Spring break ideas

Whether you’re homeschooling and need a break or your kids are in school and you’re not sure what do with them, spring break is a fun opportunity to mix things up.

When my kids were younger I made up a daycamp for the week and we made sure to ‘pack’ lunches and go swimming a few times and end the week with a field trip to the zoo. We haven’t done that in a while but I’m still thinking I’ll mix things up next week.

Here are some ideas:

1. If your kids can’t take the entire week off school, make your own personalized worksheets. This is really easy for sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. Rather than forcing them to learn a word list that has no meaning for them, draw on their favourite things for ideas. For my son today, I made him up a capitalization and comma worksheet where all the sentences were silly things about his favourite TV show. If your child needs penmanship practice, learn calligraphy together. A pack of pens at Michael’s will only set you back a few dollars. If they need reading practice, write a story for them and have them illustrate it. If they’re learning their letters, give them 26 sheets of paper and have them draw a big capital letter on it and turn it into something else by drawing on and around it.

2. Negotiate screen time with your kids ahead of time and push it towards the end of the day. I hate starting our day with pulling the kids away from the TV. I find it works well to give them that time before dinner.

3. Check out your local community. Try out a locally owned store that you’ve never been to. Tell them you’ve never been and they’ll likely give you lots of info.

4. Read a story together that you can finish before school starts up again. We love the Flat Stanley books, My Father’s Dragon, or a short Roald Dahl story (like The Twits!) for spring break. Read aloud regardless of whether or not your kids are reading on their own.

5. Go for a walk or play outside, every day, no matter what the weather. Then come home and bake together, or make hot chocolate or lemonade. Reading is perfect before or after a walk.

6. If you’re planning on doing a summer garden, plan it out and buy your seeds now.

7. Check out what the astronauts are doing in the International Space Station.

8. Go to the library and get books from a section you’ve never gone to before. Look at kids cooking books and easy craft books for lots of ideas. If you’re worried about math, there are tons of great math stories at the library that teach skills without feeling ‘educational’. Get out comic books or other light reading. Get some magazines for yourself.

9. Have the kids make lunch one day, including menus and prices. My kids LOVED doing this! They set up a little table and took my order and gave me a bill. Now my oldest likes doing a ‘mystery box’ challenge like on MasterChef.

10. Have your kids set up a pretend store or garage sale and price their things (assure them that they’ll get them back!). It’s a great way to learn to make change.

11. Don’t use the week as time to ‘catch up on school work’. Give them a change of pace no matter what their marks are like. Then they’ll go back to school with a more positive outlook. We are taking a break from our usual curriculum and doing reading and writing that is more of their choosing.

12. Cut construction paper or coloured card stock into strips (about a centimetre or 1/2 inch wide) and weave little baskets for Easter. I cut strips the length of the paper in two different colours and it makes a cute little basket that can be filled with chocolates or candy.

13. Spring cleaning! Open up the windows and doors, clean the outside of your windows, and get the yard ready for spring. If you’re snowed in, do your spring cleaning inside by going through closets and toy bins and clearing out old stuff. Show your kids the things they loved or made when they were younger.

14. Have your kids show you their favourite YouTube videos. Find some of your own to share with them. If you haven’t seen it, watch The Story of Stuff. Check out funny commercials to get everyone laughing.

With my youngest going away with his Dad for a few days, my oldest and I have decided to get out DVDs from the library of our favourite shows. We’ll be sure to make meals that they don’t like as much and go shopping for them for Easter.

Whatever you’re doing, have a great spring break!

Computer Programming

I’m taking a beginner course in computer programming so that I understand it well enough to help my son take the same course in the future. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the course (Programming for Everybody through Coursera), especially how each assignment is a mini-project in problem solving. I also like how it’s either right or wrong – no grey area here! I’ve found that programming has a lot in common with homeschooling:

1. If you want to write a good computer program, you first need to define what you want to do. Although this definition will not be seen in the actual program, if you don’t know where you’re headed then you don’t know where to start and you’re likely to write a bunch of lines of code that don’t get you anywhere. In homeschooling, we have overall goals for our children and then each year we set goals for each of them (with their help). Then we make weekly goals that help them get to their year-end goals. As Stephen Covey talks about in his 7 Habits books, “Begin with the end in mind”. If you write a computer program without a defined goal, you often end up with a page of messy code that makes no sense when you look at it the next day. Try to run it and it will be full of errors that you can’t fix because you don’t remember what it was that you were trying to achieve. So you have to start over. Starting over is easy with programming but not so fun with homeschooling; it’s better to set some goals.

2. When writing a longer program, it works best to check it at the end of each stage because the program will only tell you about one error at a time. If you finish the program without checking it, you may get an error that only occurs because another error occurred earlier that you are missing. In homeschooling, this translates to checking our child’s progress against our goals on a regular basis. I always have to adjust our year-end goals! We either get too much done, or, wait, that has never happened, we often go off into an area of interest and then I adjust our goals to fit what we are currently doing. Or we get stuck in advancing in writing or math and have to pause to develop skills before moving on. This is one of my favourite things about homeschooling; we don’t have to push forward, we can stall wherever needed to master skills.

3. In the programming language Python, you can place a hashtag before a line of programming to remove it from the program without deleting it. It’s very helpful in telling others what you were trying to achieve, it’s also a good way to remind yourself what was happening before taking a break. I also think of it as a check or pause for the program (not in the program – they don’t stop time) that enables me to make sure I’m on track. I think of it in homeschooling like taking a day off to do something fun or not doing math lessons for a week while we play games. A pause is a welcome distraction and a fun break from the daily and weekly routines. Too many #s in the code and it gets hard to see what’s actually happening, just like how too many breaks from routine destroy the routine and become the norm.

4. In programming we can write a ‘function’ and then call that function when we need it. Like in parenting and homeschooling, we have days where we are either distracted or ill and need to call on some old favourites to get us through the day. In our house, that was a few videos when the kids were little, or board games, or colouring pages, or a bag of my old toys. Whatever would help us still have a good day without just lying around in front of the TV. We can’t call a function for everything, and we have to write it first, but when we do need them they are really handy to have around.

If you have found other things that relate to homeschooling, I would love to hear them!

A Homeschooling Poem

We get up in the morning

And have a bowl of eats

Sometimes we like to sleep in

And eat a bowl of treats


Homeschooling is for us

Because we like to chat

About the planes in World War II

Or Yasser Arafat


You see, when you are here all day

You learn a thing or two

About how we are all connected

The past, the now, and you


We wouldn’t be right here right now

Without those who came before

We owe our lives to those who fought

In both of the world wars


Today our homeschool day begins

With pancakes and a verse

To those who fought to give us freedom

To you we owe our birth

First Impressions

By choosing to homeschool, I choose to be in a minority. Others may spend the majority of their time with other homeschoolers and forget that they’re in a minority, but that’s just a mirage unless they happen to live in some utopian homeschooling village. When our kids were young, almost all of our social time was with other homeschoolers. I didn’t have the motivation or energy to seek out friendships with schooled kids unless they lived close by. As our kids got older and attended programs with both homeschooled and schooled children, our friendships changed as well. Now our kids have primarily schooled friends because there are not very many homeschool kids around that are in high school.

Regardless of who our friends are, our schooling choice puts us in a minority and we are highly visible when we take our kids out during the day, whether it is to the zoo, the mall, or the grocery store. I feel I have a responsibility to other homeschoolers to give the public a positive view of homeschooling. We may be the only homeschooling family that someone else meets in their entire lifetime and therefore they will base their entire opinion of homeschooling on us. Do we want them to think positively about homeschoolers or negatively?

Whether we like it or not, a big part of first impressions is appearance. How are we dressed? How are our kids dressed? Do they look happy and well cared for? Or do they look miserable and dirty? Of course we have bad days. On bad days where we’re going to the doctor and the pharmacy, I don’t tell anyone that we’re homeschoolers! We just do our thing quietly as we would if I’d kept a sick child home from school. We all have days where the kids are grumpy or we’re tired or not feeling well. Those are exceptions and we all have them whether we homeschool or not. But a large number of homeschoolers in the city where I live wear pajamas out of the house and don’t shower and don’t wear clean, proper fitting clothes. Clothes here are very cheap and kids don’t need very many outfits. There are second-hand stores, clothing swaps (very popular amongst homeschoolers!), and discount stores like H&M or Joe Fresh. It is also inexpensive to cut our child’s hair and almost free to wash it. We either buy clippers and cut our boy’s hair or go to a cheap place to have someone else do it. There is no excuse for allowing our kids to go out in public with ill-fitting, dirty clothing and dirty hair in their face.

I’ve had a lot of homeschoolers tell me that their child doesn’t like clothing tags or seams, or that they like their hair scraggly. Having long hair is fine but having unkempt hair is not. Would I trust a doctor or lawyer that has scraggly hair and dirty clothes? No way! I know many families of kids that go to private school whose kids don’t like clothing tags either but they have to wear the uniform anyway. My son had very sensitive skin so we searched a lot to find clothes that didn’t irritate him. We didn’t send him out in inside-out pajamas. No one should be able to tell that we’re a homeschooling family just because of how we are dressed. It is important for our children to understand first impressions and be confident in their appearance and how they speak to people they meet. It is one of our responsibilities as parents to teach our children how to dress, speak, and behave in public. I’ve heard of some homeschoolers that believe we should not take our children out during the day and I do not share that opinion. Our children are actively involved in their community, with their family, and in programs that keep them busy at various times during the week with a variety of people.

Fall Planning

With Jack going into grade nine, I have a lot of planning to do. He is really interested in cooking right now so I’m going to incorporate meal planning, budgeting, food preparation, grocery shopping, and gardening into his learning plan. He just finished a cooking daycamp where they did a ‘black box’ challenge (like the mystery box challenges on Masterchef) and he loved it so we’ll maybe do one of those each week. I figure I’ll give him a protein, a vegetable, maybe a grain, and a couple fun things in the box each week.

For math we are continuing with Saxon. I really like the look of Teaching Textbooks but we no longer have a computer with a CD-ROM drive so that’s not an option. Saxon has worked well for us the past few years and I expect this to be the last year before algebra. I like that each lesson has one new lesson and lots of review to choose from. We always do all of the lesson practice and sometimes I add more to that, but we never do all of the review. I supplemented last year with units from Teachers Pay Teachers and he liked those a lot, especially the circle geometry unit. Teachers Pay Teachers is a great way to get a unit for little money, at whatever grade level you need. With Mark just finished grade ten math I have a good idea what Jack will need to know. We need to add tests and quizzes this year, in a more formal way, so that he is prepared for high school level coursework. We’ve tended to do things orally or on paper with help but now he needs practice in test-taking.

History is going to be really fun this year as we continue with Year 4 of Tapestry of Grace: 20th Century History. We ended last year in the 1930s and we will begin this year with the study of Hitler and the rise of fascism. Jack is looking forward to World War II and it will be easy to incorporate Canadian content into our curriculum. We’re reading ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ right now and we will also read Anne Frank and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,’ one of my favourites. Jack likes to make comics (not cartoons, as they aren’t usually funny) out of historical events and I expect he’ll do lots of that this year. It helps to bring everything together with dialogue and pictures.

Science is my struggle right now as I have not yet picked a curriculum. Cooking will play a role but we need something more concrete to get him ready for Science 10. I’m looking at Apologia Physical Science right now. I know for sure that he needs to do a lab notebook. He is interested in doing the Apologia Marine Biology course but it’s too advanced for him at this point. We may skip Physical Science and go straight into Biology though, since that’s what his brother is doing. I have often left science out and we’ve done units here and there but I can’t do that this year. Science 10 has been a struggle for Mark to get through because of our lack of science leading up to it.

That leaves the study of English, Jack’s weakest subject and my most challenging to teach him. Mark and I love literature and it’s tough to teach Jack, who wants nothing to do with it. We’re going to use Our Mother Tongue for grammar and move from paragraphs to essay writing. Jack didn’t read until he was eleven but he’s just about caught up. I still do some reading aloud and this year he’ll be working on reading for information as well as enjoyment. Again, we will be adding some tests to prepare for grade ten. I love Shakespeare but I think we’ll leave him until next year. I’m considering adding poetry and short stories but our focus is mostly on reading and writing essays.