posts tagged with 'home'

fearless education

There are good things about public schools. It's great for kids of different backgrounds to be together, curriculum coordinators and adventurous teachers come up with great learning activities, and the Common Core standards have some solid ideas about helping kids really understand math. But beneath all that, there's a problem: at its heart, the whole operation is driven by fear.

The other day I was passing by the Waldorf School in Lexington around mid-morning, and I had to pause on the bike path to let a class of first- or second-graders cross from the conservation land behind the school back onto school grounds. It was a chilly day, but they were all well-bundled up and seemed happy enough to be outside enjoying the November sunshine. As I understand it, all the classes at the school spend time outside every day. That would never fly in the public school.

For one thing, the kids might get cold! Kids being cold or wet is a huge concern of public school educators in the suburbs, and most of them are quite happy to disappoint kids' hopes of playing in puddles—or even going outside at all—in order to save them from the dangers of the elements. And even teachers who think that wet feet are their own reasonable deterrent hesitate, less they incur the wrath of parents. Would most parents be particularly upset to have a kid come home still damp? I expect not; but one might be. And that's enough to shut down any puddle fun across the board, and all spring the cry of "Stay out of the puddles!" echoes across Massachusetts schoolyards.

And then of course there's the concern that, if kids are outside—even to "take regular nature walks and observe the daily and seasonal changes in the natural environment"—they'll be missing vital pedagogical opportunities. We're not going to catch up with Singapore if we're wasting time in nature! As is the case with the fear of weather, it's not clear who first decided that first grade would set the academic tone and decide if a student would be able to gain admission to a prestigious college... but now everyone seems to think that. So there are no more toys in first grade rooms, except those to use during the 20 minutes of indoor recess a day kids get when it's colder than 25 degrees or so.

As it is now, no one seems able to step back and take a deep breath and realize that, provided the right circumstances, kids really like learning.

Harvey and Taya doing math, Zion painting

school work delight

And I understand how seductive fear can be. I fall prey to it in my own teaching, and when I think about what I'd do if I were in charge of educating a whole town's worth of kids—or even a dozen at a time—I start to have "responsible" fears about how ready the average child is to make their own educational decisions. That's nonsense, just like it's nonsense to think that eight-year-olds can't be trusted to decide whether they're cold or not. As educators, our job should be to accept kids as they are, and do the best we can to make learning appealing: not forcing facts and methods into kids' heads, but creating an environment where they can explore what interests them and make their own educational path.

It's possible that doing that on a large scale would be a disaster, or even that I won't be able to manage it for our tiny farm-school co-op. But maybe it can work... and I'm not afraid to try!

Harvey and Zion shoveling compost as school work

this is school work too!

Especially when I get free farm work out of the deal!


our fall leaves

Zion--in orange--crouching in a field of fallen leaves

he blends right in

With the warm fall this year the leaves were late to change color, and then they fell all at once. Climate change worries to one side, that was perfect for how we want to experience the fall. A few good hours of trying to catch fallen leaves on breezy days, and an easy ten minutes of raking to create a huge leaf pile.

Last year the highlight of the boys' fall was an attraction at the farmers market fall festival: a plastic kiddie pool filled with leaves, in which was hidden wonderful prizes. The prizes were so wonderful there was apparently a bit of a scuffle after we left—or some other unpleasantness, I didn't get the whole story—so this year the leaves were just for purposeless creative play. That was enough to occupy Zion and Lijah for about an hour, but Harvey wanted more: he wanted prizes! So we recreated the scene at home.

Well, almost. Though Harvey advocated for using our pool, I pointed out that we had about eight times more leaves than would ever fit—or more. So we just hid things in the pile. Besides giving the boys their own private shot at the hunt, we used our leaves for neighborhood outreach: neighbor kids one day, homeschool friends the next. Leah's big bag of plastic animals were plenty exciting as rewards, bulked out with a little extra halloween candy. Though actually, the pure thrill of the hunt may have been all the excitement they needed: witness Zion's reaction to finding an empty egg in the pile.

Zion delighted to have found an empty plastic egg in the leaf pile


For our homeschool day Tuesday the activity was even tied to our curriculum: we also took a nature walk to collect leaves, then made rubbings and compared the shape and structure of some different specimens. And this Tuesday I'm going to have the kids spread the leaves from the pile on the garden beds for mulch. A complete fall experience.

What are you doing with your leaves?


school at home

One of the big advantages to homeschooling a single kid is how much time you save over a classroom setting. There's no sitting around—it's all efficiency. Add just one more student, though, and that goes out the window. Not only does each kid has to wait while the teacher works with the other, but they immediately start distracting each other. So I observed yesterday when we had a friend join us for school... but it was totally worth it.

Harvey gets plenty of socialization time, and we enjoy doing school just the two of us, or with Zion. But what fun it was for Harvey to have someone other than me to play math games with, and to teach and learn from! Plus, pulling carrots is more fun with two.

Harvey and Taya pulling carrots

they were working too hard to pose for a photo

Taya is a kindergartener, and I struggled to recall what I had done with Harvey last year to kick-start his incredible mastery of place value (the most important foundation of math knowledge!). She's also a different sort of learner. It's good for me to work on my skills in the home-school arena, broadening myself to become a teacher of children rather than just of Harvey. Like Harvey, though, she soaks up direct instruction like a sponge... I need some more active, resistant students to really test myself.

Going into this school year we had hoped to do more of this sort of thing. I even had some thoughts that this would be the year we'd start our "school", on a small scale at least. But various family situations—for us and our prospective students—has kept it from happening so far. Yesterday was very encouraging: like getting back on track. We're scheduled for another meeting next Tuesday. Yay school at home! Maybe next time we'll even get to some literacy work.

Harvey carrying Taya on his back

working together


Harvey the writer

Monday is our big homeschool day here, so we don't take Monday holidays off. And we didn't even do any Columbus-themed content today, because Columbus was a big jerk. We did chat for a while on our walk the other day about what the holiday was about, and naturally I tied the explanation in to our ongoing history conversation this fall about Europeans trampling on indigenous people's rights; but in view of what I learned on the internet yesterday and today I think I understated the case. But never mind, because Harvey and Zion have lots of time to fill in any gaps in their historical knowledge or ideological formation; what Harvey worked on today was writing.

You see, in an effort to generate more content around here we're training him to write blog posts—or, as they're known in the world of elementary school, "personal narratives". Today he wrote about Taya's birthday party yesterday; it was a great time, and his account will save me the trouble of writing it up myself.

It was Taya’s pool birthday party and we brought a present for Taya. It was a princess doll that Mama made. We went for a drive and it was so long!

When we got there Taya was already in the pool. We put on our bathing suits and went swimming! And then everybody was leaving the pool, so we left. Then we went in the party room and it was all cold. Then we went in the locker room and put on our warm clothes. Then we went in and made puppets. And then it was time for a game, and we didn’t play. Then after the game Taya wanted her doll so much she opened it up. Then we had cake.

Then it was time to go but we went to the playground with Taya and played with the fire truck and went in the hippopotamus and played “steal Tintin”. And then it was time to go, but we remembered we lost Tintin, so we drove back to the playground to get him. Then we drove back home.

the doll--pink hair, silver crown, dancy skirt--posing on the porch

the doll in question

He needs work on his transitional phrases, but the content is solid. That's pretty much what happened! While it was tough getting him started, once the creative juices were flowing he had lots to say (the story was dictated; we're interested in storytelling, not handwriting and spelling). And when it was time to add the illustrations, he was all-in with the project. He even asked about the technical details of making copies of the masterwork—and then started on another story after supper. There will be many more personal narratives to come over the next few months.

We'll work on writing anti-colonial polemics a little later.


this moment

Harvey sitting on the porch floor using a ruler to measure distance on a string

measuring the time line

A moment from the week.

a homeschool day

When we let it slip that we homeschool, we get a lot of questions about details. "Do you use a curriculum?" is common. We don't, and often what we do is so far from what someone interested in "curriculum" would expect in an educational setting that I can't even think of how to respond. But sometimes it all hangs together to make it look like I know what I'm doing. Like yesterday.

Harvey working with our homemade balance (a 1-by-2 teetering on a block)


On Sunday Harvey and I were talking about balancing and balances, so first thing Monday morning we set one up in the living room. We started with pairs of blocks and then moved on to a wide variety of other objects, comparing weights and noticing that size and weight aren't always clearly related. (And of course, part of the lesson was letting Harvey and Zion tell me that, when one side of the balance dipped, it meant that the object on that side was heavier). We learned that a small stone weighs about the same as 217 foam base-10 blocks—and less than Harvey's new wooden boat, a kit from Home Depot that he put together over the weekend. "Does that mean that my boat won't float?" he asked me (it had been an topic of discussion earlier). "I know stones sink..."

Before we dealt with that question, we had some math practice to do. Which because sometimes I plan ahead was totally tied in, and also gave Harvey a different way to think about addition and combinations.

a math worksheet

this was just as much fun for him

A little bit later we took what we'd learned about weights outside to the wading pool. Harvey's intellectual hypothesis was that his boat would sink, being heavier than a small stone, but his common sense told him otherwise; and indeed, it floated fine. So did a big heavy piece of lumber, while very very tiny light stones sank instantly. I proposed an experiment using tin foil, which had the following results: a ball of tinfoil will float, the same size sheet of foil folded will sink, and a canoe molded out of foil—again, the same size piece—will be able to hold many rocks before sinking.

a boat molded out of tinfoil floating, supporting several rocks

interesting results

Leaving the pool to the littler boys, Harvey and I retired to the shade to think about what was going on. And it didn't take much hinting from me for him to realize that the important factor was the proportion of air contained within an object. That led us into a discussion of density, and memories of the helium balloons the boys got at Bedford Day helped us to imagine how even gasses could have different densities. For a more explicit demonstration, we looked at what happens when you combine water and oil, and water and honey: compared to water some liquids sink, and some float (we did the oil and honey in separate containers so the boys could drink the honey water when the experiment was over).

That was our school day yesterday. Today I painted the porch and the boys played hide and seek. It's homeschooling.


science curriculum

This morning the boys were hanging around the bus stop and felt a little left out when the school kids all got on without them. Then finding a dead snake cheered them up.

close-up of the snake's back, on a ruler

a dead snake

At Harvey's suggestion, snake study made up most of our school time. We carefully observed color, texture—and of course size.

Harvey measuring the length of the snake with a tape measure

21 inches

We noticed that the snake had eyes but no nose or ears; and eyebrows but no lashes. This particular specimen was also without teeth.

macro of a dead snake's face

alas poor yorick

To finish up, Harvey did a scientific drawing of our specimen. With a little guidance he produced three views: the whole back, a close-up of the head, and detail of the underside.

Harvey drawing views of the snake

art and science

The only problem is we didn't have any good ideas of what to do with the snake when we were done (besides feed it to the chickens, which doesn't seem scientific). I wonder if there's some way we could let it decompose so we could recover the skeleton whole. Now that would be a serious learning opportunity!


this moment

the boys running in a field wearing their historical Wampanoag costumes

home schooling

A moment from the week.

a new school year

Not quite September yet, but we couldn't wait any longer; and Monday does seem the best day to start something new.

Harvey on the front porch, smiling and holding his Grade 1 sign

proud first grader

Not that it makes that much of a difference, since we were doing school stuff all through the summer—as much as we ever do, that is. Harvey finished three or four worksheets dated the 28th, for example, that we corrected together today. But it felt different, and not only because we made the sign—we were more focused throughout the morning on doing school things together than we've been for a while. Not completely focused, mind you, because we were also trying to come to terms with finding at breakfast that our fridge had stopped working, but still.

We had to have the sign; it's apparently a thing for homeschoolers. Harvey designed and wrote out all by himself (with my directions for what it needed to say: grade 1 and his name). He only asked me about what colors are in the rainbow. Zion made a sign too ("pre-K") but he wasn't as into it, and was otherwise occupied when I took Harvey's picture.

After the signs I had Harvey tell the story from a wordless book (Wonder Bear, by Tao Nyeu). We also played soccer, and practiced counting patterns and adding to make 10, and took a walk and a bike ride, and drew pictures. And talked about kindness and responsibility and being a good listener. It was a pretty full day!

And don't worry about the other two boys who aren't in "school" yet: they had a fun time too!

Zion and Elijah standing outside their house made from a blanket draped over the tipped-over rocking chair

happy homeowners


out with the new, and in with the old

One of the reasons we wanted to live in this house was because of the porch. It runs the whole width of the front of the house and half of one side, and it's just the place to hang out in the shade on a hot day or under cover during a thunderstorm. It also serves as storage for some of the bikes and car seats—less ideal but maybe even more necessary. All is wonderful, but for one thing: it's falling apart.

Specifically, the pillars that hold up the porch roof, put up maybe sometime in the early '90s, are rotting where they meet the porch floor. In some cases the rot has spread to the toe rails, causing the railings themselves to lean crazily. When two sections of railing by the side door—where the kids like to play—came loose completely, we knew it was time to start fixing the problem.

rot at the bottom of a porch pillar

amazing it's still standing

Luckily, when the previous owners of our house put in the new pillars they tucked the old ones under the porch. I don't know why, but as it happens four of the five stored columns made it through their 25 years of time off as good as new, and are ready to be pressed back into service.

the new old porch column, needing paint but solid

prettier and more solid

Along with just swapping the pillars I also have to replace all the railings, which takes some new lumber; and the renovations of the '90s added three more columns, so I'll need to buy four new ones to finish the job; but it sure is nice to have a head start!