Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Homeschool Update: Kindergarten Curriculum

I never did finish the series I started last winter about our kindergarten curriculum choices—and what I did finish … well, some of our choices changed over the summer. Consider this post your quick(-ish) and dirty summary of what we’re actually using for Alexa’s kindergarten year, and how we’re doing with it so far.

English: Logic of English

For us to be just starting kindergarten, we have tried way too many phonics programs. In preK, we used Sonlight’s kindergarten language arts curriculum, which incorporates Get Ready/Get Set/Go for the Code, but neither of us liked it at all; Alexa already knew too much, and we found it boring. We started The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, and I liked it ok … except for the fact that Alexa quickly came to despise it and cried every time I brought out the book. We used Reading Eggs, which Alexa enjoyed overall, but she had some problems with it because it’s a web-based teaching game, and the controls often were quirky.

This spring, I came across several reviews of Logic of English (LOE). I loved what I saw of it online, and once we saw it at the convention, Jeff agreed. We bought the set of Foundations A and B, to be followed later by Foundations C and D before moving on to Essentials (assuming we stick with LOE once we’re past basic phonics and ready for grammar). The Foundations course is for students aged 4-7, who haven’t learned to read or write yet. It starts before what I always had assumed was the beginning—teaching students to listen for and produce different types of sounds (voiced and unvoiced sounds, for example) before moving on to phonograms, and teaching students to write different handwriting strokes before moving on to writing letters. It’s a very structured and logical approach that appeals to me, and Alexa is doing very well with it. Almost 7 weeks in, she’s reading, writing, and spelling CVC words composed of the letters we’ve studied. She’s confident in her ability to learn to read, which is a vast improvement for her, and her handwriting is improving. She hasn’t even noticed that we didn’t continue with Handwriting Without Tears, which I half expected to buy in addition to LOE because she loved it so much last year. I have no complaints at all about LOE Foundations; it’s the perfect fit for Alexa right now as she learns to read, write, and spell.

Math: Math-U-See

I know, I know, I wrote a whole blog post last spring about the math curriculum we’d chosen, and it wasn’t Math-U-See (MUS). We do still plan to switch to Singapore in first grade, but we decided that MUS is a better fit for kindergarten. As I was reading on some homeschooling forums last spring, I discovered that many parents were disappointed with Singapore’s kindergarten math programs, despite their love of Singapore for grades 1 and above. Several of them reported that MUS Primer level is stronger than Singapore’s kindergarten options at teaching fundamental math concepts such as place value and useful math topics such as telling time. Jeff and I agreed to look at both MUS and Singapore in person at the homeschool convention and make our decision there. I think it took us about 5 minutes to realize that MUS, while not the program we want to use long-term, is exactly what we need for kindergarten.

Again, it was a good choice. Alexa enjoys math—even on those days when she protests getting started, she almost always enjoys it. It started out as review, counting from 0 to 9, then moved into place value. Alexa seems to have a good grasp now of, not just how to count, but of what numbers actually mean: she understands that “10” is actually a set of 10 units; “13” is one 10 and 3 units; “156” is one 100 (which is a set of ten 10s), five 10s, and 6 units. A nice side effect of the focus on place value and how the word “sixty” can be thought of as a shortened form of “six-tens” is that her confusion on some numbers has disappeared—she no longer asks what comes after 59, because she knows that after five 10s and 9 units comes six 10s, which is sixty.

Social Studies: Tapestry of Grace, Evan-Moor Beginning Geography, and Stuff I Add In

Our state of residence lists “Social Studies” as a required subject for homeschool, and it’s a subject that is commonly taught to kindergarteners, so that’s how I listed it here. However, we don’t do your typical social studies. We do history, geography, and Christian studies.

For history, we’re using Tapestry of Grace (TOG), supplemented with The Story of the World. TOG is a unit study that incorporates history, literature, geography, and Bible/worldview, with elements of writing and fine arts. It takes us through history mostly-chronologically (it separates it out by geographical location a bit more than chronological purists do), using the 4-year cycle promoted in classical education. The beauty of this curriculum is that you reuse it every 4 years; it includes assignments for 4 different age/learning levels, so you buy the curriculum once but use grade-appropriate books each time to teach to a different level of understanding. There are 4 years’ worth of curriculum to buy, and after that, you just need the books. We’re studying ancient history now in kindergarten but will revisit it in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades (unless we take a year off to study something else, since we’re starting a year earlier than usual, in K instead of 1st).

This time through the cycle, we’re more interested in the stories of history than in exactly when or why things happened. We hit on the things that are most likely to interest a child: pyramids, mummies, the Great Wall of China. We’re just starting a unit on ancient America. After that, we’ll probably take a brief break from history while we wait for more books to arrive (Amazon is experiencing shipping delays to DPO boxes right now) and do a unit study on Christmas traditions around the world. Then we’ll spend several weeks on ancient Greece before finishing up with ancient Rome in the spring. We’re enjoying TOG. I’m not using it to its fullest this year, but I’m definitely using it as a roadmap and a source of recommended books. We’re supplementing with The Story of the World and its activity guide, as well as the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, but TOG is definitely our primary history curriculum.

For geography, TOG is more of a supplement. Our primary curriculum is Evan-Moor Beginning Geography, a workbook for students in grades K-2. It starts with the very basics: What is a map? Then we learned about compass roses, and now we’re learning about map symbols and keys. We’ll eventually move on to landforms and other traditional geography subjects, but I decided that basic map skills are foundational. We do own a lovely globe, and Alexa loves to look at it and see where we’ve lived, where our extended family lives, and where our history studies took place, but her appreciation of it is increasing as she learns about maps. Alexa enjoys geography, both the workbook and the globe. If things continue as they have been, I expect that we’ll use TOG’s geography assignments next year, after we’ve laid the foundation with Beginning Geography.

One aspect of geography that classical educators often focus on in kindergarten is cultural geography—the study of the world’s cultures, rather than its physical geography. We aren’t doing a lot of that this year. However, we are incorporating a worldview/Biblical/Christian studies element into our homeschool. TOG is a primary curriculum for this, as it presents world history in the context of the Bible. (I reverse the emphasis a bit, presenting the Bible in the context of world history instead, but it’s a subtle difference.) I also will be supplementing with stories of Christianity around the world. For example, this December, we will be studying how Christmas is celebrated in various countries. We’ll study the historical Saint Nicholas, as well as the various traditions that grew up around him. As we approach dates that were important in the lives of famous historical Christians, we’ll read about some of them as well. We may also do some brief studies of Christian holidays that are celebrated in the Orthodox tradition but not necessarily in our Protestant tradition.

Literature: A Monster of My Own Making (Pulled from Several Booklists)

TOG includes literature assignments that correspond with the historical time and location we’re studying. However, lots of them are too advanced for Alexa, and some of them simply aren’t as engaging as I prefer. At this age, I want Alexa to learn to love books, not simply to read a story set in ancient Egypt because we’re studying ancient Egypt. Sometimes we read the TOG-suggested books. Sometimes we read a book about a similar topic, but that I think Alexa will enjoy more. Sometimes I choose a book from Sonlight’s kindergarten package instead. Sometimes I choose some completely unrelated piece of literature, often mentioned on a blog or homeschool forum, simply because I think she’ll like it. Sometimes we read poetry instead of stories. She usually enjoys our literature selections, though her favorites so far are some that I pulled from the Sonlight list: James Herriott’s Treasury for Children and The Story About Ping.

Science: Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, with Supplementation

For science, our primary curriculum is Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU). This curriculum requires every bit as much preparation as I feared when I wrote about it last year, but it’s worth it. It presents advanced scientific topics in a way that is accessible even to 5-year-olds, with guided discussions, demonstrations, and recommended book lists. However, I must admit that I find myself skipping science more often than almost any other subject because it does require so much preparation on my part. Not to worry, though, we still do plenty of science, even when we skip BFSU: Alexa is a little animal-lover, and we have several beginning Usborne books about different animals. We’ve been reading these books a lot, especially since we received a fresh infusion a few days ago. We started with just Dogs and Cats, but now we’re up to Tigers, Horses and Ponies, Wolves, Bears, and a few other titles I don’t recall. She can’t get enough of those books. I’m determined to get to BFSU more regularly, though. It’s a great curriculum that will give her a solid foundation, as soon as I get around to doing it. I’m sure we’ll continue to read about animals every day, too, though.

Health: Horizons

For health, we’re mostly using the curriculum published by Horizons. It requires a little modification, as it’s written for a classroom setting, but so far, we’re doing well with it. We don’t love it, and we don’t hate it. We just do it, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes matter-of-factly, and usually without protest. We’re also supplementing a little with age-appropriate books on manners, personal safety, and sex ed.

 Fine Arts: ARTistic Pursuits and Calvert’s Discoveries in Music

Art and music are two subjects that Alexa would do gladly, any day, any time, multiple times a day. We’re using the preschool level of ARTistic Pursuits, since she hadn’t done much in the way of art and since there are only three books labeled for K-3 (so we’d need to fill in a year if we started Book 1 in K). Alexa seems to enjoy these lessons. We look at a picture and discuss it, then do a related project. We’ve only done three lessons so far, but no worries, there are only 20-some lessons. We can skip a few weeks and still finish the book by the end of a 36-week school year. Even though we’ve done only three formal art lessons, though, Alexa has done an art project every week—she made a serpent-headed throwing spear one week in history, and she drew pictures of biological/natural-nonliving/manmade things one week in science, and she drew pictures of emotions one week in health, and … you get the idea.

Alexa gets most excited, though, about her music lessons. The set from Calvert came with a DVD (each lesson is about 10 minutes), an instructor’s manual with ideas for enrichment and deeper study, and three musical instruments: a lap harp, a triangle, and a flutophone. I think it was playing the instruments that got Alexa hooked on this subject. I allow her to choose one instrument to play after each lesson. Even without the incentive of playing an instrument, though, she loves the DVD lessons. I don’t do many of the enrichment activities, as I think the video introduction is enough in kindergarten, but I should be able to use this curriculum again over the next few years, doing a little more each time, possibly buying some CDs recommended in the teacher’s guide. By the time she outgrows Discoveries in Music, she’ll be old enough for the other wonderful music resources that are available. Based on her love of this curriculum and some comments she made after learning about “the String Family,” we considered looking into violin lessons for her. However, she made it clear that she thought playing the violin would be easy (“you just get a stick and rub it across the strings”), and she wasn’t willing to put in actual work to learn to play well, so I think we’re going to wait a while longer and see if she’s still interested.

P.E.: Family Time Fitness and Lots of Walks

Physical education is the most neglected subject in our homeschool, much to my chagrin. I know it’s important, but we just don’t get to it that often. We bought a subscription to Family Time Fitness, which offers downloadable lessons at a variety of levels. We’re downloading them, but we’re not doing them as often as we should. We do, however, walk down to the kiosk or to the post office a couple of times a week … that’s nowhere near enough. We’ll do better.

There you have it, our kindergarten homeschool. Overall, it’s going very well. I need to be more consistent in doing science and physical education, but I’m happy with our progress in all the other subjects. Alexa is progressing nicely with her core subjects (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic). She’s developing an interest in history and literature. She truly loves art and music. I may not do BFSU consistently yet, but she remembers what I do teach her, and she can recite those animal books after only a couple of readings. So far, so good … I’m excited to see what the rest of the academic year holds for us.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


I wrote this post recently on one of the days I describe toward the end of it. It was a difficult day. It got better. The difficult days always get better, or at least give way eventually to better days. I considered not publishing this post. I decided to publish it despite my misgivings because if I don’t, I will be hiding one very important part of my life. I do prefer to focus on the positive. I do not want to pretend like the negative doesn’t exist.

Yesterday we—once again—took steps to ensure that we’re prepared in case a country falls apart around us. No, we aren’t expecting anything to happen. But the life that we have chosen is full of uncertainties, of possibilities both good and bad. One possibility for which we must prepare is that of finding ourselves in the middle of a disaster, natural or man-made.

Our drill yesterday was a familiarization exercise. We were asked to meet at our Neighborhood Assembly Point in order to ensure that we all know where it is. While there, we were given a handout with a list of items to have in our go bags and in our 3-day survival kits at home (in case it takes a while for assistance to reach us in the aftermath of a disaster, which here, most likely would be an earthquake). Finally, we were led to a nearby house where some emergency supplies are stored. We were taken in through the front gate, but not until after we were shown the easiest place to hop the fence. After all, we don’t have keys, and we won’t be able to wait around for someone to bring them if we need them. It was just another reminder that, if a situation develops, we’ll need to be creative and proactive to take care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors until help can get to us.

Jeff came to the assembly point straight from work, so Alexa and I walked there on our own. On the way, Alexa asked where we were going and why. Jeff and I believe that it’s important to be honest with her, even as we try to shelter her from the worst of what life has to offer, so I told her the truth: We were making sure that we knew how to get to the assembly point, because if there was a problem and we needed to leave the country, we may need to get to the assembly point on our own. Of course she wanted to know what could possibly happen to make us have to leave. So I told her that we may have to leave if there was a big earthquake. She accepted that answer easily enough, after I explained what an earthquake is and gave her a sanitized version of the damage it could do.

Then I did something stupid. I told her that she and I already had been evacuated once, from Egypt. Of course she wanted to know why—why didn’t I think about the fact that she’d want to know why? So then I had to explain the concepts of “revolution” and “too dangerous to stay.” Smart little girl that she is, she picked up on the fact that I hadn’t said that Daddy was evacuated, because he wasn’t, so she wanted to know why he stayed and whether he was safe and why it was safe enough for Daddy but not for us. So we got to discuss the fact that Daddy’s job is critical enough (“Mama, what’s ‘critical?’”) that he stays even when it isn’t safe, and that they make it as safe as they can, but that they can’t protect everyone, so they send away everyone who isn’t critical. (“Mama, how do they protect Daddy?”) And one of the ways they protect the critical people is by bringing in extra Marines. (“Mama, what fighting tools do the Marines use?”) Well, they prefer guns, but they also use knives, and in a pinch, they can use their feet and hands, and there’s no one better at fighting than the Marines—I didn’t feel the need to explain Special Forces just yet—so Daddy was very well protected. (“Do the Marines kill bad guys?”) Well, yes, they do, when they have to. (“So the Marines killed any bad guy who tried to hurt Daddy?”) They would have if they’d needed to. And thus it was settled that Daddy was safe. (I also didn’t feel the need to tell her that the Marines actually are there to protect the classified information and systems, and they’ll do that first, but they’ll protect the people too, if they can.) Then we moved on to where Daddy slept at the embassy, and if they had beds, and where the people slept if there weren’t enough beds …

This conversation, followed by the assembly point meeting, reminded me again of the sacrifices we make to live this life. I don’t often dwell on them, and it’s even less often that I mention them. Quite frankly, that’s not what people want to hear about—I’ve even been told that I don’t sacrifice anything, because I chose this life, as if somehow that makes it impossible for it to involve any sacrifice*—and it also isn’t what I want to dwell on. I prefer to think about, and others prefer to hear about, the adventure, the humor, the lessons learned, the exotic locations visited … but not about the sacrifices that are required in exchange for the opportunities.

I don’t like to think or talk about, and others don’t like to hear about, the difficulty of packing up and moving every two or three years. The heart-wrenching goodbyes. The tears cried by a little girl who didn’t fully understand when she said goodbye that it most likely was forever. The ever-present doubts and fears about whether and how this lifestyle will scar the tender heart of a child who knows no other way. The frustration of, once again, having to apologize to every other person you meet because you’re a guest in their country, but you don’t get language training and therefore can’t even say “hello” in their language.

I don’t talk about the days when I’m just done. Done adjusting to another culture. Done with struggling through another trip to a supermarket that may or may not have what I’m looking for, and even if they do, I may not recognize it because the packaging is so different and the label isn’t in English. Done trying to organize and decorate and turn into home another new-to-me house that I didn’t choose. Done searching out people who can become friends, if I can find the time and energy in the midst of all my other adjustments to put in the work to make it happen before the novelty wears off and I’m no longer new and perceived as someone who needs friends. Done saying goodbye to those friends I worked so hard for and who I may or may not ever see again (embassy friends, possibly or even probably; missionary friends, probably not). Done thinking about evacuations and go bags and shelter-in-place kits and dig-out kits and how much and how to explain any of that to an innocent child who simply trusts me to take care of her. Done putting on a happy face because I’m not supposed to struggle with any of this. There are days when I’m just done with all of it, with this whole lifestyle; days when I think it would be easier to give up and move back home to America**.

I’ve had a lot of those days lately. I always do, during the transitions—when I’m leaving a post, when I’ve just arrived at post. I’m keenly aware of the sacrifices during these times … and especially on the days when I get handouts about go bags and shelter-in-place kits. But I don’t want to think about that, much less write about it.

Much better to talk about the adventure, and the funny stories, and the exotic locations. Much better to talk about the adjustments after the fact, when I can talk about lessons learned, skills developed, and strength revealed. Much better to talk about anything.

Anything but the sacrifices.

*The Free Dictionary has several definitions of the verb “sacrifice,” but the most appropriate in this context is the second: “to give up (one thing) for another thing considered to be of greater value.” This definition does not say that one thing is taken by force. It says that one thing is given up, which implies that sacrifices are voluntary; they are choices. So I’m well aware that the person who told me that I don’t make sacrifices because I chose this life doesn’t understand the literal meaning of the word “sacrifice.” I’m also well aware that I did choose this life, including these sacrifices, which is why I don’t often talk much about them.

**On my rational days, I recognize that moving back to America would be easier in some ways, but not in all, and that I would have to give up the things about this life that I love. I’m really not willing to do that just yet … but there are some days when I forget.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Eretria Village Resort

Over the last few weeks, we have had the blessing of reconnecting—in person, even!—with friends whom we have not seen in over 5 years. These friends were traveling for business, and they had arranged their flights so they could stop in Athens to visit us. Even better, their overnight layover in Athens was only on their way out; on their way back to their home, they needed to stop for a week of work right here in Greece. Afterward, they intended to spend a couple of days relaxing at a resort just 90 minutes away from Athens, where they invited us to join them.

Accordingly, one Saturday morning, we made the trip from Athens to Eretria Village Resort, on Evia Island. The room was basic but comfortable. There was a queen (or maybe king) size bed, as well as a twin size daybed/sofa. There weren’t a whole lot of drawers in the vanity area, but there was a typical-for-Europe built-in closet that had more than enough storage space. The bathroom was clean, and although there were no drawers, there was plenty of counter space. All the floors were tile, and there was a patio on our ground-level unit; the ones upstairs had balconies.

After we unpacked, it was time to head to lunch, a buffet that included soup, salads, various meats, and vegetables. The whole time, Alexa begged to go back to the room, put on her swimsuit, and get in the pool. We told her she could do that later, but first we wanted to walk around the resort and see what was there.

Just outside the main building, which housed the dining room, a bar, several conference rooms, and a few guest rooms, the main pool sprawled. It definitely was the centerpiece of the resort. The pool was a rough rectangle, with a large island in the middle. There were two bridges to the island, as well as two “feet wet” wading walls, for lack of a better term. These short walls allowed maybe two inches of water to pass over them, and they separated a full-sized deep swimming pool from the much more shallow “playing” pool, which made up the other three sides of the rectangle. We loved the design, which was beautiful and practical. Alexa could stand and play in most of the pool without worry about accidentally stepping over into water that was too deep for her.

We had been told that there were two additional pools at the resort, so we decided to find them. One was beside the beach, so we headed that way first.

We walked down beautiful paths to a tunnel that took us under the highway and to the beach.

We walked out on a short pier, from which we could see a longer pier that we just as easily could have walked out on. We saw the mainland across the narrow channel ahead of us.

We turned around and saw the resort’s beach area behind us.

Then we walked back to shore for a closer look at the beach.

There was another beach area that was just as lovely.

Then we found the beach side pool

and a cool wall beside it.

Seriously, I don't know why I was so fascinated with this wall and its windows and door, but I was utterly enthralled.

We passed by the playground but didn’t stop—Alexa was begging to go back to “the first pool” to swim.

We walked back along the picturesque path,

found a sweet little chapel,

and caught a glimpse of the third pool (but didn't take a picture of it).

Then we gave in to Alexa’s oft-repeated desire to change into swimsuits. I couldn't resist taking a picture of the pretty little scene that greeted me every time I opened our door, though:

After changing, we (well, Jeff and Alexa) braved the cold waters of the huge, lovely pool outside the main building.

After some time in the pool, when we grownups couldn't stand the chill any longer, we went back to the room for hot showers and dry clothes. Then our friend invited us on a drive up the mountain to see the view. We happily accepted.

We stopped at a beautiful little church nestled near the top of the mountain.

The exterior door was secured against the wind, but unlocked. We took that as an invitation to go in and light a candle. Apparently casual visitors were not so welcome in the sanctuary, which was locked up tight.

We marveled at the cool patterns of the branches growing at the cliff's edge. These branches grew up for a little way, then quickly curved back down and extended below their roots.

After we left the church, we drove up a partially-paved road to an electrical tower at the mountain's peak. From there, we had a clear view of the resort-strewn waterfront area.

On our way down, we had a clear view of the less populated, uncommercialized, beautiful interior of the island.

We also found some goats that utterly enthralled Alexa.

Finally, we drove through the small town of Evia on our way back to the resort, which is located between the villages of Evia and Eretria. I loved the picturesque little dock area.

After our drive, we relaxed at the resort for a little while longer before dinner with our friends. We found a cute little sitting area,

and Alexa made friends with one of the resort's permanent residents.

Dinner was served on Greek time (in other words, late), so we went back to our room pretty much right after dinner. The next day was a full day of breakfast, swimming, lunch, and the drive back to Athens. We were joined for one last evening with our friends before they headed home Monday. 

Our time at the resort was a wonderful way to relax after a few weeks of settling in to Athens and before a hectic time of accepting delivery of and unpacking our shipment from Kosovo. Eretria Village Resort is classified as a 4-star resort (with one 3-star hotel on the premises as well). I think it falls a little short of the 4-star mark, but it's still a beautiful and relaxing weekend getaway. I expect that we'll visit again.