Back to Basics

We've been Cyber schooling. It's all the rage now. The school district provides you with all the books, supplies, a laptop, and printer and anything else you'll need to replicate the public school classroom in the home. It's school at home. A totally different thing from homeschooling.

We started homeschooling as unschoolers. Our days were spent drawing in the park, hanging out at the library, budgeting for groceries, cooking, doing chores, playing games, building Legos, and generally learning naturally from real life. You know, like humans should do.

I'm not sure if it was the restlessness of traveling or lack of motivation or both, but over time, the boy's taste for this type of learning started to fade, as did my enthusiasm for introducing them to new things. By 2012, we'd fallen into a very bad cycle. I would assign worksheets, reading material, math lessons, and so on, and they would slog through them, unhappy with me, learning, and life in general. Rich is especially resistant to this type of "learning" because he leans so much more naturally when doing things with his hands. He's become quite the writer and blogger himself and is still honing his skills, but he'd rather be taking apart a hard drive or building a game from scratch. Brennan is much the same, though more content to do traditional schoolwork.

Either way, not the dynamic we were hoping for. I openly admit that my health greatly affects the learning environment because there are days where I don't feel like interacting much at all, much less doing fun, creative things. But it had gotten to a point where trying to drag the kids away from their laptops to do anything "normal" like cooking, or building a model, or painting was like pulling teeth, and even worse if it involved writing or math. Restricting computer time worked to a point, but I was having a lot of bad days last spring, we were busy trying to plan a move from MA to PA, and they didn't have much of a social life at all except for hooking up with friends online.

We started cyber school in September in an attempt to give them contrast. We wanted them to see what the average public school student had to do each week, and boy did they get a taste. 6-7 hours of book work every day, followed by 1-2 hours of homework. It. Is. Miserable. Especially when my idea of homeschooling is at the other end of this spectrum - copious amounts of free time, pursuing your own interests, spontaneous learning by being involved in real life. Buy I think cyber has accomplished what we'd hoped. It has given them contrast. It has taken me out of the role of dictator, teacher, and authoritarian as it relates to learning. As the boys have observed unschooled friends doing what we used to, they are seeing things a little differently. I don't know how long it will last.

They finish up their cyber semester this week. From there, we'll put together some reading lists, goal charts, and I will engage them in purposeful activities - watching documentaries, volunteer work, cooking, community events, strategy games, real world math...there are so many ways to learn without being slave to a curriculum. I want them to experience that again. Maybe they were too young to appreciate it the first time around. Maybe I was too heavy handed trying to make it work. But I think they're willing to give it a shot again, and with their friends influence, and me having learned a few lessons myself over these past few years, I hope it will be successful.

We finished out experiment with Cyber school in early January to return to our original plan; a mix of un-schooling and structured learning. There's tons of info about un-schooling on the web, so I won't rehash it here. One friend mistakenly called it "unlearning" a few weeks back. It is, of course, the opposite of that. It's adopting the mentality that learning happens all the time, whether invited or not. Our job is simply to notice it when it happens, expand on it when needed, and create opportunities for it as often as possible. There's the idea floating around out there that un-schooling equates to letting the kids do whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long at they want, a phenomenon that our friend Mark calls "un-parenting." Obviously not what's happening here, though we try to pay a great deal of attention to natural interest and let the kids invest in those.

Part of our return to this involves more reading time, individually and as a family. After some deliberation over what we felt were "important" books, poems, and documents (you can pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead hands) and some help from The Well Trained Mind and A Thomas Jefferson Education, we compiled a reading list for the boys and for ourselves. Additionally, Christie and I are discussing working through some classic books that we've missed along the way.

We've always read a lot but never methodically, and we enjoy the idea of having a goal for this. Of course, we all four have books we're reading that aren't on the list, but we're spending about an hour a day reading and writing about a classic book on our list. We started with The Emperor's New Clothes, and just finished Tom Sawyer. The boys have both written reviews for Tom on their blogs: Rich's is HERE, and Brennan's is HERE. We're going to read The Declaration of Independence next, followed by A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh series. I'm especially looking forward to The Count of Monte Cristo and some of the Verne and Dickinson books on the list.

We've had some great discussions with the boys as we've read; it becomes a bit of a reference point for us throughout the week. And there's something about sitting in a room together, experiencing the same story. Since Christie's been off work from gallbladder surgery, we've had a lot of time to watch movies, work puzzles, cook, play games, work on projects around the house, and enjoy being together. It's going to be weird when she starts working again at the end of the week.


Birthdays Galore

Birthdays all around, here in Hershey land. Mark surprised Stacy with a night out at Houlihan's featuring her mom and several other friends. Happy Birthday to Stacy, and all of that, but honestly, does anyone really need an excuse to eat at Houlihans?

Sherri & Christie, both avoiding pork for different reasons.

Stacy's a big Lucille Ball fan

Brennan requested that his party be held at Jack's house, because, well Jack's house is cool. He's gotten into My Little Pony lately (well, all the men in our house have, actually...more on that later), so we went full-on MLP for the party.

Everyone made their own hat of their fav character (and poor Jack was like, "what the heck is a my little pony?")

Pin the tail on Pinkie (do not attempt in real life: pony becomes violent)

Big Mac & Granny Smith


What's Going On

Hey, everyone. Long time, no post. I (Dave) have an extended hospital stay so I thought I'd update you on what's been going on with us of late.

First, homeschooling is probably the best it's ever been. People are always asking what curriculum or method we use. The answer has varied depending on our season of life and the boy's interests. We all feel like we've finally found a good balance of freedom and learning that fits our schedule and the boy's needs.
  • Math - about 6 months ago we discovered the fantastic Life of Fred series, chronicling the adventures of a little boy who teaches math as a professor at Kittens University. It reads like a chapter book, but incorporates math concepts for the kids to work through, as well as logic puzzles, financial philosophies, and a smattering of geography, grammar, and humanities. The boys love them and are flying through the series. They extend all the way through early high-school so we're set for awhile. The books are a bit pricey but we were fortunate enough to have a friend who tracked down a used set in near perfect condition, so we're sharing the books.
  • Reading - We've been circling something called "The Thomas Jefferson Method" for years, but didn't really know it until our Foley friends loaned us a book with that title. The idea is to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson - arguably one of the most intelligent and well-rounded people in human history - by reading lots and lots and lots of classic works, working through the tough texts, and writing about them. So we're reading like crazy. I read a classic work to the boys at breakfast (so far we've done Tom Sawyer, Winnie the Pooh, The Declaration of Independence, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, The Prince and the Pauper, Rip Van Winkle, Joan of Arc, The Count of Monte Cristo, and currently Robin Hood). Most days, the boys write a bit in their journals about what we've read - opinions, reflections, or just summarizing the chapter(s). When we finish the whole book, they post reviews and/or reports on our review blog (LOCATED HERE). Additionally, they both have different classic books they spend time with during the day for an hour or two (Rich has read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Homer's Odessey, etc., Brennan is reading The Great Brain series, and has read several other classics for his book club during this time). The idea is to read all types of classics - fiction, non-fiction, math and history classics, scientific works, etc. and to reflect on them deeply and often. In essence, by focusing on classics, they study a variety of subjects and it informs further studies or interests that grow from them, which brings us back to the more project-based style that we started out with years ago. Plus, they both have their own age book-clubs once a month, and we always read something fun at night - we're currently on the last book of Brandon Mull's excellent Fablehaven series. PLUS, they just started a book/game club (called the Lemoncello club, named after the book the activities are based on) which has them reading at least one other piece of classic fiction between meetings (currently, Agatha Cristie's Murder on the Orient Express). So when I say we read a lot, I mean A LOT.
  • History - We're enjoying John Green's Crash Courses on Youtube. We're just finishing up the World history series and starting into the Big History series. American history is soon to come, then we'll watch his science course - biology, chemistry, etc. These aren't in depth, but entertaining, and they cover enough ground for the boys to latch on to certain aspects for deeper reading and research at later time.
  • Misc. - Art is still a huge deal to us, but the boys seem to express themselves creatively through Minecraft, Robocraft, and Terarria projects more than anywhere else, though they both still avidly create and illustrate game boards and cards for games they make themselves or collaborate on with other homeschoolers (our co-op has a popular game design club that Brennan meets with once a month to flesh out ideas and beta test games).  They attend a more traditional art class every other week. They are involved in a small meal-prep business we started this month, as well as chopping, sauteing, searing, grating, and other things for family meals.

    So that's homeschooling for us at the moment. It's fallen into a nice rhythm and the kids can carry on with their studies even when I'm in the hospital - part of their education, as we all see it, is teaching them to set their own goals, be self-directed, and manage their time between academics, play, and chores appropriately.

Secondly, it's been a pretty busy and scattered time for our family since I last posted.

  • Christie has changed positions around the hospital once or twice. She tried cardiology for a month and found it a rough ride, seeing transplant (and failing transplant) patients every day. She's since moved back to her original position, but is serving as charge nurse many nights and helping with the schedule, which has made life a bit easier for us all. As a result of that transition she was able to travel to Arkansas in July and be there during the final weeks of her Granny Lucy's life. This was a huge thing for both of us, as Granny was such an integral and important part of Christie's life, and mine as well since before we even dated. She passed peacefully a few days before Christie and the boys had to return here for her to start back to work. Best timing ever. Her parents were here for Christmas which really helped us to get through the holiday season after that loss without as much melancholy as we would have experienced otherwise. A few weeks ago she hurt her back lifting a 500 lb. patient and is off work for about about a month while undergoing physical therapy. It's been nice to have her home, but as usual we have to juggle bills until worker's comp catches up.
  • Rich is really stepping up around the house to help with things I can't do. He takes care of the lawn in the summer, the snow in the winter, and takes the physical exhaustion out of grocery store trips and errands for me - he does all the bending, loading, unloading, lifting, and running in and out of places when he can. He continues to be a formidable opponent in online and board strategy games. He spends an inordinate amount of time undertaking huge projects in Minecraft and playing with friends on the server he hosts with Brennan. The rest of his spare time is spent reading, which he does voraciously on his Kindle. He's fallen in love with the BBC's Sherlock series and can't wait for the new season - a whole year away. I love that he's at the age that we can start sharing things like Big Bang Theory and Firefly with him, as well as certain movies we love - Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, etc. Of course he has his own tastes, especially in music. Unlike dad, he's not much for hip-hop or metal, but gravitates toward bluesy rock like The Winery Dogs, Sheryl Crow, and 80's new wave like Steve Taylor and Simple Minds.
  • Brennan is also addicted to Minecraft, but spends an equal amount of time with Legos, board games, reading, and writing. He's finished his second real novel and is in the process of revising it  - the only one of us to successfully complete NaNoWriMo last year. He's become a huge fan of the cult classic game, Psychonauts, and wants to have a Psychonauts themed birthday party. He's great in the kitchen and around the house - he's responsible for all the dirty dishes and laundry, he takes care of Blitzy's needs most days (except walks, which are still on Rich). He continues to be mellow, easy-going, and up for a good time wherever he is. Change doesn't seem to bother him too much and he's just happy to be watching cartoons, eating together, reading, or hanging out with friends. He enjoys math more and more these days and is (as near as we can figure) almost 3 years ahead of the standard curriculum (as is his reading level). He's still a huge Michael Jackson fan and likes to listen to Public Enemy when we drive. I think he also discovered that he likes Bluegrass this week so time to pull out the New Grass Revival, Bonepony, Pure Prairie League, and Union Station. He's a huge Bronie (My Little Pony Fan) and has gotten Rich and I (and a few of his friends) sucked into the show.
  •  I'm in and out of the hospital from time to time, banking hours and days on the transplant list. I find that despite the visits being spread out further, each one seems to have its own challenges and things I have to adjust to. My activities both in and out of the house have become more limited as the symptoms of my heart failure become more pronounced. Nevertheless, I've delved deeper into cooking and creating my own dishes, and a few weeks ago, Christie and I started a very small meal prep and delivery service for a few of the nurses she works with. We just cook a few extra meals along with ours and charge materials and labor. It's nice money to have on the side with minimal effort as we continue to fight medical debt. But at least I'm healthy enough to do it every week, help the kids with homeschooling, and finish little projects around the house. I'm also finishing up a concept album I've been working on for a little over a year, while working on new songs with a view to selling them at some point. I'm illustrating a comic for a friend that will be available online in April and continuing to lobby agents and editors to publish any of my three finished manuscripts, which I keep fiddling with and revising from time to time. I'm enjoying some great new progressive rock and pop albums by Transatlantic, Flying Colors, and Mastadon, and well as working my way forward from 1983 with significant hip-hop albums. I've also discovered trip-hop and trance music which is a whole new world for me, so I'm trying to get my brain around the mechanics of its song-writing and instrumentation.

    That's about it. I'll try to post more often now that I'm not writing as much, but life gets busy and I myself don't have a lot of time to cruise the blogosphere. Hope everyone is doing well, feel free to leave us a note in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading.