Monday, April 30, 2012

Geography Fair 2012

This weekend was another busy one indeed. My husband and son headed off to the beach for a big soccer tournament, and Jessi and I headed off to our annual homeschool Geography Fair.

I'm not sure who came up with this idea, but I think it is such a great one. So great, in fact, that when it seemed nobody was up for organizing it last year, I decided to pick up the baton. My kids love doing this, and it is such a great way to get some "Social Studies" into our year. I figure if they do nothing else geography-wise, they will at least learn a whole bunch about one country. I also let them choose this country themselves, so that it will be something they are interested in.

Here is the basic idea. Pick a country, any country. Learn whatever you want about it. Put it up in some kind of display to share with others. Display your work at the Fair. It's that simple. There are very few rules. You can do as much or as little as you like. If you like Brazil mainly because they apparently have the best soccer players in the world (as my son does), you can just put up a lot of stuff about Brazilian soccer. Usually kids and families will have some sort of try-fold display board where they put up their written work and pictures and then include other props on the table in front of it. I've seen salt-dough maps, lego and sugar cube pyramids, home-made videos, and more. This year we had a "yurt" cake, a popsicle-stick Eiffel Tower, home-made videos, hand-made costumes, stuffed penguins, crocheted Mongolian "death worms", and more. The creativity astounds me.

The part the kids seem to enjoy the most, however, is the food. Everyone brings a dish from their country of investigation and everyone gets to sample as they browse the displays.

Finally, to make it more interesting and encourage the kids to go around and learn something from the other displays, we have started having a "passport" activity. They pick up an empty booklet and go around to each table collecting rubber stamps. This year, since I didn't have time to make it more interesting, they just had to collect 20 stamps and then come back for a prize. For the older or more ambitious ones, I added that they could get a second prize by writing down 5 things they learned from the various displays. This got the kids circulating and looking around.

It's a great learning activity that we look forward to every year. It provides an excuse for independent research on a topic or topics. The kids then get to try to share what they have learned with others as an exercise in communication.  Finally, it is a chance to learn interesting things while also being social. The excitement can be shared with friends. We hold it in the evening so that working significant others can attend, along with grandparents and anyone else interested in coming.

Because it is so open-ended and not judged, kids from the ages of 3 and up are able to take part without the pressure of a more formal event.

Do you have something like this in your area? If so, share it here! Maybe there are some good ideas that others would benefit from!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What do you mean, no socialization?! Plus guest post from Jessi

(Picture from here)

Yesterday my husband and I were discussing this rather well written article about the joys and sorrows of High School and the "geek world" discussion that went on about it here.

I'll save you having to peruse this very long string of comments by summarizing the salient points. The discussion turned to homeschooling and whether or not it damages kids socially. One former home schooled kid blamed his homeschooling on his lack of social skills, while another countered that he had also been home schooled and benefited greatly from it in maturity and social skills, especially when it came to college. Some people put forth the belief that kids should go through high school and deal with bullies and stupid people because it teaches them necessary skills for life, while another very eloquently debunked this.

My daughter overheard us commenting on all of this and decided to type up her feelings (I guess she felt rather strongly.). She requested that I post it here, and so I shall! Please forgive the grammatical errors, I am posting it as she wrote it (and cringing all the while).


I am a homeschooler, and I’m proud of it.
An essay by Jessica “Jessi” Soffian, a true homeschooler

I am homeschooled. What else is there to say? It turns out, a lot. People say a lot of things about homeschoolers. Some things are:

“They’re not social”
“They can’t learn anything because their parents aren’t actual teachers”
“Because they don’t go to the fake world of high school, when they go out into the real world, they won’t be prepared”
“They must be totally bored all the time”
“They do schoolwork in their pajamas”
Ok, so the last one is sometimes true. But who said that doing math in your PJ’s was a crime?
Anyway, most of these aren’t true.
1. Not social?! Are you kidding me!? I mean, some kids aren’t so social, but hey! Some public schoolers are a little shy too. I for one have trouble at birthdays because I can’t get all my friends invited and still have a sleepover. Is that what you call not social?
2. Who cares if my mom isn’t an actual teacher! I think she’s GREAT! I am more mature than most of the public schoolers I know. All the adults are always like, “Oh Jessi. You are so mature”
3.    OK. Let’s see.
Monday: 3rd grade coop (for my brother. I am in 5th grade), Spanish, Hebrew school (we are sort of Jewish). Tuesday: Piano, Art, Karate. Wednesday: Learning Arbor Coop, Karate. I think maybe you get the picture.
Homeschooling is great. I am ahead in all my subjects, exept for math. But hey!  No one’s perfect right!?

            Jessica Soffian, age 11.


LOL. I love that kid. 

Aside from the 11 year old's perspective, I guess in truth there are all kinds of homeschoolers and all kinds of situations. We are just people, just like anyone else, and just like everyone else you will find a wide range of philosophies and styles. It really is whatever you make it. I try to ensure that those social situations happen, but to be fair, it does require a bit of time and effort on my part. We are fortunate to have a large population of like-minded people around us, so there are a large number of kids and situations to pull from. As a result, I think my kids get more real life socialization than they would have in any sort of traditional school.

I'll close this with a picture I took at the park several weeks ago. My rather large homeschool group has weekly park days that include whoever feels like showing up that day. On this day, all of the kids decided to organize a game on their own. Everyone from teens to toddlers was included in the game and the parents had nothing to do with it. Can you call this kind of cross-age inclusion and spontaneous organization anti-social? I don't think so. 

Friday, April 20, 2012


 It's strawberry season in North Carolina! It's one of the BEST things about living here. Every year we go to pick them at one of the "U-pick" farms in our area. Some years are better than others, and I think last year was probably the best we have ever seen (We picked 20 pounds of the best looking and tasting strawberries I've ever seen last year!), and so far this year is looking pretty good as well.

Here is our loot from the afternoon after taking a trip over to Jean's Berry Patch. Most years I pick quite a bit more, but most years I also make strawberry jam. A quick check in my pantry has revealed several jars still left over from last year (we stopped eating jam), so I may not make the effort again this year. We will probably gorge ourselves on them for couple of days (We have been known to be able to down six quarts in a day no problem!) and I will freeze the rest for smoothies throughout the summer.

In years past we have frequented a small farm nearby called Buckwheat Farm. I was under the impression that they did not spray their berries with any sort of pesticide or herbicide, but I got word that they have done so this year. We decided to try Jean's this time. I have understood that although Jean's is not certified Organic, they operate organically. This article seems to corroborate this. Also, WRAL did a short but sweet piece on this operation a couple of years ago.
Please note that I have no proof that either place uses pesticides or herbicides or not. If this really matters to you, please call ahead and ask. It is common to fumigate the soil itself at the beginning of the season and there is strong reason to believe that the pesticides put into the soils are highly dangerous. Methyl Bromide and Methyl Iodide are common pesticides used. What, if any of this, gets into the berries I do not know.

I do know of another farm that IS Certified Organic, and we will be visiting them next weekend. The farm is called Hilltop Farm and they seem to be the only Certified farm in Wake County. They are only open for picking on Saturdays and Wednesday in the evenings, so I am gathering that it is probably fairly small. They also run a CSA.

There is also, of course, Vollmer Farm in Franklin County, but they are a bit farther from me than I would like to travel if I can help it.

Happy strawberry picking! Please leave me feedback if you live in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area and have any additional information about this. I'd be happy to spread the word!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Perspective from the Treadmill

These past two weeks have been INSANE busy, and while I am rushing out of the house yet again and driving all over the map, I keep thinking to myself, "But, I don't want to live like this. I thought we were going to homeschool so life wouldn't BE this crazy treadmill!". What happened to those lovely mornings at home reading and doing projects together? It is the pain and beauty of homeschooling I suppose. I have only myself to blame... and maybe two enthusiastic kids who are game for just about anything.

My daughter had three major projects due this week... THREE. We managed to complete two and a half. They are her projects, so why do I feel like it's finals week and it's all on my head? I guess in a way it IS on my head. I'm the one that has to make sure that the work gets done (you know being the "responsible" parent and all) and I'm the one that got her into these classes to begin with. One of them, in particular, was a bit of a stretch for her (more aimed at a high school crowd), and the result is that I have had to walk her (no, maybe drag is a better word) through it all step by step so that she will understand. I'm resolved not to push things so hard next year. It's not good for either of us. When I'm dragging my usually gung-ho child, something is definitely wrong.

The flip side of this is that we'll get through this tight spot and amazing work might actually be produced. At that point I'll probably think, "Well, maybe it was all worth while." This pushing and stretching can be good for her. Kids usually live up to the expectations we put on them. If you expect mediocre work, well, you'll probably get mediocre work. I tend to expect more than that, but it is a fine line to walk. Too much pressure can push a child over the edge into believing that they are dumb and incapable of doing what they should be able to do, or rebelling and simply refusing to do anything at all. Too much pressure can turn a bright and enthusiastic kid into a timid, moody, unhappy one. This is the line I walk every day.

The only way I can keep my balance is to constantly remind myself of a few things.

One is to always be respectful and to listen. Respect is a two way street. I can't expect my kids (or anyone else's kids) to respect me if I don't offer the same courtesy to them. I try very hard also to be available and really listen when they tell me things, even if those things are phrased in the form of a whine or and tearful temper tantrum. I will always listen even if I don't always deem it a serious complaint. I've been sorely tested on this of late with my son's long rambling monologs about Super Mario Brothers (see this post for a laugh). It doesn't help that he also mumbles and I frequently have no idea what he is talking about. I'm trying though, I really am.

Calmness is essential. I have to try constantly to separate my own anxieties and issues from what is going on. This is essential if I am going to remain rational and not cause everyone to crumble into a heap of squabbling and tears. I've found that the phase, "If Momma ain't happy nobody's happy." is surprisingly true. I strive to think and not merely react. Sometimes what pops into my head is most definitely NOT the most constructive response. All week I have been trying to keep my personal anxiety to myself. Why? Because I know it's not constructive and will only make things worse. This brings me to my last thing.

Perspective. Keep the big picture in mind. We may be struggling right now, but if I have the big picture in my head, I can decide when to fight for a particular outcome and when to let things go. This difficult class my daughter is taking can be a great growing experience and so I will strive to get my daughter to do the best she can. Still, there is a limit. There will be no all-nighters. There will be no shirking of other duties. We will get done what we can manage. Why? In the long run, this is not a class she will get a grade in and if she needs to take it again three years from now, she can probably do so and get a lot more out of it than she did this time. My larger concern is that she doesn't decide from this one challenging experience that she doesn't like science so much anymore.

We'll get through this and on to the more free-flowing summer. I daresay we are all very ready for it and will enjoy that change immensely. Just a few more weeks. Breathe in... breathe out. Ahhh, life is good.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Homeschoolers are Fascinating People

I am reminded today again just how wonderful homeschooling is. I don't say this to pat myself on the back. Really, I don't. The thing is, I keep meeting and getting to the know the most amazing and wonderful people. If my kids were in school, I really don't think this would happen. The people I'm thinking of all homeschool and do so in so many different ways. It's just so interesting and mind-broadening to see.

The friends my kids have, and the children they are around, aren't an unknown quantity to me. We get to know and talk to each and every parent involved, and the siblings too. As the child of a military family, I learned early on that people come and go, and managed to cultivate a fascination with the stories that those people have to share. There are so many amazing stories out there if you take the time to ask and listen.

In the homeschooling world, there are some families that are very structured and make sure the lessons get done every day. I can admire that dedication, knowing that I'll never be quite that disciplined. We have other friends who fall more on the side of Unschooling and I love the uniqueness and creativity that so many of their kids possess.

There are families with grandparents living with them, families who struggle with severe disabilities, illness or allergies, families with amazing talented kids that just couldn't be squashed into the box, families with adoptive children, and large families that like being their own living universe.

Today I visited with some homeschool friends that have just moved out into a farm situation. I can't imagine having four kids to homeschool and jumping right in to learning how to raise chickens, pigs, milk a cow, and plant a garden... all within days of moving in. I think that kind of leap into their dreams is just so brave and wonderful to watch. I am honored to be able to share it with them.

We have friends with parents of various ethnic backgrounds that spend part of each year in those countries where they have family. We all get to hear the stories of their trips and welcome them back when they return. My kids are learning to meet and get along with a wide variety of people and realize that the world is a big place with many points of view.

Homeschooling is awesome... and the people are too.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Off the Bookshelves: Native American Stories

Recently we have been reading a few outstanding stories about young Native Americans and I thought I would share. We have enjoyed stories about pioneering early Americans (Little House on the Prairie series, Caddie Woodlawn) or kids surviving on their own like in My Side of the Mountain and Cabin on Trouble Creek, but sometimes it is also good to get the other side of the story and learn a bit about those tribal cultures that were here before Europeans while also being entertained with a good story.

Right now we are reading The Birchbark House by Louise Edrich. This is the first of three books about a young Anishinabe (or Ojibwa) girl growing up at a time that the white settlers were moving into her tribes homeland, a small island on the south of Lake Superior. There is sadness and death in the books (starvation, smallpox, fire, animal attack and tribal conflict), but also a great many funny and charming happenings which illuminate how it must have been to grow up and live off the land in this area. I heartly recommend them for young readers if they are emotionally ready to also face those sadder things. A terrific review of the books can be found here. The other two books are called the Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year.

Another great book along similar lines is The Education of Little Tree. This is a little closer to home in that it is about a young Cherokee boy growing up in a traditional way (or trying to) in the Appalachian mountains during the time of the Great Depression. He is homeschooled by his grandparents and there is some conflict about this from outside authorities. The book also has death, alcohol (his grandfather has a still), cruelty and a very sad ending. There is so much that I found of value in it, however. It offers a different perspective that is valuable in and of itself. My only difficulty with it was in reading it aloud, I had trouble with the "mountain" English that the first person account was told in. It was so clearly incorrect English, my ingrained desire to speak "correct" English was severely strained. You should also know that there is some bad language in the book. A great deal of this I was able to edit out as I read. The book has also apparently inspired a film, though I have not seen it. 

Finally, I'd like to reccomend a book that takes us even farther south to the Everglades. Called The Talking Earth, and set in more modern times, author Jean Craighead George takes us into the world of the Seminole Indians. This book explores the beauty and dangers of the Everglades as well as the conflict between old ways and new science. This is a wonderful book about a young girl growing up and trying to reconcile all of these things in a world under attack from pollution, development and new ideas. I highly recommend it. 

Most of these books are aimed at ages eight and up. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fools Video... really.

Here's a cute little video on the history of April Fools Day. Enjoy!