Saturday, April 25, 2015

Field Trip: Carl Sandburg Home and Thomas Wolfe House

View of the Carl Sandburg House

 My 11th/12th grade Classic Literature class loved our trip to the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta so much that they begged for another field trip. I wanted to oblige but I also did not want another overnight trip just because of all the arrangements that would need to be made. We're only a couple of hours away from Asheville, North Carolina, so I thought a trip to see the homes of two classic American authors would be perfect.

Before going to Asheville, we did a short unit on lives of authors. I had each student pick a "classic" author and do a short presentation on him or her. The driving question: how does an author's life shape his or her writing? We had everyone from Seuss to Solzhenitsyn, and the presentations included posters and even a wax museum presentation by James Joyce.

James Joyce in the wax museum

I didn't intend to do this biography unit as part of our year, but that's one of the awesome benefits to teaching at a homeschooling co-op: we can be incredibly flexible.

The majority of my students were able to take a whole Thursday to go on our North Carolina trip, so we took three vans full of kids. We were prepared for a day of rain, but fortunately we just had occasional drizzling. Our first stop was the Carl Sandburg House in Flat Rock, NC.


I had made arrangements for a guided tour of the house, grounds, and barn. Fortunately for us, there was a writer-in-residence, Lisa Lopez Snyder, there during our visit. When the tour guide announced that Ms. Snyder would be doing a writing exercise with them, the students gave an audible collective groan (even though I know most of them love creative writing). She had a couple of fantastic exercises for them, and they loved it. I was so appreciate of Ms. Snyder's session— the kids talked about that all the way home.

After the writing session, we had a great tour of Sandburg's home. What really amazed me was not just the staggering number of books that he owned, but that there were pieces of paper bookmarking pages in hundreds of the books. His bookmarks. His flags that "here is something important." Astounding and inspirational to me.

After a chilly picnic lunch, we headed a little north to Asheville. We arrived 30 minutes early for our tour at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial; but since we were the only guests, they were happy to oblige us and start our tour early. After a 22 minute video of Thomas Wolfe's life, we had a fantastic tour guide take us through the house. He had all kinds of great stories about Wolfe and read passages from Look Homeward Angel in various rooms. The kids were a little slap happy at this point, but I think they enjoyed it for the most part. I wish we would have had time to read the whole novel before class, but I just couldn't schedule it.

On the front porch of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home

We had a couple of free hours when our tour of the Thomas Wolfe house ended, so we let the students explore downtown Asheville for a couple of hours. They split into two groups and went on their way. We three chaperones did the same. Asheville's such a fun little town, with lots of great shops to wander through. We all found fabulous restaurants and then met back at the designated time and place and headed home to Knoxville.

Over half of my students are graduating this year, including my sweet daughter. I've been teaching many of these students since elementary school (creative writing, reader's theatre, literature circles, and essay writing) and several of them for all four years of high school. I am going to miss them so much next year—and I'm so glad we had this one last trip together.

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's April {and that means we're nearly done}

Aaaah. It's so beautiful here in the South. Everything is blooming now or just about to: the dogwoods, redbuds, phlox, lilacs, bleeding hearts, tulips. There's something new nearly every day.

I finished teaching the last novel in both of my literature classes at co-op. For my juniors and seniors, it was the last novel I'll teach them. Ever. And I'm so glad I got to end with The Great Gatsby, which has always been one of my favorite books ever. We're not done with classes yet this year, but the next three weeks will be devoted to various projects.

On the home front, we've been getting things in order for Laurel's graduation. We have her invitations now and are finishing preparing pictures to send in for the senior slide show. This afternoon we have one last photo shoot; this one will be with her and her four best girlfriends who are graduating too. Prom is coming up in a couple of weeks, and then we'll have just one last class at co-op, and she'll have two weeks left of German class at Maryville College. As soon as finals are done, Laurel and I are going to NYC for a week with her boyfriend, who is also graduating, and his mom! We'll get home just a couple of days before graduation, so we have to get everything ready before that.

Duncan is finishing up the last weeks of his classes, too. All of his classes will wrap up the last week of April, and we'll spend our remaining days in May focusing entirely on history. I think he's had a good freshman year in high school. He'd still much rather play video games and run around outside than do schoolwork, but he's developed a rhythm to his days that works well. A little work, a little play.

And I'm adjusting slowly to what will be the next stage of my life: one child left behind. I can't think too much about how they went from this

to this

I just can't.

Soak it up, mamas of little ones. Enjoy those days of sweet kisses and sticky hands. Put down your laptops and read them a story. Kiss the tops of their sweaty heads and fix them pancakes for breakfast. Smell them. Touch them. Squeeze them tight.

And take lots and lots of pictures.

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-up

Friday, March 27, 2015

Feet in the Sand, Sun on the Face

Aah. For the first time in several years, we all had spring break at the same time. We've had a cold, rainy, snowy, icy winter, so Florida was exactly what we needed. We are so blessed to have generous family members who share their condo with us. We spent four glorious days just soaking in the sunshine, remembering the ocean, eating fabulous food, and watching sunsets. Randy and Duncan also went SCUBA diving one morning while Laurel and I sat by the pool.

It was bliss. I didn't do one single bit of paperwork until the trip back home. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls and took a few naps, and, of course, I read a lot.

We returned rejuvenated and with still a few days left of spring break.

We started back into our regular swing of things this week, feeling much more focused and relaxed. And now we have only five weeks of co-op classes left and less than two months until Laurel's high school graduation. And six million other things to do in between now and then. We really, really needed that spring break!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Getting Students to Teach: Short Story Group Presentations {Teaching High School}

All good educators know that Seneca's adage "When we teach, we learn" is spot on. This year in my 11th and 12th grade literature class, I wanted the students to really delve into teaching. A whole novel seemed too complex, and I love discussing short stories but often neglect them because of time constraints—so having students teach short stories seemed perfect.

First, a little background. I teach at our homeschooling program, which meets weekly. My class is 1 hour, 20 minutes long. I have 21 students in my class (half of whom have been with me for all 4 years of high school), which is dubbed "Classic Lit." The class is designed to cover some of the classics that I didn't get to teach in British Lit, American Lit, or World Lit.

But this format would work for any literature class. I split the class into 5 groups on the first day of class. These became their in-class working groups as well as their short story presentation groups. I had already chosen 5 short stories, and I randomly assigned the stories to the groups.

When deciding upon stories, I had various considerations, including that the stories needed to be the right length (not too short, not too long); that we wouldn't be reading a novel by this author; that we hadn't discussed the story in a previous year; and that the stories would provide plenty of discussion fodder. I wanted a variety of genres and subjects, too. I ended up with a fairly eclectic mix of stories:
  • "Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor
  • "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury
  • "The Man in the Black Suit" by Stephen King
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore
  • "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

From there, I assigned presentation dates, fairly evenly sprinkled throughout the year with two groups in the first semester and three in the second. I was hoping, of course, that the students would spend several weeks or even months preparing for their presentations! The reality, however, is that the groups so far all started meeting a couple of weeks before their presentation was actually due.

I use ClassJump to post assignments and other information for my classes. On our site I posted the  Short Story Project Instructions (you can download them using the link) as well as the stories. All of the stories were available online, but I put them in PDFs to make them more easily accessible.

The instructions are too long to post here, but basically the students had four required elements to their presentation:

1. Author biographical information. Who is your author? Give us a biographical sketch of him or her. What else did he or she write? Are there any interesting facts we should know about him or her?

2. Explanation of genre or other pertinent literary information. Is your story science fiction, dystopian, etc. Are there any key terms associated with this type of writing? What was the reaction of the public when this story was published? (This will be a very short section.)

3. Choose one literary lens to look through your story with. Summarize what you think it means to apply your particular lens of choice to this text. How could looking through this particular lens change or illuminate the reading of this story?

4. Discussion. This is really the key component of the class. You will need to read the story carefully to come up with thoughtful, engaging questions and then you’ll facilitate the class discussion.

Each of these points is discussed in detail on the instruction handout. In addition, the groups are encouraged to come up with other activities to explore the story. I gave a list of suggestions, and I've loved what the three groups so far have come up with, from crafts to youtube videos to having their classmates write (and perform) rap songs to acting out alternate endings for the story.

Hat craft  for "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and yellow snacks for "The Yellow Wallpaper"— just a couple examples of how creative kids can be as teachers!

This was a grand experiment, and I have to say that it is an absolute success. Again, you can read all the details on the instruction sheet, but one of the requirements is that the students submit individual evaluations after their presentation.  Their responses convinced me that this is a project I will do every year and in every class. They learned so much and gained tremendous confidence as they stepped into the role of teacher. Here are a few excerpts:

"We quickly figured out that sometimes time constraints will force changes in plans." (Yes! They learned something about flexibility and thinking on your feet!)

"For the most part, we were able to keep the class on topic."(An echo of one of my mantras: "Let's get back on topic. Focus!")

"I think the most fun of the assignment was dissecting the story and figure stuff out about it, even when people dismissed your thoughts about the story. Even though we do this in class often, I like doing it in a less constructed manner. This gives you the freedom to explore your ideas and feelings, not matter how ludicrous, dark, or brilliant these ideas may be."

"I learned a lot from being on the other side of the classroom. I mainly noticed the communication between teachers and students. We teenagers can be disruptive and lack respect, and it was, at times, difficult to calm them so we could teach." (I mean, he just summed up being a high school teacher.)

"Teaching definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I enjoyed getting feedback from my classmates and learning from the experience." (Yes! Stepping out of the zone!)

"I loved being able to put my own spin on [the story] and work with a group to make our vision happen." (And that joy of analyzing literature!)

The biggest problems encountered were, predictably, with group dynamics. Half of the groups worked together beautifully, and half of them wanted to clobber each other. But that was all behind-the-scenes.

"Though our group may not have worked together fantastically, I think we pulled through in the end and got our act together."

"We should have been more cooperative with each other and less dismissive of each other's ideas."

"If I were to do this project again, I'd try to be more persistent in getting everyone in the group to be more involved."

"I learned that your group might not be 'one big happy family.' It was a struggle for me to communicate peacefully with my group, but through the struggle I feel like I learned something that will stay with me throughout my life." 

In the classroom from my perspective, all the groups presented a unified front. The biggest problem the groups had was finding a meeting time outside of the classroom. Perhaps in the future, I will set aside one whole class period as a work day.

The benefits of this project are astounding. As a teacher, I've loved watching the kids take the project seriously and put their own wonderful, unique spins on the assignment. As for the students, not only have the presenters learned more than they can fathom, but the rest of the class has had fun. I've been really impressed with the complete respect that the students show their fellow teacher-students. My role during a presentation, by the way, has been to just sit and listen and really not participate at all. I resist participating in the discussion, and the students seem to naturally rise to calling of a teacher: teach, manage, calm, focus, redirect, teach.

I love this excerpt from one of the evaluations, and I think it really sums up why we even teach:

"The satisfaction of successfully teaching the class outweighs the stresses that were involved in putting it together."

Find the Short Story Project Instructions by clicking on the link. Adjust it to your own classroom, or gather a group of students together if you don't have a classroom, and sit back and watch what amazing teachers our students can be!

 Linked up on The Weekly Wrap-Up

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ice and Snow and 49

My birthday arrived with ice and cold. This is why, growing up in upstate New York, we had "winter break" always during Presidents' Day week. Somebody smart knew that it was better all around to head to Florida for a week in midwinter.

But I am loving this birthday week here, when everything is cancelled. No classes, no church, no swimming. Nowhere to go except snuggled under a blanket, puttering around in the kitchen, playing games with my kids.

I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present than an unexpectedly quiet day, dinner with my family, the most beautiful words in a card from my daughter, and chocolate cake with very thick icing.

This is the kind of February I like.

Well, for a few days anyway. And then those daffodils can bravely attempt another blooming.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Every Week Is Pretty Much Like the Last One {Except}

This is the day of the weekly wrap-up, the what-we-did-in-school-this-week post. The fabulous crafts that tie in with history and literature and how we did nature studies on a cold, cold day and how we marked on the globe all the places we want to travel. And how we listened to classical music while we did all those things.

We used to do all of that and more. Now, every week is pretty much like the last week. My 17-year-old does her stuff. She comes out to chat every now and then. Maybe once a week, she'll ask me a question about her literature homework. She goes to her classes, goes to the coffee shop, goes out with her boyfriend, goes to Target, hangs out with her girlfriends, goes to Bible study.

My 14-year-old does his stuff with a little more input from me. Sometimes I sit beside him while he does his literature homework. Sometimes I make out a study guide for him for a geometry or science test. I remind him to practice guitar and read for 30 minutes each day. We read some history together and maybe watch a documentary. Now and then.

Every week is pretty much like the week before, except for these little reminders that keep appearing like annoying pop-up ads.

Like today, when we went to Target to pick up my daughter's yearly supply of contact lenses and I thought to myself, "Wow. These boxes will last her for a whole year. The next time we come in, she'll have been away at college for six months." Six months! Away at college!

Or when I get on Facebook and on the Graduation 2015 page, there is a reminder to "send your student's graduation gown order to Amy!" and "don't forget to pay the senior fee!"

Nothing really changes from week to week, except everything is leading toward this really big change.

We are winding down.

Once upon a time we were all about Legos and Barbie shoes on the floor, cartoons and puzzles and naps. Playdates and lessons, bickering and cuddling. Once upon a time we read aloud for hours every single day.

Once upon a time, I had three sweet bodies filling up every inch of this house, breathing the same air, discovering and learning and doing life together. And then one went away and after I stopped weeping, we adjusted and adapted and became this family of four—except on holidays, when we were five again.

And now we're headed again to a downsizing, whittling our family down to just one asking if we've seen his calculator or if we know where his science folder is or if he can get on the Playstation. Just one.

It's all been leading toward this, and we all know it. Even when we have sweaty, wiggly bodies on either side of us on the couch and when we think we will scream if they pick at each other one more second, we know that ultimately, they are leaving.

Just like they are supposed to.

{But I kinda wish these reminders would stop popping up.}

Linked to the Weekly Wrap-Up

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Celebrating Ninety {90}

Ninety is old. Ninety-year-olds scuffle when they walk, if they walk.

My Dad turned 90 this month. I can't actually absorb that. I have to keep saying it over and over again to try to figure out what it really means. My Dad is 90? Ninety?

On his birthday morning we took Mom and Dad out for breakfast at Cracker Barrel. {This is the essence of homeschooling—I've said it once, and I'll said it a dozen times more before we are done with it all. We take a day or more off for momentous occasions like this. Because 90.} Dad speculates on why so many people flock to Cracker Barrel where, he says, the food is mediocre and overpriced. He's right, of course. "It's nostalgia. People of my generation remember a simpler time. People of your generation wish they could remember that simpler time and live vicariously through our generation." He then walks around the restaurant (yes, while people are eating) and examines the pictures and tools on the walls. Cracker Barrel's decor has probably never been so carefully inspected.

He is careful not to eat all his grits and stays away from the gravy. When I tell him to eat up—it's his 90th birthday, after all—he says, "Yes, and I'd like to live to 91."

I baked my father an apple cake for his birthday. When I asked him what he wanted for his birthday dinner, he couldn't decide. When I asked him what cake he wanted, he said he wanted "an apple cake like my Dad used to make." He says this every year, and every year the cake hasn't been quite right. But this year: this year I got the ultimate two-thumbs up with this recipe.

Birthday dinner was a smallish affair, considering the number of offspring that could have been there, with  two sons, his daughter, his son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, three grandsons, and a granddaughter. Two more granddaughters (mothers to his 5 great-grandsons), called in during dinner. He couldn't really hear them over the phone, but he heard their "Happy birthday" shouts and their "I love you, Opa."

After dinner he headed off to pick up a third son and the youngest grandson, who is nearly three, from the airport.

The youngest two grandsons (as of now... another one is due in May!)

The celebration continued all weekend. We gave him an itinerary on the first evening.

The second evening we headed over to my third brother's home for a slide show and soup. There were a whole bunch of us there: four out of five of us kids plus an assortment of grandkids. Dad narrated the slides, many of which he'd never seen before. What is it like to look back at your life, to look back over 90 years, and wonder how it all went so fast and yet so very slow?

The third day didn't go as planned, and that's OK. My brother and I had a grand plan to do some much-needed cleaning and painting at my parents' house while they went to brunch at my second brother's house, but Mom wasn't feeling well. Dad went and had a great time, but we had to cancel the cleaning surprise and the subsequent game night we had planned with everyone. Dad was totally content and ready for a break.

The final day took some work, but my fourth brother pulled it off: he managed to get our oldest brother, the one who is broken, to Skype with Dad. Dad and James had a good conversation, or as good a conversation that can be had between someone who can hardly hear and someone who lost himself years ago. But still: he is the oldest of us siblings, and in that slide show from the second night? He's the one in all the pictures. The one that came first. I'm glad that Dad got to end his birthday weekend with James.

We're all rested up now after the flurry of celebration. I look at my Dad in absolute wonder. I cannot believe that he can be 90. When I look at my Dad, he's just my Dad. He's a little slower than he used to be. Every now and then he forgets something. But he doesn't look a whole lot different than he did 10 or 20 or even 30 years ago. But then I think: my father is 90. And I can hardly breathe.

More years, please. So many more.

Monday, January 26, 2015

My Own Favorite Posts of 2014

Earlier this month I posted my most popular posts of 2014, but those aren't necessarily my own favorite ones. My own favorite posts are invariably the ones that tug at my heart, the ones that capture our family doing life. These are the ones I write so that I can remember—and so my kids can, too.

 Like the time we had Southern Snow Magic in February: "And finally, my children know the pure beauty of a perfect snow night, when everything is quiet and the glow of the streetlights makes the world seem unblemished."

First spring hike: "Give me sunshine, something beautiful, a spacious place, and my family, and I'm good either way."

And I absolutely adore the pictures in the post In Just Spring. (I'm beginning to see a theme here.) "My backyard is like a fairy land, bursting with purples and pinks with a few dashes of yellow and white, all smothered in green. It's hard to resist the urge to join the dog rolling around in the grass."

 And this is just a Weekly Wrap-up, but it's the one in which our oldest graduates from college. From college. "I don't know how my child, my child— the one who used to insist on wearing gloves all the time for his "protection suit," the one who used to say, "You and Daddy are my best friends"—I don't know how he is on this list of graduates."

What Made Me Cry Today: This post is all about cleaning out my dresser drawer, and what I found in one that made me all weepy. (And it wasn't the baby teeth!)

 Summer: This is just a midsummer wrap-up of events, but I like to go back and remember all the things that were going on. We really filled last summer to the brim.

Moving Out: In which our oldest son, recently graduated from college, moves into his own apartment across town. "This is what we do. We raise them up and we send them off into the world, or at least across town, with our cast-off silverware and the old plates we got when we were first married and a stack of mismatched towels—the ones that are kinda stained and frayed."

Firsts and Lasts:  First day of high school, last year of high school… and more firsts and lasts in our own SmallWorld.

17: Thoughts on my daughter turning 17. "At 17, you're on the brink of the end of childhood—there is no denying that. At 17 you are thinking about the big things, about college and love and who you are and who you are going to be. You know by now there are some things you are just going to have to take a deep breath and do. But at 17 you're also just a kid, and you're thinking about shopping and having fun and ice cream flavors and about how confusing life is."

How To Do Life: Reflections on a perfect day in the mountains with my parents. "How will I navigate a world without being able to reach out and hold my mother's sweet, crooked hand and smooth down her beautifully soft hair? And how will I ever, ever, ever go the rest of my life without my father's gentle smile and his freckled knees?"

Stars and Stripes: This was a really, really big event—Laurel's American Heritage Girls Stars and Stripes award. Phew. 

In nine years of blogging, 2014 was by far my least productive with only 38 posts (compared to my usual 150-200). But I am glad, so very glad, for the moments I did record in our life—and determined to do better in 2015.

Check out what other iHomeschool Network bloggers loved the most on their own blogs!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Weekly Wrap-Up: Back to School

It is just so hard to start back again—that's universal, right?

We had a fantastic Christmas break. We had lots of lazy days, enjoyed family and games and friends and good food. And we celebrated Duncan's birthday on the 25th and Randy's on the 26th, and then did Christmas all over again and New Year's too with Randy's family in North Carolina.

Mom gets the real thing during our family's white elephant exchange

Dad and one of his great-grandsons, Judah

5:06 on Christmas Day—time to celebrate Duncan's birthday!
And the day after Christmas is Randy's birthday, AKA, hiking day.

Laurel and Daniel at our destination: Baskins Creek Falls.

New Year's Eve in Charlotte!

Randy's brother, Greg, introducing Duncan to the culinary arts.
And this is where I spent the last few days of vacation: doing lesson plans in Charlotte in this perfect spot.

(I just realized that I don't have any pictures of our oldest, Jesse. He really was around during Christmas vacation, but he had to work a lot!)

We have a tradition in our house of not having school on birthdays. Since Duncan's birthday is on Christmas Day, we always take a different day off. This year, I honestly forgot about that until it was time to plan for the first Monday back—and then I realized WE CAN TAKE THE DAY OFF!! Lame, I know. But a birthday-day-off meant unlimited video game time for him. And, yeah, I might have spent four blissful hours at a coffee shop with a friend.

So we didn't really start back until Tuesday. And since our co-op classes didn't start back until Wednesday, Duncan actually didn't have any homework to do. Instead, we did a whole day's worth of history. We are slowly making our way through world history, and I do mean slowly. We keep getting "sidetracked," a term I had to put in quote because really, getting sidetracked is one of the greatest joys of homeschooling.

So reading about da Vinci and Michelangelo in his history book led us, of course, to reading about them more in-depth (one of these books is from my own childhood) and then watching videos on about the Sistine Chapel. And can I just say how amazing it is to read about the Mona Lisa and for Duncan to say "I've been there!"

Co-op classes started back on Wednesday, which means my British Lit class and also geometry for Duncan. His science class starts back next week, but he has homework to do for that. So, the rest of this week is dedicated to writing an essay, reading poetry, doing geometry, and reading environmental science. He is going on a winter camp-out with his Boy Scout troop this weekend, so he's also been busy getting ready for that. Yep, it's supposed to get down to 12 tonight, and they apparently think that's fun.

Laurel is in her last semester of her senior year. There. I said it, but I try not to think about it too much. The exciting news is that she has decided to go to Lipscomb University in Nashville! I'm really happy about it. There was a part of me that hoped she would go to my alma mater, and I think that would have been a great fit, too; but I think she's made the right decision.

But that's all I'm going to say about college right now, because she still has a whole semester of high school left. She was busy finishing a paper for my Classic Literature class for the first couple of days this week. I'll do a separate blog post on the independent reading project I had my upperclassmen do, because it turned out so incredibly well.

Her co-op classes also started back on Wednesday. She's continuing with my Classic Literature class as well as psychology. She'll be taking German again at the college as part of dual enrollment, but that doesn't start until the last week of January. We also ordered Teaching Textbooks pre-calculus for her, which she started this week.

It was hard to get back into the swing of things this week, but now that the first day of co-op is over, we are remembering the rhythm of our days. After all, we've been doing this together a long, long time. I've got nearly 15 years behind me, and not quite four left to go.

Linked up with the Weekly Wrap-Up