Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: July 2014

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Table etiquette for homeschoolers

My parents tell me that public schools used to teach etiquette and manners as part of a student's elementary education. They say that teachers used to sit with students at lunch time and instruct them on proper table manners, correcting them as needed, so the children grew up at least knowing the basics of table etiquette.

But that wasn't my experience in school, and it definitely wasn't my children's experience when they entered public school a few years ago. With the uproarious clamor of an overcrowded cafeteria, and just minutes to spend at the table, my children's lunch period was overwhelming. The staff on duty had all they could handle just ushering kids in an out the doors and making sure no one was throwing food.

Thankfully homeschooling allows us to enjoy a much more relaxed and calm midday meal, where the kids have plenty of time to eat their lunch and it's relatively peaceful and quiet. But the table manners I try to instill in my children are, admittedly, short of the etiquette that may be expected at a formal dinner or an important business luncheon when they get older.

As much as I love the look of a formal table setting, our meals are decidedly informal. We don't set out more plates or silverware than we need, we usually eat our salad with the same fork as the rest of our dinner, and no one ever gets more than one glass or cup. Like many families in today's busy world, we often eat on the go, or even on TV trays while we watch a movie together.

Honestly, I'm concerned that my kids have had few opportunities to learn the higher level table etiquette they may need to make a good impression on future employers.

But I'm a homeschooler, and that means I can teach my kids anything I want as part of their basic education. I know there are resources that we, as homeschooling parents, can use to instruct our kids, and perhaps even ourselves, in the best of proper table etiquette before our youngsters grow up and leave the nest.

I'm fortunate to be friends with etiquette expert and fellow writer, Rebecca Black, who has written many books and articles. She knows all about proper manners for every situation, and writes in such a helpful way that she makes it a pleasure to learn. I'm excited to see that she has published a new book, "Dining Etiquette: Essential Guide for Table Manners, Business Meals, Sushi, Wine and Tea Etiquette," which would be a perfect resource for teaching homeschooled teens and pre-teens everything they need to know about table etiquette before they go to college or begin careers.

I'm looking forward to checking out this book, and perhaps staging practice dinners with my own kids, so that they are better acquainted with all the rules of etiquette they will need to flourish in any dining experience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

If you don't send your kids to public school, you're a bad guy?

A controversial article from Slate made the rounds on social media about this time last year. The title says it all. "If you send your kids to private school, you are a bad person." It's not the first time a Slate writer stirred things up with an inflammatory article bashing parents who opt for something other than public school. In 2012, the hot button title was, "Liberals, don't homeschool your kids."

Both of these articles had the same general premise. Parents, especially educated and affluent parents, have a responsibility to the community at large to send their children to public school. Those who choose to do otherwise, by either sending their kids to private school or homeschooling, are cheating the public school kids out of their involvement and influence.

These authors acknowledge that public schools in many instances are broken, and that it might take generations of involved parents to get them back on track, but they insist that parents should make the sacrifice, foregoing the benefits of an alternative education, in order to eventually improve public schools for all.

As a parent, I balk at the notion of sacrificing my children's education, their happiness, and even their safety in pursuit of a collective social good that may never be obtained.

If public schools might be compared to swimming pools, many today are choked with crud. You have everything from predators on the faculty, academic scandals in the classrooms and bullies in the hallways. What the Slate writers insist is that the slime in the schools could be cleared away if parents didn't pull their kids out of public school and choose other alternatives. But kids aren't magical filters that can change a system that has been decades in the making. Leaving your kids in a cruddy school only guarantees one thing - they will come home covered in the same grime they've been swimming in every day.

We chose to homeschool because we believed it was the best option for our kids. We sacrificed my income so that we could provide our kids with an alternative education that is individualized and helps them reach their potential. Making the best choice possible for our own children doesn't make us bad people.

Why didn't we stick with the public schools and devote our time and energy to making them better? Don't we care about kids stuck in failing public schools? Certainly! Do we have the power to effect change on behalf of those children? Unfortunately, to a large extent the answer is no.

Because as I see it, public education in America is no longer a local entity that can be changed with the involvement of caring and dedicated parents and teachers. I see public education as a giant, run by corporations, unions and government officials. And the chance of changing anything, from the number of standardized tests kids take to the time they have at the lunch table, is virtually nonexistent, at least in the short time that my kids will still be kids.

So I do what's best for mine, and I hope you can do what's best for yours. And together we can vote for officials who will try to put control of the schools back in the local communities, back where parents and teachers really can make a difference.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Go ahead, get your homeschooler a backpack

It's almost time for back-to-school, and even though you are very happy with your decision to homeschool instead of sending your little one off to kindergarten, your child may still be expressing a desire to go to public school with the other neighborhood kids.

It's no wonder, really. Kids are inundated with the same back-to-school ads we see. The children's section of the library is full of books about so-and-so's first day of school. And those big, yellow school buses are truly fascinating if you've never been stuck on one for an hour with no air conditioning in the middle of August. 

But when parents stop and ask their preschool or kindergarten age kids what it is about school that they desire the most, often the answer is surprising and simple. They just want a cool lunchbox or a backpack like the ones they've seen in the stores!

My twins on the first day of kindergarten.

My twins went to kindergarten in public school. They got new backpacks and they both picked out a brand new lunchbox to take to school on the first day. My son picked Spiderman, and my daughter chose Disney princesses. I probably wouldn't have bought them lunchboxes if we'd started out homeschooling, but the backpacks have come in very handy over the years.

My kids have used backpacks to take books and crayons to doctors appointments, to carry clothes and toys on overnight trips to their grandparents' house, to use as carry on bags on airplanes, to store treasures in at home, and much more. 

You might not think your child needs a backpack, since they'll be homeschooled. But chances are, you'll find plenty of opportunities for them to use a backpack, and because they won't be dragging it around every day, it will likely last them for several years. If a backpack makes them feel more like they are doing "real" school, by all means, go ahead and get them one and fill it up with this year's crayons, pencils and other supplies. I promise, you won't regret it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

How homeschooling helps save big on school supplies

When I first started homeschooling, I really didn't know what supplies I would need to buy for my kids. As an unplanned homeschooler, I was jumping out of public school and into homeschooling knowing I would have to learn as I went along.

I had been spending between about $85 and $150 per child for the supplies on the teachers' lists when my kids were in public school. I knew homeschooling would save us money on the standard school supplies, but over the first few years, I was shocked at just how little we ended up spending. This year, I expect to spend less than $100 on all three kids combined, excluding some special art supplies my older daughter wants for her birthday.

Here are just a few tips that have saved my family money on homeschool supplies over the years.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pandas on a playground. How cool is that?

Oh, you guys! Today's unplanned adventure started with a video I saw on a friend's Facebook page. It featured young pandas playing on a wooden slide. Pandas on playground equipment, people! I don't think it gets much cuter than that.

Of course, I wasn't satisfied to just watch the video over and over and grin ear to ear. I needed to know where these adorable pandas lived, and what exactly was up with the panda playground. I found the original video on YouTube, and discovered that the young pandas were part of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China.

This one of a kind research center gives researchers a chance to study the giant pandas native to China, and to help in the effort to conserve the species. There are tons of educational resources on the site, perfect for anyone who loves pandas, and even live 24 hour high definition webcams where you can watch and listen to the Chengdu pandas from anywhere in the world!

Today's venture into the world of the Chengdu pandas was definitely an unplanned stop, but sometimes those are the very best learning adventures of all!

Happy as a cow in the summer rain

You couldn't ask for better weather than we've had this week in Oklahoma. It's mid-July, but our temperatures are hovering in the 70s and low 80s and we're enjoying a nice steady rain. I couldn't think of a better time to be a cow.

Today, my kids and I had to go to Tulsa to pick up my youngest daughter's glasses and get the estimate done on our van after the collision I wrote about last week. Along the way, we passed pasture after pasture full of happy, happy cows.

And why wouldn't they be happy? It's nice and cool, the rain is coming down just steadily enough to keep the biting flies at bay, and there's an abundance of tender, green grass growing where the hay was cut and baled over the last couple of weeks.

Next week, some of the members of my homeschool group will be taking a field trip to a local ranch to visit cows and learn more about farming. The field trip reminds me of my daughter's third birthday, when her only wish was to "pet a baby cow."

Farms make wonderful destinations for field trips, especially when there are new babies to see. Have your kids had a memorable experience on a farm? I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review of "Lizards: Research and Activity Guide" by Fran Wisniewski

I love lizards. I've always been fascinated by them. I like the sleek and shiny ones best, the ones that you're apt to find darting along a path or from rock to rock in your garden. They almost look wet, their scales glisten so beautifully in the sun. But I like the rough, bumpy, knobby lizards, too. I think they're all amazing creatures.

That's why I was so excited to receive a copy of "Lizards: Research and Activity Guide" from my friend and fellow homeschooling writer, Fran Wisniewski for my kids to use this year.

As a wildlife biologist, in my life before kids, I read a lot of books about different types of animals. I studied everything just about everything in varying depth, including insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians and even fish. So, when I was offered a copy of the 70 page "Lizards" guide for my kids, I had a notion what I'd receive.

I expected a book that gave an overview of lizards, followed by sections made up of different types of lizards, sorted either by region or by body types, with several pages of specific examples for each category.

What I got was so much more. This research guide is actually written in such a way that a student could use it to study one specific species or learn about all the lizards of the world. It focuses on lizard anatomy, with questions which lead students to search for the answers online or in books.

With questions such as, "What parts make up the digestive system of a lizard?" students discover some of the basics of lizard anatomy and physiology, but are also likely to find themselves researching more specific questions that they come up with on their own, like, "What does the lizard in my garden like to eat?" or "How often do lizards poop?"

You know your kids would want to know!

The "Lizards" guide provides lots of resources where students can find information about lizards in general and about their favorite species. Wisniewski also provides plenty of suggestions for field trips and other activities, and even includes printable games and graphics you can use to make your own worksheets and cards.

If you have a child who loves lizards, you'll want to check out this very reasonably priced resource. Pick up your own copy of "Lizards: Research and Activity Guide" on Fran's World of Discovery and start learning today!

Disclosure: My copy of this research guide was a gift, without any agreement to write a review, but I liked it a lot, so I'm sharing with my readers!

Friday, July 11, 2014

How to withdraw from public school

So, you've decided to homeschool. That's great! One of the first things you may need to do is withdraw your child from public school. How you do this depends on where you live. Each state has its own regulations and requirements for homeschoolers.

Withdrawing from public school may be as easy as turning in your child's books and walking out the door. But you may have to fill out state forms or even get approval of your education plan from the local school district in order to begin.

Take a look at the map above. The states colored green are the least restrictive. Notice of intent to homeschool is not required in these states. However, if your child is already enrolled in public school, the statewide homeschool organizations in most of these states suggest that you submit a short withdrawal letter, just to avoid any problems with truancy accusations.

You can find links to sample withdrawal letters, state mandated forms and instructions to help you begin homeschooling legally in every state at the links provided below.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Turning bad moments into valuable lessons

Today's unplanned adventure wasn't any fun at all. It all started with a hot summer afternoon and a trip to the local Sonic Drive In to get some big, icy happy hour drinks for me and the kids.

As I pulled into Sonic's U-shaped drive, I came up behind a pickup truck that had pulled out, moved forward, and then come to a stop. I waited as they sat there, not moving, and cars began to line up behind me. Then, suddenly, the driver in front of me put her truck in reverse and started coming back. I honked repeatedly, and my kids and I screamed out the window, but she just kept coming. CRUNCH!

Truck's bumper smashed several inches into the front of my van.

My poor van. I got out of the van, took a picture of the collision and the other driver's license plate, and asked for the other driver's insurance information. Then I called the local police department and asked the other driver to pull around to a parking space and wait for them to arrive.

Lots of lessons to be learned

It's no fun to be in an accident, but at least this was a low impact collision that took place at a slow enough speed the air bags did not deploy. No one appeared to be hurt, and for that, I was immediately grateful.  

Since my kids were with me, we talked about what was going on as things happened. I told them that it was important to exchange insurance information immediately and document the damage if possible. We also talked about how the officer who arrived on the scene was there to help.

After we got home, I explained to them how our insurance policy works, and how the other driver's policy should cover the accident since they were responsible for the collision. I showed them the police report, and explained how I would contact my own insurance company first and proceed from there, possibly contacting the other driver's insurance company as well.

We talked about why it is always important to carry your insurance verification in your car, and what happens if the other driver is not insured. 

More lessons to come

Like a set of real life word problems, there will be lots of math to be figured in calculating the settlement of this claim. There will also be opportunities to read and understand forms and paperwork. And these will be memorable lessons, because they are tied to the vivid memory of an out of the ordinary experience.

When something bad, like a minor car accident, happens to your family, don't forget to look at the potential for learning. Nothing will help set a lesson firmly in your children's long term memory like being tied to an extraordinary experience, either good or bad, so use the experience however you can to help further your kids' education.   

Monday, July 7, 2014

Another unplanned adventure: New glasses!

Life is one big unplanned adventure, isn't it? At least, it seems that way raising three kids. Today's adventure took us to the eye doctor, where my youngest was prescribed her first pair of glasses.

My older daughter had been having some trouble with her distance vision for a while. We first noticed it in the late fall, but since she was in the middle of a rapid growth spurt, we put off her eye exam until the spring. After all, we're homeschoolers. It's not like we can't get her a seat closer to the whiteboard.

Puberty is a time of big physiological changes, and as your head changes shape, so can your eyes. Lots of kids experience vision changes in puberty, and their prescription can change rapidly as they grow. But after a few months of weed-like growth, my daughter's spurt seemed to stabilize, so we got her appointment scheduled with the eye doctor, where she was prescribed glasses of her own.

She was very happy with her new glasses, of course, because now she can see again! My son and younger daughter's eye appointments were scheduled for a bit later, because the office was very busy, but I figured that was okay, since they weren't showing any signs of problems.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out my 6-year-old could see well, but only with her left eye. Her right eye, according to the doctor, is lagging a bit behind in development, so she'll need glasses for at least the next year to help out. The doctor said this is a problem not uncommon to preemies who were born small like she was.

So, back we'll go to pick up glasses for her in a few days. They're pink. And sparkly. And, although unplanned, they're going to be totally cute!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What are my state's homeschooling laws?

If you're new to homeschooling, you might be wondering what the legal requirements are in your state. Homeschooling laws vary from state to state, with some being very relaxed and others requiring homeschoolers to submit to all sorts of oversight and regulation.

One of the easiest ways to learn about your state's homeschooling laws is to visit the website for your statewide homeschool support group. Statewide homeschool groups are not only the first to alert members about proposed laws, but they also work to actively inform legislators about homeschool issues and to rally opposition against bad legislation.

Another way to inform yourself about your state's laws, or to learn about regulations in other states is to visit HSLDA, the Home School Legal Defense Association, where current laws and proposed legislation for each state are analyzed in detail. It may be a good idea to join both your statewide group and HSLDA to stay up-to-date on proposed changes to existing laws and to give yourself some protection, especially if you live in a more highly regulated state.

For your convenience, you can also click the the name of your state below to go directly to its legal page from HSLDA. They are grouped according to the level of regulation you can expect to face, with those under the green heading being least restrictive, and those under the red heading the most regulated.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bacon sandwiches and sappy TV make for a perfect girls' day

My husband took our son out fishing this weekend. We're not into fishing, even though I used to teach kids how to fish when I was working as a naturalist, but it's something our son really wanted to try. More than that, it was something he insisted he wanted to do with his dad.

So, my husband pulled the rod and reel his dad had passed down to him out of the back of his closet, bought some new tackle and supplies, and the two of them loaded up the car. Our youngest daughter didn't want to be left out, so she tagged along and they made a quick stop at the store to pick up a kid sized rod and reel for her, too.

That left just me and our older daughter at home alone all afternoon.

Bring on the BACON!

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. First, we'd have lunch. I made my favorite sandwiches in the whole world - BLTs. This time, they were extra good, though, because with just the two of us at home, and a whole pound of bacon to share, our sandwiches were colossal!

While we ate our bacon sandwiches, we watched part of the first season of "7th Heaven" on Hulu Plus. My daughter had never seen the show. She liked it.

The first episode featured a story line in which Lucy, the 12-year-old middle child, was dealing with the ups and downs of puberty. I found myself glancing over at my own 12-year-old daughter, amazed, because the last time I'd seen the first season she wasn't even born, and now, here she was, old enough to relate.

Spending time with the kids individually

Today was one of those awesome days when I got to spend time with just one of my kids, all alone. With three kids and a busy schedule, my husband and I don't get to do that often. It's important to make time for each of the kids, individually, though. They relate to us differently when their siblings aren't around, and they often talk fondly about the special times they spent with one or the other of us on their own.

I know bacon sandwiches and TV might not sound like an adventure, but you don't have to spend a lot of money or plan an extravagant outing to enjoy quality time with your kids. We had a very enjoyable girls' day, just the two of us, and my daughter didn't have to share my attention, or her bacon, with anyone!

Are your homeschool techniques keeping up with technology?

My kids love Minecraft! I do, too. We play together often as a family, and my son researches new tips and techniques on YouTube and other sites to improve our worlds. He's recently talked about wanting to learn coding, so he can work on developing games on his own. I think he should go for it.

A photo from my tutorial on how to easily find diamonds on Minecraft.

Our kids live and learn in a world of advancing technology. They eagerly seek knowledge that is relevant to them, and utilize devices and resources online that most likely pave the way to their future careers. But are we, as their teachers, keeping up?

A warning from the industry

Today I read an article featuring Dylan Collins, the CEO of SuperAwesome, a major children's marketing and research network that analyzes how developments in the digital world effect kids. He said:

"The change we are seeing with kids is the greatest change we’ve seen in a generation of children since the war. This is the generation of kids that is going to change everything. They are going to create. They are going to destroy.

"For the first time in our society’s history, we’re being presented with a generation of kids capable of exceeding our abilities while they are still kids. The reason Minecraft exploded was it allowed kids to create: it gave them the tools and empowered them. As a society, we are woefully under-prepared for this generation, I think.

"Now imagine what that is going to be like in five years time. It will be the new generation of kids, but it’s probably going to be the same teachers. How are we going to deal with that?"

Evolving as educators

It's important that we continually evolve and adapt our methods as teachers. What worked for us a generation ago isn't necessarily what will work best for our kids, and what's best for them today might not be in another year or two.

This year, a bunch of kids in my homeschool group are starting a Minecraft club, with the goal of creating a historically accurate replica of a Civil War era site. I'm volunteering to mentor them, but in truth, they already know more than I do about the technological side of the project, and probably will learn much more as they go.

I'm excited, though, because we'll be using the technology they love in order to study history, geometry, architecture, writing, and more. How are your kids using technology in their educational pursuits? Are you working to keep up?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Learning about fireworks on the 4th of July

I love taking time to learn about things in the moment, and the 4th of July is a perfect time to stop and learn a little bit about fireworks.  Last year, in between lighting smoke bombs and Black Cats in the afternoon and watching a professional fireworks display at night, my family watched some videos about how exactly fireworks work.

It was pretty amazing to learn about how the insides of a shell are packed in just a certain order, and how different types of fuses help control not only the initial explosion, but the secondary bursts in the sky.

This year, we're going to spend a little bit of time on the 4th of July making these cute decorative firecrackers I found on Fran's World of Discovery. They use recycled materials, and look like a perfect activity to do indoors when it gets too hot in the afternoon.

After that, I think we'll check out some of the many informational links on the same page. It will be a great way to have fun and learn more about fireworks all at the same time.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Did bad school lunches really turn us into homeschoolers?

One of the questions I have been asked the most over the years is why I decided to start homeschooling. Of course, there were all the usual reasons, such as giving my kids a better education than I believe they could get in public school, keeping them away from bad influences and bullies, and avoiding having our kids possibly fall through the cracks in overcrowded classrooms. But when my husband and I were weighing the pros and cons of homeschooling, one surprising factor figured heavily in our decision: school lunches.

Can school lunches really be that bad?

I know you're probably thinking, yes, school lunches can be pretty disgusting, but can they really be bad enough to make a family choose to homeschool? A lot of kids would say that lunchtime at school is one of the worst parts of their day, but that's just part of growing up, right? 

Unfortunately, as we discovered when our twins were in public school, the problems with lunch in today's schools can actually jeopardize your child's health. That's exactly what was happening to our daughter, and it was becoming a serious problem. What were we going to do?

Making the decision to homeschool

My twins had just finished kindergarten when we made the decision to homeschool the next year. Of course, part of that decision was based on the fact that we'd just moved to a new school district, which was overcrowded. Realizing that our kids would have to go to an elementary school across town instead of the one just blocks from our house, we started thinking about other options.

We had also become very concerned about the fact that our daughter had lost weight over the course of her year in kindergarten. She and her twin brother were born preemies, and she was barely hanging on at about the 10th percentile in weight. It was dangerous for her to go a whole year without putting on at least a few pounds and even her doctor was growing concerned.

What did school lunch have to do with it?

I had tried hard during my twins' kindergarten year to help my daughter get enough healthy nutrition so she could grow. I packed her lunches, and made sure to send along snacks that she would like to eat in the afternoon. That helped to eliminate the yuck factor that was keeping her from eating the school's hot lunches.
But there was little I could do to help with the main problem, which was time. There just wasn't enough time at the lunch table, and what time there was came way too early in the day. 

Because the school had a burgeoning population of students, the kindergarten classes had to eat lunch at 10:45 in the morning. That was too early for most of them to be hungry enough for lunch, and left them starving by the end of the school day.
This problem was compounded by the fact that the kids got just 15 minutes to go through the serving line, find a seat, eat, bus their own tables and get in line for recess. I did not know at the time, but the USDA and many medical groups have recommended for years that students should get at least 20 minutes at the lunch table. Mine were getting less than half that.

Homeschooling made such a difference

Bringing my daughter home made a huge difference in her health. She was able to take her time and finish hearty meals at breakfast and lunchtime. She was also able to go to the kitchen and get a healthy snack whenever she got hungry midmorning or in the afternoon. Her energy levels were higher, and she began to gain a little weight.
We were leaning toward homeschooling anyway, but the problems with school lunches really were a significant part of why we finally made the decision to go for it. Now my twins are teenagers, and they're both healthy, vibrant, and although we hadn't originally planned to go this direction, very happily homeschooled.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Getting ready for the back to school rush

My kids and I are starting our sixth year of homeschooling this month. It's July, and the school supplies are on the shelves already, just waiting to be snatched up in the back to school rush. Pencils, crayons, paper, scissors, binders. Well, if you have kids, you've probably seen the lists. 

But the back to school rush means something entirely different to me. As one of the leaders of a homeschooling group that serves much of northeastern Oklahoma, this is actually one of my busiest times of year. Why? Because as the beginning of a new school year approaches, our homeschool group gets inundated with new members.

Not going back to that school

Sometimes it's because a child has just gotten old enough their parents either have to enroll them in school or find another option.  Other times it's because kids get stuck in a class with an ineffective teacher, or because they know they'll be going back into a bullying situation. Often it's just because the parents have looked into all the alternatives, and they've just decided at last that homeschooling is the best choice for their family. Whatever the reason, we always get a lot of inquiries in July and August.

A commitment to outreach

My co-leader and I feel a responsibility to reach out to new homeschoolers, whether they end up joining our group or not. So the past two school years, we have hosted informational meetings for anyone in our area who is interested in homeschooling. We've invited speakers from OCHEC, our statewide homeschooling organization, and passed along all sorts of information homeschoolers need to get started.

It's not always easy for new homeschoolers to find support, but in the midst of the back to school rush we do our best to help out. If you are a new homeschooler, or just considering homeschooling this year, I encourage you to look for a local group or contact your state organization to connect with others. And if the first group you try is not a good fit, don't give up. Homeschool groups are just about as diverse as the families that join them!