Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Our Mini United Nations

One comment I often hear from people in regards to home schooling is that children don't often get exposed to children "different" from themselves if they are home all the time. I always smile a bit when I hear this. Mostly because anyone that actually meets my children have meet people "different" from themselves. We don't belong to one of the major religions (or any religion for that matter, but we do follow a Torah based life), we are overall quirky, and not very "typical". However, I have yet to meet a "typical" family anyway. Everyone we know is quirky in their own way - even when they belong to various majority based groups.

I do a chemistry class for young home schoolers. The children are all between K and 3rd in terms of grade level. In this group of roughly eleven children (including younger siblings observing) - the differences are amazing. There is one set of twins, one child with English as a second language, at least 5 children  are mixed race, four children with parents born outside of the United States, three families with a language other than English spoken in the home - either as a primary or secondary language, at least two families that do not belong to any of the major religions. Some of the children have older siblings, some have younger siblings, and one child is being raised and home schooled by a grandparent. Two families travel from different cities to join us for class - so much for being confined to people that live in your neighborhood!

Our mini UN is filled with diversity; diversity that can be appreciated because it is genuine. It isn't found in a book or a movie; it's just their friends - each one unique in their own way. What makes this such a wonderful group of children is the fact that their differences go almost unnoticed. They know "J" and "K" speak Mandarin in the home, but it isn't a big deal. What makes it cool is that "J" and "K" and their mommy is teaching everyone a little Mandarin. The children that speak Spanish in the home blended easily with the native English speakers as they all counted to 10 and beyond in Spanish. They didn't do it as an assignment, or to point out differences; they just did it because the kids all wanted to do it and found it to be fun.

While the other children might find it weird that my kids don't celebrate Christmas, Halloween, or Easter - it isn't a big deal. I am sure they may find it kind of interesting when they come over during Sukkot and we are having class out in our temporary shelter (most likely an RV rented from a vendor). My kids rejoice and do a happy dance when one of their friends gets a visit from the Tooth Fairy, even though she doesn't visit our home. That is what diversity is really all about - being able to appreciate the culture of others without feeling the need to change the core of who you are. We don't proselytize our friends, and they return the favor. We embrace our differences as well as in the wealth of things we have in common. In fact, we are more common than we are different. I have found in my own journey through life that I am more like most people than I am different - irregardless of where in the world I am standing. This is the gift that homeschooling allows me to give to my children as well - they are experiencing the truth that we are all more alike than we are different. They are learning you don't have to look the same, believe the same, or live the same in order to be the best of friends.

Some of my children's friends are vegetarians - even though we eat meat, we don't offer it as a meal choice when their vegetarian friends join us for play. That's also a big part of embracing and understanding diversity. Understanding that you compromise where you can, when you can, and it's all okay.

I don't know if my kids would have these type of experiences in a traditional school setting. Maybe they would, but I know "I" wouldn't. While the kids enjoying playing with their friends, I am getting an opportunity to get to know some really awesome and amazing parents! I love that I can converse with others that don't home school exactly like we do, but still get just as amazing results. I love talking recipes with people who have a different diet than we do. I love hearing about the spiritual experiences of other families, even though we don't engage like they do. It's also nice to meet other families that do many things in a similar way - like knowing other families that choose not to spank (and yes, some of our friends spank as well).

Genuine interest and respect of others while still being true to yourself - that is the best thing I can teach my children. And that is what they are learning. Well, I take that back - they aren't learning it at all. Children naturally function this way without the interference of closed minded adults. What I and the other parents have provided is an atmosphere for the children to continue to function in the kind and inclusive manner they are born with. Many people say children are cruel, but that isn't true at all. Children unencumbered with bigotry, hate, and self righteousness from adults are actually quite kind and enjoyable individuals. What is so amazing about our mini UN is that all of the children are just naturally kind. No, they aren't perfect. They get a bit loud and rowdy and I did think they would come to blows as they tried to hoard Lego's! But not one person made fun of "P" even though he stutters. Not one person laughed at one of my little ones that had a meltdown and cried a bit. No one mentions that "C" is a little over weight while "M" is a bit skinny. None of that registers at all - they just don't ever talk about it, they don't dwell on those things. In fact, I shouldn't even call them a UN - they function so much better than the UN. They don't group themselves by language, race, socioeconomic status, or gender. It doesn't matter who their parents will be voting for, if they choose to vote at all. They are so comfortable in their own skin that I am a bit jealous. What they have can't actually be taught, it has to simply be nurtured. I and the other parents have vowed to do just that, provide an environment that is as close to uncorrupted as possible. We won't be perfect; we are adults and that puts us at a disadvantage. But for as long as we can, we commit to just letting them be and enjoy each other. We will continue to do a happy dance if the Tooth Fairy visits a friend, bop our heads as someone sings a Christmas song, and giggle as we have class outside during Sukkot. We will sit back while the kids count in Spanish, English, Mandarin, and any other language they choose, and smile at the rainbow of children playing freeze tag out in the yard.

I grew up in a world that was simply Black and White, rich or poor - that was it. My heart if filled with joy that my kids have a world so much bigger, so much more colorful, so much more authentic than I could have imagined at their age. For this experience alone, home schooling has been well worth the effort.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Running His Own Race

Since starting our home school journey two years ago, I am amazed at just how good of a decision this was. One of the reasons I love this decision so much is because I know, in my head, there is no other way to educate my children. I get that other people have choices, and I rejoice with them in their choices. I get that the absolute right decision for other people is a more traditional school setting - that is wonderful. But for us, for this house, there is no other way.

One of those "no other way" moments hit me when working with my younger son today. We were doing some addition problems. It started off rough and the first four answers he really had to struggle to find. But, once he hit his stride - he did them all perfectly. I spoke with my husband about this and I labeled him my "long distance" learner. Like track and field - if you judge a marathon runner by their pace at the 100 meters  mark - you completely miss the boat. No, they aren't fast at 100 meters, they aren't fast at 200 meters, they aren't even fast at 1600 meters. But at mile 26, when most other humans on the planet would have given up, if not had a hard attack a died, here they come. They aren't just jogging, they are now sprinting. They aren't just sprinting, they are smiling! They cross the tape and for many of them, they could probably run a little while longer. They have seen more scenery than most 100 meters  runners will ever see, they have passed more people, they have had an opportunity to think - think and run. What didn't look fast at 100 meters  looks amazingly fast at 26 miles. This year's Olympic winner ran just over 26 miles in just 2 hours. 8 minutes, and 2 seconds. That is less than 5 minutes per mile!

That is my son, who in addition to holding the labels "gifted" and "dyslexic", also has extremely slow processing speed. When people look at him on the surface, he doesn't look as fast mentally as his brother or sister. Heck, he didn't look as fast as the other kids in his preschool class 2 years ago. His "teachers" were looking for sprinters and they would tell us how he just "wasn't ready". Well, he isn't going to go out of the blocks like a sprinter. But when everyone else has bored of the task and put their pencils or crayons away - he is still going. Not limping, not lollygagging, not struggling, but running - fast. In a traditional school setting - with bells and time limits and tight schedules, there is no room for marathon runners. If you are not a sprinter - you aren't "gifted". And if you come in last place at the 100 meter tape, you are downright "slow". No one cares if you are just hitting your stride and you can go on for another 26 miles while everyone else was just in it for the short burst.

My daughter is a sprinter, like me. She "gets" it fast and even finishes her work fast. But, there is just something marathon runners have that sprinters don't. For instance, today the twins both built structures with wood blocks. My daughter, the sprinter, did a good structure quickly. I mean, you could call it a house. It had a floor, 4 walls, and even a facade. Sure, it was quite clear that this was a house, and a fine house that was well built with lots of character. But her brother, the marathon runner - boy oh boy did he build a "house". It took him at least twice as long, if not three times as long. But when he told me about his structure I was floored. There was a weather gauge to check for tornadoes (we lived through a F5 - so tornado surveillance is important to him), there were windows that rotated to give the home owner optimum views, there were doors that opened with ramps leading up to each door. This was a house where every piece was laid down with purpose, there was a story behind every block he chose to include. He even talked about a modification he had to make because his sister had used two pieces he was originally going to use. If I had yelled "time" after his sprinter sister finished - there would have been very little of his house built. In fact, it may not have looked like a house at all.

Imagine if someone yelled "time" when the marathon runners were halfway finished with the race. Some might have tried to dash for the finish line - and most likely hurt themselves by pulling muscles, tripping over obstacles or other hazards along the way, or they may have just fainted from exhaustion and despair. Others would have stopped - frustrated that all their hard work was for nothing since they were never given the opportunity to finish. I imagine some may have chosen to never run a marathon again.

As a sprinter myself - I have to constantly remind myself to not yell "time" when he is still in the middle of his race. I have to remind myself that he isn't an astonishingly slow sprinter, he is an extremely fast marathon runner. He is working at a different pace, but running his race quite well. We need marathon runners. Marathon runners are the researchers around us, those with the aptitude to sit, watch, and wait for the results. I barely had the patience to wait for the results from a pregnancy test and those things only take ten minutes! My son can work on a painting, a book, a story for hours. When he is given the time, the results are amazing. He may just be the brightest child that I have, but most in the world won't see it. Millions upon millions tuned in to watch Usain Bolt run 100 meters in just 9.63 seconds. Not too many people were waiting in breathless anticipation as Stephen Kiprotich won his gold. The marathon record is 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 38 seconds. There are just over 1600 meters in a mile. That puts the fastest marathon runner at around 17 seconds in the 100 yard dash. While that sounds quite slow for a 100 meters dash, consider that a person running a marathon is like Usain Bolt running almost 400 separate -  100 meter dashes in a row. Could he keep up his world record pace? We call Usain Bolt that fastest man in the world, but I would think Patrick Makau Masyoki would disagree. And that is how it is with knowledge as well. A gifted sprinter may look like the smartest person in the world - they might be amazingly quick with math facts, geography facts, or even naming presidents in order of their birth. It makes good television and people like to see that kind of mental speed. It is amazing, and I take nothing away from the mental Usain Bolt's of the world - I have one! But I have seen my son, the mental marathon runner in action. His depth of knowledge far outpaces anything I have ever seen. All he really needs to shine is a long enough track and someone  to let them finish the race and not yell "time" before the finish line.

Oh yea, don't hold me to the math in this - I sprinted and just didn't have the heart to go back and check the numbers!

Our Home School "style"

One question many people want to know is what is our homeschooling "style", or how would we classify our home school approach. An easy way would be to identify ourselves as eclectic, or an approach that draws from a variety of different sources. However, that really doesn't help to identify exactly what we do.

I have always been a fan of unschooling or child led learning and we do use a bit of this approach. It's just that "I" need structure, even if my kids don't. So, I incorporate unschooling by allowing my children to have some freedom in when they choose their assignments as well as some of the topics that we tackle (like my eldest choosing to study world geography and my daughter choosing to learn about weather).

Our need for structure isn't just a personal preference, there are some choices that the children have made that require a more firm routine. For instance, all three of my children are learning at least one instrument, with two of the three learning two instruments. Instruments require practice at least five days a week - there is just no getting around that. If you love an instrument, you either learn to love to practice or you give up on the instrument. My children are still young and while they always have a choice in whether or not they will continue to play their instruments, they don't get a choice when it comes to practice - they must practice every weekday. We are also doing remediation in the areas of vision, auditory processing,  and dyslexia. While it isn't always fun, doing the hard work now means they won't have disabilities holding them back when the real learning and adventure starts as they get older and more independent.

We tend to do math everyday - although we do it in a variety of ways. Sometimes it's working through a math textbook or workbook, other times hands on games and activities, math videos, and even math story books. We do something with reading/phonics daily as well - but this is also done utilizing variety. Sometimes the kids are reading aloud, sometimes they are doing a CD-ROM based program, sometimes doing a hands on phonics exercise, and sometimes even watching a phonics or reading based video. Variety allows us to not get into a rut and allows for depth of learning as well.

We incorporate creative expression and outlet as a part of our weekly home school routine. So arts and crafts, music appreciation, dramatic and role playing are all a part of things we do. Arts and crafts can be anything from painting to clay work to beading crafts or craft kits. In music appreciation we may learn about various instruments, learn about artist, or learn about a music genre. Drama and role playing comes from the kids acting out scenes they seen in their favorite videos or simply role playing life situations. Just having an outlet for expression with no hard and fast rules is an important thing in our home.

We also combine science and art through things like snap circuits, zometools, legos, K'Nex and other building mediums. We can explore them using physics, engineering, and chemistry to learn, grow, and explore. I am constantly amazed by what the children are able to do. They generally start with the guide provided in the kit, but quickly master the basics and go off building on their own. It is beautiful to watch their minds come up with new ways of thinking about objects.

The kids also do unit based "specials". There are topics they choose that I simply provide a lot of materials so they can go as deep or as wide as their passion takes them. A passion for geography brings out a globe, various different atlas books to view maps, learning to read maps, learning to draw maps, doing map puzzles, mapping out various routes, or just learning interesting facts about various countries. We dug deep on a number of topics including the human body where we even put together medical grade models, ferrets where we learned how to take care of them, set up habitats, and even went to visit and hold them at a local pet store. The big thing is the children pick the topic and I gather the supplies. This has been the most interesting part of our home schooling journey as the children have chosen to learn about things well before I would have scheduled them or even chose to learn about things that I wouldn't have come up with. The big thing for me is that they enjoy the learning process.

Physical activities are also a part of our weekly routine. In addition to them taking gymnastics, we also make sure to move our bodies as much as we can. From doing yoga to running laps at the track - we understanding the exercise is not only fun, but an important part of life as well.

So, our style is quite broad. I use what I call the "label" system to determine our daily schedule. Basically, I add 7 labels to their boxes each day. The labels might say a standard - like vision therapy or Singapore Math. They also have labels title "build/create" where they pick the medium or "logic" which can be a game, a book, or us getting together to solve some pressing problem. They also have free choice labels. Once they have finished their 7 mandatory labels, they can pick as many free labels as they chose. These might say "build a bridge", "make a story up about a sibling", "write a letter to grandma", "build an animal habitat", or "run a lap". They get rewarded in various ways be finishing their labels - kind of like adults earning a paycheck for the work that they do. The system has been working quite well and it keeps the kids' interested in what we are doing. It provides us the structure we need while still allowing for lots of freedom and personal responsibility.

So - that's our "style" and there just isn't one or two words to describe it. All I can say is that it works for us and it definitely isn't for everyone. There is a lot of planning on my part that goes into making this work and the kids are probably working harder than most children their age. But, they are thriving, having fun, and constantly asking for more work. I think we found our happy medium!