Sunday, September 25, 2011

September Again

[CAUTION: The following post turned out very long. My apologies. ]

When September comes and the mornings are crisp and I can see from the windows the steam rising off the river in the distance; when the yellow school buses roll and the hardy flowers in the garden make one final desperate push for blossoms and a campfire in the evening actually feels good; when the fresh produce at the market is abundant and cheap and the first few red and gold leaves begin to appear in the trees and a single brisk wind covers my deck with dry pine needles, I know it; I can feel it; I can almost taste it--it's time to get back to school.

I love school. I love the old MJB coffee can on the kitchen counter filled with sharpened pencils. I love the open package of fresh, crisp sheets of lined paper. I love the newly reorganized bookshelf, filled with this year's selections for every subject, plus a handful of well-used reference books. I love the smell of brewing coffee as I gently awaken sleepy children and watch them stumble out of their rooms toward the breakfast table. I love to be a home educator. All of the wonder and beauty and excitement of a new school year happens right in my own home. And, having established a fairly nerdy, education-loving culture within my family, my children are good about at least pretending that they love it, too.

This September begins our fourth year of educating at home. Tano is 14, a high school freshman. Ellie is 11 and in middle school for the first time. I spent enough years both teaching in the public schools and having my kids enrolled in them that we still think in those terms--those grade levels. I have lots of home schooling friends here who really have to stop and think about grade levels. They just learn things at home and are not bound by the labels of numbered grades. But for us, this is a landmark year, a year of firsts--one in high school, one in middle school. It's a big deal around here.

Much has changed since we began educating at home in the fall of 2008. I started out with much fear and trembling then, and needed a bit of hand-holding. We followed the programmed approach of Ambleside Online, a rigorous Charlotte Mason-ish website filled with free resources. It was just what we needed that year. Although I was trained as a professional teacher, I didn't have the confidence to set my own course yet. I needed someone else to tell me what I should be accomplishing and when, for every subject. It was heavy on history and literature, both things that I excel at, so it was comfortable for me. Really, it was a great help to us and for the most part, my kids really enjoyed the assigned coursework.

The next year, 2009, I loosened up a bit on the intense schedule of Ambleside's recommended curriculum. I discovered that I was free to choose not to continue a book we weren't enjoying. I found that we could take field trips and be creative--and that it felt good. I was making the slow transition from public school mom to home educator. Like adolescence, it had its awkward moments, but my kids were big supporters of this whole endeavor and endlessly patient as we worked out the kinks in the system.

Our third year at home, 2010, saw the completion of the transition to freedom in the education department. Much to our surprise, my husband was given the opportunity to be a speaker on The Woodworking Shows' circuit, fulfilling an unlikely dream of mine to take our little home school on the road. We travelled for most of November and then left again mid-December and didn't return home until April. Yes friends, you read that correctly--we were on the road for four months straight, driving in our van and staying primarily in hotels. We had to arrive at each new show destination on Thursday afternoon for set-up, then worked at the show Friday, Saturday and Sunday, leaving Sunday night or Monday morning for our next destination, which might be a one, two or even three day's drive away. That's a lot of togetherness, folks.

School that year was amazing. We took our math books in the car and loaded the iPod with audio books for great literature discussions as we passed hour after hour of freeway travel. We bought a membership to a science museum that gave us access to other science museums all over the country. For history, we went to historic sites all over the place. We didn't just study history; we saw history; we experienced it. It was awesome. For fine arts, we toured amazing works of architecture and saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. For P.E., we hiked through both National Parks and huge cities. For economics, we budgeted out our hotels, restaurants, gasoline, entertainment, auto repairs, and toll road fees. For business education, both kids ran their own businesses on the road, making for themselves more pocket money than their parents ever had, plus plenty to put in the bank. Oh, and need I even mention geography? Having criss-crossed back and forth and up and down it in a van, we've got the U.S.A. down. We learned more on that trip than we ever could have learned from books. I'll say it again: It was awesome.

Coming back from this stint of travels, we had two months of school remaining and during that time, I made the conscious switch from a humanities based education, heavy in literature and history, to a science based education. We slacked a bit on history, having learned so much out on the road and began to do double and triple science each day. My son really loves science and it is an excellent career path option for him right now, plus my daughter could easily fall into the typical girls-are-bad-at-science-and-math stereotypes, and I determined not to let that happen. They are readers. They will do fine in the humanities. We are all about science and technology now.

This year, school is different again. We expected to be back on the road again and we still might, but likely the bulk of the travel won't start until January. Tano has started high school and Ellie is now in middle school. I still can't believe they are that old.

Tano is what we like to affectionately call 'a well-socialized home schooler.' He knows more kids in our little Norman Rockwell-style small town than most of the public school kids. It was no surprise, then, that he requested to attend the local high school this year. I wasn't thrilled with this idea, but as a person who was educated in the public schools and went on to teach in them, I wasn't terrified by it either. The problem, though, was our travel schedule. I wasn't willing to give up our travel opportunities, as they are so good for our business, but I also wasn't willing to send Andy out alone and split up our family for large blocks of time. To be honest, I wasn't very excited at all about giving up my role as his primary educator and sending him back into the 'culture of stupidity' classrooms--where smart is anything but cool and students spend huge amounts of effort on trying to avoid responsibility for their own education. At the same time, I didn't want to end up with a bitter kid who wanted to try public school and was denied because the family business took precedence. Was there a way we could have it all? Was there a possible compromise?

Yes.

Enter Montana Digital Academy. Montana's new online public school system allows kids to take some or all of their high school courses digitally, wherever they might be able to access a computer, but it can only be registered for through the local public school. After a little giving and taking, the local high school agreed to allow Tano to register for all of his classes through MTDA, but also have access to the school campus whenever we are in town. So as it stands, Tano works at home in the morning, goes to school at lunch time, eats with his friends, then spends 5th, 6th and 7th period in the school library's computer lab, continuing on his online classwork. We have the freedom to travel or do other activities as needed, as he is not ever required to be on campus. And best yet, I still have some control of his academic environment. For now at least, it is ideal. His online classes are: English, Math, Health, AP Biology, Latin and Web-Design.

Added to his MTDA classes, Tano has quite a few other things going on this fall. He is taking a filmmaking class from MAPS, pretty much the coolest thing since rolled toilet paper (getting tired of the sliced bread example), on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4:30-6:30 PM. The class meets forty minutes from home, but it is totally worth the effort as it is really incredible training from industry professionals, giving the kids real-world production experience as they work on PSA's and producing commercials and documentaries for local businesses and organizations, and is all completely free. FREE! The boy is so excited about it and is having a blast so far, only two weeks into the class. His instructor is even considering allowing him to take a camera with him from the class when we travel around the country, so he can continue to shoot footage of his adventures. So cool.

He is also enrolled, whether he ever wanted to be or not, in a public speaking class--my public speaking class. I decided that this is one skill that many home educated kids end up lacking, so with my experience and training in public speaking, I ought to do something about it. On Tuesday afternoons, 2:30-5:30, I now have a dozen or so high school-ish kids meeting in the art gallery space above the woodshop for speech class. So far, so good. I'll let you know more as it progresses. It should be fun to watch them move from terrified to confident.

Finally, Tano's education is rounded out by an independent studies, self-directed special topics P.E. class--BMX riding. After getting a great introduction to creating high school transcripts from Lee Binz, aka The Home Scholar, I told him I would count it as P.E. for him on his transcripts if he would put in a solid 4-5 hours a week on learning and practicing new tricks. It takes an incredible amount of physical strength and agility to do these crazy, gravity-defying, twisting and turning and flying stunts, and as a fairly non-athletic kid, I am thrilled that he is interested in taking BMX seriously. He is also creating his web design class website around BMX and using it as a basis for a documentary for his filmmaking class. It all works together nicely.

Ellie's education looks different this year, too, of course, as she is now in middle school and I've raised the bar for her workload. Now that our woodworking classes are done for the season, I am looking forward to spending a good amount of one-on-one time with her in the afternoons, when Tano is off at the high school campus. I have loosened my grip on Ambleside to the point that we are only using a few of their booklist recommendations, but not much else. I am feeling the confidence to do things on my own. Her schedule includes the following: Life of Fred math, LifePac language arts, Egyptology from Enrichment4You (Egyptology is a huge passion of hers), Equine Science from Simple Schooling (excellent and inexpensive PDF curriculum from Simple Schooling on MANY subjects, available at CurrClick) a science biography on Albert Einstein, plus general animal science, anatomy and physiology, and geography, all of which I have put together myself from an assortment of resources.

Added to these classes, we have just signed her up for volleyball with Montana Volleyball Academy (thirty-five minutes away) on Monday and Wednesdays, 5:30-7:00. This should be really good for her, as she is a girl who NEEDS exercise because she has far too much energy to expend on a daily basis. I'll be curious to see if the hour and a half practice actually wears her out. The class starts up soon.

An opportunity just came up last week to have both kids take music lessons from the older kids of a close girlfriend of mine, who lives nearby. Her son would be willing to teach my son guitar and her daughter could teach my daughter piano. I think it would be great for both of them and they are both very interested in doing it, but I have to really put some thought into how we will fit it into our already crazy schedule and if it will tip us over the edge. Did I mention both kids go to church youth groups, too, one on Tuesday night and the other on Wednesday night? It's crazy.

This year we have gone from the family who isn't really involved in very much at all, to one of those families who has every afternoon and evening scheduled out. I have gone from slacker-mom to taxi-mom in no time flat. I think part of it is a reaction on my part to the fact that the kids loved our lengthy business travels, but really missed getting to do fun things and even educational activities with their friends. Since we are probably not going out on the road again until January, I am trying to give them some opportunities for fun local activities this fall, while we are still here. Looking at my weekly calendar now, though, I think I may have overdone it. But which of these things could I give up? I love all of them. Hmmm...

Well, so that's what September is looking like so far for us. I forgot to take our start of school photo, so I should try to take that tomorrow and post it soon. I think you will be shocked, dear reader, at how much these kids of ours have grown. That's all for now, just a 'brief' summary of what's going on in our little home education experiment. Thanks for reading along.

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