Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Brain's School Year Review

The school year isn't quite over yet, but we're coming down the homestretch.  We'll be taking a break for July and August -- The Peanut has 4 weeks of summer camp lined up and (if we get enough sign-ups), I'll be running four weeks of summer camps for the music school I'm involved with.  Between camps, vacations, and just the need for some downtime, we cannot (nor we probably ever will be) one of those year-round schooling kind of families.

As I look ahead to next school year -- which I've been doing now for several months -- it's helpful to reflect on what worked and didn't work.

Scheduling.  This year, I got rid of the notion of "school vacation weeks".  Last year, I found it really challenging to get us back on track if we took more than a long weekend off.  Our school weeks have ranged from 2 days to a full 5 days - most are 4 or 5 day weeks.  Occasionally we even did school on the weekend.  I found that this gave me more flexibility than trying to stick to a more standard routine, but it wasn't without its issues.

The issue actually lies in the balance of my work life and my teacher life.  Currently, I work on the afternoons of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  We have a nanny that watches The Peanut when I'm working.  Tuesday mornings, we meet with the home school group for a couple of hours.  Thursday afternoon is gymnastics.  We will occasionally meet with the home school on Thursday and/or Friday mornings as well.  While I can rely on the nanny to handle some things for school, I don't want her to do the entire lesson plan for a day.  While I have done this in the past with our previous nanny, I feel that it's different now -- Wombat and I are the ones who are responsible for educating The Peanut, not the nanny.  Further, the previous nanny was an early childhood education major who brought a lot to the table in this area, so I felt she really rounded out, if not augmented what we were doing.  The current nanny has different strengths and still augments what we do, but in a very different way.  My point is this: we have a limited time each week for The Peanut and I to sit down and get our work done so if something comes up, I need to do a bit of juggling across the coming weeks to make sure that I'm comfortable that we're doing enough.

In reality, I'm sure that I'm being overly anal about the whole thing as I suspect that we have gotten more done this year than most grade schoolers - and the added bonus is that we're having fun while we're doing it (most of the time, at least).  I also know that she's experienced stuff this year that a lot of kids don't, so that's a win as well.  I will probably continue to be anal about this one aspect, though, because it is my nature.  I'm OK with this because I've learned to let it go on many other fronts.

Academics.  Here's where I've learned a great deal.  Overall, I think the academic plan I decided to try this year was successful.  I can't say The Peanut loved every second of it, but overall, she got into much of what we were doing and has learned a ton.  (Despite this, if you ask her what she learned for school today, her answer will be "I don't know".)

     Language Arts - The big hit here was "Poem of the Week".  Every week we pick a new poem, read it, study it for rhyming, alliteration, etc.  She gets to illustrate a copy and put it in a binder.  We also pick out words for vocabulary and spelling.  I will continue this next year which will fit nicely with the language arts curriculum we'll be using as it also has a large poetry component to it.

Everything else had its ups and downs.  I know she's not a fan of the handwriting practice, but she does see the improvement as we do it.  Spelling is spelling.  She actually really enjoyed the grammar text I picked for the year, though, I did have to do a lot of modifications/acceleration to keep her interested as it was very repetitious.  We also did tons of writing.  I used a writing workbook for exercises but also frequently branched out and did other stuff like poetry.  We also write letters almost every week -- something that she really seems to enjoy doing.  (I think it helps that when she writes to my mom, my mom takes the time to write a short letter back to her).

One major win is that The Peanut is starting to ask to learn certain things.  A very recent example comes out of spelling where she has a hard time remembering using 'ck' versus 'k' or 'c'.  She specifically asked me if we could do a unit on that, so I stepped away from our Spectrum spelling book, and made her a week's worth of activities.

     Math - Originally we were going to stick with the curriculum that we used last school year - mainly because it was in my comfort zone.  Within a week or two of starting school, I decided to scrap it and went with CSMP Math - the best decision of the year.  We still have our challenging days where The Peanut decides that she's all done thinking about this stuff, but there are so many components in this program that she enjoys that even if she didn't like a concept the first time around, when it shows up again embedded in a Detective Story, a story book, or a String Game (Venn Diagrams), she's all over it without a word of complaint.  We'll be sticking with CSMP for the long haul, I suspect.

    Science - This has turned into a mixed bag.  I bought two different curricula and merged them together as I liked what each had to offer.  I did not want to write my own science curricula mainly because I did it the previous year and I was a little burnt out from it.  Overall, science was good and The Peanut got a lot out of it, but I've learned over this year, that this is one area that needs more customization than I could easily do with the packaged solutions.  I didn't love it and I didn't hate it -- I just always feel like it could be a little better.  I've already begun writing my own science curriculum for next year using a series of books (Building Foundations for Scientific Learning) as a guide.  I'm writing things up a little differently so I (hopefully) don't get burnt out this time around.  My experience with planning the history lessons has really helped me get better organized for writing up science.

     History - We are working our way the The Story of the World Series.  We're not even halfway through the first book, and that's OK.  I wish more curricula was created like this as it presents a basic lesson and then a whole pile of activities and additional resources that you can use (or not) as you choose.  I use a ton of their resources and will often times spend several weeks on one chapter in the text book.  It allows us to go deep and I'm finding that's what The Peanut really thrives on.  I see us using this series for the long haul.

    Arts - The Peanut started piano lessons this year with a great teacher and seems to be really enjoying it.  Her perfectionism gets in her way and it's been a constant dialogue between her and I about how it's OK to make mistakes.  (The perfectionist in me gets where her head is at).  Instead of classes at WAM this year, she meets with her teacher from WAM for art lessons as our schedules and finances allow.  It helps that I'm friends with her teacher, but I think The Peanut really enjoys the one-on-one attention and has shown some real talent in this area.  Again, the perfectionism gets in her way on occasion, but her teacher is really good about not letting her take herself too seriously.

    Friends - If I had a buck for every time someone asks me about whether The Peanut has a social life or not, I could be like one of those famous movie stars who think homeschooling their kids involves hiring several expensive tutors to do all the work.  (Oh the bon-bons I could eat while someone else runs The Peanut through her math facts...)

The Peanut has a better social life than I ever did.  She has a wide variety of friends and at least 4 or 5 very close friends who she can truly relate to on one level or another.  In our home school group, there are two other only-children who are incredibly intelligent and creative -- kindred spirits for her.  Likewise, church is a rich social place for her where she has many friends of varying ages.  While it is a little more work for me to make sure that she sees her friends regularly, I think it's better quality time together than trying to cram in that time over recess or lunch period.  All the things they say about homeschooler friendships being meaningful and strong (and perhaps sometimes better than what you get when you get thrown into a room full of your age-mates) is absolutely true - at least for The Peanut.

Overall, a very successful year.  She and I have both learned a lot and have had a bunch of fun along the way.  Looking ahead to next year, I see where some tweaks can be made to make it even better for both of us... but that's fodder for another post.

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