Monday, September 20, 2010

Sometimes Parenting is Hard

I started out this morning thinking that homeschooling is wonderful. Small breezed through his reading today and allowed me to read three books to him without getting all squirmy. He was cute and cuddly, and now has an eagerness to become a fluent reader that he didn't have before. We've been waiting for that spark, holding off on instruction until he was ready to be instructed. Sparks are good things. Struggles are not.

Then I changed my thinking and realized that sometimes homeschooling is hard. Large and Medium were not getting along. Not getting along in a loud, angry, insulting kind of way. They could not agree on who would read the history chapter first. Why this led to an all out struggle is unclear, but it wasn't pretty.

We were going to Park Day, meeting a bunch of homeschooling families for a nice afternoon of play and parents chatting. Last week's Park Day ended with Large whining that we had not yet done history. In response to that, this brilliant parent decided we should do history first. We are on a survey course of history, the kids want to finish it to move on to more in depth study of periods that particularly interest them. I suppose we could just skip the step of finishing out the 19th and 20th centuries together, but they don't want to.

So, I decided that sometimes homeschooling is just hard. I waited for the storm to pass, they worked it out, ending in a few giggles. We read the history, discussed it and moved on with the day. Later, a friend helped me to see that this really was just a parenting issue, not a homeschooling issue. It could have been anything that set them off, they are siblings after all. And close siblings, just a bit over a year apart. They do nearly everything together and probably get sick of each other several times a day.

Sometimes families are hard. But as homeschoolers I think we tend to hold ourselves to higher standards. We aren't allowed to have bad days. We could, after all, just send the kids to school and get some time to ourselves in the middle of the day. I sometimes fantasize about the wonderful projects I could get done during the day if they weren't with me, if I wasn't driving all over the 5 county metro area to get them where they needed to be. But I would be just as unproductive if they were in school as I am with them out. And I'd miss the fights and the reconciliations. Those are some pretty important life skills.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


For the first time ever, I planned out our homeschooling schedule. I've been using the Homeschool Tracker for a while to capture attendance records. In the past I've had great intentions at the beginning of the year to plug in each and every activity for record keeping. But we never accomplished as much as I planned and it turned out to be a whole lot of work for me, with little benefit.

This year, though, we were faced with several time challenges. Our goals include finishing The Story of the World as our history overview for Large and Medium so they can focus on particularly interesting episodes and get into further details. They also wanted to try a more structured science program and chose Life Science from Plato learning. They want to continue reading literature together, perfect their cursive, learn to write articles and papers, build their vocabulary and progress in their math. Small, of course, wants to become a more confident reader, absorb the world around him and have fun.

With all our activities, dance and piano classes, homeschool group meetings and Roots&Shoots, it's hard to fit everything in. All three kids have a paying gig as dog walkers, Large has five hours of dance a week, Medium has three hours of dance, girl scouts and piano. Small has on hour of dance and piano.

Add to the mix my volunteer work with the wonderful InHome Conference, teaching science lab, facilitating Roots&Shoots, helping new homeschoolers find their way in our Westside House group and my need to earn significant money to pay for all this, and you get an idea of my sense of panic.

One final complication is that our login to Plato, made affordable through the Homeschool Buyers Co-Op, is active between the hours of 1 and 4 only. So, I carefully mapped the time we each could spend on each activity, overlapping where necessary, separating the kids when needed and put the schedules on nice colorful charts on the wall. It's been working for a couple days now, with some adjustments we might do OK. Most of all, the kids seem to have more play and daydream time now.

I, on the other hand, have no time. I can fit my conference work in when there is a computer free and if I can have access to my files. Our great idea is to sell books on Amazon, initially from our own stock and later from thrifting. This can be a good way to earn money, but I just don't know where I'm going to squeeze in trips to thrift stores and library sales, to the post office for shipping and computer time to track orders. I guess I'll know it when I see it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How We Started School

We began the school year with a vacation. It just seemed right, watching the neighborhood kids trudge off to school with their heavy backpacks while we were packing and preparing to go. I've never been much for following the school calendar, but do keep track of our learning days as the state requires. The August start rule seems harsh to me, and did as a child. August is still summer, schools are rarely air conditioned, the sun is shining!

We went to a YMCA family camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin. We learned and lived much more there than we would have at home with our usual schedule. It is a beautiful, quiet, secluded spot. The kids met up with old and new friends, were gone from the cabin except when hungry or at bedtime. They caught turtles, frogs, and snakes - or rather watched as other kids did the dirty work. They kayaked out on the lake and watched bald eagles soaring overhead, looking for a meal. The foraged for firewood and birch bark, learned archery, played group games, swam, jumped off the raft and got eaten alive by mosquitoes.

On the way home, we saw this handsome pink elephant not half a mile away from a similarly huge cow. Not sure what the lesson was supposed to be there, but we enjoyed it all the same.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Art of Doing Nothing

We have been mostly unscheduled this summer, for perhaps the first time ever. Large and Medium both really hoped to do an art camp and an archery camp. Small wanted to do gymnastics and needed swim lessons. I had an urge for long car trips to the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, out to the Jersey Shore and back, along the Louis and Clark trail. Unfortunately, an unplanned home improvement project cut into our funds deeply and cancelled all but the already paid for.

We've still had things on our calendar. Homeschool park days and bowling days are favorites. Dance and piano recitals. Museum visits and family reunions. And responsibility for my parents' house has brought us to the beach happily and frequently.

But mostly we are just being still. Medium has learned to act on her boredom by finding what truly interests her, which seems to be everything. Large and Small have had endless days of play with the block boys. I've developed a plan that will hopefully bring in more income so we aren't in the position of telling the kids they can't do something again.

I have memories of summers like this. But really, it was probably only for August that we lived the life of the unscheduled, unplanned. We swam competitively, with daily workouts and weekly meets. As we got older we had two workouts a day, taught swimming and coached activities. So my memory of the endless summer days of play and fun are either from before the age of 7 or from those August days between the swim team awards banquet and the start of school. Three weeks, tops.

But such sweet memories they are! I can't remember a single swim meet, they all blend together. But I can remember entire conversations I had with my best friend, hours of solitude along the creek at the edge of the meadow, reading whatever I liked, long weekends at the beach.

I hope our kids have that memory, not just of summers, but of their yearly schedule. It makes me want to pull back even more on our activities, precisely at the time when Large's dance schedule is becoming more complicated. We will still have days with nothing on board until the evening, days to follow our own interests and inquiries, evenings devoid of homework an paperwork worries.

It's hard to not sign the kids up for classes, club and activities as they come along. Some many great homeschooling parents are bring together kids in such exciting ways, that it feels like we are missing out if we don't participate in everything. Now I find us wanting to pull back not just for financial reasons, but because we want some time alone together. Homeschooling is an evolving adventure.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Beach

We have been fortunate lately to be spending some time on the beach. The beach near my parent's house on the dunes is quiet and mostly deserted. Some days we see no one, others we have occasional joggers, walkers or see other families playing in the distance.

Most of the time we hit the beach after a days worth of errands or cleaning the house. It's a great respite, especially as I find the time spent in the house to be emotionally draining. I often bring a book and don't touch it, preferring to sit and think.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how my parents handled the job of parenting and how it is the similar or different from my own methods. The beach we handle in the same manner. The kids carry whatever it is they want on the beach, usually that is nothing. Sometimes the take a towel. I take a water bottle and my beach chair. When they were younger, they each took a bucket and shovel, or yogurt cups or something to create sandcastles with. Then they realized they needed nothing on the beach to amuse themselves.

Typically we climb over the dune, the kids running up the hill on the hot, hot sand to get to the shade at the top. Then they scamper down the stairs, dash across the sand to the water and go right in. Now that they are older, they have to wait until I'm on the beach before going in beyond knee depth. I used to be able to match their speed.

If it's windy and they can ride waves, they stay in the water a long time. I sit and watch, the water still being too cold for me to go in on all but the hottest of days. Then they come out and each do their own thing on the beach. Large lately has been creating structures out of driftwood, which is why he wanted the towel. Medium sits right on the edge making sand sculptures with the wettest of sand. Small digs holes, makes mountain shaped "lake houses" or slides down whatever ridges the latest storms have left behind. It's a magical spot where they can be and do what they want to, as unstructured or complicated as they want it to be.

My parents let us have a lot of this kind of time in my childhood. We went to this very same community, but to a different beach. We walked along the road or through the sand dunes, carrying our own stuff. Usually nothing at all, except for our teen years when we concentrated on our tans. But even at home, we had a lot of magical spots where we could go and just be with our own selves and the thoughts in our heads. They lived on five acres in a not quite yet suburban sprawl area. Even as small children, my mother would pop us out the door in the morning and expect us to come home when hungry. Or hurt, or tired. We weren't watched over as closely as parents tend to do now, and we certainly weren't scheduled to tightly, especially in our younger years.

I wish we had more opportunity for this kind of life, the magical solitude and freedom to just be. We don't live in the same kind of setting, but we seek it out and take advantage of it as best we can.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Weathering the Storm

We've had some stormy weather lately. I'm not sure if it's unusually stormy, but it sure feels like it. The storms have been pretty severe as well, with lots of rain and more than a lot of wind.

Last night we had the privilege of riding out the storm in my parents' house. It's in the part of Indiana where the lake is mostly north and a little bit west. They built the house on top of a very high and steep sand dune when they were 70 years old. The the lot was available because the previous house had burned down, in no small part due to the lack of water pressure in the town's fire hydrants. My parents were risk takers.

The house is built to maximize the view. Most of the living takes place on the second floor, which puts you nearly at tree-top height as you gaze out at the lake. The entire mostly north facing side is floor to ceiling windows, the living room and library have sliding doors leading to decks. It is stunning in the spring when the dogwoods are in bloom, and in the fall when the oak leave change colors. The house is curved a bit on each side, offering a more panoramic view. This picture is looking more to the west than north.

It rained all morning yesterday, torrential downpours with flash flooding as we ran errands to maintain the house and cars. There was a break in the late afternoon, so the kids and I went to the beach. After a while, looking northwest across the lake, I saw Chicago vanish in a sea of darkness. we heard distant thunder, felt the winds kicking up and headed back to the house.

We sat down to dinner and my angle from the kitchen island was a mostly westward view of the storm marching towards us. In minutes the trees you see here were bent nearly in half, wet with rain and crippled by the wind. We watched the wind open locked windows on the south side of the house. We felt the water bashing the windows. We watched the lights flicker on and off several times before going out all together.

And then I had a chance to reflect again, as I have often done these past few years, on just how smart a man my father was. I grew up knowing of his scientific genius, witnessed his limitless skills in maintaining, designing and constructing houses, barns, room additions, etc. I was in awe of his ability to draw, photograph and sculpt. He could explain anything, and sometimes I could even understand it.

But I had also seen his failures. I had watched him calculate the exact angle and force to hit a cue ball in order to get the object ball into the correct pocket - and then seen him execute the shot and miss entirely. (This was a move named the "Grande Crewe" in the billiards room at the University of Chicago's Quadrangle Club.) I had also seen him, with my brother, cut down a tree that was threatening to fall on a neighbor's house. Again, they calculated the angle to avoid hitting the house and then proceeded to drop it right on the roof. My father was more than human.

Last night, as the lights shut off and the wind battered the house, I felt safe and like a glass in a dishwasher. I knew my Dad had put in an emergency generator to beat all emergency generators. He had foreseen his physical decline and knew he would face the end of his life with some medical equipment that would need a constant energy source. His generator is not based on a tank that needs refilling, but was hooked to the main gas line to the house. He was ultra-prepared.

So, when it failed last night, it came as no surprise to me that the variable he had failed to factor in was human maintenance after his death. The motor oil that lubricates the engine had run out. Mark was able to refill that, managing only one wasp sting, and get the thing running. My father kept a lot of things is his head. Like the knowledge of which outlets are powered by the generator in an emergency. Last summer we had to get the HVAC guy to come out and tell us which ones would be able to provide power to his bed and oxygen machine.

My father spent a couple of years trying to convince his carpenter and window installer that the windows and doors in the library were going to leak. He knew the house had settled, creating a slightly steeper slope to the deck. He could feel the air flowing under the doors when no one else did, could anticipate the rate at which the water was gaining ground. He designed the solution to the problem. But until it leaked, he couldn't convince anyone to do the work. It was an expensive job, and the leak was spectacular when it burst through.

Last night we also witnessed the next failure Dad had anticipated. The entrance to the house is a two story atrium with two sets of floor to ceiling windows stacked on top of each other, forming a bridge to the two arced halves of the house. The top center window showered water in rivulets onto the window sill and carpet on the second level and down to the slate first floor via the open spaces in the bridge. Not as spectacular as the library leak to the bedroom below, but it wont take too many more rains for that to come.

Just as my father correctly diagnosed himself with Parkinsons' Disease a few years before a neurologist could confirm it medically, he lives on in his predictions concerning his largest last masterpiece, this house. When I called the carpenter this afternoon, he choked up. The carpenter had a 12 year relationship with my father and misses his wisdom and humor. He knew exactly where the leak was before I told him, knowing it was what my father was worried about. He told me it took him a while to realize my father was a genius and that he misses him.

Last night's storm was more than just weather.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Science Lab

I am going to miss my science lab while we break for the summer. We have lately been building simple machines and experimenting with them. This is a group of fun, bright and engaged kids. We've done a lot of work, they have learned a lot, even done some fancy math with me and had many laughs. Probably, being such a small group helps. They are mostly friendly with each other, but divide themselves along gender lines. I guess that's normal for 9 to 13 year olds.

We were engaged in our investigations until the weather turned nice. Then they, like everyone else, just wanted to be outside. See what I mean? Smart kids.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Field Trips!

We have had a flurry of field trips recently. This picture was taken just before we boarded the Tall Ship Windy at Navy Pier. We had a thoroughly enjoyable, if chilly, sail on Lake Michigan with the Girl Scouts troop.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Privacy Week

I found this video to be interesting and informative. Thought I would share.

Choose Privacy Week Video from 20K Films on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Frogs and Tadpoles

Small had a class at the Morton Arboretum the other day. The rest of us went along to check out the wildlife around one of the lakes. Mark met us there on his lunch break.

We took a hike down the long hill to the lake. I looked along the shoreline for frogs and saw this fine specimen sitting peacefully. It was only after Mark reached to retrieve a fallen water bottle that the frog hopped back into the water. Medium noticed some things swimming a short distance to the shore and asked if they were tadpoles. I don't know my tadpoles like I know frogs, so I said I didn't know, but doubted it. The bigger frogs haven't mated yet, the chorus frogs are only about 1 1/2 inches full grown and these things were already a couple inches long.

We then walked further along the lake. Large and I examined a egg shell and watched some geese, chatting with a friendly senior resting on a bench. Medium waited patiently, handed the 3x binoculars back to Large and said, with just a touch of attitude: "Minnows don't have legs, Mommy."

Indeed they don't. This child truly needs to be out exploring, sometimes even inside exploring. She reads every single informational sign at museum exhibits, gathers knowledge like a sponge and just never lets it go. Shortly after the tadpole triumph, she calmly explained to me and a group of schoolkids a few years younger, how the snapping turtle she had just pointed out to them and helped them to see in the murky water, catches its food. She said she read it in a Zoo Books Magazine a long time ago. Luckily, I am acquainted with the docent leading the school group and she didn't mind being upstaged by a 10 year old.

To top off that truly wonderful hour, after the snapping turtle submerged, a mink scurried across the bridge into the leaves and brush, changed it's mind when it saw Large, ran back across the bridge and along the lake on the other side. We didn't believe it could be a mink, but asked one of the naturalists, who confirmed they have mink in that location. We also looked at pictures to help our identification.

It made me a little sad that Small didn't learn that minnows don't have legs, but he heard all about it in the car on the way home.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Glorious Mud

Spring has arrived and that means it's time for our Roots&Shoots group to do some amphibian monitoring. We roll logs and rocks, look under branches and debris for salamanders, keep our eyes open for frogs and toads, check the water for egg masses. It's been a much dryer spring than in past years, but that didn't stop the kids from their primary focus - playing in the mud.

It's too late for us to find salamander eggs in the water, but we might have found some frog eggs or tadpoles. Mostly, though, the kids wanted to wade in the water and squish the mud between their toes. We went home pretty muddy, but I think this kind of exploration has as great a value as studiously hunting for amphibians. We aren't exposed to the elements the way were were 50 years ago, these kids just don't get the opportunity to get dirty. They had a great time.

We did see and catch four juvenile American toads, a skull, a patch of fur, a tooth, a lot of golf balls, may apples, jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium. It was a good day, even if we did lose five of the kids on the way out of the woods. Next time I'll know the path of the stream better and ask the kids to stay out of the water until our way back. That way it will be muddy behind us instead of in front of us and we have a chance of seeing something interesting lurking on the shoreline.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Every year around this time - when the sun returns to Chicago, the leaves return to the trees and people come out of their houses - our homeschooling schedule gets all shaken up.

This year we are responding by doing a summer camp schedule. Our first camp week has centered around exploring the book What Do You Stand For, which I highly recommend. Next week we'll do math, then a week of science and a week of art. This better suits our spring time attention span, which has little to do with handwriting and vocabulary and more to do with exploring big issues in wide open spaces.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Baby Blues

I hope I can get today's Baby Blues comic to look right on the page. Very funny to us homeschoolers. First the kids asked how much the mom loved them and wanted to spend time with them. The dad agrees she wants to spend every minute possible with them, not realizing they are trying to convince the parents to homeschool.

My kids are going sledding this afternoon while everyone else is in school. Not quite as cool as video games, but fun none-the-less. We just have more time for fun and are able to put more fun into our days. And more ds time, more wii time, more board game and puzzle time. Not so much tv time, that's not as interesting.

Another point I find funny is that you really do need to love spending time with your own children in order to homeschool. All day, every day. A friend across the street once said to me "I don't understand you. I really enjoy when my kids go out the door in the mornings."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Getting it Back

The first thing to come back as I have been working through my grief and getting accustomed to a life where my responsibilities are focused more on my children than my parents was my ability to read and respond to emails. I go through about 100 a day, with the work on the conference, my science lab, Roots&Shoots group, homeschooling support group and family group. For a while there, I couldn't even open my email unless it was from one of my siblings concerning my father's health, his death, my mother's progress, the planning of the upcoming service, the obituaries circling the globe. Slowly, I was able to read, respond and act on messages that came through. Just in the nick of time, given the conference is six weeks away!

The second thing was my organizing mojo. In my real life, I'm a stickler for loose ends being tied up and good at follow through. For the past year and a half, since my father's condition worsened in the summer of 2008, organizing anything other than my parents' life has taken the back burner. I'm glad to say that is behind me and I can multi-task organizing homeschooling, our household, finances, my mother, the conference, our increasingly complicated activity calendar and everything else life has thrown in my way.

Then my love of exercise came back. Hallelujah! While I'm advised not to get on the treadmill anymore, I can spend 45 minutes on the bike and come away feeling happy, rested and relieved. I've rediscovered my connection between wheat and inflammation and hope to get back on that treadmill very soon, or at least mix it up with the bike and the elliptical.

And now my knitting has come back! I did nothing but easy things for the past year, ever since Mark's last cabled birthday sweater was finished. Many socks, a baby hat and cardigan, lots of stockinette and ribbing. Now I'm brave enough to tackle brain-feeding knitting. I bought the yarn for this sweater vest for Mark's birthday in July and started it last week. It's been a wonderfully quick and interesting knit so far.

Hoping for my weaving mojo to kick in soon, I still have a few minutes left in each day.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Brain food

I read an article last week in the Chicago Tribune about breakfast cereal and it stuck in my head. The Tribune investigation shockingly revealed that the food industry had found a way around regulations requiring more nutritious breakfast cereal by fortifying it's sugary cereal and offering more "adult" cereals. The Tribune was also amazed that children seem to prefer the sugary cereals and that consumption can be correlated to advertising on children's television programs.

I don't know if it's because we homeschool or because we don't have cable TV, but my kids have rarely eaten sugary cereal. Our allergies might also be part of it, but we've never shopped for cereal. We bought the kids cheerios when they were babies and toddlers, a perfect, portable snack. We buy puffed rice when we want to make "gooey cookies." Other than that, we don't really eat cereal. Small once had fruit loops from a breakfast buffet at a hotel. And I can recall Medium pointing to Lucky Charms and saying "That's just strange."

We don't need fast breakfast. Today the kids made pancakes together. Small regularly eats bacon. Medium makes herself an omelet or oatmeal. Large will have last nights' leftovers, a hot dog or fried eggs with no toast. Some mornings we are more pressed for time than others, most mornings they can follow their taste buds and fend for themselves. Small can microwave bacon and oatmeal on his own - he prefers steel cut oats.

It used to be that when the kids were exposed to cable TV, they would stare and stare at it, more interested in the commercials than the shows. Now they talk back at the commercials or skip channels. We don't need cable for reception and are able to watch all we want (including Spongebob) via Netflix. So, we've never had that to cut out of our budget in lean times.

I can imagine the repetitive advertising could get kids begging. But most kids are reasonable. When mine watched a lot of PBS kids, they would occasionally ask for Juicy Juice. I explained the packaging problem of individual juice boxes and the unit cost.

I don't have anything against sugary cereals, but it's never been part of our budget. Along the same lines of kid products and advertising, we did get the strangely flavored Dora and Spongebob toothpaste for a while, but we have now graduated to Aquafresh and all are happy.

Marketing to kids is here to stay. So are parents.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Meet Doug

Medium received a bird cage for Christmas. The poor child is allergic to every possible furry animal, but really wanted a pet who would play with her. Reptiles seemed out of the question, not only because they aren't particularly cuddly, but also because of the mold and/or heat.

So, we decided on a bird. We went to the pet store for food and toys, looked at the parakeets there and then headed off to a local shelter. This shelter is really a cat place, but they take in small animals and birds.

I'm always appalled by shelters. So many animals in one place. This was a small store front with probably 50 cats, several rabbits, gerbils, hamsters and tons of birds. Doug was found in a cage with 20 or so parakeets, all dumped by the same guy, who gave the shelter little information about them. Doug was mostly off by himself, he has a couple of bent tail feathers and was definitely the under dog of the cage. Shunned and picked on. And that made him Medium's first choice in a pet.

The shelter also had 10 or so zebra finches in one cage, a pair of conures, a macaw, several sets of African doves and more parakeets further down. The cat cages were stacked three high and birds were placed on top of them. They had one center aisle with a double row of cages and then two side aisles. The small animals lined the front, also stacked two and three high. Is it that when you run a shelter, you just can't see when you are full? Or is the need so great and the options so bad that they take in more and more animals?

All these animals came from homes. I can't imagine taking my rabbit in, saying I don't want it anymore (even though we have good allergy reasons) and turning it in, seeing the overcrowded conditions right in front of me. Maybe those people are hoarders too? Maybe the shelter has to euthanize every once in a while? Why do people buy pets in stores when there are shelters overcrowded with pets? I know the pets, particularly birds, can come sick or diseased because of the overcrowding problem. But isn't it better to take that risk than feed the breeding and pet store systems?

Doug is doing fine. A little quiet. Definitely freaked out. He's warming up to Medium, letting her take him out to play every day, although he isn't quite socialized yet. Funny, a homeschool kids socializing a bird!