Tag Archives: everyday homeschooling

The Planting of the Tree- urban sprawl, apples and nature study

I have to say that, before encountering Dear Charlotte, I wasn’t much of a nature lover… Or, let me restate that- I have always felt an affinity for the outdoors. I remember as a small child curling up under a honeysuckle bush in my front yard for playtime. My sister and I packed the earth down so hard under that bush, it shone like linoleum. We’d take toys under the bush and would spend hours making mud pies and stealing the neighbors daffodils to decorate them (the neighbors were not charmed). It was during this outdoor play that I once dared my sister to bite a worm- she did (the power of an older sister!).

I remember taking long walks around the “Yellow Brick Road” (what we called my street as it had inexplicable yellow paint-spray marks all over when we first moved in). It was shaped like a ‘P’ and had only one entrance/exit. For many years, there were only about 10 houses on the street- much of it had been left wild and there was still a swamp around the circle from us. My grandfather took us to the swamp and we saw wild turkeys, turtles, snakes, minnows and many plants with berries, pickers, & leaves shaped like elephant ears. This ‘wild land’ was the playground for my family. The trees hung with vines and we literally swung from them for fun. My uncles created a dirt bike track on some of the unused land. My grandfather went fishing in the stream near the swamp. Deer were a common sight and we would often walk into the woods directly onto the lands and trails of the wildlife preserve that abutted the neighborhood property (in truth, this was the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary named for its most famous resident, John James Audubon).

I remember the land remaining this way until I was 12 years old when the developer decided to put in new homes. Our playground became a neighbor’s back yard and within a year, all ‘our’ land was gone… But, to a burgeoning adolescent, it didn’t seem to matter all that much. I retreated indoors and stayed there until my son was about 2 years old.

Like the proverbial butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, I took Charlotte’s advice and began taking nature walks with my family. I revisited all the parks and trails of my youth and have begun to rediscover the ‘wild’ within me. I feel more centered, more myself when I can hear water running and birds chirping all around me. I feel most alive when the wind is playing in my hair and the sun is lightly warming my face. I feel connected to all that God has done in my past and all He is calling me to in the present. How does simply being outside do that? Doesn’t scripture say that all of creation testifies to God? He somehow seeps into my soul when I get outdoors bringing peace and refreshment with Him…

Now, I live in an increasingly suburban area. When I was a child, there was a lot of land that remained either farms or simply undeveloped. But when I was about 12 a new highway opened and all along that corridor, housing developments sprung up like cancers, eating away all the natural space. Now, my county has ‘open space’ preserves to keep some areas undeveloped, but much of the country is now cluttered with cookie-cutter houses and suburban sprawl.

I admit, I do like the convenience of having stores close by, but I am ready to leave it all behind. Dear Charlotte helped me to see that my son has no where real to play. All our trails are maintained, carefully designed to allow speedo-shorts wearing bicyclists to share the path. It isn’t that the trails aren’t pleasant- they are- but they are also so very… planned. I am reminded of Charlotte’s warning not to come between the child and the author of a book by giving too much pre-digested explanation about the idea being out forth. As my child’s teacher, I am to introduce my kids to the author and then stand aside while they have a conversation: “Have you heard of William Penn?”; “Let me explain what happened to Beauty in the Beast’s castle”; “I’ll tell you about Agoognak and her wintry home”… Just as I should stand aside so my children can experience these ideas themselves, I’m beginning to feel that the county planners have come too much between my children and Mother Nature. All the trails are planned just so to allow passers-by to enjoy such-and-such a view. Flowers are planted and trees trimmed to give a specific effect at a specific point of the walk… There are some spaces that remain more natural, but… we are just so constrained by the artifice and management of it all…

Add to that, the fact that we have no private outdoor space to allow the children to wander and explore, no safe zone where little children of 5 and 2 can be set free to meander and explore at will, no place to build forts or plant gardens and… well… our situation needs mending.

Until the move is possible, we are making do as best we can by studying nature at farms, the less manicured trails and by visiting what nature centers/zoos we can locally. This is made difficult by having only one vehicle, but we are getting by. Today, for example, as our van was in the shop, we brought nature study into our home by continuing our apple study out of Anna Comstock’s ‘A Handbook of Nature Study’.

Forgot to take a picture of our apples before slicing for the taste test!

My husband selected 4 different varieties of apples; Red Delicious, Ginger Gold, Fuji and Honeycrisp. I followed the directions in HNS and had the kids look at the apples side by side. My son described their skins and I pointed out some color variations on each of their peels. We noted much about the general shape of each apple and then took small pieces to sample. It was so wonderful to be able to clearly note extremely distinctive flavors between apples! Alex was amazed! We gave each apple a new name based on its flavor composition.

These seeds were thrown off the porch in hopes of an apple tree next year!

We then cut each apple open and observed how the seeds in apples sit in little cavities (I described them as each having their own bedroom in their little apple home) and we then noted that the seeds- regardless of variety- were of similar color and size.

The kiddos munching apples. Fae had the Fuji and Alex wanted the Red Delicious. My favorite was the Honeycrisp!

Finally, Alex journaled his observations for the morning. It was a really nice time together- fun, educational and experiential.

Alex's nature journal. I was impressed with how he noted the subtle color variations on some of the apples.

Until we can get into a home that will allow us more space to roam and be without the input of joggers, hikers, dog-walkers, etc., we’ll have to do the best we can to get outdoors and explore- even if that means coming inside!



Filed under Daily Life with Dear Charlotte

On Board the Dawn Treader- Two (or more) lessons before breakfast

This morning, my little loves awoke and my daughter immediately went to our resource shelf (this is a fancy name for the place I keep all the oddly shaped educational toys I’ve bought but don’t want the kids wrecking or losing) and pulled out a pack of Bible story cards. These cards are made of heavy cardboard and feature an illustration of a well-known Bible story on one side and a retelling of the story on the other. Fae delighted in the pictures and was very content pulling them out and placing them back in the little box over and over. Alex, however, surprised me by naming almost all of the stories by recognizing the illustration.

I was impressed at how many Bible stories he knows. He named off the creation, Jonah, Daniel, Moses, Jesus’ crucifixion, the Resurrection and others. (At one point, I explained we were looking at a picture of Peter telling people about Jesus. Fae said, “Wow. That Peter Pan loves Jesus.” Wonderful…) Something tickled in the back of my mind though; I’ve recently read an article by Ken Hamm (of Answers in Genesis) postulating that children in Sunday school who are taught Bible “stories” begin to believe that these stories are fairy tales and that they fall away at a greater rate than those who do not attend Sunday school. Hamm, according to the article, believes that these ‘Sunday school kids’ are being convinced that Scripture is just a bunch of fairy tales and that the Bible doesn’t answer real questions. They eventually find the Word irrelevant to their lives.

While I would want to read his book for myself, (I have questions about the way the research was conducted), I also wanted to be sure that Alex understands the difference between history and fantasy. I asked him if he knew the difference between the two, but he just stared at me blankly. So I asked if he knows the difference between stories that really happened and stories that are just pretend. He said, a little uncertainly, that he did. So I gave him an example by reminding him that Daddy and I tell him stories about history- we talk about the day we were married and the days he and Fae were born. These are real stories- the events really happened. These kinds of stories- and the stories in his book about William Penn and the stories in the Bible- are history. They are true and tell us about something that happened far away or a long time ago. Fantasy, I told him, is make-believe. Pegasus, Perseus, Andromeda, Snow White, Rose Red- these are all characters in make-believe stories. The people never lived, the action never really happened.

Alex took that in, nodded, and continued playing with Bible cards… Twenty minutes later, we were dressed and headed to the kitchen for breakfast. Then, stopping me in my tracks, Alex asked, “Mommy, why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible?”

My sweet son is in love with animals, prehistoric and otherwise. His mind roams over the African plains, to the jungles of South America to the prairies of Kansas. If an animal lives there, his mind is there. So it’s not so surprising that he eventually wanted to know what the Bible has to say about dinosaurs.

So... this is a Behemoth

Now, I believe that the Bible is to be taken literally at all points, so I believe that the world was created in seven literal days (when we start giving ourselves the authority to dismiss scripture as poetic, we give ourselves authority to judge ALL of Scripture including that concerning sin, Jesus, and the Lord’s will for us. I’m just not willing to set a foot on that slippery slope myself…). I believe that men co-existed with every animal that has ever lived and there are scientists who believe the same thing. So I hopped on the computer to do some quick research. I found a really wonderful site that shows where the Bible talks about animals that don’t fit the description of any animal we know except a dinosaur. Then I showed Alex the pictures of the dinosaurs the Bible writers were likely describing. It was ten minutes of research and sharing and it reaffirmed my son’s belief in God’s Word.

The Leviathan that plays in the deep...

I believe that the Word says exactly what it means. It is not fantasy, it is not make-believe. We can trust those words because they are THE Word- our Lord reveals Himself to us in those pages. I want my children to have that kind of relationship to God’s Word- a relationship where they don’t give themselves authority to remake it after the world’s image and where they are willing to be careful & honest about what it does say.

I didn’t know when I woke up this morning that I would be giving my son lessons about the reliability of the Word, but that’s what happens when you homeschool- you get to be there to respond to all those little moments in which your child’s faith is built or torn down. I am so grateful and truly humbled- to have partnered with the Lord today in bringing Alex another step closer to relationship with Him.

What a joy this life is!

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The Magician’s Book- Ambleside Online and our first weeks of homeschooling

I have chosen to use Ambleside Online as our basic homeschool curriculum. There are several reasons for this: first, the curricula itself is free. As a single-income family, that’s a big advantage. Secondly, the suggested resources are generally free, are easily found at a low-cost or may be borrowed from a library (the wonderful Advisory at AO has tried very hard to make a CM style education accessible to anyone regardless of income). Thirdly, they have an amazing network of moms who give one another support via the many Yahoo Groups and Facebook page AO has. These ladies are like an online support group/co-op that shares experiences, resources and ideas. It is simply delightful to be a part of these groups. The biggest reason I chose Ambleside is because the curriculum is generous, rigorous and, as we plan to follow the curriculum through until graduation, will take my children on a beautiful journey in which they will ‘meet’ the best minds in human history. This is extremely exciting to me- I cannot wait to travel with them!

As you may know, neither Charlotte Mason nor Ambleside recommend a child begin any formal lessons prior to age six. In these years, parents are to practice “masterful inactivity” in which the child is allowed to fully explore and experience her environment apart from directed learning, except in the intentional forming of good habits. Well… I’m not good at letting ‘the ground lie fallow’ as it were…

I found Ambleside almost three years ago and have been an active part of the group since. I’ve been parsing and examining the suggested curriculum, taking it apart to put it back together again, making it over so that it fits my family, in our place in life. It is still absolutely recognizable as AO curriculum, just altered a bit here and there. I added some ‘non-western’ resources because I want my children to have a view of the world being bigger than the history of the conquerors. I moved some of the free reads around so I could build a light Kindergarten and first grade that both happen prior to Ambleside’s Year 1 (some in the know call these years 0 and .5).

I have tried over the past two and a half to three years to stop doing formal lessons. Prior to meeting Charlotte, I had been doing a drill-type preschool with my son. We sang songs, reviewed flash cards, learned letters and their sounds (he knew the letter sounds at age two), we did crafts and went to story time. It was very ‘pre-schooly’ and I weaned myself and my son off it when I was pregnant with my daughter… But still, I have been drawn to beginning something with my son this fall (he turns 5 in September) as I knew this is when he’d begin Kindergarten. For Term 1, our resources and schedule looks like this:

The Grand Cascade at Tivoli by Jean Honore Fragonard. This is the first painting we studied this Term.

We begin each day with a ‘Gathering Time’. We invite the Lord to be with us as we learn and grow together. I created a Powerpoint document that gives us visuals to accompany diverse topics that are covered in less than 5 minutes each (most taking less than 1 minute). We review the monthly calendar populated with the birthdays of family & friends and any special events happening that month. We then review the days of the week & the months of the year by singing songs found on YouTube. This is followed by poetry; this Term is Martha Alexander’s ‘Poems and Prayers for the Very Young’. As I read the poem, I ask the children to close their eyes and their mouths and to listen with their ears and their hearts.

Poetry reading is followed by folk songs. We have deviated from AO’s scheduled folk song selections. Celtic music is very important to my husband and I- we love the idea of being intentional about exposing our children to the richness and diversity of this traditional art form. This Term, we are learning ‘Star of the County Down’ as performed by the Orthodox Celts.

We then return to AO’s scheduled fine arts selections for this term by listening to Mozart (so far Eine Kleine Natchmusik and Lacrimosa) and viewing the works of Jean Honore Fragonard (the Grande Cascade at Tivoli followed by The See-saw). Gathering Time is completed by reviewing Spanish vocabulary (6 words) and by reading a chapter from our children’s bible.

The See-Saw, also by Fragonard. Our current study.

Each day, Monday through Thursday in addition to Gathering Time we do: Reading, Math, Bible Study, Literature, Hymn study and we practice our ocarina together. Mondays & Wednesdays, we add History and Science which are replaced on Tuesdays & Thursdays by Geography and Mapwork. Friday mornings are spent traipsing through the great outdoors for weekly Nature Study, practicing Art, working on handicrafts and taking a gym class at the local Y. On Saturdays, Alex attends the Spanish class I teach.

All of our daily lessons generally take us about an hour and a half to complete. This is spread throughout the day from right after breakfast until right before the children are tucked in at night. The lessons themselves are each less than 5 minutes in length- as Charlotte said, this helps Alex focus his attention completely.  We pray together three times a day at a minimum. We sing together constantly. The children have plenty of time to play, explore their own interests (those we haven’t already incorporated into our school time) and to rest.

My babies- so you have a visual...

Although this plan is designed for Alex, my daughter Fae has been going right along with us each day. She nurses while we do Gathering Time and sings the songs with us. She draws when Alex is doing Math. What I’ve found is that my kids are both thriving on our new structure. Alex gets up in the morning and asks if we can ‘do school’ today. He cheers when I say yes. The kids argue less when we have activities and a regular routine. I’ve found that between doing school, making & eating meals and finishing chores (or attempting them, at least!) our day flies by. Before I know it, we’re welcoming Brian home and beginning our evening together. While there are still daily challenges (what family DOESN’T have things they need to work on?), our days are much nicer than they were when I was trying to ‘master inactivity’. Perhaps, in the end, my children are like me, perhaps they like some structure and predictability in their lives. Maybe this routine is actually comforting to them- makes them feel safe and engaged. While a part of me still worries that I haven’t given dear Charlotte’s method its full reign (and may, therefore, find myself in some trouble down the road), I am glad to see I am able to be responsive the my children’s needs and to give them a bit of structure. It seems to agree with them…


Filed under Daily Life with Dear Charlotte