Relaxed Homeschooling: A Thomas Jefferson Education

Reading Rachel Demille’s post on simplehomeschool today, I remembered again listening to her and her husband at a homeschooling convention about ten years ago.  Although many of the concepts they presented were new to me, I thoroughly agreed with their ideas about cookie cutter or assembly line education.  They spoke about the idea that public education churned out followers off an assembly, rather than leaders.  A true leadership education would teach a child how to learn anything he wanted, and then follow his own goals to whatever ends they led.  Even though I only had a four year old and a two year old at that point, I knew I wanted a truly liberal arts education for them that would allow them to follow their interests and to be brave enough to defy conventions and choose wisely for themselves.

Perhaps the most life changing idea I heard in that presentation was to forget the kids.  They stated that rather than focusing on what the kids were supposed to be learning, become a scholar yourself and model lifelong learning for your children.  Always a goal-oriented project finisher, I may have continued in the path of learning without the exhortation they gave in that speech.  On the other hand, I may have decided that my children were my project instead of focusing on the project of ME.  As I returned home from that conference, and I returned to their book A Thomas Jefferson Education throughout the years, this was the reminder again and again:  are you being the person you would like your children to be?

These ideas continued to motivate me through the years.  Perhaps without them I would not have immersed myself and family in the Spanish language 8 years ago, allowing us to learn Spanish well enough that some (non-Hispanics,:-)) have wondered if we had an Hispanic background.  Perhaps I would not have begun hiking and backpacking when after my youngest was born, thoroughly changing our lives for the better.  Maybe I wouldn’t have begun running 2 years ago, finding a natural way to deal with headaches and depression.  Maybe I wouldn’t continue to assign myself research projects.  Maybe I wouldn’t have started this blog.  Part of the reason I took on each of these challenges was that idea of modeling for my children what progressive adulthood would look like.

The truth is, I didn’t end up putting into practice many of the suggestions given either in the book or in the presentation for my children.  At that point in time, I was not able to be relaxed enough for complete child led learning.  However, I have seen the payoff in my children.  They are eager learners, ready to put in the effort to learn the things that they are interested in.  They excel because they love to learn.  I have used the ideas about great books, and a learning contract was essential to us for one year.  I recommend this book as a great read for evaluating the reasons you are homeschooling, and this time of year is a good time to think about personal goals for growth.

Some other books I have read recently that motivated me in the same direction are:  A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and the Fat2Fit radio podcast, the last one strange, but all of them admonishing toward living now as you wish to be.

Please share your thoughts on these ideas.  Leave a comment.


Book Review: The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv is not just a repetition of his counsel from The Last Child in the Woods.  Instead, he focus on the benefits that adults can receive from nature therapy, and highlighs our responsibility to make this happen in our homes, community and world.  His basic thesis is stated within the first pages:

Our sensitivity to nature, and our humility within it, are essential to our physical and spiritual survival.

His book is divided into four parts.  In the first part, he states his case for the advantages being in nature brings to our mental and physical health.  Secondly, he discusses how we can bring nature into our home and family life.  Then he looks at our cities, and how nature can be brought close to home.  Lastly, he takes the long view of finding occupations in natural therapy and designing cities with nature incorporated in the design.

Since I live in small town Utah, and am not politically active, the last portion of his book was not as interesting to me as it might be to someone living in a big city.  The idea of mixed use neighborhoods and pocket parks is quite interesting to me, and if I were forced to move into a city I would definitely look for such a neighborhood to live in.  Until that time, however, I found very little in the last portion of the book which I will be able to use now.

One statement I did find interesting was about the office workers who work inside buildings with few windows or many cubicles.  He states that there are legal statutes which would prevent a zoo from keeping animals in such conditions, but nothing protects humans from this.  He also quotes Thomas Berry, a researcher and writer of the book The Great Work, who stated, “A degraded habitat will produce degraded humans.”  It made me think about the way an animal in poor zoo conditions prowls or loses hope.  Isn’t that what we see happening in big cities:  gangs are animals on the prowl, which eventually lead to depression and death for so many?  In that way, this reading related to my recent reading about the projects, and made me agree that the solution for many inner city problems may be more exposure to the natural world.

I had never really considered windows as a way of being exposed to nature, although the first thing we do in the morning is open the blinds so that we can let the sunshine in.  We often visit homes where the blinds are left closed all day, and we say, “It feels like your eyes are poked out!”  Even being able to see trees, birds flying by, or the sun, moon and stars out the window are restorative as we live in accord with nature and our own circadian rhythms.

Another important point Mr. Louv makes is the availability of nature in our own yards and gardens.  While I usually want my nature exposure to be more expansive (think–miles from a highway), even bird feeders or vegetable gardens in our own yards can be helpful in making our connection with nature.  That daily connection may be more helpful in the long run than occasional longer trips to the outdoors.  For children, an adult to introduce them to the joys of gardening may be all it takes to establish a relationship that will last a lifetime.  In fact, Mr. Louv encourages grandparents to help in establishing this relationship, since they usually remember a time when children were allowed more freedom and independence in the natural world.

This book gave voice to many of the feelings I have had about the importance of exposing ourselves and our children to nature.  Two of the areas I intend to focus on in adding nature to our daily life are:  bringing nature inside through house plants and working more in the garden with my children to add to our nature therapy.  I have also considered how I might invite other families to join us in our outdoor adventures.  Although one of my favorite things about our time outdoors is the solitude, perhaps even once a month or three times a year, we might be able to help others to get outdoors as well.

Have you read this book?  What were your thoughts on it?  Do you have a special way you incorporate nature therapy into your life?  Please leave me a comment.

Book Recommendation and Book Club Ideas: Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

I just finished reading this book, and I am so excited to use it for my girls’ book club!  Not only are the themes of this book close to my heart:  persistence, courage and independence; but it includes one of my favorite things ever:  cooking!

Foster McFee and her mother are on the run from a bad ex-boyfriend when we first meet them.  They wind up in the small town of Culpepper.  Foster’s love of cooking leads her to make and sell cupcakes at a local bakery, but her realization that cupcakes and cooking can make a difference in how people feel lead her to make cupcakes for a local charity house, an escaped convict, and a movie star.  Along the way, she follows her dreams and helps other to follow their dreams as well.  She also persists in learning to read despite great obstacles.

I am excited to use this book for our book club because I think it will lead to discussion of how the girls can help others, as well as working hard toward fulfilling their dreams.  I like the way Foster dreams big, and hope to encourage our girls to think of big things they can do, as well.  I want to talk to them about trying again even while overcoming fear of failure.   I also think we will be able to discuss how giving makes the giver and receiver both feel happy.

I also have an innovative idea for a book club activity:  I want to have each of the girls make their own 10 minute cooking show and post it to Youtube so that we can all watch them together.  I am sure some of the moms will want to do the activity as well.  Maybe we’ll use some of Foster’s own recipes as listed on the author website.

Do you have any good ideas for book clubs for moms and daughters to share?  Choosing books is easy for us, finding activities not so easy.  Do you have a good source for activity ideas?  Leave me a comment!


Homeschool Basics — Read aloud to your children

Rarely a day goes by in this house when we do not read aloud to our kids.  It was a habit that started when our oldest was brand new.  I was so excited to read some of my favorite baby books, I barely waited until we were home from the hospital. Even when Brett was only a few months old, he could be distracted from crying by listening to Dr. Seuss’ The Foot Book.  But the true joy of reading aloud came a few years later when we began reading chapter books to our kids.  For many years we commuted 30 miles three or four times a week.  This was before in-car DVD players, and since we didn’t have TV in the house, we probably would not have used one if it had been available.  Instead, I read myself hoarse, projecting my voice into the back seat.  Often, we would sit in the driveway for a few minutes when we got home to finish the chapter we were so interested in.

Later, we read a wonderful book encouraging reading aloud, The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.  While we were already reading aloud, this book gave us names for the benefits our children were receiving.  One benefit was an increased attention span.  While most children are able to sit still long enough to listen to a picture book and discuss the pictures, children who have listened to longer chapter books have built up an attention span that covers hours and even days.  They are able to hold characters and ideas in their mind and wait for the next installment of a story.  Another benefit is the increased vocabulary that comes to children when they are read books beyond their current reading ability.  Having those words in their speaking and comprehension vocabulary, they are more easily able to read them when they encounter them in a book.

Reading aloud is a homeschooling basic.  So many good things come from doing such an easy, pleasurable thing.  In fact, I truly believe if you read aloud and discussed what you were reading from a wide variety of fictional and non-fictional books, that you would never need to add anything else to your curriculum.  Such varied reading would stimulate interest in investigation and imitation of writers, and lead to math, writing, and other skills being put to use.  While I have a planned curriculum for our other subjects including math and science, reading has always proved to be the foundation of our school.

Sometimes we picked books because they went along with our current curriculum.  We read aloud Around the World in 100 Years by Jean Fritz to expand our study of early explorers, Stars, Mosquitoes and Crocodiles — The American Travels of Alexander von Humboldt selected and edited by Millicent E. Selsam, as we studied about South America, and Secrets of the Nest by Joan Dunning while we studied birds.  Sometimes we read fictional books to go along with our studies, such as Johnny Tremain while we studied the American Revolution, Moby Dick (yes, a very long a difficult read-aloud, not recommended) while we studied the ocean, and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (to an 8 year old and a 6 year old) while we studied the Far North.  Usually, though, we pick books because they are classic fiction, and we read them for pleasure.

Since we have two “sets” of kids, we often have read books more than once.  We read them aloud when the older two were the right age to listen, and read them aloud again when the younger two are ready for them.  Often, the older ones sit in and listen to the stories now, but then they finish the books by themselves.  For a special treat, we will take a short story that can be read in one sitting to the park or on a trip, and I read it to the whole family.  It is easy to find collections of classic short stories at thrift stores or yard sales, and then if the book doesn’t make it back from the trip it isn’t such a tragedy.

I find that for our family, ownership is important on read-aloud books.  If we can’t finish the book in the few weeks we are allowed by the library it is frustrating for everyone as we try to find another copy to borrow, or wait for it to come after we have ordered it from Abebooks.  I buy books in advance of the one we are reading currently, so that we never run short of the next book to read.  Usually Daddy is in the middle of one book that he reads for bedtime, and I read a different book during the day.  The kids never have trouble with this until we near the end of one of the books, at which time usually only one parent reads until the book is finished.

Some of our mostly highly recommended books:

the Little Britches  by Ralph Moody

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Owls in the Family and The Dog Who Would Not Be by Farley Mowat

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame (this is a great, short read- aloud for the very youngest listeners)

Elmer and The Dragon  by Ruth C. Gannett (another really great book for young listeners: short, pictures, funny!)

Right now, I am in the middle of Inkspell by Cornelia Funke.  This is the second time through on this series, and we will again not read aloud Inkdeath.  This is a series in which the first book is wonderful, the second is less wonderful, and I won’t recommend the third.  Shandy is reading The Education of Littletree by Forrest Carter.  This book was recommended by someone Shandy was working for, and the kids are really enjoying this look at a different culture here in the United States.  It’s amazing how many people give book recommendations when they know you like to read.

Have you tried establishing a daily read-aloud time?  The next step is expanding the stories so that they cannot be finished in one sitting, but still are very interesting.  As your reading repertoire grows, you will soon find yourselves enjoying your daily time together.  Enjoy it now, because kids grow up so fast!  Sometimes I wish I hadn’t taught my kids to read, so that there would be more read aloud time now!

Hope you enjoy your day.  Have a book recommendation?  I’d love to hear it.


Homeschooling at the Museum

My older kids are doing school at home through Utah Connections Academy this year.  We reached the decision that I needed some extra help guiding them, and so far we have been happy with their high school program.  We especially like the accessibility of the teachers.  They had taken other online classes before, and the teachers had proved very slow to respond to any questions — this has not been the case through the Academy.  When the Academy organized a field trip to the new Utah Museum of Natural History, we were excited to attend.  We were able to meet some of the kids’ teachers in person, and to visit this beautiful new museum.

The Utah Museum of Natural History has been open a little more than a month.  It is built on the side of a hill next to Red Butte Gardens at the University of Utah, and is designed to blend into the hillside and the landscape.  Even from the outside, it is a very striking building.  The actual exhibit space inside is much smaller, however, and we easily explored it in two hours.  Although some of the exhibits were very crowded–this was a school field trip after all–we were able to give some good attention to the exhibits that interested us.

We started out on the the first exhibit floor looking at fossils found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument.  We were excited to see the turtle shells, and will definitely be giving fossil hunting more attention next time we go to Escalante.  So far, we have only found fossil oyster shells in our visits there.  One of the displays was a glass floor over dinosaur bones as they would perhaps have been found at an actual fossil dig.  The metal bars holding up the glass floor further lent to the illusion, as paleontologists lay out a grid over their digs to aid in describing location and distribution of their finds.

The next exhibit which caught our interest was about the Cleveland Lloyd quarry.  Years ago, when Brett was about 6, we visited the Cleveland Lloyd quarry and were able to visit with two students studying there.  They explained the predominance of allosaur bones found at the quarry, and some theories about why there were so many predators and so few herbivores.  This display discussed some other theories, and then allowed us to vote by placing a penny in a tube to show our vote.  Three of us voted for “Stuck in the Mud”, while Lucy decided she liked the “Poison” theory.

On the next floor of the museum, a large plant collection is on display in binders.  Eden and I noticed how specifically the original location of the plants were described.  For example, a plant was found “At the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, in Albion Basin, on south slope above Cecret Lake, near buried water tank.”  We will work hard to make our descriptions that carefully if we are able to make a plant collection this year.  While we usually take photos, not specimens, that might be an interesting project for the coming hiking year.

Max and Lulu also enjoyed the display which explained how a marsh helps in cleaning salt water.

The museum has a living collection of Triops, small aquatic creatures that live in desert potholes.  We will definitely look for these in tinajes as we hike this year.  They move more quickly than you would expect, and might perhaps be mistaken for a tadpole, but on second thought look more like a soft shell horseshoe crab.

The top floor of the museum is dedicated to Native Voices, and has displays of both ancient and modern Native American products.

An excellent reason for us to visit museums as homeschoolers is that it give us ideas for more areas to study, or ways to study better.  In this trip, we found many things to go home and think about some more:  fossil hunting in Escalante and Fossil Butte, Wyoming (as recommended by the science teacher), plant collections, Triops, and a visit to Clay Canyon to collect varicite.  I highly recommend visiting even small, local museums for this reason.

Have you visited a museum recently?  Making such visits a regular part of your curriculum is one of the easiest ways I know to increase your love of learning.

Relaxed Homeschooling — Community Art Resources

Sometimes I feel like I have split personality disorder.   Half of me wants to be a completely unschooling, backwoods homesteader, while the other half of me wants to take advantage of every art and music opportunity that a busy city can provide.  Although it means spending lots of time on the road, I guess we are lucky to live within driving distance of this sort of event.  So after a weekend spent feeding one side of my personality in the desert, we spent last weekend on the musical side.

Our family is a member of the Utah Symphony and Opera Youth Guild.  I heard about this by chance a few years ago, and immediately signed up for the program.  In return for a very nominal fee, my children and I have been able to participate in coat checking and educational opportunities offered by the guild, and see many wonderful concerts very inexpensively.  In addition, they offer many extras including a special youth guild recital in which selected members of the guild can perform with the Utah Symphony.

Last weekend, our whole family, including my parents, went to Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City to see the Utah Symphony perform the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2, Tottentanz, and two Ravel Suites (Mother Goose and Daphnis et Chloe.)  It was Maximus’ first experience with a full length symphony concert, and he was very excited to be included.  While he had gone to shorter, “Lollipops” series, and even an opera, I was unsure how he would sit quietly for the length of the full concert.  He did wonderfully.   The music was fantastic, as well.

Since all my children are musicians, I have long felt that exposure to live performances is a must as part of their school experience.  Even less-than-stellar live performances have an energy and spark the imagination in a way that listening to a recording usually does not.  Another reason to go to live performances is that we are exposed to music that we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for ourselves.  For example, our last concert included a percussion concerto that was very exciting to watch.  I don’t know if my children dream of being on that stage while we are watching the concert, but I certainly dream of them being there someday.

How can you find out about programs like the youth guild?  Many organizations have special programs to attract children and educators to their events.  Many times, it is just a matter of visiting a web site and finding a live person to call or e-mail.  Look for a heading like “Education/Outreach.”  Once you have established contact, you can find out what they are offering and how you can take advantage of it.  Calling the box office is another way to find out about these programs.  Don’t be afraid to be a little pushy.  You are the media department for your little school!  Take advantage of these programs – you’ll be glad you did.