Monday, January 31, 2011

Homeschooling: week one

This was a long and somewhat odd week, what with the city being paralyzed by snow on Thursday. In some ways, it made life easier, since B was home Thursday to help out, although I think that was more or less balanced out by Alec also being home instead of at daycare.

Anyway, we've survived our first week of homeschooling. Here are some notes, mostly for my own use:


We are using Calvert reading and math, which are pretty straightforward. There's a bit of prep needed ahead of time, mostly to make sure we have the math materials ready and have found all of the readings in the various reading books we've been given (I'm not sure if this is a "Starting in the middle of the year so it's assumed we know how to find readings" issue or they're just not being explicit enough, but it took me quite a while to find everything I needed on our first day because we have three different reading-related books and they didn't say which one we could find the stories we needed in).

Science and social studies, on the other hand, are requiring quite a bit more preparation and thought because so far, they're just telling us what to talk about without a textbook to read. Social studies, at least, has a list of suggested books you can read with your child. Science last week, however, blithely told me to discuss land masses, glaciers, the water cycle and air with very little guidance. Thankfully, I was able to message my personal librarian to ask him to bring some books home.

So far, of all things, What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry has been by far the most useful book for this. Social studies has been a discussion of various professions, and even though it was written in the seventies, the sections on riding on airplane and taking a train trip were still surprisingly relevant (although the flight attendants served food. How quaint!). And while I used library books for the overcomplicated science lesson, I later opened What Do People Do All Day? to discover a perfectly good explanation of the water cycle, and also realized that we had his Great Big Air Book, which would have been very useful as well. Sadly, the next social studies lesson is fishermen, and Richard Scarry seems to be letting me down on that topic, so I'll actually have to find something else to be my social studies textbook.


So far, our days are pretty free-form, but I would like to be a bit more strict about scheduling so we don't wind up having to do work in the evening. Part of the problem last week was unanticipated breaks while I did things I should have prepped ahead of time, like when I found myself having to cut out 78 letter cards, so hopefully we'll have less of that this week.

The workload is pretty reasonable. We're supposed to be spending five hours a day on schoolwork (since this is a public school, there are attendance requirements. We also had to send them vaccination forms, despite the fact that we're not coming in contact with any other human beings), but this is all on the honor system, so as long as we're getting everything done, well, no one is the wiser as to how much time it actually took.

Toddler wrangling is another area we need to work on. Right now, he's still going to daycare Tuesdays and Thursdays, so we have those days free, but there's still Mondays and Wednesdays to figure out. He's pretty good about being self-entertaining, but he does have a tendency to want to get in the middle of whatever K is doing. My best strategy so far has been to create an obstacle course between him and us, so he has a number of things to distract him as he comes toward us.

Another aspect of organizing our days is that instead of the various work options laid out, I apparently have decided on 5. None of the above, continue your normal schedule and level of childcare and just add a ton more work on top of it. Ai yi yi. Doing the math, working 20 hours a week plus childcare is about the same amount of money as working ten hours a week without childcare, but I don't feel ready to have both kids all day every day while we're still figuring out the homeschooling thing. So I've been trying to get some work done during the day and haven't been doing too badly. We'll see how long I can keep this up.

The student:

K seems to be enjoying pretty much everything except Reading. We're definitely going to need to stock up on strategies for when she doesn't want to do any work at all, but mostly she's been pretty good about doing schoolwork. I suspect the Reading issue is that she's always been very shy about demonstrating knowledge until she's quite certain about something. That doesn't mix well with being asked to sound out words, which so far she mostly refuses to try to do, even when it's things I know she's capable of doing. She's happy to listen to stories and to work on handwriting, but the phonics lessons are going to be our big sticking point, and I'm not sure what to do about it. Does anyone know any good strategies for encouraging the reluctant student who is too shy to reveal what she knows?

Friday, January 21, 2011

"You don't know inefficiency until you try to reach consensus with 100 Quaker-educated teenage radicals"

The life of a librarian, as seen through Youtube:


After some confusion over faxed forms and time on their 800 line, I went to finalize our enrollment at the online school Wednesday. Included was a big warning that we had to withdraw K from her current school before enrolling because she can't be enrolled in two schools at once or THE UNIVERSE WILL EXPLODE from the logical impossibility.

I looked at the enrollment date they gave us and it was... that day. I see. Was I supposed to just go yank K directly out of class or could it wait until 3? Cue the second phone call and it was explained that there could be a little overlap, but I was able to fix it so K can finish out the week in her current school and start homeschooling on Monday.

So we start homeschooling on Monday.

Gulp. Oh my.

I'm still working on the logistics of working and homeschooling. Currently I'm working 20 hours a week at the online job and a varying number of days between Friday and Sunday at the library. Alec goes to the babysitter's three days a week; we have already arranged that both kids will go on Fridays so that I can work at the library any Friday I want. The cost of that one day a week will take pretty much everything I earn at the library, but I consider it worth it to have something that says "library" on my resume and I'm getting lots of good experience there. I more or less consider it highly beneficial volunteer work.

That leaves the online job and the fact that 1) trying to do it late at night and then get up in the morning might kill me and 2) I kind of hate it and want to quit. The problem with that is that the city now owes B two raises, but it's not looking like we're going to get them any time soon. We should get a nice chunk of change in back pay once we do, but much like Elijah, we can't count on it coming at any defined point. But without that raise and without essentially any of my income, money will be quite tight. So here are the options as I them, from least to most income:

1. Quit my online job, keep kids in daycare on Fridays. Advantage: life will be much happier and more relaxed. Disadvantage: life will be much poorer and I'm not sure there will be room in the budget for a car payment. Also, our plan for socializing K revolves around sending her to classes and afterschool programs, and we won't be able to afford anything except the super-cheap offerings from the city rec centers.

2. Quit my online job, give up all daycare and do what we did last year, switch off who works Friday and Saturday. Advantage: we'll have more money. Disadvantage: wow, that's quite a lot of quality time with my children. I'm a generally happier person when I get a bit of time off from my children. Also, while we'll be doing better financially, we'll be in the same financial position that made me decide to go find a second job. Also, I really like our babysitters and will feel guilty if I take the kids away from them entirely since they so clearly love them.

3. See if I can switch to a similar job with fewer hours, only have kids in daycare on Fridays. Advantage: will be making about as much money as I am now after paying for daycare, so we'll be doing relatively well financially and will be able to afford higher quality classes for K. Disadvantage: Taking care of kids all day and working in the evening won't be as bad, but it will still be stressful. There will still be the hate-my-job factor, although I might hate it less if I did it less.

4. Keep my job, find someplace cheaper than our babysitters to send Alec four days a week (as much as I love them, our babysitters are too expensive to use fulltime), use babysitters on Fridays. Advantage: We'll have money, having Alec in daycare will make teaching K much easier. Disadvantage: The work Thursday night, work all day Friday, work Friday night and possibly then work Saturday combo is already slowly killing me and adding homeschooling on top of that? Ack. I'll really miss Alec if he's in daycare full time. And did I mention I really hate my job and want to quit?

Right now, I'm kind of leaning towards quitting and trying to live frugally for a while, although I waffle towards the try to work fewer hours option depending on how I'm feeling about my job at any given moment.

Well, I have at least another week of working because I was put on a special project and I'm a good enough sport not to quit in the middle of it. Meanwhile, we're all getting excited and nervous. K is really excited about not having to wear a uniform any more. I am super excited about not having to drag her out of bed in the morning and get her someplace on time. We have also gleefully ignored homework for the past two nights - what are they going to do, fail her? Friday, I think B and I are going to Ikea to get K a desk for her computer (that the school sends us for free! And they're even sending us money to help pay for Internet! It's amazing what a school can afford to offer when they don't have to pay for buildings). Then I suspect we're going to have to do another major rearrangement to set up the living room for optimal learning/toddler entertainment. Because we're starting this all on Monday. Whee!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


So I guess we're going to start doing it.

We had a parent-teacher conference before Christmas. I've been trying to write about it ever since, but never seem to find the time, and then the weekend before Christmas happened, which is the reason a lot of stuff I meant to do before Christmas didn't happen.

Anyway, we learned a number of things, many not surprising (our child is stubborn and likes to go her own way. Imagine our shock). But there were two things that stood out:

1. They have a two hour block of reading instruction every morning (and related, they're not supposed to have any formal playtime, but she has a good teacher who finds ways to give it to them by calling it other things). TWO HOURS of expecting five-year-olds to sit still and study the same subject, not to mention there's also math, science and social studies to cover over the course of the day. And then she gets to go home to at least another 45 minutes of homework.

2. One thing K needs to work on is that she tends to space out and fidget (gosh, I wonder why). And apparently that's fine now, but it won't fly in first grade, when apparently all six-year-olds are expected to stay on task at all times.

And perhaps the most important thing is that while K will vary on whether or not she says she likes school (usually based on whether she doesn't want to get out of bed or what sort of day she's had at school), she will very consistently say she's bored.

I don't want to make it sound like my precious genius is too good for public school. My concern is that 1) this curriculum is seriously developmentally inappropriate for five-year-olds and 2) if K's only good coping method for dealing with what must be a huge amount of repetition during the school day will start getting her in trouble, we have a real potential problem. And while moving might get her into a school with less crowding and better test scores, the curriculum is going to be the same.

So our conclusion is that while our preference for K's education is school, the Philadelphia Public Schools aren't it.* So after a lot of talking and thinking and discussing this with just about everyone we visited over Christmas, a couple weeks ago, we took a deep breath and pulled the trigger in the form of applying to Commonwealth Connections Academy, an online charter school. I don't feel quite prepared to come up with a curriculum myself this quickly, and truthfully, I almost always do better if I have a bit of external pressure motivating me.

There's a lot of logistics to figure out yet, ranging from what to do about my job to how to rearrange the house to how to manage several hours of schoolwork a day with an active toddler in the house. Part of me is really excited - lately, it's just so cool having a five-year-old around who gets so excited about learning - and part of me is terrified that I'll be scouting out unmarked graves in the backyard within a month. But we're really doing it.

*This is the place where I say that I don't think every public school here is terrible - there are certainly individual ones that are very good. But the conpetition for spots in charter schools, the only place we would escape the standard curriculum, is such that we would have to apply to every charter school within a five mile radius to possibly get a chance at a spot. And I'm definitely a big proponent of public schools in general. I'm the product of an excellent public school system and sometime I may treat everyone to my treatise on: Our Education System: Why It's Not That Damn Bad.

I'm also conflicted about leaving the public school system, since I generally feel it's not going to get better if people abandon it. By withdrawing my child, I'm also removing potentially involved parents, the influence and good test scores a good student provides, and perhaps most importantly, the funding that K provides. I mean, it's not like the cost of the facilities or teachers will change if K leaves, so the money they're losing is a lot more than what they would save. I generally feel that homeschooling parents probably should do something to make up for what they're taking out of the system. Fortunately, I think we have that more than taken care of by choosing to be underpaid civil servants in the public library system. We both provide for the education system all the time. But I've said more than once that it's not fair to make my child my agent of social change, and my primary responsibility is to prepare her for adult life in the best way I can.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

1. K has another fucking UTI. We had gone several weeks this time and I had really hoped, but her pee started to get The Smell right before Christmas, and I knew I should get her checked, but she swore up and down it didn't hurt and we were so darn busy. And then this week she spiked a fever and it very definitely hurt. We did at least get a different antibiotic this time, one that doesn't taste horrible going down and then give her reflux, meaning she got to re-taste it all day long. This one actually tastes pretty good.

Maybe this one will work. Dammit.

2. We've progressed to looking at actual houses lately, although we haven't found anything that's totally blown our hair back yet. There was the one that was pretty nice except for the little issue of its only yard facing onto a twelve-lane insanely busy road. The house yesterday where they totally lied about the square footage, unless they were including the unfinished, low-ceilinged basement.

Today, we saw a house we might actually take. The positives were considerable: a nice neighborhood with a number of families (if the number of houses with swingsets is any indicator), reasonably sized yard on a quiet street, excellent size, great layout downstairs, good layout and good cabinet space in the kitchen, reasonable bedrooms with decent closet space, a decent sized finished room downstairs to serve as a playroom, good storage space and an excellent rent.

But here are the negatives: being instantly blinded by the gold-striped entryway, an almost equally blinding yellow kitchen, ORANGE shag carpeting in the dining room and living room, and perhaps most scary is how much time someone must have put in putting up that flocked wallpaper in the stairway. Basically, this house was decorated by Austin Powers. We can live with all of that, but the stove is an incredibly tiny wall model and dates from the 60s, possibly the 1860s.

We don't really bake that often, certainly not large things like turkeys. The stove is big enough for casseroles or a single loaf of bread, and probably a pizza, which pretty much covers the majority of our oven use. We would probably have to buy new baking sheets though.

Hmm... typing all of this out makes me lean a lot more towards taking it. I suppose my real problems are 1) it's hard to be truly enthusiastic about moving into a 60s shag lair, and 2) I really want to move into some nice spacious Midwestern house with about 2000 square feet. But Philadelphia houses just aren't like that and we can't possibly afford that much space. But it's nice to dream, isn't it?

Oh yes, almost none of the electrical outlets are grounded, which is workable but a pain in the ass.

So would you rent a house that left its heart in the 60s if the price was right?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy new year!

Well, it seems I've survived after all. I made it through the two days of extra work followed by the weekend in New York for the funeral, then through the four days we had left to prepare for travelling for Christmas. We pulled it all off and have even managed to enjoy ourselves.

The funeral weekend was, well, a funeral, and for someone who died too soon and will be awfully missed. It's always a bittersweet feeling to those occasions, where you're so glad to be able to see family you don't see often, but for the most awful reason. So it was a good service and we saw people we were happy to see, and it was a draining weekend.

After that, it was the whirlwind of last minute present shopping and packing and occasionally doing things like actual paying work. I had many more plans to do things and make things that were pretty much killed by having to go out of town, but we did at least get the shopping done and even managed to have the car packed and ready to go so we could get out of town promptly after B finished work on Thursday. It was kind of astonishing, really. For once, we left pretty much when we planned to instead of about three hours later. We made excellent time and stopped in Johnstown for the night, having shaved over 200 miles off of the trip and made it to my mother's by 6:30 on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve was exactly the opposite of what I had imagined: K had been feeling punky all day (there was a moment of panic in the morning when she complained her stomach hurt and said yes when asked if she might throw up, but fortunately she recovered from that) and insisted on going to bed early. When a five-year-old on Christmas Eve lies down on the couch and pulls a blanket over herself, you know she must really be tired. Alec, on the other hand, was going strong late into the night. He's been on a pattern of falling asleep at a normal time, then waking up a couple hours later and acting as if he's had a lovely and refreshing nap. 18 months often has a big developmental spurt accompanied by a monstrous sleep regression, so I guess he's embracing his age. Since today he stacked six Playdoh containers on top of each other and said something that sounded suspiciously like "I love you," I think it's safe to say he's on a developmental tear. No wonder he can't sleep.

Christmas went quite pleasantly. I experienced one of those moments of "I guess I'm really a grown-up" on Christmas morning when I found myself up before everyone else cooking breakfast. It's that realization that it was my mother who made holidays special when I was a child, and I'm the mother now. Like, whoa. I don't know why Christmas breakfast should engender this feeling more than say, having a mortgage or giving birth, but there you are.

Anyway, Christmas was over, we were enjoying our bounty, my brother has gone home, we saw an old college friend and we were a bit bored, so we decided to liven things up by all getting the flu. I had it worse, spending essentially all day Wednesday asleep or out of it, with a lovely host of fever and body aches. It was mostly fatigue and lack of appetite, with a vaguely gastric element. I say "vaguely" because K and I threw up once (and I'm not sure she would have if she hadn't snacked on Hot and Spicy Cheezits the night before) and we all had it a bit from the other end, but it was't one of those attached to the toilet bugs. I'm just as happy about that, since none of us felt that hot when we piled back in the car on Friday to head home. We stopped in Columbus for the night and I wish we could have stayed longer, but we desperately wanted to get home, so we headed out Saturday afternoon and arrived home late last night. I'm incredibly grateful that we've had a lazy day at home today.

Some highlights of the trip:

* We got various lovely gifts, including a large new toaster oven (something we had a sudden need for after our old one caught fire (!!!!)) and a basic espresso machine, which I hope will reduce the amount of money I spend on frothy coffee drinks.

* We saw all of our usual Christmas movies, but this year got to add back an underrated classic A Midwinter's Tale, a wonderful little movie written and directed by Kenneth Branagh about a ragtag group of actors putting on a production of Hamlet at Christmas. Somehow my tape of it didn't make the move but I finally managed to find it online.

* We went to see Tangled again, and it definitely holds up to repeat viewing. I didn't think I'd ever say this about a Disney movie, but I think it actually improves on the original fairy tale. It's weird and creepy and pretty much everyone acts inexplicably. I mean, I suppose the witch gets to be mean because she's a witch and that explains demanding a baby in exchange for stolen vegetables, but why the tower? And it all starts because of really strong pregnancy cravings? I mean, get a grip lady. Tangled, on the other hand, gives all of the principles strong, logical motivations for their actions. And manages to make the witch evil in the most lovely subtle way that involves actual character depth and complexity.

* We had the most lovely afternoon in Columbus with B's cousin and family,along with his parents who were stopping in Ohio on their way home. His cousin has a three year who is exactly two years younger than K, and an 11 month old, and it was so much fun watching little cousins play together. I never had that. I just wish we could arrange it more often.