Ten Apples up on Top: My Homeschool Journey

Okay. I can do this. I was a teacher, after all. I can homeschool my son. I just need a timer, a whiteboard, perhaps a bulletin board. Oh and a desk. And a planner, definitely can’t function without a planner. Third grade. All right, let’s go. 

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One mom, one teacher, one kid. One apple. No problem.

Ah, first homeschooling year. How I weep when I think back on you. My schooly approach was so me. Schedules, timers, and worksheets, oh my. I thought I could knock out school in a couple of hours and have more time to play with my kid. Real World Alert: Ten math problems can take ten hours to complete when a kid isn’t interested in doing them. Tears and tedium. That was the theme of year one.

If one apple isn't working well, why not try two?
If one apple isn’t working well, why not try two?

The next year, I found my true calling in life: Researcher and Implementer of Curriculum. I read books, spent money on curriculum, tried more books, more curriculum, repeat, repeat, repeat. If I happened upon a forum post that included something I wasn’t already doing, I felt a burning need to try it. Now, keep in mind, when I say try something new, I don’t mean substitute the old with the new. I mean add on the new on top of the old. I think my stack of curriculum choices was taller than my fourth grader.

Are your apples cooler than my apples?
Are your apples cooler than my apples?

Oh, hi, Mrs. Jones. Fellow homeschooler. The one with all the cool bookshelves and art station and observatory and backyard wetlands and gymnasium. In your house. My little homeschool world looked less shiny compared to those homeschoolers who seemed to have it all together, all the time. I knew I could never win. I was working so hard to provide an education for my kids (younger sister had entered the mix by this time), and then I would meet someone doing what I was doing, but for seven children. In her spare time after her full-time job. Seriously.

So many of the early years of homeschooling were filled with my struggle to overcome anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. I hadn’t been trained to homeschool, as it turns out. Being a teacher helped not at all. I felt stressed and tired all the time, and I had just two kids and no job.

I had learned some tricks, though. Tears flowed a lot less often. I discovered ways that my kids liked to learn and really didn’t like to learn. Gone were the timers, the long math sessions, and many curriculum choices.

I was finally getting into a groove. I aspired to be more like the mothers who approached homeschooling with a relaxed, flexible attitude. I started to view other homeschoolers not as rivals, but rather as wonderful mentors.

Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.
Balancing apples while skipping rope is a lot like teaching math while folding laundry.

Then, since the kids seemed a bit lonely, I decided to join a co-op. Cue Mrs. Jones’ friends…

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Sure. I’m teaching my fifth grader calculus, and my first grader decided to learn to write using a quill and ink. She only writes in cursive, of course.

Actually, co-op was wonderful for our family in many ways. I got access to a wide variety of homeschool styles and finally had the chance to mentor others, for a change. I noticed how many first-year homeschool moms were terrified and convinced they couldn’t do it. Since I had begun my homeschool journey from a “let’s do all the things all the time” perspective, I usually wasn’t the best person to talk to a new homeschooler on the edge of losing it. But I could point them in the direction of some excellent laid-back moms!

We're living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we're in it together, so it's okay!
We’re living a crazy life: with the kids 24/7, chauffeuring across the state for music/art/drama, and learning to love a house that never gets clean. But we’re in it together, so it’s okay!

Our homeschool community is a busy place. We come in all sizes: unschoolers, classical educators, “let’s not do math this year” types, and everything in between. In my area, though, one thing we homeschoolers have in common is a life of busyness. We’re similar to our schooling friends in that way: lacrosse, drama, music, art, Krav Maga, and field trips fill our days. We never knew a car could keep driving with 200,000 miles on it, but we’re determined not to miss anything. We’re chasing that misguided idea that the perfect opportunity for our kids is the one we haven’t done yet:

In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!
In the cart! Everyone! Quick! All the life-fulfilling activities are just ahead!

Eventually, we each end up here:

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Life causes us to stop and regroup. Perhaps it’s the winter storm that keeps us housebound for a week, or the surgery that means no one gets driven to band practice, or maybe it’s the end of a marriage that brings activity to a halt. It’s hard to be grateful for these moments of boredom, pain, and anguish, but I can find some gratitude in the enforced pauses. After a Kablam! happens in my life, I’m not quick to pile the apples back on top of my head quite so quickly as before. I’ve finally found a way to let some opportunities pass me by, to evaluate carefully whether or not it’s worth taking that class, traveling to that tournament, or participating in that concert.

And although my life is still one of busyness, I take comfort in my homeschool community.

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We’re all balancing a tall apple pile. Mother, teacher, wife, friend, coach, nurse – we homeschool moms do so much. It’s nice to know I have my posse of homeschool moms to support me in this wacky life choice.

Here’s to all the apple balancers everywhere. What fun! We will not let them fall. [Although when they do, we’ll be there to help you pick them up and make a nice pie with them.]

Planning Future Stories: Summer Edition!

Phew! It’s been a while since my last post, I know. The end of the school year seems to hit like a ton of bricks every year. Recitals, concerts, final exams, and the end of… things. It consumes me and exhausts me. I’m on track again, though, having attended a wonderfully restorative retreat with my fellow Brave Writer staffers, and I am now in possession of that elusive free time that comes with the end of schooly things.

For me, free time is planning time. I love to plan. I’ve shared some of my initial thoughts about my two big planning projects, a Shakespeare and U.S. history class for next year. I imagined a free form movement through the year, hitting upon a topic and exploring it in the way that felt best at that moment. My lovely student has informed me, however, that she really prefers having a plan to follow. Ah, she is my daughter in that way. I struggle to be unschoolish in my approach, but I do like having the route established ahead of time. So, it seems, does Olivia. Okay, time to plan!

I have finished working though my ideas for the first quarter of Shakespeare and the entire school year for U.S. History. I would like to say I created the timeline for our studies on my own, but in fact, I borrowed a ton from resources that exist. I not only don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, I also can’t reinvent the wheel. My inner inventor has gone quiet. Ha.

So, what’s happening?

I. Shakespeare. Twelfth Night. We’re going to start with this comedy because Olivia and I both like it, and there is a wonderful group of lessons created by the Folger Shakespeare people around it.

shakespeare set free

Yes, I’m speaking once again of the Shakespeare Set Free series. I so wish I had a group of Shakespeare nuts to do this book properly, but Olivia and I are going to give it a go on our own. The series helps teachers guide students into Shakespeare primarily through performance rather than text-based study. We look closely at text, of course, but the main idea is that Shakespeare is best done aloud. There are lessons on movement, blocking, role playing, sword fighting, and sight gags. There are also lessons on character analysis, close reading, and explicating a scene.

There is  a log to be kept with reflections on the play. I love the prompts because they help the reader connect with the play. One example: Find and comment on four lines from the scenes you’ve read so far: a line that has beauty in it, a line with a good joke, a line that sounds modern, a line that appeals to you for any reason.  We’ll work on Shakespeare three times a week, finishing the play in nine weeks, then we’ll evaluate how it went.

II. U.S. History. I struggled a bit here at first, since I have a lot of websites, videos, and books, but no clear idea how to pull them into a plan. Then I happened upon Karen’s blog post of an American History plan (find it here).  She did the thing I was loathe to do, which was to create a plan with textbook readings, supplementary book readings, videos, and examination of primary source documents. While the textbook is a hefty beast (something I was trying to avoid), I decided to go with it anyway. We’ll see if Olivia balks. If so, we can always ditch the textbook and pursue other sources for reading.

I added five things into Karen’s plan:

  1. Crash Course Videos. This was easy to do, since the videos follow a distinct timeline. Olivia finds them funny, and I know she’ll enjoy watching and perhaps making some of her own.
  2. Field Trips. Once I saw when we would hit Jamestown, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, I went ahead and put a few trips on the calendar. I’ll aim for Williamsburg in October, Boston over Thanksgiving, Ft. McHenry in January and Gettysburg in March.
  3. Help for High School.  I’ve talked about this one before, but we’re going to give it another go this year, trying to put a bit of a historical twist on the writing prompts. This Brave Writer product helps kids get in touch with their inner thought process, discovering what they think about controversial topics and formulating their ideas in the traditional essay format. HelpforHighSchool_largeFor example, while kids are asked to choose a controversial topic such as gun rights, abortion, body piercing, etc., I have substituted in history topics that Olivia will be able to pick a side on after some study, such as war, Columbus, immigration, and colonization.
  4. Alternative Assessments. One thing I find really kills history and science study is an over-reliance on answering comprehension questions as a way to demonstrate understanding. I wanted Olivia to have some options here. She already has a blog idea in mind that she will use to recount some of the information she’s learning. I borrowed these two ideas (1 & 2) for a supplemental list of ways to demonstrate learning. I’ll leave it up to her to pick what she wants to do each week, though I suspect the video-making ideas will have a big appeal. Olivia is a video maker by nature.
  5. Musicals. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Musicals drive interest-led learning around here. In addition to our beloved Hamilton, we’ll include viewings of 1776; Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson; and Little Women, the Musical.

This planner is signing off now! Happy summer to you.