Thursday, August 30, 2007

Homeschool: The First Day of the Year

Last night I went to sleep with first-day-of-school jitters. Not the ones from elementary school, when I wondered who my teacher and classmates would be. Not the ones from junior high school, when I wondered if my outfit would fit into the coolest clothes category. Not the ones from high school, when I had butterflies in my stomach as I thought of boys I hadn't seen many times over the summer. The first day jitters I had last night were because I was nervous about teaching the two most special students in the world.

You may know that our family has been homeschooling officially since 2003, when Mitchell was just a baby and Max opted out of preschool, because he "didn't get enough time at home with his toys," in his words. The early months didn't even feel like homeschooling. We were just playing then, learning about letters and numbers and shapes during every day activities, like playing cards, reading books, taking walks, going to the library and music class and community education classes.

Homeschooling feels much different to me now, as the mom and teacher of a just-turned four year-old and an almost-eight year-old. I remember working in second grade classes many times over the years, including in high school, as a physical education apprentice, a Spanish teacher, and a STABLE helper; and in college, when I did field experience and student teaching in second grade classrooms. Second graders are _really_ reading. They are learning to use maps, work in groups, compute all kinds of math problems with carrying and borrowing, and studying other countries. I want Max to have all of those good experiences that traditional schoolers would have in their classrooms, but most of all, I want him to love learning. I want Mitchell to learn to write the alphabet, count forwards and backwards with ease, and soak up hundreds of stories all through the school year, but most of all, I want him to laugh and giggle and sing and play all day long. Those ideals are enough to give any homeschooling mom a huge case of first-day jitters.

The boys had been begging for a few weeks, "When can we start school?" at first with excitement, then impatience, when I would reply each time, "Pretty soon." I just didn't feel ready. I wanted to have lesson plans made to last us through Christmas. I wanted to have the books ready that we would use for the first months of the year. I wanted to have a wish list composed for the supplies I still wanted to buy. I wanted to have my house clean so we could focus completely on learning! But none of those tasks were accomplished, and today we started school anyway, much to my eager students' delight.

Both boys woke early, despite their troubles falling asleep the previous night. "When can we start school?" they asked excitedly. "At nine o'clock," I answered each time, as the minutes ticked by too quickly for me and too slowly for them. I hurried to clean up breakfast and straighten the pillows surrounding our stack of books on the sofa.

We began the school day at 9:20 a.m. after taking first-day-of-school pictures on the front step. Mitchell donned his beloved Santa suit, bright yellow Crocs, and his new Diego backpack recently purchased from Target. Max wore his Number 12 shirt that I love on him and proudly displayed his new favorite new school supplies: a glue-rolling gagdet -- which he discovered today, with great disappointment, is _not_ refillable -- and a crystal-growing science kit and shiny new mechanical pencils.

Our first story of the day was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, an old favorite that we used to read every day, but hadn't read in months. We also read Baby Says by John Steptoe, the story with only seven words of two brothers who learn to play together. In the story, we don't know the brothers' names, so we call them Max and Mitchell because the characters act just like Max and Mitchell. We read a poem from one of our favorite Jack Prelutsky collections, The New Kid on the Block. The boys listened to the CD that came with a cute mouse story called Piper's Twisted Tale by Mark Lowry and Martha Bolton.

Max's special time of the day came first today, as he read to me Mouse Moves House by Phil Roxbee Cox and Stephen Cartwright, his selection from a stack of readers I had pre-selected. Later that day, after lunch, he also read I Love Trucks by Philemon Sturges. Last year at this time, he was still struggling to put sounds together and read them as words. I love seeing his progress in all areas of his development, especially reading.

While Max read to me, Mitchell played with a new set of Where the Wild Things Are magnets and a set of puzzles. He was not very interested in his toys today as we settled into our new routine. Mitchell doesn't always have enough patience as Max works to sound out words. I made Mitchell a snack of cheese and crackers, which he gobbled at the kitchen table while Max and I did our language arts lesson. As we reviewed the definition of a noun, I asked Max to give me some examples of nouns, and Mitchell shouted out, "Candle! Table! Cracker!" and all three of us smiled broadly as we enjoyed another unexpected perk of homeschooling.

Then I sent Max outside to walk Minnie the Pug for a few minutes within sight of the living room, and it was Mitchell's turn for special time on the sofa. When Max came inside, he went to his art desk to work on his spooky castle story that he had begun writing earlier this week. Mitchell and I read The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang. We did simplified versions of the counting activities in the book. We searched for items on a page out of the I Spy Ultimate Challenger, and that is when Mitchell's trademarked silliness crept into our special time, as he pointed to the wrong objects with a completely straight face. I tried some alphabet flashcards, since I was curious which letters he knew with ease, and after about ten cards, he began saying the wrong letters on purpose and even made up nonsense words, this time with a mischievous smile on his cute little baby face. I tickled him and we sang a few songs, and played a game of Quips, one of the greatest kids' games ever.

When Max finished his four sentences for today, including composing and editing, he was rewarded with his model butterfly kit that he had chosen as part of his ten-dollar school supply spending spree. While Max was getting the kit ready for assembly, Mitchell quickly scooted over to Max's workspace and tried to erase Max's story. After that squabble was over, and the butterfly model was beautifully assembled, Max created two sparkly works of art with construction paper, glue, and lots of glitter.

The boys ate a late lunch on the deck while I read the mail, the three of us enjoying the last days of the hot summer sun. (Well, I enjoyed it. The boys complained, "It's too hot!" in perfect whining intontations.) I began teaching them a new prayer, from our book entitled We Thank You For This Food, which I keep handy in the kitchen on my cookbook shelf. After lunch, we read some more books. With his trusty new pencil, Max completed two pages in a phonics workbook, a code activity and a crossword puzzle, and four simple pages in a multiplication workbook.

At three o'clock, we went into town to celebrate a successful first day of school with a trip to Cold Stone Creamery. Despite Mitchell's initial huge protests, we opted for the Cold Stone ice cream shop at the mall, in order to squeeze in a trip to Gymboree to earn Gymbucks and a visit to Barnes and Noble Booksellers. After trying a small sample of their flavors of choice, Mitchell chose blue cotton candy ice cream mixed with a peanut butter cup and sprinkles, and Max opted for cake batter ice cream, with a peanut butter cup and marshmallow creme stirred into his kid-sized creation. The total for their desserts was $4.45. As a reward for their cheerful attitudes throughout most of the day, I bought them each a charm for their Crocs, which are loose-fitting, foamy clog-style shoes that are very popular and oh-so-comfy. After great deliberation, Max chose a lightning bolt, and Mitchell chose Percy the train. The charms attach to little breathing holes on the top of their shoes. Trips to the mall and the ice cream shop are not normally part of our school day, but they were a fun treat for the three of us today.

We ate dinner on the deck, a combination of takeout from Subway and China Star, with disposable tableware, which made the evening an even bigger treat for me. The boys were in bed by 7:30, with jammies on and teeth brushed, and we finished most of the items on my lesson plan for the day.

In bed, before lights out, stories, and prayers, I taught them how to play "Fifty," a dice game from one of my favorite resources, The Great Big Book of Children's Games. In the game, players roll two dice and score points when they roll doubles. A pair of sixes gives you 25 points; a pair of threes wipes out your score; and all other doubles net you five points. The first player to reach fifty points wins the game.

We read our Old Testament Bible story for the day from Mitchell's toddler Bible, My First Bible by Pat Alexander; Stone Soup from the Treasury of Virtues; and Father, We Thank You, the version of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem illustrated beautifully by Mark Graham. We practiced some Spanish words from our copy of The Usborne First Thousand Words in Spanish by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright, including cama (bed), la almohada (pillow), la pasta dentifrica (toothpaste), la silla (chair), el retrete (toilet), el telefono (telephone), el video (video), el espejo (mirror), el cepillo (brush), el esponja (sponge), la ducha (shower), and el armario (closet). Those are words we will be able to use daily in conversation, once I remember to do that!

Mitchell fell alseep just after we finished prayers for the night, and I read Chapter One to Max from the classic Stuart Little by E.B. White.

Before he went to sleep, Max commented, "I think this was the best first day of school ever. It was the first time we got to have a party, and it was the first time we got to spend ten dollars on school supplies. (With his money, Max had chosen a 3.99 glue roller tool, a set of two mechanical pencils with extra lead and eraser refills for 3.99, the model butterfly kit for 1.00, and one other dollar item I can't remember tonight; Mitchell chose a 9.99 Diego backpack, his new favorite cartoon character. We went shopping at Target this past Monday and school supplies were in short supply.)

Last year, we honored the first day of school with lots of books and a trip to Florence Park, one of our favorites in nearby Stewartville.

Mitchell fell asleep by 8:30 tonight and Max fell asleep around nine o'clock. We ran out of time before I finished all of the activities I had penciled in my lesson plan for the day. We did not get to read the beginning pages of the book that came with our crystal-growing kit. I did not get to do the easy sequential spelling lesson today. I had planned to work on music theory with Max, and we didn't have enough time for that, either. He wants to learn to play piano and guitar this year. In a few more days, I am sure I will realize that I do not have enough time to teach him those instruments on my own, without the help of some music teachers. I do know two individuals who I think will be good teachers for him as he begins formal music instruction. A small and brave part of me is still holding onto that notion that I can do almost everything. This evening I appreciate the advice I have received from veteran homeschoolers: start the school year slowly, in stages, and don't expect to cover every subject every day.

Now I'm trying to finish my mental to-do list for the day, which includes tidying up each room for just a few minutes, a load of dishes (thank you to the person who invented dishwashers, and thank you to Kent for the friends-and-family Bosch discount), lesson plans for the next couple of days, and a steaming hot bath.


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