Sunday, January 31, 2016

Psalm 25 for Mommies

Other periods in history have had their challenges, no doubt.  Please don't misunderstand.  I'm not pining to parent in the Middle Ages or anything.  But it is certain that one of the parenting challenges of the time we live in (in this culture at least) are the dizzying number of choices and the staggering expectations (both external and self-imposed) to produce really amazing children.  And you don't have to be a homeschool mom to feel the pressure.

Yesterday I read Psalm 25 and found it just what I needed.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

[Lord, I confess ... I'm afraid of being put to shame.  What if I mess it all up?  What if I invest all these years ... and then the world just laughs?]

Make me to know your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long.

[I'm waiting on you, Lord.  Well, I'm trying to wait on you.  Help me to wait on you, to look to you for wisdom and not to the hundreds of other places I'm tempted to run.  I want to be a good teacher.  And I want to learn from the best.]

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!

[Yes, Lord, please do wipe away the sins of my youth.  And the sins of this week, too, please.  And help me to remember that you cleanse me of these sins to demonstrate something about yourself - your steadfast love and your goodness.]

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.

[There is it right there.  That's the characteristic I most need in order to be a great mom.  Humility.  Not intelligence.  Not diligence.  Not creativity.  Humility.  He instructs sinners.  I just need to know that I am one.]

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
For your namesake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.

[I want that, Lord.  I want to abide in that well-being.  I want my offspring to inherit your eternal country.  Help me to fear you, Lord; instruct me in the way I should choose.]

The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes know to them his covenant.
My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
For he will pluck my feet out of the net.

[And there seem so many nets.  Fear of man.  Resentment towards those who make demands on my time.  Bitterness towards the trials you bring for my good and sanctification.  Loosing sight of the eternal goal and the purpose for which I was created.  Pluck me out.]

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.

[Lord, it's so messy.  There are problems on the outside.  But there are also problems that come from inside me.  And sometimes the biggest problem is distinguishing between them!  Please would you comfort me in those trials that you bring from without, reveal and forgive those that arise out of my own heart?]

Consider how many are my foes
and with what violent hatred they hate me.
Oh, guard my soul and deliver me!
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.

[That's it, Lord!  That's what it looks like not to be put to shame!  It looks like being preserved in integrity and uprightness.  Not being put to shame doesn't mean that the world stands up and applauds.  It means that the world sees that my God preserves his people from falling away.  Deliverance isn't necessarily a rescue from external circumstances, but it is you guarding and delivering my soul as I pass through them!]

Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.

[Help me to remember, Lord.  Even what's happening to me isn't really about me.  It's about carrying out your plan, throughout all of time, to redeem and rescue your people, for the glory of your name.  Humble me, Lord, preserve me, and teach me.]

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Slow Trickle of Math Change

From the beginning, we've use the Abeka Arithmetic series.  And honestly, the truth is that I really like it.  Full disclosure: I've only ever purchased and used the student (consumable) books and the answer key, so I really can't speak to the teachers' guides or how they recommend you teach a concept, what learning activities they suggest, etc. - I'm sure they are great.  For us, the ticket was that Abeka approaches each new concept in tiny baby steps.  That made it simple to give each kid a little five-minute briefing on what was new in the daily lesson and send them off to do it.

If you read reviews of Abeka's math program online the one thing you'll hear again and again on the "con" side is that there are too many problems.  Too much review.  The benefit is that there is plenty of opportunity for more practice if needed.  But it also means the potential need to fight against your complete-all-the-problems-on-the-page obsession, should you happen to have one.  (In my case this wasn't a "perfectionist" or OCD thing.  It was a fear thing.  What if we don't?  What will happen?  Will they have what they need?  Will they be ready?)

One thing I've learned as a homeschool mom is that I may not (no, rather, I AM not) an expert in any subject area.  But I am an expert on my children.  Nobody knows my kids like I do.  And it's my job to use my expertise to their advantage.  This gave me the confidence to start tailoring their assignments a bit.  I started by not requiring them to do every problem in every section - do a few; do more only if you need more practice.  Then I got bold enough not to require them to do every section in the lesson  - why practice addition, subtraction and multiplication when you use all those skills when doing long division?

Then, last spring, as the homeschool machine got up and running again after a new baby arrived in February, I got a really radical idea.   I decided we didn't need to do all the lesson in the math book.  About a third of their lessons were "review" lessons - no new concept is taught.  This is good if you need to keep students up on their math skills for 170 days of instruction and don't have that many new concepts to teach.  But we were facing down summer and wanting to get math wrapped up!  As I said, Abeka is review-heavy within each lesson, so entire lessons devoted to review was kind of superfluous for us at that point.

In other subjects (like science and history) my theory has been to teach to the older kids and wrap in the little kids, counting whatever they pick up as a bonus.  Henry, my four year old, can tell you that some things Britain exported to the colonies were "tea, fancy dresses and fancy dishes".  Nevermind that he doesn't know what "Britain" or "exported" or "colonies" are - there's time for that later.

So why not follow the same strategy with math?  Sure, the other kids couldn't handle everything Luke was doing with fractions.  But could it hurt for them to sit in on a discussion or exploration of the concepts, glean what they could, and then practice at their own level?  Since Abeka is a consumable math program and the pages are perforated, I had debated tearing out all the pages from everyone's book and sorting them into topics so that I could teach everyone together on overlapping topics.  And then a friend said "You need to check out Math on the Level."

Friday, January 29, 2016

Morning School Time and Personal Limitations

Here I talked about what got me thinking about changing up our Math curriculum.  And here I talked about hearing of Teaching from Rest but being afraid to read it.  And then it was fall. And it was time to start.  One small change I made last fall which did a great deal to smooth the schedule was to move as much learning as I possibly could to "morning school time".

 We established "morning school time" way back.  As a matter of fact, we used to call it "singing time" because when the children were smaller, we sang everything we possibly could.  If you need recommendations on history songs, skip counting songs, science songs, geography songs, songs on the Westminster Shorter Catechism ... you name it, we sang it.  I loved that.  I really did.  It was so fun.  They enjoyed it.  I enjoyed it.  We learned, we talked and we all enjoyed it!

But as some of the children got older and began to have more "serious school work" more and more was taking place in the afternoon in the form of written work.  As in, things that Mama has to check and return for corrections.  And more checking.  And more corrections.  And things left undone and hanging over my head until the next day.  Slog.  Dread.  Drag.  Kiddos and Mama alike.

So this year I determined that we'd do as much as we possibly could together, out loud, discussion-format, assessment via conversation.  We were already doing history and science together (more on those in another post).  Instead of buying the "activity books" to go along with their Latin curriculum, I decided just to subscribe to the activity website and do the practice games together during morning school time.

But still, language/reading skills and math skills were something that seemed they should still be done individually because, well, weren't those developmental types of things that kids of different ages couldn't learn together?  So those activities continued to be afternoon paper-and-pencil lessons.

However, there was now so much stuffed into our day that  our schedule felt overwhelming.  The minute my feet hit the floor in the morning, I felt like I would have to take off running and not stop until bedtime.  Enough to make a girl want to swing her legs right back into the bed and not attempt it at all.  For me, a schedule detailed down to the fifteen minute inverval sounds about as appealing as volunteering for slow death by strangulation.

You see, for so long, I have lived as if the progression goes like this:

1. Figure out what a "good mom" is supposed to do.
2. Do it.
3. Suck it up and don't complain.

True confession: I never was very good at that process.  Well, I was pretty good at Step 1.  In fact, I think I have an unhealthy, overactive imagination for Step 1.  Steps 2 and especially 3, not so much.

But what if that's not really how it works.  What if what a mom is "supposed" to do is to know herself (and her kids) to know her personal limitations, to know what really sparks her enthusiasm (and therefore overflows to her children) and to makes plans and choices accordingly?  "But,"I would ask myself, "if my 'personal limitations' are affecting what I'm able to do for and with my kids, isn't that bad?  Selfish?  Weak?  Lazy?"  And then one day my mom said to me (in a conversation on an unrelated topic, but still very applicable) "It sounds like you're not OK with the fact that you have personal limitations."  Bingo.

And just this morning I read a post a friend sent me on the topic of "breaking busy".  This line jumped out at me and nearly made the tears flow.

Having a limited capacity is not a flaw in my character. It is by glorious design and for an incredible purpose: to realize my need for Him.

And also ...

And that means letting our lives be about what we are meant to do,
what God created us to do,
and not just what we think we ‘should’ do.
My husband always says, "I don't want my kids to turn out like [insert name of amazing family]'s kids."  And when I exclaim in shock and confusion, "You don't?!?!" he says, "I want my kids to be Sutherland kids.  If God had wanted our kids to turn out like [that family's] kids, he would have given them to [that family]."  So wise.

So, perhaps you could say that this blog is about exploring what a "Sutherland kid" is.  Happy Friday, y'all!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Day 4: Flexibility

Today I had an afternoon visitor.  The kids were able to flop on the floor in the school room and do their 5-A-Days by themselves while I chatted with my visitor in the library.  This is amazing because in the past when I have tried to do this, people have needed my help knowing what to do on their school work.  And other people have taken advantage of my absence to do mostly nothing.  But not today.  All work was done.  And for the most part it was done well.

Some day I'll get around to actually talking about what I'm trying and why!

Day 3: "Slates"

The only new thing yesterday were the "slates" I made for the kids so they could be more hands-on participants in the lessons I was doing with them in the morning.  I printed some handwriting sheets and grids on cardstock paper and laminated them.  I ordered some washable dry-erase crayons and washable dry-erase markers (both Crayola products) and the whole system has been a huge success.  Unforeseen bonus: when I give the kids a break from school, most of them stay at the school table and draw so they are all available and ready when we get started again!

When I was a school teacher, my students used dry-erase markers and boards.  I wonder now if all the parents secretly hated me for it.  It is impossible to get those stains out of clothing!  Even the dust from erasing stains permanently!  I had read reviews of these washable options and they seemed less than glowing.  However, we thought both products were amazing.  The only thing I can figure is that Crayola has changed the product recently, or perhaps people were looking for something substantial enough to write on a big board for students to see.  They are probably not dark/thick enough for that.

I know I still haven't gotten into much of a discussion of all those things I promised to tackle.  In my mind there is a "chronology" of thought progression that makes sense.  Getting it all in written form - that's another thing!  Soon, I hope!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Day 2: Conversations with my Self-Doubt

Doubting Self: Wait a minute.  Think about all those visuals in the Kindergarten and First grade math books.  What are you going to do - draw clocks and coins by hand?

Confident Self:  Well, maybe I will!  I could totally do that!  Or I'm sure I could find images on-line and cut and paste.

Doubting Self: Right.  How dumb. You could just spend $15 and buy the textbook instead of making it all from scratch.

Confident Self: Or, maybe we won't even need much of that.  Since we're moving towards "living math" maybe we'll just use real clocks and real money.  Isn't that even better than pictures of clocks and money??

Doubting Self:  Sure, sure.  I'm sure you'll have tons of time to just sit around with your Kindergartener playing with clocks and coins.  No sweat.  You only have FOUR older students who have way more complicated math to learn.  Can we say "burnout"??

Confident Self: But ... but ... OK, I admit it!  I don't know how this is going to work out!  And maybe I will decide to go back to how we were doing it before - and that would be OK!!  But this is just an experiment.  And we haven't even completed a week of it.  So, could you ... could you just be quiet and leave me alone!?!

Doubting Self: ...

Confident Self: ...

Monday, January 25, 2016

Another Seed Planted

Last summer, just before school was officially about to begin, I was dreading starting back again.  The summer had been lovely.  Freedom.  Flexibility.  Exploring concepts and topics that I loved and, therefore, was enthusiastic about teaching and sharing.  We learned to play the recorder.  We read about the planets and did science experiments.  We studied the geography of the Old Testament.  But now, the ball and chain of "real school" was looming and I couldn't even pretend to be excited about it.  Life seemed to stretch out ahead ... a long, dreary couple of decades of getting out of bed day after day to slog through an exhausting "push" to get kids to do stuff they didn't really want to do.  Ugh.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not of the opinion that the "fun-o-meter" is the most accurate measure of the success of our homeschool.  And there is certainly value (much, in fact) in learning how to cheerfully face challenges and do things that are not your cup of tea.  There is benefit in teaching people to persevere and push through.  Mama included.

But there is also value in making careful, informed decisions about how to spend limited resources.  And at this moment in our family (seven children ages ten and under, including a nursing baby) one of the most limited resources is Mama's energy.  To be specific, Mama's cheerful-power - which is exhausted about 15-35% before the end of total energy expenditure.

Enter a chance conversation at church.  The son and daughter-in-law of friends were in town for the weekend along with their several children.  When I passed her in the nursery, I asked how she was doing and, providentially, we had a sincere and heartfelt conversation about the energy expenditure that is homeschooling.

There was too much to that conversation to record here, but the main idea is summarized in the book she recommended.  I got the book, but I didn't read it.  A least not then.  I was secretly worried that it would tell me to do things differently than I was doing them and that I would feel guilty, inadequate, overwhelmed or all three.  Looking back, it turns out, that was pretty ironic.
Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler's Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie

Day 1: Whew. We made it.

This morning after I made the inaugural post on the blog (which went up around 6:45) I worked on labeling the binders, starting the very roughest framework of a spreadsheet and writing up 5-A-Day Language and 5-A-Day Math sheets for four kids ... plus one "bonus" school sheet for Henry so he could be a big kid.  The morning was similar to our usual schedule but I added in some math discussion with the older kids.

This afternoon they got their first shot at the 5-A-Days.  We began at 1 p.m.  All their work was done in under an hour and they did some silent reading while I checked their work.  Within about an hour and fourty-five minutes everything was wrapped up and they were on their way outside.  It took me until about 4 p.m. (just over an hour) to make new Five-A-Days for their binders, but that's a bit of an inaccurate measure of time, because it also included suiting, un-suiting and re-suiting people for snow and nursing a baby.  All in all, I think we came out about equal in terms of time invested, but way ahead in other respects.  Tonight I'll need to put in a big "push" to further flesh out the skeleton framework I began in my spreadsheets this morning.

I know I still haven't explained the spreadsheet, the face-to-face conversations or even what a 5-A-Day binder is.  But that will have to wait.  While you are waiting, here are some pics from school work.  Whew.  If only dinner could make itself tonight. ;-)

How it All Began ...

The kids are busy working.  So far they are excited about the new 5-A-Day binders.  But more on that later.  Let's talk about how I first got this bee in my bonnet.  One afternoon several weeks ago the two littlest were sleeping and the others were playing outside.  Except Luke.  Luke was sitting at a card table in the school room drawing (specifically he was working on the components for his latest board game invention).  He said "Ahh.  Leaning over a table with a pencil in my hand.  That is where I love to be." Joking, I quipped, "So, I bet you love to do your math, then, huh?"  Immediately he responded, "Not really.  With math, you are just following the directions and doing what someone else tells you to do.  There really isn't a chance to be creative and make your own choices."

Of course, I understand what he's expressing.  But my heart sank.  In our family growing up, math was (still is!) something you talk about for fun.  I can remember driving somewhere on vacation and have a discussion about how much time you would save per distance you had to drive by driving five miles an hour over the speed limit.  That's just one example.

So.  When math is just following directions ... when your strongest math student dreads math ... what is a mother to do?  It got me thinking.  Something was boiling under the surface.  But that is where it stayed for several months.  Until recently.

Hello, Monday! Want to try something crazy?

It's Monday morning, January 25, 2016.  Not quite 6:30 a.m.  And I am about to embark on a journey.  Will you join me?  I've come to think of this as taking the training wheels off of our homeschool.  Will I (we?) enjoy the freedom of two-wheel riding?  Or will I (we?) crash and burn?  This is an experiment, and I've decided to write it all down for posterity (or laughs, whichever).

Last Friday it began to snow here in our little suburb of Richmond, Virginia.  Homeschooling was temporarily put on hold (even homeschools need snow days, right?) and while the kids were off snow-adventuring (or recovering from previous snow-adventuring) I was thinking about math.  And thoughts of math expanded into thoughts about all of our homeschool in general.  And then I began to wonder if we could homeschool without buying textbooks.  [insert maniacal laugh]

I'm going to keep this first post brief so that I can actually tackle the project at hand.  Later on I'll try to record the thought process by "flashback", interspersed among posts about how progress is unfolding.  But here are some tidbits.  This new adventure is all about spreadsheets and face-to-face conversation.  Sound like two incompatible concepts?  They just might be.  It all remains to be seen.  And now, I'm off.  I need to take a socket wrench to our daily plans.  In a manner of speaking.