Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beginning the New School Year

One of the trademarks of nontraditional education, and organic learning specifically, is that there is no such thing as a "typical day."  Every day is unique in and of itself, because learning is flowing as life and ideas flow.  If you are used to a traditional textbook style of education, the flow of organic learning may take some getting used to.  It is more than an educational style but is instead a lifestyle.  Learning is integrated into every fiber of our days instead of being a separate compartment where books are opened and facts are memorized.  Even if you put organic learning into practice in your home, our days will look different than your days, simply because every family is different and every child has unique passions and interests.  Here are several photos detailing the first couple of days of this school year...

Mornings are always predictable.  Breakfast is served, and we dig into 3 books.  The first is the Bible.  We have just begun to read the book of Hebrews, and each day I read a small section at the breakfast table, and we talk about it.  The second book is The Child's Story Bible, which contains Bible stories that are written in a very conversational, interesting way.  We read a section each day.  And the third book we are reading at breakfast is currently Little Pilgrim's Progress.  When we finish that book, we will start reading our missionary biographies again.  We bought some new biographies for this school year, and reading them is always one of the very best parts of our day.  These true accounts of people's lives are full of amazing steps of faith and corresponding miracles.  My children always beg me to read one more chapter, and the meat in these books has forever changed how they view their lives and God's power.  

On the first day of school every year, I always surprise them with some little special treat.  This year, I bought them some soda that they wanted to try.  I set these up in the middle of the table to greet them when they entered the learning loft.  Sodas were saved for lunch.

We always ease into the first week slowly, so we dug first into their very favorite things and will add in some more things next week.  This week, I am reading aloud from these 2 books.

While I read, the children listen (working on auditory skills that are lacking in our visually-overstimulated culture).  They are allowed to do something quietly while I read.  I pulled out a sensory bin for our youngest to dig into.  (I will share more about these in another post).

Our other children chose to draw.  Here is D's drawing of a fire.  He is very interested in firefighting, so this passion is often at the forefront of his days.

And, yes, even the furry members of the family find a cozy place to hang out while we read.

After we finished the day's reading, T was putting his drawing stuff away and happened to see this book that I have on display on the shelf.  He leaned in really closely and then said, "That's the coolest painting ever" and then off he went.  These are the moments that cannot be planned.  It starts with a parent "strewing," which simply means placing interesting books or other things somewhere where a child can see it and letting the child find them and interact with them when and if he feels compelled to (which he often does...because it's fun and interesting).  If I had forced everyone to sit down one day to learn about this painting, more than likely, they would never remember it or care about it.  Because he discovered it on his own and had a genuine interest in it, he now owns that nugget in his mind and will probably come back to it again.  This is organic learning in motion.  

The long-awaited dinosaur dig soon began...

The boys headed outside for this event.  They took out their kits, read the directions and set everything up.  And then they began in ernest. 

The first dinosaur bone was sighted, and they were so excited!

This dinosaur dig took much longer than I expected it to take...a total of 2.5 hours.  But the time flew, because they LOVED this!  Here they are halfway through, with imprints from safety glasses and all kinds of dust from their dig.

Let me insert...THIS IS MESSY...VERY VERY MESSY!  So, do it outside.  And if you happen to be a family with a parent who is one of those neat, clean people who cannot stand the sight of messes, wellllll, you might want to do the dinosaur dig when they are out of town.  :)  Seriously.... 

Ahhhh...the thrill of digging out that very first dinosaur bone!

Older sister wasn't feeling up to par this day, so I had made her some tea.  I took some out for the junior paleontologists.  

Did I mention how messy this activity is??  Look at his hair!  I'm telling you...dust was EVERYWHERE!!

Two-and-a-half hours after they began their dig, they had both found all their dinosaur bones and had assembled the dinosaur model.  I was impressed with this kit.

The aftermath was a disaster, but the boys cleaned up every bit of it (which was also fun, because after the initial mess was swept up, they turned on the water hose and blasted everything clean).  

Meanwhile, inside the house, G grabbed a pile of books and settled in with a cup of tea.  Her favorite book lately is a big book that explains sign language.  I'm not sure why she is intrigued with it, but she "reads" it all the time. 

Later in the evening while I was making dinner, D came in from outside, and said, "Look what I just found outside.  It's a shell with a perfectly spiral shape on it!  I'm going to put it in our nature box."

During dinner, he saw a unique bird that was sitting on our hummingbird feeder (we've never had a regular bird try to eat at the hummers' feeder!), so he grabbed the bird field guide to determine what kind of bird it was.  We're still trying to figure it out.

And so ended our first day.  

The second day looked a bit like the first.  This time, while I was reading aloud, HB started on one of her costume projects.  This time she is making a Chinese opera dress for G.  This is our very gifted designer and seamstress who can make any style of clothing by just looking at it and then copying it.  I have no idea how she does this, except that God has just given her this gift.  So, off she went measuring and cutting while she listened to me read about Christopher Columbus.  Every now and then, she'd look up and insert into our discussion, commenting on how Christopher Columbus let gold become his god.  Yes, they really ARE listening and comprehending (and loving it).

In our home, we have umpteen costumes, and I never know who will show up.  Today Spiderman joined us, and he was busy using insect stencils.  

And our fireman showed up in the learning loft also.  He was busy drawing a picture of a chemical fire (which he later showed to me, explaining in detail the difference between regular fires and chemical fires).

Spiderman and Fireman jumped to show me where Christopher Columbus was in today's account. 

T has never shown much interest in maps until yesterday.  Now, every time I mention a country, he jumps up to try to find it on the map.  This slows down our reading a bit, but I LOVE seeing his enthusiasm with maps!

During our reading about the first explorers arriving and discovering native peoples inspired T to draw this picture of a native shooting a bear.  This was all in his imagination, which I love.

And after we finished reading for the day, I came downstairs to make lunch.  Soon, T arrived in the kitchen, pulled up a chair to reach a basket of kitchen towels, and created his version of "Indian clothes."  And off he disappeared to play like a native.  His sisters didn't like the (foam) hatchet being swung to and fro, but he was deep into his role!  Can't you just see the mind's wheels turning and processing today's reading?  A worksheet or chapter comprehension questions would have killed his enthusiasm and bored him.  But with freedom to process and absorb and create in his own way, today's reading become a part of his life experiences.  He will probably remember this for years to come.  And this is just how organic learning flows.  As a mom, I love it, and as an educator, I recognize this as truly top-notch learning. 

Learning keeps going on and on.  I have tried to capture most of it on camera over the past couple of days, but I missed things...simply because learning happens around every corner, whether I'm there or not...and whether I have access to my camera or not.  And even as I sat down to write this blog post, more learning occurred that I cannot stop to take photos of (like the unique bird that came back to the feeder and the way D dressed up like a spy).  But here you see the last photo I took today...D received a letter from my dad.  It has a top secret recipe for BBQ chicken, and it's a secret between the cooking grandpa and his cooking grandson.  He is thrilled with having the secret rights to this recipe.  Here he is making a shopping list of ingredients that he will need in order to make the chicken.  Organic learning...and some organic BBQ chicken to go with it.  LOVE IT!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Organic Learning

I've been asked by several homeschool moms how we go about our organic learning.  Each time I'm asked, I try to put it in a nutshell, but I find that impossible to do in a short discussion.  It's a bit like trying to wrap up the history of the world in one simple paragraph.  It cannot be done.  Over this weekend, I was reminded of that again.  I met a sweet new friend who is new to the homeschooling world.  We began to talk about styles of homeschooling, and I explained a bit about what we do.  She seemed interested, but as we only had about 15 minutes to talk, I probably left her with many more questions than answers.  

I think the most effective way to explain what we do in our home is to SHOW it as it unfolds.  So, as we begin this new school year, I am going to try to be more frequent in blogging about our weeks.  This will not be a record of the most talented or best homeschool but rather simply a look at a real homeschooling family who is going about things in a nontraditional way.  So, for those of you who have wanted to see exactly what this thing looks like, I hope to have that for you as we move through the school year.

For now, let me break the surface.

What exactly do I mean by organic learning?  For us, we think of it very similarly to organic gardening.  We try to set up an environment and atmosphere where learning can take place (just as we cultivate the soil to get it ready for plants).  We try to provide living books and intriguing resources that stimulate learning and discussions, and we use textbooks only when necessary (as a gardener focuses mainly on organic material and avoids most synthetic material).  There is a general structure in our school year, just as a gardener drops certain seeds at certain times of year or as he provides guide wires for climbing vines.  But there is enormous freedom in the interests we pursue, the information we choose to dig deeper into, the discussions that turn into passions...just as a garden bursts forth with an array of vegetables, fruits and flowers of our choosing.   

Here's one huge reason why I love organic learning.  The UPS guy is met in the front yard by excited children ( photos of that...photographer is slacking).  The huge box is hefted onto the kitchen counter, and they beg me to open it.  Really.  There are no toys or games in this particular box.  Just books.  Excellent books.

Because our children have spent the past several years reading living books, they truly are excited when new shipments of books arrive on our doorstep.  There is an anticipation, wondering what adventures await inside.  

Our organic learning begins with a "spine" of sorts.  This is the basic structure that will give us a compass to guide our journey through the school year.  We use history as our spine.  We study history, pulling in geography, science, writing, etc that relate to each time period or subject we encounter in our reading.  This particular year, we are going to be studying U.S. History, and we simply adore America: An Integrated Curriculum.  This will be our second time through it.   This curriculum can be used in different ways.  It covers nearly every main "subject" and can be followed word-for-word, OR you can pick and choose what you do.    

A list of the books we will be reading in the first few months of the school year

We pick and choose what we love from the curriculum suggestions.  This week, for example, we will be beginning The Light and the Glory for Children, which I will read aloud while the children listen.  Our high schooler will read the adult version of this book independently.  The curriculum suggests that we read Pedro's Journal, but since we didn't particularly like that book (and found some things in it that were not very accurate), we have decided instead to read an interesting biography about Christopher Columbus.

We will also be following the curriculum's suggestion to learn the words to My Country 'Tis of Thee (America), as well as discuss its literary form.

 Though we do have a wonderful science book that we are planning to dig into this year (that will complement our new gardening venture...I'm seriously excited about this!), we will also be doing some of the suggested science lessons that go along with what we are reading in our study of history.  This week, it is oceans.  

But we also have some wonderful books and resources that we can look through.  These are not textbooks for us.  We use them as supplemental let's-see-what-awesome-things-we-can-learn-about-in-this-book.  

The best books are living books...ones that make the subject come alive.  This particular book is very conversational.

I switched up our science table to reflect what we will be reading about this week.  So, out came the ocean creature replicas, a handful of sea shells, and some of the books about oceans and ocean creatures.  Any time the science table is switched up, it's like a magnet.  Little hands will explore without me saying a word.  Learning really IS fun.  

I love this manipulative!  It's a whale that can be popped open to reveal the bone structure inside.

Really great stuff.  AND it can go in the bath (big bonus for the kiddos)!  AND it was a free toy in a kids' meal at Burger King a couple of years ago.  Yay for the rare kids' meal toy that is worth keeping!

And here we take the whole study local.  We start with Christopher Columbus sailing to the Americas in the 1400's...then we study a bit about oceans and ocean creatures...and we tie in the local aspect of which fish are common in this particular area of the country.  It all flows.  

After all, life is not in neat little boxes or "subjects."  Life flows.  So, organic learning flows.

If you are creative and spontaneous, you will find this flow to be quite easy and natural.  If you are more of a by-the-book kind of person, then you can find great confidence in knowing that certain integrated curriculum (such as America: An Integrated Curriculum as well as curriculum from Sonlight) has exceptional instructor's guides that will guide you seamlessly as you integrate all "subjects" together in a flow that is meaningful and fun.  You don't have to know it all in order to provide a very rich educational journey for your children.  By-the-book parents can grab the instructor's guide and feel very comfortable knowing that today's lessons are all laid out.  Spontaneous, creative parents can use the same instructor's guides and simply pick and choose what they like and then go off on creative sprees that they or their children choose.

And, given the opportunity, children WILL be creative.  Learning is actually fun when we let it happen organically instead of forcing it with synthetic methods.  Here's one example of some creativity during the last week of summer.  (Yes, learning happens all summer too!  Given freedom and resources, children will really choose to learn and create ALL the time.)

So, last week, I walked outside and was greeted by this interesting contraption.  Heres' the front view...

Here's the side view...

I knew it housed boys, because I could see little clues...

The boys were excited that I had come to investigate, and they told me all about their new adventure.  Apparently they had decided to spend the entire morning outside, "living in the wild like olden days."  They had built their own dwelling, complete with several rooms and a long tunnel that led to a secret back entrance.  Their goal was to live outside until the afternoon.

I surprised them with lunch, delivered to the door of their humble abode.  

They were excited to show me something new they had discovered.  Both boys grabbed big rocks and used smaller, sharper rocks to "write" on the bigger rocks. 

I received detailed instruction about how to carve letters into rocks.  They had discovered this when they were living outdoors and trying to figure out how they might have communicated if they had lived many centuries ago.

Here you see the letter "M." 

And here you have the letter "T."

Soon the outside fort was broken down, and other adventures followed.  This is organic learning...the natural flow of minds that are busy exploring and creating.  And it really is fun!