Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Italia Day 6: On To Perugia

This is one of a series of entries from my travel diary of our Italy trip last fall. This entry is from Day 6, September 20, 2008:

The second panic moment of our trip was today. I guess every adventure has to have a panic attack or two. Our first came the morning of our flight from Portland when Wayne called the airline and heard that our flight to Rome was cancelled. As it turns out, only the part that originated in Texas was cancelled due to the hurricane there, and of course we arrived in Rome as scheduled.

Today started out with a flurry of activity and lots of trains and stations. First we rolled our luggage over a thousand cobblestones up to Roma's Termini station, about a mile and a half from our apartment (map above for route of the Walk of the Clattering Suitcases). Then it was the train to the airport to get our luggage, the train back to Termini, and then the train to Perugia. One reason to learn some of the language of the countries you travel to: we had to help some Americans who were unable to read the train schedule because they didn't know that "Bin." (for binario) meant the track number. Train schedules here are great - very straightforward for the most part once you get the hang of it.

Today's moment of panic came on the train from Roma to Perugia. We had asked the conductor if there was one stop or two stops for Perugia, because one of our maps said two. The conductor said that there was only one stop for Perugia, so it caught us by surprise when the train stopped at "Perugia San Giovanni", which did not look like a major station at all. Wayne already had his GPS out and it was saying that we were only a couple of miles from our hotel, so all of a suddent at this whistle-stop station we had to make a split-second decision to throw all of our heavy bike-laden suitcases off the train and disembark.

As we debated this plan, the whistle blew and the train started rolling again. Now the GPS was telling us that we were getting further and further from our hotel. The train maps were totally ambiguous, seeming to say that only the smaller regional trains went to Perugia San Giovanni. According to one map, if we missed the right stop for Perugia the train wouldn't stop again until it reached Cortona (which we should be hitting on our third day of biking!) So we were all panicking a bit at that, wondering how we would get back to our hotel. As it turned out, all was fine and the train stopped at the main Perugia station next. From there, we lugged our suitcases onto a bus and up the very very steep hill to our hotel.

The Hotel Iris is great and our room is very nice. They also have the nicest receptionist ever. She asked Asa to help her translate some email and help with her English (which was great to start with), so Asa got to sit with her down at the front desk while Wayne started putting the bikes together in our room. The hotel is very pretty, as is the town. Asa got this photo with her favorite receptionist on her own camera. She was really sad to leave this hotel, everyone there was so friendly and helpful to us. Especially as we were about to set up our bikes in their hallway. They were really great.

Today's moment of humor came when Mackenzie called out from the bathroom something about "these foot washers are great!!". "Foot washers?" we asked... "yeah, come see!" Well, you can just guess what he was washing his feet in. Or if you've never seen one, this is what's known as a bidet. it's not for washing feet. Although, having one large pre-teen boy, I have to say that a foot washer would come in mighty handy!

With feet nice and clean, the kids and I set out to explore the town while Wayne assembled bicycles. The town is so steep that you take these underground escalators to get from our hotel to the town center. The escalators go through this amazing underground city. Apparently in 1540, Pope Paolo III captured the city and to punish the rebellious Perugians, he built the Rocca Paolina (his papal fortress) right over their houses, churches, stores, etc. using their buildings as his foundation. So although the fortress is now gone, the underground ancient city still remains beneath it, and you can take these escalators up through it and wander the ancient streets, all underground now. It is amazingly cool, the kids and I were blown away! Poor Wayne missed this as he was still putting bicycles together.

The kids and I went up into the old walled part of the city on top of the hill, looked around and went into the local church and of course got some gelato. It's a bit windy and cold though, so we wandered back through the underground city to our hotel. There we had the most wonderful dinner at the restaurant at the bottom of the hotel. Just excellent food, yumm.

Wayne was the hero of the day, assembling four suitcases of assorted metal pieces into two fully-functioning tandem bicycles. Tomorrow: biking to Assisi!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unschooling and Testing

Issues about taking state-mandated tests have come up on several lists and discussions I've had in the last couple of weeks. I typed this up about how we've dealt with the state-mandated testing for homeschoolers in our state, and thought it might be worth sharing in case other unschoolers have these issues to deal with. In general, I don't find testing to be a terribly onerous burden on homeschoolers since in some states you have to present quarterly portfolios or have your homeschooling overseen by a teacher or something like that. I'd rather have our kids be able to be educated however we feel is appropriate and then just deal with a day of testing very two year as opposed to other hoops that we might have to jump through.

As far as the testing goes, I wish we didn't have to do it, of course. But I also believe that in life there are things you have to do that you wish you didn't have to, and at some point, that's just the reality of things. So we talked with the kids about the testing, about how it's one day every two years that we just have to do in order to have our whole wonderful unschooling lives the other 729 days out of those two years. We talked with them about what the test would be like, and offered to get some practice tests if they wanted to do them. No pressure to say yes, just an offer. The kids were interested. We actually had fun going over the practice tests together, I photocopied a ton of bubble sheets and we filled them in in crazy ways, but then I showed them how to make sure you were filling in the answer for the right question too. We read through the questions together and had fun picking out the wrong answers that are planted there to make you want to choose them ( like if the right answer is 321, they'll have 312 as a wrong answer).

It was also really kind of fun just seeing all the stuff the kids knew how to do - like Mackenzie knew how to do averages because we had a Clevenger Family Great Rootbeer Tasteoff one night where we tasted 6 different kinds of rootbeers and each gave them a star rating and then we averaged the star ratings to come up with our family's overall favorite. And he knew measuring from when we built the chicken coop, and so on. I pointed out how they had learned these things from their everyday life and isn't unschooling cool?

We just treated it like a big game. On test day, we made sure to go to the park and out for ice cream afterwards, to have something to look forward to. Basically in our unschooling house it's just treated as a hoop we have to jump through. We try to make it as fun as possible, but acknowledge that sometimes in life you just gotta do what you gotta do and enjoy the rest. I never showed him the results and he never asked to see them. Asa takes the 3rd grade test this year and Mackenzie finished the 5th grade test last year. We'll do it the same way for any future tests.

And one thing I've noticed is that my kids' reaction to tests is not the same as mine. They own their own journey and its very different than mine when I was a kid, simply because they are unschooled. They have no pressure to perform on the tests, the tests can be something that they simply experience, the tests don't define them or who they are and their self-esteem is not tied to any outcomes. This has been a nice discovery for me, so I don't worry so much about the testing like I did at the first.

Monday, January 26, 2009

IDOLizing Our Time Together

One thing I absolutely love, love, LOVE about unschooling is how the kids interests often draw me in to things I wouldn't necessarily seek out on my own. Recently, Asa has gotten very into watching American Idol. Now this isn't a show I would normally turn on. I've come across it a few times in the last years, but always just kept on switching by. Asa is, of course, our resident diva, and it's a rare moment that she's not singing. So American Idol is right up her alley and she's been known to ask more than once how many more years until she can audition (the picture of her below is from her 5th birthday, and now that she's going on 10, she's only got 6.5 years to go)

So this season, I said I'd watch it with her from start to finish. We just got unlimited texting on our family's cell phones this year too, so Mackenzie pointed out that we could even vote this year. So we made popcorn and got comfortable a couple of weeks ago and settled down to watch the auditions together. I don't think Mackenzie would've turned this show on in a million years but he has even gotten to look forward to watching.

One thing that's been very immediately apparent is that there are a lot of people out there without very much self awareness at all. And a good handful more who could use to learn a few things about graciousness and humility. I told Asa that if she ever goes on the show, I hope to heaven that she's one of those people who are not only great singers (of course) but who don't go in with the world's cockiest attitudes like the show owes them something, but with a positive spirit and a graciousness, whether they get picked or not.

I'm looking forward to seeing the people that have been picked and how they work their craft of music, and looking forward to learning more about this profession that my daughter so aspires to. I can't wait to see who moves on and who drops off and the ins and outs and whys of it all. And I wouldn't be so interested if one of my kids wasn't. There have been so many subjects like this - whether its Mallet steam locomotives or Celtic fiddle playing or robotics that my kids have drawn me into. The great thing about being an unschooling parent is that you're learning all the time right alongside your kids.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name

What is it about the term "unschooling" that causes people to covet it so much? So much that they are willing to wrap it, like a blanket over whatever homeschooling philosophies they might embrace and try to make it their own?

Our local "unschooling" list has erupted into fevered discussions over the term "unschooling" due to my offhand comment when someone posted a recommendation for a flashcard memorization website to the group, that such a thing really wasn't all that useful on an "unschooling" list. I mean, would you post a Monsanto pesticide recommendation on an organic gardening list? The flashcard mentality could hardly be more toxic to unschooling.

Some quotes from the website that was posted:
"The purpose of electronic flashcards is to enable students to master a large mass of course content."

"all courses of study, whether it be mathematics, social studies, science, or language arts, are reducible to tiny fact units "

"The system works very well for 98% of the content taught in schools, from preschool to graduate school."

I especially like that second quote about everything being reduced to tiny memorizable fact units. Yeah, that REALLY fits with an unschooling philosophy, doesn't it???

Of course, if you try to defend any definition of unschooling that remains relatively true to the nature of the philosophy, you're being "elitist" and "non-inclusive". Would it be equally uninclusive to say that eating meat "isn't vegetarian" or praying to the god Baal isn't a "Catholic practice"? Terms or labels only have meaning and usefulness when they have a definition. If I call myself an auto mechanic because I know how to knit sweaters, does that term hold any meaning whatsover? Why not just release all words in the English language to mean whatever they want to. That way if I said "I'm cooking pizza for dinner" my husband could equally take that to mean "I'm taking a train to Guatemala". Wouldn't communication cease to exist without definitions and meanings?

So for the record, unschooling, by definition, means "child-led learning". Not flashcards, not memorization, not grade levels, not curriculums, not a world divided into subjects and reduced to factoids. If that's not what you're doing, fine! More power to you! If you use an eclectic approach and you're totally happy with it and your kids are thriving: GREAT! But please, just don't call it unschooling.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Photos From Robotics Regionals

For those of you following this year's robotics odyssey, the photos from our day at the Regional Tournament are now up on our robotics team blog: Veni Vidi Roboti.

This Sunday is the state tournament, so we're practicing every day and getting everything ready for that. The kids are really excited and probably more than a little nervous, but I know they'll do just great.

Monday, January 12, 2009

And That's No Hogwash

So today I got to hear this about my daughter: "She's the kind of student every teacher dreams about having in a class."

Which is kind of ironic, given that this is only the 2nd classroom type of class she's ever taken in her life.

I remember when the kiddos were little and people were so worried that unschooling was going to prepare my kids for a life of freakish outsiderness, that if they ever wanted to take a class in something, they'd be completely unable to do things like sit still, pay attention, raise their hands. Because goodness knows, you have to start learning how to do that kind of thing in kindy you know, or you'll never learn it.

Turns out it's all a bunch of hogwash, or codswallop, both of which are excellent words to toss out frequently. My favorite teacher ever in school used to shout "Hogwash" at the top of his voice whenever a student got a wrong answer. He also used to twirl his eyebrows into strange little pointy things and he reminded me of Frank Morgan, who played five roles in the Wizard of Oz including of course the Wizard and the gatekeeper of the Emerald City.

But I digress. I guess my point, if I happened to have one, was that the things we think are necessary to start drilling into kids' heads at a young age really aren't. And at any point if they really want to do something they'll learn whatever they need to know in order to accomplish that thing. And chances are, since they want to be learning it at that point, it will come effortlessly as well. No hogwash there.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Enter the Crazy Week

One week from today until the robotics team goes to the State championships. I've got a million details going through my head, and the kids are getting excited. They've polished up a couple of programs and added a couple more, added a few details to their research project presentation, and now it's just down to making pit table decorations, costumes, and stuff to hand out to other teams. Fun stuff! But for me, it includes making sure I've got all the paperwork, directions, hotel reservations, bins, boxes, and stuff ready to go. Enter the crazy week!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Life, Unschooled

I realized the other day that this started out to be my unschooling blog, but that I rarely write about unschooling anymore as a subject. Come to think of it, I don't really think about it that much either. Rather, as time has gone by, it has gotten more and more normal just to live our lives - all four of us in this family - pursue our passions, and not really think that much about schooling in any sense. When the kids are younger and unschooling is newer as a concept, I think there's a tendency to be on the lookout for times that "learning" is occurring, to maybe have some anxiety that the right kinds of learning will occur by the right magic milestones, and to make sure to provide the right kinds of educational opportunities. As the years roll by though, it becomes plainly evident that such vigilance isn't needed. The kids are always busy, always pursuing so many different and exciting opportunities, learning becomes self-evident and not something to be chased in circles like a dog with its tail.

But since I know a lot of folks read this blog who are in various stages of unschooling, beginning to unschool, thinking about unschooling, or thinking unschooling is just plain crazy, maybe its time for a little update on how all of that works now that the kids are (ulp!) 12 and 9.

So here's what we've been up to lately. Firstly, robotics is still on the front stage since the team is going to the State competition in 10 days. So that means team practices for about 5 or so hours a week. Plus, Mackenzie has been working on one really tough program and spending extra hours on that. He put in three hours today on that program alone, and with the help of team member Tiff they finally got it completely debugged and working perfectly. Since this program uses variables, timers, loops, sensors, sub-routines and case statements, it's easily the most complex single program they've ever attempted. It's cool to watch the kids get completely involved in something and really work through the tough spots until its all puzzled out.

Speaking of hard work and fun, Asa had a great time in the musical production of Scrooge this December. She played Martha Cratchit, and can be seen here singing her heart out (far right) over Scrooge's coffin. Interestingly, that's exactly the part I played in a version called "Ebenezer" when I acted as a teenager. For this spring, she just auditioned for the musical version of Beauty and the Beast and she will be playing the part of Chip, the little teacup. There's nothing she loves more than singing, dancing, acting, and hanging out with other folks who love those things so the world of theatre is right up her alley. She can also be heard rocking out with her new Karaoke machine (thanks Santa) at all hours of the day, and has asked me more than once how old she has to be to audition for American Idol. She's got a gorgeous voice, so I wouldn't put it past her someday.

Mackenzie is more of the quiet and introverted type, so theatre is not for him, but he got a bow for his birthday from his Uncle Nickrooz and Aunty Meese and has really been enjoying using that at the archery range that Wayne set up down near the creek. When bad weather strikes, he's usually curled up with a book and a cat, or else playing D&D with friends, WoW, Chess, building Lego inventions, or his own game inventions. He recently approached me with an idea for a book that knocked my socks off, and he and I will be working on that together.

One extremely happy development in having older kids is that they have gotten inspired to try some cooking. Asa checked out a kids' cookbook from the library and has so far made guacamole (really good!) and her own sushi. The first attempt at sushi didn't go so well (a couple of forgotten ingredients didn't help) but this time around was delicious! I'm looking forward to more of her culinary adventures. Wayne has started baking bread for the family and he and Mackenzie made Cinnamon rolls for Christmas Eve. Yummmm.

And as for the rest of our time, there's always gardening, long walks, family game nights, karate, trips to the library, the art and science museums, plays, concerts, reading books together, hanging out with our 15 animals, and lots of other fun stuff. In other words, just living life together and learning along the way. Life, Unschooled.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Italia Day 5: Roma: The Vatican

It's been awhile since I posted one of these. Here's the journal entry from our 5th day in Rome. I start off with an example of jet lag in action:

Wayne: "Where are my socks??"
Us: "You're holding them in your hand."
Wayne: "How did they get there?"

And a quote from Asa while we were walking: "How far is it to those sixteen chapels anyways?"

It was about 2 miles from our apartment near the Pantheon, as it turns out. This photo is of the bridge of Castel Sant'Angelo, where we crossed the Tevere (Tiber) river.

So on to the Vatican. Today is a rainy day in Rome and I discovered that my rain jacket doesn't work all that well. I got soaked on the walk over. Luckily the body heat generated by the 80,000 people crammed into St. Peter's (the line went around the entire piazza) quickly dried us off. St. Peter's itself was so overwhelming it was underwhelming in a way: so big, so much decoration, and unfortunately so many people that it was hard to feel impressed, strange as that might seem. Probably if you arrived in November and it was nearly empty (if it ever is, anymore) then it would be more affecting. The kids were fascinated by the Swiss Guards in their colorful uniforms, especially when they changed over with much hoopla and presenting of arms. The thing that I found to be the most affecting was really that it hits home that Peter was a real person, who really died and was buried there. And he was a disciple of Christ. So I guess in a way it made all of the Bible stories I learned as a kid that much more real, just being able to stand there in that place. All the fancy swirling decor on the altar is so much frosting on the cake, but Peter was a real person and he's really buried there.

We ate lunch from our backpack under the great columnade at the edge of the Piazza, protected from the rain at least. The kids took a hundred more photos of The Pigeons of Rome, which will figure prominently in their personal photo albums. After lunch we mailed some postcards and got ready to trek through the rain to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums, which are actually a good ways away from St. Peters.

The Sistine Chapel was definitely truly amazing. The scope and talent and creativity displayed by Michelangelo there is really overwhelming, especially considering he was pretty new to the whole fresco business not to mention still fairly young. I'm glad we got to see the ceiling post-restoration because the vibrant colors make the whole thing so much more affecting. It doesn't really come across much in photos, it's of course hard to capture the scope and the enormous amounts of detail. (Post trip note: Michelangelo: The Vatican Frescoes is the best book I've found, incredibly thorough with gorgeous photographs and lengthy descriptions, history, and explanations of each part of the ceiling frescoes.) I could've easily stayed another hour or more just taking it all in. I also noted that there were several nursing toddlers and nursing older children pictured, although I have heard that some of those nursing breasts were covered up in the pre-restoration ceiling for "modesty".

We also went through the rest of the Vatican museums. The kids really loved the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman galleries, and we got the audio tour which they always love. The museum itself has little in the way of explanations or presentation of the artifacts, so without the audio tour you'd be left guessing about the details of anything there. It did make me appreciate the trend in American museums in the last 30 years or so toward more interactive exhibits with description and presentation all helping to give some context to what you're seeing. Between all of the different exhibits there at the Vatican, it's huge of course and takes hours to wind through all of the galleries, it's pretty mind-boggling. Note to parents who might bring young kids there, once you start down the one-way U-shaped museum wings, there's no easy outs. And no bathrooms either that we noticed.

Personally I liked the sculpture gallery best. I had a flashback to art history class at several points. Suddenly statues that you've only seen on slides or pages of a book are right there in front of you. I especially loved seeing Laocoon and his sons with the serpent. I was always struck by the emotion in that statue and its so much more affecting in person. Asa too found it to be very sad. She really loved the sculpture gallery of the animals, taking lots of photos there. Mackenzie especially liked the statues pertaining to Greek mythology. They were both very engaged and patient considering that we were on our feet for about 7.5 straight hours. Good thing these kids have stamina!

The kids got a kick out of these signs. Italians seem to love to use signs with drawings instead of a lot of text. I'm sure it helps in such a place where people come to visit from so many different cultures and languages. But this particular sign started our trend of purposeful misinterpretation. The kids dubbed this one "Nose Picking Allowed" and "Funky Dancers on Stairs"

Tonight we went for some great pizza on one of the small streets near our apartment. Now we're packing up to leave Rome tomorrow and head to Perugia!