Tuesday, November 27, 2012

An Hour of Homeschooling

Believe it or not, we are sometimes home for hours on end and have lots of time to dive into interesting projects and extensive endeavors. Sometimes we only have a little snip-it of time, but that can sometimes be just what we need. 

Today was going to be a busy day, one requiring a bunch of driving and several activities. I knew our time at home was limited, but thought I could make the best of it. We had an hour. 

My boys have very different needs and wants from each other. Gavin wants to be left alone to pursue information as he, Bing, his library books, History Channel and Sal Khan see fit. Mikey needs more purposeful direction and my attention. 

I picked up a library book called 'Pass the Bread' and read it to Mike. It's a super-meaty ;) book about breads from around the world. The book discussed varying countries and cultures, types of breads and their origins, the chemistry behind various manifestations of bread and had beautiful photographs from around the world. It was full of great vocabulary, lots of geography, history and touched on several religions. Carefully selected, living books are an indispensible resource for us. 

Since we were on the 'bread' subject, I asked if he would like to set up a little experiment - really, did I need to ask! We had a discussion about yeast, checked it out thoroughly by looking at it and even smelling it and then filled two bottles with water and yeast. We gave one bottle some sugar and one some salt - he already surmised that by the afternoon, the carbon dioxide would have done it's job with one of the attached balloons - and not the other. 

Once our experiment was set up we took a few minutes to work out of an 'English' book - it's an old-fashioned little thing, but full of simple, practical activities. Mikey copied three sentences out of the book practicing the proper use of 'two', 'to', and 'too'. In 10 minutes Mikey had practiced his handwriting, addressed capital letters and some punctuation and had mastered those three tricky words.  

Mikey played with his Cuisenaire Rods for a few minutes and then I reviewed sets and subsets with him. He was able to tell me about equality and equivalency and I explained that the next activity would be about unions and intersections - yeah! Check out these rods and activity cards - there are a lot of fun with none of the 'math pressure'.

I believe the reason for the ease in this scenario is that my kids pick activities, books, topics, and methods that they enjoy and that interest them. I do not 'force' my kids to complete a certain activity they are not enjoying - there are way to many choices for that!

Our time was up and we needed to run. In and hour and ten minutes we covered some geography and history, a little chemistry, some grammar and a bit of math - and it had been fun and meaningful. Such little time can go such a long way.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Disney Trip - Part 3

Next up - Universal Studios, where we headed straight for Hogsmeade.

It was a really exciting place for all of us, especially Dennis and Gavin who are huge fans of the books and movies.  One of the most anticipated events for us was tasting 'butter beer', a mythical treat from the story. 

It tastes like really sweet cream soda with extra vanilla and butterscotch foam on top. $10.50 a glass got us two nice souvenir mugs full! ;) We took some time to send some of our most vehement Potter fans some 'owl mail' with a 'Hogsmeade' postmark on it. 

There was a sweet shop filled with authentic story goodies - chocolate frogs and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean. When we got home we found out that 'vomit', 'earwax', 'boogie' and 'earthworm' really ARE included! Wands were procured by all the kids at Olivander's.

Universal Studios also boasts Suess' Landing. We ate lunch at Circus McGirkins and rode the rides there. 

The most exciting part of the park for our family was the super heros. The kids love them all, and the scale on which they are reproduced here is fantastic! They run through the streets, good guys chasing bad guys roaring around on Can-ams that match their costumes - really thrilling for boys.The whole set up is really larger than life. 

As I was standing with the boys after one of the appearances of the 'heros,' an employee walked past us all and asked if we were enjoying our day at Universal. Everyone replied in the affirmative. He kept walking, but quickly turned around and backed up. He asked the boys if they like super heros, who their favorites were and would they like to meet them all at the same time (as opposed to having to find them 'catch-as-catch-can' throughout the park?) Um, would we - yeah!

The guy was is in charge of where and when the heros appear.  He explained where to wait and when to meet him. Our family, alone, was granted back-stage access of hang out with the heros, chat with them and take lots of pictures. The park's professional photographer was also snapping photos that we can purchase for our personal collection! 

The 'heros' were gracious and interested in the kids, asking lots of questions and listening to everything they had to say. We were not rushed and were asked several times if we got all the photos we wanted. I loved that we all got this experience.

Sometimes it can be a real detriment having a 'super-conspicuous family'. There are times it is a little stressful. Not in this case. I think we stood out of the crowd - ya think?! - but this time, it really paid off. :)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Disney Trip - Part 2

We ventured into our first Disney Park the following morning - Animal Kingdom. It is a park filled with a fantastic collection of exotic animals, Broadway-caliber shows and an array of rides and experiences. 

We really loved the Wild Safari ride - it was like we were in Animal Planet! We were lucky enough to get the truck that got stuck behind a giraffe and then a kudu fighting an ostrich. 

I knew we weren't on an true African safari - but I was eager to employ the Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

At the beginning of the day, Gavin ran into Molay, an artisan in the African section of the park. Disney prides itself on the authenticity of their craftsmen. Gavin peppered him with questions about the tool he was using, what other tools he uses, where he gets them, how he sharpens them, who taught him to use them and does he know when he sees a piece of wood what it will be. He was a talented artist with the patience of a saint.

He told Gavin how he sees animals in the wood before he starts - this wood was clearly a crocodile. He told us how he came to work at Disney. Gavin insisted on coming back to his stand every time we were in the vicinity, which did get a little frustrating, because really what he wanted to do was stay there, in front of Molay, until the crocodile was done. But there was other stuff to be done. 

We saw two shows that were really amazing. One was an abbreviated version of Nemo that the family enjoyed immensely. The scale and detail Disney employs is spectacular.

The Lion King Show was a great production. We were seated front row, center and Mikey was chosen to participate. I wish I got better pictures, but to see Mikey shaking his little instrument and just loving it brought tears to my eyes. I've been told that is a 'Disney Moment'!

Disney treats Guests with Disabilities extraordinarily well. Guest Services issued us an assistance card at the beginning of our stay that allowed our family certain accommodations. One of the benefits was not waiting in lines. We were ushered to the front of each and every line. On some of the longer lines, we were brought through the 'FastPass' gate which usually meant we waited a total of 5-10 minutes. For our family, this makes an unbelievable difference. We simply would have missed most of the park if not for this generous benefit. Due to Ethan's autism, he is unpredictable and easily overwhelmed. If things don't go his way, his coping mechanisms are not good (have you seen Rain Man?) If we were required to wait in a line for 60 minutes, it would be completely plausible to have waited for 45 minutes only to have him freak out and demand to be taken out of the line - I know, we've had very hard things happen in other venues. He would have missed everything and his brothers certainly would have paid the price. 

Knowing that Disney would extend us such courtesies to us helped make the decision to go and spend the kind of money that we did. Believe me when I say it would have been an impossible trip without the extra help. We were even given priority viewing areas for the parades - I felt like a movie star.

At the end of the day, with not a moment to spare, Gavin ran through the park to meet up with Molay - he found him locking up and leaving. He told Gavin that he was worried that he was not coming back. But in the end, Gavin was the proud owner of a beautifully carved crocodile and had a wonderful experience with the artist - I really think it is a souvenir that will remain dear to him. 

It was exciting, fun and a bit stressful. I have heard from people that you have to 'learn' to 'do Disney'! Yikes, this was probably the trip of a lifetime and we had to learn on the fly. A little bickering never hurt The Costellos.

 "I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It's just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Disney Trip - Part 1

The Trip

I was worried and had every right to be. But this journey turned out to be nothing to worry about.

We left the house at our prescribed time, 5:00 a.m. and got on the road. The kids actually did go back to sleep for a little while and we did not have to make our first stop until 7:30 - because The Costello's run on Dunkin! We popped right back into the car and traveled for hours more. We spent the day listening to music, the kids watched lots of Netflix, played lots of games on our new iPad and listened to audio books. What they did not do was fight, cry or throw up. It was just the weirdest thing!

When I realized that our route would take us so close the Shenandoah National Park, I could not resist the urge to at least pass through. The road that goes through the park, Skyline Drive, follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. We were only able to do 30 miles of the park, but that was enough to know where I'd like to head back to for some spring camping.


With just a few brief stops, we made it to our prescribed goal of the kitschy, neon-fueled tourist trap - South of the Border. We plied the kids with cheap, Mexican-themed souvenirs and adequate Mexican food.

See how happy they look?! It was unbelievable. We had pre-determined that if the kids were doing well at this point, we would push through a little further. A few hours later we bunked at the Best Western Plus in Santee, SC and we can recommend it if you are headed that way.

The following day went just as well and we arrived at our destination. I am really pleased that we chose an off-property house, in a quiet neighborhood with a private pool and bedrooms for everyone. It was a more economical choice for our family of six and provided all the amenities of home - oh, except the huge master suite with soaking tub and a lock on the door - don't know how I am expected to live here without one!
We spent the night preparing to enter or first Disney Park - Animal Kingdom. We packed a backpack wth  what we considered essentials, charged the iPhones and camera and briefed the kids about a wake up time that they were clearly not accustomed too - 7:00 a.m.

We were obviously in unchartered territory and looking forward to the adventure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reverse Field Trips

My recollection of field trips as a student is that after having been forced to read textbook entries about a given subject (Ms. Borland - begin at paragraph blah blah on page umteen) and then tested to death about people, dates and facts that were meaningless to me. Then, occasionally, we were permitted to board a bus to a museum to view artifacts about a topic that was already thoroughly boring. I recall caring very little about what I saw - but was very happy to be out from within those four walls.

I like to call my approach to 'field trips' as 'Reverse Field Trips'. We just go - we head out to museums near and far. We go to exhibits and shows freely.

We visit gardens, farms, nature preserves and historical sites without regard to a 'unit of study'. I enjoy watching the boys gravitate to artwork, artifacts, and experiments that fascinate them. I like watching them discover things for themselves.

I visit places with the boys because it's what we like to do. They desire to play with things, experiment, see the sights, view the art, and investigate. I have no agenda for what they need to look at. I have often picked a specific venue for one thing only to find them intrigued by another. I give them time to stay in front of something as long or as short as they like. That can be hard practice if you are not conscious of it. 

I watch to see what peaks their interest. I wait and watch to see what pieces of information they grab on to. Once they've seen and touched something it becomes a much more tangible topic. Gavin and Mikey are very open about what interests them. 'How do architects draw floor plan?', 'How did the Ballentine family get so rich?', 'How old is this art work?', and 'How can air be so strong?' Their questions give me a platform from which to provide them more info. I have a spot on my iPhone and a dry erase board at home that I jot down topics that come up - eclipses, wood chucks, high-altitude cooking, etc.  I use that to decide where to visit, what books to reserve for them, and our favorite - movies, documentaries and websites dedicated to their interests. And people ask where I get 'curriculum' from! Netflix, of course ;)

One of the goals that I have for my kids to being able to pursue knowledge joyfully and on their own accord. I do not want to send them the message that I am the one with all the knowledge and that my job is to 'teach' them - I would fall sorely short of that expectation. I do not believe you can 'teach' someone anything they do not wish to learn. Sure, I could make them memorize something in the short-term, but I do not equate that to embracing and understanding. I could make them sit through videos they don't want to watch or fill in workbooks just because it's the next thing on the list - but I believe that as homeschoolers we have to opportunity to break out of this paradigm and instead of creating a 'school' model at home we can bring them into a model of  life-learning.

The 'Reverse Field Trip' is taking kids to places and exposing them to experiences first and branching off of their interests to facilitate the learning they want to do.

The world can be your classroom - just get out and go, see, touch, do - and learn.