Kitchen Confidence

Cooking and baking are definitely not my areas of expertise, but they provide such fantastic learning opportunities for the kids that I am really trying to master-- or at least modestly improve-- these skills. I also think the more confident I become in cooking, the better I will be at using this daily task as a homeschooling tool.

Prior to motherhood, when I was teaching businesspeople how to effectively delegate and lead teams, it was usually the new managers who had the most difficulty in this area because they were the least experienced and confident. Once they gained leadership skills, they were able to improve their team's impact and efficiency. I hope the same is true for me and cooking. For now, I'll plug away in the kitchen and involve the kids as much as possible, while trying to keep the house from burning down.

So for this week's homeschool playgroup, I discovered a yummy granola bar snack recipe on a great website, called Super Healthy Kids. What I like about this recipe is that it is very straightforward and relatively nutritious -- and doesn't have lots of fancy (at least for me) ingredients like flaxseed and wheat germ which, truthfully, I don't stock in my pantry on a regular basis.

I also like that this recipe is good for little hands who value any opportunity to pound a mixture into a baking pan. And really, who doesn't love to lick a spoonful of honey?

Homeschooling's Diversity

I am intrigued by the Duggars, the Arkansas family with 19 children that is featured on a TLC television series. Other than enjoying my children and homeschooling, I have nothing in common with this family, and yet I find them fascinating. I don't watch their television series very often, but I find myself thinking about them a lot. Like when getting hats and mittens and boots on three little people seems a near-impossible task, or when I get interrupted from reading M a story for the umpteenth time because J is climbing on the radiator, I think about how they possibly run their household and homeschool. (I do love this tip from their website, though: “Praise your children ten times more than you correct them.”)

I think my fascination with the Duggars also highlights how homeschooling attracts-- and in some ways unites-- many different kinds of families, from southern evangelicals to northern secularists and everyone in between. While we may choose to homeschool for different reasons and pursue different homeschooling styles and methodologies, most homeschooling families value the time and customization of curriculum that homeschooling offers.

Anything that can bring together religious conservatives and urban liberals must be a fairly powerful pursuit. So while I may have very little in common with the Duggars, I can appreciate their desire to homeschool their children... and would love their tips on keeping J off the radiators... :)

Reading Mail

If you are looking for a fun activity to help your early readers gain literacy skills, then I recommend this game. M enjoys writing little notes to place in her mailbox for me to read and then I write little notes to her. She calls this the "secret messages" game and it's a great way to reinforce literacy with simple words and sentences. It is also a good activity to engage younger siblings who like to scribble their own notes for the mailbox!

As much as M and I love "Dick and Jane," these types of homemade reading exercises add some variety and help kids to enjoy writing their letters and sounding out words. Activities like these also showcase an important benefit of homeschooling: the ability to tailor curriculum to your child's interests and abilities. For instance, M is still very eager for Easter to arrive, so this morning's mailbox messages focused on notes about bunnies, and eggs, and other Easter accoutrements. These types of activities also make learning easy and fun, so there's no need to set aside special time for "school," (unless that works well for your learners), but instead include games like this one as part of your routine play.

I just discovered this great phonics game, using Easter eggs, from another homeschooling mom.... M will love this!

Domestic Pursuits

As I've mentioned previously on this blog, I'm a big fan of the online magazine, Rhythm of the Home, which has such inspiring articles and ideas about family life and parenthood. I've been thinking a lot lately about one of the articles from this spring's issue called, "The Rebirth of Domesticity," written by Heather Fontenot, a homeschooling mom of three boys in Colorado.

The article discusses how moms today are once again cherishing the "handmade and homemade" and are taking on domestic pursuits-- like cooking, gardening, knitting, sewing-- with renewed zest and appreciation. Having just knit my first-ever scarf and enjoying immersing myself in more domestic pursuits, I can say that I wish I had paid more attention in 7th grade Home Economics class. I have a lot to learn, particularly in the culinary area, and I hope to someday be able to knit a scarf in fewer than four months, but all of this creates a fun new challenge to perfect my domestic skills. While I don't think I will ever iron my sheets like my grandmother did or host a dinner party as perfectly as she, I am finding great reward in the "handmade and homemade" to "create a world of beauty" for my family.

Small City Spaces

When I was pregnant with M and reading The City Parent Handbook: The Complete Guide to the Ups and Downs and Ins and Outs of Raising Young Kids in the City, by Kathy Bishop and Julia Whitehead, I distinctly remember the recommendation that each room in our small city spaces should serve several functions. In our 1300-square-foot condo in a six-family building, this type of functionality is key. So M's room, formerly the dining room, doubles as the playroom; the living room is also Daddy's office when he works from home; and A's room is our room for now until the kids share a room at some point down the road.

To keep our small city space manageable, we also try to reduce our consumption, limit incoming toys to those that are smaller than a bread-box, and frequently purge or donate unused items. Here's a good article about a city mom who has found creative ways to simplify, minimize, and make her 1100-square-foot city condo work well for her family.

Now that there are five of us in our home people ask if we'll be moving to a bigger place, but we find that, at least for now, we have plenty of room and enjoy the coziness. Small homes, no parking, limited outdoor space-- these are certainly things we city-dwellers encounter, but I always think of the country song, "Little Houses" by Doug Stone in which the chorus states:

But you know, love grows best in little houses,
With fewer walls to separate,
Where you eat and sleep so close together.
You can't help but communicate,
Oh, and if we had more room between us, think of all we'd miss.
Love grows best, in houses just like this.

As M says, now with five of us life is “fun, crowded and crazy.” That about sums it up.

The Office

After an early morning aquarium trip, we had a great time exploring Daddy's office!

Balancing Act(ivities)

When first considering homeschooling, prospective city homeschoolers may wonder how they will fill their days. Very soon, however, it becomes apparent that the real issue is deciding among too many activities, not too few! In addition to the usual community class offerings for kids, like gymnastics, dance, art, and after-school youth sports, members of local homeschool groups often sponsor activities by "grade level" on various topics. Many organizations, like dance companies or swimming arenas, offer daytime classes for homeschoolers. Combine these programs with homeschool park days, homeschool sports teams, and the litany of classes that many cities' museums and libraries offer just for homeschoolers, and you realize your challenge will be making sure you are not too over-scheduled each week!

Here in the Boston area, several museums and local organizations offer classes specifically for homeschoolers. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Franklin Park Zoo, and the New England Aquarium provide frequent classes for homeschoolers, and just outside the city, the Massachusetts Audubon Society offers a variety of nature exploration classes for homeschoolers. Many museums and organizations are also very happy to create a specialized, group program just for homeschoolers, so it's worth inquiring.

It can be both exciting and challenging to wade through all of the homeschool offerings in your city to discover the right blend of structured activities and unstructured learning time -- and to make sure that most of your day isn't spent in the car or subway train!

Boston homeschoolers: what other homeschool classes and activities do you recommend?

The Power of Play

There has been a lot of discussion lately about re-injecting play into preschool and elementary school curricula after the pendulum seemed to swing to the other side in the past few years. According to this New York Times article, many parents and educators are now trying to reinforce the value of unstructured, child-driven play to help kids learn valuable social, emotional, and cognitive skills.

Evidence shows that more free time to play may also help alleviate some of today's childhood ailments, like ADHD. Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, for example, frequently discusses ADHD on his blog, Freedom to Learn. In one post he wrote: "What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers' observations." In his research, Gray found that kids with ADHD diagnoses show dramatic improvements when they are removed from conventional schooling environments.

We feel fortunate that homeschooling allows our kids the unfettered time and freedom to play, explore and learn.

Thrifty Homeschooling

While it's nice to be able to enroll kids in classes or hire tutors, city homeschooling really can be done cheaply given all the free and low-cost offerings the city provides. In addition to our public libraries, most cities are fortunate to host world-class colleges and universities that offer an astonishing array of lectures and cultural events that are often free and open to the general public. For example, this week alone at Harvard you could hear a free lecture on the constitutionality of Obama's healthcare reform or participate in an African Dance Diaspora symposium, while at MIT you could participate in a free and open lecture on nuclear and particle theory. Just check out the event listing website for your local college or university to see which programs are free and available to you.

Many museums are also free and open to the public on certain days of the week. Here in Boston, for instance, the Museum of Fine Arts offers free admission every Wednesday afternoon after 4:00, the Institute of Contemporary Art offers free admission every Thursday evening, and the MIT Museum and the Harvard Natural History Museum both offer free admission on Sunday mornings.

Combine all of the above with each city's frequent cultural events and festivals, local bookstore lectures, poetry readings, and musical street performers, and you have a robust homeschool curriculum for very little cost -- with affordable public transportation to access your city's many educational offerings.

Lobbying at the State House

Today the kids and I went to the Massachusetts State House to lobby for passage of the midwifery bill designed to license Certified Professional Midwives and expand birthing options for women. After having an amazing homebirth with A, I feel passionate about providing more birthing choices for women and improving access to midwifery care, so it was great to be able to visit the State House, meet our legislators, and encourage deeper consideration of this bill.

And what an outstanding learning experience for M to see a real-life civics lesson!

Homeschool Park Days

Despite today's cold temperatures and spitting snow, the first full day of spring marks the return of weekly homeschool park days! It was so nice to venture to the park and catch-up with homeschool friends, several of whom we haven't seen since winter began. The kids got right to work gathering sticks and pine cones for pretend play, drawing on the concrete walkway, and, of course, playing in the playground. It was also nice to meet some new prospective city homeschoolers who are trying to decide if homeschooling is right for them.

Park days provide excellent opportunities to connect with other homeschoolers and form friendships -- for both the kids and the grown-ups. It's always nice to chat with other homeschoolers about their homeschooling strategies, philosophies, techniques, and lessons learned -- that is, when we're not chasing after toddlers!

Homeschool Playgroups and Co-ops

Homeschool playgroups and parent cooperatives can be a great way to connect with other homeschoolers and enhance weekly learning.

Most urban areas have a collection of local homeschool groups and online networks to connect current and prospective homeschoolers, and most of these groups host park days and other weekly events to bring homeschooling families together. These networks and events create excellent opportunities to establish your own small homeschool playgroup with families in your area who have kids of similar ages and interests. For example, I connected with four other moms at a weekly homeschool park day and then suggested that we create weekly, rotating playgroups for the kids at each home. Playgroups or meet-ups can be as structured or simple as you would like. You can plan craft projects or lessons or just allow the kids to socialize together.

Some homeschooling families take playgroups a step further, particularly as homeschoolers age, and create private homeschool cooperatives with other families. These tend to be more structured sessions that meet at different homes during the week and where parents take turns providing instruction or facilitating a lesson. As this article from the New York Times last summer highlights, some city homeschoolers even join together to hire a teacher for their homeschool co-op.

There are countless ways to form and structure a homeschool playgroup or co-op, so go ahead and take the lead on creating your own!

Finding Nature in the City

Now that the weather is warming, we're back to our commitment of 5 to 6+ hours a day of pure outside air time. While we don't subscribe to any one homeschooling philosophy, I do like Charlotte Mason's focus on ensuring that kids have oodles of unstructured, outside free play time. We're back to eating some of our meals outside when the temperature cooperates, and doing craft activities on the back deck or reading at our condo building's picnic table.

Although we city-dwellers don't have access to wide open spaces in our backyard, usually we can take a quick trip to a city park, bike path, or conservation area to let our little ones explore nature more freely.

Today, for example, the temperature is in the mid-60s and we feel fortunate that homeschooling allows us to spend lots of time roaming outside, collecting rocks, observing buds and blossoms, and breathing in some warm, early spring air.

St. Patrick's Day Learning

It's a good thing Grammy helps us decorate for each holiday because this is not my strong point and it definitely helps to make various occasions more festive.

With homeschooling, even more commercialized holidays like St. Patrick's Day create new learning opportunities and help to add some variety to the homeschool routine. Today we are cooking a traditional Irish meal for dinner, baking some festive cookies, spotting Ireland on our globe, wearing green, and listening to traditional Irish music-- when we're not enjoying lots of outside time on this beautiful March day.

As the kids get older, holidays like this one could be great opportunities to explore various topics such as Irish history, agriculture, and immigration. There's even a Boston Irish Heritage Trail tracing the city's Irish roots.

And since we're on the topic of the Irish in Boston, it's worth mentioning that Horace Mann, who is widely viewed as the founder of universal public education, sought free, compulsory schooling to educate the masses and "civilize" the largely poor Irish immigrants to Boston in the early 19th century. All this while his wife homeschooled their three children.....

Spring Reading

We returned all of our books about snow to the library and are optimistic that winter is behind us! In the new spring issue of Rhythm of the Home there is a wonderful list of spring books to consider borrowing from the library. To this list I would also add the book, A New Beginning: Celebrating the Spring Equinox, by Wendy Pfeffer. I really like Pfeffer's books about the changing seasons from both a cultural and scientific perspective. Happy spring reading!

Fine-Feathered Neighbors

You just never know what characters you might run into on an afternoon walk home from the playground!


In light of yesterday's post regarding the kindergarten lottery, I've had some moms tell me that they may in fact consider homeschooling their kids if they don't receive a top-choice kindergarten or junior kindergarten slot this month. "I always thought that homeschooling was very structured and intimidating," said one mom, "but I see that in many ways it's what we're already doing with our kids." Yes!

While some homeschoolers choose to purchase packaged curriculum and include a lot of structure to their day, many homeschoolers choose a more eclectic, "unschooling" approach-- particularly for preschool and kindergarten. Given that compulsory attendance laws, at least in Massachusetts, don't kick-in until age 6, it may be worth experimenting with homeschooling for a year or two to see if it works for you. If nothing else, it will buy you some more time in the city and you may just discover that homeschooling fits well for your family. And if it doesn't work out, you can always try the city lottery again for kindergarten or first grade.

Schools and the City

March marks the month that parents in Boston and Cambridge learn which school their kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners will attend in the fall. Both cities, like many others, use lottery systems to try to diversify their schools, and this month parents receive a letter indicating whether or not they got one of their top-choice schools. For many parents who do not receive a top-choice school, this is also the month they reluctantly put-up the "for sale" sign and leave for the 'burbs.

Here is a Boston Globe article about Boston's lottery assignment system and the frustrations and anxieties it can cause parents who desperately want to remain city-dwellers and who the city desperately needs to retain to ensure a vibrant and diverse middle-class.

As the recent article in Boston Magazine highlights, there are options for city parents who want to remain in the city once kindergarten rolls around. I hope that an increasing number of parents will consider homeschooling as a viable option to remain in the city and uncover the endless learning possibilities the city creates for our children.

Maple Sugaring

It was definitely worth leaving the city for the countryside today to learn about tree-tapping and maple sugaring. We met friends at a wonderful nature preserve and discovered all sorts of things about tree-tapping. Did you know you can drink the sap right from the maple tree? And we watched demonstrations on how to boil the sap into maple sugar--both the modern way as well as how the Native Americans did it. It was such a great morning of learning for the whole family, and I am so glad that M asked us the question about sap the other day to trigger our interest. Now that I know about this annual New England ritual, it will definitely become a part of our March "curriculum" for the foreseeable future.

Tapping Into Curiosity

As we all know, the magic of homeschooling is tapping into our children's natural curiosity and identifying relevant learning opportunities. What is also magical is how much we grown-ups learn in the process!

Take, for instance, M's question yesterday that stumped both Daddy and me: why do trees have sap? "I don't know," we answered honestly, "but let's find out." M and I researched the answer today to discover that sap is to plants and trees what blood is to humans: a necessary mechanism to transport water and nutrients. But, unlike blood, sap is yummy and often edible, which led me to discover that March is, in fact, the heart of maple sugaring season in New England! I am ashamed to admit that I did not know this, but now that I do, we are heading off to a local nature sanctuary this weekend for a tree-tapping demonstration.

Here's a good YouTube video on tree-tapping that M and I watched today that might interest others of you who may want to visit New England's maple-sugaring farms this month to "tap" your children's curiosity!

Spring Nature Journal

We are beginning to spot signs of spring on our daily walks, so I suggested that M keep a spring nature journal to record what we observe. She can take photos of bulbs popping through the ground, draw pictures of tulips and robins, press flowers into her notebook, write about what she sees, and monitor changes over time. Here is a great article about keeping a spring nature journal with your kids with good ideas on how to capture nature's awakening and turn your daily walks into yet another learning opportunity.

Homeschool Playgroup Craft

For this week's homeschool playgroup I found these shamrock printables. It actually takes some good scissor skills to cut-out shamrocks! M, in particular, is currently very interested in using the one-hole punch to poke holes in crafts and then weave yarn to create bracelets or decorations. And she's back to her passion of using the hole-punch to practice "sewing" yarn through paper designs. We were talking at playgroup about how it's probably a worthwhile time to teach shoelace-tying -- which of course would require us to actually get some shoes for our kids that have laces! O Velcro, how I love thee....

Creating Classes in the City

One of the great things about city homeschooling is that we are able to connect deeply with our community and create learning opportunities for our kids. Cities are fortunate to have lots of independent boutique stores that are often very eager to accommodate homeschoolers.

For example, a lovely new craft and knitting store just opened nearby. When we visited, lots of people were sitting in comfy chairs knitting and chatting or using the store's sewing machines. M got to select some yarn and lots of felt for craft time. I mentioned to the owner our homeschooling connection, and she said she is thrilled to offer special private classes for homeschoolers at our convenience and tailored to our interests. I have found this type of outreach to be common at other local stores and venues that would be happy to welcome homeschoolers to their space or plan special classes just for us. Often all it takes is inquiring about various possibilities with your local shopowners to create fun and informative classes for your homeschoolers!

Chapter Books

We love reading chapter books-- particularly during J's nap or before bed-- and some of M's favorites include Charlotte's Web, The Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach, and Beverly Cleary's Ralph Mouse series. But we're looking for new suggestions on chapter books for the younger set to augment our homeschooling days. So what are your recommendations?


City homeschooling is all about using the people and places in our lives to maximize our learning. As an example, earlier this week our biologist neighbor dropped off 17 snail shells from his lab for the kids to investigate. We seized this opportunity to go to the library and borrow some books on snails and shells. We were able to compare the snail shells to those that Grammy brought us from the Florida beaches. And we've found interesting ways to categorize the shells and use them for counting and grouping by size, shape, color, texture, etc. We can't wait for later this spring when our neighbor will bring us some hermit crabs from his lab!

Look for ways to use the people and places in your neighborhood to help enhance your kids' learning. There might be more opportunities than you may think!

Music Appreciation

I am admittedly late to recognizing how great Internet radio is, but now that I'm here, I cannot imagine our day without Pandora. When we are inside our home, music is always playing. And while the majority of the time we listen to classical or children's music, Pandora has been a great way to introduce and enjoy new genres and musicians-- for FREE! This morning we listened to jazz, yesterday was bluegrass. I definitely recommend looking into Internet radio to help enliven your homeschooling day and introduce new music to your kids.

Boston Magazine Article

Check out this month's issue of Boston Magazine, which discusses our family's commitment to homeschooling in an article written by Amy Traverso entitled: "Navigating the Boston Public School System."

Top Homeschooling Questions

We went to a two-year-old birthday party over the weekend and I didn't know most of the guests, so the obvious questions arose from various party-goers:

Q: "How old is M?"
A: "4"

Q: "Where does she go to school?"
A: "We homeschool."

Q: "Oh, so how does that work legally? What are the requirements?"
A: "Regulations vary by state, but in Massachusetts and many other states, a homeschooler reports to the public school district within that town in the calendar year in which the child turns 6 to be in compliance with compulsory attendance laws. Districts can request lots of information, but by law in Massachusetts a homeschooler is only required to demonstrate through a letter of intent and brief education plan that the homeschool education is comparable in hours and breadth to that of the public school district. Districts cannot dictate specifically what is covered, how it is covered, or how learning is assessed, although they can ask for some form of assessment. Most homeschoolers in Massachusetts opt for a brief, end-of-year, self-reported learning summary as the primary form of assessment. And in most school districts, unless there are red flags to indicate possible neglect or woeful inadequacy of content, homeschoolers are left alone. After all, most public schools have much bigger issues with which to contend."

Q: "So do you worry about socialization?"
A: "We belong to very active local homeschool groups and have weekly playgroups with our homeschool friends and neighborhood friends. And, on the flip side, I am glad that my kids will not be exposed to the negative socialization that often occurs in schools."

Q: "So how does it work? What do you do for curriculum?"
A: "Most city homeschoolers will tell you that the stereotypical homeschool image of kids sitting around a kitchen table for six hours a day being taught by their mom doesn't apply to us-- and, frankly, probably doesn't apply to most homeschoolers. We use the city as our primary learning tool, taking advantage of all its offerings, including classes, museums, libraries, cultural events, and fascinating neighbors-- in addition to the numerous activities offered through our local homeschool groups. Inside our home, we spend a lot of time reading, baking, playing, talking, listening to music, crafting, and doing projects. As the kids get older, there may be more structure to our learning, with daily time for math work, for example, but we intend to maintain our eclectic approach to learning. And when the kids hit high school age, they will take advantage of online and community college classes to help them learn higher-level content like calculus and physics."

I was surprised that the legality/regulation question came before the socialization question, but I thought it was interesting that these two questions were both asked during separate conversations at the party. And, like most questioners I encounter, there was pure curiosity in the tone of the questions, no judgment or skepticism. While I have had a few instances of the latter, most people I meet are sincerely interested in learning about why we homeschool and how it works. My standard line is that homeschooling provides us with the time, freedom and flexibility to tailor our learning to our children's interests while ensuring that our children are meeting or exceeding Massachusetts curriculum guidelines by grade level.