Tales of a Fourth-Grade Compulsive List Maker, Parts One and Two

I used to be a planner.

An only child with a genius complex and a flair for solitude, I spent the time normal children used for things like fun and play filling notebooks with schemes for clubs, small businesses, and theatrical presentations that were fully realized only in my mind. One of my most detailed plans was a step-by-step DIY manual for becoming popular in 8th grade. Only now is the irony of feverishly writing in notebooks as a springboard to the homecoming court clear to me.

Of course the joke was on those fun-havers when my incredible devotion to organizing the future led to academic awards, PhDs, and any number of leadership posts for groups and institutions who seemed to share the secret motto: “Blah Blah Blah, is it time for donuts yet?”

No matter—efficiency and a smug sense of superiority are their own rewards.

Doing it all with my trusty Franklin Planner, 2 coffee mugs, a diet coke, and lots of post-it notes.

I dare say I was at the height of my powers when we decided to homeschool. Leading a large urban parish through a strategic planning process, managing the publication of several reference volumes each year, coordinating multiple subcontractors, and planning fundraisers were all tasks easily managed with a toddler on my knee and a 1st grader off to school. My trusty Franklin Planner and I could do it all.

The year was 2006 when that started to change. “How do you do it all?” people asked. “I don’t,” I would say. “I am dropping balls left and right.” Slowly I extricated myself from my many posts and activities. The homeschool world, naturally, gave me plenty of volunteer and leadership roles to substitute for my former life, but over the years I let those go as well.

This has caused me great consternation over the last several years. “When will I get it together? Where did that planner-toting powerhouse go and when will she come back?” I can only hope, at this point, that she’s gone on to a better place.

The truth is, she wouldn’t help us much now. My girls are 13 and 9, and after almost 7 years of homeschooling I can verify: you can plan your curriculum, but you can’t plan learning, and you really can’t plan life. When children are 7 and 3, every outing to the beach is a grand adventure and every sprinkle of the glitter jar is an expression of creativity. My 13 year old, however, has been doing high school work for almost 4 years now. The fairies she’s been drawing over the last 10 years have evolved: sometimes they are busty creatures with embarrassingly short skirts, other times they look like they’ve just stepped out of a bar brawl.

Just a few years ago I would have been allowed to share a fairy drawing here.

This was not my plan, and increasingly it’s not my life. I can’t organize her into a notebook any more than I could scribble my way to a prom date.

If I hadn’t learned this lesson, our attempts to “start school” this fall really drove it through my head. Violet is on track to take 2 AP exams and possibly a SAT subject test this spring—because she’s done high school work so young I feel we need some external credentials— so we needed to get started early so she’d be ready in May. Victoria has been eagerly anticipating starting an Online G3 class since last spring. But there were the houseguests to play with. And a trip to the state fair. And a lot of Doctor Who to catch up on before the season premiere. And suddenly now there is a Japanese class online. Oh, and someone, maybe several someones, turned out to have whooping cough. By the time we got to that last wrinkle, I was starting to feel a lot less irresponsible for not having the year planned. Having dinner planned was victory enough for one day.

When Homeschooling Was Adorable

As a writer I’ve never planned. When outlines were assigned I did them after the paper was finished, and no teacher was the wiser. (Actually, that was a great learning process for me and I still recommend it.) I think I’ll be approaching the second half of our homeschooling years the same way. We’ll do it, and then I’ll write it down. . I’ve been inspired by semi-recent discussion of the dearth of homeschooling-high-school blogs to get back to blogging—it was a great way to connect with kindred spirits in the beginning, and though so much as has changed it may still be a good way to encourage each other to the finish line, whatever that may be.

Because so much has changed, I’m changing blogs. Which is probably a terrible mistake, but being a “successful” blogger has never been a big goal of mine. Red Sea School was so much about starting the adventure of homeschooling, finding our feet in the PG world, and raising two little girls. I don’t feel I can wrestle it into where we are now. I named the new blog “What Real World?” because it’s a question that has come up regularly in our lives: “What use is art/music/literature in the real world?” “When will you go back to work and join the real world?” “Why do you prefer a god-in-the-clouds to the real world?” and of course “How will your homeschooled children ever adjust to living in the real world?”

The Inescapable Reality of the Now

To that last question: I honestly don’t know. But I’ll try to write bits of it down as we find out.

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Filed under Our Philosophy (such as it is), Schoolday Doings, Why Homeschool?

Secret Worlds

Could it be a sign of perimenopause that just seeing that Studio
Ghibli logo in the opening credits of a movie makes me tear up?

Or is it just a symptom of the period of parenting we’re in, our girls
still childlike but obviously older, older, OLDER every day?

Not too old (never too old?) to look forward with great excitement to
The Secret World of Arrietty, another Ghibli film with a brave and
resourceful female protagonist, beautiful attention to visual detail,
and a gentle spirit from beginning to end.

There are so many things I love about earlier Ghibli films that are
present in Arrietty, which I will try not to spoil here. I love the
magical realism, the way the natural world is realized with such
loving precision that the magical elements—the little people, the cat
bus, the bath house of the spirits, the creaking house of Howl—seem
real too.

I love that there are girls at the center, that every Ghibli movie I
can think of passes the Bechdel test. I love the friendships that
don’t quite rise to the level of romance but are still true love.

I really love looking over at my girls in the dark theatre and seeing
them already looking back at me with big grins, silently communicating
“Isn’t this awesome?”

When I saw a scene in which a character moved in and out of a shaft of light, a number of times, it was like hearing a musician enjoying the opportunity to play a particularly beautiful passage, adding grace notes to the repeated sections, and I could feel my older daughter, next to me, watching.

She is nearing 13, already taller than some of my adult
friends, and she sits in the movie seat with her animal hat, her
Taylor Swift t-shirt, her Ugg boots, every inch a young teen. She had just told me the day before that she wanted to learn how to create light effects in video games, so I know she was watching that shaft of light doing something in that artist brain that is nearly inaccessible to me.

I wanted to go home and redecorate the attic just like this.

While she was at a sleepover later in the week, our younger daughter demanded to watch Totoro again, and soon afterwards we watched Spirited Away. We’ve always said she’s just like Mei, and she has embraced that image for herself.

In those movies too, the world is a magical place but nothing is more magical than clear water, tall trees, or a fresh ear of corn. No world is more beautiful than the natural world, but, Miyazaki seems to say, it takes a child’s eyes to see it.

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Filed under Love This, Love this Music, Music and Art

You Are Your Child’s First Teacher–But If She’s Lucky, She’ll Have Lots More

Side note: wow, it’s been a while. So I guess that’s what a little walking pneumonia does to your hobbies.

Here we are in what would be the 7th- and 3rd-grade years of the girls homeschooled lives. Violet (the 7th grader) is at this point pretty fully a high schooler, academically, and our schedule shows it. Between her usual desire to do EVERYTHING and the higher level of both input and output expected, she’s having to step up her game. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, but I’m pretty proud of how she’s making her best effort much of the time.

One thing newbie homeschoolers are frequently asked is: “What will you do when they need to study algebra/physics/some other thing you are obviously too stupid to understand yourself?” We heard this question first when our daughter was six; though she was indeed profoundly gifted, it was hard not to be insulted by the assumption behind the question. It seemed likely that we had a while to worry about that stuff.

The time has come, however: she’s surpassed what I can do without a few extra hours of study in my nonexistent spare time. Algebra is long behind her (she taught herself, and I was able to be reasonably useful through a good chunk of algebra II,.) She insisted on studying both chemistry *and* physics this year, largely because folks in our homeschool community have organized such fantastic opportunities that she couldn’t turn either one down.

I couldn’t be happier. Her chemistry class is run by a young man who supervises the labs at some local community colleges. He clearly loves what he is doing, and he also does a great job of getting the students to think about science as problem solving and not merely memorizing a lot of terminology and facts. Learning to do high quality lab reports may be some of the toughest writing she’s ever done, and from what I’ve heard the standards are pretty high.

Her physics teacher is a theoretical physicist who works in the research division of a multinational corporation; once a week, he meets with my daughter and two other kids to help them through Kinetic Books Principles of Physics, in addition to assigning and grading homework and coming up with some cool short- and long-term projects to try. For their chapter on vectors he brought them each a pirate map and assigned to figure out . . . well, a lot of stuff I am *not* too stupid to understand, but too busy. (Right? Right.)

Their teacher is having fun: he’s got three incredibly enthusiastic students who can’t wait to come talk physics with him. The kids are having fun: they get to learn at the high school level from someone who loves his field, and then they go out and play on the swingset for a while before we head home. Violet may never be a physicist, but she gets to have one for a mentor this year and understand that physics is not just a fixed body of knowledge you need to study to graduate, but a diverse and alive field populated by interesting real people.

Oh, and she’s taking an advertising class at our co-op taught by a former brand manager at another multinational, and a programming class taught by a software engineer for a major open source software company. (Of course that second one is her father.) And her former art teacher has offered her private lessons in oils.

Add to that another year of what I’ve started to consider her homeschool homeroom, Online G3, and she’s surrounded by amazing and generous adult mentors. I cannot believe how lucky we are. I know we could have put together other solutions for these classes if we had to, but I’m thrilled that

1) She’s in new surroundings where she has to push herself a little, not for a grade but to get what she came for, and

2) She’s learning that people–not just books and computers–are a great educational resource, and

3) I’m off the hook for motion in three dimensions, because two dimensions were already beyond me.

Will Victoria also homeschool for high school? The future’s unclear. But at least I don’t have to worry what I’ll do when she gets to algebra. Her interest in welding, on the other hand, worries me a little, but there’s time.

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Filed under Curriculum, Gifted Ed, Schoolday Doings, Why Homeschool?

Just a (Stark) Reminder

I know when the span of daylight gets noticeably shorter and the days still seem longer I will not remember this, so for the historical record:

Right now my girls are upstairs marching around to Star Wars music, each of them playing several characters in one of their several complicated role-playing games.

This morning they were reading, the 12yo her physics text and William Blake poetry, the 8yo one of her new history books. I think she’s read 5 short books since the box arrived yesterday — two of them while cuddled up in the hammock with me while I re-read Game of Thrones, trying to remember what happened when the series started so long ago, before half the main characters died.

As the Star Wars theme repeats itself, I can’t help but think, hurray for not-back-to-school. Yay for us that this didn’t end this week and won’t end after Labor Day.

I won’t always feel like this, I know, so I have to document and remember. Winter is coming.

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Writer or Naturalist: E. B. White Was Both

I just heard most of this on NPR and can’t wait to seek out the book. It sounds wonderful. It also sounds like the kind of thing that inspires a twinge of writer envy, but that can’t be helped.

The NPR Science Friday segment has E. B. White reading a great passage from the book and wonderful discussion of the intersection of science and imagination.

The author mentioned he had set out to write a book about the natural world and several children’s books—Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows—but E. B. White provided more than enough material. I wonder how often the best children’s books have an intimate connection to the natural world; even The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time seem to fall in that category. Makes me want to go raid the bookshelves!

p.s. I cannot even write a tiny paraphrase of that lovely line from Charlotte’s Web without tearing up a little.

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Make Your Own

Trying to squeeze the most out of the last month of summer, we forced ourselves to leave the house, which is never an easy thing.

We went to a family day at a local art museum—something I’d never usually consider, because I hate crowds—because they had LARP.

Brief digression on LARPing.

I had never heard of LARPing until very recently. It stands for Live Action Role Play, and I guess it is what those people with homemade shields and capes over their tank tops and basketball shorts are doing when you drive past the city park on the weekend.

My 12yo is LARPing 24/7. Not with shields or capes. It is sort of a relief to know there is a word for it, though there are also words for things like “delusional” and “dissociation.” I have no idea what she’s doing, usually, but she and her closest friends inhabit a fantasy world that has them role playing in person, online, and generally every free moment of the day. Should I worry about this? Probably. But I don’t, yet, because hey, she’s 12. The Bronte kids made up another country and told stories to each other about it for years, and look how great they turned out. Right?

Patron Saints of LARPers?

***End digression***

So we go, and I make up my mind on the way not to be a lame parent who stands around watching kids have all the fun. I made that decision because I often have been that lame parent, watching, participating from behind the camera.

“You go ahead, I’ll watch.”

So when we got to the sword-making table, I grabbed the stuff and made my own. I made a double-ended light saber ala Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. (It is truly pathetic, but it is mine.) Eggmaster made an awesome axe. Violet made a ninja-style sword (apparently they don’t have a hilt), and Victoria made a lovely sword with ribbons hanging off it. We leapt around on the hill dueling while I sang the spooky Sith theme music, cheerfully whapping my kids with a giant foam tube wrapped in duct tape.

Victoria then decided she needed a shield.

(“I am a Jedi,” I said to them. “My shield is my mind.”
“I thought you were a Sith.”
“Oh right, same thing.”)

Sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting for her to finish her shield allowed me to look around at the other shield- and sword-makers in the tent. Right next to us was a woman pressing her design ideas and color choices on her son. Her son who looked to be 12 years old at a minimum. Behind her was a woman who had taken her son’s shield, with the very cool fiery top I had seen him force the volunteer with the box cutter to cut out of cardboard, and laboriously use black electrical tape to create a thin black line around the flames at the top. I didn’t see the kid—who clearly had his own ideas when he translated them to the shield cutter—anywhere.

I was reminded of Victoria’s recent first communion prep, when we were sent home with felt and a white banner and instructed to personalize it. I helped Victoria cut out the smaller shapes, but she chose what to put on there, and she put it on herself. (Oh, and I stitched them a little after the glue dried, just to be sure they didn’t fall off.)

Naturally when we went to church for the Mass, we saw banners that looked like they were running on battery packs: glittery, sequined, with tiny precision cut pieces of felt in lovely mosaics and perfect replicas of Times New Roman 14 pt font.

Whatever: maybe having a family member make a banner like that made the first communicant feel special and loved. Still, I kept an eye out for the ones that were obviously child-made and gave them an extra admiring smile.

And who knows: maybe all the parents in that LARPing tent had developmentally disabled children who can’t hold scissors. I won’t judge any of them—individually.

And I don’t want to criticize them for hovering or being impatient with their children’s obviously childish efforts. My thoughts were not “leave your kid alone!” They were, “I bet you really want to make your own.”

This is something that happens to adults.

“Aw, you go ride the carousel, I’ll watch and take pictures.”
“Go up and dance to the band, I’ll watch and take pictures.”

Take a ballet class, play an instrument, join a team, try fencing, make your first misshapen piece of pottery, act in a musical: you do it, I’ll put it on Facebook or in the scrapbook.

As a homeschooler there are even more temptations:

“Awesome! A Latin class! Latin is so cool!”
“Wow, let’s do a unit study on Asian countries and their cuisines!”
“Look at this great Teaching Company series on masterpieces of English Literature!!”

I can’t deny it: just as a benefit of parenting is having an opportunity to revisit the greatest hits of your childhood, a benefit of homeschooling is having an opportunity to learn a bunch more interesting stuff yourself.

When your kids are very little, however, they require a level of engagement and attention that doesn’t allow you to participate in the activity the same way they do. Their job is to participate; your job is to supervise. They show an interest; you facilitate their exploration of it. And it is fun, and wonderful, and life-enhancing for you to be the person who does stuff both for them and with them, but sometimes that pattern sticks. Low energy, high-intensity kids, busy days, and worn-out nights turn that pattern into a rut. The need to create, however, is strong, and channels itself where it can, even into a little kid’s LARPing accessories.

I can’t judge any of those shield-stealing, banner-making parents, because it’s a rut I’ve fallen into more than once, and probably will again. But once you’ve seen it, it keeps getting easier to sidestep it, especially because making your own turns out to be a lot more fun and a lot more satisfying. (Even if your husband does make fun of your light saber noises.)

Learn guitar, practice the piano, audition for a play, study art history, tap dance, write an essay: I’ll do it, you kids try to keep busy while I’m at it.

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Dad and Daughter, Five Years Later

I wanted to get photographic proof of the peaceful conversation happening at my dining table today, and the results reminded me of a picture I took a long time ago.

Scale

September 10, 2006. About 6 months into the homeschooling adventure, getting some use from one of the first toys we got to celebrate leaving school.

IMG_3001

Moving into the sixth year of homeschooling, talking about the unit circle and reviewing trigonometric ratios. Dad still can’t contain his enthusiasm for talking math with his girls.

Different dining room, different hair styles, different glasses: look at how much that kid has grown! What I love is the summer afternoon discussion made possible not so much by homeschooling but by the whole family being at home. Not all families have the luxury of having one parent around the house, let alone two, but for us it has been a way of life for most of our kids’ childhoods.

When Violet was first born, I mainly worked from home, but I had a freelance job that took me out of the house twice a week. Eggmaster rearranged his schedule to be home. Over the next few years, as Eggmaster went back to school and I started freelancing more, we each worked about half time, sharing child-raising duties and making not quite one whole income between us. I said we were a 3/4th income family.

Even when Eggmaster worked out of the home, we would all pile in the car and drive him together, and we were fortunate that his schedule allowed him to work any time, as long as he was working. Just over three years ago, he started working from home full-time again, which makes homeschooling so much nicer.

For one thing, I have another adult to vent to when it’s all too much. He takes the longer view and reminds me one day of trouble doesn’t mean our children will be living under a bridge someday. I can’t be so sure about the two of us, but I hope for better for them.

I can also escape the house without worrying about the kids (though now they are old enough to handle themselves). Or I can take one kid somewhere and leave the other one home: little sister doesn’t have to get dragged along to big sister’s stuff, and vice versa. As big sister gets so busy with high school-ish stuff, that really helps.

The best part, of course, is that they get him too. I have learned to be fascinated by math since starting homeschooling, but that’s all I can share. I can be interested, but I can’t be knowledgeable, especially not now that truly advanced math gets ever closer to our reality. I am also not passionate like he is. And when I listen to him teach Victoria a drum beat or record a song with Violet on his electric guitar, I cannot imagine a happier sound.

Any parent can be an involved parent, of course, but I love that we are all here together, living and learning and playing at 2:00 on a Thursday afternoon.

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