DIY · education · family fun · Homeschool · Jewy goodness · The COVID files · Worldschooling

Day 484: Curriculum Decision

After lots of research into ready-made curricula, I’ve made my decision:

I’m going to create a curriculum myself.

It’s not that there aren’t lots of fabulous-looking curricula out there; there are, in as many different flavours as there are approaches to education. More, even.

But Mr. December and I have been working on our travel plans (for when we can realistically travel again,) and it looks like our most likely option would be Central and South America, since Costa Rica is open with no restrictions and Ecuador has no restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated (children too young to be vaccinated take on the status of their parents, so we’re good to go.) And as long as we’re there, might as well check out the Galapagos. You know, before climate change and tourism muck the whole thing up and there’s nothing to see.

With that decided, all of the homeschooling pieces have fallen into place. Of course we should learn about the geography and history of the places we’ll be travelling. Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas. And then when we get to the Conquistadors and start talking about the monarchy that financed them, we’ll naturally be talking about the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects it, but there it is) and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. From there, we can talk about the Sephardi Jews: customs, music, food, and language (let’s learn some Ladino!)

I’ve gotten really into the planning; I have the mind map to prove it. I divided it into curriculum areas—Language, Food, Geography, History, Music, Art, Math and Science—and jotted down everything I could think of to learn about them. There’s even a separate section for the Galapagos, highlighted in blue.

I’ve compiled a long playlist of Crash Course History videos and the like to introduce various topics. Our public library gives us free access to Mango Languages, which we’ll use for learning Spanish and maybe Ladino (if they have it.)

So that’s it: I’m dumping the premade curricula and going with Mesoamerican and South American studies. This is going to be so much fun!

crafty · education · goodbye clutter! · Homeschool · Jewy goodness

Day 479: Shelving the Reshelving

I tried to reshelve the library books this afternoon. I really tried. It was okay at first: I took books off the floor and put them on the correct shelves. Then I ran out of space on the correct shelves and had to improvise temporary homes for them, cursing under my breath all the while. Finally, the floor was clear and I stepped back to examine my progress… and realized that there are an awful lot of shelves that contained a hodgepodge of books from all over the house. Damn. I thought I was done.

I shelved the project, if you’ll forgive the pun. It looks like I’m going to have to do a lot more rearranging than I thought, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it today. Instead, E and I went outside and painted some rocks.

There’s something very soothing about a nicely shaped rock; and for those of us so inclined, painting said rock is pretty soothing as well. It could be the smoothness of the craft paint, or the purity of the colours themselves, or the repetitive motion of stroking the brush against the stone. Whatever the reason, I find painting rocks to be a relaxing pastime. After almost an hour of painting, I was ready to get to work on report cards, which I’ve yet to finish.


I think I’ve chosen a curriculum for E for the coming year. The literature section focuses on fairy tales and folk tales, which I think could be a fascinating area of study for the older kids as well—PhD theses have been written on the topic, so surely there’s something of value to be learned there. Maybe I’ll have them research the historical roots of fairy tales, read the originals (Perrault, Grimm, Andersen,) and write about what they’ve learned.

I’m a bit stuck on how to teach Jewish History. Right now my only inclination is to not teach it the way I was taught (a combination of very dry textbooks and horrifyingly vivid Holocaust stories.) My kids don’t generally respond well to books designed for schools, what with the banal and “obvious” discussion questions, which means I’ll probably need to find original sources to read with them, which means… back to the library.

DIY · education · Homeschool · mental health

Day 476: Too Many Choices

I spent most of today reviewing some possible curricula for the coming school year. For months I’ve been making a list of curricula that sound good (based on online discussions between homeschooling parents,) and today I started to check them out. It’s a good thing that most of the publishing companies provide substantial “Try Before You Buy” samples to download and print; it’s so frustrating and disappointing when you see a really good sample, buy the whole curriculum, and realize that the sample was really not representative of the program as a whole.

In case you didn’t know, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of published homeschool curricula out there. Rigorous, relaxed, creative, technical… of course, my simplest criterion for whittling down the options is religion: if it mentions Jesus or has copywork of verses from Christian scriptures, it’s game over.

(An actual math problem I came across: Jesus had 12 disciples. One of them betrayed him. How many does he have left? What’s that you say? Eleven? WRONG. Zero. They all died two thousand years ago.)

As overwhelming as the options for E are, at least she’s starting in grade one, so she’s coming in basically at the ground level in every curriculum. For R, N, and K (grades five, six, and eight respectively,) it’s another story. I need to find something that’s accessible even if a student hasn’t done the previous levels in a series.

I’ve been tempted (as I often am) to forget about published curricula and just do my own thing. I certainly have the research skills and creative wherewithal to do it, but if I’ve learned anything from this past year, it’s that come January and February I need something I can open to the correct page and just follow instructions. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me too hard for me to be able to direct my own program, even if it’s pre-planned. I really just need something to tell me what to do.

So I’m left trying to figure out, if I can’t find a complete program I like, what elements we really need and how much is too much. Greek and Latin roots are an absolute yes; there’s a series that introduces vocabulary as used by famous writers which looks awesome; there’s a great spelling program that explicitly teaches why English is spelled the way it is; and there’s a method of teaching writing that starts at the level of sentences, even with older students, and doesn’t move on to paragraphs or essays for quite some time. And I haven’t even started listing the possibilities for literature!

I started working on this at 9:00 this morning. By 2:00 p.m. my eyes were crossing and all the curricula were starting to look alike, so I had to stop. At least I’ve chosen biology for the big kids and history for everyone; next I have to figure out what the heck to do with the big kids for Language Arts.

Is it too late to switch to unschooling?

DIY · education · family fun · Homeschool

Day 463: Vinegar, yes. Mountain Dew, no.

Our homeschooling shelves have become a repository of science lab supplies: PH testing paper, bottles of powdered acids, magnifiers, magnets, prisms, and just about anything else we could find. We say it’s for the kids, for homeschooling, but sometimes it’s just for us grownups.

Our shower drain has been getting blocked increasingly often lately. I was inclined to blame Mr. December’s hair (it’s shoulder length now and he has way more hair than I do.) We used Drano and Liquid Plumr and I tried to pull out the hairs that were caught on the grate. But by the end of this morning’s shower, Mr. December was up to his ankles in water—and he was standing on wooden decking that’s already two inches above the floor.

We armed ourselves with all manner of tools, but it only took a minute or two to pry the drain grate up. Mr. December using my small wrecking bar to reach into the drain. After a few unproductive tries, he pulled up an enormous clog. I was right, there was hair; but there was something else too—could it be cement?

I pulled out a big chunk of the solid stuff and inspected it. I even took it to the kitchen table and looked at it through a magnifying glass.

“Hey, guys!” I called to the kids, “this is so cool! It looks like miniature coral!”

E came racing over. K sauntered over, took a look, and said, “It does look like coral. Huh.” The other two kids were uninterested.

Feeling pretty sure it was just calcium buildup from the hard water, I went and poured some vinegar down the drain to dissolve the crud we couldn’t reach.

“Does that actually work?” Mr. December wanted to know.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in our house the usual answer to “does that work?” is, “go try it and find out.”

That’s how I ended up conducting an experiment all by my lonesome. I put chunks of the clog in glasses containing water, mountain dew, and white vinegar respectively. Then I tested the PH of each liquid and watched to see what happened.

I tried to involve the kids—I really did—but they weren’t interested. I continued anyway. For science, and to satisfy my own curiosity. I could claim that it was supposed to be educational for the kids, but now you all know the truth: absent the children, I was still gung-ho about the experiment.

And, for the record, yes, the vinegar worked. Also—I’d think twice before drinking Mountain Dew.

Image Description: Three drinking glasses filled a quarter way. The one on the left is clar, with a chunk of solids on the bottom; the one in the middle has smaller pieces of solid stuff strewn across the bottom and is mostly clear; the third is a bit cloudy and doesn’t have any visible solids on the bottom (but some are floating.) Each glass has a litmus test strip in front of it.
blogging · education · fame and shame · Homeschool · Jewy goodness · lists · waxing philosophical

Day 455: Not as bad as you think.

I hear a lot of bad things about social media—probably you do, too. And there are a lot of downsides: comparing your imperfect life to someone’s touched-up selfie, getting angry because “someone is wrong on the internet!”, seeing humanity turn ugly behind the anonymity the internet affords. There are definitely days when I think I’d be better off without Facebook.

Duty Calls
You can find an image description here.

On the other hand, Facebook has some very good points:

  1. It’s my proverbial front porch. I sit there in the evening and catch up with the people I know. I get to hear about all the mundane things, all the frustrations, all the celebrations—just like I would if we lived in a close-knit neighbourhood and sat on the front porch every evening, chatting with each other.
  2. It can be a great resource. Both Mr. December and I are members of a few homeschooling groups on Facebook. Through those groups we’ve discovered some of our favourite curricula and courses. We’ve also been able to get a sense of what homeschooling looks like for many different families. I’m also a member of a neighbourhood group, from which I learn about traffic issues, why our city councillor sucks, and who’s giving away free stuff.
  3. It reminds me about birthdays. If I wished you happy birthday this year (or any year, really,) you can thank Facebook for that. Every day it pops up and tells me whose birthday it is. It even lets me post a birthday message directly from the notification. I do realize that some people do this with their own calendar—digital or paper—but Facebook makes it so easy for me.
  4. Some people do use it for the betterment of us all.

Point number four is the one that gives me hope for our society. I’ve recently joined a group dedicated to being a space where people can ask good-faith questions about all kinds of social issues and receive honest, thoughtful answers rather than scorn and derision.

(If you don’t get why a question would be met with scorn or derision, think of someone asking about transgender issues and being labelled a TERF because of that honest question. It happens all the time, and it’s ugly.)

I have learned so much from this group. People have taken the time to post complex answers to questions about racism, gender issues, disabilities, etiquette… it’s an excellent read and very eye-opening, as the group members come from all over the world and from all walks of life. I’m enjoying it immensely. Even more incredible than what I’ve learned from that group is the simple fact that so many people want to ask questions, learn, and improve the way they relate to people who are unlike them.

I have similar feelings about the group where non-Jews can ask questions about Judaism and Jews answer them. I’m fascinated by the things non-Jewish people don’t know about us; from the big stuff, like the fact that we don’t revere Mary, mother of Jesus, to the minutiae of why inviting a Shabbat-observant friend to a wedding on Saturday is more complicated than just making sure they have accommodations within walking distance of the venue. I also enjoy being able to answer people’s questions and see their responses when they’ve read all of the answers.

People are learning, reaching out, connecting, and supporting each other in ways that would never have been possible without the internet (and social media in particular.) To me, that almost makes up for how social media also makes it easy for people to foment hatred, recruit people to radical organizations, and spread misinformation. Almost. Maybe if enough of us participate in groups like the ones I’ve been part of, education and enlightenment will replace the ignorance and hate.

I hope so.

crafty · education · Homeschool · Kids · Montessori

Day 454: Teacher Gifts

There are plenty of things I don’t miss about sending the kids to school—the drop-offs and pickups, the one-size-fits-all rules, the homework—but the one that always manages to surprise me is teacher gifts. Yes, I know the school year is ending. Yes, I want to show my appreciation and yes, I—wait, it’s now? I need to do the teacher gifts today? AAAAA!

It happens every year.

I’ve done some creative things in the past: handmade cards; a summer-themed gift of sunscreen, sunglasses, a movie gift card, and some packets of Starbucks instant iced coffee mix all packaged in a reusable cup with a straw; a custom t-shirt for the teacher who had all four of my kids with zero breaks in between; and there was the year I just wrote them lovely thank-you cards and delivered them with a fresh homemade challah for each teacher.

Other years I went in together on the group gift being organized by other parents. But the best gift (I thought), the most inspired, were the Montessori bead bar earrings. I made them for every school staff member who had direct contact with my kids. Everyone loved them—but that was years ago, and only a few of those teachers remain (and they’re not E’s teachers), so I decided to reprise that idea for E’s online teachers from Montessori.

Last time I did all the work after my kids went to bed. This time, E had a hand in the whole thing: she strung the beads onto the eye pins, poked the earrings through the backing card, carefully threaded the necklace chain into the slots I’d made, and helped me cut and fold the gift boxes.

And now all that remains is to write the thank-you cards to the teachers, and of course to deliver them to school. And then I’m guaranteed at least one year without teacher gifts sneaking up on me, because all four kids are being fully homeschooled next year.

Wait, if I’m their teacher, shouldn’t the kids be giving me a gift at the end of the year? Good thing some of them read this blog—they’ll get the hint.

education · Kids · Montessori

Day 448: The Graduate

E had her “End of Casa Celebration” today. She’s finished a full cycle (and then some; she did four years) in the Montessori three-to-six-year-olds’ classroom (otherwise known as Casa) and is ready to move on.

This morning we joined her class on Zoom as the teachers spoke about (and to) each graduate. The grads were given flowers and a bouquet of cards with wishes from their classmates. E wasn’t there, since she’s an online-learning student, but we were able to pick up the flowers, the cards, and a box containing the Shabbat set E made as part of her graduation project.

A major part of the graduation project is the child’s timeline. E had to choose photographs (one from each year of her life) and write a short sentence about each picture. Then she had to mount the pictures and the captions on cardstock, punch holes, and bind it all together. The final result is neat to see, not least because of the very clear progression from messy writing in the first caption to much neater cursive in the last one; but the coolest part is seeing what pictures E deemed important to showcase: her first Purim, her at eighteen months watering the flowers with our yellow metal teapot, dressed as an elephant for Purim at age two, riding her balance bike, jumping on a trampoline with N, reading on the front porch with R, and using the glue gun to turn a yogurt cup into a unicorn cup.

Image descriptions, clockwise from left: E in her graduation outfit, sitting on the back porch couch; E looking over her shoulder at the camera with her class Zoom screen in the background; the last page of her timeline, with the caption “i was making mi frst unicorn cup” (sic); her timeline project—eight sheets of cardstock bound with yarn—spread out on our living room couch.

Tonight E had the honour, as the graduate, of leading us in the blessings over the candles, wine, and challah. She also got a special cupcake from Savta and Sabba, and got to use the coveted heart-shaped spoon for her dessert (seriously, the kids fight over the ‘heart spoon’.)

All day long I couldn’t—still can’t, really—believe that my baby, my youngest child, is headed into Grade One. This time last year she was learning to write numbers; now she’s multiplying them. She’s reading, her cursive writing is beautiful, and she’s a confident, articulate six-year-old, as sweet and cuddly as when she was a baby. I am so proud of her. And she’s proud of herself, just as she ought to be.

DIY · education · Homeschool · Keepin' it real

Day 431: Well, that was a bust.

Plaster Bust of Hermes for sale at Pamono

(Nope, not that kind of bust.)

I was so excited when we started studying Ancient Greece. We were going to do so many related things: Greek roots, mythology, history, philosophy, science and math, cooking, pottery… so many things to learn and do!

In the end, I have to say that my kids learned the most about Ancient Greece from Percy Jackson books and YouTube videos from CrashCourse History and Extra Mythology. We tried to make Greek pottery and failed; we read some of Aesop’s Fables and I wasn’t sure what else to do with them; our Greek roots worked out okay, but it mustn’t be ignored that I used premade curriculum materials for that.

I think the bottom line is that I don’t have the time or bandwidth to put together a great curriculum, and cool ideas do not a curriculum make. I do much better using what homeschoolers call an “open and go” curriculum and then sprinkling in a few creative ideas here and there. Now that I know this about myself, I can wave goodbye to my dreams of teaching everything through unit studies. Just like integrated curricula (at one of the schools our kids have attended,) it sounded like a good idea but didn’t work in practice.

So this morning we went back to the solid curricula I started the year with. Brave Writer literature units (we just started Life of Pi,) Great Canadian Adventure, and Winning with Writing. For music I’m using the Prodigies materials but doing the lessons without the videos, because the kids think the videos are stupid. We’re working our way through Judaism’s Great Debates and using Hebrew reading practice books and primers. It’s wonderful not having to think about how or what to teach. It frees me up for other things, like getting everyone’s immunization records sorted out, or fixing the light situation in our bedroom. You know, the exciting stuff.

education · family fun · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 426: Unexpected Validation

As I opened a container of guacamole tonight for our taco dinner, I noticed what was printed under the container lid: a cute sombrero-wearing avocado, proclaiming “I’m CHUNKY and PROUD OF IT!”

Right on, little avocado man, I thought. Me too.

My guacamole gets me... - Album on Imgur
Image description: a cartoon avocado wearing a sombrero, saying “I’m Chunky and Proud of it!”

Self-image aside, the guacamole and I have another thing in common today: we’re both better if kept refrigerated. It was 29C here today, according to my phone, and we were volunteering in the community orchard. I felt like I was melting; a me-sized refrigerator would have been very welcome.

We (meaning the children and I) have been given our assignment in the orchard this year: we are the IPC team! Insect and Pest Control volunteers are responsible for building insect traps, refreshing them weekly, and checking them to identify the insects that were caught. This is a great opportunity for the kids to learn some entomology. And—let’s face it—it’s a great excuse to get all of us out in the fresh air in the names of education and community service. Talk about win-win.

bikes planes and automobiles · education · family fun · Homeschool

Day 419: Classroom of the year

We had the perfect confluence of events today: Mr. December wasn’t teaching today, and the weather was beautiful. I decided we’d spend the entire morning doing our schoolwork at the park.

Our morning was the kind of morning that makes me fall in love with homeschooling all over again. We biked out to the park with all our stuff and chose a picnic table to serve as our classroom. I gave the kids ten minutes to play in the playground and when I called them back, it was to join me on our picnic blanket for music class.

I’ve found a video-based curriculum that teaches theory, sight singing, and ear training. About a minute into the first video, the kids we complaining that the teacher talked too much and that the whole video was stupid. “Can’t you just teach us this stuff without watching the videos?” they pleaded.

So today, on our blanket, we reviewed the solfege hand signs and I taught them about major chords. We sang through a few simple songs with the hand signs. I even had them figure out the names and hand signs for the first bar of “O Canada.” By the end of class, even the most tone-deaf of my kids was singing “Sol, Mi, Doh” in tune.

We took a quick break while I tethered our laptop to my cellphone for the internet access; then I set E up with wireless headphones at a nearby table for her Zoom class. While she was learning about Shavuot in Hebrew, we were learning Latin roots and then previewing and discussing the kids’ literary essays. Next up was our read-aloud of Animal Farm. I hadn’t quite planned it this way, but we finished the book today.

“That was the best book ending ever!” K said, wide-eyed. I happen to agree with her.

Then it was free play for everyone as, one at a time, the kids joined me on the blanket to practice their Hebrew reading. R decided to bike a bit more (easily done, as this park is huge and flat with several little paths) while E tried some challenging new climbers.

Three hours after we started school, we all packed up and biked home. It had been a remarkably easy morning: no arguments, no resistance, and no complaints. Everyone participated. Everyone enjoyed it. We all got some exercise, fresh air, and Vitamin D. I’d be hard pressed to imagine a better school day. Maybe we should do it again tomorrow.

A picnic table in the park. Best classroom we’ve had all year!