Saturday, July 22, 2017

Birthday Updates

We're done with birthdays for the year, so it's time for me to repent of my blog silence over the past several months. I'll describe the cakes I made everyone and also what they're up to in general.

B7 is first in the lineup, having his birthday at the end of January. He requested an archery cake, featuring an archer shooting at a target. His birthday marked the important milestone of being old enough to join his siblings in archery class, and he was enthusiastic about it. As it turns out, he has the coordination and strength of a stereotypical geek, but he worked at his archery and improved noticeably, such that his arrow was frequently going as far as the target and even hitting it on occasion by the end of the semester (instead of consistently making it only 5-10 feet from the bow).

B7's current obsession is chemistry. When his brother E11 started studying chemistry with a view to understanding minerals better, we came upon the Periodic Table Song ( All the children enjoyed the song so much that we ended up viewing the video multiple times a day, until several of them had it mostly memorized. At this point, B7 began asking questions, and looking for library books. After exhausting the children's section, he moved on to books about the elements from the adult section, finding the heaviest (manmade, radioactive) elements particularly fascinating. At this point, he has the table well enough memorized that he uses the names of elements as proxies for the numbers from 1 to 118. (A trip through the multiplication flashcards begins: "B7, what is 8 x 5?" "Zirconium." "And 4 x 7?" "Nickel.")
H5's birthday comes 8 days after B7's, and he requested a komodo dragon cake. We had seen one at the Honolulu Zoo with my parents over Christmas, but I'm afraid my rendition didn't really do it justice. However, the birthday boy was quite pleased.

H5 continues in his relentless enthusiasm for life. He will be officially doing kindergarten in the coming school year, and several times has approached me this summer demanding lessons in reading, writing, and math NOW. He uses up paper at an alarming rate, sometimes dispatching missives to grandparents, but as often writing things like to-do lists: "Tidy your bed. Play outside." He can't read beyond simple CVC words, so I am frequently summoned for spelling assistance. He enjoys playing chess, both with himself and against opponents. Ari comments that, although he is still easy to beat, he is really trying to think through strategy in a way that B7 doesn't always do.
E11 wanted a pirate ship for his birthday in mid-March. He had a friend over, and they shot each other with Nerf guns (E11 received two as presents), ate cake, and then Ari took them night fishing. 

Unlike B7, E11 excels in archery (and just about anything with a physical component to it). He actually placed first in the Parks & Rec island-wide archery competition among under-12 boys. This summer, he asked to take violin lessons, and has made rapid progress - again, there's a physical component, but he also has a good sense of rhythm and a good enough ear to correct badly out of tune notes without being told. He climbs everything everywhere, so if I ever hear myself asking, "Where's E11?" I am generally looking up. He isn't a total bookworm like his sister, but I do often find him reading - the Harry Potter series and, most recently, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

E3 watched all his brothers' birthdays and wondered repeatedly when it might be time for him to experience a similar event. As soon as he requested a lion cake, he began badgering me, every time he saw me enter the kitchen, to bake it, already. Every time he saw me sit down at the computer, I needed to look at pictures of lion cakes for inspiration. He had to wait all the way to the end of April. But the day finally arrived, and he was glad. (So was I). We took him to the Waikiki Aquarium, using birthday money from grandparents to buy an annual family membership. He was thrilled with the experience and talked about it for weeks afterward.

E3 is a delightful preschooler, interested in helping in the kitchen and hearing stories read aloud repeatedly. He likes playing outside and finding creepy-crawlies under rocks. He is gaining enough sophistication to be included in the older children's games of pretend. He is also completely out of diapers except at night, so we are looking forward to soon seeing the last of that very long stage. About a month ago I pulled out the Sonlight Preschool (age 3-4) curriculum for what we expect will be the very last time, and have read almost a quarter of it to him already. Of course, children's books bear multiple re-readings, so if we finish before Christmas, we have only to start it over again (and again, and again). What's been most fun with this is how much my older children have enjoyed seeing their early childhood favorites re-emerge. I love reading to them, but they also clearly love being read to. It makes me happy!
We have a teenager! P13 is a natural organizer, and planned an art-themed birthday party. She did all the inviting herself, and we ended up with 5 additional girls (as well as her brothers) playing blindfolded Pictionary, making sculptures with air-drying clay, and polishing off an entire artist's palette cake. The night after her actual birthday, Ari and I asked a friend to watch the boys while we took P13 by herself to Outback Steakhouse. It was truly delightful to sit and chat with her for a couple of hours without interruptions from the little guys.

P13 shows her organizational skills in other, more impressive ways, as well. In mid-February, she came up to me and said, "I'd like to start a children's Bible club at the local park. I'll develop the lessons based on The Jesus Storybook Bible, and come up with crafts, games, and snacks. I just need a canopy tent we can set up in the park. Here's one I found on Craigslist, and I have the money for it. Can you contact the people and drive me to Kaneohe to pick it up?" The Bible club has been a tremendous learning experience for her. Although it's been quiet during the summer, with only 1 or 2 people attending each week, during the school year she's had up to 9 or 10 kids. Some of them have been troublemakers, revving motor scooter engines next to her canopy tent to drown out her teaching, and stealing her equipment. But there have been some interesting results to this harassment, as well. On one occasion, as the ringleader of the bullies started riding his getaway bicycle with some of her things, his bike hit an obstacle and he tumbled over. One of the kids in the Bible club yelled after him, "That'll teach you to mess with God Girl!" Another time, she and E11 devised a scheme to make the troublemakers regret their thieving ways: she "accidentally" dropped a box of Altoids when they were coming toward her. But instead of containing powdery white breath mints, the box contained squares of white chalk she and E11 had prepared just for this purpose. When the bully grabbed the "Altoids" and shared them with his friends, they had an unpleasant surprise! It seemed to me an excellent example of being "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16, The troublemakers inspired us to allow P13 to achieve another milestone: her own phone. Now, if trouble shows up, she can credibly threaten to call the police, and they either disappear or decide they aren't going to be trouble after all. P13 having her own phone also makes it easier to let her (and E11, when he's with her) wander around the neighborhood more freely, and to leave her to supervise her brothers if I need to make a quick grocery run in the middle of the day.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

An Experiment

Have you ever walked down the sidewalk with a toddler, holding his hand and trying to compel him to walk at a reasonable pace instead of collecting every pebble he sees? And yet the same toddler, if he decides he wants to run away from you, can be equally hard to stop. You may even wonder, “If I didn’t force him to go at my pace, would his pace average out to something reasonable? Might we get home just as quickly if all I do is keep him out of the road instead of trying to control his speed? And he and I would both be happier that way.”

That’s a picture of how I came to the conclusion that we need to try something radically different in our homeschool. Particularly this school year, with E10 and to a lesser extent B7, I have faced incredible resistance to certain activities (Latin, spelling, or strength & endurance exercises are some examples) while they want to race ahead in others (math, for B7, or geology, for E10). I have also felt a bit as though our school schedule is like one of those bucking bronco rides you see at amusement parks, which becomes wilder and wilder until it throws you off. Our days have been packed with schoolwork, but all of it has seemed so valuable that I couldn’t bear to pare it down at all. And yet I have longed for space for my children to pursue their own interests and passions, without having so many other things to do that, by the time they’re through with their schoolwork, all they want to do is stare at a screen. I realized that I have been guilty of teaching a curriculum instead of teaching my children.

So, the change. I wanted to throw off the scheduled box checking to allow for exploration, but not to throw out all structure and just allow the children to play computer games all day. Suddenly, on Tuesday afternoon last week, I remembered seeing something that could work: the record-keeping book from Notgrass ( I decided to try using this system during the month of February (which, as the shortest month, is an ideal time to try an experiment). There are 11 categories of learning, and for the time being I simply created an Excel file with space to record activities in 10 of them (the one I left out being “Relating to Others: Character and Relationships” – with 5 children in the house, this happens daily without any additional effort!).  I have ordered the actual record-keeping books, but who knows how long it’ll take for them to appear in the middle of the Pacific? For now, I print out 3 copies of the file each day, for B7, E10, and P12. Each child needs to do something from each category each day, but exactly what and how is their choice. Some activities can play double or triple duty: I have been reading B7 a history of Solar System exploration, which covers science, history, and geography (mapping where people like Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler did their work).

So far, we are all a lot happier, having a great time, and learning a lot. On the Tuesday evening when I announced the change, P12 was so happy she was literally jumping up and down. We went to the library the next day, and bought a dozen or more 50-cent discarded/donated books in addition to checking out another dozen or so to follow the children’s interests. P12 has been studying various Middle Eastern countries, learning Arabic with Rosetta Stone, and is working on writing a report on Turkey. She has also written a praise song which she intends to have her Community Bible Study class sing, made a model of the Solar System out of tissue paper, and done some watercolor painting. She’s currently exploring Khan Academy’s Algebra 1 course to fulfill her math requirement.

E10 has been reading about pirates and working on writing his pirate adventure novel. He’s also taking advantage of some of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses: “The Secrets of Mental Math” to meet his math requirement, and “The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology” because he’s certain he wants to be a geologist. I found him a few mornings ago sitting with his notebook taking notes to help him grasp the structure of Earth’s interior and how plate tectonics functions. This is the child who shirks writing assignments, doing the minimum possible – left to his own devices, he’s voluntarily using writing as a tool to further his other goals. I’m in awe. Oh, and he asked if he could get a course “like the geology one” about chemistry, because he had a hard time understanding the chemistry in the lecture on mineral formation. And the high school chemistry course from the Teaching Company is on sale right now! Once he starts working through that, I expect it to stretch his math skills enough that it can count for both science and math.

B7 loves that I allow him to play on the playground instead of requiring “strength and endurance exercises” like sit-ups and push-ups. His arm strength is barely enough to bend a bow (he just turned 7, old enough to join P12 and E10 in archery), but I perceive a pattern similar to that of his brother’s attitude toward writing: when I specified what exercise he needed to do, B7 would do the minimum possible to allow me to call something a sit-up or push-up and do as few reps as he could get away with, but he is quite happy increasing his arm and abdominal strength through playing on the playground for an hour. He isn’t as much of a bookworm as I’d like, though he’ll happily read Dr. Seuss’s more advanced works (Bartholomew and the Oobleck, for example) to H5 and E2. I’m letting him focus less on language arts so he can pursue his true passion, math. So far, our mathematical adventures have included ellipses (as we came across Kepler’s work in his book about Solar System history) and exponents. On the way back from Community Bible Study yesterday, he asked from the back seat, “What does ‘to the power of’ mean?” After a brief discussion of exponents, he sat silently for a minute or two before asking, “So 2 to the power of 13 is 8192?” When we got home, I asked him if he felt that had been enough math for the day or if he would like to do more with exponents. He enthusiastically voted in favor of more math, and lacking a better idea, I hauled out P12’s Pre-Algebra book and opened it to the chapter on exponents. Yesterday and today, he has worked out problems such as, “How many perfect squares are between 1000 and 2000?” and “Why is (125*8)2 equal to 1252*82?” I kept asking him, after thinking he must be exhausted at doing math designed for people 5 years older than him, if he wanted to quit, but he wouldn’t stop before the entire set of problems was solved.

And the little guys? I had been doing school with H5 “to help him feel included”, but somehow had allowed that to turn into pressuring him into a daily reading lesson, writing activity, math game, violin practice, and several other things. He’s not even old enough for kindergarten yet, so I asked myself why I was pressuring him to do early academics and couldn’t come up with a good reason. So for H5 and E2, school time is play time. If they ask me to read books to them, I try to say yes unless I have a good reason, and I involve them in household tasks. With so much learning going on around them, they’re absorbing huge amounts without my needing to do anything.

I’m really amazed at how much my children are learning on their own initiative, and although I announced this experiment as being only for the duration of February, it might well be the way we do things from now on. I feel like I’ve let go of my toddler’s hand, and with only occasional nudges to keep him out of the road, he is heading straight toward home, giggling with joy.