Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education, Part III, by Jane-Emily

I’ve already talked about parenting preschoolers for a classical education and more academic activities to prepare your preschooler for a classical education.   Part III is about running a home preschool group!

When my children were preschool age–3 to 5–I didn’t send them to a regular preschool.  I was considering homeschooling, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start them off in a preschool.  I worried that a preschool might try to push academics too young, and the local programs were usually full anyway.  I did try a co-op preschool for six months, and the people were lovely, but the demands were huge (and, I felt, unnecessary and unreasonable).  I ended up organizing small home-based preschool groups with friends.  Every year was a little different, but here is the basic pattern:

Find 3 or 4 little friends.  Many of your friends will be looking for inexpensive and simple preschool activities, and some of them will have more friends to talk with.  A group of 4 or 5 little children is just right and small enough for one parent to manage.  Because so much development is going on in these years, we found it easier to keep groups to about the same age level.  That’s not necessary but I think it does make many activities easier; a young 3 year-old will be frustrated by many things that a 4 year-old finds fun.

Plan to meet once or twice a week, depending on everyone’s needs.  Three times per week gets to be a little much, but for children 4 and up may be a great choice.  Figure out how you will rotate responsibilities; you may each want to host for a whole month at a time for continuity, or prefer to rotate every two weeks, or even every week.  Will the host be responsible for snacks, or should another person provide them?

There will be some costs.  This will cost far less than tuition at a preschool, but you still need to get supplies, snacks, and books.  Everyone should contribute to the pot for supplies, but you may prefer to just purchase snacks as your turn to provide them comes up.

Figure out a shape to the day.  You will want to meet for about three morning hours (maybe only two for the younger ages).  In this time, you’ll want to feature:

  • A gathering activity that keeps them cheerful and focused while everyone arrives.  If you let them run around, it will be hard for them to change gears and focus, so have a fairly quiet activity ready at a table.  I often used special blocks or manipulatives that they didn’t see at other times and liked playing with.
  • Circle time — usually features a welcome song, talk about the day, weather, upcoming lesson, and so on.  A fun calendar is OK for older children; it won’t make much sense to them but they can put the number up and get used to the format.
  • A lesson — whatever you choose. You may wish to buy a structured curriculum or just make them up yourself!
  • An activity or two — something fun to DO during the lesson.  Preschoolers are wiggly and don’t do well with a classroom setup!  There are many books of art, science, and other activity ideas (see my last article on how I did it).  As an example, we once had a lesson on the seasons.  We made a sign for each season, put them on sticks, and had a parade around and about.  The kids had to stay in order and each took a turn in front to help them remember that seasons go in an eternal round.
  • Storytime — read aloud from books, do some fingerplays and songs.  You can choose old favorites, seasonally appropriate selections, or anything you like.  If you get really ambitious you might look into making a flannelboard and figures for favorite songs or plays.
  • Snacktime — healthy snacks of course.
  • Free play — consider providing sensory activities as well as just letting them run around the yard, but this is not lesson time.  It’s “they decide what to play while the exhausted host takes a little break!”

Put the more demanding items at the beginning of your session.  They won’t have much attention span.

Will you want to include seatwork?  That depends very much on the ages of the children, their own temperaments and abilities, and whether you want to do any academics.  I would say that we should be very cautious about demanding seatwork from little people.  If you are teaching children who will be starting kindergarten next year, you may want to have them learn to write their names or do alphabet coloring pages or something, but keep it minimal!  If a seatwork activity is frustrating or leads to tears, it is not age-appropriate.

Keep an eye open for preschooler-friendly field trips.  This is a great time to take them to the fire station, a farm, or other nearby community locations.  Your group will be small enough to be very manageable, but for trips abroad always take an extra adult.  If there is a field trip program at your local theater, be cautious; they might be a little young to go as a group.  We found that the performances might be great, but the noise and crowds involved were overwhelming.

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Giant fossils are always a good field trip choice.

One year, we had a very energetic mom who fixed up a Christmas program for the children to do.  The families all gathered and the children sang a song and so on.  It was very short, of course, but it was quite nice for other family members to participate and see what we’d been doing.  It is possible, but not necessary, to have a program during the year and/or a ‘graduation’ party.  If you decide to have an event like that, it need not be fancy or long.  Short, simple, and sweet (with refreshments!) is best.

This is a nice way for parents to get together and share some happy times with children.  The kids usually love playing together, and the small-group environment keeps things from getting too overwhelming most of the time.  Naturally, there will be plenty of disasters and interesting times too–I well remember letting the children go off to play, walking to my bedroom, and finding a little guy jumping on my (unmade) bed in his cowboy boots!  But I found that on the whole, running a home preschool program was not too difficult, fostered lovely friendships and learning, saved me a lot of money, and was a great experience for my children.

Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education: Part II, by Jane-Emily

In the last post, I covered the basics of preschool parenting, but many parents of little ones want to know what academic materials they should use with their children.  What program will best prepare children for academic success? After years of teaching my own children and observing many other little ones (as a librarian, as well as a mother and teacher), this is what I have learned about the very best way to prepare children for a lifetime of exploring and learning. These principles are not expensive and they require almost no curriculum; what they mostly require is your time and attention. Anyone can do them, and they really are the best preparation I know for success in academics and in life.

Talk with your child. The main way your child learns about anything that he isn’t actually putting in his mouth and experiencing first-hand is by hearing it from you. Family talk is how a child learns to speak, and then a large part of how he learns about the world. He wants you to talk a lot! You know that thing small children do, where they ask, “Why?” all the time, and eventually you find yourself trying to explain the structure of the atom? It’s not that he has a real understanding of cause and effect and how atoms work; it’s that he’s figured out that asking “why” is a really easy way to keep you talking. So all you really have to do is keep talking and explaining the world — you don’t actually have to try to explain “why” until you get to the Big Bang.

As you go through your day, keep up a running commentary on what you are doing and why you are doing it. (Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never be quiet! Moderation in all things.) It sounds like this: “Let’s get in the car and go to the grocery store! We need some food…let’s get some oranges, I like oranges, don’t you? Should we get some apples too? What nice green apples these are. I need to get more oatmeal…” It certainly doesn’t have to be talk that your child can always understand; she will be happy if you aim a bit higher a good part of the time.

All this talk deposits a tremendous amount of vocabulary and sentence structure and meaning in your child’s mind, not to mention that it fosters closeness between you. We are now finding out that one of the main things that prepares a child for school is this parental talk; a child whose parents aren’t in the habit of talking like this comes to school at a disadvantage that no amount of preschool or programming can make up for.

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Reading together

Nursery rhymes are an integral part of this language development. They are wonderful little nuggets of language suited to the youngest children. They are games, songs, snuggle time, and language lessons all rolled into fun little packages. Learn nursery rhymes and use them often.

There are many wonderful collections out there. Here are my two favorites, good for anyone:

  • My Very First Mother Goose, by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells (lovely for a first book of nursery rhymes, great pictures and not overwhelming).
  • The Real Mother Goose, by Blanche Fisher Wright (old-fashioned, with lots of material).

Make up your own rhymes, too! When my oldest daughter was an infant, we visited friends who had a baby about a year older. I remember how impressed I was with the mother’s ability to make up suitable little rhymes for whatever her daughter was doing. She didn’t do it all the time or anything, but every so often, a new little rhyme would come out of her mouth! Pretty soon I was doing it too, because it really turned out to be pretty easy.

Reading aloud. Like the talking and nursery rhyming, reading aloud deposits a lot of vocabulary, sentence structure, and meaning into your child’s mind, and fosters a close, loving relationship. Reading aloud, however, is a step up in complexity. Once you are past the board books with one word per picture, books offer more complex words and sentences than ordinary conversation usually involves. They often feature rhymes, rhythm, and other language structures that both appeal to your child and build pathways for learning. She learns to associate books and reading with happiness and love. She learns that books and sentences go in a particular direction, and what sentences are supposed to look like. Reading aloud teaches a child about imaginative play, offering fuel for the stories she makes up herself. Books teach about the wider world; animals, machines, space, and whatever else you find. And for a final bonus, reading aloud gives you a habitual special time to be together with your child. The value of all of this language and structure and snuggling is almost impossible to exaggerate; the child’s mind soaks up stories and general information, making connections and learning about the world, in a process that cannot be replaced by any preschool or institutional program, and certainly not by any video programming.

Librarians and child development experts recommend that parents read to children for at least 20 minutes a day, which is an easy goal to reach most days (even if half of it is bedtime stories!). You may have seen in the recent news that doctors are now officially recommending that parents read to their children from infancy.  Rosemary Wells even wrote a little pamphlet a few years ago called Read To Your Bunny to remind us of the benefits of reading aloud. And your local library almost certainly has a storytime program that incorporates these principles. Children love storytime at the library, so give yours a try!

It actually turns out that reading aloud to your child is beneficial for more years than most of us expect. We now know that most children comprehend more through listening than they do through reading — right up through 8th grade! So don’t stop reading aloud once your child can read on his own; you can enjoy it for a long time.

There are so many wonderful books to read aloud to your bunny that it’s hard for me to give you a good list. Here are a few classic titles, and my best advice is to ask your friendly neighborhood public librarian for recommendations; that is truly your best resource!

  • The Nutshell Library, by Maurice Sendak — Four tiny books with wonderful rhymes about numbers, letters, the months of the year, and the perils of not caring.
  • Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág — A man and woman want a cat to keep them company, but the man can’t choose just one. What to do with the millions of cats he brings home?
  • A Color of His Own, by Leo Leonni — Leonni has written many great picture books, but this has always been my favorite. A chameleon gets tired of changing all the time and wants to stay just one color.
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter — All the Potter tales are wonderful. (And I am particularly fond of the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.)Make sure you get the real thing, not the abridgments or new versions or celebrity sequels or whatever. She doesn’t need changing. While it may be tempting to save money by getting a one-volume collection, that really does ruin the child’s experience of having a little book that is just the right size, so I’d advise that you get a couple and supplement with the library if your budget doesn’t run to buying many books.
  • Curious George, by H. A. Rey — Here again we run into the problem of so many new versions, sequels, and so on that the original Rey stories are almost crowded out. Be sure to get the few original books and beware of the ones based on the TV show. They are nowhere near the quality of the originals.
  • Strega Nona, by Tomie de Paola — De Paola has written many wonderful books (I love The Knight and the Dragon!) but this twist on a famous folk tale is the best known.

Music. Sing to your child.  Sing a lot! Sing those little songs that have been passed down and polished smooth through the years; those folksongs are ideal for teaching your child about the joy of music, of rhythm, of words and melody. (Bonus: later on, they will turn out to be history lessons, too!) Simple rhythms, melodies, and harmonies sung in real life are ideal for small children; more complex recorded music is lovely, too, but folksongs teach the building blocks that go into the more complex material.

Your child does not care that you do not have a beautiful singing voice or even that you cannot sing your way out of a paper bag. He just wants to hear you sing, because singing does not only communicate language and music; singing communicates love and joy. When you sing, your child feels happy, loved, and secure. Singing as you work around the house fosters a cheerful, loving atmosphere (and embarrassment when the kids get older — another bonus feature).

If you don’t know any songs that you didn’t learn from the radio, learn some. (Pop songs are nice; sing them by all means, but they are not always the wonderful vehicles for language and melody that folksongs are.) You can buy collections of folksongs to learn:

Science and art. Preschoolers love to do activities and projects. They love to make art, and they love to find things out. There are lots of books of art and science projects for young children, but I didn’t want to buy a whole lot of them sight unseen and then find out that they weren’t very good, or that all the projects overlapped. I checked all the books out of the library instead (I requested some titles through InterLibrary Loan). I picked out all the projects that looked good to me, and assembled them into two binders: one for art, divided into categories by media, and one for science, divided into subjects like the body, colors, nature, and so on. I used those binders for years!  Whenever I needed to plan a little activity, I would get out those binders and pick something to do.

Some of the books I used include:

  • Mudpies to Magnets
  • Janice VanCleave’s great “Play and Find Out” series, such as Play and Find Out About Nature
  • The art books I used are out of print now, but all you have to do is browse the 745 section of the children’s room at your local library. There are plenty of good books.
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Volcano!!

Playgroups or co-ops. I did not have a lot of success sending my kids to a preschool program (we did participate in a large co-op for a while, but it got too demanding), but I did participate in small co-operative preschool/play groups. These were organized with friends, usually involved 4-5 children, and met twice a week in our homes.  We enjoyed those groups very much, so next time I’ll talk about how to organize a small preschool group.

Preparing Preschoolers for a Classical Education: Part I, by Jane Emily

 

Lately there is a lot in the news about young children and a “college prep education.”   Many of us have read the news story about the school that canceled the kindergarten class show in favor of “college and career” skills.  We’ve heard about the incredible competition for places at expensive private preschools in New York City.  Some of us might start to wonder–are the rest of us missing out on the magic ingredient that will make our kids successful?  Or is it just that the world has gone insane?  Even when we sensibly decide that yes, the world has indeed gone insane, there is a part of us that wonders if our kids are going to make it in that insane world.  Universities are more competitive (and more expensive) every year.  Everyone is worried about jobs.  How can we possibly prepare our kids to do well?  Maybe those fancy private preschools are on to something?

It is my belief that classical education is a good answer to those questions.  Here on Sandbox to Socrates, we’ve already talked about why we chose classical.  Now I’d like to talk a bit about a question so many parents of little ones have: how to prepare our preschoolers for that classical education.  What special things should we be doing?  In this article, I’m going to assume that you have almost no prior knowledge, even of basic parenting.  Please don’t take this as condescending; yes, you will see plenty of things you already know about, but that way we will cover all our bases–if there can be such a thing.

First priorities.  Young children need a stable, loving environment that is fairly predictable.  Have routines for mornings, meals, and bedtimes.  Give these things enough time that you aren’t always rushing, and allow for free time. Try to work with their abilities, and not against them; run errands when they are cheerful, relaxed, and fed, not when they are already hungry or tired.  Give them clear and age-appropriate expectations before you go into a situation, so that instructions will be at the front of their minds.  Remember that they are going to make messes, and things are going to be hard sometimes, and react to the inevitable accidents and disasters with cheerful firmness as much as you can.  Take care of yourself so that you can react with cheerful firmness!

Time outside.  This is another obvious one.  Kids love to play outside, run on the grass, look at growing things, and just enjoy the world.   All that time outside is not somehow wasted when it comes to things like learning and problem-solving and “21st-century skills.”  It’s helping her grow.  She is observing and learning, experimenting and testing herself.  She is practicing large motor and fine motor skills.  There are few better places for her to be.

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Simple toys.  You don’t need a zillion toys, and they definitely don’t have to light up or go beep.  But every child should have blocks to stack, a soft toy to snuggle, a puzzle or so, a car to go vroom with, and a few items to play dress-up in.   The basics will let them play imaginatively and give their bodies interesting things to do; more is not necessary.  That doesn’t mean you need to limit your child to 5 toys.  Just don’t feel like you need to buy lots of expensive items; they are not needed.

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Limited electronics and screen time.  It can be so hard to limit the TV, the computer, and the iPad.   Kids love them, they are easy, and we are constantly being told that “educational” electronic toys, videos, and games will help our kids learn more and prepare for their futures.  Then, TV can be a lifesaver when you’re trying to make dinner or bathe the baby–I’m not here to tell you that any TV at all will poison your child.  (I am, after all, a survivor of years of intensive Scooby-Doo exposure, and I’m still here.)  But it is so important to use these things wisely!

Observe your child and see how she does with and without screen time.  Many children (many adults!) are unable to tear their eyes away from a screen; the lights and motion grab our attention and don’t let go.  Many children can only tolerate a certain amount of TV without losing their cool.  When my own kids were tiny, I found out the hard way that I had to limit TV to 20 minutes a day.  More than that, and I had a cranky, whiny mess of a kid on my hands–every time.  You may find that if you turn off all the screens in your house, your day goes better.  TV in the morning may make for a difficult day, so it might be better to save it until the afternoon.

Remember that while some screen time isn’t bad, it also may not be very good.  The more time a child spends looking at a two-dimensional image, the less time he is spending in the real world, which is infinitely more complex, demanding, and developmentally appropriate.  Almost any “educational” video or game is not actually as educational as a real life full of people, dirt, sticks, and blocks.  Remember those Baby Einstein videos that were so popular a few years ago?  It turned out that they weren’t educational at all, and watched in large amounts, they were damaging.  This is because small children are built to learn from real life and personal interaction.  They can’t learn their first language from a screen, and they can’t learn well from flat images they can’t touch.

You may have to train yourself to turn off the TV and not to get out your iPad when your child can see you (I know how much they love to play those games!), but keep him away from it as much as you can.  We are now seeing some kids who have spent so much time playing on tablets that they don’t know how to do real-life activities.

Don’t worry that your child won’t be as good at using a computer when she’s an adult.  It’s not that hard to learn to use a word processor, and playing games on a tablet doesn’t have much to do with serious computer work.  She has plenty of time.

Don’t worry unnecessarily.  You play an enormous part in setting the atmosphere of the home.  When you burden yourself with stress about whether you are doing enough for your children’s education, whether you are doing things “right,” and all that, you make yourself unhappy and your children can feel that.  They won’t know that you are feeling understandable fears out of love for them; they will just sense that you’re unhappy.  Sensitive children will decide they’ve done something wrong.

I’m not talking here about severe life problems like depression, unemployment, or family issues.  I just mean that if you’re doing your best, it’s better to remember that and keep a cheerful attitude than it is to stress yourself out over the fact that you are not a perfect mother.  Remind yourself that you’ve done your homework and you are choosing the best you can for your child, and then relax and enjoy the ride.  These are days to treasure.

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Next time, I’ll talk about preparing a child for classical academics.

Janejane-emily-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.

Homeschooling: Where to Start? by Jane-Emily

 

Getting started in homeschooling can feel overwhelming. There is so much information, so many curricula, so much stuff! Sorting through it all can take ages — and it means you spend a lot of time on the computer instead of with your children, who are, after all, the point of the exercise. One mistake nearly all of us make at first is overbuying: in our excitement and our anxiety to cover all the bases at once, we spend too much money and buy too much of everything.

Preliminary Research

When I first got started, I spent a whole lot of time reading. I was a little bit lucky in that I started thinking about homeschooling when my first child was two years old, so I had plenty of time to research. But anyone could do this kind of reading as a long-term thing, though not everyone would want to.

I had already found out that classical homeschooling was what I wanted, but I still read just about everything I could. This often meant that I requested books at the library through InterLibrary Loan so that I could read them without spending hundreds of dollars on books I might not find useful. Then, if I really loved the book and wanted to use it as a permanent reference, I purchased it, which helped me not to overbuy. Because I wasn’t committing to the books by purchasing them, I was free to read across religious lines and homeschooling philosophies. I could choose to mine conservative Christians for tips on teaching math, and radical unschoolers for ideas on making my home a learning environment. I read about people homeschooling so they could focus on African-American culture, and people who spent a year bicycling across the country, and all sorts of things.

The only books on homeschooling (not curricula, but how-to books) I ended up purchasing new were:

I also found some books used at library book sales and so on. I got a full set of E. D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” series that way–which I mostly did not use, but it helped me feel secure.

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Kindergarten Math

Other People: A Fantastic Resource

Once kindergarten was closer, I started looking around for people to meet up with. Please understand that I live in a small city, and at that time there weren’t a lot of homeschoolers for me to meet; you may have far more available to you!

My neighbor down the street told me about her mothers’ group and invited me to go. This turned out to be a group that was very welcoming to me and did not have a statement of faith, but was entirely composed of evangelical Christians (I am not).  The criterion was that members had to be independent homeschoolers, not connected to any charter or public school with an independent study program. They were lovely to me and I always enjoyed the meetings, but I also knew that some of my more secular friends would not have felt comfortable. I may well have been the only person in the room not teaching young earth creationism.  I learned so much from these women and am grateful to have been able to do so.

I also heard about a group that met for a park day, and I tried that out. They were welcoming, too! This group tended to be comprised mainly of unschoolers and crunchy folks, but welcomed everyone. I’m not an unschooler either, but again, I made good friends and learned a lot. My kids had a great time running around the park and playing in the creek. We have also shared field trips and other events with these same families, and these times have been wonderful for all of us.

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Park Day at the Creek

 

I never did meet very many people like me; there are very few classical homeschoolers around here. I never joined a co-op or even heard of one I could join. Instead, I learned to make friends wherever I could and learn from them. I met lots of people whose homeschooling philosophies I did not share, but who made great friends. I could take care of my own homeschooling philosophy myself.

Purchasing Curriculum

I had gathered many recommendations for curriculum from the books I’d read, especially the ones I purchased. My next problem was how to choose among those recommended curricula — which ones would fit our style and what I wanted to teach? Even the most detailed recommendations couldn’t tell me that, although they often helped me decide that I did not want something.

I visited a lot of websites and ordered a lot of catalogs. I loved looking at them, but I was often frustrated by my utter inability to inspect the actual books. These days I think it is a bit easier to find long samples so that you can see more of the book, which is hugely helpful, but I really prefer to pick up the book and handle it.

I live quite far from the places where homeschooling conferences mostly happen, but there was one in a large city about two hours away. It was unschooling-focused, and I didn’t want to pay to attend the whole conference, but the exhibit hall was free (they usually are). I drove down and explored, visiting as many vendors as I could. Since I was mostly looking for classical vendors, there still weren’t that many for me to look at, but I could inspect Saxon Math and some other basic things. Later on I traveled further to attend an evangelical-focused conference, where I was able to find and inspect other products.

Used curriculum swaps were also helpful to me, although they often ‘helped’ me buy books I ended up not using. The mothers’ group had a yearly used curriculum sale, which gave me the chance to really look at some things! The prices were always right, too. Used curriculum swaps seem to be going a bit out of style in favor of selling online, but I think there’s a lot to be said for an in-person sale first; you can see the books, and there’s no shipping to pay.

Some things I just had to order and hope they worked out. It felt like a leap of faith, but I was rarely disappointed. I ordered some books based only on recommendations and short samples. Most of the time, it worked out fine. My biggest leap was buying Prima Latina, a Latin curriculum for younger children, and that turned me into an enthusiastic convert to teaching Latin to children.

The local teacher supply store was not helpful as far as curricula went, but it was great for other materials. I bought many math manipulatives, test tubes, art supplies, and posters there. We often really enjoyed our trips to that store, because they had tables set up with activities for young children and they often raised silkworms in a box on the counter. I don’t think I ever had to order materials online; I either got them at the teacher supply store or, sometimes, made them myself.

Homeschooling is a huge job, and getting started is overwhelming. It can often feel impossible to figure out how to select the right curriculum — for several different subjects! — when we haven’t picked up a textbook since our own long-ago schooldays. It’s OK to take things slow and steady, adding as we find good materials. (And meanwhile, head to the library and borrow lots of good books to read!) As homeschooling moms, I think that one of our weaknesses is our desire to get everything chosen and planned right now! In our anxiety to do right by our children, we tend to think that we need to get every subject started right away. It is hard for us to remember to take things one day at a time, one child at a time. It’s a long journey, so we need to pace ourselves.

Another mistake we make is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We are always wondering if this math book, this grammar text, is really the best possible option. Is this other textbook better? Switching all the time is usually self-defeating, as we spend too much money and jerk the children from one thing to another. If a curriculum is working for you and not making your child cry on a regular basis, switching mid-stream is not productive.

Seek out other homeschoolers to befriend. Read about homeschooling and figure out what sounds good, and then seek out the curricula that will help support the philosophy you choose. Take it slow. And sometimes, make a little leap of faith.

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Janjane-emilye-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.

Why I Chose Homeschooling: A Librarian's Story, by Jane-Emily

 

I always check far more books out of the library than I can actually read. It’s a hazard of the job. If something looks interesting, I will take it home and give it a go. Somewhere around the fall of 2002, when I had a toddler and a baby on the way, a book titled Real Life Homeschooling: The Stories of 21 Families Who Teach Their Children at Home was on the table of new non-fiction. I took it home with me. I had heard very little about homeschooling, and I’m always up for learning about people and educational methods, so I thought I would find out what these strange people were all about. I had never, ever considered homeschooling myself; this was more like anthropology than self-help.

It was an interesting book and many of the families recommended their favorite homeschooling titles, so I got those out of the library, too (mostly through InterLibrary Loan; my own library didn’t have too many homeschooling titles). The majority of the books talked about homeschooling as an endeavor belonging solely to conservative Protestants, which I am not, and while I was interested in them in order to learn about this thing called homeschooling, I was not at all attracted by the lifestyle myself. The books were also more inspirational and encouraging than they were about exactly how to teach children at home; more for people who were already in the middle of it than for prospective homeschoolers.

Then I checked out The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. This was a very different book. It was almost entirely about how to do homeschooling. And it laid out an education that seemed to be very near my own ideal. I didn’t know I had an ideal education in my mind, but there it was, in this book, except for all that stuff about Latin. (Who does Latin?  More on that later.) I was looking at a book that described the education I wished I’d had.

I am a fairly ordinary product of fairly ordinary California public schools. I was expected to learn grammar and writing by osmosis; I studied American history several times but hardly ever got past World War I; I knew little about anywhere else except ancient Greece; on the whole, my education through high school was kind of dismal. I was not well prepared for the excellent public university I attended, and only figured out later how much I had missed simply because I didn’t know how ignorant I was. The idea that this was not inevitable for my own children–that there were other possibilities–struck me all of a heap.

I wanted this for my daughter. But I had never before entertained the idea of homeschooling, and it was a daunting one. Could I do it? Dared I do it? I had always assumed that I would go back to work part-time once my (as-yet-unborn) youngest went into school, and homeschooling would derail those plans. And how on earth could I do this? I decided it was lucky I had plenty of time, and that I could take a while to think about it and pray and see what happened.

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I waffled for a full year. I could not let go of the idea for more than a day at a time. As I took my little girl for walks and to the park, I wondered what I should do. I talked about homeschooling, but I didn’t know anyone who did it, and no one seemed to be very interested. My husband was in favor of the idea, but didn’t want to pressure me into it, and so refrained from comment. I didn’t seem to be able to get an answer to my prayers about it. It took me some time to figure out that if I couldn’t even go two days without thinking about homeschooling classically…well, that might be my answer right there.

So, I came to homeschooling through my desire for a classical education for my children. All the other benefits were things I figured out later on; I was all about the academics at first!  I found other homeschoolers in town, too, and made friends.

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First day of school

We are now in our ninth year of homeschooling, which seems completely impossible when I say it! I have read many, many books about homeschooling and even attended a couple of conferences. I’ve read most about classical education, and so far my vision has never wavered; that vision has been refined and improved, but the principles that so impressed me eleven years ago are still the center of my homeschooling philosophy. That doesn’t mean I live up to them, but I try!

The benefits to our family are probably impossible to quantify completely. I am so grateful to have been able to be with my children for so long. I’ve been able to give them so much rich literature, history, and science. One of my major goals was to avoid some of the math-phobia that so many of us have, and I think I have done well there. We were able to deal with my younger daughter’s vision issues with so much less difficulty than she might otherwise have had. Of course, it hasn’t been a smooth road (none of us get that!), but I have never regretted our decision to homeschool with classical principles.

 

Jane-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian jane-emilyat the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.

Watching an Eclipse, by Jane-Emily

Science With Friends

 

In late May 2012, I was very lucky; there was a solar eclipse right where I live!  We had a great time getting our friends to come and watch it with us, and preparation was the key to a good experience.  Most of us don’t think too hard about an eclipse until it is about to happen, and by then it might be too late to get good equipment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI knew something about a solar eclipse coming up, but it was only about six weeks beforehand that we really got serious. I got to attend a lecture on upcoming astronomical events (there were a bunch in 2012!) given by one of my all-time favorite college professors, Dr. Alexei Filippenko.* He gave us a lot of great information and stressed the importance of having correct viewing tools. We’ve all heard that welding glass is a good viewing medium, but it turns out that not just any welding glass will do; it should be #14 welder’s glass, which isn’t as easy to get. Happily he had bought up a large supply and shared them with us at cost, so I snapped up four or five. (I keep one in the car so I can look at the sun anytime I like!)

After this, we were very excited about watching the eclipse! We wanted to share the fun, so my husband put in a large order for eclipse sunglasses. These look like old-fashioned 3D glasses, but they have very dark plastic in them that is just as good as the welder’s glass.  We got 100 of them and invited everyone we knew to buy them from us (at cost, of course). At first we didn’t get a lot of takers and we worried that we would have a lot left over, but as the day approached, everyone wanted them and we worried that we would run out instead.

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On the big day, we gathered at a neighborhood park. We made sure everybody had proper eye protection, and we sat down for a picnic. An eclipse is a long event and it was a hot, sunny afternoon, so we went prepared for the heat. A couple of people brought a tent for shade, which was great and served as a lovely projection screen. Many families had blankets to put down in shade areas. I remembered at the last minute that I really dislike having the hot sun on my face (and I have a redhead prone to sunburn!), so I made several full-face screens with large pieces of cardboard. I just cut a rectangle shape out in the middle top area and fastened my welder’s glass down with packing tape, and ta-da! –I could watch the eclipse in shady comfort.

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This particular eclipse was an annular solar eclipse.  The moon went exactly in front of the sun (in our area; this, of course, depends on where you are), but because the moon was at its furthest point in orbit, it did not cover the sun’s disk completely. We saw a “ring of fire” around the dark disk of the moon. It was an amazing experience to be able to watch the whole thing happen. During the long period of time while we watched the moon eat away at the sun bit by bit, we played around with shadows and projecting images, used binoculars to project the crescent sun onto anything handy, and marveled at how the shade of the trees made for thousands of crescents. The peak of the eclipse lasted just a few minutes, and we could see the shape of the sun’s disk changing moment by moment. For most of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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Check out NASA’s Eclipse Web Site to see what eclipses are going to happen around the world in the next few years. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have one nearby!  Australians, take note: you will get to see part of a very unusual kind of eclipse next month! Americans have to wait until 2017 for the next full solar eclipse and may wish to plan to travel to see it. Wherever and whenever you get the opportunity to see a solar eclipse, remember that preparation will help you have a great time.

* I took astronomy from Dr. Filippenko when I was in college, and enjoyed it a lot, so much so that I’m planning on using his Teaching Courses materials for my own kids next year.

Featured photo : Thomas Bresson. From Wikimedia Commons.

Janejane-emilyEmily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

Teaching Physics With an 8th Grader (and a Few More), by Jane-Emily

Middle School Science

 

This year, we are studying Physics.  I have used the four-year science/history cycle described in The Well-Trained Mind for eight years now; this is the end of our second cycle (which goes Biology, Earth Science/Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics).  Recently, I wrote about our Chemistry studies last year, and now I’d like to tell you what we’re doing in Physics–and what I would change if I were starting over.

My goal was to have a really solid year of Physics at the 8th-grade level.  Clearly, however, an 8th-grader taking her first year of Algebra is not going to be able to do a traditional Physics course with all that complex math!  What I wanted was a good grounding in the ideas of Physics, but without very much math at all.  After quite a bit of poking around for textbooks, I figured out that what I was after is called Conceptual Physics.

There are only a few textbooks in Conceptual Physics.  I ended up choosing the textbook by the guy who thought up the idea of a math-light physics course in the first place: Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt.  The one I got is the current 11th edition and it is a college textbook.  My daughter has not found it to be too difficult for her–I think a good reader wouldn’t really have a problem–but I found out later on that there is a high school textbook. If I’d realized that I probably would have gone with it.  (Although maybe not; I was able to preview a lot of the college text online which helped me decide, and she really is doing fine and enjoying the textbook.)

Conceptual Physics is my spine, and I designed everything else around that.  I figured that since physics is both complex and very hands-on, it might be good to have a lecture series to watch on TV to reinforce the material and help do examples.  I looked through The Teaching Company’s offerings (otherwise known as The Great Courses), and chose a DVD series called Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works, taught by Professor Richard Wolfson.  The course description says that “it doesn’t rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school Algebra and Trigonometry.”  More on that below.  During my planning, I arranged the DVD lectures so that they would match the textbook chapters.  This came out to usually doing two 30-minute lectures per week, but not always.

I also wanted lots of lab activities.  Some I came up with on my own; I ordered fancy magnets, ferrofluid (look it up; it’s amazing), the world’s longest Slinky, and other fun things.  I also got eScience Labs Introductory Physics (version 3.2), a boxed set that is supposed to have a full year of lab activities.  It comes with a CD-ROM that gives instructions for each lab and questions for students to answer.  It is mid-high-school level; not serious Physics, but enough questions to make it fairly hard work.  However, you can also just do the activities to illustrate the principles, and that is fun for any age!  I figured out a schedule for labs to match my textbook.

We have been doing all this work with a group.  Last year, we had one extra student for chemistry, and that was quite fun–plus it was good for me, because I had to plan those labs and make them happen!  I could never put it off and think we could do it next week.  That student is not homeschooling this year, but all of a sudden several of my friends are homeschooling their kids, and before I knew it I had a group that included three high school students, three middle schoolers, and five elementary-age children!  Students age 12+ come to the lectures and read the textbook; the rest of them use Real Science 4 Kids Physics and only come to the labs.  (At first I thought the 12-year-old was too young to use the college text, but he turns out to be a natural engineer.  He got the textbook late, caught up, and is loving it.)

As if this is not enough, I chose some supplementary books for the older students to read if they felt so inclined.  These are not required, but they are great resources:

Lastly, in order to keep all these students informed, I started a Facebook page.  They aren’t all on Facebook, but their parents are!  I post information, announcements, and neat videos or images, and our syllabus is available there for reference.

And how has all this turned out?

The textbook is fine.  Although I wonder if I would have been better off with the high-school text, everyone is reading and understanding just fine, and my daughter–who was not really excited about Physics in September–tackles her chapter first thing every Monday morning and says she really enjoys it.  I feel pretty good about it.

The DVD course is pretty interesting and has some good examples, as I hoped.  It also turns out to have a different definition of “doesn’t rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school Algebra and Trigonometry” than I do.  When the math comes up on the screen, we all stare at it in despair.  After that happened a couple of times, I started fast-forwarding when the math starts.  Later on in the course, some of the lectures get pretty advanced.  If I could choose again, I might go with a more conceptual course by the same instructor, Physics In Your Life, though then I would probably worry that it was not rigorous enough!  On the whole this has worked out fine, though.  My students are still showing up regularly for lectures, so I guess we are doing OK.

Hosting labs is always fun.  The box set tends to draw lessons from very simple activities, and sometimes I wish I had something on a bigger scale, but for the most part it is going fine.  The kids enjoy the activities, and I try to tell them the principles behind what we are doing.  Labs also give me a great opportunity to talk about science in everyday life, and using our knowledge to think about what we see around us.  We have had some good conversations on why we should understand scientific principles and how to avoid expensive (yet completely unsound) products.  The very best days are when my husband, who is a true Physics aficionado, is able to be present and talk with the students.  He is much more eloquent than I am, and would be a better teacher, but sadly he has to earn a living.

The Facebook page was a good idea.  It’s easier than emailing everyone, and the videos get a good response.  There are some amazing Physics videos out there!  We have especially enjoyed some of Veritasium’s videos; our favorite was the giant Slinky. 

It’s a bit early yet to declare this a good year for science, but I think we are well on our way to being able to say that.  So far it’s been fun, and everyone is learning.

Featured photo: Iron filings and a magnet. The filings are in a jar of oil so they can be easily observed. The magnet is in a test tube so it will stay clean.

Jane-Ejane-emilymily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.