Thursday, November 29, 2007

Salute - A Quick and Easy Math Game (that doesn't feel schoolish at all)

I don't typically teach my kids things in a traditional way. We unschool, so things come up as we move through our life and we learn about them as they happen. Because I was a teacher, way back when, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but mostly I follow their lead and try to get creative when they ask for something specific.

Lately, we've been playing tons of games. One of my favorite math games is called Salute. It is a simple card game that practices addition and subtraction facts. It can be used for multiplication and division as well. I worked with a principal many years ago who taught this to me. All you need are three people and a deck of cards. I use what I call leftover decks. You know all those decks of cards that are missing a few? Don't throw them away. They come in very handy. Depending upon the skill level of the children, I sort the deck, pulling out all face cards and higher numbers, if necessary.

Once you have your deck of digits, deal them to two players (called flippers). The third player will play, but will not need any cards. The three players sit in a triangle. The two players with cards begin by each flipping over their top card and holding it to their foreheads so that the other two players can see them. It is important that they not look at their own cards, only the card of the other card flipper. The two flippers should now have cards on their foreheads. The third player adds up the two digits and calls out the sum. The two flippers now subtract the number they can see (the flipper sitting opposite them) from the sum to get the number shown on their own card. They then call out their number.

Players can take turns being flippers and non-flippers to practice both subtraction and addition. It's fun, fast and a great way to play around with math.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Childhood Dreams

Janey, age 11, told me this afternoon that her childhood dream was coming true. We laughed because the other day I told her gleefully that my childhood dream had finally come true. It only took 29 years, but I finally got my very own pair of Dorothy Hamill ice skates. White, never been used, they even have the blade guards on them, and I only paid $7.99 for them at Goodwill. I love it when that happens. Every Christmas, from the time I was about 8 years old, that was all I wanted to show up under the tree. White ice skates, just like Dorothy Hamill. We skated at the outdoor rink in our town this weekend and I couldn't stop smiling.

Janey didn't have to wait quite as long. She finally has her own room. It's been an exhausting day of disassembling furniture, reassembling furniture, unpacking bookshelves, repacking bookshelves, sorting through books and clothes and crap. It's been fun and not so fun and I'm pretty sure the chaos of moving will all be over tomorrow, but Janey finally has her own room.

I've been resisting this for months. We live in a very small house, and finding a private space for everyone is a huge challenge. Janey and her younger brother Charley have shared the big bedroom for almost a year. Over the past few months Janey has moved into a new developmental stage and her pesky brother can't do anything right. I had the smaller bedroom to myself and justified that because I work from home and need space for my desk. I couldn't imagine sharing my room. It would never work. Macy has the closet under the stairs and loves it. No chance she'd be willing to give that up. For a long time I held Janey off. I told her that converting the attic into a bedroom was too big a project for me right now, so she was just going to have to deal with sharing for a while longer.

The other night, it hit me. I had this huge shift. Janey has been so patient with her brother. She is discovering a new found independence and spends hours and hours alone reading, listening to music, writing letters and daydreaming, only to be interrupted by a busy, noisy 6 year old constantly. As the oldest of four, I remember all too well what it was like to crave the quiet of my very own room. I didn't get mine until the summer before I turned 15. As I reflected on Janey's needs and got clear about my own, I realized that Charley and I could easily share a room. He takes up very little space and ends up in bed with me most nights anyway. It was a perfect solution.

Even though I'm exhausted, and there is still so much to put away, it feels so good to be able to give Janey what she needs right now. I think this new arrangement is really going to work. Knowing us, it will all shake up and change in 6 months anyway. Raising kids and unschooling have taught me to stretch my ideas of what will work. Once again I've had the humbling experience of realizing that my kids really do know what they need most of the time. All I have to do is pay attention.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Proud, Car-Free Mama

I am so proud of my kids right now. I knew I'd better write about it fast, before the wind changes and they are driving me nuts.

I finally sold the van. There was a big part of me that really, honestly, never thought it would actually sell. I mean saying that you're going to sell your car and go car free is all well and good, but actually being car free is a very different story. We've officially been car free for 6 days, and I'm so darn proud of my kids. They've ridden home, on their bikes, in the dark, in the cold, after long, full, fun days out in the world, and they are still smiling.

I've heard it said that it takes ninety days to kick a habit, and I think that's just about how long it took us to break our car habit. At the end of August I made the decision to not fix the van and posted it for sale. Although we had already been biking and taking the bus from time to time, I sat the kids down and explained that we needed to seriously commit ourselves to using the van less. The sweltering heat of the summer was subsiding and we began to pretty much walk and ride everywhere.

The first few weeks, the kids would walk to the car anytime it was time to go somewhere. I would remind them that we were biking and the whining would begin. "I'm too tired." "It's too far." "I hate my bike." As we moved into late September, the whining shifted to a low grumble. I started parking our van on the street and we began using our parking space for bike parking. I cleaned out the van so that it no longer stored extra shoes, jackets, water bottles, books, whatever. We were now down to driving once or twice a week, at most. By October, when the cold set in and we got some rain, the kids began begging me to take the bus rather than bike. Yeeesssss. That's when I knew we were on our way to kickin' the habit. They were begging me to let them take the bus. I think I'm in heaven.

The van sold last Tuesday. I got what I asked for, a very fair price, I thought. The new owners, a young couple with a 9 month old baby, were so excited they wanted to drive it away that night without even test driving it. As they drove away the next morning (I convinced them to come back in the morning so they could sleep on it and at least see it in broad daylight) the kids and I cheered. We did it! Then we looked at one another. It was really gone. "I feel kinda sad," Janey murmured. "I didn't realize that last night would be the last time I rode in our van. That's sad." I agreed. I was sad, too. And a little scared. Now we were really car free. Yikes.

The reason I'm so proud of my kids is that they have embraced being car free completely. It's been about ninety days, and we're no longer experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. When it's time to go somewhere, we grab our scarves and gloves and rain gear and we hop on our bikes. It refreshing and fun and good for us in so many ways. Tonight we were riding home from dinner at a friend's house. It was late, and very cold, but we were all excited about how invigorating the ride home would feel in the moonlight. At one point Macy shouted, "I'm hot and cold all at the same time.......weird!" My kids, and I are learning how to live a little lighter on this earth. And I am so proud.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Yesterday was one of those days when I couldn't remember why in the world I would choose to live life without school. School would mean a daily 8 hour break from the chaos. The kids were irritable and grouchy and bickered most of the morning. At one point I took a shower, just so that I could escape the negative vibes that were being thrown around the house.

And then, suddenly, without warning, it was peaceful. Janey and Charley were happily rearranging the furniture in their room. Macy was quietly sketching at the table downstairs. All was calm. How do they do that? In an instant, my kids went from angry, hate-filled creatures to angelic cherubs. It took me a few hours to recover. I was still reeling from the thought that my children were going to grow up to be psycho-paths who would never get along with anyone, ever, in the world. They were fine. They moved on. Just like that. Kids have an amazing ability to stay in the present. They teach me to forgive and move on. Just like that. Amazing.

Today is a new day, and my house is quiet because the kids are with their dad for the holiday. Today I am grateful for the stillness and at the same time, I am grateful for the way my home fills up with their energy when they come home. Today I am grateful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Wonderful World of Words

In a post not long ago (in a land not far away.....sorry, I couldn't resist) I mentioned that my 6 year old son Charley is completely uninterested in learning to read. As an unschooler, this doesn't concern me in the least. He's six. He has years and years to learn. He is active and busy and noisy and full of concoctions and projects and ideas, and someday, he will want to learn to read. Because we don't sit down at the kitchen table each day to do lessons, our learning happens spontaneously, within the context of our daily life. Charley has spent six years listening to his sisters spell out words and read street signs and follow recipes and today, the light bulb went on. I love it when this happens. It must be like how an engineer feels when they drive across the bridge they designed many years before.

I was sitting at my desk and he wandered into the room. He stood next to me for a few moments and began doodling on a piece of paper. A few more moments passed and he said, "Mom, is vomit spelled v-m-m?" I absent minded-ly replied that he was missing a few vowels, but was darn close. A moment later, I glanced at his paper and realized he was attempting to write the word vomit. I smiled and pointed out that he was hearing two of the sounds. Together we sounded out the o and the i, and then the t and he proudly wrote v-o-m-i-t on the paper. "Wow, Charley, you just wrote the word vomit!" He beamed.

As he was turning to walk out of the room, he giggled. "Hey Charley," I called, "why do you need to know how to spell vomit anyway?" He continued giggling. A few moments later, he asked me how to spell the words you and are. Then he asked me for the tape. Okay, so maybe it's not so nice to tape nasty signs on your big sister telling the world that she is vomit, but Charley, my six year old son is learning to read, and I'm proud.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Good Enough Parent

I've been thinking a lot lately about good parenting. I spend lots of time every day observing the ways in which we treat our children and how we, as parents, move through the world. So much of my daily energy is spent reading, writing, and talking about kids and unschooling and parenting, it's easy for me to place myself upon a pedestal as unschooler/mom/teacher/parent- extraordinaire. But I'm not. Clearly. I have a lot to learn and screw up daily in various ways.

What's really got me thinking this week is how we each, in our own way, judge the parenting of others. Lately I have had several situations come up with other families where conflict needed to be resolved between our children. Naturally, as parents, we each advocated for our own kids and struggled to be respectful of the needs of the other. In both of these situations, my child was the aggressor, the bully, the one who did wrong. No one wants to be the parent of the bad kid, and no one wants their kid to live with the belief that they are bad.

Way back when, when I was still teaching, and before my own kids had come along, I believed strongly that difficult children came from difficult parents. If the kids screwed up at school, it certainly meant that Mom and Dad were not doing their job at home. I remember sitting in parent teacher conferences listening to parents, puzzled about their child's inability to sit still or follow directions, or stay on task, thinking, "If I were the parent, this child would be much different." Not many teachers admit to this kind of arrogance, but I think it's pretty common. Especially for those of us who hadn't yet experienced the shock and awe of watching your sweet, beautiful, perfect child do something completely unmentionable right before your very eyes.

I remember my best friend Jodi, also a teacher with no kids of her own, admitting this very belief to me shortly after Janey, my oldest went through her 18 months of terrorist behavior at the age of 2. Janey was beautiful and sweet and rosey cheeked and lovely. She had these amazing blonde curls and big, bright eyes. She was the picture of innocence. One day, while we were standing in line at the bank, she wandered up to another little girl, several years older than her, and with a big smile and a casual glance over her shoulder in my direction, she yanked on the little girl's pony tail so hard, she brought that sweet, innocent little girl to the ground in one swoop. It was horrifying in every way. And it forever changed my naive belief that good parenting makes for perfectly well behaved children.

I've learned a lot in the 9 years that have followed that fateful day at the bank. I'd like to think that I've moved past the need to prove to the world that I'm a good parent. But it's tough. Especially when your kid does some thing bad. The good news is that I'm learning. I'm learning that there are as many ways to parent a child as there are children in this world. And many of them are good enough. I really do believe that as parents we all do the best we can. And I also believe that in respecting another's way, I am honoring my way. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do know what works for me. And that's good enough.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Homeschooling Sites of 2007

I just stumbled upon a contest for the best Homeschooling Site of the year. If you like this one, you can nominate me by clicking on the icon below (it's flashing, you can't miss it). If you could care less about this site or about contests, for that matter, clicking on that flashing icon will take you to a list of the sites people are nominating (listed individually in the comments section). Now that's super cool. If you have a site of your own, you can follow that same link to copy and paste the icon onto your site.

Yes, you can nominate yourself.

Yes, I did. It's good for my self esteem. So there.

Best Homeschooling Awards- Submit Nominations

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Wink

My daughter Janey is eleven years old and has a weekly babysitting job. She hangs out with a sweet and precocious two and half year old named Enny for about 3 hours. It has been an amazing thing, as her mom, to watch my little girl grow up right before my eyes. While she's babysitting, she is patient and kind. She is creative and laughs easily. If Enny innocently dumps out a box of 150 puzzle pieces, Janey giggles and calmly explains that it's clean up time. She doesn't lose her temper and she seems to have an endless supply of fun ideas and games at her fingertips at all times.

I remember fondly what it was like to have that kind of responsibility. It made me feel important and special and capable. I was the oldest child in my family as well, and babysitting for other families always came easily to me. As I wander in and out of the room on her babysitting days, I am amazed at this girl, my little girl, being slowly and gently transformed into a young woman.

The other day I was in the kitchen listening to Janey explaining to Enny that it was time to clean up the four games that were spread out on the floor. Enny didn't want to, but Janey insisted. "I wanna listen. Listen to Pooh," Enny protested, pointing to the stereo.
"The stereo's broken Enny, "Janey responded gently.
"No, I think it works just..." I blurted out before Janey cut me off as she peered over the pass through window and winked at me. You know, the wink.
"The stereo is broken right now Enny," she turned and winked at me again, "It's time for us to clean up and then we're going to go play outside." My jaw dropped.
"Outside! Outside!" Enny cheered and began putting Tinker Toys back into the bin. As they finished cleaning up and marched outside, I was overcome with emotion. Janey had learned the wink. Okay, she'd also learned that a little white lie can sometimes help move things along, but she had crossed the line from dependent child to capable, confident pre-teen babysitter. When did this happen? I was amazed.

Now, to be fair, she hasn't completely crossed that line for good. Just this morning I had to break up a pinching fight between she and her 6 year old brother over who was hogging the covers. Yesterday she complained for 20 minutes straight about how far we had to ride on our bikes to get to an appointment (it wasn't that far). She is only eleven, after all. But what a joy to watch her navigating her world and growing up little by little along the way.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Post Halloween Blues

They're here once again, The Post Halloween Blues. All that excitement, all those costumes, all that candy. As I write, Charley is curled up in my bed with a tummy ache. He's decided that today will be a "no candy" day. I really struggle with the junk food aspect of this holiday. I love the costumes and the parade downtown and the glowing pumpkins. Going door to door is so friendly and seems to bring out the sweetness in most people. But the mountains of crap that enters my home afterwards leaves me reeling.

For years, we lived out in the country and didn't really trick or treat. We'd dress up and visit friends or go to a party. Last year we moved to town and the onslaught began. I couldn't believe how much candy came back to our house. I'm sure it was no more than I had when I was a kid, but it felt like an assault of sorts. We eat well most of the time. Sugary treats are just that. A treat, and we tend to choose them carefully. So last year I struggled with how to unschool Halloween.

The girls are pretty even keeled about the whole thing. They seem to know when to say when and just don't care about junk food that much. Charley, age 6, is another story. He becomes obsessed. When a friend mentioned that the Halloween Witch visited their house on Halloween night and traded candy for a special toy each year, my ears perked up. The kids asked whether I thought that would work at our house. Who knows? I said. Can't hurt to try. So the kids sifted through their treat bags, choose a handful of their favorites to keep, and left the rest next to the door for the Halloween Witch. And she came!!! Last year she brought some cool art supplies, but this year she must have been in a rush because she brought cash. The kids were happy to pick out their own new toy at a store downtown the next day.

It's still hard to see the kids consuming that much sugar in a short amount of time, but I'm glad they've found a way to keep us all a bit more sane. Charley is learning the hard way that too much crap feels well, crappy. I could say no and insist that he stop eating all that sugar, spare him the discomfort and engage in a battle of the wills. But I believe it's important for kids (and adults)to learn for themselves. I'm glad it's him choosing a no candy day today.

My Little Secret

I have this little secret. Every once in a while it sneaks up on me and rears it's ugly head. You see, part of my income every month comes from tutoring other homeschooled children. There, I said it. I tutor. Not so bad, you say? Well, here's where it trips me up.

The other day a mom was picking up her son. We had just spent the past hour playing math games together. Mancala, Set, Tic Tac Toe, Tangrams, Pattern Blocks, Uno, and a few card games I have made up that practice math facts. Every once in a while I break out the three corner flash cards because his mom wants to make sure he is comfortable with his basic facts. We have a great time. It doesn't feel like hard work because we are playing the entire hour. When I see that he is struggling with a particular concept, I come up with a game we can play that addresses his need. Sounds fine so far, right?

Here's the tricky part. I don't do this with my own kids. Oh, we play plenty of games. And our games always have educational value. Not because I'm screening them for academic muster, but because when you unschool, everything has educational value. The part I don't do is the constant monitoring and evaluating and tweaking to make sure my kids have learned enough. I don't need to. I believe that my kids have always learned enough. I evaluate them everyday simply by being with them, interacting with them, observing how they move through the world. For me, this is enough.

As the mom and I were chatting about our time together, I heard myself say, "He's doing so well. I'm seeing lots of progress." She responded by agreeing and explaining that she is so pleased with the progress her son is making. "He has been working so hard, I'm so pleased," she beamed. My teacher-ego puffed itself up. I was being complimented. Then my stomach turned. The unschooler in me couldn't help feeling discomfort. Progress and hard work imply that this child was not enough prior to this moment. That he has somehow been less than and is only now inching toward "good".

Schools, many teachers, and some homeschool philosophies will have us believe that kids aren't enough until they have reached a particular bench mark or memorized a set of facts. Everyone knows that you can't move on to fourth grade long division until you've mastered 2 digit multiplication......right? Yeah, okay, it's true. There are skills that are needed in order to move forward academically, but I don't buy the notion that kids should be held up to an artificial standard that doesn't have a place in their everyday lives. My kids don't have a need for long division mastery at this point. Someday they will. They will learn it at that time because it is relevant and they are ready and it will come easily to them because of it.

A few days later I hashed out my discomfort with a good friend, also an unschooler. I explained that my tutoring job makes me feel a bit like I have a double life. I tried to think of a time in my kids lives where it was important to impose a yard stick for improvement. Because learning at our house isn't framed in an atmosphere of milestones and progress, it was a struggle. I asked my friend if she thought there was anything wrong with me participating in this notion that a child needed to be tutored in order to measure up. My friend smiled. She reminded me that I have an ability to play with kids in a really fun, educational way. She reminded me that I have strengths and gifts to offer this child that his parents may not. She reminded me of the times that she and I have been able to mentor each others' children in various ways simply by being a different adult in their lives with a different set of skills and strengths.

This all makes sense to me now. One of the major benefits of homeschooling is that my kids have the opportunity to interact with many, many different adults on a regular basis. Just like the mom who drops off her child at my house to play math games, I rely on countless others to help me provide my kids with the care, nurturing, and stimulation they need in order to be happy and fulfilled. And, sadly, as a parent, I will also come up short. Just like my parents and their parents before them, there will be times when I will miss the mark and fail my children. It won't be intentional, but it will happen. In the meantime, I think I can continue tutoring with clear conscience.

Check Out This Month's Carnival: An Unschooling Life

I've discovered a new unschooling blog carnival called An Unschooling Life . They've included a post of mine in this month's edition. Yeah! There are some other really great ones included as well. Blog Carnivals are an easy way to access multiple sites on a particular topic. The host or hostess lists links and gives a brief description of each so you can just click your way through the page and end up in all kinds of interesting places.