand based upon their ability, without unnecessarily frightening them.  The first rooms were incredibly moving to me, conveying in a very concrete way a WWI bunker.  While far removed from the horrors of war, I felt I was able to process the my ideas of war in a new way.

We continued the afternoon exploring the varied gardens in the park.  We needed to leave before touring the McCormick Museum.  We will come back soon to see the house and spend more time in this magnificent setting.

For more information visit the Cantigny Park website.

Learning Passion

As I have mentioned, this year is our first one homeschooling.  Needless to say, it has been a year of many changes for us.  My husband and I both have graduate degrees, two finished, two not.  We love to learn and both are passionate about our chosen professions.  As our children progressed through school, both of us were saddened by our children’s loss of passion about learning.

Toddlers and preschoolers love to learn about anything, sponges they absorb everything.  In my mind, I think about latency as  an age where children were able to start structured, organized learning–learning in a way different from preschoolers and toddlers.  My children were bright, they wanted to learn, they came home with additional questions about what they had learned in school.

Vijay and I were parents who would say “Well, let’s find out more about it.”  By the time the spelling assignment was done, dinner over, the kids just wanted to veg and who could blame them?  The questions went unanswered.  Weekends would come and they would want to play with friends, my eldest son would spend hours in the backyard looking at the field behind our house, finding frogs, butterflies etc.  How could I interfere and cart them off to the library to complete more formalized learning?  As it was, their door to door time for school was 8:15 to 4. Free time is important for kids too, they can’t be scheduled every minute. They were coming home with good grades, they must be learning.  Yet, they dreaded school, they didn’t want to give up free time to learn about things that interested them.  And isn’t that normal in our culture?  Everyday, don’t we hear of parents discussing how their kids don’t want to go to school.  How we have to coerce them to do their homework.  So my kids found no joy in learning.  And now I know how wrong that is.

We are eclectic homeschoolers, we follow curriculums in a few subjects, other areas we learn about as inspiration hits.  Our days have more free time than when we were traditional schooling.  Most days, the kids finish their work by lunchtime.  Afternoons we take walks, play games, watch a movie, read aloud, do errands, have sports practice and some days just hang out.

In February, we went to the Art Institute and walked by the exhibit on ancient Egypt.  “Mom, can we stop?” my daughter asks.  She calls her younger brother over and says, “Look at this sarcophagus, do you see this?  Let me tell you what that means.”  She proceeds to talk for about 20 minutes, giving us incredible detail about the burial rituals in ancient Egypt, how they make the sarcophagus, etc.  I asked her where she learned all this and she mentioned the library books, documentaries, a tour at the Field Museum we had taken a couple of months earlier.  We had never formally studied any of this in her prior school years or in our home school curriculum.  She had learned this just because she had time, time to read, explore her interests.
As I write this, my kids are at a camp at the botanic gardens.  On Wednesday, we took a walk through the prairie section of the gardens.  “Mom,”  my daughter says, “can we stop at the library and get some books on prairie plants?”  So, yesterday afternoon off they go to the library.  We find the books, add a couple about food chains in the prairie for good measure.  Her brother wants to read too.  So I set them down at the table and ask them to skim the books for reading level and interest as we have about 20 books.
I wander off to help their younger brother, and when I return about 15 minutes later, the table is covered with books about the prairie and the desert.  “The desert?” I ask.  Apparently, she and her brother have decided to compare and contrast prairie and desert habitats.  They have already found some websites to help them with their research.  It is summer, they are pursuing this from their interests, not mine, not their teachers…and they are finding a love of learning!

The Academy

This past spring marks the one year anniversary of our decision to home school our children.  It has been an amazing year filled with growing pains, yet every day I also have a sureness that we have made the correct decision for our family.  I think many people I know think that our decision to home school was a crazy one (seeing how at the time we only knew one homeschooling family).   As a matter of fact, my neighbor and friend from down the street called me and said my daughter had told her we were homeschooling, but she was sure she had misunderstood.  Friends and family were supportive albeit confused and went along for the ride.

It is difficult for me to talk to others about home schooling sometimes, because I feel others may see me as critical as traditional education.  And of course I am.  But, I am critical of everything.  I don’t mean that in a negative way, but in my way of thinking, everything has its positive and its negative side.  You can only improve something by knowing its weaknesses and improving it.   Sometimes you have to choose to opt out and create your own path.

I remember being with a friend one day, she was on her cell and someone asked about her youngest child.  “Oh we just love his preschool,” she said. ” He is thriving.”  My son attended the same school, I thought it was just ok for him.  We both had education backgrounds, we both had lovely young boys: smart, social, happy.  Why was her son thriving and mine just ok?  I struggled with that question for a full year.  My kids were doing well, they were learning, I could measure that the school was teaching them “appropriate curriculum” and that they learned new material each year.  Their grades and test results were those any parents would be proud of.  Yet they were not thriving.  My kids were attending two different schools that were wonderful institutions.  The teachers cared, they were good educators, knew the parents.  The parents of the children attending the students were active, involved in the school, wonderful to all the children.  The children at the school were also great.  The older ones took care of the younger ones, whether they were in their family or not.  So why wasn’t I happy?  Why weren’t my kids happy?

Addressing that question made my husband and I realize that we needed to try something new.  Switching schools would be changing one set of issues for another.  We are blessed to live in a community with many educational resources and options, but none seemed just right for us–other than creating our own education for our family.  And so our journey began.