Monday, August 31, 2015

Keeping My Balance: What I Learned from AO Year One

Some things just have to be learned through experience. I knew that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. And yet, somehow I became consumed with getting through all the Ambleside Online readings and ticking all the boxes on my weekly checklist. I got so busy with "life" --the broad curriculum of living books -- that I began to neglect the other two-thirds of education: the atmosphere of our home and the discipline of habit.

Charlotte Mason compares the education we offer our children to a feast of ideas. A feast is a joyous meal, beautiful and satisfying. A feast is not meant to be crammed down one's throat. And yet I sometimes felt like I was dragging my oldest son to the feast to force feed him every day. I needed to stop and take stock.

At a conference this year I heard Sonya Shafer present a basic introduction to Charlotte Mason and her ideas. One of them was "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." Shafer compared this to a three-legged chair. It was such a simple idea, and yet it arrested me. I thought of my last year of homeschooling and realized that my chair was unbalanced.

I know, everyone has bad days once in a while. But my interactions with SA were beginning to be characterized by conflict as I tried to pull him through his lessons each day. I had to realize that this new conflict in our relationship was becoming the atmosphere that was educating my child. I also had to realize that a few new good habits formed could change the dynamics completely.

A Charlotte Mason education is not about making sure all your curriculum's boxes are ticked. Curriculum is a tool in your hands as you educate your child. It is not your master. It is okay to slow down or even stop to deal with another aspect of your child's education.

I was not ready to hear this idea when I first read Christy Hissong's post on Scheduling for Peace at Afterthoughts last year. She quoted Nancy Kelly: "Keep cutting back until there is peace in your home." At the time, I skimmed over it and vaguely thought, "But how would I get everything done, then?"

I didn't really get that Ambleside Online is meant to be only a tool to help me implement a Charlotte Mason education. I know, it says it right there on the website, in bold letters, explained several times! I seem to remember Charlotte Mason saying that even a good method can be turned into a system, and that's what I was doing. I was crossing all my AO checkboxes, but I was losing my balance.

I'm sure this is a lesson that I will learn over and over again. I know what to do now, though. In the midst of a multitude of details of education in daily life, I need to keep going back to the principles I believe in. I need to ask myself, again and again over the course of this homeschooling life, "Is what I'm doing true to my principles?"

Practically speaking, this has meant that I have slowed the pace down a little now at the beginning of Year Two. I am trying to be more mindful of good habits that need to be formed, one at a time. I am more conscious of the atmosphere in the relationships within our home.

Some of you are reading this and wondering how I will get it all done now, how we will read all the books, how we will get through all the curriculum. My answer is that it doesn't matter quite as much to me now. We will continue to walk through it at the pace that works for us. We will probably not skip could we miss any of these wonderful books?! It may be, though, that in the end we will not end up completing all the years AO offers, and that will be okay.

This is the lesson I learned as a homeschool mom from Ambleside Online Year One:
Don't let the need to get everything done rob you of the balance of atmosphere, discipline, and life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No Fidgeting? Now there's an idea!

"No whispering was permitted in school, and no fidgeting. Everyone must be perfectly still and keep his eyes fixed on his lesson. Almanzo and Miles held up their primers and tried not to swing their legs. Their legs grew so tired that they ached, dangling from the edge of the seat. Sometimes one leg would kick suddenly, before Almanzo could stop it. Then he tried to pretend that nothing had happened, but he could feel Mr. Corse looking at him." - Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy, p. 8

I have always been pretty lenient about fidgeting during lesson time. To be perfectly open and honest here, my practice has always been that SA(7) could do whatever he wanted while I read aloud, as long as he could narrate afterwards. On any typical day you might have seen him lying on the floor, or playing with something with his hands, or hanging upside-down off the back of the couch while I read.

I still believe that it is often beneficial to give children the freedom to move (within limits) during their lessons. I think that among some personality types, and perhaps especially among many young boys, movement can help them think.

As I read Farmer Boy to my boys last night, I discovered a novel idea. (Novel to me, that is!) It is possible to require young boys to control their bodies and sit still, and they will rise to the challenge.

Further, it occurred to me that the fidgeting that SA(7) has been doing during lesson time has been gradually getting more distracting and disruptive, and that his narrations have sometimes been suffering for it.

And so, given that
- His lessons are short.
- His lessons are varied...he has to get up and go to the piano after he does his math, for example.
- I give him a chance to stretch or run around the house if he shows signs of fatigue.
- I believe he is capable of sitting still for the length of time his lessons last (this is an important one!)
I have decided that it is time to work on a habit of sitting still and not fidgeting during his lessons.

I gave him a short lecture today, but I really think the fact that Almanzo had to do it was more convincing to him. We worked on a specific "narration posture:" feet on the floor, back straight, no slumping or leaning, and nothing in his hands. Then we did a test narration in that posture. He did well, and I am happy he seems to be willing, himself, to create this new habit. Now will come the watchful, constant reinforcement until it becomes second nature to him. That will be the hard part, but it will be worth it, I think.

I just "know" that half of you out there are horrified that I ever allowed fidgeting, and the other half are horrified that I'm completely cutting it off now. All I can say is that I know my child, and for us it is time to work on this now.

What habits make your days run more smoothly with your children?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spider Citizen Science

I was listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago and heard that Nature PEI was looking for citizen scientists to collect spiders. Apparently PEI only has 38 known species of spiders, not because that is the real number of species we have, but because no one has ever bothered to count them. Nova Scotia has 437 known species, New Brunswick has 382, so it stands to reason that PEI must have more than 38.
I took three of my boys along to an informative workshop (including a nature walk with some hands-on spider catching practice!), and we've been collecting spiders. 

My favourite so far has been a Black and Yellow Argiope (sorry no picture, but you can see one here) of impressive size. I noticed its web first, an orb web with a zig-zag "zipper" down the center. I watched the web for a while, hoping to see the spider. After some time, I noticed it in the grass below the web and caught it.

Nature PEI has provided us with everything we need to collect the spiders, including a large canvas bug net. The boys love "sweeping" for spiders, shaking grasses and bushes, then bringing them all back to me to capture in our little vials. Of course, they catch many other interesting bugs as well as they do this.

I love citizen science! Have you had opportunities for citizen science? Would you go for spiders?

(19/8/15 Edited to add this picture of another Black and Yellow Argiope that my husband saw and photographed a couple of years ago, also on PEI. This one was much larger than the one I caught, about the size of his thumb, he said. Also, since I published this post, I have discovered that this spider is not one of the 38 known spiders on PEI, so we have made a scientific discovery here, folks! lol.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Working Days

It's really striking to me as I read through Charlotte Mason's Volume 1 again that different ideas are speaking to me. I know this because I underlined many things last time through, and this time I'm underlining different things.

Today I underlined this quote, because it reminds me of why I work so hard with SA(7) and why I make him work hard, too.
"Do not let the children pass a day without distinct efforts, intellectual, moral, volitional; let them brace themselves to understand; let them compel themselves to do and to bear; and let them do right at the sacrifice of ease and pleasure: and this for many higher reasons, but, in the first and lowest place, that the mere physical organ of mind and will may grow vigorous with work." (Vol. 1, p. 22)
I have to admit that I've been struggling a bit with the workload of Ambleside Online's Year Two. SA is a normal seven-year-old boy who is sometimes resistant to work. The habit of paying complete attention and narration are hard work! I have been asking myself, am I requiring too much?

The answer for me has been no, and yes.

No, it is not too much for me to require narration after every reading. No, it is not too much to require his complete attention on his math and copywork without dawdling. No, it is not too much to read more challenging books this year. No, it is not too much to require more work this year than last year as he grows.

But yes, it has been too much to try to fit all of the Year Two weekly readings into our weeks, at least for now. I have had to set a limit on how much work we will do in order to maintain peace in our home. I have had to let go of the goal of completing a term's work in twelve weeks, and that's okay. Last week I had the blessing of watching Julie Bogart of Brave Writer speak on Routine vs Schedule (You may have seen it as well if you're on my Facebook page.). She inspired me to set out on my daily routine without worrying about whether we will get all the week's work done in one week.

For now, SA will continue to do two lessons with narration of 15-20 minutes each, and one 10 minute lesson with narration from a book he reads himself. (Lesson times include introduction to vocabulary and/or maps and timelines, reading, and narration.). It may be that as the year progresses we will be able to add in more lessons or expand the time for each lesson, but for now that is all we can manage. (His Bible and Pilgrim's Progress narrations are done in our morning circle time and are not included in these numbers.) This pace does not allow us to finish a week's work in a week, but we will just continue in this way, day after day, (with holidays every now and then, of course!) for however long it takes us to finish each term.

Every day we have our daily work. It is challenging and satisfying hard work for SA's mind. I can see that he feels it to be so, because while he sometimes resists it, he misses it if for any reason I don't require it. It is also joyful work most of the time. The living books we use are interesting. The lessons are short and varied. There is time for play and rest.

P.S. I wonder how I will regard this post after many years of homeschooling. Most homeschoolers mellow over time...and gain some wisdom. I suppose I will too. This is where I am now, two years into it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Way to an End

(I apologize for the rambling nature of this post. Sometimes I just write to make sense of my own thoughts, and this is one of those times.)

I had a conversation with one of my homeschooling sisters a few weeks ago. She was talking about how she pictures how she wants her children to turn out as she sets her parenting and homeschooling goals.

"I don't do that at all," I said.

She seemed genuinely puzzled by this, and protested, "But surely you must! How can you homeschool without picturing the end result you're working towards?"

I could see that to her, this was a natural thing to do for anyone who is serious about parenting, which she rightly assumes I am. But I had to answer,  "Really, truly, I don't. That kind of thinking doesn't come naturally to me at all. I live more in the moment than that."

I sensed she still didn't quite believe me. If she had believed me, my credit would have gone down considerably with her.

If I had been good at thinking on my feet, I would have explained that I don't see it as my role to determine ahead of time how my children should turn out. I believe God has a plan for them, and he has a role for me (and motherhood is a big role!) in His working out of that plan. Their own God-given personalities and preferences will play a big part as well. So will their own choices, for good or ill.

My concern with envisioning an end "product," if you will, is what happens when your children's own plans begin to conflict with yours. You could argue that your vision for them is good and godly. We may be older and wiser than our children, but we're still human. We have blind spots, and our view is limited. I would worry that in working toward our own end goal, we will grasp desperately for control when God's plans (and our children's dreams) end up looking different than ours.

The truth is, I just don't have the "envisioning" gift. Cooking seems to be the only thing in my life where I can naturally picture the end result before I begin. Perhaps that is why I have justified this way of thinking about my children. But maybe my sister is strong in one area (envisioning the end result and working towards that), and I am strong in another (respecting my children as persons), and we both need some balance.

I was reading in Charlotte Mason's Home Education this week (I'm doing a quick read-through of volume one again as my second child reaches school age.), and came across this statement that reminded me again of the conversation I just mentioned:
"Method implies two things --a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way. Further, the following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child?" (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 8)
I have a lot of respect for Charlotte's opinions, and when I heard her say practically the same thing as my sister, I sat up and paid attention. I appreciated that she clarified what she was saying with her question. I may not be able to form a mental image of the "end to be arrived at," but I can answer the question "What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child?" I am not doing this without goals.

And yet my goals are not specific enough to form a clear picture. I just can't imagine my children as 20-year-olds yet. I think they will still be themselves, and I hope I will have had a role in helping them to develop self-discipline and a foundation of truth, goodness, and beauty. I pray that they will know and love God, even as I recognize that this is something only the Holy Spirit can work in their hearts. I resist trying to see more clearly than that at this point. I think the things they will love and the things they will be good at will become more obvious along the way. I think they may go through some turbulence in their teenage years, like many teens do, and I hope we will be able to see it through and trust God to work it all out.

I think I am emphasizing something else that Charlotte Mason recognized, even though she believed in developing this mental image that I seem so incapable of (and resistant to) having:
"But the educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being, and his business is to guide, and assist in, the production of the latent good in that being, the dissipation of the latent evil, the preparation of the child to take his place in the world at his best, with every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power." (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 9)
Both of these quotes from Charlotte Mason are in the context of the difference between a method and a system of education. My understanding is that the main difference between the two is that a system is one-size-fits-all --put the child in, get the educated citizen out-- while a method recognizes that a child is a person and is concerned with helping him become the best person he can be. Both do work towards an end goal, but one seems much more open than the other. It's that openness that I'm leaving room for with the lack of clarity in my picture of the end goal.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Saturday Catch-All: First Week, Dudamel, Nature Journal Share

First Week
We just finished the first week of our new school year. Why so early, you ask? Two reasons: We had already had five relaxed weeks and needed to get back into routine, and starting early allows us to be a little more flexible about taking a day off here or there if necessary. We are already planning on a two-week break at the end of August/beginning of September as Stephen takes his vacation then. SA(7) started Year Two using Ambleside Online, and JJ(5) started his "Kindergarten" year. This basically means that I have started reading lessons with him, while he continues to participate in our family outdoor time, reading aloud time, poetry tea time, math activities, etc.

Anyway, I am exhausted today. Homeschooling requires intense interaction with my children, and I had gotten used to less of that during our vacation. As an introvert, all this interaction drains me. I know from last year, though, that I will adjust over time and come up with coping mechanisms to deal with it. And I do love homeschooling with a passion that still surprises me despite this small drawback in my own personality.

The rewards appear daily when I least expect them...
-the twinkle in SA's eye as he's about to narrate something that amused him.
-the effortless use of a big word that he just heard for the first time in reading a week ago.
-the creative engineering of paper airplanes to make them fly better (a collaborative effort between the oldest two).
-JJ's excitement in the discovery of addition facts using Cuisenaire rods.
-the enthusiasm with which all three of them run around gathering fistfuls of flowers for me to draw in my nature journal as I sit peacefully in the grass with the baby.

This is what I will remember, and it is what I choose to think about after the exhausting jumble of chores and schoolwork, discipline challenges and moments of joy, happy lessons and lessons that meet with resistance.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:4-8)

Introducing Dudamel 
Our composer this term is Johannes Brahms, and this week's listening was "Variations on a Theme by Haydn." Our music appreciation lesson is very simple. On Thursday morning at teatime, we get our snacks and go watch the piece on YouTube.  Yes, that's all we do. One of my favourite things about watching music on YouTube is that you can often watch the conductor. I love watching conductors! This week's conductor was Gustavo Dudamel. I was immediately struck by his air of calm joyfulness. Curious, I later looked up more videos with him conducting and was amused to see a huge difference in style between his older and younger self, though still the same friendliness and joy (see especially around the 4 1/2 minute mark in that second link). Finally, I looked up his website, and found a fascinating character. Do check it out! You can also find a few interviews on YouTube as well.

Nature Journal Share
If you enjoy nature study, you may like the Mud Puddles to Meteors blog. They also have an active Facebook group, a great place to share your nature walk finds with an appreciative audience! One fun thing Dawn just started there is the Nature Journal Share. She invites anyone in the group to post their nature journal entries on Saturdays with the tag #naturejournalshare. I anticipate that this will be an inspiring event every week. I am not a natural artist, and have been slow to get into the habit of nature journaling, though we love our nature walks here.

My share this week is a small weed...we have so many weeds I don't know the name of! I suspected that this one would have some relation to chamomile because that's what it smelled like to me. Sure enough, it's known as rayless chamomile, or wild chamomile. I think one of its other names, "pineappleweed," will stick with us, though.

And that's all for this week!