April 27, 2011

Back from Break

I remember a day in junior high being called down to the principal's office. I was sure I wasn't in trouble, but I never expected what was waiting for me there that day. I entered the office and saw my mom, signing me out of school for an appointment she almost forgot about. When we got settled into the car, she turned to me and told me she was taking the day off of work and going to the mall, did I want to come, too? Um, leave school in the middle of the day to go shopping, YES! We had a blast together, got something to eat, did a little shopping and had a chance to catch up, just the two of us. I remember that day so fondly, and cherish that memory more than any other day of junior high. And I learned something that day as well, but it definitely falls under a life lesson and not an academic one. It is good to step away from the stresses of daily life every once and awhile and give yourself a treat. It's good for the mind, the soul and the body. 

My mom never took me out of school for a surprise again, but I would very infrequently make use of these 'Mental Health' days to recharge when I was feeling overwhelmed, overextended or burnt out. Sometimes there would be a day I just didn't feel up to going to school. Maybe I had a lot on my plate emotionally, maybe I just needed a change of pace, whatever the reason, if I felt I needed it, I would ask my mom to sign a note for school saying I was sick. I never abused my mother's good will in this manner, and I was always a responsible student, never taking off a day because of tests or projects. I fondly remember those days home alone, relaxing and reading, and recharging for my return to the world. And I've always appreciated my mother recognizing my ability to judge when I needed this time and her willingness to support it.

When we made the decision to move, it was a very emotional experience for Casia. She is not a person that takes to change easily. She gets very attached to things and places and was devastated to be leaving the only home she'd ever lived in. Unfortunately, it took us several months to sell our house and then there was the packing and moving. All of this drew out the process making it even more painful for Casia. There were several days that Casia was emotionally not up to focusing on school work and it was especially on these days that I was glad we were homeschooling. I told her about the story of my mom taking me out of school for a 'Mental Health' day and allowed Casia to take a day off here and there as well. Sometimes, just having a few hours to herself, with her brother at school, her dad at work and me off doing my own thing, Casia was able to calm down and be ready to work again.

With the time taken for the actually moving, plus holidays, a February vacation and several of these 'Mental Health' days, Casia has missed some school. For this reason, when Garrett had all of last week off for Easter break, I felt it was better for Casia to at least make up some of the lost time. So I made a compromise with her. If she spent the morning focused and concentrating on work, she could have after lunch and on through the afternoon to wander the neighborhood with her friends. 

This worked fine for Monday. She started with math, typing and reading and then went out to play. Tuesday, we all got a late start and the neighborhood kids came knocking at the door even earlier. So I gave in that day. By Wednesday, even Jacob didn't see the point in trying to get any school work done. So I caved. That entire week of half-days ended up being just Monday morning. I was disappointed in myself at first, feeling that it was my resolve that had failed. But when I look over the past week, the kids had a ton of fun playing outside and with friends, and we all were feeling refreshed and ready to work this past Monday morning. It reminded me of the lesson I learned that day back in junior high: sometimes you just have to take off and leave the work behind, for a short while, so that you can come back even more prepared, mentally and physically, to tackle what life has in store for you. 

April 13, 2011

Exploring Fungi

This week in science, Casia has been studying fungi. So today, I let her explore a couple of samples using her microscope. I didn't have any particular assignment, I just told her to have fun and take some notes (draw and label what she sees). Her microscope also has a camera, so she took some pictures as well. She had a lot of fun and spent twice as much time as I thought she would on it. She probably would have kept playing but we did have some other work to cover. 

I had two fungi samples for Casia. The first was some mold growing on provolone cheese. I wish I could tell you that I set it aside intentionally, in the perfect environment, to create a specimen for use on this particular homeschooling assignment. But sadly, the truth is, my refrigerator has been much neglected of late. I get busy. I make meals, I put left-overs in, we eat some and others just get shoved to the back. This serendipitously grew all on its own, with no help from me. The other sample was a mushroom that sprung from a potted jade plant recently. 

Casia having fun with the microscope.

Casia has gotten better at maneuvering the slide and getting it into focus.

Mold from the provolone cheese- it looks so pretty under the microscope!
More cheese mold with a better view of the sporangia.

I love this photo she took. 
I'm a photographer myself, and I do a lot of nature macro photography, 
and I think she capture a very beautiful aspect of an otherwise ugly mushroom.
I'm very proud of my little photographer-in-the-making.

April 12, 2011

Rice Mosaic

You can always tell when I'm getting to the end of a unit- that's when we start most of the projects. By this time, Casia already has a strong foundation of Roman history and culture, so we can put that knowledge to use in some fun art projects. Casia made an aqueduct last week and this week she's been working on a mosaic made of rice. 

Casia loves art, and a mosaic was an obvious choice while studying the Romans, I just had to figure out what she could use to make one. I wanted something cheap, easy to get, not too complicated and something she could do mostly on her own.  I ran across the idea to use rice on this Yahoo site. It requires rice (check!), food coloring (check!), rubbing alcohol (check!), glue (check!), tweezers (check!) and something to glue the rice onto. That I actually purchased at a craft store for $1.20. It was this flat, two-sided cardboard-ornament type thing that measures about 4" in diameter. The perfect size.

The first step for Casia, was to put about a quarter cup of rice into a glass bowl (she used four because she wanted four colors) and then she added a teaspoon of rubbing alcohol.

Next she added some food coloring. She wanted to get a dark orange so she used two drops of yellow and one drop of red.
Casia stirred the bowl until the color was consistent all the way through.
She then poured it into a pie plate.
Casia spread the rice around to give it plenty of breathing room to dry.
Casia repeated these steps for the three other colors she wanted to use in her mosaic. She let them sit over night to dry and the next day, I poured them back into the small bowls.
She drew a picture of a sun on the cardboard and then painted on the glue and laid down each piece of rice. She used just a small amount of glue at a time so it didn't dry before she stuck the rice on it.

Here is Casia's finished mosaic. A sun with a blue sky. I think she did a great job. It took her about an hour to  set the rice. Overall, I think this was an inexpensive and easy craft project. Casia and I highly recommend it.

April 11, 2011

The Aqueduct

Whenever Casia and I are in the middle of a unit in history or science, I am always on the look-out for cool projects to do. While doing the unit on Ancient Rome, I ran across this post on a blog that I follow, called Ina's 5 & Our Native Homeschool Blog: Working Aqueduct Model. I was so inspired by the aqueduct model because it really worked! Knowing Casia is really into architecture, I knew she'd jump at the chance to do something like this- and she did.

The first thing I had Casia do was figure out a design for her model aqueduct. She wanted to have a mountain top where the water would originate and then have the aqueduct come down and fill a fountain. Her idea was to create a fountain that actually squirted the water up. And then she planned to put some finishing details on it like houses, trees, et cetera. Next, I told her to look through the recycling bin and craft supplies to see what she could use to build this. We ended up only needing to buy one thing- the base that it sat on. We spent a couple of dollars at the local craft store to get a solid piece of thin wood, but the rest was made from recycled items and various materials we already possessed.

Casia used a cereal box to create her arches. She used a protractor to measure and ensure right angles and a compass to draw the top arch. She made each successive arch a half-inch smaller than the previous one to create the declining plane. She did all the drawing and measuring but I had to help her cut them out.
Casia used the bottom of a paper towel roll as the top of the aqueduct and taped them all together and to the wooden base.
After that, she told me where to cut the milk carton for the mountain top and we used a little plastic cup as the lake on top as the water source. She taped that down as well. She used a lot of duct tape because it's awesome and works so well!

Casia needed quite a bit of help with the straws. We had to cut through the cups to get them in.

Casia used duct tape to seal the joints where the straw pipes came together. It wasn't the most water tight of methods, but it worked well enough to get the water to the end.

After her first trial run, she noticed two things:

1. The pipes leaked the most where they joined with the cups. I suggested she use glue around the joint to help seal it.

2. She didn't have enough water pressure to get the water to shoot out of the straw in the fountain. I knew we needed to narrow the pipe, but working with straws, I was at a loss on how to do this.

That night, after the aqueduct had had time to dry, she used the glue to seal the lake and fountain containers where the straws entered.
Another day into this project, Casia cut up strips of newspaper to use to paper mache. She planned to cover the entire aqueduct and then paint and decorate it.
Casia made her paster using flour and water (she started with a 1:1 ratio but ended up adding a lot more flour) and some salt. I'd heard that the salt cuts down on mildewing (very important for a working aqueduct.)
Casia enjoyed building the model, but I think doing the paper mache was by far her favorite part. She's always been the kind of kid that likes to get her hands messy.

When it was dry, Casia painted it. About half-way through, she starting complaining. She said painting it isn't as much fun as she thought it would be. Casia never did enjoy coloring in Kindergarten either. 
Here's the model after the painting. The white is supposed to represent the snow on the top of the mountain.
Here's another part Casia loved doing. She gathered some branches and twigs from outside and attached them to her model. 
Casia used clay to make houses and a road. The two in the front are the patrician houses. The shacks behind them were for the plebeians. Clearly this model is not to scale, the fountain is about ten times the size of the houses.

This is Casia's finished model. She got Jacob to help fix the fountain. He came up with this great idea to stick a piece of cork in the end of it and then use a toothpick to create a small hole. 

I video taped Casia's demonstration of her working aqueduct, but somehow in the move, I've misplaced my cord to download the video from the camera. It had a couple of minor leaks, but it really worked. The cork in the end of the fountain allowed for enough pressure to squirt the water up in the middle of the fountain. Casia put in a pipe in the bottom of the fountain to drain the water into a bucket.

When I find my cord, I will post the video. I have to say that this was a really fun and rewarding project and I highly recommend it!

April 7, 2011

Yoga in the Morning

Casia and Garrett have started a tradition of beginning their school day with a little yoga. They usually don't even get dressed. They just bring themselves down in their pajamas, roll out the mat and pop in the video. 

Sometimes I use their yoga time as a chance to shower (uninterrupted!). Sometimes I haven't even managed to get myself out of bed yet. But most of the times, I'm sitting at my computer, checking my morning emails with a nice hot cup of tea and the perfect view of the two of them practicing their yoga poses. 

My favorite: the cat-cow stretch. Why? Because it is accompanied by little giggling voices saying, "Meeeeooow" and "Moooooo". I don't know why they add the animal sound effects, but whether I'm getting dressed, still laying in bed or downstairs with a front row seat, it always makes me smile. 

I also love the poses they do together. It's a great bonding time between them and a wonderful way to start their day. Maybe someday I'll be inspired to do some yoga with them.... but probably not. I enjoy sipping my tea and watching them too much.

Standing Leg Pose

Tree Pose

Tree Pose

Dancing Shiva Pose

Supported Bridge Pose

Double Boat Pose

Partner Tree Pose

April 5, 2011

Learning to Learn

One of the single most important lessons I want Casia to gain in the course of her education is the skill of learning to learn. I think so often we are focused on what material our kids need to know, which subjects they should study and which skills they need to acquire. But I can tell you that I personally have forgotten so much of what I once learned (although, thanks to homeschooling Casia, I'm getting a refresher course). Historical facts have been lost, technical scientific terms confused and I don't even want to talk about my inability to do integrations and derivatives anymore! But the one accomplishment that I did gain through schooling was the ability to teach myself new skills, implement new knowledge and gain further understanding of topics that interest me as an adult.

I went to a private university in Upstate New York starting out majoring in science and then adding a very interesting course of study called Health and Society. Basically it was an amalgam of history, philosophy and sociology with some anthropology and political science thrown in, all related to health and allied fields. It was a topic that interested me, but short of attending Public Health School, I'm not sure what I can do with that degree. So do I regret spending a small fortune and four years of my life studying a subject that I'm not likely to ever use? Nope. Not a whit. Why? Because I learned more in college than I did in the whole rest of my educational experience combined. I learned that if I want to know something, I have to read about it, ask questions, share opinions and get feedback. I don't know why it took me so long to learn this life lesson, but I never truly learned it, even during my four years at a decent suburban high school. 

As I look back over my own educational experiences, I see a lot of spoon feeding and regurgitation. The teacher stood in the front of the classroom. I heard the teacher talk about a subject. After several days of the teacher repeating said information a few times, I was given a test and I answered based on the information given to me by the teacher. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this system if the ultimate goal is to have students leave school with a certain amount of knowledge (knowledge I've already admitted to losing after years of non usage), but I want my children to become adept at garnering information that is pertinent to their life and work. I want them to see learning as something they do in their life, not just a something they do in school.

I think that I learned how to learn in college, not because it was 'higher education' or because I was paying big bucks for it, but because the attitude of the professors was different than the attitude my teachers had held before. There's a reason they call them professors and not teachers. They aren't actually there to teach. Oh, they give you a bunch of reading material and they have lecture and office hours for questions, but mostly, they point you in the right direction and they leave it to you to either learn the material or not. I could show up to class without having read the assigned pages, but you know what? I wouldn't have understood most of the discussion. They did not reiterate the reading, they built on it. They clarified it, but they did not simply stand in the front of the room and recite the information I'd just read (well, most of them didn't). They didn't even care *gasp* if I showed up for class or not. There was no pulling me aside and asking me why I didn't attend Tuesday's lecture or why I hadn't put in my best effort on my last paper. If I didn't do the work, it was reflected in my grade. And you know what? It was an extremely good motivator for me. I realized there wasn't anybody holding my hand through the material anymore. I was now the one teaching myself what it is I wanted to learn. It was a truly eye-opening experience and extremely rewarding. 

Since graduating from college I have continued to educate myself on a variety of topics. When I was an administrative assistant at a hospital working under a federal grant program, we were faced with the need to collect a lot of data on our patients, but we didn't have any database with which to do it. The people before me would simply manually flip through paper folders looking for the records they needed and write their reports by hand. I knew there had to be a better way, but I was not very computer savvy myself. None the less, I got myself a book on Microsoft Access Database programming and with some help from Jacob, I built them a database. It worked well and they continued to use it even after I left their employ.  

Later, after Casia was born, I wanted to do some volunteer work and get out of the house for a while every week. I joined my local fire department and became an EMT. I loved going to my EMT class and loved working on an ambulance. I had to quit when I was pregnant with Garrett because I just didn't have the time any more, but I don't regret the experience.

And about five years ago, I became interested in photography. First, I mostly just wanted to take better pictures of my kids. But soon, I was interested in taking pictures of nature and architecture. I didn't know anything about photography, so I started reading about it. I got books out of the library, I read blogs and articles online, and I got out there and started practicing the techniques I was reading about. Within a year, I was brave enough to enter my work into an amateur photography contest (thanks to some prodding by Jacob) and I won! It gave me such a boost of self-confidence, I started to daydream about becoming a photographer some day. Jacob, ever so much more confident than I, started nudging me in that direction. He bought me a digital SLR camera and encouraged me to start my own business. I did zounds of research, spent a lot of time practicing and building a portfolio and less than two years after discovering an interest in photography, I had started my own fine art photography business. I am mostly part-time, selling at art shows and galleries, but it's still a job that I love and I continue to put work into learning how to be a better photographer and also a better business owner.

When we started having trouble finding an academic fit for Casia, I started exploring the world of gifted education. I read dozens of books on the issue, looked into all the alternatives available to us and in the end, began to focus on homeschooling. This led to another round of investigative work. I knew absolutely nothing about it! I went from zero to homeschooling in a few months and I felt confident in our decision and my ability to teach Casia primarily because of all the time I put into learning about homeschooling. I read books about it, talked to people who were doing it, and look at all the research that had been done on the subject. Again, I used my skills in learning to learn to aid me in yet another endeavor. And when I think about my goals for Casia and her education, I keep coming back to this idea that education is less about teaching and more about guiding; guiding her to the resources that she needs to teach herself.

With four years of public school under Casia's belt, she was heartily entrenched in the spoon feeding- regurgitation method of learning. I had all these lofty ideas of how we were going to cover certain topics, and how it would all play out, but when I asked her to select a book on Ancient Egypt, read it and then write down what she learned, she wasn't able to do it. She didn't know what I wanted, even with many explanations. She wanted me to tell her which book to read and then read it with her. She wanted me to ask the question so she could answer and show she understood it. She wanted me to tell her exactly what I expected her to write. I realized then that I would essentially have to start at the beginning with Casia. And the sad part about this is that when Casia was little, before she started school, Casia was already learning to learn. She did it naturally and I instinctively knew how to help her through it. She would show an interest in a topic. She would ask me questions until she exhausted my knowledge and then we would make a trip to the computer and/or the library and she would get her fill of information from other sources. Later that day, or a few days later, after processing all her new found knowledge, she would tell us what she learned. We would discuss it. We would bring up points that she hadn't thought of yet and she would also surprise us with her own unique perspective. This was never something I thought about while we were doing it. It all seemed so natural. Casia was curious and we went from there. She learned lots of information that would be considered educational and lots of skills she would later need in school, like reading, writing and math. But all the while, she was an active participate, nay! the propelling force, and I was just a compass, making sure she didn't lose her way. 

So how do I regain that drive to learn for knowledge's sake? How do I fan that flame that was beginning to extinguish? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. I know I need to encourage her to take baby steps back in the right direction. I know I need to have higher expectations than those placed on her previously. And I know that I need to hold her accountable for her own education in order for her to feel that she has a stake in it. I also need to boost her pride and self-confidence in abilities as she gains them to encourage her own personal growth. With all this in mind, and knowing that I don't have all the answers and that I'm learning as I go as well, I decided to start her re-education with one subject, with one step, and to take it from there.

Enter biology. Casia's previous science education was haphazard. The water cycle in first grade, butterflies in second  and magnets in fourth grade. Little snippets of information, in short little bursts, to get the kids interested but no real connection to anything else they were studying. I picked biology, in part because I had the textbook already, but mostly because Casia showed a lot of interest in animals and the human body. I thought a complete course in it would help fills the gaps of what she'd picked up from various readings and give her the depth that she really craves and the structure that she lacks.

When I first started using the biology text book with her, we read it together. I would read aloud and have her read some of it aloud as well. I gave her typed up notes on what we'd just read, we talked about it and I answered her questions, helped her study and then she took a test. We did that for a few chapters, until I was sure she was getting the hang of it. Then we switched to, Casia read a chapter independently and I gave her notes on the chapter. We talked about it and I answered all her questions. Again, I followed up by helping her study and giving her a test. When she became quite competent with that, she then learned to take her own notes on the chapter. Now she reads the chapter, takes her own notes, we discuss it and I answer questions and then she studies the material with my help and takes a test. My goal is that by the end of the year, she will read the chapter, take her own notes, we will discuss it together and I will answer her questions, she will study independently and then take the test. She is getting there! 

She has shown so much growth and has learned so much. And I don't mean about biology, but yes, she has learned that too. I mean that she has learned how to read a text book. She now knows how to extract the key information from pages of detailed descriptions. She has been getting better at asking questions, figuring out what she understands and what needs clarifying. Casia has also learned how to take a test without a single multiple choice question. She has learned how to write short essay answers on her tests. And she is well on her way to being able to study material independently without having to have my reassurance that she has mastered the topic. She has shown great progress and I am so proud of her. I do believe she is once again heading down the road of learning to learn.

April 4, 2011

Taking It Year By Year

It was about a year ago this month that I started to seriously consider homeschooling for Casia. She wasn't getting a good fit in the local public school, private school wasn't a financial option for us and we were in the process of moving but didn't know when that was going to happen. At the time, homeschooling was starting to look more and more like the best solution for Casia's short term academic needs.

I say short-term needs because this year has been a big experiment. We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know if it would be successful. And we didn't know if Casia and I would even want to continue after the year was out. And for the last few years, Jacob and I have held the attitude that we would make educational decisions on a year by year basis. This was one of those decisions.

Two years ago we were faced with another decision for Casia's schooling. The public school she was attending recommended a grade skip from 2nd to 4th grade. They basically told us that they were out of options to challenge her and this was their solution- we could take it or leave it. It was an extremely hard decision to make. I wasn't against grade skipping, but I wasn't strongly in favor of it either. I truly felt that keeping her in her grade, but providing some differentiation would be the best solution. She learns faster than the average child, which is why she was so academically advanced in the first place. Putting a grade higher would temporarily provide a challenge, but she still learns at an incredible rate, and once she caught up, she would be with kids that are a year older and she still wouldn't be challenged properly. 

At the time, homeschooling wasn't even a consideration, although now I wish it had been. Back then, we were coming off a horrible year of school for Casia and we were desperate for some challenge for her. So we went ahead and agreed to the grade skip. In retrospect, I wish we'd pulled her out of public school and kept her in her original grade. Now she is in 5th grade. Next year she will be starting middle school at only nine years of age. She's also short for her age and looks about six, maybe seven on a good day. If she stays in her grade (which is my intention) she will graduate from high school and go off to college when she is 16 years old. When I think of that, I have regrets over making that decision to push her forward. I'm sure she will be ready, academically at least, and hopefully she'll be mature enough when the time comes, but I do regret that lost year.

This year we have seen a lot of change for the family. We sold our house, moved three states away and we've been living in a rental property while we wait for our new house to be built. We move again in two months. We've also changed the make-up of our daily routines. Jacob now works from home. Garrett goes off to Kindergarten every day and Casia is homeschooling. There has been a lot of adjusting, for everyone.

So this is the time of year that we start to consider our options for next year. Jacob and I talked about exploring the local middle school as a potential opportunity for Casia. We talked about setting up appointments with the administration, checking out the classes she would be able to take and looking into extra curricular activities available at the middle school level. Hopefully there should be more options available in middle school that were not available in elementary school. The idea is that this would give us some choices. Something to consider. 

But the truth is, I don't want to send Casia to a brick and mortar middle school. With a strong, unyielding passion, I just do not want to do it. She is so young. The grade cut-off for this district is September instead of December, so Casia is technically two grades ahead of her age peers already. She's still academically advanced for her grade, so to accommodate her needs and provide an appropriate challenge, she will need to be placed in upper grade classes for math and science at a minimum. If they even agree to do this, she will then be in classes with kids that are up to four years older. With every fiber of my being, I just don't want to send her off to the local middle school.

What's more Casia doesn't want to go to middle school. She remembers walking the halls of the middle school when she attended her advanced 6th/7th grade combined math class. The class was held in the middle school, but designed for 5th graders. She was in forth grade (after the skip) and she was 7 years old at the time. She hated when the class let out and she had to make her way to the bus to head back to the elementary school. She didn't like being physically pushed around by the bigger kids (nothing intentional, but no one noticed her; she was so small). She also worries that in middle school, she is going to get a lot of negative attention because of her age, her size and her academic abilities. She isn't likely to make a lot of close friends because the older girls won't have a lot in common with her. She's afraid she'll be an outsider.

And besides all that, Casia also loves homeschooling. When I asked her what she likes best about it, she replied that she loves being able to go in depth on topics like she was never allowed to do in school. She loves the science experiments, art projects and special assignments that, for the most part, get completed during the school day. She doesn't have homework to interfere with her playtime. And most importantly to her, she gets to learn at her pace. When she's ready to move on, she does; there's no waiting for others to catch up.

I personally think that our homeschooling experiment has been tremendously successful. Not just adequate, but actually beneficial. I have seen a great changes in Casia's attitude about school and learning. She reminds me more and more of the young Casia, before the four years of public school, who used to dive into topics that interest her, spend hours on projects that challenge her and looks at new information with eager eyes, not tired ones.

She has fewer moods swings, and when she does, it's usually for reasons that we can pinpoint. When she was in school, we dealt with all sorts of temper tantrums, negativity and frustration from Casia and neither Jacob nor I could figure out the why behind it. I'm not sure Casia really knew the why herself, she just knows that now she feels happier. She enjoys school again and looks forward to learning. 

So for now, the decision to continue to homeschool through next year has been made. It's working for Casia, it's working for our family and it's working for me. I can honestly say that I'm not even curious to see what the local school has to offer. I'm happy with what we're doing. I'm confident that Casia is doing well. And I'm relieved that we've made the decision and don't have to have a long drawn out process in front of us.