IS THIS JUST IN MY HEAD?

When I received my diagnosis for Fibromyalgia the first emotion that hit me was sheer relief. I wasn’t crazy. The pain wasn’t in my head. I hadn’t imagined that life was getting harder. It actually was. Shower’s hurt. I still need to sit and rebuild my stamina before getting dressed after a warm shower, especially in the winter. Reading Political Science Theory (one of my favorite subjects) exhausts me, physically. There were and are real physical ramifications to my condition that pushed my family to start asking questions about my health. My husband was worried. My children noticed that I was slowing down. My mother was asking me to research why and find out what was going on. But it was about me. So therefore, I did nothing. For a long time I just dealt with the pain. When I finally went to the doctor to ask about my issues they ran tests… and nothing came back positive. They sent me to specialists and they ran more tests… and it was more of nothing. Finally, after about a year, (and that’s a short time frame for this process) of my husband forcing me to continue making appointments, I found a Rheumatologist who knew what was going on with me. He said I had a classic case of Fibromyalgia. The trigger points that were highly sensitive, the sensitivity to touch, the brain fog…it all fit. I was relieved. I wasn’t crazy.

It’s been over a year since I’ve last written. A lot has changed. I’ve come to acknowledge my health issues and I’m learning to live with them. I’ve been learning to say no. I’ve been trying to be purposeful in our homeschool. I’ve been actively working towards making my life cozy, not just in appearance but in a way where we actually love living everyday – even the hard days. Half of the year I teach, half of the year I volunteer but all year long I try to work on building my own interests. Yet even with all of this the one thing that I was adamant about this year was advocating for my children.

Is this all just in my head?

I knew they were gifted. I knew they were struggling. I knew that they needed something that the average homeschooling blog and a stack of education books just wasn’t giving me. I had no proof other than my own research skills but I knew that everything led to the same conclusion. In the same way that I knew that Little Man was more than just a bright, active little boy who needed more exercise, I knew there was more going on. He was speeding through information as if it was water and yet struggling to remember anything that wasn’t absolutely fascinating to him. Just like I knew that Little Miss was having a harder time with reading than she should be, even if she was technically too young to tell, there was more there and I knew it. She was arguing complex concepts or dissecting literary concepts I had never explained to her but she could not separate phonemes or even recognize the same letters out of context. I also knew that Curly Que was having a really difficult time with math. Sure she was consistently working ahead of grade level or at grade level in every subject, but she was working too hard to understand the Math when compared to how quickly she picked up every other subject. For an embarrassingly long time I wondered if she wasn’t just a happy, bright but normal child, but I thought that too when Little Miss was still in the “normal age” of learning to read. I know that Little Bitty is gifted, just like I knew Little Man was, no test to prove it but anyone who knows her questions how so much is contained in that small body. She is consistently keeping up with her two sisters (who do everything together) and even outpacing them from time to time in some places- when she wants to. So far she isn’t showing signs of distractedness or impulse control issues or EF problems like the others did (or at least not to the extent that the others did) and she doesn’t have a specific area that seems to slow her down, yet… but at 6 neither did Little Man. Where he was a sensory avoider, she is a sensory seeker. Where he jumped ahead in language acquisition, she jumps ahead in mathematics. They are so alike and yet so completely opposite that I just figure there’s nothing to be done with her but to wait and see. All of this I know, I knew. Before testing, before an assessment, I knew.

This wasn’t some desire to be a part of some elite club. I wasn’t identified as gifted as a kid. I wasn’t in one school long enough, I was a girl, I was Latina, I was military, it was the 80’s/90’s that didn’t exist… who know’s why, but I slid under the radar and was forever the weird kid. Sure I was the nice weird kid. Sure I made some friends…kind of.  I had skated by, possibly 2E me had somehow made it all the way to high school without being noticed. So when I started researching what was going on with my kids, I thought this was all in my head. Others insinuated that it was all in my head. That I was one of those parents trying to push my children to do more, faster, than was developmentally appropriate… but I wasn’t. I was just trying to meet my child where my child was already at. I remember how boring most situations and places were. I remember analyzing how people acted and how their facial features contorted in order to figure out how smart I needed to be that day. I remember teachers commenting on my potential. I remember daydreaming, a lot. I remembering forgetting what the teacher was talking about while she was talking. I remember struggling with math concepts and being much slower than everyone else but my grades were too high for anyone to notice while still being the lowest of all of my grades. I remembered all of this and I wanted better for my children. Don’t we all? Isn’t that the universal cry of parents everywhere?

You see I knew my children were different, and I homeschooled them to help, but it wasn’t enough because I didn’t know how different they were. I needed help understanding exactly what I was dealing with. So I went to the Doctor. Again. and Again. and Again. and Again. If I could have afforded the cost, with hindsight, I would have just paid the money for an out of pocket full assessment. But we didn’t have that kind of money. We were forced to go the death by referral route within our insurance. For us the struggles were interfering with daily life and we needed answers. For each of my three oldest children.

After three years of advocacy, this is what I’ve learned.

Not every doctor can tell the difference between severe ADHD + Giftedness and a completely normal child.

Not every doctor can tell the difference between a child who is just slightly behind in reading and a child with severe Dyslexia + Giftedness.

Not every doctor can tell the difference between a child with Dyslexia and Dyscalculia + Giftedness and a neurotypical child.

Not every doctor will be professional and keep their opinions about homeschooling out of the testing process.

Not every Doctor will even understand what a Neuropsychological Evaluation even is and this makes the process longer.

Some will have never heard of sensory processing disorder and will tell you, without listening to why you are in their office, that your children do not have autism because they can look the doctor in the eye.

Some will still claim that ADHD and Dyslexia do not exist. Still.

After meeting each of these kinds of doctors and leaving in tears or with formal complaints in hand, it was a relief to meet a series of professionals who listen to the children they test (and their mothers), who are up to date regarding the research, and who generally treat every person who walks through their door with respect.

Looking back know I should have known which ones were going to be helpful and which ones were not. The unhelpful doctors looked at me like I was crazy. Like this was all in my head. The helpful doctors listened to what I was saying, took the time to talk to my children and often asked me why I was there and what I thought. They sought my input.

Finally, after three years of fighting to get answers, I feel that same relief as before. I am not crazy. I was not making things up. I have the paperwork to prove it. But more importantly, I am armed with a better understanding of my children and that helps me to be a better mom and teacher.

IMG_0726 2I knew that Little Man had ADHD but I didn’t KNOW. I didn’t want to give him excuses so sometimes I was strict when I should have been understanding. I knew he had issues with executive functioning but that didn’t meant that I was regularly on top of giving him lists for things because there was a chance that he just needed to try harder. I know how hard I’m always trying and yet my executive functioning issues get in my way but I was afraid of making excuses for him and as a result I only sometimes approached things as teachable moments and sometimes as frustrated mom who just can’t do this anymore. It’s been two years since his diagnosis (he was first) and it has made a huge difference in how I parent him. I pick my battles. I make extra time for forgetfulness. Yet even with knowing that he had ADHD I had no idea how bad it was until he was fully assessed. Why would I get him fully assessed even though I already know he’s super smart and has ADHD? Because puberty is almost here and his memory has gotten worse. It has become so bad that I was wondering if there was a case of stealth dyscalculia going on (especially after his sister was diagnosed and that runs in families) but it wasn’t. No learning disabilities at all for him, just one of the lowest possible working memory scores based on the test he had taken. NO WONDER! Suddenly all of my biggest school issues made perfect sense. It looked like he was slowing down, that little boy who consumed new information like water was now refusing information or fighting it. That kind of a major personality change made sense with this new information. As he had slowed down, so had I. Rather than continuing on with information that was fascinating and interesting and moving at the speed he had always thrived at, I had slowed down to remedial work to keep up with his output. I’ve since stopped that. The memory work is still there but its a very tiny part of a much bigger selection that actually interests him and because he’s interested in the other parts that challenge him, he works well on the remedial parts that are necessary. I would have never figured that out without the assessments and I am so glad that I know that now. It has also helped his relationship with his father. Now that it’s not just me saying this is what’s going on, his father is able to be more understanding when it seems like he’s ignoring directions- he’s not, he’s just still focused on the first one you gave him. The evaluation helped us, both of us, to understand him and our relationships are better because of it.

Curly Que’s assessment was a huge surprise. I knew that she was struggling in math. I had no idea that she was struggling with reading. What I thought was distractibility and impulsiveness was frustration and anxiety. My girl has stealth Dyslexia (no they don’t call it that but it is what best describes her) and Dyscalculia. I had no clue how hard she was working every single day. She is so smart that it looked like she was at or above grade level in everything and yet she was struggling this whole time and holding it all in. I am a better parent to her because of this. I know that I have to give her more breaks. She is also in OT for sensory issues but some of those sensory issues were anxiety reactions to the sheer frustration that she felt regarding school. Gameschooling is so good for her. So is baking. I have had to be more open about what I accept as school work and I have to be more purposeful about the atmosphere that we’ve created to meet her where she is. She needs both. She still wants to be an engineer but now she wants to travel the world helping small communities and she still loves math, even if its hard.

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The insurance didn’t see a need to give Little Miss a full evaluation, and frankly neither did I because her SLP was an amazing woman who really gave us a thorough understanding of just how hard she’s working every single day.  It is a very real struggle for Little Miss in ways that Curly Que hasn’t let on. Phonics lessons are becoming more of a mainstay in my curriculum, regardless of how advanced her literature books are becoming. So are Audiobooks. So many Audiobooks and Podcasts… too many to listen to in a week. She still loves Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Robert Louis Stevenson. She still loves to write even if she is just now remembering to add vowels to her phonetic spelling. She hasn’t lost the love of language that she was born with, which in its own way is a beautiful thing.

Little Bitty tearfully exclaimed in the doctors office that she wants Dyslexia too, its not fair that her siblings all get their own cool superpowers and she does not. I warned her to be careful what she wished for. She has her own superpowers, she just hasn’t figured out how they work yet.IMG_0723

I’m proud of my superheroes. They are learning to wield their super powers for good. I use to joke that they would either save the world or destroy it, only time can tell which. Now I’m leaning more towards saving it. They are growing into such compassionate children and their struggles don’t define them but they have helped shape them into passionate and determined children with a wicked sense of truth and justice all backed with an ability to preserver that I could not have fostered alone. I’m excited to be on this journey with them, to see what they grow to be.

In any case, I called it. That duality that I saw in them that screamed there was more beneath the surface… I told you so. the assessments proved me right, but even before they occurred, I knew it all along.

It was never just in my head.

I should have trusted myself.

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Make Way for Breaks: Scheduling around Chronic Illness

Ah the beloved break. Spring Break, Winter Break…Summer vacation. Many of my favorite childhood memories are inextricably linked with the nostalgia of school breaks. A nostalgia that I do not want my children to miss out on even though we have the freedom to break away from the school schedules that accompany them. I love the idea of traditions that make their home within a specific break. The feeling of adventure as you look forward to days or weeks of unscheduled freedom, which is why I schedule my entire year around such breaks.

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I absolutely love that as a homeschooler I can control how we set up those breaks and how often we get to have them. I love being able to plan special breaks around family birthdays or events happening in our life. The children love knowing that if one week has been especially hard on us, there is always the option of having a slower week soon after. However, there’s another reason I love being able to schedule breaks whenever I need them at this season of my life. Quite frankly, my health demands it.

My body physically demands some kind of reprieve from the responsibilities that go along with being a homeschooler. I just cannot do it all, all of the time. It is too much for me. Trying to homeschool, keep house, volunteer, be a wife, a writer, feed my creative hungers and intellectual curiosities all while fighting my own body and it’s limitations absolutely requires that I prioritize my time. For me it is a constant battle between the chronic fatigue and body pains of fibromyalgia, the eye fatigue, headaches and migraines of IIH and the debilitating effects of seasonal depression that absolutely demand that I listen to my body and be proactive rather than reactive.

Reactions mean days in bed with no ability to meet the needs of myself, let alone my children. Which  I feel is not fair to them or my husband, who is wonderful enough to pick up my share as well as his own during those rough patches. That is not the kind of mother or wife I want to be, my own personal expectations are far too high for that. So instead of reacting to piss poor planning, I actively schedule and prioritize my time, knowing my limits and abiding by them. Knowing that I need a certain number of down days per week and not over scheduling my time. Knowing that certain situations, lightings or atmospheres trigger headaches. Knowing all of these things and above all, planning for them- which is especially hard when you also enjoy being spontaneous and adventurous.

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First things first. My first step in planning out my time is to plan out a rough yearly schedule based on the times of year that work with me and not against me. We choose to school year round in order to best accommodate my needs in this regards.

For us this looks like a year round schedule that is broken up into six terms. These terms are very loosely based and can last anywhere from six to eight weeks. At around six weeks I evaluate our current mood and condition; if all is well we go ahead for two more weeks, if not then we stop and take a week off. This way we don’t overdo things trying to just push through. However, unlike most term based schedules I make one slight distinction – we have what I call our Holiday Term and Summer Vacation built into the term system.

Our school year looks like this:

Term 1: July &August

Term 2: Sept &Oct

Term 3: Nov &Dec- Holiday term

Term 4: Jan & Feb

Term 5: Mar &Apr

Term 6: May & June – Summer Vacation

During the four regular terms we do the vast majority of our studying, we take field trips, go to plays or performances and take part in local classes. The short breaks between terms allow for little reprieves that are just right for clearing our minds from time to time. On the other hand, the two  middle terms are our big breaks. Rather than me preparing everything and laying everything out we go with what feels interesting. We follow passions and build our independent study ability because my children love learning so much that they just don’t stop, even if I tell them that we are on vacation. I still record our progress during this time but I don’t set up any requirements. I don’t ask the children to do math or copy work, we don’t read off of our scheduled readings. We do check out science books at the library (usually because someone wants to know how something works), we do go to museums, create art, watch documentaries…all things that I record through pictures, receipts and end products but any thing that happens during this time is occurring spontaneously and is done out of pure curiosity or desire.

As much as the kids love all these breaks, the best part about this schedule is that it allows me time during my hardest months to move into survival mode without affecting our overall year.

November and December are very hard months for me. My mind has a horrible time adjusting to the light changes, and the weather changes affect how my body moves as well. During these months I just cannot keep up with everything so instead I plan for my focus to shift away from schooling to things like dishes, laundry, and meals. I know that I can spend the time with my children baking and reading without worrying that I have enough written down for the reviews. The children also love the freedom to enjoy the first snows and the changes of the seasons outside without worrying about written math lessons. In addition, because it coincides with Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Three Kings Day this break allows us to focus on traditions and joyful holiday fun rather than finishing up a test.

On the flip side of this May and June are my best months. The weather is perfect for spending the entire day outside. Gardens can be planted. Nearby nature preserves are full of life waiting to be explored. Most schools aren’t out yet so it is also a perfect time for a family vacation or special outings. We love having the freedom to use these months (and my extra energy) doing the things that are harder to do the rest of the year without thought to school. It also works out nicely that our last few weeks of summer vacation perfectly coincide with the schools release so that we can have fun with cousins as well.

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Now that my year is planned out (roughly), I move my focus on to my weeks and terms. Before this year my terms were based entirely on our interests at that time. I would ask the children what they were interested in and then we would explore those things together- taking every rabbit trail along the way. However, because this year is so different I’ll keep it short and sweet. First of all, because I am following a Charlotte Mason education this year, this part of my planning process is very specific to this style. I have my list of subjects and my topics within each subject for each child that I want to complete over the year. I then break that list into the four terms that I have going on during the year. Because I know that each term can last from six to eight weeks I plan for eight weeks from the get go knowing ahead of time that we may be starting the next term picking up at the unfinished end of the last one. As for subject matter…well that is a whole other post and one that relies heavily on mixing and matching what works for us based on established resources like Ambleside Online, Simply Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Help, A Modern Charlotte Mason, Sabbath Mood, A Delectable Education, and AfterThoughts. This year I spent about a month preparing for our upcoming year but even then I only prepared down to the weekly level of each term. I stop my lesson plans at the week level specifically because I know that each week will require a different rhythm to best fit my health at that time.

 

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So, moving onto the how. How do I plan ahead regarding my day to day when I also know that I am no good at keeping schedules and when I have to plan ahead for any possible unknown flare ups? For me, it means multiple open plans. I never have just one schedule or routine, instead I have a cycle of options that fit together making up the perfect week or term or year.

For this year these are the options for my days.

  1. The out of the house day, Full Day: Basically these are the days when we leave the house. We wake up earlier than usual, we need to have planned meals for the day, outing bags need to be packed the night before, weather needs to be checked… this also means that no other schooling will occur, dinner needs to be easy and tomorrow needs to be at home because this kind of day is exhausting, for all of us.
  2. The out of the house day, part day: These are the days that include some kind of outing that is close to home and less than 3 hours long, including driving time. Piano lessons, Art class, Science class, Playdates, Nature Study, Library trips… all of these options are part of our school day and the rest of our day flows around them. Readings, math and copy work still happen although when they happen depends greatly on the schedules required by outside forces such as other people, open/close times, weather issues, etc…
  3. The home school day: This is a typical homeschool day and normally only lasts 3 hours. We wake up when we wake up and follow a basic routine, which often look like this: breakfast, readings together, math and copy work, lunch, tea time, outside time, free afternoons, tidy up, dinner and family time.
  4. The home chore day: These are the days when I just can’t stand the mess any longer and I need to deep clean. We still do math, copy work and about half of our regular readings but the focus is on our house… these days usually precede house guests and are the reason my children ask who is coming to visit when they see me pull out the cleaning supplies.
  5. The lazy day (I name this with a warm, fuzzy attachment to the term lazy, not at all a negative one): When we have had a particularly harrowing week or weekend we throw one of these days in (usually on Monday or Friday) just to help us refresh. These are usually an anything goes kind of day and we rarely get dressed on them. You will often find mommy in yoga pants, the middle girls in tee’s n shorts (regardless of the weather outside), Itty bitty running through the halls in underwear (her preferred mode of dress) and Little Man is usually in pj bottoms with a tank top (he would also prefer to be in underwear alone but alas being the only boy in a house full of girls requires that he be clothed at lest marginally). You will almost always see a slew of art supplies scattered across our living room, a stack of books beside a crumb filled tea set and more than one electronic device huddled with a blanket. Mommy’s nose is most likely firmly stuck in the pages of a book for a good portion of the day. These are our favorite days.

Mixing and matching these different kinds of days into a week , month or term allow us to focus on the atmosphere of our learning. The flow we had as unschoolers stays intact even if I now have readings or assignments that we want to finish within a specific week. I try to have at least two #3 days and no more than one #1 or #5 days per week. Most weeks we have three #2 days and two #3 days and occasionally we will have a full week of #3 days, these, though not often enough, are often what I feel are my most productive weeks.

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While certain aspects of this plan are specific to CM, it has not always been. This is the same plan that I used when I unschooled. The only difference between this schedule and our unschooling one was that our homeschool days were entirely child led and sometimes looked similar to our lazy days. I didn’t come by way of this over night either. Over the years I found our rhythm. There were seasons where I pushed too hard and crashed shortly after. There were times when I over scheduled our weeks and sometimes months, leading to an in ability to get out of bed. If you look through my past posts its easy to see where depression took over, where fatigue left me empty, where I just couldn’t handle the day to day of life. Every one of those hard or dark times was taken into consideration when I built this schedule over the last three years.

Last year was my first full year without a complete burnout. For me that means I found what worked. What worked was this. As of now this is the way that I can schedule things in the most productive way while also being aware of my own limitations. This is how I get everything to fit without burning myself out. I have to create blank spaces in our year. I have to schedule in room for wiggling. To put it in a nutshell, scheduling for me, is all about how I Make Way for Breaks.

Dropping the Un from our SCHOOL

Over the years I have transitioned, tweaked, mixed and done whatever was necessary to find a system that works for us. I mixed together what I loved and created a Philosophy of Education that works for us and that philosophy hasn’t changed but my methods of implementing it has.

In the beginning I tried so hard to make classical work. It was just too much all at once with kiddos that were just too young for that kind of style. I then rebounded into public school which is far more of a traditional style (or what most of us see as traditional) and that was a miserably failed experiment as well. That was when I found Unschooling, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, Thomas Jefferson Ed and Montessori.

I read everything I could find on these. I immersed myself into the theories, methodologies and implementations of each one using our deschooling period as my research time. I fell in love with so many aspects of each one that I ended up even more confused than when I began; but the two that spoke the most to my fancy were Unschooling and Charlotte Mason.

  I think that’s the trap for all new homeschoolers. Overload you with information and send you on your way with a simple phrase like “you’ll find what works for your family” and leave them contemplating each and every aspect as if their child’s entire future hinges on this one decision.

Unschool your children and you’ll either have these amazingly self-directed teens that know exactly who they are and where they’re going or you’ll have a lazy, entitled brat who can’t read. Use Charlotte Mason and you’ll have a well read, nature lover with a wicked dry brush who is ready for anything college will throw at them or a burnt out teen who can’t stand the idea of one more dusty old book and doesn’t know what they want from life. Maybe I should memorize more like the classical style or spend more time outdoors like Waldorf or …

Dude, this train of thought is exhausting and debilitating!

I was so tired of trying to over analyze every single aspect (which was totally unnecessary!) that I ended up Unschooling with a pocketful of Charlotte Mason tools for when the kids said “I’m bored, what can I do now?” and it WORKED!

Honestly it still works.

It never stopped working. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I am writing this because I decided to change things up. I started last year as we added more structure to our rhythm but instead of fixing things I started to notice some behaviors or aspects that I didn’t like and that is why we are dropping the un from our school.

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I still believe in the power of respect and freedom. I still believe in building a cooperative environment where mom and child work together towards creating the kind of education that is best for the child. I still believe that the child should feel responsible for their own education. I’m also still all about spontaneous trips or rabbit trails.

But,

  1.  I’m a history nerd and I really didn’t like how haphazard their historical knowledge was being introduced. When my 7 year old asked me if Pocahontas came over on the Mayflower too, I knew that I wasn’t doing something right. When we visited Valley Forge two years before learning about George Washington and they couldn’t connect the two on their own- that was a problem for me.
  2. Electronics were playing too big of a role in all of our lives and none of us were able to self regulate- myself included. One of the tenants of unschooling is that if you let them have all that they want they will eventually not want what is bad for them and learn to self regulate. Maybe that works for some people but addictive tendencies run in my family. We have a serious history of drug abuse, alcoholism, being workaholics and generally being unable to self moderate that runs through almost every generation of both my family and my husbands. In our family this was becoming a problem.
  3. As a part of our movement towards facing underachievement I have to require that my children do certain things they don’t want to do. This is completely contrary to unschooling and completely necessary for my family. This isn’t about pushing them to do more but rather about teaching them perseverance and grit. This is something that I wasn’t forced to do and now I struggle with this absolutely necessary part of life- I want better for my children and its far easier to break a habit when your 8 than when your 18 or 28.

This is why I am officially leaving behind the method of unschooling. However, before I completely write all of this off I want also say that unschooling gets a bad rap. Below are what I see most commonly as misconceptions of unschooling:

  1. Unschooling is not UnParenting. Choosing to unschool does not mean that you stop being a child’s parent. There are varying styles of parenting found in all styles of schooling and the same goes for unschooling. It is just as easy to find a parent with bedtimes and house rules who unschools as it is to find a free range, yes parent. That said, it is also just as easy to find a free range, yes parent in classical environment. Parenting style does not dictate schooling methods. The trick here is that if you are an unschooler with rules, usually you have conversations with your child about the reasoning behind the rules and you keep the communication open and flowing. Teaching a child boundaries is just plain safe and unschoolers do this too (even if the methods vary).
  2. Unschooling does not mean that your child does nothing! An unschooled child can take a mathematics course or use a language arts curriculum- or play minecraft, read fantasy for hours, and build forts in the woods. What makes the child unschooled is that they, the child, are the ones who choose that path. If the parent says, “I think you should take this class” or “here choose between these curriculums or this class” then that is not unschooling, but if you’re at the library and your 10 year old sees a poster for a math in minecraft class and then proceeds to tell you “hey that looks fun, can I do that?”- well that is unschooling. On the flip side, if your 6 year old wants to learn french after reading Matilda and you offer a french tutor that is also unschooling.
  3. You can’t unschool part time. You’re either in or out. You can set up Montessori stations in hopes that little fingers will choose to sit and play (and eventually they will). You can lay out great books on table tops or displays silently praying that one of your children will be attracted by the illustrations that graze the front. You can have easels, paints, paper, crayons or tools out and about enticing young eyes with their shiny gleams or colorful rainbows. You can drive to the park with a lunch and watch as your child explores and adventures. You can even lay out that handwriting book and leave it there in the same spot, religiously dusting its cover over the years until the moment when the 8 year old picks it up and uses the instructions to write herself a story. Or you can join in as your child plays their third hour of Minecraft and actually ask questions so that you too understand why they love playing this so much. You can bake or cook or garden or read…but you’re either in or out. Telling your children that they must complete one lesson in each book before free time is not unschooling. Eclectic is a wonderful word, so is interest led, use those instead. You can’t school Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the claim to unschool Tuesday and Thursday. This is akin to someone saying “Oh, I’m a vegan too, well except for eggs and cheese.”- No. Just No. Choosing to unschool is a lifestyle choice. It is choosing to let your child be responsible for their entire education. Not everyone likes it. Not everyone wants to live this way. And unschooling doesn’t have the copyright on freedom of exploration and interest led learning. It’s ok to choose to use curriculum on certain days and learn through life on others, but it is not unschooling.

Unschooling can be an amazing path for some children and some families. I will never regret our years unschooling because out of this stage in our journey my children learned to love asking questions and searching for answers. We will still have a place for this as we move on but things from this point on will be planned out and led more by mom. Their opinions are valued, but I will have the final say. We are all growing and moving in and out of our metamorphosis as we move towards the unknown. Choosing to use certain methods to further your philosophy is great but don’t feel tied down by them. As a wise homeschool mom who has been in the trenches far longer than I told me, “Live what you love and leave what you don’t.”

That is exactly what I am doing. I’m following what works for my family, even if that means changing things again, but as my husband says,

‘It’s all good, kids bounce anyway. They’re flexible like that.”

“Making Magic”

“Momma, close your eyes. I’m going to make Magic”

Itty Bitty stood on the grassy hill that gently sloped down from the library’s brick wall. She had just grasped an entire Dandelion puff in her tiny hand and was squeezing her teeny fist as tightly as possible.

“Ok, can I open them now?” I asked, playing along to see where this would go.

“Now Momma! Look I made Magic!” she giggled.

I opened my eyes and saw her standing there surrounded by soft lilting Dandelion seeds wishing in the slight breeze with a huge gaping grin, awestruck by the magic she had created.

At that moment an elderly gentleman passed by leaning heavily on his cane. I saw him chuckling with a gleam in his eye, entranced by my daughter.

She did it. She really did make magic. In that moment she was a master magician, bewitching the adults who happened upon her spell.

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I stood there smiling at her, after he passed by, watching the seeds float on. After a moment she skipped off to the next flower and did it again, repeating the script and game over and over.

At one point she told me that she was a pollinator. In another she bent down and hugged the ground telling me that she was hugging her shadow like Peter Pan before telling me that she is a sunshine stopper. She scoured the landscaped for fallen Dogwood flower petals telling me that she needs to explore the differences among the fallen pieces.

I had my phone in my hand the whole time. At some moments I stood there capturing the scene through the photo lens and at other not really paying attention as I texted a friend back.

I giggled when she giggled. I watched her skip and frolic over to the adjoining grassy field speckled with yellow and white Dandelion blossoms, knowing that she is my last baby to play like this out in the field.

As I watch my baby grow up,  I’ve noticed this one truth…

Learning is Magic.

Magic happens whether I plan it or not.

Magic happens when I let go and allow them to explore.

Magic happens when I step back and take MY hands off.

Learning can, and does, happen when I’m leading or introducing new things but that learning isn’t really magical. Fun yes. Joy filled yes. But magical, no.

This moment didn’t happen because I orchestrated the timing or set things up beforehand. We were in the in between. We were moving between her one on one time at the public library and picking up her siblings at piano lessons. We just happened to have a handful of extra minutes because I got cold under the AC indoors and wanted a moment to bask in the sun before rushing to the next event.

In that moment, under those circumstances, I gave her absolute freedom and in that freedom she made magic.

Making room for magic made all the difference.

It always makes the difference…

as long as I get out of the way long enough to allow it.

Making the Jones’ Sigh

Never fails, ever. I take the children out and about during the day to run errands between piano lessons and Library visits or for whatever reason and the sheer size of my brood brings at least one comment. The comments themselves are not always negative, nor are they always condescending. Sometimes it’s the sigh of recognition from a grandma who misses the days that have long gone by, sometimes its the unfulfilled wish from a woman who wants children but cannot have them for whatever reason and every once in a while it’s an exclamation of joy from an adult who grew up in a large family and sees a younger version of themselves in us as we pass by. I don’t mind the comments, even the rude ones.  Having a larger family was always one of my dreams. I planned to have four children and I planned them all to be less than two years apart, it’s what I wanted and so I take the comments as a part of this chosen lifestyle.

making the jones' sigh

However, what always surprises me is the sigh that comes along with the mention of homeschooling. Our area has a huge community of homeschoolers. There are homeschoolers from every walk of life in this area,  if you can name them, I’m sure we can find at least a few of them somewhere around here. I am so close to both Washington DC and Baltimore that we end up being in a mixing pot, culturally, socially, religiously… and I love it, yet homeschoolers still get sighs while out and about. Again this isn’t a positive or negative sigh. This is very much along the lines of the large family sigh with one exception. Everyone feels bad for me.

“Don’t you ever just need a break?” Is a question I am asked repeatedly. “With such a large family and homeschooling, when do you get time for you?” is usually the runner up followed by, “I just don’t have that kind of patience.”

To answer the most asked question, yes, yes I do need a break and yes I do make the time for me, just like any other mom- homeschooler or not and I do not have a patience super power. My patience runs thin, and often, but here’s the really weird thing. The more time I spend with my kids, the more I like them.

Don’t get me wrong, they know how to push every single button. They know which nerves are frazzled and exactly how to push me over the edge, but they also have a pretty hilarious sense of humor. We have inside jokes that pop up in the most inconvenient of times. They like the same things I like, probably because of some healthy geek conditioning, but still, it’s there.

I get them and they get me; over excitabilities, quirks, oddities and all. Patience running out or not, I still enjoy being with the little ones who who make me yell, cry and laugh until my sides hurt every day. We built a lifestyle that we love and we love sharing it with each other, even if that means spending bad days separated in bedrooms surrounded by books.

Being with my children everyday is an adventure. One minute my kids are helpful and kind, the next minute they are running in twenty different directions while screaming at each other and then they have a moment of curious exploration filled with intense discussion followed by a completely boneheaded decision that leaves me questioning their genetics (it must come from their father…or their uncle…but never me, right?). Being with them all day everyday makes me want to simultaneously spend everyday out of my house doing fun things and everyday hiding under my blankets.

Somedays I do wish for that break in the day that would allow me to run to the grocery store with only one child. Sometimes. Most times though, I don’t even compare. I don’t even consider the other option because I love the bonds and life we have created.

I love that I can take my kids to the aquarium in the middle of the day when no one else is there. I love that we can spend two hours in a library reading aloud from a myriad of genres in the most comfortable chairs because no one else is there. I love that I can take them into Washington DC and let them run ahead of me in a large museum because its the middle of January, freezing outside, and very few people are walking around. I love that we can do neat indoor field trips (like museums, galleries, plays, aquariums or orchestra shows) all winter, spend hours (3-5) outside in wild nature when the average temp is in the 60’s, take summer break while our friends and family are off in June and then spend the unbearably hot/humid summer/fall doing school inside. I love how easily I can change our schedule to fit the needs of our family, either because the stress is just too much and we need a brain break or because their cousin is moving and we want to spend extra time with them before they leave.

Being the person that helps them through the frustration and gets them to that a-ha moment is totally worth being the person that hears them cry about not getting it. Hours a day of repeating the same thing over and over is worth it that first time they finally do it on their own (clear off the table when you leave!) and seeing them understand something that I’ve never even discussed with them before always blows my mind. “Leave your (fill in the blank) alone!” might as well be recorded since I am a repeat repeater, and it makes me feel batty but it gets easier the longer you do it, or at least it did with me. What was excruciatingly difficult when my oldest was three is only mildly annoying to me now.

I don’t need a break from that, and when I do, I claim my vacation days and we veg out and watch way too much tv, or at least they do while I get lost in a book. Another thing I’ve learned to just accept.

When people gave me that pity sigh I used to sigh in commiseration, but something switched inside of me. I now realize that this isn’t a “poor you” situation. I recognize that my choice is different, but I don’t feel like I’m loosing anything. I think we are building a pretty awesome childhood for our children. In fact there are times where I don’t think I’ve come far enough. I wonder if I should let them roam free in the woods, or go to town with real tools but talk myself out of that because of social conventions that are still drilled into me. I would love to get off the grid a bit more and give the children even more freedom out of doors but we are too suburban for that. Our county doesn’t even allow for goats or lambs in the back yard, a fact that I hope to find a loop hole around…and maybe then we will make the Jones’ sigh some more.

 

The Year of Uncertainty: Looking back on 2015

The year of 2015 is coming to a close and as I sit and reflect over everything that has happened over the past twelve months I have come to the realization that this past year has been one of never ending tests on my faith and an excruciatingly large amount of unknown.  So much uncertainty has plagued the past year and in turn so much change has occurred over such a short year and in that same time so much growth has happened unbeknownst to those of us in the midst of the trials .

As a family we are a tiny bit stronger than we were last December and as a woman I am a tiny bit braver than I was this time last year.

the year of uncertainty

Going into 2015 we still had no confirmation as to our ongoing position with the Marine Corps. There was still every possibility that they would reject our request for early retirement. We had no idea whether we would be retiring in the area or whether we would be given orders to move to a new area.

We had five months left on our apartment lease but only two months to decide if we were going to stay in that tiny (for our family) apartment or leave. If we stayed it would be another year long lease and rent was rising by several hundred dollars per month. If we left we could find a better deal but how long would we be there? Orders could show up and require us to move out at any time, and while we always sign a military clause I would never want to subject a family to an unexpected loss of renters. We could buy if we knew that the Corps was releasing us but we had absolutely no savings for a deposit and no idea what was affordable because there still wasn’t a job lined up.

Oh yeah, then there was the whole job issue. There were possibilities of jobs, there were companies offering contract positions that sounded great but none of them would start an official hiring process without an official retirement date. See the circularness of this situation?

2015 was already full of uncertainty and it had only just begun.

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In mid February we returned that intention to move out slip to the apartment complex before we received the yes on our retirement. We had no backup plan, unless you count moving back on base and spending more than we could afford a month on housing just to have a place to live as backup. By the end of February we received the yes for the Retirement. We had to move out of our apartment by May 1 and we still had no job lined up. After talking to co-workers who had been in similar situations, the consensus was that buying a house on active duty is infinitely easier than buying one when you’re just starting out at a new job. So the look for a house began and surprisingly we were pre-approved for enough to actually get a decent, if not older home in our area. Still, everything was up in the air and nothing in our lives had any sense of certainty.

School took on the same air of uncertainty. The children knew we were living in limbo. We were all stressed out. We unschooled more than anything else, and it worked far more than I honestly thought it would. The girls started showing more of their giftedness. Little Miss became more inquisitive than ever before, Curly Que picked up everything at light speed and there was never enough information. Itty Bitty demanded even more constant attention and information but her usually great sleeping habits stopped being great. She stopped napping most days, even though her mood needed it, and she would not go to sleep at night, not of her own free will. She would move until she literally dropped, and that was rarely ever in her bed.

I couldn’t stand being in the apartment any longer and we spent almost everyday out and about. We lived out school. We went to the free DC museums several times a month. We went to every $8 performance I could get my hands on just so that we would have an activity to get us out of the cramped apartment. The snow and freezing temperatures didn’t matter, I just couldn’t stand the uncertainty that I associated with the apartment any longer.

We spent whole days going from one wildlife refuge to another, warming up in the library or over fast food. Our diet was as all over the place as our life. The children and I were always just trying to get from one day to the next, all of us were just trying to get from one day to the next.

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Then in May everything fell into place. First the house, then the job and we felt a sense of relief. We thought the rest of the year would be a breeze after that but we never even considered that I could be the one to break down next. My headaches were debilitating and I could not focus my eyes when the sun was up. I went to the optometrist because I had only ever had migraines related to needing a new prescription. Nothing was wrong with my prescription but the double vision worried the ancient man in the lab coat who smelled of moth balls and peppermint. He gave me a referral for an ophthalmologist, which I took to the base clinic and set up a referral.

If your acquainted with military healthcare than you know that a referral can take anywhere from a week to several months to set up. My referral was sent to Bethesda/Walter Reed, the busiest hospital in the military healthcare system. The referral process took a month and it was another month after that when the first available appointment was set up. As I waited the double vision began to go away and the headaches came and went with the weather. I almost cancelled the appointment but the urging of close friends nudged me ahead. Im glad I didn’t since that appointment landed me in the hospital for a week of testing and an ongoing relationship with the neurology department.

Then we found out that everything was changing with our extended family as well. My brother and his family started the process for becoming missionaries. My grandparents moved out of the house they had lived in since I was in high school, and bought a condo in a senior community. My father changed jobs and is still trying to sell his house. My brother in law moved cross country and the other brother in law started a whole new career.

Everything in our life was changing so drastically, and so quickly. Unschooling wasn’t working anymore. By the time that the new school year started my kiddos just couldn’t handle the unknown anymore. My son, especially, just shut down. He couldn’t remember why he walked into a room anymore. He forgot simple tasks. He forgot things that had always been routine before, because the routine had disappeared. Unschooling wasn’t working because we had no constant framework to work within any longer. Too much had changed. We all needed to have some consistency, especially this guy.

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I wasn’t doing well either. My headaches still came regularly. My vision was better but now I could/can predict the weather based on the level of my headaches. Staying inside because of headaches was fueling my yearly depression. I felt a new story erupting from somewhere in my head and I desperately wanted to get it on paper before it disappeared again. My need to paint grew stronger and my desire to read conflicted daily with my heads aching protests to the small print. Usually this is when we take a fall break from school, but we couldn’t this year. We needed the structure. We needed the consistency so I forced my creativity to work in the sidelines.

I tried my best to be more intentional about our schooling. I planned ahead, I read out loud daily, I bought a math curriculum and looked into reading ones. I just didn’t have the ability to continue doing everything from scratch when my head was bouncing between splitting and pounding headaches every few days.  We still only schooled for half of the day, the rest was left open for masterly inactivity and pursuing of passions, but it still feels foreign to me. The children are thriving under the structure, I’m barely keeping my head above water but I’m not drowning. I’m getting better with each new day.

I am exhausted. From it all. From the year. Exhausted, but stronger and happier, even after everything that has happened.

This last week of December is my vacation. The children are watching more television that I would normally be ok with. They are playing amongst themselves and I have retreated to worlds of fantasy. I have read more books this past week than I have all year. I’ve allowed myself time to recuperate. This year I gave the children a real winter break and we are relishing every moment of it. 

I wish I could say that I know what will happen in 2016, but I don’t. Im still being held in the grasp of the Year of Uncertainty. 2016 is a mystery to me.   I don’t know whats lying ahead. I’m still trying to break free of our day to day existence. I am still looking for the joy in every moment, still finding the blessings in the every day but I couldn’t even begin to tell you what to expect from us in the next month- let alone a whole year.

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Itty Bitty has been hinting towards a desire to learn how to read. Curly Que wants to learn how to build things. Little Miss has grown into dolls and sewing. Little Man has lost himself, he’s the oldest and understood the most of what’s going on and needs gentle guidance to find his way back. My husband has expressed an interest in possibly going back to school. I am just trying to learn how to deal with near constant headaches as a part of my normal. We now have family living in Spain and an itch to travel… but nothing is certain. If anything, this past year has taught us how to roll with the punches, keep the faith and like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just Keep Swimming!”

Goodbye 2015, Bring it on 2016!

Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

Curious minds breed curiosity but often that curiosity comes in varying levels of intensity and trying to plan around an intangibility like curiosity can drive anyone to madness. So how can you plan ahead when everything seems so inconsistent? In order to answer this question while trying to find some structure for Little Man’s focus issues, I delved back into the world of Charlotte Mason. I have always loved her philosophy of education but for so long the tug of child led unschooling was stronger than my respect for Mason’s teachings. Here I will talk about how I’ve melded the two with a bit more of a focus on the structured CM and a whole lot less on the Child led.

In other words, how my whole world of planning got flip-turned-upside-down!

Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

For us it’s never really been so much about planning ahead. Planning ahead has never been our focus. The end is not our goal. Our goal is to have a journey that is full of inspiration. Our focus is an environment filled with seized teachable moments. Our plan is to inspire curiosity.

How you inspire a child will change depending on the child themselves but parents know their children and what makes them get excited. Some children have their own innate passions. Subjects that need no outside inspiration. Little Man has these burning passions that lead him to constantly explore specific fields while leaving him little to no interest in everything else but Little Miss and Curly Que are bit more like me…just generally curious about EVERYTHING!

In our house inspired curiosity starts like this. Mommy gets fascinated by a new show or subject. The children try to stay up late to see what’s so interesting or catch glimpses of articles that I’m reading over my shoulder. I find something suitable to their age with similar subject matter and if they also find that interesting then we find books to supplement, all while trying to find museum exhibits, shows or local classes.

With all the changes we’ve been making in our homeschool to help Little Man with his focusing issues this process of inspiring curiosity has helped us to create structure without needing a curriculum and but it also requires that I plan far more than I used to.

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One of the first things that I do are to Analyze the Options out there for growth within an interest that is just starting to bud. We start the process of exploration within the topic to see if there is an interest which can support an inspired curiosity. For example, I really got sucked into BBC’s Merlin (like binge watching through weekends into it!) and of course my children started to see glimpses of dragons, magic, knights and swords. I put on the Disney version of the Sword and the Stone to see if their interest was piqued, and it was so I decided it might be time to study the Middle Ages.

That night I began my night long Pinterest Planning Party. Yep, I grabbed a cup of tea, a snack and gave my husband permission to play as much video games as he wanted without interruption while I spent hours of uninterrupted research via my own planning party. I looked up every aspect that I could and tried to see just how much we could get out of a Middle Ages study at these ages.

Once I discovered possible topics the next goal was Resource Gathering. Sticking true to CM principles, I wanted to make sure that we were reading books that were filled with passion and came alive to the children rather than encyclopedias or textbooks. With some help from Pinterest, and friends of mine who have either studied Medieval literature or had done similar time periods with their homeschoolers before, I was able to put together a list of interesting books to use as spines.

 I also go through Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube for a list of possible shows or videos that fit into our over arching theme and I find local shows or classes that are offering options that fit as well. This is one of the reasons that I like to use Pinterest for my planning. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with this and often I can find lists put together by other people where I can pick and choose what works for my family. With our Master List in hand I move from gathering to Planning.

My next step in this process is to take the lists to the Experts. I take all of my detailed notes to the children for confirmation- I may or may not exaggerate the coolness factor and sometimes I even find short youtube videos to back up my claims. They respond with yay or nay and I build a literature/history unit that falls within CM guidelines. Our favorite part of all of this is when we get to attack our favorite second hand bookstore to find what we can at reasonable prices (for me thats less than $3/book- although I did cave in and buy a $6 fully illustrated book of Castle diagrams when I caught my son pouring over every page).

This time around, we settled on a version of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf, Macbeth and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as our spines with our list of shows, documentaries and a handful of historical fictions set in the middle ages to back them up. I made the executive decision that this would also be a good time to study fairy tales and that we would continue our science study of insects with the show Little Einstein’s as our jumping point for music and art.

Now that the foundation for the plan had been laid, the easy part was up ahead. To plan out our weeks and months I simply Spread Out the Spines so that we would read through three a month over the next three months with the side options there for our enjoyment when we want them. September is King Arthur and Sir Gawain, October is Beowulf and Macbeth and November is Robin Hood. During these months we will also look through descriptions of castles, knights, cathedrals, the crusades, villages vs. cities and anything we can get our hands on- but I don’t need to add that kind of detail to our planner, that would just stress me out, instead we discuss and google when the topic comes up in conversation.

So far this is just basic relaxed planning etiquette, but we want something even more important than planing out a quarters worth of studies, we want to inspire curiosity along the way.

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If you notice, even though I have a unit study of the Middle Ages that spans an entire quarter, each set of books that we read as spines create mini units within the larger context of the whole but we also add Cartoons, Videos and Documentaries into our overall plan because I have four visual learners who need to see it to get into it. This is also why we incorporate Museum Trips (we live outside of DC so they are free and relatively close) and we try to visit at least once a month (if we didn’t have these near by I would be relying a whole lot more on virtual field trips!).

We do not read massive amounts of each book, each day, all at once. I read aloud from a book for a period of almost 10 minutes and I never end the reading in a conventional place but If we have extra time towards the end of our day we might pick up the spines and do it again. Because I always end in the middle of a sentence, or right in the middle of the most interesting scene this allows the curiosity to continually be piqued. It’s a perpetual cliffhanger and my children love it! In fact, all of our lessons are less than 20 minutes total which gives them just enough time to get really into a topic before their focus wanes. It surprises me sometimes how in depth we can get with just a short conversation if the children are interested and engaged.

Then one of the three older children will Narrate (or tell me in their own words what they heard- as they get older this will turn into a writing assignment, but right now we are working on teaching them how to organize their thoughts.) or practice their Copy Work (copy a sentence on lined paper while we discuss grammar or other aspects of writing as written in the original sentence). After about 30 minutes of reading and Narrating or copy work we move onto an activity that requires movement followed by math and that is the end of our formal day. Our school day is finished by 1030 almost every morning and some mornings we finish at 10.

We do not end our learning experiences here but we do end the formal portion of school, which is important for my guys because they get a sense of accomplishment knowing that they finished for the day. The rest of the day is dedicated to nature walks, museums, piano lessons, playdates, cartoons, documentaries and poetry tea times- which in one way or another might remind them of something we read, but I don’t point it out either. If they get it, great! If not, then that’s fine too.

The point of all these extra experiences is not to pull together all of the different aspects of what we are learning but instead to challenge them to see the world from a new angle. I am raising children who will one day be adults and they need to know how to think for themselves, so while they are little and impressionable, I plan on showing them as many different sides of the world as I can- which in practice has morphed into inspiring curiosity.umbrella

This is how we do it, but how about you?

Share your favorite ways to get curiosity flowing in the comments below, I am always ready for more input!

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