Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ah.... Socialization

The kids performed their Lego robotics research project presentation and gave a table demonstration of their robot yesterday at a local high school. I, and the other parents, were sitting in the audience waiting for the kids to come out when another adult suggested that we all sit together, "because, well, otherwise the teenagers won't sit near you and they'll all be on the edges where they can't see." So we cootie-covered adults all herded together so that the teens could safely move closer.

Interestingly, I had just come from doing a couple of hours of volunteer time at our homeschooling co-op. There are tons of teenagers there, and outwardly you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them and the regular high-school teens. Pimples, iPods, baggy pants and awkward haircuts abound. But with one signifigant difference: adults also swirled around and through them: parents, volunteers, teachers. I helped out in a science class, a Destination Imagination class, and in the general area. All of the classes have parents as helpers, the parents come and go from the classes as they are in progress. Kids check in with moms in the hallways or at cars in the parking lot, grab lunches together with their family or with their friends.

Adults are part of these kids' world. They don't seem to have any trouble socializing with each other, but their acceptable companionship boundary doesn't stop at age 18 either. I have to ask myself if a person is truly socialized if they fear contact with people of a certain age.

I first noticed this phenomenon long before having kids. My husband and I were leaders of the Middle School youth group for our church. It was our first contact with homeschooled kids, and the difference was striking. The school kids treated as at first like The Enemy. We were to be avoided, and if possible they should obviously never tell us anything important about themselves that we might somehow use against them. The homeschooled kids talked to us like normal people. I was reminded of that yesterday in the company of two very different groups of teenagers.

I know that some people in our society have come to view teenage fear, distrust, rebellion against, and even loathing of adults as somehow a normal rite of passage. I know that these same people think it would be strange, odd, or even somehow an indication of trouble if a teenager actually didn't mind hanging out with their parents or the parents of friends. Personally, I see it differently. I like my kids. They like me. They're interesting people that I feel lucky to spend time with. Ditto with their friends, the teens and pre-teens as well as the younger ones. I'm glad to see indications that this won't change as they head into teenagerhood, that what our society considers "normal" socialization is probably some kind of adaptation made in self-preservation.

In short, give me homeschooled "socialization" any day.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Experiments in White

Last night when I came home, the snow was falling in big fat flakes, quickly covering the ground in a whispering white cloud. It was so lovely, I stopped and looked at the house, lighted up with the snow drifting down around it, and wished to wake up to big drifts that the kids could romp in.

Unfortunately, it must've stopped snowing about five minutes later, because we have just a dusting this morning. Still, the kids were excited to go out and collect as much of it as possible. They called up their friends from down the hill. M. told them "the snow is about a quarter of a card card deep here!". I'm guessing he meant a Pokemon or a Yu Gi Oh card as a measuring device. I thought that was a pretty cute way of putting it.
Within minutes, they were outside making snowballs and tiny snowmen with as much of the white stuff as they could gather, while I brewed up some warm cocoa and remembered all the times my mom had done the same as we kids sledded down the hill outside.

They've since been bringing in cupfuls and bowlfuls of snow and having a fine time experimenting with them. The magnifying glasses have come out and they took a look at the crystal structures and individual flakes. Then they festooned their bowls with almonds, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, and all kinds of colored sprinkles to make a concoction that could only be eaten by kids! The sprinkles do melt into the snow though and make it look like its been tie-dyed.
Myself, I'm sitting here with a cup of tea and enjoying the view out my bedroom window. A few lazy flakes are still spiraling down, so maybe the kids will get their dream of enough snow to sled with by tomorrow morning.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Big fat flakes, drifting down right now. The kids are hoping it will continue all night. I must get out all of our snow gear and see how much fits and doesn't fit. I'm betting at least my bigger kid doesn't have boots that fit. He can wear my old ski bibs though, how scary is that!! I can't possibly have a child that big. And if we can't find boots, they can always do what we did as a kid, which was to put bread bags over our regular shoes. I can still see the gold Roman Meal label on them, tied with rubber bands over my soaking wet blue jeans as I bombed down the hill on our red "Flexible Flyer" sled. Hopefully I'll have sledding photos to post tomorrow.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Unschooling Voices: December Edition

Unschooling Voices, a blog carnival hosted at A Day In Our Lives asks "What interesting activities, projects or experiments have your kids done this past year? " as their December question.

Wow, to answer that would fill pages and pages. Every year for our homeschool group's Honoring Ceremony, I put together a slide show of all the things our kids have done together during the year, and it always fills me with amazement to look back on an entire year and the wonderful cornucopia of fun and activity that comprises our kids' life and learning. Camping trips and beach days, science experiments and baseball in the street, train trips and museums, forts made out of cardboard boxes and salamanders caught in the creek. And that's just the things they do together as a group.

So I'll just try to hit the highlights of the year for our family.

M. (10) is a thinker, so his projects tend to be things he spends a fair bit of time inventing in his mind before transferring them to reality. These projects are often stories - long and complex or short and sweet. His writing amazes me, not so much in the technical aspect of transferring ideas to paper (that's always been the most challenging part for him), but in the depth of the characters and ideas he brings to life. Recently he's branched out into cartoons, with the invention of characters and storylines that have him cracking up with laughter even as he transfers them to paper. This year, he has also invented a few board games. Some of them have been created with a friend or two, and involve big sheets of cardboard with complex squares and rules that boggle the mind. One of them, a castle game, is something I'm helping him refine and maybe eventually produce and market. We found this great article by a homeschooling family about making your own game.

This is also the year he discovered Sherlock Holmes. We've read through a great deal of the massive Sherlock Holmes volume that we got him for his birthday, and we also found a great game at a thrift store called 221 B Baker Street. It's sort of like a more involved Clue game where you solve Sherlock-like mysteries.

Both of the kids had a great opportunity this summer to join a Lego robotics team, working toward the First Lego League competition. Being a part of this team means a lot more than building a robot and competing to complete tasks with it. Every year, the FLL has a different theme (this year it is Nanotechnology) and the competition also involves doing a research project and a presentation on this theme. For their presentation, the kids are doing a play they wrote on the medical applications of Nanotechnology for cancer treatment. A. is the narrator and M. is the cancer patient. They've also done a lot of work on programming the robot, with each kid on the team having a particular task on the competition table to solve.

A. (7) is the Diva of the family. She's happiest when she's singing, dancing, acting, or (preferrably) all three at once. She's doing modern dance, tap, ballet, and had the opportunity to be in a musical production of Beauty and the Beast earlier this year. She's currently in a ballet production of Chronicles of Narnia. I saved the message on my cell phone where she breathlessly called me to tell me that she was not only going to be in Narnia, she was going to be a mouse! This is a most wonderful role for her, because it combines her love of dance with her other love: small, cute animals. At home, she can most often be found turning cartwheels in the living room, hanging from the trapeze outside, or dancing to the stereo in her room. This year, she's also made a bit of a career out of playing the violin, expanding her repertoire of Celtic music and playing at our outdoor Saturday market in town. She and I went to several Celtic jam sessions last spring, and this year she's been invited to a monthly Bluegrass jam at a local grange. Getting together with other people to make music or dance or make theatre come alive is her greatest joy in life.

Beyond their individual interests, we've done a lot of cool things as a family. Probably one of the best for the year was a great family trip we took to Vancouver Island, Canada. A ferry trip from Seattle up through the gorgeous Puget Sound, and then we got to camp out in wonderfully empty campgrounds and explore the lakes and rivers. We capped it off with a few days in Victoria, riding in horse-drawn carriages, visiting the museums, and of course, having "high tea". A couple of months later, we took a fabulous weeklong camping trip through an area of Oregon that surrounds several areas of the John Day Fossil beds. We found fossils, camped in the desert, swam in the John Day river, mined our own thundereggs, hiked around the fossil beds, and had a wonderful (if very hot) time. Our homeschool group also arranged an Amtrak trip to Portland, with our group having an entire train car to ourselves. We spent the day at the science museum, and returned in the evening to gather at the train station.

We also have embarked on our first year as urban farmers. We put in garden beds this year, and the kids each got their own bed to raise whatever they wanted. The kids' chickens started laying eggs, and so egg-gathering and corn-shucking, blueberry and blackberry picking became part of the family's seasonal rhythms. We acquired two new chicks this year that the kids hand-raised, only to find out they were roosters who couldn't live with us here in the city.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Hippo is a Lot Like Unschooling

My kids love hippos. They're on a bit of a hippo frenzy lately, really, It all started when M. played a computer game at a friend's house called Impossible Creatures. He created a whole armada of flying hippos that he thought were the cutest thing ever. Then he decided that for his 10th birthday, his theme for his party would be Flying Hippos. He even made a "pin the wings on the flying hippo" game, and decorated his cake with a flying hippo.

Now they've been watching any nature documentary on hippos that they can get their hands on (their favorite so far: PBS Nature's Hippo Beach), and our library lists have seen more than a few hippo books checked out. As often happens when one or both of the kids embrace some new facet of learning, I usually end up knowing way more about that subject than I ever did before, and hippos are no exception. A hippo is a bit of a living paradox: an aquatic mammal that can't swim. A huge and densely heavy animal that can run at speeds up to 30 mph. Or as M. says "A hippo is an exercise in faith. You pretty much just have to believe that it is what it is."

That's where the unschooling comparison comes in.

As I posted before, I've been reading and posting on the Dr. Phil message boards about unschooling. It's been a long time since I've been exposed to the mainstream views about unschooling and I guess I've forgotten (perhaps a bit purposefully) how virulent the opposition is to such a radically different method of learning for kids. For someone who only knows and can only believe in the educational methods that they themselves were exposed to, it can be very difficult to imagine how such a thing as unschooling could work. Perhaps as difficult as imagining an 8,000 pound animal that can run as fast as a racehorse. Yes, unschooling really works best as an exercise in faith. You have to believe that children are born learners or it wouldn't be possible to get all of your previous experiences out of the way and let your children learn in utter freedom.

Once you see it in action, however, it's as undeniable, as big and strange and wonderful as that amazing creature, the hippo. And every bit as real.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

More Unschooling on Dr. Phil

Just a PSA, the show will air on Friday. They already have message boards up where people are discussing unschooling.

While I don't hold out any hope at all that Dr. Phil will provide any kind of balanced look at unschooling, I greatly admire the family who volunteered to share their unschooling lives with his greater audience. I hope that in the show and these message boards, some people who might not otherwise ever get a glimpse at what unschooling is all about may be exposed to it. Somewhere, some sparks may ignite, some more shiny unschooling candles be lit.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Of November and nanotechnology, ballet slippers and bunkai

It's out of the frying pan and into the fire here at our house. We knew that taking a vacation right before the holidays would make November just zoom on by, but a confluence of activities is really accelerating the pace. Today the kids are rehearsing with their Lego First League robotics team, and then Diva goes straight to a rehearsal for the ballet performance of Chronicles of Narnia that she'll be in. Sometime today, we need to practice our kata and bunkai for our karate class, and play the violin. Oh yeah, and eat, sleep, have some fun.

When you unschool, your kids' learning happens in so many different places (the term "homeschool" is really a misnomer, because home is only part of the picture). Trying to facilitate all of their interests while keeping a healthy mix of activity, down-time, one-on-one time with the kids, playdates with friends, and family time is a real balancing act some times. The next few weeks will be one of those times, with our karate belt tests, Lego robotics competition (over a hundred miles away), and three productions of the ballet (with accompanying dress rehearsals) all occurring over the span of two hectic weekends. And then Blam! we're launched into the Christmas holidays.

And now, I'm off to re-write the narrator's part in the kids' play about medical applications of nanotechnology. Ah, the things I'm called on to do as an unschooling mom! Sometimes I think I learn more than the kids.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Proof is in the Pudding

I was in a bookstore yesterday (by myself! what luxury!) and wandered over to the "parenting" section. It struck me how much of the parenting book industry is simple fear-mongering. If you don't use this technique, your kids will never sleep through the night. If you don't use another method, they'll never learn to be independent. As if child-raising is somehow a one-to-one correspondance where you put X input into the child and you get Y output, whereas any parent (especially any parent with more than one child) can tell you that every kid is different and you can treat your kids the exact same way and have vastly different outcomes.

As a new parent, it's hard not to buy into these fears. After all, we all want our kids to be happy, independent, thoughtful, kind, polite, joyful, respectful, "well-adjusted" people. Our cultural legacy though is one of fear-based parenting, and sad to say, less-than-respectful parenting. Since I looked into my first child's eyes in the beginning moments of my parenting career my children have told me something different. They have told me that treating children with the same respect that you would give others leaves them able to give respect, that you don't have to threaten, intimidate, punish, or "impose logical consequences" in order for kids to understand what is expected of them and eventually be able to do it most of the time (hey, even us adults can't hold it together all of the time). They've been my teachers in this journey, but it hasn't always been easy to keep the faith that all would be okay. Both of my kids have personalities that are challenging, to say the least. Headstrong, sensitive, deeply intuitive, argumentative, they run the gamut of ways to challenge me, and I can say honestly that I don't always manage to rise to the task but I do try.

Having just been on a 10 day vacation in which my kids had to eat and sleep in new and unfamiliar places, put up with long lines, uncomfortable airline seats, hours of layovers, restaurants in which there was nothing on the menu besides lettuce that they could eat (both being dairy-free and vegetarian), and spans of time where they just had to occupy themselves in small spaces and with limited resources, I'd say that our parenting style received the ultimate test. What I discovered is that somewhere along the way, somewhere in those thousands of interactions between the kids and us parents, they have learned everything I hoped they would.

After all, the proof is in the pudding. The hotel staff went out of their way to tell me how sweet and polite the kids were. I've watched them holding open doors, being kind to strangers, and waiting patiently for whatever tasks I had to accomplish in registering and getting ready for my triathlon (the purpose of our visit). I see the concern they show for the caged birds in the hotel lobby, the sea lions at the marine park we visited, and even the clams washed up on the beach. Every day we walk this path together, even the days when it is bumpy, dark, or difficult, I'm glad that I never opened those parenting books, never ascribed to a method besides living joyfully beside my kids and treating them with the dignity that all people deserve. I walked out of the bookstore yesterday with some fun books that my kids will love to read beside me, and nothing more.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Night Full of Giggles (and Learning)

The kids were over a their friends' house last night and when I went to pick them up, all four of them were deep into a group project of creating a corporation called "Unknown Industries". They had a CEO, an Executive Officer, Marketing Director, and secretary. The Marketing Director kept coming out to the kitchen with ploys to get us adults to invest in Unknown Industries, or buy their (unknown) products. At the end of each marketing spiel, all concerned collapsed in fits of giggles.

By the end of the evening, I was smiling and laughing so hard that my face hurt. It's so cool to see four kids ranging from 7 to 13 completely engaged in such deeply imaginative play. It's the kind of thing I most fondly remember from my own childhood. I remember setting up an entire cardboard "bank" with my cousin and painstakingly using a rubber stamp pad and letter stamps to write up our business correspondance. Though our play of 30 years ago did not involve the sophistication level of CEOs and marketing plans, the imaginative aspect and sheer amount of fun remains the same.

I love getting these constant reminders that a child's work is play. And therein lies their learning, as well as the memories they will cary forward to their own futures.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Our Bookstands

For non-fiction, I'm currently re-reading Gavin DeBecker's The Gift of Fear. It's a must-read for any parent or caregiver, and I check it out every couple of years and give myself a refresher. In fiction, I'm finishing up a reasonably good airport paperback I picked up on our trip last week, Death Match by Lincoln Child. It's a high tech thriller involving AI that meets my bar for fast-paced and readable. Since I started writing, I've found that my bar moved a few too many notches up, and it's hard to enjoy a lot of mid-range fiction that used to carry me along. So it's refreshing to find something that has kept my interest.

On Miss A.'s bookstand are a stack of library books that all have animals on the cover. Fiction or non-fiction, it's got to have an animal. She's currently reading me a Dr. Seuss knock-off called Clam-I-Am

M's bookstand is full of Sherlock Holmes, Spiderman comics, Pokemon books, and gaming magazines.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

How Learning Happens in an Unschooled Family, #583

Yesterday, my daughter was watching the movie The Parent Trap, for what seemed like the eighty-thousandth time (we had it checked out from the library this month). But I could hear that she kept pausing and rewinding and watching the same scene multiple times over and over. Sometimes it would just be a few words from the movie I'd heard repeated and repeated.

When she came downstairs, I asked her what she was doing. "Oh, I figured out that I could change the languages. So I've been watching parts in English and then in French, so I can teach myself French. Now I know that "thank you" is "merci" and that "dog" is "chien" and stuff like that. Can you teach me some more French?"

So I pulled out my worn college edition English-French dictionary and translated whichever phrases she threw out, to the best of my ability.

It's always so fun to see that even when it looks like they are doing something that many people would deem "meaningless" (watching bit of a movie over and over), it always has meaning for them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Fun in the Sun

I didn't write during our recent trip to Florida, I was just way too busy there with preparation for my Ironman race and then my race day itself. But we did manage to take some time out for fun - we took a visit to the Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, and a local marine wildlife park, and Wayne took the kids to things like goofy golf while I was out training and racing (there's plenty of time during an Ironman to fit in all sorts of activities!) Our hotel was right on the ocean and had a fabulous water park and lovely beach, so the kids had a total blast.

Now we're back, being mellow for a few days and trying to unwind a bit. The kids have had an endless stream of phone calls from friends and have been catching up with all of their buddies all week in playdate after playdate. I know they really missed everyone. We're back into regular class schedules, and only have a few weeks until the hectic confluence of Diva's Chronicles of Narnia ballet, both of the kids' Lego robotics team competition, and right smack in the middle of that, the kids and I have our Karate belt test and recital.