Saturday, November 21, 2015

In Praise of the Average Day Chart

Now I realize that the timing of this post may seem a little odd, since we're about to go into Thanksgiving week and then Advent and then Christmas vacation...  and all of those things mean that average weeks are guaranteed to be non-existent and even average days will be few and far between.

But I like to post about things that are actually working rather than things I hope will work, which puts me off the usual cycle for homeschooling posts.  Also, I hope it will serve as a reminder for me to try and protect at least a few days a week as average days, even as things get busier.

The Average Day Chart is inspired by Brandy at Afterthoughts (see hereherehere, and here - I think there's an even better post from her 2015 planning series lurking somewhere in the archives, but I can't seem to find it) and implementing it, along with Nicole's work on scheduling has been a life changing and sanity saving.

Having this regular rhythm to our days is a huge help for me, especially as I multiply this chart out over the course of the week.  Looking at our days as a concrete set of boxes of time has made me realize how much - or perhaps how little - we can actually do in a given day.  I am extremely good at creating long lists of things that need to be done, and then waving my hand somewhat despairingly at it and saying, oh, it'll all get done somehow...  but then either it doesn't actually get done, or the kids and I work ourselves into exhaustion trying to do far too much for a given day.

I assign my children's work to these various boxes, and if it doesn't fit into the boxes, then it doesn't get assigned.  Yes, children can dawdle and take longer than they should on their work...  but if they work in a reasonably diligently fashion, they will get their work done and then be done for the day.  And the kids all know that if they don't get their work done in the allotted time, then they will be doing their work later during their independent time.  This doesn't happen for the younger ones, as I am working more closely with them...  but it does happen for my Y8 daughter.  She also knows that if oral narrations are not done that day, then they turn into written narrations...  and she will not be included in fun family activities if her work is not completed.  But I am also extremely reasonable about how much work gets assigned in a slot, and I am very open to modifying assignments if something I've assigned turns out to be a lot more work than I originally expected.

This may look very regimented and difficult, but really it is the weeks when we have a couple out of the house engagements in the morning or early afternoon that are very difficult.  A week with only one or two average days is ever so much harder than a week with three or four average days.  There's so much peace in being able to move smoothly through what needs to be done, and having the children know what to expect from our day.   It is also such a huge help for me, as I have some rest time for myself in the course of the day, and I know exactly which children I'm working with at which time.  There is nothing that frazzles me more than having all five children needing something from me at once!

A few notes - Emma is Y8, Gregory Y4, Nathan Y2, Justin is 4 and Hannah is almost 2.
The readings that the boys have in the afternoon are generally shorter than scheduled.
The boys do piano together right now, taking turns working with me, which is why they are scheduled at the same time.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Charlotte Mason West

I am glad to announce Charlotte Mason West -
A website dedicated to encouraging community and connections among Charlotte Mason educators west of the Rockies, particularly through conferences and retreats.
Currently on Charlotte Mason West, you can view pictures from the 2015 conference in Seattle, listen to talks from the conference, and perhaps most importantly, sign up for announcements about new conferences and events west of the Rockies (sign up form is at the bottom of the page).

I'm excited about this new site, and I hope it can encourage people to attend a conference or event and make connections with one another.  It really is wonderful to meet people who get what you're doing!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Starting a Foreign Language When Overwhelmed

I have spent much the last fourteen years struggling with pregnancy-related issues:  sickness, fatigue, pain, sleep deprivation, postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.  I know what it is like to be overwhelmed, but also to want to offer so much to these wonderful and amazing children God has given me.

Last year as I considered my then Y3 and Y1 boys, I knew I wanted to start them in a foreign language.  I read and re-read Celeste's excellent series on Learning Languages the Charlotte Mason Way.  But as I reflected on myself, I realized that I had very little to give - little mental space, little time to prepare, little ability to learn anything new.  I also knew that the boys would need something very hands-on, because neither was at a point where I could expect them to sit with a packaged curriculum and have any success at all.  They were both also very resistant to the idea of learning a foreign language.

I realized that what I could do would not be a full solution.  It would not lead anywhere near fluency, nor would it be a long term strategy.  But it could be something to ease them into foreign language in a way that required very little from me.

I set the following goals for the year:

  1. We would study a language I already knew a little bit and had a lot of resources available.  A time of overwhelm is not a time to decide that it would really be better to choose a language based on coolness-factor, family history, or personal interest.  
  2. I would incorporate foreign language prayers and poetry into our memory work.  I set a goal of one new prayer and one new poem each term.  I added in our prayers and poetry in Spanish right alongside our regular poetry selections in our daily memory work.
  3. I would have us learn one new children's song in the target language every term.  I chose fun, bouncy music and played it at the end of our Morning Time.  This was a great way for the kids to get up and move around and stretch after our quieter and more sedentary Morning Time.
  4. I would do two sessions of Duolingo each day.  Two sessions takes about 10-12 minutes and I trained myself to do Duolingo before I allowed myself to look at blogs, check email, read or do just about anything on my phone or computer.  I think this ended up being the most important piece of our language learning.  I would periodically tell the children how manhy consecutive days I had on Duolingo and they saw and admired my faithfulness to this practice.  It gave them a sense of how important this was to me, and made it easier for me to occasionally say things in Spanish to my kids.
We did this all year last year.  By the time we left for our trip to Alaska, I had a Duolingo streak of over 320 days.  The boys were no longer resistant to learning a foreign language, and they were proud to be able to pray in multiple languages.  I didn't meet all my goals, namely we ended up memorizing only two poems and one prayer, but we did learn more songs than I had planned.  My now four year old sings "Brilla, Brilla, Estrellita" to himself when he's playing or falling asleep.

Resources I used:
A Bailar! - Fun Spanish music targeted at kids, but not obnoxiously so.  They also have a PDF on their website with the lyrics.
Poems by Douglas Wright - The two we learned are Árboles, Á boles, Árboles and Una Casa con un Sol.  He has a lot of poetry that is great for kids who are learning Spanish.  He uses repeating words, natural themes, and they are generally just a few short stanzas.  And you can use Google translate to get an English version.
Duolingo - Free, works on my phone and computer, easy to use.  What's not to like?
Prayers - We learned the Hail Mary in Spanish and the Our Father in Latin.

And in case you're wondering about my oldest...
Emma, then Y7, was well underway with Greek, Latin and Spanish and largely self-directed in her language studies.  She has long found the study of different languages fascinating, and that coupled with her early reading and writing skills made using well known and widely available programs like the Hey, Andrew series, Latina Christiana, Henle and Rosetta Stone an easy fit.  Were they what Charlotte Mason would have used in her schools?  Well, not necessarily, but when I chose the programs that wasn't a question I held in as much importance as I do now.

And now...
Our work last year, coupled with my healthier emotional and physical state, put us in an excellent position to ramp up our Spanish studies this year and to add Latin for Gregory, now in Y4.  I'm using Cherrydale Press' Speaking Spanish book with Nathan (Y2) and Gregory, and Latin for Children A with Gregory.  I'm very pleased with the Speaking Spanish book, and reasonably happy with Latin for Children.  I've added the Latin chants to our daily memory work, which means my four year old goes around chanting "o, s, t, mus, tis, nt!" and singing "In principio erat verbum" and my almost two year old asks for "aqua, aquae" when she wants water - both of which are incredibly cute.

And if I wasn't in this healthier state, I think I would have continued our Spanish work as I outlined, and added Latin chant, prayer and poetry as well.  (I'm not sure what I would have substituted the Duolingo work for in Latin, however.)  I would have started Gregory on Rosetta Stone and hoped for the best.  And I would have held off on introducing any additional Spanish study with Nathan for at least another year.  Ideal?  Not at all.  But certainly much better than waiting until I had the time, energy, and ability to do something more ideal.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

What my nature journaling really looks like

Photo by my daughter Emma

Yes, it would have been easier to pack up the pencils, call it a morning, and start in on lunch preparations.  But instead I stuck it out at the table after helping the three boys with their journal entries, wrote my entry and sketched my maple leaf, all the while trying to keep my journal in place and my pencils (and toddler!) on the table.  Yes, the table isn't where we generally encourage children to sit, but it was far easier to draw with her there than on my lap.  And in the end, I succeeded.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

From My Commonplace: Contemplation and Action

The activist may think himself the cutting edge of the future, but if he is not a mystic, he is frightfully narrow—and part of the narrowness is that he may not possess even a small suspicion of his myopia. [...] Rare indeed is the man or woman who, as Vatican II put it, is “eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation”
Fr. Thomas Dubay, Fire Within

The Thinker, Rodin

Have you ever tried actually sitting in the position of Rodin's The Thinker?

We recently studied this sculpture as part of our artist study of Auguste Rodin.  During our study, we all tried this position and I suddenly had a new understanding of what it means to be "eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation."

Give it a try and see what you think.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nature Walks, Nature Journaling and the Fight to be the Teacher I Want to Be

When I think back over the conference I attended in Seattle, I think there were two encompassing ideas that encouraged and inspired me the most.  The first was a greater understanding of the idea that education is a long term endeavor.  It isn't a matter of a particular book or event or a week of diligent work - or even a year of diligence.  It is many years of regular work, many attempts to do what is right and to keep continuing to press on, even in the face of whiny children, lack of progress, frustration and fatigue.

The second is something that Brandy said at the end of her first talk, that we have to fight to become the teacher we want to be.  This business of trying to lead a rich life full of living ideas and active engagement with those ideas is not an easy one.  It would be much easier to hand out iPads or workbooks to everyone and focus largely on building skills.  Sure, the kids would balk at times to the tedium, but we could push through the work quickly and then move onto whatever else we want to do or needs to get done.  

I thought about both of these things as I sat in the airport on Sunday evening, considering the day I wanted to share with the children when I got back.  I knew I would be home late, and the kids could be a little clingy or overexcited when they saw me again on Monday.  My first impulse - and the one I had planned on doing before the conference - was to get everyone's checklists squared away at the airport, plan my week on the plane, and then jump back into a regular day first thing Monday morning.

But as I considered what I had experienced at the conference, what I had heard and learned and discussed, I wasn't so sure that was what I really wanted to do.  I wasn't sure that was really the best way to draw our family together again after our separation.  I also wanted to bring a little of that post-conference glow into our family life and draw out the conference experience just a little longer.

A banana slug - the slugs around here look just like banana slugs, except they are more of a grey-ish or brown-ish color rather than yellow.
I resolved to postpone our morning time from 8 to 9 and cancel our usual morning activities to take a walk with the kids - a walk that has never gone well with all five children, as it is about a half a mile downhill to the creek, and then of course a steep half a mile back home.  I wasn't sure what they would think of visiting the creek, dry for several months due to the drought.  Would it still be interesting if they couldn't throw rocks in the water?  And I wasn't sure at all how I was going to get my four year old and 21 month old back up the hill if they both fell apart.

Somehow this hill looks a lot steeper in person.  Or perhaps it is the company?
I directed the children to find something to bring home to sketch in their neglected nature journals. I cringed inside as I said it, expecting to hear the chorus of groans that the nature journal usually invokes.  All the children were glad for this opportunity, and even intrigued by my direction to pick something to bring home and sketch.  Is it possible I haven't done this before?  Or has it been so long they have forgotten?  Most of my memories are of dismal failures trying to sketch in the field...  so perhaps it is a common idea that I dismissed out of hand and prematurely.

We had a wonderful walk, and the children were fascinated by the dry creek bed.  We were able to walk up it a ways, discovering 22 banana slugs in the creek bed, marveling at the plants already starting to grow amongst the rocks in the bed, finding a few lingering blackberries and noticing several riparian trees we had not noticed before.  Justin, my four year old, collected a leaf he wanted to sketch, and Gregory (9) found about a half dozen things he wanted to add to his journal.  Nathan (7) was an eager looker, but wasn't sure what he wanted to sketch.  In the end he decided he would use one of his brother's items.  Emma (13) found a maple seed to sketch, and I tore off a small section of an uninhabited paper wasp's nest we found on the ground on our way to the creek bed.

Scouring the creek bed for slugs
We toiled back up the hill, the older boys running ahead, Justin trailing behind and needing a lot of cajoling and encouragement to get back up the hill, Emma offering a steady stream of observations and interest, and Hannah at first being content in the stroller before deciding she really would rather be carried.  She ended up strapped in the stroller against her will and I somehow managed to push it back up the hill while she cried and fussed.  She quickly calmed down when we got home, and everyone set to work on their entries with good cheer.  Gregory, much to my surprise, decided to draw all the specimens he brought home, and Justin was adamant that I help him trace his leaf for his nature journal.  I, thinking of Brandy's talk, helped him to extend his attention a little longer and he made several excellent additional observations and added more detail and color to his tracing.  There was some whining when it came time to label the pictures from one child in particular, but we pushed through and made it work.

It wasn't the idyllic, everything is wonderful and joyous sort of excursion that I, in my more unreasonable moments, am sure that everyone but me gets to have, but it was not the disaster I had imagined either.  Instead it was an in the trenches, trying to do the work sort of outing that I need to keep bringing into our lives.

This post doesn't seem complete without some sharing from our nature journals, so I asked the kids if I could post pictures and they graciously agreed.

Justin (4) - Black Oak Leaf

Nathan (7, Y2) - Pine branch growth - not sure how he got away without labelling...   

Gregory (9, Y4) - Bark, Hazelnut leaf, fern, and a Big Leaf Maple leaf

Mine - I mostly write in my nature journal, but I do try to stretch myself and sketch at least occasionally.  I'm never very happy about how it turns out though!

Emma (13, Y8) - Maple seed sketches and description

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

2015 Northwest Charlotte Mason Educators Conference

I had the enormous privilege to attend the Northwest Charlotte Mason Educators Conference in Seattle this last weekend.  I believe it was the first one west of the Rockies, but definitely not the last!  The retreat center was amazing - the location was gorgeous, the staff was friendly and helpful, the rooms were comfortable, the food was tasty, the chapel was lovely...  it was everything you could possibly want for an event like this.  I am so grateful to the organizers of the event that they did this.  Is was such a wonderful gift to the Charlotte Mason Community.

I didn't take many pictures of the conference as it was happening, because I feel uncomfortable about taking and posting pictures of people without their direct consent.  But I would like to share some of my nature pictures as well as comment a little (ok, more than a little!) on the talks and events.

Many bedrooms (including mine!), the dining area and one of the conference rooms looked out over Puget Sound
After a delicious dinner and some wonderful conversation, we kicked off the formal part of the conference with Brandy's talk, "What's Love Got to Do With It?  Cultivating Your Child's Affinities", which you can get from her web store if you're interested.  I highly recommend it - it was a fantastic talk, full of both wisdom and practicality.   I thought her discussion about how we cultivate affinities was excellent and extremely helpful.

A nearby nature sanctuary on Saturday morning.  The sun did come out on Saturday, but not until the afternoon.
We also had the option to listen to Catherine Levison discuss contemplative prayer after Brandy's talk.  I ended up staying after the talk and listening and discussing the subject further - as well as hearing many wonderful and fascinating stories.  This late evening really helped solidify some things I've been trying to work through for some time, and I felt so much peace coming out of it.  I hesitate a bit to say this so close to that night, but I think it was a life-changing experience.

The same location, but Sunday afternoon.  We had a blue sky all day on Sunday and it was gorgeous!
I started Saturday morning early, as I'm used to getting up at about 5:45.  It was so lovely to have time to pray, read the Bible, shower, take a walk, pray the rosary...  and then go into the dining room and have a wonderful breakfast all ready for me.  And there was no whining or crying or complaining or anything! (Mornings can be a little tough around here, as you might guess)

Catherine Levison gave the first talk of the morning, discussing "How Do You Want to Be Remembered?" It was a talk full of wisdom and encouragement.  Her list of key things to remember are things I think I need to post prominently, because even though I know them, I have to keep reminding myself how very important they are. 

I have no idea what kind of fungus this is, but it was sizable, and I was fascinated by how it had swallowed up this leaf you can see in the middle of the picture.  I tried tugging on it, but the fungus was holding it so firmly that the leaf didn't budge at all.
Brandy's next talk was about how "The Principles are Practical" which I think she plans to make available on her site as well.  It has a slide deck, so I imagine that's what makes it a little more complicated to put online.  Again, a fabulous talk (and her handout with her organization of the principles is priceless) and it is really making me want to go through Start Here, Brandy's Principles Study.     

The Retreat Center's nature trail
After lunch we had the opportunity to go on a nature walk with Naomi Goegan, then spent some time doing handicrafts.  Again, both were great opportunities.  And I haven't even mentioned all the great conversations I had with the lovely and interesting women who attended this conference with me!  I met so many wonderful people with great stories to share.  And there were so much wisdom to be had from everyone.

Then there was tea, which I actually bailed on because I was feeling a little overstimulated at that point.  I had finished up my nature notebook entry a little late in the handicrafts time period (I was knitting and then crocheting, then decided to draw), and by the time I went into the dining room for tea everyone was in full conversation and it just felt like a bit too much.  My introvertedness kicked in and I felt that dull roaring in my ears which is my clue that I need to spend a little time outside and away from the hubbub of everything.  I added more to my nature notebook, stared at the water for a bit, then was ready for the scheduling discussion at 4.

This discussion was very helpful and encouraging, and showed just how important it is to have some connections with people who are trying to do what you are doing around to bounce ideas off of and to help troubleshoot.  I wish the discussion could have been twice as long!  (And I wish all these incredible women lived, oh, within an hour's drive of me so we could do this every month - or more!!)

Someone on the nature walk identified these as Chanterelle mushrooms.  Aren't they gorgeous?
The next talk was Kathy Wickward's talk about Charlotte Mason's methods and special needs children.  I wish everyone could have heard this talk, because as Kathy pointed out, "special needs are regular issues on steroids".  Also, I think it was so helpful to hear a bit about what it is like to educate a child with special needs and so encouraging to hear how CM's methods and ideas are appropriate for all children.  I wonder if they are perhaps even more important for children with special needs because they are so much more likely to be given limited exposure to truth, beauty and goodness.  Her discussion about accommodating and how to build skills while also continuing that exposure to great ideas was particularly helpful.

And then it was time for dinner, with another talk and a book discussion after that in the evening.  (Yes, Saturday was a long and full day, but an excellent one!)  Naomi Goegan's Nature Study Through the Ages talk was very helpful and encouraging, and I especially like how she emphasized that we have to be willing to open our own eyes for nature study to work.  We also have to be patient - nature study is not a short term endeavor.  

I had hoped to go the The Nature Study Idea book discussion, but since I only managed to finish about a third of the book, I decided to attend the Living Page discussion instead.  I think most of the attendees attended this discussion, as it was a very full room!  But we had a good discussion, and I was encouraged especially to consider creating a child's personal history chart after hearing one woman describe how she did it with her children.  Attending this talk really made me realize how much more I could appreciate a book if I had the opportunity to discuss it with other people.

And now we're (finally!) at Sunday.  I didn't realize this write-up would get quite so long, but I think it is good for me to get a chance to record some of my impressions.  I hope perhaps it will be encouraging for some of you out there who didn't get to go, but have considered attending a conference like this.  If you have the opportunity, or even sort of have the opportunity - do it!

On Sunday morning I again took a walk, then went to Mass at the chapel at the retreat center.  The Mass was lovely, and I had the opportunity to serve as an Eucharistic Minister for the first time.  It was incredibly moving, and I felt so privileged to do so.  It is something I've been scared to do in the past, but now I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.

And after breakfast, we had a west coast organizational meeting.  After talking briefly with the one other woman from Northern California (hi, Helen!) we decided to join the Southern California table.  We had some ideas about how to build the CM community in California, which is exciting, and I enjoyed hearing what other women have done to build community in their areas.  And then we discussed the next West Coast Charlotte Mason Conference - and guess what, it will be in Northern California next year, and I'm going to be taking a substantial role in making this happen!  I'm very excited, and I feel complete peace about it.  (now at least!)  There are several other wonderful women who are also going to be working on the next conference, and I'm very glad to have to opportunity to work with them and get to know them better.   

And then it was time for our last talk of the conference, Brandy's talk on the famous (well, in CM circles at least) fresco with St. Thomas Aquinas in the center and all the virtues and areas of study.  Her talk was very informative, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to get to stare at the painting more closely and understand who all the figures in it are.  I'm looking forward to Brandy putting this one online, because I quickly realized that I could either stare and consider or I could take notes...  and I decided to stare and consider.  But I'd like to have the notes too, because there is a lot of information embedded in that fresco!

And then after lunch it was time for the conference to end and for everyone to head out.  I did have a chance to chat a bit more with some of the women I met, and then I met up with my husband's Aunt and Uncle to visit and take a walk.  We walked back to the nature sanctuary and had a great visit in the lovely September sunshine.  Then it was to the rental car return, to the airport, to the plane, to the Sacramento airport, to the economy parking (where I thought I had lost my parking ticket and ended up finding it on the ground outside my car!), then to my mom's house to return her car and pick up my mother-in-law's car, then to my in-law's to return her car, then I walked home (owning one car can sometimes be challenging, logistically speaking!).  My daughter had waited up for me, and we eagerly swapped stories while I ate a late dinner and wound down a bit from the drive and walk.  

Mount Rainier - I have never flown so close to it before!
And now I'm really looking forward to the West Coast Charlotte Mason Conference next Fall!!