Books, 2015

These are what I loved best last year, and what I’m reading in 2016.

Non-Fiction:

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The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

How a group of college boys, most of them working through extremely difficult circumstances, persevered as individuals and most importantly as a team in their quest for gold at Hitler’s Olympics. I came away with a newfound respect for rowing, bonus. Truly incredible story.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

In my post about this book (here) I wrote, “Biss explores not only medical research but social psychology and literary criticism in this short (150 pages) but beautifully written discussion on what immunity means, whether it’s something we can actually achieve, and whether or not we are, when it comes to infectious diseases, our brother’s keeper. ” A thoughtful look at a polarizing subject.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene H. Peterson

My mom put this book in my hands. What are we supposed to do with the Bible? How do we take it in?  A fantastic book from the man who spent years translating The Message. I underlined, copied passages, and will certainly be reading this one again.

In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton

This might be my favorite book of the year – I managed to stretch this collection of essays over nearly 12 months. He’s a master of paradox, and I’m hooked. On my agenda for 2016? More Chesterton.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

I don’t know why it took me so long to read this modern classic. We’ve had Mr. Herriot’s Treasury for Children for years now, both in hardback and on audio, and it’s a family favorite. This particular book is the first in his collection of four memoirs in which he recounts his early years as a country vet in England. I laughed, I cried, I had all of the feelings. Kurt also listened to this one on Audible and liked it a lot.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

As I neared the end of this un-put-downable account of a story most of us already know, I found myself hoping desperately that the boat doesn’t sink. An author who can break through the barrier of known facts (it sinks!) like this is a master at narrative nonfiction.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin, habits- what’s not to love?! As readable and interesting as her previous books, and truly informative. I’m a big fan of intentional habit-building, and I want to know more. Not just from a personal perspective, but in parenting as well, as habits are really just decisions you’ve made in advance. From the little things (like clearing your place) to the big things (like giving away some of the money you earn), I think that good habits are some of the best things I can impress upon my children.

Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass

This small, rich book impacted my philosophy of education more than anything else I’ve read in the last couple of years. I underlined copiously and will be re-reading annually. If you’re at all interested in the classical tradition of education OR the philosophy and practices of Charlotte Mason, I highly recommend.

Fiction:

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I am not (NOT) a science fiction fan, but I found this book so enjoyable – couldn’t put it down. Technical, suspenseful, and funny all at once.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I agree with everyone else here – this Pulitzer Prize winner is beautiful. Sad and hopeful, it follows the stories of a blind young woman in occupied France, and a German soldier whose talents come with a cost. But then, you know that. Because you’ve read it, right? Right?!

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

I confessed in another post: “I have a category of books that I specifically classify as read before bed books. To fit into this important category, a book must not require me to think too much, but – possibly contradictory- must be worthy of slow thought. It can’t be a page turner, but it must keep my interest and attention.”  This novel is that and more. It takes place in Quebec in the late 1600’s, following a year in the life of a humble apothecary and his daughter. Absolutely lovely.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

I get a little giddy over a good spy yarn. This is just that, taking place at the beginning of World War I. So unlikely, so fantastic, so delicious.

The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon

I raced through books 3-9 in the first half of 2015. I’m now an official fan, no shame. Well, maybe a little shame. But this is my favorite kind of intense storytelling with carefully plotted themes rolling beneath the surface. Who knew?! (Lots of people, apparently.)

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

For ages this (the first in a series) has popped up in my Amazon recommendations lists. I always scrolled right by with an eye roll. This writer gave Sherlock Holmes a wife? It looked like unpromising fan fiction. Eventually, I caved and grabbed one at the library. Y’all, Sherlock Holmes needs this wife. These books are great, and not at all silly in the way I’d assumed they would be. I read all of them in a couple of months and am eagerly awaiting the next one, releasing this spring.

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

The small “international bestseller” on the cover is all the recommendation needed for this thoughtful, gratifying novel. Translated from the Spanish original, it follows the journey of a librarian as she takes up a post in the tiny, close-knit community of San Ireneo. I loved it.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

The fictional Nick and Bex are blatantly inspired by Will and Kate, and it’s done so well. This was a well-written fun read, with more depth than I expected. I’d read it again!

Children’s Lit:

(In this case, referring to the chapter books we’ve read aloud.)

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(Reading aloud is a daily habit we’ve built over the years – we always read aloud after lunch, and sometimes before bedtime. I’ve learned that not all great books make great read-alouds – something about the cadence and flow has to work. The books listed here are all books we read in 2015, were easy and fun for me to read aloud, and were deeply enjoyed by my tribe of listeners.)

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary

These make GREAT read-alouds. I loved these books as a child, and I loved them maybe even more as a parent. Oh, but Beverly Cleary was wise! The kids begged for “one more chapter!” every single day.

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This is our second time reading through these books together (we’ve also listened to them on audio). I read them to the boys when Elisabeth was very young, after she was tucked into bed. She’s thrilled to join us this time through, and the boys pay every bit as much attention now as they did then. This is a marvelous series, whether you have boys or girls, and I think they make great read-alouds (not everyone agrees, as the chapters can contain quite a lot of descriptive writing…but the flow works!).

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I thought this might be a challenge to read aloud (and maybe not super interesting?) but it really flowed well and easily kept the kids’ interest. After we finished the book, we watched the movie – a mistake!! The book is so much better.

Half Magic by Edward Eager

Just a delight. A family of four children finds a magic coin that grants wishes- but only halfway. Well-written, funny – we all loved it. This is the first in a sort-of series.

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright

We read aloud the first two books of this series (The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake) – again, about a family of four children. Written in 1941, it’s set in New York. Funny, adventurous, charming  – it hit all the boxes. The boys read the final two books independently.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

A compelling story of adventure and friendship. I’d read it years ago and could only vaguely remember it. We’ve talked a lot about Native Americans this year in the course of our history studies, and there is really nothing like a well-written story to bring complex ideas home. I’m such a fan of literature-based history!

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

The boys gave me the side eye when I told them the title, but this book captured them from the start. Tolkien and Lewis were both fans, and for good reason! A truly wonderful story, and a satisfying read-aloud.

The Good Master by Kate Seredy

We’re only halfway through this one, but I feel confident including it (even though we’ll finish it in 2016!) A wonderful story, it follows the adventures of a family living on the Hungarian plains – I think in the early twentieth century. Even Oliver loves this one – he brings it to me every chance he can and plops himself in my lap…I tell him that we have to wait for the kids! #literarytoddler

Finally….

What I’m reading right now and and a few things that are on my must-read list for 2016.

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The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis

My current morning book. Fantastic.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I’ve got this one out from the library. Because – habits! And pop psychology!

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

This book keeps landing in front of me. Time to read it.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen F. Ambrose

I’m currently halfway through this one – so interesting! It’s been on my shelf for years and I recently remembered we had it when a friend recommended it. A truly extraordinary story.

Lights Out by Ted Koppel

I feel like reading about the vulnerability of the grid to terrorist attack or other disaster might make me have a small panic attack, but I’m gonna do it anyway. And then maybe buy a rain barrel or an ax or something.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

This has come across my radar a few times – will be one of my morning books this year.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

But this will be my next morning book!

Miracles by Eric Metaxas

I really liked his book about Bonhoeffer, and I love the subject of this newest release.

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More! About Language Arts!

In case you thought I’d written all there was to say about Language Arts, I want to correct your impression by jabbering on for a little (a lot) while longer. Since we’re halfway through our year, I can speak to what has worked really well, what we’ve dropped, and what we’ve added. And you know I’m gonna.

My biggest (and only, really) curriculum switch-up at the beginning of this school year was to jump in full force to Michael Clay Thompson’s wonderful L.A. materials with both boys. We absolutely love them.

MCT materials are divided into levels: Island, Town, and Voyage. Island is the first, and is aimed at approximately 3rd grade age. Each level has several books: grammar, writing, vocabulary, poetry, and practice. There are also literature choices to go with each level, if you’re so inclined. (I was inclined with Jack; I was not with Sam, mostly due to the ever-present budget.) Although the books are certainly distinct in focus, each book integrates beautifully with the others.

Each boy started the year with about six weeks in a grammar book. These books hold a lot of grammar, and that grammar is explained in hands-down the most logical manner I’ve ever come across. After two whole years in First Language Lessons, Sam was very fuzzy (gentle understatement) on his parts of speech, but six weeks in Grammar Island took care of that. The grammar books use a combination of story, diagram, and illustration to teach the four levels of sentence analysis (parts of speech, parts of the sentence, phrases, and clauses). Not only did Grammar Island work miracles with Sam, but MY grammar received a serious primer as I read through Grammar Town with Jack. Lightbulbs flashing on all over the place. I can’t say enough good things about this.

After the grammar books, the practice books are introduced. Each practice book contains 100 sentences for 4-level analysis. Each boy does 3 sentences a week. Sometimes we transfer them to notebook paper and diagram them together, because diagramming is fun.

After the grammar books, the writing books are also introduced (called Sentence Island and Paragraph Town, respectively). Each book is written entirely in story format, but in the back an instructor’s guide gives more detail on what to emphasize in each chapter, grammar practice, and writing activities.

Sam and I are working through Sentence Island now, but I did it with Jack as well at the beginning of the year because I knew he’d really benefit from it. Both boys love it. Jack and I worked through the book in 6 weeks; Sam and I are stretching it to 12. The book is divided into 6 chapters, or 6 lessons.

The instructor’s guide in the back of Paragraph Town provides 10 lessons that cover the book in its entirety. There are an additional 10 lessons if you want/need to cover the concepts again in more depth. Jack and I have worked through the first 10 lessons (we take about a week for each). We may or may not hit up the second set.

Post grammar, we also add in vocabulary. The Island level vocabulary book is called Building Language; the Town level is called Caesar’s English. Building Language introduces 10 common Latin stems, and explores their uses in modern language. It’s a gentle, breezy read. Caesar’s English is a MUCH more intense (and dense) course. It’s divided into 2 books with 10 lessons each. The lessons alternate between introducing Latin stems (and then expanding those stems into vocabulary), and introducing classic words. Each lesson contains opportunities for grammar practice, discussion of synonyms, antonyms, poetry, history, analogies, author study, and more. I decided pretty quickly in the year that we would cut way back and move through these books very slowly. They’ve just got so much content, and really GOOD content – I didn’t want to rush through for the sake of an arbitrary calendar goal. I expect Jack and I will only get through the first book this year. These books could easily be used with students in middle grades; fourth grade might be on the edge of too young. But they’re truly golden.

The last main component of MCT is poetry. We have Music of the Hemispheres, which is the Island level poetry book. As enthusiastic as I am when I flip through it, we haven’t successfully integrated it into the other things we’re doing yet. It really belongs in couch time, I think, which is when we learn and recite the poems we’re memorizing together. I really ought to just tuck it into my couch time basket and get on with it! Like the other books in the program, it’s illustrated and makes intentional use of fonts to emphasize language. Each section covers an element of poetry (alliteration, etc.).

Jack and I are reading through the Town level literature selections together, and it’s been a lot of fun. We read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and now we’re doing Peter Pan. Last will be The Wind in the Willows. MCT provides a very small instructor’s text to accompany all 3 books – it’s full of interesting writing ideas and background info. It’s been a handy little tool.

Each piece of this curriculum contains a student book and a teacher’s book. With the exception of the 2 practice books and Caesar’s English, I only purchased the teacher’s edition. I purchased both editions of the practice books, because the student books are consumable (and inexpensive). With Caesar’s English, I only purchased the student book. This has all worked out just fine.

Before I leave the topic of MCT, I have to shine a spotlight on the writing activities in Sentence Island in particular, which have been absolutely fantastic. They’re brief, but force thought about both structure and style. Recent examples that Sam has completed: write a dialogue in which one character can only speak in subjects, and the other only in predicates. Or in which one character uses only action verbs, and the other only linking verbs. Or – when might you use an indirect object in place of a prepositional phrase? “I gave Sam a cookie” and “I gave a cookie to Sam” might technically  mean the same thing, but writers must make structural choices based on what they want to emphasize.

And that’s what I love about this curriculum. Overall, MCT achieves a seamless blending of the technical with the synthetic. In this case, the use of the word “synthetic” means whole, integrated – what Charlotte Mason calls knowledge that is acquired relationally, and what the writer Dr. James Taylor calls “poetic knowledge.”

Will we still use First Language Lessons? Yes, in grades 1 and 2. FLL is gentle and simple, and contains benefits beyond the identification (or not! haha) of nouns and verbs. But MCT has earned a permanent spot in our upper elementary collection, no question.

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Because I love writing, I dug into a few different options this year, and a couple of them we’ve set aside. I’ve learned that you can do all the research in the world, but until you’ve tried something you can’t be sure it will work well.

The first piece of curriculum we set aside was a small, independently published writing course called Treasured Conversations. Jack and I worked through part of it, and he liked it just fine, but it wasn’t quite hitting the goals I’d hoped it would for us. I needed more explicit instruction in structure.

Likewise, Sam and I tried Classical Academic Press’ Fable, which is the first book in their Writing & Rhetoric series. I decided to alternate weeks of Fable with weeks of Writing With Ease 3 (which we love). Sam really enjoyed it, but I felt it lacked again that explicit instruction in how to really BUILD a piece of writing that I was on the lookout for. W&R books are designed to be completed in a semester; we finished half of Fable before setting it aside. We may pick it up again, but not for now. We’re sticking with Writing With Ease (still using it just every other week) because I’m a convert to the practices of narration and dictation.

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But what about structure? Especially for Jack in the fourth grade, structure seems important. And so that brings me to my final switch up (or addition) to our year, and that’s the Institute for Excellence in Writing (or IEW).

IEW is one of the pieces used in Classical Conversation’s Essentials program, which we decided not to do this year. That’s been a decision I absolutely do not regret; it would have been the wrong move for our family for a lot of reasons. I realized, however, that before I turned my back on IEW, I really ought to do a better job of figuring out what it IS. So I did my research. And -HERE was the explicit structural instruction I was searching for. So I took a deep breath, ordered the stuff (IEW offers a 100% money back guarantee, anytime, if you purchase from them), and started watching 14 hours of video. (Gulp.) (I’m maybe 4 hours in.)

I just might be a convert. I was already a fan of Andrew Pudewa (I’ve heard him on podcasts & audio lectures -brilliant- and have mentioned his gem Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization only about ninety bajillion times here), but now I’m maybe approaching groupie status. I purchased the instructor’s course/guide (Teaching Writing: Structure & Style) for myself, and the Student Writing Intensive Level A to use with both boys. IEW is designed as a course for instructors, who can then take all this stuff and teach it to their students. The Student Writing Intensive (SWI) provides course material for students, sort of a jump start to the program, should you find yourself wondering where to start OR wishing someone else would just throw it all together for you. I wished for that.

(CC’s Essentials uses IEW’s theme-based writing lessons to work through the IEW units. We may do one of these next year…IEW is designed to be worked through over and over again, building in proficiency and challenge.)

The SWIs come in three levels (A,B, and C) and are leveled by age rather than progression. So you wouldn’t progress from one to the other; rather, you’d use only the level appropriate to the age of your students. For upper elementary students, that’s level A. The course comes with student materials, lesson plans, AND a video series in which Mr. Pudewa teaches directly to the student. (After each video lesson, you spend several days practicing the concepts with your students.)

I decided to go through the SWI-A with both boys at the same time; it’s a 15-week course (with the option to stretch it to 30 weeks). The absolute first thing I did was to buy a pretty binder for my own materials (Target!!), and thinner, more appealing binders for the boys’ materials. (Listen, practical-tools-as-eye-candy go a LONG way in the motivation category, and I am talking about myself here! During afternoon rest time lately I gather up my cute binder, my laptop, my coffee, and my crochet, and watch Mr. Pudewa tell me everything I need to know about teaching my kids to write and it’s a LOVELY time.)

I did wonder what the boys would think of the videos. Well. Here’s what Sam said partway through the first one: “I never want this to end! This is the ONLY time I’ve ever liked writing!” This statement was in equal parts ad copy, a stab to the heart, one of my favorite things he’s said, and a lie. ! Anyway, they love the videos. They find Mr. Pudewa very funny, and I find him a very effective teacher. Sold.

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And so concludes my latest novel on writing practices in our homeschool. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve found the answer to a question or a little nugget that might be helpful. I know in my research I’m always looking for extensive descriptions, so I’m not too leery of being wordy here. Writing is also frankly an enthusiasm of mine, and something I’ve deeply enjoyed working through with my boys over the last few years. I love that they’re big enough to dig in deeper, and I love that I have two more little ones waiting in the wings who get to do all of this with me too.

Scaffolding, Crochet, & the Ambiguous Future

Where to begin after months and months of blog neglect? All of the swirling thoughts that I’ve enjoyed grabbing and wrangling into a few paragraphs for years (and years) haven’t ceased, but whenever I get the urge to blog, I really do wonder – does anybody do this anymore? It doesn’t feel like it.

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Here’s a random smattering of the last several months.

On school:

We’re starting Week 17 of 36 official weeks – that’s almost halfway! Freshly on the other side (I think) of a period of exhaustion, I can say with confidence that the whole thing has been going well (despite the toddler dynamic! adorable mischief-maker that he is). In part, because my philosophy of education is sharpening as my oldest kiddo gets older (and I have to re-answer the questions what exactly are we doing here? and WHY are we doing this again?) , and in part because I worked really hard this summer to build myself a scaffolding to support all of my ideas, reduce my planning time, and streamline my goals.

The two most practically beneficial practices I put into place turned out to be spiral notebooks and term division. About spiral notebooks, if you read this post by Sarah Mackenzie you’ll see just what I mean. It’s the simplest, most effective practice, and I can raise my hand with a confident this works! As for term division, I divided our year into six 6-week terms and penciled in read-alouds, composer study, history chapters to cover in Story of the World, poetry/speech memory work, and Scripture memory work for each term (Shakespeare has already fallen off of that list- even I saw that one coming!) I’ve used the eraser plenty of times to switch out books or move stuff around, but my structure has remained unchanged and has been super helpful in helping me to focus on what to do NOW at any given time.

I’m growing into the belief that what we do with the hour(ish) each day in which we cover those content areas of study is as important as the two(ish) hours we spend covering the more traditional school subjects of math and language arts. As we read really good stories together (we just finished The Secret Garden and are now reading George MacDonald’s classic The Princess and the Goblin and YES my boys adore both) and as we commit to memory poetry, great speeches (okay, speech; we’re still on our first), and Scripture, we (I include myself as a student here intentionally) are learning to love what is lovely. We are developing our moral imaginations and we are taking possession of words that matter, tucking them away as objects we are in no danger of losing.

The more we do, the more we want to do. This hour bleeds into everything else that happens in our home.

On learning:

My mom is teaching me how to crochet – again. And this time, I’m getting it and I’m enjoying it. I’m attributing this change to a couple of things – my cousin’s gorgeous ideas for what I can make when I actually do learn, and the many hours I have spent hand-quilting in recent years. Quilting is a skill I’ve picked up in the years since my mom’s last brief (like, 20-minute) attempt to teach me to crochet. Hand-stitching binding to the back of a quilt develops a certain rhythm that apparently translates, for me anyway, to crochet. I can do exactly two things with my yarn right now, but I am practicing them faithfully and really enjoying the process. There are granny squares in my future, and I can’t wait. I’ve already enjoyed the absolute satisfaction of having something productive to do with my hands while I sit and chat with my family.

On the ambiguous future:

DOES anyone blog anymore? Should I? ARE the zombies coming? Or will we all be wiped out in an apocalyptic flu like in the national-book-award-winning novel (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) I started the other day? Should I even finish that book? (Because yikes.) WHERE will we live in six months?

Between that book and Kurt’s recent fixation on fixer-uppers, I had a very stressful (but interesting) dream the other night in which we were juggling both surviving and renovating.

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School Year 2015-2016

I think I spent as much time figuring out toddler logistics for this school year as I did figuring out our course of study. Toddlers are no joke. Anyway, here’s my annual read-till-your-eyes-bleed post!

I love what we do, and if you haven’t read one of these posts before with all of my usual disclaimers and are wondering WHY we do any of this, go here.

What I’m learning:

(Still) HOW we do holds as much importance as WHAT we do. If I have the greatest ideas ever but no implementation strategy, I’m not going to have a lot of success following through with those ideas. I’m also going to feel frazzled. No good. I’ve been majoring on strategy for the past few weeks, and I feel like it’s been time well spent.

Children are born persons. This was one of Charlotte Mason’s foundational principles of education, and it sounds deceptively simple. My children are whole persons. Remembering this simple thing helps me just as much in the middle of a math lesson as it does when I’m looking at the big picture scope & sequence of our year.

I learned last year that memorizing long passages with children is NOT HARD. I was really surprised. It takes a few minutes a day, tops. It’s become one of my very favorite things we do together, and I think the kids would say the same thing. The great thing about memorizing is that ANY amount of it is satisfying. My goal with memory work, whether it be poetry or otherwise, is to take into our minds joyfully all of the goodness, truth, and beauty that we can. If the joyfully part is shaky, we put it down for the day. We do not push through memory work, ever.

I need Jesus to bless our homeschool. Sometimes I feel my flaws so deeply. And yet…I am called to this without a doubt, so God will work our children’s stories out for good as we walk forward in faith and prayer. I believe that. See me hit my knees begging for wisdom and for God to show us each new thing in its own time.

Places I find inspiration:

I love pretty much everything Sarah Mackenzie puts out over at her blog, Amongst Lovely Things, her podcast, The Read-Aloud Revival, and her book, Teaching From Rest (soon to be rereleased, updated and expanded, in print from Classical Academic Press, woot!). She’s inspiring without being intimidating, and her philosophy lines up neatly with my own, so I find lots of encouragement in her words.

The CiRCE Institute – blog and podcast both. I can’t recommend them highly enough. If I could only direct you to one, I’d pick the Quiddity Podcast (they have several, but they’re all in the same stream in my podcast app for whatever reason). Awesome interviews and conversations around the topic of what education is, what it’s for, and how we’re doing it. Both practical and philosophical. The podcast on assessment blew my mind a little bit, truly.

Consider This by Karen Glass – This small and unassuming book inspired me in huge ways this summer. Glass writes on the philosophy of classical education as it relates to British educator Charlotte Mason. I will absolutely review this here in greater depth, but it’s significantly helped me refine my own philosophy of education.

My friends. I love love love hearing and seeing what my friends are up to and how they do it. Even when we operate very differently and/or use different materials, I am always, always inspired and encouraged and on the lookout for new ideas. Sometimes my Amazon cart gets heavier. (It’s used to that.)

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So. Here are the materials we’re using for Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 4th grade (?!).

Math

Singapore – 4A & 4B for Jack, 3A & 3B for Sam, bits of Earlybird A (basically the bits Sam didn’t do in his old workbook!) and all of Earlybird B for Elisabeth. We’ve used Singapore for years with great success.

Miquon – Jack has finished all 6 books, to his dismay! Sam will do Yellow and Purple; Elisabeth will do Orange. I love these out-of-the-box little books.

Life of Fred– the boys are working through the elementary series. When Jack finishes in the next couple of months, I’ll likely get the intermediate series (3 books) for him to do. I’d like to start him in Life of Fred: Fractions in 5th grade, if Fred is still working well for him – right now he really loves it.

I also copy the math drills from the back of my Home Instructor’s Guides (Singapore) for the boys (starting about a semester behind where they’re working) and make them packets – they complete one column a day as a part of their independent work. This has been a simple but effective way to exercise their mental math muscles.

Handwriting

We had great success with the Logic of English cursive books last year for the boys (and even Elisabeth). I like that the cursive itself is still pretty without being overly fancy. All letters start at the same place, and the pages are super simple, with no graphics and LOTS of space for practice. The boys are finishing these books this year, and then moving on to practice their cursive daily using Classical Conversations Prescripts books.

Originally, I bought Elisabeth a Handwriting Without Tears book for this year (I really like their stuff for little ones). But when it came I realized it was probably not the level of practice that she needs. Rather than return it, I just tucked it away for Oliver someday (!). And then I bought the digital edition of the Logic of English manuscript book, and am printing pages individually for her to practice. I have a small pack of Handwriting Without Tears paper (I have all the happy emotions for their lined paper) for her to practice with too….she tells me what she wants to write, I write it, she copies it. Fun all around. She LOVES handwriting practice. Such a girl.

Language Arts

I’m super excited about our language arts this year. We’re using quite a few things, and it will sound complicated….and I’ll admit it kind of was in the planning stage, but it shouldn’t be in the implementation stage! I drew out (in my notebook! #paperforever) a 36-week grid for each boy and figured out when and how each of these pieces will fit together. They don’t  all happen at once but I think the way they’ll work together will be fantastic. So far so good.

{Most of what we’re using comes from Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts curriculum. Each level has a grammar book, a practice book on 4-level sentence analysis, a writing book, a vocabulary book, a poetry book, and literature. We’re doing most of this. My first draft of this post had long explanations of each piece, but I cut it all out. I think that would work better in a post of its own, and probably not until we’ve been using it for awhile and can speak to it in practice. But I’m really, really happy about using it and our experience so far has been exactly what I hoped it would be.}

Spelling– We’re sticking with All About Spelling, just picking up where we left off when we started our summer break a couple of months ago. I deeply love this program. Huge fan. Will do it always. Amen.

Writing – Sam will be doing about half of Writing With Ease 3 (I picked my favorite weeks based on the literature featured) for continued practice with narration, copywork, and dictation. He’ll do this every other week. We’re also giving Writing & Rhetoric: Fable (from Classical Academic Press) a whir on some of those off weeks. It’s a roughly 14-week program, and I’m frankly just curious about it. Call it a $17 indulgence in curiosity. Like WWE, it builds on the disciplines of narration, copywork, and dictation, but does it a bit differently. Will we like it? Will we shelve it? I’ll keep you posted.

Sam will also do Sentence Island, from MCT.

Jack and I are also doing a 6-week run through Sentence Island, then jumping into MCT’s Paragraph Town. I wanted him to have a foundational understanding of MCT’s approach to the structure of language before jumping into the Town level (level 2) with writing. He’s also doing most of a little program called Treasured Conversations that teaches very specific paragraph deconstruction and then construction via topic sentences and outlines. When I look at both pieces of his writing curriculum this year, I hope that TC will provide him with practical tools and MCT will provide him with structural material, instinct, and vision.

Grammar

We’ve loved First Language Lessons, but we’re switching gears this year. I wrote (in grueling detail) about that a couple of months ago.

Sam is doing MCT’s Grammar Island, and Jack is doing Grammar Town. After the boys finish Grammar Island and Grammar Town (in a few weeks), each boy will work slowly through a practice book called…wait for it….Practice Island and Practice Town, doing 4-level analysis (parts of speech, parts of a sentence, phrases, and clauses). We’ll diagram together as well. I’m a big fan of diagramming  – I think it provides a distinct picture of how the words within a sentence work together. And…I think it’s fun. !

Vocabulary

Sam’s vocab book from MCT is called Building Language; Jack’s is called Caesar’s English. I’m super excited about this piece!

Poetry & Memory Work

During our couch time, we’re continuing to work through Andrew Pudewa’s Linguistic Development Through Poetry Memorization. I’m also adding in some specific poems I’d like us to learn this year, a couple of speeches that are relevant to our history studies (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and MLK’s I Have a Dream), a couple of Psalms, and two other longer Bible passages (from Deuteronomy and Isaiah).

We’re also going to read through MCT’s Island Level poetry book, Music of the Hemispheres. We’ve owned it for a couple of years now but haven’t found a way to use it. Now I think I know what to do with it. We’ll do this all together during our couch time, maybe once a week.

Reading

Elisabeth is in official learning-to-read mode this year, hooray! We’re doing our usual smorgasbord of goodies – Explode the Code, I Can Read It, The Ordinary Parents’ Guide to Teaching Reading.

Sam is reading all kinds of books these days. It’s been the summer of Harry Potter at our house! Sam is a reader to the bone – he usually has an unruly stack of books shuffling around from his bed to his dresser to all over the house. I’m not doing any assigned reading with Sam this year. I’m happy to see him reading good books that he loves, and I know that whatever library books I have around (on history or other topics we’re discussing) will likely be read by him regardless.

Jack’s also a prolific reader. This year he WILL be doing assigned reading, alongside me. We’ll be using MCT’s literature piece at the Town level- we’ll be reading (unabridged) Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows. I’m happy about this – 3 books in one year feels very do-able. And they’re such good books. I jumped on this because it totally took pressure off of me to figure out what we should/would read and how.

Rhetoric

Each of the 3 big kids deliver a weekly presentation to their CC class. This is still one of my favorite pieces of our CC day because of the immense progress we’ve seen in their public speaking (and listening!) skills. I’d also love for the boys to practice the art of reading aloud – maybe a picture book every week to the rest of us? I haven’t put this in writing yet; it’s just an idea. We’ll see how it shakes out. It probably won’t, let’s be a real. (Oh the ideas….)

History

I wrote in copious detail about this, too. We’re finishing up Story of the World Vol. 3 (Early Modern) – we’re about 2/3 through it. Then we’ll move into SOTW Vol. 4 (Modern). I’ve chosen a number of specific books to read alongside this, mostly chapter but a few picture too. We’re ditching narration. I just can’t make it happen, so I’m giving up and not sweating it. I think we’ll still check out the map work for most chapters. I’d love to consistently remember to write stuff down into our Sonlight book of time, too. In my dreams, this happens. In reality, it’s sort of a scattered record, but it’s a long-term project so….that’s okay.

Geography

SOTW map work – gives historical context to the world’s geography.

CC memory work – love this piece of CC Foundations DEEPLY.

Blob maps – something that Leigh Bortins talks about at great length in her book The Core. Think memorization, only via a pencil and paper. I laminated blob maps (this at Half a Hundred Acre Wood is hands down the best printable resource -free!- for those) a couple of years ago but, like so many GREAT IDEAS, they sat untouched, collecting dust and good intentions. Then at my CC tutor training this year, another tutor told us how she uses blob maps in her class, taking 24 weeks to teach how to draw the map from memory, simple step by simple step. We’re going to do our own version of that here at home, hooray! We started with the equator. Now we’re working through the five great circles of latitude, then the prime meridian, than finally, piece by piece, the continents. Goal: blob map by memory in 36 weeks!

It turns out that I love geography. I should have known this about myself because on our road trips I pack a huge ancient atlas and pour over it – studying areas completely unrelated to where we are or where we are going. I had a dream a couple of weeks ago that I was teaching high school geography (my high school bestie was in the next classroom teaching….cursive?) and guys, I WAS ON FIRE. I gave such a speech about geography that I remembered it when I woke up. It is the foundation of everything else! I said. It was intense.

But seriously, how can you know how or what or why if you don’t understand where?

Fine Arts

We’re taking advantage of the framework that CC’s fine arts piece provides this year, using it as a springboard. We’ll be studying 3 composers for 12 weeks each, and 6 artists for 6 weeks each. This gives us lots of time for reading picture book biographies, listening, looking, and talking. We’ll hit this stuff once or twice a week in our couch time loop. In CC we’ll also do drawing instruction, art projects, orchestra study, and tin whistle instruction (so.grueling.)…last spring we did art lessons with friends; I don’t know how that will fit into our fall but the kids loved it.

Literature

Since my read-aloud eyes are bigger than the time I have in my actual day, I used a block schedule to slot in books I want to read to the kids this year. We read a book at bedtime lots of evenings (especially when Kurt’s traveling) – right now we’re working our way through the Little House books again. Elisabeth missed them the first time around – she was a toddler. She’s heard most on audio but is just now old enough to really love them. The boys love them too. (Pa is amazing.)

We’ll also usually be reading literature related to our history studies during couch time. I’ll loop that with another chapter book that we’re reading just-because. I plan on 1 or 2 history chapter books during each 6 week block, and 2 just-because books. Blocking scheduling out our literature (and fine arts) allows me to focus on one thing at a time and calm down my jumpy “I want us to read THAT!” brain.

Okay, here’s my ambitious new thing for the year: Shakespeare. I mean, it feels ambitious, because the last time I thought seriously about Shakespeare was during my 12th grade AP exam, when Hamlet brought my essay home for the win. Yikes! We memorized a little Macbeth last year when we came to Shakespeare himself in Story of the World, but this year I’d like to do specific plays. Ken Ludwig’s popular How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare was a great inspiration, and I’ve also got some children’s retellings and even comic book renditions. I hope it’s fun. My goal feels manageable – 3 plays this year, 12 weeks on each. I’m keeping it very simple: learn the story, memorize a few bits, watch it somehow. But frankly, even if that goal falls by the wayside and we only do one play — I’ll still feel really really pleased. Is it possible I’m becoming more of a realist?!

Science

In CC we’ll do weekly experiments/demonstrations and lots of memory work around biology and earth science. Our ongoing nature journals fit neatly into this. Oh my goodness, I’d love to find a way to be more intentional about our nature study, but that’s not a piece I’ve figured out this year (or ever…). That’s okay; I feel great about both what they know, what they love, and what they ask about science. We did science fair last year, and though the whole week leading up to it I swore that NEVER EVER AGAIN WILL I EVER we’ll probably do it this year, too.

Logistics & Organization

This is the piece that I’m always curious about – how do other people work this stuff out? What ideas, habits, or systems work really well in your home? These are the kinds of things I love to discuss with people.  Logistics are a big deal to me. I need to know what they are and I NEED THEM TO WORK. ! I’m also learning that each year, life looks a little different and I need to be adaptable and a step ahead.

Regarding time:

Schedules mostly defeat me, but I thrive in routine. So do my kids. We’ve built our days around certain anchors, like meals and quiet time. The rest, over the past years, seems to have landed in places that mostly make sense. I want to preserve their best times for work while also respecting their best times for play. I know my best time for housework – the liturgy of laundry and meals – and rest must always be a priority along with the ability to do all of our extracurriculars without feeling like I live in my minivan or am three steps behind myself. How to do all of these things? I’m not always sure. But bits of it seem to fall into place naturally, and I hope the rest does as well.

Morning work – As the kids get older, this is now about a 2-hour chunk of time, and we’re all together in our playroom/schoolroom. The boys each have a separate desk of sorts where they can do their independent stuff. I meet with Elisabeth first at the table, then pull the boys over one at a time for language arts. Usually the boys’ math can be done independently start to finish, but occasionally I’ll need to meet with them first. (Elisabeth does all of her math with me.)

Couch time – after lunch, generally at least 30 minutes. It kind of depends on how cooperative Oliver is being! If he’s continually and loudly throwing himself and a board book at me, or if I’ve pulled him off of the fireplace 85 times, or if he’s picked this particular time to test if I really mean it when I say cords are NOT FOR BABIES….I give up and we regroup later. Anyway. This is when we do all of our content-area stuff: history, literature, fine arts, poetry, science, Bible study (we use Telling God’s Story for this). We DON’T do everything every day. There are a couple of daily pieces, but the rest of it is put into a loop. Couch time has been a game changer for us, in the best of ways.

Table time – during the last smidge of Oliver’s afternoon nap. This is stuff that WOULD fit into the couch time category, only it really does need to be done at our school table. This includes geography blob-mapping, diagramming sentences, and history map work. Again, not everything everyday. I’d say it’s 20 minutes, tops. Nobody can concentrate very well in the afternoon!

Regarding organization:

This changes every year. I always craft my own documents (simple tables usually) to keep track of what’s happening and when. I used to keep track of both boys’ work on one printed sheet each week. Last year they each had a clipboard with a printout of their weekly work plans. That sort of worked, but things definitely fell through the cracks, because after I’d filled it in on Sunday night, I mostly didn’t look at it again until the next Sunday when I replaced it with a new sheet.

This year, I’ve made those same weekly pages, and I’m still filling them before we start our week. But now they are staying on MY clipboard, so with a quick glance I can see not only what they are doing but what I need to be doing with them (no more “bring me your clipboard real quick”). I bought small spiral notebooks to use as assignment books for the boys, and am doing exactly what Sarah Mackenzie outlines in this post about simplifying. It works beautifully.

Here’s another thing I’m doing, and I’ve been doing it for awhile so I know it’s a win: last year, I started making a master spreadsheet of math assignments in giant chunks, about 2-3 months’ worth at a time. (This might be a Singapore-specific necessity, I realize. Maybe other things work better for independent open-and-go?)  I flip through my HIG and jot down the relevant text & workbook pages for any given lesson, sometimes even combining lessons. I make a note of any concepts that I am SURE I’ll need to go over with them, or any activities or enrichment ideas that seem worth our time. Otherwise I plan to have them do everything independently. This means that about 4 times a year, I spend a couple of hours planning out a bunch of math. And each weekend, I just cross out what’s been completed in any given week on my master spreadsheet, and put the next few lessons onto each boy’s weekly plan. This has been transformative in my weekend planning time!

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We’re all so happy to get going again, and I’m super thankful for that. My framework is in place and it feels good – we’re doing what’s important with time left over for all the other happy -also important!- things of life. I always know that during the year things will change – something new might come up (we’re exploring another co-op, for example), something else might fall away (will we REALLY do Shakespeare?! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Latin!!).

Here are some pictures of where we do our work, some pieces of that complicated-sounding MCT language arts curriculum, our couch time basket, my rough-draft, penciled in block schedule for couch time, the star students, and the resident toddler (the real star of the show, he might point out).

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Book List #13 : Novels

Since my last post, we’ve traveled for a total of 4 weeks and had company for 1. We’ve enjoyed the gift of spending time – whether weeks, days, or hours, with some of our most favorite people. The guys have been to Camp Shenandoah, which lived up to every promise of boyhood dreams-come-true. It’s been a true summer – a change of routine and a sabbath. I’ve rearranged two rooms in pursuit of both beauty and function in my home. I’m in the thick of the mental and practical organization of our coming school year, starting as soon as I figure out how to educate the big three while keeping Oliver from eating Legos. (I think I’m on to something. Hope reigns.)

{Last night: “We start school tomorrow, right?” said my eldest son. “No,” I said. “Aww!!!” he said and the note of frustration in his voice was MUSIC to my ears, people, the best gift he could have given me. This morning: “I want to get a head start on my school today,” says my middle son. “But we’re not starting just yet,” I answer, and the beautiful accusatory look I receive in response compels me to hand him his plate of pancakes before anyone else.}

And in the cracks and crevices, at the beginning and end of each day, I’ve been reading. I’m currently reading several non-fiction books: Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, Eat This Book by Eugene H. Peterson, For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaefer Macaulay, In Defense of Sanity by G.K. Chesterton, When Donkeys Talk by Tyler Blanksi, The Faith of Our Fathers by Cardinal James Gibbons, and All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot.

But I’ve also read plenty of novels — a novel in hand is a sanity saver sometimes, and I always like to have a good one in progress. Here are some of my favorites lately:

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Outlander (all of them) by Diana Gabaldon

Oh heavens. I read the first book last fall and then had to wait until February to get the second one from the library (there was a wait). I debated whether I even wanted to read it, to be honest. I’m not usually into sagas- lives getting ripped open again and again just for story’s sake, with very little satisfaction. I liked the first book so much that I didn’t want to go there with more drama, if you know what I mean. Could I stand what else might be done to these characters?

So I opened the second book thinking I’d read just a little and see if I felt like continuing. Well. Since then I’ve read the other 7 books (this picture only shows 7 but there are 8) and somewhere in there while I was waiting for one of them I re-read the first one. Then I re-read the second one while we were in Georgia, slowing down this time. Mind you, these books are nearly 1000 pages each. ?!?! I just got sucked right in, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a whole series to enjoy like that. I have to say – I really really liked them. The writing is fantastic and so detailed. The historical information alone is astounding and explains why it takes Gabaldon 4-5 years to write each book. She comes from academia so research is her middle name, and it’s obvious.

They didn’t disappoint me in my hate-of-saga category either — in the last several books in particular, their power lies in the detailed living of a normal if irregular life. The first and second were my hands-down favorites, the third was a bit dramatic for my taste but ultimately satisfying, the fourth was great, the fifth was almost boring but justified itself in the end, and the sixth, seventh, and eighths just got better and better. The ending of the eighth was so perfect, I’m surprised the series doesn’t end right there. But alas, there will be a ninth. !

I can’t recommend them without a big caveat: they’re not always easy books to read. Hard and ugly things happen. Each book also has a handful of intimate love scenes, which is the kind of thing I usually can’t stand, but here they’re not portrayed as crude or gratuitous, and are almost always within the context of marriage. Do with that what you will; I found the story to be so compelling that this didn’t bother me, to my surprise.

Gabaldon is just so good, and so faithful to the core of the world she’s created: although by the 8th book in the series, decades have passed and many additional characters have been introduced, the main story still revolves around the marriage of Jamie and Claire, and that central theme is beautifully developed always.

In Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson writes, “Good storytelling involves us in what has been sitting right in front of us for years but we hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought was important or hadn’t thought had anything to do with us. And then we do notice– the story wakes us up to what is there and has always been there.” Gabaldon does this perfectly.

So -despite these books being totally outside my normal genres, I’m in. Sign me up for the next book. Only 3-4 more years to wait!

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The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos

I’ve enjoyed each of the author’s previous novels, and this proved no exception. Her novels aren’t heavy, but nor are they fluffy. If you’re looking to be carried away in the style of the classic story – love found, lost, and found again, she’s a great one to turn to. I really liked this book.

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Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

I have a category of books that I specifically classify as read before bed books. To fit into this important category, a book must not require me to think too much, but – possibly contradictory- must be worthy of slow thought. It can’t be a page turner, but it must keep my interest and attention. These are sort of ambiguous terms. But Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (published in 1931) fits them perfectly.

It takes place in Quebec in the late 1600s, and follows a year in the life of a humble French apothecary and his daughter. It’s beautiful, thoughtful, and compelling. Take these words on the things of a home – from pots to brooms – these things “…were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days, – the complexion, the special flavor, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.”

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The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

This was another read before bed book, although I finally had to bring it downstairs so that I could copy passages from it into my journal and think on it with pen in hand. This beautifully written novel (published in 1940) had me furiously writing and contemplating the nature of truth as a thing we act in, faithfulness as a service to truth, and that act (of the service of truth) nourishing love. All of which is foolishness in the eyes of a world that calls truth a feeling, in service to self above all.

This is the first in a trilogy, and my library does not carry the second book. Luckily, Goudge was a fairly prolific writer and they do have quite a few of her other books, one of which I’ve already got on hold.

36: I-95

Each year since I turned 33, I’ve documented my birthday. 33, 34, 35. Here’s 36.

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My alarm goes off at 5, and we stumble into motion. I don’t even remember that today is my birthday until Kurt reminds all of us in the midst of rinsing breakfast dishes and filling water bottles. Well, that’s nice, I think happily. I think I’m 36 this year? Did I turn the porchlight on? Who has used the bathroom? A scramble of activity later, we pull out of our driveway. It’s 6:09. Two days ago, the stomach plague struck me and Sam, and though we are well, we are not quite right, so I start my day armed with  saltines, Gatorade, and anti-nausea bands around my wrists. We’re off. Since I started yesterday barely able to move with not a thing packed, I can’t believe we did it.

*****

We are 25 minutes down the road when a development in Oliver’s diaper situation necessitates a stop. This sort of early stop is against everything I stand for on road trips, but what can you do? I try to wave good-bye to my expectations. Haven’t I learned anything in 36 years? At least I’m not throwing up.

Are we almost to the causeway? -this is Elisabeth at 7:15. No, not for like nine more hours, we tell her. Maybe don’t ask again for awhile. Do you want a peppermint? She asks again 30 minutes later. I pass her some pumpernickel pretzels. Food works, friends.

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Before we had kids or smartphones or even a CD player in our old truck, we would read aloud to each other on road trips. Specifically, we would read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13 3/4, and laugh until our ribs hurt and we became a road hazard. These days it’s audio books and music, mostly music since Oliver came along and made his preferences loudly known. Today we listen to Sandra Boynton, Garth Brooks, Jack Johnson, and Mat Kearney.

When our trip to Georgia took us through the Smoky Mountains, we’d count tunnels and mark our way through the magnificent views in Tennessee and the twists of the deep ravines in North Carolina. We’d sail out of the mountains after Ashland, feeling like we were on the downward slope of our trip, literally and metaphorically. Flat land all the way to the coast; it won’t be long now.

Now the bulk of our trip takes place on I-95, and we count South of the Border billboards. There’s nothing else to count. Every mile looks exactly like every other mile. Sam and Elisabeth have a dispute about whether or not Pedro’s hat counts as a billboard. PLEASE don’t count that as a billboard Lissie, because IT ISN’T, pleads Sam. Elisabeth refuses to agree. EIGHTEEN!! yells Jack.

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At 11 a.m. we pull into the parking lot of the Chick-fil-A in Lumberton, North Carolina. This marks the halfway point of our journey. I haven’t thrown up yet. I even eat some salad. Salad! We take up two tables these days, with our sprawl of children and diaper bags and a high chair. But we’re fast. People are fed, escorted to the bathroom, and at 11:37 we’re back on the road.

By 12:30, we’ve stopped two more times. TWO MORE TIMES. Two people needed to use the bathroom (again) but not at the same time (because of course). Then someone thought maybe we should change the baby, and I said this was NOT how I liked to do things, but that someone was right because the baby was stinky (again) and I attempted to shed my fascist travel nature yet again. We are not stopping again, I said (calmly, peacefully). You can all hold it.

Is this what they’ll remember about family road trips?

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At 1:30 I receive a text alert about a fraudulent charge on my credit card. I attempt to call but we’re in the middle of nothing in South Carolina, so I eventually give up. But I keep my earbuds in, pull up my podcast app, and spend the next couple of hours tuning out everything. It’s fantastic. I listen to the first episode of a new podcast that I knew I was going to love as soon as I listened to the preview a few weeks ago: The Mystery Show. I do. I love it. Kids chatter, music plays, Kurt sings, and I gaze out at the unending swath of billboards that make up I-95 and listen to podcasts.

*****

At 4:18, our windows are down. We make a left turn onto the causeway that will take us onto St. Simons Island. As soon as the turn is complete, I press play on Jack Johnson’s album To the Sea. We listen to this every single time we make this turn. It is our we are here music. The volume is up, the wind tangles my hair, I have not thrown up, and I can see the ocean in that little crack in the horizon between St. Simons and Jekyll Island. We made it.

At 6, we are all in the swimming pool. The water is warm, the evening air is cool, and everyone is so happy. Later I sit in a rocking chair on the back porch, wrapped in a beach towel while Kurt manages the drying off and dressing of small people. I’m looking out at woods and marsh and sky, and everything here is quiet. I consider never moving again, but there’s cake. I think I want some cake.

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I remember the dreams I dreamed at 26, at 16, and I’m so glad I don’t write my own story. I wouldn’t have made it enough.

The Sweater Song (1500 words on Language Arts, not sweaters) (or Weezer) (sorry)

And. I STILL love that song.

(This is a overly lengthy post about my thought process and likely of interest to no one but my mother, who has heard it all over the phone already, but my thoughts are only considered complete when I’ve written them out so….)

So over the last couple of weeks my whole Language Arts plan has come completely undone and a whole new thing has taken its place, and it’s all because I had this one little thought that I started tugging at. JUST LIKE THE SWEATER SONG.

It was, very simply, the realization that Sam has trouble identifying the parts of speech.

Sam has finished second grade. He has had two years of First Language Lessons (Jack has had three). He ought to know his parts of speech. I really do love FLL for many reasons, but somehow FLL 2 didn’t take root with Sam. As I thought about this, I also thought about our writing program, Writing With Ease. We’ve loved it as well, and both boys have done really well in it. I’ve noticed that they have different strengths – Sam puts together really clear, beautiful narrations, but he struggles with dictation. He can almost always repeat it back in general terms, but not exactly. He’s quickly grasping the idea, but not the specific words. Jack, on the other hand, excels at dictation. Jack just has a natural bent towards memorization. He can do it quickly and almost effortlessly. However, Jack’s narrations tend to be rather unfocused. He includes too many details, or unimportant information.

I realized that Sam may need to go a different route for grammar next year. I don’t think he’s ready for FLL 3, and I don’t think repeating FLL 2 will help. Sam is very visual, and he grasps main ideas quickly. He doesn’t linger on details, but sometimes details are important. Memorization doesn’t come quickly to him. FLL is very repetitive and linear; it relies on memorized definitions and the application of those directions over and over again.

And it hit me – this is my chance to jump into a program that makes my heart flutter and that I’ve been wanting to do for 2 years but have had trouble figuring out how to do on the side or in bits and pieces. Sam will be at the perfect age, 3rd grade, to jump all the way in. The program is Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts (from Royal Fireworks Press).

It’s multi-pronged, synthetic, Socratic in nature, and quite fluid. There’s very little in the way of implementation direction. It relies on multiple books with grammar as the core, then relying on grammar to weave together instruction in writing, vocabulary, poetry, and literature. It takes a 4-level analysis approach to grammar, which I really love. I plan to add in some diagramming, because I believe the two models compliment each other beautifully and present a really complete picture of the relationships between words.

The books are pricey, but I already have two, and I’m mostly only purchasing Teacher’s Manuals (they’re identical to the student books, but are sprinkled with notes and discussion points). They are really gorgeous. Language IS the star of each page, and the illustrations are full-paged and fantastic.

I’m eager to jump into this with Sam; I think it will fit him perfectly. Because I do value the practices of narration and dictation, we’ll work out of both Writing With Ease 3 and Classical Academic Press’s Fable, probably alternating weeks between the two of those while doing our MCT work daily.

And of course continue with one of my favorite pieces of curriculum ever, All About Spelling.

So Sam – set! Erin- happy!

BUT THEN.

I started to think about Jack.

Susan Wise Bauer published updated recommendations for her writing programs (Writing With Ease for elementary & Writing With Skill for middle grades) and I was in whole-hearted agreement – 3 years of WWE was plenty. Hoping to do WWS in grade 6, but lacking a clear direction for the ‘meanwhile’, I went ahead and enrolled Jack in Classical Conversations’ Essentials class for next year. Essentials is a pretty intense (and definitely strong) grammar and writing course. CC recommends students take it for 3 years, from grades 4-6. CC uses its own grammar material in Essentials (and it is really incredible) and the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s material for the writing piece.

I wasn’t sure about doing Essentials, and wasn’t sure IEW was our cup of tea, but I am a fan of Andrew Pudewa (who is the brain behind IEW) and I didn’t have any other plan in place, so it seemed like a great year to jump into Essentials and see what we thought. I signed up and paid my nonrefundable registration fee. And then I had my language arts epiphany regarding Sam.

And I started to think that we were going to be paying quite a hefty fee for Jack to do Essentials next year – registration, tuition, materials, and afternoon childcare for the younger three kids. I’m not one to have a beef about the cost of CC – I think it’s absolutely worth it, and I feel the same about Essentials. For the kind of course it is, it’s not overpriced. But suddenly I wondered if maybe it wasn’t worth it to me. What else could we use those dollars for, educationally speaking? Extracurricular lessons, trips, books?

Maybe, I thought, waiting a year makes the most sense. I spoke to a couple of friends about this who were both hugely helpful in helping me clarify my own thought process. What I realized, finally, was that I didn’t want to delay Essentials a year. After all, it’s designed as a 3-year program, and is at its strongest when taken that way. (As my friend Holly, our campus’s current Essentials tutor, accurately pointed out to me.)

Actually, I realized, I didn’t want to do Essentials at all.

(We are all still doing Foundations! Love Foundations.)

It was such a lightning bolt moment! I was so HAPPY and relieved to identify that. I know Essentials is a great program but it’s not for us, the same way I know Saxon math is great but it’s also not for us. I dove headfirst into research (!!) and have landed on what I feel like is going to be a great (comprehensive, inspiring, solid, pick your adjective) direction for Jack. This should take him up to where he can begin Writing With Skill in grade 6 or even The Lost Tools of Writing in grade 7, whether or not we do LTW through CC’s Challenge program.

Jack will also be using MCT materials. We’ll work a bit first in the Island level (Level 1) before moving on to the Town level (Level 2). The two components of this program that Jack and I will be using that I am MOST excited about are vocabulary and literature. The vocabulary piece is called Caesar’s English and is a 2-volume set packed with gorgeous photographs; it’s unlike any vocabulary book I’ve come across. The literature piece gives me the perfect answer to my old dilemma – required reading. Jack and I will read and discuss 3 novels this year: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the Wind in the Willows. MCT’s editions of these novels are unabridged but annotated, weaving together and highlighting each element of language – grammar, writing, poetry, and vocabulary.

Jack can continue to read whatever he wants on his own, I can continue our planned read-alouds, and this literature piece will be the final piece of the reading puzzle. Hooray!!

For very structured, scaffolded writing lessons, we’ll also work through a fantastic little writing curriculum I discovered online – it’s called Treasured Conversations. It’s truly a gem. This will really help him identify important ideas, organize his own ideas, and put them together in a way that is both organized and thoughtful. He’ll continue in All About Spelling as well. I’m also going to purchase CC’s charts for grammar and parsing (quid et quo), because they’re awesome resources to have on hand.

The moral of the story is that I think I spent all of the money bookmarked for Essentials tuition on other writing curricula (but not the money for materials or childcare! so there’s that!) and I am so happy with our plans.

*****

I set on this writing & grammar course for Jack during his Kindergarten year. I knew we’d use FLL and WWE, and I’m so glad we have. But as we approach this bend in the road, I’m finding myself thinking from scratch again. Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Why are we teaching grammar? What is the point of studying language – writing, vocabulary, poetry, or any of it? What kind of kid do I have here – he’s twice the age he was when I planned all of this; it’s time to examine who he’s becoming, where he’s going, and how I can help him get there.

If you read through this whole post, I owe you a frappucino. Charlottesville has a drive-thru Starbucks now (!!!) so I am all over that.

Relax, Poppleton (My false history crisis)

In one of my favorite Poppleton stories by Cynthia Rylant, Poppleton’s friend Fillmore takes him out on a boat for the day. Poppleton is all kinds of nervous about this and Fillmore spends most of the voyage saying, “Relax, Poppleton.” To my kids’ dismay, I have adopted this as a mantra. I pull it out whenever people seem to be getting themselves worked up into an unreasonable knot – relax, Poppleton.

They love it.

(Not really.)

Spring planning mode means school is on the brain for me, which is definitely a happy state of being. The kids are growing, the grass is growing, and I am planning. It’s the best.

In the course of this, over the last few weeks, I found myself worked up into a knot about history. Years ago, I decided I would use Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World series as a history spine, proceeding with one volume a year for four years, and beginning in Jack’s first grade year. We’ve mostly done this, and we really do love it. But when Oliver was born, we got behind in Volume 2 (behind….the schedule that existed only in my head) and so, as we’re finishing up our third school year in this prescribed cycle, we are not even quite halfway through Volume 3.

What to do?! Like I wrote about in my lengthy and dull post on schedules, once I commit to something in my head, I feel bound to it. Enter false crisis, where I almost threw the baby out with the bath water. Here’s how my thought process went:

Could we just sort of fly through the rest of Volume 3 in order to be ready for Volume 4 by the time our next school year begins later this summer? Of course, this would mean skimming through things like the American Revolution. Should we skip Volume 4 entirely, or maybe do mostly skimming on THAT end? Bauer herself says that Volume 4 is rather heavy – the world wars, mass genocide, and prevalence of dictators in the modern age don’t make for easy story-telling. These are things you want to navigate carefully with children. OR. Should we just start over again with ancient history, putting aside the 4-year cycle in favor of a 3-year cycle? CC will be on world history (with a good bit of ancient history thrown in) next cycle; should I forget SOTW and base all of our history stuff off of our CC history sentences and timeline? Or maybe just pull pieces from SOTW to fit CC?

Crisis! (But….an almost enjoyable one. Let’s be honest.)

I talked about all of this with (or, to) Kurt. He made an admirable attempt to nod in important places and said vague supportive things. I think he was intensely relieved a few nights later when I declared my crisis over. And probably a little baffled as to what it actually was in the first place.

I can have such a hard time remembering that the schedule is all in my head and that this (our elementary survey of history) is supposed to be fun. I remembered what The Well-Trained Mind has to say about the purpose of history at the elementary level: it ought to be delight-centered. History tells a story. I am not trying to teach them all this stuff. I don’t expect they’ll remember all of it or even most of it. I’m trying to engage their imaginations, and form their moral imaginations through the complementary study of history and literature. My own goal here isn’t the acquisition of facts, although what facts they do acquire make excellent mental pegs that ought to serve as a solid foundation for future study. If I’m trying to actually teach them anything, it’s that the world is big, old, and not centered on them.

Years ago I highlighted this excerpt from The Well-Trained Mind:

A common assumption found in history curricula seems to be that children can’t comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience. So the first-grade history class is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows: first, himself and his family, followed by his community, his state, his country, and only then the rest of the world.

This intensely self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything he studies to himself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples against his own experience. And that’s exactly what the classical education fights against— a self-absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge. History learned this way makes our needs and wants the center of the human endeavor. This attitude is destructive at any time, but it is especially destructive in the present global civilization.

I re-read that whole section, and I read a few other articles, and I thought a little, and my knot straightened itself right out. I remembered my own goals and what I most value in the life I lead with my children. And- the thing I like best about what we do is that we share so many stories. History is packed with great stories, both true and fictional. Why read The Odyssey in first grade? Why ever not?! It’s insanely exciting. You’ll get no glazed-over stare from a 6-year old. Address it again when he’s 16 and he’ll remember – oh yeah, that was cool.

(I mean, I hope. Trying not to count chickens here.)

So I decided to finish Volume 3, “late”, and finish it well. No narrations, minimal (or no) map work, fewer library resources (because then I have to remember to request them and pick them up, and this makes it easier for me to postpone a chapter). I looked through the remainder of the Activity Guide, found a stack of stuff I knew I’d want to read aloud, and bought it all- 15 books total. Mostly chapter books, although there are a few picture books and one DK Eyewitness book (we love those) included. If the books are actually on my shelf and waiting, all I have to do is grab them and start reading. This is a good investment.

Then I wrote out a list with every chapter title from SOTW Vol. 3 and the books (if any) I’d be reading along with that chapter, so I don’t even have to crack open that Activity Guide again. There are a few picture books I do hope to request from the library along the way, and I’ve noted them, and if we don’t get to them it’ll be fine. We’ll continue this all through our summer break, but that shouldn’t feel burdensome. I wouldn’t have stopped reading aloud to them anyway, so I’m fine with this plan. We’ll still start Volume 4 later than I’d intended, but that’s fine too. Because of the nature of the material, we likely won’t want to spend as long on some of those topics anyway. But I went ahead and ordered both Vol. 4 and its Activity Guide, so I can do the same thing in the next months – figure out what books I definitely want to read alongside, and then just buy them. Ah! Freedom!

Once again, it’s helpful to remind myself WHY we are doing history at all. It’s incredibly clarifying. And so once again the task of pursuing a chronological study of history with my young children becomes the opposite of a burden; it becomes a gift. We are coming alongside the whole of the human experience and remembering. We are stirring our collective imagination through story.

I don’t want to skim over the Pharaohs, Marco Polo, the Cherokee, Japan’s shoguns, feudalism, Mohammed – you can’t even start a list like this because it’s nearly impossible to finish.

It’s all worth telling.

All the Details of the Things

We have two (!) weeks left and we’ll be at our 36 week mark for the school year and winding down big time. Virginia doesn’t mandate a certain number of school days but I still think in terms of that 36-week year, and most curriculum seems to be sort of geared toward that as well. We’ll still have some math to finish, but that’s all.

There’s a serious sort of exhaling happening around here.

It was a good year. It was the year I homeschooled with a baby and I did it. We did it! We started at the beginning of July and I wondered how in the world we’d do it, but little by little my new responsibilities found rhythms and now that we’re in April, I might even say we’ve had our best year yet. So many things fell into place this year (practical-type things) that have felt more haphazard in years past.

Here’s a bit of what’s new, what’s worked, and what I’ve learned:

Couch time is revolutionary. 

Couch time (aka morning time or whatever you want to call it, only ours happens after lunch so…) has been hands-down the best habit I’ve implemented this year. Everybody lands somewhere in the living room, Oliver bustles around doing his baby business, and we do some of my favorite things. We practice our poetry and other memory work, and we read aloud. I’ve gotten so much reading aloud in this year and from a great variety of sources, and couch time is why.

We read from Story of the World, Telling God’s Story (what we use to teach Bible), fairy tales, picture books related to our history work, and wonderful children’s novels. Some favorites this year have been The Sign of the Beaver, Caddie Woodlawn, and the Ramona series. We usually have two going at once – right now we’re reading The Green Ember by S.D. Smith and The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.

Charts on clipboards = finally a system that works!

In past years I’ve not quite managed to find a way to keep track of what we’re doing or supposed to be doing….I’ve done it, but it’s never seemed quite….right. This year I bought each boy a clipboard and made up a chart for each detailing their work for the week. I print a new one out and fill it in each weekend.

To help make the process even smoother and quicker for myself, I made up a master chart of math lessons for each boy  – basically just a blank table that I filled in, after flipping through my Instructor’s Guide to see what textbook and workbook pages (and sometimes activities) needed to happen in what order. It takes me an hour to fill in a whole table’s worth of lessons, but then it lasts me at least two months. Each weekend I cross off what’s been completed (that way if we didn’t get to something I’m never ‘behind’) and fill in the next few days worth of work.

It’s such a little thing (and it might not make much sense typed out) but it’s made a huge difference in my weekly planning chore!

Stuff that works, stuff that I can’t figure out, and new stuff.

1. Life of Fred

I finally figured out how to make Fred work! We’ve always liked Fred, but in the past I read the chapters aloud and it became just one more thing to do and…you can guess how that ended. With Fred on a shelf. But a few months ago I sucked it up and bought the rest of the elementary series (10 books in all; we already had 4), handed each boy a spiral notebook, and added “Fred” to the independent work section on their clipboard checklist.

And the heavens sang. The boys LOVE Fred. Quite often they’ll work through more than their 1 required daily chapter. I don’t check their work at all. Fred really can be done independently – after the “your turn to play” section at the end of each chapter (hence the notebooks) there’s an answer page, complete with explanations (and rabbits’ trails).

I’m going to keep up with Fred. Jack will do the intermediate books next year (Kidneys, Liver, and Mineshaft) and then maybe jump in to Life of Fred: Fractions after that. I’m so very happy to have finally figured out how to use a resource that I knew we loved!

2. Latin

Latin’s not working. Latin is my Achilles heel (ancient times joke….). Is it me? Or is it Latin? I tried Prima Latina this year and just couldn’t get it working. So we jumped back to Getting Started With Latin. Which I think I do prefer, only…I wasn’t consistent at it.

There is one remaining category of school-ish things that I haven’t found a great spot for in our day, and that’s what I call table work – stuff we all do together at the table. Couch time is golden, math and independent work are like clockwork, language arts with each boy fits right into our mornings….but. Table work! This category includes Latin, Greek roots, and Story of the World map work. So inconsistent! Oh well.

CC fills in a bit of the gap here, with Latin and geography memory work, but I do love looking at the maps as they used to be in correlation with whatever it is we’re reading about. I guess a little will have to suffice!

3. Poetry

My best impulse purchase of the year was definitely Andrew Pudewa’s Linguistic Development Through Poetry Memorization. I have LOVED it. The kids have loved it. We’ve memorized 20 poems together, and it’s been so easy and fun. We’ve completed Level 1 and will move on to Level 2 next. (All levels are contained within the same small spiral-bound book….so very many wonderful poems. Worth every penny. I did not buy the CD.)

I’ve gained such a deeper appreciation for poetry and the power and talent of the poet. The language is so creative and beautiful, even in silly poems. These poems have entered our family culture and I fully expect to have my grown children burst out with Ogden Nash’s “Celery” when my old and wrinkled hands are chopping veggies for soup.

Great Expectations

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Years ago, when I thought that homeschooling was ‘school at home’, it held zero appeal for me. I didn’t want to do it (the very idea made me queasy), and I wasn’t even sure it was a good idea in general. But then I experienced a huge paradigm shift. I got my hands on the Sonlight catalog and discovered literature-based education. And then I read The Well-Trained Mind and discovered classical education. And then I read all kinds of books (Free-Range Learning, The Core, Project-Based Homeschooling….), and blogs, and talked to people and found Charlotte Mason, unschooling, leadership education, the CiRCE Institute, and mash-ups of all of it till it felt like a feast, and I realized that education is not school. And school is not education. School is a system. Education is a life. It’s a posture and a habit. It’s curiosity, resourcefulness, community, intuition, communication, empathy, persistence, creativity.

If that was what homeschooling could be, I found myself wanting to do it badly. Gone were my nightmarish visions of endless worksheets and lesson plans. I had landed on the key to the exploding homeschooling movement: the homeschoolers I know aren’t trying to replicate the classroom experience in their kitchens in pajamas. They’re aiming to do something completely different; they see education as something completely different.

Homeschooling is no longer something only for the ultra-religious; it belongs to hipsters, working parents, entrepreneurs, urbanites, homesteaders….you name them, and I bet you can find a subset of them who meet in parks on Tuesday mornings and herd their kids into museums on Thursday mornings.

*****

Thus began my journey into unlearning most of what I thought I knew about education…which was really only about modern classroom education. I get a lot of oh, you were a teacher…THAT’S why you can do this and it makes me want to pull my hair out. The truth is that you can be a dynamic conduit for your child’s education without having the (very real) gifts and training it takes to be a dynamic and effective classroom teacher. They’re apples and oranges. And like anything else in life, when you’re driven toward a goal you pursue it. You find mentors, you consult the experienced, you read books, you bounce ideas off of a  variety of people, you listen carefully, you find your support network, you’re not afraid to change course when necessary. You never act out of fear. You’re eager and humble and you are getting an education of your own. 

As a former classroom teacher, I had a lot to unlearn if I wanted to stay faithful to my vision of a holistic family life where education could become both natural and intentional. I have tremendous respect for classroom teachers. I know what they do day in and day out and during evenings and on weekends; it’s one of the hardest jobs. Teachers are underpaid and bear the brunt of complaints from both parents and administrators about much that is not at all within their ability to control. I had some great teachers; I know some great teachers. (My bestie has been expertly wrangling middle schoolers for 14 years…I am certain middle school teachers get extra chocolate in heaven.)

But teaching is a broadly distributed gift, and has been since the very beginning of everything.

*****

Even after my paradigm shift, I’ve found that some things are easier to let go of than others.

{Easy to ditch: traditional textbooks, worksheets, busywork. Most of what we do looks more conversational than instructional. And except for the annual standardized test required by Virginia, we don’t test. Not math, not spelling, not history – not anything. I am super sensitive to this one; I learned how to perform for good grades very very early in my own school career. I aced high school and graduated magna cum laude from college because I understood how the system worked; it was made for kids like me. Even in courses I found really interesting and/or useful, my main goal was always the letter at the end of the semester. But I’m pretty sure I missed the point. I don’t want grades to enter anywhere into my kids’ motivation right now.}

I don’t give the boys assigned reading and I struggle sometimes with wondering if I should. Even though they’re only 9 and 7. Even though they’re bona fide bookworms. I’ve got a home library packed with fantastic children’s literature – classics, modern classics, beloved favorites, new series. I have full bookshelves in multiple rooms and baskets holding the overflow. We have constant library fines. (Oh.my.gosh.) Books of all sorts are scattered and piled haphazardly all over the house. It’s a beautiful literary mess. Maybe if they weren’t reading very much, or were reading mostly the equivalent of literary Twizzlers, I’d feel the need to step in. But I don’t. Except I kind of do. And that’s my conflict. (When I talk about it, it seems silly and the answer is obvious.)

I also don’t require them to do anything with what they’ve read – no book reports, pictures drawn, etc. They just read. Despite all this (readers! I have life-long readers! if I were still in the box-checking paradigm I could CHECK THAT BOX!) I wrestle with the false idea that you must formally respond to something to consider it absorbed (never mind pretend play, building and craft projects, and Lego creations that arise out of the stories they read and hear). For years we’ve been practicing the gentle habits of copywork, narration, and dictation. They can both write and compose a beautiful sentence. But I don’t require much of them in this arena yet. There’s time. And there are trees to climb and forts to build.

*****

This week I decided to do something new and ask them both to read our abridged version of The Three Musketeers, which goes along with our history discussions for the week. I pulled it off the shelf and called them over to show it to them. Before I’d even opened my mouth, they beat me to it. “Oh, I’ve read that!” said one enthusiastically. “Me too!” chimed in his brother. “It was cool.”

Okay.

*****

I’m still figuring it out. I’m not an expert and I’m learning as we go; each year I’m faced with a new set of circumstances. In six weeks we’ll wrap up this current school year, and next school year I’ll have a 4th grader, a 3rd grader, and a kindergartener! (And a toddler, heaven help us. And him.) Every spring I kick my evaluation into high gear. It’s one of my very favorite things to do.

What’s working? What isn’t? Where might we dig in a little deeper? What do we want to prioritize? What kind of life are we building here together as we do this? What’s the state of our moral imagination? What skills really ARE necessary, when are they necessary, and how can I deliberately build in opportunities to practice those? Where might more independence be appropriate? Who are these people, and who are they becoming? Who can I find to help them along the paths that they are on? What books am I going to buy? (That’s the best question!)

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is this: for us, everything is school. Rather than being suffocating, that sentence is liberating. And that’s what I just didn’t understand years ago.

My firm belief is that homeschooling isn’t the end-all-be-all; many of us have strong callings elsewhere. But I also think homeschooling is part of a really important and very broad movement that encompasses quite a number of nontraditional methods of education. The creatives, innovators, academics, entrepreneurs, parents in their living rooms (maybe everybody but the bureaucrats?) are doing what they do best and rethinking what education is and what it’s for, and then practically applying their conclusions…and I think it’s exciting, and can ultimately only be beneficial to all of us. Whatever our positions within the smorgasbord, we can affect good change.

Meanwhile, I’m carrying on with an abundance of curiosity, research, prayer, and a loaded Amazon cart, along with optimism that we’re not ruining our kids.

Isn’t all that stuff universal to parenting?!