Saturday, November 30, 2013

recognizing and appreciating my mentors

Homeschooling is a rough journey: there are no familiar signposts, and so much of the time is spent either reinventing the wheel or blazing a trail, that it gets exhausting. I found that over the years it helped to have others, further on in their homeschooling journey, to talk to. These people as a rule have been doing it way longer than me, and have older kids, so they have been reassuring: I've been there, I know how frustrating it can get, and this stage will pass.

I have to acknowledge these amazing women, and all the hours they put in, listening to me, giving advice, and just being there.

J lives in New York and has five kids, all of them homeschooled. Her oldest is in college. For four years, when my oldest was just born, I homeschooled someone else's daughter, and we did recess together: J's kids, this girl, and my boy(s). I was following textbooks back then, mostly recommended by this girl's parents, and it is easier to get someone else's kid to mind you (no tantrums), so the conversations with J used to be more technical back then: how to memorize multiplication tables, what about writing, etc. A lot of time had passed since those days: I've moved twice to different cities, J embraced unschooling more fully, and I've got more sage advice from her. Now that I'm home with my own kids, more in charge of picking and choosing what we are doing, I have more existential issues: am I messing them up? What will happen if they will spend a whole week on DS? How much discipline is necessary? Time and again, I call or e-mail J, and every time I walk away feeling heard and reassured.

C was also part of our "recess" crowd in NY. My 9 yo and her daughter were born three weeks apart, and we lived in the same house back then: we had downstairs while C lived upstairs. C has five kids, and her oldest is highschool-age. Luckily for me, C right now lives in the same city that I live in. Unfortunately, between her babies' naps and my babies' naps, her schedule and my schedule, we do not get to see each other as often as we should. However, over the years, she has been there for me. Since our kids are very similar in age, it has been good to discuss whether a particular challenge that I'm having is something that she is experiencing too. C is also quick to point out how many of the issues that I am having now have to do with having a small baby thrown into the mix rather than inherent inability to get things done. Somehow I keep on forgetting how little people can suck up so much attention and energy. And, living in the same city, it is nice just to be able to get together, let the kids play, have a semi-adult conversation...

I stumbled upon S's blog when I was planning on pulling 9 yo out of school. S has four kids, and her oldest is post bar mitzvah. All of them have been homeschooled all along. When I was reading about her days, I walked away inspired. I got a sense of what homeschooling is really like rather than a glossy, picture- and project-heavy shell some bloggers throw out there. Those overly perfect blogs made me wonder whether I should be doing more, and left me feeling depressed. In contrast, S's life sounded so normal and doable. I've met S at homeschool conference in Baltimore and saw for myself how "real" she was. She has also hosted a few webinars. We've spoken a bit through Facebook, but what I really appreciated is when she got on the phone with me and really heard my more recent concerns about the boys. Since she has an older boy, I felt so reassured to hear that some of the behaviors and attitudes which got me so worried are possibly just a stage. S is also very realistic, and kept me grounded when I was talking about nearly impossible expectations that trickle down from the yeshiva system to our sons.

These busy women were willing and able to share some of their wisdom and insight with me. If I did not know that I have someone to guide me, I would not have courage and perspective to homeschool. So wherever you are on your homeschooling journey, seek out a mentor or mentors. When the going gets tough, you will need that voice of someone who's been there.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

This one is courtesy of my son ( 7 yo). It's in the back of S'fateinu, and since we were almost done with the book, we skipped ahead to Chanukah. He was looking at the pictures and exclaimed: look, this is crazy!

Can you see what got him riled up?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

a small miracle happened here

Tonight, an hour before it was time for kids to get into bed, I casually suggested that they do some Chanukah decoration. I have been casually suggesting it for the past week, especially if someone came up interested in a project, but it hadn't taken off. Tonight the moment was right, so the three olders busily got something going. 9 yo was making an ancient poster:

3 yo was coloring in some pages that I printed earlier during the week from

7 yo was set on making a shamash holder from one of his Chanukah books, but then he decided to look into making Chanukah treats: edible dreidels and menorah. I suggested that he write down the shopping list of what we need. I cannot tell how many times we have found ourselves in this situation: he comes up with a project with multiple items, I suggest making a list of what he needs, he balks, and that's the end of it. Tonight a small miracle took place. He said, OK, went to the fridge, tore off a shopping list form, and copied the ingredients that we are missing. I was barely containing my excitement, he finally had to write and just wrote, no freak-out, no meltdown, no avoidance. He even had to write down Hershey kisses, which he could not copy. He asked for help. I told him to write down "her" and he capitalized it, then he said, "sh" and then "e". I added "y". For "kisses" he wrote "kise', then said that it's not right, switched "e" for "s" and remembered "es". To top off tonight's feat, he also colored in the lines.

Not huge accomplishments for a 7 yo, I know, but these are good strides in the right direction.

I leave you with an image of Pikachu helping Maccabees out, courtesy of 9 yo.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

getting a psychological evaluation

There is this beautiful example of getting ready for Shabbos early going around: have your table set and all the preparations finished by chatzot (midday) of Friday. While I appreciate the idea, it never worked for me: when I was working, I did not get home till a few hours before Shabbos, and now, with kids at home, we are often still using the dining room table late into the afternoon. And this week, my newly-crawling baby reminded me why I used to set the table only after my husband got home from shul: he got hold of the edge of the tablecloth and started pulling. So while the concept of going into Shabbos in an unhurried manner appeals tremendously, honestly, it is not happening to us.

I used to feel the same way about labeling and diagnosing, especially boys. I was very inspired by Boys Adrift and the theory that boys are overmedicated today, and normal boy tendencies are squelched. I have been careful to avoid labels, especially for 7 yo. I knew that there is something going on, but with individualized instruction and lots of freedom to move and be, he would be better off at home than in any other scenario.

Lately, I had been not so sure. We are butting heads and butting heads. He keeps getting triggered into fits: one day it's one thing, next day it's something else. He is anxious and stubborn. 3 yo started to emulate his sulking behaviorand repeat some choice phrases. A few weeks ago, after a particularly trying day, when both boys acted up and did not listen, and 7 yo decided to pull on me "you are making me do things that 7 year olds are not supposed to do", I yelled back "Enough! I'm sending you to school! Then you will see what other kids your age are doing!" They quieted down, but the thought stuck with me.

I told my husband the same evening that I'm seriously considering sending both boys to school. They do not appreciate the amount of freedom they have now, it is too much for me, and let them experience for themselves what they should be doing. I also said that I'm not even sure that the local dayschool will so readily take 7 yo, with his outbursts and refusal to write, they will send him to public school, and the public school with require educational testing and psychological evaluation to get a label on his problem. My husband thoughtfully said: "If we will have to do it anyway, why can't we get him tested ourselves? Why are we avoiding this?"

Very good question.

I have resolved to get him tested and finally see what is the proper name to this craziness. (And yes, I am still considering sending either or both boys to school. Call me a traitor to the ideals of homeschooling, but it has not been feeling warm and fuzzy lately. If it's not working, I am not so stuck up to keep on plowing through becausse I have a reputation to uphold). However, from my previous asking around, I got that we are looking at thousands of dollars in expenses, coupled with potential long waits and probably just a label slapped on, not practical solutions. I figured, we probably will need an exemption from the standardized test that he would have to take next year, or at least, an accommodation, so a label will have at least a limited practical use. This time, I confided in a friend, who sent me to another mutual friend, saying that she knows people. That second friend gave me a name of this person, and that person, and warned me that a lot of them do not take insurance. I was listening to her while simultaneously feeding mush to my baby strapped in a stroller and glancing over 3 yo at the playground. I meekly suggested that she e-mail me the names of these people. And then she mentioned, by the way, this psychologist friend of her husband is coming into town on Friday since he has to testify, and he does educational testing, but at less than half of the cost. He had to cancel all his appointments on Friday, so she is sure that he would love to get some work done. I said that it's a good option to consider. Then I looked at myself, covered in mush, and thought: am I going to have time to go home, look up these people online, call and ask around, and then decide? I said, please send me his number and tell him I would like to have my son tested on Friday.

We spoke on the phone, and agreed that the psychologist will come to my house after he's finished testifying. I told 7 yo that a psychologist will be coming. He asked me whether he will be able to read his mind. I laughed and said, no, but he will see what we can do to help you learn better. He wanted to know exactly what the psychologist will be doing. I said that I did not know, and I was very careful not to use the word "test".

On Friday, the testing took place. As a psychometrist was working with 7 yo, I chatted with the psychologist about my concerns. I had to fill out a few questionnaires. When I saw one of them, I laughed: a friend of mine just fumed on Facebook the other week about these ridiculous statements: "My child behaves like an angel", "My child is perfect in every way". Do people really answer "always"? So thank you for advance warning.

I was quite nervous whether 7 yo will sit still for three hours of testing, whether he will lose his temper and throw a tantrum. Well, he worked the whole time and seemed to be totally fine. This made me feel totally crazy: maybe he will work hard for others, but not for me? Maybe I'm in the way of his learning? He told me: "I had hard time with spelling but I just need to sound out the words". Sure, because I never tried to provide him with this piece of information. Silly mommy, just tell him to sound them out!

After everyone left, I asked 7 yo to tell me a bit about what he had to do. He described some activities, and he told me which ones he liked. He mentioned that he had to divide 7 by 2. I asked him, what was the answer and he said that he did not get to it. I asked him, was this hard? He thought and said that some of it was. I paused and asked him, but even when it was hard, you did not get angry and cry? He said, no, because then they would think that he's acting like a baby. I paused and asked again, so why do you scream at me, aren't you acting like a baby? He said, nobody is watching me and would make fun of me.

Right. So he feels comfortable at home to express his frustration, but he was too embarrassed to do that in front of the psychometrist. Did he dupe the system? What happens if I do send him to school? Will he keep it together there, bow to peer pressure only to melt down completely later, in the safety of our home?

This Friday night, my brother-in-law came over with his girlfriend, who is a music teacher. When we chatted a bit about this whole thing, she told me that a lot of parents tell her that kids do just that, rip off the mask of holding it all together as soon as they are in their parents' car. And on an unrelated note, watching 7 yo read "Winnie the Pooh" on the floor and giggle, she said that her students do not do that, because they don't understand what they read or enjoy it, they just get tested on it.

So I am waiting for results, and looking to see what kind of adjustments we'll have to do.

I guess my resistance to testing is in the same hypothetical realm as having everything set for Shabbos before chatzot: both are lovely to consider, but often impossible to pull off.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

three examples of child-led learning

We are at the homeschooling coop. 7 yo is sitting next to his good friend, who is eating some kind of candy, of gusher type. The friend offers some to 7 yo. He says that he needs to see the package, to check if it's kosher. Upon expecting the small pouch, he says that it's not. His friend asks whether he can just look at the candy and decide by sight, but 7 yo says that he cannot have it.

Two main objectives of kashrut are achieved: being thoughtful about what goes in your mouth, and being able to control yourself.


This morning, we are doing math. 7yo's work is identifying numbers up to 1000. He usually does two pages, sometimes one if it's too tough. This morning he takes a look and decides that he wants to do three pages. He feels confident and goes right on ahead.


Next, we are doing Lashon HaTorah. He has a page of writing in translations, something that he dreaded the previous time and skipped in favor of the following, easier page of cutting and pasting. This time, he gets colored pencils, on his own colors in the suffixes, highlights the plural yud, and starts on the translation. On the words is "kindness", in plural. He says, oh, I get to write three S. I mention that he will have to add -es, and he asks, why. I explain about words ending in -s and -x, and how in order to make them plural, you add -es. He giggles and writes "kindnesses". A natural grammar lesson, sneaked in on a need-to-know basis. No drill necessary, and he asks what happens with plural of "horse".

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

butting heads

Yesterday, we had one of those homeschooling days that look so good on paper and make people want to homeschool their kids. I had a dental appointment first thing in the morning, so I left my husband in charge of getting kids started on their schoolwork. So I got to get out by myself and take care of my health. The boys finished everything on their list by 11, before the baby woke up from his nap. Then we drove to JCPenney to take a family picture. My husband met us there. Afterwards, he went back to work and we went bike riding on a wooded trail near the mall. We saw deer. Then we came home, 9 yo played on his DS while I made tacos for dinner, their favorite, and one of my easiest meals. After dinner, my MIL came over, and I took 9 yo on a one-to-one outing to Costco.

Sounds so ideal, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, it did not go as smoothly as it sounds. While I was at the dentist, and my husband was in charge, 7 yo was supposed to copy number words for his spelling. My husband wrote them in script. 7 yo promptly threw a fit, since he cannot copy script. My husband wrote them all in capitals, and 7 yo copied them just like that. By the time I got back and saw this, I rewrote them in lowercase, and he copied those, too. He also threw a fit about a page of translations in Lashon HaTorah, while 9 yo objected to his mishna assignment. All the time, I was telling the kids that we will need to change into white shirts before we take this photo, and the kids were not listening. Next thing I know, we are running late, 7 yo is throwing a fit that he does not want to wear his shabbos shirt and he does not want to take a picture, while 9 yo is throwing a fit that he wants to be dropped off at home right after the picture because he does not want to go bike riding, he much rather play DS. 7 yo compromised by packing clothes to change into before we go bike riding. Then 3 yo is melting down in the car; she was wearing her jacket, but she does not want to be buckled up on top of her jacket. And I am trying to grab my sheitel and do some sort of make-up. Heck, we are only doing this picture because I got a Groupon and because the last (and only) family picture we took was when 3 yo was 9 months.

So we are driving in the car in silence, since I totally blew my lid. I did not have any lunch, either. And I forgot to pack up water.

When we got to JCPenney, we loosen up, but  now the baby is getting tired, so every time I hold him and try to face him towards the camera, he turns around, looking to nurse. Then I keep on blinking and ruining all those nice shots where everyone else is looking at the camera. Then the boys start making faces. Then 3 yo starts to sulk. Finally, there are some shots which would pass.

I take off my sheitel and tell 7 yo to change into his bike riding clothes. He discovers that he did not bring the bag that he packed. I take them all to the car, hoping that his bag was left there. 9 yo continues his whine how he much rather go home. The bag is not in the car, but I have a bag with emergency change of clothes for all the kids (too many summer wadings). 7 yo changes, strewing his shabbos clothes all over the van. The baby starts his pre-nap growling. We start driving, looking for the parking for this trail. Thankfully, I found it right away. As soon as we get there, the boys unload their bikes and hop right on.  Now 3 yo starts her thing about how she does not want to walk... the baby continues humming to himself, trying to fall asleep. The boys shoot ahead on their bikes, we are moseying along at our pace. Then the boys come back, asking how long it will be taking us to catch up.

I just want to stroll on this warm afternoon, and enjoy the last warm rays of the sun. I just want a bit of quiet. I just want someone to admit that they are having a good time.

We crossed a few bridges, saw ducks and deer grazing in the woods. A stag actually bounded right in front of us, crossing the trail. The boys talked and biked, 3 yo took her time to crunch up the leaves, the baby fell asleep.

Soon, we headed back, to beat the afternoon traffic. As soon as we got home, 9 yo went straight to his DS. I told him, for half an hour. When the time was up, I reminded him to save his game and get off. 7 yo came as an ambassador to notify me that he's in the middle of the battle and will not be getting off in 2 minutes. I said, he either needs to get out, or just to shut it down. He did not comply. I pried the DS away from him. He jumped up in rage, bumped his head on the upper bunk. Next thing, both boys are hysterically yelling at me about how the battle and the game are messed up. And I'm yelling back that I will put DS in the garbage.

I am trying to get the kids to set the table for dinner, but 9 yo is majorly upset. He tells me how deprived he feels of DS time, how other average homeschool kids get more time to play computer games. I do not  have a lot of patience at this point. 7 yo takes a different tack, that of appeasement: he keeps complimenting the food, and thanks me for all the good things that happened today. 9 yo says: "Thanks for the good AND the bad" and breaks down, crying. I give him a minute. Then he asks to do something one-on-one. I tell him how we need an adult to watch the other kids in order to go out.

That's when my MIL comes over and I decide: I need to go to Costco anyway, it is only 6 pm and I can take just him. I ask him whether he would like to do this as an outing, and he agrees. 7 yo's immediate reaction: what about me? But I am firm, and off we go.

We end up talking a bit, and hanging out. He pushes the cart and comments how light it is, without his siblings inside. He plays around, switching the carts in the parking lot. We watch a Vitamix demonstration, where the guy makes spinach "ice cream". I joke that next time I should put spinach in his smoothie and he giggles. He makes me compare the nutritional facts on the crackers and I discover that Ritz is just as healthy as nearby funky seeded cracker. We get to the diapers and we see that Kirkland and Huggies brand are exact same price per diaper and same amount of diapers in a box, yet the boxes are differently shaped. He starts figuring out whether this brand of diapers is more squished than that, and tells me how he would need to measure the area of one side of the box and multiply it by height. I sort of do not care at this point, so I pick the box that is easier to stick under the cart.

When we get to the car, he tells me how he wants to have a day with no rules, which translates into a day of unlimited DS time. I mull it over and tell him that I will let him know in the morning.

Well, the baby decides to throw a two-hour yelling fit in the middle of the night. I rock him, my husband rocks him, but I do not nurse. Around 6:30 am, the door to my bedroom opens, in marches 9 yo hauling his awake baby brother: "Here!' And can I have a day with no rules?" I am still trying to open my eyes. "Yes, you can, just daven and get dressed first."

He is calling it a day with not rules. I'm calling it a mental health day.

Do you end up butting heads with your kids that much?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Life of Fred

I kept my eye out to buy Life of Fred math series for over a year. Since they come out to be pricey once you get all the books, I did not buy them right away. During the summer, through some sale, I saw them at the cheapest and scooped them up. I got all ten books in the elementary series. During major unschooling phase, it made sense to get them, especially since my back-up curriculum was Math Mammoth and a paperback Spectrum book, both of which were way cheaper than any consumable textbook.

When I got the books, the boys sat down and read them like they read literature. I don't think either one of them finished the entire series. What I do know is that neither pulled out a pencil and paper and solved any problems in the books. They giggled while reading, they told me how Fred has a pet tiger, and tidbits from the books entered here and there. After the initial read-through, the books went to collect dust on the shelf.

A few weeks ago I was planning to write a post about all these good intentions we have, and the resources we acquire, only to be pushed aside by the kids who have their own interests and agenda. Life of Fred was going to be a shining example of that elusive curriculum, obtained at a cost, used once, and discarded. Yet my kids proved me wrong again.

We are in the middle of borrowing and carrying with 7 yo. He is quite worried about it. When he has a word problem, he knows what he has to do, but when it is just columns of addition and subtraction, he gets lost and discouraged. Besides, he still confuses which number should be subtracted from which. Basically, he went back to tantrums about math. One of those days, when I was writing up a schedule, Life of Fred came up. I suggested we do that instead of his workbook, but he has to work on "Your Turn To Play". He agreed. We started in the beginning, which was quite easy. The boys knew the story line (I did not), and 9 yo flew through all assignments. 7 yo had no problem with the math component, but was unsure about writing down the names of the days of the week.

We ended up using Life of Fred just a few times, but since then, the boys pulled out the rest of books and are busy rereading them. I guess it was not such a waste of money at the end.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

why would anyone be doing this?

See these angles, studiously working together each in their workbook? No, this is not a posed photo, but it lasted a total of four minutes.

Today I had a visit from a friend who is considering homeschooling her older child. Shew wanted to see what curriculum I use. I warned her that we do not have much in the way of curriculum nowadays, but sure, come see what I've got. Since there was a bit of back-and-forth about when and whether she would come at all, I decided not to tell the kids in advance. We did not have a smooth morning, but I was hoping that things would calm down by the afternoon. I do not believe in whitewashing what homeschooling is really like, but I did not expect my kids to put the worst foot forward.

As soon as she got here, with her two sweet younger kids, my kids got off the wall. 3 yo was running around yelling, 9 yo was interjecting and I was having a hard time carrying on a conversation. Her kids clung to her. I suggested going down to the basement, where the toys are. Her kids would not go without her, which is totally understandable since mine were behaving like wildebeests. I got around to showing math (about the only subject in which we follow a curriculum) and she started telling me about the reservations that she has, but we did not get far. My kids started jumping and sliding down a mattress. 9 yo started fighting with the younger ones. 3 yo screamed into her baby's face. I tried telling her that this is not the way she would want to be treated, and she should not treat others like that, but she ran away laughing.

This lady looked at me and asked two pointed questions: is there any place I can send the kids for a bit, and do I get out to do anything on my own? The answer to both questions was no. I told her that I am not the best spokesperson for homeschooling at the moment. She had a look of someone not sure why anyone would be doing this in the first place. And I could not explain why this makes sense. I started trying to summon some of our better moments, but I kept getting interrupted by sulking 9 yo. As a final salvo, he removed the pedal off the baby gate, locking us in the basement. There I am, fumbling with the gate, while she is patiently waiting next to me...

Ooh, this was quite embarrassing. So why am I doing this? My kids have no middos, slack off, do not do their schoolwork and do not allow for a grown-up conversation.

Yet, just as I am despairing, everything gets flipped.

At dinner, 7 yo mentioned how he would like to have African Grey Parrot as a pet, since it is so smart and you can teach it things. He was planning to teach it mathematics, and everything that he knows. I probed what all this knowledge included, and he said something about Hashem. 9 yo said that African Grey has intelligence of a 6 year old, so he could be taught to think about Hashem. I said that animals cannot know about Hashem and cannot be taught such abstract ideas. That lead to a question: what does every kid at the table know about Hashem? 3 yo first demurred, but then said that we daven to Hashem. I asked her why, and she said, that's what we are supposed to do. 7 yo passed, saying that he is asking questions, not ready to answer. 9 yo said that Hashem created everything, and is in charge of everything, and was always here and knows why everything is the way it is. 7 yo wanted to know how Hashem was there before the world was here, and all of a sudden we are discussing dark matter (all of this while I am trying to feed the baby).

I got that distinct feeling of satisfaction, this is what homeschooling is about: a nice open dinner conversation, everyone is engaged and comfortable sharing or passing, religion and science freely mixing, and my children expressing ideas about G-d on their level, each of them true.

3 yo all of a sudden piped up: "Speaking about G-d... G-d bless America!" We were listening to that in the car earlier today. The boys cracked up, then 7 yo asked: "Why should Hashem bless America?" That led to another discussion about religious freedom. 9 yo knew that it is part of the Bill of Rights, and no, I did not teach that to him, he must have read it on his own. I also explained how Jews are not free to practice in every country, and this makes America special.

In a nutshell, homeschooling is tough. There are so many things to despair about, and so many things to feel good about. I just need to work on getting us more towards those feel-good moments.