Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Importance of Confidence

   In Monday's post, In Defense of Abeka, I briefly mentioned that bolstering a student's confidence was an important part of a curriculum. This has been a key issue for us in figuring out how my kids differ and how they learn best, so I wanted to share what I've learned in case it's helpful to anyone else.
   First, let's rewind a little while I tell you about my oldest. She is the sweetest thing, tender-hearted toward everyone, herself included. When she was younger I joked quietly to my closest mommy friends that her heart broke the worst for herself because she was such a whiny little thing. Thankfully, she's outgrown a lot of that whininess, but she is still a delicate little flower that needs constant encouragement and bolstering. When it came to school work there was no exception. In pre-k and kindergarten, the "work" was purely fun and play. As we reached 1st grade, there was slightly more "work"-work, but we managed. I realized very quickly that she was struggling with reading. After two months of trying to force the issue, I gave it. It helped that I had severe Hyperemesis Gravidarum and was struggling just to get through a day, but I just was so tired of the struggle, and
the daily tears of frustration we both shed. She was beginning to hate schoolwork and I was beginning to dread teaching it. I called it quits. Put the reading and ELA texts away, and we focused on all other areas.
   By the time spring came, she was suddenly showing an interest in reading, so I went with it, pulled the books back out and gave it a try. It clicked, and she succeeded with flying colors. By that summer and whole new world had been opened to her, and she was stuck in a book all day, I was amazed.
   Then second grade hit and we had a new hurdle: moving across the country. My girl's life was in upheaval well before the move, and she seemed to be affected most in her schoolwork- especially math. There were HOURS of frustration spent hashing, rehashing, re-teaching, re-working problems over and over and over, because she just sat and cried and couldn't get it. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some days she would seemingly forget the basics of adding. On those days, my frustration also got the better of me at times, because I could not seem to get through to her. There were days I gripped pencils so hard that they snapped in my attempt to keep my cool. One time I pulled up my laptop and was venting away to my two dearest mama friends(one of whom is a homeschooler) on a group private messenger, and one said, "Maybe it's too hard." I knew that wasn't true, because she'd done the same work the day before and done fine. Then she said, "Maybe it's too hard for TODAY. Give her something easy to do just to change the pace and boost her confidence." I was doubtful and resisted. We powered through that day with tears, broken pencils, and long hours, but we managed. The next time we ran into "The Funk" I often referred to my mama friends as, "One of THOSE days," I gave it a try. I gave her, a second-grader, a kindergarten math sheet. She was confused at first, but gave it a go, and mastered the page quickly. She had a HUGE smile on her face, The rest of the school day went amazingly well. We tried it again the next time we hit one of THOSE days, Soon, those days were fewer an further between. That's when I made the connection: Confidence. It wasn't that she was getting away with something like
some voices in my life said, and it wasn't that the work was too hard in general, it was just that when she didn't THINK that she could, then she couldn't. By giving her work very clearly below her level that she could do without 'thinking,' she got excited about accomplishing something. It's like when a sports team is scheduled for a match that they will undoubtedly win to start the season. That win gives the team a huge shot of confidence in their abilities, and heavily impacts how they feel about going into the next game and the rest of the season.
   Likewise, when I could recognize that struggle within my girl and change things up, give her an 'easy win' to build her confidence for the next challenge, there was a drastic change in her entire demeanor and attitude about the rest of the day and for many days following.
   Now we're in third grade, and we haven't had One of THOSE Days in a long, long time. We have those moments where I am at a loss as to how to get a concept through to her, but not those days. I firmly believe it's because of her confidence. She knows now that she can do it. Even if it's new or hard or frustrating, she can do it. That's why A Beka works so well for her. The scaffolding of new information with old gives her a challenge, and yet gives her something quick and easy that give her the, "Oh, I've so got this!" feeling, and when she finishes the tough stuff she's not feeling defeated, but proud. I don't know why this lesson was so hard for me to come to, because it seems to common-sense. I am thankful we have the blessings of time and flexibility with homeschooling and grace with our children to learn these lessons. They key is to have soft and open enough hearts that we can notice these things and hear the well-meaning suggestions from those who have been-there-done-that, and incorporate the change and growth.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Defense of Abeka

One of the first things you think about when you decide to homeschool is curriculum. Which one will you use? Will you use a mix of them? Will you make your own? How do I know a curriculum will be right for us? When my husband and I decided we were definitely homeschooling, our oldest was pre-k age. I'm a firm believer in learning-through-play at that age, so we did a lot of purposeful playing. Since college I had always been fond of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. I was homeschooled through 8th grade, and despite having a regular box curriculum for formal learning, I naturally leaned towards the RE education philosophy in my play time without even knowing that's what I was doing. Growing up on a farm, I lived Reggio Emilia.
   Naturally, I took this approach with my oldest's pre-k learning with supplemental sides of activities inspired by the Letter of the Week program. My husband, who grew up completely "mainstream" so to speak, was not completely convinced this was giving her what she needed, so for her kindergarten year I researched curricula, showed the hubs what I'd found and what I thought of things, and we agreed that we liked A Beka. He liked that it was an accredited curriculum and met, if not exceeded, all standards for New York State schools, and that it covered every subject. I liked that it did seem very thorough, it followed an instructional scaffold model(more on that later ;-) ), and I knew I could work with it to meet the learning style needs of all our kids as they grew. 

    Wait- did I just hear a collective gasp of horror? Yes, I'm sure I did. One thing I've found since we started using A Beka in 2010 is that for some strange reason, A Beka is a divisive topic in the homeschooling circle. People either love it or hate it. I have a childhood friend(also a homeschooler) who almost entirely discredits anything I say about homeschooling with a disdainful, "Oh that's right. You use A Beka." I have asked over and over why when some one says they hate it and the answer all but one time that I remember was, "So much busy work!" The only other answer I can remember: "I just don't like it." Fair enough. It's that 'busy work' answer I don't understand. 

 A Beka takes an instructional scaffold, or "spiral learning" approach for their curriculum. This means concepts are introduced in their simplest forms, and with each lesson they are practiced and slightly modified or complicated, and are practiced throughout each subject. This way the learner develops a much deeper and more thorough understanding of the concept, and challenges their understanding while simultaneously bolstering their confidence with the subject matter. For example: when we learned about irregular plural nouns in Language, several of those words were on that week's spelling list and sprinkled throughout that week's reading text, along with vocabulary words from science, health, and history, and vice-versa. As the understanding deepens, new concepts are introduced so they flow smoothly into one another, so children really understand the how's and why's of concepts, not just, "This is how we find the answer." 
   I believe the stumbling block for all those crying, "Busy work!" Is the practice offered for students who take a little more time and practice to grasp a concept. For example, in math the lessons are two-sided. One side is the lesson:

The back side is the practice, both of this concept and basics from past lessons, to keep fresh in their minds and facilitate an easier time with future lessons and eliminate the need to refresh them before incorporating the new concepts:
But here's the secret so few seem to realize: If your child has an excellent grasp on these concepts, SKIP IT! Suddenly busy work = GONE! My daughter knows every day that we do the introduction of the new concept together, she practices the lesson side on her own or with however much help she needs. When she's done, we go over her work together, ensuring that we correct anything she's gotten wrong and we can re-work the problems together so I can help her figure out what went wrong. Then we turn the page and I typically hi-lite one or two problems from each numbered section. When she's finished that, if the problems are completely correct that shows me she's got it. If they're not, we go over them together, and she has the opportunity to work one or two more- or all of them, if she needs to- in order to refresh that concept. 
So while many are crying, "Busy work!"unless it's been a rough day with little focus, within two to three hours(depending on grade) we're out investigating bugs, playing with hail and learning how it's formed, baking and learning about the micro-organism yeast, getting out into the community, and doing research projects of their own choosing just for fun, because our lives have pretty much become a Reggio Emilia lifestyle of learning. And because I've heard the, "How can you possibly properly educate your child in less than five hours of formal education a day?!" as many times as a broken record, worry not. The love of learning taught through homeschooling is a lifestyle, not just a 'school at home.' My kids are learning all day, every day, and their scores in the 90th percentile(50th is considered 'average') and higher on the national standardized tests for their grades tell me we're learning just fine with Abeka, and STILL loving it. ;-) I'm not saying A Beka is the be-all end-all of curricula, nor am I saying that everyone should love it and use it, I'm just saying that before you listen to some one saying how 'awful' it is because of how full of 'busy work' it is, consider that the implementation has far more to do with it than the material itself. Simply put, if you think A Beka is awful solely because of busy work, well, to borrow the trendy colloquialism, you're doing it wrong. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Eggless Berry Cobbler for Two

My husband works nights four days a week, so he wakes up to start his day about an hour after the kids are in bed. Suffice it to say, he gets the short end of the stick on breakfasts. Poor guy. Homemade granola and almond butter on homemade honey-wheat toast every single day get old quickly, so every once in a while I glance over my fridge, freezers, and cupboards, and go out of my way to make something extra special for him. Naturally, I searched Pinterest and Google. Due to the  dietary limitations in our family because of allergies, though, nothing could be done without tweaking, so I combined a few things, went with my gut, and created this monstrosity my husband is now requesting. Extra bonus: It's so easy I can do it half asleep.


  • Coconut oil
  • 2 Tablespoons Turbinado or Demerara sugar, separated
  • 1 cup berries, frozen or fresh
  • 3 Tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/4 cup almond, coconut, or cow's milk
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 365. Brush a shallow gratin dish with the coconut oil, then evenly layer the berries and sprinkle with 1 Tablespoon of sugar. 

In a bowl(or a large Pyrex measuring cup ;-) ), mix all the remaining ingredients. 

The resulting mixture will be half-way between a batter and a dough. Spread if over the top of the fruit as evenly as possible, but don't stress if it's not quite enough to cover the whole thing. It'll rise and spread. 

Bake for 25 minutes, and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. 

Then ruin the whole pretty thing by scooping it into bowls(or just one for a husband who REALLY likes it ;-) ), and serve. I'm sure it'd be delicious and dessert-worthy with some vanilla bean ice cream, but it works just fine as a breakfast treat, too. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tree of Thanks

   I'll be honest. Once the calender hits November 1st, I am a monster. A carol-singing, obnoxiously cheery, snow-loving, festivity-loving, holiday maniac. To me November 1st through the New Year really is the most wonderful time of the year, so of course I'm doing my best to fill my children with this immense love for the season and all the wonderfulness it entails.
  One bit of that awesomeness: the true spirit of Thanksgiving. We're not much for materialism. We refuse to shop ANYWHERE- not even gas stations- on Thanksgiving, and Black Friday is only a blip on our radar because occasionally we can get a true need met or supply for something on a good sale then. Door-busters we are not. We like Thanksgiving for the family and the true spirit of gratefulness. Even with all the intense trials we have faced in the last several years- maybe even BECAUSE of those trials- we have so much to be grateful for, and we are eager to instill this in our children.
 We encourage our kids to be aware of things, and thank others and God for things without reminding- either from their parents or a holiday. This year we're doing this by way of the Tree of Thanks. We're mixing my love for festive decorations, the fall season, and mushy-gushy nostalgia of traditions and memory-making with an opportunity for character lessons and serving others every day. I've seen a lot of versions of a "Thanksgiving Tree," "Thankful Tree," and various other names- the styles are more numerous than the names for this same concept- but this is a simple, inexpensive, kid-friendly from start-to-finish project that ends up a beautiful, festive work of collaborative 'art with a heart.'  This Tree of Thanks fits one side of our full-size sliding glass doors. You can use half the amount of brown construction paper and make it fit perfectly in a large window, or customize it any way you'd like. 
Supplies Needed:
  • 4 pieces of brown construction paper
  • 2 pieces each of red, orange, yellow, and green construction paper
  • A pair of scissors
  • A marker
  • Packing tape
I like to use packing tape for several reasons. Firstly, it holds up well for the long hall, which is important because we keep this up until December 1st. Secondly, it is versatile and can be rolled into various shapes, widths, and length very simply(and with one hand! Always important with kids involved). Thirdly, the clean-up is way easier. Scotch tape and the like can stick to glass and be SUCH a pain- and possibly damaging- to scrape off. Packing tape rolls off easily and any adhesive residue is easily removed with glass cleaner.
Cut one piece of the brown paper into the base of the trunk, making the ascending trunk piece matching in width to the next trunk piece and so-on. Cut two more pieces of the brown paper in half length-wise(these are the trunk), and the fourth into 8 even strips length-wise(these are the branches). The other colored pieces I layered into a stack to save time, and just cut out leaves. Freestyle! Let your creativity glooooooooow! As you can see, I got REAL crazy and did basic pointy ellipse-like things. As many as the paper makes. 
   Starting at the roots, tape the tree to the window using rolled tape strips, and line up the trunk pieces so they almost match and make a straight line. If your kids are real hands-on and not just watching Mama do it all, this will not be a straight line. Stress not! It's going to be covered by leaves in a week or so. *wink* You can even decorate the brown trunk with some 'bark carvings' a la the last century. Caution: You may need to explain this to your kids. Poor things don't know what they're missing, not carving their names into the flesh of a tree in the name of eternal love. I know. I'm showing my age here. 
   Space the branches out at the top of the tree however you choose. Two on the top and three on each side works well, but really this is all a formality. Depending on how many offspring you have adding leaves to your Tree of Thanks, you may barely fill the branches, or you you may end up covering the entire glass surface with a mosaic of construction paper. 
 Now comes for the character lesson. While we put this all together, my kids and I chatted about thankfulness, gratefulness, what it means to take things for granted, and why that's not good. When it was all assembled, we each picked a leaf and wrote down one thing we were thankful for and why, then prayed for that thing/person, thanking God for him/her/it, etc. The kids had a blast, and are already looking forward to tomorrow's additions to the Tree of Thanks. In the mean time, we put the remaining unused leaves, the marker, and the tape in a basket on a shelf so it's easy to access any time. This is a must in our house, because things like tape have a way of growing legs and walking away, not to be found again for months. We'll update with finished pics after December 1st! 

It'll get prettier, I promise! 

Mama did some helping with the leaf-writing 

Can't forget the man of my dreams

Sunday, November 2, 2014


   Fall is coming in our part of the world, and with fall has come lots of memories. I'll be driving
Winter in NY
down the road and something- one tiny little thing- whether it be a smell, a color, a falling leaf or any number of things trigger enormous waves of nostalgia. This past year has been full of immense change. It's been a lot of good change, and a lot of testing. We're so thankful for it all and we wouldn't change any of it. We moved from far up north- if Sarah Palin could see Russia, I could see Canada from my house!- to calling home closer to the Gulf of Mexico than Montreal. There's been more change than I can possibly describe in moving from the wilderness with bobcats and foxes in our yard to densely-packed suburbs with strange neighborhood kids in our yard. We went from 20 minutes drive to anything, to 10 minutes from everything we could imagine and multiple locations to choose from. We went from no church community(though a couple friends from the church we left before we moved) to an instant church family of several hundred who genuinely welcomed us, hugged me and the kids with, "Welcome, y'all"s and "Bless yours hearts, we've been praying for you!" at the church my husband had attended for the five months before the kids and I moved down after him.
Winter in southern VA
From almost our entire immediate family anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes away, to the closest family member being 3 to 12 hours away. From feet of snow and temperatures in the single digits and below zero, to the mid-40's in the dead of winter.
   Possibly the most notable changes have been my family members themselves. As a whole, we've drawn so close together. Just before we moved, my sweet friend Hilary said to me on Facebook that our move was going to do amazing things for our family. She said it would make us pull together and love each other even more because all we had was each other. She was absolutely right. 
Last year my husband was worried about leaving me in NY with a newborn with health issues, a 2.5-
Moving Day, November 2013
year-old, special needs 4-year-old, and 6-year-old, a house to purge and pack, a garden and an acre of lawns to tend by myself while recovering from a difficult pregnancy while he moved and settled at our new home, but that is exactly what we needed to do. It was definitely difficult. It brought us to our rock-bottoms, and left us with two choices: come together and work together in a long-distance marriage with extreme stress and make it through, or tear apart and stay apart. We had a lot of trouble, but we never wavered from the former. we developed a whole new appreciation for each other, ourselves, and our God.
Me and my soul's other half
 My husband has worked hard, changed shifts, been rewarded for his immense efforts at work with a promotion in less than a year with the company. I have been blessed with a close neighbor who just happened to be an acquaintance from my childhood and teen years who has become a sweet friend in our time here, as well as a homeschool and MOPS group unlike anything that was available to me in New York. 
   All the kids went through various stages of acting-out during their adjustment to all the changes like our then-3-year-old who insisting on being held by my husband literally every waking hour that he was home from work, and crying almost every night she was in bed, praying to God that Daddy would stay with us and not leave again, but my precious oldest child, my sweet, compliant, helpful angel had the toughest transition of all. After the move I realized just how much I had depended on her and had come to expect her to act much older than her mere six years, because she took on the sass, stubbornness, and inappropriate independence of a teenager accustomed to both the responsibility and self-governance that comes with the age. It took several months, but by March I felt like I had my girl back again. In the mean time there was much grace, love, maintaining a daily routine so there was predictability and stability for everyone, retraining in who was in charge, and expressing appreciation for her help while simultaneously reminding her that I was Mama. 
All my loves, the day Daddy left and this adventure began
   Now it's been almost a year, and as I reflect on the last year, I'm struck hardest by two things: I am so thankful those trials are over- seriously, I think I have PTSD from the trauma of those five months spent apart- and I am amazed about how much we've all changed. 
   Before we moved, there was a mix of responses. Some friends and family were sad and said, "I will miss you so very much, but I am SO happy for you and your family, and this great opportunity in front of you," and others were sad and consumed only by how our move affected them, and were a constant source of emotional drain with their constant, "I don't want you to move! I'm so sad! I'll miss you too much! Can't he find a good job closer to home?" In the end, I distanced myself from those that brought me down because I needed every ounce of energy and more to keep myself and my family afloat. I kept my heart and mind focused on the end goal: Getting to the end of November, to my husband, to our new home in Virginia. At one point I broke down in tears on the telephone with my older sister and said, "I'm sorry if this sounds awful, but I am not sad about leaving you guys and the family. Not one bit. I am only happy about being with my husband again." She got it.
   Before we moved I had a newborn, two toddlers, and a new elementary-schoolers. Now I have a mature-beyond-her-years, yet sweet and nurturing beyond belief 3rd-grader, brilliant and incredibly well-adjust first-grader no longer in need of special needs services for the first time in his life, a precocious, sassy, independent, and still in love with her daddy kindergartner, and a fast, genius, half-monkey climber, independent, tech-savvy toddler who thinks he's five. And I have gratefulness beyond words for every single bit of it. Words cannot express how blessed I am for this past year of trial, blessing, growth, and change. 
Precious big girl
Big Girl and Baby Boy- Sweet buddies

Ninja Boy

Sweet Sassafrass