Cultivating a Love of Reading

One reason we chose to homeschool, and one reason we ultimately chose to purchase most of our curriculum through Sonlight, is that one of my hopes for my children is that they learn to love reading. Part of that is because I recognize its benefits – reading fiction can help develop empathy. It can help you cultivate a deeper spiritual life. But another huge part of it is that I love to read, and I love to connect with and share passions with my kiddos, and I’ve always hoped we’d be able to read and talk about books together.

Within the last year, I’ve been overjoyed to see my big girls developing an increasing love of reading. Madeleine CaiQun can often be found curled up on the couch with her nose in a book, and especially within the last week or so, I’ve started to see Miranda reading more and more on her own, too.

I actually feel myself rebelling and turning into more of an “unschooler” than I ever thought I would be as I realize how ridiculous it would be to pull my child away from reading a book she’s loving in order to insist that she read the exact chapter from the exact book our curriculum has assigned for the day. I’m definitely not actually turning into an unschooler (a perfectionist and a rule follower and a checklist-lover to my core, there’s no way I could actually “unschool”) – but if Miranda wants to spend 3 hours reading The Wizard of Oz, I’m certainly not going to pull her away from that! In fact, I may need to start stocking up more on these early chapter books that my girls can tackle on their own and really enjoy! Readers, what are your favorite third and fourth grade reading level books?

One of my goals for my littles for this school year has been to read more to them, and though they sometimes insist that they’re going to read their books “by myself!” they come running (or scooting) over any time I sit down on the couch and start reading one of their books out loud 🙂

And I absolutely treasure my moments of quiet with the big girls at bedtime – this is one of my favorite times of the day. We save our read-alouds to do together then, and we snuggle together in my bed, and I read to them.

I definitely have moments in parenting of feeling like nothing is going right, and I can do none of the things well, but days when I see my kiddos reading and when I get to read with them are an encouragement to my soul.

Fall Fun: A Visit to PeachTree Farm

One of the things I really enjoy about homeschooling is getting to do fun activities with my kids, particularly as we get to have those experiences as a family (though it’s true that Matt often has to work and can’t join us!). A friend of mine organizes a ton of outings for her kiddos and invites other families to join her, which is great, since I’m a homebody and a rule follower, and my natural tendency is to hang at home and just work our way through our curriculum, not taking time to enjoy the world around us and experience it firsthand or, especially, to initiate doing that with other families, too.

A couple weeks ago we visited PeachTree Farm, which we’ve done almost every year since my big girls were little! Here they are, back in 2013, about 8 months after Madeleine CaiQun came home, when both were 3.

Look at those babies! They were so tiny! And they were having so much fun 🙂

And the fun continued this year. Four years older, but they STILL love riding that hay horse 🙂

When Madeleine CaiQun is truly enjoying herself, her smile is simply radiant. I can’t help but share all the pictures!

And here she is helping little sister have her first hay-horse ride 🙂

Atticus, of course, wanted a turn, as well.

And FangFang spent some time happily pretending to drive the wagon that the hay-horse was pulling!

When we had talked about whether to commit to this activity this year, I’d told the big girls that Matt wouldn’t be able to come, because he’d be teaching, and I was willing to take everyone on my own, but the bigs would need to be willing to help out with the littles, as needed. I try not to ask them to do a ton of “junior parenting,” but sometimes the reality is that either they help or it’s not possible for us to participate safely, and they understood that this was one of those times. And honestly, I think a bit of it is good for them 🙂 Both big girls were absolutely up to the task and helped me to keep track of the littles (mostly Atticus, of course!) and keep everyone safe, and we all got to enjoy a fun afternoon outing together. I was so glad!

This year, thankfully, Atticus had moved through his fear of the hayride, so we all got to enjoy our ride around the farm together 🙂

Here are the littles themselves – I love the bond that they share. Like any sibling group, their relationship is not perfect, but they truly get along so well and enjoy playing together. I just love them both so much and treasure their fun interactions together.

Another favorite activity is always visiting and feeding the animals. There were quite a few goats this year, and all of the kids LOVED offering them food.

We have our favorite activities, of course, and it’s great to revisit those, but everyone also enjoyed a new addition to the farm this year – a giant corn pool! Atticus was a bit nervous about it at first – he likes to be in control of his sensory experiences! – but ultimately all of the kiddos had a good time with it.

This was a great fall activity, and I’m so glad we got to have another year of enjoying the fun!

Another New Activity for Us – Swim Team!

I wrote this summer about how both of our older girls had opted to leave gymnastics behind for a new adventure of horseback riding. They’re still doing that, but we’ve also added another activity for Miranda – swim team!

She loves being in the water and loves swimming, and we realized this summer that she was actually a strong enough swimmer to be able to do swim team – kids just have to be able to swim one length of the pool in some approximation of freestyle and one length in backstroke, and while it wasn’t pretty, she could do that! She said she wanted to try it, so we signed her up, and she is loving it.

The first day was pretty overwhelming – there were so many people, but since then, it has calmed down significantly!

You can see Miranda in the front, next to the starting block for lane 2, dipping her toe in the water

For her age group, there is a 45-minute practice each day, and swimmers are asked to make it to one practice per week but are welcome to come daily, with most families choosing to have kids attend 2-3 days per week. There are a few days that I’ve made the choice of whether we’re going to go or not, based on what else we have going on and how everyone is doing, but when it’s left up to her, she almost always chooses to go!

swimming in lane 2

She is definitely a sensory seeker, so having this built in activity for many of her days is really a blessing for her. She’s also ready to be having more social interactions with other kids, and swimming provides her with an opportunity for some of that.

She’s one of the younger kids in this entry-level group of swimmers and one of the least experienced and one of the slower kids. That’s something of a new experience for her – being the oldest child in our family and the oldest child in our small group and one of the older kids at our church as a whole and being homeschooled, she’s used to being the top dog. We think it’s good for her to be able to experience working hard and persevering and celebrating doing her best, regardless of where that places her in the rest of the pack, and being able to have fun in the midst of all of that.

Last Friday evening was her first swim meet ever, a team intrasquad. I appreciate her coach’s perspective of taking things slowly and letting young swimmers just have fun and enjoy swimming. Our club is actually hosting a huge meet later this month, and her coach advised me not to sign Miranda up for that at all and to keep things very simple for her at this first intrasquad meet, just signing her up for one event. She’s really enjoying backstroke, and I do think it’s probably her strongest stroke right now, so she chose to swim the 25m backstroke for this first meet.

She was nervous beforehand, and honestly, I was a bit nervous for her. I’ve attended some swim meets with friends over the years, but this was the first time I’d been a parent responsible for a swimmer at a meet, and I was nervous that I’d somehow miss where she was supposed to go for her event or say something silly and discouraging before she had to race. But I think we did alright 🙂 We got her set up with her events written on her arm (she was so thrilled to have a legitimate reason to have Sharpie on her arm!).

And we made it to the pool in time for me to get a good seat to watch her race and for her to do her warm-ups, after which we had some time just to chill.

my nervous swimmer pre-race

(Don’t you just love her Christmas themed swimsuit? We were instructed to buy our swimmers endurance suits, which are more durable than regular swimsuits, and as she and I scrolled through the options on Amazon one evening, this is the one she really wanted. I verified that she planned to wear it for more than just December before purchasing, but while she has another one, too, she chooses this one virtually every day – I think it’s pretty adorable :)) 

She had a snack and played an ipad game while the older kids warmed up, and then we got her ready to race! They had a bullpen staging area for the 8-and-under crowd where coaches and volunteers got them lined up appropriately for their races, so I helped her get into her spot there, and then I went back to my seat to watch her.

I’d talked with her a lot about how Matt and I would be proud of her no matter what – she might win her heat, she might be somewhere in the middle, she might come in last, or she might get disqualified for some reason, and no matter what, we’d be proud of her for doing a new thing – her first race in her first swim meet.

I cheered hard and took a video of her, watching her and the swimmer next to her as he slowly edged in front of her as they swam across the pool. I knew she’d be disappointed if she finished last in her heat, but it also wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for her to experience – and as I saw the swimmer next to her pass her, I was pretty sure she was going to finish last.

She did finish the race (in what I thought was last place), she got out of the pool, and her coach gave her an enthusiastic high five and told her she’d done a great job, and she was beaming when she made it back to me 🙂

She was bummed when I told her I was pretty sure she’d finished last, but she took it well, and we got her dressed and got ready to head home. But on our way, I texted Matt and asked if it would be okay if I took her out to eat – everyone else had already eaten at home without us, and she’d been asking for a date with me for a while. She and I headed out to Olive Garden and enjoyed some sweet one-and-one time for the rest of the evening and talked about how proud I was of her for doing a new thing and working hard and swimming her best.

I actually realized later that night, after she was already in bed, when I went back to watch the video of her race, that it looked like she really did finish before one of the other swimmers in her heat (one on the far side of the pool, on whom I hadn’t been concentrating at all), putting her in 4th place in her heat instead of last. I told her that the next morning, and she was happy, but really, I was very pleased with how she handled it all even when she thought she had finished last!

Overall, I’m really thankful for her swimming experience thus far. It has upped the ante for us as a family in terms of these extra-curricular activities. Gymnastics – at the level at which Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun had been participating – was very much an activity where we paid our money and showed up once a week and that was it. Participating in a swim team is a whole different ballgame. We pay our money (though it’s actually a pretty low cost, given the number of hours she can be in the pool each week for that amount!), plus we have a fundraising expectation, plus we are required to volunteer at every meet our club hosts (and not just for an hour here or there – my required volunteer shifts for this upcoming meet will total something like 11 hours). And because of the timing of the practices, I can often be found parading into the pool building with 4 kids in tow, after having prepped most of dinner ahead of time, which I know is the only way we’ll be able to eat before 7:00. At least for now, though, the younger kids are all completely on board with going to swim practice, mostly, I think, because I let them play on old iPads of Matt’s while we’re there, an activity that is not generally allowed at home 🙂 Ultimately I think it would be neat if swimming became a whole-family sport – but we’ll have to see what the future holds for us in that regard! For now we’re just enjoying Miranda’s participation in it.

I do, though, really appreciate that swimming is such a good lifelong, healthy activity. Especially with Matt’s health history, it will be important for Miranda to establish good exercise habits from a young age, and my hope is that this will be part of that. It’s a great fit for her with her sensory seeking tendencies, and it’s a really good opportunity for her to get some experience interacting with the coaches and other swimmers, people outside of our family. Plus, she’s enjoying it 🙂 It’s a welcome addition to our repertoire this year.

Another Good Parenting Tool: The Hoot Owl Hoot Game

In my family of origin, we grew up playing games. As the oldest child, I learned games like Monopoly and Risk at an early age – primarily, I always thought, so my dad would have someone with whom to play! I loved playing games, too, though. My brother Danny and I played quite a bit on our own, and we’d play games as a family. I have fond memories of spending hours fighting to conquer the world in Risk. We played card games, too, especially a game called Sheepshead, which is played primarily among the German-American population of Wisconsin. It’s rather cutthroat and even includes insults specific to its play. And yet game-playing, and specifically that game, were so integral to my experience of time with my family that when Matt and I started dating, it never even occurred to me that he might not learn the game.

And now my children are getting to the age at which we can play games together! That is glorious – except that they (some in particular) are fairly bad winners and very bad losers. That severely limits the games we want to play with them and the times at which we are up for playing games.

However, we recently came across a game that has been such a blessing for our family! Matt’s birthday was last week, and (among other things) we got him the game Hoot Owl Hoot for us to play as a family. It’s a cooperative game, so all players work together to accomplish their goal (getting all of the owls back to the nest) before the time runs out (when the sun rises).

We’ve played it with all of our kids, and they ALL love it!

Atticus will sit with me and “be on my team.” FangFang doesn’t entirely understand the strategy of it, but she loves choosing which color to play and moving the pieces around the board and just generally being a part of it all with her big sisters. Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun are old enough to understand and even be part of formulating a strategy to try to work together and win the game.

When we lose, it’s not such a heavy blow, because we all lose together. And when we win, we all get to be thrilled together!

Obviously our kids do need to learn to win well and lose well – but this game also reinforces the idea that we, as a family, are in this life together – we’re a team. And that lesson is of primary importance for us. Collaborative games are a safe way to ease into experiencing the ups and downs of winning and losing (both in life and in games) while knowing that your family is with you.

We’ve played this game over and over again since we got it, and it has been a great, fun, connecting tool for us with all of our kiddos! If you have young kids (ours are currently ages 2-7), I’d absolutely recommend it!

Year In Review: Homeschooling 2016-2017

Most places wrap up their school years in May, perhaps June. Here at our house, we finished our home-schooling year in mid-August! It was an odd year for us – we’d finished our previous year later than I’d originally thought we would, mostly due to Matt’s heart attack. That meant we started this year’s curriculum later than I’d thought we would. And on top of that, we were finishing up our adoption process last fall, necessitating hours of paperwork for me, trips to our Secretary of State’s office to certify documents, travel coordination, and so much other logistical work that we didn’t get through as much of our curriculum as I’d originally hoped in the fall – and then, of course I went to China. And I returned from China with a 3-year-old, and we all had bonding and attachment needs, and she had major medical needs. But God 🙂 Honestly, it stressed me out, not being ahead of the game in terms of our school schedule. I am a perfectionist, and I like to be well ahead of the pack. Except there is no pack. There’s learning and growing together – or not. And we’re learning and growing together. And truth be told? My kids (and I) do better with year-round structure. They (and I) do not do well with weeks of totally unstructured time. It was a good thing for us to do school over the summer. We still have a ton of fun – pool time and parks and playing – but we also do some work. It’s a good balance for us.

I’m actually quite proud of the ways in which we’ve grown as a home-schooling family this year. It feels like we’ve settled into more of a groove. We’ve figured out more of what works well for us, and we’ve stuck with that, whether it matches up with what anyone else does or not. I used to think that we had to start our day with Bible reading, because obviously your day should start with Bible reading! It turns out that doesn’t work so well for us. Starting our day with math works well for us. It’s the most intense of our “seat work” subjects, and if we don’t get it out of the way early, it’s a real battle to try to tackle it later. If we do math and handwriting right off the bat, they’re done well and they’re done quickly – at least more often than when we do them later in the day 🙂

And then we do something that gets us moving. I love checking off boxes. If it were up to me, we’d do all of school right away, and then we’d be done and have the rest of the day to play. It turns out that this is another area in which my initial expectations just don’t match up with the reality of what works well for our family right now. My kids do so much better if we take a break after their seat work is done. Cosmic Kids Yoga is a favorite. 

If I were less of a check-list mom, we’d probably go out to the park more often (also if it were easier to take 4 small children, one of whom uses a wheelchair and one of whom is an untrustworthy runner, to the park). Or even for walks. But I am a check-list mom, so we do yoga 🙂 And I work on growing toward being more laid back.

One thing I’ve loved about this year has been the continued cultivation of a love of reading. We love the majority of Sonlight‘s book choices. After we take our mid-morning break, we dive into reading – often for hours a day – and we enjoy it. These were some of our favorite books from our core curriculum this year.

Reading quality books has also been a huge part of cultivating a love of reading in our kids beyond school. One morning I looked around me, and this was what I saw – all 4 kids looking at books.

That warmed my heart. More than I want to impart any particular pieces of knowledge, I want to instill a love of reading and of learning, and my hope is that we are doing that through the choices we’re making.

Part of that has been making some curriculum adjustments. I mentioned in some of the posts linked above that I was exploring different math curriculum options for Madeleine CaiQun, and I’m glad I did that this year. Singapore Math is an excellent curriculum for Miranda – she loves mental math and just gets math in general. It didn’t click as much for Madeleine CaiQun. After doing more research, I bit the bullet and ordered an entirely separate curriculum package – Math-U-See – for her, and it’s a great fit. The use of manipulatives helps her to understand each lesson so well, and I’m seeing her manifest true mastery of concepts. It’s certainly not financially optimal to have two kids using two different curricula, but one of the beautiful parts about homeschooling is that when you have two very different children who learn and think in very different ways, you have the freedom to teach them and help them learn in very different ways, and I’m thankful for that.

We also have the freedom not to have to work through all things on exactly the same timetable, and I’m thankful for that, too. Miranda is still finishing up Singapore’s Year 2 math, even though we’ve technically finished the school year, and that’s fine. Not having started her new math curriculum until mid-year, Madeleine CaiQun is also obviously not finished with it, but again, that’s fine – we’ll work through it and move on to the next level once we’re ready for it. We also needed to take a bit of time after the end of this school year to finish up our Language Arts program from this school year, and we’re only about halfway through the first book from our Spelling curriculum. I’m always reminding myself – this was their kindergarten and first grade year of school. They are doing great, whether we make it through an arbitrary number of lessons in a given year or not. Obviously if they were showing significant deficits, we’d be concerned and would take whatever measures were necessary to address that – but that’s not the case. They are learning and growing and doing beautifully. 

I think we had a successful year. We learned, and we grew. We made it through (approximately) one year’s worth of curriculum in approximately a year for most subjects. We’ve found some routines that are working for us. We’re getting a lot of quality time together. We talk about anything and everything. This was a good year, and I’m so looking forward to our next one!