Thursday, August 23, 2012

Summer Stretch

Whew! We made it.  When Bean paddled into the harbor just before noon today, her two-day stand up paddleboard (SUP) class ended.  A full summer's worth of eight weeks of classes ended as she paddled under the bridge that signals the border between the calm waters of the north harbor and the choppier waters near the entrance to the bay.  Dr. Yap and I looked at each other.  She did it!  She went at least as far as  the busy lower harbor, and maybe out into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

When I left her this morning, after zipping her into the now well-broken-in wetsuit, she wasn't entirely sure she would be willing to brave the swell outside the harbor.  Yesterday, when she and I went out together, she went half way under the harbor bridge and decided that was far enough.  Last week, during kayak camp at the same facility, Bean adamantly refused to participate on the day her class headed into the bay in tandem sit-on top kayaks.  She was not convinced her instructors would fully prepared her class of 8-12 year olds to handle the waves, since they spent the first day entirely in the safety of the harbor. Besides, after all the warnings that sit-on top kayaks were less stable than their spray-skirted brethren, she wasn't about to get in one with an unpredictable almost-stranger, let alone navigate it to the ocean.

Honestly, Dr. Yap are weren't sure Bean would make it through her full summer of classes at all.  The first week, a modern dance camp with her regular instructor but in an unfamiliar facility was every bit as intense as it was billed.  The four day camp was situated on the banks of a river, surrounded by sycamores, the one tree to which Bean is allergic, and took place the week after a strenuous trip to Chicago.  She started out tired on day one and after five hours of social interaction and dancing, she was exhausted. On day three, I got the call I often expect, but rarely get.  Bean stood up in the middle of the afternoon session and insisted that she had to go home right now.  Fortunately, she and the instructor worked out a way for her to stay and participate before I even got Boo to the car.  After the second call, telling me they would see me at the end of the day, I stood in the kitchen, knowing exactly what had happened:  Bean wasn't feeling her best, the afternoon session was not her favorite dance style, and suddenly she just couldn't take it anymore.  In her Asperger's mind, she wasn't allowed to excuse herself or take a break on the side, she couldn't see a way out and couldn't break the rules, so she exploded.

The next class was a Boogie Board class, one Sunday afternoon at one of our favorite local beaches, with instructors who taught a bevy of native California kids how to read the waves for signs of rip current, then sent them into the surf under their watchful eyes.  It sounds like a fun, light-hearted class that could be a formality for kids growing up in sight of the Pacific. But for a kid who has been swimming confidently for less than a year, it was fraught with anxiety.  The morning was filled with growls and feet stomping directed towards Dr. Yap and I, who were guilty of being far too willing to shell out money for these classes and of giving her the responsibility of deciding which classes she was ready for.  Clearly, if we had been less able to pay the park district fees and more restrictive with her choices, her life would have been easier.

Our life would be easier too, if we had to decided to keep the activities to a minimum and let the summer unfold without schedules or planning.  Once upon a time, in the early days of homeschooling, we did that.  Our first summer, we continued to homeschool as I continually tried to figure out what, how, and when we should work on what.  But sometime during the foggy mornings of July, I followed Dr. Yap's suggestion and looked online to see what summer offerings were still available at a local private school known for their excellent summer program.  Circus Yoga!  If ever a week-long class had Bean's name written all over it, that did.  Once she made sure it would only last a few hours each day, she was willing.  It turned out to be a great experience.  The class size was smallish, the people friendly, the school way more organized than any local private school we'd encountered.  Maybe one more week?  Mask Making with a former staffer at Jim Henson's studio?  Yes!

The next year, we knew to look at the course schedule as soon as it was posted in March and Bean picked four weeks of half day classes that would break up the summer of continued homeschooling.  After the first week, which did not go off without a hitch when her original class was cancelled due to low enrollment and she suddenly found herself in a Nature Art class, the classes at the private school were once again a hit.  It was a way for her to be at a school, without actually going to school; a chance for her to socialize with other kids, without expecting her to be around them for a whole day; an opportunity for her work with new adults each week in science, cooking, and animation classes.

If last year's summer classes offered a nice diversion, this year's slate was a stretch. Besides dance camp, and all the ocean sports,  Bean took three Lego robotics classes, a Lego architecture class, cooking, and  a web design class at the private school.  For five weeks, she had to be somewhere every day, renewing friendships from previous years, navigating the playground and lunchtime when she stayed full days, and admitting that she hated being the only 9 year old girl in a robotics class full of 12 year old boys with enough time for me to switch her to a different session instead of refusing to attend or exploding in an unexpected temper tantrum.  It wasn't always easy, but she did it.  We made it.  She stretched herself way beyond her previous boundaries, taking on far more activities and challenges than she normally does during the school year.  She learned a lot of things she was excited about, but not always in the exact way she would have liked.

Will this translate into smoother homeschool days? I don't know. But I do know that we're paying for two extra dance classes this fall and that I'll be spending three afternoons driving across town to the dance studio.  And I've bookmarked the full-week circus day camp on the other side of town for next summer.  We never know what we're capable until summer comes, we get a break from our normal routine, the days get longer, and we stretch outside of our usual pace and schedule.

Yesterday, I asked Bean what her favorite activities were.  The answer, a particular Lego robotics class with a great group of kids and stand up paddling.  When Dr. Yap and I met her on the dock, we learned that she had made it into the open ocean, out of safe harbor, saw a sea otter snacking on a crab, and never planned on doing that again.  But she didn't refuse to try it, as two of the kids did, and she didn't exclaim to us that she hated it and was made to do it, as two other kids did to their waiting moms.  She did it willingly, skillfully, and bravely, if fearfully.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Over the last two and a half years, our homeschool schedule has evolved to a pretty nice sweet spot.  We still tweak things here and there, but overall all, I would say we've settled in to a nice routine.

For a long time, I tried various ways to schedule our homeschool time and plan Bean's work.  The first idea that worked well was to come up with a standard school time and stick to it.  We start as close to 9 AM as we can and almost always finish by 11 AM.  This works nicely for both Bean and I since we're morning people and our brains are freshest after my second cup of coffee and before her lunchtime carb fix. We both also like the predictability and structure of having a set time for school.  I plan whatever I need to get done for the day in the afternoon, and Bean knows she has that time coming up to do whatever she wants.

As we added and subtracted things from the overall lesson plan each year, I struggled to figure out how much and what to do each day and to figure out how often to do each subject.  In order to avoid resolving this, I weighted each subject, from math to health, equally and had what I thought of as a scrolling schedule.  I listed the next assignment for each subject and we just went down the list, covering whatever seemed like the right amount in a day.  Gradually, it became clear that we could do about six things in a morning.

Soon after we officially started Fourth Grade last fall, I finally admitted that language arts and math should get top billing in the schedule and show up each day.  It helped that we finally settled on workable curricula for each of those subjects.  Once we had work we didn't mind looking at, it was a lot easier to commit to doing them every day.  We alternate language arts and math with other subjects, covering six things total every day.  I try to arrange the day with a nice rhythm, alternating tasks that require more writing or brain energy on Bean's part with those that are more passive.  I also try to make sure there's some variety: world history one day US history on another; music and art happen on different days as well.

Foreign language ended up anchoring every day until I realized that as often as not, we were too tired/hungry to do it when it came around and it was getting passed over in favor of lunch with a (usually unfilled) promise to do it in the afternoon.  Now, Bean starts her day with Rosetta Stone.  I used to specify which language she was to work on each day in attempt at keep her progress even, but often as not, all she wanted to do was Dutch. Or she wanted to do Arabic on the day I had planned to do French.  I reasoned that since foreign language was entirely optional at this age as far as the state was concerned, she could do whatever language she wanted each day as long as she was doing one.

My latest tweak is moving to what I think of as a modified block schedule.  Instead of assigning subjects to specific days, I gave each group of subjects a letter A through D (since Bean usually attends a homeschool class one morning a week, we only homeschool four days and this works out nicely with the amount of subjects we cover.) Until I read about the block schedule used by a local private school, we would do geography on Monday, art on Tuesday, etc.  If we missed a Monday for a sick or Dr. Yap homeday, we missed geography that week.  After a while this got confusing with my lesson planning and the lack of continuity was leading to a lack of enthusiasm for some things.  Now, we just start with the next letter day in the schedule.  For example, if we take Monday off for Labor Day (also known as an extra Mommy homeday in these parts) and Tuesday is an "A" day, we finish the week on a "C" day and start the next week on a "D" day.

So here's what our schedule will look like when we officially start Fifth grade in two weeks:

A Day

  • Rosetta Stone I record the chosen language after the fact.
  • Read aloud from Fifth Grade Literature list We're finishing up the Chronicles of Narnia and one of us cannot wait to finish that and start the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
  • Language Arts 1-2 pages from the Critical Thinking Co.'s Language Smarts D (This is technically a third grade book, but it's large and we're slow and it's totally appropriate for Bean.)
  • Geography Bean is finishing up a States workbook - it's taken us a year, but we've made it to South Carolina; then switching to topics from What Your Fifth Grader Should Know and Color Yourself Smart: Geography - I hate the title, but it really is a great series.
  • Math Topics vary throughout the year, but we mostly use the Key to...Series.
  • US History Westward expansion, the Civil and Reconstruction. Oh my.
B Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Literature topics We're starting with an introduction to Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream) and then do some poetry.
  • Math
  • Latin This is Bean's request, but I think it's a great idea.  I don't consider Latin a foreign language, I think it's a great foundation for many things: building vocabulary, spelling, understanding medical and scientific terms, critical thinking.
C Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Science We'll do some reading in the physical and natural sciences, but this year I'm trying a lot of hands on kits, preferably those that do not require "common" household items that I never seem to have on hand.
  • Math
  • World History We're covering the rise of Western civilizations, starting with a peek at what happened in the millennia between Lucy walking out of Ethiopia and the pharaohs building giant monuments to themselves in the Nile Delta.  After that, we will run through Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with as much of a side trip into Mesopotamia and Byzantium as I can muster, but these aren't the most resource-rich areas, in terms of curriculum.
D Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Study Skills A dreaded but important subject, since she isn't naturally building these over time in school and many of them don't come naturally to Bean. We're using the excitingly-titled Study Skills for Early School Success.
  • Math 
  • Music We're reading through the music theory and history in What Your Fifth Grader Should Know, listening to music and occasionally using Simply Music's piano instruction.  
One noticeable absence from this schedule is art.  I have come to the end of what I can teach or facilitate in terms of art theory and practice.  Bean continues to produce all manner of art on her own, and I will keep exposing her to art and art history, but I want to outsource art instruction.  I was hoping to start her in private or small-group lessons with a wonderful woman nearby, but that was before Bean decided to take three dance classes and a homeschool gymnastics class.  On the plus side, I never have to worry about PE.