Homeschool · Kids

Day 434: Angry letters, part deux

We had a very successful writing lesson yesterday.

In their Winning With Writing books, the kids were on the lesson about writing a formal business letter; so I reviewed the format with them, explaining things like cc and bcc (“did you know that carbon copies originally involved real carbon?”) and why you put both addresses on the letter and the envelope.

Then I gave the kids their assignment:

“You’re going to write a complaint letter. It can be about something real or fictional—doesn’t matter. But it has to be formatted correctly and you need to include the facts, why it’s a problem, and what action you want the person to take to make it right.”

They scattered to various computers without a complaint. For the next hour everyone focused on their letters. When our time was up for the day’s lesson I took a look at what they’d done.

It was absolutely true to their personalities. That still amuses me no matter how much I see it.

R wrote a very good letter to Mr. December (principal of our homeschool) complaining that he spends more time on complex subjects with the older two kids than he does with her. She proposed that he make time for her twice a week to do the subjects that only she was interested in. She ended the letter with “Thank you for your time.” Sometimes I think that kid is older than her years.

N wrote a very short, very sloppy letter. Bit by bit, I prodded him to include more facts and less descriptive writing. His letter was also to Mr. December, proposing that the kids be allowed to have screen time early on days when our lessons don’t go all the way to 3:30. When he was done he printed and signed it and left it on Mr. December’s desk.

And K wrote a long letter (she’s still not done, as a matter of fact) to the authors of Winning With Writing, detailing the numerous errors and inconsistencies in their curriculum. She used her extensive vocabulary and wrote very convincingly, but it was an endless rant more than a business letter. She has promised to remove all but the most salient details. I hope she keeps a copy of her manifesto, too. It’s too entertaining to just delete.

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.

Homeschool · Kids · Montessori

Day 420: Essay Writing and Personality

Despite the difference in their ages, we’ve taken to teaching the three older kids all together. They still do skills-based work (math exercises and so on) at their respective levels, and our expectations differ from kid to kid when we give them all the same assignment, but by and large they’re learning the same stuff. As N says (about everything,) why not?

I’m using a grade 7 book for our writing class. In the past few weeks we’ve covered allusions, metaphors, thesis statements, and transitional sentences. This week I introduced them to their newest assignment: a comparative essay.

I’m a big believer in what Montessori called “isolation of difficulty”: each material or lesson is designed to teach one thing. That’s it. The Suzuki Method does this as well, at least in the beginning books: each song introduces only one new skill. Likewise, I’ve taken to thinking carefully about what specific thing I want the kids to learn so that I know what I should be nitpicking about and what should be deferred to another lesson.

For this essay, I wanted them to focus on the skill of putting together an essay; writing an introduction and conclusion and stringing the paragraphs together so that there’s a smooth transition from one to the next. If that was to be the challenge, content had to be super simple to write. I decided to have them write an essay about Animal Farm and its similarities to the Russian revolution.

(Before you ask, I’ll tell you that yes, they have learned about the Russian revolution. I’ll also remind you that the point of this assignment was not to have them generate content.)

In the spirit of not having them focus on research or content generation, I found and printed a comparison chart between Animal Farm‘s main characters and the historical figures of the Russian revolution. I gave each kid a copy and told them to use those notes to write an essay (we’ve already covered how to write compare/contrast paragraphs.)

Naturally, there was a problem (of course there was): Two of the three kids didn’t want to write about this topic.

R asked if she could write a comparison of something else. She then eloquently laid out to me all the ways in which Gravity Falls (an animated TV show) was just like Land of Stories (a popular kids’ book series.) At this point I threw up my hands and said, “Sure, fine. I was trying to make this assignment easier by giving you the content, but you go ahead and do your idea instead. It sounds way more interesting.”

K wasn’t keen on the assigned topic, either. “Does it even have to be a comparison? Can’t it just be an essay based on a story? And doesn’t a TV show count as a story?” (She might have a point there—Shakespeare is literature even though what he wrote was intended to be watched, not read.)

This is where knowing the real purpose of the assignment comes in very handy. I could have tried to force K to write about Animal Farm, or I could have required her to write a comparative essay; but neither the content of Animal Farm nor writing a comparison was the purpose of the assignment. The whole point of the essay was to write an essay with an introduction, a clear thesis statement, and good transitions between paragraphs. The content was really beside the point—so I let K pick her own topic. Problem solved.

N was the only one who chose to write the essay as assigned. He has a tendency to do only what’s required and not an iota more, in schoolwork as well as at home. In his calculating way, he determined that using the notes I’d given him would allow him to get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

All three kids have worked diligently on their essays this week, and they have until next Friday to finish them. I’m still floored by the lack of resistance from K, the-kid-who-swore-she-couldn’t-write. I’m still astonished at R’s clarity and descriptive word choices, although I should be used to her writing ability by now. And N’s philosophy makes me chuckle and then shake my head in chagrin as I remember that I, too, used to calculate the absolute minimum grade I’d need on the exam to pass the course. It’s obvious he’s Mr. December’s mini-me in so many ways, but if I stop to consider it, he’s pretty obviously mine too.

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!
DIY · el cheapo · Fibro Flares · Homeschool · whine and cheese

Day 412: The Devil’s in the Details

Fun fact: in Hebrew, “shed” is the word for “demon.”

Not-so-fun fact: It’s pretty much impossible to find a prefab shed that meets my needs.

Coincidence? I think not.

Last autumn and over the winter, Mr. December and I discussed having the kids design and build a shed with us as part of their homeschooling: it would involve geometry, arithmetic, and physics, and they’d get firsthand experience in how houses are built. But that plan seems a bit laughable right now, when just installing three display cubes on N’s bedroom wall has resulted in more elbow pain… and we still have another five to install. Don’t get me started on the pile of IKEA furniture in E’s bedroom that has yet to be assembled and mounted on the wall.

It’s an odd twist on one’s eyes being bigger than one’s stomach. The idea of building a shed from scratch excites me, but these days it’s feeling pretty likely that I’d go into a fibro flare somewhere around the second or third day of construction and be unable to finish the job. A prefab shed seems like a decent compromise: we’d get to do some building without having to think about (and then execute) things like stud spacing and roof pitch.

I’m encouraged by the fact that my kids now do useful work without arguing about it first. Tonight K finished cutting up all the branches Mr. December pruned off our plum tree; N bundled them neatly, tied them with twine, and put them at the curb for pickup. Their competence gives me just a little hope that they could make themselves useful for shed building, too.

But first I’ll have to find a shed to build, which is harder than it sounds. Most of the prefab sheds have six-foot sidewalls, which is a bit low for my purposes (woodworking; using giant saws on big, long pieces of wood.) For eight-foot walls I’d have to go to a custom shed place, which puts the price up around $10K for a 108 square foot shed. Or we could go with the alternative: build our own shed from scratch… which I’m pretty sure would be its own unique form of torture.

crafty · Homeschool · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 410: Life Imitates Art Class

Having given up on making a proper pot or urn, I tried to extend our study of Ancient Greece in a different artistic direction: mosaic.

First off, a warning: a certain big-box craft store sells large jars of mosaic tiles. At least, they look large on the website… but they’re not. It’s a good thing I’ve hoarded so many craft supplies over the years.

Just like every art class, we had the dubious pleasure of watching R descend into perfectionistic madness, cry, storm off, and then come back and get to work. K worked seriously and enthused about this new art medium. E and I worked together (it’s the one with the elephants, in case you couldn’t guess.) N worked quickly and precisely to place all of his tiles; then he groaned and quit when I pointed out he had to actually stick them to the board, not just rest them there. I suggested that he use a sheet of adhesive plastic to keep the tiles in their arrangement, making it easy to move the tiles so that he could apply mastic to the board.

It’s interesting to see how their personalities are evident in their art (and in how they make it.) I suppose that’s why art (like music) is such a good therapeutic medium. I keep hoping I can use R’s art class experiences to teach her about working with what you have instead of crying about what you don’t. The message hasn’t gotten through yet, but surely after she experiences the same thing another dozen times there will be sufficient evidence to convince her, don’t you think? As for N, he always does what he’s asked to do, as efficiently as possible, and nothing more. I pray that one day he’ll see how much better his work is when he does more than just the bare minimum.

Maybe the kids will appreciate the parallel between mosaics and life. Some of them are made of uniform materials (all tile; all conventional milestones) while others are a hodgepodge of materials and found objects. Each could easily have just been a pile of junk, broken tiles, or stones, but they’re beautiful because someone took the time to arrange everything just so. Life doesn’t have to be just a bunch of stuff that happens; if we take a bit of time to really look at what we have (rather than what we don’t,) we can craft our lives into something truly beautiful.

crafty · DIY · Homeschool · Keepin' it real

Day 409: Success or Failure?

I’d like to thank you all for your input on yesterday’s rug dilemma. I’d like to thank you, but in reality Mr. December is thanking you… because the overwhelming majority chose the navy blue rug, which he likes. I prefer the bright colours of the other rug, and I feel like the busyness of the pattern would fade into the background after a while. The navy rug has a lot of this dusty rose colour and burnt orange, neither of which I’m fond of.

Oh, well. Back goes the pretty rug, and my green couch will remain completely unrelated to anything else in the room. I tried.


And for those of you who recognized the title of yesterday’s post, this nostalgic little video is for you. But it’s one heck of an earworm—don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Since the term began, we’ve been working on pottery in art class. My brilliant idea was for us to make replicas of Greek pottery including the meandros ornamentation and the images from Greek myths.

So far it’s been a flop. Literally. I’ve tried a few different things now, and every piece I’ve made has cracked or collapsed. So has N’s amphora, which for a while looked like a success.

But as N pointed out, maybe our pottery pieces are a success… as in, we’ve successfully recreated broken pieces of ancient pottery. Maybe we should just decorate them anyway, display them in a museum-style shadow box with numbered labels, and call it a win.

It used to be centred. Really. Then it flopped over, and now it’s just a flop.

family fun · Homeschool · Kids · The COVID files

Day 405: I might be too chicken…

I’ve been googling some strange things lately. Like “chicken diapers.” Yup, that’s a thing.

It started with a bit of a “field trip” to play with some baby chickens that had just hatched. Needless to say, the chicks were adorable and the kids were enthralled. I was, too. When the kids asked whether we could hatch some chicks, too, I told them that if they did the research and presented a proposal to us, we’d seriously consider it.

We’ve talked about having backyard chickens before. It’s legal in our part of the city and there are farms that will rent you chickens for the summer and take them back when it gets too cold outside (if you don’t want to have to heat a coop and so on.) And we do like eggs for breakfast. Anyhow, this isn’t a sudden whim—just like with homeschooling, it’s been percolating for quite a few years and could become reality with the help of a small catalyst (like, say, some close encounters with cute chicks.)

My “sister from another mister” (you know who you are) put me in touch with a friend of hers who has backyard chickens and lives near me. She has invited us to come see the chickens and their coop (COVID restrictions permitting, of course.)

So nothing has been decided, but—like with homeschooling—small things are nudging us in the direction of having some feathered pets this summer. Would it be cruel to name them Curry, Schnitzel, and Drumstick?

blogging · education · Fibro Flares · Homeschool · Kids

Day 398: Writers Craft

If there’s one thing I learned in my OAC (grade 13) year, it’s that nobody wants to hear about your pain. When I wrote yet another angst-ridden piece about the pain in my hands and the feelings of uselessness and hopelessness it prompted, one guy in my Writer’s Craft class said, “Yeah, we get it. Her hands hurt. Can we please move on now?”

Ouch. I mean, I get it: we were all teenagers, which is a nicer way of saying that we were walking egos with relatively low impulse control. But it still stung a little.

Don’t worry: I got him back inadvertently. On my laptop—which I used for note-taking, since it hurt too much to write—I had installed a program called Cartman Speaks, which would play a sound clip from South Park every few minutes or randomly, depending on the setting. I didn’t realize it was open and set to “random,” and one day when that guy was spouting off about something else, we all suddenly heard Eric Cartman’s voice saying, “Oh, would you shut the f*** up? Nobody gives a rat’s a** what you think!”

Sweet, inadvertent revenge.

Anyhooo… the moral of this story is… um… I forget. But the point is… well, I forget that too.

Oh, right, nobody really wants to hear about one’s pain. Which is too bad for you, if you’re reading this, because my blogging habit was born out of pain.

Once again, I digress.

Yes, fibro flare is still here. I did some exercise (don’t want to be deconditioned and in pain) and spent a lot of time in bed. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The thing I really wanted to mention today was that K produced what is undoubtedly her best piece of writing, and I’m so thrilled for her. This kid used to scream about having to write anything; but when I gave her this assignment she went to the library and wrote it—painstakingly, by hand—without complaint. Today we had a writers’ meeting (it’s how I imagine writers sitting around in a conference room pitching their stories, except my writers drink hot chocolate instead of coffee) and she asked me to read her piece out loud to everyone. I did.

And when I put it down, all I could say was “…Wow.”

And then she explained to everyone how she didn’t want to keep mentioning the rain, but she wanted the wetness to be felt by the reader, which is why she described shoes as “waterlogged.” She made many other excellent word choices; if it hadn’t been for her messy handwriting, spelling errors, and hit-and-miss punctuation, I could have believed it to be the product of something like my OAC Writers’ Craft class.

Now when she says “I can’t write! I suck at it!” I can wave this piece in her face and say, “You can. Here’s the proof.”

community · crafty · Darn Tootin' · Fibro Flares · gardening · Homeschool

Day 396: Worth it.

Today was one of those full days that ends with a feeling of great satisfaction. Unfortunately, the fullness of the day has also left me with a feeling of significant pain; still, I feel like I made the right choices.

I can barely believe how much E has been practicing her flute. Anytime nobody else is in the library (which is also our music room,) she’s in there with her music on the stand and her flute at her lips. Her work really shows: she’s sounding better and better every day. Now I just have to teach her about eighth notes.

When I finally got my hands on the three older kids—which is getting to be later and later each day as Mr. December gets carried away with whatever he’s teaching them—I sat them down and assigned them some substantial writing, which they immediately started brainstorming for. Later we had art class, where we once again tried to make pottery in the style of Ancient Greece.

Last week I taught the kids the coil method for making a pot. This week I took a slab-building approach, using balloons as our moulds. It wasn’t particularly successful, and only N’s pot was still standing by the end of the hour. Mine looked beautiful, but I tried to smooth “just one more lump” and… POP. With the balloon gone, my whole pot collapsed in on itself.

Around 5:00 we all went to the park. I was there on a mission: the apricot trees in the community orchard are already in bloom, but tonight’s snow and freezing temperatures threatened to kill all the blossoms and any fruit they might bear this summer. An email went out this morning asking for volunteers to bring tarps, plastic bags, and tie-downs and help cover the trees. That’s why we found ourselves in the park, tying multiple tarps together and then raising them over the trees—like a giant chuppah—before tying them down. The best part was that, once again, my kids were doing useful work to benefit the community they live in. There’s no substitute for that experience.

After dinner we started watching Animal Farm (the 1954 animated film, not the 1999 live-action one.) The kids were riveted. Our next step will be a read-aloud of the book, as part of our literature studies.

And then it was bedtime. I could hardly believe that it was 8:30 already. Where did the day go? Oh, yeah… we did stuff today. Lots and lots of stuff.

I definitely overdid it today. And yet I did it knowingly; sometimes I need to feel normal and functional (especially if I’m not) more than I need to be pain-free. Besides, these past six (or seven?) weeks have taught me that resting won’t guarantee me a pain-free day anyhow, so I might as well do at least some of the things I enjoy.

Now… if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my bed with a heating pad and my banana popsicles for the next day or two.

Image description: three tarps are spread out on the ground, tied together with twist ties and zip ties. A child is squatting near the far corner of the tarp, tying it to a pole. Grass in background.