Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Week of Standardized Testing -- ACK!

This week, Tiny Girl is wading through the CAT/5.  There are ten separate tests, and we're doing two per day.  She proclaimed yesterday's tests "easy"; they were word analysis and vocabulary.  Right now, she's struggling with the spelling test.  Spelling is not her strong suit.  There's been a bit of wailing and teeth-gnashing in the last few minutes.

I can relate.  I understand the word analysis, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and arithmetic as necessary evils of a standardized test; but spelling?  It's difficult, as her mother-teacher, to know that we haven't covered all these words or spelling rules, yet she has to undergo testing on them anyway. It's a set-up to fail.

I'm not a big fan of standardized tests, anyway.  Since our home education model differs greatly from the public school model, our material doesn't coincide with theirs.  But in our state, homeschooled children are required to take some sort of nationally-recognized standardized test every three years, starting in third grade.

There are a few options.  Many homeschool stores and hybrid "homeschool" schools (two days per week of instruction; assignments completed at home) offer ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) testing on their premises for a reasonable cost.  Last year, I planned for Miss Priss to take the test in this fashion, but she vehemently objected.  She did not want to go to another location, sit in a room with other unfamiliar homeschool students, and take a test administered by an unknown proctor for two days, three hours per day.  She had a point.

After a bit of online research, I located Family Learning Organization, a company in Spokane that offers consultation, assessment, and standarized achievement testing services to homeschoolers.  I signed up, and they sent me everything I needed to administer the third-grade CAT/5 (California Achievement Test) to my child at our home, where she is most comfortable.  Since I was able to keep the materials for two weeks, we could do reasonable portions of the test over a longer period of time.  After she completed the test, I sent everything back, and two weeks later, we received her scores and a report.  The whole process was smooth and satisfactory, much better than sending my third-grader to an unfamiliar location to take a daunting examination.  We'll save that for the SAT, right?

Besides, I doubt seriously any testing facility would provide Raspberry Zinger tea and Burton's Rich Tea Biscuits for the students to enjoy as they filled in the little answer bubbles.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Weekly Wrap-Up: Just Keep Swimming. . .

For several reasons, this week was lighter than normal.  This was not my plan; it just happened.  For a good part of the week, I was, as I described it in yesterday's post, wallowing in a cesspool of angst and indecision, and -- surprise! -- that put something of a damper on my attitude.  Then there were numerous activities going on this week, some of which were atypical.  Apparently, all of this is going around, if any of the blogs I've been reading are an indication, and I'm guessing they are.  Kris, from Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers, wrote an excellent post in a similar vein.  Ah, 'tis the season!

We managed to focus on the basics, however.  For math, I put aside our regular curriculum, and the girls completed addition, subtraction, and multiplication worksheets.  They actually enjoyed the change-up.  For copywork, they continued with their choice of verses from Psalms, and they did their spelling workbooks.  And they read independently.  A lot.

That's about it.  We did do a few of our family readings and a touch of Latin.  They also practiced piano.  Today they have their homeschool science class.  Right now, Miss Priss is working on a project for a Girl Scout badge.

Thankfully, I was able to cut myself a little slack yesterday while I thought about our situation and drank my Lady Grey tea.  (Today, in case you're interested, I'm drinking PG Tips.)  I still need to set aside some time to review my plans for the rest of this year and get a better handle on everything.  I'll do that this weekend.

In other weekly news, Jasper is doing great!  His second puppy training class (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one, but it's fun) is tomorrow afternoon.  He's also discovered the joy of chasing squirrels.  He's a good reminder to me that life is made up of little things, small joys to be savored.  I keep forgetting that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Remembering to Breathe

I posted a couple of weeks ago about some homeschooling woes in which I was wallowing (lots of comments -- thanks!), and I've still got one toe in that cesspool.

It so happened that, while looking over the Ambleside Online schedule for Year 3, I saw that we had missed some books we were supposed to have already covered.  I know how it happened; I'd made a few substitutions, and then forgot about the others.  Of course, panic set in.  What would we do now?  How could I fit all that in without backpedaling?  Was it possible?  It seems we are always treading water.  Are we ever going to move forward?

Then a dear friend told me that, at this point, she's picking and choosing items to cover because covering everything simply isn't an option.  I blinked.  She was so right.  And anyway, when is covering everything ever an option?

So today I took a deep breath, exhaled (very important to remember!), and thought things through.  I also had a cup of Lady Grey tea, which was very helpful.  Here's what I came up with:

It's mid-March, not the best time to reinvent the wheel.  Instead of trying to cram more things in, I'm going to either cover some things this summer (perhaps in a more streamlined form), or look ahead to see when we'll cover this material again in later years and leave it until then.  I also need to remind myself that whatever we're doing is still more than what they would be doing in school.  So basically, we're just going with my plans for the rest of this year.

I feel better already.  More tea?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Beach Music

This week, I read Beach Music, by Pat Conroy, who is, you'll be glad to know, "without a doubt America's favorite storyteller"; at least, that's what the book jacket asserts.  Rarely have I been so annoyed with a book for so many different reasons.

Here's the blurb from the book jacket:
Beach Music is about Jack McCall, an American living in Rome with his young daughter, trying to find peace after the recent trauma of his wife's suicide.  But his solitude is disturbed by the appearance of his sister-in-law, who begs him to return home, and of two school friends asking for his help in tracking down another classmate who went underground as a Vietnam protester and never resurfaced.  These requests launch Jack on a journey that encompasses the past and present in both Europe [the Holocaust] and the American South [the Civil War and the sixties], and that leads him to shocking -- and ultimately liberating -- truths.  [parenthetical comments mine]
Yes, that's right.  This book has it all: betrayal, love, revenge, murder, suicide, family violence, mental illness, the Holocaust, Vietnam, treachery, dysfunction galore, cancer, terrorism, more death, child abuse in various forms, and the illegal relocation of sea turtle nests, which brings me to my first point.  Beach Music is WAY too long.  There is enough material for three novels.  But that's only the beginning of the problem.  More importantly, the disparate storylines make it impossible to commit emotionally to any one storyline.   Or even two, for that matter.  Just as I got comfortably ensconced within a narrative, the focus would shift to something completely unrelated.  These abrupt transitions demand difficult mental adjustments that, frankly, get in the way.  It's hard to be fully involved when you are constantly hopping from one place to another.

Then there are the characters themselves.  I found Jack McCall to be an ineffectual protagonist.  He often takes a hard-line position about something, only to capitulate too easily and too quickly.  This makes him seem like a blow-hard.  Most of his friends are over the top to the point of caricature: Hollywood sleazeball Mike and slimy politician Capers, for example.  I found his daughter, Leah, to be ridiculous.  Not only does she excel at everything she does and is, in effect, the perfect "magical" child, she also behaves as no other eight- to nine-year-old I've ever met (and I know my share of children in that age group).  Finally, Jack's dysfunctional family is overdone with far too many shades of The Prince of Tides to suit me:  the alcoholic father, the outcast illiterate mother who finally makes good, the mentally ill sibling.

Beach Music is only the second Conroy novel I've read, and in both I was struck by his depiction of the South as a character instead of merely a setting.  Conroy attaches a mysticism to the South that I find tiresome, as if the South ensnares its inhabitants against their will, for better or worse.  In fact, I sense a love/hate relationship with the South within Conroy himself.  Sometimes this Gothic-style conceit is successful, as in Flannery O'Connor's short stories.  But Conroy simply makes being Southern (his caps, not mine) seem more like a terminal illness than a cultural or geographical identity.  And I say this as a southerner, myself.

Characterization is not the only thing overdone in this novel.  Many of the scenes (which go on and on and on, inviting skimming -- to which I resorted on numerous occasions) are simply too far-fetched to be believable.  A gargantuan manta ray soaring over a boat, not once but twice?  Moreover, quite a few narrow escapes within the myriad storylines are either too coincidental or too preposterous to ring true.

And the absurd "courtroom drama" near the end is just too much.  I know very few people who would put up with such obvious manipulation and machinations, yet Conroy has many of his characters participate in such.  Since this scene apparently functions as the novel's denouement, it should provide the reader with a full untangling of the plot threads.  It does not.  Conroy is more interested in backstory than what's happening internally with his characters.  Jack McCall relinquishes his tightly-held opinions and beliefs too easily (not for the first time) and with no explanation.  He literally goes from hate to hugs in a way that's surprising and sort of goofy.  Frankly, some of the "friends" he forgives don't deserve to return into the fold as the narrative is written.  They do nothing to make reparation for their past actions except to give voice to a (very) few wishful and regretful thoughts -- not about what they did in the past -- that was all okay -- but what happened afterward.  This is, unbelievably, fine with Jack, despite all his posturing from the beginning of the novel up until now.  Everyone hugs and makes up.  Hmmm.

Don't misunderstand -- I'm all for forgiveness and restoration.  But Conroy neglects to show the reader the process by which Jack decides to forgive and restore.  Suddenly, he just does these things, which makes little sense.  Further, those with whom Jack reunites have behaved -- right up to this point in the narrative -- like jerks.  Now we're supposed to believe they've had a change of heart?  It simply doesn't work.

Then there are other complaints I have, such as when Jack McCall relates, "It surprised me when I read Chaucer in Old English and found him to be a most hilarious writer" (page 454).  It surprises me, too, since Chaucer wrote in Middle English, not Old English.  For Old English, turn to Beowulf.  Does no one fact-check anymore?  And who's editing this, anyway?

I ask you, is it so wrong to expect more from "America's favorite storyteller"?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Weekly Wrap-Up: How Homeschooling Can Survive Multiple Interruptions

We made it!  Our second week with Jasper went a bit more smoothly than our first.  However, taking Jasper out, playing with Jasper, training Jasper. . . this all takes time and, to the girls' delight, often usurps whatever mundane educational thing we've got going at the time.  Conjugating Latin verbs?  Oh, look, Jasper needs to go out!

Convenient, eh?  But every single time, Jasper did actually need to go out.

However, we still managed to have a successful week.  In history last week, we began This Country of Ours, by H. E. Marshall, an AO history selection (available here at The Baldwin Project for free).  We read chapter two last week and chapter three this week, both concerning Christopher Columbus.  Even though I consider myself fairly well-versed in history, my understanding of how an Italian managed to convince the king and queen of Spain to finance his questionable journey was sketchy at best.  And I had no idea it such a complicated situation.  I should have guessed, though!

We finished both the chapter on Koskomenos the Kingfisher in Secrets of the Woods, by William J. Long, (available here on The Baldwin Project) and the section about Jason and the Argonauts in Charles Kinglsey's The Heroes (available here on The Baldwin Project).  We enjoyed both of these AO recommendations.  Secrets of the Woods is an excellent natural history living book, and The Heroes retells the ancient Greek myths with which every child should have at least a nodding acquaintance.  I didn't study Greek myths until high school and then only a few of them.  So when I was in college, many a literary classical allusion zoomed over my head simply because I hadn't read these stories.

I'm enjoying our study of Marco Polo more than the girls are.  Frankly, this is yet again something I barely studied in school -- only in elementary school and very briefly.  After that, Marco Polo was just a game we played at the pool.  Even though it's not their favorite topic, the girls are learning a lot, as evidenced by their narrations.

In other subjects, shortening Miss Priss's math lessons has made a big difference in her attentions.  Also, doing a bit of Latin every day has been successful.  She is retaining more and doesn't feel so overwhelmed.  She's even stopped complaining about Latin.  Yippee!  They both are enjoying their spelling workbooks and copywork.  This week, they chose different verses from Psalms for copywork.

Spring is in the air where we live!  My daffodils are beautiful, and some pink-flowering tree is blooming everywhere around our town.  I think they are flowering crabapple, but I'm not certain.  Today was sunny and hit 70 degrees.  It's after 6:00 PM, and the girls are outside wearing shorts.

I'm going to say a reluctant fare-thee-well to reading by fireside with a cup of tea on winter evenings.  But spring has its own charms.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Things That Made Me Happy Today

I don't have anything deep and momentous on my mind this evening, but instead am filled with a warm, satisfying gratitude for my blessings.  Despite a few squabbles and posturing (which may or may not have included me), today was a great day.  I'm taking advantage of an earlier rise time each morning (thanks to Jasper) by doing my Bible study before the girls typically arise.  Beth Moore's Esther study and a cup of tea with the puppy gnawing a toy nearby -- could I ask for more?

Well, yes.  I frequently do.

Anyway, one of the first glimpses of a male goldfinch in his brightly-colored summer coat caught my eye.  During the winter, the males and females look the same (to my eye, at least -- their coloring is the same), but in spring, the males' golden feathers and black mask appear.  This photo is out of focus, but you can still see the difference between the male and female at my finch feeder.

Later in the afternoon, we took Jasper to a nearby dog park: a fenced-in area where dogs can play off-leash.  It was our first visit, and he had a blast with all the dogs, but especially with Buddy, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.  They wrestled and galumphed almost the entire time.  Small wonder Jasper is napping now and has been for almost two hours.  He was tuckered out!

And, to top if all off, Himself brought home for our supper leftovers from his fabulous business lunch (something I never get to experience anymore).  Lasagna, chicken piccata, and ziti and chicken in a sage cream sauce that I didn't have to cook.  Lovely!

Now the girls and I are going to make ice cream sundaes, complete with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream (okay, out of a can), and I am not going to think for one second about the calories and fat I am consuming.  I'm going to love every bite!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Love Is Patient and Love Is Kind, But Am I?

Yesterday, I came across an excellent essay on Heart of the Matter Online, an e-zine (for lack of a better word) for Christian homeschoolers.  Excellent articles abound, by the way, on Heart of the Matter, but this one by Misty Krasawski, really spoke to me.  "1 Corinthians 13 for Homeschool Moms" underscores the main point of this homeschooling adventure.  Here's a quote, just to tempt you to read the entire (brief) essay:

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know my children’s bents and God’s plan for their lives, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and am the keeper of the teacher’s editions and solutions manuals, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, and even keep up with my giant piles of laundry and dishes, but do not have love, I am nothing, even if all the people at church think I’m Supermom.
Or if all the people at church think I'm crazy.  Whichever works for you.

I had two reactions to this article, the first of which was ouch.  Misty touches on a few of my sore points, hangnails I pick at constantly, minor irritations that morph into major humdingers if I happen to be having a less than glowing day.  But my second reaction, as I was interested to note, was: Well, duh.  I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't love my family.  Would you?

And then I started thinking about it.  Or, to put it another way, the Lord highlighted in my mind a few instances in which my motivations may not have been love-induced.  Perhaps my reactions to a few situations had not been handled lovingly.

I know deep down that I have made a commitment to provide the best education possible for my children at home because of my great love for them.  But do they know that?  What am I showing them, day in and day out?  I don't think they are at a maturity level to think: "Wow. Mama's entire life pretty much revolves around us.  She must really love us."  After all, I didn't think that way when I was nine years old.  Who does?

I need to focus more on my motivations and my responses to my family.  I want to put my heart under a microscope to find out what's going on in there.  Is my pride tripping me up?  Am I overburdening myself, doing so much that everything's turning out messy?  Have I blah, blah, blah?  Am I just a clanging gong?

Or am I relying on God's grace to strengthen and sustain me?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Weekly Wrap-Up: Of Puppies and Hawks

If you read my previous post, you know that this past week was the first one with our new puppy, Jasper.  Like an idiot, I had planned out a normal school and activity schedule.  Apparently Jasper did not read his copy, because very few things went as I'd planned.  I'm wondering if we'll ever have a week when everything does go as planned.

Fortunately, Jasper still naps, and we manage to get quite a bit of our work done during his naptimes.

But actually, all things considered, we did okay.  Heavy rain on Thursday and Friday put a crimp in some of our activities, but then made it easier to catch up on subjects and reading we'd missed earlier in the week.  One of the highlights of this week was a visit from a hawk in our backyard:

At first, I thought it was a red-tailed hawk, but the markings were different.  I did a bit of research and discovered it was a red-shouldered hawk, which is in the genus Buteo, the same as the red-tailed hawk.  Note its red shoulders -- what an apt name!  After I took this photo, the hawk swooped down beside our playset and nabbed some small rodent, which it then partially consumed atop our playset before soaring away.  A few minutes later, we heard its call, but didn't see it again.

We see hawks somewhat frequently around here, probably thanks to my birdfeeders.  In fact, I was once witness to a National Geographic moment when a hawk came from out of nowhere and caught a titmouse at a feeder.  It was an impressive display, but I'm glad the girls missed seeing it.  Tiny Girl, especially, has a tender heart about such things.  Frankly, I felt a stab of sympathy for the little titmouse, too; but I have to admit the hawk was gorgeous!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hit By a Very Small Tornado

And his name is Jasper!  We brought home our Pembroke welsh corgi puppy last Sunday, and to say our lives are forever altered would be an understatement.  My plans for the week have gone somewhat by the wayside as we learn to adapt.  Who wants to do copywork when Jasper wants to play, I ask you?  And I've had a hard time fitting in all I need/want to do, like attend to my blog or pick up around the house.  I haven't stressed about it, though.  Things will settle down in more of a routine soon enough.  Besides, we're having a blast!

In the meantime, though, cast your eyes on this precious face.  Is he not the cutest pup you've ever seen?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Weekly Wrap-Up: The Week of Books and Tea

Despite a bout of strep throat and some coughing (yes, STILL), we managed to have a decent week.  This is probably due to the fact that we had no activities because of illness, but no one felt sick enough to just lie around.  So we had plenty of time for our lessons, in a less rushed, less frantic atmosphere than is usual for us.  We've also been drinking a lot of tea. Miss Priss's new favorite is Earl Grey with milk and sugar, Tiny Girl prefers peppermint herb tea, and I've been quaffing Sweet Coconut Thai red tea from Celestial Seasonings.

The big news is that both girls have been reading a lot.  Up until a few weeks ago, Tiny Girl only read as much as she was required.  "I read one chapter! Can I be done?"  But no longer.  Last week she read Along Came a Dog, by Meindert DeJong, and this week she read two books:  Addie Across the Prairie, by Laurie Lawler, and The Secret School, by Avi.  She loved all three (emphasis hers).  Miss Priss, who has been more of a reader-for-pleasure than her sister, began Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink.  I'd assigned two chapters; she's already two-thirds through the book.  It's exciting to see their tastes for quality literature bloom!

We began a notebook for artists/picture study.  I bought nice cardstock and a three-ring binder, and then I began gluing in our Dover post cards from the last two years.  My hope is for this notebook to be a resource we turn to through the years.

In other news, we took a break from copywork this week, and both girls wrote letters.  Tiny Girl had thank-you notes to write for her birthday gifts, and Miss Priss wrote a letter to a friend.  They each added a new Hilda Conkling poem to work on for memory.  Miss Priss and I decided to study our Latin more days per week for a shorter lesson time each day.  I'm certain this plan will make things better (shorter lessons but daily study), but she remains dubious.  As I've said before, Latin is not her favorite subject.  We had fun with Secrets of the Woods for both natural history and nature study; see my post here about this week's topic, complete with a video.

I'm still fumbling about with the Book of Centuries project.  There have been posts galore on AO Yahoo group lists, and I've narrowed down my myriad options to a plan I think will work for us.  The trouble is that this is quite a big project and I feel like we're beginning in medias res, as the Greeks say.  It's almost too overwhelming.  More on this later.

Anyway, please comment!  I love to get a conversation going.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kingfishers and Sheldrakes in Natural History

As part of AO Year 3, we are reading William J. Long's Secrets of the Woods, a natural history selection.  It's one of our favorites.  Not only is this a wonderfully written living book, it also sparks our interest to find out more.  We're been reading last week and this the chapter on kingfishers.  After our first section, we looked up kingfishers in our bird book.  Then we conducted more research online, and found this wonderful YouTube video (I love the narrator's accent!):

In today's reading, Long talks about sheldrakes. What's a sheldrake, you ask?  So did I, and turns out it's a type of duck.  Here's the link to a Wikipedia article on the same.

Many of the chapters are long, so I break them up into logical (to me, at least) sections and read one or two sections per week. This helps with my children's narrations and also their absorption of the material.  We're taking our time to savor this book, one of the reasons I espouse a literary education.

One drawback, in my humble opinion, is Long's use of the then-popular (1902) pidgin English for native American speech.  Think of Tonto, and you'll know what I mean.  When reading aloud, I amend these incidences, but that's my personal decision.

If you're interested in taking a look at this excellent book, Secrets of the Woods is available free at the Baldwin Project.  Click here to take a look.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Confessions of a Homeschool Masochist

This is our third year homeschooling, and I'm beginning to notice a trend with me.  Around this time of year, I start reading over my various homeschooling manuals, curriculum catalogs, and other such material in my library, with the panicky feeling that I have made several grievous errors in selection and judgment and everything, and that I am indeed ruining my children.  Just as I suspected.

I wonder if I am alone in this.

Part of my problem is that there are just too many choices available.  If I only had, say, three options, I might feel more comfortable with my decision.  But when I have dozens of options, far more than I could possibly evaluate personally, then how can I know I've selected the right books, resources, curricula?

I know that many homeschooling mothers have husbands who help make these decisions and take a strong interest in any selections made.  Himself is not like this; he leaves the vast majority of education decisions up to me.  This is because he trusts my judgment (my friends tell me), and it must be true, because, frankly, he's quite the opinionated guy.  Also, he majored in business.  (Sorry -- I couldn't resist.  Yes, I know business majors work hard, those are legitimate degrees, et cetera.  Please don't send me any hate mail.)

Anyway, Himself leaves homeschooling decisions up to me.  On the positive side, I get to make all the decisions.  On the negative side, I get to make all the decisions.

All of this to say: at least once a year I torture myself with vacillations.  Was I right to do (fill in the blank)?  Are we okay doing that?  Miss Priss will be in fifth grade next year -- that's a big year.  We'll need to up the ante.  But what will that look like in full-color reality?

Honestly, I really don't think I'm alone in this.

And then it hits me.  I'm not alone in this.  God has blessed our home education efforts from the beginning, and He will continue to bless us.  He will be faithful to complete the good work He began.  Although I have never experienced any eye-popping epiphanies, I have felt stirrings inside, nudging me toward one philosophy and away from another.  And when I don't feel much one way or the other, I have always chosen whichever seemed best at the time.  I've made a couple of miscalculations, but those have always been almost immediately apparent to me -- more nudgings.

So we move forward, a little at a time, with me learning to trust more and torture myself less.  Like anything, it's slow going.  But maybe that's the best way to learn.