Friday, September 30, 2011

flashback: mother eagle

I have so many things I want to write about, but for some reason this morning I realized I never wrote about our eagle experience last school year, so I'm stepping out of the home school classroom for a moment and back into the public school classroom.

In March 2011, my friend (and principal--nice that I can say that), sent me a link to a live web cam of a bald eagle nest in the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia.  There were three just hatched eaglets being cared for by their mom & dad, and we could see it all on the Internet.  My whole family fell in love with this eagle family, and very quickly it became part of our routine at school too.  Each morning I would log into the cam and we would observe the mom and dad bringing in food, tearing it up, and feeding the babies.  And each day the eaglets grew and changed.  I would just leave the cam on all day and primates would periodically check on the eagle family.  We wrote and drew in our nature journals, asked questions on the moderated discussion, painted eagle pictures, and read lots of books.  It was an amazing learning experience for all of us, and such a unique view into a very private, secret world of nature.

In late April, after returning from lunch, I clicked on the cam, and read that an eagle had been killed by an airplane in Norfolk.  For the rest of the day I was quietly glued to the computer to see if it was one of OUR eagles, and sadly, it turned out to be the mom.  I still get choked up thinking about it.  The entire community of eagle watchers were as stunned and saddened as we were, and one of my toughest days of teaching was telling the class.  I had many students who were watching not only in class, but also at home.  It was heartbreaking in the following two days to observe the dad still bringing in food for the confused eaglets, and even worse, when scientists made the decision to remove the eaglets from the nest and take them to a wildlife care center until they were ready to fledge.  We watched the eaglets be removed, and the dad visit the empty nest for a day or two, until they turned off the camera.  Eventually they installed a cam at the wildlife center and we were able to continue to see them grow into juveniles.  Two days before school ended, we watched the release of these majestic birds, back into the wild.  So lucky to have shared this final goodbye together!

We read reports from observers that the dad was doing well, though he never returned to the nest after that first week, and the hope is that he will find another mate this fall.  The mother and father had been together for almost a decade, and had raised many eaglets together--observed and monitored by wildlife experts.  The interactions we observed were incredible--the mom would push the dad aside and show him how to feed the babies.  They would take turns keeping them warm, hunting for and feeding them, and the best times were when the whole family was together--just surviving.  It really was an experience I will never forget.

There is so much crap on the Internet, and in many ways I am saddened by the negative influences of technology on childhood and society in general, but this was a beautiful example of the marvelous possibilities technology holds.  We connected with people, classrooms, and families from all over the world through watching the web cam, and most of all, with this family of eagles, in a unique way.

At the end of the school year, one of my students gave me a beautiful necklace and pendant of a nest with three eggs.  I wear it everyday, and it reminds me of this wonderful experience I shared with my primates, and my family, and so many others.  I don't know why this is on my mind this morning, but I'm glad I'm recording it here in the blog, because it's a great example of real world learning--intimate, sad, and joyful--all at the same time.

"American symbols" are a required curriculum topic in our state, and I can't tell you how boring and dry a topic that is for little primates.  But the eagle cam allowed us to inject life into learning about THE symbol of our country, and helped us feel a part of a greater good, a diverse community that we belong to and shared a common experience.

Miss you Mother Eagle!  And so very grateful to have known you in your time on this planet.

a nature journal sketch of mama eagle in the nest

my husband's art students constructing an eagles' nest from sticks and grapevines

sleeping eaglets by one of my primates (markers)

mama sitting on her eaglets by one of my primates (markers and pencil)

eagle's nest constructed by my primates outside our classroom

model of mother eagle and her eaglets in the nest made by my husband's art students--they also made the dad eagle (not pictured, but flying next tot he nest, which is perched on a trunk of grapevine (ironically destroyed in a storm in my parents' backyard and repurposed in this exhibit at the school)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I am finally getting to downloading all of our pics and doing something with them.  I'm a documenter by nature--I can't do anything without taking a picture, writing about it or drawing it.  But finding the time to organize all this data is my weakness.  Somehow I thought home schooling would allow me more time for this, but I haven't quite been able to accomplish that--YET.  There's one of my goals!

I just want to share these pics with captions for now.  The photos begin during our last family trip to NH over Labor Day weekend, because what I am finding more and more, is that successful home schooling for us is more about expanding on and delving deeper into things we already do as a family vs. trying to imitate some model of what school "should" look like.  Hope the learning shines through with these visuals!

 sunflowers we planted at Grumpy's last spring..we dissected them last week and identified 
parts of a flower
 exploring and hiking in NH
 we each painted rocks (water-based, all natural pigments, of course) and left them hidden around the forest in appreciation of all the beauty this day offered us
what the heck is this????  well, it's our Golden Mystery Snail sticking out some very long and worm-like appendage that we have yet to identify.  you don't want to see this first thing in the morning--yuck!
 Street Art scavenger hunt in NH last week with Uncle John--soooo cool!  Seven took about 50 pictures of sidewalks, street lamps, and blank brick walls, and when I asked why he wasn't taking pics of the street art instead, he replied that he planned to upload and print his pictures and then use markers to draw on his own street art...(a current work in process!)
 ok, ok--kudos to me--is this cake cool or what?  Snake Cake as requested by Seven for his 
birthday party
 apple picking and grasshopper hunting
 Four pooped out as Seven continued his endless search for grasshoppers
 nature journalling at a local museum (giant sea sponge and turtle skull featured center)
 hands on alligator exploration
 exiting from swim class this week
 if you look closely (my macro lens isn't working) you will see Seven's finger touching the wing of a beautiful firefly this morning at nature class ( a home school class we are taking at a local 
wildlife sanctuary)
 Seven found a leaf hopper (pictured here), tons of grasshoppers, a cricket, a bright green & orange caterpillar, wasps, and many, many bees.  Their first day began with some interactive "get to know you" activities that included making nature collages and up close observations of specimens, such as a bird-eating tarantula, praying mantis, and moths.  Seven was less than thrilled with every aspect other than "searching for bugs and sketching" (direct quote), but the class is amazing and made up of about 20 home schoolers with two wildlife expert teachers.  I was so impressed with their care and attention to establishing the group as learners and including the kids in the process of defining expectations for behavior.  I am hoping once he settles in, Seven will allow himself to enjoy this experience!  And I look forward to dropping him off for a bit and taking Four for hikes through the woods while we wait!
at home, smashing strawberries for strawberry jam--canning summer goodies is part of our "Farewell to Summer" celebration this week

Looking at all of this reminds me of all we are doing and how meaningful each day is....

Saturday, September 17, 2011

messing about

I noticed something interesting today about Seven...something I wouldn't have noticed without having spent so much time together.  He's obsessed with all thing insect/bug/arachnid related, and that's the topic he chose to "study" for home school so we've been making a special point o notice bugs as we've been out and about this week.  Through this science-based, experiential exploration is where I noticed something about him as a reader.

Learning is constantly happening--as humans, we are constantly observing and interacting with the world and those around us, and these moments, are, in fact, when we learn.  This is the basic idea of my philosophy of teaching and learning, and so it's also the premise I use as a teacher--home school or not.  Instead of the more traditional route of gathering a bunch of books and activities on bugs, I'm approaching this differently with Seven and Four.  I know Seven is very motivated and already knows a lot about this topic, and Four is mildly interested--maybe motivated by the fact that her big bro is so enthralled--but the reasons for motivation don't really matter as long as the desire to know more is present and active.  I have two very different learners at different levels of motivation, age, and background knowledge, and this is what teachers face in the classroom, only times about 10 and usually all the same age.  While the numbers in this scenario are different, how similar can the approach be?  how different does it have to be?  Still thinking like a teacher, I'm reflecting on this from both perspectives: homeschool and whole group teaching.

Anyways, we practiced writing the letter B on Monday and drew some bugs in our lesson journals, and brainstormed other words with the B sound--beginning, middle, and end.  Just thinking about the letter in print and sound.  We saw a live Black Widow spider and other insects and arachnids at the museum, and on the following day while visiting my friend in NH.  Seven found a stink bug, grasshopper, tons of caterpillars in a huge nest full of eggs too, and a bright green and yellow caterpillar on its own.  Wednesday we did some sorting by color and counting using small plastic bugs, and pretended to be "grasshopper hunters" at the apple orchard.  Should I say pretended?  We really "did the work of grasshopper hunters"...steathly moving through the grass and sneaking up on them, trying to catch them and being very careful to release them, and we counted 14 plus one katydid, before Four pooped out in the grass--it was pretty hot at the orchard.  We stopped at the dollar store on the way home to pick up a couple of extra bug catchers to keep in the car for future occasions when they may be needed, and that night Seven wrote an amazing story in his Adventure Journal about our day.

Thursday and Friday we had some conversations about the grasshoppers, and did some casual drawings, but were also busy with doctor and dentist appointments, and grocery shopping.  Seven told me he found a centipede early in the morning and tried to catch it, but it was too quick and got away.  He also used a flashlight to check my husband's head for lice before bedtime (most likely inspired by my rantings last school year as we were pretty infested for awhile and I may have been a bit crazy about sleeping in a shower cap full of olive oil every night...aka the salad hat...but I'm digressing!).  I'm just trying to remember all the bug related instances over this past week, which brings me to today.

We went to a local museum today for a nature journalling presentation by a fabulous wildlife artist and also a Curious Creatures live animal show.  The show included snakes, a skunk and a rabbit, turtles, a tarantula, and an alligator.  I now know how to tell a croc from an alligator!  Seven leaned over to me during the show and whispered, "Mama, I love this!"  He was in his glory, and Four was always first to reach out and touch these creatures, and she completed a whole nature journal booklet!  Her fave was the bunny.  We picked up a cool insect field guide in the gift shop, and as we looked though it tonight, I really listened and watched Seven as he went through every page.

I noticed that he (remember: a non-reader) recognized many insects--mole cricket, leaf and stick bugs, thorn beetles, katydids, and more.  Some of them seem obvious--the thorn beetle looks like a big thorn--but others are much more obscure, like the mole cricket (looks like a plain old cricket to me), and the assassin bugs.  When he got to the assassin bug page and named them, I asked, "How do you know these are all assassin bugs?" (there were four different ones pictured on the page).  He replied by pointing out similar characteristics on each of the four bugs, so that even though they all looked different, the close observer could see these certain similar traits.

I was really amazed, and it made me think about how he is essentially "reading" these creatures--he knows the distinct features and has identified them as symbols, which basically is what readers do, only the features are the lines and shapes that make up letters and the patterns of letters that make up words, and we assign sounds and meanings to these symbols.  This is what I found so interesting, and I truly don't know yet how that information will guide my teaching, but I do feel it's a significant observation, especially from a naturalist intelligences perspective.

This week was "messing about"--first stage in teaching in learning, allowing us to just "play" with the topic, review and assess schema, and lead us to our next stage: "diving in".  Seven knows all insects have 3 body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), he knows arachnids are not insects and have only 2 body parts and eight legs.  He knows about different bug habitats: webs, trees, dirt, under rocks, our house:).  And he clearly understands and knows about some different characteristics and adaptations of several distinct species.  That's pretty much the benchmark expectation for first grade curriculum in our state.  Now what?

I have some yoga and movement activities up my sleeve that are insect related, and I think Four will really enjoy them, so I'm planning on those for next week, along with continued conversations, exploring outside, and reading the field guide.  The yoga/movement will get us thinking about getting inside the head of insects--what do they think about and why?  Maybe we'll do one of my favorite poems, The Spider and the Fly with an activity...uh-oh, am I relying on the good old traditional stuff?!  We can practice writing in the form of labeling our drawings (the way scientists do).....much to ponder about this next step, but I'm looking forward with much excitement!

Just a note, in a group of 20+ primates, there's no way a teacher could assess and observe each student this closely.  But that doesn't mean this knowledge and these skills aren't developing in each of them, so allowing this important time to "play" with the topic, "mess about", IS worthwhile, and can offer the teacher a wealth of perspective on those s/he can observe in a group setting.  The group also offers many opportunities to observe the primates teaching and learning from each other--basic principal of multi-age education.  One of the things I love most as a school teacher is eavesdropping on the conversations that conspire while primates are solving problems and creating products--you learn SO much about what they know, who they are, and what they need in this way.  Now THAT is assessment that can drive instruction in a meaningful way, (vs. a spread sheet with students ranked and sorted by a bunch of abbreviated catch phrases and numbers--this is what we do in American public schools).

Forgot to mention we are reading, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.  I love this adventurous tale of a sad boy who finds himself while adventuring with a gang of giant bugs.  This was the last chapter book I read with my class in July, so there's some sentimentality attached to this, for me.  There have been lots of role plays between Seven and Four of the different events in the story as we read several chapters each day--in the morning and at night.  Lots of drawings of the different characters with alternate story lines too.  While Four is often distracted and involved in princess play as I read, she is still engaged with the story, and Seven and I always do a re-cap before reading in order to catch her and daddy (only there for the bedtime readings) up.  Lots of cliffhanger chapter endings which has them begging for "just a little more please!!!!" and opens up room for discussing predictions, which Seven struggles with--that fear of taking a chance he'll be wrong.  These fears seem so silly and unnecessary to me as an adult, but when I think like a child, I know these fears are deep and real.  And as an adult, I have to figure out how to very delicately lead him out of feeling afraid.  I feel like we are on a good path.

This post is so long, but I also just want to talk about Seven's sudden interest in temperature.  We've been keeping a daily graph of the weather in our "ploffice" (playroom/office/storage room), and on Tuesday, I put up a window thermometer in the livingroom.  I introduced it as a tool to measure how hot or cold it feels outside, and we discussed the numbers and lines, the mercury, how to read it, and what the different temps feel like (100 degrees=really really hot, 20 degrees=really really cold, etc).  Each day since, Seven has repeatedly checked the thermometer and reported the temp, which has varied from 60 to 80 all week.  In those moments, I've asked what we notice about our clothing and how we feel, are the windows open or closed?, and that as we enter the autumn equinox, the weather will change to cooler temps than in summer.  I think this might be a good time to begin formal nature journalling.

Here's what I want Seven and Four to learn from this bug experience: that we are all connected to eachother and the world around us--every living thing.  That's not in the state frameworks, but it's an example of the freedom in home schooling that I am growing to love so much!

Hurt No Living Thing

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap.
Nor dancing gnat, or beetle flat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.

by Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


We had a great day yesterday--over an hour at the park and a trip to the Museum of Science with a friend from Waldorf, where Seven and Four attended kindergarten and preschool last year.  It was a beautiful day--I love this time of year!  Seven wrote in his adventures journal last night, and is currently working on a huge creature mural with drawings of the volcano we saw yesterday and some of his favorite creatures.  Four began her own flower mural, but has left that activity to dress up as a princess and re-enact a wedding we recently attended uses her horses as the bride and groom.  I love her imaginative play!

At the park we searched for bugs, as that is Seven's chosen theme of study.  It's a topic he feels pretty comfortable with, so I'm not surprised and actually am feeling a bit thrilled to be following his lead.  His Waldorf friend is also being homeschooled, so we made plans to meet up regularly.  The boy's mom commented on how relaxed and outgoing Seven seemed yesterday, compared to the painfully shy & reserved boy she knew last year.  I really think the relief of the social pressure he felt from a group setting has, ironically, allowed him to be more relaxed and outgoing.  Hoping this trend will continue.

Four had a blast "zooming" all over the museum yesterday.  We met a little friend (only 2yrs old) at the park last week and she was there again yesterday.  It's interesting to watch Four interact with her.  Not a lot of talking, but she wants to "show" this little tot all of her "pretty things", so of course we left with a shopping cart full of jewels, etc.  Lucky she was there!

We are off to do some visiting today....more later!

Friday, September 9, 2011


Ok, so here's something I was completely unprepared for: everywhere we have gone this week, we have gotten weird looks and questions from strangers regarding, "how old are you? shouldn't you be in school?" and "what?  Skipping school already?", etc., etc...

The thing is, I don't feel like getting into a whole discussion of the problems with public ed right now and why we are choosing to home school and the merits of a home school education and how, yes, we are addressing the social aspect...blah blah blah.  Not with strangers.  I'm just working on figuring things out for myself, and dealing with other people's misconceptions, rude opinions, and lack of understanding is not something I care to deal with, quite honestly.  But it's bugging me, especially since I know this is something we will encounter every time we are adventuring around during school hours and I wonder what impact it is having on Four and Seven...what message are these people sending to my kiddos?  what message am I sending to them by avoiding a response or saying something completely lame?

On a lighter note, our fried rice dinner was delish and I was truly amazed at Seven's culinary skills.  He did everything from gathering, washing, chopping, measuring and mixing ingredients--even stir frying the rice in the wok...(man was I sweating through that one).  We both burned our fingers on the wok, but as Daddy said, " Now you're a real cook!".

Best part of the day: just after dinner, Seven suddenly said, "Mama, I want to show you a word I know."  He got a piece of paper and a marker and wrote: "OWL" and proudly showed me.  And he read it.  No idea where that came from--certainly not from anything I did with him this week, but that's what is so spectacular about teaching--it's not about the teacher showing the learner or telling the learner or making the learner do--it's about the learner teaching the teacher.

Happy Weekend!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

fried rice

Day 2 went soooooooooooooooooo much better than yesterday, and it's all because I just moved to a rhythm rather than followed a schedule.  We had a cozy morning in bed while the rains poured and wind blew outside...then made breakfast together, ate, brushed our teeth and got dressed, made my bed together, recorded the weather and the date, read an alphabet story, discussed different letters and words and sounds, played an alphabet game that also served as an informal assessment of where Seven and Four are phonemically speaking, wrote the whole alphabet and names, and then had snack and play time.  It was wonderful.  There was no complaining, everyone participated, things were accomplished, and we had fun.

We looked over our schedule (initiated by Seven, who was very excited about a lunch date with Auntie Mel), and then Four realized her sick toys were missing and Seven found the note.  We looked high and low, over and under, everywhere, and each time we found one, we lined them up, counted them and also counted how many were left to find.  Seven was surprisingly enthusiastic about the counting and Four predictably loved the active search.

We agreed that we'd each be allowed three complaints a day.  I had none, Seven had 3, and Four had just one tantrum--which really was auntie Mel's fault, ;).  After a very pleasant lunch we were off to Grumpy's so I could teach my college course.  It was a great day, and instead of doing worksheets on letters and numbers, we used letters and numbers in hands-on, real world ways.  Primates learn by observing and doing.

Cut to the fried rice....Seven is a really picky eater so mid-August (after watching him eat hot dogs for three days straight while we were vacationing), I asked the family to think of some things they have never done and suggested we take turns trying each person's thing together.  One of the challenges I see with Seven is that he is not a risk taker, and this is so hard for me because I am the exact opposite... I'm not into bungee jumping or anything, but I love trying new things and I know that curiosity & willingness to experiment are critical characteristics of a successful learner.  I think one of the reasons he's hesitant to read is because he's afraid to be wrong, and I've seen this a million times in kids.  It's one of the toughest hurdles for a learner, and building confidence is the only way to get past it.  Not an impossible task, but one I had hoped to avoid as a parent.

Anyways, we are starting with trying new foods, (by luck my new thing got 'randomly' picked first:)), And it's been really great!  He's eating carrots now (sliced as chips vs sticks) and fried shrimp (loved when he said excitedly, "I've never eaten a crustacean before!"), and earlier this week he asked if we could make fried rice.  The agenda tomorrow: read the fried rice recipe we found on line, check to see what we need for ingredients, make a list, visit the grocery store, and make fried rice for dinner.  Just before bed, Seven said, "I'm so excited about the fried rice Mama!"  Me too.

We'll be reading, writing, using money, measuring, mixing, and taking a risk by eating a new food!  And the fact that it was initiated by Seven makes the whole plan so meaningful...something I know will stick with him.  He's engaged in this learning and that is giving him the freedom from fear to try something new.  Cooking is one of his favorite activities, so using something he loves to lead him towards something new is how I hope to build his confidence.  Eventually that will transfer to reading...but until he leads me toward that, I have to patiently wait and seize every possible opportunity for me to provide an opportunity for him to step in that direction.

And it is so wonderful that Four is the yin to his yang, because her enthusiasm for the reading activities and the new food challenge is contagious.  It surprises him at first, but I can see it also motivates him.  Of course, many times the motivation is a just a big brother/lil' sis thing, but you work with what you are given!  And I am amazed at her interests and skills, and the way she plays out "scenes" and conversations with her toys to process her thinking..for example, the pink snake told his mother, Angelina the mouse, that she would not wear pants today.  Angelina replied, "It's cold outside honey and you have to wear pants."  and it went back and forth for quite a while until finally the snake agreed to wear pants.  

I seem to recall a similar situation earlier this week regarding a long sleeve shirt on a cold day...however in that scenario there was much more screaming and stamping of feet and crying before the mother got her way....interesting, very interesting.....

taking flight

Much has changed for me since last September, and it has been quite a roller coaster ride leading to today: my first day of school as a home schooling mom.  Home something I really ever imagined myself doing, and yet here I am.  It's HARD.  I mean teaching in  general is hard--really hard--it drains you emotionally, physically, mentally, even spiritually at times.  I feel like the societal and political trends, attitudes, and (misguided) expectations of public education have dominated my spirit as a teacher over the past two years, and that can make a hard job unbearable.

The past month has allowed me some much needed distance, and I am at the point where I am free to remember the joy, magic, and art of teaching and learning with a group of students.  Today was the first day for my former students and colleagues, and I have to say they have all been on my mind all day.  Teaching never leaves you...when it's real, true teaching.  You share your life, vulnerable moments, failures, successes, tragedies, celebrations, families, experiences.  That's why it's worth all the drain, all the hard.

But now I'm home schooling a first grader and a preschooler, and today was our first official day, and I made the most ridiculous rookie mistake a new teacher can make: I forgot what teaching and learning is. I have been so unbelievably excited about the prospect of focusing all my energy and attention to my family (with no drain, no need to balance), that I somehow ended up on a strangely familiar, yet very uncomfortable path.  I have no idea what I am supposed to do as a home schooling mom--I mean, I've read lots of books, made lots of notes (filling two whole journals with ideas and plans!), researched a zillion blogs & web sites, but all my preparation and experience led me to a first day of many examples of what NOT to do.

I had my house organized, schedule posted, plans and materials ready...all those things teachers do before the first day.  So where did I go wrong?  Well, there was no group.  There was Seven and there was Four...all amped up and confused about what the heck home school is, and there was me, all amped up and confused about what the heck home school is.  Now don't get me wrong, we had some really amazing learning moments that I am proud of, but it's what I learned that truly is the success of the day.

After the fifth, "This is boring" from Seven, (who is the least motivated emergent reader I have ever met), and the third meltdown from Four, (who is the most reluctant to transition from free & easy summer living), I almost felt zapped back into the stress of public school teaching.  And that's when I realized my rookie mistake.

I'm not teaching in the public schools.  I'm not teaching a group.  I'm teaching Dr. Suess' Thing One and Thing Two in my own home, and to top it all off: I am madly in love with them both--even after the "I'm bored's" and the tantrums.  I'm calling the shots here, and for the first time as a teacher, I can fully embrace what I believe about teaching and learning.  It's just a very different atmosphere....but a very special one.

While I expect to spend the entire year unravelling the mysteries of home school education, I so look forward to our "curriculum": learning about the world and ourselves, and how those two things fit together......hey, there's our year long curriculum arch--who am I in this world?  mmmm, nice and juicy--lots of room for inquiry, reading, writing, computing, puzzling, laughing, crying, socializing, and risk taking there...

So I'm taking flight, which is a fitting allegory to my last year as a teacher and how significant birds became (more on that later...).  My former eaglets have all fledged the nest, and now I am tending a new nest, and have adjusted my perspective, am not wasting my mistake, and approaching tomorrow as Thursday--a day which will include some reading, some writing, and some computing as needed in our real world setting...a day full of possibilities...a day chasing rainbows with Four and catching worms with Seven, and a day that will yield some poignant teaching and learning moments I look forward to writing about in bed.

My teacher prep tonight included hiding seven of Four's little stuffed animals that have been "very sick with the sniffles" as she's played doctor to them all week.  They are all over the house with tails and whiskers peeking out, and I left behind a note written in pictures and words from an evil fairy who takes credit for this dastardly deed and challenges them to find all seven.

Nothing like starting the day with a magical mystery to solve....and at home school, we consider that "time on task literacy/math/imagination fusion"!