Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The New Testament (Meet the Ancient World 9)

I'll say it, so you don't have to: Our study of the New Testament was lame. Lame, lame, lame.

Actually, it was worse than lame, for it left my kids profoundly upset.

It was a lovely summer afternoon, and the hammock beckoned. I figured I'd read Nini and Desmond about the birth of Jesus from one of our children's Bibles, and soon give some more thought about how to proceed.

But once we'd read the story of Jesus' birth, the kids wanted to hear more. And more. He gathered His disciples, performed His miracles, and the kids got more and more engrossed. "Keep reading, Mommy!" they declared, each time I proposed to put the book down for the day.

I warned them that something really bad was going to happen to Jesus, and they might not want to hear it all in one sitting. "Keep reading!" So, stupidly, I did, all the way through Jesus's arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Stunned silence ensued. Here the kids had discovered this remarkably appealing protagonist, full of love and magic and good deeds, and he died gruesomely. I talked about how Christians understand it as a hopeful tale, with the resurrection as not just as a happy ending but as the centerpiece of their faith. Desmond acted like this made him feel better, but I could tell otherwise.

From that point forward, the kids refused to discuss Jesus or the New Testament at all; they just shut down.

Obviously, I screwed up. I tried to remember way back to the Methodist Sunday School of my childhood: What, if anything, were we taught about the crucifixion? Was it all just baby Jesus in the manger and adult Jesus performing miracles and preaching love? Can't recall.

So all I can say is, Don't follow my example. And if you have thoughts about approaches or resources for teaching the New Testament to the very young in a non-proselytizing, important-slice-of-world-culture way, please please share.

The Old Testament (Meet the Ancient World 6)

Teaching the Bible was a real challenge for this agnostic homeschooler. I knew the overall approach I wanted to take: This is one of the most influential books in world history, I told the kids. Millions of people believe it contains the words of their God, and that every word in it is true; millions more have been affected by its teachings; its stories and themes will show up over and over again in the things you read and see in your life. And as you grow up, you'll make your own decisions about whether to view it as a great work of literature or a divinely-inspired text.

But there is so much religiously oriented material out there, it was difficult for me to know how to wade through it and find some books or other resources that seemed right. I came up with a few things, but this unit ended up being pretty brief for us (though not as brief or disastrous as our New Testament unit, about which I will write later).


Obviously, The Book was the main book. There are lots of Bibles for kids out there; we mainly used The Usborne Children's Bible and The DK Children's Illustrated Bible, both of which come in cute small editions. We focused on the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Joseph, and Moses.

Good picture books are available for many of the Old Testament tales. We especially liked Arthur Geisert's marvelously and whimsically illustrated The Ark. In detailed black and white etchings, Geisert portrays how the Ark itself might have been constructed and imagines the nitty gritty of life during those fabled 40 days and 40 nights, including the important matter of excrement disposal. We spent hours pouring over these illustrations, giggling as we tracked the damage to the ship's timbers by voracious beavers. The story of the Flood can be traumatic to sensitive children -- after all, God massacres virtually every living thing on earth -- but this book helped my kids focus on the survivors. (Nini noted, in any case, that the creatures of the sea were necessarily spared from God's punishment.)

An even bigger favorite in our household was The Moses Basket, by Jenny Koralek and Pauline Baynes. It sweetly captures the dramatic tale of Moses' infancy, with illustrations that vividly portray the day-to-day world of Ancient Egypt. Our drively quickly became the Nile, and Nini's baby doll must have floated down it a hundred times.

The illustrations in Brian Wildsmith's well-crafted Joseph and Exodusalso provided welcome continuity with our study of Ancient Egypt.


Yep, we did it: We were crazy enough to watch the entire Ten Commandments (in three installments, mind you). It was great campy fun for me, and they -- like the movie audiences of 50 years ago -- were dazzled by the dated special effects.

But that was it for us. Surely there are other things we missed -- please post any other recommendations.


We fashioned our own Noah's Ark and populated it with little plastic animals we already had lying about; there are, of course, a great many custom-made Ark playsets out there, some of them quite lovely. But beyond that, and the Moses basket play mentioned above, the Old Testament just didn't make its way into my kids' play life the way Egypt or even Mesopotamia had. Ideas or suggestions, dear readers?

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Whole New World

A seismic shift has occurred.

This past weekend, Andrew and I were working to get our garden prepped for the new season: turning compost, spreading mulch, that sort of thing. Nini and Desmond were inside.

Before we knew it, a couple of hours had passed -- yikes. No sound was coming from the house -- normally a sign of great mischief in progress. With great trepidation, we went to check how they were doing, expecting to find mess, disaster, or both.

They were in different rooms, sitting quietly, reading to themselves.

Need I say that we were blown away? Andrew said he felt a little wistful, because this new independence means, necessarily, that they're beginning to grow away from us. Me, I thought my heart would burst with pride and love. In any case, it's a watershed moment, and life won't be quite the same from this point forward. Bravo, kids!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Highlights of the Days

Let's face it: Homeschooling can be hard. It's exhilirating at times and deeply satisfying overall, but there are days that just suck. When you feel crappy but can't take a sick day. When the kids are squawking or in a fussy funk. When you secretly fantasize about sending them to a rigid uniform school with bars on the windows and police checkpoints at the doors (hey! that's our neighborhood school!).

Now, I need to preface this post by confessing that I have become fairly compulsive about homeschool record-keeping. Every night before I go to sleep, I jot down brief notes about what we did that day. Maybe the kids did some handwriting and played a math game in the morning, ran around in the park after lunch, met up with friends late in the afternoon, and read books after dinner: I'll write it down.

I keep track, too, of how often in the week Nini and Desmond do certain things: play outside, get together with friends, do math or play music, that sort of thing. I don't yet have to file any reports to the Board of Ed, so it's not for that purpose. It's a way for me to see quickly if we're covering the bases: if we're getting outside enough in the middle of winter, say, or getting out the art supplies to draw and paint.

At some point this winter, I hit a particularly bad patch with the kids. We had one conflict-filled day after another, I was feeling blue, and the whole enterprise was seeming misguided. So I added a new category to keep track of: the highlights of the day.

Some days are no-brainers. Maybe we snuggled together reading books underneath the cherry blossoms at the Botanical Garden. Maybe Nini proudly made a huge breakthrough in her reading, or Desmond enthusiastically produced a stack of wonderful drawings. Or maybe they both got all excited about adding and subtracting while playing Pet Store with their stuffed animals.

But there are days when it's not at all obvious what would count as a high point. The loud tantrum in the library? Nope. The huge screaming fight over a pencil? Don't think so. The two hours spent watching cartoons while Mommy tried to sleep off her migraine? No, not that either.

There's always something, though. On one particularly horrible day, all I could come up with to write was the happy skippity way the kids walked to the subway. And you know what? That's now what I remember about that day. I couldn't tell you what the bad stuff was -- I've utterly forgotten. But the marvelous image of them bouncing down the sidewalk in front of me is fixed in my mind.

I've found, too, that this habit has helped me work harder and better to make the bumpy days have highlights. I'll stop grumpily checking my email and ask the kids if they want to cuddle on the sofa with a stack of books. I'll find the energy to get us out of the house and to the park. I'll make up a silly game and pretend to be a knee-eating monster (Nini knees are especially yummy, after all).

I'm not going to pretend that everything is now sweetness and light. Some days are still a huge struggle. But most of the time, focusing on what's good and sweet and exciting in our life makes it all a little bit easier.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Break

Spring hit NYC big time this week. So with the outdoors calling and the time change making us a bunch of laggards, it seemed like a good idea to take the week off from our kindergarten routine. Isn't part of homeschooling's appeal, after all, that it allows you the flexibility to make -- and change -- your schedule at will?

We'd just had ten incredible consecutive weeks. Something shifted over the winter holidays and with the advent of the New Year, it was clear that Nini and Desmond were eager to tackle new challenges. Having learned how to write the upper-case alphabet properly over the course of the fall, they wanted to master the lower-case alphabet in much less time. They were curious about math in a new way, more interested in drawing, and just generally itchy to learn.

The amount of time we spent on formal kindergarten didn't change much -- it was still only about an hour -- but they were much more focused than they had been in the fall. It blew me away to watch them enthusiastically puzzling out how to spell a list of three-letter words, the gears in their little brains turning almost visibly. Their foreheads would wrinkle as they worked out new problems, and you could see their sense of pride when they suddenly understood something that had stumped them before. They'd get all excited when I pulled out a new game to play -- say, using cards to make silly sentences once they knew what nouns, verbs, and adjectives were -- and having learned something one week, would happily pronounce it easy the next. We covered an enormous amount of ground in a very short time.

Then, this Monday, it was as if a switch had been tripped. Our schedule was thrown off by the time shift and they were all foot-draggy and bleary, so we skipped kindergarten on Monday for the first time in months. A spell of gorgeous weather began on Tuesday, and they began spending their mornings in the back yard, making "bunny cakes" for our pet rabbits and digging in the dirt. We tried doing outdoor kindergarten on Tuesday, but I could tell their hearts weren't really in it.

I'd like to report that we went on to have a blissful week playing in the sunshine, reveling in the lazy and structureless days. But I can't. There were some lovely moments in the week: making milk carton boats and sailing them in an enormous puddle, encountering crocuses and basking pond turtles and other harbingers of spring, meeting up with friends to explore and play.

But this week was also awfully bumpy, with more conflict than we've had in a while. It wasn't at all like a proper vacation, when Andrew is with us and either the four of us are adventuring together or I'm getting some actual time off. It was just a kind of kicking-around week -- not terrible, but not really satisfying either.

I'm not entirely sure what went wrong this week, but I suspect the sudden lack of routine had a fair amount to do with it. The time the kids and I spend together around the kindergarten table each weekday morning anchors our day; it's highly focused togetherness that seems to fill up their tanks emotionally, often making them more resilient and independent throughout the later parts of the day. So maybe this week should have been Game Week, where we spent that daily hour playing games together, or Do Art Projects in the Sunshine Week, or some other something that respected their need for a break but retained enough of our routine to keep us all from feeling off-kilter.

It's supposed to be gloomy and rainy on Monday, and I've told the kids that the puppets miss them and we'll resume kindergarten then. I don't know if they'll be as gung-ho as they were in the dead of winter, and if not, I'm prepared to shift our kindergarten activities accordingly. And the next time we take a spontaneous break, I'll just need to, well, plan it better.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ode to Coloursoft

With kids' art supplies, as with tools of all sorts, I've often heard the mantra, "Get the best you can afford." I always assumed that meant you should, say, buy the name-brand crayons instead of the dollar-store ones, the latter being so crappy that they're not even worth the buck you spend on them.

I'd been noticing all last fall that Nini and Desmond didn't have the hand strength to make firm marks with regular colored pencils. We used crayons for a while, but they make such wide lines that they weren't that useful for the kids' developing interest in drawing.

Then I wandered into an art story one day and discovered the miracle of Derwent Coloursoft pencils. Not having had any art training to speak of, I had no idea that pencils could be so extraordinary. The silky lines! The vivid colors! The rich tones!

The pencil set at the art store was jaw-droppingly expensive, but after hunting around on eBay I eventually found one for less than $20 and gave it to the kids for Christmas. The effect was almost instantaneous: Nini and Desmond drew more and better pictures, had more stamina for drawing, and seemed to be getting far more pleasure out of the whole experience.

Three months later, they draw on their own nearly every day. Their hands are much stronger; when they pick up a regular pencil, be it a #2 writing pencil or a regular drawing pencil, they make nice strong impressions on the paper. They've loved the pencils so much that many of them are already worn way down. Funny how simple things can make you happy: When I look at that well-used tin of pencils, I break into a smile.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Big News in Finland!

Well, not really big news. But I'm tickled to report that Finland's largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has just published a piece on homeschooling featuring me, Nini, and Desmond, by journalist Anu Partanen.

Apparently, homeschooling is almost unheard of in Finland, so readers were intrigued to hear about this growing practice in the United States. I tried running the piece through Google Translator but, alas, it was a bit much for their algorithm to handle.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Puppet Pantheon

I wrote earlier about how hand puppets were helping my kids, especially Nini, tackle handwriting.

As we've worked our way first through the upper-case and then the lower-case alphabet, the cast of the daily puppet show has steadily increased, to the point where I'd need to be an octopus to handle them all.

First there was the Magic C Bunny, inspired by the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum. She helps kids not just with the letter c, but with any letter involving a c stroke, like lower-case s or d.

Then there was Hop Frog, who assists with all those letters where you make an initial pencil stroke and then hop up to complete the letter, like capital P and R.

Next came Line Lion, a general purpose sort of puppet, who helps with everything from holding the pencil correctly to making simple letters like L or t. He was joined first by Pointy V, a loud sort of a monster guy with a sharp beak, who assists with v and w and k and so forth, letters where you have to stop your pencil completely and then start again in order to get a nice sharp point. After that came Sneaky J, another monster fellow, who tries his best to trick children with the letters j and q, and the numbers 6 and 9. Finally, there's Diving Dolphin, who helps with lower-case n and m and r -- although he really hates r, because it leaves him hanging in mid-air.

So, to have the kids write something like, say, "Our pet rabbits are named Patches and Snufkin," I have to juggle all six puppets in rapid succession. Nini barks out orders like a cranky stage manager -- "Oh Mommy, we need Hop Frog ..." -- but we usually end up all giggling, with Magic C and Pointy V squabbling over whether round or sharp is more lovable, while Sneaky J comes and tries to eat all the pencils.

It's often raucous and sometimes draining, but it's been really effective. And while we've just finished learning all the letters, I've promised Nini and Desmond that the puppets will stick around our home school for as long as they like.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Counting by 10s

We've started skip counting recently, and I found that our bin of battered, miscellaneous Hot Wheels made the perfect teaching tool.

The technique was easy as pie: Put stickers on the cars, and give them to the kids to play with. In this case, I labeled the cars by 10s. I gave the kids a jumbled pile and asked them to sort them out in order. Then I'd take a car or two out of the line-up and ask them what was missing. Finally, I'd pull out a car or two and ask them what car would come before or after if they were counting by 10s.

They caught on very quickly, and not surprisingly, were soon playing these simple games on their own. When they're ready, I'm planning to do the same for counting by 5s, this time using the plastic counting bears.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Egypt (Meet the Ancient World 5)

Ah, Ancient Egypt ... what a delight! Pyramids, mummies, stunning art and captivating mythology: The material is so rich that you may want to linger on this unit for a good long time -- and return to the topic often.

There are also tons and tons of great resources for introducing Ancient Egypt to young kids. I've only listed our favorites.


Both Story of the World and the Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia (discussed in previous units) contain useful introductions to this topic. You could fill whole shelves with children's books about Ancient Egypt -- just find the appropriate section at your local library and you're sure to turn up something good. This short list highlights those that worked best for us.

Henry Barker, Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
This early reader provides a clear, well-illustrated introduction to Ancient Egyptian mythology, with a lovely account of the soul's journey to the afterlife. It was a huge hit with my kids, who must have acted out the Weighing of the Heart a dozen times. Highly recommended.

Twelve Egyptian dieties are introduced in this volume, which is sadly out of print but not super difficult to find. The bright, bold illustrations are eye-catching and appealing.

Jacqueline Morley, Egyptian Myths
Wonderful compilation of Egyptian myths, also out of print, alas. The haunting, ancient tales of Osiris, Isis, Set, Horus, and more are presented through compelling text. Some of these stories are violent and may disturb particularly sensitive children, but the stories are so marvelous and make such a wonderful introduction to ancient mythology that I strongly recommend tracking it down.

Shirley Climo and Ruth Heller, The Egyptian Cinderella
This picture book retells the original Cinderella tale, first written down in first century B.C. Greece by the historian Strabo. In it, a young Greek girl named Rhodopis is kidnapped and made a slave in Egypt; because of her talent as a dancer, her master gives her a beautiful pair of dainty slippers, and the story proceeds from there.

Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Ancient Egypt
Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame joins a tour group on a trip to modern-day Egypt, and with the help of her magic time machine, leads the group back to ancient times. The goofy premise and cartoon-style illustrations have great kid appeal.

Miles Harvey, Look What Came from Egypt
Colorful guide for children to the many inventions and innovations of the ancient Egyptians.


Ancient Civilizations for Children: Ancient Egypt
Another video from the Schlessinger ancient history for kids series I discussed in the Mesopotamia unit, featuring faux-archeologist Arizona Smith. The film is short and the VHS format antiquated, but this series works well for young kids, so it's worth trying inter-library loan if you can't find it locally.

Reading Rainbow: Mummies Made in Egypt
Sorry -- it's another tricky-to-track-down VHS, this time from the beloved 1980s/1990s kids' TV series Reading Rainbow.

National Geographic's Mysteries of Egypt
Yep -- yet another one on VHS. But it's Omar Sharif! Sitting at the base of a pyramid and opining majestically about Ancient Egypt to an ersatz granddaughter! The camp value for grown-ups is reason enough to seek this one out; the story-told-to-a-sweet-moppet framing appeals to young kids. (Please, dear readers, if you know of good films for kids about Ancient Egypt that are actually available on DVD, post a comment below.)


As with any of these ancient history studies, you can encourage Egypt-themed play at little or no cost. We mummified a little man cut from a potato, wrapped the kids' baby dolls in toilet paper, built a pyramid from a cardboard box, and made a scale of justice using a coat hanger and two small plastic cups. (Yes, that's Desmond as the goddess Maat, holding the Feather of Truth.) There are a couple of different books of Egypt activities for kids that can give you more ideas and detailed instructions.

But if you're going to make one purchase for this unit, I strongly encourage you to get a set of little Egyptian play figures. The easiest-to-find is the Ancient Egypt Toob from Safari, which includes Anubis, Thoth, Isis, and a Bastet cat -- many toy stores carry it.

If your budget allows, there are all sorts of other wonderful Egypt-themed playthings, including a wide array of excavation kits and a full line of fabulous toys from Playmobil, like the really cool pharaoh's temple my sister gave the kids last Christmas. There are card games and flash cards and puzzles and even a modern-day version of the ancient game of Senet that's easy enough for five-year-olds to play. Our oh-so-worth-it splurge was the awesome wooden pyramid-building set from Haba, which functions both as a construction puzzle and as a backdrop for play.

With all the great Egypt material available, I'm sure I've missed something I shouldn't have. Please share your favorite resources and activities in the comments section below.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Our Fall Semester

The new year is upon us, and I'm thinking back about how our kindergarten fall went, and forward to what our spring will be.

We developed a consistent, relaxed rhythm to our days all fall. Each weekday morning, at sometime between 10:00 and 11:00, we'd "do kindergarten." Despite my early qualms about labeling the brief structured part of our day that way, the phrasing stuck, and that was okay.

We'd spend somewhere around an hour -- usually a bit less, occasionally a bit more -- sitting at a table together. We'd start with a piece of story paper. First, the kids would practice handwriting, as we slowly worked our way through the upper-case alphabet, and then they'd draw a picture of their choosing. At first, I had them using #2 pencils and ordinary colored pencils, but I realized quickly that they didn't have the hand strength yet to make firm impressions with them, so we switched to crayons.

Next we'd often do something gently mathematical, like one or two Mind Benders puzzles or an activity with pattern blocks. Many days, we'd tackle a small art project, like painting the horizon, and we'd usually do some musical activity -- playing rhythm sticks or singing along to my guitar, that sort of thing. That was it.

Well, that wasn't it at all: They spent hours and hours playing, both with friends and on their own. We read mountains of books. We made lots of trips to the library and the zoos and museums. We hiked in the country and explored in the city.

But that brief time each morning was the extent of our formal, structured schooling. And with just a couple months of it, I've noticed changes in several areas. They weren't much for drawing before -- I think they felt unsure of themselves -- but little by little, they've been gaining both confidence and skill. Now they love bringing little sketchbooks along when we go on outings. Their hand strength and handwriting have improved tremendously, and they're ready to move on to lower-case letters.

There's a less tangible but more important shift, too, that's not that easy to articulate. We've chosen to homeschool our kids in significant part because we want them to have many more opportunities for free play and informal learning than they would in the foolishly academicized setting of many kindergartens today. And yet, there's something about these small but consistent doses of more formal learning that has given them a new sense of themselves as active, focused learners. As people who have worked steadily on something they found challenging and felt themselves progress.

It would be so easy to overdo. I watch carefully for when they seem tired or drained, when the activity we're tackling seems like too much, and I back off. For now, at least, they answer with an enthusiastic yes every time I ask them, "Hey guys, do you want to do kindergarten?"