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.