A Haven for Learning

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What do you do, or want to do, to foster a learning-friendly environment in your home? This was something I remember appreciating so much as a child. I felt like my home was a peaceful, enriching place. I felt like it was sophisticated, and special in a library-ish sort of way. And that made me want to take it all in. It made me want to be a learner. And this is not because it was anything grand. It was a quite small home in fact, and modest. But it was thoughtfully put together with an emphasis on learning, and exploration, and imagination.

The two most powerful staples of this environment were intangible – they were peace and music.

My home was full of grace and love, where silence was appreciated as equally as laughter. Where there was room for plenty of quiet reading, or writing, or thinking. Where introspection was not mistaken for introversion. Where open discussion of ideas and opinions was encouraged, without fear of criticism. Where I was free to explore under the loving guidance of supportive parents. This, I must say, was the most valuable aspect to my environment.

Music It was also, frequently, full of music. Classical music was the soundtrack of my childhood. My parents had a wide range of taste in music, between the two of them, but if there was to be music just playing in the background it would be classical. Through this I learned to recognize popular pieces. I studied the masters in history, I learned to play their pieces on piano, I danced to them in ballet classes, and I became an “old soul” through them.

Books were respected members of my household. Our modest “library” was another indispensable part of the equation. This consisted of two full-size bookshelves, a couple smaller ones stashed in various corners, and piles of random books just about everywhere else. And not just books but, like a library, magazines – especially old National Geographic (which I was allowed to cut up after a certain time for collages); records and cassette tapes of many types – especially the aforementioned classical music; VHS tapes – many of old classic movies and PBS documentaries; also maps – my mother was a huge map fan. Book of Knowledge Now, lots of these books were a tad, um . . . outdated. College texts from my parents days, an encyclopedia from the 70′s, and a set of even older Grolier’s Book of Knowledge (which I still have, and have hauled across the face of this dear Nation, just for nostalgia and giggles). This was, of course, supplemented with new books from my curriculum, book stores, and library trips.

There was a decades-old book on beginning a garden that I found on the shelf one winter that led me to totally take upon myself the planning, preparing, planting, weeding, composting, harvesting, etc. of our small family garden the following spring. I do not even have time here to discuss what I learned and the self-confidence I gained just from being given that liberty. Another ancient tome gave birth to a few week’s foray in flower arrangement, with less than stellar results.

My toys were a mix of “traditional” and “educational” as well. For Christmas and birthday’s I got some of the same commercialized gifts my friends did. But I also got calligraphy writing sets, a sewing kit, a chemistry set, a microscope and slides, a star-gazing guide, a vegetable growing guide, an ant farm. I had lots of toys for the imagination – albeit most of them gender specific, which never bothered me. And I was given freedom to play – mud pies were never frowned upon, and I was quite the master chef of the dirt domain.

Callipers There were so many neat things to “play with” around my house: my father was an engineer so there was always lots, and lots of graph paper. Oh, the things I can do now with graph paper. And his old-fashioned calipers and compass sets. My mother’s sewing machine, and (before we got a new-fangled word processor) electric typewriter. Art supplies, both of the kiddie variety and my mother’s paints.

Looking back, I did not have the newest, or most expensive in most of these things. My parents didn’t have room for a piano, so I made due with electric keyboards of increasing quality over the years. They did not want to opt for the most expensive items unless it was something to which I showed true dedication. They were far more concerned with providing variety, and they did that so well. But the quality of these materials – as far as their newness or expense, does not seem to have been a detracting factor – whereas their variety and availableness was a profoundly shaping force in my education and interests. The freedom I was given to use the typewriter, plant the garden, paint with the oil paints was so much more important than having the latest and greatest.

And I believe this shaped my affinity for somewhat old-fashioned things; and that was never discouraged. Now, I consider myself a thoroughly modern woman – who loves: ballet, classical music, English literature, embroidery – and gets warm and fuzzy feelings every time I encounter graph paper.

As a stream can…

As a stream can rise no higher than its source, so it is probable that no educational effort can rise above the whole scheme of thought which gives it birth; and perhaps this is the reason of all the fallings from us, vanishings, failures, and disappointments which mark our educational records.

- Charlotte Mason

The “X” Factor

314470_243308859049501_1533446756_n As you dive into the first lessons about phonics with your little ones, what do you look for in your program/curriculum/materials which you use? I’m interested in hearing about other parents’ strategies and methods. There is so much to cover with phonics. And what I’m talking about here is the very, very beginning; what I call the “primary” sounds the letters make. As you first start to teach the sounds and then move to sounding out simple words, parents often pull from the alphabet teaching aids, flash cards, puzzles, and books they already have. These should make for a great transition from letter identification to phonics. But I am always surprised by a lack of consistency in most of these products, and by what I feel is a lack of forethought put into their being used for this purpose. I mean, clearly, if there is a picture or word associated with a letter, for instance on a puzzle or flashcard, it is trying to show the actual usage of that letter in a word, it’s phonetic usage. However, so many examples chosen are very poor ones. It doesn’t mean they’re not great for teaching the alphabet, but many fall far short of excellence in phonics.

imagesCA2Q81YF One of these areas is a lack of consistency in using short and long vowel sounds. Some parents like to teach short and long sounds at the same time, others prefer to start simply with short. I am in the “short first, long later” fan club myself. Those are the sounds necessary for reading the simple words that they begin to first sound out: cat, egg, pig, dog, bug. Although, I know that it’s pretty simple to explain that a letter also “says its name” (long sound) at the same time that you are explaining the short sound. And then you can get into the rules and situations where that happens down the road. But what I don’t understand is why so many teaching aids, flash cards, puzzles, alphabet books, etc. will use short vowel sound examples for most vowels, and then throw in “ice cream.”

The same goes for the hard and soft C and G sounds. Again, I choose to go with the hard sounds first, and introduce the soft later. And this is another area that many materials lack consistency. Although, this one is a little more understandable because there are many simple words that begin with both. But if there is only room for one example, I would go with “cat” and “goat” over “chicken” and “giraffe” any day.

But my biggest pet peeve, the one that really takes the cake, is the use of “x-ray” as an example of a word that begins with X. That is like using the abbreviation SUV as an example of a word that starts with S. It teaches you nothing, NOTHING, except what the letter X looks like followed by the word “ray.” OR “xylophone” – equally as enraging. Now, I get it, I get it, there is no perfect answer to this one. If you use words that actually begin with X, they make the “z” sound. But, other than xylophone, when do early readers actually encounter words that begin with X? I don’t know about you, but I have yet to open a Curious George book and stumble across xenolith or xiphoid.

Here is where I believe we need to stop and question things. What do we really want to teach here and why? Lots of letters make multiple sounds, and have various rules surrounding when and why they make them. My goal in this earliest of phonics stages is to teach the, I would call it, “primary” sound for each letter. The one most commonly heard in regular words that very early readers will learn to sound out. The one with the fewest rules and simplest explanation of usage, if possible.

So what I feel is needed is a good example of X making the sound “ks”. Just as in the case of short vowels, this is the sound that is made when the letter appears in most words that very early readers will encounter: fox, box, etc. So what is wrong with using those words as the example? I know that the fact that the X does not begin the word does not make it all pretty and neat like the rest of the letters. But this is the reality of the situation. And if I’m trying to instill anything in my little one, it is the reality of situations. You will run across X far more often in the middle of a word, making the “ks” sound, than you will at the beginning making the “z” sound.

This is where I believe we underestimate our little ones by thinking that it is too complicated for them to grasp that: “This is the word ‘ox’. In this word the letter X makes the ‘ks’ sound, and it comes at the end of the word. X makes a different sound when it is at the beginning of a word, and we will learn more about that later.” By the time this lesson rolls around they will, presumably, have had ample experience identifying the other letter sounds they have learned from A through W, at the beginning, middle, and end of words. So this should not be a novel concept.

But we, as adults, are so wrapped up in the “neat and pretty” that we sacrifice a more useful, and I believe simpler, example to use a poorer example (or no example at all, as in the case of “x-ray”) so that everything begins with the same letter.

My daughter’s My Own Leaptop by Leap Frog, is the only product I’ve found yet to actually think this through and use “ox” as the example for the letter X. I also have a vague recollection of a book I had as a child that used “ax”. Has anyone else seen any other examples?

And what do you guys look for when it comes to teaching phonics? My strategy is just my own, and I love to hear what works for others. Any other pet peeves with products out there?

Own it.

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It’s hard not to compare. I do it too, although I try not to. We compare our homes, our clothes, our kids, our cars, our bodies, our lives to those of others. And as new homeschoolers, we first discover how hard it is to step out and be different and stop comparing ourselves to others in the mainstream, to those who send their kids to public or private school, how to embrace the homeschooling identity, how to…. I love this phrase, “own it.”

And, thankfully, that’s a lot easier nowadays when there are so many homeschoolers out there; and that’s wonderful! The number of fellow-homeschoolers, homeschool co-ops and play groups, enrichment groups and umbrella groups opens up worlds of possibilities for our little ones, helps us feel not so different, and alone, and weird. It helps us stop comparing our family to families in the mainstream world. But there is a problem with it too. And I’ve read other people touching on this; nothing I’m saying here is new. But it’s worth saying again, because there is also a trap in this. You see, becoming a homeschooling family is no longer, so much, forging a path of uniqueness, as it is joining a different community from the public/private school one. The trap is that we’ve now got a whole different group to compare ourselves too, and measure ourselves up against.

And the point I think we all need to see is that you are really (really and truly at the heart of it) no more like the other family at the co-op who also has three small children, just your kids’ ages, and also consider themselves eclectic with an emphasis on Charlotte Mason, than you are like the one next door who has two teenagers who go to public school.

I bring this up because I have heard a lot of apologizing lately. A lot of, “I’m not a morning person, and I don’t start school until 10:00, but I’m working on that.” A lot of, “We’re only doing formal ‘lessons’ three or four times a week, but I’m working on that. But, the other days we do lots of reading or nature walks, and other things though!” You see what disturbs me here, yet? . . . My response is – so what? So what if you don’t start school ’til 10? So what if you do school at 10:00 at night? In my early teen years I found that the late evening was when I studied best. It was a phase, because I am now solidly a morning person, but thank God for the freedom to go with it then! So what if you do seat work three or four times a week, or every other day, or twice on Tuesdays and Saturdays? I really don’t care and neither should you. What you should care about is – does it work for you and your family?

We tout homeschooling as a great opportunity to be freed from the regime of public school with it’s bells, and timetables, and schedules. But then we just subscribe to a different regime, the one homeschoolers are “supposed” to do.

Now before you jump down my throat . . . I’m not saying schedules are bad. I don’t know what I’d do without mine, but that’s what works for me. I’m not saying an early start on lessons is bad. I am, again, an early bird. I’m also not saying everyone has this “I’m not doing it right” mentality. Fortunately, homeschoolers more frequently than most, do embrace their uniqueness. I’m saying figure out what works for you and your little ones and then own that.

Don’t apologize for not being, or strive to be, or wish you were what the Joneses are. And if what you are doing is truly in need of revision (and we all need to revise from time to time), then set some reasonable goals and work toward them. But don’t be hard on yourself. You’re doing the right thing and improving yourself and your processes for the benefit of your family. We all take time to get where we’re going.

And that’s why I love the analogy of homeschooling as a path. We each have our own unique path to forge, with it’s challenges and joys. We all need to change course from time to time, to make sure we’re headed in the right direction. Your path is no one else’s. And your efforts to forge your proper path should be applauded, not apologized for.

So, with homeschooling as with life, intention is everything. Thoughtfully and intentionally choose your path today, then own it.

Memories . . .

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As most of us, homeschoolers, et al., get ready to dig back in, it reminds me of great memories from childhood. I especially have the wonderful memory of how it smelled, yes smelled – weird I know, to open up my box of books every year. From 2nd through 8th grade we got a complete curriculum from Calvert School of Baltimore. There were so many fewer resources back then and my mother was not well connected with other homeschoolers, so our choices were limited, but Calvert worked wonderfully.

I so fondly remember the smell of that box. I love the smell of books to this day because of that wonderful white box with the black profile of the studious child on it. It wasn’t so much that the smell was great, it was what it meant. The wonderful stories and poems, the fun projects, the interesting facts, the adventurers and challenges that were in that box . . . and also the pencils, I loved the pencils. The had “Calvert School – Baltimore” stamped on them and it gave me a sense of validation, of really “doing school.” To this day, the smell of books and pencils invokes what that box meant to me, the opportunity to grow, to improve, be challenged, be amazed. It was a wonderful feeling of anticipation, like a new road, unexplored.

So, what memories do you all have, good or bad, of the beginning of school? Are there smells that bring back funny things like that for you? C’mon, don’t let me be the only weirdo here.

Needful Things

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I have been intrigued with the idea of minimalism, off and on, for some time.  So, although not exactly homeschooling related, I am going to be reading Live More – Want Less by Mary Carlomagno and will be sharing my review of it here.

I have always enjoyed purging my closets, drawers, garage, etc. of unnecessary or unwanted things.  It makes me feel not just organized, but free.  Free from stuff, free from the time spent cleaning stuff, looking for stuff, trying to find places for stuff, free from the emotional attachment to stuff; although I am far, far, far from a minimalist.  I’m interested to hear whether any of you have experimented with minimalism and how it went, or why you would never want to.  What is the stuff that nags you, that you know you should toss?  And what is the stuff that you love and would never want to live without?