Monday, September 26, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Public School Kid

Mindie is 13. She's in 8th grade at a public school. Here's a summary of her day today.

6 AM Get up and get ready for school. Mindie checks her grades online on Monday mornings, looking for updates as the teachers spend the weekend grading. This morning she realizes that there is no way she can pull her math grade up enough to make A/B honor roll. Normally she would take this philosophically. She's not married to good grades. But today that's a crushing realization because Dad promised her a trip to Carlsbad if she made A/B honor roll. She's been putting in extra hours with Dad on math, sometimes as many as 3 per night on a single assignment, to try and boost that grade. But today there's no doubt that Carlsbad has slipped through her grasp again. She can't hold back the tears.

7:30 AM Walk out the door with Dad to go to school. On the drive Dad explains that he's learned a little something with this whole math thing and says that her effort will be enough to earn her the trip even if she doesn't make a B. Hopefully this will be a lasting lesson about the uselessness of grades in an arbitrary curriculum.

8 AM Arrive at school in PE clothes. She's required to be here this early but school doesn't start until 8:45. This is the mandatory tutorial period. Whether she needs extra help or not, the school makes her be here. If she doesn't need help from a teacher she'll spend the next 45 minutes "socializing" in the cafeteria, which for Mindie means reading a book or sketching. If she does need a teacher's help she'll have to track that teacher down like a cagey deer scenting buckshot and chase the wary teacher back to a classroom where she can beg for assistance. We tried this a couple of times with homework questions but the teachers were inevitably not available.

8:45 AM Go to phys ed. Since the school added on new athletic facilities summer before last, general PE kids are no longer allowed to use the locker rooms to change or freshen up. Generally Mindie goes to school in her PE clothes and then changes quickly in a bathroom after PE. The teacher generously gives them 3 minutes before the end of the class period to do this. 24 girls, 4 bathroom stalls in a bathroom that's open to the public, 3 minutes. Fun times. Sometimes Mindie doesn't bother to change after PE because she doesn't have time. She just sprays on some body spray and slathers on extra deodorant. Usually when this happens she goes ahead and changes at lunch.

9:40 AM US History to Reconstruction. Mindie likes this class. She comes home talking about the Roanoke Colony and Jamestown.

10:35 AM Teen Leadership. This is taught by the US History teacher. It emphasizes self-esteem, leadership, character development, and public speaking. One day they each made a flag that represents themselves. Another day they gave a speech about "Who I Am" to the class accompanied by a visual aid they constructed with items gathered on a nature walk. Mindie considers this class a blow-off. She's not far wrong but good things can still come of a blow-off class. One of the class activities is writing letters to classmates. This led to the apology letter from the witchy girl. It also led to the following gem from a classmate, "Dear Mindie, You are very good at things. I wish you success in any activities you are or will be in." We're still laughing about that one weeks later. On this particular day the teacher assigns a new project. The students will be writing an essay of at least one page about a time they were in a leadership role. If they have never been in a leadership role they will write about a leadership role they would like to assume. This will be the first grade of the second six-weeks grading period (which begins next Monday). As such, students are required to create an outline AND rough draft to turn in tomorrow. The assignment is given 5 minutes prior to the end of the period. It is homework.

11:30 AM Exploratory Careers class. This is Mindie's other blow-off class. The ag teacher teaches it. But 8th graders can't take ag so they take EC which is ag with another name. They're learning parliamentary procedure, which is no doubt somehow career oriented in ways I don't quite fathom. Sometimes they take a break from parliamentary procedure to muck out the ag barns or hose down the livestock trailers. The teacher is nice, though. He gives out candy to students who answer questions correctly, a flagrant violation of state law and something which endears him to me. He also enjoys using students as examples in theoretical anecdotes to demonstrate points he's making. He often uses Mindie this way. She's not sure how she feels about so much attention being drawn to her.

12:25 Lunch. If Mindie didn't change after PE she does so now. Then she either goes through the cafeteria line and eats a school lunch or sits down with her sack lunch from home. Each table in the cafeteria seats six except for one desk that's situated alone in a corner for a special ed kid who doesn't cope well with others. Mindie usually sits at the table nearest him. She still can't explain what's wrong with him. He's nice to her and vice versa. Sometimes they talk. She says he's really creative and always sketching or writing music. Sometimes he shows her what he's creating before an adult comes over and makes her stop talking to him. Also seated at her table is another special ed kid. This kid is sweet but it's not hard to see why she's special ed. She's mildly retarded and most of the kids avoid her. But Mindie can't stand to see things like that so this girl sits with Mindie who protects her and offers her a friendly face. The crying blonde girl from kindergarten also sits with Mindie. She's totally self-involved by this point and doesn't treat Mindie particularly well but she's not especially mean either except in that careless selfish way. A geeky sophomore sits with them. She and Mindie share many interests but the other girl has some - impulse control and anger management issues. If she doesn't like what somebody at the table says she tends to ruin their lunches with a fist in the middle of the food before storming away. A couple of other girls sit there, too. Mindie doesn't know them very well. She tries to be nice to them but they just look at her.

12:55 PM Science. Integrated Physics and Chemistry. We're still not sure why Mindie's in this class. Why any of the 8th graders are in it. This is not the state curriculum for 8th grade. This is the curriculum for SOME 9th graders. Mindie struggles in this class. The teacher hands them the textbook and a packet of photocopied accompanying materials each day and has them turn in the previous day's photocopied packet. They skipped the first two chapters, the overview and introduction, and jumped straight into the algebra. In a class that's still taking pre-algebra, which Mindie is struggling with. She usually brings the work home and Ben and I spend hours trying to teach it to her at night. We've got an 89 average. :-D

1:50 PM English. Or Reading. Nobody's sure which. They're both taught by the same teacher and it's pretty much her whim that dictates which they'll do this period. Mindie's a good reader. She reads at a college level. Unfortunately she hates literature analysis. There are right and wrong answers in literary analysis and she can't seem to grasp which is which so she stopped giving answers. Sometimes they do vocabulary. Today's vocabulary worksheet asks students to use context clues to match up the words with their meanings. Two of the words are bewilder and baffle One means "to perplex; to frustrate, hinder, or interfere with." The other means "to confuse terribly; to puzzle." She gets them wrong.

2:45 PM Math. Pre-algebra. Mindie struggles with this. She sits patiently through the teacher's lecture and demonstration. She asks questions when she doesn't understand. Then the teacher assigns the homework. Mindie opens her book and gets to work. The noise level in the class rises. Mindie only finishes two problems before holding her hands to her ears, unable to concentrate. She brings the rest home. By the time she makes it home she's forgotten most of what the teacher said during class because she didn't really understand it, even with questions. I asked her today, "What does the teacher say when you tell her you don't understand?" "You don't have to UNDERSTAND, just DO IT." That's useful right there, folks. You don't have to understand math, just do it. This from a woman who educated her daughter at home for 5 years. Today that daughter is a year ahead in math. But does she understand any of it?

2:15 PM Reading. Or English. Whatever. By this point in the day Mindie's too tired to care much anymore anyway. She's just counting the minutes to go home. Since the construction started in spring of 2010, she also usually has a splitting headache by this point in the day. At first the secretary/nurse was sweet and gave her Tylenol when she went in complaining of pounding pain in her brain but as the weeks went by and the headache returned daily she started coldly sending Mindie back to class. Eventually she refused to let Mindie into the office anymore. Mindie wanted to start taking her own Tylenol but somebody told her that the drug dogs that routinely visit alert to over-the-counter meds, too, so Mindie's scared to try it, especially after that one time when the drug dog alerted to her ALTOIDS and she had to turn out the entire contents of her backpack in front of the whole class. Apparently the final humiliation was dumping out a small pouch full of feminine hygiene supplies to an unappreciative co-ed audience. Today, though, brings only the headache and the unrelenting boredom.

3:50 Finally the last bell rings. Trudge out to Mom's car. The dog barks frantically and worms his head under her hand for affection. She's too tired and uncomfortable to show much enthusiasm but eventually she gets buckled up and snuggles the dog, unwinding a little. Today Mom has some Jimmy Buffet playing and she cranks the volume to "Love in the Library." She asks if Mom would mind her loading that song onto her MP3 player which leads to a discussion of how complicated it would be to rip a CD to MP3 (not very, but do very many of them and it become more drudgery than Thanksgiving dishes). Mom asks if she needs the bathroom, knowing Mindie shares her fear of other people overhearing bathroom noises and often won't use the school bathroom because of it. Today Mindie got too desperate to wait so she has no urgent needs. Yay because Mom wants to run to Wally's on the way home. At Wally's they pick up several packages of treats for the gerbils and guinea pigs.

4:45 PM Finally at home. Unload Wally's loot, pour a drink, and go to check on the piggies. Buddy is ill. He's hardly moving, barely responsive, and refuses to eat. Mom looks his symptoms up on the 'net and says he'll have to see the vet tomorrow. Mindie puts him in another cage, apart from his friend Fudge who hasn't exactly been a doting nurse. Worried about Buddy but still have homework to do.

5 PM Start the homework. Math. Science. Outline and rough draft for Teen Leadership. Read a chapter for English/Reading. Start with the reading. Easy and relaxing except for the part where the main character dies. Luckily Mindie never could really get into the book so is pretty unimpressed when he dies in his father's arms. Move on to science. No algebra today, just sketching elements. Fun almost. Start the math. Struggle through, only skipping two to ask for help later. Do the outline. Take outline and math to Mom and Dad to look over. Mom helps with the math problems. Mom gets frustrated with one problem, says they don't give you enough information to answer it. Helps Mindie figure out the three possible solutions depending on how each party is traveling in a train question with no direction indicators. Technically it's a snake and rat question but Mom remembers the days of two trains leaving a station so she calls it a train problem anyway. Even Mom agrees that black mambas and rats are way more interesting. Dad turns green and asks both of them to work somewhere else.

7 PM break for dinner. Check on Buddy. Mindie suspects he's dead, comes running to Mom for help and/or confirmation. Mom confirms Buddy's "formerly living" status and skips dinner to dig a small grave. It's not remotely 6 feet. That would take a backhoe in the midst of this drought. But it's deep enough to deter neighborhood strays from disinterring the remains. Mindie eats in tears then goes back to her homework. Dad checks over the math, Mom finishes burying the guinea pig, and Mindie writes the rough draft.

8 PM Mindie finishes the paper but freaks because the rough draft is three lines shy of being a full page. Mom points out that this is only a rough draft and doesn't even have paragraph breaks, reassures Mindie that the finished paper will be a page easily. She goes to Dad to figure out how to fix the math problems she got wrong on the homework. Mom starts writing this.

9:30 PM Finally done with homework. Not really a relief because it's time to get ready for bed. Treat the dog. Give the surviving guinea pig his daily dose of spinach and hay. Decide not to take any chances and disinfects the entire cage. Also can't sleep with the quarantine cage in the room; that would be too sad tonight. Mom moves the quarantine cage out while Mindie scrubs the primary cage down with vinegar. Shannen treats the cats and her gerbil, showers, and goes to bed. Mindie's barely seen her today. She mentions to Mom that she misses Shannen on days like this.

10:30 Mindie finally washes her face, brushes her teeth, and goes to bed. Her last words of the night are, "But I doubt I'll sleep." Mom returns to this blog wondering once again why she does this to her kids and taking comfort in the fact that it won't be much longer. Tomorrow the school is hosting their first ever open house. Parents are invited to come tour the new facilities and chat with their student's teachers. Even though this will be Mindie's last week of school, hopefully forever, Mom is strangely excited about the open house. Mindie's nervous about how excited Mom is about chatting educational philosophy with the teachers. Mom promises not to embarrass her.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tales From Public School 2

Mindie is in Integrated Physics and Chemistry this year. The teacher is a former homeschool mom. I say this only because her daughter is in the class as well and this is a very bright, well-educated girl who is in several classes with the grade ahead of them so I don't question the teacher's ability to teach in general. I do, however, question her ability to teach in a public school setting. She claims to spend an average of 20 hours per weekend on teaching work but if she is, it's not on prepping for this class. The basic format of the class the past five weeks has been "Here's the book about stuff. Here's the photocopied packet from the textbook publisher for this chapter of the book. Read and answer the questions."

Mindie is thoroughly confused, has no clue about anything she's read, and is incapable of doing the packet of questions. I spent 2 and a half hours yesterday reading the chapter myself and attempting to help her with some of the homework. We made it through most of one page except for the two questions for which we could find no answer in the book. Ben's been working with her for an hour and a half today, using not only the book but the internet, video lectures from Khan Academy, and an old college chem textbook. They still can't answer the two questions we skipped yesterday but they have completed another page. Just two pages to go.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Strange Twists and Turns

Mindie is still in public school. She's in 8th grade in the same building she's been in since kindergarten. If she were going to continue in public school until graduation she would still be in that same building. With pretty much the same group of kids. Each grade has a class. Sometimes they gain a kid or two, sometimes they lose a kid or two, but mostly it's the same kids. Mindie went off to kindergarten a sweet, happy well-adjusted girl with a kind heart and lots of people skills. She was a natural extrovert and she'd done extremely well in preschool with other kids. The first day of kindergarten there was a little girl with long blonde hair just like Mindie's. She cried all day. Mindie, sweet soul that she was, treated the little girl extra nicely. The next day the little girl cried all day again and Mindie went out of her way again to offer comfort. By October the little girl still cried all day most days. Most of the kids in the class avoided her because she was weird and it was unsettling to be around this sobbing kid. Not Mindie, though. Mindie offered this little girl every drop of kindness and comfort in her body.

By first grade the other little girl usually only cried through first period at school. By then she was attached at the hip to the only kid at school who had been kind to her: my daughter. Which set BOTH of them apart from the other kids who still didn't want to be around the strange wet-faced child. By this point I knew the little girl's parents and understood that she had a really rough home life. I recognized how emotionally needy this kid was and I knew in my heart that as long as Mindie was friends with her, it would keep Mindie separated from the other kids because this kid wasn't going to miraculously start fitting in. But what was I supposed to do? Encourage my kid to be as uncaring as the other students? If Mindie had the capacity to be kind and supportive of this girl I wasn't going to discourage it.

At this point Shannen had started kindergarten and was experiencing her own social isolation. She was naturally introverted which probably didn't help matters but the bottom line was that a little girl in her class had taken an instant dislike to her and made it abundantly plain that she was going to make Shan's life a living hell. If other kids came over to play with Shan at recess, this girl would grab them by the hand and drag them away to play something with her. Before school and at lunch the girl could be heard across the room imitating Shannen's habit of brushing her hair back and speaking in a most unflattering manner. I spoke to the kindergarten teacher and she agreed that the girl was being incredibly mean to Shannen but asked what she was supposed to do about it? Students needed to learn to work these things out for themselves.

In this way things rocked on until last year. The pattern of bullying and social isolation became increasingly worse for both girls. New kids would join the class and be told "Don't be nice to THEM! If you're THEIR friend nobody will like you! They're WEIRD!" When Mindie was in fourth grade a new girl joined her class. The new girl was extremely shy and in a lot of emotional disarray from her parents' impending divorce. This girl had been homeschooled until fourth grade. Again Mindie adopted a hurting, lonely girl. The two were friends all through the fall term and Mindie and her little blonde friend (still awkward but no longer crying daily) listened to the new girl's confidences of how rough life was right them. They comforted her and worked tirelessly to cheer her up. The lonely duo became a trio as the new girl was isolated by association. Then over Christmas break the new girl went back to homeschooling. At the start of the next year the new girl was back and apparently determined to make some changes. She snubbed Mindie and her friend and went out of her way to ridicule them in front of peers. She had become part of the social majority but she was better at it than most of her classmates. She was downright witchy to Mindie, while most of the other girls in the class had been content to ignore her. Soon the boys joined in tormenting Mindie. They refused to use classroom resources like chalk or globes after Mindie and the teacher played along without comment. If anyone accidentally brushed up against Mindie they would make groaning and choking noises as loudly as possible while rushing to grab a classroom tissue and "clean themselves off." It became a classroom game to try and get Mindie or her friend to touch someone else's supplies to "contaminate" an absent or inattentive classmate. It was behavior Shannen had already been experiencing for two years, since she was in second grade. Teachers watched impassively. Aides looked away at recess as my girls and Mindie's friend were teased and shoved.

At this point my kids were coming home in tears daily and I felt helpless to help them. I'd been subjected to much the same treatment when I was in school and still had no idea how to make it stop. I talked to teachers and was told the same thing over and over, "If we catch anyone being bullied we try to stop it but we can't be everywhere. And being mean isn't the same as bullying anyway. Your kids just need better social skills." How were they supposed to develop those if nobody would even TALK to them in a civil manner?? At the time the school didn't have a principal. The superintendent did double duty so I talked to him. He acted shocked and very concerned and promised to look into it. Months of inaction later I checked back in. He once again acted shocked and concerned. This became a pattern at the school. Teachers knew what was going on but administration never had a clue, no matter how many times they were informed BY ME.

By the end of the 2009-2010 school year I'd given up hope that the school was willing or able to fix anything. There are no private schools in the area but lots of other area schools. I looked into all of them. All were worse than the one my kid went to in terms of academics and several had reputations for being more cliquish and bullying. I spent all summer trying to "homeschool" the girls in hopes of taking them out of school. But the time wasn't right yet so they marched back off to misery in the fall of 2010. That year things were marginally better for Mindie. She had returned to being ignored by her classmates instead of actively persecuted. By then it was a relief to be invisible to her peers. The highlight of the year for her was when one of the girls in her class told her that if she would lose weight and grow her hair out she would almost be pretty. It was the nicest thing said to her all year. Nothing was better for Shan and by the end of the year it was clear that it was crushing her. Luckily I was learning about unschooling by then.

This year Shan didn't go back to school but Mindie's still there. It's a small school and people do notice things. A couple of weeks into the school year, Shannen's lead tormentor walked up to Mindie at lunch and asked where Shannen was. Mindie told her Shan was being homeschooled because she was sick of being miserable and bullied. The girl looked Mindie dead in the eye and said (according to Mindie, who imitated her voice with a fluttering hand motion), "Oh, it wasn't because of mEEEEE was it?" Mindie just looked away and returned to eating. A couple of weeks later Shan ran into the school to tell Mindie something one afternoon and ran into her old nemesis. The girl said, "Everybody's saying you left because we were mean to you and bullied you." Shan, with great dignity, told her, "It doesn't matter now. It's in the past." The girl responded, "It was me, wasn't it?" while looking at the floor. Shan repeated her first answer and strode away. I think it was cathartic for Shannen. It's probably the closest she'll ever get to an apology and Shan reported that she wasn't sure how to take it. She felt torn between it being sincere remorse or possibly being the opening to a cruel trick (it wouldn't be the first time the girl had been emotionally manipulative to get a deeper jab in at Shan).

Meanwhile, Mindie has finally been making new friends at school. The "new girl" who was extra witchy to her has been making friendly overtures along with another girl that has been in the class since kindergarten. In the "Teen Leadership" class that Mindie's enrolled in the teacher makes them all write letters to one another. The only rule is that the letters can't be mean, they must be encouraging in some way. Today Mindie got two letters. One was from an upperclassman in a similar class. The girl wrote that she didn't know Mindie very well since they rarely spoke but she had always seen how kind Mindie is and that it always made her smile to see Mindie and Shannen together at school because they were so kind to one another. It was sweet but it made me want to scream at the same time. Of course Mindie and Shannen were kind to one another. It was the only kindness either of them got at that place. If they weren't nice to each other, nobody else was stepping in to fill the void.

The other letter Mindie got today was interesting, too. It was from the witchy girl. Basically it said, "Dear Mindie, I'm sorry for being so mean to you. I thought if I was nice to you I wouldn't have any other friends. Now I see, though, that the other girls aren't real friends anyway. They're the worst kind of people who are nice to everyone's face but mean behind their backs. You're twice the friend they'll ever be. Please forgive me for how I treated you." Every word is true and understandable. I've never been in that situation but I can understand how she felt and thought. But the mama bear in me wants to roar, "Sure, NOW you say that. The day AFTER Mindie tells you that we're planning to take her out of school next week! Great timing, kid!"

I asked Mindie, when she showed me the letter, if it changed her wanting to be homeshcooled. She said, "Not really. I mean, it's nice to have friends but I have friends who don't go to this school anyway. And it's not really the friends thing that makes me want to come home. It's the school thing. I don't think school is good for me or right. I'll be kind of sad to leave some maybe friends behind but I still want to leave so I can really learn things right."

Twists and turns, my friends, but the road is still going to the same place. It still leads right back to our home and our hearts. Ben's still being cagey. But then, he was cagey about Shan up until about five days before school started, too. It's just how his head works. He mulls and mulls but once he reaches a decision he acts on it quickly. He admits that a big part of what's holding him back is how strongly opposed to homeschooling his mother has been. But as we talked about that last night he reluctantly admitted that what was best for our girls was more important. And his eyes are being opened more and more to how harmful this school is to our kids.

He was shocked to discover that Shan, who has never fallen from the A honor roll at school, has no idea when to start a new paragraph when she's writing. He was even more dismayed when he realized night before last that neither of them had any idea how to neatly write a math problem on a sheet of notebook paper to work it because the teachers never wanted them to show the work; they just wanted a neat, clean answer sheet full of nothing but answers. He's been confused for years how Mindie can keep having such trouble in math when she gets it so instinctively. Finally the other night I handed her math homework help off to him and he realized that she was transposing numbers and losing track of what she was doing in the middle of the problem because she kept erasing and working algebra from memory to keep her (half-page) answer sheets neat. The "sloppy, lazy" mistakes she was making suddenly made sense to him. As I cede more and more of the public school stuff over to him (partly because he has the time this year and partly because I *don't* anymore) he's seeing the holes and gaps that I've been complaining about for years. And it's bringing him more and more to my way of thinking. I wish I'd known so much of this sooner. I wish I'd known that I could educate them without SCHOOLING them. I wish I'd known how to show him what was wrong. I wish I'd known they could have friends and normal social interaction by getting away from school and the weird, not-at-all-normal social interaction there. Most of all, I wish I'd known that if *I* don't stick up for them, who the heck will?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Carlsbad Caverns field trip report

So I'm back from the Carlsbad day. It was fun and it was nice to meet a few more homeschooling mamas. Shan was happy to meet a fellow female comic book geek and book nerd. The two of them talked about everything from systemic solutions to verbal bullying to "Little Women" vs. "Jo's Boys."

My big relief of the day was that I didn't feel like I had to hide my unschoolyness. In fact, when some of the other moms asked me the inevitable "what curriculum...?" question and I used the "u-word" two of them nodded with understanding! Neither is a radical unschooler but they know what it is and don't dislike the concept. And since I'm not rad yet myself (yet. YET!) it seemed kind of ok. They're all pretty relaxed eclectic anyway with various degrees of planning and enforcing. We had a nice chat about Charlotte Mason and the pros and cons of her methods since one mom is solid CM and another incorporates CM principles. And all of them were big on letting a child follow his/her natural interests and gifts and were living that in their families.

We ended up having 8 kids and 4 moms along while a 5th mom stayed home with most of the toddlers/preschoolers to just play. The kids ranged from 4 (he didn't want to be away from Mom and that was ok, too) to 13. One mom's 16 and 17 year olds stayed home (one had a college lab to be at and the other just didn't care to come along). Shan and the other girl were the ONLY girls, so it's handy that they're the same age and have a lot in common.

The best part of the day was watching the natural interests of the kids. Each seemed to have their own focus as we did things together but they all melded and blended so wonderfully. The 4-year-old was fascinated with every tiny cave pool. The 7-year-old boys were constantly on the lookout for wildlife. The 10-year-olds split into two camps - one that related everything back to the military, seeing the cave as a potentially useful military resource; and one camp (of 2 boys) that viewed caves as a frontier, the cutting edge of scientific discovery and was deeply interested in new discoveries that were coming out of caves. Shan was busy identifying new speleothems while her friend photographed the natural beauty of the cave and even helped Shannen out by taking some shots of formations Shan hadn't noticed before.

The moms were relaxed and enjoyed our own interests without feeling pressured to be "watching the kids" or "teaching the kids." If we heard a question we answered it but we didn't hover, testing their observations or forcing "education" on them. One mom took the lead on the hikes and a mom with a camera brought up the rear with the other two of us floating in between based pretty much entirely on how our legs were doing and what we saw that interested us.

I was the "native guide" for this one since my family knows and loves the Carlsbad cave system and caves in general. For a handful of points of interest I did make sure to stay in one place long enough to at least point it out to everyone walking by and answer questions if they had them. I was also the one to let our "lead mom" know what we could and couldn't get by with given our time constraints (we had a guided tour of some limited-access parts of the cave at a scheduled time to work around). The park rangers had expressed concern that we wouldn't have time to complete the full 1.3 mile trek around the Big Room and still make our tour group but I assured everyone that we could do it easily. I think they saw short legs and assumed a much slower pace than a pack of energetic boys normally runs at.

Our miracle of the day was the bat flight. Due to the drought and oncoming winter, that last few weeks of evening flights have been very small, sometimes as low as 1,000 bats coming out to hunt. Last night, though, we estimated about 20,000 bats leaving the cavern. The park rangers' "official" estimate was closer to 50,000. Despite fatigue (we ended up hiking over 4 miles by the end of the day) we stayed and watched the amazing exodus into the desert sunset. After the first few groups left the cave, I started watching the kids instead of the bats. I watched as each child reached their "OK, I think I'm done with this activity" moment and was amazed at how each one then settled quietly into some other activity that wouldn't disrupt others who were still engaged with the last activity. It warmed my heart to see them not only dedicated to learning, but considerate enough to be aware of others around them. That's no small thing for so many active, squirming boys in particular. Our reward, beyond the normal reward of knowing how awesome our kids are, was to be pulled aside by various members of the public to hear how great our kids are, how well behaved they had been all day, and how much they impressed the people around them. I think the best was from a woman who said, "I've been a teacher all my life. Your kids are homeschooled, aren't they? We never would have gotten that out of a class of kids." As much as that made me want to swell up in pride, it really just made me sad for all of the kids in public school who would LOVE an opportunity like we had yesterday but can't have it because they're in public school.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

They're Blinding Me with Science

My house is full of science experiments. Mindie has taken over the pseudo-foyer (a weird dimple off the living room that is in no way separated from that room except by shape) for a plant experiment. She has document boxes with shop lights clamped to them, each sporting a different 85 watt colored halogen bulb. Inside the boxes are zipper bags with wet paper towels and peas. The basic point of this experiment is "How will the color of the light affect the germination and growth of seeds?" She didn't want to use peas; she wanted pumpkin seeds because pumpkins are just way cooler. Unfortunately, she's public school and this experiment is on a deadline of 14 days. Pumpkin seeds can take that long to begin germinating. So she's using peas which germinate in about 7 days.

Nearby is the beginning of Shannen's science experiment. Hubby wants us more structured in science; I want us unschooling. Our compromise was to look at the objectives for the year in science and let Shannen figure out how she wanted to meet them. Ecosystems was a major theme in the objectives and Shan thought it would be great to design one of her own. She's scrubbed out a 10-gallon aquarium (we have tons of the things) and is researching to figure out how to build an ecosystem. She's off to a great start but doesn't want to put it all together and fill it with plants and critters until she's pretty certain of what she's doing. Luckily we're homeschool and her deadline is "When you're ready."

Meanwhile, an assortment of other less-formal science tools and toys are sitting around the house. A rubber band gun is handy to demonstrate principles of physics (and inflict pain on siblings). Sugar water is forming crystals on a string in a corner of the kitchen. A bowl full of mineral and rock samples rests in a prominent place in the living room for anyone that wants to observe properties of minerals (or just fool around with pretty rocks). The telescope is set up and a pair of binoculars hangs nearby along with a couple of constellation and star identification guides. They've recently been used to observe an annual meteor shower. They'll be used again in November to observe "Mindie's meteor shower" (the Leonids usually peak on Mindie's birthday and she has adopted them as a right and fitting tribute to her birth from the heavens). In between whenever anybody is interested in the night sky they're welcome to head out and star watch. And many, many more.

My kids have never seemed all that excited about science classes at school. They're interested enough in "real" science but reading science textbooks or listening to endless lectures or filling out vocabulary worksheets has pretty much dulled any enthusiasm for the sciences. It's nice to see a home alive with science.