Monday, March 19, 2018

My Daily Dozen: The Habit of Bible Reading & Prayer

Now that I've got all the physical bases covered (rest, eating well, exercise, fresh air), I'm going to write a little bit about the spiritual undergirding of my life: Bible reading and prayer.

This is one of those habits that is very easy to overlook because it doesn't seem urgent.  After all, we have  to eat and sleep every single day.  If you go for a few days without food or sleep, your body will rebel.  In the hustle and bustle of daily life, especially daily life with children, it's a challenge to fit in something as quiet and seemingly non-essential as read the Bible and praying.  I know this because I find that it's a challenge to maintain this habit in my own life.

As a Christian I genuinely believe that the source of my patience, kindness, wisdom, endurance, hope, peace, and joy is Jesus Christ.  As a human I naturally gravitate to relying on my own strength to muscle my way through the day.  But my own strength can only last for so long!

As a Christian I also believe that daily Bible reading and prayer is important to worshiping God, to remembering Who is in charge of my life, to having reminders of what the Gospel is all about, to presenting my worries and concerns and questions to God, to confessing my it's a practice that should be a daily habit for me as a Christian. 

Bible Reading 

I'm a student at heart; I love to learn. I love to read, study, dissect, ponder, write, research.  So I have to be careful about Bible study because so often I'll start reading a passage and one question begets another question and then another and before long I've looked up a passage in various translations, am trying to find background information, and am looking up what various theologians might say about the matter.  For years this was "Bible study" for me and it's no wonder I rarely had time to do it--it took forever to read the Bible in this way!

I have to resist doing this because I don't have time to do it every day.  Sometimes I do have time to research and I love it!  Our pastor is very good, in sermons and Bible study, about "diving deep" while still keeping the big picture of the Bible at the forefront of our thinking.  So I'm learning that I don't have to do research during my Bible reading time.  I can actually the Bible. If I have extra time to do more in-depth research, I'll happily tackle it, but I no longer feel that I need to do that every single time I open the Bible.  It's so freeing to realize this. 

Some days I'll just read one chapter and write down one verse (or underline it) that really jumps out at me--and maybe write a few words about why this verse has struck me.  So often I read something and it speaks to exactly where I am, exactly what I need.  That's the power of the Living Word!

I personally like to read the chapter of Proverbs that corresponds with the day of the month (so, on the 15th, I'll read Proverbs 15), followed by a selection from the New Testament, and if I have time, a passage from the Old Testament.  I also like to read whatever our pastor is preaching on; right now, he's preaching through the book of Mark, so it makes sense for me to try to focus on that a bit during Bible reading time. 


Prayer is so easy to miss.  I send up "flare prayers" throughout the day--asking God for help on something, thanking Him for something else--and I often pray at night as I fall asleep.  But the best prayer time for me is when I sit down and truly focus my mind on communicating with God. (A few months ago I was doing this early one morning and had a burning question about the Old Testament and He answered me immediately.  It was surreal and amazing.)  When I can sit down and have focused prayer, I leave the prayer session feeling energized.  I feel reassured. I am able to go through my day with the assurance that God's got this....He's got all of it.  

I have a prayer binder, and I'd love to say that I'm faithful to pray with it every single day, but I cannot say that.  I would like to try to use it more often, because I'll jot down prayer requests or even my own concerns, and it's so nice to have those right at hand when I sit down to pray. 

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So my own challenge is finding the best time for Bible reading and prayer. I think that it varies based on season of life; for me right now, I've been trying to read the Bible and pray in the mornings, either before or after I exercise.  I love starting the day off with coffee, the Bible, and prayer, and it works best for me after I exercise (before I exercise I don't drink coffee, and honestly, it's a little hard for me to focus in the morning without my coffee).  But by then I am sometimes interrupted by a waking child.  On days when I sleep in, I'm trying to be more thoughtful about carving out time after lunch or before bed to read the Bible and pray. It's not always easy, especially once the day gets rolling.

Even reading one chapter per day and praying for five minutes is a wonderful practice.  I've learned that this doesn't have to be a huge time commitment.  The key is making it a priority to open the Bible and read, and close my eyes and pray, each and every day, whenever that occurs!

Friday, March 16, 2018

An Elementary School Retrospective: Curricula/Resources/Approaches I'd Use Again

I truly can't believe I'm writing this, but Finn is reaching the end of elementary school.  If he were in public school, he'd head to middle school next year. This means I've been technically "homeschooling" for six years.

I've learned so much. And I can't believe it has gone so quickly.  And I wish I hadn't stressed so much over so many things. And I'd do a few things differently if I could, but perhaps that's another post!

In terms of educational philosophy I'm most aligned with Charlotte Mason, whose principles resonate with me.  Her respect for the personhood of the child and her emphasis on building relationship--it's all about relationship (with God, with each other, with ideas)--are cornerstones of my thinking about education.  But I do things my own way, with her principles as a springboard, and using my own children's interests and inclinations, my preferences, our family atmosphere, and my gut instincts as my primary guides. I really think in my heart of hearts I'm a minimalist, and so I can't juggle a couple dozen subjects, even if they only take ten minutes.  Give me simplicity.

There are plenty of things I've looked into and declined to try, and other things I've tried and rejected. I began writing this to share actual resources, but in some teaching areas I use an approach more than a resource, so I'm including that, too.

Am I doing alright?

I don't know. I don't know how to gauge this.  When I look at Finn I see his kind heart, his musical inclination, his love of art and drawing. I see someone who enjoys reading.  I see someone who thinks voraciously--I don't know how else to put it. When he's obsessed with something he thinks about it so much!  I see someone who asks deep questions and reflects.  His standardized test scores, required by the state every year, indicate that he's above-average in all his subjects. I don't have any other quantifiable way to measure his "progress."  Occasionally I sink into a panic because I'm not quantifying his "progress"--and shouldn't I be more concerned with this??!!

Maybe. Maybe not. It's something I'm pondering as we face junior high.

But in the meantime, here's what I have used and liked for elementary school.  These are the things I believe are worthy and that I plan to do again with Annie.  

Miquon (grades Kish-3rdish): I had a love/hate relationship with Miquon when I used it with Finn. On the one hand, it is a fantastic base for conceptual understanding; on the other hand, I struggled to figure out how to teach it (I think this had to do with having a toddler in the house...I felt constantly distracted).  I'm using it again with Annie and I must say the relationship is all love now.  It's an excellent basis for math; Finn's conceptual understanding has always been very good and I credit Miquon for that. You'll need the Lab Sheet Annotations for guidance. 

Math-U-See (grades 3rd-ish to 5th): I tried several other programs after Miquon before happily settling on Math-U-See. It's straightforward, I like the DVD teaching, and it's mastery-based. I doubt we'll use it once we hit pre-algebra, but my husband gets to help make that decision--he's the math whiz.

There are lots of good math programs out there.  I think the main thing is to pick something you can teach. If the teacher doesn't like it, it won't get taught!  

Language Arts
Learning to Read: My children learn to read with some combination of The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading, readers that grab their attention (for Finn it was Dr. Seuss, Harry the Dirty Dog; for Annie it is the charmingly-illustrated Dick and Jane books), and....magic? I don't believe in magic, of course; but reading does seem to just happen.  I don't use the entire Ordinary Parents Guide--just bits and pieces.  We read aloud a lot, and I very patiently support an emerging reader's interest in letters, writing words, sounding things out, asking questions, etc.  (That's where we are with Annie right now.) It just happens.  My children are not early readers; Finn took off the summer he turned 7 and nearly four years later he reads EVERYTHING, and well; Annie turned 7 in January and is still working through the most basic Dick and Jane books.  She'll get there!  

I also use a few pages a day of Explode the Code until a child is reading pretty fluently, then I drop it.  Does it help?  Maybe.  But we all kind of enjoy doing a workbook now and then.  It's like playing school! But it's not at all necessary.

Spelling: Lean in to hear a secret: I don't really teach spelling.  (Yet?)  Finn seems to read enough so that he can spell fairly well. We use the Charlotte Mason method of dictation off and on to work on spelling from time to time.  My children write a lot on their own, and I'm forever answering the question "how do you spell such-and-such?" I always ask, "how do you THINK you spell it?" And we figure it out together.  I have no plans to teach formal spelling to Annie, either. If Finn hits 7th or 8th grade and seems to need some formal instruction, I'll put him through a quick spelling boot camp, using some sort of straightforward program. 

A mother who is faithful and diligent to do dictation every day probably would enjoy good results.  I do dictation with Finn most days at the start of the school year, and that seems to suffice for us for now. 

Grammar: Junior Analytical Grammar (5th grade)--I don't do grammar in early elementary (I tried with Finn, but it wasn't developmentally-appropriate; with another child, it might work fine to do grammar earlier in elementary school).  JAG is straightforward and simple, and to my surprise Finn *loves* grammar now.  We also do Mad Libs for fun sometimes as a family--which introduces the children to parts of speech, and is good for a laugh.

Composition:  Reading, reading, reading.  Talking about reading.  Talking about everything. And, most importantly, I just let my children write.  Annie is in the stage of copying her favorite books....yes, she's learning to write this way.  She just does this in her free time.  I try to require Finn to write something most days.  He was recently obsessed with sloths and wrote a news story as he was a reporter, reporting from his visit to a sloth habitat.  It was so charming!  Sometimes I will ask him to do a written narration from his school-related readings, but I honestly prefer to just give him free rein over what to write.  Just go write something...and then we'll talk about it.  He also orally narrates from his readings some of the time. I am not sure this is all "enough," but I am satisfied that it's enough for now.  My child isn't burned out on writing, and that's pretty important to me.

Literature: We read a lot.  We have a few books for fun going at any given time (right now it's CS Lewis, Charlotte's Web, and The Wind in the Willows....the former two are re-reads, because why not??  They are excellent. The latter is our bedtime story.)  We do Shakespeare and my children LOVE it.  We read poetry because we like it--I have a master's degree in poetry, so it's a natural part of life. We memorize poems from time to time. I don't have a grand plan when it comes to literature.  We just love to read good books.

Handwriting: Finn has naturally near-perfect handwriting...what can I say?!... his fine motor skills have always been excellent. Annie is more like me: a little sloppy around the edges.  I used copywork with Finn in the early years; with Annie I'm actually using A Reason for Handwriting because it's easy.  Finn learned cursive with a Simply Charlotte Mason resource and now he has A Reason for Handwriting (cursive). I don't overthink this!  Handwriting exists so that we can effectively communicate our ideas. As long as we can do that, I don't belabor the method too much. 

Vocabulary: Nothing.  I realized I didn't need to teach vocabulary the day Finn said someone was being "impetuous."  I think he was about 8 years old.  Reading is sufficient, although in high school we'll probably do some Latin because it's helpful with vocabulary.

I use The Child's Storybook Bible (by Catherine Vos), which I LOVE. I read it as the children eat breakfast and then they take turns narrating.  We always narrate Bible readings.  And these readings generate the best questions and discussions! My children sit through church with us and I can't say how many times they hear a reference to an Old Testament story we've read and they get so excited.  It's very important to me to give my children a solid and thoughtful foundation in understanding the Bible.  All of it!

Once we read through this Bible we will start reading the regular Bible together at breakfast.

I am not particularly interested in trying to get comprehensive with history content in elementary school. I like stories about history.  We love A Child's History of the World by Virgil Hillyer.  Our copy was purchased brand new and is now very nearly falling apart, and I'm looking forward to starting it with Annie in a couple of years. 

We've also enjoyed Jim Weiss' reading of The Story of the World on CD. I never was interested in using this series as an actual "school book" but they're fun listening for road trips.  Actually, all of the Jim Weiss CDs are fun listening for us here. 

We have also loved reading stories from the book my great-great-aunt wrote about her family, who lived in rural North Carolina in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Fascinating and inspiring stories!

Finn has begun Plutarch (via a retelling) in our co-op.  I doubt I'd do Plutarch with a child so young if it weren't for co-op, since he's only 10.

We use the globe (Finn and my husband play a game of "find that country" which is not meant to be educational, just a competitive thing they do....but it *is* educational), sometimes play with Geopuzzles, talk about where things are, sometimes read stories and use maps to supplement what we're reading, look at books about other countries, and talk a lot, and that's how my children absorb geography.  I don't do anything formal and I don't think about it very much.  

I will add more formal history in as my children get older, because I do think it's important.  I love Genevieve Foster's books and may read those with Finn for middle school history...maybe. We'll see! 

As in history, I'm not especially interested in comprehensive content coverage in the early years.  My children are basically autodidacts in science in the elementary years.  Finn's favorite resources are the encyclopedias, Ask magazine, the "Exploring Creation" elementary science series (he reads these textbooks for fun, not at my direction--they *are* fun!).  He did take a year of science at a local science school in third grade, but unfortunately they closed after that year.  Finn has an insatiable appetite for how things work and why the world works as it does, so he teaches himself science constantly. 

This year he is reading Fabre's The Storybook of Science, which is a sweet read, albeit somewhat out-of-date.  He's still enjoying it, though! We have also enjoyed some stories from Thornton Burgess, although these are less "science" and more "natural history." And I know better than to assign or schedule them into our lives right now.

We live on a farm, so observing nature (birds, squirrels, trees, cattle, chickens) is a normal part of daily life for us.  And I am a passionate gardener, so botany comes naturally as the children are outside with me in spring and summer. Sometimes we make journal entries and we each try to observe a tree in our yard during the year, but I don't make this formal.

I've examined and rejected plenty of things, and I remember when Finn was a kindergartner I actually planned to do science with him (what was I thinking?).  That plan didn't last long...not with a busy toddler in our midst! 

We will definitely add more formal science work in as we progress through middle school. This is especially important to my husband, who is an engineer. 

I hate to separate the "arts" out because they are such a rich part of our everyday lives!

Finn is in his fourth year of private piano lessons with a teacher we love.  He is excelling at piano, thanks to diligent daily practice. (Annie hasn't started music lessons yet.)

My children have both taken art lessons at a local art school, where the wonderful teacher really teaches them to *see* and duplicate that.  I love that he emphasizes the skill of drawing/painting and not self-expression; self-expression comes after those skills are developed.  My children's artwork is beautiful because they are learning these skills!  

Annie takes ballet at a classical ballet school.

We like to do casual picture study using Simply Charlotte Mason's picture portfolios.  I like these!

We love music in this household, so "composer study" is a natural thing.  I don't really do this formally, although sometimes we'll read a composer's brief biography for fun. My children have absorbed a love for good music; so much so that when we were making a request list for a friend's wedding a couple of years ago, I asked what song they'd want to dance to at the reception, and they both screamed "THE 1812 OVERTURE!!!!!"  Not exactly what we'd had in mind....we laughed and laughed over that one! We go to the symphony a couple of times a year. We listen to a lot of music and lots of kinds of music, and I don't feel the need to formalize this natural process.

Foreign Language

I'm struggling here. We do French using various resources.  Right now our primary resource is the French portion of the Charlotte Mason Institute's Alveary program. I love the way it teaches the language naturally, to the ear.  But it does require that I am sort of there to organize everything.  We love French with Alexa on Youtube. My children think she's hilarious!

Finn loves languages and wants to learn several before he goes to college.  I'm not sure how we'll manage that, or if he'll maintain that goal as he moves into middle school, but I'll pray about it and we'll figure it out. 

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There are plenty of things I've tried, used, and rejected, and that I will NOT consider using again.  Poor Finn has been my guinea pig!  Fortunately that makes things quite easy the second time around, because I have a strong idea of what I prefer to use for teaching or facilitating learning.

There are other things I've tried that are lovely and wonderful and probably a great fit for another family but felt too stifling for me, so I won't use them again. But not because they're not wonderful....there's truly great stuff out there!  We just cannot do it all.

As I survey middle school I am torn between the pull to more academic work and the desire to keep our days light and give my children plenty of time to themselves.  We have the habit of getting up, doing chores, and doing schoolwork for a couple of hours in the morning (math/writing/grammar/reading) and then lots of freedom, and I don't want to over-complicate the pretty simplicity of this approach.  (Trust me, I *have* over-complicated it in the past, and then I get burned.)  I sometimes worry that I'm not making my children disciplined enough with this casual approach.  I sometimes worry that they are missing out on something.  But for the most part, I operate without too much anxiety.

And my children are happy, my husband is content, our home is generally peaceful. That's worth a lot in my book!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On the Holy Spirit and the Schedule

I continue to ponder the question I asked last summer about organizing life, and whether lists are a burden or a benefit.  The jury is still out in my mind.

Not long ago I tried out a daily schedule--yes! a schedule!--with most of our time allotted to specific things. I slotted in time for read-alouds, exercise (lots of that), rest, school, piano, violin, meals, etc etc. I didn't follow it to a T every day, but I followed it fairly faithfully because I'm pretty good at that.

Here's the question that broke into my mind as I dutifully did What I'm Supposed to Do: where's the space for the Holy Spirit?

I don't mean space for quiet prayer and Bible reading because of course that was on the list. I mean space for the Holy Spirit to whisper to me that right now instead of doing a task, I need to work with Annie on a craft.  Or space for the Holy Spirit to tell me that instead of getting up at 6 am to exercise, I need to stay up later with a child who needs to talk about Big Issues of Life.  Or space for the Holy Spirit to whisper that someone in my family needs a little extra time and attention, so it's time to drop the schedule and give them that. Or space to help a neighbor who has an acute need that I can fill.

I realize that following a schedule is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but it sometimes feels like it is when you're me.  I don't want to live by whim and I do want to exercise diligence in my daily activities, but human beings don't fall neatly into half-hour time slots like tasks do.  As a wife and mother, managing time at home can't simply be about time itself, can it?  It has to be about relationships, and relationships have their own pace, their own ebb and flow, and people's needs vary widely from day to day.  And relationships outside the immediate family matter, too!  We need to be available to show kindness and love to neighbors, grandparents, friends, etc......

Today I was smiling at the fact that after following this schedule so dutifully and beautifully for a while I suddenly came down with a head cold, which necessitated more sleep, less exercise, cancellations of regular routine things (piano, violin, Bible study, ballet, co-op), and the wonderful gift of a lot of unexpected time at home.  Time to finish hemming Annie's Easter dress, start working on an embroidery project, finally tuck away the nativity set, putter around folding laundry--in other words, looking well to the ways of my household.  I *love* doing this and it feels so good!  To be honest, it's challenging to do that when you have an outside-the-home obligation every single day of the week except Friday and Saturday.  I have learned my lesson this year, and will try hard to never have so many activities scattered throughout the week again.  It's simply too hard on us. I already cut out one activity (art) when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, but we feel we don't want to cut out music lessons or co-op, which we love, and my husband feels Annie should continue in ballet for now. 

This is my great challenge during this season of my life, and I'm still not sure how to order our days to meet the goals that we have but also to foster the relationships God gives us.  How do you strike this balance? (Or try to strike it!?)  Especially while homeschooling...whew.......

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

My Daily Dozen: The Habit of Fresh Air

I took a hiatus from writing on my blog (or much other time on the internet) because--I'm living life!  It takes a lot of work to keep all the wheels turning around the house, with schoolwork, and all the other things we prioritize.  Online time falls to the bottom of the Importance List over and over again during this season of my life.  But today I'm a little under the weather, so I'm giving myself permission to have a very slow day--which means I have a little while to use the computer and catch up on writing and e-mailing and reading.

Continuing the series on the habits that I find are essential to my life: the habit of fresh air, both inside and outside the house. (The first habits were rest, eating well, and exercise.) 

I do feel a little old-fashioned in my love for fresh air, both inside and outside the house.  It's the type of thing I think people valued several generations ago, but that for some reason we don't really seem to value today.  That's interesting, because with modern building methods, we have more airtight homes and offices....which means we probably need intentional exposure to fresh air more than ever!

Fresh Air Inside

My grandmother kept her bedroom window cracked year-round in all types of weather because the fresh air was good for her, and I agree.  Have you ever noticed how stuffy a bedroom can be in the morning? Or how stuffy a house can be if closed up for a week or two (or more)?  Fresh air is, of course, the cure.

We do a lot of living inside our homes--sleeping, working, cooking; sometimes there are pets, babies, messes, etc.  Frequent airing-out is essential to keep the house sweet.

I like to sleep with my window open sometimes. I'd do it all the time, but my husband prefers it closed on very cold nights.  In the morning when I get up I like to open up the front door and slide the glass down so that a breeze comes through the screen. If it's a chilly day I may only slide it down a few inches, but it lets in a little air.  I also sometimes open our deck door in the morning to get a cross-breeze.  I almost always open my bedroom window in the morning, at least a few inches and often more than that, to let the bed air out for a while before I make it.  I don't always remember to air out my children's bedrooms, but I do try to do it a few times a week.  Our house is small with an open floor plan and I have noticed that fresh air flows pretty easily from room to room, which is nice.

There's something pleasant about fresh air in the evenings, too.  I love hearing spring peepers, or cicadas, or crickets, or cows, through the screen.  I love smelling the scent of hay or woodsmoke. I realize not everyone lives in the country where these are the sounds and scents of nighttime, but more urban areas have their charms, too--maybe the sound of children playing outside, or neighbors talking, or music from a nearby house.

My goal each day is to simply air out the house pretty well each morning, to keep it aired most of the day if the weather and our schedule permit, and sometimes to keep a window or two open at night.  If we're gone all day one of the first things I do when returning home is open the house up for some air!

Fresh Air Outside

I'm a believer that getting outside into the fresh air is a cure-all for some of our ailments of modern life (including, but not limited to: malaise, ennui, boredom, depression, anxiety, irritability, low energy, poor immune function....).  Not only does Vitamin D help boost our immune system and mood, just being outside and getting a change of scenery from the four walls of a house or office is so refreshing.  My children understand that I require them to get fresh air every day!  In extremely cold temperatures or dangerous weather they do have to stay inside, but most of the time I require them to be outside for at least half an hour-ish a day.  Sometimes they do not want to go outside, but I force them go, and then they want to stay out for hours!

Fresh air isn't only required for children, either: I require myself to get fresh air every day, too. I am a much more balanced person if I take a walk every afternoon, or get outside to putter around, or take my children to the park.  It's much easier to achieve this when the weather is warm (when the obligations of gardening begin to take over my life, and the pool is open), but I try to do it even in very cold weather.  I distinctly remember one walk I took in January, when I was bundled up from head to toe, and it was very cold outside.....just walking laps around the large field behind our house.  I had to have a scarf wrapped around my face!  But oh, I felt so good when I was done with that walk......

After our trip to Finland years ago I remember reading a book about Finnish housekeeping and the comment was made that Finnish mothers typically put their babies outside to sleep, even in very cold temperatures.  With the right clothing, being outside in the cold isn't harmful.  And the climate where I live is nothing like Finland's! So I have no excuse not to get outside, even in January or February.

I remember one night a few years ago. I was cleaning up the dinner dishes and was in a petulant, irritable mood. I'd been heavy-laden with my responsibilities that day and was snippy with my family.  Each night we take compostable materials outside, and that night I reluctantly grabbed the compost and my coat and trudged out.

But I was arrested in my self-inflicted misery by the beauty of the quiet night.  The sky was clear and I could see what seemed like all the stars.  The night was cold and still.  The locust grove east of our house stood dignified and quiet.  Everything was beautiful.  And those two or three minutes outside completely changed my attitude and my perspective.  When I came back inside, I was better.  Just standing in God's creation for a couple of minutes had quieted all my anxieties and cured my bad mood.  It was a wonderful revelation, and I've used Going Outside many times ever since to regulate my mood.

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Fresh air is another one of those very simple and basic things that seems commonsensical and perhaps not even worth nothing, but I think it's noteworthy because we stay inside so much more now than our ancestors did. I don't think that this is an entirely healthy trend.  Even on rainy days it's nice to sit on a covered porch and just watch the rain.  Our homes are bigger than ever and fuller than ever. We own so much stuff and all that stuff requires so much attention, care, arranging, putting away, etc. But sometimes that makes us hyper-focus on these transient, temporary things (STUFF) and not live fully enough in the reality that this world is large and beautiful and old, and that we are meant by God to truly enjoy His creation!  So open the window and go for a's refreshing and good for the soul.