Summer School 2018 and Why We’re Schooling Year-Round

We finished up our 2017-2018 school year last week (blog post on that coming soon)…and so, obviously, the thing for us to do this week was to jump into our summer school routine!

In general, we’ve done school year-round, sometimes in different ways and for different reasons, but we’ve found it works really well for our family.

First, it allows for us to have a generally consistent structure to our days. Our kids don’t do well with extended periods of time of no structure. And, to be honest, really don’t do well with extended periods of time of no structure. We lighten things up over the summer, but we can keep our general structure pretty similar to what we do during the school year. The day starts with math and handwriting over breakfast, and then everyone gets a bit of play time before we tackle anything else, and we do some more work before and/or after lunch. The little kids are continuing to be exposed to the idea that they have some choice in what we read, but I get to read the books to them, and we all sit on the couch and read together for a period of time in the afternoon.

Second, it allows for us to continue to work on building skills that would otherwise stagnate or start to decline if ignored for months at a time. We’re continuing on with math, handwriting, reading, and Chinese, all areas in which I think it would be harder for my kids to jump back into their work in the fall if left alone all summer.

Third, we can pick up some study in areas in which I want to prepare more for the fall. We’ve jumped around a bit in terms of our Language Arts curriculum over the last couple years, and we’re going to try Sonlight again in the fall, and I think I need to work with my girls a bit on writing before we start that program. With the little kids, I want to work more on letter recognition over the summer.

Fourth, a lot of the rhythms of our lives just incorporate homeschooling. Matt and I usually read out loud to the big kids before bed, and a lot of the books we use are our Sonlight read-alouds. That’s part of the rhythm of our family life, not something we want to drop just because it’s summer time. Similarly, we’re attempting to cultivate a lifestyle, not a checklist. Yes, my kids are required to read every day…but we want them to read because they have a lifestyle of learning, not just because any given day is classified as a school day.

Fifth, schooling through the summer gives us so much more flexibility during the year. If we’ve continued on with even a portion of our school work during the summer, I don’t feel at all bad about taking days off to go to the park or visit friends and family during the school year, and our many doctor and PT appointments don’t throw off our school schedule. We can create a schedule that works best for us and includes a good deal of flexibility, because we’ve already done a lot of school work, even before the official school year starts.

Of course, we’re also spending a good deal of time just playing outside, going to the pool, and generally enjoying life and the blessings of summer! But summer school is also part of our family’s summer life, and I’m thankful we’ve gotten started on that 🙂

Telling Stories to Work Through Scary Stuff

One of the hardest things for me, as a parent, is knowing how to help my kids work through hard stuff when they’re resistant to doing that work. I love my kids, and I know it’s best for them not to try to bury their feelings – but I also can’t force them to share with me or anyone else what is going on in their hearts.

Last weekend, Miranda had an experience that brought up some big feelings for her. Our two oldest girls have been taking horseback riding lessons for almost a year now, and Miranda had fallen a couple times before, but on Sunday, she had her first big, scary fall, and it really caught her off guard. She was scared, and she was angry, and it wasn’t until the very end of the lesson time that her instructor, Courtney, and I were able to get her back up on the horse. Courtney, thankfully, is amazing and was willing to meet Miranda exactly where she needed to be met and take extra time and offer the right mix of firmness with encouragement, which went a long way.

I could tell that, as Miranda walked around the arena riding Ian, with Courtney right beside her talking with her, a lot of the tension was dissipating, and I was so glad she was willing to get back up.

Miranda riding Ian with Courtney walking right next to her – I love this picture of encouragement and support and being right there with someone as they do hard things

But the big feelings were still there. Monday was a rough day at our house. I mentioned all of this to some friends, and one of them (Meghan Scanlan LCSW – if you’re in the Denver area and need a family therapist, you should probably look her up!) suggested that I have Miranda write a narrative about it and illustrate it and read and re-read and re-read it. That’s a strategy that can often help kids process traumatic events.

This is very similar to a strategy outlined by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson in The Whole Brain Child – Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions, which you can read more about here, and I’d actually considered doing something like that…but even knowing what I know about trauma and its effects, I’d still debated  – did I want to bring it up? Would looking at it more just keep it all in the forefront of her mind and make it all worse? Would it ruin any possibility of us being able to get in another lesson and another positive experience before our beloved riding instructor moves 2 hours away for her new job? But no, it was clear that Miranda really needed to work through this experience and her feelings about it, and helping her to do that needed to be a priority for me.

Tuesday morning I told her that instead of having her doing any sort of regular Language Arts with me that day, I wanted her to work with me to write and illustrate a book about her fall off of Ian and getting back up again. She was a bit reluctant, but I agreed to be her scribe and write down all the words for her if she would just dictate, and she could do all the illustrating. I wasn’t sure how she’d do with giving all of the background information and sharing about the events leading up to the fall, talking about the fall itself, and then describing working through her feelings and getting back up on Ian again afterward, but with some gentle prompting, she was able to tell and illustrate the whole story.

And it was like a weight lifted off of her shoulders. She could talk about it without all of the emotion taking over. She decided she wanted to make copies of her book to give to some friends. She’s been reading through it multiple times a day, with no prompting from me.

And she’s excited to go ride again this weekend.

I’m so glad she was willing to get back up on the horse after she fell, and I’m so glad she has been willing to do the emotional work to process all of what she has been feeling. I want to help my kids to grow up to be adults who can get back up and try again after having a bad experience and who have the bravery and strength to do emotional work to process difficult stuff. I think Miranda’s journey this week has been a step in building toward that.

Note: This story has been shared with Miranda’s permission. 

In Which Miranda Becomes a Vegetarian

One of my greatest joys in parenthood is watching my children develop interests and passions of their own. All four of our children have what our pediatrician refers to as “big personalities,” so there is no shortage of passion here. Even if we tried to direct it, I’m not sure we could, and each time it bursts forth from one child or another, I feel like I’ve just gotten to unwrap another Christmas gift. I get a real glimpse at where my child’s heart is, and the wonder and awe that this child whom I have the privilege of shepherding through life has his or her own unique convictions and excitements and passions – and that I have a front row seat to witnessing them – is glorious.

One of Miranda’s latest passions is vegetarianism. As a family, we have been almost entirely pescetarian since shortly after Matt’s heart attack. For several months now, though, Miranda has been entirely vegetarian. She was never really a huge fan of fish, anyway, and while the rest of us have always made occasional brief forays into the carnivorous culture in which we exist (primarily related to social gatherings), Miranda abstains from meat entirely.

I remember very clearly sitting on the couch one morning, doing our history reading, and looking at pictures of Vikings carrying in animal carcasses in preparation for a feast. The meat-to-be looked so very…animal-like. I believe that was the moment that solidified it all in her mind with finality. She would not be consuming meat.

Since then, our conversations about vegetarianism generally go something like this:

  • Miranda: I will not eat meat! It is mean to kill animals for food and eat them!
  • Me: I respect that conviction, and we’ll honor that. You don’t have to eat meat.
  • Miranda: No one should eat meat! If anyone eats meat, they should be killed!
  • Me: So…you think it’s evil to kill animals?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: So evil that anyone who eats an animal should be killed?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic to you?
  • Miranda: No. Why would that be ironic?
  • Me: Well, you’re advocating for killing people, because you’re protesting that they are killing animals. If you value the lives of animals, do you think maybe we should also value the lives of people?
  • Miranda, looking at me as if that proposal is the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard: No.

There you have it, my friends. Miranda Grace, the ultimate intensifier, has spoken. She is a vegetarian, and the rest of us are supposed to follow her lead – or else.

Either that, or I need to keep working with her on developing some sense of moderation and respect for others’ convictions and the ethical gray areas of life 😉

Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

Access Matters

I’m sorry to have to admit that, for most of my life, I was pretty oblivious to issues of accessibility and disability rights. It took exploring adoption through a special needs program to begin to open my eyes, and it took adopting a child who actually has a medical need that is considered a real disability for me to begin to truly see. And I’m still learning – but I see more than I used to see.

Everywhere we go, everywhere we look, there are barriers to access.

Do I want to go to a park? Do I want to take my kids to play at a playground? Do we want to go to church (did you know that churches are exempt from the ADA?)? Do I want to sign my children up for a group or activity? Do we want to hire a baby-sitter to watch our children? Do we want to take advantage of the childcare advertised as being provided in conjunction with an event?

Because one of the members of our family has a disability, none of those activities are ever straightforward for us. Every single one requires advance planning, maybe scouting out a location, maybe explaining our situation to whoever is in charge.

Even the language that we, as a society, use to talk about disability and access is often awkward. I cringe when I hear the phrase, “wheelchair bound.” Does this look like a child who is “bound” to and restricted by her wheelchair?

I’d argue not. FangFang’s wheelchair is an amazing tool that allows her greater access to the world around her than she would otherwise have. Without it, she would have almost no “social mobility” – the ability to move herself around in public places. At home, she is quite mobile – she can butt-scoot or crawl to get herself almost anywhere, including up and down stairs – but butt-scooting down the aisles of Target isn’t exactly within our social mores. It’s true I could put her in a stroller, but in that situation, I’m pushing her around, and she has no control over where she goes. At four, just like other four-year-olds, she wants to have some freedom to explore her world, and it’s entirely appropriate for her to have that. That is what her wheelchair offers for her.

FangFang knows there are things that other kids her age can do that she can’t. She doesn’t often communicate that it bothers her…but when we find ways to facilitate her participation and her independence, her excitement is palpable. She has been potty trained for months, but because she doesn’t walk independently, and she’s so tiny, she has always relied upon me to assist her in the bathroom, even as she has seen her younger brother use the bathroom on his own. This week she received a custom-made step-stool, a modified version of this one, that allows her to be almost entirely independent in the bathroom. She is beyond thrilled.

It’s true, providing for access is expensive. It’s almost never efficient. But don’t the lives of people with disabilities matter? They’re people, right? My daughter who doesn’t walk independently is still a person, still an image-bearer of the Living God, worthy of respect and dignity, right? And my friend’s daughter, who is deaf? And another friend’s son living with HIV? We, as a society, should not be setting up systems that perpetuate exclusion. None of us benefit from that situation. Right? Do you believe that with me?

I hope you do. But sometimes I wonder. Maybe other people don’t? If they did, would it be this hard?

It breaks my heart that I am going to have to, at some point, teach FangFang to advocate for herself in a world that, in so many ways, is not built for her. I am so thankful for the ways in which we as a country have grown in inclusion – for the ADA, for IDEA, and more. But we still have so far to go. And as hard as the mental back-and-forth is for me, the mother of a child with disabilities (I need more help – I literally cannot do X unless someone else helps me; but who am I to request additional help, beyond what everyone else gets, when I know people already have a lot on their plates; what should I do here?), I am committed to the fight, for my child and for those who come after her; would you like to join me? I don’t want them to have to fight so hard. And I wear my new shirt to remind myself of the future for which I’m fighting.