Solace from Books

I almost never write about current events or politics here.  However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days.  From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems.  I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.

Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this.  Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be.  One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.

Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams.  I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class.  We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.

One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968.  It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know.  While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little.  They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.

The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane.  If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person.  “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know.  “Why would that mean other black people were bad?”  Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand.  Why would that be a problem?  Why wouldn’t she have a black doll?  Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others.  Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?”  These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.

Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids.  They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar.  Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids.  The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.

Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can.  It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads.  This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up.  I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.

 

School Projects

Back more than two months ago, I promised the blog that there would be another post about projects and school.  Then, for some reason, I stalled.  It’s not that I didn’t think about it.  I started this post a half dozen times, but I have really struggled to figure out what I wanted to say about this exactly.

Here is what I know.  I know that we’re going to leave formal curricula behind for content subjects to be more project based.  That means math stays and if we decide we need to pick up grammar or logic or anything again, which we have done off and on, then we will, but goodbye to having history, geography, art, and science plans.  We’ve always been loose and living book based with those, but we’re headed out into the sea without a rough map for at least a couple of years.  Some of that will be more kid driven than learning we’ve done in the past, not so much because I didn’t believe in child-led learning before, but because I had two kids who were previously much less interested in engaging in it.  I think having a bit of that rough map in their heads now has made them feel they can at least pick a general direction in which to head.

I also know that pushing forward with some level of standards for learning is also important to me.  It’s important to me that the kids keep practicing writing, keep practicing revising, and keep improving their organization.  I know that while I want learning to be process oriented, I want it to have rules and boundaries.  Life has rules and boundaries.  I believe that “do whatever” is a dead end of a guideline for most people.  People on the whole do better with challenges and the greatest creativity can come from having more rules, not less.  So where this all leads me is that I want there to be a sense that some projects have to be revised and changed and remade sometimes to fit the rules.  Not that every project must fit in a neat box or even be completed, but that some must.  Stories must make sense, imaginary worlds must seem believable, science experiments must follow the scientific method, technology projects must have an end goal.

One of my biggest inspirations in heading more into projects for school has been Partnership Writing from Brave Writer.  It’s not so much more than suggestions for writing projects, most of which we’ve now completed.  However, in implementing these, we’ve always taken several detours and side trips.  The kids have had their own interpretations and we’ve had to negotiate the end products.  It’s been mostly a positive experience for all of us and I’d like us to be focused around that sort of learning, with the kids slowly taking the reins more and more, over the next couple of years.

photo (1)I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects in the past, such as the secret codes, the timeline, the homophones, and the mythology lapbooks.  I’ll add here some images of the catalog sales project.  This was a perfect example of how the kids took the project and really took charge of it.  It was originally designed to be about an historical period, but Mushroom decided his catalog was going to be for many thousands of years in the future, when the sun was about to become a red giant and humans were fleeing to one of the moons of Saturn with the help of special portal technology.  BalletBoy decided to do his catalog for an undersea world where fish apparently shop in catalogs.  I was happy to accommodate these creative ideas.

photo 2 (10)On the other hand, the imaginary
islands project was actually much more difficult for us.  We used the book
Where on Earth?
as inspiration for drawing maps of the imaginary island chains the kids invented.  However, we repeatedly ran into trouble as the kids drew their maps.  You can’t have average lifespan be 25, or, at least, not without an explanation.  And you can’t have extremely rich areas woven in with extremely poor ones all over your island, at least, again, not without an explanation or a story to tell about why.  It’s your imaginary world, but it has to make sense and tell a story.  Getting to that story without feeling like I was just outright overruling them was incredibly tricky.  This was by far the most difficult of the Partnership Writing projects.  Not only was it a supersized one (the schedule allows for it to take an extra month) but it presented more thinking problems than any of the other projects.

photo 1 (10)

We encountered a lot of the same problems when we took on another project that wasn’t a Brave Writer one, this time focusing on math.  We drew from the book Designing Playgrounds from the Math Projects Series in order to study playground design, then propose and design our own playgrounds.  In the end, this was a really fun project.  I liked the build up steps suggested in the book, in particular going to an actual playground and keeping track of what types of activities kids engaged in most often as well as using pattern blocks to think about space on a grid before actually doing any freehand drawings or designs.  There was a lot of really great complex measuring involved in this project, as well as a lot of creativity.  It was really perfect.

photo 2 (11)

Except that we struggled again when things needed to make sense.  The final step of the project involved making models, but it was very difficult to understand that a tiny block was a pretty large piece of play equipment and BalletBoy in particular seemed to feel that building any element to scale was going to completely squelch his creativity.  But if the models didn’t represent semi-accurate scale, then one of the goals of the project, since it was so focused on math, seemed to have gone out the window.  I didn’t feel like letting that go was acceptable in this case.  I got a very good suggestion for guiding the kids through this in the future, which was to think of it like writing and do more first drafts before making the final project.  We did do a good bit of playing around, but more in two dimensions than with modeling, so I think we should have given more time for that.  In the end, we all came to agreement and the final products looked really impressive.  The kids wrote up project proposals as if they were the contractors submitting their bids and they made little drawings and wrote headlines for imaginary newspaper articles about the opening of their new playgrounds.  As you can see above, BalletBoy’s featured a play village, a shallow water play area, and a large climbing feature inside a pretend mine.  Mushroom’s, which is below, was focused on ziplines, a climbing feature, a sandpit in the center, and a huge maze which would have puzzles on the walls and multiple entrances.

photo 1 (11)

 

Summer Books

I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads.  Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.

RevolutionRead Aloud
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer.  It’s the second book in her 60’s trilogy.  The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own.  Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history.  It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution.  Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother.  She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote.  Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story.  Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother.  Mostly I loved the book.  All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes.  However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large.  When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them.  As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced.  They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give.  Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.

Dead End in NorveltAudio Book
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed.  It continued our 60’s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period.  The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun.  Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig.  She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery.  What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly?  Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off?  This book of misadventures had us in stitches.  The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.

Savage Shapes (Murderous Maths)School Read
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it.  I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school.  However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math.  The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult.  It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school.  It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids.  There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked.  We did most of these and it really livened up the book.  This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.

The Lemonade WarBalletBoy’s Read
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures.  The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley.  He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground.  The next was about a classroom crime and punishment.  He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell.  Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.

11 Birthdays (Willow Falls, #1)Mushroom’s Read
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try.  It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best.  In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out.  Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up.  I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it.  The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (NERDS, #1)Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it.  I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him.  While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try.  If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear.  They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series.  It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan (Book 2)Devoured Read
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books.  However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities.  They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading.  However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series.  And now…  this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe.  This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book.  The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out.  Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.

Farrar’s Read
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie.  I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection.  However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids.  Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible.  The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining.  The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone.  I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year.  My goal is to read one per month.  One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list.  The book would also make a good read aloud for kids.  I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.

Metro Solo

Celebrating once camp was over.
Celebrating once camp was over.

There have been a spate of stories this summer about parents arrested or in trouble for letting their kids go to the park alone or otherwise do things independently.  If you’re a parent who reads blogs, I’m sure you saw these stories or the many, many responses to them.

One of the things I’ve seen, which I’ve also written about a little bit here in the past, is that when we know crime has dropped, and we know that children are generally safe from strangers, one of the reasons that many parents don’t send their kids outside alone anymore isn’t fear of kidnappers or violence, but rather fear of judgement from neighbors and busybodies and the subsequent involvement of the government and the potential loss of their children.

I do worry about all these things – the bad guys, the busybodies, and the government – but I keep making the decision to not let it interfere with what I see as best for my kids.  And I think being confident, independent kids is what’s best.  They get so much out of being able to go to the park alone, to ride their bikes on the closed park roads alone on a Sunday, to walk to the store by themselves, and most recently to ride the subway solo.

For the last two weeks, Mushroom has gotten himself to and from his summer camp on the Metro by himself.  We had to get special permission from the camp.  who were initially aghast that we wanted to send him to camp on the Metro.  We live walking distance from the subway, and he routinely goes to the shops near there alone or with his brother.  The camp was right outside a station on the same Metro line.  It seemed like a no brainer, especially since I had to take BalletBoy to a completely different camp farther away in our only car.  Even so, we had to go back and forth with the camp several times and then write up our own liability waiver in order to get them to agree.  One of the camp employees said, “You can’t really mean a nine year old on the Metro, can you?”  But then, by the end of the conversation, when the judgement of parenting was past, he casually added, “Well, I took the Metro at that age alone and nothing happened.”

We actually based the liability waiver on the one from BalletBoy’s camp, which was in a walkable neighborhood suburb that just doesn’t happen to be near ours.  Hilariously, after all that back and forth with Mushroom’s camp, BalletBoy’s simply handed us the waiver the first day.  “Sign here if you want to allow him to sign himself out,” the camp director told me, with no further greeting or explanation.

We spent the first few days of camp getting Mushroom ready to ride alone.  We made sure there there was plenty of money on his card and made him a nifty necklace cardholder like the kind government professionals often wear to hold their clearance badges.  We practiced which trains were the right line and which way to walk and what to do if you accidentally missed your stop.  One morning I rode the subway with him then said goodbye at his station and turned around to take the next train back myself.  The next day, I walked him to the Metro and said goodbye at the turnstiles.  And then, finally, he walked up and went entirely on his own.  He texted me from his cheapie cell phone to say simply, “there.”

As you can probably predict, absolutely nothing bad happened.  He arrived there and home without any issue and without losing anything along the way.  He had a lot to say about the Metro ads, but not much about the people.  No one hassled him or talked to him at all.  The biggest excitement was that he once got on a train that didn’t come to the end of the line.  He had to get off when it shut down and catch the next one.  He adjusted accordingly.  In other words, it wasn’t much excitement at all.

In fact, I kept saying to him things like, “Wow, you’re so grown up!  Taking the Metro alone!” and, “I’m so proud of you!  You’re so responsible!”  And he practically rolled his eyes.  “It’s no big deal,” he told me.

Well, it shouldn’t be.  He’s absolutely right.

First Grade Flashback

The other day, Mushroom pulled out his first grade portfolio in search of something or other and we both got to flipping through it.

Things said by Mushroom included, “I was so young!” and, “My handwriting was terrible!” and, “Did I really write that?” and then, “I was so young!” over again.  Then, later when BalletBoy was home, they pulled them all out, pre-K to present and pored over them.  The table was a mess of old co-op yearbooks and Math Mammoth pages and art projects.  I’m telling you, nostalgia starts young.

I was especially struck by these two writing samples sitting side by side.  This was before we had discovered Brave Writer (though you’ll see we were basically doing it without realizing!), but sitting in the portfolio was this copywork from Charlotte’s Web, which was the book we were reading at the time, I’m sure.  My kids still occasionally do copywork (we do a lot more dictation now) but they almost never get anything wrong.  Seeing this one riddled with errors is like looking at another kid.  I can hardly remember teaching this stuff.

photo 2 (9)

And next to it was this “freewrite” type activity that comes from Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye.  I would write a boasting line and the kid would follow with a boasting line of his own.  He could copy my spelling and syntax and make it his own by changing the end, which he did.  I like the final line, which is, “I’m so strong I could crush the universe.”  Other Games for Writing exercises were in other sections of the portfolio, including the one where each person rolls the dice to see how many words to add to the story.

photo 1 (9)

I know at the time, I was worried.  I was worried that this wasn’t “enough” for writing (later that year I know we tried a couple of different workbook type writing programs, neither of which really worked for us).  I was worried about keeping this stuff up.  Yet somehow we managed and here we are.  I wish I could go back and pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, you did it.  They’re on their way.  It was enough!”

We just compiled the last bits of fourth grade’s portfolios this week.  Into those went a set of writings imagining they were characters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, filled with rich words like “hollered” and “gaping” and all typed up with polished syntax and revised to add detail.  Just like the copywork that I can’t remember being so difficult, it’s miles and miles away from the joint boasting writing exercise from first grade.

 

Curve Balls

What I expected we would do during this gorgeous week of perfect, mild summer weather:

  • Pick blueberries
  • Go swimming
  • Go for a hike
  • See friends and run around
  • Go see the lotuses in bloom at the aquatic gardens
  • Go to the free Apple Camp
  • Wrap up some school

What we actually have been doing:

photo 1 (8)

That’s BalletBoy at the E.R. for a huge gash on the bottom of his foot that he got over the weekend playing at the splash fountain up the street.  So while we did Apple Camp and wrapped up school for the summer, we’ve been stuck inside for this beautiful weather, unable to get out and enjoy it!  BalletBoy can’t really walk and Mushroom refuses to go out in solidarity.  All my visions came crashing down!

But that’s okay, because instead they’ve done other things, including:

photo 2 (8)

  • Made up their own role playing game with a board and dice
  • Built three different variations of guitar games with the Makey Makey (one is in the picture above)
  • Lazed on the sofa and watched every single Regular Show (just trying to be honest here)
  • Invent a quiz show for the Husband and I to face off in (the Husband won, which is not a surprise since he’s an actual quiz show winner – he won the downpayment for our house on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire many years ago)
  • Played lots of board games
  • Made movies (the picture below is a still of BalletBoy’s movie featuring Mushroom as an inventor who makes a robot that goes berserk)
  • Added several hours to their summer reading charts for the library

robotmovie

It’s hard to be stuck inside in the summer, but I’m glad my kids can still make lemonade out of lemons.

Next week, they’re off to summer camp.  BalletBoy is starting to hobble a little better and his stitches will be out soon.  Hopefully I’ll have a nice break and they’ll have a good time at their camps.

Family

Just appreciating so much that my kids have two living great grandparents who they will know and remember.  What a great link to the past it has been during our year of studying modern history as well to be able to say, your Banny was just a toddler when the Great Depression began or your Banny got married during World War II.  How amazing it is to have that living, grounded link to the past and that multi-generational love.  It is a good bit of a drive to see my grandmother so we don’t get to go often, but worth every moment when we do.

banny

Sorry for the blog slowness.  We have been traveling and enjoying summer fireworks and family and swimming and so forth, as well as keeping up school the best we can (so we can take off in the fall).  I’ll have more to post later this week.

How Things Have Changed

Back in the day, it seems like all we did was field trips.  I think this is first grade.  I think maybe it's the Baltimore Zoo the year we had a membership there.

Back in the day, it seems like all we did was field trips. I think this is first grade. I think maybe it’s the Baltimore Zoo the year we had a membership there.

This topic has come up for me several times in conversations in person and online recently so I thought I’d post a little bit about how our homeschool has changed for me as the parent.

When we started homeschooling, I don’t think I thought much about how things would change over time.  Of course, I thought about how content would change and evolve – how we’d cycle through different topics and how we would slowly find more depth with different topics.  I thought about how we would work on skills and how that would change.  I thought about academics and stages of learning and so forth.

What I didn’t think much about was how long it would take or what it would be like for me as the teacher.  I think, when I thought about it at all, that I envisioned that homeschooling would slowly get easier and easier as my kids grew older and more independent in this great, simple arc.

Ha!  Not quite.  There have been some surprises.

When the kids were preschool aged and into kindergarten, our whole lives revolved around one basic goal: keep busy.  If we didn’t keep busy, then boredom could set in for all of us, me included.  As such, we went out all the time, every day.  It felt like we knew every playground in the city.  We spent so much time at so many museums.  We would drive anywhere for anything since the drive took up time.  We had constant crafts and projects and books and routines going.  It was hard to be out and about all the time, but it was even harder to be home with two preschoolers.

By the end of kindergarten and into first and second grade, something had shifted.  It was no longer the case that we had to go or succumb to complete chaos.  Now, the kids were just so much more self-sufficient.  They got up on their own, they made their own cereal for breakfast, they could play nearly uninterrupted for hours, and even at the park I felt no guilt leaving them to play on their own.  Our days became lazy, happy times where we often spent all day outside or on a trip or hike with friends.  School was short and easy.  It was rarely more than a couple of hours unless we had a big project to do.  I made more projects by coaching Destination Imagination and directing Shakespeare plays.  Life was just easy.

But then something unexpected happened.  By the end of second grade and certainly all through third grade, school got harder.  There was more to do, more skills to work on, more work to be done.  It took longer.  There were still long, lazy days outside and field trips and fun projects, but they were fewer.  That wasn’t bad, since they were traded for something new, more serious work.  I saw so much growth and the kids entered a stage when they were more interesting and fun to talk to, where they asked more questions and just did more in general.  However, it surprised me.  School just took a lot of my time.  We routinely had three or four hours a day, which was so much more than those kindergarten and first grade single hours.  And the kids needed me so much more than ever before.  This wasn’t the progression to independent kids that I had expected.

Now, as fourth grade begins to draw to a close (we’ll finish at the end of the summer and turn the calendar over in the fall), I’m finding a new stage in our schooling.  I leave for yoga in the morning or to run to a doctor’s appointment and I leave a list of work to do.  When I return, it’s done!  So school still needs me, but the kids can do so much more on their own.  They read, they write, they do math practice and piano practice and so forth all independently.  I can see this is only going to grow over the next couple of years.  Just as I had started to settle into the idea that schooling older kids simply took more time, it changed again.

I think now that how much homeschooling takes in terms of my time and what it will feel like to me – the busy time, the lazy and free time, the teacher intensive time, the supervisory time, the waiting time – will just change over time.  I don’t know what will come next entirely.  I think, obviously, there will be more independent work, but I also see that there will be times where the kids need to take risks or integrate new skills and to do that, they’ll need me closer at hand.  It’s not a straight line.

Projects, Part Two… A Tale of Two Kids

So I wrote about how we’re moving to be more project based, but one of the major hitches in this plan has been two kids with radically different approaches to projects.  This is coming about especially for the projects they create for themselves.  Right now, we have a nice long chunk of time in the evening for them to work on projects that they’ve created.

BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill.  Mushroom hangs back.
BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill. Mushroom hangs back.

First, I’ve got BalletBoy.  Ever since BalletBoy became my little night owl (if he ever abandons the ballet, I may have redub him Night Owlet on the blog), he has been staying up late to do things.  He has written little books on his iPad, borrowing my keyboard and making illustrations for them on the Scribble Press app.  He has read books and drawn pictures and even sewn things on the sewing machines.  However, mostly he has programmed.  He has become a complete Scratch addict.  So much so that we all had to celebrate Scratch Day like a real holiday with a party.

Here’s a Scratch program he’s especially proud of.  The other night, the Husband came to tell me that BalletBoy fell asleep programming, his hands resting lightly on the keyboard and his head leaned back on the sofa.  The Husband had to remove the computer and carry him to bed.

Basically, when I set BalletBoy loose, he’ll come up with something to do and carry out most of his projects to completion.  He wants to share them with us and wants validation and support, but he doesn’t want us to do anything but play his games, read his stories, and generally praise his effort.  He might be the perfect project kid at the moment.  He wants to do projects, he’s open to some feedback, but he’s very set on doing his own vision.  He works diligently.  He turns out interesting things and doesn’t let himself get stuck in a rut.

Mushroom on the other hand…  Mushroom dreams big with great ideas for projects and ambitious plans.  He imagines elaborate Scratch games, writing screenplays, creating board games, drawing long series of comics, and more.  However, when it comes time to actually carry out his ideas past the initial exploration, it’s a flop.  He can spend hours imagining and planning, but when it’s time to do something, he always pulls back.  Even worse, the more he sees BalletBoy finish, the more he beats himself up and the less he does.  It had gotten to the point that he was wandering around every evening, complaining about being bored, refusing to work on anything, even refusing to dream big anymore.

The root of this is really his anxiety.  I’m not generally an anxious person, but I certainly recognize how anxiety keeps you from finishing things.  I don’t think I finished a single math assignment throughout high school.  If I just left the last problem or two unfinished, I knew it wasn’t really done, and therefore not really a reflection on my math abilities.  That was a pretty silly justification, but I know that’s how I felt.  For Mushroom, he is afraid to fail, which makes him afraid to commit to really doing anything.

If he was content to not finish things for awhile, that would be okay, but he’s clearly suffering and unfulfilled by this state of affairs.  He has always wanted time to himself to do things, but then struggled to figure out what to do with that time.  I worry that if I simply leave him to it and let him be that he will build up a bigger and bigger block about finishing things.  I see this when he doesn’t have an experience for awhile that’s in his anxiety provoking category.  If he doesn’t run across a dog for a couple of months or doesn’t get a chance to be outside on his own for a few weeks thanks to weather, those things become more and more difficult for him.  On the other hand, the more he does them, the easier and more routine they are, usually with minimal anxiety and fuss.

Mushroom and I have been in talks about all this.  He is, after all, an incredibly self-reflective kid.  He agrees that he’d like me to help him carry things out and finish things.  A couple of weeks ago, with him alone in the house for the afternoon, I suggested we finish a project together.  His enthusiasm for the completion of it was ecstatic.  Close your eyes and remember how good it feels to finish things, I told him.  Below is the little movie we made that afternoon (he did most of the camerawork and all the editing and had the vision, I helped with some of the art).

We’re trying out making a list of projects he’d like to do.  It’s a short list.  When he finishes one, he has to take it off the list and also take at least one other project off the list, a project that will never be finished.  The idea is that there’s this list of options, but he knows that some of them will never be completed and some of them will.  So far, this is working and he’s been more productive than before when we’ve tried to list things he’d like to do and it seemed too open ended or too intimidating.  Right now, he’s working mostly on inventing his own candy and trying to finish an online Code Academy course on Javascript.

Coming up next…  Projects for “School”

 

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

CountdownAudiobook
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60’s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60’s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60’s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.