Thursday, September 23, 2010

Homeschooling in the Cyber Age

Once upon a time, homeschooling was a homespun operation.  When people pictured homeschooling families, they saw mothers sitting by the fireplace, surrounded by beaming and attentive children.  Perhaps there was spinning, or sewing, or other such domestic activities.

And in the beginning, that might not have been so far off from reality.  Many homeschooling families did seek to recapture a certain lost era of togetherness and simplicity.

Things have changed.  Welcome to homeschooling in the cyber age.

When I began considering homeschooling, I read many books about those families who were pioneers in the homeschooling movement.  They talked about meeting together at churches and in homes, putting together co-ops and support groups.  There was still some of that in the early part of the 21st century, but it pretty quickly segued into a brave new world.

I found support not only in local groups who communicated via email but also with people from around the world.  I made friends from all across the USA and Canada, too.  We shared the triumphs and frustrations of our homeschooling journey.

Now I can't imagine having to homeschooling without my computer and the internet.  I order curriculum on line.  I ask questions of people who have used that curriculum, people I've never met.  Some of very best, closest friends I don't see regularly; if we're very blessed, we might see each other once a year.  So we adjust.  We chat on the computer, via Skype.  We text and we phone.  We gripe about kids with bad attitudes and the challenges of being homeschooling moms.

This year, we've taken it just a bit further:  Catie is doing a cyber co-op with two of our friends.  When we were together in May, we all bought the same geography curriculum, and now Shawn, Franklin and Catie 'meet' once a week on the computer--using their web cams--to review the lessons, check their answers and discuss vocabulary words.  It's pretty cool that our co-op spans three states:  California, Georgia and Florida.

Every day we hear about the dangers of the internet, and it's true that we have to take precautions.  But how wonderful is it that this incredible world wide web also offers us tremendous opportunities for learning, friendship and discovery!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Homeschooling: What our first day looks like

What do you remember from your first days of school?  I mean, the first day of each new school year. . what made those days special?

I remember having a new outfit each year.  Back to school shopping was part of our ritual!  And then of course there was the picture taking.  For me, at least in my high school years, there was the additional fun of the nerves that made me get sick each and every first day of school.  Memories. . .

Homeschooling families all have their own rituals for the first day of the new school year.  Some mark it very quietly, since they may have schooled all year around, and thus there may not be any real "first day". I know some families who try to recreate an actual school-type environment by having their kids leave the house and then return to their school at home.  Others eschew any connection to a traditional school idea at all, and they throw or attend NOT back to school picnics or parties.

We've established our own traditions.  First of all, we never begin school until the Wednesday after Labor Day.  That's the New Jersey rule, and we like to wring as much out of summer as possible.  We like to do some kind of little adventure the day before we officially begin school, which is something my mother always did with my sister and me.  It can be as simple as a beach day or a trip for ice cream!

On our first day, we always begin with going out to breakfast.  It's fun to talk about the upcoming year, our hopes and goals.  When we come home, we go into the school room, where I've set out their first day of school surprises.  These are just little goodies--new pens, notebooks, planners.  After the kids have oohed and ahhed over their new school supplies, we begin to go over our new books and classes; we talk about our new daily schedule and routine.

Our real school year will begin the following Monday, since we organize our curriculum by week.  But it's nice to have our day of celebration and ease into the new routine.

Homeschooling doesn't mean we lose our traditions. . .it just means we create new ones.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cooking for the month

Several years ago, my oldest daughter and I embarked on an experimental adventure.  We bought several books about pre-cooking meals, and we decided to try it out.  We liked the idea of having all the meals for the month ready in our freezer.

This did not become a way of life for us, partly because of circumstances and partly because we hadn't found our cooking niche yet.  We've dabbled in it now and then since that time, but again, it hasn't stuck.

But we love the idea of this way of cooking.  Especially when we're homeschooling, it's wonderful not to have to worry about dinner every night, to have the biggest part of cooking out of the way.

So with this in mind, we decided to try it again.  However, this time we put our own twist on it.

What we loved about CFTM was the freedom it offers us from the daily grind of planning and cooking a meal.  What we didn't like was that most the food in the cookbooks weren't the kind of meals our family usually eats.  There were lots of heavy casseroles and processed foods.

So this time, we decided to adapt the idea to our own style.  Here's how I made it work for us:

First, I made a list of our favorite meals, by category.  We generally organize our meals by type.  On Mondays, which are our heaviest school days, we do some thing fast and easy, like roast beef sandwiches, sloppy joe, grilled cheese or hamburgers; Tuesdays are chicken days; Wednesdays are meatless days (soups or pasta); Thursdays are meat days (meatloaf, pork chops, ham steak); Fridays are homemade pizza or something along those lines; Saturdays are salad days, and Sundays are 'big' meal days--turkey breast, roast beef, homemade spaghetti sauce.

Next, I assigned each day of the month a corresponding meal from the list above.  I use my computer calendar to do this, so that I can see what else is going on each day.  This lets me choose the right meal for the right circumstances.

Then it was time to make a grocery list.  If you're only used to shopping for a week of food at a time, this can be a shock to your system.  I like to set aside an entire day if possible for this kind of shopping, and I like to use warehouse stores, like Sam's or BJ's, in addition to a regular grocery store for some items.  I also take the time to match what I need to my coupons on hand, and I paperclip each pile of coupons to the proper list.

I recommend that you never shop and cook on the same day.  This will exhaust you and make you less likely to continue the CFTM journey.  Shop one day; come home and sort your loot.  Then relax until the next day.

I like to keep the ingredients I know I'll be needing the next day out on my counter; no need to put everything in the pantry and have to pull it out again.  I put the meat we'll be using into the fridge so that we don't have to defrost anything.

On cooking day, there are a few little prep hints that can make the day go smoother.  First of all, counter space is vitally important.  If you have plenty, great. If not, you might consider moving all non-essential appliances and so on into another room.  Clean the counters so that you're starting off with a sanitary surface.  I also recommend having several rolls of paper towels on hand.  Even if you usually are a super-green, no paper using person, this might be a good time to make an exception.  If not, try to have as many clean dish towels available.  You'll need them!  Also, keep plenty of oven mitts and hot pads at the ready, for when you take hot dishes out of the oven.

I like to keep the kitchen table empty so that completed dishes can be set there to cool until they can be placed in the freezer.  I also like to begin the process with an empty dishwasher, so that we can load as we go.  You might want to have disposable pans and storage containers, although we use our own dishes to save on the waste.  I also keep a Sharpie marker, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and freezer bags on the table for packaging and labeling our meals.

The attractive thing about CFTM cook books is that they teach you how to make several dishes at one time.  For instance, if you need to brown ground meat for more than one dish, you can brown it all at once.  I try to look at our own list of meals in the same way.  I identify all the steps that can be combined and do them together.

I am blessed that my oldest daughter likes to cook this way with me.  Together, she and I can whip out a month's worth of food with relative ease.  My other daughters are kind enough to help us in the clean up!    And we try to make it fun by watching movies or catching up on TiVo'd shows while we cook.

We label the meals carefully so that on each appointed day,  I can simply pull the right meal out of the freezer and let it thaw for dinner that night.

I love that this month, we made all of our meals from non-processed, healthy foods.  The chicken pot pie sauce was made from scratch.  There were plenty of non-casserole type foods, too.  We're going to eat very well this month!

Cooking for the month is something I'd like to incorporate into our life year around. . .I'll let you know if it works!