Back to (Home) School

September 8, 2016

Photo by Breather

Like every other family with kids, it’s back to school time around here. Unlike most, however, our kids won’t be going very far. And they haven’t officially started yet. This week we’re still on what we call our “summer schedule,” where there’s lots of play time, but also math and reading. But when our two day per week homeschool academy begins again on Tuesday, we’ll be back to a full academic schedule: science, history, Latin, Greek mythology, art, music, language arts, and yes, still reading and math.

People tend to think homeschooling is cheap, but it isn’t. Certainly more so than private school, but definitely more expensive than public school — especially if you belong to some kind of coop. We pay tuition to our homeschool academy, help with fundraisers, contribute to the supplies it needs, and purchase uniforms. We also buy all our kids’ cirricula and the usual school supplies. It adds up!

Last year, I was stressed out around this time, trying to gather supplies and order curricula. This time, I’m pretty relaxed and not sure know why because I still can’t find the binders the girls need after multiple trips outside the city to big box stores, and I still have to order new math workbooks, and the girls have no matching socks, and H needs a new navy skirt because she keeps growing taller but not wider and I can’t find one to fit her. But I guess as this goes on I get more relaxed about it all.

I still have my eyes on these Planetboxes for the girls. I didn’t order them last year because, well, that price tag. But I’ve looked around and there’s nothing really like it,  and I dig the idea of not using so many baggies and plastic wrap. Moms I know swear by them. We’ll see.

Speaking of back to school, I had to laugh the other day when I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a post from a popular mom blogger surrounded by about 20 other moms in her neighborhood who all gathered for mimosas to celebrate their kids’ first day back to school. My comment was: Guess there aren’t many homeschoolers in that group! But I’d take a mimosa, or three.

Are your kids back to school? How do you feel about it? Do you love getting back to routine, or sad to see summer go?

Image: Breather at unsplash




Being creative

You’ve surely heard me call myself “the world’s worst homeschooler.” Almost three years into it and I still stand by that. Okay, I’m probably not literally the worst, but I seriously think I could start a Facebook group called “pathetic homeschoolers” and not feel the least bit like a phony.

Like most homeschoolers I know, I struggle at times… I wonder if I’m doing enough, or missing the best strategies, or using the right curricula. I’m inconsistent, I get tired, I compare myself to others, and my kids to other kids. I question if this is the best path, and sometimes entertain the idea of throwing in the towel. Not all the time, but there are days.

The truth is, however, I do it because when push comes to shove, I love homeschooling. And I’m convinced that, at least right now, it’s the best option for our daughters and for our family. But since homeschooling is not the typical path and I support school choice and recognize that different options work better for different families, I’m conscious about how I come across when I talk to non-homeschoolers.

When friends and strangers alike hear that we homeschool, they often say things like, “Oh, I could never do that!” or “I love my kids, but I really like when they’re in school!” I understand those comments. There are days when I dream of my kids being in school all day so I have no interruptions and can get all my work done. But when I get such comments, I’m tempted to minimize my love for homeschooling, not wanting to make someone else feel bad or judged in any way. (I often say: Believe me, if I can do it, anybody can! And I really mean that.)

But at the same time, when I’m out and about — like say at the grocery store with my 8 year-olds at 1:00pm on a Monday — I’m aware that people may wonder if I take my kids’ education seriously, or if my kids are missing out, and I don’t want to sound insecure about our decision or reticent to talk about it. So I’m often trying to find that balance of being a happy homeschooler while making sure no one feels like I’m rubbing it in their face.

Recently someone posted this HuffPost article on Facebook called “3 Things Your Homeschooling Friend Isn’t Telling You” and I found myself nodding along with the whole thing. It reminded me once again why a woman like me, who doesn’t think she homeschools very well, continues on. I love the flexibility it allows, the creativity, the ability to tailor learning to my individual children. I love the wholesome environment we can provide our daughters to learn and to discover who they are in this big world. As much as my kids can drive me crazy at times, I treasure all the time I have with them because time passes quickly and the relationships we’re building now are a foundation for the future. I’m grateful to have all the supports we have around us, which make it easier to do this — coops, activities, other homeschoolers, lots of resources.

I suppose this post is mostly meant for me, to remind myself that I really do enjoy being a homeschooler, despite my struggles and chaotic days and my down-playing it to others. Of course, I’m writing this while we’re on our summer schedule, which is an easier time to sit back and feel good about things. But when November rolls around, I think it may help to re-read this post.

If you’re a homeschooler, does that article resonate? If you’re not, do you find it helpful to remind yourself why you do what you do?


Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Handmade dresses

Among my mother-in-law’s many gifts is her ability to sew. And I don’t mean simply fixing hems or mending holes. This woman can make stuff. As a young woman, she made her own clothes that were fashion magazine worthy — people would stop her on the street and ask where she got what she was wearing. She has sewn all kinds of incredible things over the years, and I would add kids Halloween costumes to that list as the ones she made for the girls the past two years were really something.

I marvel at this talent because sewing is not something I grew up with. My mother never learned — she was left-handed and refused to do it the right-handed way, which is the only way anyone would teach it when she was young. And I had such a crummy experience in home economics class myself that it put a bad taste in my mouth when it came to sewing so I didn’t pursue it. Neither of my grandmothers seemed to sew, either, at least as far as I remember.

One of the highlights of our trip to Kentucky this month for S and H was being introduced to sewing by B’s mom. She had them practice using the machine, and then she took them to a fabric store where they picked out fabric for sundresses she helped them to make. They were quick to know what they wanted — and both knew they wanted their dressed to be long.

The results are above. Aren’t they beautiful? (They also look so grown up — sniff, sniff!) For Father’s Day on Sunday, the girls insisted on wearing them — to church and out for brunch — and as predicted they made a statement everywhere they went. (These girls can wear any color and look dynamite – I’m so jealous.)

Coming home with a beautiful dress that they can say they made (with Nana’s help!) is indeed special, but perhaps even better is the memories this made. Sewing with their grandmother is something the girls can treasure for many years to come. I guarantee they’ll remember these first outfits they made.

Do you sew? Would you like to learn? If you could make something with a sewing machine, what would it be?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


School days pic from Pixabay

A few months ago a reader asked if I’d write about the homeschool coop we’re part of — she was curious and wanted to know more. It’s not unusual to hear about homeschool coops these days, but what exactly are they, and how do they work?

I’m no expert, but I can share from my experience the past three years, and what I know about coops more generally. People homeschool for all kinds of reasons these days and they do it in many different ways. Coops can be part of the picture.

Homeschool coops come in many shapes and sizes: Some are informal and meet in participating families’ homes; others meet in community centers, church halls, or other locations. Some happen once a week or once a month, while others may be two or three times per week. Some coops are completely parent-run and cost almost nothing, others employ teachers and require fees. Some are religious, some are not. There are coops that focus on younger kids or older kids, on certain subjects or particular methodologies. With some coops, you sign up by the class; with others you must commit to the entire program.

What all homeschool coops share in common, however, is that they’re a place for homeschooled kids to gather, learn, and be together, and they provide parents a support system (and often a little relief!).

Not all homeschool coops function as true coops. The one we belong to this year is called an “academy.” It’s essentially a parent-operated, two-day-per-week program for pre-K to 12. The founders (three moms) make the big decisions and there are uniforms and a set schedule. It mostly follows a classical model, cirriculum-wise, and parents teach many of the classes, though a number of qualified people are brought in (and paid) to handle certain subjects, especially for the upper grades. The day begins at 8:30 and ends at 3, with breaks and a one hour lunch. It’s Catholic so there’s built in meditation and prayer time at the beginning of the day and again after lunch. The classes are small — 10 kids or under (my girls’ grade has only 4 kids, but they join with another grade for two classes). There’s a lot required of the parents, and it functions as a community of sorts, with lots of give and take, and it’s relatively inexpensive.

I know this sounds a lot like a private school — and it’s definitely more formal and structured than most homeschool coops — but the part-time schedule, low fees, and parent-run, answer-to-ourselves nature of it makes it quite different.

Last year we were part of a different homeschool group. It was smaller, classes were generally not taught by parents (though parents had required duties), and you could sign up (and pay) by the class. Our girls took three classes with about seven other kids. A couple years ago, I joined two other local homeschooling families for an informal neighborhood coop of sorts — we met monthly, taking turns leading a workshop — usually related to multi-cultural studies, arts and crafts, or science. One family I know participates in a local coop that’s focused on elementary and middle school kids and seems more focused on creativity-oriented classes, which you can sign up by class for a certain length of time.

There are all kinds of things to consider when it comes to joining a coop. It depends on your families’ needs and the coop’s purpose and offerings. Like many families, we take it year by year, and so far have benefited from being part of a coop. It’s provided S and H a safe and non-judgemental place to develop language and social skills and it’s given me — the world’s worst homeschooler — a chance to not only mingle with and learn from other homeschooling parents (who all take interest in each others’ kids), but also some breathing room: When it’s a week of seemingly getting nothing done at home, I feel better knowing they’re at least getting something done at the homeschool academy. It also helps give structure to our week. Since our physical home environment is such a challenge for homeschooling, this goes a long way.

Of course, there are the tough parts. I teach a class (2nd grade Latin) and have other duties so I can’t just decide that we’re all hitting the road for a month. (Not that we can do that right now, but I dream of such possibilities!) It’s not always fun getting my kids (and myself!), who are not early risers, up and into uniforms while it’s still dark. I don’t have control over the curriculum that’s chosen (though I have some input), or the pace of classes, and I feel the pressure of making sure the homework is done, the same way I would if the girls were attending a conventional school. Also, as a mother with a paying job, it’s hard for me to participate because of the level of commitment and expectations.

So, there are always pros and cons — as there would be to not being part of a coop or similar group, too. As a homeschooler, each year you have decide which set of factors provides the best win-win. Homeschooling is never just about the kids, but the whole family.

All in all, though, I’m a big fan of homeschool groups like coops and admire the people who run them because they take a lot of work and commitment, no matter what form they take. It’s a great thing for families to have these kind of options when it comes to our children’s education.

If you homeschool, I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or experience with coops and similar groups. I’d also be happy to answer any questions in the comments, so fire away if you have any!

Image: Pixabay



To teach cursive or not to teach cursive… I’ve been asking myself this for a while and then I watched this video and it kind of sealed the deal.
Not that other homeschooling parents haven’t encouraged me to do it. And the more I learn about the benefits of cursive, the more it makes sense. It’s not only a creative exercise and allows us to be able to read many historic documents, it’s good for our brains. I tend to favor anything that builds brain connections and strengthens cognitive function and cursive is one of those things — there’s actual science behind it.
I learned cursive in grade school myself and had excellent penmanship until my late 20s, when I began to use a computer more and more. My handwriting has now gone to the dogs and I think better as a writer with a keyboard in front of me. But I still write thank you notes and letters and I’m grateful I learned cursive. In fact, I have very few memories of my first few grades of school, but practicing cursive and taking pride in it is one of them.
Many states have done away with cursive; Common Core doesn’t require it. I understand how this happened: in the tech age, what’s the point? As is typical in our society, though, we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water. Why can’t you be computer literate and also be able to write and read cursive? Not everything has to be about immediate usefulness; some things are useful because they’re building blocks for other things, they help us in broader ways to learn, to create, to grow — which is the real point of education, right?
Anyway, Master Penman Jake Weidmann (shown in the video above) also gave this short Ted talk and it’s really impressive. If you have older kids who have any kind of creative bent, they might enjoy listening to it as well.
Is your child learning cursive? If you’re a homeschooler is it part of your curriculum? And what do you think about Jake Weidmann — wow, huh?


Back to School Prep

August 21, 2015

Wine Session with Friends by Viktor Janacek

Can we really be looking at the end of August? Apparently so. I’m in full school prep mode and I’m being quickly reminded that one of the downsides of city living is that all the stores you need for back-to-school stuff are way out in the burbs. It’s scary out there. Ha.

So online shopping to the rescue. I just ordered backpacks for the girls as I couldn’t find anything decent left in the stores. There’s no real need for backpacks for homeschool, generally, but since the girls will be attending a homeschool academy two days per week, they’re going to have a lot of binders and books and a pencil box full of stuff, in addition to a lunch box and water bottle.

Speaking of lunch boxes, I really want to get some lunch containers like these, but boy are they pricey, especially if you buy a kit. (I really do like the water bottles there, too, and believe me, we’ve been through a lot of water bottles — they’re not all created equal.) The containers make school lunches much less wasteful: We don’t have to go through so many tiny baggies and saran wrap for everything, and they’re more fun and appetizing for kids. I just can’t seem to get myself to order those yet, though, because of the price tag. Still looking around.

I’ve driven to three different stores and still can’t find all the ugly poly binders the girls need for their subjects. Those poly binders are a pet peeve of mine, which I know is kind of ridiculous, but it’s because they can’t be stored neatly anywhere and constantly slip and fall behind shelves and couches. Have we really made such little progress as a society?

I still have to order a lot of books and curriculum the girls need, too. Thankfully I found some second hand, but Amazon will have to come to the rescue.

Thankfully, I have all but two items the girls need for their uniforms (Yes, they need to wear uniforms to this homeschool academy, which is a little annoying as a homeschooler, but maybe that’s just me.)

Then there’s what I need before our fall educational schedule begins: I’ll be teaching Latin to my girls’ class at the homeschool academy so I need to get something to keep my lesson plans organized, a decent general planner, and get to some re-organizing of shelves and set up downstairs so our space is in better order.

Not that you wanted to hear me ramble about my back-to-school to-do list, but it’s clogging up my brain at the moment! Also: I want to hear any recommendations you have for back-to-school gear: lunch boxes, water bottles, homeschool planners, and anything else that you think I need to know about.

Meanwhile, it’s Friday and yes, I still just want to go sit in a cafe somewhere and drink wine. Probably not going to happen this weekend, but I’m determined to find a few moments to exhale. Anything special happening for you?

See you back here next week!

Image: By Viktor Hanacek at picjumbo 



A Summer Lament

August 14, 2015

Nova Scotia Wildflowers
Ever since I became a parent, summer flies by so quickly that it barely feels like it was here at all. Even though we homeschool, we follow the conventional school calendar, mostly because the homeschool co-ops we’ve participated in more or less do, and it’s just more convenient overall. But summer now seems to fall into three distinct phases: exhaling from the school year, preparing for vacation and taking that vacation (sadly, the shortest phase of all), and then getting home to face the mad rush before school begins.

All I want to do right now is sit in outdoor cafes sipping wine well into the evening, and instead I’ve got a to-do list a mile high of back-to-school prep, household projects, appointments, and work deadlines. It’s just not right.

When it comes down to it, I guess somewhere inside I’m still a kid when it comes to summertime. I want my summer and I want it to be leisurely and I want someone else to come and take care of all the grown-up stuff! 

You, too?

I guess I need to plan a few “end-of-summer” things I can look forward to before the homeschool year begins. And I can live vicariously through others — like Mags, who’s off to Italy for two weeks on Sunday. She’ll be wandering the streets of Milan and lounging on beaches in Rimini while I’m in Target looking for ugly plastic binders and glue sticks. But, really, who’s comparing? Ha.

At least it’s Friday. We’re planning to spend some time with my brother and his family this weekend, and maybe get a few things checked off that crazy list. Hope your own weekend is lovely. Any exciting plans for the rest of the month?

Image: Nova Scotia wildflowers by Zoe Saint-Paul


Wooden Albacus
Neuroscience fascinates me — I’m nerdy like that — and this recent article in kqed news about how kids learn best is really interesting. Apparently, the latest research shows that children remember and understand concepts much better if they can act things out, or if there’s some kind of physical movement matched to the mental concept.

For example, 3rd graders were divided into two groups to do a mathematical word problem. The first group worked on the problem verbally, in their heads, while the second group acted out the problem. The latter did better. This result was repeated in other experiments.

The article goes on to say that many of the academic skills now required for successful functioning in the world — such as math — are fairly new to the human brain:

As neuroscientists investigate how humans learn, they often find that newer skills and aptitudes are mapped onto areas of the brain that also control basic body functions. Increasingly, this work is helping to illuminate neurological connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head,” said Beilock at a Learning and the Brain conference. “We have to go beyond that.”

This “embodied” learning backs up what Maria Montessori claimed in her 1966 book The Secret of Childhood, where she wrote: “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

When it comes to teaching children — even high schoolers, apparently — the science seems to show that encouraging kids to use their hands in learning, and teaching them gestures as another way to figure things out, goes a long way.

And environment matters, too:  Our brains need time to relax, and nature does this best, helping us to focus better. Also, most early-childhood classrooms are set up all wrong:

Visual distractions apply to the classroom as well. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

I think whether you’re a parent or a teacher, this neuroscience research is fascinating to ponder. I’m already thinking about how to use it in our homeschooling moving forward.

Image:Victor Hanacek via PicJumbo


Kids and Internet
This article about a professor’s decision to minimize his kids’ internet time is worth a read. The author, Martin Kutnowski, describes the screams from his 10-year-old after she discovers her iPod can’t connect to the internet. She and her 9-year-old brother were used to four or five hours of screen time, and it was causing some zombie-like behaviors:

American children need 60 minutes of moderate to intense activity a day, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control. One could only hope to meet that standard. Returning from work every evening, I would find two zombies—the cliché never gets old, because it is accurate—in front of the computer. In a catatonic state, the children would respond to my greeting with an unintelligible mumble. After turning the computer off, I would try to talk them into riding the bicycle or going to the park.

Failing that, I’d make them to do chores or homework, often musing how much easier it would be to haul an elephant up a mountain. At dinner, if asked what they had learned at school—the kind of conversation I used to have with my parents—my annoyed children would respond “nothing,” absently looking into the distance, longing to tether themselves online as soon as I turned my back.

No surprise here; the internet and our tech devices can be pretty addictive. Do you check your email repeatedly when you don’t really need to? Your phone? Facebook or Twitter? Many of us have habits that border on addiction, although we don’t like to think of it that way. Since most of us never had the internet, smart phones, or iPads as kids, I think it’s hard for us to know where to draw lines for our children.

In our home, we’re trying to strike a balance. I have definite luddite tendencies, but my husband is a tech geek, so we try and meet in the middle — though he agrees that 6-year-olds need less time in front of screens and more time outside and playing. Our daughters are allowed to use some educational apps on the iPad, and that’s about it (besides being allowed to watch occasional favorite programs and movies that we download).

I certainly want to avoid raising kids that fit the description of Kutnowski’s students:

As a professor in a four-year undergraduate university, I meet young people just as they emerge from the public-school pipeline, and from years of excessive electronic stimulation. Differences among these entering students are profound, in physical health, in skill level, in social and academic engagement, and ultimately in their chances for success. Many of these students have urgent needs: Some don’t understand their own nutrition, how to form a coherent and complete sentence, how to focus long enough to read one chapter of a book, or how to talk and collaborate with one another or with the teacher.

I help as much as I can, and often my students become engaged with their academic and social environment. An earlier intervention—fewer videogames, more activities outdoors and more guided reading, for instance—could have saved those who give up. And no, l don’t buy the fantasy that failing students will be “successful” dropouts like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Statistics predict that most people without a postsecondary education will be low-wage earners.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, it’s worth nothing that his kids weren’t allowed to spend much time on the internet or with electronic devices.

How do you strike a balance for yourself and/or your kids when it comes to the internet and electronic devices?

Image: Rage Against the Minivan


Wheat-Free School Lunches

September 10, 2014

School Lunches
Our family is eating a low-wheat, low-gluten diet right now. (Well, maybe not B, but give me a husband you can totally control and I’ll give you good money. Ha.) Not because we know for sure that anyone in here is intolerant to wheat, but I know my daughters have some food sensitivities, so I’ve eliminated or reduced items that I think are the most likely culprits. Wheat is one of them, and reading articles like this about modern wheat reinforces my desire to keep eating this way.

I’ve tried going totally wheat- (and gluten-) free before, and I find it very challenging, so for now we’re a little relaxed about it — which means acting like we’re wheat-free, but letting things slide when we forget, or when everyone’s just begging for something that has wheat. (Have I mentioned my girls adore bread? It’s one of their favorite things in life. Mine, too.)

Now that I’m packing lunches twice a week when the girls attend their cooperative school, I’m looking everywhere for wheat-free lunch ideas. It hasn’t been too hard to come up with some so far, but since they really, really want sandwiches, I’m trying to find alternatives they’ll enjoy that are also easy for me to prepare. Here are a couple I made recently:

Wheat-free lunch #1:

  • 2 boiled eggs (with a side of sea salt)
  • rice crackers
  • baby carrots
  • apple
  • piece of dark chocolate

Wheat-free lunch #2:

  • sliced organic turkey wrapped around lettuce
  • veggie puffs
  • mini seaweed sheets
  • applesauce

With each lunch they drink water, from those cute little personalized bottles above. The eggs were a little stinky, and the girls thought the rolled-up meat was a bit weird, but they ate it. (I did promise them they can occasionally have a sandwich, but I’m using a sprouted grain bread for that.) I gave them Lara bars the other day for snack time, and they weren’t big fans. Maybe I need to switch up the flavors.

S With Lunch Gear

If you are wheat- or gluten-free — or close to it — I’d love to hear your favorite kids’ lunches, as well as your  go-to websites and blogs for recipes!

By the way, the girl’s adorable water bottles are from Stuck on You. You can choose among many designs and have your child’s name personalized on them — perfect for school! And I found the freezable lunch bags at Mighty Nest; they’ve got a great selection.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul