Thursday, September 17, 2020

And September Begins

 September is well upon us now and we began school last week.  I debated about whether to wait another week, but decided to go ahead and get started.  We're doing a somewhat abbreviated approach for a couple of weeks as we get back into the swing of things.  I'm enjoying that, because it feels natural to ease back into the rhythms of our school year.  

This year we start with "together time" which is a time for Bible, prayer, hymn singing, poetry, Shakespeare, history, geography, Scripture recitation, composer study, picture study...but not all on the same day. :)  Next we do the table work--math, grammar, handwriting--whatever requires sitting at a table. Finally, it's time for books--Finn's independent reading and narrations, and Annie's reading with me.....

This is a rhythm I have used for a long time, and it works really well.  We'll throw snacks or lunch in there.  Sometimes we break away and take a walk if a good opportunity presents itself.  But that basic, predictable rhythm, is what we follow. 

Now that Finn is taking two languages, his work often extends way past lunch. In fact, yesterday he basically worked until 5:15, counting his Spanish class.  But not every day is so intense!  And on Fridays, we plan to only do "together time" and math, and then have lots of freedom for tea time, walks or hikes, errands, visiting friends, or field trips.

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We spent a week at the beach in late August.  It was rejuvenating and relaxing. My goal at the beach is to get onto the island and not leave it!  I achieved that goal this year, except that we did cross back to the mainland once because our friends wanted to go to the ice cream shop.  I packed ALL the food we'd need for the week (my husband was staggered the night before we left, wondering how we'd fit it all into the car with all of our other gear, but we did it!).  At the beach I get up half an hour or so before sunrise each day to walk by myself.  I usually walk between 4-6 miles.  It is the most peaceful, wonderful time of day for me and helps me tremendously when staying in a house full of other people.  Those quiet minutes by myself on the beach set my introverted personality at rest so that the remainder of the day can be happily spent with a house full of friends or relatives!

It's easy to "physically distance" at the beach. :)

One morning I woke my children and husband early so that they could walk with me at sunrise.  We ran into a baby loggerhead making his little way out to the sea, a straggler who hadn't made it down the night before.  We called the Turtle Patrol and spend an hour cheering the baby on as he fought his way against an incoming tide.  Finally the patrol showed up.  These baby turtles are adorable!

And of course, the after-dinner walk is always a joy.

I want to say thank you for anyone who prayed for my husband's beloved uncle, who had covid19.  His condition worsened.  We were beginning our last day at the beach when my father-in-law called, and I had to walk down to the beach to tell my husband the news.  Jim had died at the age of 67.  He was the first of our aunts or uncles to die, and it is so strange and surreal.  And, of course, it's sad, because he left a wife (who was so stricken with his death that she wound up in the hospital for a week from sheer exhaustion and dehydration) and two sons.  We gather at their home every Christmas night for a feast, and I can't even begin to imagine Christmas without him.  If you think of it, say a prayer for his wife and sons.  He was a dear soul.

"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." 

We are holding our loved ones a little tighter these days.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Regaining Margin

 I did my school planning for this year earlier in the summer (so that I wouldn't have to think about it during our break), and for the first time in several years, I felt enormous joy and peace with our plans.  In fact, this feeling was so overwhelming that I nearly cried a few times.  I attribute this peace to what I call the "forced pruning of the pandemic". 

In 2018, my entire life was overwhelming, and I tried hard to do my best during a hard time.

Last year, I didn't take a long enough summer break, started back to school in July, had scheduled too many extracurricular activities, and suffered serious burnout in the fall as a result. 

This year the activities fell away like flower petals, one by one, until only a few things were left. We made these changes to our schedule because my husband's oncologist has noted that we must be particularly careful.  So away went any activity where physical distancing was not possible.

Robotics (too hard to "distance" physically when building robots).  Annie's Spanish class (the teacher will space children out, but since she's only 9, it's really not essential).  Annie's US history class (ditto).  Co-op (ended because we had a couple of families move last year and our needs changed).  

We are left with Finn's Spanish class (it's for a high school credit and I think the older children will be more cognizant of physical distancing than younger kids will be), piano (which will be via Facetime for now because the teacher is immuno-compromised), violin (easily held in an open air setting), and ballet (which is also online for now).  This feels right--and it feels, more than anything else, magically manageable to me.

For the first time in a long time, I feel we will have true margin. It's a curious thing, because I'm a girl who has always valued a wide margin, lots of freedom, and less commitments.  But over the past 4 years or so, I allowed more and more good things to creep into our lives.  And they were good!  But they were too much, and last year was particularly hard for me.  I was gearing up for a lot this year, too, when our perspective necessarily shifted. But I can't say that I've been crushed by these changes. If anything, I feel a gentle relief--like a cool, soft rain after a blazing hot day.  

My little plans seemed to fall into place without stress or anxiety.  I saw that we should have time one day a week to gather together and have cookies and tea while we read Shakespeare and poetry.  I saw that we should have no problem doing our necessary subjects and also getting in a nature walk once every week or two.  I saw that I wouldn't be running everywhere, all the time.  The relief is palpable. 

We plan to start school as we used to, in the days before cancer, on the day after Labor Day, but I'm also reserving the right to start the week after that if I feel like I need a longer break. My husband and I return to UNC on Tuesday the 15th, so I may consider starting the day after that, and taking an extra week off. We'll see.  But just knowing that I am reserving the right to do this feels deliciously freeing to me, and makes me feel like I'm not rushing into the new school year too quickly.  

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I wrote all of that last week, and so before I hit "publish" I want to send out a prayer request.  My husband's uncle went into ICU with covid19 late last week, was placed on a ventilator Friday night, and is in critical condition right now.  If you'd pray for him, and for his dear wife, we would appreciate it.  He's a tennis player, quite active, so this is a surprising turn of events, and our aunt is quite beside herself since she cannot even be with him in the hospital.  She simply communicates with the ICU nurse a couple of times a day. That is excruciating for a wife who wants to be at her husband's side.

Thank you for your prayers!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Grandma's Needlepoint

This needlepoint hung in my grandparents' dark wood-paneled family room beside the back door (the one we always entered) for as long as I can remember. I have loved it for a long time.

After my grandparents died, I naturally assumed someone would claim it.  But no one ever did.  Finally, I was up at the house (it's on the hill above my house, on the same family farm) not too long ago and I asked my aunt about it.  She and my uncle purchased the house from the trust my grandparents had left, so they were mostly in charge of clearing things out before they move in (from their house, which is the original farmhouse on the property where my grandmother grew up--is anyone confused yet?! ha!). 

She shrugged.  "Take it!" she said.

So I did. 

And now it hangs beside our "back door," where we come and in and out of the house, above the dresser that holds my sunglasses and keys, in the blue laundry-and-sewing room which serves as our casual family entryway.  I love the colors--they look so pretty with the walls!--and the familial sentiment.  It makes me so happy to see it hanging here, greeting me when I come home, and watching over me when I'm folding laundry or sewing, and reminding me always of the importance of love in our family life. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Yellow Roses, Early August

 My yellow rosebush finished its bloom this past week.  I was so pleased at how well it did, in spite of Japanese beetles (for a while Annie and I were picking them off the bush morning, noon, and night!).  The fresh blooms on new growth did not disappoint, and I'm going to bravely (I'm a little scared), do a second gentle pruning this month in order to encourage a September bloom--and also to try to retrain the shape of the bush, which needs a little help.  The flowers are wonderfully fragrant.  They are so nice that I sometimes feel badly, plucking the Japanese beetles off in the midst of their exult, because can you imagine being buried among the petals of a sweet-scented rose?  And then having two cruel fingers wrench you out of it?

But I don't feel too badly about wrenching them out, because if they're left unchecked, they will eat the blooms to pieces in no time at all. 

    My squash plants didn't fare so well, and I grew weary of trying to battle squash bugs.  I sort of gave the garden over to them, and what lives, lives!  Same with the silky dogwood in the front yard, which is a happy place for the dogwood sawfly.  I spent a couple mornings picking the chalky larvae off the underside of the leaves, and then sort of shrugged and gave up.  Maybe I'll be more diligent next year. I have ambivalent feelings about the silky dogwood anyhow; its spring bloom is rather delightful, and if it survives the wasps, it has nice little fall berries, and the birds seem to love it, so on balance, it's probably a good shrub to have. 

August is a lovely mess: the morning glories are over the porch, all my spring and early summer blooms are gone, the lavender has gone grey, the weeds overtake the tomato plants, and it's too hot to do much more than sip iced tea and watch the junebugs whiz by, but oh--I love it anyhow!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Advice for New Homeschoolers: Practical Tips

I recently tried to give a little homeschooling advice for anyone who is entering this stage of life for the first time.  Most of the advice was more theory, or how we think about homeschooling.  But sometimes a few practical tips help, too.  So this is my Practical Homeschooling post: a few things that I've learned over the past 8 (!!) years of homeschooling. 

1.  Know what's for dinner.  Having a menu plan is so helpful.  Just have a good idea of what's for dinner, and on busy days, don't hesitate to put dinner in the crockpot.  It's wonderful to do the work first thing in the morning!  I particularly like to do this when we have activities later in the afternoon.  Freezer meals are also helpful. For health and financial reasons, we prefer to eat at home, so I try to be on top of dinner--out of necessity!

2.  Get your rest.  Don't stay up late. :) Most of us are nicer when we've had our rest. (Even Charlotte Mason herself said this: "Do not sit up late preparing lessons; what you seem to gain in preparation you lose by tiredness next day." YES!) 

3.  If possible, once the day begins, put your phone on airplane mode (or turn it off) and don't use it until the schooling is done.

4.  Create a brief chore list for yourself of morning chores, midday chores, and evening chores, and stick with it as much as you can. Keep the lists simple and not too onerous.  Meals, laundry, pet care, and kitchen/bathroom hygiene are the true essentials, so have the chore lists focus on making sure these are covered.  

5.  Choose one place for your school items, and keep them there.  Every day after the academic stuff is done, put things back to rights.  This is a sanity-saver! (I also love using my labelmaker.)  Maybe I'll post a few schoolroom photos.  I really, really need order.  I can be kind and gentle even when things are chaotic, but it's much easier if things are orderly. :) 

6. Lower your homemaking expectations. The truth is, having children at home all day is kind of a messy, happy sort of chaos!  They play, they eat, they do crafts.  Gently train them to pick up after themselves (don't be harsh; it never wins their allegiance), but realize that the house may be messier, and you almost certainly won't get as much done.  It's okay.  This is a season of life.  Remember that babies (and toddlers, and preschoolers, and elementary schoolers, and middle schoolers.....) don't keep. Enjoy them while you have them!

7. Be kind and gentle to yourself, because that's how you can be kind and gentle to others. If you need to take a walk each day, or exercise, or work on a hobby, or whatever, try to carve out a tiny bit of time to do those things that make you feel more human, because your attitude and your spirit set the tone of the entire house.  Take care of yourself.  

I could say all sorts of things about juggling domestic tasks and homeschooling, but that might be overwhelming.  I think this simple list of tips is sufficient; it covers the bases of what I consider the most practical issues.  There are many, many things I could write about specific curricula, educational philosophies, interesting books to read on homeschooling, etc., but those are beyond the scope of this post.  This is more about the "boots on the ground" essential issues of day-to-day life when homeschooling: keeping routines, maintaining some semblance of order, feeding people, and taking care of yourself!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Slippers and Ribbons

Oh, how time flies!

Annie is about to start her fourth year of studying classical ballet (and her fifth year of ballet--but the first year was just with a casual class), and we learned last weekend that she is now wearing split sole slippers and--notably--using ribbons on her shoes. This is a little ballet rite of passage!  

Annie is graceful, focused, and not afraid of hard work.  She has adored ballet since she was a toddler; I recall her sitting entranced in front of Swan Lake.  She was only about four years old when she began to want to pursue ballet, and she pursued it with a single-minded seriousness that seemed much older than her years.  I have no idea how long she will study ballet, but I appreciate the character qualities that ballet instills in its students.  They must dress appropriately (uniform, hair in ballet bun, hair net, the correct tights and shoes). They learn to curtsy and thank their teacher at the end of class.  They must exercise discipline in their movements and behaviors.  They do not wear jewelry or nail polish to class. The qualities of tidiness, discipline, and courtesy are all excellent traits to cultivate, whether one dances for years or not.

It's just that she is growing so quickly....

Oh time.  Slow down a little bit, for my sake!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Advice for New Homeschoolers

Dianna asked recently if I'd consider writing something for people who will be first-time homeschoolers, but are feeling a little overwhelmed. She specifically asked about how to keep things interesting, how to keep up discipline, when to step back or take a break, etc.  These are such great questions!  I have been pondering them and would like to provide my own responses here, but I'd also like to encourage anyone who has more experience than I do to also leave comments and advice.  I know that there are women reading here who have a lot of wisdom to share.

I like numbers and lists, so I'm going to use that format for this post!  

1. Give yourself (and your child) a lot of grace.  Anytime there's a dynamic shift, a family change, or a new situation, things can get hard, and anxieties can surface. Adjusting to a new situation always requires grace, and it is my experience that grace is best given and received when we are taking life slowly and placing our trust in God (ie, not rushing around and trying to Do It All Ourselves!--this is hard-earned wisdom from me :)). 

2. Do not despise "the day of small things."  Nancy Kelly is the one who originally put Zechariah 4:10 in a homeschooling context for me, and I have appreciated its quiet wisdom ever since.  The small beginnings, the small things, faithfully done day after day, are what create the beautiful whole.  This is as true for homeschooling as it is for anything else in life. We are weaving a great tapestry, but we're doing it one thread at a time, and rather blindly most days. Just keep weaving, slowly but surely.

3. Develop the tiniest disciplines. Be faithful in these tiny things. The first step is to see if you can incorporate learning into the day seamlessly, organically.  For us, I read a chapter of the Bible every morning while the children eat breakfast; I read, and they narrate (although right now, we are reading one chapter of Proverbs each morning, and then we each choose our favorite verse from the chapter, and write and illustrate it on an index card!)  At lunch, I read a chapter of a read-aloud book (right now we are loving Little Women).  And after dinner at night, I read a chapter of a family read-aloud. It doesn't always happen at every single meal every single day, but it is enough of a habit that it happens at many meals on most days.  The next step would be (I think) to add one or two non-negotiable things; for us, that's music practice and math.  If it's possible, try to do them at the same time every day, so that expectations are clear.  And use a light hand, too: my 9-year old practices music for 10 minutes and does 20 minutes of math.  It's enough.....

4. If you use screens, be sure everyone is clear on screen rules.  For many years this was a non-issue in our house, but now that my children are older and engaging with technology more, we do have to be realistic!  Our rules are: 1) no screens until all chores and schoolwork are done (unless you're watching a math lesson!); 2) no screens after dinnertime; and 3) no screens without explicit parental permission.  Even if my children are done with their daily tasks, I have no problem declining the use of screens.  My favorite phrase is "go outside." 

5. In the moment of teaching, do step back anytime a child starts to really shut down.  My experience has been that a tiny bit of "pushing through" with gentle encouragement can be fine, but really pushing through when a child is shutting down (tears, frustration, total distraction), only results in bad feelings. No academic achievement is worth destroying your relationship with your child.  I'd rather see my child happy, well-adjusted,in a great relationship with his or her parents, and in a "no name" college than stressed, anxious, in a dysfunctional relationship with me, and at an Ivy League school.  No question about it. 

It can take a gentle touch and some experience to know what is a character issue and what is just an "I'm not ready to learn this yet" issue.  I have gotten good at identifying this and being so patient--but I wasn't good at this at first!  

6. Allow a child to follow his or her interests.  Decide what is most important for your family (see # 7, below), and do those things in the tiny faithful ways (see #3, above), and then allow your children to explore the world.  Trust that learning is happening even when they have been staring at leaves on an oak tree for half an hour.  Trust that learning is happening even when they are playing paper dolls all afternoon.  Trust that learning is happening even when they are writing their eighth book, in messy handwriting with terrible spelling (that's my Annie right now!), because they have SO MANY IDEAS about stories!  If a child shows an interest in something in particular, pray about how to provide additional opportunities.  I had to do this with Finn, who showed an affinity for languages.  He is now working on learning Spanish and French. 

7.  Decide on the basic, necessary things for your family. For us, the basic things I require each day are chores, math, reading, music practice, and some writing (I'm more lax about this with Finn, who is a fabulous writer, but doesn't seem to like writing, whereas Annie both likes writing and is great at it--even if her penmanship is terrible.  That apple fell close to the tree!).  If those basic things are done, I'm happy and grateful!  But most days a lot more gets done. 

As for the specific questions: 

How do you keep things interesting? I struggled with this one.  I puzzled over it.  I'm not sure I know the answer!  I don't try very hard to make things interesting.  If a subject is kind of dry (math), we just do it, and I try to encourage and cheer.  But most subjects are really interesting on their own.  Literature, Shakespeare, science (well, don't talk to Finn about Apologia General Science--we keep hoping it'll get better....), history...these are all naturally interesting!  I do think having some variation in the weekly schedule is nice, and cheerful rhythms that can be kept.  I have plotted those out for us this year, and will write about them soon.  

How do you keep up discipline? For me, it's keeping things simple, and honing in on what really matters to us/me.  If I suddenly have to live by a spreadsheet with specific times for each subject, I will rebel against it at the first chance I get!  It's a personality flaw, I'm sure, but that's how I am. 

I also believe it's important for the homeschooling parent to rest, to eat well, to have some quiet moments in the day.  Less will get done, perhaps, but if the things I am able to accomplish are done with a joyful, peaceful spirit, then I'm content with doing less.  (And anyhow: I believe in doing less.)

How do you know when to step back or take a break? I think resistance, tears, and opposition generally signal one of two things: 1) a child is being rebellious or 2) a child is not ready to learn something.  My experience has shown that it's almost always #2.  If you're getting a lot of opposition, I'd take a week off of academic work, and spend time with your child, building relationship, and figuring out, if possible, what's going on in their hearts and minds.  If you're feeling like "school" is a pressure-cooker every day, that is an indication that something should change.  And it's okay to change things.  

My last word is from Charlotte Mason:  "We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and 'spiritual' life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life."  In other words, we must remember that the Holy Spirit instructs us and our children in what we need to know and do.  We are not living this life alone.  The Holy Spirit has as much access to a child's heart and mind as to ours, and we can trust that over time, with a wide net spread over life and a "wide and varied curriculum", the child will assimilate and learn the things that he or she needs to know.  Our job is really just to present the world to them through math, music, good books, and nature, to keep home life healthy and happy, and to keep ourselves balanced and kind!