Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Please Don't Tell Everyone We're On Break!

Inevitably it happens: we're out somewhere, and someone will ask the boys where they go to school. Three's no denying that they are of school-age, and it is a common question an adult will use to make conversation with a child.

Because we are such relaxed learners my boys don't see our organic, non-focused learning times as being "school." It is a word I have fought, and yet the word that most everyone they know uses to describe how children "learn". So they tend to tell people that we are taking a break if we haven't actually sat down for a focused lesson in a week or two.

It's my fault, really. When I thought that we should be doing lessons I would say we were on break when we didn't do them. I did this when the boys were younger and needed a lot of rhythm, and I didn't want them to feel anxious when lessons dropped off the calendar for a few weeks (or months). I was sick, and telling them that we were taking a break was my way of letting them know that things would get back to "normal".

Except normal never came. We learned more with this newer, integrated method of living. I would read to them, and hear them working the stories in their play. We would sing in the car. I started really bringing them into my work of homekeeping, instead of making half-hearted attempts and then shooing them out the door so I could do it "right". I invited them to explore the handwork I was doing and to participate when they were able, instead of fretting about not painting once a week.

We nearly branched into unschooling, not the radical kind, but definitely child-led learning. However, I had learned so much from Waldorf and Enki that I knew that there were things I wanted to bring to my children. I knew there would be times when a lesson made absolute sense. I knew that the stories should be heard, even if they were worked playing in the mud instead of by putting crayon to paper.

The changes are so small that from the outside we probably look like unschoolers most of the time (but not the play-video-games-all-day-eat-candy-watch-TV-no-bedtime kind of radical unschoolers). What I want to bring to the boys is usually woven in, blending with our lives. We always bake: making Scottish shortbread while we read about John Muir may be deliberate in my mind, but really my children just know that we read and we bake and we sing and we craft. We live. They're at an age where they know they live differently than many children, yet so far they still think they live better.

Still, they get asked the dreaded question, and they tend to answer that we are taking a break. Even if we drew a picture the day before, or went on a field trip, or practiced reading. As I work to break down the walls between living and learning they only see the living.

Why do I care how they answer? I guess it is because we are certainly not taking a break. We are learning all the time. At that very moment, yesterday in the thrift store, we were learning that great deals can be found (a brand new $55 nightgown for my mother, only $3!), and also that used things can have a second (or third or fourth) life. The boys were socializing in an excellent manner, talking to the older women who volunteer to run the thrift store.

You can't take a break from life, no matter if it is wonderful or hard. We live, we learn.

Monday, March 19, 2007

It's Spring!

(Well, tomorrow it will be.)

We're spending time outside. The time change means that we have light in the evenings for bike rides before or after dinner.

The garden is growing. We really haven't planted much, and already we harvested the bok choy and lost the broccoli to the heat. The kale isn't growing much ; it got too warm too fast. Still, we eat lettuce and radishes, and marvel that our seeds sprouted and are now becoming food.

We started reading Scottish trickster tales, and now we're going to read about John Muir. We sing Loch Lomond quite often. We're going to make gluten free scones and gluten free shortbread.

We're revising the vacation slightly. San Francisco is probably out; it's difficult to mesh a city vacation with a camping vacation. We'll probably spend more time in Big Sur. We're researching hikes in both Big Sur and Yosemite.

Mostly we are working on meshing living and learning; or more specifically, letting go of the idea that learning happens outside the context of real life. I've thrown out pretty much any idea of having to do certain things, and instead we are doing what we want to do, along with everything that we need to do. We still bring things to the boys: stories, trips, experiences, music, etc....all of the things that we want them to experience. We practice reading and math when they are interested. We sing Spanish songs when we hear them.

Mornings? Best for learning, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera? I give up. I can make mornings "work", I can create lovely Enki/Waldorf school routines, I can see how lovely it all is AND I can now admit that it is artificial and that I had it right 3 years ago when I was using afternoons as focused "learning" time. Because honestly, in the mornings the boys want to play and I want to get my chores done. I'm done fighting it. I never relax fully into sharing with the boys when my homekeeping tasks have been put aside. In the afternoon we are all ready, ready to come together, to hear stories, to create, to laugh and to sing, to cook. We're relaxed.

Happy Spring everyone!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Things I've Been Thinking....

These are some of the ideas that have been kicking around in my brain. Ddon't try to make too much sense of them or to place them in any specific order. They are not refined; they are just percolating around right now.

My children are only children for a short while. How can I not be patient? How could I dare to waste even a day with them? Truly, today is all we ever have. I might not live to see them grown. They might not live into adulthood. If we are all here in 50 years then we will know that we were blessed with time. No matter what, we were blessed with each other.

Living is Learning. There is no separation. Being at home with one or more parents (and grandparents and other extended family), with siblings or not (or cousins and other children), truly living, provides a rich environment for the child to grow in. In my opinion, institutionalized schools (public or private) are poor environments to grow in. Only the hardiest of souls will come though unscathed; the rest will have been scarred, they will have wilted, some will have died (soul-wise). How many of us have spent 10-15-20 years trying to undo what was done to us during our public school years?

I don't want to play nice. I don't want to say that public school is a perfectly fine option. I can still think it is a lousy choice even if someone I know sends their children to public/private school. I acknowledge that not everyone has a choice, and I am sympathetic to those for whole public school is the only answer. I also boldly suggest that some people have the choice and do not choose it. People don't want to know.

Within a thriving family there can be balance. I can be patient with my children while also taking care of my own needs as a human being. The thing I must remember is that most of the time we are loving, living, and learning together. It is a dance...the boys and I, the boys and their father, all for us, the boys alone, my husband and I. We weave in and out, twirling, grasping and letting go of hands, and grasping again. Occasionally we dance alone, yet we always return to the circle.

You cannot teach a child to learn. Children learn, just as children breathe. They learn in their own time and in their own way. We ALL learn...we never stop.

We have our mind models, and children have theirs. The more we expose them to, the more they see as being possible for them. Children don't learn to read because we want them to, they learn to read when they have the desire as well as the belief that is possible and that it will bring good things to them (or when they know that not making the effort will disappoint a parent or teacher). I'm not saying we can't help the process, if the child is interested. I certainly think we can hinder it if we push a child to do something he isn't open to.

A child's life NOW is just as important as his life in the FUTURE. Children should not have to suffer now in order to procure some kind of education of vocation in the future.

We are living an entwined life, enjoined with the earth and all of it's species, it rocks and mountains, its oceans, rivers, and lakes. I cannot live without accepting that my very existence causes others to die. They may be plants, or animals, or people. I may cause the death with purpose (plants I eat), knowing that the life cycle completes and repeats. I may cause an entire plant or animal species to go extinct because I am a human being alive at this point in time, responsible for global warming and climate change, responsible for polluting air, soil, and water, responsible for habitat destruction and the loss of wildlife corridors. I acknowledge that animals are part of the food chain, whether I eat them or not. They provide fertility to the soil, they live in symbiosis with plants and fungi, they die when fields are harvested (the strictest vegan is still not without blood on his/her hands). My life as a privileged American may mean that somewhere else in the world people are dying to provide my lifestyle. Their waters may be polluted because of shrimp farming, their forests cut down to provide fields to grow something American want. Their children labor to sew clothing and to make things, or to mine and to harvest crops sprayed heavily with pesticides, pesticides that we ban here in the US and lock far away from our own children.

I must not drown in the fear and pain that accompanies such an acknowledgment. I must do what I can to prevent things that are inhumane. I must reduce my consumption. I must opt out of the mainstream American lifestyle. I must recognize that I am heavily marketed to as an alternative consumer and choose not to consume. I must do the best that I can, all the while keeping myself sane and whole. I must not forget that I still live, today.

One thing I have said for a long time, is that our children are people with wants and needs that are as important as our own. It is one of the most difficult concepts that I have ever seen adults try to incorporate into their parenting. I want my child to get dressed, he wants to stay in his pajamas. Even if we are going somewhere, my want is not more important than my child's. Because of this, we need to find a way to work together. I must remember that my child does not have fewer human rights because he is a child. If my husband wanted me to get dressed and I didn't want to, we would have to explore why; do I not want to go where he is going? Am I busy with something else at the moment? My husband can not drag me by my arm to my room, strip off my pajamas and put my clothes on me, and then drag me out to the car, not without damaging our relationship. He cannot threaten to drag me out of the house naked or in my pajamas. No, he must share his reasons with me and let me decide.

Honestly, these kinds of power struggles don't often exist in egalitarian relationships, because the other person is so willing to see your point of view and act in accord, knowing that in time you will be the one who accommodates him or her. The more I listen to my children and remember that we have a relationship based on attachment, not fear or punishment, the more I am willing to do for them, and in turn the more they are willing to do for me.

When I apply the idea that my children have equal wants and needs to the concept of directed learning, I see that anything that I want for the future is something I want, and not necessarily something my child wants. I may have reasons for wanting him to attend college, or to avoid debt, or to know something of the classics, and in the end he may want those same things, but he may not.

When my child is not ready to read, he is not ready. The desire will come in its own time. To push, to fret, to cajole...it is all fruitless and at times it is damaging.

His wants and needs are as important as my own.

Doing. Doing. Doing. I believe that learning takes place mostly through experience. We can read about a place, but never know it until we have been there. I don't consider watching TV or playing computer/video games to be doing. Almost everyone I know disagrees with me. That's okay. I want to do things, to go places, to explore museums and gardens and towns and mountains and beaches and deserts and...to just get out there and live. I want to create with our hands together, to cook together, to make music together, to read together...I recognize that it is TOGETHER that we are living and learning.

I am trying to stop thinking in terms of "parts". Think of the whole. My child is whole, I am whole; treat the whole person, don't just try to treat parts. Decide if "treating" whatever "disease" may be present does more harm than simply accepting and living with it. Don't break up the day into little things to accomplish this or that. Live the whole day and see what happens. Do real things...walk, run, talk, laugh, love. Needs will be met. Don't eat foods in an attempt to eat certain nutrients. Eat real food (thanks, Michael Pollan).

What most of this means is that we are in the midst of completely changing how we "homeschool" (if you recall, a term I gave up awhile back since we are in no way a school). I still have my map to guide us, but the boys have far more day to day input, and I am going to stop trying to do lessons on things they already know. A lot of practice time can occur in real life. Heck, I'm rethinking the term "lessons" as well. There has to be a balance; I believe the children look to me as a guide in this world and that they don't want to face it without me as their protector, so I don't follow the ideas of radical unschooling. Still, I want more life, and fewer lessons.

We'll do more. Experience is the medium of learning. My kids surprise the heck out of me. The handwriting practice that was "assigned" Monday and hated by J-Baby becomes a choice when I back off, and is completed happily on his own terms. T-Guy likes and wants workbooks, sometimes. Tools can be tools and not assignments. Addition problems can be fun, if they are chosen, just as perhaps an adult might choose a crossword or sudoku puzzle. I must believe in my children, believe that they are creative, inquisitive, wonderful people who want to learn and explore and live.

Make the soup rich. Add experiences. Add ideas. Add beautiful things, and outside places, and lots of books. Sing and make music. Dance. Eat real food. Live your values and share them with your children. Visit friends. Meet new people...talk to people! Have parties. Think, and make sure that your children know it and encourage them to think too. Trust your intuition. Be prepared. Do things together - don't shut your children out, even if it makes a mess or takes longer.

Live. Learn. Laugh. Love. It will make you whole.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Day in the Life...

I think a good place to start is to describe our day, a typical, wonderful day of living.

We woke up; T-Guy (age 8) was snuggled in bed with me (he was wiggling and not sleeping, which is why I woke up). J-Baby (almost 7) was still asleep in his bed. Papa had gotten up early to go for a bike ride.

Thomas and I made our way into the office; I did a quick email check. We checked the weather as it was very cloudy, but it turned out that it was still supposed to get relatively warm. We heard Papa at the gate so I turned off the computer.

We said hello to Papa. Papa went to wake J-Baby, who refused to wake up. T-Guy told me that Papa was singing the song (When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along) wrong, and that J-Baby needed us to sing it to him so he could wake up. So we did; I snuggled him while we sang because we all think snuggling is a great way to wake up. Papa showered, I got dressed. T-Guy and I took a peak at the garden.

We met in the kitchen for breakfast. T-Guy wanted toast, J-Baby had the last of the granola I had made (note to self: make more granola), and Papa and I had oatmeal.

We decided to hang out in the office. I wanted to calculate our average March electricity usage for the past 5 years and set a goal to use 15% less this March. We've been very successful at lowering our consumption by 15-25% each month since last May. We now use about 1/3 of the electricity that an average North American family of four uses. I then updated the finances.

While I was doing this T-Guy started writing some words, and he decided to make a book. J-Baby was expressing some frustration that he can't make his own train layout (we are building a large layout as a family), so I suggested he draw a picture of what he would like his own layout to look like. He wrote a couple of words as well, then moved on to draw another picture and to create a game using colored bits of paper stapled together. T-guy was stringing wooden beads.

Once I finished the finances and a post to the Waldorf at Home message boards I decided we needed a snack, so we made our way to the kitchen. On the way there I saw the dirty laundry, so T-Guy and I finished sorting clothes and got the first load started. Then I did the breakfast dishes; sometimes Papa has time to do them before he leaves for work, and sometimes not. Everything had been rinsed and put into the sink, so it was just a case of loading the dishwasher.

T-Guy ate a banana and an apple, J-Baby ate an apple and a piece of string cheese. I skimmed the cream off of the raw milk we had purchased, and we proceeded to make butter (just a little...it was only 2 quarts of milk and I am inexperienced at skimming). The boys were enthralled - obviously they don't remember doing this a few years back. It took about 20 minutes total, to shake and then wash the butter (we put the small amount of buttermilk into the refrigerator to use in cornbread for dinner). After that we made ice cream. I thought about making an easy cottage cheese, then realized I had put the stove grates in the dishwasher.

While the ice cream was freezing T-Guy stepped outside to shoot a few hoops. J-Baby played with Legos in his room. They came back to taste the frozen product. I loosely adapted from Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions vanilla ice cream recipe (I finally decided that I had to read the book instead of fairly well dismissing it each time someone recommended it). We used:

1.5 C. cream (organic, pasteurized but not UHT)
1.5 C. raw milk (organic, some cream skimmed but certainly not all)
.5 C maple syrup (organic)
1 T. vanilla extract (organic and fair trade)
3 egg yolks (from pastured and organically fed local hens, a small flock of 50)

I combined it all in a VitaMix, then froze it in a Cuisinart ice cream maker.

If you've been a long time reader of my blogs, you know that most of the time we've tried to follow a vegan diet. It wasn't working out for Jake after he went gluten free, and we had introduced pastured eggs, but then he was diagnosed with an egg white allergy. Anyway, to make a long story short he is eating raw cheese, organic vanilla ice cream, and raw and/or cultured butter, and he is doing really well. I tried dairy, but promptly broke out in eczema and had some other allergic reactions. Thomas and I can manage the butter, however.

Papa came home for lunch, and we started a quick flurry of various food preparation. I heated refried beans (made yesterday) and organic corn tortillas for the boys, while Papa made T-Guy a salad. T-Guy ate the salad and requested another one. I grated cheese for J-Baby while Papa made guacamole for T-Guy. T-Guy ate 3 big bean tacos, J-Baby ate 2. Papa had a big salad. I had a medium-sized salad dressed with ventresca tuna in olive oil, which is a delicious way to dress a salad when you are not allowed to consume any vinegar, citrus, or juices, or dressings made from those ingredients.

Our lunch conversation started with subtraction, but quickly made its way to division. The boys love dividing numbers. T-Guy told me he'd really love a subtraction workbook; he has a Kumon Addition workbook that he pulls out once a month or so and seems to enjoy. I recalled having some DK math books and promised to look through them to see if they'd be suitable.

Papa did the dishes, I cleared the table and wiped the counters, then switched the laundry with help from J-Baby, and folded the dry load. T-Guy was out shooting hoops again, J-Baby asked to do a handwriting practice sheet.

T-Guy started a story CD for their quiet time. I researched Native American stick-dice games. I looked at the DK books and decided that I prefer Kumon workbooks. The DK books have easy concepts and good visuals to reinforce them, but they assume the child is reading. With my beginning readers it's best not to require too much reading when they are working on other concepts, because they will tire easily. I finally remembered that we can buy the Kumon workbooks at the independent toy store, so we won't have to go to Barnes and Noble, killer of independent bookstores everywhere.

The boys joined me in the office (I'll admit it, I spent quiet time working on the blog post). I remembered that I needed to start a pot of beans, so I did that, chatting with T-Guy. The boys looked at their workbooks a bit, but decided not to do any work in them. T-Guy went out to get his Rhyming Words book from the car. I switched the laundry again, started to fold it, and then decided to pull the binding off the wool blanket I bought at the thrift store a few weeks ago. I wanted to full it in the washer to make a mattress pad, and the washer wash free and I had time to rip the binding stitches. So I sat on the floor in my room and did that (it occurred to me halfway through that I should have sat outside to do it!), and got it going in the washer, and then T-Guy and I had an impromptu box step dance lesson in the kitchen. J-Baby was playing outside. I finished folding/hanging the clothes and put them away.

T-Guy was ready for a snack, so he had some rye crackers with butter. At barely 8 years old he already eats more than I do each day. Still, he's lucky to be 60 pounds with his clothes on, even though he is tall. Sometimes it worries me, and then I think of the pictures I've seen of Papa at that age, tall and very thin, and I remember that I didn't hit 60 pounds until I was 11 or so.

We went out to work in the garden. We were busy yesterday and didn't water, but it had looked alright this morning. A day of neglect and finally the onions sprouted (well, it might have something to do with our warm spell of weather). Today was warm again, so we had to water thoroughly. We pulled the spent plants in some of the squares, and I thinned most of the sprouts. I should have worn my gloves; the vermiculite in the mix dries out my hands, and my thumb is stained from pulling beet sprouts. Our broccoli had all flowered (don't believe nursery staff when they say we can put broccoli starts in the garden in February), so we cut the stalks and put them in a jar of water. They are really lovely little yellow flowers, and brightened up the breakfast nook!

I made gluten free cornbread, then read the boys a trickster tale while it was baking, said hello to Papa, set the table, and served the beans. We had our tiny bit of fresh butter on the cornbread. After dinner I cleaned up and did the dishes while the boys got ready for BMX, and they left right around 6.

I read while they were gone. I picked up Helen of Troy at the library Tuesday, and decided to give it a try.

Once they got home we put the bedtime routine into motion. We made the boys' bed, using the now fulled wool blanket as a mattress pad. They were given quick baths, then I rubbed organic jojoba oil into J-Baby's skin because he gets so dry. They put pajamas on, and had their snack while Papa read Eragon. Then it was time to brush teeth, have hugs and kisses, and sing as we tucked them in. Lately we've been singing Sidewalks of New York. A friend turned us on to Dan Zanes and we have 3 albums and a DVD now (mostly gifts...people are thrilled to get input on what to get the boys).

After that Papa and I had a chance to talk (while we folded the third load of laundry), mostly about our upcoming vacation. Then it was time for bed, except my body temperature was low so I took a hot bath at 10 p.m. Papa zonked out and I stayed up reading my book.

Updates, Coming Soon

I've had a couple of months to really think about my thoughts/feelings/beliefs about learning, and pretty soon I promise to update the blog and share what someone on Mothering referred to as "Kimberly's Curriculum."

Until then....