Thursday, December 27, 2012

Daybook: The Last One from France

This will probably be the last post before things go quiet around here for a little while, as our family moves and transitions to our new life and ministry in Africa.  I look forward to picking things back up again once we have internet up and running and are fairly settled on the other side.   A very joyous New Year to all of you.

Outside my Window:: Gray, cold, and wet...and yet warm enough that all our pretty snow melted away.  Michelle told me the other day she couldn't wait to go to Africa because that meant she wouldn't have to put her coat on everytime she went out.  Yes, I think we're ready to move back to the tropics.

Listening to::  My kids playing some imaginative game which involved Elizabeth, who just got up from her nap, "coming down from her little attic".   And Elizabeth crying because I dared to try and send her to the toilet when she got up.   And when (if?) it gets quiet enough - these lectures from the CiRCE Institute.  Fabulous Stuff.

Giving Thanks:: For God's sustaining grace.   For friends who offer to help before we even ask.   For kids who sit quietly and get multiple immunizations with very little drama.  For my mama, who sent me some Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte instant coffee mix to make up for having had a Pumpkin Spice Latte in Geneva WITHOUT ME.  And my step-dad, who special ordered a package of chocolate covered coffee beans from a coffee plantation we once visited in Australia.  For creative kids who are easily entertained.   For sweet little 4 year old who always reminds us that we need to "pray for the new day" in the morning and who asks me to pray for him when I tuck him in at night.

Pondering::  This fantastic article by Elizabeth Foss, that I keep returning to again and again.  And this little gem, taken from Charlotte Mason's Volume 5 Formation of Character:
"Actions do not speak louder than words to a young heart; he must feel it in your touch, see it in your eye, hear it in your tones, or you will never convince child or boy that you love him, though you labour day and night for his good and his pleasure. Perhaps this is the special lesson of Christmas-tide for parents. The Son came––for what else we need not inquire now––to reinstate men by compelling them to believe that they––the poorest shrinking and ashamed souls of them––that they live enfolded in infinite personal love, desiring with desire the response of love for love. And who, like the parent, can help forward this "wonderful redemption"? The boy who knows that his father and his mother love him with measureless patience in his faults, and love him out of them, is not slow to perceive, receive, and understand the dealings of the higher Love."
Of course I love my children.  But do they know that?   And more, what will they learn of the Love of the Father from me?

Living the Educational Life:: You can see our year-end wrap up right here.   Enjoying the time off for the holidays and transition, but also super excited about starting AO Year 1 when we get back into our school routine in February.  And really happy that I am once again A Teacher and no longer A Student. ;-)

What I Will Miss About France:: All the bakeries and cafés and chocolatiers everywhere you look.  So, so yummy.

What I Won't Miss About France:: All the bakeries and cafés and chocolatiers everywhere you look.  So, so bad for my waistline.

Finding Rhythm:: We've been having a special "snack and story" time since we stopped having regular school lessons.   This means tea or hot chocolate in the little mini mugs (sometimes even with whipped cream) and Christmas cookies, while I read something out loud.  Wondering how to keep this little tradition going when we get back to normal again.

Praying:: For patience and wisdom and grace as we transition.  For the strength to nurture well, even when I myself am feeling stretched and drained.

Planning the Week Ahead:: Packing.  I can no longer put it off.   And hanging out with my mama and my sister, who are coming on Saturday to help us in our packing and transitioning endeavor.

Capturing a Moment::

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Looking Back Over the School Year - 2012

So, we are just about done with our school year (we school year round from January-December).  We're keeping a very light "Christmas school" going to give our days some structure, but we've otherwise wrapped most things up.   I took some time last week to use this wonderful evaluation tool to look back over our year, and thought I'd share some of the highlights here...

What did I learn about each child?
Michelle is helpful and affectionate.  She thrives on one-on-one time.  She has a tendency to be dramatic.
James is quiet, but there's a lot of thinking going on in that head of his.  He is an introvert and needs regular time to 'recharge', but at the same time he thrives on one-on-one time.  He tends to see things in 'black and white', and struggles with anything 'gray'.
Elizabeth is observant, funny, and affectionate.  She likes being the baby.  She is also impulsive, active, and loud.

What were our 'crowning moments'?
Michelle - Her narration and writing abilities have blossomed. She's starting to make connections.
James - He's starting to read and write, more or less unprompted by me. His verbal ability is improving and he's even made a couple of (very cute) attempts at narration.
Elizabeth - Can now sit through family Bible time quietly. =)

What were our greatest challenges?
Constant change and flexibility needed for everyone.  Helping children with transitions is draining for me.  For me, it was also a struggle to have a 'divided heart' between my own language learning and home tasks.

What habits and skills have we accomplished? 
Both of the two older children are able to help with many household tasks including dishes and folding laundry.  Michelle has learned how to handle a knife properly and cut food and so can be very helpful with meal preparation (she can make a whole salad by herself).  Michelle generally has an attitude of helpfulness, and her attention and ability to work independently is improving.   James is getting better at expressing himself verbally (instead of throwing tantrums).  Elizabeth is working on potty-training, and starting to have some success there.  She desperately wants to help with the chores too, although that often backfires...

What habits and skills should we work on in the coming year?
Developing and sticking to routines for key transitional parts of the day.  Table manners.  Picking things up instead of stepping on them.  Continuing to learn how to do various household tasks according to their abilities.  And certain character traits that are problematic for each child.  (While I decline to describe their character faults in detail this space, I assure you that my children are NOT perfect!)

How did our schedule work out? 
I feel like I've finally stumbled onto a scheduling system that works well for us and can roll with the punches when we need flexibility.   Keeping things simple, keeping rest time for everyone (including mama) in the schedule, and having occasional 'project days' to break up some of the monotony and squeeze in the things that tend to get left out of our regular school days have also worked out really well.

What 'unplanned' learning opportunities did we have?
We've all learned a lot of flexibility this year as Dan and I have had constantly changing schedules, and the kids have spent a lot more time with Dan than usual (and we all know that Papas do things differently than Mamas).  We've also had lots of 'traveling' learning experiences living here in France - we've made trips to Grenoble, Lyon, Paris, Annecy, and Avingon as well as exploring our local area.  I love the fact that my 6.5 year old liked the art museums in Paris and all of my kids thought the bridge of Avignon was cool.

How did our curriculum choices work out for this year? 
Overall fairly well, although we've made some changes as we've gone along and figured out what really works the best for us.  (You can see our curriculum choices at the top of the right-hand column).  Keeping it simple has been our best rule of thumb.  A few changes we made in the course of this year or for next year:
 - Switching from Math Mammoth to Math-U-See:  Michelle was struggling with Math Mammoth and I was having to tweak and supplement to fit her far too much.  Math-U-See has been a much better fit for us overall.  We plan to continue with it.
- Dropping All About Spelling: I worked through Level 1 and most of Level 2 with Michelle, and feel like it was a really helpful foundation for her.  However, about halfway through Level 2, she started complaining about the words being 'too easy'.   As her reading ability has increased, so has her spelling ability.  So we decided to drop the program in favor of a more organic, personalized-list approach.  (I'll still apply some of the basic principles and teaching method I learned with AAS, though.)
- Deciding to use Ambleside Online rather than Simply Charlotte Mason for our main curriculum framework:  For several years, I had planned to use the SCM History Modules.  However, when I sat down to actually plan out our year using one, I ended up tweaking so much that I drove myself crazy.  I really wanted to be able to use more electronically available books than were listed in the SCM modules, wanted to spend less time on ancient history and more time in the modern era, and felt like the SCM modules were a little too 'light' in some areas.   AO pretty much fits all of these criteria: lots of public domain books that I can get on the Kindle, a history rotation that more or less mirrors what I was trying to do (spreading history out evenly over 6 years, rather than 3 years on ancient history and 3 years to rush through everything else), and most definetely rigorous.  I'm sure we'll make some tweaks along the way, but overall I think it will prove to be a better framework for us to work from.

What changes will we make for the coming year?
Besides the curriculum changes I mentioned above:
- French langauge learning will be a greater priority.
- We've done fairly well with nature study this year, but it's been hard sometimes living in a city apartment.  I'm looking forward to having more focused outdoors time than we've had this past year.
- Continue with memorizing the Westminister Catechism, but focus on longer passages for Scripture memory rather than a 'snippet' proof text for each question.
- Greater consistency with habit training (for me too)!
- Add in a tea time (weekly?) and more consistent family nights.

Overall, a great learning year despite our crazy life here in France.   Looking forward to enjoying some time off of "school" during our transition, and picking up our new year in February!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Books of 2012

As you know if you've poked around on this blog at all, we are a reading family.  As the end of the year approached, I thought I'd post my list of the best books I have read over the past year.  In no particular order, but organized roughly into categories.   Enjoy!

North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell):  If you are a fan of Jane Austen, you will probably like Elizabeth Gaskell too.  North and South has some similar plot elements to Pride and Prejudice, but superimposes them on top of a setting during the Industrial Revolution, which adds the tension between 'workers' and 'masters' on top of the relationship between the two main characters.

Joy in the Ordinary (Theresa Fisher): A light reading "Christian fiction" kind of book, but written about a Catholic family.  Sweet story, and interesting insights into Catholic culture.

In the Days of Queen Victoria (Eva March Tappan):  Fascinating look at the life of Queen Victoria.  I found it interesting that she didn't particularly aspire to be Queen, but when that role fell to her she took her responsibility very, very seriously.  A good lesson in taking on whole-heartedly even those tasks we don't really WANT to do.

The Little Duke (Charlotte Yonge):  I pre-read this as it is one of the more difficult books used in the AO Year 2 curriculum. It is about Richard, Duke of Normandy (who later became the grandfather to William the Conqueror, I believe).  I found myself riveted - full of intrigue, drama, and the tension between revenge and forgiveness.

Unknown to History: A Story of the Captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots (Charlotte Yonge): Another fascinating historical novel by the same author as The Little Duke - about a girl adoped as an infant after having been the only person to survive a shipwreck and later discovers she is the long-lost daughter of Mary Queen of Scots.  This is a free-read in AO Year 3.

Educational Philosopy
Uncovering the Logic of English (Denise Eide): Very interesting look at the structure of the English langauge - which isn't as 'irregular' as we give it credit for.  I am in the throes of teaching reading and spelling, so found this fascinating.

Home Education (Charlotte Mason):  This took me a LONG time to read, but the effort was so well worth it.    Charlotte Mason had a lot of insight into children and how they learn.  I'm now reading her Philosophy of Education, which is equally good.  I started to blog about some of my insights from reading her series, but got sidetracked by life.  I do hope to get back to it next year, however, so stay tuned.

The Writer's Jungle (Julie Bogart): While not explicitly Charlotte Mason, this 'teaching writing' handbook is in accord with many of her ideas.   Charlotte Mason style language arts instruction is one of the things that I've had a hard time wrapping my mind around (very different from how you and I were taught), so I appreciate materials like this that sort of flesh out for me what this might look like in real life.  While I may not follow her program explicitly, I will can see myself using it as a helpful reference as we continue to work through the various stages of the writing process.

Loving the Little Years (Rachel Jankovic): Yes, this was on last year's list too.  I re-read it this year.  It was still good.  The greatest insight I gained this go around is that our children are people, not an organizational project.  Having systems and routines in place to keep your home running are good and important, but not at the expense of the little hearts that have been entrusted to us.

Christian Living
Redefining Home (Carrie Ann Hudson):  While I didn't appreciate the corny poetry the author felt the need to include, so many of her insights about living in a culture other than your own - including langauge learning - really resonated with me. 

Grace for the Good Girl (Emily Freeman): Another book that really resonates with me, as I seek to understand what kind of difference God's grace really ought to make in the way I live my life.  I am very much a "Christian good girl".

If I can, I'll see if I can get Michelle to do a list of her favorites too!   And what about you?  What was the best book that you read this year?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Winter Weather Walk

It was very timely that last week's Outdoor Hour Challenge was to take a simple walk to observe and enjoy the weather.   This was irrresistibly easy for us to do because it snowed on Friday.  Really snowed.  Good and hard from about 9am until late in the afternoon.   A good 4-5 inches accumulated here in town, and I'm sure much more outside of town in the mountains.

We had hoped we would get a good snowstorm before we left for the tropics.  We got our wish.

You might recognize this tree from our tree study.

Someone asked me if my kids had ever been in snow before.   I think they have been...twice.  The first time was really only a dusting on the ground that melted in about an hour.   The second was a smaller snowstorm shortly after we arrived here at the end of January.

They were, in Michelle's words, delighted with it.   We took some time to read The Story of Snow.  Michelle made me promise to take this book to Africa with us "so we don't forget what snow is, Mama".   Yeah, I think we can manage that. =)

Michelle recorded the event in her nature journal.  Her entry reads "It's snowing today!  We saw snow today.  We even played in it.  We had a fun time playing in the snow.  But mom said she was getting cold."  (Yes, I admit I like snow better from the window with a warm drink in hand!)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How we are Celebrating Advent This Year

There's been lots of discussions and posts online these days about how people are celebrating Advent.  I thought I'd throw mine into the mix too. =)

For several years now, we've been working towards making our celebrations of Christmas and Easter more Christ-focused.  We did an advent wreath for the first time the year Michelle was 14 months at Christmas time.  This year we don't have an actual wreath, but we still do have 5 candles, lighting one each week.  (Gotta make do with what you can find when you move as much as we do).  We've tried a variety of different devotionals, but until this year hadn't done anything that I particularly LIKED (at least, not well enough to repeat). 

(Side note on our 'display' - I got the cards on the easel online somewhere several years ago...sadly can't remember where now.  They are lovely, though, and small/lightweight enough to move around with us.  The nativity scene is from Peru - a gift from a friend, as I've never been there.  The cards on the wall were done by a Papua New Guinean artist.  Baby Jesus in a bilum - traditional, Papua New Guinean woven string bag, used for carrying anything, including babies!- makes me smile everytime I look at it.)

This year, we are using the symbols from Ann Voskamp's Jesse Tree devotional, but not the devotions that go with them.  The devotional thoughts would be over my kids' heads (and as lovely as they are I sometimes have a hard time with her writing style as well, for what it's worth).   We are simply reading the Scripture reference to go with each symbol - tracing God's plan of salvation from the creation, through the fall, through the promises made to Noah and Abraham and David, the prophecies, arriving finally at the birth of Christ. 

Typically, our family time each evening looks like this:
- We light the candle(s) - depending on the week.
- We use the previous symbols to recount the story so far.
- One child opens the day's envelope that has the new symbol inside (and sometimes a special activity card like 'family movie night' or 'bake cookies together'), and they look at it.  They try to guess what the next part of the story might be.
- We read the story from the Bible (I've written the reference on the back).  We revisit the symbol and explain how the story relates.  Dan or I might add a sentence or 2 about how it points us forward to Jesus (very, very briefly).
- We sing a hymn or carol together (I've chosen one for each week of advent).
And that's it.  Simple.  Sweet.  Meaningful.

I was kind of nervous about using "just the Scripture" and not having some kind of devotional guide to go along with it.  But in actuality, the simplicity has been beautiful.  I never planned that we'd retell the story from the beginning each night...that just sort of happened.  But I think maybe they are starting to see the big picture of redemptive history.  I didn't learn that the Old Testament really had much to do with the New until I was in college, so any glimmer of understanding on their part puts them way ahead of me. =)

And, really, should I have been so surprised that Scripture is enough?  I'm not trying to bash the use of devotionals or anything, but I don't think we've ever finished any of the 'family devotionals' we've tried.  Even if I like them at the beginning (and I'm picky - so much of what is out there for this age group is just silly), we usually end up being disenchanted with them once we get into them.  Scripture - or a well-written Bible storybook for the littlest ones - is enough.  It can speak for itself.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Our Schedule, Part Three (What I Do with My Toddler)

Awhile back I did a two part series about how I handle scheduling in our homeschool. Here is part one and part two. I thought I would come back and add a part three to tell you about how I handle our toddler during school time. For awhile, we tried to do school during nap time, but then I realized that I need that downtime in the afternoon every bit as much as the kids do. And unlike my son, this toddler is not content to play fairly quietly by herself nearby. She is busy. Curious. Impulsive. Likes to jump, climb, run, and scream. Needs to be redirected towards constructive activities. Often. Very classic last-born, extroverted, 2-year-old.

She's cute though, isn't she? =) We think so too.

After a bit of brainstorming and tweaking, this is what I came up with. We've been using this system for about a couple months now, and while we certainly have 'off' days, overall it's working quite well for us. You will remember from my previous post about our daily schedule that I organize our day into blocks. (I've switched around our blocks a bit since my previous post, but the idea remains the same.) Basically, I have chosen an activity for Elizabeth to correspond with each block. This gives enough variety that usually she can "last" through the whole block without too much difficulty. I've also tried to strike a balance towards things that include her with us (because she so desperately wants to be involved in what we are doing) and things that will hopefully train her towards occupying herself independently. Right now, our schedule looks like this:

First Block - Elizabeth With Me: Before I start anyone's actual school work, I spend about 10-15 minutes JUST WITH ELIZABETH. We read a story together, just she and I, and then do some kind of simple activity. Often these days it's cut and paste (she's REALLY in to cut and paste right now). Sometimes puzzles. Sometimes playing with the alphabet letters. You get the idea. Basically just something simple that helps her feel a little more like she is involved and that we want her to be there. During this time Michelle (age 7) works on her independent work checklist and James (4) plays quietly by himself.

Second Block - Elizabeth With Michelle: I work with James for 20 minutes or so on word building and counting games. While I"m doing this, Michelle is responsible to do something with her little sister. Sometimes they read, sometimes they play or do puzzles, this morning they played playdough.

Third Block - Elizabeth With Me: This is our time where we do various things all together as a group - read poems, Aesop, sing French songs, etc. These are also the parts of our school morning that are the easiest to include the younger kids in. So, she is either on my lap during this time, or at the table doing something like scribble with dry erase markers or building with Math U See blocks. (I've also found that giving her time when it is OK to touch these things on the school table has helped her to keep her fingers out of them at other times, as a side benefit.) We do our French action songs at the end of this block which is a wiggle-reliever for all three kids.

Fourth Block - Snack Time: All three kids have a snack while I read aloud from a history or nature book (which Michelle narrates).

Fifth Block - Craft Time: I keep a special box of crafty things - paper scraps to cut up, coloring pages, dot markers, stickers, playdough, Kumon workbooks (for folding, cutting, mazes, etc) - that I don't get out at other times of day. Elizabeth and James get an activity out of this box while Michelle and I work together to finish her school work (going over her independent work, spelling, math, sometimes another read-aloud to narrate). There are heaps of ideas for busy bags for little ones out there on the internet, but frankly I don't have time to organize that kind of thing and I find that the simplest things are what keep my particular kids engaged the longest anyhow.

So that's what we do to keep our 2 year old happy and gainfully occupied for 2 hours while we try to do our schoolwork. Doesn't always work...but usually, it does. =)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Remember and Celebrate Grace

Last year, I posted a list of goals and intentions for the year.   I kind of chuckle when I look at it now.  Mostly because I didn't accomplish most of it. ;-)  That's not to say that I didn't accomplish things or grow as a person this year...I did!   It just didn't take the shape that I expected it to at the beginning of the year.   And that's OK.   I'm good with it.   I'm not planning to make or publish another list of goals and intentions for this year.   I may still try to chip away at some of those goals and intentions,  I'm just not going to worry myself so much about being able to check things off a nice tidy list.

Rather, I've chosen a broader intention...a theme, if you camp out on this coming year, which has grown out of a number of things I've thought about over the past couple of years already.   Recently, I've seen how those things connect together.  That intersection is something I want to consider and meditate on in this coming year.  That's where my title comes from: 
Remember and Celebrate Grace
In recent years, it's become apparent to me how much I take the grace of God in my life for granted.  I don't live like someone who has been set free from certain death.  This is apparent to me in my daily life.  I am task focused and more often than not attempting to complete those tasks on my own strengh.  I set legalistic standards for myself to follow (which carries over into my parenting and marriage) and put terrible pressure on myself when I can't perform.  I want to be able to extend grace to those around me (my husband and children first, and then others), but I can't if I don't fully understand how God's grace has been extended to me.
That's why 'remember' is the first idea here.  I want to remember the grace that God has shown me.  I want him to "restore unto me the joy of my salvation".   I want to truly understand the gospel and what it means in my everyday life.  I want it to color my daily life and overflow to those who live around me.  I've started this already by doing a slow, meditative study of the book of Romans...trying to look at it with fresh eyes and letting the truth of it seep into my life.  Other books and resources that have been helpful for influential in this journey so far include Jerry Bridges book The Discipline of Grace and Emily Freeman's Grace for the Good Girl.  I've appreciated Kendra's perspective on grace-full family life over at Preschoolers and Peace too.
A couple of the blogs that I like to follow are written by Catholics (especially this one).  One of the things I've noticed as I've followed along with these blogs is the way that they observe the various feasts and festivals of the church year - their year revolves around the rememberence and celebration of what God has done.  So many of their family traditions are wrapped up in these rememberences and celebrations. And they celebrate in ways that even the very littlest ones among them can understand and enter into the celebration too.  This strikes me as a very beautiful thing, and something that we've lost track of in our American Evangelical Protestant tradition (sadly, in my opinion).  In our family, we've attempted to bring a more Christ-centered focus to our Christmas and Easter celebrations, but this is an idea that I'd like to extend even further.  Starting this year - meaning this Church Year, beginning with this season of Advent - I would like to reflect on the various seasons of the Church Year and consider how we - even as evangelical Protestants from a non-liturgical tradition - can celebrate the extravagant grace He has extended to us and how our family traditions and celebrations can reflect His goodness.   I plan to read and reflect on the book Living the Church Year:Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross this year, with an eye to considering how it can apply to our family in the following 'church year' cycle.   Perhaps some of those meditations will spill over into this space too.

What about you?  Is there a theme that God has laid on your heart for the coming year?   Do you have any favorite resources, practices, or traditions that help you Remember and Celebrate Grace?