Fitting It All In

Fitting it all in does not just mean the school work I want the boys to do, nor does it mean how to juggle all the house cleaning, laundry, shopping, cooking and anything else that needs to be done.  Fitting it all in also includes having regular free time for myself so I do not feel so overwhelmed all the time.  When I have found free time on a regular basis, I find that I can and do have the energy and drive to actually do things such as cleaning, cooking and laundry without feeling so pressed for time or doing it begrudgingly.

There is always room for growth, no matter how much we work on improving, so even a seasoned homeschool parent is constantly learning and trying to improve things.  I have been looking for ways to make everything work, including making things more calm in the evening.  What I did not count on is that I have not only made my evenings more free and open, my days are calm AND we are fitting in more things!

When I first started homeschooling (over 7 years ago now,) it was not much of an issue.   As I mentioned before, but will recap briefly again, I used a regular school-like curriculum with textbooks, workbooks and tests.  I had one boy I was teaching, and we were able to complete everything in a couple hours in the morning and perhaps another hour in the afternoon. It became tricky once the younger boys were old enough to start school as well.  If one boy needed 3 or so hours of my time, then two boys needed at least 6 hours and 3… well, I was starting to wonder how I would be able to teach everyone.   We ended up doing some unit study/notebooking for two years, and that was a bit better, for I could actually include all three boys into most lessons, even though they were on various levels.  Those worked well for the years we did them, but I still was not happy.

Most of you know by now that we are doing the Ambleside Online (AO) curriculum, which is a Charlotte Mason (CM) based curriculum.  This style of teaching was calling out my name, and calling very loudly.  Not only is it a rigorous secular schedule and not only is it G-d based, meaning I do not have to worry about evolution based teaching, it also focuses on short days – 1.5-2.5 hours in the younger years and 3-3.5 hours in the older years. And when the boys are old enough, they actually do most of the work themselves and only come to me at the end of the readings to discuss and narrate. This means, I have plenty of time to teach all three boys, and by this time number 4 boy was already here, I had time to get our Judaic learning done as well!  That really made such a difference, not only on time, but with my mind, I was more at ease.

The change in the curriculum helped a lot, however, I was still very busy until bed time.  With children actually in the house and using it all day it gets, well, used, Baruch Hashem!  The drawback to it getting used is that there is more to clean up at the end of the day.  I felt I needed to stay up late just to chill out and de-stress and that is not the best for shalom bayis when my wonderful tired husband kept asking me when I was going to be ready.  I would feel rushed to de-stress and that is very hard to do!

There are two other changes I have made this year to my schedule and after just a few weeks, I have noticed such a tremendous and wonderful change.  The first change was in our schedule.  It is so easy to schedule one lesson after another – especially when it is going from one child to another for then the children can get breaks and I can get everything in that I want.  There is only one small snag in that theory, and that is… it does not work.  Even though we ONLY need 15 minutes for one subject and 20 afterwards with another boy, unless the children know how to pretend they are on an assembly line, it just won’t work.  Period.  Murphy’s Law will come into effect all the time, guaranteed. A child will not find a book (even though they had 15 minutes to get it,) a younger child will need attention, someone comes to the door, etc.  What happens then is that you feel like you did not get what you needed done and you feel like a failure.

This year I got smart.  Actually, it was more of luck, but yes, there was a little bit of smartness as well.  No matter how long we need for a lesson, I give it 45 minutes!  So, even if I need 15 minutes, I do not schedule anything else for 30 more minutes.  I did this for as my youngest needs more attention, this gives me the added minutes to cushion in time for him.  It also gives time for all the other distractions -CFAP Syndrome (Can’t Find A Pencil,) CFTB Syndrome (Can’t Find The Binder/Book,) IJNTBN Syndrome (I Just NEED The Bathroom NOW,) etc.  In other words, it gives the boys just a little bit extra free time during the day, with a less stressed Mom.  Even if the boys are all ready and I am all ready, I still give them the rest of the 45 minutes and we all love it!  It is cute watching a boy looking at his chart and saying “XXX we have 15 more minutes, come, let’s do YYY!”  The nice smiles on their faces somehow makes it all worthwhile.  I think it is the idea that playing is now mutar, now permitted, and they do not have to ask me to play or read or whatever, that is *their* time and there is even less CFAP, CFTB and IJNTBN Syndromes now!

I also started something else.  I did this a few times last year and it worked nice, and so this year I decided I was going to do it every week.  I make a list of meals and the grocery list on Sunday before shopping.  I was worried that I would forget or things would just happen and it would not get done, but I think that since I was determined to do this for the right reasons AND (and this is the most important thing,) I was ready for it, Hashem has helped me out so far.  Yes, I know friends that already do this and I even had at least one of them suggest it to me before, but I was not ready.  After really thinking about it and letting it simmer in my mind for many months, I am now ready.

This works wonders for not only do I have all the ingredients I need for the week, I do not have to worry or wonder what I am making for supper, this huge relief has been lifted from my shoulders.  I also have found that I do not mind making something that takes a little extra TLC for supper for I don’t have to spend the time thinking about it which gives more time to cook, if I so choose.

Now, I’m not saying now that I seem to have more free time that my house is spotless, I’m just saying that I have figured out how to keep the status quo and give myself regular free time.  At the same time, I am slowly (albeit very slowly,) working on raising the status quo.  I’m positive I will eventually get there. 🙂

Getting Myself Ready – My Chizuk

Yes, I know that experiences cannot be equaled and in case I was not sure about it, after the past few weeks, there is definitely no doubt in my mind.  Over the past week and a half, our boys have spent many, many hours outside, in the water – ponds, creeks, etc. playing in the sand, feeling the seaweed, smelling the different smells, watching lobsters hide, seeing small schools of fish, as well as larger ones.  Not to mention watching out for poison ivy and poison oak as we hike through the neighboring forests and seeing, feeling and smelling all the wonderful things there.  Charlotte Mason definitely knew what she was talking about when she said the only science a child needs for the first 6 years should be nature study.

We have been doing Ambleside Online for 2 years now, and I could never really fit in nature walks like I should, even though I wanted too, and I thought I tried.  I am hoping these wonderful experiences will encourage me to try harder.  Really, it all boils down to having the right schedule.  I find that I can stick to a schedule pretty good if I have one (and I’m the one that makes it, which is good!)

We are told that to raise good and happy children, the relationship between the mother and the father must be a good and happy one as well.  One of the ways to attain this is to make the relationship between husband and wife a priority over the children, that way the children can see how a good relationship should be and how they should act, for seeing has more of an impact than telling.  Homeschooling is not only about the children, it is about us, the teachers as well and therefore we need to nurture ourselves and take care of ourselves first.

We are just a few short weeks from Rosh Hashanah and we have had the most amazing few weeks. We do not get to interact very often with homeschoolers – we do not really have that much in common with the ones we know who are local, and to interact with religious Jewish homeschoolers on top of that is even more of a bonus.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I have an issue being the “different” one, not at all, however, occasionally it is good to meet others who are different like you.

It was good for the children to be able to play with other religious Jewish homeschoolers, and it was good for me to be able to talk to not just one, but two mothers who have similar philosophies as we do.  It was so exciting to talk to mothers who have had at least double the amount of years of homeschooling behind them than I do for it gave me a chance to see where I could be as a homeschool parent – what kinds of ideas I could try to use, from “experts”.   I was also glad I was able to share some of our experiences and see that I could be of some help as well.  And, it was nice just to talk!

I once heard from a rabbi that all the spiritual connection and chizuk that we get from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkos is set so that it carries us through the dark times of winter, yes, we have a little bit of light from Chanukah, but there are no Yomim Tovim until Pesach, and our neshamas need the spiritual connection.  So too, I felt that Hashem has given me this boost of the visits of two wonderful mothers (and their children!) to help give me chizuk for the next while. I felt lucky to have such wonderful conversations with one of the mothers that came.  We took the children out in the afternoon and then they still did not have enough time together, so her son came over for a sleepover.  After the mother left, I felt not only spiritual happiness and chizuk, but I found it gave me chizuk in general to do some stuff around the house that I was trying to get done.  I tried to soak up all the chizuk and spiritual connection that I could so that it would carry me over until the next encounter.



Imagining an Apple Tree…

Imagine sitting underneath an apple tree, with the limbs and all the green hanging down all around you.  Imagine finding a wonderful limb that you could sit on, pretending to go galloping up a mountain and reaching the very top.  Or, perhaps you would like to imagine bringing out your dolls and sitting inside your house of limbs with all sorts of interesting shaped rooms.

We never had apple trees when I was growing up.  I never went to an apple orchard until shortly after I got married, and then it was only once.  I have visited an orchard a few times over the last few years, but never had the luxury to sit underneath one.  However, I can imagine how it would be to be a little smaller and enjoying the shade of the trees.  I think the next time I go apple picking I will sit down underneath one of the trees and just imagine…

Why is it that I can imagine something that I have never done?  It is easy if you have a living book to read from.  A living book is a book that is written by a person who is extremely knowledgeable in the topic.  Normally these authors love the topic they are writing about and it shows in their writing.  The nice thing about AO is that they use living books.  I do not know about you, but I have always found textbooks to be very dry and hard to learn from usually.  With living books, I learn.

It is easy to learn when the author writes as though they are talking directly to you, in person.  I read to my boys (all 5 of them tonight!) about the orchard.  We learned that the apple blossom blooms only in May, and learned to wonder how an apple could come from those blossoms, after all, not everyone wonders but it is good to wonder.  We learned that the apple blossom has 5 petals and in the center it looks like there are pins in a mini pin cushion!  There is what looks like dust on the head of the “pins” and so we are calling them dust boxes right now, until the author tells us the real name. 🙂  Did you know if you took off the petals, you will be left with 5 green “leaves” and little pins with no dust boxes on them!  After the petals fall from the flower, a knob grows on the other side, and that, my readers, is the beginning of an apple!

Now, reading from a living book is wonderful, but it is no match for seeing it in person.  We do not have an apple tree in our yard, and since it is July, we would not have any blossoms on it anyways.  However, we do have rose bushes. What do rose bushes and apple trees have in common? (Well, I read ahead so I know!)  Let me tell you what I did after supper.  I took all the boys out to our rose bushes (the one we went to is an Alberta Rose bush variety.  Now are you getting the idea?)  Our roses have just finished flowering and the flowers are in the process of falling off.   Yes, the blossoms look similar.  We did not see the dust boxes on these roses for the flowers were shriveling up to die, but perhaps I’ll still find a flower in bloom tomorrow if I look on one of the other plants.  I did take my youngest over to the lilies that were blooming and see the dust boxes on them.  I even got him to use just one finger to touch the pin heads instead of pinching them with finger and thumb.  We both loved looking at the yellow dust on our fingers!

We each had the thrill of pulling off the petals and seeing the 5 “leaves” and the pins with no dust boxes.  Now, we looked underneath the flower, and voila! There we saw the knob!  Looking further around the bush shows knobs that were ripe and ready to pick and eat.  Wow!  It is amazing how much the rose bush and the apple tree have in common.  The nice thing about the rose bush is that we were able to see all facets of the plant growing at the same time, unlike the apple tree. (By the way, the rose fruit is called Rose Hip and is edible!)

We were very lucky today.  We cannot always finish a nice learning with actual testing of the reading, and I took full advantage of it.  Sometimes we can do part testing – for example, I first took my youngest to the lilies and that would have been wonderful in itself without being able to see the rest that we were talking about.

I believe it is very important that children – and adults alike – get to make these wonderful connections.  It brings all the things we learn to life and ingrains it inside of us – just like when we took the boys to see handmade replicas of Columbus’ two ships the Nina and the Pinta this past weekend!

The awe and warm fuzzy feeling that even I felt tonight as I went and picked the petals and saw the inside with the pins with no dust boxes is something I will most likely remember.  Even though this was a rose bush, I remember seeing pictures of apple blossoms and it was just as wonderful with the rose bush as if it was an apple tree.  If I am ever able to visit a blooming apple tree, you will be certain that I will put my finger gently on the pins with the dust boxes!

Ambleside Online – Why I’m so excited!

Over the years, we have had various kinds of curricula.  We started off with Calvert, an all-in-one curriculum that even includes crayons, pencils and erasers!  It is a standard school curriculum which includes the teacher’s guide, answers, and wonderful support from real teachers.  After using it for 3 years, I realized that other than it is quite expensive (it was costing me about $700 a year per child, but over 93% cheaper than private schools,) it was not working out for one of my children so I had to look for something else.

Money was a huge issue, as well as the fact that I was trying to teach and look after several younger children at the same time and I decided I was going to try to see if I could combine and overlap some of the teaching with the boys to help me out.  I spent a long time looking into Unit Studies.  Unit Studies take a topic and combine different subjects into one unit so you are teaching many subjects at once.

We have a yearly budget for school, which includes any camp, and two years ago, while our boys were at a much needed (for me!) camp, I spent several days searching the internet for unit studies that I wanted to do for the coming year.  With sending 3 boys to camp for 2 weeks each, my budget for schooling for the year was almost nothing, so I had to search for free stuff.  The problem was that I was not finding free units for the topics I wanted to teach.  The second last day of camp I was at my wit’s end.  I just did not know what to do.  Our schooling was suppose to start in 4 days and I had no clue what I was going to teach!  For some reason I clicked on a link that was a curriculum.  I did not want a curriculum, but I clicked anyways.  What did I have to loose?  I already exhausted all possible sites for what I was looking for anyways, and I needed a change of pace.  I started reading.  It was Ambleside Online, a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  A free curriculum, nice, but not for me (not that I knew anything about it!)  As I read all about the curriculum, I found myself liking and agreeing with what I was reading.  I emailed my husband some of what I read for I really liked it – not that I was going to do it, but it was really good stuff.  I kept reading.  And reading.  And reading.  By the end of the day I knew what I was going to do that year – with only 2 days to prepare (Shabbos was in the middle,) I was going to jump right into it anyways and figure it out.

Charlote Mason lived in England in the late 1800’s early 1900’s.  Ms. Mason was a teacher for many years and spend a lot of time trying to improve her teaching ideas and skills.  In a nutshell, she voted for short lessons, which equal to short school days so there is time for personal interests and hobbies (very important.)  However, she was an advocate for a strong education with knowledge in a wide range of topics and felt that children were capable of more than we tend to think of them as being capable of. She was an advocate for living books – books written by authors who were knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. At the same time, religion was very important and incorporated God into secular learning.  She was a huge advocate of sending kids outside for as long as possible with part free time and part guided time.  Middos (character traits) are very important.  And, don’t start children too early.  Let them grow, let them learn about nature, let them understand how a flower grows and how a squirrel lives.  Let them learn how to observe nature and then they can learn.  With four children, and with being religious, the idea of having time to teach all of them, give them a good strong educational background AND do it with Hashem in mind all the time, Wow!

The Charlotte Mason version that we use is an online version.  The advisory has tried to find as many of the books that fit the teaching style as possible that are out of copyright and available for free online.  This helps cut down the cost.

They have also set up a schedule for each year – broken down by week.  This makes it very flexible. Some children need to break readings down into multiple sections read over several days, and it gives the option of putting everything into a 4 day week instead of 5.  This is what we do.  I arrange almost everything into 4 days, and Fridays are left for other stuff (yes, cooking and cleaning is part of it, but that really is school for that is real life skills.)  I do not feel forced to use everything on the list.  Obviously, I replace the Bible with Torah study, Christian history with our Jewish history and hymns with davening and Shabbos songs.  However, I do not have to worry about reading that the world is millions of years old when I do not believe that.  The setup is just a nice guideline being flexible if I need to replace a book and letting me choose when to teach.  There are a few books that I have left out of teaching for they are too Christian based, but all in all, that is not an issue and we enjoy being able to easily see Hashem in all our learning.

The big difference that one will see when they go through the FAQ’s is that especially for the younger years, there is no writing except the copywork! None!  What is done instead is oral narrations.  The parent or teacher (if in a school) reads from the different books, then asks for an oral narration from the child(ren).  After the narration, the parent or teacher then uses that for discussions.  Why oral narrations? Talking is easier than writing, and if you cannot tell me what you read, then you do not understand and how can you write about it?  Starting in year 4, after the child has the idea of how to listen and read and understand, then they start with 1-2 written narrations.  The readings get very intense – starting in year 4 we add Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare (yes, the real thing – however, it did not work out for us too well, but I think it was mostly me and the scheduling mainly….)  Younger children have short attention span so the lessons need to be short – 10-15 minutes.  Older children about 30-45 minutes.  No longer.  Also, learn not to repeat (unless the child does not understand) for they need to learn to listen the first time, after all, their boss is not going to tell them twice to do a job!

The first year was a little strange.  It took a while before I got the hang of what I was suppose to be doing with the narrations.  This past year I had a much better idea and the discussions came a lot easier for me.  I will be entering year 3 with AO and am very excited.  I just placed the order for the year’s books – $160 for my oldest (the younger ones already have the books!).  Well, that is everything except math.  That will come at the end of the summer.  My oldest is going to be reading about all sorts of exciting stuff this year such as classical mechanics, relativity (yes, in year 6!!!), reading the Hobbit and the Animal Farm and all about the Greeks and Romans.  He has read the unabridged classics such as Robinson Crusoe and Oliver Twist, with more to come!  Oh, and Understood Betsy and The Little Duke are NOT to be missed!

I have my reading list for the summer set out for me, I can’t wait!  I think I will enjoy the books more than they will!

End of the Year – Trying to finish it off!

Shavuos is behind us.  It was a beautiful 3 day holiday.  Sunny, hot and humid, however, even so, it was beautiful!  We enjoyed every minute of it, and like always, I’m sad when the holiday is over.  3 days of everyone home, Daddy was home, nice friends, and even some nice food. 🙂

However, it finally hit me.  I’m having a hard time finishing up the rest of the year.  This year was better than most, some years it is really bad.  It is not that I do not want to teach, it just happens that near the end of the year things do not go quite as smoothly as they usually do.  I am not sure how it happens for we have a schedule.  However, for whatever reason, things seem to break down near the end of the year.  Right now we have about 2-3 weeks of school left, but oftentimes things go wild 2 months before the end of the year.

I think part of my problem is that I’m thinking ahead.  It is about this time of year that I get really excited about the next year – all the ideas and changes and thoughts and wonderful things we are going to be doing, I just want to sit down and organize it all now.  Don’t get me wrong, we had a wonderful year, at least from my perspective, however I just get excited about the fresh start each year.  The last two years have been wonderfully amazing, and I can see how next year can be even better.

The new secular program we have been doing has been wonderful for us.  We have been doing a Charlotte Mason program – Ambleside Online.  There are several versions of Ms. Mason’s curriculum, and the version I have is an online version.  The perk to it being online is that most of what we use is available online, and they have made it very convenient and put links for all the available books.

There are two main reasons why I really love this program.

The first reason is that it is God based.  One could use it without religion if one desired as there are other reasons to use the curriculum even without religion, and one could very easily change it from a Christian based curriculum to a Jewish based curriculum like I did.  All I really need to do is remove the books that are not for me (i.e. Bible, Christian history) and replace them with what I want (i.e. Torah and Jewish history).  I have found the books that remain make it easier for me to include God in our entire schooling, not just in the “Jewish” part of it.  In our science when we are talking about volcanoes and earthquakes and the book mentions the “One Who create all but we are not going to know but you know Who it is” (and yes, this particular book words it this way, it is cute and I really like the book) to learning about Joan of Arc and we see the miracle of how the small French army wins over the larger English army, and how when they finally crowned the real King of France, we see how God runs the world and how the French coronation is actually very similar to how the Jewish kings were crowned.

The second reason I fell in love with the Charlotte Mason approach is because she focused on SHORT lessons.  The younger years (through year 3) have 10-15 minute lessons.  That is all!  Why? The child cannot sit for longer than that without getting bored and distracted.  Do not let the child get bored for you want to keep their interest. Older children can focus more so the older years have 30-45 minute lessons depending on the section/day.

There has been many times where I would stop reading right at the climax of a story.  Yes, I was a meany!!!  Oh, did they beg and plead with me to read more, but after I secretly read the ending I then, with a sneaky look on my face, closed the book shut and tell them next week!  The suspense was almost unbearable for them!  They are then so excited to come back next week to hear what happened.  It is a great way to keep the interest of an otherwise not so interesting book as well.  Oh, and yes, the next day they tried hard to tell me they did not read that book yet for the week. 😉

Another bonus to short lessons is that it is great for those of us who are teaching a dual curriculum.  You can actually teach all the subjects, in depth, AND teach another full curriculum!  And not only that, if there are multiple children you are teaching, hey, there is time enough for all of them, what more could I ask for?  God in all facets of life, and time to teach all my children.

It has been two years and I am very happy.  I still have not been able to include all I would like to include into our schedule, however, slow and steady wins the race they say.  We have done better this second year, and I am very confident that I will be able to do better this coming year.  Now, to try to focus for a few short weeks so we can get done!