Monday, April 27, 2015

Living What You're Learning!

 Most of us grew up in a traditional school atmosphere.  There were desks in neat rows where we sat alphabetically and all of our textbooks fit inside.  When it was time for math or reading or history we all took at our textbooks and followed along.  When that class was over, we put the book and away and failed to think of it again.  We didn’t need to, that class was over for the day. When we start homeschooling many of us revert to what’s familiar - the traditional classroom.   I felt the need to just do what I knew, use a textbook, a workbook and have a little desk bought from a school sale and set up school at home. Fortunately, God and my husband had another plan.
In order to break out of that cycle we have to recognize several things:
1. In a traditional school setting we wouldn’t have more than one age group.
2. It is not necessary to stay in one room to school all day.
3. This philosophy of learning may not be the best learning style for active young minds and bodies.
4.  School can be fun and still be rigorous.

One of the main goals in our home school has been to teach our children to love to learn and we began to find that very difficult in the traditional school setting with all traditional school texts.

We believe that if we help our children to be life long learners because they love to learn then anything we might have missed, they will pick up on their own. Really, we think of it as one of our educational safety nets. If we raise children who maintain a child like curiosity and a joy of learning through out their life there is nothing that they cannot do. Einstein says, “ It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” We want to awaken and nurture that innate curiosity. We also want them to understand that learning and knowledge doesn't take one form. It's not just from 8:30 to 2:00 or only to be found in textbooks, learning can be found in many different places. Charlotte Mason, who was an educator in the early 1900's, had a motto for the children in her school which was, “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” but what I find more interesting is the motto for the parent and/or educators was, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” Elsie Kitchling wrote in a 1935 Charlotte Mason's Parent's Review, “We have a definite mission – to bring the fullness of life to the children. It is more possible to carry this mission in a home schoolroom.” Those statements resonate with me. Education is an atmosphere that we can create but is also discipline, not everything is going to be fun and games sometimes we need to just memorize those multiplication facts but our mission is to make our children's education a way of life.

Multi-Level Combined Learning
How do we think out side the box? One of the easiest ways to immediately make an environment of learning is to combine your children's subjects as much as possible. My kids have Bible, History, Art and as much science together as possible. This allows you do all the projects together. This also allows you to have a commonality to talk about through out the day. The side benefit that I have learned of combining my kids is that they will play together about what they have learned about in school. Without any direction from me, my kids will build a Lincoln Log Jamestown or create an oasis in the Sahara desert for the Bedouins in the sand box.

Buy Curricula Early in the Summer
To start the process of thinking through the year, I buy my curriculum early in the summer so that I have time to look it all over. I read my Teacher's Manual all the way through and start notes on the main topics.
I take the time to look through all the books in my curriculum.  What do I have and what do I need?  We use a boxed curriculum as our starting place as it  saves me time and money and then I can start individualizing from there.  Spend time making a master list of major Bible, history and science topics to refer back to.  Make a list of your priorities for teaching that year based on your curricula.  If we have a plan ahead of time we are less likely to stray from our main goals and it allows us to evaluate opportunities as they come up.

Get your spouse involved.
My husband is a great resource for me, especially when it comes to fun and games.  I can tell him the main topic of what we are learning and he will begin his search for great things.  He’s a computer guy so he will always start there.  Amazon is his friend.  He also loves unique game stores and will spend time looking for games that we can play as a family.  If I share my prioritized list with him then he’s good at starting to think about and look for things that will enhance our school year.  The more our kids “live” what we are learning the more memorable it becomes.

Learning Vacations and Grandparents
Another benefit of planning early is that you have time to plan and schedule family learning vacations.  We usually plan one vacation a year that is an extended field trip.  When we were studying American History we went to Washington DC and Mt. Vernon.  When we were studying Colorado we traveled our state for several weeks to see what we were learning about.  When we were studying Teddy Roosevelt and the beginnings of the National Parks we went to Yellowstone in the winter and then followed up in the spring with 5 National Parks in 5 days.  When we purposefully schedule these things to coincide with our academic learning we begin to take learning outside the box and it becomes real to our kids.  When our little girl stood on the porch of Mt. Vernon and looked over the Potomac she told me that she understood why Pres. Washington wanted to come back to his home, it was too pretty to stay away from.  These things stop being academic and become understandable when our kids experience them.

We like to take Grandparents with us on these trips as it’s fun and they bring another level of understanding and it shows our kids that we are never to stop learning and that learning is a family event.  Plan some time to research.  Find some guides that will help teach your kids about where you are going.  Have a blank notebook for each child and each day day have them write a summary and draw a picture of where you went and what you saw.  I also like to have a read aloud that is specific to the place that we are going. Because we homeschool, we generally don’t have to visit places during the peak season. If we are going to a place that has historical significance, I like to have the kids do a time line piece before we go to fit into our master time line.  It helps us to mentally fit in where this place fits chronologically.  When you get home have your kids do a hands-on projects on one portion of your trip.  When we did our study on Colorado and spend several weeks traveling, my oldest did a report on the history of Colorado but more specifically a report on how our family got here.  My daughter took pictures of wildflowers everywhere we went and identified them and put them all together in a lapbook my other son did a diorama  of Mesa Verde and  wrote a short report on who lived there.  They had a great time and they learned a ton.

Early Learning
At the youngest stages of learning, that from about 2 years of age to 6 or 7 years of age hands-on learning is so important and the more fun school is, the more they want to learn. The more they want to learn, the happier every home school Mom is. As a matter of fact, at this age, I had to tell my kids that Mom had to stop teaching because I had to make dinner. I believe that at this stage kids need to feel it, touch it, live it in order to learn it. The more you can have them feel it, touch it, live it, the more they will remember and retain the information.
Here's some ideas for the youngest stage of learning.

Read a Book and then do something from the book. Reading about Jonah? Put a blanket over the table, open a can of tuna and talk about how bad that “time out” would be. Read “Give a Mouse a Cookie” and make cookies together – maybe make a mouse too and act it out.
Read a book about manners like one of these and then go act them out. You be the child and have them be the Mom. “Suzie, this is Mrs. Gray.” Your response as the child, “Hello, Mrs. Gray. How are you?” We had a little tent playhouse and we would take turns and model these behaviors.
To learn their letters sing the sounds and go around the house and tape letters on anything that begins with the letter they are learning. Then when Dad gets home have the child bring him around the house showing him everything that starts with that letter.

The Sand box is a great tool at this stage. You can practice writing letters, learn about erosion and build the Tower of Babel.

M&M math is one of our favorites. Teaching addition is a breeze. You have one m&m and I give you one more how many do you have? Two! Subtraction too. You have 4 m&m's and Mom eats two of them. How many do you have now? Oh sorry, you only have two. How many do I need to give you to make 5? Skip counting, addition and subtraction, multiplication and division can all be taught using m&m's and at the end we all get to have some. It's a win for all involved.

The point is not that you have to do some great big craft session or set up something elaborate. You can and many Mom's are great at that. I am not one of those. I am more of the, “Let's see what do I have right now that will help me explain and teach this concept well?” And by right now, I mean this very second. To have my twins practice math, I wrote numbers on the play food and made some quick “Grocery lists” gave them some accurate play money I had in a drawer somewhere and had them play store. One was the customer and the other the store keeper. They had to do the addition and give the money to the store keeper and the store keeper had to check their math. Then they switched. They played this way for hours each week and did more math then I ever could have gotten them do in a workbook. It took me approx. 10 min to set up and it allowed us to fulfill our goal, “to teach our kids to love to learn”.

Once our kids got passed that early Elementary stage, I had to start looking harder at what activities we could do that would catch their interest but would still help to nurture the love of learning that we had instilled earlier on.

Food and Cooking
 We love food and we love cooking together at our house and I have found this to be a great way to bring school into our everyday life. Studying fractions? Make a pie together. You'll get to talk about fractions as you cook and then you can teach fractions as you cut it up. When we first introduce fractions we have a pizza and pie night to introduce this concept in a fun manner. “We cut the pie into 8 pieces so right now we have 8/8th or 1 whole. If we serve one piece or 1/8 of the pie how much will we have left? 7/8th. If Daddy eats ½ or 4/8th of the pie what fraction of the pie is left.” Yes, we could do this with a manipulative but it's more fun and more memorable with food way and not only am I doing school but we've made dinner too! Cooking can be used in so many different applications. Learning about the beginning of the United States? Make Johnny Cakes or studying Ancient history? How about having a real shabbat or passover. Learning geography? Plan one night a week that you make food from around the world. There are tons of cookbooks out there that can help you plans these. Here's a few that I use all the time. ( The US History Cookbook, Celebrating Biblical Feasts, Cooking Around the World – Dawn's) This method is one of my very favorites as it accomplishes so much in so little time, my kids learn how to cook, we're making learning come alive, dinner is made and Dad gets to be involved in the learning because he gets to eat it with us. It's multi-tasking at it's best. My husband had a great time being the Lord and Master at the Medieval Inn night and we all learned how hard it would be to be a monk when we had pea soup, black bread and were unable to talk through the entire meal. We also learned so much when we did a full shabbat from Friday sun down until Saturday sun down. Not doing dishes is hard but spending a whole day resting and just being together was wonderful.

Toys and Games
I love to buy learning toys and games for my kids for presents. It's a good thing they have grandparents who love to spoil them and just give them something just for the fun of it because I am always looking for things that I can use for school too. This is also a great way to get my husband involved. Talking about home schooling theories and debating which book to use is not his idea of a good time but if I say that I need a toy or new games that will help cement some of the things we are learning in school? He's in and the bonus is that he'll usually play with the kids using these toys and games. Legos are one of these things that we love and I can use for school. When we were learning about the WWWI and WWWII, I bought several sets of the green army men and we used them to demonstrate trench warfare as well as play a few mock battles. Studying medieval history? Get one of the castle sets for a present. Two birds with one stone. Games are the same way. Scrambled States was a great game to help us memorize the states in a fun way outside of school. Settlers of Catan was a fun way to introduce the difficulty in setting up new settlements during colonization. A few comments about what we just studied and suddenly my kids understood more about how and why colonies were settled and how they depended on each other. When I go to a toy store I am continually thinking. “ How can I use this for learning purposes?”  What here can make our learning come alive? If I know my topics for the year, I can plan ahead.  As a matter of fact, while we were opening Christmas presents this year, my oldest son stopped and asked if the present he was opening was for fun or for learning? I told him it was for both. Thankfully, he really liked the present. As our kids became teenagers, these games morphed into game nights where we invite several other families to bring food and play games long into the night.  Most of the kids had no idea that we were buying and playing games that were learning games.  Settlers of Catan is a great game to beginning exploration and settlement.  Ave Caesar was played while we studied the Roman Empire, Lancaster was played while we were studying the Middle Ages and each player had to create a fiefdom.  We got Timeline so that our kids could memorize historical dates and have fun with their friends.  Pandemic was played while we studied Biology, Axis and Allies, during WWII.

Christmas Break
I love Christmas and I love taking a long Christmas vacation from school but I never feel good about not doing any school and I need something to help keep the kids and the Grandparents busy so I started planning Christmas unit studies based on what we were learning in school. This helps us to really enjoy the Christmas season, keeps what we are learning fresh in our minds but seems so different and fun. I always plan a Biblical aspect that helps us to keep the real reason of the season in the forefront of our mind, a read aloud aspect and crafts and food. When we were studying Rome, we read Jotham's Journey, made Jewish and or Mediterranean goodies and made Christmas ornaments that told the Christmas story. Last year when we were studying the 18 and 1900's we learned about Charles Dickens, read Christmas Carol, studied the Biblical truths evident in the story and made crafts and goodies that were applicable to that time frame. This year, as we have been studying geography and cultures we did a unit study on Christmas around the world. We read tales from around the world, made cookies and treats from different countries and made traditional Christmas crafts. We had a Christmas party with several families in which everyone brought food from around the world and talked about being missionaries to those all around our world. We ended our unit study by having a La Posada. If you have a friend who is home schooling too, Christmas unit studies are a fun way to get together and divide the work.

Bible Application
We can often find things that help us to make learning real for history, science or for our read alouds but how about for Bible?  When we think about it, this is the area in which we most need to be deliberate about taking our learning outside of the classroom but sometimes it’s also the area in which we struggle with the most.  I have found that opening up a discussion up with my kids about what we are learning in Bible and how we can take it outside our four walls has been the most enlightening.  Kids want to do something, they want to reach out and help and sometimes we just need to ask them what they feel like God is calling them to.  It was my kids idea to sponsor a child,  it was my kids idea to have a lemonade stand and to donate the proceeds to Bible translation because we had read a book about people not having a Bible in their own language.  It was my daughters heart for the homeless that had us start going to feeding centers or to canvas the neighborhood for extra canned goods for the food center.  One of my sons friends felt the need to raise money for children in Ethiopia so she talked to my son and their friends and they put on a piano benefit.  A bunch of middle school kids using their talents to play piano to benefit children across the world, absolutely priceless.  It was only our job to say okay, what can we do to help you?  We need to tell them that they can do great things for the kingdom of God, read them stories of people who did great things for God and then let them go.  Support them and no matter how busy we are, find a way to make it happen.  I want my kids to understand that they can make a difference all we need to do is pray about it and then obey. We can also be looking for books that help us explain this or bring the matter to mind with a different perspective.  Reading stories of people who did great things for God is a great way to also help our kids learn Bible application.

Older Kids

As my kids became teenagers and moved into Middle School and High School, we still tried to live what we were learning but it morphed a little.  We still do foods that relate to what we are learning and games and field trip but they have become much more social outings.  Now we take a group of teenagers to the Art Museum to study art.  If we are doing foods, we invite other families to do it with us.  Our game nights have been up to 40-50 people.  If we want our kids to enjoy this kind of learning we have to be willing to be the ones who are willing to have people over, set up the game nights, plan the museum outing.  It’s not always convenient and I have learned that a messy kitchen floor is fine, the teenagers don’t care and they will probably spill something anyway so I might as well wait until after the party before I clean.

The other thing I have learned with teenagers is that we have to start asking what they are interested in and helping them schedule and find the time to do what they are passionate about and helping them to live our their learning.  My oldest was interested in programming so we started a FLL team.  He loved SCRATCH and he spent a lot of time programming on it which led to him being asked to be a Curator and Tester, which led to him meeting some of the creators of SCRATCH which led to him developing an add on to control robots from SCRATCH. Which led to him speaking at SCRATCH conferences in Barcelona and MIT to Computer Science educators around the world.  He then taught kids in inner city LA and online basic programming and circuitry.  Kids that had never seen how computers and programming worked and began in his class to program basic games. Which thankfully led to some very prestigious scholarships so that he basically has all of his College tuition paid for.  Our daughter is interested in plants and gardening and read tons of books on aquaponics and she decided to set up a working aquaponics systems with fish that fed our family fresh herbs and vegetables last summer.  Most of the supplies were from earlier learning toys and scraps in our garage. When our kids were little our job was to lead them to the outside learning opportunities but now as our kids are older, our job is to say, “sure, let’s try it and see what happens”.

Stay on Task
Here’s where it gets hard.  There are a lot of great opportunities out there.  Opportunities that have great learning benefits but if we fail to stay on task then we will be so over committed to things that are not helping us to enhance what we are learning that the school year will get ahead of us.  We have to be deliberate and be able to evaluate what things will help us with our task of learning and what things will detract.  Great opportunities may come but we need to be willing to say, “not right now”.  It may a no answer for this year.  I know I have turned down opportunities to go to things because they weren’t what we were studying at the time but that allowed us to have time to go to something that really brought to life what we were learning about.  I know this is almost sacrilege to the homeschool Mom but we need to pick and choose what will get us the most ground.

Schedule Unstructured Time
We need to give ourselves time to think this way.  Schedule structured school for the mornings and work hard at it and then allow for unstructured afternoons where you can play a game together or cook a meal from your history book or have the kids build the Taj Mahal out of building blocks.  Don’t over schedule yourself and your kids so that there isn’t time for anything else.  Make your home an atmosphere of learning but don’t let it become a mark you check off.  Just like the parent and educators in Charlotte Mason’s schools we need to make “education an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”


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