Monday, September 19, 2011

En français, s'il vous plait!


In my last post, I mentioned that the girls, despite their enthusiasm on the drive to French class, are usually shy and reserved once they actually get there. Not so, last week! They ran into the building ahead of me and were already settled at the table fashioning les escargots verts and les serpents noirs with Playdough by the time I made it into the room. They responded to Clémentine’s familiar questions that start each class with more confidence and less prompting. 

The structure of the class is similar each week: They start with review in terms of introductions, greetings, colors and the like. Since this is now familiar territory,  my girls and the other regular classmates are sure of themselves and even a little eager to show off for newcomers. After the review, new material is introduced and by now, the children are comfortable and ready to take on the challenge of new words and phrases.

Last Thursday’s lesson focused on “I like” and “I need.”  Clémentine offered the children different objects—a ball, yarn, a microphone—then showed them cards with a happy face or a sad face and asked them: Est-ce que tu aime la ball? (Do you like the ball?) and placed the happy face card next to the ball. Then she offered another choice, this time with the sad face card: Est-ce que tu n’aime pas la ball? (Do you dislike the ball?). She then strung the yarn across the room as a makeshift volleyball net and now the question became Who likes to play volleyball? The children counted before "serving" the ball and score was kept on the whiteboard. 

I am particularly excited about this lesson since, as with most mothers, the bulk of my day is spent with my children telling me what they like and don't like about what they have to eat, do, study, play with, read, and share. I see the opportunity for a lot of reinforcement on this one!

After working on the new content, the children move back to the table for snack. Again, it's a chance to interact within the framework of a familiar routine:  Clémentine asks, "Qui voudrait manger?" (Who wants eat?) and then, who wants a plate, a napkin, a cup, crackers? The children respond with answers that are quickly becoming second nature and the satisfaction of that achievement is clear on their faces and in the excited tone in their voices.

Finally, the last part of the lesson is spent on reinforcing the new material and expanding on it a bit. For instance, when Brontë answered the question "What do you like to to?" with "J'aime faire de velo," she was then prompted to state "J'ai besoin d'une bicyclette." (I like to bike/I need a bicycle).


As I mentioned in my last post, the girls often look for opportunities to plug in French words during the day. For example, Carys just started her Kindergarten curriculum a few weeks ago and she's been a little insulted that these early lessons in her math book have been "too babyish," as she puts it, focusing on learning to count. We've made it more interesting for her by having her do all the counting and comparison worksheets saying her numbers aloud in French. It has made the work more challenging for her, and therefore much more rewarding.

On top of the take-home sheets we receive at Language Stars, we have also started picking up flashcards and storybooks in French and even tried, for a few minutes, to watch Soul Surfer with the French language track (That one didn't last too long but Carys was very curious to see how the shark attack scene would play out, asking "How do you scream in French?") 

As I focused on the structure and repetition in the Language Stars class, I saw where I have been missing obvious opportunities to reinforce the material at home. So, this morning, when it was time to make breakfast, I asked "Qui voudrait le cereal?" When I pulled out a stack of bright Fiesta Ware bowls, each of the girls yelled out which color she wanted. "En français," I insisted. "Je voudrais le vert!" shouted Chloë. The other two quickly followed suit. We were careful to remember our pleases and thank yous and I taught them to ask for the milk. En français, of course.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Summer of Reading Comes to a Close

If you read "The Mora Literary and Oatmeal Creme Pie Society" back in June, you know that I dubbed this "The Summer of Reading." The idea was for the girls to make the transition from reading as an assigned task to reading for pleasure. Turns out, teaching a child to "enjoy" something isn't that easy. Who knew?

The results were something of a mixed bag. I tried many different strategies to help shape good reading habits. I started with having them read for an hour a day. They could "do" their hour all at once or broken up into two 30 minute segments. Then I realized they were reading about two pages in that hour. 

I switched to a reading plan I used in college as Literature major:  One semester of my senior year, I took five Lit courses which meant on average I had to read about 1,000 pages a week plus write papers. The only way to handle that amount of reading was to break it out to the number of pages I had to read per day. I tried this with the girls by deciding what I thought was an adequate amount of time for them to finish their books then assigning them the corresponding number of pages they would need to read each day so they met my (arbitrary and unrealistic) deadline.

My mother had to pull me aside and tell me to loosen my stranglehold and that my plan was probably going to make them hate reading rather than love it.

I did agree to at least loosen my grip. I came up with more realistic time frames for the girls to reasonably finish a book. I went back to the reading "time" approach, and only broke out the page per day assignment if I saw they were in danger of missing the agreed upon "finish" date. 

Lastly, I read...a lot. Summer is really my only chance to get a significant amount of reading done anymore, so I led by example.  Here is an actual conversation the girls and I had one night before bed as we put away our books:

Bronte:  I read 22 pages today!
Chloe:   I read 19.
Me: Good job, guys!
Bronte:  How many pages did you read today, Mommy?
Me: 350.
Chloe:  Well, that's just crazy.
Me:  You're probably right.

The girls did finish the pile of books and then some. 

They did enjoy each book, though they didn't say so until they had finished it, leaving me wondering whether the real pleasure lay more in that it was over rather than the story itself. 

On the other hand, Bronte has determined that, so far, her favorite author is Scott O'Dell and Chloe wants to read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder collection of books.

I had set as my personal summer reading goal to read the Harry Potter collection. I did that and read a few others as well. School has started and my time is mostly consumed. I started reading DuMaurier's The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte on the first day of school.  It's been two weeks and I'm still on chapter one. 

Despite the tears and arguments, the deadlines and arbitrary goals, the most wonderful achievement of the "summer of reading" were those quiet moments of reading with my daughters, browsing the library and the used book stores, and talking about what we read. By the end of the summer, I was having to ask less questions of them to check for comprehension; they were running to me saying, "Guess what just happened in my book!"

Are they lovers of books yet? No.

But I can say they are friends of books, at least.  And that is good enough for now.

Bronte (9), proud of the books she read this summer:  A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Borrowers.  Currently reading:  The Black Pearl by her favorite author, Scott O'Dell.

Chloe (7), with her summer reading achievements:  Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Ramona the Pest, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  Currently reading The Borrowers.

And me. No, my house wasn't clean enough and yes, we ate out way too much this summer, but I was in bookworm heaven!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Retracing Our Steps

We "officially" start school today. Carys, the youngest, is "officially" a kindergartner, which means we have "officially" entered a new phase of our lives, quietly closing the door to the baby years behind us. 

Carys, age 5, doing her first kindergarten work.
While this is our sixth year of homeschooling, it is our first year doing so with all three girls. I have been planning for months to document our homeschool efforts, but kept putting it off (Hence the "Homeschool" tab on my blog menu with its perpetual "Coming Soon!" placeholder). I'm glad now that I waited since this year really marks a new era for our family.  As such, this seems like a good time to look back and remember how we started homeschooling in the first place.

I wish I could say that it was a deeply spiritual conviction that sent us down this path. That came later, but it isn't how it all began.

It started with something very simple. I was sitting at home, 5 months pregnant with Carys, and I realized that Bronte would be starting school soon. This seemed like quite the bittersweet milestone at the time, sitting in my sunny living room on a bright spring morning, practicing effleurage on my rounding stomach. But then my thoughts clouded over and I knew:  I could not put Bronte on a bus.

I don't mean that I would shed sentimental tears as I hoisted her up on the first step, followed by a hyperventilating phone call to Anthony as the the bus rumbled down the street, around the corner, and out of sight, but then eventually I would be okay and even laugh about my histrionics later.

I mean: No way. No how.

Yes, I know that this is a moment untold millions of mothers have survived, and I'm sure, if forced, I would have, too. But facing this inevitability several years ago, I felt I could not do it. This was my first inkling that maybe I could avoid it. Maybe I could find away around it.

And so, the idea to homeschool was born, not as a calling, but as a cop out. A way to cheat the system of motherhood that says I must pass my children along to someone else for most of 180 days a year.

I seized on to this idea and started asking around, starting with my mother who had homeschooled some of my younger siblings. She was all for it.  She encouraged me and she imagined with me and she told me to pray about it, saying, "Really, why wouldn't God want you to homeschool them?"

And the idea, and my excitement, grew.

But there was a problem. Anthony was not into the homeschooling idea. And he definitely was not into me quitting a well-paying job and effectively cutting our income in half. I had mentioned it to him occasionally over the years as something of a joke and a few times recently not as a joke, only to be met each time with a response that amounted to "Forget it." If I was going to get him on board, I needed something more than "I can't face putting my child on a bus," because all that was going to get me was a stern "Suck it up, woman!"

In the end, I came back to the thing that was bothering me about having the girls in daycare. They were out of the home for 50 hours a week. This seemed excessive. As I read and looked over lesson plans and came to understand that with a one-on-one education, my children did not need, especially in the elementary school years, to be in a classroom for 7 hours a day, my idea became more refined:

  • I want my children to be at home more than they are away from home.
  • I want my children to learn from someone who loves them more than life.
  • I want my children to learn efficiently, but at their own pace. 
  • I want my children to have time to be children. 

Armed with this new-found educational philosophy, I was ready to approach Anthony again, convinced that this was the right thing for our family, sure that this was what we were meant to do. I knew what his two biggest concerns would be: socialization and finances.  I was ready with my rebuttal for the socialization argument:  it only takes one other person for one to be "socialized" and with homeschooling, I manage how and with whom my children are socialized.  But there was no positive spin to put on the fact that if I quit my job, things weren't just going to be tight. They were going to be impossible. I had crunched the numbers every possible way: If we stopped this and claimed that and sold this and quit that and ate Oodles of Noodles and I didn't have a cell phone then...

The best case scenario was we would be short $1,000 a month just to pay our bills.

So, I prayed.

God, if I am supposed to homeschool my children, You need to convince Anthony. And also? I need a $1,000 a month to come from somewhere. 

Something told me to put off my big talk with my husband and to keep quiet a little longer.

A week later, I went to get the mail. In it was a letter from the landscape architect we had hired to build a stone patio for us. He had taken a job in Houston and would not be able to do the work for us.  He was very sorry, but here was a list of references we might contact and a check returning our deposit of $12,000.

I had my $1,000 a month for the first year.

I bit my tongue as Anthony, totally unaware of what I was planning to spring on him, said he would start calling the landscaping references the next day. Don't say anything yet. Then he started talking about ditching the patio altogether and doing some work to the basement, putting in a bathroom, and finishing off the gym. Don't say anything. Don't say anything!

I couldn't not say anything. Finally, I decided to say just a little bit:  "Look, I don't want to get into a big discussion about this now, but please just don't spend that money yet because I wasn't joking before when I said I wanted to quit my job and homeschool."

Now he was the one biting his tongue. And shaking his head. And looking not happy.

I didn't say anything else.

Another week went by. We didn't talk about the money or homeschooling or my job. And then one day Anthony called me into his office (we worked together at the time), and I sat down across from him at his desk.

"So," he sighed, and leaned back in his chair. "Tell me how this homeschooling thing would work."

And that was it. He was on board. In the end, it wasn't my new-found educational philosophy or my Excel spreadsheet that was the turning point. It was me staying out of it and letting him work it out with God or rather, letting God work it out with him.

Once we made our decision with the security of having that check to cushion the financial blow, our faith was tested. Everything in the house broke down, one major appliance and HVAC system at a time, until the money had evaporated and we were back to staring at a deficit on our spreadsheet.

But by now we were convinced. This is what we were to do and whether we knew how it was all going to work or not, we were going to trust that we were doing the right thing.

So, an idea conceived in fear was born out of faith. 

There were many days in the beginning of our homeschooling pilgrimage when it seemed like we were wandering around aimlessly, when my certainty faltered and I missed the familiarity of past routines. There are days now, five years into it, that I think "Where are we going with this?," when I look around and see nothing but rolling dunes in every direction. 

But every day, even the roughest one, has its stream in the desert moment, a reminder of why we love homeschooling, one that shores up our confidence in what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless and reminding ourselves of this scripture that we claimed as our family motto that first year--  


By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).

From left to right: Chloe (2nd grade), Carys (Kindergarten), Bronte (4th grade)