Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Swimming Upstream: Thoughts on Testing

I didn't plan to test my daughter the week before schools started testing, it just happened that way.

Today's paper gave stats on how many students opted out this year. I'm proud of the parents who are standing up for their children. It's hard to swim against the current, but sometimes it is the only way to effect change.

I don't have the luxury of opting out. Testing is part of the requirements for homeschooling in our state. Since I'm already swimming upstream, I would rather save my energy for more important things. We stumble through a week of testing each year and in return we have the freedom to not test her for the rest of the year.

This year, our test changed to align with goals of the Common Core. We don't have the benefit of the curriculum that goes along with the test, we wouldn't follow it anyway, so any prep must be crammed into the week or two before the test is administered. It's annoying, but nothing we haven't dealt with before. I'm learning to take deep breaths to deal with my own anxieties over these tests and try to remember that the test is a tool. It helps to identify where she is strong and where she not. That is the point of it.I try not to worry about topics we haven't covered, because we are not learning on the same schedule as children in school. She is not behind, we are on a completely different clock.

I already knew she was good at reading and language arts, but I learned that my daughter is also really good at word problems. If every math question were a word problem, she probably wouldn't stress about math at all. Unfortunately, the same doesn't hold true for straightforward calculations. I was like that. Carefully figuring each sum to assure myself I had the correct answer slowed me down. I never figured out the beauty of patterns in math because I was too intimidated by numbers and trying to count out the right answer. I could never finish all of the problems in the allotted time. I thought math was a race I couldn't win. It made me hate math.

Our society looks at testing backwards. We worry about our children doing well instead of their well being. A test should help teachers and parents to identify areas to improve and determine whether they are ready for the next level. If we tell them that passing is all that matters, as if they are winning a game, they learn that passing is all that is valued, not learning. Is it any wonder that cheating and risk taking is on the rise? When are we, as a society, going to learn that the answer to education reform is not found if we keep looking for it in the same places--an extended school year, more homework,  a high score on a multiple choice test? You don't find change when you swim in circles.

I think educating your own or opting out is where true reform lies. Filling in bubbles leaves you without air. It's hard to swim that way.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Time of Sparkles on Dirty Snow

The snow is melting here. Finally. We can see the front yard again and we pulled out some of the Christmas decorations that had frozen into the ground in January. Birds are pairing off, crocuses are pushing their green blades through the mulch, and our first flowers, winter aconite, are blooming. In spite of a few hiccups of late-season snow and unstable temperatures, spring most assuredly has arrived.

Watching the dirty piles of slush and snow seems cleansing. Have you ever looked closely at those melting patches? They are more than just tired hills of dirt-peppered ice. On a sunny day, the light hits it and sets it all aglitter. In spite of all, it is beautiful, and then it's gone. It disappears into the soil and the earth prepares to reward our patience with growth. Soon the yard will be full of green and flowers.

Homeschooling is like that, don't you think? If you looked at our house on an average day at the height of our homeschooling years, it was full of piles of books, paper, crafts, toys, and games. The swirl of activity left a mess in its wake. The clean-up seemed endless. The detritus of our unusual life filled our home. Now that it is melting away with two grown children, I stop and notice those sparkles as we advance into a new phase of life. I appreciate the close knit relationship of my children. I enjoy listening to their conversations, their aspirations. I try to help them where I can as they reach for their goals. As childhood recedes like a mound of snow at the end of winter, I notice the glitter of their personalities, their dreams, their hopes for the future. We see it up close for this brief period before they set out on their own to have adventures and begin their adult lives.

Don't forget to look for those sparkles on dirty snow.

Saturday, February 28, 2015


My camera died last December. The last place I used it was the train show, and after that it stopped focusing. All I could see was a blur, and then nothing.

I try to use my daughter's camera every once in a while, but I'm impatient with it. It feels like I'm using someone else's glasses. I can't "see" anything the way I could with mine. It has no manual focus, and possibly no sport setting either. I used the sport setting on my camera to photograph bugs. Of course, I haven't seen a bug since winter set in, with our frigid temperatures, but I like to be prepared. It was also good for fast moving birds. I watch them, longing to capture their image.

To have a camera is to focus on one thing at a time. To see my subject as I might not if I look at the full scene. To see that one detail that makes me gasp when I open the photo files: the stretched wing of a bird, the delicate scales on our small lizards, the light and shadows playing across the cat's fur, the concentration in a child's face. To focus is to learn, to appreciate, to wonder, to love. My camera deepened my understanding of these things as much as sketching did.

I miss my camera. It served me well for (almost? over?) ten years and survived several drops from various heights over those years. It is likely it lived on borrowed time. My husband wants to replace it eventually, possibly with something "better," something different. I'm trying to come to terms with that. Anything different means relearning how to use a camera. I know I'm going to be unforgiving and compare it to my old one, but I will try to focus on the positive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Recipes are just Guidelines, Really

My 18 year old son is learning to make chocolate chip cookies. He already knows how to make scones, pancakes, waffles and a couple of pasta dishes, but like his big sister, he was slightly intimidated by the cookies. She suggested he start with a recipe from our Fannie Farmer cookbook, the same way she learned.

I realized I haven't followed a recipe for the chocolate chip cookies in a very long time. I learned with the Toll House cookie recipe on the back of the Nestle's chocolate chips many years ago. Once I got the hang of it, I started improvising. At first, I wanted to see what would happen if I used only brown sugar. At this point, my cookies are an adventure every time I make them. I throw in different flours, perhaps add wheat germ or flax seed. I might substitute olive oil for some of the butter, or experiment with the amounts of baking soda and baking powder. If I feel really lazy, I don't even use measuring cups, trusting my sight and touch to tell me if my measures are right. I follow my whims and curiosity. Baking is another outlet for my creativity.

And because my mind is so very random, I started thinking lately about how schools try to use a recipe for education--
Whip up 2 credits math,  fold in 2 credits English. In a separate bowl, mix together 2 credits each social studies and science, 1 credit health education, and arts classes to taste. Whisk all subjects together and set in testing situations for at least 6 hours every year. Serves all students. (adjust serving size per district) Prepared for college placement.

The thing is, recipes are a good starting point, but if you want to make sure everyone enjoys the results, you have to tweak the recipe. I don't use eggs or nuts in my cookies if I know someone has an allergy. Sometimes I cut down on the sugar or salt. I add chips or cocoa to increase the chocolate goodness. I don't just bake cookies. I want this to be an experience that brings a smile and happy memories.

My son's first cookies were a bit messy. I think they needed more flour. They still tasted good. We're encouraging him to try again. With each batch, you learn something new about the nature of the dough and how to make them better. For me, the whole point of using a recipe is so that, eventually, you don't need a recipe.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Carnival of Homeschooling at Why Homeschool

Carnival of Homeschooling The Carnival of Homeschooling: Change edition is now up at Why Homeschool. Please take a moment to visit the carnival, especially those of you who are reaching the end of your homeschooling journey. There are several posts on that topic!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Intangible Talent

My oldest is a tough act to follow.

She's multi-talented, an A student at college, and able to make everyone around her fall in love with her charm, her sense of humor, and her ability to get excited and talk about any number of topics.

My son is the middle child. He is also very talented, but not in the same way as his big sister. He's doing an internship rather than the college route, which is a hard road in our college oriented community. He's also very shy, and if you are not able to hit on one of his topics of interest, any attempts at conversation will fall flat.

I've noticed how hard it is for others to engage him. Family members won't even notice when they cross the line and shut him down. Many don't make it past the hair. He has a lot of it, and it is like my own, very curly and hard to manage. Since he doesn't want to cut it, it is very high maintenance. I'm still teaching him not to forget to condition it regularly, and even with conditioning, there are days when his hair simply decides to do its own thing. His is thicker than mine (which is pretty thick) so it takes a lot of work to get it to look calm. People treat you different when your hair is not tamed. Even when it is, a young man meets regular questions about when he plans to cut it. My son doesn't do well with snappy comebacks, so he simply stops talking. He's not able to play the social games as well as my oldest. If you are nice to him, if you appreciate him, he will respond in kind. If he thinks you will mock his interests, he withdraws.

Those who are able to move past the hair have trouble moving past his computer time. He's on a lot. Not just for games, but for his artwork. His internship at the Digital Arts Experience has really been great. He's learned so much about the process of creating animation, which is necessary if he wants to do game development. The problem with most of your work being online is that it is hard to whip out at a gathering. My daughter is always knitting or crafting gifts. Her skill is very tangible. Most of our family and friends don't know how talented my son is because it's not something that you can display until it's finished. Unfinished computer animation is just pictures on the screen. 

The people at the DAE appreciate him. They always tell me how helpful and creative he is, how hard he works. You need that support when you are an artist. After a year of designing, modeling, rigging, lighting, and everything else that goes into the process of creating animation, he now has something very cool to show family and friends. I hope you enjoy Steve the Gunnasaurus.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Notes on Reading from the Homeschooling Mom

How do I get my kids to love reading?

The simplest answer is to be a reader. Enjoy reading. Read with your kids. Read out those passages from your books that touch you. Even if they don't seem to be listening, they are seeing that reading is important to you.

Throw out any ideas you have about "standards." They aren't written in stone. Children are not standardized. It is better to watch what your child enjoys and then tailor book picks to those interests. And don't think you can offer the same choices to your other kids. Each child will have their own tastes. Some interests may cross, but that doesn't mean they will all want to read the same thing.

Accept whatever they want to read. Try not to belittle them for picking a book that is too easy, or snub their choice of a comic book or picture book. Even a book without words will do a better job of igniting a love of reading than that "classic" that you yourself have not read.

Keep trying. Sometimes it is simply a matter of the right book at the right time.

Click on the graphic to enlarge

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shifting Identities

Coming to my blog makes me feel guilty lately. It's been so long since I posted a comic strip.

Life as a part-time unschooler has been wearing on me lately. I love my job and I love being mom to creative homeschooled kids, but at the same time I'm frustrated. My focus has shifted. I'm not the one home with my youngest and last homeschooler. I don't bring her to as many activities as I used to bring her siblings to. I can't even convince her to come to work with me regularly, which I considered an advantage of working in the library. I miss being around my kids.

At the library, I meet a lot of children and their parents, as well as children with babysitters. The majority are on the public school path. I don't see as many homeschoolers here. There simply isn't that large a population of homeschoolers in our area. To the patrons, I'm the library clerk (or librarian, as most don't know the difference). I feel a loss of identity here, or a second identity forming, as if I were a superhero or spy, living a double life. I can hear the intro...

Strange visitor from an alternative reality, she is Homeschooling Mom! Protector of learning, advocate for her kids, and who, disguised as Cristina, mild-mannered library clerk, fights for truth, knowledge, and a homeschooling lifestyle!

Except I don't talk about homeschooling much at work. Homeschooling isn't something we do, it's who we are. Instead, I compliment kids who borrow books my family loves. I recommend biographies by Mike Venezia to young readers because they were engaging to all of my children. I suggest graphic novels for reluctant readers (which some of their parents don't approve of--"You mean...comic books?"). I've reassured parents that it's OK to let their kids read books below their reading level if the children really love them. It's weird, I feel like I'm trying to homeschool the community.

Lately, my time has also been eaten up by my volunteer work at the library and the nature center. Each have big events coming up on the same weekend. These are also separate identities with their own sets of responsibilities. Superman had it easy. I'm stretched a bit thin.

To maintain my sanity, I try to do some creative things, even though I don't have the time or energy for comics. Here are my latest CD creations. I'm hoping to add more soon. Because I don't have enough to do!


Spirit of the Wind


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Carnival at Why Homeschool

Carnival of Homeschooling The latest Carnival of Homeschooling: Introduction to programming concepts edition is now online at Why Homeschool. Please support this carnival by the founders of the Carnival of Homeschooling and visit some of this week's contributors!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Little Classical Unschooling

Last week, Sierra decided that she wanted more structured learning. She didn't think unschooling was working out for her. I said okay.

I neglected to mention that taking ownership of her education is one of the reasons I decided to try this method.

We set aside time to sit outside and discuss how she learns best and what she is interested in. I always fall back on the classical trivium since it's a very logical setup. Each year, I throw books and information in her path from where we would be on the trivium if she were classically educated. This year would be the modern age and physics. When I'm working in the children's room at the library, I scan the shelves for interesting books on various physics topics and biographies. We pulled down an old Science-in-a-Nutshell levers kit I had saved from the older two. I'm thinking I'll have her build a bridge at some point. Math will be freestyle. I'm planning on using our bathroom dry erase board for writing problems. She's also expressed interest in learning about different places, so she started the year reading about Australia. London will be next.

At the same time, I've started watching Sailor Moon with her. She watched it a while back with her big sister. The two of them learned that it was much better in the original Japanese with subtitles than in dubbed English, so that is how we are watching it now. My kids enjoy anime, and seeing it this way has given me new respect for the style. Did you know some of the earliest anime movies were inspired by art coming out of the Disney studios? I thought that was interesting.

Right now, Sierra is reading Watership Down and the final Skulduggery Pleasant book by Derek Landy. We still get together with other homeschoolers on Wednesdays and she's still volunteering at the nature center cleaning cages and feeding the resident animals. I hope I'll have the time for some museum trips as well. And because it is harder for me to keep track now, she's started telling me what she's doing so I can keep notes of everything for the quarterlies. 

Life is different, but still very much the same.
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