My Break Time Reading Program, updated for 2020

If you have children home on the loose and need to keep them occupied, here is an updated PDF version of my original Decathlon Summer Reading program:

Jen Fitz’s Break Time Reading Program (PDF – Ready to Print)

It’s called a Decathlon because I came up with it during an Olympic year, and we went with the idea of being an all-around champion by pursuing ten different subjects.  The way it works is that you earn a small prize every time you complete an activity sheet for any subject.  You can do as many sheets in a subject area as you want (the point is to keep busy, right?).  The big Decathlon prize can only be earned by completing at least one sheet in every subject area.*

Our small prizes were things like a pint of ice cream, but you could make it bonus screen time, time doing a kid-chosen game together, parent does one chore for kid, parent sings a silly song for kid — be creative, and feel free to tailor prizes to each child.  Obviously, prizes only work well if they are items which are reasonable for the parents to offer, but are also something special that will motivate the child.

In the pandemic-version update, I’ve removed reference to “summer” and also removed all the original prizes, since you may have difficulty acquiring specific items.  On each page, just fill in the agreed-upon prize for the subject area and then your big prize for kids who complete the entire Decathlon. (Our summer 2016 Decathlon award was $50. Only one of our four children was determined enough to earn it. The others, though, stayed busy completing activity sheets in order to get the small prizes.)

I specify “books” for the reading requirements because we developed this program as an alternative to our library’s summer reading program.  Given that your library may be closed right now (ours is), if you don’t have an extensive home library, consider allowing e-books (your public library probably stocks them), audio books, podcasts, or documentaries.  Part of the challenge for science labs, arts, crafts, etc., is for your child to hunt down the needed information and supplies independently.  There are many resources available online if you don’t have a stash of pertinent books at home.  There is no reason fine arts, crafts, and science activities cannot be completed using materials scavenged from your recycle bin.  If you don’t have access to the outdoors, Naturalist activities can be done by looking out the window (ID’ing different types of clouds would be an example) or by using a science website to learn what a given plant, animal, or insect looks like, then using Google Images as a collection of samples for ID-practice.

If you are doing it right, once your child gets the hang of how the system works, it should involve relatively little work for you.  The goal is to get kids motivated to try new things and work independently.  If you have very young children and also an older sibling, you could create an incentive whereby the older sibling earns a prize sheet for helping a little one do their activities.  Obviously you should adjust the suggested activities based on your child’s age and ability.  I allowed some substitutions such as Lego Sculpture as an art/craft, with parent pre-approval.

If you are comfortable with spreadsheets (or would like to be) and you would like to customize the program, here is a link to a Google Sheets version of my spreadsheet:

Jen Fitz’s Break Time Reading Program Spreadsheet

The file is read-only, so just copy-and-paste or upload it into your preferred spreadsheet program in order to modify it.

Copyright information: You’re welcome to share this, as-is or in your modified version, including posting on your own website, as long as you (a) include credit for the original and (b) don’t charge anyone for access to your version.  This is meant to be shared freely.

Enjoy!

Me with purple weeds in bloom

For our photo penance today: Here’s me with posing with some of the pollen-producing plants that are causing us all to go nuts wondering whether we are coming down with the plague or it’s just that time of year.

 

*I do include an option to allow one two-for-one substitution and still earn the Decathlon prize.  This allows for a kid who just absolutely hates a subject to do extra work in other areas to buy out of the one dread subject.

PS: Yes, these PDFs look exactly like the graphic artist is an accountant.  Easiest way to cause this to be a brightly-colored, decorated version is to print it out, staple it into a booklet, and give your kids a pack of crayons and let them color it all they like.  Remember parents, goal here is to keep your kids busy, not you busy.

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Why Black History Month Can Make Your Life Better

Last day of February, and because it’s a leap year we get one extra day of Black History Month.  This year I’ve been enjoying @Menny_Thoughts daily posts on Black Catholic history. (He blogs here.) The bulk of the mini-biographies he shared were familiar names to me, but not over-familiar by any stretch, and there were quite a few new-to-me stories, at least one of which made me briefly jealous I hadn’t included it in my array of saints for the book.

The thing that bugs me every year, though, is the implicit question when you set aside a specia- month-for-special-people: What about the other 11/12ths of the year?  Goes for womens’ history too, and don’t get me started on that one.

It’s a question I asked myself at the start of the month, and now that I’ve had twenty-nine days to think about it, here are three reasons I think Black History Month is important.

#1 Sooner or later you discover there’s more to Black History than MLK and Harriet Tubman.

Start there by all means.  Those are need-to-know stories.  But if enough years of enough days go by, eventually you start digging into lesser-known luminaries.  This is important because of something a friend of mine said way back in high school.

The topic was a television show neither of us watched much.  I found the characters one-dimensional, the plots predictable, and the dialog stilted.  His complaint: “There’s that character who is supposed to be the spoiled rich girl from the elite family, but there’s no such thing as black people like that.”

I instinctively knew he was wrong?  But I had no evidence with which to make my case.

My friend was not alone. What we learned about African-American history in school consisted of slave, slave, slave, slave, emancipation, Jim Crow, MLK, and then somehow magically you are surrounded by all these black professionals you encounter in daily life, but actually black people are mostly poor and helpless and need social workers to save them? (Always them.)  And also there’s that guy who made the pottery.

Mmmn . . . not so much.

Thus even though it’s fantastically dumb that we need such a thing, it’s good that we eventually get so bored of the same half-dozen African-American figures getting shared around every February that we start to uncover, bit by bit, that there’s a whole lot more to know.  And it’s interesting.

#2 African-American history is American history.

Let’s talk about white people.

White people can get uncomfortable admitting to an interest in Black History.  It’s like if you’re white you are contractually obligated to either have an Official Reason to study such a thing, or else you must use the word “vibrant” to gush about those special special people who are just as good as you — honest! even better! — because of course they are so vibrant.

Me with a copy of All Blood Runs Red, a biography of Eugene Ballard by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Actually we know this is true, because look at our daily penitential photo.  That’s me posing with the cover of All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Solider, Spy. You’ll notice that Eugene Ballard looks a little skeptical on his cover photo.  He’s totally thinking: Why do I have to pose with this white lady I don’t even know?

Or maybe he’s thinking: Why yes, I am a World War I flying ace, thank you very much.

(I can’t promise you the book’s any good, but the dogfight sequence in the prologue made it well worth the trouble of grabbing it off the new books shelf at the library today. Looks promising.)

You don’t need an official reason to study this or that type of history.  If you feel like you have to explain yourself because you take an interest in the actions or language or heritage of people who aren’t part of your officially-designated special-interest group? Then you need to give yourself some desensitization therapy.

#3 You deserve to be well-educated.

By way of example: If you are a teacher in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to read Up from Slavery.

Yes indeed, it is a massive fundraising letter (missionaries take note, if you need ideas).  Yes it’s also one of those things you need to read in order to claim to be knowledgeable of African-American history (I make no such claim — I’m strictly an amateur). But if you are a teacher?  Booker T. Washington happens to have written a practical philosophy of education that is far more useful than the bulk of the pedagogical blather that gets shoved at education majors.

If you want to learn the art of rhetoric from a master of the English language, read Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you want to learn how to be a saint during an epidemic in a city with neighborhoods under quarantine, read the life of Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Black History is human history.  You might show up for some other reason, but you stay because you found something of enduring value.

7QT: Anatomy of a K5 Bible Lesson

Prologue:  Do you who makes this world a better place?  Editors do.  I finally opened the edits on the manuscript for the new book, and with great pleasure observed that (a) my editor knows exactly what she’s doing and by the end of the month, therefore, a far better book will be headed towards production, and (b) it turns out only one of my chapters needed to be scrapped because it was . . . not what would be helpful to the reader.

This was a good experience, because it means I got to write my mad rant, sit on it for a year, and then come back and write a fresh take that will be pretty awesome, if my notes pulled together during time-outs at a basketball game last night are to be believed.  So that’s fun.

What might I have foamed at the mouth about?  Oh, you know, catechesis.  Shock shock.

#1 It was good that I was writing up notes on catechesis yesterday, because today I was subbing K5 at the kids’ school.  Subbing all-day kindergarten is God’s way of periodically reminding me that fulltime early-elementary teachers possess heroic superpowers.  But a day in kindergarten is the path to making you look forward to working with the 8th and 10th graders again, but also be reminded that five-year-olds are so much fun.  They really are.  Exhausting, yes, but also magically fun.

#2 So we make it through the morning and right after lunch it’s time for a Bible story.  The kids were learning the story of  Esther this week; the other K5 teachers assured me that my chief goal was to reinforce.  I glanced at the teacher’s manual and noted that bravery was the big theme for the day, and that we had Romans 8:28 for a our Bible verse to fit with the theme.

#3 When you have to call a sub at eight at night, you aren’t necessarily able to get everything laid out the way you’d hoped.  My colleagues clued me in to hunt the room for the Bible story card that goes with Esther, and I found it hanging on the wall.  When I pulled it down, there were four other stories behind — two from David, plus the Nativity.  These were super props: Large format, laminated, full-color illustrations of the key moment in a Bible story; on the back side the story is printed ready-to-go.  Good thing, if you’re the sub who needs to be prompted on what story you’re teaching, heh.

And here’s thing about teaching religious ed: You are almost always going to have to assess the mood of the room, see what resources you have, and make quick decisions.

We had these big pictures.  We’ll be using the big pictures.

#4 So we started with the first picture, and I asked who remembered what story this one was.  I called on a raised hand to narrate (I’m sorry I can’t call on you unless you are sitting quietly), got a decent retelling of key points, and called on a second student to add any missing details.  I gave it a one-sentence summary (we’re just reviewing here), and per the lesson plan emphasized the theme of bravery.

Quick move to the second card, repeat with two different volunteers.  Third card showed Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger.  First volunteer talked about them traveling to Bethlehem and asking for a room at the inn.  Second volunteer talked about the flight to Egypt, because king Saul wanted to kill baby Jesus.

Oops.  No dear, Saul was the one hunting David, previous story.  This time it’s Herod.  No big, and then emphasize again, in teacher-recap, the bravery of Mary and Joseph.

All that was review, and it let the talkers get some talking done and got everyone thinking about those pictures and therefore churning through whatever they could remember of Bible stuff they’d learned in the past.

Then onto the fun bit.

#5 You can’t keep talking and talking.  These are five-year-olds.  Time for some action.

Our key idea is bravery.  The kids were able to remember something about the bad guy in the picture wanting to kill Esther, and that she was the queen.  I reviewed (two or three sentences, max) the key facts of the story, and then had a volunteer come up to the front and sit on a chair and be a king on his throne.

Something that makes Esther brave is that she approached the king without permission, which was a capital offense.  I explained that if the king calls on you, you can come to talk to him.  I let the king call on three volunteers and give them permission to speak to the king.  Each in turn approached the throne, said, “Hi King,” and then went back to their seats.  Perfectly safe.

Good.  Now someone needs to die.  That requires expertise.  I explained to the class that now I was going to approach the king without asking, which means he can have me put to death.  I walked up to the king, and prompted him to tell me, “Off with your head!”

He did.  I promptly dropped dead dramatically, with much more noise and rolling on the floor than decapitation might usually involve.

Kindergartners love it when you do that.

So you calm the class back down, tell them no one else gets to die right now, except maybe . . . Esther.

Pick another volunteer to be the queen.  Explain that your husband the king doesn’t know you need to talk to him, and you have to, because the bad guys want to kill your people.  But of course he could order your head chopped off — we all saw it happen just a minute ago.

So Esther approaches the king, I give the prompt for her line, “Can you please save my people from the bad guys?”

And then as the director here I ask the kid playing the king, “Did the king say, ‘Off with your head’ or did he say ‘Yes, I will save them.’?”

He got the line right and gave a nice clear answer to his stage-wife, “Yes, I will save them.”

#6  I wrap up with a tie back to the Nativity, and how the people saved by Esther’s bravery were the nation God chose to be the family of Jesus, our Savior.   David, Esther, and many other people were called by God to be brave, and all of them saying yes to God led up to the day when Jesus was born.

Now time to wrap up with a closing prayer.  My intuition was that it was time to go Ignatian.  This is K5, so you don’t have a lot of time.  I had the kids close eyes to pray, and then in my prayer thanked God for the bravery of His saints, the gift of salvation (“coming to be our Savior and opening up Heaven so we can be with you forever”), and His promise to be with us and give us strength and courage when things are scary.

Then, still praying, and making sure all the eyes were closed, I told them to imagine something scary that happens in their life, and then imagine Jesus being there with them, providing help and encouragement and the ability to be brave.  Now quietly imagine telling Jesus, who is there with you, thank you for being with you. Amen.

#7 That dropping dead thing?  Big kids like it too.

File:Book of Esther Chapter 7-4 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media).jpg

Artwork: Illustration from the book of Esther, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0.

What Your 8th Grader Needs to Learn

My friend asked advice on what curriculum to use with her 8th grader who has been in school until now, but will be homeschooling this coming year.  Everyone shared their favorite programs, which is super helpful, because when you haven’t homeschooled for a while, or never, it’s great to get a list of all the things people like.  I’ll mention at the bottom a few things I’ve liked for 8th grade over the years.

But to start, here’s my general list of recommendations for 8th graders:

The Two Big Skills

Make sure your child learns how to write a 5 paragraph essay.  It doesn’t matter what you personally think of the genre.  This skill is your child’s ticket through high school.  If you could only teach one thing, teach this.

Make sure your kid has mastered arithmetic and pre-algebra.  It’s not a race on doing Algebra 1 in junior high.  Don’t sweat that.  Get your kid as fluent as possible in the foundations, and then algebra and geometry will go much more smoothly when the time comes.

Science & Social Studies

A good physical science class can be very helpful as preparation for high school science if you haven’t done one lately and it isn’t scheduled for 9th grade. Alternately: Any science class your kid is super excited about.

If you’ve never done an overview of world history and world geography, now’s a good time to do that, unless it’s going to be your 9th grade. Alternately: Any social studies topic your kid is super excited about.

I prefer physical science and world history as 9th grade classes, but many schools have dropped them from 9th grade and go straight to what used to be saved until 10th grade.  Find out what your local school system does, what your state graduation requirements are (for example: 9th grade physical science doesn’t usually meet the college admission and high school graduation lab science requirements), and what the most likely course sequence is for your kid’s expected high school program.

The Important Parts

Do at least one thing your child enjoys.  If your kid hasn’t lately studied something just for the pure pleasure of it, do that. High school is gonna be long and will probably require a lot of intellectual self-denial, unless the kid really lucks out.

Your faith matters.  If you are coming from a den of atheism and returning to a den of atheism, take advantage of the time out to choose curriculum things that reinforce the faith. What that is will depend on your kid. My most recent 7th grader and I spent a semester volunteering at a clothing closet and a homeless-people-shower-and-laundry facility.   It’s not always textbooks that are the thing.

But do note that the Bible, church history, Christian authors, and the like can be legitimate ways to study literature and social studies, so you can really do some shoring up intellectually on the faith without overloading yourself. If you have a kid who wants to read Tolkien, let the kid read Tolkien, this is the moment.

Teach your kid to think.  If it won’t be happening in high school (see: “den of atheism”), consider doing a book like The Fallacy Detective that teaches you how to think clearly. I prefer to wait until high school, but junior high is better than never.

The Most Important Part

But mostly: Stay sane and don’t hate each other. Build your child’s confidence. Whatever it takes, that’s what you want.

 

***

And now for a few things that I’ve liked, having gotten 2.5 children through homeschooled 8th grade.  (#3 transitioned to school mid-year.) I’ve taught high school and middle school classes with a homeschool cooperative, so my sample size is a little larger than just my own kids.  For the coming year I’ll be teaching 6th and 7th grade humanities at a local private school, so I’m drawing on a little of what I’ve learned in prepping for that as well, though I’m not commenting on texts I’ve never used myself.

These are just things I’ve used and liked.  There are other good choices out there.

For 8th grade math  Saxon 8/7 has done us well. I like Math-U-See in general, but for getting a kid ready for algebra and geometry, 8/7 has proven itself.  I’d stay away from Saxon if your 8th grader has a super hard time with learning new concepts and needs lot of intensive time building the foundations.  But for kids who do okay, the dizzying spiral of Saxon works well in 8/7 as an unrelentingly thorough prep of every dang thing you need to know before getting to Algebra 1 and geometry.  You can start 8/7 after doing some other program your entire life, and you can transition to yet another program afterwards.  It’s a good 8th grade year solid choice for the average kid.

I’ve never regretted time spent on IEW.  As writing programs go, it’s intense.  Not everyone loves it.  But for mastering those 5-paragraph skills, it does the trick.  For the longterm, IEW is like calisthenics or martial-arts forms practice.  You aren’t going to grow up to write like you learned in junior high, but IEW does teach you how to take total control of your words, sentences, paragraphs, and the organization of your document.  That’s a necessary skill.  My youngest’s parish school teachers taught the kids that skill using something that wasn’t IEW, but that was also very effective.  So there are other ways.

If you’re looking for parent-friendly language arts, I like what Catholic Heritage Curricula has on offer in their Language of God series.  I like the Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary workshop books.  If you are that kind of person, both the old Voyages in English — now called Lepanto – and the new VIE currently being put out by Loyola Press are solid.  But you have to be that kind of person, because they are for-serious.

If you have a child who needs customized spelling help, Spelling Power works great, but it is teacher-intensive.  For certain learning disabilities you’ll want Sequential Spelling instead.

For Catholic religion textbooks, you want Faith and Life from Ignatius Press.  There are reasons your parish might need a different program, so don’t be down on your DRE about it . . . but you want F&L.  No really.  It’s the best.

UPDATED to throw in a comment on Literature: I’ve had one 8th grader do the Secret Code of Poetry, a workbook text I loved but she did not.  She wanted to read rescue thrillers.  Your mileage may vary.  The boy read a selection of choices off of Kolbe Academy’s reading list and used their study guides to go with; some of that he enjoyed and others he didn’t.  L. spent her fall semester of 8th grade on a drama unit and then The Hobbit studied from a novelist’s point of view, and that was good.  (My friend and I wrote the curricula on those, sooo, sorry, nothing to hand you off-the-shelf.)  She enjoyed Animal Farm in the spring at school, but in contrast the boy hated that one in middle school because the pigs made him so stinking furious.  8th grade is a good year for heroism.  The Hiding Place comes to mind as an example of a book that isn’t so very “literary” but can be a good selection, depending on your child.

I’d suggest you mine the reading lists of all the reputable Christian homeschool curriculum providers, and pick based on what interests your child.

The various history books from The Catholic Textbook Project absolutely rock.  I’m not just saying that because Mrs. Darwin is writing one (though hers is gonna be superb.  Whoa!  Yay!!!).  For geography, I still love the Map Skills series from Continental Press.  I like the history timeline flash cards from Classically Catholic Memory.  I also very much like picking a topic and going to the library and checking out bunches of books and learning about it that way.

I don’t have a favorite science program.  The books I’ve used that are recommended by various Catholic homeschool curriculum providers are all fine, sift through them based on your needs.  The library method combined with hands-on activities is my preferred science method, but it may or may not work for your 8th grade situation.

That’s all I can think of for now.  I’ve done reviews on this blog before, and written a little bit at CatholicMom.com way back when, if you want to search around.  There’s all kinds of good stuff out there.  Look for things that you like that match the personalities and constraints specific to you.  8th grade should not be miserable.  It’s not for that.

 

File:Jan van Scorel - Portrait of a Young Scholar - Google Art Project.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

 

Why We Homeschooled So Long

At The Washington Post: The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues.  Reading this article was a moment of revelation for me.  Way back when #2 was about seven or so, I can remember walking down to the corner elementary school to play on the playground after hours, and we looked into one of the classrooms.  It looked ideal.  It practically called her name.  There was a wooden play kitchen, and child-sized tables, and loads of art supplies, and of course the wonderful playground just outside the big windows that filled the classroom with natural light.  For my little extrovert, this classroom was her people.

And I thought to myself: Maybe I should not be homeschooling this child.  Maybe I should send her to school.

Then I came to my senses: This was was the kindergarten classroom.  By the time you are seven, it’s rows of desks and standardized tests for you.  Not to mention we’d had dealings with one of the neighbor-kindergartners, and so we were acquainted with the long list of “reading words” that five-year-olds at the corner school were somehow expected to memorize and supposedly “read,” at an age when, developmentally, not all children are even capable of learning to read.  All four of my kids went on to become fluent, competent readers who read for both pleasure and information, but none of them would have been able to read that list of words at age five.  They were physically unable.  Since they were at home, instead of being embarrassed by their supposed stupidity, they received the kinds of pre-reading instruction that educational research shows actually helps.

Some of things that help are language-based — read-alouds and rhyming games and stuff like that.  Something else that helps kids learn to read is learning about the world.  This is important because you can’t make sense of words on a page if you have no idea what those words are referring to.  You won’t understand a scene taking place in a grocery store if you’ve never been to a grocery store.  You won’t understand a nature scene if you’ve never been out in nature.  Playing teaches some important reading skills. It teaches you about the physical world, because you are physically doing stuff. It teaches you about human interactions, because you are creating scenarios and living them out.  Playing teaches you to think, because all play requires imagination and initiative and problem-solving.

***

(If you want to understand the great Maria Montessori vs. Charlotte Mason wrestling match, the missing piece is this: Charlotte Mason’s audience had access to the real world; Maria Montessori’s students were kids who would otherwise have spent their day alone in a tiny working-class flat while their parents put in 14-hour shifts at the local factory.  Much of Montessori is about providing Mason when Mason can’t be had.  At The Register I’ve got up a piece that is an example of that kind of adaptation, in this case for teens.)

***

I’m still a big believer in homeschooling.  I agree with Ella Frech’s philosophy of education.  For various reasons, though, my kids at the moment like school.  As a homeschooler I always involved my kids in decisions about their education. I’d propose some possibilities for the year ahead, and the kids would give me feedback on what they wanted to learn or which approach they preferred of the choices I put on the table.  I was open to suggestions if they had ideas different than what I was planning.  When I held firm on a curriculum choice, I had solid reasons that I could explain to everyone, kids and spouse alike, and they could see why that particular choice was the one we needed to pursue.

So each of the kids, at various points and for various reasons, deciding to go to school has been a natural extension of that philosophy: If I was open to you choosing a different science book, why would I not also be open to you choosing a different science teacher?

The WaPo article, though, underscores for me why the youngest any child of mine has gone to school was fifth grade — and at that point, she happened to choose our local parish school where the early-grades teachers seem to have a pretty strong grasp of what early-grades learners need.  When you are little, you needs hands-on and interactive experiences.  Homeschooling let us do that.  Inasmuch as I’m happy with the school decisions we have in place right now, it is because the schools are, in their various ways, providing the bigger-kid versions of that for our children.

Anyhow, all this to say: Let your kids play.

 

Related: On the Forming of Young Christians

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Not my children, but mine play this game too.  Photo by Abi Blu, courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

So How’s It Going, Jen? (Spring 2018 Edition)

I’m about a year overdue on a personal update.  Short version: It’s good.  Very, very good.

How good is it?  So good that if I don’t work and workout enough every day, I get restless.

And that’s about all there is to say.  About me, anyhow.

***

I thought I’d post an update now because the last of my homeschoolers is starting school next week, and that can make people think, “Something must be wrong,” or, “The mother must be burned out,” or stuff like that.  My close homeschooling friends are aware that L. & I were due for a change of format, and we looked into creating a multi-day hybrid school (which may yet happen a different year); both of us seem to do better when we’re working with a group of friends rather than just the two of us solo.  But I would have gladly transitioned that direction and kept on homeschooling.

What happened, though, is that A.’s 6th grade teacher got to talking about schools for next year (for A.). My 8th-grade homeschooler L. & I did the advance work scoping out a school the teacher suggested we look into, and L. loved the school.  It seemed ridiculous to tell a kid that she shouldn’t try a thing she really wants to do, that looks like it could be a good option for her in terms of her total formation, and which was a realistic option for our family.  Starting at the midterm in 8th grade (at the administration’s invitation) seemed like a wise idea, since it allows L. to give the school a try before the pressure of high school credit- and GPA-tracking kicks in.

Something fun: We were nervous about the school’s placement exams.  L. is a super-bright, extremely observant and creative kid, with an undeniable knack for problem-solving, but test-taking is not her strong suit.  She’s an outside-the-box thinker, and she doesn’t excel at working under pressure.  The school (small, church-operated) is not equipped to provide extensive learning support services, so they assess students prior to admitting them to make sure the students are coming in on grade level.

We were a little worried, because I grade that child’s math tests.  I know she can solve the problems (because she can explain how to solve them, teach other people, etc.), but her tests don’t always show it.  She sat through a day of 8th grade classes and said she was confident she could do the work, and I trusted her judgement on that — but wasn’t sure the tests would agree with her assessment.

Much to her surprise, even though she thought she did poorly on the math exam (and perhaps she did), she placed firmly at grade level.   Double surprise: She placed in a 12th+ grade level for reading comprehension.  (Spelling . . . not so much. But we knew that was coming.  Not a show-stopper.)

Sooo . . . guess that homeschooling thing was going okay.

She’s excited.  I’m happy for her.  And now I’m figuring out what my new occupation is going to be.

Here’s a nice hiking photo from France last summer.  By “Here’s a nice hiking photo  . . .” we mean, “Why yes, it’s going very well, thank you.”

The Blessings of Being Flipped Off

by: Vincent Weaver

Something a lot of people involved in the pro-life movement do is to stand up for the unborn by praying outside of abortion clinics. Happily, this effort has gone in a much more positive, loving direction over the last 15 years. It’s not even accurate, in most cases, to call these “protests” anymore. Make no mistake, this presence is intended to bring attention to the defense of the most vulnerable in our society. To take an innocent human life is objectively wrong. To take the most innocent of all human lives is unacceptable. There should be no minced words about that. To be silent is false compassion – it’s spiritual and emotional euthanasia.

However, it is incredibly important to heed that ancient axiom to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. We all have an obligation to point out injustice and wrongdoing. However, none of us has any right to condemn the person carrying out that act, as only God knows their heart. So, if you see or hear someone telling a woman considering an abortion that she’s going to Hell, then they clearly don’t understand the point here, nor do they understand Christ-like love.

The much more common scenario these days is people calmly and quietly standing outside abortion clinics praying. Sometimes they hold signs with slogans like, “Pray to End Abortion”, or “Adoption: The Loving Option”. We’re there to provide women in unplanned pregnancies real choices (having literature on alternatives to abortion available) and to let them know how much they (and their babies) are loved.

This reality makes it that much more bewildering when you’re standing there peacefully praying and someone drives by and gives you the finger.  Admittedly, there was a time when such actions irritated me. They fed a desire deep down in my heart to give that person “what for”. While I knew that wasn’t the proper reaction, it seemed instinctive.

Then, I read Abby Johnson’s book, “Unplanned” a few years ago. For those who don’t know Abby, she was a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Then, one day (through some fluky circumstances), she ended up witnessing an actual abortion at her clinic. (This was the first time she saw the product of the business she was running.) She had a visceral reaction and knew she had to quit. And she did. Since then, she’s been an outspoken voice for life, and she wrote this book.

What “Unplanned” showed me (much to my surprise) was the humanity of abortion clinic workers. Honestly, I had never given these people much thought, other than as some kind of faceless monsters. That caused my praying for a culture of life to take on a much broader focus. Only then did a human face start to appear on these folks for me. These are real human beings who deserve our love, who deserve MY love, because to cast them aside would mean I just don’t get what it means to be a Christian.

That realization also helped my attitude towards the bird flippers driving by. (You know who you are!) J All of a sudden, my immediate response when being flipped off was to have compassion. I’d immediately think to myself, “What kind of pain must that person have suffered to feel this way?” “What is the source of that anger?” And by making that pain and anger clear to me, therein lay the ‘blessing’. By having a reaction – of any sort – that person gave my prayer a target. I would launch into a ‘Hail Mary’ or a Divine Mercy chaplet asking God to rain down His love and mercy on that person. I’d pray that they find healing, peace, and the presence of God.

So, if you see me (or any of the 1000s of other regulars) standing outside an abortion clinic praying and encouraging others to choose life, it’s okay if you feel the need to tell us we’re #1 with your middle finger. But know that prayer is powerful, and that I’m calling for all God’s truth, mercy, and love to come showering down on you very soon. And I thank you for giving me that blessing – that reminder of your humanity. Please pray for me, as well. I need all I can get.

And for all you awesome pro-life prayer warriors out there, please consider this unsolicited advice. Arguments don’t help. Love, prayer, and genuine compassion (and the willingness to listen) do.

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

5 Ways We Keep Christ in Christmas at Our House

I was asked two related questions by parish friends this week, and I answered incorrectly:

  • What things do we do to help our kids “Keep Christ in Christmas”?
  • What are we doing for Advent?

I thought the answer to both was: Nothing.  This year, anyway.

I was sorely mistaken.  Since both these are going to be discussion topics for our Family Fellowship group this week, here are my notes so I can keep my facts straight.  These are things we do, and which have held together through the years, and which I think are probably helpful.  Some are easy for anyone to do, some of them maybe not.

#1 Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ

When the SuperHusband and I first became Christians, I was a little disconcerted to notice how little our extended family’s observances of the feast involved any particular worship of Christ.  It had not bothered me before, but now somehow it seemed wrong to gather together for a meal and gifts and not much Jesus-ing.  A lot of years later, I’m not bothered.  Those of us who are Christians get plenty of Jesus-ing all year long, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we don’t need every single moment of every single feast to have a little cross tacked on it.

(For the record, there is a very Christian grace before the big extended-family supper Christmas Eve and plenty of Christian-household backdrop going on.  We’re not celebrating Festivus or something.)

My point is this: When every day and every week of your life is built around the worship and service of Jesus Christ, there’s not a need to make sure your wrapping paper has manger scenes on it.  Both the “Christ” and the “Mass” in “Christmas” are patently obvious.  Forgetting that Christmas was about the birth of Christ would be like forgetting what your own birthday was about.  It’s unlikely to be problem.

#2 Dang I Love My Parish

My DRE has a passion for keeping Advent, and the pastor’s completely on board.  (Yes, it unrolled in that order — she predates him on the staff roster.)  Rather than rushing to quick celebrate Christmas with the kids before the break, there are Advent events throughout Advent, and Christmas is unleashed on — get this — Christmas.  The religious ed classes host Christmas parties the first class back after the break, while it’s still Christmas season.

This is not just good for holding onto Catholic liturgical order.  This is good because it causes us all to be keenly aware we are out of sync with the wider culture, and therefore aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  It also gives me a little bit of ammo in my effort to keep things purple around the house, though admittedly that’s push-and-pull.  Yes, in fact we do have the best Advent Lights on the block.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I would say the biggest help we get in terms of the parish enthusiasm for observing Advent is that it completely prevents our brains from equating what we do as Catholics with that merchandising event going on at the mall.

#3 We’ve got a great Advent calendar.

The one we happen to own is the Tony Wolf Advent Calendar, which I reviewed when I first got it years ago. Each day from December 1st through 24th there is a mini boardbook ornament that contains a Bible story, prayer, hymn or carol.  All put together you get the highlights of the story of Christmas from Adam and Eve forward.  There is no Christmas Advent tree up yet this year, so I told my ten-year-old to hang the ornaments on the hooks on the mantel where our stockings will eventually go.

She loves this.  She loves reading aloud the day’s mini-book, singing along if it’s a hymn, and keeping all the ornaments organized on their hooks.  The other kids are older now, so the ten-year-old’s the chief user. I remember myself having a little mini-book Christmas ornament and how much I liked to read it (mine was The Night Before Christmas).  Bite-sized books are captivating.

There are other similarly good options, it doesn’t have to be this exact product.  I remember growing up that my best friend’s family had a homemade Advent calendar with pertinent Bible verses for each day — same principle.  I think the takeaway here on why this concept works so well is that kids like to open a new thing every day, so they bring the momentum to the daily observance, and the day’s thing isn’t just a piece of chocolate or a picture from a snowy village, it’s a piece of the Good News.

#3.5 We Stink At Advent Wreaths, Forever and Ever Amen

For your amusement, here’s a photo from a glorious Advent past:

 Monstrous silver Santa and Reindeer Candlebra with clashing candles in various shades of purple.

I would have kept the thing, but it was too bulky to store easily.  This year we’ve got an assortment of mismatched white candles with purple or pink ribbon tied around the base.  We never remember to light them.

I’m completely in favor of Advent wreaths.  I have happy childhood memories of lighting the candles at dinner every evening.  We just aren’t there.  Sorry.

#4 But We’re Good at Caroling!

Way back before we had kids, the SuperHusband and I started up hosting an annual caroling party.  It’s easy and fun and you can do it too.

As we dropped the ball on this one in recent years, some friends have picked up the relay.  Mrs. A who first started hosting an Advent tea party every year (most years) when our girls were little has merged that tradition with a potluck supper and caroling party afterwards.  It’s a good event.  We stick to classic Christian carols (Silent Night, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, etc.) plus We Wish You a Merry Christmas.  We only plague neighbors who show evidence of celebrating Christmas, so we’re not foisting our zeal on innocent bystanders.  The response has been 100% positive.

We’re up to 4/6ths of the family now singing in some choir or another at church, so the kids get a strong dose of sacred music there as well.  We go to one of those parishes where the songs are all about Jesus, which is a big boost.

#5 Jesus Fairyland

Or Bethlehem, as you prefer.  Way back at the time of our first caroling party (before kids), I didn’t have a nativity set, so I made one out of Lego bricks.  Since that time we’ve added humans to the family and all kinds of toys.  Playmobil. Fisher Price.  Little Woodzees.  All that stuff.  Thus we have evolved an annual tradition of creating not just the manger scene but a good bit of Bethlehem and environs.

We’ve had years that featured Herod’s castle and a Roman circus (the better to eat you with, my dear), though the best was during the preschool years when we had the big red barn with the door that mooed.  A traditional nativity set can sometimes look too much like Camping with Baby Jesus — Pass the S’mores.  The circumstances of the Incarnation hit home more soundly when you’ve got a neighborhood of cozy cheerful dollhouses, and then the Holy Family camped out in what truly looks to modern eyes like a place only fit for farm animals. 

This year, having just pared back the toy collection, we’re focusing on the unrolling of the historic events day by day.  Right now the angels are all up in Heaven, at the top of the bookshelf in front of the vintage Hardy Boys collection, waiting for the big day.  (That is what Heaven is like, right?)  Mary and Joseph are in a caravan headed towards the city of David. The Wise Men are still home watching the sky.  The stable is busy being just a stable, though the innkeeper — you might remember this from your Bible study — likes to come by every day and visit with his pet bunnies.  St. Ignatius Montessori, pray for us.

Best Practices: Getting Parents Involved in Kids’ Religious Formation

Last week was our parish’s first week of religious ed, and my 7th grade daughter came home with an example of ordinary catechists in a traditional classroom program doing a great job at supporting parental involvement in their children’s faith.

There were three parts of the memo-from-the-teachers that made me swoon with gratitude.

1. Invitations (lots of them) for parents to come join the class anytime.  

I’ve known our DRE for many years and she’s always had a very warm and open attitude towards parents’ involvement in their children’s formation.  But to have the teachers repeatedly invite parents to come sit in class any time at all communicated an important message: They want us!  They’re happy to have us.  They’re happy for us to see what the kids are learning and take an active part in weekly faith formation.

Inviting parents to class does change the dynamic.  It takes confidence and good teaching skills to be comfortable working with an audience.  (And the reality is that watching people teach religious ed isn’t always the most exciting way to spend an hour.  It can be, but sometimes you’re maxed out on sacrament charts and so forth.)  But I love that my daughter’s teachers want me to know I’m not getting in the way.  Me showing up and being involved is a good thing, not a hindrance.

That’s a rightly ordered relationship (even if I never take them up on the invitation), and I think their understanding of that relationship is why they did such a stellar job on the other two very simple helps they added to the class.

 

2. Weekly bring-back-to-class assignment: Noticing God’s action in our lives.

I’m sure the day is coming when we all bring in mini-tubes of toothpaste for the homeless, or spare change for missions, or whatever other project it is the kids are undertaking this year.  Corporal works of mercy are good.  But those works have to spring from a lived relationship with God, or the Catholic faith becomes just another option for Ways to Be Kind to People.

So every week, the teachers are asking the kids to report back one instance when they became aware of the presence of God in their lives — whether in prayer, in the created world, in the action of others, whatever it be.

Does this sound too Spirituality Lite?  Let me offer firm correction:  This is an age-appropriate way for kids to start crossing the bridge from an inherited faith to personal ownership of their faith.  It is an age-appropriate way for the kids to become comfortable with talking about their relationship with God.  It is an essential exercise, because awareness of God’s action in our lives is the foundation of the spiritual life.

Not Lite at all — it’s rock solid stone.  The beautiful twist on this assignment is that by getting the parents involved, my daughter’s teachers are handing us, like a weekly subscription to the spiritual goldmine, an easy way for we parents to get comfortable with talking about discipleship with our kids.  If you actually take the teachers up on this opportunity for the next twenty weeks, they’ll have helped you the parent build a habit of discussing the faith in a profound, personal, and non-adversarial way with your teenager.

This is the catechetical mission lived large: Genuinely assisting parents in their role as the primary teachers of the faith.

3. Weekly do-at-home assignment: A question for parents.  

But that’s not all!  Our catechists are taking it one deeper by sending home a second discussion question as well, which will change every week.  Week One’s question was about promises: What promise have you made recently, and what was the outcome? What was something someone promised to you, and what was the outcome?

I liked this question a ton because it fits totally with the topics that came up in class (vocations and sacraments), it fits with questions about the moral life, and it’s not a “religious” topic even though it’s a religious topic.  It’s not a question that has a “right answer” for the kid to parrot back.  It’s a question, though, that hits a big tender spot in the faith.  If you habitually break promises, or the people who are forming your faith (Mom and Dad) are flagrant promise-breakers, you’ve got a cracked foundation you’re building on.  There’s repair work to be done.  Healing work.

In contrast, if the question reveals you’ve got a solid foundation, then look what’s coming: We need to keep that relationship of trust strong through the next five or ten years.  Further, for you my child who’s preparing for confirmation in the next few years? We need to think about what it is your baptismal promises mean, and what they entail.

That’s a lot impact for a discussion that took about five minutes in the car when I happened to get a snatch of time alone with my daughter for uninterrupted conversation.  Twenty of those through the course of the year?  The possibilities are breathtaking.

Inviting the Parents to be the Parents

The beauty of these assignments is that they help us parents do the part of the job that only we can do.  Catechists can review facts and fill in gaps in the kids’ knowledge, but discipleship is parent-work.  (We were also gently encouraged to get our kids to Mass regularly — another job that only a parent can do.)

I was very impressed by our first week because I felt like my daughter’s catechists understand what’s important and how this all works. When I went by the classroom, they were visibly happy to meet me and get to know me.

As far as I know, my daughter’s teachers are just a couple of ordinary catechists — goodhearted people who love God and love the kids and want to give it their best, but just normal people.  And that to me is a very hopeful thing: Normal people are out there doing smart, simple, easy things to help me raise my child in the faith.

File:Cobh St. Colman's Cathedral South Aisle Window 4 Detail Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain 2015 08 27.jpg

Photo by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons