We have a huge collection of Christmas books, both from the library and in our personal collection. I've documented this December's list here, and divided it into two columns.
I love the holiday season. And I do mean holiday season. I love everything from Halloween straight through Epiphany. Thanksgiving is probably my actual favorite single holiday day because it's the day that I gather with my whole family. I host every year and I love cooking for everyone. But as soon as it's over, I hit the ground running with my whole heart ready to jump into the Christmas season. It's always been that way, but it escalated with the kids, and every year just gets better and better.
A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that it was Christmas morning, and I was a little disappointed to wake up and realize it wasn't quite Christmas morning yet. (It wasn't morning yet either, and I was awakened by a child--that may have contributed to the disappointment). But really, I can't wait to celebrate Christmas with the kiddos. I realize not everyone likes the pressure of this season, but I really do love going all out. Here's what that looks like around the Ridge.
The day after Thanksgiving, I switch the radio to 97.1 (the station that plays all Christmas music all the time through Christmas Day). Then, as soon as possible (as soon as I can convince Himself), we go to the Christmas tree farm. This year we went to one less than ten miles away, and although we had less choice in trees, we had a great time and are going to make this one the new tradition.
We have an advent wreath given to me by my Catholic mother-in-law. She always has beautiful readings at her house, but they weren't quite right for our UU family. I found these lovely readings but I can't remember the original source. Every year, I find that the words strike just the right chord within me. This year, AW has started repeating the words with us, and we talk about what they mean. This year, Advent actually started in November, but the rest of our Advent traditions start on December 1.
We have a beautiful wooden Mount Vernon advent calendar with little compartments and doors. It was a Christmas gift from one of Himself's aunts several years ago, and we weren't sure what to put in it at first. Then I learned about activity advent calendars and loved the idea. The first year, I handwrote a bunch of cards and stuck them in. Then, the following year, I printed off the little cards. Each year, I sit down with a calendar and plan out the whole month. Some of the days have major activities, like going to see a fancy light display or visiting Santa, while others are smaller activities, like making paper snowflakes. Some of them are about serving or giving to others, especially during Chalica.
Chalica is a new holiday started by Unitarian Universalists as an alternative to Christmas for those who don't practice Christian traditions. Although we do celebrate Christmas at our house, I like doing Chalica too because the focus is on service rather than receiving.
Here is a link to our activity list for this year. We also read a different Christmas/winter book each day. I plan that out at the beginning of the month too. We have too many favorite books to limit it to 24, so we also have a themed basket of books and check out a ton from the library.
I made a decision not to do much formal school during December (as formal as we get anyway). We still did morning time for most of the month, but in an abbreviated fashion and with lots of Christmas books and songs. My mother-in-law gave me a book of advent stories and activities based on the different Catholic holidays in December, and we used that for the first time this year too. Mostly, we baked, read, and sang this month. We did some crafts. And we baked some more
Row 1: Christmas goo sensory play and tree decorating
Row 2: Christmas tree decorating
Row 3: Ivy Box (The Hat by Jan Brett), Santa storytime, and cupcake baking
Row 4: More cupcakes
Row 5: Gingerbread houses, real and cardboard, and cupcake decorating
Row 6: Santa letters and tree decorating at Nana's
Row 7: Crafts, library books, and ice skating
Row 8: One of the meals that AW planned and cooked, St. Nicholas Day surprises, and candy cane science
Row 9: Getting our Christmas tree and Ivy Box
Row 10: Festival of Lights and baking
Rows 11 and 12: Cookie baking
Row 13: Cupcake decorating
Note: these pictures are not in chronological order because technology is frustrating :) You may notice overlap with my Instagram account if you follow me there.
Finally, I'm planning on putting together our book list from December, but that's too long for a single post!
I thought I was done writing about how being a teacher did and did not prepare me for being a home educator, but then I started working on planning for next year.
AW is turning five, and if attending public school, would have the option to enroll in kindergarten. She is, in fact, begging to go to kindergarten*. Here are her reasons:
She wants to make friends in her class. We explained how many social opportunities she has now.
She wants to ride the schoolbus.
She is afraid she is not learning as much as kids who go to brick and mortar preschools and kindergartens.
I wanted to give her an honest answer to the last two, so I spent some time perusing all the standards. And then I got swept away. I printed off all the state standards for four year olds and kindergarteners. I made an assessment spreadsheet.
Then I started to feel guilty, because that's not what home educators are "supposed to do." We are supposed to march to the beat of our own drum. So, I did a little bit of reflecting.
Here's the deal. Standards are not the problem. Virginia has its own standards and is not a Common Core state, but either way, standards are just a list of things to learn. They may or may not be developmentally appropriate for an individual child, and a child may be working below, at, or above the grade level standards for a particular subject. Standards were not what made me quit teaching. When I read the standards, I actually relaxed. It gave me a framework, which yes, felt familiar. But I would be looking at someone's framework to decide what to teach. I can use these standards as guidelines without being married to them. I can use them to decide what topics we might want to cover after various skills have been mastered.
Then I looked at my assessment spreadsheet. I remembered something that I learned in graduate school: Assessment should drive instruction.
That's really important.
It's not instruction should prepare for assessment. That's how testing pressures have remolded our school system.
Here's what it means for assessment to drive instruction. Let's say I play a game to assess AW's knowledge of letters and their sounds. She's at the right place to work on that skill, and it does happen to align with the standards for four year olds. If she were really struggling and frustrated trying to learn, I wouldn't try to assess for that skill. But if I thought hey, she's really getting it, then I might do an assessment (because assessment is not a synonym for test). We might do an I Spy type game to check for understanding. If she couldn't give me the most common sound for almost all the letters, then I would dial back and try to decide whether to keep working on letter sounds or to take a break for a little while. If she knew more than half, I'd probably decide to focus on the ones she was not able to do. If she were proficient and able to complete the task without difficulty, I'd start looking for what she should work on next.
In some cases, my educational knowledge comes in handy at that point. And in some cases, I'd like a little guidance. So I'd look at the standards. What builds on letter sounds? And then I might realize that we had only worked on letter sounds for capital letters and we needed to practice letter sounds for lower case letters. Standards can help me find the gaps in her knowledge.
Is this the same as school at home?
The standards will not rule our school. They are sign posts, but we are free to go off the trail and check out interesting side paths. In 2011, I took a cross country road trip. I had a check list of things I wanted to see and I mapped out the journey. Along the way, I spontaneously changed my itinerary from time to time and left the mapped road to explore. Oceans, the human body, and cooking are not part of the kindergarten standards. But I bet we will be doing a lot of exploring in those areas.
We don't do a whole lot of paper schoolwork. My philosophy about play-based learning doesn't change just because I'm thinking about what skills to work on next. Our Ivy Box hits a lot of those kindergarten standards, and AW does not think of Ivy Box time as school.
Brick and mortar students don't get to spend hours a week in nature. (Although I did as a fifth and sixth grader, and it was incredible).
I've released the guilt. The standards will help me design a personalized school experience while making sure I'm able to check things off. Assessment helps me decide whether to stick to the standard, move ahead, or pull back. When I learned about good teaching, that was how it was supposed to be, and I'm still ok with that philosophy.
I'm also extremely aware that I'm a newbie and I might change my mind. As I become more confident as a home educator, I may choose to blaze my own path more and more often. But my brain needs external organization to function, or it shuts down. At this point in our journey, it's either use the standards to design a program for my kid or use boxed curriculum. I can design lessons in my sleep, so using the standards is the far cheaper option. My supply list for next year consists of a couple of measurement tools and some magnets. Short and sweet.
So, what's the answer to her question about what she's learning compared to brick and mortar students? She's doing just fine, by the standards.
But those aren't the standards I use to actually measure her.
I see that she initiates activities independently, like playing with playdough or looking at books. I see that she has an insatiable curiosity about the world around her and constant burning questions. She can tell you about the different tips you need to frost a cake and what goes into fondant. She has an active imagination and is a constant story teller. She loves listening to books, making up her own songs, and playing with other children. She's doing just fine, by my standards. Whether she learns to read this year or two years from now isn't the most important thing.
I've got my road map and I've got a sense of adventure. Let's go explore the world of learning.
*Side note about kindergarten enrollment: In Virginia, parents have the option to defer kindergarten by a year. That means we have a choice about whether to begin registering her as a homeschooler this coming year or the following year. We are deferring kindergarten and then enrolling the following year. But that doesn't affect what we do at home. If she's ready for kindergarten work, we will do kindergarten work.