(ETA I feel aware that this is a very non-political post at a very political time. I have been grieving quietly over here since the American election results came in, and feeling rather non-functional as I obsessively read Facebook articles and knitted like my life depended on it. I just needed a little bit of normal, so finishing this math post was my bit of daily-life coming back. Hoping to find a grieving/living balance in the days to come. xoxo )
We’ve been working on math blocks in our homeschool this month and they are going so well. (Really, I want to pinch myself. I can’t quite believe how well homeschool is going this year!)
[insert grateful but somewhat nervous laughter here.]
Working with a holistic math approach with my kids has got me thinking a lot about math and math teaching in general. My own elementary math experience was not joyous or empowering in the least. Instead it was bewildering and anxiety-filled. And yet, here I am working with the same concepts I remember finding puzzling and cryptic- fractions, carrying and borrowing, multiplication, division, place value- and instead my kids are playing around with the ideas like they are toys (okay. not always. sometimes they just don’t want to do it. but generally speaking, they do enjoy it quite a lot.)
I don’t think it’s because I am a spectacular math teacher (math still scares the pants off me.) But I do think there are some real difference in a holistic approach to math, from what was going on in the math classrooms of my youth.
Math as discovery
I took two courses in my teacher’s training learning about teaching math to kids. One was just fine, but one was amazing, and after many mathematical epiphanies, my main take home message was that math can make sense to kids when they are given the time and space to work through ideas and come to their own discoveries.
I find I have to constantly remind myself of this as I teach my own kids- that I need to sloooow down, to let them play around with their own understandings, to let them make some mistakes and come to their own conclusions as they engage with the “doing” of mathematics.
Another thing I took from that amazing math-teaching class was the “dangers of the drill.” Our prof made all of us student-teachers solemnly swear to never, ever, ever, subject our students to timed math drills. Amen.
Math as story
I know I talk about this all the time here, but I love how the holistic approaches often teach concepts through story first. It can be tricky to pull this off with math- I don’t always manage it- but when I do, I sense my kid’s understanding deepen. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy- a quick tale told about brothers dividing some discovered riches, or a picture book I find at the library that illustrates an idea I want to introduce.
Math as art
Since we’ve gotten back into making mainlesson books this year, I am amazed at how much drawing helps my kids remember a concept. Something in the act of carefully creating a colourful page of math in their own special books seems to make it more real to them. Plus going back through their books is a much more pleasant form of review than flipping through a workbook (though we use workbooks too.)
Math by hand
Using lots of different kids of models and manipulatives really helps my kids. I wish I had been able to play around with cuisinaire rods and base 10 blocks as a kid, I’m sure this would have taken some of the mystery out of those rules I had to memorize, (like why the heck to you sometimes write a 9 and sometimes write a ten when borrowing in subtraction? This was utterly impenetrable to me. Base 10 blocks would have cleared things up!)
We are using lots of simple models in our fraction block right now, little paper pies, pattern blocks, paper strips, grids, dot arrays. And cooking of course. Nothing like having to double or half a recipe for hands-on learning!
Math as a game
There are lots of math games on the market- we could use to load up on some- but there are also a ton of ideas on line. I find adding a dice and some simple game pieces to some of our manipulatives is often all we need to practice the concepts in a fun way.
Cait at My Little Poppies has some great ideas on commercial math games.
Erica at What Do We Do All Day has lots of great do-it-yourself math activities if you are looking for ideas.
Not rushing the rules
I think this is what was most damaging about my own math education- rushing the rules. Learning the standard computations is important of course, but holistic math would give kids lots of time to build strong number sense before they get handed the rules.
I realized as I planned my son’s fraction block that I was wanting to rush to the “meat” of it- common denominators, computing fractions- when he needed way more time to really sink his teeth into what fractions are. So we are doing two shorter fraction blocks this year, leaving the rules and computations for later in the year when I am sure his understanding is really solid.
It is quite a journey, this business of teaching my kids- an ever evolving adventure- but I hope that learning in this way can help to bring math concepts into their world in a meaningful and concrete way. That’s the hope. For now, we are having a lot of fun with it.
I decided that this year I would need to do some kind of official homeschool time with my 3-year old. She so often feels left out of things, being so much younger than her brothers, and I hoped that having some special time with Mama would ease this feeling. I also had been fretting about how, in the busy-ness with older siblings, she missed out on a lot of the flowy, early childhood experience I had been able to create for her brothers. I wanted more time to sit and read to her, and to make things with our hands, and to sing together. I felt I needed to create a more mindful space for her little self- amidst the bustle of activities and lessons and big kid games.
I also secretly hoped that she would play more peacefully while I worked with the big boys after having her own special little homeschool session, which has been true so far- most of the time, anyway.
I looked around and I loved the look of several of the waldorf-inspired preschool curriculums I saw, and realized while researching, that I really have everything I need already to make a preschool curriculum for my girl. Seasonal picture books, simple nature crafts, circle songs and finger plays. That sounds like plenty for a 3-year-old.
So I dug through the autumn book basket and pulled out the ones I thought she would enjoy. Then I went to the library and grabbed a bunch more. And I might have ordered a few off my wishlist from Abebooks too, since my book buying habits are still strong, despite minimalist aspirations.
Then I chose a few easy, basic activities that I could do with Miss W. that wouldn’t take much prep or fuss since I would be working with her in the mornings, before I’d even finished my morning coffee. This needed to be easy and doable.
Then I sifted through my books and curriculum materials for some circle songs and finger plays. I chose the same ones I did with my boys since they were not buried too far in my brain and didn’t need to be so much memorized as dusted off. I also found the cards I had made ages ago with our favorite seasonal verses printed on them, and I keep them in a stack in the corner where we do our homeschool work so I can use them when I need them.
I made a loose plan, with one book per week (we only have 2 mornings a week home together, so we read each book twice,) and a couple activities per week. Many of them I repeated, or did over several days. The circle has stayed the same for the whole block. I’m thinking of only changing it seasonally, (though we will likely need to change things up a bit during our never-ending winter!)
So this is what we’ve been doing together:
Pumpkin Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington
Flicka, Ricka and Dicka go to Market by Maj Lindman
Apples and Pumpkins by Anne Rockwell
The Busy Squirrel by Nancy Tafuri
Apple Cake by Nienke Van Hichtum
Ox Cart Man by Donald Hall
Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak
To Market, To Market by Nikki McClure
In November by Cynthia Rylant
Strega Nona’s Harvest by Tomie dePaola
wet-on-wet watercolour in autumn colours
making small pumpkins and apples from beeswax
walks in the woods
making pumpkin muffins
drawing pumpkins and apples with crayons
making apple cake
paper lantern making from oiled watercolour painting
watercolour jack o lantern
We’ve been doing a very simple little circle that includes some sensory integration activities like this little verse:
spinning in the autumn wind
fly leaves of red and gold
where the wind will carry them,
no one ever knows.
(spinning and then “flopping in the leaves”)
Also moving in a circle through the “leaves,” skipping, jumping, stomping, tiptoeing, crawling. Also belly arches on the floor with flapping arms as a flying goose and curling up as a little squirrel.
It’s been going very well. She starts asking for “homeschool time” as soon as she gets up and it’s the one time she is happy to acknowledge her place as the little one “I get to work with Mama first, because I am the littlest!” she announces to her brothers.
Any day now it will snow and we will move onto some winter activities (which I am not really ready for…) Time to pull out the books to make a plan!
Somehow, October is halfway over and the autumn is racing by. The weather has been variable- sun, rain, snow, wind. I can’t remember having snow this early, and we don’t have the winter tires on the car yet which makes me very nervous. But it seems to come and go still- a white wintery morning leading into a wet and drippy afternoon. Which is good because my head just can’t wrap itself around winter just yet. My skier boys however, cheer when the snow starts to drift down.
They waited all day for their Papa to have time for a snowball fight. By the time he did, most of the snow had melted, but that didn’t seem to stop them.
Homeschooling is still going really well. I am loving the simple little preschool routine I have going with Miss W. (I think I’m done with the fake names for my kids on this blog- it feels too weird. I’ll try using their first initials and see how that feels.) Just seasonal books I’ve gathered, some simple circle activities and a basic little craft or baking project. She is thrilled with her special time with Mama, and seems to be a lot more willing to play quietly while I work with the boys after she’s had this time. I have the winter books waiting in the wings for when the snow decides to really stay.
And she is actually going to a preschool out of our home this year, 2 mornings a week- a Reggio Emelia one that is just lovely, and that gives her some time to play and explore with kids her own age and not just be along for the ride with the big boys all the time, which is great. It is an adjustment for her and for me, but I think it is a good thing for everyone. Those mornings feel so quiet.
The big boy homeschool time is going very well. D is working on an Italy/St.Francis block after our visit to Assisi. He is reading more and more and we are regularly being entertained by the joke book he got for his birthday. He just turned 8 which is rather hard for me to wrap my head around. Big, sweet boy of my heart.
He got a chemistry set for his birthday too. Much exciting experimenting going on.
The local geography block A. is working on is going so well. We’ve been pouring over maps, spending weeks learning about the local First Nations’ knowledge and understanding of the land, and working on a local animals project. A. chose the bald eagle to study and is working on a habitat diorama complete with clay eagle.
And our fiddling adventures continue with a big production planned for this year. And this adult learner just might be squawking her way through fiddle lessons of her own this year (gulp. I’m nervous every single time!) Plus there is this weekly adult-only fiddle-and-wine social that is rather a lot of fun. It’s all pretty great.
I hope October is treating you all well, too, friends!
So I thought I would write more about incorporating waldorfy/enki-ish things back into our days, since that’s what I’m thinking about a lot of the time as I organize and plan our homeschool lives.
This summer, as our big adventure was nearing its end, I started doing some homeschool planning. We were staying in the sweetest little apartment in Italy- my favorite of all the spots we stayed, and it had this beautiful teeny writing nook. I spent a good chunk of time taking notes, writing in my journal, researching things on my phone and starting to form a plan.
This is what I started to realize from my sweet little nook:
That I missed a lot about what we left behind by putting aside the enki/waldory methods, but I did not miss the stress and expectations I had carried when I was trying to follow the curriculum to the letter.
So I started sketching out a plan for our year that incorporated the things I felt we were missing, but leaving out the stuff that wasn’t going to work for us- keeping it very simple and guilt-free.
So this is what we are focusing on:
1. Simple Mainlesson blocks for each of my boys (plus very simple pre-schooly seasonal “blocks” for my 3-year old), based on the developmental understandings of waldorf and enki, and choosing blocks I know will nurture and interest my kiddos. This was so fun for me to put together- researching what is typically studied in the grades and the reasons for those, choosing and adapting topics and creating blocks around them. This is where my inner teacher-nerd comes out strong. I love doing this. It makes me a little giddy.
2. Mainlesson books. I really missed this ongoing, careful, beautiful representation of what they are learning. And seeing how my boys are both working with great dedication in their books this year, I think they did too.
3. Well chosen projects that I know they will enjoy and that I know I can reasonably fit into our lives. No, we will not be building a life-sized replica of a traditional First Nations dwelling (not joking. that’s in the curriculum.) But we did go out and harvest fiber from nettle stalks and twist it into rope. Fun, manageable, hands on. Good.
4. Stories, stories and more stories. We’ve always had a ton in our home, but I think we all missed having our special homeschool stories, and really think that stories are what make these philosophies shine. Basing learning around story just makes sense. It’s how we humans are wired. And besides, I love making them up, and telling them, and researching good ones that have already been written, so it’s fun for me too.
5. A good rhythm. We currently have a good rhythm groove going on where I am able to have focused one-on-one homeschool time with each child, and still allow plenty of time for exploring and playing too. We have a lot of outside activities that we have to squeeze in carefully to still manage good chunks of time at home. It feels full and busy but manageable right now.
6. A nice hodgepodge of math strategies. Using a mainstream math curriculum as our base and doing a couple waldorfy math blocks for the bigger concepts like place value and fractions and long division that lend themselves nicely to that visual, story-based style. I’m having fun waldorfying the mainstream math too. More teacher-nerd-dom.
7. Fitting in bits and bobs of the other stuff where it works for us. Form drawing will slip into the borders of our mainlesson books here and there. Recorder lessons are replaced by a plethora of fiddle music and music-making together. Circle time has been utterly rejected by the boys but they love a good walk in the woods, and they are happy to do do a daily “fun run” where I can sneak in plenty of yoga and and sensory integration stuff. No memorized class play, but we will keep reading and reciting poetry over breakfast. We still love nature walks and seasonal book baskets and natural toys. And we love lego and robotics and minecraft too.
Purists we are not. But I should say, that I have nothing against follow these methods closely. I still have dreams of taking my waldorf training, and teaching in a waldorf school one day- I love these methods! But homeschooling is a different beast altogether, and finding a way to make these methods work in our own particular homeschool setting feels like a triumph.
I’m planning to write more about the details of how this all works in our home, and I’d love to hear from those of you who are adapting waldorf or enki into your homeschool lives. I have loved hearing from those of you who have sent me personal messages on this subject and those of you who have encouraged me to write more about it- thank you! I’m pleased to know I’ve struck a bit of a chord. Please feel free to comment here or on Facebook or Instagram too. We’ll keep talking!
We are settling into a really great homeschool flow this autumn, one I feel so pleased with because it it so much closer to how I imagined homeschooling would look for us. It looks waldorfy, artsy, hands-on, nature-based, seasonal. Which sounds a lot like how it looked a few years back. But it feels very different now.
The last couple eclectic, un-schooly, years taught me a lot. That kids are natural learners and soak things up and can thrive in many different kinds of learning environments. That I can teach my kids and guide their learning in many different ways, but not all of them are fun for me, and flying by the seat of my pants doesn’t make me happy. That sometimes when things aren’t working it’s good to step back and take a break, try something new.
And taking a different route this last few years was essential to my sanity with a busy toddler and 2 school-aged kids and way too many rigid ideas about how Enki/Waldorf would have to look in our home. And after that break, I can see so much clearer.
It seems almost ridiculous, all those things I seemed to think I had to do. Somehow the world was going to end, or my children would be be damaged in some serious way if I didn’t manage all the form drawing and handwork and recorder lessons and eurythmy gestures for their letters and if I couldn’t memorize all the circle verses or create a cultural mood for each set of developmentally appropriate stories (and I couldn’t let them ever hear each others stories-in our little tiny house!) and somehow manage to keep the toddler from munching on those delicious beeswax crayons while I was at it.
(She’s less inclined to eat the crayons these days, but she still likes to use them to draw on the furniture when we aren’t looking.)
So now you could say that we are back where we started with our homeschooling, or you could say that we are in an entirely new place, but either way it is good. We are taking a relaxed approach to it all, but I am feeling more organized and prepared and I really like how that feels. I’m choosing blocks I know my kids will love, and things I know I will love bringing to them. And still, there is a lot of time for unstructured projects and exploration, so I don’t know if they would even say that what we are doing this year is so different from what we did in the past couple “un-schoolish” ones.
And I don’t feel worried to “eclectify” my waldorfy homeschool by adding in things that probably wouldn’t fly in a waldorf classroom- I’ve gotten good now at seeing what works for my kids and going with it. It’s so simple, really. We are doing what works for us, in our own way. It just took 6, years to get here, that’s all.