Homeschool…at Home!

Having tried in the past to do some focussed, sit-down homeschooling work with my kids each week and having failed miserably, I decided this year to get some professional help. The plan was to hire a tutor to get the Big Girl into the learning groove. I specifically chose a tutor with special education experience so that Big Girl’s particular challenges, both cognitive and behavioural, would not be an impediment. On the contrary, I hoped this tutor would figure out what kind of learning works best for her so I could translate that into our homelearning sessions. I also hoped this person would have more success introducing topics that Big Girl is naturally resistant towards (i.e. anything that isn’t related to biology or mythological creatures). The idea was that I would introduce homeschool sessions at home doing stuff the kids find fun and leave the more challenging stuff – particularly math – to the tutor. Then later when the tutor had figured out the best approach, I could learn this myself and apply it to our homeschool time.

We had our first session and I was a bit disappointed. The activities she brought seemed rather “schooly”, even though we’d had several conversations about the fact that my kids don’t react well to worksheets and other mundane task-oriented learning. To be fair, she doesn’t know the Big Girl yet, and I figured it would take a few sessions for the tutor to determine what would work best. However, it made it a harder sell to the Big Girl: she was already less-than-enthusiastic about participating in this tutoring thing and it was hard to prepare her for it given that I myself didn’t really know what it would end up looking like. So far, she has enjoyed the other therapists she’s working with and I think she was therefore optimistic about this one. But only a few minutes into the session it was apparent she was not only NOT having fun, she was getting rather upset by the whole thing. I realized that the tutor needed more information from me about how the Big Girl likes to learn and what sort of things she could try to get Big Girl interested and engaged.

That night as I lay in bed I thought about our Occupational Therapist. She has been working with the Little Dude for almost a year now and I have learned a lot from her. She started working with the Big Girl last month and so far the sessions have gone really well. The OT really knows her stuff: she knows how to get these kids engaged and having fun. She brings a variety of games and tries them out to see what the kids really enjoy. Later on she starts sandwiching other games, games that maybe the kids wouldn’t choose to play, in between games they like. All the games involve particular skills but the kids don’t really see that they are learning, say, fine motor skills or patience or compromise, etc. They also don’t see how applying this sandwiching technique teaches them exactly the kinds of skills they need to do homeschool work. It’s a great system and her skill in adapting each session – heck, each part of each session – to each child is really amazing to watch.

In thinking about this I realized it would be a great model for tutoring: learning games involving fun stuff the Big Girl enjoys, sandwiched in-between stuff like math games that she won’t enjoy as much (at least, not at first). I drafted an email in my head outlining a potential plan for the tutor. I listed some learning games I knew Big Girl would enjoy and suggested that the math games be just for brief periods at first (even as short as 10 minutes), working up to longer periods as the sessions progressed. When I woke up the next morning I was pretty psyched about what I’d come up with. And then suddenly it hit me: I could do this. I didn’t think I could because I’d failed at it before, but I’ve learned so much in the last year from Little Dude’s therapists that I understand now how to make it work.

As if fate heard me, I got an email the next day from the tutor saying it was taking too long for her to travel to my town (she hadn’t accounted for traffic apparently) and asking if we could change the location to a town halfway between mine and hers. A reasonable request, but one that would not work for me. It would take too much time out of my day to hang around while the Big Girl is in her session. And although the idea of a couple hours of peaceful reading in a coffee shop might sound like heaven, I’d have the Little Dude with me which changes the flavour of that scenario entirely! I realized that this was the perfect “out” for me, so I said “thanks but no thanks” and now we are flying solo again. I’m taking my plan and I’m going to use it myself.

So this weekend I searched the Internet for ideas for our homeschool sessions. I want to do some fun science experiments, and also get the kids started on a math curriculum. They are both behind in their math skills and I needed something that could accommodate their strengths and weaknesses, progress in a manner that would make sense for them, and be as fun as possible given that it is math and both of them have decided they “hate” math. I decided an interactive online program would work better for them than worksheets, and after checking out a few programs I signed up for DreamBox Learning. They have a free 14-day trial and then the fee is monthly, which is much better than forking out a huge amount of money for something that may end up not working down the road.

I’m really excited about starting this with the kids, and I’m hoping that if I sandwich it in-between fun activities of their choice I can establish a homeschool routine that can be tweaked and extended as we go along. Eventually I would like to lengthen the overall sessions, lengthen the time spent doing the things I want them to do, and broaden the range of subjects. But for now I’m happy to start with this math program, even if it means I’ll be stuck playing some obnoxious Mortal Kombat type game with the Little Dude as part of the deal. 🙂

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Getting Organized, Flylady Style

I have always struggled with self-imposed routines. In the past I have tried (and failed) to establish them and basically ended up deciding I was better off without them. However, my forays into the world of autism this last year have taught me that routines can be life-altering for families dealing with kids on the spectrum. Coincidentally (or not) I have also noticed over these last few weeks that I am living in a constant state of mild stress because I have so many things to do and feel like I’m never catching up and never getting it all done. I wait until something is in crisis mode then jump in and ignore everything else to fix it.

It really hit home this past month when the homelearning year began. I was determined to set more of a routine and, importantly, sit down and do homeschool work with the kids. One month into it and I hadn’t done so at all. I kept telling myself that I’d catch up this week and start the next, but that never happened. I knew I had to get this under control if I was to have any hope of getting my kids and myself into a routine.

My cousin recently posted on Facebook that she had discovered Flylady [warning: her website is very cluttered and not very well organized, the irony of which is not lost on her followers: read this post for a quicker explanation of the system]. I learned about her ten years ago when I joined an online parenting forum, but I’d never really believed I needed that kind of help and I’d sort of forgotten all about her until I saw the post. It made me realize that I do, in fact, need help. If I can’t keep this little home clean and tidy and find time to homeschool my kids, how am I going to cope when we have our new (much bigger) home? I felt I owed it to my family – and especially my husband, who has worked so hard to get us here – to get things under control.

I read through her site and realized that this was more than just how to have a tidy house. Flylady is all about establishing routines. And that is what I needed: for my home, for work, for homeschooling, and for the kids.

Her system works by introducing one task at a time and allowing time for them to get established as habits. This part of the program is called “Babysteps” and there are 31 days of them (I’ll discuss what happens after completing the Babysteps when I get there). I’m currently on Day 3 and I’d like to discuss the two steps that have been introduced so far.

The foundation of this method is the Shiny Sink. Each night before I go to bed my task is to shine my sink. It starts with a big clean on the first day, and the last step is to use Window Cleaner to shine the sink. I’ve never heard of that nor thought about it (I tend to avoid cleansers other than baking soda and vinegar, but I did have some Earth Friendly window cleaner around) but it really works. The sink shines! After that first big clean all you need to do is wipe it dry after using and give it a shine at night (later in the program there will be times set aside each month to do a big clean again). And I’ll tell you, that is a really nice thing to wake up to. When all the rest of your home screams “piles of work need to be done!” you can take comfort in that one little shining beacon of cleanliness.

But I’ve discovered another benefit to the Shiny Sink – it forces me to do the dishes at night. I am currently about 50/50 on whether they get done. Often I’m so exhausted at the end of the day I simply don’t have the energy. But I have come to appreciate how much better my day goes when I wake up to a clean kitchen, so I try. But now that I am shining my sink, I can’t stand to have dirty dishes around it so I have been good about doing them each night. Bonus!

The second Baby Step I’ve begun is Getting Dressed to Lace Up Shoes. When I first read this I thought okay, I understand the mental benefits of getting dressed at the start of the day. I think all stay-home mums know what it’s like to discover it is after noon and you’re still in your jammies. Or the FedEx guy arrives unexpectedly and you have to answer the door in a bathrobe (with our old trailer home and crowded run-down porch, it all just adds to the overall fashion theme we have going here….). But I balked at the shoes. I thought to myself how much I like wearing my lovely, cozy Padraig slippers. How wearing shoes in the house was a Bad Thing (according to my mother and most people I know). How uncomfortable I would be wearing shoes all day. I thought “I can skip that part”.

But then I read her reasons behind wearing the shoes and two of them really hit home to me. First, if you have shoes on you are more likely to go outside to, say, take out the garbage, or take the grocery bins to the car, etc. And I know from experience this is true. Sometimes I just don’t feel like taking off my slippers and so the thing gets dumped somewhere. Now that I am always wearing shoes, it is no trouble to take a bag of garbage to the bin.

The second reason was one of those “A-ha” moments that make you wonder why you never put two-and-two together before. I often suffer from sore feet and sometimes felt that I hadn’t even really done enough work to merit them. But guess what? Flat slippers don’t provide much support. So I have been wearing my runners and there is a bounce in my step and no more sore feet!

I sorta skipped ahead with my reading to see where I’d end up when done. And I’ve already planned out all my routines, cleaning days, etc. But I’m still going to follow the Babysteps and only add one when I’m supposed to. I know if I try to make too many changes too fast I will fail. It’s a process, and I intend to enjoy it.

An added bonus of all this is while I am gradually introducing things to my own routine, I have covertly begun getting my kids into routines too. I am now getting dressed to shoes each morning: the Little Dude likes to be naked, which was okay when he was 2 but not so much now that he is 8. So we’ve started with him getting dressed before he begins any activity. The Big Girl’s task is to wash her face first and then get dressed before starting on any activity. I’d already gotten them used to bringing their plates and cups into the kitchen when done with a meal (in our house that means literally walking about four steps, but it was the principle!). Now their equivalent of the Shiny Sink is that instead of just putting the stuff on the counter, they put them in the dishwasher.

As I go along adding things to my own routines, I’ll add to theirs. I’m hoping for big things at the end of this 31 days! I will keep you all posted as to how it goes…

Raising Meat Birds in Autumn

Last year was my first year raising meat birds (or any sort of birds, for that matter). One usually does this in the warm months of summer, but I kinda sorta forgot to order the birds and before I knew it, summer was practically over. I got so spoiled having a freezer full of chicken this past year I just couldn’t let it go. So I ordered meat birds in September, and they will be here until November. I ordered 50 birds in two batches staggered by two weeks as I don’t have enough room in my brooder for 50 chicks, nor do I have enough poultry cages to transport them to the processor. This way the first batch is just ready to move outside when the second batch arrives. Last summer I did the two batches separately, so it will be interesting to see how much mess 50 chickens can make!

My brooder was made from bits of scraps. I have learned how great it is to have such scraps around: you never know when you are going to need to build something. To build the brooder I used some plywood, 2×2’s and scraps of laminate flooring to make a deep box. It’s not really ideal: the wood absorbs stuff and is hard to get truly clean, and if you try to pick it up it wobbles, but it works. One day I hope to have a barn and then I can use a stall for brooding chicks.

Last year I built a chicken tractor: a floor-less coop that gets dragged around the yard so the chickens can have fresh air and access to grass and bugs. Mine was 5×10 feet and two feet tall, covered with chicken wire and a hatch on the top for access inside. At first it worked well, but to be honest those birds are so messy that for the last couple of weeks it could have been moved more than once a day – the birds were often sitting on some pretty dirty ground. But moving it was hard – it is heavy! Plus the birds could just sit in one spot and pick the grass around themselves, so it wasn’t conducive to exercise. The concentration of poop smelled pretty bad, too, even if it did end up fertilizing the field. All in all I felt I could do better by my birds, so this year I wanted to do something different.

The idea I came up with is based on a “chicken moat”, which is a narrow run that goes around your garden. The idea is the chickens eat whatever nasty bugs might try to make their way into your garden, you can easily drop scraps of veggies into their run, and the narrow width prevents raptors from swooping down and stealing your birds. My garden was rather neglected this year but it is a fenced area of about 35×40 feet. I decided to put the coop inside the garden and then make a sort of maze of fencing such that there are no wide open spaces for raptors to land in, and the chickens are encouraged to keep moving to fresh grass and bugs so they end up getting exercise. I came up with a cool design that broke the garden down into quadrants such that I could rotate them to a new section every week or so while having their coop be central and not need to be moved.

I needed the coop to be as cheap as possible, and temporary too as the birds are only outside for six weeks before they are ready for processing. I realized that, given they will be heading into cooler weather soon, they needed to be off the ground. Apparently cold chickens don’t gain weight as well. So I used some plywood from the pig shelter Hubby built last year (which the pigs never ended up using as they preferred the forest) and lay it down on some old fence posts we’d scrounged from a neighbour last year. I held the boards together by screwing down scraps of laminate flooring over the seams. Around the perimeter of the floor I laid straw bales and on top of that wall (one bale high) I put my chicken tractor. I draped a large tarp over the whole thing for waterproofing, and there is a heat lamp inside to keep the birds warm on those cold autumn nights. I lay down a thick bedding of straw and so far I’m just adding fresh straw when it gets dirty, sort of like the deep bedding method. In the end I’ll have some great stuff for my compost pile.

The first batch of chicks have moved in and they seem pretty happy with their new digs. They are running around, scratching, dust-bathing, exploring, and just generally looking like real chickens. I am really, really pleased with this setup and it is definitely how I’m going to raise my meaties from now on. It will be interesting to see what happens when the new batch moves out there – I hope they don’t fight. And I’ll probably have to add more fencing to increase their run area, but that’s pretty easy using the plastic posts we have from our electric fence kit and bits of plastic mesh fencing.

I’ve also discovered something unexpected: I’m really enjoying these birds! I often go outside just to sit in the sun and watch them. I’ve decided I definitely want to get some “real” chickens (laying hens). Before that happens, however, I’ll need to make a better coop. This one is really inefficient: to get inside I have to pull back the tarp, lift the (broken) hatch (while getting caught up on bits of nails and wire ends), climb inside…it’s a royal pain in the neck. Meanwhile, the next big test will be when the other batch of chicks moves outside to join them. We’ll see how big a mess 50 meat birds can make!